James Tiptree Jr., “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” (2004) & Larissa Lai, “Salt Fish Girl” (2002)

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There is a deep streak of despair underlining most of the stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever – there is very little sympathy for humanity in most of the stories, and a conviction that our darkest behaviours will inevitably show themselves. Despite being science fiction (for the most part), a lot of these stories are essentially horror as well, slowly building towards a sudden realization and the accompanying violence, and usually making one ask “what have we done?” Reading several of Sheldon/Tiptree’s stories in a row is a pretty unsparing experience, even if the level of shock varies between them.

The first story, “The Last Flight Of Doctor Ain”, gets to the point immediately – however, it’s short enough that it’s possible to miss the impact of the final punch. However, it is followed by “The Screwfly Solution”, which is certainly the most disturbing thing I’ve read recently – a gradually escalation of all-out hatred and inescapable violence, fusing both the uncontrollably natural with our tendency towards rationalizing things. By the midpoint, it becomes completely unrelenting, capping off with a coda that could be seen as darkly humorous, but without diminishing the horror of the previous pages. Importantly for the second story, “Screwfly Solution” introduces readers to the gendered violence that becomes one of the most important themes running through all of the stories in the book.

That theme is rather explicit in many of the stories (most distressingly in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” with its slow and subtle series of revelations), but one particular example of it is in the narration of stories like “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and the first half of “With Delicate Mad Hands”, which seemingly goes out of its way to berate the physical and behavioural faults of its woman protagonists (Philadelphia Burke in “Plugged In” is repeatedly described as a beast, and it’s considered good that she is locked away controlling a more “palatable” girl); its the kind of thing that appears in the dialogue as well, but seems to be even more pronounced when the cruelty is coming from the author itself. In a lot of ways, this seems to culminate in “The Women That Men Don’t See”, which subtly reverses things by having the women able to escape that world of viciousness – which would seem like a victory, but because the story itself is narrated by a man who simply does not understand what they know, that seeming triumph is portrayed in a different light. Likewise, “With Delicate Mad Hands” ends a slightly happier note, if only in a fleeting way.

In “The Women Men Don’t See”, the sex-gender hierarchy is shown as a all-encompassing force that seems outside ourselves (although it may only SEEM that way), which is another major theme running through several of the stories. Humanity discovers that everything it knows could simply be a tool for some unknown force – as in the title story (one of the most bleak, introducing its fantastical element only to further that bleakness) or especially in “A Momentary Taste Of Being”, where humans are a disposable component part of something else entirely (which also mentioned briefly as a possibility in “Slow Music”, with the image of free human consciousness being ground up into cosmic sausage.) That story is one of the ones that ends a note of inescapable destruction that is also seen in “On The Last Afternoon”, “Slow Music”, “And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”, and “The Man Who Walked Home” – natural forces seemingly destined to bring about the end, even when there’s a possibility for intervention. The most obvious example of this is in one of the more fantastical stories, “Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death”, where a strange alien animal tries to break its own deadly life cycle – but of course, the natural system is far more durable than it expected, as it always seems to be here. If the plan seems natural, it seems resilient to subversion – and maybe its under that logic that the abuse of our gender-oppressing world seems equally inescapable.

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There are many running parallels throughout Salt Fish Girl, but one particularly interesting through line concerns ideas of homogeneity, both physical and cultural, which has a ominous omnipresence in both halves of the story. The worst thing that seems to happen to the protagonists in both time periods is a loss of varying degrees of distinctiveness, which begins in the very first chapter when Nu Wa gives up her non-humanity, which is accompanied by the searing pain of change that also ends up recurring throughout the book – and the pain is not just in the loss of one’s identity, but in attempting to reclaim it as well (when she steps back in the water.) The physicality of that opening act of conformity is also broadly seen in Miranda’s story as well – much of it taken up by her exuding durian smell, which threatens her place within the extremely stifling suburban world, and also required some painful and arcane methods to eliminate. A snake tail and the constant smell of pepper and cat piss seem like very strange traits to represent this idea, but they are ultimately symbolic of a greater need to hold on to one’s identity, even when one is confronted with the possibility of loneliness as its direct result.

The book’s conception of a homogeneous world is taken into the extreme with the introduction of cloning – physically identical people engineered to fit a predefined role. But where Miranda, by her own volition or others’, is forced to push herself towards conformity, Evie and her family (all clones of each other) as outsiders can subvert that by showing how they can still be distinct people – and along the way manipulate their own genetically manipulated origins to sabotage the corporations. She embraces her non-humanity, and by doing so allows Miranada to eventually do so as well, bringing the story back to Nu Wa

The cultural identity half of that theme is integrated a bit more subtly, but is just as important. It is the most obvious in the middle section of the China story, where Nu Wa is taken to the Island of Mist and Forgetfulness, which is a timeless place in more than one way (oddly removed from any time period, it is described like a culmination of the entire 20th century), but more importantly one that oozes corporate, western monoculture, and has the side effect of “cursing” Nu Wa into forgeting her own language, subsuming part of her cultural identity. But even before then, there are signs of that world – while Nu Wa lives a sort of free, if morally dubious, life as a thief, the Salt Fish Girl is forced to join the legion of poorly-treated workers in an increasingly industrialized South China, itself a sign of encroaching modernity that reaches its nadir in the Miranda chapters, where the Salt Fish’s Girl incarnation is literally a person made to work in a factory. But in the earlier parts of Miranda’s story, however, the same culture that produced that appears in other forms as well – it is emphasized that Miranda’s family is one of the very few Chinese families in the very white, capitalistic enclave of what was once the very multicultural city of Vancouver – which likely makes Miranda’s smell, and the threat it poses to her family’s stability in that social ecosystem, an even more demanding issue to her parents, especially her careerist father. At various points, there is a lot of emphasis in the text on food – from the durian that is central to the story to the some of the dishes served by other Chinese characters – and they signify some of the few places where distinctive culture can still exist apart from the manufactured one. It seems minor, but in that society, it’s an important place to start.

More so on a personal identity level is the songs written by Miranda’s mother, which are crucial throughout the book. There is a large focus on advertising in that corporatist/conformist culture in Miranda’s chapters – which involves turning something personal into something broad and robbed of specific meaning. Miranda selling the rights to the songs is seen as a great betrayal of that, which spirals further when she gets a job at an advertising firm and lets her own artistic visions be compromised in the name of selling, misusing both her and her mother’s artistic talents. Evie and the other Sonias again subvert that by using slogans embedded in foot prints (which also subverts that society’s increasing distrust of physical connection with the planet itself) as a form of protest. Personal expression is demonstrated as another important part of identity, and a powerful tool against encroaching sameness.

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