The Winner

The Arthur C Clarke Award ceremony, for those who don’t know, is currently held in conjunction with Sci Fi London at a central London cinema, most of which happens to be underground. This has a few consequences, the most notable of which are (a) the award reception tends to be noisy, crowded, and hot, and (b) there’s no reception for mobile phones, and no wi-fi network, which in this day and age means near-complete online silence for most of the event, followed by a sudden burst as people return to the surface following the award. I tend to find it an enjoyable draining experience — all credit to Tom Hunter, and Sci Fi London, and the cinema, for organising it — and invariably engage in half a dozen half-conversations, and don’t even see half the people I would have liked to say hello to. After the reception, everyone files into one of the cinema screens for the ceremony: speeches from Tom Hunter, festival director Louis Savy, and chair of the judges Paul Billinger, and the announcement of the winner

This year: The City & The City by China Mieville, who made a gracious speech. As the Guardian notes, this makes Mieville the first author to win the prize three times, and which instantly looks like one of those decisions that couldn’t have gone any other way. The Guardian refers to the quote I gave them when Mieville won the BSFA Award, saying that I thought it wouldn’t be the last prize the book wins this year. I didn’t actually have the Clarke in mind at the time, and in fact The City & The City becomes only the fifth book to do the double; I was thinking of the Hugo. I’m less certain about the Nebula, and will be fascinated to see if it makes the running for either the British Fantasy Society awards or the World Fantasy Awards later this year — or, indeed, any crime awards. All of which is horse-race stuff, and less interesting than the book itself; but I think I’ve pretty thoroughly said my piece about it at this point, and I don’t think I can face another discussion about whether or not it’s sf.

Here’s a thing, though: the Arthur C Clarke Award winners for the first decade of the twenty-first century:

2001: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
2002: Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
2003: The Separation by Christopher Priest
2004: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
2005: Iron Council by China Mieville
2006: Air by Geoff Ryman
2007: Nova Swing by M John Harrison
2008: Black Man by Richard Morgan
2009: Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
2010: The City & The City by China Mieville

That really makes clear just how impressive Mieville’s achievement is, I think; at least two of his wins, Perdido Street Station and The City & The City, are for books that undeniably caught the imagination of the field. (And you wouldn’t want to bet that The City & The City will be his last win, either.) Is it a good list of winners, overall? I’d say so. Most of those books are ones I would recommend without hesitation to almost anyone. You could argue, perhaps, that the complete absence of space opera looks a little odd — although neither the Hugo nor the Nebula recognised any in the same period — given the attention that subgenre has received over the last ten years. And Gwyneth Jones looks rather lonely; as the release of the submissions lists over the past few years has made clear, the relative absence of women writers from the UK sf field is a structural problem that just isn’t getting any better. But there is at least a reasonable diversity of protagonists and, increasingly over the course of the decade, of settings; after three books at the start of the decade that draw very strongly on British locations and ideas of Britishness, the winners range increasingly widely, and are probably all the better for that. I wonder what the Award will throw up next year?

Notes on a Shortlist

Almost everyone, it seems, agrees about at least one thing about this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award, the winner of which is announced tonight: that it’s a good shortlist. (That post now updated with more review-links, by the way.) I’m not about to break that hardening consensus, and may even raise the stakes slightly. I think the 2010 shortlist is one of the very good ones; for me, as a shortlist as a whole, probably the strongest since 2003, when Light vied against The Scar and the ultimate winner, The Separation. Two of the novels — Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream — have been hailed as returns to form, two more — China Mieville’s The City & The City and Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia — as their authors’ best to date; and the remaining two — Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and Marcel Theroux’s Far North — are certainly not without their champions. Perhaps the most pleasing thing about the shortlisted novels is their variety. There are more and less straightforwardly science fictional works, set in times ranging from the seventeenth century to hundreds of years hence, and if you’re not calling them sf, you could call these books crime novels, Westerns, comedies, and adventure stories. (Or just novels, of course.) It’s a good showcase. But a novel is a prose narrative with something wrong with it; and so, though it’s harder to do than it was last year, we must look for what’s wrong with these offerings.

What it isn’t, for once, is very British, and the most British book on the list — if only for its blokeish humour — is the one most people throw out of the balloon first. Retribution Falls has plenty to recommend it, particularly pace and, in its retro-magical setting, colour, and is welcome on the shortlist as an adventure story, a form too often given critical short shrift that nevertheless requires considerable craft. I kick it out of the balloon first as well, though, not for being what it is, but for flirting with smeerpdom. It seems to me that the story Retribution Falls tells is not sufficiently specific to its fantastic content: that it could be retold in another time or place without changing much more than the vocabulary. (I’d say this is partly where the omnipresent Firefly comparisons are coming from.) And that’s not enough to be the best science fiction novel of the year, the book put forward as an example of what science fiction can be and can do. There’s also the question of the book’s female characters, which aren’t exactly depicted on equal terms with the men, although on that point I’m willing to give the novel more credit for self-awareness than, say, Nic or Abigail are (although this is not to mention the question of the book’s sole near-silent ex-slave character of colour, which is harder to excuse). Such factors must be considered when assessing the book, I’d argue; the political is as inextricable a part of literary judgement as the aesthetic.

An author usually impeccable on both fronts is Gwyneth Jones, whose Spirit — being a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo — would seem to also risk smeerpdom, but which actually passes at least that test with flying colours. I haven’t read the original, but I know its outline, and Jones does not seem to be in thrall (and in the book’s last third, seems to revise her model quite inventively, if not, in the end, entirely convincingly); nor have I read the major preceding work in Jones’ own oeuvre, the Aleutian trilogy, but there to I didn’t feel the absence of context particularly strongly. That is: Spirit is a full, contained science fiction novel. It’s about that most speculative of subjects, identity, or at least is at its best, so far as I’m concerned, when it hews closest to this theme. There’s much here about what defines us, and what might define us, in an era when space travel that treats mind and matter as interchangeable information — the raw stuff of self — and much about individuals who are defined, usually as Other. The novel’s great weakness is a lack of consistency. It really is a bit all over the place, veering from political intrigue to action-led set piece to introspective periods of what is glossed as “poetic time”; the latter are the most reliably good, and a section half-way through the novel set in a prison is seriously impressive, but the quality is never as even as it should be. A lesser but still significant weakness, I think, is a lack of freshness, a sense of being a bit second-had. Sometimes this is to good effect. I can see how Jones’ Star Trek aliens play into her theme — the alien understood as an element of humanity; or, in this case, perhaps more accurately humanity understood as an element of the alien — and I don’t want to take, for instance, Jones’ playfulness with gender, which delivers plenty of welcome perceptual jabs, for granted. But on balance, even if some aspects of the book aren’t seen as often as we might hope, there seems to me too little here that hasn’t been seen before.

Which brings me to China Mieville’s The City & The City, whose central conceit has clearly already entered the canon of Really Neat Speculative Ideas. What is so very neat about it, it seems to me now, and the novel’s greatest accomplishment, is how successful it is at exposing readers’ assumptions. To talk about The City & The City in any sort of depth is to reveal with uncommon clarity how you think about the world, about people and about fiction: all of which are always worth doing. But it is for me a less satisfying novel — certainly a less satisfying science fiction novel; I do think it reads much more interestingly as fantasy — than it a political act. Its plot is seldom remarked upon, although I note that in general this aspect seems to pick up more praise from readers who spend more time with crime novels than I do; and its narrator contains no great depths, and to my ear just a bit of strain in his voice. It’s primarily for the neatness of its conceit, I’d guess, that the novel quite deservedly won the BSFA Award — and, not surprisingly, it’s the front-runner in Liz’s poll. (The BSFA Award is not a great predictor of success in the Clarke Award, though, with only four books ever having done the double.) Mind you, if it does win, it will be a remarkable event, making Mieville the first author to win the Clarke Award three times; and three times within a decade, no less.

Now it gets really hard. Is Yellow Blue Tibia Adam Roberts’ best novel? Well, that probably depends on why you read Adam Roberts novels. There is certainly something to the idea that it’s his most relaxed, owned novel — as Jonathan put it, the work that combines Roberts’ various hats, as a writer of novels, histories, spoofs and criticism, “into one magnificent red satin topper”. In the honorable tradition of sf novels about science fiction, it surely has a spot marked out for it; it is funny; it has things to say about totalitarianism as well; it’s as technically well-formed a novel as you could wish; and its science fictional conceit delights me. To date the major charge against Yellow Blue Tibia has been Catherynne Valente’s hard-to-ignore assessment of “painfully inept cultural appropriation” (on which Roberts lightly comments here). That is: it is hamfisted as a depiction of Russian-ness. To me, the novel seems much more about popular conceptions of Russian-ness than about the thing itself. As Dan puts it, River of Gods would have been both a poorer and less honest novel if it had been written primarily with reference to depictions of India, but I don’t see that Yellow Blue Tibia is trying to be River of Gods, and I’m a little baffled that anyone tries to take it as such. It seems to me far too ironic, too playful, to self-conscious to be taken as striving — as McDonald’s novel clearly does strive — for anything approximating that horrible concept, “authenticity”. (That, and cultural appropriation strikes me as most egregious when there is a severe power imbalance in favour of the person doing the writing; and I don’t see that between the UK and Russia.) That sense of play, indeed, is one reason I read Adam Roberts; but another is to be challenged, to have my expectations about fiction and the world in general confronted in some way or another. And on that score, Yellow Blue Tibia disappoints me, seems to have fewer edges not just than Roberts’ other novels, but than other books on this shortlist.

If The City & The City is a popular choice for the award, Far North is becoming something like the reviewer’s choice, with Dan, David, Nic and Abigail all leaning in that direction, and Martin revising his odds accordingly. And for all that it’s been a long time since “the mainstream book” went home with the Clarke Award — since The Sparrow in 1998 — my head thinks that this could be Far North‘s year. It has a purity of concept and execution matched by no other novel on the shortlist, save perhaps The City & The City, and Theroux’s offering is a substantially more interesting novel of character (which does tend to be, in the end, one of the things the Clarke goes for). In its pragmatic depiction of life after ecotastrophe it eschews judgement in a way that few other such novels are able to — as Abigail puts it, it shows The Road how it’s done — and its Zone is as provocative and memorably eerie a location as antecedents. (It is also, like the previous three novels, a work that draws on Eastern/Northern Asia for its affect — a huge region, of course, but there do seem to me to be some affinities between Spirit‘s Baykonur metropolis and Chinese-influenced culture, The City & The City‘s vaguely defined border location, Yellow Blue Tibia‘s Communist Russia, and Far North‘s Siberia. And, of course, the one novel I haven’t discussed has a European setting. This is not, as I said, the most British shortlist.) In all, Far North is a novel that’s easy to argue for and hard to argue against, which is why I think it will win: after all, my mostly strongly felt argument against it, like Amanda, is simply that I like Galileo’s Dream more.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, which ranges between Galileo’s lifetime and the medium-far future, is expansive and rough where Far North is contained and controlled. It is a long book and — like its protagonist — can be exasperating (although this does not mean that I agree with Rob Grant’s assessment that it is “written to impress rather than entertain“), but it nails the dismount. And more than any of the other books shortlisted, it’s the one I want to revisit. (Of course, the judges will have revisited it, and all the others.) This is partly just because Robinson’s model of human nature and culture is one I am quite strongly in sympathy with: that the world may not be sane, but that it behooves us to find as much sanity as we can, and struggle for more; that it is possible to be utopian without de-emphasizing the challenges to that position. And it’s partly because I want to explore how Robinson tackles the material that’s new to him — the alien — in more detail. But it’s mostly because I want to revisit the things that are specific to Galileo’s Dream that Galileo’s Dream does so extraordinarily well. The exploration of memory, of how human beings live in time; the science-fictional dreams that use the techniques of sf past to address the tropes of sf present; and most of all, the sophisticated analysis of what it means to write a biographical historical fiction, to intervene in the thoughts of a past life as a future traveller (or writer). You can feel the tension — can in fact see it develop over the course of the novel — between that idea of Galileo as we can imagine he might have been, and Galileo as we (as Kim Stanley Robinson) would like to be able to imagine he was. At the end of a decade that’s given us quite a lot of historical fiction novels about science, for me Galileo’s Dream stands as the best of them: and of the books on this shortlist, I think it contains the most beauty, and the most truth. And so I hope it wins this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award.

Linkbreaker

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Endings

Paul Kincaid’s review of Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth, at Strange Horizons yesterday, reminds me that I never did get around to posting about it, and that what I wanted to say about it chimes with some other half-thoughts I’ve been having about other recent reads, specifically about endings. For obvious reasons, we don’t talk about endings much; I’m going to try to get around the reasons here by sticking to talk about kinds of endings. Cold Earth first. It’s presented as letters home by the members of an archaeological dig in Greenland, written partly as diary or catharsis, and mostly because they lose contact with the rest of the world, but the last news they heard is that a new virus appears to be developing into a pandemic. Paul reads the book as being about the end of the world, as an exercise in the inevitability of the end of the world, which leads him to feel somewhat frustrated by the final chapter, and even uncertain about the apparent escape it offers: is it real? If so, it seems somewhat consolatory, or avoidant. Is it a dream? If so, it seems a betrayal of the book’s principles. For me, however, Cold Earth isn’t about inevitability so much as it it’s about exactly that uncertainty: is the world ending, or not? Are the characters being haunted, or not? Will they die, or live? In the baldest possible terms: what sort of story is being told here? And so for me, the closing chapter is a clever sort of imperfect cadence; it offers us resolution as a challenge to what we might have wanted, and (if we have decided what story is being told before we got there) what we expected.

Scarlett Thomas’ new book, Our Tragic Universe, plays a similar game more self-consciously. Its protagonist is a young author struggling to write a “real” novel, and meantimes making ends meet (just about) by writing genre fiction and reviewing weird and wonderful non-fiction books for a national newspaper. The first book she’s reading for review in the novel is a sort of new-age take on the Omega Point, the idea that we are probably living in a simulation of the universe at the end of time, which argues that this makes all sorts of things possible. Aha, we think, particularly (and, I am sure, deliberately) if we have read The End of Mr Y, which featured another book that purported to explain the nature of reality and was proved correct, and we sit back and wait for the fantastic to intrude into the story. But Thomas plays with us all the way through, not so much refusing to indulge us as refusing to tell us whether we have been indulged, whether or not certain improbabilities that dot the narrative are magical (or science fictional) in origin. (I have the impression that Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City plays a similar game: has anyone read it?) I have to admit, I admire the bloody-mindedness of Our Tragic Universe, its ability to pre-empty my every response and its refusal to confirm or deny anything, even as I find what I take to be the book’s ultimate argument – that art is a tool to enable us to resist narratives that get imposed on life – to be delivered with just a touch too much satisfaction. But even there I am anticipated, with one character claiming that what gives a story coherence is that it has an argument, or stakes out a position about the world, and that it doesn’t matter so much whether that position is true.

Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion, which I’m trying to write a proper review of for elsewhere, seems to me to similarly be about seeking a way to say something authentic in a world where story has been commodified and worn-out (this would be opposed to Elizbeth Hand’s take, that it’s “an elegy for … the passing of the power of the word, written and spoken”, in that ultimately I think it asserts the word’s continued power). Interestingly, compared to Our Tragic Universe, it never holds out any mystery about its ending. We know from the start where the narrator is (in a zeppelin that may or may not be powered by a perpetual motion, flying above a retro-futuristic metropolis), and in broad terms why he has ended up there. The book then records the narrator’s life story, and how it has been shaped by others. This means there are two key differences to Thomas – one, an explicitly fantastic setting, and two, a clearer focus on the process of finding a voice, finding a way to resist narrative – and I think those differences are why the book works better for me. Or, perhaps, not works better – since I think Our Tragic Universe achieves what it sets out to do, in terms of conflating the impulse towards story and the impulse towards the fnatastic – but why I prefer it. Palmer’s novel is no less self-conscious a work, nor any less playful (for certain, somewhat arch values of playful), but it feels perhaps less hesitant, more committed to its argument about the world. Of course, hesitance may also be a part of Thomas’ argument.

And last but not least there’s Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men, the conclusion of the trilogy started by The Knife of Never Letting Go and continued in The Ask & The Answer. This is a very different book to the other three in some ways, being a headlong narrative that isn’t in the least concerned with its existence as narrative, building towards an ending that we are not necessarily supposed to anticipate in the way that, I’d suggest, we’re asked to anticipate the other three. On the other hand, like every other story it is a narrative that creates expectations and, like Cold Earth – if not to an even greater degree, since there are many more questions to be answered – the process of resolving those expectations is a mixed blessing. Part of me looks at the ending and feels disappointment, feels that it’s more conventional than I might have hoped for from Ness; another part of me looks at it from another angle (having read the three books above) and wonders whether it’s not the simple fact that it is an ending that disappoints. Part of the pleasure of Chaos Walking – a large part, actually – is the suspension of the various narrative possibilities, Ness’ expert manipulation of what the reader knows, and thus what they might expect, which engenders the sense that the outcome is particularly fluid, that many different things could happen. After the last page of Monsters of Men those possibilities have resolved into concrete things that have happened, and I’m not sure there’s any configuration that would have been wholly satisfying. More than that, even, I’m not sure that a wholly satisfying configuration of this type of story is even desirable: even being satisfyingly unconventional is a convention: perhaps there is a boldness in the mix of conventional and unconventional that Ness offers. Alternatively, perhaps I’ve just reached the point where I’ll never enjoy an ending naively again.

BSFA Book Club: Winter Song by Colin Harvey

Earlier in the year, Angry Robot very kindly sent a copy of Winter Song to all members of the BSFA. Ah ha, I thought, this represents an opportunity. (I’m not Niall, by the way; I’m Martin Lewis, the new reviews editor for Vector.)

I imagine most people reading this like to talk about books and talking is best when it is a conversation, as was proved by the success of last year’s Torque Control short story club. However, one of the things most reviewers like to see (but rarely get) is engagement with their reviews. The problem is that there are a lot of books out there which means that – unless a book has a real buzz about it – it is unlikely that a lot of people will be reading a particular novel at the same time. Regardless of how you feel about the Harry Potter series, there was something quite exciting about the sheer density of debate every time the latest book came out.

So I thought I would try and take advantage of the unusual situation of a large group of SF fans all having the same book at the same time to try and recreate that sort of debate.

Winter Song is Colin Harvey’s fifth novel – his sixth, Damage Time is out at the end of the month – and Angry Robot have given it an uncompromising tagline: “Rock-hard SF adventure. No one here gets out alive.” They further suggested you file it under [Starship Crash / Abandoned Colonists / Alien Slaughter / Hell Planet] hammering home the impression that this is going to be a very grim story. So what did the reviewers think?

Mark Chitty at Walker Of Worlds:

Winter Song is another title in the strong list Angry Robot Books has released since it’s inception earlier this year. The new imprint has had good reviews for its titles and when I saw this one coming up for an October release I was very interested – any sci-fi set in a future where humanity has expanded across the galaxy is something I want to hear more about. Winter Song was not quite what I expected, but it delivered an entertaining read in an unforgiving environment. Following Karl Allman as he crash lands on a forgotten and primitive colony world where the terraforming looks like it’s going backwards, Winter Song is a novel that has more than a few surprises up its sleeve. I was expecting to walk into this with a more typical human vs alien world theme where there were many strange and wonderful creatures. What I got was a story focused on human characters that developed and grew with each situation they face.

Jared at Pornokitsch

Although Winter Song still isn’t the cutting-edge science fiction that the imprint promises, it is a genuinely solid effort that made my morning commute a lot shorter. Literature, it ain’t – but Winter Song combines good storytelling and strong (but not overwhelming) world-building to make for an entertaining read. It doesn’t push any boundaries – if anything, this is a throwback to the Ace or DAW era. But that’s no bad thing… For a small paperback, this is a book with some big topics. Between the front and the back covers, Karl stumbles across a second tribe of lost colonists, conducts a detailed exploration of space-Viking culture, gets mauled by a wild bestiary of alien critters, hikes across a frozen wilderness and saves the world from magnetic mangling. Makes for a long day. And, in the breaks, Karl explains the rest of the universe to his Girl Friday.

Anthony G Williams on the BSFA Forum:

The first three-quarters of the story is unremittingly grim as Allman first struggles to resolve his inner conflict while working with the settlers and then tracks across a bleak wilderness, at risk from wild animals and trolls and pursued by a posse led by an angry head man. Although the SF background is always there, this part of the story has more of the flavour of a fantasy. The pace and mood change when he arrives at the beacon and discovers what it is, and the tale then becomes a tense SF drama with a spectacular, if open-ended, conclusion. The story is well-enough written, and the complex relationships between Allman, Loki and the settlers sufficiently intriguing, to carry me through a grimness which could otherwise have become tiresome.

James Maxey at Intergalactic Medicine Show:

First, let me get my big gripe out of my system. Winter Song by Colin Harvey has one of the least inviting opening chapters to a novel that I’ve ever encountered… It’s a very busy chapter, tossing out a lot of information about the ship, about Karl’s biological and technological enhancements that make his survival likely, and a brief data dump on the solar system he’s in and the planet he’s going to try to reach. The one thing it utterly lacks is anything more than a hint of who Karl is or any reason anyone should care that any of this is happening to him. I was pretty much ready to give up and move on to the next novel in my stack, but I happened to read on a few pages into the second chapter, and, lo, I was interested… On the whole, a fun read, if you make it past the clunky first chapter.

Shivari on Amazon:

I felt that the early stages where Karl is struggling with psychosis simply weren’t very convincing. It was all rather simplistic, mostly repetitions of references to Oedipus; the sex & mothering theme was a bit too obvious and heavy-handed. I started to get rather irritated by it, and was very happy when Karl reached some kind of stability. The book then presents with another issue of identity, before turning into a rather cliched space-opera. I think it was basically a good idea, but I don’t think that the author quite had the skill to pull it off. He wanted to pack too much in, perhaps?

Keith Harvey at Red Rook Review:

In conclusion, I was duly impressed with Winter Song. The prose is direct, strong, and serviceable; the characters are clearly drawn, the world of Isheimur completely realized, and the narrative convincing and satisfying. Ultimately, I was struck by the complexity of the novel. Its complexity, however, does not arise from the plot; it is rather simple. Instead, it is the magnitude of detail that supports the world-building. Harvey has succeeded in creating a fascinating planet with a unique environment, exotic fauna and flora, a medieval culture with its social constructs, traditions, and structures, and three humanoid species, not to mention several off-world cultures.

Now it’s over to you. If you aren’t a BSFA member but have read the novel please come and join in. If you aren’t a BSFA member, haven’t read it but want to get an idea about the book, Angry Robot have made a series of extracts available on blogs like Grasping For The Wind.

Another Short Story Club

Not here, or at least not here yet; but anyone who participated in the discussions here last autumn may be interested to know that io9 is kicking off a weekend short story club, including both new stories and classics. Their schedule so far:

And they said it would never catch on.

Review of 2009

While I was away this week, BSFA members should have received the latest mailing, including Vector 262:

That Was The Year That Was — guest editorial by Ian Whates
The BSFA Award Shortlists 2009
The Vector Reviewers’ Poll — edited by Kari Sperring
2009 in Film — by Colin Odell and Mitch LeBlanc
Progressive Scan: Genre TV in 2009 — by Abigail Nussbaum
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Kari Sperring
Foundation’s Favourites — Andy Sawyer
Resonances 58 — Stephen Baxter
The New X: 2010 — Graham Sleight

Ian’s editorial covers the printer-related challenges (read: woes) the BSFA faced last year and, as you may be able to gather from (a) the fact that Vector contains the BSFA Award shortlists but not winners and (b) the fact that the mailing also contains a booklet featuring the nominated short fiction, those aren’t over yet. We’re working on it, though.

In the meantime, however: the previous mailing, you may recall, included a copy of Colin Harvey’s novel Winter Song:

Winter Song cover

As mentioned in Vector, Martin Lewis will be running a discussion of this book here, next week — so if you haven’t cracked it open yet, you have this weekend to do so!

The Ambivalent Eastercon

As you may have noticed (or, if you didn’t realise it was taking place, may not), I entirely failed to blog this year’s Eastercon, despite many good intentions beforehand and the presence of free wireless internet in the Radisson Edwardian hotel. I did tweet the convention — quite a lot, actually — but the ephemerality of Twitter makes it unsatisfying as a record of the weekend. It’s not as though I’m the world’s most assiduous convention blogger — previously, most such posts have been of the bullet-point kind, and I’ve saved what traditional convention reports I’ve written for traditional paper fanzines. But this year, I feel the urge to post such a report here.

Why is, in a sense, pure ego. Odyssey was my (quick count on fingers) seventh Eastercon, which feels like enough to start having opinions about what makes a good or bad Eastercon; and if it’s not enough to delude me into thinking anything I notice is new, it’s certainly enough to make me notice, and care about, disconnects between the various attending constituencies more than I used to, which leads to wanting to do what I can to bridge any gaps. This year, in a panel about “Fandom as Gerontocracy” on Monday afternoon, Greg Pickersgill commented that labeling a programme item as part of a “fan programme” is instantly enough to make 90% of convention attendees ignore it. Tony Keen’s quite reasonable response to this, when my tweet on the subject got imported to Facebook, was that 10% of an Eastercon the size of Odyssey (which was either the largest Eastercon so far this century, or a close second to 2008’s Orbital) is still a perfectly acceptable potential audience, even a pretty large one. But it strikes me that one of the panels that attracted a lot of excitement before and at the con — Danie Ware’s Livecon panel — was, if not as new as advertised, given that that most old-school of conventions, Corflu, had live-streamed half its programme a few weeks earlier, thoroughly fannish in its mentality, not labeled as fannish, and popular among many of the people you might want to attract to fannish programme.

So, if you like, this is an attempt to speak to multiple audiences. (I should probably confess that I didn’t actually make it to the Livecon panel myself, since I was manning the BSFA/Newcon Press table in the dealer’s room at the time; but I gather that my name was taken in vain by Paul Raven, so I feel like I was at least etherically there.) This means that it is also, even more than most blogging and any convention report which aspires to present a first draft of history, an exercise in narcissism. Hopefully it won’t become too unbearable.

#

I follow fans on Twitter, have them friended on LiveJournal, and read them in fanzines; comparing the three streams in the lead-up to Odyssey was interesting. Or, really, comparing the former two, since fanzine publication schedules being what they are, I didn’t pick up on much pre-convention discussion beyond, hey, it’s happening. On Twitter, all was excitement! Odyssey was to be the first Eastercon for quite a number of the sf book bloggers I follow, and a rare (or, again, first) opportunity to meet up with each other, and with authors and publishers. This is to say that the convention programme — by which I mean the presence of bondage workshops and talks — was noticed and commented on, but in passing. This was Eastercon seen primarily as a social and networking event.

Meanwhile, on LiveJournal, where what I think of as traditional British fandom (or at least the bits of it that aren’t so traditional they shun the internet and all its works) hangs out, there were more rumblings of discontent. The bondage workshops were the initial spark, after an email to the Odyssey Yahoo group from Jane Killick that questioned the place of such events at an sf event, and a family event. There inevitably seemed to be a certain amount of disingenuousness behind some of the discussion that followed, but my perception, at least, is that the majority of those who commented were more put out on the former grounds than the latter. That is: while an Eastercon should be a big tent and cater to all areas of fannish interest, surely the sf should come first; and is not three workshops, one serious talk and one humorous one, on one non-sf topic a bit excessive? The best articulation of, and discussion of, this issue that I saw was on bohemiancoast’s LiveJournal, which led to a certain amount of number-crunching on the programme to calculate that there were somewhere between 197 sf-related and 52 non-related items (as an upper, generously inclusive bound) and 129 sf-related and 130 non-related items (as a lower, more strictly defined bound). This probably also produced a convention committee that even before the event was underway ended up feeling a bit got at.

For myself, the literary programme — which is my major area of interest, after all, with media and fannish programmes secondary to that — looked a bit sparse, but more problematically I thought it looked a bit undercooked. A lot of the programme items looked somewhere between generic and positively stale, with descriptions that didn’t seem to encourage very deep probing of their topic, and certainly didn’t excite me to attend. (“Utopia — how the concept has developed in philosophy and sf”; “Reading critically”, which actually asked, “what can we gain from reading sf and fantasy in this way?”) But an unusually large number of my friends were attending the con — the regular ranks of Third Row Fandom swelled by London residents who don’t always go to Eastercon, other friends attending their first convention, and Abigail flying over from Israel for a holiday — and while I worried, rightly as it turned out, that they would be disappointed by the programme, I reasoned that a social and networking convention would not be such a bad things. In many ways, Odyssey started to remind me of Concourse, in Blackpool in 2004 — the second Eastercon I attended, but the first with a critical mass of friends, and the one at which several of said friends were pointed at during a “future of fandom” panel and declared to be, well, the future of fandom. (And look where that got me.) Plus, Farah Mendlesohn was busily organising some last-minute supplementary literary programme. There were, in other words, reasons for optimism as well as skepticism.

#

Arriving at the hotel mid-afternoon on Friday, the skeptic got the first chit in their scale: Nic and I had to wait half an hour for our room to be cleaned. On the upside, there was the usual whirl of convention greetings to distract us as people drifted through the lobby, and within twenty minutes I’d also acquired a copy of Gary Wolfe’s new collection of reviews, Bearings. (Which is proving fascinating, because it covers the period — 1997 to 2001 — when I started to pay attention to the sf field, rather than being only a casual reader.) Still, by the time we were allowed to check in, and had made our way through the maze of twisty-turny passages all alike to our room (only to find, inevitably, that it was actually just around the corner from ops), there was only just long enough to brush up on my notes for my first (and only official) panel, on the Twenty Years, Two Surveys book just published by the BSFA.

For what I’d expected to be a niche-interest panel, it was gratifying to see a pretty much full-room audience. I gather programme attendance in general was pretty good, and that was certainly my experience throughout the con, even for the last-minute (i.e. not in the official programme book) items, which suggests that at least in part I’m just — as Ben Goldacre dubbed the whole con — a picky fucker, although what proportion of the audience found the programme as unsatisfying as I did is obviously a rather harder question to answer. I mean, I think the survey panel went pretty well, despite the somewhat rushed reading the panelists (David Hebblethwaite, Caroline Mullan, Claire Brialey, and John Jarrold; the aim being to offer perspectives on the survey from anyone but writers) had had to give it — but I would, since I was on it. As I think Caroline commented, of necessity we skimmed many topics — including the extent to which contemporary British sf/f can be considered “confident”, the reduction in the number of mainstream publishers even as there has been an expansion in sales, and the role of voice and place in creating a sense of “Britishness”. Perhaps the most interesting question was the one raised two minutes before the end of the panel, from Jo in the audience: to what extent will British (and other kinds of “national” or subcultural sf) maintain their identity as content moves online and markets are no longer so strongly separated by geography? In the survey, several writers noted that they considered their work to be in some sense “transatlantic”; perhaps that’s a trend that will continue.

My other panel, which took place on Saturday morning and, as I say, was nearly as well attended despite being one of the last-minute additions and only advertised in the convention newsletter, challenged British sf from another direction. “So We Had This Empire Once…” was the title; “is cultural appropriation something British sf writers should be interrogating more closely?” was the description. It was, I hope — and this time I gather there is some feedback from the audience that it was — a careful, relatively wide-ranging and reasonably useful discussion. One aim was to bring the discussion of cultural appropriation, and its challenges, into a specifically British context in a way there hasn’t always been an opportunity to do online; so, for instance, Liz Williams discussed the research and responses to her partially Indian-set Empire of Bones (2003), and we touched on the changing place of Empire in the construction of British sf, and the need for diversity in representations of Britishness. (Welcoming the Indian-Irish protagonist of Ian MacLeod’s Song of Time, say, while also challenging the sense of the British places in the novel.) If there’s one core criticism I’d level at Odyssey’s programme, it’s that I didn’t feel this sort of productive cross-connection of panels as often as I wanted to, over the weekend as a whole.

This comes, I’m pretty sure, from a fundamental philosophical disconnect between what I expect — or at least want — from an Eastercon programme, and what the Odyssey committee decided to offer. It became clear during the discussions before the convention, and probably should have been obvious when they started trying to get the programme arranged as early as last summer, and it can be summarised as, as Greg Pickersgill put it, the difference between “What do you want to do?” and “Here’s what you’re going to get.” The Odyssey team followed the former approach, and emphasized that if anyone had got a panel together and suggested it to the committee, they did their best to accomodate it — and this is true, it’s how the survey panel got on the programme, and I’d guess it’s how the Livecon panel happened as well. In this model, the Eastercon provides the space and logistical support to enable the convention to happen. The thing is, the conventions I like best are those in which the programme team has a vision of what they want to offer, and set out to deliver it to the best of their abilities. This vision should ideally be responsive — which is why I think ten months in advance, when many people who will be attending haven’t even purchased memberships, is far too early to start programming — but not to the point of lacking a clear identity. And it should be aware of what has come before: its panels should seek to ask the next question.

One of the better panels I attended, for instance, was the one on “LabLit” — although to my earlier points, I did wonder why Geoff Ryman, who I passed leaving Ben Goldacre’s talk immediately before the panel, and who has just recently edited an anthology of writers-paired-with-scientists stories, When it Changed, hadn’t been drafted; and why on earth it was scheduled against the George Hay scientific lecture. As it was, the actual panelists Henry Gee, David Clements and Jennifer Rohn raised all sorts of interesting questions about how science becomes fiction (or even narrative), the role of technical detail in scientist-focused fiction, what “a scientific perspective” might mean, and much else … but because the panel’s topic was so loosely composed (and because Clare Boothby’s moderation was so directionless — seriously, never underestimate the importance of a moderator to a productive panel), the end result felt to me at least to be frustratingly superficial, and sometimes repetitive.

#

You might reasonably object, at this point, that the Eastercon is not an academic conference, and that you go to spend time with friends as much as anything else. And this can be, of course, true: the Blackpool Eastercon I mentioned earlier is now, I realise, widely regarded as a pretty sucky convention, but at the time I didn’t notice or care because I was with a large group of friends, and we were having a blast. On the other hand, at a certain point you start to wonder, as Jo put it to me, why you’ve spent all this money to come and have conversations you could have had in the pub, or online; and for some people, up to and including at least one of the guests of honour (although one who said they had an excellent time nevertheless), that’s not really an option, and the opportunity Eastercon provides to actually talk about science fiction with other real people is relished.

All of which is to say that I had a thoroughly enjoyable social convention, but that it didn’t join up with the sf con as often as I’d have liked. It was relaxing to spend Saturday afternoon first shopping for supplies for a room party and then manning the BSFA/Newcon table in the dealer’s room, sure, not least because the latter gave me the opportunity to chat with a number of people I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. But the reason I could so relax was that there was almost nothing on this extensively programmed convention that struck me as essential during that period, so I didn’t mind missing it. And I know that, for instance, Martin, who was dipping his toe into the Eastercon waters for the first time, ended up thoroughly bored during this period and went home early. I came away from the con with plenty of good new memories: I remember toasting, with the other motherfuckers, the health of Andy Remic, for bringing us together; I remember conversations in the bar with many people, particularly the discussion with certain editors in the bar on Saturday night during which I managed to suggest that, er, I don’t like anything they publish (oops); I remember enthusiastic dinner discussion of the new Doctor Who (I rather enjoyed Moffat’s debut, for what it’s worth, or at least it didn’t send me into the sort of disbelieving rage that “Rose” elicited; it felt much more like it was about something, that its concern with myth/fairytale/story/memory added up to a coherent statement in a way that so little of the RTD years did). But I didn’t come away feeling particularly challenged by the programme, or with many good new thoughts.

#

Sunday was an improvement over Saturday, perhaps because it was more or less all awards all the time, and I’m all about awards. But it was still a day of ups and downs. The morning reviewing panel, for instance, was once again hampered by its moderation: John Clute is a remarkable man of many talents, but moderation is rarely if ever one of them. This is not to say the conversation the panel had wasn’t interesting — if nothing else, there was a certain audacity to Alison’s opening gambit of linking the development of new reviewing paradigms to the ultimate decline and fall of capitalism — but it wasn’t always, shall we say, directly related to the ostensible topic. On the other hand, the Not The Clarke Award panel — a recurring feature arranged each year by the SF Foundation, in which a panel of former Clarke judges discuss the year’s shortlist — was, as ever, a highlight, even if in this instance of course hopelessly wrongheaded to select (by a three-to-one vote) The City & The City as the deserving winner (the one went for Far North) when clearly, clearly the award should go to Galileo’s Dream. But even at the best of Eastercons, a ninety-minute in-depth discussion of specific books is a treat; here it was a drink to a parched man.

Sunday evening’s entertainment was more awards stuff. First up was the BSFA Awards, as introduced by the comedy stylings of Donna Scott and Ian Watson (“an evening of hilarity from the team that brought you Vector!”, apparently). My failure to blog the convention, I now realise, means that I haven’t actually posted the winners yet: they are, The City & The City for Best Novel, “The Beloved Time of their Lives” by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia for Best Short Fiction, cover to the Pyr edition of Desolation Road by Stephan Martiniere, and Nick Lowe’s “Mutant Popcorn” column in Interzone for Best Non-Fiction. Good work by the BSFA there, I think; as I’ve commented elsewhere, The City & The City is a good book, even if in the horserace of awards it’s not my pick. It’s particularly gratifying to see Nick Lowe get some recognition. His Sunday-afternoon talk on the narratology of transcendence — or, alternatively, how the actual script for 2001 buggers up many peoples’ theories or claims about its production — was as sharp and insightful as you’d hope, and Lowe, brilliantly, looks pretty much exactly like he’s walked out of an Open University broadcast circa 1972.

Then it was time for the Hugo Award nominations, announced at Eastercon despite the fact that the Worldcon is in Australia by dint of the fact that this year’s award administrator is Vince Docherty. There’s a lot to celebrate about this year’s slate. Best Fan Writer is the strongest it’s been in years — hooray for James Nicoll and Frederik Pohl‘s nominations, although I must admit I’m hoping Claire Brialey can pull off a win — and the Best Related Book category is excellent. I’m pleased to see nominations, too, for Juliet Ulman in Best Editor Long Form, and Rachel Swirsky’s “Eros, Philia, Agape” in Best Novellette; and the Best Novel ballot (Sawyer notwithstanding) is much more credible than it has been in recent years. (The lack of overlap with the Clarke shortlist was commented on, but it’s arguable that there was only ever one novel on this year’s Clarke list that had a real shot at the Hugo ballot, the others being published as mainstream, or only published in the UK, or published very late in 2009.) Of course, there are also things to gripe about. Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form makes me cry: why, fandom, must you like such terrible television? Why must you nominate Doctor Who three times, for three episodes that even if you like Doctor Who don’t measure up to the best of recent years, when you fail to nominate The Sarah Connor Chronicles even once? Is it just habit? Both novella and short story look a bit of a mess, and I continue to wait for the day when Susan Marie Groppi (or the Strange Horizons fiction team en masse) get a deserving nod in Best Editor Short Form. So some good and some bad, probably more of the former than the latter, and yet after the nominations were announced, I felt a crushing sense of anticlimax, to the point that my sourness led me to be actually quite rude to an understandably ecstatic double-nominated Paul Cornell. Possibly it was because some of the categories feel like foregone conclusions, which doesn’t mean I think bad works will win — The City & The City in Best Novel, for instance; and I can’t shake the feeling it’s Scalzi’s year in novella, and while The God Engines isn’t great it’s certainly the least unworthy fiction he’s had nominated — but it does take some of the fun out of the process, at least until I’m proved wrong in September. Or possibly it’s because, as I suggested to Mark Plummer — thereby making his night, apparently — I’m getting old. I remember jumping with excitement after the announcement of the 2005 nominations. Literally, jumping.

This time, not so much with the jumping, and so while Abigail went off to blog her reactions, I mooched around for a bit, and eventually ended up in Henleys with much of the rest of the Third Row, alternately dissecting the shortlists and hatching plots. In addition to awards, it was quite a day for conventions. The London Worldcon bid for 2014 had officially launched its chosen site on Friday evening — and more power to it, though I haven’t yet signed on myself — but Sunday saw the bid session for the next two Eastercons. I failed to attend, which undermines my griping here somewhat, but through the miracle of Twitter I was able to follow developments. There was, it seems, some debate with the 2012 convention committee (a set of people which overlaps with the Odyssey concom) about their plans for programme, and their reticence to announce whether they would have a fan guest of honour (they’re still talking about it, apparently), and although the bid passed, it did so with an unusually high number of votes against. Whether that will lead to any changes in practice, or whether Olympus will be another Odyssey, remains to be seen. Of course, before we return to Heathrow, we’ll be off to the Birmingham Metropole in 2011 for Illustrious, or as I prefer to think of it, manlycon: theme military sf, guests of honour Peter F Hamilton and David Weber. That’s not a slate that excites me much, but it excites me that they do have a vision: I look forward to seeing what they come up with. And in the meantime, maybe some other group will run a small, literary-focused convention in the next couple of years to fill that hole in my life …

#

Most of Monday morning was taken up by packing, checking out, and carting luggage out to the car (I kept getting back to find there was just one more thing I needed to store). The rest was taken up by finally having a proper look around the dealer’s room, which — one brief stint as Geoff Ryman’s personal shopper, during which I failed to find him a copy of In Great Waters, aside — I had somehow failed to do. Purchases included James Blish’s Doctor Mirabilis (when I’ve got hold of all of After Such Knowledge, I have vague plans to blog the whole thing), Robert Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow, and Christopher Priest’s non-fiction collection “It” Came From Outer Space — which on the basis of the first couple of articles, at least, promises to be a fantastically grumpy read. Then it was off to Room 41 for the earlier-mentioned “Fandom as Gerontocracy” panel, during which Caroline Mullan spent a lot of time explaining the similarities between the Orbital/Odyssey/Olympus convention committees, and a team of which she had been part twenty years ago. The more things change … and then the final panel of the convention for me, on ethics and identity in Dollhouse. Reasons this panel was memorable: the fun spot-the-odd-one-out line-up; good contributions from Liz Batty, Paul Cornell and John Coxon; less good contributions from the panellist who rather uncomfortably likened his interest in the show to his interest in BDSM and seemed utterly oblivious to challenges to this position (not to mention the death stares from Abigail and Nic, seated either side of me); and the gophers stationed at the back of the room who may or may not have been there in case things got rowdy. And then that was that, for another year.

In the wake of Odyssey, all seems still to be excitement on Twitter; and there is still some grumbling on LiveJournal. For the fanzine response we must wait. For myself, neither the optimist nor the skeptic got a clear victory, in the end; I’m not as energised as I can be after a really great con (or a really terrible one), but I have a couple of new projects, nevertheless. So I am ambivalent. To the tune of about four thousand words, apparently.

Retribution Falls

Ark coverINT — STORE ROOM. ANGLE on a BULLET, over which a VOICE: “Just imagine. Imagine what this feels like, going through your head.” Our heroes (Darian FREY and Grayther CRAKE) have obviously been captured by a BAD GUY — who now puts that bullet into a REVOLVER, spins the cylinder, and puts the revolver to Crake’s head. Crake seems unsettled, indeed properly upset. He carries himself, we notice, in a manner at odds with his scruffy appearance, not to mention out of place in this room. Captain Frey is unmoved. The bad guy pulls the trigger. There is a loud CLICK from the gun, and quiet WHIMPERING from Crake. “You’d let him die”, the bad guy says, “rather than give up the Ketty Jay? That’s cold.” Frey shrugs. “He’s just a passenger.” In a WIDER ANGLE, as the bad guy paces the room, we can see some THUGS. Bargaining ensues — on Frey’s part, at least. Then, after a bit of clever trickery involving Crake’s GOLD TOOTH — there should be a CLOSE-UP here — our heroes get loose! A MELEE ensues, during which Frey acquires a SHOTGUN. Charging down a nearby CORRIDOR towards some shuttered WINDOWS, Frey leads with said gun, and then we’re EXT — ALLEY, with an OVERHEAD SHOT on the pair of them falling out of a shabby wooden building towards a COBBLED LANE. Crake lands awkwardly; Frey, of course, is poised. “I feel a sudden urge,” he says to Crake, “to be moving on. Open skies, new horizons, all of that.” Crake looks at him for a beat, perhaps listening to the SHOUTING in the background, probably thinking that this man was, in the very recent past, willing to let him get shot if it would save the ship. “I have the same feeling,” he says. They start running, and off their disappearing forms we SMASH CUT to –

MAIN TITLES: TALES OF THE KETTY JAY

And we’re off. This much — allowing for some elisions, and some obvious stylistic liberties in my version — is covered in the first chapter of Retribution Falls, and it very neatly sets the tone for what follows. Chapter two is a meet-the-crew, as Malvery, the ship’s surgeon, introduces Jez Kyte, a navigator and the new recruit, to pilots Artie Pinn and Jandrew Harkins, and the silent, ex-slave engineer, Silo — only to be interrupted by the return of Frey and Crake, and the firefight they bring with them. After the crew’s escape (aided by the ship’s golem, Bess), and a bit of scene-setting explanation — the Ketty Jay “looked as if she couldn’t decide if she was a light cargo hauler or a heavy fighter” (11); Frey’s crew mostly do black-market work, or “sort of anything, really, if the price is right” (12), largely because he won’t work for the ruling Coalition — our heroes are hired, in what looks like the opportunity of a lifetime, to steal a shipment of gems. But — wouldn’t you know it — the heist goes wrong, and pretty soon everyone and their mother (or at least Frey’s ex-fiancee, now a pirate captain) is after the Ketty Jay, leading to inventive set-pieces, well-judged reversals of fortune, some reasonably convincing character growth, and at least one thrilling sky battle. It is, in other words, a romp, and really a very well paced one: only in the final third, thanks to one too many backstory-revealing sidebars, are there any glitches in the pacing. For the rest of the time, the pages fly by.

So Retribution Falls is perhaps the smart solid action-adventure sf recently sought by Dan Hartland and Jonathan McCalmont, and for that reason welcome as a Clarke Award nominee, even if I wouldn’t give it the prize. It succeeds, in part, as the opening of this review should suggest, by following the narrative model that has come to dominate genre television. It is not at all a surprise to find that it inaugurates a series of books: the characters are established as ongoing entities, which means their arcs in this novel are rather limited things, interesting as much or more for where they will go next as what happens now; and its themes are broad, “universal” ones, the challenges of leadership and loyalty, not particularly inflected by the book’s sfness. Following a specific narrative model, indeed, that may seem overly familiar to fans of contemporary genre TV; which is a roundabout way of acknowledging that if there’s one thing people know about Retribution Falls, it’s that it’s a bit like Firefly.

It would undoubtedly be unfair to Chris Wooding to dismiss his book on such grounds, since not only has he (I gather) never seen the series, but there are important differences. The setting is probably the most obvious. As with Wooding’s rather good previous novel, The Fade (2007), Retribution Falls can be understood as fantasy or as science fiction, which means the furniture is rather different to Firefly’s many moons: in their stead we have one large continent on one planet, airships lifted by electromagnets that turn “refined aerium” into “ultralight gas”, and are powered by “prothane thrusters”; “daemonists” like Crake who can entice “little sparks of awareness” into artefacts (such as a mesmerising gold tooth, or the handily magic sword he gives Frey in payment for his passage); and a deity, the Allsoul, whose worship wiped out the “old religions”, and who is believed by its devotees to be a kind of “sentient, organic machine … they believe our planet is alive, and … vastly more intelligent than we can comprehend” (104). To get the sf reading you have to assume this is all post some kind of singularity, in other words, although Wooding is careful never to finally confirm or deny this reading, and thus avoids his tale degenerating into a frictionless pocket-universe escapade along the lines of Karl Schroeder’s Virga books, and preserves some joy and mystery in his setting. As much as Firefly, actually, I was put in mind of the techno-magical beauty of some of the Final Fantasy games. More than this, the most prominent character dynamic, that between Frey and Crake, is much more central than its Firefly equivalent (that between Mal Reynolds and Simon Tam), and really as much or more reminiscent of that between Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin. All the characters, indeed, are pretty familiar types, and none are unique to Firefly.

That said, the similarities are real. You might say, for instance, that this particular constellation of character types is strongly reminiscent of that found in Firefly, pace certain differences, such as the on-the-run noble (Simon/Crake) being more prominent, and the taciturn but intensely loyal friend (Zoe//Silo) less prominent. Or you might say that the situation within which these characters operate, as the crew of a small and very grey-market trading ship in the shadow of a large and resented central authority, is more than a little comparable. And you might suggest that the tone of the whole enterprise, the mix of humour and action and drama — battles punctuated by one-liners, and yet willing to take a moment to understand Crake’s shock at seeing death, for the first time, up close — could almost be a variation on a theme of Whedon. But for fairness, if you were going to go down that road, I think you’d have to point out that if Retribution Falls is read as echoing Firefly, it can’t be read as doing so uncritically: this is a version of the story in which Mal is genuinely a bastard, in which Simon is directly responsible for the terrible things done to River, and in which Kaylee is in the process of turning into a Reaver. Or, as a friend put it, it’s like Firefly, except everyone is a bit more dickish.

It’s also a version of the story in which women get a rather less good deal. Not only are Frey and Crake always the central duo — making for a rather bloke’s own adventure — the crew’s two women are, not entirely metaphorically, different kinds of dead, and as a result set distinctly apart from the menfolk. Each has the potential to become the centre of an enormously interesting tale, but in this novel you’d be hard-pressed to call either of them a success. Better done, if less interesting, are Amalicia Thade and Trinica Dracken, both of whom serve as romantic foils for Frey, and both of whom emphatically escape his expectations of their weaknesses. They do this in a feisty action-fantasy way, no doubt — the former by, for instance, kicking Frey in the head after he “rescues” her, the latter by showing absolutely no compunction about shooting her ex when the moment calls for it — but that’s the idiom of the whole novel, and arguably Wooding goes further than most in encouraging us to dislike his protagonist. Frey does, inevitably, start to Learn Better, but even then he’s not so much a charming rogue as an infuriating one. The extent to which he sees Amalicia and Trinica primarily as reflections of his own inner turmoil is foregrounded by the longing of Pinn to return home to his (alleged) sweetheart Lisinda; she is, in so many words, “the heroic conclusion to his quest”, and

… the promise of home comforts after his great adventure. But what if she wasn’t there when he returned? What if she was holding another man’s child? Even in the dim clouds of Pinn’s mind, the possibility must have made itself known, and made him uneasy. He’d never risk the dream by threatening it with reality. (84)

You don’t put that in a novel and then unknowingly recapitulate the same sort of self-centredness elsewhere; you put it in as a signpost. In this case it’s a signpost doing double-duty, not only foreshadowing Frey’s complete bafflement when confronted with an idea of Trinica that contradicts his existing conceptions — “his position was so fragile that it fell apart when exposed to the reality of an opposing view” (298); although the new position he constructs for himself is still steeped in denial — but also the men’s general disillusionment when they reach the legendary pirate hide-out of the title, only to find that it’s somewhat of a dump. “This place was better as a legend,” a clear-sighted Jez tells an upset Pinn. “The real thing doesn’t work” (280). It’s the closest thing Retribution Falls offers to a unifying argument, and as I’ve suggested, does undercut some of the book’s more cliche moments. In the end, of course, the Big Damn Heroes save the day. “They were happy,” we’re told, “and free, and the endless sky awaited them. It was enough.” But, you know, sometimes it is.

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