London Meeting: Michael Swanwick

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Michael Swanwick, who will be interviewed by Roz Kaveney.

As usual, the venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

The meeting is free (although there will be a raffle, with sf books as prizes), and any and all are welcome. The interview will start at 7pm, although there’ll be people in the bar from 6 onwards.


Things I would totally write posts about if I weren’t spending all my time either playing Final Fantasy XII or keeping up with commitments elsewhere, a partial list:

1. Survivors. Watched the final episode last night; I’ve seen the odd post about the series, but did anyone else watch it through to the end? I was much more impressed than not, I have to say. I’m not keen on the Secret Conspiracy, which makes me wary of the second series, since it looks set to play a greater part in the story than it has done so far; and sometimes the plots are a mite predictable. But sometimes they’re not, and I think all the central characters are well-realised. And I’m a sucker for community- and society-building stories, anyway.

2. The return of Battlestar Galactica. While I empathize with reactions like Abigail’s, in that I invariably find that reading what the people making Galactica have to say about it diminishes my enjoyment, if I ignore what they’re saying I can still find much to appreciate. In the first episode of season four round two, for instance, I didn’t much care for the manner in which the reval that ended the episode was handled — clumsy, I thought — but I do like the reveal itself. I like that, this time, it has a greater weight for the previously-revealed cylons than for the humans; I like that the the relationship it references becomes a model for the whole human-cylon relationship (particularly given what we appeared to learn elsewhere in the episode about the relationship between the populations of the twelve colonies and the skinjob cylons). I’m glad that it doesn’t invalidate major character development. And I also find it satisfying, in a perverse way, that I found it initially disappointing, and only found things to appreciate on reflection, because it seems to me that disappointment was an effective way of mirroring the series characters’ disappointment at the end of the previous episode in the audience. I don’t believe for a second that the makers intended that effect — I can’t have that much faith in TV showrunners — but I think it’s there nonetheless.

3. Further adventures in Theory. I’ve still got comments on the previous threads I should respond to, and indeed it’s not like I’ve read much more of the book yet (see above re: Final Fantasy and other commitments). But at the moment I am wrestling with Structuralism. As related, I am not convinced by some of the arguments for the creational power of language (I don’t think we divide the spectrum into individual colours entirely arbitrarily, purely as a matter of language; I think we divide it up the way we do because certain physical phenomena filters light into particular bands of wavelengths, and it is useful to have words for those bands), and I find some of the examples of structralist criticism given to get a bit, er, abstract. But at the same time I am sympathetic to the idea of a mode of criticism that is about relating texts to larger structures — not surprisingly, since I buy into Damien Broderick’s concept of the sf megatext (at least as I understand it from reading discussions of the concept), even if it does take me away from the text I start with.

4. Reading, and particularly reading of shortlists, as social behaviour; although on this one I’m not sure I have anything to add, so much as I want to point it out as a concise statement of something I am often conscious of. The urge to write reviews, in this model, is something of a totalitarian impulse, an urge to make, or at least persuade, people to talk about what you’re interested in talking about. (So is there an extent to which I approve of the BSFA novel shortlist because it consists largely of things I’ve already read? Maybe.)

List of the Day

Blatant blog-fodder, but hey: the Guardian is doing a series on 1000 novels everyone must read, and today they reached science fiction and fantasy (and horror). Don’t worry, I’m not going to post the whole list — Martin’s done that, if you’re interested — but here are the links:

I’m not sure to what extent the novels on the sidebar lists count towards the total; I assume Crumey’s list, at least, is separate, given that it overlaps with the main list and other sidebars, and I hope that, say, Susanna Clarke’s picks count towards the total, because they’re rather canonical, though I have no idea whether they’re counting The Chronicles of Narnia as one entry or seven. In a way I wish they’d done the whole thing as individual lists because that would make it easier to track the preferences of the nominators, though there are no real surprises (i.e. the vast majority of the genre-published books are picked by genre-published writers: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Eric Brown, and Keith Brooke). The other nominators make plenty of interesting (or perhaps challenging) picks — Darkmans; The Blind Assassin; The Unconsoled — and there’s plenty to argue with in the list itself, which presumably is the point of the exercise. As Martin says, the idea that The Years of Rice and Salt is the Kim Stanley Robinson novel that everyone should read before they die is barmy, ditto Greg Bear and Darwin’s Radio; The Einstein Intersection is almost certainly not the essential Delany, ditto Calvino and The Baron in the Trees. And as ever, I’m sure you could come up with another list, just as long, comprised entirely of books omitted from this one. But, all things considered, not bad. I’ve read about a third.

BSFA Award Nominees

Best Novel

Flood cover Gone-Away World cover
Night Sessions cover Anathem cover

Flood by Stephen Baxter
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod
Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Best Short Fiction
“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (Eclipse 2)
Crystal Nights” [pdf] by Greg Egan (Interzone 215)
Little Lost Robot” [pdf] by Paul McAuley (Interzone 217)
Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” by M. Rickert (F&SF, Oct/Nov 2008)

Best Non-Fiction
Physics for Amnesia” by John Clute
Superheroes!: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films by Roz Kaveney (I.B. Tauris)
What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid (Beccon)
Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan)

Best Artwork
Cover of Subterfuge, ed. Ian Whates, by Andy Bigwood
Cover of Flood by Stephen Baxter, by Blacksheep
Cover of Swiftly by Adam Roberts, by Blacksheep
Cover of Murky Depths 4 by Vincent Chong
Cover of Interzone 218 by Warwick Fraser Coombe

Congratulations to all the nominees! Note that there are only four nominees in the Best Novel, Best Short Fiction, and Best Non-Fiction categories due to multiple-way ties for fifth place. The Awards will be presented at this year’s Eastercon, LX, on 11th April.

Last Chance to Nominate

Your final reminder, BSFA members: today is the deadline for BSFA Award nominations. Best novel, best short fiction, best artwork, best non-fiction: send them all to the Awards Administrator, Donna Scott, at, by the end of today. The list of nominations so far (or at least so far as the middle of last week) is here; remember, only the top five most-nominated works go forward to the shortlist, so if there’s something you like on that list, you still need to nominate it. And then check back here next week for the shortlists. Thank you!

Restate My Assumptions

So, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, one of the things I’m reading at the moment is Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. In the first chapter, he lays out “a series of propositions which I think many traditional critics would, on the whole, subscribe to, if they were in the habit of making their assumptions explicit”, under the banner of “liberal humanism”; and then, later, lays out five core assumptions which describe “the basic frame of mind which theory embodies”. I thought it might be interesting to go through both lists and note down my initial — unexamined, as it were — reactions to each statement, both for my future reference, and perhaps to start being a bit more specific about what “theory”, as used all over the place in that other comment thread, means. (i.e. I’m also interested in other peoples’ reactions to these statements. Heck, turn it into a meme and post it on your blog, if you like.) These are slightly truncated versions of the statements, in most cases — Barry gives some elaboration — but I think they get the gist across.

Liberal humanism, then:

1. Good literature is of timeless significance; it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks to what is constant in human nature.

Nah. I know from experience that the older the work I’m reading, the more work I have to do filling in historical context to get even a bare minimum of understanding of what’s going on, but more than that, there’s a part of me which believes that one of the most interesting things about literature is precisely the way in which it engages with the limitations and peculiarities of the age it is written in.

2. The literary text contains its own meaning within itself. It doesn’t require any elaborate process of placing it within a context, whether this be socio-political, literary-historical, or autobiographical.

See above; certainly some texts will resist the need for contextualisation more strongly than others, for a longer period of time than others, but ultimately I don’t think anything endures by itself forever; certain texts that appear to have endured have done so, in part, because the contextualisation they require has become part of the cultural air we breathe (i.e. Shakespeare), not because of anything inherent to the text itself.

3. To understand the text well it must be detached from these contexts and studied in isolation. What is needed is the close verbal analysis of the text without prior ideological assumptions, or political pre-conditions, or, indeed, specific expectations of any kind.

Mmf. Sort of. I do place close verbal analysis at the core of understanding a text, not least because it’s something I enjoy getting better at; and I do prefer to let a text suggest meaning to me than to go to a text looking for an answer to a question. But, of course, that is my prior ideological assumption. (I knew that much before I started reading the book.)

4. Human nature is essentially unchanging. The same passions, emotions, and even situations are seen again and again throughout human history. It follows that continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation.

Nope. “Human nature”, to the extent that it can be defined at all, isn’t even the same from culture to culture in the present moment; I sincerely doubt it remains the same over centuries or longer. And, of course, as a science fiction reader one of the things I enjoy is imagination of the ways in which humanity can change in the future.

5. Individuality is something securely possessed within each of us as our unique “essence”. This transcends our environmental influences, and though individuality can change and develop (as do characters in novels) it can’t be transformed — hence our uneasiness with those scenes (quite common, for instance, in Dickens) which involve a “change of heart” in a character, so that the whole personality is shifted into a new dimension by force of circumstance.

This, on the other hand … “transcends our environmental influences” makes it sound like we’re born being who we are, which is clearly rubbish; but individuality as something that evolves but does not transform sounds right to me. I don’t think I’ve ever transformed in the way the process is described here; I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to transform in that way, either. Life isn’t that easy.

6. The purpose of literature is essentially the enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values; but not in a programmatic way: if literature, and criticism, become overly and directly political they necessarily tend towards propaganda.

On the one hand, speaking again as a science fiction reader, I’m not supposed to mind a bit of didacticism in my fiction, and I’m sure I mind it less than most of the people Barry has in mind here. On the other hand, to the extent that literature can be said to have a purpose, “propagation of humane values”, in the sense of making, through literary creation, a sincere and compassionate attempt to understand people and the world, and to communicate that understanding to another, doesn’t seem so bad.

7. Form and content in literature must be fused in an organic way, so that the one grows inevitably from the other.

Must be? No. (Are there any “must” statements that could justly be applied to literature?) Can often very productively be? Yes.

8. This point about organic form applies above all to “sincerity”. Sincerity (comprising truth-to-experience, honesty towards the self, and the capacity for human empathy and compassion) is a quality which resides within the language of literature. It isn’t a fact or intention behind the work … sincerity is to be discovered within the text in such matters as the avoidance of cliche, or of over-inflated forms of expression; it shows in the use of first-hand, individualistic description … the truly sincere poet can transcend the sense of distance between language and material, and can make the language seem to “enact” what it depicts, thus apparently abolishing the necessary distance between words and things.

This seems more or less to be an expansion of point 6, which makes me wonder whether I’m misunderstanding one or both of them; but still, it seems largely sound to me.

9. What is valued in literature is the “silent” showing and demonstrating of something, rather than the explaining, or saying, of it. Hence, ideas as such are worthless in literature until given the concrete embodiment of “enactment”.

Sf-reader ping again: I suspect that what satisfies me as being an “enacted” idea wouldn’t necessarily satisfy the people Barry has in mind here; there’s that touch of didacticism to consider. But an idea that is worked through a text is a beautiful thing.

10. The job of criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader. A theoretical account of the nature of reading, or of literature in general, isn’t useful in criticism, and will simply, if attempted, encumber critics with “preconceived ideas” which will get between them and the text.

I have no problems with the first sentence. As to the second sentence … well, that’s why I’m reading the book, isn’t it?

All of this seems to suggest that I am not, actually, a full-on liberal humanist; but there are several points on that list that I wouldn’t want to let go of.

Now, on to Theory:

1. Many of the notions which we would usually regard as the basic “givens” of our existence (including our gender identity, our individual selfhood, and the notion of literature itself) are actually fluid and unstable things, rather than fixed and reliable essences.

Yes … to a point. Newtonian mechanics isn’t actually a wholly accurate description of how the universe works, but it’s a pretty good approximation for a lot of purposes. Cognitive neuroscience may reveal that my selfhood does not exist in the way that I perceive it to exist, but on a day to day basis my perceptions are what I have to work with. And to bring it back to literature, it is not possible to draw a sharp line between, say, science fiction and fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful to talk about science fiction and fantasy as distinct types of literature.

2. All thinking and investigation is necessarily affected and largely determined by prior ideological commitment. The notion of disinterested enquiry is therefore untenable: none of us is capable of standing back from the scales and weighing things up dispassionately: rather, all investigators have a thumb on one side or other of the scales.

Yes, again to a point. Necessarily affected yes, largely determined, not necessarily. Acknowledging thumbs-on-scales is good; investigating the consequences of thumbs-on-scales is good; trying to construct systems of thought which compensate for thumbs-on-scales is also good. It may not be possible to carry out a purely disinterested enquiry, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to approximate it; it means we should be aware of the biases that factor into the attempt.

3. Language itself conditions, limits, and predetermines what we see. Thus, all reality is constructed through language, so that nothing is simply “there” in an unproblematical way — everything is a linguistic/textual construct. Language doesn’t record reality, it shapes and creates it, so that the whole of our universe is textual. Further, meaning is jointly constructed by reader and writer.

Define “reality”. Do I believe a physical universe could exist if no language existed to describe it? (Assuming here that the action of observation counts as a form of language.) Yes, I do. A rock doesn’t need to be called a rock to exist. Do I believe that our social reality, how we think and relate and describe, is constrained by the language we have to think in and relate through and describe with? Also yes. I don’t know what “the whole of our universe is textual” means. As for reader-writer interaction constructing meaning: yes, but with the caveat that this appears to be intended as at least a partial counter to “the job of criticism is to mediate between the reader and the text” above, and the two positions don’t seem exclusive to me. Reframe it as the job of criticism being to mediate the construction of a particular meaning, if you like.

4. Any claim to offer a definitive reading would be futile. The meanings within a literary work are never fixed and reliable but always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous.

Yes. I do not think, for instance, that Victoria Hoyle’s reading of Lucius Shepard is inferior to the author’s view of his own work. (But some meanings are more equal than others.)

5. “Totalising” notions are to be distrusted. For instance, the notion of “great” books as an absolute and self-sustaining category is to be distrusted, as books always arise out of a particular socio-political structure, and this situation should not be suppressed, as tends to happen when they are promoted to “greatness”. Likewise, the concept of a “human nature”, as a generalised norm which transcends the idea of a particular race, gender or class, is to be distrusted.

Yes — recognising the obvious paradox inherent in the statement — as long as “distrusted” means “recognise the limitations of” rather than “discard out of hand”.

And that’s the lot. Not quite a theorist yet, then. It occurs to me that the second list is somewhat less interesting to me, at first glance, simply because it says less about reading and interpreting; it talks in generalities, about principles that apply far beyond criticism, whereas what I’m interested in (what I’m reading the book for) is ways to talk about literature specifically. But I suppose that’s what the rest of the chapters will do.

Nebula Award Rules Revised

I had more or less given up on the Nebula Awards as a useful guide to, well, anything much, but it’s just been pointed out to me that they’ve quite dramatically revised their rules for 2009 and beyond. In particular:

  • No more rolling eligibility; the awards are now tied to the calendar year
  • No more preliminary ballot; there will be a nomination period between November and February, after which a final ballot will be created comprising the six works in each category with the most nominations
  • No more awards juries adding books to the ballot; “publishers are encouraged to make eligible works available to the membership”, and if there are fewer than six works nominated, then there will be fewer than six works on the ballot (Exception: The Andre Norton Award retains its jury)
  • No more “best script” category; instead the “Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation” (which is Not A Nebula) will be given to the writer and director of the winning work

I have to say, this all looks very positive, and I look forward to seeing the ballots that result.

Essential SF Criticism

Matt Cheney, in conversation with Eric Rosenfield, says:

Oh, SF criticism is a … minefield. There are a few problems with it, including that the sorts of people who will be attracted to it are generally not of the same sort of mind that is attracted to literary criticism, and there are only a handful of people who have a good grasp of real literary criticism who are also interested in practicing SF criticism. […] Much of what passes for SF “criticism” is actually just historiography. James Gunn is a good example of that. Useful and often interesting to read, but not what most people are talking about when they’re talking about “criticism”. Which many people would say is a good thing, since academic litcrit doesn’t exactly have the best rep outside the academy.

There are only a few writers of SF criticism worth paying much attention to in addition to Delany: Darko Suvin, Alexei Panshin, Damien Broderick, Frederick Jameson, and Adam Roberts (writers such as John Clute and Gary Wolfe are knowledgeable and thoughtful, but are primarily reviewers and taxonomists — Clute, in fact, has inspired an entire taxonomical industry amongst mostly British SF reviewers, who are bizarrely fixated on defining and categorizing things. Clute’s encyclopedias are invaluable and his reviews are often interesting, but the obsession with taxonomy [beyond its usefulness for creating an encyclopedia] is one I find mystifying). Certainly, there are articles here and there that are worth paying attention to, including some good recent work on SF and colonialism (an important topic, I think), but you’ll get pretty much the full breadth (such as it is) of the critical discussion of SF from reading those writers.

At the moment, I think I would find a discussion about whether or not literary taxonomy is a useful practice, never mind whether it is somehow a distinctively British practice, tedious in the extreme, so I’ll skate over that; and because it’s a posted email discussion, I’ll try not to be too judgmental about the “just” in front of “historiography”, though I am mildly offended on behalf of historiographers of my acquaintance. Later in the post there’s a deal of stuff about sf-the-publishing-category, too, which I’ll also avoid, except to say that I don’t think Nick Harkaway is wary of the sf label because he thinks the interesting things are happening outside sf, more that he’s concerned the label will stop people reading his book.

What I do want to talk about is a potential canon of sf criticism, because I’m pretty sure Matt’s list is not it. I’m not devaluing academic sf criticism, here, though I do feel a certain push-pull tension about it; on the one hand, it seems to me only sensible that dedicated training will improve someone’s ability to appreciate and explicate a work, which is one reason I went to the SF Foundation Masterclass last summer [1], and is why I’m currently reading this book [2] . On the other hand, though I don’t consider it a badge of pride to be “outside the academy”, I do somewhat resent the implication that those not trained in the ways of criticism have no useful contributions to make to critical debate, and I would have thought that attracting people with different sorts of mind to literary studies would be all to the good. The SF Masterclass’s principle of drawing its teachers from the ranks of academics, authors and independent critics seems to me a sound one; I have gained useful insights about sf from people in all three groups.

However: the bibliography of sf criticism on the SF Studies website is dauntingly large. For a slightly more focused list, the articles from their history of science fiction criticism issue are all very useful (hey, now Gary Westfahl’s article is online as well! That would have been useful eight months ago), and I know some of the names I’d want to add to Matt’s list — Atheling, Aldiss, Russ, Freedman, Jones, for starters, and something like The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, at least. But I also know there are a number of people reading this better-read than I in sf criticism: what would you put on an essential reading list? (And, perhaps, what non-sf critics would you put on an essential reading list for would-be critics?)

[1] As Liz says, do consider applying for this year’s class; I won’t be there, sadly, because my car’s just had an unexpectedly expensive service and I’m battening down the financial hatches, but I wish I could be.

[2] And I’m sure that once I’ve got past finding the fact that apparently, in English departments, calling someone a “liberal humanist” is an insult, alternately hilarious and really stupid, it will provide me with many useful insights, and possibly even a blog post or two.

Call for papers, applications, and nominations

Firstly, a reminder that the Third Annual Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass is still open for applications until the end of the month.

Secondly, the Science Fiction Foundation has issued a Call for Papers for their latest book, The Unsilent Library: Adventures in new Doctor Who:

Published by the Science Fiction Foundation
edited by Simon Bradshaw, Antony Keen, and Graham Sleight

The Science Fiction Foundation, which has published a number of books on sf (including The Parliament of Dreams: Conferring on Babylon 5 and Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature) is now seeking contributions for a new book, proposed for publication in 2010, on Doctor Who. This book will focus on the series’ revival since 2005. Contributions are invited on all aspects of the new series, including its scripting, production, and reception, as well as links to the “classic” series. A variety of critical approaches/viewpoints will be encouraged.

Potential authors are asked to submit brief proposals (max. 250 words) for chapters by 1st March 2009. Final chapters (max. 6,000 words) will be due by 1st August 2009. Please send proposals to

Finally, another reminder that if you have not yet nominated anything for the BSFA Awards, you can do so until Friday 16th; here’s the list of current nominations if you need some inspiration.