Yesterday evening I went in to London to see a conversation between Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell at the Southbank Centre. And very good it was, too. Continue reading
Last week, in the Guardian Review, Owen Hatherley wrote this review of Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History by Richard J Evans. It was an interesting review that attacked much of what Evans had said in his book. But Hatherley seemed to go along with Evans in assuming that counterfactuals (and alternate histories, the two were discussed without discrimination) were inherently conservative.
I had to disagree. I wrote the following letter to the Guardian, but since there seems to be no letter column in this week’s Guardian Review, I include it here (note, I kept this short for a better chance of being published, but I could have written on this subject at far, far greater length).
In repeating the claim by Richard J. Evans that counterfactuals are inherently, and indeed always, conservative, Owen Hatherley (President Gore? Prime Minister Portillo?, 19 April) is simply wrong.
Yes, many are conservative, but not by any means all of them. Of American counterfactuals concerning the Civil War, for instance, Ward Moore’s classic Bring The Jubilee examines the social and economic devastation wrought by a Southern victory, while Terry Bisson’s Fire On The Mountain presents a utopian state brought about by John Brown’s victory at Harper’s Ferry. Neither could possibly be considered conservative.
As for British counterfactuals about Hitler winning the Second World War, Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night is a powerful condemnation of the Nazi regime, while both Keith Roberts, in ‘Weinachtsabend’, and Jo Walton, in Farthing, present devastating critiques of British willingness to work with the Nazis.
In fact many of the most important works of counterfactual fiction are deliberately and specifically critiques of conservative positions, and are usually meant satirically as attacks upon current contemporary conservatism.
Anthony Trollope, Aristotle, Daniel Defoe, Darko Suvin, Emily Bronte, George Borrow, Henry Fielding, Henry James, Herman Melville, J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen, Jonathan McCalmont, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Conrad, Laurence Sterne, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Niall Harrison, Northrop Frye, Paul Graham Raven, Robert Burton, Thomas Love Peacock, William Shakespeare
Three years ago, almost to the day, Maureen Kincaid Speller and I had lunch with Niall Harrison, Jonathan McCalmont and Paul Graham Raven. During the course of the lunch, Maureen mentioned that she was reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. The upshot was, we decided to read the book together, and take turns blogging about it. The first three parts of this exercise were published on Maureen’s blog, Paper Knife: Maureen on ‘Polemical Introduction’; Paul Graham Raven on ‘First Essay: Historical Criticism; Theory of Modes’; and Niall Harrison on ‘Second Essay: Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols’. For various reasons, the exercise ground to a halt at that point. But I have just unearthed my own notes on Fourth Essay: Rhetorical Criticism: Theory of Genres, and thought it worth while presenting them here.
What follows is partly written up, but mostly in note form. But I think there is perhaps some interesting stuff nonetheless, if only because it shows the shaping and development of my own ideas on the subject. Quotations are from the Penguin 1990 edition. Continue reading
Aphra Behn, Charles Dickens, Charles Eliot, Eugene Sue, F.R. Leavis, H.G. Wells, Harold Bloom, Iain Banks, Ian Sales, Margaret Cavendish, Matthew Arnold, Robert Heinlein, Tom Godwin, Walter Scott, William Shakespeare
Two things have struck me forcibly over the last week. One, at the Iain Banks conference, was the insistence that Banks would still be read 100 years from now. The other, on this blog, was Ian Sales insisting that the nature of hard sf has changed, and so a work like ‘The Cold Equations’ or, by implication, any of its contemporaries, is irrelevant to any current discussion of the form. These are two conflicting views of the same issue: canonisation. Continue reading
Adam Roberts, Algis Budrys, Brian Aldiss, Donald Sassoon, Gary Westfahl, John W. Campbell, L. Ron Hubbard, Lester Del Rey, Mark Bould, Nicholas Ruddick, Robert Heinlein, Samuel R. Delany, Sherryl Vint
I seem to have been immersed in various histories of science fiction lately. Or rather, since I still have my mind on the project I started but sort-of abandoned many years ago but can never quite bring myself to forget, I’ve found myself hyper-aware of historical perspectives on sf.
For a start, I have been working my way through Donald Sassoon’s monumental work, The Culture of the Europeans, a book that is so heavy it is almost impossible to carry, but that is unfailingly fascinating to read. And as I read through it, I keep being startled by ideas or bits of information that would belong in my own history of British science fiction. So I start to jot down notes. Unfortunately, my notes for the project are not actually in good order, there are three or four notebooks, scraps of paper, odd cuttings, and god knows how many pages of One Note, and I need to wrestle it all into some sort of shape. Continue reading
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt is an excellent book. It offers an engaging narrative about how Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered De rerum natura by Lucretius in a German monastery in the winter of 1417, and how the Epicurean ideas espoused in that poem then disseminated among European humanists. These ideas provided a direct challenge to the philosophical hegemony of the Catholic church just at a point when the church was starting to come under threat on both the theological and the political front. (The reason Poggio was free to hunt for old manuscripts was that he was a papal secretary, and his master, who was one of three rival claimants to the throne of St Peter at that point, had just been forced to resign and was now imprisoned. This political disarray within the papacy allowed Europe’s secular rulers increasingly to flex their muscles. Meanwhile, the theological rule of the church was being challenged by groups like the Hussites of Bohemia whose radical thinking would, within the century, feed into the Protestant Reformation.) Continue reading
[Note: the title means what it says. These are a few random thoughts that occurred to me while I was reading yesterday, because there seemed to be a congruence between what I was reading and thoughts about science fiction that have been troubling me for some time. I have not attempted to turn this into a coherent essay, nor do I know whether I will try to do so in future.]
I have been troubled for some time by science fictions that involve god as an active participant in the events of the story. This occurs in books as varied as Forever Free by Joe Haldeman and Mainspring by Jay Lake. In this, I am making no complaint about the appearance of religion in a science fiction novel, since religion is part of the experience of being human. But the idea that a god, a supernatural being, might play a direct and practical role in human affairs seems to me to run counter to something intrinsic in science fiction.
I have the same troubled feeling when I encounter stories that feature a timeless war between the forces of good and evil. It feels out of place in something that presents itself as science fiction.
And yet I have never been able to put my finger on precisely what it is that makes me uneasy about this. Continue reading
I am off work sick, my head feels as if it is stuffed with cotton wool, I have barely moved from bed all day and am too tired to stay awake and too awake to go to sleep, and to cap it all, yesterday when I started writing this we had a (minor) earthquake. Obviously, I am in the perfect frame of mind to tackle …
1: Ferdinand de Saussure, The Object of Study/Nature of the Linguistic Sign Continue reading