Archive for May 2010
So, is Isaac Asimov rubbish? He is certainly unlikely to be of interest to lovers of literature and his previous story in this anthology wasn’t even of interest to lovers of science fiction. This story, from his late period, is equally balls.
A man from a habitat on the Moon (weakly named Luna City) comes to visit a man from a habitat on the ocean floor (weakly called Ocean-Deep). For fifteen pages they talk dryly of habitat engineering before the actual plot reveals itself in the form of an attempted sabotage. Disaster is then averted by a bit of transparent bullshit. This story is really only notable for the unfortunate spectacle of Asimov trying to show how progressive he is about gender roles whilst actually being very sexist indeed.
My wife loves me which is why she often invites me to things like Smother. Well, perhaps “invites” is the wrong word, she buys tickets and tells me I am coming. We could go to Komstam, she said, trying to sweeten the deal. What about that place in King’s Cross that only serves stuff from inside the M25? Konstam is that place, she said with the weariness one can only achieve by being married to me. But she was wrong! I was, in fact, thinking of Acorn House; apparently King’s Cross has two small, eco-friendly restaurants on parallel streets. I’m glad she knew about Konstam though, I had a glance at Acorn House’s menu yesterday and it is pretty uninspired. Not only that but googling for something else I came across this brilliant blog which reminded me that it is the sister restaurant of Waterhouse, a frankly rubbish restaurant down at the back of Regent’s Canal. (When I told my wife this new tidbit of information she nodded wearily and told me she knew.)
Anyway, Smother was one of those site-specific performances that is not specific enough to be more interesting than the site. Luckily it was short and Konstam was just next door. It’s full name is Konstam at the Prince Albert which is a bit silly as it gives the impression that it is a dining room above a pub when in fact they have simply gutted a small corner pub and transformed it into a restaurant. I’d heard before I went that due to the small size, number of tables and industrial decor it could be a bit oppressive but I found it quite pleasant. It is true that when we arrived the atmosphere was excessively hushed, an inevitable side effect of the small number of early diners clustered so close to the open kitchen. As soon as a few more people arrived, some candles had been lit and a bit of alcohol had been consumed it became a lot more cosy. Although not that cosy thanks to the brilliantly soft but stark design by Thomas Heatherwick, he of rolling bridge infamy. By the end of the night my wife thought the cumulative effect was a bit too much – too enveloping – but I loved it.
Usually it is my wife’s perogative to dillydally over the menu (inexplicable really since she usually only has two options). This time it was me. Skate and pork or pigeon and lamb? Whilst this conundrum rattled through my head we ordered bread and pickle of which the green tomato pickle was superb and the roast onion merely good. I then further prevaricated by grappling with the booze list. This featured an array of very tempting beers from Meantime, Westerham and Curious Brew, the Cobb IPa from the latter being the star of the evening. It is great to see restaurants taking care over their beer lists. However, I’m not convinced they’ve really got to grips with a sensible pricing structure, wine always seems to offer better value for money.
Eventually my mind was made up for me by the waiter coming over and I went for pigeon and lamb. Most times when I’ve had pigeon it was been overcooked but here it was perfect, the meat a deep wine-y red. It chimed rather nicely with the colour of my wife’s beetroot soup which had a much softer taste than I was expecting. The pigeon had been cooked on their charcoal grill and this only further whetted my appetite for my leg of lamb. It arrived exactly as I had imagined it: plump mound of barley, dash of spinach to garnish, Olympic rings of lamb lapping over each other, perfectly crustily seared on the outside and mouth-wateringly pink on the inside. I took my first mouthful… and it immediately became clear than something had gone very, very wrong. It was vile. Looking at my plate more closely, I realised I had made a school boy error: I had forgotten about the herring and nasturtium relish. Now, I had been aware of this when I ordered but I had envisaged a little dollop on the side, instead it was heaped over the lamb. I scrapped it off and tried again. It was futile, my meat had been irreparably impregnated with the taste of pickled fish. I couldn’t eat but I couldn’t send it back because it was my own damn fault. My little face was obviously a picture of woe because I had to keep telling my wife not to worry and to attend to her own plate. This consisted of a fillet of seabass which got two thumbs up but it was foolishly placed on top of the potato salad which meant it rapidly went cold.
I was not prepared to sabotage my own dinner though. Whilst the missus ordered a rhubarb tart – a bit too dense for her – I did the only sensible thing: I ordered another main course. This time I went for the pork chop that I had already hovered over and which was accompanied by nothing more threatening than a rhubarb compote (I imagine the chefs feel that just grilling meat is a little unsophisticated and therefore feel duty bound to jazz it up). It also came with roast onion & walnut spätzle. If you don’t know what that it is join the club but it turnout to be a gorgeous, silky pasta salad. With this and a mountain of pork I was simply wallowing in primal pleasure.
The bill came to £100 which even considering the second main was a bit much but then you are paying more for the principle and when this goes hand in hand with such good – if slightly repetitive (again, a feature) – cooking I am happy to do so.
The question now is where to go to lunch on Sunday? The Arthur is always tempting but fish and chips is not a Sunday lunch and, although the option of nutroast is welcome, what the fuck is “vegetarian sauce”? The menu is a bit more exciting across the way at their sister pub, The Empress Of India. The only problem is that every time we go passed my wife always reminds me of the childish strop I once throw outside it over our wedding preparations. Although that applies to half the restaurants and pubs of North-East London (Waterhouse, for example). I think, on balance, I will treat myself to The Princess Of Shoreditch since I’ve been meaning to go their for ages.
This is hardly a science fiction story at all. Instead ‘Gomez’ tells the story of a mathematical savant, directly inspired by the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan (complete with comedy foreign accent). The hard SF element is that he invents a Unified Field Theory but it isn’t really SF since he immediately destroys it and it has no implications for the story.
This story was published in Analog, reprinted by Terry Carr in his Best Science Fiction Of The Year and then again here in this supposedly definitive hard SF anthology. In Canadian Science Fiction And Fantasy by David Ketterer the story is briefly acknowledged as being “about maneuvering asteroids into Earth orbit and refining their ore.” Brian M. Stableford’s Science Fact And Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia goes further to describe it as a revamped and serious treatment of asteroid mining. Given this you might think you could guess the sort of story Kingsbury has written. You would probably be wrong.
A Heinleinian competent man with exceptional engineering skills and zero social skills is the second-in-command of an ore asteroid that is being refined as it is flown back to Earth. So far, so predicatable and there is indeed technical waffle about different types of fuel, the sort of nuts and bolts that make up hard SF. This has precious little to do with the actual story though. Instead the story opens with Mr Competent learning of his wife’s suicide. Since he hates and fears women this doesn’t bother him, however, it does leave the question of what to do with the seven-year-old daughter back on Earth who he has never seen. In an attempt to prove to himself that nothing is beyond his competency – and despite hating and fearing children as much as women – he decides to have her imported. (Despite being repeatedly told that the asteroid is an unforgiving environment where death lurks round every corner, there are plenty of children on board.) First though, he needs to put it to a vote of all the crew since apparently rigid hierarchies don’t work in such high-pressure hermetic environments and instead “village democracy” is much more preferable. This is, after all, how the navies of the world operate their submarine fleets… Anyway, they vote no on the grounds of, you know, the hatred and fear. He goes over their heads to the big cheeses on Earth – democracy in action! – and requests a governess.
This is where the story gets really weird because he doesn’t want any old nanny, no, he wants the most famous prostitute in California to be his nanny. This is not because he has a chronic case of blue balls but because he wants to deploy this whore of Babylon as a timebomb in the sealed community that had the temerity to oppose him. The narrative perspective slips from him to her and with it any hope that Kingsbury had been satirising Heinlein. No, he means it, although what exactly he means isn’t clear.
The story was published in 1978 when Kingsbury was knocking on fifty but he comes across as much older, baffled by these young people of today and hopeless mired in the Fifties. The big wigs apparently think nothing of My Competent’s request. What is a child’s welfare compared to satisfying the incredibly expense whims of a top manager? Perhaps they were also influenced by other factors: one of them physically “staggers back” when confronted with the “firmness of her boobs”. Kingsbury’s whore – who happily refers to herself thus – is foolish, easily manipulated, in love with her manager despite the fact he beats her, financially illeterate and a fake. Obviously she takes the job. In one frankly disgusting scene when they arrive at the it is made clear that she has taught the seven-year-old gain her father’s love my flirting with him. Needless to say she falls in love with Mr Competent at the end of the story having first proved her competency to him by saving him from a decidedly undramatic accident involving a floating mirror. Hard SF is no place to be a woman.
I’d strongly recommend reading Jonathan McCalmont’s review of The City & The City by China Miéville. It is long (over 4,500 words) and really gets at the novels strengths and weaknesses. Like many readers, he found the police procedural aspects lacking. Personally, I liked it, however, McCalmont does raise the intriguing prospect of what the novel might have looked like if it had been a collaboration with Derek Raymond.
Like many people I have been boogled first by the existence of Werner Herzog’s re-make of Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant and then all over again by the growing consensus that it is actually quite good. I particularly liked the conclusion of Peter Bradshaw’s review for its economical summing up and simultaneous subversion of the cliches of critical shorthand:
It’s a critical commonplace to describe a movie or book as such-and-such “on crack” – superfluous in this case, because Nicolas Cage’s character and so many others are literally on crack, always hunched over the pipe and huffing it up. It is truer to say that Herzog’s movie is like Abel Ferrara off crack: dark and gruesome of course, but with something essentially more lenient than Ferrara – less self-torturing, more farcical and crucially more ironic, a quality not very apparent in the deadly serious horror of Ferrara’s film-making. The US release explicitly adds the definite article to the title. Well, for me, Ferrara and Keitel will always be the bad lieutenant, but Werner Herzog is probably the only director qualified to take this on, and his bizarre reboot has a fascination all of its own.
First some background. Last week SF Signal published a Mind Meld entitled ‘What Science Fiction Books Should Be in Every Fan’s Library?’. This inspired a conversation at Nextread and a conversation about that conversation on OF Blog. Today, the second half of the Mind Meld went up (including a contribution from Gav Nextread) and, on the OF Blog post, Gav wrote that he was yet to be shown that his premises were incorrect. So I though I would.
Premise 1: The automatic reaction is to look to past instead of the present.
The evidence for this is the Mind Meld itself but let’s ignore the fact that this is very limited evidence to base such a sweeping premise on. Instead let’s look at what the question asked and how people answered it.
Part of the joy of a Mind Meld is that the participants are free to interpret it as they wish. In fact, the initial suggestion came from John Klima who intended something rather different from the actual question posed:
Often, when a library weeds a collection they look at how often something circulated and how easy it is for patrons to get the book from their library system. If it’s something that wasn’t checked out much and there were a lot of copies in the system, you could feel safe pulling it from the shelf. But, were there books that you wouldn’t weed no matter what? And what science fiction books should every library have in their collection?
So he was clearly thinking in terms of what is essential for an SF library. The actual question asked – what science fiction books should be in every fan’s library? – opens up other rationales as well. What books are underappreciated gems that deserve to come to a wider audience? What books give a representative sampling of all the genre has to offer? If I was answering this question I would aim to be using a mixture of all of these: great books, both old and new, from across the globe, acclaimed and overlooked, from all subgenres and styles.
But how did people actually answer? I’m just going to look at the first part of the Mind Meld since this is all that had been published when Gav wrote his post. The oldest work mentioned is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published in 1818. The most recent work mentioned is Finch by Jeff VanderMeer, published in 2009. Just behind are The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez and Implied Spaces by Walter John Williams, published in 2008. That is quite a span and gives an idea of just how much science fiction has been published. As for Klima himself, he picks both The Time Machine by HG Wells (1895) and Accelerando by Charles Stross (2005). From my perspective this is a good sense of balance. Now, I’m not going to go through every recommendation, look up the date and then produce a bar chart showing when they were published (although if anyone else want to, please do). However, casting an unscienctific eye over the list, it seems pretty representative. It is true that there are more old titles than new titles but that is just a numbers game: even if we charitably say that “new” means in the last two decades that still leaves sixty years of modern genre fiction prior to that and another hundred of immediate precursors before that.
For me, the most modern list of recommendations is also the least useful. This is the list from Alan Beatts, owner of Borderlands Books, with publication dates added by me:
Market Forces by Richard Morgan (2004)
Implied Spaces by Walter John Williams (2008)
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (1990)
Blindsight by Peter Watts (2006)
The Skinner by Neal Asher (2002)
The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi (2006)
The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod (1996)
I think some of those books are good, some of them are great and some of them are essential. I also think some of them are utterly mediocre. Beyond my own taste though, I think it is hard to argue that covering just the last twenty years of fiction is not too narrow. This narrowness is further reflect in the choice of fiction: no women and a strong focus on space opera and the action-oriented end of the SF spectrum. Is this really all SF has to offer?
Given how critical he was of the other lists, it is interesting to look at Gav’s list:
The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Stone by Adam Roberts (2002)
The Gabble And Other Stories by Neal Asher (2008)
You will notice it is rather short. Obviously he was free to pick between one and ten titles but most other participants picked many more than him (although Michael A. Burstein just nominated The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, the idiot). It is surprising that someone who is so passionate about new writing and felt it was getting a raw deal was unable to come up with any more suggestions for fans. In terms of the actual content, it doesn’t seem that different from other contributions. The Hitchhiker’s Guide clearly should be in every fan’s library and that is why half a dozen people suggested (and it is thirty years old). No one else suggested Roberts but they did suggest his peers. The real odd one out is the Neal Asher collection and even then Beatts also suggested Asher. All of which leaves me slightly puzzled by Gav’s reaction to the Mind Meld. To return to the premise, I don’t think we should automatically look to the past or the present (a false dichotomy if ever I heard one). Luckily the Mind Meld doesn’t do this and covers the whole range of the genre. If anyone is automatically ignoring a huge chunk of literature, it is Gav.
Premise 2: The support that old books get is not reflected with the same ferocity when it comes to newer works.
I find this ironic because from my perspective the exact opposite is true. Rather than being bogged down in nostalgia, the modern genre community could do with a bit more historical perspective (and extra-genre perspective but that is a different conversation for a different day). The modern publishing and the blogosphere which increasing functions as a wing of the publishing industry are remorselessly focused on the new. There are, of course, exceptions; Gollancz do sterling work with their Masterworks and others series. It is clear though that backlist is much less important than it once was and that the amount of blogging about the new massively outweighs the amount of blogging about the old. We even had a conversation about this just recently.
Premise 3: New works are dismissed as without merit before they’ve been through some peer-assessed value system.
There is a bit of a flaw with the premise here because if new works really were dismissed as without merit they would never have the opportunity to go though a peer-assessed value system. It is more accurate to say that new works are value neutral until they have passed through some peer-assessed value system and we call that peer-assessed value system “readers”. If I wanted to sound like a twat I could say that books exist in a state of quantum indeterminancy until the act of reading them collapses their wave function.
To be honest, it is hard to rebut the premise because it requires a worldview so divorced from empirical reality that it is hard to find any common ground from which to start a discussion. All books are automatically dimissed? Seriously? It seems to stem from an unexamined assumption that the world of readers is divided into Fans (who read out of love) and Critics (who read out of hate) and never the twain shall meet. This is a relatively common view in SF fandom (for example) but is so weird and poisonous that it worms its way into other conversations like this and destroys any ability to have a rational covnersation.