Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Division [review]

Lee S. Hawke’s short story anthology Division is subtitled “a collection of science fiction fairytales”, and I’ll admit I wonder about that. To me, fairy tales epitomise oral storytelling tradition, trading in archetypical characters and grand, good versus evil dramas. This is not so much a failing as a characteristic of the medium: simple, powerful imagery is memorable, and thus it is this that survives generations of retelling. Division, on the other hand, exemplifies written word storytelling. Its characters are deep and recognisably human, its thematic explorations nuanced enough to defy Aesopian one-liners. As Hawke puts it, it’s “not Cinderella in Space”, it’s fiction which only resembles fairy tales insofar as it compels the reader to experience childlike wonder, insofar as the themes are timeless, which could be said of many a great work of fiction. It’s firmly a creature of its own medium, and it’s all the better for it.

The Soldier sets the tone for the the anthology, grim but hopeful, speculative in its setting but timeless in its themes. The enemies of this way are pestilence, disease; the eponymous soldiers, people blessed with supercharged immune systems that might hold the key to developing cures. Hawke takes this clinical presence and grounds it in the personal, the protagonist's torture as his body is razed as a battlefield bringing home the direness of this war far better than any bombastic, globe-spanning treatment of the same could.

Cover art, Division, Lee S. Hawke (2015). Blind Mirror Publishing.

Please Connect asks us what first love means, absent the social narratives that colour our perceptions of what romance and attraction “are” or “should be”. The protagonist, conditioned by a society that has obsoleted face-to-face interaction, sees even his sanitised courtship with an anthropological eye that Hawke impossibly transmutes into a warmer parlance. There is a raw eroticism in the language here, drawn from where it has always lain: in the quickening of a pulse, in the wetness of a breath.

Dissimilation and The Grey Wall both hark upon the themes of unreality and altered perception (the former with its Inception-like layerings of non-worlds; the latter with an expressly unreliable narrator whose doublethink allows Hawke a novel angle on magical realism). Both these stories ask something about when and how it is better to live within fantasy than reality, the question left deliberately ambiguous despite the characters’ own certainty. Meanwhile, Lemuria is set in the midst of an apocalyptic alien invasion where anyone who sees the monsters, dies, an incursion into psychological horror that is overshadowed by a late-game twist which all too briefly asks us what rated we would rather endure than death.

Beauty is perhaps the most explicitly political of the lot, a disillusioned neo-“plastic surgeon” ruminating on the homogeneity of his work:

He’d been a young girl then, and he still remembered the first advertisements. Transcend age. Transcend race. Transcend gender. But since he’d stepped out of medical school, all he’d ever done was fulfil the same three basic templates, again and again and again. The possibility of infinite variation had led only to convergence.

It’s a powerful meditation on the moral dangers of fashions, and on the beauty of the different and of individual expression.

The final story, Division, is about two women's grief following the death of their daughter. It's told through the eyes of one mother, Diyani, a passionate mechanic whose affinity is for her work, not people. Her heartbreak is raw on the page, her anger twisting her away from the world and, especially, her partner, the physical space of their shared bed reifying the deterioration of their relationship.

When the healing finally begins, it's faltering and unsure, the stuff of human beings, not fairy tales. Yet it feels like a burden being lifted, all the same. There Division closes, metaphor, story, and anthology: peering into what it is that makes us human, and in spite (because?) of all our faults, still finding magic.

(Disclaimer: this review was written based on a review copy provided by the author.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In praise of counterfactuals

“Look, just, say for the sake of argument that anthropogenic climate change is real,” he says. “Would you support government spending to combat it then?”

There’s the temptation, of course, to reply that the question is nonsense because Andrew Wakefield proved in 1998 that the planet is actually cooling by two degrees every year; hell, he published a paper and everything. But once you’ve done that (as is probably best with trolls like this fellow you’re arguing with), there’s personal value in taking the question seriously.

It’s a yes-or-no question, admitting two obvious strains of answer: “Even if it were so, that wouldn’t change anything”, and “Well in that case of course things would be different”. Those, by themselves, are boring, a pre-packaged answer recited in two seconds.

The exciting part is getting to ask Why?.

Credit: kevron2001 / deviantArt

I sat down to write a blog post about the ethics/pragmatics of particular kinds of rhetoric. (Implicit versus explicit universal quantifiers, if you care. It’s beside the point, because as I’m going to reveal below, I got sidetracked.)

I got sidetracked.

The post was going to open with “For the purposes of this post, I’m going to start from the assumption that X is inappropriate in context Y”, hedging this point specifically because “X is inappropriate in context Y” is contentious, but it’s awfully impractical to prepend “and so assuming so-and-so...” to the beginning of every sentence so, ugh, why not get it over with.

It’s a little like picking a scientific paradigm, an article of faith, an axiom system. You want to make a point in a context. It’s hardly unusual; the vast majority of arguments are built upon some kind of premise.

Picking your premises is like picking a scientific paradigm in the sense of Lakatos: your argument exists within a programme of thinkers building a shared body of understanding in the context of a socially agreed collection of base assumptions. “Phlogiston explains everything.” “Electrons orbit nuclei like planets around stars.” “Central planning produces better results than markets.” “Markets produce better results than central planning.” “Gender is performative.” “Improving the plight of our country’s poor is more important than other countries’.” You take your base beliefs and you do important work with others who share them.