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101 Damnations

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My review of Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo is up now at Strange Horizons. It is by some margin the longest review I’ve ever written – the footnotes alone are over 1,300 words. The reason for this is that Broderick and Di Filippo say so many odd things that are worth writing about. As I say in the review, “my abiding impression of The 101 Best Novels is of being constantly blindsided; I ended the book not informed or entertained but baffled by these sentence-sized bolts from the blue.”

Written by Martin

13 March 2013 at 07:17

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London Kills Me

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My review of The City’s Son by Tom Pollock is up now at Strange Horizons.

So debut novelist Tom Pollock is telling a story with a familiar shape, a story of secret London. The daddy of such books is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996), adapted from the BBC drama he devised with Lenny Henry, and it still casts a long shadow. Once I would have said that there was perhaps a need for this sort of story to be retold every five years or so, but now, of course, urban fantasy is ascendant and every city has a secret soul. The City’s Son may ride this wave but it fits more comfortably into a slightly more specific tradition. After all, London is a bit special. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I went to an interview with slipstream writer Nina Allan. At one point, she mused on her distance from the core of the science fiction genre and rather wistfully remarked that she’d like to be a space writer but always seemed to end up as a time writer. Listening to her I was struck by how perfect London is as a setting for such fiction. After all, the city is a type of time machine; the past and the future sandwiched against each other. This history—this density—imbues the city with a crushing psychic weight. It is virtually a singularity.

Niall Harrison recommended the novel to me which should have been a warning sign since our tastes so rarely converge. It is a novel with intelligence and flair but it needed either flawless execution or far more ambition. I can see why it made the Golden Tentacle shortlist for the Kitschies though. (I should also reinterate that it is a debut novel so perhaps my standards are unrealistically high – I certainly feel like taking a break from reviewing them.)

I end my review with a bit of wishful thinking about where the series might go next. Well, it turns out Pollock was thinking along similar lines:

For an ordinary girl from a nice British Pakistani family, Pen’s been through a lot in the last few months. She was kidnapped by a barbed wire demon, rode at the head of an army of scaffolding wolves and fought in a war against a demolition god, all in the name of her best friend. Now back at school, she wears the scars of that war on her face, and the only person who knows what that’s like is her mirror-sister Parva: a doppleganger who only exists in London-Under-Glass, the city of London’s reflections. Parva’s her own person, but she shares all of Pen’s memories and she understands.

When Parva goes missing, Pen ventures into London-Under-Glass to find her. It’s a strange city, where it rains brick and concrete as well as water, where beauty is currency and a well-turned eyebrow is worth killing for, a city dominated by the dangerous politics of the Mirrorstocracy. At its heart though, this story’s about something very simple, the search of a scarred, scared, brave girl for the soul in all the worlds that’s closest to her own.

I probably won’t read The Glass Republic – I’m increasingly thinking that new genre writers should just get their first trilogy out of their system and move on – but I imagine I will be returning to Pollock in the not too distant future.

Written by Martin

25 January 2013 at 10:16

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Where Is The New New Wave?

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My review of Osiris by EJ Swift is up now at Strange Horizons.

There is a problem beyond this, though, a problem with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction. What one might call Resource SF could make a vital contribution to literature but the commitment only ever seems to be political rather than artistic. The only novel I can think of that attempts both is Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone (2011). The concerns are similar to Swift’s—the remorseless march of the Gini coefficient bears its inevitable fruit—but it seeks to be not just a science fiction novel but a novel in its own right. No one else seems to be trying.

I wrote this review not long after Paul Kincaid published a review of several year’s best collections in the LA Review of Books. I imagine it shows. Problems with the state of the genre were on Kincaid’s mind too and his diagnosis was as follows:

The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.

Jonathan McCalmont makes the moral and political failing of this crisis of confidence explicit in a follow up article which glories in the typically restrained title ‘Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future’:

This conceptual blockage was most evident in the immediate aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis when the housing bubble burst and banks across the world began to collapse. Exposed as nothing more than a vast pyramid scheme, global capitalism lurched and stumbled but never quite fell… Having failed to identify this culture-wide conceptual blockage as any kind of failure or flaw, science fiction never bothered to rout around it.

And yet this is not my problem; Resource SF does not turn its back. In fact, Kincaid expands on his review in a long interview with Nerds Of A Feather where here he draws the distinction between three different forms of crisis facing SF: a crisis of ideas, of identity and of confidence. It is the former – an entirely aesthetic crisis – that I believe Swift succumbs to. On this point, Kincaid says:

Within any art form there are individuals or movements that attempt to push the boundaries in various ways. They are concerned with seeing what new can be done, what more can be done with the form. Often, though not always, they are initially viewed with dismay or disdain by aficionados of the art, though in retrospect they are generally viewed as being the innovators who mark an important developmental stage in the history of the form… What they do may be good or bad (and in science fiction a lot of the so-called innovations of the new wave in the 1960s were, frankly, very bad indeed), but I think they are important for the health of the form.

Alongside this, and by far the majority of the exponents of any art form, there are the traditionalists, concerned to do more of what the form has always done. Some of these can be very good, there can be great artistic achievements that make no effort whatsoever to challenge the nature of the form. What I found, reading the three books, and it bore out something I had been aware of in previous best of the year volumes I’ve read, was that practically everything belonged in the second camp.

Kincaid adds that “I don’t think this perception holds when it comes to the novel” but I’m not at all sure of that. If you pick up a science fiction novel I think there is a pretty good chance that it will read exactly like most other science fiction novels. There are exceptions – Kincaid lists M John Harrison and Christopher Priest in his interview; I mention Adam Roberts in my review – but it is, by and large, homogeneous in a way that literary fiction (regardless of quality) is not.

Helpfully Roberts has given his perspective from someone on the other side of the fence. Well, both sides, really. But what it all made me think was, can you imagine any contemporary Nebula-winner writing Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders?

Written by Martin

9 October 2012 at 10:51

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The Puppies And The Bees

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My review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway is up at Strange Horizons.

I thought The Gone-Away World was fantastically exciting and fantastically flawed. Angelmaker does something similar and, although it is less flawed, it is also less exciting. I want a bit more from Harkaway.

So, has the reader been sold a pup? Yes but, as I said, lots of people like puppies. I ended my review of The Gone-Away World — since it wasn’t clear from the preceding criticism — with the summation: “By the way, I liked it a lot and I’m looking forward to his next novel.” I’m tempted to say something similar now (yes, this is one of those irritating more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reviews). I will continue to buy and read Harkaway’s work because there are sentences, paragraphs and pages of knock your socks off brilliance here. But there are many more paragraphs of prose porridge and, when it is plain that he is such an obviously gifted writer, that makes me feel cheated.

Written by Martin

16 May 2012 at 11:26

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Is ‘Unique’ A Compliment?

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My review of Artemis by Philip Palmer is up now at Strange Horizons.

“No one writes SF quite like Palmer,” boasts a bit of puffery on the back cover of Artemis. But that is a double-edged sword, surely? No one writes SF quite like M. John Harrison but then no one writes SF quite like Andy Remic either. As it happens, I agree with Eric Brown’s assessment in the Guardian that no one writes SF quite like Palmer. I just can’t work out whether that is a good thing.

What are we to make of Palmer, eh? I am the latest in a string of Strange Horizons reviewers to fruitlessly butt my head against his work. Elsewhere the not obviously insane Lavie Tidhar has passionately defended him. So, in addition to examining Artemis, my review attempts to corral and dissect some of these responses.

As an aside, Artemis is the second novel I’ve reviewed for Strange Horizons this year that was eligible for Arthur C Clarke Award but wasn’t submitted. Out of a sense of completeness and curiosity, I’m going to work my way through some more of these (there are quite a few). However, rest assured that you haven’t missed anything yet.

Written by Martin

27 April 2012 at 08:57

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Gender Parity Starts At Home

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Niall Harrison has just completed his second SF Count for Strange Horizons, his survey of coverage of speculative fiction by women. As with last year, it is bad news for women. It is also bad news for me as reviews editor of Vector. The percentage of books by women in the BSFA Review has gone down from 25.6% in 2010 to 18.8% in 2011. Similarly, the percentage of women reviewing for Vector was gone down from 29.8% in 2010 to 25.5% in 2011 (the actual number of individual reviewers has remained the same). Having presided over a decline in what were already weak numbers has been a wake up call for me because for all the fine words I made after last year’s SF Count, I’ve taken my eye off the ball. Which is exactly how these things come to pass; not through malice but the privilege of inattention, disengagement from an issue that harms people other than me. I have taken steps to improve things this year so I hope BSFA members will see an improvement and I also hope they will hold me to account.

As well as being an editor, I am a writer. My own editorials in Vector over 2011 managed gender parity but then I only covered three books. What about reviewing in general? Renay at Ladybusiness recently looked at the balance on individual blogs and I thought I would do the same for my reviews:

Overall since 2001, 22.1% of the books I’ve reviewed have been by women and I’ve only achieved gender parity in 2006 and 2011 (years when I haven’t published many reviews). Most of my reviews have appeared in SF Site (15.8%) and Strange Horizons (23.5%) but I have been closest to parity in Vector (32.4%). It is perhaps a positive sign that for the first five years I was reviewing I averaged 16.7% whereas for the second five years I averaged 25.9%.

Whilst I’ve written a lot about books on my own sites, I’ve excluded blog reviews from these stats as I only started formally considering these as reviews last year and I’m not going back and counting all the informal ones prior to that. However, if the fromal blog reviews were included it would put me up to 26.8% overall and 70% for 2011. This is mostly due to starting the year of reading women last year which shows that even a modest effort like this can have a substantial impact.

How does that compare to my reading in general? Well, in 2004 I started keeping track of everything I read, including the gender of the author. It turns out I am slightly better when it comes to reviewing but not significantly so:

I make that 16.9% for the seven years overall (as an aside, fully a tenth of that total is Pat Barker). I stopped recording these figures in August 2010 when I was on 20.6%. This was when I became an Arthur C Clarke judge and was no longer able to write about most of what I was reading in public; given the well-known gender imbalance in British science fiction publishing, the total figures for 2010 and 2011 are unlikely to be any better than previous and quite conceivably worse. When I stopped being a judge and the responsibility of silence was lifted from my shoulders, I started tallying the figures again. As it happens, I have managed to accidentally achieve gender parity with the eight books I’ve read by choice so far this year. My plan for the rest of 2012 is make a conscious decision to continue this by deliberately reading one book by a woman for every book I read by a man.

(Huge thanks to Liz Batty for helping me wrangle the charts out of Google.)

Written by Martin

2 April 2012 at 10:33

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The Tyranny Of Incompetence, The Possibility Of Art

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My review of Blood Red Road by Moira Young is up at Strange Horizons. It is a bad book. It is bad in familiar ways. It won an award. This makes me sad but it also makes me feel like I am banging my head against a wall:

In January, Blood Red Road won the 2011 Costa Children’s Book Award. The judges have helpfully provided a pithy citation with reveals their thinking: “It’s astonishing how, in her first novel, Moira Young has so successfully bound believable characters into a heart-stopping adventure. She kept us reading, and left us hungry for more. A really special book.” There is something of Chris Mullan’s infamous remark on his experience of judging last year’s Booker Prize that the novels “had to zip along” to this statement. Perhaps that is all a novel needs to achieve, perhaps such shoddily amateurish affair as Blood Red Road deserves awards for this. I’m not convinced. Please do give me heart-stopping adventure but to get my heart to actually skip a beat, the stakes need to be real, and that means the characters and the world are real.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over Benjamin Rosenbaum’s recent post on the wages of nostalgia which in turn links to Jeff VanderMeer’s rather older post on the triumph of competence. They are both entirely right that we should not settle for the merely competent but, reading genre fiction, it often seems that achieving such a state would be insanely aspirational. As a comparison, I have just finished reading The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht which strikes me as the very definition of competent. (See, for example, Dan Hartland’s review which accurately identifies the novel as toothless.) It does, however, display a level of competence rarely seen in genre fiction.

My complaint against Blood Red Road is that it is incompetent and that is such a basic criticism that it is depressing. So it is nice to be reminded that it is possible to aim higher and, not for the first time, such a reminder was provided by M John Harrison. As I was writing my review, he was publishing a credo that essentially says my diagnosis – that Young’s world needs to be made real – was misguided:

Don’t fauxthenticate. Don’t make a text that begs, “Believe in this, please believe in this.” Rationale is the sound of the stuffing falling out, the sound of the failure of imaginative intensity.

Harrison can write this because he has gone so far past competence that it disappeared into the distance long ago. There is no writer I would rather read on the subject of writing and his contribution to Foundation’s ‘Profession of Fiction’ series is the best thing I’ve ever read by an author about their own work. Originally published in Foundation 46, Autumn 1989, it was reprinted in The Profession of Science Fiction, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Edward James (and available from Palgrave as a Print On Demand book for a mere £66.00), and Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison, edited by Mark Bould and Michelle Reid (and potentially available from the SF Foundation for a tenth of that). So, to cheer me up and to remind me of the potential of both writing and writing about writing, here is his dissection of his own career from that essay:

1966-69: The Committed Men. Identify the illusions central to the genre. The clearest illusions we have are to do with “meaning” and “choice”, with self-determination, problem-solving. Sf draws illusions of this nature across our fears: of death, of the ordinariness of our lives, of the consequences of our actions. A fantasy-world is precisely one in which action has no consequences.

1968-78: The Pastel City, The Centauri Device, The Machine In Shaft Ten, A Storm Of Wings. Subvert these illusions, not for the sake of it, or for political or literary reasons, but because to do so might be to reveal – for a fraction of a second, to yourself as much as the reader – the world the fictional illusion denies. Clearly, stories of immortality reveal death at the heart of themselves, stories of communication inarticulacy, stories of vast space and intersteller flight oppression and earthboundness, and so on.

1976-88: “Egnaro”, Climbers. Recognise (all too slowly) that these two poles of the dialectic – the writing of fantasy/the subversion of fantasy – make a discourse. This is in itself a form of escape. A discourse can be solved. It is like a chess problem. The world cannot be solved, nor can any non-elf reflexive problem with a “leak to the world”.

1985 onwards: The Course Of The Heart. Paradox reigns. We can never escape the world. We cannot stop trying to escape the world.


Written by Martin

1 March 2012 at 08:59