And anyway, you get right down to it, it was all little more than a side effect.
Sanders wasn’t trying to change my life or anyone else’s with The Tomorrow File. He just wanted to take the usual fare of his Palm Beach thrillers, the tropes of power and money and sex and intrigue, and spin them up as unusual fare, fresh and strange and even a little bit alien. And SF is a mighty fine tool for the job, though it can be a bit on the brutally efficient side as it so aggressively, even didactically, asserts the setting isn’t Kansas anymore. Ostranenie! Unheimlich! —Nicholas’s relationship with Paul is at once a detail of the overall unheimlich setting—bisexuality is no big deal in this brave new world—and itself a technique to foster ostranenie—potboiling sexual intrigue rendered suddenly strange and alien: “I had been in bed with Paul.” (And as such, it works quite well. Certainly stuck in my mind. —I think it was about Wild Things that some critic somewhere said something to the effect that bisexuality really shakes up the noir genre, kicking wide open the question of who can betray which for what, exactly—and yes, it does, indeed, but remember that everything new was old in its day. Even ostranenie; especially the unheimlich.)
But the thing about any tool no matter how mighty fine is that once you’ve used a hammer for a while you start to expect the nails. Read enough SF and you come to expect those unheimlich touches, the ostranenie of another world. It is itself familiar, usual, canny, heimlich. It’s what you opened the book for in the first place; that door damn well better be dilating by page three or you’re taking your custom elsewhere. —This is neither a good thing, nor a bad thing, it’s just a thing, and savvy writers and readers take it into account, ringing ostranenie games off their own expectations of the unheimlich as naturally as breathing. —But because Nicholas’s sexual relationship with Paul was aggressively, even didactically presented as one of the details that set the world of the book apart from the world around it; because it was an SF book; because as a reader of SF books, I’d come to expect, accept, even crave those details that deliberately set their worlds apart from the world around me—therefore, the book’s high unheimlich concept I accepted without hesitation. And that’s the twist of paradox, right there, that allows Nicholas to insist that even though he obviously wasn’t what he was, he still could be what he is, if only you’d let him. In meeting the writer halfway in order to set ourselves aside for a time in that other world, we also find ourselves unknowingly giving Nicholas the grace he needs.
So I’d had an epiphany, yes—but it was an epiphenomenon.
This uncanny æsthetic two-step, this strange state of grace—don’t mistake it for a necessary and sufficient condition. All art plays with ostranenie; pushing you over the brink is how we get to sensawunda. (Pulling you back: Oh, I see! Oh, I get it!) —Much as SF’s ability to make you take literally sentences that usually make only figurative sense gives the writer a more expansive word-palette than otherwise, the expectation that SF will of course be rich and strange allows it more room for accidental grace and pushmepullyou gamesmanship. (But that’s theory. Praxis: how does SF as a genre limit the sorts of sentences readers will take seriously? How do expectations of wonder and estrangement limit the otherworlds we can build within it?)
Necessary and sufficient or not, though, that space is central to the question of whether or not “Time’s Swell” is an SF story.
Now, it’s not a very good story. It’s a mood piece written in a muddle of first-person past- and present-tense that’s a universal solvent: salient details dissolve into a declamatory mush. As “artsy, shallow lesbian erotica,” about the best one can say is it doesn’t use “slick” as a transitive verb. But right out of the gate it aggressively, even didactically insists:
I remember nothing from before this place.
I ask her. Sometimes she is silent. Sometimes she tells me that she does not know, that she met me here, six months ago, that she knows nothing about my past. And then there are the days when she tells me that we’ve traveled through time, that we have come from the future and are trapped here. She tells me that she was a temporal scientist, that I was her project. That I am modified and enhanced for survival, for time travel, for perfection. Those are the bad days.
Sometimes I try to argue with her. If I am so altered, why do I look human? She has an answer for everything. Something about 23rd-century technology and spaceships that can move across time. It’s crazy.
Because we’re reading an SF story (no, I’m not tautologizing; bear with me), we expect a certain degree of strange and uncanny detail. Because we expect it, we accept it when it presents itself. And because we accept it, we don’t question the other details that support it: the extreme, impersonal detachment of the narrator from the people and the world around her, her simple declaration of things we’d otherwise take for granted, the eerie sense of timelessness that wafts languidly throughout (“The ahistorical dreamlike landscape where action is situated, the peculiarly congealed time in which acts are performed—”? Perhaps. These do, after all, occur almost as often in SF as they do in porn). The story depends utterly on these other details to get done what it sets out to do, and these other details depend utterly on the idea that (for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter) the narrator has come from the future and is trapped wherever here is. —It’s the height of folly these days to proclaim that something is the height of folly (we raise that bar on an almost daily basis, and yet still keep clearing it with ease), but to insist, as does Don, that the “authors could have easily removed all SF content and the story would not have been changed in any significant way” is to have let the point pretty much pass you by. It’s the obverse of McCarty’s Error: James McCarty, writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, confronted by a book that hinges on the peculiar properties time exhibits as one’s velocity approaches the speed of light, had this to say:
To label The Sparrow science fiction is an injustice and downright wrong.
McCarty’s excuse was that he thought The Sparrow was, you know, good. Don’s is that “Time’s Swell” wasn’t what he expected. But it’s the same basic canonization mistake—just different sides of the fence.
Some people have suggested that since Jed Hartman’s “Future of Sex” editorial called for more SF that imagines something other than an entirely heterosexual universe, then Strange Horizons must be practicing “literary affirmative action” by publishing such (shallow) stories as “Time’s Swell.” Okay, sure. The same way all the prominent SF magazines are practicing literary sexism by publishing so many shallow stories that star heterosexual characters.
Well, no, not quite the same way: the prominent SF magazines don’t proclaim to all and sundry that they intend to practice literary sexism by publishing so many shallow stories that star heterosexual characters. —To be fair, neither did Hartman proclaim, per se: he just said he’d noticed a lack, laid it out pretty clearly, asked for pointers to stories that addressed it. “Whenever I read such a work,” he says, of the typical sort of SF he’s been reading and found wanting, “it makes me wonder why the fictional society of the far future is less sexually diverse than early–21st-century America,” and it’s hard to argue with him. (Me, I might wonder why the SF of today isn’t nearly so adventurous on the fronts of identity and sexuality as the SF of the New Wave, but that’s a specious comparison; don’t mind me.)
Yes, it’s disingenuous to pretend that when an editor of a fiction magazine asks for pointers to a certain type of story, they aren’t proclaiming, or at least setting forth a de facto agenda. So what? Editors don’t just correct spelling and give the grammar a once-over. Selecting stories based on theme and style and intent and voice to further their ideas of what makes for good pieces and a good magazine? That isn’t “affirmative action,” it’s what editing is. —Like what Jed Hartman’s doing with his editorship? You’ll buy more, or read more, whichever’s appropriate. Think his agenda’s leading him by the nose to pick stories you don’t like over stories you do? Take your custom elsewhere. His fortunes will rise, or fall, accordingly. (I understand there’s a whole science devoted to this phenomenon, or something. —The canon that results, by the way? Epiphenomenon.)
So the immediate question isn’t “Is publishing ‘Time’s Swell’ an act of ‘literary affirmative action’,” but “Is ‘The Future of Sex’ leading Strange Horizons to publish the sort of story that’s driving the punters away in droves?”
I don’t know. You got me. I haven’t dug into publishing histories or traffic reports, and I’ll leave all that to someone who cares more than I do. But to this layperson’s eye, Strange Horizons doesn’t appear to be hurting, and if I didn’t like “Time’s Swell” all that much myself, others who know as much or more than I do liked it fine. So there you go.
But at least it’s a more immediately interesting question than “Does publishing ‘Time’s Swell’ challenge my personal notions of what SF can’t do and mustn’t be?”
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