It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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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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2014 reading diary, #2

I spent much of February catching up with 2013 novels for my Hugo ballot. While this included a number of books by authors I usually read and enjoy, I also chose a number of edge cases that had looked interesting. I also didn’t have a computer at home during two weeks of February, which is why I was uncharacteristically quiet during the latter half of the month… It also meant I got a lot of reading done – nine books in four days at one point – so I’ll keep my comments on each book short as there’s more than the usual number of them. Incidentally, I’m still sticking to alternating genders in my fiction reading.

proxima-ukProxima, Stephen Baxter (2013). Not sure what I was expecting this to be like – the publicity suggested I might like it… but I found it more like Exultant (see here) than Coalescent (see here). In other words, I thought it juvenile and thick with indigestible lumps of exposition; and while there was plenty of invention on display, no single idea was neat enough to make the book stand out. Criminals are transported to an inhabitable exoplanet in the titular star system, and what a surprise they prove completely unsuitable as pioneer colonist material. We’ve got rape and violence and warlordism in a century that has settlements throughout the Solar System and can even send spacecraft to another planetary system. But those criminal types do stumble across an enigmatic alien device which links the exoplanet with Mercury. This novel won’t be going on my Hugo ballot.

reddocRed Doc>, Anne Carson (2013). This was shortlisted for the Kitschies earlier this year, which is why I bought a copy and read it. It’s a poem, told in a mix of styles, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. While I find its genre aspects all a bit wishy-washy, there are moments of great beauty in it, and the dialogue in the told sections reads truer than anything you might find in a category genre novel. Since it’s not a novel, novella or short story, but a poem, I’m going to put it on my Hugo ballot as a related work. As far as I know, there’s nothing in the rules which says a related work has to be non-fiction.

On-the-Steel-BreezeOn the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds (2013). This is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth and the middle book of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Much of it concerns a covert war prosecuted by Arachne, an AI built to monitor a huge space-based telescopic array, because of course all machine intelligences are completely fixated on destroying non-machine life. There’s also a convoy of “holoships” – hollowed-out asteroids – en route to an exoplanet, on whose surface is an enormous enigmatic alien feature, the Mandala. The story focuses on three “clones” of Chiku Akinya, labelled Red, Yellow and Green – it’s a bit more complicated than cloning, something called “Quorum Binding”, which allows them to update each other’s memories, as is helpfully explained to one of the Chikus early in the novel by another character, even though, of course, she already knows how it works. One of the Chikus stayed on Earth; one set off in pursuit of Eunice Akinya’s space craft, Winter Queen (from Blue Remembered Earth); and one joined the  fleet of holoships heading for the exoplanet Crucible. There are some nice set-pieces – I liked, for example, the one set on the surface of Venus, even if it didn’t seem to add much to the plot. The societies in the holoships turn totalitarian because, of course, totalitarianism is the default setting of any society in a science fiction novel – much as I disagree that hard sf is inherently right wing, the preponderance of right-wing societies in it is tiresome. There are also some uplifted elephants, a genius scientist who has a set of pronouns all of “vir” own, more about the mer people from the first book, and even some giant enigmatic alien machines orbiting Crucible, the presence of which had been hidden from humanity by Arachne. It’s certainly a polished novel,and what Reynolds does he does well, but it doesn’t quite meet the promise suggested by the first book of the trilogy. Of course, there’s still a final book to come, so perhaps that will do the trick. This book is not going on my Hugo ballot.

lifeafterlifeLife After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013). I’d never heard of Atkinson until her Jackson Brody books were adapted for television – even though her debut novel won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 and she’s a pretty big-selling author in the UK. However, it was hard not to be aware of Life After Life, her latest book, as it’s already won the Costa Novel Award, is arguably genre, and has been talked about by a number of my online friends and acquaintances. A young woman born in 1910 dies at various times during her life, each time being reborn back in 1910 and somehow – sometimes only through some subconscious prompting – each time managing to avoid her fate from the previous time around. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – a pleasantly engaging protagonist, nicely witty prose, and a very smooth read without being as bland as commercial fiction. Recommended. I’ll be putting this one on my Hugo ballot.

themachineThe Machine, James Smythe (2013). Smythe is banging out books like they’re an endangered species, but if the two I’ve read are any indication he’s no hack. The machine of the title of this novel is used to remove troublesome memories, but it’s later discovered that prolonged use puts the patients into a persistent vegetative state. Like Vic, Beth’s husband, a soldier who returned from the war with severe PTSD, turned increasingly violent and so opted for treatment with the Machine, but is now in a nursing hostel, oblivious to everything. So Beth buys a black market Machine, “kidnaps” her husband, and uses her Machine to restore his memories and so restore him. The name “Ballard” has been thrown around a lot in reference to The Machine, and certainly the setting – a sink estate on a post-global-warming Isle of Wight – feels very Ballardian, although the story itself doesn’t feel much like a Ballardian commentary on society. The prose is good, written in present tense with no quotation marks – which, obviously, is a style I’m all for… but why does it feel like everyone is doing it these days, eh? The ending may not come as much of a surprise, although perhaps reading Smythe’s The Explorer I’d been primed to expect a twist. Good stuff – and I have one spot left on my Hugo novel ballot and this is the current front-runner for it.

22.-The-Shining-GirlsThe Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes (2013). After Beukes’ Clarke Award-winning Zoo City, we have a high-concept commercial thriller, though the concept is enough to make it genre: a time-travelling serial killer. There’s a house in Chicago, and the killer can use it to access any time from the 1930s, when he discovers the house, to the 1990s. He jumps back and forth through the decades, stalking and killing young women, often ones he has previously visited while they were kids. They are the “shining girls”, so called by him because they have some quality which would have led them to live remarkable lives had he not murdered them. The Shining Girls is a fast, pacey read with a good sense of time and place, but the plot feels a bit too choppy to gel in places and the whole never feels quite complete somehow. This one will not be going on my Hugo ballot.

DofPThe Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann (2013). I’m a fan of Mann’s science fiction – I have all of his novels in hardback. So I was particularly happy to discover he had something new out, seventeen years after his last novel, 1996’s The Burning Forest. But, oh dear. The Disestablishment of Paradise refers to the final months of the Earth colony on the exoplanet called Paradise – this is what disestablishment is, the removal of a colony from a world – and the scientist, and her “assistant”, who remain behind and learn something more about the planet and its flora (it has no fauna). Particularly the Peripatetic Dendron, which is a sort of giant animated three-legged tree, and the Michelangelo-Reaper, which is a plant with psychic powers of some sort. There’s no denying that Paradise is a fascinating place, and that Mann draws a beguiling picture of it; but the human dynamics in The Disestablishment of Paradise are woefully old-fashioned (especially in regard to the female characters) and the dialogue is stilted at best. The story is framed as the novelisation of the reminiscences of the scientist, as told to a writer best-known for dark and edgy children’s books; and I’m not entirely sure what that conceit adds. There are occasional asides to the reader – and several appendices of supplementary material, which are referenced in the narrative – but it’s not enough to jolly along the somewhat plodding pace. One of the longest set-pieces is the “saving of the Dendron”, which seems to go on and on and on, with an excess of detail into Dendron physiology. After reading The Disestablishment of Paradise, I’m going to have to reread Mann’s earlier novels, as I don’t remember them being as dull or stodgy as this one. The Disestablishment of Paradise will not be appearing on my Hugo ballot.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985) I read this for review on SF Mistressworks.

martian-sandsMartian Sands, Lavie Tidhar (2013). Or Tidhar does Dick. Again. I am not much of a fan of Philip K Dick’s work – there are a couple I like, but the only reason I own so many of his damn books is because almost half of the SF Masterworks series consisted of works by him. Martian Sands reads like a pastiche of Dick – and for me, that’s its biggest problem. It’s as if the plots and settings of a dozen of PKD’s novels were glommed together, and then roughly stitched into a single narrative using a magic chest full of sf references and in-jokes.  I know some preferred this to The Violent Century, but I thought the other book much the better of the two. I won’t be putting Martian Sands on my Hugo ballot

countdownforcindyCountdown For Cindy, Eloise Engle (1962). I couldn’t resist this when I saw it on eBay, chiefly because it offered a 1960s take on women in space – which is something I’d covered in Apollo Quartet 3, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The “MOON NURSE!” on the back was just a bonus. Interestingly, according to a foreword the author interviewed both Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, both of whom appear in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (actually, Cobb is one of my novella’s two protagonists). I’m working on a full review of Countdown For Cindy, to be posted here soon-ish.

aftermackenzieAfter Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Jean Rhys (1930). It was M John Harrison who recommended Jean Rhys on Twitter – some time last year, I seem to recall – during a conversation about women writers. Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across this book in a charity shop, and decided to give it a go. Julia has left her husband after the death of their baby, and is now living hand-to-mouth in a Parisian fleapit hotel. Desperate for money, she returns to London, hoping to sponge off relatives and/or past lovers. There’s a distant tone to this short novel, a weird lack of affect, as if Julia didn’t quite fully inhabit her life or the story – and, as a consequence, it’s hard to really care if Julia is successful or not. There’s an admirable clarity to the prose, and some nice turns of phrases in the descriptions – like “Behind the curtains was a green and optimistic sun-blind, faintly irritating, like a stupid joke” – and it all adds up to a curiously timeless prose-style. The sensibilities and lifestyles being described might be from the Thirties, but the language feels like it could belong to any decade of the Twentieth Century. That’s pretty impressive. If I see any more books by Rhys in charity shops, I’ll probably take a punt on them, but this one feels a little too languid for my tastes so I’ll not be in any rush to track down her work.

relevant_jonathan1The Man from Charisma, Ted Mark (1970). I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, or one of its sequels, Rip It Off, Relevant!. Perhaps I read something somewhere that suggested it might be amusing. It wasn’t. Jonathan Relevant is discovered naked on an iceberg after test missiles launched by a US and a Soviet nuclear submarine accidentally collide and explode above it. Relevant appears different to different people – to Soviet scientist Dr Ludmilla Skivar, he’s a studly Gagarin; to US Paper Clipped scientist Professor Von Schweindrek, he’s a model of Aryan masculinity; to African-American student activist G-for-George Pullman Porter, he’s Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver… The Soviets lay claim to Relevant, but the CIA steals him from them, and hides him in a CIA-sponsored research institute at Hartnell University… whose admin building has just been occupied by radical students protesting a number of different things. Relevant gets dropped into the middle of this, and tries to resolve it – which shouldn’t be that difficult given how everyone sees him as what they want to see. But this is the late 1960s, so… “Every man sees him as his hero. Every woman sees him as her lustful dream.” Sigh. We’re strictly in right-on “comedy” territory from the Swinging Sixties, with all the bad and borderline offensive jokes that entails – not to mention some outright offensive characterisations of various groups of people. I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, and now I’ve read it I wished I hadn’t bought it. We’ll have to see if the sequel is any better – but I’m not holding my breath….


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The north face of Mount TBR

Owning books can be more fun than simply reading them. At least that’s what I tell myself when I eye the double-stacked book-shelves and piles of books on the floor of my house. Which is not to say that I plan to keep every one of the books mentioned in these book haul posts. Some of them will go to charity shops once I’ve read them, some of them will go elsewhere. But until I actually start reading more books each month than I buy, the piles are only going to get higher…

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New science fiction: Wool I’m reviewing for Interzone. It has come close to being hurled at the wall a couple of times. The Disestablishment of Paradise is a new book by a favourite author, who hasn’t had anything published for a good many years. I should probably have hung on for the UK edition of Rapture, but I do like my trilogies to all match and I already have the Night Shade editions of the first two books. Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary is a small press chapbook I bought on eBay. Helix Wars was sent me by Eric, and In Other Worlds I picked up for £3.99 in a discount bookshop in Wetherby.

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These six paperbacks I bought from Cold Tonnage. I may slag off van Vogt a lot, but some of his books transcend their chaotic bonkersness and I find them weirdly appealling. I don’t know if More Than Superhuman, Children of Tomorrow or The Silkie fit that bill. I guess I’ll find out. Colin Kapp is forgotten and under-rated Brit sf author who, like many of his 1960s and 1970s contemporaries, was chiefly published in the US. The Chaos Weapon and The Survival Game are among the last few of his I didn’t own. And Moonstar Odyssey I’ve been looking for a decent copy of for ages, though I can’t remember exactly why…

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Some secondhand sf. Pirates of the Universe I’ve been after for a while. The last time I bought a copy, I received a refund instead as the book had apparently suffered a “scissors accident” while the buyer was packing it to send. I know nothing about Endless Voyage, but the new Ace special series from the mid-1970s contains some odd books among its eleven titles. I’ve decided to collect them. 334 is a genre classic which I’ve never read, and The Days of Glory is the first book of Stableford’s Dies Irae trilogy. Both the last were charity shop finds.

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Vertigo was a birthday present, but all the rest were charity shop finds. I enjoyed the The Jane Austen Book Club, so I expect I’ll also enjoy The Sweetheart Season. Fowler’s genre work, of course, is excellent. Galatea 2.2 is literary-but-it’s-really-sf novel, which Powers has apparently done a couple of times. Nourishment is  Woodward’s latest; I enjoyed his first, August (see here). I’ve been meaning to try Ronald Frame’s fiction, but it’s taken me a while to find one of his books. And I’ve not checked The Prussian Officer and Other Stories yet, but I suspect I’ve already about half of its contents. But at least that’s half I’ve not read.

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These are research books for the next book of the Apollo Quartet. They might give a clue as to its story.

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Three books for three collections: The Mark Of The Warrior is a first edition, to go with my other Paul Scott first editions; Chariots for Apollo is for the space books collection; and 2,000 Fathoms Down in the Bathyscape joins my (currently very small) collection of books on bathyscaphes and deep sea exploration.

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