23 February 2004

"Knapsack Poems" by Eleanor Arnason

"Knapsack Poems" is the first story I've read by Eleanor Arnason, and the quality of the story makes me wonder why I haven't paid more attention to her before. Now I will.

"Knapsack Poems" is one of two stories by Arnason currently up for the Nebula award, the other being her novella "The Potter of Bones". What makes this such a fine tale is its compression, for Arnason achieves in only a few pages what many other authors struggle to achieve in novels: she builds a convincingly alien species, creates an evocative world, and subtly explores the implications of what she has imagined, touching on issues of gender, class, art, and consciousness, without ever being predictably didactic.

The aliens of her world, the goxhat, are alien to us not only in their physical form, but in their social relationships: each Goxhat "person" is really a group of people, some male, some female, and some neutral (that is, uninterested in sexual relations). They use first-person singular pronouns to refer to what we would consider multiple people, or at least multiple expressions of one person, leading to such wonderful sentences as: "I looked at myself with uncertain expressions." Indeed, the story includes moments of linguistic fun which reminded me of Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit", and the goxhat themselves brought to mind Damon Knight's "Four in One" -- not bad company for a story to be keeping.

"Knapsack Poems" is remarkable not only for its characters and setting, all drawn with stunning efficiency, but also for the fine balance of humor and seriousness. It's not a specifically "humorous" story, but it does have plenty of marvelously amusing lines, including the last one (you'll have to get to it yourself, I don't want to spoil the story by quoting it here. It's not a twist ending, but rather one which is perfect in its pacing and syntax). Here's just one example of Arnason's odd, sly wit: "My children were Virtue, Vigor, and Ferric Oxide."

The title of the story comes from the protagonist's desire to be a famous, wealthy poet. The story is sprinkled with some of her/his/its poems, most of which read like ancient poetry from Asia in rough translation. Arnason adds footnotes to explain some aspects of the poetry, as well as to explain certain elements of goxhat life and physiology, and the footnotes provide a curious frame for the story -- they are written for humans, from a human point of view, and yet the tale doesn't offer any clues as to the goxhats' relationship with humans or human history. (The footnotes are not presented well in the online version of the story -- they appear in the midst of the text, breaking it up, making the footnotes, I expect, quite perplexing to someone who has not seen the printed edition.) The effect of the footnotes is to make the story itself seem like a relic or artifact, something which would be read in a library by scholars. It's a lovely effect, adding depth and providing both enlightening and entertaining information, though not in a way which undermines or questions the central narrative, as a postmodernist like David Foster Wallace tends to do.

What we have here, then, is a carefully constructed story full of resonances, a story which offers the traditional science fictional virtues of ideas and alien-ness, but which is written with a deceptively light touch and copious creativity, making the story a fascinating read and hiding what are, in truth, a number of remarkable technical accomplishments on Arnason's part. "Knapsack Poems" could stand as a model of all that can be accomplished within an SF story, giving the lie to anyone who thinks novels are the best the genre has to offer.

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