Friday, February 6, 2009


The February 9-and-16 issue of THE NEW YORKER has published an SF story. Or what it thinks is an SF story.

In the past THE NEW YORKER has actually published some very fine SF, including stories by Ursula LeGuin. However, "The Invasion From Outer Space," by Steven Millhauser, is not among them. Before I describe the story, some caveats:

I am not among those who automatically hate any SF written by authors not in our little club. I liked THE HANDMAID'S TALE, think some of Fay Weldon's satires are a hoot, and don't even blame Cormac McCarthy for all the attention he got for THE ROAD, a novel on a topic that SF writers have done earlier and better. My reaction to "The Invasion from Outer Space" is not sour grapes.

Second, I understand that the story is not mimetic SF, but rather a subgenre that uses the tropes of SF in a non-realistic way to make a point. I have written stories like that myself ("People Like Us") and consider it a legitimate form of speculative fiction. And I got the point of this story: that when we expect drama and excitement, we're much more likely to get the mundane. The world ends not with a bang but a whimper. Got it.

That said, this is a boring story. The "invasion" is endless gold-colored dust, organic and replicating, that will eventually smother us all. Meanwhile, people, although disappointed ("We had wanted terror and ecstasy"), just go on with their lives, sweeping the streets free of yellow dust, dusting window ledges, hosing off porches. The reaction is muted ("It's really quite peaceful, in its way") as humanity is extinguished.

So what? I didn't believe this scenario at all, in human terms. Even as metaphor, it's simplistic and boring. I don't expect NEW YORKER readers to appreciate Charles Stross, but a little imagination does seem called for when you're considering invasions from space. What was the fiction editor thinking?


Luke said...

The other story I read by Millhauser in Harper's was also vaguely SFnal, centering around research into some type of sensory glove.

Frank Böhmert said...

Didn't he get a World Fantasy Award in the 1990ies?

cd said...

My bet is that they always say yes to Pulitzer Prize winners, regardless of how bad; and besides they probably have only ever encountered SF on television and so wouldn't recognize bad SF when they saw it.


James A. Ritchie said...

I think you'd be amazed at how many New Yorker readers appreciate Charles Stross. I'm one of them.

From my perspective, it's the Charles Stross readers who usually fail to appreciate The New Yorker.

As for "The Invasion From Outer Space," by Steven Millhauser, well, isn't "boring" the entire point of the story?

It also strikes me as remarkably accurate. Yes, scoentists, the military, reporters, and probably SF readers might be frantic, might well be rusing around like intelligent ants in an effort to stop this gold dust invasion, but I suspect the regular folks in a regular town would react exactly this way.

And why would they not? They would sweep and sweep, vacuum and vacuum, but they would also, I think, go on with their lives in a calm and accpeting way until and unless they could do so no longer. What else could they do? What else should they do?

This story may be lousy SF, but I hardly think that's a strike against it. Boring? Yes, it is. Good? Yes, it is.

Luke said...

I much preferred the Saunders story in the last issue.

Jack Skillingstead said...

I think it was Richard Christian Matheson who published a story many years ago called "Dust." It was pretty similar to this one, though better written. "Invasion..." has no energy. Lapses into passive voice drag it down. There are no characters. It's a situation, with nothing much attached to it. I feel the writer could have just written a paragraph telling his readers about how dull life really is (making this assumption for everybody) and called it a day. Some of the descriptions of the gold powder are nice, but others don't make sense. He describes it as "like fine pollen, like yellow dust" and then refers to a "downpour" -- a word at odds with the drifting, gentle notion of dust or pollen.

"We had wanted blood, crushed bones, howls of agony." Who wanted that? People want to see that in MOVIES, maybe, but no one sane wants to see it happen on their street. I understand that this story isn't meant to be taken realistically, but it's so detached that it does seem pointless. The New Yorker publishes good stories often enough, but I don't think this is one of them.

Nancy Kress said...

Frank is right -- Millhauser did win a World Fantasy Award (1990) and so perhaps I should not have characterized him as "not a member of our little club." And James is right that of course there are NEW YORKER readers who appreciate Stross -- I'm one of them -- but not, I think, very many. However, I stand by my objections to the story, which Jack has articulated very nicely.

Nick A said...

There's a fun reference to The New Yorker in a short story by Larry Niven "The Return of William Proxmire", the sub-premise being 'technology' was considered a 'non-literature topic' after the second world war, verboten for anything considered 'high brow'.

I like the concept of WWI being so devastating to western culture that it permamently split technology from modern 'accepted' literature. It doesn't completely hold, e.g. Huxley.

JeffV said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James A. Ritchie said...

Isn't this one of the great things about literature, that we all enjoy different things?

I suspect we even read the things we enjoy in a different manner. When Jack writes

"We had wanted blood, crushed bones, howls of agony." Who wanted that? People want to see that in MOVIES, maybe, but no one sane wants to see it happen on their street.

I don't read it that anyone wanted these things to happen to them, in the streets or elsewhere. I read it to mean that if an invasion should come from outer space, we want it to be something expected, something we know how to deal with, something of flesh and blood that we can fight. The devil we know.

But even if you take the "want" literally, it's entirely realistic. Just change the golden dust to comets and asteroids. If the invasion came with this weapon, with a constant bombardment of comets and asteroids until we ceased to exist, we'd all be wanting them to come down in the streets to fight, no matter how bloody and terrible it became.

I can't help but wonder if part of the probolem here is the POV character? An SF writer would most likely choose a scientist, even if it had to be an amateur living in the town. But a problem solver of some sort. A survivor.

This POV character is the exyra in a movie, the baker sweeping his sidewalk, the guy riding his bike down the street, the old man sitting at the bus stop, there only to add verisimilirude to the scene.

He isn't hero material, he isn't scientist material, he isn't even worthy of a speaking part. . .but he is 99.9% of humanity.

John Manzo said...

You don't have to like it. I found it unsettling and terrifying.

Romulus Augustulus said...

I liked it, I think it really captured the feeling in the air. We expected an attack by anthrax, by a dirty bomb, or by a mushroom cloud over Washington DC. We expected a jihadist super villain we could fight, even if it was just by duct taping our doors shut. Instead the American empire is being brought low by our mortgages, our car loans, our credit cards. How do we fight that? Didn't our collapse deserve some more spectacular trigger?

jamjam said...

And why would they not? They would sweep and sweep, vacuum and vacuum, but they would also, I think, go on with their lives in a calm and accpeting way until and unless they could do so no longer. What else could they do? What else should they do?

I don't know of a sillier misconception about human nature held by an actual human being.

If you want to get an inkling of what real human beings did do in the face of a disaster with deep resemblances to the invasion of gold dust so blandly under-imagined by Millhauser , I suggest reading Timothy Egan's excellent The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

Darwin said...

What did you think of Lethem's Lostronaut in the 11/17/08 issue?