Subterranean 7

Subterranean magazine is a plain Jane. It has a straightforward and unfussy layout — not for Subterranean the glamour stylings of an Interzone. Issue 7 has an introduction by guest editor Ellen Datlow, but it’s brief, to-the-point, and assumes the reader already knows what they’re reading. It doesn’t tell you what Subterranean is, or why it is. It does tell you what Datlow’s remit for the issue was, but since that’s “anything you want”, it’s less helpful than it might otherwise be. (“Anything” turns out to be, as you may expect, a novella and six stories that are all, to some extent, engaged with both fantasy and darkness.) Moreover, and unlike the magazine’s online incarnation, there’s no other non-fiction content: no columns, no reviews. So there are just the stories — which, given the rather abstract recent brouhaha about the triumph of competence, makes the magazine an interesting test case. (I wish people would get down to specifics more, when this debate rolls around.) An Interzone could be bought by someone solely for the non-fiction content. (I know, because if it wasn’t for the non-fiction content I’d have stopped buying Interzone a couple of years ago.) Subterranean doesn’t have that get-out. It stands or falls on the stories.

So anchoring the issue with a novella by Lucius Shepard is a smart move, even if it was a last-minute substitution, since Shepard is regularly more than competent and rarely, if ever, less. The competition for “best Shepard story of the year” may not be as stiff now as it was a few years ago, but it’s still a tough race — which is to say that although “Vacancy” isn’t going to take the crown, it’s still worth your time. The tale of Cliff Coria, fifty-something ex-small time actor, having now carved out “the most satisfying of dissatisfying lives” as a used car salesman, is big, solid stuff, and similar in a couple of interesting ways to “Stars Seen Through Stone”, another Shepard story published earlier this year in F&SF. In both stories, the protagonist is a knowledgeable guide to some of the low-rent districts of a relentlessly capitalist entertainment industry, both stories are bedded in a particularly American kind of grubby existence (is it my imagination, or is Shepard writing more directly about America than he used to?), and in both stories there is some of Shepard’s most heartening writing about the ways men can relate to women. The protagonists of both “Vacancy” and “Stars Seen Through Stone” — and, indeed, the women with whom they form relationships — are people who have lived lives, and arrived at some measure of self-awareness. Enough, at least, for them to fumble towards an accommodation that we as readers can actually believe in, which is not always a given in Shepard’s stories.

There’s also an interesting inversion: in “Stars Seen Through Stone”, the protagonist introduces his tale by assuring us that there are strange things happening every day that people don’t notice, while in “Vacancy” Cliff is somehow sensitised to anything out of the ordinary. In the opening pages of the story, mysteries and coincidences dog his steps. What, for instance, is the deal with the multiple checkins to Bungalow 11 at the Celeste motel (across the road from his car dealership) — normal, if illicit, liaisons, or something more sinister? What of the striking similarity between the daughter of the Celeste’s owner, and an actress Cliff worked with (and slept with) years ago, in a low-budget fantasy action film? And what of the disappearance of Marley, the woman Cliff might be falling in love with? The latter two questions have, or appear to have, rational answers that don’t take too long to surface; the first question is the one that haunts the novella, and ultimately provides its horrific (in the bluntest sense) climax. But although it would be too strong to say that the supernatural elements of the story feel tacked-on, “Vacancy” is first a character study. The tentative deepening of the relationship between Cliff and Marley is deeply believable; when Cliff confides in (the much younger) Marley that “it’s like I’m empty, and growing emptier. That’s what I’m scared of” it’s such a startlingly unlikely thing for a Shepard Guy to say out loud, yet so clearly the right thing for him to say, that you nearly want to cheer.

But that quote also points up the main problem with “Vacancy” which is, oddly, that it’s too neat. Shepard has used the fantastic as a backdrop, rather than a subject, before, but this time around the titular absence insinuates itself too smoothly into every aspect of the story: into the disappearances and unsolved mysteries, into the commentary on how what seems to be innocence can be mere superficiality (and vice versa) for which a Hollywood career is the perfect supporting metaphor, and into the hollowness that Cliff feels inside his life. When I first read “Stars Seen Through Stone”, I thought it was less than a complete success for precisely the opposite reason: the elements didn’t fit so neatly. But scenes and images from that story have stayed with me in a way that scenes and images from “Vacancy” just haven’t, and I think it’s something to do with the fact that “Stars” is a messier tale. Put another way, “Vacancy” has both the strengths and the pitfalls of competence. (It also has a separate problem, which is that its portrayal of the Malaysian family that owns the Celeste Motel flirts with both exoticisation and stereotyping, and unfortunately makes it less easy than you’d hope to be confident that Shepard is deliberately pointing out the superficiality of such an approach to immigrant culture.) By the time the climax rolls around, the theme has become almost stifling, and an entire paragraph about Cliff’s uncertainty (“Cliff is astonished by how thoroughly the circumstance has neutralized him. He knows nothing for certain … it’s the very nebulousness of the situation that persuades him that his life has gone and is going horribly wrong”, 76) just seems excessive.

Still, “Vacancy” is not a story that isn’t reaching for something. The same can’t be said of all the stories in Subterranean 7, and in particular it can’t be said of “City of Night”, by Joel Lane and John Pelan, which is a triumph of competence exclusively in the worst sense of the phrase. Our protagonist this time around is Paul, a man who finds himself travelling to the titular city in his dreams, until the dreams become more real than his daily life. His story is filled with paragraphs like this:

Here and there, he thought he could see traces of recent human activity. A blanket had been nailed over a window-frame; the entry to a basement had been swept free of rubble; there were some empty food cartons and bottles in the remains of a bus shelter. But he couldn’t see any people, and knocking and calling met with no response. Sometimes he could see pale jointed creatures crawling among the broken stones like thoughts he couldn’t face; but the only human being he found in hours of searching was a bald man who poked his head out of a window and screamed at Paul until he ran away. (28)

It’s a functional paragraph, in that the sentences are coherent and reading it creates an image in my head (or rather, adds to the image that previous paragraphs have started to create). But nothing in it evokes any feeling beyond boredom. The details — the blanket, the food cartons, the bus shelter — feel borrowed in the worst way, too familiar to evoke the desolation they so schematically describe. The same is true of the “pale jointed creatures”, or the later description of a larger creature as “a figure from a madman’s delirium” (29). And “like thoughts he couldn’t face”, coming at a point where the reader and Paul both believe he’s in a particularly vivid dream, seems too obvious. Only the screaming bald man is really incongruous enough to make you notice him.

All of which would be permissable in another story with a different focus. But for most of its length “City of Night” seems to be trying hard to be scary, or at least unsettling, and blank description like that above doesn’t cut it. It’s not bad so much as bland; too much light, not enough shadow. Strangely enough, the story works much better when it’s talking about sex, which is fairly often: the protagonist’s sexuality is questioned and answered in a nicely underplayed manner, and the ending has the sort of post-coital glow of understanding more usually associated with science fiction. But it’s a desperate plod to get there.

Terry Bisson’s contribution, “Pirates of the Somali Coast”, is preferable; although it struggles to reach competence, at least it keeps you awake. If there was a fantastic element in the story I blinked and missed it, but that’s not to say the story doesn’t engage with the idea of fantasy, and it’s certainly eager to be about human darkness. The narrator and protagonist is a boy of unspecified age, but probably early teens, on board the South African cruise ship African Princess with his aunt and uncle. He tells his story not to us, but to his mom and his best friend, Bug, through a series of emails; the parallax between the two accounts is interesting, and occasionally amusing, but (warning bell) not an essential part of the story’s construction. The most notable characteristic of both versions of the story is the narrator’s utter inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. When the Princess is attacked and captured by “pirates” — Arab terrorists of some unspecified kind, whose motives may have something to do with diverting the liner from its planned passage through the Suez Canal; I couldn’t tell you how closely this matches up to the real-world pirates of the region — our hero is thrilled. He thinks the whole thing is a staged entertainment. Here’s how he describes part of the aftermath of the capture:

Ali [the “Pirate captain”] let me help with the Pillaging. He likes my hat. They lined up all the ladies and took their rings and jewels. Sometimes they just cut their fingers right off. I helped pick them up like little wurms. They were all begging for mercy, not the Pirates of course, they were laughing. Then they raped some. Ugh. That was like sex fighting. Pirates like the fat ones best. Theres lots of blood, xspecially on the stairs and they dont clean it up. It makes it more realistic. Yo ho ho (47)

Predictably, the attack turns out to be real — the Navy eventually retake the ship and send the narrator to a “greaf countsler”, thus preventing what would have been to me the most disturbing interpretation of the story, that it is some kind of simulation, an utterly debased entertainment. (You could argue that such an interpretation is prevented from the get-go, by the fact that the narrator’s emails are dated between July 20 and August 9 this year; but there are easy ways Bisson could have got round that, so I’d reserved judgment.) What we’re left with is the story of a boy who believes that he’s in the middle of some elaborate, not to mention gratuitously savage, stage show. This belief is strangely innocent — probably the best line in the story comes after the pirates leave, when he tells his mom that “it was kind of sad after all the Plundering and Pillaging, like at the movie when the show is over and everybody stands up” — but never takes on the chilling cast of true indifference because it’s never quite believable.

The narrator’s capacity for delusion seems too extreme: would any child, no matter how desensitized by contemporary film and video games, fail to notice that severed fingers were the real thing? Or be that blasé about rape? Perhaps such a character could be created, but the flatness of Bisson’s faux-teenage typos prevents this teenager from coming alive in the way that he needs to. (Admittedly, I have basically no communication with teenagers, beyond what I occasionally see on message boards, but the style of “Pirates” reeks to me of trying too hard.) He is an absence of character, rather than a character with an absence. And once you stop believing in the narrator, the rest of the story is too flimsy to stand. A bit of handwaving at the start, for instance, tells us that the email service on board the African Princess is “send only”, which sounds deeply improbable, and the excuses for the pirates to leave the narrator alive are increasingly tenuous, even allowing for the fact that what we’re reading is probably not what actually happened. Moreover, I can’t shake the feeling that a more interesting story would have challenged the narrator’s obliviousness somehow. As it is, “Pirates of the Somali Coast” ends with the narrator heading for the airport to be reunited with his parents, still firm in the belief that he’ll see his murdered aunt and uncle and friends again.

A more complete triumph of voice, but an equally complete failure of story, is Anna Tambour’s “The Jeweller of Second-Hand Roe”, in which a self-described garrulous narrator dribbles incidents at us in the hope that they’ll eventually add up to a whole. They don’t; but the story is short enough that any impatience with this is outweighed by the fact that the incidents are worth the time it takes to read them. Better all around is Lisa Tuttle’s “Mr Boudreaux”, which looks at first to be as traditional as the Lane/Pelan story, but ends up in far more interesting places. The protagonist, returning to her childhood home of Houston, has death on her mind — specifically, the death of her mother, although the two have not been particularly close for some time, a distance imparted (the protagonist feels) by how selfish her own life choices seem compared to those of her parent. Tuttle’s evocation of Houston-that-is and Houston-as-the-protagonist-remembers-it is skilful, and the shifts between the two — such as when the protagonist goes for a walk in the woods, and reflects that, as an adult, she is too aware of the dangers of an insect bite or a poisonous plant to experience wonder, only for something wondrous to intrude on the story — are affecting, but you wonder if the story will ever escape convention (or competence). A deathbed promise to “take care of” the titular character, despite the fact that the protagonist is pretty sure he’s been dead for some time, leaves us expecting a ghost at the family home. What is actually waiting is something stranger; the end of the story is handled with great tenderness, and demonstrates a touching belief in the power of (metaphorically) connecting with another soul, bound up with the protagonist’s acceptance of Houston — somewhere she feels she does not belong “by choice, sensibility, and heritage” — as home.

Equally good at integrating voice, place and story is Richard Bowes’ “The King of the Big Night Hours”, in which the fantastic hovers around an occurrence that might be, as the narrator puts it, “more uncanny than coincidental”. The tale is another of Bowes’ meditations on New York and gay life and past decades (here the seventies), and person and memory are mingled as effectively as ever. The titular King was a Jamaican security guard at the university where the narrator works, and the titular Hours were nine pm to midnight, the shift the King wangled for himself at the university gym. In the story’s present, both are gone, but recalled by a train of thought started by a student suicide. Bowes’ narrator is a working-ish-class guy, having drifted into a library admin job many years earlier. Through his skin we feel the aftershocks of the suicide. We are understanding, and yet are sickened, when, after a second, nearly-identical suicide, the campus response is more coordinated and slick — “an etiquette was being worked out”, he notes — and we think more about the tragedy of memory, what people remember about each other and (more significantly, the story suggests), what they don’t, or what they can’t because they never knew each other in the first place. Like “Pirates of the Somali Coast”, I can’t tell how closely Bowes’ story tracks real events here; but unlike Bisson, Bowes shows he can create fiction around fact that is more than polemic. The memory that the narrator’s recollection eventually uncovers is exactly the combination of place and person that it needs to be, and worth savouring.

Two stories remain, both a cut above the rest. M. Rickert is a writer whose ability to involve the reader is second to none; and in “Holiday”, her penchant for dissecting the darker things in life is as front-and-centre has ever been. The combination makes for a deeply disconcerting experience, as Rickert makes you judge the character she’s created, and then doubt that judgement, and yourself. “Holiday” is the first-person, present-tense story of a man, working-class from his idiom (though I’ll come back to that), who is writing a book about the conviction of his father for child abuse that he didn’t commit — except that actually, the narrator knows full well, probably from personal experience, that his father did commit the crimes he was accused of. The young girl who turns up to haunt him on the first page of the story could, therefore, be an expression of the guilt the narrator feels for not telling the truth. But since she’s a famous, instantly recognisable victim of abuse herself (though she will say only that her name is “Holiday”; if there’s a real headline here, it’s even more buried than in Bowes and Bisson’s stories), she could also be a bona fide restless spirit; or she could be an expression of a more personal guilt for the narrator, which is the oppressive possibility that intensifies as the story develops. Reading the story a second time you can spot all the moments that do double-service, creating either sympathy or horror depending on how you read them. Take this, for instance, when the narrator goes to a park:

They are so young. So perfect, with their perfect skin and little teeth and they are dirty, and bratty, and crying, and laughing and completely absorbed by the sand in the sandbox, or the need to traverse the bars, dangling above the dangerous ground, holding tight, and it’s obvious it hurts, but they are determined, stubborn, wild, beautiful. I could watch them for hours, but instead I just watch for a little while, I know too well what the grownups will think about someone like me, a young man, all alone, watching children play. I turn away, hunched against the sudden cold, walking slowly, soon no longer able to hear the laughter and the sound of their voices, shouting names, or shouting nonsense.
God, how I envy them. (36)

Notice, first, how much more effective this is at creating atmosphere than the Lane/Pelan paragraph quoted above, and how much more a coherent voice it is than the Bisson. And the first time you read it, it might easily strike you (it struck me) as sympathetic. Here is a man, it seems, stuck on the outside, who sees in playing children the emptiness of his own life and who — worse – is too aware of how that emptiness will be perceived by others. We might even take a moment to reflect on the climate our society has created, in which it is not possible to express, or even to hold, an honest appreciation for the joy that children can inspire. But read again. In the context of the rest of his narrative, his eloquence here, particularly in that long second sentence, stands out; and is it just by chance that the children’s appearance — their “perfect skin” — is the first thing he notices? Why does he know “too well” what the grownups (not the other grownups) will think of his observation? And is it ultimately their community he envies, or something else?

It’s not that the narrator doesn’t deserve our sympathy, necessarily. When his brother calls him a pervert, saying that he’s grown up to be just like their father, it stings; and when he utterly fumbles an exchange with a checkout assistant, while buying party supplies for Holiday and her friends, we feel a pang because we believe in his sincerity. This is how he describes the party to Holiday: “It’ll be a holiday party, an every holiday, and I don’t say this part, but you know, for all the ones they’ve missed” (38). We want to believe in his innocence in part because it seems so unfair that he should be guilty. He is not a monster. He is — and it’s the possibility that’s chilling, the combination of a very human darkness with a supernatural one — a man who may have done monstrous things.

Rickert’s story is fine indeed, and the most complete expression of several themes (innocence, emptiness, complicity) that, in one of those coincidences of publication, circle through most of the issue’s other stories like sharks. It is not more challenging, or “edgier” than a story like “Pirates of the Somali Coast”, not in any meaningful sense; nor does it have less of a point to make. But it is better expressed in just about every way. Even so, it’s not the most technically accomplished story in Subterranean 7; for my money, that would be Jeffrey Ford’s offering, which strikes out on a separate trail entirely. “Under the Bottom of the Lake” is not a long story — my guesstimate is a little over 5,000 words — and it’s mostly told simply, without great flights of description or pangs of emotion. But it’s an extraordinary feat of narrative construction, one that grips because of its evident but undistracting complexity. It opens with an instantly evocative glimpse of an artefact in the titular location, “a bubble of rose colored glass, within which swirls a secret story, told once but never heard”. The problem is that the teller of the tale — whose identity remains a mystery until the final sentence, though the clues are laid out in plain sight — can’t himself get any closer to the bubble. “What’s called for,” he tells us, “is someone to discover it”, by which he means a character who can reveal more of the story than the narrator can see. Throughout its length, “Under the Bottom of the Lake” embellishes this idea of the limitations of narration — when describing one of his characters, for instance, he dodges the responsibility of judgement: “I’m no judge of looks” — and the sense is one of revealing what is already there, rather than creating something out of whole cloth, which is a nice trick if you can manage it, and often part of the trick, I think, of effective horror.

Moreover the story being seen (the story within “Under the Bottom of the Lake”) itself contains more stories, accessed through rings or bubbles: of glass, of light, of gum, of smoke. In addition to the initial characters, Emily and Vincent, whose path takes them down under the bottom of the lake and towards the secret, we get glimpses of Vincent’s old man, and of Cassius Cake, patriarch of a local (wealthy) family. At times the stories collide, seeming to be taking place at the same moment (which of course, on the page, they are): “Vincent’s old man turns and runs across the moonlit lawn, Cake wakes in his canopied bed and clutches his chest, Emily calls over her shoulder, “look at this”, and points ahead to a grotto surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites; a dragon’s mouth inviting entry.” Eventually, of course, the glass bubble is broken, revealing the secret story, which folds all the others snugly together. It seems that the story will end in the same way as Tuttle’s, with a moment of strange grace, a new generation redeeming the past: but then that final sentence sneaks up and reveals that the whole story is a trap, another secret to be spirited away. It is, of course, more than competent; it is a triumph.

Hand in hand with the latest iteration of angst about story quality has come the latest iteration of angst about the survival of sf magazines. Warren Ellis posted the 2006 subscription numbers for the “big three” magazines, Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF: they’re down again, sharply. Cory Doctorow suggested some possible publicity strategies, and once again various people have commented. (It’s actually through a publicity strategy of the sort that Doctorow suggested that I ended up with a copy of Subterranean 7, although it was the editor who decided to do a blogger giveaway, rather than the publisher.) For Subterranean that ship has sailed — the next print issue, I believe, will be the last — and I can’t say I’m hugely bothered as long as the online incarnation continues. I would prefer that the Rickert and Ford stories, in particular, were online, because then you could go and read them. But I can see the arguments for print magazines. Where things get a bit hazy for me is when I see people accusing magazines of printing filler, or big names for the sake of it, or whatever. This is largely because I can’t bring myself to expect to like all the stories in every issue of a magazine, or even, necessarily, most of the stories, since the truth is that the only person who’s going to like every story a magazine publishes is the editor.

Maybe I read short fiction magazines in a different way to most people. What I don’t do is read magazines — or, in fact, any anthology of short stories — with the expectation of constant satisfaction. I read magazines in part to keep up with new material by authors whose work I know I enjoy, and in part for the undiscovered, the unpredictable, the unexpected. I’m not saying the magazines we have are well-adapted to the market we have, because that’s clearly not the case. I’d be as happy as anyone if the physical incarnation of Asimov’s wasn’t so ugly as to be bordering on the offensive, and I’d prefer Fantasy to have covers that don’t make people on the tube think I’m reading porn. (True story, although a bit of a moot point, since Fantasy, like Subterranean, is heading online.) Nor am I saying we should expect bad stories, or that we should ignore bad stories. Quite the opposite: as I said way back at the start, I think specifics are vital in any discussion of this kind. But if we have to talk about “value for money”, which is what one strand of the discussion seems to come down to, I don’t need to like that high a proportion of stories to justify my subscription; what’s good about a subscription is that I get many more stories to sample for my pound than I would buying the equivalent value of no-more-reliable (although admittedly more durable) anthologies. In fact, if I liked everything I’d be worried, because it would suggest to me that the magazine was in a rut, not trying new things or trying to reach different audiences. So I expect variability; embrace it, even. It seems to me it goes with the terrain. Satisfaction isn’t measured in page count, and stories like “Holiday” and “Under the Bottom of the Lake” make everything worth it.

Talking Heads

The latest BSFA mailing dropped through my letterbox today. It’s a full one — Vector, Matrix, Focus, plus an awards ballot and a letter to members. Here’s the contents for Vector:

Torque Control — editorial
Best of British — Jo Fletcher interviewed by Graham Sleight
An Introduction to Anna Kavan’s Ice — by Christopher Priest
Politics Is What Humans DoRichard Morgan interviewed by Martin Lewis
A report on the first SF Foundation Masterclass — by Paul Raven
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Paul N. Billinger
Particles — a books received column by Paul N. Billinger
The New X: Lost in Translation — a column by Graham Sleight

In other shiny BSFA news: the new website is live. There are a bunch of holding pages there at the moment, and undoubtedly some bugs to iron out, but you can get an idea of the feel of it, and subscribe to the RSS feed. (And here’s a livejournal feed for those who might want it.)

And in other news, I’m off to Italy on Saturday for a week of holiday. (I am taking these books, and no doubt one or two more that I cram into my bag at the last minute.) Before I go, however, I will post my much-delayed review of Subterranean 7 (the issue guest-edited by Ellen Datlow). They say people don’t read 4,000 word blog posts, but I figure if I give you all a week you’ll get through it. Right?

London Meeting: Roz Kaveney

The guest at tonight’s BSFA meeting is Steph Swainston, who will be interviewed by Graham Sleight.

As usual, 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. And I thought I wasn’t going to make it, but as it turns out, I am!

Cover Art

A short essay on the Solaris website explains their approach to genre cover art:

As I see it, there are currently two schools of thought – to package your SF/F novel to appeal to as wide a readership as possible, in the hope of enticing readers from other areas of the bookstore to pick it up on a whim; or to package your SF/F novel to appeal to the perceived core readership of the genre, or indeed, fans of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, people who want a book with a spaceship or a wizard on the front of it.
In setting up the Solaris imprint for BL Publishing, though, Publisher Marc Gascoigne and I decided – for better or for worse – to place ourselves directly in that second camp. The reasons for this were two-fold. Firstly, our existing imprint, the Black Library, had been successfully publishing SF/F novels for eight years – novels that tie-in to the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 fantasy worlds of Games Workshop. Experience had shown us that we already knew, as a business, how to package books for a niche audience – our recent range of Horus Heresy tie-in novels have sold over three hundred thousand copies combined since last April. Secondly, we believed we could see a gap emerging in the market, and we wanted to fill it.

Many genre imprints in both the UK and the US were taking the other route, packaging novels to appeal to a wider audience, focusing on getting front-of-store promotions and aiming for the bestseller lists. Sales expectations for genre novels seemed to be getting higher and higher. On the other end of the scale, a proliferation of small presses seemed to be flourishing, publishing limited run books for a small collector’s market. Essentially, at the heart of the genre, the midlist was disappearing. The result of this was that the core SF/F readership was not being as well served as it had been in the past; people who went into a high street bookshop to browse the SF/F section were not necessarily seeing those aforementioned books with wizards and spaceships on the front.

There’s smart commentary from Ariel and Lou Anders, who has a quote form John Picacio:

“The field must visually celebrate itself, rather than run away from itself. Couldn’t agree with you [George] more. And I realize the context in which you’re saying this, regarding the midlist specifically. When sf/fantasy publishing shows an insecurity about its visual strengths, that insecurity rubs off negatively not only on our audiences, but in the broader media, and we push ourselves backwards every time we do that.

Category Schmategory

I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a while. Paul Kincaid reviewed The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy:

Given the increasingly complex games with authorship that her most recent novels have played, and given how much non-fiction she has written for children, it was perhaps inevitable that Pat Murphy would write a young adult novel about writing. Which is precisely what The Wild Girls is, though if you expect anything of the subtlety or complexity of those novels you are going to be disappointed. This is writing reduced to a simple lesson in life, light, appealing and entertaining but very definitely aimed at a younger audience by removing any doubts, hesitations or darker aspects.

And literaticat responded:

* young adult novel about writing…: It isn’t a YA novel. It is very clearly a middle grade novel. And yes, there’s a difference. Consider how prickly many in the SF/F community get about people who are ignorant and dismissive about SF/F. Well, that’s how children’s book people feel when people are idiots about children’s books. GRR. I don’t understand why you would want to review a mainstream children’s book when that is so clearly NOT your forte, or why you would post it on an SF site… But moving on.

* …very definitely aimed at a younger audience by removing any doubts, hesitations or darker aspects: Imagine, a children’s book aimed at children? Bust my buttons. As for doubts, hesitations or darker aspects: The dissolution of two families. The children’s struggle to cope with the emotional fallout of their parent’s disastrous marriages. Their finding their own voices in challenging times. Not doubty and dark enough? You were expecting the apocolypse, maybe?

I have issues with both these comments. To take the second comment first, I think literaticat has simply misread Paul. I do not think Paul was expressing surprise or disappointment at the fact that The Wild Girls is aimed at children, because I don’t see how you can unyoke that statement from the rest of the sentence. Paul may or may not be right that the book removes “any doubts, hesitations or darker aspects” (I haven’t read it), but it seems clear to me that it’s the concept of doing that as an approach to writing for children that he’s commenting on. And in fact, that’s the thrust of his judgement on the book — that it is “clearly written and very readable”, but that it is limited by its need to provide a lesson.

Having got that off my chest, I’m going to briefly return to my opening comment: I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a while. YA isn’t new, and YA sf isn’t new, but the visibility of and emphasis on YA as a category certainly seems to be greater now than it was only a few years ago; and hand in hand with a more clearly defined category come the readers with allegiance to that category, and comes a more clearly defined set of expectations for what is in that category. At the same time, over the last few years there have been a number of fairly high-profile examples of YA writers getting serious props from the main stream of genre criticism (Margo Lanagan, Ysabeau Wilce, Philip Reeve), and a number of well-regarded established sf writers turning their hand to YA (China Mieville, Stephen Baxter, Ellen Klages). All of which means that it’s not a surprise that a new YA novel by a writer who has previously committed sf picks up a review on a website devoted to sf (even though it is not, apparently, sf). At some point, given that despite what I said above most sf readers are not yet habitual YA readers, friction was probably inevitable.

But I’m not completely convinced that the situation is, as literaticat would have it, analagous to a non-sf writer reviewing an sf novel. In some ways, it is. If you’re reviewing something, you should try to be aware of that thing’s context — though I note that the definitions of YA in the US (where literaticat is) and UK (where Paul is and I am) seem to be somewhat different, to the point where I’m not even sure that “middle grade” exists as a separate shelf. (And I note that on her website, Pat Murphy merely describes the book as a children’s novel.) In a very interesting discussion at Gwenda’s place, Colleen Mondor says:

What I find sometimes reading so many MG and YA books is that there are those that seem to appeal regardless of the reader’s age (Cecil Castellucci’s work would fit in here or the KIki Strike book), some that seem to appeal more to adults that kids (I think “King Dork” is an example of this to a certain degree) and then those that adults might think are okay, but kids really go nuts over. But all of them are books for kids and for reviewers not used to wading around in these waters, it can get easy to mislabel or misread something.

This is surely true, and the inherent paradox of all reviews of children’s books, but I doubt Paul is unware of it, and I don’t think it makes sense of this specific case. Literaticat isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be) saying that The Wild Girls is good because it appeals to its target audience, she’s saying that The Wild Girls is good, full stop — that it is not the simplified, reductive story that Paul paints it as. The problem is this: how can advocates of YA (or, in this case, middle grade) fiction claim, as they frequently do and implicitly do here, that YA is an arbitrary label, that YA does everything non-YA does, and that the books that bear the label are as worthwhile on their own merits as books that do not (see, for example, the reactions to Octavian Nothing last year), and yet also object to Paul’s review on the grounds that he isn’t sufficiently familiar with “middle grade” fiction?

It looks like trying to have your cake and eat it, too. If a book isn’t making concessions to its audience, or operating in category-specific ways, then I can’t see why you’d need to be familiar with the market for books aimed at that audience to review it fairly. (There is, of course, also the argument that any reader reaction is a fair reader reaction.) And I’d argue that this is different to the equivalent sf neurosis because “sf” as a marketing category not an arbitrary label; it is a description of content. Sf novels don’t do everything that mimetic novels do, just as mimetic novels don’t do everything that sf novels do, so when a reviewer approaches an sf novel expecting it to reward her in the ways a mimetic novel will (or vice versa), a disjunction can, and often does, result.

UPDATE, 21/10: Paul Kincaid has provided his own response, in the comments below and on his journal.

Hello Links, Goodbye


As you will have heard by now, Doris Lessing has won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature:

“that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.

Most people seem pretty happy. But not Harold Bloom:

American literary critic Harold Bloom called the academy’s decision “pure political correctness.”

“Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable … fourth-rate science fiction,” Bloom told the AP.

Anyone out there feel like writing an assessment of Lessing’s sf for Vector?

Swirsky Stories

You may well have already noticed Rachel Swirsky’s name. If her fiction hasn’t caught your eye — and she’s published several interesting stories already this year, with three months still to go — then her posts at Alas, A Blog or the Aqueduct Press blog may have done. It was one of the latter that snagged me, and then I backtracked to discover, with pleasure, the same passion and directness in the former. Which is what I’m going to talk about here.

In an interview, Swirsky suggested she writes short stories because they are “close to poems. They can have a certain impressionism which approximates thought or sensation — bursts of energy instead of sustained documentation.” I can see that: a story such as “Heartstrung” (Interzone 210), a fantasy in which a mother has to literally sew her daughter’s heart onto the girl’s sleeve, is all about sensation, a short sharp punch of anger and sadness at how that society (and, of course, our own) constrains and pacifies women. But “Heartstrung” actually seems to me the least successful of Swirsky’s stories that I’ve read, precisely because of its brevity. To make its point in such a short space, the story has to be quite crudely manipulative, in a way that invites a “yes, but …” reaction as much as the visceral one that (I assume) was intended.

In contrast, a story like “The Debt of the Innocent”, from Glorifying Terrorism, takes the time to ground its awfulness, and as a result has a more lasting effect. Jamie Wrede, the protagonist, is a nurse who, in a resource-scarce future, is given the responsibility of removing the babies of poor parents from life support in favour of those from more prosperous families. Jamie is persuaded to take an action that might allow her to become a Rosa Parks for the times. “Frightening but familiar”, she is told, “the best [case] to swing public opinion”; the former statement is a reasonable paraphrase of Glorifying Terrorism‘s mission, but Swirsky’s case is more memorable than most in the book. The structure of “The Debt of the Innocent” highlights one of Swirsky’s apparent interests, which is telling stories that might not otherwise get told. Another writer’s version of the same tale could very easily have focused on Jamie, and left the stories of the families affected implicit; Swirsky makes them explicit. Interspersed with Jamie’s story we get the stories of the families of the babies she’s killed. Many of them, individually, pack as much punch as “Heartstrung” — indeed, most of them are more convincing than Jamie’s characterisation — but they also operate as part of a larger and more satisfying whole.

The interest in the marginal is even more obvious in “Scene From a Dystopia” (Subterranean 4; pdf; story starts on page 5), which manages to pack much more than “Heartstrung” into much less space, and which could also be titled If On A Winter’s Night A Handmaid:

You’ve read this book before. It’s one of the classics from the Cold War era, always worth rereading when you’ve got a little time on your hands — long plane rides, your annual winter flu, the two rainy weeks between autumn and winter when you find your mood drifting toward insular and melancholic. You feel comforted when you read the famous opening lines: “If these accounts have fallen into your hands, then you have been identified as a potential recruit for the rebellion. Take heed, for the Eyes are everywhere and you may already be in peril.” On page four, when Stanley relates his discovery of an ancient book from before the Technocracy, you enjoy the familiar tinge of mystery.

The story was published as part of the John Scalzi-edited “SF cliche issue” of Subterranean, and fulfills that remit completely and slyly: we really have read this book before, or as good as, despite the fact that it doesn’t exist, because the shape of a dystopian story is so familiar. The cliche is therefore the background of the story, a piece of assumed knowledge. When Stanley sees a beautiful girl sitting in a gymnasium, we know he will fall in love, and we know that will lead him into conflict with the state, because that’s what happens in We, in 1984, in other stories. So Swirsky doesn’t waste any time telling us what we already know, and when Stanley’s said his noble piece — “a woman is not a piece of data” — and strides on, the narrator gently stops us from following:

Ordinarily, you would follow him. Instead, allow me to waylay you here.

In the overall plot of the novel, this moment is unimportant. The entire scene occupies only two pages, from 50-52. But take a moment to explore this scene with me, to examine the story that lies not on the page, but inhabits the margins.

Now that Stanley is gone, let us venture where he never treads: into the gymnasium with Natalie.

“Scene From a Dystopia” is fanfic for a story that doesn’t exist. Moreover it’s an argument for fanfic as critique, as a particularly elegant act of criticism — or put another way, an argument for a marginal artistic form (in terms of the cultural value generally accorded to it, if not in sheer numbers), even as the surface of the story is an argument on behalf of marginal characters. By its ending, which challenges the reader’s sympathies as much as, if not more than, that of “The Debt of the Innocent”, “Scene From a Dystopia” provokes some important thoughts about the choices and assumptions made by both readers and writers as they go about their business, the most important of which is probably, simply, notice. Elsewhere, Gene wondered why a character in a story was transexual, then got called on it, and wondered why he wondered. “Scene From a Dystopia”, I think, is among other things a reminder that it’s natural to wonder. If “straight white male” is the default, then anything else indicates that a choice has been made — or at least, it implies that a more conscious choice has been made than the one made by Stanley’s author. Even if the motive behind that choice is, perfectly validly, “why not?”, the choice is there.

Which brings me to the story I thought I was going to spend most of my time talking about, “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” (Subterranean Online, Summer 2007), New Wave-y title and all. It has the best of the three stories I’ve mentioned above. It has the impressionistic, image- and sensation-driven feel of “Heartstrung” (and a lot of scene breaks; if Nick Mamatas really does think that scene breaks are always giant gongs, he’d probably be deafened by this story), the skillful interweaving of narratives that distinguishes “The Debt of the Innocent”, and the direct, telling-it-plain voice of “Scene From a Dystopia”. It’s something of a relief, in fact, to encounter a new writer who uses an omniscient voice that isn’t drenched in Kelly Link-style knowingness. “Dispersed …” is the short story equivalent of hyperlink cinema. It’s how the end of the world would look if you were God.

Wealthy northerners watch the event through cameras on surviving satellites. Milliseconds after impact, their screens go black as the asteroid’s collision displaces earth and rock in a hundred mile radius. Radioactive waste illegally buried in poverty-stricken Puerto Natales flies into the air, joining the plume of dirt that whirls into the chaotic weather systems caused by impact. Soil sewn with radioactive dust distributes across the globe in a storm that blocks the sun for three months.

(It could contain The Road as a sidebar.)

The last humans are an Aboriginal Australian girl, and a Nepalese man. We also see the inventor of “the last major art movement”, a Swedish woman who finds a way to create three-dimensional holograms of memories, and the perpetrator of “the last act of malice”, a man who releases the genetically modified organisms he’s been working on when it becomes clear that his government has abandoned him.

When Scalzi linked to the story, one of the less enamoured commentators (a minority), described it as “heavily didactically left-wing”. A couple of others challenged this assessment, though no debate ever really developed. I think there’s something in the characterisation: the choices Swirsky makes in the course of her story are at every stage choices to focus on people who are, in the here and now, disenfranchised, or choices to highlight the hypocrisy of those in power. When the wealthiest nations come up with their survival plan, we are told that “as for those who won’t be included […] global leaders mumble about regrettable losses then do what they have always done: sacrifice the good of the many for the good of themselves.” Is this cynical? Or just clear-sighted? Certainly the description of those who leave the safety of the north to travel south to stand, and die, with “their impoverished brothers and sisters” as “the last heroes” seems sincere. Note that I don’t intend this description as pejorative, though depending on your personal politics you might take it as such. But the story put me in mind of something Abigail said when reviewing Hal Duncan’s Book of All Hours, about the book being a manifesto. Swirsky’s story isn’t as fierce as Duncan’s, but it has something of the same steel, the same confidence to say “this is how I see it. Take it or leave it.”

And it would be a shame to leave it. “Dispersed …” isn’t as lyrical as its title might lead you to expect, but it’s certainly very atmospheric, full of images of brutal clarity — a child pulling a rib from a rotted skeleton, for instance — and brief, deft sketches. One of these concerns the last music made by mankind. It’s not much, and music is hard to write about at the best of times, but it’s enough to feel the pulse:


The last man is tone deaf and the light-eyed child doesn’t like to song because it reminds her that her voice is piping and high when it should be resonant and bass, so the last music mankind makes is subtle and strange. It’s the last man grunting in answer to the raven’s sporadic caws; it’s the light-eyed child splashing in the river to the beat of her heart; it’s the last man’s fingers drumming on his son’s hollow belly.


It’s moments like this that make “Dispersed …” the most distinctively Swirskyian story I’ve read so far. If I have a reservation about her work in general, it’s that it seems to be most successful when it has a clear template to follow. I’m going to indulge myself, and quote a John Clute line I’ve always liked about Steph Swainston’s first novel The Year of Our War, that it’s “a coughing of the throat of a storyteller being born in difficult but enthralling times”. It sums up how I feel about these stories, that they’re steps on the way to something more completely owned; what they say, and what might be said next, have the feel of things that need to be said. What will be said next, it looks like, is a story in Electric Velocipede 13, “How the World Became Quiet: a Post-Human Creation Myth”. A fluke of publishing order, no doubt, but it seems that after writing about the end, Rachel Swirsky is going to tackle a beginning.


M. John Harrison writes:

As a reader I’m not interested in a “fully worked out” world. I’m not interested in “self consistency” … When I read fantasy, I read for the bizarre, the wrenched, the undertone of difference & weirdness that defamiliarises the world I know. I want the taste of the writer’s mind, I want to feel I’m walking about in the edges of the individual personality.

And as if by magic, a new story by Kelly Link appeared, which doesn’t come within ten city blocks of being “fully worked out”. It’s the story of Lindsey, a 38-year-old woman whose husband has left her, and whose gay brother has just come to stay with her. Chris Barzak says of it:

I think the rhythm and pacing of the story is different from any of her others. There’s less lyricism than usual. The characterizations feel flatter, but purposively so. The fantastical elements seem to float unfixed, as if the reader shouldn’t be able to contextualize them and understand what they “mean” or for what many readers would try to read as metaphor. In many ways it’s a fantasy that feels like science fiction, if that makes any sense at all. For me, these are different attributes than the ones that usually show up in Kelly’s stories. Or I should say, they have all appeared variously in her stories, but not all in once place as they do here. The closest story of hers that it feels similar to, for me, is “The Hortlak”. But even that story feels as if you can read the fantasy elements as a metaphor for entrapment in a world where consumerism is the lens through which people view and understand, or fail to understand, one another. I didn’t necessarily get that feeling for this story. I can make attempts to analyze it in such a way, but it feels more resistant to analysis than any other story of hers, for me.

I agree that “Light” feels resistant to analysis, but I’m not sure it’s particularly more so than the rest of her fiction. I also agree that the story it feels closest to is “The Hortlak”; both are basically linear stories, and in both the fantastic elements are described in a deadpan way that makes them just another part of the world. (As opposed to a story like “Magic for Beginners”, where the deadpan delivery makes you wonder just which aspects of the story are magical.) But for me the big difference between this story and the rest of Link’s work is the extent to which the fantastic elements saturate the landscape.

I think I’m right in saying that in every other Link story set in our world (which is most of them) the fantastic is only experienced by, at most, a small group of people — the clerks in “The Hortlak”, the poker-players in “Lull”, “The Specialist’s Hat”. The arguable exception is probably “Most of my Friends are Two-Thirds Water”, but that story isn’t explicitly a fantasy in the way that “Light” is — the blonde women might be aliens, but they might not — and even if they are aliens, nobody else knows about it. In “Light”, everyone knows that the world is very weird. In the first scene, Lindsey overhears conversations about the limitations of being raised by wolves, and about how prosthetic shadows are a “not expensive and reasonably durable” option for those born without shadows of their own — and about how children born with two shadows won’t grow up happy. (Lindsey is dismissive of this, since she had a second shadow, which itself grew up to be Alan, and had a happy childhood.) More importantly, though, she overhears people talking about “a new pocket universe”.

Although other fantastic elements are introduced throughout the story — the weather-witches; the unwakeable sleepers who it is Lindsey’s job to look after; the fact that the sky always seems to be a shade of green — it’s the pocket universes that have the most far-reaching implications. We’re told people go there on holiday, or retire there. We’re told that mermaids have come back from a Disney pocket universe. And there’s an offhand remark by one character referring to people who “want everything to be the way it was before”, which certainly gave me the fantasy-that-feels-like-science-fiction jolt that Chris refers to in his comment. It’s still a version of our world — Florida is mentioned, as is the fact that Tibet is “riddled” with pocket universes (which, like the best Linkian observations, somehow feels intuitively right) — but it’s one where magic has become ubiquitous, commonplace, accepted. (It feels, in fact, much like the way I wanted Justina Robson’s post-Quantum Bomb dimensionally-split world in her Quantum Gravity series to feel.) Having read the story, I can’t tell you what any of it means, but I can tell you what it feels like: it feels strange, defamiliarising, and like the taste of an idiosyncratic mind.