Posts Tagged ‘strange horizons’
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.
My review of Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo is up now at Strange Horizons. It is by some margin the longest review I’ve ever written – the footnotes alone are over 1,300 words. The reason for this is that Broderick and Di Filippo say so many odd things that are worth writing about. As I say in the review, “my abiding impression of The 101 Best Novels is of being constantly blindsided; I ended the book not informed or entertained but baffled by these sentence-sized bolts from the blue.”
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:
- Part 1: Tim Maughan and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
- Part 2: Ian Sales and China Meiville
- Part 3: Chris Butler and Aliette de Bodard
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.
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.
My review of The City’s Son by Tom Pollock is up now at Strange Horizons.
So debut novelist Tom Pollock is telling a story with a familiar shape, a story of secret London. The daddy of such books is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996), adapted from the BBC drama he devised with Lenny Henry, and it still casts a long shadow. Once I would have said that there was perhaps a need for this sort of story to be retold every five years or so, but now, of course, urban fantasy is ascendant and every city has a secret soul. The City’s Son may ride this wave but it fits more comfortably into a slightly more specific tradition. After all, London is a bit special. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I went to an interview with slipstream writer Nina Allan. At one point, she mused on her distance from the core of the science fiction genre and rather wistfully remarked that she’d like to be a space writer but always seemed to end up as a time writer. Listening to her I was struck by how perfect London is as a setting for such fiction. After all, the city is a type of time machine; the past and the future sandwiched against each other. This history—this density—imbues the city with a crushing psychic weight. It is virtually a singularity.
Niall Harrison recommended the novel to me which should have been a warning sign since our tastes so rarely converge. It is a novel with intelligence and flair but it needed either flawless execution or far more ambition. I can see why it made the Golden Tentacle shortlist for the Kitschies though. (I should also reinterate that it is a debut novel so perhaps my standards are unrealistically high – I certainly feel like taking a break from reviewing them.)
I end my review with a bit of wishful thinking about where the series might go next. Well, it turns out Pollock was thinking along similar lines:
For an ordinary girl from a nice British Pakistani family, Pen’s been through a lot in the last few months. She was kidnapped by a barbed wire demon, rode at the head of an army of scaffolding wolves and fought in a war against a demolition god, all in the name of her best friend. Now back at school, she wears the scars of that war on her face, and the only person who knows what that’s like is her mirror-sister Parva: a doppleganger who only exists in London-Under-Glass, the city of London’s reflections. Parva’s her own person, but she shares all of Pen’s memories and she understands.
When Parva goes missing, Pen ventures into London-Under-Glass to find her. It’s a strange city, where it rains brick and concrete as well as water, where beauty is currency and a well-turned eyebrow is worth killing for, a city dominated by the dangerous politics of the Mirrorstocracy. At its heart though, this story’s about something very simple, the search of a scarred, scared, brave girl for the soul in all the worlds that’s closest to her own.
I probably won’t read The Glass Republic – I’m increasingly thinking that new genre writers should just get their first trilogy out of their system and move on – but I imagine I will be returning to Pollock in the not too distant future.
Last year I didn’t contribute to the Strange Horizons review of the year and I wasn’t planning to this year either. But then I woke up at four in the morning with a burning need to praise M John Harrison. So I did. Looking at the choices of the other reviewers, I’m a bit surprised to see that only two people have picked Railsea. Is China Miéville losing his allure? Not with me, he isn’t. Less surprisingly, no one at all mentioned Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. This was the last book I read in 2012, one of the best and a strong contender for the Clarke Award, I reckon. I will be nominating all three for the BSFA Award (if you are a member, please get your nominations in too – they close on 11 January). And here are three novels that aren’t eligible for any awards but are bloody great:
My review of Osiris by EJ Swift is up now at Strange Horizons.
There is a problem beyond this, though, a problem with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction. What one might call Resource SF could make a vital contribution to literature but the commitment only ever seems to be political rather than artistic. The only novel I can think of that attempts both is Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone (2011). The concerns are similar to Swift’s—the remorseless march of the Gini coefficient bears its inevitable fruit—but it seeks to be not just a science fiction novel but a novel in its own right. No one else seems to be trying.
I wrote this review not long after Paul Kincaid published a review of several year’s best collections in the LA Review of Books. I imagine it shows. Problems with the state of the genre were on Kincaid’s mind too and his diagnosis was as follows:
The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.
Jonathan McCalmont makes the moral and political failing of this crisis of confidence explicit in a follow up article which glories in the typically restrained title ‘Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future’:
This conceptual blockage was most evident in the immediate aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis when the housing bubble burst and banks across the world began to collapse. Exposed as nothing more than a vast pyramid scheme, global capitalism lurched and stumbled but never quite fell… Having failed to identify this culture-wide conceptual blockage as any kind of failure or flaw, science fiction never bothered to rout around it.
And yet this is not my problem; Resource SF does not turn its back. In fact, Kincaid expands on his review in a long interview with Nerds Of A Feather where here he draws the distinction between three different forms of crisis facing SF: a crisis of ideas, of identity and of confidence. It is the former – an entirely aesthetic crisis – that I believe Swift succumbs to. On this point, Kincaid says:
Within any art form there are individuals or movements that attempt to push the boundaries in various ways. They are concerned with seeing what new can be done, what more can be done with the form. Often, though not always, they are initially viewed with dismay or disdain by aficionados of the art, though in retrospect they are generally viewed as being the innovators who mark an important developmental stage in the history of the form… What they do may be good or bad (and in science fiction a lot of the so-called innovations of the new wave in the 1960s were, frankly, very bad indeed), but I think they are important for the health of the form.
Alongside this, and by far the majority of the exponents of any art form, there are the traditionalists, concerned to do more of what the form has always done. Some of these can be very good, there can be great artistic achievements that make no effort whatsoever to challenge the nature of the form. What I found, reading the three books, and it bore out something I had been aware of in previous best of the year volumes I’ve read, was that practically everything belonged in the second camp.
Kincaid adds that “I don’t think this perception holds when it comes to the novel” but I’m not at all sure of that. If you pick up a science fiction novel I think there is a pretty good chance that it will read exactly like most other science fiction novels. There are exceptions – Kincaid lists M John Harrison and Christopher Priest in his interview; I mention Adam Roberts in my review – but it is, by and large, homogeneous in a way that literary fiction (regardless of quality) is not.
Helpfully Roberts has given his perspective from someone on the other side of the fence. Well, both sides, really. But what it all made me think was, can you imagine any contemporary Nebula-winner writing Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders?
My review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway is up at Strange Horizons.
I thought The Gone-Away World was fantastically exciting and fantastically flawed. Angelmaker does something similar and, although it is less flawed, it is also less exciting. I want a bit more from Harkaway.
So, has the reader been sold a pup? Yes but, as I said, lots of people like puppies. I ended my review of The Gone-Away World — since it wasn’t clear from the preceding criticism — with the summation: “By the way, I liked it a lot and I’m looking forward to his next novel.” I’m tempted to say something similar now (yes, this is one of those irritating more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reviews). I will continue to buy and read Harkaway’s work because there are sentences, paragraphs and pages of knock your socks off brilliance here. But there are many more paragraphs of prose porridge and, when it is plain that he is such an obviously gifted writer, that makes me feel cheated.
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.
My review of Blood Red Road by Moira Young is up at Strange Horizons. It is a bad book. It is bad in familiar ways. It won an award. This makes me sad but it also makes me feel like I am banging my head against a wall:
In January, Blood Red Road won the 2011 Costa Children’s Book Award. The judges have helpfully provided a pithy citation with reveals their thinking: “It’s astonishing how, in her first novel, Moira Young has so successfully bound believable characters into a heart-stopping adventure. She kept us reading, and left us hungry for more. A really special book.” There is something of Chris Mullan’s infamous remark on his experience of judging last year’s Booker Prize that the novels “had to zip along” to this statement. Perhaps that is all a novel needs to achieve, perhaps such shoddily amateurish affair as Blood Red Road deserves awards for this. I’m not convinced. Please do give me heart-stopping adventure but to get my heart to actually skip a beat, the stakes need to be real, and that means the characters and the world are real.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over Benjamin Rosenbaum’s recent post on the wages of nostalgia which in turn links to Jeff VanderMeer’s rather older post on the triumph of competence. They are both entirely right that we should not settle for the merely competent but, reading genre fiction, it often seems that achieving such a state would be insanely aspirational. As a comparison, I have just finished reading The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht which strikes me as the very definition of competent. (See, for example, Dan Hartland’s review which accurately identifies the novel as toothless.) It does, however, display a level of competence rarely seen in genre fiction.
My complaint against Blood Red Road is that it is incompetent and that is such a basic criticism that it is depressing. So it is nice to be reminded that it is possible to aim higher and, not for the first time, such a reminder was provided by M John Harrison. As I was writing my review, he was publishing a credo that essentially says my diagnosis – that Young’s world needs to be made real – was misguided:
Don’t fauxthenticate. Don’t make a text that begs, “Believe in this, please believe in this.” Rationale is the sound of the stuffing falling out, the sound of the failure of imaginative intensity.
Harrison can write this because he has gone so far past competence that it disappeared into the distance long ago. There is no writer I would rather read on the subject of writing and his contribution to Foundation’s ‘Profession of Fiction’ series is the best thing I’ve ever read by an author about their own work. Originally published in Foundation 46, Autumn 1989, it was reprinted in The Profession of Science Fiction, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Edward James (and available from Palgrave as a Print On Demand book for a mere £66.00), and Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison, edited by Mark Bould and Michelle Reid (and potentially available from the SF Foundation for a tenth of that). So, to cheer me up and to remind me of the potential of both writing and writing about writing, here is his dissection of his own career from that essay:
1966-69: The Committed Men. Identify the illusions central to the genre. The clearest illusions we have are to do with “meaning” and “choice”, with self-determination, problem-solving. Sf draws illusions of this nature across our fears: of death, of the ordinariness of our lives, of the consequences of our actions. A fantasy-world is precisely one in which action has no consequences.
1968-78: The Pastel City, The Centauri Device, The Machine In Shaft Ten, A Storm Of Wings. Subvert these illusions, not for the sake of it, or for political or literary reasons, but because to do so might be to reveal – for a fraction of a second, to yourself as much as the reader – the world the fictional illusion denies. Clearly, stories of immortality reveal death at the heart of themselves, stories of communication inarticulacy, stories of vast space and intersteller flight oppression and earthboundness, and so on.
1976-88: “Egnaro”, Climbers. Recognise (all too slowly) that these two poles of the dialectic – the writing of fantasy/the subversion of fantasy – make a discourse. This is in itself a form of escape. A discourse can be solved. It is like a chess problem. The world cannot be solved, nor can any non-elf reflexive problem with a “leak to the world”.
1985 onwards: The Course Of The Heart. Paradox reigns. We can never escape the world. We cannot stop trying to escape the world.
Liviu Suciu has a post at Fantasy Book Critic about negative reviews which uses two examples: Tibor Fisher’s review of Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas for the Guardian and Liz Bourke’s review of Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan at Strange Horizons. The comments, however, are entirely about Bourke’s review which has itself received many, many comments, including several from Suciu.
In the course of the post and the comments, he also alleges that both Strange Horizons and its reviewers are inherently biased. This isn’t the first time he has made such allegations and he also repeats them on this post from Larry Nolen which discusses the reaction to Bourke’s review. Abigail Nussbaum, the reviews editor of Strange Horizons, challenges him on the allegations but, predictably, he refuses to either support or retract them. Since Suciu also specifically makes these allegations against me I also challenged him and asked for an apology. This comment was deleted so, slightly re-purposed for the different context, here it is:
* * * * *
You set out an accusation: that SH has a deliberate policy of favourably reviewing certain books (“the establishment” consisting of “the scalzis, the tors, the oldies, the pc’s”) and negatively reviewing other books (“newcomers eg Mark Newton or Mr. Sullivan and the un-pc’s (Neal Asher, JC Wright)”). You provided no evidence for this accusation.
Abigail then refuted your accusation by providing comprehensive evidence that your claims were false.
You responded by saying “Well, you deal in over the top claims, you gotta take them too.” Here you are ignoring the evidence and instead comparing Liz Bourke’s supported claims in her review with your unsupported claim above. This shows that a) you have no interest in the truth of your claim and b) you can’t tell the difference between hyperbole (tone) and a lie (content).
Abigail pointed this out and asked you to justify yourself.
You repeated your claim that you are just giving an eye for an eye but then claimed that you’ve already provided evidence. Namely: “the names I mentioned that got thrashed and somehow happen to be authors that do no fit into the pc/establishment places, while utterly similar (or worse and we can discuss that too btw if in the mood) books and authors (eg Sword of Fire and Sun which is on the same level with Theft orf Swords from quite a few points of view) get the plus treatment.” Your argument here appears to be that since books which you personally believe are of similarly quality (you only give one such pair despite your original list of authors) received reviews that differed from your personal opinion then Strange Horizons must be inherently biased. There is such a catastrophic chasm in your argument that it is hard to know how to take issue with it.
Abigail again called you on your conflation of hyperbole and lies and your total lack of evidence for your claims.
You responded by accusing her of slander. What you mean is libel and it is an extremely bold word for you to use. It is you who is libelling Strange Horizons when you accuse it of being inherently biased. More specifically, you are libelling me when you accuse me of giving Mark Charan Newton a negative review because “he dared being a 20 something to have success”.
You say you “do not spread lies as I simply note my perception”. When you voice a perception that is contradicted by reality, it could generously be called being mistaken. When you voice a perception that is contradicted by reality even after that contradiction has been pointed out to you, it is called lying. When you repeatedly voice a negative perception that is contradicted by reality even after that contradiction has been pointed out to you, it is called defamation.
You then put the cherry on the cake by saying: “I am happy to be shown the error of my ways but with deeds not with accusations.” This is, of course, another lie. You have been shown the error of your ways and this has been shrugged off as irrelevant. If you really are happy to be shown the error of your ways then please apologise for defaming me.
* * * * *
I did not expect to get that apology. Sure enough, my comment was deleted and comments on the post were closed. However, Suciu has now appended this note to the post:
I also want to make clear that while I question the judgement and the way of expressing it in the above linked reviews and a few others alluded in the comments, I do not know personally the reviewers involved, have no reason to question their motives beyond what their public words say and I deeply apologize if my comments have been construed as personal attacks. I also do not condone attacks based on race, ethnicity or gender.
This is not an apology. If Suciu had no reason to question the motives of Strange Horizons reviewers beyond their public words then he would never have made his allegations. Having made them, he has still not retracted them and instead apologises for anything that might have been “construed as personal attacks”. Nothing has been construed as a personal attack, he has explicitly made personal attacks on the integrity of me and other reviewers. He signs off by saying: “The sff online community is a great thing and I think we are all better for it, but it is also an easy thing to shatter and I again apologize for contributing to ill will feelings.”
Liviu, if you honestly mean that then publicly retract your statements about Strange Horizons and apologise for them.
Update 1: Suciu responds in the comments.
Update 2: Cora Buhlert has written a blog post about this one but disabled comments. I respond to her below as do others who have had their comments blocked.