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After The Boom

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In advance of Loncon 3, Strange Horizons have published ‘The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium’ which includes an article by me on the boom in non-genre science fiction over the last decade:

This is because the last decade or so has seen an acceleration of what can uglily but accurately be described as non-genre SF. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this trend has occurred in parallel with the emergence of the New Weird since it points to a generation shift. Just as contemporary genre authors are writing in the context of several mature subgenres and so are influenced by all of them, so too contemporary literary authors have increasingly been immersed in science fiction through their formative years. (Equally, you could probably say the same about non-genre fantasy but that has always been a less rigidly demarcated and fractious boundary.)

Genre fantasy is probably a bit overlooked by the symposium too. This is understandable since it takes place in the context of comparing the current state to that in the boom year’s of British science fiction in the previous two decades. However, as Andrew M Butler notes ‘Thirteen Ways Of Looking At The British Boom’, the essay that provided the springboard for this symposium:

“It is asserted that there is currently a boom within British science fiction… The Boom is thought of mostly as a British Science Fiction Boom, and to limit it to this genre is clearly within the parameters of a journal named Science Fiction Studies. But there is also a parallel boom within fantasy and horror, as well as within children’s fiction.”

It strikes me that we have seen a British fantasy boom over the last decade but we lack the critical infrastructure to discuss this in the same way as we discussed the earlier British science fiction boom. So perhaps this symposium will act as a bit of a challenge in this respect. And I wonder if this boom will have a similar effect in shifting non-genre fantasy further from its comfort zone (say the magical realist, lightly supernatural end of the spectrum) in the same way non-genre SF has gradually expanded from dystopias and post-apocalyptic scenarios. After all, literary historical fiction is extremely popular and it is only short hop over the fence into epic fantasy. Yet a book like The Kingdom Of Fanes by Amanda Prantera (1995) which does this is extremely rare (the author notes, “Ignored by critics and readers alike, I stubbornly maintain this is the best thing I have ever done.”)

The other ommission I acknowledge in my piece is the lack of coverage of children’s SF. I simply ran out of time and space but reading Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner (2013) immediate afterwards made me regret this more than usual. It is a brilliant novel, sharing something of the tone and setting of Jed Mercurio’s Ascent and making equally few consessions to the reader. It was also eligible but not submitted for the Arthur C Clarke Award the year it had an all male shortlist. The problems with the genre science fiction market for women over the last decade have been much remarked upon but what is interesting is that over the same period the literary and children’s markets offer a counterfactual in which high quality science fiction is regularly published by women. The pendulum is starting to swing back but it is an important reminder of th eneed to look beyond our doorstep.

Written by Martin

29 July 2014 at 07:05

Posted in criticism, sf

Hugo Voting – Art

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Fan Artist

1) Sarah Webb
2) Mandie Manzano
3) No Award
4) Spring Schoenhuth
5) Brad W. Foster
6) Steve Stiles

Pro Artist

1) Julie Dillon
2) Fiona Staples
3) John Harris
4) No Award
5) Galen Dara
6) John Picacio
7) Daniel Dos Santos

Best Graphic Story

1) Saga, Volume 2 written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)
2) “Time” by Randall Munroe (XKCD)
3) No Award
4) The Meathouse Man adapted from the story by George R.R. Martin and illustrated by Raya Golden (Jet City Comics)
5) Girl Genius, Volume 13: Agatha Heterodyne & The Sleeping City written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
6) “The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who” written by Paul Cornell, illustrated by Jimmy Broxton (Doctor Who Special 2013, IDW)

On balance, probably more interesting than the fiction categories.

Written by Martin

28 July 2014 at 19:56

Posted in art, awards, sf

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Hugo Voting – Fiction

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When I posted my votes for the Hugo short fiction categories yesterday, it generated a bit of chat on Twitter suggesting that I was wrong to rank works below No Award. This is the view set out in a Weasel King post that got a lot of coverage but is less clear than it might be on the fact there are two different voting philosophies when using Instant run-off voting.

The first is that you only vote for what you want to win. This is the purist’s philosophy. Under these circumstances, it makes no sense to vote for anything below No Award as they are all equally lacking in merit. In addition, if you only partially complete your ballot, it might have unintended consequences. This is what the body of the Weasel King’s post addresses.

The second is that you rank everything on the ballot from most want to win to least want to win. This is the realist’s philosophy. Under these circumstances, No Award is simply one preference in your hierachy of preferences and it is completely valid to rank those underneath. The Weasel King only belatedly acknowledges this in the comment.

I think it is important to use No Award because we need to be honest with ourselves that no, most of the nominated stories don’t deserve. But this is a symbolic protest; No Award is never going to ‘win’ the category. Under the purist’s philosophy, that would be the end of my involvement in the awards. Fair enough but, since it is unlikely, why engage with the Hugos in the first place? The reason I subscribe to the realist philosophy is that I’ve gone to the trouble of engaging with the awards and reading the shortlists so want to be able to say most of these stories aren’t award worthy but even within these, some are better than others.

So that is the basis on which I’m voting. Here are my votes for all the fiction categories with some adjustments to the ranking of No Award (on the grounds that if I’m making a symbolic protest, I might as well make it as loudly as possible) and asterisks indicating works I feel are ineligible.

Best Novel

1) No Award
2) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
3) Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Ace / Orbit UK)
4) Parasite by Mira Grant (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
5) Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia (Baen Books)
6) The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books / Orbit UK) *

Best Novella

1) No Award
2) “Equoid” by Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
3) The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
4) “The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
5) “Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 10-2013) *

Best Novelette

1) No Award
2) “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
3) “The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)
4) “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com / Tor.com, 09-2013)
5) “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day (The Last Witchking, Marcher Lord Hinterlands)
6) “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013)

Best Short Story

1) “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)
2) No Award
2) “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)
3) “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com, 04-2013)
5) “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, Mar-2013) *

Written by Martin

24 July 2014 at 08:14

Posted in awards, books, sf, short stories

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Hugo Voting – Short Fiction

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Here is what I nominated. Here is what I’m voting for:

Best Novella

1) “Equoid” by Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
2) No Award
3) The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
4) “The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
5) “Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 10-2013)

Obviously ‘Wakulla Springs is better than either of the two stories above it (indeed, the Torgersen is one of the worst stories I’ve ever read) but I don’t see how it is eligible for an SF award. Equally, I’m sure ‘Six-Gun Snow White’ by Catherynne M. Valente is both better and eligible but Subterranean Press have supplied it as a PDF so I’ve not read it. And, to be honest, I almost put No Award first since moederately fun as the Stross is, it is hardly award worthy.

Best Novellete

1) “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
2) “The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)
3) No Award
4) “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com / Tor.com, 09-2013)
5) “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day (The Last Witchking, Marcher Lord Hinterlands)
6) “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013)

All read and all eligible but really, I don’t want to vote for any of them. But Chiang’s weakest story is still a Chiang story.

Best Short Story

1) “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)
2) “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)
3) “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com, 04-2013)
4) No Award
5) “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, Mar-2013)

As with the Duncan and Klages story, I’m not sure why the Swirsky is eligible for an SF award. The Samatar is the only story on the entire ballot that I think is actually award worthy. However, whilst I don’t particularly like either of the Tor.com stories, at least they are RUMIR and have their heart in the right place.

In a word: depressing.

Written by Martin

23 July 2014 at 20:42

Posted in awards, sf, short stories

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BSFA Review – Vector #276

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Like many of the people reading this, I own hundreds of books I haven’t read. It seems likely that I will die with some of these books unread – and I’m not planning to die for quite a while. However, as you may remember, I recently moved house so the majority of my library is still entombed in boxes. This means that when I fail to keep myself sufficiently supplied with new fiction, I am reliant on the lottery of the charity shop pile containing books rejected by our reviewers. Such was the predicament I found myself in last month.

It didn’t help that the book I had just finished was Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, a thrillingly cryptic reincarnation of New Wave SF with a thoroughly modern sensibility. You need something decent after a book like that. So my eye was drawn to his quote on the back cover of The Barrow by Mark Smylie. In hindsight, the warning signs where all there. For starters, Vandermeer’s praise – “this fresh take on highly recommended heroic fantasy” – doesn’t even make sense. Then there is the usual fat fantasy cholesterol: it is 700 pages long, preceded by half a dozen maps and rounded out with two epilogues and a glossary. But the real problem, as soon becomes evident, is that Smylie writes comics for a living and hasn’t quite figured out the transition to prose. This means that when he introduces characters, he is thinking not of his reader but of his illustrator.

Here he is introducing the first character in the novel: “He was dressed in a dark brown high-collared long coat of stiff leather, tight blue-black cloth breeches, and black leather boots, all splattered with mud and dirt… A point dagger and heavy-bladed falchion were strapped to his side by a broad black leather baldric.” And the next one: “His fine travel coat and breeches were woven of good dark wool with silk trim…” The clomping foot of nerdism is alive and well; no wonder the book is so bloody long.

I do wonder if its relative brevity is part of the appeal to adults of teen orientated fiction. So the next book I plucked off the shelf was Arclight by Josin L McQuein from Egmont’s new Young Adult imprint, Electric Monkey. It has an enjoyably prickly female protagonist and a weirder setting than the zombie apocalypse it initially resembles but it also has this:

“Move, or I’ll move you.” Tobin shifts his position for better leverage.
Desperation and lack of ideas make me stupid. I grab Tobin’s face with both hands, close my eyes, and kiss him on the mouth.

It is astonishing that such a laughable and regressive cliché can be published in 2014. It killed the book for me – I don’t want to read this rubbish and I don’t want another generation to be taught that female sexuality is a tool for averting male violence. Another of Electric Monkey’s launch titles, Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, will be reviewed in the next issue and sounds a hell of a lot better.

At this point, I moved to my son’s shelves and from books notionally written for children to books actually written for children. The first of these was an intriguing small press book, London Deep by Robin Price and Paul McGrory, where each page is split equally between prose and illustration with the narrative flipping seamlessly between the two mediums. It is an interesting concept and the stylised black and white art by McGrory is effective. Unfortunately this is not matched by Price’s writing which marries perhaps the most preposterous plot I’ve ever read with relentlessly clumsy prose. I had to stop after a dozen pages.

In contrast, I read dozens and dozens of pages of Zita The Space Girl, Beth Hatke’s SF graphic novel for kids, and could presumably have gone on doing so indefinitely since absolutely nothing happened. In despair, I turned to my local Oxfam where I found a copy of Stonemouth by the late, great Iain Banks for a quid. I overpaid: it is the latest and last iteration of a story he’s told before and told better, a book that makes you gag on its nostalgia. Oh, Banksy.

Luckily, at that point The Method by Juli Zeh – which I longed for in my editorial for Vector #274 – finally dropped through my letterbox. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped.

Reviews

  • We See A Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad (Futurefire.net Publishing, 2013) and Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall (Rosarium Publising, 2013) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • Sunshine Patriots by Bill Campbell (Rosarium Publishing, 2013) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Your Brother’s Blood by David Towsey (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
  • Looking Landwards, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
  • Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
  • The Lego Movie (2014) – Reviewed by Leimar Garcia-Siino
  • Ender’s Game And Philosophy: The Logic Gate Is Down, edited by Kevin S. Decker (John Wiley & Sons, 2013) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
  • A Brief Guide To CS Lewis: From Mere Christianity To Narnia by Paul Simpson (Robinson, 2013) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • Proxima by Stephen Baxter and On A Steel Breeze by Alistair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • The Age Of Scorpio by Gavin Smith (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • Plastic by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Tor, 2014) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
  • The Many-Coloured Land by Julian May (Tor, 2013) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • The City by Stella Gemmell (Corgi, 2013) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
  • Naomi’s Room and The Silence of Ghosts by Jonathan Aycliffe (Corsair, 2013) – Review by Gary Dalkin
  • Dreams And Shadows by C Robert Cargill (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
  • The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston (Thomas Dunne Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
  • Legends, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Tony Jones
  • End Of The Road, edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
  • A Gentle Flow of Ink by Graham Andrews (FeedARead Publishing, 2013) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
  • How To Be Dead by Dave Turner (Aim For The Head Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Written by Martin

14 July 2014 at 21:08

Posted in sf

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For Tomorrow

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David Hebblethwaite says “contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight”. He is right.

I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream – and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.

Nina Allan says there is “a serious problem with the way the larger publishing imprints view SF in the current market”. She is right.

With M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Ian McDonald and Simon Ings on their roster, Gollancz still surely boasts some of the finest writers in the business. But we’d do well to remember that authors with decades-long careers behind them will always constitute less of a financial risk for the publisher. When it comes to new blood – where the risk lies, in other words – aside from Hannu Rajaniemi I couldn’t think of one new-generation writer Gollancz publish who is actively innovative, who comes anywhere even close to doing what Delany was doing in 1971. That was a scary, scary thought. And if Gollancz, with their venerable back catalogue of masterworks and estimable track record in promoting fresh talent, isn’t actively seeking out newer writers who want to do more than write commercial core genre, who the hell is?

I don’t have anything to add to these two posts – although I have in the past – but I’m glad that David and Nina are making these points.

Written by Martin

6 June 2014 at 13:23

Posted in genre wars, sf

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Spun

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A double apology. Firstly, I should have congratulated Nina Allan for winning the BSFA Award for Short Fiction with Spin when the awards were announced. Secondly, I should have reviewed the novella but – as with Ian Sales’s BSFA Award-winning novella last year – I failed to get round to it. I was reminded of this by Daniel Libris’s recent review so go and read that then go and buy Allan’s book.

Congratulations to all the other winners and commisserations to the others on the short fiction award shortlist:

Written by Martin

30 April 2014 at 10:43

Posted in awards, sf, short stories

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Two Thirds Empty Is Half Full

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Strange Horizons have published their annual SF Count which aims to draw attention to imbalances in literary coverage. You will be unsurprised to learn that coverage of and by men still disproportionately dominates. However, 2013 was a relatively positive year for the BSFA Review.

35.77% of our reviews were of books by women, considerably up on last year’s 26.8% (and the year before that. Whilst this clearly isn’t parity, it is actually above the baseline of 33.1% of SF books published in the UK. (Obviously that baseline isn’t completely reliable so please check the SF Count itself for their full methodology.) It is also by some margin the highest figure out of Foundation, Interzone and SFX, the other UK publications.

The same is true of the percentage of our reviewers who are women (a third, up from 23.5% the year before). Given Vector has far more reviewers than the other publications this also means that, in absolute term, we have many more female reviewers. But again, this is a long way off parity and doesn’t even meet the baseline of the approximately 40% of the British Science Fiction Association’s members who are women.

For the first time, this year the SF Count also includes data on black and minority ethnic writers and reviewers. You will see Vector comes dead last on the first of these measures having published only five reviews of books by BME writers (although given the number of reviews we publish – 133 last year – the proportion is always going to be relatively low). On reviewers, it would be nice to say we are doing rather better since Vector is sitting comfortably in the middle of the table. And yet Vector only had two BME reviewer. So actually we only look good in comparison to the seven magazines who had no such reviewers at all (including Interzone and SFX).

Unlike with women, there is no baseline of either books received or membership numbers to compare these figures against. The UK is a very white country – 87.1% – something that is easy to forget if you live in London and spend a lot of time online. My suspicion is UK SF fandom is even whiter. One of Vector’s BME reviewers was my roommate at World Fantasy Con in Brighton last October which was very handy for me as, whenever I wanted to find him, I just had to scan the dealer’s room for the only brown person. That isn’t quite true – American author and editor Bill Campbell was dilligently manning the Rosarium Publishing table and reviews of two of his books will be in the forthcoming issue of the BSFA Review – but there were definitely more women with pink hair present than there were people of colour.

This isn’t intended as an excuse. The UK, including publishing and fandom, is not entirely white and, indeed, is becoming less so. It is important that an organisation like the British Science Fiction Association reflects this fact. I’m grateful for the SF Count for holding me to account and I hope the membership will do the same. Please do contact either me or Donna Scott, chair of the BSFA, if you are interested in reviewing for us or have any thoughts about how the BSFA and its magazines can do more to promote equality and diversity within SF.

Written by Martin

29 April 2014 at 16:02

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A Game Of Two Halves

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So the The 2014 Hugo shortlist is out (as is the 1939 Retro Hugo shortlist, if you are into that sort of thing). I put a lot of thought into the awards this year so I was pleased to see so many of my nominations made it through:

  • Best Short Story: ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)
  • Best Related Work: Speculative Fiction 2012 by Justin Landon & Jared Shurin (Jurassic London)
  • Best Graphic Story: Saga, Volume 2 written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics ) and “Time” by Randall Munroe (XKCD)
  • Best Professional Artist: Galen Dara
  • Best Fanzine: The Book Smugglers edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James, A Dribble of Ink edited by Aidan Moher and Pornokitsch edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin
  • Best Fan Writer: Abigail Nussbaum
  • Best Fan Artist: Mandie Manzano and Sarah Webb
  • John W Campbell Award For Best New Writer: Sofia Samatar and Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Of the things I didn’t nominate, I was particularly pleased to see Liz Bourke for Best Fan Writer, Strange Horizons for Best Semiprozine and ‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’ by Mary Robinette Kowal for Best Novelette. However, the righting of the wrong done to Robinette Kowal was about all the fiction categories had going for them and my pleasure at the bottom half of the ballot soon turned to frustration as the top half was announced.

Partly that was because the 14 book Wheel Of Time series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson was nominated for Best Novel after some bright spark noticed it was notionally eligible under section 3.2.6 of the WSFS Constitution: “Works appearing in a series are eligible as individual works, but the series as a whole is not eligible. However, a work appearing in a number of parts shall be eligible for the year of the final part.” Obviously fandom took the bait, despite the fact it clearly isn’t a novel and wasn’t even all written by the same person. On the plus side, it does mean that Adam Roberts’s lengthy evisceration of the series could be eligible for Best Related Work if he can bring himself to read the final three Sanderson volumes.

More than that, however, was the presence of a load of old shite from the Baen/Analog end of the spectrum, including a story from Vox Day. The quality of this fiction is a guess; I will read it and come to a judgement when the voter pack is sent out (although I’m not helpful). What isn’t a guess is the fact that they are on the shortlist because of concerted mutual lobbying. This is a pretty obvious outcome of fan culture endorsing award lobbying so you can’t then turn around and complain that the wrong people were more successful at lobbying.

Written by Martin

20 April 2014 at 10:10

Posted in awards, sf

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Changes

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As I mentioned, I moved recently. The reason I needed to leave my beloved flat was not just the constant accumulation of books but the birth of my son. That event also occasioned me changing my surname so I could share his. On one level, this is simple: you just send off a form and a cheque. On another, it is a thorny tangle of beaucracy and identity. Changing over to Martin Petto on my work IT and HR systems was simple, as was changing my multiple social media accounts. Other things took longer which is why 14 months later by wallet still contains cards with a mixture of names on them. Hardest of all, however, was working out what to do about my ‘professional’ name (don’t laugh). Having spent over a decade writing under my old name, I found it hard to make a clean break so you’ll probably have noticed that I’m still reviewing as Martin Lewis. The rough rule of thumb I had adopted (until very recently) was that I’d keep Lewis for ‘old things’ and use Petto for ‘new things’. To my surprise, one of those new things has turned out to be this:

Rite Of Spring

So yeah, I am one of the contributers to Pandemonium: The Rite Of Spring, the latest chapbook from Jurassic London. This foray into fiction has obviously been met with some gentle teasing from fellow critics but it does open up some further questions of identity. For example, it is not uncommon for it to be suggested that critics are wannabe writers or that ‘those who can, do’. I’m not a wannabe writer, I am actual writer, just one who chooses to write non-fiction rather than fiction. So a part of me feels like a traitor to the fellowship of critics and mourns the loss of the armour of my purity. But a bigger part of me doesn’t give a shit. My story, ‘Letter From the President Of The British Board Of Film Censors’, was an experiment for myself (less formal than this one but an experiment nonetheless). It was fun to write and I hope it is fun to read. If not, here is some Phil Ochs:

Written by Martin

8 April 2014 at 10:58

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