Archive for March 2013
‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books, 2012)
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Stranded on the moon, a group of American astronauts watch with horror as the Cold War turns hot and the Earth begins to tear itself apart. Painfully aware that reserves of food and good will are running low, they begin experimenting with a new technology in the hope that it will somehow allow them to find a new home.
First in a series of four self-published novellas, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains offers an unusual but compelling combination of immaculately researched hard sf and literary fiction. Central to the book’s strangeness is that, despite drawing on two very different literary traditions to tell his story, Sales makes no attempt to integrate the prose styles associated with these traditions. This collision of styles results in a series of arresting passages where beautifully formed and intensely poetic images loom up unexpectedly from a fog of numbers and acronyms. Initially quite unsettling, this discordant style proves highly effective once Sales begins exploring similar tensions within his characters. By juxtaposing the inhuman and technical elements of hard sf with the humanistic and lyrical elements of literary fiction, Sales suggests that his characters may well be burying themselves in the technical aspects of their jobs in order to escape from feelings which, though perfectly human, have no place amidst the square-jawed heroism of the American space programme. This ambivalent attitude towards the character of Apollo-era astronauts also provides the basis for an unflinchingly brutal assault on the myth of the ‘right stuff’. In fact, it is hard not to think of science fictional archetypes like Robert Heinlein’s Capable Man when Sales takes all the machismo and patriotism of a Sixties astronaut and forces it to decay into a hideous radioactive sludge of pride, resentment and petulant sentimentality.
Though packed with invention and fleeting displays of true literary grace, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains is a somewhat unbalanced piece of writing. For example, while the experimental juxtaposition of different prose styles is successful on the whole, Sales does occasionally lose himself in technical detail, resulting in readers having to pick their way through needlessly dense thickets of acronym-studded exposition. This sense of imbalance is also evident in his tendency to lavish attention on world building while expecting readers to fill in the gaps when it comes to characterisation. Particularly annoying is the way that Sales ends the book with both a bibliography and a potted history of his fictional space programme when those pages might have been better put to better use unpacking the human elements of the story. Thankfully, though undoubtedly a source of frustration, these imbalances prove relatively unproblematic when weighed against the scope of Sales’s ambition and the adroitness of his execution. The Apollo Quartet promises much but in order to deliver on this promise Sales must learn to trust his instincts as a literary stylist as the muse of technological correctness is only holding him back.
This review originally appeared in Vector #271.
‘3 Moments Of An Explosion’ was originally published on Rejectamentalist Manifesto.
China Miéville bestrides the genre stage like a colossal sentient oil rig. He’s been shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Novel four times (winning for The City & The City) and ‘Covehithe’ was on the Best Short Fiction shortlist last year. That’s in addition to his Hugo, World Fantasy Award, three Clarke Awards and seven Locus Awards. You often get the impression that he could publish his shopping list and it would be up for a major award. Which is pretty much what has happened here – Rejectamentalist Manifesto is Miéville’s blog. The items on his shopping list are:
- A semi-satire on consumerism burden with crap portmanteaus and handled better in the margins of ‘Limited Edition’.
- A wannabe gonzo interstitial story that only reachs goofy and literalises the technology/drug metaphor of ‘Immersion’ to no greater effect than the metaphor.
- A smoke beast urban horror as pointless as Lost and as under-nourished as ‘The Flight Of Ravens’
You can read it as a compressed novel but I’m more inclined read it in the same was as ‘The Song Of The Body Cartographer’: as a nothing. Still, it is better than ‘4 Final Orpheuses’. But then again, ‘better’ is a useless concept when it comes to these blog posts. Putting this story on an award shortlist seems rather like compiling M John Harrison’s blog posts into a How To Be A Writer book.
‘Limited Edition’ was originally published in Arc 1.3: Afterparty Overdrive
The BSFA Award is open to all types of speculative fiction but, given its full title, it is pleasing to see some actual science fiction about Britain on the shortlist rather than, say, supernatural Victoriana.
“GRIIDS PUT YOUR SPEX OOOONN,” Melody screams again. Echoes.
“I GOT NO CREDIT,” replies Grids.
“Jesus fam, nuff shouting,” mumbles College.
‘Limited Edition’ is, of all the things to be nominated for an award in 2013, a cyberpunk story. Reading it, I was surprised how much missed what the subgenre spoke to and how timely and relevant is occasional outbreaks remain. I was also reminded of my review of another one of those outbreaks, Moxyland by Lauren Beukes:
Amongst many aphorisms, Gibson is famous for suggesting that the future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed. This is a great soundbite but is really just another way of saying that wealth is not evenly distributed. If the social safety net seems tenuous in the late 21st Century Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis of the Sprawl then it is virtually non-existent in the early 21st Century Johannesburg of Moxyland.
We all live within a system that exists solely to unevenly distribute wealth. Even when a technology itself is universal, the rich will always get more for less. In a genre so often obsessed with the exceptional, Beukes and Maughan know that most people will be losers and their story is just as important to tell. You might call this Pay As You Go SF.
The story opens with an advert, an advert for limited edition trainers, “serious nice kicks” endorsed by Eugene Sureshot and due to be released in ten days. Grids finds out that the trainers are already in storage at his local retail park in Bristol and organises a smash and grab. Since this is the future, he uses the Smash/Grab server to both anonymously co-ordinate and gameify the raid.
So ‘Limited Edition’ is situated in obvious response to the 2011 riots in England but perhaps more importantly in response to the response. There are a few broad stabs at political satire such as a reference to the 2014 Anti-terrorism, Illegal Protest, Sporting Events-Related Violence and Retail-Slash-Enterprise Zone Security And Management Act but generally (and more successfully than that clunker) Maughan takes a street-level approach. It is an attempt to sympathetically imagine what life will be like in the near future for kids like those who took part in the riots and much more science fiction should be trying something similar.
Some is. His peers, as I see it, are Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross since their fiction so often shows the dirty interaction between nerd-rapture tech meeting humanity. Which is not to say their writing itself is similar – a comparison between the kids of ‘Limited Edition’ and those of Little Brother leaves is just embarrassing for Doctorow. But comparing them to the twenty and thirty somethings of Rule 34 is less comforting for Maughan. It is unfair to compare the scope of a novel to that of a short story but Stross revels in the economic and class complexity of world whereas Maughan is pretty wobbly outside of the immediate social strata he is interested it. At one point Grids wonders about the followers piggybacking his feed and it stands as a wider comment on the story:
Who knows who they are? Bored office workers, slum kids, stockbrokers, fashionistas, online griefers, lazy journalists, housewives, angry Daily Mail readers.
Never mind the journalists, this is a pretty lazy list. It also points to a tension in the story: Maughan rightly deplores the casual contempt of the term chav but is happy to indulge in his own broad stereotyping. The story is punctuated by tweets providing commentary on the events that are unfolding and the negative ones come from people with names like WhiteVanStan, F1 Fan and ManU4eva. The dichotomy of meathead sports fans versus the cool kid gamers doesn’t sit easily with the aim of the story to look beyond labels to individuals. In fact, given the unwieldy title of that imaginary 2014 legislation, Maughan should be making common cause between the two groups. The other group associated with negative comments are women or girls with names like KattyKins13 and xxKayleighxx. This is even more uncomfortable, particularly when set against Melody:
She screw-faces, and he feels embarrassed again, because she looks cute when she does. Not bimbo, high-street, wannabe-gamer cute, but smart, confident. And cute. He kinda likes her, but he’s known her for time. Since they were little. Plus her mum would kill him.
That is Grids in full girl next door crush mode. Not only does this reduce Maughan to clichés, it also reinforces the sense of dividing people up into categories; I’m sure he doesn’t believe in the existence of fake geek girls but he is leading himself down that path. This partisan deployment of sympathies is most clearly seen in Grids himself. Why does he Smash/Grab? The story’s first answer is ego: “Nothing scares him like the insignificance.” The second and perhaps more disingenuous answer comes at the very end when we discover he is the surrogate rather to his two younger siblings:
It’s the last of the few quid he made by trading in some of his points on the Smash/Grab server. Meaning his ranking has taken a major kicking, but it’s all good if it means he can feed everyone for a few days.
So nicking a pair of trainers is literally equivalent to stealing a loaf of bread. This big rhetorical land grab and not one Maughan backs up, tying in with Niall Alexander’s point that there is “a sense of tension between what is right outside the story, and what is true within its narrow, claustrophobic confines.” It also gives the lie to an earlier protestation:
Grids ain’t no sociologist, but he’s pretty sure that’s not how a community is meant to work. And even if it is then he’s not part of it, because he’s got no cash. Never has. And down here that makes him irrelevant, an outsider.
Grids is pay as you go crew: not in the game but not out of it either. To return to Gibson, saying the street finds its own use for things is another way of saying the losers of capitalism will always subvert it for their own gain. In this sense, it is a shame that globalisation rose to prominence as a concept (and counter-concept) just as cyberpunk started to decline. It is to Maughan’s credit that he explicitly aligns the two since they are such obvious bedfellows but unfortunately the lack of depth with which he explores the issues is also a weakness of the story.
Just before they arrive at the sportswear shop, it is tagged with a QR code by a political activist who is dragged off sharpish by the police. The code links to a video clip of the sweatshop conditions in which the Eugene Sureshots are made. Grids views the clip and has an epiphany which leads to him torching rather than stealing the trainers:
“If you’ve seen what’s playing on my stream yeah, then you know why I’m going to do this. This is for them yeah, them girls. For all the kids. For all the kids that can’t come down here and do what we do. This is for them cos it’s their world now.”
Not massively convincing. A quote like that wouldn’t look out of place in a Doctorow novel and I imagine that is the last thing Maughan wants. Things like this take the edge off the passages that really give the story its power:
Whenever there’s any trouble with youth in places like this the timelines erupt with opinions, people angry and shouting, saying why are people like him making trouble and tearing up their own community. He shakes his head and laughs to himself. Community? There’s no community down here – it’s nowhere, a non-place.
That power remains though, expressed through prose alternating between the limber and the abrasive. ‘Limited Edition’ has far more vitality, verve and curiosity than the previous three stories on the shortlist and I hope Maughan will continue to immerse himself deeper into the poetry and politics of his work.
‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ was originally published in Philippine Genre Stories
We first see Siren and Inyanna as lovers. Siren explores Inyanna’s body – different to ours – before the scene tastefully dissolves to orgasm. We next see them as doctor and patient. Siren is the body cartographer of the title and the genetic engineering that took place whilst Inyanna was in the womb was not entirely successful. Specifically she cannot bond to her pillor’ak, a flying Pern-beast. Both women are citizens of the Matriarchy which is currently in negotiations with the Patriarchy so this failure of flight takes on a political dimension.
So ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ is telling three stories – a romance, a drama and a political thriller – but Loenen-Ruiz does not have room to tell one.
When Siren and Inyanna first meet their relationship is medical, when we first meet them it is erotic, when we leave them it is true love. None of the steps in-between are depicted, leaving the relationship weightless. To fix the genetic mess that Siren uncovers, Inyanna has to be stripped back so far that her personality will be altered and their love lost. The story ends with Siren whispering “goodbye, my Only” but it is impossible for this to have any emotional force.
Instead, most of the story is devoted to sketching out bits of this ribofunk world (I was reminded of Paolo Tadini Bacigalupi’s much richer and successful ‘The Fluted Girl’). An origin story of their culture is repeated second hand through a series of canvases Siren’s, an interesting device but not one I found very illuminating. Nothing much is made of the importance of the pillor’ak despite the radical transformation required to ride them. Similarly, Siren and Inyanna are of different classes but similar status so it is pretty much irrelevant. I suspect Loenen-Ruiz has a deeper culture in her head than she has placed on the page.
This is most noticeable in the political dimension. Very little is said of their relationship with the Patriarchy and for the majority of the story I assumed it was just a background note that – like the romance – was there to give a flimsy story a bit more heft. At the end, however, it suddenly becomes clear that Inyanna has become the victim of espionage and that she is not the only one. The scope of the story is blown open and it becomes instead a first chapter. Niall Alexander agrees with this assessment and points out that it really is an extract from a novel in progress. Siren assures us she will get on the case off the page: “She would study the grids in the quiet, and hopefully she would find some clue that would point her towards whoever was behind these crimes.” Well, one day the reader will actually get that story.
Finally, I think I need to mention the title. Siren is the body cartographer so Loenen-Ruiz is explicitly evoking the song of the siren but to what possible intend? The only possible reading I can make of this is that Siren is the saboteur but that seems utterly unsupported by the text. Is it just there, as with the relationship itself, to add a bit of gold leaf in an attempt to make the story look more valuable than it is?
‘The Flight Of The Ravens’ was originally published by Immersion Press.
The house looked abandoned; there were no lights showing in the windows. “What do you mean? Let’s go?”
He shook his head. “There’s something familiar, something I recognise.”
“what are you talking about? It’s just an empty house. Let’s go.”
He stepped forward and pushed at the front door.
It swung open.
Dun dun DUN! I immediately felt slightly bad for my reaction to Butler’s hackneyed opening to his story since the monster that inevitably lurks inside this haunted house is evoked with some nicely weird touches. “He had hardly eaten these last weeks, trying to weaken himself” we are told and, when the adventurous children creep into his house, he angrily smashes a garlic clove into fragments, “inhaling their pungent aroma” in an attempt to regain control of his body. But no, my first instinct was correct; ‘The Flight Of Ravens’ is gothic tripe of a the most familiar type. Our monster portentously tells the children: “You should not have come here.” Dun dun DUN!
Of the two children, Bernard dies and Elizabeth lives. Ten years pass in which she devotes herself to learning magic, a surprisingly easy business, to protect herself. In this she is encouraged by Bernard’s father, Huginn. For no particular reason, Huginn really is Huginn, one of Odin’s ravens in human form. A connection is eventually revealed since the murderous monster is a man possessed by a fire jötnar. This is unnecessary for the plot and the coincidence of two supernatural creatures from Norse mythology bumping into each other in 19th Century Amsterdam is hugely off-putting.
This setting allows Butler to play dress up, historical drag standing in for the what elsewhere in the genre would be torrential worldbuilding. So, for example: “Elizabeth rode away on her bicycle, her most-prized possession. It had been manufactured locally by Simplex, which set it apart from the more common imports from England.” There is no reason for the story to contain this sentence. It is there to try and convey veracity trhough detail which would be a bogus enterprise, even if the lot of the details weren’t incorrect. To ensure the reader gets their money’s worth of time tourism, Butler throws in several pointless meetings with Freud. Apparently he thinks Elizabeth has psychological problem rather than really being the victim of a malevolent supernatural evil. Crazy!
Pages turn, time passes. As Niall Alexander says:
At almost 100 pages long, with 25 short chapters, several narrative perspectives, three time periods and scenes taking place from Frankfurt to Amsterdam—not to mention Vienna — Chris Butler’s novella has markedly more opportunity to (ahem) spread its wings than any of this year’s nominees for the BSFA’s Best Short Story trophy… yet it lacks the impact of even the least of these.
Eventually we get to the end and the plot is tied up neatly at little cost. The monster (half-heartedly humanised) perishes in one final cliche: “In a matter of seconds her aged the remainder of his five centuries, and crumbled to ashes.” This is the point in a Hammer horror film where ‘The End?’ would appear before the credits. Instead, Butler or Immersion has chosen ‘Fin’. Oh dear.
‘Immersion’ was originally published in Clarkesworld #69
‘Immersion’ is a neat, symmetrical story that sets out its moral clearly at the end:
It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.
Quy lives on Longevity Station, a minority culture economically reliant on tourism from the majority culture of the Galactics. She speaks Rong which suggests Himalayan ethnicity origins but the specifics are less important than the fundamental power relationship of minority-majority. Agnes is from the same culture as Quy but has left it behind, along with her original name, to become a Galactic. The technology of the immerser allows her to discard her past far more comprehensively than is possible for us though.
Immersers were invented by the Galactics to act as holographic translators, changing not just words but appearance and gesture. Agnes used hers to more rapidly assimilate into the culture of the Galactics. However, she became addicted to it, without it she would die but with it she is unable to function and exists in a state approaching catatonia. This is mirrored in Que’s half of the narrative where there is a suggestion that she escaped a similar fate but still suffers from depression as a result (which explains but doesn’t improve the flat prose).
So distrust of technology is firmly embedded in the story. Virtual reality as drug is a well-established metaphor and the clichés of one transfer easily to the other. Similarly, well-established is the idea that digital cannot compete with analogue in terms of veracity. So, for example, we have Quy watching spaceships form the docks of the station:
She could, of course, have been anywhere on Longevity Station, and requested the feed from the network to be patched to her router—and watched, superimposed on her field of vision, the slow dance of ships slipping into their pod cradles like births watched in reverse. But there was something about standing on the spaceport’s concourse—a feeling of closeness that she just couldn’t replicate by standing in Golden Carp Gardens or Azure Dragon Temple.
Beyond this, there is a sense that the technology is impure. Quy “actually would have been glad to never put on an immerser again—she hated the feeling they gave her, the vague sensation of the system rooting around in her brain to find the best body cues to give her.” The body horror she feels is echoed in the way she describes her culture being invaded: “a unison of foreigners descending on the station like a plague of centipedes or leeches”.
It is a complacent and overly familiar treatment of technology and one that is reflected in the glibness of the plot. Agnes is saved from mental incarceration simply by Quy saying “you have to take it off”. Doctors have been unable to do anything for Agnes but have not had Quy’s internal self-knowledge and personal connection. So spiritualism is prioritised over science and all sorts of bullshit short, sharp shock theories of the treatment of addiction are validated.
This glibness is matched by the closing moral that I quoted at the beginning which is a shame because it detracts from the more interesting depiction of the unequal relationships between the two cultures. The reason Agnes has returned to Longevity is because her husband is trying to dredge up he
Quy thought of the banquet; of the food on the tables, of Galen thinking it would remind Agnes of home. Of how, in the end, it was doomed to fail, because everything would be filtered through the immerser, leaving Agnes with nothing but an exotic feast of unfamiliar flavours.
It is an excellently pointed use of the word “exotic”. Despite what Quy says, Agnes does magically achieve this conceptual breakthrough. I might not like this fact but it is beautifully expressed:
Her avatar is but a thin layer, and you can see her beneath it: a round, moon-shaped face with skin the colour of cinammon—no, not spices, not chocolate, but simply a colour you’ve seen all your life.
With very little commentary and mostly for my own records, a few links on the topic of:
Firstly, Joe Abercrombie talks about the value of grit:
I have been observing for some time a certain tendency for people to complain about the level of grit in fantasy books. The dirt physical and moral. The attention to unpleasant detail. The greyness of the characters. The cynicism of the outlook… Grimdark is a phrase I’m hearing quite a lot, which seems by definition to be pejorative – excessively and unnecessarily dark, cynical, violent, brutal without purpose and beyond the point of ridiculousness. There’s often what seems to me a slightly weird double standard applied of, ‘I find this thoroughly horrible and disgusting therefore the author must have intended me to be titillated and entertained!’
But, he continues:
Lots of those who praise gritty writing talk about its realism. Lots of people who criticise it assert there’s nothing realistic about splatter and crushing cynicism. You’re both right! Realism is an interesting concept in fantasy. If we were aiming at the uncompromisingly real we probably wouldn’t be writing in made up worlds with forces that don’t actually exist. So things are often exaggerated for effect, twisted, larger than life. But we can still aim at something that approximates real life in all kinds of different ways. Where the people and their behaviour and the outcomes of their actions are believable. Real life is surprising, and unpredictable. Traditional fantasy is often the reverse. You know how to spot a certain type of character, and when you spot him/her you’ve a pretty good notion where their story is going to go. Grit attempts to shake up that relationship, to throw curveballs. Critics might say that grit is so prevalent we now can be sure our hero will be eating babies by the end of the prologue, but I actually don’t believe that. I think the palette of epic fantasy has grown broader over the last few years as a result of the movement to gritty.
Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults; which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that such people are fundamentally unrealistic.
This ties in with a recent post from Sophia McDougall on sexual assault and “realism” in popular culture and why she stopped reading A Game Of Thrones:
That sense of history seemed to be dwindling away a bit in the second book, but in the end, that wasn’t what drove me away. Instead, it was all the rape. This surprised me. After all, I’d known going in that there was quite a lot of it, and though I was prepared to find its treatment at least somewhat problematic, I’d also expected to be able to handle it. I’m usually able to read fairly graphic scenes without getting more distressed than the story called for, and friends of mine who I thought were more readily upset by that sort of thing had read the books just fine. And, as it turns out, a lot of the rapes in A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t graphic at all.
But. There. Are. Just. So. Many. Of. Them.
And occasionally they are really graphic. But that they’re mostly not almost made it worse for me. That made it possible for the narrative to load that many more of them by the casual handful into chapter after chapter. Rape as backstory, as plot point, as motivation – however badly handled, I can usually cope with it. I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.
She notes that this rape is always against women rather than men (the title of the post is ‘The Rape of James Bond’) and Liz Bourke follows up this point:
An observer may therefore venture to suggest that sexual victimisation of men in conflict situations approaches that of sexual victimisation of women in the very same situations. In reality. But not, for some reason, in male-authored epic fantasy. What statistics we have on the (severely underfunded and under-reported) prevalence of male rape in conflict zones today, suggest that in epic fantasy every in-conflict-zone deployment of sexual threat against women should be almost matched by sexual threat against men. And yet, in male-authored epic fantasy, it’s not.