The Links of Locke Lamora

We interrupt this Vector blog to bring you a brief post about Strange Horizons. For anyone who hasn’t been following Lamoragate, here’s a recap:

1. A review

2. A response

3. A second response

4. The reviewer’s response to the first response

5. A rant

6. The author comments

7. A response to the rant

8. A meta-response (possibly)

9. Infamy!

10. A response that is longer than all the other responses put together

(UPDATED) 11. Another response by the author of the first response, which is a response to the responses to that response

(FURTHER UPDATED) 12. Now all responses until the end (and none more meta)

I think that’s the lot. Let me know if I’ve missed any.

A couple of comments on the original EmCit thread aside, I’ve been holding off making any kind of a public statement about this, since I’m the guy that accepted and edited the original review. But I figure there are a few points worth noting.

One: there was no intent to cause controversy by publishing the review, and no intent to criticise specific individuals.

Two: Perhaps I have an unusually thick skin, but it simply never occurred to me that anyone would read the statement in this review about lies and bribes as anything other than hyperbole. Because whatever grains of truth there are underlying it, to me it’s clearly an exaggeration to the point of absurdity. I don’t think it’s just blind optimism to believe that these days, most sf reviewers are working to their own version of the protocol of excessive candour; or to think that in general sf criticism, online and off, formal and informal, is as healthy as it’s ever been; nor to be sceptical of the idea that there are widespread assumptions to the contrary that this review is going to reinforce.

Three: For reviewers it can certainly be challenging to do what Clute’s called “swab the decks”; to bring an independent, honest perspective to–or to not be a little suspicious of–a book that has been actively hyped, or even just widely praised. I know the feeling, whether reviewing a high-profile title, or a book edited by a friend. But it’s something that we have to do, as part of earning the reader’s trust, so I think it’s a subject worth talking about.

And four: ironically, I’m currently reading The Lies of Locke Lamora myself, and quite enjoying it.

Tributaries

I was a little surprised to realise, the other day, that I’ve been talking about River of Gods for two years now. There are a number of reasons why this is the case: publishing accident (the US edition has only just come out, after all); awards buzz (which I wouldn’t be surprised to see continue with a Campbell nomination next year); and, not least, the fact that it’s simply a good book worth talking about.

But it also doesn’t hurt that Ian McDonald has started publishing stories set in the same future. There have been two to date–”The Little Goddess” last year and “The Djinn’s Wife” this year, both novellas, both in Asimov’s—with, I gather, a few more to come. I usually resent, or at least am healthily sceptical of, authors returning to the same well too many times—there are very few worlds other than our own that really support multiple stories—but McDonald has, so far, gotten away with it. In part this is because I know there’s a new novel, a new world, coming soon, so I know he’s unlikely to draw this well dry; and in part, so far, it’s simply because he’s told more good stories worth talking about.

And he hasn’t just recreated the novel. The points of comparison are many, and the fractured future India is recognisable (if less intense: the tipping point has not yet been reached) but these stories can’t do what River of Gods did. The writing is as fluid and vibrant as ever, but simply by virtue of the fact that these are individual stories rather than a knot of ten tales bound together, they show less of the world, and are more immediately graspable. And I think McDonald knows this, because he turns it into an advantage: both are told in the first person—one direct, one reported—thus constraining their focus, personalising this future in a way that the novel can’t match. At the same time, however, neither story can be fully decoded without a certain familiarity with the bedrock of the novel. Both are clearly picking up ideas that River of Gods touched on, but perhaps didn’t explore in as much depth as they could stand; but because one person sees less of the world than ten, there are some things we never find out. This is from the start of “The Djinn’s Wife”:

I was born in Ladakh, far from the heat of the djinns—they have walls and whims quite alien to humans—but my mother was Delhi born and raised, and from her I knew its circuses and boulevards, its maidans and chowks and bazaars, like those of my own Leh. Delhi to me was a city of stories, and so if I tell the story of the djinn’s wife in the manner of a sufi legend or a tale from the Mahabharata, or even a tivi soap opera, that is how it seems to me: City of Djinns.

(Both stories, I feel obliged to say, are blighted by the patronising italics evident in the above quote. There’s no reason for them—both narrators are natives—and given the extent to which McDonald mixes up idioms and jargon, as anyone who has read River of Gods will be able to appreciate, such highlighting becomes rapidly annoying, and at times outright absurd.)

The last comparison is the most significant. The Djinn of the title is, as we expect, an aeai, AJ Rao—a diplomat, but also a player in India’s prime-time soap opera hit, Town and Country. In River of Gods, that show and all its players turned out to be part of a superintelligent aeai, tools by which that being attempted to understand how humans story their lives. In “The Djinn’s Wife” Town and Country is the background, the reflection of the surface tale—but knowing its deeper purpose gives events greater resonance. AJ Rao’s marriage to Esha, a dancer, is told in larger-than-life terms at least partly because the narrator (we do learn their identity, at the end of the story) is used to seeing life as large, as soap. So the couple meet; they court; they have the wedding of the season; they are pulled (are driven) apart. They act out the expected stages of their romance for us. How much they have been stage-managed is an open question.

Similarly, the little goddess, a future reincarnation of the Kumari Devi, is drafted to serve as the end of someone else’s story. She has, for the early years of her life, no story of her own: no caste, no village, no family, no home; not even, unless I missed it, a name. She is raised to believe that the myth of others is her myth, and when she loses her divinity (on first bleeding) it’s a hard fall. She, like Esha, ends up in Delhi, but not as a dancer. Instead she signs on at a marriage market. Men outnumber women four to one in this future: now it’s husbands that pay the dowry. But the little goddess turns out to have a disappointingly low market value, until she catches the fancy of a Brahmin, one of the genetically blessed children of this India, a boy-king who lives twice as long as the rest of us, aging half as fast. A new god, we are told, and the irony is not lost. He is gifted with the youth that betrayed the little goddess to her humanity.

It’s clear, then, that both “The Djinn’s Wife” and “The Little Goddess” are not just limited slices of this future, but are about situations that embody a similar sense of constraint; or, looked at another way, that they are both about cases that test the boundaries of their society. River of Gods featured only one marriage, and that of cold convenience, between the strait-laced Krishna Cop Mr Nandha and his quiet country wife Parvarti. These stories play variations on that theme: in “The Djinn’s Wife”, we are asked if love can find a way, while in “The Little Goddess” we are asked to consider the fate of those who don’t fit the system.

As in the novel, these questions are authentically bedded in Indian culture. The protocols that deal with them already exist (an elderly relative tells Esha that marrying Rao is “like marrying a Muslim, or even a Christian [...] not a real person”), but McDonald challenges them with new situations, connecting the human dilemmas of his stories intimately to the changing technologies available. The little goddess, for example, is warned that “the kind of special it takes to be Kumari means you will find it hard in the world”, and so it proves. To withstand the trials of being a goddess, she withdraws into herself to the point of becoming autistic, and develops a dissociative disorder that separates her self and her otherness for the sake of her sanity.

Yet “The Little Goddess” turns in the end on the difference between disorder and adaptation; while for Esha and Rao, who learn to make love in unorthodox fashion, part of what dooms the relationship is a resistance to change. The fate of both progatonists is determined by how far they are willing (or unwilling) to integrate with the aeai that surround them on a daily basis, how far they accept the future that permeates their lives. They are, in that sense, not just variations on Parvarti, but variations on Aj, the driftwood girl at the heart of River of Gods—the girl who was, like Town and Country, a tool for aeais trying to understand humanity.

These stories balance their big brother in one final way: their location. River of Gods took place primarily in Varanasi, the capital of Bharat. In “The Djinn’s Wife” and “The Little Goddess” we see events leading up to one of the novel’s key events from the other side, the neighbouring state of Awadh. Both stories end in tension, on the brink of a water-war, near or after the day when Awadh signs the USA’s Hamilton Acts and outlaws any aeai above a 2.8 (indistinguishable from human 95% of the time; it is the godlike gen-threes, seeking refuge in the data-havens of Bharat, that drive River of Gods). In doing so they make Esha’s husband an instant rogue and the little goddess an instant fugitive. The world intervenes. We have free will, these stories seem to say, but we don’t have free choice. Our stories are part of one story: we are all tributaries. We flow together, our fates bound up in the current.

Beyond Black: Three Approaches

I recently read Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, which is a fine book. I found myself wondering around half-way through though, in a genuinely puzzled fashion, why I was still bothering to read it. Not in a ‘I’m not bothered about reading it, so why don’t I just stop?’ sort of way, but in a ‘I am bothered about reading it and I want to know why’ sort of way. I was thoroughly caught up in the book, but recognised that what I’d been caught by was something different from what usually catches me when I’m reading and wanted to figure out what it was. What was pulling me through Beyond Black was not plot, or narrative momentum, or a sense of moving through a story, as is often the case with the science fiction books I read. What was pulling me through, in this case, was a liking for and an interest in a character, a desire to know and understand her better.

Beyond Black is about a professional medium, Alison Hart, and her colleague Collette. Alison is a clairvoyant who earns her money through stage shows and tarot readings, and who is accompanied in her daily life by her spirit guide, Morris. Morris is a dirty little man, a “low” spirit, one of the “fiends” that haunt Alison from her horrendous childhood. The book covers a seven year period in Alison’s adult life during which Collette works with/for her, as her manager and personal assistant. But Beyond Black isn’t about those seven years, and it isn’t even really about Alison and Collette. It’s just about Alison; her life, who she is. And although it is about her past, present and future, it’s not about telling the story of the path from her beginning through her middle to her end, it’s about understanding who she is now in the light of who she was then and who we hope she will eventually become. Alison is the key to Beyond Black; if you don’t much like her and aren’t interested in her then there is no real point in continuing to read the book. Where science fiction often uses narrative to draw a reader through a novel, Beyond Black uses characterisation, so I would imagine that if you approached it as if it were science fiction (not that I consciously was, but I suppose that sf is what I habitually read, so part of me may have been subconsciously looking for the things I’m accustomed to looking for in fiction when I was reading it) then it would seem somewhat pointless.

Approaching Beyond Black as fantasy probably wouldn’t work either, precisely because the book presents the fantastic as being thoroughly and truly mundane. The spirits Alison encounters, and the “airside” realm they belong to, are both mundane in the sense of ordinary, but also mundane in the sense of worldly. Airside is not the heaven (or the hell) of all our stories, in fact, it’s not that much different from earthside. Yes, some spirits from airside are dangerous and to be feared because, let’s face it, some people are dangerous and to be feared, and that’s what spirits are, just people, in some cases just spiteful, cruel, stupid, thoughtless people. Who happen to be dead. For Alison, the spirit world is ordinary, everyday, the spirits in it are the vandals of her neighbourhood, the dossers, the idiots on the bus. They talk about pickled eggs and get drunk and bicker. Fantasy tends to expect a reader to recognise a difference between the mundane and the fantastic, which Beyond Black does not. Or at least, if fantasy doesn’t expect a reader to recognise a difference, it usually does expect them to view the mundane through the lens of the fantastic, whereas in Beyond Black the reverse happens, the reader is encouraged to see fantastic as mundane.

An interesting way to approach Beyond Black is, perhaps, to approach it as horror. And the horror here isn’t in the fantastic elements of the book, it’s in the grotesquerie of the some of the all too human specimens it depicts. Morris is a truly nasty little piece of work, and his compatriots can be even grosser and more despicable than he is. It’s not their status as spirits that does this, it’s the fact that they were thoroughly obnoxious, immoral, selfish, and vicious human beings. Morris and the rest of “the fiends” are horrific in the sense that they embody some of the worst qualities people can possess. They are abusers, rapists, criminals, murderers, sleazy, and mean, and violent. For the most part we don’t see those qualities in action, but we know what the fiends are like, and the horror comes simply from their persistent, inescapable presence, the fact that they’re just there, being who they are. The horror comes from the glimpse this book gives us of what it must be like to have truly horrible people lurking in your life, in your house, in your body, in your head, and to not even know how to go about thinking about how to exorcise them. There is an astonishingly effective scene in the novel in which Morris grubs his way around a motorway service station, and he’s seems so ugly doing it, and his poking around is so unpleasant that it makes your skin crawl just imagining him being there, invisibly salivating over truckers’ breakfasts. I think one of the undercurrents in Beyond Black is the thought that there are horrible people in the world and sometimes you can’t escape them. It’s not a nice thought at all.

I don’t think Beyond Black needs to be thought of as belonging to any particular genre; it has many excellent qualities that certainly don’t need to be appreciated through any specific genre-related literary lens. But I do think that approaching it as horror may enhance a reading of the book, whereas approaching it as science fiction or fantasy would almost certainly be detrimental to it.

Trilinkual

1. John Scalzi has a fascinating post on “Why there are no great video game critics (yet).” His first argument is that they aren’t yet a mature medium, which is probably true; he notes that it took several decades for mature film and pop music criticism to start appearing (the same is probably true for genre sf, even though it was a subset of an existing form, prose fiction: Astounding 1926, Damon Knight 1952). On the other hand, as a general rule I do think we’re feeling the lack of such criticism today. One of the things Adam Roberts argues in his Palgrave History of Science Fiction is that just as the novel supplanted the short story as the dominant form of sf in the mid 20th century, so film and tv have started to supplant the novel, if they haven’t done so already. I think you can quite easily add computer games, and possibly comics, to ‘film and tv.’ One of my formative sf experiences was playing the later Final Fantasy games on the PS2, for instance—it’s clearly going to become increasingly untenable to talk about sf as a cultural discourse while considering prose fiction in isolation. I’m not saying all critics have to know about everything, and neither am I saying that written sf is going away, but … already we have stories like Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners,” which is part of a dialogue with a tv series (Buffy), or David Marusek’s Counting Heads, which is more-or-less consciously structured like a season of US tv; and we have writers like Sean Stewart and Neil Gaiman who happily hop, skip and jump between multiple media.

2. Andrew Wheeler, a senior editor at the Science Fiction Book Club, posts a list of “The Great SF Novels of the 90s.” Context: the SFBC has been reprinting eight books a year from successive decades each year for the past four years. As preparation, each time he’s surveyed readers of RASFW, and latterly his blog, about their preferences, to get ideas. He cuts the data several different ways, but some books keep showing up, as you’d expect—Snow Crash, A Fire Upon The Deep, The Sparrow, Red Mars, Use of Weapons. What’s a little embarrassing, considering this is supposed to be my period, is the number of books and even writers coming up that I’m not very familiar with. I haven’t read Hyperion, or The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, for instance, and very little Bujold, George RR Martin, or Connie Willis. On the other hand, it’s a pretty US-centric list, as you would expect; it doesn’t look complete to me without something by Stephen Baxter, and probably Ken Macleod and Greg Egan as well. What do you think’s missing, though?

3. All hail the Robot Pope!

“But wait!” you say. “The Robot Pope will have bugs!” But that’s where you’re wrong. The only way to really ensure the Robot Pope is as bug-free and as accurate as possible is to create an open-source pope architecture.

More First Impressions

Three more reviews have just gone up on the Vector website, this time from issue 246.

Mark Morris' Nowhere Near An Angel reviewed by Martin Lewis:

There's another problem, though not one with the book itself. PS Publishing has a remit covering sf, fantasy, horror and crime/suspense; Vector does not. Nowhere Near An Angel is a dark thriller in the vein of Iain Banks' Complicity. In his introduction to the book Stephen Gallagher says "This book isn't, by any obvious definition, a horror novel, but I'd be willing to contend that it's the kind of novel only a born horror writer could have produced." That's debateable but it is certainly true that no definition used by the BSFA would encompass it. Still if a book like A Thread Of Grace by Mary Doria Russell can get reviewed in these pages then there is definitely room for Nowhere Near An Angel.

Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighteenth Annual Collection reviewed by me, Geneva Melzack:

The classification of these stories as being fantasy and/or horror could be seen as a narrowness of scope, an attempt to wall fantasy and horror up into the genre ghetto. But again, the diversity of the markets these stories have been taken from belies this argument. Datlow, Link and Grant haven't just looked at fiction published under the banner of fantasy and horror; they've also included stories originally published in mainstream or young adult markets. Indeed, publishing stories such as Chuck Palahniuk's 'Guts' — originally published as mainstream fiction — in a fantasy and horror collection actually adds an extra layer to the story, which provides a new method for appreciating it.

Keith Brooke's Genetopia reviewed by Ben Jeapes:

Genetopia is set in a low-tech world of genetic engineering gone bonkers, and it is convincing precisely because it's so low tech. The simplest effects available to the people of this world are way in advance of anything we can do now, but they are still very hit and miss. You expose people to changing vectors, maybe pray a little, and see what happens.

Author Keith Brooke will be interviewed by Molly Brown at the BSFA meeting next Wednesday 28th June.

More reviews and features to come when international issue 247 comes out.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead

Bobby didn’t know her at first. She was wounded, like him. The first thirty to arrive all got wounds. Tom Savini himself put them on.

Her face was a silvery blue, her eyes sunken into darkened hollows, and where her right ear had been was a ragged-edged hole, a gaping place that revealed a lump of wet red bone. They sat a yard apart on the stone wall around the fountain, which was switched off.

So begins Joe Hill’s most recent story (the only one I’ve seen to be published after 20th Century Ghosts). He didn’t have to do it this way. He could have swapped the paragraphs around, started with a poker face and then given us a little jolt. If the urge occurred to him, it is to his credit that he resisted it, but it might not ever have been on the table. Graham Sleight, reviewing Hill’s collection, rightly observed that he demonstrated a “mastery of the rhetoric of endings”; but in truth most of Hill’s work has that feeling of close control, from the very first sentence.

You could describe this as stage-managing the elements of a story, and it’s never been more appropriate than here. As the presence of Tom Savini hints, we are on the set of George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, back in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, circa 1975. Bobby is a down-on-his-luck comedian turned actor, back home after failing to break the Big Apple. The girl sitting next to him, he suspects and hopes, is Harriet Rutherford, who co-captained the Die Laughing Comedy Collective with Bobby back in their school days. His intuition is correct, but to start with she bluffs him, in exactly the way that Hill didn’t try to bluff us. And then she confesses, and they hug, and for about fifty words everything seems a-ok.

Hill has demonstrated a knack for sentiment without sentimentality, however—as in the sublime “Pop Art”—and in this story he does so again, hinting at and then closing off the easy routes to emotion. Harriet has a kid, Bobby jnr, but he wasn’t named after Conroy. Harriet’s married to Dean; Bobby thinks it’s because Dean’s an easy audience, but in fact it’s because he’s a good guy. And Bobby and Harriet were never high school sweethearts, only high school never-quites. Their reunion awkwardness turns out to mean that nothing’s changed:

And for a moment they were both smiling, a little foolishly, knees almost touching. They had never really figured out how to talk to each other. They were always half-on-stage, trying to use whatever the other person said to set up the next punch-line.

It’s noticeable that the story gives itself several cues—points at which you think, Aha, I know what sort of story this is going to be—and then refuses them. The above is one; since they’re both literally half-on-stage for the whole of the story, we think this is going to be a story about them learning their lines. In addition, although the story happens at a time and place that probably only a writer versed in the history of horror could pull together with such apparent ease, it never becomes itself a horror story. Nothing terrible happens, and nothing magical either. The film set is just a set, and playing dead inevitably turns out to be a lot like playing alive, for Bobby; either way it mostly involves waiting around for his number to come up. And similarly, although both Bobby and Harriet are funny people, it’s not a comedy. They tell jokes to each other, not to us.

That, perhaps, is the key to controlling this sort of tale. Hill lets us pretend that we’re not reading the story that, deep down, we know we are; he makes us complicit in his sleight-of-hand, and in so doing lets us give ourselves permission to be surprised, and moved. And when it matters, he doesn’t pull his punches: the bitter moments are properly sharp, the sweet moments properly soft, the gory moments (because c’mon, Dawn of the Dead) properly unpleasant. They all hit us where it counts. Bobby Conroy comes back from the dead, all right, but not for brains: for the heart.

Linkorama

1. Some interesting discussion at Gabe Chouinard’s journal last week about the lack of online sf criticism. Oh, there are a number of pretty good review sites (Vector‘s reviews are also excellent, of course, but we’re still primarily a print journal), not to mention some excellent bloggers who write about sf at least some of the time. But aside from Excessive Candour and the archive of SF Studies, and the odd individual essay, there’s precious little depth—and while I don’t think that originality is the be-all and end-all of criticism, there’s something to be said for knowing what the major critical voices in the field have been saying. Oddly enough, and despite being a child of the online age through and through, I can also understand some of the reasons why people might be reticent to put their work online. When you publish in print there’s a disconnect between you and the reader. If someone corrects me on something (as Tony Keen did with a review I wrote for Foundation), it’s usually a couple of months after I wrote it or even after it was published, and it doesn’t have so much sting. When I put something up here, anyone can wander by and tell me I’m a wronghead instantly. (On the other hand, that’s also the thrill of it.)

2. Kameron Hurley wonders where the popular radical feminist books are, or why The Left Hand of Darkness seems to be the only one people name. In fact, she raises a number of related issues, each of which probably has a different answer. On the question of why The Left Hand of Darkness is The Book That Everyone Talks About when it comes to having their eyes opened about gender relations, well, it’s probably partly just how reputation works—it’s self-perpetuating; plus the groupmind only has room for one book at a time—and probably partly down to the fact that you can only have your mind truly blown a limited number of times. (Although see also.)

On the question of where the modern equivalents are, I think Susan Marie Groppi’s report from the Feminist Fiction is So Five Minutes Ago panel at Wiscon is probably an accurate assessment of the changing goalposts for feminist fiction, radical or otherwise. On the question of genderfucking books specifically, there seem to be to be a few related trends in what’s being written, which at root all turn on Cheryl Morgan‘s point that what is radical becomes familiar. First, in sf at large, it’s now pretty common to see books like River of Gods, where the presence of agendered individuals is just one part of a multivariate future (tm Graham, possibly); or books like Iain Banks’ Culture novels, where gender-switching has been taken on board as one component of a utopia; or books like Justina Robson’s Living Next-Door to the God of Love, where fluidity of gender is a glancing reflection of a more general fluidity of identity. (Not to mention what happens to gender in the Eganesque or Strossian posthuman futures; although see Elizabeth Bear’s feminist critique of the singularity.) Second, and more tenuously, I think it’s possible we’ve started to see more mainstream examinations of gender identity—I’m thinking of books like Matt Ruff’s Set This House in Order, or Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. And third, you get more explicitly feminist sf books like Gwyneth Jones’s Life, which you could describe as being a hard-sf take on the ramp-up to a genderfuck singularity, with brilliant (if somewhat frustrating) characters: books that know they can’t just restate the problem, but have to look for mechanisms by which change could happen.

All of that said, the name that kept coming to mind while reading Hurley’s post was Tricia Sullivan, who seems to me to mix intelligence, style and passion in the right quantities to achieve a more general popularity without shortchanging her ideas (or ideals). Neither of the two novels I’ve read by her so far (Maul and Double Vision) have been complete home runs, but both are very good; and I still have the Clarke Award-winning Dreaming in Smoke on my to-be-read pile.

3. I’ve been meaning to post something about Bruce Sterling’s uneven but interesting collection, Visionary in Residence, but I don’t think I’m going to have time to work my thoughts up into a full post or review. So, instead I will link to two thoughtful reviews elsewhere, by James Trimarco and Paul Kincaid, neither of which I really agree with. Both reviews spend a fair amount of time talking about the two ribofunk stories—perhaps not surprisingly, since they’re two of the most substantial stories in the book. But both are also co-written (‘The Scab’s Progress‘ with Paul di Filippo, and ‘Junk DNA’ with Rudy Rucker) and both, I think, show evidence of that, being flabby and over-excited. The two most satisfying stories for me, and the two that I think best fulfill the promise of Sterling’s introduction, in which he says that being an sf writer “is an excuse to get up to any mischief imaginable”, are ‘Luciferase‘ and ‘User-Centric’. The former comes on like a scientifically literate version of A Bug’s Life; it’s tremendous fun, and a more brazen incorporation of science into story than you usually see. The latter, an email exchange between a group of designers which segues into the story they have been designing, is interesting because it’s so literal a guided tour to the process of creating science fiction. And because it refuses to end: it ends with one character telling another that, “There are no happy endings. Because there are no endings. There are only ways to cope.” Sf, of all forms of writing, should hold to that sentiment more often than it does, I think.

4. Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria reviews Peace by Gene Wolfe. This is my “Gene Wolfe’s last chance” book. I read The Fifth Head of Cerberus and found it dry as dust and less than the sum of its parts; I read The Wizard-Knight and found it enervating, massively longer than the points it was making needed or deserved; I read the stories in Starwater Strains, and the odd older piece here and there, and found some of them unutterably brilliant, and some of them complete bobbins. Peace is the other book I have a copy of, the other one I’m planning to read at some point, before making a final decision about whether it’s worth embarking on The Book of the New Sun (and associated work) or not.

5. Yesterday I went to see Thank You For Smoking, a satire about a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). Part of the plot has him meeting with “Hollywood Superagent” Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe); the sf connection is the scene at the end of the trailer:

Jeff Megall: Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they’re looking to make.
Nick Naylor: Cigarettes in space.
Jeff: It’s the final frontier, Nick.
Nick: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?
Jeff: … Probably. [beat] But, it’s an easy fix—one line of dialogue. “Thank God we invented the …” you know.
Nick: Whatever.
Jeff: Device.

I genuinely cannot tell whether including a science error (space stations don’t have all-oxygen environments) in a gag about how quickly factual accuracy goes out the window when confronted with product placement is a screw up, or an apt and None More Ironic dig at sf films in general. The rest of the film was pretty good, so I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Afrofuturism

I knew we'd miss something when we put together issue 245 of Vector on movements and manifestos. And miss something we did: Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism started out as a mailing list (owned by Alondra Nelson) with the following remit:

The AfroFuturism listserv will explore futurist themes in black cultural production and the ways in which technological innovation is changing the face of black art and culture.

Discussions on the mailing list developed into a series of manifestos and people – in particular the author Mark A. Rockeymoore in his article on the subject – started to ask the question 'What is Afrofuturism?':

Afrofuturism is not science-fiction. It is not a mechanical, technology driven vision of the future because an afro ain't never been about anything constricting or orderly, in the hierarchical sense. Rather, an afro is free-flowing, loving the wind. Changing, shifting and drifting on the breeze, bending this way, puffing out or just plain swaying gently from side to side, following the whimsical inclinations of the melanated person upon who's head it is perched. An afro can be taken from, it can be added to, yet it still retains its own natural structure, its own spiral and bouncy nature. It is flexible, yet patterned. It is about synthesis and holism. It is about accepting the kitchens and working the waves on the crown. It is about dreading, locking and following the patterns of nature where they lead, yet following a laterally delineated order. It is about the interplay between dominant and recessive genes. It is about diversity. It is about knowing purposes and determining the placement of diverse variables within their proper context.

Then author Nalo Hopkinson questioned the wisdom and accuracy of referring to Afrofuturism as a movement:

[T]here's definitely useful perspective to be gained from looking at the complex of society, culture, science, technology and the future through an Afrofuturist lens; I was sure thrilled to find other people who were doing so, and to have an online community where we could palaver. I just fear that the "there" is being mislabelled. Calling Afrofuturism a "movement" at this point feels imposed from the outside, and implies a different kind of project than what I witnessed.

My objection does in part hinge on how I understand the word "movement," and I'm aware that some uses of the phrase "Afrofuturist movement" seem perfectly fine to me. I only start to kick when it's used to imply a codification of practice that I don't think exists, or a unified direction and intent that do not jibe with my experience of the discussions of Afrofuturism that I've witnessed or in which I have participated.

I think she's got a point. A lot of the science fiction movements that were mentioned in issue 245, such as the New Wave and Cyberpunk movements, were all about trying to do something new. They were about getting away from established genre conventions and making their own rules. If the movement then becomes the established convention it loses the whole spirit in which it was started. The problem with most movements is that they're all about change, and as soon as you pin them down and define them they stop being about change, and so stop being what they are. As soon as movements require you to follow rules rather than break them, they're dead. Movements are only interesting and useful if they open up the possibilities that are open to genre writers. As soon as they become restrictive they lose their value as movements.

First Impressions

Some Saturday-morning reviews for you, from Vector 245.

Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder, reviewed by Steve Jeffrey:

This is the fifth, and judging by Barron’s valedictory Preface, possibly the final edition of Anatomy of Wonder. It has been substantially updated, revised and enlarged from its 1995 predecessor and now weighs in at over twice the length of its original incarnation in 1976. The first and third editions of this Guide were previously reviewed in Vector by Brian Stableford (Nov 1976), and Paul Kincaid (April 1988) who are both contributors to this volume, alongside an impressive list of critics, reviewers, academics and commentators.

J. Shaun Lyon’s Back to the Vortex, reviewed by Martin McGrath:

Back to the Vortex is a perfect example of a book designed to serve a market that cares how many times someone says the word “fantastic” in the new series of Doctor Who or the number of people who die in each episode. As such, the author, J. Shaun Lyon, should be congratulated. I can’t imagine a more comprehensive volume. But it is not without flaws.

And Holly Phillips’ In the Palace of Repose, reviewed by me:

It is perhaps only in the sf field that a debut short story collection consisting mostly of original stories might be greeted with suspicion. Where, we wonder (I wonder, before I catch myself doing it) are the publication credits? Why were these stories not published in the magazines? What’s wrong with them? And yet to think along such lines is, increasingly, to miss out: here is a debut collection where the majority of the stories are making their first appearance, but which without a doubt marks the arrival of an interesting new voice.

We plan to put a few reviews online from each issue, so watch this space for more.

A Conversation About The King’s Last Song

Today at Strange Horizons, Abigail Nussbaum reviews The King’s Last Song by Geoff Ryman. Go and read it, because it’s an excellent review, and because if you don’t the rest of this post will make no sense at all.

Back? OK. After Abigail turned in her review, I finally got around to reading the book myself, and wrote my own review. I can’t post that right now, because hopefully it’s going to appear elsewhere (at which point I’ll link to it); the short version is I liked the book a good deal more than she did, despite the fact that I agree with her about a lot of its specific strengths and weaknesses. What I can post is a cleaned-up version of the conversation Abigail and I had afterwards, which I think among other things makes an interesting follow-up to Geneva’s post yesterday. We start with a quote from the review:

Ryman’s earlier novels reveled in the wildly fantastic and the outright bizarre—lesbian polar bears in the far future, Oz’s Dorothy as a bitter victim of sexual abuse, a retelling of The Spoon River Anthology for the modern, commuter era—which he couched in playful, experimental narratives. With his most recent and extremely well-received novel, Air: Or, Have Not Have, Ryman moved away from these tonal and stylistic excesses. Air‘s prose was transparent and precise, its narrative largely linear and, apart from one technological innovation, set in a world much like our own. The King’s Last Song completes this transition—it is a thoroughly naturalistic novel (no biologically unlikely pregnancy in sight), and by far the most subdued thing Ryman has ever written.

Niall Harrison: This is obviously a point you refer back to a few times. Unfortunately, while I’ve read early Ryman (Unconquered Countries, The Warrior Who Carried Life) and later Ryman (253, Air), I haven’t read much from the middle (so not The Child Garden or Was). But I’m not certain that Air is as much a departure in terms of tone and style as you suggest.

Abigail Nussbaum: I’m exactly the opposite, but you’re right that in something like “The Unconquered Country” Ryman’s language and tone aren’t as adventurous as they would later become.

NH: Although to undercut my argument completely, there’s a story in the same collection as that story called “A Fall of Angels”, of which about half is a conversation between two posthumans and a being that might or might not be an alien, carried out entirely through pictograms. But something like The Warrior Who Carried Life, his first novel, certainly has the storybookishness you mention with regards to TKLS’s historical segments—it feels like Ryman is trying to strip out as much window-dressing as possible, and get down to the pure story. Which is very imprecise, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it right now. It’s wildly fantastical, but the fantasy is deliberately described in plain, matter-of-fact terms, and avoids the high tone of most such ‘epic’ stories. The characters are (IIRC explicitly) archetypal, rather than being individual and nuanced. And so on.

AN: This is precisely what he does in the historical segments of TKLS, especially the characters. The really puzzling thing is that you’d expect an author who retells an epic story in, as you put it, plain terms to be aiming for psychological realism. But then he turns around and makes the characters inhuman, so that they feel completely out of place and all emotional resonance—the emotional pull of the epic story and the empathy we might develop with realistic characters—is lost. I have no idea what he’s trying to do.

NH: I wonder if it isn’t in some way deliberately symbolic. Most fantasy isn’t deliberately symbolic—indeed most fantasy aims for the opposite, I would say, burying its symbolism under worldbuilding. I wonder if Ryman might be trying to point out the artificialiality of history, or the risks of making fantasy out of it. Or something.

AN: I think I’d be very unhappy to think of Ryman trying to manipulate his readers in this manner. I, for one, read the historical segments expecting them to attempt some version of realism—clearly Ryman can’t tell me exactly what happened, but his speculation can have the ring of psychological and political truth. It’s a little disturbing to consider that Ryman might have been lambasting me for something I had never intended to do.

NH: You could also say it’s the side of Jayavarman’s life that the leaves don’t tell us (since the two accounts clearly, and I think deliberately, conflict), but that brings us back to your problem of the lack of verisimilitude. Alternatively, I wonder whether it’s meant to be the version of the past that, say, Map remembers before reading the leaves. Its message is essentially that Jayavarman existed, but everything inevitably fell apart after him, and even he wasn’t perfect, just as everything always falls apart and nothing is perfect in Cambodia. The leaves, precisely because they leave out the real person, provide the sort of aspirational hope that myths provide. They reclaim the past as something to believe in—in contrast to, say, the 20th-century memories of Map and others.

AN: Are you sure that Map doesn’t know how things worked out for Jayavarman and his heirs? When the book is found, there’s a second, smaller, packet of golden leaves that’s separately wrapped. I had assumed that this was the crippled son’s tragic epilogue, although I don’t remember whether Luc translates it as well as the book itself.

NH: Yet another thought: you say in your review that it’s “by far the most subdued thing Ryman has ever written”—and in terms of being extravagant/fantastic, that’s spot-on, but in terms of emotion…? It occurs to me that one reason Ryman’s books work the way they do is because he is unashamed of extremes of sentiment—very good and very bad things happen to his characters all the time–but tells them in a very matter-of-fact way. I thought Map’s recollection of his time in post-Khmer Rouges Cambodia was one of the strongest parts of the novel for precisely that reason. (And it occurs to me that that section, which effectively operates as a novella within the novel, is set at about the time that ‘The Unconquered Country’ was written—must compare the two at some point.) On the other hand, while I agree that the impact of the historical strand isn’t what it might have been, I’m not sure I agree that Jayavarman’s story is uninspiring; the portrayal of the city he creates, for instance, was awe-inspiring, almost like a utopia I never knew existed—which I’m sure was Ryman’s intent.

More generally, you also say “the novel’s primary function seems to be to act as a guided tour”, and I think this may be the key to the book—tourism keeps coming up, both as a way people make their living and as an evil, or at least damaging, influence on Cambodia’s attempts to become a whole country. I think the casting of the reader as tourist is vital: I got the feeling that at times Ryman was very deliberately saying to a presumed Western audience, this is not your story.

AN: That’s a very nice observation, but it’s not as if Ryman is telling the Cambodians’ story either, is it?

NH: Because he’s not Cambodian? I don’t know; he certainly spent a lot of time there while writing it. I’m not sure I buy the argument that no author can ever accurately represent a culture other than their own—it’s too close to saying an author can’t write about people who are different to themselves.

AN: No, I meant because he’s more interested in convincing us that Cambodians are good, kind, and hospitable people than in genuinely talking about them as complex human beings—he’s telling the story of Cambodians as he wants us to see them. His politics, however well-intentioned, keep getting in the way of his subject.

Have you read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow? It’s a novel that questions the wisdom of writing political novels and the viability of art in the service of a political agenda, no matter how well-intentioned. The book ends with the author asking one of the characters if he has something to say to his (Western) readers. The character responds “If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.” The act of placing an intermediary between ourselves and the people we’re reading about inevitably blurs the resulting image (although another plot strand in the book also deals with problems in face-to-face communication. It’s an excellent read by the way – meaty and dense). Ryman ignores, and even purposefully sublimates, this complexity in favor of his political agenda.

NH: You said that about the characters in the book, but I don’t think they’re politically uniform so much as they’re morally uniform. Or to put it another way, I haven’t read a book which believes so completely in the fundamental decency of people for ages. And on one level this is good—the book is brilliant at showing how society crushes and twists people like Map and Rith, and leaves them misunderstanding each other. And then they find a degree of reconciliation, even while I strongly suspect they would disagree with each other on matters of policy and justice. On the other hand, precisely because it’s so optimistic it seems a bit unreal, and therefore at times a little patronising.

AN: Which is actually worse, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to claim moral superiority for my nation, but are we really going to ignore—is Ryman really expecting us to ignore—the systematic murder of 1.7 million people by the same people that Ryman would have us believe are morally uniform and fundamentally decent? The civil war and its atrocities are the boogeyman in Cambodia’s closet. They poison the lives of people who never experienced them, and yet when Ryman references them, he refuses to assign personal responsibility, to consider that there are Cambodians living today who were intimately involved with this slaughter, who might not be nice people. Even Map, a former Khmer Rouge, is only joined by the narrative after he’s left that group. We’d be up in arms if the novel offered this kind of wholesale apologia for Europeans—Germans during WWII, for instance.

NH: No, clearly he doesn’t expect us to ignore it—the Cambodia of TKLS is clearly damaged at every level by the actions of the Khmer Rouge. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s apologia to argue that terrible things can be done by good people. To an extent, I think the novel suggests that any attempt to assign personal responsibility would be meaningless; it’s by taking collective responsibility for their past that Cambodians can move forward.

AN: I actually see the novel as offering a collective amnesty – not ‘we’re all responsible’ (which I would have problems with as well) but ‘no one is responsible’. I don’t have serious problems with the notion that good people can do terrible things, or that a person who has done terrible things might deserve compassion, but that’s not what Ryman is doing—rather, he deliberately ignores the fact that there are people who are responsible for these atrocities. In the debate about offering forgiveness to mass murderers and war criminals, there has always been one universally agreed-upon truism—that forgiveness cannot be offered without a full accounting and acknowledgment of responsibility. Also, the one true moment of catharsis in the novel comes when Map takes personal responsibility and confesses to William.

NH: Yes, and William’s immediate realisation is that he is a part of the war as well, that he (and by extension every Cambodian) has to face up to his country’s past. I would say.

AN: Face up to their victimhood, not their culpability. That’s what’s insidious about Ryman’s approach. All Cambodians are victims. No Cambodians are victimizers. We acknowledge the atrocity but not the people who committed it. (And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one person we see truly recognizing their connection to the war is the one person who is completely innocent of any wrongdoing.)

NH: The last thing I wanted to talk about is the ending. I think it works—again, if you like it’s symbolic, giving Cambodians back their history as common knowledge—but you felt it was contrived?

AN: It’s a device that falls flat for me. In spite of the fact that he has roots in science fiction, in spite of the fact that he’s written a novel like Air, Ryman chooses to ignore the fact that information, once set loose, can never be contained. Once the translation exists, the book’s physical location ceases to matter.

NH: Aren’t we saying two different versions of the same thing, here? I think the point of the ending is that the information is no longer contained—but because it’s equally available to all Cambodians, because it’s being passed on by word of mouth, it’s outside Western control. Whereas if the book had been taken and put in a museum, it would have been in some sense gatekeepered, distanced from Cambodians, even if the actual translation was still made available.

AN: See, it’s that last part that I find unconvincing. If the translation is available, why does the book’s location matter? It’s practically the crux of the novel, and Ryman fails to sell me on his outlook on the situation.

NH: Simply because symbols matter, I think; because ownership matters, because information isn’t always independent of its context. My knowledge of the cultural heritage of other countries isn’t what it should be, but I’m pretty sure there are various priceless artifacts locked up in the British Museum that come from countries who would quite like them back, please.

AN: True, although only to a point. It’s also something that I think Ryman should have worked harder to stress in the novel (if that is indeed his point) rather than hoping we wouldn’t notice the thoughtless conflation of the physical object and the text.

You know, I think we mostly agree about the book’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s just that, as you say, you seem to find its flaws less problematic. I think for me the issue was plotlessness and manipulation. One or the other would have been OK, but not both. I would have been able to accept a novel whose purpose was to guide us through Cambodia, but in that case I can’t accept Ryman’s propaganda work. And manipulative novels are usually much more effective when they offer the readers something to grab onto, such as a tight plot.

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