This book arrived yesterday, and I spent the better part of yesterday evening, when I should have been doing any number of other things, nosing through it. Here are some of the things I found.

From Paul Kincaid’s introduction:

It is what was left to the jury that has made the Arthur C. Clarke Award both idiosyncratic and controversial, often at the same time. At no point did we decide what was meant by ‘best’, by ‘science fiction’, or even by ‘novel’. Consequently, the jury meetings I’ve taken part in have featured some very lively debates on each of these topics — and no two juries have ever arrived at precisely the same definitions. (12)

(So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a lot of the essays spend some time debating what sf is and does.)

From Justina Robson’s essay on Take Back Plenty (1990) by Colin Greenland:

And there is a final reason not to dismiss Take Back Plenty as less than a revolutionary book. As fantasy is in constant relationship with folktale, so science fiction is in a constant relationship with the history of rational thought. Take Back Plenty follows on from a long dialectical tradition. Like other books of its kind it doesn’t accept the old-order notion, born from religious origins, that humans are clawing their way up a ladder of incremental progress to greatness, or the stars. That core theory and its various miserable brides — the worship of reason over empathy, the position of humans at the summit of a fictitious world order, the belief in the imposition of systems and theories as pathways to moral improvement, the reduction of all calculations to mathematics, the idea of humanity as a single entity — are here subjected to the casual drubbing they deserve. (72-3)

From Adam Roberts’ essay on Fairyland (1995) by Paul J. McAuley:

Fantasy is premised on magic, the supernatural, the spiritual: it articulates a cosmos as a divine quantity, as does religion. The relationship between the individual and the universe in religion is an ‘I-Thou’. That same religion universe [see comments], under the logic of science, is an ‘I-It’. Science fiction, which unsurprisingly begins when ‘science’ begins, is premised on a material, instrumental version of the cosmos. Fantasy happens in Dante’s solar system; sf in Copernicus’ and Kepler’s — indeed, Kepler is the author of what I take to be the first sf novel (the trip-to-the-moon speculation Somnium, published posthumously in 1634). I date the rise of sf from this period, and I see it as no coincidence that it happens about the same time that the effects of the Protestant Reformation established themselves in Europe. Without wishing to be sectarian, I’m fond of using ‘Catholic’ as a descriptor of fantasy: the boss text of fantasy in the twentieth century, The Lord of the Rings, is, amongst many other things, a great Catholic book. ‘Protestant’ writing, on the other hand, was (slightly) more amenable to the new scientific thinking about the cosmos. (119-20)

From Farah Mendlesohn’s essay on Dreaming in Smoke (1998) by Tricia Sullivan:

One of the things that makes cyberpunk distinct from hard sf is that it is the work of what we might call the users rather than the creators of a technological society.


The age of transparent technology has disappeared in Western Europe and North America. Most of us open the hood of our car to discover a sealed plastic lump. We can no longer play with the material of our world. Apart from perhaps explaining why our Physics and Engineering departments are full of people from parts of the world that still rely on what we might call accessible technology, it also helps explain what cyberpunk is.

Cyberpunk is the science fiction for a generation for whom Clarke’s Law — that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — has come true in ways that Clarke did not envisage. It is not the technology of the future that seems magical but that which we work with today. Cyberpunk is the literature of the generation that can move effortlessly through the lit house, but can’t fix the fuses because they’ve all been fitted with a ‘replace after failure’ blue plastic box. (157-8)

From Graham Sleight’s essay on Distraction (1999) by Bruce Sterling:

Secondly, what Sterling really wants to talk about is his future. This is, it has to be said, not a very popular option for sf writers these days. (Judith Berman’s influential essay, ‘Science Fiction Without the Future’, which Sterling has called ‘probably the most important piece of science fiction criticism in the last ten years’, sets out this case in detail.) More and more, science fiction novels want not to be science-fiction novels. They want to be parables of gender or race, or horror novels with ray-guns, or VR fantasyland adventures. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with any of these approaches: they have produced many fine works, several of which join Distraction as Clarke Award winners. But they use the tools and tropes of sf as means rather than an end. The single most striking feature of Distraction is that it wants to be nothing other than an sf novel. (168)

And there’s much more where that lot came from.

8 thoughts on “Discuss

  1. Two posts in a day, Niall? Have you changed your brand of coffee? ;)

    Looks like another book I’ll have to buy, finances notwithstanding. I can console myself with the idea that I’m giving business to Iain, of course. I’m sure my bank manager will understand…

  2. Did I really write: “The relationship between the individual and the universe in religion is an ‘I-Thou’. That same religion, under the logic of science, is an ‘I-It’”? Or is that a typo? Either way, it should be:

    The relationship between the individual and the universe in religion is an ‘I-Thou’. That same universe, under the logic of science, is an ‘I-It’.

    Still, it is an excellent collection. Not sure I agree with Farah’s statement of our general engineering and ‘scientific’ ignorance. (I mean, I share her bafflement at what’s under the hood of my car; but many people don’t). But her essay is excellent; as if Justina’s and Graham S.’s.

  3. Adam: what is in my post is what is in the book. I’ve now made corrections in both.

    I think Farah’s distinction between users and creators is useful even if not necessarily generally true. Yes, there are people who can take apart their mobile phones and turn them into something else; but cyberpunk stories aren’t about them. (I do wonder where programmers fit in, though. Users or creators?)

    I haven’t read a bad essay from the book yet, but Justina’s I enjoyed particularly. It’s a really good look at what new space opera is/was/might be … and it’s funny! (Not the paragraph above, but most of it. Honest, it is.)

  4. I wondered about that sentence in the Adam Roberts excerpt. I had assumed that the word in question was meant to be “relationship.”

  5. I may be the worst proof reader in the history of publishing. Mea culpa.

    You’re spot on about Justina’s excellent piece. Personally I’d like to see her do more criticism; her Guardian reviews were always really good. She has a fine critical sensibility and a wicked turn of phrase. (Mind you, I’d like to see her writing more fiction: her novels can’t come out frequently enough for me).

    Yes, there are people who can take apart their mobile phones and turn them into something else; but cyberpunk stories aren’t about them

    About them? (not, eg, for them?) More to the point, isn’t SF part of a broader cultural discourse of tech-savvy and science active potential? It’s not any specific body of knowledge; it’s a certain frame of mind. The point of a site like, I don’t know, Boing-boing (which seems to me part of the same SF discourse) isn’t that its readers are all expert mobile phone engineers, but that they don’t take things at face value, they prod and probe and generally are curious, interested, engaged. No?

  6. “About them? (not, eg, for them?)”

    You know, as soon as I posted that comment, I started thinking about The Matrix, which clearly is cyberpunk and both about and for computer-literate geeks who like poking at things. (Among other audiences.)

    But in general, the prodding-and-probing you mention is something I think shows up at different strengths in different types of sf, and do I think it’s weaker in cyberpunk than in a lot of other types (particularly hard sf, which was the original comparison). And that’s almost by design — the flipside of saying that cyberpunk is about people who don’t understand how their mobile phones work is saying that cyberpunk is about people who are often disenfranchised in harder sf narratives. Cyberpunk protagonists, to me, typically seem to be more concerned with getting by than with anything else.

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