Angry career reviewers, penitent genre bloggers, the Salami Award, and more

Well, well. You think us genre reviewers and critics are a stroppy lot, you should see at the literary reviewers from US newsprint media getting all hissy about their platform being eroded away from underneath them. The Print is Dead blog has this to say:

“And when Winslow himself writes that the loss of book review sections will “[choke] off such discussion of books,” he couldn’t be more wrong. There is now, because of the Web, probably more discussion of books than ever before. But what really infuriates Winslow, and many of the other critics, is that all of this discussion is happening without them. So it’s not that books are being burned; instead, what’s happening is the self-importance of book reviewers is going up in smoke.”

That really underscores why I’m glad to see the genre scene thriving online – I think we may get over that particular hump before the ‘straights’ do. I can’t think of any reviewers in sf/f who I think of as being self-important – but then (with the obvious exception) I can’t think of anyone who has made it their sole career and source of income, either. There’s a corellation there, I think.

Meanwhile, Gabe Chouinard has come back in response  to Jonathan McCalmont’s post that I mentioned yesterday. Señor Chouinard argues that a new critical venue should strive to build a new audience from scratch with innovatory approaches, rather than trying to entice away established readers from other venues:

“… street-level criticism is going to open up the genre dialogue to once and for all include people from outside of genre, rather than excluding them from the discussion. Our approach is meant for a NEW kind of audience, an audience that we have to manufacture from the ground up. There’s plenty of room for all kinds of readers in street-level criticism, and it’s my assertion that, by treating reviewing as a subset of the greater literary critical dialogue, we’re in effect opening the ghetto walls to allow outsiders to come in and have a good look around, without fear of stigma and without fear of rejection.”

Someone else responding to Jonathan (or rather, apologising for a response he neither finished or posted) is Andrew ‘SFBC’ Wheeler. After having had a while to ruminate on the matter, Mr. Wheeler has decided that his reaction to Jonathan’s post on the aesthetics of fantasy had roots in other things:

“Eventually the Clue Stick descended heavily on my head and I realized McCalmont was exactly the same sort of blogger as I was, and that was what annoyed me. (A similar realization hit me about William Lexner, previously — though I think Lexner really is trying to be incredibly obnoxious, while people like me and McCalmont just come off that way sometimes.)

So I’ve moved McCalmont into the mental category of “curmudgeons who occasionally annoy me but who I want to take seriously,” joining such excellent company as Barry Malzberg and Norman Spinrad (mostly for his book reviews, which I don’t read as often as I should these days). That doesn’t mean that I won’t post a “look at this stupid thing someone said” essay about any of them — that seems, for better or worse, to be a lot of what I do here — but I hope it means that I’ll take the idea seriously first…and only then reject it out of hand.”

As back-handed compliments go, they don’t come much bigger than that. I think.

A few other things of note, while I’m at it:

Matrix Magazine (another fine product of the BSFA stable) has an article featuring soundbite interviews with the shortlist nominee authors for the 200 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Ironic understatement award goes to Brian Stableford, talking of the importance of genre awards:

“It’s obviously better to have such reference-points than not to have them … [e]specially if they can occasionally whip up a little controversy.”

Controversy, Mr. Stableford? Surely not …

(Which reminds me, I wrote an essay ages back about the value of genre fiction awards, and it’s probably high time I looked at it again in the light of the huge amount I’ve learned since I first published it.)

As far as good reviews of the Clarke shortlist are concerned, you could do an awful lot worse than let the ladies from Eve’s Alexandra take you through them. Their take on M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing went up yesterday.

Last but not least, I propose the creation of a new award, to be given for ‘most laugh-out-loud metaphor deployed in a serious review of a serious genre novel’. The first winner for this award (which can be given out whenever I or anyone else decide it’s time for one to be announced) is Adam Roberts, for this genius line from his review of Ian McDonald’s Brasyl:

“Brasyl’s 2006, 2032, and 1732 are not, it turns out, part of the same timeline, but salami slices from different places on the sausage of the multiverse.”

As this is the inaugural award, the recipient sentence will provide the name for it; feel free to confer a Salami Award on any piece of critical writing you encounter and feel worthy.

Book Review: ‘Mad Professor – the Uncollected Short Stories’ by Rudy Rucker

Rucker's 'Mad Professor' collection

‘Mad Professor – The Uncollected Stories’ by Rudy Rucker – Thunder’s Mouth Press, January 2007; ISBN-13: 978-1560259749 (PBK)

Rudy Rucker is a unique and idiosyncratic science fiction writer, who over the years has slowly carved out a niche for himself in the canonical landscape. Closely associated with Sterling’s seminal cyberpunks, he has also defined his own sub-school of writing, ‘transrealism’. The product of this colourful and care-free career is a brand of science fiction with its own distinctive sound and texture, dressed in surf-bum threads and sun-tanned by laid-back surrealism.

This collection’s title is meant to be (at least partially) ironic. In his introduction to the book, while acknowledging that he may indeed appear to others as being a mad professor, he quotes a character from his recent novel Mathematicians in Love (Tor Books, 2006): Crazy means illogical. I’m logical. Therefore I’m not crazy. Note that a system can be at the same time logical and unpredictable. He then goes on to define the cornerstone qualities of the logical system that is his writing: thought experiments; power-chords; gnarliness; wit.

So, how do these qualities manifest themselves? Thought experiments are, of course, the common currency of science fiction – albeit one that Rucker takes to with particularly effervescent glee. In essence, he takes an idea or conceit and runs with it, just to see what happens, and often to hilarious effect. Take for example Panpsychism Proved, a short piece of flash set in the cafeteria of the Apple computer company, or the bluntly titled Six Thought Experiments Concerning the Nature of Computation; these sketches examine scientific conjectures or theories in a fictional setting with a wink and a wry grin.

Rucker defines power-chords as classic science fiction tropes that function in the same way as well known hooks or riffs in the canon of rock music – as established themes to be taken as a starting point for improvisation. Every Rucker story has one, ranging from the biotechnology at the centre of Junk DNA (a ribofunk story written in collaboration with Bruce Sterling) to the titular creatures in Elves of the Subdimensions (a collaboration with Paul Di Filippo). Like Philip K. Dick (to whom he is often compared), he has a gift for putting new spin on old ideas, but he avoids the dark paranoia that became Dick’s trademark.

Gnarliness, one of Rucker’s favourite surf-slang acquisitions, is an adjective that describes a story as being complex and unpredictable without being random, or being able to take on a plausible (if strange) life of its own. Gnarliness is the glue that holds Rucker’s fiction together, and a prime example of a story adhering to its own bizarre internal logic is The Men in the Back Room at the Country Club. In this transrealist take on the down-home Southern Gothic rapture tale, the reader is taken from old men stored overnight in booze-filled golf-bags to a full-scale invasion of people-eating aliens. It’s ridiculous, yes – but it works on its own terms, if you’ll allow it to.

Wit is a word that means different things to different people, but Rucker defines it as “[the naming of] the elephant in the living room – an acknowledgement of the fundamental glitches that modern life is full of, as opposed to the simple point-and-click of blunt humour. He refers to his idol Robert Sheckley as an exemplar of wit; if I have understood his definition correctly, I would offer Douglas Adams in the same position, being more familiar with his work. Rucker always aims for wit in his writing; he may not hit the bullseye every time, but he’s usually somewhere on the board, occasionally pulling off a trick-shot like Jenna and Me, a story written in collaboration with (and about) his son that takes us from a small-time ISP computer room in California to the Bush family residence in deepest Texas, by way of back-room conspiracy politics and alien consciousnesses that download themselves into humans over wi-fi.

Rucker’s writing is like guacamole flavoured ice-cream – it’s never going to be to everyone’s taste, especially in the world of science fiction, which quite often revels in a type of po-faced seriousness that Rucker seems to delight in thumbing his nose at. Such readers might find the collaborative stories easier to stomach, with the other writers leavening Rucker’s beach-party prose to a greater or lesser extent, without diluting the core ideas and themes.

The reader who is willing to simply surrender to the gnarliness, however, can expect to enjoy a roller-coaster trip through the cartoon psychedelia of Rucker’s imagination. Along the way they’ll meet intelligent bacteria from other dimensions, obsessive academics who have allowed the spirits of deceased writers to possess their genitalia, technicians and scientists who have crossed the line of professional distance from their own research, and everyday people living larger-than-life in the cracks and crevices of a world that’s just a short step sideways from our own.

Rucker stands alone in the science fiction pantheon as some kind of trickster god of the computer science lab; where others construct minutely plausible fictional realities, he simply grabs the corners of the one we already know and twists it in directions we don’t have pronounceable names for. His prose may not be the most perfectly crafted, nor his premises the most plausible, but within the scope of the logical system he has built for his work, he is a peerless genius – a mad professor, in fact.

[This review originally published at SF Site, republished here with the permission of the editor.]

Critical dichotomies and science fiction revolutions

Just a few things to share that I thought deserved more than the standard link-dump treatment due to their vague thematic connectedness:

Jonathan ‘SF Diplomat’ McCalmont has been thinking about the dichotomy in genre criticism – which is nothing new, but he’s done it out loud this time:

“So what does all of this mean? It means that SF criticism has been around as long as SF but that it is now, and has probably always been, prone to placing itself in a ghetto constituted from an inaccessible conversation between critics, authors and the occasional genre fan who wants to think a little bit more about the books he has read. The way to satisfy Le Guin’s demands is not simply by producing more critical writing, it is by making sure that genre criticism is read by as wide an audience as possible.”

It’s worth a read, even if (in fact, especially if) you don’t read much sf lit crit. It’s also (though he’ll hate me for saying so*) a little less incendiary than some of Jonathan’s other posts … unless you take offence to the Livejournal jibe.

So, two cultures, you say? A growing gap between them? Sounds like the sort of situation that causes … revolution**! Martin McGrath’s largely unpublicised stealth blog (which you should all subscribe to and read, because firstly he’s a lovely chap and a good critic, and secondly it’ll wind him up no end) features an extended version of a riff I heard Martin deploy at Eastercon, namely that revolutions that occur in science fiction novels are almost invariably improbable in their execution:

The instantaneous change: Even in sf that obeys the laws of physics and outlaws FTL there’s always one thing that travels faster than light, revolution. Nevermind the vast amounts of time and money it takes in the real world to make things even incrementally better – in sf the mere action of announcing the revolution is often enough to have the peasants dressing better, eating better and quoting Shakespeare.”

Ouch. He has a point though, and it’s an intelligent post from someone who actually knows more than he’d really like to know about politics. Go read.

[*You can consider that revenge for the Whitney Houston gag, Jonathan. 😉 ]

[** I warned you the connection was vague, didn’t I?]

Iain M. Banks returns to the Culture

Great news via Big Dumb Object – the next Iain M. Banks novel is scheduled for release next February.

It’s set in the Culture (which was revealed a little while ago, IIRC), and will be called Matter (apparently just to annoy internet people, as that was the working title for Steep Approach to Garbadale).

According to BDO, the sample the man himself read out had all the usual IMB goodness we have come to expect. There’s a reason to look forward to the new year – as far as I’m concerned, the release of an Iain M. Banks novel should be treated as just cause for national holiday.

Banks holiday weekend, anyone?

OK, I’ll get my coat.