On Holiday

Oh, I had such noble aims. I was going to use this holiday as an excuse to do a proper stock-taking post, looking back over what I’ve read so far this year and forward to what’s still to come. Instead, it’s got to the point where I’m out the door in an hour, and have various things to do before then. So all you get is some raw numbers: I’ve read 42 books this year; and these are, I think, the six best (in alphabetical order by author), that you all really should read.

In fact, if you want me to know which one of these you should read, it’s the Whitfield; really, In Great Waters and Lavinia should both be on the BSFA Award Best Novel shortlist come 2010.

And with that, I’m off!

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Best Linked Cold

Worldcon Schedule

As I think I’ve mentioned, I’m going to Worldcon this year. The full draft programme is now available [pdf]; and if you’re going, should you want to you can find me on these items:

Thursday 17.00-18.30
Bookgroup: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

Discussion of one of last year’s blockbusters, led by Niall Harrison.
Location: P-523A

Thursday 22.00-23.00
I’ll Be Back

Who could have guessed 25 years ago that “The Terminator” was starring a future governor of California? Having spawned several sequels and a TV series this jarring image of a bleak future that might yet be averted or changed continues to hold our attention. Why have the “Terminator” films been so influential, and what do they say about the times that produced them? How does “Terminator Salvation” fit in?
Jeanne Cavelos, Niall Harrison, Russell Blackford (m), Seanan McGuire
Location: P-511BE

Friday 14.00-15.30
The Hugo Award: Short Form Dramatic Presentation

The nominees: who will win, who should win, who was overlooked? What does it say about the state of the art as of 2008?
James Zavaglia, Lee Whiteside, Mandy Slater (m), Niall Harrison, Vincent Docherty
Location: P-524B

Friday 17.00-18.30
Handicapping the Hugos II: The Short Fiction

Our panellists survey the Hugo-nominated short stories, novelettes, and novellas: they tell us what they want to win, what will win, and why.
Ann VanderMeer (m), Jonathan Strahan, Karen Burnham, Niall Harrison, Bill Fawcett
Location: P-516AB

Saturday 17.00-18.00
Is Blogging an Art Form, or Just a Fanzine by Any Other Name?

Does a blog require a different style? A different layout? A different mode of approach? Do the technical requirements make it more or less accessible a medium?
Cheryl Morgan, Kathryn Cramer, Niall Harrison, Heather McDougal, Tobias Buckell
Location: P-514AB

Sunday 10.00-11.00
Kaffeeklatsch: Niall Harrison and Graham Sleight

Two non-fiction editors answer your questions.
Location: P-521B

Monday 11.00-12.00
Non-Fiction for SF Fans

What non-fiction should SF fans be reading? The panel recommends and discussed recently published books and perennial classics.
Geoff Ryman, James Cambias, Kari Sperring, Niall Harrison (m), Vincent Docherty
Location: P-511BE

If you’re not going, you should feel free to share your thoughts on any of these topics, so that I may steal them and pass them off as my own.

London Meeting: Andrew McKie

The guest at tonight’s London meeting is reviewer Andrew McKie, who will be interviewed by Paul Kincaid.

As usual, the interview will start at 7pm, though there will be people in the bar from 6-ish; the meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle (with sf books as prizes).

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

In Great Waters

In Great Waters coverFantasy, I think it is fair to say, is a little bit in love with acts of creation. It is the genre of extravagant creation, in fact, the fiction for which an intuitive understanding that both writing and reading are inherently creative acts is not sufficient: thus the monsters, maps and magic, and the praise for imaginative density and thoroughness. But most of this praise is directed at the density and thoroughness that goes with the creation of the world; hence, for example, the awareness — and implicit prioritization — of the story’s environment that goes with the tags “epic” and “urban”, hence the familiar litany of the famous places of fantasy. Less frequently do books stand out for creating textured and original experiences for their characters. This is not the same as saying that fantasy novels are prone to poor characterization; what I mean is that, for all its merits, in a book like The War With The Mein the characters are human on terms that we can immediately recognise and understand. Strangeness doesn’t enter into it, and not just because the characters are natives of their world. But you can argue that it should: that in a fantastical world, experience, patterns of thought, and the consequent characters should be, to some degree, alien to us.

This is, as Martin Lewis has pointed out, part of what Kit Whitfield gets up to in her very fine second novel, In Great Waters, with the additional complications that we follow both of the main characters growing up, that neither of them are ordinarily human, and that both are children of two worlds. They are hybrids, with blood from both the people of the land and the people of the sea in their veins; although beyond this similarity they mirror each other. Henry is born as Whistle, under the sea, his “bifurcated tail” marking him out as a freak, and providing a handicap that leaves him a target for bullying, and — until he realises he is more intelligent than most of his peers, and able to trick them — often struggling for food. Eventually his mother takes him to the place where “the world gave out”, that is, the shore, and abandons him. Whitfield is good on Henry’s life underwater, in his cradle, alien to us but not to him: the cruelty of it, the tribal rituals, the sense of space and motion that goes with life in three dimensions, the baffling otherness of the sky above the sea. But she is very good at Henry’s life on land, alien to him but not to us. After two days of lying in the surf, Henry is discovered by a man:

In the sea, he’d been small, smaller than other boys his age, but this skinny creature made Whistle feel tiny. Most strange of all was the tint of his skin, a pink-red pale colour like you got in the first few feet of water below the surface, before descent into the depths greyed everything out to shades of blue and green and white. The man himself gasped endlessly for air, inhaling again and again, faster than the waves beating on the shore. Whistle watched the straight limbs of the man as he paced, bizarrely inverted with his body upright as if permanently breaking the surface. (9)

The succeeding pages depict Henry’s experience of being raised by the above man to survive on land. Awareness of his position as (forgive me) a fish out of water is never neglected, and Henry’s situation quickly becomes engrossing. So he conceptualizes new information in terms of what is familiar to him — posture, and the tint of skin, in the quote above; later, he imagines soldiers as being like a shoal of fish — but more immediately, his surroundings are thoroughly strange. The world below had limits, but within itself no boundaries; on land, Henry is constantly thwarted by borders and barriers. He has trouble grasping the concept of nations, their scale and locatedness. More immediately, buildings are “an endless profusion of boxes that [daze] his focus with their stiff, enclosing order” (10; his unfamiliarity with right angles also makes the Christian cross a threatening symbol, a fact which becomes important later in the novel); clothes are “a blindfold for his body” (19); he feels constantly heavy, without the sea to support him, has to walk on crutches, and has to fight the urge to attempt to swim out the window of the room in which he is imprisoned. But as Nic Clarke notes, as good as the physical, tactile elements of Henry’s experience are, equally important are the conceptual challenges he faces. Language becomes a site of struggle. In keeping with their more animalistic intelligence, the language of the deepsmen is simple, declarative, consisting primarily of warnings or commands. English contrasts in every way: complex and contradictory, with meanings to Henry quite unlike those we might construct. One word is totemic: “to Henry, ‘understand’ meant to take up the posture of a landsman: impossible, and unwelcome” (40). So there is no sudden, total conceptual breakthrough, no moment when the nature of his new world becomes suddenly clear to Henry, only a slow, continuous, imperfect process of understanding and adaptation.

Then there is Anne. At this point some additional context is necessary. We are in early Renaissance (or thereabouts) England. The story, as told to Henry early in his captivity, is that first contact between landsmen and deepsmen took place in ninth-century Venice. The landsmen sent out ambassadors in boats, playing beautiful music; the boats were attacked and quickly sunk, and the landsmen moved into the city’s canals, resisting attempts to dislodge them. The situation worsened, and worsened again as Venice found itself under threat from land as well as sea. Then, a woman walked out of the water, and announced that she could command the deepsmen. Soon enough, Venice’s power was once again waxing, with any country dependent on trade or travel by water at the city-state’s mercy, and Angelica on the throne. An empire was forged and, ultimately, crumbled, as other countries learned to put hybrids on their thrones, to negotiate with their local deepsmen. In Anne and Henry’s time, landlocked countries remain relatively stable, but for everyone else Whitfield would have us believe (I can believe it) that times remain edgy. Deepsmen blood has become royal blood. The lines must be preserved at all costs, even as the blood thins, and in-breeding among royal families takes its toll. Every so often, a regime is deposed, as a new bastard emerges from the ocean; the last such event took place in France, a century ago. Now, Henry is being groomed for the same role in England; and Anne is the youngest granddaughter of the current king.

Anne’s narrative is, less ostentatiously but no less thoroughly than Henry’s, a masterclass in the construction of personal worlds. Like Henry, Anne has two worlds, the land and the sea; but they are not Henry’s land and sea. For Anne, the land is home, where she was born. It is still a place whose rules must be learned: her world is the court, after all. Like Henry, Anne is a disappointment to her parents, and to the court: “born a disappointment”, we are told, “but such was often the fate of royal girls” (57). A second girl, in fact, and not only that — meaning that England has no heir ready to take over from an aging king, and that marriages will have to be brokered. This fact becomes only more urgent when Anne’s father, the king’s first son, dies, because the second son, Philip, is no heir. He is, however, an extraordinary, grotesque creation, a full deepsman throwback (tail and all), dumb and violent, driven by unreflexive desire, yet horribly indulged by the landsmen around him. So where for Henry it is the physical challenges of life on land that are most immediate, for Anne it is the political challenges, the constant negotiation of the invisible protocols that shape a society. And no wonder, then, that for Anne the water — which was Henry’s cradle, yet never his home — is a place of freedom. Periodically, the court visits the coast, so that the royals may swim and negotiate with the local deepsmen tribes; but though these visits are a duty, they offer Anne a degree of mental, social and physical escape. “Anne felt stronger, wider awake [...] she turned with a flex of the spine that felt almost forbidden in its ease” (78). Of course, this simplicity does not last.

As time passes — we follow both Henry and Anne from childhood to young adult-hood, although with little of the emotional familiarity that such a framework would usually imply — we see how the pair are shaped by their worlds. By their existence, for us Henry and Anne shade each other, but it is their contexts that make them different. Faced with a deteriorating situation at court, we are told that Anne, “not knowing what to do, did nothing”; and that “in consequence, rumours began to build that she was a simpleton” (80). Her deepsman heritage here comes in handy. In moments of high emotion, her face becomes lit by phosphorescence, creating a rather grisly visage — “The effect was only to cast her eyes into shadow, rendering the sockets hollow like a skull” (58) — but one that allows her to build a façade behind which Anne can maintain her own thoughts and a secret self. Of necessity, she becomes observant, careful, resourceful and brave, as she attempts to assert some measure of control over her life. Henry, meanwhile, is raised on land with the expectation that he will one day be king, and acquires the ambition and arrogance that go with that, but neither does he escape the feral, mercurial part of his nature, and he is consequently defined by fear and, inevitably, by anger. Whitfield does a marvellous job with this latter emotion, in particular: Henry is a potent portrayal of the destructive, distorting effect of anger. That he is able to use it is a hollow comfort; it defines him for too much of his life, bringing isolation and instability and reinforcing incomprehension. When he finally meets Anne, his reaction could be Philip’s, if we could believe Philip could articulate his thoughts so clearly: “He would have liked to defeat her, somehow, beat her down in a fight or make her obey him, to stop her face from troubling him any further. He wanted to eat her tongue” (222).

There is, of course, recursion here: the differing experiences of Anne and Henry create our sense that they exist in different worlds; and those different worlds give rise to differing experiences in turn. They read the world, and the world writes back on to them. But in a less subjective sense they live in the same world; and in order to make any headway against the forces that constrain them they each have to, somehow, gain the other’s world. Gradually their stories do merge: from alternating fifty-page chunks we move to alternating chapters, then paragraphs, and then finally the two are together in a single narrative. But their alliance is one of pragmatism, not romance. For Anne, Henry is a way out; for Henry, it is simply that Anne is the first person he has met to speak both his languages, the only one who has a chance of understanding both his worlds.

I have talked so little about the actual story of In Great Waters because, in a sense, it is extremely simple. Stripped down, it is a fantasy of political agency. “Given the right push”, the narrator tells us, “customs could change” (326); and Henry and Anne, thanks to their dual and doubled perspectives, can get themselves into a position from which they can give the right push. But familiar arc though this may be, it is never less than deeply felt, made credible by the texture of its protagonists’ experience. Whitfield’s language is (indeed, languages are, given the attention paid to the representation of the deepsmen tongue) carefully tailored to support her creation. The writing is not archaic, but shaped by a few choices that leave an archaic flavour in the mind: there are almost no contractions, almost no use of the continuous present tense. (I might compare the carefully complementary artifice in this novel to the carefully contrary artifice on display in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.) Whitfield’s shifts in emotional register are adroit, and her grasp on her narrative is assured. So it is possible to believe that Henry and Anne can create their world anew.

But putting it this way is too sentimental for an unsentimental novel. To my mind there is a powerful Darwinian undercurrent to In Great Waters, not just in the portrayal of the deepsmen — their lives, red in tooth and claw, and the impression that they are water-adapted humans, part of the ecology, not magical creations — but in the clear understanding throughout the book that both Henry and Anne are unfit only to the extent that they do not match their environment. So perhaps it would be more apt to say that what they do is to open up a new niche in which they can live safely. Or to emphasize their strength, and say that like Whitfield’s first novel, Bareback (2006), In Great Waters is ultimately a story about ways of being human, however alien you seem: a reminder that more than reading or writing, the greatest act of creation available to us is living.

On Hugos

A quick post this morning, since I’ve got to catch a train to York (to visit two-thirds of Eve’s Alexandria). So I leave you with two perspectives on this year’s Hugo Awards. Abigail Nussbaum writes about the Best Novel shortlist here (Zoe’s Tale and Saturn’s Children) and here (Little Brother, The Graveyard Book, and Anathem). Her final judgment?

In the end, I placed Anathem above The Graveyard Book in my Hugo ballot. Though both novels are flawed, I think that The Graveyard Book‘s flaws would come to seem more irksome in later years if Gaiman were to win. It’s the better novel from a technical standpoint, but Anathem is the one that does something new and different and uniquely SFnal, as well as being the novel that engaged me emotionally when I first read it. If I had managed to read all five nominated novels before July 3rd, I still would have voted No Award in the third slot (followed, in case you’re interested, by Zoe’s Tale, then possibly another, more emphatic No Award vote, then Little Brother and Saturn’s Children). I think Anathem has a good chance of winning, though Doctorow and Gaiman also have strong fanbases among Hugo voters, and both of their novels have had a lot of buzz (Scalzi, meanwhile, is a long shot, and Stross probably doesn’t have a chance). It’s hard to work up much pleasure at that thought, however, as this year’s ballot has me rooting against the nominees I dislike rather than for the ones I like. I think it’s safe to say that my first experience reading all five Hugo nominated novels has not been a positive one. I’m going to hold on to the hope that 2008 was an aberration, both in the quality of books published and in the tastes of the Hugo voters, but I’m suddenly very pleased that this experiment in being a Hugo voter is unlikely to recur for some time.

Adam Roberts, meanwhile, has written an open letter to sf fandom:

Dear Science Fiction Fandom

I wanted to have a word about the Hugos. Science Fiction Fandom, these are your awards: the shortlists chosen and voted for by you. And because I too am a fan (though without Hugo voting privileges) they are my awards. They reflect upon us all. They remain one of the most prestigious awards for SF in the world. These lists say something about SF to the world.

Science Fiction Fandom: your shortlists aren’t very good.

I’m not saying the works you have shortlisted are terrible. They’re not terrible, mostly, as it goes. But they aren’t exceptionally good either. They’re in the middle. There’s a word for that. The word is mediocre.

On Expertise

A perspective on Readercon:

This weekend I went to my first Readercon. There’s a lot to like about Readercon, but there’s also a lot to dislike. To start off with, the name is false advertising. This isn’t a con that centers itself on or meets the needs of readers, or enables readers to talk to each other. This is a professional networking conference that also meets the needs of a small set of fans, most of whom seem to be white, male, and over 50. It is designed, in many ways large and small, to reinforce the status of professionals–particularly writers, but also editors, paid critics, and academics–above that of people who are “just fans” or “just readers.”

The con’s setup (everything from the programming to the hotel selection) allows and encourages this group of people to talk to each other, and fans and readers to express appreciation to this set of authorities, but does very little to encourage literary conversation as a conversation among equals. Readership, audience reaction, is strongly encouraged to stay within strict bounds; criticism and participation in the discussion are treated as privileges accorded to a few, not the basic rights of every reader.

(I was going to do a general post-Readercon links post, but then it was pointed out to me that the relevant links are already being collected at the Readercon livejournal community, so I suggest you go there, instead, and I’m just going to single out this one post.)

I haven’t been to a Readercon. It’s always been on my list of conventions I’d like to go to someday, but to date has never quite made it to the top, because the constellation of writers it places in the centre of the field is in large part not a constellation that particularly excites me. (I have a memory of seeing, in a panel description somewhere, a statement to the effect that Little, Big was the definitive Readercon book, to which my response was: right, well, this is not for me, then.) But I have to say that this description of it, though intended as criticism, really, really makes me want to go.

Panel discussions have always been part of the draw of conventions, for me. I can get readerly discussion of books in conversation with friends, down the pub, or online; I can, almost literally, get it all the damn time if I want. At conventions it is what the bar is for, what going out for meals is for, what book groups are for. You know what I can’t get on a regular basis? What I very rarely get enough of even at a convention? The experience of listening to experts on a particular topic discuss it in depth. That, to me, is what panels are for.

When I started going to conventions, I chose the panels I wanted to go to by topic. This proved to be a very hit-and-miss way to approach things, as you can imagine. So then I started to choose panels based on the panelists, because experience taught me that nine times out of ten, published authors will be more interesting on a panel focused on a topic they know about than “just fans”, and a good proportion of the time critics and academics will be more interesting than authors.

(Note that I do not consider myself a critic, precisely because of the status implications of the term. I am not putting myself in the top tier of panelists that I’m creating in the paragraph above, and if I went to a Readercon and was offered more than, say, a panel on the collected work of Stephen Baxter, I would think something had gone wrong somewhere. You would be amazed [or maybe not] at the breadth of the shallowness of my knowledge of sf and fantasy. Note, also, that I am talking about literary panels; science and technology panels, fan panels, culture panels and so forth are a different kettle of fish. And I tend to go to less of them.)

I have lost count of the number of times that audience involvement has been the death of a fascinating panel discussion. Few phrases strike fear into my heart like, “This is really more of a comment than a question …” Sometimes the audience discussion phase is fascinating and insightful; but mostly, not. And there are obvious reasons why problems arise: a room is more difficult to moderate and focus than a panel. These reasons are not insurmountable, but if they are surmounted then you get a different kind of discussion — it becomes, again, the kind of discussion I can easily get in other times and places.

Of course, this approach to panels necessitates among other things (a) a convention committee who can be trusted to find the five best people for a given discussion, and (b) a programme book that allows con-goers to find out who the names on the panels are. Readercon seems to have (b) covered, since it provides more extensive biographies of panelists than any other programme book I’ve ever seen. The other criticism in the post linked above, though, is that they’re not so good at (a): “There are a number of perspectives which simply do not appear–particularly those of people of color, but also those of younger generations, queer people, women, young professionals, poor or working class people, and fields of literary criticism developed since 1968.” This is, no doubt, a problem, and makes me move Readercon back down my list of priorities. If they’re not including a wide variety of perspectives, they’re not finding the best five people to discuss a topic, which undermines the whole point of being so strict about the regulation of panels.

But in principle, a convention that, within the panel format, unashamedly celebrates expertise? Bring it on.


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