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.

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