It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Apollo Quartet 5: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum

And so here it is, the, er, fifth installment in the Apollo Quartet. Its official title is Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum. It’s 7,000 words long, approximately, so technically a short story (which means the quartet now comprises all three legitimate lengths of fiction – short story, novella and novel). It has an introduction by Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself. It is – well, YDSFMV: Your Definition of SF May Vary.

Don’t forget the rest of the Apollo Quartet – that would be books one to, um, four – are currently available on Kindle and in paperback at a new low price. I am not entirely convinced Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum makes a great deal of sense without knowledge of them, although it does, I think, sort of read well enough on its own. (But you’ll miss all the jokes, damn it.)

Anyway, here it is.

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Five of four: the Apollo Quartet

I mentioned a few weeks ago I was planning to write a pendant to the Apollo Quartet and publish it before the end of the year. It was prompted by a silly idea: making the Apollo Quartet eligible for the Best Series Hugo Award, due to be trialled in 2017 at Worldcon75. But to qualify as a series, the total wordcount must be over 250,000. Which pretty much rules out the Apollo Quartet. But… inspired by a recent read of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream, the fiction of Paul Park, a story idea I’d always planned to use about Soyuz 21, the films of James Benning, and a phrase I’ve used time and again to describe my fiction, “19 turns”, I went ahead and wrote something anyway.

It’s titled Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum and it will be published this week. For free.

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It’s about 7,000 words long, and includes an introduction by Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself (among many other fine works of science fiction and science fiction scholarship). I’ll be making a zip file available here, and on the Whippleshield Books blog, which contains .mobi, .epub and .pdf editions. There will also be a paperback edition, limited to 25 signed and numbered copies, available in the New Year. I’ll put up a pre-order page for that soon.

To celebrate the release of Coda: A Visit to the National and Air Museum, I’ve dropped the price on all Whippleshield Books, both Kindle and paperback. To wit:

aq1_2nd_edn_cover Adrift on the Sea of Rains Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.99
aq2_2nd_edn_cover The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.99
aq3_2nd_edn_cover Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.99
aq4_front_cover All That Outer Space Allows Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£4.99
dotsa-ebook-cover-01-small Dreams of the Space Age Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.49
aphrodite-terra-front-cover-01-copy Aphrodite Terra Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.49

[prices in the US and other countries are equivalent to UK prices]

Go on, grab a bargain.

Incidentally, there are still signed and numbered hardback copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, All That Outer Space Allows and Dreams of the Space Age for sale on the Whippleshield Books website. I’ve also put up some first editions of various books for sale on the site – see here – and will be putting up more as I slim down my book collection.


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“When I read a story, I skip the explanations”

In my review of Katherine Kurtz’s The Legacy of Lehr, a 1986 science fiction novel, for SF Mistressworks – the review will appear on Wednesday – I use the phrase “Ruritanian sf” as a description of the novel’s type of genre fiction. There is, of course, already a genre of “Ruritanian romance”, in which an invented European country is used as the setting for a swashbuckling adventure, “centred on the ruling classes, almost always aristocracy and royalty”, as Wikipedia has it. The Wikipedia entry goes on to point out that Ruritanian romances have colonised genre fiction, naming Andre Norton as an early proponent. And yet…

Fiction, especially romance, has been all too happy to use invented royal and aristocratic houses in existing countries for its stories. There’s no need to invent an entire nation. Actual literature, on the other hand, can’t seem to make up its mind – for example, the plot of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, hidden though it is, revolves around the royal house of an invented country, and Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa is set in the invented country of Kinjanja; but Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is set in… Sierra Leone. So why use an invented country? What is it about the story that it must be set in a fictional nation? The most obvious explanation appears to be that no existing nation has the characteristics required by the story, whether they are geographic, historical, or social. Which neatly leads into science fiction and “Ruritanian sf”…

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… because the settings of sf novels, especially “heartland sf”, are by definition entirely invented. They are the future, or an alien world, or an interstellar empire. But where a Ruritanian romance allows an author to tell a story that would not be plausible in a real place, Ruritanian sf allows an author to tell a story that is plausible but happens to boast an invented setting. And it does that by pretty much transposing elements of the real world into a science fiction setting. So cruise liners become spaceships, airliners becomes shuttles, assault rifles become blasters, and so on… Everything is an analogue of something in the real world with which the reader is familiar. There’s no need to explain the workings of the VanGriff Mk 29 Magnum Blaster because it works, in effect, in story terms, just like a Colt .45. There’s no need to describe the layout of a spaceship, because it uses the familiar terminology of ships that sail the oceans – bridge, cabin, engine room… (Of course, it goes without saying that real-world spacecraft are nothing like this.)

The end result is a setting built up from well-understood and commonly-accepted tropes that need no explanation, or scaffolding, in the text itself. There’s no need to explain how FTL works because it’s so prevalent in sf its effects in story terms are more important than its (invented) workings. It gets characters from A to B, where A and B are interstellar distances apart. Far too many sf tropes have become “black boxes” in this fashion. And a story which uses them uncritically, which simply slots them together like Lego, is Ruritanian sf. It’s telling a present-day story in an invented setting, but a setting that is as familiar as the reader’s world. It’s only science fiction because of the furniture and vocabulary.

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That’s the essence of Ruritanian science fiction. It is genre fiction which builds an invented setting out of elements which might as well not be invented. The labels are different but the objects are the same, or fulfil the same function. It’s not a failure of imagination, because imagination doesn’t feature in the process. And it’s only a failure of craft if the author is attempting something more than Ruritanian sf. If all they want is a science-fictional setting the reader can parse, one that’s uncoupled from the real world but close enough to it that few explanations are required, then if they’ve produced Ruritanian sf they’ve succeeded. Info-dumps are a given, but they’re usually “historical”, inasmuch as they attempt to give the invented world solidity and depth through exposition – but shifting the burden of exposition onto the setting’s own narrative only demonstrates how little exposition the tropes in the story actually need.

Needless to say, I think such forms of science fiction are low on invention and make poor use of the tools at the genre’s disposal. They can be entertaining, there’s no doubt about that; but their uncritical use of tropes, and their failure to interrogate the form, means they have little or nothing to add to the genre conversation. This doesn’t mean they can’t be commercially successful – because, after all, their chief characteristic is that they confirm readers’ prejudices (even when they seem to be challenging them – or rather, it’s the challenge itself that the reader wants). Ruritanian sf is comfort reading, it is unadventurous and unlikely to promote critical discussion.

It also forms the bulk of science fiction being published today (and yes, I’m including self-published sf).


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A critical bookshelf, part 2

I did one of these a while ago – see here – but I’ve bought more critical works since then… and here they are.

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Five books on women science fiction writers, most of which I used as a research for All That Outer Space Allows. Galactic Suburbia discusses pre-feminist sf and demonstrates that it was in fact feminist. Daughters of Earth is an anthology, in which each of the female-authored stories is discussed in a following critical essay. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is about, well, the title pretty much says it all. Partners in Wonder is a history of women writing in genre magazines from 1926 to 1965. The Feminine Eye I found on eBay and contains nine critical essays on authors such as CJ Cherryh, CL Moore, Suzette Haden Elgin and Suzy McKee Charnas.

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Three critical works by some British chap who, I believe, also writes fiction. Sibilant Fricative was shortlisted for the BFS Award, but Rave & Let Die won the BSFA Award. Science Fiction (Roberts) I bought in Stockholm at Fantastika 2016. There is a second edition now available. Science Fiction (Baker) I bought from Amazon. I’m mentioned in two of these critical works.

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Uranian Worlds is an annotated list of genre works which feature LGBT themes or characters. My copy is an ex-library one I bought cheap from a reseller on Amazon. Red Planets is, as the title explains, about “Marxism and”Science Fiction”. I’ve yet to read it, though I’m interested in left-wing sf. My Fair Ladies discusses the depiction of artificial women in genre, although it seems to focus more on media genre than written.

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Some critical works by writers: Starcombing I reviewed for Interzone (I later posted the review on my blog here). In Other Worlds was a lucky find in a remainder shop. The Country You Have Never Seen is apparently now as rare as rocking horse shit, so I was lucky to pick a copy up when I did (there’s a secondhand copy on Amazon for £693.49!). Magic Mommas. Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts I found on eBay. The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand I bought from Cold Tonnage. William Atheling, Jr, was, of course, James Blish.

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Every now and again, science fiction throws up these annotated listicle books, ususally with contentious titles like 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels. I wrote a blog post after reading this, which morphed into a correspondence with the author – see here and here. Anatomy of Wonder is currently in its fifth edition and costs £55 new, so I bought an earlier edition for consierably less. Call and Response is Paul Kincaid’s second collection of essays and reviews. And In The Chinks of the World Machine was one of two non-fiction works published under The Women’s Press sf imprint (the other was LeGuin’s The Language of the Night, and I’ve yet to find a copy).


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The art of brewing fiction

At the end of 2014, I sold a space opera trilogy to Tickety Boo Press. I’d written the first two books a few years before, but had never got around to writing the third. This wasn’t a problem, however. I saw it as an opportunity to prove I could write a big commercial novel in a reasonable timeframe, despite never having tried it before. Unfortunately, I hadn’t factored in two important things: a) real life, and b) even when I start writing commercial science fiction it turns into something else.

Anyway, the first book, A Prospect of War appeared in March 2015, and the second book, A Conflict of Orders, six months later. Everything seem to be going well… Until, in early 2016, the day job dumped a major project on me… and the writing on book three, A Want of Reason, ground to a halt. But – and this is, I hope, the point of this piece – the months off from writing space opera will, I think, make A Want of Reason a stronger and better novel. I may not have been banging out the words, but I’ve never stopped thinking about the story; and I’ve jotted down notes when ideas occurred to me.

When two chargers are set at an angle of 23.7 degrees to each other, they cause a catastrophic distortion in reality: an implosion.

One of my objectives when I set out to write An Age of Discord (the trilogy’s overall title) was to explore the structure of commercial fantasy trilogies. I chose to do this using space opera because I much prefer science fiction to fantasy. A Prospect of War is based on the hero’s journey template, in which a young man of humble birth is elevated to leader of a powerful military force pledged to defend the throne against the evil usurper. (There are a few narrative loops and detours thrown in there too, of course.) For A Conflict of Orders, I wanted to avoid “middle book syndrome”, in which the author just shuffles pieces around the board for the epic final battle in book three. So I made the epic final battle the centre-piece of my second novel. The second half of A Conflict of Orders then covers the lifting of the siege of the Imperial Palace and the aftermath of the attempted coup.

The angle must be precise. A fraction of a degree either way and the two chargers will simply bounce apart, like magnets of the same pole.

But when it came to writing A Want of Reason, some five years after I’d completed A Conflict of Orders… The first thing I did was throw away the original synopsis. I’d planned the novel to have two main narratives: one set in the days following A Conflict of Orders, in which the main characters prepare the Imperial capital for the final act of the 1000-year-old conspiracy which has been driving the trilogy’s plot; and another narrative set 1000 years in the past and describing the events which led to that conspiracy forming. But I decided I didn’t like the idea – for a start, it felt like too much work to create a version of the empire as it was 1000 years earlier, given all the work I’d put into world-building for the empire of the time the main story is set. Instead, the novel would follow on directly from A Conflict of Orders, but I’d take the story in an entirely different direction…

The exact angle is, of course, a closely-guarded secret, known only to a few hundred academicians and munitions artificers.

But I don’t want to write too much about A Want of Reason, because things might still change as I get further into the writing of it. And I don’t want to spoil people’s enjoyment of the novel when it does finally appear. It’s just that recent thoughts I’ve had about the book have led to me thinking about the creative process and how it relates to A Want of Reason and the trilogy. For example, a major part of the first third of A Want of Reason is two characters, Dai and Finesz, each investigating a minor mystery. While it had been clear in my mind right from the start what the answer to those mysteries were, I’d not quite figured out how they linked into the plot of the novel and the story-arc of the trilogy. Later, not only did I come up with a way of fitting them in, but a way of using them to actually advance the plot and add to the world-building.

Marla Dai could not remember when she had originally come across the information, but she was making good use of it now. It had been easy enough to find an unused aerocraft at Kukoi Aerodrome, likely belonging to some noble with more money than sense. It had not flown for months. Less than an hour later, Dai had removed a pair of chargers from its underside and concealed them nearby.

I chose the word “brewing” for this blog post deliberately, because for me ideas often feel like the product of fermentation. I envy those writers who can start writing and ideas just come to them; as well as those who sit down and plan out their writing like a military campaign. But creativity is a subconscious process – I don’t know how many times during the writing of An Age of Discord I’ve come up with what felt like a neat idea, only to find several chapters later it served as an excellent hook for an even neater idea

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There’s that old saw of the writer being asked, “where do you get your ideas from?” There are as many answers as there are writers. For me, it’s lying in bed at night, thinking, “Shit, I’ve got Finesz hunting for Azeel now, so how does she go about tracking her down and what does she discover when she does find her?” And it all has to work within the universe of the book, it has to be rigorous. I know where the story is going, of course; I have a general direction in mind – and sometimes a quite detailed idea of the end – and I know what sort of things I want to write about. I suppose it won’t come as much of a surprise to those who know me, but A Want of Reason is primarily about the fascistic character of space opera empires. I admit a lot of it was about the uniforms when I was writing A Prospect of War, but now, some 350,000 to 400,000 words later, and however many years, and one of the major points I want to make in An Age of Discord is the way space operas always default to the right, and the easy acceptance of same by readers of the sub-genre. And the best way to comment on that, I decided, was to push the empire of the story even further rightwards. It’s there in the final pages of A Conflict of Orders, the forced closing of the civil government and a crackdown on what little political freedom already exists…

The troopers had already subdued most of those inside by the time Inspector Sliva Finesz of the Office of the Procurator Imperial entered the premises. This was not her operation, she had been roped in to help, although no one had bothered to fill her in on the details. She strode into the building, pulling her gloves onto her hands, and found herself in a large workshop room, two storeys high, with a sharply-raked roof supported by narrow iron pillars, and filled with large mechanisms… Printing-presses? The air stank of hot oil overlaid with the acrid tang of some chemical she did not recognise. Troopers held a group of proles at the back of the room. Some of the proles were injured—bruised and bloodied. Above them, half a dozen yeomen peered out of office windows on a mezzanine floor, while a couple of low-ranking OPI officers stood by in attendance.

Although it was not planned, the last six months of fermentation have proven beneficial to A Want of Reason. Last year, I decided the Involutes’ main headquarters would be called the Fastness. But all I had was a name. A couple of months ago, as I lay in bed, natch, an idea occurred to me… and a number of things just started slotting together, not just the Fastness, but the Involutes’ masks, things that had happened in the earlier books… It was like watching a Transformer, er, transform. It may be a dilettante-ish way to write, but it works for me. I once said that if the half-story ever became an art-form, I’ve a body of work ready and waiting. Because that’s how it goes for me. I have an idea, I start on a story… I give up after a few hundred words because it’s not working… And then the story sort of sits there in the back if my mind, brewing away, until one day I pretty much bang it out fully-formed. That’s what happened with ‘Geologic’.

They met an hour after dawn in a secluded corner of a park beneath the wall of jagged hills which separated Gahara from the rest of Toshi. Dew lay heavy on the grass and bowed the thin branches of the trees surrounding the spot they had chosen. A faint mist lay a ceiling across the sky some two or three hundred feet up, the sun a hot diffuse dot of orange above the hills. Despite this, the air smelled cool and fresh, with a faint hint of the sea from the bay below. A young lieutenant from the Honourable Basilisk Company, with more decency than most of the nobility Casmir Ormuz had met in Toshi, acted as second. Ormuz’s opponent, a viscount and the son of an earl, who had not expected a challenge but had responded to it with alacrity, appeared both composed and quietly confident. He either discounted the stories he might have heard about Ormuz, or he had never heard them. His equally doltish second smirked at what he clearly expected to be a quick and victorious bout.

I’d wanted to write a story about saturation diving in a science-fictional context for a while, and had decided that a world with high atmospheric pressure was the best setting. And there’d need to be some sort of alien ruin or something to justify explorers spending so much time in such an inimical environment. But that’s as far as I got. I wrote a few hundred words… and there it sat for several months. Brewing away Until one weekend I sat down and wrote it. A read-through by my beta readers, some cleaning up, and I submitted to Interzone. The magazine bought it, and it appeared in issue 262.

Unfortunately, it’s not always so easy. The final story in Dreams of the Space Age, ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ may have gestated and been born in a similar fashion – “I’m writing a story about Yuri Gagarin crash-landing on Mars and I’m going to pastiche Robinson Crusoe on Mars… and, I know, I’ll have all the dialogue in Russian! And… this is a great idea… I’ll throw in lots of references to Soviet sf!” – but I never managed to sell it to a magazine. Was it the title? The Russian dialogue? The quotes from The Communist Manifesto? Who knows. Although most comments about Dreams of the Space Age single out ‘Far Voyager’ as the best story; and that was originally published in Postscripts, was in fact the title story in Postscripts 32/33: Far Voyager.

People like to ask, what’s the best writing advice you’ve received, and all I can think of is Bob Shaw’s admonition in his How to Write Science Fiction to “read lots of books”. Example and self-experimentation are powerful learning tools. But I’d go one further, and say, read lots of books from lots of genres and modes of fiction. Read too widely outside sf and there’s a danger of being disillusioned with the genre, but that can also feed back into your writing. Science fiction should never be given special dispensation; instead, we writers of sf should strive to lift the genre up to the level where it is taken as seriously as any other mode of fiction. Which is why writers should read widely. (I don’t get that thing about writers who refuse to read other books when working on a project, I really don’t.)

Of course, this is merely in reference to the prose and story-telling. Don’t get me started on research. Assume at least one of your readers is an expert in the subject you are writing; assume they will mock you for getting it wrong. So get it right. Don’t make it up as you go along. In the past, the writer might never have learnt that some people thought him or her an idiot for getting simply physics wrong in a sf novel, but these days, with social media, someone is sure to “helpfully” let the writer know… (Or even bully them over it – it’s scumbag behaviour, but it happens.) But that’s a discussion for another day…

[This post contains some lines from the opening chapters of A Want of Reason.]


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Awards, rewards and self-publishing

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time won the Clarke Award, which was a surprise – but a pleasant one. At least the book I’d expected to win didn’t take the prize; but, sadly, neither did the book I wanted to win. I had Children of Time pegged more as a BSFA Award book than a Clarke Award, but when I wrote about it in August last year I predicted good things would happen to it. And I’m happy for Adrian, who is a thoroughly good bloke (and scarily prolific). Children of Time is one of the very few books I started reading on the day of purchase – and it was completely by accident. I’d bought the book at Edge-Lit 4, but during the journey home I finished the novel I’d brought to read on the train and so turned to Children of Time. I wonder if it’s repeatable…

I’ve written about the Clarke Award shortlist elsewhere, and about the individual books on it in scattered Reading diary posts on this blog. It was – and I’m not the only person to use this word – a lacklustre shortlist. The Clarke has always been a boundary-pushing sort of literary award, but the last few years it seems to have been circling its metaphorical wagons. There has been surprisingly little commentary about the books on the shortlist this year, despite it being the award’s thirtieth anniversary, despite the extended period between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. But when most commentary on sf these days seems to consist of brainless hyperbole on social media, having all the criticial insight of marketing copy, it’s plainly a problem much wider than an award shortlist. In today’s genre conversation, books receive either five stars or one star. It’s a piss-poor excuse for a conversation, and it’s poisoning the genre. Not only is sf blanding out, we seem to be actively encouraging it to do so…

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Which makes the award’s decision to allow self-published works to submit baffling. The vast majority of self-published books are derivative commercial sf, space opera or military science fiction. It’s precisely the sort of sf you’d hope the Clarke Award would avoid. Of course, there are also self-published works which are anything but commercial – and may well have been self-published for that very reason. But the award director cites the examples of Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Jeff Noon’s Channel Skin (which I’ve not read) as good reasons for including self-published works. Of course, the Chambers was already eligible because it had been picked up and published by Hodder. I’m a bit annoyed the award bent the rules to allow me to submit All That Outer Space Allows – which was also selected for the Tiptree Award’s honour list – but then hasn’t seen fit to hold it up as an example of a self-published novel that was worthy of submission.

I deliberately set out when writing each book of the Apollo Quartet to upset the expectations of readers, something I had the freedom to do because I was self-publishing. And while that has seen the books win one award, be nominated for a further two, and appear on the honour list of another… I’ve sold only 3700 copies since April 2012. And Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories set in the same, er, space as the Apollo Quartet, published in April of this year… well, I can barely give them way – 86 copies sold since its launch. However, I don’t have the marketing clout or the distribution channels of a major publishing imprint, so this was hardly unexpected. To be honest, I’d actually expected Adrift on the Sea of Rains to sink without trace.

Because I self-published, because I had no expectations of commercial success, so I was free to write something challenging. The fact that some people appreciated that enough to nominate the books for awards was a huge surprise. And I saw that as grounds to write even more challenging sf. Which at least might have stood me in good stead for some awards. Except now the Clarke Award appears to prefer more commercial works, and by opening itself up to self-published books, is likely to become yet more commercial. I’m guessing, of course; but you can’t get more commercial than the Firefly fanfic that is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

It’s an inevitable conclusion, and one that has plainly occurred to Adam Roberts, who has gone on record as saying he will no longer write challenging science fiction novels as he would sooner not have his books ignored. And I think to myself I would sooner write more difficult sf. On the other hand, success brings its own acclaim, and it’s astonishing how popular books become “awesome” and “amazeballs” and “the best book ever written”. Which is not to say challenging works can never be popular, nor commercial works possess literary quality, nor literary works enjoy commercial success… But we’re in danger of losing what’s best about science fiction if the only game in town is “most popular kid in the playground”… And I was going to write something about lone voices in the wilderness being the only ones to carry the flame, but that really is a mixed metaphor too far… But it’s not unrealistic to expect, to hope, that the Clarke Award is skewed toward challenging science fiction novels, and not the dull, and often juvenile, meat-and-potatoes/bread-and-butter sf which sells by the yard (and is likely written by the yard too), and which appears to comprise the vast undifferentiated mass of self-published science fiction.

But I’m speculating – and we shall see next year how the Clarke Award implements its expanded remit. A juried award at least has the advantage of not being bent out of shape by eligibility posts, or fan and tribe affiliations; and for that reason I look to the Clarke as a truer picture of what the word “best” means in science fiction in any given year. I would hate to lose that…

 


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La petite mort de sf

I’ve been working my way through Figures of Paradox, a study of Aleksandr Sokurov’s films by Jeremi Szaniakawski, and at one point he references the Kantian sublime, “the feeling that is so great it inspires neither love nor hate”, and it struck me that science fiction, in its own small way, is forever striving for that moment of the sublime. It’s not an actual objective of the genre, just something its readers look for in the texts they read. But they call it “sense of wonder” (please let’s not use “sensawunda”, which sounds like a brand of margarine). However, sense of wonder isn’t the same as the sublime. It’s a small version of it, the B-movie version – more colourful certainly, lots of bright primary colours in fact, but less actually awe-inspiring.

I think that difference in intensity may be simply a lack of physicality. Mountains are, famously, there. But the sublime doesn’t require an actual physicality. When NASA published the photographs of the surface of Vesta back in 2011, the asteroid was 188 million kilometres from Earth – and no one in my lifetime will ever visit the asteroid in person – but the fact of Vestia’s existence, its realness, the knowledge that it shares this universe with us, still prompted a moment of the sublime.

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And against that, all science fiction can do is… manipulation of scale. When Stephen Baxter casually drops a billion-year history into the plot of his novel, when Alastair Reynolds writes of a journey across the width of a galaxy in his story, when Ann Leckie mentions in passing that the Radchh live in a Dyson Sphere… Because the story is focused on individuals, the sudden realisation – carefully stage-managed by the author, of course – that the story encompasses so much more, at a scale so much greater than the merely human, evokes sense of wonder. Admittedly, suspension of disbelief relies on a degree of plausibility. The universe is fifteen billion years old – that’s not only plausible, it’s a scientific fact. But a Dyson Sphere is not, on the face of it, an especially plausible idea… but it was proposed in scientific literature, and has since become part of science fiction to such an extent its plausibility no longer seems relevant: it has a form of virtual plausibility.

Of course, not all science fiction makes use of sense of wonder. Not every science fiction story takes place over billions of years or across millions of planets. On the contrary, some forms of science fiction deliberately downplay the sense of scale in order to suggest a more homogenous setting for the story – such as space opera. I mean, seriously, no one thinks there are zillions of human-habitable worlds out there just waiting to be settled, or that there’s a Kuhnian Paradigm Shift waiting somewhere in history’s wings to turn reduce the distance between these worlds to journeys of hours, days or weeks instead of centuries and millennia. But then it’s not like space operas are intended to be plausible in any way. They’re just adventure stories, and they use a language all their own.

In a mode of fiction which offers “idea” on one axis and “sense of wonder” on the other, there will always be works which score low, or even zero, on one axis. And too, the popularity of regions of such a graph will shift with time and fashion. We’ve had New Space Opera and we’re now living through the tail-end of it. Space opera has returned to its roots; the space operas being published today are no different in sensibilities to those of the 1970s (although the style of prose may well have changed). One sub-genre which seems to be flowering at present is military sf. Just look at the thousands of self-published titles available on Kindle. And as subgenres of science fiction go, mil sf is probably the least sophisticated. It is war stories told in the language of science fiction. It relies on an insultingly simplified worldview; it is the pulp sf of our times.

I gave this post the title “La petite mort de sf” not because I think science fiction is dead. (Again…) I used the expression “la petite mort” because of its meanings – including “fainting fit”, “nervous spasm”, or, more recently, “post-orgasmic unconsciousness”. While I’m not suggesting science fiction – good or bad – should inspire such states, it seemed like a good fit for an analogy of the gap between sense of wonder and the Kantian sublime. Paul Kincaid once wrote a critical work titled What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction – and a very good critical works it is too – but I wonder if a more important question is: What It is We Want When We Read Science Fiction. And what I find interesting is the tools built into the genre which address those wants; and a) how those tools have come into being, and b) how the tools are deployed to generate specific effects. For “tool”, you might as well read “trope”… although I think of tropes as the manifestation of deep-seated ideas, sort of like how three-dimensional figures appear in two-dimensional space…

Like manipulation of scale, sf is also open to manipulation of affect. The cheapest way to do this is through language – choosing the right words, essentially. This is not something unique to sf, by any means. Nor is it a technique used all that much in the genre. For much of science fiction’s history, prose has been seen as merely the transmission vector for story. Some sf writers have declared prose should be “beige” or “transparent”, the idea being it should not be a barrier to understanding the story or plot. But, quite frankly, if any style of prose is such a barrier then it’s not doing its job. This doesn’t mean the reader shouldn’t have work for it. Prose can do many things – it can declare, describe, imply, suggest, evoke, generate trains of thought only peripherally linked to the text being read… It can create pictures in your brain, moving pictures, stories which not only re-enact those written on the page but go further, outside the story, beyond the story…

Which means prose carries a heavy burden, over and above that of story. Personally, I prize clarity; but I also prize detail. Perhaps even an over-abundance of detail. Prose should not be “transparent” or “beige”, it should evoke as much as it possibly can, using all the tools at its disposal, linguistic and genre. And there are a great number of tools at the sf writer’s disposal – not just the manipulation of scale or the manipulation of affect mentioned earlier in this post.

True, science fiction will never reach the sublime, but no form of literature will. In its use of sense of wonder, it can approximate it (in a peculiarly circumscribed way, that is). Unfortunately, it is also chiefly a commercial genre of fiction, and much of its DNA was drawn from pulp fiction. The genre as it exists today prizes story and plot and all the mechanical things which together form beginning, middle and end; and yet it has the potential to be so much more. Sometimes, it hints at that promise – and it’s not necessarily genre authors who manage to do so…

Science fiction is a broad church. It has room for two-fisted tales of interstellar derring-do just as much as it does for lyrically-written cautionary tales or avant garde explorations of inner space. And in some years, one form of science fiction will be more popular, and win more awards, than another form. Like the alleged variation in lengths of skirts during times of economic hardship and boom, so science fiction cuts its cloth to the world around it. Unlike skirts, however, it doesn’t appear to go up when times are bad, but the reverse. When times are good, sf is typically optimistic; when the future is not so rosy, dystopia and mil sf rule the roost. It is a barometer of our times.

But it still has a long way to go before it gets close to the sublime.