Superpowers

Superpowers UK coverIt’s all about what you know, and what you don’t. For instance, I don’t know how much David J Schwartz’ first novel has in common with the rest of the recent mini-glut of prose superhero stories; I haven’t read Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, or Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, or Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, or any others. But I have read a fair bit of Schwartz’ short fiction, so I know that Superpowers displays most of the virtues of stories like “The Water-Poet and the Four Seasons” or “Five Hundred and Forty Doors”, including an admirable sure-footedness when it comes to handling the fantastic, a gift for efficiently capturing the essentials of a situation or character, and an emotional directness that, if it catches you unawares, can knock you down. (I should also say that I know Schwartz himself a little — enough to ask him to write reviews for Strange Horizons, and to play the occasional game of Scrabulous with, at least.) And I know that, while not everything in Superpowers works, enough of it does to indicate that David J Schwartz is a name worth knowing.

If you read the first couple of pages of his novel, what you’ll know is this:

Fact #1: The party took place on Saturday, May 19, 2001, at 523 West Mifflin Street, Apt. 2, Madison, Wisconsin, 53703.

Fact #2: Five people attended the party, all of them inhabitants of 523. Charles Frost, age twenty, and Jack Robinson, age nineteen, hosted their downstairs neighbors Caroline Bloom, twenty, Harriet Bishop, twenty, and Mary Beth Layton, twenty.

Fact #3: Of the five, only Charles Frost was available to be interviewed in the aftermath of these events, and except for the events witnessed by your intrepid reporter, the following is based on his account alone.

The guy telling you this is Marcus Hatch, conspiracy nut and self-styled “editor” of Superpowers, though there’s every indication he wrote the whole thing. This is not a book that wastes time getting going, so before long, you know what happened after the party — c’mon, deep down you knew it already — which is that everyone woke up with a superpower. Mary Beth got super-strength, Harriet got invisibility, Caroline got flight, Jack got super-speed, and Charlie Frost got telepathy. We get to know the characters as they explore and/or come to terms with their new abilities.

Schwarz’ style is extremely approachable, and emphasizes character through action or reaction far more often than it does through introspection. This means that Superpowers stands or falls with its character dynamics; and in the manner of its standing, I’d say that Joss Whedon’s influence is evident, for Whedon’s strategy is also to present us with types who are later complicated by the things that happen to them. Moreover, though Schwartz’ dialogue doesn’t recall Whedon’s stylistically, the way that characters display their emotional intelligence (or lack thereof), and the way a ready vein of character-based humour is mixed with moments of sudden, sharp pathos, is a familiar tactic. The scene in which our five nascent heroes get together for the first time to discuss what they’re going to do is a case in point; the serious personal and moral questions that get raised are counterpointed by the fact that Mary Beth has gone to the trouble to put together a handout titled “Options for Superpowered Individuals”, and punctuates the conversation by writing down what people say on a flip-chart. Some members of the group aren’t initially interested in crime-fighting (notably Caroline: “My first thought upon finding out you all had developed strange abilities was not, ‘Oh goody, now we can all fight crime together,'” she says, with just a little echo of Cordelia Chase). But it’s Charlie who gets down to brass tacks, with an argument we’ve heard before:

“I think we should help any way we can,” Charlie said. “I know I wish I had.”

“What do you mean?” Mary Beth asked.

“I mean Marsha Tanner,” Charlie said. “The guy who killed her — the first day I went outside, I got inside his head. He was thinking about killing her then, and I didn’t do anything about it. He looked normal, you know? Sometimes when I’m angry, I might think about hurting someone. But he meant it.”

“You didn’t know,” Harriet said.

“I was the only one who did know,” Charlie said. “That’s my point. We can do this, and to me that’s reason enough that we should. It’s not about whether there’s enough demand. It’s about what’s right.” (76-9)

Charlie’s determination and sincerity are all the more affecting for the fact that his Peter Parker moment has been going on largely in the margins of other people’s scenes, and it’s only here that (for me at least) the parallel clicks into place. A lot of Superpowers is similarly referential; above and beyond the journalistic frame, it’s a very knowing book, a book that’s eager for you to play along. Some of the references grate a little — such as when Caroline refers to the Madison All-Stars as “your friendly neighborhood superheroes”, because the contrast between the place these heroes look after, which really does feel like a smallish community, and the franchise-emptiness that goes with Spider-Man saying it in a big city was already implicit — but a lot of them are nicely underplayed, because Schwartz knows that any modern superhero story is going to be expected to jump through certain hoops. The question of costumes, for instance, or — more important to the novel — the question of how normal people cope with superpowers.

But Schwartz brings a number of things to the table that stop his book being too second-hand. First and foremost is an apparent determination that his normal people will in fact be normal, and will live in the world we know. His superheroes joke and bitch and celebrate and recriminate and get horny just like normal college students. They are not captured or experimented on by the government, nor do they really live in fear of their true identities being discovered. (That kind of knowledge turns out to be a power that doesn’t matter as much as you think.) They focus, as I’ve already mentioned, on local, day-to-day crimes such as convenience store hold-ups. Which is the second and more important thing: there’s no supervillain. This sounds trivial, but in fact isn’t; it highlights just how much most super-teams are defined by who they strive against, and the uncertainty this absence creates is underlined in a couple of ways. The more conventional one is that the All-Stars uncover evidence of a World War II superteam, and feel perhaps slightly jealous that their predecessors had such a clear enemy to fight; the less conventional one is the looming presence of September 11th over the story.

What we know — and what none of the characters know, although one of Marcus’ early editorial notes confirms that it’ll be an issue — is that for a novel set between May and October 2001, the spectre of 9/11 is inescapable. The impersonal undertow of geopolitics is the only supervillain Superpowers will give us, and though it may not be a surprise, it’s still a little terrifying how quickly the event is seized on by various parties as a way to give their narratives sense and coherence. This is of course exactly what, on a larger scale, Schwartz is doing with his novel, but he’s doing it, I think, to point out how dangerous it is; “This was the worst of the American character,” someone thinks to themselves towards the end of the book, as anti-Muslim violence comes to Madison, “People nestled so deeply in their own comfort zone that they could not even distinguish between unknowns” (343). Indeed, in the last hundred pages the light-heartedness of the early chapters vanishes almost entirely, and serious costs start to be asked of all the characters.

It’s a choice that makes Superpowers the only story I’ve come across that extends in quite this way the familiar superhero narrative of powers not being enough to deal with personal crises, such that the novel ultimately becomes a story about powers not being enough to deal with the impersonal forces that shape the world we live in today. (There’s J. Michael Straczynski’s The Amazing Spider-Man #36, I suppose, but I think most people would agree that’s best forgotten.) It’s a little miraculous that Schwartz manages to pull this off as well as he does; the end of Superpowers is by no means perfect, but it successfully writes about 9/11 without asking for too big a loan from the reserve of shared sentiment the mention of that day still carries. We’re left to recognize most of the ways in which the event refracts the first part of the novel for ourselves, such as the parallel between the description of the TV coverage as “crayon-bold” and the primary-colour exuberance of the All-Stars’ costumes. And there are a handful of serious emotional wallops in the last 50 pages, stuff that grows organically out of the All-Stars’ characters and the changing situation they find themselves in – when they know as little as anyone else, they’re as powerless as anyone else – that make you realise exactly how precisely controlled the tone is throughout. Similarly, the novel repeatedly overcame one of my big reservations about prose superhero stories – the feeling that superpowers are so much better suited to a visual medium – by emphasizing the subjective experience of his heroes. This is particularly affecting in the case of Jack, who may be able to stretch his subjective time further and further, but can’t turn back the progression of his father’s chronic illness, and in the case of Charlie, whose power escalates such that he becomes not unlike a human Cerebro, able to surf the mindstream of the world (which explains how Hatch is able to present most of his manuscript as a third-person narrative based only on Charlie’s testimony) when he’s not being overwhelmed by it.

Marcus warns us early on that a lot of questions — how the All Stars got their powers, for instance — don’t get answered and, in the end, despite Charlie’s near-omniscience, Superpowers is all about what the All Stars don’t know and can’t do, as much as it is what they do and can. Which means that when the answers the All Stars think they’ve found about themselves are overturned by events, it hurts; and means that what Superpowers says to its readers is, playing along should never be mistaken for the real world. You know?

Recently Read: May

(Being a list of books read in May that I haven’t already written up here or for elsewhere.)


Herge, Adventures of Tintin vol 1 and 2. These two lovely little hardbacks comprise the stories from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (first published 1929-30) to The Blue Lotus (first published 1934-5). I’d never read the stories before The Blue Lotus before, and while it’s interesting to watch the gradual appearance of various pieces of the Tintin universe — Thomson and Thompson, Rastapopoulos, a professor who’s clearly a dry-run for Calculus — they were eye-opening in several ways. One is, obviously, the politics. I knew the reputation of Tintin in the Congo, and it lives up (or down) to it — both the images and the actions of Africans are stereotypical at best and racist at worst, while the cavalier attitude to wildlife is hard to take — but Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is even more transparent and broad-brush propaganda (if against what many would I suspect consider a slightly more acceptable target), in which Tintin discovers, for instance, the secret basement where Stalin has been hiding the wealth of the people, plus a plot to blow up the capitals of Europe with dynamite. Tintin in America is only marginally less stereotypical in its depiction of Chicago Gangsters and Native Americans (even while taking the Native Americans’ side), and even The Blue Lotus, while dramatically more nuanced in its portrayal of the Chinese characters, lapses into caricature when it comes to the Japanese. Overall, though, the development of the books in terms of their political complexity is quite staggering, considering they were originally written over about five years. The development in artwork is equally dramatic — the more cartoonish elements remain throughout, but early on are evident in such incidents as a train crashing into Tintin’s car, leading to Tintin and Snowy spreadeagled on the front of the engine, whereas later they get transferred mostly to Thomson and Thompson — as is the sophistication of the plotting. Cigars of the Pharaoh, which sees the start of the drug-smuggling plotline, is the first book that can really be described as having a plot rather than being composed of a sequence of events, athough the Tintin formula of action and secret passages and such is still very much in evidence; but it pales in comparison with The Blue Lotus, which is full of intricately conflicting agendas and counter-agendas, and set against a real historical backdrop (specifically around the Mukden Incident). Most of the books contain pages that were later redrawn, which has at least one weird consequence: at one point in Cigars of the Pharaoh, Tintin is captured, only to discover, when he reveals his identity, that said captor is actually pleased to see him, saying he’s been reading of Tintin’s exploits for years. But the book that he displays as evidence of this clearly has the cover of Destination Moon, which wasn’t published until 1950 …


William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954). Somehow I made it through my privileged British education without reading this story of privileged British schoolboys going feral on a desert island. Reading it now for the first time, I find that (a) I’m not sure I believe that life on a desert island could be like that, (b) I’m not sure that children and adolescents would really act like that, and (c) it’s not nearly as brutal as I’d been led to believe; but I still think it largely deserves its reputation. I’m uneasy with some of the language used to describe Jack’s tribe of savages (as though their hunter-gatherer ways are in themselves a cause for concern, rather than the violence and callousness with which they are enacted), and I think the ending severely weakens the whole (hey, if your civilization collapses it’ll be ok, because some paternal figure will be along to rescue you eventually! Though I do love the way the hunters are suddenly boys again when the Navy man arrives. I was hoping the boys would kill the first adult they see; it wouldn’t have stopped them being rescued, but it would at least have carried the logic of the rest of the novel through to a conclusion), but the intensity and clarity of the best passages is something to marvel at. I do love a well-executed omniscient perspective, and Golding knows exactly how to use his (for instance, the well judged pull-back to an image of tides being pulled from “somewhere over the darkened curve of the world”). He is also extremely good at place, both in terms of constructing the geography of the island in his readers’ minds, and in terms of describing that geography in precise, striking terms. If some of the plotting is a bit artificial — that the fire goes out just when the only boat they’ve seen passes by, for instance — it’s forgivable for the sake of the near-mythic potency of the novel’s overall trajectory. I read it in a 1984 Faber omnibus which could have used another proofread, but I hope to make time for the other two novels — Pincher Martin and Rites of Passage — sooner rather than later.


David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old (2006). This is a “use-centred history of technology since 1900”, and fascinating stuff. I have pages and pages of notes, and because I tend to read non-fiction quite slowly — a chapter here, a chapter there — it’s a book that’s been lurking in my thoughts for the past few months. I suspect that any attempt by me to summarise it now would end up essentially rewriting the whole thing. It’s tempting just to quote the book’s conclusion, to give you a flavour of Edgerton’s argument:

It is a measure of the importance of technology to the twentieth century, and to our understanding of it, that to rethink the history of technology is necessarily to rethink the history of the world. For example, we should no longer assume that there was ineluctable globalisation thanks to new technology; on the contrary the world went through a process of de-globalisation in which technologies of self-sufficiency and empire had a powerful role. Culture has not lagged behind technology, rather the reverse; the idea that culture has lagged behind technology is itself very old and has existed under many different technological regimes. Technology has not generally been a revolutionary force; it has been responsible for keeping things the same as much as changing them. The place of technology in the undoubted increase in productivity in the twentieth century remains mysterious; but we are not entering a weightless, demarterialised information world. War changed in the twentieth century, but not according to the rhythms of conventional technological timelines.

But I should say a little bit more. The bulk of the book, as you’d expect, is taken up with fleshing out these central arguments, with chapters built around themes in technological history, including persistence (important technologies last); production (not important in the ways you think); maintenance (the longest and most significant stage of any technology’s life); and the role of nations and war in developing technology (not as central, according to Edgerton, as tradition would have it). I’m not in a position to check Edgerton’s sources, but the list of examples is exhaustive, to the point at which sometimes the book doesn’t quite escape the academic idioms of its conception, and though there’s plenty to argue with, he is largely convincing. Of course, you could also say he’s stating the obvious — once you remind people that “technology” means bicycles as well as computers, much of what he says follows. The future’s not evenly distributed, after all. But the value of the book, I think, lies in the way he traces the connections between his examples, follows their implications, and points out the way that “future-oriented rhetoric” can damage the way we think about now by, for example, obscuring the fact that imitation is usually much more important than innovation, or the fact that we could do things differently with the technology we have now. One result is that it’s a very political book. Edgerton very bluntly uses the term “poor world”, and repeatedly argues that the narratives we tend to apply to the history of technology marginalise such countries, and their contributions to technology. There’s also obvious relevance to the way sf imagines the future (or, more often, doesn’t) — something Edgerton is somewhat aware of, although his range of examples is from my perspective rather limited — which from my point of view adds another, and useful, level to the book.

Hopeful Monsters

Hopeful Monsters coverThe strangest things in Hiromi Goto’s first collection happen at night. The first two stories in Hopeful Monsters are little more than experiments in capturing the distinctive textures of night — the seeming loudness of a stray thought, in the claustrophobic intensity of “Night” (1993), and contrariwise the freeing anonymity of darkness in “Osmosis” (1998) — but they set a precedent for what is to come. For example, it’s in the middle of the night that “Tales from the Breast” (1995), which is for most of its length a relatively uninspiring portrait of the travails of breastfeeding, making in a somewhat laboured fashion the point that just because something is biologically natural doesn’t make it enjoyable, suddenly blooms into an extraordinary image. The baby is demanding to be nursed, and the skin of your breasts (the story is told in the second person, in parts) is so tight that

Like a pressured zipper, it tears, spreading across the surface of your chest, directed by your fingers, tears in a complete circle around the entire breast.

There is no blood.

You lean slightly forward and the breast falls gently into your cupped hands. The flesh is a deep red and you wonder at its beauty, how flesh becomes food without you asking or even wanting it. You set the breast on your lap and slice your other breast. Two pulsing orbs still spurting breast milk. (63-4)

This is typical of Goto’s prose — a cleverly used perspective, short descriptive sentences or sentence fragments, an emphasis on physicality — but what’s really interesting and impressive about it, I think, is the way it mingles horror and release. The separation of self from self should (surely?) be a horrific image, and certainly “two pulsing orbs” is the sort of language you’d expect to see in a horror story; yet the horror is a backnote. Because of the gentle, bloodless ease with which it happens (and the weight of uncomfortableness that has been built up through the rest of the story) the dominant emotion evoked is freedom. What happens next — the wife places her detached breasts on her husband, they “seep into his skin, soft whisper of cells joining cells” (64), and he wakes up in shock — is more traditionally horrific, albeit refracted through the wife’s more sanguine perspective. And, in fact, the story ends with the wife falling asleep, such that if you really want to you can read the entire episode as a dream. But neither of these things, for me, diminishes the power of that initial image, and I think in a way it’s emblematic of one of Goto’s core concerns: to challenge us to reclaim things from which we would normally recoil.

She is, for sure, not always successful. “Stinky Girl” (1996), about a fat, coloured (her terms) 33-year-old woman, wants to be about exactly this subject, but falls flat. Goto goes to some lengths to establish that the titular smell that adheres to the narrator, driving away passers-by, is “not a causal phenomenon”, that it has nothing to do with Stinky’s physique or hygiene. Stinky is not abnormal “medically speaking”, but “not normal in the commonly held sense of the word” (39). And we are told with equal carefulness that none of Stinky’s attributes have any reflection on her character; indeed she is “blessed with a certain higher intelligence, a certain sensitivity which enables me to more than endure the trials of this existence” (45). (The ego probably helps, too.) The coup-de-grace up to which the story leads is the idea that smell is as subjective as, say, visual standards of beauty: “If one were taught as a very small child that roses were disgusting […] would one not despite the very thought of their scent? It may be that I smell beautiful beyond the capacity of human recognition” (46). The truth of this is apparently born out by an encounter with a child who, unlike everyone else, does not react to Stinky’s stench. But for me, at the very least the ask is too big, and at worst the story is being deliberately disingenuous for the sake of a striking idea. I don’t doubt that there is a socially constructed element of smell, but there are also sound reasons why we experience (or are taught to experience) the smell of rotting meat and faeces as bad, in exactly the way that there aren’t sound reasons for prejudices based on weight or skin colour.

Arguably the problem with “Stinky Girl” is that it takes place in a near-vacuum; at least, Stinky doesn’t have much in the way of personal attachments, and the stories that take place within deftly sketched family units are mostly more effective. (I was reminded, occasionally, of the similar care with human relationships in Maureen McHugh’s fiction.) There are still some transferrals that are too obvious, as when the mother in “Drift” (1999), unable to come to terms with her daughter’s lesbianism, ends up feeling like the child in the relationship. But in a story like “Tilting” (1993), in which a young girl, her brother and her father meet their mother and grandparents on their return from a trip to Japan, the faultlines are delineated with a minimum of judgement; the memories of the recent trip provoke memories of earlier trips with not a little elegance. Similarly, “Home Stay” (1999), which describes the odd relationship that develops between an Asian man and the parents of his estranged wife, manages to portray a mutual incomprehension born of imagined difference (which is no less “real” than “real difference”, of course) without condescending to anyone involved. In each of these stories, it’s worth noting, the family is multi-racial; an Asian (usually Japanese) man has married a Canadian woman, or vice versa. It seems only natural. Families, in Hopeful Monsters, are always in flux, always sprawling things without true edges or borders, breeding grounds of hybridity in just about every way; which is why they are natural focal points for the sort of tension between prejudice and acceptance that Goto seems to be interested in.

The fantastic is deployed sparingly and, although it may be dramatic, as often as not (as in “Tales from the Breast”) it’s the questionable, equipoisal kind, where it’s up to you to decide how much really happened. The closest Goto comes to a straightforward horror story is probably “From Across a River” (2001), in which a mother is confronted with an unnerving faceless manifestation of the daughter she lost some years earlier. In “Camp Americana” (2005), we encounter one of Goto’s less charitable characterisations, in the form of a Japanese grandfather, on a camping trip with his wife, his son, his son’s Canadian-born wife, and his two grandchildren. He is not shy about his traditional — which in this story is to say sexist — views, which can make him hard to endure: “His son’s wife wasn’t raised properly, that was obvious […] the females of this country are uncivilized” (116). The conflict that develops is left unresolved when, on a solo night-time trip to the bathroom, the grandfather falls and experiences a visionary hallucination in which his grandchildren appear with the heads of cats, and his wife’s disembodied head and neck wrap around him like a snake. Once more, the horrific potential of the images themselves is secondary; what’s important is the instability in how they are explained, with a succession of possibilities being quickly raised, each trumping the last — they are creatures that have taken his family’s forms, they are a dream, they are his family having gone through a secret transformation, they are a stroke-vision. I think it’s the impossibility of accommodation that Goto is drawing on here, or perhaps the trauma that results from a rigid mind refusing to bend.

And then there’s the title story, which is the closest the collection comes to science fiction, which is presumably why it’s on the reading list for this year’s Foundation Masterclass in SF Criticism (which is, in turn, why I acquired the book in the first place). It’s here, in a quasi-scientific epigraph, that we get a definition of “hopeful monsters” — which turn out to be that small percentage of “macromutations” that can “with chance and luck, equip an organism with radically beneficial adaptive traits with which to survive and prosper” (135). Immediately after this, we encounter a pregnant woman, and so wonder: will her child be such a creature?

The first part of the story is a description of Hisa’s pregnancy, of the support her “sweet” husband Bobby attempts to give her, and of her conversations with her superstitious (but possibly also actually psychic) mother; the second part describes the birth itself; and the third part describes Hisa’s reactions to her child’s unusual physiology — she is born with what the doctors describe as a “caudal appendage”, and what Hisa sees as a tail — and the decision she makes about it. The tone throughout is unsentimental, from the physical and psychological discomforts of pregnancy (“Ridley Scott had a lot to answer for, she thought”, 138) to the more dramatic discomforts of birth (“Hisa pushed and pushed. She held her breath, pushing down with her abdominal muscles, a squirt of residual fecal mater forced along as well, she pushed, pain no longer a sensation but a entity …” 144), and the less cute details of a newborn baby (the stain of bruising, the strangeness of the fontanelle, the unpleasantness of poo). But at times the point seems laboured, as though Goto intends Hisa’s experiences to be as alien to us as detaching breasts; such an aim would fit with the collection’s overarching investigation of what is really alien to us and what is simply unexamined normality, except that I’m not convinced pregnancy and birth fall into either category.

More interesting is Hisa’s arc, from pre-birth nerves to an understandable franticness after the birth (when she senses that something is “wrong” with her child, but nobody will tell her what), to her attempts to come to terms with the abnormality. At times, the story becomes the inverse of “Stinky Girl”: “If she looked at it long enough, would she lose this skin-crawling repulsion?” (153). But here Goto has an extra twist to add, since it turns out that Hisa was also born with a tale, subsequently removed, and thus has to come to terms with the idea that what she perceived as strangeness is also a part of her. The latter is clearly more challenging; there is a dramatic difference between Hisa’s initial reaction to the sight of her child — “Hisa stared. What moisture left in her mouth withered: a bitter dust on her tongue. Her heart boomed inside her ears” (149) — and Hisa’s reaction to the news about her own heritage: “The room ballooned, a sudden vacuum. […] The fluorescent light buzzed with frenetic electrons. […] The baby’s breathing split into air, heart, blood, hemoglobin. Hisa gasped. The world cracked. Then the shards slid back to create an entire picture once more” (155). Ultimately, Hisa decides to steal away her child, so that the doctors will not remove the tail; an effective grace note is that just before she goes, worried that she doesn’t have enough practice at being “abnormal” she calls a lesbian couple from her prenatal classes to ask for advice, and is given the short shrift she deserves.

What’s somewhat perplexing is how this story is meant to be understood as in any sense speculative. Caudal appendages are a known phenomenon; vestigial functionality is rare but not completely unknown; so the only point at which the story might cross over into unexplored territory is the suggestion that Hisa’s child’s tale is an inherited feature, not a developmental abnormality. (So far as I know, caudal appendages are always the result of developmental abnormality.) Yet Goto writes in an afterword that the story was inspired by Wendy Pearson’s essay “Sex/uality and the Hermaphrodite in Science Fiction, or, The Revenge of Herculin Barbin”, from Edging into the Future (2002). The parallel, presumably, is intended to be with the way medicalisation of human biology ends up excluding all but the two “true” biological sexes (that is, excludes intersex individuals); thus Hisa’s child is, we are meant to believe, similarly excluded by a medical establishment that doesn’t recognize a true mutation when it’s right in front of them. But as with “Stinky Girl”, the parallel seems to me inexact in ways that undermine the story. A caudal appendage simply is not functional in the way that genitalia are — and if the sfnal point of the story is that this one is, then it doesn’t do the work necessary to make this plain. A reflexive grasp in a newborn is not enough to convince me that a tail would be a “radically beneficial adaptive trait” for a modern human (or that it could be a marker for other, more profound mutations), which leaves the story looking rather hollow. It does occur to me, though, that there’s another possibility: perhaps we are meant to be thinking this way, to reinforce the ambiguity of Hisa’s final decision. Even as she leaves, it’s not clear to what extent Hisa is acting for her child, and to what extent she’s acting for herself. It may be that Hisa is, in a wishful sense, the true hopeful monster, walking away into the night.

Return of the Hat

It’s hard for me to judge the new Indiana Jones film on its own – having watching the original trilogy over and over again on wet Bank Holidays, it’s inevitable that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will never quite live up to the rosy-tinted memories of my youth. So really, my criteria was this: has George Lucas stamped all over my childhood for the fourth time?

Luckily, the answer is no. Maybe it’s my downplayed expectations, after the Star Wars prequels were so very very bad, but I was pleasantly surprised with the film – it’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, no, but it’s a reasonable return (and end?) to the franchise.
Continue reading “Return of the Hat”

Mundanezone

iz216coverIn Elisabeth Vonarburg’s “The Invisibles” (translated in collaboration with Howard Scott), ecotastrophe has become a story to be faithfully retold every Christmas. Told for most of its length as an utterly absorbing second-person narration, it describes a future in which extreme climate change has driven humanity into domed cities, and is one of those rare short stories that fully creates the future as another country. The technological innovations, such as “integrated circuits” grafted into peoples’ hands, are sufficiently worked-through that they are explained almost entirely by the ways in which they are used, such as built-in Oyster cards. It’s groundwork that frees Vonarburg to delve into the characters she (or her narrator: the story eventually resolves into the first person, told by an observer) wishes to imagine, and the sights they see. Or the things they hear, since “The Invisibles” is a story in which sound, or its absence, plays as much of a role as more visual stimuli; early on we’re told that “silence, nowadays, is the rule”, and there’s a sense in which it’s the wheezing of the public transport or the bubbling of a fountain that grab the attention, not the sight of the dome above. The story itself, which imagines the journeys of two individuals “unmoored by circumstances” from familiar to unfamiliar regions of the domes, is a convincing portrait of loneliness, uncertainty and alienation. For my money, it’s the standout story in Interzone 216. The only problem with it — and you may be ahead of me here — is that Interzone 216 is a special issue devoted to mundane sf, and the strengths of “The Invisibles” are largely incidental to its mundanity.

“The idea,” says Geoff Ryman, in his introduction, referring to the prohibitive tone of the original mundane manifesto, “was that Mundanity would work like the Dogme school of film-making to create a space for different kinds of sf. It was about what we didn’t want. Here’s what we do.” A cynic might point to his statement later in the introduction that “if [mundane sf] gives itself some slack on the science, it does so to open up a new possibility” as a cleverly-inserted get-out clause (aha! We’re not as dogmatic as you thought!), but perhaps it would be fairer not to hold mundane sf’s advocates to their past words too strongly, and just take this as what the publicity splurge obviously positions it as: a relaunch. The adversarial tone of the manifesto — which, tellingly, is no longer online, although you can find traces of it in discussions scattered across the sf blogosphere and beyond, or a complete copy in Vector 245 — ensured that the original launch of mundane sf as a concept, way back in 2004, was comprehensively bungled; much hot air later, from both pro- and anti- camps, and you can’t blame anyone if their first reaction to a whole issue of Interzone devoted to the stuff is hostile, and about the only good thing you can say is that the “movement” outlived expectations. But it remains, to my mind, a perfectly reasonable ideological position about sf, for two reasons that Ryman articulates: one, that stories about the future should make “an effort in good faith to show a future” (i.e., and not be fantasy in drag), and two, that a lot of sf’s strength derives from originality (i.e., and tropes that are “tired” can end up being, among other things, inadvertently consolatory, rather than the challenging literature that sf, I think many would be comfortable saying, should aspire to be). Whether or not it’s actually the “best possible” sf is basically irrelevant: taking the idea that it might be as a provocation isn’t the worst thing a writer could do.

What it comes down to, I guess, is whether you agree with the mundanes’ implicit argument that in the contemporary field the pendulum has swung too far away from sf that focuses on the probable, and too far towards wild speculation. There’s evidence either way. You could look, for example, at awards shortlists. Certainly, on this year’s Hugo shortlist for Best Novel, only one nominee — Charles Stross’ Halting State — is unarguably mundane, having explicitly been written to meet mundane constraints. (Alien communications buzz out Rollback, while parallel worlds see off Brasyl and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.) On the other hand, arguably only one nominee — John Scalzi’s The Last Colony — is meaningfully anti-mundane, in its cheerful use of many familiar tropes from sf’s history; and this year’s Clarke Award shortlist drew some fire for, among other things, basically being too mundane. Another way to approach the question, though, would be to look at content. It would be fair, for instance, to ask where the climate change stories are. Stross once charmingly described the singularity as the unavoidable turd in the punchbowl of sf, but you could easily argue the the turd should be climate change, or at least the confluence of climate change and peak oil. But, with a few exceptions — Kim Stanley Robinson is the obvious one — the stories aren’t there, certainly not in the numbers that post-singularity tales now are. A reasonable number of works have climate change as a backdrop, but very few engage with it as an issue that could define our next fifty years.

And of those that do engage with it, plenty take the same approach as “The Invisibles”, and lose sight of any connection with our world. I’ve already said Vonarburg’s story is fine work, but there’s not a thing about it that couldn’t have been achieved equally well using a domed city on another planet. This is, if you like, a problem of affect, and it rears its head again in IZ216’s other major climate change story, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s “Endra — From Memory”, except that this time it’s actively to the tale’s detriment. We’re a bit further into the future this time (I think), and the tale is mostly told through the memoirs of one Melizan kem Gishcar-Shwy. He — sex is never specified, but the name sounds male to my ears — is a “Trading Monitor” for Lavrant City, which means his job is to arrange inspections of ships’ cargo when they arrive and leave, and he’s fascinated by one particular arrival, the charismatic Captain Endra YuiduJin. (I’m not actually convinced Endra is portrayed as charismatic so much as she is repeatedly described by Melizan as charismatic; but I’ll let that lie, because my main issue with the story is elsewhere.) Through Malazin’s recollections, we learn a bunch of stuff: that this Earth has become a waterworld; that the waters are still rising; that the population of Earth is now estimated to be half a billion, and declining; and that Endra is in search of a lost city, where the legends have it that “all the treasures lost to the rising waters remain pristine and perfect; where all men love knowledge and peace; where there is no hunger, no injustice, no cruelty, and sadness has been forgotten”. She sails away in search; she returns briefly, two years later; and then is never seen again. It’s a perfectly reasonable story of its type, but I can’t treat it as a good-faith attempt to engage with the future of our planet because it does absolutely nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished in a secondary-world fantasy setting, and a pretty cosily romanticised one at that. There isn’t much injustice or cruelty visible in Lavrant City, so Endra’s search seems a little pointless. In his introduction, Ryman notes that many of the stories that ended up in the issue were surprisingly hopeful, “at a time when the future looks so dark”; but to my mind, the future of “Endra — From Memory” isn’t so much hopeful as thoroughly domesticated.

Two stories which aspire to be a bit more thorny are both set in near-future America. R. R. Angell’s “Remote Control” is narrated by a US army private stationed on the Mexico/US border; his assignment is to monitor the “Atco-Johnson Perimeter Stations” that keep the border clear. They’re solar-powered gun turrets with webcams, essentially, and any patriotic American citizen can pay five dollars to log on and take control of one for a ten-minute stint. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to pop off some shots at illegal immigrants. This is, or should be, harsh stuff, and certainly has some nice touches — “Like the training says, if someone breaks into your house and you kill them it is self-defense; a homeowner has the right to do that. They call it the Castle Precedent, and it changed the way we do everything. Only Americans patrol our borders. It would be illegal otherwise” — but the military banter that drives the story is tiresome (even if deliberately parodic), and the ending, in which the system is effectively subverted, feels like a cop-out. You’re left thinking of the much better, because more committed to the logic of its premise, version of the same story that someone like Paolo Bacigalupi would write. More ambitious is Billie Aul’s “The Hour is Getting Late”, in which a critic provides commentary on “Woodstock 2044”, a VR-enhanced tribute to the spirit of the sixties (or, more accurately, what people in 2044 imagine the spirit of the sixties to be), while trying to avoid being manipulated back into marriage by her artist ex. Aul’s problem, in a sense, is the opposite to Angell’s. She does follow the logic of her concepts, for the most part — there’s the simple cynicism with which relationships are treated, for instance, or the glimpses of the lives of “Fare folk” living behind the “Manhattan wall” that keep popping up on news bulletins:

Jessica was amused by how much the hippies resembled the Fare folk. Hopefully the Fare folk were only looking for “three days of peace, love, and music”. Whatever they wanted, they were going to end up back on their farms. They should know how lucky they were to have that. There were countries where people like them were just locked up in camps to starve to death. If you couldn’t do work a robot couldn’t do, why should you be allowed to put your carbon footprint on the planet at all?

The suggestion of complexity here is, to my mind, very efficient; you get the issue, what people think about the issue, and an idea of where the issue comes from, all in one paragraph. (Similarly, though pop culture is a notoriously treacherous area for sf, Aul manages to make the scene of 2044 feel like it has a little depth, that it’s not just about aping the stuff we’re familiar with.) But the telling doesn’t have the vigour that it needs to make these concepts really bite; it’s just sentence after straightforward, unadventurous sentence. I suspect it’s intended to embody Jessica’s lack of interest in and understanding of the world beyond her horizon — in the story’s final paragraph, the Fare folk attack the Wall, and she wonders, deadpan, “what in the world they thought they could accomplish by doing that”. But, unfortunately, for the most part it is simply leaden. The story is worth reading — something I’m not sure I can say about Angell’s effort — but it’s in spite of this blankness of attitude, not because of it.

And, despite the implicit argument that mundane sf should be a way for sf to renew itself, I can’t say that either Aul’s story or Angell’s really recharges my imagination of an American future. More interesting is Anil Menon’s “Into the Night”, in which an Indian father travels to visit his daughter, and finds that he can cope with changes in the world but not changes in the people he knows — although the father’s resistance to genetics and evolutionary biology comes across as arrogant ignorance on his part, when I suspect we’re meant to read it as a failure of communication on hers. But the most provocative stories in the issue, from a mundane standpoint, are those that top and tail it, by Lavie Tidhar and Geoff Ryman, respectively.

Ryman’s “Talk is Cheap” offers a richer world than anything else in the issue; or perhaps just denser. In its few pages, it packs in cultural comment, weak AI, social recategorisation, water shortages, photosynthetic skin, self-heating paint, and much more, a world where “Reality is a tiny white stable dot in the middle of all this info,” and “Everything else, all the talk, is piled up sky high, prioritised, processed and offered back.” It’s not a new conception of the future, but the seriousness with which it is treated is enough to make the story stand out. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the technical aspects of the story — the way Ryman filters all this information through the present-tense perspective of one cranky old guy, whose job it is to go places in the real world and check their environmental qualities against records — are more interesting than the emotional aspects, or the world itself. It’s more of a good-faith attempt to portray the experience of living in a highly textured future than it is a good-faith attempt to portray that future for its own sake; but it’s so effective at that portrayal that it feels churlish to complain. (As it would be to question whether all the ideas that Ryman works in are, strictly, mundane.)

Tidhar’s “How to Make Paper Airplanes”, meanwhile, is a brief piece set on islands in the Republic of Vanuatu. The first half of the story is pure tour-guide, a series of facts and figures about the islands that establish their separateness to the lives of us rich Westerners, despite being on the same planet; the second half introduces us to four Americans (I think) working at a small base on one of the islands, three of whom are carrying out various kinds of research, and one of whom (the narrator) is a shop-keeper. I like Lavie Tidhar’s short fiction, and this has the precision of setting and emotion that I’ve come to expect; but neither half of “How to Make Paper Airplanes” is science fiction. The story’s place in the magazine is justified, presumably, by the story that one of the researchers is writing, and the comments the others make about it:

“I’m writing a science fiction story about us,” Sam Friedman says. “It has no aliens in it, no commercial space travel, no telepathy.”

“You’re a fucking alien,” Jimmy Morgan says.

“I can tell you how the story ends,” Sam says, ignoring him.

I say, “How?”

“One night,” Sam says, and the candle makes his eyes twinkle, “one night we get drunk and mix up all the experiments together. Ben uses my self-fermenting coconuts for his kava-pop experiment. Jimmy hooks up a generator to power things up –”

“It’s not that simple–” Jimmy starts.

“And then,” Sam says, again ignoring him, “the whole thing explodes. It’s a huge fireball. It makes a crater the size of Sola. But we all survive anyway, I’m not quite sure how yet.”

Sounds more like infernokrusher than mundane sf, right? And the proposed story doesn’t get any more plausible: it turns out that the source of the explosion is “a revolutionary new fuel”, which launches a Vanuatu space programme. This despite the fact that Sam later argues that sf isn’t a license to make up anything you want. The story-within-a-story is a striking contrast to what we actually see of the islands, and the comments made about which technologies are actually useful for their situation, and how contact with the West has really affected the islanders. (One particularly effective exchange reports the remarks of an islander, untranslated but dotted with words such as “virus”. The point is painfully obvious.) Sam is, in other words, the sort of sf writer that mundane sf wants to get through to: the sort who don’t see the world around them as a rich enough prompt for stories.

Which brings us back to the central question raised by this issue of Interzone. It’s not a bad issue — Vonarburg’s story is very good, and the stories by Ryman, Tidhar and Aul all have something to recommend them — but does it, as a whole, make a convincing case for mundane sf? Ironically, it’s probably Tidhar’s story — which isn’t sf at all — that best articulates the value of what something like mundane sf could offer, which is the value of extrapolating from the world as it is, and not as we imagine it to be, or would like it to be. Too many of the others don’t engage with their futures with the specificity that I’d hope for; with the exception of Ryman’s story, and possibly Aul’s, it’s not hard to see how the same points could have been made by translating the stories into, say, space opera. But perhaps the most telling indication of the failure of these stories to reinvigorate our thinking about the future is to look at who they’re about. In terms of where they’re from, the protagonists are a fairly varied bunch; in terms of how long they’ve lived, not so much. Yarbro’s story is written by an old man recalling his youth; Menon and Ryman deal with old men trying to live with the future they find themselves in; and while technically the narrator of Vonaburg’s story is relatively young, the two subjects of the narrator’s imagining are both elderly. Which means that mundane sf, on the evidence of Interzone 216, isn’t so much about looking forwards and thinking about change as it is about coming to terms; a stance which to my mind harnesses neither the best, nor the most challenging, aspects of sf.

Jenny-Sue comes to town

I have a strange love-hate relationship with Doctor Who. When it is good, it is very very good, and when it is bad it is torchwood. The Doctor’s Daughter doesn’t leave much doubt as to which category it falls into, and works as an example of the traps new Who falls into and why it so alternates so easily between excellent character-driven SF and utter bobbins.

Much internet speculation abounded before the episode as to why and how the Doctor had a daughter. Are we harking bad to the Hartnell era when the Doctor travelled with his granddaughter, or has that been retconned out of existence forever? It takes about half a minute for the answer to become clear – the Doctor, upon arrival at a mysterious planet, sticks his hand into a machine and faster than you can say “rearranging of haploid DNA to form a new diploid offspring” out springs his clone, already an adult. Bonus points for not using scientific words in a completely nonsensical way, minus several points for growing an entire human in less than ten second.

On this mysterious planet, the human colonists are at war with the Hath. The Hath are one of those ideas which sound really cool on paper, but when you put them onscreen on a TV budget they are comedy fish-people with bongs attached to their faces. Martha is trapped with the Hath, while the Doctor and Donna stay with the humans, and all sides end up following a hidden map to The Source, supposedly the breath of their creator and a potential superweapon. There is running around, the Doctor bonds with his clone daughter Jenny who is perky and does backflips, Donna works out the war has only lasted for seven days and the Doctor saves everything by terraforming the planet. Except Jenny, who gets shot. Except she comes back to life again at the end and flies off into the sunset to save the universe just like her old dad.

The first problem I have with the episode is that it’s so impressed it’s got a proper science fictional idea going on, it doesn’t stop to sit down for a minute and think it all through properly. A war that seems to last forever where the duration is really much shorter and myths propagate faster is a cool idea, but the timescales and logistics don’t quite work for me. What happened to the original colonists? Supposedly the mission commander died and they were plunged into war, but did they all die? Surely one of them must still be alive to put their hand in the magic person-making machine, or does it start running by itself and churning out new soldiers? How many generations and battles and complete annihilations do you need to forget everything about the original mission? Why do they need the Doctor to stick his hand in the machine? Is Time Lord DNA similar enough to human that the machine will work? And for that matter, the Hath and human colonists can’t understand each other, nor do we see any means of translation even at the end where they’re working together, so how did a joint mission work? How can you terraform a whole planet with a fishbowl full of amino acids and gases?

Sometimes, the lack of thought put into the cool idea of the week is not enough of a problem to derail the episode. Setting fire to the atmosphere in The Poison Sky I can live with, but the ridiculous motorway setup in Gridlock , or the crazy DNA-transmitting gamma radiation in Evolution of the Daleks stretch it too far. You can argue that if I want proper SF, I shouldn’t be looking at Doctor Who which has never cared that much about the plausibility of its setup. I might buy that if it were consistently terrible, but it gets it right on so many occasions that I can’t forgive it when they muck it up. I find myself hoping they’re not going to try doing anything too exciting, because I’d rather have them aim for mediocrity and hit it than go for ambition and end up with a mess.

The second problem is that they want to do a really moving, emotional, heartfelt episode about the Doctor coming to terms with fatherhood, and by crushing it all into 42 minutes with the rest of the plot. (Including a seemingly pointless subplot for Freema Agyeman in which she befriends a fish-man who dies to save her in a quarry, which my cold-hearted self found to be really badly acted and hence very funny indeed.) The Doctor starts off hostile to Jenny, as well he might when his DNA has been stolen to make a super-soldier after he’s spent several episodes complaining about the military, but half an hour later he’s discovered she has two hearts and can do some backflips and has a complete change of heart, and it never feel earned. Tennant has rarely been better than when he’s talking to Donna about the family he had in the past, but his relationship with Jenny feels like half a dozen episodes worth of plot sped up to fit the episode. Was it really necessary that it be his daughter? Wouldn’t he have felt the same for any of the soldiers, born as adults with no knowledge but how to fight and no experience but war? Apparently only if we have Murray Gold’s overbearing soundtrack telling us how important it is she has two hearts.

And the frustrating part is again I know they can do this right. Just see everything written by Steven Moffatt, for starters, but Family of Blood last year gave us a similar theme with John Smith realising everything he must give up to become the Doctor again, the life he cannot have, and did it much much better. Even the Russell T Davies-penned three-parter at the end of last year brought more emotional wallop even if they both go on to a cop-out ending where the dead aren’t or might not be dead after all. I’m hoping the tail-end of the season will follow the pattern of last year and prove what the show can do, but right now I’ll be happy if we don’t have anything as bad as The Doctor’s Daughter for the rest of the year.

11 Minutes Ago

Hello everyone – Niall introduced me in his post below, but for anyone who doesn’t know me already, I’m Vector production editor and usually found in the Torque Control comments section, and now he’s given me the keys to the blog. You can expect more posts from me on media SF and other fannish topics, while I leave the serious book blogging to Niall. I’ll try not to lower the tone too much.


The seventh annual Sci Fi London film festival took place over the bank holiday weekend. As mentioned previously, it hosts the presentation of the Arthur C Clarke award as part of the opening night, but over the next five days they showed over twenty science fiction films. I think this was the fourth year I’ve attended the festival, and while the films are sometimes hit and miss as to quality, but for every Subject Two or Recon 2022 there’s a Primer to restore your faith in intelligent film-making.

11 Minutes Ago isn’t this year’s Primer, but it’s the obvious comparison to make to this ultra-low-budget time travel romance. Pack is our protagonist, a time-traveller from fifty years in the future, who can only travel back in time for eleven minutes before he has to return to the future. The film consists of eight of these eleven minute jumps, covering two hours of a wedding reception in our time, but two years of Pack’s life. The twist is that we’re following Pack’s visits chronologically for him, but they jump about in almost reverse order between 7 and 9pm on the day of the California Presidential Primary wedding reception.

If Pack can travel through time, why does he keep coming back to the same two hours? We see early on (for Pack and the viewers, that is, at the wedding it’s nearly 9pm) that the answer is Cynthia, a bridesmaid who seems to have fallen for Pack’s charms, and gives an enthusiastic yes to a question he hasn’t even asked yet.

The introduction to the film told us that it was shot in 24 hours. Even without knowing this, it’s clear that the film was made on a shoestring, which they try and turn into a virtue. The angle they take is that the time-travelling Pack is more interesting to the wedding videographers than the actual wedding, and we’re seeing their film, which not only gives Pack someone to explain everything to but means that any dodgy camerawork can be explained away as well. Setting it all during two hours in one location means only one set, but they shoot it well enough and from enough angles that it doesn’t get boring. What doesn’t fare so well is the sound – some lines are inaudible, and the music (which I suspect was being played in the background of the shoot) is overwhelming and almost continuous for the first half of the film.

What works really well are the interweaving plots of the people at the wedding reception, and the way they can set up mysteries for which the answers come from the beginning of the evening – explaining why the groom finishes the evening pissed as a newt when he starts off a tee-totaller, why the bride’s mother is continually making balloon animals, which of Nancy the bridesmaid’s many lovers bought her earrings. Only once do they take it too far, with a card trick from Pack which serves no purpose and feels like padding, even in an 84-minute film.

What doesn’t work as well is the actual science fiction. It seems that the time-travel is just an excuse to do an interesting and unconventional timeline, but while Memento managed to come up with a good rationale for this, 11 Minutes Ago has Pack coming back to our time to collect a sample of clean air so it can be replicated in the future and reverse the crippling lack of libido which is killing the birth rate, an idea which vies with the Doctor setting the poison gas on fire in this week’s Doctor Who for stupidest way to save the Earth.

Assuming you can get past this lack of science in your science fiction, there’s another problem, in that having set up the ending of Pack and Cynthia’s romance at the start of the film, they have to convince me that they would get so far in such a short space of time. Setting Cynthia up as extremely selective in her choice of boyfriends, and someone who is reticent to move too fast, makes their task even more difficult. Pack’s chat-up technique alternates between wannabe profound statements about the nature of time and the fleetingness of their moments together and cheesy lines about her beautiful eyes and soft skin, and if it were me I’d have run a mile after the first half-hour. Further complicating matters is that in a film filled with surprisingly fine actors, Christina Mauro can’t persuade me that Cynthia is a woman so instantly mesmerising that Pack will spend months and years of his life preparing for eleven minute visits to her when she seems like a fairly boring doormat,and that feeds back to make Pack even more of an obsessive stalker than he already is.

Even if the central romance falls short, there’s still enough interest in the supporting characters to make the film worth watching. You’ll need to pay attention, but if it’s not quite the mind-bending experience of Primer you will at least be able to follow it without resorting to diagrams, and the ending, while not unexpected, is neatly done. I don’t know if it has any chance of a release outside the festival circuit, but it’s worth catching if you get the chance.

Final Reviews

The second half of Abigail Nussbaum’s shortlist review, covering The Execution Channel, The Carhullan Army, and Black Man:

Carl is neither tormented nor a monster. He is a victim who revels in the results of his victimization. He is a person, and therefore more than the sum total of his biology or upbringing, but he is also inhuman, and therefore compelled to act in accordance with this inhuman nature, which inevitably means killing without remorse.

Morgan expertly maintains the tension between these two views of Carl, never allowing either one to gain supremacy. This allows him to interrogate the core assumptions of his own story, and taunt us with our warring desires for the character—victory and salvation. In Black Man‘s final third, Morgan uses the most common trope of the lone-wolf action thriller—having the villain kill someone the hero loves, thus spurring them to bloody action. Usually, in these kinds of stories, the hero will do one of two things—kill the villain, thus satisfying the audience’s bloodlust, or recognize that vengeance is futile, thus satisfying their sense of morality. Carl does both, and the marvel of Black Man is that by the time he executes his revenge we, the readers, feel the conviction that is so often stated, but so rarely believable, in these stories—that it’s futile, that it will accomplish nothing and help no one—while simultaneously realizing, on that same visceral level, that Carl’s nature compels him to take it anyway.

And Nic Clarke’s reviewed The Red Men:

The problem is that the crushing demands of corporate life are neither personally resonant nor remotely interesting to me, and as such I found it hard to muster much enthusiasm for plot or character, or to excuse the book’s storytelling and stylistic weaknesses. Martin Lewis, in his review over at Strange Horizons, sums up The Red Men‘s concerns brilliantly: “the book is actually at least partially about trying not to be a cock”. Fair enough, and clever with it; but over 400 pages of self-centred pigs creating and then putting right a fuck up, with little apparent impact on or reference to the world at large, all the while learning to be marginally less like self-centred pigs…? I am not compelled. The portrait of the more boorish, unrepentantly-sexist blokes among Nelson’s colleagues and superiors reminded me of another recent read, Ali Smith’s Girl meets Boy (a multi-Alexandrian discussion post of which is in the works); but there the men in question were not the centre of the story world, and a relief it was too.

And with that, I’m off to help decide the winner.

Clarke Reviews

Three days to go, and the Clarke Award reviews are popping up all over. I’ll update the master list this evening, but in the meantime there’s the first half of Abigail Nussbaum’s shortlist review at Strange Horizons (second half on Wednesday):

If the resulting shortlist is not exactly good, neither is it particularly bad. It is a far worse thing—unexciting. There are no howlingly awful nominees like last year’s Streaking, and at least two of the nominated novels are very fine—each, in their own way, worthy of the award—but for the most part this year’s shortlisted novels are characterized by being uninteresting. Or perhaps I should say by focusing on things which this reader was not particularly interested in. Reading through the shortlisted novels, one can’t escape the impression that the award’s judges’ definition of science fiction is a depressingly narrow one—science fiction as a Mirror for Our Times, working to combat the evils in our society and shed a light on its failings. This is certainly one aspect of the genre, but there are so many others, so many other things that science fiction can do that the books on the Clarke shortlist don’t even try to accomplish. In a backhanded way, this year’s shortlist is a perfect demonstration of just why the Clarke needs to be the award that Tom Hunter described, one that pushes the envelope and seeks to redefine the genre. Here’s hoping future juries do a better job of adhering to this mandate.

There are Nic Clarke’s reviews at Eve’s Alexandria:

There was an article by Lisa Tuttle in the Times on Saturday which gives a general overview of the Award’s history before her thoughts on this year’s shortlist:

The decisions of judges, who must reread and argue over their selections, only occasionally coincide with the popular vote. In 20 years, four Clarke winners have also won the British Science Fiction Association Award, but that won’t happen this year – the BSFA Award for Best Novel has already been won by Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, the most glaring omission from this year’s shortlist, which is otherwise a very good, and, for only the second time, completely British, selection:

Matthew De Abaitua’s The Red Men (Snow Books) is an accomplished, quirky first novel, set in London and the North, about the creation of artificial life, mingling science with the occult. A strong contender.

Stephen Baxter’s The H-Bomb Girl (Faber), set in Liverpool at the time of the Cuban Crisis in 1962, combines alternate histories, time travel and nuclear war with teen rebels and the Beatles. Fun, but written for kids.

Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (Faber) is a raw, compelling, beautifully written vision of female rebellion against an oppressive near-future society, and has more in common with Orwell’s 1984 – or The Handmaid’s Tale – than genre SF.

Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate), a first novel tipped for cult status, is an exhilarating, original excursion into story via meta-fiction, philosophy and intellectual games.

Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel (Orbit) is a gripping, astonishing techno-thriller that tackles big ideas with style and conviction. This is the fourth time that MacLeod has been up for the award, and he would be a popular choice.

Richard Morgan’s Black Man (Gollancz) is yang to Sarah Hall’s yin, being a big, action-packed adventure all about masculinity and violence. It is Morgan’s second nomination.

Finally, although it’s not up yet, rumour has it that Adam Roberts’ full shortlist review will appear at Futurismic before the day is done.

EDIT: Adam Roberts’ review, Bloglines assures me, is here, although from where I am at the moment I can’t read it myself.

FURTHER EDIT: And see Tony Keen’s roundup here.

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth

A palate-cleanser before the final Clarke Award re-read, this, Xiaolu Guo’s follow-up to last year’s Orange-shortlisted A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (except that the Chinese edition of 20 Fragments was her first novel; although this English translation has, apparently, been substantially revised). You could, if you wanted, run through a list of similarities between the two. Both are lively and interesting and worth reading. In both the subject matter — in 20 Fragments, a young woman moving from the Chinese countryside to Beijing and trying to bootstrap her way into a career in the film industry — feels more than a little autobiographical. The narrator is, in both cases, a young, determined, spirited woman, although 20 Fragments‘ Fenfang is nowhere near as emotionally naive or culturally adrift as Dictionary‘s Z. Fenfang’s voice recalls what we see of Z’s writing in her native tongue: direct, spare, oddly innocent. (It reminded me of Yiyun Li, though I have no idea whether the similarity is a coincidence or an artifact of translation from Chinese.) And both books are concerned with, among other things, the tension between community/constraint and individuality/loneliness.

But 20 Fragments examines that tension through a portrait of a place, rather than a love story, taking from the get-go an unsentimental, unromanticised look at Beijing. When Fenfang arrives in the city, the first apartment she moves into is one left vacant after she sees its owners mown down by a bus; her second home is next to a huge rubbish tip where children play in the summer. The sheer scale of Beijing is something Guo captures well, as is the daunting challenge that carving out a space and an identity in the face of such hugeness represents. The book’s structure, a series of vignettes, often deliberately banal, strung together very loosely, helps with this, as though the scale of the city overwhelms any hope of coherence — as one review put it, events are dictated “not by logic or structural unity but by a hotline to emotions”. And Fenfang’s reflections on the few occasions she ventures to other parts of China throw the city into perspective. She misses, for example, the “sharp edges” it brings to her life.

20 Fragments is also, as you would hope, a culturally enlightening book, although often as much for its presentation of the ways modern China is assimilating emblems of America — Tennessee Williams, McDonalds, Scorsese — as for its specifically Chinese observations. In some ways the deployment of Western cultural references recalls Victor Pelevin; but the larger point, perhaps, is made by an (American) friend of Fenfang, who says he likes China because China is better at being American than America. There’s a sense in which 20 Fragments is an exploration of what that might mean; you feel at times that Fenfeng’s hunger, and the hunger of others of her generation, is something driven by China’s economic rise and drives that rise in turn. A trip home is rendered unreal by the changes that modernity has brought — a TV that looks wrong in her parents’ house, pollution and litter in the nearby stream. What’s real for Fenfang is Beijing, majestically cruel and intense. She goes to Beijing University cafe, to get a free drink, and watches the college kids, and we watch with her. “You could really feel,” she reports, “that, in the future, these kids were going to be running the world.”