Wednesday, August 16, 2017

New Genre Wednesdays: Sarcastika

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Notes on Estrangement 3: Still

What is the awareness of the other person -- the other person, whom you have not seen and will later studiously cast your eyes in a wide berth around so as not to glimpse -- although a person whom you will, later still, slipping back to your locker to retrieve your laptop with half these words already spilling in your head, with slight frustration, accidentally glimpse -- what is this awareness of this other person, whom you have not seen, but who seems to be as light and as restless a sleeper, and perhaps as desperate a sleeper as you are, this other person with whom you share at least these pointless qualities, this other person with whom you share also not exactly a bed, but exactly two beds, squeakily interwoven into one rickety structure, a set of bunks that creaks you into wakefulness again and again, that steadily disciplines your own tossing and turning into the most fastidious stealth, that once more and once more again rocks you asleep and stirs you awake like a cup of black coffee immiscible with its own milk?

This awareness must be the estrangement of intimacy. It must be the very familiar thing, of lying sound asleep but always a little awake, here beside the other other person whom you lie beside almost every night -- in, it has to be said, a very big bed -- only made strange.

Or (flip quietly onto your other side, forests of fidgets, and spoonings sprouting into sporkings) it must be the strange made familiar.

It must be the strangeness of those nights when you and she can't get to sleep, those fidgeting nights of prickles and frets and crabs, where the world of bed becomes a thicket of thorns. It must be one of those nights, only made safe and inhabitable, technicized and mechanized, and made as comfortable and hospitable as possible, while preserving the essential texture of snarls and crotchets, made hospitable and comfortable and in a sense therefore familiar both by this little metal infrastructure that keeps your distance for you ...
... and by whatever invisible infrastructure distinguishes your lives, whatever invisible infrastructures keeps distances that are not even "your" distances between you, keeps the stranger below a stranger. Beds within beds, wheels of milk within wheels of black coffee, dawn within midnight, trying to show kindness while you are asleep within waking from the dream that you are awake. It must be the strange within the familiar.

And there is a small but non-zero chance that the person in the bunk below you has written books you have read and perhaps been intimate with. And then what would shift or stir?

It is only because this is what has sprung to mind, this is what you have to compare it with, and cut a path toward it with, that it becomes this particular estrangement of a familiar intimacy, and the de-estrangement of this intimate disquiet. It could have been something else estranged last night. Paddling in a canoe, steering it together, trying to keep it level and its course true.

Or -- I think this is right, although I haven't had much sleep, for reasons I won't get into -- it could be an estrangement of some new something else which you retrospectively create in order to be that-which-is-estranged, and I think that is why estrangement can be political still.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Notes on Estrangement 2: Flushed With Pride

I spend a not inconsiderable time yesterday tweeting about these little signs at WorldCon. This thread goes right round the U-bend.


I wonder about the distinction between moments of estrangement in which the estranged person has a clear sense of for whom such moments are estranging, and for whom they are not, vs. moments in which the estranged person is simply disquieted in a way that offers no such distinctions, and a way in which they perhaps may assume to be universal.

I don't know yet how well that distinction would map onto the distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive, let alone how it might relate to science fiction, fantasy, horror, the weird, etc. What do you think?

Read the thread, if you like. This small sign being a text, might it offer an instance of literary estrangement? Was your first thought, "Why would you put up such a sign?" or "Why would you leave poop papers piled in a corner?" or "Good, that might help" or "If only I had a boss who would put up a sign like that"?

If the sign does offer an instance of estrangement, literary or otherwise, where does it stand as regards Suvin's distinction between the cognitive and non-cognitive? And can its status as cognitive and/or non-cognitive be reconfigured through conscious effort? Does reading the thread shift it from non-cognitively estranging to cognitively estranging? Or does it shift it from estranging to non-estranging? Or is there some other shift? Or is there some other shit?

The concept of "cognition," for Suvin, is loosely informed by Kantian critique (and less directly, feminist epistemology): cognition has something to do not only with recognising your object, but with recognising who and what you are.

So who encounters estrangement here? In the thread, among those whom I hint are less likely to encounter any sharp estrangement are:

  • Finns
  • Greeks, Macedonians, Bulgarians, etc.
  • Women
  • Cleaners

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Power Couples of WorldCon: A Field Guide

Marguerite Kenner and Alasdair Stuart. Of PodCastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, & Cast of Wonders. Podder Couple.

Malcolm Devlin and Helen Marshall. Travellers to antique lands frequently flock to Shelley's two vast and trunkless legs of stone. But why not squint up with the locals into the desert firmament azure, where hover two vast and trunkless arms of flame, Helen and Malcolm?

Patrick Nielson Hayden and Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Grandmasters of the Worshipful Company of Editors, these two have long since stopped editing your manuscripts directly, and simply edit the fabric of reality so that they have always already edited your manuscripts.

Emma Newman and Peter Newman. Of Tea and Jeopardy. Power Cuppa.

Geoffrey Landis and Mary Turzillo. Of poetry. Pictured here gigglingly bestowing 600 feet of badge ribbons on grateful Cosplay Rapunzel who accidentally locked her golden hair atop her lofty tower.

Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer. Of Big Book of Science Fiction. Ann here pictured deftly brushing a fragment of rheum schmutz from the inner canthus of the left eye of a jetlagged Jeff. Zoom in and you'll see it's a delicate scrap of film-strip-like ribbon: Jeff's dreams must be physically exuded by a miniature mechanical heirloompunk gland bequeathed by Jeff's really-great-great-grandmother, Greta VanderMeer. Greta, who arrived at Ellis Island Greta AvantDreamer, invented the practice of dreaming, today widespread throughout many parts of the world.

Me and you. You, it will one day be recognized, did most of it.

Elsewhere: all the Podsibilities.



Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Notes on Estrangement 1: Quick skeptical comment on WorldCon academic track in Helsinki

This may just be the blazing Finnish sun and that weird walnut drink talking, but.

During his paper, Andrew Butler discussed Darko Suvin -- the theorist whose ideas are totally indispensable to our distinctively coherent, and focused, and totally packed-to-the-gunnels enclave conference here in Helsinki -- and in a throwaway comment, mentioned that Suvin thinks only a small fraction of SFF is any good.

Another way of putting that: Suvin might say that only a small fraction of SFF is actually cognitively estranging. (And btw, the more recent Suvin would certainly see cognitive and non-cognitive estrangement as braided together within any text, rather than functioning as a big distinction between SF and fantasy, or differentiating good books from bad ones).

I suspect that he'd see non-cognitive estrangements (which are mystifying, politically useless, conservative or reactionary in their effect) as fairly common. I think I would see them that way too, too, at least for the sake of argument!

I've been to two sessions and seen some fantastic papers and enjoyed them whole(withered)heartedly. But could that very enjoyment point to a problem? Is there maybe a pattern developing here? Do we perhaps systematically overestimate the political usefulness, or revelatory power, of the SFF we happen to love and/or happen to be researching? And/or if these texts do contain radical potentials (via cognitive estrangement or some other mechanism), do we systematically overestimate the ease with which we may access and elaborate those potentials as critics?

To take a crude example (and without doing justice to the nuance of the papers we've seen!): what if the figure of the cyborg does not rupture, but rather reinforces, the binary between nature and technology? What if chimeric human-animal hybrids likewise do not rupture, but rather reinforce, the binary between human and non-human?

(Or perhaps, what if these binaries have become like playthings that texts can rupture as often as they like to little or no effect, while unwittingly reinforcing other equivalent binaries, whose namelessness and elusiveness are part of their resilience and power? Equivalent binaries or other structures which nevertheless are quietly carrying out ubiquitous and obscure work on behalf of anthropocentric domination?)

I find the idea that We3 or Oryx & Crake or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? disquiet my deep normative structures halfway convincing. I also find the idea that they reinforce those structures halfway convincing.

There is a rich tradition of Marxist literary criticism, to which Suvin surely belongs, which takes as its starting point the powerful recuperative capacities of capitalism and its intermeshed systems of oppression ... a tradition which begins by viewing any object of culture as probably complicit, in at least most of its aspects, with that dominant order. Are we in danger of forgetting that tradition here?

In the WorldCon booklet, there's a splendid and indispensable field guide to academics. One important factoid is: academics do not squee, they critique. Behind it there hovers a gentle tongue-in-cheek recognition of the passion and pleasure of many SFF academics: shhh, don't spoil it for them, critique is just a scholarly squee -- nobody spoil it for them!

It feels a little close to the bone.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

CfP: Science Fiction and Economics

SCIENCE FICTION AND ECONOMICS:
Robots, Rayguns, & Rent-Seeking

Vector is pleased to invite proposals for short articles (2,000-4,000 words) exploring science fiction and economics (as well as economic history, economic sociology, economic anthropology, economic humanities, finance, political economy, IPE, and other adjacent disciplines and fields). Please submit abstracts of 200-400 words to vector.editors@gmail.com by 31 August 2017. If accepted, the submission date will be 31 May 2018 [TBC].

Is mainstream economics in crisis? The discipline is interrogating its own foundations with increasing ferocity. Pressure is growing, from inside economics, and especially from without, to diversify methods and perspectives -- and perhaps even to think thoughts that economics has traditionally deemed unthinkable. So how might science fiction contribute to the ongoing evolution of economics? And what might creators of science fiction, as custodians of radical visions of social organisation, draw from economics at this critical moment?

We particularly welcome proposals to explore women’s writing and/or writing by BAME authors. Although issue’s focus will mainly be SF, we are also open to non-SF genre works, e.g. Max Gladstone’s Craft series, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Terry Pratchett’s Making Money, Karina Sumner-Smith’s Towers trilogy, and to themes such as magic and economics, economies of honour in epic fantasy, etc.

We would love to see proposals from potential contributors from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds (including, of course, economists), as well as interdisciplinary collaborative work. As well as articles, we would also be interested in hearing ideas for unusual and/or innovative forms of contribution, and other informal thoughts and queries.

Ideas for topics include:
  • The economics and political economy of utopias and dystopias
  • Imagined systems of economic thought
  • The role of speculation about the future across SF and financial markets
  • Property and its alternatives in SF
  • Imagined collapses of and alternatives to capitalism
  • Near future SF and the socio-economic impacts of emergent technology
  • The idea of “rigor” in science fiction and the social sciences
  • Picturing and pitching the future: futurism, entrepreneurship, design fiction, and diegetic prototyping
  • Economic extrapolations of the novum
  • Fintech, cryptocurrency, blockchain
  • Debt in SF, e.g. Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth meets the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood
  • Adhocracy, commoning, and self-governance, e.g. Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017) meets Elinor Ostrom
  • “Adam Smith’s invisible great clomping foot of nerdism”: the economic dimension of worldbuilding
  • Science fictional demoi and publics
  • Scarcity, post-scarcity, “alt scarcity”
  • Automation
  • Matter replicators
  • Latinum, Melange, Adamantium: precious science fictional commodities
  • Capitalism, communism, third ways, fourth ways, fifth ways ... nth ways
  • The corporation in cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, and other SF
  • Malthus and immortality
  • Markets, data science, and algorithmic governance
  • Complexity economics and chaos, complexity, and non-linear dynamics in SF
  • Algorithmic governance and the socialist calculation debates
  • Commensurable and non-commensurable value, e.g. Viviana Zelizer meets Karl Schroeder’s Permanence (2012)
  • Economic models as science fiction; readings of the thought experiments and pedagogic narratives within political economy texts as science fiction, e.g. Georg Simmel meets Ruth Levitas
  • AI and economic decision-making. How should economic agency be understood when it is dispersed through digital constructs – including Intelligent Personal Assistants and financial investment robo-advisors – whose algorithmic ‘reasoning’ is intrinsically opaque?
  • Communism and alternate reality SF
  • SF and capitalist realism
  • Science fictional experience; SF as lived experience
  • Science fictional estrangements of markets and money
  • Alienation, reification, commodification, and estrangement
  • Unreal estate
  • Economics without economies, economies without economics
  • Subjective theories of value and the Quantified Self
  • Neural interfaces, affective computing, and the formation of economic demand and political will
  • Homo economicus, “xeno economicus”, and economic rationality in SF
  • Prisoners’ Dilemma and other game theory in SF
  • Platform capitalism and SF, e.g. Tim Maughan’s ‘Zero Hours’
  • SF and platform co-operativism: imagining just, democratic, and sustainable digitally-mediated labour relations
  • Division of labour in SF
  • Affective labour and technologies of quantification
  • Barter in SF
  • Interstellar trade
  • Money and the trees it grows on, e.g. Nalo Hopkinson’s ‘Money Tree’, Clifford D. Simak’s ‘The Money Tree’
  • SF and ecological economics
  • Quantifying, representing, and/or marketising the unquantifiable
  • Markets as computation, computation as markets
  • SF’s non-capitalist markets
  • Class in SF, e.g. Samuel R. Delaney’s Nova (1968)
  • Secular trends, e.g. Rosa Luxemburg meets Michael Swanwick’s ‘From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled...’ (2008)
  • Social credit and financial credit in Karen Lord’s Galaxy Game (2015)
  • Gift economies and other non-market exchanges in SF, e.g. Erik Frank Russell’s ‘And Then There Were None’ (1953)
  • Economics and deep time, economics and galactic scale, economics of terraforming, economics of megaengineering
  • Markets and states on interstellar scale, e.g. Susan Strange meets Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood (2013)
  • Estranging money
  • Energy and value, e.g. Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing (1993)
  • SF in relation to time banking: e.g. LETS, ECHO, time-based currencies, Falk Lee’s ‘Time is Money’ (1975)
The issue will be edited by Jo Lindsay Walton and Polina Levontin.

My WorldCon Schedule

Wednesday 12:00 - 13:00, 204 (Messukeskus)
TRANSLATING HIS ARBITRARY ANTLER-TURNS INTO SOME CORNERS OF ALL Y'ALL'S NEW ENLIGHTENMENTSES

Wednesday 13:00 - 14:00, 204 (Messukeskus)
APPLES: SIN'S SELFIES?

Thursday 14:00 - 15:00, 101a&b (Messukeskus)
TRAPPED, HOWLING GHOSTS? -- UNTAPPED RESOURCES OF CLIMATE RESILIENCE

Sunday 11:00 - 12:00, 101a&b (Messukeskus)
SKEEP-BEEP DE BOP-BOP BEEP OLM BO-DOPE, SKEEP-BEEP DE BOP-BOP NEWT BOP BO-DOPE: SCAT (SOME INLAID WITH SALAMANDERS)

FULL WORLDCON 75 SCHEDULE

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The First Draft and the Academy

Creative Writing pedagogy and assessment is often (and for lots of good reasons) oriented toward the mature or final draft. Where the assessment requires some kind of reflective commentary, for instance, the process of redrafting and polishing creates lots of fruitful material for discussion. Besides, many skilled creative practitioners encounter their own tacit competence as an inaccessible opacity. So the existence of multiple versions of the same creative work, layered with feedback or theoretical input, may help to bring aspects of the writer's creative practice into the realm of explicit argumentation and evaluation.

There are those rare writers whose work really does spill out fully-formed, and they are presumably a little let down by this emphasis. But I'm not really concerned with them here (mainly I'm just well jels of them). I'm more interested in the more common type of writer, whose work by-and-large gets better the more they revise it.

At PhD or MFA level, writers have a chance to submit novels, plays, feature length film scripts, collections of short stories, etc.: drafting them, revising them, reflecting on them, and buffing them to a sheen. The last metaphor is more appropriate for some writers than for others. Some writers like to correct their draft manuscripts; others like to wrong them. But what about Masters level? There's a good case to be made for offering the writer the option to attempt a full-length work, even though student-teacher contact hours, and the practicalities of marking, don't really allow for it to be developed and assessed in the same way it would be on a terminal degree.

Can a first draft be marked as a first draft? Would something like this be, I wonder, bonkers? Is it anything like this already on offer somewhere?

5,000 word excerpt (polished)
+
60,000-120,000 complete first draft, 1,000-2,000 words synopsis + plan for further development (30%)
2,000 word reflective commentary (20%)

The excerpt is assessed as normal. The rest is rapidly skimmed, with careful reading of a few random samples scattered throughout, and is marked on a different set of criteria. How complete does the draft appear? Does it appropriately lay the groundwork for the second draft? Does it appear to align to the synopsis? Are its weak and/or inchoate aspects addressed in the development plan? Are there lacunae or obvious continuity problems? The examiner is not primarily focused on skill or imagination, but on the preliminary sweat-of-the-brow of building a framework for later acts of skill and imagination.

I'm interested in the practicalities of this, of course, and also, really, the wider questions about the quantification of the provisional. Although I'm not sure what those questions are.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ronald Knox's Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction

Since these are so often reproduced in abridged form, I thought I'd put these here.

It seems a pity that somebody cannot invent a kind of crook film in which the crime will be enacted in front of the camera exactly as it took place, but will be turned into a mystery by the simple expedient of releasing the film backwards. So highly specialized a form of art will need, clearly, specialized rules. And the detective author, alone among authors, cannot even in this libertine age afford to break the rules. The moderns will attempt to write poetry without rhyme or metre, novels without plot, prose without sense; they may be right or wrong, but such liberties must not be taken in the field of which we are speaking. You cannot write a Gertrude Stein detective story. For the detective story is a game between two players, the author of the one part and the reader of the other part. The reader has scored if, say, half - way through the book he has laid his hand on the right person as the criminal, or has inferred the exact method by which the crime was perpetrated, in defiance of the author's mystifications. The author on his side counts the victory, if he succeeds in keeping the reader in a state of suspended judgment over the criminal, or complete mystification over the method, right up to the last chapter; and yet can show the reader how he ought to have solved the mystery with the light given him.

As with the acrostic, as with the cross - word competition, honourable victory can be achieved only if the clues were 'fair'. Thus, when we say that the detective story has rules, we do not mean rules in the sense in which poetry has rules, but rules in the sense in which cricket has rules - a far more impressive consideration to the ordinary Englishman. The man who writes a detective story which is 'unfair' is not simply pronounced guilty of an error in taste. He has played foul, and the referee orders him off the field. I laid down long ago certain main rules, which I reproduce here with a certain amount of commentary; not all critics will be agreed as to their universality or as to their general importance, but I think most detective 'fans' will recognize that these principles, or something like them, are necessary to the full enjoyment of a detective story. I say 'the full enjoyment'; we cannot expect complete conformity from all writers, and indeed some of the stories selected in this very volume transgress the rules noticeably. Let them stand for what they are worth.

I. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. The mysterious stranger who turns up from nowhere in particular, from a ship as often as not, whose existence the reader had no means of suspecting from the outset, spoils the play altogether. The second half of the rule is more difficult to state precisely, especially in view of some remarkable performances by Mrs. Christie. It would be more exact to say that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal.

II. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course. To solve a detective problem by such means would be like winning a race on the river by the use of a concealed motor - engine. And here I venture to think there is a limitation about Mr. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. He nearly always tries to put us off the scent by suggesting that the crime must have been done by magic; and we know that he is too good a sportsman to fall back upon such a solution. Consequently, although we seldom guess the answer to his riddles, we usually miss the thrill of having suspected the wrong person.

III. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in the kind of house where such devices might be expected. When I introduced one into a book myself, I was careful to point out beforehand that the house had belonged to Catholics in penal times. Mr. Milne's secret passage in the Red House Mystery is hardly fair; if a modern house were so equipped - and it would be villainously expensive - all the countryside would be quite certain to know about it.

IV. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. There may be undiscovered poisons with quite unexpected reactions on the human system, but they have not been discovered yet, and until they are they must not be utilized in fiction; it is not cricket. Nearly all the cases of Dr. Thorndyke, as recorded by Mr. Austin Freeman, have the minor medical blemish; you have to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was.

V. No Chinaman must figure in the story. Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over - equipped in the matter of brains, and under - equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of 'the slit - like eyes of Chin Loo', you had best put it down at once; it is bad. The only exception which occurs to my mind - there are probably others - is Lord Ernest Hamilton's Four Tragedies of Memworth.

VI. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. That is perhaps too strongly stated; it is legitimate for the detective to have inspirations which he afterwards verifies, before he acts on them, by genuine investigation. And again, he will naturally have moments of clear vision, in which the bearings of the observations hitherto made will become suddenly evident to him. But he must not be allowed, for example, to look for the lost will in the works of the grandfather clock because an unaccountable instinct tells him that that is the right place to search. He must look there because he realizes that that is where he would have hidden it himself if he had been in the criminal's place. And in general it should be observed that every detail of his thought - process, not merely the main outline of it, should be conscientiously audited when the explanation comes along at the end.

VII. The detective must not himself commit the crime. This applies only where the author personally vouches for the statement that the detective is a detective; a criminal may legitimately dress up as a detective, as in the Secret of Chimneys, and delude the other actors in the story with forged references.

VIII. The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader. Any writer can make a mystery by telling us that at this point the great Picklock Holes suddenly bent down and picked up from the ground an object which he refused to let his friend see. He whispers 'Ha!' and his face grows grave - all that is illegitimate mystery - making. The skill of the detective author consists in being able to produce his clues and flourish them defiantly in our faces: 'There!' he says, 'what do you make of that?' and we make nothing.

IX. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader. This is a rule of perfection; it is not of the esse of the detective story to have a Watson at all. But if he does exist, he exists for the purpose of letting the reader have a sparring partner, as it were, against whom he can pit his brains. 'I may have been a fool,' he says to himself as he puts the book down, 'but at least I wasn't such a doddering fool as poor old Watson.'

X. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. The dodge is too easy, and the supposition too improbable. I would add as a rider, that no criminal should be credited with exceptional powers of disguise unless we have had fair warning that he or she was accustomed to making up for the stage. How admirably is this indicated, for example, in Trent's Last Case!

This Decalogue is, I suspect, far from exhaustive; no doubt but my reader is all agog to add a few more prohibitions to the list. Rules so numerous and so stringent cannot fail to cramp the style of the author, and make the practice of the art not difficult only, but progressively more difficult. Nobody can have failed to notice that while the public demand for mystery stories remains unshaken, the faculty for writing a good mystery story is rare, and the means of writing one with any symptom of originality about it becomes rarer with each succeeding year. The game is getting played out; before long, it is to be feared, all the possible combinations will have been used up.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Tuition fees in the UK

Whoever moderates The Spectator message boards obviously felt this comment was too long or too high-horsey, so fwiw:

Btw, on the University of Life, I think I agree. I wonder how it fits in with the wider question of social mobility? The prospect of going into loads of debt puts people off going to university. Especially so if, for instance, nobody in that young person's family has ever been to university.

Now, the question for me is, are those young people -- the ones who are put off by debt -- are they just being divas?

After all, if they went to university, chances are they'd get a better paid job. If they didn't, they wouldn't have to pay back the loan. So anyone who can't see the value of investing in a university degree must be a deranged savage, incapable of basic financial calculation -- right? Or else some kind of pathetic, skittish self-sabotaging fraidy cat?

No, I don't think so.

I think we ought to give these school-leavers a little more credit. For a start, they know their own lives are much more than some financial instrument reducible to risk and return. Above all, they know what it would FEEL like to be so deeply in debt. The pressure of regular assessment at university -- endlessly being poked and prodded and told how good or bad you are, endlessly being reminded that your level of academic achievement is going to determine on some fundamental level who you are in later life -- that pressure can be amplified tremendously by the experience of being in debt.

It's really crucial to recognise this.

When you're up against a deadline and then the printer jams and you hand it in late and you lose 10% automatically, how does that feel? It might feel annoying and frustrating and pointless. Or it might feel like this: "I gambled thousands of pounds that aren't mine trying to be something I can never be and now I have inevitably fucked up and soon everybody will know. I want to die."

For anyone who has tendencies toward self-doubt and self-recrimination, it may be very rational, sensible, and realistic just to avoid that kind of constant psychological pressure. You might just know yourself well enough to know that you wouldn't flourish under those circumstances.

Again, this is something that disproportionately affects young people according to the class and wealth of family and friends, and the overall bounciness of your safety net. Second, I think young people considering whether or not to go to university know that stress on the soul slowly re-shapes the soul. Almost as frightening as the possibility of not being able to cope with debt is the possibility of learning to cope with it ... and the kind of person you might become in the process. Crudely put, somebody who always thinks about things in monetary terms. Yes, money influences every single aspect of our daily lives. That doesn't mean that obsessing about it makes you a better person. Even if you do think it makes you a better person, you can see why school-leavers might not see it that way.

Third, perhaps school-leavers who are put off by debt have a good handle on the opportunity cost of a university degree? This is the main University of Life point. Let's say that the sole purpose of university is preparation for work -- a notion which the loan system inevitably propagates -- well then, a young person may quite reasonably identify some less risky way of entering the workforce. Again, this is something that disproportionately affects young people according to the class and wealth of family and friends.

I don't actually know that much about media studies degrees, so I wouldn't knock them just out of prejudice. What really interests me about this whole aspect is: what if somebody suspected that they would face greater obstacles at university because of their race or class or regional accent, or the education they've received to date...? If somebody suspects that the transferable skills that they might acquire in a History/Sociology joint honours degree would not be valued by employers, unless additionally catalysed by certain class markers...? Well, I think I'd try to argue with that young person and persuade them otherwise, but I wouldn't be sure of myself. And I would completely see their point.

Fourth, they may be justifiably sceptical that the terms of repayment will never change. To be in debt is to be in somebody else's power. Loopholes loom. Laws change. Does that sound paranoid to you? Spend a little time contemplating, for instance, the bizarre cack-handed grooming and Kafkaesque cruelty many benefits claimants have faced over the past decade. Do you know anyone who has been a victim of, let's say, one of those murderous Atos-outsourced "fit to work" decisions? If not, pretend you do. To add just a little more context: the most extreme forms of debt are almost indistinguishable from chattel slavery.

But take it all a step further. Finally, school-leavers are able to extrapolate from all the factors that influence their individual decision. From this, they are able to come to a judgement about who goes to university, and why, and what kind of place university is. Is it a crucially formative place filled with new freedoms and new challenges? Is it a place where you can test out your own latent qualities, and experiment a bit with who you are? Discover what you're good at, what fascinates and excites you? School-leavers might guess no. Or is it a land of debtors, many of them struggling to get by, their debts mixed up in their very spirits? Filled with hardworking, slightly haunted consumers of higher education, who have skipped a significant amount of self-discovery and self-fashioning, in favour of an off-the-shelf pro forma adulthood, partly designed for them by the sector where they hope to find some economic security, plus a debt they drag around that will make at least some of their decisions for them, and whose highest hope is that they may one day earn enough money to pay it back in small instalments? They may quite reasonably guess yes. Universities are not like that -- I was about to say "yet", but actually, I kind of hope it may never become that, no matter how hard the Conservatives try to make it into that.

BTW: in Europe, the UK is a real outlier. I think we should talk more about that.

Monday, July 3, 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.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Gambits & bobs

Jonathan McCalmont's interesting review of Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit. "Unfortunately, while Lee’s stories are full of complexity and literary panache, his step up to novel appears to have involved a failed attempt to strike a balance between his own unique sensibility and that of a load of reactionary white guys writing fifty years ago."

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Imagine if one day I actually finished this novel

What if Beyonce Knowles had not been tragically taken from us at the age of only twenty-four? Would she have continued to grow and flourish as an artist? Or would she have reposed comfortably into a middle-of-the-road R&B career trajectory? What kind of world might we live in today? This story is not about that.

As seasons have given way to seasons, my belly has grown less of liability. There is still something hidden beyond its curvature. There is still some genital structure ever beyond the horizon, whose properties I can only infer from the beliefs of the girlfriends who mount its numinous ink.

But the belly which I once dragged around with me shamefully crashes before me gloriously. My belly announces me, tugs me laughingly by my hand along by white-flowered hedgerows. It is as if my whole life often is no more than a small pretty pink ribbon flapping in the wake of the one boulder that finally manages to mows into Indiana Jones.

His fate is not sad like Beyonce's was sad. I believe all it would take is a little pink ribbon such as me flapping behind a boulder such as that, and we would not flatten Indie, would not even hurt little Indie one bit. Like spermy Kylo Ren with his ovum old man, up on the bridge, boulder and ribbon would penetrate Indie, quicken and potentiate and monumentalize him.

But you cannot tie a pink ribbon to a giant crashing boulder, because it spins without an axle, and Beyonce Knowles was tragically taken from us at the age of only twenty-four, without even asking.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses

This is dumb but I got an email that started "Today we are marking International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia" and my sleepy brain's first thought was, OK more marking.

Anyway. In the midst of marking I had a flashback to Standard Four with Mr Cooper and "that" and "which" and restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, and me not really believing it. And I still don't really believe it.

Microsoft Word Grammar Checker I'm looking at you.

Consider this should-be-straightforward example of a nonrestrictive clause:
Jo Walton, who wrote Among Others, is a brilliant writer.
... taking this inkling any further would involve exploring how "narrowing down a set" is maybe a clunky and misleading model for both the phenomenology and the metaphysics of reference. I'd probably have to remind myself what intensionality is again. Thank God for marking.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Somebody write this

Speculative fiction writers. In this culture, whenever anybody speaks more than a very brief phrase -- more than three words, let's say -- they end their statement with an extra word. This word stands outside the ordinary grammar of the statement. Whoever answers is bound by deep cultural logic to weave this extra word into their answer. If they were to omit the word, then to the ears of this people, they wouldn't even have made speech, just babble.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Annihilation thought

Jeff VanderMeer's nameless biologist from Annihilation must be the spooky twin of the nameless botanist from Wells's A Modern Utopia.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

From Alice Shrugged

An extract from a novel.

The Feminist's Wife

It was approximately one year after the GOLEM incident – as it happens, on the same day that Apple announced that it would be rebranding its integrated, one-stop iOS digital value manager app, the app which united into one slick intuitive interface everything from bank accounts, to credit cards, to cryptocurrency, to loyalty cards, to concert tickets, to really cool concert tickets, and would be quietly discarding the app’s original name, which was ‘Passbook,’ and trumpetingly giving it its new name, which was ‘Wallet’ – that Sozen Nishikawa remembered what it was like being a root vegetable.

It was a remembrance so sudden and so vivid that it caused Sozen Nishikawa to spread out his arms, like the curling tentacles of potatoes in the darkness, a Christful gesture which made the young engineer who was sitting beside Sozen in the coffee shop loudly remark, ‘Varo! Sinä melkein vuotanut juomani!’

Moreover, Sozen’s reminisces of his one-time root-vegetably-ness seized him with such suddenness and vividness that Sozen did not even notice that he had spread his arms, let alone what or whom he had spread them like, and did not hear the woman beside him as she exclaimed, ‘Varo! Sinä melkein vuotanut juomani!’, except perhaps as a kind of roaring contour of noise without sense.

Nor did Sozen even notice how many customers in the coffee shop, understandably startled by the soundless and violent expansion of Sozen’s  upper body and his companion Satu’s near-simultaneous exclamation Varo! etc., craned their necks to observe the pair, tugging the many headphone cords that grew from their laptops into their many ear cavities, as if a strange wind were blowing through the coffee shop from Sozen’s wide hands and tugging its strange varicoloured vegetation to and fro.

Or more accurately, whereas Sozen did not notice that he and Satu were getting some looks, Sozen did notice that he had spread some arms, only the thing was that, just as a very violent and real-feeling nightmare can often weave the real squirming of the sleeper into its unreal narrative, also by the way making pillows and blankets into the crumpled surfaces of wolves and murderers, in a similar way Sozen simply assumed that he had spread his arms in the past, but not spread them in the present.

Sozen remained in this large pose for an unreasonable amount of time. So long, in fact, that by the time that the root vegetable was eventually Sozen once again, the young engineer Satu Sjöström, who regarded Sozen as a bit sketchy and weird but would not have gone as far as ‘insane mid-level yakuza boss on the run’, had managed to completely solve the problem which they’d come into the coffee shop to talk about.

Sometimes, people plunge into reveries and return with responses to problems. But often it’s those who are left behind, forced to wait for the fairy-adventurers to uncross their eyes, who unravel rightly what ought to be done.

The point is not really what the particular problem was, nor what solution Satu Sjöström proposed. The point is what happened next. What happened next was that Satu explained to Sozen her solution, and in her mild excitement about the solution, and discomfit about the arms, she explained it a little badly, although not that badly. Sozen, being slightly still in his potato nature, and moreover battling to get by in autotranslation Finnish, mistook Satu’s solution for something else, something which would never have worked. This renegade resolution, however, this supposed suggestion which was as it were only a trick of the light, or a mondegreen of the lyrics, this complete and utter solution to nothing proposed by absolutely no one, just happened to knock Sozen’s brain cogs aswirl, so that his brain swiftly begat a far more ingenious idea, an idea which happened actually to be the same idea that Satu had just seconds ago actually explained to Sozen.

A common enough occurance. So it is that those who have been away with the fairies often misattribute, to their own adventures at that seelie and lootable Court, creations of mortals who have labored in their absence.

On this occasion Satu wisely chose to clarify the fairy fruit’s supply chain. But because Satu was an engineer and devised solutions all the time, whereas Sozen was a financial patron, and for all Satu knew had never solved anything before, and also to be honest because Sozen had just now yelled ‘Aha!’ and then, while everybody stared, had frozen for about a full minute with his arms at full stretch, and also because of other asymmetries at play, Satu did not stake a very forceful claim to the solution. All she did was sigh, ‘Kyllä, tarkoitin sitä,’ or something of that nature.

At which sigh Sozen, who was a committed feminist – something Satu was even less likely to have guessed him than an insane mid-level yakuza boss on the run – vociferously conceded and apologized to Satu, even somewhat profusely apologized to Satu, for having inadvertently taken credit for what had definitely been her idea all along, conceding and apologizing so vociferously and profusely that he took Satu by surprise, escalating the emotional tenor of the conversation so disconcertingly that it never occurred to Satu to suspect what was actually the case, which was that Sozen hadn’t actually understood her at all, and in fact still thought the idea had been his idea.

For Sozen had interpreted Satu’s hesitance as that hesitance by which we commonly tell our listener that the words now on our lips, although they may be the truest words with which our thought can at this juncture supply those lips, are alas words much more wonkily aligned than usual to whatever invisible inner pattern must be those words’ source and test, whatever kind of agitated shapelessness there is that never settles into either a thing we do nor a thing we are, and to be whose equal must be the work of all our words. And because by that kind of hesitance, which was seriously not at all what Satu was going for, we commonly license our listener to speak on our behalf, or we invite our listener to sit quietly and inhale our language with long, untangling ears, or if reliably untangling ears are not among the ears which our listener is equipped to prick, then it is to listen with speculatively deranging ears that we invite our listener, with long, beautifully labyrinthine ears like like the plumbing of bongs, or if our listener has no wonderful ears to prick whatsoever, then it is only that they clamp their mundane ears to the sides of their head like ear-muffs and venture into the unknown with us, for however far as they can, that we we meekly ask them, that they smilingly accompany us a short way into the frozen wintry wastes of the inexpressible, where, of a necessity, they and we will part ways – or whatever, something like that, but basically because that kind of hesitance is basically weird, or whatever, Sozen was pretty convinced it was basically still him who’d nailed the solution, and that what Satu was trying to say, but at this time couldn’t quite find the words to say, was that she had basically come up with the idea, or at least that the unworkable non-solution which she had proposed had haphazardly contained the rudiments of Sozen’s real solution, the real solution to which, if Sozen hadn’t so gauchely and manfully butted in first, most probably Satu would have gradually fumbled her way, although now they’d never know for sure, right?

And so it was that, as Sozen and Satu gathered and sorted black scarves and coats and hats during their myriad preparations for their triumphant exit from the coffee shop, rising from their leather armchairs prepared in principle to transact dark wool to and fro indefinitely, if necessary, in order to establish what was what and whose was whose, though in practice expertly landing hats on heads and tucking chins in scarves all correctly all within a few breathless seconds, Sozen and Satu each believed, with an absolutely settled inner conviction, that they were the sole inventor of the solution to the little problem which, half an hour earlier, they had nipped into the coffee shop to discuss, a belief which in Satu’s case was correct, and for Sozen as wrong as wrong can be.

So committed a feminist was Sozen that when he returned to his apartment that afternoon he did not boast to his wife of five years about the solution he devised, but instead looked at what lay upon their chopping board and quipped quirkily: ‘I don’t know if I am a man who dreamed he was a potato, or a potato who dreamed he was a man!’

His wife froze, and then continued to chop. Her train of thought had dramatically switched tracks.

As it so happened, Sozen had a more pressing problem, although he did not yet know it, which was that he had not yet done anything good, and this was the very last day of his life.

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.