Convoy Cancelled

Convoy, the 2007 Eastercon, has been cancelled. There’s a brief statement on the website:

The committee of the 2007 Eastercon regrets to announce that Convoy cannot now be held at the Adelphi, and that membership fees will be reimbursed by the beginning of December 2006 to those who had joined the convention.

But that’s all anybody seems to know at the moment. The guests of honour for Convoy were going to be Judith Clute, Peter Dickinson, Robin McKinley, and Sharyn November.

Discuss

This book arrived yesterday, and I spent the better part of yesterday evening, when I should have been doing any number of other things, nosing through it. Here are some of the things I found.

From Paul Kincaid’s introduction:

It is what was left to the jury that has made the Arthur C. Clarke Award both idiosyncratic and controversial, often at the same time. At no point did we decide what was meant by ‘best’, by ‘science fiction’, or even by ‘novel’. Consequently, the jury meetings I’ve taken part in have featured some very lively debates on each of these topics — and no two juries have ever arrived at precisely the same definitions. (12)

(So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a lot of the essays spend some time debating what sf is and does.)

From Justina Robson’s essay on Take Back Plenty (1990) by Colin Greenland:

And there is a final reason not to dismiss Take Back Plenty as less than a revolutionary book. As fantasy is in constant relationship with folktale, so science fiction is in a constant relationship with the history of rational thought. Take Back Plenty follows on from a long dialectical tradition. Like other books of its kind it doesn’t accept the old-order notion, born from religious origins, that humans are clawing their way up a ladder of incremental progress to greatness, or the stars. That core theory and its various miserable brides — the worship of reason over empathy, the position of humans at the summit of a fictitious world order, the belief in the imposition of systems and theories as pathways to moral improvement, the reduction of all calculations to mathematics, the idea of humanity as a single entity — are here subjected to the casual drubbing they deserve. (72-3)

From Adam Roberts’ essay on Fairyland (1995) by Paul J. McAuley:

Fantasy is premised on magic, the supernatural, the spiritual: it articulates a cosmos as a divine quantity, as does religion. The relationship between the individual and the universe in religion is an ‘I-Thou’. That same religion universe [see comments], under the logic of science, is an ‘I-It’. Science fiction, which unsurprisingly begins when ‘science’ begins, is premised on a material, instrumental version of the cosmos. Fantasy happens in Dante’s solar system; sf in Copernicus’ and Kepler’s — indeed, Kepler is the author of what I take to be the first sf novel (the trip-to-the-moon speculation Somnium, published posthumously in 1634). I date the rise of sf from this period, and I see it as no coincidence that it happens about the same time that the effects of the Protestant Reformation established themselves in Europe. Without wishing to be sectarian, I’m fond of using ‘Catholic’ as a descriptor of fantasy: the boss text of fantasy in the twentieth century, The Lord of the Rings, is, amongst many other things, a great Catholic book. ‘Protestant’ writing, on the other hand, was (slightly) more amenable to the new scientific thinking about the cosmos. (119-20)

From Farah Mendlesohn’s essay on Dreaming in Smoke (1998) by Tricia Sullivan:

One of the things that makes cyberpunk distinct from hard sf is that it is the work of what we might call the users rather than the creators of a technological society.

[...]

The age of transparent technology has disappeared in Western Europe and North America. Most of us open the hood of our car to discover a sealed plastic lump. We can no longer play with the material of our world. Apart from perhaps explaining why our Physics and Engineering departments are full of people from parts of the world that still rely on what we might call accessible technology, it also helps explain what cyberpunk is.

Cyberpunk is the science fiction for a generation for whom Clarke’s Law — that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — has come true in ways that Clarke did not envisage. It is not the technology of the future that seems magical but that which we work with today. Cyberpunk is the literature of the generation that can move effortlessly through the lit house, but can’t fix the fuses because they’ve all been fitted with a ‘replace after failure’ blue plastic box. (157-8)

From Graham Sleight’s essay on Distraction (1999) by Bruce Sterling:

Secondly, what Sterling really wants to talk about is his future. This is, it has to be said, not a very popular option for sf writers these days. (Judith Berman’s influential essay, ‘Science Fiction Without the Future’, which Sterling has called ‘probably the most important piece of science fiction criticism in the last ten years’, sets out this case in detail.) More and more, science fiction novels want not to be science-fiction novels. They want to be parables of gender or race, or horror novels with ray-guns, or VR fantasyland adventures. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with any of these approaches: they have produced many fine works, several of which join Distraction as Clarke Award winners. But they use the tools and tropes of sf as means rather than an end. The single most striking feature of Distraction is that it wants to be nothing other than an sf novel. (168)

And there’s much more where that lot came from.

Posted in SF. 8 Comments »

Living Next-Door To The God Of Links

Blogging continues to be light around these parts. In the meantime:

EDIT: Good lord, already? Rich Horton has started posting his annual magazine summaries: Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF. Interesting that the general opinion seems to be that F&SF has pulled away from Asimov’s again; I actually thought the two magazines were more evenly matched than they’ve been for a few years. But then, I’ve been cherry-picking what I read, not going through every story.

Socialism and Social Critique in Science Fiction

A little while ago, we were contacted by Socialism and Democracy about a potential ad swap to highlight their latest issue, which focuses on sf. It didn’t work out because of the timing of the print deadlines, but they very kindly sent me a complimentary copy. The introduction to the issue is available online:

This whole range of potentially subversive processes is grounded in the experience incisively identified by Darko Suvin, more than thirty years ago, as cognitive estrangement. Works conceived in this tradition are the ones in which we find promise. The character of such works, as Carl Freedman has written, “lies neither in chronology nor in technological hardware but in the cognitive presentation of alternatives to actuality and the status quo.” Insofar as we focus on this dimension of science fiction, we encounter a body of work with obvious relevance to the concerns of socialists. This link has been expressed historically in many ways. One striking instance of it, noted by Suvin, is the presence, at key points in Marx’s writings, of figures like vampires, monsters, sorcerers, and specters. The point here is perhaps that even in the most materialist of analyses, there needs to be a vocabulary to encompass the dimensions of behavior that appear, from one limited class-perspective or another, to be beyond the range of calculable human intervention. Beyond this, though, there is a long and proud tradition of consciously radical SF writing or storytelling, some of which is discussed and illustrated in articles in this collection.

And here’s the table of contents:

Issue #42 (Vol 20, No. 3)

  • Preface by the Editors
  • Science Fiction as Popular Culture: A Sense of Wonder by Yusuf Nuruddin
  • Introduction by Victor Wallis

Radical Readings

  • Steven Shaviro, Prophecies of the Present
  • Carl Freedman, Speculative Fiction and International Law: The Marxism of China Mieville
  • Lisa Yaszek, Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, and the History of the Future
  • Alcena Madeline Davis Rogan, Alienation, Estrangement, and the Politics of “Free Individuality” in Two Feminist Science Fictions: A Marxist Feminist Analysis
  • Dennis M. Lensing, The Fecund Androgyne: Gender and the Utopian/Dystopian Imagination of the 1970s
  • Jonathan Scott, Octavia Butler and the Base for American Socialism

Politics & Culture in the US

  • Yusuf Nuruddin, Ancient Black Astronauts and Extraterrestrial Jihads: Islamic Science Fiction as Urban Mythology
  • Marleen S. Barr, Science Fiction and the Cultural Logic of Early Post Postmodernism
  • Robert P. Horstemeier, Flying Saucers Are Real! The US Navy, Unidentified Flying Objects, and the National Security State

Technological Futures

  • Sherryl Vint and Mark Bould, All That Melts Into Air Is Solid: Rematerialising Capital in Cube and Videodrome
  • Michael G Bennett, The Adoxic Adventures of John Henry in the 21st Century

Reviews

  • Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions reviewed by Alcena Madeline Davis Rogan
  • Sheree Thomas, ed., Dark Matter I: A Century of Speculative
    Fiction from the African Diaspora
    ; Sheree Thomas, ed., Dark Matter: Reading the Bones; and Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, eds, So Long
    Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy
    reviewed by Yolanda Hood
  • Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan, eds, Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain reviewed by Aaron Dziubinskyj

Some interesting-looking articles there.

Posted in SF. 1 Comment »

In Brief

Here’s the terrible secret about this blog: the posts don’t just happen. They are planned. I don’t usually read a story, or a book, or watch a film or a tv show, and think, “hey, I want to write about this”. Sometimes that happens — it did with Children of Men, for instance — but those are the exceptions. More often, I’m on the lookout for things I want to write about. Recently, though, my plans have all come to nothing, or at least not very much. What follows are some fragments of aborted posts on some not-as-interesting-as-I’d-hoped failures: some stories, a film, and a tv show. (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?)

“Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” by Rudy Rucker

Inspiration is a tricky thing, especially when publicly acknowledged. When, a few years ago, Paul di Filippo wrote Fuzzy Dice, a novel inspired by and intended as a tribute to Rudy Rucker’s tremdous, barmy, transreal exploration of transfinite mathematics, White Light, it seemed somewhat miraculous that he pulled it off: his novel was just as tremendous as, and arguably even barmier than, Rucker’s. More recently, Rucker has in turn been inspired, as he acknowledges in the headnotes to the Asimov’s appearances of these two stories, and in a more-or-less loveletter to the book in question published in the November 2005 NYRSF. But while you can see how di Filippo got from White Light to Fuzzy Dice, if I didn’t know Rucker’s inspiration was Charles Stross’s Accelerando, I don’t think I’d have guessed the lineage. The two writers tell their stories in very different ways.

So far, whatever it is that Rucker’s up to is not very exciting. “Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” (note that both links are to excerpts, not complete stories) are set in the same future history. The former is backstory to a forthcoming novel, Postsingular, and explains how a nanotech singularity gets reversed by a clumsy plot gimmmick; the latter is part of the novel, and dramatises a rather more novel singularity, involving the overlay of a digital realm onto the physical, thanks to what amount to smart nanotech tags, which are the sort of thing I’m sure I’ve read Bruce Sterling enthusing about at some time or other.

Rucker’s plainspoken, laid-back style is almost the polar opposite of Stross’s data-dense lingo; if anything, these stories feel more like the work of Cory Doctorow, or like descendants of Vinge’s “True Names”. Which is fine, except when plainspoken becomes simply flat, and it too often does: the explanatory digressions are thinly veiled, and most of the characters are just thin. Ond, the (anti)-hero engineer at the centre of both stories, has motivations that are simplistic at best, and simply embarrassing at worst (his big realisation that bringing on the singularity might not have been a great idea comes when his wife starts electronically cheating on him); and most of the female characters are shrill, except when they’re being stupid. Neither story has the energy or the charm of White Light, and the ideas in them feel tame and familiar, even when they’re not. Probably the most interesting thing about the stories (aside from the use, or possibly invention of, increasingly improbable SI prefixes) is their embrace of the “postsingularity = magic” idea: in “Chu” a computer program is described, with very little irony, as a magic spell, while “Postsingular” features more spells, heaven, and some angels. But the whole enterprise has the sort of curiously weightless feeling that Accelerando was (mostly) notable for avoiding, and doesn’t inspire great confidence in the novel.

Death of a President

Death of a President is the second speculative docudrama about the US that I’ve seen this year, the first being the lower-budget, but more ambitious and more successful, C.S.A.. Writer-director Gabriel Range spins a tale that does exactly what it says on the tin: relates the circumstances surrounding, and the fallout from, the assassination of President George W. Bush in Chicago (which city is lovingly captured in a series of sweeping establishing shots) on October 19, 2007.

The first part of the film, which portrays a Presidential visit that meets with widespread protest, is good. It perhaps tends somewhat towards the hysterical, but arguably that’s necessary to set up a situation in which it’s plausible that the secret service would lose control. The second part of the film, which focuses on the fallout, is much less good, because the only part of the fallout it focuses on is the investigation into whodunit, and because that investigation is about the most predictable and politically heavy-handed you can imagine. A series of archetypal suspects — in particular, the shifty, pasty white man; the black man who may or may not have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and, of course, the Syrian — are wheeled out in turn, and I suspect it’s not spoiling anything if I tell you that the last of those three is subjected to a hasty, shoddy trial and a conviction that subsequently turns out to be a mistake. (The identity of the actual assassin is about as big a cop-out as I can imagine.) In the background, Cheney ascends to the Presidency, rattles some sabres, and gets PATRIOT 3 passed, but otherwise seems to do remarkably little. Range is entitled to tell the story he wants to tell, of course, but I can’t help thinking that a slightly broader perspective would have made for a much more interesting film.

Torchwood

What struck me most about Torchwood was how normal the normal bits are. For all the fuss made about the incorporation of Rose’s family into the Russell T. Davies incarnation of Doctor Who, the Tylers and their friends always felt to me like a tv family. By contrast, Gwen, her colleagues and her boyfriend seemed a bit more grounded. Admittedly, part of this perception is probably due to the fact that some of Gwen’s mannerisms and dialogue reminded me alarmingly of someone I knew at university; but even allowing for that, the scene (for example) where Captain Jack takes Gwen for a drink had a sort of incongruous meeting-of-worlds feel to it that recent Who only managed once or twice in two seasons.

As I’m sure most people reading this are more than well aware by now, I haven’t been overly impressed by new Who. It’s had its moments — mostly involving scripts by Steven Moffatt — but not many of them, and they’ve been almost lost in the general mediocrity and occasional outright amateurishness. But I’ve liked much of RTD’s other work (particularly The Second Coming), and wondered whether he might do better starting a show off from scratch. The other notable thing about Torchwood, though, is how much it doesn’t start from scratch. Its genetic makeup seems to be (even leaving aside the elements taken from a certain well-known show) about 10% Doctor Who, 5% Spooks (mostly the soundtrack), 30% Men in Black, 10% Generic British Drama, 5% Buffy, and 40% Angel.

The second episode (the Chris Chibnall-scripted “Day One”), in particular, had an Angel vibe about it — not, as some have said, for the loose similarities the plot bore to “Lonely Hearts” (the similarities were there, but they were very loose), and not particularly in the tone, but rather in the general structure of the show, and the sense of what it was trying to do. Captain Jack has been reinvented, consciously or not, as a more Angel-esque figure: invulnerable, somewhat more brooding, prone to standing on high buildings staring out over “his” city, and power-walking through the opening credits in a long flowing coat. The story took a fantastic element and used it as a metaphor for an aspect of human experience (Modern Life Is Sex); and Jack’s sidekick Gwen, while more of a viewpoint character than Cordelia ever was, offers the same sort of connection-with-common-humanity that the Queen of Sunnydale High provided for Angel. At one point in “Day One”, Jack asks Gwen to tell him “what it means to be human in the 21st century”, which as mission statements for tv shows go is surely ambitious enough for anyone.

The problem for me is not so much that Torchwood‘s influences are so obvious, but that they have been followed in their flaws as well as their virtues, without any real thinking-through. For one thing, the writers seem to be of the “sf doesn’t need consistent plotting” school; and to continue with the theme, Joss Whedon isn’t the strongest plotter in the world, either, but he tends to be much, much better at papering over his holes than RTD or most of his team. Nor do these writers have Whedon’s skill at fleshing out secondary characters: Toshiko and Owen remain cutouts. And the whole of the UK seems to indulge in the sort of mass-denial of alien existence that would put Sunnydale to shame — and as Martin Wisse notes, that kind of denial doesn’t really play in a science-fiction world, particularly on the sort of scale it’s used here. Torchwood may yet develop its own identity — it took Angel almost a season, after all — but at the moment it’s not even close to being a must-watch.

EDIT: Discussion of this post seems to be happening on the lj feed. Which, of course, means it’ll vanish into the ether in about three weeks. Sigh.

London Meeting: Rhiannon Lassiter

The guest at tonight’s BSFA meeting is Rhiannon Lassiter, who will be interviewed by Farah Mendlesohn. Farah says, “Rhiannon Lassiter has been writing sf and fantasy for children and teens for almost a decade. Her sf series Hex is weird and futuristic. Her sf/fantasy crossovers, Borderland, Outland and Shadowland dicuss colonialism, postcolonialsm and Borges. She also writes about superheroes.”

As usual, the meeting will take place in the upstairs room of the Star Tavern in Belgravia (there’s a map here) and people will start gathering from 5.30 or so.

The London Meetings are free to any and all who are interested, whether BSFA members or not. (And there’s a book raffle.) See you there?

Attention BSFA Members

For those of you reading who are actually BSFA members, an important announcement: a chunk of the last mailing (with the Clarke Award issue of Vector) seems to have gone missing. As Peter says:

We therefore urgently need to know which members have received their magazines and which haven’t. If you are not among the 20 or so members who have already let us know, please could you therefore email us, giving your name and (if you have it available) your membership number and whether or not you have received your magazines. If you know any other BSFA members who are unlikely to see this message, please could you also ask them to contact me or one of the other BSFA officers with the same details.

We may also be contacting some members directly over the next few days, particularly ones where the information might give us a clearer view of which members have received their mailings and (in particular) which probably haven’t. We will, however, try to make sure that if you have already been in touch with us about the mailing, we don’t ask you for the information again. But even if we don’t contact you, please do contact us – so we can work out how many members haven’t received the mailing and just who they are.

Note that we want positive and negative datapoints; we need to know the extent of the problem.

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