The Art of Making in “Copies Without Originals”

My ongoing, time-dilated reading continues. Which feels, oddly enough, almost appropriate for encountering Morgan Swim’s “Copies Without Originals” over at the newly-premiered Translunar Travelers Lounge. After all, this is a story which is on one level concerned with the ways in which art itself stretches across space and time.

As usual for a wonk post, big hairy spoilers follow. Go click the link and read the story first if you want to avoid them. Then toddle on back when you’re ready. This will still be here.

Set four hundred years after the extinction of humanity, “Copies Without Originals” is the story of a robot museum docent still maintaining the art of their museum despite centuries of solitude. Solitude which is suddenly ended by the impossible appearance of a live human being in the museum.

It turns out our new human is themself a clone. Unsurprisingly, a story about a robot and a clone does a lot of good work of examining personhood. What’s got me turning this bit of shiny over and over, though, is the way that’s part of a multi-layered conversation about the intersection of personhood and art. Robot struggles to convey the proper context to clone to evoke the “aura” which good art creates for a viewer.

It’s important to note that both robot and clone are effectively nameless for the bulk of this quiet, intimate story. Both of them have designations which might serve as names, but neither of them feel a connection to those pieces of data given to them by others, so they individually choose not to share them.

The climax of the story hinges on our two characters both claiming names, though not-accidentally, each of them claims a name which is given to them by the opposite party. After seeing the robot’s multi-media piece, clone declares robot to be Art, a name which Art only accepts in the event that they can themself offer that clone is Aura.

It’s a declaration that’s deeply personal, a statement of vulnerable trust and respect and love and no that’s not dust in my eyes. Creating so much emotional resonance with two characters is wonderful all on its own. I’m not here to diminish it. I do want to also applaud the ways in which Swim tangles this intimacy with a broader cultural concern about what art is, where it comes from, and who makes it.

The answer to the last is “people make art,” but that answer, exemplified in Art and Aura naming each other, itself has multiple meanings. At its starkest level, people “make” art in that they are the fabricators of art pieces. They paint, sculpt, photograph, collage, charcoal.

But also, and definitely central to the thesis of the story, people “make” art insofar as art is the interaction of that fabricated work with another person. It’s a conversation, a symbiosis, a commune, a unique ecosystem all its own. Art is an expression of the individual, but it’s fundamentally not expressed at all without another individual who can give it meaningful context.

That multi-leveled paradigm of making art peaks when Art (the robot) declares to the clone who has just named them, “[I]f I’m art, then you must be my aura,” a statement which names Aura (the clone) in turn. The moment carries with it an implicit dependency: Art isn’t art unless Aura is there to be aura.

While this might be the moment of distillation, the story doesn’t just drop this scene out of nowhere, of course. It’s peppered with other moments which build to and bolster this one near the end. When our then-unnamed robot struggles to provide our then-unnamed clone with facts which can contextualize the pieces in the museum. When our clone asks if the people in a painting were “real” and our robot narrator iterates through the many paradigms they might intend for “real.” In the sculpture that comments on clone personhood and asks its audience to prove they can tell the difference between different kinds of glass which both look the same.

In, of course, the fullness of the text itself and the ways in which Swim uses it to create the Aura which creates Art from our interactions with it.

In the end, Art and Aura are people, a statement which, like “people make art” is both an intimate moment of connection between two people and also the microcosm of what art is in a way that’s more than a little trippy.

Embodied Art in “All the Gifts That Remain”

I continue to be hopelessly behind on my reading, so I’m only just now hitting Nicasio Andres Reed’s “All the Gifts That Remain” in Nat. Brut. Since I’m here, you’ll be unsurprised to find out I have caught some feelings about it. And as is often my way, I’m going to spoil some of it to scratch at them. So go read the story first if you don’t want the spoiling. I’ll still be here when you travel back.

Done? Sweet.

Feel one here is a whole lot about the technique at play. Ostensibly this is the story of a writer meeting and attempting to interview the enigmatic Anita Murthy, an artist best known for creating something called a body ship. The tension the narrator feels at landing this interview bleeds into a tension from the question of what the hell a body ship is and why it’s so important to both the narrator and, it seems, the world at large. It’s a purposeful tension, teased out into a proper slow burn. Reed turns away from that answer more than once, such that each time I wound up reading just a bit more frantically to get there. And when we get there, it turns out a body ship is just what it sounds like: a (space)ship shaped like a body.

This choice, to play out tension with a question whose answer is on the tin, could have backfired, could have felt like a let down, but it winds up being vital for me to the themes of the story, because “just” a ship shaped like a body both is and isn’t a simple answer, as it turns out. A proper body ship also seems to have interstellar travel capabilities unlike any other ship the world of the story knows.

Further, no one is clear on exactly why that is. Nevertheless, it is: if you embody your ship, the ship is itself empowered. There’s an elegance to the way the history of body ships works as metaphor for a number of elements. This is ostensibly the work of an artist, after all, such that I can’t help but feel the non-answers about what makes a body ship travel so far are tangled up in the equally inexplicable ways in which art has a power we can’t always articulate. The ways in which art both is and isn’t as simple as explaining its physical elements.

Beyond this, though, is the way in which Reed pushes body ships to explore our concepts of humanity. In a brief survey of the ships that have come before, we see that the power of a body ship isn’t restricted to any kind of body. Not a single shape, not a single size, not a single apparent age or gender or ethnicity. Every type of body ship has the same inexplicable power to span galaxies so long as someone chooses to use that body type to make a ship. So, yes, body ships are a metaphor for art, but they’re also a resonant, powerful metaphor for humanity in the simple-and-complicated sense of ‘who gets to be human.’ And by sculpting everyone in steel and rockets, the story tells us everyone, and here’s the receipts.

In the end I know, in that ineffable way the people of Reed’s story know body ships changed their own understanding of the world, that there’s even more at play here. An itch I can’t reach to scratch. Or a galaxy only a ship that is part body and part art (and each of those part of each other) can get me to.

Collective, Not Plural: POV in “The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls”

Yes, I continue to be woefully behind in my reading. And yet I still have feels and WordPress hasn’t cut me off, so I persevere in spilling my brain-insides onto the interwebs when said brain-insides begin bubbling. This time, a fairly spoiler-lite discussion about Izzy Wasserstein’s use of POV in her March PseudoPod story, “The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls.”

A little setup just for context: the story concerns a group of girls being “cared for” (scare quotes entirely called for) by the Mothers, misshapen psychic creatures who are ostensibly keeping the girls safe from unnamed terrors outside their walls, but whose security comes at steep personal cost for their wards.

As stories often do, this one starts with a new arrival to the existing status quo. It would have been natural to choose that new girl (Bel) to be the story’s POV. Or, really, any of the other girls. What I find fascinating is that Wasserstein decided to do all of those things by giving us a collective first person POV (“we”).

I say collective rather than plural because it becomes clear as the story unfurls that who we’re hearing from both is and is not the girls. The first person aspect gives us a close POV, wherein we’re privy to emotions, but the collective aspect simultaneously distances us from any given girl whenever she acts as an individual. Bel, Jaq, Kate, Miranda, and Molly are only part of the POV when they are not taking action, or when their actions align with the group.

In a story where standing out seems to universally result in pain and torment, this inclusive yet exclusive POV is a constant addition to that tension. Whenever we see a name, that person is at risk, because for however long we see them, they’re exposed. In a horror story, there’s a secondary benefit in that the POV ensures no one is safe via metafictional armor; no one is required to continue telling the story, after all.

“We” also underscores the ways this story turns on group choices. Yes, individuals do and say things (often to their own detriment), but the crux of the story, the point of no return of it, is a moment wherein an individual action turns the collective will of the group. What “we” think and do is what changes the world for good or ill.

“Gennesaret” and the Crux of Humanity

I’m to spoil the living hell out of Phoenix Alexander’s “Gennesaret,” which I just finished over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you’re like me and haven’t read this story from March, you’re averse to spoilers, and if you aren’t triggered by violence to children, go read it first. Otherwise, I’m about to prattle on.

What’s enthralled me and simultaneously left me queasy about this story is the way in which it keeps re-framing its central questions, and what that does both to me as a reader and to the story itself as an exploration of humanity and the politics of humanity.

It starts simply enough. For a value of simple that involves a lizardlike variation on Homo sapiens. By simple I mean, we have Alissha and Ibliss taking two sides of a debate: do you suppress what makes you unique, or do you embrace it?

It’s a question immediately reframed and complicated by a local disaster which threatens the very lives of their people. Cultural expression here may or may not have a cost: Ibliss believes the only way to get aid for the situation is for everyone to look “civilized,” hiding or completely removing all the physical parts of themselves that don’t look like what those in power on the other side of the water consider human.

Alissha thinks the only way to gain the help of others, though, is to be all the things Ibliss thinks they fear. Culture and heritage are what makes them strong, and what’s worth saving, right?

This alone, this question of what counts as civilized, of what counts as human, of who decides and why they get to decide is already heady and painful (especially when Alissha and Ibliss’s child is caught in the middle).

On the surface the answer here seems hard but obvious, so when Alissha makes a run for freedom, it feels like: okay here is where we’re going. Except not. Because Alissha faces direct violence on the opposite shore even as she runs for safety, at which point: hell, am I supposed to be satisfied with a world where Ibliss was right?, where the only means of survival is to literally cut pieces of yourself off in order to pass for what the current power structure agrees is human?

And just when I’m feeling horrified and distraught and thinking how horrible Those People are for what they’ve done to Alissha and all the people she represents, that’s when the story reframes again. Just like Alissha, I don’t have the option to stop, which means I run full force into the climax of this piece, which isn’t a hail of gunfire.

Here is perhaps the greatest trick the story pulls. Because it traded on my reactions, on my hopes, on my desire to believe that humanity can be better and that people who think like me are that hope. I invested, and then:

Alissha finds a place for sanctuary, but it’s with folks who — while touting their sympathy at the horrors of all this, of the ways in which Alissha has been de-humanized — continue to do exactly that. It’s a horrible sort of twisted mirror, as the question of Alissha and her son’s status becomes more important than the humanity which that status fails to reflect, as their suffering becomes more important than their lives.

Because, while they convince themselves of how deeply they feel this Other’s pain, Alissha’s ‘saviors’ relish that pain’s value for the political changes they can work with it. A couple cry into each other over the tragedy they’ve witnessed, the heartless acts of their opponents, and fuck if I don’t feel exposed, if the very story doesn’t feel like it’s broken its chest open to expose its innards and force the reader to question everything.

I’m still sort of wobbly about how to reconcile it all, to be honest. Is my reading the story just another self-satisfied couple having a good cry while someone else dies? Hell, is all the worrying about I’m doing in the mechanisms of the story an action or an inaction?

I don’t think there’s meant to be an easy answer, of course, but the unease of that is surely a thing I can’t quite shake. Is it vapid to applaud that?

There’s Always (More Th)a(n One) Woman

I’m perpetually behind in my reading, so it’s only just now that I got around to listening to Aimee Ogden‘s “The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey,” which went up on Cast of Wonders several months ago. Spoilers for anyone who’s similarly behind, but there’s no way to talk about the positive buttons this pushed for me without them. You’ve been warned.

The story premise is intimate and simple: small gardens have a tendency to find Calliope, sprouting suddenly in teapots and baking dishes, thriving in all manner of tiny spaces throughout her cozy apartment. Then one day, a garden goes missing. But even after Calliope retrieves it, the garden seems to want to leave her for the teenage girl downstairs. Cue angst.

As with most things, the wonderful bits happen here in the execution. Not least of all in the way Ogden deconstructs the notion of the Kick Ass Woman.

No, nobody enters into fisticuffs. I’m talking, instead, about the idea that there is only ever one Kick Ass Woman, where kick ass is a stand in for “really good at something.” We see it all the time: an ensemble of male characters of varying abilities and specialties, and the The Woman, who is better at her one thing than any other man (for which: hooray), but who also seems to be the only woman around who is competent at anything, much less her kick ass thing.

And should another woman show up, she will either be completely artless so as to show us our woman’s kick ass-ness, or she will be kick ass on exactly the same vector as our woman. In which case, what must inevitably ensue is a showdown to prove who’s really the kick ass one and who’s the pretender who will give it all up.

Because, of course, there can be only one. It’s yet another riff on the stale maiden-mother-crone paradigm no one who’s made it through high school English can avoid learning, and for which there is no real male parallel. This isn’t just a fictional trope, though. It’s a trope built on a persistent societal thread, that women are replaced by “the younger model.” That unlike men, women aren’t competing against their entire field, only against their fellow women for those limited spaces available to them.

And for a moment, as Calliope worries that the loss of one of her gardens will inevitably lead to the loss of more, to the loss of all, that if she shares the thing that makes her feel the most wonderful with another woman, she will lose it to her, I’ll sheepishly confess I worried the same thing. Like Calliope, I wasn’t sure where this was all headed. Like Calliope, I fell right back on that tired societal trope that told me if a new, younger woman was showing up with a similar skill, things could only end if one of them soundly trounced the other.

Ogden has other ideas. And she’s had those ideas from the beginning. The story’s resolution isn’t a twist so much as an object lesson in paying attention, in the reminder that worldbuilding isn’t just atmosphere, it’s integral to story. We know that gardens have been finding Calliope for years, that the number of gardens has been growing. There is literally nothing to suggest that one garden departing changes this fact. But because we’re ensnared in a binary, in societal notions that one woman can’t succeed unless another woman fails, we ignore logic and reason and facts.

The author doesn’t, though, and the result is an incredibly kind surprise as the story takes its final turns, and a reminder that, like surprise gardens, life isn’t nearly so restricted as we’re wont to believe.

A World Built on Top of Ours: Finding Queerness in Midnight Special

I recently had the chance to watch Midnight Special, which applies an indie film filter to the “child with mysterious powers” spec-fic staple. That’s more dismissive of the movie than I mean to be, but effective shorthand, since I’m less interested in the overt text of the piece than I am with what I find around its edges and in the spaces between it.

So we’re all up to speed, the short version of the plot goes like this: Roy (Michael Shannon) is attempting to get his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) out of the reach of the cult which raised them both — and which has currently built a religion around Alton’s otherworldly abilities. To do this, he enlists the aid of his childhood friend — and Texas state trooper — Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and eventually Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), moving cross country at night (and blacking out windows during the day) to avoid overloading Alton’s light-sensitive powers.

Before we go much further: I’m not convinced this is a film trying to interrogate its source materials so much as present them with a different aesthetic. However, because that aesthetic involves saying half of what you need to say, of meaningful stares and thoughtful silences, it nevertheless feeds directly into my Subtext Engine.

The obvious queer angle I could take would be turning Alton’s super powers into a metaphor for queerness, but Alton seems a clear stand in for a different Other. And an important one, though I’m reticent to delve too deeply, as there are folks far better equipped to comment on how well or poorly the film does it. Nevertheless, Alton’s abilities had a much more obvious resonance for me: he suffers intense sensory issues, issues which his caregivers argue repeatedly about how to manage, and (possibly most importantly), Alton doesn’t “get better” until he’s allowed to be involved himself, until someone listens to him about what he needs. It sounds almost beat for beat like the struggle people on the autism spectrum face daily.

Rather than in Alton and his powers, then, I found queerness in the more mundane elements at play. Namely, in Roy and Lucas. In point of fact, for much of the opening of the film, I kept trying to parse whether or not Roy and Lucas were a couple. It wasn’t until the mid-film appearance of Sarah, when Lucas finally drops exposition about how he joined this little caper, that I was certain they weren’t. And even then, well, intended or not, the film is riddled with elements that still play queer to me.

Lucas, we learn in the aforementioned infodump, was a close childhood friend of Roy’s. They were “real close for a long time. Until his parents moved him out to The Ranch.” The Ranch being the film’s name for the cult compound Roy et al are currently fleeing. Word choice is important, here: it isn’t that Roy’s family moved out there and he had to go with them, they moved Roy out there. It plays like nothing so much as a conversion therapy narrative.

Lucas makes it clear the two have had little or no contact since the move, but years later, when the life of his child is on the line, Roy goes first to Lucas. He doesn’t call, doesn’t test the waters to see how much or little he might be able to trust Lucas. He just shows up on his doorstep. And here’s the thing: Lucas isn’t the only person Roy can go to. The pair make multiple stops on their journey, getting help from at least one other former cult member besides Sarah. Roy had options. What he chose, though, was Lucas. There’s an intimate trust there which is profound given the stakes, and whatever past these two had with each other was enough to tell Roy he could count on Lucas to be worth that trust.

Then, too, there’s those meaningful, silent looks that this kind of film is known for: where a character looks at an object or a tableau and we’re meant to read what they’re thinking from the way they consider it. Lucas has more than one of those, several of them at the sight of Roy and Sarah and Alton altogether. He even expresses his regret at one point, telling Sarah that the three of them “would have made a nice family” if there had “been a way out of this.” It isn’t much of a stretch to attach a second meaning to what roadblock “this” represents.

And when it comes to the way out, when the film reaches its climax and the group has to separate to get Alton where he’s going, Lucas — who has always been the muscle, the one with the gun, the defense training, the physical endurance to shrug off shotgun impacts — stays with Roy, not Alton, for a final, rousing chase. Not to drive the car, mind you. Roy’s doing that. Not to shoot at the military; Alton’s made clear that the military has orders only to fire if fired upon. Nevertheless, he’s at Roy’s side.

He’s there to see Alton’s “world built on top of ours” with Roy, and when it’s all said and done and he’s under interrogation by the government, who are none to happy with his responses, he has only one story to tell “because it’s the truth.”

This is obviously a lot of me building a secondary story out of spaces and looks and inference. Sure, great, you might think, we can add it to a Buzzfeed list of wacky fan theories next to the secret origin of Jesse from Toy Story. But certainly there are numerous films where no one has to lay out arguments for a queer presence. Surely we’ve moved past the point where we have to decode film to find its underlying queerness, where writers sneak in subtext by lying to the male lead about intent and writing around it.

Except sometimes maybe we still do. Because there are still young people who grow up in small or large towns, whose communities don’t like talking about this kind of thing. Young people who, if they get too close, if they insist on telling a story because it’s the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes the establishment, wind up shipped off for re-programming. People who have to live their lives at night, who have to worry about what they say and who they say it to because doing the wrong thing in the harsh light of day still risks destroying everything. Maybe people from states that continue to actively debate their rights.

Maybe for those people, we still need to build a world on top of the one that everyone else sees. A world with people like them. Because, as Alton says, “They watch us. They’ve been watching us for a very long time.”

Experimental Structures and Invisible Illnesses

I’ve been remiss, in that I’ve not spammed you all about my most recent publication. “Fragile Insides” just came out as part of the second volume of the Orthogonal anthologies, Orthogonal: Code.

This is another story in my sci-fi, genetic plague, asteroid colony Detritus setting. It’s probably the closest to a linchpin story as I’ve done. Heady’s been the common factor for all the Detritus stories thus far, so it was inevitable that her story would pull from all the others (seriously, one of the alternate titles I was playing with was “Connective Tissue”).

Even given that, I still believe this story stands on its own. If you’ve read the other stories, there are also a lot of easter eggs and pointers to how all the other stories line up and interconnect, but the pieces here all feed Heady’s specific character arc for this particular narrative.

Given the conceit of this world, wherein all residents of The Rim suffer ill effects from the inscrutable Skew epidemic, disability has been an ongoing element. “Detritus” introduced the world through the eyes of a woman who discovers her own late in life, after having convinced herself of a natural immunity. “At Her Fingertips” explored more obvious physical deformity. And “Broken” moves inward, looking at neurodiversity in a setting where every notable difference is labelled a weakness. A Deficiency, in fact, the terminology of the world, and an intentionally loaded one.

“Fragile Insides” is my attempt to tackle something I hadn’t yet in these stories. Several of my friends suffer from so-called “invisible” physical ailments, the sort which routinely meet resistance by the larger world through thoughtless rejoinders of “but you look fine.” Heady is inspired by those friends, her combination of seeming almost super-heroic in size while constantly battling pain, or the threat of same, let me try to explore those themes in what I hope is a compelling and empathetic way using a speculative context.

Oh, and about the format on this one: blame Laura. Initial drafts of this story were very much structured like the other Detritus narratives, because in my head, that’s how you tell a Detritus story.

Heady’s story, possibly because it’s such a linchpin, possibly because I’m a bucket of fail, possibly due to the machinations of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just didn’t want to play nice, though. Presented like its compatriots, the story was staid and pat and didn’t seem to get us anywhere. I joked with Laura that I was tempted to turn the whole thing into a cross-referenced digital journal, because Heady would be the kind of person to keep (and constantly update references in) something like that.

Then she went and told me to do it, dammit.

So, yes, the cross-references all work. But, as with reading the other Detritus stories, you don’t have to follow them around. You can start at the beginning and move to the end in a linear fashion, and the story still builds in a way I’m more than happy to have you experience.

If at some point you also want to go jumping between sections as they’re cross-referenced, though, you can do that, as well. It won’t be the same experience, but it’s just as much one I built. I have the notepad full of scrawled entries and link codes and more-than-mild headache to prove it.