Archive for the ‘sf’ Category
“With only ten days left before the Hugo nominating deadline, I’m cutting these posts a little close.” So begins Abigail Nussbaum’s draft ballot for the Hugo short fiction. I think it is safe to say she is miles ahead of me. However – unusually – I’ve read a clutch of very interesting novellas, all of which I would recommend voters check out.
I might manage to post some other short fiction recommendations here too but I thought I’d focus on the long ones first. If you need other suggestions, Nussbaum’s post is an excellent source of tips (even if she does have ‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado ‘bubbling under’, the big wronghead).
Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014)
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
There is a powerful spell of which many of those active in online criticism have for some time been aware. SUMMON VANDERMEER is best effected simply by referring to one of the eponymous scribbler’s works in a published review, blog post or comment; upon conjuring, VanderMeer will manifest, most often offering a faintly under-written defence of even the smallest gripe or criticism, occasionally doing so in a way which leaves the readers of this digital ectoplasm less than confident that the summoned sprite meant to do that.
VanderMeer’s occasionally less than happy history of engaging with his readers makes the rapturous response to his Southern Reach trilogy all the more remarkable. Coming as it does after something of a break from fiction – VanderMeer has in recent years made most (and significant) impact in editorial conjunction with his wife, Ann – the trilogy is as heavy and serious a statement as a returning writer could possibly wish to make. It is a distillation of the genre in which he is now widely regarded as an expert, the Weird; it is an act of astonishingly wide-ranging pop-culture criticism; and it is a furiously well-written, sometimes shockingly evocative story of ecological disaster, adaptation and accommodation.
Set in a world in which a tranche of land known only as Area X has been given over entirely to a weird physics with no identifiable origin or cause, the novel centres on the invisible but impermeable border with few know egresses which separates Area X from all but the ill-fated expeditions sent by the government agency set the task of investigating it, the Southern Reach. In this scenario, VanderMeer plays with issues of perception and penetration: how Area X can and can’t be measured or understood; how it may or may not interact with the world beyond it; and what its creeping weirdness, its inhospitability and indifference to human beings might mean or portend.
The first volume of the trilogy, the quite unusually discomfiting Annihilation, follows the group of women who enter Area X as the Southern Reach’s twelfth expedition (but who are in fact much further along a hidden sequence of secret visits that that). We never learn the names of any of the expedition’s members but instead come to know them by their function: the viewpoint character, for instance, is identified as the biologist and her desire to observe and understand proves ill-suited to the impossibilities of Area X. Most obviously, this includes the subterranean structure on the walls of which is written a recursive prayer-like koan in iridescent script. Counter-intuitively known by the biologist knows as the Tower, it houses the Crawler, a fractal, shifting being which appears to contain the essence of Area X and yet is utterly ineffable. “The longer I stared at it,” bemoans the expedition’s supposed expert on unusual organisms, “the less comprehensible it became.”
VanderMeer is quite brilliant in this first volume at instilling in the reader the disorientation and terror which Area X inspires in the expedition. To read Annihilation is to interface with the inaccessible. VanderMeer’s spare prose presents the illusion of transparency, the suggestion of clarity, but the subjects of his sentences are something other, crafted to be just beyond the extent of his diction: “I was no longer a biologist but somehow the crest of a wave building and building but never crashing to shore”. This is crystalline writing, cut and polished to gleam, but what it quite means is unclear. Only by accretion and exposure does the reader begin to piece together a working understanding of events and it is a real achievement of VanderMeer’s that unlike many lesser writers of the Weird he does not revel in incomprehension. He rewards his reader.
He also tests them. In the second volume, Authority, VanderMeer leaves Area X entirely for the confines of the Southern Reach’s headquarters. Here, the protagonist is John Rodriguez, a disgraced former counter-terrorism field agent who prefers the nickname Control. This, of course, echoes Le Carré and, where Annihilation distilled the Weird, at times Authority seems to refract spy fiction and thrillers. This second book may test the patience of some. It feels in many ways less urgent and less alarming than the first, yet I think in its uncanny depiction of office politics it sounds a satirical note which adds a new voicing to the trilogy’s overall euphony.
One of Control’s most creative staff scientists, Whitby, develops a terroir theory of Area X: that, as with wine, “environmental varietals” have conspired to produce specific and unrepeatable effects within its weird boundaries. But the palimpsests of agendas and personalities at the failing Southern Reach lead Control to another conclusion, “finding now in Whitby’s terroir theory something that might apply more to the Southern Reach than to Area X”. That is, Control (again denied a real name) is out of control, both of a territory which systematically and entirely erases all trace of human activity (reshaping it as weird doubles or fatal cancers) and also of the agency designed to contain it. “Topological anomaly?” Control imagines his grandfather scoffing at the term used by his staff to describe the Tower. “Don’t you mean some kind of spooky thing that we know nothing, absolutely fucking nothing about, to go with everything else we don’t know?”
Control’s family have more purchase on this bureaucratic farce than his mere imaginings. Control is Acting Director of the Southern Reach at the behest of his powerful spymaster mother, following the disappearance on an expedition of the previous incumbent. The drifting of the trilogy into the family saga genre can feel like a bridge too far. Control’s mother proves to be an important character and his relationship with her is therefore rather more significant than the queasy attenuation VanderMeer sketches with notable facility for unease. At first they read as another iteration of the trilogy’s over-arching theme that most people want “to be close to but not part of”]; their rapidly apparent plot importance makes the story oddly local for a trilogy constantly skirting the cosmic.
Perhaps, though, we require an anchor: Authority ends with Control and the returned double of the biologist (now referred to as Ghost Bird) finding a fresh entrance into an expanding Area X, which seems if anything more rather than less strange on second encounter. Indeed, the third and final volume of the trilogy, Acceptance, proves both its most ineffable and its most up-front. Told from a range of perspectives – Control, Ghost Bird, the former Director and, most disturbingly of all, the lighthouse keeper in the region that becomes in the course of his story Area X – connections begin to be made. The trilogy rejects the idea that any single one of us can perceive completely and its multi-voice finale attempts to show why.
“There’s nothing to this world but what our senses tell us about it,” insists Control, “and all I can do is the best I can based on that information.”. Control is repeatedly undone by this inflexibility and he passes through these novels rather lost and buffeted; his opposite number is the twin-face of the biologist and Ghost Bird, who seek to inhabit a space as natively as possible. “Area X was all around them; Area X was contained in no one place or figure. It was the dysfunction in the sky […] the heavens and earth. It could interrogate you from any position or no position at all, and you might not even recognise its actions as a form of questioning.”
In the online magazine Strange Horizons, Adam Roberts has written better than anyone about the ways in which the Southern Reach trilogy in this way reimagines nature writing for our troubled times. What does it mean that our environment is altering in ways we don’t understand, into shapes for which we are not necessarily suited and in a manner that emphasises its indifference to our presence? The expeditions of the Southern Reach are forays fated to doom because they seek human-sized solutions to these questions; VanderMeer’s inexplicable clarity is an idiom suited to disputing this.
But in its lovers and families, its terrorists and spies, its intimate villages and expansive governments, the world of the Southern Reach is also more widely about connection and motivation. In fact, I’d suggest that to read the richness of the trilogy through a purely ecological lens is to deny the potency of its effect. In the lighthouse keeper’s tale there are moments of pure horror – “Sadi spun and twitched and twisted on the floor, slamming into chairs and table legs, beginning to come to pieces” – but it is impossible to challenge Ghost Bird’s welcoming of the inevitable accommodation to come. The simultaneity of the horror and beauty of Area X – that the individual cannot prevail against the universal – is the terror and redemption at the heart of our every interaction.
All of which is to say that the Southern Reach is preternaturally fertile, the sort of layered and constructed fiction that readers pine for and so rarely receive. We will all in future SUMMON VANDERMEER with markedly less trepidation.
Due to production deadlines, space and my own laziness, this issue of the BSFA Review contains no editorial from me. Instead, here is the lead review.
Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
Gemsigns and Binary by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013 & 2014) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
Get Katja by Simon Logan (ChiZine Publications, 2014) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
City Of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
The Just City by Jo Walton (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
City Of Endless Night by Milo M. Hastings (Hesperus Press, 2014) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
Terror And Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, exhibition (British Library, 5 October 2014 to 20 January 2015) and book, edited by Dale Townshend (British Library, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Complete Uncle by JP Martin, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Matador, 2013) – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
Half A King by Joe Abercrombie, (Orbit, 2014) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
We are half way through the month so it is worth reminding members of the British Science Fiction Association that nominations close for the BSFA Awards at the end of the month. This year they are crowd-sourcing suggestions and, as with the Hugos, I also thought I’d post my draft nominations here.
Best Novel was the easiest category for me this year as I’ve read a surprising amount of good, current fiction. Those who read my last BSFA Review editorial won’t be particularly surprised by my choices:
- The Race by Nina Allan
- Wolves by Simon Ings
- Southern Reach by Jeff Vandermeer
- Echopraxia by Peter Watts
As well as writing one of the best books of the year, Allan has also written a very helpful post covering her candidates for Best Non-Fiction. She starts with an epiphany:
What if every BSFA Awards voter (and Hugo voter) were to read just twenty pieces of new short fiction every year? Surely this would have at least some impact, not just upon individuals’ knowledge of the field but on their sense of investment in the awards process. Whether through random online reading (one of the most radical advancements in the field in recent years has been the increasing quality and availability of free short fiction online) or through the purchase of magazine subscriptions would be down to individual inclination and cash available, but I honestly do think the twenty-shorts-per-year formula would have a considerable effect on the discourse around short fiction. Why not try it and see?
I came to a similar conclusion last (you’ll have seen some of the results of that earlier) and I hope other voters do adopt this approach. Anyway, here are my three favourite stories from my own reading:
- Trading Rosemary by Octavia Cade
- ‘The Bonedrake’s Penance’ by Yoon Ha Lee
- Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
I’m currently reading through Allan’s recommendations for the fourth slot. Posts like hers provide a vital service in trying to filter the vast about of work out there. Moving from words to Best Artwork, recommendation post are even more helpful as it so easy to quickly check out a large amount of different pieces of art online. Carl V Anderson has got pretty different taste to me but this post is a helpful taster of what is out there. So far I’ve been concentrating on book covers and my three favourites are:
- Wolves by Jeffrey Alan Love
- Voyage Of The Basilisk by Todd Lockwood
- Mirror Empire by Richard Anderson
My final slot goes to ‘The Wasp Factory’ by Tessa Farmer. Which leaves Best Non-Fiction. Despite the fact this is my field, it is often the category I struggle most with. But the single piece of criticism that has stayed with me the most this year is this:
Today marks the end of National Short Story Week and I actually did read quite a bit of short fiction, including two great stories about the sea.
First up, ‘Drawn Up From Deep Places’ by Gemma Files. This is part of my continued read-through of Beneath Ceaseless Skies and is exactly the sort of ‘Literary Adventure Fantasy’ I’ve been searching for. It is part of a series so I’m looking forward to going back to read ‘Two Captains’ as well as future installments.
Next, ‘The Mussel Eater’ by Octavia Cade. I only discovered Cade earlier in the year but she has had a prolific and impressive 2014. ‘The Mussel Eater’ is shorter and sharper than most of the other work she published this year but is wonderful to have. Equally wonderful to have is Book Smugglers Publishing.
As well as reading, I also made a rare excursion outside the house to see Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy at my old local church, St John’s in Hackney. I hadn’t read anything about the gig in advance so was surprised and pleased to see he was joined by Matt Sweeney which meant we were treated to this rendition of ‘My Home Is The Sea':
I’m writing this a few weeks after Loncon 3 and though – with the aid of green vegetables and a few early nights – I’ve kicked the con crud, I still can’t shake the Hugos hangover. This year’s awards were a pretty poor showing for British SF that reflected a mediocre 2013 in terms of what was published. Not so 2014: Wolves by Simon Ings and The Race by Nina Allan are both works of British SF as well as being simply SF by British authors and are two of the best examples in recent years. Allan, in particular, seems like she is hitting the peak of her career, a deepening and coalescing even of the obvious talent on display in last year’s BSFA Award-winning Spin. Of course, neither have a hope in hell of getting anywhere near the Hugos but I’m hoping the Clarke Award judges and BSFA members may look more favourably on them.
Being less parochial for minute, I’m going to cheat and cast a pre-emptive vote for work that hasn’t actually finished being published yet. However, on the strengths of the first two volumes, Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is already a clear award contender. Dan Hartland will be reviewing the series for Vector as soon as the final book is out (although he may have to wait for me to read it first).
Short fiction is always harder for me than novels and I need to do much more reading around (or, even, better, I need more people to perform triage for me). I do have one early contender for Best Novella though: ‘Trading Rosemary’ by OJ Cade. A web of memories strung together into a surprisingly satisfying story, it is made b its atmosphere and the steel of its protagonist. I’m really looking forward to reading her latest novella, ‘The Don’t Girls’.
In his review of Noir and La Femme, both edited by Ian Whates, Martin McGrath points readers towards some other potential candidates come awards time, including my own favourite stories in the anthology courtesy of Frances Hardinge and Vector’s own Paul Graham Raven. We have quite a few more anthology reviews forthcoming and my own resolution is to check out the online magazines more often.
But if I could compel you to go out and read one piece of fiction it would be Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. Best Graphic Story is always a bit of a weak category because the Worldcon membership simply don’t know enough about comics (me included) but this is the real deal. Suzie can make time stop every time she has an orgasm. She thinks she is alone until she meets Jon who has the same ‘gift’. Obviously, they decide to rob a bank. There was so much potential for this to go wrong but Fraction and Zdarsky get it deliriously right. One for your Christmas list.
Oh, and if you were at Loncon, I really hope you saw Tessa Farmer’s extraordinary realisation of a wasp factory, one of several tributes to the late Iain Banks. I’ll certainly be nominating it for the BSFA Award for Best Artwork.
- Noir and La Femme, edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2014) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- Astra by Naomi Foyle (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Aliens: Recent Encounters, edited by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Prime, 2013) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- Glaze by Kim Curran (Jurassic London, 2014) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
- Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall (Egmont 2014) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- Lupus Rex by John Carter Cash (Ravenstone Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
- Martian Sands (PS Publishing, 2013) and The Violent Century (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013) by Lavie Tidhar – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- The Brick Moon & Another Brick In The Moon by Edward Everett Hale and Adam Roberts (Jurassic London, 2014) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- Call And Response (Beccon Publications, 2014) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- The Moon King by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2014) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
- The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2012) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
- The Leopard by KV Johansen (Pyr, 2014) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
As a coda to my Worldcon report, Strange Horizons have just published a new interview with Iain Banks. The interview was conducted by Jude Roberts, who was with me on that ‘Dropping The M’ panel, as part of her PhD.
Last year, in order to make nominations for awards, I relied on other people reading extensively and making recommendations. This yea, I thought maybe I should do some of the hard work. So I’ve just read the first six months of Beneath Ceaseless Skies which I picked because it gets less coverage than some of the other online magazines, I appreciate its specific remit and I’ve clicked with their stories before. Turns out that the three best stories published were from the usual suspects:
- ‘The Bonedrake’s Penance’ by Yoon Ha Lee
- ‘Golden Daughter, Stone Wife’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
- ‘Women In Sandstone’ by Alex Dally MacFarlane
If you are looking for award fodder, these are the ones to read and I think the Lee is the best. But whilst it is obviously no bad thing that this generation of young, talent writers are regularly turning out high quality work, all three stories share a mythic, poetic tone that is quite a way from the magazines strapline of “Literary Adventure Fantasy” and could easily have appeared in other magazines such as Strange Horizons. As well as this type of story, what I also want from BCS is the best sort of epic fantasy novel condensed into short form. The beginning of the year saw a trio of strong core genre stories that nearly fit the bill and I’d particularly recommend the Austin:
- ‘Atonement’ by Alec Austin
- ‘The Year Of The Silent Birds’ by Siobhan Carrol
- ‘The Face In The Window’ by Brian McClellan
I’d also love to see a really well-executed pulp appear in BCS. Sadly the two pulp pastiches present, ‘Sweetwater Notion And The Hallelujah Kid’ by KC Ball and ‘The Goddess Deception’ by Dean Wells, are almost fun but ultimately fall flat on their faces (Wells has another much worse story in another issue).
Reading the stories in one go also makes it easy to identify two editorial weaknesses. Firstly, a fondness for Americana. Partially this is just a matter of taste as I really don’t care for it but I do think the bar is set a bit lower for these stories just because they scratch an editorial itch. ‘Engine Song’ by Nathaniel Lee and ‘The Use And The Need’ by M. Bennardo are truly terrible (although Lee has a much better story in another issue). Secondly and more fundamentally, far too many of these stories are just too short. This isn’t necessarily a question of word count but rather that they are simply slices of larger stories. Time after time, stories either stop abruptly or reach the next, non-existent, chapter. Short fiction is hard and making a satisfactorily self-contained story is hardest of all.