Archive for May 2011
An unknown narrator reminisces about their life in “the earthly city”, a life that preceded – we assume – some catastrophic flood. Where is the earthly city? What is the earthly city? We aren’t told. Instead our narrator immediately disappears and we are introduced to a range of characters from the city. First there is May, a widow, who is reflecting on the soap opera of her family life. Specifically, she is thinking about her daughter:
Yet the choices Shirley made had set the cat among the pigeons. She liked black men. Elroy was black.
Sometimes May felt Shirley had wrecked their lives, because Dirk, May’s son, was still in prison for killing Winston, Elroy’s brother. His own sister’s brother-in-law.(p.12)
Then there is Lottie, “a rich woman”, who owns Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun (which is actually in the Columbus Museum of Art) and believes it perfectly captures her nature. She is indolently lounging in her bed, reflecting on her sleeping husband:
And in certain respects, certain private respects, where Lottie had always had high standards, Harold was very – satisfactory. He satisfied here, every time.(p.15)
May’s quote is frank, Lottie’s is coy but both display an irritating pedantry on Gee’s part. Warning flags are raised. Finally there is Bruno, a Christian fundamentalist. Unlike May or Lottie there is not even an attempt to make him a real person, instead his Travis Bickell-style yearning for a cleansing rain to wash away the decadence of the city establish him as the mouth piece for discussing religion and an obvious conduit for later action. This is obviously going to be a book with a lot of Themes.
The narrative has floated across the city, briefly alighting on these people before moving on. The next chapter opens with more of the same. This time it is Shirley herself, a welcomingly rounded presence, who also demonstrates that Gee is occasionally capable of great lines such as when Shirley’s babysitter is described as being “at the sullen epicentre of her teens” (p.20). Unfortunately we then move on to Dirk, every bit as much a pitiful cipher as Bruno. We discover that the murder was a queer-bashing with more than a hint of suppressed attraction:
…but then the man played with himself, in the dark, and Dirk had to kill him to save himself from the red raw hunger that came upon him.(p.25)
Gee ratchets up the soap opera quotient and continues to chalk up more items in the Themes column: Race, Religion, Redemption, Repression. Also note the use of the word “coloured”. Within pages we have “darkies” and “half-caste”. We might not know where the earthy city is but we now know when; Gee appears to be stuck in the Seventies. (There is something cringeworthy about her treatment of race in general with her stereotypically Black names and embarrassing attempts at slang.)
Then we move on to Faith, mother of Shirley’s babysitter. Are you keeping up? It is at this point that Gee reveals her hand: she is writing a satire. Until now, all her characters – except Shirley – have tended to the functional and schematic; Faith is such a caricature bitch that we realise this was all warm up. This is hammered home by the next two characters.
Firstly there is Delorice, sister of Elroy and Winston and rising star of the publishing industry. This means we are forced to sit in on a painfully contrived decision meeting regarding a book called A Breast In Winter, “an upbeat rural cancer saga”. It becomes evident that subtlety is not one of Gee’s concerns. Secondly, there is Mr Bliss, president of the earthly city, who has a habit of peppering his sentences with an imploring “guys” and is currently planning a pre-emptive strike against a neighbouring city. Hmm, who on Earth could President Bliss be based on?
Christ almighty, this is tiresome stuff. Only 42 pages into the novel, I was in need of reassurance so I went on the internet. The Flood was published in 2004. It was preceded by The White Family (2002) which appears to be the story of May, Shirley and Dirk. Her third novel was Light Years (1985) which appears to be the story of Lottie. Both appear to be set in our world. Rather than reassuring me, I was starting to fear that The Flood was an unholy mash-up of everything Gee had ever written filtered through the Guardian’s comment section.
To make matters worse, you can easily see a much better novel hidden away inside The Flood. Once the book has had a chance to bed in, Shirley and Lottie (if not the other characters) start to develop and take on some of the texture of the real world. Similarly there are moments where Gee perfectly captures the affect she is seeking:
Yet twenty minutes later Gerda was in the water, the clear blue water with its minnows of sunlight, warm as happiness, swimming, swimming, and Davey, on the other side of the pool, cleaved powerfully, blindly through his programme, and Lorna stood on the side and watched them, wishing that she had learned to swim, wishing that she were young again, understanding and forgiving Gerda, and all the knots of passion and pain were dissolved in the moment, and floated away.(p.171)
These moments are few and far between though. More often the are crowded out by ghastly artistic decisions, a convoluted and contrived web of serendipity, baldly re-stated back story, leaden “mediations” on Themes, characters who are relentlessly over-share in the most banal terms and dialogue that clearly issues form the author’s mouth rather than those of the characters. As I’ve hint, there are also far too many characters and most are used merely as props to be wheeled out as appropriate.
Then there is Gee’s use of the fantastic. This mainly consists of over using the definitive article when it comes to naming areas of the city (the Gardens, the Institute, the Towers) and slightly altering the names of countries (Turko, Malai, Anaturia). When Lottie goes to the opera (just called the Royal Opera, naturally) to see Madama Butterfly we are treated to the following exchange:
Pinkerton told the American ambassador about his plan to take a temporary bride from the imaginary country of Japan.
Davey, on Delorice’s other side, told her in a whisper, “America is really Hesperica, of course”
“That’s obvious,” she hissed back. (p.147)
Is this supposed to clever? Or witty? It is neither. So America becomes Hesperica, New York, appallingly, becomes New Work and the earthly city itself is clearly an alternative world version of London. Gee also makes some cowardly decisions to de-fang her satire; the names of political parties are conspicuous by their absence and the newspapers all have joke names like the Daily Bread. But this is an alternative world where everything else stays the same; as well as Hopper and Puccini, Gee proves her street cred (ho ho) by mentioning Jamiroquai and Coldplay. The major religions are all the same and in one typically clumsy scene May is corrected for referring to a Pakistani man as an Indian. Presumably Gee was so caught up by her Theme that she forgot she was meant to pointlessly shuffle the letters of each country. On the other hand, All of which poses the question, why isn’t The Flood set in our world?
At this point, I feel the need to talk about The Year Of The Flood, although it feels faintly disrespectful to compare a writer like Gee to one like Margaret Atwood. Both novels want to have their cake and eat it in similar ways; the straddle realism and farce and use the fantastic as a cloak for refusing to commit to either. I am a huge admirer of Atwood but I found her most recent novel absolutely infuriating for its combination of stellar prose and silly satire. A compendium of my complaints follows:
Atwood’s worldbuilding in all its awesome weakness… geographical incongruity and bloody silly set-dressing… Atwood has upended all her ideas onto the page and left them bunched together there… alas, although Atwood has now started in on the puns, she is unfortunately only warming up and has many more to come… sometimes it is hard to tell which are worse, the puns (implants for bimbos equal “Bimplants”) or just the ugly assaults on proper spelling (a spa called “AnooYou”)… a blush of childlike naivete.
Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes aim at our world whilst remaining true to its own world, The Year Of The Flood buys into the idea that science fiction is essentially a satirical rather than speculative genre. It is a mistaken belief but one that is relatively common amongst non-genre SF writers (the dabblers, as Iain M Banks would put it). Incoherence is not an issue because the writer is deliberately presenting an exaggerated version of our world. Unfortunately this often means that the complexity of reality is traded in for cartoonish approximations.
All of my complaints about The Year Of The Flood could equally apply to The Flood but Maggie Gee does at least have the excuse that she isn’t actually writing science fiction. She certainly has in the past – The Ice People (1999) is set in a dystopian future where the world is in the grip of another ice age – and a skim of the synopsis of this novel convinced me she had again. This assumption was wrong; rather it is a fable, a form that allows even greater scope for incoherence and is a refuge for lazy writers. Shouldn’t I just be able to accept The Flood as a fairytale where coherence is immaterial? I’m afraid I can’t; I find it too close to our world to allow it to function in this way. Personally, I find its incoherence an affront, a fundamental lack of respect for the reader.
The other issue is that Margaret Atwood has the get-out-of-jail-free card of being Margaret Atwood whereas Gee is not so blessed. So much of The Flood is just outright bad, that there is precious little left to enjoy, even if you are inclined to accept that Gee’s world is not meant to make sense.
She saves one last unpleasantly nonsensical surprise for the end. As signalled from the beginning the flood does indeed come, taking the form of a vast tsunami caused by an asteroid hitting Earth. The city is destroyed… and everyone turns up in Kew Gardens. Because Kew Gardens is heaven? Or the book was all a dream? Or Gee likes hanging out at Kew? The narrator of the introductory section – Gee herself? – never returns and we are left to draw our own conclusions. It is a magnificently complacent ending to a magnificently complacent book.
Before I talk about Mission Child I would like to begin by mentioning Maureen F McHugh’s debut novel, China Mount Zhang, published in 1992. This is a wonderful novel, easily a contender for one of the twenty best science fiction novels of the last twenty years. It won the Locus Award for best first novel, the Tiptree and the Lambda and was also nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula. It is out of print. McHugh’s third novel, Mission Child, published five years later in 1998, is also out of print. This issue, the disappearance of the midlist, is right at the heart of the reason why we don’t see more science fiction by woman. We don’t see it because it has vanished.
Janna is the mission child of the title. Her home is the village of the Hamra clan which has formed around a pair of offworld missionaries (ie charity workers from Earth). At one point, Janna’s ancestors were offworlders too; however so much time has passed since their arrival on this alien planet that they now consider themselves to be the indigenous people and McHugh draws deliberate parallels between their way of life and those of real world indigenous peoples such as the Inuit and Sammi. An interest in colonisation is signalled by this but, to begin with, the fact that Janna is a child is much more important than the fact she lives in a mission. The first part of the novel takes the form of a compressed, brutal Bildungsroman.
The very first sentence of the novel announces the arrival of another clan, the Tekse. Notionally they are there to trade with the Hamra; more accurately, they are there to rob the Hamra; ultimately, fuelled by whiskey and resentment, they end up massacring the village. Janna is one of the few survivors and flees with her boyfriend, Aslak. This is a physical and emotional journey for her but it is also almost immediately a journey into womanhood.
I slid my leggings down around my knees and the cold brushed fingers across my privates until he covered me wiuth his own weight. He fumbled and he couldn’t find where to put it in me, and when he raised up the cold came between us. It hurt when he finally put it in me, and I didn’t like it but didn’t say anything.
When he was done I was empty and alone and the only thing I could think to ask was, “Are you my husband now.”
“Yeah,” he said. (p. 42 )
Janna soon becomes pregnant, the baby is born prematurely, it lives, she lives but doesn’t grow, she dies. Janna negotiates motherhood and bereavement whilst also attempting merely to survive. By know they have joined a new clan, one led by Aslak’s grandmother, but their lack of possessions (particularly renndeer) makes them a burden and they find little kinship. Janna experiences a coldness she had not known in her own village (this chapter is evocatively called ‘The Great Cold Room Of The World’).
The Tekse attack on the Hamra was not an isolated incident and the clans start to band together. There is talk of retaliation. However, when confrontation comes, it is utterly one-sided. The Tekse possess rifles and offworld technology and they lay waste to the clans’ camp. Janna and Aslak again flee but this time they are already weakened, food is even scarcer and there is no clan, however unwelcoming, for them to join. They journey through a wasteland and the narrative takes on aspects of the post-apocalyptic story but also of the refugee story (I was reminded of Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When?).
As they travel, Aslak slows and eventually stops. Janna continues on and eventually reaches a refugee camp. She has lost her parents, her sister, her clan, her child and her husband. At the gates of the camp, she is forced to hand over her rifle. Janna is sixteen years old and now officially has nothing.
In fact, it becomes clear that she has even lost her identity. Having learnt to be an adult in the world of the clans, she finds that becoming a refugee reduces her once more to a child. Not only is she dependant on others for survival but as a mission child she is ignorant of the culture in which she finds herself immersed. Although the camp is full of clan folk, the town it abuts is populated by town folk almost as alien as the offworlders. When she leaves the camp and walks to the nearest city, this is only amplified. (This also highlights the cultural differences: when Janna wants to go somewhere, she walks, even if it takes days; it is only later that the concept of a bus is explained to her.)
In the city, she finds her mission-learnt English is an asset and lands a job as a trainee technician. Here McHugh moves from interrogating the life of a refugee to the life of an immigrant: the paternalism of the public sector, the indifference of the private sector and the chaotic, compromised support of other people like her. At the same time, Janna must negotiate the radically different levels of technology and spirituality between the world she inhabits and her own upbringing. She adapts quickly to the AI and VR technology used to teach her but still feels the need for the guidance of the camp’s shaman (a spectacularly irritating man). In negotiating the conflict between them, she ends up estranged from both.
At the same time as wrestling with her cultural identity, she is also struggling with her gender identity. When she arrives at the camp, malnourished and wearing men’s clothes, she is mistaken for a boy. Fearing the predations of the camp, she perpetuates the mistake. Janna of Hamra clan becomes Jan of no clan. (“A lot of us are kin to that clan,” she is told.) Once the need for such subterfuge becomes less pressing, however, she finds it impossible to drop the disguise:
My stomach tightened and ached, and I felt myself breathing. I felt myself draw breath instead and it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be a girl and I didn’t know why, but the thought was terrible. I could not be a girl again. Something would not let me be a girl again. If I was a girl again something terrible would happen to me, I was sure of it. (p.169)
At the camp she makes friends with a boy. Once he discovers her sex, their relationship is completely altered as he tries to impose a girl-boy dynamic on their friendship. Fearing that he will reveal her secret after she refuses his advances, she flees from the town. In the city, she makes friends with a man. This time, despite also enjoying the same platonic relationship as before, she starts to fantasise about having a sexual relationship with him. She reveals herself to him and they do indeed consummate their relationship. But Janna continues to dress and act as Jan. Whilst he is tolerant, he does not understand it, a confusion multiplied by the cultural differences between the pair. He presses her to assert her femininity:
“You don’t look like a boy,” he said. “You’re trying the implant thing to be a boy. Just once why don’t you try to be a girl? You might like it.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You haven’t tried,” he said. “Never with me. Except for sex. You like sex, Jan.”
I did like sex. “The counsellor says my gender is my choice.”
“What is that word,” the shaman asked, “gender?” (p.228)
That last sentence alludes to an area of the book that I found slightly problematic. At a compulsory work medical assessment (conveniently held some time after she started), her sex is finally discovered. The doctor immediately assumes she is trans and refers her to a gender counsellor. Two days later she gets her appointment. The counsellor is equally blithe and briskly outlines the physiological changes she can make. On the one hand, this demonstrates a society more accepting of gender issues; on the other hand, the speed of the process trivialises these issues. This reads like an authorial intervention from McHugh to force Janna’s hand and progress the novel. As that quote makes clear though, Janna maintains her ambiguity. She is adamant that she does not want to be a boy or a girl but rather both. So the second act of Mission Child sees Janna trying to reconcile the different facets of her identity. She is unsuccessful, overwhelmed, and once again flees.
She ends up, several years later, on an island whose inhabitants are descended from Indian and Chinese settlers. Now Janna is ethnically different, as well as culturally different; her blonde and blue eyes mark her out as a barbarous foreigner. This allows McHugh to subvert traditional stereotypes:
“I was supposedly good at soccer, for one thing, because sometimes a foreign team would come and play on the big island. They were foreign, they played soccer. I was foreign, therefore I played soccer, too. I didn’t even know the rules. (p.291)
At the same time, she is much more comfortable in her own skin. For example, early on in the chapter, Janna winks at another character. It is a shocking event for the reader because it represents the emergence of a confidence we have not previously seen. (The many gaps in the chronology of the story allow McHugh to cunningly make these paradigm shifts.) As well as learning herself, she has also learnt the world and she now knows enough to be angry:
She was doing what offworlders did to all of us. It was offworlders who had created the Mission. Offworlders who had made the guns available that killed us. It was offworlders who put us in refugee camps and fed us like pets… Here was an offworlder, faced with a problem, and all she could think to do was throw me a piece of silver. (p. 257)
But she also knows enough to be accepting. In the third and final act, Janna finally finds a reconciliation with identity and peace with her life. The final word of the novel is “home”.
Jo Walton concludes her review of the novel at Tor.com by saying: “I don’t love it like I love China Mountain Zhang, but I admire it.” My view is much the same. It is only in the final section that my love for it emerged as Janna’s personality emerged fully. But, of course, this could exist without the preceeding parts and perhaps I am also falling into the trap of privileging active over passive characters here.
Mission Child remains a fascinating novel; a novel of “chewy ideas rather than shiny ones”, as Walton puts it. It is also not the sort of science fiction novel you see very often. Perhaps that explains the hilariously inaccurate blurb on the back of my copy in which the Orbit sub tries to twist the story into a conventional SF narrative. This is not a story in which a special individual shapes the world, it is a story in which the world shapes an ordinary individual. Mission Child is not the sort of science fiction novel you see very often but I’d like to more of them. It’s like to see new ones but I’d also like it to be easier to see the old ones; where is the Orbit Masterworks list?
As you will probably know by now, the Guardian devoted Saturday’s Review section to science fiction. Since I like to spend my Saturday mornings reading both the Guardian Review and science fiction, this is obviously something I welcomed. My anticipation was slightly soured by a comment piece from Iain M Banks that was published online on Friday in advance of the Review. He opens with a long analogy about a young writer pitching a hackneyed detective story to his agent before revealing his target:
Now, even the most gifted literary author will be sufficiently aware of the clichés of the detective story not to let an initial burst of enthusiasm for a new idea involving any of them get beyond the limits of his or her own cranium, and even if they were foolish enough to suggest something on these lines to their agent or editor they’d immediately be informed that It’s Been Done . . . in fact, It’s Been Done to the Point of Being a Joke . . . and so all the above never happens.
Or at least, it never happens quite as described; substitute the phrase “science fiction” for the word “detective”, delete the 1930s murder-mystery novel clichés and insert some 30s science fiction clichés and I get the impression this scenario has indeed played out, and not just once but several times, and the agent/editor has – bizarrely – entirely shared the enthusiasm of their author, so that, a year or two later, yet another science fiction novel which isn’t really a science fiction novel – but, like, sort of is at the same time? – hits the shelves, usually to decent and only slightly sniffy reviews (sometimes, to be fair, to quite excitable reviews) while, off-stage, barely heard, howls of laughter and derision issue from the science fiction community.
The subs have entitled the piece “Science fiction is no place for dabblers” which seems a fair enough condensing of Banks’s argument and it pissed me off for two reasons. The first is that it is such a depressingly squandered opportunity; Banks has been given the chance to connect with a new audience to discuss something he is passionate about but instead treats them to a tired moan. It is the tendency alluded to by my title, a quote from China Mieville that appears in Justine Jordan’s profile elsewhere in the Review. Haven’t we got anything better to talk about?
The second problem is not Banks’s topic but the way he makes his case. Specifically, the way he scrupulously avoids any specifics and never names names. Who are the writers he has in mind? Who are dabblers who need to be taken to school? We’ve no idea because he doesn’t tell us. People in the comments are quick to make suggestions though and the usual suspects are soon trotted out: Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy. Once someone is named as a dabbler, the validity of applying such a label can be debated (as it is in the comments). Banks doesn’t allow us that opportunity though. Personally, I am pleased that The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go and The Road exist but then I doubt Banks actually had those particular authors in mind. But who knows?
The result of his vagueness is that all writers of non-genre SF are tarred with the same brush. By reducing a disparate bunch of artists to a monolithic Them, he makes a real conversation about the way writers from outside the genre engage with the genre when they write science fiction impossible. Because there is certainly a kernel of truth to what Banks is saying. Elsewhere in the paper Ursula K LeGuin says the same thing: “You can’t write science fiction well if you haven’t read it, though not all who try to write it know this.” However, she continues: “But nor can you write it well if you haven’t read anything else. Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup.” Dialogue is a two way street.
Banks concludes with an attempt at magnanimity that comes close to saying something similar:
However, let’s be positive about this. The very fact that entirely respectable writers occasionally feel drawn to write what is perfectly obviously science fiction – regardless of either their own protestations or those of their publishers – shows that a further dialogue between genres is possible, especially if we concede that literary fiction may be legitimately regarded as one as well. It’s certainly desirable.
It certainly is desirable and we should be positive but that is a bit rich coming at the end of such a negative piece. Further more, Banks’s point is made far more eloquently by the very existence of the edition of the Guardian Review in which it appears. It is therefore rendered both irrelevant and rather graceless. The contrast is further made by the Review’s lead feature in which leading SF writers – including LeGuin – choose their favourite novel or author in the genre. Here is their list of “leading SF writers”:
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Ursula K LeGuin
Kim Stanley Robinson
I think it is safe to say that this is not a list a fan would be likely to come up with and I’m sure a lot of people would turn their nose up at the idea these are all leading SF writers. It is, however, a list of interesting authors saying interesting things about science fiction. More than that, it is a list without boundaries; it is a list that is open and optimistic and interested in dialogue. So let’s all be positive.
I am currently reading A Concise History Of Science Fiction by Mark Bould and Sheryl Vint and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the field. As well as the conventional narrative of each chapter, the book also includes pop out lists designed to stimulate further investigation. In the context of the SF mistressworks and 21st Century SF mistressworks lists, I thought it would be interesting to post their list of twenty works of feminist SF:
Rosel George Brown, Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue (1968)
Monique Wittig, The Guerilleres (1969)
Doris Lessing, Memoirs Of A Survivor (1974)
Kit Reed, The Killer Mice (1976)
Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)
Joanna Russ, The Two Of Them (1978)
Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue (1984)
Jody Scott, I, Vampire (1984)
Ursula K. LeGuin, Always Coming Home (1985)
Connie Willis, Fire Watch (1985)
Pamela Sargent, The Shore Of Women (1986)
Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog (1988)
Pat Murphy, Points Of Departure (1990)
James Tiptree Jr, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990)
Katherine Burdekin, The End Of The Day’s Business (1990)
Rebecca Ore, The Illegal Rebirth Of Billy The Kid (1991)
Marge Piercy, He, She And It (1991)
Melissa Scott, Shadow Man (1995)
Candas Jane Dorsey, Black Wine (1997)
Tricia Sullivan, Maul (2004)
I have read precisely one (the Piercy), though another is scheduled for my year of SF by woman (the Sullivan). Edit: I originally left The Two Of Them off this list, I am planning to read that this year too.
‘Preface’ by Bruce Sterling
‘The Gernsback Continuum’ by William Gibson
‘Snake-Eyes’ by Tom Maddox (Available online)
‘Rock On’ by Pat Cadigan
‘Tales Of Houdini’ by Rudy Rucker
’400 Boys’ by Marc Laidlaw
‘Solstice’ by James Patrick Kelly
‘Petra’ by Greg Bear
‘Till Human Voices Wake Me’ by Lewis Shiner (Available online)
‘Freezone’ by John Shirley
‘Stone Lives’ by Paul di Filippo
‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson
‘Mozart In Mirrorshades’ by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner
Before reading Mirrorshades I had formed two impressions of the book: firstly, it was a classic anthology; secondly, it was the cyberpunk anthology. Neither of these turned out to be true. Let’s look at the second first since it is right there on the cover.
What the book should really be called is Mirrorshades: The Movement Anthology. As Sterling suggests in his preface, this is really just a bunch of writers who know and like each other and are involved in a loose creative web. This might remind us of recently proposed punk-suffix genre of Mythpunk and it might also make us question how useful it is to apply a genre label to a group of individuals.
At the same time, the term cyberpunk – which Sterling is clearly ambivalent about – has stuck (perhaps he got his revenge with the similarly stubborn label of slipstream). As Patrick Hudson commented:
I’ve been reading these with interest, because I think that “cyberpunk” is a less homogenized form than is typically imagined. I suspect it’s not a sub-genre at all, but just a group of people and a place in time, or perhaps there’s two cyberpunks, one describing people and place and another a bunch of genreric cliches.
Let’s dismiss the first cyberpunk, the Movement, as being of solely historical interest these days. That leaves the second cyberpunk, the bunch of generic cliches or, more charitably, the set of tropes. Sterling himself seems to acknowledge the existence of this second cyberpunk:
It’s possible to make broad statements about cyberpunk and to establish its identifying traits… Mirrorshades should give readers new to Movement writing a broad introduction to cyberpunk’s tenets, themes, and topics.
However, if you can find the unifying tenets, themes and topics in Mirrorshades than I take my hat off to you. Sterling continues: “To my mind, these are showcase stories: strong, characteristic examples of each writer’s work to date.” This brings us to the question of how good the anthology is as a bunch of stories. To which the answer is not very. By my count there is only two good stories: ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ and ‘Petra’. At this point I should acknowledge that I owe Pat Cadigan an apology, ‘Rock On’ is better than the two stars I gave it. My calibration was thrown out of whack by my expectations. (Incidently I have had Cadigan’s The Ultimate Cyberpunk put forward to me as a suggestion for the real definitive anthology.) Still, the Gibson and Bear stories are the only ones really worth reading and this is an abysmal hit rate for an anthology, even a relatively slim one like this. Not that I consider either to be cyberpunk.
So what is cyberpunk? This is a question Jonathan Strahan has been asking too. He’s asking because he is putting together a cyberpunk anthology. Inter Nova are also putting together a special cyberpunk issue. So cyberpunk obviously isn’t dead, it’s just that – like the rest of SF – no one can define it.
Sterling says: “This footloose time-travel fantasy emerged in a happy spirit of Movement camaraderie.” I guess a footloose time-travel fantasy is an appropriate as any way of ending an anthology which has nothing to do with cyberpunk. He continues (rather limply): “Its headlong energy and aggressive political satire are sure sign of writers who feel they have points to make.” It certainly has energy but what Sterling takes for aggressive political satire is merely feeble farce. This is the anti-’Gernsback Continuum’ and is devoid of all merit. Bah.
I may be persuaded to look again at the work of John Shirley but let’s be honest, when you want cyberpunk, you want Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Or do you? It is possible they are sui generis of the very genre they created. As Sterling notes in the introduction, he was best known at this point for the Shaper-Mechanist stories, a body of work that essentially leapfrogged cyberpunk and rendered it irrelevant. Similarly Gibson’s cyberpunk novels are the least interesting thing he’s written.
Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev was the first man on Mars. Now he is disabled, pensioned off and rotting away on the equally rotten Kosmograd space station. Typical Soviet political shenanigans ensue. Sterling and Gibson then spring a surprise cyberpunk on the reader that is actually pretty reminiscent of all those up-by-our-bootstraps stories from The Ascent Of Wonder. It is also pretty naff.
The week I went on holiday it was impossible to avoid A Game Of Thrones which was an important reminder of just how big television is and just how small books are. It was also a reminder of how people tend to get locked into narratives: fantasy is a form of historical fiction; recent historical telly has got lots of shagging in it; fantasy fans are asexual. Cue mild cognitive dissonance from assorted journos and a million identical ledes. Anyway, I liked the preview for A Game Of Thrones but I won’t see it until it has aired in America then aired in the UK then been released on DVD. So to deal with the wait I settled for the next best thing: Black Death (2010).
Or so I thought but I’d made a major category error. Yes, it stars Sean Bean as a long-haired, sword-wielding soldiers but this is a long way from Boromir/Ned Stark territory. Rather than being fantasy or historical fiction, Black Death is a horror film. In particular, it is a horror film in which faith is an instrument of torture. I shouldn’t have been too surprised since the film is directed by Christopher Smith who was previously responsible for Creep (2004), Severance (2006) and Triangle (2009). I’ve not seen Creep but the other two interesting and effective horror films with lots of unusual touches. Black Death is certainly full of unusual touches but the result is bonkers and baffling rather than effective.
Eddie Redmayne is Osmund, a nervy young novice monk in 14th Century England at the height of the plague. His love for God is in conflict with his love (which we are given to believe has been consummated) for a local woman. When the plague reaches the monastery he forces her to flee to the forest for her safety, only to be torn by doubt over whether to follow her or stay with God. He prays for a sign. This appears in the form of Bean’s Ulric, a paladin and envoy of the local bishop. He requires a guide to take him and his men to nearby village which is hidden in the marshes and is rumoured to be free from the plague. More importantly, it is rumoured that the reason for this freedom is necromancy and it is Ulric’s job to lay God’s vengeance upon them.
Following this introduction, the next act unfolds as you would expect: Osmund signs up as the guide and gets to know the motley crew, the tension between being a man of God and a man of war is explored and, inevitably, the crew get all medieval on the arse of various persons who get in their way. In the midst of this is an important scene in which the crew come across a witch burning. Osmund, the man of God, pleads for the release of the young woman and argues that it is not God’s will. Ulric, a man of God but also a man of the world, stabs her to death. This is, he argues, an act of charity since even if they had freed her the mob would have found and burned her. At least he gave her a painless death (although, to be honest, it didn’t sound that painless.) There is a rich stew of faith, fear, gender and morality here and it is a stew that is brought to boiling point by the crucible of the God-less village.
The arrival of the crew at the village, following a journey through an exaggerated and heightened landscape, marks the turning point of the film. Their entrance is reminiscent of the arrival on Skull Island towards the beginning of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), the initially seemingly abandoned village revealing itself to be populated by silent, haunting figures. Smith switches entirely into horror mode at this point. Despite the deliberately eerie way the scene is shot, the group receive an incongruously warm welcome from the head of the village, Hobb (Tim McInnery). The modern viewer is left to assume that the village is simply the innocent victim of rumour, just like the poor woman damned as a witch earlier in the film. Or, at least, we would be if everything wasn’t imbued with a heavy air of the unheimlich and the villagers weren’t quickly revealed to be a bunch of atheists. They make no secret of this and are ahistorically contemptuous of Christianity to these heavily-armed messengers from God.
This contempt comes most strongly from the village herbalist, Langiva, who is played with frankly bizarre modernity by Carice van Houten. With her modern manners, mannish behaviour, cartoon lasciviousness and foreign accent she simply screams witch. Could it be that Langiva really is a witch? At this point I started scratching my head. We know witches don’t exist. Equally we know that thousands of women were murdered in the false belief that they were witches. Is Smith making a film that seeks to justify this slaughter?
Two things happen next. Firstly, the villagers throw a feast in honour of their visitors, complete with gallons of booze and slutty local woman. Secondly, Langiva gives Osmund the come on and beckons him out into the night. You can see that this isn’t going to end well. In fact, Langiva has invited Osmund to watch a necromancy ceremony where, complete with prosthetic witch make up, she raises his beloved from the dead. Simultaneous his compatriots are all passing out from the drugged grog and being interred in Viet Cong-style water cages. So Langiva is a witch, right? Certainly the facial transformation, the magic and the plan to protect the village from the Black Death by crucify and disemboweling her Christian captives suggests so. This allows the film to easily cast Ulric and his crew as the good guys and lets us cheer at their subsequent escape and raving of the village. Hooray! The church has finally turned the tables on those bloody women!
This would be puzzling and unpalatable enough on its own but the film has a few more unwelcome surprises to spring. Because it turns out Langiva isn’t a witch at all. The make-up was just make up (remarkably quickly and professionally applied), the necromancy was just a trick (when Osmund saw her previously she was sleeping not dead – that old chestnut) and she is well aware that her sacrifice plan is bullshit. It is all just a rouse to give her power over the village, although why she wants or needs that power is left unexplored. So Langiva isn’t a witch, she is just a mad bitch pretending to be a witch. So that makes everything okay.
Black Death saves the the worst for last though. Until now Osmund has been the protagonist and our narrator, now that latter role transfers to Wolfstan (John Lynch), the last surviving member of the crew. In voice over he tells us how Langvia’s torments pushed Osmund over the edge and transformed him from sensitive novice to heretic-purging witchfinder. He travels up and down the country murdering innocent women in the guise of hunting his “witch”. Wolfstan audibly shakes his head at this sad news. Poor, poor Osmund. The film’s final words are Wolfstan’s heartfelt wish that Osmund achieved some measure of peace, words that take place against the backdrop of another young woman being sentenced to death by torture. I’d like to believe they were spoken with irony but given the clumsiness, confusion and attitude to women that proceeded this, I don’t think they.
The only major role for a woman is that filled by van Houten’s ridiculous performance but all the roles are underwritten. The relationship between Osmund and Ulric should be the core of the film but, after some initial gestures in this direction, the approach is abandoned to concentrate Osmund, only for that to be abandoned too. I liked the performances from both Redmayne and Bean but there is not enough from either. Both McInnery and Andy Nyman return from Serverance but both have substantially reduced parts that highlight the contrast between the films. Black Death was written by Dario Poloni and completely lacks the wit of Severence or the intelligence of Triangle, both of which Smith himself wrote. Here’s hoping that for his next film he gets his own pen out again.
I’ve managed to dodge fandom’s Easter splurge – the Clarke, the BSFA awards, Eastercon, the Hugo nominations – by dint of being in splendid isolation up in Cumbria. I spent the first half of my holiday walking the Cumbria Way, a 70 mile footpath that tracks across the county from Ulveston to Carlisle, taking in a good portion of the Lake District National Park. I am not a novice hiker but after the first day it became me and my wife had perhaps over-estimated our fitness. Not that we are unfit but a 10kg pack on your back radically changes the game. Add in the killer combination of a cold and hayfever – not to mention unusually fierce sunshine – and it started to seem a bit of a struggle. Had I gone on holiday by mistake? Thankfully with a bit of determination, some Lemsip Max capsules and the rapid purchase of a Titanium Omni-Shield we made it through with just a few blisters.
The proper way of doing things would have been to have packed our Trangia and couscous along with the tent and sleeping bags but we made a considered decision to keep the weight down by ditching them. This was no problem because there pubs all allong the route and what could be better than that after a hard day’s walk? After a couple of nights we started to wonde if we had made a mistake though. We had forgotten what pubs are like. Living in London you tend to get spoilt food-wise; gastropubs are ten-a-penny and often serve food of a standard that makes them competitive with the capital’s many restaurants. Outside metropolitan areas a pub is often your only option for a warm meal but often it isn’t an offer you’d want to take up.
A detailed survey of the pubs of Cumbria revealed the following formula virtually universally applied: indifferent meat in rich, thick gravy or sauce served with massacred veg and chips. Chips! The chip is a thing of beauty, a brilliant culinary invention, but not the sort of the way they are served up in these pubs. Never mind the triple-fried chip that is de rigeur on gastropub menus, these pallid potato sticks didn’t look like they had been fried at all. As for the veg, at various locations I received raw green beans, overcooked but stone-cold carrots, luke-warm leeks in a horribly watery cheese sauce and salad that consisted of half an iceberg drenched in oil. The meat was usually submerged in dark, viscous liquid designed to conceal its blandness. For the vegetarian option, replace the meat with cheese and the sauce with more cheese. Ensure this is served at a dangerously high temperature.
Am I being fussy? A pub is a pub and its primary purpose is selling pints. But the way these pubs treat food stands in such stark contrast to the way they treat beer. Every pub I went into had at least three (and usually half a dozen) local bitters on draft. Several had their own brewery. Is it too much to hope that some of this passion and expertise could make its way into the kitchen?
Thankfully, my faith in the ability of pubs to actually cook rather than just heat was the Langstrath Country Inn in Stonethwaite, a tiny village in Borrowdale. The pub is virtually next to the National Trust campsite we were staying at which is exactly what was needed after a day of brutal ascents and descents through Stake Pass. The landlady was extremely accommodating, squeezing us in despite having a full list of reservations and the fact we looked somewhat battered. She even offered to find us a space in the restaurant but we agreed that a corner of the bar was probably best all round.
I started with cheese souffle served with pear and walnut salad. The contrast in the level of ambition and execution suggested by this is staggering. Here is food that requires technical skill to create, which shows an interest in the way flavours complement each other and which takes pride in the quality and providence of its ingredients (the cheese was local). The salad was served with a simple balsamic vinegrette which caused me to reflect that such a staple as balsamic vinegar probably wasn’t even present in any of the kitchens of the other pubs. N’s potted shrimp was also local and came with four good sized pieces of toast, a huge mark in their favour given how stingy restaurants usually are when it comes to providing baked delivery vectors.
I then went slightly insane and ordered the mixed grill. As she served N’s seabass, the waitress remarked that my wife had made the sensible choice. The full meat roll call here was rump steak, lamb chop, lamb kidney, pork loin, gammon steak and black pudding. I will admit that I pocket the black pudding – a huge disc – for breakfast but otherwise I think I acquired myself well. The beef and gammon steaks were essentially ballast but chop and loin were lovely pieces of meat and not overcooked (the bane of the mixed grill). Again, care was taken with provenance, the lamb was listed by both breed (Herdwick) and origin (Rossthwaite, a mile up the road). If not a particularly skillful meal then it still showed care and attention to the meat and accompaniments: juicy mushrooms, light (but still superflously) onion rings, a perfectly cooked fried egg with a huge, bursting yolk and – yes! – proper chips. There was no need for sauce here but an offer of three different mustards was gratefully received.
The second half of the holiday involved recovering from the first half in a cottage in Glenridding on the shore of Ullswater. Whilst we did put our feet up for a bit we also did quite a bit of fell-walking, notably Helvellyn via the frankly awesome Striding Edge ridge and High Street by another rocky ridge route. Such exortion deserved reward and, rather than gambling with the local pubs, we returned to what we knew.
The Langstrath was just as busy as the previous visit and we opted for the 6.15 rather than 8.15 table. This was a good job since after a quick splash in the stream our party of four suddenly found their appetite. A friend was rapturous of the cheese souffle, another loved the combination of black pudding and chorizo in a salad and me and N both went for scallops from the specials. These were huge beasts served with beurre blanc and some shards of toast which enabled us to mash the equally huge roe into a sort of crostini. Nom. My main of duck was a bit of a let down though. We were asked if we minded it pink. To which the answer is, of course not, that is how it should be. So it is very disappointing then to find the meat was not at all pink and on the verge of being overcooked. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. It came with an excellent but too small slice of daulphoise but, to be fair, this was offset by the generosity of the very large portion of duck. The whole thing was swimming in berry sauce which I needed to be smaller, thicker and more self-contained. My duck-eating companion, on the other hand, averred that the sauce the better and promptly ate the last of my drenched cabbage.
It is worth mentioning the prices here. That huge portion of scallops was £5.95 which is a steal. The mains were a more normal £14-16 but that is still very reasonable. And it looks even more reasonable when you compare it to the inedible £11-13 dishes being served up in every other village across Cumbria.
You could perhaps have anticipated the result…
In a change to previous years, for Vector’s review of 2010 I asked reviewers to both vote for their five favourite novels published last year and write a piece on their reading in general. The freestyle pieces start on the next page with Graham Andrews discussing a forgotten paperback but by now I’m sure your eye has already been drawn to the results of the poll.
The triumph of The Dervish House by Ian McDonald was comprehensive; it received twice as many votes as New Model Army by Adam Roberts which came in second. If you’ve read any other end of year articles you probably won’t be surprised, in many corners it seems that The Dervish House is the science fiction novel of 2010. This was also reflected in its appearance on the shortlist for the BSFA Award for best novel. As BSFA members, the results of that award are in your hands. At this point, however, I would be surprised if McDonald didn’t take it home. I would be equally surprised if The Dervish House didn’t turn up on other award shortlists.
There was a strong showing for other novels as well though. New Model Army may have come runner up but, in his review, Mark Connorton hopes that this won’t always be the case: “For the last few years Roberts has been the perennial nominee at SF awards. Hopefully this will be the one to change it for him.” Iain M Banks is another writer whose stature and acclaim hasn’t translated into prizes. After the general disappointment with Matter, Surface Detail was received as a return to form in many quarters, a “classic Banksian synthesis of a sprawling space opera” as Marcus Flavin puts it.
The British edition of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl only came out in December but it has already gained a substantial following. The fact it won both the Hugo and the Nebula last year probably had something to do with that and it is also shortlisted for this year’s BSFA Award. Of the rest of the shortlisted novels, Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game and Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn (reviewed bv Jonathan McCalmont) both failed to make the cut but Lauren Beukes’s second novel, Zoo City, just squeaked in.
The top five was dominated by science fiction – perhaps not surprising given the name of our organisation – but in fourth place was Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, “a reflection of Tang Dynasty China that rings our present world like a bell” according to Niall Harrison. Not far behind was Kraken by China Mieville. After last year’s all conquering The City & The City, this was widely seen as a more modest work but a modest Mieville work is still a substantial beast and his popularity shows no sign of waning.
Completing the list, Patrick Ness concluded what has to be this young century’s finest work of Young Adult science fiction with Monsters Of Men, Richard Powers provided the token non-genre book with his blending of science, fiction and science fiction in Generosity and, at last, Chris Beckett found both a publishing deal and the acclaim he deserves with The Holy Machine.
Finally, tying with Zoo City for tenth place was Finch, the third instalment in Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris series. As Paul Raven says: “Don’t be afraid to enter Ambergris without knowing what to expect. But do be prepared to leave with more questions than you arrived with.”
So that is what our reviewers thought. I am one of the judges of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award so I won’t say what my favourite books of 2010 were. I don’t think it is breaking the Clarke omerta to say I think it has been a very strong year though. This strength was remarked upon by several reviewers in their individual pieces over the next couple of pages and reflected in this top ten.
I hope the pages of this review section have introduced you to lots of new sf over the course of 2010. I’ve enjoyed my first year at Vector and plan to keep bringing you the widest range of reviews possible. Reviews of Under Heaven, The Windup Girl and Zoo City are all forthcoming and, in addition to the end of year pieces, this issue contains its fair share of reviews. I am particularly please to welcome Gwyneth Jones to these pages with a feature review of Animal Alterity, Sheryl Vint’s examination of the animal in sf.
Vector Reviewers’ Poll 2010
1) Dervish House by Ian McDonald
2) New Model Army by Adam Roberts
3) Surface Detail by Iain M Banks
4) Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
5) The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
6) Kraken by China Miéville
7) Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness
8) Generosity by Richard Powers
9) The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett
=10) Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
=10) Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
- Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (Corvus, 2010) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
- Surface Detail by Iain M Banks (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Marcus Flavin
- The Technician by Neal Asher (Tor, 2010) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
- Version 43 by Philip Palmer (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (Corvus, 2010) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins, 2009) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
- Music For Another World, edited by Mark Harding (Mutation Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Dave M. Roberts
- The Immersion Book of SF, edited by Carmelo Rafala (Immersion Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead, edited by Christopher Golden (Piatkus, 2010) – Reviewed by CB Harvey
- The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer (Night Shade Books, 2010) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
- Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Alex Williams
- Tomes of the Dead: Anno Mortis by Rebecca Levene (Abaddon, 2008) – Reviewed by Shaun C Green
- Songs Of The Dying Earth, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois (Voyager, 2010) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
- The Black Prism by Brent Weeks (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- The Fallen Blade by John Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- Animal Alterity: Science Fiction And The Question Of The Animal by Sherryl Vint (Liverpool University Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Gwyneth Jones