Fiction and Empathy

I’m continuing to (slowly) read Keith Oatley’s “Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction” and I’m struck by his research into fiction and empathy. It’s so tricky to interpret research like this when, on the one hand, so much of it resonates with my gut feeling about what fiction is for; yet on the other hand, so much of it draws on the kind of junk science about empathy that dehumanizes autistic people, and the rest leaves nagging questions with me about where autistic people fit into the framework being drawn.

(Read the full post on Substack)

My House Is… Cute??

This will be a little tiny bit of a “woo” post – appropriately, I suppose, for the time of year.

I’ve been writing here about my animistic conviction that my house is, in some way, alive. And about how I’ve been trying to understand how it’s feeling and what it needs from me (besides renovations, which, *stares at long and expensive to-do list*). But when I try to think about how the house feels, I usually end up focusing back on myself. I notice a feeling of my own that I’ve been projecting onto the house, and I get useful insight into myself, but not into the building.

The other day I felt something different.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 75 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Elliott Dunstan, “Home Is Where The Ghosts Are” (self-published poetry chapbook, May 2017)

[Autistic author] This brief collection is tied together, as the author’s note explains, by an experience Dunstan had in real life – moving into a new apartment and finding eerie traces at every turn of the tenant who had lived there before. From this situation he spins out an overlapping set of perspectives on ghosts, time, change, trauma, and identity. Despite the short length, it feels thoughfully reflective rather than hurried. [Recommended-2]

*

Andrew Joseph White, “Chokechain” (Medium, 2018)

[Autistic author] A trans man comes home to his transphobic parents only to discover that they’ve bought a robot designed to look and act like his idealized, pre-transition self. This is a difficult but compelling story, and its most memorable aspect to me is the way the protagonist gets to be messy and angry, seething on the inside even though his anger isn’t tolerated by those around him. There’s something very thought-provoking in how he associates anger with violence, violence with gender, gender with many of the justified reasons he’s angry; yet, despite planning violence against the new robot, he ends up finding empathy for it in an unexpected way. [Recommended-2]

*

Lucas Sekiguichi, “Your Great Journey” (Daily Science Fiction, August 17, 2018)

[Autistic author] This starts out looking like one of those stories about what the afterlife is like and turns into something much weirder, as the narrator, who still physically exists and seems to be very much alive, watches everyone in their life mourn for them and move on. I am reminded of Jim Sinclair’s famous essay “Don’t Mourn For Us”; there is a lot of painful resonance here for autistic readers, queer and trans readers, and others who have been treated as dead or lost by a family or community that really just doesn’t want to face what it means for them to be alive. [Recommended-2]

*

Jennifer Lee Rossman, “Gay Jaws” (self-published on Rossman’s blog, June 11, 2021)

[Autistic author] Both bloodthirsty and cute, this is a love story between a human and a hybrid human-shark who band together against the evil scientist who’s been turning people into hybrid human-sharks against their will. The whole thing is fun, but what I like best is the way the narrator calms her human-shark love interest down out of a potentially violent meltdown. She is genuinely dangerous due to her shark nature – yet the danger is contained not through force, but through explicit recognition of her humanity. [Recommended-2]

*

Andi C. Buchanan, “If We Do Not Fly at Sunset” (Lightspeed, Issue 144, May 2022)

[Autistic author] A quiet, poignant story about a character descended partly from fae, perhaps a changeling, who’s just trying to navigate life and work and queer relationships in a New Zealand slowly disintegrating from climate change. The sense of helplessness and the yearning for acceptance in this story – but also the ability to find it, in small, hesitant encounters – rings very true to me. [Recommended-2]

NEW POEM: Google Glasses

My near-future sci-fi poem, “Google Glasses,” is up now in the very first issue of THE SPRAWL!

Read it here: https://www.thesprawlmag.ca/vol-1-1

Autistic Book Party, Episode 75: Geometries of Belonging

Cover of the book "Geometries of Belonging" by RB Lemberg. The cover art depicts a stylized bird spreading its wings under a crescent moon.

Today’s Book: “Geometries of Belonging,” a short story collection by R.B. Lemberg

Autistic Character(s): The author – and more!

R.B. Lemberg’s Birdverse will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog. It’s an intricate fictional world that Lemberg has developed over many years with autistic fervor. Now there’s a whole collection focused solely on Birdverse short stories, novelettes, and poetry. I’ve given Recommended ratings to quite a few Birdverse stories before, all of which appear in this collection, as follows:

Short stories and Novelettes: The titular short story “Geometries of Belonging”; “The Book of How to Live”; “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar;” “A Splendid Goat Adventure”

Poetry: “I will show you a single treasure” [the title of this poem has been slightly altered as it appears in the collection]

(I have also reviewed the Birdverse novellas The Four Profound Weaves and A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power, and the novel The Unbalancing, which do not appear in the “Geometries” collection; although one poem, “Ranra’s Unabalancing,” describes many of The Unbalancing’s events.)

There are also many more stories and poems which are excellent, but which I simply did not review here. (Many autistic authors are quite prolific and, as a reviewer, my goal is not to comprehensively review all of their short work, even if I like it, but to sample a range of authors and review the short work I have something to say about.)

So it almost goes without saying that I also recommend this collection, which is full of the best Birdverse stories you may already know and a few obscure gems that you probably don’t.

There’s always been a sense of care and empathy in Lemberg’s stories, in which characters (often queer and/or disabled) are exquisitely human, flawed and worth loving; social power dynamics are thoughtfully examined; magic itself is entangled with the need to consider the individuality and consent of all beings. But there’s an aliveness that emerges from the placement of all of these works together which is greater than the sum of its parts. Birdverse isn’t the home of one set of protagonist characters, or one important country whose history progresses through the ages. It’s a rich tapestry in which all sorts of wildly different characters, in wildly different circumstances, interconnect. A magical tapestry is woven, passes through many hands as it makes its way to the greedy ruler who will buy it, and those hands in turn have their own stories, which are less about the tapestry and more about family, gender, and belonging. A nation of refugees flee a disaster, find a new home, make and break magical agreements with the land, and a thousand years later a new set of refugees comes to them on uneasy terms. Magical characters have absurd, light-hearted adventures in the pursuit of their research; magical characters struggle greatly and seriously with the weight of their responsibilities, and save the land from disaster, and have PTSD from their attempts to save the land; meanwhile non-magical characters face discrimination, in the face of one country’s magical snobbery, and agitate for institutional change. There is no one story and that’s the point. Everyone is alive, everyone is connected, and everyone is human.

There are autistic characters in several stories, although it’s not the focus of the collection. The title story in particular is a lovely tale of autism, consent, and healing without curing; you can read more of my thoughts about it at the link above.

Anyway I quite like this book; Birdverse fans would do well to pick it up and complete their collections.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Bolts of Inspiration

A small aside in “Such Stuff as Dreams” made me think of one little thing that always annoys me in spec fic. It’s when an author wants their protagonist to make some important scientific discovery, but they don’t really understand how discovery works.

You might think this is a sci-fi problem, but I often see it even more blatantly in fantasy about pre-modern societies. In sci-fi the science is often a bit silly (and a bit of silliness can be on-brand and forgivable!) But there’s at least an intuitive understanding in sci-fi that doing science involves having a laboratory and trying some experiments or something, and that there needs to be some build-up and explanation, because it’s something that we in the modern real world won’t understand until the characters do.

(Read more on Substack)

Forward and Backward Chaining

I’ve been reading Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction by Keith Oatley, which is a bit dense but absolutely relevant to my interests and to the topic of this newsletter. Oatley talks about fiction as a kind of dream, a kind of play, a way that we explore ideas by seeing how they might play out, maybe in a world that closely resembles this one or maybe in a world conspicuously different from ours, one that highlights the idea in question by abstracting it into fantastical forms. (Some scientific research into fiction is very anti-genre-fiction, often in knee-jerk, unconsidered ways, and while Oatley seems unimpressed with certain kinds of genre fiction, he also starts right out talking about fantasy classics like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he approvingly discusses the way that the love potion in that play casts old questions about love into a new light by defamiliarizing them – so I would certainly say he is not anti-speculative-fiction across the board.)

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 74: The Luminous Dead

Cover of "The Luminous Dead" by Caitlin Starling. The title appears on yellow letters on a dark blue background, above a picture of a globed hand desperately grabbing at a rock.

Today’s Book: “The Luminous Dead” by Caitlin Starling

The Plot: Gyre is a cave explorer on an alien planet, where cavers have to go to extreme lengths and wear specially modified suits to hide the signs of their biological presence from a monster called the Tunneller. They’re guided by controllers at the surface who can remotely communicate with them and modify the suit’s workings from a distance if necessary. But as Gyre gets deeper and deeper into the cave, her controller, Em, is beginning to seem increasingly untrustworthy…

Autistic Character(s): The author!

When I first read this book a few years ago, Starling wasn’t publicly out as autistic, but she has since begun to discuss it publicly while promoting her second novel, The Death of Jane Lawrence. That’s a book I’m looking forward to reading but haven’t gotten to yet – so in the meantime, I thought I’d tell you all about how I loved The Luminous Dead instead.

This is a very creepy book!! Caving is creepy!! The level of physical control Em has over Gyre, as well as emotional control thanks to Gyre’s sheer isolation – alone in the darkness for weeks on end with only Em to talk to – is also creepy! It’s a sci-fi horror and Starling knows how to milk the creep factor for all it’s worth. You can expect underwater scenes, malfunctioning and missing equipment, injuries sustained when there’s no one to come fix them, involuntary drugging, betrayal, manipulation, and growing uncertainty about what is and isn’t even real down here. As well as the Tunneller itself, a constant ominous lurking presence. I found myself turning the pages compulsively out of a sheer dread-fueled need to see what happened next, finishing the book almost faster than I could help myself.

The heart of the book, though, is the dynamic between Gyre and Em – a sort of constantly shifting, mutually mistrusting trauma-bond that never quite settles into easily digestible shape. It’s also queer. (I remember Starling quipping on social media, somewhere, that this was a book for people who had a crush on GLaDoS.) Em manipulates Gyre in ways that can’t be met with something as simple as forgiveness – especially when Gyre is still down there in the cave, under her control. As her secrets begin to come out, they serve both to humanize her and to underscore the monstrousness of the things she’s done before and is willing to do again. Yet it could just be that, if Gyre wants to survive and Em wants what she’s looking for down in the caves, they might just have to treat themselves as being on the same side – and to find some scrap of empathy for each other, somewhere.

Anyway, if you like creepy books and caves then you should check this one out. That’s all I have to say.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Autistic Book Stats

A mutual on Twitter recently shared an experience they’d had in real life: in a discussion of neurodiversity in SFF, when asked to think of autistic characters who weren’t cis white men, none of the hosts could think of any.

(Read the full post on Substack)