Torque Control

BSFA Awards 2020 Ballot and Booklet Info

Members of the BSFA and those registered for ConFusion 2021 — this year’s Eastercon — should receive a digital copy of the BSFA Awards 2020 Booklet together with a link to the ballot form when voting opens. All BSFA members were emailed on Monday, March 1st, 2021. If you are a member of the BSFA but have not received a ballot email, please contact Luke Nicklin, our membership officer: membership@bsfa.co.uk. Voting will close at noon on the day the awards ceremony is held (likely to be Saturday 3 April; watch this space for confirmation).

A physical copy of the awards booklet will be mailed later this month to members of the BSFA, together with Vector #293.

The BSFA Awards will be presented at ConFusion, which will be held online 2-5th April 2021. A list of nominees is found here.

Cover artwork by BSFA’s Chair, Allen Stroud

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan

Reviewed by Dan Hartland. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In Nina Allan’s novels, characters are orthogonal to each other, constantly missing out on connection. In 2017’s The Rift, for example, the narrator’s long-lost sister – feared for years to have been murdered as a girl – returns from what she insists has been exile on another planet. Her identity is never clear, least of all to her. In 2014’s The Race, the narrators of its successive parts all seem to be reiterated versions of each other, but in what sequence or by what logic is obscure, perhaps irrelevant.

In this elusive and allusive approach, Allan recalls M John Harrison or Gwyneth Jones, writers who were championed during the British Boom of the early 2000s but whose career long pre-dated it. For her part, Allan first appeared towards the end of the Boom, and has since matured into perhaps the most interesting writer it left to us.

The writings that comprise The Silver Wind in large part predate those later novels. Reissued now by Titan Books, it was published in an earlier form by Eibonvale Press in 2011. “These are stories of a time in my life as a writer,” Allan writes in a foreword; the book even includes an “out-take” a story written more than ten years ago, 2008’s “Darkroom”, which in its reliance on dialogue and rather choppy structure demonstrates just how far Allan’s lyrical, resonant and complex writing has come in the intervening years.

None of this is to say that The Silver Wind is juvenilia. Its selection of stories – which, while separate standalone pieces, also, in the manner of the sequential narratives of The Race, collate and collide into a much richer narrative – include arresting and affecting writing, vivid imagery and haunting ideas. For example, the progress through a barren, mutated heath of Martin Newland, the sequence’s protagonist (if not its hero), takes place in a particularly weirded landscape and sticks especially in the memory:

I saw she was disfigured, quite literally de-formed, squeezed apart and then rammed back together again in a careless and hideous arrangement that bore as little resemblance to an ordinary human face as the face of a corpse in an advanced stage of decomposition.

The Silver Wind, p. 199

There is an air of H.G. Wells and Dr Moreau in that passage, and this is no coincidence: The Silver Wind is a novel about a very particular kind of time travel, and Wells is its leitmotif; unusually for Allan, her readers here must have a taste for pastiche. There is some steampunk and some horror, a sprinkling of DH Lawrence and a soupçon of Proust. Stylistically, it is a gumbo of fin de siècle effects.

Narratively, it is a palimpsest. It begins with Owen Andrews, an ambitious watchmaker apprenticing with a legendary horologist in London. Andrews becomes obsessed with building a tourbillon, a form of watch escapement invented by Louis Breguet to reduce the impact of gravity on the mechanism – and which may, on a grander scale, also allow human beings to exist, and move, at the centre of a similar bubble.

Owen is in love with a woman from his village, Dora Newland, who opts instead to marry a local war hero. The next story in the sequence switches perspective, and seemingly reality, to a brother of Dorothy who in the previous story seemed not to exist: Martin, he of the heath-based exploration. From there, each story shifts through various versions of Newland’s life – lives? – until he comes close to understanding the strange effect of time on a person’s experience of reality … and of other people. “[Time] is like water pouring out of a tap […] once it’s been spilled there’s no calling it back again” [p. 168].

Allan’s shifts of reality are indicated obliquely: it is 1920, but Paris is connected to London by rail; it is 1940, but the British government seems to have a rather different make-up. “I felt dazed not so much by the scale of the changes as by their subtlety,” writes one time traveller. The reader’s disorientation is part of the novel’s effect: it isn’t designed quite to align, like a watch mechanism too long tinkered with. 

This sort of effect is extremely difficult to achieve in a manner that satisfies; perhaps The Silver Wind isn’t quite as convincing in achieving this balance as Allan’s later works. But it is nevertheless sinuous, sly and affecting; and in this offers a sure sign that Allan is in the very first rank of contemporary SF.

Copyright Dan Hartland. All rights reserved.

War of the Maps by Paul McAuley

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

On one level, War of the Maps is a really well-told, slightly old-fashioned science-fiction adventure novel, which is accurately summarised by the front-cover tagline: ‘Across a giant artificial world in space, the lucidor hunts his man’. As McAuley notes in his ‘Acknowledgments’, the inspiration for the world depicted is an article by Ibrahim Semiz and Selim Oğur, ‘Dyson Spheres around White Dwarfs’. However, as he has pointed out on his blog, the story grew from ‘a character and a situation’ and an idea for the ending. Once he had the character’s voice right, the novel flowed because ‘the protagonist’s path through the world was mapped by his needs, desires and beliefs, and his interactions with other characters’. I quote at length both because this seems like useful advice for anyone wanting to write this kind of novel but also because I think this accounts for how convincing and satisfying this novel is to read; there are no false notes. 

War of the Maps

Lucidors are law-keepers in the Free State. While there are more than one in the novel, the protagonist is referred to throughout as the lucidor. Although he is retired, he is on one last mission to bring back to justice the villainous Remfrey He, who he had previously tracked down and captured at great cost but who has now been released by a political faction to go and help the war effort in neighbouring Patua against ‘the invasion’. This set-up is reminiscent of a classic Western and indeed the opening finds the lucidor on horseback fleeing bandits in a beautifully written sequence which recalls the spare poetic tone of Cormac McCarthy. While this genre setting changes – at one point later in the novel the action switches into a Hornblower-style naval voyage – the lucidor retains the moral and narrative integrity of the sheriff pursuing justice. I imagined him as like Gary Cooper or James Stewart or possibly even Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country.

The novel turns on two linked questions: is the lucidor’s single-minded hunt for Remfrey He correct, and what the right values to live by are. There is an ongoing disparity between the plain egalitarianism of the Free State and the aristocratic hierarchy of Patua. This latter contrast forms part of the war (although to be clear the two countries are ostensibly allies) mentioned in the novel’s title. The term ‘map’ refers equally to land masses, countries, societies and the genetic make-ups of organisms and thus indicates some sort of scaled fractal relationship between the particular and the universal. ‘The invasion’ is a creeping wave of mutation producing a new biology, including the ant-like ‘alter women’ whose nests are gradually overtaking the north of Padua despite the best efforts of the army. 

We see what is at stake in all of these struggles through the lucidor’s various encounters with others: often women who, as the lucidor observes ‘don’t have the same obsession with hierarchy as men’. This is a point of superficial similarity between the lucidor and Remfrey He, who extols the alter-women colonies as utopias in which everyone works peacefully for the common good, even as he manipulates them for his own ends. Gary Wolfe likens Remfrey He to a Bond villain in his review of the novel for Locus and suggests that the archetypal confrontation between the two men is a little too clichéd. But I wondered if that was the point. The lucidor’s most important relationships are actually with his dead wife (in memory) and with the novel’s other main protagonists, the ‘map-reader’ Orjen Starbreaker and her steward Lyra. The standoff with Remfrey He seems more like a commentary on such male rivalries rather than the key point of the plot. Indeed, War of the Maps, with its intertextual allusions to ‘new flesh’, ‘dire wolves’ and Pratchett, may be read as a metatext subtly commenting on the traditional form of the genre and thereby opening the way to representing social change. Perhaps the novel is not so old-fashioned after all. It is certainly one that I recommend reading and which I will myself reread.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

The BSFA Awards 2020 shortlists

The British Science Fiction Association is delighted to announce the shortlist of nominees for the 2020 BSFA Awards. The BSFA Awards have been presented annually since 1970. The current categories have been in place since 2001. The awards are voted on by members of the British Science Fiction Association and by the members of the year’s Eastercon, the national science fiction convention, held since 1955. This year Eastercon, ConFusion, will be held online 2nd-5th April 2021, where the winners will be announced.

The BSFA Awards ceremony will be free to attend for all BSFA members, all members of Eastercon, and all shortlisted nominees: details will be released closer to the date. Members of the BSFA will additionally receive a PDF with excerpts of many of the nominated works in advance of the convention, and a physical copy of the Awards Booklet at a later date. If you are not currently a member of the BSFA and are interested in joining, please visit the main BSFA site.

Best Artwork

Fangorn, Covers of Robot Dreams series, NewCon Press.

Iain Clark, Shipbuilding Over the Clyde, Art for Glasgow in 2024 WorldCon bid.

Ruby Gloom, Cover of Nikhil Singh’s Club Ded, Luna Press Publishing.

Sinjin Li, Cover of Eli Lee’s, A Strange and Brilliant Light, Jo Fletcher Books.

Four Black Lives Matter Murals in AR

Nani Walker, Four Black Lives Matter Murals in AR. Using drone photogrammetry, Nani Sahra Walker produced 3-D models of four Black Lives Matter murals as memorials to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others killed by police. Published by the Los Angeles Times in collaboration with RYOT and reported by Dorany Pineda.

The virtual artworks can be accessed at www.yahoo.com/immersive/blm-murals.html?site=latimes.

Best Short Fiction (under 40,000 words)

Eugen M. Bacon, Ivory’s Story, Newcon Press.

Anne Charnock, ‘All I Asked For,’ Fictions, Healthcare and Care Re-Imagined. Edited by Keith Brookes, at Future Care Capital.

Dilman Dila, ‘Red_Bati’, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, ‘Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon,’ Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Ida Keogh, ‘Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe,’ Londoncentric, Newcon Press. Edited by Ian Whates.

Tobi Ogundiran, ‘Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll,’ Shoreline of Infinity

Best Non-Fiction

Francesca T Barbini (ed.), Ties That Bind: Love in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Luna Press.

Paul Kincaid, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, Gylphi Press.

Andrew Milner and J.R. Burgmann, Science Fiction and Climate Change, Liverpool University Press.

Adam Roberts, It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of?, Elliot & Thompson.

Jo Lindsay Walton, ‘Estranged Entrepreneurs,’ Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction.

Jo Walton, ‘Books in Which No Bad Things Happen,’ Tor.com.

Please note that the two non-fiction nominees with similar names, Jo Lindsay Walton and Jo Walton, are two different people.

Best Novel

Tiffani Angus, Threading the Labyrinth, Unsung Stories.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi, Bloomsbury.

M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Gollancz.

N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became, Orbit.

Gareth L. Powell, Light of Impossible Stars, Titan Books.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future, Orbit.

Nikhil Singh, Club Ded, Luna Press.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden, Tor.

Liz Williams, Comet Weather, Newcon Press.

Nick Wood, Water Must Fall, Newcon Press.

Note that there was a multiple tie for fifth place this year. The committee decided that instead of abbreviating the shortlist, all nominees would be included.

SFF and Class

Vector and Focus are inviting submissions on the theme of class, with proposals due 15 April, and articles due 15 July. Please see the full call for more information. Vector will be publishing a special themed issue, guest-edited by Nick Hubble.

Keep an eye out for more CfPs for future special issues to be edited by Stewart Hotston, Stephen Oram, Phoenix Alexander, and Nina Allan.

Iain M. Banks: Some critical resources

Elsewhere:

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database.

An excerpt from ‘Forceful and Fuzzy Games in the Novels of Iain [M.] Banks’

By Jo Lindsay Walton. This is an excerpt from a chapter published in The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks, eds Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Joseph Norman (Gylphi, 2018).

Introduction: What’s in a Game?

On an estate belonging to the Ancraime family, at the edges of Stonemouth, a Scottish coastal town, a group of boys gather to play paintball. They come from a range of economic backgrounds: Stonemouth is not large enough for the boys to be segregated according to class. The poorest member of the group is Wee Malky. As dusk draws in, the boys begin the last game of the day, a hunting scenario in which, in consequence of a “complicated arrangement of scoring across the various [earlier] skirmishes” (Banks 2012: 146), Wee Malky finds himself the quarry, and the rest of the group, hunters.

Eventually, “near the furthest western extent of the house gardens […] [on the edge of] the rest of the estate and the grouse moors and plantation forests beyond,” (ibid. 149), the scattered group begins to converge. Wee Malky is making a perilous crossing along the round-topped, weed-slicked stone of the top lip of a reservoir, which feeds various water features in the gardens. He has the undertow-prone, peaty reservoir water to one side, and the steep, slimy slope of the overflow, dotted with concrete pillars, on the other.

George Ancraime, “the older brother, nearly twenty at this point but with a mental age stuck at about five” (ibid. 142), suddenly appears near the bottom of the slope. He has been back to his parents’ mansion and retrieved a large antique sword, which he brandishes smilingly at Wee Malky. If Wee Malky can make it across, he wins the game. But if he loses his balance, he loses his life. 

The scene, a suitably cruel allegory of class violence, is in many ways typical of how games often appear in Banks’s fiction. It raises the question of what makes a game a game, and at what point it stops being a game. Game studies theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, after a survey of existing definitions, define a game as “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman 2003: 96). Another good starting point is the philosopher Bernard Suits’s succinct formulation: playing a game is “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 2005 [1978]: 55). […] Banks’s games resist both definitions. There is a sustained interest in Banks’s work in involuntary games, necessary games, games-within-games, games that burst their boundaries, games that overcome their players, games with hidden purposes, fragmentary games, games that arise spontaneously, games whose rules change, and games whose outcomes are nebulous and defy calculation. More generally, there is a fascination in Banks’s writing with ludic affordance: the capacity of any situation to absorb and be transformed by play.

Continue reading “An excerpt from ‘Forceful and Fuzzy Games in the Novels of Iain [M.] Banks’”

When Was Westworld?

By Paul Kincaid

Westworld Season One

There is no particular issue with the timeline of the original 1973 film, Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton. It is set in the then near future, 1983, and the linear action takes place entirely within the Delos theme park. But when the film became the basis for the television series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, Westworld (2016-present), time became a complex and confusing issue.

Nolan had already displayed a rather cavalier attitude towards time in his earlier television series, Person of Interest (2011-2016). The first series, first broadcast in the autumn of 2011, was set in 2012, but contained multiple flashbacks to events over the previous decade. Although these flashbacks are often dated, it can be difficult to construct a coherent timeline for the two principal characters, Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and John Reese (Jim Caviezel). But when it came to Westworld, that tendency to play fast and loose with chronology became an often understated but defining characteristic of the series.

To date there have been three series of Westworld (it has subsequently been renewed for a fourth season). For convenience I will refer to Westworld Season One: The Maze as WW1 (2016), Westworld Season Two: The Door as WW2 (2018), and Westworld Season Three: The New World as WW3 (2020), each of which presents time in a different way, even though theoretically each is a direct sequel to the series before.

Continue reading “When Was Westworld?”

Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, ed. by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel

Reviewed by Paul Kincaid. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

History is, as the word tells us, a story. It is the narrative of the events that created our present compiled from whatever accounts, records and other documents may be available, and that are, inevitably, partial, generally incomplete, and often unreliable. History is not a science, since it is not open to empirical examination and cannot be repeated, and as any criminal lawyer will tell you, no two witnesses of the same event will agree on every detail. The relationship between history and fiction, therefore, is intimate and inescapable. The best historical fictions will attempt to use psychological insight and imagination to fill in the gaps in any historical record (for example, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel); or to tell a story about those people who are largely absent from the historical record (for the same historical period we might consider, for example, the Shardlake novels of C.J. Sansom).

Sideways in Time

The relationship between history and the literature of the fantastic (in which we might include fantasy, horror and science fiction) is perhaps rather less obvious, but it is there nonetheless. For the sake of this discussion we will exclude time travel stories, which might be considered a special case of the historical fiction already discussed (although time travel can often play a key role in alternate histories, as for instance in Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore or The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove). Even so, there are several different ways in which history plays a part in the fantastic. I use the following terms simply to help me distinguish one form from another: there are apocryphal histories, in which legends and stories from the past are assumed to be true accounts; secret histories, in which major events are said to have been deliberately or inadvertently expunged from the historical record; revisionist histories, in which shameful or unfortunate events are recast in a more positive light; literary histories, in which characters from fiction are presented as being real historical figures (Sherlock Holmes being probably the most popular); and alternate histories, in which the consequences of one historical change are played out. For the record, the term “counterfactual” is often used as a synonym for alternate history, though I tend to see counterfactuals as dealing with the moment of change while alternate histories deal with the future consequences of that change. None of these divisions is hermetically sealed, the borders between them are inevitably porous, but these are, in broad terms, the most familiar ways in which science fiction imaginatively engages with history.

These ways of playing with history vary from thought experiments that are perhaps as close as we might come to scientific testing of history, to linking history to the more fantastic reaches of the human imagination. All have played their part in science fiction pretty well for as long as we have had science fiction, though, apart from periodic upsurges in time travel stories, they have never really been the most fashionable form of the literature. The occasional classics – Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, The Sound of His Horn by Sarban, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Pavane by Keith Roberts – always seem detached from what else is happening in science fiction at the time, and rarely if ever generate anything that might pass for a movement. There are repeated tropes – the South wins the American Civil War, Hitler wins the Second World War – but really any study of alternate histories is going to look at a series of disconnected moments, of individual exemplars, rather than anything more coherent or overarching. (On a philosophical level, trends in alternate histories and secret histories and revisionist histories might reveal something interesting about the way any particular present regards the past and its study, but that is not an approach I have so far encountered in science fiction scholarship.)

The disjointedness of these engagements with history suggest that a collection of essays, such as the volume in front of us today, is perhaps the best way of approaching the topic. Except that this volume suggests there is a disjointedness also in the approach. Although the subtitle tells us firmly that these are “Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction” (and I am uncomfortable with the need for that final word, since it implies there might be such a thing as alternate history fact), that is not necessarily what we get. Using the terms I have laid out already, there are essays on revisionist history (“Forever Being Yamato: Alternate Pacific War Histories in Japanese Film and Anime” by Jonathan Rayner, which looks at the way recent fictions have revisited the story of the battleship Yamato in order to present the defeat in a more noble and positive light; though Rayner doesn’t really question how much this revisionism chimes with Japan’s pre-War militaristic mythology); literary history (“Weird History/Weird Knowledge: H.P. Lovecraft versus Sherlock Holmes in Shadows Over Baker Street” by Chloé Germaine Buckley, one of the weaker essays which looks at a literary mash-up that hardly seems to warrant the word history); and apocryphal or perhaps secret history (“Between the Alternate and the Apocryphal: Religion and Historic Place in Aguilera’s La locura de Dios” by Derek J. Thiess, one of the better essays in the collection about a novel involving the legend of Prester John). That’s three out of the ten essays that, to me, seem to have nothing to do with the implied subject of alternate history.

And of those that do deal directly with alternate histories there seems to be little agreement on the characteristics of their subject. Take, for example, two of the best essays in the collection: Anna McFarlane, in “Time and Affect After 9/11: Lavie Tidhar’s Osama: A Novel”, presents alternate history as a form of stasis, an inability to deal with the trauma of the present; while Chris Pak, in “‘It Is One Story’: Writing a Global Alternate History in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt”, makes it dynamic, a consistency of development and growth whatever the present may throw at us. What this tells us, of course, is that alternate history is not one thing but rather a concatenation of ways in which we might confront the hopes and terrors of the present.

In their “Introduction” and “Afterword”, the editors attempt, not altogether successfully, to tie all of these different essays into a coherent whole, whereas in many ways it is their very incoherence that is most interesting about them. Here we see alternate histories being used to undermine the “great man” theory of history (Molly Cobb’s account of a couple of Alfred Bester’s short stories in “The Subjective Nature of Time and the Individual’s (in)Ability to Inflict Social Change”) or to extol the “great man” theory (Adam Roberts on what is probably the earliest alternate history in “Napoleon as Dynamite: Geoffroy’s Napoléon Apocryphe and Science Fiction as Alternate History”); to challenge gender assumptions in science fiction (“‘Her Dreams Receding’: Gender, Astronauts, and Alternate Space Ages in Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet” by Brian Baker) or to play out a slight variation on a conventional Hollywood romance (Andrew M. Butler considering the film version of a John Wyndham story in “Quest for Love: A Cosy Uchronia?”). Leaving aside the revisionist or literary histories, which seem to me more consolatory than disruptive, and therefore do not appear to belong in this volume, alternate histories represent a deliberate disordering of what we understand as the past, and therefore of the present. Since such disordering can take many forms, and play out in so many ways, it is inevitable that a collection such as this can do no more than start to feel out some of the nuances of alternate history. At its best, notably the essays by Roberts, Pak, McFarlane, and Karen Helleckson’s take on the way alternate history is used on television, this volume does the job well and interestingly. Though other essays, including a slick but superficial survey of the field in Stephen Baxter’s “Foreword”, tend to slide past the subject without ever fully engaging. It is, in the main, an interesting book, but we do need many more of them to even hope to cover the field adequately.

Copyright Paul Kincaid. All rights reserved.

Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction by Nathaniel Isaacson

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

A few years ago, when I wanted some examples of new Chinese science fiction, I had to ask a contact in China to send me some and I was reliant on various websites for summaries. Now, Liu Cixin (one of the writers I was pointed to) has won a Hugo. While for the general reader it has some of the drawbacks of being a revision for book publication of his phd thesis, and it only covers the beginnings of modern Chinese sf, it’s essential reading for anyone curious about the cultural background to the current scene.

The first chapter deals with definition and context, especially sf’s relationship with imperialism. This is discussed frequently throughout, but it’s something that cannot be left out of the relationship between China (and Japan, which nation seems to have served as a kind of mid-point in some of the developments here) and the West, especially Britain. As such, it’s occasionally dense, but frequently rewarding. China’s vast store of marvel-tales and utopias is rather skimmed over here because the focus is upon how a modern sf tradition grew out of Chinese intellectuals’ and writers’ engagements with clashes of culture. It’s interesting that science fiction (kexue xiaoshuo) was used as a term in China earlier than in the West (p. 7), and “science” is linked here with the question of modernisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We are told that Chinese sf can deal as much with the question of the country’s own indigenous traditions as it does with confronting foreign powers or alien invasions, but that often “[t]he alien other than Chinese sf confronts is China itself” (p.45).

Lu Xun was one of the most significant Chinese writers of the 20th  century, who translated Jules Verne into Chinese in 1903. In chapter 2, Isaacson discusses the debates about science in Lu Xun’s essays and his adaptation and reinterpretation of From The Earth to the Moon. Two more chapters look at two early Chinese sf works. The first is the utopian New Story of the Stone (1905) by Wu Jianren, a “sequel” to a classic novel which, in this version, takes its hero into a technologically “advanced” future inhabited by mythical creatures. The next is the first work actually labelled as science fiction in China, Huangjiang Diaosou’s Tales of the Moon Colony, serialised (though never completed) 1904-5. Both works can be seen as exploring Chinese anxieties over whether, and how far, it is possible to emulate the technologies and internationalism (read “colonial aspirations”) of the West and what can be gained and lost by this. (The latter, which largely takes place outside China, seems particularly interesting.)

 “New Tales of Mr Braggadocio”, a kind of sequel to a Japanese story which, it has been suggested was a loose translation of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s Baron Munchausen, is the focus of chapter 5. The next chapter describes Cat Country serialized 1932-1933 by Lao She, one of the great figures of modern Chinese literature, and, like Lu Xun a fierce critic of Chinese culture. Partly inspired by World’s First Men in the Moon, Cat Country is a dystopia on Mars which the narrator quickly realises is doomed to collapse. The description is enhanced by translated extracts. The satirical flavour is given by a piece that tells how Martian “concubines” are titillated by the idea of foot-binding (which the narrator explains has been abolished though replaced by the wearing of high-heeled shoes which has equally grotesque effects). Other descriptions uncannily foreshadow the ideological battles of the Cultural revolution, during which the author was driven to suicide. The final chapter is a general exploration of how other forms such as the pictorial newspaper supplement and the science essay tackled the themes and anxieties that were highlighted in science fiction. 

As a phd thesis, Celestial Empire is a genuine and welcome contribution to scholarship but written with a specific need to look to current scholarship, and in the first instance for those with some sense of the historical context. For instance, Isaacson draws upon recent work on sf and “Empire” by John Rieder and on locating sf in a world context by Andrew Milner. While it is eventually clear what the issues of the New Culture Movement and its “political” version the May Fourth movement were, Isaacson doesn’t hold our hands by starting with a reader-friendly summary. A “Glossary of Chinese terms” is concerned with presenting the Chinese characters rather than explaining their meaning. The ignorant reader (myself) who wants to know more about the literary conventions and context may struggle. Part of the problem of these early forays into thinking anew about the world, we’re told, is how to express it and what kind of literary Chinese is suitable for these speculations.  Some of the discussion, such as that on the complex (in genre terms) “New Tales of Mr Braggadocio” focuses upon the vocabulary, diction, syntax and other literary features of the text in terms which see them as deliberately blurring a number of lines between aspects of Chinese culture and  also between Chinese and Western culture. 

Do we then get a full understanding of how writers like Liu Cixin are now part of the sf mainstream? Because Isaacson is focussed on the period up to around 1934, by which time there was a “long draught “ during which “very few works of original SF were published in China, and publication remained anemic after 1949” (179), the answer has to be no. Still, anyone interested in the background to the recent successes of Chinese sf will find it extremely helpful.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.