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The Tired Body Problem

Editors of fiction and nonfiction alike live in a cyclone of recurring themes. We receive pitches and submissions along seasonal and cultural currents; we can always tell when an anthology call made waves or a new magazine made ripples. More than that, we can usually sense which way the wind is blowing for writers and creatives in general, because everyone finds a way to express the same general feeling.

For the entirety of my time here at Uncanny, I have received essays that express fatigue. Everybody is tired. Writers are tired, and more than that, burned out. That feeling is elegantly expressed by Premee Mohamed, who noted that the entire world seems to be burning down, but only our deadlines remain fireproof. Sarah Gailey invited us, the endlessly weary, to take a break with a short story. And what are those stories for? Inspiration, sure. A window out of this world into another? Sometimes. A way to rest, when all else in life calls for our unrelenting efforts and demands that we produce at an incredible rate even as our beds are burning? That’s the one.

That last is a vast understatement of the facts. We are all of us living out our wild and precious lives. Each life is a tragedy in progress. Each tree of branching relationships is a living drama. Each absurd indignity of being a human is a comedy. And although each of these facts has been true of every human who has ever lived upright and used a language, our time seems, if not unique, at least louder, and more frenetic than any that preceded it. That is perhaps due to an unprecedented (who’s tired of that word?) acceleration in technology accompanied by social upheaval and political turmoil and climate change. These factors are exacerbated by our all-new ability to hear the inane and terrifying thoughts of the millions of minds around us, thanks to social media, while we contend with our own micro and macro horrors. Add to all this the pressures of late-stage capitalism under an income inequality not seen in centuries, and it’s a wonder we don’t all just lie down in the street and refuse to get up.

But it is the hubris of each generation to imagine its suffering is new and different than any other. Science fiction writers have been trying to undo the human need for sleep for decades now. In 1957, J.G. Ballard imagined an existence without sleep. His optimists in “Manhole 69” believe that life might be more interesting and more productive without the loss of eight hours of torpor. His pessimists predict the outcome we all know to be the truth from our own experience with continual exhaustion: the human mind simply cannot take it. Ted Chiang’s 1991 “Understand” draws a similar conclusion: the mind that does not sleep loses something essentially human. When we are tired, we are less than ourselves. Certainly less than our best.

In 2014, Karen Russell published Sleep Donation, an early entry into the conversation about sleep and capitalism. In her tale, talented sleepers can donate or sell what they’re good at to insomniacs who desperately need it. Even this seemingly reciprocal arrangement is no good: the exchange of dreams and nightmares uncouples the work on an individual from the mind that created it. The result is inhumane and more tiring than the garden-variety lack of rest.

This most recent year of the pandemic (which pandemic? Why, the one that brings viral fatigue! The one we’re all so very tired of! The one that’s wearing us out when it doesn’t kill us!) brought readers The Sleepless, by Victor Manibo. In Manibo’s neo-noir, a cascading series of environmental and pharmacological pressures makes about ten percent of the human population sleepless. They’re up all night in neon cities, working second jobs and trying each other on like onesie pajamas. Manibo’s nightlight fantasy is so appealing, mostly because of capitalism. Imagine having no fatigue to strain the potentials of wage earning. Imagine wide-open rooms in an apartment, because the person who lives there has no need to cede real estate to a bed. Imagine living twice as much life, because half of it isn’t spent unconscious.

The idea appeals, at first. Somewhere deep within each of us there lives a sullen toddler who does not want to go to bed. Other people are awake, and surely they must be enjoying something illicit from which we are excluded. We want to stay up and be grown-up and cool.

The toddler needs a nap. The grown-up needs a nap. We all need a nap.

At the beginning of the pandemic (which pandemic? Why, the one that will be over before you know it! The one we can curtail through masking and social distancing! The one where we’re flattening the curve by caring about one another) brought readers a new Tim Pratt novel, called Doors of Sleep. In this Sliders-style adventure of parallel universes, our hero wakes up in a new world every time they sleep. This makes sleep both the enemy and the vehicle of adventure itself. The main character has to carry stimulants and soporifics alike, to bring sleep when it’s needed (when the world is dangerous, when they have to escape) and to ward it off when the world is welcoming (this world has food, this world has a hot tub, this world brought me a companion whom I’d like to take along). Doors of Sleep is a cunning and charming creation that makes the reader think of sleep with such tension: dare I slip off into another world? What’s happening to this one while I’m away?

It is this last worry that hangs over each of these submissions that I read. If the body is tired, we should feel no guilt about giving it the rest that it so clearly needs. We should surrender to the nap, to the deep night, to the time off of work, to the quiet when the kids are out of the house. We should breathe deep in it, knowing that we deserve it, and take the benefits it brings with gratitude.

But we don’t. And in our wildest dreams, our farthest-reaching stories, most of us do not imagine a world where rest is enshrined as sacred, and our devices are turned off, and we forgive our bodies the weakness of not being machines in perpetual motion. We imagine the singularity. We imagine augmented cyborg bodies that can outrun every human frailty. We dream of being awake, eyes pinned open, never missing a thing.

There are several subgenres of fantasy and science fiction that we don’t commonly include in our reviews and our counts. They don’t come up in awards conversations, and they’re rarely considered art. These stories exist in a specific section of our libraries, behind a beaded curtain like erotica. Like erotica, they’re meant to act on the somatic self rather than the imagination. On every podcatcher and audio book app, there are stories designed to help folks sleep. They’re sometimes stories about spaceships gliding between peaceful planets and elf maidens building a bower where anyone might rest their weary heads. They’re read in soft, soothing voices, and they last about as long as it takes to get settled down and remember how to breathe without the firehose of information in our mouths.

The body living in 2022 is so tired. That’s true across the board, and any editor or reader can attest. Being tired is not a weakness, and sleep is not a surrender. The relationship between the two is, as Ballard and Chiang and Manibo and Pratt conclude, utterly human. Give yourself the gift of that realization. If you’re having trouble, settle in and let yourself have story time.

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Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. She is a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. In 2020, she published her first collection, Big Girl with PM Press, containing the Locus Award-winning novelette, “The Pill.” Elison’s first young adult novel, Find Layla was published in 2020 by Skyscape. Her thriller, Number One Fan, will be released by Mira Books in 2022. Meg has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

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