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Archive for January 2012

2011 BSFA Award for Short Fiction – Short Story Club

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As an aside in my post about BSFA Award for best novel, I promised to review the shortlist for the short fiction award and then set out my ballot and predict the winner. But then I had a thought: perhaps other people would like to read them at the same time. All five stories have been made available online so they are accessible to everyone and it would be nice to get a bit of a debate going. With that in mind, I’m planning to run a short story club here next week,  starting on Monday, 6 February 2012 and looking at a different story each day. Here is the schedule, including links to each story:

I’ll post my thoughts as well as links to any existing online reviews and then it would be great to hear thoughts from others.

Written by Martin

31 January 2012 at 18:18

Handicapping The Best Novel Shortlists

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At the beginning of the month, Niall Harrison had a great post which tried to predict the shortlists and winners of this year’s SF awards for best novel. The first two of these shortlists have now been announced: the BSFA Awards and the Kitschies. What will win though? Well, here are my guesses, starting with the BSFA Award for best novel:

  • Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
  • Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan)
  • The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
  • By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
  • Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Frankly, this is a two horse race. At best. Miéville and Priest are multi-award winners who were always going to appear on the shortlist and it seems inevitable that one of them will walk off with the award. I would put money on that one being Priest. Harrison agrees. He also predicted the titles that would appear on the shortlist (although he allowed himself more than five guesses); I predicted four, thinking Tidhar’s spot would be taken by The Kings Of Eternity by Eric Brown. Part of my thinking has that Brown’s book would have been more widely read than Tidhar which might explain why PS Publishing are currently offering the Kindle edition for free.

Of course, there three other categories. All five stories shortlisted for the short fiction award are available online so I will be reviewing them, setting out my personal ballot and predicting the winner once I’ve read them. Non-fiction I don’t have much to say about, except to predict that the beta of the third edition of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia will win. I also think it is worth reading Harrison’s comments about the viability of the award. Last of all, both the BSFA Awards and the Kitschies also have a category for best artwork and again, I intend to cover that in a separate post.

Now the Kitschies. Pornokitsch are actually running a competition to predict the winners. The four judges – Lauren Beukes, Rebecca Levene, Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin – haven’t yet made their final decision and I think it is harder to second guess a group of individuals than the membership of an organisation like the BSFA. But I’m going to try. Firstly, the Red Tentacle for best novel:

  • The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington (Orbit)
  • Embassytown by China Miéville (Tor)
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd (Walker Books)
  • The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone)
  • Osama: A Novel by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Miéville appears again but I think he is much less of an obvious contender this time round. Tidhar also appears again and my instinct is that this comes down to a three way fight between those two and Ness. Harrison thinks Tidhar will win but, whilst I wouldn’t bet against Osama, I think Ness might just take it. Next the Golden Tentacle for best debut novel:

  • Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick (Tor)
  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Night Shade Books)
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Harvill Secker)
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Quirk)
  • The Samaritan by Fred Venturini (Blank Slate Press)

2011 has been Morgenstern’s year so I think she’s got it in the bag. Venturini is a completely unknown quantity for me and I imagine Hulick will be discarded fairly early on so if there is any competition it will come from Hurley and Riggs. But I think Harrison will be disappointed if he hopes for God’s War to triumph.

Written by Martin

28 January 2012 at 16:19

Posted in awards, books, sf

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Oh God, What Is Alain De Botton Banging On About Now?

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Alain de Botton has a new book to plug which means he has been trolling the newspapers with eye-catchingly stupid ideas. This time round it is an atheist temple, a concept so stupid it is painful to even type. Before taking the piss out of de Botton and talking a bit about atheism though, I’d like to address the practicalities of the proposal.

The idea is to build a 46 metre tower for £1m in the City of London. Currently de Botton has raised less than £500,000 from a group of property developers and hopes to raise the rest from public donations. Even if he reaches his target, that seems a pretty low figure. If we think about another ludicrous folly that’s just been erected in London, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the construction costs were £19m and the land was thrown in for free. Admittedly that was a bigger and more complicated (and uglier) project but still.

The nice computer generated image on de Botton’s website shows the tower plonked down right next to the Bank of England. I think we can safely say it won’t be located there since there is no space for it and, if there was, no one would give the land to him for free. Press reports suggest instead that it is “likely to be located” in the Barbican. Again, I’d like to know where this land is. Such a location would also rather undercut the majestic soaring tower shown in the illustrations since it would be surrounded by the UK’s three largest residential buildings which at 123 metres would be two and a half times as tall.

Then there is the fact that whilst much is made of the buildings height, nothing is mentioned of its width. The illustration suggests this is about four metres, making this awe-inspiring temple about the same size as my front room. If you are going to build a tiny tourist attraction for reflection, why not build unlimited urban wood for a fraction of the cost and inconvenience? If you want a practical space for the discussion of humanist ideas then build something less ostentatious and more useful like Conway Hall?

So that’s why I don’t think this tower will ever get built and why if it did, it wouldn’t actually fulfill its intended purpose. Now onto the snark. Here is the project’s statement of intent:

As religions have always known, a beautiful building is an indispensable part of getting your message across. Books alone won’t do it.

This is a pretty unorthodox historical analysis. Consider Fountains Abbey, one of the UK’s greatest religious buildings. Back in 1132, were medieval peasants sitting around their hovels, flipping through their bibles and going “hmm, this narrative isn’t very compelling, if only there was some impressive architecture to swing it for me”? No, they weren’t since, for all intents and purposes, books didn’t bloody exist. Even after the invention of moveable type three hundred years later, your average serf on the street wasn’t likely to have a nice little library of Penguin Classic. Or even be able to read. The idea that churches and cathedrals existed to supplement books is ridiculous, they existed to glorify god and spread the good word because congregating physically was the only way of doing so. This is no longer the case. In fact, the decline in church attendance has mirrored both the rise in other forms of communications and the increased education and leisure time to access them. de Botton simply ignores this, looking backwards to a time when everyone was illiterate as his solution to a perceived 21st Century problem.

But does this problem actually exist? Putting aside the nonsense about buildings being an “indispensable part of getting your message across”, why do atheists need to get the message across at all? I am an atheist. This is for the simple reason that I don’t believe in god. As long as I am not discriminated against, however, I don’t care what anyone else believes. Despite positioning himself as the cuddly alternative to Richard Dawkins, he is guilty of exactly the same crime: proselytising. I’m sure I speak for a lot of atheists when I say I wish they would both just fuck off. I’ll give the final word to Chris Bertram though:

Any spat between Alain de Botton and Richard Dawkins is one where I’m kind of rooting for both of them to lose. On the other hand, Dawkins has some genuine achievements to his name and has written some pretty decent books, so there’s some compensation when he acts like an arse, whereas in de Botton’s case…

Written by Martin

28 January 2012 at 11:43

Posted in design, life

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London International Mime Festival 2012

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It is January so, once again, it is the mime festival. I only saw three shows this year and I chose… poorly.

The Table by Blind Summit – And so, the table. Three men and a cardboard puppet. On a table. Part puppetry masterclass, part gentle stand up and (least successfully) part existential drama, The Table got rave reviews in Edinburgh and is really enjoyable. However, it is apparently too short to attract a paying audience so Blind Summit have tacked a load of old crap on the end. After an hour or so of the main show we have first a bizarrely shit homage to Eighties pop videos and then a tediously protracted silent film told through A4 paper. They managed to completely invert the concept of leaving the audience wanting more.

L’Immédiat by Compagnie L’Immédiat/Camille Boitel – I was really looking forward to this but it turned out to be piss poor. The missus tried to suggest that our restricted view meant that we couldn’t really appreciate it and, while this was true enough (there was one 15 minute segment where we couldn’t see anything), what I could see was deeply uninspiring slapstick. There was one good bit of mime where one of the actors started to levitated and had to be pulled down to work (but they rather cheapened this by repeating it). Of course, it didn’t help that since this was a piece of physical theatre at the Barbican it was soundtracked by constant braying and hooting from an audience singularly unable to distinguish between comedy, tragedy or even repose. If you find the concept of a man in a purple dress jumping out of a cupboard hilarious, this is the show for you.

Mundo Paralelo by No Fit State Circus/National Theatre Wales and Théâtre Tattoo – According to the programme notes, the thread that held this circus show together was something to do with angels and parallel worlds. This was not at all apparent from the stalls as the cast limped through a series of watery pieces of basic circus that hesitantly segued into each other with only dire French accordion music to link them. Half the cast wore Victorian get up, the other half didn’t appear to have got the memo. There was no wit, grace, drama or even spectacle (with the exception of the excellent juggler).

A Second Chance For The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms

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I had a decidedly mixed meal at the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms last year but two things lured me back. Firstly, it is bang next to the Barbican. Secondly, they are offering a January three course set menu at the too cute price of £20.12. So, after a disappointing show at the Barbican, we headed round the corner for what turned out to be a rather disappointing dinner.

The Dining Rooms are certainly popular though; it is a big restaurant and was pretty full as we took our table at 9pm. So busy that they had run out of wine lists. Although booked in for the set menu, we were given the a la carte menu and had to ask for them to be swapped. Our waiter hadn’t heard of the set menu and had to confer with a colleague but on his return was sweetly apologetic, explaining that he’d just come back from holiday.

Our order was then taken by the manager who served us for the rest of the night. I ordered the lamb, obviously, and was told that this was off. He apologised that we hadn’t been informed of this but, although he was also charming, this is a basic mistake that is hugely irritating to the customer. Beyond that, it is alarming that a restaurant can run out of the only meat main on a set menu at 9pm on a Wednesday. Given that the set menu must be booked in advance, this is either poor orgainisation or sharp practice.

He gave me a couple of minutes to decide on an alternative (which wasn’t too hard with only three options) and then was back to finish the order. Since the menu came with two recommended wines, I asked if they came by the glass. They didn’t. So I had to ask for the wine menu which hadn’t arrived. It was a cummulative wave of small irritations which built to give the impression of a haphazard operation.

Since I thought I was being deprived of meat, I started with chicken livers and veal sweetbreads. I wonder if the kitchen were worried I’d been deprived of meat too because there was a huge amount of it in a syrupy madiera jus. Served with toaste brioche, this was a seriously intense dish and I started to flag under the size and strength of its assault. It was all a bit overwhelming to be honest and I’d’ve liked something a bit more elegant to easy me into dinner. My lamb replacement was haddock fishcake with tenderstem brocoli and buerre blanc (the latter unfortunately primarily decorative). I’m not convinced a fishcake is a restaurant dish and it certainly isn’t when the fish is as tough as this was. The menu boasts that all fish is fresh that morning from Billingsgate so God only knows what they’d done to it in the intervening period. I couldn’t finish it.

N was more successful. She thought her veloute was the perfect vehicle for the jerusalem artichoke, it is a vegetable she sometimes finds a bit unpleasant but was made “utterly delicious” by its pairing with truffle oil and ceps.

This was followed by a butternut and spinch “Wellington” with toasted almonds and a subtle, buttery cauliflower puree. N was very pleased with what she received but it was bafflingly large and violated the Trade Descriptions Act (shades of the Prince Arthur’s game fiasco here.) It is all well and good putting scare quotes round Wellington but a Wellington is something pretty specific involving mushrooms and puff pastry, you can’t just wrap a sausage of butternut squash in filo pastry. You might as well call it a “strudel” or, indeed, a “sausage”. More seriously, you can’t call something a butternut squash and spinach strudel-sausage if its two main ingredients are butternut squash and goats’ cheese. It is a good combination (nicely set off with poppy seeds in this instance) but what if you don’t like goats’ cheese? What if you are a vegan? Luckily N falls into neither of these categories but I did worry that she was going to rupture something finishing it: “It was the kind of meal I dream of eating after a long walk on a Sunday before collapsing on the sofa. It did for me.” So, in a way, it was lucky the side of fennel we ordered simply didn’t appear.

Somehow we found room for dessert. “I think I could manage a small one,” said N. “Like that double chocolate parfait.” Hmm. We both had this and it was my favourite course of the evening. N was impressed that her one contained the smallest strawberry she had ever seen but was “strangely reminded of Kellogs squares, not a great comparison and totally unfair too.” Hmm.

As we were finishing our desserts, the manager came over to apologise about the side (it had been send to a different table apparently) and offer us a complimentary glass of port or dessert wine. Having tried the Tokaji Late Harvest dessert wine before, we quickly took him up on this. Lovely, lovely stuff and he was very sweet so we left in a mellow mood. But we didn’t leave in a particularly good mood. Despite having the set menu, wine, water and service brought the bill up to knocking on £70 and it is impossible to tolerate the sheer number of basic errors for that price.

Written by Martin

19 January 2012 at 17:01

Posted in food

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On Being Libelled By Liviu Suciu

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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.

Written by Martin

16 January 2012 at 17:01

How Come China Miéville Never Blogs About His Award Eligibility?

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Once upon a time fandom was confined to fanzines and letters of comment, meetings and conventions. In other words, interaction existed but was limited. If you nominated someone for an award it was probably because you liked their work or had met them in person. Then along came the internet. Hooray! Among the many other awesome things the internet did, it massively increased interaction between fans themselves and between fans and authors. A good thing, obviously. Then one author had the bright idea of posting their award elibility so that their fans would be encouraged to nominate them. This idea soon caught on.

And why not? Authors obviously have a right to promote themselves, increasingly I would imagine they would say have they have a duty to do so. If you have a platform that speaks directly to your fanbase, why not use it for this purpose? Well, there are a couple of reasons why not. Firstly, it is unbelievably crass. By posting your eligibility you are implictly saying that you are worthy of nomination which means you are saying that your novel or story is one of the five or six best published in the entire field that year. Obviously, authors never come out and say this which only makes the situation worse. Secondly, and more importantly, it pollutes the awards themselves. If you move the discussion from the field as a whole to you as an individual author then you are changing awards from being an attempt to identify exemplary texts into a popularity contest. Unfortunately, although those who were critical – people like me – had the moral high ground, they still lost the battle: over the last couple of years, authors posting their eligibility has become endemic.

Apparently authors really, really want to win awards. Given that, you would hope they would look at award shortlists and think “wow, there is some really exceptional work on there” and aspire to produce something of a similar standard. Instead it would appear that they look at shortlists and think “wow, there is some really mediocre work but heavily self-promoted work on there” and take that as their inspiration. To hear authors tell it, they are trapped in an arms race; if they don’t post their elibiligy then their work will be drowned out by all the authors who do. It would be more accurate to say that there has been a vicious circle of the increasing prevelance of such posts weakening social norms which in turn increases the prevelence of the posts.

Something different happened this year though. As awards season came round and authors started to make eligibility posts it became clear that they weren’t satisfied with having won the battle, they wanted to take the moral high ground. A good example of this can be found in Juliet McKenna’s post on information, self-promotion, plugging and pimpage. She describes her personal evolution from being brought up to consider self-promotion “utterly reprehensible, no ifs or buts” to being an author in the modern publishing industry were some level of self-promotion is necessary before sensibly concluding that “ultimately every reader and writer will find the level of self-promotion that they’re comfortable with.” Exactly right.

The post becomes problematic, however, when McKenna suggests that “one of the most valuable functions of awards is to prompt the debate and discussion so vital for keeping a genre developing in ever more interesting ways for readers and writers alike” and that authors posting eligibilty supports this. That valuable function is certainly right but I’m extremely sceptical of the ability of such posts to support it. I’ve chosen McKenna’s post as an example of this new meme because several people (including me) try to unpick this point in the comments with limited success. I’d recommend reading the comments for the detailed discussion but it is abundantly obvious that if your goal really was to promote debate and discussion then posting your own eligibility is a singularly poor way of doing so. Charitably you could say that it might be a potential positive side effect of self-promotion, less charitably you could say it was a figleaf intended to give legitimacy to such self-promotion. I have to say, I tend towards the latter view (in my grumpier moments I considered entitling this post “Don’t Piss On Me And Tell Me It’s Raining”) but, if you want to prove me wrong, then Niall Harrison makes a very good point in the comments:

If I ever saw an author make a post that said, “Hey, Hugo nominations are open — I think you should read and consider nominating this book, because I think it is awesome for these reasons” I would probably forgive them a hundred posts promoting their own books for awards. But somehow that never happens.

Some of this comes down to taste. I think there are strong argument against eligibility posts but perhaps if I was an author I would weigh things differently (although the authors I admire don’t). As McKenna says, everyone will draw their own line. So worse than the overstated case for eligibility posts as a social good is the way she characterises critics:

So why should [authors] be discouraged by online hostility insisting they’re not allowed (and who exactly decides this anyway?) to tell me about their eligibility, nominations etc? With that insistence followed by threats that if they do, such behaviour should automatically stop any right-thinking person for voting for them now or in the future!

Quite obviously authors have not been discouraged in the slightest but this language of “hostility” and “threats” is troubling. Others have gone even further than McKenna in suggesting that not only is posting your eligibility socially positive but that this means that any criticism of such posting is inherently socially negative. Consider this Tweet from Cheryl Morgan: “The main reason why established fandom hates pimpage is that it encourages more people to vote.” This is initially deeply confusing since you would be hard pressed to think of a more established member of fandom than Hugo maven Morgan. Is she speaking on her own behalf? Presumably not. Then who? Well, if you know Morgan then you know she is a paranoid fantasist and you will quickly twig that not only is “established fandom” an imaginary construction, it also consists of imaginary people. That is to say, as is typical of Morgan, it is soon revealed to be a baseless smear. But what of the substance of the smear: if you criticise authors for posting their award eligibility then you are deliberately attempting to suppress the vote. Extraordinary. We are truly down the rabbit hole now.

Written by Martin

11 January 2012 at 13:17

Posted in awards, genre wars

Ten Years Of Reviewing

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Just before Christmas was the tenth anniversary of the first review I ever pubished. It was of James Blish’s A Case Of Conscience and it was published at SF Site, one of the earliest (and longest enduring) review sites. I’ve not looked back since: the next year I published 21 reviews, mostly for SF Site but also for The Alien Online and Matrix (both now defunct). In 2005, I was published in Vector, Interzone, the New York Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons for the first time. I developed the strongest relationship with the last of those publications; I’ve now written 37 reviews for Strange Horizons and they probably constitute the most sustained example of my critical writing.

I was motivated to start formally reviewing because of the dearth of good quality reviews on the internet. I can do better than this, I thought, so I decided to put my money where my mouth was. No one ever told me how to review, I just looked at reviews that I thought were good and tried to do the same. This meant that I learnt on the job and my learning curve was in public. As you would expect though, the more I did it, the better I got. I also started thinking about the art of reviewing itself as well as talking to more and more people about both reviewing and the books themselves. Writing for the NYRSF and Strange Horizons meant working closely with an editor for the first and this was an incalculable benefit to my reviewing. So, with all this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look back at that first review and see how well I thought it had stood the test of time.

One general point before I move on to looking at the review in detail: the review is 592 words long. This is shorter than anything I’ve written for a couple of years when I stopped reviewing for Vector because I took over as reviews editor. There is an art to the short review and I enjoyed the constraint of writing 500 word pieces but I think in this case I simply didn’t know what else to say. Length came with confidence and expanded critical horizons; the first review I wrote for Strange Horizons was 615 words long, the last one was 2,702.

Onto the review itself, a paragraph at a time:

The most obvious thing to say about A Case of Conscience is that it is a slightly disjointed novel due to the fact it is a fix-up of an earlier novella. The first part, the original novella, is set on the planet of Lithia. A contact team of four scientists (Ruiz-Sanchez, Michelis, Agronski and Carver) have been sent to decide whether to open the planet up to Earth. This decision is complicated by the fact that Lithia is inhabited by intelligent, civilized aliens with the appearance of twelve-foot high reptilian kangaroos. Michelis believes the planet should be opened up so Earth can benefit from contact with the peaceful, unified Lithians; Carver believes the planet’s high quantity of lithium makes it ideal for turning into a bomb factory; Agronski is undecided, flitting between both views.

Well, it starts with a bit of an introduction, even if it is only a single sentence. It makes sense to state up front that it is a fix up and to discuss the structural implications but these days I’d say when (and possibly where) the novella was originally published and provide some additional context. I’m not sure I would link the criticism (“slightly disjointed”) so directly and incontrovertible (“the most obvious thing”) to this fact either, particularly since the issue is immediately put to one side.

The synopsis is pretty good. It is a clear and succinct encapsulation of the basic premise and, if the “civilized” and “unified” are probably superfluous, it is still relatively engagingly stated. It also leads us nicely into the next paragraph.

This brings up a serious flaw in the novel: the depiction of Agronski and Carver. Carver is portrayed as stupid, xenophobic and venal to a degree that undermines the credibility of his selection, and his plan for Lithia is simply laughable. Agronski on the other hand has no characterization at all; he is simply a blank slate. This means a lot of the tension generated in the build- up to the discussion is dissipated. However Ruiz-Sanchez, a priest as well as a biologist, has an even more radical conclusion: that Lithia should be placed in permanent quarantine because it is a creation of the devil. In doing so he has committed heresy since this belief, Manichaeanism, is against Catholic dogma.

The second paragraph and the second piece of criticism. When I wrote this, my experience of reading online reviews was that they were often entirely devoid of any criticism. This remains the case today. I’ve obviously always been comfortable standing in judgement of a text and seen this as the whole point of reviewing. Whether my judgements have always been supportable is another question.

With Carver, I think it clearly is; the synopsis I’ve provided gives evidence that his plan is indeed laughable. With Agronski, I am relying more on the reader taking my word for it. In both cases, given the fact I describe this as a serious flaw, I could have provided more evidence. The admirable brevity weakens the weight of the criticism.

As an atheist interpreting an agnostic’s depiction of Catholic theology several decades after the fact, I don’t find this entirely persuasive but this does not really matter. James Blish notes in his foreword that it was his intention to write “about a man, not a body of doctrine.” He largely succeeds in this; his portrayal of the deeply conflicted Father Ruiz-Sanchez is the core of this section.

The first sentence situates the novel in the context of my own experience and worldview. Quite often reviewers run shy of introducing themselves into a review (or go to the opposite extreme and write solely from their personal reaction to the text) but I think it is a natural part of the process and one that is ultimately to the benefit of the reader. Having contextualised my reaction, I then analyse it by suggesting that this reaction does not stand in the way of what the book is trying to achieve.

In support of this, I quote Blish. I’m pleased to see that I was using evidence but this is the only quote in the review, it is very brief and it isn’t even for the body of the text. Again, as a comparison, my most recent review for Strange Horizons contained sixteen, several of substantial length. That level of quotation wouldn’t be appropriate in a review of this length but there is a balance to be struck.

Having identified Blish’s aim, I judge it a success but using weasel words. What does it mean that he largely succeeds? In what ways doesn’t he succeed? Is describing Ruiz-Sanchez as “the core of this section” actually descriptive? I think there is more to unpack here.

It is Blish’s writing that is the real joy here; compared to that of a fellow Futurian like Isaac Asimov, his writing is a revelation. His depiction of Ruiz-Sanchez and the Lithian society would not look out of place published today, in stark contrast to most 50s SF.

If Blish’s writing is the real joy, then this would be an excellent time to actually quote some of it. I again refer to the “depiction” approvingly without saying anything about it. Instead I resort to some pretty sweeping generalisations. Now, I stand by the assertion that Fifties SF was pretty duff but it is a huge aside to introduce in a 48 paragraph. Is the pop at Asimov justified? Well, it probably would be if I could group him with all the other Futurians in opposition to Blish but I can’t because Asimov is the only one I had read. Similarly, I could in no way claim to have read a wide selection – certainly not “most”! – of Fifties SF. Authorial fiat here conceals ignorance. I still make assertions and generalisations in my reviews but hopefully I am better armed with evidence these days.

The second half of the novel is set on Earth and charts the development of a Lithian specimen from embryo to TV star. This Lithian, Egtverchi, is a catalyst for social change that touches the lives of all the original contact team.

We are now back to synopsis. I am often surprised by the number of reviews which faithfully rehearse the plot of the text under discussion before getting down to the business of criticism at the end. To me the two things are inextricably linked.

I’d also draw attention to how brief the paragraph is. Despite being only 615 words, it is eight paragraphs long. There is a bit more depth and consolidation of thought.

Again Blish’s writing is ahead of the field but this time only as far as the 70s. His depiction of Earth is reminiscent of that of John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar and Thomas Disch’s 334, though without the stylistic experimentation of the New Wave writers.

Back to unsupported assertions about period of SF history but I am on firmer ground this time because I am naming some texts. However, I don’t say how the “depiction” (that word again) is like Brunner and Disch, only how it isn’t. Well, it is a start I suppose.

The satiric tone of the second half is in marked contrast to that of the first and this is not necessarily for the best. Likewise the relegation of Ruiz-Sanchez from centre stage to the role of supporting player. This dissonance is also present in a superfluous scientific appendix that detracts jarringly from the ending. The ending itself, however, is well-written and thoughtful, and provides a final solution to the problem of Lithia and Egtverchi.

The first two sentences provide evidence – change of tone and relegation of character – but then go on to make another unsupported judgement based on this. More weasel words in the form of “not necessarily for the best” and not even that with the presumptive “likewise” that begins the second sentence. The reader knows I preferred the first half of the novel to the second and they know my reason but is that to do with the book itself or because of personal taste? The third sentence expands on this issue and strengths the idea that this isn’t must an issue of taste but I should still have explored this dissonance further.

I then provide some balance with some blank praise – “well-written and thoughtful” – that is essentially meaningless. To compound this sloppy use of language, I then refer to a “final solution” to the story. I can’t actually remember the conclusion of A Case Of Conscience but presumably this is an inappropriate use of the phrase.

Blish is certainly a historically important author and should be read for that reason alone. However, you can’t help thinking that if the novel had been written as a whole, the results would have been more satisfying. Nevertheless A Case Of Conscience has aged well and, for all its flaws, holds its own with any SF published in the last 50 years.

I have never provided any evidence that Blish is a historically important author, I have simply assumed the reader of the review believes this then generously confirmed their opinion and stamped my approval on it. How magmanimus. And this sentence isn’t actually relevant to my conclusion that the novel is weakened by being formed of two halves.

The conclusion in the second sentence should really just be a continuation of the paragraph above in which the question of dissonance is raised but at least it is the culmination of an argument. Then we get to the final sentence: “for all its flaws, holds its own with any SF published in the last 50 years.” Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. So we end with a paragraph that is one part irrelevant and unsupported aside, one part partially supported criticism and one part preposterously unsupported praise. Conclusions are hard.

So I think what we have there is a review that is relatively strong on instinctual style but pretty weak on evidence. At the risk of introducing another unsupported assertion, I have improved a lot over the last ten years, particularly with respect to the latter. As for the field of online criticism as a whole, well, it is vastly bigger and this expanded pool means that there are lots of good reviews out there. They are often hard to find though. If you know the venues and the reviewers you trust then you are fine but if you rely on Google then frankly you’re fucked. A little bit more style and a lot more evidence in 2012 would be a very good thing.

Written by Martin

5 January 2012 at 11:57

Posted in criticism, sf

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My Sort Of Review Of Speculative Fiction In 2011

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Strange Horizons have posted their review of 2011. As one of their reviewers, I would usually take part in this but this year I found myself unable to come up with a contribution. This is because 2011 has been a year when I’ve been simultaneously intensely engaged with speculative literature, somewhat distanced from it and increasingly disillusioned by it.

The chief factor in this is that it was my second year as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke award. This means that whilst I’ve read a huge amount of science fiction, I can’t talk about it. This is a very difficult responsibility! In addition, whilst judging the Clarke has been an immense privilege, it is also a serious job and the relentless and indiscriminate reading has taken its toll. I’ve read less widely and written less deeply than I would have wished this year.

This mental exhaustion caused me to wonder aloud whether I’d read anything at all that I’d enjoyed over the course of the year. Niall Harrison was quick to point to a trio that handily cover basis (and that I did actually manage to write about): The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction, Twilight Robbery and The Heroes.

The Concise History of Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and Sheryl Vint, marked the end of a wonderfully productive period of work by the pair which also included Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction and The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (both with Andrew M Butler and Adam Roberts). I’m very much looking forward to Bould’s book on SF cinema later this year. Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge was a return to the world of the Fractured Realm by someone who is rapidly becoming my favourite children’s author (don’t tell Patrick Ness). After finishing it, I immediately ordered Verdigris Deep, the only one of here novels I’ve not yet read, but it has already gone out of print. Somebody sort this out. Finally, The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie was a book I was looking forward to so much that I cheekily wolfed it down myself before sending it out to Maureen Kincaid Speller to review for Vector. I bloody loved it.

Amongst all the 2010 and 2011 science fiction novels, I even managed to read some older books that I could talk about. The best of these was Maul by Tricia Sullivan, a novel that blew me away from the very first page. If you haven’t read it, address this situation.

Moving from novels to short fiction, I was extremely pleased that Karen Burham picked up the baton from Harrison and imported the Short Story Club from Torque Control to Locus Roundtable. Unfortunately the actual experience of reading the supposed cream of the crop of SF was deeply disenchanting. Similarly disenchanting was my story by story reading of three significant anthologies: The Ascent Of Wonder, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, Mirrorshades, edited by Bruce Sterling, and Shine, edited by Jetse de Vries. Each contained a few wonderful stories that would have reaffirmed my faith in the genre if they hadn’t been buried in a mound of shit. I didn’t read a single other SF short story apart from those and, to be honest, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

If I partially wrote off the written word, it wasn’t much better on the screen. The general consensus seems to that the only science fiction film worth talking about was Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. I’ll tell you what, I didn’t see that one coming. In fact, before seeing the trailer, I told myself I’d had more than enough von Trier to last me a lifetime. I remain somewhat ambivalent about the film but I’d recommend Jonathan McCalmont’s review for a discussion of its strengths.

On the small screen, I pretty much only managed to watch Masterchef and the first four episodes of Frozen Planet all year. Adam Roberts suggested that the final instalment of Black Mirror, a trio of brainwrongs from Charlie Brooker, was very good but I managed to miss it. Also on Channel 4, I similarly missed the third season of Misfits, despite loving the first two. What I wanted to watch was A Game Of Thrones but it wasn’t available to me so I settled for Spartacus: Blood And Sand on DVD as a proxy. As hoped, it contained swords and tits but it was notably lacking in fun, drama and wit. You know, the things that make life bearable.

Fun, dramatic but perhaps a bit too witless was Zelda: Skyward Sword. I only play one game a year and, since I own a Wii, it is usually either Zelda or Mario (a bit of a vicious cricle there). Despite making use of the Wiimote Plus, the latest installment fails to push things forward from the giant leap of Twilight Princess but remains spectacularly addictive stuff. I just wish it didn’t treat me like a five year old.

I’ve currently got another date scheduled with that dick Ghirahim but I’ve downed tools to concentrate on finishing off the Clarke submissions. Everything else – including this blog – will similarly be taking a back seat. At the moment, I can’t really think ahead but, once the shortlist has been announced, I hope to have more headspace to be able to write about all things I’ve wanted to discuss this year.

Written by Martin

4 January 2012 at 17:55

Posted in sf

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