I’ve posted my additional thoughts about “Divining Light“; thanks to everyone else who read the story and commented. Hopefully discussion will continue …

What’s interesting to me about Clute’s review of Half a Crown, and the reason it has made sure what was already pretty likely beforehand, that I will read the Small Change trilogy, is that it seems to me to contain or imply an interesting set of ideas about what dystopian fiction is and does, and how it works. For starters, there’s the implied question of whether you can write a dystopia with a happy, or even relatively happy, ending. A friend of mine observed recently (in a separate discussion) that there’s a reason most dystopias end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, forever; it’s because dystopias are almost always intended to warn in some way, and if they end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, for a while, the force of that warning inevitably gets dissipated in some way. Is that the case? How might a story get around it? What might be gained that might compensate for that lack of force, if it does occur? There are also the arguments Clute advances about formula and technique. It’s Clute’s argument (as I read it) that, however effective the narrow perspective is in the first two books, by the time you get to the third book it starts to look like avoidance. This seems plausible; it also seems like something that might vary from reader to reader. (Indeed, based on the fact that Clute’s is the only reaction to Small Change even remotely this negative, it seems that it certainly dose vary from reader to reader.) Why? Similarly, Clute argues that Small Change’s adherence to a formal structure makes its ending — however historically grounded it may be — unconvincing as fiction because it makes the fall of a fascist government look like “a plot twist”; in other words, makes it look in some sense unearned, or trivial, which retroactively diminishes the achievement of the trilogy. This may just be a potential pitfall of fiction that wishes to adhere to a formula, even in homage; or it may be something that particularly afflicts dystopian fiction. I find it more interesting to think about, at any rate, than Benjamin Kunkel’s article about dystopianism. (See also.)

I’m still rather enjoying Isvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. I mentioned the “novum” chapter in this post; the book as a whole is built around discussion of a number of “attractors” that Csicsery-Ronay Jr has identified as characteristic elements of sf, and contains a version of the argument that we are living in inherently science-fictional times that’s a bit more grounded than most I’ve read. Had I been a bit more patient, however, I could have used more of the book with reference to my discussion of Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, namely some of the comments made in the discussion on “Future History”. Csicsery-Ronay Jr (yes, I have to check myself every single time I write that name, why do you ask?) is particularly attached to sf as a venue for various kinds of play; so although he identifies several kinds of future history common to sf, including utopian/revolutionary (change brought about by conscious action on the part of humanity) and evolutionary (change brought about as a result of unconscious, adaptive forces), his clear favourite is what he terms “dispersive” histories, in which change is essentially random, or (and this is what made it seem relevant to Blonde Roots) somehow walled off from the real we know.

It is sometimes said that any prophesied future that does not come to pass becomes a divergent reality. […] The more of these a public is exposed to, the less naive they become about projections, and the more comfortable with alternate histories that lack causal connections with the familiar present. Quantity turns to quality: so many predictions have been made, so many fictive prophecies have become uchronias and “fantastic philosophy”, that they rival the number of sincere predictions. Reading sf now incorporates the discounting process of already viewing it as an alternative timeline or retrofuture.
By disrupting the temporal logic of continuity with the present, alternative histories appear to renounce the ethical seriousness of the revolutionary and evolutionary paradigms. If there is no connection, how can there be responsibility? On the surface, such dispersed worlds lack even the minimal gravity of other kinds of uture history. It makes sense to view this scattering as an example of the flattening of historical consciousness that Jameson considers a defining quality of postmodernism. The sense of the continuity of unidirectional time lived toward death and succeeding generations, which links the experience of individual life with collective history, is replaced by an infinite array. […] The abstract dispersal of realities frees them not only from the burden of an inexorable past, but from the resistance of nature and embodiment altogether. (97-8)

That last sentence, in particular, seems a good way of summing up what I think Evaristo was aiming for — freedom from the burden of an inexorable past — without losing the ability to comment on that past, and on our present.

I’m not happy about this change to the David Gemmell Legend Award rules [pdf]:

After receiving lots of feedback from fans, readers and industry alike, we at the
DGLA have – after much deliberation – come to the decision to make the David
Gemmell Legend Award completely publicly voted.

This means that once the Longlist closes, the top 5 novels will be put forward to the
Shortlist Poll and YOU will be able to have the final say about who should win, by
voting once more on the shortlist! Readers and fans will be involved at every step to
produce our winner.

What was interesting about the Award, to me, was precisely that the final stage was juried; I was looking forward to seeing how the judges evaluated the award’s criteria. While popular vote awards certainly have their place, I can’t muster the enthusiasm for another one right now.


6 thoughts on “Miscellany

  1. I think that looking at Small Change as a dystopia is getting the series completely wrong.

    The narrowness of the field of interest (based upon the fixed identity and class origins of the books’ narrators) means that Small Change has never really been interested in the nuts and bolts of society. Dystopias are primarily about their societies and so a dystopia requires a large commitment to an admittedly speculative form of social realism. Small Change has never been about the details of its society; issues such as means of control, public opinion and power are dealt with only in the most fleeting of manners. Usually through the means of a down-to-Earth Bobby who pops up and infodumps.

    The roots of the first book are in the Loamshire murder mystery. Those works (such as The Mousetrap) are utterly uninterested in any kind of political or social reality. This is, I think, why the first book worked so well. The details of the world were never really flushed out because the narrator was a bit dim… she was exactly the kind to lope in through the french windows and say “anyone for Tennis?”. The slow politicisation of a member of the Loamshire upper classes was a fitting deconstruction of the book’s source material.

    As a result, I think that any criticisms of the books that start from the demands of the dystopia as a form are doomed to miss the point entirely.

    I have not read the third in the series but if Clute is right and the fall of a Fascist government is presented as a plot twist then that strikes me as entirely fitting. After all, from the perspective of the main character in book one, the RISE of that government was merely a plot twist; a thoroughly beastly murder and a load of boring old politics with Mummy being ghastly to everyone.

    If I had to complain about Small Change 3 it’s that it exists at all. Farthing was a short and perfectly formed book and its sequel added nothing of substance to it and I can’t think why yet another book would be required. I suspect that issues with the structure of Small Change are due largely to the fact that it should never have been a series in the first place.

  2. Jonathan, believe it or not I’ve been looking for exactly that sort of response to the review since it was published. Would you consider posting a comment along the same lines over at SH? I’d be interested to hear Clute’s response.

  3. Well, I have only just finished “Farthing” with appended excerpt from “Ha’Penny”. So, I only went through about a half of Clute’s review.
    But I can say this: it does have many factual mistakes and I completely disagree with him re: realism or lack thereof of characterization and obliviousness of the protagonists.

    I have to mention here that I am originally from Russia and that my great-grandfather was a mid-level Bolshevik, who miraculously escaped the purges.
    My grandmother, while not nearly as vapid and sheltered as Walton’s POVs, still firmly believed until the Perestroika revelations, that everything was fine and dandy in the good old USSR until the year 1934 or so, that Lenin had the right ideas, if only Stalin didn’t pervert the execution (he-he) thereof, etc.

    Note, that she was pretty much anti-Stalinist when the repressions started and anti-Brezhnev later, with dissident leanings.
    Still, she did have that blinkered view on the Revolution, the roles of her father and his comrades, etc.
    Numerous autobiographies, novels and memoirs that came out later showed that such state was rather endemic even among the more educated and skeptical.

    And there were many, many people, whose views were far more blinkered still. I mean, lots of political prisoners in the camps thought that everybody else but them deserved to be there.

    So, psychological reactions of the characters, the “avoidance”, everything that irritates Clute, feels poignantly realistic to me.

    Ditto his reaction to David – Clute sees him as “saintly”, whereas I recognize the typical reaction of a successful, integrated Jew to an abrupt change from official tolerance to state-sponsored anti-semitic persecutions.
    I mean, I know for a fact that my grandfather reacted in a similar way to the start of “Cosmopolitism” persecutions and it very nearly ended badly for him.

    Now, one could argue perhaps that British are completely different and that a long-established democracy couldn’t be subverted like that.
    I don’t know enough, so I can’t comment on that. And in fact, there just aren’t enough examples to make any valid determination. All we can say that it didn’t happen so far, thank the stars.
    It is true that nearly all of fascist states grew out of the very young, unstable democracies and that Vichy France existed under duress (but then, Britain in this time-line would be under similar, though lighter duress).

    As far as I know and understand both Churchill and Roosvelt carried their point with some effort and it was a relatively close thing in both cases.
    From my amateur history readings it seems that in right circumstances, personalities can and do tip the balance. Make Roosvelt’s health worse then IRL and maybe he wouldn’t have had the energy to prevail. Kill Churchill and who knows where Britain would have stood in WW2?

    All I can say that for me “Farthing” felt powerful and compelling and in general I think that showing the horror of society sliding into oppressive regime from the very limited POVs is a great tool.
    I never felt that dystopia per se was the point, but the mechanisms of psychological acceptance of oppression.

  4. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge can be viewed as either utopian, or my preferred interpretation, dystopian with an analysis of how that dystopia might become utopian. It has a happy ending either way.

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