It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


5 tropes science fiction and fantasy should really stop using

These speak for themselves, I think.

1. rape as lazy characterisation
You want to show your villain is a Bad Man, so you have him rape a woman. You want your fluffy princess to become a feisty amazon, so you have someone rape her. No no no no no no no. Do not treat women like this, not even in fiction. And when Mr Fantasy Author responds, “that’s what it was like in the Middle Ages, you moron”, but also quite happily replies with “it’s a made-up fantasy land, you moron” when the accuracy of his Middle English has been questioned, then I would suggest that Mr Fantasy Author is the real moron. If you’re going to make shit up, don’t make up regressive sexist shit.

2. the lone gunman
Thousands have died, perhaps millions, and it’s all the fault of one man (it’s almost always a man). He deliberately gave the order, or pressed the button, that resulted in all those deaths. He’s a monster, and he acted in a vacuum, according to motives of his own. He’s not part of a political or religious movement, he’s not the general of a conquering army. He is the lone gunman, the lone psycho. Like the corporate executive, in a Hugo-shortlisted space opera, who hires gangsters to seal the exits of an asteroid city with a population of 1.5 million, and then subjects them to a fate worse than death by infecting them with an alien virus… just to see what will happen. If your plot depends on one person acting like an inhuman monster, you need to rethink your plot.

3. post-catastrophe man is an animal
Thirty years ago, we were waiting for them to drop the big one and then we’d all be scrabbling for survival among the radioactive ruins. Now it’s more likely that climate crash, or nation-state failure, will do for us. Either way, our current way of life will be toast. So, of course, once this happens the men will all run rampant, rape all the women, steal everything, and kill anyone they don’t like the look of. This, at least, is what fiction tells us. We will not try and rebuild our communities, we will not recognise that cooperation increases our chances of survival. It’s every man for himself, and the women are chattel. Of course, our present ruling classes want us to believe this – they need law and order to maintain their rule, so they want us to believe that without law and order we will turn into brainless animals. In Davide Longo’s The Last Man Standing, a middle-aged couple break into the protagonist’s house and steal all his food and clothing. Regressive, but relatively plausible. They also shit all over his furniture. Why? Why would anyone stealing food to survive also shit on their victim’s furniture? If you have characters in your post-apocalypse novel raping women and shitting on beds, do “select all”, followed by “delete”.

4. the tart with a heart
It’s not just that it’s a horrible cliché centuries past its sell-by date. Think what it says about your invented world. If prostitution exists, or even flourishes, then it is not an equal society. It is patriarchal. And that makes it sexist. Is the human race – one half of it, at least – doomed to be sexist until the heat death of the universe? Biological apologists are no better than creationists. Leave regressive crap like this where it belongs – in religious books.

5. artificial people are not people
Humanity finally manages to create a race of artificial human beings. And promptly enslaves them. No no no no no no no no no. If they’re human, they’re human. They will have the same rights as everyone else. We did the slavery thing centuries ago, it was wrong and we know it was wrong… so why would we do it again? This goes for AIs too. If it’s sentient, it’s not a tool. And if you should find yourself writing a sex slave character, take your manuscript and burn it. And do not write another word until you know better.

ETA: I have added “as lazy characterisation” to the first point as it was rightly pointed out to me that it originally read as though I felt rape should never appear in fiction, when it was my intention that its use as lazy shorthand characterisation should be avoided. Rape should be written about, and as a man I am not in a position to say otherwise. I apologise for any confusion, and take to heart everything written by Kari Sperring in her response here.


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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Robopocalypse, Daniel H Wilson

Robopocalypse, Daniel H Wilson
(2011, Doubleday, $25.00, 347pp)

Daniel H Wilson has a PhD in Robotics. He is also the author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, among other books. He’s the go-to guy when American television needs an expert on robots. Almost every book he has written has been optioned – including this one, Robopocalypse, his first novel for adults. In fact, the film rights were sold before the book was even published.

This is a well-worn narrative, and it’s the story of the book rather than the story in the book which often generates more interest. When six-figure sums are bandied about for a genre novel, its quality is beside the point. Such books cannot depend on genre readers to recoup their outlay. They have to break out – and an author with celebrity status is needed provide the slingshot required. Robopocalypse will be a successful book, but not from any quality intrinsic to it as a novel qua novel.

So it should come as little surprise that, as a novel qua novel, Robopocalypse is not a satisfactory read. Sometime in the near-future, a scientist accidentally unleashes an Artificial Intelligence. Over a period of a couple of years, this AI, Archos, reprograms all the world’s robots to turn on human beings, and so a war begins. Robopocalypse opens with a human combat team finding a device, built by the robots, which appears to contain eyewitness accounts to various incidents which took place during the Robot War. These incidents become the chapters of Robopocalypse, and each one is introduced with a blurb from the device’s discoverer.

This novel, then, is not a narrative but a collection of vignettes which, together, create a story-arc of sorts. Some of these vignettes are more successful than others. When the story is set in the US, Wilson handles his voices well, though there is a tendency to lionise his protagonists. However, one series of chapters is set in London, and it appears Wilson learnt his British accent from watching Guy Ritchie films. Another features a mild-mannered technician in Tokyo who later proves to be a genius. These are not ordinary people, though the structure of Robopocalypse would have you believe they are representative of the human race.

Given the author’s credentials, the one area in which you’d expect Robopocalypse to shine would be its science and technology. But even these elements were so clearly written with an eye toward cinematic visuals they often appear implausible. Automated cars in New York, for instance, go on a killing spree. But this makes little or no sense – the computing power necessary to turn a car into a weapon which can target moving pedestrians simply wouldn’t be built in. Wilson also has a tendency to project emotions onto the robots, as if anthropomorphisation would make them a more implacable enemy. Being a roboticist, he should know better.

Robopocalypse is a novel powered by two things, both external to the text. It reads as though it has been written to facilitate its transformation to another medium, the cinema. Hence the soundbites and pithy blurbs which open each chapter. Likewise the framing narrative, which implies a level of rigour the novel too often exceeds: the claimed sources for each chapter – CCTV footage, recorded interview, etc. – do not possess the level of detail or insight the writing displays. However, it is not all bad. Some parts of Robopocalypse are quite effective, and Wilson does a good job of describing the collapse of US society and the destruction of the nation’s infrastructure. Having said that, there’s little point, to be honest, in reading the book. Spielberg is all ready working on the film adaptation. You might as well wait for that: the visuals are likely to remain unchanged, but at least the story-arc will have been distilled down into something much more potent and satisfying.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #236, September-October 2011.

Note: the film mentioned in the review is due to be released in 2014, but as yet no cast members have been attached.


Science fiction traces

I firmly believe that a reading diet of only genre fiction is bad for you. It’s the equivalent of trying to live off junk food. For a writer, it’s even worse, perhaps even dangerous – certainly, it’s detrimental to their career. I used to break up my consumption of genre with modern literary fiction novels, though I’ve increasingly found I much prefer postwar fiction, especially British – Lawrence Durrell, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Scott, and the like. But I do still read some of the better-known modern literary fiction authors, even if their novels have proven somewhat samey in recent years.

One of those literary fiction novelists is Sebastian Faulks. I recently finished his Human Traces (2005), which is about the early years of psychiatry. Sort of. It begins in 1876, with the introduction as boys of its two main characters, Jacques Rebière in France and Thomas Midwinter in England. The two meet when in their early twenties, become great friends, qualify in medicine, and open a sanatorium in southern Austria. Later, the two disagree over the direction the nascent science of psychiatry should take, beginning a feud which only ends after the First World War.

Human Traces is historical fiction. Its characters are invented but a number of real historical figures make appearances. It is about a variety of mental conditions, their historical diagnoses, and what we now know them to be. (Most asylums in the nineteenth century, for example, were filled with syphilis victims.) But Human Traces also contains at its core a very science-fictional idea.

Some three-quarters of the way through the book, Midwinter proposes a theory to explain why some people hear voices. It is his theory that psychosis is inextricably linked to self-awareness, and that it is the advent of self-awareness which created human beings. Early humans, he contends, heard voices as a matter of routine. In a speech given at his sanatorium, he outlines his theory:

… of how man, after he had learned language, had been able to conjure instructive voices in his head; and of how, after the invention of writing and under the influence of huge population upheavals, the ability to summon such voices had become rarer. (p 497)

This theory had been inspired by a number of things – not the least of which was Midwinter himself hearing voices when younger – but it was on an expedition to Africa that it began to gel:

But how could men without consciousness – a modern sense of time, and cause and other people – have done this? Picture your shepherd far away in the hills with no sense that he is a man, no idea of time in which he can visualise himself and his situation… How does he know he must keep tending his sheep? Why does he not forget what he is meant to do – as an ape would forget? Because under the anxiety of solitude, under the pressure of fear, he releases chemicals in his brain that cause not sweating palms, or racing heart, though perhaps those as well – but the voiced instructions of his king. He hallucinates a voice that tells him what to do. (p 450)

Midwinter contents that language was not a development of self-awareness, that self-awareness did not lead to civilisation; but that language and civilisation both came into being before humanity had consciousness. It was only the development of writing which led to self-awareness. He references a number of mythologies in proof – the Ancient Greeks in conversation with their gods, God speaking to Abraham in the Bible, and so on…

It’s not a conceit which sits well as the core of a realist novel. Nor is it one which really stands up all that well to scrutiny. It’s an interesting idea, certainly, but perhaps better suited to the sort of thought experiment for which science fiction is best suited. We know that writing developed in Mesopotamia around 8000 BCE. It has been estimated that Abraham lived around 1800 BCE, and the Greek pantheon has been traced back to sixth century BCE Greece. So writing had been around for several millennia before the examples Midwinter gives to demonstrate his thesis. And for those thousands of years, if his theory is correct, humanity had not been wholly self-aware…

It doesn’t really work. The weight of history stands against it. However, it would make for an interesting creation myth for a fantasy novel; or, perhaps, first contact could be the trigger from one state to the other for an alien race in a science fiction novel. Aliens of differing degrees, or variable degrees, of self-awareness have been used in sf before – in Peter Watt’s Blindsight, the aliens are not conscious; in the GDW role-playing game 2300AD, one of the alien races increased their intelligence from normally very low levels as their fight/flight reaction.

Having said all that, there’s perhaps an interesting idea to explore at the intersection of Midwinter’s theory and the City Burners. Between 1200 and 1150 BCE, the Late Bronze Age civilisations around the Eastern Mediterranean collapsed. From what little documentary evidence that has been found, raiders from the sea – known as the Sea Peoples or the City Burners – invaded a number of city-states and destroyed them, propelling civilisation back to illiteracy. Imagine if those Sea Peoples had been Midwinter’s unconscious humans, driven by the voices in their heads to destroy those civilisations who, through the widespread use of writing, could no longer hear the voices…

There’s a novel in there somewhere, if someone wants to write it.


Lovely Lowryness

I mentioned a week or so ago that a new author had joined my collectibles list: Malcolm Lowry. After finishing his Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, I was immediately a fan and went onto to hunt down first editions. And here are the first ones I’ve bought:

Lowry died in 1957 and only saw two of his books published – his debut Ultramarine and the novel for which he is famous, Under the Volcano. He left behind a number of manuscripts and hundreds of poems, which his wife and others edited and then arranged to be published.

Ultramarine (1933)
Under the Volcano (1947)
Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961)
Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry (1962)
Lunar Caustic (1968)
Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968)
October Ferry to Gabriola (1970)
The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry (1992)
The Voyage That Never Ends: Fictions, Poems, Fragments, Letters (2007)

As well as the four first editions in the photographs, I also have Lowry’s first three books as battered Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s. Much as I’d like a first edition of Under the Volcano, they cost upwards of £700, so they’re a bit out of my range…


The numbers game: addenda

Colum’s comment on my previous post, The numbers game, prompted me to wonder how quickly I’ve placed stories – ie, how many submissions has it taken for each story I’ve written before I’ve sold it. So I went back to my trusty spreadsheet, wrangled some numbers and produced this neat little bar chart:

A couple of the stories I sold to the first place I submitted them were written specifically for anthologies. The ones which took seven or eight goes are the older stories… which does suggest I’m getting better at this lark.

Having said all that, I’ve yet to sell stories to any of the big venues, such as Interzone, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, or the Big Three US paper mags (though I’m not especially bothered about submitting to the last).


The numbers game

I was thinking yesterday about how much I hate writing first drafts. I much prefer rewriting. Once I’ve got the bones of the story down on paper, I have something to shape – and it’s that process I enjoy doing. And this got me thinking about how many stories I’ve started but never finished. So I went digging through my various spreadsheets and lists of submissions, and I managed to cobble some numbers together…

started finished submitted published
flash 5 4 3 2
novel 8 5 5 0
novella 8 1 0 1
poem 21 21 8 1
short story 40 34 23 19

This may make me look quite prolific, but I’m a complete dilettante compared to some people I know. There are those who have submitted in one year more stories than I’ve ever actually finished. These numbers incidentally are mostly for the past few years. I did write and submit some short stories during the early 1990s, but my records from then are patchy so I’ve not included them. I spent much of that decade focusing on writing novels – which landed me an agent in 2005. It was only in 2008 that I started seriously writing and submitting short fiction, and year or so after that I tried my hand at poetry.

I seem to be much better at starting novellas than I am at finishing them – the only completed one is Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which I published through Whippleshield Books. Most of my poems I’ve posted on sferse, but I’ve only tried submitting a handful (without much success, it has to be said). And, while I’ve finished five novels, I’ve only submitted two complete ones to my agent; the remaining three were proposals. The above figures do not include the short stories, novellas or novels I plan at some point to have a go at but presently have nothing more than a one-line description in my ideas book.

The past six to nine months I’ve been focusing on Rocket Science, Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, so I’ve not had much chance to write any new short stories, or even finish off any of those I’d previously started. I really need to get back into that. So, of course, only a couple of days ago I had a good idea for a novel and I want to get some of that down on paper…