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Archive for February 2013

Judgement

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Abigail Nussbaum, reviews editor for Strange Horizons, has just launched a new feature at the magazine providing in-depth critial reviews of recent short stories:

In what I hope will become a permanent feature here at Strange Horizons, we will be dedicating one review every other month to an in-depth, essay-length review of short fiction. These reviews will function much like our book reviews. They could be of stories we loved, or of stories we hated. Most of all, they will be of stories we find interesting and worth talking about at length. For our inaugural installment, I looked at stories published in the last three months of 2012, and have chosen to discuss Charlie Jane Anders’s “Intestate,” from Tor.com. A critical conversation won’t emerge out of one column in one magazine, but I hope that this new feature will help to encourage that conversation—among other things, I’d like this feature to become its own short story book club, with readers invited to read the story and start their own discussion in the comments to the review

If you are interested in reading and thinking about short fiction, I’d recommend checking out the discussion. Nussbaum kindly mentions my short story club for last year’s BSFA Award for Short Fiction. I am planning to run the club again this year once the booklet containing the stories has been sent out to the members of the BSFA. To tide you over, Niall Alexander, the Speculative Scotsman, has already been reviewed the shortlist for Tor.com:

Speaking of award, the Kitschies were announced last night. The Golden Tentacle for best debut novel went to Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord. I think this was the right choice, a really consensus had built up around the book, but it was also a strong shortlist with the much praised Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (which I’ve just started reading) and The City’s Son by tom Pollock (which has the Kitschies written through it like a stick of rock, even if I wasn’t that impressed). The Inky Tentacle for best cover went to Dave Shelton’s illustration of his own book, A Boy And A Bear In A Boat. I think this was the wrong choice but then I would say that.

The Red Tentacle for best novel went to Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. It’s a tricky one. When the shortlist was first announced, it was my immediate choice – it has the same spirit that I associate with the Kitschies. But the criteria for the award are “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” and, as I mention in my review, Angelmaker mets the last two but fails at the first. So it was very pleasing to see Harkaway today posting his thoughts on the concept of progressive speculative fiction. Given the subject, there obviously isn’t a nice simple pull quote but this should give a taster:

With both Angelmaker and its predecessor The Gone-Away World, I wrote about ideas in the borderlands of (unapplied?) science and philosophy as if they were Newtonian and tangible: the intrusion into the human realm of cognitive things. (It’s a great way of creating apocalypses, and I think it’s also on some level a truth: perfect ideas don’t sit well on our messy organic societies – hence the inevitable unintended damage to one vulnerable group or another whenever the tax laws change.) In Angelmaker, in particular, I started out trying to explore an idea my friend Tom Coates threw at me years ago: that superheroes are inherently conservative, seeking to maintain the status quo, while the villains always have an agenda for change.

Finally, there was the Black Tentacle which is presented at the discretion of the judges and went to the World SF Blog. Here are Lavie Tidhar’s thoughts on accepting the award:

I was looking out on a sea of white people. Of familiar, talented, friendly and wonderful people, yes, editors and publishers, agents and writers. Who were, predominantly, British (obviously) and some Americans. And outside, the receptionist – the one black woman at the event. Of course, the debut novel award went to Karen Lord – a black woman from Barbados – but she couldn’t be there. And the shortlist included one translated novel, too. The Kitschies try very hard to be a more inclusive award, and it’s hard, with so few international authors published in the UK. But it bothers me, because how can I accept an award for promoting, or trying to promote, diversity, when it is not present in the body of the judges? And it is not present in British genre publishing, and was so glaringly missing from the audience last night?

Tidhar points out that greater diversity can be found in short fiction which brings us back round again to the importance of fully engaging with this part of the field.

Written by Martin

27 February 2013 at 18:46

Perdition And The Deep Blue Sea

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Simon Spanton has published a really odd piece called ‘Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition’ on the Gollancz blog. It is only 800 words long but manages to be rambling, patronising and built of straw.

His central thesis is that “it is clear that we are having a very informed, passionate and ongoing conversation with… ourselves.” Who is this we? I am going to assume all members of what we like to call the speculative fiction community. Apparently we’ve let ourselves down:

Preaching to the converted. Or arguing the finer points of our theology with those on the other side of a schism in our faith. Who is talking to the unbelievers? Who is taking the message out to the heathen mainstream? Where are the missionaries?

Good choice of analogy: missionaries are deluded, bigoted idiots who are obsessed with shoving their worldview down other people’s throats. The genre has got quite enough of those, thanks, we don’t need any more. A more sensible word might be ambassadors and guess what? We’ve got plenty of those too. To be honest, when Spanton writes something so stupid, it is hard to believe he is writing in good faith. Are we really to believe that, say, Damien Walter in the Guardian, Simon Ings in Arc or Adam Roberts in every periodical known to humanity are turned entirely inwards? Not to mention that, in the age of the internet, the very idea of having a conversation with yourself is utterly obsolete.

Spanton concludes: “Where, in short, are the hell we going to get new readers for all these wonderful books from?” Ah ha! It all becomes clear! Despite writing on a blog orientated at readers, the “we” isn’t all of us, it is the industry. Once again a diagnosis of a problem with the genre is quickly revealed to really be a desire to sell more books.

It is for this reason that Spanton picks genre awards as an example of the problem when they actually undermine his original argument. The UK has two awards – one established (the Clarke) and one newcomer (the Kitschies) – that do more than most other things within the genre to spread the good news. They do exactly what he later says in the comments that he is seeking: “What would be fantastic would be if we could find ways to increase that exposure, to broaden the appeal of an Award’s brand beyond that of the already interested parties.” That doesn’t really matter though, all that matters is sales and winning an award “makes not a jot of difference to sales of the winning books”. This is a publishing truism that is frequently trotted out along with others such as people will only buy genre books with ugly covers. In the comments, Lauren Beukes gives a pretty clear example of how this fact isn’t always true:

Zoo City was about to go out of print in South Africa when I won the Clarke Award. It’s now in its fourth reprinting. I’ve certainly seen a spike in sales in the UK and SA although it’s still not huge numbers, and in South Africa it has a lot to do with the local-girl-done-good factor. But still a significant uptick.

More significantly, the Clarke win has lead directly to other opportunities, from Zoo City being included in the Humble Bundle e-book bundle, curated by Cory Doctorow, which sold 80 000 copies (eclipsing all my other sales put together), sales in other foreign territories and, critically, putting me on editors’ radars as my agent and I prepared to pitch The Shining Girls.

As I was typing this, Simon Morden has written a comment saying exactly the same about the Philip K Dick Award. It is not that Spanton is necessarily wrong – I’m sure the Bookscan figures usually do show little sales spike – it is just that this is a very narrow way of measuring things. So I was particularly interested in what Tom Hunter also said in the comments:

SF awards don’t increase sales (part 2). How do you know? I’ve had many conversations with publishers of all sizes about reader insight, and basically there doesn’t seem to be any – publishers seem to know less about their audiences any any other comparable cultural organisation (theatre, gallery, museums etc) So basically unless an award announcement results in an immediate sales spike how are you tracking this?

This was the one comment Spanton didn’t respond to. I am happy to accept that publishers know far more about their punters than me but how much do they actually know? Regardless, it is pretty obvious that awards are a red herring in this discussion. This is Spanton’s second shot at the argument:

I sometimes wonder whether the mainstream and literary markets, even by just occasionally indulging in older genre ideas and treating them with (from religious analogy to art world) broader brush strokes and colours that are easier on the untrained eye, are not going to be more successful at showing to a broader readership what SF and Fantasy can do. Whether it be Audrey Niffenegger, (not Margaret Atwood – she’s just one of us OK? Argument closed), Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Roth, Will Self or even, God help us all, Martin Amis aren’t those mainstream writers who dip into genre actually doing more to take our argument out there than we are? And this is without considering those fantastic and unashamed genre writers, the likes of David Mitchell and Lauren Beukes who are published under the aegis of mainstream houses and who therefore have the chance of getting their conversation heard by believer and heathen alike.

Now this is missionary talk: benevolently condescending to the other side. But it says absolutely nothing. “Aren’t those mainstream writers who dip into genre actually doing more to take our argument out there than we are?” Does Spanton really believe there is a rhetorically obvious answer to this? Where is the argument? We have the tautology that mainstream writers are published by mainstream publishers and nothing beyond this. His final sentence makes even less sense: Mitchell belongs in exactly the same category as Niffenegger of those writing fantastic fiction for mainstream publishers whereas Beukes is someone whose success with genre publishers has brought her to the attention of mainstream publishers. What is missing is any explanation of why this makes any difference to outside of a genre publishing house. There is simply no “we” here.

Because this piece isn’t really about having a “conversation with ourselves”, Spanton doesn’t see the need to make any suggestions about how that conversation might be extended. His only positive suggestion at all is: “But I do think it would do us no harm at all to stop being so bloody sniffy about the mainstream and literary (whatever that means) world’s occasional ‘misappropriation’ of ‘our’ cool stuff.” I agree entirely with this statement. Unfortunately he spoils the effect of having said one sensible thing by immediately following it with classic Them Vs Us cobblers “Yes they are going to claim (in the broadsheets, on the radio; all those places we don’t get to go) that they had the idea and are better than us (just like we do) but they are at least talking to other people.” This is tiresome but in the comments he goes further to say “I’m not a genre Uncle Tom” which is just fucking offensive. And what was the point of any of it? I’m really not sure.

Written by Martin

20 February 2013 at 19:30

Posted in genre wars, sf

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‘Recording Angel’ by Paul J McAuley

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So having just started to sketch out my own definition of New Space Opera, I turn the page to discover Paul McAuley has already done it for me:

New space opera – the good new space opera – cheerfully plunders the tropes and toys of the old school and secondary sources from Blish to Delany, refurbishes them with up-to-the-minute science, and deploys them in epic narratives where intimate, human-scale stories are at least as relevant as the widescreen baroque backgrounds on which they cast their shadows. There are neither empires nor rigid technocracies dominated by a single Big Idea in the new space opera; like cyberpunk, it’s eclectic and pluralistic, and infused with the very twenty-first century sensibility that the center cannot hold, that technology-driven change is continuous and advancing on a thousand fronts, that some kind of posthuman singularity is approaching fast or may already have happened. Most of all, its stories contain a vertiginous sense of deep time; in the new space opera, the Galaxy is not an empty stage on which humans freely strut their stuff, but is instead a kind of junk yard littered with the ruins and abandoned wonders of earlier, more powerful races.

It is a fascinating definition and one that I will return to when I write my conclusion. However, the editors pick a story from his Confluence series which I’m not sure fits the bill. Deep time certainly but perhaps too deep; this is eschatological SF. On its on merits, it faces the same issue as the previously discussed stories by Banks and Greenland in that it is painfully cut adrift from the mass of other story that gives it weight.

Quality: ***
OOO: **

Written by Martin

2 February 2013 at 12:55

BSFA Review – Vector #271

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This issue of the BSFA Review is something of a science fiction special and covers the whole spectrum of SF. I am also pleased to welcome several new contributors to these pages: Alison Page and Finn Dempster covering recent novels and Roger Luckhurst and Aishwarya Subramanian discussing a pair of academic volumes. Oh, and just for good measure we have Tricia Sullivan writing on Greg Egan too.

In keeping with the overall theme of Vector, the BSFA Review opens with LJ Hurst’s review of London Peculiar And Other Nonfiction by Michael Moorcock and Allan Kausch: “If Moorcock’s London were an organism, I suggest it would be either a chameleon or an amoeba. An amoeba because the city grows and absorbs what it grows around, a chameleon because it takes on appearances, possibly intentionally, becoming something else.” This quote gave me the impetus to pull the only one of China Mieville’s books which I hadn’t read yet, Looking For Jake And Other Stories, off the shelf.

London has been a looming presence in all Mieville’s work since his debut novel, King Rat, a shoddy attempt to fuse folk mythology with the its street culture. It was also re-imagined for the Bas-Lag novels that made his name as the violently febrile New Crobuzon and is there in his standalone works, above or below ground, for adults and for children. It also recurs again and again in this collection and, to someone who has made his home here, there is something transfixing about his ruined, post-collapse capital:

Primrose Hill was continually tunnelled through by some great maggoty imago; Kentish Town was a wasteland of heat and burnt-out houses that smouldered endlessly, in some arcane transmirror pyrosis. But Camden, where they had to go, was the running ground of apocalypse scum, the worst spivs from the dead market’s stall-holders, the least politicised of its punks.

It is an acquired taste though, saltier than his novels; his stories are more out of kilter, weirder than his novels and the hand of M John Harrison hangs heavy. They are also more personal and funnier: “I know I never came to you. You lived in fucking Barnet. I’m only human.”

Mieville lost out on the BSFA Short Fiction Award to Paul Cornell this year and those two stories as well as the other shortlisted works were collected in a booklet that was sent to members with the last mailing. This is becoming an annual tradition and one we are keen to continue. In our final review, former Vector editor Kevin Smith reviews the booklet and finds nothing to entice him back into the world of science fiction. As he puts it: “Have the authors lost the wow factor or have I?” Since nominations and votes come from the membership, I would hope people found something in the shortlist to excite them, but I’d be interested in comments from those of you who didn’t take part in the selection process itself and for whom the booklet was your first exposure to the stories. And I’d certainly encourage you all to start thinking about your nominations for next year now; the more people take part, the stronger the award is.

Reviews

  • London Peculiar And Other Nonfiction by Michael Moorcock and Allan Kausch – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
  • Reflections On The Magic Of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones, edited by Charlie Butler, and Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones – Reviewed by Jessica Yates
  • The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan – Reviewed by Tricia Sullivan
  • Machine by Jennifer Pelland – Reviewed by Ian Sales
  • vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • Rocket Science, edited by Ian Sales – Reviewed by Alastair Reynolds
  • Adrift On The Sea Of Rains by Ian Sales – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
  • Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • The Broken Universe by Paul Melko – Reviewed by Finn Dempster
  • In The Lion’s Mouth by Michael Flynn – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
  • The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett – Reviewed by Jim Steel
  • The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • Random Walk by Alexandra Claire – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
  • 172 Hours On The Moon by Johan Harstad, translated by Tara F Chace – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
  • Manhattan In Reverse by Peter F Hamilton – Reviewed by Martin Potts
  • Final Days by Gary Gibson – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • Champion Of Mars by Guy Haley – Reviewed by David Towsey
  • Age of Aztec by James Lovegrove – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • Girl Genius Omnibus: Volume One – Agatha Awakens by Phil and Kaja Foglio – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
  • Doctor Who and the Daleks by David Whitaker, Doctor Who and the Crusaders by David Whitaker, Doctor Who and the Cybermen by Gerry Davis, Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen by Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion by Terrance Dicks and Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters by Malcolm Hulke – Reviewed by Tony Keen
  • Shada by Gareth Roberts, adapted from a script by Douglas Adams – Reviewed by Alison Page
  • Maps Of Utopia: H. G. Wells, Modernity, And The End Of Culture by Simon J. James – Reviewed by Roger Luckhurst
  • Postcolonialism and Science Fiction by Jessica Langer – Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian
  • Kevin Smith on the shortlist for the BSFA Short Fiction Award

Written by Martin

1 February 2013 at 10:40

Posted in sf

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