In Poetic Instant and Metaphysical Instant,1 the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard says, “poetry is instant metaphysics”. Bachelard is promising novelty; he suspects, therefore, those explanations that allow the past to creep into the present, where the present is not otherwise set apart in some extraordinary manner. But to confront poetry, to admit novelty, is to precisely be moved in some extraordinary manner. So he proposes time as the instant, the present cut off from the past and the future by swaths of nothingness. I find it difficult to shake off the image of a cartoon figure being propped up by time as a fountain, along a verticality that is always transverse to the flow of time.
To this, add the image of the dispassionate critic, Ego, who in the final act of Ratatouille enters into an aesthetic agreement with life.2 Such agreement is rare; it occurs in that thick instant that Bachelard imagines, where you sense so many oppositions in such little life! Envy, but also fulfilment; loss, but also plenitude; sinking depth where all at once the entirety of your life seems touched by the present. Nothing could have prepared Ego for the titular dish, yet his entire life suddenly seems reverberant with its taste.3
What might you not do in such a moment? Ego chooses to act, for he reverses his own critical enterprise, for he chooses, when faced with food that is art that is life, to revise his own conservatism. He reorients the past and envisions a project for the future, one that he names “the discovery and defence of the new”, a private principle that is recursive enough that his own movement becomes the thrust of the tale, the spark of the story, the one-message-you-take-away if you will. Ego has, perhaps after a long time, been revealed to himself. It is as if he has become aware of the solidity of his body when touching it from the outside.
In his private room, we must see him struggle with himself to develop this criterion that he calls the new. He types, but now and then he pauses to gaze upon the world from a summit, balanced precariously on his own toes. He does not have a clear recourse to the past in words; the novelty he seeks is the one that he is now swept up within. His critique is neither given, nor motivated as if he were writing about something distantly remembered; instead, his words speak repeatedly about the very experience he is caught up within.
I feel that in the little space Ego concedes in the movie—surely Paris must not be overrun by rats in toques!—he allows art to change him. In doing so, he conducts himself with a certain kind of bravery that Le Guin demands of her writers.4 Le Guin asks that brave writers write Truth; Ego demands that brave critics defend Novelty. Le Guin’s writers are not divorced from the world that already is; Ego’s critics are not divorced from art that already makes certain demands. Le Guin’s writers point to what is written and say, “This here is the truth, if you will have it”; Ego’s critics point to what is critiqued and say, “This here is the new, if you will have it.” Central to either enterprise, the way I see it, is to commit to something that holds you inescapably.
With State of Matter, we asked if we could create conditions for a commitment to the new. And in turn, we found ourselves entrenched in the verticality of our own experience. Always, despite sustaining an arduous engagement with a literary or cultural tradition, we found ourselves rising transversely with an ambiguity that refused to be settled. We found ourselves discussing not being determined by our past, our names, or the received wisdom about our geographies. We wanted, perhaps in other words, an alternative that we feel is central to speculative fiction, an alternative that makes demands for its own novelty, an alternative that forces you to reckon with it as new.
Let me borrow a metaphor from space-fiction: terraforming, the ecoscaping action that creates conditions for living. A story that terraforms does not settle within a given cosmology, a pre-existing arrangement of things, but forces us to confront the machine arms thrusting into our souls. There is nothing in our past that provides it space amenable for living; it must create within us these conditions, and propel us into that which cannot be foreseen.
Consider a story of first contact, whose brute form we know too well—of course there is nothing absolutely new in the promise of a first contact. You have here a society in relative stasis, perhaps with the seeds of an internal dynamism. There comes an alien truly speaking, someone who fans an inner tension and causes it to come to head in a piece. And then you have a ‘conflict’ or ‘conceit’, or more humbly, a system of variations that construe a story.
But here arrives a prying eye looking for what is different, what if noticed might reach into our pasts and modify how we understand first contact. Perhaps in this piece, (see Morton, The Stranger), conditions have to be made for paranoia around a discovery. Perhaps in another one (see Changming, Speciating), conditions have to be made to understand first contact as memory of one’s origins. These are ruptures from the brute cosmological form of the first contact story; these stories are terraforming. They help us remember that there is always in speculative fiction the unfamiliar that structures the familiar, that the land we stand upon has been eroded in the past, that these mountains have been formed, that these ridges have been carved, that Earth itself has been terraformed so many times in the past and will be in the future, again and again. They force us to reckon with “words as riparian forms” (Mullins, Sublime Terrain) as a recent poet reminds us, and force us to immerse ourselves in the fluidity of the text and do some terraforming of our own reader selves, so our souls may receive this alien story. This is a world amenable to construction, and it is this openness that allows us to confront it in ways unforeseen. This is a novel world.
And here the gushing of words point to Bachelardian “spouts” of time. Nothing prepares us for a novel story. Its arrival is compulsive enough; it sweeps us up in the moment of its arrival, not before, not after. Like someone who has been thrown outside of established meaning-making, I am reduced to counting words, looking for repetitions, marking time until meaning surges back in.5
When a story terraforms, it asks a structuring question and presents itself to you ambivalently, without the immediate force of history compelling movement one way or another. “Is the story asking me to arrange things this way or that?” “What position am I being assigned?” The novel story interrupts a given flow of memory, a familiar orbit of the planets. “Is it suggesting that I read the poem with these concerns?” It makes the world a little more speculative, open and rife with possibilities. Of course, in another instant there will be other concerns, concerns also of truth and beauty, of myriad enumerations and closures and evaluations, but let us wait here a while. As the concerns proliferate—the nuts and bolts, the tension and its release, the style and syntax of a piece, the suggestions that open up when time decides to flow through us, what Bachelard calls the prosody of prose—we might want to mark that this instant has thrown up before any of that a disorienting effect (see Timss, Slowly Through the Middle Distance). Can we discuss if this renders us unhinged, forces us into the wind desperate for solid ground? Can we discuss if we find ourselves enveloped within a speculative world, but not merely as surveyors?
A story may be splendidly written, ticking all the boxes of classic fantasy or horror or science fiction, but does it offer us something new? Where I find it, there is Novelty, which has thickened this instant, has brought me into an agreement with life. I have discovered something new.
And like Ego, I defend it because I cannot resist being swept up by it. Our confrontation with speculative fiction is also our experience of time, our own sense of the past that we are writing with the authors we publish. When engaging with pieces submitted to State of Matter, I often respond with feedback that tells writers if we found their work novel enough. This is already a forked statement: I defend at once what we value and why we value it. We conduct a business in words: each word resonant with a meaning that has derived from our practical struggles, choices this way or that, settled debates, tentative positions, compromises, ideological commitments and non-negotiables. And we prefer that these words do not crystallise into clear, articulate criteria beyond vague categories; we prefer that we are thrown off-balance, that we are left groping for words, for positions to settle on, for another compromise to be struck. In each instant, we are looking to create conditions of our own deciphering: to terraform, in other words, where we choose to reside. We want through our stories to reveal ourselves to the world.
Sometimes I tell authors, “Your story did not invoke a new way of looking at this issue.” This implicates the author and me. It means that the author has caught me in a flow, where their story has created horizontal relations with a settled piece, as a trope, a cliché, something familiar. Many stories move you, but some move you horizontally by sheer logic or a wealth of experience, in a prosody, with the memory of stories that I have seen in my time before this one, structuring, anticipating this one. The author has not moved me vertically, that beckons me beyond the many different readings and identities that I have already folded within myself. It has not allowed me a break from where I stand. This here is a cosmic non-disjunction. I cannot defend such a piece since its concerns are of little risk to me—I lose precious little for a story whose core issues I have already settled within myself. To defend something, after all as Ego says, is to “truly risk something”, to look for that which is truly alternative, truly speculative.
There is too, in this opinion, a subjectivity of criteria. On the horizon, there are other relations that you may assume with speculative fiction. There are ways of structuring speculative fiction as means of categorising alternatives, perhaps as archiving them. Where pieces are juxtaposed or sequenced to create comparative visions. And these different arrangements inform what a speculative fiction magazine must do, how it should situate and conduct itself, what it should and should not say, with what inflection and what emphasis, what it should look for and what it should refract into the world. The particular arrangement that we have chosen requires its own defence, and perhaps it requires such a defence in its own time. But even as an assertion, it makes clear that this is what the world looks like from where we stand.
Our experience with the stories we read is touched by this concern. It is touched, first, by an expectation that we are capable of being moved by the stories we read, that text that is art that is life presents to us the possibility of our aesthetic vision. Such an expectation places an implicit demand on our authors too, that they will move us, help us narrate our own history. There is in this expectation a trepidation, a certain vulnerability that we must parcel out on all ends, and the politics of an editor-author relation that enters this fold. Second, it is touched by the peculiarities of who we are, the liminal bodies and identities that we continuously negotiate, and the stories of our private lives that unfolds with this project we have chosen for ourselves. The two questions we must settle then are those of selection: from within our monthly slush, those pieces that end up in our quarterly issues, and of truth of an experience that our peculiar definition of South Asian-ness permits us.
In due time, I will perhaps write about these.
- Bachelard, G. (2013). Poetic instant and metaphysical instant. Intuition of the instant (E. Rizo-Patron, Trans.), 58–63. Northwestern University Press. (Original work published 1932).
- Bird, B., & Pinkava, J. (2007). Ratatouille. Buena Vista Pictures.
- Bachelard, G. (2014). The poetics of space (M. Jolas, Trans.). Penguin. (Original work published 1958). Here Bachelard introduces the idea of reverberations, the effects of a poem that we construct in the past.
- Le Guin, U, K. (1987). Introduction. The left hand of darkness (50th anniversary ed.). Penguin. (Originally published 1969). Le Guin argues that brave authors use words to write fiction to write truth, engaging perennially with what is.
- Carl, P. (2018). Architecture, geometries, rhythm. Log, 43. 119–129. Anyone Corporation. Carl reads Corbusier and the ‘rhythms’ in his architecture, arguing that we return to the bare activity of marking time when dominant meaning-making (“Zeit without a particular Geist”) is unavailable.