Science Fiction as a Literary Genre

A symposium on the 8th of May:

Speaker(s): Neal Stephenson, John Clute, Dr Roger Luckhurst, Andy Sawyer, Dr Martin Willis, Professor Tim Connell
Date/Time: 08/05/2008, 13:30–17:30
Venue: Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn

The programme will be:

13.30 — Introduction (Professor Tim Connell, Fellow of Gresham College)
13.40 — ‘The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture’ (Neal Stephenson)
14.20 — ‘The overlap between Science Fiction and other genres’ (Andy Sawyer, Librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection, The University of Liverpool)
15.00 — ‘Horror motifs’ (John Clute, Editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction)
15.40 — Break
15.50 — ‘Science Fiction in the Nineteenth Century’ (Dr Martin Willis, University of Glamorgan)
16.30 — ‘Modern British Science Fiction’ (Dr Roger Luckhurst, Birkbeck, University of London)
17.10 — Summary (Professor Tim Connell, Fellow of Gresham College)

Followed by a drinks reception until 6.30pm.

It’s a Thursday, but as Liz nearly put it, that lineup is worth a day off, so Nic and I have signed up for tickets (which are free, but need to be reserved). Anyone else interested?

Well, that makes life easier

Well, I was mulling the idea of posting a response to all the posts about reviews that popped up in the last day or so, but then Cheryl Morgan wrote a post I almost entirely agree with, so now I don’t need to bother. Hooray! Pretty much all that’s left is for someone to talk about what they like to see in reviews, as opposed to what they don’t like, but as Cheryl points out that varies from person to person and audience to audience, and my preferences are somewhat on the record already, anyway.

So instead I will talk briefly about reading, specifically to say that the first installment of the Baroque Cycle Reading Group will be somewhat delayed. I’ve been racing to meet a couple of review deadlines at the end of the month and, having met them (bar reading the reviews through in a few days, polishing them up and sending them off), I now need to knuckle down and start my Clarke Award shortlist re-read. I plan to keep reading Quicksilver in parallel, but it may be a couple of weeks before I have a post to show for it, now.

Out of interest, if I couldn’t face writing eight posts about the Baroque Cycle myself, would anyone be interested in writing a guest post about one or more of the books? (Remember I’m treating this as a series of eight books collected into three volumes. It’s just too daunting, otherwise.)

The Last Enemy Redux

The last episode aired a couple of weeks ago, but what with one thing and another I’ve only just got around to watching it. When the series started, I said

What’s good about The Last Enemy as a drama is the direction, which manages to make any amount of staring at computer screens interesting, and the acting, particularly from Benedict Cumerbatch as Ezard — he’s convincing as a man distinctly uncomfortable with much social interaction, yet nuanced enough to avoid cliche. And what’s good about The Last Enemy as science fiction is that it doesn’t try to do too much, that it follows the implications of its idea through quite thoroughly but (for the most part) doesn’t try to sensationalise them. Whether this will last is an open question: the producer has described the series as a “cautionary tale”, which rather suggests the ending will be exactly what you expect it to be, ie that the introduction of TIA is thwarted at the last moment, while recognising the irony that it’s helped to stop whatever dastardly plot is afoot. We shall see.

To update these points in order:

  • The direction and the acting, particularly from Benedict Cumerbatch, did remain pretty good throughout, although the focus shifted to more dramatic subjects than computer screens, such as running around and explosions.
  • Probably the biggest plus in the series’ favour is that it seemed to be trying to show how a suite of present-day concerns — immigration, terrorism, security, underregulated pharmaceutical industry — might interrelate, without suggesting that any one of them was The Problem Of Our Times. Unfortunately, the ending they came up with was very much from the Giant Conspiracy school, which was rather too neat.
  • Which is to say that in the end, it did try to do much, not specifically because the science it described was (and the methods used to approach that science were) complete bobbins, but because it introduced a genie too big to be stuffed back into a bottle.
  • Which in turn is to say I was sort of half-right in my prediction for the ending. What is actually thwarted is the introduction of TIA: The Next Generation; TIA itself (unless I missed something) heads steadily towards implementation and is used by various characters throughout the series to find the next plot coupon.
  • To be fair to the ending, it did have characters recognise that they were trying to stuff a genie back into a bottle, and it was by no means kind to its protagonists; one Ezard ends up dead, while the other is utterly trapped by the existing surveillance technology; the girl ends up wandering free but alone.
  • Moreover, if it weren’t for the tub-thumping lectures about personal liberties in the last fifteen minutes — which most of the rest of the series managed to do without, trusting that it was showing the relevant points — I could have lived with it, even, particularly given the irony that the lectures were being delivered to the one government character who (unbeknown to the lecturer) might agree with some of them. As it is, my overwhelming sense was that the actual science fiction story, and the more interesting story, would be the one about what happens five years later, when the genie actually does get out into the world.
  • Summary: B for effort, C- for execution.

Here Is The News

Orbital reports and/or discussions can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, linked from here, and no doubt in many other places on this vast internet. You can see a bajillion photos here.

There’s a Spooks spin-off in the works:

The new spy drama, titled Spooks: Code 9, is currently being shot in Bradford and will hit screens later this year.

The drama is set in 2013, when London has been evacuated following a nuclear attack, and MI5 must establish field offices across the UK.

Four immediate thoughts:

  1. Hey, more near-future sf on the BBC!
  2. Are they just trying to out-24 24?
  3. This rather puts an expiry date on the original version.
  4. Can anyone think of another example of a non-sf show spawning an sf spinoff?

The debate about genre cover art is doing the rounds again. See here, here, here, here and here.

Chinese sf writers bid farewell to Arthur C. Clarke.

A bit more detail about Anathem:

Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM, based in a universe similar to but not our own, where mathematicians and philosophers are sheltered from an illiterate and unpredictable “saecular” world, until the day they must leave their safe haven to save the entire world from destruction, to Ravi Mirchandani at Atlantic Books, for publication in September 2008, by Rachel Calder at the Sayle Literary Agency.

Adam Roberts hasn’t found a new home for his Clarke shortlist review (what with Infinity Plus closing down), so has been snapped up by that eagle-eyed Paul Raven chap to write a Clarke shortlist review for Futurismic. In the meantime, he’s posted some general thoughts on his website and is reviewing the individual books over here. The Red Men gets a kicking:

One of the 08 Clarke nominees, this, and now that I’ve read the entire shortlist I feel in a position to say: by far the worst book nominated, and one of the worst novels I’ve read in a long time. […] The blurb promises a thriller salted with ‘the imminent technologies of tomorrow’, but the novel delivers a very yesterday set of sf tropes: a pinch of Dick, a scattering of Gibson. Most notably. the central topic of the novel, the establishment of an entire virtual town of Red Men upon which marketing and other ideas can be tested, is a tired and belated retread of Fred Pohl’s 1955 story ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ (from the collection Alternating Currents). The rest of the book reads like a sub-par episode of Nathan Barley, which is very far from being a recommendation

The H-Bomb Girl gets praise, but not without caveat:

The worst that can be said of it is that it’s, perhaps, slight. The difficulty, as far as critical judgment is concerned, is to determine how far such an assessment reflects the novel itself, and how much it simply voices a prejudice against children’s literature as such. The latter position, of course, would not be defensible. Yet I finished reading The H-Bomb Girl with a sense of it as a minor addition to the Baxter canon. It treats the same topics as most of his recent fiction has done: alternate history and timelines parsing the same ethical dilemmas of how individual choice creates our mature selves, how much agency we possess as individuals in the face of larger historical forces, what possibilities for escape and for atonement are at our disposal. These are the themes of the Times Tapestry books; the Manifold novels and to an extent the Destiny’ Children books as well. I don’t think it’s just the larger canvas, and greater scope, that these novels provide that is responsible for their greater sense of heft and sway. I think that Baxter’s current Big Theme just needs more space in which to be developed than a novella-length YA title allows. [… But …] all in all The H-Bomb Girl is a find: splendidly evocative of a place and a time, it manages to be morally serious without ever losing its playfulness, its charm or its scouse nous.

The rest is still to come, but are the books just more of the same?

Overall it’s not a shortlist about which I can say me gusto: not, although this has been the complaint of some others, on account of the proportion of ‘mainstream lit’ titles it features, for I don’t see anything wrong in that, but because it’s all rather samey. All of these books are historically-proximate alt-historical or near-future thrillers/adventure stories. […] The best books on the list are probably the Baxter and the Morgan, but none of the titles here embody the mind-stretching, the sense-of-wonder, the conceptual metaphoricity and poetic, imagistic penetration of the SF that first made me fall in love with the genre. […] apart (to some extent) from the Baxter, they’re all rather straightforward texts. Irony is not their idiom. They are books that if they are serious (about dystopia, the situation of the world today etc) are strenuously serious, and that if they are intertextual are ponderously rather than playfully intertextual.

Of course, elsewhere James thought The Execution Channel had “an ending of hope and wonder and fun and brilliance and audacity.” The most satisfying thing about watching discussion of the shortlist this year, actually, as I was almost saying earlier, is that every book on the shortlist (bar The Red Men, admittedly) seems to have its advocates this year; Cheryl Morgan fancies The Raw Shark Texts, Nick Hubble (in that thread I just linked) is for The Carhullan Army, etc etc. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting the Clarke judges have got it right, or anything; just that it’s fun to watch.

London Meeting: Paul Kincaid

The guest at tonight’s London Meeting is Paul Kincaid, critic and author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction. He will be interviewed by Graham Sleight.

The meeting will be held at The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here. The meeting is free and open to anyone who’s interested, and the interview will start at 7pm, although there’ll be people around in the bar from 6, and possibly from a bit earlier than that.

Review of 2007

And in other news, this should have started arriving over the weekend:

Torque Control — editorial
Vector Reviewers’ Poll — the best books of 2007, compiled by Kari Sperring
Threes and 2007s — the films of 2007, by Colin Odell and Mitch LeBlanc
Transmission, Interrupted — the TV of 2007 (and the start of a regular column) by Saxon Bullock
Logic and Loving Books — Laurie J Marks and Kelly Link, in conversation at last year’s Wiscon
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Paul N. Billinger
Foundation Favourites — a column by Andy Sawyer
Resonances — a column by Stephen Baxter
The New X — a column by Graham Sleight

As you’ll see, this is an issue that marks a few changes. For one thing, it’s bigger than usual (48 pages, up from 36); for another, we’ve inherited a few features that aren’t making the jump to Matrix’s spiffy new online home; and finally it’s a transitional issue, as Kari Sperring starts to take over from Paul Billinger as reviews editor, compiling this year’s reviewers’ poll. Many thanks to Paul for all his work over the years, and welcome to Kari!

As ever, comments on all aspects of the issue are welcomed (as are confirmations that it has arrived! As part of my preparation for the “It Was Ten Years Ago Today” panel at Eastercon, I read through the relevant back-issues of Ansible, and was cheered, or something, to see an announcement that some parts of the January mailing had gone missing. Some things stay the same, it seems).

Orbital: Day Four


  • It Was Ten Years Ago Today. My last panel of the convention, and one of five panels looking back at different eras of British fandom and sf to mark the 50th anniversary of the BSFA (the others being It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, etc). I didn’t make it to any of the others — though I wish I had, so reports would be welcomed — but I thought this went pretty well, managing to cover some of the big events of the 90s (i.e. Interthingy) as well as actually talking about the sf of the period a bit. The other panellists were James Bacon, Claire Brialey, Pat Rigby-McMurray, and Ian Sorensen.
  • You’re Reading It Wrong. The description for this said, “Do you need to know genre to read genre? Do you need to know an author’s previous work to critically assess their latest work? Is it even possible to “mis-read” a book? To whose opinion (authors, critics, fans) shoul we give the most weight?” All interesting questions, but I felt the panel talked around them rather than talked about them, more than I would have liked, anyway.
  • Darker Than Potter. Another YA panel, and aside from some of the panellists occasionally ignoring the moderator’s question and choosing to answer an entirely different question, I thought this went really well — lots of insight into how the YA market has changed over the last 15 or so years, particularly from Neil Gaiman.
  • Closing Ceremony. This was at times a bit shambolic (particularly when announcing some of the art and cyberdrome awards, to the point of being disrespectful to the winners), at times charming (particularly with regards to the big pink pig, and Judith Proctor’s evident glow at how the con has gone). So everything you expect from a closing ceremony, really. Eddie Cochrane picked up the Doc Weir award.
  • Decoding the SF of 1958. Another BSFA-related panel, in that the jumping off point was to discuss the shortlist for the BSFA’s special 1958 award. Although they never got into the specific works in as much detail as I would like (and although it was moved at the last minute from a room that admittedly may have been larger than required to one that was smaller than required) this was still a very interesting panel, with a good spread of opinions and lots of audience input. May also be transcribed for Vector; the panel was Graham Sleight, Claire Brialey, Tanith Lee and Peter Harrow.

Purchases. Oh dear.

Interzone: the first anthology, edited by John Clute, Colin Greenland and David Pringle
Interzone: the second anthology, edited by John Clute, David Pringle, and Simon Ounsley
Pasquale’s Angel by Paul J McAuley
Red Dust by Paul J McAuley
Synners by Pat Cadigan
The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod
The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod
Let’s Put the Future Behind Us by Jack Womack
Babylon Babies by Maurice G Dantec
Was by Geoff Ryman
The Humanoids by Jack Williamson
The Deep by John Crowley
Roderick by John Sladek
The Shores of Light by Edmund Wilson
Classics and Commercials by Edmund Wilson

In my defence, (1) the last five came from Graham, with whom Nic and I stayed for the duration of the con, and who was having a book clear-out; (2) several of them are upgrades-to-hardback rather than additions to to-be-read; (3) I got six for £10; and (4) none of the others cost me more than £1.50. But still. I suppose this is what Mondays in the dealer’s room are for. (Oh, and I picked up several back-issues of Foundation as well.)


  • I saw badge number 1501 today, although I gather that due to a technical hitch they didn’t actually use every single number, and that the final warm body count was something like 1300. Which is still double last year.
  • I discovered today that I hadn’t really ventured into the labyrinthine corridors of the Radisson. I thought I had, but no. It is more confusing than I could possibly have imagined. There are occasional internal windows, and you think, “how on earth have I ended up looking out over that?”
  • Most incongruous recommendation of the weekend: Tanith Lee recommending Neal Asher “if you like 50s sf”. Well, yes, in some ways, I suppose
  • I really hate it when conventions end, particularly ones like this that felt so full and busy all weekend. Thanks (and congratulations) to all involved for a job very well done indeed.

And … collapse.

Orbital: Day Three

Yet more panels:

  • Politics in YA SF. With China Mieville, Cory Doctorow, Amanda Hemingway, Ruth O’Reilly, and Martin McGrath moderating. One of the best panels I’ve been to — lots of discussion and debate, and they touched on a lot of interested points, such as whether or not growing up is an inherently political state, if it is then in what way, and to what extent YA fiction tends to avoid structuralist political critique in favour of individualistic political critique (and to what extent that’s a problem). This is another one I hope to include in Vector at some point.
  • Neil Gaiman’s GoH spot. Not really my thing, I have to admit. Two readings, one of which (“Orange”, from The Starry Rift) worked pretty well, the other of which (part of the first chapter of The Graveyard Book) worked less well, a story about Neil Gaiman’s Eastercon Experiences which had the feel of being told many times before, and a question and answer section in which someone would ask about an upcoming project and Gaiman would answer without giving any indication as to what said project actually was (which meant I had no idea what he was talking about in response to half such questions).
  • Arthur C Clarke Retrospective. Graham Sleight moderating, Edward James, Martin McGrath, Ian McDonald and a man whose name I have temporarily forgotten but who was Clarke’s secretary for a couple of years in the eighties. Good discussion of Clarke’s work and influence. Made me want to go to the dealer’s room and buy all the Clarke I don’t have, although I resisted the urge.
  • BSFA Awards results discussion. Unfortunately (but understandably) focused on the novels, in the order in which they were eliminated in the STV ballot — Chabon, Reynolds, MacLeod, Talbot, Morgan, McDonald. I was surprised/impressed that Chabon and MacLeod were in the bottom half and Talbot/Morgan was in the bottom half; I think I also disagreed with everything the panel (Chris Hill, Mattia Valente, Liz Batty and, er, someone else whose name I’ve temporarily forgotten) said about most of the books, but there you go.
  • Everyone’s a Critic. The “online reviews” panel, with Coln Harvey moderating, and me, Paul Raven, Andrew Ducker and Tony Lee as panellists, although it very quickly evolved int a whole-room discussion. I’m not sure how much new ground we covered, but it was a fun discussion.


F&SF, March
Asimov’s, April/May
Illyria by Elizabeth Hand
Hereafter and After by Richard Parks
A bacon sandwich

As you may have guessed, I don’t have any fiction magazine subscriptions at the moment, although I hope to start renewing around July/August, so I’ve been picking up issues on the strength of what I’ve heard about individual stories. The bacon sandwich was served late night in the atrium — how did I miss these on Friday and Saturday?


  • Mitch Benn, as they say, rocked the hizzay. I think my favourite bit was probably Burt Chewbaccarach.
  • I didn’t go to the panel for obvious reasons, but my spies tell me the Not the Clarke panellists ended up split 3-2 in favour of The H-Bomb Girl over The Execution Channel (but The Execution Channel people could all live with The H-Bomb Girl and two of The H-Bomb Girl people couldn’t live with The Execution Channel winning. The were also unanimous in their disapproval of The Red Men. Elimination order was The Red Men < The Raw Shark Texts < Black Man < The Carhullan Army < the last two.

EDIT: Also, it’s SNOWING!

Orbital: Day Two


  • Mythology in Fantasy. I have never seen a 10am panel as well-attended as this one. The power of Gaiman, I suppose. Good discussion of how and why writers use pre-existing mythology in their fantasy, though; the other panellists were Maura McHugh, Nic Clarke, Sarah Singleton and Liz Williams.
  • China Mieville GoH talk. Probably the programme item of the convention so far: a vigorous defence of intelligent, in-depth reading, and an exploration of why some people get so annoyed by the same, to the point of saying “it’s only a story”. I recorded it, so if the transcript coms out ok hopefully it will be appearing in a Vector near you relatively soon.
  • Fantastic London. More Gaiman, along with Geoff Ryman and Sci-Fi London chair Louis Savy, all modeated by Graham Sleight. Much talk of the palimpsest effect of London, and stories of how even when you make something up about London it turns out to be true.
  • Right to Reply. This was my panel of the day; moderated by Edward James, and the other panellists Christopher Priest, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Adam Roberts, a discussion of how and whether (and indeed why) authors should respond to reviews. Much livelier (and funnier) discussion than I was anticipating from a 9pm panel about reviewing.


Celebration, edited by Ian Whates
Gateways to Forever by Mike Ashley
Interzone 215


  • It’s confirmed: the 2010 Eastercon will be back at the Radisson, with Guests of Honour Alastair Reynolds, Liz Williams, Mike Carey, and Fran and John Dowd.
  • The Gollancz table in the dealer’s room has copies of some of the shiny new fantasy promotion they’re doing:

    Not pictured are Lud-in-the-Mist, The Dragon Waiting, and one other I can’t remember. They’ll be out in late April, apparently.

Liveblogging the BSFA Awards

… and here we are. What will win? Brasyl seemed the front-runner, but talking to various people it seems there may have been a late surge for The Execution Channel. Not long now, though.

EDIT 1: We start with a round of applause for Arthur C Clarke.

EDIT 2: Greg Pickersgill is talking about the BSFA 50th anniversary, saying that it’s “strongly arguable that without the influence of the BSFA the science fiction community as we know it today would likely exist in a much less useful form or not at all” (slight paraphrase). Now he’s announing a life membership for Peter Mabey as the longest-serving BSFA member still paying annual dues. Apparently he’s in the bar.

EDIT 3: Flick is demonstrating this year’s award — origami rockets!

EDIT 4: The first award is the 1958 Award. Rog Peyton points out that only one of the books (Non-Stop) was actually published in the UK in 1958. China Mieville announces the winner … Non-Stop! Jo Fletcher accepts on Aldiss’ behalf.

EDIT 5: Next up, Best Artwork. This one’s presented by Charles Stross and goes to “Cracked World”, the cover of disLocations. The artist says it’s the first award he’s ever won

EDIT 6: Tanith Lee announces Best Short Fiction, which goes to … Ken MacLeod for “Lighting Out”, in disLocations. Ian Whates accepts, and thanks everyone on MacLeod’s behalf.

EDIT 7: And finally, Best Novel, presented by Neil Gaiman. The winner is … Brasyl, of course. Ian McDonald thanks all and sundry, and says he is overjoyed.