My Science Fiction Life

I’m a sucker. I was genuinely looking forward to My Science Fiction Life. Yes, on the one hand, it was a documentary about science fiction fans, and we know how those turn out. On the other hand, though, it was on BBC4, and it was coming at the tail-end of a perfectly respectable season of sf-related programming, and they’d gone to the trouble of sending a camera crew to a First Thursday, and they were going to be drawing talking heads from the general public. The signs were good, I tell you.

But look how it turned out. For starters, the format was a million miles away from The Martians and Us. I don’t mean that My Science Fiction Life should have been deadly serious — clearly that would have been disastrous in its own special way — but that it would have been nice to have got a sense that the programme-makers respected their subjects. Many of the contributions from the real people who contributed to the MSFL website (including Paul Cornell! Of whom more anon) were saying perfectly reasonable things, in good humour, in response to some pretty daft questions. But the frame that was built up around them made them seem, by association, like pedigree oddballs.

The opening narration, even, was quite promising, saying things like “science fiction fascinates everyone from bus drivers to brain surgeons, up and down the country”. The programme proper, though, was divided into segments, each of which was built around an interview with A. Person with a Science Fiction Life, and supplemented with the aforementioned MSFL interviews, and clips from sundry sf shows and films, and you can see where this is going already, can’t you? So, yes, under “They came from outer space” we got Jeff Wayne and Nick Pope, and under “Man & Machine” we got the ever-more-bonkers Kevin Warwick (and an atrociously misrepresentative piece of narration along the lines of, “From Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL to Isaac Asimov’s renegade I, Robot, that recently starred alongside Will Smith, science fiction writers have been imagining the damage that out-of-control machines could do”), who revealed that he had been first inspired by none other than Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man. Under “Designs on the Future” (probably the best segment) we got Will Alsop, who revealed that Blade Runner is an architects’ favourite, and talked about redesigning Barnsley; and under “The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything” we got everything from Scientology (although that was introduced with a rather nice interview clip: “L. Ron Hubbard, do you ever think that you might be mad?” “Oh, yes.”) to the vicar who uses Star Wars and Star Trek in his sermons.

It rapidly became staggeringly obvious that for all that My Science Fiction Life had looked like it was going to be about the communities that have built up around science fiction, what the producers actually wanted to make was a programme about the people who take sf, or sf-related pursuits, to extremes. I’m trying not to be either too flippant or too grumpy here, since I realise that arguably any attempt by sf fans to explain the fundamental appeal of sf — to say that, yes, thinking about the future and about possibility matters — is liable to end up looking either over-earnest or just a bit barmy. But as it turned out, the gestures My Science Fiction Life made in that direction were superficial at best. The narration would make the (quite reasonable) point that sf can be a venue for looking at moral and ethical questions; cut to scientology and the sf priest. The narration would make the (perfectly understandable) point that our living spaces are likely to change in the future; cut to the man who’s made his flat into a Star Trek flat. And they didn’t use any of the footage from their trip to First Thursday, after all, although in the final analysis that’s probably a blessing.

But there was a bright spot, at least for me: Paul Cornell, who (bafflingly) was just listed as a MSFL contributer (rather than as, say, a writer of Doctor Who and other sf), but whose oblivious enthusiasm for his science fiction life shone through every time he was on-screen. He got the last word before the credits, too, with the rather endearing observation that “Oddly, without science fiction, I would be unmarried, lonely, and penniless.” Which is, it seems to me, as good a note as any on which to say that I’m off to the wilds of York, with little more than an 1,100 page Thomas Pynchon novel to sustain me, to spend a few days with people I wouldn’t have met except for my science fiction life. I’ll be back next Wednesday or so with best-stuff-of-the-year posts. Happy New Year, everyone!

Posted in SF, TV. 6 Comments »

Salon Fantastique: La Fee Verte

I’m pretty sure the fault is in me rather than in Delia Sherman’s story, but as I read the first few pages of “La Fee Verte” I kept thinking of the pilot episode of Angel. As Our Heroine, Victorine, is approached for no apparent reason by the title character (“exquisitely thin … dark eyes huge and bruised in her narrow face”; her name is never translated in the story, although the frequent references to (a) absinthe and (b) green silk should be enough to jog most peoples’ memory), and recoils in astonishment as the enigmatic woman relates events from her past, I kept thinking of the half-demon Doyle appearing out of nowhere and doing the same for Angel. So I was all ready for Victorine to turn around and say, “Okay, you’ve told me the story of my life which, since I was there, I already knew … why aren’t I kicking you out?” (Or, given the setting, some 19th-century Parisian equivalent). Instead:

When the tale was done, La Fee Verte allowed her tears to overflow and trickle, crystalline, down her narrow cheeks. Enchanted, Victorine wiped them away and licked their bitter salt from her fingers. She was inebriated, she was enchanted. She was in love.

I very nearly gave up on the story then and there, because the moment felt unjustified and overwritten, and because it seemed highly unlikely that a character who fell in love on such dubious grounds was someone I was going to enjoy spending the best part of fifty pages with. (“La Fee Verte” is, I think, the longest story in Salon Fantastique.) But I didn’t give up, because many other people have spoken highly of the story, and in the end I’m glad to have read it: I think it’s quite far from being one of the best stories in the book, but it’s enjoyable, with a few moments that raise it above the ordinary.

The first promising moment, in fact, occurs only a few paragraphs later, when it transpires that the stories La Fee Verte tells of Victorine’s past aren’t quite true. “Little by little,” we are told, “Victorine came to depend on [these revisions], as a drunkard depends on his spirits, to mediate between her and her life.” The explicit parallel with drunkenness is probably unnecessary, but the conceit of an addiction to a seer’s visions — not to mention a seer who enables such addiction — is an interesting one. Things between the two women quite quickly sour, though, as La Fee Verte becomes entangled with a (male) client, a writer “of novels in the vein of M. Jules Verne”, to whom she divulges clearly absurd visions of the future, such as a man on the moon who “plants a flag in the dust, scarlet and blue and white, marching in rows of stripes and little stars.” Since this was the US flag at the time the story is set, it’s perhaps a little surprising that La Fee Verte doesn’t recognise it, but the moment serves its purpose, such that when the seer tells Victorine that she is destined to be loved, we know that she is telling the truth.

Gradually Paris as a place asserts itself, and some of the best parts of the rest of the story contribute to a portrait of a city in flux. The story takes place between winter of 1868, when Victorine and La Fee Verte first meet, and autumn of 1870, when Paris is besieged by the Prussian army. Victorine has a succession of lovers, and through her eyes we see the effects that the change in government and fortune is having on the city and its people. At one point, during a relationship with a colonel, Victorine finds herself at an extravagant dinner that “belonged more properly to last month, last year, two years ago”, and feels herself “lost in one of La Fee Verte’s visions, where past, present, and future exist as one.” Such feelings of instability, brought about by the rigid class divisions in the city, are almost eerie, as is the lingering sense — reinforced by La Fee Verte’s periodic appearances — that though Paris too is destined to be loved, the course will not be a smooth one. Which (indulge me) I suppose you could say parallels how I feel about Salon Fantastique. I haven’t been writing about the stories in order; and this is my last post, although “La Fee Verte” is, in fact, the first story in the book. So I know that for anyone who reads the book through, there will be ups and downs, but I think it is probably destined to be loved. There are stories here worth loving.

Locus Reviews — online, with comments

Great news via Mark Kelly:

We’re doing something a bit new here at Locus Online (and Locus Magazine), for which I’ve created a new Blogger blog for ‘Locus Online Features’, and have re-posted the Graham Sleight retrospective review of Arthur C. Clarke and George R. Stewart using that function with a new URL. The point is to more easily enable commenting from readers, which will appear almost-automatically (I did enable comment moderation, which means the comments you post are sent to me via email first, for my approval or rejection, as a means of blocking spam).

Gary Westfahl’s review of Children of Men has been posted the same way.

More sample reviews from Locus Magazine are on the way — Graham Sleight’s columns, as well as one or two reviews from each issue by Gary Wolfe, Faren Miller, and the others. The idea is to drum up interest in subscribing to the magazine! Of course surely anyone reading this blog is already a subscriber.

Whether or not you’re a subscriber, the RSS feed for the Locus Online site, which (it seems) will include new Features posts in the same way it always has, is here (or, on livejournal, here, though I’m not sure that feed’s quite got with the programme yet).

Salon Fantastique: Down the Wall

In the season four West Wing presidential debate episode, “Game On”, there’s a rather nice running joke about a Republican, Albie Duncan, who Toby thinks they should use in the post-debate spin session, to counteract the fact that the Republican candidate has a Democrat “shilling for him on defense”. CJ and Toby have the following exchange:

TOBY: This is why I’m talking to you. You’re going to use Albie Duncan.
CJ: He’ll do it?
TOBY: Yes.
CJ: Duncan?
TOBY: Yes.
CJ: He will?
TOBY: Yes.
CJ: Look at me. He’s not a little bit crazy?
TOBY: Albie Duncan?
CJ: Yes.
TOBY: No. No. No. [beat] A little bit.

Give or take Richard Schiff’s ever-marvellous delivery, that’s sort of how I feel about Greer Gilman’s story “Down the Wall”. It’s not because of Gilman’s much-discussed use of language, or not specifically. Here’s the opening of the story:

Stilt-legs scissoring, snip-snap! the bird gods dance. Old craneycrows, a skulk of powers. How they strut and ogle with their long eyes, knowing. How they serpentine their necks. And stalking, how they flirt their tails, insouciant as Groucho. Fugue and counterfugue, the music jigs and sneaks. On tiptoe, solemnly, they hop and flap; they whirl and whet their long curved clever bills. A sly dance, a wry dance, miching mallecho. Pavane. They peacock, but their drab is eyeless, black as mourners, black as mutes. They are clownish, they are sinister, in their insatiable invention, their unending.

As I had been led to expect, this is certainly careful, formidable writing — the unfamiliar words (“miching”), the words verbed (“serpentine”) or nouned (“drab”), the striking phrases (“the music jigs and sneaks”), the oddly placed cultural reference (“insouciant as Groucho”), the rhythms — but it doesn’t require significantly more unpacking than the writing of, say, Margo Lanagan, or even Catherynne Valente or Hal Duncan in full flow. What impressed me was what happened next. When the long paragraph (at least double the amount I quoted) ends, we have an extremely vivid image of the bird gods’ dance in our minds, and we think we know what sort of fantasy story we’re reading. And then we’re confronted with one phrase — “the birds are phosphor in a box” — which forces us to reframe everything we thought we’d learnt. The second paragraph continues:

The birds are phosphor in a box. They sift and sift across the screen; they whisper. They are endless snow or soot, the ashes of the old world burning. Elsewhere fire. The hailbox whispers, whispers. There is no way to turn it off. No other channel but the gods. All day and night it snows grey phosphor, sifting in the corners of the air. The earth is grey with ash.

The birds are images seen in the static of a dead tv. And quite suddenly, it starts to become apparent that “Down the Wall” isn’t fantasy at all. There’s a tv the characters can’t, or don’t know how, to turn off; they think of the static as “the ashes of the old world burning”; it all sounds very much like post-apocalyptic science fiction.

I think I’m right in saying that nothing in the story later contradicts this interpretation. The bird gods, it transpires, have an existence beyond static, but it’s an existence in stories of this time. The world of “Down the Wall” struck me very much as world where the horizon has drawn closer, where the giants have been kicked out from under the characters. They describe lightning, for instance, as “godlight”; the bird gods themselves are described so lyrically it’s hard to be sure, but I think we are meant to understand that they are the projections of a people scared by a world they no longer comprehend, and not a literal reality. Which is to say that I think they are wind and sticks and storm, but I could be wrong.

What makes the story — which involves a brother and sister going out from their home, into the world — so decidedly odd, though, isn’t this shift, it’s the way in which the world is rendered. For one thing, the characters all have names — Spugget, Harpic, Fligger, Theek — straight out of Peake, which makes them sound grotesque, although there’s little indication that they actually are. For another, when they speak they say things like “Hush. Nobbut an awd busker. I’ll fend” and “Gerroff wi’ yer. Left, left, down close and top o’t stairs”, which frankly makes them sound like they came from the North of England and brought all their cliches with them. It was all I could do not to imagine the lot of them wearing flat caps — not exactly a common image in sf. But in the end, if the story’s construction feels a bit patchwork, and if its ending is somewhat arbitrary, there’s no denying its urgency or imagination — the descriptions of the gang of children running world are particularly impressive. Later in the West Wing episode I mentioned above, defending Albie Duncan further (the Democrats do eventually use him), Toby says, “Look, he’s Albie Duncan. […] If he’s crazy, then I don’t want to be sane.” Sanity sounds overrated when reading “Down the Wall”, too.

Attention BSFA Members!

It is now officially the end of the year season, which means you no longer have an excuse: it’s time to start nominating for the BSFA Awards. The eligibility criteria are here. General points to note are:

  1. Science fiction, fantasy, and any other speculative works are eligible.
  2. You can nominate as many works in each category as you want. The works with the highest number of nominations go forward to the shortlist.
  3. The deadline for nomination is midnight on Saturday 13th January 2007. That’s a fortnight tomorrow.

The nominations so far are here and copied below. Note that a consequence of point 2 is that just because something is on this list doesn’t mean you don’t have to nominate it — works on this list may have only received one nomination. You should email your nominations to BSFA.Awards@gmail.com.

Artwork

  • Cover for Interzone 206: “Droid” by Fahrija Velic
  • Exiles by Mark Garlick, cover of Interzone #203
  • Cover of Farthing magazine, issue 2, Spring 2006. Credited to ‘Vertebrate Graphics’.
  • The Lucid Moment‘, Chris Mars. (Chris Mars Publishing)
  • Cover for Nova Swing by M John Harrison
  • Cover for Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
  • The Return to Abalakin” by Alexander Preuss
  • Publicity still for A Scanner Darkly
  • Cover of “The Servicing and Maintenance of Wayland Snowball”, by Terry Cooper. (Novel by Steve Dean.)
  • Poster for Superman Returns
  • Cover of Time Pieces, Fangorn
  • Cover of Whispers of Wickedness #12, Marcia Borell

Short fiction:

  • The Angel of Gamblers, Hal Duncan (Eidolon #1)
  • The Barrowlands’ Last Night, Philip Raines & Harvey Welles (Extended Play)
  • Bizarre Cubiques, Hal Duncan (Fantasy #4)
  • The Codsman and his Willing Shag, Neil Williamson (The Ephemera)
  • The Disappeared, Sarah Singleton (Time Pieces, edited Ian Whates, published NewCon press)
  • Gin, Holly Phillips (Eidolon #1)
  • Hieronymous Boche, Chris Lawson (Eidolon #1)
  • The Highwaymen, Ken MacLeod
  • Palestina, Martin J. Gidron (Interzone 204)
  • Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter, Geoff Ryman (F&SF)
  • The Revenant, Lucy Sussex (Eidolon #1)
  • Saving for a Sunny Day, or, The Benefits of Reincarnation, Ian Watson (Asimov’s Science Fiction #369/370)
  • The Unsolvable Death Trap, Jack Mangan (Interzone 202)
  • “Soulkeepers” by Steve Dean (Hadesgate Publications)
  • Sounding, Elizabeth Bear (Strange Horizons)
  • State Your Name, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Time Pieces, edited Ian Whates, published NewCon press)
  • This Happens, David Mace (Interzone #205)
  • 2+2=5, Rudy Rucker and Terry Bisson (Interzone 205)
  • Weather, Alastair Reynolds (Galactic North)
  • Willy and Topsy, William I. Lengeman III (Farthing #4)

Novel:

  • The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier (John Murray)
  • End of the World Blues, Jon Courtenay Grimwood
  • Icarus, Roger Levy
  • Keeping it Real, Justina Robson
  • The Last Witchfinder, James Morrow (Weidenfield & Nicholson)
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch
  • The Osiris Revelations, Andrew Marshall (MPress Publishing)
  • The Servicing and Maintenance of Wayland Snowball, Steve Dean (Hadesgate Publications)
  • Shriek: An Afterword, Jeff Vandermeer
  • The Voyage of the Sable Keech, Neal Asher

Salon Fantastique: Dust Devil on a Quiet Street

Per Rich’s request, this was meant to be a post about Jedidiah Berry’s story, “To Measure the Earth”. Unfortunately, I find myself with nothing of interest to say — it seemed to me far and away the weakest of the Salon Fantastique stories I’ve read, largely because of the extent to which it embraces obliqueness. At one point, one of the characters notes that “Questions distract”, and we’re apparently meant to take her seriously, despite the fact that insisting on answers is exactly what any half-way intelligent person would be doing. But “To Measure the Earth” isn’t about people, it’s about ciphers; they’re held at arm’s length, and the vagueness of the precise relations between some of them, or the meaning of some of their actions, is more frustrating than suggestive.

So, instead, this post is about Richard Bowes’ story, “Dust Devil on a Quiet Street”, and the difference is striking. The mystery at the centre of Bowes’ story is perhaps more obscure than that at the heart of Berry’s, but far more compellingly portrayed, with its effects rippling out through a multitude of characters. Like its namesake (an episode of The Naked City), “Dust Devil on a Quiet Street” is a New York Story, and drips with references to places and people. I suspect it has more named characters than any other story in the book, deftly orchestrated and all introduced with economy — “In high school, he had an obsessive compulsive disorder. She was bulimic. Now, and it almost seems to follow logically, he is a painter. She is an actress” — and almost all part of New York’s past or present alternative arts scene.

The next-but-one issue of Vector includes a transcript of a panel on Fantastic Cities from Interaction a year and a half ago, in which Jeffrey Ford makes the observation that “every city is really a palimpset of history”, with the new overlaid on the old; “Dust Devil” embodies that attitude. The narrator, an unnamed science fiction writer, is already experiencing a season of reminiscence (“That summer, the whole city, maybe the whole world seemed to be in a similar mood. Books were all memoirs, every concert was a reunion, every museum exhibition a retrospective, every Broadway opening a revival”) when he attends a memorial service for a critic of the local scene, Robin Saint Just. The circumstances of his death set off a chain of memory and investigation for the narrator that rambles across months and between incidents. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the story, to my mind, is that I didn’t feel excluded: I’ve been to New York exactly once, when I was much younger, and I really have no sense of the cultural milieu that Bowes is describing, yet it didn’t seem to matter. Many of the details are decodable from context, and those that aren’t merely add to the sense of the narrator’s New York as a place that is layered, cluttered but vibrant.

You may, quite legitimately, be wondering what the fantastic element is. As in most of the other stories by Bowes that I’ve read, it is notably low-key, probably having something to do with the soul of Callimachus, the first critic, trapped in a ring. (If I have a reservation about liking this story, it’s that in part it’s about the relationship between critics and the scene they comment on, something about which I am perhaps less than objective.) Alternatively, the fantastic resides in the dust devils of the title, which the narrator and a friend once decided, on a whim, “were actually the small gods, the spirits playful and malign, of Manhattan”. Or the magic is in the art itself. You decide.

The Twelve Links of Christmas

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