The Links At Hand

BSFA Awards: Best Artwork

It’s that time of year again. At last night’s meeting, Ian Snell, the BSFA Awards Administrator, handed round forms to remind everyone to start nominating for the BSFA Awards. For any new members reading, it works like this: there are awards for Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Non-Fiction, and Best Artwork; for Best Novel the work has to be published in the UK, otherwise they can be available anywhere; you can nominate as many things as you want in each category; the five in each category with the most nominations go forward to form the shortlist, which is subsequently voted on (by STV). In short, you don’t have to wait until the end of the year; you can nominate whenever you encounter something you think is worthy of shortlisting. Continuing the theme of last night’s meeting, I thought I’d throw up some potential artwork nominations.

The artwork award is open to any single science fictional or fantastic image that first appeared in 2006. Again, provided the artwork hasn’t been published before 2006 it doesn’t matter where it appears.

As with most things related to the BSFA, the definition of “single science fictional or fantastic image” tends to be pretty flexible. Admittedly, the last couple of winners (Pawel Lewandoski’s cover for Interzone 200, and Stephan Martiniere’s cover for Newton’s Wake) have been traditionally science-fictional landscapes, but in the same period nominees have also included a Frank Quitely double-spread from We3, and even a photograph of the Millau Bridge.

So here’s what’s been catching my eye.

Magazine covers, left to right: Interzone 206 (let’s be honest, you can’t go wrong with a giant robot), Farthing 2 (although covers for the other issues have been nifty, too) and Postscripts 6 (probably the least exciting of the three, but nicely composed, I think). Illustrations for individual stories (such as those occasionally used by Strange Horizons, or as standard in recent issues of Interzone) are also worth looking at.

Book covers, left to right: US cover for River of Gods; Stephan Martiniere doing what he does best. I love the washed-out look of the Rainbows End cover (if you ignore the text all over it, anyway), and the UK cover of Black Juice struck me as being much more evocative of the stories it contains than the US or Australian editions. The cover for Nova Swing left me cold the first time I saw it, but it’s grown on me. Irene Gallo’s blog often features rather lovely covers … but fairly often they’re rather lovely covers for books that aren’t published yet.

And finally, whatever the merits of the film, I do love this poster:

Now, here’s where I throw it open to the floor. What artwork has been grabbing your attention this year? Don’t worry if you’re not a member; maybe someone who is will like your suggestion, and end up nominating it. That email address in full:

London Meeting: Judith Clute

The guest at tonight’s BSFA meeting is Judith Clute, interviewed by Farah Mendlesohn.

As usual, the meeting will take place in the upstairs room of the Star Tavern in Belgravia (there’s a map here) and people will start gathering from 5.30 or so. Unlike usual, the interview will start at 7.30, rather than 7.00.

All welcome: entry is free to BSFA members and non-members alike (but there is a book raffle).

The Vast Universe

I posted most of this as a comment already, but it was rushed, so I want to do a better job of it here. Lydia Millet reviews Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock. It’s a favourable review, but Millet also says:

And yet—and yet—given that what Munro does, she does with immaculate precision—why always, with such a richness of skill, this insistent choice on the purely personal, the proximate world of the self and its near relations? In the cosmology of this world, the personal, social world, the individual is seen delicately negotiating a balance with friends and family: Her journey is the steady sun around which all planets revolve.

Surely the vast universe beyond the minutely personal is also of some little interest. There is, of course, often a backdrop. Munro, for instance, loves the land, loves her region within it, and comes to the land in her prose with knowledge, deliberation and devotion. Still, the land is a setting primarily for a specific subset of us, for the foibles and discoveries and preoccupations of the social self. And in the broader, dominant literary culture of realistic and personal fictions, a culture where Munro tends to lead and others to follow, the land often drops away entirely in favour of a massive foreground of people with problems.

Dan Green takes exception:

I’m glad [Munro] writes about “the proximate world of the self and its near relations,” because this is what presumably provokes her to write in the first place. Perhaps one day I will read a Munro story “about the foibles and discoveries and preoccupations of the social self” that rises to the level of great art, that shows me how this subject can be the catalyst for creating fiction of sufficient “beauty” and aesthetic depth that its putative subject becomes irrelevant—indeed, a story in which only that subject could have inspired the author to plumb such depths. I haven’t read that story yet, but I’m pretty sure that if I do come to see the merit in Alice Munro’s fiction it won’t be because I’ve stumbled upon a story about “corrupt churches and governments.”

I assume that Lydia Millett takes herself to be a writer capable of conveying “meaning,” of discerning “right and wrong,” of analyzing “our philosophies or propensity for atrocities,” but I’m not sure where she’s acquired this wisdom and these talents, and in general I’m not going to turn to novels for insight into these issues. (That Millett’s own most recent novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart could be described as about “nuclear disarmament” was enough to make me stay away from it.) I also assume that Alice Munro has never considered herself qualified to pronounce on such subjects, and that she considers it the fiction writer’s job to stick to the mundane realities of individual lives (“people with problems”). This approach in itself does not guarantee the result will be aesthetically accomplished work (although it may gain a certain amount of admiration for the subtleties of “craft” involved), but it stands a better chance of keeping the aesthetic in sight as a desirable goal than the attempt to grapple with war and famine, or the “environment” as an abstract concept.

To which my immediate question, of course, is: why?

Clearly, assuming that Munro is writing about what provokes her to write in the first place (I hope it’s unlikely that she’s writing about particular subjects because she feels those are “the writer’s job”), then continuing to write about those subjects is more likely to enable her to produce great art than falsely raising her gaze and trying to address other subjects. And while I’m slightly confused by Green’s definition of great art, I agree with the version he eventually seems to settle on, more or less. The idea of “fiction of sufficient “beauty” and aesthetic depth that its putative subject becomes irrelevant” seems to be immediately contradicted by the idea that great art would be “a story in which only that subject could have inspired the author to plumb such depths”. I’m not touching the former statement with a bargepole, but the latter seems a fair working definition of greatness to me—although surely the subject in such cases isn’t irrelevant, it’s essential, in that if the subject were anything else the story wouldn’t work.

But I would cheerfully say that Primo Levi’s “Carbon” meets this definition, despite the fact that it’s a story that’s utterly removed from the personal. Which is another way of saying that, basically, I’m in sympathy with Millet: while I don’t think it’s fair to criticise Munro for doing what she does, I see no particular reason why one group of subjects (intimate, personal) should stand “a better chance of keeping the aesthetic in sight as a desirable goal” than another group of subjects (what we might call cultural or or moral or philosophical). In fact, the potential value of fiction that addresses this latter group well seems self-evident to me.

Yet Green also states that he’s not usually going to turn to novels for insights into “these issues”: again, why? Assuming that a writer is not going to be able to offer you a perspective you haven’t considered yourself strikes me as somewhat hubristic, and assuming that a writer is not going to have “acquired such insight” so as to be able to talk intelligently about cultural or philosophical issues strikes me as somewhat patronising. More to the point, I see no particular reason why a writer will be more likely to offer me insight into a personal experience than into a moral question. I don’t expect any writer to provide definitive “answers” in either case, after all; they may argue for one answer or another, but the important thing, to me, is that they raise the questions and frame them in a useful way.

Perhaps, if we’re accepting that great literature is literature that could only be facilitated by its specific subject, then it’s just a matter of perception. Maybe where I would admire a novel like, say, The King’s Last Song by Geoff Ryman because of the portrait it paints of past and present Cambodian society, Green would admire it (if he did) for the richness of the portrayal of a character like Map, and the vividness of his specific experiences. Similarly for books like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. We might admire different aspects of the whole. But it strikes me that a lot of books are going to privilege one aspect over another, and I can’t help thinking that as readers we should be open to that. We should let writers take us where they please, and decide afterwards if the journey was worth it. Clearly this is shaped by my background as a science fiction reader, which stereotypically does privilege the general over the personal; but even allowing for that, I can’t shake the feeling that insisting that literature is better at addressing some subjects than others is sadly limiting.

Children of Men

A man walks into a coffee shop, pushing through a rapt crowd to reach the counter. He barely seems to register the news on the screen playing in the corner: that “Baby” Diego Ricardo, the youngest man in the world, has been killed in a fight after he refused to sign an autograph. He was eighteen years, four months, twenty days, sixteen hours, and eight minutes old. We follow the man out onto the street. It’s recognisably central London—there’s even a WH Smith’s in the background—but obviously not now. Animated posters are splashed across the walls of the buildings and buses. The cars have a hunched-over, solid cast to them. There’s a strong police presence. Bags of rubbish piled up at the roadside. And as the man stops to add something, perhaps sugar, to his coffee, the cafe he just walked out of explodes, filling the street with shrapnel and black smoke.

It’s not quite the cinematic equivalent of a door dilating, but it’s not far off. Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of PD James’ 1993 novel Children of Men (which I haven’t read) does a remarkably good job of showing its world rather than telling about it. The above explosion, for instance, is just something that happens: an everyday occurrence. Once you accept the story’s premise, that humanity became globally and near-instantly infertile a little over eighteen years previously, the grim, grimy world it presents hangs together. You can kick it, as you can kick the worlds of films like Gattaca and Code 46. With no children, all sense of stewardship over the planet has vanished, and a terrifying fatalism hangs in the air. Things are falling apart: a tv program flashes up tragedies and atrocities from around the world, before asserting that Only Britain Soldiers On (or words to that effect). It has done so, it seems, by retreating behind its borders, and pursuing a ferocious policy of evicting any and all immigrants, or at least rounding them up to be held in internment camps, such as the one at Bexhill-on-Sea.

There seems to have been a small surge of interest in British dystopias this year. Aside from Children of Men, we’ve had the big-screen adaptation of V for Vendetta, Jo Walton’s latest novel, Farthing, and Jim Younger’s debut, High John the Conqueror; and this year’s Sidewise Award-winning novel was Ian R. Macleod’s wonderful The Summer Isles. You can make of this what you want: on the one hand, the original stories were written over a span of more than twenty years, so in many ways it’s an entirely artefactual surge, but on the other, it’s undeniable that many of the issues they address—of liberty, privacy, and complicity—have a depressing contemporary relevance.

Of the two films, Children of Men is the better by far: more detailed and more human. By the standards of action films—arguably by the standards of film in general—it is admirably down-to-earth, both in its set pieces (there’s a marvellous, tense escape scene, using a car so old that the characters have to get out and push it so that it can be jump-started) and in its depiction of what human bodies can take, and what they look like when they’re damaged. The man in the coffee shop, Theo (Clive Owen, in a superb performance), is well on his way to middle age, and spends half the time limping around in a tatty 2012 Olympics top and flip-flops. People die matter-of-factly, messily, and without warning. Nothing is soft-pedalled. The film’s flat, grey palette, and use of long one-take tracking shots on hand-held cameras reinforce the sense of reality: one astonishing sequence late in the film, in which Theo has to get into a battered building besieged by the army, and then out again, lasts for about six minutes, consists of about three shots, and is as harrowing as any war footage broadcast on the news.

The object of his search is the film’s other main character, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a refugee who is, miraculously, pregnant. As you might expect, given conditions in the UK, the plot revolves around Theo’s attempts to get Kee out of the country, via an offshore rendezvous with a boat from the (possibly apocryphal) Human Project, perhaps the one group who are still looking for ways to reverse the plague of infertility. It is very much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t play up the symbolism inherent in this scenario too heavily. There’s Kee’s name, of course, and when Theo meets her she’s under the guardianship of a resistance movement called the Fishes, and when he finds out she’s pregnant, the revelation takes place in a barn; but that’s more-or-less it. Kee is more than a macguffin, and though she doesn’t know who the father is, it’s not a miracle birth. And when she and her baby are seen in public late on, people react with the diversity of reactions you would expect: some reaching out to touch her, some crossing themselves, some not sure what to do.

When I walked out of the cinema, I said to my friends that I wasn’t sure whether Children of Men was genuinely excellent, or simply the best-directed bad sf movie I’ve ever seen. I said the world hangs together if you accept its premises, and that’s true, but you do have to accept those premises—the sudden and human-specific infertility, for which no explanation is given, and the presence of vast numbers of illegal immigrants even after a decade or more of closed borders. It’s a setup that verges on the melodramatic, and there’s something about the timescales involved, to my mind, that doesn’t quite track. Fortunately, we want to handwave things. There’s so much else to admire about the film, technically and artistically, that it fully earns both our suspension of disbelief, and the few redemptive moments it allows itself. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the film is that there is no grand uprising, no dramatic change in the status quo; indeed, we barely get to see the people in charge. The closest we get is a visit to a privileged relative of Theo’s. The rest of the time we are, like the characters, left to struggle with the pieces of a broken world.

EDIT: some more discussion here (including about how feminist or not the film is) and here (including about how ambiguous or not the ending is).

Brief Notes on a Double Life

  • When I sat down to read Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon, I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to write a review of it. And I’m not: it’s surely been one of the most widely-reviewed (and often, though not always, well-reviewed) books of the year, from the front page of the New York Times Book Review to Excessive Candour. But having read it, I can’t say nothing. It’s that kind of book. Normally, when I’m asked what books I’d recommend to people, I say that you have to know the taste of the person you’re recommending to. I can’t think of a reader I know who wouldn’t get something out of James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, however. If you have any interest in one or more of science fiction, fandom, men, women, feminism, twentieth century America, colonialism, psychology, identity, writers’ lives, or half-a-dozen other topics, you should read this book.
  • Major Alice Hastings Bradley Davey Sheldon, PhD., had a truly extraordinary life. We knew that. We knew that she had lived before she started writing. There’s a telling comment from Charles Platt, late in the book: “After her death, some people said, ‘Oh, if only she’d gone to more conventions, she would have found the community was willing to provide her the emotional support she lacked, and then she might have found there was more to life.’ But the fact is—how can I put this?—her taste and breadth of experience and knowledge of the world was so far beyond the average science fiction convention-goer, it’s just laughable that she could have derived very much from these embarrassing events of people dressing up in costumes and firing ray guns at each other.” Reading through the events of Sheldon’s life, rather than knowing them as a list on the page, makes the truth of Platt’s comment blindingly obvious—although the list is pretty impressive in itself. Before Tiptree’s first story was published, in 1968, when Sheldon was 53, she had, roughly in order: been on several extensive trips to Africa; come of age into Chicago society; eloped with and married a man on five days’ acquaintance; become a painter of some talent, and an art critic; divorced; served with distinction in the WAAC during World War II; remarried; joined the CIA as an intelligence analyst; run a chicken hatchery in New Jersey; and studied for and achieved a PhD in psychology. And she kept a brilliant journal all the while.
  • Given such source material, you have to suspect that it would have been hard to write this biography badly, but extremely easy to write it averagely well. Sheldon’s life is busy, and complex, and portraying the ways in which the world constrained her, and the ways in which she reacted to those constraints, demands nuance. Just occasionally, there is a sense that Phillips is trying a little too hard to (to coin a phrase) story Sheldon’s life. For instance, Sheldon once characterises Ursula Le Guin as the Martin Luther King of feminist sf, and Joanna Russ as the Malcolm X; Phillips perhaps plays up to this characterisation a little too much, with Sheldon neatly in the middle, having struggled to invent feminism for herself, almost from first principles. But for the most part the balance is perfect. And despite the obvious extraordinariness of Sheldon’s life, or perhaps because of it, there is a sense that it signifies: everything Sheldon does seems resonant. The story of the book is the story of someone being brought up hard against the inflexibility of the world.
  • Understanding the roots of James Tiptree Jr’s fiction, part I:

    At Lake Tanganyika, too, [Alice’s mother] Mary thought of Lake Michigan before the pioneers came, and foresaw factories, movie theaters, a whole dirty Chicago springing up along its idyllic shores. The scene she saw “was beauty itself, the perfect loveliness of beauty undespoiled. But it was beauty with a doom on its bright head, for already the white man had come. […] In ten years, twenty or fifty, civilization and its gauds would be enthroned. The old Africa would go.” Their very arrival on the frontier was the beginning of its end. Alice grew up, she once wrote, in a world “suffused with sadness; everywhere it was said, or seen, that great change was coming fast and much would be forever gone.”

    Part II:

    “I realize that my definition of being OK or normal was being able to conceal the pain I felt so as not to radiate it at other people, so as not to lay it on them because I assumed they already had all the pain they could take and were doing the same thing. And that there was sort of an unwritten convention that you didn’t load onto somebody else or didn’t break down or allow the pain to get out of control. […] I really assumed this was general in life. Everybody was just like me and could just barely stand what they had inside, and it was just noblesse oblige not to load more on there.”

    Part III:

    Almost everything Alice saw in India [at the age of 10] went into the category of “horror-recitals”. In Calcutta, she said later, “As we went for some morning sweet cake, we’d step over dying people with dying babies in their arms.” She saw “starving dwarf-children roving around racks of bones that were mothers trying to nurse more babies, toothless mouths and unbearable eyes turning on me from rag heaps that were people.” Again she saw frightening scenes she was told were normal, such as “a man on the steps of the Ganges reverently—and quite inadequately—burning his mother’s body, and then leaping into the water to fish up the still recognisable skull and pry out the gold teeth.” She thought of her own grandmother, lying in a silk-lined casket in Chicago. She wondered if that was normal. She wondered if this was what it meant to be human.

    Part IV:

    Finally Alice got to be alone with Adele, on the couch in the ladies’ restroom at a party. They sat close together; Alice felt Adele’s hair brush her cheek and was “paralyzed with love.” But when Adele spoke, it was to ask her if she’d ever been with two men at once. Adele had, and it was wonderful. She would never make love to just one again. Alice had profoundly wanted to believe that the girl she admired was also a virgin, that within her beauty she, too, sheltered a shy, solitary intensity. Now Alice’s own crush felt tainted and perverse. Then, as Alice was still trying to take in her friend’s words, Adele became violently sick to her stomach. The vomiting went on and on, while Alice held her friend’s head, until “there were phone calls to people I didn’t know, and she went away, or was taken. a very short while later she was dead of septic abortion.”

  • The book, then, makes very clear the ways Sheldon’s experience informed her fiction. In fact, one satisfying thing about the book is the simple experience of seeing sf taken so seriously and represented so fairly (which does not always mean positively). Perhaps the coverage of the late stories is a little rushed, but that’s about all there is to complain about: Tiptree’s many correspondences are documented extensively, and many of his stories are discussed in some detail.
  • Of the cast of characters, I knew at least the outline of Sheldon’s life, and a reasonable amount about her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley (mostly as a result of the discussion surrounding Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See”—which I will have to reread in the near future). I knew next to nothing about Sheldon’s second husband, Huntington “Ting” Sheldon, except insofar as he figured in the background of the Tiptree story. I also didn’t know what Alice Sheldon looked like. This last is only remarkable because there is an unfortunate tendency for women artists to have their looks noted and catalogued, particularly if they’re beautiful, as if they meant something; and based on the photos in this book, Alice Sheldon was beautiful. I’m impressed that nobody’s mentioned it.
  • One way of looking at the story of Sheldon as a writer is that it tells us there is no such thing as a True Name. Phillips treats Tiptree (and Sheldon’s other pseudonym, Racoona) as, effectively, a character, who comes from Sheldon like any other literary creation (I’m following her convention of referring to Tiptree as “he”, for instance, though I can’t quite bring myself to be on first-name terms with Sheldon). But it’s clear that the relationship is more complex than that, and also that every relationship in Sheldon’s life was partial. We are always, to different people, slices of ourselves, personae; to live as a whole, single person is impossible, in many ways. And in Sheldon’s case, that’s more true than most. One reason she had such a varied life is that every so often, she would simply up and change things. Aside from Ting, she seems to have had few truly long-term friends.
  • Notwithstanding Platt’s comment above, it’s also clear that Sheldon’s epistolary relationships, as Tiptree, with so many and varied members of the sf community, meant an awful lot to her. At the same time, the gregarious inquisitiveness of the community took its toll, even through the filter of the pseudonym. If Phillips’ account of the near-hysteria at the Worldcon where “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” won a Hugo is anything like accurate, for instance, it is definitely a good thing that Sheldon wasn’t there. As it was, at one point, Phillips notes, writing letters almost took over from writing stories as Sheldon’s main occupation; and when, later on, friends would visit her in person, the amount of performance required drained her. When David Hartwell visited, Sheldon asked him if he’d like to stay for dinner. Ting took Hartwell for a walk in the garden, and asked him to decline, on the grounds that it would take Sheldon days to recover.
  • For all that the revelation of Tiptree’s identity left people with egg-on-face (famously Robert Silverberg, with his quote about Tiptree’s writing being “ineluctably masculine”, although it’s worth noting that Joanna Russ said equally absolutist things about Tiptree’s gender, despite also coming closest to seeing through the pseudonym), there is a sense that there are parts of this story that the sf community wants very strongly to be able to believe in. Namely, the almost-total acceptance on the revelation of Sheldon’s identity; but this story does seem to be true. Le Guin’s delight is palpable, Silverberg’s response is graceful (“you didn’t fool me; I fooled myself”), Gardner Dozois said more than once that he thought the best work was still to come, as Sheldon learned to write truly as herself. And so on.
  • So even as we can see the effect that the revelation of her identity was having on Tiptree—if it didn’t make Tiptree mute, it at least changed the fiction dramatically—we can also see the positive effects Sheldon and her work were having on other people, and on the community she had become a part of. Of course, the scales don’t balance, and eventually the story becomes fully tragic: in 1987, during a period of depression, Sheldon shot Ting, and then shot herself. What can you say to that? Not a lot. You can say she left behind a remarkable body of work, sure, but that doesn’t seem adequate. Having read Phillips’ book I think I’d say that what she left behind above all is a reminder of the importance of questions. Sheldon’s writing begs questions, about men’s writing, and women’s writing, and about sex and death and human nature; but Sheldon’s life as a writer begs more. It’s hardly adequate, either, but as a legacy, to keep us asking questions seems to me fitting, and meaningful.

Note: to anyone who got here following the link from Julie Phillips’ site, I did actually say what she says I said, but in a different post (down the bottom).

Sunday Morning Catchup

A meme, via Abigail, Martin, and Alison. The idea is that you list the ten books on your shelves that you haven’t read. I have many, many more than ten books on my shelves that I haven’t read; I couldn’t tell you exactly which have been sitting there the longest, but these are the ones that are nagging at me at the moment:

1. Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Four years ago I spent six months working in a bookshop. When I left, I shamelessly abused my staff discount and bought vast piles of books. I haven’t even nearly worked my way through them. This, being by all accounts the Banks sf novel to read, has been nagging at me since then.

2. The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson

I loved Cryptonomicon, so I bought these as they came out. In hardback. Next time I have a spare three months, I’ll read them. (So, mid-2008, then.)

3. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

I picked this up at an Eastercon at some point in the past few years. I haven’t read much by Fowler, but everything I have has filled me with joy, with the exception of The Jane Austen Book Club, and even that was pretty good. The premise of this one intrigues me:

The American Old West, Winter, 1873: a white woman of indeterminate age and great ugliness materialises in a Chinese railway workers’ camp, babbling incomprehensibly. Chin Ah Kin believes she is one of the fabled immortals, sent to enchant him. His more practical uncle sees trouble, and orders Chin to escort her back to the white world and the local lunatic asylum where she must belong. […] Neither malign nor benign, who is she and where does she come from?

4. Dubliners by James Joyce

A while ago I attempted Ulysses and bounced fairly hard; being me, I turn to Joyce’s short stories for my next attempt on his oeuvre. Except that this was given to me as a birthday present last year, and I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

5. Temeraire by Naomi Novik

The major fantasy release this year that I want to read and should read but haven’t read, despite having bought a hardback on publication.

6. Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

The major sf release this year that I want to read and should read but haven’t read, despite having bought a hardback on publication.

7. Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Recommended by Abigail when we were discussing The King’s Last Song, as relevant to thinking about political art, so I should try to make time for it soon.

8. Orlando by Virgina Woolf

Having read A Room of One’s Own for the first time earlier this year and fallen thoroughly in love with Woolfe’s voice, I went and bought an omnibus edition of three of her novels quicksharp. Victoria assures me this is the one to start with.

9. Selected Stories by Theodore Sturgeon

Sturgeon is the great classic short story sf writer I want to read and haven’t (just ahead of Cordwainer Smith). I’m not brave enough to dive into the umpteen-volume “Complete Stories” series being put together by North Atlantic Books, but this looks like an easier way in, so I snapped up a copy a little while ago.

10. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

It sounds like my sort of thing, I’ve owned a copy since about March, and now it’s won the Best Novel Hugo. I have no excuse.

Other stuff:

  • I’ve been in Copenhagen for most of the past week. It was a work-related trip, but I did manage to find a couple of hours to wander around the city. There are photos here. Had I been concentrating, I’d have taken Miss Smilia’s Feeling For Snow with me, or something; as it is I’ve been reading Julie Phillips’ biography of James Tiptree Jr, which (amazingly) is about as good as everyone says it is.
  • For those who may care but haven’t checked, there are some interesting comments on the last two posts.
  • Gabe Chouinard has a long essay on reviewing and criticism and all that jazz. It’s broken up into several chunks for discussion on his livejournal.

I Want My 21st-Century William Atheling Jr

Oh dear. In a discussion of Rich Horton’s Locus review of Salon Fantastique, Kelly Shaw says:

If I’m remembering correctly, Horton also gave the Trujillo collection a lukewarm review. To each their own — but a Shepard story is a Shepard story, and a reviewer has an obligation to comment on it, positively or negatively.

I like Kelly, but I (and most of the commenters in the ensuing thread) think he’s dead wrong about this. He raises an interesting question in his later comments, about the purpose of Locus reviews, but I don’t think there are many cases where a reviewer has an obligation to comment on any particular aspect of a book. Sometimes you can see that there are aspects of the book that many people reading the review are going to want to know about (I suspect a lot of people reading reviews of Accelerando, for instance, were interested in whether the stories worked as a novel, rather than as a magazine serial), but I don’t think there are many such cases. If Lucius Shepard published as infrequently as, say, Ted Chiang, Kelly would have more of a case—but at the moment, Shepard is publishing quite a lot, if not as much as a few years ago.

Actually, I’m probably even further away from Kelly’s position than that would suggest. I’ll explain why in a minute, but first a question, tangential to the discussion, that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while: how healthy do you think sf short fiction reviewing is?

Take this review of Interzone 205, at Tangent Online. I think it’s reasonably representative of the majority of short fiction reviews out there at the moment. It takes Kelly’s position to its logical conclusion: runs through each story in the issue, tells you what each is about, whether or not the reviewer (Paul Iutzi) thought it worked, and why. I don’t want to knock Tangent, because its breadth of coverage is something we need, because some of the reviews it publishes are more involved, and I don’t want to knock this review specifically, because it’s fine as far as it goes; of the reviews of stories that I’ve read, Iutzi’s observations seem fair (and he’s spot-on about David Mace’s “This Happens”).

My problem with it is that it just doesn’t go very far. Moreover, Mark Watson’s review at BestSF takes the same approach. As does Lois Tilton’s review at IROSF. Which is to say that my problem with it isn’t a problem with the approach per se, but with the fact that it’s the only approach that anyone seems to be using. They are all driven by the need to say something about every story.

And here we come back to Locus, which is probably the most significant source of short fiction reviews we have. Locus runs two short fiction columns each month, one by Horton and one by Nick Gevers. They usually cover a different-but-overlapping selection of magazine issues and anthologies each month. And they do it in a few thousand words, which means they can’t cover every story, unless they go down the Gary-Wolfe-reviewing-Year’s-Best-books route and allot each story its single sentence, phrase or adjective of assessment. They also tend to do a better job than most of the other reviewers out there of jerry-rigging the separate reviews into something resembling a continuous piece of prose. But like all of the reviews I’ve mentioned so far, they consciously trade depth for breadth.

I don’t think they should. Now, this is where the argument about the nature of Locus comes in: it’s a magazine that exists, more or less explicitly, to provide a record of the field. A venue like NYRSF can afford to be somewhat eclectic in its choices, but Locus is expected to—and, I think, aims to—review every major book and story published; to the point where there can be a danger of assuming that if Locus hasn’t covered it, it’s probably not worth covering. I still don’t think Horton has an obligation to mention a new Lucius Shepard story, but you can see how the nature of Locus could give rise to that expectation.

But in all honesty, I’d prefer they go the other way. Or if it’s not appropriate for Locus, I wish someone was going the other way. None of the reviews I’ve mentioned so far, including Horton’s and Gever’s, offer much context about either the subjects the stories tackle, or about the body of work of the writers who produced them—indeed, some of the reviews linked above arguably are not reviews of Interzone 205 at all, since they take each of the magazine’s component parts in isolation, and never address the question of whether they work together. As I said above, it’s useful that these sort of reviews exist, and I don’t dispute the amount of work that goes into writing them. But I’m sceptical about their value to the reader, as opposed to, say, the genre historian.

Over the past few months, I’ve been dipping in and out of James Blish’s two collections of criticism, The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand (1964 and 1970, both as by William Atheling, Jr). I’ve also read, relatively recently, Transformations, the second volume of Mike Ashley’s history of sf magazines. Ashley likes lists, and whole chapters of his book read like immensely long reviews of the type I’ve been discussing above, with brief summaries of up to fifty stories in one go. Blish, on the other hand, did what none of the reviewers above do: picked out a handful of stories for each column that he thought were worth talking about (these were not always the good stories), and talked about them in detail and in context. And he is by turns perceptive, trenchant, infuriating, and entertaining—but most of all, he has things to say, above and beyond a prospector’s report. Here’s the punchline: I get far more of a sense of the shape and state of the short fiction field in the mid-twentieth century from Blish than I do from Ashley. Or to put it another way, I can’t see anyone putting any of the current crop of short fiction reviewers between covers, and I think that’s a reflection on the format they’re working to, not on their ability. Laundry lists don’t really last.

Short fiction may not be the center of the field in the way that it was when Blish was writing, but as long as there are writers doing notable work primarily or exclusively at shorter lengths—and there are; Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, M. Rickert, Theodora Goss and Paolo Bacigalupi are just the first examples who come to mind—it will be a vital part of the field. At present, the detailed reviews of these writers only come when they put together a collection, and I can’t help feeling that’s something of a shame. For one thing, short fiction markets can be more responsive than publishing at large (the first good 9/11 fiction I saw was Shepard’s “Only Partly Here”, in Asimov’s); for another, even reviews of collections can be skimpy on analysis of individual stories. In short, we don’t have anyone writing regular Atheling-style columns at the moment, and I think we’re the poorer for it.

Although I say all of the above as a reader of reviews, clearly I’m not a neutral party here. Most of the content (as opposed to lists of links) I’ve been putting up here has been reviews of individual short stories. And while there are several reasons for that—for example, I can justify reading a short story now and then, but taking time out to read a non-review non-Clarke novel is somewhat harder (yes, the writing takes up a fair bit of time too, but that comes out of a separate budget, see?)—an important one is that yes, I’ve been trying to write the sort of review that I would like to read, on the assumption that if I’d like to read them, some other people would as well. I’m emphatically not saying my reviews are as insightful or useful as those of James Blish, and neither am I saying that they’re better than all the other short fiction reviews out there. If nothing else, I’m not reading widely enough in short fiction at the moment to have the sort of perspective that a modern Atheling would need.

And maybe I’m just plain wrong about this. Maybe everyone else is happy with the coverage that sf short fiction is getting; maybe short fiction reviews aren’t relevant to you because you never read it before it reaches book form, anyway, or maybe you think the sort of context that Blish provided is surplus to requirements, and all you want is to know whether a given issue of a magazine is worth reading or not. Hence the question at the start of this post: how healthy do you think sf short fiction reviewing is? Is it doing what you want?

Now All Slipstream Until The End (last updated 29/04/11)

Origin Story




Suggestions for further additions welcomed.