Posts Tagged ‘jonathan mccalmont’
I’d strongly recommend reading Jonathan McCalmont’s review of The City & The City by China Miéville. It is long (over 4,500 words) and really gets at the novels strengths and weaknesses. Like many readers, he found the police procedural aspects lacking. Personally, I liked it, however, McCalmont does raise the intriguing prospect of what the novel might have looked like if it had been a collaboration with Derek Raymond.
This is what happens: a promising first novel comes in; you read it with excitement, wondering vaguely what the second will be like; within what seems to be about a quarter of an hour, the second is glistening on your desk; you read it with reserved admiration; then, slap, comes the third; you read it with growing unease; then comes the fourth—and you read it if you can. The way things are, most SF authors have to write more than a book a year to go on being SF authors. They spin short stories into novellas, novellas into novels. They write faster and faster, and with less and less energy. They turn into hacks before your eyes.
Martin Amis, The Observer, 8 May 1977
Matthew Davis has a long article at Strange Horizon about Martin Amis’s tenure as the Observer’s science fiction reviewer. He goes into quite a lot of detail, perhaps more than was necessary to make his point, and the most interesting parts are when he moves away from the forensic to talk more generally about reviewing science fiction:
Amis is famously Nabokovian in his prescription that “there is only one school of writing—talent.” As a reader and reviewer, his special concern is to determine the resiliency, precision, craft, and quality of the reviewed writer’s prose and his formative sensibility. Amis treats SF in general with respect, though not always all SF writers with the same consideration… What pained the SF fraternity was Amis’s exercise of metropolitan literary manners, since his idea of entertaining writing could be fierce. As Jonathan Raban notes, there is an off-the-peg standard issue accent for the smart English reviewer: smartyboots, mocking, alternating between a donnish high-Augustan pose and come-off-it-mate low slang.
This clash of manners which leads to arguments about tone rather than substance is something I’ve been thinking about since the various discussions about my review of Nights Of Villjamur. Davis goes on to conclude:
To say a book was a better one of its type, be it planetary adventure, historical novel, or even interior monologue, is only incidental to saying whether it is a good book, for the only real, demonstrable proof of quality is a personal vision realized in crafted prose of distinct metaphorical intensity. It is probably easier for SF writers to sustain the hurt of SF being dismissed en masse (and indeed this dismissal probably contributes to a bumptious sense of community pride) than it is to have the finger jabbed directly for individual failings. All writer-critics are necessarily cranky, as they intentionally or not use the book under review to explicate the prejudices and practices that underlie their own works.
I’m not sure how writer-critics differ from any other critics in this respect. This ties in with a recent post at Ruthless Culture in which Jonathan McCalmont suggests that people pay more attention to the pre-theoretical values their criticism embodies.
Let The Right One In seems to have been universally well received and I wholeheartedly agree with this. There seem to be differing opinions about why though, and these seem to boil down to how you view the central character. Eli a twelve year old girl but also a substantially older vampire who can be read in several ways. (The book apparently makes clear that she is over 200 years old but I haven’t read it and besides I prefer to compartmentalise adaptation and source material so lets just leave leave it at “old”.)
Jonathan McCalmont has a very interesting post which casts her as a femme fatale. As I said, interesting but I also think profoundly wrongheaded. In contrast I view Eli as essentially passive, active only when she is reactive. It is a rather more conservative and traditional reading, one which puts her firmly in the tragic heroine role, but I do think this is a tragedy.
In many ways the tone is set by her first line of dialogue: “I can’t be your friend.” It is addressed to Oskar, the twelve year old boy who lives next door, and clearly flags her desire for an emotional contact that she believes is impossible. This tentative reaching towards forming a connection with Oskar is the heart of the film and culminates in the scene where – in the face of his mockery – she enters his flat uninvited. It is a moment of great vulnerablity in which she exposes herself to him. To see this all as seduction, as grooming, casts her in role which is alien to her actions.
Even with Håkan, her adult male companion and procurer of blood, I do not see her as being straightforwardly in control of the relationship. It is something more akin to mutual dependency. Even whilst displaying dominance towards him she acts in a childish fashion, he is simply even more passive than her. In essense I do not think she is a old person in a young body but very much much what she says when she is asked: “Twelve. More or less.” She is a child frozen in time. She shows no accumulation of knowledge or experience: she has taken no real steps to ensure a consistent supply of blood (Håkan is either incompetent or, more likely, wants to be caught); when she feeds herself, her killings are messy and heedless; when she becomes too noticeable she simply moves on to the next town.
(I think McCalmont is onto something when he points out that Eli moves straight from
Håkan’s bed to Oskar’s, trading one male for another. However, I think this is to encourage us to see the parallels between the two, not to emphasis Eli’s manipulative nature.)
I do see the ending very much as the fruition of a love story but a poisoned one. Leaving the cinema I felt much the same way as after Eternal Sunshine For The Spotless Mind. Both films offer a final image of hope and fragile happiness but in both cases the audience knows that such hope is entirely illusory as we have already been exposed to the cyclical outcome.
Jonathan McCalmont has just posted his Alternative Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form to accompany the Actual Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. It will not surprise long term readers of McCalmont to discover that his shortlist is dominated by horror and topped by Let The Right One In. That film is finally out in this country this month after what seems like an eternity of hype. As always such hype is a double-edge sword but I am still looking forward to it (and I will also check out Jar City).
Personally, I am quiet happy with the actual shortlist, it is certainly much stronger than last year and I’m not sure what I would want to add to it. I’m not really bothered about quibbles over whether superhero films and, in particular, The Dark Knight are science fiction or not but it is a shortlist of meaty, enjoyable films that happens to include the best science fiction film of the last five years. As McCalmont says:
As a surprisingly delicate and intelligent work of traditional SF, I would be genuinely shocked if WALL-E did not go home with the Hugo.
The latest edition of Vector is out. I have a review and a letter of comment in it and other people have more interesting things – like Martin McGrath’s essay on John Scalzi’s feeble Old Man’s War books – in it. However, since the website hasn’t been updated for a couple of years there is nothing to link to and so this is probably only of interest to you if you are a member. In which case you will already have received your copy. So, instead, here are some links:
- Locus have launched a group blog which is still very much finding its feet.
- Jonathan McCalmont continues to bang the barleypunk drum as he thinks about the future of British SF.
- Elsewhere Damien G Walter is more conventional in his selection of bright young things.
- And Stephen King says Stephenie Meyer is shit. Although he also implausibly claims JK Rowling is not.