Baroque Cycle: Odalisque

Previously, on the Baroque Cycle Reading Group:

And now:

Odalisque coverLike King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque opens with a step backwards. It’s Daniel Waterhouse’s turn in the spotlight again, specifically attending the death of Charles II in February 1685. As in Quicksilver, this strand delves into the scientific happenings of the day – notably the eventual publication of Principia Mathematica, complete with a review from Leibniz that basically predicts special relativity – but the primary focus, I felt, was the politics leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It’s the same in the book’s second strand, which picks up Eliza’s story in Versailles, where she appears to be working as a governess but is fairly quickly really working as a sort of financial manager to half the resident nobles, and all the time really really working as a spy, sending letters encrypted in a cypher she knows is broken to William of Orange (and, for reasons that I missed, letters encrypted in a much stronger cypher to Leibniz). Two very different courts, then, and although there are some similarities in how the two strands unfold — such as the complete uselessness of royal physicians — of course there are two different outcomes, for in France the story is of a rebellion quashed. The title at first suggests we’re going to be primarily reading Eliza’s story, and certainly her continuing progression from slave to noble takes up more pages than Daniel’s antics; but I think the title also has a more ironic sense, which ties in with the exploration of freedom in King of the Vagabonds, in which both Daniel and Eliza are slaves to the increasing complexity of the world.

On finishing Odalisque, which is the last part of the volume Quicksilver, I am struck by two main thoughts. First, I feel entirely vindicated in, and indeed grateful for, my decision to consider the volume as three novels: it simply makes no sense as one. It may be that The Baroque Cycle as a whole should be considered as a single, three-thousand-page novel, but it certainly isn’t three thousand-page novels. There’s no sense in which the volume as a whole achieves closure – but the individual books that make up the volume do, at least as much as, say, Snow Crash does. It will be interesting to see whether the decision to interleave Bonanza and Juncto — the two novels that make up The Confusion — gives that volume more of a unifying shape. If by this you infer that I’ve been won over enough to complete the Cycle, you’d be correct, although I still have the feeling I’ll enjoy having read it more than I’m enjoying reading it.

Because the most common emotion Odalisque evoked, like the two novels before it, is frustration. There is the question, for example, of what exactly Odalisque adds to the Cycle. Why do these 300-pages exist? The basic ingredients, after all, haven’t changed. The style is the same, pages and pages of talk relating events that happened elsewhere to other people; the overwhelming dumping of information is the same; and the sense that Stephenson’s main argument is that this period encapsulates the birth-pangs of the modern world is present and correct. The strongest justification I can come up with for Odalisque’s existence is that it’s a bit less annoying than Quicksilver and a bit more coherent than King of the Vagabonds. At times, it even seems like the book is in danger of developing a plot, although it always turns out to be just the natural momentum of historical events keeping the characters on the hop.

So you can look at the basic issues raised in the earlier books, and find that if Odalisque doesn’t have anything new to say, it at least says the same things more eloquently. For instance: all three books so far have, to one extent or another, foregrounded the question of historical accuracy, and of how history can (perhaps should) be represented in fiction; but Odalisque lays out the terms of the debate most clearly. Right at the start, the issue is cued up by a conversation between Daniel and Roger Comstock. Daniel describes Leibniz’s thoughts about the perception of reality, starting with the trivial observation that London “is perceived in different ways by each person in it, depending on their unique situation” (621), going on to argue that there is a sense in which the only meaningful description of London would be the sum of the descriptions of all of its inhabitants, and concluding by suggesting that some individuals’ descriptions will be more meaningful than others:

“Normally when we say [someone is distinguished or unique], we mean that the man himself stands out from a crowd in some way. But Leibniz is saying that such a man’s uniqueness is rooted in his ability to perceive the rest of the universe with unusual clarity.” (621)

On one level, this is a way of explaining of why we read any writer: because their particular vision of the world reveals aspects of it that we did not see, or did not see as clearly, or because their vision chimes with ours. (We read Neal Stephenson because we like his geekiness.) But it’s also implicitly both an argument for Stephenson’s focus on the Great and the Good of seventeenth-century Europe in his narrative — being the people who, via Stephenson’s protagonists, can express the nature of the times most clearly – and, perhaps unconsciously, a way of highlighting the arrogance of that argument.

With this in mind, it’s notable that most of Eliza’s narrative in the book is couched in epistolary form. Initially this is satisfying because it gives us direct access to her way of seeing the world, but the ultimate point is that this form — a single viewpoint — never tells the whole story. In her last letter to Leibniz, Eliza meditates on the limitations of historical knowledge, with reference to the birth, or not, of James II’s heir. Was there really a birth, she wonders? If their was, was James II really the father? If he was, did the child really survive? And so on. “In a sense,” Eliza writes, “it does not matter, since that king is deposed, and that baby is being reared in Paris. But in another sense it matters very much…” (895). Truth exists, and truth can be sought, and in certain ways — such as Principia Mathematica — it can be found. But in other ways it cannot, and both kinds of truth (revealed and hidden) shape our world. Put another way — and Stephenson loves nothing more than to put something another way — all history is a form of cryptography. “In the plaintext story,” Eleanor writes, putting the unencrypted description of the burden she felt after the birth of her child into context for Leibniz, “it is a burden of grief over the death of my child. But in the real story — which is always more complicated — it is a burden of uncertainty” (906).

That in a thousand details the Baroque Cycle is repeatedly and visibly not “what really happened”, then, is irrelevant. (If, to me, annoying.) The standard by which the story is asking to be judged (I think) is not a standard of detail, it’s a standard of the big picture: whether or not it fairly represents how the system of the world changed during the time in question. Again, this was clear from the start of Quicksilver, but Odalisque is more convincing as an argument for this particular slant on this particular period of history, largely because the Glorious Revolution feels like more of a meaningful change than (for example) the Declaration of Indulgence. It feels like an event that can function as a synthesizing narrative without having to be forced into an unnatural shape; and the pursuit of synthesis in politics mirrors the pursuit of synthesis going on elsewhere in science. In Daniel, in fact, the two come to be inextricably intertwined. The first mentions of Newton in Odalisque point out how irreconcilable his divergent interests seem. As Daniel puts it, observers are “trying to figure out whether there might be some Reference Frame within which all of Isaac’s moves make some kind of damned sense … You want to know whether his recent work … is a change of subject, or merely a new point of view” (665). Of course, in this instance we can see the Reference Frame before the characters, because we know how gravity links tides to comets and to the movements of Jupiter and Saturn. But Daniel, in particular, becomes obsessed with how the new scientific understanding of the world might link to a new political understanding of the world; as Eliza notes, he stakes everything on the Glorious Revolution, “not in the sense of living or dying, but in the sense of making something of his life, or not” (746).

I said in my first post that I wanted to leave the question of whether or not the Cycle is science fiction for later. This seems to be a good time to visit that question, at least to reach an interim conclusion, and not just because Quicksilver was awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award as the best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2003. The Cycle as a whole was later awarded the Locus Award for best sf novel, so clearly it’s not just an isolated group of judges who’re prepared to consider it as sf. There are several ways of responding to the question, I think. One is to say that it just doesn’t matter, to which all I can say is that I think it does: if we can read the novel as sf, it says something about the way sf is working in the early 21st century, and that to me is an interesting subject. Another response is to say that it’s trivially obvious that it’s sf: there’s Enoch Root’s longevity, for starters, not to mention the alternate-historical flavour of the whole project. But the most interesting response, I think, is the one that argues that Quicksilver is sf because it appropriates the tools of sf, because it forces us to ask what those tools are. One, perhaps, is the portrait of the world that suggests it is best described in terms of interconnection and the flow of information; that’s a familiar approach in sf, from Stand on Zanzibar through cyberpunk to a work like River of Gods; and it’s not only sf that does this, but it tends to only be sf that has the characters recognise their position in such a world and comment on it. (In fact, it’s possible to read Stephenson’s extreme enthusiasm for trivia as an argument that a way of looking at the world that emphasizes information to this degree will inevitably become overwhelming.) The build-up to the Glorious Revolution as portrayed in Odalisque struck me as sfnal for two more specific reasons, as well. First is the way that Stephenson clearly teases us with the alternate-history possibility of assassinating William of Orange: “If they happened to light on the particular stretch of beach where William goes sand-sailing, at the right time of the morning, why, they could redraw the map, and rewrite the future history, of Europe in a few minutes’ work”, says one character, to which another responds that “It is a clever conceit, like a chapter from a picaroon-romance” (652-3). And second, there seemed to be something sfnal in the way that Daniel perceives the coming revolution: as a gateway to a new world.

It is characteristic (although not universally true) of sf revolutions that they elide the pragmatic details of their construction, and focus on the world to come. There is something almost religious about this view of historical progress, and it’s a tendency Stephenson neatly draws out of Daniel, who initially argues that the Puritans who believed the Apocalypse was due in 1666 were on to something, and that they “merely got the particulars wrong … If idolatry is to mistake the symbol for the thing symbolized, then that is what they did with the symbols that are set down on the Book of Revelation … I would say that we might bring about the Apocalypse now with a little effort … not precisely the one they phant’sied, but the same, or better, in its effects” (743). Later he glorifies the process still further: “rebellion is … a petty disturbance, an aberration, predestined to fail. Revolution is like the wheeling of stars round the pole. It is driven by unseen powers, it is inexorable, it moves all things at once, and men of discrimination may understand it, predict it, benefit from it” (810). Since we know that there are still two thousand pages to go, we can assume that Daniel’s idealism is going to be sorely tested, but it falls, significantly, to Enoch to sound the cautionary note, when Daniel reiterates his grand desires:

“In a few years Mr Hooke will learn to make a proper chronometer, finishing what Mr Huygens began thirty years ago, and then the Royal Society will draw maps with lines of longitude as well as latitude, giving us a grid — what we call a Cartesian grid, though ’twas not his idea — and where there be islands, we will rightly draw them. Where there are none, we will draw none, nor dragons, nor sea-monsters — and that will be the end of Alchemy.”

“‘Tis a noble pursuit, and I wish you Godspeed,” Root said, “but remember the poles.”

“The poles?”

“The north and south poles, where your meridians will come together — no longer parallel and separate, but converging and all one.”

“That is nothing but a figment of geometry.”

“But when you build all your science upon geometry, Mr Waterhouse, figments become real.” (881)

It’s not just that who is looking matters; it’s how they’re looking. How very — dare I say it? — postmodern. The system of the world defines the world: it’s immediately after the Glorious Revolution, with its promise of a truer participatory democracy, that Stephenson tells us the word “shopping” has appeared in the English language. Welcome to consumerism. Equally, reality will always fall short of the idea, and it’s not a surprise that Daniel finds the Revolution, when it comes, somewhat anticlimactic, and makes plans to leave for another New World: he’s a utopian. He can’t stop chasing the future.

All of which probably makes it sound as though I really liked Odalisque, when in fact I thought it merely not bad. Certainly the problems with the book are less pronounced than in the earlier installments – as all of the above hopefully demonstrates, I think this time you can actually draw a coherent argument out of it – but there is fundamentally too much stuff. Individual threads may be beautiful, but the tapestry as a whole is no better than workmanlike. To be clear, I don’t think this is a case of bloat: I think everything that is in the book is meant to be in the book, because I still think Stephenson wants us to see the hints of a System of the World that makes the relations between all the disparate elements of the narrative as clear as the relations between the disparate items of Newton’s research. That, I think, is meant to be the key, which like the key to Eliza’s letters would explain why there have to be five words every time one would do, which would unlock the encryption of this history, which would reveal the plaintext. It just seems like meagre reward.

London Meeting: Terrance Dicks

A day early on this one: the guest at tomorrow’s London Meeting is author and Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks. He’ll be interviewed by Tim Phipps.

As ever, the venue is: 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; in fact, I may even aim to get there earlier, since I suspect this one will be busy.

SFF Masterclass, Summary


The short version: I’m still processing.

The longer version: That was a lot of fun. The aim of the masterclass, says the original blurb on the Foundation website, is “to provide those who have a serious interest in sf criticism with the opportunity to exchange ideas with leading figures in the field, and also to use the SFF Collection”. Well, the latter was out of the frame this year — the Liverpool University library is being refurbished, so the class was held in London — but I’m not sure I or anyone else missed it terribly, and I’d say the first objective was resoundingly met. (From the sound of Jonathan’s summary, the post-masterclass Monday brunch at the Clutes’ place was also something to behold in this regard, but alas I couldn’t make that.) Since I don’t think I’ve explained the format of the masterclass before now, here’s the schedule:

Friday 20 June
10.00–13.00: Geoff Ryman
13.00–14.00 Lunch
14.00–17.00 Wendy Pearson

Saturday 21 June
10.00–13.00: Gary K. Wolfe
13.00–14.00 Lunch
14.00–17.00 Geoff Ryman

Sunday 22 June
10.00–13.00: Wendy Pearson
13.00–14.00 Lunch
14.00–17.00 Gary K. Wolfe

I don’t want to go into too much detail at this point about what each tutor covered, since I have ambitions of breaking that out into separate posts. But, briefly, I do want to say that I thought the three went together very well. Geoff Ryman’s sessions were about reading as a writer, first with a detailed look at Stand on Zanzibar, and then with sentence-by-sentence readings of the first chapter of Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Maker and Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed”. Wendy Pearson talked about postmodernism and queer theory, and then encouraged us to apply it to such stories as “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation” by Raphael Carter and The Child Garden. (Hopeful Monsters would have come in here, but we never made it to that one.) And Gary Wolfe set out to persuade us that, one, trying to defend sf against attacks like this is basically futile, and may make things worse (defend the work, not the genre); and two, that most of sf’s subgenres are useless as labels, or at least should be handled with extreme caution. He also talked a bit about the practice of reviewing. And enabled some bad puns. I’d be hard-pressed to say which of these three I found the most interesting or useful; I was certainly most resistant to Pearson’s sessions, for reasons I probably need to think about a bit more, but all three contained nuggets of practical information that I can actually use.

It’s worth mentioning the venue: Kitap Evi on Tottenham High Road. As I mentioned, the Liverpool library is being refurbished, so the masterclass wouldn’t have been there whatever happened; but the original plan was for it to be held in conjunction with the SFRA conference in Dublin. Unfortunately, the Dublin meeting had to be cancelled, and a new venue was found pretty much at the last minute. Kitap Evi is a cafe downstairs and a Turkish bookshop/internet cafe upstairs, and it worked brilliantly; it was just the right size, and gave the whole meeting a nice, intimate feel. (It could perhaps have done with better ventilation upstairs in the afternoon, but that’s a minor cavil.) And the other thing to do, of course, is to thank the other masterclass attendees, all the people I mentioned in my earlier post and the rest — everyone participated in the discussions at some point, which as Jonathan said really brought home the usefulness of an extended critical community.

Other photos can be found here.

Locus Award Winners

See here; finalists here.

SF Novel
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)

I think this puts paid to the repeated suggestions that Chabon doesn’t have enough popular support to be a viable candidate for the Hugo. I think he’s going to win.

Fantasy novel
Making Money, Terry Pratchett (Doubleday UK; HarperCollins)

Young adults book
Un Lun Dun, China Miéville (Ballantine Del Rey; Macmillan UK)

First novel
Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill (Morrow; Gollancz)

“After the Siege”, Cory Doctorow (The Infinite Matrix Jan 2007)

“The Witch’s Headstone”, Neil Gaiman (Wizards)

I admit to a feeling of relief that this one didn’t go to “Trunk and Disorderly”. That’s a bad story. But to be honest, “The Witch’s Headstone” felt too much like the novel-excerpt it is to really deserve this.

Short story
“A Small Room in Koboldtown”, Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Apr/May 2007)

The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories, Connie Willis (Subterranean)

I’m a little surprised Doctorow didn’t win this category as well; I think I also would have preferred it to go to a new collection, rather than a retrospective. Still, Connie Willis Always Wins, I guess.

The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, eds. (Eos)

Breakfast in the Ruins, Barry N. Malzberg (Baen)

I’d have gone with (and indeed voted for) the collection of Russ’s reviews; but this is good too.

Art book
The Arrival, Shaun Tan (Lothian 2006; Scholastic)

Ellen Datlow



Charles Vess

Overall: for me a solid list of winners, but — particularly in the short fiction categories — not a particularly exciting one.

SFF Masterclass, Day One

So, today was the first day of the long-anticipated Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in SF Criticism, 2008 edition, at which several denizens of these parts were present. (And a bunch of other people too.) The format was straightforward: a morning session led by Geoff Ryman, structured as a writer’s close reading of Stand on Zanzibar, and an afternoon session led by Wendy Pearson, in which we discussed postmodernism, queer theory, and “The Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation”. It would be fair to say I’m still digesting many of the issues the day raised, but it was all thoroughly stimulating. As a teaser, here are Geoff Ryman’s four tests for judging whether formal innovation in fiction is successful:

  1. It should not be confusing. The purpose of formal innovation is to provide greater insight into or access to either emotion or information; it should work without needing an instruction manual (or critics) to explain it.
  2. It should be fun. To take form seriously is to overvalue it; formal innovation is (or should be) driven by wit, freedom, and playfulness.
  3. It should be useful for something that couldn’t be achieved another way.
  4. It should do more than one thing at a time (as should most elements of prose fiction)

The Link Garden

Stand on Zanzibar

Superpowers UK coverThe plot: probably the least interesting aspect of the whole book, but here you go. There are two main threads, developing from the lives of two room-mates in 2010 New York, both of which involves first-world intervention in third-world nations. Norman House, VP at General Technics, ends up managing a huge investment in the (fictional) ex-colonial African nation of Beninia, at the behest of the ailing president; meanwhile, Donald Hogan, who works as an information synthesizer for the government, is “activated”, brainwashed with super-action-spy-skills, and sent to the (equally fictional) South-East Asian island nation Yatakang, where the government has announced they have the capability to create genetically enhanced supermen. Surrounding this narrative is a penumbra of vignettes, extracts from books, song lyrics, transcripts of videos, and much else, often but not always related to the main action in some way, which serve to flesh out the world.

What they thought then, part one: M. John Harrison, New Worlds 186 (January 1969):

… an application of the Dos Passos technique to the speculative field, a massive collage of a book that offers a broad fictional extrapolation from current events. Brunner presents as his protagonist an unbalanced society, consumer oriented and consuming itself to death. Violence and the special poverties of utopia set the tone; race riots; genetic control, and an East-West confrontation are balanced by ephemeral close-ups of personal frustration. Admass manipulators attempting to peg the status quo demolish human dignity from above while guerilla-action and anarchy attack it from below. This is a well-conceived book — a satisfyingly complete vision — marred by a lack of metaphor. Brunner is an inventive writer; his ability to theorise and document a feasible future is undeniable. But his success in evoking that future through images is limited. And his solution of the violence problem, though clever, is superfluous — it might have been more effective simply to state the problem.

What they thought then, part two: It won the Hugo in 1969, beating Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, Nova by Samuel R Delany, Past Master by RA Lafferty, and The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak.

Commentary, part one: Harrison is surely right about the completeness of Stand on Zanzibar‘s future being its most satisfying aspect; as is the way in any multi-threaded novel, not every thread is equally interesting all of them time, but every thread in is interesting at some point. The sheer number of trends extrapolated is staggering, and not just because some of the predictions seem spookily accurate, but because they’re integrated in a way that makes them seem part of the same society, and because Brunner is quite bold in connecting his present to his future — there’s even a complete history of fashion, at one point. I’m not sure, though, that the balance is completely satisfactory — I would have liked to believe that the world was the true character, say, but Hogan and House kept getting in the way — and I’m not sure that I buy Harrison’s take on the ending, which is surely powerful precisely because the solution it identifies is beyond the reach of the characters to grasp.

I haven’t read any of the other novels on that year’s Hugo shortlist, but it strikes me as a worthy winner.

The structure: There are four types of chapter, which largely do what they say, although there is some fluidity of material and style between different types. “Context” provides, typically, an extract from a book, or some other document, or a transcript of something or other, which explains the background of this 2010. “This Happening World” is about tracking the real-time of the world, and mixes thing up: a couple of lines of dialogue, an advertising slogan, a couple of lines from an article of some kind. “Tracking with Closeups” are the character vignette chapters, minor characters who may appear later in the main Hogan/House plot, or who may just be glancingly affected by some aspect of it. And “Continuity” is the meat of the story. As many will tell you (the detractors, cheerfully so), the style is more or less lifted from John Dos Passos’ USA; but for obvious infodump-related reasons, it’s a style extraordinarily well-suited to science fiction (and to this type of science fiction), and Brunner makes good use of it. It’s a steal for honorable purpose.

Vocabulary, a selection: Zecks (executives); Codders (men); Bleeding (swearword); Sheeting (ditto); Mucker (someone run amok); Block (never quite worked this one out); Shiggy (sort of a professionally single woman); Afram (African American); Hole (swearword, replaces “hell”); prowlie (police car); orbiting (getting high). Some of this works, some of it doesn’t. While the thought behind, say, “bleeding” is good — it’s replaced words like “bastard” and “bugger”, which are now considered purely descriptive without stigma attached to them, while hemophilia, as a heritable disease, is something to be ashamed of — I could never quite hear anyone saying it with the necessary force. In general I admired Brunner’s attempts at stylistic diversity, without thinking all of them equally successful.

What they thought a bit later: Brian Aldiss, p 367 of Trillion Year Spree (1986):

This sort of unlikely and unpleasant melodrama militates against the lively intellectual dance going on elsewhere, and eventually overwhelms it. Before that, Brunner conducts a teach-in on modern moralities, aided by Chad Mulligan, a sort of hippie philosopher. As with all Propter-figures, as with Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw, Mulligan wearies, being an author mouthpiece. He puts us all to rights and even out-talks Shalmaneser. The book becomes too long. … But it is an interesting experiment, because it marks a stage along the road, midway between pulp and social commentary.

Commentary, part two: I don’t disagree with Aldiss’ assessment of the way House/Hogan’s story gradually becomes overpowering (see above), but I thought Chad Mulligan livened up the book considerably, something I emphatically cannot say about the Heinleinian equivalents. Perhaps it’s because I never did feel he was an author mouthpiece, at least not in the sense that I believed Brunner believed everything he had Mulligan say, or that I was expected to believe it; in the sense that Mulligan was a way of spinning out notions in front of an audience, maybe. Perhaps, also, it’s because I feel that Mulligan gets to put his finger on the heart of the book when he asks Shalmaneser what it would take for the computer to believe in Beninia. Suspension of disbelief is a key question for any book that positions itself anywhere along the utopia/dystopia line: what would it take for us to believe in the possibility of a better world, or better people?

Predictions, part one: accurate. Implanted contraceptives. Hyperactive media. Gay marriage. TiVo. Genetic modification (and industrial pharma, to an extent). Privacy, or lack thereof, as a key social issue. Puffa jackets. Globalisation.

Genre descendents: Big chunks of cyberpunk; maybe The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson; Counting Heads by David Marusek; River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

Predictions, part two: inaccurate. The reliance on big central computers. The absence of peak oil and climate change. Continuing cold war-esque paranoia. The introduction of eugenics laws to control population growth. Sexual mores.

On shiggies: I have to say, I didn’t find the gender roles nearly as outdated or troubling as I’d been led to expect, which is not to say the book is unproblematic in this area. On the plus side, the shiggies — essentially the free love movement extrapolated into a whole social class — were depicted, so far as I noticed, without a trace of disapproval, and there were numerous female characters in prominent and powerful roles (not least the head of General Technics). What was missing, though, was a sense of balance, which in a way is a microcosm of my reservations about the novel’s overall structure, which is to say that although lots of female characters are mentioned, and have speaking parts, none of them are central in the way that Hogan, House and Mulligan are. Similarly, I’d have expected there to be male shiggies as well as female shiggies, and I didn’t notice any.

What they think now, part one: Adam Roberts, p.248 of his Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006):

Other titles from the decade now seem less significant, despite being praised extravagantly in their own day. The British author John Brunner’s (1934-1995) Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is a lengthy disquisition layered over a sort of spy plot, set in a monstrously overpopulated world. But its choppy, “experimental” style, lifted directly from the work of the American Modernist John Dos Passos (1896-1970) seems second-hand and over-boiled, and the premise of the novel has a phlogistonic lack of contemporary bite (overpopulation had not brought the world to a standstill by the start of the twenty-first century, and will not do so by the start of the twenty-second either). Of course, Brunner was not alone in thinking his premise sharply relevant: many writers in the 1960s and 1970s adopted positions of Malthusian gloominess on the subject of overpopulation; a better treatment of the theme than Brunner’s (better because rooted in a Pulp terseness rather than a High Modernist prolixity) is Harry Harrison’s (b.1925) Make Room! Make Room! (1966).

What they think now, part two: Geoff Ryman, in SFX 168 (April 2008) [pdf]:

Every page has both a great SF idea and an emotional twist to the story. Its technique is kaleidoscopic … This wouldn’t work if Brunner wasn’t so good at different voices. This age’s hip commentator, Chad Mulligan, is quoted from at length. To an extent he’s Brunner’s mouthpiece (and a great way to info-dump) but he also convinces as a radical and original thinker … The world feels pretty much like now — which is when it’s set, not in 1968, the year it was first published … there is no other British SF novel I can think of with this breadth of invention, character and setting. There is something of Dickens in the vast panorama, the mix of wit, terror, sentiment, and satirical characters.

Commentary, part three: I find myself somewhere between messrs Roberts and Ryman. I don’t think the kaleidoscopic view is entirely successful; but nor do I think it by any means stale, particularly early on, when the disorienting effect of immersion is at its most powerful. Roberts is right to point out that the concerns about overpopulation don’t feel as pressing as they apparently did when Brunner was writing the book, but the way in which it asks what it is about humans that limits our ability to live together, that seems to make terrorism or solipsism such common responses to living in Brunner’s future, chimed with me. It also seemed to me a novel provocative on the subject of racial issues and interactions (much more so, actually, than on gendered ones; take that as you will), asking valid questions about postcolonial global relations. What it takes for countries to live together, if you like, and whether benevolent intervention is even possible (whether or not desirable). Which is to say that in many ways it did still feel like now; an alternate version of now, admittedly, but a tomorrow I could recognise.

See also: Wikipedia page here; Karen Burnham’s take here.

The Happening

If I see one more review that lambasts an M. Night Shyamalan film for not having a twist, I’m going to scream. It happens every time they’re released: a certain proportion of reviewers are apparently so unable to evaluate a film on its own that they reinterpret Shyamalan’s effort through a filter of expectation that, inevitably, does it no favours. This is by no means to say that Shyamalan is some maligned genius: Lady in the Water, for instance, was a mess. But while The Happening is by no means perfect, it is an idiosyncratic, interesting experiment that succeeds more than it fails. It’s unsettling at points, and scary twice; expect a twist, though, and you’ll be disappointed.

What you get, as many reviews have noted, is a B-movie disaster by way of Alfred Hitchcock. The film lives up to both halves of that comparison in multiple ways. For the first half, there’s the basic premise behind the happening itself — which, if you haven’t seen a trailer, is that people suddenly start committing mass suicide for no apparent reason. Given that the first tentative explanations are proposed just as the characters are approaching a small town called Hokum, I think it’s fairly clear that we’re not meant to take it entirely seriously (if I did, I would have to conclude that it’s based on an understanding of plant biology that is either much deeper than my own or much, much worse; but this is a film in which all science is Science, with a capital S). Moreover, both the acting and the dialogue are heavily stylised — but in a broad monster movie way, rather than the low-key, heavily naturalistic way of Shyamalan’s earlier films, with lots of heavily telegraphed reaction shots, and clunky observations. And the couple at the heart of the film (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) are almost unnaturally wholesome, in a way that recalls caricatures of ’50s America. Wahlberg’s character seems lost and bewildered, while Deschanel’s secret shame, endearingly, is that she went out for dessert with another man. Both frequently make big eyes at the screen, and each other.

But Shyamalan must know he’s set himself a near-impossible task in his choice of story, because at first glance it requires him to make inanimate objects scary. (It actually requires him to make an invisible force scary, a much easier sell because it can be made visible through its effect on people, but there’s still an initial hurdle to jump.) Which is where the second half of my earlier comparison comes in, because to a large extent he gets away with it. The Happening has a lot more laughs than you’d expect, almost all of which come from character interaction, or from moments when characters acknowledge that what’s happening is simply bizarre; and then something horrible will happen. Which is to say that although the film acknowledges, in various ways, its hokeyness, Shyamalan follows its implications through with conviction, often playing on the tension between terror and laughter. It helps that he’s admirably callous about killing off supporting characters (a lot of whom are very deftly drawn; I particularly liked the jittery private who’s seen most of his base kill themselves), and it helps that he excels at set-pieces and disturbing images. People walking off a building, as seen from the street; or a shot of a gun being successively picked up and then dropped by people shooting themselves in the head; or a car that starts accelerating towards something off-screen, such that you only get a second to realise that the driver’s lost it and is heading for a tree; or a mass hanging. Sometimes he shows you something traditionally gruesome, but more often he manages to make you think he’s going to show you something gruesome, and then pulls away at the last second.

Moreover, there’s much less of a sense of hubris about this film than there was about Shyamalan’s recent efforts. There’s no architect-figure cameo, for instance — indeed, unless I blinked and missed it, no cameo at all. There’s an ecological message, but it’s not thumped home, largely because the most portentious dialogue is placed in the mouths of characters whose grasp on reality may be a bit more fragile than the average; the film is pacy, and over quicker than you expect, if sometimes shamelessly contrived in its plotting; and in general, it feels like a film that sets out to please its audience, rather than its director. It may or may not succeed in that — reviews suggest that I’m in a minority, although the audience I saw it with seemed to get into the spirit of things — but for its distinctively personal approach, I’m bound to admire it. Perhaps I can pay The Happening no higher compliment than this: I can’t wait to see what Nick Lowe makes of it.

HOWTO overthrow the government

Cory Doctorow’s first three novels are all filled with the gosh-wow science fictional ideas I love: fans taking over the Haunted Mansion and the reputation economies in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the ad-hoc traffic-jam P2P networks and time-zone-linked groups in Eastern Standard Tribe, and in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town the tech ideas are mixed in with truly out-there fantasy ideas in a way which shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Add to this his increasingly impressive short stories (I, Rowboat is my particular favourite), and you can see why I was eagerly anticipating the muchpraised Little Brother.

Which makes it a shame that it almost completely fails to work for me.

Marcus is 17, and lives in San Francisco in the unspecified near-future, in a surveillance society filled with gait-recognition cameras and spyware-filled school-issue laptops. Marcus lives to subvert and play the system, and when he’s up against the clueless school administration it’s all fun and games and teenage rebellion. Then San Francisco suffers a terrorist attack, and Marcus and his hacker friends are imprisoned by Homeland Security and released to a city where preventing another terrorist attack is the priority, no matter how much their hi-tech security measures infringe upon privacy and civil liberties. Marcus decides to use all his considerable tech abilities, and the friends and allies he has and makes along the way, to fight back.

Clearly this is a world not too distant from our own, which is what makes the infodumpery and worldbuilding so hard for me to swallow. The first part of the book is loaded with explanations – LARPing, ARGs, TOR, botnets, all explained in handy paragraphs of exposition. I’m not convinced that knowing exactly how anonymous routing or botnets work is necessary for the story, and I’m sure you don’t need to know about SMTP headers to appreciate a cool idea, but I have a certain admiration for just dropping it into the text without even trying to disguise it. Unfortunately I already know what all the acronyms mean, and how a botnet works, and by the fourth or fifth time I had modern technology explained to me it was pretty tedious work.

It’s also a world not too distant from our own in terms of politics, and the way that terror attacks are used as an excuse for the gradual eroding of our freedoms – San Francisco under Homeland Security rule is only a few steps down the line from where we are now. I happen to know the politics of the author, because I read his blog, along with probably several million other people, and being a card-carrying liberal I agree with Marcus/Doctorow’s arguments as to why we shouldn’t be letting this happen. What I don’t get along with is how much of a straw man the other side comes across. I don’t if it’s simplification of the political ideas for a teenage audience, or that I’m jaded to their arguments from too much time online, but when Marcus’s dad sounds like a better-spelled version of a poster from Comment is Free, I find it hard to read Marcus’s rebuttals as any more than lip-service to the arguments. The Homeland Security workers, both low and high-level, are black hats without a shade of grey to them.

So if it’s too didactic and infodumping to appeal to me through the politics and ideas, what about the rest of the story? Here it fares a little better – Marcus is likeable enough if a little too competent at everything he does, and his dilemmas at whether his tactics are causing as much trouble and harm as those of his opponents ring true. I could have done without the revelation that Marcus’s long-time female friend turns out to have feelings for him, especially when I was pleased that they’d managed to do the “hey, my nerdy female friend has grown up and become h4wt!” scene without it turning into a relationship. Marcus’s actual romantic interest is smart and geeky and cool, and basically a female Marcus but I can live with that. There are some neat ideas which have small but important twists on our world – using Livejournal quizzes as an information-gathering tool, the revolution will take places on X-Boxes running Linux, using flashmobs to cause a distraction in the real world. The writing is straightforward and functional, which mostly works – it falls short of conveying the terror of Marcus’s capture by Homeland Security early in the book, but the later scenes (I’m thinking of when Marcus meets Darryl’s father) work better.

For a book which is all about the power of blogs, distributed networks, and what one person can do to undermine the establishment, the ending is disappointingly conventional, as Marcus tells his story to a newspaper reporter – one from a free weekly paper, and not the mainstream media who are as hostile and stupid as you would expect when it’s an internet revolution they don’t grasp. It’s the journalist’s coverage of Marcus’s revolution and torture that finally turns public opinion against the security measures.

I’m probably giving a more negative view of the book than it deserves, but while it may succeed for many as a call to arms and an instruction manual on how to fight the government, it fails for me as a novel. If you’re not familiar with the rhetoric and the ideas it contains, I see it would work better. That’s going to include a lot of people in the target young adult audience, and I find the idea of indoctrinating a generation of young people with a guide to online revolution quite cheering even if the book isn’t for me.


The Sturgeon Award nominees for best short fiction of 2007 are out. Looks like a solid list, as usual; I’d be happy to see almost any of them win, in fact.

The Campbell Award nominees for best novel of 2007 are also out. Anyone but Robert Sawyer. Please!

How far can a reviewer build a reputation on the strength of a blog? “my reputation is all about the other places where I review. Chasing Ray is just gravy on top of that – just extra. Those 700 books are not going to come to someone with a readership of a few hundred (or less) a day”

SF Signal’s latest Mind Meld asks “Which new or little-known genre writers will be tomorrow’s big stars?” There’s a contribution from me, but what I want to pull out is (a) that I agree with Jonathan Strahan’s sentiment that there’s a generation of writers coming through now who could have the same impact as Terry Carr’s Ace Specials, and (b) this aggregate list of the writers to watch:

The Top 18 Genre Authors To Keep an Eye On

1. Paolo Bacigalupi (4 mentions)
2. Daryl Gregory (4)
3. Benjamin Rosenbaum (3 mentions)
4. Cory Doctorow (3)
5. Jay Lake (3)
6. David Moles (3)
7. Chris Roberson (3)
8. Vandana Singh (3)
9. Elizabeth Bear (2 mentions)
10. Alan DeNiro (2)
11. Alex Irvine (2)
12. Ted Kosmatka (2)
13. Paul Melko (2)
14. Naomi Novik (2)
15. Tim Pratt (2)
16. Jason Stoddard (2)
17. Karen Traviss (2)
18. Scott Westerfeld (2)

So now you know. (Alternatively: who’s missing?)

This week’s blogger incentive for mentioning the Strange Horizons fund drive is a bundle consisting of Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters, Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King and Other Stories, and The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. You know you want them, so get linking, why don’t you?