Reasons to Attend the SFF Criticism Masterclass

The deadline to apply for this year’s SFF Criticism Masterclass is rapidly approaching. (February 28th)

Some of you may be wavering as to whether or not to apply. Here are some reasons why you should:

  • It’s a chance to spend three days immersed in discussion of books, short stories, and articles with other people interested in science fiction, who have all read the same material. This allows for the sort of in-depth discussion which doesn’t happen any where near frequently enough in other contexts.
  • It’s a chance to encounter alternative perspectives on work you’ve just read, while it’s fresh in your mind and you have the material to-hand for re-examining. You may not change your mind, but you’ll certainly have the chance to discuss others’ perspectives at length and use them to re-examine your own.
  • It’s a fantastic networking opportunity for anyone already working on any aspect of science fiction criticism in some capacity. You’ll be spending three days getting to know the tutors and the way they think much more closely, but also your fellow students.
  • It’s not a class intended for masters of criticism, but for those interested in improving their existing abilities,  whether you review lots of books on your own blog, or are a PhD student working on science fiction, or occasionally write critical essays about science fiction. It’s also useful for writers interested in genre criticism, working on improving their analyses of why some kinds of writing does and doesn’t work for a critical audience.
  • Even if you’ve taken it before, the SFF Criticism Masterclass is new and different every time, with all-new tutors to learn from and with. If you’d like to study SF Criticism with M. John Harrison, Kari Sperring, and Edward James, this is the one year you have in which to do so.

Any other reasons any of you would like to add to this list?

Science Fiction Foundation SF Criticism Masterclass 2012

This year’s class leaders for the Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass will be
• Edward James
• M. John Harrison
• Kari Sperring

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the sixth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2012.
Dates: June 22nd, 23rd, 24th 2012.
Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon). Delegate costs will be £190 per person, excluding accommodation. 
Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is available from the administrator (farah.sf@gmail.com)
Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at farah.sf@gmail.com. Applicants are asked to provide a CV and a writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Graham Sleight and Andy Sawyer. Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2012.

Science Fiction Foundation SF Criticism Masterclass 2012

Class Leaders:
Edward James
M. John Harrison
Kari Sperring

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the sixth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2012.

Dates: June 22nd, 23rd, 24th 2012.

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon).
Delegate costs will be £190 per person, excluding accommodation.
Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is available from the administrator (farah.sf@gmail.com)

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at farah.sf@gmail.com. Applicants are asked to provide a CV and a writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Graham Sleight and Andy Sawyer. Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2012.

Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass 2011

The details about next year’s event, which looks as enticing as ever:

Science Fiction Foundation announces SF Criticism Masterclass for 2011

Class Leaders:
Paul McAuley
Claire Brialey
Mark Bould

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the fifth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2011.

Paul McAuley is the author of eighteen novels, many of which have been nominated for the Campbell, BSFA and Clarke Awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning Fairyland. His most recent books are The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun.

Claire Brialey is co-editor of the Nova award-winning and Hugo-nominated Banana Wings, has been an Arthur C Clarke Award judge, and contributed critical articles to Vector and other fanzines.

Mark Bould is the co-editor of Science Fiction Film and Television and author of The Cinema of John Sayles: Lone Star and Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. He has co-edited The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction and Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction and other projects, including several issues of Science Fiction Studies.

Dates: 1st to 3rd July 2011

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon Central).

Delegate costs will be £180 per person, excluding accommodation.

Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is Golders Green Hotel, and the King Solomon Hotel, both in Golders Green, a short bus ride from the University.

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at farah.sf@gmail.com. Applicants will be asked to provide a CV and writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Andy Sawyer.

Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2011.

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.

Reading List: “Rats”

From a writer whose stories tend to be relaxed about their storyness to Veronica Schanoes’ profoundly anxious tale from Interfictions: “The shape of it will feel right,” the narrator tells us up-front. “This feeling is a lie. All stories are lies [...] There is no narrative causality” (142). True, and not an uncommon observation. Scarlett Thomas published a novel about it, just last month. But it’s a big gun to bring out in a short story, and I think Adrienne Martini’s assessment of the story is right: “a raw effort with some truly sardonic moments that never quite moves beyond cliché.”

We open — after further dire warnings that the story-shape will betray us — on a young, sadly childless couple in Philadelphia. They visit fertility clinics, and generally try everything to have a child; and, eventually, they succeed. The “four shadows” — grandparents — visit the newborn and make fairy-tale predictions about her life: “She will have an ear for music”; “She will be brave and adventurous”; “She will always be alone in her suffering”; “On her seventeenth birthday, [she] will prick herself on a needle and find a — a respite, you might say — and after she has done that, she will be able to rest, and eventually she will be wakened by a kiss, a lover’s kiss” (144-5). Sleeping Beauty, in other words.

Lily grows up with a sense of “burning gnawing rats under her skin”. She falls into the punk scene, and the respite-on-a-needle turns out to be the high of heroin. She moves to London. “Can you recognise Lily?” (148) the narrator asks us, and later, “Do you recognise this story yet?” (150). Her relationship with her boyfriend becomes — as we can tell it will — fully abusive. Eventually she asks him to kill her, and he agrees. So is the tragedy of this story “right”? For my money, Schanoes overplays her hand here:

You know the rest of the story. He dies a month later of an overdose procured for him by his mother. Why are you still reading? What are you waiting for? (153)

At which point, I think: I’m not waiting for anything. I’m reading to see if you put any further spin on the tale. Then:

They were children, you know. And there still are children in pain and they continued to die and for the people who love them that is not romantic. (153)

This would seem less trite, perhaps, if the story hadn’t gone out of its way to make us understand that what it was about to show us was in no way romantic — was a lie — from the start. But there’s a fairly substantial paragraph in this vein, and only the story’s very last sentence achieves any sense of real outrage, real force:

Death has no narrative arc and no dignity, and now you can silkscreen these two kids’ pictures on your fucking T-shirt. (153)

“This story is about what it means to grieve for the suffering of a thoroughly unpleasant, even hateful, person”, writes Schanoes in the story’s afterword. I didn’t get a sense that Lily was a particularly unpleasant person. I just thought she was trapped in a particularly unpleasant story.

Reading List: Dead Channel Surfing

Another article, unfortunately, that makes heavier weather of its argument than is really necessary. Karen Collins sets out to convince us of, as her subtitle has it, “the commonalities between cyberpunk literature and industrial music.” Except, straight away –

Although cyberpunk began as a literary movement, it is often referred to as more than that — it is, rather, a concept reflected in many disciplines sharing a similarity of approaches and attitudes.

– and the argument she goes on to construct depends rather heavily on the inclusion of films, from the obvious (Blade Runner, The Matrix) to the slightly less so (The Terminator). Which is fine in principle, obviously; it’s just not what the title promises. There are other carelessnesses. In an initial list of characteristics associated with cyberpunk, Collins eyebrow-raisingly includes “technophilia”; but later in the article comes round to the more sensible “Cyberpunk, therefore, has an arguably ambiguous relationship to technology”. Mondo 2000 is described as “the original cyberpunk fanzine”, and Cheap Truth isn’t mentioned. Etc etc.

Some of the points made are actually more general than they need to be, to the point of banality. In describing shared influences on cyberpunk and industrial — focusing on “Dada, William S Burroughs and the punk movement” — Collins ends up pointing out that “Cyberpunk fiction similarly incorporates many references to popular culture”, and perhaps even better in terms of failing to establish a unique relationship, that both forms are “rife with neologisms”. This is despite the fact that the shared influences seem undeniable, based on the numerous specific examples from both cyberpunks and industrial artists that Collins is able to provide.

The section on “recurrent dystopian themes” is a bit more wobbly, I think, in part because Collins starts with this list of “themes fundamental to dystopia”:

Although these themes are not necessarily in every dystopia, at least one will always be present. The primary themes of a dystopia can be summarised as; the socio-economic system of the West will lead to an apocalypse. The apocalypse will lead to, or be caused by, a totalitarian elite controlling the masses through technology, which brings about a need for a resistance, usually led by an outsider-hero.

Personally, I’d have thought canonical cyberpunk texts fit this schema somewhat less well than the mainstream of dystopias — although they do fit, sure, particularly if you allow, as Collins does, that “in cyberpunk, the apocalypse is often a metaphoric one”. Collins also has less evidence on the industrial side, here, able to establish the anti-capitalist bona fides of the genre pretty easily, but not doing so well on the other points.

More interesting is the discussion of “unconventional sound-making devices” — that is, bits of discarded technology — used in industrial music, although a consideration of the use of robot voices seems like a sidetrack; it makes for an interesting contrast with the version of HipHop described in “Feenin“, but robots don’t seem to me a core concern of cyberpunk.

Lastly, and most entertainingly, Collins identifies a similar mood of “anguish, darkness and the future”, on the basis of lists of keywords, although it’s not clear whether the cyberpunk list is based on a spectrum of reader responses, or just the one guy:

Cavallaro links cyberpunk and gothic horror with a series of keyword similarities relating to the moods evoked by the narratives: decay, decomposition, disorder, helplessness, horror, irresolution, madness, paranoia, persecution, secrecy, unease and terror. [8] Similarly, my study of connotations of industrial music, using free-inductive methods of listener response tests on a selection of industrial recordings, found that the most common responses were sad, dark, anxious, futuristic, death, urban, violent, and anguish.

That footnote, incidentally: “Cyberpunk and industrial could also be argued to sometimes have an underlying humour that helps to lighten this mood.” Which, yes, that’s probably a good thing. And although Collins never quite says this explicitly, although each of these correspondences on its own is rather loose, all of them together do make the case that “these artists are branches on the same tree” fairly convincing.

Reading List: Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction and Nanotechnology

Right, forget about the other article on sf and nanotechnology, and just read this one instead. It is a really good, solid piece of work. Its claims are precise, modest, well-argued and interesting. It does end up with some fairly jargon-heavy sentences — “The synchronic dimension of the chronotope is traversed by a diachronic or historical vector” — but by the time you hit them, Lopez has explained all the terms; and he only introduces specialised words that he actually needs.

His argument is a more limited, specific but clearly consequential version of that advanced in the Milburn piece: that the discourse about nanotech (or what he calls NST, “nanoscience and technology”) makes use of narrative techniques characteristic of science fiction in a way that damagingly restricts discussion of the field. Crucially, he notes that he is not questioning the credentials of nanotech researchers, nor the status of the field as a whole; and also that the strategies he is discussing are not specific to nanotech. He develops his argument through close reading of two texts — one from the margins of the field, one from its centre.

Briefly, Lopez suggests that writing about nanotech characteristically makes use of two of the strategies sf uses to construct a world, namely the intrusion of a novum, and the development of a future history. The “chronotope” mentioned above is the “literary space-time” constructed by a speculative narrative; and the chronotope of writing about nanotech is a reframing of the history of technology as having “the attempt to manipulate atoms, initially clumsily but increasingly with more precision” as its central issue. The novum in his first example, Drexler’s Engines of Creation, is the development of a molecular assembler; he explores how Drexler’s text creates a history that treats this development as inevitable, and then extrapolates from it. In his second example, a report from a 2001 American conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Department of Commerce, the novum is, slightly more subtly, “the integration and synergy of the four technologies (nano-bio-info-cogno) [that] originate from the nanoscale”. One of the successes of the article is its illustration that, actually, the rhetoric in this report — which predicts, for instance, that intelligent machines will eradicate possibility, and that nanotech will enable direct brain-to-brain communication that will allow a “more efficient social structure for reaching human goals” — is not significantly less heated than Drexler’s. The difference, perhaps, is that Drexler writes of a device-novum intruding into the real world, while the report describes a theoretical-understanding-novum intruding into the scientific world, so its predictions are less foregrounded.

This approach to writing about nanotech is problematic:

SF literature typically incorporates a historical account, or future history, that explains how the fictional world has come about. It normally contains the period before, during, and after the novum. If the narrated world is to be credible, the relationship between the three periods must be one of inevitability. This sense of historical necessity is also reproduced, as I have shown above, when the novum structures NST discourse. [...] if the inevitability of these processes are accepted, then there is logically and discursively a rather limited role for ethical reflection or analysis of social implications.
[...]
The extrapolative structure of the novum erases the contingencies inherent in technoscientific development by projecting it along a linear developmental path that will most certainly be frustrated. [...] This becomes particularly problematic when these developmental paths are invested, as they are within a technological determinist logic made possible by the novum, with the ability to resolve all manner of social, cultural, and political problems. Potential non-technological solutions become marginalized and are not pursued.

Essentially, writing about nanotech that treats it as a novum and models its likely effects on the world by its very nature simplifies and flattens the world: or, put another way, the world is not a single-novum story. Lopez then takes time out in his conclusion to emphasise that “the existence of SF narrative elements in NST discourse does not make the latter a work of literary SF”, and that actually because it is literary speculation — because it is imaginative play — “ironically, literary SF succeeds where NST discourse fails”. Sf can, Lopez argues, use a single-novum distortion to comment on precisely the ethical and cultural problems that nanotech writing attempts to obscure, because “whereas in SF the extrapolated future is a stepping-stone for critical reflection, in NST discourse the extrapolated future is the endpoint of the reflection”.

Ironically, it’s only in this defense of science fiction that Lopez manages to make me want to argue with him, and perhaps even then argue is too strong a term. I’d suggest, though, that one of the most significant trends in the sf of the last couple of decades is that single-novum works have fallen out of fashion, in part because, just as Lopez says of nanotech writing, they often seem to simplify and deform the world. (John Clute’s critique of some of Adam Roberts’ novels, for instance, takes this sort of line.) Instead, paradigmatically in the novels of Ian McDonald, we get (and encourage) futures where many novums collide, which purport to be more “realistic” extrapolations from the world as it is; or we get the William Gibsons of the world telling us that this is precisely why sf has become impossible, that all we have is the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios.

One last interesting point: Lopez suggests that one flaw in nanotech writing is that “totalizing utopian vision … invites similarly generated counter-visions”: that is, you can get a dystopia from the same novum, following the same logic, but changing some of the assumptions going into the model; and in so doing, you can open up a discourse space for the sort of ethical-cultural questions that the conventional nanotech narrative blocks. This makes me think of extrapolation to peak oil, or ecotastrophe, or some other catastrophic point, as a solution to Gibson’s bind: take those single novums far enough, and you clear a space to start doing sf again.

Reading List: Winterstrike

Winterstrike coverAfter a great splurge in the 1990s — evident in the list of notable works compiled by John Joseph Adams in this 2004 IROSF article — Mars sf hasn’t had all that much play in the last decade, with the most notable recent entry in the subgenre aside from the book on the desk probably being Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars (2009). The original venue of planetary romance has, perhaps, lost some of its mystique, if not its allure: Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road/Ares Express duology aside, it’s hard to think of examples that don’t make a point of treating Mars literally, now that we know enough to do so.

Winterstrike makes a play to reclaim Mars as a venue for mythic-fantastic adventure — it tells of high adventure and political shenanigans, all set in the far-distant future when a dying sun glowers over a land long since terraformed and colonised, and technology is far more than sufficiently advanced — and arguably its greatest success is as a venue. Its Mars is a vivid place, painted in rich colours and striking contrasts; it opens with a woman in “a mass of vitrified stone striped as white as bone and as red as a still-beating heart” — a tower in a crater at the centre of the city of Winterstrike — wearing, prosaically, “woollen mittens knitted by a grandmother” (1-2). The images we’re familiar with from Spirit and Global Surveyor and the rest are buried by such language, a ghost landscape beyond the novel’s present – several layers beyond, in fact. In a later scene, one of the novel’s narrators uses some of the powerful “haunt-tech” available to the elites of this Mars to view the memories of a ruined city; it is precisely a haunting effect, and in general the deployments of this technology, which also include strange organic machines and space travel that is a kind of death, provide some of the novel’s most visceral moments, all the while contributing to the sense of an ancient world, vastly different to the one we’re starting to know. Perhaps the one attribute retained from our associations with the planet is the chill promised by the title, complete with, wittily, frozen canals running through Winterstrike’s heart.

Across this landscape run two cousins. Essegui Harn and Hestia Mar are noble daughters of the Matriarchy of Winterstrike. The former is the woman we meet in the tower, ringing the bell that marks the start of the midwinter festival of Ombre. Soon after the novel begins, her younger sister Leretui — disgraced since she was caught with a vulpen man-remnant — either flees or is abducted from the lovingly restrictive embrace of her family, and Essegui is not just charged with finding her but cursed to do so by a compulsive “geies” cast by a “majike” in the employ of her family. Hestia, meanwhile, is a spy for Winterstrike; she voluntarily indentured herself to the same majike to escape life as a political pawn for her mother. Sent to the rival Matriarchy of Caud in pursuit of an ancient weapon, she also finds a remnant of an ancient library in the form of a “ghost warrior”, whose flayed body is sustained by more ancient technology — “She moved stiffly beneath the confines of her rust-red armour: without the covering of skin, I could see the interplay of muscles” (14) – and who accompanies Hestia more or less enigmatically through the rest of the novel. Before too long, both Winterstrike and Caud have been attacked, and both Essegui and Hestia are off on longer journeys, relating their various escapades in alternating chapters.

If the greatest strength of Winterstrike is its setting, its greatest weakness is how its narrators both rush across that setting almost without pause. It’s surely telling that even two hundred pages into the novel it’s not clear what the nature of the weapon used to attack the cities is, or even exactly what it did. When they are allowed to reflect on their situations, Essegui and Hestia have fairly interesting things to report, but they’re not often given the time to make meaningful choices. Far more often the end of each short chapter sees them thrown into another peril: kidnapped, chased, shot at or otherwise attacked, and so on and so forth. It’s all beautifully constructed, with the two narratives gracefully converging for the lightest of touches, and then separating dramatically. But it’s also often somewhat unengaging. The amount of artifice involved is clear from the neatness with which the closing chapters reflect the novel’s opening, and it could be argued as appropriate to the tale’s mythic ambitions (not for nothing are fairytales invoked with reference to some character’s storylines), but by virtue of some odd “interludes” that alert us to Leretui’s situation, and the involvement of a faction on ancestral Earth, the reader is pretty much always ahead of the not entirely dynamic duo. The ennui and looming inevitability that result can also be seen as apt for a story that repeatedly emphasises that it’s taking place on an old world, one where “You know how it is, these days [...] everything’s breaking down” (160), but it’s still probably the case that neither Essegui’s story nor Hestia’s is as interesting as that of Leretui, who is right at the heart of what turns out to be a plot to restore “balance” to Martian society.

Said balance, as you may guess, has to do with the absence of anything we would recognise as men, devolved in the wake of ancient, unstable genetic adaptations for the inhospitable native Martian surface into what Essegui and Hestia certainly think are various bestial subspecies. Once again, the novel’s present is shadowed by its past: “The oldest legends tell of cycles,” Leretui is told; “first women dominated, and then men, and now women again.” As far as the novel’s prime antagonist is concerned, the citizens of Mars “need to get past that kind of thinking [...] need equality” (147). Bestial men is a trope that’s cropped up elsewhere in Williams’ work — it’s a feature of her Darkland/Bloodmind duology — but this is the most interestingly I’ve seen her integrate it into the fabric of a novel, since it’s far from clear that “equality” is a meaningful concept to apply to what’s left of men. That said, it becomes frustratingly clear in the last thirty pages or so that Winterstrike is not a complete story, and I suspect that if sequels ever do get published (and in the end, despite Winterstrike‘s weaknesses, I hope they do), they will gradually move towards the reintroduction of men, not least because it turns out they do still exist elsewhere in the solar system. From another point of view, what the novel’s antagonists are struggling for is an escape from the weight of history that hangs on Winterstrike: this is in very literal ways a book about how the past remains and is reconfigured into the present, and I suspect that sequels would proffer a fatalistic opinion on the possibility of that escape coming good.

Some of the future history behind Winterstrike has, I think, been outlined in other of Williams’ novels, such as Banner of Souls (2006), that I haven’t read. But even beyond this, Winterstrike felt very strongly embedded in the science fiction megatext — perhaps partly because the central trope of a woman-only world has such an illustrious history, from Herland via Whileaway, but mostly, I’m sure, because I just happen to have read a set of contemporaneous books whose themes and content set up interesting resonances. I can’t help thinking, for instance, that it would have been fascinating to have read this novel in the context of the 2009 Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist; it could be compared on the one hand with Sherri Tepper’s approach to mythologising science fiction, and on the other with Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns, which also features two first-person narrators drawn from the same clone stock. Williams’ narrators have the same problem as do Reynolds’, namely that they sound the same (give or take slightly more indications of confidence from Hestia, and a slightly less worldly perspective from Essegui), but reading Winterstrike and occasionally being reminded that, yes, everyone is female (for some reason, perhaps not helped by the fact that she’s most often referred to by name or title and not by pronoun, I kept having to snap myself out of visualising the majike as male) is a useful underlining of how Reynolds rigged his set-up. The other book that came to mind while reading Winterstrike wasn’t nominated for the Clarke Award, but did win that year’s Tiptree; it is of course The Knife of Never Letting Go, a radically different planetary romance that portrays a society in which the gender balance is massively lopsided in the other direction, and which is an interesting contrast if only because it makes clear how matter-of-fact Williams is about the fact that her women have spread out into every social role. Perhaps it’s this very backgroundedness, relative to the gothic intensity of the other elements of Winterstrike, that led to the novel’s slightly surprising omission from the Tiptree honour list; but for me such a normalised, grounded imagining makes a significant contribution to the unarguable distinctiveness of Williams’ Mars.

Reading List: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”

As most reviews of this story by Neil Gaiman point out, there’s not a lot to it. Two boys are going to a party in a very normal pebble-dashed terraced house somewhere in East Croydon. They’re going for the girls. One of them, Vic, is confident, something of a smooth operator; the other, Enn, is the narrator, and is all at sea, not knowing how to relate to girls who, he thinks, “just sort of sprint off into the future ahead of you” when puberty rolls around. Vic gives Enn the piece of advice that, once you know this is an sf story, gives away the plot:

They’re just girls,” said Vic. “They don’t come from another planet.”

Guess what? These girls do, literally, come from another planet. The party itself is quite well done, dingy and claustrophobic as these things tend to be. Vic puts his moves on the best-looking girl at the party, with some success. Meanwhile, Enn ends up talking to two girls. The first, a girl with long white hair and a split little finger, says things like:

“I grow weary of the journeying, and I wish sometimes that it would end. On a street in Rio at Carnival, I saw them on a bridge, golden and tall and insect-eyed and winged, and elated I almost ran to greet them, before I saw that they were only people in costumes. I said to Hola Colt, ‘Why do they try so hard to look like us?’ and Hola Colt replied, ‘Because they hate themselves, all shades of pink and brown, and so small.’ It is what I experience, even me, and I am not grown. It is like a world of children, or of elves.”

To which Enn’s response is: do you want to dance? The second girl, this time with short dark hair and a gap between her two front teeth, says even more obviously revealing things like:

“But there was no reasoning with it, and I came to world. Parent-teacher engulfed me, and I was here, embodied in a decaying lump of meat hanging on a frame of calcium. As I incarnated I felt things deep inside me, fluttering and pumping and squishing. It was my first experience with pushing air through the mouth, vibrating the vocal cords on the way, and I used it to tell parent-teacher that I wished that I would die, which it acknowledged was the inevitable exit strategy from world.”

To which Enn’s response is to try the casual stretch-out-arm-and-put-it-around-her trick. Strangely, this does not deter the girl: instead she starts talking to him about a poem that encodes the information of her people, which the aliens may or may not be here to disseminate, and which may or may not transform humanity. Just as Enn is falling under the girl’s spell, Vic, who has been upstairs with Stella, appears and insists they both leave the party, obviously traumatized by whatever he’s seen. The end.

So: the girls at the party actually are aliens, except that because Enn is expecting girls to be alien, he doesn’t notice. It’s a good thing the story isn’t any longer than it is; in any case, it nearly outstays its welcome. It rather strains credibility that even expecting girls to be aliens, even when drunk, Enn doesn’t twig that there’s something odd about the people he’s talking to, given some of the things they say. What gives the story the little edge it has, I’d say, is that there’s a grain of truth in the girls-as-aliens thing, for boys of the narrator’s age: the gap between being on one side of puberty and being on the other side of it is real, and can be daunting. But then, although girls often do mature sooner than boys, they don’t do so universally, so it’s as much a puberty thing as it is a sex thing. That is: as a young teenage boy, in many ways, older boys come from a different world just as much as do girls of your own age.

A few nuggets of discussion about the story from elsewhere. Megan Messinger at Tor.com, as an example of an unbeloved plot:

My least favorite of these is “a magic thing happened, and then it went away.” A prime example is Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” Yes, I know it was nominated for a Hugo, and yes, it was well-written, sentence by sentence and even scene by scene; I pick on it partially because the full text is available online. (With all sincerity, that’s pretty cool.) But the plot is, boys go to party, talk to girl-shaped clone-type alien beings, everyone tries to put the moves on each other, boys leave party. The story ends

The streetlights came on, one by one; Vic stumbled on ahead, while I trudged down the street behind him in the dusk, my feet treading out the measure of a poem that, try as I might, I could not properly remember and would never be able to repeat.

So there is a bit about growing up, and the magic thing going away is a handy metaphor for childhood or innocence, but the boys themselves don’t get it. They don’t change. There is a wisp of understanding that dissipates and leaves me unsatisfied at the end. Most of the appeal and cleverness lies in the story saying, “Look! Neil Gaiman has literalized a metaphor about teenage boys trying to relate to the fair sex!” and I don’t buy into it.

(This is fair enough although, as I say, the story’s brevity inclines me to let him get away with it.)

Betty at the Hathor Legacy:

Obviously, Vic makes a good point. Girls really are just people, and treating them as completely incomprehensible aliens is going to be a barrier to communication, or, in the case of this story, allow Enn to mistake completely incomprehensible aliens for girls. But, as someone who is actually a girl, pointing out that girls are people was not an insight that rocked my world.

There are interesting implications in the fact that the girl-shaped aliens want to impregnate Enn not with larvae, but with a memetic virus, a poem that will reshape humanity. Is this meant to contrast to a fear of the sexually liberated woman? This was not truly explored.

“Talking to Girls at Parties” is like watching a magician pull out of a hat, not a rabbit, but a hatpin, while a rabbit hops across the stage.

So the story failed to deliver that sharp twist which I particularly like in short stories, but it is quite decent at completely incomprehensible aliens. If you like your aliens with truly other biology and societies, this story is worth checking out.

(I’m not sure the aliens really are all that strange, but clearly that’s something on which mileage will vary.)

And Abigail Nussbaum:

I was expecting good things from Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”–the story has gotten a lot of positive buzz and I usually do better with Gaiman’s short fiction than with his novels–which might be why the story left me slightly cold. Which is not to say that “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is bad. It isn’t. It’s a Neil Gaiman story–funny, well-written, mildly original. It is also, however, so thoroughly Gaiman-ish that, three paragraphs in, I was struck by the perverse conviction that it had been written by a clever impersonator, or possibly a Gaiman-bot. It was, I believe, the sentence “While it would be a lie to say that we had no experience with girls—Vic seemed to have had many girlfriends, while I had kissed three of my sister’s friends” that did the trick. That’s a Neil Gaiman sentence, I thought. I’ve read that sentence, or some tonal of stylistic variant on it, several times before. It’s an impression that persists throughout the story: here’s the shy, clever but socially inept narrator; here’s the narrator’s wacky friend; here’s the not-so-subtle setup (‘”They’re just girls,” said Vic. “They don’t come from another planet.”‘–you can write the rest of the story yourself from this point, can’t you?); here’s weirdness compounding itself around the oblivious narrator; here’s the lucky escape back into normalcy. None of it is done badly, and it’s not even the lack of originality that is my primary complaint against the story. I just prefer Gaiman when he’s writing outside of his comfort zone, actually working to elicit genuine emotion from his audience rather than trying to strike that half-wistful, half-knowing tone that permeates so much of his fiction and usually puts me in mind of a clever teenager whose writing isn’t nearly as profound as he thinks it is. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is smack dab in the middle of that comfort zone, and so, like a great deal of Gaiman’s fiction, my reaction to it is a combination of admiration and distaste.

(I’ve read less Gaiman than Abigail, but comfort zone: yes, it has that feel to me.)

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