It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Summer night city

This last weekend I visited Stockholm for the third time for my fourth Swecon (last year’s was in Uppsala). I think that now makes me a regular… at least, I’m starting to feel like one. And even though attending the convention involves flying 1400 kilometres, with a bit of planning it doesn’t really cost that much more than an average Eastercon (assuming you stay in the convention hotel for an Eastercon). Since I started attending Nordic sf cons five years ago, I’ve been keep track of the cost… and Fantastika 2018 did indeed cost me more than Kontur 2017. The flight was cheaper, but the hotel was more expensive – because the one nearest the venue, Quality Hotel Nacka, which I had stayed in previously, was fully booked. So I ended up in the Hotell Anno 1647 in Slussen, which was more expensive.

Anyway, early Friday 15 June, I catch the train to Manchester Airport. Which is in fucking chaos. The normal security check area is blocked off – for use of “fast track passengers only” – and everyone else has to use temporary facilities in the basement… So it takes nearly 40 minutes to get through. When I do finally get to the front, the security guy asks me if I’m wearing a belt. “It’s plastic,” I tell him. “Doesn’t matter. It’s not metal detectors, it’s all body scanners now, so no belts.” So I put it through the X-ray, and am directed to walk through… a metal detector. Sigh.

And then the flight is delayed. I flew Norwegian. I’ve now flown them four times and three times the flights were delayed. I doubt I’ll be using them again. Delay aside, the flight is smooth and quick. There is a massive queue at passport control at Arlanda Airport as we seem to have landed at the same time as a couple of large international flights. I catch the Arlanda Express – 280 SEK! – to the Central Station, and from there walk to Sergels Torg to meet Tobias Bodlund for lunch. We eat in the Kulturhuset. (You can’t really say “the Kulturhuset”, of course, because Kulturhuset means “the culture house”, so that would be “the” twice.. But “we ate in Kulturhuset” sounds daft in English, and “we ate in the Kulturhus” sounds odd to Swedes.)

After lunch, Tobias heads back to work and I catch the Metro to Slussen and my hotel. I check in, and then go looking for the Saltsjöbanan, which I’d been assured was now running, as it hadn’t been due to renovations at Slussen in 2016. It isn’t running. Well, it is. But only as far as Henriksdal, the stop before Slussen. So I have to catch a bus out to Sickla. There is no replacement bus service, as there was in 2016, just normal bus service. I ask a staff member, and learn there are several bus numbers which run past Sickla Bro, the stop I need. I’d bought myself a travel card, so using Stockholm’s public transport proves very easy. And Sickla Bro is only the third stop after Slussen, a ride of around ten minutes.

At the Dieselverkstaden, the venue for Fantastika 2018, I register, say hello to a few friends, then buy myself a beer in the bistro and sit down to chill out a bit after the journey. I’m reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and have only been reading for about half an hour when a Swedish fan, Wolf von Witting, asks me about the novel, as he’d read and admired both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. I tell him he could have my copy of The Buried Giant when I finish it. Which I do the next day. And I give it to him. (I liked it – more at the end than I had done halfway through. Review to follow soon.)

More people begin to turn up, including Tobias, and at eight o’clock we all attend the opening ceremony, where they release the previous spirit of Swecon, and the three guests of honour – Kij Johnson, MR Carey and Ian Watson – are introduced and, immediately following, interviewed, well, it’s more of a moderated conversation.

By the time that’s finished, the “gang” is pretty much all assembled, and we sit in the Dieselverkstaden bistro, drinking beer and chatting until the bar closes. Then we move across to the Quality Hotel Nacka, and carry on until that bar closes. I catch a taxi back to my hotel in Slussen.

I should say something about Hotell Anno 1647, which is apparently named for the year it was built. Not as a hotel, obviously. As a private residence. As a result, it has no lifts, just wide spiral stone stairs between floors. I had the smallest hotel room in the world. At least it felt like it. There was room for a single bed and a narrow desk. The en suite was even smaller – you had to slot yourself under the sink to sit on the toilet. There was no air-conditioning – but with the window wide open at night, the room was cool enough, despite being June. My room also overlooked a quiet alley, so there was no noise. If the facilities were hardly “mod con”, and the decor perhaps a bit tired, the hotel did lay on a good breakfast, the staff were very friendly, and it was ideally located – within five minutes walk, you had both the Slussen Metro station and bus station, and a handful of excellent craft ale bars (more on which later).

I’m up early on the Saturday morning as I have a programme item at 10 am. Ugh. The topic is “I want to read good books!”, moderated by Sini Neuvonen, and including Jukka Halme, Oskar Källner, Jenny Bristle and myself. We’d discussed the panel on email in the weeks leading up to Fantastika – my initial list of 15 books had been rejected as too many, so I’d whittled it down to four. Oskar had put together a PowerPoint presentation of the cover art, and as they appear on the screen behind us, we discuss them. For the record, my choices were: Necessary Ill, Deb Taber; The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck; The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts; and The Smoke, Simon Ings.

I have three panels on the Saturday. The second is at three pm, “Ethics of generation ships”, moderated by Tomas Cronholm, and including Tommy Persson, Eva Holmquist, Peter Ekberg and myself. It is in the big room, Stora Scen, and seems to go well. I manage to get in a Brexit joke.

For lunch that day, myself, Tobias and his son, Eric, try the Lebanese restaurant next to the Diselverkstaden (it was an  Italian on my previous visit in 2016; I approve of the change), and so inadvertently start up a new Swecon tradition, as the first meal out I’d had with other Swecon attendees the year before in Uppsala had been at a… Lebanese restaurant. This is definitely a tradition I am happy to follow.

My final panel of the day, and of Swecon for me, is at seven o’clock, “Where is the borderline?”, moderated by Nahal Ghanbari, and featuring Linda Carey, Patrik Schylström, Flemming Rasch and myself. The discussion centres around last year’s Clarke Award winner, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I haven’t read. But I think I get away with it. The discussion is quite wide-ranging, but I have to disappoint one audience member who complains about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, saying the author clearly knows nothing about sf. Mitchell has been a sf fan for decades, I point out, he’s even a member of the BSFA (or certainly was).

When not in panels, or wandering around the Alvarfonden collection of secondhand books (I bought six), I’m in the bistro, chatting to friends. At one point on the Saturday, I’m sitting outside the bistro, when I look up and spot an unexpected face – Tracy Berg, who I know from UK cons as she’s a member of the Glasgow Writers Circle. It turns out she’s moved to Sweden, doesn’t know anyone, and has come to the con in the hope of making friends. So, of course, I introduce her to everyone. After the bistro closes we all move across to the Quality Inn Nacka, and carry onto until it closes. Anders Holm enters into discussion with the barmaid over which beer to buy. In English. “You’re both Swedish,” I point out to them. “You should speak Swedish.”

After the bar closes, the inimitable Bellis invites a bunch of us to his room for a room party. Which lasts until about 2 am. I believe there are photos. I then catch a taxi back to Slussen. Anders also needs a lift into town, so he shares the taxi. But the hotel must have assumed we need a taxi each, because they order two, and the second taxi driver is not happy to discover he’s lost his fare. It gets quite heated at one point, and I don’t know whether to be amused or afraid.

At one point during Saturday, I was sitting outside chatting to Fia Karlsson, when she noticed her phone, which had been sitting on the table in the sun, was hot. So was mine. Red hot. It ran out of power late afternoon, and when I had it fully charged the following morning, most of the apps on it no longer worked. After an hour or so of fiddling, I got some of them working again, but I was looking at a factory reset to get it fully functional. Happily, a full Android update dropped on the Monday – I installed it on Tuesday – and that fixed everything. But, annoyingly, I didn’t have access to a lot of apps from Saturday night until Tuesday.

On the Sunday evening, after the closing ceremony, which once again features the Tolkien Society choir, we’re sat in the bistro discussing the con, and we all feel it has been the most social Swecon so far. Yet we can’t understand why. True, it’s the third time in that venue. And a group of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish fans (and a few from further afield, such as myself) who regularly attend Swecons has begun to gel… Perhaps it was that. Perhaps it was because the three GoHs are themselves very sociable. Ian Watson is a sf institution these days and needs no introduction, but Kij Johnson proves to be just as approachable and engaging. Which is not to say Mike Carey, or his partner Linda, are not. In fact, during the closing ceremony, Mike mentions it has been a long time since he’d been at a convention where people actually discussed the genre, rather than conventions that are little more than merchandising expos (the price of success, I suppose).

Sunday night is an odd night. The dead dog party takes place in the bistro, and there are plenty present. But I want to visit some Stockholm real ale bars, so Anders and I catch the bus into Slussen. I have a pint and dinner – gravad lax – in the Oliver Twist, then we have another pint in Akkurat, before heading back to Sickla. Only to discover the bar in the bistro has closed. Everyone remaining heads across to the Quality Inn Nacka, where we all manage to get another beer or two in. But I’m not working the following day, and not flying back to the UK until the evening, so I’m up for more. Anders looks online and it seems Akkurat is open until 1 am. So the two of us, plus Bellis, jump into a taxi to Slussen. Except Akkurat is closed. Bellis calls it a night. But myself and Anders make our way to Omnipollo’s Hatt, which is still open. We get chatting to a US student who is moving to Stockholm later this year to study. It’s my T-shirt – I’m wearing a Dark Tranquillity one, and several people comment on it during the night. Must wear more Swedish metal band T-shirts when in Sweden.

I check out of the hotel Monday. Tobias has invited me to his place for lunch since I’m not flying out until late afternoon. I catch the Metro out to Sundbyberg, and follows his directions to his flat. Not entirely successfully, it must be admitted. I’m also regretting not leaving my bag in a locker in the Central Station, as it’s quite a trek and it’s a warm day. However, it turns out an airport bus stops near Tobias’s apartment – and it’s less than half the price of the Arlanda Express. So that works out really well.

At Arlanda Airport, I’m queuing up for security, when I abruptly remember I have a bottle of mead in my bag. Sanna Bo Claumarch bought me two bottles (small bottles!) as part of a running joke. I drank one, but forgot to drink the other (and when I tried, it had a cork and I had no corkscrew). I dump the bottle. As it is, the metal detector goes off anyway. I’m told it’s a random check, but later I find a 20p piece buried in a trouser pocket and wonder if that set it off. The flight back to Manchester is delayed. At first by 20 minutes, but it’s an hour late by the time we take off. Just like the flight to Sweden. Norwegian clearly have a problem keeping to their schedule. At Manchester, I’m met by the taxi I ordered, and driven home. Oscar is pleased to see me. He has not destroyed his robot feeder this time. I’m glad to be home, but also glad I attended Fantastika 2018.

It was probably the best Fantastika yet, the three GoHs were excellent, I hung out with a bunch of good friends – and all in a city I like and would like to visit more often. A quick shout-out, for those I’ve not already mentioned, to Marianna Leikomaa, Hanna Hakkarainen, Johan Anglemark, Jukka Särkijävi, Cristina Macía, Saija Kyllönen, Jerri Määttä, Johan Jönsson, Barbara-Jane, Kristin Thorrud, Erik Andersson, K Lennart Jansson, Thomas Årnfelt, Lally, Gwen, and if I’ve missed anyone I sincerely apologise. There were a few faces missing, however, and I was sorry not to see them.

Next year’s Swecon was announced at Fantastika. It’s Replicon in Västerås, on the weekend of 14 June next year. I suspect I’ll be there.

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Reading diary 2018, Clarke Award special

Last year’s Clarke Award shortlist was a bit pants, to be honest, and I’ve yet to even read the winner, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book whose reputation seems to have waned somewhat in the year since it won. I suspected this year might prove a bit more interesting as there were several novels published last year that I thought worthy of the award. Happily, one of them did make the shortlist. But a lot of expected titles did not – such as Nina Allan’s BSFA Award-winning The Rift (see here).

For the record, the shortlist is as below. I was more than happy to see Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time on it as I’ve been championing the book since I read it late last year (see here).

I’ve now read five of the novels. I’m not bothering with Borne – although I’ve heard good things about it – because I didn’t take to Vandermeer’s Annihilation and life’s too short and all that. The Charnock, of course, I’ve already read and rate highly. The other authors were completely new to me – and at least three of them are, I believe, debuts. Anyway, I ordered me some copies, and read them, and… Oh dear. That shortlist looked good on first impression, but it really didn’t survive scrutiny…

Gather the Daughters, Jennie Melamed (2017, USA). This has been described a post-apocalyptic dystopia but it’s nothing of the kind. A small religious community ekes out an existence on an island off the coast of the “wastelands”. The novel is told through the narrative of several girls in the community – all aged about twelve or thirteen, and yet to go through puberty. Once they have done so, they will be married off and bear children. A fair few of which may prove to be “defectives” and killed at birth, if they survive it. Melamed tries hard to suggest this is a consequence of whatever apocalypse it was, epidemic or nuclear war, which turned the rest of the world into a wasteland. But it quickly becomes apparent that the girls are being abused nightly by their fathers, and that the community was set up specifically for that end. It also becomes patently obvious that there is no “wastelands” – the world outside has not changed. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the premise of M Night Shyamalan’s film The Village. So, a group of religious nutjobs founded a community which would allow them to abuse their daughters and treat their wives as chattel. Oh, and euthanise their old people when they no longer proved useful – and they’re not all that old, to be honest, late thirties, perhaps. I don’t know what world Melamed lives in, but these are all illegal and hugely immoral in the real world. I know the US loves its nutjob religious communities and let’s them get away with, well, murder… but the island in Gather the Daughters is only plausible if there really had been an apocalypse. To make matters worse, Melamed completely fails to comment on the world she has built. In crime fiction, the reader witnesses a murder, but then the murderer is brought to justice. The moral consequences of murder are shown. Melamed doesn’t bother. She normalises child abuse and misogyny. She treats the monsters she writes about with total seriousness but makes zero reference to its morality. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the writing is terrible, the worst kind of creative writing programme prose. You know the phrase, “kill your darlings” that writer instructors like to parrot? If Melamed had done that, Gather the Daughters would have been a third its size. When I saw Gather the Daughters on the shortlist, I thought it looked interesting (after I’d thought, “shouldn’t it be Gather Your Daughters?”). Having now read it, I have to wonder why it was shortlisted.

Sea of Rust, C Robert Cargill (2017, USA). Some time in the near-future, robots became commonplace, and then somehow developed sentience. But then the owner of a robot died with no heirs, so the robot, now ownerless, argued for its emancipation. And succeeded. But then it, and thousands of other robots, were destroyed by an EMP set off by a nutjob church. The robots responded by somehow overcoming their “Robotic Kill Switch” – yes, it’s really called that; and don’t get me started on the hash Cargill makes of Asimov’s Three Laws, or the stupid random number generator – and slaughtering the church members. So kicking off a genocidal war. Sea of Rust opens decades after that war, after all the humans have been slaughtered and only robots remain, and two AI “mainframes” – yes, they’re really called that; and they fill entire skyscrapers! – are fighting each other and trying to assimilate all the free robots. The narrator of Sea of Rust is Brittle, a female robot, although not really gendered at all, who scavenges for parts in the Rust Belt in order to trade for parts specific to her model so she can keep on running. I really don’t know where to start with this book. The characters are all robots yet behave like human beings, even using expressions like “I knew it by heart” or “anger left his face”. They’re gendered but there’s no reason for that given in the text. The computing seems to be based on 1990s PC technology, except for mention of a “core”, which is something they all have but the book does not bother to explain (probably because it’s made-up bollocks). And they use “wi-fi”. But not to talk to each other. For that, they use speech, you know, actual sound waves. And how the wi-fi works without routers, satellites, or even an internet, is left unexplained. The plot pretty much rips off Mad Max, with a few bits from The Matrix thrown in; and the whole thing reads like Cargill couldn’t be bothered to research any of the details of his world. Every other chapter, pretty much, for the first third of the book is a history lesson – and they’re just as unconvincing as his robot characters. I have no idea why this was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. This is a book that wouldn’t have looked out of place 35 years ago (mentions of wi-fi aside), but I refuse to believe it was the best category sf novel published last year (it’s the only book on the shortlist from a British genre imprint).

American War, Omar El Akkad ( 2017, USA). It is the late twenty-first century and three of the US’s Southern states have seceded from the Union. A low-grade war now rumbles between them and the rest of the country. Rising sea levels have already drowned most of the coastal areas, and what remains of California and Texas are now part of Mexico. Sarat Chestnut was born in Louisiana, but when a suicide bomber kills her father, she, her twin sister, older brother and mother move to a refugee camp near the border with the North. All the time I was reading American War, I had trouble getting my head round it. It paints the secessionist states as the good guys – and the invective against the North in the book is really quite nasty – and yet not once does it mention the South’s racial history. The secessionists have also committed terrorist attacks against the Northerners – and yet are still painted as the side of good. The reason for their secession is their insistence on using fossil fuels after a total ban. It seems such a feeble excuse for a war – especially given the importance of Southern character, and how it relates to the war, in the narrative. It’s like El Akkad wanted the US as it now exists to be the bad guys – incarceration without due process, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, all of which the North uses routinely in the novel – but because it was a civil war, he had to make the South the good guys. Despite the fact the last war the South fought was to keep the right to own slaves, despite the fact they were forced to stop segregation only some two generations ago, despite the fact their racist mindset is seeing a resurgence since Trump took power… Anway, Sarat survives a massacre at the refugee camp by Northerner militia, and so is recruited into an underground southern army. She becomes a sniper, and is responsible for the death of the general leading the Northern army (it’s not an “assassination” when you’re at war, incidentally). She is later captured and incarcerated at a Guantanamo-like facility, and tortured, for seven years, although her jailers clearly don’t know what she’s done. When she is eventually released, she is desperate for revenge, so desperate she does the unthinkable… which is pretty much explained in the prologue. And yet… and yet… it works. The excess of detail in the prose is annoying at first, but soon drops away as the story picks up. Perhaps Sarat reminded me over much of Radix from AA Attanasio’s novel of that title, but El Akkad has done his homework and invented a mostly credible world for his story. And, to be honest, the novel improved as it progressed. It did feel like it wasn’t sure of its targets – and a story such as American War definitely has targets – so much so it actually rendered its commentary mostly toothless. Perhaps it was just because I read American War after Gather the Daughters and Sea of Rust, but I thought it deserving of its place on the Clarke Award shortlist. I don’t think it deserves to win, but it at least deserves a chance at winning.

Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfař (2017, USA). If there’s one thing I hate it’s books which feature space exploration where the author can’t be arsed to get the details right. There is a vast amount of documentation out there, in books and on the internet, on the subject. How fucking difficult is it to get it right? It is, for example, “space” and not “Space”. FFS. A spacecraft shot into space on top of a rocket is not necessarily a “space shuttle” and, in fact, especially not if it’s not reusable. And if a comet enters the Milky Way eighteen months ago, then it actually entered it 29,998.5 years ago as the Sun is 30,000 light-years from the edge of the galaxy. And to reach Earth in 18 months, that comet would have to be travelling at 2.3 light years an hour, or 13,521,700,000,000 mph. It’s not fucking rocket science. Well, you know what I mean. In fact, the novel drops clangers throughout its space-set narrative: describing vacuum as tightening around the narrator “like bathwater”, confusing vacuum and zero gravity, seeming to think spacesuits only use pure oxygen on EVA and then to prevent decompression sickness… Fortunately, the novel’s other narrative is far better. Jakub Procházka has been selected as the first Czech astronaut. The aforementioned comet has left a cloud, named Chopra, “between Earth and Venus” – well no, between the orbits of Earth and Venus, since the distance between the two planets changes as they orbit the Sun. Anyway, the Czechs have decided to send the first crewed spacecraft to Chopra. Procházka is an astrophysicist and the person chosen for the mission – it seems stupid to send one person, especially given the size of the spacecraft, JanHus1, as it is described. En route an alien appears in the spacecraft and tells Procházka it wishes to study “humanry”. It’s not certain whether the alien is real or an hallucination, but given that so much of the space-set narrative is complete bollocks I’m inclined to go for hallucination. (At one point, Procházka sees a frozen Laika float past – which would be difficult as Sputnik 2 disintegrated on re-entry in 1958, five months after Laika’s death.) Interwoven with the JanHus1 mission are chapters on Procházka’s childhood and life and marriage. The son of a secret policeman, who died shortly after the Velvet Revolution, he and his grandparents, who raised him, were shunned by their neighbours. They moved to Prague, Procházka went to university, and became a world expert on cosmic dust – hence his selection for the mission to the cloud. These chapters are interesting and, I assume, much better researched than the other narrative. However, they do make you wonder what the point of Spaceman of Bohemia is. Why not write a novel about growing up in post-Revolution Czechia? Why all the guff about the cloud and the alien and the space mission? Which ends with Procházka being implausibly rescued by a space shuttle from a secret decades-long Russian space programme. Which he causes to crash on re-entry but he manages to survive… before returning home incognito to exorcise some ghosts from his past, which, er, had bugger-all to do with the space mission. The earth-bound narrative is good, a novel in its own right. The space mission is complete bollocks – badly-researched, pointless and dull. If it had not been for that – and given it’s so badly done, how the hell did the book make the shortlist for a science fiction award? – Spaceman of Bohemia would be a bloody good book.

It’s probably also worth noting that this year’s shortlist is one UK author and five US authors (both El Akkad and Kalfař moved to North America as teenagers and are resident in the US). This is not unusual – science fiction has been dominated by the US since the genre’s beginnings, and the Clarke Award shortlists have, since the award’s inception in 1987, mostly reflected this: it was last entirely British in 2008, and has included non-British authors in its shortlists for most years (although some non-British finalists have been resident in the UK).

I suspect I’m now going to have to read Borne, given how disappointed I was with three of the above. I think Dreams Before the Start of Time should win, as it’s a thousand times better than the Melamed, Cargill or Kalfař, and though it’s much better than American War I would not be overly disappointed if El Akkad won. I’ll reserve judgement on the Vandermeer until I’ve read it. Who do I think will actually win? I suspect the Kalfař is a good bet. It’s very literary and, despite the complete fucking hash it makes of its space mission, stylistically the best-written of the lot. But the Clarke tends to have a love-hate relationship with literary sf, lionising it one year and then giving the award to a hackneyed piece of pulp sf the next. Sadly, I don’t think Charnock will win, because I think the book is really good and I’m usually completely out of step with these things. The El Akkad would be my next guess, even if its attempts at relevance are badly mangled. The Cargill and Melamed should not stand a chance. But I’ll probably be wrong on that. Out of step, you see.


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His master’s voice

So, a couple of days ago I tweeted a short quote from the book I was reading, one of this year’s Clarke Award finalists, and remarked that I was surprised to find the position expressed in the quote in a genre novel published in 2017. Most people who saw my tweet were as dismayed as I was – although, to be fair, they saw only my quote.

Which changes things. Apparently.

The book in question is Sea of Rust by C Robert Cargill, and the exact quote was “Gender is defined by genitalia”, which is spoken by the book’s narrator, Brittle, a robot, in a paragraph in which “she” admits that robots have no gender, it is not something “she” has ever thought about, but she henceforth chooses to define herself as female.

Two people I consider friends – very smart people both, and genre critics whose opinions I respect* – decided to insult my intelligence by questioning by understanding of how narrative works. Because the offending phrase – and it is offensive – was spoken by a character, they stated, that does not mean it reflects the author’s sensibilities. As another friend pointed out, I have myself written fiction featuring Nazis – and I have: ‘Wunderwaffe’ – but that obviously does not make me a Nazi. This is indeed true. Cargill has written a novel about robots, in which the first person narrator is a robot… but obviously he is not a robot himself. I never claimed this.

But the people arguing against my comment were themselves making the same assumption about me they were accusing myself of making against Cargill. Except, I think my position is backed up by the narrative.

When an attitude or sensibility exists in a narrative with no basis in the narrative for it, then it is reasonable to assume it is an attitude or sensibility of the writer. Because of course there’s a distinction between what a character professes to believe and what the writer might believe. But that also assumes the writer has removed every last vestige of their worldview or sensibilities from a text. And that’s frankly impossible. There will be attitudes they have never questioned, and they will likely colour what they write. So when Cargill writes about gendering robots – and, let’s face it, why would the concept even occur to a robot character? – and while there are no dates mentioned in the novel, let’s assume the robots began to appear in the second half of the twenty-first century… True, gender identity could have gone backwards since then, and we’ve certainly seen a lot of backwards social movement since Trump and Cameron/May took power, since the rise of the right… But there’s no evidence in the narrative for the position on gender advanced by the robot narrator. What’s inside the narrative does not apply.

You all know how much I hate Asimov’s fiction. I’ve labelled it “men in fucking hats sf”, because no matter how far in the future it is set, all the men wear hats. And men did indeed routinely wear hats when Asimov wrote his stories in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a real-world sensibility he unthinkingly imported into his world-building. It is not an attitude of the characters that hat-wearing is normal, it is an attitude of the writer. It is men in fucking hats.

And so back to Sea of Rust. What is in a narrative has to have a foundation in the narrative. Otherwise its foundation is external. In fiction, when a character holds a specific plot-oriented worldview which dictates their actions, that worldview is documented within the text – and, in many cases, the cause of that worldview is also documented… and occasionally actually forms a narrative thread itself. Robots are machines and have no gender. Fine. Robots, for reasons the narrative of Sea of Rust chooses not to explore, adopt gender. Fine. But when a robot character says, “Gender is defined by genitalia”, they’re not parroting a robot position on gender, nor is there evidence in the text they’re parroting a position in the text’s invented world… Ergo, it’s a sensibility of the writer that has leaked through into the narrative. It is a fucking hat, in other words.

So yes, I do understand how narrative works. I also understand how writing works. And while I may not be as accomplished at writing as others… and I may place a higher value on narrative rigour than most people… I stand my original position:

Unless the narrative evidences a foundation for a sensibility or attitude, then it’s reasonable to assume it is a sensibility or attitude of the author that has leaked through into the narrative.

And given that, it is indeed fair to comment on said attitude or sensibility. I stand by the tweet that kicked this all off. I happen to think Sea of Rust is a bad book for a number of reasons – and I’m baffled it made the shortlist – but I absolutely think it’s fair to accuse the author of believing “gender is defined by genitalia” on the strength of the words in the book.

Oh, and for the record, genitals are not gender. And any novel, genre or otherwise, published at this time, needs to justify in its narrative any position opposite to this or risk being called out.

* And whom I still consider friends, of course.


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The con in the north

I think Harrogate is the furthest north in England the Eastercon has ever been. Certainly, it’s the most northerly Eastercon I’ve attended. Blackpool, Manchester and Bradford are in the North, but still south of Harrogate. York and Leeds, also south of Harrogate, were before my time. And Glasgow, of course, is in Scotland.

More recently, I’ve been attending conventions much further north – in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. But that’s by the by. Follycon 2, this year’s Eastercon, took place at the Majestic Hotel, which is a huge Victorian hotel that has seen better days, in Harrogate. And now that it’s all over… I’m not entirely sure if it was a good Eastercon or a bad one.

Majestic Hotel to the left, Premier Inn straight ahead

The venue was large, with plenty of room to sit down and chat and have a drink. The layout had been knocked about in the past, resulting in odd staircases that appeared to go nowhere, and a poky reception that actually had the main entrance on hotel’s rear, and an original entrance hall which boasted a nice mural above the dado but felt more like a space without a purpose – at least, normally; during the con, it was the main social area. And since there were programme rooms on either side, you’d get a throng crossing it whenever programme items ended. Having said that, the service was occasionally appalling, and I heard a few stories about delayed meals.

View of the Majestic from my hotel room

However, the Majestic is literally a stone’s throw from Harrogate town centre, so it was a quick walk to plenty of good places to eat. So I ate well during the con. Which is unusual for me. I can recommend Major Tom’s Social on the Ginnel, off Parliament Street, which serves pizza – including two vegan ones – and craft ale. There’s also a good all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant on Cheltenham Crescent, although it’s not a buffet – and the concept of all-you-can-eat from a menu did confuse a couple of members of our dinner party…

(I wasn’t actually staying in the Majestic, but in the Premier Inn, which was pretty much next-door. My room was large and comfortable – it had a chaise longue! – and the staff, sorry, “team”, were helpful and attentive. The breakfast was also pretty good.)

Then there was the con’s programme. It pretty much had something for everyone, not that I attended any items. Well, other than the one I was on, about AI, which went quite well. There were a couple of other panels I’d liked to have seen, but they seemed to fall at times when I had other plans, like lunch. I heard mixed reports from those who did attend panels, although most people seemed to have enjoyed them.

I no longer attend conventions for the programme – I haven’t done for years – even if I always promise myself I’ll see more of the programme, make more of what’s offered over the weekend. Instead of just sitting in the bar and chatting to friends. Which is pretty much what I did. There was a good real ale bar, which helped. And one of the two bars – the Regency Lounge – was more like a gentleman’s club, with panelled walls and leather(-ette?) armchairs (and peeling plaster above the dado). It was a good place to socialise.

The dealers’ room – I remember when they used be called book rooms – was poor. The usual small presses, a few self-published authors, jewellery and T-shirts… but no secondhand books. I can understand why dealers no longer bother – if they’re not making a profit, or even covering their expenses, then it’s not worth it. But it is disappointing.

No description of the hotel would be complete without a mention of the gents’ toilet near the dealers’ room. It was enormous. There was even a bench at one end for people to, er, sit down. It had seen better days, but was still pretty impressive.

The infamous gents’ toilets

The BSFA Award ceremony took place during Follycon. I usually attend this, but didn’t bother this year. It was pretty much a done deal. I’d expected Nina Allan’s The Rift to win – it’s a very good book and a worthy winner – although I thought Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time slightly better. But Charnock took the short fiction award for her novella, The Enclave. Which is also very good. Although I think the category was reasonably open. Best artwork went to Jim Burns, who must have a garden shed full of BSFA Awards by now, for the cover of a novel published by NewCon Press (who also published The Enclave), jointly with Victo Ngai for illustrations for a JY Yang story on Tor.com. The non-fiction award was won by Paul Kincaid’s book Iain M. Banks, which was the most likely winner of a strong shortlist… and has also been shortlisted for the Hugo. During recent years, books, novellas and artwork published by NewCon Press have regularly appeared in the BSFA Award shortlists. True, the BSFA is a small organisation, and it takes only a handful of votes for a work to be nominated… and probably not many more for it to be shortlisted. I suppose, the same might be said of PS Publishing and the BFS Awards.

But then I think popular vote awards – and the term “popular vote” is a total misnomer – are neither popular nor useful. Like the Hugo Awards, the shortlists for which were announced over the weekend. And, ho hum, the same old faces. It’s good the puppies appear to be a spent force, but all that means is we’re back to the old way of doing things, ie, a small group of writers dominating the shortlists. It’s telling the Hugo Award shortlists (voted for by fans) and the Nebula Award shortlists (voted for by pros) often have considerable overlap. Authors, especially popular authors, bend awards out of shape. I’ve said it before, and each year it proves my point.

But the Hugo shortlists… Jemisin is the new Card, the new Bujold, the new Willis… The Broken Earth trilogy is good, but not so good it contains the best genre books published three years in a row.  I’ll read the third book, The Stone Sky, as I’ve read the first two books of the trilogy. And I’ll read Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 too, as I’ve been a fan of his books for many years. But I’ve zero interest in the rest of the shortlist. I suspect Jemisin will win, which will be  disappointment, as it’s a safe choice, but neither do I want any of the others to win. And, to be honest, I could say the same for the short fiction categories. Once upon a time, they were dominated by the Big Three print magazines – Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF – but a new Big Three of online magazines now rules the roost – Tor.com, Clarkesworld and Uncanny. But then, at a time when the short fiction is notoriously vast, it only takes a few extra votes to get a story onto the shortlist. I guess we’ll find out later in the year exactly how few votes it takes to be on the short story shortlist.

Oh well. It’s not that I can’t get excited about the Hugo Awards, because I haven’t been for years. Even back in the day, the tastes of its voters never really aligned with mine.

Anyway, I left Harrogate on Monday morning, once the trains to Leeds were running – as the British weather had managed to  bollix the service. Now our railways are privatised, they are so much better, honest guv. (When will it be okay to punch a Tory? Their entire ideology is built on dangerous lies which have a habit of doing the exact opposite to their claimed benefits: trickle-down, home ownership, privatisation, low taxes, Austerity, Brexit… One Tory even went on record saying he doesn’t think rented accommodation needs to be “fit for human habitation”! There’s a Tory who deserves a fucking good kicking.)

Anyway, I left Harrogate on Monday morning, once the trains to Leeds were running. I had a fun weekend. I ate well – always a surprise at cons, for me – and I saw some friends I don’t usually get to see (except, perhaps, at Eastercons). I had some good conversations with various people. But, as I remarked to Mike Cobley on the Sunday, we’d made the tactical mistake all those years ago of making friends with people who no longer attend cons. And from what I’ve seen over the past couple of years, young writers, ones that weren’t previously fans who attended cons, prefer to hang out with each other and their publishers. It’s not like UK cons have never been cliquey, but it does seem more marked these days. I don’t see that happening at Nordic cons – although that may well be because Nordic fandom is smaller and they all know each other. Having said that, UK fandom these days – or rather, that subset of it comprising writers and editors and critics – is entirely London-based, and us up here in the provinces can’t generate enough critical mass to get another scene going and sustaining itself.

The fact the Eastercon often takes place in the North means nothing.


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The BSFA Award

I’ve been a member of the British Science Fiction Association since the late 1980s, and attending Eastercons, on and off, since 1990. So the BSFA Award is the one genre award I’ve been most involved with as a voter. They’ve changed its workings over the years and, to be honest, I’ve yet to be convinced the current system works all that well. But then I’m not convinced popular vote awards are especially useful. I think the British Fantasy Society has it almost right – a popular vote to pick the shortlists, and then a jury to decide on the winner (and they can pull in an extra nominee if they feel a work deserves it). On the other hand, The BFS Awards have way too many categories. At least the BSFA Award keeps it nice and simple: best novel (published in the UK), best “shorter fiction” (novellas to flash fiction, published anywhere), best non-fiction (from blog posts to academic tomes, published anywhere) and best artwork (no geographic restriction either). This year, the shortlists look as follows:

Best Novel

I’ve read the first two, and in fact nominated them for the longlist. The Charnock was initially ruled ineligible as 47North is Amazon’s publishing imprint, but I argued the point on Twitter and the committee decided 47North was actually transatlantic and so the book qualified after all. I’m pleased about that. I’m in no rush to read the Leckie, as it’s apparently more of the same. The Hamid is a surprise. It’s also been shortlisted for the Man Booker, and I’ve not heard anyone in sf circles talking about it on social media. I guesss I’ll have to get me a copy.

Best Shorter Fiction

I’ve read the Charnock, and I thought it very good. There’s nothing from Interzone here, which is a surprise… Or maybe not. The most active voters these days seem to be those who use social media, and both Strange Horizons and tor.com are popular among them – but not Interzone, which is old school tech, ie paper. The Thompson I’ve seen praised a lot. The others I’ve heard nothing about.

Best Non-Fiction

I like the grab-bag nature of this category, but it can end up a bit of a dog’s breakfast at times. Here we have a book of criticism, two series of blog posts, a critical article in a book and a review in an online magazine. I’ve read the Banks book, and it’s very good (I might well have nominated it for the long list; I don’t remember). Adam Roberts is a frighteningly intelligent and witty critic (and writer), but to be honest I really couldn’t give a shit about HG Wells and all the books he wrote. I followed the Shadow Clarke (and was much amused at US fans’ mystification at the concept of a shadow jury), and I plan to follow it again this year. The final nominee… well, the only article published by Strange Horizons that I’ve seen mentioned several times is ‘Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift’ by Erin Horáková, so I’d have thought that more likely to have been chosen. I’ve not read the Ghosh book reviewed by Singh – my mother is a big fan of Ghosh’s fiction, but the only novel by him I’ve read is his 1996 Clarke Award winner The Calcutta Chromosome – but Singh’s review does look like an excellent piece of criticism.

Best Artwork

  • Geneva Benton: Sundown Towns (cover for Fiyah Magazine #3)
  • Jim Burns: cover for The Ion Raider by Ian Whates (NewCon Press)
  • Galen Dara: illustration for ‘These Constellations Will Be Yours’ by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Strange Horizons)
  • Chris Moore: cover for The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)
  • Victo Ngai: illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang (Tor.com)
  • Marcin Wolski: cover for 2084 edited by George Sandison (Unsung Stories)

There’s not much you can say about Best Artwork – you either like the nominated piece, or you don’t. But another Jim Burns cover for an Ian Whates novel? Really? Burns does great work, he’s one of the best genre cover artists this country has produced, but I’d sooner see more adventurous art in this category. We also have a short story, and the art illustrating it, on two shortlists. It’s a lovely piece of art, but… I have a lot of trouble myself thinking of candidates to nominate for this category, so I guess it’s unsurprising the people who voted for a story would also vote for its accompanying art. And voting on the long list requires hunting down each piece in order to decide whether or not it’s worth a vote… Perhaps in future, the BSFA can provide a page with thumbnails of all the longlisted art?

So there you have it… Four shortlists, the winners to be decided at Follycon in Harrogate at the beginning of April. I’m going to have a go at calling the winners. I think The Rift will take best novel, Greg Egan best short fiction, the Shadow Clarke jury best non-fiction, and… okay, I’ve no idea who’ll win Best Artwork. Probably Jim Burns. Again.


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A reading guide for grown-ups

There’s a common misperception that as you get older, so your tastes in reading drift toward non-fiction. No more fanciful story-telling, from here on in it’s facts and figures. And I’ve certainly found that as I impinge on my sixth decade on this planet – that makes me fifty – so I find myself wanting the certainty of non-fiction and a world I can relate to. They say the Golden Age of science fiction is thirteen, which is, perhaps, a comment on the ability of the thirteen-year-old to read uncritically, given that the vast bulk of sf novels fail even the most cursory critical read… But I think it’s more generally accepted that at thirteen we as readers are more willing to be wowed, we are not so cynical, we can surf the tide of ideas generated by a science fiction text. As we age, so we need more scaffolding to those ideas – possibly because we know more about the world and so are less willing to accept unsupported the premises upon which most science fiction stories rely.

Personally, I continue to read the same sort of novels I read ten or twenty years ago. But I do find them less satisfactory– No, that’s not quite right. There are ways of telling science fiction stories, and I can now discern how they are constructed, and if that’s lacking then I see it is lacking. I can think of a number of sf novels whose flaunting of the so-called “rules” actually makes them stronger fiction, and I doubt I would have seen it that way two or three decades ago.

One of the things I have certainly noticed in my response to my reading as I get older is that I’m no longer willing to put up with world-building which creates abhorrent universes in order to either create drama or, worse, make a point about our own world. The world right now is shit and getting worse on a daily basis, so writing a novel in which human beings can sell themselves into indentured labour to pay off their debts is… so fucking mindlessly right-wing it beggars belief. Why are sf authors writing the playbook for our right-wing future, when they should be telling tales to prevent it?

Remember “cli-fi”? A horrible neologism, but the point was that writing about climate collapse – which is still going to happen, by the way – would persuade the public it was a cause worth pursuing. Except no one gave a shit. Because one mid-list novel is not equal to the PR budget of an oil company. So when science fiction sets stories in futures in which human rights have been removed, all they’re doing is normalising the political thought behind the removal of human rights. Look at how many science fiction television series show torture – in 2018! – despite the fact it is morally abhorrent and globally illegal.

Science fiction has spent the last five to ten years fighting for diversity. And it has partly won that battle. Women, and women of colour, have dominated genre awards for the past couple of years. This is a step in the right direction. However, while we’ve been celebrating those successes, science fiction has been normalising the sort of right-wing shit even the Nazis had to soft-soap the German public before they would accept it. So we have a Star Trek series in which a villain repeatedly kills the crew of the Enterprise over and over again… but that’s okay because it’s a time-loop. I’m sorry, but his way out is death for everyone? How is that right? And then there’s The Expanse, in which the nominal government of Earth, the UN, uses torture, and in which a corporation murders millions of people in the cause of research. How is this right? How is this even moral? We have been so busy celebrating our own victories in the cause of  inclusivity that we’ve allowed fascist stories to take over our genre.

I don’t want to see stories of the future in which humans are treated as slaves, in which millions are murdered to disguise the kidnap of a plot token, in which torture is treated seriously as an intelligence-gathering technique, in which violence against women is used as “character development”, in which the othering of non-white people is considered “world-building”…

I want a socially responsible science fiction, that is self-aware, that knows it is a powerful tool for affecting public opinion – and not just at the behest of corporate paymasters. I want a science fiction that scorns shit right-wing concepts like evo psych and alpha males and eugenics. I want a science fiction that tells good stories and does so responsibly. I want a science fiction that doesn’t abandon its ethics or its artistic integrity in pursuit of the bottom-line. And I want a science fiction readership that accepts partial responsibility for the shit content that is produced, that demands more reponsible content and rewards it by consuming it in sufficient numbers to make it profitable. Cli-fi, after all, had its heart in the right place. But a tendency to be too preachy, an inability to match the oil companies and their anti-global-warming lies, and an inability to find a story that resonated… told against them. Science fiction has a much wider remit, and somewhere in its countless worlds and stories, there must be something we can use to tell stories of the futures we want to see, not futures we’re afraid to see.


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All the new year feels

I think on the whole 2017 is best forgotten. I did have some good times – conventions in Sweden, Finland and Denmark, for example – but on the whole the year was a bit of a dead loss. I had plans, I had modest plans. I failed them all. Well, I didn’t manage to get much done during the year outside the day job. I’m hoping 2018 will be much better in that regard.

Having said that, it’s hard to be optimistic when your country has decided it would sooner be racist and poor instead of prosperous and a member of the planet’s largest trading bloc. And then the US elected a posturing baboon to the White House, and the GOP seems determined to roll back every piece of legislation that had begrudgingly dragged the US into the 21st century… So, the world went to shit and it sort of killed my motivation to do much other than lose myself in movies.

I’m not expecting 2018 to be any better politically or geopolitically. I’d like to move to a more civilised country. But it’s hard to change a situation that isn’t personally broken – I work four days a week at a job I enjoy, for money that more than pays for the stupid number of books and films I buy. And my current situation certainly doesn’t prevent me from writing, or reviewing. I’ve done both in previous years.

So in 2018, I want to start writing again. I want to finish the third book of my space opera trilogy, A Want of Reason. Which is all plotted out and about a third written, and will likely turn out to be the most un-space-opera space opera that ever space opera’d. I’m basing an entire chapter on Le grand meaulnes, FFS. It opens with a terrorist attack. By one of the good guys. And wait until you see the Space Communists from Space… I also have several ideas for novellas I’ve been mulling over for a few years. I could have a bash at the Poseidon Quartet (as mentioned in Apollo Quartet 5: Coda – A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum). Or maybe the Jupiter Quartet, which I’ve been thinking of doing for a while… I’d like to write some short fiction too, although I am notoriously crap at it, well, at finishing it. I envy people who can sit down and bang out a first draft in one sitting.

I also intend to drag SF Mistressworks out of mothballs. I read several books that qualify for it during 2017, so I just need to write the reviews. And I’d like to start reviewing again for the venues I reviewed for previously. It’s all very well banging out a couple of hundred words on books I’ve read, and films I’ve seen, on my blog, but most of those “reviews” sort of turned into rants and I really need to be a bit more disciplined in my criticism. In fact, I’d like to write more about science fiction in 2018. At one point, I was going to write a whole series of posts, Fables of the Deconstruction, on individual sf tropes. I did space travel (see here) and robots (see here), but never got any further. And then there’s the spoof how to write space opera guide myself and another award-winning sf writer drunkenly hacked out one night… We really should finish it.

Of course, I’d like to read more books too. I managed to reduce my four-figure TBR pile by exactly one book in 2017. That’s excessively rubbish. I didn’t make my target of 140 in the Goodreads Reading Challenge (I finished the year on 128), so I plan to beat that for 2018. I’m an inveterate list-maker, so I’ve already started putting together a list of the books I want to read this coming year. I think I should buy less books too – I mean, buying eleven per month on average is not good for, well, for the fabric of the building I live in. I should probably have a clear-out at some point, but some authors I’ve been collecting for so long I’m reluctant to get rid of their books, even if I no longer read them…

So, resolutions… They should be in a handy list (see above). Twelve is a good number; there are twelve months in a year, twelve days of Christmas, twelve eggs in a dozen, er, eggs… So how about twelve resolutions for 2018?

  1. Read more books than last year – I have to beat 128 books but would prefer to beat 140 books
  2. Speaking of which… only start reading a new book when I’ve finished the last one
  3. Read at least six books from countries whose literature I’ve never read before
  4. Watch less films than last year – I mean, 602 is a bit fucking excessive; anyway, now LoveFilm has packed in I’ve only got one DVD rental service
  5. Finish the damn space opera novel – it’s all there in my head, and has been for a two years; I just need to get it down on paper
  6. Complete at least one novella – they’re probably going to take a shit-ton of research; why do I do this to myself?
  7. Complete at least four short stories – bonus points if I can actually sell the bloody things
  8. Get SF Mistressworks back up and running, start reviewing books again
  9. Write more about science fiction on this blog, so it’s not all films I’ve watched and books I’ve read
  10. Drink less wine
  11. Exercise – I’ve made half-hearted attempts at developing a running habit several times in the past; it usually lasts a month or so
  12. I plan to attend two Nordic cons in 2018, but maybe I can squeeze a third one in?

There, they look achievable. All I need is a bit of motivation. And self-discipline. I don’t expect to complete all twelve, but they’re mostly about getting me back to where I was before 2016 landed on my head at the day job. And then, in 2019, I can start building on them…

Happy New Year.