Pop Squad

At some point in the next few years, Paolo Bacigalupi is going to put together a very good collection of very grubby futures. It will not be a book for the faint-hearted. For starters, Bacigalupi’s stories, almost all of which are set in worlds coping with one or more varieties of ecological collapse, from the desertified midwest of “The Tamarisk Hunter” (2006) to the post-petroleum bioeconomy of “The Calorie Man” (2005), typically need unpacking. This is not to say they are linguistically complex—Bacigalupi’s prose can be striking, but it tends to be fluid rather than ornate—but more that they tend to be narrated by characters who have no reason to explain their assumptions to us. All science fiction stories offer that particular pleasure of unfamiliarity—the challenge of learning the ropes—but Bacigalupi’s stories are often more unfamiliar than most. At the start of “The People of Sand and Slag” (2004), for instance, the characters jump from a hovering airship and land in a pile of breaking bones with no suggestion that this is any more remarkable than the bleak weather. By the time they’re eating sand for dinner, if not before, we’ve worked out that we’re in a world where humans have been rendered virtually invincible through the judicious use of nanotech, but for a few paragraphs we’re in free-fall. Moreover, Bacigalupi can be stunningly unsentimental: where similar technology in a story by Cory Doctorow might lead to a post-scarcity utopia, in “The People of Sand and Slag,” with no need to preserve the land for their own benefit, humanity has allowed all to fall into ruin.

“Pop Squad,” from the October/November issue of F&SF, is in a similar vein. It reads like the work of a writer playing chicken with the abyss. I don’t usually have much time for spoiler warnings, on the grounds that if a piece of prose fiction can be truly spoiled by knowing what happens, then it’s probably not a very good example of the form. But there are a couple of first-rate jolts in “Pop Squad”; I’m going to have to talk about them, because they’re integral to the story’s success or failure, but it would be unfair to deny anyone the chance to experience them first-hand. So here’s the warning: to say what I want to say about the story I’m going to talk about all of it, up to and including the ending. If you were planning to read it, skip this post for now, and come back when you’re done.

For everyone who’s left, here’s the opening paragraph:

The familiar stench of unwashed bodies, cooked food, and shit washes over me as I come through the door. Cruiserlights flicker through the blinds, sparkling in rain and illuminating the crime scene with strobes of red and blue fire. A kitchen. A humid mess. A chunky woman huddles in the corner, clutching closed her nightgown. Fat thighs and swaying breasts under stained silk. Squad goons crowding her, pushing her around, making her sit, making her cower. Another woman, young-looking and pretty, pregnant and black-haired, is slumped against the opposite wall, her blouse spackled with spaghetti remains. Screams from the next room: kids.

My comments about unfamiliarity above notwithstanding, this scene, and the confident rhythm with which it’s sketched, are basically familiar. The narrator is a police officer, possibly slightly shady, and he’s visiting a slumland crime scene. We don’t know the nature of the crime, or why the kids are screaming, but that’s ok; these are things we expect to not know. We do know how this sort of procedural unfolds. And we could easily be in the here-and-now. The narrator’s judgement on the women (“It amazes me that women can end up like this, seduced so far down into gutter life that they arrive here, fugitives from everyone who would have kept them and held them and loved them and let them see the world outside”) has a depressing familiarity about it. The only indications that we’re in an elsewhen are a passing reference to wallscreens and, a few paragraphs later, a suggestion of high-tech uniformity in the flat’s design.

Needless to say, this opening is a trap. In retrospect the signs are there: in the way the narrator’s partner hustles the women, but not their children, out the door, for instance, and in the reference to a toy dinosaur as funny “because when you think about it, a dinosaur toy is really extinct twice.” But even on a second reading, we’re not ready for what happens next. The narrator stands in front of the children:

I pull out my Grange. Their heads kick back in successive jerks, bang bang bang down the line, holes appearing on their foreheads like paint and their brains spattering out the back. Their bodies flip and skid on the black mirror floor. They land in jumbled piles of misaligned limbs. For a second, gunpowder burn makes the stench bearable.

With the possible exception of some of Joe Hill’s work, I can’t recall having experienced such a spectacularly effective drop-kick of readerly sympathies for years. We can’t see it coming, because Bacigalupi plays the lead-in straight. But he gives us just enough hints to develop, in the aftermath, a suspicion—which is quickly confirmed—that this isn’t a depiction of a maniac, it is normal. This is his job. While we’re in free-fall, the narrator is going up in the world. Literally: in a vertiginous paragraph he rushes from the slum out of the urban sprawl, out of the jungle, up one hundred and eighty-eight stories of an immense spire, where his girlfriend Alice is playing lead viola in a classical concert. We follow in his wake, dazed. The music is beautiful; notes “spill like water and burst like ice flowers”. The contrast with the scene we have just left could not be more brutal. And it sinks in that the trap has sprung: we are caught in a world we don’t understand with a reliable narrator we absolutely cannot trust.

Inevitably, the story calms down a bit. We start to get more information. Details here and there allow us to build up a picture of how the world is and, maybe, how it got to be that way. It’s a darker, more damaged world than our own; it has warmed, and New York has flooded—hence the spires and the slums. And, via the revelation that Alice’s concert was much like a world-record challenge, an attempt to knock the acknowledged virtuoso from his pedestal, we learn that this is a world of immortals, which in turn suggests a reason for the kid-killing. The price of eternal life is voluntary sterility. But for the people at the concert, the narrator’s job is remote, its implications abstract:

Alice makes a face of distaste. “Can you imagine trying to perform Telogo without rejoo? We wouldn’t have had the time. Half of us would have been past our prime, and we’d have needed understudies, and then the understudies would have had to find understudies. Fifteen years. And these women throw it all away. How can they throw away something as beautiful as Telogo?”

I said that Bacigalupi was playing chicken with the abyss, and I think passages like the above make the point. The incomprehension demonstrated of the true choice being made is chilling, the more so because the authorial handling of the conversation is so deadpan: despite the yawning gap between the story’s world and ours, we are never nudged towards an opinion. The facts of the case speak for themselves. Combined with the memory of the narrator’s murderous actions, we are left thoroughly unsettled.

Unfortunately for the story, however, Bacigalupi ultimately blinks first. In the second half of “Pop Squad”, the narrator makes two more home visits. In the first, he kills a baby—but this time the kill is less because he believes in his job, and more because he can’t work out what else to do with the child. It’s more instinctive, an attempt to ignore the doubts growing inside him. He attempts to rationalise the actions of the women his squad tracks down, arguing to himself that “the whole breeding thing is an anachronism—twenty-first century ritual torture we don’t need anymore”, but we can see that it’s not working. (As an aside, we only ever see single mothers: the men, it is implied, are cowards who prefer to participate in the process from afar, by donation, rather than risk pop squad retribution themselves.) To quash the nag in the back of his mind, he sets out to track down the supplier of the toy dinosaur he saw at the start of the story. These days, it seems, they’re marketed as “collectibles,” at which point we understand why it was extinct twice: once as a dinosaur, once as a toy. The third home visit occurs when the narrator decides to track down a woman he bumps into in the collectible shop, and is the climactic scene of the story.

There are good things about this confrontation. It is tense. The inevitable cute child is not unrealistically or unbearably cute. The scene doesn’t break character, and indeed continues to reveal character: confronted with an obviously fertile woman, the narrator responds with involuntary sexual attraction that we can understand (and find somewhat disturbing, admittedly), but which he is only confused by. “She sags,” he observes, “she’s round, she’s breasty and hippy and sloppy, I can barely sit because my pants are so tight.” The mother doesn’t waste time asking the narrator why because she already knows, even if we don’t. The incomprehension is all on the narrator’s side. And the mother’s outrage is delivered with a conviction that frees it from cliche:

She looks at me, hard. Angry. “You know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking we need something new. I’ve been alive for one hundred and eighteen years and I’m thinking that it’s not just about me. I’m thinking I want a baby and I want to see what she sees today when she wakes up and what she’ll find and see that I’ve never seen before because that’s new. Finally, something new. I love seeing things through her little eyes and not through dead eyes like yours.”

But at the end of the confrontation, the narrator walks away, leaving mother and child unharmed. “And for the first time in a long time,” he tells us, “the rain feels new.” We should be relieved: this sort of awakening is exactly the sort of ending we should want. It’s where the story has been obviously heading from around the half-way mark. The problem is that although seeing the dinosaur was clearly the trigger, it’s not clear why. Why does the narrator wake up now, why this case above all others?

In “The People of Sand and Slag,” the plot revolves around the discovery of a dog, an animal previously thought extinct. It has no place in the new world, and the characters don’t know what to do with it or how to care for it; in a beautifully alien sentiment, one of them describes it as being “as fragile as a rock.” So at the end of the story, they eat it. Bacigalupi allows his protagonists the hint of a realisation that something valuable might have been lost, but that’s all: they never wake up to the state of the world. The narrator of “Pop Squad” does, but he seems to do so only because to not do so would be unthinkable. He wakes because morality demands it, not because the story does. The result is that the obvious skill employed in the first half of the story in creating the world, the situation, and the character feels somewhat wasted. Bacigalupi has done such a good job of interrelating the three that to short-change one is to short-change them all, and what could have been truly haunting becomes a momentary discomfort, not so unfamiliar after all. “Pop Squad”, we realise, is just another story about the development of conscience in a fallen world. We don’t need to struggle out of the trap; we are let out and, despite the narrator’s claims, it feels quite the opposite of new.

To Name or Not to Name

Paula Guran explains Fantasy Magazine‘s reviews policy:

The idea here is to review anonymously (like Publishers Weekly) while still saying exactly who the reviewers are — just not who wrote exactly what. I feel it frees the reviewer while still assuring the reader that a variety of respected opinion is being presented. (Issue #4 has two “featured” reviews with bylines, btw. )

Why? The number one reason is that this way the reviews are seen as “Fantasy” magazine reviews. The second reason is that genre is a small world and few of its knowledgeable reviewers live in ivory towers so it sometimes helps you be a better reviewer if your name is not on a review. That being said, it is only fair to the reader to know s/he can have confidence that a review is written by someone whose opinion they respect — thus the list of reputable reviewers doing the reviews.

She asks for opinions. I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, as was covered at tedious length in last week’s discussions, I’m all for honest negative reviews. Not only do I think they’re good for the health of the field, but I enjoy reading discussions of books people didn’t like just as much as I enjoy reading discussions of books they liked. So if an anonymised reviews section creates an environment that encourages that, I’m for it. On the other hand, though, I can’t see an particular reason why it should be necessary. I know a similar desire for freedom was behind the Dark Cabal (remember them?), for instance, but magazines like Interzone don’t seem to have had trouble recruiting a group of people who are prepared to say what they think under their own bylines.

And anonymity could also be frustrating. Some readers may not notice who writes a review, but I tend to; in part, admittedly, because I write reviews myself, but that’s not the only reason. Pretty much everyone who reviews for either Locus or NYRSF presumably falls into the category of ‘respected reviewer’, but I don’t agree with anyone who writes for either venue all the time, and some of them I disagree with frequently. I have no reason to expect that Fantasy Magazine‘s reviewers are any different, but because most of the reviews are quite short, and therefore don’t have the space to develop a detailed argument, there’s more of an element of taking what the review says on trust. I take Paula’s point about creating trust in a more general reviews ‘brand’, but it still looks a bit like an attempt to claim objectivity for an activity which is, by definition, subjective.

UPDATE: Further discussion here.


If you watch the Strange Horizons reviews RSS feed you may well have already seen this, but if not: the review of Idolon that I mentioned last week is now up, along with an interview with Mark Budz. (Plus the usual fiction, column and poetry.)


So after being cheered by Ian. R Macleod’s Sidewise Award for the wonderful The Summer Isles, and wryly amused that Ken Macleod picked up a third Prometheus Award with Learning the World, I woke up this morning (absurdly early, considering what time I got home last night) anticipating the main event: the Hugo Award results.

It’s not as satisfyingly rightheaded a slate of winners as we got last year. The short fiction categories are a bit of a mess—the idea that Connie Willis’ “Inside Job” and David Levine’s “Tk’tk’tk” are better than, respectively, Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” and Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister Down” is, without wishing to offend, ludicrous; Peter S. Beagle’s novellette win is defensible, but it wouldn’t have been my pick—but other than that it’s not too bad. Serenity‘s win in Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form is well-deserved, and Steven Moffatt’s Doctor Who two-parter was the best thing on its ballot. Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller wasn’t (I was rooting for Gary K. Wolfe’s Soundings), but it is a good book—and perhaps more impressively, it beat a book by The Mighty Langford.

Actually, it seems to have been a year for results that go against the common complaint that Hugo voters are swayed by name recognition, at least in some categories. Sure, Locus and Langford picked up their annual awards, but David Hartwell, editor of everyone from James Tiptree Jnr to David Marusek, finally converted a nomination to a win, and in doing so became the first second non-dead book editor to win a Hugo (somewhat ironically, given that his omission from the winners’ list was one of the reasons behind the motion to split Best Editor into two categories).

More refreshingly still, the Best Novel winner is impossible to snidely dismiss as having gone to the author with the biggest publicity campaign, or the most vocal fanbase, or the most popular blog, as has become somewhat de rigueur when discussing recent winners, or when trying to predict this year’s (I was not immune to this). The award has gone to a book that I haven’t read, but which I have heard almost exclusively good things about from people I trust who have; which is to say that it seems to have gone to a book that (get this) can only have won because a population of informed voters liked it best. Whether or not I end up agreeing that Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin was the most deserving book on the shortlist, it strikes me as, at the very least, a good result for the health of the Hugos as an institution.

EDIT: the nomination and voting stats. Headlines: Neil Gaiman declined a nomination for Anansi Boys; World of Warcraft and Lego Star Wars were the top nominees in the ‘Interactive Video Game’ category that was dropped due to lack of interest; in the final vote, “Magic for Beginners” ran “Inside Job” pretty darn close, but Spin had a comfortable lead from the start and John Scalzi wasn’t far off winning the Campbell Award outright; and Andrew M. Butler’s last year on Vector got six nominations for Best Fanzine, which is nice to see. Further commentary here and here.

Posted in Awards, SF. Tags: , . 11 Comments »

London Meeting: Chaz Brenchley

Tonight’s BSFA meeting features Chaz Brenchley, interviewed by Iain Emsley.

The meeting takes place in the upstairs room of the Star Tavern in Belgravia; there’s a map here. EDIT: the interview starts at 7, but there are usually people around from shortly after 5.

BSFA members and non-members alike are welcome, and there’s no entry charge (but there is a book raffle).

The Point Of It All

Meme Therapy’s latest brain parade asks “What is the job of contemporary sf? Does it have a job?” To which most of the respondents so far say no, not really, or at most no but. Which of course is the correct and proper stance: we all know nowadays that the important part of science fiction is that it’s fiction, that it is an art form, that it has no responsibility, and indeed no ability, to be anything else. We know that whatever value inheres in science fiction is aesthetic value, and that it can and should be measured by the same yardsticks as other forms of fiction.

I’m not saying this is wrong, per se, but it’s interesting to compare that sort of stance to, of all things, the latest episode of Stargate SG-1. I don’t watch Stargate. Once upon a time I would have done—in my teens I was indiscriminate, happily gobbling up whatever BBC2 decided to show in their weekday 6.45 slot—but these days it seems like too much commitment for too little return. But It’s reached two hundred episodes, which is an absurdly high number, and the prepublicity photos suggested they were going to celebrate the fact in gloriously absurd style. And they do, for forty-two minutes and thirty-one seconds of the forty-two minute and fifty-five second episode.

The conceit, by the way, builds on the show’s hundredth episode, which I haven’t seen, in which it transpires that a studio is developing a thinly-veiled (to those in the know) version of the SG-1 team’s story for tv. It’s called Wormhole X-treme!, and in the latest episode we learn that it lasted for three episodes, but that it did well on DVD so now there’s interest in making a tv movie. Cue all the meta ever—not only is Stargate itself based on a film, of course, but two of the current actors, Ben Browder and Claudia Black, were the leads on Farscape, which died and was resurrected as a tv movie—plus various suggestions for how the movie could work, and so on. The movie falls through, but the tv series gets recomissioned, and the last segment is a flash-forward ten years to a behind-the-scenes documentary focusing on the Wormhole X-treme! cast and crew. Cue even more gentle parody, as the actors’ doubles talk about the challenges they faced in such a long-running show, and the producer says that he thinks one of the secrets of their success is how they don’t take themselves too seriously; and then, in the last twenty-four seconds, we cut to an interview with the actor playing the Teal’c equivalent, who says:

“Science fiction is an existential metaphor. It allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, ‘individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today. But the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.’”

End of episode. Fade to black. It’s shameless, it’s manipulative, it’s arrogant … and yet I found myself moved by it, by the simple, whole-hearted belief that it demonstrates in the project of science fiction.

I’ve been reading Mark Budz’s latest novel, Idolon, for review for Strange Horizons. It’s set in a near future on the edge of the sort of shared sensory environment that’s cropped up in recent work by Vernor Vinge and Chris Beckett, among others. People and buildings are habitually coated with electronic skin, programmable matter that allows them to imitate the style of people and places from times past. I don’t want to gazump my own review, but one of the things that’s struck me about it, particularly having just watched that Stargate episode, is the presence of passages like this:

He felt the pressure, too. It got to him after a while. It got to everyone. Each day, reality became a little less familiar … a little more uncertain. Maybe that was why so many people cast themselves in the past. It wasn’t real, but it had been real. Which was more than anyone could say for the future.

Which surely chimes with the prevalent sentiment in that brain parade (not to mention echoing Pattern Recognition). I think it’s Graham Sleight’s review of Rainbows End that suggests the futures of science fiction can be thought of as arguments, works of advocacy. Reading the above passage, I suddenly realised that one of the reasons I was still turning the pages, probably a reason at least as strong as my interest in the characters and plot, was that I wanted to know how Idolon‘s argument resolved. More than wanting to see the bad guys beaten, I wanted to know whether the world Mark Budz was creating would rediscover its belief in the future.

Which I guess means that, on some level, I’m a believer too.

(All of which has nothing to do with international sf, for which I apologise. As recompense, I propose to write about one of the following later this week: “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” by Geoff Ryman (Oct/Nov F&SF); “R&R” by Lucius Shepard; or the special Finncon edition of Usva. Which would you prefer, o readers?)

Posted in SF. 11 Comments »

International Issue: Articles and Reviews Now Online

Now that our internationally themed issue 247 of Vector is officially loose on the world in paper form, we are free to bring a couple of selected items from it to you online.

Back in January 2006 we asked author Judith Berman to write something for Vector on the topic of cultural appropriation and the experiences she had of writing about other cultures with her novel Bear Daughter. Since then, Judith has spoken on a panel on the same subject at Wiscon, which started off a series of online discussions on matters of cultural appopriation. We’re pleased to be able to help contribute further to that discussion by bringing you Judith’s original Vector article, Bears, Bombs and Popcorn: Some considerations when mining other cultures for source material:

But I wouldn’t myself place all indigenous source materials off limits. For writers of the dominant society to avoid responding artistically to indigenous arts and literatures, even for the best of ethical reasons, for mainstream writers to designate minority writers as the only ones who are to write on freighted topics like race, colonialism, or the very existence of minority cultures (and making it the only employment they can get), merely repaints a corner of the colonial picture with the colors of guilt instead of greed and racism. Fictional Others may far too often be no more than a reflection of the writer’s stereotypes, or a pornography of the exotic, but only through contemplation of difference and the history of difference is there opportunity for genuine transformation of colonial relationships. Freedom of expression is a necessary condition for real conversation; the point isn’t to stop one person talking but to make sure others get heard.

The second feature article we’ve put online from issue 247 is Colourful Stories: Fantastic Fiction by African Descended Authors, by another author who was on the cultural appropriation panel at Wiscon, Nisi Shawl. We asked Nisi if she would write something for us, not about writing other cultures, (something she has already meditated on in print in her book Writing the Other,) but about her experiences of drawing from her own cultural background when writing fiction, as well as the cultural issues and traditions she saw reflected in the speculative fiction of a number of other authors of African origin:

Whether familial, social, and cultural concerns are addressed directly and at the work’s outset, as in the case of So Long Been Dreaming, or are intrinsic to the make-up of particular characters, as in the case of the conjure women of Mama Day, whether they provide a carefully constructed backdrop for the action as they do for Crystal Rain, or represent the conflicting forces at a story’s heart as in Stars in My Pocket… or Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, the frequent presence of these concerns is of arguable importance, denoting as it does both a loss of a former social structure’s sufficiency and stability, and often, that absence’s fulfillment. Keeping in mind the idea that writers of African ancestry are more likely to reflect concerns of these sorts in their work may render visible to readers from other races depths they otherwise might miss. I hope that this essay will attract more readers to fabulist fiction by blacks, and that the possibilities inherent in the perspective I’ve sketched above, that which gives pride of place to family, society, and culture will allow them greater enjoyment of its riches.

Towards the end of her article, Nisi mentions the work of the Carl Brandon Society, which I’d like to take the opportunity to promote here too. The mission statement from their website:

The Carl Brandon Society is dedicated to addressing the representation of people of color in the fantastical genres such as science fiction, fantasy and horror. We aim to foster dialogue about issues of race, ethnicity and culture, raise awareness both inside and outside the fantastical fiction communities, promote inclusivity in publication/production, and celebrate the accomplishments of people of color in science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Last I heard, they were woefully short on British members, so come on chaps, sign up already (or donate to the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund instead if you’d rather).

As well as those two feature articles, we’ve also put up a number of reviews from First Impressions. In keeping with the international theme of the issue, two are reviews of novels in translation: Elizabeth A. Billinger’s review of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Cold Skin and my own review of Johanna Sinisalo’s Not Before Sundown. On top of that, you can also read reviews by Niall, comparing feature writer Judith Berman’s novel Bear Daughter with Frances Hardinge’s Fly by Night, and by previous Vector editor Andrew M. Butler, discussing a bushel of John Sladek short stories.

And for those of you waiting on tenterhooks for the third instalment of Graham Sleight’s column The New X, it is also now up on the Vector website, entitled The walls are down, unfortunately.

Out of the Silent Blog …

… come links. Apologies for the complete lack of other content, but this week is keeping me busy. With any luck I’ll get something more substantial posted at the weekend. In the meantime:

In the best tradition of contentless posts, I now expect to receive at least 39 comments.

Another Word for Link is Whuffie

(Why yes, the August F&SF did arrive here yesterday.)

1. I went to see Superman Returns earlier this week. On IMAX. Bits of it (the flashback, the plane crash, the rescue from the boat, and the ending) were in 3D. I enjoyed the spectacle of it, and it’s hard not to have at least some admiration for how transparently mechanical it is, how diligently it ticks the boxes associated with Superman. As summer movies go, it didn’t seem bad.

Lou Anders didn’t care for it much; on the other hand, one of the things he picks up on, the lack of nuance, is actually something I think Singer made a virtue out of. It is strange to see a hero so straightforwardly and comprehensively moral, and as Abigail Nussbaum notes it’s equally strange to see a modern screen version of this story that so thoroughly foregrounds Superman, as opposed to Clark Kent.

What I think both this choices have going for them is that they emphasise the alien-ness of Superman. To the point, in fact, where having seen Smallville, whatever the merits or the flaws of that show, it’s hard to imagine how the Superman of Superman Returns avoided being similarly humanised by his upbringing. It also puts an interesting spin on the Lois/Clark dynamic; personally, I’ve never quite been able to decide if I don’t understand what Clark sees in Lois, or whether I understand all too well, but it’s never been a relationship that quite sits comfortably with me, and this film, I think, plays up that ambivalence. Clark seems more of a disguise, more of an act than ever. At heart, Superman Returns could almost be seen as asking a question in response to Lois’ Pulitzer-winning article; not “Does The World Need Superman?” but “Does Superman Need The World?”

2. Jose of the extraordinarily energetic Meme Therapy asked me if I had anything to say about this question:

Science Fiction often presents a coded commentary on the present. What current work of science fiction do you think delivers the most relevant/poignant message with respect to our present geopolitical situation?

So a couple of thoughts.

One, define “our”. A book like Geoff Ryman’s Air, for instance, examines the consequences of the increasing connectedness of the world. It’s a brilliant and important novel, and certainly relevant, but it’s not about the “us” that are most likely to be reading this post in the sense that a series like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol is about us. (I’m trying to think of a recent and particularly British future here, and drawing a blank. How embarrassing.) It’s not just that the answer to the question depends on where you’re standing, but that I think mainstream sf is (finally) becoming aware of that fact.

Two, I’m interested in the time-sensitivity implied in the question. Accept as a given that all fiction is a response to the times in which it’s written, and that looking back at now from ten years in the future it is likely to be more obvious which books were prescient. The question is then really about what seems most relevant now, which implies fiction with a certain consciousness in its approach. This seems to me to take us either in the direction of deliberate allegory, or more interestingly towards something like Sterling-definition slipstream (works that make you feel very strange, the way living in the early twenty-first century makes you feel).

Here’s my suggestion: Hav by Jan Morris. It’s possibly the slowest fixup in history, being comprised of a short novel, “Last Letters From Hav”, published in 1985, and a long novella, “Hav of the Myrmidons”, published this year, plus an introduction to bind the two together. It’s fiction in the style of travel writing, and an exploration of a city that doesn’t exist, and how it changes over time. In its 1985 incarnation, Hav seems bowed down by the weight of history, of multiple colliding traditions; in its 2006 incarnation, it seems both febrile and somehow diminished. Ursula le Guin, reviewing it for The Guardian, argued that it’s science fiction, and concluded:

Morris says in the epilogue that if Hav is an allegory, she’s not sure what it is about. I don’t take it as an allegory at all. I read it as a brilliant description of the crossroads of the west and east in two recent eras, viewed by a woman who has truly seen the world, and who lives in it with twice the intensity of most of us. Its enigmas are part of its accuracy. It is a very good guidebook, I think, to the early 21st century.

3. Strange Horizons reviews is having a Doctor Who week. Specifically, Iain Clark reviews “School Reunion“, Tim Phipps reviews Love and Monsters“, Abigail Nussbaum reviews the season two finale, and Graham Sleight provides an overview of the whole season. Speaking as someone who didn’t really watch Who growing up (or at least not sufficiently for it to have been a formative experience), it’s been interesting to see how differently seasons one and two of the new version have been received.

One World, Many Stories

I have it on good authority that Vector 247 has been sighted in the wild. Or at least in peoples’ letterboxes. The theme this time around is “international sf”. Here’s the damn fine lineup:

Torque Control — editorial
Che Guevara on a Greyhound Bus — translator and editor Marcial Souto interviewed by Ian Watson
The Future That Never BeganMichael Froggatt on Soviet SF
Colourful StoriesNisi Shawl on African-descended SF
The Search for South African SFNick Wood
Bears, Bombs and PopcornJudith Berman on cultural source-mining
Archipelago — Dan Hartland on the stories of Zoran Zivkovic
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Paul N. Billinger
The New X: The Walls Are Down, Unfortunately — a column by Graham Sleight

As usual, we’ll be putting some of the articles and reviews up on the website over the next week or two. Of course, to get the whole thing (and Matrix, and Focus), those of you who aren’t already members could just join the BSFA.


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