Morgan and Hartland on Black Man

Further update to this week’s links: I see that an interesting discussion has developed between Dan Hartland and Richard Morgan in the comments to Dan’s review of Black Man:

RM: What if looking for some transcendental level to the narrative is in fact like going to see a production of King Lear and hoping that Gloucester won’t get blinded and Cordelia will be saved?

DH: Let’s ignore that the best productions of Lear achieve precisely that reaction in the audience! I’m more interested (for now! :P ) in why you imagine that anything that is not an out-and-out thriller will necessarily require a pretence that violence can’t be exciting? Because you’re right that thrillers achieve that effect very well (Black Man nails that side of itself, and I’d recommend it on that level to anyone) … but I’m less convinced that only pure thrillers can.

You were right earlier that ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction too rarely speak to each other. But what is the point of dialogue if, as you seem to be suggesting, to achieve a particular effect a book does indeed have to be one thing or t’other? To achieve an effect we use techniques, not forms; we need to understand those techniques and their contexts, for sure. But do we need to leave them where we found them to make them work, or can we create a new space for them, and even ally them with techniques from somewhere else?

RM: Hmm – let’s not [ignore the point about Lear], though. Because what makes Lear such a devastatingly powerful piece of drama is exactly the dynamic you describe, the fact that however much we long for those consolations from the play, we ain’t getting them! It’s the epitome of brilliant tragedy – Shakespeare basically gives you nowhere to hide. Similarly (ahem, not wishing to compare myself in canonical terms here, y’understand) Black Man is supposed to deny the reader the consolation of believing (or at least of being confident) that Marsalis is wrong and the human condition is susceptible to an altogether more reasonable and “truer” reading, with civilisation and peace for all at the end of it. Hopefully, that has a similarly tragic effect.

Reynolds and Roberts on Today

I mentioned in the link post earlier this week that Adam Roberts and Alastair Reynolds had been on Today talking about space opera, and that you should listen soon because the link would expire. Turns out I was wrong about that: I’d thought it would be on the same 7-day Listen Again cycle as most of the Beeb’s output, but Today seems to have archives going back to 2003, which is rather good of them.

However! Enterprising and generous Torque Control reader Jessica Eastwood very kindly emailed me a transcript of the interview anyway; and since I think transcripts are A Good Thing anyway, for ease of reference, speed of consumption and so forth (not to mention that it would be just plain churlish not to use it), here it is.

Space Opera — Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts
Monday 29 June 2009 08.50

Evan Davis (presenter): Now, it’s a genre you may never have heard of: space opera. No singing, it’s derived from soap opera, it’s a sub-genre of science fiction, and it’s making a renaissance. To explain more, we’re joined now by a writer of it and a fan of it: Alastair Reynolds is an author who’s just signed a £1 million book deal for a 10-part space opera, and Adam Roberts is professor of English literature at Royal Holloway College. Good morning to you both. Alastair Reynolds, can you tell us what space opera is, for those who aren’t so familiar with it?

Alastair Reynolds: Well, space opera is basically science fiction with all the stops pulled out. It’s the kind of science fiction we think of when we think of films like Star Wars and Star Trek. We’re talking about action in the deep future; we’re out into the galaxy, we’re dealing with huge, epic scales, different civilisations, that kind of thing, you know, it’s not near future, it’s not dystopian.

ED: OK. And what’s your 10-parter going to be about?

Reynolds: Well it’s going to be lots of different books, it’s not sort of 10…

ED: They’ll be linked, won’t they, in some way they’ll be…?

Reynolds: Some of them will be linked. I’ve been writing a number of different books set in the same universe, which is a sort of projection of where we’ll be in about 500 years in terms of going out into the galaxy and finding out what’s out there, and I’ll be doing a little bit more in that universe.

ED: And my guess would be, having seen a bit of Star Trek and a little bit of Star Wars, that although it’s set in the deep future and in… a long way from planet Earth that very earthly themes and morality comes to play.

Reynolds: Yeah, ultimately it has to be about human beings or no-one’s going to read it. You want people you can relate to, characters you can focus on and empathise with, and indeed we get into, if you like, realistic political and social themes within science fiction – even though you’re dealing with massive spaceships and killer weapons, at the same time you can also make pertinent points about real world politics.

ED: About the here and now. Well Adam Roberts, from Royal Holloway College, what do you like about it?

Adam Roberts: Well what I like is that it’s… it’s this sense of wonder, it’s the transcendent possibilities, it’s the most imaginative form of literature that there is, and that’s true across the board of science fiction, but it’s something that’s on a much larger scale with space opera. I mean, space opera used to be a fairly disreputable sort of literature, it used to be very pulpy and rubbishy and stupid adventures and lantern-jawed space jockeys and green, bug-eyed monsters, but the new space opera, the kind of thing that Al writes, is much more interesting on… in literary terms but also kind of aesthetically; it’s about comprehending just how vast and enormous the universe we live in is.

ED: Well what’s the advantage, if you want to take an issue, I don’t know, like the world post-9/11, what’s the advantage of setting a piece of fiction around that in the middle of the universe thousands of years hence? Why’s it somehow better to do that than just having a novel about life here and now?

Roberts: The short answer is that science fiction is a metaphorical genre, so it’s about metaphors that articulate key, important questions, which is exactly what we’re talking about, and it turns out that it’s better to address these things metaphorically than it is to try and reproduce them in a literal way, that metaphors are more eloquent, they are better at touching what really matters to us about 9/11. If you get actual novels set … at that time and in that city, it gets bogged down in the specifics and the minutiae, whereas science fiction enables imaginative freedom to really get to the heart of the issue.

ED: To strip all the irrelevant details out and to see it for what it is. Alastair Reynolds, how much role does science play in what you write? How important is the science? Do you have to understand the laws of physics, for example?

Reynolds: Well I came from a science background so I… it’s always going to be there in my fiction, but it’s important to realise that there are many very, very good science fiction writers writing very… you know, very good works that are not coming from a science background. I think it’s a question of taste, really. I like to get the science as right as I can without constraining the story too much. So it’s, you know, things like, do we have faster-than-light travel or not? Physics says it’s probably going to be impossible, but then you get into other areas where you’re sort of playing around with, if you like, the limits of knowledge of science, and that’s where you can have a lot of fun because you’re sort of keying off from very, very out-there extrapolations in the very limits of what we know.

ED: And there’s money to be made in it, is there, Mr Reynolds?

Reynolds: Well, there seems to be! Yeah, we’re fortunate, I think, in Britain that science fiction is indeed enjoying something of a renaissance and this is something that’s been, I think, building slowly for 10 or 20 years. I mean, when Iain Banks emerged as a science fiction writer this was a sign that it was something you could do – you could take it seriously and yet still have a lot of fun.

ED: And Adam Roberts, the British are quite good at it, actually, aren’t they? Is that right?

Roberts: It’s… we do seem to be leading the charge at the moment, and particularly with this sort of writing, the sort of books that Al is writing, these grand, majestic space operas, the kind of universal themes; writers like Steve Baxter or Paul McAuley or Al himself or Justina Robson, they really are… I mean, speaking as a professor of literature at the University of London, these are some of the best writers around today working in this genre.

ED: I should pick up a few of these and read them. Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, thank you both.


I’ve really got to get back into the habit of doing these things more regularly. Still:

The 2009 Hugo Short Fiction Nominees

Links to our previous discussions, for my ease of reference, and for anyone else who’s interested. And for members of Anticipation, you have until midnight tonight to vote; so go vote.

Best Novella

Best Novellette

Best Short Story

Concluding thoughts? Not many; I think I’ve said pretty much everything I could say at some point along the line. I’ve used No Award on all three of the above ballots, but there’s a potentially excellent set of winners in there, and I don’t even think it’s a terrible slate, all told, just a middling one; and I’m feeling quite trenchant tonight about what I do and don’t want to win, so No Award gets used. The novella category is probably the most interesting to me, the short story category the least; and as ever, it will be interesting to see what didn’t make the ballot.

All that aside, though, I’ve rather enjoyed the discussion process — not that there was much discussion in all cases, but when it did happen it was good! So I’m tempted to keep on reading short stories and rounding up discussion of them here, possibly on a bi-weekly basis, probably focusing on new, online stories (after all, there are next year’s Hugo nominations to think about). Good idea? Bad idea? And if the former, does anyone have suggestions for stories they’d like to put on the slate? I’ve been mulling posting something about Rachel Swirsky’s “Eros, Philia, Agape” since I read it, for instance, and I keep meaning to read more of Futurismic‘s fiction. Thoughts?

British Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Panel

As noted in the original post about the survey, one of the panel’s at last week’s BSFA/SFF AGM event was a discussion of some of the questions it raises. For those who weren’t able to attend (and indeed those who were), here’s a recording — you can download the mp3 direct from here, or listen to it on the BSFA site. The panelists were Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Paul McAuley, Juliet McKenna, and Kit Whitfield, with me moderating.