Reminder: “Shoggoths in Bloom” discussion, and future schedule

Last of the novelettes, this Sunday. Read it here.

We now hit a slight snag, in that the Hugo voting deadline is 3rd July, which on a weekly discussion pattern would get us through only seven of the remaining nine (having already discussedExhalation“) short fiction nominees. My proposal, therefore, is to do the novellas like this:

17 May: “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress
24 May: “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay
31 May: “The Tear” by Ian McDonald
7 June: “True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow
14 June: “Truth” by Robert Reed

And then the short stories on Wednesdays and Sundays, like this:

17 June: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson
21 June: “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick
24 June: “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
28 June: “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick

Sound OK?

Hugo Discussion Schedule: Best Novelette

Following on from Liz’s post, I’m not attending Eastercon this year. I’ll no doubt be tracking some of the online shennanigans over the weekend, including virtual panel discussions that should be happening at Maureen’s place, but I’m going to be spending most of my time (a) watching TV, (b) catching up on reading, (c) catching up on editing, and (d) catching up on my own review-writing. And as part of (b), I’ll be reading the first of the Hugo-nominated novelettes, with the intent of posting about it on Sunday. I’m going to be following the alphabetical-by-title order on the Anticipation website, which means first up is …

Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Jan 2008)

And for those who want to play along at home, the subsequent schedule — one discussion a week, on Sunday afternoon — should look like this:

19 April: “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
26 April: “Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel (F&SF Jan 2008)
3 May: “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner (Asimov’s Feb 2008)
10 May: “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)

When A Fantasy Is Not A Fantasy

Charles N Brown, March Locus:

Of the newest books, I loved The City & The City by China Mieville (Del Rey — June), a total departure from his earlier books. The language is much more spare, the story very tight, and the mystery involved very satisfying. There is no magic at all, and I would catalog it as an alternate world or Graustarkian fantasy since the only element that ties it to our field is the very strange central European country it’s set in.


Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other. It is a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen, a journey to Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma.

First review I’ve seen:

What makes this book fascinating is that the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma exist in the same space, sitting one atop the other, and residents of each city have been trained since birth not to notice the other for fear of ‘breach’, the movement or acknowledgement of the other city that is punishable by the folks known only as ‘Breach’ who investigate and severely punish transgressors. Functionally each city is different. They have different architecture, different currency, they work completely independently but they have to avoid collisions while driving in the same space and avoid noticing each other as they walk the same streets; it’s this setting that makes The City And The City such a compelling read.

The book itself:

“You know that area: is there any chance we’re looking at breach?”
There were seconds of silence.
“Doesn’t seem likely. That area’s mostly pretty total. And Pocost Village, that whole project, certainly is.”
“Some of GunterStrasz, though …”
“Yeah but. The closest crosshatching is hundreds of metres away. They couldn’t have …” (16)

“This morning I found a few of the locals I used to talk to,” Corwi said. “Asked if they’d heard anything.” She took us through a darkened place where the balance of crosshatch shifted and we were silent until the streetlamps around us became again taller and familiarly deco-angled. Under those lights — the street we were on visible in a perspective curve away from us — women stood by the walls selling sex. They watched our approach guardedly. “I didn’t have much luck,” Corwi said. (21)

I lived east and south a bit of the old town, the top-but-one flat in a six-storey towerlet on VulkovStrasz. It is a heavily crosshatched street — clutch by clutch of architecture broken by alterity, even in a few spots house by house. The local buildings are taller by a floor or three than the others, so Besz juts up semi-regularly and the roofscape is almost a machiocolation. (28)

I have to admit, so far I’m a bit sceptical: the metaphor is clear enough, but as framed at this point in the book, if it’s not fantastic in some way, then it seems too improbable to believe. (I’m also not entirely convinced that Inspector Borlu’s narrative voice can accomodate words like “alterity”, or elsewhere, “polysemic” and “effaced”, as casually as Mieville seems to want it to, but that’s a separate issue.)

… In with the new

This is what 2009 looks like so far:

… which is to say, these are the 2009 books I’m hoping to get stuck into over the next few months. (Feel free to tell me what I’ve missed.) There are a few books in there that are cheats: Graceling, The Hunger Games and Tender Morsels are 2009 books in the UK, but were first published in the US last year. I think Vandana Singh’s collection The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet is also technically a 2008 book, but I didn’t see a copy until January. Of the rest, I’m planning to review Marcher, Steal Across the Sky, Twisted Metal and Best Served Cold for Strange Horizons, in that order (perk of being a reviews editor: you get first pick). I’m perhaps most looking forward to Singh’s collection, and to In Great Waters, since I liked Whitfield’s first book and Nic tells me this new one is excellent. And the first one I’ll be reading, which you can expect a post about here (after Lavinia), is that spiral-bound book, which is a proof of Toby Litt’s Journey Into Space; I’m extra-intrigued now, because Ursula Le Guin didn’t like it, but Martin and Paul did.

Out with the old …

Oh, I had such plans. As a member of Anticipation (even if it’s not certain that I’ll actually be attending) I get to nominate in the Hugos; given that, why not wait until I nominate before writing any kind of best-of-2008 list? I get a couple of extra months to catch up on 2008 books and stories that I missed, and plenty of time to write a detailed summary of my reading.

Well, so much for that idea. Instead, here’s my Hugo ballot, mere hours before the nominating deadline, with some abbreviated commentary.

Best Novel

Flood by Stephen Baxter [discussion]
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway [review]
Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod [review]
Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell [review]

I am nothing if not quixotic. I thought it might be hard to fight the temptation to nominate books I liked but also thought had a chance of getting enough nominations to be shortlisted; I also thought I’d have a much harder time actually narrowing it down to five books, because my overall feeling is that 2008 was a year with many good genre novels, but few if any great ones. As it is, the process was relatively straightforward. These are books that (a) I want to read again, and (b) I want other people to read, even if the result will only be that more people tell me Dreamers of the Day isn’t really a fantasy, and even if only Lavinia is a real shortlist prospect (Flood might have a shot next year, I suppose, because the US edition will be out). Ironically, I’m actually pretty ambivalent about Lavinia; I only finished it today, but the problem might be that Cecelia Holland and Gary Wolfe are both right, which I didn’t reckon on being possible. But like my other nominees it’s a book that provokes me to think about it, and that at least is a good thing.

Best Novella

“True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum (Fast Forward 2)
Gunpowder by Joe Hill (PS Publishing)
“The Surfer” by Kelly Link (The Starry Rift) [review]
“Truth” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s, October/November 2008)
Distances by Vandana Singh (Aqueduct)

This category, on the other hand, I thought would be a struggle, and it was, although in the end I’ve got five nominees I’m happy with. The standout, though, is “True Names”, which as Abigail says combines its authors’ strengths to brilliant effect.

Best Novellette

The Gambler” by Paulo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
“The Ice War” by Stephen Baxter (Asimov’s September)
“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory (Eclipse 2)
“Special Economics” by Maureen F. McHugh (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy) [review]
“Legolas does the Dishes” by Justina Robson (Postscripts 15) [review]

As for novella, I have a clear favourite here — “The Gambler” — but unlike novella, winnowing myself down to only five nominees was tricky.

Best Short Story

“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (Eclipse 2)
“The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy) [review]
“An Honest Day’s Work” by Margo Lanagan (The Starry Rift)
The Small Door” by Holly Phillips (Fantasy Magazine)
“Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” by M. Rickert (F&SF October/November [review]

I spent quite a while going back and forth between “An Honest Day’s Work” and “The Goosle”; I’ve read enough good short stories this year that I felt I should only nominate one by any given author. But in the end I decided that was a silly rule; they both deserve their nominations.

Best Related Book

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon (McSweeny’s) [review]
The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr (Wesleyan)
What it is we do When we Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid (Beccon)
Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan)

I’m missing a book in this slot, and in fact these are the only four books of related non-fiction I read in 2008; but they all deserve nominations.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

Hellboy 2

Mongol is only just touched by the fantastic; Hellboy 2 is beautiful but flawed; and I’ve watched Wall-E three times. (And The Dark Knight isn’t science fiction or fantasy.)

Best Dramatic Presentation — Short Form

Battlestar Galactica, “The Hub” (4×09), by Jane Espenson
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog by Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, Joss Whedon and Zack Whedon
Pushing Daisies, “Frescorts” (2×04), by Aaron Harberts, Gretchen J. Berg, and Lisa Joy
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, “Alpine Fields” (2×12), by John Enbom
The Middleman, “The Sino-Mexican Revelation” (1×03), by Javier Grillo-Marxuach

There’s a certain amount of closing my eyes and sticking a pin in it going on here. Let’s see: I think Galactica‘s fourth season was a big step back up in quality, and wanted to recognise that, but those first ten episodes are essentially serialised; so I’ll go for the one with the big space battle. I haven’t caught up with Pushing Daisies, and all the episodes I’ve watched so far have been good, but “Frescorts” is probably the best, narrowly. And there are half a dozen episodes of The Middleman I could have nominated, but this was the one that fully won me over to the show. “Alpine Fields”, though, I feel pretty sure about; although Sarah Connor had a lot of good episodes, that’s the one I feel works best as a showcase, and aside from the pilot, it’s the one I’d pick to show someone why they should watch.

Best Editor (Long Form)

Pete Crowther (PS Publishing)
Jo Fletcher (Gollancz)
Simon Spanton (Gollancz)

Alas the SF Editors wiki isn’t even close to being up to date. So Fletcher and Spanton get nods because I think Gollancz had a good year, and Crowther gets one for publishing Song of Time.

Best Editor (Short Form)

Lou Anders (Fast Forward 2)
Ellen Datlow (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy)
Susan Marie Groppi (Strange Horizons)
Jonathan Strahan (Eclipse 2, The Starry Rift)
Sheila Williams (Asimov’s)

As ever, short fiction editors are easier to judge. Most of these follow on from my short fiction nominations; the exception, Susan Groppi, gets a nod because what I read of the Strange Horizons fiction this year was good, even if none of it made it to my ballot.

Best Semiprozine

Interzone, ed. Andy Cox et al.
The New York Review of Science Fiction, eds. David Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer and Kevin Maroney
Foundation, ed. Graham Sleight
Strange Horizons, ed. Susan Marie Groppi, Jed Hartman and Karen Meisner

Interzone had a definite uptick in quality in 2008 compared to the previous couple of years, I thought, so I’m happy to give them a nod; and the other two were reliably good. Locus misses out on a nomination for the way they handled their awards, and a couple of other bits of bad behaviour.

Best Fanzine

Asking the Wrong Questions by Abigail Nussbaum
Banana Wings, ed Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer
Coffee and Ink
The Antick Musings of GBH Hornswoggler, Gent
The Internet Review of Science Fiction, ed. Stacey Janssen

Best Fan Writer

Claire Brialey
Graham Sleight
Abigail Nussbaum
Mark Plummer
Micole S.

These two categories go together, for obvious reasons. With the exception of Antick Musings and IROSF (which does say it’s a fanzine, for now), they’re also stuffed with people I know personally as well as admire. I make no apology for that; fan writing, so far as I’m concerned, is to a large extent about personal connection, and most of the people I’ve nominated are people I know either first or best (or both) through their writing. But, you know, they put out some damn good writing last year.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo)

J. M. McDermott
Patrick Ness
Gord Sellar

This one, thankfully, does have an up-to-date website to help you out, although of course it’s not fully comprehensive. Annoyingly, I believe that Mr Harkaway’s eligibility got burned by a couple of stories published in Interzone in the mid-nineties (although Interzone is no longer a qualifying market, it was then).

And that’s your lot (except that I’ll also be nominating Stephen Martiniere for Best Professional Artist). Tomorrow: 2009 begins.


Things I would totally write posts about if I weren’t spending all my time either playing Final Fantasy XII or keeping up with commitments elsewhere, a partial list:

1. Survivors. Watched the final episode last night; I’ve seen the odd post about the series, but did anyone else watch it through to the end? I was much more impressed than not, I have to say. I’m not keen on the Secret Conspiracy, which makes me wary of the second series, since it looks set to play a greater part in the story than it has done so far; and sometimes the plots are a mite predictable. But sometimes they’re not, and I think all the central characters are well-realised. And I’m a sucker for community- and society-building stories, anyway.

2. The return of Battlestar Galactica. While I empathize with reactions like Abigail’s, in that I invariably find that reading what the people making Galactica have to say about it diminishes my enjoyment, if I ignore what they’re saying I can still find much to appreciate. In the first episode of season four round two, for instance, I didn’t much care for the manner in which the reval that ended the episode was handled — clumsy, I thought — but I do like the reveal itself. I like that, this time, it has a greater weight for the previously-revealed cylons than for the humans; I like that the the relationship it references becomes a model for the whole human-cylon relationship (particularly given what we appeared to learn elsewhere in the episode about the relationship between the populations of the twelve colonies and the skinjob cylons). I’m glad that it doesn’t invalidate major character development. And I also find it satisfying, in a perverse way, that I found it initially disappointing, and only found things to appreciate on reflection, because it seems to me that disappointment was an effective way of mirroring the series characters’ disappointment at the end of the previous episode in the audience. I don’t believe for a second that the makers intended that effect — I can’t have that much faith in TV showrunners — but I think it’s there nonetheless.

3. Further adventures in Theory. I’ve still got comments on the previous threads I should respond to, and indeed it’s not like I’ve read much more of the book yet (see above re: Final Fantasy and other commitments). But at the moment I am wrestling with Structuralism. As related, I am not convinced by some of the arguments for the creational power of language (I don’t think we divide the spectrum into individual colours entirely arbitrarily, purely as a matter of language; I think we divide it up the way we do because certain physical phenomena filters light into particular bands of wavelengths, and it is useful to have words for those bands), and I find some of the examples of structralist criticism given to get a bit, er, abstract. But at the same time I am sympathetic to the idea of a mode of criticism that is about relating texts to larger structures — not surprisingly, since I buy into Damien Broderick’s concept of the sf megatext (at least as I understand it from reading discussions of the concept), even if it does take me away from the text I start with.

4. Reading, and particularly reading of shortlists, as social behaviour; although on this one I’m not sure I have anything to add, so much as I want to point it out as a concise statement of something I am often conscious of. The urge to write reviews, in this model, is something of a totalitarian impulse, an urge to make, or at least persuade, people to talk about what you’re interested in talking about. (So is there an extent to which I approve of the BSFA novel shortlist because it consists largely of things I’ve already read? Maybe.)

Restate My Assumptions

So, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, one of the things I’m reading at the moment is Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. In the first chapter, he lays out “a series of propositions which I think many traditional critics would, on the whole, subscribe to, if they were in the habit of making their assumptions explicit”, under the banner of “liberal humanism”; and then, later, lays out five core assumptions which describe “the basic frame of mind which theory embodies”. I thought it might be interesting to go through both lists and note down my initial — unexamined, as it were — reactions to each statement, both for my future reference, and perhaps to start being a bit more specific about what “theory”, as used all over the place in that other comment thread, means. (i.e. I’m also interested in other peoples’ reactions to these statements. Heck, turn it into a meme and post it on your blog, if you like.) These are slightly truncated versions of the statements, in most cases — Barry gives some elaboration — but I think they get the gist across.

Liberal humanism, then:

1. Good literature is of timeless significance; it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks to what is constant in human nature.

Nah. I know from experience that the older the work I’m reading, the more work I have to do filling in historical context to get even a bare minimum of understanding of what’s going on, but more than that, there’s a part of me which believes that one of the most interesting things about literature is precisely the way in which it engages with the limitations and peculiarities of the age it is written in.

2. The literary text contains its own meaning within itself. It doesn’t require any elaborate process of placing it within a context, whether this be socio-political, literary-historical, or autobiographical.

See above; certainly some texts will resist the need for contextualisation more strongly than others, for a longer period of time than others, but ultimately I don’t think anything endures by itself forever; certain texts that appear to have endured have done so, in part, because the contextualisation they require has become part of the cultural air we breathe (i.e. Shakespeare), not because of anything inherent to the text itself.

3. To understand the text well it must be detached from these contexts and studied in isolation. What is needed is the close verbal analysis of the text without prior ideological assumptions, or political pre-conditions, or, indeed, specific expectations of any kind.

Mmf. Sort of. I do place close verbal analysis at the core of understanding a text, not least because it’s something I enjoy getting better at; and I do prefer to let a text suggest meaning to me than to go to a text looking for an answer to a question. But, of course, that is my prior ideological assumption. (I knew that much before I started reading the book.)

4. Human nature is essentially unchanging. The same passions, emotions, and even situations are seen again and again throughout human history. It follows that continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation.

Nope. “Human nature”, to the extent that it can be defined at all, isn’t even the same from culture to culture in the present moment; I sincerely doubt it remains the same over centuries or longer. And, of course, as a science fiction reader one of the things I enjoy is imagination of the ways in which humanity can change in the future.

5. Individuality is something securely possessed within each of us as our unique “essence”. This transcends our environmental influences, and though individuality can change and develop (as do characters in novels) it can’t be transformed — hence our uneasiness with those scenes (quite common, for instance, in Dickens) which involve a “change of heart” in a character, so that the whole personality is shifted into a new dimension by force of circumstance.

This, on the other hand … “transcends our environmental influences” makes it sound like we’re born being who we are, which is clearly rubbish; but individuality as something that evolves but does not transform sounds right to me. I don’t think I’ve ever transformed in the way the process is described here; I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to transform in that way, either. Life isn’t that easy.

6. The purpose of literature is essentially the enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values; but not in a programmatic way: if literature, and criticism, become overly and directly political they necessarily tend towards propaganda.

On the one hand, speaking again as a science fiction reader, I’m not supposed to mind a bit of didacticism in my fiction, and I’m sure I mind it less than most of the people Barry has in mind here. On the other hand, to the extent that literature can be said to have a purpose, “propagation of humane values”, in the sense of making, through literary creation, a sincere and compassionate attempt to understand people and the world, and to communicate that understanding to another, doesn’t seem so bad.

7. Form and content in literature must be fused in an organic way, so that the one grows inevitably from the other.

Must be? No. (Are there any “must” statements that could justly be applied to literature?) Can often very productively be? Yes.

8. This point about organic form applies above all to “sincerity”. Sincerity (comprising truth-to-experience, honesty towards the self, and the capacity for human empathy and compassion) is a quality which resides within the language of literature. It isn’t a fact or intention behind the work … sincerity is to be discovered within the text in such matters as the avoidance of cliche, or of over-inflated forms of expression; it shows in the use of first-hand, individualistic description … the truly sincere poet can transcend the sense of distance between language and material, and can make the language seem to “enact” what it depicts, thus apparently abolishing the necessary distance between words and things.

This seems more or less to be an expansion of point 6, which makes me wonder whether I’m misunderstanding one or both of them; but still, it seems largely sound to me.

9. What is valued in literature is the “silent” showing and demonstrating of something, rather than the explaining, or saying, of it. Hence, ideas as such are worthless in literature until given the concrete embodiment of “enactment”.

Sf-reader ping again: I suspect that what satisfies me as being an “enacted” idea wouldn’t necessarily satisfy the people Barry has in mind here; there’s that touch of didacticism to consider. But an idea that is worked through a text is a beautiful thing.

10. The job of criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader. A theoretical account of the nature of reading, or of literature in general, isn’t useful in criticism, and will simply, if attempted, encumber critics with “preconceived ideas” which will get between them and the text.

I have no problems with the first sentence. As to the second sentence … well, that’s why I’m reading the book, isn’t it?

All of this seems to suggest that I am not, actually, a full-on liberal humanist; but there are several points on that list that I wouldn’t want to let go of.

Now, on to Theory:

1. Many of the notions which we would usually regard as the basic “givens” of our existence (including our gender identity, our individual selfhood, and the notion of literature itself) are actually fluid and unstable things, rather than fixed and reliable essences.

Yes … to a point. Newtonian mechanics isn’t actually a wholly accurate description of how the universe works, but it’s a pretty good approximation for a lot of purposes. Cognitive neuroscience may reveal that my selfhood does not exist in the way that I perceive it to exist, but on a day to day basis my perceptions are what I have to work with. And to bring it back to literature, it is not possible to draw a sharp line between, say, science fiction and fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful to talk about science fiction and fantasy as distinct types of literature.

2. All thinking and investigation is necessarily affected and largely determined by prior ideological commitment. The notion of disinterested enquiry is therefore untenable: none of us is capable of standing back from the scales and weighing things up dispassionately: rather, all investigators have a thumb on one side or other of the scales.

Yes, again to a point. Necessarily affected yes, largely determined, not necessarily. Acknowledging thumbs-on-scales is good; investigating the consequences of thumbs-on-scales is good; trying to construct systems of thought which compensate for thumbs-on-scales is also good. It may not be possible to carry out a purely disinterested enquiry, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to approximate it; it means we should be aware of the biases that factor into the attempt.

3. Language itself conditions, limits, and predetermines what we see. Thus, all reality is constructed through language, so that nothing is simply “there” in an unproblematical way — everything is a linguistic/textual construct. Language doesn’t record reality, it shapes and creates it, so that the whole of our universe is textual. Further, meaning is jointly constructed by reader and writer.

Define “reality”. Do I believe a physical universe could exist if no language existed to describe it? (Assuming here that the action of observation counts as a form of language.) Yes, I do. A rock doesn’t need to be called a rock to exist. Do I believe that our social reality, how we think and relate and describe, is constrained by the language we have to think in and relate through and describe with? Also yes. I don’t know what “the whole of our universe is textual” means. As for reader-writer interaction constructing meaning: yes, but with the caveat that this appears to be intended as at least a partial counter to “the job of criticism is to mediate between the reader and the text” above, and the two positions don’t seem exclusive to me. Reframe it as the job of criticism being to mediate the construction of a particular meaning, if you like.

4. Any claim to offer a definitive reading would be futile. The meanings within a literary work are never fixed and reliable but always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous.

Yes. I do not think, for instance, that Victoria Hoyle’s reading of Lucius Shepard is inferior to the author’s view of his own work. (But some meanings are more equal than others.)

5. “Totalising” notions are to be distrusted. For instance, the notion of “great” books as an absolute and self-sustaining category is to be distrusted, as books always arise out of a particular socio-political structure, and this situation should not be suppressed, as tends to happen when they are promoted to “greatness”. Likewise, the concept of a “human nature”, as a generalised norm which transcends the idea of a particular race, gender or class, is to be distrusted.

Yes — recognising the obvious paradox inherent in the statement — as long as “distrusted” means “recognise the limitations of” rather than “discard out of hand”.

And that’s the lot. Not quite a theorist yet, then. It occurs to me that the second list is somewhat less interesting to me, at first glance, simply because it says less about reading and interpreting; it talks in generalities, about principles that apply far beyond criticism, whereas what I’m interested in (what I’m reading the book for) is ways to talk about literature specifically. But I suppose that’s what the rest of the chapters will do.

Stand on Zanzibar

Superpowers UK coverThe plot: probably the least interesting aspect of the whole book, but here you go. There are two main threads, developing from the lives of two room-mates in 2010 New York, both of which involves first-world intervention in third-world nations. Norman House, VP at General Technics, ends up managing a huge investment in the (fictional) ex-colonial African nation of Beninia, at the behest of the ailing president; meanwhile, Donald Hogan, who works as an information synthesizer for the government, is “activated”, brainwashed with super-action-spy-skills, and sent to the (equally fictional) South-East Asian island nation Yatakang, where the government has announced they have the capability to create genetically enhanced supermen. Surrounding this narrative is a penumbra of vignettes, extracts from books, song lyrics, transcripts of videos, and much else, often but not always related to the main action in some way, which serve to flesh out the world.

What they thought then, part one: M. John Harrison, New Worlds 186 (January 1969):

… an application of the Dos Passos technique to the speculative field, a massive collage of a book that offers a broad fictional extrapolation from current events. Brunner presents as his protagonist an unbalanced society, consumer oriented and consuming itself to death. Violence and the special poverties of utopia set the tone; race riots; genetic control, and an East-West confrontation are balanced by ephemeral close-ups of personal frustration. Admass manipulators attempting to peg the status quo demolish human dignity from above while guerilla-action and anarchy attack it from below. This is a well-conceived book — a satisfyingly complete vision — marred by a lack of metaphor. Brunner is an inventive writer; his ability to theorise and document a feasible future is undeniable. But his success in evoking that future through images is limited. And his solution of the violence problem, though clever, is superfluous — it might have been more effective simply to state the problem.

What they thought then, part two: It won the Hugo in 1969, beating Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, Nova by Samuel R Delany, Past Master by RA Lafferty, and The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak.

Commentary, part one: Harrison is surely right about the completeness of Stand on Zanzibar‘s future being its most satisfying aspect; as is the way in any multi-threaded novel, not every thread is equally interesting all of them time, but every thread in is interesting at some point. The sheer number of trends extrapolated is staggering, and not just because some of the predictions seem spookily accurate, but because they’re integrated in a way that makes them seem part of the same society, and because Brunner is quite bold in connecting his present to his future — there’s even a complete history of fashion, at one point. I’m not sure, though, that the balance is completely satisfactory — I would have liked to believe that the world was the true character, say, but Hogan and House kept getting in the way — and I’m not sure that I buy Harrison’s take on the ending, which is surely powerful precisely because the solution it identifies is beyond the reach of the characters to grasp.

I haven’t read any of the other novels on that year’s Hugo shortlist, but it strikes me as a worthy winner.

The structure: There are four types of chapter, which largely do what they say, although there is some fluidity of material and style between different types. “Context” provides, typically, an extract from a book, or some other document, or a transcript of something or other, which explains the background of this 2010. “This Happening World” is about tracking the real-time of the world, and mixes thing up: a couple of lines of dialogue, an advertising slogan, a couple of lines from an article of some kind. “Tracking with Closeups” are the character vignette chapters, minor characters who may appear later in the main Hogan/House plot, or who may just be glancingly affected by some aspect of it. And “Continuity” is the meat of the story. As many will tell you (the detractors, cheerfully so), the style is more or less lifted from John Dos Passos’ USA; but for obvious infodump-related reasons, it’s a style extraordinarily well-suited to science fiction (and to this type of science fiction), and Brunner makes good use of it. It’s a steal for honorable purpose.

Vocabulary, a selection: Zecks (executives); Codders (men); Bleeding (swearword); Sheeting (ditto); Mucker (someone run amok); Block (never quite worked this one out); Shiggy (sort of a professionally single woman); Afram (African American); Hole (swearword, replaces “hell”); prowlie (police car); orbiting (getting high). Some of this works, some of it doesn’t. While the thought behind, say, “bleeding” is good — it’s replaced words like “bastard” and “bugger”, which are now considered purely descriptive without stigma attached to them, while hemophilia, as a heritable disease, is something to be ashamed of — I could never quite hear anyone saying it with the necessary force. In general I admired Brunner’s attempts at stylistic diversity, without thinking all of them equally successful.

What they thought a bit later: Brian Aldiss, p 367 of Trillion Year Spree (1986):

This sort of unlikely and unpleasant melodrama militates against the lively intellectual dance going on elsewhere, and eventually overwhelms it. Before that, Brunner conducts a teach-in on modern moralities, aided by Chad Mulligan, a sort of hippie philosopher. As with all Propter-figures, as with Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw, Mulligan wearies, being an author mouthpiece. He puts us all to rights and even out-talks Shalmaneser. The book becomes too long. … But it is an interesting experiment, because it marks a stage along the road, midway between pulp and social commentary.

Commentary, part two: I don’t disagree with Aldiss’ assessment of the way House/Hogan’s story gradually becomes overpowering (see above), but I thought Chad Mulligan livened up the book considerably, something I emphatically cannot say about the Heinleinian equivalents. Perhaps it’s because I never did feel he was an author mouthpiece, at least not in the sense that I believed Brunner believed everything he had Mulligan say, or that I was expected to believe it; in the sense that Mulligan was a way of spinning out notions in front of an audience, maybe. Perhaps, also, it’s because I feel that Mulligan gets to put his finger on the heart of the book when he asks Shalmaneser what it would take for the computer to believe in Beninia. Suspension of disbelief is a key question for any book that positions itself anywhere along the utopia/dystopia line: what would it take for us to believe in the possibility of a better world, or better people?

Predictions, part one: accurate. Implanted contraceptives. Hyperactive media. Gay marriage. TiVo. Genetic modification (and industrial pharma, to an extent). Privacy, or lack thereof, as a key social issue. Puffa jackets. Globalisation.

Genre descendents: Big chunks of cyberpunk; maybe The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson; Counting Heads by David Marusek; River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

Predictions, part two: inaccurate. The reliance on big central computers. The absence of peak oil and climate change. Continuing cold war-esque paranoia. The introduction of eugenics laws to control population growth. Sexual mores.

On shiggies: I have to say, I didn’t find the gender roles nearly as outdated or troubling as I’d been led to expect, which is not to say the book is unproblematic in this area. On the plus side, the shiggies — essentially the free love movement extrapolated into a whole social class — were depicted, so far as I noticed, without a trace of disapproval, and there were numerous female characters in prominent and powerful roles (not least the head of General Technics). What was missing, though, was a sense of balance, which in a way is a microcosm of my reservations about the novel’s overall structure, which is to say that although lots of female characters are mentioned, and have speaking parts, none of them are central in the way that Hogan, House and Mulligan are. Similarly, I’d have expected there to be male shiggies as well as female shiggies, and I didn’t notice any.

What they think now, part one: Adam Roberts, p.248 of his Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006):

Other titles from the decade now seem less significant, despite being praised extravagantly in their own day. The British author John Brunner’s (1934-1995) Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is a lengthy disquisition layered over a sort of spy plot, set in a monstrously overpopulated world. But its choppy, “experimental” style, lifted directly from the work of the American Modernist John Dos Passos (1896-1970) seems second-hand and over-boiled, and the premise of the novel has a phlogistonic lack of contemporary bite (overpopulation had not brought the world to a standstill by the start of the twenty-first century, and will not do so by the start of the twenty-second either). Of course, Brunner was not alone in thinking his premise sharply relevant: many writers in the 1960s and 1970s adopted positions of Malthusian gloominess on the subject of overpopulation; a better treatment of the theme than Brunner’s (better because rooted in a Pulp terseness rather than a High Modernist prolixity) is Harry Harrison’s (b.1925) Make Room! Make Room! (1966).

What they think now, part two: Geoff Ryman, in SFX 168 (April 2008) [pdf]:

Every page has both a great SF idea and an emotional twist to the story. Its technique is kaleidoscopic … This wouldn’t work if Brunner wasn’t so good at different voices. This age’s hip commentator, Chad Mulligan, is quoted from at length. To an extent he’s Brunner’s mouthpiece (and a great way to info-dump) but he also convinces as a radical and original thinker … The world feels pretty much like now — which is when it’s set, not in 1968, the year it was first published … there is no other British SF novel I can think of with this breadth of invention, character and setting. There is something of Dickens in the vast panorama, the mix of wit, terror, sentiment, and satirical characters.

Commentary, part three: I find myself somewhere between messrs Roberts and Ryman. I don’t think the kaleidoscopic view is entirely successful; but nor do I think it by any means stale, particularly early on, when the disorienting effect of immersion is at its most powerful. Roberts is right to point out that the concerns about overpopulation don’t feel as pressing as they apparently did when Brunner was writing the book, but the way in which it asks what it is about humans that limits our ability to live together, that seems to make terrorism or solipsism such common responses to living in Brunner’s future, chimed with me. It also seemed to me a novel provocative on the subject of racial issues and interactions (much more so, actually, than on gendered ones; take that as you will), asking valid questions about postcolonial global relations. What it takes for countries to live together, if you like, and whether benevolent intervention is even possible (whether or not desirable). Which is to say that in many ways it did still feel like now; an alternate version of now, admittedly, but a tomorrow I could recognise.

See also: Wikipedia page here; Karen Burnham’s take here.

Recently Read: May

(Being a list of books read in May that I haven’t already written up here or for elsewhere.)

Herge, Adventures of Tintin vol 1 and 2. These two lovely little hardbacks comprise the stories from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (first published 1929-30) to The Blue Lotus (first published 1934-5). I’d never read the stories before The Blue Lotus before, and while it’s interesting to watch the gradual appearance of various pieces of the Tintin universe — Thomson and Thompson, Rastapopoulos, a professor who’s clearly a dry-run for Calculus — they were eye-opening in several ways. One is, obviously, the politics. I knew the reputation of Tintin in the Congo, and it lives up (or down) to it — both the images and the actions of Africans are stereotypical at best and racist at worst, while the cavalier attitude to wildlife is hard to take — but Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is even more transparent and broad-brush propaganda (if against what many would I suspect consider a slightly more acceptable target), in which Tintin discovers, for instance, the secret basement where Stalin has been hiding the wealth of the people, plus a plot to blow up the capitals of Europe with dynamite. Tintin in America is only marginally less stereotypical in its depiction of Chicago Gangsters and Native Americans (even while taking the Native Americans’ side), and even The Blue Lotus, while dramatically more nuanced in its portrayal of the Chinese characters, lapses into caricature when it comes to the Japanese. Overall, though, the development of the books in terms of their political complexity is quite staggering, considering they were originally written over about five years. The development in artwork is equally dramatic — the more cartoonish elements remain throughout, but early on are evident in such incidents as a train crashing into Tintin’s car, leading to Tintin and Snowy spreadeagled on the front of the engine, whereas later they get transferred mostly to Thomson and Thompson — as is the sophistication of the plotting. Cigars of the Pharaoh, which sees the start of the drug-smuggling plotline, is the first book that can really be described as having a plot rather than being composed of a sequence of events, athough the Tintin formula of action and secret passages and such is still very much in evidence; but it pales in comparison with The Blue Lotus, which is full of intricately conflicting agendas and counter-agendas, and set against a real historical backdrop (specifically around the Mukden Incident). Most of the books contain pages that were later redrawn, which has at least one weird consequence: at one point in Cigars of the Pharaoh, Tintin is captured, only to discover, when he reveals his identity, that said captor is actually pleased to see him, saying he’s been reading of Tintin’s exploits for years. But the book that he displays as evidence of this clearly has the cover of Destination Moon, which wasn’t published until 1950 …

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954). Somehow I made it through my privileged British education without reading this story of privileged British schoolboys going feral on a desert island. Reading it now for the first time, I find that (a) I’m not sure I believe that life on a desert island could be like that, (b) I’m not sure that children and adolescents would really act like that, and (c) it’s not nearly as brutal as I’d been led to believe; but I still think it largely deserves its reputation. I’m uneasy with some of the language used to describe Jack’s tribe of savages (as though their hunter-gatherer ways are in themselves a cause for concern, rather than the violence and callousness with which they are enacted), and I think the ending severely weakens the whole (hey, if your civilization collapses it’ll be ok, because some paternal figure will be along to rescue you eventually! Though I do love the way the hunters are suddenly boys again when the Navy man arrives. I was hoping the boys would kill the first adult they see; it wouldn’t have stopped them being rescued, but it would at least have carried the logic of the rest of the novel through to a conclusion), but the intensity and clarity of the best passages is something to marvel at. I do love a well-executed omniscient perspective, and Golding knows exactly how to use his (for instance, the well judged pull-back to an image of tides being pulled from “somewhere over the darkened curve of the world”). He is also extremely good at place, both in terms of constructing the geography of the island in his readers’ minds, and in terms of describing that geography in precise, striking terms. If some of the plotting is a bit artificial — that the fire goes out just when the only boat they’ve seen passes by, for instance — it’s forgivable for the sake of the near-mythic potency of the novel’s overall trajectory. I read it in a 1984 Faber omnibus which could have used another proofread, but I hope to make time for the other two novels — Pincher Martin and Rites of Passage — sooner rather than later.

David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old (2006). This is a “use-centred history of technology since 1900”, and fascinating stuff. I have pages and pages of notes, and because I tend to read non-fiction quite slowly — a chapter here, a chapter there — it’s a book that’s been lurking in my thoughts for the past few months. I suspect that any attempt by me to summarise it now would end up essentially rewriting the whole thing. It’s tempting just to quote the book’s conclusion, to give you a flavour of Edgerton’s argument:

It is a measure of the importance of technology to the twentieth century, and to our understanding of it, that to rethink the history of technology is necessarily to rethink the history of the world. For example, we should no longer assume that there was ineluctable globalisation thanks to new technology; on the contrary the world went through a process of de-globalisation in which technologies of self-sufficiency and empire had a powerful role. Culture has not lagged behind technology, rather the reverse; the idea that culture has lagged behind technology is itself very old and has existed under many different technological regimes. Technology has not generally been a revolutionary force; it has been responsible for keeping things the same as much as changing them. The place of technology in the undoubted increase in productivity in the twentieth century remains mysterious; but we are not entering a weightless, demarterialised information world. War changed in the twentieth century, but not according to the rhythms of conventional technological timelines.

But I should say a little bit more. The bulk of the book, as you’d expect, is taken up with fleshing out these central arguments, with chapters built around themes in technological history, including persistence (important technologies last); production (not important in the ways you think); maintenance (the longest and most significant stage of any technology’s life); and the role of nations and war in developing technology (not as central, according to Edgerton, as tradition would have it). I’m not in a position to check Edgerton’s sources, but the list of examples is exhaustive, to the point at which sometimes the book doesn’t quite escape the academic idioms of its conception, and though there’s plenty to argue with, he is largely convincing. Of course, you could also say he’s stating the obvious — once you remind people that “technology” means bicycles as well as computers, much of what he says follows. The future’s not evenly distributed, after all. But the value of the book, I think, lies in the way he traces the connections between his examples, follows their implications, and points out the way that “future-oriented rhetoric” can damage the way we think about now by, for example, obscuring the fact that imitation is usually much more important than innovation, or the fact that we could do things differently with the technology we have now. One result is that it’s a very political book. Edgerton very bluntly uses the term “poor world”, and repeatedly argues that the narratives we tend to apply to the history of technology marginalise such countries, and their contributions to technology. There’s also obvious relevance to the way sf imagines the future (or, more often, doesn’t) — something Edgerton is somewhat aware of, although his range of examples is from my perspective rather limited — which from my point of view adds another, and useful, level to the book.

Things to Come

So. A Clarke judge no longer. More free time. What am I going to do with myself?

Well, first up, Thursday sees the “science fiction as a literary genre” symposium organised by Gresham College, at which I hope to see a fair few of the people reading this. After that comes the BSFA/SFF joint AGM event, on Saturday 7th June, and then at the end of June there’s the SFF Masterclass in SF criticism. So, no Wiscon (or Readercon) for me this year, but I won’t be short of things to do.

In blogging terms, once I’ve caught up on various other (mosty Vector-related) tasks I’d been letting slide a bit, I’m hoping to get a slightly more regular schedule going — say, links on a Monday, a review on a Friday (or possibly vice versa). The Baroque Cycle Reading Group continues (next installment due Friday 16th!), and by the end of the month I hope to be joining Karen in blogging about some of the Masterclass reading. There’ll probably also be more discussions, after the fashion of the Matter roundtable, at some point.

And speaking of reading, here’s my current TBR-imminent:


From top to bottom:

  • Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos — an impulse buy from a second-hand book stall a while ago. Given that Stand on Zanzibar is on the Masterclass reading list this seems like an appropriate time to try Dos Passos.
  • Speculative Japan, edited by Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis — a review copy for Strange Horizons, which I have very selfishly been sitting on because I want to read it. Now I have time.
  • Hopeful Monsters by Hiromi Goto — one of the stories in this is on the Masterclass reading list; I’ve been meaning to try Goto for a while, so I’m going to take this opportunity to read the rest of the book as well.
  • Intuition by Allegra Goodman — Abigail raved about this a while ago, and Nic bought it for me for Christmas. And it does sound right up my street.
  • Dreamers of the Day by Maria Doria Russell — if the pile was sorted by the order in which I intend to read it, rather than by size, this one would be at the top.
  • The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block — the latest sf/f-ish book from Faber, this one dealing with, as you’d expect, memory; and it’s already had a glowing review from the New York Times.
  • Flood by Stephen Baxter — the big science fiction novel in this month’s reading; I’ll be reviewing it for IROSF.
  • Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson — as noted above.

Plus, almost certainly, the mundane Interzone, when I get my hands on a copy. All of which, hopefully, should keep me out of trouble. What are you reading at the moment?