Reports, reflections, and other bits on WorldCon 75 last week:
So what can we do with Gene Crenshaw? Right from the start he feels false; in his first scene, we see him berating Pete Aldrin about how “these people” — Lou and the rest of Section A — “have to fit in”, have to give up their “toys” (17). It’s Crenshaw who insists to Section A that “you are not normal. You are autistics, you are disabled” (103); in his most charitable moments the most he can allow is that it’s “Not their fault” (163); when the police come to interview Lou about the vandalism, Crenshaw’s first assumption is that Lou is the one under investigation, and his second assumption is that it’s Lou’s fault: “What have you been up to, Lou, that someone’s trying to kill you? You know company policy — if I find out you’ve been involved with criminal elements –” (247). But it’s Crenshaw who drives the central tension of the novel. There is, it seems, a novel treatment that could “cure” adult autism. Crenshaw buys it (just like that!) and sets about blackmailing Lou and his colleagues into taking it, or face redundancy.
We might, I suppose, find it ironic that the character most ardently convinced that Lou is defective is himself monstrously inflexible, entirely unable to adjust his preconceived ideas to accept Lou as a person. We might also find some satisfaction in the fact that Crenshaw’s obsessive vendetta leads directly to his downfall late in the novel. We might reflect on the ways in which institutional policy and social conventions support and validate Crenshaw’s bias, while at best tolerating Lou’s. We might even find Crenshaw’s antics amusing, theatre, if his whole routine wasn’t so drearily predictable. It’s not that Crenshaw clearly wears a black hat that’s the problem; it’s that he fits his role in the plot too neatly and completely to develop any of the possibilities above, denied the personhood insisted upon for Lou.
In contrast, Don’s plot strand, perhaps because it is of secondary importance, ends up somewhere interesting. It helps that we simply see more of Don, including — if only briefly — different sides to his character, and helps, too, that his judgments of Lou are mostly muttered and snide, rather than improbably explicit. But in many ways Don is as much a device as Crenshaw; it’s just that something interesting happens after he’s dealt with. After his arrest, the police explain to Lou that the probable punishment, if he is found guilty, is the insertion of a “programmable personality determinant brain-chip” (284), because:
“Recidivism,” Mr Stacy says, pawing through a pile of hardcopies. “They do it again. It’s been proved. Just like you can’t stop being you, the person who is autistic, he can’t stop being him, the person who is jealous and violent. If it’d been found when he was an infant, well, then …” (285)
A little on-the-nose, perhaps, down to the possibility of early correction, but effective nonetheless: having spent 300 pages being conditioned to recognise the possibility of the modification of Lou’s personality as beyond the pale, it’s nicely unsettling to be asked to accept it as justified for someone else, perhaps especially someone as obviously a bad guy as Don. (We might think: it’s been proved, you say? Like Lou’s disability?) The feeling is reinforced when the fencing group welcomes the news, over Lou’s misgivings:
“I think it is very scary, I say. “He did something wrong, but it is scary that they will turn him into someone else.”
“It’s not like that,” Lucia says. She is staring at me now. She should understand if anyone can; she knows about the experimental treatment; she knows why it would bother me that Don will be compelled to be somebody else. “He did something wrong — something very bad. He could have killed you, Lou. Would have, if he hadn’t been stopped. If they turned him into a bowl of pudding it would be fair, but all the chip does is make him unable to do anyone harm.”
It is not that simple. […] Even I know that, and I am sure Lucia knows it too, but she is ignoring it for some reason. (291-2)
Thus is the second point of parallel — the treatment — made explicit, and thus does the ground of the novel shift a notch further, moving away from the unambiguous wrongness of Crenshaw’s blackmail towards the more challenging questions of what might be changed, and what change might mean in practice. (Although we never get to see the chipped Don, which seems a shame.) “I am sideways to the world”, is Lou’s assessment of his own situation (277); and at some point, he starts to wonder whether that’s how he always wants to be.
And so to the closing chapters of Speed of Dark, where the novel is at its tough, thoughtful best. With Don apprehended and Crenshaw deposed, there remains only the question of change itself, the cost/benefit analysis of becoming a different person — or rather, hastening the process. As Lou himself points out, he has changed already, and would have done even if Gene Crenshaw had never impinged on his life. But the possibility of removing his autism feels more fundamental. The crucial passage probably comes when Lou goes to church, and finds himself confronted with a sermon about the necessity of choosing to be healed. He asks whether he should want to be healed, whether God would want it; the best his priest can do for an answer is, “only if it doesn’t interfere with who we are as God’s children, I suppose” (347). (And Lou is more than his autism, the novel has been telling us.) At the fencing club, his friends can scarcely believe it when he tells them he’s going to take the treatment, some being sure that he must be doing it to be accepted by Marjory; at work, Pete Aldrin can’t quite believe Lou really understands that there’s no longer any pressure from the company, or threat to his job. Lou’s choice is not unexpected — if you hang a miracle treatment on the wall in the first act of a science fiction novel, it’s almost unthinkable that you won’t do anything with it in the third — but it feels like a choice nonetheless, suffused with ambivalence and uncertainty. The chapter in which Moon breaks down Lou’s voice and then reconstructs it, the same but different — not out of love, nor out of fear, but out of curiosity and ambition — is very effectively controlled. Of course it changes things more; changes Lou’s job, his friends, his relationships. (Though not, in the case of Marjory, in the way that the earlier Lou would have hoped.) But at least, he tells us on the final page, at least “Now I get to ask the questions” (424). The call-back is one more neatness in a novel that has too many of them; but this one, I think, is earned.
For perhaps the final time, at least here (once again, I’m shifting over to the Strange Horizons blog):
- 2010 in review, according to Strange Horizons‘ reviewers, including me; I still hope to write a full review of my 2010 reading, but I’ve got a bunch of other things to do first, unfortunately
- More reviews of Who Fears Death, by Matt Hilliard, Jonathan McCalmont (discussion) and Farah Mendlesohn
- Maureen Kincaid Speller has relaunched her critical blog, Paper Knife, and among other things posted a lengthy analysis of Sarah Moss’ Cold Earth that I really must respond to
- A call for papers for an sf conference to be held at the University of Liverpool in June
- You can now get Locus electronically, and their Roundtable blog has relaunched under the guiding hand of Karen Burnham; of note this week, a roundtable on sf aesthetics
- Steven Shaviro on Black Swan, a film I’d like to see; Martin Lewis on Monsters, another film I’d like to see; and Abigail Nussbaum and Adam Roberts on Tron: Legacy, a film I have seen, and on which I basically agree with Adam
- Dan Hartland on The Best of Larry Niven
- Richard Larson on In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay
- Kev McVeigh ponders which sf novels by women should be added to the Gollancz Masterworks list
- Matt Cheney’s syllabuses for gender and science fiction and some other courses
- Paul Kincaid on The Secret History of Fantasy, ed. Peter Beagle
- More thoughts on Super Sad True Love Story from Aishwarya Subramanian and Nader Elhefnawy
- Adrienne Martini on Yarn by Jon Armstrong
- Matt Hilliard on City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
- A labor organizer’s review of Cory Doctorow’s For the Win
- An English-language review of the German-language edition of Murakami’s IQ84, to be published in the UK next autumn
- The Pearls Are Cooling has been blogging about Steph Swainston’s Castle novels: The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time, and The Modern World
- The latest Salon Futura
- Jared at pornokitsch dissents about The Quantum Thief
- Thoughts on the finale of Caprica at Coffee & Ink
- David Hebblethwaite on the latest two volumes of Seren Press’ “new stories from the Mabinogion“, by Gwyneth Lewis and Niall Griffiths
- Richard at Solar Bridge has tackled The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
- Adam Roberts on The Windup Girl in prose and verse
- Tor.com is running a poll to determine the best sf/f novels of the last decade, although apparently decades last eleven years now. Meanwhile, you can also vote in the SF Site Readers’ Poll, nominate for the Hugo Awards (note: Abigail Nussbaum thinks you should consider Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear as two books), and, of course, for the BSFA Awards (deadline in one week!)
- Nic Clarke on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
- Strange Horizons is also recruiting; we’re looking for articles editors, webmasters, and an accounts manager, so if you’re interested, please get in touch
- And finally, Lavie Tidhar is having some fun with The Science Fictional Dictionary of New Criticism; see entries for Leguinian jump and dystopalyptic. And of course it has its own definition of science fiction
Huzzah! Not too long after the launch of one critical zine comes news of another. It’s like, I don’t know, some holiday when people are encouraged to hand out gifts, or something. The Cascadia Subduction Zone is produced by Aqueduct Press and says of itself:
The Cascadia Subduction Zone aims to bring reviews, criticism, interviews, intelligent essays, and flashes of creative artwork (visual and written) to a readership hungry for discussion of work by not only men but also women. Work by women continually receives short shrift in most review publications. And yet the majority of readers are women. Ron Hogan writes in an August 2010 post on Beatrice.com, “[Jennifer] Weiner and [Jodi] Picoult, among others, are giving us a valuable critique of a serious problem with the way the [New York] Times [Book Review]—and, frankly, most of the so-called literary establishment—treats contemporary fiction. Which is to say: They ignore most of it, and when it comes to the narrow bandwidth of literature they do cover, their performance is underwhelming, ‘not only meager but shockingly mediocre,’ as former LA Times Book Review director Steve Wasserman said three years ago. And it hasn’t gotten any better since then, leaving us with what Jennifer Weiner describes as “a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.”
The relationship between readers and reviewers interests us. We want to bring attention to work critics largely ignore and offer a wider, less narrowly conceived view of the literary sphere. In short, we will review work that interests us, regardless of its genre or the gender of its author. We will blur the boundaries between critical analysis, review, poetry, fiction, and visual arts. And we will do our best to offer our readers a forum for discussion that takes the work of women as vital and central rather than marginal. What we see, what we talk about, and how we talk about it matters. Seeing, recognizing, and understanding is what makes the world we live in. And the world we live in is, itself, a sort of subduction zone writ large. Pretending that the literary world has not changed and is not changing is like telling oneself that Earth is a solid, eternally stable ball of rock.
All of which I can easily get behind. There are good people involved, too — Managing Editor is Lew Gilchrist, Reviews Editor is Nisi Shawl, Features Editor is L Timmel Duchamp, and Arts Editor is Kath Wilhelm; and the first issue, which I’ve just downloaded and had a quick browse through, includes reviews by Duchamp, Rachel Swirsky, Nancy Jane Moore and others. (You can see the full table of contents on the site front page, here.) In fact, at this stage my only quibble is that they indulge that annoying habit of American magazines, that of starting an article on one page and then continuing it on another non-contiguous page. In a print edition, this is irritating; as a PDF, it’s a bit more than that. Still, I wish the CSZ every success. For those who may be interested, the submission guidelines are here.
1. I’ve put together an index post linking too all the posts of the past week, plus the contexual posts from earlier in the autumn. If you want to link to the poll or discussions, that’s probably the best place to link to now.
2. Matt Denault asked what a top ten that treated book-length series (ie aggregated votes for, say, Bold as Love and Castle Made of Sand) as a single entry would look like:
1. Natural History/Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Justina Robson
2. The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall
3. Maul, Tricia Sullivan
4. Small Change trilogy, Jo Walton
5. the Time-Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffeneger
6= Spirit, Gwyneth Jones
6= Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon
8. Bold as Love series, Gwyneth Jones
9. The Castle/Fourlands novels, Steph Swainston
10. The Vorkosigan novels, Lois McMaster Bujold
So new entries for Bujold and Swainston, Walton and Robson move up, and Life, Lavinia and City of Pearl drop out. Treating the two Robson novels as a series is arguable, I grant — they’re a shared universe but share no characters — and if you don’t, Natural History places joint third with Small Change.
3. A couple of dangling links: Tansy Rayner Roberts on Feed by Mira Grant and on The Gene Thieves by Maria Quinn, winner of the first Norma K Hemming Award. The latest Coode St podcast includes a bit of discussion about the list.
4. Follow-up. This obviously isn’t the last word on this topic; I have a few other ideas in mind, but none ready to go just yet.
- Aishwarya Subramaniam talks about her nominations for the Future Classics poll
- Michael Froggatt on 2017 by Olga Slavnikova
- Cold Iron and Rowan Wood on The Meat Tree by Gwyneth Lewis, part of Seren Press’ “new stories from the Mabinogion” series.
- Jonathan McCalmont on The Red Tree by Caitlin R Kiernan and Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
- Tansey Rayner Roberts talks about the new Norma K Hemming Award, for excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability in sf published in Australia or written by an Australian citizen
- Details of the latest Galactic Suburbia podcast
- David Hebblethwaite on An A-Z of Possible Worlds by AC Tillyer and on Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
- Matt Denault on Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren, and its marketing:
I wrote at the outset that my two chief frustrations with Walking the Tree involve its outside and its inside. The frustration with the outside is easy enough to describe: the book’s cover. The back cover of my published UK edition contains the instruction to “FILE UNDER: FANTASY” and a quote from Ellen Datlow, best known in recent times for her work editing dark fantasy and horror; the front cover bears a quote from Trudi Canavan, “bestselling author of the Black Magician trilogy,” a fantasy work. Additionally the publisher, Angry Robot, is marketing as similar two more of its books on the back cover: Warren’s debut novel Slights and Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, a dark fantasy. In short, this is a science fiction book by a female author that is being marketed very hard to look like a fantasy book—and a fantasy book for a primarily female audience. This was done, I’m sure, with the best of intentions. But there is a deeply insidious notion about the relationship between women and science that’s suggested by this chosen marketing. Labeling a science fiction book by a female author as fantasy contributes to the fallacious but widespread idea that women don’t write science fiction. This in turn can only reinforce the stereotype that women aren’t any good at science. Parallel to this, to fixate the book’s marketing so squarely on women reinforces that damaging gender paradigm that men’s stories should be of interest to both men and women, while women’s stories should be of interest only to women. The two problems are entwined: men’s stories are important to all because they are seen as real, and thus can be grounded in something real like science; women’s stories are dismissed as fantasy, nothing that could ever happen and so nothing that’s worth treating as actionable. So I’d argue that the book’s marketing, whatever its intentions, is actively, damagingly in opposition to the ideas of the book’s content.
- Shana Worthen thinks about categorising Lavinia, in response to its poll ranking
- Ian Sales looks at the first half of the Bold as Love sequence
- Two takes on Kate Griffin: Arthur at Ferretbrain on A Madness of Angels, and William Mingin at Strange Horizons on The Midnight Mayor
- Also at Ferretbrain, Kyra Smith on The Hunger Games and its sequels
- Anil Menon on Sandra McDonald’s Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories at Strange Horizons
- Richard at Solar Bridge on Dreaming in Smoke by Tricia Sullivan
- Adam Roberts on Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
- Duncan Lawie on Guardians of Paradise by Jaine Fenn
- An interview with Margaret Atwood in The Guardian
- An interview with Elizabeth Hand at Chasing Ray
- An interview with Vonda N McIntyre at io9
- Theodora Goss interviewed at Clarkesworld and at Booklife
- Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria on Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge
- Anne K Yoder at The Millions on The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
- Two reviews of Catherynne Valente’s books: Richard at Solar Bridge on Palimpsest, and Faren Miller in Locus on The Habitation of the Blessed
- Sady Doyle’s “Geek Chick” column at The Awl: The Fantasy of Girl World: Lady Nerds and Utopias, Lady Robots: The Shape of Things to Come On, and Ellen Ripley saved my life
- And another Zoo City review, by David Hebblethwaite.
- Tansy Rayner Roberts is also blogging about women and sf this week: so far, on science fictional fantasy and the women of the five Doctors
- And another Galactic Suburbanite, Alex, has posted about Bold as Love
- Speaking of science fictional fantasy, a Zoo City review round-up: Aishwarya from the Indian Express; Jason at Kamivision; t’other Niall at The Speculative Scotsman; Saxon Bullock in SFX; and John Clute at Strange Horizons
- And there’s an interview with Lauren Beukes at Kamivision
- Adam Roberts on Arslan by MJ Engh
- Paul Kincaid on Kate Wilhelm’s 1975 short story collection The Infinity Box:
Two things struck me very forcibly when reading the Wilhelm collection. First, that the stories were even better than I had remembered. Second, that while I knew these stories were unequivocally science fiction when I first read the collection (probably about 1977), today they would almost certainly not be considered sf.
- David Hebblethwaite reviews Candor by Pam Bachorz
- Richard at Solar Bridge on Midnight Robber
- Michael Levy on Half World by Hiromi Goto, and a suite of guest posts by Goto at Omnivoracious: on romance in dark fantasy, the relationships between fantasy and reality and fantasy and horror, and her inspirations.
- The big UK publishing news: Jo Fletcher is leaving Gollancz to found a new imprint at Quercus, Jo Fletcher books.
- Also of note: Angry Robot’s new digital short story store, launching tomorrow: 59p a story, £3.49 for ten.
- And Orbit have done a good thing by bringing this year’s Nebula- and Hugo-(with-The City & The City)-winning The Windup Girl to the UK
- You can now buy online access to SF Studies for $20 a year, which seems like a very good deal.
- ‘Tis the season for best-of-the-year lists, so here’s Amazon US’s top ten, Amazon UK’s equivalent list, some comment on the differences between the two, and Publishers Weekly’s top five (plus bonus picks)
- Alvaro Zinos-Amaro on Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories, 2, covering stories from 1940
- Reviews of Surface Detail by Francis Spufford in The Scotsman, Roz Kaveney in The Independent, Doug Johnstone also in the Indie, and Naomi Alderman in the Guardian; and in a Banksian vein, Abigail Nussbaum on The Player of Games
- An interview with Hannu Rajaniemi
- Daniel Abraham (in his guise as MLN Hanover) talks about rape and sexual violence in urban fantasy (follow-on here and here); anon commenter prompts a second post, and Kameron Hurley on why she doesn’t read much urban fantasy
- Nic Clarke on two novels by Kim Stanley Robinson: Pacific Edge and Galileo’s Dream; and also on The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
- Subterranean have posted the full text of Ted Chiang’s novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects“; some reviews, by Matt Hilliard, Terry Weyna, Richard at Solar Bridge, and TS Miller at Strange Horizons (the latter also covering Egan’s Zendegi)
- Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s brief history of Mexican science fiction
- Reviews from Locus: Gary K Wolfe on Michael Moorcock’s Into the Media Web and Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, and Faren Miller on The Last Page by Anthony Huso
- Sf writers on steampunk: Charles Stross, Catherynne Valente (and follow-up), Scott Westerfeld, Jean-Christophe Valtat, and L Timmel Duchamp
- Other reviews: Adam Roberts on How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe; Dan Hartland on Red Plenty; Patrick Hudson on Super Sad True Love Story (also); Jonathan McCalmont on Fire in the Stone; and Karen Burnham on An Unusual Angle, Greg Egan’s first book (and speaking of Egan, have you seen what he’s working on next?)
- Nic Clarke and Victoria Hoyle on Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
- Some other recent reviews at Strange Horizons: Matt Cheney’s Six Views of Never Let Me Go; Matt Denault on Noise by Darin Bradley; Paul Kincaid on Generosity by Richard Powers; Nick Hubble on Bearings by Gary K Wolfe
- And finally: Karen Burnham’s con panel bingo card
And finally finally: don’t forget that next week around these parts is going to be about sf by women. In particular, if you haven’t voted in the ongoing poll, please do email me your top ten sf novels by women from the last ten years (2001–2010). Deadline 23.59 on Sunday 5 December, results all next week.