Tag Archives: blather

Science fiction and pornography, the myth of critical objectivity and anonymised reviewing

Three things make a post, as the old gag goes. So, try this for size:

Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep?

That’s the title of an intriguing book I reviewed recently for SF Site; the subtitle reads “Critical Perspectives on Sexuality and Pornography in Science and Social Fiction”, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Funnily enough, I don’t think anyone else expressed an interest… I guess I’ve finally found my niche in the genre criticism ecosystem, eh?

It’s an interesting book, albeit something of a mixed bag. Skip to the money-shot:

Like good science fiction, the material collected in Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? leaves us with more questions than we arrived with; if you can stomach the subject matter (which shouldn’t really appall anyone but the most prudish and conservative, to be honest, though my perceptions may be somewhat skewed), this is prime fuel for your imaginatory engines. The focal character of James Tiptree, Jr.’s story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” suggests that, as humans, “we’re built to dream outwards” [pp 239], to project our desire onto “the other”, whoever or whatever it may happen to be. It’s an insight that makes more sense each time you read it, and serves to underline the basic commonality between sex and science fiction, or indeed art in general — they are both ways in which we try to subsume ourselves into (or control and dominate over) that which we are not.

Love makes us do strange things, after all.

It really, really does. 🙂

The (Schis)matrix reloaded; criticism and subjectivity

I can’t remember where I saw the first link to There Is No Genre, but I do remember Casey Samulski’s opening post made me think [he/she]’d have interesting things to say in future, and subbing to the RSS feed. Today, that trust was rewarded with a repost review of Chairman Bruce’s Schismatrix (which I fully intended to review after re-reading it late last year… and so it goes) with a coda born of hindsight:

… this really is the tricky part of good criticism. Ultimately, it is subjective. An author can do their best to ensure that a particular effect resonates with his or her readership but it’s no guarantee of that outcome. No two people read something identically. We each take to a work our own experiences, including previous works read, our own sense of beauty, and our own preconceptions about the novel at hand. This is not to say that you cannot have some objectivity in this process — I have read things that I haven’t enjoyed but that I have appreciated for their craftsmanship. Instead, I would argue that objectivity is something of a distant shore to be paddled towards but never landed upon.

Preference. Mood. Taste. These are all culprits at various times and they are inevitable, responsible for sabotaging even the most sober of inspections. In order to criticize well, you must remember that these reign over your judgment, tirelessly skewing your sense of direction. Most importantly, I think you can never pretend that you understand a work completely — there must always be the admission that you are only witness to what you were able to discern and that, like all art, this does not define what is actually there.

Yes, yes, and thrice yes; I always thought that subjectivity was implicit in any and every review ever written, but the peridic cycles of angst und wagling about negative reviews and uppity critics serves to demonstrate that’s surely not the case. And now for the resonant chime in a passing pair of sentences from Jeff VanderMeer in a Booklife post:

… there’s also the uncomfortable truth that no one is ever going to perceive your book exactly the way that you intended for it to be perceived. In coming into contact with the world the text changes, given an additional dimension by readers.

temple bell, Korea

[image courtesy nurpax]

Reviewing while blindfolded

But what if, to stymie future complaints about reviewer bias and preconceptional baggage, you inverted the normal anonymity curve of the reviewing process, namely naming the reviewer (generally uncredited in a lot of non-genre venues, or so I’m led to believe) but concealing the author’s identity (and, presumably, publishing details) from said reviewer?

… the editors of this magazine asked if I would be interested in being part of an experiment in criticism. They were curious what would happen if we inverted the standard “anonymous review” formula—if instead of the reviewer having the cloak of anonymity, we were to keep the book under review anonymous from its critic, and thereby shield it from any and all prejudice—whether positive or negative, whether directed at the author, the publishing house, the blurbers, the cover art, etc. I swore several oaths to stay true to the project (Eds.: “No googling”), and soon enough a book arrived at my house. Its covers, front matter, and endpages had all been stripped, and the spine blacked out with a Sharpie. I didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it or who was publishing it or when. I didn’t know if it was the author’s first or twenty-first publication. Fiction? Nonfiction? Genre? Self-published? I didn’t know anything (and at this writing, I still don’t) except that it wasn’t poetry. What could I do? I began to read.

Rose Fox of Publisher’s Weekly (thanks to whom I found that post) mentions that it mirrors periodic calls for genre venues to anonymise the slushpile – a suggestion plainly motivated by the “good stories lose out to established names” theory of short fiction publication.

The ones most readily identifiable–written by writers with very distinctive voices, or making use of familiar and copyright-protected characters or settings–would presumably be routed directly to the editors anyway, so generally anonymizing the slushpile seems like a reasonable way of reducing possible bias against authors with certain types of names. It wouldn’t do a thing to reduce unconscious bias against certain types of stories, but it would probably make it more obvious, which is not a bad thing.

Moving back to book reviewing, though, the point is made in the comments that with genre fiction, some sort of filtering is required (so that a romance reviewer doesn’t end up with a Greg Egan collection, f’rinstance)… but as I see it, that truism actually weakens the original thesis, which seems to be predicated on the ongoing fiction that there is some sort of objective measurement of quality that can be applied to all writing in the same way. With reference to the above links and quotes, I suggest that the myth of critical objectivity is long overdue for burial; there seems to be an evolving collective consensus on such matters when viewed en masse and at a distance, but once you zoom in close it’s subjectivity and personal opinion all the way down.

That this is unclear to so many people is a source of perpetual bafflement to me, but then so is Dan Brown’s status as a bestseller. So there you go. 🙂

Friday Photo Blogging: my other echo pedal is also a Memory Man

One of the joys of being in a band that actually plays shows is that it’s a lot easier to convince yourself to spend money on new musical toys as a result. So when I was PayPal’d some cash for a big bunch of books I recently sold off, I was on eBay within five minutes purchasing this little doozy:

Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai

I already own the other Memory Man (the original Deluxe) as well; it’s true analogue, so sounds more lush, but the Hazarai here has all the handy crazy extras: tap-tempo, sweepable filters, loop recording and overdubbing, reverse delay… it’s like Pink Floyd’s entire career crammed into one small box.

Now all I have to do is learn how to use it. What a chore… 🙂


I had a bunch more stuff typed out at this point (though admittedly less than in the FPBs of old), but it appears that WordPress has decided to eat it all without storing the automatic drafts-in-progress it usually does. And I’m afraid I can’t be bothered to spend another half hour retyping it all, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say that I’m still busy and that pretty much everything is going about as well as I could expect or hope for.

Though I will just say this: go read the latest Futurismic story, “Homeostasis” by Carlos Hernandez, because it’s a good story with a zero-schmaltz happy ending, and the twenty minutes it’ll take you will be repaid by putting a smile on your face. Once that’s done, you can head off and have a good weekend; that’s certainly my intention. Hasta luego!

Friday Photo Blogging: Hotrod Moggy

It’s not quite a Little Red Corvette, but I’m a sucker for old British cars from the bottom end of the scale – and the Morris Minor is a classic example. You don’t see many of ’em any more, let alone ones that have been modded up in a hotrod style:

Hotrod Morris Minor

Photography output has suffered from technical difficulties of late; for some reason my proper camera’s memory card refuses to mount on my computer, and the camera on my phone keeps telling me that “zoom is not available in this mode” – no matter which mode it’s in. Something to fix when I get a moment… which may not be for a little while, given the current state of my schedule. Which is why this’ll be a brief FPB, too!


Album of the week

I can be unequivocal with this week’s recommendation: you need to go and listen to the music of one Willem Maker. His new album New Moon Hand is quite simply amazing; as I put it in my review for Outshine:

Non-ironic roots Americana blues from a gravel-throated angel; the most beautiful and soulful record I’ve heard so far this year. Buy it.

Seriously.

Writing about books

Oh, don’t make me laugh! I’ve got no pending review commissions at the moment, so I’ve been dipping into my growing pile of read-for-pleasure titles, including a fair few from my lovely clients at PS Publishing. I keep meaning to do some Reading Journal stuff about ’em, but priorities are – by necessity – currently focussed elsewhere.

Freelance

This is a crunch month – two small projects to complete, and a developmental section of another to wrap up. Which – combined with all the other more regular tasks I have to do on a daily basis and my desire to take next weekend off for a trip up North – means I’m working twelve hour days at the moment. It’s tough, but it’s good. It’s also a reminder to my future self that scheduling is an integral part of this freelance gig. One that I really need to get better at… :-S

Futurismic

It’s been a busy week over at Futurismic, as is often the case at the start of a new month. Karen M Roberts’ “Awakening in Six Parts” went up on Monday, and I strongly suggest you read it – it’s a great story, and something quite different to what we’ve published before. It stuck with me for days after the first time I read it, and that’s got to be a sign of a strong story. Go see what you think, leave a comment.

New columnist Brenda Cooper has kicked off a good discussion with her debut column on artificial intelligence, as well. I love running Futurismic when we get some good comment traffic; it’s a joy to see people engaging with what we publish. 🙂

Books and magazines seen

Powers: Secret Histories - John Berlyne (ed.)None to speak of; been a quiet few weeks again, with the exception of a PS care package that included a copy of the trade edition of Powers: Secret Histories.

I quite deliberately hold off talking up PS books here at VCTB – not because I don’t think they’re good, but because I don’t think it’s appropriate given that it’s my job to do it elsewhere – I’m no shill. But I have to mention that Secret Histories really is a book of staggering scope (not to mention arm-straining size); I’ve never read a Tim Powers novel in my life, but I’ve still found myself utterly entranced by it.

I think it appeals to the same geeky part of me that adored technology catalogues and Haynes manuals as a kid, and the part of me that loved learning about cataloguing and bibliographical work when I was a library employee. It’s a taxonomical study, fanboy wig-out and DVD-extras in one package, beautifully laid out and full of commentary from Powers himself. Bloody fascinating.

Coda

Well, that’s more than I expected to write, which is often the way with FPB. But time waits for no scruff-bag, and I’m hoping to get enough work doen tonight to pop out to a gig later in the evening. As such, I’m going to bid you all a good weekend and get back to real work – take care!

Friday Photo Blogging: Banana-boat Blues

Gonna be a pretty brief FPB this week; it’s a friend’s birthday bash this evening, and I’m well behind on my daily duties thanks to the ongoing mangling of my body-clock. I think I need to get out of the house in the daytime much more than I have; my diurnal cycle is offset from consensus reality by about five hours at the moment, and I doubt it’s doing me much good.

I did make it out of the house on Wednesday, though; I took a brisk stroll down to the seafront in the early evening. This is probably the best time of year to be in Velcro City; the days are long and the weather is clear, but the students are still busy wrapping up their years and the tourists have yet to descend like Asda-clad locusts. The city is fresh, bright and full of space. There is time to sit and watch, and think.

Banana boat

Even so, seeing a banana boat rolling in from the Caribbean triggers thoughts of places warmer, brighter and less familiar… I need to get out on the road again some time soon, I reckon.


Album of the Week

It’s a mark of how busy I’ve been doing other stuff that I’ve not reviewed much new music this week, and that which I have isn’t worthy of due props. So I’ll do another recommendation from the most-played lists on my Last FM account: far and away, my most-played band are Idlewild, and much as most fans will tell you they got progressively less interesting as their career continued, I’m very fond of the later stuff. Warnings / Promises is probably my favourite; it’s folky post-punk (or is it punky post-folk?) style is bolstered by a simple production job that eschews fancy effects and frippery, and Roddy Woomble’s lyrics speak to me in a way that never fails to inspire. Great album; go listen.

Writing about books

The This is Not a Game review has returned with editorial comments and suggestions; gonna nail that sucker over the weekend.

Freelance

Yup, hella busy on a couple of website projects still, hence my cave-mole lifestyle this week. Learning lots about MODx, though, which is good stuff.

Futurismic

Business as usual over at Futurismic; I got to talk about what the site means to me and what I try to achieve with it during yesterday’s recording of another Sofanauts podcast, which should be out on Sunday if you fancy listening to me blather on about teaching people the joys of thinking science fictionally about the non-fictional world we live in, and a lengthy but incoherent defence of the Mundane SF movement. Don’t worry, the other guests say plenty of interesting stuff; think of me as the comic relief. 🙂

Aeroplane Attack

Less than a week until gig number three; turns out that it’s now only a two-band line-up, which gives us a little more stage time in which to try out a work-in-progress tune and switch the set around a little. So lots of stuff to work on when we practice on Sunday…

Books and magazines seen

The drought has broken! Interzone #222 continues TTA’s run of gorgeous and genuinely sf-nal cover art:

Interzone #222

A couple of interesting titles from Tor UK, also: item the first is a paperback of John Scalzi‘s Zoe’s Tale, which is tempting primarily because I’ve never read any of his fiction despite following the guy’s internet presence for a few years, and I’m curious to know what he’s like on the page.

Winterstrike by Liz WillaimsItem the second is Winterstrike by the lovely Liz Williams. I’ve read a few books of hers before, but none of her ‘pure’ sf – a situation that needs rectifying.

And there was also a care package from my lovely clients PS Publishing, meaning that I’ve got (literally) piles of beautifully-printed books begging me to read them. There are worse problems to have, I think. 🙂

Coda

Right, that’s your lot – I’ve got stuff to do! Have yourselves a good long weekend, whatever you choose to do with it. Hasta luego!

Friday Photo Blogging: rocking out

This week’s photo comes at two removes from myself; it was taken with the camera of the one and only Rusty Sheriff (Aeroplane Attack’s drummer), taken by Spikey Mark (barman, soundman, DJ, tour manager, Transit van pilot extraordinaire and long-term good buddy), and taken of us (Aeroplane Attack) battering out the riffage at our show on Monday:
Aeroplane Attack - live at The Edge of the Wedge, 11th May 2009
Yes, I am in there; look in the dark patch at the right. They keep me there to prevent me scaring women and small children away from the front of the crowd. 🙂


Album of the week

Actually not an album; it’s more of an EP, and I’m not entirely sure if it’s on release as anything other than a demo. But nonetheless I commend unto you the self-titled EP by Wraptors, who play something like a combination of The Hellacopters, King Crimson and Fugazi. Post-prog’n’roll – you heard it here first, kids.

Writing about books

You’ll note how I include this section every week, just to make myself feel bad for not having done any reviewing[1]. That said, I have actually been getting some reading in; it’s not like I’m short of stuff to talk about. Time[2], on the other hand…

Freelance

Connecting neatly to that previous statement, everything’s still hellishly busy here in the office. This is a good thing; if there hadn’t been so many gigs to watch (and play) this week I’d probably be further ahead than I am, but next week is looking pretty sparse for extracurricular stuff, and hence ripe for some long evenings of deck-clearing. If the weather stays like it is, it’s not as if I’ll have many other options!

Futurismic

All is well at Futurismic; a good week for traffic again, and a sudden spate of posts about computer games. One of the things I like most about blogging is being in a position to see these themes bubble up out of the Zeitgeist; reminds me that the world’s just one big emergent system. Synchronicity is meaningless, but all the more beautiful and fascinating for that.

Books and magazines seen

Nothing new for a second week running. Then again, it’s been a slow week for new music arriving, as well… the music and publishing industries have their own little biorhythms, too. All part of that Zeitgeist, y’see. 😉

Coda

As I did an Aeroplane Attack update separately, I think I’ve pretty much said my piece for the week, except to point out that playing one gig and going to watch two more in the same week is as tiring as it is fun, and it would be nice to be paid to do nothing else but make loud music or watch other people doing so. But if we were to start listing all the things that it would be nice to do for a living, we’d be here for hours! So I’ll spare us all the tedium and just wish you a good weekend – look after yourselves, OK?


[ 1 – You’ll probably also note that it doesn’t seem to have any effect, unless you’re of a more forgiving nature than myself. ]
[ 2 – Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, yeah? ]