Category Archives: Criticism

Beyond the Narrative Arc

Patterns other than the wave, though, are everywhere. Here are the ones Stevens calls “nature’s darlings.” Spiral: think of a fiddlehead fern, whirlpool, hurricane, horns twisting from a ram’s head, or a chambered nautilus. Meander: picture a river curving and kinking, a snake in motion, a snail’s silver trail, or the path left by a goat grazing the tenderest greens. Radial or explosion: a splash of dripping water, petals growing from a daisy’s heart, light radiating from the sun, the ring left around a tick bite. Branching and other fractal patterns: self-replication at different scale made by trees, coastlines, clouds. Cellular or network patterns: repeating shapes you see in a honeycomb, foam of bubbles, cracked lakebed, or light rippling in a pool; these can look like cells or, inversely, like a net.

These fundamental patterns inform our bodies, too. We have wiggling meanders in our hair, brains, and intestines; branching patterns in capillaries, neurons, and lungs; explosive patterns in areolae and irises; spirals in ears, fingertips, DNA, fists. Our brains want patterns. We follow them instinctively: coiling a garden hose, stacking boxes, creating a wavering path when walking along the shore. And we even invoke these patterns to describe motions in our minds: someone spirals into despair or compartmentalizes emotions, thoughts meander, rage can be so great we feel we’ll explode. There are, in other words, recurring ways that we order and make things. Those natural patterns have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries. Why wouldn’t they form our narratives, too?

Jane Alison at the Paris Review

Represent the world without reproducing it

science fiction is fundamentally a metaphorical literature, because it seeks to represent the world without reproducing it. Now the structure of metaphor as such is the knight’s move, my favourite manoeuvre in chess: leading you in a certain metonymic direction, the logically correct A to B to C, and indeed sometimes it leads you quite a long way down that consecutive path, but only in order to leap suddenly, not arbitrarily, but poetically, expressively, marvellously, in an unexpected direction.

It’s the way the carefully world-built society of Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ falls apart under stellar Sublimity, or the way the intricate anthropological detail of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness is leavened by actual supernatural foretelling—a.k.a. magic—as a correlative to love, which is that novel’s wondrous theme, wondrously handled. It’s the way the scrupulously rational computational logic of Clarke’s ‘Nine Billion Names of God’ steps, in its last sentence, into amazing impossibilities. It can be the beautifully unexpected outgoing, as when Ellie Arroway enters the alien world-construct at the end of Contact, or it can be the beautifully unexpected homecoming, as at the end of Kij Johnson’s superb ’26 Monkeys, also the Abyss’. It is the famous jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the hurled bone that turns, unexpectedly, impossibly, yet somehow rightly, into a spaceship.

The thing is: this structure I’m describing here as formally constitutive of science fiction is also formally constitutive of the joke. The structure of a joke is a knight’s move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer’s flourish of the unexpected. The joke can’t be capped with a merely random or left-field unexpectedness, or it won’t be funny: but the flourish at the end must work. This is not to say that SF needs to be full of jokes to work. I am not talking content, I am talking form; and the point of this form is that the unexpected twist releases a quantum of joy. That’s why jokes are great, and that, although its content is very different, is why SF is great.

Adam Roberts on sf as a metaphorical literature. Mostly parking this for further thinking later on, when life is marginally less hectic; that form/content distinction he’s making seems like it could unpack in lots of interesting (and critically useful) ways.

I’m thinking in particular of an echo I’m getting from a riff of Clute’s in which he argues that capital-S Story “is inherently non-mimetic”; that Fantastika is coextensive with Story, and has “an inherent non-allegorical bent”, being a genre wherein the work “is a kind of representation of itself”; that Fantastika is “pure Story: not a lesson, but the thing told”. As I recall, Clute denies sf as being inherently metaphorical, but I think perhaps he and Roberts understand that term slightly differently; the form of the joke, after all, is also “not a lesson, but the thing told” (or so it seems to me).

The Roberts riff on the magician’s flourish above also opens up the possibility of rereading Priest’s The Prestige as a work of metagenre… though I suspect that doing so would only incur the writer’s wrath.

Surrealism comes for us all: Miéville’s Last Days of New Paris

The Rex’s guards search them and incompetently question them and let them in to noise and warmth and the smell of drink, dirt, and sweat. Rows of seat-stubs slope down the tumbling hall. people are dancing. Women and men watch the huge screen from a raised half-floor above. What is showing is snips of images, monochrome light. Someone in the projection booth is stringing bits together, grabbing ripped-up centimeters of whatever film is by their fingers and running it for seconds, then replacing it. Melodramas, old silent movies, entertainments, news, documentary footage.

Surrealism comes for us all, Thibaut thinks.

I imagine that Last Days of New Paris is an even richer read if you’re more familiar with the canon of Surrealist art than myself; you don’t need to be an expert, certainly (and the glossary/bestiary of manifestations that Miéville provides at the end of the book offers the opportunity to become something more of one, should you wish), but I imagine it might be a tough read unless you know the basics.

But then Miéville is never an easy read, and that could be what I enjoy about his work: it demands effort from the reader, but that effort is rewarded with rich layerings of irony and metaphor. I’m not going to unpack the book entire, because this isn’t a review proper so much as a recommendation of a book I’ve enjoyed, but this tale of a multivalent fight for the soul of a Nazi-occupied Paris of an alternate 1950s has — if you choose to read fiction in search of such things –plenty to say about the timeline (and the particular moment) which you and I actually do inhabit: the art of war meets the war of art; fascism’s loathing for and longing to exploit the subversive power of of the image; greed, betrayal, guilt, chaos, loyalty, ideology; bargains made, promises kept, deals broken, lies told.

And if you don’t choose to read fiction for such things, well: rogue impossibilities ripped from art history at war with Nazis and demons from Hell in the streets of mid-20th Century Paris! A pulpy premise whose execution only occasionally allows that pulpiness to surface, written in that hard-to-pin-down but nonetheless idiosyncratic Miévillean prose style: images only half-described that nonetheless and unexpectedly unfold fully in the mind’s eye; sentences that twist upon themselves or terminate unexpectedly like trap streets.  It’s a text (in part, at least) about Surrealism, but is it a Surreal text? I’ve no idea; ask an expert.

Of special technical interest — and if you’re the type that worries about spoilers, then you’d probably best consider this your warning of the potential presence thereof — is the Afterword, which reframes the story of Thibaut’s adventures as a twice-told tale from an alternate timeline (and perhaps also something of a club story?), delivered to Miéville under strange circumstances by an unreliable narrator whom Miéville (within the text, or at least within this outer frame thereof) comes to assume is rather more reliable than he’s playing it.

I’m of two minds as to whether this device was strictly necessary, in the sense that the novella preceding it could conceivably have stood alone perfectly well in its absence*. But I’m certain that the device changes the stance in which the story stands, and that Miéville had a particular effect in mind when he decided not only to (re)frame it thus, but also to do so in an afterword rather than a preamble: we initially take the story as we find it, and only afterwards do we have it twisted so as to more explicitly connect its other reality to our own. On one level, I admire the strategy and the execution alike; but on another, I wonder what I would have taken from the novella without the framing narrative appended.

Then again, given that one of the tenets of Surrealism was that an object or image introduced into a seemingly inappropriate context has the power to provoke revolutionary thoughts and feelings, perhaps my inability to resolve this question to my satisfaction is exactly the point.

* — In the sense that it’s Miéville’s work, and hence none of my business, the framing narrative is of course self-evidently necessary. I’m not trying to edit the man’s fiction in retrospect, merely to understand how it works, and thus to perhaps intuit the why behind the how.

The present tense and the present tension

Present-tense narration is now taken for granted by many fiction readers because everything they read, from internet news to texting, is in the present tense […]. Past-tense narration easily implies previous times and extends into the vast misty reaches of the subjunctive, the conditional, the future; but the pretense of a continuous eyewitness account admits little relativity of times, little connection between events. The present tense is a narrow-beam flashlight in the dark, limiting the view to the next step—now, now, now. No past, no future. The world of the infant, of the animal, perhaps of the immortal.

Ursula Le Guin (p261, Words are my Matter, Small Beer Press)

On objectivity

This essay by Cara Ellison is both a fairly bravura bit of internet-era confessional rage-ranting and an insight into the lifestyle and finances of the freelance games reviewer (which is much like that of many freelance writers, I suspect; I certainly recognise the bit about measuring gigs in terms of what percentage of one’s next rent payment they represent). For my money, though, this ‘graph is the slamdunk:

The necessary rise of the satirical website ‘Objective Game Reviews’ is enough to make me feel depressed, but if you want to see what an ‘objective’ review looks like maybe go and fud yourself silly on that site and come back to me when you are 1) older than sixteen 2) would like my goddamn experienced opinion on a game. The only reason game criticism exists is so that you can orientate yourself around a particular critic’s taste. If the critic is any good you can tell from their analysis whether you will like the game or not, regardless of whether the critic in question actually thought the game was any good at all.

Amen to that; I suspect there will be readers who misunderstand the role of criticism for as long as there are readers, and I am reassured to find that I give less of a crap for what they think as the years go by.

Oh, while you’re here — did you fancy buying a copy of Twelve Tomorrows so you could read my story, but didn’t fancy getting a copy shipped from the States? Well, everyone’s favourite disintermediatory retail-disruption corporation has got you covered with a £6.21 UK Kindle edition, available now. Let me know what you think, if you like.