October BSFA London Meeting: Nina Allan interviewed by Niall Harrison

Title: October BSFA Meeting: Nina Allan interviewed by Niall Harrison
Location: The Cellar Bar, The Argyle Public House, 1 Greville Street (off Leather Lane), London EC1N 8PQ
Description: On Wednesday 24th October 2012,** Nina Allan (author of A Thread of Truth and The Silver Wind) will be interviewed by Niall Harrison (editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons).

ALL WELCOME – FREE ENTRY (Non-members welcome)

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

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

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

Please note that this is now the new permanent venue of BSFA London Meetings.

FUTURE EVENTS:
28th NovemberPaul Cornell, interviewed by Roz Kaveney
(There is no BSFA Meeting in December).
23rd January 2013** – TBC

** Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.
Start Time: 19:00
Date: 2012-10-24
End Time: 21:00

Vector 269

What a welcome sight! The post just arrived, and with it, the latest BSFA mailing.  In addition to Vector, there’s an issue of Quantum, the BSFA’s occasional newsletter; and a paper copy of the ballot for the BSFA Awards (also available online).

There’s also a NewCon Press sampler which includes excerpts from The Outcast and the Little One by Andy West and Kim Lakin-Smith’s BSFA best novel-nominated Cyber Circus. Ian Whates assures me that the booklet went to press well before the BSFA Award nominations for best novel were known and announced.

Lest the prompt arrival of the paper copy of the ballot worry anyone, we’re still planning to do a short story booklet of stories nominated for the BSFA award for the best short story of 2011; but the logistics of that take just long enough that it’ll be coming in the mailing after this one.

This issue of Vector is partially a followup to the poll which Niall ran last year, on the best sf novels by women written in the previous decade. It also has Adam Roberts’ reflections on writing music entries for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, and Andrew M Butler’s review of the three versions of the John Martin: Apocalypse show which recently closed at the Tate Britain. (The review was printed here on Torque Control in late December to make sure it would  be read before the show closed!)

Vector 269 is labeled the Spring 2012 issue, which means we seem to have skipped winter entirely, despite what today’s chilly weather seems to imply.

Vector 269 contains…

Women SF Writers: An Endangered Species? – Cheryl Morgan
Death and Transcendence in the “Forged” Novels of Justina Robson – Tony Keen
Telling the World: The Exodus Trilogy by Julie Bertagna – Niall Harrison
Single-Gendered Worlds In Science- Fiction – Better For Whom? – Victor Grech with Clare Thake-Vassallo, and Ivan Callus
On Science Fiction Music – Adam Roberts
John Martin: Apocalypse – A Review – Andrew M Butler

Kincaid in Short – Paul Kincaid
Resonances – Stephen Baxter
Foundation Favourites – Andy Sawyer
Picture This – Terry Martin

The BSFA Review – edited by Martin Lewis

Short Story Club: “Elegy for a Young Elk”

An earlier than usual kick-off for Hannu Rajaniemi’s story, because fairly shortly I will be leaving for the airport and a two-week holiday. (Fear not! I have scheduled the other short story club posts ahead of time. Plus I’ll probably be online at points.) Anyway, Jason Sanford has tried to claim this story as Sci-Fi Strange; but is it actually any good? Over to Gardner Dozois, in the August Locus:

Also first-rate in the Summer issue is Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Elegy for a Young Elk”. Rajaniemi is a writer who cranks the bit-rate up about as high as it can go and still remain comprehensible (although there will almost certainly be some who think that this doesn’t remain comprehensible). Said by some to out-Charles Stross Charles Stross, this slender story, set in a post-Apocalyptic future society where posthumans with godlike powers are at war, manages to jam enough high-concept into a few pages to fuel a 400-page novel.

Lois Tilton is more lukewarm:

A lot of neat images here in a world transformed into something fantastic and not very explicable. There is a fragmentary story about Kosonon and his son, and parental guilt, but mostly this is a world incomprehensibly transformed and a man trying to find his place it in.

Pam Philips liked it, but can’t pin it down:

When I re-read it to make sure of the details, the story clicked. I was sucked right in and couldn’t stop reading from beginning to end of Kosonen’s quest to regain his lost poetry. I love the way he proves he has it back, with an act that skates the melting edge between scif-fi nanotech and magic. It had me wondering if the magic in the story had cast some spell of confusion on me the first time. Or maybe I was just awake on the second try. I’m still annoyed by who the lord of the city is, but if it were someone else, the ease of Kosonen’s choice at the end wouldn’t make sense.

Alex at Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth feels similarly:

Hannu Rajaniemi, Elegy for a Young Elk is… one of those stories where words fail me. I just flail my hands in the air, saying “it’s just… good… and… a bit weird but good weird. Y’know?” The idea of post-humanity and AIs taken in a really awesome direction, with the humanity still achingly there. Also, a talking bear.

Chad Orzel:

I liked this better than the previous entries in the Short Story Club, though I suspect this is more to do with it not pushing buttons of mine than any absolute quality of the story. As with “A Serpent in the Gears,” this is an excellent example of providing backstory without infodumping, though many serious gaps remain (the exact nature of the apocalypse remains a little unclear, and there are some dangling references that never quite get explained). The language is very evocative, and while it mostly uses the time-honored dodge of describing but not quoting the important poetry of the story, the bit that is quoted is perfectly fine (allowing for the fact that I am not generally a poetry person).

This does suffer a bit from a kind of incompleteness that I suspect is an unavoidable consequence of the form. It’s got a reasonable plot– Kosonen is given a quest, which turns out to have more personal significance than he expected, and its completion is different than what was presumably intended. Kosonen remains something of a cipher, though– there are hints of character there, but for the most part, he seems to do what he does because it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise. The narrative sort of floats above the core of the character, never really providing all that much depth.

Matt Hilliard’s take:

The star of the story, for me, was the magic lamp genie nanomachine device commanded by poetry. Generally I have a tin ear for poetry, but I actually was pretty impressed by the narrator’s train poem. But the poetry business was also the biggest disappointment since it was only used once. Well, once, and then sort of at the end, which almost ruined the story for me. In a great story, Esa would have been trapped and died, but his father would have used an epic poem to recreate something like him out the magic bean nanoseed. In this story, Esa uses magic quantum something or other to hide from the city’s magic guardian firewall. This was an enormous cop out of an ending. If this firewall was so easily duped, why couldn’t he escape before? I suppose the story implies his mother is helping out from her end, but come on.

And Evan also tries to puzzle out the ending:

This story was good. It was coherent, it managed not to over-explain, it was about real-feeling people and realistic relationships. Rajaniemi has the storyteller’s spark. It was a bit baggy, like it was told at the granularity of a novel, rather than a short story. It’s satisfyingly low on exposition. There are many moments where the writing is quite nice.

There are two takes on the ending, I think. Either the sky-people planned the entire affair to go off the way it did, or they didn’t. I like the former theory better. A bit of theater, allowing Kosonen to move on and his son and the quantum girl to finally go free in a way that makes them less dangerous to the people around them (presumably they’re reduced somewhat by translation into poetical form). The setting here then is a neat bit of work, but doesn’t really get behind the story and push. It’s stronger if you’ve read “Deus Ex Homine”, I think.

If the latter is the case, then the story is unfinished, the ending makes very little sense, the setup is stupid, and Rajaniemi is betrayed by the allure of his setting, much like I was.

He also says:

There’s a longer discussion to be had, now that the singularity thing is just about wound down, but I am not sure that this story is the right tee for kicking it off.

OR IS IT? Over to you.

How to Finish a Review

By popular demand! Or at least by one request. It turns out that I don’t think there are neat little identifiable gambits to end a review with, at least not in the same way that I think there can be gambits to open with, so this post is less glib. Endings, at least for any review of more than a few hundred words, are about synthesis, which means they’re probably going to have several of the features identified below. The mix will depend on the focus of the review; I don’t think you can pick most of these and bolt them on to a generic review. It’s more a case of recognising the sort of review you’re going to write, or occasionally the sort of review you’ve written, and what it needs to wrap up satisfactorily.

1. Evaluation.

Not, actually, as important as you might think; it’s going to be hard to get to your conclusion without having made it pretty clear what you think of the book. But a straightforward endorsement or dismissal can be a nicely emphatic full stop.

2. Summation.

Again, more common than it is necessary. After a long — I’m talking several thousand words — review of a book that identifies a goodly number of positives and negatives, you might want to recap. But even then you might just be repeating yourself (perhaps the most boring way to start a conclusion is: “Overall…”) or not examining your own views hard enough: how many books are you really that split-down-the-middle on?

3. Culmination (narrative)

All synopsis, being selective and partial, is criticism. Not all criticism is synoptic, but if yours is, you’ll probably need to talk about the ending of the work being discussed; and structuring your review so that you talk about the book’s ending in your conclusion — even if only in affective terms, rather than in specifics — can be pretty effective.

4. Culmination (thematic)

There’s a good chance that, by the time you reach your conclusion, you’ve already written this: the perfect encapsulation of the book’s central thesis (either what works about it or what doesn’t), the verdict that all your examples point towards. So go back and steal it, and save it for the conclusion, where it will look like everything you’ve been saying about the book coming neatly together.

5. Culmination (yours)

That is, of the argument you’re making — about the book, the author, the genre, whatever — rather than the argument the book is making. Particularly useful for structuring reviews of short story collections, and again, you’d be amazed how often you write it half-way through without realising.

6. Slingshot.

Works particularly well with the Jeopardy opening: you answer your question, and identify the next question, leaving it for the reader to answer

7. Speculation.

In which you suggest answers to the next question. Characteristic of reviews of series fiction: where is it all going?

8. Reframing.

In which your last paragraph attacks the issues you’ve been discussing from a new angle, and hopefully the parallax generates some light. One way of doing this is to save your “A third of the way into the book…” and use it at the end of the review, rather than the start. Another is to talk about The Larger Point: open the review up to consider the author’s body of work, or the genre as a whole, if you haven’t been doing so to that point. In fact, now that I think of it, you could probably use any of the opening gambits in this way, as long as you haven’t deployed them already…

How to start a review

1. Jeopardy.

Think of your conclusion: the one thing you want anyone reading your review to know about the thing you’re discussing. Now think of the question to which your conclusion is the answer. (This works best if you have something more interesting to say than simply, “it’s good” or “it’s bad”.)

2. About a third of the way through the book …

What scene or event encapsulates the book’s strengths (or weaknesses)? Describe it. Make the person reading your review share your enthusiasm (or frustration).

3. Kick it LRB-style (version one).

Potted history of, or meditation on, the author’s career to that point.

4. Kick it LRB-style (version two).

Potted history of, or meditation on, a category of which the book is an example. (Useful when LRB-style version one is inappropriate, e.g. first novels.)

5. Bear with me for a minute …

Anecdote or trivia that illustrates something about the book under review, and thus makes it relatable for the reader. Works best if the nature of the link between the two things remains opaque until the moment you illuminate it. Use with caution in reviews of less than a thousand words.

6. Narcissism

A bit like option 5, but requires a stronger relationship with the audience, since the anecdote or trivia is about you, or your experience with the book (or another book by the writer), which is less likely to be of interest to a passing reader.

7. Here is some brilliant writing.

A bit like option 2, but you’re showing off the specifics of your subject’s prose. If you do this, you have to make at least one substantive point about the writing per sentence quoted. OK, you don’t have to, but you should.

8. Ronseal.

Offer up the most pithy summation of the book you can manage. The danger here is that if it’s too pithy, nobody will read on to get the detail.

9. Previously, on this book …

Ah, the synopsis. Almost always necessary at some point; but if it’s your opening gambit, it’d better be interesting.

10. Everyone else is wrong!

Quote one (or more) other reviewers about the book, then argue with them. The more high-profile the reviewer the better — as long as you can back up your claims. (Everyone else being right is also possible, but for obvious reasons trickier to pull off.)

Links Shake the World

I’m in Glasgow for most of this week, for work-related reasons, so posting is likely to be light; but I can at least catch up on my linking.

EDIT: I knew I’d forget something. Can anyone work out, based on these reviews, whether 2666 is a work of the fantastic?

A Discussion about Matter, part three

A quick recap, using Paul’s snappy titles:

And now at Velcro City Tourist Board:

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.

Note: Links redirected to Internet Archive February 2021.

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.

Note: Link to Part 1 redirected to Internet Archive in Feb 2021. Part III is also in the Archive.

Category Schmategory

I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a while. Paul Kincaid reviewed The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy:

Given the increasingly complex games with authorship that her most recent novels have played, and given how much non-fiction she has written for children, it was perhaps inevitable that Pat Murphy would write a young adult novel about writing. Which is precisely what The Wild Girls is, though if you expect anything of the subtlety or complexity of those novels you are going to be disappointed. This is writing reduced to a simple lesson in life, light, appealing and entertaining but very definitely aimed at a younger audience by removing any doubts, hesitations or darker aspects.

And literaticat responded:

* young adult novel about writing…: It isn’t a YA novel. It is very clearly a middle grade novel. And yes, there’s a difference. Consider how prickly many in the SF/F community get about people who are ignorant and dismissive about SF/F. Well, that’s how children’s book people feel when people are idiots about children’s books. GRR. I don’t understand why you would want to review a mainstream children’s book when that is so clearly NOT your forte, or why you would post it on an SF site… But moving on.

* …very definitely aimed at a younger audience by removing any doubts, hesitations or darker aspects: Imagine, a children’s book aimed at children? Bust my buttons. As for doubts, hesitations or darker aspects: The dissolution of two families. The children’s struggle to cope with the emotional fallout of their parent’s disastrous marriages. Their finding their own voices in challenging times. Not doubty and dark enough? You were expecting the apocolypse, maybe?

I have issues with both these comments. To take the second comment first, I think literaticat has simply misread Paul. I do not think Paul was expressing surprise or disappointment at the fact that The Wild Girls is aimed at children, because I don’t see how you can unyoke that statement from the rest of the sentence. Paul may or may not be right that the book removes “any doubts, hesitations or darker aspects” (I haven’t read it), but it seems clear to me that it’s the concept of doing that as an approach to writing for children that he’s commenting on. And in fact, that’s the thrust of his judgement on the book — that it is “clearly written and very readable”, but that it is limited by its need to provide a lesson.

Having got that off my chest, I’m going to briefly return to my opening comment: I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a while. YA isn’t new, and YA sf isn’t new, but the visibility of and emphasis on YA as a category certainly seems to be greater now than it was only a few years ago; and hand in hand with a more clearly defined category come the readers with allegiance to that category, and comes a more clearly defined set of expectations for what is in that category. At the same time, over the last few years there have been a number of fairly high-profile examples of YA writers getting serious props from the main stream of genre criticism (Margo Lanagan, Ysabeau Wilce, Philip Reeve), and a number of well-regarded established sf writers turning their hand to YA (China Mieville, Stephen Baxter, Ellen Klages). All of which means that it’s not a surprise that a new YA novel by a writer who has previously committed sf picks up a review on a website devoted to sf (even though it is not, apparently, sf). At some point, given that despite what I said above most sf readers are not yet habitual YA readers, friction was probably inevitable.

But I’m not completely convinced that the situation is, as literaticat would have it, analagous to a non-sf writer reviewing an sf novel. In some ways, it is. If you’re reviewing something, you should try to be aware of that thing’s context — though I note that the definitions of YA in the US (where literaticat is) and UK (where Paul is and I am) seem to be somewhat different, to the point where I’m not even sure that “middle grade” exists as a separate shelf. (And I note that on her website, Pat Murphy merely describes the book as a children’s novel.) In a very interesting discussion at Gwenda’s place, Colleen Mondor says:

What I find sometimes reading so many MG and YA books is that there are those that seem to appeal regardless of the reader’s age (Cecil Castellucci’s work would fit in here or the KIki Strike book), some that seem to appeal more to adults that kids (I think “King Dork” is an example of this to a certain degree) and then those that adults might think are okay, but kids really go nuts over. But all of them are books for kids and for reviewers not used to wading around in these waters, it can get easy to mislabel or misread something.

This is surely true, and the inherent paradox of all reviews of children’s books, but I doubt Paul is unware of it, and I don’t think it makes sense of this specific case. Literaticat isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be) saying that The Wild Girls is good because it appeals to its target audience, she’s saying that The Wild Girls is good, full stop — that it is not the simplified, reductive story that Paul paints it as. The problem is this: how can advocates of YA (or, in this case, middle grade) fiction claim, as they frequently do and implicitly do here, that YA is an arbitrary label, that YA does everything non-YA does, and that the books that bear the label are as worthwhile on their own merits as books that do not (see, for example, the reactions to Octavian Nothing last year), and yet also object to Paul’s review on the grounds that he isn’t sufficiently familiar with “middle grade” fiction?

It looks like trying to have your cake and eat it, too. If a book isn’t making concessions to its audience, or operating in category-specific ways, then I can’t see why you’d need to be familiar with the market for books aimed at that audience to review it fairly. (There is, of course, also the argument that any reader reaction is a fair reader reaction.) And I’d argue that this is different to the equivalent sf neurosis because “sf” as a marketing category not an arbitrary label; it is a description of content. Sf novels don’t do everything that mimetic novels do, just as mimetic novels don’t do everything that sf novels do, so when a reviewer approaches an sf novel expecting it to reward her in the ways a mimetic novel will (or vice versa), a disjunction can, and often does, result.

UPDATE, 21/10: Paul Kincaid has provided his own response, in the comments below and on his journal.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Ursula Le Guin is two for two. It was her review of Jan Morris’ Hav that first pointed me in the direction of that wonderful book; and likewise her review that persuaded me to add Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which turns out to be nearly as good, to my wish-list. It is, of course, a love story, between a young Chinese woman and an older English man. 23 year-old Zhaung Xiao Qiao arrives in the UK one February (2003, I think), nervous and alone, fearing the future, to learn English at a school in Holburn, hardly even understanding why her parents have sent her. A little over a month into her stay she meets a man at a cinema in South Kensington, falls easily and comprehensively in love, and as a result of a miscommunication ends up moving in with him. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is Z’s story over the following year, up to the point where her visa expires. It’s presented as a diary-stroke-language-notebook; Z carries with her a Chinese-English dictionary, and later, a Collins Concise English Dictionary, at all times, and often refers to them in her attempts to understand and describe the world around her. Chapter headings (e.g. “romance”) are taken from the latter, with accompanying definitions (“fantasy, fiction, legend, novel, story, tale; exaggeration, falsehood, lie; ballad, idyll, song”), and the whole thing is written in the second person, addressed to the never-named man.

Which inevitably means that the most immediate thing about the book is the language in which it’s written. Here, for example, is part of Z’s first encounter with a full English breakfast:

What is this ‘baked beans’? White colour beans, in orange sticky sweet sauce. I see some baked bean tins in shop when I arrive to London yesterday. Tin food is very expensive to China. Also we not knowing how to open it. So I never ever try tin food. Here, right in front of me, this baked beans must be very expensive. Delicacy is baked beans. Only problem is, tastes like somebody put beans into mouth but spit out and back into plate. (17)

I concede this is probably the prose equivalent of Marmite, but I love it: particularly the innocent directness, the seeing-for-the-first-time-ness of it. Leaving aside the question of taste for a moment, however, there might also seem to be a question of authenticity. On the one hand, the artifice of this sort of writing, bad in very specific ways, is obvious: for example, it’s hard to believe that Z’s grammar would be so bad while her spelling is impeccable (although a few artfully misheard nouns are dropped into the text every so often — “rocksack”, “peterfile”). On the other hand, the book apparently grew out of a diary Guo herself kept when she moved to London (Concise Dictionary is her first novel to be written in English, although her seventh in total), which raises various questions but does at least suggest that the portrayal of the learning process is likely to be accurate. And an aspect that may seem the most contrived — the present tense; bear in mind that these are not Z’s thoughts as she is having them, they are entries written later in her notebook — is a consequence of incompletely translating Chinese thought into English. “Chinese, we not having grammar,” Z explains. “We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language” (24). The fact that Guo conveys the difficulties of translation so lightly is one of the most impressive things about the book, for me, and I think you have to respect at least that, even if you find Z’s voice to be nails-down-chalkboard grating. She does, of course, learn over the course of the year, but her position as a naive teller of truths never changes. This, for instance, is another breakfast, in Berlin:

The early morning air feels cold, like autumn coming. Occasionally, one or two old mans in a long coats walk aimlessly in the street, with the cigarettes in their lips. Under the highway there is bridge. By the bridge there is a sausage shop, lots of large mans queue there to get hot sausages. Gosh, they eat purely sausage in the morning! Even worse than English Breakfast. The morning wind is washing my brain, and my small body. This is a city with something really heavy and serious in its soul. This is a city which had big wars in the history. And, I feel, this is a city made for mans, and politics, and disciplines. Like Beijing. (218)

Again, it’s characteristic of Z’s writing — the fresh phrases that seem careless (“The morning wind is washing my brain”), the odd but valid word choices (“Gosh”), the unabashedly obvious observations (“This is a city which had big wars in the history”). There is something memorable on nearly every page of the book. Walking home one night, Z observes that “Also, the robbers robbing the people even poorer than them. In China we believe ‘rob the rich to feed the poor’. But robbers here have no poetry” (42). They may not, but Z does – the poetry of an acute observer, plain in everything from her descriptions of a pub to her consternation on discovering that her man is a vegetarian, to her reaction to a David Lynch double bill. In a number of ways, Z is not an easy character to love — apart from anything else, she is stubborn, and rude – but she is always sharply aware and, at least from a reader’s remove, inescapably charming.

Which is not to imply that this is always a comfortable book, though it is one with an extremely generous view of human nature (certainly in contrast to, oh I don’t know, The Inheritance of Loss). By far the majority of the people Z encounters are good-hearted, even if they sometimes can’t resist teasing her; only twice, during a solo jaunt around Europe, does she encounter someone who tries to take advantage of her, and while the encounters are unpleasant, they are not irretrievably horrific. And if Z is frequently baffled by the world she finds around her, she is not intimidated by it. In fact, she is often indignant in the face of it. “English is a sexist language … always talking about mans, no womans” (26), she observes — although despite this awareness her view of what constitutes a relationship is extremely conservative (at least in our terms; more on this below). Moreover, she’s always conscious of the distance between herself and her man: “You a man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner” (153); “You are boss of yourself, so you have dignity” (184). Strung together like that, such moments look obtrusive, but in fact they are more often grace notes to scenes about other things. Which is to say that they describe the reality of Z’s life — we’re put in her man’s shoes; we can’t ignore what she says — but not the extent of it. (Again, the contrast with Desai’s novel couldn’t be more striking.)

The fear at the heart of such worries, though, inevitably informs her relationship. Here we come back to love. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is built around a distinction expressed with particular elegance, to my mind, in KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, between love that exists “as a mutal sentiment or not at all” and implies “a voluntary blending of identities”, and love that denotes “two travellers meeting, enjoying each other’s company, then parting and moving on.” Z and her man do love, with joy and vigour, but — it becomes increasingly clear — in different ways, ways that have an awful lot to do with their differing backgrounds. To Z, love is a mutual act, a commitment that abolishes privacy and (for example) entitles her to read her man’s diaries, and enables her to blithely tell him that she’s done so. Love is about creating a home, a family, and a future: the three are inextricably related, aspects of an incompletely translated cultural inheritance, and lead to the conservatism I mentioned earlier. Love as security, as community. But the man Z has fallen in love with is more casual — as Z notes, he can afford to be. He is something of a bohemian, an artist who’s drifted through his life believing “the future only comes when it comes”, that nothing is forever; he values his independence. To him, love is about the preciousness of the present moment, not the promise of the future.

In other words, the lovers occupy positions opposite to those staked out by their native languages, an irony that defines their relationship. Z is so engaging that we badly want to see her grow into a more complete sense of self: but we fear that in doing so she will almost certainly doom her relationship, despite the fact that said relationship is the original catalyst for her growth. In fact it is specifically the physical relationship that is the catalyst. Z’s descriptions of sex, whether going right or going wrong, are as refreshingly matter-of-fact as her descriptions of everything else; and though her initial understanding, both of the act and the emotional paraphernalia it requires, is limited, she’s a quick study. She goes to a peep show, and has a lot of sex with her lover, and starts to explore her own body, and along the way she begins to believe in her own independence. More and more, this (as we feared it might) hems her into an absurd, uplifting, heartbreaking paradox: a catch-22 of love. Almost miraculously, Guo finds an honest resolution — one good enough that the other books shortlisted for the Orange Prize are going to have to go some if they want to replace A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers in my affections.