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Looking backwards from the year 2020

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I moved from the United Arab Emirates to the United Kingdom; in the second decade, I moved from the UK to Sweden.

As the second decade of the century opened, I was living in Sheffield, and once again employed by the company I had originally moved to Sheffield to work for. I had started writing short fiction again, after a hiatus of a decade or so. I widened my reading, continued to buy too many books, regularly saw bands perform live in Sheffield venues, and watched films from two DVD rentals services, my own DVD purchases, and terrestrial and cable television.

In 2010, my favourite books of the year were mostly literary, or new books by favourite genre authors, such as Gwyneth Jones and Bruce Sterling. I also discovered my all-time favourite film, All That Heaven Allows. Five of my short stories saw print, and I continued reviewing books for Interzone – and also interviewing authors: my interview with Bruce Sterling in Interzone #221 I still considered the best interview I’ve done.

I began writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the first book of the Apollo Quartet, in 2011 and also edited my first anthology, Rocket Science. I had made an effort the previous year to read more books by women writers – successfully – but in 2011 I took it one step further and created the SF Mistressworks blog, which reviewed science fiction books by women writers published before 2000.

Rocket Science was launched at the Eastercon in 2012. I decided to launch Adrift on the Sea of Rains at the same time… which meant I had to publish it myself in order to have it available in time. So I started up my own small press, Whippleshield Books. I published Adrift on the Sea of Rains in signed limited hardback, paperback and ebook editions. Reading-wise, I raved about Katie Ward’s Girl Reading. Sadly, she has yet to publish anything else. In films, I continued to explore the cinemas of other countries.

My interest in space had been rekindled in the first decade of the century, and eventually led to Rocket Science and the Apollo Quartet, but in 2013 I discovered a new interest – I call them “enthusiasms” – which was… deep sea exploration, undersea habitats and saturation diving. This fed into both my reading and my writing. The second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, published in early 2013, was very much an exploration of Apollo-era space technology, as the first novella had been. But the third book, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, published in late 2013, included a narrative strand featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste, directly from my latest enthusiasm. Neither novella proved as successful as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which in 2013 won the BSFA Award and was nominated for the Sidewise Award. 2013 was also the year I “discovered” Malcolm Lowry, who became a favourite writer. It was also the first year I began attending Nordic conventions.

I don’t remember 2014 being a particularly memorable year. I had signed up to attend Loncon 3, the Worldcon taking place in the UK, but ended up so pissed off with sf fandom I sold my membership and didn’t attend. I’m not even sure I can remember what prompted my change of heart. I made a serious attempt to read some well-regarded genre fiction so I could vote for the Hugo, but nothing I liked made it to the shortlists. This was not entirely surprising – my tastes have never aligned with those of the Hugo voters and I adamantly refuse to be tribal about the writers whose books I like. I worked on the fourth book of the Apollo Quartet, this one intended to be novel-length, All That Outer Space Allows. I also had a story published in a literary magazine, and one of my stories was the cover story for a Postscripts anthology.

I can’t remember how I got involved with Tickety Boo Press, a small press based in Northumberland. I was asked to edit a self-published sf novel its owner had bought. For a fee. I did so – but the writer rejected most of my structural suggestions. Somehow I managed to accidentally sell a space opera trilogy to Tickety Boo Press. I’d written the first book, A Prospect of War, in the late 1990s, spent much of the early 2000s rewriting and polishing it… and it came very close to being picked up by a major sf imprint. (I note that A Prospect of War’s flavour of space opera is currently very popular.) I sold A Prospect of War and its sequel, A Conflict of Orders, to Tickety Boo Press, who published them in May and October of 2015. I would deliver the third book, A Want of Reason, in 2016. The books were published in signed limited hardback, paperback and ebook. At least they were supposed to be. The ebook sold really well and was well-received. I signed about forty hardback copies of A Prospect of War. No paperback ever appeared. Nor did any of the editions have ISBNs. Although a hardback edition of A Conflict of Orders was available for sale on Tickety Boo’s website – and I know several people who ordered one – it never actually existed. So I stopped working on A Want of Reason. One day I may get around to finishing it. I’d like to. In 2015, I published the final book of my Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, which was subsequently honour listed by the Tiptree Award (now the Otherwise Award). I also attended my second Nordic con, Archipelacon, in the Åland Islands.

Oh, and Adrift on the Sea of Rains was published in Spanish, A la deriva en el Mar de las Lluvias, in 2015 and was shortlisted for the Ignotus Award the following year.

In 2015, I also published my second anthology, Aphrodite Terra. I’d originally planned to launch it at Loncon 3, but, of course, I didn’t attend the convention. And I was, I admit, disappointed by the apathy shown by the genre community to the book when I put out a call for submissions. However, I wanted to submit All That Outer Space Allows to the Arthur C Clarke Award but it wasn’t eligible as it was self-published. The award agreed that if Whippleshield Books published someone else’s fiction, as well as my own, then it wasn’t a self-publishing press. So I pushed out Aphrodite Terra, and All That Outer Space Allows was accepted for the Clarke. It wasn’t shortlisted, of course. Annoyingly – and insultingly – when the Clarke Award opened itself to self-published books a year or two later, the only example of a “self-published” book it used as justification was Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which had been published by a major sf imprint anyway.

A year or two earlier, I’d submitted a story to a Tickety Boo anthology of hard sf – on invitation, I seem to recall. But the book kept on getting delayed. I gave them a reprint story when they complained of a lack of submissions. A new editor took over the anthology – and promptly sent my reprint back. I decided in 2016 to publish a selection of my hard sf space-based stories in a collection, Dreams of the Space Age. I asked Tickety Boo if I could include the story I’d submitted to them. They said fine, the anthology was sure to be out before my collection. The anthology has never appeared. My collection did. And on its acknowledgements page it lists the story ‘Red Desert’ as having been previously published in a non-existent anthology. Ah well.

As well as Dreams of the Space Age, which includes a previously unpublished story (the Yuri Gagarin Robinson Crusoe on Mars mashup), 2016 was bracketed by two pieces of published fiction. The first was a story in Interzone, to date my only story published in the magazine, although I’d been reviewing books for it since 2008. The story was titled ‘Geologic’ and was inspired by my deep sea exploration enthusiasm. At the end of the year, I added a pendant to the Apollo Quartet, Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, which makes it a quartet of five parts. It was partly in service to a joke: the Worldcon had announced the best series Hugo Award, and any series which had an instalment published in the previous year was eligible. So I wrote something to make the Apollo Quartet eligible. Except the total word count had to be over 250,000 and the Apollo Quartet didn’t come anywhere close to that, so it was a meaningless gesture. But Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum did allow me to throw several more references into the quartet.

I also attended IceCon in 2016, the first ever sf con held in Iceland, in Reykjavik. I felt somewhat obligated to do so given I’d instigated it – at a Swecon I’d jokingly told an Icelandic fan he should organise a con in Iceland. Several other people have since claimed credit for the suggestion – all credit to the organisers, of course – but it was definitely me. (I also attended IceCon 2 in 2018, and plan to attend IceCon 3 in 2020.)

In early 2016, a team-mate at work left and the major project he had been working on was dumped on my desk. That pretty much defined my 2017 and 2018. It was an important project, and a lot of people were involved. When I got home each evening, I didn’t have the energy to do more than watch films or read books. Likewise on the weekends too. My blogging sort of dropped off, devolving to a series of Reading diary and Moving pictures posts. I did regularly visit Scandinavia for conventions, however – mostly Sweden and Denmark – and made many friends in Nordic fandom.

It didn’t take long for me to realise I’d got myself stuck in a rut. I mean, I had a good job and I worked only four days a week… But I seemed to be spending most of my time just buying stuff on eBay and Amazon, and by “stuff” I mean books, films and games, not all of which I really wanted. It got sort of ridiculous. I’m a big fan of the Traveller RPG and have been for many years. Collecting items published for the game is more or less understandable. Collecting back issues of role-playing games magazines that contained articles for Traveller is perhaps a bit excessive. Collecting 1970s and 1980s science fiction boardgames by GDW, SPI and Avalon Hill is definitely excessive. Especially since I never bothered playing them. I have, for example, among a couple of dozen other games, John Carter: Warlord of Mars, a sf boardgame by SPI from 1979. I remember seeing the game when I was a teenager. I’ve never played it.

Anyway, the big work project completed in September 2018, and I decided it was time for a change. I’d been joking since the Brexit Referendum in 2016 that my Brexit Plan A was “move to Sweden”, and I had in the years since my first visit to the country in 2013 had a look at job opportunities there in my field. Most were contract work, and I didn’t fancy making the move for 6 months of work, and then flailing about looking for my next job. But shortly after the big project at work finished, I found an advert for a job online in Sweden, applied for it… and they offered it to me. In Uppsala. In Sweden. Of course, I said yes. Brexit Plan A unlocked. (I’d visited Uppsala in 2017 for Swecon and really liked the city… but had never expected to end up there.)

I was one of a team of three at my job in Sheffield. All three of us handed in our notices within a week. One team member moved to the multinational which owned the company we worked for (I later heard he moved back), another moved to Germany, and I moved to Sweden. Our manager was not very happy…

In March 2019, I left the UK with a cabin bag and a 26 kg suitcase and flew to Sweden. I left behind 85 boxes in storage, most containing books. The move itself was… an adventure. Never resign your job and move to another country just before Christmas. You effectively lose a month of your three-month notice period. I still managed to sell enough stuff – books, mostly – to finance my move to Sweden: to dealers, to a local secondhand bookshop, on eBay… DVDs I didn’t want, or could easily replace, I gave away to friends through Facebook. I sold enough to pay for: Pickfords collecting everything that was going into storage, a month of storage, house clearance, taxi to the airport, overnight stay at airport hotel, flight to Sweden, train to Uppsala… The only thing it didn’t cover was my first month in an apartment hotel in Uppsala, which is where I stayed while I was looking for somewhere to live. (Sweden has no landlord culture, which is good, but makes it difficult to find somewhere to rent.) 5 March 2019 was my last day at work. 6 March, I travelled to Leeds to meet my mother and say goodbye. 7 March, the house clearance guys did their stuff. 8 March, I flew to Sweden. 11 March, I started my new job.

In hindsight, I’m surprised it all went so smoothly. Planning your move to another country Just-in-Time is probably not smart. It certainly impressed the guy I’d hired to clear my house. After he’d accepted the job, and also after he’d cleared my house, I received a series of rambling drunken SMS messages from him, in which he admitted to admiring me for planning my move so well but then segued into some holiday he’d had in Manila and all the prostitutes he’d had sex with. Or something. It was very weird.

Anyway, in March 2019, I moved to Sweden and started a new job. And a new life. So to speak.

Welcome to the 2020s.


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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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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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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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His master’s voice

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

Which changes things. Apparently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* And whom I still consider friends, of course.


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A reading guide for grown-ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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All the new year feels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.