Looking ahead

We’ve gotten a bit behind with plans here at Torque Control. I’ve had a busy end-of-semester, and Niall and Tony both ended up over-committed, which is why you haven’t seen the end (or in one case, beginning) of discussions of Farthing and The Carhullan Army. I can’t tell you when those posts will be along, but I can tell you the following…

I have a special preview of the next Vector for you tomorrow. The issue itself was as waylaid as this blog, but you should still have it before the end of January. In the meantime, tomorrow I’ll be posting an article which will appear in the print issue when it comes out, but which you really need to read much sooner than that: Andrew Butler’s writeup of the John Martin: Apocalypse show which is currently at the Tate in London, but closes January 15th.

Next week, I’ll be posting on Lavinia.

Then, two weeks later, in January, I’ll post about Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit. Shortly after which, you should be receiving the next BSFA mailing, about which much more anon.

Science Fiction Foundation SF Criticism Masterclass 2012

Class Leaders:
Edward James
M. John Harrison
Kari Sperring

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the sixth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2012.

Dates: June 22nd, 23rd, 24th 2012.

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon).
Delegate costs will be £190 per person, excluding accommodation.
Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is available from the administrator (farah.sf@gmail.com)

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at farah.sf@gmail.com. Applicants are asked to provide a CV and a writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Graham Sleight and Andy Sawyer. Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2012.

The Conflux Cookbook: First Encounter

At yesterday’s BSFA London meeting, Jo Fletcher used as her example of the difficulties of timing in buying books published in America the example of Jo Walton and Australia.  Jo Walton, author of Farthing, our Future Classic of the month, isn’t published in the UK because her agent waited a little too long before offering the rights; by which points, there was no chance at all that the UK edition would be available in time to sell in Australia, and Australia, although a tiny market by American standards, is really quite large by British ones. Without any hope of being able to sell the prospective UK edition in Australia, the plans was scuppered, and those of us now reading Farthing in the UK are reading imported copies.

In contrast (in so many ways), The Conflux Cookbook will almost entirely be sold to Australians, in Australia, at the Conflux convention this weekend. The edition is only 200 copies and is likely to sell out quickly. It’s the last book from the going-out-of-business Eneit Press, done in by the collapse of Borders in the US.

The cookbook commemorates the last five years’ worth of historical recreation banquets held at the country’s national sf convention. (It includes the menu development for this year’s banquet, for which it’s too late to buy tickets, a recreation of a meal in August 1929, aboard the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin) It features illustrations by Kathleen Jennings and an introduction by Garth Nix.

But it’s not just a cookbook. It’s a history of a series of much-loved meals. It’s a study in how to do meticulous recipe testing, and in valuable sources for researching the history of food, menus, and eating habits, it’s an examination of what Australian tastebuds are habituated to, the availability (or lack therefore) of all sorts of ingredients, and it’s a portrait of part of Australian fandom. It made me grateful that my local (Sainsbury) supermarket stocks walnut ketchup.

One aspect which I appreciated was the passing consideration of what kinds of historical periods are likely to appeal to sf convention-goers, the periods which cross both available recipes with something likely to spark the interest of a costume-maker. Costumes, I think, double as good physical reminders of expected behaviour, and many of these feasts came with etiquette guides, encouraging the attendees to behave as closely as possible as did those for whom the recipes were originally written. Give or take language, of course. And lower fat content. And with vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Inspired by the convention’s imminence, I finally made time to start looking at the ARC that Gillian Polack sent me the other week. Her labour of love may lack all the wonderful illustrations promised for the finished version, but I still was sucked right in. It helps that I know her (as, I’m sure, many of you do), and her voice was vivid in its pages. I was up to the third banquet, set in the fictional Hotel Gernsback on the eve of the coining of “scientifiction”, when I remembered that really, I was in the middle of the finishing touches on the overdue issue of Vector and should get back to that. (And I did, and the files are all sent off for layout now!)

I haven’t finished reading the cookbook yet as a result, and I haven’t tried out any of its recipes yet, but I have every intention of doing so.

If for some reason, you are a reader of this blog who was somehow unaware of The Conflux Cookbook and will be attending the Australian national convention this weekend – buy your copy while you’re able to. They’re going to sell out fairly quickly from all accounts. And the only copies in the UK will be, as with Farthing, imports.

P.S. It’s a cookbook with a trailer!

Support Strange Horizons

I’m particularly fond of Strange Horizons for a number of reasons. It has high-quality, regular, thought-provoking science fictional content. It offers a good range, from poetry to reviews to short stories to news. It’s free to read, but still pays professional rates for work it publishes. Lots of Vector contributors, past and present, work on the site, whether as volunteer editors or paid contributors. And I have a geographical bias in favor of it (funny, since it’s an online magazine) –  its mailing address is in the US state I grew up in.

Strange Horizons has two weeks left in its annual fundraising drive, and still has two-thirds of its target goal left to reach. As an added incentive for donating, donors have a chance at winning one of the many prizes available, from an anthology of Mexican science fiction and fantasy to paintings by poet Marge Simon to Stephanie Burgis’ young adult/regency/fantasy novel A Most Improper Magick.

If your finances permit it, I very much encourage you to consider donating to support Strange Horizons. Many of Vector‘s contributors would benefit from it, and so would you and the rest of the internet’s science fiction readers in having ongoing access to Strange Horizon‘s excellent content, both critical and fictional.

Out of this World Countdown

Here in London, it’s been a fantastic summer of science fictional events at the British Library, thanks to the show Out of this World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It; but it’s not over yet.

After today, there are still six days left in which to go to the British Library and see the (free!) show.

There is still one more scheduled event remaining in conjunction with it, on J.G. Ballard, this Friday.

I’m planning on going back one more time. And just in case you’ve been thinking about it, haven’t gotten around to it, live vaguely in or around London or will be passing through in time…. I’m planning on posting something on science fiction history each day for the remaining six days of the show as a reminder that the show is still on.

Also, conveniently, this takes advantage of recent reading I did in preparation for the British Science Festival’s panel on “Science Fiction and Religion”.

The good news is that major shows in London on inspirations for science fiction and fantasy won’t be stopping when Out of this World closes, since John Martin: Apocalypse at the Tate opens on Wednesday.

Group-Reading the Guardian Reviews Section

The best part about being in a bookstore at midnight when the latest Harry Potter book was released wasn’t having the first opportunity to read the latest installment. It was the joy of the yearly enterprise of group-reading the same book at the same time, of knowing that a blogged reaction would appear on my feed as soon as any given friend had finished reading it. It showed me the sheer, astonishing speed with which some people were able to skim the entire volume (two hours!) and the steady chipping away at it required by those unable to take time off from the rest of their lives. It was a momentary community of joint reading I have not even found in formal book groups, because for them, the reading is not the synchronous part; the having-read is.

In honor of the exhibit on the history of science fiction opening at the British Library later in the week, the Guardian has dedicated its Saturday Reviews section to the subject of science fiction. It released the first few articles a few days early, beginning the resulting group discussion which percolated across my feeds, which was spurred especially by mixed reactions to Iain M Banks and his irritation over those writing in genre who have never read it.

Today, the reviews section came out. One by one, commentators went to their local news agents to pick up a copy, which made it comment-worthy when at least one had sold out. (Those who have ongoing subscriptions, and thus automatic delivery, have not mentioned it. Why would they?)

To state the very obvious, one advantage of the newspaper section is that it is made up of articles. Small units enable more immediate reactions, such as just how apt or not the top 10 list of the best aliens in science fiction was, or noting the cumulative tendency of respondents in the initial survey of the best books or authors of science fiction (as picked by “top SF writers”) as being oriented towards books written long ago by men.

When it comes down to it, it is a small swathe of geographically-limited internet which is reading and responding to the Guardian today, especially about science fiction. But it is a group of whom many have gone out today specifically or in part in order to hunt down the paper version of a collection of critical works to read together.

Perhaps others of you have encountered it before, but I have never noticed a simultaneous effort to group-read science fiction criticism before, complete with physically tracking down the  publication on the same day as others, and I’m delighted that it’s happening today.

Part of the conversation

Tor.com, the new all-singing all-dancing Web 2.0 site from Tor Books, launched at the weekend. Previously announced on Making Light some months ago (although the timelines have slipped a bit), that post made me feel favourably towards the site before it launched because a post with jokes about Vernor Vinge, underpants, and fanzines feels aimed directly at me.

Now the launch is upon us, what is the site actually about? We have some free short fiction, currently featuring two stories by some guys named Scalzi and Stross who might be famous authors or something. They’re not the most exciting short fiction authors to me, although I will read the new Laundry story, but they seem like good, solid, big-name choices to launch the site, and hopefully future offerings will highlight some excellent but less well-known names.

There are art galleries, featuring lots of pretty pictures by lots of artists. More information would be nice, because I know some of the images are book covers but can’t remember which, but my main use for this website will be when trying to decide who to vote for in the Best Artist Hugo.

And the final section is community, which encompasses a number of things: general user-started forum threads, front-page blog posts by a number of bloggers, and some rudimentary social networking functions. The social networking parts are probably closer to something like Metafilter than Facebook: you can add a brief bio, upload some pictures, see threads you commented in, and follow other users. Some really useful features, like custom RSS feeds to follow only your friends, are not in place yet, and I am having difficulty finding a link to display all posts by a particular poster, but it’s early days yet.

The key bits of content, for me, are the front-page bloggers. It’s an impressive line-up so far, covering wide-ranging areas of(to quote Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s introductory post), “the great conversation that is the subculture of SF—that river of talk, in person and in print, that has surrounded and informed science fiction and fantasy (and “the universe,” and “related subjects”) since SF fans began cranking out fanzines and organizing meetups in the early 1930s”. Jonathan McCalmont is less impressed so far, calling the site “a place of limited opportunity and cowardly commercialism”, but it seems to me that even if Tor.com is a commercial site funded by a publisher, it’s coming from a desire on the part of the site creators to be part of a larger conversation, to interact with the community, and if that happens to be good publicity for Tor and their books so much the better. I’m not convinced that yet another site is necessary, that it’s filling a niche which would exist if they hadn’t made the site to fill it, or that it wouldn’t have been more relevant and central to the conversation if it launched a couple of years ago, but I’m hopeful that Tor.com will be the site I hoped io9 was going to be.

Blogging the Classics

So, yesterday afternoon, Nic and I realised this was happening:

Blogging the Classics
John Carey, Lynne Hatwell, John Mullan, Mark Thwaite

Whose judgements are more trustworthy when it comes to books? Do amateur bloggers online do a better job than established literary critics in the press? Hear two highly regarded literary bloggers — Mark Thwaite, founder of ReadySteadyBook.com, and Lynne Hatwell, founder of dovegreyreader.typepad.com — battle it out with to professional critics — Sunday Times chief reviewer John Carey and broadcaster and journalist John Mullan.

And we went along:

And, I have to say, I was pleasantly impressed. It was by far the most interesting and thorough examination of the vexed question of blogging that I’ve seen or heard or read in a mainstream literary venue (as it were); moreover the audience questions were of a much higher standard than I’ve come to expect from literary festivals. The format was semi-formal: Thwaite, Mullan and Hatwell all took a turn to speak, with questions after each, moderated by Carey. From my notes I reconstruct them thus [square brackets are my comments]:

  • Mark Thwaite: set the scene, explained what blogs and RSS are [although as it happens, I suspect most of the audience knew this — certainly there seemed to be a fair few other bloggers there, as I suppose you’d expect]. Highlighted the immense number of blogs out there to make the point that they are not any one thing — ten thousand would not be a good sample. [ObPedant: well, it would depend on your sampling methodology. But point taken.] Argued that even bad blogs — even those that commit the “sins of blogging”, that are reactive, populist, gossipy and so forth — certainly do no harm, and probably do some good in terms of getting people to engage with books; so why do journalists seem to be annoyed by them? Noted that bloggers learn, many improve as they go, dialogue with commenters makes you a better reader and writer [very true], and in general emphasised the importance of community. The literary blogosphere, in its best form, brings passion and rigour together.
  • Questions from Carey: do you get to know your readers? (Yes, to different levels; some are close friends, some he considers co-writers of the blog, almost.) How do you keep the community “pure”? (It’s self-filtering; people not interested in the general tone of the site tend not to hang around.) Do you not feel “lost” among a hundred million-plus blogs? (A villager might feel lost in the city, but that doesn’t make the city a bad thing; and there are guides.)
  • John Mullan: Blogs seem to be about the exchange of opinions; this has value, but academic criticism still has something to add. Unfortunately a lot of academics have “forfeited” their status — if critics are less regarded these days, if we can’t imagine general readers buying books of criticism to reader for pleasure, that’s largely academics’ fault. [I’m not sure about the apparent conflation of “academic” and “criticism” here.] One of the things academics need to do is reclaim value judgement, be bolder about saying which books are worth paying attention to and why. One reason it’s worth reading good critics is that they have knowledge that general readers don’t — otherwise what’s the point of them? Critics should in general tell readers three things [that, eg, reviewers or bloggers generally don’t]: (1) Explain the design/structure of books, how they work (which is why we value books — it’s not about their subject; there are lots of books about the same things as Pride and Prejudice); (2) Take a long view (be widely read and be able to bring that knowledge to bear); (3) Articulate, make clearer the half-understanding the reader has in their head already. Critics are well-placed to be advocates [Yes].
  • Questions: Carey: Can you separate knowledge and opinion that firmly? Good criticism is rare because it’s hard; it’s rare everywhere, in academia as well as in blogs. (Yes, but that shouldn’t stop people striving, and perhaps academics strive more … but they shouldn’t forget the obligations of criticism.) Thwaite: if academics are forgetting that obligation, is it partly due to the influence of Theory? (More down to an emergent property of academia — American University Presses publish reams of books that are not read, and often aren’t intended to be read so much as they’re intended to help people get their next job. But Theory hasn’t helped.) Hatwell: I value criticism; do you value bloggers? Did bloggers catch academia unawares, make them question their value? (Perhaps yes, and that’s not a bad thing; the other factor here is the proliferation of book groups.)
  • Lynne Hatwell: What qualifies her to write about books? She writes in a personal and subjective way, and makes no apology for that; as John Carey once said, “my judgements are camouflaged autobiography”. A life-long reader; in the mid-nineties did a part-time English Literature degree with the Open University, and at the end of it in some ways felt little better off — now felt she had a voice but nowhere to speak. Hence, the blog, a voice she could use. Does not identify as a critic or a reviewer — they’re roles that involve more detachment than she wants to muster (gets enough detachment in her day job as a community nurse). She wants to write less about what happens in a book, and more about how it affected her. (Pomposity on a blog leads to death by a thousand comments.) For similar reasons she doesn’t post negative reviews, she wants to focus on those books for which she is the right reader. But at the same time she needs to be accountable for the opinions expressed — honesty, transparency and humour are key. Blogging has expanded her horizons. Blogs are accused of being unedited — but she spends a lot of time on her posts. There shouldn’t be a battle, blogs may be a different offering but the can be as meaningful as critics. [This was a much more obviously prepared statement than the other two, and much more personal, and went down very well with the audience; I can’t capture the humour in these notes, but she’s posted the full speech here.]
  • Final discussion
    • Mullan: your blogs are very civilized compared to my main experience — on the Guardian blogs, where commenters are often astonishingly abusive. Is this a weakness of the form? Speed and anonymity lead to an aggressive and combative forum.
    • Carey: In a way that should be valued — will give future historians a complete spectrum of opinion! Critics say “we” meaning “me” too often. [Hmm, really? Certainly when I say “we”, which I try not to do too much, it’s because I’m presuming I’m addressing an audience that is on the same page as me.]
    • Thwaite: I don’t think of the Guardian blogs as part of the blogosphere, I think of them as part of the Guardian. They are atypical In general there seems to be a movement away from anonymity — everyone knows my name.
    • Audience: blogging is a medium — being a blogger is a role, not an identity.
    • Mullan: I wonder if the democratisation of opinion that blogs bring plays into marketer’s hands to some extent — it tends to flatten opinion, historically innovation has needed critics to stand up for it.
    • Hatwell: too much literary criticism is out of reach of the normal reader — cost, lack of library access. I’ve tried to integrate some critical writers into my blog, bring their perspective in.
    • Audience: there should still be a place for casual thought, we don’t want everyone to end up as specialists.
    • Thwaite: the next great critic will have a blog.

Apart from anything else, the panel made me want to give up writing for all other venues and just publish reviews here. (I suspect this is a symptom of having published so little here for so long.) I think I will try to slot a few novellas in between Clarke novels, this month. Hopefully including Philip Pullman’s new book, Once Upon a Time in the North, which I impulse-bought on our way out through the festival bookshop.

And you can read Nic’s take on the event here.

And a final photo:

Liveblogging the BSFA Awards

… and here we are. What will win? Brasyl seemed the front-runner, but talking to various people it seems there may have been a late surge for The Execution Channel. Not long now, though.

EDIT 1: We start with a round of applause for Arthur C Clarke.

EDIT 2: Greg Pickersgill is talking about the BSFA 50th anniversary, saying that it’s “strongly arguable that without the influence of the BSFA the science fiction community as we know it today would likely exist in a much less useful form or not at all” (slight paraphrase). Now he’s announing a life membership for Peter Mabey as the longest-serving BSFA member still paying annual dues. Apparently he’s in the bar.

EDIT 3: Flick is demonstrating this year’s award — origami rockets!

EDIT 4: The first award is the 1958 Award. Rog Peyton points out that only one of the books (Non-Stop) was actually published in the UK in 1958. China Mieville announces the winner … Non-Stop! Jo Fletcher accepts on Aldiss’ behalf.

EDIT 5: Next up, Best Artwork. This one’s presented by Charles Stross and goes to “Cracked World”, the cover of disLocations. The artist says it’s the first award he’s ever won

EDIT 6: Tanith Lee announces Best Short Fiction, which goes to … Ken MacLeod for “Lighting Out”, in disLocations. Ian Whates accepts, and thanks everyone on MacLeod’s behalf.

EDIT 7: And finally, Best Novel, presented by Neil Gaiman. The winner is … Brasyl, of course. Ian McDonald thanks all and sundry, and says he is overjoyed.