In praise of “economic waste”

J M McDermott’s heartfelt essay at SF Signal chimed with me for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that certain recent Life Direction Decisions™ of my own are now pointing me toward an economically wasteful Masters degree, but also because McDermott seems to share a lot of my own value systems. You should surely read the whole thing, but here’s a few favourite bits:

Be proud of me. Be proud of my economic waste. The greatest tragedy of our culture is that we have allowed the financiers to take over our young imaginations. Our brightest minds from our greatest universities flock to high paying jobs, where they try to make as much money as they can before they die. The best and brightest children our nation has to offer have all been seduced into believing that ownership of large houses is more important than the environmental footprint that our McMansions smear all over our fragile ecology. The systems of wealth culture have brainwashed our youth into believing that upward mobility is something everyone should aspire to, and that being a leader is something glorious and respectable and sexy, and everyone else is a slacker or failure, and that it is a shameful thing to be a janitor or a waiter or a truck driver or a stay-at-home mom.

We, all of us, need to stop that shit right now. The best and the brightest of our world should neither be measured by how much money they earn, nor by whether they own big houses, fancy clothes, or all the consumerist bullshit things like that. The only measure of a person that matters is how they affect other people, and how we all can find a way as individuals, communities, and continents, to contribute in a meaningful, positive fashion to the very tiny world we all share. The best and the brightest should, in fact, in a fair world, see high-paying jobs as corrupting influences on the pursuit of true value in the world.


As this experience winds down, I like to think of all these supposedly economically useless degrees, especially degrees in the creation of artistic things like poems or pottery, like getting a degree in being super heroes. By day, people with useless degrees are, most of us, working hard to keep our pantries stocked with food and our lights on. If we are lucky, our daylight work is engaging and interesting. If we are not, it is a minor inconvenience as long as there is food and light. Then, we leave our day jobs and our lives open up. We read, and analyze, and create. We engage in debate on the internet and in the magazines of our fields–for instance, at SFSignal. We continue pursuing our interests, beyond graduation, and maybe we make things or ideas that whisper out into the world, rippling chaos theory’s caribou sneezes to rend the walls of Jericho. We go out to buy groceries afterwards, and nobody knows us. We go to work, and maybe we tell one person there over lunch what happened in our esoteric pursuits. We work hard, raise families and/or pets, and most people don’t even know what we really are in the wee hours and the corners of our lives, when we pursue what interests us.

But, at night, in the corners of our lives, when no one is looking, we are superheroes.


Fables from the Fountain

Fables from the Fountain - Ian Whates (ed.)From the NewCon Press press release that just hit my inbox:

Fables from the Fountain (ed. Ian Whates) is a volume of all original stories written as homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart, featuring many of today’s top genre writers…

… and some other guy with a silly name. How’d he sneak in there? Item five in the TOC, look:

The Fountain, a traditional London pub situated in Holborn, just off Chancery Lane, where Michael, the landlord, serves excellent real ales and dodgy ploughman’s, ably assisted by barmaids Sally and Bogna (from Poland).

The Fountain, in whose Paradise bar a group of friends – scientists, writers and genre fans – meet regularly on a Tuesday night to swap anecdotes, reveal wondrous events from their past, tell tall tales, talk of classified invention and, maybe, just maybe, save the world…

  1. Introduction – Peter Weston
  2. No Smoke without Fire – Ian Whates
  3. Transients – Stephen Baxter
  4. Forever Blowing Bubbles – Ian Watson
  5. On the Messdecks of Madness – Paul Graham Raven
  6. The Story Bug – James Lovegrove
  7. And Weep Like Alexander – Neil Gaiman
  8. The Ghost in the Machine – Colin Bruce
  9. The Hidden Depths of Bogna – Liz Williams
  10. A Bird in Hand – Charles Stross
  11. In Pursuit of the Chuchunaa – Eric Brown
  12. The Cyberseeds – Steve Longworth
  13. Feathers of the Dinosaur – Henry Gee
  14. Book Wurms – Andy West
  15. The Pocklington Poltergeist – David Langford
  16. The Last Man in Space – Andrew J Wilson
  17. A Multiplicity of Phaedra Lament – Peter Crowther
  18. The Girl With the White Ant Tattoo – Tom Hunter
  19. The 9,000,000,001st Name of God – Adam Roberts
  20. About the Authors

Yup, that’s actually a real story by me. In a real book. Alongside writers who… well, just look at that list.

Holy shit.

(Yeah, I’ve known about this for a while, but it’s still crazy as hell seeing it in real words.)

Anyway, don’t let my presence in that TOC put you off, because this is for a Good Cause:

2011 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Arthur C Clarke Award.  This volume is produced in part to raise funds for the Award, which lost its sponsor last year due to the closure of Sir Arthur’s publishing company. The book will be released May 2011.

Available as an A5 paperback or a dust-jacketed hardback, limited to just 200 copies, each individually numbered and signed by all the authors. Cover art by Dean Harkness.

Price: Paperback, £9.99; Signed Limited Hardback, £29.99

The NewCon Press site is currently offline pending the resolution of some rather troublesome domain registration SNAFU, but I’m told you should be able to pre-order Fables… from Amazon in the fairly near future. More details as I get ’em.

Holy shit.

Superbooks last all summer long

Those nice folk at SF Signal occasionally ask me to pitch in on their “Mind Meld” collective-interview thingies, and I’m always happy to take part, usually because they ask me questions that I haven’t thought to ask myself. The latest example: What books/stories do you feel are just as good now as they were when you first read them?

Unusually for me, I didn’t take the opportunity to deconstruct the question (though I could have done – are the stories in question just as good in the same way, or is it that they always seem to have something newly satisfying to offer on each return visit? There’s a deep-seated nostalgia in genre fiction – and in culture in general – that I flich from instinctively, and I can’t think of any book that I return to as “comfort food”, but that’s a personal preference rather than an edict). I also decided to skip briefly over one of my biggest lasting favourites because I’ve mentioned it so many times before in previous Mind Melds… so go find out what I (and a number of other smarter and more erudite folk) picked out.

Emergent pattern of interest: Ursula LeGuin makes a very good showing, though with a selection of different titles. Maybe quality does matter after all, eh? 🙂

Science fiction’s future-flinch

It occurred to me that, although I mentioned it at Futurismic, I didn’t plug my induction to the hallowed Locus Roundtable blog here at VCTB. So consider this an attempt to redress the issue: should you be interested, you can observe me firehosing my overly verbose and underinformed opinions around in the company of people far more knowledgeable, well-read and concise than myself, covering such topics as the aesthetics of science fiction, sf’s troubled relationship with the (un)foreseeable future, and the travails of genre taxonomy. You can also read my very own “origin story” about how I found my way into the scene (which is a high-water mark of self-indulgent introspection, even for me; selah).

The real purpose of this post, though, is to take the opportunity to post the full text of my response to the “SF vs The Future” question, which – thanks to its prodigious wordcount and numerous digressions – was shaved down somewhat before being included in the final article. To be clear, I had no objections to it being shortened, especially as, in light of the other responses, some of my points were inverted or rendered redundant; I include the full copy here primarily for the sake of adding it to my online archive of critical writing (which I mean to expand with a lot of my as-yet-uncollected reviews and essays in the months to come, time permitting). So, feel free to get stuck in – comments, curses and cries of “what the hell are you on about” are – always – more than welcome. 🙂

OK, so: those of you who follow cyberpunk’s very own apostate chairman-in-voluntary-exile Bruce Sterling with even a shred of the obsessiveness with which I do so (fanboy is as fanboy does, after all) will have encountered his word for the “problem” that sf (and almost every other sphere of human endeavour) is having at the moment: atemporality.

Paraphrasing somewhat (and confessing to considering myself to have the open licence on rewriting the concept to suit my needs that said concept implicitly embeds within itself): atemporality is basically end-case po-mo (and has also been labelled as “altermodernism”). It’s what the world looks like when the conceptual space you inhabit is – and always was – saturated with po-mo’s erasure of metanarrative; when you’ve learned from birth that if you don’t construct your own narratives pretty fast, someone else will construct them on your behalf. (And then charge you for the privilege of featuring in them, most likely, unless you’re on the lower tiers of their freemium package, in which case you’re getting some sort of intangible and easy-to-scale benefit in exchange for reinforcing said narrative. But I digress… which is very unlike me, I know, and your indulgence is appreciated.)

The Future (caps deliberate) was old-school sf’s metanarrative; The Future used to be somewhere awesome and clean which we could either build, conquer or travel to. But the closer we got to the real (uncapitalised) future, the more it looked like… well, a lot like today, really, or even yesterday, only faster, more ruthless, more worn at the corners, and packed full of grim new threats alongside a remarkably persistent cast of old classics (Teh 4 Horsemen Haz A Posse). The future isn’t somewhere that anyone – except possibly the more hardcore transhumanists, who are getting intriguingly vocal and self-assured of late – wants to escape to. Indeed, I think most of us, at some level or another, are more interested in escaping from the future.

So there’s your crisis… and to paraphrase the late Doug Adams, it’s a difficult crisis for us to see for the very same reason that a tourist in Trafalgar Square struggles to see England. What’s interesting is the schism between the two responses to it, which I’m going to hastily label Consolatory Nostalgia and The Future As Engineering Problem (and doubtless regret the choice of labels later, but hey, this is how the altermodern critic works – it makes sense to me at the moment I’m writing it, and that’s pretty much the best I can hope for).

Interestingly, you can see these same responses cropping up in a lot of other arts, though sf’s history of speculating about the future gives it a set of tools which, while available to many other types of artist, it has a unique familiarity and aptitude with. As such, Consolatory Nostalgia pretty much rules the world of music right now: a pandaemonium of subsubsubcultures, all based on reappropriating the nice idealised aspects of bygone eras (and, of course, glossing over the nasty bits, which tend to be spookily mirrored by events in The Now) by mimicking the sounds of that moment. (Interesting, though, how the 80s revival in music and fashion started long before anyone but the smarter economists saw our latest financial shitrain nudging its way over the horizon; a smart person with time on their hands could probably learn to read these things like tea-leaves… though monetising it – as always – would be the real challenge.)

Indeed, music seems to be going through its own double-dip creative recession; even the traditionally futurist field of electronica is deep in a trough of retro. Electronica was pop music’s High Modernist moment, the point after which the ultimate experimental possibilities were, if not actually exhausted, then at least demonstrated to be little more than intellectual curiosities. There’s only so much you can do with words of English on a page and still have it entertain and fascinate the average non-academic reader; in the same way, there’s only so many different things you can do with the frequencies between 40Hz and 40kHz, which is why pop music is increasingly homogenous, retro revivalism (ironic, faithful or otherwsie) and genre mashups are ubiquitous, and the only true groundbreaking steps being made in music are – quite literally – painful to listen to.

But back to sf, where the Consolatory Nostalgia approach gives us steampunk, increasingly baroque space opera and increasingly violent mil-SF. It’s nostalgia for The Future, for a future we now know we’re never going to get: a future where the imposition of White Western Male-brand hierarchy and order (and maybe a bit of empire, even if only economic in nature) automatically led to Better Things (if only for People Like Us).

Now, what’s interesting to me is that the writers and editors who stand accused by the traditionalists of breaking (e.g. Jetse de Vries) or abandoning the genre (e.g. Bill Gibson) are the ones cleaving most closely to the underlying impetus (if not the intellectual machismo and cryptoracism) of the original Cambellian vision of competent folk solving existential risk problems… or, in other words, of The Future As Engineering Problem. Now that it’s become plain that strong-jawed men with toolkits going places in rockets won’t change much for anyone but the strong-jawed men themselves, then that dream of strong-jawed manliness becomes Narcissus’ reflection. Why look at the real future when The Future we dreamed up before was so much more user-friendly? Much space opera and much mil-SF, as has been pointed out by far smarter folk than me many times before, is actually fantasy with rayguns, and is becoming more and more so; steampunk is fantasy with, er, steam. It is escapism. And there is nothing wrong with that, either; diff’rent strokes, and all that.

But you can get a fairly decent idea of what the future will look like if you stop staring into the mirror of The Future and turn your eyes to The Now. It’s not a pretty picture, granted, but from a writer’s perspective it’s packed full of interesting and genuinely terrifying ways to place your characters – and the rest of their species – in some very deep shit indeed, and without the need for any of the implausible aliens or FTL-powered empires or other stuff from The Future. But the sort of inquisitive mind that spots those potholes in the turnpike is probably the sort of mind that finds itself wondering if there’s a way to swerve and avoid them… or even take another road (the ultimate Route Less Travelled) entirely. We’re going to end up in the future whether we like it or not… so why not think about how we can make it slightly less terrifying? Or, like jaggedly gloomy gadfly Paolo Bacigalupi, become a sort of mudlark prophet, digging around in the slimiest recesses of our planetary psyche for the end-games of our wilful ignorances. “If this goes on…” is another classic sf riff, but the guy plays it on a guitar strung with cheesewire.

(I should note at this point that it seems eminently possible to use classic widescreen skiffy tropes to examine The Now in pertinent ways, and I would offer David Marusek as an example thereof; likewise, I’m sure there’s steampunk that does more than yearn for a past when the future was still full of promise, and that there’s small-m mundane sf that falls into every consolatory drinking-den it passes. These patterns are observed generalisations rather than proscriptive divisions, so tell the villagers to douse the torches and put away the pitchforks, mmmkay?)

So, to answer – at long last – Karen’s question: is sf struggling to catch up with the future we’ve found ourselves in? I don’t think it is; I think a non-mathematical half of it has lost all interest in the future (because it doesn’t look like The Future, refunds are not forthcoming, and re-runs are as comforting for the viewer as they are cheap for the broadcasters), while the other half is doing its best to not get sucked across the singularity and into the future before managing to come up with a way to survive the experience (with being able to walk away afterwards considered a definite bonus).

Sf isn’t struggling to catch up with the future; on the contrary, it’s schism’d and reeling from having met the future in person, unexpectedly and with some considerable threat of violence, in an alley behind a franchise restaurant in downtown Mumbai.

My teachable moment with Martin Amis

OK, so, let’s get this one out of the way: I’m packing privilege. Privilege up the wazoo, right here. I know this. I work as hard as I can at unpacking it, and sometimes – probably far more often than I think – I fail. This is one of those times. If there is a fault here, it’s mine.

Perhaps this is one of Those Posts where Privileged White Western Male whines in a privileged way about how he can’t see this whole privilege thing that he’s supposed to see, and someone should really show him, BECAUSE IT’S HARD BEING AN ALLY OMG AND SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE X Y Z.

I don’t want it to be That Post. Part of that is surely me trying to cling to my self-image as Privileged White Western Male Trying To Get Better, but part of it is the fact that in this instance I really struggled see why the teachable moment is supposed to be a teachable moment; indeed, it was the level of struggle that made it obvious this needed to be looked at more closely. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me trying to debate it out, but if there’s one thing we can probably all agree on, it’s that complex ethical debate and the 140 character limit don’t mix; hence this post to get my thoughts out in one coherent lump.

As the title doubtless made clear, I refer of course to the Martin Amis quotes about writing children’s books, as featured in the Faulks On Fiction program on BBC2 last week or so. These ones:

“People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book, I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”

“I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write,” he added.

Now, to be abundantly clear here: I can easily see the general distastefulness of the statement, and there are hundred other ways it could have been phrased which were less so. I also know that Amis is notorious for incendiary statements – to the point where he blatantly grandstands for effect, knowing it’ll get in the papers – and is not, at least as far as his public persona goes, a very nice chap.

Furthermore, I can see that his statements are offensive, because I can see other people’s offence – there’s your litmus test, right there. What I’m trying to do here is understand what it is that I can’t see, and why I can’t see it.

First of all, the implied slur on authors who write for children. It’s clear to me that Amis considers writing for children in some way beneath him, something he has an active disinterest in doing, even something quite repellent to him. This is certainly an elitist thing to say, and a classic case of genre snobbery. Snobbery and elitism aren’t nice things, but nor are they necessarily hate speech. With the boot on the other foot, similar disparagement would pass unmarked – if not lauded – on any number of genre fansites. Slagging off other genres isn’t big or clever, but it’s endemic, and it strikes me as a very minor issue here.

Does that mean I think children’s authors who feel attacked by Amis are taking him too seriously? To be honest, yes. The difference between Amis’ dismissal of an entire genre, and the countless similar dismissals that occur on what must be an hourly basis, online and off, is that Amis has more than twenty-five people listening to him at a time. Does a big soapbox bring greater responsibility? I think it should, but that’s hard to enforce. We can’t realistically legislate or mutually police a commandment to be nice, and not being nice is Amis’ only crime with respect specifically to children’s authors in this incident. Last time I looked at the bestseller lists, children’s authors as a group don’t have much of a claim to being an oppressed minority; certainly no more of one than any other literature marketing bracket. I can see the arguments to the contrary, and would be happy to debate them further, but that’s not the bit that I got hung up on.

Which brings us to the slur against people who have suffered brain damage or mental illness. Further to the above, I feel that any assertion that Amis is equating the writing of children’s literature with brain damage in a general or universal sense is unsustainable; he’s very clearly not saying “you’d have to be brain damaged to write for kids”, but that “I’d have to be brain damaged to write for kids”. I read it as an expression of exaggerated personal horror, very much in the same mould as “you’d have to tie rats to my face to make me write Petrarchian sonnets”, or similar.

To reiterate: it’s not a tasteful way of putting it; crass overstatement seems like an eminently fair charge to make. But is it a deliberate slur on the mentally disabled?

I never thought I’d find myself playing devil’s advocate on behalf of Martin Amis, but I really can’t see that he meant it that way. Perhaps he did, but for the purpose of my own personal quest here, I’m going to assume he didn’t, because it gets me to the real question, which is:

Why am I struggling to see that it’s a slur at all, even if it wasn’t an intended slur?

The answer, of course, is my privilege. I’m not mentally disabled. I have not walked in those shoes.

“Oh, well done, PWWM. Film at eleven, yeah?”

Well, yes. But why didn’t I spot it sooner? I’m far from perfect, and I catch myself rockin’ the privilege a lot – pretty much every day – but I try hard to analyse and neutralise it. I like to think I’m getting better at it, too. It’s my burden to carry, and I’m not begging for a 101 here, nor a pat on the head for being a good fellow traveller. This is me trying to learn out loud over one of the hardest cases of personal privilege blindness I’ve encountered in a long time.

And the only conclusion I can come to is that I’m trying to over-rationalise an emotional response in others. (It would be consistent with, well, pretty much my entire life to this point.) I keep coming up with thoughts along the lines of “but Amis is just using it as an avatar of some massively transformative event!” or “it’s a metaphor for being a completely different person to the one he already is!”, or even “but it’s not directed at any specific person or illness or affliction!”. These thoughts are persistent, largely because I honestly believe them to be true assessments of what Amis was thinking as he spoke. (Yes, I could be wrong; I do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, which is another privilege substructure – the risk levels of me trusting in people’s general good nature are lower than they are for others. That’s another dragon, to be fought another day.)

But now we can locate my blindspot, inferring its position by looking at the spaces around it. It’s the same one Amis himself has. And it’s a very fundamental blindspot, not to mention one that – if you’d have asked me – I’d have confidently claimed I don’t have.

I couldn’t see that what Amis meant doesn’t matter as much as what people felt he meant.

Like all simple answers, obvious in retrospect, it presents an entirely new array of deeply troubling questions about the way I look at the world, and the other people in it. I still have a lot to learn.

But if this self-indulgent handwringing soul-search has demonstrated one thing, it’s that I can sometimes write my way to an answer that I can’t talk my way to. That is, I hope, a tool I can use.