The Martians and Us

Here is everything that’s wrong with Radio Times:

The Martians and Us: From Apes to Aliens

The first of a brainy three-part history of British science fiction looks at the preoccupation of genre writers with evolution. The programme explores the progress-v-decay debate through the work of professors of the prescient from HG Wells to Arthur C Clarke. It uses psychedelic visualisations and book extracts read with sonorous gravity by Peter Capaldi, while well-chosen clips from Doctor Who, Things to Come and 2001: a Space Odyssey distract from periods of excessive chin-stroking.

— Mark Braxton

Because heaven forbid a television documentary take science fiction seriously.

Did anyone else watch this? I have to say I was impressed, and there isn’t even an implied “for tv” in that statement. The Martians and Us is one of the flagship programmes in the “Science Fiction Britannia” season that BBC Four is running at the moment. It looks like a pretty good season in general, to the point where, if I’m not careful, I can see myself doing nothing but watching BBC Four for the next three weeks. For example, tonight at 10.55 there’s an extended interview with Iain Banks ; and on Monday 27th there’s what looks like an interesting drama based on a Wyndham short. I’m not sure when whatever programme is going to use the footage filmed at last month’s ton is going to air, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

It’s tempting to wonder whether the season got commissioned, in whole or in part, off the back of the success of Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, not least because damn near the only present-tense moment in the first episode of this series is a clip from Rob Shearman’s first-season episode “Dalek” — specifically, the death of the last Dalek — complete with narration that assumes familiarity with, say, Rose in a way that familiarity is clearly not assumed when talking about even H.G. Wells. That aside, though, whoever’s behind it all has indeed taken science fiction seriously, lining up an impressive array of talking heads, giving them enough space to say useful things, and structuring the episodes (or at least episode one) around reasonably sensible arguments. If I have a reservation about the series, it’s that it looks like it’s going to cut off at about 1980; rather than being a linear history, the three episodes seem to describe three strands of british sf. Episodes two and three are “dystopias” and “the end of the world“, respectively — for which read “Orwell” and “Wyndham”, I assume — and episode one, which took as its theme “evolution”, didn’t get past 1968.

But that’s ok, because it allowed the episode to deal with its touchstones — Wells; Stapledon; Quatermass; The Midwich Cuckoos; and Arthur C. Clarke — in some depth, with sidebar trips into Doctor Who, Buck Rogers and others. The use of evolution as an organising principle puts the focus squarely on the scientific romance tradition, and mostly works well, as in the moment when, after a long discussion of The Time Machine, the focus switches to Doctor Who, and a shot of the first Doctor meeting primitive savages. They’re in the deep past, not the deep future, but after the preceding discussion about how evolution does not guarantee progress, the narrator’s comparison — “meet the Morlocks” — still feels apt. Similarly, The War of the Worlds is linked to the we-are-the-Martians ending of Quatermass and the Pit, and both are used to develop, in combination with the “education turns you into an alien” theme identified in The Midwich Cuckoos, a more general theme of alien intervention in human development, most particularly as explored in Clarke’s work.

This is a series, then, focused on the literary history of British sf, with media (by and large, rightly) seen as responding to or adapting earlier work, and it’s a focus that’s also evident in the featured commentators. There are critics (Roger Luckhurst, Patrick Parrinder), writer-critics (Brian Aldiss, Brian Stableford, Kim Newman), and writers (Doris Lessing, Stephen Baxter, China Mieville, and from tv-land, the late Nigel Kneale), with a relative (Mary Shenai, daughter of Olaf Stapledon) and a biologist (the eminently reliable Steve Jones) rounding things out. There are, in other words, a bunch of people who really like science fiction, and really get science fiction — the whole awe and wonder and majesty bit — and whatever Mark Braxton may say about chin-stroking, for me that shone through. So Kim Newman gets to be Kim Newman, throwing off irreverent but somehow telling trivia; Brian Aldiss reads the famous opening of The War of the Worlds, and can’t quite stifle a little yelp of glee when he’s done; China Mieville talks about H.G. Wells’s love of the weird; and Doris Lessing and Stephen Baxter wax lyrical about the mind-expanding effects of Starmaker. The narration is mostly good, too, striking just the right balance between witty and informed. On Stapeldon, for instance: “By night he taught philosophy; by day he thought up plans for the future of mankind.” On the arrival of American sf in Britain after World War Two: “Overcoloured, overblown, and over here.” And on the world before Darwin and deep time, before The Time Machine: “There was time, but not much of it.”

And there’s Arthur C. Clarke, who provides what is probably the episode’s most powerful moment. Towards the end of the episode, the discussion shifts to how the reality of space travel overtook science fiction; and having just been talking about Childhood’s End and 2001, the director goes back to Clarke for a comment. And he says, slowly, something like, “I really thought there would be much more space travel than there has been.” Pause. “That’s a failure of imagination, I suppose.” There was for me something tremendously sad about that pause, but tremendously dignified, too. It’s a moment that would have made the episode worth watching even if I’d been gritting my teeth the rest of the way through, because it says that science fiction should be about possibilities, not dreams. And that (it says, and I agree) is an important distinction.

The Links Our Stuff Is Made Of

1. News from Novacon: Convoy is dead; long live Contemplation.

2. Is there a backlash against Year’s Best books? See recent reviews by Dan Hartland and Paul Kincaid. In the meantime, Jonathan Strahan has announced the table of contents for the book I’ve been waiting for, his Nightshade Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy:

1. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman
2. “El Regalo” by Peter S. Beagle
3. “I, Row-Boat” by Cory Doctorow
4. “In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages
5. “Another Word for Map is Faith” by Christopher Rowe*
6. “Under Hell, Over Heaven” by Margo Lanagan
7. “Incarnation Day” by Walter Jon Williams
8. “The Night Whiskey” by Jeffrey Ford
9. “A Siege of Cranes” by Benjamin Rosenbaum*
10. “Halfway House” by Frances Hardinge
11. “The Bible Repairman” by Tim Powers
12. “Yellow Card Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi*
13. “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” (Fantasy) by Geoff Ryman*
14. “The American Dead” by Jay Lake*
15. “The Cartesian Theater” by Robert Charles Wilson
16. “Journey into the Kingdom” by M. Rickert*
17. “Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed*
18. “The Wizards of Perfil” by Kelly Link
19. “The Saffron Gatherers” by Elizabeth Hand
20. “D.A.” by Connie Willis
21. “Femaville 29” by Paul di Filippo
22. “Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe
23. “The House Beyond Your Sky” by Benjamin Rosenbaum*
24. “The Djinn’s Wife” by Ian McDonald*

I haven’t really read enough short fiction this year to have an opinion about this list. I’ve marked the stories I’ve read, all nine of them, with asterisks; some I would definitely have picked (“The Djinn’s Wife” is probably the best of Ian McDonald’s three River of Gods-related stories; “Yellow Card Man” is probably the best story Paolo Bacigalupi has published so far, full stop), some I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t (including, and I recognise I’m in a small minority here, “Journey Into the Kingdom”, which seemed quite a bit below M. Rickert’s best to me; ditto “The American Dead”). But it’s long past time we had an all-under-one-roof Year’s Best book, so I’m still eager to get my hands on this.

3. Miscellaneous links: John Clute reviews Nova Swing, M. John Harrison’s latest novel (in the Guardian!); a very disturbing video for any Calvin and Hobbes fans; the history of SFBC original anthologies; an interview with Catherynne M. Valente; I Read A Short Story Today; Charlie Brooker on UK SF TV (and BBC4’s SF season in particular); Abigail Nussbaum on Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett.

4. The Prestige. I saw this on Friday and have been processing it since. It’s a good film, very neatly put together, with good performances from Christian Bale and Rebecca Hall, and it does, I think, a remarkably good job of translating Christopher Priest’s novel to the screen. Given that I had some reservations about the book, this means I also have some reservations about the film, such as the fact that when you get down to it the whole thing is a Star Trek “transporter malfunction” episode in fancy dress. Of course, Nolan’s cut out the present-day frame. The replacement frame, and the nesting of other frames within that, works well, but necessitates some changes in emphasis that I think, on balance, makes the film’s portrayal of magic less sophisticated than the novel’s. Some elements that are quite obvious from early on in the book are obscured in the film. Arguably, Nolan actually does a better job than Priest of handling the inevitability of the prestige, the fact that you know you’re going to be tricked — in fact, you know what the trick is going to be: the girl is going to get out of the locked box — and remain impressed when it happens anyway. But the way he does so is somewhat at the expense of the analysis and critique of storytelling that I liked in the book. And not everyone gets it. Here’s Peter Bradshaw, for instance, missing the point entirely:

“Prestige”, a magicians’ technical term invented by author Christopher Priest for his original 1995 novel, means the crowning moment of a trick. It’s the gasp-inducing climactic flourish, the moment whose devastating impact has to be guarded as closely as possible before detonation. So it is odd that the prestige of this film, the trick ending, is gradually given away over the final 40 or so minutes in a series of extended takes and giveaway closeups. Why? Because the director figured we were going to guess anyway?

If you’ve already read the book and seen the film, see Gary Westfahl’s review at Locus Online for a more thorough and interesting take.

Jack Williamson, 1908 – 2006

I just received an email informing me (and a lot of other people) that Jack Williamson has died. I don’t know if the message from Betty Williamson in the email is for general forwarding, so I won’t put the full text up here, but apparently he was in his study, surrounded by people who loved him. There will be a memorial service, possibly next week.

Jack Williamson sold his first story in 1928, at the age of 20. He was the last living writer who had been writing science fiction since before science fiction existed as a genre. Here‘s an essay by John Clute:

The personal miracle of Jack Williamson’s career is that he wrote himself out of the belatedness that governed the genre when he began; and that for several decades after 1940 his creative mind paced the train. He rode a long ways up the line, which is a very high score for a man. Until he got to here. Where he finds readers half his age — readers a quarter his age — who long to reinhabit the very worlds he climbed out of, the vacuum tubes of Eden, a place to park our bindlestiffs around the campfire, and not miss the train at all.

EDIT: And here’s John Clute’s full obituary, in The Independent.

Now All Tiptree Until The End (Last updated 18/12/06)

Origin Story




Like the slipstream links post, this is deliberately a work-in-progress; suggestions for further additions are welcomed.

The Color of Neanderthal Eyes

Everyone knows what they say about the work of James Tiptree, Jr: that the longer his stories, and the later written, the weaker. So that is what was in my mind when I started reading Tiptree’s penultimate story, “The Color of Neanderthal Eyes” (written 1986, published in the May 1988 F&SF; page numbers here come from 2000’s this-and-that book Meet Me At Infinity). It was, they say, the revelation of his true identity that marked the change. After all, only a few stories written after made it into Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and though one of them (“Slow Music”) is a favourite of mine, another is perhaps the least satisfactory Tiptree I’ve read, being a story that does indeed seem to be weaker because it is longer. The pace of “With Delicate Mad Hands” is uneven, sagging in the middle, and the content seems stretched thin over the page count. They say that Tiptree’s stories are intense, but “With Delicate Mad Hands” is not.

And neither, by and large, is “The Color of Neanderthal Eyes”, although it is much more evenly constructed. It starts as, more or less, an idyll. A telepath by the name of Tom Jared, whose job is (for obvious reasons) alien contact missions, is enjoying (for obvious reasons) the solitude of shore leave on a nearly empty waterworld called Wet. He encounters one of Wet’s inhabitants, Kamir, who seems entirely too good to be true: a natural telepath, friendly, childlike in her innocence, and beautiful. As in “And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”, Tiptree’s evocation of alien beauty is skillful; there is no doubt that Kamir, with her green skin and flat, non-mammalian body, is alien, but there is no doubt either that Tom is entranced by her. And so they end up on an island together, in a storm, and Tom breaks Rule One of alien contact: “There is a feeling of clasping. […] It isn’t Human, but exciting beyond words, and finally, somehow, fulfilling” (116).

But although the story is told with present-tense uncertainty, we know that something has gone wrong. A note at the start warns us that “It’s my fault, all of it and Kamir is dead. […] I am too torn up and tired to make a formal report. I am simply talking out what happened so you will see that something must be done” (112). And though Tom and Kamir spend some happy days together, travelling between various islands — indeed, Tom tells us they are the happiest days of his life — before too long Tiptree starts unweaving her paradise. The first shadow to fall over the map is Kamir’s prediction for the future: “When you love, you die,” she says. “The woman dies. The man lives, to feed the babies” (129). (Because this is a Tiptree story, we take her entirely literally.) The second shadow is Tom’s growing suspicion that Kamir has, in fact, miraculously, become pregnant: and that he has therefore caused her death. The third — after Kamir’s brother catches up with the couple, and leads them back to their peoples’ nearest camp — is the revelation that there is another people on Wet, golden-skinned, who have attacked others of Kamir’s kind. “A dreadful parallel” comes into Tom’s mind. Thanks to the story’s title, we already know what it is, and we watch as Tom resolves first to explain the situation to the Mnerrin (they are a people with no word for “peace”, because they do not know war), and then to help them.

“The point is this. You and your people are very different from the great majority of races. In my life of traveling and learning of travels, I have never encountered a race who so hated killing. You have not even the words for what is the daily occupation of many peoples — war, aggression, fighting, invasion, attack. Here, let me show you.” And I send out horrible images, to him and the other men who were leaning to hear. I saw their faces change. (143)

This is all, more or less, Tiptree stuff. But it’s true that there is something different about it, and I think it’s in the languid landscape of Wet. With the possible exception of “Slow Music”, I don’t think any of the stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever take place in such a peaceful environment; Wet seems independent from the convulsions of the story taking place on its surface in a way that Earth (or what we see of it) is explicitly not in stories like “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” and “On The Last Afternoon”. Or to put it another way, Tiptree’s earlier stories feel more intense because either everything hangs in the balance, or the things that hang in the balance are made to feel as big as the world. “The Color of Neanderthal Eyes” steps back a little. It has, perhaps, more room for detail — and for tenderness. You suspect that the early Tiptree would have spent much less time establishing Tom and Kamir’s contentment. According to the endnotes in Meet Me At Infinity there is actually an earlier draft which is somewhat compressed along these lines.

Which is not to say that the story as it currently exists is bad. The ending, which makes the Neanderthal comparison explicit, is massively unnecessary (like the awkward final sentence of “The Screwfly Solution” to the nth degree), but the journey is memorable. Tom succeeds in arming and leading the Mnerrin; and if Tom never quite seems to feel the qualms about involving himself in the struggles of aliens that we are told (and feel) he ought to, the unease that comes from watching his deliberate removal of the Mnerrin’s innocence is some compensation. Most striking of all is the scene where Kamir gives birth, in which the full alienness of Mnerrin physiology is revealed:

Kamir puts her hands with mine up on her great belly. It is hot, hot. Then she pushes at it again.

Suddenly, with a dreadful caving-in feeling, her whole belly, containing the fetuses, starts to separate from the rest of her body! It tips forward, away from her, as the scarlike “lips” open. Agna is furiously working at this line, pushing his hands under her. She whimpers again. I see that the lips are actually a deep separation line, circling her whole belly, from ribs to pelvis. Oh gods, what is happening here?


But I have a horrifying look at the shell of her body left after the fetal mass tore loose. From diaphragm to hips it is empty, covered by a rapidly thickening gel membrane. Through it I can see, under her ribs, a dark mass pulsing: her heart. Below that, by her spine, I can see the great cords of nerve and blood vessel running along her backbone, inside her empty flanks, to her hips and pelvis. Nothing more. (166)

It is, to put it mildly, a contrast to the initial romanticised descriptions of Kamir. It’s not really surprising that the one mention of “The Color of Neanderthal Eyes” in Julie Phillips’ biography highlights this scene, putting it in a context of Alice Sheldon’s ongoing engagement with the concept of motherhood: “In it a mother dies happily in childbirth, knowing that her children will go on. This time Alli seemed almost wiling to accept instinct as an explanation” (390). And perhaps the scene is, in fact, the scene my hypothetical early Tiptree would have structured the story around, because it seems to me the sort of unflinching image we associate with Tiptree. But in the story as written it’s part of a larger whole, a more general exploration of the limits of biology, the in-built frameworks of weakness and strength that shape a culture.

“The Color of Neanderthal Eyes” isn’t unique in the way that early Tiptree is, there isn’t the sense that only Tiptree could have written it — but it is a good story, and makes me interested in seeking out that final collection, Crown of Stars. The value of the story, I think, is in that step back, in the way it portrays a broader situation. It ends with death, but not with the death of hope. One of the Mnerrin puts it best, as Tom is preparing to leave, to return to the Federation and petition for the people he has fallen in love with to be saved from their attackers. “It has been for you a happy time, out of your real life, which we cannot imagine,” he says. “But for us this is real life, with all its good and evil.”

Vector History

A brief word of explanation for those of you who (inexplicably) may not have given much thought to the history of the BSFA: Vector has been around for a while. Way back in the 1960s, when issue numbers were only two digits and the magazine was being edited by Rog Peyton, a series of fanzine review and fannish commentary columns started to appear under the title “Behind The Scenes”, as by Malcolm Edwards. This was a pseudonym for Pete Weston (whose With Stars in my Eyes was a Best Related Book Hugo nominee last year), and caused some confusion when a real Malcolm Edwards entered fandom a few years later.

Greg Pickersgill has now put the columns online, with his own covering note:

It was forty years ago —

My copy of the British SF Association’s magazine, VECTOR, issue 43, dated March 1967, was a really big thing for me. I’d been aware of sf fandom for while, my curiosity and interest aroused and increased by various mentions in the back-issue magazines I enthusiastically collected, and in Kingsley Amis’ NEW MAPS OF HELL and Damon Knight’s IN SEARCH OF WONDER, books I read and re-read with endless fascination. Then there was the column ‘Our Man In Fandom’, by Lin Carter, which appeared in the then-current British reprints of WORLDS OF IF, and then, incredibly, in one of the last of the hard-to-get Compact issues of NEW WORLDS, a small-ad for the BSFA itself. Dazzlement! Enchantment! I joined instantly.

Even the rather rudimentary nature — poorly duplicated, folded foolscap paper — of the magazine that eventually arrived (after a worrying delay, the BSFA being in one its occasional disorganised phases) was no deterrent to my growing enthusiasm. Unlike so many sf readers who seem to be unaccountably frightened by the unfamiliar I was deeply attracted to the new world of sf fandom with its sometimes unusual terminology, and even the sense that everyone knew everyone except me was no real barrier. Of course as the only sf reader in school — as I was at that time — I was used to being the outsider, no question.

I read that issue of VECTOR so many times I’m surprised the pages didn’t drop to shreds from the endless eyetracks; all of it was new and absorbing, but the prime delight was the BEHIND THE SCENES column by one Malcolm Edwards. This character wrote fluently and knowledgeably about fandom, fans and fanzines and sounded like the right sort of person, absolutely. If only I knew someone like that, I thought. But there were no fans within at least a hundred miles of where I lived at the time, so maybe I’d better get a burst on and get into this fanzine thing, learn the language, find out who’s who about town. And I did. Not without incident, including a letter to the BSFA complaining about how all those Big Name Fans just wouldn’t get off their high horses once in a while to help the poor struggling neophyte. Well, I was sixteen, and much more stupid then.

Fandom before the internet, eh?


Blindsight and Hard SF

So for a nontrivial chunk of the past 48 hours, I have been trying to write something coherent about Peter Watts’ latest novel, Blindsight. It’s a very good book, and there’s an interesting discussion of its central thesis here — though if you want to pick up a copy it’d probably be best to act sooner rather than later, since Blindsight‘s publication seems to be attended by the sort of fiasco that afflicted the first edition of The Separation. Writing about it is proving difficult, though, and that’s partly because it’s hard to summarise (as a review inevitably must) without compromising the intelligence and rigour of Watts’ story, and partly because one of the things I want to talk about, at least in passing, is what it means to say the book is “hard sf” — which it clearly is — and why the hardness of the sf is part of the reason the book succeeds. And I can’t quite find a way to say it.

So here, for your consideration, are some extracts of other peoples’ opinions about hard sf. We start with Peter Nicholls, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993):

Item of sf terminology used by sf FANDOM and readers; it has sometimes overlapped in meaning with “hardcore sf”, often used in the 1960s and 1970s to mean the kind of sf that repeats the themes and (to a degree) the style of the GENRE SF written during the so-called GOLDEN AGE OF SF. Though still sometimes used in a way that implies the element of nostalgia associated with “hardcore sf”, the term “hard sf” now seems to refer to something rather simpler, as summarized by Allen STEELE (in “Hard Again” in NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION, June 1992): “Hard sf is the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone.” Steele goes on to regret the association in many readers’ minds of hard sf with “a particular political territory — usually located somewhere on the far right”, an association which, while certainly sometimes justifiable, has cultural origins that cannot easily be elucidated.

The thing to say here is that from a cold start I would have said that hard sf is one of the least political of sf’s subgenres, and certainly not predisposed to right-wing ideology; the prototypical hard sf writers in my mind, as a reader who came to sf in the UK in the 1990s, are Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy sitting as the prototypical example of political hard sf. Anyway, Nicholls continues:

The commonly used distinction between hard and SOFT SCIENCES runs parallel to that between hard and SOFT SF. […] But it is possible to write a kind of hard sf about almost anything, as can be exemplified by Brian M. STABLEFORD’s rationalizing treatment of vampires in The Empire of Fear (1988). Hard sf should not, however, wilfully ignore or break known scientific principles […] While a rigorous definition of “hard sf” may be impossible, perhaps the most important thing about it is, not that it should include real science in any great detail, but that it should respect the scientific spirit; it should seek to provide natural rather than supernatural or transcendental explanations for the events and phenomena it describes.

I basically agree with this. I have no idea whether, say, Ted Chiang considers his work to be hard sf, but I usually think of most of it as such, because even though the central ideas are often fantastical, the rigor with which their consequences are extrapolated seems characteristic of hard sf to me. But it’s not something that tells me much about the value of hard sf as a literary form; the reasons it’s written, the reasons it works.

(As an aside, vampires do seem to come in for the hard-sf treatment rather a lot; Blindsight also features them, and off the top of my head there’s also Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps (I gather, though I haven’t read it), and Joe Ahearne’s 1990s tv series Ultraviolet, somewhat.)

Onward, then, to a datapoint from Gary K. Wolfe’s review of The Ascent of Wonder (ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, 1994):

The debate over what is and isn’t hard sf probably dates back at least to Jules Verne’s famous put-down of H.G. Wells (“he invents”), but in recent years — with sf seeming to drift all over the literary map — it’s become the focus for arguments over the nature of sf in general. Neither the 1983 Eaton conference on hard sf (and the 1986 critical book derived from it) nor the special hard-sf issue of Science Fiction Studies in 1993 seemed able to arrive at any sort of consensus definition, and yet most science fiction readers would still argue that they know hard sf when they see it.

I include this mostly because it led me to the mentioned issue of SFS. The only substantive part of that online is the introduction, by David N. Samuelson, which says some things that I think have the ring of truth about them:

Barely recognizing the existence of hard SF, however, let alone its generating power, scholars and critics largely fail to deal with either the science or the rhetoric. Relatively ignorant of science, most of us are uncomfortable with it. Those who study SF prefer to deal with Delany and Dick, Le Guin and Lem, whose fictions are more congenial to literary concerns with subtle and plurisignifying characterization, structure, and style. It is perhaps no coincidence that literary critics, as specialists under fire both from outside and inside their own discipline, also favor SF which at least implies the decline of Western civilization. While I share many of their interests, I see attempts to restrict SF to these unrepresentative examples as reductionist and short-sighted.

Picking the flowers that smell sweetest inevitably severs them from their roots, ignoring not only the soil but also the fertilizers that enabled them to grow and blossom. Hard SF does not lack semiotic interest, but its codes and conventions differ from those most of us as critics are trained to understand and appreciate. Style tends to be more direct and limited in signification, characterization more deterministic, standards of judgment for behavior more relativistic.

This, of course, starts to take us in the direction of an “sf exceptionalism” argument: sf that isn’t doing what regular fiction does, and that should therefore not be judged (at least, not be judged entirely) by the same standards. To borrow an image from Blindsight, whenever this comes up I feel like a vampire looking at a Necker cube, in that I think I can see both sides of the argument at once. It seems utterly foolish not to recognise that a story like Baxter’s Ring is addressing concerns that can’t be wholly grasped with what we might call “standard” literary approaches; but at the same time, I’m quite comfortable with the idea that a book like Gwyneth Jones’ Life will acquit itself well whatever yardsticks you measure it by.

I don’t have a copy of The Ascent of Wonder, but I do have a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, 2003), which includes an essay by Kathryn Cramer which quotes (presumably accurately) Hartwell’s criteria for recognising hard sf:

(1) Hard sf is about the beauty of truth … about the emotional experience of describing and confronting what is scientifically true. (2) Hard sf feels authentic to the experienced reader when the way things work in the story is scientifically plausible. (3) Hard sf relies, at some point in the story, on expository prose rather than literary prose, prose aimed at describing the nature of its particular reality. (4) Hard sf relies on scientific knowledge external to the story. (5) Hard sf achieves its characteristic affect essentially through informing, by being, in fact, didactic. (188)

This is starting to home in on the question of how hard sf actually works, although it’s worth noting that it only does so when you take all the criteria in combination; quite a large set of non-sf novels could be said to be “about the emotional experience of describing and confronting what is scientifically true”, for instance. Cramer also takes a historical perspective, and again talks about the intersection of politics and hard sf; I rather resented statements such as “And the hard sf attitude can be stripped of its scientific underpinnings until what remains is fetisihism — a love of hardware for its own sake — and the hard-nosed Ayn Rand voice that we now identify as libertarian,” although she does also cite David Pringle and Colin Greenland’s 1984 call for “radical hard sf”. I’m not saying that science isn’t a political enterprise, but I can’t see a useful description of hard sf that includes any particular political perspective; it’s surely an add-on.

Onwards! Hartwell and Cramer followed up The Ascent of Wonder with the 2002 anthology The Hard SF Renaissance, reviewing which John Clute commented on the alienating effect of the subgenre, harking back somewhat to the SFS introduction above:

There does seem to be something about problem tales that whiffs of favoritism. A hard-SF story tends to be constructed as a test of its protagonist’s ability to solve some life-threatening problem in a physical environment that has been constructed to offer a solution. To survive such a story is to win. So given the fact that hard-SF writers tend to create really smart characters they agree with and congratulate, the stories they write, these tales whose heroes are winners, tend to read as being boastful. It is a kind of cronyism. It is what makes the beauties and ardors of the best hard SF so difficult for “outsiders” to appreciate, because outsiders (I include myself) tend to feel — perhaps when they do not understand the physics of a hard-SF story, or when they sense that the author has skewed his universe to generate an outcome possible only in a universe so skewed — that they have been failed by the tale, that they have been Disappeared from the author’s world.

Compare this to Hartwell’s criterion 4 above — “Hard sf relies on scientific knowledge external to the story”. Well: to a greater or lesser extent, a lot of it does. Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure it is; to be blunt, the sort of scientific knowledge assumed is usually the sort of thing I would expect most vaguely intelligent adult readers to be familiar with, and if they aren’t I’m not sure it’s the fault of the story. (Which is not to say, of course, that there isn’t hard sf that explains itself badly or insufficiently; but I don’t think it’s so common as to account for the “outsider” position. But then, I’m an insider, so I would say that.) And again, to a certain extent I’m left with the sense that everyone else has read a different body of hard sf than I have; it’s not clear to me, for instance, in what sense most Stephen Baxter or Greg Egan protagonists “win”, since I tend to think of hard sf stories as being about seeking-after-knowledge rather than surviving, and quite often the former trumps the latter.

But from later in the review, this I agree with wholeheartedly:

It is almost an Emperor’s Clothes sort of thing: It is as though everybody in the field pretends not to notice how really depressed most hard SF is, how seriously lacking in affect are most of its protagonists, how lassitudinous are the worlds these protagonists inhabit and transform. Almost every single inhabitant of the modern American hard-SF story seems to be suffering from gray-out, from a subacute depressive condition escapable only through occasional spasms of problem-solving.

If only because it’s one of the things Blindsight addresses most thoroughly. Somewhere in its characters’ ancestral lineage there are Shapers and Mechanists — or Forged; I was reminded quite strongly of the Voyager Lonestar Isol from Justina Robson’s Natural History, whose mind is adapted for deep-space travel in ways that make her, in our terms, insane. The logic is the same in both books, which is that, in terms of what we know about space, and what we know about humans, space does not make a good or natural venue for human stories; and since space ain’t gonna change, we have to.

Lastly, we come to James Gunn on “The Readers of Science Fiction” (from Speculations on Speculation, 2005), who says some things I agree with absolutely:

The insistence that emotion derives from the intellectual in science fiction often confuses the discussion, as if the heart and the mind actually were the location of the humours attributed to them rather than part of a gestalt. An emotional response often is irrational, but a rational response is not always dispassionate. As an example we need only think of Archimedes shouting, “Eureka!” and leaping from his bath to streak the streets of Syracuse. (82)

Although he is also far more bullish about the question of reader-response than I could be:

“The Cold Equations” could have been told only as science fiction, not because the point of the story is science fiction but because every other situation retains an element of hope for rescue. In a contemporary lifeboat story or a story about wagon trains crossing the plains, the sacrifice of an innocent stowaway to save the lives of the remainder brings up images of the Donner party: the point of those stories would be the survivors’ lack of faith and their love of life above honor. Science fiction gave Godwin an unparalleled opportunity to purify the situation in such a way that there was no hope left for last-minute salvation, no possible sight of land or rescue ship, no company of soldiers to ride over the hill. The girl is to blame for her own predicament, her innocence is irrelevant, the universe doesn’t care about her motives, and the others would be as guilty as she if they compounded her fatal mistake by dying with her. The reader who does not understand this has not read the story correctly. The intellectual perception that the girl must die produces the emotional response the reader gets from the story. Perhaps the point of the story is science-fictional after all; where else would such a point be made; by what other audience would it be understood? And considered satisfying? (83-4)

Where does this leave me with Blindsight? Well, I’m still not sure, which is one reason I’ve been writing this post rather than my review. I think part of it is exactly that it doesn’t have the sense of being rigged that Clute talks about above. It has the sense of starting from a set of axioms and inexorably plotting out the consequences; the remorselessness of the possible (hey, I like that) — which I guess takes me back to the adherence to “scientific spirit” that Nicholls describes, or, to frame it in other terms, Blindsight is a book that admits fewer of the conveniences of stories. I don’t know whether I could describe it as “honest”, but it is resolutely not consolatory; and that’s always a powerful thing to read.

One More Quote

Saxon Bullock on Torchwood, Russell T. Davies and sf:

It may say science fiction on the tin, but Torchwood so far has only been as much sci-fi as the new relaunch of Doctor Who has been — i.e., not very much. RTD may love the paraphenalia of sci-fi, but he’s got absolutely no interest in it as a mode of storytelling, and most of the sci-fi devices in Torchwood could be shifted into the realm of ‘magic’ with very little effort. More than anything else, this mode of storytelling is all about avoiding the kind of dislocation that’s at the heart of normal sci-fi — instead, it’s all about emotionalism, wish-fulfilment, and confronting the issue-of-the-week. This has manifested itself in a number of dodgy ways (the supposedly hilarious sequence where the character Owen uses an alien spray that essentially magnifies the ‘Lynx Effect’ up to levels where the phrase ‘date rape’ wouldn’t be completely inappropriate), but it’s also showing up that, at heart, there’s not very much so far that seperates out Torchwood from its influences. With Doctor Who, RTD was performing a relaunch — and as a result he had a history he could play with, things he could react against, and a whole public perception that he could manipulate to his own ends. Now, whether or not I agree with what he did, I think the main trouble with Torchwood is that he’s starting from scratch, and his magpie habits are showing through too strongly.