Tuesday, May 21, 2013

SKINJUMPERS published!

It's been a long time coming, but M-Brane Press has a fresh new book out in the world as of today: Skinjumpers by Michael D. Griffths, with a vivid front cover by Hannah Walsh. This is a book that I committed to so long ago that I was still living in The Exile in OKC when I first announced it. I remember sitting at my desk there informing the Twitterati about it. And I returned from Exile three years ago, so it's been a while. Several issues of the first year of M-Brane SF Magazine during 2009 and 2010 featured a serial of short fiction by Mike concerning the adventures of the Enforcer Dak and his body-swapping partner Erin in the deadly city of New Cluster. This new novel continues their tale in a big way, but it is not necessary to have read the original stories to enjoy this new one. It stands alone just fine. I placed a preface in the front of the book, the text of which I will copy below. It's for sale now on Amazon and will show up elsewhere shortly.

PREFACE to Skinjumpers
I first encountered the world of Skinjumpers—a strange and dangerous milieu—in a short story that the author submitted at the end of 2008 to my then-fledgling zine M-Brane SF. The story “A Clone of a Different Color” introduced New Cluster, a decaying city in an unspecified future and location, run by a corrupt and authoritarian police-state structure that resembles a mafia as much as a government and which is shot through with struggles among various factions. But it was not the post-cyberpunk veneer of this tale that appealed to me, but rather its subversive core conceit that people can move their consciousnesses, their very selves, from one body to another and somehow remain whole.

Specifically, the first Skinjumper tale evoked a topic that I’d wondered about a lot before I’d read that story: if I somehow change bodies (a perennial fantasy of mine), am I still me? Is there even actually a “me” outside my physicality? This remains a vexing question that we may—within the lifetimes of people reading this—have answered for us when we find out whether or not it is possible to separate consciousness from the body, move it into another body or possibly into a computer construct and learn whether that consciousness can survive intact or if it will be radically altered by the nature of its new physical form. I’ve wondered whether my “selfness” is really somehow a wholly different thing than my body in the way that humans tend to believe it is or if all I am is simply the compound of the literal physical stuff of my body. Is that which makes me an individual, a consciousness, actually a real thing that can be taken out of my body by some sort of futuristic instrumentality and moved elsewhere? Or is my body’s physical gender, its chromosomes, its genitalia, its sexual orientation, its age and condition and experience inseparable from the “me” of me? We don’t know this answer yet in the real world, but in the world of Skinjumpers, the answer is no: we can separate from our bodies and remain ourselves. We can even become even more our real selves by doing so.

In Michael D. Griffiths’ series of Skinjumper short stories that I published in M-Brane SF, and in this novel, a lot of questions are left unanswered. One is not given a detailed rationale as to why things are the way they are in New Cluster, but the reader doesn’t really need one either. The titular Skinjumpers threaten the social order and draw the fire of the authorities because (among other reasons) they are sex-rebels. They not only change bodies and cheat death by “jumping” into cloned replacements, but they can change physical gender. Some of them choose to do so permanently. In this story, you will meet Erin, a young woman whom you may underestimate at first because of the way she chooses to present herself. She is the long-term girlfriend of our protagonist Dak. But Dak has a particular sexual kink that is fabulously enabled in this world: he is oriented toward men who inhabit female bodies. Erin was once a guy and still somehow is even within her unambiguously feminine physical form. But she seems to not quite fit into our current understanding of LGBTQ-ness either. She and he are a shade different than what is enabled by or even understood in our so-called “real” world. Underneath their more or less conventional gender self-portrayals, they are both fascinatingly queer.

I am brought back to my original wondering about whether all this is possible and plausible. If I could move from my own body into that of a female, would I still be basically the same person, a gay male but somehow with a female physicality like that of Erin? What if I moved into the physicality of a straight guy? Or that of a one hundred-year- old man or a ten-year-old boy? Or even a younger clone of myself? Skinjumpers proposes, with great enthusiasm, that it is all possible: you can have the body you want and still be you—and maybe even a better “you.” It’s wonderfully subversive in the world of New Cluster in almost the same way that simply not being straight can be in our real world.

Now, please relax, turn the page, and recline into a world where your body is not a permanent boundary.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Usually someone gives me an Amazon gift card around the holidays, and annually I use that as justification for the delivery of a bunch of books I might not otherwise have purchased—and, of course, I always way exceed the gift card’s value in doing so. Among this season’s haul is a nice Norton trade paperback (not pictured here) reprint of Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed, his other futuristic dystopia, written and published at about the same time as his more famous A Clockwork Orange, and which dwells upon some of that book’s same themes of whether human goodness is innate or not, and what, if any, kind of government or social order can foster the best sort of behavior in people.

Since the book is readily available, and summaries of it abound online, I won’t detail its plot overly much, but it’s generally about a social transition that occurs in England during an unspecified future era, and the things that happen to a few closely connected characters during that period. The world is somewhat Orwellian, with a fair amount of Newspeak-style short-word jargon, but it’s not ruled by quite the same sort of repressive totalitarianism as Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Ingsoc regime. Instead, as the story opens, England is part of a multinational state called the “Enspun” (Newspeak for the English Speaking Union), which in turn is part of a world order that also includes the “Ruspun” (Russian-speaking, naturally), and its government and society is in what is described as a “liberal” phase. More on these phases later, but contemporary American Teabaggers and moral majoritarians would eat this stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Because the excesses of far-future liberalism, according to Burgess’s future-world, include: Forced Abortion! One-Child-Only Policy! Self-Sterilization! No Religion at All! The Intermixing of the Races! and, most obnoxious of all, Glorified Homosexuality!

Burgess was a comic novelist primarily—even A Clockwork Orange with all its horror is frequently laugh-out-loud funny—and his wit is baked thoroughly into the cake of his writing style, his word choices and multi-lingual jokes and seriously enormous vocabulary (who ever actually says “eleemosynary" several times in a single book, really?), his unexpected and sometimes weird metaphors, and jokes that are drawn out over long sections of the novel. For example, a secondary character’s odd verbal tic—he peppers his speech constantly with the phrase “do you see”—comes back eventually as the highlight of a stupidly funny scene well after one has probably forgotten all about it. So The Wanting Seed is super-funny fairly often, but…but…

But it’s also chockfull of homophobia and racism, do you see.  I’m not generally one to criticize dead writers and their work based on these things when they and it are of a period in history a lot different than now, and when the work is not primarily all about those issues. Also, I know that social change in England and America on issues like race and homosexuality has happened more rapidly in recent decades than it did during most of the twentieth century. I get it that everyone who has ever written fiction tends to have been a creature of his or her own era. For example, I strenuously disagree with a lot of other readers and writers in the spec fic genres who think that we ought to jettison H.P. Lovecraft and ignore his influence on the genres because he was a typical man of his culture—a turn-of-the-20th century New England white man freighted with tons of racist prejudices and patrician class biases. Unattractive? Sure as hell it is. But he didn’t write Mein Kampf. He may have been insensitive to and fearful of and uncharitable toward the Other but he wasn’t on an explicit mission to oppress people and didn’t actively work at promoting a hate-agenda with his work. One might think the same about Burgess, a man of his time, certainly not on a hate-crusade. Yet I winced and was annoyed every single time, while reading The Wanting Seed, when I encountered a stereotypical or straight-up mythical characterization of gay men and every time I encountered a reference to the non-English “races” and their attributes.
And they are legion:

This novel is hung heavy with the preposterous conception that a majority of straight men (they in the yoke of population-control “liberalism”) will actively feign homosexuality in order to secure career advancement, and that to feign such an (obviously) undesirable condition, one must simper and caper and lisp and have their balls cut off and otherwise cultivate faux-“effeminate” characteristics, and such references dot this tale almost from cover to cover, fading out only toward the end (when society has changed blessedly back to hetero-normal). Also, there eventually comes into being a brutal security force, crewed entirely by homo men, with a mandate to oppress the breeding straights, and which resembles somewhat the thuggery of Alex and his droogs in Clockwork (I must admit that this development appealed to me rather more than a little bit after chapters of homo-cliché…but still). But this is purely a satire, right? A joke, right? Maybe. More on that in a minute.

It’s also larded through with race business. Asians are small-boned and high-pitched in voice. Africans are huge, frightening. One of them, a Nigerian, has such a large mouth that it beggars the imagination that he is able to pronounce properly the sounds of English (he also seems endowed with a supernatural number of teeth). One woman is an “orchestra” of races, indecipherable as to her whole complex lineage. Again and again it is commented upon when non-white people appear, as if they are anomalous even in this future society of the Enspun which is supposedly past having such worries. Never is a non-white man mentioned without also mentioning some supposedly intimidating or unflattering characteristic of his appearance or behavior. It’s a multi-racial world with a lot of white people worrying overly much about mixing it up, and the reader is reminded of this all the time and by an uncritical narrative voice. However far in the future this England is, it’s still the ideal social norm to be white, rather patrician, and more than a bit scared.

Oh wait, how about sexism? From cover to cover, it’s this novel’s stock in trade, perhaps even more so than homophobia and racism. In the far-flung future of the Enspun, even when having babies is state-discouraged and literally illegal if you’ve had one already (even one that died young), women still don’t seem to have any reason to exist at all other than for reproduction. There is not anywhere in The Wanting Seed, a novel replete with incidental characters, a single occurrence of a professional woman other than a servant nor any sort of woman not in the thrall of an undesirable man and his broken-down jalopy of a social order. Which is just plain bizarre given the rest of this story’s trappings. I could embrace this more readily as the reader if the author didn’t seem to be tacitly in alliance with that social order.

Burgess proposed an idea of cyclical social/political history. It’s indicated in A Clockwork Orange, but elucidated more fully in The Wanting Seed. Basically, the organization of human affairs turns again and again from a “Pelagian” phase to an “Augustinian” phase, with a tumultuous transitional period in between. The names for the phases refer to the theologians Pelagius and Augustine. To very crudely summarize it, Pelagius believed that humans are basically decent and can be prodded toward good works and ultimate spiritual redemption, free of the Original Sin. Augustine, on the other hand, subscribed to the concept of Original Sin and pretty much assumed that humans had no chance at all short of redemption by way of submission to the Christian faith’s most doctrinaire doctrine. In the novel, Burgess’s protagonist calls these phases, in Newspeak fashion, the Pelphase and the Gusphase, with a transitional Interphase. As the story get under way, we gradually learn that the Pelphase is ending and a violent Interphase is beginning. What’s striking about these developments is that they appear to have little at all to do with the specific actions of the government of the time. Indeed, the Prime Minister, in one scene, lazes about in bed ignoring attempts at soothing from his “catamite,” oblivious to and helpless against the turning of the historical wheel that is happening around him. The protagonist explains to his social studies students early in the novel that the actions of parties and parliaments had eventually come to be irrelevant over the ages because the affairs of people just somehow naturally cycle from Pelphase to Interphase to Gusphase, and do so with a consistency that can be seen again and again in the historical record.

This book is comedic and satirical, but it feels as if its author’s views on things like race, gender and sexuality have passed almost unfiltered into it, because the comedy and satire seems never aimed inward at those biases. Though he indicates a calm and unworried supposition that the transition from Pelphase (liberal) to Gusphase (conservative) and back again, over and over, is the normal order of things, his own authorial alliance seems clearly with the Gusphase and its return to traditional roles for women (breeding stock), non-white races (scary, undesirable) and gays (outlawed). But why does this bug me more in Burgess’s book than it would if I’d encountered it in something written a half-century or more before it (like Lovecraft) or even from someone else from Burgess’s own time period who didn't delve into spec fic? I think it's because that he chose a couple of times to write science fiction in an era when he should have been more progressive. And also because he was in fact a real intellectual, world-traveled, an internationalist, and should have somehow just been too modern to have been so reactionary about social change. It’s almost like the reason that I don’t cut any slack for Orson Scott Card. Though in the case of Card, there is much less excuse: he is a currently living, producing writer who is also actively promulgating a crazy-ass view of things for political reasons. It's maybe because Burgess is a bit too recent, and that’s probably not a rational reason, but there it is anyway. But it does somehow feel different when Burgess refers to the weird and frightful attributes of the various races (the non-English people) than when Lovecraft gives the cat in “The Rats in the Walls” the name “Nigger Man” or when Card openly calls for the toppling of the United States government should gay marriage become legal (even while he continues to milk the gay-ass Enderverse for all its worth).

Since the course of real-world history seems always, in fits and starts, to be toward greater tolerance, inclusiveness and equality among various peoples, I think it gets under my skin when science fiction writers are so aggressively not progressive, and it bugs me more the closer they are to being my contemporaries. I can deal better with Lovecraft’s bigotries because his work is most of century in the past and it was never principally about being a bigot. I cannot deal with Card because he is currently working and is actively and deliberately a bigot. Burgess is somewhere in between. He came of age before the Second World War, but he saw the world from a position of great privilege after it—even living for a while in a motorhome on the Continent as a tax exile from Britain because he was so well-to-do and didn’t like paying his taxes. Because he was such a good stylist of a prose that can be so much fun to read, I wish that I could read The Wanting Seed without all these annoyances that repeatedly made me trip and stall during my hours with this book. 

In fairness, it's true that some of these things can easily be spotted in other British spec fic of the period, particularly in regards to the assumption that the English are the most accomplished race of people ever (a bias that white Americans inherited and still cultivate aggressively even now). For example, in J.G. Ballard's The Wind From Nowhere, we learn that the ever-accelerating titular wind is blowing to the ground all the shoddy cities and hovels of most of the rest of the world at a point where it has only reached the level of a nuisance in stoutly-built London. 

But, really? Extra teeth? A mouth so large, do you see.
But, on the other side of the ledger, The Wanting Seed does fairly pillory war and all the frauds surrounding it with some very funny comedy and satire. Later in the book, as the world passes out of the Interphase and into the Gusphase, a professional army is raised, its function: war. But the world has known no war in generations, England has no real infrastructure for it, and no particular enemy to fight, (shades of 1984 where it remains unclear whether Oceania’s perpetual enemies even actually exist). So the War Department—now not even a department of government but rather a private contractor—creates the illusion of such, shanghaiing people into the army, duping them with mock campaigns, noises of battle literally blasted over loudspeakers from record players. It’s all a scam to create corpses for the processed food industry and to provide a useful lie to sedate the public. As a character very cannily observes, perpetual war is perpetually popular so long as it has no impact on day-to-day civilian life. “Civilians love war,” it is noted, so long as they can continue to be civilians during it. It sounds very, very familiar and timely.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The delayed re-launch further delayed!

Egads! This place needs a good dusting and general tidying-up! When last I visited this, the official website of the M-Brane SF Magazine, I was mired in intense day-jobbery and still undergoing a bit of sadness over having ended the monthly run of the zine. I posted over there under "Writer's Guidelines" that I'd get things relaunched in 2012 and news would forthcome. But then it didn't. The great Ralan (of the site where editors notify of the existence of their publications and writers find their guidelines), mailed me a few days ago, noted that 2012 had passed and 2013 had set in without another breath of life from the supposed M-Brane re-launch, and wondered if all was well.

The zine?

So, for anyone who may still care, here's an update. Yes, I do wish to resurrect M-Brane SF. I love it, it was great, and want to do more. But I haven't decided on the best way to do it yet, and maybe somebody will give me some opinions on it. The old format of monthly issues got to be too much. So I think it needs to be something with either less frequency or less content. Maybe it could be monthly still but only one or two stories? Or a quarterly with a few more? Should it be a free web-posted thing? I will probably still always want to compile print anthos, like I did for the last twelves issues of the old zine, the four print Quarterlies, which were beautiful thanks to the unbelievably imaginative writers who filled them. But the subscription model for the electronic version never did work very well, and was a giant pain in the ass to maintain. In fact, I did not maintain it. At all. There were some readers who paid for a subscription back during the beginning of the first year and ended up getting all three years of it without ever renewing and with me never once bothering them about it. Basically, I hate selling stuff and I hate the fuck outta fundraising. The whole sales/money-finding aspect of editing and writing and publishing never was the thing for me, and I know that clearly now after the experience of M-Brane SF. So, yes, I think the new zine will be freely available online. And I will probably still do print versions of it for fun. And then I need to figure out what I can pay writers, how or if I am going to have some kind of income stream for it in order to fund those payments, and so on.

Whatever form the re-launch takes, I think I need to offer up much higher pay for the writers (even if I can't figure out how to fund it, which I probably won't because I will not engage in anything more than the most passive fundraising activities). During the final year of the old zine, its pages were filled with writers who were either already pros or have since become so, and I considered myself lucky to have had my pick of such good content. I am not even sure why that happened, and I am too modest to think that some kind of weird respectability and cachet had evolved around my modest publication, such that certain authors would take my paltry compensation for their work in exchange for an appearance in its pages.

But then that becomes a whole new problem: if the new M-Brane SF pays significantly more than the old one did and reaches a wider audience (due to the new free-everywhere format), then I am going to be faced with an even larger mountain of slush than ever before. Because sf writers who sub to the micro- and small-press pubs naturally work down the list from those who pay something to those who pay a little bit and then to those who pay nothing. Even though it is basically impossible for anyone--even the most established pro--to make any kind of noticeable money from short fiction anymore, the tendency is still naturally to try for at least some. Which leads me to the other thing I don't really want to do, try to recruit uncompensated slush-readers. Because the day I re-open to submissions, I am going to be swamped. That's what slowed me down so much during those last few issues of the old zine: I was buried in "real life" work and buried under heaps of M-Brane subs that I had to cull ruthlessly, some by barely reading their first sentences. No way to live, and not fair to the writers.  So, do I ask for help? Not sure right now.

Other stuff:

In other news, there is some new and pending activity in the broader M-Brane Press itself. I am finally, after about three years of promising it, rolling out Mike Griffith's Skinjumper novel. That's hopefully on the February docket, and I'll announce it officially as soon as a couple details are settled. The new, and (alas) final, issue of Fantastique Unfettered is finally about ready to roll out after some delay. But the wait will be worth it. And then there's some rumor and hearsay afloat regarding a possible new antho (something to do with "aether" of all things) and maybe a short fiction collection from a major figure in the M-Brane expanded universe and the vague possibility that I may just go ahead and expose my own nearly-done WIP if I don't get immediate agreement-of-awesomeness from some other pub, we will see (it's not more Justin Bieber fan fiction, btw!). I'm also considering a follow-up to Things We Are Not (the queer antho from 2009), but maybe with some kind of very specific hook or semi-shared reality for all the stories.


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