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Archive for April 2012

‘The Prince Of Space’ by Jack Williamson

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In his introduction, Hartwell returns to his hobby horse about the misuse of the term space opera, “even by scholars who should know better”, to apply non-judgementally to pulp SF. This is pretty rich since he is writing in the context of an anthology which does exactly that but it is even more so given that he is referring to a quote from Jack Williamson, a writer active at the time, agreeing with those misguided scholars (who ever they might be). Hartwell patronisingly explains this away on the grounds that Williamson is a cheerful hack: “So, of course, he has a benign interpretation, even of words coined to insult.” He really needs to let this go.

Hartwell was right about one thing though; ‘The Prince Of Space’ is hackwork and it fails on most every level. Sentences are mainly just banal but occasionally they tip over into the nonsensical. After an extended bout of the male gaze we are told that the protagonist “engraved the girl in the notebook of his memory.” You’d think a writer of all people would know how to use a notebook. He also redundantly describes the Martian canals as being “irrigated from some sort of irrigation system” and memorably misspells Chile as chili.

Quantitative descriptions abound, attempting to imbue the story with bogus verisimilitude, and convey space opera sweep, we get the inevitable description of the vastness of space: “Before them hung the abysmal blackness of space, with the canopy of cold stars blazing as tiny scintillant points of light, at an infinite distance away.” Now, space is big – really, really big – but those cold stars aren’t an infinite distance away. I’m pretty sure that their scintillation is a property of the Earth’s atmosphere as well.

Things are equally awkward at the macro level; the story is episodic, the episodes are baggy, the bags are boring. It is just so, so slow and this is not helped by characterisation that is either basic or repellent.

The titular prince is allegedly a fearsome space pirate. Yet, in an out of place metafictional aside right at the onset, Williamson directly informs the reader that this is not the case and he is, in fact, the hero. Our narrator, Bill Windsor, is dismissed as being “not, properly speaking, a character in this narrative; he is only an observer.” Does Williamson know what a character is? Windsor is certainly an observer though; a newspaper reporter with amazing access, he passively floats around after the action, reducing the story to tedious sight-seeing.

Even if Williamson didn’t directly inform us that the prince wasn’t the baddie, it is abundantly clear who the man behind the mask is. I struggle with the idea he is particularly heroic though. When Windsor first meets him, an employee is quick to point out that “the Prince is a determined misogynist.” He’s not kidding. The Prince soon confirms that “I have had enough of love, enough of women, with their soft, alluring bodies, and the sweet lying voices, and the heartless scheming.” Obviously he falls in love with she of the notebook engraving face. Then he blows up Mars. The end.

In terms of operacity-operaticity-operaticality, the story never gets beyond Mars. This is the equivalent of Aubrey and Maturin never leaving the channel. As such ‘The Prince Of Space’ looks back to Verne and Wells (explicitly in the case of the latter) more than it anticipates the rise of space opera.

Quality: *
OOO: **

The introductions to this book were written at a time after online criticism had become prevalent but before good solutions for referencing it had been agreed on. The editors decide to quote full URL. The introduction to this story starts with a quote from John Clute’s review of Williamson’s collected fiction. The URL is wrong. The quote is:

The personal miracle of Jack Williamson’s career is that he wrote himself out of the belatedness that governed the genre when he began; and that for several decades after 1940 his creative mind paced the train. He rode a long ways up the line, which is a very high score for a man. Until he got to here.

Hartwell glosses this as: “What Clute is driving at is that Williamson, who was born in Bisbee, Arizona Territory, in 1908, lived in Mexico and Texas, moved with the family to New Mexico by covered wagon the year he was seven, and grew up on an isolated ranch, living in his imagination.”

I’m pretty sure that is not, in fact, what Clute was driving at.

Written by Martin

27 April 2012 at 16:18

Imperfect Pearlescence

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To help me in my read through of The Space Opera Renaissance:

Written by Martin

27 April 2012 at 09:38

Posted in criticism, sf

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Is ‘Unique’ A Compliment?

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My review of Artemis by Philip Palmer is up now at Strange Horizons.

“No one writes SF quite like Palmer,” boasts a bit of puffery on the back cover of Artemis. But that is a double-edged sword, surely? No one writes SF quite like M. John Harrison but then no one writes SF quite like Andy Remic either. As it happens, I agree with Eric Brown’s assessment in the Guardian that no one writes SF quite like Palmer. I just can’t work out whether that is a good thing.

What are we to make of Palmer, eh? I am the latest in a string of Strange Horizons reviewers to fruitlessly butt my head against his work. Elsewhere the not obviously insane Lavie Tidhar has passionately defended him. So, in addition to examining Artemis, my review attempts to corral and dissect some of these responses.

As an aside, Artemis is the second novel I’ve reviewed for Strange Horizons this year that was eligible for Arthur C Clarke Award but wasn’t submitted. Out of a sense of completeness and curiosity, I’m going to work my way through some more of these (there are quite a few). However, rest assured that you haven’t missed anything yet.

Written by Martin

27 April 2012 at 08:57

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‘The Star Stealers’ by Edmond Hamilton

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Sensibly (and in contrast to The Ascent Of Wonder and its inexplicably ordering), Cramer and Hartwell have arranged the anthology chronologically, beginning at the beginning with a quartet of stories from the pulp period. The ‘shit’ period, in other words. The editors do not think ‘The Star Stealers’ would have been considered space opera back then but, in these shinola days, they think it fits the bill: “It was all there in 1929, fast-paced, large-scale, a bit clunky and absurd, and filled with images of wonder.” As I mentioned, the individual story introductions are long – two and a half pages in this instance – and I’m not entirely sure whether this is welcome as the additional length seems to trap them between the casual and the academic with ratehr scrappy results. For example, it opens with a quote from Jack Williamson that is unattributed then follows it up with an attributed one from Hamilton himself in an interview with Patrick Nielsen Hayden but clumsily refer follows each subsequent quote with “- PNH interview” before belatedly (and presumably?) attributing Williamson after another quote from him. They also seek to rebut Gary Westphal’s arguments about Hamilton put forward in the Cambirdge Companion To Science Fiction but they don’t really have space to engage fully. I’ll be interested to see what the rest of the introductions are like but for now, the story:

The captain of a spaceship has been recalled to Earth from the navy of the galactic Federation of Stars. “”Turn thirty degrees outward,” I told him, “and throttle down to eighty lightspeeds until we’ve passed the star.”” There is actually something rather appealing about the image of the pilot cautiously slowing down to a leisurely 23,983,397 kilometres a second to go round Alpha Centauri. “Towards our right there stretched along the inky skies the far-flung powdered fires of the galaxy’s thronging suns, gemmed with the crimson splendors of Betelgeuse and the clear brilliance of Canopus and the hot white light of Rigel.” That is the grand scale of space opera right there. (As an aside, the story refers to the solar system as being made up of “eight little planets”. Pluto wasn’t discovered until the year after it was published and by the time I read the story it had been downgraded to dwarf planet. Poor little Pluto.)

The problem facing the protagonist is appropriately vast too: “a dark, dead star millions of times larger than our own fiery sun” is careening across the galaxy on a collision course with Earth. Sent to intercept, he discovers that is actually an enormous planet inhabited by alien “tentacle-creatures” with sophisticated technology who want to, well, the title gives it away a bit. Can our hero save the day? What do you think.

‘The Star Stealers’ is a fairly crude story. The protagonist succeeds by luck and coincidence rather than judgement, complete with a deus ex machina swooping in at the eleventh hour. It is predominantly composed of huge chunks of exposition including a two page speech and an instance of someone actually beginning a sentence with “as you know…” Despite this, it has a lot of charm. This charm lasts until the final page when Hamilton unfortunately spoils it by telling us that, as a reward for saving the world, the protagonist’s highly capable second-in-command “after the manner of her sex through all the ages, sought a beauty parlor.” Right.

Quality: ***
Operacity: ****

So yeah, er, operacity. I’m not quite sure what that is yet and I may try and come up with a better term.

Also, in his recent Vector review of The Weird, edited by Anne and Jeff VanderMeer, Adam Roberts wrote:

So compendious is this volume (eleventy tales overall and some of those are quite lengthy) that it would be quite impossible, in a review like this, to mention every story. Quite apart from anything, doing that ‘short-story-collection-review’ thing of going through each piece in turn, annotating with a tick or a frowny-face emoticon, has never struck me as a very good way of tackling the task. For one thing, tabulation and point-awarding provides only a spurious sense of judgment. For another (particularly where a collection of weird tales is concerned) it gives the reader’s subjective response the whip hand.

I don’t necessarily disagree. These individual blog posts probably will err on the side of my immediate subjective response. Cummulatively, however, I hope that they will be something more, something beyond tabulation.

Written by Martin

22 April 2012 at 15:48

‘How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera’ by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

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The introduction to The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell, opens with a brief section that serves as a defence for their previous monumental anthology, The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution Of Hard Science Fiction. That volume opened with three contradictory introductions that did absolutely nothing to illuminate what the editors believed hard science fiction actually was. The nine hundred odd pages of fiction that followed were similarly confounding and left critics scratching their head. Cramer and Hartwell are sticking to their guns though. The editors may have restricted themselves to a single introduction (although the individual story introductions are much longer) but they warn us they faced “a similar set of problems” and intend to “pursue clarification by representing perhaps conflicting examples”. Eek.

The next section opens: “For the past twenty years (1982-2002), the Hugo Award for best novel has generally been given to space opera.” Since The Space Opera Renaissance was published in 2006, there is a bit of a disconnect here. This is because this part of the introduction was originally published as an essay of the same name in 2003. The editors have simply regurgitated it here with expanded examples but no real revision. I say “editors” but tellingly the essay uses “I” throughout with the clear implication that it was actually written by Hartwell (who similarly was solely responsible for much of the jointly signed material in The Ascent Of Wonder). This is here changed to “we” but I see little point in going along with this charade.

Most of the essay is given over not to defining the New Space Opera but a history of the evolution of the term space opera. Whilst this context is useful, it displays unmistakeable traces of bitterness that Hartwell has been caught on the wrong side of history. Of space opera’s pejorative origins, he says:

A lot of people don’t remember this and that distorts our understanding of both our present and our past in SF. Perfectly intelligent but ignorant people are writing revisionist history, inventing an elaborate age of space opera based on wholesale redefinitions of the term made up in the sixties and seventies to justify literary political agendas.

Let’s put that patronising and frankly embarrassing second sentence to once side; the claim that interests me is that in the first sentence. How exactly does ignorance of the past distort our understanding of the present? Perhaps Hartwell believes the New Space Opera can only be defined in opposition to the old space opera but I can identify shinola without needing to look at shit. The redefinitions he is talking about took place 25 years before the time he was writing yet he can’t let go of them. Later on he notes that: “Leigh Brackett, by the mid 1970s, was one of the respected elder writers of SF: in the middle and late 1970s, Del Rey Books reissued nearly all her early tales, calling them space opera as a contemporary term of praise!” The pearl clutching exclamation mark is impossibly quaint; it is 2006, who could possibly be shocked by this? There is a lecturing, tediously fannish tone to the whole piece; he has the facts on his side, damn it.

Eventually we get to the point where we could have come in:

Thus the term space opera reentered the serious discourse on contemporary SF in the 1980s with a completely altered meaning: henceforth, space opera meant, and still generally means, colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focussed on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action (this bit is what separates it from other literary postmodernisms) and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. What is centrally important is that this permits a writer to embark on a science fiction project that is ambitious in both commercial and literary terms.

This does contain the core of a definition, albeit a not useful or interesting one, but it also contains a couple of weird twists. In the brackets we are directed to “this bit”? Which bit? Plot action? None of the preceding characteristics have any relationship to literary postmoderism. Nor do any of the ones afterwards. This leaves the parenthetical remarks a Hartwell brainfart inadvisably stabbed into the text. Then there is the closing sentence: why is it centrally important that it allows a writer to be “commercially ambitious”? Hartwell doesn’t say and I cannot guess. As for the definition itself, it is more of a casual description and I would have hoped for something a bit more incisive at the start of such a large anthology on the subject.

The essay concludes: “The new space opera of the past twenty years is arguably the literary cutting edge of SF now.” That certainly was arguable in 2003 but my sense is that this would be a much harder case to make now. To return to Hartwell’s earlier test, no space opera novel has won the Hugo in the decade since the essay was published. In fact, by my count, only half a dozen have been shortlisted over that period. Space opera still makes up one of the two dominant forms of contemporary SF but in terms influence, the bloom is off the rose.

Written by Martin

17 April 2012 at 17:26

First Flight

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Opening my front door, I am confronted by what I at first think is a juvenile starling but on reflection realise is a thrush. I am surprised not just by its presence but that it is so unphased by mine, sat there as implacably as an owl. After a second I understand that it is in fact stunned: its heart and lungs visibly throbbing, crouched in a thick pile of its own shit, blinded by the terror of first flight. Its sibling, no less stunned, stands tall, head cocked in seeming disbelief at its accomplishment, its Denis Healey eyebrows wryly at odds with its evident youth.

proud thrush

Written by Martin

15 April 2012 at 17:02

Posted in nature

From Alien To The Matrix (2005) by Roz Kaveney

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A to Z titles only really work if they make it across the whole alphabet rather than just half way. From Alien To The Matrix does not seek to be comprehensive though, as Kaveney makes clear:

“There are many other important films I have not written about in this volume, and omission is not to be taken as a covert critical judgement.” [page 1]

The subtitle is perhaps also slightly misleading because the book’s primary concern is science fiction rather than film and this is at least as much a work of cultural studies as it is film studies.

Although there were earlier Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) the launch of Betamax in 1975 probably marks the beginning of the video age. The twenty year span from Alien (1979) to The Matrix (1999) maps the growth, maturation and finally death of this age (The Matrix was the first DVD to sell more than three million copies in the US). Kaveney is not interested in the video age itself so much as what it represents: the beginning of an era of “films whose production and consumption has been crucially affected by technology.” [page 2] This is an era that has seen massive developments in technical aspects such as special effects as well as viewers who have been able to take literal ownership of texts in a way they couldn’t previously. There is some discussion of the increasingly porous boundary between producers and consumers and the prevalence of geek culture but mostly Kaveney is interested in the way viewers interact with “thick” texts, those made up of layers of influence and collaboration with a life outside the cinema. In this way DVD, with its director commentaries and deleted scenes, represents a further thickening of the medium. This then is a handbook for the critical consumer and the seemingly eclectic selection of films covered is explicated by their thickness. (A cover quote by Neil Gaiman rather alarmingly describes the book as “arming the geeks with the tools to read films for the DVD generation.”)

If the book is unabashedly populist and aimed at the fan at home this does not explain or justify its puzzling casual approach to some of the fundamentals of criticism. Although not formatted as such, the book is split roughly in half. The first half examines various individual films and subgenres, the second examines the concept of cinema franchises and includes a four-part case study on the Alien films. Kaveney’s concerns are set out in Chapter 1, which is slightly odd formatting since it is clearly constitutes the book’s introduction. The big shock comes in the first chapter proper, on Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1997). A reference to Neil La Bute’s Possession (2002) appears in neither the index of films nor the index. On the next page Verhoeven’s Show Girls (1995) is mentioned, again with no listing in the index. Nor is this due to their non-genre status: a one sentence mention of Peeping Tom (1960) earns it a place in the index of films whilst a paragraph on John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) and Stephen Hopkins’ Predator 2 (1990) results in one mention in the index: for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie’s next indexed mention is on page 66 where another of McTiernan’s films (1993’s The Last Action Hero) is again ignored by the listing. In fact, the index tends to privilege actors at the expense of others such as writers and special effects luminaries like the late Stan Winston. This is particularly odd considering Kaveney is at pains to refer to these less visible figures throughout the book.

If the factual entries of the index are massively attenuated, the thematic entries are also bizarrely limited. There are just three such entries: Liminality and Thresholds; Metonymy; and Music. This does not seem to indicate a particularly useful or comprehensive approach to indexing and even these three slim aren’t exhaustive since the first use of metonymy on page 13 isn’t even referenced. To take just one example of a missed opportunity, Kaveney makes many useful observations from a queer perspective and it would have been helpful to collate them.

It is upsetting to have to write at such length about technical issues when I would much prefer to get into the meat of what Kaveney is saying but this book is, after all, a reference work and these omissions make it substantially less useful as such. Unfortunately, it is not the only area where the book is more casual than we would like as, when it is focussed, From Alien To The Matrix is excellent, but let us look at where it is most focused first.

In the second half, Kaveney analyses each of the four Alien films in turn, unknots the tangled genesis of the third and forth films to show the impact this has on the finished article and charts the evolution (and regression) of the films from original text to sequel to franchise. It is a brilliant sustained case study and my only regret is that there is not more of it. It is a pity that Serenity (2005) was not yet released when the book was written because there are interesting resonances to be explored with the Whedon scripted Alien Resurrection (1997). Kaveney acknowledges the links to Firefly but this is outside her remit and so does not pursue the matter. On a much more minor level, in the interests of intertextuality it is a shame that, having earlier explicitly mentioned “the woman who is fucked to death with a sharp implement” (182) in Se7en (1995), when she discusses Purvis’ revenge through impalement in Alien Resurrection she does not draw attention to the fact that in both cases the penetrator is played by Leland Orser.

Likewise the chapters that concentrate on individual films are the best of the rest of the book; the close reading of Strange Days (1995), in particular, is quite excellent. Returning to the first chapter, too often responses to Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers are coloured by the viewer’s opinion of Heinlein. Kaveney is sympathetic to Heinlein but even handed in comparing the two texts and nimble and thorough at picking out what is problematic and praiseworthy with each. (As an aside, Kaveney mentions Nick Lowe in the acknowledgements to this book and it would be fascinating to re-read his review of Starship Troopers next to her piece. Unaccountably, given that he is science fiction’s best film critic, none of his work has been re-printed and alas all my copies of Interzone are all up in the loft.)

Turning to the chapters on subgenres though, it soon becomes apparent that what the introduction suggests is a relatively modest remit is actually much broader and ambitious. This is not just an examination of a selection of thick texts but a trawl through a great deal of science fiction film and literature. Take, for example, ‘The Decline And Fall Of The Alien Invasion’. This chapter has at its heart an examination of three examples of the subgenre – Mars Attacks! (1996), Independence Day (1996) and Dreamcatcher (2003) – but Kaveney is required to cover an awful lot of ground to build up to this examination. Not only does she provide a history of the alien invasion subgenre as the chapter title sets out but also detours into various other subgenres relating to aliens. This is virtually a book in itself and, given the constraints of space, inevitably things are sketched too quickly. The choice of texts is also questionable: Mars Attacks! and Independence Day form a useful pair but little is gained by adding Dreamcatcher. The pattern is repeated in the other chapters and in each case the asymmetrical focus on several core texts of the subgenre throws into sharp relief the way she schematically treats other texts she is less interested in.

This tendency is even apparent in some of the chapters on individual films. For example, Kaveney remarks in passing in the chapter on Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (1998) :

“It is odd how in Dante’s films it is almost impossible to distinguish between sentimental and cynical conclusions.” [page 57]

Nothing more is made of this. In a chapter that starts with a lengthy preamble of only tangential relevance that surveys some examples of literary robots it is surprising that there was not more room to discuss Dante’s actual films. In the same chapter she suggests that Verhoeven’s anti-militarism is just posturing. This is an extremely significant criticism that isn’t supported here or in the earlier chapter on Starship Troopers; a tendency to glamorise violence and an unpleasant instinct for the gratuitous certainly, but not this deeper, more personal claim.

From the initial discovery of the inadequacy of the indexing From Alien To The Matrix betrays the signs of being written and published in something of a rush. Where other critics are alluded to in most cases no reference is given, sometimes they are not even named. Equally, it is disconcerting to find an explosion of footnotes in the chapter on Alien when there are hardly any in the rest of the book. Plot synopses can be also confusing – the chapter on Galaxy Quest (1999) is particularly bad in this respect – or, more often, just poorly integrated. Sentence construction is frequently sloppy and there are casual errors. Points are repeated within the same chapter, sometimes within the same page. The putative audience will undoubtedly find fresh insight into some of their favourite films but they will also find it a frustrating reading experience.

This review originally appeared in Issue 1 of the now defunct Fruitless Recursion.

Written by Martin

4 April 2012 at 16:25

Posted in books, sf

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