Archive for December, 2011

Christmas As Alternate Reality

As a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, I find normal reality sometimes weirder than the wildest of speculations. Christmas is something pretty weird, as full of inconsistencies as a bad movie. It is pagan and Christian, religious and secular. We do things we hate doing, and we do other things we say we wish we could do all year long. Some of us absolutely love it, some of us wish it would all go away. I’m somewhere in the middle. It is a time set apart from the rest of the year in which there are extra activities and things to be accomplished (gifts, cards, decorating, baking, gatherings), and all those things add up to a time crunch. There are rewards for our efforts, sometimes, and sometimes, they seem to fall flat.

My perception of Christmas, and my feelings about it, have been in large part a function of my situation in life. As a child, I looked forward to it with great anticipation. Although I never believed in Santa Claus, I liked pretending to believe, and I loved the whole magical-fantasy trip about it. Even into young adulthood, Christmas was more than a show the grown-ups put on for us all; it was a palpable  entity unto itself, with a life of its own, as if lights, decorations, carolers, and Nativity plays somehow sprung up, regardless of human effort.

When we had a young child to celebrate Christmas with, I became the director of the show, and we wrapped and assembled late into the wee hours, so that all the presents Santa had brought could appear magically beneath the tree on Christmas morning. My daughter, like me, could not sustain a belief in Santa Claus. In my case, it was because our house didn’t have a chimney. I couldn’t get past that glaring discrepancy. In my daughter’s case, the “tell” was the wrapping paper. She noticed Santa used the same paper as we did. We enjoyed the game though, leaving cookies for Santa, and greens for the reindeer on Christmas Eve. (One year the reindeer had a bunch of cilantro for their salad.)

Every year, regardless of my stage in life, I anticipated Christmas with a mixture of joy, humor, dread, and excitement. I worried over the gifts, micro-managed the decoration, fretted over baking and cooking, and wrapped it all up on Christmas Eve by watching the NBC broadcast of the Pope doing mass at St. Peter’s. And no, I’m not Catholic.

This year, something happened. I had fewer, and less intense, feelings about Christmas. The “entity-ness” went out of it; it became another date on the calendar, something that humans cooked up. It had lost the inevitable quality it had had. I felt no compulsion, no drive, to put on a show. I examined each of the tasks, and asked, “Why do we do this?”

Cards: There are people dear to me who I simply don’t see during the year, and don’t get a chance to talk to. They genuinely do want to hear from me, and I, from them. It is worth doing the cards. I no longer send them out to businesses, nor will I send a card just because someone sends me one.

Decorations: I looooove lights. I think of my northern European ancestors shivering in a dark and frigid December and think what a mental health boost these winter solstice traditions were for them and are for us. Good work, ancient ancestors, for thinking up such cool and goofy stuff as yule logs, wreaths, and candles. We are indebted to you for all the lights, the colors, the greenery.

Gifts: There is less drama, as our family tends to tell each other what we want. Nonetheless, Christmas morning still has a few surprises to offer, and this is the fun of it. Gift cards are more fun than they might seem, offering days of thinking about what I’m going to get with my Amazon gift card. It’s fun, it’s worth it, but I do a lot of online shopping and only one visit to the Big Mall. When I watch reports of  Black Friday incidents on TV, or incidents of shortages of particular toys, where grown-ups are punching each other out for something (does anyone remember Furbys?), then I think Christmas giving might be pure evil. On balance though, with restraint, I like it.

Food: There is too much of it, but it’s the only time of year I eat like this.

So I did this year what I normally do, mostly. I dropped sweet potatoes from the Christmas dinner menu, and substituted asparagus for green beans. Good move. I pulled out a few decorations that I really don’t like, and that don’t fit in with the theme. So I decorated a little less. I wrapped presents, but didn’t fret about whether the bow matched exactly. I skipped watching the Pope. I gave up trying to force Christmas into its former magic.

What was the result, you ask? Did magic happen anyway? Did the Ghost of Christmas Present pop up in the middle of the living room to lend his spectral touch? No. Christmas remained a day on the calendar for me this year, not anticipated all that much, nor dreaded. I was neither sad nor glad when it was over. It was good. Even if it’s not magic, I need this holiday.

Happy New Year!

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Science Fiction, By Any Other Name

When China Mieville’s The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl tied to win the Hugo in 2010, I was thrilled. I had read both, and I loved both. I would have had a difficult time picking between the two. If forced, I would probably have chosen The City & The City. By a hair, just because it is so different.

In The City & The City, Police Inspector Tyador Borlu investigates a murder in his city-state of Beszel. The course of his investigation takes him to the city-state of Ul Qoma, a city whose geographical space is largely the same space occupied by Beszel. Images of Berlin or Jerusalem come to mind, but this is not a divided city, as such. Nor is it shared territory, exactly. They are in the same place, but they live as if they are entirely separate places. For instance, I might be a resident of an apartment building in Beszel. Let’s say there’s a grocery story across the street, but that grocery store is in Ul Qoma. I may not patronize that store. I may not suggest, by word or gesture, that I am aware of the store. I may not meet the eyes of any Ul Qoman citizen entering or leaving the store. The extent of any consciousness I have of their presence extends only to what is necessary to avoid bumping in to them. I may walk by the store, because I have to; the city of Ul Qoma occupies the same territory as Beszel, but although it occupies the same territory, it is not here. It is elsewhere.

When Tyador travels to Ul Qoma, he does so by traveling to the “border” which is a structure that resembles a large stadium. He drives into the Beszel entrance, a tunnel, goes through customs and immigration somewhere in the middle, and emerges from another tunnel, into Ul Qoma. Once in Ul Qoma, he cannot visit his apartment, nor recognize friends and acquaintances on the street. He can, however, call them on the telephone, just as someone in New York City might call someone in Paris.

So what the heck kind of story is this? How should it be categorized? I have seen it labelled fantasy, although there is zero supernatural content. Wikipedia, for instance, calls it “fantasy/weird.” Weird, yes; fantasy, no. Some reviewers like “existential.” A review in Amazon calls it an “existential thriller.” An L.A. Times review calls it a detective story (it is), and also surreal and metaphysical. While some may notice there is no supernatural content, no one seems to want to call it “mainstream.” They shouldn’t, because it is way too weird to be mainstream. “Slipstream” is a tempting classification, because while there is no magic, the book is definitely Not Normal.

The reviewer who came closest to nailing it was Andrew McKie, in his review, “Unseeing Is Believing,” which appeared in The Spectator, and in which he points out that citizens of the cities learn from childhood not to see citizens of the other city, and that the separation of the populations is achieved by this and fear of punishment. No magic necessary.

The City and The City is a blend of two genres: Detective fiction, and science fiction. The sciences are the social sciences: psychology, sociology, and political science. The scientifictional question being asked is, “Given the human capacity for denial, self-deception, nationalism, and fear of authority, would it be possible for two separate cultures to be organized in such a way?” Mieville makes us believe it would.

I remember a couple scenes from the book that bring home beautifully the science-fictionalness of this tale. Offstage, a car crash occurs involving cars from the different cities. This becomes a bureaucratic nightmare, as any contact between the two cities is forbidden. Although inadvertent contact can be excused, it must be adjudicated by The Breach, the scary, absolute judge, jury, and execution-wielding organization that handles all matters of illegal contact. The authorities and rescue workers must respond from the two different cities as well, and must only tend to their own citizens. This nightmarish scene alone makes me believe Mieville wants us to understand there is no magic here, no surrealism, no magic realism, and no extra-dimensional hocus-pocus at work, only that dark and idiotic magic that can be accomplished by and in the human brain.

One plot thread concerns the American parents of the victim, who come over to insist on action and justice for their daughter. Visas to travel to Beszel or Ul Qoma are given sparingly, and are only issued after the traveller has gone through a class on the history, customs, and laws of the cities, until he or she can be trusted to pretend not to see what the citizens have thoroughly hypnotized themselves not to. These American parents have some status that allows them to come over without the usual requirements. They are privileged, American, and beside themselves with grief. They have agreed to play by the rules, but of course they cannot, and they almost blow the pretense apart, because of what they can’t not see.

I read The City and The City when it came out and remember the slight confusion/disorientation I felt at the beginning, as we learn the setting. I looked for vapors or wisps of smoke that would tell me we were in fantasyland. I looked for fuzzy distortions and strange casts of light that would tell me were in physical science fiction land. At some point it dawned on me we were in the rare place of social science fiction land, the genre of 1984 (if it was set in 1948), and of Fahrenheit 451, but in new territory, a political and social turf we had not trod upon before.

It is one hell of a book, one of my all-time favorites. Please place it where it belongs, in the category of science fiction.

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