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Posts Tagged ‘john clute

The Year Of The Rapture

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My joint review of The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood and The Rapture by Liz Jensen is up now at Strange Horizons:

Both Atwood and Jensen have form, but there are far more similarities between The Year of the Flood and The Rapture than I was expecting. This review was predicated on the simple coincidence of Bloomsbury publishing two works of literary science fiction at around the same time. Inevitably the novels were concerned with dystopian and apocalyptic themes, the bread and butter of non-genre SF, but their concerns within these broad subgenres are shared and Jensen is obviously influenced by Atwood. Neither author seems quite sure what to do with their concerns, though, and this tarnishes the notable achievements of their books. In the end, The Rapture is the more successful because of the purity of its tone; there are none of the mad digressions of The Year of the Flood. I expected more of Margaret Atwood because she is so obviously capable of it. I will now expect the same of Liz Jensen, and I am especially interested to see whether they will both return once more to the possibilities offered by science fiction.

Today is also the first of John Clute’s Scores columns for Strange Horizons.

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Written by Martin

18 January 2010 at 11:54

The Emperor’s New Clothes?

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John Clute’s Excessive Candour review column recently transfered from SF Weekly to Sci-Fi Wire when the former merged with the latter. This caused some degree of confusion for the punters of Sci-Fi Wire and eventually lead to Clute being dumped before immediately being snapped up by Strange Horizons.

Back in September, Jeff Vandermeer helpfully gave Sci-Fi Wire’s readers a translation of his review of The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Vandermeer concluded:

In an age when we have not too much sophisticated analysis of books but too little, it is hard to fault a reviewer for expanding our vocabulary even as he explicates a text. The fact is, the ways in which his words seem to stand out like a flashing siren or fit in as if part of an intricate mosaic will always depend on the brains of each individual reader.

There is some further discussion of this over at Torque Control. This has got me thinking: how do I feel about Clute? I have always counted him a good thing but only in an unreflexive and passive way. I may read his reviews but I don’t seek them out and I prefer many other reviewers. I despise the willful ignorance of the people on Sci-Fi Wire who dismiss him out of hand but at times his stylistic excesses irritate me and appear more like obfuscation than illumination. I have failed to truly engage with anything he has written. So I have resolved to think more closely about him, his use of language and his critical framework. I’m not sure what form this will take (or why you would be interested) but it may well involve a more serious take on Vandermeer’s translation idea once Clute is ensconced at Strange Horizons.

Written by Martin

28 November 2009 at 17:33

Posted in criticism, sf

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Redshift, edited by Al Sarrantonio

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Well, that’s that done…

Introduction by Al Sarrantonio
‘On K2 with Kanakaredes’ by Dan Simmons
‘The Building’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
‘Froggies’ by Laura Whitton
‘What We Did That Summer’ by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg
‘A Slow Saturday Night at the Surrealist Sporting Club’ by Michael Moorcock
‘In Xanadu’ by Thomas M. Disch
‘Commencement’ by Joyce Carol Oates
‘Unique Visitors’ by James Patrick Kelly
‘Black Tulip’ by Harry Turtledove
‘Belief’ by P. D. Cacek
‘In the Un-Black’ by Stephen Baxter
‘Weeping Walls’ by Paul Di Filippo
‘Anomalies’ by Gregory Benford
‘Captive Kong’ by Kit Reed
‘Feedback’ by Robert E. Vardeman
‘Between Disappearances’ by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
‘Resurrection’ by David Morrell
‘Cleopatra Brimstone’ by Elizabeth Hand
‘Burros Gone Bad’ by Peter Schneider
‘Pockets’ by Rudy Rucker and John Shirley
‘Ave de Paso’ by Catherine Asaro
‘Road Kill’by Joe Haldeman
‘Ting-a-Ling’by Jack Dann
”Bassador’by Catherine Wells
‘Ssoroghod’s People’by Larry Niven
‘Two Shot’by Michael Marshall Smith
‘Billy the Fetus’ by Al Sarrantonio
‘Viewpoint’ by Gene Wolfe
‘Fungi’ by Ardath Mayhar
‘Rhido Wars’ by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Helpfully for the critic Al Sarrantonio sets out exactly the criteria he wants anthology to be measured by. In his introduction he asks rhetorically:

So is Redshift the finest original sf anthology of the last twenty five years? Will it expand sf and influence its future for the next twenty five years?

These are the questions I’ve tried to address by proxy with my crude five star ratings for Quality and Shiftiness. I can’t really address the first question because I haven’t read enough original sf anthologies of the last twenty five years. Judged on its own merits though, it isn’t very impressive. If this is the finest then that is a sad indictment indeed. Perhaps the best thing Sarrantonio could have done was excise all his own words from the anthology. The insane hyperbole of his introductions exert a poisonous influence on the reader. If you are constantly told that this is the best thing since sliced bread you can’t help but respond “well, clearly it isn’t”. If the stories are allowed to stand for themselves you are more likely to say “yeah, that was a decent collection”. Of course, Sarrantonio didn’t want to produce a collection that was merely decent.

The second question is more interesting and split into two parts. Rather than address it directly though I am going to look at another view of Redshift. I recently read John Clute’s review at SF Weekly and I was surprised not that it differed from my view but at how radically it differed whilst coming to the same conclusion. In the details though, it takes virtually the opposite view to me and this in turn will help me illuminate a few of my problems with the anthology. So, some quotes from the review:

There are, moreover, almost no bottom-drawer tales here from “famous” vanity-plate authors whose veteran status allows them the occasional bummer, the kind of story that should be signed “Vet.”

Clute weasels a bit with “almost no” but I don’t know how else to describe the stories from Moorcock, Kelly, Turtledove, Haldeman, Niven and Wolfe. These are tired, predictable stories that wouldn’t get picked out of the slush. I’m prepared to believe Turtledove can’t actually do any better than this, that his entire career is based on just churning this stuff out, but at least some of the others should know better though.

Those authors who are new or newish are included on merit mostly, not promise.

Who are these new authors? Laura Whitton makes her publishing debut with a terrible story which in his introduction Sarrantonio admits was a workshop piece that only made it into the collection under the patronage of Dan Simmons. And, er, that’s it (unless you consider a publishing history of ten years “newish”). It is notable that there aren’t actually any new writers here. This is particularly noticeable from the other end of the decade because none of the present wave of new talent are represented or even suggested.

There are no stories which go on too long, and several—Neal Barrett’s long, stunning “Rhido Wars,” which depicts hominid life in a context savagely pre or post our own, maybe a few terrible centuries into life on a generation starship, but who knows?—seem to stop way too soon, as though a novel had been pounded into pemmican.

Now, I could happily read more of ‘Rhido Wars’ but many of the stories here out stay their welcome. ‘Commencement’ by Joyce Carol Oates is perhaps most egregiously over-protracted but at least it is well written. Most of the other stories that are too long are actually quite short in absolute terms, the problem is their ideas and prose are too feeble to sustain them for even this length.

By the way, if you had to look it up (as I did), “pemmican” is dried meat that has been powdered. This strikes me as a poor way to describe ‘Rhido Wars’; this is not an atomisation, it is more like a reduction to intensify the flavour.

Now for some agreement: “There is no genre prison left for Redshift to escape from.” The comparison Sarrantonio draws to Harlan Ellison is – to use Clute’s term – codswallop because it is so obsolete. However, when Clute then goes on (despite this) to look at the idea of what is still taboo in individual stories I again disagree.

Only one story—Elizabeth Hand’s “Cleopatra Brimstone,” worthily the longest tale in the book—is both sexually explicit and deeply incorrect.

Clute then recuses himself (at double the length of the above quote) from discussing the story further on the grounds of his friendship with Hand (the story actually takes place around Clute’s home). this leaves us to guess at what is meant by “deeply incorrect”. From context I am assuming something like transgressive and ‘Cleopatra Brimstone’ is a story about transgression but it is divorced from the youth culture that is the catalyst for this transgression. Hand makes herself a tourist.

Gene Wolfe’s “Viewpoint” is also un-PC, a deliciously surly take on the modern mega-state, and media, and people who rob people and don’t respond well to kindness;

It is a shame to see someone of Clute’s intelligence using the phrase “un-PC” in this way. There is nothing un-PC about this story (even if such a thing exists). It merely presents a Conservative caricature of a Liberal state and as with all caricatures it is unconvincing. There is no taboo here: this is mainstream (and idiotic) American political discourse.

Joe Haldeman’s “Road Kill” is not so much un-PC as nearly intolerable: told at an icy remove—the story is couched as a kind of movie synopsis—it has some of the effect of those fictions which attempt through estrangement to convey some sense of Final Solutions.

This is just madness. ‘Roadkill’ is not told at an icy remove, it is told at the intimate remove of a voyeur. A writer could use this to make a point about reader complicity. Haldemen does not. To link this trashy example of the sex and death thriller to novels that attempt to explicate the Holocaust is staggeringly mistaken.

But then – the individual stories dismissed – Clute gets to his conclusion and nails the major failing of the anthology:

What there is not—and it may have been a bad instinct on Sarrantonio’s part to allow us to think there might be—is any sense of consensus about the nature of the fantastic in the new century.

Redshift is fundamentally backwards looking, it is an anthology of the Twentieth Century. So, returning to that second question, the answer to both parts is no. This is starkly apparent in the type of authors solicited, it is equally apparent in the type of stories they have produced. These are stories that are solid, even stolid, rather than expanding and radical. It is – sadly for Sarrantonio – most apparent in the total lack of influence the antholgy has had on the genre. Never mind twenty five years, it was forgotten with five.

Written by Martin

5 June 2009 at 10:58

Argumentum Ad Verecundiam

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I went to see John Clute be interviewed by Andrew McKie for the BSFA last night. It was a very interesting interview, I scored a copy of Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons Of Babel (as reviewed by Clute here) and I learnt three important things:

1) McKie has grown an alarming new beard

2) Appleseed was originally conceived as an Elite spinoff novel!

3) Clute thinks the concept of mundane SF is “inherently wacko”.

Written by Martin

23 October 2008 at 18:43