Empire of the Links


Today, the lion’s share of my eternal admiration for hard sf, at least the best stuff, at least in principle if not always in execution, goes to its sheer bloody-mindedness, the blatant glee with which it ignores more common modes of aesthetic enjoyment. In a hard sf story, truth really is beauty. Take this paragraph from Greg Egan’s “Glory” (to be found in the Strahan/Dozois New Space Opera):

The world the Noudah called home was the closest of the system’s five planets to their sun. The average temperature was one hundred and twenty degrees Celsius, but the high atmospheric pressure allowed liquid water to exist across the entire surface. The chemistry and dynamics of the planet’s crust had led to a relatively flat terrain, with a patchwork of dozens of disconnected seas but no globe-spanning ocean. From space, these seas appeared as silvery mirrors, bordered by a violet and brown tarnish of vegetation.

There is no poetry in this. With the possible exception of “tarnish”, every word of the paragraph is chosen purely for its ability to explain, to set out the particulars of this planet with as little distraction as possible. Yet the image conjured is wondrous, in a strict sense — it is remarkable; it is extraordinary. It is how the story’s protagonist, a mathematician who’s travelled across a reasonable chunk of interstellar distance, sees the universe. Later in the story, she supposes that an alien race’s drawings and poetry “no doubt had their virtues”, but they seem to her “bland and opaque”; it is a conspicuous refusal of that type of beauty, in favour of the symmetry and solidity of mathematical proof. Sure, you could dress up the facts, translate them into a different form, and sure that could be beautiful in its own way. But equally, in its own way, it’s already beautiful.

OK, I’m exaggerating. That paragraph isn’t what’s great about “Glory”, and neither, really, is what comes after, which is most of the story but which feels a little familiar. (The mathematician has the option of sending a final, wonderful proof, one that explains the significance of everything, to her people, and chooses not to, because seeking after knowledge is, in the end, what’s satisfying.) No, what’s great about “Glory” is the opening of the story, the four pages before that paragraph in which Egan’s dispassionate camera tracks the meticulous unwinding of what is effectively a galactic-scale Rube-Goldberg device. We start with two ingots floating in space, one of hydrogen and one of anti-hydrogen. They are forced together in such a way as to produce a needle of compressed matter and antimatter one micron wide, sculpted such that one trajectory is favoured for the annihilation debris. The needle accelerates to 98% of the speed of light and travels, in the few trillionths of a second of its subjective existence, across light years and into the heart of a star. There, the few million excess neutrons included in the original ingots set up specific shock waves in the star’s plasma, the initial pattern elaborating to create a molecular factory, the products of which are ejected from the star at a velocity just below that needed to escape from the star’s gravity well, on arcs that intersect with the gravity well of the system’s gas giant, which captures them and draws them down onto its third moon. Once landed the machines construct a receiver, just in time to collect a series of timed gamma ray pulses from the needle’s original destination, that contain the information needed to recreate the story’s protagonists in forms native to their new location. (Sympathetic viewpoint characters? Ha! Who needs ’em?)

Two mathematicians arrive, and go about their separate missions:

Anne’s ship ascended so high on its chemical thrusters that it shrank to a speck before igniting its fusion engine and streaking away in a blaze of light. Joan felt a pang of loneliness; there was no predicting when they would be reunited.

Having read through four pages that depict a process that is precisely, spectacularly, absurdly, predictable — more detailed and convincing than my synopsis above — you can understand why Joan might be a little nervous. I almost wish those four pages could be carved off and anthologised in their own right; because their glory, I think, is that just for a minute they make you see the universe through Joan’s eyes.

10 Notes From An Evening With William Gibson

[I’m not going to do a more formal writeup of the event because a video of the whole thing should be going up on the SciFiLondon website in the next week or so.]

1. Audience demographics were pretty much as you’d expect: mostly male, mostly white, and mostly fond of black t-shirts.

2. John Sutherland was not a terribly good interviewer. His questions where peppered with obsequious cliches along the lines of, “I think your books teach us new ways of reading” and “the technologies you include are really about new ways of being human”. My favourite, however, was when Gibson mentioned that he’d revised the paperback of Pattern Recognition to incorporate technical and other fixes pointed out by eagle-eyed readers, and Sutherland opined that this sort of obsessive nitpicking was also something new. I can’t help feeling that Sutherland isn’t terribly familiar with fan culture.

3. The second chapter of Spook Country (Tito) was originally the first; in fact, all he started with was a “floating point of view” that “congealed” into the character of Tito.

4. Gibson is “agnostic” about fanfic.

5. There was one fairly major revision between the proof of Spook Country and the final published edition, which is that Cory Doctorow pointed out that some of the GPS tricks in the book couldn’t be done indoors. And then suggested a fix involving triangulating off the three nearest mobile phones. Or something.

6. The first time Gibson went into Second Life (anonymously and alone) it reminded him of the worst aspects of High School.

7. It was quite noticeable that there was a gap between what most of the audience was reading Gibson for (the tech, the loners, the “cool”) and what Gibson is actually interested in trying to talk about in his books (the ways people experience the modern world, and political implications of that).

8. That said, Gibson talked about his sense that the difference between now and 1984 is that in 1984 offline was the default and online was somewhere you went; now, online is the default and offline is somewhere you go. One of the characters in Spook Country describes this as cyberspace “everting”.

9. This is not really related, but a proof of Rewired arrived here yesterday. That’s a hell of a TOC.

10. Neil Gaiman would “whip” William Gibson in a fight. Apparently.

Linker’s Run

Linking State

US books in the UK

Lou Anders reports:

Christian Dunn of Solaris Books is excited to announce the acquisition of world mass-market rights for INFOQUAKE by David Louis Edelman, in a high-profile deal with Pyr, the SF/F imprint of Prometheus Books.

Good news. Also good news is the fact that Tor UK is starting to pick up on some Tor US books, which means we’re getting belated UK editions of Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania. Not to mention the fact that Stross’s The Atrocity Archives and A Family Trade are seeing UK publication this year.

Now all we need is for UK publishers to pick up Nalo Hopkinson, Elizabeth Bear, Catherynne Valente, Kage Baker, Susan Palwick, Kathleen Ann Goonan — oh, and a UK edition of Gwyneth Jones’s Life would be nice, while I’m wishing — and we’ll be getting somewhere.

Halting State

Like various other members of this parish, a little while ago I received a proof of Charles Stross’ new novel, Halting State. I’ve been reading it (somewhat guiltily) alongside McAuley’s Fairyland, which makes for an interesting comparison in a number of ways that I hope to write about at some point. I’m also looking forward to seeing what others make of it, and in particular what they make of the style.

Poking around on the internet and in back-issues of Locus, NYRSF and Interzone last night, I discovered something a bit surprising: not many people have really examined Stross’s style. There’s Adam Roberts’ review of Accelerando, Graham Sleight touches on it in his NYRSF review of Singularity Sky, but really that’s about it. (Paul Kincaid also touches on matters of style in his review of Accelerando, but spends more time looking at — and is to my mind very perceptive about — the mindset Stross is applying to sf.) The only Stross that Gary Wolfe has reviewed, so far as I can tell, is The Atrocity Archives, and that not at great length; and though John Clute has reviewed a bit more, it’s a slightly oddball selection — Singularity Sky, the first two books of the Merchant Princes, and “Missile Gap”.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with focusing on what Stross is saying more than how he’s saying it; but Stross’s style, the way he uses geek idioms etc etc, is one of the most noticeable things about all his books, and at least in my experience tends to be something people comment on in casual conversations. So I’m hoping Halting State inspires some more reviews that look at what I will pompously call the aesthetic side of Stross’s writing — it seems to me that it should, because I’m coming to the conclusion that the choice to write the entire book in the second person throws Stross’s strengths and weaknesses into sharp relief. Admittedly, the two two reviews I’ve seen so far both note the style and then move on again to the ideas, so I may be imagining things and/or being overly optimistic. But Stross clearly put some thought into how the style interacts with the things any science fiction novel has to do —

The second person’s big strength is that it lets you show by doing, and it renders infodumps — those big, intrusive gobbets of metainformation that are so useful to the jobbing science fiction writer who’s trying to portray an unfamiliar world — transparent. (It’s big weakness is that if it isn’t done carefully, it feels like an itchy straitjacket to the reader, but you already know that, don’t you?) It’s not so much about metafiction as about metainformation for the fiction at the centre of the narrative process. If you fine-tune your use of the interior monologue you can illuminate your character’s experience of their universe, lending the “showing, not telling” narrative some experiential references and weight so that it feels familiar, even if it’s full of novel placeholders. And you can banish the old didactic mode for good, consigning it to the howling wilderness of pulpish prose where it belongs. (After all, we’re trying to commit literature here. Right?) You have the technology to tell this story the way it needs to be told. All you have to find now is the courage to use it.

— so it seems not only fair but necessary to talk about whether he succeeded in his goals.

Of course, I’m not saying this should be the only aspect of Stross’s work that people should talk about or even, necessarily, the first. I’m not completely comfortable with Jeff VanderMeer’s response to Matthew Cheney’s column about “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” — “In short, the story feels not like cultural misappropriation so much as misappropriation of technique” — because I can’t imagine myself placing such a purely aesthetic response before all other possible responses. It’s just that it’s my perception that the aesthetic aspect of Stross’s work hasn’t yet received the examination it deserves.

World Fantasy Award nominees

From Locus Online.

Best Novel

Lisey’s Story, Stephen King (Scribner; Hodder & Stoughton)
The Privilege of the Sword, Ellen Kushner (Bantam Spectra; Small Beer Press)
The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (Gollancz; Bantam Spectra)
The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
Soldier of Sidon, Gene Wolfe (Tor)

One more reason to get around to reading The Orphan’s Tales. The rest of the list seems solid but not spectacular.

Best Novella

“Botch Town”, Jeffrey Ford (The Empire of Ice Cream, Golden Gryphon)
“The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train”, Kim Newman (The Man from the Diogenes Club, MonkeyBrain)
Dark Harvest, Norman Partridge (Cemetery Dance)
“Map of Dreams”, M. Rickert (Map of Dreams, Golden Gryphon)
“The Lineaments of Gratified Desire”, Ysabeau S. Wilce (F&SF Jul 2006)

I’ve read the Ford, the Rickert, and the Wlice, of which my clear favourite is the Wilce although all three are good; I don’t know anything about the other two. Interesting that only one was originally published in a magazine.

Best Short Fiction

“The Way He Does It”, Jeffrey Ford (Electric Velocipede #10, Spr 2006)
“Journey Into the Kingdom”, M. Rickert (F&SF May 2006)
“A Siege of Cranes”, Benjamin Rosenbaum (Twenty Epics, All-Star Stories)
“Another Word for Map is Faith”, Christopher Rowe (F&SF Aug 2006)
“Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF Oct/Nov 2006)

F&SF dominates here, in contrast to Asimov’s‘ domination of the Hugo nominees; make of that what you will. It’s an interesting category — I’ve read all but the Ford, and while I think they’re all nomination-worthy, none of them completely clicked for me.

Best Anthology
Cross Plains Universe: Texans Celebrate Robert E. Howard, Scott A. Cupp & Joe R. Lansdale, eds. (MonkeyBrain and the Fandom Association of Central Texas)
Salon Fantastique, Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling, eds. (Thunder’s Mouth)
Retro Pulp Tales, Joe R. Lansdale, ed. (Subterranean)
Twenty Epics, David Moles & Susan Marie Groppi, eds. (All-Star Stories)
Firebirds Rising, Sharyn November, ed. (Firebird)

I’m for Twenty Epics all the way on this one — while I’m a little surprised “A Siege of Cranes” is the story that got picked out for solo shortlisting, that’s only because the overall standard of the book is so high.

Best Collection

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
The Empire of Ice Cream, Jeffrey Ford (Golden Gryphon)
American Morons, Glen Hirshberg (Earthling)
Red Spikes, Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin Australia; Knopf)
Map of Dreams, M. Rickert (Golden Gryphon)

Surely the standout category. I haven’t read the Hirshberg or the Lanagan, but have heard only good things about both; and the other three range from good (the Clarke) to excellent (the Ford and the Rickert, with the latter ahead in my ranking by a nose).

Best Artist

Jon Foster
Edward Miller
John Picacio
Shaun Tan
Jill Thompson

I can’t claim to follow the artist category, but I like what I’ve seen of Shaun Tan and Edward Miller’s work a lot.

Special Award, Professional

Ellen Asher (For work at SFBC)
Mark Finn (for Blood & Thunder: The Life of Robert E. Howard, MonkeyBrain)
Deanna Hoak for copyediting
Greg Ketter for Dreamhaven
Leonard S. Marcus, ed. (for The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy, Candlewick)

Not as interesting to me as …

Special Award, Non-Professional

Leslie Howle (for her work at Clarion West)
Leo Grin (for The Cimmerian)
Susan Marie Groppi (for Strange Horizons)
John Klima (for Electric Velocipede)
Gary K. Wolfe (for reviews and criticism in Locus and elsewhere)

Shameless partisan time: go Susan! (Subliminal message: Strange Horizons’ fund drive ends on Wednesday.) Although, and not for the first time, I’m left wondering what the WFA definitions of “professional” and “non-professional” are. (If Gary Wolfe doesn’t count as a professional, for instance, I’m not sure any reviewer ever could.)