This week’s story: “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon” by Ken Scholes; discussion on Sunday as per usual.
I’m still in Cologne at the moment, but have some links to keep you amused. One: Paul Witcover’s Locus review of The Secret History of Science Fiction:
Kelly and Kessel have selected stories from inside and outside the genre to demonstrate that, in fact, despite the continued reliance of publishers on such marketing labels as science fiction and fantasy, “the divide between mainstream and science fiction is more apparent than real,” and that “outside of the public eye,” writers on both sides of the supposed divide have been producing work that, on the one hand, has the ambition and sophistication of literary fiction, and, on the other, makes use of the tropes of speculative fiction, though not necessarily labeled as such by writers, critics, or readers. This is the secret history to which the title refers.
It’s a bold assertion, and I have a lot of sympathy for it. In fact, before I read this anthology, I was inclined to agree with it. But as I read these stories, I began to doubt it more and more, and finally I became convinced that Kelly and Kessel are wrong in an centrally important way, and that there really are substantial differences between genre speculative fiction of literary ambition and what is written outside the genre, even if it contains speculative elements. And I think these stories prove it: that is the secret history of The Secret History.
Note that John Kessel turns up to discuss in the comments.
Two: Mark Newton and Dan Abnett discuss tie-in fiction:
I’ve never known tie-in novels receive so much fanfare and review coverage as [Sebastian Faulks’ Bond and Eoin Colfer’s Hitch-Hiker’s]: because that’s the other bizarre thing – franchise fiction tends to be ignored by reviewers, especially in major genre magazines. They treat it as a lesser product, and hate to give it air time. I’ve heard some talk that, because it’s assumed tie-in fiction always involves a one-off payment and no royalties, the author gets little benefit. That’s certainly not the case for several franchises, and Some tie-in books make careers.
Sometimes I find that genre magazines are ignoring the very “brands” that sell hundreds of thousands of copies – brands, therefore, that readers want to know about.
I merely note that I was out at dinner the other night, and my colleagues were discussing Harry Potter and some other franchise I temporarily forget, and expected me to know all about them; when in fact neither interests me in the least. [EDIT: still can’t remember what the other franchise/series discussed was, but I did remember the other thing I wanted to say: Faulks’ and Colfers’ books may have attracted a lot of attention, but not much of it was positive.]
Terry Bisson interviews Kim Stanley Robinson:
There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.
And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost, there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.
I really must re-read Pacific Edge soon.
And for good measure, another KSR interview, this one by Alison Flood:
But this rapid change, in turn, leads to another sort of crisis. “Depending what we do in next 20 years, it’s very hard to be plausible, to say this is what’s going to happen. At that point you can’t write science fiction, [so] the genre is in a little bit of a crisis, and all the young people are reading fantasy.” Robinson himself, however, presses on undaunted. He’s considering future novels set around Saturn or Mercury; he’s looking into a book about Herman Melville, who “after his career as a novelist crashed had another career as a customs inspector”; he’s keen to put what he learnt from Galileo – the work ethic, “the tenacity of the man”, into practice.
But he worries about “the crisis for this tiny genre”, recently launching an impassioned defence of science fiction in the New Scientist, where he accused the Man Booker judges of neglecting what he called “the best British literature of our time”. “It’s a different situation than it was when I began, the relation between world and genre. Back then you could read science fiction and get a sense of what the world was going to be – now, I don’t think you can be prophets in the same way,” he says. “If the world is a science fiction novel then what do you read? What can the literature do for you?”
Oh, and Dollhouse has been cancelled, though all 13 ordered episodes will air. Not in the least surprising, and in some ways deserved, though I will still miss it; there are plenty of failures on tv, but very little ambition.
Pretty much praise all around for this one. Let’s start with Rich Horton, in the March Locus:
[at Strange Horizons] In January, my favourite story is sf: “The Shangri-La Affair” by Lavie Tidhar. Sometime in the near future a man comes to Laos on a mysterious mission, as war continues to sweep through Asia. The familiar routines are enacted: the flight in on Nuevo Air Amerika; the rendezvous with an enchanting woman; the journey to a hidden city. Slowly we learn the man’s mission. He is trying to find and destroy the only samples of a dangerous plague, but is it dangerous? That turns out to be a good question, one Tidhar leaves the reader to answer, making this a fine, thought-provoking story.
Lois Tilton at IROSF:
Very edgy and unsettling stuff, best read to the Ride of the Valkyries and evoking a cynical world of spooks and black ops as well as a skiffy side of robotic and cyborg warriors and designer bioweapons, as well as the obligatory sexy Asian girl.
Tidhar’s story reads like a drug-infused John Le Carré novel, if Le Carré wrote science fiction and dropped LSD as he pounded on the typewriter. The narrative is tense and action-based, pulling the reader through a story with flat-out beautiful prose. The result is a tale which is both fun to read, and a fascinating glimpse into the madness of future wars. All in all, an amazing accomplishment, and highly recommended.
It’s James’ favourite of the short story club:
I loved the style of the writing, it had a great sense of place, with some really groovy description: funky, cool and foreign. It has plenty of background tech scenery, the sort of layers that give the future a good sense of believability, combined with some striking descriptive images.
The POV is a bit slippery in places, along with the nameless protagonist, and I liked both, producing a tale-of-the-past feel combined with a kind of Ludlum-esque Bourne style espionage.
It doesn’t skimp on ideas either, leaving a rather large question for discussion at the end: is peace enforced by biological means something we should use? Peace or slavery?
I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Probably my favourite of the entire story club so far. Highly recommended.
And it sent Evan on a Tidhar binge:
This week’s short story club story is The Shangri-La Affair by Lavie Tidhar, who I’d never heard of before.
It’s really quite good.
I was struck from the first by the confidence of the narrative voice. The story follows an unnamed protagonist from a quite close third-person perspective through a future war in South-East Asia, concerning a particular MacGuffin in the form of a peace plague (the Shangri-La of the title), virally transmissable fellow-feeling that stops hostilities in their tracks. We only get to see its effects for a moment before everything is blown to atoms by the unseen backers of our nameless viewpoint character. The story’s prime emotional conflict is his struggle between destroying the peace plague and letting it spread. Finally, he decides that peace not chosen is no peace worth having. This struggle would have more resonance if we had some theory as to how the peace plague works. If the reader were allowed another viewpoint on whether or not the plague nullifies free will, it very well might deepen the effect of his choice. The doubt it still there, but I think that it’d be better if it were made a bit more explicit.
The story isn’t perfect, of course. There are only token female characters and the people that we encounter for the most part are generic Men of Action and Consequence. The plot is at least four decades old and the tone is taken straight from smeary spy novels set in warzones far away from the home front, without any real engagement with the consequences of the war on the people who live there. What virtue the piece has lies in the cleverness of its synthesis of these elements, and I think that it succeeds very well (that said, I tend towards synthesis in my tastes, perhaps to a fault, Gene Wolfe and Michael Swanwick being favorites of mine).
Since reading it, I’ve gone on something of a Tidhar binge, and what is out there on line really strikes me as quality stuff, some of it better, I think, than this particular piece, 304 Adolf Hitler Strasse over at Clarkesworld being the best of the stuff online, in my opinion, at least that I’ve found. I also went out and bought HebrewPunk and ordered The Bookman, so I may be in the throes of an irrational enthusiasm. Looking forward to what he produces in the future.
With an explanation of how he’s using synthesis here (useful perspective, I think). But what did everyone else think?
This week’s story is by Holly Phillips, and can be found at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, here. Rich Horton liked it:
Holly Phillips goes from strength to strength. “Thieves of Silence”, at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is the lovely tale of Zel, a thief who, as the story opens, invades a rich man’s house to steal enough to keep ehr and her lover from ruin. But the rich man’s daughters are witches, and Zel is captured — in more ways than one. Zel’s lover Gannet, meanwhile, schemes to land a rich husband, and so we have a rich net of betrayal and maneuvering, shifting loyalties, unexpected emotional responses.
Lois Tilton, also likes it:
A tale of some complexity. While the witches suggests it was their spell that changed everything, the real driver of this story is Gannet’s selfishness–which is a lot more clear than the working of the spell. Readers should find themselves in sympathy with Zel.
It’s not James’ cup of tea, however:
The story is about a thief who stumbles upon some witches. The writing is nice with some evocative description, but I just don’t get on with this style of Fantasy story. It does nothing for me. I’m reminded of one-off bespoke RPGs that I played many (many) years ago, with thieves and masters and servants. Nothing ever seems to surprise me in this style of story, nothing ever keeps me hooked. I miss the ideas and invention and provocation that a great SF story can deliver.
Did it work for you?