Stand on Linkibar

Happy Birthday To Us

As I mentioned, this weekend saw the BSFA/SF Foundation AGM event. It was a pretty good day all told, with several enjoyable panels and talks. (I’m particularly sorry I missed the first half of Geoff Ryman’s talk, which appeared to be a story reading interspersed with commentary on said story.) But the highlight was definitely this:

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Yes, to mark the BSFA’s 50th Birthday, Foundation brought cake! Two cakes, to be precise, one inscribed with a list of British sf authors active in 1958, and a second inscribed with a list of British sf authors active in 2008. Of course, you can only fit so many names on a cake, so there were print-outs with the full lists:

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And here’s the BSFA’s new President, Stephen Baxter, doing the honours:

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I’m happy to be able to confirm that the cakes were as tasty as they looked, and much enjoyed by all present.

Superpowers

Superpowers UK coverIt’s all about what you know, and what you don’t. For instance, I don’t know how much David J Schwartz’ first novel has in common with the rest of the recent mini-glut of prose superhero stories; I haven’t read Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, or Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, or Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, or any others. But I have read a fair bit of Schwartz’ short fiction, so I know that Superpowers displays most of the virtues of stories like “The Water-Poet and the Four Seasons” or “Five Hundred and Forty Doors”, including an admirable sure-footedness when it comes to handling the fantastic, a gift for efficiently capturing the essentials of a situation or character, and an emotional directness that, if it catches you unawares, can knock you down. (I should also say that I know Schwartz himself a little — enough to ask him to write reviews for Strange Horizons, and to play the occasional game of Scrabulous with, at least.) And I know that, while not everything in Superpowers works, enough of it does to indicate that David J Schwartz is a name worth knowing.

If you read the first couple of pages of his novel, what you’ll know is this:

Fact #1: The party took place on Saturday, May 19, 2001, at 523 West Mifflin Street, Apt. 2, Madison, Wisconsin, 53703.

Fact #2: Five people attended the party, all of them inhabitants of 523. Charles Frost, age twenty, and Jack Robinson, age nineteen, hosted their downstairs neighbors Caroline Bloom, twenty, Harriet Bishop, twenty, and Mary Beth Layton, twenty.

Fact #3: Of the five, only Charles Frost was available to be interviewed in the aftermath of these events, and except for the events witnessed by your intrepid reporter, the following is based on his account alone.

The guy telling you this is Marcus Hatch, conspiracy nut and self-styled “editor” of Superpowers, though there’s every indication he wrote the whole thing. This is not a book that wastes time getting going, so before long, you know what happened after the party — c’mon, deep down you knew it already — which is that everyone woke up with a superpower. Mary Beth got super-strength, Harriet got invisibility, Caroline got flight, Jack got super-speed, and Charlie Frost got telepathy. We get to know the characters as they explore and/or come to terms with their new abilities.

Schwarz’ style is extremely approachable, and emphasizes character through action or reaction far more often than it does through introspection. This means that Superpowers stands or falls with its character dynamics; and in the manner of its standing, I’d say that Joss Whedon’s influence is evident, for Whedon’s strategy is also to present us with types who are later complicated by the things that happen to them. Moreover, though Schwartz’ dialogue doesn’t recall Whedon’s stylistically, the way that characters display their emotional intelligence (or lack thereof), and the way a ready vein of character-based humour is mixed with moments of sudden, sharp pathos, is a familiar tactic. The scene in which our five nascent heroes get together for the first time to discuss what they’re going to do is a case in point; the serious personal and moral questions that get raised are counterpointed by the fact that Mary Beth has gone to the trouble to put together a handout titled “Options for Superpowered Individuals”, and punctuates the conversation by writing down what people say on a flip-chart. Some members of the group aren’t initially interested in crime-fighting (notably Caroline: “My first thought upon finding out you all had developed strange abilities was not, ‘Oh goody, now we can all fight crime together,'” she says, with just a little echo of Cordelia Chase). But it’s Charlie who gets down to brass tacks, with an argument we’ve heard before:

“I think we should help any way we can,” Charlie said. “I know I wish I had.”

“What do you mean?” Mary Beth asked.

“I mean Marsha Tanner,” Charlie said. “The guy who killed her — the first day I went outside, I got inside his head. He was thinking about killing her then, and I didn’t do anything about it. He looked normal, you know? Sometimes when I’m angry, I might think about hurting someone. But he meant it.”

“You didn’t know,” Harriet said.

“I was the only one who did know,” Charlie said. “That’s my point. We can do this, and to me that’s reason enough that we should. It’s not about whether there’s enough demand. It’s about what’s right.” (76-9)

Charlie’s determination and sincerity are all the more affecting for the fact that his Peter Parker moment has been going on largely in the margins of other people’s scenes, and it’s only here that (for me at least) the parallel clicks into place. A lot of Superpowers is similarly referential; above and beyond the journalistic frame, it’s a very knowing book, a book that’s eager for you to play along. Some of the references grate a little — such as when Caroline refers to the Madison All-Stars as “your friendly neighborhood superheroes”, because the contrast between the place these heroes look after, which really does feel like a smallish community, and the franchise-emptiness that goes with Spider-Man saying it in a big city was already implicit — but a lot of them are nicely underplayed, because Schwartz knows that any modern superhero story is going to be expected to jump through certain hoops. The question of costumes, for instance, or — more important to the novel — the question of how normal people cope with superpowers.

But Schwartz brings a number of things to the table that stop his book being too second-hand. First and foremost is an apparent determination that his normal people will in fact be normal, and will live in the world we know. His superheroes joke and bitch and celebrate and recriminate and get horny just like normal college students. They are not captured or experimented on by the government, nor do they really live in fear of their true identities being discovered. (That kind of knowledge turns out to be a power that doesn’t matter as much as you think.) They focus, as I’ve already mentioned, on local, day-to-day crimes such as convenience store hold-ups. Which is the second and more important thing: there’s no supervillain. This sounds trivial, but in fact isn’t; it highlights just how much most super-teams are defined by who they strive against, and the uncertainty this absence creates is underlined in a couple of ways. The more conventional one is that the All-Stars uncover evidence of a World War II superteam, and feel perhaps slightly jealous that their predecessors had such a clear enemy to fight; the less conventional one is the looming presence of September 11th over the story.

What we know — and what none of the characters know, although one of Marcus’ early editorial notes confirms that it’ll be an issue — is that for a novel set between May and October 2001, the spectre of 9/11 is inescapable. The impersonal undertow of geopolitics is the only supervillain Superpowers will give us, and though it may not be a surprise, it’s still a little terrifying how quickly the event is seized on by various parties as a way to give their narratives sense and coherence. This is of course exactly what, on a larger scale, Schwartz is doing with his novel, but he’s doing it, I think, to point out how dangerous it is; “This was the worst of the American character,” someone thinks to themselves towards the end of the book, as anti-Muslim violence comes to Madison, “People nestled so deeply in their own comfort zone that they could not even distinguish between unknowns” (343). Indeed, in the last hundred pages the light-heartedness of the early chapters vanishes almost entirely, and serious costs start to be asked of all the characters.

It’s a choice that makes Superpowers the only story I’ve come across that extends in quite this way the familiar superhero narrative of powers not being enough to deal with personal crises, such that the novel ultimately becomes a story about powers not being enough to deal with the impersonal forces that shape the world we live in today. (There’s J. Michael Straczynski’s The Amazing Spider-Man #36, I suppose, but I think most people would agree that’s best forgotten.) It’s a little miraculous that Schwartz manages to pull this off as well as he does; the end of Superpowers is by no means perfect, but it successfully writes about 9/11 without asking for too big a loan from the reserve of shared sentiment the mention of that day still carries. We’re left to recognize most of the ways in which the event refracts the first part of the novel for ourselves, such as the parallel between the description of the TV coverage as “crayon-bold” and the primary-colour exuberance of the All-Stars’ costumes. And there are a handful of serious emotional wallops in the last 50 pages, stuff that grows organically out of the All-Stars’ characters and the changing situation they find themselves in – when they know as little as anyone else, they’re as powerless as anyone else – that make you realise exactly how precisely controlled the tone is throughout. Similarly, the novel repeatedly overcame one of my big reservations about prose superhero stories – the feeling that superpowers are so much better suited to a visual medium – by emphasizing the subjective experience of his heroes. This is particularly affecting in the case of Jack, who may be able to stretch his subjective time further and further, but can’t turn back the progression of his father’s chronic illness, and in the case of Charlie, whose power escalates such that he becomes not unlike a human Cerebro, able to surf the mindstream of the world (which explains how Hatch is able to present most of his manuscript as a third-person narrative based only on Charlie’s testimony) when he’s not being overwhelmed by it.

Marcus warns us early on that a lot of questions — how the All Stars got their powers, for instance — don’t get answered and, in the end, despite Charlie’s near-omniscience, Superpowers is all about what the All Stars don’t know and can’t do, as much as it is what they do and can. Which means that when the answers the All Stars think they’ve found about themselves are overturned by events, it hurts; and means that what Superpowers says to its readers is, playing along should never be mistaken for the real world. You know?

Welcome to Shadow Unit

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit hunts humanity’s nightmares. But there are nightmares humanity doesn’t dream are real.
The Behavioral Analysis Unit sends those cases down the hall.

Welcome to Shadow Unit.

This is the premise of Shadow Unit, whose first season ended last week. It’s an unusual, possibly unique idea: a TV show told on a website, or fanfiction for a show that doesn’t exist, and either way a quarter of a million words of original fiction from five leading SF writers given away on the internet for free. (Although they would like it if you gave them some money for it.)

As Emma Bull explains in her introduction, it’s a show which wears its influences quite openly – a pinch of Criminal Minds, a bit of The Man from UNCLE, quite a lot of The X-Files. It’s a crime procedural drama, following a team of eight FBI agents who investigate crimes committed by the most horrible monsters you can imagine – human beings, albeit under the control of the mysterious “anomaly”, and not responsible for their actions. It’s a setup which lends itself well to an episodic drama, with a new investigation every week by a few members of the team, while the range of supernatural powers displayed by the literal monster of the week allows for variety. The episodes on the website stick pretty firmly to an episodic, 5-act structure as well, and at first I couldn’t understand why they would do that. Surely one of the strengths of fanfiction is that it can use structures and storytelling methods which are not tied into the necessities of television, it can cover timespans you can’t show on screen, it can even have bibliographies and graphs if you want them. Still, after reading a few episodes I changed my mind – I think the structure works, and even though I know I’m coming up to an act break I still get surprised by whatever plot revelation they have in store, plus there is enough variation to prevent it turning into a formulaic, “take the basic template and swap out the villains” show. And with a liberal fanfiction policy, it’s easy for the fans to play around in the universe themselves, but you can’t rebel against the episodic structure if there isn’t one on the show in the first place.

There are disadvantages to telling a TV story as prose, and the one big one I came up against is that telling apart your cast of eight people with similar occupations is much much easier when they’re all on screen. I read the first three novella-length episodes as a block, and it wasn’t until the third that I got the hang of who was who in the team. The first three also suffer slightly in that they do a lot of work building up the characters of Daphne, Chaz, and Hafidha, who form a strong friendship within the unit, and when I came back to episode four several months later I could remember the three of them but had to start from scratch with everyone else. As to why there was such a gap in my reading, while I enjoyed the first three episodes, and planned to read some more, when there was no more to read for a fortnight I drifted away and didn’t come back until last week.

It’s a good thing I did, because episode five, “Ballistic”, is where the first season kicks into high gear and pulled me in. Co-written by four of the show’s writers, it’s one of the episodes which rejects a whodunit and lets us know from the start that this week’s monster is a child, and that it’s not going to end well. Focusing on the perviously underused team of Brady and Lau, investigating murders in a small-town filled with servicemen and their families, it seems to deliver more of an emotional kick than the revious episodes, and a growing horrific realisation of where the pieces of a medical report scattered through the episode are going to lead.

While the next two episodes, “Endgames” and “Overkill”, are good solid installments with memorable and horrific moments, it’s all buildup for the multi-part season finale, Refining Fire. A whole novel penned by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull (not that I could tell who wrote individual episodes anyway- it’s pretty seamless), it’s also the episode where it gets personal for one of the team, and does not shy away from having really nasty stuff happen. It’s also a fine example of really well done hurt/comfort angsty fanfic, without the tendency for everything to be fixed by the magical healing power of hugs. I will admit that I found it to be a gripping, emotional end to the season, and I will be sticking with it next year.

And if I get bored during the hiatus, there’s always the in-character Livejournals for me to read. I haven’t had time to keep up with them all year, because I like to eat and sleep, but the mixing of reality and fiction, watching real people comment on fictional journals as though it’s just another member of their friends list, and seeing fictional journals interact back with them in-character even when it’s all being done by real people who know each other, I find it slightly mindbending. Even if it does make the uncertainty of the ending to Refining Fire a little less uncertain, because if there’s a Livejournal post from a character it seems unlikely they are dead.

I’m assuming there is a second season planned, of course. Can you campaign against the cancellation of a show that never aired?

BSFA/SFF Joint AGM

A quick reminder (or news bulletin, for anyone who hasn’t seen and may be interested): this Saturday sees the BSFA and SF Foundation’s joint AGM event, to be held at Conway Hall in London (near Holborn). The full programme:

1000 Doors Open
1030 Opening, then Guest – Geoff Ryman
1130 Panel: The BSFA – Historical Footnote or Force for the Future?
1230 SFF AGM
1300 Lunch break
1400 BSFA AGM
1430 Guest – Peter Weston
1530 Break
1545 Panel: Fan Media in the Dock – the legal status of fan art and fiction.
1645 Close
1700 Pub

As with other BSFA events, this is free and (AGM excepted) open to all. So why not come along?

Strange Horizons Fund Drive

It’s time for Strange Horizons‘ annual fund drive! As you know, Bob, Strange Horizons is a weekly online magazine of and about speculative fiction. It’s been going for nearly eight years now, staffed entirely by volunteers (including me) but paying professional rates to contributors, and is dependent on donations from its readers to keep going. Check out some of the fiction, columns, poetry, artwork, and of course reviews to see what the site is about.

This year there’s a shiny new SH blog to track the fund drive progress — for which you can add the RSS feed or livejournal feed. Exciting revelations so far include the fact that this year there aren’t just prizes for donating, but prizes for mentioning (and linking to) the fund drive. Each week, one person who’s linked to the fund drive will win a special prize; the first prize is a set of Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling-edited fairy tale anthologies. So, go forth and spread the word!

The Genre the Orange Doesn’t See

Maybe it’s time to let men judge the Orange prize, says the current chair of judges. Her reasoning?

“I’m open-minded about it. It would be an interesting debate for organisers to have. Seventy per cent of fiction is bought by women, so having a panel of women judges means they know what women like,” she said.

“But I think it could be quite interesting to have a man on the panel.

“The one disadvantage to an all-female jury is that there are certain books that women like … the judging could be tilted a bit against science fiction.”

The obvious response is that you don’t need to add a man to address that particular bias, you just need to pick different women; you’d think that if someone has noticed women are writing this stuff, they might be able to guess that women are interested in it, too. But given that my immediate reaction to the longlist this year was “Where’s The Carhullan Army?” (and my reaction to the shortlist was to be disappointed that The End of Mr Y didn’t make the cut), anything that encourages the Orange to recognize a broader range of work written by women is good in my book.

EDIT: And for the record, this year’s winner: The Road Home by Rose Tremain

Recently Read: May

(Being a list of books read in May that I haven’t already written up here or for elsewhere.)


Herge, Adventures of Tintin vol 1 and 2. These two lovely little hardbacks comprise the stories from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (first published 1929-30) to The Blue Lotus (first published 1934-5). I’d never read the stories before The Blue Lotus before, and while it’s interesting to watch the gradual appearance of various pieces of the Tintin universe — Thomson and Thompson, Rastapopoulos, a professor who’s clearly a dry-run for Calculus — they were eye-opening in several ways. One is, obviously, the politics. I knew the reputation of Tintin in the Congo, and it lives up (or down) to it — both the images and the actions of Africans are stereotypical at best and racist at worst, while the cavalier attitude to wildlife is hard to take — but Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is even more transparent and broad-brush propaganda (if against what many would I suspect consider a slightly more acceptable target), in which Tintin discovers, for instance, the secret basement where Stalin has been hiding the wealth of the people, plus a plot to blow up the capitals of Europe with dynamite. Tintin in America is only marginally less stereotypical in its depiction of Chicago Gangsters and Native Americans (even while taking the Native Americans’ side), and even The Blue Lotus, while dramatically more nuanced in its portrayal of the Chinese characters, lapses into caricature when it comes to the Japanese. Overall, though, the development of the books in terms of their political complexity is quite staggering, considering they were originally written over about five years. The development in artwork is equally dramatic — the more cartoonish elements remain throughout, but early on are evident in such incidents as a train crashing into Tintin’s car, leading to Tintin and Snowy spreadeagled on the front of the engine, whereas later they get transferred mostly to Thomson and Thompson — as is the sophistication of the plotting. Cigars of the Pharaoh, which sees the start of the drug-smuggling plotline, is the first book that can really be described as having a plot rather than being composed of a sequence of events, athough the Tintin formula of action and secret passages and such is still very much in evidence; but it pales in comparison with The Blue Lotus, which is full of intricately conflicting agendas and counter-agendas, and set against a real historical backdrop (specifically around the Mukden Incident). Most of the books contain pages that were later redrawn, which has at least one weird consequence: at one point in Cigars of the Pharaoh, Tintin is captured, only to discover, when he reveals his identity, that said captor is actually pleased to see him, saying he’s been reading of Tintin’s exploits for years. But the book that he displays as evidence of this clearly has the cover of Destination Moon, which wasn’t published until 1950 …


William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954). Somehow I made it through my privileged British education without reading this story of privileged British schoolboys going feral on a desert island. Reading it now for the first time, I find that (a) I’m not sure I believe that life on a desert island could be like that, (b) I’m not sure that children and adolescents would really act like that, and (c) it’s not nearly as brutal as I’d been led to believe; but I still think it largely deserves its reputation. I’m uneasy with some of the language used to describe Jack’s tribe of savages (as though their hunter-gatherer ways are in themselves a cause for concern, rather than the violence and callousness with which they are enacted), and I think the ending severely weakens the whole (hey, if your civilization collapses it’ll be ok, because some paternal figure will be along to rescue you eventually! Though I do love the way the hunters are suddenly boys again when the Navy man arrives. I was hoping the boys would kill the first adult they see; it wouldn’t have stopped them being rescued, but it would at least have carried the logic of the rest of the novel through to a conclusion), but the intensity and clarity of the best passages is something to marvel at. I do love a well-executed omniscient perspective, and Golding knows exactly how to use his (for instance, the well judged pull-back to an image of tides being pulled from “somewhere over the darkened curve of the world”). He is also extremely good at place, both in terms of constructing the geography of the island in his readers’ minds, and in terms of describing that geography in precise, striking terms. If some of the plotting is a bit artificial — that the fire goes out just when the only boat they’ve seen passes by, for instance — it’s forgivable for the sake of the near-mythic potency of the novel’s overall trajectory. I read it in a 1984 Faber omnibus which could have used another proofread, but I hope to make time for the other two novels — Pincher Martin and Rites of Passage — sooner rather than later.


David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old (2006). This is a “use-centred history of technology since 1900”, and fascinating stuff. I have pages and pages of notes, and because I tend to read non-fiction quite slowly — a chapter here, a chapter there — it’s a book that’s been lurking in my thoughts for the past few months. I suspect that any attempt by me to summarise it now would end up essentially rewriting the whole thing. It’s tempting just to quote the book’s conclusion, to give you a flavour of Edgerton’s argument:

It is a measure of the importance of technology to the twentieth century, and to our understanding of it, that to rethink the history of technology is necessarily to rethink the history of the world. For example, we should no longer assume that there was ineluctable globalisation thanks to new technology; on the contrary the world went through a process of de-globalisation in which technologies of self-sufficiency and empire had a powerful role. Culture has not lagged behind technology, rather the reverse; the idea that culture has lagged behind technology is itself very old and has existed under many different technological regimes. Technology has not generally been a revolutionary force; it has been responsible for keeping things the same as much as changing them. The place of technology in the undoubted increase in productivity in the twentieth century remains mysterious; but we are not entering a weightless, demarterialised information world. War changed in the twentieth century, but not according to the rhythms of conventional technological timelines.

But I should say a little bit more. The bulk of the book, as you’d expect, is taken up with fleshing out these central arguments, with chapters built around themes in technological history, including persistence (important technologies last); production (not important in the ways you think); maintenance (the longest and most significant stage of any technology’s life); and the role of nations and war in developing technology (not as central, according to Edgerton, as tradition would have it). I’m not in a position to check Edgerton’s sources, but the list of examples is exhaustive, to the point at which sometimes the book doesn’t quite escape the academic idioms of its conception, and though there’s plenty to argue with, he is largely convincing. Of course, you could also say he’s stating the obvious — once you remind people that “technology” means bicycles as well as computers, much of what he says follows. The future’s not evenly distributed, after all. But the value of the book, I think, lies in the way he traces the connections between his examples, follows their implications, and points out the way that “future-oriented rhetoric” can damage the way we think about now by, for example, obscuring the fact that imitation is usually much more important than innovation, or the fact that we could do things differently with the technology we have now. One result is that it’s a very political book. Edgerton very bluntly uses the term “poor world”, and repeatedly argues that the narratives we tend to apply to the history of technology marginalise such countries, and their contributions to technology. There’s also obvious relevance to the way sf imagines the future (or, more often, doesn’t) — something Edgerton is somewhat aware of, although his range of examples is from my perspective rather limited — which from my point of view adds another, and useful, level to the book.