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Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

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I’ve just started reading Martin Amis’s latest novel, The Pregnant Widow. It is very Amis-y. But, with my science fiction hat on, I was struck by the quotation from Alexander Herzen’s From The Other Shore (1848–1850) from which the novel takes its title:

The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

Written by Martin

29 February 2012 at 16:05

Posted in books, quotes, sf

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Your Chance To Second Guess Me

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The list of submissions for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award have just been published at Torque Control. As with last year, there is a prize for guessing the shortlist of six novels (due to be announced at the end of March). No one managed to guess all six last year – in fact, four out of six was the best – so will the judges be able to completely confound fans again this time?

Of course, the guessing already started a while ago. Last week I put Lavie Tidhar on the spot on Twitter and asked him to predict the shortlist. He came up with the following six: Embassytown, The Islanders, Ready Player One, By Light Alone, The Company Man and Wake Up And Dream. He added that he’d be glad with hitting three out of six. Well, as it turns out, he can only have guessed a maximum of four of the shortlist since Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett weren’t submitted. It is possible that other novels which people might have thought were contenders weren’t submitted either; having heard Martin McGrath advocate for it, I would certainly have liked to have seen City Of Bohane by Kevin Barry. Fans of children’s literature will also notice that not much was submitted. No Blood Red Road by Moira Young, for example.

But there you go: the field is big, it isn’t neatly distributed and the very concept of science fiction is often in the eye of the beholder. There were sixty novels submitted this year which is huge amount to read and covers the vast majority of the field. It is also more than enough to produce an excellent shortlist (go on, I dare you to guess it). However, one of the big strengths of the Arthur C Clarke Award is the fact it aspires to be completely comprehensive, to cover as much of the UK science fiction field as humanly possible, so I hope all publishers will continue to take a broad view of what constitutes science fiction in the future.

Written by Martin

27 February 2012 at 14:36

Posted in awards, sf

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Another Year Of Reading Women

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Last year I set myself the challenge of reading and writing about one science fiction novel written by a woman each month.

The eagle-eyed will notice that that isn’t twelve novels. I ran out of steam and vowed to continue this year instead with another batch. Here is what I assembled over Christmas:

Some of those were languishing on my shelves, some were kindly donated by Ian Sales of SF Mistressworks and were picked up from Amazon (and only available secondhand or imported, obviously). Since the Clarke Award shortlist has now been decided (and will be announced at the end of the month), I’ve got the time to think about other fiction so here is the schedule for the year:

  • March: Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
  • April The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K LeGuin
  • May: A Plague of Angels by Sheri S Tepper
  • June: Hav by Jan Morris
  • July: Cyteen by CJ Cherryh
  • August: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
  • September: The Female Man by Joanna Russ
  • October: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
  • November: Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
  • December: Shikasta by Doris Lessing

If any one would like to join me in reading any of those books in those particular months, I would welcome the conversation. And I think we are still due a discussion of Spirit over at Torque Control, aren’t we? In addition, I will be trying to read and review more books by women in general and my review of Blood Red Road by Moira Young is forthcoming at Strange Horizons.

But it isn’t just about what I review. As reviews editor for the BSFA, I also have a big say in what other people review and the books that are covered in Vector. Niall Harrison will be repeating the SF count again this year and, as part of this, I’ve tallied up the coverage of books by men and women in Vector. The ratio is very poor. So it is all very well talking the talk but I’ve clearly taken my eye off the ball and I need to be much more proactive in 2012 in ensuring speculative fiction by women is visible in Vector.

Written by Martin

26 February 2012 at 12:38

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Here The Life Of Rivers Begins

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They rise from the granite, sun themselves a little on the unsheltered plateau and drop through air to their valleys. Or they cut their way out under wreaths of snow, escaping in a tumult. Or hang in tangles of ice on the rock faces. One cannot know the rivers till one has seen them at their sources; but this journey to the sources is not to be undertaken lightly. One walks among elementals, and elementals are not governable. There are awakened also in oneself by the contact elementals that are as unpredictable as wind or snow.

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Written by Martin

21 February 2012 at 19:43

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Abolish The Hugo Best Editor Categories

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It is Hugo nominations time and last night on Twitter there was a bit of a conversation about nominating Devi Pillai for Best Editor Long Form. This was kicked off by this post by NK Jemisin entitled ‘Give my editor a Hugo’. In addition, to Pillai’s work on her own books, she also put forward this list of other works:

  • The Way of Shadows, Beyond the Shadows and Shadow’s Edge (the Night Angel trilogy) by Brent Weeks
  • The Heroes and Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
  • Blameless, Changeless, Heartless, etc. (the Parasol Protectorate series) by Gail Carriger
  • Blood Rights by Kristen Painter
  • Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan
  • Cold Magic (the Spiritwalker Trilogy) by Kate Elliott
  • Working for the Devil (the Dante Valentine series) by Lilith Saintcrow
  • Warrior and Witch by Marie Brennan
  • The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtney Grimwood

I have only read three of those novels: The Heroes and Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie and The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtney Grimwood. I love the Abercrombies, I think the Grimwood is the worst thing he’s ever published. It also strikes me as a novel with substantial issues around structure, pace, point of view and consistency, things I would expect and editor to take a firm hand with and things that would disuade me from nominating Pillai for an editorial award. At this point Jonathan Strahan made the inevitable comment: “The problem is, and this is why I suggested my proposed Hugo rules change, you can’t know if it is or isn’t. You’re assuming.”

He’s right. I haven’t seen Grimwood’s original manuscript, I have no idea of the work Pillai did on subsequent drafts, all I have to go on is the finished text. Only two people know for sure, I just have to rely on the evidence. In some cases the evidence seems overwhelming such as with Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan which appears to be not only a very bad book but cursorily edited in order to make a quick buck. But it remains an assumption (as editors will delight in telling you if you make any such inference).

There is more than a little hypocriscy to Strahan’s position though. He has been nominated for Best Editor Short Form for the last four years and has not declined these nominations. Yet he believes them to be meaningless, that the people who vote for category are incapable of making any judgement about them. Only authors and editors themselves would be able to nominate, meaning each editor would have two nominations at the maximum. That doesn’t make for a viable award. So I hope if he is nominated this year, Strahan will stick to his principles and decline. In an ideal world, all editors would do the same and the awards would be abolished since what they seek to reward is so clearly incompatible with a popular vote.

Strahan’s own prefered rules change is to give the Best Novel award to both author and editor. This is embarrassing. It is, however, entirely in keeping with the philosophy of the Hugos: awards for all and contorted categories that exist nowhere else. In the rest of the literary world, awards for novels are awards for authors as should obviously be the case. Implicit in an award-winning novel is the idea that the editor has done well to acquire and publish it and they will undoubtably be congratulated by their peers for this. Similarly for magazines and anthologies, success for them implies success for the editor. But it is self-servingly ridiculous to try and formalise such industry praise within a fan award such as the Hugos, particularly since doing so would in no way avoid the problem of fans having to make assumptions. Both categories need to go and not be replaced.

Written by Martin

21 February 2012 at 11:47

Posted in awards, genre wars, sf

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A Trip Down Memory Lane

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In 1994 I bought my first issue of Interzone. It was half price from a cardboard box of back issues in a secondhand book shop on Camden High Street, just before the canal. The bookshop is long gone but the experience was formative. For my birthday that year, I asked for a subscription to the magazine and I remained a subscriber for the next twelve years. This obviously wasn’t my first exposure to speculative fiction but it was my first sustained, systematic reading of the genre and it was my first exposure to SF criticism. I have forgotten the names of many of the reviewers who introduced me to writing about SF but some like John clute and Nick Lowe, writing about fiction and cinema respectively, have stuck with me ever since.

That same year, I also asked for a copy of the second edition of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, edited by Clute and Peter Nicholls. My uncle duly bought it for me and, out of ignorance and hunger, I decided to read this bloody big book cover to cover. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this but it is hard to think of a better crash course in the history of the genre, its possibilities and the possibilities of writing about it.

So it was a slightly strange experience to find myself last week in flat not five minutes walk away from that lost bookshop, having dinner with Clute, Lowe and Graham Sleight, the managing editor of the third edition of encyclopedia. Strange but extremely enjoyable. The upshot of this meal is that I will be writing some of the cinema entries need to update the encyclopedia from 1992 to 2012. The first three of these have already been published: Pandorum, Avatar and Moon. Those last two were co-authored with Lowe which feels more than a little surreal to write. I will continue to work with him on ensuring that the essential films and directors are covered but, for the moment, I am mostly going to be concentrating on children’s animated science fiction of the last decade or so.

Written by Martin

13 February 2012 at 11:40

My 2011 BSFA Award Short Fiction Ballot

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So, I’ve now read the five shortlisted stories for the BSFA Award and thanks to everyone else who read them and commented, it has been informative for me and hopefully enjoyable to you. If you are a BSFA member or are attending Eastercon, please do read the stories as it would be nice to have a high turnout for the vote. They are all available online but we also hope to make them available again as a printed booklet for members. Once you’ve done so, I’d welcome any more comments here as the deadline approaches.

I’ve set out my ballot below with links to each of the discussions. I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with my rankings but I wonder if anyone would disagree that, considered as a whole, it isn’t a particularly strong shortlist.

In terms of coverage of the field, it is broad in some directions and narrow in others. There are two science fiction stories: one set on another planet in the far future, one set on an alternative Earth in the near past. Then there are three fantasies that are all set in Britain and deal with a protagonist facing the intrusion of a single example of the fantastic: a magic clock, animated oil rigs and a satyr. Only one of the stories – and ironically, one of the fantasies – is set in the near future. There is a marked absence of the core tropes that people associate with science fiction and fantasy. Not a criticism, of course, but as someone who doesn’t read a lot of genre short fiction, I wonder how representative it is.

1) ‘Covehithe’ by China Miéville

The clear winner for me and the only shortlisted story that looks anything like an award-winner. It’s Miéville, innit?

2) ‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley

I liked this a lot but I primarily liked it as a companion piece to God’s War. However, it seems to have worked for Aishwarya Subramanian and Fernando Hugo, even though it was their first exposure to Hurley.

3) ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul Cornell

A fun setting that I’d like to read more of but only in a broader context. Here it is a bead on a necklace and I want to see the whole thing, particularly if the ending really did attempt to conceal a huge paradigm shift.

No Award

I can’t actually remember if the awards have a No Award option but, if they do, this is where it would go.

4) ”The Silver Wind’ by Nina Allen

A huge disappointment from an author I admire. In the comments, Niall Harrison articulates the virtues I would usually associate with Allan but I can’t find them here.

5) ‘Of Dawn’ by Al Robertson

A familiar story badly executed at unneccessary length. British SF writers really need to get out of this rut but perhaps there is no incentive since this style of story obviously continues to prove popular.

Written by Martin

10 February 2012 at 15:36

‘Of Dawn’ by Al Robertson – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Of Dawn’ was originally published in Interzone #235.

From the second paragraph of this story, I knew ‘Of Dawn’ wasn’t for me: “A bus rumbled past outside, and the floor shook gently. For a moment, she imagined a god passing by – a drift of shadow that might have been wings; a soul borne away, to cross a dark river.” That is Sarah, letting her imagination run wild as she arranges her brother Peter’s funeral. He was killed in Iraq but absolutely nothing is made of this except to position him as a modern soldier-poet. Not only is Peter a poet but Sarah is a musician and ‘Of Dawn’ is one of those depression works of art about works of art:

Peter returned obsessively to early twentieth century composer Michael Kingfisher, to the aftermath of warfare in the former Yugoslavia, to Salisbury Plain and the deserted village of Parr Hinton; to images of a skinless man, walking through the nearby woods, at once leading him into knowledge and foreshadowing his own future. “An angel satyr walks these hills,” Peter had said, quoting Kingfisher.

Kingfisher is Michael Kingfisher, a Twentieth Century composer of Robertson’s invention. The angel satyr – horrible phrase – is Marsyas, a figure from Greek mythology. You can probably guess where this is going. Sarah develops an obsession with Kingfisher and discovers that Marsyas may be more than a just myth. Thankfully Robertson at least makes no attempt to play this ambiguiously, although there is a painful low point where Sarah unconvincingly mistakes a man in a red tracksuit for a flayed satyr.

In some ways it is the classic Interzone fantasy story of the pre-Andy Cox era: a lot of depictions of the English landscape, the intrusion of a fantastic figure, a supposed focus on psychology, hints of madness. Robert Holdstock and Ian R MacLeod were suggested as examples of the type on Twitter and there are many more. In the Nineties, it seemed like Interzone used to publish a story like this every month.

So they are overly familiar and Robertson’s is not even a good particularly good example. It is too long, is further slowed down by clods of research (real and imaginary) and is told in strained, overblown language throughout:

Verdancy suffused the television screen as the programme built to a climax. The camera explored ash-grey Stonehenge. Red ribbons shook and bells jangled as six men danced together. Sunset blazed through trees, a fire in the deep woods. Tumuli humped like whales in the green. Between each shot, colour bloomed across the screen like so much spilt paint.

Written by Martin

10 February 2012 at 09:55

‘Covehithe’ by China Miéville – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Covehithe’ was originally published on the Guardian’s website.

1.

A man and his daughter are on holiday in Suffolk. He wakes her in up in the middle of the night and Miéville maps out the path they take from Dunwich to Covehithe. The focus on concrete geography and illusive mystery combined with the distance between the reader and the protagonists is reminiscent of Nina Allan but here the cryptic delivery is far more successful than ‘The Silver Wind’. We are drawn in, we ask questions.

For example, we are told that the man is called Dughan but we are not told his daughter’s name. Why is she anonymised? And how old is she? At first, she seems to be very young but when the viewpoint switches to her, she is remarkably shrewd: “All she remembered were his returnings, an exhausted, careful man who lifted her on to his lap and kissed her with wary love, brought her toys and foreign sweets.” This is uncertainty is surely incidental to the story but at the same time it is a conscious decision on Miéville’s part which gives it tang.

Another difference with Allan is language. Far from being brickwall blank, Miéville delights in words and you simply don’t get this in the other shortlisted stories. You have to love him for it, even if sometimes he goes too far: “This close to the waves the land felt, as the girl said, misbehavicious. A good word to make her feel better.” A good word? An ugly word, certainly. It is almost impossible to say, a coinage that looks better on the page than it sounds in the mouth. “Trawlings” and “returnings” works but “extrusioned” is a pointlessly ungainly, particularly when immediately followed up with this far more evocative description:

In the glow of the thing’s own flame they saw edificial flanks, the concrete and rust of them, the iron of the pylon barnacled, shaggy with benthic growth now lank gelatinous bunting.

That is an intelligent, animated oil rig emerging from the North Sea and that is the story.

2.

Inevitably we move backwards to answer the question of how we got here (although perhaps “how” is a little strong):

It was the Rowan Gorilla I. That was the first. No Piper Alpha, no Deepwater Horizon; an undistinguished disaster. A tripod jack-up rig lost to storms and hull-fracture in 1988, on its way to the North Sea. Scattered surely by its capsizing and by 30 years below but there, back. Cramped-looking for all its enormity, latticed legs braced halfway through its platform, jutting above it and below into the sea. In the videos the three skyward leg-halves switch and lean creaking towards each other, sway away again like cranes triple-knitting, as it walks the muck on spudcap feet. It staggered like a crippled Martian out of the water and onto Canada.

We might wonder in passing what the fuck a “spudcap” is but this is a lovely passage, blending the earlier lyricism with a bluntness that suits the beast that has been born. The same is true of the subsequent ones in which the Rowan Gorilla I meets its demise but they also mark a transition point in the story. This is where the story’s genesis becomes a bit too obvious: “The Guardian’s short fiction project Oil stories asks writers from around the world to drill down through layers of cliché and cant to explore the hidden reservoirs which fuel our dreams and power our nightmares.” You can’t say Miéville didn’t meet the brief but in a way he met it too well; an author’s muse should have some mystique.

As we move away from Dughan and his daughter, as the events are explicated, the story loses some of its magic to a humdrum bit of future history that doesn’t ring true. It is revealed that Dughan is a Canadian soldier who happened to be there with Rowan Gorilla I at the beginning. He is subsequently seconded to an international task force that deals with the emergence of further rigs. “National governments subcontracted strategy to the UN Platform Event Repulsion Unit.” Doesn’t strike me as very likely, especially since UNPERU is composed of “scientists, engineers, theologians and exorcists, soldiers”. The whole section is told in an entirely different register; we’ve moved from Nina Allan to Paul Cornell.

3.

We return to Covehithe to integrate the two parts of the story. Again, we flit into Dughan’s daughter’s perspective and a security guard questions her age. “Dughan whispered her name” but Miéville conceals it. Why? Names have power. But if, on the one hand, he is aiming for the numinous, Miéville is also having fun. Having playfully referred to the rigs as “petrospectral presences” earlier, he shifts the tone even further into deadpan humour: “They laid eggs, so, many people said, they must have sex. There was no logic there. They were oil rigs.” In the end, I can’t see this inconsistency of tone as a problem but rather the thing that gives the story its power. It seems an entirely fitting ending when Miéville circles back to his opening style to cap the story:

Dughan turned and took in the length of Covehithe Beach. They were out of sight, but he looked in the direction of the graveyard, and of St Andrew’s stubby hall where services continued within the medieval carapace, remains of a grander church fallen apart to time and the civil war and to economics, fallen ultimately with permission.

Written by Martin

9 February 2012 at 09:24

‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley was originally published on the author’s website.

The third story on the BSFA Award shortlist and the third story to be part of an existing universe of the author’s invention. The trend towards trilogies and series has been much remarked on with genre novels but is short fiction going the same way? Or do stories that take place in a wider continuity have an advantage in terms of profile when it comes to nominations time. Okay, my sample size isn’t massive but it still seems worth remarking on. This time round, I’ve actually read some of Hurley’s related fiction set on the planet of Nasheen. As I mentioned in my editorial for the last Vector, God’s War wasn’t eligible for the BSFA Award (although it received a few nominations) because it was only published in the US. No such restriction applies to short fiction.

Starting your story in media res, entirely in dialogue, is a pretty aggressive way of setting out your stall, particularly when the third sentence is: “And what the fuck does she want?” This isn’t a surprise if you’ve read God’s War since it is a pretty aggressive book. But ‘Afterbirth’ turns out to be a story of two halves of which the more aggressive is the lesser. This half acts as a framing device and is an interview between Bakira so Dasheem, a farmer turned astronomer turned farmer again, and an anonymous councillor. As is so often the case, the frame is rather forced and in this instance it is made more so by the fact it is solely dialogue. The personality of neither woman comes across and they are reduced to perfunctory jousting; the councillor is simply implacably hostile, Bakira is given to speechifying:

You say Nasheen is ruled by God and Queen, but it is not. It is ruled by rich, blind, First Family women like you who wish to divide and conquer us. I see what you made us, and I reject it. We are not just the bloody afterbirth, the mess you leave behind as you claw your way to prominence. We are human beings, as good as you.

The other story, Bakira’s story, is another matter. It foregrounds birth, family and work – all things central to life but depressingly alien to much SF – whilst simultaneously showing these things willingly (if grudgingly) subordinated to state: “Because it was not until that night that she realized what she was. What all of them were. They were merely bodies. Weapons of war.” The problem is that this half of the story is very short to cover the whole of Bakira’s life and left to stand on its own it is a slight work.

One of Bakira’s daughters is Nyx, the main protagonist of God’s War, which makes it a prequel of sorts but, more than that, it functions almost as a prologue. To someone who has read that novel it is a highly satisfying expansion of various strands, particularly the interstellar context, but I can’t see how it would work for someone who hadn’t read God’s War. Returning to the question I asked at the beginning, does it work as a story in its own right or is it merely a sampler of Hurley’s settings and concerns?

Written by Martin

8 February 2012 at 11:10

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