Here’s the third of the novellas on the Hugo shortlist, ‘The Political Prisoner’ by Charles Coleman Finlay, from F&SF‘s August 2008 issue. This is the second time Finlay has been nominated for the Hugo – he was also on the shortlist in 2003 for ‘The Political Officer’, which was set in the same universe and featured the same protagonist.
Maxim Nikomedes is an officer in the Department for Political Education on the world of Jesusalem, which was settled by Plain Christians (some sort of back-to-basics fundamentalist Christians). Nikomedes is also an undercover agent for the Department of Intelligence. The latter stages a coup, and there is a purge against Political Education. Because Nikomedes’ cover is a political officer, he gets caught up in the purge and carted off to a “reclamation camp”. Where he has to survive forced labour until he’s rescued when someone from Intelligence figures out where he is.
I don’t get this story; I don’t get why it’s science fiction. Finlay might as well have set it in Nazi Germany. Or Stalinist Russia. Or any totalitarian regime which slaughtered great swathes of its population in the name of something or other. ‘The Political Prisoner’ may be set on another planet, and the forced labour is supposedly part of the terraforming required to make the world more habitable, but that’s as close as it gets to sf. Setting a story on another planet does not make it science fiction.
And when the third paragraph of the story has the protagonist looking at their reflection so the writer can describe their appearance to the reader… well, that doesn’t bode well. ‘The Political Prisoner’ then dives into paragraph after paragraph of back-history, some of which I’m guessing is the plot of ‘The Political Officer’. I’m all for “not starting the story at the beginning”, but if you have to go back and describe that beginning in the narrative, then you’ve done something wrong.
In my comments on Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ (see here), I mentioned the open mechanism which drives science fiction stories. That mechanism is absent in ‘The Political Prisoner’. Its workings do not need to be laid bare because everything is on the surface. Nikomedes is in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nikomedes can’t reveal his secret affiliation, Nikomedes gets sent to a reclamation camp and his past experiences help him survive, Nikomedes gets rescued. There is no idea which needs to be explicated, no idea upon which the plot is carried, no idea with consequences which can be explored.
I’ve not read Finlay’s ‘The Political Officer’, but I can only imagine that those who liked it voted for ‘The Political Prisoner’. Because on its own, there’s nothing in it that’s strikes me as award-worthy. There are enough examples of one group of people horribly treating another in recent human history, without having to go to all the trouble of writing a science fiction novella on the subject. Especially since ‘The Political Prisoner’ doesn’t actually say anything insightful or worthwhile. Nikomedes survives several months in the reclamation camp, then the head of Intelligence turns up and rescues him. Nikomedes asks that the prisoners he had been bunked with, the ones who had been doing the hardest labour, are released. Because, he says, “There’s been enough killing.” Oh dear.
‘The Political Prisoner’ is definitely the weakest of the three novellas I’ve read so far. And, like the Kress, I can’t quite understand why it was nominated in the first place.
John Scalzi thinks this is cause for celebration – or rather, not cause for commiseration – because, he writes, “how horrible it is that some of what is being hailed as the best science fiction and fantasy written today is in a literary category designed to encourage millions of young people to read for the rest of their natural lives“.
Which doesn’t exactly address the “genre growing up argument”.
There are other sf awards, of course. And one book on the Arthur C Clarke Award short list is Ian R Macleod’s Song of Time. Of which, Helena Bowles wrote, “This is the point at which Science Fiction left adolescence behind and grew up”.
Perhaps science fiction is like a suspension bridge, a catenary between two poles. One pole is YA and the other is adult literary sf. The saggy bit in the middle, where the curve nearly touches dirt, would be those interminable and derivative military sf series churned out by publishers like Baen. Or the populist stuff.
Except… sf-as-a-bridge implies a journey from YA to literary sf… which does sort of fit. But it also means you’d have to pass through the middle, where Honor Harrington and her ilk lurk. Which is not necessarily true….
Or is it?
An example: a new reader to sf has devoured all the good YA stuff – Ness, Le Guin, Philip Pullman, Ann Halam, (the Arthur C Clarke Award nominated) The H-bomb Girl, etc. – and moves onto the populist adult sf. And then it’s a long hard uphill slog to the literary end of the genre, a slog that not everyone makes. After all, gravity alone means most will gather in the middle, where the curve is at its lowest.
Next up is ‘Truth’ by Robert Reed (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008). I think I might have read this before, but since I don’t subscribe to Asimov’s, or buy copies of the magazine, it must have been online. And yet, as I became more convinced I’d read it before, I still couldn’t remember the ending.
Ramiro is a terrorist kept in a super-secret Gitmo in a Kansas salt mine. He is from 140 years in the future, and he travelled back in time as part of an army of 200 bent on conquering the world. He was caught in 2002 – the car he was driving skidded on black ice and crashed, and the police discovered Uranium-235 hidden under the car’s spare tyre. For twelve years he has been interrogated and imprisoned. As a result of the intelligence gained from him, the US invaded Iraq. And then Iran. Terrorists then set off nukes in the US. Now billions are dead. Ramiro’s original interrogator has committed suicide, and a new one – the narrator – has been sent to make sense of the suicide, and to finally break Ramiro….
I really wanted to like ‘Truth’ but the fact that I’d read it before, and forgotten it, bothered me. Surely a good novella, a Hugo-nominated novella, should be more, well, memorable? And there is plenty to like in it. The central premise is good, and the final twist on that premise is satisfying.
Unfortunately, the narrator is unlikeable – admittedly, she’s a torturer, so it’s not really fair to expect her to be sympathetic – but she’s also too obtuse. It feels like she’s withholding information from the reader simply in order to extend the story. The novella seems longer than it needs to be. I suspect this is partly in order to ramp up the effects of the “temporal jihadists”. The earth has to suffer increasingly worse attacks in order to set up the final pay-off.
‘Truth’ does have something important to say and I consider that a point in its favour. It makes clever use of recent history, commenting on both the invasion of Iraq and the US’s criminal use of torture. It feels a tiny bit out-of-date now that Obama is president, but of course it was originally published before the presidential election so it’s hard to hold that against it.
There’s little doubt in my mind that ‘Truth’ is better than ‘The Erdmann Nexus’, but I still can’t quite love it. Possibly because it feels too long for its contents.
I quite like that branch of science fiction which uses the quotidian to explore the extraordinary. But it has to be done right. Sf operates using an open mechanism: the workings of its plot are visible to the reader. Unlike in a crime novel, which must hide those workings so that the final reveal is satisfying to the reader. So for sf, the explanation for the extraordinary has to be presented up front, and then the story should show – or ramp up – the consequences.
In ‘The Erdmann Nexus’, a group of residents at an old folks’ home have been experiencing odd “events”, moments of what seems to be merged consciousness. The story hops between those involved, one of the helpers, a neurological researcher working on a project at the home, and a pair of detectives investigating the mysterious death of the helper’s legally-separated husband. The search for an explanation is led by Henry Erdmann, one of residents, a brilliant physicist who now teaches at a nearby university. It is not until the end of the novella that the reader learns what the events were and what caused them.
Unfortunately, hiding the extraordinary’s explanation, and only revealing it at the end, doesn’t work because it makes for an uninvolving narrative. And, for all its many viewpoints, ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ is pretty dull. (For an example on how to do it properly, see Ted Kosmatka’s ‘Divining Light’.)
Kress throws in a framing narrative, describing a sentient spaceship approaching Earth, but it seems entirely gratuitous. The plot certainly doesn’t require it. And the mentions of split photons, quantum entanglement and emergent complexity just obfuscate. When an author holds the explanation close to their chest, it has to be a damned impressive explanation to redeem the story. Kress’s isn’t. We’ve seen it before, in both science fiction and fantasy. In that respect, it’s not very different, truth be told, to Mike Resnick’s terrible ‘Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders’ on the novelette shortlist (see here); and not just because both feature OAP characters.
The single-note characterisation in ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ doesn’t help either – gossipy granny, bible-basher, ex-ballerina who pines for her past, blue-collar retiree out of his depth…. And detective Geraci – Kress might as well have named him Goren since he’s plainly based on Vince D’Onofrio’s character in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Kress has appeared on Hugo ballots an impressive number of times – 11 nominations and one win, according to the Locus Index to SF Awards. This should not have been one of them. I have to wonder if it was another choice driven by nostalgia….
I think I’m going to start doing this sort of thing regularly – a fortnightly run-down on the books I’ve read and the films I’ve watched. It’s sort of the blog equivalent of reality television, without having to resort to pimpage or thieving content from elsewhere.
Books: Stickleback, Ian Edginton & D’Israeli (2007), first appeared in the comic 2000AD. The title character is a Victorian crime lord, initially presented as a mystery to be investigated by half-Turkish Scotland Yard detective Inspector Valentine Bey. But it’s all a plot because Stickleback is trying to defeat the City Fathers, a druidic brotherhood which has secretly controlled London since the Dark Ages. In the second story in this volume, Stickleback is the hero – well, antihero – as he prevents some eldritch horrors from taking over the earth after they’ve stolen the last dragon’s egg. Some mysteries are left unexplained – Stickleback’s real identity, for example. Excellent stuff.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004), I liked less than I had expected to. It was shortlisted for the Booker, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke Awards, and won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award, so I had high hopes of it. Unfortunately, I thought the sf elements were clumsily done – a post-apocalypse story written in debased English… yawn. And the transcript of an interview with an uplifted clone in a corporate near-future Korea – hardly a ground-breaking idea – which is spoiled because the clone actually speaks in purple prose. Having said that, the book’s structure of six nested stories was a neat idea, and the writing was generally very good. Unfortunately, the whole didn’t quite add up to the sum of the parts, and the links between the stories often came across as forced. A noble failure, I think.
On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan (2007), I was unsure about reading. I hadn’t really enjoyed his previous book, Saturday, so I wasn’t going to shell out money for his latest. But I managed to blag a copy of On Chesil Beach for nothing on bookmoch.com. And I’m glad I got it for nothing. It’s typical McEwan – well-written (and excellent in parts) – but his formula has long since lost its shine: ie, a leisurely build-up to a decision, the wrong choice is made, and the rest of the book shows the consequences of that choice. A new plot would be nice.
The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980), is, I think, better than The Balkan Trilogy. Admittedly, I’m interested in the period it covers – World War II in Egypt – because of the Salamander and Personal Landscape groups, two groups of poets and writers active during that time, which included Manning herself, Lawrence Durrell, Terence Tiller, Bernard Spencer, John Jarmain and Keith Douglas, among others. In this book, Guy Pringle remains mostly unsympathetic and Harriet Pringle still incapable of recognising what the people around her are really like. Sadly, the television adaptation Fortunes Of War didn’t handle this half of the story as well as it did The Balkan Trilogy – too much was missed out. The fact that the books are better should come as no real surprise. And this might well be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865), is a book I’d never actually read as a child, although I’d picked up the story through cultural osmosis. Unfortunately, it seems to be a book you should read as a child. As an adult, I found it patronising and simplistic. Ah well. At least I can cross it off the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books list.
The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury (1975), is another of the books on the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books. Which is why I mooched a copy and read it. It took me two goes to start, and the second time I was on a coach heading for London, so I couldn’t really put it down and pick up another book… And I’m glad I forced myself to read it. It takes a while to get going, but once you’ve clicked into the narrative, it’s an excellent read. The committee meeting alone is worth the price of admission. Now I want to see the 1980 BBC television adaptation…
The Custodians, Richard Cowper (1976), is a collection of four short stories by the author of the excellent White Bird of Kinship trilogy. In fact, The Custodians includes the prequel short story, ‘Pipers at the Gates of Dawn’, for that trilogy. The other three stories are very much of their time and place – very considered British science fiction of the 1970s, with some good writing, some creaky ideas, and a mostly slow narrative pace.
Films: Show Me Love, Together, Lilja 4-Ever and A Hole in my Heart, dir. Lukas Moodysson (1998 – 2004), are all in the Lukas Moodysson Presents DVD boxed set which I bought when it was on sale. Show Me Love, a sort of Swedish Skins – misbehaving teenagers – in which the most popular girl in the year first victimises the class lesbian then falls in love with her, is good. Together – battered wife takes her kids to join her brother in his leftie peacenik vegetarian commune – is less gripping, although a more gently affectionate film. Lilja 4-Ever is the best of the four – fifteen year-old Lilja is left behind in Russia when her mother emigrates to the US. Abandoned and in desperate need of cash, she becomes a prostitute… and finds herself a new boyfriend who promises to take her to live in Sweden. When she gets there, she’s kept locked up in a flat, and escorted by a brutal minder to have sex with other men. Oksana Akinshina is superb as Lilja, and Artyom Bogucharsky is very good as her friend Volodya. A hard film to watch. A Hole in my Heart is also difficult to watch, but for different reasons. It takes place entirely in a single apartment, in which a man is making amateur porn films while his teenage son hides in his bedroom and listens to music. It’s one of those films where the director’s intentions are clear, but he’s not been entirely successful in presenting them.
City Lights, dir, Charlie Chaplin (1931), should be familiar to everyone. Chaplin’s cheeky tramp saves the life of a rich businessman, who rewards him by showing him the high life. But he does so when he’s drunk. When he sobers up, he forgets who Chaplin is. It might be eighty years old, but it’s still very funny.
Walk On Water, dir. Eytan Fox (2004), proved a surprise. A Mossad agent returns to Israel after assassinating a Hamas leader to discover his wife has committed suicide. His boss gives him an “easy” assignment while he comes to terms with his loss: he is to act as guide to a German who is visiting his kibbutzim sister. Their grandfather is a Nazi war criminal who was in South America but has recently disappeared. The Mossad agent is tasked with discovering if they know the grandfather’s location. The story doesn’t quite progress the way it seems as though it might, but never mind. A good film. And apparently inspired by a true story.
Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon (2005), was a rewatch. I was never in to Buffy, and I thought Firefly was too much “Cowboys in space” – not to mention ripping off the Traveller role-playing game – to really appeal. Even on re-watch, Serenity seems too dependent on Firefly, and while its story does explain some things about Firefly‘s universe, it still feels too much like a sequence of set scenes. Oh, and the bit where River kills all the Reavers is just silly.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow, dir, Bille August (1997), was another rewatch. One of these days I’ll have to reread the novel by Peter Høeg on which it was based. Julia Ormond manages to make the prickly Smilla a sympathetic protagonist, but the opening mystery surrounding the young boy’s fatal fall from the roof of the apartment block feels mishandled – as if something else were driving the plot, and it was just being carried along for the ride. I still like the film, though.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) – the only thing I can say about this is, “Oh dear”. George Lucas must have decided that since his fanbase is greying, he needs to drag in the kiddies. Which explains some of the gloriously ill-considered mis-steps in this mess of a film. Anakin Skywalker is given a wise-cracking teenage girl as a sidekick, who manages to spend the entire film irritating the audience. The plot doesn’t make sense – rescue the (disgustingly cute) baby son of Jabba the Hutt, because the Republic needs access to the Hutt’s trade routes. Eh? A minor gangster on a backwater world suddenly controls half the galaxy? And so the Republic decides to send a single Jedi, plus teenage girl, to effect a rescue? It’s not so much that Lucas jumps the shark in this, as if he’s running the 400 metres hurdles over sharks. Definitely a film to avoid.
So that was LX, the 60th British science fiction Eastercon. It took place over the Easter weekend in Bradford. I enjoyed it a great deal more than the previous year’s Eastercon.
I arrived in Bradford around three p.m., and checked into my hotel, the Hilton. The actual con hotel was the Cedar Court Hotel, but this had very few rooms, so most of us attending LX were scattered in other hotels about the city. This proved less than ideal. The Bradford Hilton is a nice hotel, although I spent the entire weekend having to call down to reception for someone to come and open my door since my keycard would never work. By the end of the con, housekeeping knew me quite well, and even the maintenance engineer was greeting me by name when we met in the corridor.
LX laid on a free coach to carry attendees between the hotels. It was supposed to run every thirty minutes, but failed to maintain the schedule. It also didn’t run during the afternoon. So most people ended up using taxis if they needed to return to the hotel in which they were staying. Since the last coach left at midnight, I usually caught it, rather than stay in the bar until the small hours and get a taxi back. I don’t think I missed much, since a lot of others did the same.
As usual I didn’t attend many programme items. I’d intended to, but could never quite work up the enthusiasm. One I did attend was “Classics That Aren’t” on the Friday night. I had to – I was moderating it. On the panel were Rog Peyton, Kev McVeigh and Chris Hill. It went better than I expected. The room was surprisingly full, and afterwards I was told it had been “entertaining”. Rog Peyton wanted to bin the entire oeuvre of Philip K Dick, Kev McVeigh picked Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Chris Hill went for ER Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. Also mentioned were Isaac Asimov, alternate history, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Dune, and Tolkien.
I also went to the NewCon Press launch for Eric Brown’s Starship Fall, a sequel to his Starship Summer; The Beloved of My Beloved by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia; and The Gift of Joy, a collection by Ian Whates. I bought signed copies of each of the books.
The BSFA Awards Ceremony on the Saturday evening was entertainingly emceed by Paul J McAuley and Kim Newman. McAuley’s Arthur C Clarke impression probably has to be heard to be believed. Somewhat embarrassingly, Guest of Honour Tim Powers mispronounced Ken MacLeod’s name when announcing the winner of the best novel award.
For the record, the winners were:
Best artwork: Andy Bigwood, for the cover of Subterfuge
I’d sooner McAuley had won the short story award, but The Night Sessions was my first choice for best novel. Congrats all round.
After the awards ceremony, Eric Brown led a group of some fifteen of us to the Kashmir. He claimed this was the best curry house in Bradford. It was certainly the cheapest. Getting back to the Cedar Court Hotel, however, proved easier said than done, and we walked a fair distance before finding a taxi company. One of the perils of hosting cons in hotels outside city centres….
Sunday was a repeat of Saturday – bimbling about the dealers’ room, and sitting in the bar and chatting to friends. It was a quieter day as some had only attended the con on the Saturday. I sat through half of the programme item on Iron Sky, a Finnish film about Nazis on the Moon. But the room was very warm, and after twenty minutes of reading subtitles, I was nodding off. The film-makers are raising capital by selling “War Bonds” for €50, which includes a DVD containing two documentaries on the making of the film. It was these documentaries which were shown at LX.
That evening was the launch party for Ricardo Pinto’s The Third God, the long-awaited final book in the Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy. Ricardo had said beforehand he was nervous and didn’t know what to say – it was the first time he’d done this sort of thing. In the event, he gave a very honest and informative talk for thirty or so minutes on what writing the trilogy had meant to him. I bought a copy and got it signed. (Incidentally, why is The Third God not available from Amazon? Have Transworld pissed them off or something?)
The Cedar Court Hotel was a good venue, although one of the bars tended to clog up with people and make access to the dealers’ room difficult. And the dealers’ room itself wasn’t that large. But the beer was cheap, and the hotel laid on cheap food for much of the day. It’s the first con I can recall where finding something to eat – other than nasty bar sandwiches – was easy.
Cons, of course, are about the people. It was good to catch up with friends, and meet some online friends in the flesh for the first time. And meet new people too, of course. Several people I only saw in passing and never quite caught up with again. Sorry. There were many conversations – some serious, some not so serious. Highlights included Roy Gray and his “disco shower”, Tony Ballantyne and his “step numbers”, Eric Brown telling us about forgotten sf writer Herb Sage, discussing story ideas with Mike Cobley….
In the coach heading for the Cedar Court one morning, I overheard someone mention that they’d been attending Eastercons for twenty years. And it struck me that I wasn’t far off doing the same. My first con was Mexicon 3 in Nottingham in 1989, and my first Eastercon was the following year: Eastcon in Liverpool in 1990. Which is a bit scary. But I certainly plan to keep on going to them.
Back in January of this year, the Guardian published a list of “1000 Must-Read Novels“, split over seven categories. The Science Fiction & Fantasy list went around the blogosphere, with bloggers marking off those books they’d read and those books they owned but had yet to read. I decided at the time that there were several books mentioned – in all of the categories – that I wouldn’t mind reading.
So I’ve been picking them up and reading in amongst my normal reading. And tracking my progress. As below.
“tbr” is those books I own but have not read. The figures are from the beginning of each quarter – Q1 on publication of the list, Q2 1 April, Q3 1 July, and Q4 1 October. If I restricted my reading to books on the list, I’m sure I’d have made more of a dent – but I didn’t want to do that.
Asimov’s have finally put their Hugo nominated story and novellas on their web site. So here’s my thoughts on:
‘From Babel’s Fallen Glory We Fled’, Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Feb 2008) An interesting story. I can’t decide if it’s taking the piss or a little bit lazy. The meta-fictional framing feels like an afterthought, and the typographical tricks for the alien’s speech feel like Swanwick is having a sly laugh at his readers. There are some nice ideas in the story, but it feels too thin a treatment, as if it should have been longer and more detailed. It’s a great deal better than Resnick’s story, and not as inconsequential as the Kowal, but the Chiang and Johnson still have it beat.
As four of the five novellas are now available, I’ll work my way through those. It might take a while – they’re the longest of the “short” lengths, as long as an old-style novel in fact. Sadly, the missing novella is the one I really wanted to read. For the record, the shortlist is as follows:
Incidentally, a point of order. Mike Resnick’s ‘Article of Faith’ was first published in Postscripts #15 in September 2008. According to the Hugo shortlist, it was published in Jim Baen’s Universe in October 2008. But that would be a reprint. At the very least, the Hugo committee should correctly attribute the magazine in which the story was first published.