Archive for November 2009
The other month when I reviewed Sex In The System I wrote:
It is often suggested that sex is hard to write. Certainly sex scenes are easily mocked once stripped of context but generally that old advice “write what you know” holds true and most people know their sexual fantasies very well indeed.
I was specifically of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award and their tendency, as one MetaFilter commenter puts it, towards “institutionally poor joke detection”. Well, it is that time of the year again and extracts of the whole shortlist are available so you can make up your own mind. The Roth clearly is very bad but are we really meant to believe Cave or Littell don’t know exactly what they are doing?
The BBC jumped on the bandwagon today – a little late but admittedly not as late as me – to ask is it difficult to write well about sex? To which the answer surely is “no more than anything else.” Taking the contrary view is a reviewer called Melissa Katsoulis:
If I was writing a novel, I wouldn’t attempt to write it except in the most Victorian and prim way, because it’s awful. It’s a cliche, but the moments of genuine frisson in books are when hardly anything happens. When you have a dream about someone you fancy, it’s because they sat down next to you on the bus or something, not because you were at it, hammer and tongs. Either be suggestive or funny, but trying to do the nuts and bolts isn’t going to work.
Prim as a Victorian, eh? Chick-lit novelist Sarah Duncan is equally squeamish in the Guardian:
In the middle of sex I’m not thinking, ooh he’s just thrust his throbbing organ against my front bottom, so why should a character? Instead of writing about actions, I concentrate on the responses, how it feels both mentally and physically. Get into the head of the character and you can create the illusion that yes, this is real, this is happening to you the reader. I write mainly for women readers, and speaking for my sex I think we like being seduced. We don’t want bedroom antics shoved in our faces, literally or metaphorically. We like a little delicacy, a little subtlety.
The comments to that article pretty much immediately start listing good sex scenes so it is well worth a butcher’s. James Salter does, of course, feature prominently.
This is the other breast story and it is getting zero for wit because it is the opposite of funny. It is a nice little story about the pain and alienation of breast feeding written in the style of a work of horror and I’m completely baffled by its inclusion in Witpunk.
These are actually five brilliant one-page spoofs originally published in The Journal Of Pulse-Pounding Narratives:
Spicy Detective #3
Arabesques of Eldritch Weirdness #8
Doc Aggressive, Man of Tin #2
Six Gun Loner on the High Bute #6
Deep Space Adventure #32
Those titles should give you a clue but if they don’t it is hard to reproduce their affect here because they are not just one-pagers but one-liners, pulp stories compressed to their glorious essence.
John Clute’s Excessive Candour review column recently transfered from SF Weekly to Sci-Fi Wire when the former merged with the latter. This caused some degree of confusion for the punters of Sci-Fi Wire and eventually lead to Clute being dumped before immediately being snapped up by Strange Horizons.
Back in September, Jeff Vandermeer helpfully gave Sci-Fi Wire’s readers a translation of his review of The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Vandermeer concluded:
In an age when we have not too much sophisticated analysis of books but too little, it is hard to fault a reviewer for expanding our vocabulary even as he explicates a text. The fact is, the ways in which his words seem to stand out like a flashing siren or fit in as if part of an intricate mosaic will always depend on the brains of each individual reader.
There is some further discussion of this over at Torque Control. This has got me thinking: how do I feel about Clute? I have always counted him a good thing but only in an unreflexive and passive way. I may read his reviews but I don’t seek them out and I prefer many other reviewers. I despise the willful ignorance of the people on Sci-Fi Wire who dismiss him out of hand but at times his stylistic excesses irritate me and appear more like obfuscation than illumination. I have failed to truly engage with anything he has written. So I have resolved to think more closely about him, his use of language and his critical framework. I’m not sure what form this will take (or why you would be interested) but it may well involve a more serious take on Vandermeer’s translation idea once Clute is ensconced at Strange Horizons.
Do you find the following amusing? “I felt like a palm tree hand-pollinated for the first time. I began to have clusters of dates.” If so, this is the story for you. It is an arch 1950s pastiche in which Mae June sends off to Charlotte Atlas (boom boom) for a pamphlet to increase the size of her breasts. They get bigger but they also become aggressive. With mildly humourous consequences.
Incidently this is one of two stories in Witpunk which contain the word “breast” in the title. Breasts are inherently funny, apparently.
The last time I went to see Firsts it was because my wife was in one of the performances. This time my sole motivation was the fact it is a shockingly good deal: four pieces of contemporary performance for a fiver. Even a mixed bag is worth sampling at that price.
We were slightly spoilt to start with ‘A View From Down Here’ by Collectif And Then…, an aerial duet for double cloud. It was inspired by children’s letter and readings of these framed the piece on stage but really this was unnecessary because the brilliant child-like joy of the piece shone through from the very opening, before they’d even ascended the rope. I’m very tempted to see their next performance at Jackson’s Lane in the new year.
It was then a complete contrast to move back down to Earth for ‘imreadywhenuare’ by Simon Williams and Bad Taste Cru, a resolutely masculine and serious work. It comes with a lot of bumf about addressing peer pressure and urban conformity but it doesn’t really getting into this. There are a couple of things here. Firstly, I’ve looked up a snippet of the piece on YouTube which is very different and features four dancer. So it may well be that this version has been substantially buggered about with. It certainly looks pretty rough. Secondly, the audience must carry some of the blame. As soon as the dancers started breaking they started whooping – “Wow! Breaking! Amazing!” – and when (obviously) this turned out to only be part of the piece this left the dancers slightly stranded and the performance lopsided.
Also lopsided but much more successfully was ‘The Making Of Doubt’ by Stammer Productions. It opens with a long, slow waltz between two ripped open cardboard boxes which I thought was sweet but I could tell split the audience. The boxes then revealed four dancers, each with an additional prosthetic limb, struggling to control their new bodies as they emerged into the world. I thought this was amazing but I did hear a few grumbles in the interval.
There was pretty much nothing but grumbling for ‘The Second Death Of Caspar Helendale’, a collaboration between Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck, which was just fucking shit. I will cut Curry some slack because at least she wrote the music but the concept of a requiem in and for Second Life is appalling. It was originally commissioned by 2ND LIVE: “exploring live performances in the Second Life (r) world.” Christ.
I think this is witty because the title is sort of a pun and the story is sort of a metaphor. Which isn’t really witty at all.
Now this is sardonic but it is also well past its sell-by date. I first read this story in Interzone fifteen years ago and although Byrne updated it in 2003 for publication here I’m pretty sure this amounts to dropping some contemporary references to Islamic terrorism and ketamine. I say this because it is hard to imagine a satire more firmly rooted in Tory Government of the mid-Nineties.
Our protagonist falls for a counter-cultural siren in a non-violent direct action group. Turns out she is a plant, the group gets shopped and he is sentenced to 18 months indentured servitude controlled by a electronic chip (the tag of the title). His new owner is a cartoon Thatcherite shit who obviously gets his comeuppence. Our hero rights all wrongs and gets the girl. Bah.
However, for no particularly reason, I am going to rate this generously.
To me, Allen Steele is pretty much synonymous with boring stories set in orbit. So this is a bit of a change: a boring story set on Earth. Our nameless narrator goes into the woods with a sterotypical hunter called Jimmy Ray. Their prey? Bioengineered teddy bears, bought as pets and now living wild as pests. The story is about four pages long and by the second page it is obvious where it is going. A deeply inauspicious start to the anthology.
When the world is just too stupid, brutal, or annoying to believe – strike back by laughing.
It is not often you are disappointed by the introduction to an anthology, usually you have to wait at least until the first story. Apparently some people on a website said SF isn’t fun any more so Lalumière and Halpern have put together this book as a riposte. They seem to have a somewhat limited conception of fun since they use the word “sardonic” four times in the brief two pages of the introduction.
It is also unpleasantly backslapping whilst at the same time smarmily buttering up the reader for their good taste in buying the volume. It is refreshing that the editors are up front about the fact not all the stories are actually SF but they ruin this with the self-aggrandising final comment that they are “too daring to be labelled “mundane” or “mainstream””.
Anyway, the axes of measurement will be quality and (obviously) wit but I’m slightly worried about what wit might mean in this context.