It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Airs of empire

I have for the last few years documented my reading in Reading diary posts, where I typically write about – “review” is probably too strong a word – half a dozen books. I haven’t written a blog post about a single book for quite a while – chiefly because I sort of lost the habit of blogging regularly enough for me to write about a book within days of finishing it.

But sometimes books, or films, make good springboards for more general commentary on genre, and I think that makes for a more interesting blog post than a straight-up review. In this particular case, it’s a relatively recent space opera novel which triggered some thoughts on twenty-first century science fiction, particularly space opera; and that space opera novel is Heirs of Empire by Evan Currie, published in 2015 by 47North. It’s the first in a two-book series and is followed by An Empire Asunder (2016). I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to buy and read Heirs of Empire, to be honest. The 99p price point certainly helped. Or it could have been the fact it’s a space opera which features knights. I’ve been there, done that, so there was a certain curiosity in seeing how Currie had handled it.

But. Oh dear. Heirs of Empire reads like a self-published novel. 47North, Amazon’s own publishing imprint, is a reputable publisher – it published last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner! – but I find it hard to believe Heirs of Empire was actually edited. It’s not just that the prose relies overly on cliché for cheap and easy description. Or the dialogue is completely tin-eared. Or the characters are stereotypes, and not very interesting ones at that. Or even that the world-building is cobbled together from assorted past science fiction works…

A general of the emperor’s personal hyper-trained elite, the Cadre, is being transported to a remote high-security prison after a failed attempt on the throne. The train, which is travelling at hypersonic speeds, is derailed by the usurper’s confederates. He escapes, steals an advanced super-secret warship, and uses it to attack the imperial palace and seize power. Even though he failed once – or perhaps he was captured before he made his move, I forget – apparently he can still throw together a successful rebellion. He kills the emperor, but the youngest members of the imperial family, fourteen year old twins, escape. Eventually the twins are discovered by loyalist forces, and are instrumental in retaking the throne. And that’s it. The plot. Pretty much.

It doesn’t take a savvy sf reader to figure out the story is set on the inside surface of a Dyson Sphere, although the empire is bounded on all sides by an impassably high “God Wall”. Several items of technology used by the empire are also artefacts of an earlier civilisation and not understood. Much like the author and science. There is suspension of disbelief and then there is a completely inability by the writer to present anything remotely plausible even in an invented universe. That earlier hypersonic train crash? The villain survives it, losing a leg and an eye and suffering a few minor injuries. That’s: a hypersonic train crash. A few days later, sporting a prosthetic leg a few inches too short, he manages to defeat the emperor, a highly-trained swordsman, in single combat. Later, another hypersonic train is hijacked by loyalist pirates (don’t ask). But this one is pulling 30 million tons of carriages. It’s like Currie added a couple of zeroes to every figure in the story and so rendered them completely implausible. There’s a missile that apparently accelerates at 40,000 G, not to mention some parachuters who are identifiable by their terminal velocity. And cannons which can shoot 10,000 feet straight up.

In other words, the science in Heirs of Empire is complete bollocks. There’s an attempt at some sort of steampunk atmosphere, with the ships having sails and poop decks and cannons, but none of it really fits together.

It occurred to me that deploying physics uncritically – ie, without any understanding of how it works – as Currie has done in Heirs of Empire is little different in principle to deploying science fiction tropes uncritically. Which is something space opera routinely does, even twenty-first century space opera, if not especially twenty-first century space opera. Those tropes have meaning and history, they have baggage. Spaceships are basically cruise liners – and not the floating hotels of today, whose passengers rarely step foot on land during their holidays; but the cruise liners of the early twentieth century, with their “exotic” destinations and colourful posters which blatantly othered the inhabitants of those destinations. Robots are either a metaphor for slaves (in the US sf tradition) or possibly service (from a UK perspective), but given the history of automata, the trope could also be seen as a metaphor for biddable women. Real robots, CNC machines, are perfect production line workers, but you don’t see them in science fiction.

It hasn’t always been this way. New British Space Opera introduced four new elements to space opera, each one embodied by a germinal work. Consider Phlebas (1987), in fact all of Iain M Banks’s oeuvre, introduced a left-wing sensibility to a right-wing subgenre. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty (1990) made knowing use of its science fiction tropes. Eternal Light by Paul J McAuley melded space opera and hard sf, applying a high level of rigour in the world-building. And… it’s a cheat, but John Clute’s Appleseed (2001), for its use of literary metaphor as signifiers for genre tropes, and which has definitely influenced current space opera, although it was published too late to be classified as New British Space Opera. Which is a term that has apparently been wiped from genre history, thanks to The Space Opera Renaissance, which repositioned it as American and re-labelled it as simply New Space Opera.

We have been here before, of course: the New Wave.

New British Space Opera was new, but not everything it introduced took hold – Alastair Reynolds has had a great deal of success with melding space opera and hard sf, for example; but where are all the left-wing space operas now that Banks is gone? New Space Opera, the US re-imagining, was a step backwards. The only element it kept was the one introduced last, the use of metaphor to disguise tropes. Yet tropes are themselves metaphors. When a space opera author uses the word “moth” to refer to spaceships, they’re applying a metaphor to a metaphor.

True, space opera was not the first to do this. When you use your computer’s graphical user interface, you’re using a metaphor of the way the computer stores and accesses data. Cyberpunk took that and invented a second-order metaphor: cyberspace. Twenty-first century space opera no longer bothers with rigour, left-wing sensibilities or a knowing use of genre tropes, but it certainly does love its second-order metaphors.

It also apparently loves overt slavery, inequality, psychopaths and sociopaths, mega-violence and seven-figure bodycounts.

There have been some improvements, however. Space opera is now a much more diverse subgenre. There are no more Men In Fucking Hats™. This can only be applauded.

It could be argued that Currie’s appalling grasp of physics in Heirs of Empire is not so much a lack of rigour in a space opera universe than an outright rejection of it, inspired perhaps by the film industry’s creative approach to the laws of physics. And so too, by extension, for twenty-first century space opera: the use of metaphors to disguise genre tropes could be seen as a rejection of what those tropes actually represent. Mind you, given that space opera seems more than happy to incorporate uncritically what was being represented in the first place… Tropes have become decoupled. All is subject to authorial fiat. Physics has become magic; space opera has become fantasy.

Space opera has thrown away the hats, but it has also thrown away the science. And these days we need science more than ever.

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Fantasticon 2019

Fantasticon happens every year in Copenhagen, usually in September. It’s not the only con of that name, but it is the only Nordic con of that name. This year was my third Fantasticon. For the past few years, it’s been themed, and for 2019 the theme was Afrofuturism, and the guest of honour was US writer Nisi Shawl.

On previous visits – I’ve now visited the city over a dozen times – I flew from the UK, but now I’m resident in Sweden, and there’s a regular train service between Stockholm and, as we say here, Köpenhamn. Train travel is much superior to flying. And Swedish train are vastly superior to UK trains. In the company of Johan Anglemark, who had not attended Fantasticon since it moved to its current venue, I caught the train from Uppsala to Stockholm Central Station, and changed there onto the train to Copenhagen. The trip was unsurprisingly stress-free. We sat on the train for about five and a half hours, and though we crossed an international border we didn’t have to show any ID. This is not something I’m happy to give up just so a handful of very rich old white men won’t have to pay their fair portion of taxes. Fuck’ em. Better yet: lock them up.

Do you know how difficult it is to take a good photo of the Öresund while crossing the bridge on a fast-moving train?

We were joined on the train at Malmö by a Swedish fan from Göteborg, Patrik Centerwall. On arrival in Copenhagen, we trekked along Vesterbrogade from the main station to our hotel, where we bumped into a couple more familiar faces. After checking in and dumping our stuff in our rooms, we headed for the Serapions Order, where the con was taking place. It’s the lodge of a sort of Danish Masonic order, in Frederiksberg, a weird sort of enclave within Copenhagen. No sooner had we met up with various other fans, then around a dozen of us, led by Danish fan Sanna Bo Claumarch, caught a bus for the now-traditional Friday night oysters, at a French restaurant, L’Éducation Nationale. Some people also had snails. I played it safe and had entrecôte. We stayed until the restaurant closed, and a group of four of us – Johan, myself, Sanna and Sidsel Pedersen – set off to walk back to Frederiksberg, a distance of about 2 km. We stopped off en route at another bar. And closed that. And then Sidsel had to catch a taxi to Valby because Edmund Schluessel’s key wasn’t working on the entrance door to his hotel. The three of us left walked back via Sankt Jøgens Sø, and I was in bed by about 3 am.

The next day, I spent the morning briefly at the con, then headed into the centre of Copenhagen – basically a march the length of Vesterbrogade to Rådhuspladsen, where I met my sister. We went for a bite to eat, followed by a wander around the comics branch of Faraos Cigarer, and then the games branch. I returned to the con in time for a programme item celebrating Samuel R Delany and his work.

Saturday evenings at Fantasticon are typically taken up with a banquet, at which the guest of honour gives their speech. I’ve attended at all three of the Fantasticons I’ve, er, attended, and the food has been excellent. After the meal, there is filk. I am, I admit, not a fan of filk. I don’t get the appeal of rewriting the lyrics of folk songs so they refer to science fiction works or fannish traditions. Apparently, the Nordic filk tradition is very much a singalong style, unlike the UK and US traditions. Unfortunately, the person invited to lead the filking did not know this. So there wasn’t much of a singalong. Also unfortunately, the lyrics to the half-dozen songs performed, which were projected onto a screen, were hardly appropriate: one featured the term “nancy boys” and jocular references to rape. The most recent sfnal reference in them was Return of the Jedi (1982). Fortunately, I’d spotted a racial slur in the lyrics sheet as the projector was being tested, and asked for it to be removed. Which it was. Shit like that should not be happening in 2019.

After the banquet, and filk, had finished, a group of us headed to Vesterbro Torv. The bar we’d visited the year before had gone, replaced by some sort of posh pizzeria. So we ended up at a bar next door, which was not as good. At midnight, they packed up the outside tables, and only Sanna, Sidsel and myself moved inside. After we’d finished our drinks, we made our way to Mikkeller, probably my favourite bar in Copenhagen (in my defence, I have not visited that many). I was back in my hotel bed by about 2 am.

View of Tycho Brahe Planetarium across Sankt Jørgens Sø

Sunday morning demonstrated I really am getting too old for this shit. I had a bit of a lie-in – but still managed to catch hotel breakfast. I sat about and socialised for much of the day until my interview. 2019 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I am allegedly knowledgeable on the subject – which no doubt explained why I was put on four panels about Apollo and the Moon at Worldcon this August, including two featuring an actual NASA astronaut (one of which I moderated). This likely explains why Flemming Rasch interviewing me about the Apollo programme, and my Apollo Quartet, was added to the Fantasticon programme. Amusingly, Johan had told me earlier that day about his experience at a con some years previously interviewing Iain Banks. He’d been asked to interview Banks for the programme booklet and had done so. On arrival at the con, he was then asked to interview Banks again as part of the programme. But, as he pointed out to Banks just before the programme item, he’d already asked the questions he wanted to ask. So he asked Banks if he would cooperate… and Johan admitted he asked only four questions and Banks gave 15 minute answers to each…

Which is sort of what happened in my interview. Flemming asked a question… and I was off. He managed to squeeze in another three questions. And even then he had to cut me short because the hour was up. I hadn’t actually prepared for the interview, so everything I said was completely off-the-cuff. I’m of the opinion that writers discussing how they write is boring, so instead I decided to focus on what I wrote – which I thought was interesting in its own right: the Apollo programme, Mercury 13, bathyscaphe Trieste, astronaut biographies… Plus, of course, how I came to write the Apollo Quartet, and the many non-genre inspirations I folded into it: the films of Douglas Sirk, Michael Haneke and James Benning; the fiction of Cormac McCarthy and WG Sebald… I enjoyed myself and it seemed the audience found it interesting. I was actually surprised at how much I’d managed to retain (although apparently not enough to turn straight to a page in All That Outer Space Allows to read an excerpt to demonstrate a point; oh well). Of course, as soon as the interview was over and I was back in the lounge area, I thought of loads things I could have mentioned…

View from Frederiksberg Have

Finally, there was the closing ceremony, in which con chairperson Knud Larn handed the baton over to Flemming. And then there was the dead dog party, which takes place in Cafe Asta, next to Hotel Fy og Bi, in Valby, a 2 km walk from the con venue. (Fantasticon used to be held around the corner from Cafe Asta. Fy and Bi were a Danish silent film comedy duo.) A group of us took a route there through Frederiksberg Gardens, which features one of Copenhagen’s few hills. After sushi, we joined the others at the Cafe Asta. Which closed at half past nine. Boo. Sanna, Johan and I walked back to Frederiksberg, this time detouring through the Carlsberg Brewery, which is in the process of being gentrified into posh offices and apartments. Johan and I looked for a bar that was still open in Vesterbrogade but without success. So it was an early night. Which was probably just as well as our train back to Stockholm departed at 8:23 the next morning.

Somewhere in the Carlsberg Brewery

So that was my third Fantasticon. Nisi Shawl was an excellent guest of honour, extremely approachable and friendly, and very knowledgeable. I purchased three books – well, four, as one was an Ace double – for 5 Danish crowns each (the con was selling off a late fan’s book collection of old sf paperbacks). That’s better than I did at Worldcon. Even if three of the books I already have in storage back in the UK. There’s definitely a Nordic fan group coming together, one that attends cons in all five Nordic countries, numbering between a dozen and two dozen people. You can always be sure of spotting a familiar face, whether the con is in Reykjavik or Helsinki. One of the excellent things about this group is its multilingualism, even if it often uses English as a lingua franca. At Fantasticon, I witnessed a Danish fan and a Swedish fan in conversation, and they were each speaking in their native tongue. Of course, the Scandinavian languages are to some extent mutually intelligible, although not to everyone; but I certainly found myself understanding more Danish than on previous visits after studying Swedish for four months.

Fantasticon is not a big convention – around sixty to seventy people – but it’s a friendly one. And Copenhagen is a lovely city. It’s definitely worth attending. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open to learn what next year’s theme will be and the identity of the guest(s) of honour…

(Apologies for not name-checking everyone I met and spoke to during the weekend.)

 


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A Tale of three cons

In the past four months I’ve attended three science fiction conventions in three different countries. Three con reports in one post would be a bit much, however, so I’ll keep these short.

The first was Åcon, in Mariehamn in the Åland Islands, a part of Finland. I hadn’t initially planned to attend a con so soon after my move north, but was persuaded to go by members of Uppsala fandom – well, one member: Johan Anglemark. And I’m glad I bowed to the pressure. The trip to Mariehamn was ridiculously easy – and the first time I’ve travelled to another country with liquids for many years. A group of fans from Malmö and Copenhagen came up to Uppsala by train the night before, and the following morning we all caught a coach to Grisslehamn on the coast. It takes about 45 minutes. Then it’s two hours on a ferry to Eckerö in the Åland Islands, followed by another 45-minutes coach-ride. It’s been many many years since I was last on a ferry, but they don’t appear to have changed much: a bar with a band murdering hits of the late twentieth century, a huge duty-free store (and, in fact, the chief reason why people take the ferry), and gently shifting motion that had me thinking I was a fraction of a degree away from falling over most of the time.

Åcon takes place in the Hotel Adlon, which may share its name with the Berlin hotel which appears in Philip Kerr’s excellent Bernie Gunther novels set in Nazi Germany, but is entirely the opposite. Sort of. It’s perhaps a bit tired these days, but it’s only a year or two past needing refurbishment and, to be honest, being a little behind the times seems entirely fitting in Mariehamn. While I was there, I actually saw someone delivering newspapers to people’s doors. I didn’t see a milk float, although I don’t think they’re a Finnish or Swedish thing, but if they were, they’d be still be using them in Mariehamn. It’s a bit like time travel. Which is, of course, entirely fitting for a science fiction convention.

Åcon is characterised as a relaxacon, with a single Guest of Honour. This year, the GoH was Amal El-Mohtar, a Canadian writer of Lebanese extraction who used to live in Glasgow, and who I last met in 2013 when she had a quite pronounced Scottish accent. To be honest, I’d thought then she was a Scottish writer. The Åcon way is to schedule 60-minute programme items 90 minutes apart. Everything is in English.

On the first night, I accompanied the GoH and several others to Dino’s, an upmarket burger/steak place. I like eating in Finland. Finns suffer from lactose intolerance, as I do, to such an extent that pretty much all eateries cater to both lactose- and gluten-intolerant diners to a massively better degree than any other country on the planet. The sports bar attached to the Hotel Adlon, for example, served only pizzas, but they were all made with lactose-free cheese… because it’s easier to do that than cater for those tolerant to it and those who aren’t. I love Finland for that.

I was put on two programme items at Åcon, one on how the genre treats the six senses, which I moderated. Yes, six. Because proprioreception is generally considered a sense now. That went so well, it overran its spot and I had trouble bringing it to a close. My second panel was about fairytales and I was probably the least-qualified person on the panel to discuss the topic. Oh well. I attended a couple of items I was not on. I do that at Nordic cons. I find their programmes more interesting because they scratch more itches as a science fiction fan. I was also chosen as a team captain for Jukka’s infamous quiz, but we lost by a single point.

On the Saturday, myself and a Finnish fan called Orjo visited the nearby Sjöfart Museum (Maritime Museum), which includes one of the last sailing ships used in trade by the Åland Islands. That was interesting. In the afternoon was a con-arranged trip to a craft brewery, Open Water Brewery on Lemland, one of the other Åland Islands. There we were given a quick lecture on brewing, and tried several of the breweries beers. Including its cider, new that year. And, I think, the first ever made in the Åland Islands (which actually provides 80% of Finland’s apples).

The final programme item – other than the “gripe session” – was a William Shatner karaoke. This turned out to be performing songs in the style of William Shatner. So, no actual singing. Which I cannot do. I have often said I could not carry a tune even if it came in a bucket. William Shatner karaoke sounds like something worth running from. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It was definitely one of the funniest things I’ve seen at a con for years. Shout out to Regina from Shanghai, who not only travelled all the way from China to Åcon but also performed a jaw-dropping Mandarin song in William Shatner style.

My second convention was Replicon, the annual Swedish national con, Swecon, this year held in Västerås. Which is west of Stockholm and 80 minutes by coach from Uppsala. The con took place in the CuLTUREN, an old copper foundry (hence “Cu”) converted into function space. Replicon occupied the central foyer and made use of three function rooms – two for the programme, and one for the Fantikvariat, a charity that sells secondhand genre books, mostly UK or US. There were a couple of smaller rooms used for other programme items. The venue boasted a small coffee shop and a restaurant – which normally serves Lebanese food but for some bizarre reason decided for the con to become a pizzeria. I’d jokingly said the year before that eating Lebanese on the first night of Swecon had almost become a tradition (we did it in both 2017 and 2018). And this year, while I didn’t have Lebanese food on the Friday evening, I ate in what is normally a Lebanese restaurant. So I think that counts.

Anyway, I arrived at CuLTUREN and immediately bumped into the Anders. Who I’d not seen for over a year, and who was unaware I was now living in Uppsala. He took me to the Bishops Arms for a few beers. The Västerås Bishop Arms is the original one. There are now over 40 scattered around Sweden. After a couple of beers, we headed back to the venue for the Opening Ceremony. Which introduced the two Guests of Honour, Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders, both names known to me but I’ve not read anything by either. I didn’t attend that many programme items – there seemed to be more Swedish-language ones than in previous years; hopefully, by next year’s Swecon, that will make no difference to me. I spent both Friday and Saturday evenings in BierKeller with some Swedish and Finnish fans. This did entail the drinking of a couple of beers that cost 199 crowns each (in 500 ml bottles), although myself and Anders split both the cost and the beers.

While I may not have attended every programme item – although the ones I saw were good, particularly Anna Bark Persson’s talk on “Female masculinity in SF” – I did better in the Fantikvariat than I’ve done recently in dealers’ room: I bought eight books, two were in Swedish and four were books I already owned (but in storage in the UK). For the past couple of years, I’ve bought more second-hand books at Nordic cons than I have at UK cons. Go figure.

Replicon was a smaller affair than other Swecons I’ve attended, but it was well-organised, the venue worked, and Västerås is a pleasant town. In Swedish terms, I think Västerås fandom well and truly put themselves on the map in terms of con-running. Should they ever plan to run another Swecon, they’ll likely get more attendees.

The big con this year was, of course, the Worldcon, which took place at the Convention Centre in Dublin. I last visited the city when I was two years old so I remember nothing of the trip. And it’s undoubtedly changed a great deal since then. (I mentioned this to the cab driver taking me to the airport after the con. The area where my hotel was sited has been extensively redeveloped, and for all of the buildings we passed he pointed out what had been there before.) I’d booked rooms in the Grand Canal Hotel, a ten-minute walk from the Convention Centre, which no doubt contributed to my 10-km a day average for walking (when I normally average 8 km a day). But then there were a lot of floors in the Convention Centre and a lot of walking required between the various rooms. There were not, in fact, many chairs. Seriously, given the greying of fandom, cons need to provide more areas where people can sit down and relax.

The other notable aspect of this particular Worldcon was the queuing. I didn’t actually attend any programme items other than those I was on (more on them below), but I was told it was almost impossible to leave one panel and then get into the next because of the queues. Several people told me during the weekend that high levels of attendance for the programme seemed to be a new thing. Dublin2019 was only my third Worldcon, and while I remember lots of queues at Worldcon75 in Helsinki, I don’t remember any at Interaction in Glasgow in 2005. Fandom really has changed over the past decade; and for the better. There seems to be far more engagement, and it’s less of a private club.

But. My panels. The first was Apollo at 50, first thing on the Friday, with Dr Jeanette Epps, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dr David Stephens and Geoff Landis. When we arrived in the room – the 600-seat room – only two of the microphones were working, those in front of Epps and Kowal. So they suggested they talk while tech fixed the other mikes. And the subject they chose was… going to the toilet in space. It became a bit of theme during the panel. I thought the discussion went really well. The panellists were excellent, especially Dr Epps. Later that same day, I was on Artemis: Apollo’s Big Sister, again with Dr Epps and Geoff Landis, but also Becky Chambers and moderator Alan Smale. The panel went reasonably well, but I would have enjoyed it more if Becky Chambers had not sat with her back to me for its entire length.

My next panel was early afternoon on the Saturday. It was about Alternate Apollos. It came very close to becoming the Panel from Hell. It is my practice when moderating panels at cons to contact the panellists by email a week or so before. So we can introduce ourselves to each other and get some discussion going, and no one is ambushed during the actual panel. One member of the panel managed to offend another. The day before the panel. I demanded the person send out an apology. They objected, but sent the apology (which was, to be honest, pretty much a non-apology apology, you know the sort). The next morning I get an email asking me to visit Programme Ops. I’m told one member of the panel has dropped out (the offeendee, so to speak), and the offender has been removed from the panel. They’re looking for replacements, but not having much success. I spend half an hour running around the con, trying to find replacements of my own, before making my way up to the green room to break the news to the remaining panellist. Except, it turns out her partner is just as qualified for the panel and is downstairs queuing for it. “Get him up here,” I tell her. He joins us. And when we get to the room, it transpires Programme Ops has managed to get one of their alternates to volunteer – and my preferred choice, too. After all that, the panel went pretty well. I hadn’t wanted to get too space-geeky, but we had an audience of space geeks, and they seemed to enjoy the panel. But I didn’t enjoy running around trying to rescue the panel in the hour before it started.

Happily, my final panel, on the Monday morning, went reasonably smoothly. Admittedly, after four days of Worldcon, my ability to brain was badly impaired. The topic was lunar depictions in science fiction and fantasy, and I didn’t want it to turn into fifty minutes of recommendations of books, films or TV set on the Moon from popular and genre culture. Panellists Joey Yu, Hester J Rook, Jeffrey Reynolds and GoH Ian McDonald, however, managed to get some intelligent discussion going about depictions of the Moon in historical and mythological texts around the globe… and then we ended up recommending books, films or TV set on the Moon from popular and genre culture. Ah well.

The highlight of the con for me was being approached by Dr Jeanette Epps on the Sunday evening as I was heading out for a meal. she told me I was her favourite moderator. It’s not every day an actual astronaut says something like that to you. (To be fair, the  Apollo at 50 panel was good. It was informative and entertaining, and it stayed on topic. But I had excellent panellists and, even if I say so myself, it was probably one of the best jobs at moderation I’ve done in twenty years of appearing on panels at cons.)

I suppose I should mention the dealers room. It was big. But, unfortunately, the only books available were either brand new or self-published. No second-hand book dealers. I returned home with a single book purchased at the con:

My next convention this year will be held in a fourth country: Fantasticon in Copenhagen, Denmark. Maybe I’ll see you there.


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Me at Worldcon, with Apollo

So it’s the Worldcon in two and a bit weeks, and this year it’s in Dublin. And I’m going to be there. Last time I was in Ireland was around fifty years ago, so my memories of the trip are pretty much non-existent. Something else that happened fifty years is the Apollo 11 moon landing. And, somehow or other, I seem to have been put on a bunch of panels on that very subject…

My schedule looks like this:

Apollo at 50
16 Aug 2019, Friday 10:00 – 10:50, Second Stage (Liffey-B) (CCD)
Getting men on the Moon was certainly an achievement, but it is nearly 50 years since anyone was there and the Apollo launchers, unlike Soyuz, have been abandoned for years. Beyond the obvious spectacle, was Apollo all for nothing? Was the spectacle itself enough? Panellists consider the legacy of Apollo.
Jeanette Epps, Ian Sales (M), Dr David Stephenson, Geoffrey A Landis , Mary Robinette Kowal

Artemis: Apollo’s big sister
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Second Stage (Liffey-B) (CCD)
Recently NASA selected three lunar landers for taking scientific instruments to the Moon. This is the start of many steps towards the goal of returning to the Moon in 2024. What needs to be done, what is planned, and how does this compare with initiatives from other countries?
Jeanette Epps, Becky Chambers, Alan Smale (M), Ian Sales, Geoffrey A Landis

Alternate Apollos
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 13:00 – 13:50, Wicklow Hall-1 (CCD)
We know how the Apollo landings turned out, but it could have gone quite differently. Armstrong and Aldrin could have crashed, or landed safely but been unable to take off again. What might have happened if Apollo 18 and the Apollo Applications programme hadn’t failed? If the Soviet N1 launcher had succeeded, could they have reached the Moon first? Panellists consider alternate histories of Apollo.
Henry Spencer, Ian Sales (M), Dr Laura Woodney, Gillian Clinton

Shoot for the moon: lunar depictions in SFF
19 Aug 2019, Monday 11:00 – 11:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD)
For as long as there has been science fiction there has been a fascination with the moon. What role does the moon play in cultures around the world and how do those cultures incorporate it into their speculative fiction? Our panel will discuss why the moon holds such a powerful allure as a subject for writers and whether the discovery of more distant heavenly bodies has had an impact on lunar fiction.
Ian Sales (M), Ian McDonald, Joey Yu, Hester J Rook, Jeffery Reynolds

The good news – sort of – is I’m moderating three of the panels, which means I don’t have to say anything intelligent, just keep the discussion moving. Which is just as well since most of the other panellists are actual rocket scientists. On the one hand, the above are good meaty topics, ones that interest me – one of the reasons, of course, why I wrote the Apollo Quartet. On the other, actual rocket scientists.

The more observant among you will have spotted the names of some successful sf authors above, including a Hugo Award finalist. And, er, also a Guest of Honour. Coincidentally, I’ve read some of their books, although not necessarily the ones appropriate to any of the panels.


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Apollo 11 x 50

Today is  the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. So the media is full of science fiction writers commenting on the event, many of whom weren’t even alive when it happened. To be fair, I was only three when Armstrong took his “one small step”, and the only Apollo mission I actually remember watching was ASTP. It’s not like science fiction writers are even experts on the Apollo missions, or indeed actual realistic space exploration. Not unless they’ve written a novel about it. Which some have.

I did too. It was a few years ago now. The Apollo Quartet, published between 2012 and 2015.  I’d planned to publish an omnibus edition in time for today, but then I went and moved countries… So, sorry, no omnibus edition. But the four individual volumes are still available on Amazon, in paperback, audiobook and Kindle editions.

1 Adrift on the Sea of Rains

2 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself

3 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

4 All That Outer Space Allows

All four are based on alternate visions of the Apollo programme – except for All That Outer Space Allows, which takes place during the actual Apollo programme (but is still alternate history).

For those wanting more realistic space-based science fiction, there is also Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories.


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The Hugos 2019, novelettes

Apologies for the inadvertent silence. I moved to a new apartment across the city a few weeks ago and the new place didn’t have internet access. So I had to order broadband service and buy a router, and then resolve a few technical issues (which we won’t go into). But the good news is: I’m back online. Obviously. And the new apartment is very nice.

But on with the post…

Let me get this out of the way first: there is no such thing as a novelette. There are novels, there are novellas and there are short stories. I don’t know when the novelette was “invented” but I understand it chiefly came into being in order to pay some writers on a different scale to others. These days, it’s just another category to hand out prizes to friends. The only places you’ll see the term novelette used is on the contents pages of US print genre magazines – and how relevant are they these days? – or on the shortlists of US genre awards – and how relevant are, er… It’s a completely meaningless category. Kill it now.

We still have it among the multitudinous Hugo Award categories. Many of which, incidentally, should also be binned. But that’s an argument for another day. Officially, a novelette is a piece of fiction between 7,500 and 17,500, although I do like Wikipedia’s definition that it’s a “novella, especially with trivial or sentimental themes”. Sounds about right.

I should also point out that while my taste in genre fiction differs from those who currently nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards, there is plenty of sf available that is to my taste. It just doesn’t get nominated for the Hugo Award. Fans of the Hugo like to think they speak for the entire genre, but they don’t. And the award itself likes to think it’s representative, if not emblematic, of the genre, but that’s just marketing bullshit. The Hugo Award is a small oxbow lake in the river of genre, and if it keeps its fans happy then all to the good. But it’s also an award it’s hard for me to escape as I attend conventions and follow the genre on social media. My decision to read, and blog about, the fiction nominees this year was prompted chiefly by a desire to see how far it had drifted from my taste (or vice versa). I admit I read critically. It’s almost impossible not to when you’ve spent decades reviewing books for various magazines, and even written fiction yourself. Not everyone who votes reads critically. Which does not invalidate their vote. Or my comments.

As with the previous post, here are the six nominees, in the order in which I read them:

The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander. Unlike the other nominees, this is the only novelette to have been published independently as a book. By Tor.com. Like a novella. All the others appeared in magazines, online or otherwise. Except this is not entirely true: the Connolly and Gregory below may not have been published in paperback, but they were published as independent pieces of fiction on the Tor.com website. So that’s five of six novellas and three of six novelettes published by Tor.com. Anyway, during WWI the US used women to paint glow-in-the-dark radium on watch-faces and the like, and many of them died from, or were disfigured by, cancer. Bolander has taken this historical fact and run with it. In her story, elephants were involved – and were smart enough to be communicated with using a special sign language – and an attempt by the US to train elephants to work with radium instead of young women results in the death of a nasty piece of work supervisor and the public execution, by electrocution, of the elephant responsible for his death. This is juxtaposed with a near-future narrative in which a young woman wants to genetically engineer elephants to glow in the dark as a warning of the nuclear waste buried beneath land which will be bequeathed to them. None of this last narrative makes the slightest bit of sense, but it’s presented as if its the anchoring narrative thread. Another thread is told from an elephant’s POV and, well, it doesn’t really work. Or feel necessary. There’s a really cool story somewhere in The Only Harmless Great Thing but the way it’s been presented doesn’t to my mind do it any favours. Too much of it is unnecessary – and while I’m all for writers being clever, in fact I both relish and admire it, the cleverness here lies in the narrative set in the past, which are handled well, and not in the near-future narrative or the elephant POV ones. Which is a roundabout way of saying that The Only Harmless Great Thing really didn’t work for me.

‘When We Were Starless’, Simone Heller (Clarkesworld Oct 2018). A friend complained about the lack of translated fiction in this year’s Hugo Award shortlists, which is certainly true. However, Aliette de Bodard is not an Anglophone, although she writes in English; and neither is Simone Heller, who is actually Germanophone, or whatever the appropriate phrase is. Anyway, Heller, although German, writes in English, or certainly has done for this novelette. It’s set on an unnamed planet, perhaps even a future earth, in which the dominant species are some form of chameleon-like lizard, if that makes sense, who make their living from salvaging tech and materials from a dead civilisation. The main character is a scout for a nomadic band, and she stumbles across what appears to be a planetarium with a controlling AI. Everything is filtered through the character’s worldview – so she doesn’t recognise what the building is, and she thinks the AI is some sort of spirit. Anyway, it’s all somewhat predictable: her views are not in step with the rest of the tribe, she strikes a deal with the AI, is subsequently censured by tribe, but when they’re attacked by an endless horde of ravening beasts, she strikes a deal with the AI, which helps save the day. It’s all nicely done, and very science-fictional, but the world-building doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Is it set on a post-apocalypse earth? Where did the lizards come from? Or the monsters which attacked them? ‘When We Were Starless’ feels a bit, well, flash. It’s all surface: a standard plot, a setting that makes little sense… but nice visuals and a nice turn of phrase. I can see how it might appeal to some people, but it didn’t do much for me.

‘The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections’, Tina Connolly (Tor.com 11 Jul 2018). There’s this baker in this random fantasy world who discovers how to bake memories – or rather, triggers for memories, because the memories are personal – into cakes, and the nasty regent forces him to work in the royal kitchens and employs his wife as taster so the baker doesn’t poison the regent. There’s a joke about herbs and thyme buried somewhere in the world-building here, but it’s not worth mentioning and while it may have inspired the novelette the end result is a great deal more, well, something. From the first paragraph, it’s clear the wife has some plot in hand to have her revenge on the regent. But first we have to go through a bunch of recipes, plus associated back-stories for each, as lead-up to the resolution. Which pretty much means your mileage is going to depend on how much you enjoy all the guff about the various cakes. Which I didn’t. I like landscape writing, not culinary writing, And while there’s a clear conceit here that works through its ramifications with admirable rigour, I’m one of those people who find writing about baking pretty dull. And the fantastical conceit here doesn’t make it any more interesting. If anything, its focus on taste and memory tends to overshadow the actual situation – evil regent, brother held to ransom to produce pastries, wife employed as taster, etc. Not my, er, cup of tea.

‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’, Daryl Gregory (Tor.com 19 Sep 2018). The idea of following a character over a lengthy period by describing selected periods in their life many years apart is hardly a new one. I used it myself in a story that was published in a literary magazine (although the story was science fiction). Gregory makes good use of it here in his description of an invasion of Earth by alien “invasive” plant species. And it works, because the alien plant is integrated into the life of the narrator. I don’t have a problem with episodic narratives, whether they have a clear through-line or not; and ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ certainly has a clear through-line. The story opens in 1975 and ends in 2028. The author was apparently ten in 1975 (he’s a year older than me), so it’s unlikely he remembers enough about the year to do a good job of evoking it. And so it proves. (Of course, 2028 is nine years in the future, so how is he supposed to “remember” it?) But this is not a story that bothers much with time or place, using labels to signal setting to the reader. It doesn’t actually matter that much, because the narrative is chiefly focused on LT’s relationship with his partner and their life together. ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ I thought slow to start, but once it got going it was pretty good reading. I liked its episodic narrative, I liked its central relationship, and I liked the way it linked the alien plant to the relationship. Often, genre stories literalise metaphors, or are based around thumpingly obvious metaphors of their premise. ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ falls into the latter category, but it doesn’t make a meal of its metaphor, and leaves it sufficiently open to interpretation. It’s nice to see some restraint.

‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’, Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Nov/Dec 2018). That’s not a title that’s going to make me rush out and buy a copy of the magazine – but that’s because I’m not a fan of ghost stories. Which just goes to show you, as this was the best story on the shortlist. By quite a margin. The narrator is a folkorist who’s studying ghost stories. But the novelette is also about her life and her relationships, particularly her relationship with her mother. As part of her work, the narrator meets a number of mediums (the only time “mediums” is permissible as the plural of “medium”), but of course she is sceptical about their abilities. Her work allows her to come to terms with her mother’s death, as well as celebrate the relationship they had before her death. The story drops in lots of authentic-sounding detail about the folkloric study of ghost stories – which convinced me, and may well have been completely made-up. But the story also handled its central premise extremely well, maintaining a sceptical tone throughout but hinting perhaps there was some truth to it. ‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’ really is a cut above the rest of the shortlist. It’s not like the prose on a sentence level is that much more impressive – it’s good, without being showy (whereas far too much genre short fiction these days is showy without being good); but it unfolds its plot, based entirely on its premise, in an almost textbook-like fashion. Some stories simply strike you as well-crafted, and those are the ones that should be appearing on genre award shortlists. This is definitely that. The last genre work I remember reading that was put together so well, despite being something that would not ordinarily appeal, was Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden, which I read years ago and even wrote about for Locus magazine.

‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’, Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog 29 Nov 2018). Unlike the other nominees, this novelette wasn’t published in an explicitly fiction-publishing venue. As far as I can work out, the B&N blog is more of a house magazine, and ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’ is the second of its “SFF Originals”, with one by Ursula Vernon published in 2017. The title refers to an imugi’s attempts to become a dragon (this is Korean mythology), and after two failures, a thousand years apart, it’s inadvertently witnessed by a young American woman of Asian extraction. The sight is enough for her to turn her life around. The imugi, disguised as a human woman, visits the American woman, now an astronomy professor, but is surprised to discover that astronomy is the very subject, “the Way”, it has been studying in order to make it to heaven and become an actual dragon. So it stays. And enters into a relationship with the professor. And the two live very happily for many decades. It’s all a bit glib and the imugi’s characterisation is simplistic at best, but the story has bags of charm and makes good use of its premise. I don’t think it’s especially good, but I enjoyed it – to a degree it overcame its weaknesses, unlike a couple of the novelettes above. I’ve not read anything by Cho before, although I’ve heard mostly positive noises about her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown (and I do like me some Regency). I’m tempted to give the novel a go. As for ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’, it’s hugely likeable, if not especially impressive on a technical level.

The novelette category, despite my refusal to admit the form has a right to existence, has, for the Hugo Award this year, I think, produced better fiction than the novella category. Which is sort of ironic given the Wikipedia quote above. But some of the above, had they been nominated as novellas, would have made that category much stronger.

As in my novella post (see here), if I were going to vote on the Hugo Award novelette category, I’d put ‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’ at number one, followed by ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ and then ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’. The Only Harmless Great Thing, ‘The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections’ and ‘When We Were Starless’ would all go below No Award.


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Fools like us

So a well-respected literary author goes and writes a novel that everyone knows is science fiction, and that everyone knows he probably knows his science fiction, but he decides to claim that not only is his novel not science fiction it actually covers ground not covered by science fiction and perhaps this is a ripe area for exploration by literary authors…

Do I really need to say who, what book and the specifics of his argument?

Naturally, he was roundly condemned by science fiction writers, critics and readers – some more than others – but, just as naturally, their condemnation was as damaging and misguided as said literary author’s misguided, but likely entirely self-serving, remarks had been.

As genre fans, we’ve been there before, perhaps too often to count:

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is not science fiction:
I don’t have a problem with this. I don’t even think of them as “tourists”, as some do. They’re approaching genre tropes from an entirely different direction, they don’t have the history, they don’t have the context; and, sometimes, that’s exactly what the trope needs to shine new light on it, to view it from a fresh perspective.

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is entirely their own invention:
This one is pretty much indefensible. Who these days would write a story without bothering to research it? “Hey, I’ve just written a novel about artificial people and no one else has ever done that before” is just so lacking in self-awareness, it makes its utterer a perfectly legitimate target of every critic and pundit in existence.

True, literary authors sometimes make a complete fucking hash of their science fiction tropes – see Spaceman of Bohemia on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. On the other hand, some novels published as sf make a complete fucking hash of their sf tropes – see Sea of Rust on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist.

It could be argued any such complaints about either of the above points are invalid unless the critic has read the book in question. Which is bollocks. It’s not the work itself being criticised, it’s the trope’s origin or history, as given by the literary author, that’s under discussion. And you don’t need to read through 100,000 words of jewel-like, or whatever, prose to know that.

I actually like it when literary authors make use of genre tropes in their fiction. They have a tendency to deconstruct the trope because they’re not invested in its history and prior usage. Sometimes, that manifests as “re-inventing the wheel”, but even so they frequently bring a new approach to something that has probably been deployed uncritically in genre circles for decades. And most genre tropes need a critical re-appraisal. All those fucking robots… I mean, it’s the twenty-first century and we’re still writing uncritically about a metaphor for slavery?

Which neatly brings us back to the not-so-cunningly disguised novel which kicked off this blog post. I freely admit I’ve not read Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us, and have no plans to do so. I gave up on his fiction after 2005’s Saturday, although I did mistakenly read Solar (2010) some years later. I probably should have given up on his fiction back in 1997 or 1998. I don’t need to read Machines Like Us. There’s been an extensive publicity machine promoting the book. Because McEwan is a writer who gets that treatment, whether or not his books deserve it. A cynic might even suggest the whole “I’ve done AI better than the entire corpus of science fiction” thing is just part of the marketing strategy.

I have also read other genre works by literary authors who claimed not to write genre, or were reluctant to accept the label when called out on it, and I admire their books: Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc and Nunquam, John Fowles’s A Maggot, Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks… But then it’s not like I need to reel off titles as there are no end of highly-regarded novels which make use of genre tropes but are never identified with the genre.

As I said, I don’t have a problem with that.

It’s nice when they give the nod to genre – as Michael Chabon has done, as Margaret Atwood eventually did, as Doris Lessing has done, as Michel Faber has done… There are some blindingly good genre works available from those four names alone, none of which were published as genre. Genre is not a private club, it just has some members who are a little more… invested in it than others, and they can be somewhat over-protective.

But then the publicity machine for Machines Like Us comes along, and it’s like we’re back in the 1950s or 1960s. It’s like genre is still a ghetto of its own making, but this time it’s someone outside who’s shoring up the walls. It feels like a step backwards because it is a step backwards. Genre writers are forever handicapped by being seen as genre writers.

But literary fiction is just a genre, I hear you cry. Except, well, it’s not. No one really sees it as that. True, it often doesn’t sell as well as actual genre fiction – science fiction and fantasy. It has the prestige genre fiction lacks (and any claims that genre fiction doesn’t need that prestige are just reverse snobbery), and occasionally there’s a break-out literary fiction novel which knocks an author up a level, like McEwan’s Atonement, not that advocates of literary fiction would use anything as crass as units sold as a metric of quality…

There is genre fiction, there is category genre fiction, there is fiction written within the tradition that is genre. There is also fiction that might look like any one of those three, but has only a passing knowledge of them. That neither invalidates it nor makes it inferior. It is what is in the fiction which defines it. But it is also the ur-text which defines it. And ur-text has as much loyalty to genre as any individual trope does.

Having been so in the past does not make it so now or in the future. Which is a horribly vague way of saying that some tropes have actually been handled better by non-genre writers. Alternate history is an excellent example. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days is a superior example. But even populist novels, such as Len Deighton’s SS-GB, often seem more exemplary of the sub-genre than alternate history novels published as category science fiction.

We should be applauding how genre tropes are used, not where they are used. Had McEwan written something truly groundbreaking with Machines Like Us, then yes, fold it into the genre conversation. It seems he hasn’t, so that’s pretty much academic. But when the genre can co-opt, for example, The Underground Railroad, and even include it on genre award shortlists, what’s the problem with the genre conversation incorporating non-category genre works?

Fault them for their quality, as you would a genre work. Not for their choice to use genre tropes.