Spirit, Part 1: Take One

I started Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit at the wrong time, or at least in the wrong headspace. The plot was a Lego patchwork of interlinked episodes, and it didn’t seem to have enough momentum to take me much of anywhere plot-wise, even as it spanned a barely-known universe in its events. I hadn’t read any of Jones’ other Aleutian novels, had no greater context thus far into which to slot it. I didn’t feel lost, but it wasn’t a universe to which I had any existing commitment.

It didn’t help that I knew there was a rape scene coming, somewhere in its expansive, multi-volumesque middle. With that looming, somewhere, I read more and more episodically, which did nothing to help the volume’s flow. Doom, gloom, and stuckness overwhelmed the characters and I, seeing no hope for them and fearing what I knew was coming, went adrift. I stopped reading.

Despite that unpromising beginning, I always meant to go back to it. My intentions were good. The SFX blurb promised me a take on The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel I remembered fondly and whose plot I’d happily revisit. Nearly halfway through the book, I was barely halfway through the lavishly extensive blurb on the back of the book when I failed to keep reading.

It really is quite a blurb. As Martin Lewis observed in his discussion of the novel last week, it synopsizes up to page 255 out of 472 pages. At the time, however, it was a token framework for me, a checklist of events which the plot had gotten around to, rather than any real roadmap of structure. (Which raises the question: is it still really a spoiler once it’s mentioned in the blurb?) It really was the wrong time and headspace for me to be reading the novel.

Fortunately, Martin suggested I have another go at the novel this March, complete the task I set myself last year when I undertook to write – or host writing on – the eleven best science fiction novels by women from the first decade of this millennium.

I’m glad he did. The second time around, the book was good.

Lavinia, Part 3: Science Fiction?

Enough people thought Le Guin’s Lavinia was science fiction that it was shortlisted for the BSFA best novel award, and  placed in last year’s poll of the best sf novels by women of the previous decade.

But why is it science fiction? Is it science fiction because that’s what Le Guin writes, and therefore this must be too? Is it science fiction between there’s a time traveler in the story, albeit one who makes a limited number of appearances, and those through extended vision sequences? Is it science fiction because, as I have proposed elsewhere, history is a form of science, and this story plays around with historiography in a science fictional way?

Jo Walton and Niall Harrison assert that it’s fantasy, as opposed to science fiction. Others clearly saw no distinction between science fiction and fantasy for the purposes of these particular two samplers – the BSFA Award is specifically open to fantasy, after all, despite the name of the organisation. And Niall didn’t define “science fiction” for the purpose of last year’s best-of poll, so its presence there doesn’t preclude it being only fantasy.

And yet, Niall observed that some people voted for Lavinia for the best-of poll in the same email as they said they wished they could vote for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but couldn’t because that was fantasy. Clearly, some people were consciously thinking of Lavinia as being science fiction as opposed to fantasy.

Personally, I don’t believe that one categorisation precludes the other. Above all, Lavinia is historical fiction, with a focus on the practical intricacies of daily life, and the mechanics of legend. It has one minor possible moment of mythic magic, when a group of household lares are mysteriously transported from one place to another. It has a time-traveling poet on his death bed, whose transtemporal dialogues can be interpreted as science fictional time travel, or as fantastical vision.

It also has a self-aware narrator, whose story is suffused with her consciousness of contingency. Her existence depends upon her being recounted. I’d never thought of post-modern as a mythic mode, but her self-consciousness is thoroughly both in this tale, as is the literalness embodied in her final transformation. Looked at from a different angle again, she feels a keen sense of wonder at the very fact of her own existence, under the circumstances. Perhaps her historiographic analytic self-consciousness is enough of a psychological experiment to justify Lavinia being thought of science fiction.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – The Decline of Free Will

The role of free will is a challenge which any good time travel story at least acknowledges.  In some stories, the effect of time travel leaves ripples of effect on the future, radically altering that future. In others, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, a sliver of the future or the whole of the past has already been experienced. It will happen as it was always going to have happened, but the only way to make sure it does is to fail to give major spoilers.

Really, there are two major time travelers in this book. Henry, whose chronology is scattered across the past and future, but is primarily in the progressing present; and Clare, whose chronology is sequential, and who therefore knows about aspects of Henry’s future because they already happened in her past. Each is capable of, and generally avoids, giving away what the other’s future holds. But they regularly warn each other, or themselves, anyways, as when a future Henry tells Claire, “[I]t’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996. You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”(157)

The book also notes moments, such as New Year’s Eve parties, in which they, in effect, time travel together (in that case, from one year to the next), but Henry never really focuses on them as a normal human kind of time travel because his experience of it is so radically different.

(Henry) “Such decadence. It’s only 9:15.”

(Clare) “Well, in a couple minutes, it’ll be 10:15.”

(Henry) “Oh, right, Michigan’s an hour ahead. How surreal.”(161)

Henry is only so self-aware once, when he gets a haircut: “I’ve become the me of my future”, he thinks. (253)

As a sop to inevitability, a few parts of the book are spent debating free will. They must voluntarily choose to do what they have always already done. Henry wonders if it’s more specific than that:

“I was just talking about that with a self from 1992. He said something interesting: he said that he thinks there is only free will when you are in time, in the present. He says in the past we can only do what we did, and we can only be there if we were there.”

“But whenever I am, that’s my present. Shouldn’t I be able to decide—”

“No. Apparently not.”(58)

And yet, having occasionally already seen himself do things in the future, he is also bound there to do them, or have them happen to him. That apparent free will cannot contradict the end of his story.

His likely ending is a gently looming element through much of the book which means, as he knows more about the how, why, and when, it loses much of the impact it might have had in some other book. We, following Henry, had not yet experienced his death directly, but it is a resolution so dependent on the natural of his time traveling such that it could never have happened that way to anyone else. It feels quick, cruel, arbitrary, and inevitable. And arbitrary and inevitable are, as concepts, uneasy together. His letter to Clare moved me in a way his ending could not.

I admire so much about The Time Traveler’s Wife and am absolutely delighted that I finally read it, thanks to this project.  It has wit, affection, an extraordinary love story, and a meticulously-constructed intersection of two complicated, rich timelines. It used its cultural references lightly but evocatively. There are subplots whose purpose I did feel were wholly integrated (Ingrid, Alicia), and an ending too telegraphed to bring home the impact it ought to have had. The journey, not the destination, was the masterful accomplishment.


I’m still in Cologne at the moment, but have some links to keep you amused. One: Paul Witcover’s Locus review of The Secret History of Science Fiction:

Kelly and Kessel have selected stories from inside and outside the genre to demonstrate that, in fact, despite the continued reliance of publishers on such marketing labels as science fiction and fantasy, “the divide between mainstream and science fiction is more apparent than real,” and that “outside of the public eye,” writers on both sides of the supposed divide have been producing work that, on the one hand, has the ambition and sophistication of literary fiction, and, on the other, makes use of the tropes of speculative fiction, though not necessarily labeled as such by writers, critics, or readers. This is the secret history to which the title refers.

It’s a bold assertion, and I have a lot of sympathy for it. In fact, before I read this anthology, I was inclined to agree with it. But as I read these stories, I began to doubt it more and more, and finally I became convinced that Kelly and Kessel are wrong in an centrally important way, and that there really are substantial differences between genre speculative fiction of literary ambition and what is written outside the genre, even if it contains speculative elements. And I think these stories prove it: that is the secret history of The Secret History.

Note that John Kessel turns up to discuss in the comments.

Two: Mark Newton and Dan Abnett discuss tie-in fiction:

I’ve never known tie-in novels receive so much fanfare and review coverage as [Sebastian Faulks’ Bond and Eoin Colfer’s Hitch-Hiker’s]: because that’s the other bizarre thing – franchise fiction tends to be ignored by reviewers, especially in major genre magazines. They treat it as a lesser product, and hate to give it air time. I’ve heard some talk that, because it’s assumed tie-in fiction always involves a one-off payment and no royalties, the author gets little benefit. That’s certainly not the case for several franchises, and Some tie-in books make careers.

Sometimes I find that genre magazines are ignoring the very “brands” that sell hundreds of thousands of copies – brands, therefore, that readers want to know about.

I merely note that I was out at dinner the other night, and my colleagues were discussing Harry Potter and some other franchise I temporarily forget, and expected me to know all about them; when in fact neither interests me in the least. [EDIT: still can’t remember what the other franchise/series discussed was, but I did remember the other thing I wanted to say: Faulks’ and Colfers’ books may have attracted a lot of attention, but not much of it was positive.]

Terry Bisson interviews Kim Stanley Robinson:

There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.

And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost, there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.

I really must re-read Pacific Edge soon.

And for good measure, another KSR interview, this one by Alison Flood:

But this rapid change, in turn, leads to another sort of crisis. “Depending what we do in next 20 years, it’s very hard to be plausible, to say this is what’s going to happen. At that point you can’t write science fiction, [so] the genre is in a little bit of a crisis, and all the young people are reading fantasy.” Robinson himself, however, presses on undaunted. He’s considering future novels set around Saturn or Mercury; he’s looking into a book about Herman Melville, who “after his career as a novelist crashed had another career as a customs inspector”; he’s keen to put what he learnt from Galileo – the work ethic, “the tenacity of the man”, into practice.

But he worries about “the crisis for this tiny genre”, recently launching an impassioned defence of science fiction in the New Scientist, where he accused the Man Booker judges of neglecting what he called “the best British literature of our time”. “It’s a different situation than it was when I began, the relation between world and genre. Back then you could read science fiction and get a sense of what the world was going to be – now, I don’t think you can be prophets in the same way,” he says. “If the world is a science fiction novel then what do you read? What can the literature do for you?”

Oh, and Dollhouse has been cancelled, though all 13 ordered episodes will air. Not in the least surprising, and in some ways deserved, though I will still miss it; there are plenty of failures on tv, but very little ambition.

The Winner

And the winner of the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Award is …

Black Man by Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan

Congratulations to Richard Morgan; and of course, it’s an excellent book, which you should all go and read right now. Or, if you prefer, you could look at my photos from the award party and ceremony, over here. Paul Billinger has some here, including a good one of the judges.

I haven’t seen many reactions around yet, but Abigail Nussbaum is pleased. Jeff VanderMeer also thinks it’s a good choice, and has a short piece up at the Amazon blog. Instant Fanzine considers it “the least slapfightlicious choice.”

UPDATE: Paul Raven’s happy (but it’s the only one of the shortlist), Joe Gordon is chuffed, and Jonathan and James report they enjoyed attending the ceremony, and the Guardian implies that Richard Morgan is a genetically-modified assassin. (They also — mistakenly — give the impression that Paul Billinger was a voting judge; in fact the Chair’s role, which Paul carried out very well, is to moderate the discussion.)

Over on the Guardian blog, Sam Jordison reports on a night in the new world of SF. Two things strike me about this report: first, it’s great to hear that the passion involved in the decision was visible to an observer; second, I really regret not knowing that he was there, because I’d have liked to thank him for his continuing series of Guardian blog posts on past Hugo Award winners. I very much hope he gets a chance to post about his reaction to Black Man.

Elsewhere, Joe Abercombie is pleased the award went to an unashamedly sf novel, Philip Palmer enjoyed himself, and the post-presentation Gollancz meal seems to have gone well. (As for the tiny trousers mentioned in both posts, I can only assume that Adam Roberts has been supplying Lilliputian assistants to his fellow writers, and is now running a premium clothing-replacement business.)

Sci-Fi London have footage from the ceremony here, while the text of Paul Billinger’s speech can be found here. And io9’s take: “Shockingly, Science Fiction Book Wins SF Book Award”.