All About Books

Since I’ve been tagged:

1. One book that changed your life?

I always use the same answer for this question, but it’s kinda true, so: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. When I went to university and joined OUSFG, one of the perks was being able to choose a book for the society to buy for its library. The Sparrow had won the Clarke Award that year, and seemed like an obvious choice. It handily blew me away, and I started to pay a lot more attention to what I was reading, rather than (as had been previous practice) omnivorously consuming whatever I could get.

2. One book you have read more than once?

I don’t tend to do much re-reading these days, but Kim Stanley Robinson seems to be an author I revisit with some frequency. I’ve read Red Mars several times, and I keep meaning to find time to go back to Pacific Edge.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

I have utterly no idea. Maybe on a desert island I’d finally have time for the Baroque Cycle

4. One book that made you laugh?

At the moment, I’m working my way through the latest volume of The Complete Peanuts. Sometimes, when I tell people I find Peanuts funny, they look at me as though I’m a little bit crazy. But I’m a Peanuts kid; my Dad has several shelfloads of the small paperbacks from the 50s and 60s and 70s (the ones with titles like Good Grief, Charlie Brown and You’ve Come A Long Way, Charlie Brown) and for the majority of my childhood they were all not-so-neatly packed into a bookcase that sat just outside the bathroom, making them perfect loo break reading. There’s something in the sensibility of the strip, the mix of resignation and optimism, that gets to me; makes me laugh, makes me smile, makes me ache with the truth of it, sometimes. (I’m not so good with humour in prose fiction; I don’t find Terry Pratchett or Robert Rankin or Jasper Fforde funny, for instance, or at least not enough to make me laugh.)

5. One book that made you cry?

The closest I’ve come in recent years is at one scene about half-way through Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I tend to be quite internal in my responses to books.

6. One book you wish had been written?

Foundation and Zombies.

7. One book you wish had never had been written?

I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question. Books are axiomatically good, aren’t they?

8. One book you are currently reading?
9. One book you have been meaning to read?

I’m going to double up on this, because I’m going through a phase of dipping into a lot of things. And I have been trying not to acquire book this year, honestly I have. I’ve been very good about not wandering into bookshops and impulse-buying, and almost as good about not going to Amazon. Despite this, my to-be-read pile seems to exist in a state of punctuated equilibrium. Most of the time books are added at about the rate they are removed; every so often, though, the pile suddenly has a growth spurt. This is one of those times. (It never shrinks, of course.)

There are the books that are totally not my fault. Warren Ellis’ Ocean was a present, for instance, as was Oxford by Jan Morris (although that just makes me feel guilty for not having finished A Writer’s World yet). And Daughters of Earth (some of which, including the introduction, is online here) was an offer that was just too tempting to refuse.

Then there are the books that I obviously had to buy, such as Theodora Goss’s collection In the Forest of Forgetting and Michel Faber’s The Fahrenheit Twins. Orhan Pamuk’s Snow fits here as well, as recommended to me by Abigail; and since she’s got around to writing about what I recommended to her, I should probably get around to reciprocating. Though Twenty Epics keeps sneaking up on me at the moment, since it is shinier and has a better index.

And of course there are books for review: I’ve just finished Sonya Taaffe’s collection, Singing Innocence and Experience, for NYRSF, after which I have Mark Budz’s new novel, Idolon, to review for Strange Horizons. And I’m sure something else will be along in a moment. Not to mention the fact that Clarke Award books are starting to trickle in …

In conclusion: at this point, I’m almost more worried about my flat bursting at the seams than about my ability to ever read everything. I’m not going to tag anyone else and insist they do this meme, but if anyone wants to confess their own recent book-acquisition guilt and help me to feel less like a hopeless case, that would be more than welcome.

The World and Alice

Traditionally, science fiction believes in its worlds. It likes to talk about them, and in particular about the ones that take off from our world, and to treat them as though they are things we can hold in our minds; as though they have a shape we can comprehend. The way we talk about sf reflects this shared assumption, from the communal fascination with world-building to the persistency of tropes such as one world governments, or the Clutean description of sf novels as being about “the case of the world.”

All of which plays to one of sf’s great strengths—its ability to give us a sense of perspective—but all of which is, of course, in many ways a pretense. The world has far too many degrees of freedom to be captured in a story; even the most detailed futures are, in the end, pale shadows on a cave wall. And somewhat paradoxically, living at the start of a century in which the world is smaller than it has ever been makes it easier to be aware of this fact, without needing to be prompted by fiction. It may sometimes feel that the interconnection of things is approaching saturation point, but while we wait for that to happen it’s hard not to be humblingly aware of how many individual lives there are out there, and how meaningless it can be to sum across them. It gets easier to notice the people who are left out; to face up to the fact that someone is always going to be left out.

Because the key question, the one that it’s getting harder and harder to justify not answering, is: who is left out? Whose world is it anyway? In this, feminist science fiction, by which I mean a self-aware tradition within a self-aware tradition, has clearly been ahead of the curve. The story of feminist sf is the story of breaking into the clubhouse and claiming a voice. It is an energetic, passionate story. So any new fiction—such as L. Timmel Duchamp’s “The World and Alice” (Asimov’s, July)—which is shaped around a female character and her exclusion from the world is bringing two live wires together. Or in this case, not quite together: just close enough to feel the charge between them buzzing in the air.

This is what Alice has thought all her life:

She belonged somewhere else. Or perhaps nowhere, nowhere at all. And so she thought of herself as the world’s mistake. A century earlier, she believed, the mistake could not have been made.

The problem is one of heft. Alice feels too light for the world, and growing up she thinks (as any child could think, but in her case with more justification than most) that everyone else can see that she’s out of place. So she blames the technology that saved her, the incubator that nurtured her in the weeks after her premature birth. In a sense, she’s right: hers is a specifically contemporary alienation. A century earlier, she wouldn’t have lived.

As she grows up, Alice discovers that ties of love and blood—first to her grandmother, and later to her husband, Daniel—can tether her to the world. The heft of other people exerts a special gravity, to the point where, when Alice’s mother has terminal cancer, she becomes the equivalent of a neutron star: Alice’s life becomes furiously focused on caring for her, with the rest of the world relegated to peripheral vision, and receding to a dangerous extent.

But in the end, such ties are only partial, temporary solutions, and they don’t stop Alice sometimes coming adrift from the world. When she sits mourning at her grandmother’s grave, she meets her older self; or you could equally say, since the perspective of the story neatly flips at that point, that Alice the Older is reminded of a long-ago meeting. It is not time travel in the usual sense, from now to then or then to now. It is more chaotic, more unpredictable, more slippery. Alice’s life in time is a piece of string, scrunched into a ball. Where it crosses itself, the two Alices involved are drawn out of time, into their own moment outside the world. Here they are on a beach:

The ocean held constant, and the rocks on which they stood, and both Alices. But the sky fractured into disjointed shards, zigging and zagging down into the earth and below the surface of the water, every misshapen fragment glittering with sinister, nauseating beauty. Alice and Alice knew she was nowhere, nowhere at all, her being as evanescent as the shifting shards of the world around her, constantly moving, appearing and disappearing, growing and shrinking, in an unceasing parade of change. Alice the Younger held out her hands to Alice the Older. “Touch me, please touch me. I’m so afraid, so afraid I’m not real. That nothing is real. Is this where we really belong? Not in the world, but here?”

It is an arresting image. The contrast between the broken world and Alice the lost individual is stark. She wonders what causes it, beyond the simple fact of the world having made a mistake, but it’s a tricky puzzle. It could be the effect of Alice on the world; it could be the effect of the world on Alice; it could be mutual. What seems clear is that the Alices cannot stay in such a no-place, and so they go back to the world, to live their lives a little more, waiting for the next meeting and for an answer.

This could all get arbitrary and confusing, but Duchamp’s structuring of her story is careful and clever. Most of the time, we follow Alice through her life, through the world, growing older. We share her feeling of acute dislocation, her sense that there should be a reason for it all. But no reason arrives, so every time she meets herself (and by this point we are seeing the encounters from the point of view of the older Alice) she reiterates what she remembers being told: go back to the world.

It is not until Alice’s twilight that things start to come clear. She discovers boxes and albums of old photos, and starts to sort through them with her friend, Marion. They seem alien, as meaningful as images from another world, because they come with no context, no names or descriptions attached to give them relevance. She cannot connect to them any more than she connects to her everyday life. Except:

She looked down at the picture in her hand, a yellowed color photo of her father holding herself at about eighteen months. What she saw in it, she realized, amounted to two individuals in close relation, not figures in relation to a world. Everything else looked like backdrop.

At which point we know what the story is trying to say. It’s telling us what happens when we talk about the world: we reduce it to a backdrop, in front of which there are only individuals, “perhaps embedded in but essentially distinct from the world”, instead of being an integral, vital part of its processes. So when Alice starts to wonder whether she was wrong, after all, about the need to go back to the world, we can feel the stirring of a deep sadness. Pulling herself out of space and time permanently, locking all of herself into a no-place, isn’t a solution: it’s a retreat.

Her final encounter is with her three year-old self. She never remembers being as happy as little Alice seems, playing in her sandbox, full of life and imagination and capable of constructing bold worlds and endless stories. Alice takes Alice outside the world for the first time, and it’s not a surprise to us that she steals something from herself. When they get back, Alice the Younger seems thinner, lighter than she was, and we know that her fate has been sealed. Back in her own time, Alice the Older is suddenly heavier, bowed down by the full weight of the world, and we know that her fate has been sealed as well. The story is a time loop, and it has closed.

And it lingers in the mind until we realise why Alice’s isolation hits so hard: because what she did, focusing on individuals rather than the world, is what we all do too often—what we think we have to do—to get through the day. Too much is reduced to backdrop. If there is such a thing as “the world”, then it’s true that we cannot help but be all too aware of our size in relation to it, to see the limits of our own life and our own times. But if that’s all we see—individuals on the one hand, the world on the other—then we are crippling ourselves. If we don’t see the history, the continuity, the community of the world, we might as well not be looking at all. In the end, “The World and Alice” is a lament for the political consciousness (or lack thereof) of our times: graceful, bleak, familiar.

London Meeting, Tonight

Tonight’s BSFA meeting features Peter F Hamilton, interviewed by BSFA co-chair Pat McMurray. BSFA members and non-members alike are welcome, and there’s no entry charge (but there is a book raffle).

The meeting takes place in the upstairs room of the Star Tavern in Belgravia; there’s a map here.

As usual, the interview kicks off at 7pm, although there will be people around from about 5.30pm onwards. In addition, at 6.45pm there will be a presentation of the SFRA‘s Clareson Award to Paul Kincaid, so this month would be a good month to turn up early.

Linkerman Returns

1. This essay by Benjamin Kunkel in the New York Times, about the rise of confessional memoirs, leads to this post at So Many Books, and this response at Tales From the Reading Room investigating what it is about contemporary life that makes us so pain-obsessed, suggesting that

Trauma is resolutely not about knowing things; it’s about having been through an event that was radically alien to knowledge and understanding. But turning it into a narrative gives it the look of having been mastered—there’s a powerful transformation at work in the victory of words over dangerous, untamed experience that we can all share and marvel at. Equally the experience of trauma is one of the few in our society that is given a special form of authority. No one can deny or argue with a trauma victim’s experiences, which is a pretty unique state of affairs in the modern world.

And see the comments, this followup, and this post at Eve’s Alexandria for more general discussion of creating personae through nonfiction. It’s a fascinating topic in and of itself, but something about it also chimes with the thinking I’ve been doing recently about that most ill-defined of literary categories, slipstream; certainly the Kessel/Kelly definition of slipstream can be understood as being about attempting to convert an incompletely understood experience, that of daily living in the twenty-first century, into a narrative. But it’s notable that more than a few of stories they selected for their anthology end with uncertainty or dissolution—quite the opposite of the sort of mastery of story being discussed above.

2. Waggish has an interesting post on left-brained literature, which (based on the list) you could also largely call “that stuff sf readers like that isn’t genre sf” (Murakami, Eco, Calvino, Borges etc). The determination of overlap between this category and slipstream is left as an exercise for the reader.

3. Abigail Nussbaum on Superman Returns, which I might be able to respond to if I’d had a chance to see the film yet.

4. An interesting review of A Scanner Darkly, and here are the first 20 minutes or so of the film (which is not out for another few weeks over here, and I’m getting impatient).

5. Clarkesworld books has started putting fiction online, starting with a few stories from Fantasy Magazine.

6. Martin Lewis on Polystom by Adam Roberts. To the list of useful references that are frustratingly not online, I would add Matt Moore’s review of Polystom from Foundation 91. One day, maybe …

7. Farah Mendlesohn’s SF reading habits questionnaire is closing down at the end of July; if you haven’t filled it in, now’s the time.


At one point in the pilot of the Sci-Fi Channel’s newest show, Eureka, our main viewpoint character, US Marshall Jack Carter, wonders whether he’s wandered into the Twilight Zone. It’s exactly what you’d expect an average character in an average show to say, when confronted with what Carter’s been confronted with, but for the average viewer, I suspect the situation will seem a bit more familiar than that. After a car accident while driving his delinquent daughter Zoe home, Carter finds himself in another one of those American small towns. You know the sort: like Eerie, IN, or Twin Peaks, WA. The sort of place The X-Files visited every other week. One of those towns that has more than its share of stories to tell.

Admittedly, unlike the other examples, Eureka is firmly a sci-fi town: no magic or mysticism here. The premise is neatly summed up when Carter calls a smartass kid with a theoretical physics textbook Einstein. Deadpan, the kid replies, “No, I’m an Oppenheimer. The Einsteins live on 4th.” Eureka is a secret town of geniuses, founded after World War II as a haven for intellectual thought and experimentation, and (apparently) the site of most of the inventions and scientific discoveries that have been made in the US since then. It has the best of everything, from healthcare to environmentally-friendly transportation, and is full of gadets and gizmos. It looks like a fun place to live, and more importantly to watch, since you can already see that the daily dilemmas are going to be a bit more out-there than the usual. But if the setup is original, the play is familiar: thoroughly normal outsider comes to a town of weirdos. Weekly wackiness ensues.

There is an interesting twist, but I don’t know whether it was deliberate on the part of the show’s makers or not. As a general rule, in small-town stories we start off on the outsider’s side. We want them to uncover whatever the mystery is, and it’s only gradually, as the series develops, that we start to care about the townsfolk. In Eureka, by contrast, I was rooting for the townsfolk right from the start. Jack Carter is competent, reliable, amiable—some intimacy issues and workaholism, but nothing threateningly serious—and dull. The good people of Eureka, on the other hand … well, let’s face it. It’s a town full of geeks.

Or at least it should be, and that’s what makes the show so frustrating to watch. For a while it looks as if it’s going to be: we meet the guy who cooks up a machine that will undo the fabric of reality in his basement, the car mechanic who used to be a shuttle engineer, the downright odd chief scientist (and if you ever watched any Ally McBeal, however ashamed you might feel of that fact you’ll at least know that Greg Germann gives good odd). But gradually, everything defaults to a more traditional quirkiness. The characters are TV-land geeks and geniuses, not real ones. It doesn’t help that none of the female characters are scientists, and that what we get instead are stock types: the sensual psychotherapist, the stern, lethal deputy sheriff, and the efficient DOD agent. But none of the characters, male or female, act particularly sharp, or feel particularly true, in the way that the cast of The West Wing or Primer are sharp and true. The inhabitants of Eureka are geniuses defined by what they know (most of which we, inevitably, have to take on faith), not by how they think.

Part of the trouble, I think, is that Eureka wants to be one type of show, when it’s really another. I think it wants to be cool, to be a show that (like Galactica) non-geeks can tune into (if for different reasons; none of the cast of Eureka is portrayed with a tenth the depth and dignity of Galactica‘s crew.) Unfortunately, on the evidence of the pilot (which you can watch online, for free, at the Sci-Fi Channel site), Andrew Cosby and Jaime Paglia are never going to be challenging Joss Whedon or Aaron Sorkin in the snappy dialogue stakes, which is a disadvantage from the start. The episode is most entertaining when it’s relaxed, and not trying to be hip; the Twilight Zone reference is forgiveable, but when Deputy Jo dubs Zoe “Felon Spice”, we can only cringe.

But really, Eureka just shouldn’t be cool. It’s probably one of the least cool shows ever devised, not least in its potential for truly heroic amounts of technobabble, and it should let itself revel in that. Carter may be a good hook for the average US TV-watcher, but surely the people who are actually going to be tuning in to this show are going to be watching for the next wonder, and for the geeks. There are signs that the writers know this, as evidenced by the arrival of the Big Bad Military partway through the pilot’s second half, intent on shutting down the town, an event which immediately puts Carter and the town on the same side. And when two soldiers, faced with the end of the world, do the “it’s been a pleasure working with you” thing, it’s a background moment, played as a throwaway—in any other show it would be the focus, but here the focus is on the guy tapping away at a computer terminal, and the kid scribbling equations on the floor. Despite this, the end of the episode brings us firmly back to Jack Carter, and it’s hard not to feel that choice is going to be a handicap.

On Infodumping

In the June NYRSF, Graham wrote of David Marusek’s Counting Heads (review) that:

It embodies as elegant an approach as I’ve ever seen to the central and unique technical problem of sf: a science fiction story not only has to draw a narrative line through a world (like mimetic fiction), but also has to explain how that world is different from ours and how it got like that. (If there’s one term I’d like to see removed from the sf critical vocabulary—including mine—it’s “infodump”: a disastrously pejorative and un-nuanced way of describing the range of solutions sf authors find to this problem.)

There are probably almost as many solutions as there are writers, but off the top of my head I can think of five general approaches.

  1. Lecture-to-reader: breaking off the narrative to allow the individual telling the story, or even the author, to talk directly to the reader. The most impressive recent example of this is surely Charles Stross’s Accelerando:

    Welcome to the early twenty-first century, human.

    It’s night in Milton Keynes, sunrise in Hong Kong. Moore’s law rolls inexorably on, dragging humanity toward the uncertain future. The planets of the solar system have a combined mass of approximately 2×1027 kilograms. Around the world, labouring women produce forty-five thousand babies a day, representing 1023 MIPS of processing power. Also around the world, fab lines casually churn out thirty million microprocessors a day, representing 1023 MIPS. In another ten months, most of the MIPS being added to the solar system will be machine-hosted for the first time. About ten years after that, the solar system’s installed processing power will nudge the critical 1 MIPS per gram threshold—one million instructions per second per gram of matter. Beyond that, singularity—a vanishing point beyond which extrapolating progress becomes meaningless. The time remaining before the intelligence spike is down to double-digit months …

    The advantage of this is that a high density of information can be conveyed, because it temporarily abandons any attempt to draw a narrative line, and simply tells you about the world. If thought is given to the identity of the narrator—as it is in Accelerando—it can be revealing on more levels than just the didactic, though. The extract above gives us a clear sense of what the narrator is, and how the terms in which it views the world differ from the terms in which we view the world.

  2. Lecture-to-character: this would include all the “As you know, Jim” dialogue ever written. A slightly more sophisticated version has an expert explaining something to an innocent abroad; Stephen Baxter has a fairly stock polymathic genius character who crops up in a lot of his novels to serve this function.
  3. Tourism: acknowledges that both the writer and the reader are outside the world being created, looking in. It’s the inclusion of unfamiliar concepts and words, gradually explaining them as the story unfolds. This is, in a sense, simply an intensification of the work every story has to do to convince its readers of its setting: an intensification because it involves noticing more. I suspect this is what people think of by default when they think of “infodumps”. When a mimetic novel uses this technique—treats the real world as unfamiliar—you get interesting effects, as in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (which is often described as ‘sfnal’) or David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (which has been described by several reviewers as having the feel of the fantastic to it).
  4. Embedding: narratives that are scrupulously written as though they come from the world they describe. For example, take this from ‘Nekropolis’ by Maureen McHugh:

    I grew up in the Nekropolis. We didn’t have running water, it was delivered every day in a big lorritank and people would go out and buy it by the karn, and we lived in three adjoining mausoleums instead of a flat, but other than that, it was a pretty normal childhood. I have a sister and two brothers. My mother sells paper funeral decorations, so the Nekropolis is a very good place for her to live, no long tube rides every day. The part we lived in was old. Next to the bed were the dates for the person buried behind the wall, 3673 to 3744. All of the family was dead hundreds of years ago, no-one ever came to this death house to lay out paper flowers and birds. In fact, when I was four, we bought the rights to this place from an old woman whose family had lived here a long time before us.

    On the surface this gives us a lot of information, but we can’t take it neat, as we might be able to in a tourist story; we have to process it to work out what kind of world we’re in, because the narrator only tells us what seems natural to her. To take the most obvious point, we’re not given the date of the story, for instance, we’re given a date hundreds of years in the past of the story. We’re given some idea of what a ‘normal childhood’ is, and we’re given an unfamiliar word, karn, that we have to puzzle out from context. When this sort of story switches to dialogue, the author can also convey a large amount of information through what the characters don’t say. Some alternate histories work this way, although most eventually give us a history lesson; in a similar way, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is brilliant at it for 90% of its length, but spoils things with an unnecessary explanation in the penultimate chapter.

  5. Never explain: the ultimate in embedded narratives. Even a story like ‘Nekropolis’ usually relents and slips in an explanation of its more idiosyncratic elements; but there are some stories that resist the temptation to the end. Oddly, the first example that comes to mind is a non-sf novel (albeit one popular with sf readers), to wit Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which never tells the reader that its narrator has Asperger’s Syndrome. The reader is expected to work it out. Within sf, Gene Wolfe is fond of this approach (although often, to my mind, it leaves his writing feeling rather dry).

There’s a lot of overlap in these categories, reflecting both the fact that stories are organic, and will use a combination of strategies to convey information, and the fact that I’ve jotted this down in half an hour.

It was all inspired by the recent discussion of infodumps elsewhere over the past month or so. Matt Cheney wrote about the conventions of infodumping, and in particular how it differs from exposition; The Little Professor talked about infodumps in nineteenth-century novels; in the comments of that post there’s a link to Jed Hartman’s “How I explained infodumps and saved humanity“, which anatomises the types of infodump in a different way to my list above; and most recently, Dan Green discusses the difficulty of reading infodumps with reference to Philip K. Dick. His conclusion:

One might say that Dick attempts to portray an unreal world by realistically depicting his characters’ response to living in that world. The “infodump” remains a perhaps unavoidable limitation of such an effort, one that may even call into question the aesthetic integrity of the effort in the first place.

Probably needless to say, given all the foregoing, I think this is a bit strong. In fact, I think it’s aiming at a target that isn’t there: depicting the characters’ response to their world is only a stopping point on the way to the ultimate goal, which is to convey to us the experience of living in that world. This is not to say that sf can make do without character (unless you’re Olaf Stapledon), and certainly there is a good deal of sf in which all the infodumping will be buried in the characters’ viewpoints, done in hints and glances, as noted above. But a writer’s choice to describe the world more or less explicitly for our benefit is ok too; it may or may not be to an individual’s taste, but it has its own aesthetic integrity.

Matrix Website Updated

A couple of articles from the most recent issue of Matrix (one of Vector‘s sister magazines) are now online.

First up, there’s a guest editorial by Keith Brooke, on the success of Infinity Plus:

Late last year I realised that a whole bunch of milestones for the site were arriving at around the same time: we had just passed 100 interviews, soon we will pass 1,000 book reviews and, as I write this in January 2006, we’re very close to 2 million words of fiction, all available on the site for free.

Second, Stephen Baxter revisits Dan Dare and Quatermass:

Some of the great British sf franchises of the Sixties, notably Doctor Who and the Gerry Anderson shows such as Captain Scarlet, are still imaginatively alive in a new century. But those creations were influenced by what went before them. I was born in the Fifties, and the media icons of that grey-tinged decade, like Dan Dare and Quatermass, have been names in the background all my life. Now, thanks to some helpful reissues and repackaging, we have access to these monuments of a vanished age.

There are also reviews of, among other things, Silent Hill and Mirrormask.

Looking for Jake

When you first open this book, you quickly discover one thing. Something has happened: something not good. The narrator of the first story lost Jake about nine months ago, but doesn’t remember how. It happened after the city changed; after the urban monotony became “charged desolation” (p.7), after the shadows filled with horrors and the phone lines filled with static, after the coming of “the things that flap.” (p.9) But the details are lost. It seems only fitting. It has been, after all, “a very inexact apocalypse.” (p.11) By the time the narrator decides to end the story (he is writing it as a letter, and posts it before embarking on the journey he hopes will lead him to Jake) he has not been able to pin down for us exactly what has happened or why, but we have been put thoroughly ill at ease. This London is sick, and the sickness seems bleakly inevitable; seems to have been just waiting to happen. Or perhaps the city is transforming, into something “hungry like a newborn” (p.17), and its inhabitants are just having to ride out the pangs. Something has happened; something is happening, and the narrator’s lonely letter is all that exists to mark it.

All things considered, such a messily ambiguous thinning does not make a bad orientation package for what comes next. “Looking for Jake” was published in 1998, making it the oldest story in Looking for Jake (of the other thirteen, which I think represent the entirety of China Mieville’s short fiction output, only two were published before 2002), but it is the most typical story in a collection with a wider range than you might expect from Mieville’s reputation and novels. It is also one of the best. It starts things off well. After reading it, the most sensible thing to do is to continue on; Looking for Jake is a cannily-sequenced book, and most satisfying when read in order. To get at the bones of the book, however, the most useful thing to do is to skip to the story Mieville published next.

“Different Skies” (1999) is in some ways similar to “Looking for Jake.” In “Different Skies,” however, the weirdness is much more localized. It’s the story of a lonely old man who buys an antique stained-glass window, and finds that on the other side of it is another city. (And, yes, another sky. Mieville’s titles tend to be literal, although not always in the sense that you expect. It is one of the ways in which he disguises the truth of his stories.) But both tales use a structural device—a letter in the first story, a diary in the second—to present a first-person narrative in such a way as to maintain ambiguity about the fate of its narrator. Both question the nature of the story they are telling—the narrator of “Jake” wonders how to relate the incredible, while the narrator of “Different Skies” hopes his story is not a “banal morality tale” (p.162)—and both climax with their protagonists planning to cross a threshold into the unknown. Second time around the execution is perhaps a little less sure, but what’s most striking about the two stories is how they highlight an interest in alienation from contemporary landscapes. And this isn’t something that got shouldered aside once Bas-Lag came along: new story “Go Between,” for instance, is brilliantly unsettling in its depiction of a man who receives cryptic instructions from an unknown source at random intervals. The psychological unravelling of the narrator, as he oscillates between pride at being chosen and fear at what he might be a part of, is expertly handled; it could be called Kafkaesque if it was not so solidly tied to contemporary international politics. Even the (perhaps inevitable) Cthulhu-mythos tale “Details” (2002) is light on the squamous and rugose, focusing instead on the grimy reality of everyday life. The Lovecraftian sense of the truth of the world as debilitating is present and correct, but is somehow subsumed into the reality of an old woman in a run-down apartment building who appears to see a literal devil in the details of things.

The third and last of what might be called the early stories is “An End to Hunger” (2000). Like “Different Skies,” it has rough edges; the plot, which concerns a genius marxist/anarchist who seems to have hacked the protocols underlying the world wide web, is fairly cursory; Aykan’s vendetta against An End To Hunger (a transparent stand-in for the real-world click-to-donate outfit The Hunger Site), while entertaining, never really hits the right satiric register. It’s notable, though, as the first of the overtly political stories. “Tis the Season” (2004), which when the book is read sequentially is the next story, is clearly the work of a much more confident writer: here the satire is shamelessly exuberant, centering around a father’s attempts to give his daughter a genuine YuleCo. Christmas(tm), and not just a generic MidWinter Event. The climactic set-piece, in which the two are caught up in a Christmas Day riot in Central London, protesting against the privatization of the season, is a joy. How many other stories can you name, after all, in which the day is saved by the Gay Men’s Radical Singing Caucus? And it makes the shift into New Crobuzon for the next story, “Jack” (2005), that much more effective. New Crobuzon, of course, is custom-built to make place and politics inseparable, and “Jack”—which relates the story of Jack Half-a-Prayer, the nearest thing that city has had to a Robin Hood—is an unarguably political story. But as with many of Mieville’s later stories, the politics are the bones of the tale, not the flesh. The narrator admires Jack, or maybe what Jack stood for or what he achieved, but is unable to say so publicly; he has to maintain a separation between his personal life and his political life. Like and unlike the go-between, his sense of being connected allows him to value himself, but he knows where he stands, which side he’s on. I said that “Looking for Jake” emerged from the book as the most typical China Mieville story; “Jack” is what I expected a typical China Mieville story to be when I started. It is swaddled in rumour and hearsay, and couched in a rough, forcefully baroque argot.

A similar intensity marks two of the best stories, “Familiar” (2002) and “Foundation” (2004), although both take place in our world. The former, first published in the New Wave Fabulists issue of Conjunctions, seems almost to be an experiment in how descriptively dense a story can be without imploding. The plot is schematic in its simplicity—witch creates familiar from his own flesh; witch is creeped out by familiar but can’t kill it so dumps it in the river; familiar grows; familiar and witch have a showdown—and the strength of the story resides entirely in the presentation of the familiar. “Its power was change,” we are told, with “no way of knowing except to put to use.” (p.86) And it uses everything:

When the familiar emerged from the water with the dawn, it was poured into a milk-bottle carapace. Its clutch of eyes poked from the bottleneck. It nibbled with a nail clipper. With precise little bullets of stone it had punctured holes in its glass sides, from which legs of waterlogged twig-wood and broken pens emerged. To stop it sinking into wet earth its feet were coins and flat stones. (p.87)

It learns well; it learns London. It becomes, in fact (in a nice moment of dark humour) a Londoner—as much a native of its city as the narrators of “Looking for Jake” or “Jack” are natives of theirs. It’s impossible not to notice, in fact, that most of the stories that evoke a strong sense of place do so by associating an urban environment with life, or death. In “Foundation”, a modern city has been built on a mass grave, and the protagonist is vividly haunted by the dead. Mieville points out in the acknowledgements that in the past the US army has actually buried Iraqi soldiers alive, and that it is such an act that gives the story its bones and marrow. But although that truth can be excavated from the text with a little work, it too is buried; rightly, I think, both symbolically and because it allows the story to stand alone. “Foundation” works as a demonstration of the moral power horror can achieve: it is possible to read it as the delusional experience of a man complicit in a terrible crime, but it is more powerful to read it as truly fantastic. To do so gives the dead a voice. More literal still, however, in its conflation of city and life, is “Reports of Certain Events in London” (2004). Like “Foundation”, and “Familiar”, and a number of other stories in the book, there is in some senses relatively little substance to the tale; it is entirely about decryption, trying to work out from a succession of found documents exactly what has happened, or is happening. To say that it’s a story about feral streets, and a Brotherhood that tracks their appearance and disappearances across London, is to describe both its premise and almost all of its revelations. Mieville’s narrative sleight-of-hand, however, entraps the reader even on a second or third reading; carelessly bland phrases like “certain events took place” gain a thrillingly cold edge.

The last story in the book is the longest, and embodies the virtues of many of the others—it is, for example, an interesting counterpoint to “Looking for Jake.” “The Tain” (2002) is the story of another London apocalypse, but this time the monsters are fully on-screen. This time London is again diminished, emptied of people but filled with its feral conquerors. It is, even more than the rest of the collection, a strikingly visual story. Look, for instance, at the opening paragraph:

The light was hard. It seemed to flatten the walls of London, to push down onto the pavement with real weight. It was oppressive: it scoured colours of depth. (p.229)

To me, this and later descriptions, such as the Thames “matte as dried ink, overlaid on a cutout of London” (p.231), recall nothing so much as the grainy, washed-out style of Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later (and of course both “The Tain” and that film echo John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), although Mieville’s story also references more gung-ho scenarios such as 1981’s Mad Max 2). The enemies here are not zombies, however, they are a kind of vampire: our reflections, having broken through from the realm beyond mirrors, furious from our millennial humiliation of them, shackling them into our “meat vulgarity.” (p.242) This is not the simple portal of “Different Skies,” but something more strange. These creatures are the fauna of mirrors—the debt to Borges is acknowledged—and they don’t just spill through as whole people: everything that has ever been reflected has been trapped.

Pouting lips fly like butterflies, eyes blink in and out of existence, and manicured hands crawl like rats. Where in “Looking for Jake” the unease came from what was unsaid, here, as in “Familiar,” it appears to be generated by what is on the page. And yet, it is not the narrative that cuts to the bone; it is its implications. The two characters—Sholl, one of those who survived the invasion, and a nameless vampire (or imago) who encounters him in a Tube station—do not follow the paths laid out for them by the story. Sholl’s shotgun-wielding search for the general of the imagos has a logical goal, not an unattainable one; and our imagos’s most profound wish is to escape. Wyndham is revealed as only a starting point (although a particularly apt one), and the vivid menagerie as a diversion, because as in “Foundation” our attention is ultimately drawn to our existence as a privileged enclave: to the peoples on which our civilization is built, and to what they might think of us, if they ever got the chance to break into our lives. It is a point made with superb grace, by a writer who understands how to wield the fantastic both for its own sake, and for ours. “The Tain” knits together Looking for Jake and ensures that at its end, the book leaves us with a thought worse but more important than the one it greeted us with: something has happened, and we haven’t even noticed.

This review first appeared in the Readercon 17 Souvenir Book.

Girl Reporter

The Fountain Award carries a prize of $1000, given annually to a speculative short story of exceptional literary quality. The award is judged by a select jury, and chosen from work nominated by magazine and anthology editors.

Juried short fiction awards are a good thing, and awards with actual prize money are a good thing, so the Fountain Award is more or less a good thing; and I only say ‘more or less’ because of the reflexive cringe that I get from the phrase ‘speculative literature’. I agree with, for example, Sherwood Smith, in that I think ‘literary’ is so loaded that its deployment almost always does more harm than good. And in this specific case it seems redundant: surely the award could just be given to a speculative short story of exceptional quality?

The previous two winners, “The Specialist” by Alison Smith and “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” by Jeffrey Ford, are both worthy— neither was my favourite story of its year, but both are strong choices, and defensible choices as award-winners. This year I find myself somewhat baffled. “Girl Reporter” by Stephanie Harrell has a straightforward conceit: meet the woman behind the hero. Names are never named, but it’s clear that the titular narrator is Lois Lane, and that the proto-hero she strikes up a relationship with is, or becomes, Superman. Except that this version of Superman is a lunkhead, given to talking about himself in Duffman-like third person pronouncements, and lacking the strong moral sense of the hero we’re familiar with. He saves the girl, if she’s blonde; and it doesn’t occur to him until prodded to divert the satellite that’s hurtling down on the city. He wants a better image, but lacks the imagination to come up with one for himself, perhaps because all he wants is the image, rather than to genuinely change. So he asks the girl reporter to help, and because she’s fallen for him, against her better judgement she obliges. Soon enough she realises that creating a hero might be as troublesome as creating a monster. Some way further down the line, our hero writes his autobiography, Flights of Justice, which it’s implied is the version of the Superman story we all know, and among other things it misrepresents the girl reporter. Now she wants to set the record straight.

The story doesnt do a lot for me, but it’s taken me a while to pin down why. Technically it’s fine, or better than fine: well-paced, frequently clever, with a distinctive and complex voice. It’s an easy read, but asks questions about how we construct identities for ourselves and others that are worth asking. All it lacks, it seems, is that ineffable something: soul.

Partly this is personal preference. I’m wary of re-imaginings of existing stories at the best of times (please, no more Lovecraft crossover fanfic), and the more so when they seem designed, in part, to make a political point, however necessary that point may be. But even taking “Girl Reporter” on its own terms, it doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly interesting or challenging re-imagining. An examination of the ‘helplessness’ of the comic-book heroine is a big, easy target, as is Superman. Which is not to say they shouldn’t be targeted—I’ve no particular attachment to the character—but that fact is we all already know he’s a bit of a lunkhead, and the psychology of the type has been dissected and parodied pretty extensively (and not least by comics themselves, from Watchmen to The Authority). “Girl Reporter” does what it does with wit, but what it does is not particularly new—certainly not in the way that, say, “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” made the fairy story new.

But more than that, I find myself frustrated by the ending, when we suddenly come to this:

As for me, you’ll want to know my diagnosis. Superhero-envy, textbook case. Every gal knows, never fall for someone who can leave the earth, who can fly, who is not bound to the laws of physics you’re bound to. All of my investigative abilities have led to this little revelation. I didn’t just fall for him, I wanted to be him, and under those moon blue nights he was the one who could fly, streak away, leaving me on the cracked cement sidewalk with my trench coat and scoop.

I’m not sure whether this is intended as a twist, exactly, but assuming we take it seriously (which I think we are meant to do; there’s plenty of self-diagnosis elsewhere in the story, but this seems like something more), however I read it, it leaves me cold. I can come up with two possible interpretations of this paragraph, neither of which I much care for.

The first is that the girl reporter has a genuine psychological disorder, and that the story we’ve just read therefore cannot be trusted. This seems to me to weaken the story quite significantly: I didn’t particularly like the narrator to start with—it seems to me she’d be right at home at a party for media luvvies; give me Smallville‘s take on Lois, one of the few things the later seasons of that show have got right, any day—but if you’re going to write her story, surely you should follow it through to its logical end. Undermining her removes the sting of the story’s critique.

The second interpretation, which occurred to me after a second reading, is that the girl reporter doesn’t have a disorder, but has been diagnosed with one as a result of her actions, either deliberately or conveniently, to discredit her in the eyes of her potential readers, but not in the eyes of us, Stephanie Harrell’s readers. This would be a neat trick, if it worked; unfortunately it doesn’t quite. It’s too extreme to sustain my suspension of disbelief.

Because, in the end, “Girl Reporter” is a conservative story. It is too neat, too comfortable; nowhere does it contain the sort of fantastic dazzle that characterised Ford’s story last year, or that can be found in a number of the stories listed by the SLF as honorable mentions—particularly Darryl Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense”, M. Rickert’s “Anyway”, and Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror”. It’s enough to make you look again at that ‘literary’ caveat, and wonder whether it’s not just an empty adjective; whether, if it comes down to it, the Fountain Award will go to style over structure, technique over imagination. Probably, especially after looking at the list of judges, this is just my bafflement speaking, because in reality the winner should combine all those qualities, inseperably; but there is still a similar coolly respectable polish to all the winners so far, I think, and that’s something of a shame. I can’t help hoping next year’s winner has explosions (or is even an all-out epic).

Return of the Links

1. My excuse for not posting anything recently is that I’ve been on holiday in Japan. I had a great time; there are some photos (ok, a lot of photos) here. And I did get plenty of reading done while out there, so have several posts waiting in the back of my head to be written.

2. One thing I read was an interesting little book called The Situation and the Story: the Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. This was an impulse-buy, largely because we’re working on an issue of Vector with the loose theme of ‘storying lives’, and the many ways that can be interpreted, and it does have things to say about fiction, but it’s primarily concerned with the creation of narrative in non-fiction.

Gornick argues that non-fiction writing has a story (the emotional experience recreated by reading it), a situation (the context in which the story is placed), and, crucially, is written not so much by a person as a persona: a particular slice of the author, around which the experience being examined is organised. I was already starting to think about this idea in relation to reviewing and blogging, and then I came back and read Cory Doctorow’s Locus column, “Science fiction is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the internet.” It’s another iteration of Doctorow’s argument that we live in a conversation-driven age, and I think he’s got a point. You only have to look at the nominees and winners of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer over the past few years, and you’ll see that writers with prominent blogs tend to do well. I’m not suggesting that people nominate or vote for authors purely because they know the name from a blog—I think, perhaps naively, that most people have enough integrity to resist that—but I do think that, if they like a writer’s blog, people are more likely to pick up books by that writer.

In itself, this is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just a thing; if it becomes the norm, certainly some writers will be more suited to this type of reader relationship than others, but some writers are more suited to the current literary environment than others, too. But I’m not as sure as Doctorow that it will become the norm. For one thing, in Gornick’s terms, these aren’t so much reader/writer relationships as reader/persona relationships, and I think that may have limitations Doctorow may have underestimated—not least that there’s no particular reason why liking the persona’s non-fiction writing will translate to liking the writer’s fiction writing.

3. Finn Dempster reviews Transcendent by Stephen Baxter at The Mumpsimus. One of the projects I have in the back of my mind for when I have significantly more free time than I do at the moment is to re-read and write about the Destiny’s Children sequence (Coalescent, Exultant, Transcendent), which I think might be the most coherent set of books Baxter has yet written. Transcendent, in particular, seems to me to be almost a sort of summing-up of Baxter’s writing to date. For one thing, it interweaves a lot of recurring themes, not just the series themes of evolution and religion; for another, it brings together near-future and far-future stories in a particularly elegant fashion, with each, in the end, redeeming the other. (Plus, “The girl from the future told me that the sky is full of dying worlds” has quickly become one of my favourite opening lines evar.)

4. Shameless self-promotion: while I was in Japan, Bookslut published my review of The King’s Last Song by Geoff Ryman. See also Abigail Nussbaum’s review, and the conversation we had about the book.