London Meeting: Eric Brown

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Eric Brown, author of many books. He will be interviewed by Ian Whates.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

Also as usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Future meetings:

28th July 2010: Lauren Beukes interviewed by Jonathan McAlmont*
25th August 2010: Dan Abnett interviewed by Lee Harris
22nd September 2010**: Matt Brooker interviewed by Tony Keen

* Note change to previously advertised guest. Frances Hardinge will now come in January 2011.
** Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.

Bearings

Bearings coverA traditional divide drawn through the history of science fiction criticism is that between the amateur and the professional; so you have the tradition of fanzine-originated criticism, as exemplified by Damon Knight and James Blish, and the academic tradition, with Darko Suvin as an equally central figure. But if we have to break things down, I wonder whether it might be as helpful, or at least not any more unhelpful, to draw a line between those who review and those who do not. Let’s be clear, this is an act of naked advocacy for the review on my part, because at its best – for a definition of which I take John Clute’s suggestion of a first response to a book that’s worth re-reading ten years later – it is the form of critical writing I enjoy most, and because such a division allows me not just to keep Knight and Blish, but to arrogate to my camp such entertaining writers as Joanna Russ and Adam Roberts. But at the same time it’s undeniable that reviews have made a significant contribution to sf criticism over the years, and to generalise wildly I tend to find that the essays and studies I enjoy most are written by those whose critical skills have at some stage been deployed to the front line. Such writers seem to be more likely to talk about the field of fantastic literature as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. As good an example of this as you’ll find anywhere is Gary K Wolfe, whose essay collection Evaporating Genres will be out later this year from Wesleyan, and whose review collection Bearings, published by the much smaller press Beccon, I have just finished.

Bearings collects review-columns published in Locus between 1997 and 2001; like the earlier Soundings (2005), it is a rewarding and not a little awe-inspiring book. It’s no mean feat to turn out up to half a dozen reviews month in, month out, and say in almost all of them something worth re-reading ten years later, particularly when many of the pieces are only a few hundred words long. Wolfe claims in his introduction that he has no real rules for reviewing except to let the book under consideration guide the terms of engagement, but he certainly has some strategies, and if over the course of several hundred thousand words these become slightly more obvious than they are on a month to month basis, they don’t become less effective. The most characteristic Wolfe reviews open with a lump of discursive contextualisation that’s always worth thinking about – indeed in some cases you feel Wolfe is on the verge of breaking out into a full-blown essay – even if there’s the occasional sense that he’s teasing the reader by making the case for a proposition that only occurred to him fifteen minutes ago. This is followed by a concise and often witty summary of the plot and/or other salient facts about the book on the table; once that’s out of the way, Wolfe tends to deftly dissect his subject into its constituent parts and consider the strengths and weaknesses of each, before offering a conclusion that weighs up how those parts work together or don’t. It’s an approach that emphasises description over evaluation, which is perhaps one reason why Wolfe probably should take his share of responsibility for the myth that Locus never publishes negative reviews. Given the volume of work he considers, limiting himself mostly to cases where there’s at least something to praise is probably a sanity-preservation measure as much as anything else, but it still carries the obvious danger that it could end up providing a rather partial view of the field. One way Wolfe gets around this is by being very good at finding something to praise. He’s mastered the art of picking out the specific aspect of a novel most worthy of admiration or simply the one that’s new, even in cases where the whole is a failure. Sometimes this is used to place a book in the context of its author’s oeuvre — Bearings includes considerations of Stephen Baxter’s “most unalloyed thriller” (Moonseed), Connie Willi’s “most courageous” book (Passage), and Distraction, which is “easily more fun than any Bruce Sterling novel to date” — but it can soften the sting of criticism. Wolfe is, as Peter Straub notes in his introduction, a deliberately open-minded reviewer, one who always starts out on the author’s side, and usually ends up there as well. “Purely as sf”, for example, Walter Mosley’s Futureland “has to be regarded as something of a blunt instrument”, but “as a book about discovering the uses of SF, it may be more clever than it first appears”.

If this can just occasionally create the impression of a cat toying with its food, in the vast majority of cases Wolfe’s critical distance from the texts he discusses is a thing to be admired. That distance carries through the book on a broader level, as well. In addition to his preference for separating out the various elements of a book (as opposed to, say, Clute’s tendency to find a single organising principle around which virtues and flaws are constellated), Wolfe shows a marked reluctance to impose narratives on the field as a whole, despite the fact that he’s probably in a better position than just about anyone else to do so, and the fact that arguably one of the pleasures of collections of reviews is gaining exactly that sense of shape. (It was certainly something I hoped for from this particular collection, which covers precisely the period during which I became a more serious sf reader.) There’s some commentary within the compass of individual reviews, but this is always tentative and often has tongue at least partly in cheek. Moreover in this book – in contrast to Soundings – Wolfe has deliberately omitted the year-end summaries he writes for Locus and almost all of reviews of the various Year’s Best anthologies. His rationale is that all these too often “strained to identify ephemeral trends of relatively little interest from the broader perspective of several years later” (10), which seems a bit of a spoilsport way to go about things, and a significant loss in the case of those anthologies, since it cuts out a lot of useful commentary on how different editors approach the task of corralling a year’s best short fiction (not to mention a lot of worthwhile commentary on the stories themselves), and leaves some columns looking distinctly anemic. This is, however, the only major cavil I have about what is an extremely useful and lucid book; above all, this showcase of the generous Wolfean method stands as an ample demonstration of the utility and scope of the short (ish) review, and could stand to be more imitated.

Fezzes are Cool

Abigail Nussbaum did not like this year’s Who:

So, when I come to assess my disappointment with Steven Moffat’s first season at the series’s helm, the first question that must be asked is, has the show actually gotten worse (worse, that is, from a series that wasn’t trying to achieve, and was in fact actively avoiding, many of commonly accepted definitions of good TV) or have I simply had enough? Has the switch to a new Doctor and a new companion simply been the shock I needed to lose all investment with a series that had long ago relinquished any claim on my interest, or has something actually gone wrong? The answer, I think, is yes, in that Moffat has kept many of the series’s most exasperating attributes, and jettisoned much of what allowed me to enjoy it regardless. At some point, I stopped caring about Davies’s stories except as delivery methods for the characters and some agreeably zany moments, and though Moffat and his writing room have delivered better writing, it’s not so much better, or so different in its essence, from the kind of stories Davies delivered to make me care again. Meanwhile the characters, main, recurring, and one-offs, which were often the show’s saving grace under Davies’s reign, have been allowed to fester.

I find myself in previously unexplored territory with respect to this year’s Doctor Who: I really enjoyed it. As someone who never had a strong relationship with old Who, who admired RTD’s pre-Who work but was mortally disappointed with the actuality right from the word “Rose”, and who watched partly out of a desire to see the good episode of any given season, and partly out of a desire to keep up with a genuine sf cultural phenomenon, this is something of a surprise. In fact, my situation is almost precisely the opposite of Abigail’s; instead of wondering whether the change in production team has made glaring previously forgivable flaws, I find myself wondering whether it’s papered over previously unforgivable flaws. I find myself wondering whether, essentially, Doctor Who has just worn me down, so that I accept it for what it’s been all along.

I find myself wondering this, in part, because at this point I think I could happily watch Matt Smith read the proverbial telephone book. I could disagree with much of Abigail’s assessment of the Eleventh Doctor’s inconstancy pretty much assertion by assertion — the key difference between the Saturnynians and the Silurians, for instance, is that the latter have a valid claim to the Earth and the former do not — but she’s obviously right that he is “a mass of mannerisms”. Where we differ is that I don’t find this a bug, but a joyous feature. I don’t care that he’s not someone to identify with; I care about him because I’m fascinated by his mercurial nature. I don’t care that he overshadows the other characters, because as far as I’m concerned Who‘s characterisation has never risen above the cartoonish anyway, and the Eleventh Doctor is, so far, a cartoon that’s proven to be enduringly watchable. So I’m sure I do forgive this incarnation of the show failings that I wouldn’t have accepted in Russell T Davies.

At the same time, however, I’m not sure I can agree with Abigail’s take on Moffat’s plots:

What I discovered was that Moffat actually wasn’t very good at plotting, possibly because he didn’t tend to do it very often. “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” have only the barest hint of a plot, and it’s the same one for both of them–the non-linear relationship between a human and the Doctor. What makes them special is their structure (which was also one of strong points of Moffat’s previous series, Coupling), and the fact that they use time travel as more than a means of delivering the Doctor into the story and taking him out again at its end.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t agree with her definition of plot. My understanding of plot is the one that crops up on this website about writing, among others: that it concerns the organization of the events in a work of fiction, as opposed to the story, which is how those events would proceed in raw, unembellished form. So I’d turn Moffat’s strength and weakness around, compared to Abigail. He clearly does return to the same set of ideas quite frequently, and work to find new ways to iterate them, and sometimes this is more successful, and sometimes less so. But I’d also argue that saying Moffat is good at structure is the same as saying he’s good at plotting, at the mechanics of putting a story together. And I’d argue that whichever word you use, this season bears out that Moffat is good at it; it feels to me a much more cohesive work than any of Davies’ seasons did, and than a lot of other TV series in general. True, under Moffat Who has shifted even further into fantasy — if I have a reservation about the season, this is it; that, like Alastair Reynolds, I might wish for a show that placed a bit more emphasis on the brilliance of rational enquiry — but it does a reasonable job of being coherent on its own terms. The biggest of the authorial fiats are established early on. The Doctor is a spacetime event complicated enough to close the cracks in the universe. Anything that can be remembered can be recovered. There’s no reason these things should be true, but because they’re established in episodes where it’s not essential that they’re true, by the time they’re needed in the season finale I’m happy to allow them.

It’s not just plot that I feel binds this year’s episodes together, though. There’s an overarching concern with how stories get told and what they signify, for instance. I can feel enough loose threads nagging at me there that I might even rewatch this season, at some point, and see if something can be woven from them. But more than that, even, what this season of Who has conveyed to me, for the first time, is what the joyously seductive confusion that is the Doctor’s life, or the life of this travelling with the Doctor, might feel like. I think the purest sense-of-wonder moment Russell T Davies managed came at the end of his second episode, in the juxtaposition of the death of the sun several billion years in the future with a crowded London street in the present day. To say that Moffat’s Who actually makes use of time travel is, for me, to say that it’s built around those juxtapositions, the repetition and magnification of them; and so it seems somehow right that Moffat’s Doctor himself is a continual stream of unexpected incongruities, who lives by them and is bored to tears, as in “Vincent and the Doctor”, when they cease. Where Abigail and I agree, in the end, is that I also think Moffat has written the Doctor he wanted to write: one for whom anything is possible, and everything must be fun.

Posted in SF, TV. Tags: , , . 10 Comments »

When A Datapoint Becomes A Trend

Earlier this week, John Gray wrote about sf in the New Statesman, setting out an argument about The State Of Science Fiction. He begins by praising The City & The City‘s insight into the way we live our lives, asserts that “this insight comes without any suggestion that the situation can be changed”, and takes this stance as paradigmatic of modern sf, as opposed to classic sf’s belief that humanity can and will shape the future.

Even at its most pessimistic, science fiction has always been a humanist genre. The consoling assumption has been that while civilisation may be flawed and fragile, it can always be rebuilt, perhaps on a better model, if only humans have the will to do it.
[...]
If science fiction is no longer a viable form, it is because the humanist assumptions that underpinned it are no longer credible even as fictions. The hybrid type of writing that has evolved in recent years is symptomatic. “Slipstream”, “cyberpunk” and “new weird” blend together influences as diverse as Arthur Machen and Mikhail Bulgakov, Charles Williams and William S Burroughs. What these styles of writing have in common is an absence of politics. No world-changing project features in any of them. Miéville is an active member of the Socialist Workers Party, but his brand of fantastic fiction has as much to do with his political hopes as Wells’s scientific fables did with his utopian schemes. Wells may have fantasised about a world government using science for the masses, but it was the clairvoyant dreams that appear in The Island of Dr Moreau that expressed his true vision.

During much of the 20th century, speculative fiction served an impulse of world transformation. Fantasy was understood as an exercise in which alternative worlds were imagined in order to create new possibilities of action. Today fantasy has the role of enabling us to see more clearly the elusive actualities. The question of action is left open. We debate what can be done to change the world, but no one expects an answer.

This is not an argument that comes completely out of left field. It is not the same thing as William Gibson’s future fatigue — the idea, as expressed in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, that all we have is the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios — but it’s related, I think, inasmuch as if you think you can’t realistically talk about the changes to come, you’re not talking about changes that will come. Nor is it the same thing as Gary Wolfe’s proposition of Evaporating Genres, which is much more an argument about where and how science fiction appears; except that you would expect some changes in the character of science fiction to go along with changes in where and how it’s published, and Mieville’s book is the exemplar of a crossover text.

So in some ways I agree with Cheryl Morgan that “instinctively” Gray’s point has “a certain validity”, at least that the sort of sf he describes has become a more prominent strain of sf. But there’s an awful lot to argue with. Some of the argumentation is dubious — I’m a little bit in awe of that “If science fiction is no longer a viable form”, for so unapologetically repositioning as a given what was at best an implicit proposition a few paragraphs earlier — and, most problematically, as presented Gray is extrapolating from an absolute paucity of datapoints. He probably didn’t have to do so for the sake of his argument. He would have been justified to arrogate to his cause The Road — certainly the most widely-noticed apocalyptic vision of the last decade, and distinguished by its utter refusal of Wyndham-esque rebuilding — and perhaps the advocates of Shine might say that, in part, they’re addressing the gap that Gray identifies.

But here’s the complete list of writers of sf cited in Gray’s piece, as it stands: Wells, Zamyatin, Huxley, Stapledon, Orwell, Heinlein, Wyndham, Moorcock, Harrison, Lem, Ballard, Mieville. Laurie Penny has an excellent, necessary riposte on the familiar imbalances here:

Gray’s article lists not a single woman writer, nor any writer of colour — nor, indeed, any living writers from the 21st-century save Miéville. It is particularly startling that, in his digest of 20th-century dystopian fiction, he neglects to mention Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a near-future novel set in a brutal patriarchal theocracy, alongside Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World.
[...]
Women’s liberation has always been, in Gray’s words, an “impulse of world transformation”. Imagining alternative futures in order to create a potentiality of action has been particularly important for women writers and writers of colour seeking to articulate social oppression.

There’s a list of the usual counter-suspects at the end of Penny’s piece, credited to Farah Mendlesohn and (suggestively) China Mieville. A few things strike me about that list. One, it’s as American-led a list as Gray’s piece is Brit-heavy; make of that what you will. Two, someone really needs to fix “Tricia O’Sullivan”, because I wince every time I read it. Three, Sullivan’s Maul is a good example of the sort of sf that — having spent part of the weekend discussing it — jumped out at me as noticeable by its absence from Gray’s piece, that is, sf engaged with some form of posthumanity. There’s plenty of it around, and it’s exactly about imagining radically transformed human experience. Fourth, and finally, Gwyneth Jone’s Bold as Love sequence is a pretty devastatingly effective counter-example to Gray’s argument, being as Sherryl Vint puts it, precisely “a thoughtful and thorough meditation on the political options facing us in the 21st century”, clearly accepted as a major work.

Penny’s piece itself, however, I find myself unable to agree with entirely. I’m not sure that sf “can’t help but replicate the strategies of radical politics and identity politics”; I might be convinced by “is particularly amenable to”, but there’s an awful lot of conservative sf out there. And moreover it seems to me that it’s not hard to come up with examples of books by women that fit Gray’s agenda — he includes weird fiction, for instance, which gets him books like Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War, and he includes slipstream, which gets him books like Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Both of those are, you can argue, works that highlight “elusive actualities” rather than propose alternatives. I rather suspect Gray didn’t mention them not because sf by women, in a broad sense, is antithetical to his argument or his particular humanist sensibility, but because he’s just not familiar with it.

Posted in SF. Tags: , , . 18 Comments »

BSFA/SFF AGM Event

Of course, no sooner does one event pass than another hoves into view. This coming Saturday:

The Science Fiction Foundation and the British Science Fiction Association invite you to attend their Mini-Convention and Annual General Meeting, with guests Rob Shearman and Malcolm Edwards.

Held at The Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House (map), London on Saturday 19th June 2010.

Programme:

9:30 — Doors Open
10:00 — Welcome
10:05 — SFF panel: “How do we understand TV as a literary medium?”
11:00 — SFF guest: Rob Shearman interviewed by Jane Killick
12:00 — BSFA AGM
12:30 — Lunch
13:30 — SFF AGM
14:00 — BSFA guest: Malcolm Edwards interviewed by Graham Sleight
15:00 — BSFA Panel: “Is fandom a valuable support for genre publishing or merely a pleasant diversion?”
16.00 — Close

See you there?

Post-Masterclass

some masterclass students and tutors

So, this year’s SFF Masterclass is over. As with the first one I attended, a couple of years ago, it was both intense and rewarding; and as I was then, so I am now still digesting everything we discussed. Topics included: what makes a “classic”; examined and unexamined exclusions from narrative; is there such a thing as essentially science-fictional music; to what extent posthumanism is the central topic in contemporary sf that must be acknowledged or at least reacted to; the characteristics of science fantasy; the differences between UK and US New Wave; the politics of story; and in the course of the above, considerations of all the texts I’ve been blogging about over the past month or so from many different angles. But almost as important as the discussions in the class were the discussions outside, and the sense of community that the masterclass creates. Huge thanks, therefore, to the three tutors, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, Roz Kaveney and Liz Williams, and to all the other attendees for such friendly, thorough, enjoyable and wide-ranging discussions.

And now what? Having spent a month on the reading list for this class, and before that a month on awards shortlists, and before that a month on reading for an essay for Vector, I’m itching to get stuck into the pile of 2010 books I’ve accumulated. (Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, Anna Lawrence Pietroni’s Ruby’s Spoon, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson … to name a few.) And I have several books I’ve already read that I still want to write about. So over the next couple of months, that’s what I’ll be doing here.

How To Link Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe

Well, the reading is done, and the class starts tomorrow, which means I’ll be offline for the weekend and it’s time for a long-overdue links post.

Posted in SF Links. Tags: . 3 Comments »
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