As 2020 recedes from us, we look forward to the world opening up and restarting from lockdown safely. While 2020 was obviously the year of Covid-19, it was also a year of community and solidarity. I hope that readers had those experiences as well.
Friend to Focus and writer, Leigh Kennedy, described the grip of Covid-19 as eerie and familiar, like “being in a science fiction novel we all read long ago.”
On top of the pandemic, 2020 was a year packed with political drama. The year started a month after a significant general election in December 2019 in the UK. By the end of 2020, the US had had one of its most important and defining presidential elections ever (where the election of a Black and Asian American woman as Vice President was one of many significant moments). And that’s without us even commenting on the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, the drone assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, major conflicts in Armenia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia and elsewhere, wildfires across Australia, the attempted violent overthrow in the US on 6 January 2021, and the ongoing fight to vaccinate the planet.
That’s a lot to process and a tough year for writers and artists to make their voices heard and their work noticed. For readers, the challenge was possibly to concentrate long enough to fully enjoy the fiction and art available. A further struggle for writers and artists was to create art in the first place. Despite these challenges there were many successes to celebrate.
If you ever publicly identify as a futurist, you will eventually be asked what contemporary futurism – an admittedly vague term which somehow covers everyone from tech-centric venture capital strategists and Pentagon policy wonks to Ray “Singularity” Kurzweil and the snake-oil Barnums of Silicon Valley – has to do with the proto-fascist 1920s Italian art movement of the same name. Bruce Sterling’s latest novella, Pirate Utopia, is (in part) an attempt to answer that question.
Written in the bombastic style that animates much of Sterling’s more recent short fiction, Pirate Utopia is populated by characters whose larger-than-lifeness is predominantly a function of their unfettered will-to-power (but also cocaine). In this alternate Adriatic, minor historical figures and allegorical types rub shoulders in Fiume, the little city at the heart of the breakaway microstate known as the Republic of Carnaro, where Futurist poets and artists work side by side with rogue military leaders and mercenary engineers to establish a proto-fascist entrepôt with its own hi-tech missile factory.
Identified by glamorous (and thus ridiculous) nicknames – “the Poet”, “the Ace of Hearts”, “the Art Witch” – the heroes of capital-F Futurism unwittingly slip into the narrative space occupied, in our own timeline, by the more fully developed European fascisms of the early 20th Century: Mussolini, a magazine editor, is emasculated in his office chair by Syndicalist women with single-shot handguns, while a former Austrian art student takes someone else’s bullet during a failed putsch in a Bavarian beer-hall. But Carnaro is doomed not to last – for as Peter Lamborn Wilson has observed, the pirate utopia is always-already temporary and contingent; the polder cannot hold.
The arrival of “the Magician” – one Harry Houdini, squired by two USian pulp fiction pioneers – and his inviting of Lorenzo Secondari the Pirate Engineer to the States completes the story of Futurism and futurism. Both are essentially poetic movements fuelled by utopian genres of writing and the creative arts, and powered by the modernist legacy of a lust for power, velocity and creative destruction. Which is not to claim that small-f futurism is necessarily fascist, of course – but the same desires and fetishes can be found the manifestos of both, and today’s self-styled “neoreactionaries” (a small but scary intellectual splinter of the soi disant “alt-right”, fond of cool tech, racist pseudoscience and the presumed meritocracy of enlightened dictatorship) mark the ideological space where futurisms past and present overlap. Both futurism and Futurism are far less about the future than they are about a present in the perpetual process of radical sociotechnical reconfiguration, and the possibilities of power in times of flux.
Warren Ellis’s Normal begins with an ageing academic demanding cat gifs with menaces (assuming “menaces” can stretch to include a shank whittled from the handle of a ten-buck toothbrush), and the story only gets darker and weirder, unfolding around a plot featuring “a missing guy, a locked-room mystery out of Agatha Christie, and a pile of insects.” Normal Head is a retreat facility for burned out futurists – not the “woo, flying cars!!” sort of futurist, but the strategists and forecasters who have learned the truth of Nietzsche’s old aphorism about gazing into the abyss, and learned it the hard way. The abyss in question is the light-cone of increasingly plausible and probable end-games facing a civilisation whose ability to generate interesting new technologies has far outpaced their ability to plan, predict or control the consequences – and speaking from beneath my own futurist’s hat, I assure you it can best a basilisk when it comes to lookin’ back atcha.
In contrast to the pulpy swaggerdocio of Sterling’s story, Normal has a stark style and shape, tracing a bleakly Ballardian arc which, plotted on paper, would resemble a stock-market chart during a bank run: a justifiably and self-consciously doomed male Western professional attempts a heroic final act of self-abnegating redemption, only to reveal in doing so the even more comprehensive fuckedupness of, well, pretty much everything. Mercifully, Ellis leavens his grim prognosis with gallows humour, and with his well-tuned ear for the contemporary vernacular: you may be headed for a boot-on-a-human-face-forever sort of an ending, but you’ll find yourself smiling as an academic from a rival discipline describes economics as “a speeding death kaleidoscope made of tits” – particularly if you know anything about economics. (Or about academics, for that matter.)
Taken together, these two books shine a light on the intimate but often occluded kinship between science fiction and futurism, rooted in a shared ideology and teleology. I am reminded of a recent Clute riff, in which he observes – and I paraphrase – that in “the old sf” (which is to say, roughly speaking, 20th century sf) the reward for saying ‘yes!’ was the future, while in “new” sf, the reward for saying ‘yes!’ is death; this reflects and reproduces a recent tectonic slippage in our attitude to change, and to technological change in particular. The Republic of Carnaro may be doomed in Sterling’s story, but as Houdini and friends say ‘yes!’ to Futurism and smuggle its Promethean flame back to their homeland, they mark the beginning of a hegemonic American century – albeit one which seems to be drawing to a shuddering halt even as I type. But Adam Dearden and the other inmates of Normal Head, after long careers of saying ‘yes, but…’ to the future, suddenly find that it’s too late for questions and analysis, let alone for saying ‘no’.
Things being what they are, I think we’re all victims of #abyssgaze to some extent … and yet the dream of Carnaro lives on in the tax-exempt sea-steading fantasies and vaporware Martian colonies of libertarian millionaires. Perhaps, then, we could say that Futurism’s greatest trick was – and still is – making the capital disappear.
We all know the riff – y’know, science fiction is “about” the time in which it is written, rather than the time in which it is ostensibly set? Like most truisms, it’s not really true – or rather it’s not true of most science fiction, but it’s nonetheless true of enough science fiction that the truism persists. It’s only when one encounters a fiction that really does nail its Zeitgeist to the page that one realises how rare such stories are. Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, of which Europe in Winter is the third instalment, is just such a fiction.
Perhaps that seems tautologous: other readers and reviewers much faster to the mark than myself have noted the manner in which Brexit has made Hutchinson look a little like a prophet. But Brexit is merely a symptom of Fractured Europe’s true theme, which we might instead name as neoliberalism, so long as we’re willing to put up with the eye-rolling… but that’s still too narrow. We could say it’s about the collapse of the Westphalian consensus (which would at least allow us to coin the term “Westphaliure”), or the backwash of empire; less grandly, it’s about the exploitation of zero-hours workers under globalisation, or the grimy underside of the global construction industry. But really, it’s about all of these things, and more besides.
That said, Fractured Europe is not without literary precedent. The old po-mo saw about the map not being the territory definitely applies, letting us draw a line from Hutchinson back to Borges. Such a line might claim to sketch out a slim tradition of European magical realism more concerned with a Borgesian urban than with the ruptured rural dreamtimes of Garcia Marquez et al; Jan Morris’s Hav could be a point on that plot, as could Mieville’s The City & The City. I’d also make the case for Jeff Noon’s early books, in particular Pollen, which concretised the old map/territory riff so successfully that it became pure plot. Pollen is also, at least in part, about the relationship between society and its infrastructures, between people and systems – and that’s part of the game being played in Fractured Europe.
I’m just going to come on out and call that game psychogeography – not because it obeys Situationist methodology (such as it ever was), but because the Situationists were responding to the plasticity and fungibility of place, to the churning subjectivities of geography. In response to capital’s rewriting of the city in its own image, they attempted to disrupt that narrative through the creation of counter-stories: narratives assembled from play and randomness; directionless drifts from bar to bar, granted a rationale only in hindsight; theories that contradicted or abnegated themselves (and their creators).
Hutchinson’s Courers live rather like leaderless Situationists avant la lettre, drifting across the patchwork palimpsest of Europe, haunting its liminal spaces and infrastructural interstices, grudgingly resigned to a peripatetic existence playing out on a landscape where money has dissolved all certainties other than itself, where every map is a fiction and every story is a map. But Debord’s motley crew drifted through Paris in the hope of combatting, or perhaps outrunning, the looming hegemony; by the end of Europe in Winter, Rudy and friends are long past such naivete. They drift because drifting is the doom of the marginal, and they understand that understanding is not on the menu – though scraps do fall from taller tables, if you’re fast.
This may explain complaints about the “difficulty” of Fractured Europe, and its parsimony with regard to explanations and denouements: the reader’s experience reflects that of the characters, which is to say that individual agency is constrained, most knowledge is suspect, and the rules have a tendency to changing suddenly on the whim of distant, inscrutable powers. Fractured Europe is not so much difficult as it is perhaps too mimetic for the escapist reader’s taste: the challenge lies not in parsing its world, but in being forced to recognise it as a strip-lit fun-house reflection of the world in which you already live.
How ironic that only science fiction, the genre that helped invent The Future, is capable of documenting The Future’s foreclosure.
Let me lay my lotería cards on the table: I read little horror, if any. I picked out Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel because I bought and published some of her earliest stories, back when Futurismic was still a going concern, and I was curious to see what she was capable of with a decade more experience under her belt; suffice to say it’s very clear to see why she’s lasted the course. The novel’s title makes it plain, even to a dilettante interloper, that there’s a direct connection to the earliest manifestations of the horror tradition—but I can’t tell you to what extent Mexican Gothic might be in dialogue with its generic predecessors, because I don’t have the necessary knowledge. As such, I will limit myself to a discussion of the book’s technique, affect and plot.
Let’s start with the latter: Noemí Taboada is a socialite in 1950s Mexico City, and her life of glamorous parties (and carefully distant dalliances with handsome but stupid young men) is interrupted by her father’s receipt of a letter from her cousin; Catalina recently married (unexpectedly, and against the family’s wishes and better judgement) and shipped out to El Triunfo, a faded former silvertown in the eastern state of Hidalgo, and has hardly been heard from since. The letter, full of high-gothic histrionics—cruelty, decay, poison, whispering voices in the night, the full works—suggests to Noemí’s father, already predisposed to disapproval of Catalina’s unsuitable husband Virgil Doyle, that she needs rescuing from her situation, or psychiatric attention, or some combination of the two: Catalina had a traumatic youth before coming to live with Noemí’s side of the family, after all, and has always been a bit flighty, her nose buried in literary Victoriana, a romantic in both the capitalised and lower-case senses of the term. Despite the horrors to come later in the novel, Noemí’s being dispatched on this mission by her stern yet doting father is perhaps the hardest event to swallow in terms of plausibility—but it’s done quickly, and no more than ten pages have passed before Noemí is en route to El Triunfo by train, with instructions to scope out the situation, and (if required) to persuade Virgil that he must either let Catalina see a shrink, or let her go entirely.
The Doyle family pile is the plainly-named High House, some way outside of El Triunfo proper, halfway up the mountain containing the mine that made the town’s (and the Doyles’s) much-diminished fortunes. High House and its cast of residents are as gothic as the title suggests they should be: this lot are, for the most part, monstrous and unpleasant from the get-go. Noemí, who starts confidently—as is her way—with the assumption that she’ll soon have her cousin out of there and onto a train back to the capital, discovers that things are (of course!) rather more complicated than the simple abusive-gold-digger-husband set-up that she and her father had assumed (though that is very much a part of the problem) and is soon entrapped in High House herself.
Now, I’ve never been much of one for deferring to the Spoiler Police, but I will in this case refrain from going deep into the spooky mechanics of the plot, which leavens its classic gothic hauntings and horrors with some scientific speculation and an (un)healthy dose of social psychology. I will say that it’s not a very violent or gory book, which I appreciated, and is perhaps all the more horrific (rather than thrilling or chilling) for that… and I will also note that the horror elements are used to explore, with no small degree of subtlety, the more mundane horrors of racism, colonialism and patriarchy. Mexican Gothic treats these themes with a sort of unflinching care, tracing the toxins without collapsing the veins of the plot. High House may be mostly lit by candles and oil lamps, but there’s a fair amount of gaslight in play, if you catch my drift; the entitled and not-always-passive aggressions of toxic masculinity, and the ways in which it warps and damages its protagonists as well as its victims, is poignantly portrayed, to the point that what might have been a far-too-fairytale ending instead feels both earned and redemptive.
It is telling, perhaps, that Moreno-Garcia chose the era of the post-war “economic miracle” as the temporal setting for the story—a period in which Mexico, like much of the rest of the world, was generally on the up in terms of social progress, particularly for women and those with indigenous (rather than Spanish) roots. Noemí fits both of those categories, and her privilege is contextualised with an appreciation of how much has changed, and how much is still to be done. As such, her distaste both for the obsolete patriarchal mores of the Doyles, and their interest in eugenic “science”, is informed by intellect and experience alike. (The redoubtable Clute would perhaps add something here about the ways in which the Doyles are Bound to the earth and their adopted home, both literally and figuratively, but I’ll leave that sort of theory to the experts.)
In terms of technique, while the gothic informs the imagery, atmosphere and plot, Moreno-Garcia mostly leaves the overwrought prose stylings out of it, writing instead from Noemí’s whipsmart sceptical POV as she figures out the form of the trap she’s wandered into. Furthermore, the way in which Moreno-Garcia displaces the classic gothic tropes to Central America, so as to expand and illuminate both the source genre and its idiosyncratic setting, is handled with deft and understated craft. Is it good horror? I’m really not the man to ask—but it’s a bloody good novel, that’s for sure.
3 • Torque Control • editorial by Shana Worthen 4 • A Year in Review: Looking Back at 2010 • essay by Martin Lewis 5 • 2010: Books in Review • essay by Graham Andrews and Lynne Bispham and Mark Connorton and Gary Dalkin and Alan Fraser and Niall Harrison and David Hebblethwaite and Tony Keen and Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont and Martin McGrath and Anthony Nanson and Martin Potts and Paul Graham Raven and Ian Sales and Jim Steel and Martyn Taylor and Sandra Unnerman and Anne Wilson 15 • 2010: Television in Review • essay by Alison Page 20 • 2010 in Film: Not My Kind of Genre • essay by Jonathan McCalmont 24 • Strip Club: A Fanciful Flight • essay by Terry Martin 26 • The Promises and Pitfalls of a Christian Agenda in Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle • essay by Anthony Nanson 30 • Scholars and Soldiers • [Foundation Favourites • 12] • essay by Andy Sawyer 32 • Alpha Centauri • [Resonances • 61] • essay by Stephen Baxter 34 • Kincaid in Short • [Kincaid in Short] • essay by Paul Kincaid 37 • Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer • review by Paul Graham Raven 38 • Review: Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan • review by Jonathan McCalmont 39 • Review: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks • review by Marcus Flavin 40 • Review: The Technician by Neal Asher • review by Stuart Carter 40 • Review: Version 43 by Philip Palmer • review by David Hebblethwaite 41 • Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu • review by Martin McGrath 41 • Review: Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson • review by Anthony Nanson 42 • Review: Music for Another World by Mark Harding • review by Dave M. Roberts 42 • Review: The Immersion Book of SF by Carmelo Rafala • review by Maureen Kincaid Speller 43 • Review: Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead by Christopher Golden • review by Colin B. Harvey [as by C. B. Harvey] 43 • Review: The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer • review by Niall Harrison 44 • Review: Feed by Mira Grant • review by Alex Williams 44 • Review: Tomes of the Dead: Anno Mortis by Rebecca Levene • review by Shaun Green 45 • Review: Songs of the Dying Earth by Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin • review by L. J. Hurst 46 • Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks • review by Donna Scott 46 • Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood • review by Anne F. Wilson 47 • Review: Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal by Sherryl Vint • review by Gwyneth Jones
[Mary] Gentle’s prose is sharp, her powers of invention brilliant, her characters real, especially the greasy, obese Casaubon with his pet rat. They are not necessarily likeable. Casaubon is a Lord, and not on Our Side (there’s a neat scene where he’s confronted with the woman who does his laundry who has to live on far less than the cost of one single garment), and when Valentine re-appears a couple of novels down the line she does a dreadful and unforgivable thing. But, in the best tradition of the malcontents in the Jacobean drama, boy, are they vivid! This was a new thing.
For a time I used the word scholarpunk for this fusion of erudition and bad-ass attitude. Fortunately no-one noticed.
Nowhere was this tiredness more evident than in the lugubriously self-indulgent Iron Man 2. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) was something of an unexpected hit; its combination of clever casting and pseudo-political posturing caught the public’s imagination while its lighter tone and aspirational Californian setting served as a useful counterpoint to the doom and gloom of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). However, the second Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark steps on stage in the sequel, it is obvious that something is terribly wrong. The film’s onanistic triumphalism and bare-faced declaration that social ills are best confronted by private sector moral entrepreneurs feels astonishingly ugly and politically insensitive at a time when private sector entrepreneurs are having their companies propped-up at the expense of the poor and the hungry. The decision to cast Mickey Rourke as a shambling Russian baddy is laughably pretentious in a film that ultimately boils down to a bunch of computer-generated robots punching each other in the face for about an hour.
I found a Darwin site where a respondent asked “who else thinks Beatrix Potter may have developed her stories, about animals with increasingly human characteristics, from acquaintance with Darwin’s theory?” The idea that Beatrix Potter had to wait for The Origin Of Species before she thought of writing about reprobate foxes, trusting piglets, thieving magpies and insolent rats may seem ridiculous but this internetgeneration query is revealing. Our animal folklore is no longer refreshed by experience. In my own lifetime, here in the UK, the estrangement that began as soon as agriculture was established, has accelerated almost to vanishing point. We see animals as pets; as entertainment products we consume through the screen (where their fate, nowadays, holds a tragic fascination). We see them, perhaps, as an increasingly problematic food source. We no longer ‘meet their gaze’ as independent neighbours. The neo-Darwinists have even been doing their damnedest to break the link that Charles Darwin forged, when he transformed our deep intuition of continuity with the animal world into ‘scientific fact’.
And was Karel Čapek really writing about newts?
On the whole, however, Vint does a good job of disentangling “the animal” from the mix and Animal Alterity is an impressive achievement. A study of this kind isn’t meant to offer solutions and there are none (beyond a rather vague promise that post-humanism will blur the line between human and animal). Instead there’s a mass of evidence identifying sf as a resource: a treasury for Animal Studies academics; a rich means of bringing those moral arguments to life —drawn from an overlooked genre that has (always, already) developed sophisticated ways of thinking about looming problems that have only just occurred to the mainstream.
To the general reader, Animal Alterity offers food for thought and a quirky compendium of offbeat and classic titles. Could a “related book” on this topic become widely popular? I don’t know. In my day, sf fans tended to be petrol-headed meat-munchers, their concern for our stewardship of the ecosphere constrained by a passion for beer, mayhem and go-faster starships. Times have changed. The younger generation may feel very differently: I hope so.
Saturday morning’s post brought with it Vector 265, at long last. Not just Vector: the mailing includes a booklet in memory of Rob Holstock, edited by Niall Harrison; the BSFA Awards booklet, with all of the shortlisted short stories; and a ballot for voting on the BSFA awards.
Vector 265 is the last one edited by Niall, and it’s a hefty one, a rich tribute to Stephen Baxter, plus book reviews, edited by Martin Lewis. For those of you not currently BSFA members, here is what you’re missing out on:
Table of Contents
“That Cosmological Feeling: An Interview with Stephen Baxter”
“Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Cycle: No Coming Home”, Jonathan McCalmont
“The Settee and the Stars: Stephen Baxter and the Dilemma of Scale”, Gary K Wolfe
“An Atomic Theory of Baxter’s Fiction”, Adam Roberts
“Three Colours NASA: Reflections on Stephen Baxter’s ‘NASA’ trilogy”, Simon Bradshaw
“Putting the Past into the Future: The Time’s Tapestry sequence”, Tony Keen
“Foundation’s Favourite: Stone Spring”, Andy Sawyer
“Baxter’s People”, Niall Harrison
“Giant Killer Rodents in Space Armour, With Guns: the other side of Stephen Baxter”, Graham Sleight
“First Impressions”, Martin Lewis
Book reviews edited by Martin Lewis Orgasmachine by Ian Watson (Newcon Press, 2010) – reviewed by
Justin Robson Shine, edited by Jetse de Vries (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Anthony Nanson The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2010) –
reviewed by Paul Kincaid The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010) – reviewed
by Tony Keen The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by
Michael Abbott The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2010) –
reviewed by Martin Potts Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor, 2009)
– reviewed by Dave M Roberts The Turing Test by Chris Beckett and The Last Reef by
Gareth L Powell (Elastic Press, 2008) – reviewed by Dave M Roberts The Holy Machine (Corvus, 2010) and Marcher (Cosmos
Books, 2008) by Chris Beckett – reviewed by Jim Steel
Inside/Outside – Chris Beckett interviewed by Paul Graham Raven Major Carnage by Gord Zajac (ChiZine Publications, 2010) –
reviewed by Shaun Green Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk (ChiZine Pubications, 2010)
– reviewed by Graham Andrews The Nemesis List by RJ Frith – reviewed by Ben Jeapes The Noise Within by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Stuart Carter Brave Story and The Book Of Heroes by Miyuke Miyabe
(Haikasoru, 2007 and 2009) – reviewed by Cherith Baldry WE by John Dickinson (David Fickling Books, 2010) – reviewed by
Donna Scott I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (Penguin, 2010) – reviewed by CB Harvey Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2010) – reviewed
by Anne F Wilson The Iron Hunt, Darkness Calls and A Wild Light by
Marjorie M Liu (Orbit, 2008-10) – reviewed by Amanda Rutter The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan (Orbit, 2009) – reviewed by
Alan Fraser Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov (Simon & Schuster, 2010) –
reviewed by Sandra Unerman The Office Of Shadow by Mathew Sturges (Pyr, 2010) – reviewed
by AP Canavan Lord Of The Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier (Orbit, 2010) –
reviewed by Lynne Bispham
BSFA Awards Shortlist 2011
Anyone who joined the BSFA recently may end up with the wrong impression as to how frequently mailings occur, inasmuch as we expect the next one to be sent out within the next month-or-so. It’s all still quarterly, however.
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.