Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

On the Obsolescence of the Bourgeois Novel in the Anthropocene

If sci-fi convincingly simulates another world, it gives the reader ways of imagining our world otherwise. Science fiction is more, not less, “realist” than literary fiction. It does not produce the fiction of a severed part of a world, as if the rest was predictable from the part. It produces a fiction of a whole different world as real.

McKenzie Wark [responds to/riffs on/critiques] Amitav Ghosh.

Tomorrow composts today

*The “better future” thing is jam-tomorrow and jam-yesterday talk, so it tends to become the enemy of jam today. You’re better off reading history, and realizing that public aspirations that do seem great, and that even meet with tremendous innovative success, can change the tenor of society and easily become curses a generation later. Not because they were ever bad ideas or bad things to aspire to or do, but because that’s the nature of historical causality. Tomorrow composts today.

*Also, huge, apparently dispiriting disasters can burn off the ground for profound new growth, so the glum and morbid bad-future notion is just as false and silly as this kind of socially-engineered forced-optimism.

 

[…]

*This is not a counsel of despair. It’s atemporality, it’s like an agnosticism. People don’t really require any “better future” per se. Nobody ever receives such a thing. There’s no possibly utopian arrangement which is better for everybody, since society is composed of radically disparate elements with orthogonal needs. People can’t even permanently content their own personal selves. If a guy longs for an X-Prize and wins it, he doesn’t stay permanently happy. A guy with that personality type is gonna look around in near-desperation for something else to radically over-achieve.

Chairman Bruce.

An attenuating peninsula of possibility

Via @dronemodule, a Kim Stanley Robinson joint on utopia as transgenerational revolutionary project, in which he gets more than a little Harawayian:

“… the seven billion people we have, and the nine to ten billion people we’re likely to have, exist at the tip of an entire improvised complex of prostheses, which is our technology considered as one big system. We live out at the end of this towering complex, and it has to work successfully for us to survive; we are far past the natural carrying capacity of the planet in terms of our numbers. There is something amazing about the human capacity to walk this tightrope over the abyss without paralysing fear. We’re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses — however you envision it, it is a real historical moment of great danger, and we need to push hard for utopia as survival, because failure now is simply unacceptable to our descendants, if we have any.”

KSR’s position on most things existential tends to align with my own, at least when I’m in a bright and optimistic phase. If he’s the good angel a-whisper on my shoulder, telling me I’m not wasting my time, I guess @bruces is as good a figure as any for the other one who mutters “well, sure, those goals are pretty admirable and all, but look at where the rubber hits the road — ain’t no utopian scientific process leaving those skid-marks, son”. Between those two voices, I guess have a pretty solid explanation for my insomnia and existential malaise…

As mentioned in the linked piece, utopia and history are hard concepts, if not outright contradictory concepts, to consider simultaneously… but if one was to achieve such an act of high-wire cognitive dissonance in a communicable way, then literature — the novel, or something like it — would surely be the space in which one was most likely to do it. (Pretty sure cinema lacks the sophisticated handling of interiority required for the task; that medium may stimulate emotional response well, but cannot stage the nuanced dramatic conflict that powers any form of politics beyond Scarcity Wars 101.)

Question is, would anyone read it? And if they did, would it make a difference? Probably not… but maybe the same tools might be applied elsewhere, to greater effect.

Worth a try while I’m waiting to die, I reckon.

Descending Olympus

So, that was Eastercon. My [stops to count old badges on lanyard] fifth, and my favourite so far. Well-organised, good fun; a great balance of the familiar and the new; old friends and fresh acquaintances…

… and some dramatic props. [Thanks to Chad Dixon for the photo.]

Iron Throne

I often compare Eastercon to my experiences of Glastonbury back in my twenties: it costs me a fortune, I overindulge in my usual vices, I see less than a third of the stuff I vaguely planned to see, but yet I roll away with a warm glow that comes from sharing a highly specific chunk of space-time with a community of people who share one of the greatest passions of my life, inspired to do new things.

Granted, I’ve never left Eastercon coated in mud, wrapped in a space blanket and trying to chew my own left ear, so the analogy isn’t perfect. I’m pretty sure I never came back from Glasto carrying approximately a third of my own bodyweight in books, either. But hey, I need the exercise… and my Bruce Sterling collection draws nearer to Stage One completion[1].

Eastercon book acquisitions

Olympus was not utterly devoid of controversy and upset, however, and I find myself wanting to talk about that. After the initial heat-of-the-moment furore, what would really have helped would have been a good solid apology and admission of error from the primary source, but… well, this ain’t one.

So, look: you can watch what actually happened right here, and whatever side you take I think that’s gotta be the absolute entry level for having an opinion on this, unless you were actually at the BSFA Awards ceremony. And here’s a record of the Twitter backchannel as it happened.

I was in the audience. Things went from cringeworthy to worse; it was the sort of thing the “trainwreck” metaphor was made for. I was sat a few seats from Lavie Tidhar at the time. That was a very uncomfortable moment for me, as a straight white male British person who just happens to be Lavie’s friend. I can’t imagine how he felt… especially given that early in the day an audience member from the Non-Anglophone SF panel had breezed up to inform him that, despite English being Lavie’s second language, he spoke it very well indeed. Condescending, much?

The common factor here is that both cases of offence were not intended to offend – quite the opposite, in fact. But that doesn’t negate the offence.

The sad thing about this, for me at least, is that Olympus felt very diverse and inclusive with respect to its roster of guests, panel topics and panel composition; a real step forward, even within the short timeframe of my own involvement with fandom. The con committee and the BSFA worked damned hard to make that happen, and as much as I believe it’s important that the failures are acknowledged, I think the good stuff needs to be remembered, too; the sheer scale of effort and passion needed to make these things happen is staggering, and to overlook that energy and commitment would be grossly unfair, no matter what may have gone wrong along the way. So, for the record, let me congratulate the BSFA and the Olypus con committee, the gophers and techs and the folk behind the scenes: I wouldn’t even know where to start, and there was oodles of great stuff over the weekend for which praise is rightly due. There’s a tendency for the baby to go the same way as the bathwater in these situations, and in terms of the grand project – making fandom a space where everyone can feel safe, valued and included, regardless of gender, nationality, skin colour, sexuality or anything else – I feel that it would help to acknowledge that, as a community, we’re “working on our shit”, as the saying goes.

But that’s my privilege speaking, and I know it. It’s easy for me to sit here and hand-wring, rehearse weak or global versions of a The Tone Argument, and recruit for the Cult Of Nice. I’m a white able-bodied just-about-heterosexual cis-male British person, and as such it’s incredibly rare that anyone gets a platform to give my culture a proper kicking, deserved or otherwise. (And hell knows it’s deserved more often than not.)

It’s never pleasurable to have worked damned hard on something, only to have someone pull out the flaws and wave them in your face. But in the context of, say, writing fiction and subbing it to editors for publication, it’s widely acknowledged that that’s how you get better. Yeah, it hurts. Emotional growth, at least in my experience, always does. If the choice is pain or stasis, though, then pain it has to be.

One final thing: I am not holding myself up as an exemplar, here. I owe what personal politicisation I’ve achieved over the last decade to fandom – to debates and discussions (yes, and slapfights) just like this one. Hell knows that I’ve said countless dumb or offensive things over the years, secure and comfortable in my ignorance and privilege, and my unwarranted opinion of myself as a pretty progressive liberal kinda guy, thankyouverymuch. You could probably trawl through the archives right here at VCTB and find enough material to throw me right into the same sin-bin as Meaney, in fact, if not even a deeper one with sharper spikes. Perhaps you could even say that my invisibility was an added layer of privilege; it’s easy to get away with being thoughtless when thoughtlessness is ubiquitous, just one more voice in the crowd.

It is not for me to stand in judgement atop the mountain of the gods.

But this is my community, too, so nor is it for me to ignore or dismiss the hurt I see expressed by others less privileged than I, especially when some of them are people I count as good friends… and there’s a significant amount of it floating around on the intertubes today. (If you’ve not seen any, then perhaps it’s time for you to go look for it.)

I honestly believe the vast majority of us want fandom to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone, even if we aren’t quite as far along with that project as we’d like to think we are. So if I could have one wish, it’s that we keep to the inclusive spirit with which Olympus was put together and executed, and listen to those who are telling us that the story we tell each other (and ourselves) about our community has flaws that still need editing out.

Redrafting sucks. But it’s the only way to make the story better.


[ 1 – Stage One completion involves acquiring one copy of all extant titles, in or out of print; Stage Two will involve trading up all titles to the best editions available, preferably signed hardback firsts. I did a lot of collecting of various things as a kid, and nowadays I realise the best way to get lasting value from assembling a collection is to delimit the set and pick a completion goal with very low likelihood; non-set-limited collections soon lose their appeal for me (because how will you ever know when you’re done?), and completion means you have to find a new thing to collect. Think of it as a sort of vice management strategy; accept the inevitability of the vice, then steer it as safely and cheaply as possible into a cul-de-sac that you think you could live in for a good long time.

Yes, this is how I think about my hobbies. No, I don’t know why. It works for me. Selah. ]

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? 🙂