Bold as Love: I

Bold as Love cover

It’s a truism that time is cruel to science fiction, that the relentless now eats into the future and leaves husks of stories in its wake and that, per William Gibson, the lag time is decreasing. When editing the 2002 Nebula Awards Showcase, Kim Stanley Robinson asked some writers to riff on the science-fictionalisation of the present, specifically on the role of science fiction in the twenty-first century. Gwyneth Jones was one of the contributors to the resulting symposium, and described “the problem of meaning”:

… which can best be understood by considering the ratio between the author’s intention and the rest of the content of a science fiction novel or story. The whole vast edifice of reality, the universe, and everything may have a single meaning that is known only to God. […] A science fiction novel or story, however, has a meaning known to the author. […] In the space of three hundred pages, where the author has elected to explain life, or consciousness, or theories of everything (typical projects among sf writers), meaning is so concentrated as to distort the most perceptive prediction to the point where it is almost unrecognisable. (241)

At first glance — which is particularly to say, when it was first published, back in 2001 — the predictive bedrock of Bold as Love may seem more unrecognisable than most. It chronicles the unlikely rise of a “Rock and Roll Reich”, an authoritarian Green state within which protagonists struggle for something better, and self-consciously constructs a future that only gets stranger the further into it we travel. It seems to fully earn its “near future fantasy” subtitle, and I speculate — this is the first time I’ve read it — that in 2001 Bold as Love seemed as much as anything to be about the possibility of an unknowable future; that its rockstar protagonists, improbably recruited into a Think Tank intended to define a new future for England, seemed written with a wind of millennial possibility in their sails.

Time may be cruel, but it’s the friend of the critic of sf who wants to strip away the layers of future, to get past the singularity of authorial intent. This, too, is a truism, encapsulated by the Clutean concept of the Real Year. Some of the things that stand out so starkly now must have been obvious at time, although the extrapolation of New Labour “Cool Britannia” co-option of pop seems to have been little commented-on in contemporary reviews. (Adam Roberts suggested it’s not even really about politics; Cheryl Morgan provided an exception; Roger Luckhurst, a couple of years later, digs into this aspect a little in an essay in Science Fiction Studies.) Some things might have been dimly discernable on the horizon, such as the extent to which the internet would gut the mega-label mega-bucks model of music distribution that dominates Bold as Love (no bittorrent, no YouTube). But what fixes this novel in time most profoundly seemed to come out of a clear blue sky: a door slammed shut, a month after the novel was published, on what in retrospect feels like a wasted moment of historical possibility. There are about a dozen mentions of terrorism in this novel. It’s there, but low down in the mix.

Bold as Love has already earned its place in sf’s modern canon. It’s probably the most sustained engagement with the nature of Englishness published within the genre in the last ten years, not to mention an early entry into the broken-Union trope that’s been so common in recent British sf, in novels by Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, Adam Roberts. It’s a clear influence on Justina Robson’s even more dislocated near-future fantasy sequence Quantum Gravity (indeed, in one character’s crack about not wanting to “end up transformed into some crackpot post-human elf” [194] it could have offered direct inspiration). Yet it feels somehow irretrievable, locked away from me, innocent. I discovered Jones’ contribution to Robinson’s Nebula symposium because her novel had put me in mind of what one of the other participants said. Over to Ken MacLeod:

What sf enables us to do is not to forsee the future, but to entertain possibilities. The more possibilities science and technology —

[At this point, about 3.30 British Summer Time, 11 September 2001, the phone rang.]

I leave this piece as I wrote it, words from the old world. (248)

If I’m unbothered by Bold as Love‘s much-touted lack of plausibility (and I am, largely), this is most of the reason why. For once, being yesterday’s tomorrow is a kindness. It’s words from the old world; and by that token, it owns its world.

(next.)

Reminder: Bold as Love

Just a quick reminder that, per Shana’s post earlier this month, I’ll be kicking off a discussion of Bold as Love next week. So if you were planning to read it but haven’t got around to it yet, now’s the time!

(In other news, those who haven’t been following the comments on my post about Nina Allan’s short fiction may like to know that she seems to be eligible for this year’s John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.)

February: Bold as Love

This month begins my chronological reading of the novels nominated as the best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years. I invite you join me, starting with the first-published of the eleven books on the list, Gwyneth JonesBold as Love.

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2001 was almost last week in the history of books, but a very long time ago indeed in the history of websites. That’s why I’m so impressed that the book-specific URL given in the introductory apparatus of Bold as Love is still going as a functional website.

The site has evolved along with the series, from an all-black version, to green with modulating rainbow-colored type, to animated falling leaves (lovely in concept, gawky in execution), to the more minimalist maroon with a rotating orb of leafery which the present version has retained for the last several years. That design evolution reflects the sheer distance which websites from 2001 have traveled to today.

I’m not telling you this because I’m particularly  prone to posting reviews of website design, but for two other reasons. The first is to think a bit about what the world, particularly the world of science fiction and fandom, was like in 2001. The second is to tell you that there is a copy of Bold as Love, available for free download there in PDF. The sequels are available too. You’ll miss out on the Anne Sudworth cover and the Bryan Talbot illustration of the major characters, but you’ll have the text.

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Gwyneth Jones had been publishing fiction since at least 1973 and novels since 1977. By my counting, Bold as Love was her thirteenth novel. In 2001, she was Guest of Honour at Novacon, and won the Richard Evans Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction. She was also at A Celebration of British SF in Liverpool that year, a lively event, well-attended by authors and fans.

The cover of the 2002 edition of Bold as Love which I have proclaims it to have been “Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award”. More importantly, it went on to win the Clarke Award in 2002, showing that the reprint must have been designed in the gap between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner! Bold as Love was one of three Clarke-shortlisted books by women published in 2001, the others being Justina Robson’s Mappa Mundi and Connie Willis’ Passage. (The Clarke Award for books published in 2000 was given out at 2001: A Space Odyssey Event, organized by Pat Cadigan at the Science Museum. At it, China Miéville won his first.)

Women authors of science fiction and fantasy did fairly well in 2001 in terms of prizes. Mary Gentle’s Ash won best novel in the BSFA Award, while Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. J.K. Rowling won the Hugo novel award for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

In other 2001 news, Dorothy Dunnett, Tove Jansson, Douglas Adams, and Poul Anderson passed away. In Britain, the food-and-mouth crisis began and the Eden Project opened. While there is all sorts to be said about the events of 9/11 and their consequences, what still strikes me most in terms of Britain in particular is that it is referred to as 9/11 on this side of the ocean – even though that would normally be the ninth of November.

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Niall will be leading discussion of Bold as Love in the second half of February. Check back for his posts then!

P.S. You can hear the short story on which the novel was based in Dark Fiction Magazine‘s newest issue.

January Review Round-Up

Shana will start reading future classics by women next month but I thought I’d round-up a few reviews published this month of books by women. I’m planning to make more of the BSFA’s archive of reviews available online so let’s start with a couple of re-prints from Vector. Firstly, Nic Clarke on White Is For Witching:

Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is a subtle little gem of a ghost story, written in a sparsely elegant style and paced as a page-turner whose mystery lies mostly in its characters’ fears and flaws. It centres on a haunted bed and breakfast in Dover, and the people – living and dead – whose lives are entwined with the house, and with each other.

Then Niall Harrison on Moxyland by Lauren Beukes:

The cast of Moxyland know their world is artifice; they know that everything, every interaction and object, is probably designed to sell. That’s the air they breathe. That’s what one of them, artist Kendra Adams, feels impatient about; that’s why she eschews a digital camera for an old-fashioned film one. “There’s a possibility of flaw inherent in the material”, she argues. Digital is too perfect, too controlled, and in its perfection lies unreality. What interests her is the “background noise” captured while you’re focusing on something else. Those details interest Beukes, too, I think.

I also reviewed Moxyland to inaugurate a year of reading science fiction by women:

This is a novel where the stakes are very much personal and when these ambitions come into contact with wider, more impersonal forces they are casually and callously crushed. Just as the characters are powerless against their own nature so they are powerless against the state and find that in the end, it is the state that shapes their very nature.

Ian Sales started a similar project by reviewing The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein:

Had I not known of it when I found it in that charity shop, I would not have bought it. I’d heard it was quite good – but how often do you hear that about books, which promptly disappoint? I’d heard it read as fantasy but was really science fiction – but there’s so much room for manoeuvre in that statement, it’s hard to take it as any kind of useful description. Something brought The Steerswoman to my notice, something persuaded me it was worth reading… And I’m glad I did. The Steerswoman is a gem.

As you would expect, Strange Horizons covered several books books by women in depth, perhaps most notably Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor and 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin. Here is Farah Mendlesohn on Who Fears Death:

There is a hint in Who Fears Death that we are in the far future of Zahrah the Windseeker, Okorafor’s debut novel. For all the resemblances to our own Africa, this is a distant planet in a distant time, and the story the Okeke and the Nuru tell, in which the Nuru come from afar, might well be true. This is a science fictional world with water captures, hard-tech computing, and newfangled biotech. It is also a world of magic, of small jujus and powerful sorcerers.

And Paul Kincaid on 80!

Conceived by Kim Stanley Robinson and compiled by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, 80! was intended as a personal birthday present on the occasion of Le Guin’s 80th birthday in 2009, and originally came in a specially bound edition of one. But now, a year on, Le Guin has agreed that the book should be made more generally available. It is worth it for parts, if not for the whole. It is not easy to describe this book. I suppose it comes closest to being a festschrift, and there are several pieces that would not be out of place in such a volume. But it is also an opportunity for people simply to express gratitude, which is genuine and often moving, and certainly not out of place in a birthday card

Finally, Abgail Nussbaum reviewed both Bold As Love and Life by Gwyneth Jones:

So that’s Gwyneth Jones seen through two novels–a feminist who seems not to like women, or perhaps people in general, very much, a science fiction writer who can’t seem to keep both feet in the genre, an ideologue who mocks her own convictions at every turn, an angry feminist who can’t quite keep from winking at her readers. What I feel at the end of these two novels, mostly, is intimidated–by Jones’s intelligence, her forcefulness, and the complexity of her vision.

Top Ten Writers

As was noted back at the start of the week, and by a good number of people casting their votes in the poll, the popularity of series in the sf field can make it hard to single out individual books. Moreover, many writers are prolific — if someone’s written one outstanding novel in a decade, they may have an advantage, in this sort of poll, over someone who’s written three. So here’s another way of looking at the data, counting up the top ten writers who were nominated for multiple books, ordered by total nominations received.

1. Gwyneth Jones

Not a surprise, given her three appearances this week. But two other books were also nominated: Castles Made of Sand, the follow-up to Bold as Love, and Siberia, one of Jones’ YA novels (published as by Ann Halam).

2. Justina Robson

Natural History did well, of course, but plenty of people also nominated Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Mappa Mundi and Keeping it Real.

3. Tricia Sullivan

As noted in this morning’s post, in addition to Maul, nominations were sent in for every other novel she’s published this decade — Double Vision, Sound Mind, and Lightborn.

4. Elizabeth Bear

The first writer to appear on this list who hasn’t appeared in the main top ten, Bear received nominations for Hammered (often as a proxy for the whole Jenny Casey trilogy), standalones Carnival and Undertow, for Dust, and for By the Mountain Bound.

5. Elizabeth Moon

In addition to Speed of Dark, Moon picked up nominations for Trading in Danger and Moving Target.

6. Jo Walton

Farthing‘s placement low in the top ten certainly doesn’t reflect the strength of support Walton received, with many nominations for the second Small Change novel, Ha’Penny, and for Lifelode.

7. Liz Williams

Like Bear, Williams hasn’t made it into the main top ten; but she achieves the distinction of having more novels nominated than any other writer, six in total:Ghost Sister, The Poison Master, Empire of Bones, Nine Layers of Sky, Banner of Souls, and Darkland.

8. Karen Traviss

In addition to the nominations for City of Pearl, Traviss picked up a few nods for her tie-in work — Gears of War novel Aspho Fields, and Star Wars novels Hard Contact, 501st, and Order 66.

9. Ursula K Le Guin

Lavinia accounted for the bulk of Le Guin’s nominations, but a few enthused about the Western Shore novels, in particular Gifts and Voices.

10. Connie Willis

And finally, Willis picked up nominations for both Blackout/All Clear, and for Passage — both not that far off the top ten.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #5

Not a typo in the subject line, because now we reach the other tie.

Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (2008)

Spirit cover

Spirit is Jones’ most recent novel, and the other science fictional retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, as Karen Joy Fowler explores:

The reader picks up a sprawling space opera with certain expectations: a fast pace, exotic settings, mysterious aliens, badly behaved (and also much-abused) nobility, plenty of off-world adventure and intrigue. In her new book, Spirit, Gwyneth Jones delivers all these and more.

The plot of the novel is loosely modelled on Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Jones is not the first writer to find that a classic swashbuckler translates effectively into outer space, and, in this case, the fun of finding familiar elements strangely transformed more than compensates for any predictability in terms of how the plot will go. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, Jones’s book features an exiled emperor, a conspiracy involving imperial restoration, an impregnable prison, an unjust imprisonment, a fellow prisoner with wisdom and wealth to bequeath, a daring escape dependent on the removal of a corpse, unimaginable treasure, fabulous fetes and balls, appalling betrayals and the intricacies of vengeance.

To this, Jones has added a great many elements not found in Dumas’s book (and surely the Dumas is the poorer for it): space travel, a Hegemony of many planets and many “numinally intelligent bipeds”, an ill-starred diplomatic mission to a world of bloodsuckers, chitinous serpents that can be saddled and ridden, robots, body modifications and, as the Edmond Dantès character is female in Jones’s retelling, bizarre pregnancies and childbirth.

Other reviews: Paul Kincaid, for Strange Horizons; Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons; Nic Clarke, for SFX; Duncan Lawie, for The Zone; by Cheryl Morgan; and by Ian Sales.

And here’s a thing: you can download the full text of the novel from Jones’ website. It was release online in January of this year which, I think, counts as its first US publication — which means it’s eligible for a Hugo. Isn’t that interesting?

Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon (2002)

Speed of Dark cover

Winner of the Nebula Award and shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, Speed of Dark bowled over many reviewers with its examination of the introduction of a cure for autism; John Grant, for instance:

In sum, The Speed of Dark is one of those exceptionally rare novels that has the power to alter one’s entire worldview, and reading it is a profoundly rewarding and enriching experience. It is impossible to avoid superlatives when speaking of it, even though one’s all too aware that one may be perceived as perpetrating hyperbole. Well … tough. I cannot remember when last I enjoyed a novel this much, but it must have been a very long time ago.

Other reviews: Adam Roberts, at Infinity Plus; and Jayme Lynn Blaschke at SF Site. See also an essay by Moon, “Autism: Past, Present, Future, Speculative.”

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #7

Life by Gwyneth Jones (2004)

Life cover

Gwyneth Jones’ second entry is, as I said at the weekend, a superb account of the working life of a scientist who discovers an ongoing change in human genetics. Thanks to the wayback machine, I now hand over to AM Dellamonica:

In Life, author Gwyneth Jones manages a delicate balancing act, showing the massive implications of a slight shift in the genes that control human gender while, at the same time, reminding readers that life goes on. Anna’s pursuit of Transferred Y happens against a backdrop of personal minutiae and career moves. She is a wife, a mother, an employee—and the years go by. She may be making a fantastic discovery, but that doesn’t render her immune to marital discord, tragedy or the aging process.

Jones’ prose is deeply engaging, drawing readers fully into her near-future setting. Anna is a well-drawn protagonist, one who inhabits a role usually reserved for male characters in SF: the obsessed scientist, willing to make big sacrifices to unlock the mysteries of life. It is an intriguing portrayal, but also an alienating one: Anna is hard to like. Some of her personal difficulties create reader sympathy, making her harsher choices somewhat forgivable, but these also make the book—which is quiet and thoughtful in tone—quite bleak.

Other reviews: David Soyka at SF Site and Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City. See also two essays by Jones about the development of the novel, “The Brains of Female Hyena Twins” and “True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural“.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #10

Strictly speaking, #10 equal, since we start with one of two ties.

Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones (2001)

Bold as Love cover

Jones’ Arthur C Clarke Award-winning novel, and the series it inaugurates, is probably one of the landmark generic hybrids of the past decade, being both near-future science fiction and Arthurian fantasy. As Francis Spufford put it:

The salient oddity of Bold as Love is that its achievement is rooted not in the festival scene of 2001, but in the world of 1971. It substantiates the dreams not of present-day apocalypse-minded teenagers, but of their counterparts 30 years ago, who read Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels and relished the fantasy of the Rolling Stones playing gigs in the rubble of liberated cities. Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock; Jones has an equally sexy guitar hero put the reverb into “I Vow to Thee, My Country”. This book reopens the door to a particular stylised world next to our own, where the slender-hipped male heroes of pop culture are freed from time and place to do cool, violent deeds. It’s a rock’n’roll world, but it’s English. It’s a world where the young Mick Jagger is always to be found jamming in the Hundred Acre Wood, his gun lying on the grass beside him among the forget-me-nots.

Other reviews: Chris Butler at Infinity Plus, Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City, David Soyka for SF Site and Kathleen Bartholomew in Green Man Review. See also Sheryl Vint’s take on the concluding volume, Rainbow Bridge, for a sense of how it all pans out, and a 2003 interview with Jones. Oh, and the Bold as Love website, where you can download the full text of the first four volumes of the series.

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss (2004)

City of Pearl cover

Another series-initiating book, this time the well-received six-volume Wess’Har War series. Stuart Carter reviewed it with the sequel, Crossing the Line:

Another glorious aspect of these two books is that they’re almost the antithesis of everything Trek: humans haring round the universe imposing their morality and point-of-view upon anyone who can listen, and always, eventually, turning out to be right, or at least admirable. And if we’re not even admirable then at least we have bigger guns than everyone else to console ourselves with. In Karen Traviss’s universe we’re seen as being far from admirable and even further from right, and it looks like being a very hard, possibly even fatal, lesson for us to learn. A warning to the unthinking patriots amongst you: you may find these books somewhat unpalatable.

I’ve followed quite a tortuous route to discovering Karen Traviss’s novels: she’s English, I’m English, and yet neither of these books has a UK publisher, so I’ve had to get them from the US, a fact that both perplexes and saddens me since both City Of Pearl and Crossing the Line would seem to be a very English type of SF, and English SF at its very best, too. If you want to read something that will leave you thinking, perhaps if you’re a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson or, more generally, of intricately gloomy English science fiction, then this series is one you want to read — I promise.

Other reviews: Christ Butler at Infinity Plus, Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City (hang on, I’m getting deja vu), and Russ Allbery. See also 2006 interviews with Traviss at Infinity Plus and in Strange Horizons.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Life by Gwyneth Jones (2004)

Life cover
Life‘s exploration of the working life of a scientist is one of the best I’ve read; and the thoroughness with which it maps the faultlines between sex and gender makes it, for me, the best thing Jones has written in a strong decade of work, and a deserved winner of the Philip K Dick Award. Paul Kincaid’s review in Foundation 95 finds a few faults to argue with, but sums up the novel’s virtues well:

None of these quibbles is fatal to the book. It remains beautifully written, vividly realised, seriously thought-out. It is rare to come across a novel which is clearly the consequence of such serious thought. The ideas are complex and patiently illuminated; and the story has been carefully constructed to throw those ideas into relief. If we read science fiction for intellectual as well as emotional engagement, then this is what the genre is all about.

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.

Cheltenham 2010

My main complaint about the sf programme at this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival is that I couldn’t spare the time and money to go to more of it. As it was, I spent a very pleasant weekend in Cheltenham, staying with friends, and went to three events over two days. All three were worth attending, if only for the pleasure of seeing serious items at a mainstream literary festival take sf seriously. Of course, though it should go without saying that my recollections are likely imperfect, there were also some frustrations.

Most of those came in the first event, China Mieville and John Mullan, in conversation:

Why is there never any science fiction on the Booker shortlist? Yet why have so many ‘literary’ novelists, from Atwood to Ishiguro, borrowed their stories from science fiction? Where does sci-fi lie on the literary landscape? What are the issues of perception surrounding this genre and its counterpart ‘literary fiction’, and how porous are the borders between them?

This was a follow-up to last year’s brief fuss on the same topic, and as Mieville emphasised more than once, all credit to Mullan for turning up to defend his remarks. Each man set out their stall for about ten minutes, then there was some back and forth, and then they opened the floor to questions. Mieville’s contention was that the Booker prize should do one of two things: either be genuinely open to all types of fiction; or admit that it is concerned with a specific category of fiction, no more or less a category than the many others with which bookshops are stocked. Mullan’s reply, stated with increasing firmness as the discussion wore on, was that literary fiction is a category apart, primarily because it eschews formula.

There were, I think, two problems facing the debate, one embedded in the panel description, the other in the panelists. The former was the assumption — pushed at slightly, but never to the extent that I would have hoped for — that a work published outside the category science fiction, and not stocked in the “special room in bookshops” that Mullan talked of, is not science fiction. So Mullan, for instance, mentioned his surprise at being informed that Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to his mind the greatest English novel of the last ten years, could have been nominated for a science fiction award; and confessed that although his first thought on hearing that it had lost the Arthur C Clarke Award to Ryman’s Air was to be intrigued, his second was to assume that it must have lost not because Air was a better novel, but because Never Let Me Go failed to meet the rules of science fiction (specifically, he suggested, in focusing on the characters instead of explaining its world). The assumption buried in there did not go uncommented on — Mieville even dragged out sf’s no good/they bellow ’til we’re deaf. But, although I wouldn’t wish to claim that that attitude towards “outsider” sf doesn’t exist, it would have been good to be able to suggest a bit more strongly that Air is indeed a novel very worth Mullan’s time; and to be able to emphasise that Ishiguro is far from the only non-category-sf author to be shortlisted for, or to win, a science fiction award; that David Mitchell, Jan Morris, Marcel Theroux and Sarah Hall have all appeared on the Clarke Award shortlist in recent years, and that a couple of years ago Michael Chabon won a Hugo and a Nebula. If, as Mullan contends, the borders have hardened since he was younger, the hardening doesn’t seem to be coming from the sf side.

The second problem was related to the first, insofar as it became awkwardly clear that while the discussion was going to be primarily about the absence of category sf from the Booker list, only one of the participants could and would talk fluently about fiction from all over the literary map. Mullan had almost no recent primary experience with category science fiction. His astonishment, for instance, that Mieville could suggest that a science fiction writer — Gene Wolfe, to be specific — might be the equal of JM Coetzee, seemed to be genuine. And it meant that he had no real way to engage with Mieville’s suggestion that different categories of fiction might have different, but equally valid, “aesthetic specificities”; and that one of sf’s specificities might be estrangement, as compared to literary fiction’s preference for recognition. When making his case for the importance of formula to genre it was telling that Mullan pointed over and over again at crime fiction, describing a template detective story. It would have been good to ask: what is the template story of a science fiction novel? The clearest demonstration of Mullan’s inability to consider that the characteristics of literary fiction Mieville was pointing at might be, in their way, as much generic markers as anything in a science fiction novel was highlighted by his description of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — which he’d read as background for a documentary on first novels — as “a send-up of science fiction”, when in fact — with its solipsistic, sadsack narrator obsessed with his relationship with his father — it plays with the conventions of “literary fiction” at least as thoroughly. (And in fact, I’d argue the metaphysics of Yu’s novel are constructed — not even subtly! — to articulate, among other things, precisely the sorts of points about literary categorisation that Mieville was trying to make.)

After all that, the second event — an interview of Iain M Banks by the editor of the Guardian Books website, Sarah Crown — was thoroughly refreshing for the unabashed enthusiasm for sf that radiated from Banks. Indeed, the first audience question could have been a plant, so completely did it seem to justify every caricature of literary snobbishness ever constructed by sf fans — the guy actually stood up and asked, in so many words because I wrote them down, “I realise this may provoke a fight, but I have to ask: why does Iain Banks, one of my favourite writers, spend so much time wasting his prodigious talent on science fiction?” — and so fully did Banks seize the opportunity to offer a full-throated and crowd-pleasing endorsement of sf as “the most important genre of the modern age”. (It was also rather cheering to hear Banks refer to himself off-handedly as writing “in two genres”…) Surface Detail sounds, in many ways, like Culture business as usual; but Banks did a good job of reminding the audience of how appealing that business can be.

Sunday’s event, also ably moderated by Sarah Crown, was probably the one I went into with highest hopes:

British Science Fiction From H G Wells to John Wyndham, Britain has been home to some of the most groundbreaking and successful classic science fiction writers. Explore past classics and the best of the current crop as authors Iain M Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Michael Moorcock and Guest Director China Miéville discuss this very British tradition.

Inevitably — and not just because three of the four panelists were respondents to the survey! — there was familiar ground covered, but it was covered thoughtfully. So, we had a consideration of how the loss of empire shapes British sf, and the extent to which in some cases it may be an assumed influence, even imposed by expectation rather than springing from within. We had The Politics Question, with the observation that it’s not so much that American sf is right-wing and British sf left-wing, but that American sf has both right and left wings, and British sf, generally speaking, has not heard from the right, plus a discussion of how individualistic vs communitarian philosophies work themselves out at the level of narrative. And we had some discussion of how sf has been positioned in relation to mainstream literature, with Michael Moorcock suggesting (not for the first time, I think) that where American sf has a stronger tradition of writers who express their ideas through sf, British sf has a stronger tradition of writers who seek to express science-fictional ideas: that is, more writers for whom science fiction is not an entire career, for whom the idea comes before the form.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion came when it strayed into what-next territory. Nic, braver than I, raised the topic, pointing out that the recent history of British sf has been a self-described golden age, particularly in the resurgence of space opera, but that other developments, such as the reduction in the number of women writers, suggested a narrowing of the field, and asked which the panel felt was the more powerful trend. Gwyneth Jones suggested, in line with recent discussion here, that British space opera, at least, is no longer a growth industry and may be starting to stagnate; and that women writing sf and feminist sf in general may have suffered for being positioned as “the next thing” in a genre that is always hungry for the next thing, rather than more usefully seen as a an evolution. (Mieville, in turn, suggested that it may be worth looking to what he characterised as an “underground tradition” of British sf — involving Katharine Burdekin, Jane Gaskell, and another writer whose name I forget — for a more congenial reception of women.) And speculating on the next thing, the panel suggested that the sf to look for may be that coming from elsewhere — from the Pacific Rim, or Africa — and may not necessarily be prose sf. Or it may be — and this was the point missing from the earlier debate for me, even bearing in mind Moorcock’s comments — that more and more interesting fantastical writing is coming from writers positioned outside the current category; Mieville cited Toby Litt, David Mitchell and Helen Oyeyemi as writers to keep an eye on, all picks I’d cheerfully agree with

All good clean fun. Perhaps not all attendees agreed, mind you; as we were leaving the panel discussion, an elderly gentleman behind me was heard to wonder why, oh why, do sf writers always seem to be so interested in navel gazing?