It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Oh no what have I done?

I appear to have done something very foolish. I was sort of toying with the idea, but I didn’t really intend to do it. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t got enough on my plate already. So I’ve no idea what possessed me to sign up for Nanowrimo this year.

But I did.

Well, I had this idea for a series of novels, a sort of literary treatment of a hard science fiction staple: the first interstellar mission. This was inspired – structurally, that is – by the likes of CP Snow’s Strangers & Brothers, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion. The individual novels would be short – in fact, Nanowrimo’s 50,000-word target is pretty much the perfect size. Anyway, I wanted to see if the idea worked, if I could write something of that sort of literary hard sf. And Nanowrimo seemed like a good way to motivate myself.

I could have chosen a better time, however. It’s not like I’d have spent November twiddling my thumbs. There’s Rocket Science to get sorted out – once I’ve decided on a final TOC, I need to start line-editing the contributions. Then there’s the fiction in various degrees of completion I have knocking about on my computer. Some just need a quick buff and polish; others need need me to work what the hell is going on in them. Plus, there’s the many reviews I need to get done…

Anyway, Nanowrimo. Write 50,000 words by the end of the month. That’s 1,667 words a day. That’s all I have to do. Yeah right. You can find me on the Nanowrimo website here. It should be… interesting.

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The future we used to have, part 6

Time for yet another in my ongoing series on retro-futures. The past, they say, is another country and they do things differently there. But the future we’ve come to inhabit is every bit as different as the one the past imagined into existence. And not necessarily for the better. We never had utopia within our reach, but neither should we have turned our back on the struggle towards it.

There is something that strives towards utopia in Brutalist architecture – which no doubt explains why so many Brutalist projects did not ultimately survive. The car designs of Nuccio Bertone seem to me the closest automobile equivalent. And I still think the Lamborghini Marzal is one of the nicest-looking cars ever designed. According to Wikipedia, the Marzal was a one-off concept car, but I have a very clear memory of seeing one in lime green in Doha, Qatar, during the early 1970s. It belonged to a sheikh, and my father even got to drive it.


Genex, Tower, Belgrade

Habitat 67, Montreal

Torres Blancas, Madrid

Geisel Library, University of California, San Diego

Tricorn Centre, Portsmouth (demolished 2004)

Alexandra Road Estate, London


Lamborghini Marzal, 1967 (Bertone)

Inside the Lamborgini Marzal (Bertone)

Alfa Romeo Navajo, 1976 (Bertone)

In the future, all drivers will wear crash helmets and skintight clothing: Alfa Romeo Carabo, 1968 (Bertone)

In the future, all drivers will wear bikinis: Ferrari 512 S Modulo, 1970 (Pininfarina)


Boeing 733 SST

Myasishchev M-50 Bounder supersonic bomber

Rockwell XFV-12 supersonic VTOL fighter

McDonnell XF-88B hybrid supersonic jet-turboprop fighter


Hyperion Single Stage To Orbit (Philip Bono)

ROMBUS, Pegasus and Ithacus SSTOs (Philip Bono)


Soviet SPIRAL Project: GSR and OS (source:


Reading snapshot meme

David Hebblethwaite has just done this on his blog, and I read his blog, so I guess I’ll have a go at it. Again. Because we’ve all done this before. But so what: it’s about books. Books are good, and reading them is even better. The only thing better than reading that you can do with books is, er building a fallout shelter with them and pretending World War III has happened. Or maybe a zombie apocalypse. And while the rest of the world succumbs to anarchy and chaos and radiation / undeadedness, you read the books you built your shelter from. Win.

Anyway, the meme: it goes like this:

1. the book I’m currently reading
Synthajoy, DG Compton – the best British science fiction writer of the 1970s, and his novels continue to be superb and very, er, 1970s. And that’s why I think they’re brilliant.

2. the last book I finished
Maul, Tricia Sullivan – this was October’s book for my reading challenge (see here), and I was expecting to like this a lot more than I did. Proper full write-up to follow soon-ish. For the present, I will say it has a slightly American Psycho vibe to it which, like that book, struggles to convince, and a near-future in which men are exceedingly rare, and correspondingly prized, due to a plague, which feels like an entirely different type of society.

3. the next book I want to read
The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist – the TBR actually numbers in the hundreds, but I have a sort of mini-TBR, a half-dozen books which will be my next immediate reads. And top of this list is The Unit, which Michaela Staton gave me ages ago and keeps on asking me what it’s like. It does look very interesting, in fact.

4. the last book I bought
Leviathan’s Deep, Jayge Carr – when I say “bought”, I didn’t pay any money for this. It was priced 50p but since we’d just given the Harewood House second-hand bookshop two carriers bags full of books, they let us have the handful we wanted for nothing. Which was pretty cool, as Leviathan’s Deep had been on the wants list since reading Carr’s story in Women of Wonder: the Contemporary Years (see here). It’s a shame about the slightly dodgy cover art, though.

5. the last book I was given
Blood Count, Robert Goddard – I have no excuse for this one. Goddard writes formulaic potboilers, but I’ve read every one of his books to date. My mother got this from the above-mentioned second-hand bookshop, and has passed it on to me. In their defence, they are very quick reads.


Why there’s nothing fantastic about science fiction

We all like our genre labels, even if we argue over their provenance – literary genre, marketing category, or whatever it is we are pointing at. But people have a natural tendency to categorise things, to seek out patterns, in order to make things more manageable. It helps no one to insist that there is no such thing as genre, that all literature is one big amorphous field in which authors play with a selection of tools. Not only does this fail to recognise the nature of those tools, the author’s intent, or the reader’s response, it hampers discussion and confuses matters.

Genre exists. Deal with it.

There are also those who like to lump science fiction and fantasy together as a single genre. Certainly, they can both be found in the same part of a book shop. They call this “speculative fiction”. But sf and fantasy have as much in common as… sf and mainstream fiction, say, or fantasy and crime fiction; than they have in common with each other. Sf and fantasy and crime, for example, share a reliance on plot; or, sf and fantasy can be as mimetic as literary fiction.

In fact, other than the (not obligatory) use of invented worlds, sf and fantasy have very little in common. And there are mainstream novels which use invented locales – such as South Riding, Barchester, Wetherton or Kings Markham. But then, all literature is speculative, all literature is imaginative – but that doesn’t make all literature the same.

Even distinctions between “science fiction” and “category science fiction” are facile. The latter is what some people use to describe books sold as science fiction – the difference, in other words, between an Iain M Banks’ Surface Detail and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The former has “SF” on its spine, and is shelved in the sf and fantasy section of the book shop.

As for science fiction and fantasy belonging to an all-encompassing “speculative fiction” genre… That too is a failure of taxonomy. They are entirely different modes. Science fiction is, at heart, modernist. It may be plot-dependent, which much modernist literature is not, but its modern form was certainly created as a means of explaining an ever-changing industrialised world. It even began in an electronics magazine! Sf’s self-reflective nature – i.e., “a genre in conversation with itself” – is also a characteristic of modernist fiction. As is the gradual shift from a chiefly utopian mode to a dystopian one.

Fantasy displays none of these characteristics. It is not always plot-dependent, though epic/high fantasy (i.e., secondary world fantasies) tends to rely heavily on either the quest or hero’s journey templates. It does not seek to explain the world, but to lend it further mystery; its worlds are not open to explanation. It is neither utopian nor dystopian, but always returns to the status quo. It is not self-reflective, though over the decades it has built up a large toolbox of conventions and tropes.

Without genres, we cannot discuss literature intelligently. Without taxonomy, we cannot know what we are talking about. As marketing categories, sf and fantasy serve a purpose for readers and purchases and fans. But sf and fantasy as definable (however nebulously) modes of fiction provides the context we need to engage and comment on fictions displaying genre characteristics.


World book meme!

Book meme! Here are the 25 titles chosen for 2012’s World Book Night. Do the usual: bold for read, italics for owned by unread. And, given the multimedia nature of our cultural landscape, asterisk those with film or television adaptations you have seen.

*Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks
Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Take by Martina Cole
Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell
Someone Like You by Roald Dahl
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Room by Emma Donoghue
*Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
*The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Misery by Stephen King
The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
Small Island by Andrea Levy
*Let the Right One In by John Ajvde Lindqvist
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
*The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
*The Damned Utd by David Peace
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

Not so good a score: six read, six seen. None on the TBR. Oh well.


The enmity of postmen

It has been a good month for the book collection and a bad month for the TBR: both have grown larger. As follows…

Some charity shop finds to start: Maureen Kincaid Speller has been singing the praises of Alan Garner for decades, though my only exposure to him has been the children’s classic fantasies The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor and The Owl Service. Time to remedy that with Strandloper, methinks. Despite thinking they’re really bad, I’m determined to work my way through Fleming’s Bond novels – hence, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I remember being impressed by Palliser’s The Quincunx when I read it back in the early 1990s, and also enjoyed his The Unburied some ten years ago. But he’s not an author who appears often in charity shops, so I was pleased to pick up Betrayals. The infamous, and expensive, Warhammer 40, 000: Space Marine by Ian Watson I didn’t find in a charity shop but bought off a seller in Canada on eBay. I got it for less than the going rate – especially considering its condition – so I’m happy. And now I get to read it, too.

New paperbacks: Infidel is the sequel to the excellent God’s War (see here). A third book, Rapture, is I believe due next year. The Recollection is Gareth Powell’s debut novel from a big publisher. Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of the year list back in 2006 (see here), so I felt it was time to try his next book, Case Closed. And Maul is this month’s book for my 2011 reading challenge (see here).

Graphic novels: I like Jacques Tardi’s bandes dessinée, and these Fanatagraphics editions are handsome volumes, so I’ve been buying them. It Was the War of the Trenches is about, well, World War I. The Gondwana Shrine is the eleventh volume of the adventures of Blake and Mortimer, and is another one by the team of Yves Sente and André Juillard (series creator Edgar P Jacobs died in 1987). The books have all the intense seriousness of Tintin, but where Hergé tempers his stories with slapstick humour, Jacobs (and now Sente) marry them with bonkers pulp scientific romance. It makes for an entertaining combination. Then there’s the first two books of Jean-Claude Mézière and Pierre Christin’s Valérian et Laureline, Agents Spatio-Temporel, now in English translation – and published by Cinebook, who are doing excellent work. The series currently stands at 21 volumes, although previously only seven have been translated into English (I have them all). Both The City of Shifting Waters and The Empire of a Thousand Planets are a bit clumsily written, but they’re fun – and the series does improve a great deal. There are, incidentally, some interesting similarities between elements of the latter and the Star Wars films, though The Empire of a Thousand Planets was originally published in 1971. Coincidence? Ascent is a graphic novel adaptation of Jed Mercurio’s excellent novel of the same title (see here).

For the space books collection: The Conquest of Space contains some lovely art by Chesley Bonestell, which are worth the price of admission alone. Apollo: An Eyewitness Account by Alan Bean has been on the wants list for a while. It’s a signed first edition. Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn was, er, cheap.

And more space books: All Systems Go is a self-published memoir by an engineer involved in a number of NASA and US military projects, including SAGE, Apollo, Skylab, and the TOW missile. The Mammoth Book of Space Exploration and Disasters was a charity shop find. I suppose the publishers thought exploration on its own wasn’t exciting enough – people would only buy the book if it included shit blowing up.

A trio for the Baxter collection: Sunstorm, book two of the A Time Odyssey trilogy, completes it for me; Conqueror is the second of the Time Tapestry quartet and I still need to get books 3 and 4; and Bronze Summer is the sequel to Stone Spring, which I have yet to pick up a copy of.

More first editions: Paul Scott’s The Bender was lucky find on eBay. As was Compton’s Synthajoy, though it’s a tatty copy. …And the Angel with Television Eyes is the signed slipcased edition from Night Shade Books, which includes a chapbook, the box in my head, of lyrics and poems.


Women in sf reading challenge #9: Shadow Man, Melissa Scott

If I’ve had trouble reading the books for my challenge in their proper months, it’s not because reading them is proving a, er, challenge. On the contrary, it’s because I’ve made a change in my reading patterns which makes the books I chose for the challenge less of a conscious or deliberate act of selection of reading material. I now read more books by women writers, and so the dozen books of my reading challenge are just twelve among many. In that respect, the challenge can be counted a success – and only nine months in, too. Nor have any of those nine books been bad books, though a couple I didn’t enjoy as much as the others.

Which brings me to Shadow Man by Melissa Scott, September’s book for the challenge. I was aware of the book’s reputation before choosing it – in fact, it was that which likely led to its selection. However, that reputation had not really prepared for what I found when I started reading it. Because what Shadow Man is, is Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness through a funhouse mirror. It is also a more political novel than the political The Left Hand of Darkness. Comparisons are inevitable, even though LeGuin’s novel takes place on a world with one gender and Shadow Man takes place in a universe with five genders. Both novels have placed the treatment of gender – culturally and legally – front and centre.

In the universe of Shadow Man, the use of a drug to offset “FTL shock” has resulted in a far greater than normal incidence of intersex and hermaphrodite births (miscarriages are also correspondingly higher). The Concord Worlds now recognise five genders – woman, man, fem, mem and herm; respectively, she, he, ðe, þe and 3e. (Unfortunately, I kept on reading the pronouns referring to herms as if they used the Arabic ﻉ (‘ayn) rather than the numeral 3.) These five genders have led, in turn, to nine sexual preferences, and this has bearing on the plot of the novel.

On the world of Hara, a colony planet re-contacted 100 years previously after several centuries of independent development, the law and society only recognise two genders – man and woman. So the herms, mems and fems must take on the role of one or the other – though there is apparently a facility for herms at least to legally change gender. The Traditionalist Harans feel that true humans have only two genders, and they do not want to join the Concord. The Modernists want the other three genders to be recognised in Haran law. It is the battle between these two groups which drives the plot of Shadow Man.

Warreven is a herm, but legally male, and works as an advocate in the Haran legal system. Years before, 3e almost married the son of the Most Important Man – the de facto ruler of Hara – but 3e refused to change legal gender. Now, 3e fights for gender rights in the courts. Mhyre Tatian is the manager of a middle-sized Concord pharmaceutical company’s operations on Hara. The world’s biggest export is its drugs, all derived from the local flora. Also important is “trade”, which is prostitution, mostly involving the three genders not recognised on Hara.

Warreven is involved in a court case which looks set to play a major role in the fight for gender equality. But the Most Important Man doesn’t want that to happen, because as long as things muddle along as they presently are doing, a delicate balance between the Traditionalists and the Modernists is maintained. But his son, Tendlathe, is a staunch Traditionalist – a blinkered, chauvinist and conservative Traditionalist of the worst kind. In an effort to keep Warreven from the courts, the Most Important Man has him elected as his clan’s seeraliste, the person responsible for selling off the clan’s surplus crops. Meanwhile, the Interstellar Disease Control Agency, the organisation responsible for preventing the spread of diseases – a variety of HIVs were also created by the FTL drug – also wants to prevent that case from going to court for their own reasons. Tatian is caught in the middle as one of his employees is a key witness. When Warreven offers Tatian the entire clan surplus in return for the employee’s testimony, it kicks off a series of Traditonalist attacks on the Modernists and the “odd-bodied”.

Scott makes no concessions when introducing the world of Shadow Man. It’s straight in at the deep end. There are one or two info-dumps streamlined into the narrative, but they provide little more than local colour. The story is told from the points of view – alternating – of Warreven and Tatian. From Warreven, we see what it’s like to be a herm in a society that does not recognise it as a gender, and we get the politics which affects that. Tatian provides an outsider’s view of Hara and its culture. Though both mention at various points some physical attraction between them, it never amounts to anything.

As a sf novel set in a strange and interesting world, with a pair of likeable protagonists, Shadow Man succeeds. There’s an air of exploration to the story, as it spends a great deal of time savouring the culture of Hara before the somewhat abrupt final confrontation. Yet the action never moves outside the capital city, though places elsewhere on the world are often mentioned. It makes for a languid read, a story in which the politics of the climax seems to page by page subsume the story of Warreven and Tatian – in fact, for at least half of the book, they’re barely acquaintances.

But it is the gender politics for which Shadow Man is known, and I found them a little problematical in places. For a start, the thing driving the gender politics in the story is “trade”. It’s almost as if the odd-bodied genders are defined by the roles they play in prostitution. There’s a level of prurience implicit in the Traditionalist response to herms, mems and fems, and given the focus on trade it’s not hard to understand why they might hold such an opinion. Perhaps Shadow Man needed to show a Concord world’s society as contrast, because all the reader has with which to compare it is the situation in the real world. It’s also worth noting that the genders in Shadow Man are defined by biology – it’s the secondary sexual characteristics and equipment which determine which gender a person is. And while the book’s glossaries helpfully explain the nine sexual preferences – there is a glossary of Concord terms and one of Haran words – those sexual preferences make only a few appearances in the story. Haran society is dual-sexed, and the story treats all interactions as such, acknowledging the existence of sexual preferences beyond woman-man but not really exploring them. And this is in a novel whose story describes the start of a sexual revolution comparable to the fight for gay rights in the real world. In fact, Shadow Man‘s penultimate chapter is very much an analogue of Stonewall.

Literalising a metaphor is not uncommon in fiction, and is an excellent tool for commentary. I’m not entirely convinced that literalising sexual preferences as biological gender necessarily helps discussion, though in Shadow Man it has resulted in an interesting universe. It’s a pity Shadow Man doesn’t explore more of it. Which is not to say it’s a bad novel by any means. I enjoyed it and thought it good. I’d happily recommend it. I am somewhat surprised it has never been published in the UK. It seems to me it would fit in quite happily with a number of sf novels which have been available here over the years – not just the aforementioned LeGuin, but also books by Storm Constantine, Samantha Lee, Mary Gentle, or even Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy…