RM: What if looking for some transcendental level to the narrative is in fact like going to see a production of King Lear and hoping that Gloucester won’t get blinded and Cordelia will be saved?
DH: Let’s ignore that the best productions of Lear achieve precisely that reaction in the audience! I’m more interested (for now! :P ) in why you imagine that anything that is not an out-and-out thriller will necessarily require a pretence that violence can’t be exciting? Because you’re right that thrillers achieve that effect very well (Black Man nails that side of itself, and I’d recommend it on that level to anyone) … but I’m less convinced that only pure thrillers can.
You were right earlier that ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction too rarely speak to each other. But what is the point of dialogue if, as you seem to be suggesting, to achieve a particular effect a book does indeed have to be one thing or t’other? To achieve an effect we use techniques, not forms; we need to understand those techniques and their contexts, for sure. But do we need to leave them where we found them to make them work, or can we create a new space for them, and even ally them with techniques from somewhere else?
RM: Hmm – let’s not [ignore the point about Lear], though. Because what makes Lear such a devastatingly powerful piece of drama is exactly the dynamic you describe, the fact that however much we long for those consolations from the play, we ain’t getting them! It’s the epitome of brilliant tragedy – Shakespeare basically gives you nowhere to hide. Similarly (ahem, not wishing to compare myself in canonical terms here, y’understand) Black Man is supposed to deny the reader the consolation of believing (or at least of being confident) that Marsalis is wrong and the human condition is susceptible to an altogether more reasonable and “truer” reading, with civilisation and peace for all at the end of it. Hopefully, that has a similarly tragic effect.
I mentioned in the link post earlier this week that Adam Roberts and Alastair Reynolds had been on Today talking about space opera, and that you should listen soon because the link would expire. Turns out I was wrong about that: I’d thought it would be on the same 7-day Listen Again cycle as most of the Beeb’s output, but Today seems to have archives going back to 2003, which is rather good of them.
However! Enterprising and generous Torque Control reader Jessica Eastwood very kindly emailed me a transcript of the interview anyway; and since I think transcripts are A Good Thing anyway, for ease of reference, speed of consumption and so forth (not to mention that it would be just plain churlish not to use it), here it is.
Space Opera — Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts
Monday 29 June 2009 08.50
Evan Davis (presenter): Now, it’s a genre you may never have heard of: space opera. No singing, it’s derived from soap opera, it’s a sub-genre of science fiction, and it’s making a renaissance. To explain more, we’re joined now by a writer of it and a fan of it: Alastair Reynolds is an author who’s just signed a £1 million book deal for a 10-part space opera, and Adam Roberts is professor of English literature at Royal Holloway College. Good morning to you both. Alastair Reynolds, can you tell us what space opera is, for those who aren’t so familiar with it?
Alastair Reynolds: Well, space opera is basically science fiction with all the stops pulled out. It’s the kind of science fiction we think of when we think of films like Star Wars and Star Trek. We’re talking about action in the deep future; we’re out into the galaxy, we’re dealing with huge, epic scales, different civilisations, that kind of thing, you know, it’s not near future, it’s not dystopian.
ED: OK. And what’s your 10-parter going to be about?
Reynolds: Well it’s going to be lots of different books, it’s not sort of 10…
ED: They’ll be linked, won’t they, in some way they’ll be…?
Reynolds: Some of them will be linked. I’ve been writing a number of different books set in the same universe, which is a sort of projection of where we’ll be in about 500 years in terms of going out into the galaxy and finding out what’s out there, and I’ll be doing a little bit more in that universe.
ED: And my guess would be, having seen a bit of Star Trek and a little bit of Star Wars, that although it’s set in the deep future and in… a long way from planet Earth that very earthly themes and morality comes to play.
Reynolds: Yeah, ultimately it has to be about human beings or no-one’s going to read it. You want people you can relate to, characters you can focus on and empathise with, and indeed we get into, if you like, realistic political and social themes within science fiction – even though you’re dealing with massive spaceships and killer weapons, at the same time you can also make pertinent points about real world politics.
ED: About the here and now. Well Adam Roberts, from Royal Holloway College, what do you like about it?
Adam Roberts: Well what I like is that it’s… it’s this sense of wonder, it’s the transcendent possibilities, it’s the most imaginative form of literature that there is, and that’s true across the board of science fiction, but it’s something that’s on a much larger scale with space opera. I mean, space opera used to be a fairly disreputable sort of literature, it used to be very pulpy and rubbishy and stupid adventures and lantern-jawed space jockeys and green, bug-eyed monsters, but the new space opera, the kind of thing that Al writes, is much more interesting on… in literary terms but also kind of aesthetically; it’s about comprehending just how vast and enormous the universe we live in is.
ED: Well what’s the advantage, if you want to take an issue, I don’t know, like the world post-9/11, what’s the advantage of setting a piece of fiction around that in the middle of the universe thousands of years hence? Why’s it somehow better to do that than just having a novel about life here and now?
Roberts: The short answer is that science fiction is a metaphorical genre, so it’s about metaphors that articulate key, important questions, which is exactly what we’re talking about, and it turns out that it’s better to address these things metaphorically than it is to try and reproduce them in a literal way, that metaphors are more eloquent, they are better at touching what really matters to us about 9/11. If you get actual novels set … at that time and in that city, it gets bogged down in the specifics and the minutiae, whereas science fiction enables imaginative freedom to really get to the heart of the issue.
ED: To strip all the irrelevant details out and to see it for what it is. Alastair Reynolds, how much role does science play in what you write? How important is the science? Do you have to understand the laws of physics, for example?
Reynolds: Well I came from a science background so I… it’s always going to be there in my fiction, but it’s important to realise that there are many very, very good science fiction writers writing very… you know, very good works that are not coming from a science background. I think it’s a question of taste, really. I like to get the science as right as I can without constraining the story too much. So it’s, you know, things like, do we have faster-than-light travel or not? Physics says it’s probably going to be impossible, but then you get into other areas where you’re sort of playing around with, if you like, the limits of knowledge of science, and that’s where you can have a lot of fun because you’re sort of keying off from very, very out-there extrapolations in the very limits of what we know.
ED: And there’s money to be made in it, is there, Mr Reynolds?
Reynolds: Well, there seems to be! Yeah, we’re fortunate, I think, in Britain that science fiction is indeed enjoying something of a renaissance and this is something that’s been, I think, building slowly for 10 or 20 years. I mean, when Iain Banks emerged as a science fiction writer this was a sign that it was something you could do – you could take it seriously and yet still have a lot of fun.
ED: And Adam Roberts, the British are quite good at it, actually, aren’t they? Is that right?
Roberts: It’s… we do seem to be leading the charge at the moment, and particularly with this sort of writing, the sort of books that Al is writing, these grand, majestic space operas, the kind of universal themes; writers like Steve Baxter or Paul McAuley or Al himself or Justina Robson, they really are… I mean, speaking as a professor of literature at the University of London, these are some of the best writers around today working in this genre.
ED: I should pick up a few of these and read them. Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, thank you both.
I’ve really got to get back into the habit of doing these things more regularly. Still:
- Chris Beckett has won the Edge Hill short story prize, beating collections by Anne Enright, Shena Mackay, Ali Smith and Gerard Donovan. Quoth the judges: “I suspect Chris Beckett winning the Edge Hill Prize will be seen as a surprise in the world of books. In fact, though, it was also a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand.”
- In further award news, Graham Joyce is one of this year’s O Henry Award winners, and picked as a favourite by jurors AS Byatt and Tim O’Brien. There’s an extract from his story, “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen”, here.
- Adam Roberts on structuralist criticism of science fiction and fantasy, and the problems with it. As it happens I just finished Beginning Theory. I suspect I may be closer to being some kind of structuralist narrativist ecocritic than anything else, though I get the impression that may be an unfashionable place to be …
- Paul Kincaid’s talk from the BSFA/SFF AGM last weekend: “Against a Definition of Science Fiction“
- Matthew Davis on “The Adventures of Little Martin in Tomorrowland“, or, Martin Amis’ sf criticism
- Graham Sleight’s novels of the year (halftime report). Of the books he’s read, I agree about Marcher and Journey Into Space; as previously explored, I’m less convinced by The City & The City. Of the books he hasn’t read I can echo the praise for Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters, and am going to try to write it up in full sooner rather than later. And of the forthcoming books, I am most impatient for Galileo’s Dream. (I’d also add that from a purely UK perspective, Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia is also bound to be one of the books of the year.)
- The top twenty vote-getters for the Gemmell Award. There’s more variation than perhaps anticipated, though I’m perplexed by the person who comments that “the even better part is that I already have most of these on my wishlist (or have them already)!” Personally speaking I like it when awards tell me about good books I don’t already know about.
- Matt Cairnduff on Fritz Leiber’s Swords and Deviltry
- Jeffrey Ford on Philippine Speculative Fiction IV see also the SF Signal Mind Meld on international sf/f, part one and part two
- An interview with the editorial staff of Angry Robot. It probably wasn’t meant to strike fear into my heart…
- And a whole round-table of sf book editors interviewed at Clarkesworld
- Lots of interesting posts at The Mumpsimus recently: on ‘mimetic fiction’; on Up The Walls of the World by James Tiptree Jr; and outtakes from an introduction to The Jewel-Hinged Jaw
- A festschrift for Ursula K Le Guin is planned and seeking contributions
- Everyone’s heard about Alastair Reynolds’ £1million deal, I’m sure; but just in case, here’s an interview in The Guardian, and a discussion featuring Reynolds and Adam Roberts on Today. (The latter link will expire in a couple of days, so listen soon.) See also Reynolds’ blog post on the topic.
- SF Storyworlds: “Edited by Paul March-Russell, this new and exciting book series aims to explore the evolution of Science Fiction (SF) and its impact upon contemporary culture. The series will argue that SF has generated a series of storyworlds: first, in terms of SF’s own internal landscape – the extent to which SF has grown self-referentially – and second, in terms of SF’s external effect – the extent to which SF storyworlds have influenced the vocabulary of political, social and cultural discourse.” Series editor Paul March-Russell; editorial board Andrew M Butler, Rob Latham, Farah Mendlesohn, Helen Merrick, Adam Roberts, Sherryl Vint, and Patricia A Wheeler
- Further discussion of The City & The City: Martin McGrath, Matt Cheney and David Hebblethwaite
- Dan Hartland and Abigail Nussbaum on The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters; see also Scarlett Thomas’ review
- The new IROSF has Gary Westfahl on J. G. Ballard and ‘The Vanished Age of Space’, Nader Elhefnaway on steampunk, Mark Tiedemann on Kay Kenyon’s City Without End, and my own review of Far North by Marcel Theroux, in which I agree with Dan Hartland and therefore not with M John Harrison
- Karen Burnham wants comments and suggestions on some planned research: “Here’s the idea: I feed a whole bunch of science fiction short stories into a pattern recognition algorithm and then see if it can correctly identify the era of origin for a bunch of other short stories.”
- Elizabeth Hand, Nalo Hopkinson, Ursula Le Guin, China Mieville, and Michael Moorcock on their favourite real-world fantastical cities
- Michael Moorcock is interviewed at length by readers of Boing Boing
- Catherynne M Valente is interviewed at Bookslut
- Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels causes alarm again; Margo Lanagan responds. [Update: and now, not at all predictably, the Daily Mail is frothing.]
- “A Statistical Study of Locus Online’s “Notable Books”” by Valentin D. Ivanov, which is more an interesting starting point than a complete thesis; it would be interesting to compare these results to, for instance, the subjects of the books actually reviewed in the magazine
- The first discussion at the online women in sf book club is The Female Man by Joanna Russ; another online book club is discussing Graceling by Kristen Cashore
- Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making
- Bone Shop by Tim Pratt
- Verb Noire’s first title, River’s Daughter by Tasha Campbell
- A new Chaos Walking story by Patrick Ness
- Hobbit holey-space: a collaborative paper produced at this year’s sff masterclass in sf criticism; see also Paul Kincaid’s reflections on the masterclass
- Other reviews:
- John Clute on Green by Jay Lake
- Dan Hartland on stories by Vandana Singh and Ian McDonald
- Cold Earth by Sarah Moss reviewed by Jane Smiley in The Guardian and Megan Walsh in The Times
- Adam Roberts on The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by J. R. R. Tolkien
- Alan Campbell’s God of Clocks reviewed by Stuart Kelly in Scotland on Sunday and Martin Lewis for Strange Horizons
- Paul Kincaid on UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo
- Alvaro Zinos-Amaro on Buyout by Alex Irvine
- Jonathan McCalmont on Genesis by Bernard Beckett; see also Martin McGrath’s take
- Gary K Wolfe on Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
- Faren Miller on Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman
- Frank Cottrell Bryce on Fever Crumb by Phillip Reeve, the prequel to the Mortal Engines quartet
- Marianne Brace on The Rapture by Liz Jensen
- Charlie Jane Anders on Transformers 2 as an art movie. I certainly enjoyed the robot fights, but guiltily, because basically Mark Kermode’s is right [.ram file]. (That said, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s going after an easy target there, and would be rather more impressed if he had also criticized, say, Star Trek.)
- Rich Puchalsky talks to himself about Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts
- Alex Carnegie on Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton
- Kyra Smith on Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring
- Marcus Gipps on The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
- David Hebblethwaite on Solo by Rana Dasgupta
- Dan Hartland on Black Man by Richard Morgan
- Abigail Nussbaum on Thunderer by Felix Gillman
- And finally: sand sculptures, inspired by Jeffrey Ford’s “The Annals of Eelin-Ok“
Links to our previous discussions, for my ease of reference, and for anyone else who’s interested. And for members of Anticipation, you have until midnight tonight to vote; so go vote.
- “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress
- “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay
- “The Tear” by Ian McDonald
- “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum
- “Truth” by Robert Reed
- “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick
- “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi
- “Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel
- “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner
- “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear
Best Short Story
- “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” by Kij Johnson
- “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick
- “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
- “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang
- “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick
Concluding thoughts? Not many; I think I’ve said pretty much everything I could say at some point along the line. I’ve used No Award on all three of the above ballots, but there’s a potentially excellent set of winners in there, and I don’t even think it’s a terrible slate, all told, just a middling one; and I’m feeling quite trenchant tonight about what I do and don’t want to win, so No Award gets used. The novella category is probably the most interesting to me, the short story category the least; and as ever, it will be interesting to see what didn’t make the ballot.
All that aside, though, I’ve rather enjoyed the discussion process — not that there was much discussion in all cases, but when it did happen it was good! So I’m tempted to keep on reading short stories and rounding up discussion of them here, possibly on a bi-weekly basis, probably focusing on new, online stories (after all, there are next year’s Hugo nominations to think about). Good idea? Bad idea? And if the former, does anyone have suggestions for stories they’d like to put on the slate? I’ve been mulling posting something about Rachel Swirsky’s “Eros, Philia, Agape” since I read it, for instance, and I keep meaning to read more of Futurismic‘s fiction. Thoughts?
As noted in the original post about the survey, one of the panel’s at last week’s BSFA/SFF AGM event was a discussion of some of the questions it raises. For those who weren’t able to attend (and indeed those who were), here’s a recording — you can download the mp3 direct from here, or listen to it on the BSFA site. The panelists were Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Paul McAuley, Juliet McKenna, and Kit Whitfield, with me moderating.