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Archive for March 2011

‘Preface’ by Bruce Sterling

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Predictably Bruce Sterling opens his preface to Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology by gesturing towards the obnoxious nature of labels but he quickly acknowledges: “it’s possible to make broad statements about cyberpunk and to establish its identifying traits.” He then provides a historical, cultural and literary contextualisation for cyberpunk. For a subgenre often seen as revolutionary today, it is interesting for the contemporary reader to see it described in evolutionary terms. Sterling describes the cyberpunks as being “steeped in the lore and tradition of the SF field”. For example, here is his list of andecedent authors who were major influences: Ellison, Delaney, Spinrad, Moorcock, Aldiss, Ballard, Wells, Niven, Anderson, Heinlein, Farmer, Varley, Dick, Bester and Pynchon. That is as broad a church as you could wish for. It certainly doesn’t adhere to one specific stylistic or political persuasion.

From talking about the evolution of the movement – sorry, Movement – Sterling moves on to dicussing cyberpunk as a product of the decade. Here he suggests that, in fact, it is a revolutionary subgenre because the Eighties are a revolutionary period, specifically name-checking Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave which heralds the dawn of the information age. This is all just a bit too Eighties for me. It is interesting stuff but with a bit of distant it doesn’t necessarily seem like such a paradigm shift. It’s not that it is dated – although Sterling’s futuristic technology (“the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens”) raises a smile – rather than that it isn’t Now. Sterling’s preface is an insiders snapshot, extremely valuable for that reason but a bit too close to the action.

That passion whets the appetite for the anthology though. Let’s get onto the book itself; helpfully, Sterling clearly sets out his aims:

I hope to present a full overview of the cyberpunk movement, including its early rumblings and the current state of the art. Mirrorshades should give readers new to Movement writing a broad introduction to cyberpunk’s tenets, themes, and topics. To my mind, these are showcase stories: strong, characteristic examples of each writer’s work to date.

So that is what I will be measuring it on.

Written by Martin

17 March 2011 at 20:06

Posted in sf, short stories

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The Gollancz SF Masterworks is usually pretty predictable. Often this is a good thing: you would expect masterworks to be well known and a surprising number of classics have been out of print until Gollancz brought them back. At other times, it is less of a good thing. I am a huge admirer of Philip K Dick but when you see his umpteenth minor work being badged as a masterwork you do think Gollancz could cast their net a bit wider. So I was excited by the announcement of the addition of Arslan, a debut novel from 1976 by an author I’d never heard of previously, to the list. On starting to actually read the novel, however, my excitement curdled.

This edition is copyrighted 2010 so presumably Engh has revised it and it also has a new introduction from Adam Roberts (who, along with Graham Sleight, is writing introductions for all the new Masterworks). In his introduction, Roberts cautions that this is not the most plausible work of science fiction. So it proves.

General Arslan, a twenty six year old soldier from the imaginary country of Turkistan, has conquered the world. China and Russia are in his hands and, as the novel starts, the US government has bloodlessly capitulated to him and turn the country over to his control. This happens with such rapidity that most Americans have never heard of him until he suddenly becomes their commander in chief. So you can sympathise with the reaction of Franklin Bond, the high school principal who is our main narrator, on coming face to face with Arslan:

“I stared at him, amazed as much as disgusted. It was incredible that that a two-bit warlord from nowhere, infected with some out-moded Middle Eastern strain of agrarian socialism, could be kinging it over my town – let alone my whole country.” (p.27)

The reader is likely to share this amazement. Nor is this the end of such amazingly unlikely developments: Arslan travels at the head of his army (why?); he stops in the small town of Kraftville (why?); he commandeers Bond’s school as his base (why?). None of this makes any sense so when Arslan makes Kraftville the de facto capital of his empire (and by extension the world) the reader simply has to take this in their stride.

It is not until page 170 that we have an explanation for Arslan’s meteoric rise to world domination. Unfortunately this explanation takes the form of some guff about a magical Russian missile defence system and Arslan holding a gun to the head of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. As Roberts notes, “not even the most naïve political theorist would believe global realpolitik works that way.” (p.ix) However, he then goes on to say: “The point of all this, though, is not to negate the novel’s plausibility; it is to move it, forceably, to a different arena” (p.ix)

(In this context, it might be worth refering to Rich Puchalsky’s recent piece on Roberts’s own fiction: “The Ideal Author of his books, to revert to how they appear to me to be written, is not someone who wants to write a seamless set-up, believable characters, and realistic plots.” This is a response to a piece by Paul Kincaid which identifies Roberts as a Menippean Satirist. Both are well worth reading.)

I am not convinced that plausibility is so motile. I agree with Roberts that depicting a realistic global revolution is clearly not the point of Engh’s novel but is that enough to allow her to simply dismiss it out of hand? Again, I am not convinced. And if this is not her point, what is? Initially it seems that with Arslan Engh is seeking to give this evocation America a taste of its own medicine by turning its own imperialism back on itself. Or perhaps she is reaching further back; Engh has an interest in Roman history and death of America may be intended as a modern version of decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Both of these are points Arslan makes himself:

“More than a hundred years without war. A strange way of life.”

“What do you mean, without war? My God, we’ve-“

“You have made war, you have not suffered it! Your nation, sir, has been perhaps the happiest to exist in the world. And yet consider its history. The natives despoiled, displaced, cheated, brutalized, slaughtered. The most massive system of slavery since the fall of Rome… The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence. Not revolution, sir, for revolution requires coherence. Not eighteenth-century France, but fifth-century Rome… Grotesque, sir, this combination of a primitive puritanism and a frantic decadence; very like the Romans whom you so resemble.” (p.80-1)

In fact, the whole of Chapter 7 is given over to such bluster as Arslan explains his worldview. Ultimately, Engh has little interest in the big picture though; Arslan shows no more interest in political philosophy or geopolitics than realpolitik. Bond tells Arslan that: ”Your little Turkistani wolf pack looks pretty small in the middle of the United States of America, General.” (p.25) He is wrong. It is the United States of America that looks pretty small. In fact, it is nonexistent; Engh has reduced the United States down to a single town. There is no sign of the army or the government and everything functions solely at the county level. Kraftville might as well be an island. What Engh is really interested in – and where she has some success – is people. If America is collapsed down to Kraftville then Kraftville is collapsed down to two individuals, defined by their relationship with Arslan. To discuss these two we must first overcome another stumbling block for the reader though.

On his arrival in Kraftville, Arslan gathers everyone together in the high school, has them bound and gagged and then matter-of-factly rapes two children – a girl and a boy – on the stage in front of them. Faced with an opening that defies reason and ends with such a blatant act of authorial provocation many readers would be tempted to close to book. This was certainly Abigail Nussbaum’s response the first time she read the book. On his blog Roberts commented: “It is worth persevering with. There’s nothing schlocky or cheaply exploitative about it.” She did persevere and I’m very glad she because she has written a wonderful review of the novel. But whilst what Roberts says is true, I’m not sure it is enough.

The majority of the novel is narrated by Bond. He is there from the beginning and the soldiers are billeted around town he finds Arslan under his roof. An honest American – bluff, hollow and provincial – he is set up in opposition to Arslan. The devil gets all the best lines though. Bond has no internal intellectual or emotional life, only a set of morals; he is less a character in his own right than a mirror for others.

No, if it is a book worth persevering with it is because of the second narrator, Hunt Morgan. Hunt is one of the two children raped at the start of the novel (the other, the girl, is never seen from again; see Nussbaum’s review for much more on this absence).

After the rape he is claimed by Arslan as a sort of catamite. Towards the end of the novel, Hunt muses that this period “- if, of course, I could only have known it – had been our honeymoon.” (p.293) This tells you a lot about what you need to know about Arslan; as both Roberts and Nussbaum suggest, “first the rape then the seduction” (p.269) can be taken as the novel’s queasy mantra. What starts as an obvious act of abuse, by an adult of a child, becomes something more complex: “Measuredly, by a gentle graduation of brutal degrees, I was being weaned away from slavery.” (p.176) Here is Nussbaum:

Hunt’s narrative is a brilliant, disturbing, heartrendingly raw description of a rape victim seduced by their rapist. Rejected by his friends and family both for being a rape victim and for accepting the gifts and protection of the only friend he has left, Hunt is confused by feelings of self-loathing and guilt into accepting and eventually returning the love of the man who violated him–because his is the only love on offer. Both Hunt and the supposedly good people around him take it for granted that having been raped makes him ineligible for the love of a better person, and so Hunt clings to the only form of affection still left to him.

The sympathetic depiction of the relationship between an abuser and their victim is always going to be difficult territory but Engh acquits herself well. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some concerns though. In the comments to Nussbaum’s post, Athena Andreadis says:

Many writers adopt the shorthand that a tyrant is particularly abhorrent if he rapes boys — girls and women, after all, “should” expect to be raped routinely in such circumstances. Another common shorthand is the amoral bisexual charismatic trickster who wields sex as one of his weapons and to whom all yield as if bewitched

Although Andreadis hasn’t read the novel and this characterisation doesn’t completely match the truth, there is certainly an element of it. The portrayal of Hunt is presumably intended to subvert our expectations but the relationship developed in much the way I predicted. Indeed, if it had not then there wouldn’t have been any novel. Partially this is because I did not read the book in a vacuum but I think it is also that the book simply taps into a different set of clichés. Hunt’s narrative remains, however, the most intelligent and subtle part of the novel.

Unfortunately we then move back to Bond. With Hunt we can forget (if not forgive) the stupidity of plot, with Bond it is once again brought centre stage. Arslan has fought his fairytale army (which seems to consist of a couple of dozen soldiers) up and down the Americas only to find himself the victim of coup. Given his unfathomable management style the only surprise is that this hadn’t happened previously. Where does he return to seek sanctuary? Why Kraftville, of course. For some reason he envisions a warm reception and this is not far from what he gets. Bond, now mayor of the town and superintendent of the county, welcomes him back into his home and then allows him to once more turn the school into a fort. He justifies this thus:

”Well, the thing is this, Leland. Arslan hasn’t committed any crimes as a private citizen, and we don’t have the authority to try him for war crimes. And even if we did, what good would it do? From here on in, he is a private citizen, and nothing more than a private citizen. He’s entitled to the same rights as anybody else.” (p.271)

Just to recap, Arslan marked his arrived arrival by raping two children and then exported the attractive school girls to work as comfort women in rape camps whilst importing schoolgirls from elsewhere to perform the same function for his men in Kraftville. He also keeps Hunt and a female teacher as sex slaves and then, when he bored of them, sets out to rape his way through the remaining female population of the town:

He wasn’t interested in the esthetic niceties of rape any more, he took whatever the daily dragnet brought him. One of the lieutenants was in charge of picking up a new girl every day and getting rid of the used one. (p.132)

All this is without getting into the routine tyranny, the confiscated assets, the imposed curfew, the summary justice, the executions. History suggests that Arslan would soon find himself strung from the nearest lamppost. Bond would probably find himself up there with him since despite the fact he is notionally the head of the resistance, he more closely resembles a collaborator. The resistance itself doesn’t actually do anything, a fact Bond seems proud of, and its only act of insurrection is planting flowers on the graves of executed townsfolk. Whilst I am sick of so much science fiction and fantasy trading in cheap fantasies of agency the lack of any such agency here is simply fanciful.

Luckily Hunt has the last word. The final chapter sees him hunting a deer, a stag of exemplary maleness:

I counted four points; adding a conservative two for concealed branches, and doubling for the other antler, I could assume a twelve-point buck – old and wise and in all probability master of a considerable harem. (p.290)

In framing the stag in such terms, Engh cannot help but evoke Arslan. The heightened state in which Hunt pursues the deer then recalls his relationship with Arslan as well, complete with moral qualms: “In the end, I could not take him unawares.” (p.297) In eventually slaying the stag – on his own terms and with Arslan’s own gun – Hunt finally kills him, albeit by proxy. Yet as the novel ends we inevitably find Hunt leaving Kraftville to follow Arslan, pursuing him with both love and hate. The whole chapter is infused with such ambiguous intensity that you can almost believe that yes, Arslan was worth persevering with.

But not quite. The portrait of Hunt remains a bright jewel in the tarnished setting of a bad and boring book. Nussbaum concludes her review by wondering if she is simply the wrong target audience. By which she means she is a woman:

To see a male character get raped is an assault on the male reader that a woman’s rape wouldn’t have been, and for the seduction part of the novel to get under that same reader’s skin by confounding all expectations that Hunt will rebel against Arslan and avenge his violation, the object of the seduction must also be a man. The problem with this tactic is that it is aimed exclusively at men. Just as Arslan scarcely bothers to seduce the women he rapes and saves his attentions for Hunt (and just as his seduction of Kraftsville is focused on its young boys, to whom he becomes a mentor), Arslan the novel is only interested in seducing its male readers. The problem with the novel turns out to be its lack of interest, not in its female characters, but in its female readers. We don’t get seduced. The opening rape scene is as much an assault on us as it is on male readers, but the rest of the novel ignores us.

Was I seduced by the novel? No. The opening was not an assault on me, it inspired only indifference and contempt with its ridiculous and manipulative premise. Correspondingly the seduction I required was something other than that I received; the masculinity of Arslan is as alienating to me as it is to Nussbaum. As she says: “If I have ever in my life read a novel that is so dismissive of women’s character, personhood, and agency as this one, I am struggling to recall it.” This is not a book I want to read. If this is a seduction aimed exclusively at men, I wonder what type of men they are.

Written by Martin

10 March 2011 at 17:23

Posted in books, sf

Tagged with ,

First Impressions – Vector #265

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Satan Burger, Razor Wire Pubic Hair, The Menstruating Mall, Ape Shit, The Haunted Vagina, Sausagey Santa (“featuring Santa as a piratey mutant with a body made of sausages”), Adolf In Wonderland, Ultra Fuckers and The Faggiest Vampire: A Children’s Story are just some of the novels of Carlton Mellick III, one of the most prolific writer of bizarro fiction. Absurd, surreal, offensive and deliberately confrontational, those titles give you a pretty good idea of what this form of outsider literature is like. Whether you view them as being indicative of a gleeful gonzo anarchy or merely a juvenile sense of transgression is another question.

I started my induction into the world of bizarro with Rampaging Fuckers Of Everything On The Crazy Shitting Planet Of The Vomit Atmosphere! by Mykle Hansen. It is subtitled “three novels” but, at only 215 pages, these are novellas at best. The first of these is ‘Monster Cocks’, a sort-of-satire about the end of the world featuring Jack Stalker, your average American Everyman with a micropenis. Jack has a foolproof plan though: ask strangers on the internet for penis enlargement advice. After all, as Hansen puts it in typically deadpan style, “I’ve seen pictures of their dicks so I know I can trust them.” Initially, it seems he is right to trust them because soon he has the monster cock he’s always dreamed of. He names his new penis Lassie. Unfortunately, Lassie gets out of control:

“That really excellent and pressing question – what to do, exactly, with my seven-foot-long bloodthirsty pet anaconda cock-monster, who had ripped free of my crotch and ate the policeman who thinks I murdered the abusive boyfriend of Angela Fine”

Indeed. ‘Monster Cocks’ is actually surprisingly gentle – a “poignant tragedy” it says on the back – but it is hard to escape the thought that, these days, nothing’s shocking. After all, it was only two decades ago in 1991 that Lord Horror by David Britton – proto-bizarro if ever I saw it – was actually banned. Banned! That was the last time a book has been banned under the Obscene Publications Act 1857 and the idea it could be successfully enacted again is pretty much inconceivable. Last year Darryn Walker was prosecuted for publishing online a story in which the members of the pop group Girls Aloud were raped, tortured and murdered in graphic detail. This is extreme stuff but by no means unprecedented for internet fanfic, as his defence counsel said “in terms of its alleged obscenity, it is frankly no better or worse than other articles.” Walker was not convicted.

The genie is out of the bottle. When Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds was banned by WH Smith and John Menzies it meant something, now everything is just a click away. Walker can self-publish his darkest fantasies and anyone in the world can read them, Bizarro Books can happily sell their wares through Amazon. This revolution in production and distribution gives us, the reader, unfettered access to filth but it also allows publishers to print ultra-niche products and still find an audience.

For example, last week I received an email asking me if I would like to review a “multicultural lesbian steampunk anthology. Yes, I said, yes, I would. The anthology – the rather weakly-named Steam-Powered, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft and published by Torquere Press – was in my inbox the next morning. As is usual for a small press anthology, there aren’t many well-known names on the table of contents are unfamiliar but it does open with a story from NK Jemisin.

The outline of ‘The Effluent Engine’ is entirely familiar – a spy arrives by airship in a foreign city, intent on securing a scientific secret – but the details are not: the spy is from post-revolution Haiti and seeks to acquire the ability to distil methane from the island’s plentiful rum effluent in order to keep its people free from colonial tyranny. Of course, this is Jemisin so romance quickly raises its ugly head in the form of a scientist’s comely (and fiercely intelligent, naturally) sister. Things develop as you would expect.

Are either of these books any good? Well, I read them very much in the spirit of enquiry and, after my first exposure, had no pressing urge to explore further. A little goes a long way with such specialised tastes. But, at a time when the horizons of corporate publishing shrink ever tighter, I’m glad they exist.


  • Orgasmachine by Ian Watson (Newcon Press, 2010) – reviewed by Justina Robson
  • Shine, edited by Jetse de Vries (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by Anthony Nanson
  • The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2010) – reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010) – reviewed by Tony Keen
  • The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by Michael Abbott
  • The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by Martin Potts
  • Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor, 2009) – reviewed by Dave M Roberts
  • The Turing Test by Chris Beckett and The Last Reef by Gareth L Powell (Elastic Press, 2008) – reviewed by Dave M Roberts
  • The Holy Machine (Corvus, 2010) and Marcher (Cosmos Books, 2008) by Chris Beckett – reviewed by Jim Steel
  • Inside/Outside – Chris Beckett interviewed by Paul Graham Raven
  • Major Carnage by Gord Zajac (ChiZine Publications, 2010) – reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk (ChiZine Pubications, 2010) – reviewed by Graham Andrews
  • The Nemesis List by RJ Frith – reviewed by Ben Jeapes
  • The Noise Within by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • Brave Story and The Book Of Heroes by Miyuke Miyabe (Haikasoru, 2007 and 2009) – reviewed by Cherith Baldry
  • WE by John Dickinson (David Fickling Books, 2010) – reviewed by Donna Scott
  • I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (Penguin, 2010) – reviewed by CB Harvey
  • Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2010) – reviewed by Anne F Wilson
  • The Iron Hunt, Darkness Calls and A Wild Light by Marjorie M Liu (Orbit, 2008-10) – reviewed by Amanda Rutter
  • The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan (Orbit, 2009) – reviewed by Alan Fraser
  • Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov (Simon & Schuster, 2010) – reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • The Office Of Shadow by Mathew Sturges (Pyr, 2010) – reviewed by AP Canavan
  • Lord Of The Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by Lynne Bispham

Written by Martin

6 March 2011 at 10:16

Posted in criticism, sf

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Back To The Mud: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011)

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It is hard to think of a more appropriate title for a Joe Abercrombie novel than The Heroes (well, perhaps There Will Be Blood but that was already taken). There is a sledgehammer irony to it since Abercrombie has been obsessed with the impossibility of heroism from his debut novel, The Blade Itself (2006), onwards. That book and the two remaining novels of his First Law trilogy – Before They Are Hanged (2007) and Last Argument Of Kings (2008) – take their titles from Homer, Heinrich Heine and Louis XIV. This time round Brecht does the honours: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” So that is Abercrombie’s style of fantasy in a nutshell: an initial bluntness quickly revealing heavy irony with hidden depths below.

As well as slyly addressing Abercrombie’s concerns as a novelist, the title is also literal. The Heroes are a ring of standing stones outside of the town of Osrung. This unremarkable town finds itself the meeting place for the decisive battle in the latest war between the Union and the North, a war that takes place eight years after the events of the First Law trilogy when the two sides last clashed. In case you have forgotten the outcome of that conflict or are new to Abercrombie’s work, the steps leading up to this one are helpfully mapped out at grunt level:

“Black Dow turned on the Bloody-Nine and took the chain for his self.” Agrick realised he might have used some risky phrasing there, started covering his tracks. “I mean, he had to do it. Who’d want a mad bastard like the Bloody-Nine for king? But the Dogman called Dow traitor, and oath-breaker, and most of the clans from down near Uffrith, they tended to his way of seeing things. The King of the Union, too, having been on some mad journey with Ninefingers and made a friend of him. So the Dogman and the Union decide to make war on Black Dow, and here we all are.” Agrick slumped back on his elbows, closing his eyes and looking quite heavily pleased with himself.

“That’s a fine understanding of the politics of the current conflict.” (p.49)

As that quote suggests, the cast are a bunch of familiar faces: friends, foes and those who have suffered reversals of fortune in both directions since we last met them. But not, of course, heroes and villains. From the First Law trilogy, Dogman and Black Dow step free from the shadow of Logan Ninefingers (presumed dead, although I wouldn’t bet on it). Dow gets a chance to hog the limelight which he and Abercrombie clearly relish but Dogman, one of the most interesting secondary characters in the trilogy, is disappointingly merely a bit player. On the Union side, Jalen has achieved an improbable ascent to the rank of general and Bayaz, First of the Magi, returns as the power behinds the throne and one man military-industrial complex. Actually, maybe there is a villain after all. Also fighting for the Union is Bremer dan Grost who is trying to make amends for the events of Best Served Cold (2009) where, as an aside to the main narrative, he fails in his duty to protect the King. The unknowing author of Grost’s downfall, Northman Caul Shivers, also returns from that novel, physically and mentally disfigured with the concept of heroism firmly wrung from his mind. We even have Curden Craw and his dozen of Named Men introduced in ‘The Fool Jobs’, Abercrombie’s contribution to Swords & Dark Magic, Lou Anders and Jonathan Strathan’s superb anthology of modern sword and sorcery. This is not to suggest you need to have read any of these works before starting The Heroes, simply that Abercrombie has been carefully tending this rich stew for some time.

The novel takes place over the course of three days as the battle pushes forwards and back and torrents of blood are spilt to take and re-take insignificant geographical features. This rolling warfare allows plenty of opportunities for heroism, even more for cowardice and unlimited scope for stupidity. As an old Union campaigner puts it to his raw recruits on the even of battle:

Look. You think how stupid people are most of the time. Old men drunk. Women at a village fair. Boys throwing stones at birds. Life. The foolishness and the vanity, the selfishness and the waste. The pettiness, the silliness. You think in a war it must be different. Must be better. With death around the corner, men united against hardsip, the cunning of the enemy, people must think harder, faster, be… better. Be heroic.”

He started to heave his packages down from his horse’s saddle. “Only it’s just the same. In fact, do you know, because of all that pressure, and worry, and fear, it’s worse. There aren’t many men who think clearest when the stakes are highest. So people are even stupider in a war than the rest of the time. Thinking about how they’ll dodge the blame, or grab the glory, or save their skins, rather than about what will actually work There’s no job that forgives stupidity more than soldiering. No job that encourages it more.”

He looked at his recruits and found they were all staring back, horrified. (p.130)

It is not a particularly original sentiment but it is rare for it to be so sustained and all pervasive in a work of commercial fantasy. The old soldier outlines this state of affairs as an inevitability of human nature and this seems to be a view Abercrombie shares. Only rarely do his characters try to oppose this natural law and when they do they are crushed. Ninefingers and Shivers both tried to become good men, to rise above the brutality that they were born into. Over the geographical and spiritual journey, Abercrombie brings them tantalisingly close to the point of achieving this goal before slamming shut the door on the very possibility of such a transformation. Both characters descend into the embrace of fatalism, a stance more than justified by the nihilism of Abercrombie’s universe. In The Heroes it is Calder – youngest son of Bethod, the first king of the North and original owner of the shiny chain won by Ninefingers but now worn by Black Dow – who dreams of a better world:

Calder could hardly keep the contempt out of his voice. “Maybe what the North needs is fewer heroes and more thinkers. More builders.” (p.210)

That struggle to control his contempt is his fatal flaw. Calder may be brighter and more articulate than his fellow soldiers but he is just as constrained by his nature as they are. In the end, a bitter hatred of the world, gloved in self-protective irony, is the best he can manage. Here, for example, is a scene in which he witnesses the psychotic Dow, his master, seal a blood oath:

“The two men stood there as blood streaked their forearms and started to drip from their elbows. Calder felt a little fear and a lot of contempt at the level of manliness on display.” (p.42)

For all the tempering cynicism of such observations, this contemptible manliness is very much on display in The Heroes. Abercrombie has a lot of fun with it and his sharp wit must be one of the reasons for his huge popularity. This is a typical example of the way men talk:

”What changed?”
“Got my eye burned out o’ my head.”
So much for calming small talk. “Reckon that could change your outlook.”
“Halves it.” (p.110)

None more manly, none more knowing. The stench of machismo is thick in the air and, as you would expect on a battlefield, women are scarce. There are a few women who have become combatants because, like their male peers, this is the path the world has found for them. Whilst soldiering may not be traditional women’s work there is little sense that they have found any form on emancipated. Similarly, there are a few officers’ wives whose higher socio-economic status merely presents a different of constraints. Chief amongst the noble ladies is the “venomously ambitious” Finree dan Brock (as Abercrombie puts it in his dramatis personae), a self-aware-schemer who is plunged into the world she has always wanted it and finds it more than she can take. You might quibble about the plausibility of her presence so close to the front but she is a very enjoyable character and a welcome perspective in a novel about fighting men. I suspect we have not seen the last of her.

Self-awareness is perhaps the defining quality of an Abercrombie character but at the same time they never have quite enough. Calder has a kernel of goodness inside him – “He’d given up on being a good man long ago, hadn’t he? Then why did he still dream like one?” (p.209) – but, as with Ninefinger and Shivers, it can never germinate. A discovery of the price of her ambition knocks some of the wind out of dan Brock’s sails but whilst she pauses to reflect she can’t escape her Machiavellian impulses.

In the First Law trilogy, the crippled inquisitor Glokta keeps up a sarcastic, self-pitying but self-coruscating internal running monologue in italics. It was impressively bilious, often hilarious but in its cumulative inevitability slightly tiresome. In The Heroes, an identical role is taken by Gorst:

[The sword was] one of the few relics remaining of a time when he was the king’s exalted First Guard rather than the author of contemptible fantasies. I am like a jilted lover too cowardly to move on, clinging tremble-lipped to the last feeble mementoes of the cad who abandoned her. Except sadder, and uglier, and with a higher voice. And I kill people for a hobby. (p.222)

At the climax of the novel, after the battle itself has been fought to an epically pointless draw, Gorst allows all his repressed emotion to boil out. His audience is dan Brock and she is not a sympathetic ear; “hero” becomes a damning epithet. For all the carnage we have witnessed, for every axe-split face and dismembered body, this is by far the most brutal scene of the book.

Of course, there was never going to be a happy ending. This is, dare I say it, the charm of Abercrombie. The Heroes is funny, exciting adventure fiction which is completely guilt free because the reader has nothing to feel guilty about, they have already faced it head on. Every witticism is barbed, ever exhilarating scene of martial prowess must be repaid by the reader with an emotional hangover. Blood, black humour and bile are Abercrombie’s bread and butter and it makes for a tasty dish.

As a final aside, The Heroes has a simply gorgeous map of the area around Osrung, courtesy of illustrator David Senior. In fact, Gollancz are so proud of this map that they have made it the cover, reproduced it front and back on the inside leaf and included amended versions showing the progress of the battle throughout the novel. Still, if you are going to include a map, this is the way to do it; other publishers of fantasy take note.

Written by Martin

4 March 2011 at 12:20

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2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics

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Very often I will discuss specific novels on the internet. Very often this discussion will turn to wider trends. What such discussion almost always lacks is any evidence base. If you think that fantasy is becoming more popular whilst science fiction is becoming less popular then you might have some joy with the Locus year in review issue which track headline figures like these. Unfortunately they don’t publish them online. For a whole host of other questions – Are female writers are less common than in the recent past? Is everything part of a series these days? Has science fiction retreated from space? Is it true that sex is rare but violence is endemic? – you are unlikely to find evidence anywhere.

This was at the back of my mind when I started reading submissions for the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award. The Clarke Award is for the best science fiction published in Britain and being a judge gives you a fairly comprehensive overview of British science fiction. Not entirely comprehensive – some novels will always slip through the cracks – but non-genre publishers actively submit their work and the judges deliberately seek out other eligible work so it covers a large percentage of the territory. This struck me as an opportunity to gather evidence. As I was reading, I started to make notes about the novels and I’ve now published these in five posts:

My methodology probably wouldn’t pass muster is a social research organisation. Some of my categories might be poorly worded or thought through. I may have missed things, I may have mis-recorded things. Nonetheless, I think (I certainly hope) that this is still useful evidence in the ongoing conversation about what science fiction is and what we want it to be.

This information only refers to books published in 2010 so it doesn’t tell us anything about trends. However, I hope that it will inspire some additional evidence gathering. For example, very basic information like number of books submitted by individual publishers should be easily available. Some of the information about the authors (nationality and sex) and the books (type and maybe length) shouldn’t be hard to find either. And then there is looking forward. I am a judge again this year and I will be keeping my notes again but there is no reason why this couldn’t be formalised.

I have found this process fascinating. Of course, I am primarily interested in the individual novels themselves; it has been a privilege to be a judge and I think we have a cracker of a shortlist. But I am also interested in the big picture and hopefully this makes that picture a little clearer.

Written by Martin

2 March 2011 at 15:41

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2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics: Sex And Violence

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The last post talked about the general characteristics of contemporary science fiction. Now I want to talk about a specific pair of issues.

In the real world, sex is a good thing and violence is a bad thing. Yet there is a feeling – one I share – that science fiction is overly bloodthirsty whilst simultaneously too childishly squeamish about sex. And the stats reflect this. In the real world, a single murder would be extremely notable; in science fiction, this is small beer:

What goes around, comes around:

Don’t worry though, death is not the end!

I also looked at rape since its depiction in fiction is so controversial and it is often not felt to be well handled in genre fiction.

From these statistics I have excluded Blood And Iron by Tony Ballantyne which includes robot “rape”. Whilst it is stated in the novel to be directly analoguous to human rape I am not comfortable grouping the two together. However, I have included Sylvow by Douglas Thompson which features rape by an intelligent tree.

Science fiction is happy to deal in extremes like this but I wondered how it fared on a more domestic level. As well as looking at sex itself, I also looked at whether any protagonists started the novel in a relationship.

So a protagonist in a science fiction novel is more likely to kill someone than have sex and yes, it does seem authors are much more squeamish about depicting sex than violence.

Written by Martin

2 March 2011 at 14:07

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2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics: The State Of The Art #2

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It is usually pretty clear if your narrator is an alien but we are heading into more subjective territory now. We can still be relatively certain about setting though. I say “relatively” because, for example, when and where is Above The Snowline by Steph Swainston set? Anyway:

I think there is plenty of ammunition for those who think that science fiction has turned its back on space. Perhaps more surprising is that it appears to be turning its back on the future; fully a third of submissions were set either in the past or the present. Of course, just because something is submitted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, that doesn’t necessarily make it science fiction.

Again, that is third of all submission, a frankly huge proportion. But just because a story contains a fantasy element doesn’t mean it isn’t science fiction. The boundary between the fantastic and the mimetic is pretty clear but within speculative fiction borders are blurred and, it would seem, becoming more so. Where, for example, do zombies and vampires fall? Purists will be pleased to know that such creatures remain a minority though. The good old spaceship continues to be the core trope of the genre (with their steampunk brethren still some way behind).

Which brings us to the hardest quality to assess: subgenre. As I was making notes, only a couple of obvious subgenres emerged. At the end of the process, I tried to grouped together further but the books collected under the same umbrella are pretty disparate. This speaks to the fragmentation of the genre. It also means I will be usually tags next year and giving up on the idea that most SF novels are primarily of a single subgenre.

As you would expect, space opera is popular. But whilst it still makes up only 15% of submissions and post-collapse (where civilisation has been destroyed thanks to zombies, climate change, capitalism or the actual apocalypse) make up the same percent. This is the dual nature of science fiction: space opera written within the genre, post-collapse written without. Singularity SF continues to have its own coherent identity but after that cross-genre characteristics become much more important.

Written by Martin

2 March 2011 at 08:03

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