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"Walkdog" by Sofia Samatar deliberately skirts the boundaries of SFF. The story's narrator is writing a school paper about 'an animal called Walkdog', a folklore figure which steals children and takes them on eerie walks that may last for years. Not much is known about Walkdog (there isn't 'even a Wikipedia page') and it's unclear whether Walkdog actually exists by the time the story finishes. All that ambiguity, coupled with a light side of structural playfulness, makes "Walkdog" totally my jam.

"Walkdog" is a story that asks science fiction readers to disengage the automatic suspension of disbelief that makes it easy for us to slip into hundreds of new worlds every year. By refusing to reveal whether Walkdog exists, Samatar's story pushes readers to take a close look at the story they're reading and make up their own mind about whether Walkdog is real. Samatar's writing also implicitly asks whether stories can refuse to definitively identify themselves as speculative stories without coding themselves as realistic fiction. And yet, at the same time, her story smiles, throws its arm around the SFF genre and says, "Hey girl, cool Buffy necklace. Check out my X-Files backpack." While asking readers to examine its SFF premise it never tries to slam SFF and it aligns itself with a tricksy side of my most beloved genre. It's a deliciously ambiguous story that gives the reader a chance to gaze into the abyss and recognise the impossibility of definitive truth. Or, looking at it another way, it shows the reader how wonderful it can be to have your story both ways.

This kind of ambiguity is common territory in the many literary novels which include SFF elements. Is the child possessed or is the narrator mad (The Turn of the Screw by Henry James)? Is the house haunted, does the man have powers, or is there human foul play at work (The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters)? Does the woman run from an abusive marriage or is she a sea creature who goes back to the water (Orkney by Amy Sackville-West)? I've also read a few SFF stories, published in SFF spaces, in the last few months that move away from definitively proving their SFF elements ("The Truth About Owls" by Amal El-Mohtar) or slot themselves into the genre in subtle ways ("If You Were a Dinosaur My Love" by Rachel Swirsky, "Once, Upon a Lime" by Catherine E. Tobler). While I've been baffled by why some of these stories are so quickly claimed by SFF circles ("Once Upon a Lime") I've enjoyed reading them both as stories and because they've expand my understanding of the genre.

However, this lack of clear SFF allegiance seems to prove a problem for a few other SFF fans. And so as fun to analyse as "Walkdog" is (super fun—it's got a footnote based structure, tons of suggestive links you have to piece together, a bolshy child narrator and a poignant, harrowing ending) this post isn't going to end up being about the work. Instead, it's going to be about the SFF critics I couldn't get out of my head while I was reading it. I've got to perform an exorcism in writing so I can move on to something else.

In Short Fiction and The Feels, an essay which uses Samatar's "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" as an example of a newly dominant form of short SFF, Jonathan McCalmont wrote:

... the genre elements sit somewhere between the metaphorical and the literal; aspects of a fictional world that seem to mirror the contours of real emotional lives whilst leaving the world unchanged and the metaphor unresolved and shrouded with the kind of ambiguity that renders precision anathema.


McCalmont feels that the three stories he cites, which use genre elements in this way, are a sign of a shift in short fiction tastes:

Gradually, and with almost no discussion, the aesthetics of genre short fiction appear to be shifting away from stories that explore ideas and towards stories that seek to use genre elements as a way of encouraging readers to feel a particular way. In this bold new world, genre elements are easily excised or subsumed because the emphasis is always upon the characters’ emotional lives. As a genre reader, I am frustrated by the authors’ lack of interest in exploring how these genre elements might transform their fictional worlds. As a literary reader I am left perplexed by the decision to abandon realism in favour of a quasi-metaphorical language that makes the characters’ emotional lives seem more rather than less opaque.


McCalmont is not the first SFF critic to express concern that the genre is moving in a new and unconstructive direction. It feels like there is a growing school of criticism which believes that speculative stories must accomplish particular ends or be seen as failing SFF 101. In her thoughts on the Nebula shortlist, Cora Buhlert identifies two SFF factions: a traditionalist faction and an anti-nostalgia faction. She notes that despite their differing opinions on form these two schools of thought still seem to end up agreeing on what they don't like about SFF. McCalmont's arguments about SFF short fiction don't line up neatly with either of those two groups, but instead takes up the central idea that unites both groups: SFF should primarily focus on SFF elements. Anything that draws focus or concentration away from this vision of SFF (like emotional development or experimentation with ambiguity) is seen as a distraction, or a failing on a part of the story.

Increasingly critics assess speculative fiction by criteria specific to the development of the genre rather than by more general standards of criticism. Critics ask if a story is 'SFF enough' and use rigid ideas about what SFF is not supposed to do to exclude stories from their vision of the genre. Ironically, while I'm sure critics feel they apply these standards strictly and without deviation, they constantly change their approach to stories; bringing out new "logical" reasons for disqualifying it from the pantheon of 'good SFF' until one sticks. It's like there's a secret flowchart somewhere in the Srs SFF Critic Bat Cave:

Qu: Does this story examine the consequences of introducing SFF elements?

Answer: Yes.

Qu: Is this story's SFF element ambiguous?

Answer: No.

Qu: Is this story totally original?

Answer: No, but that's not really pos…

SFF Critic: "I knew it, I knew this story wasn't real SFF" *Leans back in chair and uncaps celebratory drink of choice*

The 'Is it original?' question is the most infuriatingly prevalent of these standards, as Ann Leckie dissects in an excellent post. I found myself especially bitter when Ian Sales wrote about Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire and mentioned that 'matriarchal societies in epic fantasy are not actually all that new'. As if that were AT ALL relevant. Another argument that's proving a strong favourite is a version of the 'feelings vs. ideas' divide—an argument SFF writers may know better as 'romance is icky' glossed over with respectability by the suggestion that a focus on feelings precludes a development of ideas. And 'Is it SFF, or literary genre?' appears set to join this bunch of dull, logically broken revolving standards.

And what is the point of all this chatter in the end except to make sections of SFF fandom feel alienated and certain SFF writers feel like their stories don't belong? These critics may believe that people will react to their comments and influence the genre to move in a more "correct" direction, but literature doesn't develop under the guiding hand of stricture. Originality develops in response, movements are reactions, and subversion is always gonna beat down any guidelines you lay out.

It's OK to question whether a story is SFF or not. I asked this question when reading "Once, Upon a Lime". With all experimental movements there's going to come a point where a reader's personal qualifiers rear up and they say 'That's as far as I think this can go'. My problem with the arguments I see around is that they're not presented as personal responses to stories or movements. They're presented as judgements about what fits in SFF and what doesn't; what constitutes a valuable new development and what just doesn't make the grade. And it's tiring as a fan, and I imagine as a creator, to be told that you're not playing in the right sandpit and you'd best go on home.

Samatar leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Walkdog is real. I like that and I feel like this story follows in a tradition of SFF stories that make much of ambiguity. Maybe other critics won't agree. Whatever. Can we just agree not to jump on the picket line waving signs that scream 'Not in My Backyard' every time we're not sure we like where a story is headed?

"Walkdog" is available for free at Weightless Books or can be purchased in the Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology.

Supplementary Materials

Short Business: "Selkie Stories Are For Losers" by Sofia Samatar
Sofia Samatar tells us about her Kaleidoscope story (Kaleidoscope)
This Writer's On Fire: Sofia Samatar (The Toast)

Date: 2015-06-07 06:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
Ugh, the question of whether or not something something is REALLY sf. You've answered it perfectly. Your response reminds me a bit of that interview that's going around, where Neil Gaiman interviews Kazuo Ishiguro about genre (http://www.newstatesman.com/2015/05/neil-gaiman-kazuo-ishiguro-interview-literature-genre-machines-can-toil-they-can-t-imagine).

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