Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

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 weโ€™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. Weโ€™re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses โ€” 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? ๐Ÿ™‚

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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.