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Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014) by Adam Roberts – Pincher Verne

October 31, 2014
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Everyone who pays attention to science fiction should by now have received the cheat codes for Adam Roberts: An academic critic and satirist as well as a more traditional (albeit rarely conventional) author, Roberts writes novels that interrogate literary history by pulling apart classic works of science fiction and reassembling them in ways that highlight themes and connections that have heretofore been overlooked. Most evident in novels such as Swiftly and Splinter, Roberts’ methods have grown increasingly subtle and sophisticated with each passing book allowing him to explore the links between the Singularity and Renaissance ideas about collectivism (New Model Army) as well as the bourgeois cosiness shared by works from the Golden Ages of both Science and Detective Fiction (Jack Glass).

While all of Adam Roberts’ novels are perfectly accessible to people who are not familiar with the history of science fiction, there is no denying that you need to ‘get the joke’ in order to get the most out of his work. These accessibility issues might explain why it took until Jack Glass for the science fiction community to recognise Roberts’ talent with both a BSFA and a Campbell Award: These days not many genre people bother to read Swift, Verne and Rabelais but most of them will be at least passingly familiar with cosy crime fiction and golden age SF. The field’s lack of familiarity with the work of Jules Verne also accounts for Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea receiving considerably less attention than is normal for an Adam Roberts novel. This is a real shame as while Roberts’ latest does see him returning to Jules Verne for the first time since Splinter, Roberts is a very different writer to the one he was in 2007 and he is now looking at a very different Jules Verne.

 

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Kotoko (2011) – Track the Emotions, Not the World

October 29, 2014
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Back in 1986, Shinya Tsukamoto began producing short experimental films with science fictional themes. One of these films entitled “A Phantom of Regular Size” featured a man living in a dystopian Tokyo being pursued, infected and ultimately transformed by a cybernetic spirit of the age, a woman in dark glasses and immaculate tailoring who could have stepped right out of The Matrix almost a generation later.

Phantom went on to form the backbone to a series of feature films that brought Tsukamoto to the attention of a global audience. Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer, and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man are all attempts to communicate what it felt like to be a member of the Japanese middle-classes at the end of a period of unprecedented economic growth that had completely transformed Japanese society in the space of a generation. These films portray the Japanese as a people worn down by the technologically sophisticated society that they themselves constructed. The opening scenes of Phantom are of a man in a subway convulsing with anguish as trains roar past like the blades on an enormous mincing machine. Every passage shaves away another ounce of humanity until there is nothing left but a host for technological infrastructure, as though the machine that had robbed the Japanese of their humanity was now putting them to work debasing and infecting the people around them. The early Tetsuo films not only diagnosed the sickness that was the late-20th Century Japanese experience, they also articulated what that sickness felt like by using imagery inspired by science fiction and horror.

Tsukamoto’s Kotoko feels a lot like a companion piece to the early Tetsuo films but rather than grappling with feelings of rage and alienation brought on by the experience of living under capitalism, Kotoko is all about articulating what it feels like to be a mentally ill single mother.

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Don’t Attack Reviewers

October 24, 2014
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Last weekend, the Guardian published an astonishing piece by Kathleen Hale about her experiences tracking down someone who spoke ill of her and her books online. According to Hale, the negative reviews spiralled out into a more generalised form of online vitriol that motivated Hale to trace her reviewer’s real identity, travel to confront them and then write an article about it in the Guardian that paints Hale as the (moderately self-critical) victim of things like ‘trolling’ and ‘catfishing’ rather than a petulant and intimidating online presence. Anyone who has published a negative review online will read this article and shiver, particularly at the manner in which Hale presents the silencing of her critic as a signifier for personal growth:

 

I’m told Blythe still blogs and posts on Goodreads; Patricia tells me she still live    tweets Gossip Girl. In some ways I’m grateful to Judy, or whoever is posing as Blythe, for making her Twitter and Instagram private, because it has helped me drop that obsessive part of my daily routine. Although, like anyone with a tendency for low-grade insanity, I occasionally grow nostalgic for the thing that makes me nuts.

 

It’s nice that Kale was afforded the privilege of writing about her experiences in a venue as visible and respected as the Guardian and it’s nice that she was able to transform her defeated and diminished critics into stepping-stones on the road to personal self-improvement. I am genuinely glad that she is feeling better but the bulk of my sympathies still lie with her critic.

I feel quite close to this issue because, for the past ten years, I have been hanging out on the margins of science fiction fandom occasionally writing about books and commenting on the state of the field. In that time I have seen a partisan dislike for negative reviews of favourite books broaden into a more generalised taboo against negative reviewing and a related dissolution of the taboo against authors confronting their critics and responding to reviews. Given that Hale frames her encounters with critics in strictly psychological terms, I think it appropriate that I should begin by doing the same.

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A Short Statement About the Recent Unpleasantness

October 22, 2014
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Unplugged

Given the recent spike in searches and the (wonderful, unexpected and slightly overwhelming) barrage of emails I have been receiving, I feel as though I should make some sort of public statement about closing my Twitter account on Saturday night. If only to let people know that I am okay. I am okay.

I closed my Twitter account because I felt extraordinarily intimidated by certain people’s actions. I reasoned that by shutting down my Twitter account I would not only be removing myself from an environment in which I no longer felt safe, I would also be helping to defuse what felt like an escalating situation.

My decision was also informed by the realisation that while I may deeply regret the hyperbolic and divisive atmosphere of genre culture, I myself am something of a divisive figure. It is hard to speak out against those whose words have destroyed communities and driven people to the brink of emotional collapse when your own tendency to make your opinions known also puts pressure on friendships and communities.

I have no intention of walking away from genre culture or cutting my genre-related writing back any further but I realise that it’s probably a lot harder for me to be divisive when I limit myself to longer-form posts. I regret my tendency to be a complete cock on social media and I accept full responsibility for any bad feelings that might have resulted from interacting with me on Twitter when I’m in one of those moods.

Naturally, I reserve the right to return to Twitter at some point in the future either under my old name or a new one (depending upon how long I leave it) but regardless of which handle I may wind up using, I will always make my identity clear so as to ensure that I remain subject to the full social consequences of my past. I value genre spaces and the people who devote their time and energy to them, even if I do not always remember to show it.

Into the Abyss (2011) – The Traumafare State

October 9, 2014
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When has Werner Herzog ever made a film that couldn’t be summarised as a journey into the abyss? Early feature films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, the Wrath of God seem to revel in the existential savagery of the world while more recent documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga serve as reminders that the world has little time for the collection of bourgeois conceits that we dare to call a civilisation. The question is never whether Herzog will turn his film into a meditation on the savagery of the world, but which tone he will select as a means of approaching it:

Sometimes (as with Encounters at the End of the World and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) he is a whimsical fantasist who recognises that silliness is the only possible response to a world so cold and drenched with blood.

Sometimes (as with Fitzcarraldo and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) Herzog is a humanist who marvels at our human capacity to overcome the savage injustices of life.

Sometimes (as with Nosferatu the Vampyre and Aguirre) he is filled with bitterness and cynicism by nature’s ability to dissolve humanity’s finest dreams.

If becoming a cinematic auteur requires a director to develop a recognisable sensibility and carry it with them from project to project then Werner Herzog must be considered one of the most prolific and versatile auteurs in cinematic history. Regardless of whether he is producing documentaries or feature-length narrative films, Herzog is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of world cinema but he is also starting to get on.

Back in the early 2000s, a string of moderately successful films provided the veteran director with a level of visibility that had long since been denied him. Thrust into the spotlight and transformed into a celebrity, Herzog made the most of it by adopting the engagingly self-parodic persona of an austere German filmmaker who muses on the savagery of the world with his tongue planted squarely in his cheek. Long-time fans would not have been surprised by this development as Herzog has always had a fondness for deadpan satire and self-mythologising (the documentary My Best Fiend is at least as full of made up crap about Herzog as it is of stuff about Klaus Kinski). The problem with this moment of visibility is that while it evidently made it much easier for Herzog to secure funding on his next project, it also encouraged him to remain Herzog the whimsical fantasist who undercut his meditations on death and destruction with talk of depressed penguins and mutated crocodiles. Given that Herzog was now reaching 70 and more visible than ever, I was concerned that the whimsical Herzog might become a permanent fixture. Would the bitter and humane Herzogs ever return or would it be nothing but dancing souls and iguanas on the coffee table until the end? Clearly, I needn’t have worried as Into the Abyss is a documentary that shows us an entirely new Werner: Herzog the humane socialist.

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Short Fiction and The Feels

October 6, 2014
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Reviewing Short Fiction

The world of genre literature has a serious problem with its critical infrastructure. Back when the institutions of genre culture were first established, the amount of new material being published was relatively small and while the pool of reviewers was never vast, it was large enough to ensure that most stories had a pretty good shot at being discussed in public. This discussion served as a filtration process that steered readers towards the good stuff and allowed them to make reasonably informed decisions come Hugo nomination time.

Since the arrival of the Internet, the number of new short stories being published has risen considerably. In fact, with the appearance of crowd-sourced anthologies and venues like Daily Science Fiction continuing to publish new stories every single day of the year, the scene’s ability to produce short fiction now massively outstrips its ability to filter it, discuss it, or even provide basic word of mouth as to which stories are particularly worth reading. A few initiatives like Last Short Story, Strange Horizons‘ Short Fiction Snapshot and Tor.com‘s Short Fiction Spotlight have tried to provide some basic filtration but how do you even decide where to start? Blink and another seventeen anthologies will have secured funding. Go to sleep and another paying market will open.

The effects of this failure of critical infrastructure are already evident at the Hugo Awards, which have been unable to secure a full slate of nominees as the pool of nominations is spread too thin. A further knock-on effect is that the Hugo short fiction categories have become dull exercises in getting out the vote as expensively funded professional websites like Tor.com square off against politicised voting blocs and devoted fan-bases happy to nominate an author’s chosen slate of works.

In this type of cultural climate any discussion of a story is good discussion, which brings us to Sam J. Miller’s “We Are The Cloud” (published in the September 2014 issue of Lightspeed)

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Future Interrupted – Six (Not a Series of Waves, but an Ocean)

September 19, 2014
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Interzone #254 has been unleashed, as has its sister magazine Black Static #42. This month’s issue contains a column in which I compare Guardians of the Galaxy to Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies. It also features excellent columns by Nick Lowe, Tony Lee and David Langford and some excellent reviews by people including Maureen Kincaid Speller, Peter Tennant, Ian Sales and Paul Graham Raven. Interzone can be acquired via the TTA Press homepage.

The short stories included are:

  • “A Minute and a Half” by Jay O’Connell,
  • “Bone Deep” by S.L. Nickerson,
  • “Dark on a Darkling Earth” by T.R. Napper,
  • “The Faces Between Us” by Julie C. Day,
  • “Songs like Freight Trains” by Sam J. Miller

This issue also includes a new novelette named “Marielena” by the wonderful BSFA Award-winning Nina Allan, who has also signed on to become a regular columnist. Nina’s first column is about the surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning and the SF writer C.L. Moore. What unites these two incredibly talented artists in the fact that both of their legacies have come to be overshadowed by that of the men in their lives. In the case of Tanning, her relationship with the Dadaist pioneer Max Ernst has almost completely airbrushed her out of art history while C.L. Moore came to be seen as the junior in a creative partnership with her first husband Henry Kuttner.

C.L. Moore is one of those figures whose visibility has benefited from genre culture’s long-overdue drive to recognise women from its own past. I must admit that I heard of C.L. Moore long before I heard of Henry Kuttner but there’s a really interesting episode of the Coode Street Podcast in which Barry Malzberg describes her work as being ‘all the same thing’ as that of Kuttner, which is definitely something of an over-statement as Moore was a published writer before she even started her collaboration with Kuttner. Thankfully, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entries for Moore and Kuttner do draw a distinction between the two writers and even go so far as to try and point out which stories were likely to have been written predominantly by Moore. Nina concludes her column with a really interesting point:

I felt bound to ask myself whether we truly are the first generation of women SFF writers not to be at least partially defined by our male partners, editors, commentators  or industry professionals? I really think we might be, a fact I find both cheering and utterly dismaying. We are getting there, yes. But why the hell has it taken so long?

This is a question that I find endlessly fascinating as it speaks to the slipperiness of genre history.

The slipperiness of genre history is a direct result of genre culture having been built by enthusiastic fans rather than professional scholars.

Fandom has always been prone to what can only be referred to as back-of-a-fag-packet state-of-the-union diatribes in which a commentator looks back over the stuff they happened to have recently read and draws sweeping conclusions about the past, present, and future of the field. The thing about these diatribes is that they are incredibly simple to produce; all you need is a year’s best anthology or an award shortlist and you can quite happily mouth off about how you think the genre is dead, dying or teetering on the edge of a new golden age. Subjective, sloppy and steeped in personal ideology, these diatribes are never taken 100% seriously and the only reason the form persists is that a well-written screed serves to stir the pot and give people something to talk about. Recent exemplars of the form include Paul Kincaid’s “The Widening Gyre” from 2012 and Strange Horizons’ round-table discussion about the state of British Science Fiction and Fantasy.

All sub-cultures operate according to their own set of intellectual protocols but because these protocols are social constructs, they necessarily bear the imprint of said sub-culture’s power relations.

Genre culture state-0f-the-unions are designed to be quickly produced and quickly replaced in an effort to keep everyone talking, but there are times when a quickly produced state-of-the-union seems to (either intentionally or not) capture the public mood and stick around longer than it should. One excellent example of this process is how genre culture’s delight at the unexpected success of Cyberpunk resulted in the acceptance of back-of-a-fag-packet literary histories that made Feminist SF disappear. Though certainly unjust, this tendency to fall for simplistic social narratives also explains why traditional fanzines have come to be associated with writing about fans (rather than writing about books) and why negative reviews have become increasingly taboo in a public sphere that now sees itself as an adjunct to the publishing industry’s PR departments.

All genre histories are political and all genre histories are bunk, this is why it is invariably more fun and fruitful to take them with a pinch of salt.

***

Entitled ‘Not a Series of Waves, But an Ocean’, my sixth Future Interrupted column was an attempt to drive home the slipperiness of genre culture by coming up with a semi-credible alternative genre history. In my history, Hugo Gernsback was not an ambitious crook but a Robbe-Grillet-style figure who raged against the Victorian confines of the bourgeois novel by breaking down the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. This is not so much history as it is headcanon. Read more…

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