It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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2014, best of the half-year

We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.

Et voilà!

BOOKS
1 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.

2 Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.

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3 The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last - attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.

4 Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.

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5 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.

Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.

Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.

FILMS
1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

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2 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.

3 Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.

4 Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.

5 The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.

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Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.

And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.

ALBUMS
1 Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.

2 Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.

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3 From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.

4 The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.

5 Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.

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Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.


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The future we used to have, part 24

Here’s some twentieth-century somewhat scary techno-porn in lieu of real content, while I (supposedly) work on some new fiction – including Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows – some book reviews, and some non-fiction articles on various science fiction tropes.

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Lockheed XF-104 Starfighter

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Sukhoi Su-15 ‘Flagon’

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Mikoyan MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’

sea

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HMS Kent, a County class destroyer, Royal Navy

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HMS Victorious, Royal Navy

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Alfa class hunter/killer submarine, Red Navy

land

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Atom Proof City, from Look Magazine, 26 October 1948

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Missile Control Centre in a Minuteman II silo

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Blast door, NORAD, Cheyenne Mountain


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More on women-only science fiction anthologies

Back in April, I posted a list of women-only science fiction anthologies – see here – but since then I’ve discovered two more that should have been on my list:

futureevesFuture Eves, Jean Marie Stine, ed. (2002) Subtitled “Classic sf by women about women”, this anthology is split into two sections: From the 1920s – ’30s and From the 1940s – ’50s. It contains stories by Leslie F Stone, Margaretta W Rea, Hazel Heald, Evelyn Goldstein, Marcia Kamien, Joy Leache, Betsy Curtis, Beth Elliott and Helen Clarkson. There’s a couple of names there new to me – Rea’s story is apparently the only one she ever had published (in Amazing, Jan 1933), Goldstein had eight stories published between 1954 and 1960, Kamien three in the mid-1950s, Leache three from 1959 to 1961, and Elliott only one in 1959. Clarkson is also known for a single story, which was reprinted in New Eves – see my review here.

rotator_women-225x300Women Resurrected: Stories from Women Science Fiction Writers of the 50′s, Greg Fowlkes, ed. (2011) This is from a small press which seems to specialise in “resurrecting” old and forgotten genre works – not just science fiction, but also mystery and adventure. Women Resurrected contains stories by Pauline Ashwell, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Florence Verbell Brown, Barbara Constant, Betsy Curtis, Dorothy de Courcy, Miriam Allen deFord, Helen Huber, Jean M Janis, Elisabeth R Lewis, Katherine MacLean, Judith Merril, Evelyn E Smith, Lyn Venable, Ann Walker, Elaine Wilber, Therese Windser and Mari Wolf. Yet more unfamiliar names – Brown (1 story only published), Constant (2 stories), de Courcy (20 stories), Huber (1 story), Janis (2 stories), Lewis (1 story), Venable (7 stories), Walker (1 story), Wilber (1 story), Windser (1 story) and Wolf (7 stories).

None of these “unknown” writers had careers that lasted beyond the early 1960s. It’s tempting to wonder why – marriage? children? no longer welcome by editors? It also seems odd that de Courcy, with twenty stories published between 1946 and 1954, should prove so obscure, especially given that a woman sf writer – Pamela Zoline – is still known today for a single story published in 1967 (and she only published 5 in total throughout her career). Perhaps the fact de Courcy co-wrote with – husband? brother? – John de Courcy explains it. The same might also be said of Mari Wolf, who wrote alone - I mean, how can you forget a writer whose first story was titled ‘Robots of the World! Arise!’.

So that’s a pair of anthologies which focus on the early decades of science fiction and women’s contribution to it. According to Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin, there were 65 women writers published in science fiction magazines between 1926 and 1949, and a further 138 who debuted between 1950 and 1960. In total, those 203 women sf writers produce 922 stories during those 34 years, averaging between 5% and 16% by title of the total contents for genre magazines throughout the period.

After 1960, of course, and the appearance of massmarket paperbacks in supermarkets, there was a huge influx of female sf readers and writers… and yet common perception still has it that women writers are a small minority – as if the situation prior to 1960 has held true for the last 50 years. Even worse, little or none of those pre-1960 women sf writers are ever collected, or appear on lists of “classic” sf… further feeding into the myth that women did not write sf during those decades. Happily, the above two anthologies prove this untrue . More like them, please.


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SF Mistressworks in Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly

Starting this month, Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly will reprint a review from SF Mistressworks. You can download #3 Apr-Jun 2014 of the magazine here. For this first appearance, they’ve chosen my review of Vonda N McIntyre’s Fireflood and Other Stories. I’m very happy with Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly’s offer to host a SF Mistressworks review each issue as it will bring some excellent science fiction by women writers to a wider – and appreciative – audience.

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Memory jog

The latest issue of Perihelion Online Science Fiction Magazine has appeared, and among its many fine stories is one of mine – ‘Waters of Lethe’. It’s about a bathyscaphe journey to the bottom of Europa’s world-ocean. Sort of. You can read it here.

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I’ve now written stories which feature Wilfred Owen, Spitfires, the Bell, Apollo astronauts, flying boats, rocket sleds, bathyscaphes… What to do next?


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Moving pictures, #4

Another dash through across the silver screen. Here are some of the more notable films I’ve watched recently.

The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA) Three women are employed at a New York publishing house. One makes the jump from secretary to reader to editor. The first half of the film is one of those beautifully-photographed 1950s melodramas, with some lovely shots of the New York of the time. Disappointingly, the second half trades that in for soap opera office politics.

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Elysium, Neill Blomkamp (2013, USA) Rich people live in the lap of luxury in the eponymous space habitat, while everyone else suffers in abject poverty on Earth – but that’s as far as the social commentary goes. This is really just another implausible actioner with a nice line in visuals and a bad handle on the laws of physics.

Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom, Piotr Szulkin (1986, Poland) Barking mad sf film, in which an astronaut lands on another world… which proves to be just like this one, except they treat their heroes somewhat differently. Not so much black comedy as fulginous.

Head-on, Fatih Akin (2004, Germany) Marriage of convenience between young Turkish-German woman and older Turkish-German man, so she can live the life she wants away from her traditional family, turns sour when the pair fall in love and he accidentally kills an ex-lover of hers. Not the most sympathetic of lead characters, but the actors playing them carry the film. Excellent.

Argo, Ben Affleck (2012, USA) You know when Canada rescued those US hostages from Iran back in 1980? Well, it wasn’t Canada that did it, it was the CIA. Yes, Americans. The whole film feels like a petulant grab to correct misplaced credit decades after the fact. And we’ll not mention the stupid race-against-time at the end to get the hostages out of the country…

The Killers, Robert Siodmak (1946, USA) Classic noir told through flashback, which explains why a pair of killers drove into town and killed garage mechanic Burt Lancaster. Turns out Burt used to be involved with a bad crowd, who pulled off a payroll robbery which turned nasty. Ava Gardner vamps it up, but I thought Rita Hayworth was better in Gilda (also released in 1946).

Villa Amalia, Benoît Jacquot (2009, France) Pianist Isabelle Huppert walks away from her life and settles down in the eponymous run-down villa in Italy. Beautifully shot, elegantly told. There something about the feel of the film which reminds me of François Ozon’s Under the Sand.

VILLA AMALIA un film de Benoit Jacquot

The Bank Dick, Edward Cline (1940, USA) WC Fields inadvertently catches a bank robber, is employed as the bank’s security guard as reward, and promptly cocks that up – much as he does everything. Mildly amusing, though not a patch on Laurel & Hardy.

Follow The Boys, Eddie Sutherland (1944, USA) Hollywood stars entertain the troops at training camps throughout the US during WWII, plus back-story showing how it all came about (entertaining the troops, that is, not WWII). Lots of cameos by big names. WC Fields is genuinely funny, Orson Welles puts on a magic act that clearly relies on camera trickery, and there’s a good tap dance in the rain from star of the film George Raft.

The Ugliest Woman In The World, Miguel Bardem (1999, Spain) Near-future thriller about a female killer which seems to have been inspired by so many other films it makes it difficult to remember what you’re watching. The premise is iffy – ugly young woman undergoes experimental gene therapy, which turns her beautiful… so she murders a contestant in the Miss Spain beauty pageant, takes her place, and proceeds to kill the other contestants. But the film is so odd, it sort of hangs together.

The Neptune Factor, Daniel Petrie (1973, Canada) Stone-faced grump Ben Gazzara is captain of a model submersible which is menaced by magnified tropical fish while searching for an underwater habitat lost during a seaquake. Oh, and there’s a giant crab too. They manage to find a pair of survivors, although how they didn’t get squished by the pressure is never explained. Jacques Cousteau it’s not.

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Fables of the Deconstruction

I’ve recently been reading a new science fiction anthology for review for Interzone and this, coupled with David Hebblethwaite’s remarks on science fiction awards here and Nina Allan’s comments here, has brought into focus some elements of my increasing dissatisfaction with the genre and its resistance to progress. Especially hard science fiction.

David complains about the lack of experimentation in form in sf, but I think there’s also a lack of experimentation in settings and narratives in hard sf. It’s all very well using cutting-edge science, the latest descriptions of exoplanets or the moons of Jupiter… But it always remains outside, outside the reader’s viewpoint on the plot, outside the characters’ psychology, their motivations or perceptions or worldview. While it’s true human beings need a specific environment to survive, and will take their society and transplant it wherever they may find themselves, irrespective of that external environment… their new surroundings will affect them, will change them. Not only must they make accommodations with their location, but their society will likely change as a result. But it rarely seems to in science fiction stories. Writers simply transplant a society little different to the writer’s present to their new environment, and add some technological bells and whistles to justify its presence. Even worse, they often model their society on an older one, such as the Wild West, with all its lawlessness and amorality, and stick it on, say, Io. How progressive is that? It’s not, of course. For all the story’s gimmickry and ideas, it still posits the sort of individualistic and brutal human (male, usually) that hasn’t characterised human society for centuries and is certainly unlikely to do so in the future.

To me, hard science fiction’s inability to reflect its settings in the psychology of its protagonists is a failure of the imagination. A good non-genre example would be Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, comprising The Jewel In The Crown, The Day Of The Scorpion, The Towers Of Silence and A Division Of The Spoils. It covers the years leading up to, and during, the independence of India, but much of the story is set among British expatriates in the country. While the British in India built communities that were models of those back home in the UK, they could not help but evolve into something different through contact with the country’s population. And the people living in those countries changed too – so much so that they often suffered culture-shock on their return to Britain.

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If you look further afield in sf, particularly in the short fiction market, there’s plainly a twenty-first century strain of the genre, one which freely borrows imagery and tropes from fantasy and New Weird. It also displays a greater spread of settings, societies and protagonists. Personally, I think the focus on imagery is mostly surface and usually hides a lack of sfnal progress – that’s progress in terms of how science fiction works, of course; the elements which go together to create science fictions and so differentiate them from other works of literature. The other areas in which sf is progressing – diversity, non-binary gender, etc – I think are excellent and long past due.

All this makes hard sf’s insistence on sticking to old story patterns all the more puzzling. I once defended hard sf from an accusation of being inherently right-wing. I still think it’s not right-wing, though I recognise many of its proponents write from a right-wing perspective. But certainly the subgenre is reactionary and conservative (with a small “c”, note). It doesn’t have to be. The laws of physics may be immutable, but there’s nothing that says human societies always tend to the Competent Man (usually a white Westerner) lording it over others by virtue of his competence, wits and willingness to commit violence. In fact, that’s a pretty offensive characterisation of human society. It’s sadly also widely prevalent in hard sf (and in sf too, in a wider sense).

Nina Allan, in her post, writes that sf no longer seems to comment on political and social issues, nor displays “evocative and original use of language”. She also makes a very useful distinction – between authors who write from within science fiction and authors who “draw their influences from science fiction”. Both her and David’s comments are addressed to the former – as are mine.

I think Nina makes some interesting points, but her comment about language seems to me to forget that science fiction is chiefly a genre of commercial fiction, with much of its DNA provided by pulp fiction. The current economic climate (well, actually, the global economy the neoliberals and neocons have gifted us over the past thirty years) means publishers prize commercial science fiction more than they do literary science fiction. The small presses – and self-published authors, to some extent – have picked up the latter baton, but they are still small fry in a large profit-driven ocean. When writing commercial fiction in any genre, there’s a tendency to stick to tried and tested – and familiar and lucrative – patterns. So it doesn’t really surprise me that prose in sf novels is blanding out, or even that ideas and the presentation of those ideas is tending to more… comfortable forms. I can rue this, I can compare it unfavourably with the situation thirty or forty years ago… but there are too many things that need to change, many of which the publishing industry has no control over, before it can be resolved. Plus, there are other issues which need to be addressed first – notably the lack of diversity, and the preponderance of sexism and racism – and it’s good that the sf conversation keeps on talking about these topics and is making progress at combatting them.

But. Science fiction. The stuff that makes these stories what they are. Nina uses this year’s Clarke Award shortlist as a barometer of the state of the genre. Which is not necessarily a fair argument. It has never been part of the award’s remit, and the jury are, as she acknowledges, all too human – in fact, I suspected one of the judges of championing the Mann but when I asked they said they hadn’t… which only shows the danger of making such assumptions. And speaking of Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, for all the book’s faults, it can’t be accused of not being experimental in form. True, its structure is hardly original – a story-within-a-story, with “author” interpolations, plus ancillary material presented as appendices – but neither is it the far more common straightforward linear narrative, or indeed the relatively common dual narrative, past versus present, of the eventual winner, Ancillary Justice.

The point I’m trying to make, which unfortunately I keep on ruining by drifting from the point, is that the science-fictionalness, to coin a phrase, of a text, particularly hard sf, has not appreciably progressed for decades. I don’t doubt that the bulk of sf authors in years past never really bothered to interrogate or deconstruct the tropes they used – although some did, Samuel R Delany certainly did – and likewise very little present-day science fiction makes a serious attempt at examining the science-fictional assumptions, the tropes and genre furniture, of which it makes use. Nor do they explore the psychology of their protagonists. These, I think, are not only a missed opportunities, but also make sf, for me, a less interesting genre than it could be in the twenty-first century.

So let’s add these things together – from David, the lack of experimentation in form; from Nina, the lack of contemporary commentary; and from myself, the failure to examine what science fiction actually does and why it does it… Surely there’s something in among that lot worth exploring? Which is why the hard sf anthology I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post proved so disappointing a read – and also seemed to be so emblematic of much that I feel in sf isn’t working for me. The anthology’s contents certainly met its theme, and they definitely qualified as “hard science fiction”… but there were so many unaddressed assumptions implicit in the stories, and so little examination of what makes a story hard sf rather than simply sf, that I couldn’t understand why the editors had even bothered to put it together.

Science fiction is by definition fecund terrain for stories. Hard sf may add some restrictions, but that should in no way limit how it tells its stories. Why can’t sf writers dig a little deeper into the tropes they use so blithely? Why can’t they take science fiction apart, examine it from all angles, and then put it back together in interesting ways? I’d not only like to see that happen to a much greater extent than it does presently, I’d like to see it as the default mode for writing science fiction - especially hard science fiction.

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