Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Review of Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature ed. by Jacob Weisman

It’s fair to say much of science fiction and fantasy feels slighted, or at least at a distance from the literary establishment—the we vs. them.  They don’t acknowledge our stories as literature...  They don’t consider our novels for their awards...  They don’t…   The truth is that the majority of speculative fiction cannot hold a candle to most literary fiction in terms of character development, couching of theme, subtlety of style, lexical precision, use of narrative structure, metaphor, and a number of other aspects of quality writing.  Compare a Hugo Award nominee list to a Pulitzer Prize list along these lines for a given year and the gap quickly ecomes apparent.  Making the gap more apparent is editor Jacob Weisman’s 2016 anthology Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature (Tachyon). 

The title a tongue-in-cheek reference to the authors’ perceived locations on the literary map relative to speculative fiction, Invaders features a spectrum of writers known predominantly for their literary work yet deploying tropes and devices most typically associated with genre.  Another way of putting this is: their names do not readily flow off the tip of most science fiction readers’ tongues.  Jonathan Lethem, Molly Gloss, or W.P. Kinsella may ring a distant bell, but by and large the majority of authors, authors such as Eric Puchner, Steven Millhauser, and Jami Attenberg, do not regularly appear in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, or on the covers of novels classified sf&f in most bookstores and online shops.  Known, however, in the literary market, they bring to Invaders a palette of skills and perspectives that readers do see being deployed on the fringes of sf&f, but rarely in its mainstream, and for this should be of interest.  

One of the main observable differences between most literary fiction and speculative fiction is the effectiveness and efficiency of prose.  Mainstream sf&f writers tending to whack words down on the page disregarding mood, sub-text, location, quantity, etc., literary writers more often flow in a form suitable to the story, a range of vocabulary and subtlety of language, inherent.  Junot Diaz’s “Monstros” is a perfect example; the narrative voice is vibrant and dynamic, yet on point.  About a disease outbreak in the Dominican Republic (that may or may not be zombie-esque), it takes the reader on a ride.  Perhaps more imagination than lexical agility (though certainly the lexicon attains the idea), the story touches upon key issues, even if it may just be sandbox play in the end.  Almost a mini-biography, “A Precursor of the Cinema” by Steven Millhauser is the (fictional) account of what is known of the artist Harlan Crane.  Loaded with exquisite yet effortless description of esoteric art, Crane’s talent for making static images appear to move, and the backdrop pushing and pulling him through the art world are superb. Not only a brilliant exercise in imagination, Millhauser also features the transition from still photography to cinema in a steampunk-ish, alternate history-ish coup de grace—vying with Puchner’s story for best in the anthology.  Where Millhauser’s story interprets the rise of cinema, Jami Attenberg’s “In the Bushes” moves in the opposite direction, describing the fall of the automobile—likewise from a skewed perspective.  Achieving emotional resonance in the last few paragraphs, the demise is indirect, related through humanity rather than exposition, proving the potentially subtle power of effectively rendered minimalism.

Another difference I generally note between speculative fiction and literary works is the amount of narrative time spent explaining plot devices.  A science fiction writer can spend pages masturbating—sorry, purposelessly detailing a piece of imaginary technology, whereas the more literary writer will typically state that such-and-such a thing exists in a couple of sentences, and move on to its effect or impact on story or character.  J. Robert Lennon’s “Portal” opens with“It’s been a few years since we last used the magic portal in our back garden, and it has fallen into disrepair.”  And aside from a few notes later, that is the extent of technical description.  The story thereafter focusing on how the portal changes the lives of a father and his family, Lennon uses the worlds available through the portal to contrast the quotidian life the man has built, with the juxtaposition culminating in a conception one could not have expected given the innocent beginning.  Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” is another example—a superb one at that.  A post-apocalyptic story, it focuses on character dynamics as they relate to parenthood and generations of family, that is, rather than bringing the catastrophe which caused the world’s destruction to the forefront as post-ap stories in science fiction so often do.  Amazingly well written, Puchner’s tale may be the best in the anthology.

Literary fiction is not an insular world wherein speculative fiction, past or present, doesn’t exist.  (I would argue modern literary fiction takes the best of all worlds, but that is a topic for another day.)  Accordingly, a couple stories in Invaders appear in dialogue with the field.  “Topics in Advanced Rocketry” by Chris Tarry has a strong Heinlein/Asimov feel to its setup: a traditional American family is sponsored to live in space, the media—Bye gee!  Bye golly!—following their every move.  But the underlying subject matter is beyond Heinlein or Asimov; a dark world existing behind the family’s spotless 50s façade, Tarry addresses a couple of topics I don’t know I’ve ever seen in the older authors’ works.  Taking Margaret Atwood’s famous (or infamous, depending where you stand) comment regarding ‘squids in space’ to heart, Ben Loory’s “The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun” is told in the lovely voice of a children’s story.  About an ambitious young squid and his fate pursuing a dream, it possesses a message for everyone, and though perhaps the most pandering story in the anthology, remains innocent enough.  “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen takes the classic time traveler’s grandfather paradox and applies it to a woman seeking a relationship with a man who is persistently absent.  Like Lennon’s story, the device is not as important as the character dynamics, which allows Galchen to hone in on human longing and need.

What would generally be considered hard sf (i.e. stories that could appear in Asimov’s without an eye batted), there are a handful of works in Invaders which focus on near-future manifestations of technology, and their siubsquent effect on the lives of the people involved.  “LIMBs” by Julia Elliot describes the life of an elderly woman in the Dementia Ward of a home for geriatrics.  Privy to the latest technology, her Leg Intuitive Motion Bionics (LIMBs) allow her to regain the mobility she once had.  Struggling to regain her sanity, however, proves more troublesome as Elliot nicely depicts a rare viewpoint in genre, the elderly.  A scary piece, “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders takes the next logical step in pharmaceuticals: manipulation of bio-chemical functions behind emotions.  Work being done in the real world with emotional states considered negative (e.g. depression), Saunders speculates about the positive side (e.g. chemically induced love), and the long-term moral questions it raises in application.   With echoes of Robert Sheckley’s Crompton Divided and Alfred Bester’s “Four Hour Fugue” hanging on the wings, Deji Bryce Olukotun’s “We Are the Olfanauts” describes life inside a high-tech Nigerian firm that makes olfactory tech.  About our increasing dependency on gadgetry to dictate life choices, Olukotun creates a believable near-future scenario, but not necessarily a balanced one.  

And still another difference observeable between most literary and speculative fiction is trust in its readership.  Put less vaguely, speculative fiction often holds the reader’s hand, guiding them through the “difficult parts of story,” whereas literary fiction usually requires the reader to regularly take a step back and take account of where they stand in the larger import of story.  One example in the anthology is “Five Fucks” by Jonathan Lethem.  About a woman who meets a man, spends two weeks with him, and returns home to find a missing persons report has been filed by her neighbors, things only get worse for her, and the world, after.  Lethem riffing off the notion there is a downside to the pleasures of the flesh, the story culminates in a darkly humorous scene.  More Weird than anything, “Fugue State” by Brian Evenson is a deceivingly simple story that, nevertheless, never feels 100% stable underfoot.  Perhaps two stories being told at once with only the underwater view accessible to the reader, Evenson evokes much strangeness in this tale of a man dealing with memory issues, letting his readers draw conclusions.  While perhaps not the most well-written piece selected (other writers have done such material better), “The Inner City” by Karen Heuler tells of an apartment building that seems to change size and appearance, the subjectivity of human perception appearing the greatest influence on its landscape.

I guess the ultimate question is: are the stories in Invaders different than stories contained in anthologies populated by dyed-in-the-wool science fiction and fantasy writers?  I would argue yes.  The attention to the broader array of writing qualities and focus on more than just sympathetic characters, entertaining story, or technical speculation make for a richer, more interactive, more contemplative reading experience than the average science fiction anthology.  This is not to say that Invaders is the greatest work ever published in sf&f, or that speculative fiction is incapable of doing the same, only that not so often are the genre’s motifs and tropes utilized at more than one level or rendered with such attention to the technique of writing itself.  Now, I would like to see if said dyed-in-the-wool speculative fiction writers would be as successful with literary fiction.  George R.R. Martin tackles the legacy of the 2nd amendment in the remnants of former gold rush cities of California… Alastair Reynolds writes about the class struggles of Syrian immigrants in post 9-11 London...  Orson Scott Card draws a vividly-rendered, emotional portrayal of poverty’s effect on social and political views in the American South…

The following are the twenty-two stories selected for Invaders:

"Portal” by J. Robert Lennon
“Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner
“The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun” by Ben Loory.
“Five Fucks” by Jonathan Lethem
“LIMBs” by Julia Elliott
“We Are The Olfanauts” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
“The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen
“A Precursor of the Cinema” by Steven Millhauser
“In the Bushes” by Jami Attenberg
“Fugue State” by Brian Evenson
“Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross Are Somewhat Exaggerated” by W. P. Kinsella
“Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss
“Conrad Loomis & The Clothes Ray” by Amiri Baraka.
“Topics in Advanced Rocketry” by Chris Tarry
“The Inner City” by Karen Heuler
“Escape from Spiderhead” be George Saunders
“Amorometer” by Kelly Luce
“The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky” by Max Apple
“Monstros” by Junot Díaz
“Minotaur” by Jim Shepard
“Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” by Robert Olen Butler
“Near Flesh” by Katherine Dunn


  1. "...the majority of speculative fiction cannot hold a candle to most literary fiction in terms of character development, couching of theme, subtlety of style, lexical precision, use of narrative structure, metaphor, and a number of other aspects of quality writing."


    Most mainstream writers are boring, coddled hacks who churn out unreadable narcissism and pretentious insider jargon instead of gripping characters and compelling ideas.

    1. Thanks for the link to the article. It made some interesting points, but like your comment above, leans more towards indignation and self-righteousness - one more whiny voice in the 21st century's culture of victimhood - and ultimately lacks a broad enough view of literature to be convincing. To point: the article highly critical of specific examples of prose (well enough), there are no critical examples of the other facets I mention above: narrative structure, metaphor, character development, etc. Come back to me with an argument in that direction and we can talk. In the meantime:

      Lateral concept #1: is a painter who has used only two colors ("gripping characters and compelling ideas," whatever that means) able to produce paintings of the same sophistication as a painter who has used more colors?

      Lateral concept #2: Aliens visit Earth and would like to sample the finest literature mankind has to offer. Mankind offers Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code based on the fact millions and millions of people liked its "gripping characters and compelling ideas" (whatever that means). Do you think the art of literature is properly represented by this book?

      Mountaintop view: reading can be divided into two essential modes: active and passive. There are some readers who want to engage with a text, to puzzle out its qualities, to actively wrestle with its meaning. Literary fiction, with its multiple facets, offers the most potential value for such engagement. It is the art of fiction. Passive reading is the mode wherein the reader just wants to relax, to be fed a beautiful, interesting, exciting, funny, or dramatic story that is not too complex. This is the art of entertainment. Which do you think holds more integrity and significance for humanity (not just you, or the article writer): the art of literature, or the art of entertainment?

      I read both art and entertainment, and I like both. But I would never let the subjectivity of what I enjoy in my passive reading affect my opinion of what literature as art, is.

      Perhaps you might be interested in: