The End Of The World As We Know It

It’s not the end of Science Fiction Britannia, which appears to continue at least until the fan-focused documentary My Science Fiction Life on December 27th, but it’s the end of the series, and the end of the world. The talking heads this time around are Stableford, Newman, Luckhurst and Aldiss again, Doris Lessing, Sam Youd, Christopher Priest, Kadwo Eshua, and Will Self — plus the litblogosphere’s current least favourite man, John Sutherland, although the worst I can say about his contributions is that I bridled slightly when he lauded J.G. Ballard’s “extraordinary imagination” in a way that implied he felt writers like John Wyndham weren’t imaginative because they told their stories in a plausible manner — and the range of texts discussed makes up, at least a bit, for some of the deficiencies of the earlier installments.

Which means that the third and final part of The Martians and Us is probably the best. And that’s not only because, having told a story about evolution that ended in 1968 and a story about dystopia that ended in 1986, this episode ends up in the present, although that’s a factor. It’s also because the episode gives a much greater sense of science fiction as a living genre, even if at times it seems to be a living genre composed of grumpy old men. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Part of it is the nature of the subject matter, since a greater proportion of the works discussed were written in living memory, and since tales of catastrophe have gained a level of popular traction that transcendental and ‘topian science fiction can’t quite match. Even leaving aside disaster movies — since, as Kim Newman rightly points out, those are mostly an American tradition, and British doomsday sf is more interested in the day after the day after tomorrow — something like The Day of the Triffids is, or was, a mass-market book in a way that I’m not sure is true of The Time Machine or Nineteen Eighty-Four. And there’s no parody of their tropes quite as deft as The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s parody of the end of the world.

But equally, this episode somehow gives the impression of a sense of dialogue, of community, in a way that the earlier ones somehow just didn’t. There’s Brian Aldiss, defending his use of the term “cosy catastrophe” to describe John Wyndham’s work; there’s Christopher Priest, arguing that maybe it’s useful to think of Wyndham as a satirist; there’s Roger Luckhurst, suggesting that what Aldiss has missed is the sense of social exploration in Wyndham, a commitment to a quite ruthless social Darwinism. Or there’s Chris Priest again, this time talking about how a cover for New Worlds — “What is the exact nature of the catastrophe?”, which we are told was part of the genre discussion of Ballard’s The Drowned World — and talking about how it fed into Fugue for a Darkening Island (which of all Priest’s novels that I haven’t read is possibly the one I most want to get around to reading). Or there’s the discussion of 28 Days Later — according to Newman, the most important British sf film of the last ten years, and I can’t immediately think of an example to counter him with — and its obvious debt to Wyndham.

If science fiction in the first two episodes felt a bit like a told story, this time around it feels more like the telling is still going on — although, somewhat ironically, part of the episode’s argument is that the catastrophe novel as a subgenre of sf has had its day. The episode proposes a clear (according to John Sutherland, at any rate, and I have no particular reason to distrust him on this one) starting point for the subgenre, The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel, and links it and most of the examples discussed later on to their social context, whether they were written at the pinnacle of Empire (Shiel), or between the wars (Sydney Foster Wright, Deluge), or at the disintegration of the postwar consensus (Priest), and so on. The world ends in a satisfying variety of ways, although perhaps surprisingly, only once by nuclear apocalypse, and that — Threads — was from tv. Various commentators nod knowledgeably about the reasons for the popularity of catastrophe stories, from the dramatic power of “if this goes on” to the practicality of thinking out worst-case scenarios.

And then we get to the end, and the narrator asks whether the time of the catastrophe story is past. In the closing minutes, it feels like almost all the contributors leap at the chance to say that it is, and explain why that might be so — the real world is being far too efficient at giving us catastrophes that are already happening (Priest); the media are making sure we know about them in detail, there’s no room for fiction (Lessing); we’re not going to be able to stop the catastrophe from happening (Sutherland). You sense that Kim Stanley Robinson might want to have words on that last point, although strictly speaking his Science in the Capitol trilogy is more about mitigation and adaptation, and you might also point to Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead or (a bit more tenuously) Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as recent catastrophe novels — except that all three writers are American, and two of them are very definitely not genre sf writers. In Britain, for whatever reason (and if we discount books like, say, Accelerando, where the end of the world is an incidental background blip), the only recent example I can think of is The Snow by Adam Roberts, and in the end that’s arguably not a catastrophe novel of the sort the programme talks about anyway.

So the episode doesn’t even try to get into specifics, but it might have a point. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, given the overall pretty high quality of the series. I tuned in to the Parallel Worlds documentary the other day, and it wasn’t nearly on the same level; despite many of the same talking heads, the discussion was much more lightweight, much less contextualised. The Martians and Us has looked in detail at three major stands of British sf, integrated discussion of film, tv and other non-book media smoothly where appropriate, and had intelligent and interesting people commenting on it all, and is generally a pretty impressive accomplishment. My caveat is only that the more I think about it, the more I think it could really have done with one more episode. For a theme, I think colonialism and postcolonialism, touched on this episode and the first episode but not really explored in either, could have legs, and it would do the two things I was really waiting for the series to do — bring the story more current, and point out that people other than grumpy old men have been writing sf too. You can see why, given the argument the series has been presenting, they haven’t mentioned Mary Shelley, but it would have been nice to see mentions of, say, Josephine Saxton or Naomi Mitchison, or discussions of Doris Lessing’s actual books, or latterly discussion of a writer like Gwyneth Jones. (Come to think of it, she should have been a talking head, too.) The stumbling block, I would guess, is that there isn’t a big-name author or text to hang that theme on, in the way that Wells, Orwell and Wyndham provided hangers for the episodes they did make (unless, perhaps, they went back to Wells for a different angle on The War of the Worlds); but by this point, I think most people would trust the series to tell them an interesting story anyway.

Posted in SF, TV. 18 Comments »

Storying Lives

Vector 249 is officially Out In The Wild, so here’s the table of contents. It is, I feel comfortable saying, a good ‘un.

Torque Control — editorial
Framing the UnframeableGary K. Wolfe on storying lives in sf and fantasy
Writing Without a FilterElizabeth Hand interviewed by Graham Sleight
Journey into Space — A trip down memory lane by Steve Cockayne
The Modern Storytellers — Jon Ingold on Interactive Fiction
Good Cop/Bad Cop — Alison Page on Life on Mars
Archipelago: Founded on the ShamblesPaul Kincaid on Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”
First Impressions — Book reviews edited by Paul N. Billinger
Particles — Books received by Paul N. Billinger
The New X: Storying Genres — a column by Graham Sleight

A few announcements.

First, as noted in the editorial, and here a little while ago, this is Geneva’s last issue as co-editor. The last five issues of Vector — and especially the international issue — wouldn’t have been what they’ve been without Geneva, so this is a public thank you: thank you. (I’ll be staying on solo for the forseeable future because I’m a sucker.)

Secondly, it’s not Tony Cullen’s last issue as production editor, but he’ll be stepping down soon because he’s already stepped up to take over as Chair of the BSFA. And I have no doubt he’ll do a fine job, but it does mean I’ll be needing someone to do layout work on Vector. Please drop me a line if you might be interested.

Thirdly, as Peter expands on here, we’d like to make sure that all BSFA members receive their mailing this time around. So, if you’ve received yours — or, if by the start of next week you haven’t received it — please email Peter Wilkinson, the membership secretary, to let him know.

In The Grim Darkness Of The Far Future …

One of the things I’ve been wanting to do ever since the Vector website went up is to start reprinting content from the 45+ years of back issues. In fact, I had my eye on one essay in particular, from Vector 229, which is now online:

Freedom in an Owned World: Warhammer fiction and the Interzone Generation
By Stephen Baxter

‘”Curse all manling coach drivers and all manling women,” muttered Gotrek Gurnisson, adding a curse in Dwarvish …’

That’s the first line of ‘Geheimnisnacht’ by William King, the first story in the first book of Warhammer fiction, the anthology Ignorant Armies, published in 1989. Since that beginning there has been published a whole string of books, magazines and comics, set in the universes of the highly successful war games and role-playing games marketed by Games Workshop (GW).

Partly because of the involvement of Interzone editor David Pringle, who was editor of the GW line from 1988 to 1991, over the years several prominent British writers of sf and fantasy have contributed to the various series, many from what used to be known as the ‘Interzone generation’. My own involvement was modest, two short stories published in 1989 and 1990; there have been much more significant contributions from David Garnett, Kim Newman, Brian Stableford, Ian Watson and others. Today GW publishes new and reprinted fiction — great mountains of it, in fact — under its ‘Black Library’ imprint. But over the years GW fiction itself has been the subject of a saga of gamers and business suits, of orthodoxies and heresies, of Stakhanovites and rebels, of collapses and recoveries, of intriguing lost possibilities, and of struggles for literary freedom in an ‘owned universe’.

Go read it. It’s very long — over 10,000 words — but it is, I think, my favourite of the articles that have been published in Vector in the time I’ve been reading it. Oddly enough, what prompted me to get around to putting it online was Abigail’s excellent post on Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”, in which she quite rightly talks about how central the depiction of fannish behaviour is to understanding the story:

… there’s nothing that’s not familiar about the all-consuming devotion with which Jeremy and his friends incorporate The Library into their everyday lives. They watch — and re-watch — the episodes together, as a communal experience, discuss and analyze the events of each episode, and dress up as their favorite characters. I don’t imagine there are many people reading this post who can’t sympathize, or offer an example of similar behavior. For me, it was The X-Files, but I imagine there are people my age who might offer up Babylon 5 as their first fannish love, and folks a bit older who first geeked out over Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whatever television show it was that once captured your heart to the extent that it became part of your life, “Magic for Beginners” will read, in some ways, like excerpts from your own adolescence.

I have previously said that Angel fandom, and specifically the corner of it found in, was my first fandom. That’s not quite accurate; what it was, was my first fandom that endured, the first fandom in which I formed friendships that are still going strong. That didn’t happen for me with The X-Files, or Babylon 5, or any other earlier TV show — it’s hard to be genuinely fannish about something when you don’t have the internet, and don’t know anyone else who watches it in the way you do. But before all of them, my first actual fandom was Games Workshop and their tabletop fantasy wargames.

So for me, reading Baxter’s essay is not-unlike a trip down memory lane. Except it’s a slightly odd trip, because my involvement with GW coincides quite neatly with the period in which they weren’t putting out fiction. I got into the hobby — or, if you prefer, the cult — sometime in 1993, and got out of it, finally, in 1999. Baxter’s essay spends most time on the period between 1987, when GW fiction was started, and 1995, when Ian Watson’s Chaos Child was the last GW title to be published. By that time I was deep into the hobby, and I remember that, and it was an event, Speaking of the later reissuing of his books, Watson says they added “fictional prefaces denouncing the books, my suggestion, as tissues of heresy and lies, the ideal solution …” but I remember Chaos Child being presented as heretical even at the time of publication. GW stores didn’t stock it; the staff (GW stores having a deliberate “hobby” ethos, the staff and regular customers often got to know each other quite well) would tell teasing tales of how brilliant the first two volumes in the trilogy, now unavailable, were; there were excited rumours that a copy had been sighted in the WH Smith’s round the corner; and so on. I did eventually get my hands on copies of all three of Watson’s books — I think I still have them — and I remember them as being exactly the sort of dark and twisted thing I wanted from 40K fiction.

And then, a couple of years later, I was there for the launch of the short fiction magazine Inferno!, and the subsequent launch of the full Black Library imprint. By that point, or about that time, I was actually working for the Evil Empire myself. I was incredibly picky about getting a part-time job as a teenager — having set my heart on working for GW, nothing else would do — and for some reason my parents let me get away with it. To be fair, it may have been pragmatism on their part, since if I hadn’t been working there and enjoying the staff discount (miniatures at lead weight!) I suspect they’d have gone bankrupt trying to feed my habit. But I got the job, and it was quite an experience — on the one hand, a lot of fun, on the other, a steep learning curve about exactly how corporate GW really was, and how much the hobbyism was a veneer.

Of course, it was still incredibly addictive. I had armies, plural, for all the major games (If you’re wondering, Wood Elves, Chaos Dwarves and Dwarves — now all overpowered runic weapons to the end! — in Warhammer, and Dark Angels, Tyranids and Eldar — now all ludicrously powerful everything to the end! — in 40K; I’m not going to list everything, at least not unless prompted in the comments); was there every games night, Thursdays ’till 8, even when I wasn’t working; spent god knows how many hours painting the miniatures; and went to the exercise in controlled mass hysteria that was Games Day every autumn. Did I care that the universes in which the games were set were thinly-disguised ripoffs of, well, everything else? No, not a bit — although in my defence, I was never as far gone as this guy. Games Workshop is even responsible for my first and only foray into fanfic — if memory serves, I wrote about a young girl from a farm planet who stowed away on a ship to Earth but got captured by an Arbitrator.

What got me out of it, in the end, was going to university. I tried to carry on the job part-time, but quickly realised that wasn’t going to work; I went along to the local gaming club for a while, but never really got to know the people there as well as I’d known the regulars at my home store, not least because I had so much less time to devote to the hobby. I think there was probably a short period during which my GW addiction was tailing off, and my Angel fandom was just starting up, but I don’t think I could say for sure. And while it is my Angel fandom experiences that resonate most strongly when I read “Magic for Beginners”, there are certainly elements of the story — the camaraderie, the anticipation of new releases — that carry back into GW fandom as well.

As for Baxter’s essay, well, having now got into general sf fandom in the way that I have, reading an essay that explains that some of the prehistory of my first fandom is intertwined with what I think of as the modern start of my current fandom (British Boom and all that; I suspect I found Baxter’s Raft at around the same time that I was reading Ian Watson’s Inquisitor novels) inevitably also has enormous resonance. But I think the essay is well worth reading even if you don’t have my personal experience. The list of recognisable names who wrote for GW can be quite startling if you’re not expecting it — Charles Stross, Kim Newman, Nicola Griffith, and Brian Stableford, for starters, with David Pringle editing the initial list — and Baxter does an excellent and entertaining job of filling in the context, as well as investigating the conflicting issues that surround writing franchise fiction. Which, let’s face it, haven’t gone away.

Another thing that hasn’t quite gone away is my desire to play the games. Like a junkie jonesing for a hit, I still sometimes get the urge to break out my armies from their foam-packed stasis and head down to the local store, though I suspect the rules have changed (yet again) since my day, and really (much like World of Warcraft) I know that if I let it gain a foothold, it would swallow my life whole. And then, in the back of my mind, as a compromise measure, I get this crazy notion of contacting the Black Library to ask for some review copies …

Link to the Evidence

And a brief admin note: the latest BSFA mailing (Vector 249 and Matrix 181) should be on its way to members this coming week. Given what happened with the last mailing, though, we don’t want to take anything for granted, so would appreciate confirmations that it’s shown up from as many people as possible, and in particular from people who didn’t receive V248/M180. As usual, when I get my copy I’ll put the TOC for Vector up here.

(Oh, and I’m going to be out tomorrow evening, so I won’t see the last part of The Martians and Us until the repeat on Wednesday. Expect a discussion on Thursday, though.)

London Meeting: Jo Fletcher

The guest at tonight’s BSFA meeting (the last of the year!) is Jo Fletcher, who has done many things but is currently editorial director of Gollancz. She will be interviewed by Claire Weaver.

As usual, the meeting is free to any and all who might be interested, and will be held in the upstairs room of the Star Tavern in Belgravia (there’s a map here). Gather from 5.30 or so, interview starts at 7.00. Pass it on.

Trouble In Paradise

It’s not a Radio Times recommended programme this week, but the second installment of The Martians and Us is as well put together as the first, albeit a bit more obvious in its limitations. There may be an element of personal prejudice here: the theme this time around is utopias and dystopias, which I have to admit is not my specialist subject, or even one of particular interest to me. Much as I love Brave New World (and I do love it dearly), there’s something in most ‘topian fiction that stops me from being hooked. Perhaps it’s the sense of streamlining, of paring down the actual complexity of the world a bit too fa while sidestepping whatever catastrophe or other events led there — although, ironically, “Trouble in Paradise” builds a not-unbelievable case for ‘topian fiction as much more grounded in the real than most sf, presenting it as perhaps the most pure, naked expression of the central dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century that we have.

There are some differences to the first episode. This one spends noticeably more time focused on writers; which is not to say that the works get short shrift, but just to point out that the makers take pains to describe the personal and social contexts from which these works sprang in a way that they didn’t last week. Another change of emphasis can be seen in the selection of talking heads: alongside returning favourites such as Kim Newman, Nigel Kneale, and Brian Stableford, this week saw soundbites from John Carey, Will Self, Iain Banks, Ken Macleod, Margaret Atwood (!), Bernard Crick and Nicholas Murray. This is not a list that in any way effaces genre sf, but it doesn’t half give a lot of weight to more mainstream voices, with the inevitable undertones of “pay attention, this is the respectable bit!” that that engenders. And the presence of Crick (biographer of Orwell) and Murray (biographer of Huxley) hints at the weight that’s going to be placed on their two works — which is, of course, not surprising, but I’m not sure it’s the most interesting way to frame the argument the programme wanted to make, and it seems to thin out the story of British ‘topian fiction in much the same way such fiction seems to me to thin out the world. In this episode, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the poles around which all else revolves.

Other texts do get a look-in. After a brief primer on Thomas More and Francis Bacon, and a link to the evolutionary/progressive argument for the development of sf aired in last week’s episode (“Darwin had rewritten the past […] writers believed they could predict the future”), we move on to Wells’ A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come (I don’t know exactly how accurate the description of Wells’ view of eugenics is; it certainly seemed a bit more extreme than other accounts I’ve heard), before arriving at the Two Big Books. We stay there for most of the rest of the episode, with brief (and again, admirably catholic) sidebars on Swastika Night (which I must read), The Year of the Sex Olympics (which I must see), A Clockwork Orange (which I didn’t really get on with), 1985 (which I have no real interest in reading), Judge Dredd (which I haven’t read much of), Doctor Who (which in the 1970s “came as close as anyone has to mass-producing dystopias”, says Kim Newman), Brazil (which is truly wonderful, isn’t it?) and, closest to the present, The Handmaid’s Tale (on what grounds, it’s not entirely clear).

But it’s Brave New World and Nineteen Eight-Four that occupy the lion’s share of the time. The points made range from the slightly fatuous, such as Peter Carey’s assertion that love is a threat in dystopian fiction because if you love someone else, you can’t love the state, which may be true in some books but doesn’t seem to me a very accurate reflection of the complexities of human emotions, to the more insightful, such as the discussions of the aversion to mass culture embedded, in different ways, in both Orwell and Huxley’s books. (Although there is discussion, inevitably, of reality tv, there’s no specific reference to Big Brother — except, cheekily, in the closing eye that marks the scene transitions.) I don’t want to downplay the importance of either novel, since if nothing else the way Orwell and Huxley react to each others’ texts is fascinating. Orwell said that Brave New World had “no relation to the actual future”, and went off and wrote Nineteen Eight-Four; much later Huxley read it, and wrote Orwell a patronising letter saying that that’s all very well, but it’s not how the future is really going to turn out. It was somewhat surprising to me to see how committed to their futures both writers seemed to be, how real their disagreement of vision was. They may not have intended them as straight-down-the-line prediction, but they certainly appears that they intended them as something more than just an argument about possibility, more than just another cautionary tale.

But in a couple of ways, I think the programme simplifies too much. Following through on the point about prediction, Margaret Atwood’s remarks near the end are telling: “For a while it looked like it was going to be Nineteen Eighty-Four,” she says (I paraphrase), “then the wall came down and we all thought it was going to be sex and shopping, and now the pendulum is swinging the other way, and Big Brother is watching over us more and more.” It’s not particularly helpful or particularly accurate to see history in this sort of binary light, I think. And in terms of a discussion of British ‘topian sf, it’s ludicrous to not even mention the Culture in passing — until you realise that the episode isn’t actually making an argument about British ‘topian sf in particular, it’s making an argument about the affect of British sf in general, one built around class and fear — not an invalid argument but one that in this iteration is very selective about its examples. There’s an interesting moment, in the middle of the narrator’s description of how dark and nasty British futures are, when Iain Banks says something along the lines of “Of course, while American sf was all gung-ho and can-do, British sf was very dour and maybe a bit dreary.” I didn’t get the quote down, so the adjectives are almost certainly wrong, but the thing I want to point out is that he was making a past-tense remark, and the programme took it as present-tense. It’s not just the Culture, in other words; all the British sf that (I suspect) most people are reading this are most familiar with, the stuff from the 90s and onwards that is so frequently expansive and extravagant, might as well not exist at all.

Posted in SF, TV. 9 Comments »

Link Me At Infinity