Archive for February 2011
The full list of novels submitted for the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award has been published at Torque Control. This isn’t a shortlist, it is a list of every novel – submitted directly by publishers or called in by the judges – that has been entered for the award.
I am one of this year’s judges so I know the shortlist. It will be revealed on Friday but I would encourage you to guess the shortlist because a) I like seeing what other people think will be on there and b) you could win all the novels plus Fables From The Fountain. In the meantime, here are some stats I’ve noted down as I’ve been reading my way through the submissions.
Who is publishing science fiction?
As you might expect, the majority of submissions were from the major science fiction imprints:
That leaves still leaves almost a third from other sources though. This is one of the stats that I would particularly like to see longitudinal data as I’m sure the amount of science fiction coming from non-genre imprints and small presses has increased. All in all, 22 different publishers submitted work.
Still, it it is clear that the big three still the roost. Or perhaps that is just the big one; Gollancz submitted more books than Orbit and Pan Macmillan combined. As I said, it would be fascinating to see how this changes over time. (By the way, small press encompasses an enormous range of publishers from Granta, the independent literary press, to what are clearly vanity publishers.)
Who is being published?
Guess what? It is straight, white men. If the diversity of publishers is encouraging, the diversity of their authors is not.
When it comes to nationality, the picture is a little more diverse:
But not much. It is clear that the US and UK completely dominate British science fiction publishing:
1) Someone Says Something Stupid About Joe Abercrombie
Leo Grin warns us of the bankrupt nihilism of contemporary fantasy authors. Chief amongst these writers is Joe Abercrombie:
Abercrombie’s freshman effort, the massive First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Were Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings) was more than enough for me. Endless scenes of torture, treachery and bloodshed drenched in scatology and profanity concluded with a resolution worthy of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst, one that did its best to hurt, disappoint, and dishearten any lover of myths and their timeless truths. Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.
I imagine most authors can only dream of having a jaded literary sewer. Other writers named as paddling in this sewer are Matthew Woodring Stover, Steven Erikson and Michael Swanwick. They stand in stark contrast to Grin’s heroes, JRR Tolkien and Robert E Howard, who he elevates because:
I don’t particularly care for fantasy per se. What I actually cherish is something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old.
In case you thought this was merely a case of his personal tastes not happening to be universal, here come the politics:
In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field. They co-opt the language, the plots, the characters, the cliches, the marketing, and proceed to deconstruct it all like a mad doctor performing an autopsy. Then, using cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism, they put it back together into a Frankenstein’s monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten.
2) A Fan Responds
Well, lots of fans responded, it was all over Twitter. However, Adam Whitehead posted the first substantive response:
I think the author is conflating two separate issues here, the nihilistic/gritty/realistic ‘New Fantasy’ of the last two decades or so (a sweeping generalisation), which isn’t really that new, and the proliferation of overt sex/violence/swearing in recent fantasy books. Dealing with the first issue, it’s an odd point to make. The problem is that the author bemusingly names J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard as his preferred flavours of fantasy. Which makes very little sense, as few fantasy authors are more nihilistic than Tolkien and Howard… Of course, one brief look at the mythic inspirations for Howard and Tolkien, the great Norse sagas, the Arthur legends, Greek myths and so on, reveal stories far more tragic, blood-drenched and horrific than anything the likes of Abercrombie or Martin has ever come up with. This notion of pure black vs. white heroism ever being a dominant force in either mythology or fantasy literature seems to be illusory.
3) Joe Abercrombie Responds
As is now the way of the world, Abercrombie himself weighs in:
I’m a little suspicious, I must say, of any argument that lumps Tolkien and Howard together as one thing, although Leo has made the photos of them in his piece point towards each other in a very complimentary fashion. I think of them as polar opposites in many ways, and the originators (or at least key practitioners) of, to some extent, opposed traditions within sword-based fantasy. Tolkien, the father of high fantasy, Howard the father of low. Howard’s work, written by a man who died at thirty, tends to the short and pulpy (as you’d expect from stories written for pulp magazines). Tolkien’s work, published on the whole when he was advanced in years, is very long and literary (as you’d expect from a professor of English). Tolkien is more focused on setting, I’d say, Howard on character. Leo’s point is that they both celebrate a moral simplicity, a triumph of heroism, but I see that too as a massive over-simplification. Howard celebrates the individual, is deeply cynical (could one even say nihilistic) about civilisation. Tolkien seems broadly to celebrate order, structure, duty and tradition.
He notes that he is an admirer of both writers which chimes with my belief that he is at the heart of Third Wave Fantasy. Abercrombie then turns to the personal stuff; he deftly makes Grin look an arse but there is no real need to read it.
4) The Pros Respond
Next we have contributions from some other fantasy novelists. First up is mentally ill bigot John C Wright. As you might imagine, he is fully onboard with the decline of Western civilisation:
Mr. Leo Grin in his essay makes clear that he upholds the right of those who adore such degraded things to write and read their chosen poison. He is more generous than I. It is my judgment, shared of many ancients, that there are certain proper emotional reactions and relatins one ought to have, and improper ones one ought not. A child raised to curse and despise his parents, trample the crucifix, burn the flag, abhor kittens and Christmas scenes and motherhood but adore torture porn and satanism and deformity, that child’s tastes are objectively perverse and false-to-facts. He has been trained to spew his mother’s milk and drink venom. Fair to him is foul, and foul is fair. In the same way that to say A is not-A is an offense against logic, to hate the lovely and love the hateful is an offense against aesthetics, a disconnection from reality.
We don’t need to read any more from Wright but it is worth pointing out he hopes Grin’s post “will be studied seriously, both now in and in years to come, by all who read, write, and review in the genre.” Yeah.
Next we have the somewhat less insane R Scott Bakker who identifies Grin as falling into the fourth tribe of fantasy fans:
There’s the largest constituency, the Adventure Junkies, who want their fantasy to be as kinetic as Clive Cussler. Then there’s the two smaller constituencies: the Weird Junkies, who love smoking from the possibility-for-possibility’s sake bong, and there’s the World Junkies, who want something massive and, most importantly, believeable… What Grin has showed me is that there is fourth tribe of fantasy fans out there: the Nostalgia Junkies. I’ve spilled more than a few gallons of electronic ink over the years suggesting that much of fantasy’s appeal lies in the way provides readers the kinds of worlds that humans are prone to cook up in the absence of science, worlds adapted to our psychology, rather than vice versa. Scriptural worlds. Pondering his essay I couldn’t shake the sense that it was more the tone of Tolkien and Howard that he was missing, not the ideological content (which he seems to so clearly misread). The very tone that I have worked so hard – too hard, according to some critics – to recreate in my own fantasy fiction. Elevated, and serious unto lugubriousness. The tone of Believers.
I also enjoyed his characterisation of Grin as “an honest-to-God ‘Flat-Brainer’: someone who literally thinks that his yardstick is not bent, that he has not only won the Magical Belief Lottery, he has obviously done so.”
5) A Conversation At Black Gate
Last week, I read with great interest the discussion that began with Leo Grin’s comparison of the heroic fantasy fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard with the anti-heroic fantasy fiction of Joe Abercrombie. As this is a topic that has interested me for years, I have a number of thoughts regarding it. However, since I am a political commentator who is correctly said to be well outside the ideological mainstream of the SF/F community, I think it is best to begin by pointing out to those on both sides of the spectrum who may be eager to turn this into a political debate that this is not a political subject, but rather a historical, literary, and philosophical one. And as such, there is no need to argue over whether the trajectory over time that Grin observes is desirable or not, since that is a matter of perspective and personal opinion. Regardless of one’s ideological self-identification or opinion on the specifics of Grin’s observations, it should be eminently clear to all and sundry that something material and significant has changed within the field of fantasy fiction in the 71 years that separate Howard’s final publication from Abercrombie’s first one and the 52 years that separate the publication of The Return of the King from The Blade Itself.
It is hard to imagine a less inspiring introduction to an essay than this but luckily they provide a counter-point to this wrongheaded banality. Matthew David Surridge is anti-Grin:
Would it be accurate to say that other early fantasy writers, let’s say from the start of the twentieth century through to at least 1956, when The Lord of the Rings was published, depicted a traditional moral framework and featured traditionally heroic protagonists whose actions were held to be unequivocally just? Were they more or less prone to featuring blaspheming anti-heroes? The answer, it seems to me, is not as obvious as one might think. William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell were all religious skeptics, and their work to various degrees displayed not only irreverence but sometimes outright cynicism about moral proclamations and the accomplishments of heroes and warriors. It’s fair to say that E.R. Eddison, somewhat like Howard, featured heroic characters acting out of a specific moral code; but Eddison was even more pagan than Howard, essentially seeing the world as a product of the interplay of Jupiter and Venus. His characters were based on Renaissance nobles, but it was a Renaissance without a church, the Renaissance at its most Machiavellian.
If you only read one of the follow up posts, this is the one.
6) The Stragglers Respond
And, of course, the discussion continued to rumble on. Paul C Smith wonders if Grin actually knew what nihilism is:
The charge of nihilism is ridiculous because fantasy, especially epic fantasy (whether high or low), remains essentially moral fiction. Even when the protagonists are violent and self-serving, they are considered anti-heroes, ergo they still exist inside the sphere of morality, they are just on the other end of it than more heroic characters. If these novels were truly nihilistic, like McCarthy’s brilliant Blood Meridian, these sort of moral pronouncements would never come into play. In nihilism there can be no right or wrong because nothing can ever be known, therefore it follows that there can be no heroes or anti-heroes, just characters committing acts that have no value. In McCarthy’s world, we cannot even proclaim the monstrous Judge Holden a villain, because the parameters of the novel do not allow it. These gritty fantasy novels may be as far removed from Tolkien in terms of morality as Lolita is from Jane Eyre, but they still exist in the same moral universe.
As Matt Hilliard points out in the comments, the charge of nihilism is actually an interesting one in relation to Abercrombie’s work. This is a conversation I would like to return to but it is clear this is a far too nuanced argument for Grin.
Finally, My Elves Are Different pitch in. I think you have to be American to get it.
I have been planning to visit Hawksmoor for most of the last year but lacked a suitable dining partner. So when my dad said he was in town for a combination of geneology and Woody Gutherie I co-opted him to my plans. To be honest, it didn’t take much arm twisting. We went to the newish Covent Garden branch, tucked away in a side street opposite Pineapple Dance Studios. It is a wonderful subterranean space, a former brewery (and apparently a store and stables for the old fruit market) that has been transformed into something between a gentlemen’s club and a speakeasy. It is manly but thankfully doesn’t smell of the City.
They recommend about 400g of meat per person and there website warms that their preferred cuts are big. They aren’t kidding. I’d planned on bone-in prime rib but those cuts proved too big and we settled for 800g of porterhouse to share instead. This came as half a dozen cuts of sirloin, a couple of fillet and the bone. With steak you need two things: chips and red wine. We both had things to do later so ignored the enticing selection of bottles and plumped for a cheap, decent carafe of Syrah. I then asked for both beef dripping and triple cooked chips but our waiter advised that one would be enough. The portion was small but it was indeed adequate so entirely meat focussed was the evening.
That didn’t stop us throwing a few other sides into the mix: bone marrow for me, two fried eggs for my dad and some steamed spinach as a token concession to our health (and wives). We bravely resisted sauce. I’ve been wanting to try bone marrow for a while but it quickly became apparent that whilst it clearly has its time and place – with some crusty bread and a handful of watercress, perhaps – it is entirely superfluous on a plate of meat. Spinach, on the other hand, proved vital.
£44 a head including excellent service from a waiter who could easily have been a bit too much of a wide boy but managed to judge the mateiness just right. It was indeed the best steak I’ve had. My only regret is that I didn’t have the nerve to ask to take the bone home for the stock pot. I do feel I need to return soon though, Hawksmoor strikes me a restaurant that benefits from familiarity. I’m also intrigued by their Hungarian dessert wines.
Saf is pretty much the opposite of Hawksmoor: “Saf uses no animal products, no dairy, and no refined or processed ingredients to create a fine dining experience unlike any other in the capital.” It is a light, calm oasis in the rush of Old Street (or it was at seven thirty when we sat down, as we were leaving it was as busy as the rest of Shoreditch). We started with cocktails from their enticing but possibly slightly over elaborate botanicals list. I chose wisely with a girl’s drink, Guilty Husband #2, that was essentially a punchy kir royale. N was less lucky with her man’s drink, an Old Smokey that clobbered you first with bourbon and then gin with little in the way of finesse. Not really a first drink.
To start, I had gnocchi putanesca. Perhaps this was a slightly conservative choice since it is one of the few dishes cooked at temperatures above 48 degrees Centigrade but it was also a wise choice. The fat lozenges of gnocchi were perfectly cooked – light, firm and the ideal delivery vector for the rich sauce – and whole dish was brought to life by a lemon gremolata. N went for agedashi tofu to my total lack of surprise since she is a noted tofu fiend. Agedashi is traditionally deep fried but in keeping with the ethos of the restaurant it was baked here, a submerged slab of it in a dark broth surrounded by floating greens. At first the broth was too strongly soy which buried the saki but the tofu had absorbed a huge amount of flavour, always tricky for such a stubbornly bland medium. The broth also improved with time and the asparagus and soya beans balanced some of its darkness.
Vegetarian food makes the selection of wine a bit confusing. We went with white but it wasn’t really robust enough for most of the dishes, particularly the mains. This could have had something to do with the Pinot Bianco we selected; on its own terms, it had a nice initial presence in the mouth but petered out to watery nothingness. It certainly couldn’t compete with N’s tower of lasagna. Or rather “lasagna” since it contains neither pasta or cheese sauce but rather is a series of layers of tomato, spinach, aubergine and mushrooms. It was beautifully presented, particularly the lattice of dried tomato perched on top, but this belied its heft. Without the pasta or sauce to modify the “bolognese” it was very full on, the intensity almost becoming bitter by the end. N actually said it was too much for her, not something you often hear. I had mushroom croquette which was, well, mushroomy. Okay, there was a dash of truffle cream but otherwise the dish was a single deep, earthy note of mushroom. Rather disappointing.
£45 a head including a couple of very chocolatey desserts but excluding service which necessitated a frantic rooting through pockets to cobble together a tip. It was a very nice meal but lacking a certain something. Well, let’s not be coy, the something it was missing was dairy; excepting my gnocchi, these dishes were sorely in need of some sauce. So on this occasion the win goes to meat.
John Mullan has been reading a lot of debut novelists recently. This has produced two things. Firstly, you get this TV programme about the 12 best new novelists. Secondly, this article about the state of British literary fiction. Early on we get this remark: “What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction.”
Rather wonderfully, Sam Kelly responds in terms of Lq, Birdbolts and Moons:
Science fictions are peculiar things, a sheaf of complex curves plotted by an entire troop of drunken ramblers on a walk through L-dimensional bibliographic phase space. One set of dimensions (let’s call it Lq) we can describe as the quality of the book; part, but only part, of Lq is the reflexivity and self-conscious nature, the metatextuality, of the work. Mullan himself says, [Wolf Hall and Never Let Me Go] are both “literary” novels because they ask us to attend to the manner of their telling. We can, I hope, agree that no value of Lq can render a book “not science-fictional”. Sadly, neither Birdbolt nor Moon agree with us
M John Harrison also responds in typically pithy fashion (and with a brilliant post title):
Literary fiction as described here is the fiction of a generation which discovered “good” novels via B-format in 1980. It is a fiction so very clearly generic that when I read John Mullan’s description of it (complete with successful business model, strict boundary conditions and committed fanbase which won’t read anything else) as not genre fiction, I weep with laughter at the sheer depth of his self-deception.
Having announced a decade ago that the Hampstead novel had migrated to Hackney, I see that MJH has now tracked it down to Clapham. It is good to keep on top of these things.
‘Nine Lives’ by Ursula K. LeGuin
‘Light Of Other Days’ by Bob Shaw
‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne
‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke
‘Proof’ by Hal Clement
‘It’s Great To Be Back’ by Robert A. Heinlein
‘Mimsy Were The Borogoves’ by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
‘Davy Jones’ Ambassador’ by Raymond Z. Gallun
‘The Life And Times Of Multivac’ by Isaac Asimov
‘The Singing Diamond’ by Robert L Forward
‘Down And Out On Ellfive’ by Dean Ing
‘Send Me A Kiss By Wire’ by Hilbert Schenck
‘The Xi Effect’ by Philip Latham
‘A Descent Into The Maelström’ by Edgar Allen Poe
‘Exposures’ by Gregory Benford
‘The Planners’ by Kate Wilhelm
‘Beep’ by James Blish
‘Drode’s Equations’ by Richard Grant
‘The Weather Man’ by Theodore L Thomas
‘Transit Of Earth’ by Arthur C. Clarke
‘Prima Belladonna’ by JG Ballard
‘To Bring In The Steel’ by Donald Kingsbury
‘Gomez’ by C.M. Kornbluth
‘Waterclap’ by Isaac Asimov
‘Weyr Search’ by Anne McCaffrey
‘Message Found in a Copy of “Flatland”‘ by Rudy Rucker
‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Goodwin
‘The Land Ironclads’ by HG Wells
‘The Hole Man’ by Larry Niven
‘Atomic Power’ by Don A. Stuart
‘Stop Evolution in Its Tracks!’ by John T. Sladek
‘The Hungry Guinea Pig’ by Miles J. Breuer, M.D.
‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson
‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ by Bruce Sterling
‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ by Ursula K LeGuin
‘Heat Of Fusion’ by John M. Ford
‘Dolphin’s Way’ by Gordon R. Dickson
‘All The Hues Of Hell’ by Gene Wolfe
‘Occam’s Scalpel’ by Theodore Sturgeon
‘giANTS’ by Edward Bryant
‘Time Fuze’ by Randall Garrett
‘Desertion’ by Clifford D. Simak
‘Kyrie’ by Poul Anderson
‘The Person From Porlock’ by Raymond F. Jones
‘Day Million’ by Frederik Pohl
‘Cage Of Sand’ by JG Ballard
‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things To Rats’ by James Tiptree Jr.
‘In the Year 2889′ by Jules Verne
‘Surface Tension’ by James Blish
‘No, No, Not Rogov!’ by Cordwainer Smith
‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ by George Turner
‘With The Night Mail’ by Rudyard Kipling
‘The Longest Science Fiction Story In The World’ by Arthur C Clarke
‘The Pi Man’ by Alfred Bester
‘Relativistic Effects’ by Gregory Benford
‘Making Light’ by James P. Hogan
‘The Last Question’ by Isaac Asimov
‘The Indefatigable Frog’ by Philip K. Dick
‘Chromatic’ by John M. Ford
‘The Snowball Effect’ by Katherine McLean
‘The Morphology Of The Kirkham Wreck’ by Hilbert Schenck
‘Tangents’ by Greg Bear
‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson
‘What Continues, What Fails…’ by David Brin
‘Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum’ by Michael F. Flynn
‘Bookworm, Run!’ by Vernor Vinge
So, having read 67 stories over twelve months, 990 pages and three mysterious sections, I have now finally finished The Ascent Of Wonder. Was it worth it? I would have to say no. A fiction anthology may have a historical or critical purpose but, for me, it lives or dies by the quality of its stories. The problem is that the standard of stories collected here simply isn’t high enough to justify the investment in such a mammoth volume.
A further inescapable problem is that Hartwell and Cramer have subtitled their anthology ‘The Evolution of Hard SF’ but they have singularly failed to put forward a clear definition of what hard science fiction actually is. Nor does a definition emerge organically from what are frankly a fairly disparate bunch of stories. There are certainly stories here that I would point to when asked to point to hard SF but is that enough? Many of the stories here clearly aren’t hard SF, no matter how hard you squint, and in their introductions Hartwell and Cramer frequently acknowledge this, making the inclusion of these stories particularly willful. (I have seen it suggested in several places that Hartwell alone wrote these introductions.)
As well as the baffling individual introductions, the three (three!) main introductions provided me with no helpful guide: Benford is childish, offensive and represents the worst of the genre, Cramer merely impenetrable and Hartwell relies solely on handwaving and unsupported assertion. Other critics were equally bemused. I have decided to give the editors one last chance, however, in the form of Cramer’s chapter on hard SF in The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn.
After a page or so of prevarication, Cramer defines her approach to hard SF in way that reads an awful lot like a justification for The Ascent Of Wonder:
Since a literary genre is a form of conversation among writers, one useful approach is to ﬁnd writers who say they are writing hard sf and see what they do and say about it. This means including writers who seem out of place, have a bad attitude (that is, who display inadequate faith in and enthusiasm for science and technology) or choose unorthodox tactics for yoking the science to the ﬁction. This approach occasionally enrages hard sf purists, as it results in a more sprawling sub-genre.
There is much to argue with here. Is a literary genre primarily a form of conversation among writers? Examining writers who claim to write hard SF is certainly one approach but how justifiable are these claims? How well examined are the writers own beliefs about their work? Are they simply delusional? I would hope that a critic would give a bit more thought to these issues rather than simply taking such assertions at face value. We then have a kitchen sink second sentence which allows us to include anything we want under the umbrella of hard SF and provides the rationale for The Ascent Of Wonder. I’m not surprised this enrages hard SF purists, it presumably enrages purists of all stripes who foolishly believe that a definition should actually define something. It certainly enrages me. That final sentence gives an example of one of those alleged enraged hard SF purist but when turn to the reference we find this:
Of this approach in David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds., The Ascent of Wonder (New York: Tor, 1994), David Samuelson complains in ‘A Softening of the Hard-SF Concept’, at p. 409, that ‘[it] deprecate[s] the real thing, watering it down so much as to virtually destroy any generic consistency’
So yes, Cramer is talking about her own book here, although she doesn’t come out and say that in the body of the text. But who is Samuelson and at p. 409 where? A quick Google reveals she is actually referring to David N. Samuelson and the unattributed source for ‘A Softening of the Hard-SF Concept’ is Science Fiction Studies Vol. 21, No. 3 (1994). This source is revealed in the Further Reading section at the back of the book but it seems perverse to give a full reference to subject of the criticism and leave the reader to root out the source of the criticism itself. Errors do happen but this seems abysmally sloppy. Anyway, Samuelson’s review is, as you might expect, pretty damning:
Hartwell’s stated aim is to make accessible to a larger audience something which, depending on one’s side in the argument, is the most hidebound or most authentic form of sf. His and Cramer’s means of achieving that goal, however, cast doubt on both the quality of hard sf as literature and its claim to be called a distinctive branch, let alone the center of the sf universe, as alleged by all three of the book’s introductions… Like his essay, this collection of stories is disorderly and diffuse, trying to serve not only the announced purpose, but others as well, among them a history lesson, a pleading for literary quality which may imply terms antithetical to sf “hardness,” and a questioning of the very bases outlined in the introductions that supposedly constitute the subject at hand.
Back to Cramer’s definition. It seems clear that by approaching hard SF as a “contentious conversation”, Hartwell and Cramer have been forced to attempt a synthesis of irreconcilable viewpoints. The result is that they are left with no single coherent thread on which to hang The Ascent Of Wonder. Cramer herself warns of the dangers of “solipsistic definitions” but that is exactly what they have lapsed into. Works of hard SF “are usually characterized by attitudes found in previous examples of hard sf, but may instead be characterized by attitudes found in opposition to or in argument or dialogue with such attitudes.” To which I can only say: pft. Frankly, I’ve had enough.
Samuelson charitable concludes his review by saying: “I would grant that a third of the sixty-seven stories are quite good”. So let’s move on to the stories themselves…
It would be impossible to publish an anthology as big as The Ascent Of Wonder and not include a few gems. For me, the best thing about the book was that it brought John M. Ford to my attention. ‘Heat Of Fusion’ is wonderful; a great hard SF story, a great SF story, a great story full stop. It makes you believe that not only does hard SF exist but it is a good thing it does. His other story, ‘Chromatic’, is also good but – as with so many of the stories – out of place here.
Then we have Gregory Benford whose introduction almost turned me off his fiction for life. Luckily it didn’t because, despite the fact he is clearly an arse, he remains one of the few authors who can actually write hard SF as demonstrated here by ‘Relativistic Effects’. The same is true of a pair of classics: James Blish’s ‘Surface Tension and Day Million’ by Frederik Pohl’. ‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ by Ursula K LeGuin, on the other hand, is an example of one of those stories Cramer refers to as violating the attitude of the subgenre whilst remaining hard. Unfortunately this only throws into starker relief those which do not.
For example, we get a clutch of excellent (then) contemporary science fiction in the form of ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson, ‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ by Bruce Sterling and ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson which have only a passing aquaintance with that part of the genre. Other stories are superb but don’t even inhabit the same universe as hard SF. ‘Drode’s Equations’ made me want to seek out more by Richard Grant but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much. Similarly, ‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things To Rats’ by James Tiptree Jr and ‘The Planners’ by Kate Wilhelm made resolve again to properly approach their respective back catalogues. (Both were presumably included to bump up the abysmal number of stories by women, just seven out of 67.)
It is fair to say my tastes don’t naturally incline towards classic hard science fiction. There are a clutch of stories – ‘What Continues, What Fails…’ by David Brin, ‘giANTS’ by Edward Bryant, ‘Proof’ by Hal Clement, Benford’s ‘Exposures’ – that, whilst they didn’t do it for me, I would commend to a fan of the hard stuff. To be honest, I was expecting many more stories of this type so you can imagine how bitterly disappoint I was with what I did get.
Some of the older stories make a good case for the subgenre’s existence prior to Mission Of Gravity, Hal Clement’s 1953 novel which the editors identify as the birth of modern hard SF. ‘The Land Ironclads’ by HG Wells and ‘A Descent Into The Maelström’ by Edgar Allen Poe make excellent proto-hard SF stories and I was completely charmed by Raymond Z Gallun’s ‘Davy Jones’ Ambassador’ which I think is the real deal.
Then we have ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Goodwin. It is quintessentially hard science fiction. It is a steaming pile of shit. When people think of hard SF this is what they think of and it is a pinched, ugly subgenre which hates the written word. Supposed grandmasters like Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein make contributions to this anthology that make me wonder how on Earth the canon was formed (I felt similarly about ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke but there was such an outpouring of support for the story that I think this has to be just me.)
It is the bread and butter stories that really show the subgenre’s weakness though. I summed up ‘The Singing Diamond’ by Robert L Forward as “very hard, very short, strong on science, weak on character” and there are several more of this ilk: ‘The Person From Porlock’ by Raymond F. Jones, ‘Atomic Power’ by Don A. Stuart (AKA John W Campbell Jr), ‘The Xi Effect’ by Philip Latham. For me, these represent the antithesis of what fiction should be; for others, they represent the very heart of science fiction.
And The Ugly
Many, many of the stories are neither good nor hard. I have forced myself to read them and forced myself to write brief assessments but I am going to say no more about them. Occassionally, however, this dreadful monotony has been broken by some stories that are easy to write about for all the wrong reasons. Women are conspicuous by their absence in this anthology but even when they are depicted it is often in breathtakingly sexist terms. ‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ by George Turner and ‘The Weather Man’ by Theodore L Thomas impress but the gold star for wrongness goes to Donald Kingsbury’s ‘To Bring In The Steel’ though. This really has to be read to be believed but if you don’t have access to a copy check out my post and marvel at this story of an asteroid miner and his happy whore.
Finally, a special word needs to go to ‘Making Light’ by James P. Hogan. This is the fictional equivalent of Benford’s smug, conceited introduction. The attitude that fans are slans and belief that hard SF is the high church of science fiction are one of the main reasons I am so ambivalent about fandom. A story like this – and to a lesser extent The Ascent Of Wonder itself – is almost enough to put me off science fiction completely.
‘Stop Evolution In Its Tracks!’ is a satire on Creationism which seems pretty pointless because how can you make Creationism any more absurd than it already is?
This isn’t a science fiction story. H&C include it in an anthology of hard SF on the the grounds that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Yeah.
This is not our world – not with roaming bands of fellahin and the Bronx a coyote haunted wasteland – but it is certainly something like the late-Nineties America we know. Then there is a true sundering: the glimmering.
In a brief two page prologue (appropriately entitled Rubic), Hand lays out in dispassionate detail the steps that took us to this juncture. First, CFCs are replaced by seemingly benign bromotetrachlorides. Then an ocean floor avalanche releases huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere. This coincides with a massive solar storm. The confluence of all three permanently alters the Earth’s magnetic field, producing the aurora borealis on steroids that gives the book its title and re-configures society. Hand then moves from the omniscient to the personal and allows us to see the epoch-changing events of 26 March 1997 through the eyes of John Chanvers Finnegan.
Jack Finnegan is the publisher of a literary magazine and both are slowly dying: Finnegan from HIV, the magazine from a lack of interest in the written word. His appearance marks the start of the first section of three which make up the novel proper and makes it unfortunately clear that Rubic will be our first and last moment of concision. My paperback is 413 pages of small type and Hand is in no hurry to reach her conclusion.
Finnegan lives in an ancestral pile called Lazyland. It is an appropriate name fore and indolent setting; Finnegan wanders around aimlessly, exchanges the odd pleasantry with his grandmother and generally does very little. After an interminable amount of this, we are then introduced to our second protagonist, the implausibly named Trip Marlowe, in a long chapter with the shape of a novella but none of the heft. As with Finnegan, Hand is solely focussed on mood and internal monologue but neither captured my imagination and I found it immensely tedious. Again, very little happens, although there is a bizarre scene in which the adult Marlowe loses his virginity to a barely pubescent girl in a planetarium. If you were being charitable, you could perhaps call the pace of these rambles dreamy but you might equally call it dreary. And, of course, there is nothing so boring as other people’s dreams.
The worldbuilding has a dream-like quality but that means it is muddled, confusing and unable to withstand the light of day. At the headquarters of Golden Family International – a huge corporation which features prominently in the novel – Trip remarks that people are wearing clothes of “the kind you bought in LL Bean once upon a time” (p.50) That once upon time being a mere two years previously. Or is it? So much has changed that perhaps even before the glimmering this was a very different world to ours. There are new technologies and drugs which couldn’t possibly have been developed in the time since the glimmering began and the social landscape is radically different.
For example, the US depicted is more Christian than the real US (right down to having a national Christian motel network). Despite the libertine tone of Hand’s novel, the country seems correspondingly more prudish. Marlowe is the singer in a middle of the road Christian rock band but he is treated as a moral hazard on the scale Elvis. God knows what they would make of Britney.
At the same time, the glimmering also left the world strangely unchanged. Hand paints a picture of a world with only intermittent electricity but gives no indication of how it could survive, let alone remain stable enough for Marlowe to put out hit records, receive rave reviews, go on a national tour and then be signed by a major label. (The answer? “Solar panels, some kind of plasma grid. Windmills. A champagne-effect reflexive waterfall. Supposedly they’ve got their own nuclear reactor, too.” (p.313) For the character being told this, the response is simply facetious; for the reader, it is outright insulting.) Only rarely does lack of power become anything more than a minor inconvenience:
They were stranded for a week. Power was disrupted across the entire northern hemisphere, knocking out computer networks, satellite links, airports from Greenland to Norfolk. (p.98)
What is surprising here is not the disruption but the fact air travel is still common, that computer networks still exist. Similarly, the scarcity of food is only casually acknowledged:
The electric range was covered with ancient outdoor gear dredged up from Lazyland’s sub-basements: a blackened Coleman stove and tiny white gas-driven heater that boiled water and scorched rice. The refrigerator was unplugged, the occult pantry with its folding doors and lazy Susans sadly underutilized. (p.164)
If any society is only three square meals away from revolution then America – not a country noticed for its abstinence and restraint – has magically avoided this fate. Instead it hangs in limbo. There is no anarchy but there is also no state; any sign of the government is noticeable in its absence. Of all literature’s apocalypses this must be the mildest. Where are we? When are we?
Part one starts with a flashback to Finnegan’s grandfather founding the family fortune with a canny investment a hundred years earlier in time when dreams were still lit by candles. It is a passage that initially seems to presage a move backwards into the pre-electric age. Instead Glimmering goes simultaneously backwards, forwards and sideways. It also sadly goes nowhere. Part one ends with Marlowe spending a whole chapter deciding whether or not to throw himself of a cliff. We are all relieved when he does.
By this point it has become clear that Glimmering isn’t really a science fiction novel, it is something more akin to slipstream. This is something that took a long time to dawn on me because, when the fantastic and the mimetic merge, it is rarely in a setting which purports to be the future.
When Marz, the mysterious girl who awakens Marlowe’s paedophile instincts at the beginning of the novel, improbably washes up at Lazyland, Finnegan’s grandmother greets her as a lunantishee. Is she literally a fairy? No but at the same time she represents something very similar. Other figures start to appear; are they ghosts, holograms or hallucinations, literal or metaphorical? Whether this all makes you feel very strange or merely slightly bored is down to the reader. For me, it succumbs to the worse tendencies of slipstream, it becomes insubstantial and hence engenders ennui.
For the second section of the novel, not much (continues) to happen. For example, Hand spends pages 206-208 describing Finnegan opening a party invite. Marlowe washes up alive and is nursed back to health by another middle-aged recluse who is slowly succumbing to HIV and mental illness. This man, Martin Dionysos, not unreasonably wonders “if he had suffered brain damage in the wake of his accident, or even if he had been simpleminded to begin with.” (p.191) Marlowe may be intended to be a holy fool but he comes across as simply a fool. Nonetheless, Dionysos falls under his simpleton’s spell and they set sail for New York:
They saw strange things, journeying south… A creature like an immense brittle basket star, twice as large as the Wendameen, its central arms radiating outward like the sun before giving birth to an explosion of smaller arms, all writhing upon the surface of the sea as the omphalos turned slowly, counter-clockwise, and breathed forth a scent like apples. (p. 269)
We return to a blandly poetic sort of strangeness. Reading Hand’s ’Cleopatra Brimstone’ I suggested that “the prose splits between the acute and the purple”. Here the acute is crushed out by a weight of writing too bloodless to be purple. Hand has invented lilac prose.
In the third section, Hand finally realises that she is going to have to end the book at some point soon and therefore needs to come up with some plot sharpish. She does this by contriving to bring all the characters together in the same place for New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It almost seems that after so much whimpering, the end of the world will indeed end with a bang. But no, everyone returns to Lazyland and allows their malaise to carry them into the new millennium.
I made two food-based resolutions for 2011:
- Stop eating out so much.
- Eat steak tartare.
The first of those isn’t going so well but I applied myself to the second much more whole-heartedly. Various candidates were proposed – the third floor of Smith’s of Smithfields, Le Pont De La Tour and The Canton Arms – but eventually I settled on Les Deux Salons. This was for three reasons: its pedigree, its decor and its bouillabaisse. Les Deux Salons is from the same people as Wild Honey and Arbutus, both restaurants on my ever increasing list, and it certainly looks the part of a French bistro: chrome, leather banquettes and aproned staff. Hard to believe that not too long ago it was a Pitcher & Piano. The presence of fish soup becomes important when one’s dining partner is a pescatarian and strangely refuses to show any interest in raw meat. Luckily Les Deux Salons have a plat du jour and Friday is bouillabaisse night.
So, steak tartare. N looked slightly askance at its arrival but I was relieved to see it was already prepared so all I had to do was add a few cornichons to my plate and break the yolk perched on top. In terms of taste, I had no idea what to expect but it was something like picnic lunch rolled into one. And it rolled together wonderfully; the sharpness of the capers against the depth of the steak against the creaminess of the egg. By the by, I asked the internet why my yolk was such a beautiful dark orange and the internet said because the chicken that produced the egg had AIDS. Thanks, internet.
N had salt cod brandade with fried squid and parsley cromesqui (a cromesqui is a mini-croquette traditionally made with caul fat, although hopefully not in this instance). It was a prettily presented and well-balanced dish, the squid set off by the richer flavour of its ink, the brandade mixing together everything good in the world: “I could guzzle this but I am going savour it.” Admirable restraint. When N cut into the cromesqui, it exploded with bright green parsley sauce as vivid as gloss paint but, alas, its contribution to the plate was solely visual. She followed this (as I’d hoped) with the bouillabaisse.
This was presented in its constituent parts: a pot of stock, a pan of fish and vegetable, bread, aioli and rouille. To say the stock was fishy is a ludicrous understatement. I instinctively cringed away from it; N ladled it into her bowl, remarking of the lovely pouring action of said ladle. She said she couldn’t possibly have eaten the stock on its own as a soup, it was so amazingly dark and bitter that it had to be tempered by the fish, leek and fennel but these elements managed to hold their own within the potent broth. Despite having had bouillabaisse in Marseilles, N felt like she was having the real deal for the first time: “I feel like a proper French.”
My main of ox cheeks was not as successful as my starter. Whilst the meat was well cooked, I wanted it to be more unctuous and the flavour more toothsome. The accompanying salsify was as blandly tuberous as a yam and the watercress and bone marrow salad had a head-clearingly sharp greenness but no evidence of marrow. Perhaps this was lost to the dark, sticky liquor at the bottom of the pan which, whilst delicious, didn’t leave any available surface to try and keep the components of the meal seperated. Sides were excellent though. Daulphinois was the Platonic ideal of a gratin and braised endive with orange and juniper almost made me believe that that particular vegetable wasn’t put on Earth as a practical joke.
Puddings were a disappointment (I always say this). I virtually forced the rum baba on N on the grounds she is a rum loving woman. Unfortunately, it was rather stodgy and the flavours too disparate. And I only had myself to blame for ordering something called “floating islands with pink pralines”. This was, in fact, one island; a pink mousse that tasted somewhere between Flump and a Barrat’s Nougat Bar. It floated on a sea of creme anglais which was probably the best bit, the mousse itself being altogether too bizarre and insubstantial.
£60 a head including service (three staff, three styles, all excellent), fizzy water (natch), a glass of Innes & Gunn (the sweetness of the beer going perfectly with the sharpness of the tartare) and a glass of Welcombe Hills (a light, extremely floral white from – believe it or not – Warwickshire). Beforehand we had a couple of drinks at 5th View, the bar at the top of the huge Waterstone’s on Piccadilly. It very nearly does everything right but manages to just fall short across the board.
A cold war thriller in which nuclear weapons are replaced with intelligent animals. The idea is there but the story is told with such slackness as to destroy it. My favourite example is a escaped chimp who tries to hitch a lift “blissfully unaware that a talking chimpanzee is not a common sight in the United States.” Literally in the paragraph before this we have been reminded that the chimp has escaped from his institution because he has downloaded all information about the US ever recorded. Vinge wrote these sentences down on the page next to each other but made no attempt to fix their incompatibility, presumably believing that the idea was enough. Hard SF in a nutshell.
And that is the end of that.
I’d read a few reviews of The Ascent Of Wonder that singled out ‘Mammy Played The Organ’ for the unlikeliness of its inclusion in an anthology of hard SF. Given the rest of the book, this filled be with dread. Nor did Hartwell and Cramer’s introduction reassure me: “a clever amalgam of ghost story and sf”. And so, to the story itself.
A librarian hears something go bump in the stacks in the middle of the night. Who ya gonna call? Well, actually, the director of the library thinks she’s called a psychic but no, she gets a paranormal researcher. The ghostbuster is a discredited physicist, the director is a professional administrator; it is very unclear why she has hired him (and you have to wonder what cost centre she will pay him from). It is particularly unclear given her desire – touchingly divorced from the real world though it may be – that they will end up on the cover of the National Enquirer.
Anyway, the ghostbuster goes off with the librarian for a tour of the building. Its only built on a bloody graveyard! At this point I almost stopped reading but I forced myself to push through the pain barrier. I did this for you so I hope you are appropriately grateful. There then follows some Egon Spengler-style guff about the physics of ghost, interspersed with some hopelessly contrived backstory delivered in the manner of a PowerPoint presentation. Then nothing happens for a couple of pages. Then, blessedly, the story concludes, albeit with all the subtlety of an episode of Scooby Doo.