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Thought Projectors 9

June 22, 2017

These pieces generally take a while to come together because I capture stuff as I discover it and then re-read it prior to sharing the link. This post involved more stuff captured than any previous link post but most of them were outdated and wrong by the time I got round to re-reading them.

The night of the general election, I went to see Stewart Lee performing in Tunbridge Wells. I visit Tunbridge Wells fairly regularly but it’s a town I absolutely loathe… I loathe the fact that I always wind up being followed around department stores, I loathe the fact that it is surrounded by an enormous building site, and I loathe the fact that it is effectively nothing but street upon street of terrible over-priced shops. I hate Tunbridge Wells but I’m glad I was there on the night of the election as loads of people walked out around the time the exit polls were released to the public. Walking out of the performance, I heard a teenager enthusiastically chanting ‘They’ve fucked it! They’ve fucked it!’ but this was Tunbridge Wells… he could easily have been a Tory. Or, even worse… a Blairite.

We drove home through a thunderstorm and I refrained from looking at the exit poll until we got home. I didn’t want to hope as I didn’t want to be disappointed. I even waited for my wife to wake up in the morning before checking the actual results.

The reason I wound up binning so many captured pieces is that British politics seems to be undergoing a genuine sea-change. As in the late-1970s, the old order can no longer sustain itself and its servants have been too slow in updating the settlement. Just as Hilary Clinton found when she tried to get people excited about ‘woke’ neoliberalism, the wealthy and powerful have taken too much too fast and now a fresh settlement must be drafted lest the chaos and unpredictability consume us all.

For the last year or so, many people have been assuming that xeno-nationalist politicians from the hard right would be drafting this settlement but Trump appears to be governing like a typical Republican and the general election saw Theresa May’s mandate disintegrate before her very eyes. The left was not in a position to move when the banks fell in 2007 but that is no longer true.

Every day seems to heap defeat and humiliation on the right. The charred and still-smoking ruins of Grenfell house are like something out of a novel; a metaphorical representation of the evils of austerity wrapped in incontrovertible evidence that the private sector simply cannot be trusted to care for the people of this country. The years of privatisation, outsourcing, neglect, and abandonment must now come to an end.

And a propos absolutely none of this, here are some of the photos I’ve taken since the last one of these…

 

Skull

 

 

 

 

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REVIEW — Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit (2015)

June 6, 2017

Having now finished reviewing the six books I nominated as part of my personal shortlist, I turn my attention to the books that made it onto the official Arthur C. Clarke Award short-list.

Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel Ninefox Gambit took me quite a long time to write about. My reluctance was in part due to the fact that I have been going back and forth on this novel since I first read it last year: On the one hand, the novel contains some interesting ideas and a bit of thematic heft. On the other side, the themes are poorly articulated and the book really doesn’t work as a novel. The downsides were particularly difficult to articulate as I’m aware that my tolerance for ‘core’ SF has effectively disappeared and I doubt whether anyone could write a military science fiction novel that I’d enjoy. My piece about the book tries to thread the needle by explaining what didn’t work for me whilst also making it clear where my preferences lies There’s also quite a lot of discussion in the comments but I personally find them disappointingly regressive on a number of different levels.

The novel is set in a universe where the local laws of physics are determined by the shape of your social structures. As a result of this quirk in natural law, government has assumed a form that allows all kinds of futuristic technologies as long as everyone keeps behaving in a very specific way. Unsurprisingly, people keep wanting to live their own lives and so the government has little or no function beyond the violent suppression of dissent. Into this universe is born a mathematically gifted young woman who is sent off to put down an uprising with the help of a disembodied general who once butchered thousands of his own men: On the one hand, the book is a military space opera in which fleets of space ships use mathematical formulae to defeat each other. On the other hand, it’s a psychodrama in which a loyal young officer is brought to rebel against her own tyrannical government. My problem with the novel is that, both in terms of action and drama, the novel tends to stop short of engaging with its own subject matter. Everything is kept at a safe emotional distance and so the book works neither as a drama, nor as a human drama:

 

Lee’s tendency to use abstraction as a means of glossing over complex details also serves to undermine the novel’s numerous action scenes as the need to inhabit Kel Cheris’ morally-compromised worldview means that the novel is forever downplaying the suffering caused by her actions. Like the Cold War strategists who once took the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, Kel Cheris views warfare as a series of abstract mathematical problems with right and wrong answers. While abstracting away from Cheris’ skilful deployment of state violence does serve to retain the audience’s sympathies, it also serves to deprive every action scene of both tension and consequence. It is often said that cyberpunk never caught on as a cinematic genre because so many of the books cut to someone sat in front of a computer typing. Now imagine a film that cuts to someone desperately solving equations and you’ll begin to understand why so many of Ninefox Gambit’s action sequences feel abstract and distant when they should be visceral and exciting.

 

In fairness to Lee, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this book even if it had engaged with the horrors it depicts… At the end of the day, this is a novel about space Nazis coming to realise the error of their ways and I’m not sure whether my interest and my capacity for empathy actually extend that far. Particularly at a time when fascism seems to be on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic.

Back in June 1968, readers of Galaxy magazine were confronted by a pair of paid advertisements from groups of authors who either supported or opposed the Vietnam war. While the names of the writers who were supportive of the war will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with their fiction, it is interesting to note that 1960s genre culture was still fairly relaxed about the idea of the American government waging a brutal war of aggression against an impoverished country that had only just managed to free itself from colonial oppression and begun expressing its hard-won political agency. Six years after those adverts appeared, genre culture was in a position to produce works like Haldeman’s The Forever War and Harrison’s Centauri Device; works that recognised and took issue with the fascistic tendencies of military science fiction in particular and space opera in general.

Genre culture has never been a political mono-culture and while many readers recoiled from the genre’s most fascistic story-forms, readers continued to yearn for books in which the world could be made a better place with a few well-placed artillery strikes. As time passed and the politics of genre culture continued to evolve, authors and publishers went in search ways to appeal to both sides of the political aisle at the same time.

The most commercially successful strategy turned out to be writing a series of novels that opens on a relatively ambiguous power fantasy that softens into a rather hand-wavy critique of imperialism over the course of several novels. I am tempted to refer to this strategy as the Scalzi Gambit in honour of his Old Man’s War series but regardless of what we choose to call it, the strategy has proved remarkably effective as it has allowed genre culture to continue championing the kinds of novels that were already viewed as being a bit right wing over fifty years ago.

1970s science fiction deconstructed the space opera in the hope of breaking genre culture’s addiction to reactionary story-forms. However, rather than provoking social change and unlocking creativity, the limited self-awareness that was born of America’s reaction to the horrors of the Vietnam war appears to have been channelled into coming up with excuses for people to enjoy reading violently reactionary power fantasies. We have entered the age of the woke space opera where war crimes and mass slaughter are perfectly acceptable as long as they form part of a journey towards redemption and self-improvement.

Future Interrupted — More than Fools. More than Fodder

May 26, 2017

Interzone #270 is now a thing in the world. Anyone with an interest in getting hold of it can do so via the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense. This being said, while you might prefer to have an eBook version of the magazine, I recommend getting a dead tree subscription as the magazine has never looked more beautiful than it does right at this moment.

This month’s issue contains a number of interesting stories, each of them beautifully illustrated:

  • “Rushford Recapitulation” by Christopher Mark Rose
  • “Like You, I am a System” by Nathan Hillstrom
  • “Dirty Code” by Wayne Simmons
  • “Encyphered” by Jonathan L. Howard
  • “The New Man” by Malcolm Devlin
  • “Evangeline and the Forbidden Lighthouse” by Emily B. Cataneo
  • “Memories of Fish” by Shauna O’Meara

As usual, in addition to the short fiction, this issue includes some excellent non-fiction:

 

Nina Allan‘s column draws from a similar well to a lot of the writing that has been done for the on-going Shadow Clarke award. Nina looks at how genre fiction developed a self-image that distinguished it quite sharply from what genre people often think of as mainstream fiction. However, while the idea this self-image may have been useful at a time when genre writing was completely different to the the output of mainstream publishing, that sense of cultural difference now seems to serve a very different purpose:

What the Shadow Clarke project has led me to ask most of all is whether the precepts of SF special pleading are now simply being used to lend critical weight to works that could not otherwise sustain it. Or, to put it another way, to excuse bad books.

II must admit to being somewhat torn on this particular issue as I think that, historically at least, science fiction is a literature with its own unique cultural history. Unlike many of the genre critics who defined thinking about genre during the late 2000s, early 2010s, I think that science fiction and fantasy are distinct traditions and that their rapprochement is a historical accident born of the fact that fantasy outsells science fiction by an order of magnitude and so genre publishing naturally tends to select science fiction novels that look more like fantasy.

I’m torn because while I like the idea of science fiction being its own distinct thing, I’m not actually all that interested by what that thing is currently producing. Gernsbackian fiction may have been radical back in the day but decades of creative stasis make science fiction’s claims to uniqueness feel like nothing more than cultural conservatism. As the Shadow Clarke has moved from personal shortlists to the official shortlist, I am horrified by how much better science fiction seems to become the second it is published by anyone other than a genre publisher.

 

Nick Lowe‘s Mutant Popcorn column continues to feature some of the smartest writing about genre film. Lowe’s day job is that of an academic with an interest in the development of narrative and so most of his columns involve quite lengthy meditations on the way that Hollywood’s commercial reality is shaping and re-shaping our cultural attitudes to narrative. For years now, Lowe’s been an unapologetic cheerleader for blockbuster film as he — quite rightly — identified contemporary Hollywood as a field of narrative experimentalism in much the same way as European film in the 1960s was a test bed for different forms of visual storytelling. Somewhat more sombre than in years past given that Hollywood appears to be getting more rather than less conservative, Lowe’s columns are still an absolute goldmine for anyone who wants to understand the role of genre narratives in Western culture.

 

My column from this month is about diversity in genre culture and how success at the level of literary short-lists should not blind us to the extent of the problem at ground level. But you’ll have to wait about six months to read that!  In the meantime, here is a reprint of a column I wrote about Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series… a critique that I think has even more resonance now than when I first wrote it.

 

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[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katherine North

May 24, 2017

Oops… I’ve been neglecting this blog recently as I’ve been tending to write stuff for other venues and it is always a bit of a chore to write a blog post about something that I’ve already mentally filed under ‘done’.

The problem may have been emphasised in the case of this particular piece as it’s the second essay I’ve written about the book. The book in question is Emma Geen’s debut novel The Many Selves of Katherine North and I wrote about it last year for my Interzone column. As I say in the new piece, I have considerable affection for Many Selves not least because I decided to write about it at a time when I had started to question my ability to metabolise science fiction. My second look at the book is somewhat more critical than the first but while I regret the way the novel seems to flinch from the crux of the psychological problem is present, I think it remains a really great example of the type of science fiction that I want to read:

 

Like many of the better books to emerge last year, The Many Selves of Katherine North is a novel made up of a series of discrete parts that require both a squint and a leap of the imagination before they fall into conventional narrative order. The spine of the book is provided by a series of set-pieces in which the book’s protagonist is projected into the mind of different animals and forced to contend not only with their alien cognitive processes but also with their (occasionally overwhelming) instincts to run, jump, fly, hunt, eat, and even fuck. Extensively researched and beautifully rendered, all of these set-pieces are powerfully imagined and beautifully written almost to the point where they overwhelm the novel. And therein lays the point…

 

I’m currently working on my next Sharke post and I have literally just accused an entirely different novel of flinching from the psychological unpleasantness that had sustained its primary narrative.

I am entirely sympathetic to authors who mine their personal lives for ‘real life details’ only to wind up stopping well short of bearing their souls. That kind of forced introspection is never pleasant and when you’re writing about something that was personally traumatic, the urge is always going to be to flinch before you hit the water.

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories are particularly prone to this kind of flinching as genre writing is always partially metaphorical and writing about abstract metaphors is always going to be a lot easier than writing about the truth. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that genre literature’s levels of abstraction may well be one of the primary appeals for its readers.

For example, not everyone can sit through a brutal piece of social realism about how patriarchal attitudes foster abusive relationships but pretty much anyone can sit through Mad Max: Fury Road, which deals with those issues in an abstracted manner that makes them more palatable and therefore more accessible.

This piece may even be somewhat unfair to Geen in that she did not choose to write about someone who got lost in escapist media in order to cope with the trauma of parental death… she chose to write about a young woman who uses VR technologies to inhabit the bodies of endangered animals.

When we talk about genre novels having themes, we are talking about ways in which novels can be ‘about’ one thing whilst also being ‘about’ another and it is worth remembering that there was a conscious decision to write with a certain level of abstraction. Criticise a genre novel for too much abstraction and there’s a risk that you fall into the trap of criticising it for failing to be the more realistic novel that you actually wanted to read instead.

In truth… I’m not sure that this is a binary question. I don’t think that novels are either realistic or abstract, I think that realism is a slider that can be set at a variety of levels for a variety of different effects. As time has passed and my tastes have shifted, I expect more and more realism and depth from the culture I consume and I think this may well go some way towards explaining my growing alienation from what remains of genre culture.

 

REVIEW — Melody (1971)

May 16, 2017

Bit late uploading this but FilmJuice have my review of Waris Hussein’s thoroughly excellent and recently re-released British drama Melody (also known as S.W.A.L.K.)

Set in 1970s East London, Melody begins by introducing the resolutely introverted and middle-class Danny to a working-class community that his shit-munching parents are hoping to gentrify. Initially alienated from his class-mates, Danny soon manages to establish a friendship with a local lad whose home life is so horrifying that you never actually see it on screen. Made in the great tradition of British post-War social realism, Melody explores not only the dynamics of gentrification and middle-class ‘concern’ for the lower orders but also the ways in which proximity and cooperation can work to establish solidarity between people from ostensibly very different backgrounds. Filled with these lovely scenes in which the camera runs and runs as kids go about their normal daily lives, the film soon transitions into an utterly charming and genuinely moving love story between Danny and a little girl called Melody:

 

Despite being set in a recognisably socialist universe in which social class shapes both your identity and your hopes for the future, Melody is a deeply romantic film that wants to believe in the absolute power of love to remake the world. At first, these two thematic strands appear to be in conflict as nobody but Danny (and later Melody) believe that they should be in love or want to get married. However, as the film reaches its conclusion, opinions begin to shift as kids rally to the couple’s cause and set about creating a world of their own. In a move that recalls the ending to both Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Melody ends with the protagonists running away from a world that they can’t escape… because sometimes all you need for happiness is a bit of breathing room. As Ornshaw says, “Don’t forget to change at Clapham Junction!”

 

Interestingly, the weakest element of this film is probably the soundtrack that inspired its makings. Dominated by profoundly not-famous tunes by the BeeGees, it feels way too folky and blandly up-beat for a film with the urban setting and realistic tone of a film like Melody. This being said, Melody is a thoroughly excellent film from an era when the British film industry was still interested in making films that spoke directly to the experiences of British people.

Thought Projectors 8

May 9, 2017

It’s been over a month since the last of these so I guess it’s time to look back through all of those captured hyper-links and see what stands up to a second reading…

In the meantime, my thoughts have been divided between my on-going duties as part of the Shadow Clarke Award jury and my recent visit to London. The primary reason for the visit is that the wife and I had booked ourselves onto an organised ghost hunt, which I very much enjoyed but she found almost impossible tedious. I may yet write something about my experiences so I won’t go into too much detail on what I saw but I will say that while it’s one thing to know that the human brain abhors ambiguity and to be familiar with concepts like pareidolia and the autokinetic effect, it’s quite another to find yourself in a situation where those systems are making their presence felt. I didn’t believe in ghosts before going on the hunt and I still don’t but I can totally see why you would.

 

Having stayed up almost impossibly late, I spent the following day wandering around central London and realising quite how many of my old haunts have been torn down, gentrified, and turned into either expensive flats or beautiful restaurants with rents so large as to be unworkable for all but a narrow range of restaurant chains. This purely practical disappointment aside, I consider my trip to have been a real success as I went to Tate Modern and saw not only the Radical Eye exhibition of Elton John’s collection of modernist photographs but also  Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2017.

I’ve been to the Tate Modern a few times over the years and never really enjoyed myself all that much as — frankly — I’m not that hugely interested in the world of modern art. However, seeing an exhibition of artworks from a form you’re really quite invested in turns out to be a *completely* different experience as I found myself having quite visceral reactions to almost everything I saw.

I was initially quite disappointed with the Radical Eye as while it was fascinating the see early experiments with techniques that are now included in every ‘how to take cool photographs’ book, the exhibition is long on conventional portraits and works by the visual artist Man Ray. The portraits are obviously something of a fudge as while they feature a number of modernist and surrealist artists, they are not actually modernist works themselves. Similarly, while Man Ray was an early pioneer of ‘art photography’ I’d say that he was a surrealist rather than a modernist and I found the archness and obvious art deco influences in his work to be quite affected and distracting. Conversely, being able to see real-life works by Dorothea Lange (including the really famous one) was a real privilege and when placed next to a load of conventional portraits and Man Ray pieces their rawness really leapt out. In fact, one of them literally took my breath away and even googling it just now resulted in my staring at it for about ten minutes.

I didn’t really know what to expect going into the Tillmans exhibit as I wasn’t at all familiar with his work but I was rapidly overwhelmed by his means of production. The Radical Eye exhibit is drawn from a private collection and private collections tend to be of prints drawn by the original artists. Given the period favoured by Elton John and the limits of photographic technology at the time, most of the pictures in the Radical Eye are really no bigger than a standard photo you might get back from Boots. Tillmans, on the other hand, is a contemporary artist and his exhibits are made up of very high quality prints that are all at least 2 metres tall. Moving from one exhibition to the other was quite striking as you move from a situation where you’re leaning very close to tiny black-and-white prints to a situation where you’re looking at very colourful pictures that are literally larger than life. Some of the most interesting pieces were distinctly postmodern such as the room made up of nothing but huge monochromatic prints produced using clapped-out printers resulting in so many weird shadows and imperfections that the prints not only become beautiful but also start resembling works like the famous monochromatic pieces by Rothko. Another interesting thing about Tillmans is that he seems to work in quite a relatable way. For example, when you’re learning to take photos, your first attempts at being creative tend to involve a limited range of ‘moves’ such as decontextualising mundane objects or body parts and simply capturing moments in which the real world has naturally and quite accidentally created something beautiful. Tillmans’ 2017 includes a number of these kinds of pictures but they’re  good examples of the form that look really quite impressive when placed in the right context.

My problem with the Tillmans is that while it was ‘well hung’ in the sense that it made great use of the space, it seemed to include pretty much everything the artist has ever produced despite the artist moving from field to field and form to form with very little in the way of on-going themes. As a result you move from collages, to enormous pictures of Asian people selling things by the side of the road, to pictures of car wings, to enormous monochromes, and then to a huge picture of an arse crack and balls that seems to have been included purely as selfie-bait. Then there are a series of rooms given over to an art-installation comprising fake leaflets and then it’s back to more pictures. I got through Radical Eye in about an hour and left it wanting to learn more about that-kind-of-thing, I spent two hours in the Tillmans before having to leave and I’m really not sure I ‘got’ what it was that the exhibition (or indeed the photographer) was trying to get across. At first, I responded quite viscerally to the sheer size of the art but now that the effect has faded, few (if any) of the images have stayed with me and that’s partly my fault for not being critically sensitive enough and partly the fault of the exhibition for failing to say anything about the meaning of the work.

Though perhaps more muted than I would have liked, the experience of viewing some proper photos turned out to be quite inspiring as it engaged not only my creative muscles but my critical ones as well. So my picture-taking continues…

 

 

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[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (2016)

April 28, 2017

I warn you now… this week’s piece is a bit of a monster both in terms of length and in terms of the amount of ground that it covers. It’s the penultimate review in a series of pieces based on my personal shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award.

My piece on Colson Whitehead’s universally-celebrated Underground Railroad considers some of the genre tropes deployed in the novel and concludes that what makes Underground Railroad a work of science fiction is the way that it uses fictional settings to engineer a particular set of emotional responses to the politics of the real world:

 

The Underground Railroad reminded me quite a bit of The Female Man as the different states recall Russ’s different worlds and their juxtaposition is clearly intended to lead us to a particular set of political insights. The Underground Railroad is not just a work of science fiction but a work of science fiction that is part of a tradition of political writing that stretches beyond the birth of genre all the way back to antiquity.  Unfortunately, while I think that The Underground Railroad shares a lot of common ground with works of Feminist SF like The Female Man, I also think that the book suffers from a lack of moral clarity that would perhaps not be present in a more conventional piece of genre writing.

 

As I go on to explain in my review, I suspect the conclusion’s lack of moral clarity reflects a degree of political indecision on the part of the author. The book’s first ending finds its protagonist living in an — ultimately unsustainable — bourgeois idyll but while Whitehead acknowledges that black people can’t just pretend that racism doesn’t exist, he’s really not clear on what it is that they should do instead…

This raises another question about the state of American literary culture: Would Underground Railroad have won a Pullitzer prize if it had ended with a demand for Reparations? Would Whitehead have been interviewed by Oprah had his book ended with cathartic depictions of white genocide? I was frustrated by Whitehead’s political indecision but I can understand why he — or any other BAME author — might choose to downplay the radicalism of their politics.

Paul Kincaid’s piece about Underground Railroad touches on many of the same points as mine but he seems a lot happier with the ambivalence of the ending:

There is no resolution to the story, because there can be no resolution. The story of being black in America has not reached any sort of an ending, so we leave Cora journeying once more, heading who knows where, hoping to find who knows what. There is no promise in this ending; but she has survived, so far, and that is something.

Victoria Hoyle’s piece is similarly upbeat about the ending and stresses the powerful symbolism contained in the idea of the underground railroad having been built by escaped slaves. While I took this passing reference to the construction of the railroad to be symptomatic of the deeply hypocritical white activists, Victoria chooses to see it as a metaphorical representation of collective action and how generations of political activists have worked themselves to death in order to facilitate the emancipation of their fellows:

It’s a manifestation of the countless unnamed people who fought for the freedom of slaves and the civil rights of African Americans, and a recognition of the real change wrought – to the body of the earth itself – by kindness, compassion and individual actions in the name of justice.  Whitehead’s answer to the question of change places emphasis on the potential for positive outcomes through the work of many hands.

Nick Hubble’s piece — on the other hand — is even darker than mine in that he sees Cora’s journey not so much as an incomplete march towards freedom as a spiralling drift through a series of oppressive delusions:

The Underground Railroad is a novel of our times but it also shows that our times are just the latest ‘state’ in which a deeper, darker scheme has reformulated itself. For an America that more clearly manifests its delusional status by the day, Whitehead offers the hope of escape for those prepared to become flaws in the system and to direct their practical resistance to the collective task of tunnelling to a different future.

 

One thing I have enjoyed about the Shadow Clarke’s coverage of Underground Railroad is that, despite having been written in almost complete isolation, all of our reviews seem to be in agreement. In fact, the only real point of difference between the reviews lies in our respective attitudes towards political change: Victoria is hopeful, Nick is pessimistic, Paul is pragmatic, and I am annoyed that it doesn’t end with violent insurrection. Another really cool thing about the coverage is that we all agree that Underground Railroad is a science fiction novel, which got me thinking about the process of ‘claiming’ genre novels published in the mainstream:

 

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