Category Archives: Reading Journal

Worm Wards end Otherways

Three things make a post, we used to say, back in the nostalgically glossed golden age of blogging… so here’s three things based on my being about half way through the Penguin Classics reissue of James Tiptree Jr.’s collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise.

Let’s get the crabby complaint out of the way first. Look, it’s a really good thing that a big, reputable publisher like Penguin is putting out collections of classic and influential genre short fiction like this; it makes them accessible and affordable, and I suspect replaces second-hand paperbacks (which is how I got most of the Tiptree stuff I already have) and short-run collector’s editions as the only viable way of getting hold of them. What is nonetheless infuriating is that the business model of doing so seems to consist of OCR-scanning an old copy of the book in question, hitting “accept all” on autocorrect suggestions in W*rd, and going straight to layout and formatting without a copyediting sweep. This is obviously what’s happening, as evidenced by the regular non-sequiturs and mangled sentences (not to mention garbled punctuation, unexpected line breaks in dialogue, and other typographic oddities) that are plain even to someone who is reading some of these stories for the first time. I understand that publishing is a strained business these days—though what businesses aren’t strained these days? and how is it that huge advances still manage to be found for vapid shit written for the one-book-a-year market by the influencers, cryptofascists and slebs-du-jour?—but surely the cost of having some low-level editorial person read the damned OCR file carefully once through, and check blindingly obvious misparses against the original text, would not make the operation totally financially unviable? Shit, if you can’t afford an editorial assistant full time, I’m sure there’s plenty of freelance proofers and copyeditors, specialists in the genre no less, who would do the job pretty cheaply. Hell, I’ll gladly do it myself; email me about my rates! Unless a few hundred bucks is too high a cost for looking like you actually give a crap about the texts you’re implicitly placing in the canon, I suppose…

(I would note that this phenomenon is far from unique to Penguin. A very large, venerable and reputable genre imprint, whose reputation is in no small part based on its keeping alive a line of, ah, masterful works of science fiction and fantasy, seems often to have taken the same approach to reissues in recent years, as indicated by exactly the same sort of typological traces. I mean, c’mon, people; if you’re gonna do a thing, do it properly? The great irony here is that grubby second-hand originals from the dime-store pulp era of the genre, whose entire identity was founded on cheapness, are often devoid of such basic sloppiness; same applies to old Penguins, in fact. Hard not to conclude that velocity has long since trumped quality as the master metric of business in every field, but something something late-late capitalism something, I guess.)

Second point concerns “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, a story I’ve known by repute for years, but never actually read before. Leaving aside for a moment the mind-in-a-different-body meat-puppet angle, this piece reads as astonishingly proleptic in our current moment: the attention economics and the media ecology that Tiptree describes here are uncannily familiar. Pretty good going for a story that’s a handful of years older than I am… though I note that the movie Network, which retains a similar proleptic power (albeit devoid of the concretised metaphor and sf-nal trappings) came out just a few years later, in the angry mid-1970s. How exactly we’ve lived with such analyses of the pernicious influence of advertising money on media for so long, yet still sleep-skipped into the clusterfuck mess we’re now seemingly all-of-a-sudden waking up to, is baffling.

(And so those writers who still retain any illusion that their work might enlighten society more broadly about its most profound mistakes should probably give themselves a good slap in the face… and yes, I include myself in this category, for sure. Also pertinent is this bit from Ryan Oakley, discussing the ways in which his criminally under-rated and under-read novel Technicolor Ultra Mall occasionally provokes accusations of prolepsis; it’s long been a truism in sf criticism that “sf is less about the future in which it is ostensibly set than the present in which it is written”, and Oakley’s post is an interesting rephrasing of that truism from not just the authorial side, but also from someone to whom the Prevailing Genre Discourse is of little or no interest or influence.)

Third point also concerns “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, which seems to me like it must have been a pretty serious influence on the cyberpunks in general, and on William Gibson in particular. I doubt this is at all an original observation, and it may only seem as obvious as it does due to my recently having done one of my periodic re-reads of Gibson’s entire ouvre… but the media-centric strands of the Sprawl trilogy in particular, with its simstim stars and their entirely confected fictional lives, feel like a case of Gibson taking the world (if not the tech) of this story and running with it; that characters in both texts share the name Isham may be coincidence, but feels more like a subtle but explicit reference on Gibson’s part back to this groundbreaking story.

(Indeed, that recent Gibson re-read revealed the extent to which a) his interests and topical preoccupations were pretty much fully formed right from the start, even if his mature style only came after the first trilogy was done and dusted, and b) that those interests were closely clustered around media and celebrity and art far more than they were around technology and computers. The rather reductive “macho neoliberal techno-dystopia, yaaawn, where’s my cuddly unicorn?” view of cyberpunk, as seem in the rear-view mirror of popular genre critique at the present time, is spectacularly shallow, to the point that it almost feels like a form of denialism turned to for comfort. And sure, I can understand why comfort is a thing you’d want to seek out in this day and age… but to have such a comfortingly dismissive reading of a subgenre whose implicit theme—at least on the literary side—has always been “beware the soma of comforting media papering over the meatgrinder of capital” seems… well, let’s just say I’m not quite so confused now about how we ended up with Tiptree’s media ecology half a century down the line from its publication.)

Nightmare on Planet Thanet: Rosa Rankin-Gee’s Dreamland

Anyone of the “climate dystopias are surplus to purpose” school of thought might as well click away now; Dreamland is very much not the droid you’re looking for. A staggeringly bleak extrapolation of post-Brexit Britain, taking as its focus the recently (and probably temporarily) reinvigorated seaside town of Margate as its setting, I’m not sure it would even do good service in the ‘cautionary futures’ category—but it’s a marvellous piece of literature nonetheless. I won’t say I loved it, because love is not a word that feels appropriate to something so unremittingly tragic, but I admire it immensely—not least because of the presumed emotional toll (which may perhaps also have been catharsis?) of writing it, and in doing so refusing to take the route of consolation or happy endings.

Dreamland is a first-person past-tense narrative, in which Chance tells the story of her family’s relocation from an all-too-believable near-future London of hyper-precarious housing for the underclasses to the once-again-declining town of Margate. Long since past its brief Twentyteens renaissance as a cheap alternative for artists and other middle-class DFLs (“Down From London”), a period during which Chance’s mother was an art student there, it’s become a dumping ground for undesirables in an increasingly fascistic Britain of infrastructural decay, rapid climate collapse and state-supported voluntary euthanasia.

Things go from bad to worse, contextually speaking, as Chance becomes a teenager through the first section of the book, but this is very dexterously handled by Rankin-Gee, who manages to walk the tightrope between presenting the situation as normalised to its young protagonist (who has never known any other way that things might be, other than her mother’s memories of what is effectively the reader’s present) and depicting the turning-feral of the entire Thanet peninsula, at first figuratively and then literally cut off from the mainland by both climate change and political abandonment. The middle section is shot through with the light of first love, as Chance encounters and falls for Frankie, a young woman claiming to be a charity worker, who arrives around the time of a gear-shift in the political situation—but by the halfway point it starts to become obvious that not all is what it seems. The third act follows the departure of both Frankie and any pretense that Planet Thanet is still part of the the country beyond, and Chance recounts the horrors of a community cut off from any form of hope or escape, even as she finally attempts the latter.

It’s a masterpiece, a book that forced me to stay up late three nights running in order to finish it—and I suspect that, now I know how it ends, I’ll never read it again. What pulled me through it this first time is the incredible power and control of Chance’s voice as the focaliser of the narrative, which had me gripped and convinced within the first few pages… and the lingering possibility, becoming fainter with every paragraph, that there might be some sort of relief from the downward spiral. But admirably, painfully, Rankin-Gee refuses any happily-ever-afters—although I think one could argue for there being a sort of tragic culminatory resolution for both Chance and one other character at the personal level.

From the perspective of technique, I find myself wondering whether that possibility of relief is (at least in part) a function of the narrative mode. As the mighty Clute has noted a number of times, the past-tense narrative, and particularly first-person versions thereof, imply the survival of the narrator beyond the timeline of the events depicted. This is of course only an implication, and there are fudges and ways around it, particularly in the more inventive forms of sf… but implications are powerful things, and in this case I think that implication plays strongly upon the sort of hope that I often talk about.

An optimist, I suspect, would be unlikely to make it past the first third of this book—and second-hand reading reports, provided by a friend with a connection to Thanet, suggest that people have bounced off it pretty hard precisely for its darkness of vision. Perhaps it’s precisely my commitment to hope, to the possibility of the critical utopia, that kept me reading right up to an ending which drowns even the most partial, contested and hard-scrabble utopian hope in a corvee-dug ditch of ever-rising sea water.

Dreamland is a powerful, ugly challenge to that sort of hope. Nonetheless, I think it stands—for me at least—as a monument to hope’s necessity. A brilliant, terrible book… and a damning document of the time and place of its writing.

as if there was necessarily just one transition

Graeber and Wengrove again, referring to archaeological evidence from the soi disant ‘Fertile Crescent’:

If the situation in just one cradle of early farming was that complicated, then surely it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘what were the social implications of the transition to farming?’ — as if there was necessarily just one transition, and one set of implications.

p250

Mm-hmm. This applies to most talk of sociotechnical transition in the times ahead, as well as those in times past.

detect patterns that would be otherwise invisible

Just over twenty pages into Graeber and Wengrove, confident from the outset that I was in safe hands, and I hit this:

“Now, we should be clear here: social theory always, necessarily, involves a bit of simplification. For instance, almost any human action might be said to have a political aspect, an economic aspect, a psychosexual aspect and so forth. Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on: essentially, we reduce everything to a cartoon so as to be able to detect patterns that would be otherwise invisible. As a result, all real progress in social science has been rooted in the courage to say things that are, in the final analysis, slightly ridiculous: the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud or Claude Lévi-Strauss being only particularly salient cases in point. One must simplify the world to discover something new about it. The problem comes when, long after the discovery has been made, people continue to simplify.”

The Dawn of Everything, p21

Well, quite. This is gonna be a fun ride, I think.

trolley problems

Thought it was time I saw what all the fuss was with Emily St. John Mandel, so started in on Sea of Tranquility while travelling to Helsinki for Finncon. (Scandinavian ferry culture deserves an ethnography all of its own.)

My capsule takeaway on Mandel so far would be something like “what if David ‘Cloud Atlas’ Mitchell, but absent the barely suppressed sense of their own profundity?”. (In other words: it’s pretty ok, but sort of showy in its resolute unshowiness; an affect that I seem to be noticing a lot if late.) But then a paragraph like the above rolls out of a side-street, tips me into a ditch at the roadside, and leaves me thinking maybe there’s something really special going on here.