What better way to return to The Space Opera Renaissance than with a story entitled ‘Space Opera’? Except, of course, it isn’t space opera. Instead, it is an obvious joke: what if, like space opera was opera about space? So Kandel gives us a lengthy synopsis of an imaginary opera with occasional critical asides, as if one were reading a tedious entry in a poorly written overview of the field.
Hartwell and Cramer describe Kandel as “the sort of SF writer who perceives the odors of contempt and literary class prejudice that still hang in the social air when the term space opera is used in literary circles, and leaves the room.” An arse, in other words. They go on to say that the story “poke[s] fun at the absurdities of opera and of space opera” but I didn’t notice this. The only thing I found enjoyable about this story was Kandel’s ill-advised name for his aliens which gives rise to lines like this: “A chorus of bints sings of the forthcoming invasion of the Dalminian Empire.”
A couple of months ago, I praised Gollancz for reprinting Climbers by M John Harrison. Now they deserve more praise for similar acts of literary preservation. First of all, they are publishing a revised version of The Red Man by Matthew de Abaitua as an ebook. Since we live in the future, it is accompanied by a short film based on the first chapter:
I reviewed The Red Men for Strange Horizons. It was a pretty mixed review – do I write any other sort? – but I’m glad it is being reprinted, both because it is an interesting work in its own right but also because it represents a second bite at the cherry for de Abaitau:
This isn’t a novel you can get an easy grip on; like the famous elephant surrounded by blind men, its shape and texture suggest differing beasts depending on where you grab it. Literary thriller and domestic drama, thought experiment and drug trip, cyberpunk and technopagan, satire and prophecy. It is almost as if de Abaitua is worried that he will only get one chance and has consequently crammed all his ideas into one novel.
I’ve probably said that in other reviews too since it is a persistent issue with debut novels. But these days, there is some truth in that worry for authors. The modern genre often appears to be curving back to its pulp origins; without a midlist, the only way for authors to keep their heads above the water is to bang out a couple of books a year across a range of subgenres. If you are a stranger sort of writer, if you you have feet in different camps, then you are likely to sink without a trace. De Abaitua’s follow-up was not a novel but a book about camping. Will Ashon, a similar sort of writer, was unceremoniously dumped by his publisher at around the same time. Gollancz will also be publishing de Abaitau’s new novel, If Then, perhaps they could pick up Ashon for a new deal too?
That is idle dreaming but Gollancz are going to bring back into print another writer from my wish list: Simon Ings. My first experience of Ings’s fiction was his two recent novels from Atlantic, The Weight of Numbers and Dead Water. Neither are science fiction (and I squinted very hard at Dead Water when I was a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award) but both are excellent. But once upon a time, Ings was known as an SF novelist; a bright young star of British scene in the early Nineties. I picked up a secondhand copy of his debut novel, Hot Head and it more than stands up so I am very excited to read the remainder of his backlist. Gollancz will also be publishing his new novel, Wolves, with this rather lovely cover:
At the opposite end of the literary spectrum is Rod Rees whose debut novel, The Demi-Monde: Winter, was the worst book I read in 2012. Foolishly his publisher, Jo Fletcher Books, recently gave him free rein on their blog and what he produced was stupid and offensive. I have sometimes wonder if publishers do this in the belief that all publicity is good publicity: how else to explain Night Shade Books giving Thomas Morrissey a platform? Rees’s publishers seem a bit stung though because Jo Fletcher has written this godawful response to the criticism they have received. It is probably a good rule of thumb that publishers shouldn’t respond to criticism of their authors for exactly the same reason that authors shouldn’t respond to criticism of their work. If you are going to respond, try not to be passive-aggressive, shameless and patronising in your first sentence, spend the remainder of your words chasing a tedious free speech red herring and then sign-off with condescending abuse. (Further commentary on the whole sorry mess from Liz Bourke here, here, here and here.)
A couple of years ago I reviewed The Flood by Maggie Gee. It isn’t a very good book and one of the main ways in which it isn’t very good is in its incredibly clumsy handling of issues like race and politics. Still, Gee is well regarded (she was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 1983) so when I saw a copy of The Ice People in a secondhand bookshop I thought I’d give her a second chance.
The book gets off to a unfortunate start with the way the publisher has truncated its cover quote from Jeremy Paxman: “A remarkable novel… very funny.. up there with Orwell and Huxley.” Well known jokers, both. Inside, Gee’s own words are equally unintentionally eyebrow-raising. The issues are back and they are back in abundance. Here we have narrator Saul reflecting on his childhood in the future (AKA pretty much now):
I started to hate these foreigners. There wasn’t enough to share with them. We lived in a three-bed brick twentieth-century cottage with plasterboard doors that never quite shut, and my parents worked harder than anyone.
One day when my mother had come home exhausted from an all night run to Edinburgh, I told her I hated black people. She came into the garden in her dingy pink nightgown, and begged me to stop slamming my football against the shed. I did three more kicks, then went and lay down on the prickly yellow lawn, ignoring her.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. ‘For heaven’s sake.’
‘I don’t like black people,’ I said. ‘The screen said even more of them are trying to get in.’ To me they seemed like liars and scroungers who would keep my family poor for ever. ‘I hate black people. Why must they come here?’
She looked at me with a little frown, a puckered white thread in her sun-reddened forehead. ‘Saul – they’re not all the same, you know. You can’t go hating black people.’
‘It’s true, Mum. I saw the pictures.’
‘You don’t understand.’ She sounded peculiar. ‘Saul, listen … look … there’s something …’ She stared at the ground, her mouth working. Then something burst out like a stone at a windscreen. ‘Haven’t you noticed your father’s black?’ (p.7)
Actually, I take it back – this isn’t eyebrow-raising, it is agonising. Our narrator continues: “In the bathroom mirror I looked for the truth. My skin was golden, as it was before, but I watched it change and become light brown. Spots, I saw, and curly black hair, and features broadening with adolescence. My nostrils, flaring. Yes, and my lips. I saw Dad’s face behind my own.” (p.8) We then skip forward ten years to the 2020s and from race, we move to gender:
…the fashion was for shaving, of heads and bodies. Why was that? Hard to recall now, but it lasted for decades, that egglike baldness. Perhaps it was a kind of streamlining, an attempt to keep cool at any cost. And the style appealed to both men and women. The fashion of the time was for androgyny, so hair was suspect, for it signalled gender.
And yet, though our clothes and hair denied it, a great gap had grown up between the sexes. Segging we called it. From segregation. Almost everything we did was segged. Girls with girls, boys with boys, great droves of animals bypassing each other, eyes darting across, wild in the neon, jostling, signalling, twisting through the night, two big streams that couldn’t make a river. (p.12)
George Melly says the book can be read as “an analysis of the widening gulf between men and women.” I must have missed that. Saul’s role in the novel is to represent men in this laughable gender wars set-up. In particular, he embodies pig-headed conservative masculinity which means that he has to fall in love with Sarah, the first woman with hair that he sees:
‘Oh god,’ the woman said. I looked at her. She had long hair. Most females under fifty had short hair, unless they were under ten, that is. She was small, slim, in a loose white dress, not fashionable, a ‘pretty’ dress. What my mother would have called a pretty dress… That weird waterfall of hair. Such childish hair. Reddish-brown, shiny, glinting like conkers against their white shell, and her skin had tiny freckles like dots of honey. She looked miserable, but her eyes were very blue. She came closer. The music gathered and poured. My heart swelled absurdly. (p. 14)
Sarah is a new type of teacher for this brave new world where humanity has spontaneously given up on heterosexuality:
‘It’s a new post,’ she said, shy. ‘I’m something called a Role Support Officer.’
‘What does that mean, then?’ I asked her.
‘The government’s decided that boys and girls have to be taught to get on together. It’s partly political, I’m afraid. They’re making appointments all over the country. Because the fertility figures are down again, and they have to seem to be doing something. Elections next year, of course.’
‘How do you mean, get on together?’
‘Well – I mean – you know – ‘ She was intensely embarrassed. ‘Live together, I suppose. Try to get them living together again.’ (p.15)
I was pretty intensely embarrassed by this point too. Is Gee joking? The tone isn’t comic and there is nothing to indicate satire but this can’t be meant seriously, can it? (As with The Flood, you can tell when Gee is doing satire and it is bloody awful: the Conservative Party have become the Conserver Party, theatres have become lloydwebbers, etc, etc.) If it is a joke, it is in pretty poor taste:
‘I like the look of you. You’re – different. You’re not just English, are you? What are you? French? Spanish?’ She looked straight at me. Her curiosity was like a kiss. Then she lit up. ‘You’re beek, aren’t you. You must be, of course! Tell me I’m right.’
And she had seen the thing that I wanted her to see. Beek was short for bicolor, the French insult that black people themselves had taken over to mean ‘mixed race’, and she used it so easily.
‘Yes, I’m beek. Most people don’t notice. My father’s half-African, my mother was white.’ Had I ever said it straight out before? She made me feel I could be myself.
‘That explains why – well, you look good to me.’ She finished the sentence in an awkward rush. ‘I’m very interested in all that. It was part of my Ethnicities diploma course.’
I’d always disliked the word ‘ethnicity’ – it sounds like someone cleaning their teeth – but on her lips, it seemed tolerable. (p.16)
This would be bad enough in its own right but Gee seems not to have considered that it might be problematic to make your misogynistic avatar of everything that is primitive and base about masculinity a black man. This is how Saul acts when they are first together: “She made the food; I ate it, gratefully. She washed the clothes; I put them on. I never really noticed that she was doing more (but she could have spoken; she could have complained) until one day we had our first quarrel.” (p.24) And here he is after ten years have past: “I was slow to resume our sex life after Luke was born. I wanted to be sensitive. I spit with derision to think of it now, but I didn’t want to hurt her where she had been hurt. If you love a woman you don’t want to hurt her. And then you want to smash her, rape her, kill her. (p.42)” Gee’s ability to inhabit the male psyche is uncanny! Everything is is so baffoonishly broad that you suspect it was written in crayon. Here, for example, is Saul’s entirely realistic reaction to discovering he has a low sperm count:
I was angry, and hurt. Sarah claimed I exploded. ‘Oh, you don’t know it all, then?’ I sneered at him. I tore his form in two, then in four. ‘Do you think that’s a surprise to anyone? Science knows fuck all about making babies –’
‘He’s upset,’ said Sarah, pre-emptively. ‘I’m sorry, Dr Um – I can never remember your name. Sorry.’
‘Wang. Dr Wang –’ (I laughed, rudely) ‘we quite understand these are stressful experiences.’
Dr Wang ‘understood’ – but no one understood. I had just been told my sperm was semi-fertile. My balls were no good, that was what I heard. They were big and firm, I had trusted them, I’d secretly believed the problem was Sarah’s – (p.33)
Dr Wang? “Big and firm”? This is unreadable and, impossibly, the depiction of fertility treatment that follows is even more offensive than the rest of the novel. I very rarely put down a novel but after 50 pages I could take no more. I started by mentioning Paxman’s quote on the front cover but there is an even more troubling one on the back: “Martin Amis once said Gee was the only female author of his generation he would bother to read.” Let that be your warning.
Romain Gavras directed the ginger genocide video for MIA’s ‘Born Free’. He subsequently expanded this idea into the truly terrible film Our Day Will Come. So let’s ignore that and watch his badass video of MIA’s ‘Bad Girls’ instead:
The Arthur C Clarke Award was announced on Wednesday and I was at the ceremony at the Royal Society so I could join in with the massed ‘oooh!’s when Dark Eden by Chris Beckett won. Not many people were expecting his name to come out of the envelope but I’m pleased – it is a very impressive novel.
To coincide with the announcement, it has been Clarke Award week at Strange Horizons. Niall Harrison has offered his thoughts on the shortlist and Abigail Nussbaum’s two part piece has been the main event for the reviews section. As a change of pace, my review of No Return by Zachary Jernigan is the final piece up at Strange Horizons this week.
One of the criticisms of this year’s Clarke shortlist was that it took an overly rigid view of what constitutes SF in comparison to previous years. For example, in 2001 China Miéville won the award with Perdido Street Station, a secondary world fantasy. That type of speculative fiction is something many would consider orthogonal to science fiction but I think it is an issue that the award is going to have to continue to address:
Is this fantasy? Is this science fiction? It doesn’t matter. This fusion reaches its apotheosis in the epilogue, which takes us back inside the mind of Adrash and presents a wonderfully disconcerting creation story in the form of a sort of dreamtime space opera where humanity hatches from iron eggs. Steph Swainston was perhaps too far ahead of the curve when she published The Year Of Our War in 2004; now it seems all the best new writers take this hybridity for granted. Quietly, without any fuss, the New Weird has won.
Night Shade Books are one of the publishers that have provided the space for this secret revolution: Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (2011), for example, meets No Return in New Weird territory coming from the opposite direction. Obviously Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen have no idea how to run a business but their programme of debuts over recent years has been a huge boon for readers.
No Return won’t be on next year’s Clarke Award shortlist because it isn’t published in the UK. God’s War might be, however, since Del Rey UK have just published it here. I hope a British publisher picks up Jernigan because he shows a lot of promise but No Return isn’t the finished article.
As far as I’m aware, this is the first review in which I’ve used the word ‘aubergine’. To continue the food theme, it doesn’t matter how ambitious, inventive or skillful you are if what you serve up simply doesn’t work: Jernigan’s souffle has collapsed. Or, to make a comparison to the other major announcement of the week, he’s done a Larkin.
The winner of this year’s BSFA Review poll of reviewers was also my favourite science fiction of 2012: Empty Space by M John Harrison, the concluding volume of the Kelfuchi Tract trilogy. This truly remarkable novel is reviewed by Dan Hartland over the page: “The boldness of Empty Space, then, is in positing a physical source of the metaphorical, allegorical and symbolic currency of the literary novel. Like the Tract itself, the trilogy which bears its name permits two-way traffic: from the literary to the science fictional, Harrison carries artful prose and intense human sympathy; in the other direction, he drags substance and even rigour.” All three novels have been nominated for the BSFA Award and, if there is any justice, this will be Harrison’s year.
Then again, I wouldn’t bet against Jack Glass either. Adam Roberts is a bit of a marmite author: he is critically acclaimed and widely admired but his books have a tendency to rub people up the wrong way. I’m inclined to think that is a good thing but Jack Glass has undoubtedly proved less divisive than most of his work – in a forthcoming review, Dave Roberts describes it as his “most entertaining to date”. It has already appeared on the shortlist for the Kitschies (losing to Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist after a much-remarked upon absence for the last couple of years.
Our third place novel is also a BSFA Award nominee: 2313 by Kim Stanley Robinson. As you’d expect from a KSR novel, it is hugely ambitious but even Ian Sales, who chose it earlier in the magazine as his book of the year, notes: “The future Robinson describes is a work of art, though it’s a pity he couldn’t give us a plot to match.” It is for this reason that Gary Dalkin’s forthcoming review describes the novel as a “thudding bore” but Robinson remains well loved.
What both the BSFA Award shortlist and our top five lacked this year were any novels by women. This is at least partially a reflection of the membership’s preference for science fiction over fantasy and the lack of much of a pool to draw from given the parlous state of British SF publishing when it comes to women. Hopefully the arrival of Del Rey Books in the UK this year, bringing with them Kameron Hurley and EJ Swift, will improve this situation. Still, it is worth noting that only two women have won the award in its 43 year history.
Despite the impediment of being a female fantasy writer – and a children’s fantasy writer to boot – Frances Hardinge makes our sixth place. Hardinge is simply one of Britain’s best fantasy authors, I am very pleased to see her appear on this list and I can’t wait to read A Face Like Glass. In contrast, Railsea, a children’s fantasy by perennial awards-magnet China Mieville, seems to have found little favour anywhere (although his story ‘Three Moments Of An Explosion’ did make the BSFA Award shortlist).
Just behind her in seventh is Boneland by Alan Garner, “a summation of Garner’s understanding of the impulses that shape and drive us as human beings, reaching far back into the mythic past”, as Maureen Kincaid Speller put it earlier. This book completes the immensely influential children’s fantasy trilogy he began over fifty years ago with The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, testament to the rich history of British children’s literature. It remains remarkably fecund today: a new children’s genre imprint, Strange Chemistry, appeared in 2012 and Mark Connorton and Cherith Baldry review its four launch titles on page 42.
Garner shares the seventh spot with Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. It goes without saying that it also makes the BSFA Award shortlist – this is his ninth appearance. No one else writes anything like MacLeod and the membership have embraced him for that. The final novel on the shortlist, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, didn’t place – I voted for it, Chris.
Perhaps appropriately the final slot on our list is shared by two entirely different novels; one from the very heart of British science fiction (Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds) and one from the slippery fringes (Hawthorn And Child by Keith Ridgway). This is a reminder of the depth and richness of speculative fiction, as is the fact that in all 51 titles received votes. That’s a year’s worth of reading for me, although much less for some of you!
BSFA Review Poll
1) Empty Space by M John Harrison
2) Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
3) 2313 by Kim Stanley Robinson
4) Communion Town by Sam Thompson
5) Extreme Metaphors, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara
6) A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
=7) Boneland by Alan Garner
=7) Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
9) Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord
=10) Hawthorn And Child by Keith Ridgway
=10) Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds
- The Angel Of Revolution by George Griffith and The Purple Cloud by MP Shiel – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
- Empty Space by M John Harrison (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
- Osiris by EJ Swift (Night Shade Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
- Shift by Kim Curran and Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard (Strange Chemistry, 2012) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- Blackwood by Gwenda Bond and The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke (Strange Chemistry 2012) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- Dust by Joan Frances Turner (Penguin, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
- Timeless by Gail Carriger (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
- The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Staunton, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- The Devil’s Diadem by Sara Douglass (Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
- The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann 2012) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- Kultus by Richard Ford (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- The Ritual by Adam Nevill (Pan MacMillan, 2011) – Reviewed by Stephen Deas
- The Mall by SL Grey (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- The Greyfriar and The Rift Walker by Clay and Susan Griffith (Pyr, 2010, 2011) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
- To Indigo by Tanith Lee (Immanion Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
- Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord (Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- The Minority Council by Kate Griffin, (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- This Is The Quickest Way Down by Charles Christian (Proxima, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- Take No Prisoners by John Grant (Infinity Plus, 2011) – Reviewed by Tony Keen
- Mythanimus by Storm Constantine (Immanion Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
- Words Of Re-enchantment by Anthony Nanson (Awen, 2011) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
Once you’ve completed step two, go down the pub. The above photo is from the Rosemary Branch but the majority of this review was produced in conjunction with the Pembury Tavern and London Fields Wheat Beer. Once you have your pint, it is time to start putting flesh on the bones so that your nice neat outline…
By this point the structure will have changed again with sections having split and merged and there will still be lots of holes. So lather, rinse, repeat:
The opening is hard but the ending is harder:
750 words becomes 1,500 words becomes 2,000 but remember to keep cutting as you add. Not all lines of thought are necessarily worth pursuing, even if they do include a gratuitous pop at Dr Who:
Follow this advice and, after your third visit to the pub, you should have something that is pretty much a finished review.