Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass 2010

This just dropped into my inbox:

Science Fiction Foundation announces SF Criticism Masterclass for 2010

Class Leaders:
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay
Roz Kaveney
Justina Robson

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the fourth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2010.

Dates: 11th June to 13th June 2010

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon).

Delegate costs will be £180 per person, excluding accommodation.
Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is available from the administrator (

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at Applicants will be asked to provide a CV and writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Paul Kincaid, Adam Roberts.

Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2010.

Those who have been around a while may remember that I attended this a couple of years ago and had a good time. I didn’t go this year, sadly, in large part because Anticipation and associated travel ate up my holiday budget, but I think I’ll almost certainly be applying for next year. Anyone else considering it?

London Meeting: Ian McDonald

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Ian McDonald, author of Cyberabad Days, Brasyl, River of Gods and many other books. He will be interviewed by Simon Bradshaw (and not, as previous announcements have indicated, Tony Keen, because Tony is ill. Get well soon, Tony!)

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.

As usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes. See you there, I hope.

Short Story Club: “From The Lost Diary of TreeFrog7”

The story, and the comment, starting with Alvaro Zinos-Amaro at The Fix (link to Google cache, since the site seems to be down):

“From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7” by Nnedi Okorafor is an inventive tale of exploration in which the pregnant TreeFrog7 and her husband Morituri36 compile entries to upload to the Greeny Jungle Field Guide. Their quest is a fabled mature CPU plant, in pursuit of which TreeFrog7’s friend BushBaby42 mysteriously disappeared. The story takes the form of the field guide entries themselves, a neat structure that provides firsthand perspective on the field guide’s scope and the author’s travails in obtaining their knowledge. Also, it allows first-person narration by both main characters, a useful point-of-view flexibility. The hyperlinking to entries on mentioned creatures is a nice added touch.

Okorafor’s displayed strengths are her imaginative detail and the immersive quality of her world. The plot, though, doesn’t generate as much suspense as I might have wished, and leads to an almost foregone conclusion. This isn’t helped by some of the expository repetition, perhaps resulting from the notion of each entry as self-contained. This story isn’t quite at the level of last year’s other guide, “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antartica” by Catherynne M. Valente, but it is more accessible and more immediately rewarding.

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

There is much here to delight readers: TreeFrog7’s narrative voice, the jungle setting described in evocative prose.
The journey in this case is the reward, more so than the destination. But I have to wonder, if the wingless hawkmoth is guarding the CPU plant, why it has gone so far away to follow the explorers. I wonder also at Morituri36’s name, if it was meant to telegraph the ending, and why. There seem to be hyperlinks in the text to entries in the Field Guide, but they did not work on my computer—as in fact none of this site’s links ever do.

James is less keen:

The language is evocative of the jungle and eventually reveals the characters. However the plot didn’t do enough for me, it was more or less the standard alien exploration story. And I’m not really a big fan of zoological or botanical style stories, I think it might be because I gave up Biology at school as soon as I could and did Physics instead, so the descriptions of the creatures didn’t really do anything for me.

In the end, I kept waiting for the story to go somewhere else, somewhere promised by hints in the story. Instead all we got was a tantalising glimpse of that.

And a lengthier discussion by Charles Tan:

That digression aside, it’s all too easy to admire the widgets and forget the actual story. Okorafor goes for a character-centric piece and her conceit–that her protagonists are explorers who are keeping records–gives the perfect excuse to tackle the setting and its unique ecosystem. If you don’t like the world-building aspect, one will likely drop the story early on but if you’re like me, discovering the nuances of Okorafor’s fabricated world is a pleasure albeit one that can get tedious due to the length. There’s several points of tension in the story but because of the format, only one is truly explored. The interaction between the characters feel human and fleshed out, but the danger of a stalking predator loses much of its effectiveness because of the epistolary form. There’s clearly a build-up in the story but somehow, it lacked the impact I was hoping for. Overall not a bad piece, but it lacks that compelling voice as there’s still a certain sense of detachment despite the first person point of view.

So: what did you think?

This Is What 80,000 Words of Survey Looks Like

Wordle: BSFA Survey

Or, if you prefer one that shows you (most of) the names involved:

Wordle: BSFA Survey Names

This is to say that as of last night, I have a draft (minus introduction). This weekend will be about revising, proofreading, and writing author biographies; then I’m going to let it sit for a week or ten days, hopefully get comments from a few people, give it a final read, and send it off to be typeset. At which point I might even start blogging more regularly again.

Short Story Club: “A Tulip for Lucretius”

Not much discussion about this story out in the wilds of the internet, or at least, not that I could find; just James:

As I can’t, as yet, put down my thought in a coherent sense, I’ll resort to lists. Please forgive me.

The downsides of the story in my opinion are:

— Large chunks of infodumpy-ness. It’s a short show, with a lot of tell.
— Complicated religious arguments. For someone not versed in religion, or even used to thinking about religion, it can be difficult to follow.

The upsides:

— It made me think!
— Some great ideas.

And Maureen:

So, is there too much crowding into this story? Is it actually going anywhere? Or is it suggesting that it all comes round again, no matter how far into the future you go? Human/post-human impulses being what they are, we/they inevitably pursue certain ideas, certain tracks, same thing, different version? Or is he suggesting that no matter how much you try to strip life of meaning in order to survive, in the end you need meaning in order to survive.

And I think that means I like this story, because it engages me intellectually in a way that most of the others so far haven’t. It is making me think about what I believe in. I’m not sure if that is something I actively demand of fiction, or rather, I’ve not been aware in the past that I demand that of fiction (and sometimes, shock, horror, I really do just want to be entertained) but this story seems to be inviting me to take up a discussion.

But I still think it has some structural problems.


Far North

The National Book Award nominees are out. In the fiction category, the nominees are:

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I mention this because I read Far North earlier this year, and thought it pretty good and interesting. Lydia Millet — one of the judges for this category, along with Alan Cheuse, Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, and Charles Johnson — raved about it for the Washington Post, although actually I find myself not so convinced by her review. Her opening is perhaps an over-ambitious claim — “Far North may well be the first great cautionary fable of climate change” — and while her conclusion that the book works because of “the imperfection of Makepeace’s understanding of her world, of the complex physical and social revolutions that brought her people to this post-apocalyptic pass” is right, I think, I’m not wild about her attempt to link it to contemporary American life.

Beyond Millet, it has not always been glowingly reviewed. M John Harrison, in The Guardian, found its approach unsatisfying:

There’s a lot of material packed into Far North. A revelatory narrative processes in fits and starts, withholding until last the things the reader most wants to know: how did the world get this way? How does it relate to the world we know? What are we being told about our own bad decisions? But by the time the revelations are made, it’s hard to care. The post-disaster world doesn’t really have a history, only a patchwork of bits and pieces whose existence is authorised by the story rather than the other way round. Despite its centrality in Theroux’s argument, the landscape lacks presence. And apart from Makepeace herself, the characters are not much more than ideograms, each with a simple, formal purpose in the text – the pregnant woman, the gangmaster, the religious lunatic and so on. When one of them develops a backstory and complex motivations, all you feel is surprise: the gaunt narrative suddenly blossoms into a Hollywood plot.

He also argues that “It forgives us our trespasses too soon and too completely.” In The New York Times, Jeff VanderMeer seems to have had similar qualms about the ending, but would have preferred less explanation:

But echoes have their own integrity and resonance. The true flaws in Far North are the coincidences that artificially tie Makepeace’s past to the novel’s present. Without the author’s prodding, would Makepeace really return to the same settlement where she’d already escaped from religious fanatics? Is it believable that the person responsible for Makepeace’s disfigurement runs the work camp? The reader doesn’t need banal explanations, and Makepeace doesn’t need the closure.

In The Telegraph, Tim Martin usefully points out the book’s (real, I think) nod to Stalker/Roadside Picnic, even if he thinks it’s tied up with pacing problems in the second half:

The magic begins to fade in the second half of the book, in which Makepeace, through a series of reversals, finds herself first a prisoner, then a guard in a work camp near the Zone. The conclusion to the narrative – which produces a figure from the distant past to speed things along, a shameless McGuffin in the form of a canister of healing blue light and a final revelation that’s pure Hollywood – feels rushed and out of step with the reflective tone of the rest of the book. Until about 40 pages from the end, Far North feels as though it’ll be the slightly bumpy first book of a promising trilogy: then Theroux begins channelling Stalker, and the book embarks on a headlong sprint to an unsatisfying finish.

Other than Millet’s, the most positive review I’m aware of is Dan Hartland’s, at Strange Horizons, which picks out the book’s Western heritage:

What all this amounts to is a novel which doesn’t practice ambivalence without aiming for safety; a book with a number of cross-currents, which refuses to settle one way or the other, and one which derives its richness from these internal struggles: a weak dystopia, but an informed contribution; a gender puzzle but one uninterested in pushing the study further than the bounds of the character allows. If Theroux does not possess the poetic vision of McCarthy, he is still some way ahead of many other writers in crafting a novel which works its sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes competing threads lightly and decoratively. Much of what is here builds up slowly, by cross-reference, by evocation and allusion, and Makepeace is by novel’s end, if not precisely a revolutionary study in cross-gender role-playing, then nevertheless a solid character with her own particular voice. (So particular, in fact, that early on the reader would be forgiven for thinking it is a voice with discrepancies—the faux-cowboy clunker “I didn’t know him from the oriential Adam”, for instance, or her fortitudinous, “the sight of that made me come over a bit queer”—whereas in reality Theroux is simply brave enough to let it jar as it should.)

In Clint Eastwood’s 1992 anti-Western, Unforgiven, a character begs, “I don’t deserve . . . to die like this.” His killer, the film’s hero, responds plainly, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” The new Western’s stoic acceptance that the white hats do not always win is more honest, and more in tune with science fiction’s tendency towards the apocalypse or singularity, than its traditional authorising and normalising aesthetic. It also informs every page of Far North, a novel which is carefully written and advisedly magpie-like, and which despite its weaknesses, tensions and evasions, depicts a character and a people who do not deserve to live in the time they do but are intent on survival now they must. It makes for an ambivalent book on all levels; but at times such a novel can leave a reader with more for later than a book more perfectly formed and finally stated.

For my own part, I thought the book more successful than most recent examples of its ilk, and very well controlled; I actually thought the first few chapters more awkward than the closing ones, in part because I read the change in pace that Martin diagnosed as deliberately wrong. My review is here, and there’s at least one paragraph in there that, looking at it now, desperately needs another draft, but I’m still quite happy with the conclusion:

But in this novel it is horribly out of place, jarring, and ultimately Makepeace, and the narrative, discard it. What happens then is that Makepeace escapes, and returns home, where life will go on, regardless of the wider world. This should not be mistaken for a valorization of a “simple life.” “There’s plenty of things I’d like to unknow,” Makepeace tells us at one point, “but you can’t fake innocence.” And then a crucial insight: “Not knowing is one thing, pretending not to know is deception” (99). So her decision to retreat to a self-imposed simplicity, removed from engagement with the world, should be understood with a sadness verging on despair. Makepeace isn’t in at the end of everything, it’s not the end of the world; but, she has decided, it is the end of a world that can afford to remember its past; it’s too late to go back to a world that could cross that gap between present and past. There’s only forward, and for that, the simple ways do, indeed, endure, more than the complexities of civilization. But a blank page is never a cause for celebration.

In sum: worth a look, I’d say, and I’m not sorry to see it getting more attention.

A Little Less Conversation?

The Huffington Post books section isn’t going to do reviews, according to Amy Hertz:

#1. This is NOT a book review section. Let me say that again, because I know about 72,000 publicists just plotzed because they have no idea what to do other than ask for a review. Huffington Post Books is not a review — there’s a reason those sections in newspapers are dropping like flies.[…]

And now you’re thinking, If I can’t send you books to review, how does anyone get attention for them on your site?

I thought you’d never ask.

#2. Blog, blog, blog, blog, blog. You, your authors, your authors’ friends. And especially editors. Yes, you can come and blog about the books you love, the ones you are publishing, just make it clear to the reader who you are and what your relationship to the book is.

I can feel Jonathan’s righteous outrage building even as I type. But as Adrienne Martini points out, in many ways this is the most interesting quote:

Book reviews tend to be conversation enders, and when you’re living in the age of engagement, a time when people are looking for conversation starters, that stance gets you nowhere.

In the comments to Martini’s post, Russell Letson argues:

Of course it’s a conversation, and the fact that in its traditional mode it is nearly always one-sided doesn’t mean that it stops communication. I’ve been addresssing imagined audiences via Locus and other periodicals for going on thirty years, and when a (perhaps non-representative) sample of readers gets to talk back, say, during a convention panel, it seems to me that I haven’t even slowed down the conversation. But then, I’ve never had to write the thumbs-up/thumbs-down buying-guide kind of review and never needed to do a killer review. Those might indeed be conversation-stoppers. Instead, I get to read what I think I’ll enjoy, describe what’s in front of me, and account for it–think out loud about why it’s enjoyable or interesting or new or comfy-familiar and where it came from and what other books it reminds me of, and anything else that pops into my tiny mind while my fingers are on the keyboard.

Obviously, I find the concept of the Huffington Post Books section as soul-shrivelling as the next good LRB/Locus/etc reader, and Letson is right that reviewing is a kind of conversation. But it’s not the kind of conversation Hertz wants. I wonder whether it isn’t precisely the argued judgement that Hertz sees as blocking the kind of conversation she does want, more than, as Letson speculates, buying-guide reviews. A well-written review of that kind, after all, covers off a lot of potential rebuttals, because the reviewer has already thought of them when composing their argument, so there’s a bar that anyone reading the review has to cross before they can enter into discussion with it. It’s not universally true, but reviews that get the most comments, particularly on blogs, tend to be those that are open-ended in some way.

However, it’s clearly not the kind of conversation that Hertz thinks is most effective at selling books. She thinks promos along the lines of Scalzi’s “Big Idea” slot are more effective. io9’s book group would probably meet with some approval, too. (Speaking of which, Paul McAuley answers questions about The Quiet War here.) Maybe she’s even right, on average. But personally, I’m glad the internet has many other places for me to get my books coverage.