Eclipse 1

I’ll get the basics done quick. Eclipse 1 is the start (and hopefully not the entirity) of a new, unthemed, original anthology series from Night Shade Books, edited by the not-quite-ubiquitous-yet Jonathan Strahan. It contains fifteen stories, two of which (by Bruce Sterling and Maureen F. McHugh) are excellent, three of which (by Garth Nix, Ellen Klages, and Paul Brandon & Jack Dann) are terrible, and the rest of which fall somewhere in the middle ground. Enough of the pack are on the good side of okay to make the anthology worth reading if you like short stories. In his introduction, Strahan says we’re living in an “extraordinary” time for genre short stories, artistically speaking; for my money there isn’t quite enough weight in Eclipse‘s fiction to support that claim, but what does lend it some credibility is the realisation that it’s trivially easy to sketch out equally impressive hypothetical contents for at least two more volumes before you have to consider repeating yourself.

Or, indeed, the realisation that Eclipse is just one among many. Unthemed anthology series have been popping up everywhere, at least if by “everywhere” you accept that I mean “from smaller publishers, predominantly those based in the US.” Earlier this year Pyr launched Fast Foward, and Solaris has its Best New [Science Fiction|Fantasy]; I’m sure Prime’s offering is on its way. And all the indications are that Eclipse should be most reliably to my taste, given that in general I like Strahan’s choices as an editor. What struck me about Eclipse, though — and this is where the post stops being a review and turns into “thoughts inspired by”; if you want more detail, you could try one of the three (count ‘em) reviews in the November Locus — was not the quality of the stories so much as the content. Here’s some more from Strahan’s introduction:

This is not a science fiction anthology. Nor is it a fantasy anthology. It’s both and it’s more. It’s a space where you can encounter rocket ships and ray guns, and zombies and zeppelins: pretty much anything you can imagine. Most of all, it’s somewhere you will find great stories. It does not have an agenda or plan. There is no test of genre purity that it can pass or fail. There’s only the test that every reader applies to any work that they encounter — is it good fiction or not? — and I hope we’ll pass that one every time.

As if to underscore the point, the anthology opens with Andy Duncan’s “Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse”, a historical story which is probably not fantastical at all, and ends with Lucius Shepard’s “Larissa Miusov”, a contemporary story which probably is fantasy, except that we’re not given any proof. In between, despite Strahan’s comment, there is not a single rocket ship, ray gun, or zeppelin; nor are there any scientists or robots or dragons. You could call this the Doctor Who problem: the promise is that the Doctor and his companion could go anywhere and see anything; the reality is that they mostly hang around present-day London. (On the other hand, thank the lord, there aren’t any retold fairytales or myths in Eclipse; or if there were, they were retold inventively enough that I didn’t notice.) There’s a single, solitary zombie, but he doesn’t want brains so much as he wants a drink. Moreover the fantasy stories outnumber the stories that can be read as science fiction two-to-one and, as that phrasing suggests, a reader with a less flexible definition of sf than me could easily make a case for a more unbalanced ratio. Whatever it may have been intended as, what Eclipse actually is is an anthology of mostly contemporary, mostly low-key fantasy, with a sprinkling of near-future sf, and one dose of real, wonderful weirdness.

The dose of weirdness Bruce Sterling’s offering, “The Lustration”. It is set on a planet that is: (1) encompassed by a possibly-sentient computer made out of living wood; (2) part of a solar system, ejected from a galaxy about the size of ours some eighty million years previously, that contains 512 other planets and moons; and (3) inhabited by scaly creatures that call themselves humans. You see the problem in trying to classify it. You can’t, without making a lot of assumptions, position the story as part of our future; you might just as well say it’s set in an alternate dimension where physics happens to be broadly the same as our own. (I’d love to read a fantasy story where it turns out the galactic- or larger-scale cosmology of the universe is radically different to that of ours, though.) I counted it as one of my five above because in subject, if not in setting, it tackles traditional sf matter, because it does so in a traditionally sfnal manner, which is to say through blissfully unnatural interrogative exposition (“You think you’re evil becasue you think humanity matters in this universe!”, says one character), and because it finishes with a good old-fashioned conceptual breakthrough. Similarly, I counted Gwyneth Jones’ future-Fairyland as sf because an sfnal explanation is provided at the end, but the tone of the story is pure fantasy; and I counted McHugh’s “The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large” as sf despite the fact that the difference between the story’s world and ours is one bomb, and a bomb that turns out to be background at that, which in extrapolative terms makes the story rather less sfnal than the most recent season of 24. (Or makes it a case of SF as affect, if ever I saw one.) When you get right down to it, if you wanted to be really purist, the only story in the book that confronts the reader with an even half-way plausible novum is Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Electric Rains”; another way of describing the book would be to say that although the reading pleasures specific to fantasy are well-served, the pleasures of science fiction are sparse.

“So what?” many will say. Indeed, I’m tempted to say it, too. I cheered the launch of the Strahan-edited Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, not so much for ideological reasons (there is certainly plenty of unclassifiable fantastic fantastic material, as it were, but equally certainly there are distinct literary forms called “science fiction” and “fantasy”) as for practical ones (aside from the high level of conservation of writers between the two forms, they are so often published by the same companies, advertised in the same places and shelved together that it seems artificial to treat them as separate communities). Nor does it bother me that the two volumes of that Year’s Best so far skew fantasy in a 60/40ish ratio. In principle, I’m all for Eclipse‘s mission; and even in practice, as I say, I think it’s a decent book. But the “so what”, for me, is that the book Eclipse is in practice is not the book Eclipse claims to be.

It claims to contain “new science fiction and fantasy”, and to be “in the spirit of classic science fiction anthologies”. The sf is put first, in other words. There’s a clue to the reality in the names on the front cover; these were apparently chosen for being the biggest name authors in the book, but it’s still noticeable that only one of them (Bruce Sterling) is an sf writer, while the other four are fantasy writers (Garth Nix, Peter S Beagle, Jeffrey Ford and Lucius Shepard — not that the last two, at least, haven’t written sf, but they’re better known as fantasists, in the same way that Sterling has written fantasy but is better known as an sf writer; and they contribute fantasy to this book). But the names are somewhat overwhelmed by the other indicators. The cover illustration, for instance, could be for a fantasy story, but the rubble, with its concrete and rust stains and reinforcing metal rods, looks to my eyes more like it belongs in an sf setting. (Moreover, four of the five could-be-read-as-sf stories are by women, compared to only three of the ten fantasy stories; so while the cover names give some idea of the content, they don’t give an accurate idea of the breadth of the writers included. Even with the complete author listing on the back cover, it’s another way in which the book you look at on the table is not the book you sit down to read.) Now, Eclipse didn’t mislead me, but that’s because I’m obsessive and tracked down the full contents before I ordered a copy, and moreover I recognise and have previously read work by every author in the book — my purchase was mostly on the strength of McHugh’s name, as it happens. I was a little disappointed by the preponderance of fantasy — when I buy a book that says “science fiction and fantasy” on the cover, I would prefer to read science fiction and fantasy — but not surprised. But I can’t help thinking that the presentation of Eclipse isn’t doing it any favours in terms of getting the book into the hands of those who will enjoy it most. I can imagine readers looking for sf and fantasy disappointed when they discover only fantasy, or readers who dismiss the collection as a same-old, based on the names on the cover, and miss out on some good and interesting work. And most of all I can imagine readers whose expectations, raised by Strahan’s introduction, colour their reaction when they read the fourth contemporary fantasy in a row, and start to wonder where the rocket ships are. Maybe in Eclipse 2?

Thoughts on the BSI

What’s the BSI, you ask? This is the BSI:

The Big Scary Idea: The Big Scary Business Plan

The quick story: back in late spring of ‘06, Jason sits on my office couch and says, “Think of a way to save science fiction publishing.”

This was the result.

[…]

General Company Description

BSI is the first all-media, advertising-supported speculative fiction website providing both pro-selected and user-rated content with popularity-based revenue sharing for all content providers.

This follows on, of course, from the latest round of discussions about sf magazines and the survival thereof. But you should go and have a look at it, because it’s long, reasonably detailed, will probably answer at least some of the immediate questions you have about it, and in among the community-focused web 2.0 utopianism there’s some food for thought.

So what we have is a one-stop, does-everything website. You go to BSI to read sf stories, watch sf short films, read sf reviews or other related nonfiction, or look at sf art. And because the design is about enabling as much as about providing, you can contribute any of the above yourself. Everything can be rated and commented on. Everything is free-to-browse; the website is funded through a combination of adverts, sponsorships, donations, and a couple of other sources. Contributors then get paid in proportion to how often their stuff gets looked at.

My first reaction is that with the exception of the $1M launch competition, I have very little doubt that this model, or one like it, would work. There doesn’t seem to be much in the proposal that’s new; there are already similarly structured, but not sf-focused, websites making healthy money using these ideas. Moreover, while print prose sf certainly isn’t dead or dying, it is (paging Dr Roberts!) clearly no longer the dominant form in which sf exists. If you are trying to find an audience for sf, focusing on the stuff that’s made of sentences won’t cut it; multimedia is the way to go.

The question in my mind, then, is: is this a website that I would want to visit? These are the people the BSI sees as its audience:

  • Rabid Fan. Science fiction or fantasy reader. Goes to conventions. Gets in heated debates about Star Trek flavors. The middle-aged white male. We don’t want to irritate this person so much that they leave the site. Most likely to donate money to us.
  • Casual Fan. People who enjoy science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies, as well as television such as Buffy and Serenity. Broad range, skewing male. We want to appeal to this person so much they invite their friends to come.
  • Progressive. Someone who’s interested in progressive thoughts, ideas, and futurism, but eschews the fan mentality. Broad range, also skews male. We want to have content that appeals to this person.

Technically speaking, I’m not any of these people. I’m too young to be a rabid fan, but I’m clearly more than a casual fan. (As an aside, I am far from convinced that the ‘casual fan’ category skews male — at least, not judging by TV fandoms as they are represented on my livejournal friendslist, which I admit is not scientific.) Practically speaking, though, I probably do fall into the rabid fan category. I rarely get into debates about which version of Star Trek is best (because it’s obviously DS9), but I go to conventions, I read truckloads, I watch lots of sf television and film, and then I write about it all.

So I’m one of the people that the BSI doesn’t want to irritate so much that I leave the site. However, they’re starting from a disadvantage, in that there are reasons I very rarely visit existing advertising-funded community-oriented sites like Fark and SomethingAwful: it’s because they are usually annoying websites filled with idiots for whom I have very little patience. The community sites that I do use — such as livejournal — are based much more on peer-to-peer interactions than multi-valency community interactions, so I can choose who and what I want to read. In a way, the most optimistic aspect of the BSI, it seems to me, isn’t the financial and business side, it’s the idea that a space can be created where all the various kinds of sf fan that now exist will want to congregate together, when the past decade seems to suggest that most people are more comfortable off in their own multiple splinter fandoms.

Against that, what is there for me at BSI? Short fiction edited by a professional editor — let’s say, for the sake of argument, Ellen Datlow — that’s good. But I didn’t go to the parts of SciFi.com that weren’t SCIFICTION very often, and I still don’t. Would I go there to watch new video? If it was professionally produced, perhaps, but by and large I don’t have much time for fan productions, and when it comes to user-created content I don’t have huge amounts of faith in the wisdom of crowds. Would I go there for discussion and debate? Possibly; but I already have plenty of smart people I can talk to about stuff, and I’m sceptical that such a large site could live up to that level of conversation. Never mind the fact that occasionally — just occasionally — I like to enjoy content that isn’t sf-related. All of which can be boiled down to this: I don’t need another time-sink, and the BSI looks, by design, like a big time-sink.

So to answer my earlier question, no, it’s probably not a site I would want to visit much. The thing is, for the success of the site, that’s irrelevant. The BSI isn’t really aimed at me, and it doesn’t need me. By extension, it probably doesn’t need most of the people reading this; and to create a new, sustainable sf magazine, I suspect that’s exactly the sort of thinking that’s needed.

Posted in SF. 4 Comments »

London Meeting: Iain M Banks

You know, between the BSFA news community, and the shiny new website feed, you barely need me to post these reminders any more. Nevertheless:

The guest at tonight’s BSFA meeting is Iain M Banks, who will be interviewed by Farah Mendlesohn.

The venue for tonight’s meeting is Physics Lecture Theatre 1, Blackett Lab, Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus (on the corner of Prince Consort Road and Queensgate), London, SW7 2AZ. Here is a (pdf) map; the Blackett building is no. 7, in the North-West corner of the campus.

As usual, the meeting is open to any and all; it is not ticketed, nor is there an entry fee. Just turning up this evening is fine. The lecture theatre will be open from 6, and the interview will start around 7. Those who want to get a drink beforehand may find like-minded fans in The Hoop & Toy, opposite South Kensington tube.

Posted in BSFA, Events, SF. 2 Comments »

How I Am Spending My Weekend

24 in 24: season 6. (Which is apparently set in 2013, and is therefore clearly sf…) Liveblogging here.

Posted in SF, TV. Leave a Comment »

Politics Is What Humans Do

A little light reading for you: Martin Lewis’ interview of Richard Morgan, from Vector 253:

So your time in Turkey and Spain was helpful to you as a writer?

Yes, very. It’s a powerful shock to the system to go and live in a place where millions of people exist day-to-day on a set of cultural assumptions markedly different from your own. As with seeing the feminist (or more simply the female) perspective on things, you are forced out of your accustomed world-view, forced to consider its validity as against any other. The result is ultimately very empowering – you come away with a far better sense of what is of real value in your own culture, and of what could really do with being changed. Plus (if you can beat your own nasty knee-jerk prejudices) you get an overwhelming sense of common humanity, a (one would think fairly obvious) understanding that at basic levels people are similar wherever you go – but you get that understanding at an emotional rather than an intellectual level. And then of course, there’s the wealth an experience like that brings to your life in terms of getting to know different food, different music, different languages, different kinds of humour … and all of those will feed into your fiction, and make it correspondingly richer, more human and more textured.

Save Heroes

Here:

We need to write a detailed critique of the plot, character, race and gender elements of Heroes. We need to have one place where the producers and writers of Heroes can come and find what fandom has to say on these issues.

That’s the purpose of this website. We don’t need to Save Heroes from cancellation or network misuse, we need to Save Heroes from itself. Because it’s not a lost cause. It’s still capable of being the amazing show it was in season one. No, it’s capable of being even better.

[…]

Timeline

Week of November 19 – 25
Putting together the first draft – accepting comments/links/contributions from all fans

November 26 – 28
Creating the first draft, soliciting input from contributors.

December 3rd
Final draft ready.

Posted in TV. 18 Comments »

Beowulf

A quick post about this, mainly because Abigail said the other day that Beowulf “looks like the unholy love child of The Polar Express and 300” and, having seen it, I think this is a trifle unfair. Beowulf is better than The Polar Express because its characters almost never look like creepy soulless automata — the motion-capture definitely has an easier time of it with closeups, older characters and characters in motion than it does with distance shots, young characters, or as Roz Kaveney notes, moments of repose, but there are still long stretches when you forget about the technology and are absorbed into the story.

And Beowulf is better than 300 because, well, just about every film ever made is better than 300, but specifically because it has characters for the motion capture to distract you from, not to mention action sequences that aren’t pure tedium and a healthy sense of its own ridiculousness. With the exception of the truly bizarre cheeseboard of accents (it’s very nearly worth the price of admission to hear Ray Winstone’s cockney hard-man delivery of “I am Beowulf, and I’m here to kill yer monstah!”), the film is not a comedy by any stretch of the imagination. It is a film about manly men doing manly things — this Beowulf is basically the Jack Bauer of the early middle ages — but it’s still a film that knows full well when it’s being OTT and winks at the viewer just enough to make it all fun. When Our Hero is swallowed by a sea monster and then bursts its single, giant eyeball from inside its skull, for instance, the moment is almsot immediately undercut by the people listening to Beowulf relate his tale. ([Sceptic] “How many was it you killed, again? Twenty?” [Beowulf, frostily] “Nine.” [Beowulf’s comrade, sotto voce] “Last time it was three.”)

The point is also made more than once that Beowulf is not entirely sane; and there are other, occasional serious moments that lift the whole, such as the confrontation in which a diminished, worn King Beowulf basically dares a captured Frisian invader to kill him. The Frisian wavers, of course, and Beowulf, dismissively, tells his men to “given him a coin and let him go. Now he has a story to tell.” It’s such moments that remind you that this story is actually about things that matter; about power and heroism and reputation and the slow passing of an age. None of which gets in the way of the greatest reason why I’m quite happy having spent time and money watching Beowulf: the stupendously realised dragon in the final act, and the even more stupendously realised action sequence featuring said dragon. I have been waiting a long time to see a convincing dragon on the big screen, and had thought I was going to have to wait until they got around to making The Hobbit, but Beowulf scratched the itch good and proper. What can I say? Sometimes I’m shallow.

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