1. Some interesting discussion at Gabe Chouinard’s journal last week about the lack of online sf criticism. Oh, there are a number of pretty good review sites (Vector‘s reviews are also excellent, of course, but we’re still primarily a print journal), not to mention some excellent bloggers who write about sf at least some of the time. But aside from Excessive Candour and the archive of SF Studies, and the odd individual essay, there’s precious little depth—and while I don’t think that originality is the be-all and end-all of criticism, there’s something to be said for knowing what the major critical voices in the field have been saying. Oddly enough, and despite being a child of the online age through and through, I can also understand some of the reasons why people might be reticent to put their work online. When you publish in print there’s a disconnect between you and the reader. If someone corrects me on something (as Tony Keen did with a review I wrote for Foundation), it’s usually a couple of months after I wrote it or even after it was published, and it doesn’t have so much sting. When I put something up here, anyone can wander by and tell me I’m a wronghead instantly. (On the other hand, that’s also the thrill of it.)
2. Kameron Hurley wonders where the popular radical feminist books are, or why The Left Hand of Darkness seems to be the only one people name. In fact, she raises a number of related issues, each of which probably has a different answer. On the question of why The Left Hand of Darkness is The Book That Everyone Talks About when it comes to having their eyes opened about gender relations, well, it’s probably partly just how reputation works—it’s self-perpetuating; plus the groupmind only has room for one book at a time—and probably partly down to the fact that you can only have your mind truly blown a limited number of times. (Although see also.)
On the question of where the modern equivalents are, I think Susan Marie Groppi’s report from the Feminist Fiction is So Five Minutes Ago panel at Wiscon is probably an accurate assessment of the changing goalposts for feminist fiction, radical or otherwise. On the question of genderfucking books specifically, there seem to be to be a few related trends in what’s being written, which at root all turn on Cheryl Morgan‘s point that what is radical becomes familiar. First, in sf at large, it’s now pretty common to see books like River of Gods, where the presence of agendered individuals is just one part of a multivariate future (tm Graham, possibly); or books like Iain Banks’ Culture novels, where gender-switching has been taken on board as one component of a utopia; or books like Justina Robson’s Living Next-Door to the God of Love, where fluidity of gender is a glancing reflection of a more general fluidity of identity. (Not to mention what happens to gender in the Eganesque or Strossian posthuman futures; although see Elizabeth Bear’s feminist critique of the singularity.) Second, and more tenuously, I think it’s possible we’ve started to see more mainstream examinations of gender identity—I’m thinking of books like Matt Ruff’s Set This House in Order, or Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. And third, you get more explicitly feminist sf books like Gwyneth Jones’s Life, which you could describe as being a hard-sf take on the ramp-up to a genderfuck singularity, with brilliant (if somewhat frustrating) characters: books that know they can’t just restate the problem, but have to look for mechanisms by which change could happen.
All of that said, the name that kept coming to mind while reading Hurley’s post was Tricia Sullivan, who seems to me to mix intelligence, style and passion in the right quantities to achieve a more general popularity without shortchanging her ideas (or ideals). Neither of the two novels I’ve read by her so far (Maul and Double Vision) have been complete home runs, but both are very good; and I still have the Clarke Award-winning Dreaming in Smoke on my to-be-read pile.
3. I’ve been meaning to post something about Bruce Sterling’s uneven but interesting collection, Visionary in Residence, but I don’t think I’m going to have time to work my thoughts up into a full post or review. So, instead I will link to two thoughtful reviews elsewhere, by James Trimarco and Paul Kincaid, neither of which I really agree with. Both reviews spend a fair amount of time talking about the two ribofunk stories—perhaps not surprisingly, since they’re two of the most substantial stories in the book. But both are also co-written (‘The Scab’s Progress‘ with Paul di Filippo, and ‘Junk DNA’ with Rudy Rucker) and both, I think, show evidence of that, being flabby and over-excited. The two most satisfying stories for me, and the two that I think best fulfill the promise of Sterling’s introduction, in which he says that being an sf writer “is an excuse to get up to any mischief imaginable”, are ‘Luciferase‘ and ‘User-Centric’. The former comes on like a scientifically literate version of A Bug’s Life; it’s tremendous fun, and a more brazen incorporation of science into story than you usually see. The latter, an email exchange between a group of designers which segues into the story they have been designing, is interesting because it’s so literal a guided tour to the process of creating science fiction. And because it refuses to end: it ends with one character telling another that, “There are no happy endings. Because there are no endings. There are only ways to cope.” Sf, of all forms of writing, should hold to that sentiment more often than it does, I think.
4. Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria reviews Peace by Gene Wolfe. This is my “Gene Wolfe’s last chance” book. I read The Fifth Head of Cerberus and found it dry as dust and less than the sum of its parts; I read The Wizard-Knight and found it enervating, massively longer than the points it was making needed or deserved; I read the stories in Starwater Strains, and the odd older piece here and there, and found some of them unutterably brilliant, and some of them complete bobbins. Peace is the other book I have a copy of, the other one I’m planning to read at some point, before making a final decision about whether it’s worth embarking on The Book of the New Sun (and associated work) or not.
5. Yesterday I went to see Thank You For Smoking, a satire about a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). Part of the plot has him meeting with “Hollywood Superagent” Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe); the sf connection is the scene at the end of the trailer:
Jeff Megall: Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they’re looking to make.
Nick Naylor: Cigarettes in space.
Jeff: It’s the final frontier, Nick.
Nick: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?
Jeff: … Probably. [beat] But, it’s an easy fix—one line of dialogue. “Thank God we invented the …” you know.
I genuinely cannot tell whether including a science error (space stations don’t have all-oxygen environments) in a gag about how quickly factual accuracy goes out the window when confronted with product placement is a screw up, or an apt and None More Ironic dig at sf films in general. The rest of the film was pretty good, so I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.