June BSFA London Meeting reminder

Just a reminder that the June meeting (Gillian Polack, interviewed by
Maureen Kincaid Speller) will be tomorrow (Thursday June 30th), not
tonight.

Maul – What is reality?

(Sorry for the delay.)

Cheryl Morgan and Justina Robson both seem to think that readers in the UK need to have the pun in the title of what Tricia Sullivan, probably rightly, regards as her best novel, explained to them, on the grounds that the pronunciation of “mall” that is the same as “maul” might be unfamiliar this side of the Atlantic. I don’t know about that. By 2003 most Britons, I would have thought, would be well-exposed to many items of American culture that took place at least partly in malls (the movie Clueless comes to mind). I would expect most people were perfectly familiar with that pronunciation, perhaps even more so than with the short-a version that is most commonly encountered in the road that leads to Buckingham Palace. The title certainly never threw me.

That absorption of American culture is perhaps key to the novel’s success in the UK, where it was nominated for both the BSFA and Clarke Awards. The present-day strand is set in a world that is only slightly distant from that experienced by the British reader, who could experience a similar environment (if perhaps less dangerous) not far from where they lived (Lakeside opened in 1988, Gateshead MetroCentre in 1986; Bristol’s Cribb’s Causeway even calls itself “The Mall”). And anyone who remembered the James Bulger killing would know that bad things could happen in places like this.

But the mall/maul strand is only one of the strands of this novel. It is paralleled by a far future strand, where men have been mostly wiped out by genetically-engineered plagues that attack the Y chromosomes, and leave men dead or desexualised. The science, as Sullivan herself says, is “pure fudge”, but it does its job, and creates a society almost entirely dominated by women. I want to discuss the gender issues in the second post – for now, I want to stick with the strands, and their relationship to one another. When I first read this novel, I was immediately reminded of M. John Harrison’s Light, which similarly blends present and future strands. But what is the nature of the relationship between the two strands in Maul?

It is rapidly apparent that there is one. In the future, Meniscus, a clone, is a living experiment, treated as not much better than a lab rat. He is, however, given a game, Mall, into which he can retreat to save what remains of his sanity (this was when virtual reality was still quite new – Second Life was launched in 2003, and only later became so passé that it could feature in both CSI and Law & Order).  In the mall strand, the culture Meniscus has most recently been infected with, 10E, turns up as online video artist 10Esha (this latter characterisation is later echoed by FallN in Sullivan’s most recent novel, Lightborn).  But does this mean that the mall has no reality?  Robson certainly thinks so:

“this world, the book’s ‘reality’, is a virtual simulation being run inside a human being from some alternative reality.”

The novel itself might also suggest that.  The first person narrator of the mall section, Sun Katz, tells us at one point “I have this weird conviction there will be no tomorrow”.  Morgan and Adam Roberts are more circumspect. The both talk of the mall strand being a metaphorical representation of the Meniscus strand.

But the novel begins and ends with Sun, not with Meniscus.  Early on, Sun christens a security guard Descartes, “for reasons that are nothing to do with anybody but me.”  One can’t help feeling that Sullivan wants the reader to think of René Descartes’ most famous maxim: “I think, therefore I am.”  Sun thinks, and we are privy to her thoughts. So she is real, at least to herself.  As to whether the mall has any more objective reality, well, what does?  In this, Sullivan’s novel resembles another crtically-acclaimed work of the previous year, Christopher Priest’s The Separation. Like Priest, Sullivan lays all the pieces out in front of us. But it’s up to the reader to work out what they mean.

Three Hundred Years Hence, next month

One occasional convenience of looking at much older works of science fiction is that, when old enough, they are out of copyright. This is true of the book which Andy Sawyer will be looking at in the forthcoming issue of Vector. (Subscribers will be receiving it in early July.)

Out-of-copyright doesn’t always mean more-convenient-to-get-hold-of, but in this case, someone has already gone to the trouble of digitizing the text.

Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence, the subject of Andy’s next Foundation Favourites column, was published in 1836. It features in the annotated “Pre-1923 Utopias and Science Fiction by Women: A Reading List of Online Editions“, edited by Mary Mark Ockerbloom, where you can read her vision of the year 2135 for yourself.

And, while you’re there, a great deal of other early science fiction by women too.

Reminder: Maul

On Friday I (Tony) will start posting discussion of Tricia Sullivan’s Maul, the next in the project of reading Future Classics by women. Please read a long if you have time.

BSFA London meetings for second half of 2011

Here is the schedule for the BSFA London meetings for the second half of 2011.

Please note that there is no BSFA London meeting on Wednesday 22nd June.  The June meeting will be on Thursday 30th June.

30th June 2011  – GILLIAN POLACK interviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller

27th July 2011 – SOPHIA MCDOUGALL interviewed by Roz Kaveney

24th August 2011* – KIM LAKIN-SMITH interviewed by Paul Skevington

28th September 2011 – JO FLETCHER: interviewer TBC

26th October 2011 – TANITH LEE interviewed by Nadia Van Der Westhuizen

23rd November 2011* – STEPHEN BAXTER interviewed by Paul Cornell

* Note that these are months with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.

Meeting take place in the Upstairs Room of The Antelope Taven, 22 Eaton Terrace, Belgravia, London, SW1W 8EZ

Entry is free.

June BSFA London Meeting: Gillian Polack Interview – 30th June 2011 – Free entry

On Thursday 30th June 2011 from around 7pm:

GILLIAN POLACK (Australian writer of speculative fiction, editor and historian) will be interviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller (Critic and reviewer).

Note that this meeting is on the fifth Thursday of the month.  There is no BSFA London Meeting on Wednesday 22nd June.

Venue:

Upstairs Room
The Antelope Tavern
22, Eaton Terrace
Belgravia
London
SW1W 8EZ

Nearest Tube: Sloane Square (District/Circle)
Map:here.
All welcome! (No entry fee or tickets. Non-members welcome.)
Interview will commence at 7.00 pm, but the room is open from 6.00 (and fans in the downstairs bar from 5).
There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

FUTURE EVENTS:

27th July 2011 – SOPHIA MCDOUGALL interviewed by Roz Kaveney

24th August 2011* – KIM LAKIN-SMITH interviewed by Paul Skevington

28th September 2011 – JO FLETCHER: interviewer TBC

* Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.

Five years of Torque Control

Five years and two days ago, Niall began Torque Control as the Vector editors’ blog.

1029 published posts (as of this one), 9208 comments, and 621 tags later, and it still is. Not much, perhaps, compared to Vector‘s 53 years, but by blog standards, it’s done very nicely indeed.

Thanks to all of you for five years of comments and community!

Posted in Admin. Tags: . 1 Comment »

Woman’s Hour: Women and SF

The following is a transcript of the recent (25/05/11) Woman’s Hour segment on women and sf, for those who can’t listen and in case it vanishes from the BBC website. Of related interest, given recent discussion elsewhere, is the most recent Guardian Books Podcast in which Nicola Griffiths is, as she points out, identified as a “sharp-eyed blogger in Seattle”, rather than as a novelist.

Jenni Murray: Now, the British Library has just opened an exhibition, called “Out of This World: Science Fiction, but Not as You Know It”. It’s a genre that’s generally perceived to be of interest to young children — think Doctor Who — or to men — think HG Wells, Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne. But the exhibition includes Mary Shelley, the Brontes, Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Gwyneth Jones, so is the perception of science fiction as a male-dominated form a complete misrepresentation? Well, Karen Traviss is a New York Times bestselling writer, Farah Mendlesohn is reader in science fiction and fantasy literature at Middlesex University, and Gwyneth Jones has won the Philip K Dick and Arthur C Clarke Awards for her science fiction. Gwyneth, what was it about sci-fi that appealed to you?

Gwyneth Jones: The science. I’m a thwarted scientist and when I was a little girl it was — I can’t remember the name of the writer because writers’ names mean very little to children, or they did mean … it was either Asimov or Heinlein who told me that the universe was like unto a rubber sheet and that planets and other bodies deform this rubber sheet, and that’s the way spacetime functions; I was hooked. I just love stuff like that.

Jenni Murray: And Karen, what was its appeal for you when you began writing?

Karen Traviss: Well, I actually set it up as a business, it was something … I’m not a reader, it’s a terrible thing to say and people will probably come and stone my house, but I absolutely hate reading, but I like writing. I was far more influenced by TV, and by films, I absolutely loved science fiction series, I like science fiction movies. But my reason for writing science fiction was a sort of business decision because I actually specialise in military science fiction and also mainstream military fiction, and I set out to have a business, I had a five year business plan, I stuck to it. There was no sort of motivation from love of the art, I’m afraid, and the sort of picture that I see of science fiction being painted here doesn’t bear any resemblance to my working world. I mean, let me just put a caveat on that — I might live in the UK, I pay my taxes here, but I work in the USA. I work solely for US publishers, US game studios, that sort of thing. It’s a very different world.

Jenni Murray: Let me just bring Farah in for the moment, Karen. What about the audience, Farah? Who is interested in reading sci-fi?

Farah Mendlesohn: Well, the entry age I found was somewhere between about 10 and 12, which is younger than we used to think. Slightly younger for boys, they seem to come in around 9, girls around 11. After that, these days it’s about 45% female and 55% male, and people stick with the genre once they’re there. The audiences for gaming, for tie-ins, for films — they’re slightly different, they lean towards male, but I’ll be honest, I think it’s just a matter of time, I think it’s changing very rapidly. The idea of science fiction being for men has never been true, if you look at the early magazines there are always letters from women. Now I know it’s biased, because the editors are choosing the letters, but it’s actually quite interesting that someone like Hugo Gernsback, one of the earliest of the editors, wanted to represent women in the magazines by choosing those letters. About 1 in every 10 letters in the thirties, by the sixties we’re up to 1 in 3; it keeps spiralling.

Jenni Murray: And yet, Gwyneth, I know you have said, because you said it to our producer, that you wish you’d used a male pseudonym as a writer. Why?

Gwyneth Jones: Ah. That’s because I started writing science fiction in 1984 and I wrote feminist science fiction and I wrote science fiction for at least a decade, and I wish now that I had used a male pseudonym for my feminist books.

Jenni Murray: Why?

Gwyneth Jones: Because, if you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.

Jenni Murray: You’d have sold better.

Gwyneth Jones: Well, not only that. My later books, which are in my reading not at all feminist science fiction, although they have female characters — it would be strange if they didn’t — are now feminist. And I find that a disadvantage on two counts. First, because I know what feminist science fiction was about, it was about disentangling the battle of the sexes and I’m not doing that, and I don’t want my books to be read as feminist when they’re not addressing that agenda and second, yes, because the word feminist is poison to many sectors of the science fiction audience. And that’s a shame.

Jenni Murray: There was, Farah –

Gwyneth Jones: Sorry, I was –

Jenni Murray: No, it’s all right, I just wanted to continue the point with Farah, because there was a famous science fiction writer, James Tiptree Jr, who came out in the seventies as Alice Sheldon, so he actually was a she. What was the reaction when that happened?

Farah Mendlesohn: Well actually, Gwyneth’s summary is perfect, because first of all what had happened was that Tiptree had withdrawn a story that was nominated I think for the Nebulas, on the grounds it had been nominated because it was a feminist story by a man. And he withdrew it. Robert Silverberg had actually written an introduction to one of the books which he’s lived to regret, in which he described Tiptree as “ineluctably male”, So there was actually quite some controversy. Joanna Russ, one of our most famous authors is the person who outed Tiptree [Note: actually Jeffrey Smith; see comments and Julie Phillips' biography of Alice Sheldon for details], and it rippled. But I think that Gwyneth is absolutely right, both because Tiptree’s work was then received very differently, but because what I see in critical accounts of the genre from male academics is they forget women when they’re writing about space opera, and then have a token chapter about feminist writers. And I see that over and over again. There’s a book by Istvan Csicery-Ronay Jr that has a whole chapter on linguistics. The most famous science fiction writer of linguistics, who’s a professor of linguistics, is Suzette Haden Elgin. She’s not in that chapter. She is in the chapter on feminism. So often it’s that inability to see a female writer as anything other than a feminist writer — and this is where you might want to bring Karen back in, because she’s often seen that way by critics and herself would find that, I think I’m right in saying, would find that a problematic label.

Jenni Murray: You anticipated my next move. Karen?

Karen Traviss: Well, I’m sort of struggling to recognise this landscape, because it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the world I work in. I think it’s very easy to try and see science fiction, one, as a sort of separate walled garden, but also as something defined by critics. I like to deal direct with my customer, basically, and if I go round a huge bookstore in the States and I stop someone who’s browsing in the isles and say, “why have you picked up that book?”, none of them have heard of the Hugo awards, none of them read book reviews, none of them care what critics think; they pick up books because they like the cover, or because they like the blurb on the back, or they like the author, or their friends said, “you really should try that book” — and I mean perhaps I’ve lead a charmed life, but given the very macho nature of what I like and the fact that most of my characters are male, I have never been pigeonholed as a female writer. You know, the sort of novelty for the States is that I’m English, that always comes as a shock to them.

Jenni Murray: Karen, you’ve very deliberately published in the States, why? Is it because it’s different here?

Karen Traviss: Much much bigger market and much more money. Sorry, it’s really that crude. But that was my first port of call, because that was where I saw the industry as being. This is the entertainment industry, you know, I am there to entertain people primarily, but also to make them think; I’m a former journalist, I’m not there to set an agenda for feminism or anything else, I’m there to say, these are people, male and female, in a very challenging situation; and one thing that science fiction offers you, speculative fiction generally, is that you can push the boundaries and say, what if this happened? What would happen? And all I do is sort of shine that light and say, how would you react in this situation? I’m not going to send some feminist message.

Jenni Murray: Farah?

Farah Mendlesohn: I want to agree with Karen, but with a caveat. I started looking at what was on the shelves in Britain and in british libraries, both in bookshops and libraries, and couldn’t find any women writers, including a really big selling writer like Lois McMaster Bujold. So I’d say Karen has made the right decision, the market in the States is far better, but the market here is problematic. Forbidden Planet has just produced a list of its 50 favourite writers with three female writers. there’s something odd going on at the marketing level here.

Jenni Murray: Gwyneth, how much are you conscious of the fact that there may be something odd going on at the marketing level?

Gwyneth Jones: I think, for one thing I think the US market is a far broader church; it’s far easier, it’s much easier for an outsider to survive. But I am conscious that I have always been regarded as an outsider by my publishers of science fiction. it’s an assumption which is a self-fulfilling prophecy, if there is a list of books that are going to be promoted, well, probably a woman writer is an outside choice so we won’t have a woman writer. That does happen.

Jenni Murray: But you’ve won the big awards — you’ve won the Philip K Dick award, the Arthur C Clarke award. what difference does that make to you? Do they not say, this woman is a great writer?

Gwyneth Jones: I find it very strange. There’s no heavy lifting, I don’t have to be six foot six, and in fact even to write action fantasy you don’t have to be a large muscular man to do that, but I think it starts with the publishers and I think it also it ripples through to the fans.

Jenni Murray: Women fantasy writers seem to do very well, Farah, JK Rowling I suppose being the best known. Why? What’s the difference between the sci-fi and the fantasy?

Farah Mendlesohn: That’s a very difficult one to put your fingers on. I think there is a sense that it’s more appropriate for women to write about dragons than to write about guns — and I do wonder, to come briefly back to Karen if the more mixed army in the united States makes a difference, they have a fully integrated military — but otherwise it’s not that straightforward. the biggest names in fantasy, the ones who receive the most publicity, are still the men. And I think there is a bias there. but I would agree with Karen, in that I don’t think the bias is necessarily among the fans.

Jenni Murray: Farah Mendlesohn, Karen Traviss and Gwyneth Jones, thank you all very much.

June: Maul

For June, here on Torque Control, we’re reading our third and final book from 2003, that bumper year of excellent science fiction written by women in the last decade.

Maul was Tricia Sullivan’s seventh published novel, if I count correctly. She had won the Clarke Award several years earlier for Dreaming in Smoke, an award for which Maul was shortlisted.

Tricia Sullivan will be the BSFA’s Guest of Honour at its mini-convention and AGM this Saturday, held jointly with the SFF. Tom Hunter will be interviewing her at 2 pm at the Royal Astronomical Society in Burlington House on Piccadilly in central London.

She will also be on a panel on “Women, Science Fiction, and Britain in 2011″ with Pat Cadigan, Niall Harrison, and me, as moderator. She’s soliciting your suggestions for material which we could try to fit in to the panel, time and structure willing.

Tony Keen will be leading this month’s discussion. I hope you will join us in reading Maul and discussing it later in June.

BSFA/SFF Mini-Convention and AGMs

The Science Fiction Foundation and the British Science Fiction Association will hold their joint Mini-Convention and Annual General Meetings on Saturday, 4th June 2011. This event is FREE to attend.

The SFF’s guest is Mike Ashley. He has written many books including most recently Out of This World, the book accompanying the current British Library Exhibition. Other notable works include Gateways to Forever (Liverpool University Press, 2007) and The Mammoth Book of Science Fiction (Robinson Publishing, 2002). He was awarded the Pilgrim Award in 2002 by the Science Fiction Research Association for his lifetime achievement in science fiction research.

The BSFA’s Guest is Tricia Sullivan. Tricia’s novel Lightborn was shortlisted for both the 2011 Clarke Award and the 2010 BSFA Award, and among many other nominations and awards she won the Clarke Award in 1999 with Dreaming in Smoke. We will be discussing her book Maul here on Torque Control later this month.

9:30am – Doors open
10:00 – Welcome
10:05 – Women writers, science fiction and Britain in 2011- panel, with Niall Harrison, Tricia Sullivan, Pat Cadigan, Shana Worthen (moderator)
11:00 – Mike Ashley – interview with Edward James
12:00 noon – BSFA AGM
1:30pm – SFF AGM
2:00 -Tricia Sullivan – interview with Tom Hunter
3:00 -The State of SF publishing – panel, with Mike Ashley, Simon Spanton, Jenni Hill, and Ian Whates (moderator)
4:00 – Conclusion

Location: The Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, on Piccadilly, in London W1J 0BQ. Between Piccadilly Circus and Green Park Underground stations. (Note that the relevant section of the Victoria line will NOT be running that day.)

There are no facilities for serving food at the venue. The gathering place for those not wishing to attend all the individual events of the day is the King’s Head, 10 Stafford Street, London, W1S 4RX, phone 020 7493 0337

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