It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Template, Matthew Hughes

Template, Matthew Hughes
(2008, PS Publishing, £20, 253pp)

Comparisons between Matthew Hughes and Jack Vance are inevitable, because if any writer is a template for Hughes’ fiction then it is Vance. Hughes’ Archonate novels are set on an Earth not unlike the Dying Earth, or on the worlds of a formless galactic polity called The Spray which resembles the Alastor Cluster (in fact, hussade, from Vance’s Trullion: Alastor 2262, is mentioned in Template).

Like many of Vance’s novels, Template is a bildungsroman, and one in which the protagonist is involuntarily pitched into a quest for his true identity. Said protagonist is Conn Labro, a highly-skilled and indentured duellist on the world of Thrais. Despite his abilities, Labro is a naïf and Thrais, with its culture based on contracts and transactions, has given him poor social skills. So when a regular customer is murdered, leaves him a fortune and an encrypted bearer deed to a planet, and an attempt is made on his own life, Labro has no idea how to respond. Happily, there is a young woman at hand to help him. Labro buys out his indenture and determines to discover his origin and the location of the planet he apparently now owns. The young woman, Jenore Mordene, he “hires” as a guide.

It’s in the nature of such a story’s template that the naïf’s voyage of discovery is as much literal as it is metaphorical. Labro’s bearer deed has determined his destination, Earth, and so he must travel there. En route, he learns something of The Spray – which gives Hughes opportunity to discourse on various cultural templates for societies. For example, one character posits a theory of societies each built upon one of the seven deadly sins. Thrais, with its “transactionalism”, is of course Greed. Unfortunately, Hughes makes little of this idea, using it merely as the topic of conversation.

On Earth, Labro sees all social interactions as a form of transaction. Mordene, however, is from a region of Earth which eschews money, and sees something different. This provides some interesting repartee, but does not advance the plot as such. But it certainly sets the template for their relationship.

It’s only when Labro learns what he has inherited that the villain of the piece steps in to the story. Now the template is Gothic. Not only does the villain remain masked but, as is often the case in such fictions, there is a greater enemy hiding behind him. And this greater villain must be defeated if Labro is to win and keep knowledge of his origin, his legacy, and the girl. And yes, the book’s climax does reveal Labro’s origin. It also explains the story’s title – there is indeed a very real template in the story.

At some point reading Template, everyone is sure to ask why we need Hughes when we have Vance. And the answer is: because we can never have too much Vance. And providing it’s done with invention and wit, then it’s as enjoyable as the real thing. Happily, Hughes matches the wit and invention of Vance. He also brings slightly off-kilter philosophical musings to his stories, and they provide a depth Vance sometimes lacks. Having said that, the writing in Template is a little stilted. While clearly intentional, it’s not entirely successful. Further, Labro is somewhat stiff a character, and Mordene is under-written. Neither characteristic is unexpected – at that intersection of bildungsroman and travelogue, where both protagonist and world are mapped, there’s little room for immersion.

This review originally appeared in Interzone 218, October 2008.


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World fiction reading challenge #4: So Long A Letter, Mariama Bâ

The more observant among you will have noticed there’s no third installment in this year’s reading challenge. That’s because March’s book was My Name is Red by Orham Pamuk and I got stuck about halfway into it. At some point I plan to return to it, but for now I’m giving it a rest. I can’t really say why I lost interest so comprehensively in the book, especially since its topic is something that normally interests me: Islamic history (albeit Turkish rather than Arabic). After reading Magda Szabó’s The Door in February, I wrote, “Two books in and already this year’s reading challenge is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve done.” Clearly, I spoke too soon…

Anyway, April’s book, which I read late, is So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, a Sengalese writer. In fact, So Long a Letter won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 1980, and was later called one of Africa’s Best 100 Books of the 20th Century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. So Long A Letter was originally published in French as Une Si Longue Lettre, and was Bâ’s first novel. It was also the only one she saw in print. She died in 1981, five years before her second novel, Scarlet Song, was published.

So Long A Letter is a short book of 95 pages. Ramatoulaye is a schoolteacher and the wife of Modou. He has just died and she is now in mourning. During this period, she writes to her closest friend, Aissatou, and recounts her life – much of which involves episodes involving Aissatou. The epistolary structure allows for greater intimacy, but the fact that Ramataoulaye is telling Aissatou of events which her friend herself directly experienced does seem to spoil the effect somewhat.

Though Ramatoulaye is an educated woman – Bâ herself had to fight her parents to be educated – I’m guessing much of her life is not atypical for a Sengalese wife and mother. Such as, for instance, her husband taking up with a younger woman and marrying her – in fact, not a “woman”, but a school friend of Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter. Also, the declaration after the funeral by Modou’s brother that he will marry Ramatoulaye – ie, “inherit” her. She turns him down. Which is not typical. In fact, Ramatoulaye is adamant she will remain single now that she is widowed. When Daouda Dieng,a past suitor from before she married Modou, asks for her hand in marriage, she also turns him down. Neither the brother-in-law nor Daouda take their rejections well.

A lot of the novel concerns the family connections of the cast. Aissatou’s marriage was considered controversial because she came from a less affluent family than her husband. Likewise, when Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter wants to marry an impoverished student, friends of the family try to persuade Ramatoulaye to prevent it. Ramatoulaye, however, knows that her daughter loves the man, and that’s good enough for her.

There are one or two moments of outright racism:

Right from Form One, he had been top of his class in this subject; but this year for every capital letter forgotten, for a few commas omitted, for a misspelt word, his teacher knocks off one or two marks. Because of this, Jean-Claude, a white boy who has always come second, has moved up to first position. The teacher cannot tolerate a black coming first in philosophy. (p 76)

The story is filled with details of life among the Sengalese, both as Muslims and as Sengalese. At one point, Daouda delivers a lecture on the importance of true democracy in a newly-formed nation (Senegal gained independence in 1960), and though he rues the male dominance of the Assembly and admits they need more women in government, his suit to Ramatoulaye seems to expect a much more traditional “partnership”. There is also much about polygamy and its effect on women involved; not to mention their huge families – Ramatoulaye herself has twelve children.

So Long A Letter is, unsurprisingly, a very reflective novel, and it is likely it is partly auto-biographical. Though only a slim book, it does an excellent job of painting Ramatoulaye, her life and the society in which she lives. It’s a classic for good reason. I’m not so sure the story quite leads to the final paragraph – various incidents recounted in So Long A Letter demonstrate that Ramatoulaye has both witnessed the happiness of others, actively worked towards it for yet more, and even experienced it herself during the early days of her marriage:

The word ‘happiness’ does indeed have meaning, doesn’t it? I shall go out in search of it. Too bad for me if once again I have to write you so long a letter… (p 95)

So Long A Letter was a good choice for my reading challenge. I’m glad I read it. I might even one day have a go at Bâ’s other novel, Scarlet Song.


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The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling
(2009, Del Rey, $25.00, 297pp)

In 1930, Hugo Gernsback wrote, “Not only is science fiction an idea of tremendous import, but it is to be an important factor in making the world a better place to live in, through educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life which, even today, are not appreciated by the man on the street.” And yet in the decades since then, the genre has ceased to be either didactic or predictive. A science fiction may have something to say – and most certainly do – but any such conversation will most likely be about the present.

Bruce Sterling, however, is not just a science fiction writer. He has also been a “Visionary in Residence”, at both the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. He has eleven science fiction novels to his name, and five collections of short stories. He has also written non-fiction, such as Tomorrow Now and Shaping Things. His last three novels could be described as conversations with the future: in Zeitgeist, it was the commodification of entertainment product and the feral capitalism of the ex-Soviet client states; in The Zenith Angle, it was the War on Terror and ubiquitous surveillance; and now, in The Caryatids, it is the collapse of the earth’s climate, of the global economy, and of nation-states.

The Caryatids of the book’s title are the four surviving clone sisters of a group of seven created by a female Croatian warlord (what is the female equivalent of warlord? warlady? bellatrix?). Vera is a member of a recovery team on the Adriatic island of Mljet (known to the Ancient Greeks as Melita), which has suffered toxic pollution. Radmila has married into a powerful Hollywood family and is now a media star. Sonja is a medic, living and working for the Chinese in a space city in the Gobi Desert. And then there’s Biserka, who is insane.

I suspect it’s no accident there are seven clone sisters – that’s one for each continent. It’s equally telling that only four have survived. Vera is Europe – technological, non-authoritarian, looking for new ways to live. Radmila is the US – technology-backed spectacle, a self-imposed role as the guardian of the planet, and wielding capitalism as a weapon with the clinical precision of a scalpel. Sonja is Asia – undefeatable, strong, and finding a way to live that neither Europe nor the US would ever contemplate. And poor Biserka is Africa – the dark continent, forever at war with itself.

There is also an eighth clone, a man. His name is Djordje – AKA George – and he is a Viennese businessman. He has a nice Viennese hausfrau wife and dalring children. He is successful, and makes more than enough money to keep his family safe and secure. He’s not above bending laws, or ethics, when making deals. He has just started using the latest business tools and he thinks they’re wonderful. George is perhaps the world as it used to be.

And the “mother”? She is the climate disaster which created the world of The Caryatids. Once she’s done her bit, she’s hustled off to a space station in orbit, out of the way of story and history.

Each clone has her story – and The Caryatids is a story. And shown to be a story about a story in the afterword “interview” with Radmila’s daughter, Mary Montalban. There are three sections to the novel: Vera, Radmila and Sonja. An epilogue sees all four meet for the funeral of their mother. They are burying the world’s past as much as they burying their own.

The world as it is in The Caryatids is not the world we know. The climate has crashed, billions have died, and most nation-states have failed. The world is now dominated by two supra-national societies – the Dispensation and the Acquis. The Dispensation is Californian and supremely capitalist. Its members talk like the flakiest of Hollywood “business” people. The Acquis are European.

As a writer or a visionary, Sterling has never been short of ideas, and there are plenty in The Caryatids. Most of them seem extrapolated from his arguments in Tomorrow Now and Shaping Things – ubiquitous computing, and complex devices created from simple components using unsophisticated techniques. This is a “spime”-dominated future.

Conversations can change minds. They can alter opinions. When conversing about the future, wiggle-room for such changes is built-in. The Caryatids is not going to be “educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life”, but it may well prove a catalyst for conversations which will do that. Gernsback might not recognise the 21st century version of his “scientification”, but for those of us living in the 21st Century and gazing into the abyss of the future, The Caryatids provides a thought-provoking, entertaining and perhaps important roadmap for the decades ahead.

This review originally appeared, with an interview with Bruce Sterling, in Interzone 221, March-April 2009.


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Science fiction is dead, long live science fiction

You can almost set your watch by the regularity with which claims that “science fiction is dead” appear. Except, of course, that wouldn’t be a very science-fictional metaphor in these days of atomic clocks and NTP. The latest iteration of this moan appears here. Certainly it’s true that fantasy outsells category science fiction, but to also claim that “half … of what is being sold as sci-fi is actually fantasy with some sci-fi elements” is risible.

Science fiction still lives but, more than that, it has also colonised the mainstream. In the cinema, sf is the genre of choice for tentpole releases. On television, it may have a less successful track-record, but many sf series have proven popular with non-genre audiences: Dr Who and Life on Mars, for example. Literary writers have in the last decade quite happily appropriated ideas from the sf toolbox for their novels – just look at this year’s Clarke Award winner, The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. (Though Roger’s usual publisher refused to take the book because it was sf; I bet they feel like complete plonkers now.) But even this is hardly new: John Fowles did it back in 1985 with A Maggot; Lawrence Durrell did it even earlier with Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970). There are plentiful other examples.

Science fiction is changing, that much is true. But it has been doing that since Gernsback published that first issue of Amazing Stories back in 1926. For one thing, he called it “scientifiction”, which happily never caught on. The genre has undergone numerous irruptions and make-overs during the course of its ninety-year history, and the fact it is now so widespread and so varied only demonstrates its rude health.

True, we’re not living in a science-fiction world. If we were, we’d have food-pills and jet-packs, there’d be a colony on the Moon, and most people would be wearing tinfoil jumpsuits. Or something. Instead, we have a dozen tin-cans strung together in Low Earth Orbit, only robots have gone further than cislunar space, and pills invented to replace food tend to get repurposed as recreational drugs and then criminalised… On the other hand, we do have smartphones, the internet, digital cameras, cars that cost as much as the turnover of a medium-sized company, pre-cooked bacon available in supermarkets, a climate we are slowly destroying so that multinationals can continue to make profits greater than most nations’ GDPs, and television shows more fatuous than anything George Orwell at his most cynical could ever have imagined.

The problem is that the dreams of science fiction from past decades have proven either unachievable or unsustainable. Is it any wonder then that the genre has turned increasingly escapist? This doesn’t make it fantasy, by any stretch of the, er, imagination; it does mean, however, that sf is no longer predicated on dreams of a better tomorrow created by science and engineering. Genre writers now – and those literary writers who dabble in genre – are putting the tools of science fiction to other uses.

Samuel Delany once said that one of the beauties of sf was that it could literalise metaphors. The example he used was “her world exploded”. You won’t find much in the way of metaphors in sf of the 1950s and earlier. Those so-called classic stories are pretty much straight up and straight down. WYSIWYG. But that doesn’t work anymore. What was designed to be plausible has become implausible. Such optimism in scientific solutions is now unconvincing. We know that science is only a tool, and not always used with the best intentions. “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, so to speak. We also know that even the laws of nature are apparently open to interpretation when there’s enough money involved.

I admit I am fascinated by the optimism inherent in science and engineering of past decades. That’s why I put up my irregular The future we used to have posts. I’ve explored that optimism in some of my own fiction – Adrift on the Sea of Rains is perhaps the best example so far. I am fascinated by the achievements made using raw engineering in the twentieth century: putting twelve men on the Moon, sending two men to the deepest part of the ocean in a steel ball, the numerous attempts to go faster and faster in wheeled vehicles or boats…

The one thing science fiction initially refused to acknowledge, and which we’re only belatedly beginning to accept, is that there is no escape. The universe is too vast and too inimical. We can only populate it using our imaginations. The fact that sf now uses more and more imaginative and fantastical inventions to do so doesn’t invalidate the genre. Sf may not reflect the real world as often as it should, but by ignoring the limitations placed on us in the real world the genre is responding to those limitations. Sf hasn’t forgotten the science, it’s just finding different ways to incorporate it into its stories.


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Whippleshield on the web

Well, the website for Whippleshield Books has now gone live and can be found here. I’ll be tweaking the design for a while yet, but at least now the books are available to buy. PayPal only at the moment, I’m afraid, but hopefully that may change.

You’ll notice there’s a section of the website selling secondhand books. I only have a couple of titles up at the moment, but more will appear during the next few weeks. I have several boxes’ worth of first edition genre novels I no longer want, so I’ll be selling them through the website. Some of them are even signed.

And then there’s the “submission guidelines”… Yes, Whippleshield Books is open to submissions. But of a very specific type of science fiction. Of a specific length. And I only plan to publish a very small handful of books a year. I wrote in the introduction to Rocket Science:

But if there’s one truism about editing a themed anthology, it’s this: the story you have in your head which perfectly illustrates your theme… you will never be sent that story.

… but I live in hope that Whippleshield Books will be sent exactly the sort of sf novellas I have in my head – and I don’t just mean those written by myself. And if some of them – say it quietly – are not even really science fiction as such, I won’t be especially bothered. I guess we’ll just have to see what gets submitted…


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Looking backwards to the future

Science fiction is an American mode of fiction. It was born in the white-hot enthusiasm for technology which prevailed in the electronics and mechanics magazines of the US during the 1920s. A prosperous future was imprinted on every page as new devices, new inventions, new scientific breakthroughs improved the standard of living of the USA’s technophilic middle class. It was the beginning of the age of the mod con, better living through engineering. The centre could not only hold, it was invulnerable. Even from internal threats. External enemies were defeated by technological mastery (and overwhelming force).

The American Dream was the only desirable and sustainable narrative of the future.

Even then, sf’s visions were problematical. The hopes and aspirations of these Americans, the mores and sensibilities of the US middle class, provided the culture in which sf blossomed and grew. Achievements were embodied in those who were first, not in those behind the scenes who made it possible. Neil Armstrong conquered the Moon, not NASA. Indeed, NASA was seen as a brake on the exploitation of space – private industry was the best vehicle for progress. And it was powered by the most powerful engine of all: the profit motive. Profit led to riches which provided the freedom to self-actualise – and so profit came to trump all other considerations. Riches became an end, not just a means to an end. Since governments curbed such headlong growth in the name of society and not individuals, they were characterised as obstacles. Humanity – well, man – could not reach his true destiny unless his growth were unfettered.

And yet…

Progress should lead to a world which is fairer and more just. The futures we narrate should reflect this. If we look back at the history of our world, we see a clear, if somewhat irregular, progression toward a more moral and socially-improved present day. So why should we base our visions of the future on the sensibilities of the past? Why should we embody in our science fictions the aspirations of a generation ninety years ago? Their present is not our present. Some of their dreams have already been achieved, some have already been discarded as unattainable, some of them have been determined to be undesirable.

These are not thought-experiments, stories in which the world itself provides some object lesson to those unable to look up from the page. These are action-adventure stories set on alien worlds, in galactic empires, in corporate-dominated futures, in urban wastelands and plutocratic societies. And in every one, many of those freedoms and rights painfully won over the past 250,000 years have been reversed to give us… Sexism. Racism. Slavery. Endemic violence. Brutish behaviour. Rape.

Of course, science fiction is the fiction of the privileged. It’s the culture of the privileged displaying their mandate in the most naked form imaginable. Only in this way can civilisation be wrested from savagery – or so their carefully-doctored history books tell them. They have the right to kill and maim and rape and impoverish those who do not accept their dominion because they will better off for it… whether they want to be or not.

This dominion extends into the realms of the imagination, into the worlds of the yet-to-be and the never-to-be. New science leads to new forms of life and, almost universally in sf, such new people are treated as non-people, as slaves, as property. Though our science fictions demand we present them as human as ourselves, their origins tell them against them. New science leads to new scientific bigotry.

Even worse, it’s not just these new people we have invented whom sf mistreats. Women are often no better off in sciencce fictions than they were during the genre’s golden age. Other cultures are blithely ignored, or pillaged in a quest for the “exotic”. Invented worlds are always monocultural – and that culture is the culture in which sf was born and grew to squalling infanthood. But then sf is designed to explore the desires and concerns of this culture. The only Others who appear are either aliens or enemies. Foreigners need not apply.

Too many of us refuse to look too closely. We are blinded by the wonder, our gaze is captured by the shiny toys. We privilege the “idea” and forget it is only one aspect of the stories we tell. We allow our assumptions and preconceptions and prejudices to validate our fictional futures. We forget to challenge. We want our future to be comfortable for us to visit, even if it is a dystopia. So we populate it with things we will unthinkingly accept, and never question its likelihood, its rigour, its plausibility, or the effects it might have on others.

Were such Randian technowank fantasies what Hugo Gernsback had in mind when he first published Amazing Stories?

I keep on finding myself circling around a pair of genre movements from recent years: Mundane SF and Optimistic SF. I was a fan of neither when they originally appeared. They seemed unnecessary restrictions – in fact, Mundane SF felt like it was throwing out of sf all the best toys. But when genre becomes defined by its toys, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate their usefulness.

And what should we replace those toys with?

The real world of the twenty-first century, of course.

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