Archive for March 2009
The latest mailing from the BSFA came with not just the usual issues of Vector and Focus but also a booklet containing all four of the stories nominated for the BSFA Award. This is welcome because all th estories are available online (see links below) the printed page is infinitely preferable to the screen. The only problem is none of the stories are any good. They all cleave very tightly to the SF story archetype: take one idea and then pound it flat. So, here is my ballot (in reverse order):
#4 ‘Exhalation’ by Ted Chiang (Eclipse 2)
If you had told me before I had read the stories that I would be rating the Chiang bottom I would have told you to pull the other one. Generally, it is much as you would expect a Chiang story to be: typically rigourous, taking a single idea and working it through. Unfortunately it is a lame idea. Chiang sits us down and explains the terrible beauty of, er, entropy. Great. Oh, and it contains no dialogue which must make it slipstream.
#3 ‘Crystal Nights’ by Greg Egan (Interzone 215)
Likewise this is a typical Egan story. Some good stuff about artificial life let down by the total implausibility of the characters. At least it has got some cool bits in it.
#2 ‘Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment’ by M. Rickert (F&SF, Oct/Nov 2008)
This is the complete opposite. Like ‘Exhalation’ it is a well executed take on an extremely unlikely and not very interesting idea. The only thing that bumps it up over Chiang and Egan is that contains characters who are recognisably human. Niall Harrison has a typically lengthy, articulate and wrong review. God knows how he managed to write for so long about a story that, as others have pointed out, is like a modern version ‘The Lottery’ by Shelley Jackson. That isn’t a good thing, by the way.
#1 ‘Little Lost Robot’ by Paul McAuley (Interzone 217)
This is very much the winner by default. There is nothing massively interesting about it – a giant robot flies around the universe exterminating humanity before being confronted by its origins – but at least it isn’t completely bloodless. The stories by Chiang and Rickert are icily perfect and pointless, the story by Egan could have done with being a bit more abstract, out of all of them only McAuley is having fun and being serious at the same time.
Not much to pick between them all, really. They are all worth a read but only once and on another day their order on my ballot might have been completely different.
“At dusk Starsky was still sitting in the cockpit of the Grand Torino like the pilot of an alien spacecraft.”
Holding the data-CD that it had removed from the high-pressure liquid chromatograph, the dismembered robot Ash lay before the three medical display monitors like the sacrificial victim of some digital Cargo Cult. Framing the AI like a triptych of its credo, the three video frames displaying dorsal, ventral and sagittal section of the arachnid-phase Alien called up an impossible geometry, a forbidden angle in which some non-Euclidian Angel could dance only in isolation on the head of a pin. Its injured hands proffered the data, the compositional analysis of the buccal mucus, like a wafer. “The organism, like a moss, has an alternation of generations,” Ash said. “Unlike a moss, both the gametozoon and the sporozoon stages require a living host. The last acts of humanity may be as surrogate mothers for this free-living phallus existing only to impregnate the weak. Darwin and Freud in one jewelled lizard. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, they say. Where does that leave me?”
“History,” said Parker, raising the muzzle of the flamethrower.
In 1993 Lyle Hopwood imagined how the fabled JG Ballard novelisation of Alien might have looked. He has recently been the judge of a Ballardian competition: “Picture an alternate universe where Jim Ballard achieved his early goal of becoming a screenwriter, becoming so successful that he relocated from Shepperton to Hollywood. The task: write an imaginary 500-word extract from an imagined novelisation of Starsky and Hutch.”
The shortlist for the 2009 Arthur C Clarke Award has been announced. I’ve said my piece in the comments over at Torque Control but I thought I would put my bookie’s hat on and make my predictions:
Anathem, Neal Stephenson – 1/2
Song of Time, Ian R. MacLeod – 3/1
The Quiet War, Paul McAuley – 3/1
The Margarets, Sheri S. Tepper – 6/1
House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds – 6/1
Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, Mark Wernham – 12/1
Fuck me, 1980 might be the most harrowing film I have ever seen. It has the same awful impact of Irreversible but there is nothing gratuitous or voyeuristic here. As befits its subject matter – and the fact that real women died – it is remorselessly sombre and bleak. With the exception of one vivid, nightmarish scene it is entirely stripped of the surreal air of 1974, nor is there any of the period swagger of the previous film.
At the heart of it Paddy Considine gives an extremely measured performance in an almost archetypal role as a crusading White Knight policeman. He has come over the Pennines to investigate the West Yorkshire Police and their own investigation into the Ripper, he is despised by his colleagues who nickname him St. Cunt, his marriage is strained and he has had a brief affair with one of his detectives. Constantine conveys this with a closed and subtle performance, peppered with brilliant little touches. If 1980 seems more conventional than its predecessor though, it is a world away from most cop dramas. Not only is it technically superior to almost everything else that appears on British television (the score and the photography are superb) but it utterly lacks any consolation for the viewer. Peter Sutcliffe himself is caught by accident towards the end of the film but by this point he has become almost a distraction to the characters. His arrest in no way means the police have “won”, if anything it only further exposes the black cancer that is spread throughout the force. The film ends after repeating a sickening litany of the crimes of both the Ripper and the police with the promise of more to come.
Jeff Vandermeer sets out his six rules for writing sex scenes. I am stumped by rule three though:
(3) Don’t use offensive or stupid terms. Several words leap to mind that are either offensive or stupid in the context of a sex scene. You should know what they are, and I’m not going to repeat them here. Just be aware of your terminology, because if you make a mistake or use something inappropriate to the context, your sex scene will either turn people off or annoy them. Terminology should not bring the reader out of the story.
I’m just not sure what these offensive or stupid words are. Vaginal sludge, perhaps? I wish Vandermeer had been a bit more explicit because the context of every sex scene is different and there aren’t any words I can think that need a blanket ban from the bedroom. My teasing notwithstanding, that Jim Younger quote actually works in the context of his ridiculously over the top novel.
In the comments to his post Vandermeer is seeking the best and worst sex scenes. As always, I nominated James Salter for the best. A Sport And A Pastime is generally considered to be his erotic novel but Light Ages is even hotter.
Angry Robot, the new HarperCollins imprint designed to attract new readers to SF, has announced its launch line up. Excitingly it consists of three reprints and one debut novel with the frankly appalling tagline of “a Wasp Factory for the misery memoir generation.”
I am being slightly excessively snarky because Moxyland by Lauren Beukes, orginally published in her native South Africa, does looks quite interesting. However, was anyone really crying out for a new edition of Chris Roberson’s “The Da Vinci Code rewritten by the Coen Brothers” self-published novel? Or a re-issue of a five year old “urban fantasy” (it pains me to type those words) about a zombie PI by a hack writer? I suppose they did at least re-title it Nekropolis rather than Necropolis. That’ll make it more relevant for the kids.
The subeditor on Peter Bradshaw’s piece draws the obvious comparison between the Red Riding trilogy and Life On Mars and their very different depictions of Seventies policing. In some ways they embody the different instituional spirits of their creators: the BBC (even handed but authoritarian) and Channel Four (radical, polemical, perhaps too easily distracted by sex and violence). Whilst Life On Mars is at least partially nostalgic, albeit in a compelling fashion, no one in 1974 – policeman or otherwise – is to be sympathised with. The bully boy cop in LoM might call you a puff, here he would break your hand and laugh whilst doing it. The nearest equivalent to Gene Hunt here is Warren Clarke’s sour, taciturn and malevolent Bill Molloy: you can’t imagine anyone sticking him on a T-shirt.
The film depicts the West Riding of Yorkshire as a Lynchian nightmare world into which our glib protagonist – poisoned and weak from exposure to London – is gradually enveloped and destroyed. It has a mesmorising, hallucinatory intensity, the naturalism and period detail giving way to a sort of magical realism. The Yorkshire landscape is naturally given to brooding but here it takes on extraordinary levels of pathetic fallacy. The humans who walk on the skin of this land are closed, shaded and unknowable. 1980 and 1983 are highly anticipated.
My review of Lost In Space by Toby Litt is up now at Strange Horizons.
I mentioned Ursula K LeGuin’s review of it earlier and, as usual, I disagree with her but it does make interesting reading and I will be looking forward to other reviews of the novel.
ETA: Litt in Prospect on his love of science fiction:
Young-Toby is more into television than books, and more into films than television, but the books he does buy tend to come out of cardboard boxes on trellis tables at fêtes, harvest festivals and bring and buy sales. He judges books entirely by their covers and, if he’d seen a book like Journey into Space in 1979, he would have bought it—despite the fact that it doesn’t bear those ultra-desirable words: “Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards,” sci-fi’s two most august prizes. Although he hasn’t yet realised it, young-Toby is a big fan of Chris Foss—the leading sci-fi artist. Whenever he sees one of his battered, heroic spacecraft on a novel by EE “Doc” Smith, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke, young-Toby knows that it’s the right kind of thing… Since the age of 11, I’ve constantly moved away from and then back towards science fiction. William Gibson (Count Zero) brought me back, as did Iain M Banks (Use of Weapons) and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age).
Tantalisingly he concludes: “I want to write more science fiction. This wasn’t a one-time visit.”
Half way through High John The Conqueror Jim Younger makes a bold stab at a nomination for the Bad Sex In Fiction Award:
Jenny dragged me to the floor and rammed my head between her legs. I licked but my mouth was dry. No matter, she was wet enough for both of us. I drank greedy for five minutes or so while she wailed and bucked, arching her back and pounding my hurdies with her heels. By now hot-dog Geordie was a straining greyhound in the slips. Jenny flung me up and around until goo-gam Geordie was gooming her tonsils. Jenny was a sucking tornado, turning me inside out. I stuck my finger full-length in her arsehole and nearly had a stroke when she bite me, but it did the trick. We came together, rolling over, and I thumped my head on the wall. Jenny spat out Geordie like he was gristle she’d found in a pie. I peeled my face off her quim and sat up on her belly, facing her, but I couldn’t see as my eyelids were stuck together with vaginal sludge. I blinked into the light – diver surfacing – and watched poor wee Geordie dump a few smears of egg white flecked with blood in Jenny’s belly button.
Alas the judges ignored his contribution.
When Strange Horizons want someone to review a mainstream SF novel they call on me (or Dan). The Guardian have more money and cachet so when they want someone they call on Ursula K LeGuin. She reviewed Journey Into Space by Toby Litt yesterday:
The theme of the ship of fools is old and tried, and has provided matter for many a good story; but this is a ship of blockheads. Perhaps it’s a good thing to remind us of the dangerous stupidity of our species, but if there’s no end and no contrast to the stupidity, the story itself sinks into the inane.
My own review will be appearing in Strange Horizons some time in the near future and Joanna Briscoe reviews They Is Us by Tama Janowitz, another example of mainstream SF, just over the page:
The profundity and subtlety of recent futuristic dystopian literature creates a standard that is hard to match. After Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, any prophetic vision runs the risk of appearing derivative. Tama Janowitz rises to the challenge by injecting her bleak portrait of a future America with flippant humour, her message elevated by absurdity as she wilfully veers into the parodic. The result is funny but flimsy.
Continuing with reviews, Partick Ness on Gullstruck Island which sounds interesting. However, I was more interested in Ness’s lead paragraph:
It’s JK Rowling’s fault. After the mammoth Order of the Phoenix, so primed were readers for a concluding epic that The Deathly Hallows’s 607 pages seemed, incredibly, a bit mean. Have you noticed, though, that it’s only middle-aged reviewers who complain about the length of children’s books, not the children themselves? Frances Hardinge’s delightfully inventive Gullstruck Island cooks along for 504 ripe, rollicking and endlessly creative pages. If that sounds exhausting to you, maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s why it’s a kids’ book.
I am some way off being middle-aged but I am a reviewer and I am given to moaning about the length of books. It is also a complaint Adam Roberts (who must be getting on towards middle age) recently made of Ness’s own kids’ book.
Elsewhere in the paper, Salman Rushie asks is there such a thing as a good adaptation? To which the only answer can be: yes, of course, there is, Jesus Christ, what is the point of paying subeditors if this is the best they can come up with? Glossing over the unfairly short shrift Rushdie gives both The Sword In The Stone and Spider I will instead highlight this portion of the article:
British reality programmes are adapted to suit American audiences as well; Pop Idol becomes American Idol when it crosses the Atlantic, Strictly Come Dancing becomes Dancing With the Stars – a programme which, it may interest you to know, invited me to appear on it last season, an invitation I declined.
This idea entranced me long enough for me to burn my breakfast.