Another Short Story Club

Just a quick post from me to say that those of you who enjoyed the last couple of years of short story clubs here might enjoy a project that Karen is kicking off over at the Locus Roundtable blog: a club to read some of this year’s award-nominated stories, on the following schedule:

  • May 22: “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, Aliette de Bodard [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • May 29: “Ponies”, Kij Johnson [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 5: “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”, Eric James Stone [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 12: “The Things”, Peter Watts [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, a BSFA, and a Shirley Jackson]
  • June 19: “Plus or Minus”, James Patrick Kelly [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, and a Nebula]

So the first discussion is this Sunday. See you over there?

(Actually, while I’m here, I’ll also point out the ongoing Tiptree Award book club, which is working its way through some work from recent honor lists; they’ve discussed “Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh, “Galapagos” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Lifelode by Jo Walton, and are currently considering “Beautiful White Bodies” by Alice Sola Kim.)

Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011)

I was so sorry to wake up to the news that Diana Wynne Jones died early this morning. It was not unexpected – she came off of treatments for cancer last year when they were no longer really helping her – but I am still sad that it’s actually happened.

Over her many books (more than 50), the one which has most influenced me in recent years was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, thanks to its discussions of food. Her parodic skewering of lazy and derivative fantasy writing begins each chapter with a ridiculous ‘Gnomic Utterance’ (“no Utterance has anything whatsoever to do with the section it precedes. Nor, of course, has it anything to do with Gnomes”). Here is the one for D, by the fictional sage Ka’a Orto’o, as most of them are:

Doras II was a somewhat absentminded king. It is said that, when Death came to summon him, Doras granted Death the usual formal audience and then dismissed him from his presence. Death was too embarrassed to return until many years later.

But Death did return.

Bold as Love: IV

Bold as Love cover

(previously.)

A confession: I actually came to the Bold as Love series backwards. As part of my Clarke judge duties I had to read the final volume, Rainbow Bridge (2006), and at the time I had no experience of its predecessors. Truth to tell I don’t remember all that much about it, and that which I do remember I should not speak of, but what does seem worth mentioning here is the lingering elegiac impression the book left, crystallised in a self-description by one of the triumverate, that they are “veterans of utopia.”

And so I came to Bold as Love on the lookout for the possibility of utopia, and was a little surprised by the novel’s darkness. Not the darkness in the stories of its characters — I’d read “The Salt Box” in Interzone — but in its ambience and events. Bold as Love opens in a period of near-crisis, with the authorities struggling to maintain an orderly dissolution against a backdrop of economic and ecological collapse, and the trials don’t let up: an influx of migrants, a failing electronic infrastructure, a small war in Yorkshire. It seems astonishing that this world will ever progress far enough to look back on utopia.

But there is a utopian desire present in Bold as Love, refracted by the triumverate, and in particular by Ax and Fiorinda. The latter is profoundly pessimistic — the combination of youth and experience, perhaps — and sees no good in the way the world is turning. More than once she comments that everything is going up in smoke, that it’s the end of the world. And on the role of Ax himself, when pestered, she says:

“I think he’s the Lord’s anointed. I think he has the mandate of heaven. I think he is rightwise king born over all England. But still–”
“But still you are the cat who walks by herself, green-eyed Fiorinda–”
“But still nothing’s changed.”

What does that “nothing” denote? Manifestly things are changing through the novel, dramatically so. But we know what Fiorinda means, of course, we kow she means that there are still winners and losers and — in the novel’s terms — suits with power. Sage, similarly, is a sceptic. For him, the cross-demographic appeal of the triumverate, as evidenced by the diversity of their gig audiences, does not seem like a compliment; it seems “like a deeply, deeply mistaken confidence” (243).

It’s left to Ax to lead: the only character to deliberately articulate any vision of utopia. In the aftermath of the coup, he rallies his countercultural comrades to that vision, speaking of the potential for something new in history, “a genuine human civilisation. For everyone”, enabled by technology. His goal is “To make this turning point the beginning of civilisation, instead of a fall into the dark ages”; but it’s tempered with pragmatism:

And yeah, before anyone says it, I know it won’t work. If I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, it’ll be partial, fucked-up and temporary. Partial, fucked-up and temporary will be fine. If we can get that going, for just a few years, just here in England, we’ll have made our mark. Something will survive. (82)

The grandest of visions an the most modest of terms: that’s the tension that defines Ax, seen later as dedicated to the art of the possible over the good, and seen from inside his head as one who endures. In the warzone, he recognises “a reason for Fiorinda’s mourning, the end of a world, an unbearable loss”, but “he had to bear it. Accept” (118); or, later, more than once, he thinks, “If we can just get through this part …” (I started to think of the catchphrase of Kim Stanley Robinson’s much sunnier Phil Chase: “I’ll see what I can do!”) The fragility of it all, the provisionality, is exhausting for Ax, and we sometimes feel that exhaustion. But between the three leads we also scent the elusive spirit of change, the muscular belief that things can get better, slowly.

All of which leads to the curious ending note. Superficially Bold as Love closes on a not entirely unexpected moment of grace, a pause that sees the triumverate together and comfortable. Stubborn stuff, this world; hard not to retreat from it sometimes. At the same time, Ax’s thoughts, on the final page — “I was not perfectly happy, but now I am, and if I had the power this is where I would make time stop, this is where I’d stay forever. This is it, this moment. This, now” (307-8) — make it seem coldly plausible that this is the utopia of which they become veterans: a limited, individual utopia, an impression of the world around them shaped entirely by their personal emotional circumstances. But on reflection, it’s hard to imagine another ending for this quixotic, thorny book.

Bold as Love: III

Bold as Love cover

(previously.)

”They’re both very brave men and very good officers,” says Richard Kent, ex-regular CCM army commander, with whom they served in that little English pocket-war in Yorkshire last year. “And that’s what counts today: leadership and vision. I don’t know where the rock music comes in.” (271-2)

It is Bold as Love’s central strangeness: that it asks us to believe rock stars could really be revolutionaries. It’s not, I think, the exchange of celebrity for political power that’s problematic – not in a post-Governator era, at least; not until after the initial off-screen hand-wave that brings the musicians into politics in the first place, anyway – but the idea that such individuals might make the transition yet retain principles. Even Ax is forced to comment on the implausibility of that.

It’s a potent notion, this belief in the power of music, with enough juice to often obscure the fact that Jones is at her weakest when writing about it, when creating a musical world. She displays an absolute tin ear for band names and song titles, her made-up music journalism is cringeworthy, and there is little sense of the wonder and transformative power of music itself. What she can convey is the ambience of musical events: her gigs are all jagged energy and aftermath, her festivals true worlds unto themselves, right from the start, when Fiorinda stands outside Reading seeking “the mere will to cross that boundary and join that fair field full of folk” (2). To enter faerie, with its customs and denizens and magical ways.

Bold as Love is, as Francis Spufford puts it in his review, a novel in which a festival swallows up the whole country. The answer to “where the rock music comes in” is “everywhere”; it has to, to give the idea of the Counterculture some gravitas, to make it a political force, a movement with sufficient cohesion and will to drive events. Ax, with his sixties Real Year, is merely the purest expression of the Counterculture. usic brings him security, and enables him to lead: to inspire, and occasionally placate the masses. And yet despite its pervasiveness, I don’t know that Bold as Love actually presents rock itself as revolutionary. Ax is as much a revolutionary who happens to be a rock star as the other way around, and the meaningfulness of the rockstar part of his identity is constantly challenged, from the quote at the head of this post to a sharp awareness of the sinister side of cultural conformity, to the simple, heavy irony of Sage and Ax’s repeated “Hey rockstar” / “Hey, other rockstar” greeting. Fiorinda certainly sees no glory:

From a distance she could see it happening: Ax’s future, the rock and roll lifestyle written over everything, the nomadic idleness, the emotional excess, the tantrums … she saw no hope in the development. A certain model of human life becomes accepted: once we were manufacturing workers, then we were venture capitalists, now we’re rockstars. The world stays the same. (91)

It’s perhaps useful to consider the “we” in this statement. Manufacturing workers, venture capitalists and rockstars are not equivalent classes – each is smaller than the previous – nor can Fiorinda meaningfully lay claim to have ever been the first two. (She is literally born to her position.) It’s tempting to take it as a premonition of the all-famous-now YouTube future, but I think that would be mistaken; I think Fiorinda is imposing a narrative on history whereby power has travelled from the many to the few. A false narrative, mainly, but that’s not the point; what matters is that she can’t believe any of the power is meaningful. Ax, meanwhile, doesn’t know whether he believes the power of rock is meaningful, but puts his finger on the real strength of his government:

Had the country been about the split in two, collapse into civil war, until the situation was saved by rock and roll? This morning the idea seemed absurd. We will never know, he thought. Maybe we made a difference, maybe we didn’t.

It didn’t hurt for the future, however, that a heavy proportion of the forty million seemed quite convinced that the Rock and Roll Reich had saved everyone’s bacon. Again. (255)

This, I think, is the closest to a definitive understanding of the role of music that the novel offers, a viewpoint that downplays the importance of music as music. Rather, what’s significant is the potential of music to be a vehicle for belief, at a moment when belief in all other systems of the world has been shattered by catastrophic cynicism.

(next.)

Bold as Love: II

Bold as Love cover

(previously.)

There is a current in the novel that snakes outside the 1997-2001 moment; or at least a character who seems out of step with his surroundings. Ax Preston, guitarist with The Chosen Few, destined (it seems) leader of England, the nearest thing to a hero we’re going to get, “bit old fashioned, bit left wing” (23), and most importantly:

Ax would continue to come and go as he pleased. […] Go on living his fearfully public life in this fearfully changed world as if he were a private person with no enemies, and the date some mythical year in the nineteen sixties. (206)

The aptness of his particular nostalgia in a novel which springs partially from the nostalgic Britpop moment aside, this is what makes Ax special: this ability to preserve his own private Real Year in the face of the progressive isolation of England, first politically, through dissolution and an ongoing economic and ecological collapse, then culturally and digitally as their internet is collapsed by a virus. This new England is an island England, cut adrift (it seems) from the main line of history (I gather later volumes in the Bold as Love sequence get around a bit more). And Ax is both the moral leader we might wish for England, and a literal dictator: military, temporary, populist.

Ax is also Arthur returned (and updated), although I don’t feel qualified to do very much more than just note the fact. Accompanying him are Sage, the skull-masked “brilliantly commercial techno-wizard” to Ax’s “pure musician with critical and political cred” (27) and, I gather from Tanya Brown’s extremely lucid reading of the novel in The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, Lancelot with a hint of Merlin. I find him the novel’s bedrock, the wall off which other characters can bounce. (I find him a little dull.) Decoding the third of the triumverate, Fiorinda, takes longer, because she’s loaded down with more symbolism. Guinevere, says Tanya; rock royalty, precocious teen, Titania, virgin queen, says the novel; “a phenomenon,” thinks Ax, “where did she get those cold, wise eyes, where did she find that tone of contemptuous authority?” (40-1). Fiorinda sees her position more clearly than either of her companions, as when Sage tries to protect her from the darkness of war: “I’m not built to play Red Sonja, so I have to be the lickle princess. There aren’t any parts for me as a human being in this movie” (161). Perils of being in a mythic story while female.

Everything real the trio does is also symbolic, and everything symbolic they do is also real. Ax is a soldier, and carries his guitar like an assault rifle as a reminder of that power. In his conversion to Islam midway through the novel, in the fetishization of Fiorinda, in Sage’s abusive past, in their varied class and ethnic backgrounds, and most of all in their shifting relationships with each other, they represent their country in more ways than one, a polymorphousness condensed by an artist, late in the book:

He grinned, envisaging Sage as the big strong mother of the tribe, Ax the father of his people, Fiorinda their shining prince. But any permutation of the roles would be equally valid. (282)

Ax nags like a mother, Sage is headstrong like a prince, Fiorinda negotiates like a father. And so on. The self-consciousness of it all could get wearing — seems to get wearing for many readers — but for me the novel’s centre of gravity was elsewhere. The role of the triumverate is to be a prism: to ensure that Fiorinda is telling the truth when, to buck up her band, she insists: “This is England. This is how it feels” (244).

(next.)

Bold as Love: I

Bold as Love cover

It’s a truism that time is cruel to science fiction, that the relentless now eats into the future and leaves husks of stories in its wake and that, per William Gibson, the lag time is decreasing. When editing the 2002 Nebula Awards Showcase, Kim Stanley Robinson asked some writers to riff on the science-fictionalisation of the present, specifically on the role of science fiction in the twenty-first century. Gwyneth Jones was one of the contributors to the resulting symposium, and described “the problem of meaning”:

… which can best be understood by considering the ratio between the author’s intention and the rest of the content of a science fiction novel or story. The whole vast edifice of reality, the universe, and everything may have a single meaning that is known only to God. […] A science fiction novel or story, however, has a meaning known to the author. […] In the space of three hundred pages, where the author has elected to explain life, or consciousness, or theories of everything (typical projects among sf writers), meaning is so concentrated as to distort the most perceptive prediction to the point where it is almost unrecognisable. (241)

At first glance — which is particularly to say, when it was first published, back in 2001 — the predictive bedrock of Bold as Love may seem more unrecognisable than most. It chronicles the unlikely rise of a “Rock and Roll Reich”, an authoritarian Green state within which protagonists struggle for something better, and self-consciously constructs a future that only gets stranger the further into it we travel. It seems to fully earn its “near future fantasy” subtitle, and I speculate — this is the first time I’ve read it — that in 2001 Bold as Love seemed as much as anything to be about the possibility of an unknowable future; that its rockstar protagonists, improbably recruited into a Think Tank intended to define a new future for England, seemed written with a wind of millennial possibility in their sails.

Time may be cruel, but it’s the friend of the critic of sf who wants to strip away the layers of future, to get past the singularity of authorial intent. This, too, is a truism, encapsulated by the Clutean concept of the Real Year. Some of the things that stand out so starkly now must have been obvious at time, although the extrapolation of New Labour “Cool Britannia” co-option of pop seems to have been little commented-on in contemporary reviews. (Adam Roberts suggested it’s not even really about politics; Cheryl Morgan provided an exception; Roger Luckhurst, a couple of years later, digs into this aspect a little in an essay in Science Fiction Studies.) Some things might have been dimly discernable on the horizon, such as the extent to which the internet would gut the mega-label mega-bucks model of music distribution that dominates Bold as Love (no bittorrent, no YouTube). But what fixes this novel in time most profoundly seemed to come out of a clear blue sky: a door slammed shut, a month after the novel was published, on what in retrospect feels like a wasted moment of historical possibility. There are about a dozen mentions of terrorism in this novel. It’s there, but low down in the mix.

Bold as Love has already earned its place in sf’s modern canon. It’s probably the most sustained engagement with the nature of Englishness published within the genre in the last ten years, not to mention an early entry into the broken-Union trope that’s been so common in recent British sf, in novels by Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, Adam Roberts. It’s a clear influence on Justina Robson’s even more dislocated near-future fantasy sequence Quantum Gravity (indeed, in one character’s crack about not wanting to “end up transformed into some crackpot post-human elf” [194] it could have offered direct inspiration). Yet it feels somehow irretrievable, locked away from me, innocent. I discovered Jones’ contribution to Robinson’s Nebula symposium because her novel had put me in mind of what one of the other participants said. Over to Ken MacLeod:

What sf enables us to do is not to forsee the future, but to entertain possibilities. The more possibilities science and technology —

[At this point, about 3.30 British Summer Time, 11 September 2001, the phone rang.]

I leave this piece as I wrote it, words from the old world. (248)

If I’m unbothered by Bold as Love‘s much-touted lack of plausibility (and I am, largely), this is most of the reason why. For once, being yesterday’s tomorrow is a kindness. It’s words from the old world; and by that token, it owns its world.

(next.)

2010 BSFA Awards Shortlists

The BSFA is pleased to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2010 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel

2010 BSFA Awards Best Novel Nominees

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Orbit)
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Ken Macleod – The Restoration Game (Orbit)
Ian McDonald – The Dervish House (Gollancz)
Tricia Sullivan – Lightborn (Orbit)

Best Short Fiction

Nina Allan – ‘Flying in the Face of God’ – Interzone 227, TTA Press.
Aliette de Bodard – ‘The Shipmaker’– Interzone 231, TTA Press.
Peter Watts – ‘The Things’ – Clarkesworld 40
Neil Williamson – ‘Arrhythmia’ – Music for Another World, Mutation Press

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Big Other
Abigail Nussbaum – Review, With Both Feet in the Clouds, Asking the Wrong Questions Blogspot
Adam Roberts – Review, Wheel of Time, Punkadiddle
Francis Spufford – Red Plenty (Faber and Faber)
Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe – the Notes from Coode Street Podcast

Best Art

Andy Bigwood – cover for Conflicts (Newcon Press)
Charlie Harbour – cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press)
Dominic Harman – cover for The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz)
Joey Hi-Fi – cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
Ben Greene – ‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21
Adam Tredowski – cover for Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer (Corvus)

The BSFA Awards Administrator will shortly make a voting form available for members of the BSFA and this year’s Eastercon, who will be able to send advance votes based on the above shortlists. Advance votes must be received by Monday 18th April. After this date, ballot boxes will be made available at Illustrious – the Eastercon Convention taking place at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham. The ballots will close at Midday on Saturday April 23rd and the winners will be announced at a ceremony hosted that evening at the convention.

Congratulations to all of the nominees!

P.S. Voting details are here.