Origin Stories: The Day After

This is going to be one of those deep dives into my own bullshit. Fair warned.

A while ago I had a slightly wine-five conversation with a friend of mine (hi sj!) where we tried to parse the origins of our zombie obsessions. I know I have roughly eleventy million reasons why I keep seeking out zombie narratives – from a love of horror/comic gore that no doubt has roots in the body trauma I experienced birthing babies, to a static-shock kind of irritation I have with common, even prevalent, constructions of domesticity I find when the dead rise – but the reasons why I started picking up fictions of the undead are maybe a little murkier. I believe there are two formative experiences. I’ll start with the most recent.

There’s this half-joking definition of Gen-X that posits that it is the generation just too late for atomic bomb drills, but too early for Code Red. When we hit the school basement, our heads down and our fingers interlaced over our necks, it was because of the most prosaic tornado. (Or at least in the Midwest, where we had such a thing.) At a family function recently that put together my Boomer parents with my Gen-whatever kids, I was keenly aware of this divide. The Boomers and the kids rightly bonded over the trauma of the drills they are subjected to, whereas Richard and I just shrugged. This was not a part of our experience, this exact civic trauma baked into our primary educations. But we were still on the tailing edge of the Red Scare, even if the civic authorities had kenned to the ridiculousness of the bomb drill. My go-to nightmare before the zombie shambled into my psyche – and after, often in a confusing jumble – was one of nuclear devastation.

The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, just days after my 12th birthday. I’ve been watching the HBO series about the disaster, and kind of freaking myself out with how clear my memories of the event were, even though I was just a tween in the 80s. I remember Sweden sounding the alarms: where in the fuck is this radiation coming from? I remember all the Russian dissembling, and the slow leak of information. I remember once the disaster was contained, the propaganda they released about the brave and noble workers who sacrificed themselves to encase the reactor in concrete; as if. Seeing how close they were to meltdown — to the poisoning of Central Europe for the next several millennia – retroactively validates my schoolgirl fears. I had a fallout dream a week ago; I haven’t had one in years. Add in the fact that I spent a month in Minsk five years later – 400ish kms from Chernobyl, very roughly the distance from New York to Boston – and my schoolgirl fears look awfully credible. It’s completely crazy we didn’t quite clock the reality of that danger. But then, the whole goram Soviet Union was shuddering apart, so dying of wasting cancer seemed very fucking remote compared to possibly having to yeet off to Poland once all the unrest started in earnest. We were there in April. By August, the Soviet Union had shattered.

But I think the event that caused my zombie thing happened three years earlier.

This is the scene, as I remember it (which is a fairly huge caveat, because I’m regularly interrupted by family members telling me that’s Not How It Happened): I was at my grandparents’ house in Munhall, PA, a post-War suburb outside of Homestead, PA, birthplace of Carnegie Steel. Everyone was gathered round the television to watch “The Day After“,* which was a Television Event of the kind that my kids won’t ever experience: 100 million people watched that broadcast. The internet tells me there were 224 million people in the country at the time, which means that Jesus Christ that was a lot of people. (I think maybe Game of Thrones may be the last big tv event, but even that was a series – not a Big Deal TV Movie event. “Bird Box” this was not.) Or not everyone was gathered round; I’m fairly sure my five year old sister was already abed. We slept in the same room — which used to be our mother’s — in 30 year old twin beds. There were mourning doves who roosted in the eaves and woke us up in the gloaming with their sadly loud laments. Grandpa Ed was in His Chair, my parents and Grandma Fran were on the couch, and I was fists on chin on the plush carpeting. I was allowed to stay up because I was a worldly nine.

The first whatever hour of “The Day After” is just interpersonal bullshit as it plays out in Laurence, Kansas. Nothing about it is particularly memorable or interesting: it is just a day in the life. Some of the actors involved had established film careers, like JoBeth Williams, who had just starred in “Poltergeist” and “The Big Chill”, or Jason Robards, who had a pretty storied career at this point. John Lithgow had been nominated for an Oscar already, for “The World According to Garp” – which, gah, that movie is due for some reassessment – and would pick up another shortly for “Terms of Endearment”. (Steve Guttenberg wouldn’t make it big until a year or two later.) This wouldn’t be notable today – things are pretty porous between the big and the small screen – but back then actors tended to be relegated to one or another. I mean, maybe some second tier movie actor would cameo on Happy Days when they were deep in the junket, but that was about it.

Once the bombs fall, though, that’s when it happens. Or maybe that’s when it doesn’t happen, because the absolute worst thing about “The Day After” is how matter of fact it is about the fallout, both emotionally and physically. A couple of characters just simply vanish, never to be heard from again. Most try to carry on the only way they know how – like Jason Robards’ character, who continues doctoring despite the death of his family, his neighborhood, and his city. When the inevitability of his radiation poisoning becomes clear, he returns home, to find a bleak and blasted landscape with people picking the bones. He breaks down when he’s offered the barest kindness, weeping in the arms of a stranger. He presumably dies in the rubble. It’s a lot of people dying watching other people dying, at least until some of the dying start to kill. A woman delivers a godamn baby. They are all going to die.

I didn’t see this ending in 1983 because I freaked the fuck out so hard my parents carried me bodily to bed, where I presume I eventually slept. As a parent now, I can just see my parents’ slowly dawning awareness of my freakout: glued into the narrative, until my brain starts screaming with momservation, and I turn and see that look on my kid’s face. Sitting in the darkened bedroom and shushing quietly why I rub a back, trying to quiet the tears. I watched “The Day After” all the way to the end much later, and it was zero to the bone how closely the post-nuclear landscape aligned to my nuclear dreams, how the visual language of my nightmares is cribbed from just the barest glimpse of the end of this film. My mind goes to rubble, to the shadows on the wall, in the cold sweat of nightmare. The zombie shambles out of this landscape, its ataxia like radiation burns.

In retrospect, my viewing not much later of “Night of the Living Dead” at a slumber party would only act as cement on my personal horror landscape, setting the bleak nuclear winter as my discontent. My dreams tend to redress the houses I have lived in as the set for both the tedious and the terrifying, so my terrors tend to be the familiar turned strange: a sink full of blood, a doorway half-shattered but holding, a hatch in the floor above me raining down debris as someone – something – treads the boards.

*This is stupid and doesn’t matter, but I’m having a hard time deciding how exactly to deal with television/movie/episode names. AP and Chicago style are at odds, so I’m going with Chicago because they actually say what to do with series television names vs. episode names.

Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

This was originally written in July 2011.

When I was a kid, I played a lot with other neighborhood kids, and it was all politics and skinned knees. My best friend was a girl called Alicia, and it was was a yawning difference in age between us, two whole years. We made friends when I was running a lemonade stand more or less set up by my parents. I had a cigar box full of change, and a pitcher of lemonade, and she swindled me out of the lemonade and into friendship. We played a lot of Spaceman, and various forms of tag, and played her father’s records. We had to be really careful with these, cleaning the black plastic with some kind of solution and a fuzz-covered block made for the purpose. We wore out a couple of Prince albums, the needle wearing down the grooves that transferred shape into sound vibrations. I can still do a pretty good Prince-y AHohAH, the signature trill in a lot of his songs. We cut up magazines and had projects, like one where she was building this huge eye out of all the eyes she could find in ads. Once I was in a dentist’s office, and I surreptitiously pulled out this whole page image of an eye and brought it to her, like an offering. Stealing that image made me feel like a criminal, and it thrilled me, because I’ve always been a bit of straight edge. I was never, ever, the ringleader. I was too weak for that. 

I was the kind of kid who was pushed by bullies until Alicia noticed and sent a group of girls to kick the shit out of the bully bothering me. No 4th grade bully boy wants to own up to getting razed by a bunch of girls, so the year went well for me after that. But she didn’t coddle me at all. She set to making me tough, but off-handedly, simply because she was tough and wanted people to challenge her. She would make me wrestle her – we’d used her Dad’s big waterbed which heaved and sloshed, and it’s a wonder we never popped it – and try to pin each other down. There were no spoken rules, but by tacit consent we didn’t pull hair, or bite, or kick, or choke. It was mass and motivation, and all about the angles, trying to pin her legs with mine, learning to break a handgrip on my arm with a sideways movement through where her fingers touched, the weak part of a hold. She mostly won. She was a good winner. She’d just get up, and say good game, and then we would scrounge for change and head to Kenny’s.

Kenny’s was a corner market that was dingy and owner operated. He both did and didn’t like us, because he suspected we were shoplifters – though we weren’t – but we were there all time. He kindly acquiesced to the kid folklore that if you got a Tootsie Pop wrapper that had an Indian shooting a star on it, in entirety, with nothing cut off, then you got a free sucker. Getting a wrapper like that was like Christmas. We never had any money, because we were so young as to be allowance-less, but Alicia developed all kinds of schemes to make money, so we could go and consider whether to get the Strawberry or Grape Crush, or the Tahitian Treat. We (tried to) sell rocks, or stuff we’d found next to the trash, or pictures we’d drawn. Once, a very stoned hippy bought a picture of a flower off of us for $5. Five whole dollars! Bear in mind this was very early-80s, and we were kids, so this was an unthinkable amount of money. We were sick on Pixie Stix for a week. 

Are you bored yet? Hoping I’ll get to my point? It’s possible you are not, but after over 100 pages of this sort of thing, it would weary. Then imagine you are reading this a hundred years hence, where all of my casual references to products and people and cultural stuff has been rendered alien and opaque. Hell, even now, it’s likely a bunch of you whippersnappers have no idea what a record is. (It’s a giant CD. And get off my lawn.) I think people have been saying this is Miéville’s first foray into hard science fiction, or space opera, or more just standard alien v. humans style sf, and that is true to an extent, but I believe the primary mode of this book is memoir. Don’t let the aliens distract you, this is an individual telling her life, in the way that people tell their lives. Which is to say confusingly, with emphasis on details that are meaningless to others, or have only sense in retrospect, or the retroactive understanding is bullshit. 

As a mode of writing science fiction, memoir is frakking brilliant, because nostalgia is largely the purview of fantasy, to largely ugly results. I’m quoting myself here but: nostalgia is memory without shame, and even fantasy series that don’t mean to — A Song of Ice and Fire, cough — the pining for outmoded and awful social systems gets baked into the proceedings, because the pageantry, dress, and material culture is presumed to arise from the shit precepts of the culture at large. To put it more simply: Gosh, but those costumes are sweet, let’s assume they arise from whatever fucking bullshit I assume went on in history because I can’t imagine a past different from the present.

But, here’s the interesting part, for me, I think there’s a nostalgic component to science fiction as well, though it is ancillary, residing in the reader, or the writer, and not the text. At least not exactly. If you are a science fiction nerd, likely you have been one from youth, scarfing down both Golden Age classics and media trash without much differentiation, dreaming the way children do, playing let’s pretend with space ships and adventure, which mirrors our own desire for the adulthood ahead, and trains us on a mode of telling that future. Often we age out of the silliest of science fiction’s offerings – though maybe silly is too strong a word – maybe I mean formative? Just try reading something like Asimov’s Foundation series as a hardened genre reader, not having read it as a kid, and you will see what I mean. You will not like it. It will not blow your mind. You will see how it influenced later writers, and you might appreciate the ideas, but you will think it is hamstring by horrible characters and a sort of naiveté. 

For the record, I freaking love Foundation. It did blow my mind, unformed as it was, and the reading of that series was an education in science fiction. The first three books are loosely connected, dealing with the same idea, psychohistory, a sort of science-based prognosticating tool, a meta-psychology of culture, and how something like that could be used, and then subverted. Those first books were written all together, an album of books riffing on the same theme. Then later, when Asimov was in his dotage, he decided it would be a great idea to resolve all of his various universes together – and dude wrote 500+ books, so this is no small task. Then come the later Foundation books, where R. Daneel Oligraw shows up from the Robot series, and some folk from the Empire series, and likely people from series I never read and couldn’t identify, ’cause I’ve only read a dozen or so books by Asimov. It was a nuclear disaster of galactic proportions, and spent a lot of my nostalgic coin for the series. Those books straight up pissed me off, because they fucked with my childhood reading. Because, even with science fiction, nostalgia is the coin of the realm, even though it’s regulated to a grey market. Maybe it is for all genre fiction. 

Anyway, so now that I’ve had this huge digression, onto why memoir is bloody perfect for a sfnal work: it makes that nostalgia manifest. It resides the nostalgia in a character telling her past, in the confusing, unsettling, almost solipsistic way of the autobiographer, not infodumping you about how culture works because an enculturated person, a situated person, with her own limited view, with her own limited knowledge, can’t even see where the story is opaque, hard to grasp, alien. This is not to say, as a reader, I found the first over 100 pages anything but tough sledding. That was work to read that, hard work, and likely many people will throw this book down in frustration, and that is completely fair. But holy hell, once the gears caught, once all the terminology and references to the children’s folklore of an imagined culture, and the slow understanding by the memoirist, of how the whole show works, or doesn’t, and then shit gets dire and pear-shaped, that’s when I loved this book. The last two thirds tear along, all of that boring anecdote resolving into action and stakes, and I loved every minute of the way it unfolded.

Which is not to say I don’t call bullshit on some of the ideas presented here. The central story has to do with Language, something spoken by an alien culture living with a group of humans (mostly) in the titular Embassytown. Language is this strange, antediluvian language, where the speakers can’t lie, can’t even conceive of lie. I don’t even want to get into it more than that, so sorry. It’s too hard to explain without a page of anecdotes, like an early life story, and that’s what Miéville does. I call bullshit on a lot of the ways Language functions, but I don’t know that that matters to my enjoyment of this book, in the end. I was trained up as a reader on all kinds of science fictions that I think have flawed premises, like psychohistory. But let’s pretend. Let’s play this out. Let’s take this as a given, and see where this goes. 

Memoir’s aims are similar, I think, let’s take my life and make it make sense. I don’t think Avice is intended to be a damaged narrator or anything, except insofar as we are all damaged narrators. I honestly can’t remember if when I stole that picture I was with Alicia or not, though I have the vague sense that I was, but I can’t even figure where we were other than a doctor’s office, and that doesn’t make any sense. I went to the doctor’s with my folks, not 8-year-old friends. But I wrote that bit of the story above with a decisiveness I don’t feel. So maybe the stuff I’m calling bullshit about how Language is exactly that. Avice is bullshitting herself & us, but not because she’s damaged or floaking, but because we all bullshit ourselves into being. 

Embassytown is a science fictional study in nostalgia, though I don’t want to imply that it’s all soft-focus and dreamy; more the kind of nostalgia where you can only understand what you’ve lost once you lose it. You didn’t even dread losing it – whatever “it” is, your childhood, that person – at the time because you never understood it. Though I get the sense this book is being pushed for a general audience, I don’t think it will appeal for people who aren’t pretty solid scifi nerds, with our dim rememberings of the spacecraft flying out of our youth. As one of those, it was a great freaking read.

Review: Fray by Rowenna Miller

I was ambivalent about Fray’s predecessor, Torn by Rowenna Miller, and I continue to be ambivalent about the Unraveled Kingdom series. I do think that Sophie is in an interesting position in the novel. As a small business owner who has pulled herself out of poverty and now is betrothed to the crown prince, she’s more than capable of rubbing elbows with all manner of folk, if not comfortably, than at least credibly. But I’m less enamored by Sophie’s burgher judginess and almost willful naivete when it comes to effecting change in the brutally unfair government she lives under. She continues to evince a sort of conservative (lower case c) cowardice that I find distasteful.

After the street violence of Torn, Fray opens on the eve of a reform vote. The government of Galitha seems to be a sort of constitutional monarchy, but more in line with 19th Century Russians than 18th Century English. (I don’t say 19th Century English, because Galitha is maybe only at the very beginning of an Industrial Revolution.) By which I mean, the nobility, who make up the governing body, are bloody brutal bastards. A labyrinthine bureaucracy has a stranglehold on most commerce, and both city workers and farm laborers are kept right on the edge of the most abject poverty. The country is a tinderbox, and the ruling class does not comprehend just how much danger there is of the whole thing erupting into very serious violence, despite being given a taste of the edge of that anger at the close of the last novel.

Sophie herself is in a precarious position. Though she began a love affair with the crown prince at the end of Torn, and they are engaged to be married, his family largely ignores her due to her ignoble birth and wrong ethnicity. (Sophie is a member of a persecuted minority, but this mostly feels like window dressing to me. The way it tends to come up is Sophie commenting to herself about her Otherness, and not in constant, casual microagressions in every interaction she has.) Though I did credit her several panic attacks about what marrying into the royal family will do to his standing — she is the type to offload her true anxieties onto other people — I had a hard time believing the royal family of this backwards country would do anything but work him over until he married someone “respectable”. I’m fairly sure that’s what happened between Charles and Diana, and that monarchy is only a figurehead.

Add in the fact that a distaff relative — who happens to be in a committed relationship with another woman — is being severely pressured to marry a man for political reasons, and the world begins to look like its bending to either the needs of the plot, or Sophie, or both. I am always willing to give some latitude for the sake of the story, so this isn’t a cardinal sin, but it could become one with time. Because the other problem is that Sophie regularly and almost compulsively puts the desires of her wealthy friends over her family, her people, and her neighborhood. Her brother — one of the leaders of the resistance — was denied entrance to the university due to class and race, and he has since poured his prodigious talent into tract-writing and rabble-rousing. He’s absolutely not wrong about anything he says about the injustice of the world.

Even though Sophie ostensibly understands what a raw deal he and most of people like them have been given, she’s constantly frustrated by his disquiet. When violence flairs up in the streets, she blames her brother despite the fact that social inequity is everywhere and that anger is *inevitable*. When the reform bill passes, and then Sophie and the crown prince slowly come to the realization that the nobility is slow-walking any true reformation, I was like, oh my god, OF COURSE that’s what they’re doing. Why is this a surprise? Your brother has always and ever been right, you just refuse to hear anything he has to say. Moreover, even the rich assholes pretty much told Sophie and the prince to their faces that they would cripple the reform. Her middle of the road whataboutism is infuriating. Sure, maybe your boyfriend is a good guy, but its clear to me, and everyone else in the country, that the ruling classes are ripe for having their heads separated from their necks.

But! Then the book will mess with Sophie her bougie preconceptions, so I end up being on the hook for more. I keep hoping for a big SYKE! turns out Sophie is a revolutionary! moment, but then the alternative might be more interesting: a portrait of someone, who, like the rest of us, worries about the news of babies in cages and hopes for incremental change, but can’t be arsed to actually do anything but worry. Shudder. That’s a horror story right there.

Review: Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh

In the third of Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling Trinity novels, Wolf Rain, she returns to origins: back to the Sierra Nevada region where the SnowDancer pack of Changeling wolves rules. The previous two novels – Silver Silence, which takes place in the Changeling bear packs of Russia and Ocean Light, which explored the secretive BlackSea pack of water changelings – struck out into unexplored groups and places to uneven results. Ocean Light especially felt like it was lacking, so it feels like a good move to head back to familiar ground. We know a lot of people in SnowDancer, and when we ran into them, mostly they weren’t just hanging around canoodling and being sooooo in lurrrrrve, which I find happens often in romance sequels. This always sets my teeth.

The novel kicks off with emotionally isolated SnowDancer lieutenant Alexei (whom I’m fairly sure has popped up before in previous novels?) following an anguished psychic broadcast in the middle of nowhere SnowDancer territory. He finds a hatch to a bunker inside a cave, and inside the bunker he finds a Psy woman (named Memory) grieving over her dead cat. They gtfo of there, with Alexei provoking the Psy to anger to keep her moving. He identifies her as an E, the empathic designation, which she balks at: she has an affinity with monsters, in her mind. She nonetheless submits to interviews with such talents as Sascha Duncan, a cardinal E and shield technician, and sets up residence with other Es in the SnowDancer territory.

Since childhood, Memory has been in the clutches of one of those psychopath villains Silence produced in batches since she was maybe eight or nine. Silence, a widespread form of social conditioning used by the Psy for several generations to remove all emotion, has fallen, but the Psy, and by extension Memory, are on a long road to wellness. In some ways, her arc is one of the entire race, post-Silence, a road map out of the recrimination and self-loathing that comes from discarding Silence. The E-built “honeycomb” is fine and all, but they cannot be doing all of the emotional work for the entire race. Wolf Rain addresses head on the problems the Psy face in a post-Silence world, and is probably more mythology-heavy than its predecessors, which I count as a good thing.

Alexei’s trajectory is maybe less interesting, but then I’m just way less into Changeling psychology in general, so it could be me. I find the whole predatory dominant thing – which Alexei embodies to a T – rather tiresome, and the whole “mate for life” trope endlessly frustrating. A biologically based unbreakable bond absolutely destroys any real emotional agency. People have vastly different emotional makeups, and even worse, one’s character changes over time. I don’t get how “mate for life” isn’t anything but an emotional prison when two people bond in their 20s, and then get tethered to one another permanently despite divergent interests and concerns as they age.

Moreover, both mate-bonding and pack-bonding lends the Changelings a form of emotional perfection that can really mar any story that relies on emotional growth. They’re often cast as incapable of hurting children or bullying others, which makes them hard to relate to, and limits their emotional range. (I mean, that may be the ultimate thrust of the series, in a way: the Psy, who are all too capable of horrific abuse must learn from the Changelings, who are almost constitutionally incapable of it. They’re aspects of humanity split out, and the series finds them coming back together.) Alexei’s experiences actually calls some of this Changeling bonding stuff into question; just because two people are mated, doesn’t mean things can’t go horribly, horribly wrong. I still have my reservations, but some of my issues are addressed, and credibly.

Memory’s experience as a sub-designation E mirrors Alexei’s grapplings with the Changeling emotional makeup. Though (of course) her self-image was completely twisted by her Psy captor, she’s still not like the other Es we’ve met, who are stereotypically soft and feminine, true nurturers and providers. Memory is made out of anger and vengeance; it is what got her through her captivity. She is willing to cut a bitch if a bitch needs cutting. I really, really like the idea of an empath who is sensitive to the darker registers of the human emotional experience. It’s more neatly dealt with in Wolf Rain than I would prefer, but that it’s acknowledged at all is aces.

So far, the Psy-Changeling Trinity novels have been slightly shaky, but Wolf Rain gets back to basics in a satisfying way.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Review: Ocean Light by Nalini Singh

This was originally written in July 2018.

If I believed in such a thing, the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh would be a “guilty pleasure.” While I don’t believe in feeling bad for reading enormously successful and interesting books – that’s ridiculous – there are aspects of the series that nonetheless make me me feel kinda embarrassed. Any romance involving one of the changelings – and they are always predatory changelings – is so hopelessly mired in kinky Victorian notions of biological determinism and dominance and submission. I mean, that’s usually what you find in animal shifter narratives, so Psy-Changeling isn’t outside the norm, but I know I’m going to have to grit my teeth through that stuff to get to the extremely cool mythology she’s been spinning for almost 20 novels now. (I don’t have the same problem with the Psy, who are Vulcan-like psychics, because their romances tend to center around recovery from severe abuse and personal sexual awakening, which I find much more interesting than YOU MAH WOMAN GRARR.)

Technically, Psy-Changeling wrapped up with Allegiance of Honor, which was a sort of clip show, where we checked back in with literally everyone who had ever been mentioned in the previous 14 books. I get why it was written that way, but romance epilogues make my teeth ache, and this was more than a dozen of them all piled up. It was also a letdown because the previous three novels, Heart of Obsidian, Shield of Winter, and Shards of Hope, are hands down the best novels in the series. Singh brings all of her complicated mythology to full flower in those novels, and in ways that make the romance plot absolutely integral to the narrative. Heart of Obsidian especially. That they’re a dozen novels deep in a series makes them even more impressive; Singh had the opposite of burnout. 

Silver Silence, the novel directly previous to Ocean Light, was the first of the novels in Psy-Changeling Trinity, which details life after the fall of Silence (a form of widespread social conditioning practiced by the Psy designed to repress all emotion.) Like Ocean Light, it follows a character seen on the periphery for most of the series: Silver Mercant, personal assistant to all-around badass and ex-Psy Council member Kaleb Krychek. She falls in with a bear pack outside of Moscow, which was interesting because we’ve never seen bear changelings in action before. Bear changelings end up being annoying, but then they’re not as drearily serious as either the cats or the wolves, so on the balance more fun to read about.

Like Silver Silence, Ocean Light centers on a peripheral group, one that has heretofore been shrouded in mystery: the BlackSea pack, the changeling clan that encompasses the entirety of the earth’s oceans. Even the land-bound changelings think of them as out there. While we’ve encountered some of the BlackSea characters in Psy-Changeling novels, specifically Miane, the alpha, and her security guy, the pack itself has been secretive. BlackSea takes in Bowen Knight, head of the Human Alliance, in order for BlackSea scientists to remove a degrading chip in Knight’s head. This is a conflict we’ve seen before in Psy-Changeling, most recently in Shield of Winter, where it was the secondary plot. It is not as good as a primary conflict, like it is in Ocean Light, because it is a relatively inert situation: people worry, maybe they go to the doctor, then they worry some more. Either dude dies or he doesn’t.

We’ve met Bowen many times before. As the head of the Human Alliance, he’s tangled with both the Psy and Changelings (both of whom tend to treat humans like butt monkeys, but more so the Psy). He’s also been kind of a dick, which doesn’t necessarily change in Ocean Light. I don’t think that’s all bad – I like when dickish folk remain true to their characters even after, like, emotional and sexual awakening. That’s one of the best things about the romance between Kaleb and Sahara in Heart of Obsidian: Kaleb is a stone cold psycho and Sahara is his only emotional human relationship. In fact, I think he generally characterizes her as his only “weakness”: he sees his strength as flowing from his emotional sterility, and in many real ways it does. Even after they fall in love, he remains completely cut off from the rest of humanity. Sometimes the damage is just too great, and love is not a magic elixir. So it’s fine, good even, that Bo remains a dick, but he’s just less compelling than Kaleb all around, so I’m way less into it.

The romance in Ocean Light largely consists of Bowen and the BlackSea chef, Kaia, making eyes at one another while agonizing about how Bowen might die from a medical procedure. Further complicating their relationship is that Kaia, while being a water changeling, has Psy ancestry and some of their mental gifts. Bo is pretty much an anti-Psy bigot, so this could be a problem. The non-romance plot has to do with ongoing kidnappings of BlackSea members, kidnappings that seem to be perpetrated by the Human Alliance. Knight and Miane’s [sic, I super want this name to be Maine for no good reason] security guy work towards figuring out who the traitors in their organizations must be, but mostly through phone calls and data searches, and we don’t get to see changeling kicking down doors and apprehending bad guys for the most part. They spend most of the novel hanging out in the BlackSea HQ chatting and making sandwiches. There is some movement at the very end, but reading about a grueling transatlantic flight isn’t exactly action either.

BlackSea itself, though, was interesting to read about. There’s still a fair amount we don’t know about the pack – pack members tend to be especially secretive about what their animal is – but the underwater city was beautifully rendered. While shifter narratives almost never address bestiality – and I am not suggesting they should – there was an ongoing tentacle-sex gag going on here that surprised a laugh out of me. All considered, Ocean Light was fine, but I felt like more could have been done with both BlackSea and Bowen Knight, alas.  

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower: The Opera

Maybe two months ago, I became aware of a musical version of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower which was being staged at the O’Shaughnessy theater on the St. Kate’s campus in St. Paul. I pretty much blacked out and bought tickets on the spot, figuring I’d find a way to the Twin Cities for the show somehow. That show was last night. What an altogether moving staging.

I feel like Parable of the Sower has been popping up again and again for me. I write a series for B&N SciFi and Fantasy about the Nebula awards, reading through the nominated books and trying to handicap who’s going to win. A book I read for that series recently reminded me of Parable — reminded me that Butler took home the Nebula for both Parable of the Sower AND its sequel Parable of the Talents. I wrote a listicle about religiously motivated missions to the stars, and included Parable of the Talents, because of Lauren’s Earthseed. (The never-published third in that series, Parable of the Trickster, which takes place on the alien planet, would have been a better fit … but of course it was never published.)

I read both books years ago. Reading through the plot summaries to jog my memory bolted me down, ran a wire up my nerves: the camps for reeducation, the separation of families from their children (often permanently), President Jarret’s Make America Great Again rhetoric as he perpetrates the most inhuman cruelties. Butler was a godamn prophet, and it’s a cold feeling to read her warning while the dystopia is in full swing.

The opera version is fully aware of the icy inevitability of Butler’s classic, but wraps up the narrative in a warm call-and-response, in a call to arms. The staging was less like a traditional stage play — I’m fairly sure if I had no familiarity with the text, I would have been at sea. Instead, the character beats of the novel are jumping off points to explore the various ideas — and characters — in song.

This didn’t really register for me when I read the novel because it isn’t my lived experience (an altogether precious way of saying I’m white), but the opera centers the religious dialogue between Lauren and her father — which of course is centered in the church in Black America. Much of the first section — in the walled neighborhood before the walls are breached — is staged like a pulpit and pews. Her father preaches, and then Lauren responds. From him: “God don’t never change.” From her: “God is change.” The music touches gospel, the rhetorical style of Black preachers, old spirituals.

Oh, but another thing: the chorus. I don’t necessarily see this that often in either film or theater, because it is weird and old school, but: Parable of the Sower kinda had a Greek chorus. The chorus in Greek theater kinda functioned as a social superego, like an intrusive narrator who interjected on the events of the play, or ran the gloss, or gave you whatfor.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo and Juliet

You can find choruses in Shakespeare, real minimally, but that was almost half a millennium ago, which, even factoring his long shadow, was a long ass time ago. In Parable of the Sower, there are three people noted in the liner notes called “The Talents”: two singers, Helga Davis and Kenita Miller, and one of the writers, Toshi Reagon. I’m going to go ahead and presume that “talents” refers to the sequel — The Parable of the Talents. (There’s a pause here where I go to brush up on Jesus’ parable, and find that it’s one of the messy contested ones where different gospels have different takes, which is altogether perfect.)

The talents in the play are a modern take on the chorus, especially when Toshi Reagon — folksinger, writer, singer, musician — cut in. Near the end of the first act she broke through the music just to talk to us, to tell us about her vision of Butler’s vision and her place in the world. At the end she called us to action. It takes as voice as strong as Octavia’s own to sing her story, and Toshi Reagon has it.

Book Review: Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

History is weird, right? I mean, our lives and actions pass through this lens of the now, and then are magically transmuted into then, and rendered both complete and imperfect, all by the passage of immaterial time. Complete because it is over and done; imperfect because it’s not-whole, artefacted, metonymous. One of the oddest sensations I can think of is that overpowering feeling of “No, no, this can’t have happened this way; there must be a way of wishing this away,” when I screw something up. Not just kind of screw up, but screw up in that soul-rending way; the regretful way. Yeah, yeah, I know one shouldn’t wallow in regret, and we learn best from our mistakes, and all that cheerful shit, but sometimes being confronted by the sheer thickness of my own skull can be mortifying enough to wish for time travel. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, may you live long enough to plumb the depths of your own thoughtlessness. I mean this in the best possible way. 

My grandfather suffered from senior dementia in the last decade of his life, and we first knew something was wrong when he began telling stories about WWII. He was doctor attached to the Marine Raiders in the South Pacific, and due to his temperament and generation, he never much talked about the things he saw during the war. But before the stories vanished into the cruel forgetting of senility, they shook loose and came pouring out of him. We learned about several brushes with death, the insanity and shelling, the bad times and panic. We also learned about good things: the Australian doctor he befriended; the times he spent at the other doctor’s farm which reminded him of the Iowa farming community where he was raised. He said he loved Australia so much that he would have moved the family there after the war, had his elderly father not been living and in need of care. I never knew this, and it kind of blew my mind: how many times he nearly died; how if the wheel had been spun differently, my grandma would have been a widow with a war baby, or if he had lived and they had moved, there’d be an Australian not-Ceridwen, the daughter of my father but not my mother. 

I know, I know, this sort of musing is somewhere near the pinnacle of self-involvement, a personal strong anthropic principle. But I think this sort of thinking can be found in the unconscious assumptions that underpin all manner of historiographies. Is history long or short? Does it cycle, pulse, or is it flat like ticker tape? Are we at the end of days, or the beginning, or is that the wrong answer to the wrong questions? I’m fascinated by how many religions have a get-me-out-of-history lesson as their central idea: the Hindus and Buddhists are both trying to get out of the cycle of rebirth, but they disagree as to methods; the eschatological Christians viewing the world as a giant Rube-Goldberg-like device: if we can just move these people here and those people there, then Christ will return and end history. What’s up with this? I mean, sure, life sucks, except for when it’s insanely cool. Why do we make historical suicide sacred? But I’ve pined for the screw-up changing time-machine, so I guess I get it. 

So, wait, what the heck am I talking about? I haven’t even started talking about The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m so completely suffused with love and admiration for this book that I feel and dreamy and half-lit. (I mean that both in the inebriated sense and the illuminated sense.) Several people recommended this book to me after I freaked out about how awesome plague narratives were. While this book peripherally deals with the Black Plague, in that the story is a thought experiment that resets history when the 14th Century plague wipes out almost all of the population of Europe, instead of only (only) the 30-50% most historians estimate. Did you know that the population of Europe, didn’t rebound to pre-plague levels until well into the 1800s? This is in the real world, not the world of the book. Although, man, I feel mind-blown enough to see that both histories are constructed, our internalized values of historiography subtly or not so subtly influencing what we accept as real, as fact, or as important. Do you know what I mean? 

I’ve been reading a fair amount of alternate history, authors re-spinning the wheel to different results: what if? what if? I haven’t quite figured out what all this messing with history is about in contemporary lit, but I bet it’s related to magical realism in some way. Magical realism has often re-told personal, familial, and national histories with the metaphors made manifest; the alternate history folks seem to be doing something similar, sort of. I haven’t figured it out yet. (Hey, let me know if you have any ideas.) Sometimes this spinning is comic, sometimes an excuse for some ass-kicking. How do events inform ideas? If there was no European history, it if bled out into ruins and bleached bones, who would Galileo be? Are we going to go down the ugly road of European superiority, and claim that medicine, technology, electricity, modernity, all the shit by which we measure progress, could only be developed by Christians/Europeans? Spin the wheel again: who makes contact with the New World? 

So, okay, this sounds super boring I bet. This sounds like a droning history class. Then the so-and-sos did this, then they did that. This is not how this book is. It’s grounded in character, written in really lovely language, moving and real and determined not to fall for the easy answers. It’s a frame narrative, using the form that Boccaccio developed in the 14th C to tell his own story of plague and history: the Decameron. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this particular frame before, which is kind of interesting, because once you say it out loud, it seems too obvious: it follows the same collection of souls who are reincarnated together in the 700 hundred years since the plague.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the whole concept of reincarnation makes me itchy. I mean, gah, how can be be understood to be ourselves when we’re someone else? Also, I hate the whole idea that we’re here to “learn something” in each life, plunked into a hierarchy of being that strikes me as insanely arbitrary. No, strike that, arbitrary would be better. Men above women; human above animal; the rich above the poor. But, don’t listen to me. Pretty much the Buddha has already articulated all these ideas to better and more poetic effect. This is the way I would put it: fuck your dharma. (That’s one for embroidering on a pillow, I tell you what.) Dharma is playing the shitty hand you’ve been dealt with a smile, because them’s the rules. And what bastard made those rules? Don’t ask! Does a dog have Buddha nature? Well, you get to find out. (Or like the character in the book who has my same problem with dharma: tiger nature.)

That’s why this book is so awesome: it is discomforted by its own frame narrative. “Oh Gods, I’m so sorry,” it says, as it reincarnates an African eunuch into a Hawaiian girl. There are no ridiculous birthmarks that endure from incarnation to incarnation; the names don’t start with the same letter; none of that cheating literary bullshit. Robinson rolls the threads of continuity between one character and the next using, and I know this is avant garde, compelling characterization and culturally specific signifiers. Hard to believe, I know. There’s other awesomeness as well: a sensitivity to women’s history, poetry written for the novel that Robinson need not be embarrassed by, unlike many novelists who dabble in poetry, and remarkable restraint when it comes to exposition. 

I’ll complain a bit, just to let you know I haven’t been paid off or something: the section that deals with the peoples of the New World is totally weak. I was kind of obsessed with the history of Native America for a while, and one of the reasons we have this idea of indigenous Americans chilling in the empty forest passing the peace pipe around is that Old World diseases wiped out as much as 90% of the population of North America before the people of the interior even knew the anglos were coming. Talk about your plague narratives. There was enormous upheaval going on, before whitey showed up to pass around beads and smallpox blankets, and the groups that we like to think of as static from time immemorial were either the remnants of larger groups who synthesized based on similar languages, like the Catawba, or wholly remade by the introduction of new technologies, like the Lakota/Dakota/Sioux. But whatever, I have an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the histories of the Muslim and Chinese worlds, so I’ll let Robinson slide on his rosy portrait of the decimated and traumatized cultures that peopled this fair continent in the century after Contact. But measles lacks ideology; I don’t care who passed it who the New World first. 

I’m trying to figure out how to wrap up; a regular problem for me. I’m no good at plot, as I’ve been told before. Maybe because of this, I like when novels are open-ended. There’s nothing wrong with a puzzle-box: the plots that snick and fold into the origami of meaning. But novelists that capture the zig-zag-whatever of the way my life is actually lived, without being boring or lazy, are often my favorites. So there’s this, from about halfway through the novel, when the reincarnated group, the jati, have just been cut down uselessly by an outbreak of plague. They sit, huddled and demoralized, waiting for their next incarnations:

“Looking back down the vale of the ages at the endless recurrence of their reincarnation, before they were forced to drink their vial of forgetting and all became obscure to them again, they could see no pattern at all to their efforts; if the gods had a plan, or even a set of procedures, if the long train of transmigrations was supposed to add up to anything, if it was not just mindless repetition, time itself nothing but a succession of chaoses, no one could discern it; and the story of their transmigrations, rather than being a narrative without death, as the first experiences of reincarnation perhaps seemed to suggest, had become a veritable charnel house. Why read on? Why pick up their book from the far wall where it had been thrown away in disgust and pain, and read on? Why submit to such cruelty, such bad karma, such bad plotting?

The reason is simple: these things happened. They happened countless times, just like this. The oceans are salt with our tears. No one can deny that these things happened.”


Kim Stanley Robinson, Years of Rice and Salt

I can’t deny it, mired in my own chaoses, subject to the bad plotting of my own life and unrelenting happenstance. I happen, and I continue to happen in this seemingly random way; a way that occasionally, just occasionally points to greater meaning even while it dissolves on closer inspection. I’m not one for big philosophies; I don’t have an overarching theory of history and the world that can account for our cosmic obscurity balanced against individual self-importance. Neither does Robinson, bless his soul. 

The Art of Losing: One Year Later

This was originally written a year and a day after Prince died.

Last year I was sitting quiet in a library, trying to write this thing I have in me but struggles to get out, and my phone started buzzing. I can ignore it for a while but eventually I look: Prince is presumed dead, found in an elevator alone. My phone blows up and I stop writing. I stop everything because I still can’t imagine he’s gone a year from then, now, alone myself.

I walked in the neighborhood and heard him everywhere. Everywhere.

I went tonight to the VFW in Uptown, which has changed considerably from its 80s incarnation. I’m fairly sure I voted there once way back in the day, walking past full ashtrays right below no smoking signs, our veterans more than exempt from whatever clean air act. Now it’s a dance club and bar and whatever else. I’m stamped coming in, and banded in the area with a dj.

My adolescent sexuality was burned indelibly with Prince’s songs. You could probably map me by a collection of lines set behind music that originate in his fingers and throat.

Last year I went dancing on a Sunday, pushing my way into First Avenue, ten minutes after bar close. Clouds of reefer smoke hung in the air, purple-blue and turning slowly, while the dance floor moved and moved and moved. There were couples getting well more than handsy down in the dark and movement. I like to think there are a collection of Prince babies, three months old, conceived while we worked out our grief.

I haven’t been able to deal with this anniversary in the least. I listened to Mary Lucia spin his b-sides for an hour: Erotic City and How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore and Another Lonely Christmas. I dance to Erotic City and I can’t believe its candor, its rawness.

Erotic City can’t you see
Fuck so pretty you and me.

This shit is like 17th Century religious poetry, John Donne overcome and battered by his diety, and at the same time writing of lovers and biting fleas and the silken lines of bullshit artists everywhere.

For thee, thou need’st no such deceit, 
For thou thyself art thine own bait

Any biography is autobiography.

I had this idea I would run through my favorite songs and play their personal exegesis. But I don’t think I can, not now, not on this day. This now, these words, are the fuzzing carbon dioxide left as the drink flats. Dance was the way I grieved again, working it out through my pores like sweat and a pounding bass. Working it out in the smoked end of the night, two breaths before the ember burns down and ignites the filter.

Suck it in deep and breathe it out slow. Watch it roll in the night air. That is your breath, rising. Amen.

The Art of Losing: Prince

This was first written April 22, 2016, the day after Prince died.

I first heard Prince from my neighbor and older sister in spirit Alicia. I would have been 6, 8, something like that. I think I remember 1999 coming out. Her dad, the late David Starr, had more than a thousand records, maybe more like two.

We made a project once to count them all, but I can’t remember the count, just the hot, gabled third floor, the records flipping as we worked all around the room. I always thought it was cool that she had the same last name as one of Prince’s alter egos, Jamie Starr, who he used in production credits and in a song or two.

I remember sitting in front of the record player with the liner notes all opened up in front of us, listening. He did such great liner notes: the Prince spelling and numbers, the pull-out pin-up from Dirty Mind, the Nagel-esque face from Purple Rain. All thanks 2 U and God.

Purple Rain came out when I was 10. I made Dad take me. We went downtown, to the now defunct Skyway Theater, in a Minneapolis that was as seedy as the one in the film. There was a strip club next door, and the buses rarely ran on a Sunday.

I’m feeling defensive suddenly of my father, because although Purple Rain is maybe a bit much for 10, it was absolutely defining for me. I’ve told the story of his taking me a hundred times, because I loved every single moment. I was in the same Minneapolis as Prince, with my dad, and every single frame of Prince’s musical performances are a revelation. A Revolution.

At 14, up at my grandparents’ with friends and cousins, listening over and over to the Batman soundtrack.

Quoting lines from the insane Under the Cherry Moon because all that self-indulgent weirdness was perfect, right up to the tragic end.

All of us stumbling out of Graffiti Bridge wondering the fuck had happened.

Scrounging desperately when he released and then recalled The Black Album. Listening intently to the bootleg, and understanding why he did it: all that darkness and pain. He then transmuted that all into LoveSexy, which I think is one of his most deeply spiritual works. He always worked in dichotomy: white/black, man/woman, straight/gay. LoveSexy was his uplift after the darkness of The Black Album. It’s his word for the power of God’s love.

Going to a concert in high school, disappointing and nosebleed, still jazzed to be anywhere near him.

Going to Paisley Park in the vain attempt of seeing him. Dancing.

Listening to the bootleg The Chocolate Album (I think) which was mostly released as Crystal Ball and Sign O’ The Times. There’s a song on that album called Place in Heaven, which I can’t find, which surely exists on a tape somewhere, recorded painstakingly from the vinyl. She wants a place in Heaven/ Baby U’re already there. I can hear the piano, his high, clear voice, like he is alone and speaking to me.

Purple Rain reminds me of my son Galileo’s birth, that long, exsanguinating ending playing over and over.

That one time.

That one time.

I sobbed on the street today walking through my neighborhood, listening to my neighbors out on back porches and front porches with Prince playing everywhere.

My son sang me Starfish and Coffee.

Prince was the soundtrack of my childhood and he’s gone.

He’s gone, you guys, and I am so, so sad.

Writing Sex into the Classics

This was originally written a couple years ago after reading two erotic updates of English literature classics, which seemed an inevitable outgrowth of the monster mash-ups that became something of a fad after the surprise success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was reminded of its existence when I ran across a Northanger Abbey with sex writing mash-up recently. I haven’t gone back to see if my little theory about Austen and sex writing works at all, but I do applaud the mash-up writer for taking on one of my favorite Austen heroes. He was just the kind of gentle and mansplainy that I would expect.

A quick disclaimer: this isn’t really a “review”. That’s generally true when I’m writing “reviews”, but I felt squeamish reading through it for spelling errors and the like. This is a complete and total overreaction and overthink of some very silly stuff, and I just want to be clear that I’m aware of that. If you really give a shit about whether you’ll like a smut version of “Daisy Miller” by Henry James, or the continuing erotic adventures of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, I will repeat this quote attributed to so many people as to be a mysterious aphorism: people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. I mean, seriously. 

I get why contemporary writers do pulp retellings of 19th Century literature. So much of what gives the original stories juice is the unspoken or the alluded, all that subterranean emotion thrumming through the stories like blood. The thing I remember most from Wuthering Heights, for example, is Cathy running out into the moors, tearing all her clothes off, and becoming a werewolf. And before you get on me, yes, of course I know this didn’t happen. But the image is what my mind makes of all the subtext, all this howling and brutality and half-creatures. While Wuthering Heights is an absolute hatecast, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, a closed mouth about certain things which isn’t so much coy as withholding. I can see the instinct to nail it down, to make it be one thing and not all the others. So of course it’s dumb and painful that Stephenie Meyer, in Eclipse, remakes this story of blood and revenge into a doddering middle class non-problem, but she absolutely gets the werewolf right. She makes it one thing and not the others.

Conversely, let us consider Austen, who probably has the largest body of retellings of her works. (Interestingly, these mash-ups tend to be either horror or romance; maybe it’s the embodied angle of both genres? Or, wait, there are some mysteries, which I tend not to read, so this theory is more about my predilections than anything. Carry on.) Unlike the Brontës, Austen is very rarely, and only under the most dire of circumstances, a Romantic — heed my capital letter, friends — even while her stories are intensely domestic. It has been observed that no two men speak to one another without a woman present in all of her novels, as she has the concision of the documentarian. She has never seen two men speak without a woman (herself) present, and she’s hard-headed enough to stick to the things she’s seen, rather than the things she can imagine.

She’s got a mercantile bent, so much so that one almost despairs ever meeting the principles of Sense and Sensibility when one picks it up, given the reems of description of everyone’s financial state. Observe:

By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son; by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady, respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage, likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth. To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune, independent of what might arise to them from their father’s inheriting that property, could be but small. Their mother had nothing, and their father only seven thousand pounds in his own disposal; for the remaining moiety of his first wife’s fortune was also secured to her child, and he had only a life interest in it.”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Zzzzzzz. 

Look, I love Austen like the catty, introverted cousin I hang on the wall with while at family functions, drinking — which is to say: a lot — but this is some bloodless stuff. Much as the mistaken asshole plot from Pride and Prejudice has become a mainstay of romance novels, Austen herself would not particularly care for the high emotions of such a thing, especially if the principles failed to take into account or straight up flaunted social/economic/racial divides. Which happens often in romance novels because the driving considerations of a match are emotional; love trumps all incompatibilities. Education heals all, to Austen, or possibly one’s good nature, or manners, or all three, but then only provisionally, and only for the narrowest of slices of society. Maybe. Money is most definitely very large factor. 

So I can see why people want to sex her up. Austen doesn’t give us much to go on, in terms of physicality: Elizabeth has “fine eyes” and Darcy, honestly I don’t know if he is short or tall or blond or what. Elizabeth even pokes at the Romantic sensibility right before she gets her own moral/economic slapdown at Pemberley, so awed by her would-be lover’s stuff and things she doesn’t “know herself”:

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” [all sic, because Austen can’t spell, bless her heart]

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

What are men, indeed, Elizabeth? The romance novel heroine might protest in much the same way: no, of course I do not love Slade, who is either wealthy or secretly wealthy. But her revelation that she loves him would never come at observing Slade’s tangible wealth; that would be too bald, strangely. Indeed the opposite is more often true: the romantic heroine’s lack of care for his wealth is the test that paradoxically provides her worthiness. She is no golddigger. She does not consider such hard, true, palpable things as money in her calculations of her happiness, except insofar as her poverty is a virtue. There are roughly one million romance novels that pair the noble poor woman with a dickish billionaire, running a redemption arc for the wealthy while both volorizing poverty and slyly denigrating the poor. The worthy poor get a hand out; the rest of you lot are probably getting what you deserve.

In some ways, adding sex to Austen balances the scale. All scandals, my dad once told me, have to do with either sex or money. Austen’s scandals tend to be about money. Though sex occasionally factors, money is always the prime mover, that thing that bends passions and taints the tentative beginnings. Austen is no Victorian: This isn’t because she’s squeamish or a prude. The bone fide sex scandals in her novels do not result in redemptive death for the woman; neither Lydia Bennet nor the Bertram sister from Mansfield Park get consumption and die as punishment. The consequences of their actions flow naturally, and are not there as moral instruction (which is actually astonishing, considering.) But latter day stories featuring Elizabeth and Darcy often find them, post nuptials, engaging in all the hard passions denied the satirist, because Austen’s aim is not moralizing but satirizing.

The latter day erotic retelling aligns Austen to more post-War middle class American sensibilities: you can talk about money, but only as a metric for plucky self-determination, or for virtue-signaling purposes. Virtue is rewarded, often materially, in the narrative, which is something that often doesn’t happen in Austen. Elinor Dashwood and her beau are quite impoverished, in the end, as are Fanny and Edmund. And sex in a certain species of boilerplate romance novel — the kind you find on the spinning rack — is weirdly morally pure. I once spend a wedding shower in the company of born again Christian in-laws, who regaled me with their sexual exploits in terms far too explicit for this humble humanist. Sex in the confines is exalted, apparently. It makes sense, theologically: emotions are more important that fact, faith more important than works, at least in ground game American evangelical Christianity, which I think has tangible impact on the morality of your average romance novel. Fuck all you want; you’re married.

This sainted carnality is well more important in the contemporary erotic retelling than Austen’s uneasy broodings about education and morality, the subtle differences between good breeding and good manners, with all the attendant, antique and oft unpleasant implications of such concepts. I like Austen because I do not agree with her in many things (insofar as anyone can “agree” with a society 200 years distant) but I adore how serious, subtle, and nuanced her considerations are. Austen’s creatures do something more interesting than fucking, but I get how people want to see the fucking as an outgrowth of the more interesting, how they want to see it flat and straight. How fucking simplifies all the problems brought up by Austen, makes them cleanly dirty.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to these two fictions: Daisy Miller: The Wild and Wanton Edition by Gabrielle Vigot and Henry Miller (snort), and The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray by Mitzi Szerto. Both of the original works are fictions with thick erotic subtexts, something near satire, almost didactic, definitely a hard examination of the author’s social milieu. It might be unfair to compare these two latter day appendage fictions: wild & wanton Daisy Miller is a mash-up, stitching sex writing into James’s short story, while Wilde Passions is a continuation, imagining the later day travails of the immortal Dorian Gray. I think it works in the way that Pride & Prejudice & Zombies sits uneasily yet surely with its inferior prequel: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. These are all fictions tied to the trajectories of larger gravities, unable to be considered as separate works by even the most New Critical of folk. 

So. Wild & wanton Daisy Miller is probably easier to consider, what with its brevity and large chunks of the original text. I can see why it’s attractive just to stitch fuck sequences into 19th century lit — like porn, you don’t have to mess around with actual plot, etc — but such an enterprise becomes stylistically dodgy when dealing with an author as distinctive as Henry James. I have never read the original Daisy Miller, and I could tell, down to the sentence, where the graft occurred. But the early sex sequences were honestly adorable, with Daisy and Winterbourne enacting fantasy and reverie at the edges of James’s work. This dreamy, half-imagined fuckery seemed right in line with James’s aesthetic, with a brooding, half-real cast to it. It was only as the story unspooled that things got dumb. I guess what bothers me about the new Daisy Miller is that Winterbourne wins in the end, and that dude should fucking get it. Not that he gets it in James’s version, exactly, but he sure doesn’t get the girl. Wait, let’s back up.

Definite spoilers ahead. 

In James’s version of Daisy Miller, a boring cipherous New Englander named Winterbourne meets the lush and lusty daughter of American industrialists in Geneva. They have a boring and cipherous semi-courtship, until they decamp singly to Italy. She falls in with Italians (gasp!), with whom she is either having sex, or having the socially disastrous appearance of sex. (Same/same.) Winterbourne is a dick and a bro about the whole thing; Daisy delivers some speeches about freedom (O, America); then she dies because sluts always die of the fever. The story reads as this weird superimposition of New York Belle Epoque morality, where the girl gets it because she’s a slut and/or the wrong class (same/same), and a criticism of that, because the industrialist son who oversees this tragedy is a drag and a buzzkill. (Should we be outside? Should you even be talking to me? Omg, this is all soooo informal; that’s hot but I’m scared.) You want to fling yourself at Italian men at the end, because godamn is society cold and cruel. 

In the lush & lusty version, Daisy delivers her speeches, and instead of Winterbourne magically not be the worst (which he’s pretty much been in all the Henry James parts of the story) he discovers his love for her and rescues her from fucking Italians. (I mean “fucking” to mean “having sex with”, not as an intensifier, to be clear.) They make out and she’s cured of the Roman Fever, the end. Oh, also, her mom has a lot of buttsecks with the butler. I don’t really have a problem with that either, other than the usual squeamishness about, like, fucking the staff. But, you know, this is fine work if you can get it.

Winterbourne and Daisy getting together is the kind of end that makes me feel icky in my tummy. Sure, in the original, Winterbourne is an officious dick and Daisy a sheltered fool, but their ugly ends (while completely incommensurate) taught me something about rigid, boring, horrid class systems based on the finest of gradations. While I’m fine with Daisy surviving the usual Romantic illness that overtakes all fallen women since Victoria took the throne (at least), I am mos def not okay with Winterbourne being treated like some kind of romantic hero. Fuuuuck that guy; he is the embodiment of mediocre conventionality. Team Daisy. 

This seems an altogether different kind of American social message to have Winterbourne win out against his girl fucking Italians. Instead of some quaint 19th century examination of the grasping newly middle class tripping over its inborn lusts in front of the more second generation moneyed asshole, we have the second generation moneyed asshole being redeemed by the quaint notion of love erasing all impediments, even the bone-deep character ones. Daisy opens her legs and her heart, and Winterbourne is tugged dickward towards his inevitable romantic emanation. (I love you. Daisy, and your fucking of Italians in the square is simply performance to my voyeurism. What happiness, etc.) It’s a petty, priapic kind of love, one where romantic love brutally wins over literally everything else.

Everyone forgets that Romeo and Juliet were the exact same damn thing, and that their thwarted romance had nothing to do with class or race or anything. It is the narcissism of small differences: that the more similar two people are, the more they are likely to focus on the points of divergence, sometimes to animosity. (Which explains things like, say, the conflict in Northern Ireland, which to outsiders looks like an pointless ginger fight.) R & J would have cemented a dynasty had they had text messaging, and I gotta say, that’s not a play I want to see. It would be gross to watch two rich, white assholes get together, and it’s a damn good thing they died. So too, in the updated Daisy Miller. Daisy survives Winterbourne’s bourgie morality so they can canoodle, pretty much destroying all actual criticism of James’s social milieu. I really haven’t got a lot of time for this, but then I also admit I’m a vicious crank. Someone has got to die to prove the situation serious. All the unintended consequences to the shifts in Daisy make it kind of a bummer.

I also admit I’ve entirely overthought just about everything. Lighten up! It’s just a bit of fun! And look, I know. And I did have some fun, mostly because of the dizzying whiplash of stewing in James’s page-long sentences, and then being treated to rapid fire anal sex scenes. There’s something charming about how silly the whole prospect is, which is why I undertook this at all. Brontës and Austen make sense to me to graft in some love and zombies, but James? Is there, like, wild & wanton versions of Melville? Ethan Frome? They’re both stories with thick erotic subtexts, and even some unrequited love! (If only that big white Dick would put out, sigh.) It takes stones to take on James with a project this goofy, and I do earnestly applaud the effort. You’d never get me to set my prose style against James’; no fucking way.

And so, to move on after far too much ado, a quick google unearthed for me the latter day adventures of Dorian Gray. Unlike Miss Daisy, Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray is not a mash-up, but a continuation. Szereto rewrites the very end of Dorian Gray (the only novel Wilde ever wrote), rescuing Dorian from death by his own hand, and recounting the plot of Wilde’s novel though flashback and reference. Dorian bottoms through the next century or so, moving from various literary and/or exotic locales: Paris in the beginning, where he runs with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds (though why they are never named confuses me); on to Marrakesh, where he enacts an ooky Orientalism; then to South America, where he tempts the faithful, and finally ending in New Orleans in an unconvincing redemption of sorts. With vampires.

While the wild & wanton “Daisy Miller” feels like a goof or a lark — hey, let’s stitch some fuckery into Henry James! That’s hi-larious! — I get the distinct impression that Wilde Passions is rather serious. Wilde Passions is not simple stroke material, but an earnest grappling with the ambiguous messages of Dorian Gray. This is odd, really, because Wilde, as you may be aware, was one of the funniest dudes ever, and the shift in tone is notable. I scanned a little of the original Dorian Gray, and shit, yo, is that man droll. At least Wilde Passions doesn’t have the source material cheek to jowl with the continuation, because that would be ruinous. As it stands, the different tone is not distracting, and trying to write like Oscar Wilde, one of the great comic writers, is probably doomed anyway.

So, I guess what I want to talk about is the erotic, and sex writing more generally. Sex writing is one of those things that is more variegated that it would appear from the snickering. It’s probably harder to pull off than a fight scene, which I would say is damned difficult to do well, because even just the writer’s choices for body terminology can turn a reader off. I know I have the words I cannot take seriously in a sexual context, which is not the same for “arm” or “leg” or “knife”. The verb “to lave” doesn’t get much play beyond sex writing, and feels both clinical and euphemistic to me. I’d much prefer cunts and cocks to honey pots and manroots, but I know many readers of sex writing, almost ironically, find these terms far too aggressive or smutty or something. 

It seems to me we’ve ceded sex writing to romance novels, and I don’t mean this to be an indictment of romance novels, but an indictment of literary fiction. Most of the best sex writing I’ve read has been in a romance novel, because that’s where sex writing occurs most often. But romance novels generally present a very, very narrow slice of the stunning variety of human sexuality. I’m not just talking about kinks or whatnot, I’m talking about how it’s generally middle class white women knocking boots with middle class white men, all between the ages of 25-35. The sex is going to be good, mind-blowing even, and no one has tired, married sex to get it over with. I’m not saying romance novels should start depicting that, necessary, though some older, less white folk would be greatly appreciated. I get that they’re wish fulfillment narratives. But it’s notable to me, for example, how many people shit the bed over the tampon scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, wherein dude removes her tampon before banging her, when, right now, literally thousands of people are having sex on the rag. Tens of thousands. It’s such a mundane, everyday detail to freak out over. Romance novel sex is often weirdly prissy.

But it’s dreadfully hard to find sex in literary fiction, and when you do, it’s often just painfully bad. The British literary magazine Literary Review does a Bad Sex in Fiction prize every year, and the esteemed and prized writers who make the list make one wince. From Ben Okri, a Booker prize winner, and the Bad Sex in Fiction winner for 2014:

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

 I mean, really. This is what sex would be like on Monty Python, the bombs bursting on air and all that. I can think of some really cringy sex scenes from literary novels, with this just terrible mix of platitudes and overwrought metaphors. And this is of course when there is any sex writing at all, this vital component of many relationships simply elided. 

The sex — and there is a lot of it — in Wilde Passions cuts a weird middle distance. It’s not explicit enough to be stroke material — it’s not erotica — but then it’s too omnipresent to be truly literary. Dorian enacts just a host of transgressions in his quest for hedonistic sensuality and fading youthful beauty, like he does in Wilde’s novel. He ruins a Marrakeshi prostitute boy with shame and drink; he seduces a monk, which leads to the monk’s suicide. He brutalizes and murders women in New Orleans. But, here’s the thing: I just kinda didn’t get why.

Wilde somewhat famously added a preface to Dorian Gray after Victorian critics got all up in arms about its “sham morality”. You’re just writing smut with the lamest of censures tacked on the end, they said, to which Wilde replied: all art is quite useless. Morality or immorality has no place in the process of creating beauty. Art is a not a tool — it should not have a use — or it is not art. I can’t say I agree, but then I also understand where he’s coming from, and why he’s putting it so starkly. He goes to explore a life decoupled from consequence, driven by an amoral worldview, and then a bunch of howling censors accuse him of corrupting babies. Fuck you, I’m not making tools for your morality. Make them your damn self. 

Continuing on Gray’s amoral quest, after removing what you could even consider a moral, is an interesting experiment, honestly, but I have some reservations about how successful this is. His transgressions are all sexual in nature, and I begin to weary of the fuckery. Why can we not change up his violations of the social contract with, say, a Ponzi scheme or selling cancer cures made of chicken bones? I guess what I’m saying is it seems a failure of imagination to cast all his amorality in terms of the bedroom. He even killed a dude directly in Wilde’s tale. Sure, you could argue that it’s the culture around Dorian which casts his homosexual sex acts as villainous, but, as a first person narrative, that doesn’t really work. He’s pretty gleeful about the ways he ruins people through buggery, and, ultimately, it reads a little like, omg, the homosexual agenda! I don’t think that’s the intent, not at all, but it can be read out of the text pretty easily. 

But, my disquiet aside, Szereto is clearly grappling with something here, something real. And let’s put my disquiet back into it: Wilde Passions invoked for me the same brutal, chilly eroticism of mid-century fiction by women — stuff like The Story of O and Ice by Anna Kavan — and that shit frays me. She takes this odd, amoral remnant from the most squeamish of times, Victoriana, and then runs him like a VHS tape on fast forward. Wilde Passions ends somewhere in Anne Rice’s vampire eroticism, all kudzu and rot, which would be relevant 20 years ago but feels weirdly antique now. All of it feels antique: the Fitzgeralds, the Orientalism, the Thomas Mann inflected monastery, New Orleans before Katrina. Hell, maybe this takes place after Katrina, but that wouldn’t rightly be the point.

On some level, Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, and the ways it doesn’t work are indictments of the form. The erotic in literature is built partially on shame, and shame is a sad, lonely, and conservative beast, more worried about body parts than injustice, more worried about degradation than violation. So Dorian’s burgeoning, transformative love for a girl he both brutalized and terrorized is part and parcel of the romantic narrative: love is redemptive, and requires no agency in its actors. You will be an ideal person whether you like it or not. You are simply a player in someone else’s story. Once again, love brutally wins over literally everything else, only this time, you’re not supposed to see that as a good thing. God help us all.

It’s intensely clever the way Szereto removes the Victorian “moral”, weak though it is, and then runs Gray’s amoral sensation seeking through changing literary erotic landscapes. She then ends with a modern “moral”, which looks just a weak as the Victorian. You rarely notice how blinkered the idea that romantic love is a moral agent, but boy can you see it here. Wilde Passions was a very pleasant surprise for me, an essay on sex writing and morality which is deeply considered. Who knew?