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Fables of the Deconstruction, #1: Robots

All too often, people point at the tropes in a piece of fiction and use them to categorise it. This story has spaceships in it, therefore it’s science fiction; this one has elves, so it must be fantasy. One of the tropes often used to “identify” sf is the robot – well, a robot is clearly the product of technology, it’s an artificial person, a mechanical man or woman (or neither). What’s not science-fictional about that?

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The term “robot” comes from Karel Čapek’s RUR (1920), and is derived from the Czech word robota, a local form of serfdom in which serfs had to work only for a specified number of days each year for their liege. RUR was first translated into English in 1923 but, according to the OED’s Science Fiction Citations, the word’s first appearance in English wasn’t until 1925, in a novel by French-born British writer Thomas Charles Bridges, The City of No Escape. However, it was the mid-1930s before “robot” appeared in US science fiction magazines. It was then, of course, co-opted by Isaac Asimov, who wrote some forty short stories and a few novels (it’s hard to be precise as Asimov spent much of his later years trying to stitch his oeuvre into one great stupid shared future history, featuring both psychohistory and robots).

Čapek’s robota were actually biological – what are now commonly referred to as “androids” – so I’m not entirely sure why the term was adopted for purely mechanical beings. Perhaps this was because the mechanical being was an already existing trope: the automaton. (The SF Encyclopedia indicates there was a story in the November 1931 issue of Amazing titled ‘Automaton’.) But automata were real things – marvels of mechanical ingenuity, show-pieces, designed to display their inventor’s cleverness and so win them the patronage of some wealthy potentate; and they were often fake (the Mechanical Turk, for example). Automata were typically good for a single task, and in no way a replacement for a human being.

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Go even further back, of course, and you have the golem, an automaton powered and controlled entirely by magic. There are also automata in Greek mythology, built by Hephaestus – such as Talos, the giant bronze man who protected the island of Europa (although it seems the clockwork owl in Clash Of The Titans is an invention of the film’s writers). But neither automata nor golems fit in with early science fiction’s burning enthusiasm for science and engineering, for technology. If electronics magazines showed readers how to build their own television sets, their readers were hardly likely to be interested in a mechanical servant which required magical incantations to operate.

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And yes, servant – because technology exists, so these magazines would have you believe, to make life easier and more comfortable, and what could improve comfort more than a servant – to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetch the mail, etc. And because these robots are servants, so they must be in the shape of a human being. Unlike real servants, however – and here lies their obvious superiority – they don’t require wages, food or rest, will always perform tasks to the high standard required, and will never be lazy, sullen, unresponsive or rebellious. In other words, robots are perfect slaves, but without offending anyone’s delicate morals. This could, however, be taken too far, as in Jack Williamson’s ‘With Folded Hands…’ (1947), in which robots do such a good job of looking after humanity that the race becomes too weak to survive without them. Or they could prove so ubiquitous that some humans might believe they were robots themselves, as in Margaret St Clair’s ‘Asking’ (1955) – although once the protagonist learns her true nature, she adopts all the arrogance of a slave-owner toward robots.

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In the real world, robots are entirely different. They’re more often referred to by a name specific to their purpose, such as a Computer Numerical Controlled Machine or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle or space probe. They’re built for specific tasks, or to perform within specific spheres of operation; and programmed only for that task or for that sphere. They’re used in situations that are too dangerous for human beings – eg, AUVs and space probes – but they’re not capable of everything a human could do. Or they’re used to perform repetitive tasks more quickly, more frequently and more accurately than a human could. In such cases, building robots in the form of a human being is not an advantage.

Science fiction, however, rarely shows robots as CNC machines, AUVs or space probes, but almost always as anthropomorphic machines. (Although Star Wars didn’t – not only is R2-D2 one of the most famous robots in sf cinema, but remember the variety of robot forms in the Jawa Crawler?) The SF Encyclopedia claims robots have proven popular in sf cinema because they can be played by human actors. (These days, of course, they’re done using CGI.) But in written sf? Why this insistence on human form? Why this need to present them as mechanical humans? After all, pretending robots are human is effectively treating them as an underclass, as slaves. If they are human in all but origin – something which applies just as much to artificially-created persons, such as the title character in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, – if they are human to that degree, then to treat them as not-human is no more than scientific bigotry, it’s the sort of immoral rationalisation used by owners of slaves.

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There are certainly science fictions featuring robots which question the morality of their existence, but they’re uncommon. Asimov used his robots to solve simplified moral conundrums, based around his Three Laws, which are themselves a moral code reduced to a single dimension – a moral code, that is, which does not question the existence or ownership of robots. Implicit in the use of anthropomorphic robots in almost every science fiction is an acceptance of slavery. And, to make matters worse, such robots are often then dehumanised – Cylons referred to as “toasters” in Battlestar Galactica, for example. Having created these ersatz people and enslaved them, they need to be reduced to the status of machines in order to justify ownership. They’re the people we demonise because we want to excuse our poor treatment of them, because we want to justify our belief that they are inferior to us. Much like the Tories are doing to the poor and unemployed in 21st Century Britain – calling them “skivers” and “scroungers”, as if it is their own fault, it is something they’ve done themselves, which means they’re not as good, not as human, as everyone else.

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And speaking of Cylons, they’re another form of robot common in science fictions: the killer robot. Arguably, these sorts of robots are more common in twenty-first century science fictions (horribly old-fashioned Hugo-nominated stories by Mike Resnick notwithstanding). Robots make an excellent enemy because they are implacable – unlike humans, or even aliens, they will not stop, they cannot surrender, and you can destroy as many of them as possible without worrying about the morality of it all. Likewise, generals can sacrifice countless numbers of robots for the most trivial of gains, and it doesn’t really matter since they’re little more than smart bombs. It’s the machine-nature of war-robots that is stressed, and not their human-like qualities. Owning people, it seems, is fine in sf, but the genre still feels some small qualms at killing them in great numbers.

Of course, real robots are not people. No matter how sophisticated their programming, the code which drives them is still a series of IF and WHILE and FOR loops. Any operation they perform must be part of their programming… or they can’t do it. Even if they do have the right snazzy tool fitted to one of their manipulator arms. Smartphones are pretty damn clever devices, but no one would ever consider them more than a machine. The same is true of supercomputers, Voyager 1, Curiosity, a UAV or those dancing industrial robots in that old Volkswagen advert.

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Perhaps people think there are no dramatic possibilities, other than in military sf, in robots-as-machines. Perhaps that’s why authors and film-makers have their robots look and behave like human beings. But once upon a time, science fiction’s spacecraft all used to resemble pointy rockets, of the sort painted by Chesley Bonestell in those Collier’s Magazine articles by Wernher von Braun. Look at the cover art of any late twentieth century or twenty-first century science fiction novel, however, and you’ll now see a huge variety in sizes, shapes and designs of spaceships.

What I think would be interesting would be to ditch the anthropomorphic robot, the ersatz human, with all its dodgy moral baggage, and instead treat robots as they actually are – like space probes, CNC machines, UAVs: ie, accept that they are products of their programming, they are tools, very sophisticated tools, but ones which can only perform tasks for which they have been designed and programmed. After all, it’s the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t be presenting worlds in which people, artificial or otherwise, are enslaved; we should be creating visions of the future in which technology plays a true role, is not just setting or a piece of hand-wavery used to justify magical maguffins. Far too many science fictions use genre tropes as little more than window-dressing for stories based on historical templates and loaded with historical baggage.


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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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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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Writing, creativity and the internet

So apparently George RR Martin writes his novels using some 1980s software running on a computer that has no internet connection. Because obviously Game of Thrones needed to be mentioned again in the national press and this seemed like a good excuse. But seriously, I don’t see what’s news-worthy or admirable in someone who continues to use thirty-year-old technology when far more sophisticated and useful wordprocessors exist today. It has nothing to do with “creativity”.

As for the internet being a “distraction”. Well, okay, Martin doesn’t exactly have to check his facts or look things up because he’s writing big fat commercial fantasy and where do you research that sort of stuff? (Other than the history the author is ripping off, of course.) But some of us do a lot of research, and the internet is pretty damn useful for that. Sometimes it’s just a first port of call, before moving onto more detailed books on the topic; other times, the internet provides more than enough information for the purpose.

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I’ve often wondered how writers – especially science fiction writers – managed before the invention of the Web. I remember James P Hogan on a panel at the 2005 Worldcon talking about the various contacts he had made during his career – he admitted he was quite shameless at approaching people he thought might prove useful and blagging their contact details – and how he’d telephone them if he needed their expertise. So that was one method. And, of course, there are libraries. But reading some Golden Age science fiction, it’s plain a lot of sf authors didn’t even bother – they just made it up and assumed no one would catch them out. Nowadays, given that readers have access to exactly the same tools as writers, getting caught out is almost a certainty. (And it’s not like authors before the Web weren’t pulled up on their mistakes either – cf Larry Niven having the Earth rotate the wrong way in Ringworld; or indeed the design of the ringworld itself.)

There’s no such thing as too much research, although it’s certainly possible to put too much of the research into the narrative. Unlike Kim Stanley Robinson, I don’t consider the info-dump just another narrative tool in the sf writer’s toolbox - so no, I don’t think it can be used freely without embarrassment. Exposition is a speedbump, or a pothole, in the reader’s journey through a story. However, I do think a writer can make a virtue of the research. Some, in fact. do. But there are those, on the other hand, who do it really badly – like this one:

“Ready, Barn,” the lunar commander replied.

“Okay. TIG 142034700 NOUN 67 5530000370 plus 0002, need A 47 in plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955, needle 465 is plus 00370, needle 546 is NA. Ignition 1 Rev late is 1440209, toug weight 10789. Over.”

“Roger. Copy 142034700 55350000370 plus 0002 plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955 plus 00370, NA 1440209, tug weight 10789. Over.”

“That’s affirmative, Kathy. P32 CSI PAD follows. NOUN 11 143015060 NOUN 37 14438 all zips NOUN 81 0492 all zips. Need A 473 is 01818, 275 is 02780, AGS DELTA Vs plus 0492 all zips plus 0010. Over.”

No, that’s not from Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s actually from Space Station Friendship by Dick Lattimer, published in 1988.

Of course, not all science fictions require research. A style that has become quite common over the last few years – I’ve seen it labelled with the horrible term “sci fi strange” – seems almost completely made-up. Nothing requiring research there (unless you include the frequent references to other science fictions, that is). Still, it’s not for me  - don’t like reading it, have no intention of writing it. I like my research, it’s often what motivates me to write a story. And finding a way to use it in a narrative that works is, for me, part of the fun of writing.

Also, the shit that I look up is usually just plain interesting.

(Incidentally, the picture is, as the front of the machine states, a Research Machines 380Z, the first computer I ever used. The school I attended had two of them. These days, most of my colleagues at work are younger than that computer…)


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Ancillary Justice

Every couple of years, a science fiction novel appears which seems to generate a tremendous amount of positive buzz among my online genre friends and acquaintances. In 2011, it was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, the first of a trilogy, which went on to win the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award and appear on the short list for the Nebula Award. This year, it’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is also a debut novel and the first book in a trilogy. I’m also seeing a lot more word-of-mouth for Ancillary Justice than I remember seeing for God’s War, and I suspect it will do better in the various genre awards than Hurley’s debut.

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But then Ancillary Justice is located much closer to genre heartland than God’s War, and the interesting things it does – and it does a number of interesting things – are, I suspect, more generally acceptable than those in Hurley’s book. Both suffer structurally, but where God’s War had a choppy start, Ancillary Justice has a weak ending… and I have to wonder if that is felt to be a more forgivable sin. Having said that, Ancillary Justice is a richer brew in heartland sf terms than God’s War – richer, in fact, than a great many 2013 science fiction novels – but I don’t feel it fully explores everything it has to say. God’s War at least aggressively interrogated its tropes. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Ancillary Justice or feel it is a bad book. It is a very strong debut, and I have every intention of picking up the remaining two books in the trilogy when they are published.

First of all, let’s get the gender thing out of the way. Throughout Ancillary Justice, “she” is used as the default pronoun. This is allegedly because the narrator, Breq, comes from a culture which speaks an ungendered language. The problem here is that an ungendered language by definition possesses no gender, whereas “she” is very much a gendered term. The effect on the reader in English of using the word “she” as a default is not the effect it has on the characters within the story. Cause and effect are uncoupled. However, the effect on the reader does force a specific reading of the story. Leckie is making the reader interrogate their own perceptions of gender by using “she”, even if the argument for its use in the world of the story is weak. When Breq deals with speakers of other languages, ones that do use gendered pronouns, she frequently exhibits confusion over which pronoun to use. She uses visual clues to decide which is appropriate – there are, for instance, several references to clothing making this process difficult. But gender is not biological sex – and this is something that has been explored by science fiction over several decades. Numerous people have drawn comparisons between Ancillary Justice and Samuel R Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand which, I think, interrogates the concept of social gender more rigorously than Ancillary Justice. I like that Leckie has forced the reader to examine their own gender defaults, and I think that’s an interesting thing to do… but I’m not totally persuaded the world Leckie has created fully explores that aspect of the story.

Breq is the only surviving “ancillary” of an AI. Ancillaries are human bodies used as avatars – real-life “meat puppets”, if you will. As a result, AIs operate in effect as distributed intelligences. It’s a neat idea, but Leckie only skims the surface of it. Admittedly, for much of the book Breq is confined to a single body – once she was an avatar of the controlling AI of a warship, but now she is as effectively human as the person whose body she hijacked. Leckie plays the ancillaries as single intelligences with simply a much vaster range of sensory inputs. When Breq was One Esk, a troop of ancillaries on the troop carrier Justice of Toren, Leckie makes numerous references to the narrator’s ability to know what is happening in various different places, to call up information at will, and to monitor in great detail the human officers under whose command she serves. I’m not entirely convinced by Leckie’s presentation of an AI character, or its distributed nature – but then, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever found the presentation of AIs in science fiction especially convincing. Further, the plot of Ancillary Justice is actually hung from this incomplete version of a distributed intelligence – although how incomplete, or indeed different, is difficult to judge as unlike Breq we do not see that character from the inside.

While the gender thing and Breq’s once-distributed nature are the two most obviously arresting aspects of Ancillary Justice – and also appear to be the most remarked upon in reviews; as, er, I am doing in this review myself – there are a number of other elements to the story and world-building which I think are much more fascinating. I said earlier that Ancillary Justice was a rich brew, and it’s the combination of tropes Leckie has used, tropes which are not normally thrown together, or on which she has put a different and original spin, that I think make Ancillary Justice such an interesting sf novel.

Justice of Toren, the ship Breq-as-AI originally controlled, was operated by the Radch, a human civilisation led by Anaander Mianaai. Like the AIs, Mianaai has many bodies, thousands of them, and so rules the Radchaai by effectively being ubiquitous. The Radch is fervently imperialist, and has been operating a campaign of “annexation” on other human-populated worlds for over a thousand years. The Radchaai economy demands this – the Radch seem themselves as “civilised” and superior to all others (especially non-humans), and obviously they cannot maintain a society based on such a view without an ever-expanding underclass. There are many ways of reading the politics embedded in Ancillary Justice – an attack on neoliberalism, on neocons, on contemporary US politics… They all work. Nor do they overwhelm the story.

Which, such as it is, is presented in a format which hides its simplicity. Justice of Toren becomes inadvertently embroiled in an internal Radchaai struggle, kicked off by a pair of historical incidents involving alien races, most especially the Presger who are more powerful than the Radch. Ancillary Justice tells its story in two narratives strands. One is set in the present. Justice of Toren now survives only as Breq, a single ancillary survivor from thousands that had been used, or held in storage, on the ship. A second narrative takes place years earlier, when Breq was One Esk and is policing a city on a world that has been annexed. A Radchaai conspiracy intrudes, and One Esk and her officer, Lieutenant Awn, are caught up in it. Breq is the sole survivor of the fall-out from that incident and vows revenge on Mianaai. to that end, she travels to the world of Nilt to find a special undetectable gun which renders Radchaai armour useless. On Nilt, she stumbles across Seivarden, a Radchaai lieutenant recently revived after a thousand years frozen following the loss of her ship in battle. Seivarden is also now a drug addict. Breq remembers Seivarden, and decides to help her return to Radchaai space, although Seivarden is initially reluctant and ungrateful.

The two narratives build one upon the other, the historical one revealing the motivation for the present-day one, and the present-day one in turn making clear the actual events in the past. While it makes for a slow start, the structure actually allows Leckie to dole out exposition without interrupting the flow of the story. As the novel progresses, so its pace increases until the point where the two narratives meet – or rather, one is folded into the other – at the climax. Leckie’s world-building throughout Ancillary Justice is superb, and she manages to evoke multiple distinct cultures in detail. Perhaps at times the novel feels a bit like a Le Guin story crashing into a Susan R Matthews one, but that’s no bad thing – both are authors whose works I like and admire. Some have also remarked on an element of Iain M Banks to Ancillary Justice‘s world-building, though that may have been prompted by the presence of the AIs (ie, Minds) and the names of the characters. I don’t see a Banksian sensibility at work in Ancillary Justice, even though Ancillary Justice and Banks’s Culture novels are, beneath their space opera patina, both political sf.

Ancillary Justice is novel whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And yet some of its parts still manage that intellectual punch to the head – a “wonderpunch”, if you will – you expect in the best science fiction. There is a point in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977) where the main characters travel out to the Oort Cloud and discover why aliens have been transmitting the eponymous beam of free information at the Solar System. In a meeting with these “Traders”, Varley throws away entire science fiction novels in a handful of lines -

“A few thousand. To get a representative sample. After that, we can learn humanity from each other.” He paused. “We know this is a strange request. The fact is, it is the only thing your race has to offer us. It is the only reason we have bothered to send you the things we have discovered and collected over seven million years.” (p 222)

Such a massive change in scale, delivered offhand in a few lines of dialogue, can’t help but provoke sense of wonder. Leckie does something very similar in Ancillary Justice, and it is the implications of this which I think proves one of the novel’s more fascinating elements:

When most people spoke of Radch, they meant all of Radchaai territory, but in truth the Radch was a single location, a Dyson sphere, enclosed, self-contained. Nothing ritually impure was allowed within, no one uncivilized or nonhuman could enter its confines. Very, very few of Mianaai’s clients had ever set foot there, and only a few houses existed who even had ancestors who had once lived there. (p 235)

Bear in mind that a Dyson sphere with a radius equal to the Earth’s distance from the Sun would have a habitable inner surface equivalent to 550 million Earths. Imagine the size of a civilisation which filled that and still needed to expand in order to fuel its economy. I would also guess the Dyson sphere is an artefact colonised by the Radch, since nothing in Ancillary Justice suggests they are capable of building it.

Not everyone has reacted positively to Ancillary Justice, although it’s hard to see how in comparison to other science fiction novels published this year it can’t fail to stand out. If I was afraid that the success of James SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes meant that space opera was regressing, then I’m glad to say that Ancillary Justice shows that progress is still possible and desirable. Leckie’s novel gives me hope that science fiction is a genre it is still worth reading. Recommended.


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On genres, modes, distances and invention

I won’t say where, or on what, I was at the time but this weekend I was thinking about definitions of hard science fiction for a podcast, and my thoughts spiralled out from there to definitions of science fiction itself. And it occurred to me that sf narratives break down into three rough forms: encountering the Other, embracing the Other and rejecting the Other. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to hold true. Think of a random sf novel, like… Dune. That’s embracing the Other – both Paul Atreides becoming a Fremen and learning to  use his new-found powers.

Since its earliest days, science fiction stories have been characterised by distance just as much as they’ve been characterised by science and/or technology. Alongside the Gernsbackian tales of new inventions which would improve the lives of all were stories of alien places and the strange peoples found there. Distance is a signifier for the “exotic” (in both meanings of the word). Before science fiction, they told tales of the South Seas.

The further away a place is, the more Other it is – it’s a simplistic formula, but this is pulp fiction, after all. The difficulty of the journey is less important than the distance travelled. There are very few Shangri-Las hidden in inaccessible mountain valleys, or their galactic equivalents, but lots of worlds on the rim of the empire or the edges of the galaxy. Travel itself is not uncomfortable, but does take time. Real spacecraft are small and cramped, with no amenities. Sf’s starships are interstellar ocean liners with cabins and restaurants and promenades. This is because the journey does not matter, it is only a metaphor. If there are hardships, they are associated with either finding the destination, or at the destination itself. Off the top of my head, the only sf story I can think of in which the journey itself is an obstacle is Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘The Shobies’ Story’ (in Gwyneth Jones’ Buonarotti stories, and her novel Spirit, there’s a similar effect with interstellar travel, but it does not make the journey an obstacle). No doubt there are other stories, though I maintain such stories are rare within the genre.

But then, there’s not much that’s Other about the act of travelling from A to B. Even in the Le Guin story mentioned above, the means of making the journey affects the travellers’ perceptions of their destination, making the act of encountering, or even embracing, the Other so much harder and more prone to misunderstanding.

Space opera, of course, is traditionally predicated on rejecting the Other, as is military sf. The drama in both subgenres typically derives from conflict, either from within the world or from without. And the further the enemy is from known space, the more Other they generally are. Even when they’re humans, they’re typically barbarians from the edge of the empire – though that may simply be science fiction ripping off the history of the Roman empire… which it has done far too many times.

The same argument might well apply to fantasy, even though it is a different genre. I suspect there are more narratives of rejecting the Other in epic commercial fantasy than of the other two forms. Given its generally consolatory nature, this is no surprise. Other modes of fantasy may well be more evenly distributed – I’m not as well read in fantasy as I am science fiction. It might well be that the same argument does not apply to fantasy, given that it is an entirely different genre to sf.

Science fiction is not, and has never been, a branch of the fantastic. You can’t categorise fiction by the degrees of invention it exhibits. All fiction by definition contains invention, whether it’s literary fiction with made-up characters , fantasy with made-up worlds, or science fiction with made-up science and/or technology. Nor can you categorise by trope… because first you would have to define each and every trope. And lay out the conditions under which each trope is fantasy and not science fiction, or vice versa. If a fantasy novel has a dragon in it, then it does not follow that all novels containing dragons are fantasy. And so on. Science fiction is a fundamentally different genre to fantasy, and it’s an historical accident that the two are typically marketed alongside each other.

 


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The fastest man on earth

No, not me. Though I suppose if you strapped enough rocket bottles to me, I could probably qualify. Which is what happens – to someone else, I hasten to add – in my story ‘The Incurable Irony of the Man who Rode the Rocket Sled’. It was published yesterday in the The Orphan #5. You can find my story here.

sonicwind

‘The Incurable Irony of the Man who Rode the Rocket Sled’ was inspired by some of the research I did for the Apollo Quartet. I’d come across mention of the rocket sleds that were used in the 1950s to test how many Gs a human body could safely withstand, and I thought it would be pretty cool to write about that. So I did. The end result, however, isn’t exactly typical – as science fiction, my fiction, or even fiction per se: The Orphan itself describes it as possessing “footnotes, no plot, and genre content visible, yet near microscopic”. So, no launching rocket sleds into space to fight aliens or anything. Just a man, the rocket sleds, and the world around him.

They were bonkers, the volunteers on the rocket sled programme – especially the man who created it, John Paul Stapp. But what they achieved did prove useful and ultimately saved many lives. Here’s a USAF information film about rocket sleds, which gives you some idea of what it was all about.

Enjoy.


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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.


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A British sf masterwork? Implosion, DF Jones

The SF Encyclopedia makes no real comment on the works of Dennis Feltham Jones, preferring instead to précis his novels. He is perhaps best known for his first novel, Colossus, which was filmed as Colossus – The Forbin Project. Implosion, from 1967, is his second novel.

An unnamed Eastern Bloc country develops a substance which renders women sterile. Because the nation’s premier is the illegitimate son of a British diplomat, he chooses to use this powder on the UK. Two years later, fully eighty percent of British females can no longer ovulate. The country’s population begins to fall, and is calculated to hit around five million by the mid-1980s. A government with far-reaching powers and a mandate to fix the problem is voted into power. All the fertile women are put into camps to become baby machines. Children are put in National Schools, where they are kept safe from harm and educated to as high a level as possible. Villages are demolished, and towns abandoned, when their populations fall below sustainable levels.

In charge of all this is John Bart, the Minister for Health and Regeneration. His wife Julia proves to be one of the rare fertile women, and is packed off to a camp. Meanwhile, the government tightens its grip on the country. After a raid on the lab which developed the powder, the Brits reverse-engineer it but can find no cure. They publish the formula, so that now everyone has it. Naturally, other countries soon find themselves in the same situation.

Meanwhile, Julia has come to realise that the regime in the fertile women’s camps has turned nasty. Women are whipped for the slightest infraction, such as smoking (even when not pregnant). She escapes… and discovers that the world outside is very different to what she had been told. She finds her husband, who is still the number two man in the government, and likely soon to be the number one, and learns that he is now shacked up with her twin sister. The twins turn on one another, Julia gets sent back to the camp, and that’s that. Except Nature has one final trick up her sleeve…

There’s a very 1960s British po-faced earnestness to Implosion. The characters are exemplary – Bart himself is young and noble and brilliant at organisation and making decisions. His wife is beautiful and loving and a true soulmate. Or at least, she starts out like that. Even their lady who does is a treasure. The prime minister is a hearty man of the people, straight-talking and more than willing to do the necessary. The Britain of the story appears pretty much the same as the Britain of 1967. Even though it begins in the early 1970s, the currency is still pounds, shilling and pence.

Implosion reads like a novel in which the author had a good idea and then set out to show clever he was in solving it. Its politics are simplistic, as is its view of the British people. The Barts are very much the “right sort”, and what few working class people do make an appearance are viewed with all the patronising indulgence of the privileged. Implosion is not a cosy catastrophe – there’s more brandy drunk than tea, for one thing – but it is peculiarly English. Perhaps it could be called a “Mayfair catastrophe”. That’s what it feels like, a black and white 1960s television Play for Today with a cast speaking in cut-glass accents, while around them the world they don’t much care for slowly falls apart…

So, not a British sf masterwork, then.

(And no, I’ve no idea what that blobby thing on the cover of the book is supposed to represent.)

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