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?

Iain Banks on Open Book

Pointed out to me yesterday: last Sunday’s Open Book features an entertaining interview with Iain Banks about his new novel, Transition. As you’d expect, the sf/non-sf divide comes up, but this time it comes up because Transition is being marketed as a non-M novel, yet features parallel worlds and similar excitements. (And, in fact, in the US, it is an M-Banks novel.) Full marks to Muriel Gray for this exchange:

GREY: You’re one of Britain’s most popular and best-loved and best-selling writers, and yet something that really really annoys me personally is that you’ve never been nominated for one of the big literary prizes yet. Why do you think that is?

BANKS: I think possibly it’s because I’ve always got a foot in both camps as it were. Put it this way, I think if I’d kept my nose clean, if I hadn’t written science fiction, if I’d got away with The Wasp Factory as piece of a youthful indiscretion and if I’d written respectable novels since then, then maybe you know I’d have had a chance, a crack at the Booker prize by now!

GREY: You see, I have to interrupt you there. “Respectable novels”, referring to science fiction as not respectable, that’s Margaret Atwood territory –

BANKS: — well, quite, yeah

GREY: — the woman who refuses to admit she writes science fiction, she calls it “speculative fiction” so she continues to win prizes. This enrages me! Science fiction is perfectly respectable.

Alas, nobody has seen fit to send me a proof copy this time, so it may be a while before I get to it. Sounds promising, though.

A Discussion about Matter, part three

A quick recap, using Paul’s snappy titles:

And now:

Jonathan: It occurred to me a while back that ideology seems to have drained out of SF. Heinlein’s works may have essentially became fora in which he could appear as an appropriately father-like Mary Sue and then mouth off about whatever political issue was getting his goat at the time, but I think that nowadays genre is struggling to keep in touch with the idea of people being genuinely politically motivated.

The Culture books are weird in that they’re frequently political but the politics aren’t particularly fine-grained. The result is that you have characters working for SC out of a genuine desire to further the political aims of SC but as those aims are frequently unclear, the politics serve quite poorly as character motivation, merely resulting in lots of people being enigmatic and secretive.

A Discussion about Matter, part two

As promised, here’s the second installment of that discussion about Iain M Banks’ new book, Matter. Part one is here, and part three will be over at the Velcro City Tourist Board tomorrow. Enjoy!


Niall: And so to question three, the big one: what did you think of Matter?

Jonathan: Matter put me in mind of that Helix column by John Barnes where he argued that all artistic movements and genres passing through three phases. You have the initial phase when ideas are laid down, then the second phase when you get the great masters of the genre and then the third phase when it’s all about being a virtuoso, about not challenging the limits of your genre but rather producing art that relentlessly pursues beauty as defined by the genre with no interest in innovation or change.

In those terms, Matter is not just a virtuoso work of SF, it’s also a virtuoso Culture book.

The previous three Culture books were more “difficult” because rather than following the formula laid down by the early Culture novels, Banks went out of his way to examine the Culture from new perspectives. Matter has no difficulty. In fact, it’s probably the most accessible Culture novel since The Player of Games. The concepts in it are all familiar and were developed in previous books, a lot of the characters are familiar and really there’s nothing new in it. It’s just a well constructed Culture novel. There are neat character arcs, big plot lines and quests for those readers who want escapism. Matter will probably be one of the most commercially successful Culture books ever written.

However, I couldn’t help but feel that Banks has just stopped trying to be clever and has settled down into a commercially successful franchise that will doubtless keep him in single malts and Porsche Boxters until the end of his days. His fans will adore the book, as will most SF fans looking for a bit of adventure with some witty remarks but personally, I thought Matter was disappointing in its complete lack of ambition.

James: I thought Matter was disappointing, and not just in lack of ambition, but more generally. Maybe it was my expectations? To me it read like an overlong fantasy epic, and when it finally got going it ended. I want to see more Culture, not the societies they’re messing with, or the aliens they’re sharing the galaxy with. I want Minds, Ships, SC. Culture stuff. Basically, I want Excession.

I also thought it was far too long. Banks was obviously having fun with his mega-BDO and pretending to be a fantasy writer, but I got bored. Compare that to something as huge as the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, where whatever else you want to say about it I can’t remember ever being bored. It crossed my mind that maybe Banks was suffering from the JK Rowling syndrome of being too succesful to be edited.

Niall: Overlong fantasy epic? No, no, that was The Algebraist!

More seriously, space opera and epic fantasy are one of the points on the literary spectrum where sf and fantasy come closest to each other (and then mingle, in Star Wars), so I can see where you’re coming from. But in Matter it didn’t bother me, largely because the characters on Sursamen know full well they’re not living in a fantasy world. They know they’re in a giant artificial world, they know there are vastly more advanced species above them, and they have to deal with that.

So I enjoyed it. I have to say I didn’t even find it overlong; big, yes, but not padded. I read it in a much shorter timeframe than most of you, which probably gives me a different perspective, but on the level of basic reading pleasure it kept me fully engaged – it was fun, often funny, sometimes dazzling, with a couple of proper emotional punches towards the end. What I think Matter adds to the Culture series as a whole is a much clearer sense than there has been before of (a) how the different species in the galaxy are trapped into a hierarchy and (b) what it’s like for them to try to live within that hierarchy. And many-levelled Sursamen is of course the perfect setting for literalising those ideas.

James: Yeah, I do agree with some of what you’re saying Niall. I’m pretty sure a lot of my disappointment was down to my expectations. I agree with your last point about what Matter adds, and there were definitely enjoyable parts – witty bits that made me laugh, cool mega-tech etc. But by the end I was left thinking “what was all that actually about?” There seemed lots of, not so much padding, but meandering away from the plot; quite literally in the case of some of the characters.

Paul: I enjoyed Matter very much, possibly because I came to it with no prior expectations beyond it being a Banks novel set in the Culture universe. Which may sound counter-intuitive, as that’s exactly what seems to have disappointed others, but it may clarify if I say I read Banks for the way he writes as much as the what he writes.

Granted, I’d have been pretty stoked if we’d had another Excession-scale Minds’n’conspiracies fest, or a Use of Weapons literary effort. But what we have instead is something that seemed pretty inevitable (and was clarified in the interview) – it’s the edges where things happen in a stable society like the Culture, and that’s where Banks’ thinking has shifted to.

If anything, as a function of the above, I think Matter‘s flaw is that it is unconsciously pitched to readers familiar with the franchise more than to the newcomer – though not in a cynical way, just in the same way that any franchise universe becomes self-contained and slightly exclusive over time, not least in part because its creator becomes so attached to (and familiar with) it.

I’d agree that Matter meandered – but that’s not a flaw for me, Banks meanders in a way I enjoy. And I’ll agree there were loose threads (a function of that stated deliberate effort to make it seem like the start of a trilogy even though it isn’t one?) – but again, that’s not an issue, as I think similar loose threads of plot are what has filled in much of the fine grain detail of the Culture universe over the years.

I think what we’re highlighting here is indeed how expectations and mind-sets make a book different to different readers. I’ve been accused of being a forgiving reviewer before (in music as well as books), and it’s a fair cop. I try to look for the best in things if I can, that’s just my way, though I try as best as possible to leave predisposition to the side. On the other end of the scale, we have Jonathan, who subscribes to the “test-to-destruction” method – setting the highest of standards for everything without favour or compromise, a position I often wish I could emulate (not least because it comes across as a lot less wishy-washy than my own).

I can see all the things that have been pointed out as flaws in Matter, and noticed them while reading it too (I have the post-its to prove it!). But the simple fact is I just enjoyed reading it. A metaphor for this phenomenon just occurred to me, but it’s a trifle earthy and colourful and deals with the fairer sex, so I’ll let your imaginations do the work …

Final point – Jonathan’s accusation of a lack of ambition is one that could be made to stick, I think, but only in one sense. Banks certainly had no ambition to further the field of space opera, or of sf in general. But I think there’s a case to be made that he has tried to do something different and ambitious within the field of Culture novels. Determining its success or failure on its own terms would take being privy to the man’s inner creative processes – which he either doesn’t examine (as he claims) or guards like a junk-yard dog. So, we have to let the reading public (and us critics, natch) decide its worth on whatever terms we bring to the table, I guess … and it appears mine are unfussy!

Niall: It’s interesting that you talk about Matter being pitched to readers familiar with the franchise because if anything, I got the opposite vibe – I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a Culture novel intended as an introduction to the Culture for those readers, primarily US readers, who may not have encountered it before. It’s quite true that this could be another result of expectation on my part. After all, I knew before I started reading it that (a) Banks hasn’t had huge success in the US, historically, and (b) Orbit are planning to make a fuss about the US launch of Matter – but it meant that I read some of the digressions as cluing-in-the-newbies rather than self-indulgent-wandering.

Jonathan: Yes, I’d agree with all of that.

I think that Matter is a work of little artistic ambition but some quite considerable commercial ambition. I know it’s generally considered a bit “off” to speculate about author’s mindsets but if this book wasn’t written with the explicit intension of “cracking” America then I’d be very much surprised.

This leads us to my first question: How did people feel about the plotting?

I thought that the individual plot threads worked on a tactical level but failed on a strategic level. What I mean by this is that the arcs associated with all of the characters worked well in and of themselves. You had the young Prince having to work out what politics was all about, you had the older prince realising that the world he inhabits really is incalculably larger than the courtly dances and bawdy houses he frequents, and you had the SC agent juggling the ethical and practical demands of the Culture (her adopted culture) and of her native culture. So you had Need For Vengeance vs. Career Management and Non-Intervention Vs. Using Your Culture Training To Go Home And Kick Arse.

I thought all of these threads were well written and nicely handled but they made little or no sense as parts of a larger story. The older Prince escaped from the Shellworld and went off to find an ally who delivered a speech and sent him home. The younger prince learned some politics but it didn’t make a difference in the end since he never got to rule, and the SC person was completely passive, just turning up and watching some other stuff going on.

Furthermore I felt that, even by the standards of the Culture novels, the plot with aliens wanting to kill some other alien was all a bit convoluted and silly.

I got the impression that Banks was mining the Big Book of fantasy plot lines – wrangling tropes effectively but with little real attention given to the wider political issues that tended to characterise the previous Culture novels, which would all have little threads going on but they’d all fit into a wider picture. Matter has no wider picture… just pleasing little stories that are nicely unchallenging and unadventurous.

Paul: Points taken, Niall – another perspective issue. I dunno, I just figured if he was going to do a “Culture 101”, there’s be a lot more close detail set within the core Culture, a la The Player of Games, Excession etc. But again, we’re assuming conscious agency where the man claims there was none, so we’ll never get a definite answer, I suspect.

Niall: I have to think he was being just a little disingenuous when he said that to Farah – I mean, I’m willing to believe he’s a pretty instinctive writer, but I do find it hard to imagine writing any novel, and certainly not one this big, without at least some idea of what I want to say and who I want to say it to. On the other hand, I’m of the school of thought that says that everything on the page is the result of a writerly choice, on the grounds that if we want to hold them responsible for some of it (either to praise or to criticise) we have to hold them responsible for all of it, even if the choice is not always an excruciatingly concious and thought-through one.

Back to the plots … as Paul alluded to, in his BSFA interview Banks also said he wrote the book to feel like part one of a trilogy, with no intention of ever writing parts two and three. I think he succeeded entirely in that goal, but if you’re not prepared to roll with that – the realisation, about 80% of the way through, that the book you’re reading is not the book you thought you were reading – it’s going to be unsatisfying, because of the way various plots either change direction suddenly or end up unfinished. On the other hand, if you do roll with it it’s a nice inversion.

In the case of Oramen, I disagree with Jonathan’s assessment; I thought the fact that, in the end, his journey didn’t go anywhere was tragic in the best sense. (It helps that I was starting to worry, at that point, that the whole book would be irredeemably cosy, and that none of the protagonists would get seriously hurt.) In the other two cases, I think Jonathan has a point, and in particular the length of Anaplian’s journey did feel contrived to make sure she was in the right place at just the right time.

More broadly, I think you could make a case that plot and character end up subservient to idea and theme. For me the book was so strongly about hierarchy and differing ideas of what power and freedom mean at different points in a hierarchy that I could certainly see someone making that case against the book. (Which means I’m not sure I can go along with your argument that the book has no wider picture.) But then, most of the time when I was reading Matter I was quite happy to be swept up in the development of the idea.

Jonathan: Fair enough Niall, in that case I think that we should address the “wider message” once we’ve all had a go with the plot.

James: Niall, I don’t agree with you about intent – I often think that critics over-analyse work, and found it quite amusing when Farah analysed Banks’ writing and he more or less said, I don’t know, that’s your job. (And at this point, if you haven’t already guessed, I should point out that I’m not a critic in any sense, as my reviews on BDO will reveal!) I’m not exactly in the same league as Banks (understatement) but I have definitely written stories that just come out, writing in the headlights as it were. Admittedly when writing a novel the length of time it takes often leads to deeper thought, but surely the writer can just aim for a “good story”?

On plots, I pretty much agree with Jonathan. Everything was setup in the first few chapters, and I was feeling optimistic, and then everything just bumbled along until the very end, when everyone died. Everyone went on a journey somewhere, during which nothing much happened of importance. And everything seemed subservient to the shellworld. It reminded me of Rendezvous With Rama, or Ringworld in this aspect, both of which I found dreadfully dull.

And then there’s the monster under the falls! What was that all about? It came from nowhere and just tried to kill everyone. Why? Because it was nasty and wanted to kill Shellworlds. I didn’t like it at all, and By the end I was left wondering what had really happened? Was the whole big picture just random? Did anyone really know what the monster under the falls was? Did the higher level Involveds really care? It all felt so unresolved. The plot for me was the worst aspect of the book.

Paul: Well, I think saying it (they) were bad would be a stretch too far, but they weren’t the stars of the show either. I agree with James that there are a lot of unresolved threads (though not as many as all that – I seem to remember some signposting about the critter beneath the falls earlier on, a remnant of one of the various factions of species that vie for control of the shellworlds, IIRC). But again, we’re back to the “false trilogy” issue – which means there was very possibly a deliberate attempt to make the situation seem wider and more complex than it would actually be shown to be.

I think the analogy here is that Matter, if it were a film, spent more production time on the CGI and eyeball kicks than it did on translating the story as conceived into the story displayed, if you see what I mean. It’s the ‘blockbuster’ phase of the Culture oeuvre, perhaps. But again, I think the unoriginality of plot threads is probably meant to be subservient to the wider theme. The theme is the engine, the plots are the roads the vehicle drives upon.