A Mixed Bag

Since Vector 251 has started arriving (and as Peter notes, confirmations that it’s arrived are appreciated), here’s the table of contents. No colour cover this time, but there is a spiffy design by Gabe Chouinard:

Torque Control — editorial
Fantastic Cities — a discussion between Michael Swanwick, Jeffrey Ford, Ian R. Macleod and Claire Weaver
To Travel Hopefully — Stephen Baxter on the novels of Nevil Shute
The Human as Alien — Ken MacLeod’s Guest of Honour talk from last year’s Novacon
Leibniz’s Fix-Ups — Adam Roberts on Stephen Baxter and the nature of sf
Skin Deep Fiction — James Bacon interviews Anton Marks
“… a million Clutes screaming ‘Haecceity!’…” — discussion about the BSFA non-fiction Award
Archipelago: Long Live The UK SF Scene — by Niall Harrison
The New X: The Dark Side of the Boom — by Graham Sleight

You may notice the absence of reviews from this issue: that’s because the schedule has slipped slightly, and we’re trying to play catch-up. Issue 252 will have reviews as normal (and possibly even Particles).

In the meantime, I’m hoping this issue will generate some comment — in particular on the non-fiction Award. The discussion in this issue is an edited-down version of the comments here and here, which covered a lot of useful ground, but it would be great to have opinions from as wide a range of people as possible. So, you know what to do.

Of course, there are also new issues of Matrix and Focus, both of which look particularly fine this time around (I haven’t read them cover-to-cover yet); congratulations in particular to Martin McGrath on his first issue as editor of Focus.

13 thoughts on “A Mixed Bag

  1. The article by Christopher Priest in Focus is very interesting, and recommended reading for critics as well as aspiring writers, I’d venture.

  2. Thanks Niall. Hopefully I can build from the first issue and take Focus in the direction I have in my head.

    Tony – couldn’t agree more on the Christopher Priest article – I was delighted when in dropped in my in-box.

    I wonder whether Jetse de Vries request/demand for a more positive take on the future from writers (and interestingly, Niall, aimed at people reading a *British* SF Association magazine) might encourage more upbeat work.

    It will be interesting to see how writers respond and how much influence an editor can actually have over the “zeitgeist” (for wont of a less pretentious/german word).

  3. re: Jetse’s request for less fearful futures; I can’t help but feel that people write negative futures as a reflection of the future we see ourselves potentially headed for – in other words, that Zeitgeist Martin mentions is more than just a function of conscious aesthetic choice. While I can see Jetse’s point (and indeed sympathise with it to some extent), I feel it conflicts a bit with his oft-stated and very important ‘write the story you *have* to write’ advice. But then I don’t have to wade through electronic mountains of slush, so I’m arguing from a point of considerably less authority here! Maybe a good compromise would be writing dark futures to which the characters are taking a positive approach?

  4. Out of interest, of the books on the BSFA shortlist and Clarke shortlist — and the stories on the BSFA short fiction list — that are obviously set in the future, which would people describe as optimistic or pessimistic? (For convenience, that’s End of the World Blues, Nova Swing, Icarus, Darkland, Gradisil, “The Djinn’s Wife”, “The Highway Men”, “The House Beyond Your Sky”, “Signal to Noise” and “Sounding”.)

  5. In one sense all the novels are marginally optimistic in that they all assume we’ll survive the next century or so, that we’ll continue to advance technologically and that we won’t totally destroy ourselves. Given that I’m just reading McCarthy’s The Road – that seems like a pretty good starting point.

    In another sense there’s pessimism in all of them. Icarus and Gradisil are both immensely pessimistic about politics, politicians and the mass of the publics willingness to be taken in by (what the books present as) a bunch of shysters, hucksters and out and out liars. Both books also present a world that advances technologically but regresses culturally and politically. Robert’s (or his narrator’s – I couldn’t quite decide which) crude post-survivalist libertarianism is a recipe (despite all his twists and turns in his attempt to create “community”) for atomism and the devil take the hindmost. Levy seems to believe that democracy is fundamentally incapable of coping with the complexities of the world and, in the end, it must act as simply a stalking horse for manipulations of the powerful.

    Nova Swing is, I think, pessimistic on a more personal scale. This is a book full of characters trapped into repeating patterns of behaviour, incapable of breaking free of their past, entranced by various ghosts mirages who lead them down the path to destruction. Not even a technological cornucopia and a galactic anomaly of unsurpassed oddness can persuade these people to look up from their fractal existence.

    I haven’t finished either Darkland or End of the World Blues so I don’t want to comment on them yet.

  6. Paul–

    Writing is often a conflicting business. Yes, on the one hand writers — especially beginning ones — should write what they *need to* write. On the other hand, writers cannot resist a challenge.

    So, sometimes, a machiavellian editor provides a writer with the theme they *have to* write about. Also, writers do get inspiration from themes, and while themed anthos (or magazine issues) can be a mixed bag, they can also work, like e.g. All Star Zeppelin Stories or Twenty Epics (and I’ll be getting a copy of Glorifying Terrorism at EasterCon, and am looking forward to the VanderMeer edited pirate antho).

    As to pessimism: I don’t follow novels so closely, mainly due to limited reading time. But in the short story department the overmost majority being published both in magazines (Asimov’s, F&SF, and yeah we at Interzone publish a lot of dark, pessimistic stories, as well) and anthologies (Fast Forward, Solaris Book of new SF for example) are mostly downbeat, as well. It’s also the default mode on the slushpile.

    On top of that (and I suspect it’s one of the causes), it’s *easier* to write convicingly about a future gone down the drains (see the Dozois quote in my column in Focus). It’s immensely more difficult to write convincingly about a future that turns out for the better. This is, I suspect, a reason why a lot of writers don’t bother to try, and a reason for my call to arms: yes, it’s much harder, but don’t you writers like a challenge? So get to it.

    Also, Martin, I think the stereotype that British writers tend do be downbeat, and the Americans upbeat is not true, and has not been true for the past 5 or 10 years. My feeling is that, on average, Americans have been writing more downbeat SF than the Brits.

  7. Also, Martin, I think the stereotype that British writers tend do be downbeat, and the Americans upbeat is not true

    I could be wrong, but I think Martin was referring to my article in Vector rather than this stereotype … [g]

  8. I’m not sure what I was referring to. I think there’s a tradition of American sf being more upbeat than that from the rest of the world – but like most stereotypes it is crude. James White must be close to being the genre’s most positive writer and he was from this side of the Atlantic while British authors like Alistair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, Charles Stross and Ken MacLeod are writing big sf that’s, at its core, fundametally optimitic about man’s capacity to advance, learn and progress.

    Jetse’s piece, meanwhile, seems to have been first motivated by reading stories by Baciagalupi (sp?), an American.

    At the same time I think writers like Clarke and Baxter and others have a sensibility – man’s smallness in the face of the vast forces of the universe – that Americans (and some Brits) will have regarded as quite bleak.

    And there is a tradition of miserabilist sf in the UK. The old Interzone went through a phase of printing a lot of “council estate sf”, where miserable things were done to miserable people in miserable places – sort of the short story equivalent of a British movie. Mike Leigh’s helpless, slightly feckless, hopeless working class, but, y’know, in the future.

    Some of these stories were better than others, but none of them could have been called optimistic.

    I ended up agreeing with rather more of Niall’s argument in Vector than I expected to – though I thought he was a little uncompromising on the guy’s at Hub who are only starting out on their first magazine and who are going to take a while to find their feet. While I like both Postscripts and the new Interzone better than Niall does I can see the points he’s making, but I’d have been considerably harsher on Farthing – which just isn’t doing it for me at all despite promising early issues.

    That said I disagree with his assertion that American magazines are, on the whole, better than the UK magazines. The US mags may publish a small number of outstanding stories each year, but I don’t think the quality of the majority of stories is that different.

  9. Martin,
    I hope and trust that the post-survivalist libertarianism that you speak of in Gradisil is the narrator’s not Adam’s. I’m not sure I know anyone who is less of a post-survivalist libertarian than Adam. But this is possibly beside the point if the author is indeed dead (and therefore not even a survivor let a lone a survivalist ho ho). And there’s only one person deader than the author and that’s his editor. So I’ll shut up.

    As for the miserabilism of British SF it could well be a class thing – there’s none more miserablist than the British middle classes, but I also go along with whoever it was (Ian McDonald?) who said that British SF is gloomy because unlike our American counterparts we’ve had plenty of time to get used to the idea that the future doesn’t belong to us any more.

  10. There is a lot of SF that is considered pessimistic that really isn’t when you look beneath the surface. I used to say that where US SF was about saving the world UK SF was about saving a small corner of it. That’s was necessarily glib to make a point but lately I think it has a new relevance. Forget the US/UK thing, but consider this: there are a lot of writers out there describing futures where all sorts of things have gone wrong, Gwyneth Jones and Kim Stanley Robinson being two big name examples, but both of them, and many more like them are writing about individuals who keep fighting, who keep trying to muddle through, who keep some kind of hope kindled. I don’t know how KSR is going to tie off Sixty Days & Counting yet, but from his past works and things he has said I know that what matters to him is that he can demonstrate that people don’t have to give up, can keep working for a better future no matter how bad it seems.
    Another strongly politicised author Richard Paul Russo does the same in his Carlucci stories, where San Francisco is a mess, a post-cyberpunk maze of drugs and crime but as one character says ‘Its a fucked up world, but its our world to do something about’ or similar.
    I see parallels with this in another genre, in TV’s The Wire for example, where something that really comes to the fore is ordinary people dealing with the hand they get, some get a good hand and play badly, some a bad hand but break even, some we never find out about. But people have dreams, aspirations and some of them, hopefully enough of them, battle to acheive those dreams. And that is what I see in a fair amount of SF too.

  11. >>>>I could be wrong, but I think Martin was referring to my article in Vector rather than this stereotype … [g]

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