Terraform is a new project from Motherboard, the specialist science and technology section of the vast online media conglomerate known as Vice magazine. Whereas Uncanny magazine was launched to a predictable chorus of affected interest and effective indifference, Terraform was born into a storm of controversy as the editors’ original manifesto dared to suggest that nobody was publishing science fiction stories online anymore:
There’s a distinct dearth of science fiction in its purest, arguably its original, form — short fiction — in the environment to which it seems best-suited. The internet.
As is now fairly typical for genre culture, people jumped all over the PR fail and completely ignored the short fiction. The rage was swift, unthinking and amusingly pompous: Like aging high school quarterbacks who have just been informed that their state championship rings don’t allow them to cut to the front of the line in a Manhattan Starbucks, a bunch of genre insiders expressed bafflement at the idea that people outside of genre culture might not have heard of Clarkesworld. Writer Jason Sanford voiced his irk in a fairly representative fashion:
This oversight irks me on a personal level because for many years I ran the Million Writers Award, which worked hard to highlight online fiction — including online SF stories. A number of SF stories won our top award over the years and an entire anthology of MWA SF/F stories was also released. Because of my work on the award it seems incredible to me that anyone could overlook pioneering online SF magazines like Sci Fiction, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, among many, many others.
As someone who pays attention to genre literature and cares a great deal about genre institutions, I have considerable sympathy for the feelings of irritation and disappointment triggered by the Terraform manifesto. Hundreds of people have devoted their professional and social lives to the great aspirational ladder of genre culture and it must have come as something of a shock to realise that nobody outside of the genre bubble appears to give a shit.
Uncanny Magazine, is the latest brainchild of veteran crowd-funders Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damien Thomas. Former editors of Apex magazine and architects of the Hugo-winning People dig… series of non-fiction anthologies, the Thomases are so deeply embedded in the aspirational economy of genre culture that they could very well wind up serving as templates for the next generation of genre gatekeepers and social capitalists.
Uncanny is manifestly inspired by genre culture’s current commercial realities: Over the past ten years, the boundaries between genres have evaporated as the market for traditional science fiction has collapsed. No longer able to rely upon genre boundaries as means of filtering and marketing books, genre culture has taken its cues from social media and is now more likely to follow individual writers than specific types of story. The emerging nature of this reality also explains why most genre magazines retain science fictional names despite being mainly in the business of publishing over-written sentence fragments about magical people experiencing emotions. As an entirely new magazine, Uncanny had the option to step away from genre culture’s traditional aesthetic hierarchies in favour of a name and iconography that is better suited to the contemporary marketplace: “Uncanny” denotes horror while the space unicorn logo points to science fiction and fantasy as well as a willingness to take genre history, conventions and tradition with a pinch of salt.
As you might expect of a magazine built by social entrepreneurs to fit with current cultural realities, Uncanny tells us a good deal more about the people it is planning to publish than the stories those people will be writing.
Genre culture’s ability to produce short fiction now so comprehensively outstrips its ability to engage with short fiction that the odds of any given story receiving much attention are rapidly approaching zero. Dozens of anthologies can drop out of print without ever being reviewed and entire magazines can launch, acquire a following, lose vital editorial staff, and collapse without anyone ever bothering to comment on the nature of their output. Little wonder that Hugo voters now find it almost impossible to pick five short stories that stand out against the deafening hum of cultural production. Increasingly dominated by a suite of free online publications, the genre short fiction scene is becoming a literary niche in which readers are entirely optional. As with academic publishing, many of the institutions supporting genre short fiction are less interested in reaching an audience than they are in providing the rungs for a vast aspirational ladder:
- Your first sale makes you a ‘proper’ writer.
- Your 10,000th published word makes you a ‘professional’ writer.
- Your first appearance in a Year’s Best anthology makes you a ‘notable’ writer.
- Your first appearance on an award ballot makes you a ‘promising’ writer.
Hundreds step foot on the lower rungs of the ladder but almost none of them will ever reach the top. In fact, there may not even be a top as regardless of how high you have climbed, there will always be another rung to reach for… you could always be just that little bit more visible and just that little bit better connected. By now the process is mature and disproportionately funded by those on the lower rungs of the ladder: Money goes in, visibility for authors and social capital for editors comes out. No need for anyone to actually engage with the fiction itself as aspiration not beauty is what drives the economics of short fiction. In fairness, this is not a genre-specific phenomenon. All across the arts, the same process is being played out: Kids take an interest in an artistic activity and their parents try to encourage them up the aspirational ladder. There may be no jobs at the top of the ladder and the artistic output of those on the way up may leave the public indifferent, but the ladder is always well-funded and carefully maintained. Institutions perpetuate themselves even when they have outlived their original social function and there is always more money and social capital to be extracted from those who dream of working in the arts. With this cultural dynamic in mind, it is interesting to compare the first month’s output of two quite different free online genre short fiction magazines; One is created by cultural insiders and reliant upon the good will of the genre community, the other is created by and for people with little or no connection to genre culture and is reliant upon advertising. I was originally intending to publish this all as one piece but my decision to look at the magazines as well as their fictional content made the separate sections long enough to justify being published on their own:
The differences between the two magazines are extensive and striking. Having read the first month’s output of both magazines, I find myself drawn to Terraform with almost as much force as I am repelled by Uncanny.
Even at the level of site design, Terraform is a magazine that looks out onto the world while Uncanny gazes only at itself: Uncanny concludes every story with a picture of the author and an extended bio while Terraform links only to pieces about related subject matter. Uncanny re-uses a format that is common in genre culture meaning that it winds up looking and feeling almost exactly like Lightspeed, Apex and Clarkesworld magazines while Terraform is about as distant from that format as it is possible to get without engaging in the kind of expensive technical experimentation that drives Arc magazine. They don’t even bother with the formality of issues!
The differences are even more pronounced at an editorial level as Terraform limits itself to science fiction and a hard word limit while Uncanny sprawls across the literary end of the entire genre spectrum. In fact, Uncanny imposes so few editorial constraints upon itself that its remit might as well be to bring its readers the best stories that were submitted to the magazine. Genre culture routinely lionises work that ‘breaks down genre boundaries’ without ever bothering to understand why genre boundaries existed in the first place. Genre boundaries were not for writers but for readers; they were a way of telling people what to expect when they picked up a book or magazine. Having read five Terraform stories, I know exactly what to expect the next time I stop by their website but after reading the first issue of Uncanny the only thing I expect from them in future is forgettable non-fiction and fiction that uses the same literary techniques as stories that have recently been winning awards. The editors of Terraform have the courage to set a creative agenda whereas the editors of Uncanny seem content to follow an ever-expanding field and rely on their social contacts to give them prominence.
At a textual level, Terraform publishes stories that are more urgent but feel less polished… Uncanny is a conventional genre magazine filled with carefully constructed artefacts that have been tweaked and massaged to make them everything that they can possibly be. Compared to the manicured lawns and exquisite tea services of Uncanny, Terraform feels a bit like a frontier town; wild and woolly but still not quite finished. However, while Terraform’s stories may be full of tricks that don’t quite work and ideas that don’t quite join up, this roughness doesn’t so much detract from the stories as add to them by giving them a sense of urgency, as though the contributors were seeing things on the news and rushing to turn them into short stories before the news cycle ended. The operators of the anime site Colony Drop once noted that their name implied that they were dropping a colony onto something that was already in existence. A similar observation could be made of the fiction department of Motherboard magazine: What exactly are they trying to terraform? Given the tone of the original editorial announcement, I suspect the idea might have been that the magazine would break new ground by publishing short science fiction stories online but a more apt metaphor would be to see Terraform magazine as a sort of Genesis Device fired into the middle of the online genre fiction scene in an effort to bring deep forests and verdant pastures to a landscape that has long grown airless and inhospitable.
Videovista has my review of Ari Folman’s second feature film The Congress. Set in the immediate future, the film revolves around a fictionalised version of the actress Robin Wright who decides to sell all of her image rights to Hollywood and retire from public life for a period of no less than twenty years. In return for the paying the actress a generous pension, Hollywood will be able to use the image and name of Robin Wright to make all of the films and adverts they deem appropriate for her brand. With no awkward human actress to wrangle, the studios turn Robin Wright into a global superstar but the next contract pushes much further… twenty years from now, people won’t be wanting to watch Robin Wright, they will be wanting to be Robin Wright.
Loosely based on a Stanislaw Lem novel called The Futurological Congress, The Congress is best understood as a cinematic critique of contemporary cinema. Less a film than an extended visual essay designed to critique cinema itself, The Congress is a collage of carefully assembled cinematic references designed to draw our attention to the fact that contemporary Hollywood is in the business of wholesale emotional manipulation in which film is never anything more than a means to an end:
The Congress is a difficult film to evaluate as it is a cynical and manipulative film designed to draw our attention to the fact that Hollywood films are incredibly cynical and manipulative. The sheer density of the text draws us up and away from the drama and encourages us to engage with the film on a purely intellectual level as Robin is never more than ballast in a film that feels more like an animated meta-textual essay than a conventional cinematic narrative. Readers of science fiction who have encountered the work of Adam Roberts will be familiar with this effect as both Roberts and Folman produce beautifully constructed and achingly clever works filled with neat little ideas and interesting things to say that really make you think but rarely make you feel.
There is nothing new in films suggesting that corporations want to take over reality but Folman’s critique is surprisingly explicit. Rather than attacking a faceless multinational corporation, Folman aims his guns directly at contemporary Hollywood. Particularly surprising is his willingness to critique actors who sell their image rights to corporations who then go on to use those image rights as a means of putting a human face on their exploitative business practices. Consider this quote from a Variety article about the sponsorship deals built around Iron Man 2:
“This was not a hugely recognized superhero character,” Bob Sabouni, senior VP of business development and promotions for Marvel Entertainment told Daily Variety . “These partners got the mystique of the Marvel brand the first time around and took their faith in that. They were pretty well rewarded and are now stepping up their game and creating even better programs.”
Which partners are we talking about?
Marvel’s “Iron Man 2,” which rockets into megaplexes May 7, has brought back most of the promotional partners — including Audi, LG Mobile, 7-Eleven, Dr. Pepper, Oracle and Burger King — that spent considerable coin to help launch the first film in 2008.[…] The Hershey Co.’ Reese’s brand, Royal Purple motor oil and Symantec’s Norton software are also partners.
It is something of a misnomer to refer to the likes of Disney and Marvel Entertainment as film companies as the artefacts they produce behave more like malware than conventional films. Once introduced into a cultural space, cultural malware sucks up all available resources to the point where it is almost impossible to get away from said product let alone start a conversation about anything else. Everywhere you look, there will be articles about what the product is like and what it tells us about other products that will be released in years to come. Anyone who happens to be plugged into a cultural space that has become infected by cultural malware will most likely become infected too meaning that smart, principled commentators will soon devote all of their time to writing about stupid, regressive cultural artefacts while completely ignoring films, books and TV series that are not themselves disease vectors. Once established in a cultural system, the malware will use the system to undertake tasks that are harmful to the components of said system such as encouraging them to buy over-priced status objects and foodstuffs that make them significantly more likely to develop a serious health problem. Fully aware that these harmful tasks might cause the system to react against the infection, the cultural malware also seeks to replicate itself by encouraging people to get excited about the next generation of cultural pathogens.
I was not entirely convinced by The Congress in much the same way as I was not entirely convinced by his first film Waltz with Bashir.
When I reviewed Waltz with Bashir back in 2008, I expressed my frustration with Folman’s apparent lack of focus. Having now re-watched the film, it occurs to me that what I originally took to be a lack of intellectual focus was actually an intelligent man flinching from the truth and attempting to derail his own line of thought. The reason Folman sabotaged his own film is that the process of therapeutic self-analysis documented by the film lead him to a door that he refused to open, a door marked ‘What Ari Folman did during the 1982 Lebanon War’. In fact, you could very well argue that Waltz with Bashir is all about a man being offered the chance to learn the truth about who he really is only for that man to decide that he is better off not knowing.
My review of The Congress calls it a less personal project than Waltz with Bashir but one could argue that The Congress is actually Folman’s attempt to confront the tissue of lies he has assembled around his involvement in the 1982 Lebanon War. In the film, Robin Wright is presented with a choice between returning to the misery of the real world in order to maybe track down her children and remaining in the chemically-induced corporate virtual reality with a man she loves. Wright chooses the first option but Folman’s explanation as to why she would make such a decision feels just as evasive as the conclusion to Waltz with Bashir where he pointedly refuses to ask the questions that would help him connect with his past and discover how involved he really was in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. If Folman can’t convince himself about the virtues of the real world, how can he possibly hope to convince us? The philosopher Robert Nozick asked a similar question in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia but the argument he presented for refusing to plug yourself into a bliss machine was just as unconvincing as Folman’s. Folman’s The Congress is engaging, frustrating and at least too clever by half but it remains that rarest and most previous of breeds: a work of cinematic science fiction that encourages us to think rather than gorge on hydrogenated vegetable fat while thinking about Robert Downey Jr.
FilmJuice have my review of Pawel Pawlikovski’s Ida, a starkly beautiful but terrifyingly under-written film about 1960s Poland.
The film is set in a starkly shot 1960s Poland where an young orphan woman prepares to take orders and become a nun. Worried that this young woman has never experienced life outside of a convent, her abbess orders her to visit with a woman who claims to be her lone surviving relative. Reluctant at first, the young woman travels across Poland to meet with a woman who turns out to be a hard-drinking socialist prosecutor with a fondness for younger men and a Jewish name. Confronted with the fact that she is actually Jewish, the young novice follows her aunt as they travel back to their family’s home town in order to confront the people who killed their family and forced them off their land.
When Ida was released back in 2013, it was received with as much warmth and submissive zeal as the second coming. Not only did it win the Grand Prize at the BFI London Film Festival but reviewers seemed to fall over themselves to declare it a masterpiece while blisteringly high Rotten Tomato and Metacritic scores made it something of a cross-over hit at the American box office. This depresses me a great deal as Ida is a desperately mediocre piece of cinema.
My review blames Pawlikovski’s script for failing to unpack either the emotions or the ideas touched on by the film:
A script with an interest in Polish religious history might have unpacked the implications for Anna’s late-blooming Judaism and explained why discovering that you are Jewish might want to make you think twice about becoming a nun. Similarly, a script with an interest in Polish political history might have noted that Jewish people were purged from the Communist party a few years after the events of the film and explored the way in which a rising tide of anti-Semitism would have forced a respected political prosecutor into near-exile for the crime of being Jewish. By choosing to gloss over the cultural, political and social context of Ida’s journey of discovery, Pawlikovsky ensures that the events of her life are forever lacking in emotional charge.
With hindsight, I now realise that the problem is far more basic. Consider what I said about one of Pawlikowski’s earlier films The Woman in the Fifth:
There was a time when European art house film wanted to blow shit up. There was a time when values were confounded and new ground was broken both in terms of what could be said and how people could say it. European art house film used to shock the world… now it merely puts bums on seats by engaging with the same old themes in the same old ways. In the land of artistic sterility, competence is king and Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman In The Fifth is an eminently competent film.
Ida is another supremely competent piece of film making that looks a lot like a serious work of cinematic art despite being little more than a hollow vessel with nothing to say. Pawel Pawlikovsky is a miserable hack who makes cynical, unadventurous and boring films that degrade the language and sully the reputation of art house film. In a more enlightened age, critics would have called him out and exposed his cynicism but now they hail him as a genius. According to his wikipedia page, Pawlikovski teaches direction and screenwriting at the National Film School in the UK and this saddens me even more than this film’s undeserved success. Art house film should be about more than competence but that is ultimately all that Pawlikowski has to offer us.
The November-December issue of Interzone (#255) is now arriving in dataports throughout the Human Imperium. For this gift, and many others, the Emperor would usually require only that you hate but in light of recent events he has chosen to require only miniature British flags and a fresh lick of paint before he comes round to open your local sports centre and/or scout hut.
This month’s issue includes:
- E. Catherine Tobler’s “Oubliette”
- Jannifer Dornan-Fish’s “Mind the Gap”
- Tom Greene’s “Monoculture”
- Malcolm Devin’s “Must Supply Own Work Boots”
- Tim Major’s “Finding Waltzer-Three”
- R.M. Graves’ “Bullman and the Wiredling Mutha”
- Thana Niveau’s “The Calling of Night’s Ocean”
It also includes regular columns by Nina Allan, David Langford, Tony Lee, Nick Lowe and myself. In addition to some fantastic book reviews there’s also an interview with Hannu Rajaniemi by Paul Cockburn and an obituary for Graham Joyce by Andy Hedgecock that includes the beautiful line:
He had a gift for shepherding seriousness away from solemnity.
This month’s Future Interrupted column is entitled “The Origins of Science Fictional Inequality” and it’s another one of those columns in which I take a somewhat critical look at the conventional narratives of genre culture and try to provide an alternative… but you’ll have to wait a few months if you want to read that one for free!