Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Blushing Face of Day: Catherynne Valente's Radiance

This review first appeared in Interzone #263. Apparently I have a longer version of it somewhere. So it might one day without warning expand its territory.

Radiance By Catherynne M. Valente
Corsair, pb, 432pp. £7.99

Radiance is an extravagant, plush, campy, melancholy, witty, sprawling, indefatigable work of great literaturepunk. Ingenues, aviator jackets, coconuts. It’s one those neo-epistolary novels, supposedly cobbled together out of diary entries, interview transcripts, radio scripts, commercials, showbiz gossip columns, even a ship’s manifest. Actually, at first it threatens never to repeat any of these forms, yikes! But eventually the pattern emerges, phew. The novel skips about in time too, though always driving towards a definite dénouement.

Radiance is also both alternate history sf – inasmuch as it mentions historical figures, like Robert Frost, doing totally non-historical stuff, like moving to Pluto – and it is sf set in an alternate reality. The solar system it depicts is a mostly nourishing and hospitable place. Pluto has lilies, and perhaps even a path in a yellow wood for Robert to write a poem about. Explorers of Radiance will probably likewise diverge two ways. Some, nurtured and entranced by Valente’s orchard orrery, will be able to metabolise their sustenance directly from her rambunctious prose. Others will need to stay inside their space-suits and – whether or not they admire the novel through their plexiglass – will reach the final page with a sense of relief that their air supply hasn’t run out.

Although the novel can be a bit blindingly dazzling, at its radiant heart is actually a fairly simple story. Indeed, it’s pretty much Valente’s 2009 short story, ‘The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew’. One main character, Severin Unck, grows up every bit as besotted with movie-making as her old man, celebrated director and all-round big shot Percival Unck. But whereas Percival is a pioneer and purveyor of melodramas – especially Gothic romances and hardboiled noir – from a very young age Severin shrinks from such shlock. “Papa. This is silly! I want only to be myself!” (p.53).

So Severin becomes a documentary-maker. With a hint of YouTube vlogger – not that there’s YouTube in Valente’s vision exactly, nor even that many talkies. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see Severin’s studied and strategic approach to being ‘herself’ – like her dad’s imperious take(s) on ‘candid’ home video – as a metaphor for social media self-fashioning. During Severin’s childhood, Christmas present might require “three or four takes of Yuletide ecstasy” (p.23), rewrapping and unwrapping till daddy yells “wrap!” They may be decopunk icons, but Percival and Severin also act like proto millennials who’d sooner let their their sundaes melt and their sodas fizz flat before they’d upload sub-par Insta pics of them. But relegating such behaviour to scientific romance allows it to be de-normalized, so it carries an aura of majestic sorrow. Turns out it’s possible to yearn for a Golden Age of a somehow more authentic and broadminded narcissistic artifice. Shallow modern living ain’t what it used to be, hashtag majestic sorrow.

Severin’s ground-breaking ouevre earns critical accolades and popular adoration, and it moves in an increasingly investigative, politicised direction. Tragically, while visiting the site of an inexplicably obliterated Venusian settlement, Severin vanishes, while several of her crew come to grisly, somewhat body horror-ish ends. Severin’s depleted expeditionary force does get a top-up. The obliterated settlement’s lone survivor is a peculiar little boy called Anchises. Many years later, with Severin MIA and Anchises is all grown up. Percival Unck, still of course grief-stricken, seeks closure by making a film about both Severin and Anchises. Does Anchises perhaps hold the key to the whole catastrophe?

It’s the chapters of Unck’s film that gives Radiance most of its forward momentum. Unck and his screenwriter Vincenza Mako keep re-imagining the project, so the film mutates from genre to genre. Valente tends to signal genre shifts by piling stuff in rather than by keeping stuff out. Her prose is chameleon-like, but the chameleon is not really a chameleon. Whenever there’s an opportunity for something cool that would give away game – “hey! That chameleon is Chameleon M. Valente!” – she goes ahead and does it anyway. Unck’s film is not, à la Queneau’s Exercises in Style, the same thing told over and over, corkscrewtinized from many angles. It’s more like that improv theatre game where a single story unfolds, but switching genre, and therefore switching direction – without ever switching its director – as it goes.

Being so interested in rewrites, Radiance poses the question, could it have done with one more edit? It is touched with radiant brilliance throughout: the frames on a cinematic reel as multiverses, the wrap party where everyone is still a little in character, the buffalo that says ‘home’ at just the right moment. Splendid bits of worldbuilding – such as the film sets where everything and everyone has to be actually black-and-white – get rushed through the frame, before they can be milked too much. (Milking, by the way, is another major Radiance theme). But perhaps the novel could have been a little leaner, especially in the first fifth and the fourth fifth? No big cuts, just a final twirl of the wrench on all those linguistic cornucopias, tightening them into witty little spliffs?

It’s also terribly unfair of a reviewer to ask for more of something, especially of such a layered, multichannel work. You can’t just add new features to novels, free from opportunity cost and knock-on consequences. But I do feel like something that’s so grandly polyvocal misses a trick by not being a tidge more satirical, even a tidge more didadic. Maybe I’m alone there? The way to this reviewer’s heart is shoving something down his throat. But when you’ve gone to all the trouble of creating such a splendid echo chamber, it seems a shame not to yell something really loudly in it.

There is the obligatory reflection on storytelling. There’s a certain kind of story (maybe called postmodern, or metafictional) which, it’s often said, loves to draw attention to its status as artifice. This is the main gossip about metafiction: as per one classic The Streets track: “you’re fic but my gosh don’t you know it.” Like a lot of gossip, this is partly true and it can be useful. In some university classrooms, yell enough about breaking the fourth wall, maybe you’ll at least break the ice. But if any reader comes away from Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, or Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler – or Valente’s Radiance – with nothing more than the conviction that it was a story, then they’ve only learned something they already knew. Even if they gussy it up, as the insight that stories are important, or that stories are dangerous, or that we give form to the world by telling stories, I suspect it’s still something they really knew all along.

Radiance does find a few reasonable reasons to talk about its own construction, reasons that go beyond self-congratulatory bibliophilia. For instance, Valente plays around with aggressive forms of storytelling – advertising, propaganda, and official gossip – all a bit vintage, so their tricks can be exposed by time’s passage.

Also, the collision between metafiction and sff in itself is pretty intriguing. I think that when Radiance does its sff, it tends to tone the metafiction down. Chipper behemoths whose japes just might be stitching the whole cosmos together are a sort of sf literary trope. So is an offworld camp beset by horrific reality glitches. So is an exotic voyage culminating in ambiguous entanglement with the Divine. But although Radiance does these tropes very well, it doesn’t really celebrate them, subvert them, or waggle its zealously-tweezed 1930s brows in a way that suggests, ‘These tropes know these are tropes.’ Apart from the really pulpy sf, most of these elements are played sort of straight – aren’t they?

And then there’s the question of visual vs. verbal storytelling. How does this manage to be decopunk rather than dieselpunk? Is there perhaps a theme here of seeing something with your own eyes, but only because you’re told to see it? “Or like a whale,” says Hamlet, and Polonius answers, “Very like a whale.” The central role of cinema also complicates the book’s claim to be a bunch of found texts. If a chapter ‘is’ a piece of film, even though it’s words on the page, is it . . . a shooting script? A treatment? A description of the film Unck actually made? Something else?

And finally: Does Anchises Count As A ‘Character,’ Discuss.

But if I were a literary theory gossip hound, I might spread the opposite rumour about metafiction. Metafiction is fiction that has all but forgotten that it is fiction. It cares so little about its status as artifice, it doesn’t even bother trying to conceal it. Why bother, when it’s so busy with actually important things? Metafiction doesn’t ‘draw your attention’ to the way it’s constructed. It just leaves its constructed-ness lying out in the open, and trusts that you won’t be tempted to gawp too much, since there’s other great stuff to experience instead. It’s busy making you feel the presence of people who don’t exist, people like Severin, Anchises, Percival, and Mary. It’s busy raising your smiles, furrowing your brows, and jerking your tears. A voiceover in Christoffer Boe’s 2003 film Reconstruction puts it this way: “Remember, it is all film. It is all a construction. But even so, it hurts.”

If Severin creates realism about a fantasy world, Valence is also creating fantasy about the real world. Radiance is chockablock with allusions – a lot of Greek myth and Shakespeare especially, with plenty of Prospero the colonist, but barely a glimpse of Caliban – and there is rather crucial octopus-in-a-top-hat who must, I reckon, be a reference to the anonymous political cartoon of 1882, “The Devilfish in Egyptian Waters,” depicting a top-hatted and many-tentacled England grabbing for Boersland, Australia, Gibraltar, Cape Colony, Malta, Jamaica, Cyprus, and so on. Radiance reaches for innumerable influences. In a spirit of generosity, inclusivity and hybridity, it weaves them together. The godforsaken floweriness of the Gothic overlaps with the seen-it-all wisecracking of the hardboiled gumshoe, and so on. But perhaps what Radiance starts to suspect is that these links are not altogether serendipitous. They may be evidence that – somehow, in some sneaky, sidelong, unseelie fashion – cultural traditions that seem diverse are all complicit in one-and-the-same project of marginalisation, silencing, and erasure.

Which is why, by the end of the novel, the thing that’s more important than ‘how stories give form to worlds’ is ‘how empires destroy the form of worlds.’

Who is it that really destroys whole villages?

The word radiance refers to the light that spills into the camera lens, and it also implies vivacity, sparkle, joy, perhaps the sun’s plenitude. But the word has another connotation, expansion. The alternate universe of Radiance is all about a territory so vast, fruitful and unpeopled, that it can simply absorb all the imperial and commercial impulses of the late nineteenth century. Instead of going to war, the empires went to space. In other words, it’s just the kind of fantasy used by colonial powers to mask and excuse colonial atrocities. For instance, it’s is the Apartheid myth of the ‘empty interior’ that the Voortrekkers entered, magnified all the way to Pluto.

Radiance doesn’t really get round to breaking the silence of empire, it does at least witness its existence, and begin to try to understand the violence and cunning which sustains it.

So what more could you ask for? The giddiness, glamour, anxiety, optimism and nihilistic tinge of Old Hollywood? The Ars Gratia Artis, ‘art for art’s sake,’ that gives the growling MGM lion his kitty collar? Cowboys, Christmas, some puke, a whodunnit, space whales? If so, I have good news for you.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

2016 genre roundup

Originally published in Interzone 268.

Didn’t read much new fiction in 2016. Two bookend books, Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself (Gollancz, late 2015) and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (Tor, early 2017), both come recommended.

I did also really like Yoon Ha Lee’s debut Ninefox Gambit (Solaris, actually 2016). Ninefox Gambit can be enjoyed as a highly accomplished military space opera. There are points of comparison with Ann Leckie, Iain M. Banks, Frank Herbert. It ticks all the boxes vis-à-vis exciting set-pieces, gee-whizz worldbuilding, political intrigue, tension and conflict, sly little twists, and so on.

Thing is, Lee has also arrayed all those ticked little boxes into a strange sigil, a strange sigil of abhorrent and enthralling eldritch leakages. There are points of comparison with, say, Angela Carter. This impression of potent excess may have something to do with gaming, since Lee’s novel is absolutely saturated with the the aesthetics and the logic of gaming.

Ninefox Gambit is packed with vivacious, suggestively intermeshing lore, in the game design sense. Lee’s best incidents gratify like superrare drops. Lee’s sorcerous space conceits – ever enchantingly-baptised, ever partly-occulted – don’t seem to be bothered whether or not I favour them with my suspended disbelief, or with my genre-savvy negative capability. No, all they ask is that I affix them to the edges of my imagination, like new green leaves unfurling on a tech tree, or like bizarre buffs or badass armor upgrades.

The novel's particular form of violence, the way things fly apart in it, suggests games. Even the form of solidity the novel accomplishes often feels like that of games. The critic Carl Freedman suggests that one characteristic of SF is its ‘cognition effect.’ Freedman’s idea is roughly that, as a genre, SF’s solidity is implicated in a kind of rationalist rigor and constancy, which gets supported by a rhetoric of technoscientific plausibility. But I wonder if the equivalent, for Ninefox Gambit, is less about immersive plausibility than immersive playability.

More generally, I wonder: might playability function as a kind of rationality? And if so, how might the rising influence of gaming on genre fiction impact on the complex but enduring distinction between science fiction and fantasy? Perhaps Ninefox Gambit captures a watershed moment.

Pondering such questions takes me to one piece of required reading in SF-related criticism in 2016, Jonathan McCalmont’s ‘Nothing Beside Remains: A History of the New Weird’. If you’re a current Interzone reader you’re familiar with what he can do: in this article, which appeared in the second issue of Big Echo: Critical SF, he does it to the New Weird, fantasy, SF, reason, radicalism and reform, political commitment, and the US and the UK, all supported by deft archival work.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s New Weird anthology features prominently in this history. And in 2016 a new VanderMeer omnibus came crashing through the omnibus-sized hole in the door where the letterbox used to be. The Big Book of Science Fiction (Vintage Books) costs twenty quid new. For a project on this scale, choices about how to construct the object itself, the codex, can be high risk and high stakes. Word is Ann herself katana-sliced millions of sheets of paper to optimum thinness while Jeff haphazardly waved the leaf-blower. But kudos to Stephanie Moss and whoever else was involved in making these 750,000 words readable.

The VanderMeers are “less concerned about making sure to include certain authors” than they are “about trying to give accurate overviews of certain eras, impulses, and movements” (xxix). There is a global outlook, with a pragmatic focus on the USSR and Latin America. The introduction is substantial and useful, with heartening idiosyncracies. It is standing squarely inside Anglophone writing, but en pointe, VanderMeerkattishly peeping over the horizon.

I did wonder if perhaps a few subject specialists could be scouted for the second edition? And there are also gestures toward literary modernism, and speaking selfishly, I would have loved an anthology in which those gestures were a bit more vigorous and flappy. But I can fully appreciate the presiding spirit of mild progress and gentle correctives.

"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert . . ."

The Big Book of SF aims to discard an unhelpful distinction between genre and mainstream literary fiction, yet it makes a point of preserving a distinction between SF and fantasy. Why? The reason that the Big Book invokes – roughly, SF is about the future – definitely has some legs. (Actually, it probably has steadier legs than ‘cognition effect’). One leg (tentacular) is encased in spacesuit polymers; the other (cloven-hoofed) slips into its mithril chausse, chausse, poleyn, etc., and the VanderMeers wield these fantastic trousers deftly. Besides, editors must impose some arbitrary constraints, and there’s a strong hint of a Big Book of Fantasy in the offing ...

Still, I felt there was something faintly unresolved about all this … until I read Jonathan’s New Weird article, plus a post by Ethan Robinson to which it links. That made me wonder: perhaps a monumental retrospective like the Big Book is unlikely to break down the SF/fantasy distinction, precisely because that would spoil the fun for all the billions of contemporary sfantasy authors (?), who need the the SF/fantasy distinction to have something to heroically break down in a sort of pseudo-radical transgression. It is like actually murdering the villain in a cartoon show: who do you overcome next episode?

But perhaps more to the point, the stories that are here translated into English for the first time are stonkers, certainly the best short speculative fiction I’ve read this year (sorry, alive writers). Yefim Zozulya’s proto-dystopian (?) tale ‘The Doom of Principal City’ and Silvina Ocampo’s ‘The Waves’ are my pick of the bunch. Jacques Barbéri ... Burroughs-ish, Ligotti-ish, Clive Barker-ish?

I thought Karl Hans Strobl’s ‘The Triumph of Mechanics’ is the only one whose interest is perhaps primarily merely as a fragment of a larger history? – but even that one has its moments: an opera singer digs in her cleavage and draws forth a robotic rabbit, from whose dugs dangle nine robot rabbit kits, then screams operatically, so there.

2016 may also be a watershed year for the penetration of AI into cultural production. The Twitterbots whose imbrications I have most enjoyed are @dreamhaver, @magicrealismbot, @speculativecash, @fantasticvocab, and maybe also Sarah Nyberg and Nora Reed’s troll-baiting honeybots (e.g. @arguetron).

Two noteworthy short films, both available online [UPDATE: can't find Skies?], that feel SFnal by virtue of their makers: In the Robot Skies was shot entirely through autonomous camera drones; Sunspring was written by a LSTM recurrent neural network fed on SF screenplays. Sunspring felt hampered by strict fidelity to a narrow constraint (unlike In the Robot Skies). Why not shift the constraint just a little bit, and let humans write the stage directions (aka ‘action’)? But it is a fascinating thing, not least for how it reveals SF’s obsession with epistemology, with what is knowable, and how, and why. The film’s dialogue, for all its fragmenting, splicing, garden pathing grammars, keeps coming back to trust, belief, knowledge, understanding. The other big theme is sex.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit involves calendrical magic. But let’s end with a jolly Christmas hex on calendars themselves, which entice us into impugning something called ‘2016’ for what we ourselves have wrought.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Names in SFF interlude: Scott Lynch

An expression I like, particularly on the lips of young parents on their first infant, is: "Shall we put him down?" It is much better than, "Shall we put him to sleep?", which is presumably just hysterically hubristic to those in the know.

I also quite like this fragment of flameskirmish. Scott Lynch tells Jonathan McCalmont: "Ah, yes, the ever-classy 'people with reading habits different than mine only have them because of (insert contemptible moral or social failing here)' argument. But of course they do, Jonathan. Of course they do. Shhhh. Here's your bottle. It's full of scotch. Not a popular scotch, of course. A suitably obscure one. Shhhhh. Good little critic. Nap time."


(Presumably flameskirmish. I didn't encounter it in incarnadine crackling context. Maybe it's just incredibly good-natured banter).

This series is of course about names in science fiction and fantasy. What I like in Scott's comment is that, by a sort of process of mashing and charcoal chip filtration and copper pot distillation, "Scott Lynch" becomes "Scott Lynch" becomes "scotch". Scott Lynch is, in other words, instinctively cramming himself into a bottle, not as a chibi jin, but as a full-bodied scotch. And not just any scotch, but a posh expensive scotch, immediately brazenly squandered into a milky New Orleans milk punch-type cocktail metaphor, as he pipes his frothy and fermented form like very extreme gripewater down the throat of the flytingly infantalized McCalmont critic-figure, in the quite probably forlorn hope of shushing it and, in at least three senses, putting him down.

Maybe there's even more in that metaphor of author as exhausted parent: after Bloom's anxiety of influence, something you could call anxiety of infants. The commercially successful author knows full well they have little to fear from these squirmy, super-needy little rugrats. Yet when the commercially successful author's thoughts stray to posterity, to legacy, well ... and anyways, it's not just any infant here, but the matri/patri-phagic kind: the uncanny whirring little bundle of joy that sucks in your life and poops and pukes it back out, and grinds your milk to bake its bones, and just grows and grows and grows. Truly spoopy.

Provisos:
1) I haven't read Scott Lynch's novels.
2) The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of ever-classy struggle.

Earlier:
SFF names #17: Boaty McBoatface interlude
SFF names #16: Alice interlude
SFF names #15: eggs interlude
SFF names #14: YA interlude
SFF names #13: Benedict Cumberbatch
SFF names #12: Luke Skywalker interlude
SFF names #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver
SFF names #10: Bobby Shaftoe
SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Award Season

Some ideas for Best Related Work:

ERIN HORÁKOVÁ, Boucher, Backbone and Blake: The Legacy of Blakes 7 (Strange Horizons)
JONATHAN MCCALMONT, Nothing Beside Remains: A History of the New Weird (Big Echo) [McCalmont: "I have decided to decline any and all future award nomi" -- whatever shut up]
VARIOUS HANDS, #BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company special report (Fireside Fiction)
MANU SAADIA, Trekonomics

... having a category which includes big non-fiction books and online articles together doesn't make much sense (see Note).

By the way, since this is a time of year people read things, or remember things that they have read, I would be really interested to know of any genre fiction you've come across that touches on themes of economics and finance. For the Economics Science Fiction & Fantasy database, of course. Drop me an email, a comment, or let me know on Twitter.

For Best Editor:

A joint nomination for ANN VANDERMEER and JEFF VANDERMEER for The Big Book of Science Fiction.

Elsewhere:
Renay's Hugoogle sheets
The Sputnik Awards

Note:
For instance, perhaps also GEOFF RYMAN, 100 African Writers of SFF, Part One: Nairobi for Best Related Work? Although this is a fragment of a much larger ongoing project, so probably it deserves to be considered at a later stage. But I'm not sure. If an online article has a better chance of getting the award than a book into which it is later assimilated, surely that's a glitch in the award taxonomy?

Question:
How do literary awards fit in among other titles and title-like attributions, such as your professional qualifications and certifications, or the letters after your name, the letters before your name (such as Ms. or Colnel), your names, your nicknames, and your pronouns? I'm interested, for example, in how easy or how difficult it is for individuals to disentangle themselves from these public attributions.

Eligibility Posts:
Ian Sales was saying on Twitter the other day, if I saw and remember rightly, that he doesn't think eligibility posts are a good idea, and would simply quietly not nominate work by anyone who has written one. I've written in the past about why I think they are on the whole an OK idea, mainly because it's quite difficult to distinguish what is one and what isn't one (and any author who categorizes their shorter fiction according to the "short story / novelette / novella" wordcount taxonomy is to some extent swanning around eligibly), and because I think taking eligibility posts too seriously in the wrong way can be the first step to taking literary awards too seriously in the wrong way, and because they probably, on the whole, help to surface writing from the margins (although I'm on the fence about that).

That said, if you've only got a few nominations to make, I guess I would usually factor in my sense of the intensity and success of an author's self-promotion. So in a rough way I guess I do partly agree with Ian.

You could imagine a more hawkish version of his rule-of-thumb, where you refuse to vote for anyone who has not proactively sabotaged their writing career in the year in question.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Marta and the Demons

Marta is free! The demons are free! Marta and the Demons is free, for the next couple days anyway, on Kindle and Smashwords. This may be the last time for a little while, since I'll be removing it from both platforms to contemplate its absorption into something larger, currently invaginatingly indecipherable, but perhaps a novel?

Also, more free or free-ish fiction:
UPDATE: Invocation will shortly be free as well. I kind of now think the six individual books need titles. Maybe these: (1) The Moot Hoot; (2) The Cuddle in the Puddle; (3) Within a Buddy Grove; (4) It's My Party & I'll Scry If I Want To; (5) Thank ABAB for the Mnesic; (6) Off By Heart.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Interzone Guest Editorial

This week we announced the two finalists of the Sputnik Awards 2015/2016. Here's a guest editorial I wrote about the prize for Interzone 265 back in July (slightly tweaked).

BEST IN SHOW

After two years of faintly fusty Hugo Awards, the announcement came as a breath of fresh air with a zesty tang. In June, at WisCon 40, Nalo Hopkinson launched The Lemonade Award, to be presented for kindness and positive change in science fiction. The trophy is truly sublime. In fact, SubLEMON: each winner gets a sleekly fluted silvery Alessi® PSJS Juicy Salif Citrus Squeezer, a monstrous twelve-incher straight out of H.R. Geiger. When life gives you lemons, no one can hear you scream. Nalo Hopkinson should probably get the Lemonade Award for starting the Lemonade Award.

Meanwhile, signs of life are everywhere twitching. The Clarke Award, celebrating its 30th birthday, energetically contemplates future evolution. The new Eugie Foster Memorial Award plans to celebrate the best in innovative short SFF. Schneier and Quinn’s mathy analysis of mooted Hugo reforms show how things learnt in the context of fandom might have wider application. At File 770, Catherynne M. Valente and others toy with the notion of a new swarm of fine-grained smart prizes: ‘Best Action Sequence,’ ‘Best Twist,’ ‘Best Ending,’ ‘Best Villain’? ‘Best New Award’? Call them the Spoilers, Bruce Baugh suggests: “Make the trophy like a sci-fi hot rod’s spoilers. Seriously.” On YouTube, ambient SFF love reaches dangerous critical density and the BooktubeSFF Award bursts into existence.

And Sam Walton and I – from an original inkling by Ian Sales, and with assistance and dazzle from some dozen brilliant others – have created the Sputnik Award™. The winner receives a generously donated one year supply of Interzone. To delimit the Sputnik constituency, we’re adopting Valente’s procedure: “vote if you want, who gives a shit.” Voting is now open at www.thesputnikawards.com.

In fact, everything about the Sputnik Awards™ is open. It’s entirely experimental, and hopefully next year it will be a new experiment. We have settled on two themes to guide its evolution. One is digital democracy, or perhaps more generally, social media. Literary awards build spaces where fun and interesting conversations can occur, right? But you can say that about a lot of stuff. Perhaps a more compelling analogy is with user-driven content ecologies such as TV Tropes or Wikipedia. We collectively get back what we collectively put in, but that content is incentivised and transformed by a carefully-designed infrastructure. So could inputs be more varied than ‘books and votes,’ and the outputs more varied than ‘cultural capital’? We’ll see.

The second is politics, perhaps particularly left-wing politics. In 1843, after Arnold Ruge overheard Marx and his friends throwing him shade, Marx wrote to Ruge claiming that, “Ruge babes, our task is the ruthless criticism of everything that exists, babes.” Later that day, he wrote Capital. With Marx’s maxim in mind, perhaps the Sputnik Award™ trophy should be an almost traumatically vituperative critique of the winning novel. It could be, in Theodor Adorno’s words, written “from the standpoint of redemption,” and embedded in plexi-glass. Politics hasn’t decisively informed this year’s selection, but starting with next year, we’d like the Sputnik Award shortlist to give special attention to SFF with radical democratic themes, promoting social and economic justice, and celebrating not just individual freedom, but also collective freedom.

Oh and it’s Dungeons & Dragons themed, except with hedgehogs and stuff. It’s kind of dumb. Check it out.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Aaaaaarghward!

I began this blog about three years ago, with a great and sluggardly reluctance, having received quite a few petitions signed by the entire science fiction and fantasy community urging me so to do.

Each of these countless petitions, which were annoying, and one of which I actually had to go to the Post Office to collect, thinking it to be something else and becoming disappointed when it was not, although the Post Office is not far, beseeched me, never mobilizing less than what I guess you'd call like the total syncretic ingenuity and imagination of the entire science fiction and fantasy community, although mobilizing said totality with each successive petition in some new configuration with unique emergent properties, to go onto Blogger or Wordpress, or onto Tumblr if need be, in order that I might occasionally put up some reviews of SF and fantasy, as well as put up some stray thoughts connected with my SF and fantasy Creative Writing PhD, whose commencement at Northumbria University at around that time was a commencement which, from what I could gather from these several petitions and the grapevines throwing themselves bodily at my window, the entire science fiction and fantasy community, including many of its dead, and some people who were just literally made up, both fiercely brooded upon individually, and also tumulted over frequently in public, and each petition signed by said entire community moreover entreated me to put up a little thingy on the side with links to other blogs, so.

OK but that's not all. Superadded to this general siege of opinion, I had started to feel that those closest to me would sometimes, in a real casual way, slip into conversation a chance remark, not obviously aimed at me, which intimated that to hide one's l33t under a bushel might itself be construed as vanity, and that in a way wouldn't you say that, like, the most ostentatious blog you can have as a white middle class western cis man is no blog at all -- the eyes flick anxiously to mine, linger an unsettling instant, flick away. I caved. My caving is all around you. In the end it was probably the dramatis personae itself that did it: what was reiterated strategum by strategum, however laughable the local strategic design, was this bald provocation: if so many millions of entities, living, dead, exotic, imaginary, could draw together under this one bloggenic banner, if Alex Dally MacFarlane, Alice Tarbuck, and Aliette de Bodard, if Amal El-Mohtar, Amy Sterling Casil, and Ann Leckie, if Anna MacFarlane, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Brad R. Torgersen‎, if Carol Emshwiller, Catherynne M. Valente, and China Miéville, if Christina Scholz, Chuck Tingle, and Connie Willis, if Elizabeth Jones, George O. Smith, and George RR Martin, if Gillian Anderson, Harlan Ellison, and Jack Vance, if Jim Butcher, John C. Wright, and John Scalzi, if Jonah Sutton-Morse, Joseph Tomaras, and Kate Paulk, if Kathy Acker, Kevin J. Anderson, and Kim Stanley Robinson, if Kir Bulychev, Lois McMaster Bujold, and L. Ron Hubbard, if Larry Correia, Laura J. Mixon, and Lavie Tidhar, if Margaret Cavendish, N.K. Jemisin, and Nalo Hopkinson, if Naomi Novik, Nick Mamatas, and Paul Weimer, if R.A. Lafferty, Renay, and Robert Heinlein, if Robert Jordan, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Saladin Ahmed, if Sarah Hoyt, Sofia Samatar, and Sophie Mayer, if Steven Gould, Tricia Sullivan, and Vox Day, if countless others, could all make cause together to beg this one blog of me, if even Alice Bradley Sheldon and James Tiptree Jnr. could set aside their differences to ask this one thing, why then could I not set my false modesty aside, look into my historically-determined and socially-constructed heart, and blog?

But now the PhD is kinda done, so ... well, this will probably go a bit dormant now. A volcano puffing out the odd mothball. Or if I do keep it going more energetically, it may have to broaden a bit thematically: if I add poetry, games, teaching and politics and economics stuff to the SFF stuff, it might limp nimbly onward. But there are already technically places for that (Sad Press, Sad Press Games, Academia.edu, WokesgivingEconomic Humanities), so we'll see!

Anyways. Not one to tout my own Norns, but here are my three publications in 2016:

Excerpts from a novel-in-progress:
  • Big Echo SF, 'Cat, I Must Work!' -- also a standalone novelette. Equivalent Exchange just kicked off their short fiction highlights series with it. It has been suggested that, had this story not been published in 2016, the Leave vote would have squeaked a narrow victory in the UK Brexist referendum in June, a squeak of uncertain economic consequences (although certainly cataclysmic economic consequences for the UK). Some critics have even argued that without this story, there would be ongoing further intensifications and normalizations of racism and xenophobia, some quite serious stirrings of a neo-fascist state, as well as some probably insurmountable difficulties cast into the heart of the Labour party, a party which thankfully -- because I did write this story -- is now finally for the first time in decades offering a viable parliamentary-democratic alternative to the catastrophic dogmatisms of the cult of neoliberalism. Also republished an as an ebook.
  • The Long+Short, 'Froggy Goes Piggy' -- also a standalone short story. This was part of Nesta's series of short fiction exploring collective intelligence, and may well have been discussed at an event at FutureFest 2016 (I couldn't go!). Momentum Bristol has also picked it up for its 'Satire' section, which is maybe a better label than SF, idk. (See also Economy Hub papers, btw). One of the things I'm quite proud of, in this story, is how it contributed decisively to a complete reworking of energy policies globally, a drastic drop in carbon emissions, and the slowing of global warming; a climatologist was explaining to me on Twitter the other day that this year, temperatures in the Arctic would now be 20 degrees higher than normal, had I not written this story.
A short story:
  • 'It's OK To Say If You Went Back In Time To Kill Baby Hitler', online at Medium and collected in Up and Coming, ed. SL Huang and Kurt Hunt, an anthology of John W. Campbell Award-eligible authors. I read the whole thing at BristolCon Fringe and there will be a podcast of that available in due course. One of the tiny things I am happy about is how this prevented the presidency of Donald Trump, while also setting the USA on a slow but secure trajectory to non-imperialist intersectional socialism. I shudder when I think back to those days when it seemed like the choice was between Clinton and neoliberalism and nothing, unless you count Trump and probably-weirdly-neoliberal neo-fascism as an option.
Although 'The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You' appears in Twelve Tomorrows 2016, it was actually published in 2015; besides which, it is possible with principal component analysis to reduce the number of futures in the volume to just three. I'm not a mathematician.

Elsewhere:

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New Genre Wednesdays: Ghost Symposiums and Laissez Lecturers

It occurred to me today that Twitter bots probably resemble genres or forms more than they do poets or poems.

Recently, with the help of many others, I've put together some Twitter bots. Works-in-progress, but ...
  • @GhostSymposium is currently organizing a conference. Contains some ideas for papers that really should get written. 
  • @TuesdayWeek12 is leading a poetry seminar and it's going just great. Source code here. All the tweets are drawn from the same pool, no matter what poem the bot has just introduced. Hopefully some of the time it will make sense anyway. It's a version of a similar slightly spammier bot, @closeroboreadin (AKA Jobot), with whom it sometimes interacts.
Both are made using Kate Compton's Tracery and George Buckenham's Cheap Bots, Done Quick! @TuesdayWeek12 additionally uses Twuffer, till I can figure out a better solution. Thank you to Bath Spa students and Surrey workshop-goers.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, I have a fairly-recent novelette, 'Cat, I Must Work!' in Big Echo SF for free (or now on Kindle for not-free). See also a short story from July, 'Froggy Goes Piggy.' They are both pretty standalone but also excerpts from a novel in progress, working titles incl. Come Meet Me In The Long Grass, The Feminist's Wife, and Alice Shrugged.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

New Genre Wednesdays: silver-lined Commander-in-Chuff

On dark days, there is the serious pursuit of the silver lining, and then there is the pursuit of an even wispier kind of glimmer. A thing that is not really a ray of hope exactly, but stands in the same relationship to a ray of hope as a bump of some cheap and nasty norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibiting quasi-legal high crystals stands to cocaine. These are the possibilities you entertain entirely for the short term affective hit they can give, in full if somewhat suppressed knowledge that that is what you're doing. These are like the reasons that dreams give you for going from one frame to the next. They aren't even really stories you tell yourself to make yourself feel better. They are more like stories you buy on your Kindle to make yourself feel like if you read them they might make you feel better. They aren't much different from scrolling through puppy pics, only the puppy pics are formally morphed into political analysis.

Inevitably, this genre -- which might be a bit too fantastic to include among genres of the fantastic, but where else would you put it? -- has a certain ingrownness about it. Its narrative forms are difficult to make social, difficult to share with others, because they don't really invoke conventional communicative norms so much as seek loopholes and glitches in those norms. Trying to tell these things would be like trying to put the pleasure you get from tonguing a mouth ulcer into the form of a kiss.

Sometimes, perhaps, if you are willing to filter such notions through powerful abstracting platitudes, they might just flutter from one person to another. That Trump's bark is worse than his bite; that history is complex and you never know what anything will lead to; that this is why we have checks and balances, and besides, it's hard to make progress down-ticket while your party holds the White House; that what will be will be; that this is a wake-up call; that maybe now America will finally have to admit to itself what it's actually like; that if you're Pakistani or Yemeni the unpredictability of Trump could be a pro compared to the alternative; that we can still love each other and make the difference where we are and those differences are never small; that Trump doesn't exist in a vacuum and this way those supporters can be disappointed by their demagogue's lack of a YA science fictional wall with Mexico the way some of us were disappointed by Obama's deportations and drones; that Trump's defeat would have been little more than imperialist neoliberalism successfully adopting the mantle of a fierce, principled, and progressive defence of basic decency, a mantle with which its skin might easily begin to merge; that maybe now we'll get four years of Trump followed by eight of oh Elizabeth Warren instead of four years of Hillary followed by eight years of oh Ted Cruz; that you will not believe the ferocity with which the world, having been grabbed by the pussy, is now going to fight back; that maybe the new president means it about shaking up NATO, or about tariffs and protectionism and turning back the tide on outsourcing, and who knows where stuff like that might lead. There have been two reasons why these wisps have not really coalesced to sufficient stability to meet the low bar of -- not "plausible-sounding," but -- mistakably implausible-sounding platitudes that might feel good to momentarily entertain. The first reason is something that happened early in the night, if not earlier still; something that would have been true even had Hillary edged Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and some other state. All those fucking racists. Fuck them, including the ones who didn't vote. The second reason is the fucking planet.

Several temporary populations spring into existence on shadowy days like these, and then disperse when things get normalized, when our eyes adjust and it's as if it brightened. Maybe you are part of one of those temporary populations: the one with renewed political will, or at least a fight or flight reflex going crazy about now. Maybe you're a kind of ephemerid, possessing a perfect perspective and a whose mind is a towering cloud of ice. You're a kind of ephemerid, a creature who only lives for a few days, only the few days you live are scattered across time: you live only on the days after barbarian coronations. Loosely speaking. You might wanna lock yourself into something. Joining a mailing list might not be enough. Think big. You might not see this version of yourself for four more years. Do something you in four years' time would be proud of.