Hopeful Monsters

Hopeful Monsters coverThe strangest things in Hiromi Goto’s first collection happen at night. The first two stories in Hopeful Monsters are little more than experiments in capturing the distinctive textures of night — the seeming loudness of a stray thought, in the claustrophobic intensity of “Night” (1993), and contrariwise the freeing anonymity of darkness in “Osmosis” (1998) — but they set a precedent for what is to come. For example, it’s in the middle of the night that “Tales from the Breast” (1995), which is for most of its length a relatively uninspiring portrait of the travails of breastfeeding, making in a somewhat laboured fashion the point that just because something is biologically natural doesn’t make it enjoyable, suddenly blooms into an extraordinary image. The baby is demanding to be nursed, and the skin of your breasts (the story is told in the second person, in parts) is so tight that

Like a pressured zipper, it tears, spreading across the surface of your chest, directed by your fingers, tears in a complete circle around the entire breast.

There is no blood.

You lean slightly forward and the breast falls gently into your cupped hands. The flesh is a deep red and you wonder at its beauty, how flesh becomes food without you asking or even wanting it. You set the breast on your lap and slice your other breast. Two pulsing orbs still spurting breast milk. (63-4)

This is typical of Goto’s prose — a cleverly used perspective, short descriptive sentences or sentence fragments, an emphasis on physicality — but what’s really interesting and impressive about it, I think, is the way it mingles horror and release. The separation of self from self should (surely?) be a horrific image, and certainly “two pulsing orbs” is the sort of language you’d expect to see in a horror story; yet the horror is a backnote. Because of the gentle, bloodless ease with which it happens (and the weight of uncomfortableness that has been built up through the rest of the story) the dominant emotion evoked is freedom. What happens next — the wife places her detached breasts on her husband, they “seep into his skin, soft whisper of cells joining cells” (64), and he wakes up in shock — is more traditionally horrific, albeit refracted through the wife’s more sanguine perspective. And, in fact, the story ends with the wife falling asleep, such that if you really want to you can read the entire episode as a dream. But neither of these things, for me, diminishes the power of that initial image, and I think in a way it’s emblematic of one of Goto’s core concerns: to challenge us to reclaim things from which we would normally recoil.

She is, for sure, not always successful. “Stinky Girl” (1996), about a fat, coloured (her terms) 33-year-old woman, wants to be about exactly this subject, but falls flat. Goto goes to some lengths to establish that the titular smell that adheres to the narrator, driving away passers-by, is “not a causal phenomenon”, that it has nothing to do with Stinky’s physique or hygiene. Stinky is not abnormal “medically speaking”, but “not normal in the commonly held sense of the word” (39). And we are told with equal carefulness that none of Stinky’s attributes have any reflection on her character; indeed she is “blessed with a certain higher intelligence, a certain sensitivity which enables me to more than endure the trials of this existence” (45). (The ego probably helps, too.) The coup-de-grace up to which the story leads is the idea that smell is as subjective as, say, visual standards of beauty: “If one were taught as a very small child that roses were disgusting […] would one not despite the very thought of their scent? It may be that I smell beautiful beyond the capacity of human recognition” (46). The truth of this is apparently born out by an encounter with a child who, unlike everyone else, does not react to Stinky’s stench. But for me, at the very least the ask is too big, and at worst the story is being deliberately disingenuous for the sake of a striking idea. I don’t doubt that there is a socially constructed element of smell, but there are also sound reasons why we experience (or are taught to experience) the smell of rotting meat and faeces as bad, in exactly the way that there aren’t sound reasons for prejudices based on weight or skin colour.

Arguably the problem with “Stinky Girl” is that it takes place in a near-vacuum; at least, Stinky doesn’t have much in the way of personal attachments, and the stories that take place within deftly sketched family units are mostly more effective. (I was reminded, occasionally, of the similar care with human relationships in Maureen McHugh’s fiction.) There are still some transferrals that are too obvious, as when the mother in “Drift” (1999), unable to come to terms with her daughter’s lesbianism, ends up feeling like the child in the relationship. But in a story like “Tilting” (1993), in which a young girl, her brother and her father meet their mother and grandparents on their return from a trip to Japan, the faultlines are delineated with a minimum of judgement; the memories of the recent trip provoke memories of earlier trips with not a little elegance. Similarly, “Home Stay” (1999), which describes the odd relationship that develops between an Asian man and the parents of his estranged wife, manages to portray a mutual incomprehension born of imagined difference (which is no less “real” than “real difference”, of course) without condescending to anyone involved. In each of these stories, it’s worth noting, the family is multi-racial; an Asian (usually Japanese) man has married a Canadian woman, or vice versa. It seems only natural. Families, in Hopeful Monsters, are always in flux, always sprawling things without true edges or borders, breeding grounds of hybridity in just about every way; which is why they are natural focal points for the sort of tension between prejudice and acceptance that Goto seems to be interested in.

The fantastic is deployed sparingly and, although it may be dramatic, as often as not (as in “Tales from the Breast”) it’s the questionable, equipoisal kind, where it’s up to you to decide how much really happened. The closest Goto comes to a straightforward horror story is probably “From Across a River” (2001), in which a mother is confronted with an unnerving faceless manifestation of the daughter she lost some years earlier. In “Camp Americana” (2005), we encounter one of Goto’s less charitable characterisations, in the form of a Japanese grandfather, on a camping trip with his wife, his son, his son’s Canadian-born wife, and his two grandchildren. He is not shy about his traditional — which in this story is to say sexist — views, which can make him hard to endure: “His son’s wife wasn’t raised properly, that was obvious […] the females of this country are uncivilized” (116). The conflict that develops is left unresolved when, on a solo night-time trip to the bathroom, the grandfather falls and experiences a visionary hallucination in which his grandchildren appear with the heads of cats, and his wife’s disembodied head and neck wrap around him like a snake. Once more, the horrific potential of the images themselves is secondary; what’s important is the instability in how they are explained, with a succession of possibilities being quickly raised, each trumping the last — they are creatures that have taken his family’s forms, they are a dream, they are his family having gone through a secret transformation, they are a stroke-vision. I think it’s the impossibility of accommodation that Goto is drawing on here, or perhaps the trauma that results from a rigid mind refusing to bend.

And then there’s the title story, which is the closest the collection comes to science fiction, which is presumably why it’s on the reading list for this year’s Foundation Masterclass in SF Criticism (which is, in turn, why I acquired the book in the first place). It’s here, in a quasi-scientific epigraph, that we get a definition of “hopeful monsters” — which turn out to be that small percentage of “macromutations” that can “with chance and luck, equip an organism with radically beneficial adaptive traits with which to survive and prosper” (135). Immediately after this, we encounter a pregnant woman, and so wonder: will her child be such a creature?

The first part of the story is a description of Hisa’s pregnancy, of the support her “sweet” husband Bobby attempts to give her, and of her conversations with her superstitious (but possibly also actually psychic) mother; the second part describes the birth itself; and the third part describes Hisa’s reactions to her child’s unusual physiology — she is born with what the doctors describe as a “caudal appendage”, and what Hisa sees as a tail — and the decision she makes about it. The tone throughout is unsentimental, from the physical and psychological discomforts of pregnancy (“Ridley Scott had a lot to answer for, she thought”, 138) to the more dramatic discomforts of birth (“Hisa pushed and pushed. She held her breath, pushing down with her abdominal muscles, a squirt of residual fecal mater forced along as well, she pushed, pain no longer a sensation but a entity …” 144), and the less cute details of a newborn baby (the stain of bruising, the strangeness of the fontanelle, the unpleasantness of poo). But at times the point seems laboured, as though Goto intends Hisa’s experiences to be as alien to us as detaching breasts; such an aim would fit with the collection’s overarching investigation of what is really alien to us and what is simply unexamined normality, except that I’m not convinced pregnancy and birth fall into either category.

More interesting is Hisa’s arc, from pre-birth nerves to an understandable franticness after the birth (when she senses that something is “wrong” with her child, but nobody will tell her what), to her attempts to come to terms with the abnormality. At times, the story becomes the inverse of “Stinky Girl”: “If she looked at it long enough, would she lose this skin-crawling repulsion?” (153). But here Goto has an extra twist to add, since it turns out that Hisa was also born with a tale, subsequently removed, and thus has to come to terms with the idea that what she perceived as strangeness is also a part of her. The latter is clearly more challenging; there is a dramatic difference between Hisa’s initial reaction to the sight of her child — “Hisa stared. What moisture left in her mouth withered: a bitter dust on her tongue. Her heart boomed inside her ears” (149) — and Hisa’s reaction to the news about her own heritage: “The room ballooned, a sudden vacuum. […] The fluorescent light buzzed with frenetic electrons. […] The baby’s breathing split into air, heart, blood, hemoglobin. Hisa gasped. The world cracked. Then the shards slid back to create an entire picture once more” (155). Ultimately, Hisa decides to steal away her child, so that the doctors will not remove the tail; an effective grace note is that just before she goes, worried that she doesn’t have enough practice at being “abnormal” she calls a lesbian couple from her prenatal classes to ask for advice, and is given the short shrift she deserves.

What’s somewhat perplexing is how this story is meant to be understood as in any sense speculative. Caudal appendages are a known phenomenon; vestigial functionality is rare but not completely unknown; so the only point at which the story might cross over into unexplored territory is the suggestion that Hisa’s child’s tale is an inherited feature, not a developmental abnormality. (So far as I know, caudal appendages are always the result of developmental abnormality.) Yet Goto writes in an afterword that the story was inspired by Wendy Pearson’s essay “Sex/uality and the Hermaphrodite in Science Fiction, or, The Revenge of Herculin Barbin”, from Edging into the Future (2002). The parallel, presumably, is intended to be with the way medicalisation of human biology ends up excluding all but the two “true” biological sexes (that is, excludes intersex individuals); thus Hisa’s child is, we are meant to believe, similarly excluded by a medical establishment that doesn’t recognize a true mutation when it’s right in front of them. But as with “Stinky Girl”, the parallel seems to me inexact in ways that undermine the story. A caudal appendage simply is not functional in the way that genitalia are — and if the sfnal point of the story is that this one is, then it doesn’t do the work necessary to make this plain. A reflexive grasp in a newborn is not enough to convince me that a tail would be a “radically beneficial adaptive trait” for a modern human (or that it could be a marker for other, more profound mutations), which leaves the story looking rather hollow. It does occur to me, though, that there’s another possibility: perhaps we are meant to be thinking this way, to reinforce the ambiguity of Hisa’s final decision. Even as she leaves, it’s not clear to what extent Hisa is acting for her child, and to what extent she’s acting for herself. It may be that Hisa is, in a wishful sense, the true hopeful monster, walking away into the night.

Return of the Hat

It’s hard for me to judge the new Indiana Jones film on its own – having watching the original trilogy over and over again on wet Bank Holidays, it’s inevitable that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will never quite live up to the rosy-tinted memories of my youth. So really, my criteria was this: has George Lucas stamped all over my childhood for the fourth time?

Luckily, the answer is no. Maybe it’s my downplayed expectations, after the Star Wars prequels were so very very bad, but I was pleasantly surprised with the film – it’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, no, but it’s a reasonable return (and end?) to the franchise.
Continue reading “Return of the Hat”

London Meeting: Andrew J Wilson

As noted yesterday, the guest at tonight’s London Meeting is writer/critic/editor Andrew J. Wilson. He’ll be interviewed by Tony Keen.

The venue is the same as usual: 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 (not including me, this month) around in the bar from 6, and possibly from a bit earlier than that.



iz216coverIn Elisabeth Vonarburg’s “The Invisibles” (translated in collaboration with Howard Scott), ecotastrophe has become a story to be faithfully retold every Christmas. Told for most of its length as an utterly absorbing second-person narration, it describes a future in which extreme climate change has driven humanity into domed cities, and is one of those rare short stories that fully creates the future as another country. The technological innovations, such as “integrated circuits” grafted into peoples’ hands, are sufficiently worked-through that they are explained almost entirely by the ways in which they are used, such as built-in Oyster cards. It’s groundwork that frees Vonarburg to delve into the characters she (or her narrator: the story eventually resolves into the first person, told by an observer) wishes to imagine, and the sights they see. Or the things they hear, since “The Invisibles” is a story in which sound, or its absence, plays as much of a role as more visual stimuli; early on we’re told that “silence, nowadays, is the rule”, and there’s a sense in which it’s the wheezing of the public transport or the bubbling of a fountain that grab the attention, not the sight of the dome above. The story itself, which imagines the journeys of two individuals “unmoored by circumstances” from familiar to unfamiliar regions of the domes, is a convincing portrait of loneliness, uncertainty and alienation. For my money, it’s the standout story in Interzone 216. The only problem with it — and you may be ahead of me here — is that Interzone 216 is a special issue devoted to mundane sf, and the strengths of “The Invisibles” are largely incidental to its mundanity.

“The idea,” says Geoff Ryman, in his introduction, referring to the prohibitive tone of the original mundane manifesto, “was that Mundanity would work like the Dogme school of film-making to create a space for different kinds of sf. It was about what we didn’t want. Here’s what we do.” A cynic might point to his statement later in the introduction that “if [mundane sf] gives itself some slack on the science, it does so to open up a new possibility” as a cleverly-inserted get-out clause (aha! We’re not as dogmatic as you thought!), but perhaps it would be fairer not to hold mundane sf’s advocates to their past words too strongly, and just take this as what the publicity splurge obviously positions it as: a relaunch. The adversarial tone of the manifesto — which, tellingly, is no longer online, although you can find traces of it in discussions scattered across the sf blogosphere and beyond, or a complete copy in Vector 245 — ensured that the original launch of mundane sf as a concept, way back in 2004, was comprehensively bungled; much hot air later, from both pro- and anti- camps, and you can’t blame anyone if their first reaction to a whole issue of Interzone devoted to the stuff is hostile, and about the only good thing you can say is that the “movement” outlived expectations. But it remains, to my mind, a perfectly reasonable ideological position about sf, for two reasons that Ryman articulates: one, that stories about the future should make “an effort in good faith to show a future” (i.e., and not be fantasy in drag), and two, that a lot of sf’s strength derives from originality (i.e., and tropes that are “tired” can end up being, among other things, inadvertently consolatory, rather than the challenging literature that sf, I think many would be comfortable saying, should aspire to be). Whether or not it’s actually the “best possible” sf is basically irrelevant: taking the idea that it might be as a provocation isn’t the worst thing a writer could do.

What it comes down to, I guess, is whether you agree with the mundanes’ implicit argument that in the contemporary field the pendulum has swung too far away from sf that focuses on the probable, and too far towards wild speculation. There’s evidence either way. You could look, for example, at awards shortlists. Certainly, on this year’s Hugo shortlist for Best Novel, only one nominee — Charles Stross’ Halting State — is unarguably mundane, having explicitly been written to meet mundane constraints. (Alien communications buzz out Rollback, while parallel worlds see off Brasyl and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.) On the other hand, arguably only one nominee — John Scalzi’s The Last Colony — is meaningfully anti-mundane, in its cheerful use of many familiar tropes from sf’s history; and this year’s Clarke Award shortlist drew some fire for, among other things, basically being too mundane. Another way to approach the question, though, would be to look at content. It would be fair, for instance, to ask where the climate change stories are. Stross once charmingly described the singularity as the unavoidable turd in the punchbowl of sf, but you could easily argue the the turd should be climate change, or at least the confluence of climate change and peak oil. But, with a few exceptions — Kim Stanley Robinson is the obvious one — the stories aren’t there, certainly not in the numbers that post-singularity tales now are. A reasonable number of works have climate change as a backdrop, but very few engage with it as an issue that could define our next fifty years.

And of those that do engage with it, plenty take the same approach as “The Invisibles”, and lose sight of any connection with our world. I’ve already said Vonarburg’s story is fine work, but there’s not a thing about it that couldn’t have been achieved equally well using a domed city on another planet. This is, if you like, a problem of affect, and it rears its head again in IZ216’s other major climate change story, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s “Endra — From Memory”, except that this time it’s actively to the tale’s detriment. We’re a bit further into the future this time (I think), and the tale is mostly told through the memoirs of one Melizan kem Gishcar-Shwy. He — sex is never specified, but the name sounds male to my ears — is a “Trading Monitor” for Lavrant City, which means his job is to arrange inspections of ships’ cargo when they arrive and leave, and he’s fascinated by one particular arrival, the charismatic Captain Endra YuiduJin. (I’m not actually convinced Endra is portrayed as charismatic so much as she is repeatedly described by Melizan as charismatic; but I’ll let that lie, because my main issue with the story is elsewhere.) Through Malazin’s recollections, we learn a bunch of stuff: that this Earth has become a waterworld; that the waters are still rising; that the population of Earth is now estimated to be half a billion, and declining; and that Endra is in search of a lost city, where the legends have it that “all the treasures lost to the rising waters remain pristine and perfect; where all men love knowledge and peace; where there is no hunger, no injustice, no cruelty, and sadness has been forgotten”. She sails away in search; she returns briefly, two years later; and then is never seen again. It’s a perfectly reasonable story of its type, but I can’t treat it as a good-faith attempt to engage with the future of our planet because it does absolutely nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished in a secondary-world fantasy setting, and a pretty cosily romanticised one at that. There isn’t much injustice or cruelty visible in Lavrant City, so Endra’s search seems a little pointless. In his introduction, Ryman notes that many of the stories that ended up in the issue were surprisingly hopeful, “at a time when the future looks so dark”; but to my mind, the future of “Endra — From Memory” isn’t so much hopeful as thoroughly domesticated.

Two stories which aspire to be a bit more thorny are both set in near-future America. R. R. Angell’s “Remote Control” is narrated by a US army private stationed on the Mexico/US border; his assignment is to monitor the “Atco-Johnson Perimeter Stations” that keep the border clear. They’re solar-powered gun turrets with webcams, essentially, and any patriotic American citizen can pay five dollars to log on and take control of one for a ten-minute stint. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to pop off some shots at illegal immigrants. This is, or should be, harsh stuff, and certainly has some nice touches — “Like the training says, if someone breaks into your house and you kill them it is self-defense; a homeowner has the right to do that. They call it the Castle Precedent, and it changed the way we do everything. Only Americans patrol our borders. It would be illegal otherwise” — but the military banter that drives the story is tiresome (even if deliberately parodic), and the ending, in which the system is effectively subverted, feels like a cop-out. You’re left thinking of the much better, because more committed to the logic of its premise, version of the same story that someone like Paolo Bacigalupi would write. More ambitious is Billie Aul’s “The Hour is Getting Late”, in which a critic provides commentary on “Woodstock 2044”, a VR-enhanced tribute to the spirit of the sixties (or, more accurately, what people in 2044 imagine the spirit of the sixties to be), while trying to avoid being manipulated back into marriage by her artist ex. Aul’s problem, in a sense, is the opposite to Angell’s. She does follow the logic of her concepts, for the most part — there’s the simple cynicism with which relationships are treated, for instance, or the glimpses of the lives of “Fare folk” living behind the “Manhattan wall” that keep popping up on news bulletins:

Jessica was amused by how much the hippies resembled the Fare folk. Hopefully the Fare folk were only looking for “three days of peace, love, and music”. Whatever they wanted, they were going to end up back on their farms. They should know how lucky they were to have that. There were countries where people like them were just locked up in camps to starve to death. If you couldn’t do work a robot couldn’t do, why should you be allowed to put your carbon footprint on the planet at all?

The suggestion of complexity here is, to my mind, very efficient; you get the issue, what people think about the issue, and an idea of where the issue comes from, all in one paragraph. (Similarly, though pop culture is a notoriously treacherous area for sf, Aul manages to make the scene of 2044 feel like it has a little depth, that it’s not just about aping the stuff we’re familiar with.) But the telling doesn’t have the vigour that it needs to make these concepts really bite; it’s just sentence after straightforward, unadventurous sentence. I suspect it’s intended to embody Jessica’s lack of interest in and understanding of the world beyond her horizon — in the story’s final paragraph, the Fare folk attack the Wall, and she wonders, deadpan, “what in the world they thought they could accomplish by doing that”. But, unfortunately, for the most part it is simply leaden. The story is worth reading — something I’m not sure I can say about Angell’s effort — but it’s in spite of this blankness of attitude, not because of it.

And, despite the implicit argument that mundane sf should be a way for sf to renew itself, I can’t say that either Aul’s story or Angell’s really recharges my imagination of an American future. More interesting is Anil Menon’s “Into the Night”, in which an Indian father travels to visit his daughter, and finds that he can cope with changes in the world but not changes in the people he knows — although the father’s resistance to genetics and evolutionary biology comes across as arrogant ignorance on his part, when I suspect we’re meant to read it as a failure of communication on hers. But the most provocative stories in the issue, from a mundane standpoint, are those that top and tail it, by Lavie Tidhar and Geoff Ryman, respectively.

Ryman’s “Talk is Cheap” offers a richer world than anything else in the issue; or perhaps just denser. In its few pages, it packs in cultural comment, weak AI, social recategorisation, water shortages, photosynthetic skin, self-heating paint, and much more, a world where “Reality is a tiny white stable dot in the middle of all this info,” and “Everything else, all the talk, is piled up sky high, prioritised, processed and offered back.” It’s not a new conception of the future, but the seriousness with which it is treated is enough to make the story stand out. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the technical aspects of the story — the way Ryman filters all this information through the present-tense perspective of one cranky old guy, whose job it is to go places in the real world and check their environmental qualities against records — are more interesting than the emotional aspects, or the world itself. It’s more of a good-faith attempt to portray the experience of living in a highly textured future than it is a good-faith attempt to portray that future for its own sake; but it’s so effective at that portrayal that it feels churlish to complain. (As it would be to question whether all the ideas that Ryman works in are, strictly, mundane.)

Tidhar’s “How to Make Paper Airplanes”, meanwhile, is a brief piece set on islands in the Republic of Vanuatu. The first half of the story is pure tour-guide, a series of facts and figures about the islands that establish their separateness to the lives of us rich Westerners, despite being on the same planet; the second half introduces us to four Americans (I think) working at a small base on one of the islands, three of whom are carrying out various kinds of research, and one of whom (the narrator) is a shop-keeper. I like Lavie Tidhar’s short fiction, and this has the precision of setting and emotion that I’ve come to expect; but neither half of “How to Make Paper Airplanes” is science fiction. The story’s place in the magazine is justified, presumably, by the story that one of the researchers is writing, and the comments the others make about it:

“I’m writing a science fiction story about us,” Sam Friedman says. “It has no aliens in it, no commercial space travel, no telepathy.”

“You’re a fucking alien,” Jimmy Morgan says.

“I can tell you how the story ends,” Sam says, ignoring him.

I say, “How?”

“One night,” Sam says, and the candle makes his eyes twinkle, “one night we get drunk and mix up all the experiments together. Ben uses my self-fermenting coconuts for his kava-pop experiment. Jimmy hooks up a generator to power things up –”

“It’s not that simple–” Jimmy starts.

“And then,” Sam says, again ignoring him, “the whole thing explodes. It’s a huge fireball. It makes a crater the size of Sola. But we all survive anyway, I’m not quite sure how yet.”

Sounds more like infernokrusher than mundane sf, right? And the proposed story doesn’t get any more plausible: it turns out that the source of the explosion is “a revolutionary new fuel”, which launches a Vanuatu space programme. This despite the fact that Sam later argues that sf isn’t a license to make up anything you want. The story-within-a-story is a striking contrast to what we actually see of the islands, and the comments made about which technologies are actually useful for their situation, and how contact with the West has really affected the islanders. (One particularly effective exchange reports the remarks of an islander, untranslated but dotted with words such as “virus”. The point is painfully obvious.) Sam is, in other words, the sort of sf writer that mundane sf wants to get through to: the sort who don’t see the world around them as a rich enough prompt for stories.

Which brings us back to the central question raised by this issue of Interzone. It’s not a bad issue — Vonarburg’s story is very good, and the stories by Ryman, Tidhar and Aul all have something to recommend them — but does it, as a whole, make a convincing case for mundane sf? Ironically, it’s probably Tidhar’s story — which isn’t sf at all — that best articulates the value of what something like mundane sf could offer, which is the value of extrapolating from the world as it is, and not as we imagine it to be, or would like it to be. Too many of the others don’t engage with their futures with the specificity that I’d hope for; with the exception of Ryman’s story, and possibly Aul’s, it’s not hard to see how the same points could have been made by translating the stories into, say, space opera. But perhaps the most telling indication of the failure of these stories to reinvigorate our thinking about the future is to look at who they’re about. In terms of where they’re from, the protagonists are a fairly varied bunch; in terms of how long they’ve lived, not so much. Yarbro’s story is written by an old man recalling his youth; Menon and Ryman deal with old men trying to live with the future they find themselves in; and while technically the narrator of Vonaburg’s story is relatively young, the two subjects of the narrator’s imagining are both elderly. Which means that mundane sf, on the evidence of Interzone 216, isn’t so much about looking forwards and thinking about change as it is about coming to terms; a stance which to my mind harnesses neither the best, nor the most challenging, aspects of sf.

Baroque Cycle: King of the Vagabonds

Previously, on the Baroque Cycle Reading Group:

And now:

King of the Vagabonds coverWell: I wasn’t expecting that. King of the Vagabonds is recognisably by the same author and in the same style as Quicksilver, but for the most part it reads less like a continuation of a story in progress than it does the start of something new.

We take a slight skip back in time, to 1665 London (pre-plague, pre-fire) to meet the oh-so-literally “half-cocked” Jack Shaftoe, one of seven brothers in a working-class family. Soon enough the eldest brother is dead, thanks to a blackly-humorous accident during an attempt to steal a boat’s anchor, but via his execution Jack and another brother, Bob, find themselves paying work as hangers-on. Specifically, they are paid to hang on the legs of execution victims in order to hasten their death. Jack’s character and circumstances established, we jump forward to 1683 (mid-way between the two Waterhouse narratives in book one), and find that Jack has become a vagabond (and, offscreen, a widower and father), although he signs up as a mercenary just in time for the Battle of Vienna. During the battle, for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, he ends up chasing an Ostrich into a harem and there rescues an actual female character. Eliza is (1) young, (2) a native of Qwlghm, (3) extremely smart, (4) extremely beautiful, and (5) generally all-around perky; and after her rescue she and Jack travel across the continent together, each spending a good deal of time lecturing the other about their personal history. They spend some time in Leipzig, where they participate in “the Doctor’s” scheme to sell shares in a silver mine, before eventually fetching up in Amsterdam. There Eliza becomes a businesswoman and helps to finance the Monmouth Rebellion; meanwhile, Jack goes for a wander around France, ostensibly with the goal of raising some money to care for his children.

For a while, I was convinced that King of the Vagabonds is hands-down better than Quicksilver; having finished it, I think it’s no less flawed, but at least it’s flawed in different ways, and has some strengths that Quicksilver lacked. As I said, the novel is recognisably of a piece with its predecessor — it has the inconsistently anachronistic language, the engagement with famous figures and events, the skewed perspective on what matters about these things — but they’re put into what to my mind is a better and broader context. The single thread, while it lasts, helps the whole story feel more focused and coherent, while the continent-spanning scope of the story provides a more useful backdrop. There are also fewer, or at least less violent, authorial prods about the Meaning of the Story, and a bit more demonstration. The underlying concerns are the same, but you could say that Quicksilver was Theory and King of the Vagabonds is Practice.

And thanks to the dynamic between Jack and Eliza, King of the Vagabonds is also a much more readable book – at least in its first half. Neither character has what you’d call great depth, and Eliza in particular is unconvincing as a person; sometime there’s a comparison to be written of her, James Morrow’s Jennet and (though she is from a slightly later period), Adam Roberts’ Eleanor as willful historical women interested in the workings of the world, written by men. (For what it’s worth, to my mind Eliza is more convincing than Jennet but less so than Eleanor.) Moreover Stephenson’s character decisions (particularly the contrivance by which Jack and Eliza are separated at the end of the book) tend to the worst excesses and implausibilities of soap-opera plotting. But while it lasts, the relationship between Eliza and Jack is lively and engaging and makes many things forgivable. I think it’s no coincidence that they separate the novel loses its way dramatically, and that the sections dealing with them individually – and Jack’s adventures in particular — are far less interesting than anything they get up to together.

The simple fact of having two non-historical characters talking to each other means that you can have, for instance, Eliza expressing disbelief at Jack’s encounters with the high-born and famous. It grounds the story — there isn’t the sense, which there was in Quicksilver, that there are only famous people in the world, even though quite a lot of famous people eventually turn up – and as a result, I believe in the verisimilitude of Jack and Eliza’s experiences much more than I ever did in those of Waterhouse. And because they offer a radically different view of the world — from their lower-class perspective, you wouldn’t know that Waterhouse and the Royal Society exist — the encounters they do have with historical figures (who tend to be of rather higher class) feel more like the atypical events they should be.

An obvious example is the Doctor – and conveniently he also ties in, I think, to the question of historical uncertainty that we talked about last time. Specifically: The Doctor’s identity seems to be obvious, but he is only actually confirmed to be Leibniz long after he’s left the stage. For a while, when he’s introduced, it’s at least plausible that he could be Newton, or even Waterhouse. This uncertainty of identity – not to mention the pop-culture echo, which I’m sure is deliberate – positions Leibniz as a figure of wonder, rather than the near-equal he was in Quicksilver. His pronouncements are on the edge of plausibility, and the edge of comprehensibility to Jack and Eliza: “It is a mathematical technique so advanced that only two people in the world understand it […] People will use it to build machines that fly through the air like birds, and that travel t other planets” (431). Later, another character summarizes “what the Doctor wants” this way:

“To translate all human knowledge into a new philosophical language, consisting of numbers. To write it down in a vast Encyclopedia that will be a sort of machine, not only for finding old knowledge but for making new, by carrying out certain logical operations on those numbers — and to employ all of this in a great project of bringing religious conflict to an end, and raising Vagabonds up out of squalor and liberating their potential energy — whatever that means.” (476)

Because this is being said by someone who finds the Doctor outlandish – as we do – rather than by someone like Waterhouse who might accept these concepts without blinking, the self-conscious improbability of it is easier to bear. Moreover, because it’s embedded in a more conventional historical narrative, its extraordinariness is more powerful. This paragraph, and a couple of others like it, actually reminded me of nothing so much as Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry sequence, in which modern concepts are transmitted back through time with the hope of changing the course of past events. Almost all the attempts fail, but they fail in ways that highlight the contingency of history; and the “great project” here sounds like it could be exactly that sort of intervention. We should know how this story ends, because it ends with us; but we start to wonder whether that’s the right ending. (Tangentially, it seems odd to me that Baxter skipped over this entire period in his series; it seems ripe for the sort of story he was telling.)

I’ve mentioned the broader canvas of the book a couple of times. There’s a sense that there’s a whole continent in play, and a world beyond that, all gradually being knit together by the developing systems of the age, most notably trade. Against this Jack and Eliza are figures in a landscape; and when, for instance, deus-ex-Enoch turns up and drops some more hints that he’s engaged in (or the motivator behind) Leibniz’ utopian project to lift humanity up and better us, they seem truly improbable because of the vastness against which they are cast. That said, I have to admit there’s a whole level of information in this novel that I’m missing, because my eyes glaze over at the gossipy way in which Stephenson tends to have his characters relate Royal politics and high-level shenanigans. But for whole pages at a time, the sprawling messiness of the Baroque Cycle seems like it might actually be worth something, it seems that the absurd — I can’t think of a better word for it — excess of historical detail might be intended to draw just such a contrast between the landscape and the figures in it. Unfortunately, that theory gets dashed late in the book, when Stephenson suddenly elides part of Jack’s story to get him back to Eliza, and has him comment on it as like “a play, where only the most dramatic parts of the story are shown to the audience, and the tedious bits are assumed to happen offstage” (578), as though Stephenson actually believes that everything he’s told us up to that point is important and directly relevant to the story of Jack, when it so patently isn’t.

I suggested that King of the Vagabonds was the practice to Quicksilver’s theory, and I think it inverts the earlier novel in another way, too. If Quicksilver was about the developing systems of the world, King of the Vagabonds asks simply: what does it mean to be free? And in particular, what does it mean to be free when the world’s web is tightening around you? Jack’s answer, for most of his life to the point we meet him, has been the freedom to roam, the freedom of the vagabond; through his experiences with Eliza (after freeing her), he comes to appreciate the importance of economic freedom. And of course Leibniz’ maths would give humanity as a whole more freedom, freedom to do and act in the world. In its approach to examining this question, King of the Vagabonds feels less like an attempt to convey a historical agenda, and more like an attempt to translate its period for a particular audience. When Jack claims that “I know the zargon [zargon being to this book what phant’sie was to Quicksilver, i.e. annoying] and the code-signs of Vagabonds who, taken together, constitute a sort of (if I may speak poetically) network of information, spreading all over the world, functioning smoothly even when damaged …” (387), it’s still transparently artificial, but because it’s even further removed from the reality of what’s being described than were similar statements in Quicksilver, it’s easier to see it as a gloss.

And you can see the same sort of approach in Stephenson’s descriptions of 17th-century Amsterdam:

In the end, it took Jack several minutes’ looking to allow himself to believe that he was viewing all of the world’s ships at one time — their individual masts, ropes, and spars merging into a horizon through which a few churches and windmills on the other side of it could be made out as dark blurs. Ships entering from, or departing towards, the Ijsselmeer beyond, fired ripping gun-salutes and were answered by Dutch shore-batteries, spawning oozy smoke-clouds that clung about the rigging of all those ships and seemingly glued them all into a continuous fabric, like mud daubed into a wattle of dry sticks. The waves of the sea could be seen as slow-spreading news. (477)

Stephenson clearly fell in love with this setting — more, I would say, even than with London — and though there are awkward bits in paragraphs like this (is that “on the other side of it” really needed? For starters), you get occasional perfect images, such as that last line. “The waves of the sea could be seen as slow-spreading news”. It’s a clear and very precise evocation of the Amsterdam of Stephenson’s imagination: a place of fluidity, a place of trade, and a place where information is king. If the Baroque Cycle can be reduced to anything, this early in reading it, it seems to me that it’s reducible to this: that it’s an expression of information theory; that it’s at pains to show how every human transaction can be described as an exchange of information; and that the process of modernization is the process of learning to recognise and use that fact.

Next up: Odalisque. Date: Friday 6 June. In the meantime, I’m reading the Mundane Interzone, and expect to post about it this time next week.

Jenny-Sue comes to town

I have a strange love-hate relationship with Doctor Who. When it is good, it is very very good, and when it is bad it is torchwood. The Doctor’s Daughter doesn’t leave much doubt as to which category it falls into, and works as an example of the traps new Who falls into and why it so alternates so easily between excellent character-driven SF and utter bobbins.

Much internet speculation abounded before the episode as to why and how the Doctor had a daughter. Are we harking bad to the Hartnell era when the Doctor travelled with his granddaughter, or has that been retconned out of existence forever? It takes about half a minute for the answer to become clear – the Doctor, upon arrival at a mysterious planet, sticks his hand into a machine and faster than you can say “rearranging of haploid DNA to form a new diploid offspring” out springs his clone, already an adult. Bonus points for not using scientific words in a completely nonsensical way, minus several points for growing an entire human in less than ten second.

On this mysterious planet, the human colonists are at war with the Hath. The Hath are one of those ideas which sound really cool on paper, but when you put them onscreen on a TV budget they are comedy fish-people with bongs attached to their faces. Martha is trapped with the Hath, while the Doctor and Donna stay with the humans, and all sides end up following a hidden map to The Source, supposedly the breath of their creator and a potential superweapon. There is running around, the Doctor bonds with his clone daughter Jenny who is perky and does backflips, Donna works out the war has only lasted for seven days and the Doctor saves everything by terraforming the planet. Except Jenny, who gets shot. Except she comes back to life again at the end and flies off into the sunset to save the universe just like her old dad.

The first problem I have with the episode is that it’s so impressed it’s got a proper science fictional idea going on, it doesn’t stop to sit down for a minute and think it all through properly. A war that seems to last forever where the duration is really much shorter and myths propagate faster is a cool idea, but the timescales and logistics don’t quite work for me. What happened to the original colonists? Supposedly the mission commander died and they were plunged into war, but did they all die? Surely one of them must still be alive to put their hand in the magic person-making machine, or does it start running by itself and churning out new soldiers? How many generations and battles and complete annihilations do you need to forget everything about the original mission? Why do they need the Doctor to stick his hand in the machine? Is Time Lord DNA similar enough to human that the machine will work? And for that matter, the Hath and human colonists can’t understand each other, nor do we see any means of translation even at the end where they’re working together, so how did a joint mission work? How can you terraform a whole planet with a fishbowl full of amino acids and gases?

Sometimes, the lack of thought put into the cool idea of the week is not enough of a problem to derail the episode. Setting fire to the atmosphere in The Poison Sky I can live with, but the ridiculous motorway setup in Gridlock , or the crazy DNA-transmitting gamma radiation in Evolution of the Daleks stretch it too far. You can argue that if I want proper SF, I shouldn’t be looking at Doctor Who which has never cared that much about the plausibility of its setup. I might buy that if it were consistently terrible, but it gets it right on so many occasions that I can’t forgive it when they muck it up. I find myself hoping they’re not going to try doing anything too exciting, because I’d rather have them aim for mediocrity and hit it than go for ambition and end up with a mess.

The second problem is that they want to do a really moving, emotional, heartfelt episode about the Doctor coming to terms with fatherhood, and by crushing it all into 42 minutes with the rest of the plot. (Including a seemingly pointless subplot for Freema Agyeman in which she befriends a fish-man who dies to save her in a quarry, which my cold-hearted self found to be really badly acted and hence very funny indeed.) The Doctor starts off hostile to Jenny, as well he might when his DNA has been stolen to make a super-soldier after he’s spent several episodes complaining about the military, but half an hour later he’s discovered she has two hearts and can do some backflips and has a complete change of heart, and it never feel earned. Tennant has rarely been better than when he’s talking to Donna about the family he had in the past, but his relationship with Jenny feels like half a dozen episodes worth of plot sped up to fit the episode. Was it really necessary that it be his daughter? Wouldn’t he have felt the same for any of the soldiers, born as adults with no knowledge but how to fight and no experience but war? Apparently only if we have Murray Gold’s overbearing soundtrack telling us how important it is she has two hearts.

And the frustrating part is again I know they can do this right. Just see everything written by Steven Moffatt, for starters, but Family of Blood last year gave us a similar theme with John Smith realising everything he must give up to become the Doctor again, the life he cannot have, and did it much much better. Even the Russell T Davies-penned three-parter at the end of last year brought more emotional wallop even if they both go on to a cop-out ending where the dead aren’t or might not be dead after all. I’m hoping the tail-end of the season will follow the pattern of last year and prove what the show can do, but right now I’ll be happy if we don’t have anything as bad as The Doctor’s Daughter for the rest of the year.

The Link-Away World

And just because I can, here’s a picture of all the tasty books that have dropped through my letterbox in the last week or so:

I want to read all of these right now (especially Superpowers), but sadly they’re going to have to wait for a month or so, while I get through the SFF Masterclass reading. However! Baroque Cycle reading continues apace, and there’ll be a post about King of the Vagabonds tomorrow.

SF as a Literary Genre

So, that symposium, then. I thought it was, on balance, quite fun. (For a take from someone better read in sf criticism than me, see this post; and for photos, see here.) At times it struggled a little to address both of its audiences (the Gresham symposium regulars, who seemed to account for about a third of the audience, and the knowledgeable sf fans and critics, who must have been another third) equally, and the Chair was perhaps more enthusiastic than knowledgeable; but there was good stuff in there. These are brief notes, since eventually the full transcripts and possibly even audio will be available on the Gresham college website; I trust that there were enough people now reading this in attendance that we can go into more detail in the comments.

The conceit of Neal Stephenson‘s keynote address was to imagine what a xeno-ethnologist would make of our culture, and his conclusion was: it no longer makes sense to talk about “mainstream” versus “genre”. He described this split, between acceptable culture and a number of debased genres, as the “standard model”, and argued that it may have been accurate half a century or more ago, but was no longer relevant. However, he also defined his terms very carefully: not only did he specify that he was talking about speculative fiction rather than science fiction, he made it clear that he was using the widest possible definition of speculative fiction, to include, for example, “new historical fiction” like 300 (and presumably also The Baroque Cycle). He used “mundane” to describe all non-sf.

Sf, he argued, is unique among genres in that it has grown but remained separate. Westerns largely died (contemporary examples are all exceptional in some way, not part of a living genre; romance has become ubiquitous in film; crime has become a dominant narrative form on tv. Sf has become too common and too successful to be realistically described as a genre — hence his very broad definition of the term — but has not been absorbed in the way that romance and crime have. It remains a separate stream in our culture.

A xeno-ethnologist, he suggested, would see a “bifurcated culture”, with speculative on one side and mundane on the other. Evidence for this bifurcation: the redefinition of bestseller lists in, eg, the New York Times, to include only the types of books that the compilers of bestseller lists think should be on there (eg relegating Potter to YA); and the careers of actors such as Sigourney Weaver and Hugo Weaving, who have respectable success as actors but disproportionate fame among speculative audience relative to mundane audiences. He proposed that the unifying factor among actors achieving this sort of success was their ability to “project intelligence”; that intelligence (practical or intellectual or some other kind) was the key to identifying these characters. At this point it became clear that better terms for the split he was trying to describe would be between geeky and not, rather than speculative than not. His attempt to explain that split was, I thought, actually quite sophisticated. He argued that, in the everyday world, intelligence is not exceptional — though it comes in many forms — but that a lot of mundane fiction does not actually reflect this. In a complex world, the split is between art that encourages vegging out and that which encourages geeking out, and the latter is the stuff that has become the speculative stream of our culture. (Remember how broad his definition of speculative is: I strongly suspect he would attempt to claim, say, HBO shows, and certainly something like The West Wing.) The satisfaction of sf, he argued, was that its characters are not dumb, ie they act like we think real people would. (I leave you to decide how much “real people” is being defined as “people like Neal Stephenson”, although he was at pains, as I said, to point out that there are many kinds of intelligence.) He wrapped up with some rather strawman and largely unproductive attacks on academia as a factor behind this split, suggesting that the post-structuralist, post-modern principles of English teaching breed a sort of lack of confidence in writing about anything other than subjective personal experience.

There’s further discussion of Stephenson’s talk here and (second-hand) here.

Andy Sawyer‘s presentation on the overlap between science fiction and other genres was, I hope he will not be offended by me saying, more aimed at the Gresham regulars than at the fans. It was a galloping survey of the various attempts to define sf, from Aldiss to Suvin and others, with the underlying argument that sf is never a pure genre, that it is always part something else. (Citing Paul Kincaid’s family-resemblance approach from “On the Origins of Science Fiction” as part support.) Useful points made: classification is always a form of ideological argument; and “science fiction” can sometimes be considered as a verb, something that happens in texts when certain elements are introduced. He also proposed a starting point for genre of 1827 (ie a century before Gernsback) on the grounds of a novel by Jane Webb called The Mummy! which responded directly to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. He also pointed out that magazines for most other kinds of category fiction existed before Amazing, and suggested that perhaps this was a mark of the limitations of sf as a category, and that it might more usefully be thought of as a way of thinking.

John Clute talked about Horror motifs in science fiction, via a detailed reading of the dystopian novel City of Endless Night by Milo Hastings (1919). He started from the idea that science fiction (or “the argued fantastic”) and horror are largely opposed: “rationalising horror [i.e. what sf does] is to tolerate it”. Vampires explained can be scary, but not horrific. What, then, he asked, can survive of horror in an sf setting? Another way of framing the question is to ask what genres can let us see (as long as, he said, we remember that they are tools for seeing but not the thing seen itself). Horror, he suggested, is a way of wrestling with amnesia, and in particular can be a way of wrestling with the amnesia of society: it is about forcing us to remember or to recognise. (Building on a distinction he’s talked about before.) This sort of horror can be seen in dystopias, in “Hitler Wins” stories, in apocalypse stories and — he suggested — in a lot of near-future science fiction written after 2000. Examples given: The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall; HARM by Brian Aldiss; The Luminous Depths by David Herter; Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon; The Book of Dave by Will Self; Pattern Recognition by William Gibson; The Road by Cormac McCarthy; and Super-Cannes by JG Ballard. One notable thing about this list: only two of its number have been published as genre. He also described this cluster as “cenotaph fiction” (a description, incidentally, I suspect could be applied to Mary Doria Russell’s latest novel, which I am currently reading).

Next up was Martin Willis, talking about Science fiction in the nineteenth century. I think this presentation was probably not as bad as it seemed at the time, but was not helped by the structure: the whole first half was generalities about the period and about what “the critics” say about it, which looked particularly bad coming immediately after Clute’s close reading, and such that it sounded like he was arguing against a straw man even if it wasn’t entirely. I think, actually, a lot of what he said was pushing hard at an open door. His main argument, for example, was that sf critics do not pay enough attention to nineteenth-century science fiction (it didn’t help his case that, when he did get around to talking about examples, he included Poe and Shelley; although in talking about, eg, mesmerism as a science in sf he made me think again about Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y as an heir to this tradition). Separately, he argued that critics do not pay enough attention to the way that science functions in science fiction (something I am very sympathetic to, and indeed something I liked about Joanna Russ’ reviews as collected in The Country You Have Never Seen); and he also argued that too often science in science fiction is the work of individuals, not recognised as a social enterprise, or “a vibrant set of political and social cultures” (another idea I’m sympathetic to).

Last but not least was Roger Luckhurst, talking about Modern British Science Fiction, and he very nearly got through the whole talk without mentioning a contemporary science fiction novel by a British writer. Instead he talked about three different implications of modern: modernity, meaning a philosophically and scientifically enlightened society as we have had for the past few hundred years (in theory); modernisation, meaning the technological and ecological consequences of the industrial revolution and urbanisation; and modernism, meaning the literary movement at the start of the twentieth century. Sf, he argued (and I gather here that he was paraphrasing his own book), is a literature of modernity and modernisation but has an ambivalent relationship, at best, with modernism. I have to say that I enjoy Luckhurst’s approach — he always brings in a lot of context, in the form of biographical and historical information — even when I don’t agree with it. When he did get to contemporary sf, he came back to the idea of a “post-genre fantastic” (which, weirdly, he first attributed to “a science fiction critic”, only later naming the source as Gary Wolfe), and pointed to writers such as Chabon and Lethem (not British, note) as moving between and across genres. His British exemplar text was Justina Robson’s Keeping it Real, and to be fair he made it sound wonderful, talking of the Quantum Bomb as a generic bomb, and of the way in which the story literally makes the logics of sf and fantasy and horror inseparable; if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t know that structurally it’s a complete mess, I would certainly be rushing out to buy a copy. He offered two reasons for why this increasing free-ness across genres might be happening: one, that there has been a shift in our understanding of what counts as “culture” (the very shift, in fact, that Stephenson was objecting to, although Luckhurst said he doesn’t care for the term “post-modern”); and two, our relationship to science and technology is changing; we no longer have even the illusion that science can be held separate from society.

I should also note that the symposium ended with a panel discussion, which was mostly not very edifying, although the all-male nature of the faculty was challenged (the response was to acknowledge that yes, in this day and age the panel was not a representative sample of people who research sf); and one woman asked “what it would take for there to be a strong female character in sf that men could identify with”; Farah Mendlesohn provided some data from her survey of children’s reading habits — and therefore changing audience demographics — as a partial answer, and Caroline Mullan pointed out that the answer could just be Buffy. Then there was a drinks reception, and a dinner, both of which were filled with good company and conversation; and now I have to go to work.

Manhattan Linksfer