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Future Interrupted:Jumping, Leaping, from Past to Future

July 22, 2016
IZ265

Interzone #265 is now a thing in the world. I urge anyone and everyone to head on over to the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.

This month’s non-fiction is typically thought-provoking. We begin with an editorial by Jo L. Walton about the next generation of literary awards and how his Sputnik Award is using the way that genre awards typically impose themselves upon the collection consciousness to say interesting things about social media, community and politics.

A similar theme runs through Nina Allan‘s Time Pieces as Allan takes another look at the problematic nature of literary canons and how their tendency to over-represent works by and about white men undermines genre culture’s ongoing efforts to become more inclusive by telling us not only what types of stories are worthy of our attention, but also what type of people write interesting stories. As someone who broke off all institutional connection to the humanity aged about sixteen, I have always been opposed to the idea of cannons and the associated pressure to read particular things before daring to open your mouth. Fuck anyone who tells you that you need to have read x, y, or z before forming an opinion and fuck anyone who tries to tell you what you should be reading. I’ve never liked the idea of cultural spaces handing out homework and one of my early Future Interrupted columns goes out of their way to stress the importance of choosing your own literary ancestors and coming up with your own history of science fiction. So when Nina asks:

We all bring baggage to our reading and to our writing, but rather than someone else’s pre-packed, pre-selected baggage, shouldn’t we at least be allowed to bring our own baggage instead?

I am in complete agreement.

However… While I recognise the authoritarian nature of institutional entry barriers like literary canons, I think it is also worth asking why those canons were created in the first place. One model of explanation is to focus on the use of power in establishing canons and to point how the establishment of literary canons echoes the academy’s attempts to monopolise and dominate intellectual discourse. Why did academics create a canon and create it in the form they chose? Because academics were familiar with those works and using them to form a barrier between educated and non-educated ensured that academics would have the power to determine who society deemed to be educated. Another model of explanation is to focus on the reasons why these types of canons caught on at all as people tend not to make a habit of blindly obeying academics. The thing about canons is that they provide both a shared point of reference and an implied set of values allowing people to flag up important new works on the grounds that they resemble important old works. Remove the power of canons to focus the attention and you create a situation where people’s willingness to talk to each other and ability to understand each other’s ideas become exponentially more difficult. Contemporary genre culture is an excellent example of what happens when a cultural space loses its shared points of reference: Values diverge, friendships dissolve, conversations disappear off into the undergrowth and everyone stops talking to the people whose frames of reference do not resemble their own. As someone quite content to knock around his own private frame of reference, I’m not overly fussed by the dissolution of all cultural spaces not held together by million dollar marketing budgets but I think that genre culture has now reached the point where it needs to find some sort of balance between the individualism of everyone refusing to read outside of their private field of interest and and the authoritarianism of everyone being forced to read Robert Heinlein novels because them’s the fucking rules.

The Book Zone opens with an interview with Juliet A. McKenna interviewing Lisa Tuttle before unravelling across a series of intriguing reviews. Maureen Kincaid Speller enthuses about Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories while Paul Kicaid is more downbeat about Paul McCauley’s Into Everywhere. Duncan Lunan looks at the new Michael Swanwick, Lawrence Osborne looks at the new Guy Gavriel Kay, Stephen Theaker looks at James Lovegrove and M. Suddain, while Jack Deighton looks at Salman Rushdie and Kasuaki Takano.

Nick Lowe‘s Mutant Popcorn trudges wearily for what is proving to be one of the most depressing blockbuster sesons in living memory.Lowe is one of the great champions of Hollywood absurdism but while he dutifully reminds us that the Hollywood blockbuster has dragged commercial cinematic storytelling kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, even he seems to be getting a little bit embarrassed by Hollywood’s incessant attempts to seduce the population of China with warmed over franchises:

Unloved and disowned by critics, domestic audiences, and even the internet, these are the blockbusters nobody wanted: the belated sequels to films nobody now remembers; the sunk-costs development hellspawn unwisely released to the light; the unwieldy international coproductions made entirely from tax credits; the profit-scrapings of once-valuable intellectual property; the game adaptations commissioned back before the user base collapsed; the exhausted franchise brand-milkers; the Chinese toehold partnership projects; the forlorn attempts to spin a merchandising opportunity out of D-list media properties.

Tony Lee‘s Laser Fodder looks at The 5th Wave, The Call Up and Enemy Mine.

 

This month’s fiction includes:

  • “All Your Cities I Will Burn” by John Schoffstall
  • “The Eye of Job” by Dan Reade
  • “Belong” by Suzanne Palmer
  • “On the Techno-Erotic Potential of Donald Trump Under Conditions of Partially Induced Psychosis” by Ken Hickley
  • “The Inside-Out” by Andrew Kozma
  • “A Man of Modest Means” by Robert Reed

My Future Interrupted column from IZ#265 considers the Clarke Award nominated The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and expresses profound discomfort of the idea of using science fiction to strip racism from its economic and historical bases in order to provide readers with a nice fluffy liberal fantasy in which systemic structural inequalities can be overturned simply by remembering someone’s preferred pronouns. But you’ll have to wait a while in order to read that.

In the mean time, here is my piece about the British genre TV series Quatermass and how each episode of the series expresses a profound ambiguity about both past and the future.

 

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REVIEW — Couple in a Hole (2015)

July 13, 2016
CIAH

*taps mic* Is this thing still on? Good.

FilmJuice have my review of Tom Geens’ excellent Couple in a Hole, a Anglo-French drama that set amidst the mountains and forests of South-Western France. While my critical career has not exactly been on the ascendant in recent years, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to write about films that hype forgot. In fairness, many of these films have been mediocre but every now and then, a film comes along that reminds me of why I love the medium of film and the dysfunctional artistic traditions that have grown up around it. Couple in a Hole is one of those films.

As political and economic crises make it harder and harder for young people to pursue their dreams, Western civilisation grows ever more obsessed with its own inevitable demise. Most manifest in young adult blockbusters like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, our apocalyptic fascination keeps drawing us back to stories in which the science and politics of catastrophe have been replaced with levels of emotional abstraction that speak to a yearning for absolute psychological simplicity. We don’t care whether the bombs rain down or the zombies rise up, we just want immerse ourselves in worlds where the stultifying complexity of late capitalism have been replaced with spaces where people can breathe and be themselves.

Just as TV’s The Walking Dead has spent the best part of a decade exploring the rise and fall of simple human societies and Mad Max: Fury Road imagined a radical break with patriarchal structures, films like 2015’s The Survivalist used the end of the world as an excuse to explore one man’s movement from solitude to community along with the interwoven bonds of love and trust required to make such a journey. These films are only about the end of the world in so far as they create fictional spaces where the nuances of capitalist emotional economics have been replaced with something that seems both more real and less realistic. Even outside of genre filmmaking, the end of the world has proved an enduring source of metaphorical imagery as in the case of Thomas Cailley’s brilliant debut Les Combattants where a couple need to immerse themselves in an apocalyptic landscape before they can move beyond embarrassment and confront the true nature of the feelings. Built along similar lines, Tom Geens’ second film Couple in a Hole also benefits from the lightest possible touch of the genre brush. Set in the forests of South-West France, this brilliantly acted and beautifully shot film uses apocalyptic imagery to explore the collapse of one life and the slow emergence of another.

You can read the rest of my review right HERE.

Couple in a Hole is a non-genre film that uses genre imagery and themes to explore characters and express emotional truths. In my review I pointed to Cailley’s excellent Les Combattants but another example of the form is Jeff Nichols’ superb Take Shelter starring Michael Shannon.

The combination of genre and non-genre elements rather reminds me of those genre short stories that use genre elements as a way of turning emotional states into metaphors and then making those metaphors concrete, the supreme example of the form being Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers” from back in 2013. For John and Karen, the death of their son felt like the end of the world and so their attempts to live with their grief take on a post-apocalyptic character.

The film is out on DVD in the UK this week and, by the looks of it, is also receiving a few screenings in indie cinemas. Seek it out, it is one of the best films I’ve seen in ages.

 

 

[SOR] James Tiptree, Jr’s “The Screwfly Solution”

May 19, 2016
SOR

Given that one of the more rewarding elements of this anthology has been the VanderMeer’s willingness to seek out the work of writers not usually attended to in genre circles, I am slightly disappointed to find them falling back on Tiptree.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore Tiptree’s writing in general and this story in particular but Tiptree is (along with Russ and Le Guin) one of a handful of female genre authors whose reputation is now so firmly canonical that their inclusion in any anthology dealing with feminist SF is pretty much automatic. Given that the VanderMeers have pushed at the boundaries of the canonical throughout this anthology, it would have been nice for them either to completely ignore the Holy Trinity of Tiptree, Russ, and Le Guin or to seek out some of their lesser-known works. Including a canonical story by a canonical author makes it feel as though the VanderMeers are letting genre culture off the hook by working with rather than against the culture’s flawed system of canon formation. Let me unpack this…

Despite the political posturing that surrounded last year’s Hugo Awards, genre culture remains a fundamentally liberal, middle-class space. I use the term ‘liberal’ rather than ‘left-wing’ as genre culture has always been cool with the inequalities of status and income that capitalism tends to produce. Like all liberals, genre people are fine with social hierarchies as long as these hierarchies appear broadly meritocratic.

The problem with the belief that SFF is one big meritocracy is that genre culture is quite obviously prone to systemic biases based upon gender, race, sexuality, class, and nationality. While these inequalities may be rooted in broader inequalities afflicting Western culture as a whole, the fact is that genre hierarchies have been systematically favouring straight, white, middle-class American men since their inception. Any kind of systemic inequality results in social tension and these social tensions bubbled over during both the 1970s discussions surrounding Feminist SF and the late-2000s discussions surrounding Racefail.

While a genuinely progressive cultural space would have reacted to these crises by toppling cultural elites and dismantling the social processes that had so successfully marginalised people other than white men, genre culture opted to retain its social and economic hierarchies. In order for the tension between meritocratic self-image and profoundly biased practice to be resolved, genre culture undertook a process of (i) ‘remembering’ the work of authors it had previously spent decades ignoring and (ii) ‘recognising’ the talent of marginalised voices it might previously have dismissed as disruptive and/or deranged. In other words, genre hierarchies continued to perpetuate themselves by making changes that allowed them to appear more just and meritocratic.

This type of crude gerrymandering passes muster as the gap between ‘we have always been here’ and ‘we have always been valued’ is narrow enough that cultural elites can easily dismiss further structural critique as an attempt to ‘erase’ the accomplishment of previously marginalised actors. Aside from making grotesque structural inequality appear meritocratic, the elevation of historically marginalised actors means that genre hierarchies will often wind up being defended by exactly the kinds of people that genre culture tends to overlook and marginalise.

The sexism of genre elites caused writers like Tiptree and Russ to disappear from the cultural record. The desire of genre elites to conceal their sexism caused writers like Tiptree and Russ to achieve canonical status while many of their equally-deserving contemporaries continue to languish in complete cultural obscurity. I could understand a more generalist anthology falling into the trap of thinking that including a famous Tiptree or Russ story inoculates you against charges of sexism but an anthology like Sisters of the Revolution that tries to push back the limits of the canon really needs to look beyond this types of low-hanging canonical fruit. The SF Mistressworks website reviews dozens of under-appreciated works by dozens of under-appreciated authors while anthologies like Justine Larbalestrier’s Daughters of Earth, Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder: The Classic Years, and Mike Ashley’s The Feminine Future delve as far back as the 1870s in their attempts to help us reconnect with the history of female science fiction writers. Tiptree’s “The Screwfly Solution” and Russ’ “When it Changed” are both great stories but they’re safe choices coming at a time when anything less than boldness feels like a compromise.

Anyway… on to the story itself.

 

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Future Interrupted: Harder-Core-Than-Thou

May 17, 2016
IZ264

Interzone #264 is now a thing in the world. I urge anyone and everyone to head on over to the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.

This month’s non-fiction is brilliant even by the legendary standards of Interzone. First up is a fascinating editorial by Elaine Gallagher about the representation of trans people in genre fiction.

Then there’s Nina Allan kicking arse and taking names with a fantastically insightful column about the literary canonisation of J.G. Ballard. According to Allan, Ballard’s posthumous elevation to the status of cultural icon has required the systematic downplaying of his cognitive strangeness. As someone who only discovered Ballard’s science fiction after I started reading his mainstream works, I definitely agree that his later works are in some senses more easily digestible than his earlier work. Of course, one of the really lovely things about Ballard was that he not only knew how to be interviewed, but seemed to relish the opportunity to bounce ideas off the head of a sympathetic yet baffled interviewer. Seek out Simon Sellars’ excellent collection of interviews entitled Extreme Metaphors and you’ll discover an author with a lot more on his mind than disembodied celebrities and spunk-encrusted concrete. Indeed, one of my prized possessions is a DVD of Jonathan Weiss’s adaptation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which includes a commentary track by Ballard himself in which he happily sends deadly little ideas bouncing out into the world.

The reviews section is similarly brilliant with John Howard writing insightfully about the latest volume in Mike Ashley’s history of science fiction magazines, Stephen Theaker considering a cultural history of Batman, Duncan Lunan expressing profound ambivalence about a Stephen Baxter and Al Reynolds collaboration, Peter Loftus being uncharitable to a re-issue of Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, Jack Deighton enjoying both Ken Liu and Robert Jackson Bennett, Maureen Speller being unmoved by Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship, Ian Hunter being impressed by the collected short fiction of James Morrow and me waxing rhapsodic about Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station. Seriously: If that book doesn’t win a few awards next year then I question the wisdom of having the bloody things to start with.

Tony Lee‘s Laser Fodder column is surprisingly sparse this month but it includes a lengthy piece about William Peter Blatty’s much under-rated The Ninth Configuration. Nick Lowe‘s Mutant Popcorn column is typically long and just as brilliant as ever. People familiar with Lowe’s work as a genre critic and an academic will know that he’s probably one of the most insightful people on the planet when it comes to the mechanics of storytelling. One of Lowe’s favoured themes is the idea that genre fiction in general and comic book writing in particular have served as a distended womb that occasionally disgorges utterly novel narrative techniques. Lowe is particularly sharp on how these mutant techniques are finding their way into the mainstream through summer blockbusters and his piece on Batman vs. Superman contains some writing that might very well be described as ‘peak Lowe’:

When the first extended universes had begun development, none of their architects had foreseen how easily these thrusting vertical structures of narrative and light, each home to a thousand characters and storylines, could collapse into fanboy revolt and civil war. It was possible now to see the architecture of the comics universe had been a dangerous blueprint for film, with its promiscuous polyontological impreium of reboots and retcons, Ultimates and New 52s, reversible deaths and revertible futures on a canvas spanning all possible galaxies, dimensions, and epochs of time.

“Promiscuous polyontological imperium of reboots and retcons” — Fuck.

 

This issue’s fiction includes:

  • “Starlings” by Tyler Keevil
  • “Breadcrumbs” by Malcolm Devlin
  • “Mars, Aphids, and Your Cheating Heart” by James van Pelt
  • “Lifeboat” by Rich Larson
  • “The Tower Princesses” by Gwendolyn Kiste

My Future Interrupted column from IZ#264 intersects somewhat with Maureen’s piece on The Ship in so far as it takes a look at Claire Vaye Watkins’ Californian post-apocalyptic novel Gold Fame Citrus, which I very much enjoyed. However, having read Maureen’s piece I am left wondering whether Californian post-apocalyptic novels might not actually be a ‘thing’ at the moment. Answers on a postcard please.

That piece will be reprinted here in a while but in the meantime, here is my piece about the idea of ‘Core SF’, where that idea comes from, and why I think it’s problematic. The column also contains a rather unconventional approach to genre history that presents aesthetic change as a process of economic adaptation rather than the talk of artistic innovation that usually informs histories of genre culture.

 

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[SOR] Leena Krohn’s “Their Mother’s Tears: Fourth Letter”

May 12, 2016
SOR

Less a short story than an excerpt from a novel, “Their Mothers Tears: The Fourth Letter” is clipped from the pages of Krohn’s novel Tainaron: Mail from Another City. Tanairon was first published in 1985 but it took until 2005 for it to be translated into English, at which point it won a World Fantasy Award.

It’s taken me a little while to circle back around to writing about this piece as I wasn’t sure that I had much to say about it other than the fact that I enjoyed it as much as I remember enjoying Tainaron. In fact, I even remember the review that sold me the novel. Looking back over the pieces I’ve written about this anthology, it occurs to me that there might be something of a pattern emerging as to which stories tend to excite me.

It used to be quite common for reviewers to engage in the infamous ‘genre debate of doom’ about whether a work should be considered science fiction or fantasy. No longer all that common, the genre debate of doom was driven by the fact that genre culture used to police the boundaries between those two genres and that policing was in turn driven by structural considerations such as the fact that working in different genres tended to qualify you for different sets of awards: Spaceship on the cover? Hugo Award, not World Fantasy. Dragon on the cover? BFS Award, not BSFA. In truth, it was all rather tedious.

The reason I mention the genre debate of doom is that it occurs to me that the fantastical stories in this anthology tend to come in one of two distinct flavours that might well represent two distinct traditions within the world of fantasy literature. I don’t know if there’s anything to this distinction but I thought it might be fun to share it:

One set of stories are not just postmodern but self-consciously meta-textual in so far as they tend to be stories-about-stories that situate themselves in a dialogue with existing bodies of text. These stories don’t just re-use tropes that were already present in the fantasy canon, they go out of their way to use these familiar tropes as part of some attempt to reclaim or reframe parts of the relevant cultural memory. These are pretty much exactly what I think of when I think of ‘literary fantasy’ and they are why I tend not to read a lot of literary fantasy: Some works are better written and better imagined than others but I there’s something very insular and self-involved about this type of textual navel-gazing.

Another set of stories is what I would refer to – possibly with VanderMeerian approval – as ‘weird’ rather than ‘fantastical’. These works resemble traditional works of fantasy in so far as they are neither realistic nor constructed with reference to scientific ideas but the unreality seems to result from the application of surrealist techniques rather than the use of tropes and images drawn from any specific literary or cultural canon.

Works of literary fantasy are works in which the world is made up of stories. Works of weird fiction are works in which the world is a series of subjective emotional experiences that have somehow been made both objective and concrete. “Their Mothers Tears: The Fourth Letter” is fiction in so far as it takes place in a world assembled from the twin dehumanising experiences of urban living and motherhood.

 

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Thought Projectors 2

May 10, 2016

I’m still not intending to make this into a regular feature but my level of engagement grows with the hours of sunlight and so I find myself accumulating and thinking about more things than usual.

The great disappointment of last week was the cancellation of my photography class. I started thinking more seriously about photography last year when I realised that taking photos is actually a pretty good justification for getting out of the house, breaking new ground, exploring new places, and generally looking at the world in new ways. I am yet to acquire the urge to share my photos with the general public and I definitely do not want to get sucked into writing about photography as that would turn my New Thing into yet another facet of my Old Thing. This being said, I have begun to notice the way that my personality intersects with the photos I choose to take: Photos of storm-tossed skies, desolate beaches, and ruined houses are pure love while photos of people on the street or models posing for me in a studio are raw terror. People are far more decorative when they’re specks on the horizon.

Anyway, here are some of the things that have been occupying my mind since the last time I posted one of these things…

 

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California Trilogy (2011) – Being Forever on Alert

May 5, 2016

I like to think of criticism as the art of reaction. The most common form of criticism is the review, a format that limits the critic’s powers to remaining in synch with their audience and explaining whether or not a film or book is likely to prove pleasing to said audience. Another common format is the academic article in which the critic’s powers are limited to discussing a particular work of art in terms of a finite body of theoretical literature.

While these may be the most recognised forms of criticism, critics can articulate their reactions in terms broader than either audience expectation or academic dialogue. At the root, criticism is all about voicing one’s reaction to a particular work of art and explaining the connections that were forged between the work you saw and the memories you have. Little wonder that popular criticism is starting to feature more autobiographical elements: What connection could possibly be more primal than the moment in which a work of art tells you something about yourself?

As someone who has produced a lot of criticism over the years, I find myself drawn to works of art that give me more room to elaborate my own reactions. Some works are well-curated and well-structured articulations of particular ideas that will speak directly to my favoured concerns but others are more elusive and so demand considerably more of me as a critic: The less obvious the connection, the more satisfying its articulation.

James Benning is a filmmaker I had not been aware of until Ian Sales recommended him to me. Born in 1942 and originally trained as a mathematician, Benning returned to university in his 30s before landing a job teaching film. While Benning’s work has been turning heads since at least the 1970s, he appears to have supported himself primarily through teaching and so has been quite adamant in his refusal to chase funding by doing what the film industry expects of its professional filmmakers. Until recently, Benning’s refusal to compromise even extended as far as a flat refusal to allow his films to be seen outside of proper cinemas. In fact, the only reason he stopped working with 16mm film is that the film stock was no longer being manufactured. In a 2012 essay explaining the decision to allow his films to appear on DVD, Benning said:

I’m getting older. It’s easier to give in.

In other words, Benning is a director who is extremely (some might say excessively) reluctant to accommodate his audience. This much was evident from the formal characteristics of the films themselves.

California Trilogy comprises three films about the state of California. The films are all just under ninety minutes long and are all made up of thirty five shots that are all two and a half minutes long. The camera never moves and – according to Benning – none of the shots were staged… Benning simply set up his camera, recorded chunks of Californian space-time, and stitched them together to produce three beautiful and enigmatic works of cinematic art.

 

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