#SciFiSessions: M John Harrison & Gary Budden

A SciFi Sessions conversation, hosted by Glyn Morgan at Gower Street Waterstones (London).  Click here for details of future events,  #SciFiSessions return in January 2018 with a special three author event showcasing British fantasy talent. 

 Weird Fiction for Weird Times by Andrew Wallace

HSMike John Harrison, a veteran of the 60s New Wave SF scene, and Gary Budden, an award-nominated short story writer whose first collection Hollow Shores (Dead Ink Press) is out now, discussed how weird fiction is indispensable for processing contemporary political realities.

Mike recounts JG Ballard at a party held by seminal SF magazine New Worlds predicting how the world would become ever more fantastical and psychopathic. At the time, everyone thought Ballard was overstating the case; now, Mike says, his own ferocious, mythic engagement with the culture feels redundant. Indeed, far from our culture inhabiting an exciting new realm of limitless possibility, some reality would be rather welcome. Gary says that the current fractured, nonsensical nature of the world means that weird fiction is resurgent; that the genre is merely reporting on the psychological state of our culture. Indeed, a contemporary writer of ‘realist’ fiction would now need to accommodate the weird simply to reflect what is going on.

Both writers engage with landscape in ways that challenge its conventional certainties. For example, Gary read a short piece about the actor Peter Cushing, who lived in Whitstable. In the story, the actor is referred to via his greatest roles, like ‘the Vampire Hunter’, as he wanders around the seaside town accompanied by his best friend, ‘the Vampire’ (presumably Christopher Lee). They meditate on their great fictional battles, surrounded by the everyday bustle of modern life, and meditate on an uncertain future. This blending of myth and reality has personal note: Gary grew up in Whitstable and the area has a strong folkloric identity. He writes weird fiction because that is the only genre that reflects his understanding of this familiar landscape. One way to reconcile the desire for his home space to be closer to its mythical – but not idealised – identity, and further from its proximity to prime UKIP country, is to use techniques of psychogeography, or as Gary calls it ‘landscape punk’. The Hollow Shores are a real place; the name is drawn from history like some treasure previously submerged that has slowly come to light.

However, the stratification of the English landscape brings political peril. The online Hookland project, which explores a fictional English county using folklore, spent the day of the discussion fighting off an English neo-Nazi who wanted to use the site to justify national/racial purity. Mike says that writers should make their position on landscape politics clear, and maintain awareness that landscape itself has no sentimentality at all. It has its own language, often weird, that should be used with full awareness to avoid the descent into easy nationalism.

Gary is interested in the fringe elements of our island; how its marginal landscapes change over time in a way that seems arbitrary, even absurd. For example, Whitstable would not even have been on the coast when the area now known as Doggerland linked Kent to mainland Europe 10,000 years ago. Doggerland was flooded at the end of the last Ice Age, a prospect we face on the attenuated landmasses of our own time. But for a few degrees’ variation in temperature, the Britain we know would not have existed and neither, in our current form, would we. There is a sense of possibility, only just missed, that folkloric weird fiction reflects so well.

harrisonCreation of a fictional Doggerland-like continent lay behind one of Mike’s projects for New Worlds, in which elements of a series of seemingly unconnected narratives would reveal that a new continent had appeared. Although the book never came to fruition, the stories evolved and formed part of his new collection, You Should Come With Me Now, published by Comma Press. He read a story from the collection called Psychoarcheology. Ostensibly a satire about the unending discovery of royal remains beneath car parks, it also looked at how the royals themselves are as trapped by their DNA into a life of rule they may not want, as their bodies are trapped beneath tarmac. This layering is an example of one of the different narrative techniques Mike uses to draw the reader through stories that do not have conventional narrative plots. Another is ‘reframing’, in which characters are moved through different landscapes as if on a journey, placing them in unfamiliar locations to accentuate the essential quality of strangeness. The weird, then, is as much to do with the way the story is told as its subject matter.

#SciFiSessions: Adam Roberts & Jeff Noon

The first of Sci-Fi Sessions with Glyn Morgan, at Waterstones (Gower Street, London). Click here for details of future events, #SciFiSessions return in January 2018.

scifi1

Andrew Wallace

Host Glyn Morgan (a former editor of Vector) was joined by two distinguished science fiction authors: Adam Roberts and Jeff Noon. Adam is a lecturer in nineteenth-century fiction at Royal Holloway and the author of seventeen books, including the British Science Fiction Association Award-winning Jack Glass. Jeff is a former punk, doyen of the 90s Madchester rave scene and author of eleven books, the first of which, Vurt won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1993. Both have recently published new novels; Jeff’s A Man of Shadows is published by Angry Robot; Adam’s The Real Town Murders by Gollancz.

rtown2017Both novels blend crime fiction and science fiction, challenging the genre boundaries. A Man of Shadows is the film noir-influenced story of a 1940s-style gumshoe private eye searching for a teenage runaway, while The Real-Town Murders follows another private investigator trying to solve a case that seems impossible. The idea for the murder came from Alfred Hitchock, who posited: what if a dead body was discovered in the boot of a car that had been assembled by an automatic factory with no human intervention? Hitch said that if he could work out how the body got there he would make the film. He couldn’t, so never did and now Adam Roberts has picked up the challenge.

Continue reading “#SciFiSessions: Adam Roberts & Jeff Noon”

From the BSFA Review: The Trials of Apollo

trial1The Hidden Oracle, Book One of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan (Disney Hyperion, 2016)

The Dark Prophecy, Book Two of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan (Disney Hyperion, 2017)

Reviewed by Christopher Owen

Winner of the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards: Middle Grade and Children’s, The Hidden Oracle begins the next adventures in the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles. The Hidden Oracle and The Dark Prophecy are the first two books in The Trials of Apollo pentalogy by New York Times #1 Best-Selling Author, Rick Riordan. The Camp Half-Blood Chronicles is primarily made up of three five-book series. The first two, Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus respectively, follow the adventures of twenty-first century demi-gods, teenage children of mortals and either Greek or Roman gods/goddesses. In this third series, Riordan does something different, focusing instead on the adventures of the god Apollo.

At the end of The Heroes of Olympus, Apollo is blamed for the problems the heroes have had to resolve. This third series picks up a few months following the events of the second series with Apollo’s punishment beginning with him falling from the sky and crashing in an alleyway dumpster. At first Apollo’s punishment appears to be one simply designed to humble him: he is transformed from a beautiful, powerful god to an awkward, acne-covered teenaged human. He is then further humbled when a couple thugs beat him up, when he is forced into the servitude of a young girl named Meg, and when he realizes that he is exceptionally less talented at music and archery than when he was a god. His inner-struggles throughout the narrative consist of a conflict between his over-zealous ego and his melodramatic horror at his newfound limitations. But Apollo also faces exterior struggles, and it is in these conflicts that he learns that his punishment is not just to be humbled, but also to right previous wrongs. Apollo must save five missing oracles and stop a secret organization called the Triumvirate. The Triumvirate is made up of three re-born Ancient Roman Emperors who have been pulling the strings in the background all along, causing all of the problems of the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles.

In The Hidden Oracle, children at Camp Half-Blood, a secret camp for demi-gods, are going missing. One by one they head into the forest as if hypnotized and are never seen again. While previous heroes in the Chronicles have travelled far in an American road trip-style adventure, in The Hidden Oracle Apollo does not need to travel farther than the forest neighboring the campgrounds. This changes the structure of the narrative from the previous books. Apollo is able to head back and forth between the forest as site of adventure and the campgrounds as site of respite, healing and communicating with aids. Furthermore, while previous books touch on the other campers only briefly, this book spends a great deal more time getting to know the people who live at camp year-round. This includes three of Apollo’s children, adding another interesting dynamic to this book, a greater focus on the relationships between demigods and their godly parents, something that is only touched on briefly in the first two series.

trial2The sequel, The Dark Prophecy, follows Apollo’s quest to save both his friend and all of Indianapolis from the control of the Triumvirate. This book follows a similar structure as The Hidden Oracle. While the characters travel from Long Island Sound to Indianapolis for this novel, and thus there is the potential for a road trip-style structure that the original two series of the Chronicles use, this book begins at the end of the journey, as the characters are arriving in Indianapolis. Within the first few chapters, the heroes are lead to a magical hideout called the Waystation, which functions in the same way as Camp Half-Blood in The Hidden Oracle. The heroes go back and forth between fighting their enemies in Indianapolis, and re-grouping and healing at the Waystation. During these adventures, Apollo and his friends team up with a variety of different species, adding interesting new group dynamics unexplored in previous novels of the Chronicles.

Both The Hidden Oracle and The Dark Prophecy feature intense final battles that take place in Apollo’s space of respite and safety, Camp Half-Blood and the Waystation respectively. Unable to go home on Mount Olympus, every home that Apollo tries to make for himself on his adventures is attacked, almost completely destroyed and becomes the site from which he must leave to continue his important mission to stop the Triumvirate. It is also from here that he meets and joins forces with previous heroes from the Chronicles, including Leo Valdez and Grover Underwood, suggesting, perhaps, that what is truly valuable is not the place called home, but rather the people we call family.

On the topic of family, one of Apollo’s sons, Will Solace, is dating a boy named Nico Di Angelo, a central character from the previous two series of the Chronicles. There are very few LGBTQ+ characters in middle-grade children’s fiction; three of them are in The Hidden Oracle. In The Dark Prophecy, a lesbian couple runs the Waystation, and the main villain is Apollo’s ex-boyfriend. The book uses frequent flashbacks to focus on the relationship between Apollo and his ex-boyfriend. Apollo is bisexual, making him very much a rarity as a same-sex attracted first-person narrator in a children’s fantasy novel. With six central LGBTQ+ characters, a wide range of ethnicities represented, and explicit feminist ideals, these books work very well to present progressive ideologies and a diverse representation of characters.

While reading the other ten novels in the Chronicles allows for a greater appreciation of The Trials of Apollo, this is not entirely necessary in order to follow the story. These books work well to begin a new, exciting series in Riordan’s universe. The adventure continues in The Burning Maze, which will be released in May 2018.

 

From the BSFA Review: That Bastard Wonderland by Lee Harrison

That Bastard Wonderland by Lee Harrison (Wrecking Ball Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Arike Oke

bastar

You can take the lads out of Hull, but you can’t take Hull out of the lads. That’s okay, I’m a daughter of Hull myself. That means I appreciate the dourness, sarcasm and bittersweet melancholy of my home, all of which come through beautifully in this love letter of a fantasy debut from Lee Harrison. I mean: mushy peas get an origin story.

There’s a backlash right now against maps in fantasy books. Utter tosh say I. A novel with this geographic ambition, outlining a startlingly well realised alternative world, could only benefit from a map. I kept flicking to the frontmatter and the endpapers to find only blank pages, beautiful blank pages though. Wrecking Ball Press, a small press operating out of Hull (see, some kind of theme emerging!), has made a gorgeous edition of this book, cover, paper and font all working together to make a quality volume. Is the image chosen for the cover a small spoiler of a one of the story’s treats? Perhaps, but it looks well on’t.

The protagonist, and main point of view character, is Warboys. No relation to the tragic lost boys of Mad Max Fury Road, this Warboys is as laddish and uncouth as they come. He reluctantly teams up with his dad on a begrudging journey across their world. They are caught up in the expansionist ambitions of a Napoleon–like figure, but soon come up against the old belief systems of the territories they are forced to invade. It seems that there might be some truth in the old myths, but who can Warboys and his dad trust? Is anyone looking out for the underdogs in this war that on the surface is about a conflict of cultures, but underneath is as much about broken dreams and sickening ego as any real-world conflict throughout our own history.

Harrison shows us the other side of the conflict through the eyes of Nouzi Aaranya, a young man groomed from childhood in more ways than one to be a soldier and martyr for a cause he barely grasps. Whereas Warboys is solidly placed within the world of pubs, back streets, sailors, drinking and swearing, Nouzi is altogether more delicate. He’s led a life of direct indoctrination, rather than the societal conditioning of Warboys’ context. Nouzi’s own identity gradually surfaces as the plot unfolds. This forms an enlightening counterpoint to Warboys’ growing sense of responsibility to others. By the end of the book both men find themselves changed.

Harrison handles the dual point-of-view third person narration deftly. Each character is well drawn and distinctive. The plot, once past an avoidably slow and dialogue heavy first act, trips along happily building towards a satisfying, touching and cinematic denouement that still somehow manages to retain the ‘call a spade a spade’ Northern tone. Female characters are few and far between in this boys’ own tale, but as this story can be read as intrinsically about male relationships this paucity of female representation is hardly unexpected.

The world that Harrison has created for this story is startling in its clarity and depth. The technology, the big reveal, the language, religion, even the descriptions of landscape, sea and street are deft and convincing. It is a nice touch that Harrison prefaces sections of the book with quotations from archival texts from within the universe he’s created. Harrison has set up a world that could contain many more stories. We are not left with a cliff hanger so much as an open window looking out across a vista of real humans living real lives in which Harrison will find rich pickings for many more stories. I’ll be in line to read them, pattie buttie and chips in hand and wearing my ‘It’s Never Dull in Hull’ t-shirt. One request though, forget what the internet forums say: next time let’s have a map, eh lad?

 

From the BSFA Review: Lagos_2060

Lagos_2060 curated by Ayodele Arigbadu (DADA books, 2013)

Reviewed by Polina Levontin

Lagos_2060

Writing about present day Lagos, Rem Koolhaas warns that already ‘the city itself has mutated into something’ quite unrecognizable to Westerners who think of cities in terms of European or North American models.  ‘What will the city be like in 2060?’  This was the question posed to 8 Nigerian science fiction writers during a workshop that yielded an anthology: Lagos_2060. The resulting eight stories, three of which are written by women, represent a diverse range of imaginaries all set in Lagos, the year 2060.  These stories engage with science and governance, city infrastructure and climate change, co-evolution of technology and social norms, urbanization and the future of global capitalism. Yet these scholarly themes emerge from stories that are first and foremost exciting, often romance-filled adventures.  There are man-eating frogs and time-travel inducing herbs, girls with luminous tattoos and zero-gravity bedrooms, albeit in separate stories…

Individual writers approached the remit to imagine the future of one of the world’s greatest cities each with their own genre pallette and a remix of intellectual priorities.  But what these stories share is a sense of dynamic liveliness that can only be a feature of a work in progress, their various literary forms reflective of the chaotic process by which the city itself is shaped. Their gift is the recklessness of trying out new things. These are pioneering works, regardless of how one decides to date science fiction in Nigeria.

What interested me in particular were the discourses on science.  The first story of the anthology, ‘Amphibian Attack’ by Afolabi Muheez Ashiru presents the dangers of leaving the sciences in the hands of the private sector.  The private company ‘Bright Life Group’ is so efficient in curing diseases and supplying energy that it has to use science also to undo the progress, secretly engineering catastrophes, so that it can keep itself profitable and powerful by fixing its own ‘accidents’.   The discourse in the second story ‘Animals on the Run’ by Okey Egboluche is that of conflict between technological progress on one hand and society and environment on the other.  The value of robotics in particular is questioned because it reduces employment in conditions where large numbers of people need jobs.  Robotics is critiqued on an intimately personal scale in another story in the collection, ‘Metal Feet’ by Temitayo Olofinlua.

Technological advances such as land reclamation to expand Lagos are questioned as risky and as a violation of ‘natural order.’  In ‘Mango Republic’ by Terh Agbedeh scientific rationalism is instituted in Lagos, making it ‘the most beautiful prison in the world ever conceived by man’ (p. 197).  But even supreme scientific achievements are shown to be powerless against the forces of nature unhinged by climate change. Floods and rising sea levels threaten Lagos, while environmental destruction elsewhere in Nigeria swells the city’s population beyond capacity. In ‘Mango Republic’ the discourse of science is survivalist – science is our last hope to adapt to a perilous future.  Yet, exemplifying the complexity of the narratives in Lagos_2060, other stories demonstrate the political danger of seemingly desirable scientific solutions.  On the extreme opposite spectrum from ‘Amphibian Attack’, scientific knowledge becomes highly guarded government property in ‘Cold Fusion’.  A new way to produce cheap renewable electricity reinforces the government’s control over the people of Lagos and stirs political ambitions to secede from the rest of Nigeria.   Science promising energy independence actually does enable the politicians who rule Lagos to secede from Nigeria in another story – ‘Coming Home’ by Rayo Falade.

The collection is full of ideas pertinent not only to the future of Lagos but the future of humanity in general. The writers don’t envision Lagos in isolation but as an integral part of the global economic and natural system. Their visions and hopes for Lagos, their individual philosophies and fears are expressed with humor and showmanship. Their ability to ask urgent questions about the direction we are heading is made invaluable by their skills to entertain.

New editors incoming

Two new editorial elements have been detected in Vector space. As Vector says goodbye to Anna McFarlane and Glyn Morgan, we are joined by Polina Levontin (who boasts both quantity and magnitude!) and Jo Lindsay Walton (who transmits pathogens!) as the journal’s new editors. Anna will remain editor for #285, with Polina and Jo taking over from #286 in early 2018.

Polina Levontin picPolina Levontin is also an environmental scientist, whose research often explores methods of modelling and analysing  risk, and of synthesising and presenting different forms of knowledge for purposes of supporting decision-making. She has a PhD in Fishing and Fisheries Sciences and Management from Imperial College London, as well as Master’s degrees in Environmental Science, in Algebra and Number Theory, and in Comparative Literature. Polina’s recent SF criticism has focused on the representation of scientists and science in Nigerian speculative fiction.

Jo glassesJo Lindsay Walton has a Master’s in Social and Political Theory from Birkbeck and a PhD in Creative Writing from Northumbria University. His research within SF studies mostly focuses on economics, particularly the representation of money and alternatives to money in contemporary speculative fiction. He also runs the small poetry press Sad Press and is a director of the Sputnik Awards for SFF.

March BSFA London Meeting: The BSFA Awards – A Panel Discussion

Location: The Cellar Bar, The Argyle Public House, 1 Greville Street (off Leather Lane), London EC1N 8PQ

On Wednesday 20th March 2013,* join Donna Scott, BSFA Awards Administrator, for a lively chat all about this year’s BSFA Awards Shortlist. Joining Donna will be:

Duncan Lawie –  an SF critic and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He will also be a BSFA representative on the Arthur C Clarke Award judging panel for 2013. Speaking of the event, Duncan says, “I think there are two obvious picks for this year’s BSFA award novel – but I wonder if anyone else will agree which two.”

Duncan Lawie

Anne C. Perry – Assistant Editor at Hodder & Stoughton, commissioning genre titles, co-editor of Pornokitsch and co-founder of The Kitschies Awards.

Anne C. Perry

Jared Shurin, also co-editor of Pornokitsch and co-founder of The Kitschies Awards.

Jared Shurin

…and Kim Curran – author of thrilling new YA adventure Shift (Strange Chemistry).

Kim CurranShift

ALL WELCOME – FREE ENTRY (Non-members welcome)

The interview will start at 7 pm. We have the room from 6 pm (and if early, fans are in the ground floor bar from 5ish).

There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

Map is here. Nearest Tube: Chancery Lane (Central Line).

FUTURE EVENTS:
24th April 2013 – Lavie Tidhar; interviewer TBC

22nd May 2013** – Aliette de Bodard; interviewed by Duncan Lawie

27th June 2013 – Catherynne M. Valente; interviewer TBC 

* Note that due to the proximity of Easter to the fourth Wednesday of the month, this meeting will be held on the third Wednesday.

** Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.

(Pictures c/o, SFX, Duncan Lawie (Scott Polar Research Institute), Pornokitsch, Kim Curran)

2013 BSFA Lecture at Eastercon

The 2013 BSFA Lecture at Eastercon will be given by Dr Louise Livesey (Ruskin College Oxford), and is entitled ‘A Highly Political Act: speech, silence, hearing and sexual violence′. The lecture will be given at 5.00 pm on Saturday March 30th, in the Main Programme Room of the Cedar Court Hotel, Bradford. The lecture is open to any member of Eastercon.

Dr Louise Livesey is Tutor in Sociology and Women’s Studies at Ruskin College Oxford.  She is an activist as well as an academic and works hard to bring the two activities together as much as possible.  Mostly recently she has been working on activist/academic engagement with Oxford Brookes University’s Tale of Two Cultures conferences and speaking at events as diverse as Slutwalk Oxford, Oxford Reclaim the Night  and One Billion Rising Oxford.  She is also a playwright, performer and former blogger at The F Word.

The BSFA Lecture is intended as a companion to the George Hay Lecture, which is presented at the Eastercon by the Science Fiction Foundation. Where the Hay Lecture invites scientists, the BSFA Lecture invites academics from the arts and humanities, because we recognise that science fiction fans aren’t only interested in science.  The lecturers are given a remit to speak “on a subject that is likely to be of interest to science fiction fans” – i.e. on whatever they want!  This is the fifth BSFA Lecture.

BSFA and the Meteors

No time like a meteor storm for calling on the BSFA!

While Twitter lit up with Superman references, Stephen Baxter, obviously best known for being president of the British Science Fiction Association, was interviewed by the New York Times: “A Flash in Russian Skies, as Inspiration for Fantasy”. Meanwhile, the BBC World Service got in touch, and our Donna Scott, our Awards Admin, provided them with a just-in-time bibliography on the subject.

vN by Madeline Ashby

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The robots in Canadian author Madeline Ashby’s novel are self-replicating artificial humanoids designed by a “global mega-church” as post-Rapture “helpmeets” for those humans left behind after the ascension of the just. Why, it’s not clear – though given what we learn about how these robots are conditioned to engage with humanity, something beautifully ironic and poignant could have emerged. That is not what we get but vN is an interesting though flawed work.

Amy is one such construction, the daughter of robot Charlotte and flesh-human Jack. vN robots like Amy and her mother eat special robo-food and are fitted with a “failsafe” – a kind of First Law which not only prevents them from harming humans but actually causes them to shut down if violence is observed. On Amy’s graduation from kindergarten, her grandmother Portia turns up and attacks Charlotte. Amy eats her in her furious attempt to defend her mother but Portia somehow survives as a consciousness linked to Amy’s. Fleeing, Amy encounters Javier, a “serial iterator” who has given birth (vN reproduction is not gendered and vNs exist in networks of identical clades) to a dozen unauthorised copies of himself and becomes involved in a rather hazy political plot. The revelation that in her the failsafe has broken down is key: each side, human and vN, sees her as a potential weapon to be used or destroyed.

The novel only takes us so far and like many sf futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus. The robot-world is well evoked, with vN vagrants living off junk and tensions between vNs and humans. There has been a violent quake on the USA’s West Coast and, somewhere, a (semi?)-autonomous city-state of Mecha exists as a possible sanctuary. But is this culture all world-wide? Does every country in the world “have” vN humanoids? All this may be explored in subsequent volumes but some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.

Still, there are fascinating things here in what is implied about families here – notably the relationship between Amy and her artificial-humanoid mother and human father and between her and Portia, the predatory grandmother. There’s also a skilful creepiness. It’s clear that these robots are – as ‘real’ robots may well be – used as sex toys. The term helpmeet does not necessarily have (in its original Biblical context) a sexual implication but it certainly derives this as a term for marriage partners and equally certainly New Eden Ministries, Inc. means this. The ungrown “child” vNs are of course tempting for those whose interests lie that way. The development of the ability in Amy’s clade to overcome their failsafes is ingeniously linked to her family history and the darker side of desire for robot sextoys that will do whatever you want.

There is, though, a lot about the nature of love (not all sexual) in the novel: obsessive love, the kind of love that may be simply exploitative. And here the most interesting figure may be Jack, Amy’s father: “Charlotte didn’t do drama… now he suspected he’d find human women too warm, too loud, too mobile.” Or, on the same page, “at one point [Amy] and Charlotte would be indistinguishable. Jack worried about that sometimes. What if one day, years from now, he kissed the wrong one as she walked through the door?”

This review originally appeared in Vector #271. vN has been shortlisted for the 2012 Golden Tentacle Award for debut novel that best fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining. The winners of this award and the rest of The Kitschies will be announced on Tuesday, 26 February 2013.