Updates

Vector

Thanks to the assistance of yet another layout volunteer, Vector 271, the last issue of 2012, will be coming out in January 2013, along with a guest-edited version of Focus. Vector 272 should follow a month or two later, along with the BSFA Award Booklet.

BSFA Awards Nominations

The deadline for the BSFA Awards Nominations is January 13, 2013. BSFA members should nominate early and often!  Works currently nominated are available to peruse here. Don’t take for granted that if your favourite sf book, short story, work of non-fiction, or artwork is on that list that it will receive enough nominations to make the shortlists. Equally, if a work worthy of nomination isn’t on that list, consider it your personal responsibility to nominate it so that it is.

Divine Endurance: Flowerdust Edition

Gwyneth Jones has revised her first sf novel, Divine Endurance, collating it with its companion novel Flowerdust. Divine Endurance was the first novel published under her own name, in 1984. The edited pair are available and, more specifically, available for free today on Amazon.co.uk!

Spirit, Part 1: Take One

I started Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit at the wrong time, or at least in the wrong headspace. The plot was a Lego patchwork of interlinked episodes, and it didn’t seem to have enough momentum to take me much of anywhere plot-wise, even as it spanned a barely-known universe in its events. I hadn’t read any of Jones’ other Aleutian novels, had no greater context thus far into which to slot it. I didn’t feel lost, but it wasn’t a universe to which I had any existing commitment.

It didn’t help that I knew there was a rape scene coming, somewhere in its expansive, multi-volumesque middle. With that looming, somewhere, I read more and more episodically, which did nothing to help the volume’s flow. Doom, gloom, and stuckness overwhelmed the characters and I, seeing no hope for them and fearing what I knew was coming, went adrift. I stopped reading.

Despite that unpromising beginning, I always meant to go back to it. My intentions were good. The SFX blurb promised me a take on The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel I remembered fondly and whose plot I’d happily revisit. Nearly halfway through the book, I was barely halfway through the lavishly extensive blurb on the back of the book when I failed to keep reading.

It really is quite a blurb. As Martin Lewis observed in his discussion of the novel last week, it synopsizes up to page 255 out of 472 pages. At the time, however, it was a token framework for me, a checklist of events which the plot had gotten around to, rather than any real roadmap of structure. (Which raises the question: is it still really a spoiler once it’s mentioned in the blurb?) It really was the wrong time and headspace for me to be reading the novel.

Fortunately, Martin suggested I have another go at the novel this March, complete the task I set myself last year when I undertook to write – or host writing on – the eleven best science fiction novels by women from the first decade of this millennium.

I’m glad he did. The second time around, the book was good.

Life: Recap

(Isn’t that a fantastic title for a post?)

Over the last few weeks, Nic has posted a series of thought-provoking explorations of Gwyneth Jones’ Life, looking at its relationship with institutions and attitudes towards scientific practice; its self-consciousness as feminist sf, as a commentary on the role of women in a science fictional world; the core of the relationships which define the plot of the book; and the fictional scientific discovery at the heart of the story and how it affects gender.

Life, the seventh book we’ve examined in the Future Classics series here on Torque Control, is our last book from 2004, the end of the first half of the decade this book list covers.  The remaining four books cover the rest of the decade. For planning ahead, those are

  • Jo Walton, Farthing (in late September)
  • Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North (October)
  • Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia (November)
  • Gwyneth Jones, Spirit (December)

My thanks to Nic for joining us for this discussion (and perhaps more in the future?), and to those of you who read along and participated in the discussion. It’s never too late to come back to these posts and do so.

Discussion: Part 1 – Science and Sensibilities; Part 2 – Feminisms; Part 3 – Roles and Relationships; Part 4 – Gender and Conclusion

A recent, related post:

bookgazing asks for insights into what new things cis-gendered women could become “in the middle of a pre-existing world full of pre-conceptions about gender and behaviour?”

August: Life

It’s the eighth month of the year already* and we’re still back in 2004 in reading the Future Classics here on Torque Control.

August’s book is Gwyneth Jones’ Life. It is the second of two books from 2004 (the other was City of Pearl) and one of three by Jones on our list this year. It did very well for itself, winning the Philip K Dick award for that year and being shortlisted for the Tiptree Award.

Nic of Eve’s Alexandria, a new poster on Torque Control, should be joining us to discuss the book before the end of the month. I hope you will join us in reading and discussing it!

* It’s almost still the first half of the month, right?

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.

Playlists, Soundtracks, and Science Fiction

The first chapter of Justina Robson’s Natural History is structured around the Don McLean song, “American Pie”. The lyrics help to structure fraught events, both in our world and in that of the dying Isol. The book (about which more discussion  next week) begins, in effect, with music, with a theme song. It’s not a whole soundtrack for the book, but it’s why I noticed a coincidence or a trend – I don’t have enough data to know which.

Our first book of this year’s TC reading project didn’t have one theme song. It had an entire discography, listed out on the final pages of the paperback and a page of the accompanying website. Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love is about a rock band, so it’s not surprising that it might come with music. Plenty of books about bands don’t, however. This one recommends hours of previously-existing albums, plumbed for their vibe, their synergies, their influence on the book’s musical interactions. Its concerts are major plot points.

The second book didn’t have a discography listed out as an appendix, but it didn’t need one. Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is suffused with soundtrack, carefully orchestrated by its main character to match the needs of his life. Lou uses symphonic music to overlay sequences in his life with imposed structure, a device which makes it easier for him to cope with various scenarios, from the gym to the drive home. It need not even be recorded: he has a wealth of classical music stored in his memory for summoning up when he needs it as counterbalance. A mention – name, composer – may be enough to summon up the tunes for some readers as well. In only one instance does Lou recommend to us specific versions of the music he thinks through: in all other cases, we can pick our own symphonies, our own soloists.

I’ve read a couple of other books in the past year or so which came with the songs or albums listed to which the author wrote the book. Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty books do. Linnea Sinclair’s last novel, Rebels and Lovers, does. Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland has an entire purchasable album which was compiled around it. So does her currently Clarke Award-nominated Zoo City.

The only book soundtracks I’m particularly aware of from previous decades are filk. Mercedes Lackey has written and produced a slew of albums to accompany her Valedemar novels. Anne McCaffrey approved an official album in part comprising tunes to lyrics she’d provided in her Pern novels. Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue came with poignant alternative spacefaring lyrics to known tunes, used as chapter intros.

The CD singles charts may be in commercial freefall, as far as any given song’s success is concerned, but I am certain that, more broadly, the singles market has never been more healthy. Download a song as ringtone. Download a single at a click. In the ‘80s it became feasible to make mix tapes, with the advent of the cassette tape. Now, a book’s soundtrack need not even be prepackaged if the tunes are mainstream enough: they can be individually downloaded and reassembled into the unified album that a playlist had the potential to be on one’s own music playing device.

As evidence goes, this is scanty. These are the works of science fiction and fantasy I can name off of the top of my head which come with soundtracks.

So – the three books so far for the best science fiction novels written by women in the last decade. Will more of this year’s TC reading project feature theme songs or downloadable soundtracks?

Are female authors more likely to include that bit of extra real-world tie-in world-building than male ones are, or is this an accident of what I’ve been reading that I’ve only noticed soundtracks in books which happen to be written by women?

Regardless of gender, is this a trend or a coincidental cluster?

Bold as Love: Recap

So that was 2001.

Bold as Love is a high-paced meander through several years of England’s potential future after the dissolution of the UK, as shaped by rock n’ roll. It’s not quite quest, and it’s not quite romance. It’s a thought experiment, it’s a tour of England, it’s about the messiness of change. It’s not a book which put me in the main characters’ heads: they might have known how the rest of the world was getting on, but they only shared in the ways it impinged directly on them. It’s not nearly as much Arthuriana as I feared, based on reading reviews. (It’s not that I dislike Arthuriana per se. It’s that I’m a medievalist, so it makes me picky.)

Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love was the first of the poll-topping best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years that we’ll be discussing here at Torque Control over the course of this year. It was the only one of them published in 2001.

Niall hosted the discussion February discussion, and, speaking of 2001, he noted that the book could not really have been written any later than it likely was. After 9/11 that year, “terrorism” could no longer be conceived of the way it is in this book. But that’s not much of a distraction in the scope of such rich, intense, focused world-building. Much of the intensity it has is in the music, the festivals, the performances. Music is a central focus because, in this book, “what’s significant is the potential of music to be a vehicle for belief, at a moment when belief in all other systems of the world has been shattered by catastrophic cynicism.” Ax Preston, the guitarist/leader of the book and cultural icon, curates concerts as a means to his end of making the best of a difficult political situation. I can’t quite bring myself to call him Counter-Cultural, as the movement within the book is called because, cynical as the book is, it knows full well that this is just a label, and that the Counter-Culture are mainstream cultural avatars, in effect.

My thanks to Niall for hosting the discussion, and to all the commenters who joined in reading (or re-reading) the book.

Niall’s Discussion: Part I: Context, Part II: Characters, Part III: Music, Part IV: Utopia
Overview of Bold as Love and some of its reviews from December
Abigail Nussbaum on Bold as Love and other of Jones’ books.

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