An Interview with Robert G. Penner, Author of Strange Labour

Robert Penner was editor at Big Echo, which ran for four years and published boundary breaking SF. Now he's moved into his own boundary breaking with a bold, new book, Strange Labour.

Some books have a painterly quality. The images jump off the page, vivid windows into worlds that veer into territory at once strange and familiar. That's where Penner's Strange Labour begins and ends. Penner is an imagist in the quality of the moderns as much as he is a postmodernist and a genre writer. Strange Labour is literary SF, merging philosophy with PK Dickian skepticism, like anxieties about using marijuana for fear of scrambling one's own genetic material.

RT: Broadly conceived, what were you trying to achieve with Big Echo and what trajectory did the project wind up taking on?

RP: There wasn’t really a short form venue for the science fiction I was interested in which was hard science fiction with a critical anti-capitalist/anti-colonial edge. I guess Kim Stanley Robinson would be a good example of what I was thinking of. There were magazines like Uncanny and Shimmer doing fabulous work but they tended towards the feels in ways I wasn’t particularly interested in, and Asimov’s et al were trundling out occasional pieces of what you could call hard science fiction but it was for the most part unreflexive. I guess I wanted hard science fiction that wasn’t just problem-solving astronauts existing in the social vacuum of some basement libertarian’s fantasy life. It was a total failure in that sense. The stylistic and intellectual ambitions of my contributors far exceeded my editorial guidelines. We were almost instantly anarchic avante-gardish rather than programmatic social realist which was really rather fantastic.

RT: Big Echo was paying homage to Frederic Jameson's idea of SF as scientific. Jameson has also explored cyberpunk science fiction as the best example of a postmodern literature that explores issues of late capitalism including, dislocation, struggle to maintain authentic identity, McDonaldization of society and the self, globalization, surveillance capitalism. Did Big Echo's anarchic avante garde SF aim to intersect with Jamesonian postmodern science fiction?

RP: Not at all, we were simply overwhelmed by the postmodern logics of late capitalism. I appropriated Jameson because it was a way of signposting the politics of Big Echo (Marx-y) and our interest in a specific type of SF because I wanted a certain type of submission. In that sense I was trying to establish us as a definable quantity in very unpostmodern way. And again: I failed. I suspect most of the people we published have political inclinations that overlap at least somewhat with mine, and certainly aesthetic ones that overlap a great deal, but Big Echo hardly came to represent the voice of unrevised Althusserian futurology or anything so appalling as that. That what we have produced does seem so Jamesonian is I think evidence of the acuity of his analysis rather than any sort of a plan on our part.

RT: How did working on Big Echo affect your own writing? Since the writers you were publishing weren't often going in the direction you wanted to go, did that push you as a writer?

RP: Absolutely. It made me re-examine certain, perhaps somewhat pious, commitments and assumptions, especially to the rigorously social realistic modes of SF I had in mind when I started Big Echo. One of the best feelings you can have as an editor, if that’s what you want to call what I did with Big Echo, is utter astonishment: pure what-the-fuckness. In particular Vajra Chandrasekera, Peter Milne Greiner, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Ahimaz Rajessh were all doing things that made me start re-evaluating what style meant in science fiction, what language did, got me thinking about what an avante garde science fiction would look like – or could look like – if you were willing to burn the canon and the rules and character arcs and all that industrial bullshit right down to the ground and start again, they made me want to have as much fun as it looked like they were having. I like realism, I really do, it’s a pleasurable constraint, but increasingly my favorite realism is the realism that is always threatening to collapse into madness, because that’s the realism that’s the most realistic, the one that recognizes itself as mere representation. 

RT: There's a precedent for experimentation in storytelling and language and a fragmentation of individual consciousness in "classic" sci fi too. I'm thinking of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man or anything from Samuel Delany or Octavia Butler. Are any of those jumping off points for you?

RP: Plenty of precedent, and plenty of experimentation going on all around me. Benjanun and Vajra were certainly well established before I started my hustle. And I read Ahimaz in Jellyfish Review I think, long before we published anything of his. And Peter had a great piece in Motherboard. So what I am describing is personal and idiosyncratic recalibration rather than a systematic evaluation or an analysis. If I had been paying attention it would have been a much less dramatic moment, much less startling for me. I wasn’t an aficionado of the genre or anything like that, I would read SF if someone said “this is good,” but I didn’t identify with it, so there were and are lots of blank spots for me, and I have a pretty primitive notion of what it is. Plus I’m just not that interested in the idea of classics, not really. I didn’t read any Delaney or Butler until I’d started Big Echo and people I admired were excited about them. I was just interested in writing and had a nostalgia for science fiction and I liked the idea of the “what if x?” that is so important to the genre. The idea of operating within genre rules. It was fun. But, of course, none of that is particularly unique to Science Fiction either, there’s always a “what if.” If I was to identify a jumping off spot it would be the coincidence of starting Big Echo and trying to find short form genre writers who I thought were doing remarkable things (and the remarkable things were very remarkable indeed), and reading a handful of postwar European novelists who really turned my head: Agota Kristof, Thomas Bernhard, Arno Schmidt. And closer to home Doris Lessing. And Gertrude Stein. And Jane Bowles. It was all very unorganized, very accidental, very exciting. Plus, I had time to read and write because I was in the States as a dependent of my partner and visa restrictions meant I couldn't work for a paycheck.

RT: Rudy Rucker says of your novel Strange Labour that it's filled with resourceful scrabblers and evil drifters. Where do these liminal characters come from? Are they connected to your background in literary modernism? Your prose styling also has the muscle of the moderns. Is that intentional?

RP: I don’t know if I’d say its intentional, but my sensibilities are certainly modern, although I hope not nostalgically so. The liminality you refer to is, and again: I hope, not simply another recapitulation of The Outsider cliché. One of the science fictional things I am the most interested in is the problem of recognizing cognition and consciousness in things not human – I’m thinking especially of Philip K. Dick and the cyberpunks and Peter Watts Blindsight but it would really be a very long list. The last interview we published was with Steve Shaviro and it came right on the tail of my having read his marvelous book Discognition which is among other things I think an effort to use science fiction to find a way out of the observer/observed solipsism so characteristic of the modern. For me Strange Labour was also an effort to do something like that to, to use the tropes of the postapocalyptic to reconsider the complex of cognition, consciousness and sociability, so one of the things I enjoyed most about that interview was being able to talk to someone who had been carefully considering such dynamics for a very long time.

RT: Disaster can be a powerful vehicle for revealing anxieties and flaws in service to correcting them, like a Shaun of the Dead, reckoning with personal issues while the zombies howl. I wonder if the conflicts in your stories are borne of lived experience and our collective and ever unfolding present or if they are borne of imagination.

RP: I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think stories, speculative and otherwise, are part of the way we imagine our relationship to the often incomprehensible conditions of our existence, both in terms of face-to-face interpersonal relationships like those of Shaun and Ed and Liz, and larger impersonal structures such as the economy and politics and zombies trying to eat you. I suppose what a disaster does for the writer is it shakes up those imaginary maps of reality which we have been living with, and through, makes them unstable, untrustworthy. That slippage is where the humor and the horror come from. The mask slips. A gasp. Very dramatic. What I’m after in a lot of my writing is to not only show that slippage but to try and show what those imaginary maps of reality have been hiding from us. In particular that the unfolding catastrophe of history has been proceeding all along and that only certain groups are in a position privileged enough to have ignored it. There are millions of people out there in the US today longing for a return to normalcy, both in terms of COVID and the possible unseating of Trump, but that idea of normalcy is the lie that turns our tragedy into a farce. What they long for is a comfortable existence untroubled by any awareness of the horrors of the social and economic conditions that make that comfortable existence possible, and the more they repress that horror, the more horrible it seems when it returns. And it always returns.

RT: One last question--where can we find your book?

In the US your best bet is direct from the publisher Radiant Press. Amazon carries it as well, both paperback and kindle but if you order the paperback from Amazon it'll take awhile.

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