Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Archive for June 2009

New World

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Patrick Ness has a short story, ‘The New World’, up at Booktrust. It fills in some of the events that happen off stage in The Knife Of Never Letting Go around Viola’s arrival on the planet.

The other settlers are almost a ghost story to us. We’ve had no communications from them either in my lifetime or my parents’, so we always figured they didn’t make it. It’s a long, long trip from Old World to New, decades and decades, and so they were still on their way when our convoy left. But we heard nothing from them. Even our deepest space probes only caught distant glimpses of them as they travelled. Then after the time came when they would have landed, still years before I was born, it was hoped that we could communicate with them on the planet as we got closer, let them know we were coming, asking what it was like, what we should prepare ourselves for. But either no one was listening, or no one was there anymore.

The story is told in the first person from Viola’s perspective and in this it anticipates The Ask And The Answer, the second book in Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, in which the narrative is split between her and Todd. It also anticipates its blend of mixture of fear, violence and hope. My review of The Ask And The Answer will be published at Strange Horizons in the next couple of months but suffice to say you should go out and buy it now.

Written by Martin

29 June 2009 at 11:20

Posted in sf, short stories

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These People Are Not Your Friends

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On Thursday Steven Wells died. Swells was many things but most importantly for me he was a writer for the NME. I read both the NME and Melody Maker religiously between 1992 and 1998, pretty much the last gasp for both publications. My dad had been a subscriber since before I was born and every Thursday after school I’d go to the newsagent to collect them. Swells and writers like him had a huge influence on not just my musical taste but my writing style and beliefs about journalism and criticism.

In a piece of serendipity that is also slightly ill-timed another NME writer of that era, John Harris, asks where have all the good music writers gone? There is no mention of Swells. As the writer himself alludes to, Harris is now part of the dad rock tendency and this hangs over his article.

Speaking of dad rock, Bruce Springsteen was pretty special last night.

Written by Martin

28 June 2009 at 15:33

Metropolitan Manners

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This is what happens: a promising first novel comes in; you read it with excitement, wondering vaguely what the second will be like; within what seems to be about a quarter of an hour, the second is glistening on your desk; you read it with reserved admiration; then, slap, comes the third; you read it with growing unease; then comes the fourth—and you read it if you can. The way things are, most SF authors have to write more than a book a year to go on being SF authors. They spin short stories into novellas, novellas into novels. They write faster and faster, and with less and less energy. They turn into hacks before your eyes.

Martin Amis, The Observer, 8 May 1977

Matthew Davis has a long article at Strange Horizon about Martin Amis’s tenure as the Observer’s science fiction reviewer. He goes into quite a lot of detail, perhaps more than was necessary to make his point, and the most interesting parts are when he moves away from the forensic to talk more generally about reviewing science fiction:

Amis is famously Nabokovian in his prescription that “there is only one school of writing—talent.” As a reader and reviewer, his special concern is to determine the resiliency, precision, craft, and quality of the reviewed writer’s prose and his formative sensibility. Amis treats SF in general with respect, though not always all SF writers with the same consideration… What pained the SF fraternity was Amis’s exercise of metropolitan literary manners, since his idea of entertaining writing could be fierce. As Jonathan Raban notes, there is an off-the-peg standard issue accent for the smart English reviewer: smartyboots, mocking, alternating between a donnish high-Augustan pose and come-off-it-mate low slang.

This clash of manners which leads to arguments about tone rather than substance is something I’ve been thinking about since the various discussions about my review of Nights Of Villjamur. Davis goes on to conclude:

To say a book was a better one of its type, be it planetary adventure, historical novel, or even interior monologue, is only incidental to saying whether it is a good book, for the only real, demonstrable proof of quality is a personal vision realized in crafted prose of distinct metaphorical intensity. It is probably easier for SF writers to sustain the hurt of SF being dismissed en masse (and indeed this dismissal probably contributes to a bumptious sense of community pride) than it is to have the finger jabbed directly for individual failings. All writer-critics are necessarily cranky, as they intentionally or not use the book under review to explicate the prejudices and practices that underlie their own works.

I’m not sure how writer-critics differ from any other critics in this respect. This ties in with a recent post at Ruthless Culture in which Jonathan McCalmont suggests that people pay more attention to the pre-theoretical values their criticism embodies.

Written by Martin

22 June 2009 at 13:26

Mea Culpa

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Hal Duncan has written several posts about criticism, authority and prescriptivism. They are very, very long. I am only interested in this one because it mentions me. A couple of years ago I reviewed Vellum for Vector. I concluded the review by saying:

This is not the one great, insurmountable problem with this book though. That problem is simple: it is not a novel. As is increasingly common these days it is instead half a novel, a single work that has been arbitrarily cleaved in two. There is no need for this and, as I have suggested above, it is not as if Duncan doesn’t provide ample opportunity for cuts to be made. Indeed so long and knotted is the book that what is initially a delight to read starts to drag in its final quarter. Once we have struggled through the bewildering, disorienting text with its multiple cul-de-sacs we are rewarded with… nothing. Merely the promise of more to come.

Duncan responds:

This is simply inaccurate. Had the same “shows every sign of being” phrase been included here there would be no issue, but as it stands the review presents a speculation that Lewis does not and cannot know to be true — because it is actually false — as a spurious assertion of “fact”. (In actuality the structural decision to write a diptych of two novels was made after much deliberation, (rather than arbitrarily,) on aesthetic grounds that I considered to outweigh the potential for misreading to occur, (again, rather than arbitrarily,) and with the vast majority of the actual writing still to be done, (which is to say, before there was a coherent novel to be halved, a single work to be cleaved.) Factual error corrected, I’ll make no defensive claims here that Lewis’s impression of a sundered novel is rendered illegitimate by this actuallity. The author is dead. I won’t stink up the room.)

This then is the peril of making assumptions. As it happens, sometime after I wrote that review, I attended an interview Duncan gave where he made clear the level of structural formalism he had brought to the diptych. This was something I missed and although I still find the presentation of the diptych problematic I was clearly wrong here.

Written by Martin

19 June 2009 at 16:48

Posted in criticism, sf

Tagged with

Kool And Sexy And Popular

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M John Harrison feels he is beating his head against a brick wall:

Good luck to Richard [Morgan] with his arguments for a realistically human view of humanity. I’ve been making them for many years & no one in f/sf has paid the slightest attention.

Harrison has achieved a lot in his career and yet he still finds himself having to make the same arguments he first made forty years ago. I can see why this is frustrating. The message is being heard in at least some quarters though.

OF Blog of the Fallen has more commentary here, including a long comment from Vacuous Wastrel:

I also think that, although I know you’re a Harrison fan, talking about him as a prophet in the desert cursed by his courage to a short and brutal life, killed by us the unthinking mob, might just possibly be slightly overdramatising, and over-idolising, the man and his importance. He’s not actually a martyr, he’s just not as unpopular as other people. Popularity is not a right, and its absence is no deprivation. His stoning to death by the public consists in him being substantially wealthier, more influential and more popular than most of those who hold less ‘prophetic’ opinions.

VW goes on to post about this and China Mieville’s recent comments on Tolkien, where he concludes:

Going by what I’ve read said by both of them, I consider Papa Tolkien not only more successful and a better writer than Harrison, I also consider him a better, more admirable, more emulandory person. I’m quite happy with the side I’ve been born (or raised) on. What reason does anyone have to pay attention to Harrison’s hegemonic sociopolitical opinions (which is what the geek-hate ultimately is)?

The last sentence tips it over into comedy, and I’m not sure what “emulandory” means but without having any interest in martyrs or messiahs I know who I would prefer to emulate.

Written by Martin

18 June 2009 at 11:47

This Is An Excuse

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Jetse de Vries has an post in which he sets out seven reasons (although he calls them “excuses”) why SF writers might not want to produce positive SF. As you might expect from that framing it contains more than its fair share of tendentious crap but I was interested to what his rebutal of my position was. He summarises this position as “I will not confirm to your positivist agenda: nobody tells me what to write.”

The first thing to say is that de Vries proceeds from a fundamentally different starting to me, for him “the genre is overwhelmingly bleak”. If it is I hadn’t noticed. He also describes it as “highly reactionary” and “a comfort zone for unambitious writers” which I am happier to agree with, although not in the way he means. So de Vries sees a problem in need of a solution and I see, well, nothing much. In contrast to the status quo, he sees positive Sf as difficult, risk-taking and relevent and because of this writers are scared of it. There is nothing like patting yourself on the back.

Returning to the “excuse”, de Vries says that saying writers should write what they want is tantamount to saying they should never be questioned or challenged. As he goes on to say in his next sentence, this is nonsense (he then digresses into the economic health of the genre). The point about challenge is interesting though. Challenge is, of course, healthy but if the challenge is to be succesful – positive, we might say – it has to be specific and accurate. The positive SF movement amounts to what is essentially a broadside, a huge generalised criticism that attacks everything but refuses to name names, with the result that it seems more motivated by ideology than art. This is fair enough if you take the utterly functional view of science fiction that de Vries seems to but for those of us who don’t it is always going to be unpersuasive.

(If the original post is tl;dr – or, more likely, too thin; couldn’t read – then James Bloomer summarises at Big Dumb Object.)

Written by Martin

17 June 2009 at 12:11

Posted in genre wars, sf

Tagged with ,

Polar Ends Of The Arts Spectrum

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On Sunday I went to see For The Best at the Unicorn Theatre. It is an installation produced by the artist-in-residence at the kidney dialysis unit at the Evelina Hospital School. The Guardian gave it five stars:

There is a lot of the dark here – a black-eyed figure stalks the family – but also a heart-breaking and ethereal beauty, not least in the mother who, when medicine fails, will try to keep her child alive through sheer force of will. It is a devastating theatrical journey that throws dazzling light on the idea of illness as metaphor.

Earlier in the year I complained that Down The Rabbit Hole was basically a load of stuff in a building. Well, the conception and execution are far superior here but it still amounts to a load of stuff in a building. The journey through the hidden parts of the Unicorn which the installation takes is skillful but you can’t shake the feeling that the producers have thought, for example, “hmm, this is a tall space, we could stick a bit of rope-work in here.” I was moved in parts but I was craving a unity that wasn’t there.

On Thursday I went to see Britney Spears at the O2. She’s been the American (wet) dream since she was seventeen. The Guardian gave her three stars:

The audience can’t possibly have turned up in order to hear her greatest hits sung live, given that everyone seems to accept that Spears isn’t singing live – certainly there are moments when Spears could no more obviously be miming were she wearing white face make-up and pretending to walk against the wind.

Britters takes the stage dressed as a ringmaster but she in the shades and faux-military clobber bears more than a passing resemblance to Michael Jackson (there are also nods to Rhythmn Nation-era Janet Jackson later on). It is appropriate; this is a damaged pop icon trading on former glories. She is slow, tired and quite possibly drunk. It is two thirds of the way through the concert before she even speaks, let alone sings. Straight afterwards she does actually pick up the mic for a rendition of Everytime (sitting on a giant floating umbrella, natch) and it brings the loudest cheering of the night. It is all too brief though. For the rest of the time she fulfills the role of the magician’s assistant, required to do nothing more than walk around in a sequined bra. But still: it’s Britney, bitch.

Written by Martin

12 June 2009 at 10:17

Good Luck, Chuck

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In the television programme Alias Jennifer Garner is a spy who infiltrates non-descript stage sets using a different wig every week whilst at the same time struggling to keep her true identity a secret from her friends. It lasted five seasons. Chuck is the same concept but with laughs (and no wigs) and it has just been re-newed for a third season.

Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) is supposed to be some sort of loveable loser but since he seems to be happy, affluent, attractive with an interesting job he enjoys he isn’t much of a loser at all. He just doesn’t have a girlfriend. Then one day his old college roommate emails him a message which visually imprints a basilisk-type super-computer in his brain. Suddenly Chuck becomes a major security asset. After a ludicrously implausible power struggle betwen the NSA’s John Casey (Adam Baldwin) and the CIA’s Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) they decide to act as joint handlers with Casey posing as his neighbour and colleague and Walker posing as his girlfriend. I think you can see where this is going.

It is all entirely predictable. The plots are stupid, tedious and repetitive and the will-they-won’t-they drags on and on. The makers are obviously aware of this and so from time to time inject some big revelation try and shake things up. This invariably turns out to be a damp though.

Thankfully the Writers Guild of America strike meant that the first season is only thirteen episodes long. I say thankfully not because Chuck is terrible – in small doses it is fun – but because it is so desperately thin. Often I would expect an episode to finish only to find there was still an interminable coda to follow. In fact, it should really have been written as 30 minute sitcom episodes. Either that or a 90 minute movie. So yeah, inoffensive and occassionally pretty funny, but there is only so long you can spin this stuff out for.

Written by Martin

9 June 2009 at 21:45

Posted in television

Tagged with ,

It’s Not For You

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My review of Nights Of Villjamur has generated quite a few comments over at Strange Horizons. In fact, more than any of my other ones. (Red Seas Under Red Skies, another “core genre” fantasy novel, is the only one that has come close.) The conversation – if you can call it that – continues in this thread over at OF Blog Of The Fallen.

As it happens, my next review for Strange Horizons is another fantasy novel: God Of Clocks by Alan Campbell. It will be interesting to see how many comments this (positive) review attracts.

Written by Martin

9 June 2009 at 12:06

Redshift, edited by Al Sarrantonio

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Well, that’s that done…

Introduction by Al Sarrantonio
‘On K2 with Kanakaredes’ by Dan Simmons
‘The Building’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
‘Froggies’ by Laura Whitton
‘What We Did That Summer’ by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg
‘A Slow Saturday Night at the Surrealist Sporting Club’ by Michael Moorcock
‘In Xanadu’ by Thomas M. Disch
‘Commencement’ by Joyce Carol Oates
‘Unique Visitors’ by James Patrick Kelly
‘Black Tulip’ by Harry Turtledove
‘Belief’ by P. D. Cacek
‘In the Un-Black’ by Stephen Baxter
‘Weeping Walls’ by Paul Di Filippo
‘Anomalies’ by Gregory Benford
‘Captive Kong’ by Kit Reed
‘Feedback’ by Robert E. Vardeman
‘Between Disappearances’ by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
‘Resurrection’ by David Morrell
‘Cleopatra Brimstone’ by Elizabeth Hand
‘Burros Gone Bad’ by Peter Schneider
‘Pockets’ by Rudy Rucker and John Shirley
‘Ave de Paso’ by Catherine Asaro
‘Road Kill’by Joe Haldeman
‘Ting-a-Ling’by Jack Dann
”Bassador’by Catherine Wells
‘Ssoroghod’s People’by Larry Niven
‘Two Shot’by Michael Marshall Smith
‘Billy the Fetus’ by Al Sarrantonio
‘Viewpoint’ by Gene Wolfe
‘Fungi’ by Ardath Mayhar
‘Rhido Wars’ by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Helpfully for the critic Al Sarrantonio sets out exactly the criteria he wants anthology to be measured by. In his introduction he asks rhetorically:

So is Redshift the finest original sf anthology of the last twenty five years? Will it expand sf and influence its future for the next twenty five years?

These are the questions I’ve tried to address by proxy with my crude five star ratings for Quality and Shiftiness. I can’t really address the first question because I haven’t read enough original sf anthologies of the last twenty five years. Judged on its own merits though, it isn’t very impressive. If this is the finest then that is a sad indictment indeed. Perhaps the best thing Sarrantonio could have done was excise all his own words from the anthology. The insane hyperbole of his introductions exert a poisonous influence on the reader. If you are constantly told that this is the best thing since sliced bread you can’t help but respond “well, clearly it isn’t”. If the stories are allowed to stand for themselves you are more likely to say “yeah, that was a decent collection”. Of course, Sarrantonio didn’t want to produce a collection that was merely decent.

The second question is more interesting and split into two parts. Rather than address it directly though I am going to look at another view of Redshift. I recently read John Clute’s review at SF Weekly and I was surprised not that it differed from my view but at how radically it differed whilst coming to the same conclusion. In the details though, it takes virtually the opposite view to me and this in turn will help me illuminate a few of my problems with the anthology. So, some quotes from the review:

There are, moreover, almost no bottom-drawer tales here from “famous” vanity-plate authors whose veteran status allows them the occasional bummer, the kind of story that should be signed “Vet.”

Clute weasels a bit with “almost no” but I don’t know how else to describe the stories from Moorcock, Kelly, Turtledove, Haldeman, Niven and Wolfe. These are tired, predictable stories that wouldn’t get picked out of the slush. I’m prepared to believe Turtledove can’t actually do any better than this, that his entire career is based on just churning this stuff out, but at least some of the others should know better though.

Those authors who are new or newish are included on merit mostly, not promise.

Who are these new authors? Laura Whitton makes her publishing debut with a terrible story which in his introduction Sarrantonio admits was a workshop piece that only made it into the collection under the patronage of Dan Simmons. And, er, that’s it (unless you consider a publishing history of ten years “newish”). It is notable that there aren’t actually any new writers here. This is particularly noticeable from the other end of the decade because none of the present wave of new talent are represented or even suggested.

There are no stories which go on too long, and several—Neal Barrett’s long, stunning “Rhido Wars,” which depicts hominid life in a context savagely pre or post our own, maybe a few terrible centuries into life on a generation starship, but who knows?—seem to stop way too soon, as though a novel had been pounded into pemmican.

Now, I could happily read more of ‘Rhido Wars’ but many of the stories here out stay their welcome. ‘Commencement’ by Joyce Carol Oates is perhaps most egregiously over-protracted but at least it is well written. Most of the other stories that are too long are actually quite short in absolute terms, the problem is their ideas and prose are too feeble to sustain them for even this length.

By the way, if you had to look it up (as I did), “pemmican” is dried meat that has been powdered. This strikes me as a poor way to describe ‘Rhido Wars’; this is not an atomisation, it is more like a reduction to intensify the flavour.

Now for some agreement: “There is no genre prison left for Redshift to escape from.” The comparison Sarrantonio draws to Harlan Ellison is – to use Clute’s term – codswallop because it is so obsolete. However, when Clute then goes on (despite this) to look at the idea of what is still taboo in individual stories I again disagree.

Only one story—Elizabeth Hand’s “Cleopatra Brimstone,” worthily the longest tale in the book—is both sexually explicit and deeply incorrect.

Clute then recuses himself (at double the length of the above quote) from discussing the story further on the grounds of his friendship with Hand (the story actually takes place around Clute’s home). this leaves us to guess at what is meant by “deeply incorrect”. From context I am assuming something like transgressive and ‘Cleopatra Brimstone’ is a story about transgression but it is divorced from the youth culture that is the catalyst for this transgression. Hand makes herself a tourist.

Gene Wolfe’s “Viewpoint” is also un-PC, a deliciously surly take on the modern mega-state, and media, and people who rob people and don’t respond well to kindness;

It is a shame to see someone of Clute’s intelligence using the phrase “un-PC” in this way. There is nothing un-PC about this story (even if such a thing exists). It merely presents a Conservative caricature of a Liberal state and as with all caricatures it is unconvincing. There is no taboo here: this is mainstream (and idiotic) American political discourse.

Joe Haldeman’s “Road Kill” is not so much un-PC as nearly intolerable: told at an icy remove—the story is couched as a kind of movie synopsis—it has some of the effect of those fictions which attempt through estrangement to convey some sense of Final Solutions.

This is just madness. ‘Roadkill’ is not told at an icy remove, it is told at the intimate remove of a voyeur. A writer could use this to make a point about reader complicity. Haldemen does not. To link this trashy example of the sex and death thriller to novels that attempt to explicate the Holocaust is staggeringly mistaken.

But then – the individual stories dismissed – Clute gets to his conclusion and nails the major failing of the anthology:

What there is not—and it may have been a bad instinct on Sarrantonio’s part to allow us to think there might be—is any sense of consensus about the nature of the fantastic in the new century.

Redshift is fundamentally backwards looking, it is an anthology of the Twentieth Century. So, returning to that second question, the answer to both parts is no. This is starkly apparent in the type of authors solicited, it is equally apparent in the type of stories they have produced. These are stories that are solid, even stolid, rather than expanding and radical. It is – sadly for Sarrantonio – most apparent in the total lack of influence the antholgy has had on the genre. Never mind twenty five years, it was forgotten with five.

Written by Martin

5 June 2009 at 10:58