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Introduction: SF Special Issue




Growing up on the Illinois prairie, I read pretty much anything I could find. My little school had small grade school and high school libraries, and the church had an even smaller one, both of which I ransacked. Every once in a while there was a book fair, and Scholastic Books sent around order forms that had me pleading with my parents for this or that paperback. (I found one of those books, titled Beyond Belief, on my shelves as I wrote this introduction).

I read mysteries, sports stories, general novels, all sorts of things, but my favorite reading was always science fiction. Stuck in what seemed to me the most humdrum and dull of daily lives (only much later did I begin to understand its illusory normalcy), books with titles like Astounding Tales of Space and Time and Beyond Belief fueled my yearning for adventure, action, and spectacle. Those books were often filled with mind-expanding ideas, scientific and otherwise. Sometimes the writing was pedestrian and the characters wooden, sometimes the underlying ideology was disturbingly militaristic and most of the time it was deeply macho, but I was too naïve to notice, usually. And for all the space operas full of exotic weapons and intergalactic warfare, books like Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed actually proposed that love might win over violence and oppression and that a pacifist, anarchist society could sustain itself, though not without difficulties. Even in Lord of the Rings, drenched in battle and warfare as it is, sacrifice and the renunciation of worldly power finally win the day.

My reading in those days was only a little driven by ideological or religious concerns, though, and while I was intrigued by the imagined "science" of faster-than-light travel and exotic life forms, it was the sense of adventure, magnitude, and wonder that kept me seeking out what I was soon learning to call speculative fiction or just SF. (Many years later I would read another book titled Beyond Belief, by biblical scholar Elaine Pagels, and find her neo-gnostic take on the Gospel of John equally fascinating.) When I discovered poetry in college and started trying to write it myself, I thought maybe I'd write fiction as well, even science fiction, but after one or two abortive and awful attempts I gave it up. Still, I kept reading, often raiding used bookstores for space operas—the longer the better—to liven up summers and get me through long plane rides.

A few "SF" writers, like Le Guin and Kurt Vonnegut, managed to write their way to "literary" respectability even in the sixties, and movies and TV series (Star Trek, anyone?) began to move SF into the mainstream. In the introduction to his revolutionary anthology Dangerous Visions (Doubleday, 1967), Harlan Ellison not only used "speculative fiction" to describe the work between its covers, but noted that speculative themes and settings had moved into the general literary culture, and showed with his selections that writers like Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, and Samuel R. Delany could hold their own with anyone.[1]

In college and grad school I discovered other writers and forms of non-realistic fiction. There was Kafka, of course, and the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, the mind-bending explorations of Jorge Luis Borges, the metafiction of Angela Carter and Donald Barthelme, much, much more . . . I found myself drawn to such authors and modes, even while conventional realistic stories and novels often left me bored. In the decades since, literary fashions have shifted in ways too complicated to detail here, but I will note two trends: one, the grip of Carver-style minimalism has been broken, and a wide range of non-realistic and experimental modes are flourishing. Two, as MFA programs pump out hundreds and thousands of talented, well-trained writers, a good many have moved into the genres of science fiction, horror, fantasy, and suspense.

Mennonites were not exactly pioneers of SF, with rare exceptions like van Vogt, who hid his Mennonite roots carefully. An occasional novel or story dealt with Mennonites or Amish in future settings, like Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow (1955), whose main characters are "New Mennonites" in a post-nuclear war America.[2] Recently and rather suddenly, however, a significant number of writers with Mennonite roots and/or affinities have turned to non-realistic forms and modes. This issue of Journal of Mennonite Writing documents the emergence of something new in Mennonite writing. Labels are tricky, but "speculative fiction" might work as well as any term to cover the wide range of genres in which Mennonite writers are working, a number of them represented here: fantasy, horror, magical realism, and what is still in some circles known as "science fiction."

It is not my work here to attempt to sort out these subgenres. But as a longtime and enthusiastic reader of writing that defies the norms of realistic fiction, I am interested in celebrating and exploring such work, especially here as it has been produced by writers with some kind of Mennonite connection. (It is also not my work to enter the long discussion of just who is and isn't a "Mennonite writer.")

We might begin by noting the sudden emergence of Sofia Samatar, who after a long period of relative obscurity has in the last two years published two well-received fantasy novels, a book of short stories, a number of essays, and a new collaborative book, Monster Portraits, which also features drawings by her artist brother Del Samatar and is excerpted here thanks to their generosity. Despite her "is that a Mennonite name?" name, Samatar is in many ways a Mennonite insider; she and both her parents graduated from Goshen College.

At quite a different point on the identity spectrum is Tobias Buckell, who grew up in the Caribbean and arrived at Bluffton College twenty years or so ago knowing very little about Mennonites, but determined to become a successful SF writer. He proceeded to do just that, winning a John W. Campbell Young Writer award even before he earned his Bluffton degree. As the interview here demonstrates, Buckell is not "Mennonite" in any conventional sense, but he has thought longer and more deeply about issues of violence and representation than many complacent birthright Mennos.

The category of horror intersects complexly with science fiction and fantasy. As already noted, constructing abstract definitions is one of my least favorite activities, but Andre Swartley offers an ingenious and passionate argument that Mennonites need horror fiction, along with an excerpt from his recent novel The Wretched Afterlife of Odetta Koop, which is perhaps even more ingenious in its combining scary entertainment and engagement with social issues. We also have an excerpt from the third volume in what the brilliant Stephen Beachy (perhaps with tongue partly in cheek) calls his "Amish Horror" series, which take place in a spectacularly imagined, not-quite-entirely-dystopian future where Amish, talking rats, and advanced technology coexist, not always peaceably.

As I sent out calls to writers I hoped would contribute to this issue, and learned about others, and spoke with them about possible contributions, the issue got more and more varied in terms of genres. Jessica Penner's acclaimed first novel was the magical realist family epic of Mennonites in Kansas, Shaken in the Water. Here she offers a section of her second novel, They Speak of Houses, which moves between a grim prison and an open yet mysterious prairie. Chad Gusler memorably describes a young Mennonite boy's frightening yet funny outdoor baptism in "Wild Geese," a section from his novel in progress Requiem. And I was delighted to get a vivid, touching new story about a young boy who discovers "The Last Djinn" from the marvelous Keith Miller, author of the lyrical, mind-stretching fantasy novels The Book of Flying, The Book on Fire, and The Sins of Angels.

Critical pieces here include Daniel Shank Cruz's incisive, intriguingly personal essay on "Request for an Extension on the Clarity," from Samatar's recent collection Tender—which will be of special interest to Goshen College alums and those interested in queer literature (see also the recent special issue of JMW on queer Mennonite writing, edited by Cruz). The circle becomes even wider through interviews with Emily Hedrick, who reflects on her dazzlingly allegorical memoir Confessions of a God Killer and her current role as a Mennonite pastor, and William Squirrell, author and editor of the webzine ­Big Echo: Critical SF.[3] And spirited, decidedly non-academic book reviews by Britt Kaufman and Kirsten Beachy suggest further reading (you've been dying to know whether you should read Amish Vampires in Space, admit it).

I mentioned above the one SF story I tried decades ago; a single copy is tucked away in a file cabinet somewhere, but will continue to rest in peace there. The closest I have come since is an occasional run at the fantastic in a poem, and I will offer just one here. It began at a conference, where a young evangelical science fiction writer told me he had solved the key problem for those seeking to explore galaxies in their work without giving up Jesus as the singular Messiah. "Earth is the Jerusalem of the universe!" he told me, proudly. In the moment I could do no more than smile and nod, but later I felt compelled to construct a less human-centric story of God at work, no doubt enigmatically, in the wide universe. Not having the patience for a novel or even a short story, I managed this poem.

Scenario

The aliens arrive, saucers white and gleaming like sails.
Their instruments are excellent, and they all speak several
of our tongues. Still, they confess to struggles with translation.

They bring peace, but not the peace we have imagined.
They have a story we must learn, a story that drives them
through the galaxy. There was a child, a king, prophets,

plagues, a horrifying death, and a word more precious than
the world. They do not tell this story start to end, the word
resists all of our tongues. Red wolf racing in the dim forest?

someone asks. A vole in the meadow grass, meeting his beloved?
No. They beg for patience. They are sure we can learn,
we can know as they know. In the meantime, they bring

other gifts. Centuries pass. They talk, and we listen, when
we can. Millions die in plagues they insist were accidental
and tragic. The gleaming towers they build for us stand empty,

the wide spirals they insist must crown each tower screw themselves
enigmatically into the sky. They cannot go back, their ships
burnt dead by the deeps. More were to follow but none arrive.

They grow melancholic, distracted. They live for centuries
but do not breed — something in the sun, they believe.
We have the word, they die insisting, the only word,

the child told us there was no other word. They speak
the word, dying, reluctant, desperate. We listen. Nothing
changes. We bury them according to their ways, face up,

lightly covered, not too deep. When the child returns
in glory she will save us, they told us many times,
if we are covered lightly and not buried too deep.

from Deerflies (WordTech Editions, 2003). Reprinted by permission.

This is, of course, just a story, one that (like much SF) advertises its resistance to mere fact and history with its first sentence. Historically, Anabaptists have often regarded the making of such fictions with deep suspicion, fearing that they will undermine the simple truths of the faith. But for many of us, I suspect, the day when we can believe in "simple truths" is past; the world, it seems, is not simple, but full of things, people, and intricate relations on myriad levels which we ignore at our peril. While we may and should resist the many snares and disasters of human culture, these writers suggest, really we have no choice to be in the world—we are made up of its very stuff. To investigate in imaginative writing the mysteries that lie within the harsh realities of history, of our own times and places, to envision the possible futures that yawn before us, full of ominous threats and glimmers of hope—surely these are worthy tasks. We need all the tools, maps, and guidebooks we can find, as we surely also need fun, distraction, and invitations to wonder. I hope that the small sampling here provides some of these rewards, and will send readers in search of more Mennonite SF—a genre that with any luck will prove both as rich and as resistant to neat definition as Mennonite/s writing.



[1] The first Dangerous Visions included only three women among its 32 authors; the sequel Again, Dangerous Visions has a higher proportion of women, but white men are still in a large majority. Only in the last few decades have women and writers of color made serious gains in SF publishing and prizes, sometimes inspiring backlash from far-right authors (see the "Sad Puppies" controversy; one quick overview is at https://www.vox.com/2018/8/21/17763260/n-k-jemisin-hugo-awards-broken-earth-sad-puppies ).

[2] A recent, quite fine novel which also deals with Amish and Mennonites in a near-future apocalyptic situation is David Williams, When the English Fall (Algonquin, 2017). Williams is not Mennonite, but his characters and depictions of Anabaptist culture are sensitively drawn.

[3] Mennonite-related writers of SF who are not represented here include Corey Redekop, whose Husk (ECW Press, 2012) is very likely the first novel ever about a gay ex-Mennonite zombie, and Casey Plett, who recently edited (with Cat Fitzpatrick) the anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers (Topside Press, 2017). For brief commentary on their work, see Jeff Gundy, "Mennonite/s Writing: Explorations and Exposition," Mennonite Life 70 (2016). https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-70/article/mennonites-writing-explorations-and-exposition/.

About the Author

Jeff Gundy

Jeff Gundy’s seven books of poems include Abandoned Homeland (Bottom Dog, 2015) and Somewhere Near Defiance (Anhinga, 2014), for which he was named Ohio Poet of the Year. His most recent prose book is Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace (Cascadia, 2013). His essays and poems appear in Georgia Review, The Sun, Kenyon Review, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Forklift, Ohio, Christian Century, Image, Cincinnati Review, Terrain, and many other journals. He spent a 2008 sabbatical as a Fulbright lecturer and poet in residence at the University of Salzburg, and a 2015 semester at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He graduated from Goshen College and teaches at Bluffton University in Ohio.