One of the things I wanted to do when I started this blog was provide a resource for myself: a place where various reviews and essays that had only ever appeared in print would be readily accessible in one place online. But I rather got out of the habit over the last year or so. Therefore, I shall attempt to get back up to speed over the next few weeks with more of these reprint posts, beginning with this review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, which appeared in Interzone 270, May-June 2017: Continue reading
Anthony Gottlieb, Arthur C Clarke, Becky Chambers, Benjamin Black, Bruce Sterling, C.J. Sansom, China Mieville, Christopher Priest, Colin Greenland, Dave Hutchinson, Edmund Crispin, Emma Chambers, Emma Newman, Gerry Canavan, Gwyneth Jones, Helen MacInnes, Iain Banks, Iain R. MacLeod, Joanna Kavenna, John Banville, John Crowley, John Kessel, John Le Carre, Judith A. Barter, Kim Stanley Robinson, Laurent Binet, Laurie Penny, Lavie Tidhar, Lily Brooks-Dalton, m john harrison, Margery Allingham, Mark Fisher, Matt Ruff, Michael Chabon, nina allan, Octavia Butler, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paul Auster, Paul Nash, Rick Wilber, Rob Latham, Steve Erickson, Stuart Jeffries, Tade Thompson, Tricia Sullivan, Ursula K. Le Guin, Yoon Ha Lee
It’s that time of year again, when I dust off this oft-forgotten blog and post a list of my reading through the year, along with other odd comments.
2017 has been, in some respects, a very good year. My first full-length book not composed of previously published material, appeared in May. Iain M. Banks appeared in the series Modern Masters of Science Fiction from Illinois University Press, and has received some generally positive reviews, much to my relief.
Also this year I signed a contract with Gylphi to write a book about Christopher Priest, which is likely to take most if not all of the next year. In addition, I’ve put in a proposal for another volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction; the initial response has been quite good so I’m hoping I’ll have more to report in the new year. So, in work terms, it looks like the next couple of years are pretty much taken care of. Continue reading
Amitav Ghosh, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan McCalmont, Kim Stanley Robinson, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Megan AM, Nick Hubble, Thomas Pynchon, Vajra Chandrasekera
This is the introductory piece I wrote for the Clarke Award Shadow Jury:
I’ve written about all of this before, how I was there when the Arthur C. Clarke Award was created, how I’ve judged it and administered it, and edited the anthology. There’s nothing new to add, except for one memory: the first time I ever saw a bookshop display devoted to the Clarke shortlist, it was in Seattle.
That is how I want to see the Clarke award continue: that international status, that sense of being central to the entire conversation about contemporary science fiction.
I believe, devoutly, that the award should be controversial, that it should engender debate. In the early years, the Award got a lot of flack for shortlisting mainstream writers rather than the familiar genre names. Giving the first award to Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale was dismissed as pretentious, as the judges sucking up to the literary establishment; though we see now that it is a novel that has endured. At the time when Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass won the award over Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, I heard people complain that there wasn’t even a rocket ship on the cover (in fact, none of the books on that year’s shortlist had a rocket ship on the cover). After that, the proudest moment in my engagement with the Clarke Award came in the year that Amitav Ghosh won for The Calcutta Chromosome. After the announcement of the award, I had people come up to me and say: “I thought that was just the Clarke Award being pretentious again. Then I read the book and … you were right!” Not long after I finally stood down from the Clarke Award I was amused that the judges were being criticised not for including mainstream fiction, but for omitting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
That is what makes the Clarke Award great. The fact that it doesn’t conform to genre stereotypes, the fact that it bucks the trend, the fact that it regards science fiction as the broadest of broad churches, and will look anywhere within that spectrum for the best. And that restless, wide-ranging aspect of the award is what gets people arguing about it. And that argument is good, not just for the award itself (though it does keep the award alive in people’s minds), but for science fiction as a whole. Because the more the Clarke Award challenges our expectations, the more it opens us up to an ever wider, ever changing sense of what science fiction is and can be.
Let’s face it, the biggest debate within science fiction at the moment is the debate surrounding the Sad and Rabid Puppies, and that debate is all about narrowing science fiction. The Puppies want to enclose and limit the genre, restrict it to a narrow spectrum that resembles the science fiction they remember from the 1950s: overwhelmingly masculine, almost entirely American, distinctly technophiliac, and ignoring the literary changes that have occurred within the genre over the last half century. This is science fiction that repeats what has gone before, that depends upon its familiarity; this is science fiction that is not going anywhere new. Okay, some work that fits within this spectrum can be interesting and important, but it cannot be, it should not be, the whole of science fiction. The best way to counter the Puppies’ argument is with the sort of expansionist, innovative, challenging argument about science fiction that has traditionally been associated with the Clarke Award.
The way I see it, a lively debate is essential for the health of the Clarke Award, for science fiction in Britain, for science fiction throughout the world. I want to encourage that debate and to be a part of it. It is time to demonstrate once again that the very best science fiction, the science fiction that is worthy of a place on the Clarke Award shortlist, is the sort of science fiction that shocks us with its novelty. And if that shock doesn’t generate argument, then the Clarke Award is failing, and science fiction is failing.
We’re all written similar pieces. So far you can find pieces by Megan AM; Maureen Kincaid Speller; Jonathan McCalmont; Nick Hubble and Vajra Chandrasekera, with the rest to come over the next few days. There was no collusion in any of this, but there is an awful lot of overlap in our thinking about the award. Believe me, it is making the Shadow Jury a very interesting experience.
Arthur C Clarke, Ben Bova, C.S. Lewis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Elisabeth Malartre, George Griffiths, Giovanni Schiaparelli, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, H.G. Wells, Ian McDonald, Ian Watson, John W. Campbell, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paul McAuley, Percival Lowell, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Z. Gallun, Roger Zelazny, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Terry Bisson
Another Cognitive Mapping column. This one, which discusses one of science fiction’s great objects of desire, appeared in Vector 214, November-December 2000: Continue reading
Alexander Selkirk, Christopher Priest, Daniel Defoe, H.G. Wells, J.G. Ballard, Jane Mendelsohn, Johann Wyss, John Christopher, John Fowles, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nicholas Ruddick, R.M. Ballantyne, Rex Gordon, Robert Holdstock, S Fowler Wright, William Golding, William Shakespeare
This is another of my Cognitive Mapping columns. It first appeared in Vector 189 (September-October 1996).
The man was inside two crevices. There was first the rock, closed and not warm but at least not cold with the coldness of sea or air. The rock was negative. It confined his body so that here and there the shudders were beaten; not soothed but forced inward. He felt pain throughout most of his body but distant pain that was sometimes to be mistaken for fire.
Pincher Martin (1956)
When you think of life on a desert island, you get pictures in your mind of cannibals and pirates, of desolation and thirst. But at first it wasn’t at all like that for us. It really wasn’t bad … Anyone else stranded on a desert island would probably have wanted to die, but for him the nights had never been more beautiful, the wind more gentle, the sea more calm.
I Was Amelia Earhart (1996)
Between 1704 and 1709 the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned alone in the Juan Fernández Islands in the South Pacific. When he returned to civilisation he became an instant celebrity, his autobiography was published, his story became known throughout Britain, and he was interviewed by the leading journalist of his day, Daniel Defoe. Selkirk’s years on the island affected him, he built a cave in his garden where he lived, he sulked and raged at neighbours, he was such a tormented character that he was a menace to strangers and an embarrassment to his family. Yet when Defoe took his familiar story and transmuted it into the adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) it became the tale of how a true Englishman could master the elements by his resolution and entrepreneurial spirit.
There had been tales of castaways before, Shakespeare’s luckless characters were forever being cast upon strange shores and in The Tempest (1611) he created a memorable magical isle. But what was different about Robinson Crusoe was that the island itself became a protagonist. Before any other human characters intrude upon his story, Crusoe has already conquered the island, wresting from it a comfortable home, a suit of clothes, a steady supply of foods and luxuries. When Friday comes into his life it is only to extend the conquest, for Crusoe to convert primitive man as well as primitive land to the necessities of civilised life.
Thus Robinson Crusoe was not just the exemplar, it was the creator of a small but persistent literary genre, the robinsonade. Curious in that it is a sub-genre which crosses and re-crosses traditional genre boundaries, a form of fiction that can be at one moment the highest of high fantasy and the next the most realist of mainstream literature, the robinsonade is a romance which pitches man, in isolation, against his environment. Most commonly, robinsonades have told the story of characters thrust into some inimical landscape – most usually an island – where they not only survive, but actually re-establish the comforts of their normal lives. This is most noticeable in those robinsonades that have become established as children’s classics, such as Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss (1812-13) and The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne (1857), which celebrate the power of the family to exert its civilising influences whatever it may encounter.
In science fiction, the robinsonade has been a consistent influence, often explicitly so as in Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday (1956) or the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). The island, whether an actual island or an island in space, an uninhabited planet, is an attractive setting partly for the simple, practical reason that it allows the writer to isolate his protagonist, but also because it allows utopias and anti-utopias to be developed. Adam and Eve on a depopulated planet – a post-atomic Earth, the sole survivors of a crashed spaceship – have recreated society countless times in the pages of science fiction magazines. The rational, can-do spirit exemplified by Crusoe is all that we ever need to rebuild our lives, and the safety and comfort we know today can not be lost forever.
But such optimism has not actually been common in science fiction, in a genre that celebrates the social success of humanity as much as the ingenuity of the individual, the loss of society is generally represented as a dark and threatening event. Islands are as likely to result in the triumph of the primitive as they are in a Crusoe-like triumph of civilisation. H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) is a place where the forces of Darwinism have a dehumanising effect in the isolation an island provides, and though S. Fowler Wright tried to counter that with The Island of Captain Sparrow (1928) in which morality stands against nature to load the scales in humanity’s favour the more common scientific view has been that nature is triumphant.
Thus William Golding created Lord of the Flies (1954) as a direct response to Ballantine’s Coral Island: this party of schoolboys marooned in isolation from their society will not allow family values to triumph but will regress to primitivism, violence and superstition. It is a notion echoed in J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975). Both the traffic island between motorway embankments and the multistorey apartment block are islands in the midst of the sea of uncaring, fast-paced civilisation; they are islands of survival and the establishment of values just as Crusoe’s island was, but with the crucial difference that the values are specifically not those of the protagonist’s off-island society.
Implicit in the island as protagonist is the notion that the island becomes in itself a character, and if the hero is to reshape the island to suit himself, then the island becomes a mirror of his psyche. Thus the schoolboys in Lord of the Flies conjure their fears from the dead parachutist captured by the trees, while Maitland, swept up like technological flotsam on the Concrete Island, finds that it “was becoming an exact model of his head”. But this is perhaps most explicit in Golding’s Pincher Martin. The sailor, cradled by the “negative” rock is dead, though neither we nor he know that yet. His ship has been blown up during the war, and after a wild and disorienting tumble through the Atlantic waters he suddenly finds himself upon an island. It is too small, too barren for him to build any comfort or recreate any civilisation upon it, survival is an end in itself. But the very bleakness of the rock forces his pains in upon himself, and this is a metaphor for the way his memories, his life, are forced in upon him. What Pincher Martin is, in its brutal and unrelieved allegorical manner, is a recapitulation of that old saw: the dying man seeing his whole life flash before him. And this is one of the chief ways in which the island has been used in science fiction, its isolation, its small compass providing a physical shape for the mind, the experience of the protagonist. Sometimes, as in Robert Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’ sequence, it is a forest; sometimes, as in John Fowles’s Mantissa (1982), it is a white room; sometimes, as in Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex (1977) or The Affirmation (1981), it is a dreamscape; sometimes, as in John Christopher’s A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965), it is an actual island: but the island, real or implied, provides an allegory for the human consciousness, the exploration of its landscape is a working out of the hero’s thoughts, feelings, his very humanity.
These examples are, notably, all British. In Ultimate Island (1993), Nicholas Ruddick has proposed that the island is one of the central linking threads that characterises British science fiction. It is not exclusively so, Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, in A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) takes his protagonist along a narrow sea-girt peninsula on a journey that seems in many ways to recapitulate that of Golding’s Pincher Martin. But it is true that American science fiction has not used the island as metaphor with anything like the same enthusiasm or the same bitter, allegorical intensity. (We are, after all, an island race; it serves us conveniently as a metaphor for our social as well as our personal and intellectual existence.)
But the American mainstream has continued to use the island in a manner closer to that originally employed by Defoe: as a figure for survival that isn’t just personal but also social and moral. In her recent fable, I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn imagines the survival of the flyer who became an almost legendary figure in America between the wars before she and her navigator disappeared in the Pacific on an attempt to fly round the world. But here the island becomes not a battleground for survival but a haven for escape, a place where Amelia does not have to be a heroine, does not have to live up to the legend. The island allows her to live the life she wants for herself; like Ballard’s Maitland, it’s a simpler life, but like Defoe’s Crusoe it’s a civilised life.
This review of Life on Mars edited by Jonathan Strahan first appeared in Bull Spec 5, Spring 2011.
It doesn’t specifically say so on the cover, but this is a YA collection. This is a category that simply did not exist when I was of an age to be the target audience, now it seems to be all pervasive. But what exactly is it? The authors aren’t exactly talking down to their audience, or, at least, I have seen works that are as complex in language, ideas and structure that are ostensively aimed at an adult audience. But the stories do seem to address their audience by the simple expedient of having a protagonist of the same age (the one exception to this rule is ‘Discovering Life’ by Kim Stanley Robinson, which also happens to be the only story that is not original to this anthology. Its presence here tends to suggest that, other than the age of the protagonist, there is no real difference between adult and young adult fiction.) Continue reading