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Interview: Benjamin Rosenbaum on “Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters”

Benjamin RosenbaumTell us a bit about “Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters.”

I guess I spend a lot of time thinking about what we, we humans, might become — partly because it reflects on who we are now, but only partly. I’m also just honestly consumed with curiosity.

I have a fascinated skepticism about the Rapture of the Nerds school of science fictional thought (which has probably passed its peak of popularity, but I still think about it). You know the one: we upload ourselves into the cloud and live as pure minds, or build ourselves indestructible robot bodies, and that’s the end of war and disease and death and unhappiness, all of which were just problems of running on an inadequate platform or being insufficiently optimized. Like the brain is a machine and the mind is software and the body is a peripheral you can upgrade, and epistemology is as transparent as glass, and society and culture the passive amalgamation of individual decisions…

What all that gets wrong is in glibly handwaving away our ineluctable embodiedness — which amounts to a kind of philosophical dualism — the body as vehicle. It betrays a kind of dread and discomfort with the messy reality of being a body, and a touching, simplistic naïveté about ethics and ontology. It’s a smooth, appealing lie.

What it gets right, though, is about our malleability. The inverse of the Rapture of the Nerds — which would be, what, the Lassitude of the Jocks? — comfortably imagines us just plugging along as we’ve always been, and that’s equally false. It’s like the Flintsones/Jetsons model of history, in which we project dishwashers, two-car-garages, bosses docking our pay and stay-at-home-mom, bridge-playing wives into the far past and future.

if we stick around and keep fiddling with things like we have been, learning like we have been, we actually are going to change dramatically. And it will be messy, and morally fraught, and ambiguous, and unimaginable. And there will be discontents.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I actually wrote the first draft of this for a contest. It had a very specific prompt, which was basically two set paragraphs, the original first (telephone pole, soggy teddy bears) and twenty-fifth (bullhorn, milk crate) paragraphs of the story.

I like prompts a lot.

The contest seemed to be going for a very realistic-contemporary-literary take on social justice movements, in those paragraphs. We were probably meant to be in Flint or Ferguson or Baltimore, and we were probably meant to apply, to that setting, the genre techniques of literary fiction: restrained prose, closely observed precision in details of contemporary life, muted but immense emotion lurking in the background, an obsession with emotional inner life coupled with a terror of sentimentality. These sorts of techniques animated all those stories of Sad White People at Dinner Parties, all those fortysomething college professors meditating on their affairs with undergraduates, all those weary women staring out of kitchen windows thinking of cancer, who I had to read in creative writing courses at a fancy college in the eighties.

Don’t get me wrong; I like lots of exemplars of that genre. I’m a fan of Anne Tyler; I’m a worshipper of Austen. But as a set of genre expectations, it can quickly grow stifling; if I am asked to restrict myself to those set of techniques for the length of an entire story, I am apt to decide that, like Charlotte Brontë, I can hardly bear “to live with these ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses”.

And surely they are not the only techniques to apply to such a historical moment.

I am, as an American, very concerned — not to say implicated — in the outpourings of long-overdue unrest over our racist carceral state. I also am very far, in social space, from the cracked sidewalk and soggy teddy bears that that contest wanted me to talk about. For me to try to address them head-on, with the techniques of literary fiction? I don’t think I could avoid tourism, appropriation, or mawkishness.

But I thought it would be interesting to flip the telescope around and look through the other end, not with, as Charlotte said of Jane, “a miniature delicacy”, not a close observation — but, rather, to view the agents of historical change as tiny figures, seen at a great distance.  To transport the soggy teddy bears very far from the scenes of my country’s daily brutality, to situate them in an exploration of entirely different issues, to render the familiar strange.

 

Was “Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

It’s always personal, and I rarely know how. At least at first.

“Start the Clock” (F&SF, Aug 2004) is about a plague that stops aging, and the society that results from it; it’s also very much about the frustrations of househunting with old friends, trying and failing to live next door to each other in Virginia in 2003, and the acute and disappointing gap between the spirit of our childhood vows and the reality of all our adult variables and compromises. But that interpretation wasn’t consciously present when I wrote it.

Okay: I am a dislocated outsider in the place that I live; an immigrant who sometimes feels like a castaway. Like I came here for a specific purpose, little realizing what I was getting myself into. “Here” means Switzerland, mainly, but I think I also mean this universe. I have a body, or I am a body, and that body is a terribly fragile thing, gradually disintegrating, unlikely to last even another century. Somehow I have ended up stuck in this body, in this strange strand of history that often feels unreal, put-on, like a dystopian punchline.

 

Why do you write?

I like to take the things that are happening in my brain and try to make somehow corresponding things happen in other people’s brains. It makes me feel less alone. I particularly like it when lots of people do this and we all put our ideas in each others’ brains and the ideas go zing-pang-pow back and forth.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Well my traditional answer to this question was all the people I grew up reading? I mean when I was little, Dr. Suess and Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak, and then Tolkein and Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander and Tove Jannson and T. H. White and Susan Cooper, and also Asimov and Heinlein and Pohl and Hal Clement and Alexei Panshin and Le Guin and Zelazny and Michael Moorcock and David Brin and Larry Niven (some of those have aged so much better than others!), and then when I was a little older, Delany and Tiptree and Le Guin and Russ and Octavia Butler, and Neil Stephenson, and also Kobo Abe and Donald Barthelme and Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera and Borges. That about takes us through high school, for prose fiction? It ignores all the films and comics and nonfiction and poetry and things. I mean, Marvel Comics and Lao Tse and the Talmud and Alan Moore and e. e. cummings too. It was almost impossible to read for fun in college, but I would not have read Gadamer or Geertz or Haraway or Kristeva or Spivak or the Ramayana or Moshe Idel or Gershom Scholem had I not gone, so fair enough. It was only after college that I allowed myself to discover Dostoyevsky and Austen and George Elliot.

This is probably more than you wanted, and I have not actually scratched the surface, because in many ways the biggest influences are actually contemporaries and compatriots, the people I trade manuscripts back and forth with and collaborate with and see excitedly at cons. If I begin to name them I will neglect too many; but you know, Cory Doctorow and Amal El-Mohtar and David Moles and Kelly Link and Ted Chiang and Meghan McCarron and Sofia Samatar and Jed Hartman and Mary Anne Mohanraj and Liz Gorinsky… oh, there are far too many to name. Also your mighty editor Charlie Finlay! Charlie is an amazing story doctor. It probably took me a decade after he started editing F&SF to cure myself of the habit of accidentally sending him stories to critique, forcing him to politely ask if they were submissions.

 

What are you working on now?

I am about to begin a final(?) round of edits for my forthcoming novel, “The Unraveling”, under the able hand of the brilliant Liz Gorinsky. It is due out from Erewhon Books in July 2020, and you should go preorder it at https://www.amazon.com/Unraveling-Benjamin-Rosenbaum-ebook/dp/B07WJ12KZN if alternate genders and dislocated revolutions and satires of modern parenting and ubiquitous sousveillance and anthropological thought experiments and wrestling with the kind of moral agency we actually have in a large complex world and how utopia doesn’t look like utopia from the inside are your cup of tea.

I am also working on a Jewish historical fantasy interactive fiction game set in 1881 in a shtetl on the border between Poland and Ukraine, and possibly a card game about revolutionaries in the asteroid belt, and maybe an alternate-anthropological story cycle about a matrifocal society with horses and swords, and also a lot of other things.

Also, my little sister, who is an accomplished indie filmmaker, is making a movie of my short story “Night Waking”, and it’s crowdfunding now on Seed & Spark, check it out: https://www.seedandspark.com/fund/night-waking

 

“Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2010-19.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-november-december-2019/

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Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Click on Mr. Rosenbaum’s photo ((c) 2015 Karen Rosenbaum) to visit his website.

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