Tag Archives: Science Fiction

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: 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!

Desolation Road by Ian McDonald

You should buy this book – provided you don’t already own a copy of another edition, of course, though I’m sure Lou Anders and Ian McDonald would both be very happy if you did so anyway[1].

Lou posted to show off the Stephan Martiniere steampunk cover art, which is pretty sexy in its own right[2], but I’m reposting primarily because Desolation Road is one of my favourite novels, was McDonald’s first published book, and I don’t think it’s as well known as it deserves to be.

Desolation Road by Ian McDonald (Pyr edition, 2009)

I wrote a review of it back in 2006 when I discovered it by chance in my local honeytrap second-hand bookstore; it’s not a great review even by my standards (in my defence, I’d not been doing it long), but my enthusiasm for Desolation Road stands even after three years. Best summed up by the blurb that declared it to be a cross-breed of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ray Bradbury’s Mars, it’s probably the only science fiction novel I can think of for which the adjective “charming” is not only appropriate but sincerely positive. Go find a copy, and read it.

[ 1 – Actually, Lou’s often quite vocally opposed to buying editions of authors from a different territory to the one in which you live, the argument being that every import you buy means potentially one less sale if the book is (re)published in your locale, so maybe you shouldn’t buy the Pyr edition if you’re not living in the US. But you should still read it, at the least; hunt a copy down on Amazon or ABE, or see if your library can borrow it for you. ]

[ 2 – Martiniere rarely disappoints me, I have to admit. ]

Sunday, Sunday, sensawunday…

MercuryYou know, the solar system is just brim full of awesomeness. Check out the latest skinny on Mercury, once thought to be an unremarkable rock on the grand scheme of things:

Magnetic tornadoes form when the magnetic field in the solar wind links up to the field generated by a planet, a process called magnetic reconnection. Bundles of magnetic field lines connect the surface of the planet directly to the surface of the sun, and as the solar wind pushes them away from the sun, they twist and whirl like cyclones. On Earth, these cyclones (technically called “flux transfer events”) dance on the ionosphere, creating the Northern Lights and messing up GPS systems.

On Mercury, though, the twisters were 10 times as strong as any magnetic cyclones observed on Earth. With so little atmosphere to interfere, Mercury’s magnetic tornadoes are great spinning chutes that ionized gas can slide down.

“They act as magnetic channels or open windows that allow solar wind plasma from the sun, very fast and very hot, to come right down those field lines and impacts the surface,” said Jim Slavin of NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center. When the gas hits the surface, it knocks off neutrally-charged atoms and sends them on a loop high into the sky.

Now there’s a hard sf novum just waiting for someone to write it; maybe a system-wide power supply based around funneling the solar wind onto the innermost planet and then harnessing it somehow? Paul McAuley, I’m looking at you. [image courtesy thebadastronomer]