It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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The Hugos are broken, science fiction is broken, everything is broken

Last Sunday saw Hugo Awards handed out to several people for producing, or so the award would have us believe, the “best” of their category in the previous year. It’s complete nonsense, of course. The Hugos, despite half-hearted changes implemented over the years, are based on a model of fandom which hasn’t existed since the 1960s. What are “fan writers”? What are “fanzines”? Once, the profiles of these might have been high enough in the sf community for worldcon members to know what they are and vote intelligently on them. There’s a reason pro writers are winning the fan writer Hugo now – people know who they are. And despite having a World Wide Web for twenty years, the Hugos still have no idea how to deal with online content.

I’ve never understood why there are Hugos for best dramatic presentation. Television and movies have seperate fandoms and their own set of awards, genre or otherwise. I’ll concede that television show writers are more likely to value a Hugo win than a Hollywood director – but neither use the award in their marketing, or make any mention of it. Besides, the best dramatic presentation -short form award has turned into a best episode of Dr Who award. This year it went to Neil Gaiman for added squee.

The magazine Hugos are completely broken and have been for years. They’ve tried to patch it up, with their ever-mutating definition of semiprozine, but the whole award is based on a concept that hasn’t pertained since the early 1970s. There is no real market of pro genre magazines. There are a tiny handful of titles, with greatly shrunken circulations. But there is a thriving scene of non-pro magazines. Why should the Hugos exclude those venues that don’t pay for submissions? They might still publish excellent fiction. And then there’s the whole print vs online thing. But then, why should a magazine deserve an award? For publishing the best fiction? There are the three short fiction categories for that. To reward the editor for consistently picking the best fiction? There’s an editor – short form Hugo for that. For the magazine’s design? There are no Hugos for design.

Then there’s the short fiction categories. What is the point of the novelette? There’s the short story, and that’s pretty obvious. There’s the novel, likewise an obvious category. And something in between, longer than a short story but not as weighty as a novel: the novella. Back in the day, some novels were as short as novellas – the only distinction was that they were published as if they were novels, as separate paperbacks referred to in their marketing as novels. With the increasing growth in the ebook market, some of these distinctions are beginning to blur anyway. The category is at the discretion of the publisher or self-pubbed author – they’ll decide whether the $1.99 30,000-word story they’ve written is a novel or novella. And I see no reason to ignore their decision.

It doesn’t help that the Hugo Awards claim to be global yet are clearly only American. The worldcon, the membership of which nominates and votes on the awards, takes place in the US four out of every five years, and even when abroad the shortlists are often dominated by American works. Works published globally are eligible for the Hugo (now; it wasn’t always the case), but it means little as the voters are chiefly US-based. Online publication of short fiction has confused matters somewhat – so much so that the BSFA Awards, which are for works published in the UK, have given up insisting on British-only publication for their short fiction category. As for ebook-only publication…

This week also saw the publication of an excellent review of the annual best of science fiction anthologies in the LA Review of Books by Paul Kincaid. See here. Paul makes a number of interesting points, but the chief one is that the genre has become so inward-looking that it’s now more concerned with trope mining than it is with the real world. Sf has locked itself within its own toy box, and is happy to just play with the toys it finds there. The review led to an excellent discussion on Twitter, with Paul, Jonathan McCalmont, Rose Fox, Paul C Smith and myself (there may have been others – we didn’t hashtag the discussion and I’m having trouble finding the tweets).

From what I remember, the chief point made was that sf seems to have lost confidence in the future because it has lost confidence in the present. Certainly there’s very little to celebrate in the present – climate change, climate change denial, rampant neoliberalism, oligarchism, the increasingly anti-science bent of public discourse, etc. – but should we really be celebrating as the best that sf which refuses to acknowledge it? Science fiction has always had a place for escapism, thanks to its pulp origins, but to elevate such stories above those that actually comment on the real world is pure cowardice. But then look at what won the Hugo for best novel this year – Jo Walton’s Among Others, a book whose message appears to be “sf fans are special people”…

I don’t actually agree that sf has chiefly been a tool for commenting on the real world – there’s no way in hell you can fit EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s works into that – but some of the best works of the past were clearly more about the time they were written than they were about the time they were set. Such as Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. And not just the good ones either – cf Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. It’s often been said there’s a steep learning curve to science fiction, that it’s a difficult mode of fiction to begin reading. Being self-referential only makes it worse, far worse. When literary writers have a go at sf, their efforts often appear old-fashioned, because they’re working from first principles, they’re not basing their works on the genre’s past use of tropes. It also makes their books much more accessible to non-genre readers – Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Litt’s Journey into Space, James’ The Children of Men, Jensen’s The Rapture, Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, etc.

One of the nicest things to appear in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains was the comment “while the story is science fiction it is written as if it were not” (see here). True, the novella is not about the future but about an alternate past, but it doesn’t make use of science fictional tropes per se. The Apollo programme was real (although my extension of it is invented, of course); the Bell is a well-known element of Nazi super-science mythology. I’ve positioned the novella as sf because I think of myself as a sf writer – or rather, someone who writes in a sf mode. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done.

In one respect, I’m as guilty as those writers on the Hugo shortlists in that I’m not inventing futures which are about the present. That’s because I’m fascinated by the technological achievements of the mid-twentieth century, so they’ve been appearing more often in my fiction. Not just the Apollo programme, but also the bathyscaphe Trieste‘s descent to Challenger Deep, Project Manhigh, the submersible Ben Franklin‘s 2300 kilometre underwater journey in 1969… Despite the Cold War and Mutually-Assured Destruction, the optimism of those times I find very striking. (See also my The future we used to have posts (snarky captions notwithstanding).) All that invention and engineering was going to make the world a better place. In the US, they believed they had the better toys and so would eventually defeat, or cow into submission, the Soviets. In the USSR, they believed they had the better political system and so would eventually subsume all other nations. Neither was proven correct. But the time and money and effort they spent improving their lot was phenomenal. Better living through engineering. We don’t do that anymore. And so our science fictions reflect that lack. Or rather, they should. Complain that sf is all escapism these days, and readers will respond, “what’s wrong with escapism?” Well, it doesn’t fix anything, for a start. That was one of sf’s characteristics in the past, that it posited thought experiments, that it could show the impact of something – good or bad – happening, that it could inspire people to do things.

Sf can use the past, or alternate versions of it, to discuss the present. Saying “we could have done this” is as valid as saying “why did we do that?”. And, at least, it has the benefit of being more realistic – the Bell, notwithstanding. True, readers would have to be of a certain age to remember the Apollo missions, but at least most people are aware of them and their achievements. (Though not everyone, as indicated by an astonishingly stupid Twitter exchange which did the rounds when Neil Armstrong’s death was announced.)

Sf seems to be not only ignoring the real world of people and politics and economics and society and such, but also the real world of science. It invents universes about which we can flit in a matter of moments. Perhaps it takes hours, weeks or months, but we can reach other stars and other worlds. Which are, of course, habitable – if not already inhabited. The real universe is not like that, of course. There is only one place in the entire universe where we will ever be at home, and we are there now. Even Low Earth Orbit, less than 200 kilometres straight up, is about the most benign environment for humans not on Earth, and we can’t survive there without technological assistance, and not for long even with it. Trips beyond LEO are technologically possible – we did it once, we have the engineering to do it again and go further – but they will never be safe or comfortable or timely. And when we get where we going, will it have been worth the trip?

This is not to say all sf is like this. It’s a wide field, with many books and many writers in it. Two novels this year, for example – Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 and Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth – have made a point of treating the universe realistically. Ken MacLeod’s recent novel, Intrusion, and Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids from a couple of years ago, made a real effort to engage with the world as it might be in the near-future. Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire and Gwyneth Jones’ Life did something similar. Adam Roberts uses the genre to satirically comment on the present. There are doubtless others…

But then I look at the award winners of recent years… A bloated paean to a theme-park vision of the Blitz… the infamous Mormon whale rape novella… a novella about a man who built a bridge which, for no apparent reason, is written as fantasy… a TV series based on a re-imagining of the War of the Roses…

Sf is broken, it refuses to acknowledge we’re in the twenty-first century – yes, I put my hand up, I’m guilty; but at least I write about the real twentieth century. And then I look around and see that not all science fiction is broken. But the non-broken sf… the various awards seem to be ignoring it.

So something is clearly broken somewhere.


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Lexicon Urthus, Michael Andre-Druissi

Lexicon Urthus, second edition, Michael Andre-Druissi
(2008, Sirius Fiction, $19.95, 419pp)

Lexicon Urthus – a compendium and dictionary of words and concepts from Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun – The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, The Urth of the New Sun, and ancillary and additional short fiction and essays. Lexicon Urthus contains definitions/explanations, a note on origin, and often a commentary, on all the unfamiliar words and terms, the characters and places, in the five books, from ABACINATION to ZOETIC.

History: A “lexicon” is “the vocabulary used by or known to an individual” (Wiktionary); “Urthus” is a bogus Latin genitive form derived from “Urth” – which is actually a Norse word, and the name of the eldest of the Norns (see Skuld and Verthandi), and not a corruption of “Earth”.

Commentary: the reputation of The Book of the New Sun rests in part on the word-games – the obscure and obscuring vocabulary – used by Wolfe in telling his story. Hidden beneath and within these unfamiliar terms are additional elements of the story. They also add to the flavour of Wolfe’s world-building. Using invented or unfamiliar terms is not a unique achievement, but Wolfe does not provide a glossary – unlike, say, Frank Herbert in Dune. Lexicon Urthus in part fills that role – it is subtitled “A dictionary for the Urth Cycle” – but it is also much more. Words are not simply glossed, but characters’ names are also explained – their origins and any connection between a historical person bearing that name and the character in the book, and a further commentary on each term. There is also a synopsis of all five books, and several maps of varying usefulness.

Some of the terms glossed are not so obscure:

dhow – a native vessel used on the Arabian Sea, generally with a single mast, and of 150 to 200 tons burden; a kind of lateen-rigged trading boat (I chap. 12, 114).

Others certainly are:

Murene – the name of the village on the shore of Lake Diuturna (III, chap. 32, 258).

History: (variant of “muraena”) in early use applied vaguely as the name of a kind of eel mentioned by ancient writers.

Lexicon Urthus‘s usefulness is specific. As is its appeal. It is for those interested in learning more about, and understanding more of, The Book of the New Sun. It is not an analysis of the story – as is, say, Robert Borski’s Solar Labyrinth – but it is a tool to aid in solving the Urth Cycle’s riddles. Its scholarship is impressive – as, one must assume, was Wolfe’s when he wrote The Book of the New Sun. This second edition corrects many of the errors and omissions discovered in the first edition and subsequently published in Errata & Corrigenda chapbooks.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #219 December 2008.