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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.

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Top five science fiction films

I saw someone recently tweet for requests for people’s top five science fiction films and I thought, I can do that. Then it occurred to me I’ve watched around 3000 movies in the past few years, and many of them were science fiction. So those films I think of as my favourites… well, surely I’d seen something that might lead to a new top five? Even if nothing sprung immediately to mind… True, I’m not that big a fan of science fiction cinema, and most of my favourite movies are dramas. And most of the sf films I have seen were commercial tentpole US movies, a genre I like even less…

I went back over my records, and pulled together a rough list of about fifteen films – it seems most of the sf films I’ve seen didn’t impress me very much – and then whittled that down to five. And they were pretty much old favourites. Which sort of rendered the whole exercise a bit pointless.

Or was it?

Top of my list is Alien, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979. Although distributed by 20th Century Fox, I’ve always counted it as a British film, as it was an entirely UK-based production, and in fact used many of the UK-based talent that had been working on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie. I’ve always loved Alien, pretty much since its theatrical release. Which is a bit weird as it was given an X-certificate, and I would have just turned thirteen when it was released. But I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster; I had the collectable magazines and books, even Giger’s Alien (published by Big O according to my copy, but by Morpheus International according to the internet). I fell in love with the world of Alien, with the grimy lived-in appearance of the Nostromo, with the weirdness of the boomerang spaceship, with the look of the alien creature itself. Which doubtless explains why I’ve never really rated any of the sequels. Alien did it first, Alien kept it simple, Alien did it best. The less said about the prequels, the better…

But if we’re talking science fiction cinema worldbuilding, there are plenty of other movies which might qualify. I love the production design of David Lynch’s Dune: the uniforms, the spaceships, the sets… It’s just a shame Lynch’s vision was so badly mangled by the studio, and that Lynch himself made quite a few questionable choices when adapting the novel. Other prime examples include Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, Starship Troopers, Brazil, The Fifth Element, the various Star Trek films, the Star Wars movies… Or perhaps something more recent, such as Mortal Engines, anything from the MCU, Jupiter Ascending, Prospect, Science Fiction Volume 1: The Osiris Child, The Lure… Except the only film out of that lot I especially rate is The Lure, and I’d classify it as horror rather than science fiction. (Oh, Metropolis is good too, of course.)

Of course, those are films that required new worlds built out of whole cloth – there’s even a book about it: Building Sci-Fi Moviescapes (my copy, of course, is in storage). There are those that made do with the real world, making clever, or innovative use, of existing buildings and landscape. Examples include Alphaville, Crimes of the Future, Rollerball, even Interstellar (mostly). One of the most imaginative uses of location for a sf film I’ve seen is Footprints on the Moon, which manages to create a plausible invented country out of a pair of Turkish seaside resorts. Sadly, though I like the film a great deal, it’s not quite good enough to make my top five.

A film which also creates a new world out of clever location shooting makes the second slot on my list: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. I’m not a fan of the book, but I’m a big fan of Brutalist architecture and there’s plenty of that in the Fahrenheit 451 film. Plus a monorail. And Montag’s A-frame house in its leafy suburb with the silver birches and G-Plan furniture. It doesn’t look in the slightest bit futuristic – especially not now – but I love the film’s look and feel. (Except maybe the fire engine; not so keen on that.) But it’s not just the visuals, you also have Julie Christie playing two roles, the story’s focus on censorship (not television), the fact it ditched the stupid robot dog from the book, and Truffaut’s elegiac ending.

Science fiction films are not all set in the future or invented worlds. Some are set at the time the film was made. Girls Lost, set in early twenty-first century Sweden, might well have made my top five, but its central premise is just too fantastical. And Thelma, set in early twenty-first century Norway… well, telekinetic powers are a science fiction staple. At least they are in written science fiction. They’re more of a horror trope in cinema, and Thelma would also have made my list but it’s clearly a horror film.

An older film, one which depicts a 1980s Sweden, albeit far from any centre of civilisation, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Offret, AKA The Sacrifice. Like Girls Lost and Thelma, its genre credentials are somewhat wobbly, but the fact it’s about a nuclear apocalypse, a very real concern during the Cold War and one much used by science fiction, pretty much since the genre’s early twentieth century origins, just about clinches it as science fiction for me. Okay, so Erland Josephson makes a deal with a higher power to put everything back and that’s hardly science-fictional, but never mind. Watching Offret is a harrowing experience, and science fiction cinema rarely manages that.

Most people, if they had to pick a Tarkovsky movie – and why wouldn’t they pick one? – would probably plump for either Solaris or Stalker. But the latter’s urban wasteland setting might suit its story but can hardly be called worldbuilding. And I’ve seen too many Soviet bloc sf films from the 1960s and 1970s to find anything special in Solaris‘s production design. They’re both great sf films, but I much prefer the look and feel of Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea to Solaris, although the latter is the better movie.

It’s not just actual Soviet and East German films, however. There are also the US ones from the 1960s which New World Pictures cobbled together from Soviet special effects footage, the best of which is Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (containing footage from Небо зовет).

Offret takes slot number three.

When I wrote about building whole new worlds for science fiction movies, I very carefully didn’t mention one particular film, which takes place on another planet ruled by an entirely invented civilisation… but is actually a very old genre property. 2012’s John Carter. My number four choice. It did badly at the box office and its cast is hardly top-drawer. But it’s a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema, and its script makes some very adventurous decisions about its story-telling which, to my mind, totally paid off (longeurs notwithstanding). I’m not a fan of the books – they’re very much historical documents, and the tropes they introduced have been so extensively used and reworked in the decades since it would be impossible to make them fresh. But the basic story possesses a primal appeal, and although John Carter does complicate its plot with its nested endings, I think it gives the film a contemporary narrative sensibility. John Carter is a seriously under-rated movie, and it’s a pity corporate politics pretty much killed it.

That’s four movies, and the final slot was, as is usually the case, the hardest to fill. I could think of a number of films which almost made the grade. There’s Dredd from 2012, a bona fide, and ultra-violent, science fiction art-house movie, but it’s too thin on plot. Or Cargo, a Schweitzer-Deutsch film from 2009, which is a bit of a hodge-podge of genre tropes, some of which border on cliché, but looks pretty good and is about as science-fictional as you can get. Going a bit further back, there’s Peter Watkins’s Privilege from 1967, which is a clever, and quite funny, dystopian satire. Or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which an alien in the person of Scarlet Johansson drives around Glasgow in 2013 picking up men to provide meat for her home world.

However… I decided to go for a completely left-field choice for movie number five: The Untamed, a Mexican film directed by Amat Escalante, released in 2016. It’s a good example of a type of cinema I especially like, slow cinema. It is enigmatic. It has a documentary feel. And yet you have no idea where it’s going for pretty much its entire length. It also shows that science fiction can be used to illuminate the lives of people in the real world, it doesn’t always need fancy worldbuilding, expensive CGI or imaginative location shooting. Sometimes it just needs the introduction of something strange into the mundane.

So that’s my top five science fiction films. As of 2019. Ask me again in a year or two and it will probably be different.

I’ve no doubt missed out a huge number of eligible movies: I  either because I’ve not watched them, don’t think they’re any good, or just simply didn’t remember (despite trawling back through my film-watching records). I’ve also not mentioned any anime films, although many of them might well qualify. I’ve watched some excellent ones – anything by Makoto Shinkai, for example; or the Neon Evangelion movies – but I don’t love anime as much as I do live-action, and besides they probably deserve a list of their own. Another day, perhaps.


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A weekend in Reykjavik

Last weekend was Icecon 2, a biennial science fiction convention in Iceland. I was at the first Icecon in 2016, and had every intention then of attending again in 2018. Which I did. There’ll be a third in 2020, but I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to attend. Brexit and all that…

Thank you 17 million stupid voters for fucking up my future so comprehensively.

Anyway, Icecon 2… Which was nearly scuppered by the UK’s useless transport infrastructure. I’d ordered a taxi to take me to the railway station, and given myself forty minutes leeway – plenty of time for a car to travel about 5 kilometres. But no taxi turned up at the appointed time… Ten minutes later, I decided to take the tram, but there was no guarantee it’d get me to the station on time… Fortunately, my taxi chose that moment to appear, so I arrived at the station in plenty of time. And the train even included the coach containing my reserved seat! (Unlike on my trip to Copenhagen.) Even so, travelling by train is just getting too stressful. Fighting to get on board, the worry over your seat, the far-too-common delays… I’d built plenty of leeway into my travel schedule, but even so it came close to falling apart.

The security check – again in the basement – at Manchester was very quick, and the transit lounge was not especially busy. But when the gate for my flight was called, and I made my way there, there were hundreds of people waiting to board the aircraft. The plane was a Boeing 757, so larger than those in which I’d flown to and from Denmark two weeks earlier. And I suspect a good eighty percent of those on my flight to Reykjavik weren’t visiting the country but just transiting through Keflavik to the US and Canada.

As the minibus drove me around Reykjavik from the BSÍ bus terminal to my hotel (or rather, a bus stop around the corner from it), I spotted a lot more restaurants in the area where my hotel, and the con venue, Iðnó, were sited. Things had changed considerably since my last visit in 2016.

I arrived at my hotel – the same one as my previous visit, Hotel Apotek – around half past four. I arranged to meet up with Kisu and Carolina for something to eat before the Icecon meet & greet at Klaustur bar at eight o’clock. Since I had a couple of hours to spare, I looked up real ale bars in Reykjavik… and discovered craft beer culture had arrived in Iceland. There were four craft ale bars with five hundred metres, and even a branch of Mikkeller a couple of hundred metres further away than that. I decided to try Skúli, and had two very nice IPAs from Iceland. I was meeting the others in the American Bar but, confusingly, the Dirty Burger place next to it looked like it was part of the same establishment. And I went in there. So did Kisu. Then Carolina messaged me to say she was in the bar but couldn’t find us. By which point we’d figured out we were actually next door. Ah well.

The meet & greet was the same as it had been at the first Icecon. Although the selection of drinks in the bar had improved. This time, there was no book club occupying one room, but a jazz trio in a corner of the main bar. But they finished and packed up not long after I’d arrived. I chatted to friends I knew from other Nordic cons, talked about writing with an Icelandic fan called Birgir, and about conventions and sf with a Danish fan, Jeppe, who hadn’t attended either of the Fantasticons I’d been to.

I was up the following morning at 7:30. The Hotel Apotek’s breakfast had also improved. It now included several Icelandic delicacies. I tried the gravlax and the cold blood sausage, but gave the dried cod a miss.

I reached Iðnó a bit early – it was only a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel – and saw that the comfy upholstered chairs from the last Icecon had been replaced with hard wooden chairs. But they had expanded the café facilities and now offered food and beer. And free coffee and tea all weekend for con attendees.

Icecon had only a single programming track and it was in English. It also holds the record – true for both Icecon 1 and 2 – for my attendance at programme items. I missed only three panels, which is astonishing for me. A couple I only caught part of, but never mind. And one, of course, on climate change, I was actually a panellist. (And yes, I mentioned Brexit, of course.) The panels were interesting, although they tended to stray from their topic – some moderators were obviously better prepared than others, which is hardly unusual. But the con had no real socialising area: Iðnó’s cafe was too small, four tables and eight chairs in a tiny room, and Klaustur was only used in the evenings. But there was plenty to explore in Reykjavik if a panel didn’t  interest me. Like the craft ale bars…

I visited one, Microbar, there was a small group of people smoking/vaping outside the entrance. One spoke to me. He had to repeat what he’d said before I understood: “Demilich”. I was wearing a Demilich hoodie. They’re an obscure Finnish death metal band, known for their singer Antti Boman’s vocal fry register growl singing. They released a single album, Nespithe, in 1993. Recently they reformed, and made some new merchandise – like the hoodie I was wearing – available. I was impressed. I’d never met anyone before who’d even heard of Demilich. At the bar, the barman saw my hoodie and asked who it was. “Demilich,” I said. “Ah, Nespithe,” he replied. “Good album.” Two people in the same bar! I suspect that may never be equalled. And I really liked Microbar too. It had an excellent selection of ales. Including two sours – blueberry and rhubarb. I immediately messaged Kisu, who had told me earlier than she only drank sour beers.

At the last Icecon, a group of about ten of us had had trouble finding somewhere to eat on the Saturday night because everywhere was fully booked. We’d ended up at a fairly ordinary Italian restaurant. Which at least managed to cater for the gluten-free member of the party. This year, expecting something similar, I’d floated the idea of booking somewhere on social media, but nothing had come together. On arrival, I’d been encouraged by the increase in eating establishments I’d seen, but that proved illusory… Five of us went looking for dinner in the area around Ingólfur Square – a Swede, an Icelander, a German, a Finn and a Brit – and the first restaurant we tried was closed for a private function, the second was fully booked, and the third, a Tapas restaurant, managed to squeeze us around a table for four. The food was excellent. I had salted cod. Carolina had the same, and complained all evening it was so salty it had made her extremely thirsty. I hadn’t noticed. I suspect I like, and eat, saltier food (ie, less healthily). At one point, Claudia and I had tried to explain to Carolina why we both thought Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was such an amazing novel. It wasn’t easy…

After the meal, I dragged the other four down into Microbar (it’s in a cellar) and Kisu tried the rhubarb sour. Then it was across to Klaustur to meet up with the rest of the con.

I should write something about the programme. It didn’t appear to be themed, although there were a couple of panels on Icelandic genre fiction, or “tales of wonder”, furðusögur, and mythlogy. Other panels covered international fandom, diversity in genre, disability in genre, talking animals, climate change, and gender and race. It was a good broad mix, with plenty of welcome perspectives. My own panel, the climate change one, was a man down, as an attendee had failed to make his flight from Taiwan because of a typhoon. Ironically. I’d not prepared for it, other than continually reminding myself to mention a couple of things. Which I managed to do. I’ve always believed you can tell how well a panel is going by the number of people snoring (it’s happened to me) and the number of people laughing (at your jokes, quips, witticisms, etc.) The latter is obviously better, so I always make sure to throw in a few cracks. I didn’t get a round of cheers this time, but there was plenty of appreciative laughter.

Icecon’s custom of presenting panels as four to eight panellists sitting in armchairs and sofas on a stage – dictated to them by the venue – actually works really well. Most cons I’ve attended put their panels behind a long table, so you have a line of people behind nameplates and it all looks a bit formal and intimidating. Icecon’s more informal approach works really well. True, the con is much smaller – less than a hundred attendees this year, I believe, most of which were Icelandic, but also including several Americans, a Dane, a couple of Finns, a couple of Germans, at least one Irish, and, I think, myself the only Brit (unlike the previous Icecon).

In fact, I got chatting to one of the Americans, a young woman, in Klaustur on the Saturday night. She told me she had arrived in Reykjavik with no plans – I forget where she’d flown from, but it was in Europe – and seen mention of Icecon and decided to attend. That was her life now, flitting from country to country. I asked her if she was a “digital nomad” and she seemed shocked I knew the term. “I’m not that old,” I complained. She explained she didn’t think the term was that well known among all age groups.

I left Klaustur about one-ish, I believe, and I was not the last to leave. I had plans for Sunday morning. Icecon does not programme on Sunday morning, only starting again with a lunch at noon. But this year they’d arranged for Michael Swanwick to give a writing workshop. I didn’t sign up for it. I’m told it was fully subscribed and very successful. I did see Swanwick and his partner waiting for the lift in Hotel Apotek, but never got the chance to speak to him. I’ve enjoyed his fiction for several decades and while I’ve not read any of his later novels I do rate this early ones highly. Anyway, I had plans…

After breakfast, I went for a wander around the harbour area. The area next to the concert hall was a giant hole in the ground on my last visit. Now it looks like this:

Rekjavik, in fact, seemed to be doing very well. There was a lot of construction going on, but also a lot of new places: food and drink and, er, tat, I mean tourist, shops. I revisited Hafnarhús, a modern art museum, which was half-price as only half of the galleries were open. But they were worth seeing. There was a video installation by Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir called “Land undir fót” (take a wild guess what it means). I love video installations, and this was a good one. There was also a gallery of photographs by Ólafur Elíasson (but sadly no book on it in the shop) and an exhibit entitled ‘No Man’s Land’ that I found a bit hit and miss.

I bought myself a souvenir:

I saw the artwork the book covers on my previous visit to Reykjavik, and was much amused by the sticker on the cover.

For lunch on the Sunday, I decided to try the shawerma place I’d spotted on Ingólfur Square. I was later told there are actually two shawerma restaurants next door to each other, and they’re mortal enemies. I, unfortunately, picked the lesser of the two. Their shawerma didn’t resemble any I’d had in Abu Dhabi, and I wasn’t convinced the young woman serving understood what lactose was… And given how I felt later that afternoon, I may have been right to suspect as much…

The con wrapped at six o’clock, although there was a dead dog party, and pub quiz, at Klaustur later. I had to be up at three am to catch my bus to the airport for an eight am flight, so I’d only planned to to attend the dead dog party for an hour or so. Myself, Kisu and Carolina, on a recommendation from Einar Leif Nielsen, ate at Sjávargrillið, a seafood restaurant. The food was excellent, but something I’d eaten earlier had been contaminated and I was not feeling well. The dead dog party was out for me. I remarked at one point that I used to be able to recover from a weekend of drinking and late nights and early mornings in a day or two, but then it started taking a week or so… So what did I do? Started attending Nordic cons – so I now have to cope with jet lag on top of the drinking and late nights and early mornings…

But not for me that night. I went straight back to my hotel and straight to bed. At eight pm. Later, I discovered the Northern Lights had made a rare in-town showing, visible even outside Klaustur. Which was just bloody typical.

I left early the next morning, catching a minibus at 4:30 am, flight at 8 am… then on arrival in Manchester, a massive queue at passport control. Would it be too difficult to put in more electronic passport gates? They’re machines. You don’t have to pay them to sit there when they’re idle. Or would too many machines make the UK too welcoming for EU citizens? One day, someone will come up with a really good explanation for why we need to control our borders, and it will still be total bullshit. Border control is a nineteenth-century invention, so we managed pretty well for millennia without it. Then, to add insult to injury, the taxi I’d ordered was running twenty minutes late. Not the taxi-driver’s fault, it has to be said – his previous fare’s plane had been delayed. I don’t think any plane I’ve flown on this year has arrived on schedule (although this one actually landed twenty minutes early.)

We chatted during the drive over the Pennines. At one point, he asked me what I did for a living because “I knew a lot about a lot of things”. I was tempted to reply it was a sign of a misspent youth reading too many science fiction books. But instead I just said I worked with computers. It’s a lot easier than trying to explain science fiction. In fact, when people asked me why I visited Iceland, I told them I was visiting friends…


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The megalodon in the room

A couple of nights ago, I watched The Meg, a big-budget Warner Bros attempt to cash in on the type of film normally made by The Asylum. In it, Jason Statham plays a submersible driver persuaded out of self-imposed retirement when the submersible containing his wife and two scientists is trapped at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Well, below the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Because the trench’s bottom is actually a thermocline, a layer of near-freezing hydrogen sulphide, and beneath it is a veritable deep sea paradise, cut off from the rest of the ocean for millions of years. Which is why it contains a megalodon, a giant shark, which went extinct 2.3 million years ago.

It’s the megalodon which trashed the submersible and, after the crew is rescued, the megalodon escapes into the Pacific Ocean. Where it wreaks further carnage. Until stopped by Statham.

This is not a film that is intended to be plausible. It’s not just the existence of the megalodon… or the underwater Shangri-la beneath the thermocline… or Statham’s various encounters with the megalodon…

The Meg is, essentially, one of those films ostensibly set in the present day but the tech is much better. Like 007. It could be a few years from now, but everything looks pretty much as it does in 2018. Except for the fancy tech. You expect this in Hollywood films. And even in television series. CSI was notorious for showcasing tech which didn’t actually exist. So the research submersibles in The Meg are better than the current state of the art. Fine. At least they mostly resemble current deep-diving research submersibles. Just better. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t even blip from neutral. Okay, the “glider”, which has a clear bubble for the pilot and can apparently reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench… well, maybe materials science is way better than, er, now… although that does beg the question: why not have clear bubbles on the research submersibles?

But the problems here all fall from a single mistake by the film-makers. The Mariana Trench is 11,000 metres deep. The pressure at the bottom is about 1100 atmospheres. That’s around 7.5 tons per square inch. Only three people have ever been that deep – Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960, and James Cameron in 2012. At that depth, 100 kg of water, which is 100 litres of water at sea level, actually has a volume of 95.27 litres. Because of the pressure. When the USS Thresher, the US Navy’s first nuclear-powered attack submarine, sank in 1963 in 2,600 metres of water, it’s estimated when she imploded the two sides of her pressure hull met at a combined speed of around 75,000 kph.

The pressure in the hadal zone cannot be stressed enough (no pun intended). The effect of increasing pressure with increasing depth cannot be stressed enough. The current record – simulated on land – for a human being with saturation diving gear is 701 metres. The current freediving depth record is 253.2 metres. Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and attack submarines generally do not go deeper than 300 metres. The deepest diving whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, has been recorded reaching 2,992 metres. The sperm whale, perhaps the most impressive mammal on the planet (a personal opinion), can reach around 2,250 metres.

So when The Meg opens with Statham involved in a rescue of a downed USN fleet submarine on the floor of the Philippine Trench, 10,000 metres below the surface… Well, I was not impressed. Unfortunately this rescue – and Statham’s failure to save two of his colleagues – is important to the film’s plot. Because he failed to save his two colleagues, he retired. Because he’s the only person to have rescued some people from 10,000 metres, he’s the first choice to rescue the research submersible below the thermocline in the Mariana Trench…

But… but… but… That first rescue, the movie’s opening scene, is complete nonsense. An intact fleet submarine at 10,000 metres? The USS Thresher sank in a quarter of that depth and its wreckage was scattered over 13.4 hectares. But, I hear you cry, maybe this future sub – 55 years after the USS Thresher after all! – was made of much stronger materials. Given how expensive fleet submarines are – the USS Colorado, SSN-788, launched December 2016, allegedly cost $2.6 billion, and has a test depth of probably 250 to 300 metres – well, building a fleet submarine with a crew of 134 capable of reaching depths forty times deeper… would probably cost more than President Trump’s opinion of his own worth as a human being.

And yet… this is, I hear you say, completely irrelevant. It’s a film about a giant fucking prehistoric shark. Which reached lengths of 18 metres (bigger in the this film). Why cavil about submarines and submersibles and depths and pressures when the film is about a giant fucking prehistoric shark? All those facts quoted above, they mean nothing because it’s a film about a giant fucking prehistoric shark!

This is where we part company – myself, that is, and my imaginary critic(s) – because the megalodon, as the title of this post indicates, that’s the central conceit. The story is its scaffolding. Science fiction tropes work the same way. They’re either bolstered by the plot, or by exposition, or by the entire corpus of science fiction. Such as FTL. Or AI. Complete nonsense, both of them. But no one quibbles when they appear in a science fiction because the scaffolding for them has been built up over a century or more of genre publishing. There’s no willing suspension of disbelief required – it’s entirely unconscious. And yet it’s instructional what readers will willingly disbelieve. As Joe Abercrombie once tweeted (and I paraphrase as I don’t have the exact tweet to hand): “giant flying lizards who breathe fire? No problem. Female blacksmiths? INCONCEIVABLE!”. I had a similar response to my space opera, A Prospect of War. I decided my universe would not have gunpowder. Giant plasma cannons, yes; but all personal combat would be using swords. FTL? No problem. Giant plasma cannons? No problem. No gunpowder, not even bows and arrows? UNBELIEVABLE.

In every science fiction, we have a megalodon in the room. Sometimes it’s the central conceit, sometimes it’s what we have to tastefully ignore in order for the conceit not to destroy the reading experience. But that science fiction, that conceit, is embedded in a world, either of the author’s invention or recognisably the reader’s own. While space battleships can flit from star to star using FTL, stars are still stars, planets are still planets, and yes, okay, the vast distances between stars might be compressed in order for the space opera to better follow its eighteenth-century adventure template… but space is still space and vacuum is still vacuum.

So why isn’t the hadal zone still the hadal zone?

The megalodon: that’s the conceit, and the willing suspension of disbelief comes wrapped around it. Reject that and you reject the story. The rest, that’s world-building. That’s the setting for the conceit. So it requires some sparkly tech that doesn’t yet exist? Shrug. No problem. That’s what – in a movie – production design is for. And they generally do an excellent job. But that doesn’t mean the laws of physics, for example, which pertain in the world, and which are not bent out of shape in the presence of the conceit, should be flouted. It’s not trainspotting. It’s not even expecting the science in a science fiction to be accurate. (I mean, when a science fiction novel which sells itself on its absolutely correct science gets it wrong in the first chapter, who would be foolish enough to expect science fiction as a whole to get the science right?)

It’s an expectation of rigour; it’s an expectation of craft. Sometimes, these faux pas are either easily avoidable or easily justified within the text. Take the most egregious example to have occurred recently: dropping bombs in space in The Last Jedi? WTF? Bombs? In space? Did the director of the film not understand what zero gravity is? I mean, bombs? WTF? It’s just so fucking stupid. And yet… and yet…

All it took was one line: “Are we in the Star Destroyer’s gravity field yet?”

One line and… Woah! It actually makes sense.

To me, leaving out that line, failing to even think viewers would like an explanation… that smacks of contempt from the creators. They think viewers are too dumb to notice.

When failures of rigour or world-building could be explained in the story, and the creator does not do so, that’s a failure of craft. Of course, it could be deliberate. A lack of rigour could be a deliberate characteristic of the narrative. But when that’s the case, it’s generally obvious. It’s not the same as having a fleet sub survive at forty times its test depth. There are things a reader or viewer expects to have to disbelieve and things they don’t expect to have to disbelieve. And unless indicated otherwise, by signals in the text, convention dictates which is which.

There’s room to manoeuvre there, of course. Sufficient room, in fact, for some writers to have built careers in that space. But The Meg is not high literature, there’s nothing liminal or slipstream about it. It is a somewhat obvious attempt to cash in on a film genre previously occupied by mockbusters and low-budget B-movies. It does everything it needs to in order to meet the expectations which might accrue to it, given what it is and what it purports to be.

But if criticism means anything, if the study literature, or cinema, is of any worth, then no text should be considered as just “what it is” or “what it purports to be”.

 

 

 


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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.