“Science fiction has never been more now”

Well, TV science fiction, that is. According to the Guardian, that is.

This is science fiction for the 21st century. What’s more, it’s sci-fi about the 21st century. Fans of the genre have long known that quality sci-fi and its sister genre fantasy hold up a mirror to the times in which they were created, but never before have the TV shows involved seemed so resonant or indeed so influential. Science fiction has never been more now, fantasy never more real.

Discuss. My thoughts:

1. I always considered the ’90s to be something of a golden age, personally — Babylon 5, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Deep Space Nine, Buffy, Angel, Farscape, plenty of others — and have felt we’ve been in the doldrums somewhat for the past five years.

2. Still, it’s true that Lost and Doctor Who have spawned a new wave of US and UK sf shows. Unfortunately, to date most of them have been rubbish. We’ll see if this autumn’s crop is any different.

3. I would object to the assertion that “the event that has made sci-fi and fantasy palatable, and indeed positively appealing, to a mainstream audience is 9/11”, except that I have this horrible feeling it’s a little bit true, at least for the types of sf the article focuses on.

4. The article concludes, “Why gaze at navels when you can gaze at the stars?” But is there really anything that goes after that sense of wonder? Doctor Who may aspire to it occasionally, but the current incarnation is primarily Earthbound. The end of time was notably uninspiring. Meanwhile, Battlestar Galactica is arguably a perfect example of a show set among the stars that chooses to gaze at its navel. The new shows seem to be following the same paths. There’s nothing as expansive as Farscape, or even the best of Trek.

5. And of course, as MKS points out, it is a discussion utterly divorced from written sf. But that’s pretty much par for the course.

6. That said, ITV is planning “Lost in Austen, in which a woman finds a gateway to the Regency era in her bathroom.” Cheap attempt at crossover cash-in, or inspired concept based on knowing full well that Jane Austen is incredibly popular among sf fans? You decide!

London Meeting: Brian Stableford

The guest at tonight’s BSFA meeting is author and critic Brian Stableford. He will be interviewed by Edward James.

As ever, the meeting is open to any and all, and will be held in the upstairs room of the Star Tavern in Belgravia (map here). The interview starts at 7.00, but there are likely to be people hanging around in the bar from 6.00 or so. I’ve been out of the country for the last two of these meetings, so I’m looking forward to this evening.

When does something become alternate history, again?

Via Bookslut, David Mitchell interviewed about his next novel. Note the disclaimer — “Such scrutiny freaks me out a little …. How the book ends up looking and how I might describe it now could be two very different beasties” — but it sounds promising. The short version is “Napoleonic-era saga set in Nagasaki.” The longer version:

I will say that my intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives. It’s the most demanding thing I’ve ever tried to do. The research is a trackless swamp, and the book wishes to be written in ways that historical novels are not usually written in. It feels as if I am having to invent its “cinematography” as I go along.


You can only lay claim to a deep knowledge of a culture if you study it, live in it, get to know some of its people and learn its language, and most of us are too busy to do this more than once or twice a lifetime. So these “oven-ready perspectives” are what we fall back on, and they are probably better than nothing, provided that we don’t forget that they only scratch the surface. We mustn’t tell ourselves, “OK, I’ve got Japanese/UK/Any country culture sussed: I can stop trying to understand it now.” Opinions based on the perspectives you mention should be pending and conditional, in pencil and not ink.

And intriguingly, on the interrelationship of fiction and history:

If the question is asking, “Does fiction influence the perception of history?” then my answer is “Yes, and then some.” The skeleton of my knowledge of Classical Rome comes from Robert Graves; Victorian London, from Dickens; of Taisho and Showa Japan, from Tanizaki and Mishima and Akutagawa. Is there anything wrong with this, as long as writers write with integrity and readers remember they are reading fiction? Historians, too, are in the subjective narrative business, albeit narratives that try to capture the facts and facts only, those slippery eels. Witness the never-ending school history textbook debate between Japan and its neighbors: What are the facts? It depends on the teller.

Partly because of this, I decided very early on that my new novel must be set in a nearby parallel universe — one where global history is the same as ours, but the local history of Nagasaki is one of my own invention. This gives me the license I need to create my own cast, plot and locations, and frees me from having to spend the next two or three years as a researcher of vanished minutiae.

Without wanting to read too much into his words, I do find it interesting that he describes it as a parallel universe. It seems to me to imply, particularly when coming from an author with Mitchell’s demonstrated familiarity with genre tropes, something a bit more than the historical novel’s usual flexibility with regard to dates and events. At the same time, though, to what degree do historical novels owe fidelity to their period? I admit that one of the things that bothered me about Half of a Yellow Sun was that Adichie freely admits changing around the order of events in the Nigeria-Biafra war to improve the story, which felt at odds with her desire to bear witness to that history. And how much can you change a local history before the gap left by ignoring the knock-on effects that will inevitably have on the rest of the world starts to become obvious? (Linking to recent discussions on instant fanzine is left as an exercise for the reader.)

The Sound of Drums

(Again, the Doctor Who episode.)

Three thoughts:

1. I still can’t decide how much I like John Simm’s Master. On the one hand, he’s often very funny (the double-thumbs up during the gassing, “Ooh, you public menace!”, “Oh all right — it’s me!”), on the other hand he’s utterly unthreatening. Someone, in a comment I now can’t place, said that they thought we were meant to view the Master’s insanity as on some level tragic. That makes a lot of sense, not least because in principle it makes the Doctor’s conviction that he’s going to save the Master, not kill him, more powerful. But as acted in the episode, there’s nobody there for the Doctor to save; Simm is just an evil cartoon. I think part of the problem is that Simm’s Master is so clearly Evil Tennant, with all the flightiness that implies; I think one character needed some weight to ground the serious exchanges the characters have, like that telephone call. (Can you imagine what Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi would have done with that exchange?)

2. I’m finding Doctor Who‘s treatment of its present-day timeline increasingly fascinating — specifically, the fact that it is now so radically different to our own timeline. It’s still set now, but it’s got alien invasions and giant flying airbases and all sorts, and the extravagance doesn’t quite seem to square with the show’s reticence to go to other planets. One of my favourite scenes from the new show’s run is the end of “The End of the World”, when the Doctor and Rose step from the death of the sun to the utter normality of a crowded London street. I don’t think that scene would work any more, because there is no normal for the show to return to. I mean, as of “The Sound of Drums”, Earth has just had a tenth of its population massacred, and unless “paradox machine” is code for “big reset button” (which I’m not ruling out; when Martha teleported at the end of the episode, I was actually surprised that she was still in the present, rather than having jumped back to a point at which she could change events), that’s got to have serious knock-on consequences for future episodes.

3. Last week I hazarded a guess that Martha was being set up to do something that would force the Doctor to notice her, setting up a more equal partnership for season 4. I still think that’s more-or-less where they’re going, although Martha has been forced into a situation where she has to act, rather than (as I would have preferred) seizing a moment. But now I’m wondering what the set-up for the Christmas special is going to be. The previous two specials have been transitional: the first dealt with the Doctor’s regeneration, the second with his post-Rose trauma. But we’re not expecting either Tennant or Agyeman to leave the series in the next episode, which suggests a more straightforward standalone episode. However: assuming they don’t do a big reset on the timeline, what if, given (a) the evident devastation on Earth and (b) Martha’s gradual facing-up to the fact that the Doctor has absolutely no interest in her — what if Martha decides to stay behind and help out, rather than continue travelling? Thus setting up a Christmas episode in which the Doctor, realising what he’s lost, has to win back her friendship? I think I’d like that.

Brave New Slipstream

I have recently been browsing my way through Brave New Words, Jeff Prucher’s dictionary of science fiction words. Rarely have I been a happier geek. There’s just something satisfying about reading through detailed citations for skimmer, skinsuit, slan, slash (although can the first usage of “slash” as a noun really be as late as 1984?), sleeper ship, slidewalk, slideway … and then coming to that most contentious of terms, slipstream.

slipstream n. [after MAINSTREAM] literature which makes use of the tropes or techniques of genre science fiction or fantasy, but which is not considered to be genre science fiction or fantasy; the genre of such literature. Hence slipstreamer, n., slipstreamish, adj., slipstreamy, adj.

1989 B. Sterling SF Eye (July) 78/2: We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books “slipstream.

1992 Locus (Aug.) 11/3: “In Concert” is a slipstream story about an amateur rock musician in Sevastapol trying to gain entry into the stadium.

1995 SFRA Rev. (May-June) 54: A slipstreamy science fiction story about a virus that causes a rather peculiar neurological dysfunction with satisfyingly serendipitous results.

1995 Interzone (61/2): Territories issue four is subtitled the sf and slipstream journal. In this context, the meaning of “slipstream” is refreshingly unpretentious, something along the lines of “non-SF things that are likely to interest SF readers.”

2002 Locus (Sept.) 15/1: The January issue of The Silver Web is their fifteenth, and editor Ann Kennedy chooses a decidedly slipstreamish mix.

2003 D.G. Hartwell & K. Cramer Intro. in Year’s Best Fantasy 3 xv: On noticeable trend evidence in some of these is toward non-genre, or genre-bending, or slipstream fantastic fiction.

2003 P. Di Filippo Asimov’s SF (Apr.) 132/1: The British fantasist Steve Erikson (not to be confused with US slipstreamer Steve Erickson) extends the vision of his fantasy land of Malazan.

2003 C. Priest Guardian (London) (Internet) (June 14): It includes rather than categorises — while not being magic realism, or fantasy, or science fiction, slipstream literature includes many examples of these.

See the definition change before your eyes! We’ll have to see if the panel at this year’s Readercon agrees …

(I wonder what the rationale is for giving the author for the cites from Asimov’s and The Guardian not not those from Locus or Interzone? Must have a poke around in the notes at the front to see if this is explained. Although I’m guessing the 2002 cite is Rich Horton.)

I’ve been looking forward to this

Abigail Nussbaum reviews the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist:

You can’t please everyone, especially when it comes to awards, but the Arthur C. Clarke award often seems to go out of its way not to please anyone. Precariously perched atop the genre divide, the award has enraged insiders, who view it as trying to curry favour with the mainstream establishment by nominating literary and unclassifiable fiction, and ruffled the feathers of outsiders, who accuse it of trying to appropriate the same fiction, thus gaining the genre some undeserved credibility. This year’s shortlist is a perfect demonstration of such schizophrenia. The novels on it range from the barely publishable to the sublime, with just about every flavor and possible definition of science fiction represented: thrillers (one successful, the other most decidedly not) with SF sprinkles; outsider SF with its trademark shoddy worldbuilding; literary fiction with a vague SFnal connection; commentary on the genre; even a genuine, honest-to-God technically oriented story set in the future.

On Streaking:

One almost suspects Stableford of making a direct appeal to his readers, desperately striving to justify this plodding, over-written, under-plotted, slow-paced, hilariously awful mess of a novel. Even if it weren’t a complete and utter fallacy to argue that, in fiction, what you have to say matters more than how you say it, the fact remains that Streaking has so very, very little to say.

On End of the World Blues:

End of the World Blues is an effective thriller, which means that the cliché works, and if it weren’t for the novel’s deeply disturbing treatment of its female characters I would have no hesitation in calling it an enjoyable read.

On Hav:

Morris’s Hav is nothing but an agglomeration of extraordinarily common attributes, given an imaginary name and location. Her sole act of creation in bringing Hav to life is the Cathar conspiracy, and by her own admission this element of the story is symbolic. More importantly, it is unsuccessful–if Hav were science fiction, we’d have to take Morris to task for shoddy worldbuilding.

On Gradisil:

What’s most remarkable about Gradisil is that, in spite of the bleakness of its message, it isn’t a depressing novel. It achieves this effect in much the same way that Deadwood does–by being entirely persuasive. In its best parts, Gradisil reads like a history of a future that hasn’t happened yet–depressing, because it confirms our worst suspicions about human nature, but true, and therefore compelling and impossible to ignore.

On Oh Pure and Radiant Heart:

In spite of this problematic ending, however, there is enough that’s remarkable about Oh Pure and Radiant Heart to mark it out as one of the finest, most intelligent and most beautifully written novels I’ve read this year, and while it probably doesn’t belong on the shortlist for a science fiction award, it is worthy of recognition and acclaim.

On Nova Swing:

In 2002, Harrison published Light (which was nominated for–and should have won–the 2003 Clarke award), a breathtaking space opera which ended on a curious and atypical note of hope and forgiveness. Nova Swing, a companion piece to Light which takes place in the same universe, might be seen as Harrison’s attempt to back away from this seeming change of heart, but its more quiet benevolence very nearly puts Light to shame, making it seem almost bombastic in comparison.

And on the subject of mashing …

Dan Green on the experience of reading Interfictions:

Reading the book as a collection of stories that are “willfully transgressive in a noncategorical way” did me no good at all. Notwithstanding that most of them were “transgressive,” when at all, in rather tepid and formally uninteresting ways, I simply was unable to understand what they shared in common that made them “interfictions.” The editors’ narrowing of focus to the contest between “realism” and genre fiction did allow me to reexamine the stories in this more concentrated light.
I am hard-pressed to understand how these characteristics of “interfiction” distinguish it from other, non-genre, “experimental” fiction that also “does interesting things with narrative and style” and “takes artistic chances.” Experimental fiction (which ultimately I would have to say is a part of “literary fiction,” representing its vanguard in exploring the edges of the literary) precisely “demands that you read it on its own terms” rather than according to pre-established conventions. If interfictions are just versions of experimental fiction, why coin this additional term to describe them? If there is some significant difference between interstitial and experimental fiction, something that has to do with genre, why not be more specific and delineate exactly what that is rather than fall back on the usual language about taking artistic chances, etc.?
Most of the rest are forgettable exercises conducted on what seem (to me) familiar science fiction/fantasy terrain. Some of them, such as Anna Tambour’s “The Shoe in SHOES’ Window” and Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Dirge for Prester John” are essentially unreadable, full of pretentious declamations substituting for narrative: “Truly, where chaos reigns, even at night, nonsense and evasion shine where people look for straightforwardness, but where they look for inspiration, something beyond the realm of daily existence, they are then shown only things, and who can feed his soul with that?” Too many of the stories, in fact, are like this, straining after Meaning where some “merely literary” formal and stylistic pleasures would go a long way toward deflating the pomposity.

EDIT: Oh, I can’t leave this post looking so straight-faced. The truth, though it’s both mean and childish of me, is that I find this review hilarious. Not because I think Dan’s being wrongheaded — I mean, I often do think Dan’s being wrongheaded, but I enjoy his posts and respect his thinking for all that, and in this case I haven’t read enough of the book to say whether I agree or disagree with his overall assessment of the anthology’s quality. (I’ve read about a third of the stories, and though none of them have blown me away, none of them have seemed a waste of space, either.) No, what I find entertaining is that the book has so comprehensively failed to explain itself, its argument and goals, to someone coming to it from outside genre circles. It’s all very well for those of us coming to it from the inside to instantly recognise that it’s of a piece with several other recent collections — Conjunctions 39, Feeling Very Strange, the Polyphony series, ParaSpheres, etc — but what Dan’s skewering makes so painfully clear is that that’s all it is: nice for us. Admittedly, most of the books I just listed had no other audience in mind, but a couple of them did, and Interfictions, it seems to me, had that audience in mind more than any of them. And it’s just left that audience baffled by the fuss, and I find that funny. (I may have been hanging out in these parts too long.)

Mashed Up

A question from the Millions:

How do readers evaluate a genre-straddling book by the standards of one genre without using the other as an alibi?

It’s posed as a response to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, where the adherence to conventions of detective fiction is said to “obscure the promise of a brilliant premise”. I haven’t yet read the novel, so I don’t know to what extent this is a fair characterisation, but I do know it’s not the way I would approach evaluating a genre-straddling novel.

I’m using “genre-straddling” to describe those books that obviously sit in multiple camps, such as the Chabon (alternative history + detective fiction + “lit fic”, the latter defined as ‘a label no more a guarantor (or compromiser) of literary value than is “Western,” or “Sci Fi.”‘), or The Time-Traveler’s Wife (romance + sf), or Nova Swing (noir + sf), or Never Let Me Go (lit fic + sf). I’m not thinking of books that occupy blurrier territor, borrowing more fluidly from different areas of the literary gene pool.

I know what is meant by using a genre as an alibi, I think. It’s the sort of conversation that happens when a book like Never Let Me Go gets shortlisted for a science fiction award. On the one hand, I can see a valid argument against Never Let Me Go because it doesn’t work as science fiction: it is not extrapolative, the world it builds is not internally coherent. On the other hand, I can see a valid argument defending Never Let Me Go on the grounds that that’s not what the book is trying to do; but a rejoinder could be that that’s using a lit-fic assessment as an alibi for sf failings, that if that’s not what the book is trying to do then sf was the wrong tool for the job. In contrast, you can look at The Time-Traveler’s Wife and say that the romance works, and that the sf works, and that the combination of them works — the story is a romance that is made possible by the sf.

My problem, I think, is that such assessments don’t tell me much about the overall merits of the two books. The genre elements in The Time-Traveler’s Wife may be well-used, but they’re in service to a flabby book that doesn’t always feel in control of the effects it’s generating. The sf in Never Let Me Go may be terrible, but the book is also an extraordinarily nuanced portrait of repression and denial. This is not to say we shouldn’t be talking about labels: labels are useful, they provide places to stand, angles of attack, ways in. But one way in is not necessarily more valid than any other.

And yet, at the same time, the sort of synthesis you get when different genre elements play off each other and work in both directions can be immensely satisfying. To return to Chabon, I’d be interested to know from those who’ve read it if the potential of the premise is in fact obscured, or whether maybe the forn in which the story is told (pulpy plotting tricks) is at fault rather than the generic conent. Because it seems to me that in principle “detective story + alternate history” is an interesting combination: it means both the reader and the protagonist are engaged in solving mysteries as they move through the book.

Notes from the AGM

  • I didn’t get a chance to link it before I went, but this was the programme of Saturday’s BSFA/SFF AGM event. You can also download the agenda and the minutes of last year’s meeting from here [word doc].
  • These are not official minutes, they’re just some notes I jotted down.
  • We have a temporary volunteer, but Vector still needs a permanent production editor, so please do get in touch if you’re interested.
  • There are a couple of other opportunities to get involved with the BSFA at the moment: we need an Awards Administrator and a Website Manager. These positions involve pretty much what you’d expect. Again, email if interested.
  • On the subject of the website, apparently 17% of membership renewals are now by PayPal. The feeling of the AGM was that (a) this is a good thing and (b) this is quite a high percentage. I’m in full agreement on (a), but I’m actually a bit surprsied it’s such a low percentage.
  • The BSFA had less expenses in 2006 than in 2005 (no major event), but it was overall a difficult year, from the mailing house we used to use to post the magazines going bust (with £350 we don’t seem to be able to reclaim) to Royal Mail losing a large chunk of one of the mailings at the end of the year (pursuit of compensation for that is still ongoing).
  • Planning is underway for events to mark the BSFA’s 50th anniversary in 2008, but further suggestions for things we could do are welcome.
  • I was on a panel about alternate history in the afternoon, along with Jon Courtenay Grimwood and last-minute conscript Francis Spufford (who seems to not have a website, although there’s a bio here), which riffed off the Adam Mars-Jones review of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I think it would have gone better if I’d done my brainstorming more than 24 hours in advance, and had time to assimilate all the points for discussion I’d come up with, so that I could feed them out in a measured fashion rather than galloping through them all in half an hour. But my co-panellists said lots of smart things, and several people said they enjoyed it, so it must have gone ok.
  • Went for a wander around central Sheffield after the AGM, and parts of it have been really quite nicely regenerated. Whoever planned the redevelopments likes their fountains, though. Some photos.