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Genre Origin Stories

February 17, 2017
sharke

As part of the Shadow Clarke project, each of the jurors were asked to write an introduction that laid out some of their thoughts about science fiction and how they perceived the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Mine went live yesterday afternoon. You can read it on the Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy’s website but I’m also reprinting it here below the fold.

 

A couple of things that occurred to me upon re-reading the piece:

Firstly, I think it does a pretty good job of capturing how I currently feel about the institutions of genre culture. To be blunt, I don’t think that genre fandom survived the culture wars of 2015 and I think genre culture has now entered a post-apocalyptic phase in which a few institutional citadels manage to keep the lights on while the rest of the field is little more than a blasted wasteland full of isolated, lonely people. One reason why I agreed to get involved with shadowing the Clarke Award is that I see the Shadow Clarke as an opportunity to build something new that re-introduces the idea that engaging with literary science fiction can be about more than denouncing your former friends and providing under-supported writers with free PR.

Secondly, the piece toys with the idea of the genre origin story. While this is not a particularly novel concept, it is interesting to note that when genre culture does engage with how people first got into SF it’s through a range of narrow tropes such as helpful librarians and the discovery of the one book that changed everything. I think that our path into culture goes a long way to determining how we view said culture and I also think that there’s a lot more to genre origin stories than Heinlein juveniles and Lord of the Rings. While more recent episodes have tended to feature book discussions and interviews with authors, Jonah Sutton-Morse’s Cabbages and Kings podcast has interviewed quite a broad range of fans and found their genre origin stories to be as unique as they are fascinating.

 

 

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The Arthur C. Clarke Award Shadow Jury (and my part in it)

February 14, 2017

Tom Hunter has just made public the list of books submitted to the judges of the annual Clarke Award. I don’t normally pay much attention to the list of submitted titles as genre awards only ever seem to come into critical focus once they reach the shortlist phase of their existence. This year will be different…

What is different is that I will be forming part of the first ever shadow jury for a genre award. Inspired by the shadow judges for the annual Booker prize, the idea is for a group of people to consider the list of submitted titles and – in parallel with the official judges – come up with their own shortlists and preferred winners. This initiative was the brainchild of the great Nina Allan (whose introductory remarks can be found here) and is backed by the Anglia Ruskin Centre for Research into Science Fiction and Fantasy under the directorship of Helen Marshall (whose own introductory remarks can be found here).

Inspired by last year’s – occasionally ill-tempered – debates surrounding both the direction of the Clarke Award and its continued ability to generate discussion, the Shadow Clarke project can be viewed as an attempt to strengthen and support genre culture’s critical hinterland before it is finally claimed by the sea. The point of the exercise is not so much to challenge or undermine the real jurors as to provide counterpoints and start discussions. The response from certain corners of genre culture has thus far been hyperbolic and ill-informed but what else should one expect from a website that reacted to the presence of right-wing extremists in genre spaces by driving vast amounts of internet traffic to their websites and helping them to raise funds for their organs of propaganda?

My fellow shadow jurors have already started to announce both their presence and their intentions:

Those of us who haven’t yet made their intentions clear are probably just waiting on their personal introductions to go live on the CRSFF website like Vajra’s over here. Mine is lengthy, contentious and will be linked to when it appears…

The submissions having been released, the next step is for each of us to draw up a shortlist of books we’d like to see make the official shortlist and explain why we chose those particular books. This shortlist will then appear on the Anglia Ruskin website as will more detailed pieces about the books it contains as well as our justifications for their inclusion. The idea being that shadow jurors will expand the discussion beyond the confines of the official shortlist and explore the different ways in which one can make aesthetic judgements about contemporary science fiction. For my part, I have an axe and fully intend to grind it but you’ll have to wait a bit to see which books I have chosen to chop off for myself!

In the meantime, if you have feels about the submissions list then please feel free to join in by publishing your own shortlists (hashtags #shadowclarke and #sharke). Just remember, the point of the exercise is not necessarily to predict the official shortlist or even to do a better job than the official jurors but rather to start discussions by exploring the myriad ways in which we are all hopelessly wrong and deliciously right!

Thought Projectors 6

January 24, 2017

I realise that things have been quiet around here of late. This is partly a result of my having written quite a lot of stuff for other venues and partly a result of my feeling rather uncertain about where I will be taking my writing in future.

I have committed myself to a major project next year and am in the early stages of planning a major project of my own but I see both of those as acts of community-building rather than works of criticism in their own right. I still very much enjoy the work I do for both Interzone and FilmJuice but I think my approach to writing may be in the process of changing.

The problem is that every time I sit down to write about a film or a book, I am reminded of the fact that the greatest flowering of liberal cultural commentary in human history appears to have coincided with the West’s most substantial lurch to the political right since the 1930s. On dozens of websites and in dozens of books, great minds have spent literally years dissecting and re-dissecting the politics of popular culture and yet none of this ‘woke’ commentary came anywhere close to predicting (let alone preventing) the political upheavals of 2016.

I realise that I am not among the worst offenders here… I know that I haven’t devoted any time to the question of whether or not failing to root for inter-racial couples in superhero TV series makes you morally equivalent to members of the Ku Klux Klan. I know that I haven’t spent the last few years strutting about the place claiming to be doing ‘important work’ but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that a lot of what I do is unpicking political subtext and that unpicking political subtext has just been shown to be just as much of a distraction from making the world a better place as the reactionary fantasies that get brought under the critical hammer.

This being said, I  still think that there’s value in writing about culture because culture helps to shape our vision of the world and our vision of the world is what determines the worlds we try to create. I still believe that there’s real value in politically-engaged cultural criticism but I am currently struggling to determine what that value might conceivably be.

 

***

I don’t normally ‘do’ public expressions of grief but the world of criticism has managed to lose two of its greatest talents in disarmingly quick succession.

The new year began with news of the death of John Berger. No longer as visible as he once was, Berger’s book and TV series Ways of Seeing had a profound effect on how an entire generation approached the visual arts: Before Berger, art criticism was something done in stately homes and behind the locked doors of academia. After Berger, it was suddenly within the grasp of anyone with an interest in how our minds respond to images. Aside from being a critic and broadcaster, Berger was also a celebrated novelist and dramatist, as should be evident from his use of language in this sensational piece from 2011.

All week, my Twitter time-line has been consumed by expressions of admiration and sadness following the untimely death of Mark Fisher. Anyone who has read the criticism I have produced over the last five or so years will have noticed the profound influence that Fisher’s writing has had upon me and the way I see the world. Without Capitalist Realism, there would most certainly never have been a Future Interrupted and my writing would doubtless look very different to the way it does today.Seeing as he made his name at least partly as a blogger, there are literally dozens of pieces by Fisher that I could link to as an homage. This being said, I choose to link to his most controversial piece ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle‘.  There’s a lot in Vampire Castle that feels wrong… firstly, I think that his praise for Russell Brand has shown to be premature as Brand got on a political soap box in order to sell a book and secure a US chat show and then shut up about politics completely. Secondly, I think it is always going to look and feel wrong when a well-educated white dude goes in studs up not just upon minorities but upon an ideology that a lot of those historically marginalised people have been using to try to get themselves heard and their complaints recognised. This being said, I think that Vampire Castle is not only right in a lot of what it says about liberal identity-based politics, but that the article laid the foundations for a leftist critique of ‘woke’ liberalism that seems more relevant than ever given the collapse of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Even when he was wrong, Fisher tended to be right and the questions he asked will never cease to be important, thought-provoking and absolutely necessary to any viable form of 21st Century leftism.

They will both be missed.

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Atari Teenage Riot‘s excellent video for “Revolution Action”if only because I was recently reminded of a point in the 1990s when every woman I met (and a sizeable chunk of men too) would gladly have severed one of their own limbs for a chance to spend the night with Alec Empire.

***

This Reddit AMA with the author Steph Swainston is really something else. Swainston is an author whose work I’ve never really gotten on with despite repeated attempts to read her work. This being said, I have enormous respect for her both as a thinker and as someone who is willing to publicly call people in genre publishing on their bullshit. This is all relevant to my history of the New Weird obviously but the AMA contains a genuinely extraordinary anecdote about the behaviour of China Mieville around the time when his first book was being released.

Mieville may be the author most closely associated with the term ‘New Weird’ but if you look back through the original TTA Press discussions you’ll find that he actually had very little to say that was coherent and/or useful. Conversely, Swainston articulated an approach to genre fiction that not only came to be viewed as ‘the New Weird’ but also rapidly became the new normal in terms of SFF attitudes to genre boundaries.

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Despite being an unapologetic and entirely unironic fan of Babymetal’s first album, I think that for every £ they make, at least 25p should go to Dazzle Vision. This is “The Second” from their sixth album Shocking Loud Voice.

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This recent piece about 4Chan, Pepe the Frog, and chaos magic is a thing of absolute beauty. Good criticism relates to reviews in much the same way as conspiracy theories relate to history… What I mean by this is that while reviews are about accurate description and honest evaluation, criticism is a more creative undertaking in which elements of particular cultural artefacts are combined with subjective reactions to other cultural artefacts to produce cultural artefacts with their own unique artistic identities. Only an idiot would confuse this piece by Paul Schrader about the films of Yasujiro Ozu with an evaluative description of their content… why would you want to go and do something stupid like confuse an epic Alex Jones rant with political analysis or Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods with archaeology?

 

***

One of the most interesting aspects of hip hop is its willing to engage directly with sexuality. For example, while the Guns, Bitches, and Bling aesthetic of late-90s and 00s rap may invite us to view the culture as full of sexually-stunted men who want nothing more from life than to date a porn star, tunes like Big Brovas’ “Favourite Things” presented women not so much as sexual objects but as unattainable, quasi-motivational figures. Conversely, when the scene did acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, it was in the form of a terrifying Other that took the form of a tight-trousered and mirrorshaded LAPD who were constantly outwitted by the thrustic heterosexual masculinity of the protagonists.

However, (hip) hop over to the other side of the world and you’ll find that Pinoy rap has a very different set of ideas. Much like Big Brovas, Pinoy rappers often present women as unattainable creatures that force the protagonist into self-improvement. However, unlike American rappers who dream and work, Pinoy rappers have triangulated from their vision of women and concluded that they should date ladyboys instead. Cue the emergence of a sub-genre of Pinoy rap songs about straight guys having relationships with what we in the West would consider transwomen including “Gayuma” by Abra (which has over 41 Million views).

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This recent piece by Mazin Saleem about Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is precisely the kind of discursive and open-ended writing about science fiction that I really enjoy reading.However, as much as I love Mazin’s piece (and his occasionally-SFnal podcast) , I really struggled with the film itself…

While he may be about to be sucked into the gears of geek culture, Villeneuve is perhaps best known for his 20120 Oscar-nominated melodrama Incendies. Incendies is a proper melodrama in so far as it is built around a series of big emotional set-pieces. Like all melodramas, the film begins by introducing you to the characters and their worlds before taking you on a journey that serves no purpose other than to make you weep like an infected stab wound. If you want to know how melodramas work then take another look at Michel Gondry’s video for ‘Lucas with the Lid Off‘ and note that Gondry’s camera moves from one fixed viewpoint to another.

There are critics who argue that all genre cinema functions in this way and that the only real difference between genres is the emotional affect they deliver in their set-pieces. For example, while melodramas make you sad, horror makes you jump, porn makes you horny, and science fiction fills you with awe. Under this view, genre-blending is really only a question of shifting between emotional payloads meaning that a horror comedy moves you from big jokes to big scares while romantic science-fiction moves you from sensawunda to romantic dizziness and back again.

While I love melodrama as a genre, there is something rather peculiar about the idea of a cultural artefact that exists solely in order to make you cry. Indeed, Incendies is a technically brilliant melodrama but its power lies solely in its ability to make you cry as it tells you absolutely nothing about either the world or the humans that contain it. Like the sound stage filled with dancing mechanical legs and recreated tube carriages for the purposes of shooting the video for ‘Lucas with the Lid Off’ it is an imaginative space that contains no truth or substance beyond its ability to hit the mark and deliver the pay-off.

Arrival is very similar to Incendies in so far as you can feel the director inserting stuff into the film’s conceptual space purely in order to set up a later pay-off. For example, we get the kid dying from cancer because we need that pathos for the ending. However, outside of its ability to deliver pathos, the child’s death has no significance except to raise unwelcome and unanswerable questions about the protagonist’s relationship with her spouse.

My problem with Arrival is that while it all fits together very well, none of it means anything: The characters are empty shells, the politics are stereotypical nonsense, and the science is complete and utter guff. Technically-proficient storytelling is one thing but at what point does a story need to connect to the world? At what point does culture cease to press our buttons and start to encourage thought?

***

I have, for the last year or so, been taking photographs. First to actually learn how to work my camera properly, then to develop a sound technical understanding of how to produce good photos, and — more recently — in an effort to find an aesthetic I like.

Given that much of what I do is very top-down and cerebral, I decided to approach photography from the opposite direction and so ignore all of the theoretical and critical writings about photography. However, I have also been trying to engage with more photography if only to get an idea of what’s out there and so I have been thinking about the Tate’s display of Elton John’s massive collection of modernist photographs. Here’s a video in which he discusses his love of the form:

The problem with what the world of art criticism refers to as ‘modernist photography’ is that it seems to capture an almost completely different aesthetic to that captured by modernism in other art forms. In literary terms, modernist photography seems to span everything from Victorian realism all the way to surrealism as modernist photographs are just as likely to involve surrealist imagery as they do images of real-life cityscapes.

Confused, I had a look at this video and was left just as perplexed:

According this video, modernism is about form being determined (at least in part) by function, which means almost precisely nothing as all forms are determined by function as style is inevitably a reflection of the ideas and ideological assumptions that informed the creation of a particular piece.  This lead me to another video:

This gets closer to answering my questions. The video argues that modernism is about accepting the changes brought about by modernity and exploring what they mean. Thus, the black and white photos of the great depression are about capturing the economic consequences of unfettered capitalism while the more surreal compositions are about capturing — in more abstract terms — the impact of the world on the self, society, and our experiences of both.

 

***

This recent article by Ilana Gershon has a number of really interesting things to say not only about the workplace but also about how we conceive of ourselves under neoliberalism. However, while the article is full of lovely insights on a paragraph by paragraph basis, I felt that Gershon failed to connect the two strands of her attack on the neoliberal self and the increasing tendency for people to turn themselves into brands.

The first strand of her argument is that turning yourself into a brand does absolutely nothing for your employment prospects as employers tend to look for skills and flexibility rather than people who happen to have welded their identities to particular professional roles.

The second strand of her argument is that the move to turn people into brands appears to be spearheaded by an entire class of business gurus and employment consultants with books to sell and workshops to fill. Her treatment of this stuff is particularly brilliant.

Having read the article a couple of times, I’m frustrated by the fact that Gershon struggles to bring together the two strands of her argument despite the fact that the two strands unite at exactly the point she wants to make, namely that the neoliberal vision of self is shot through with logical inconsistencies and psychological impossibilities that make it both unsustainable and profoundly unhealthy.

For example, if employers don’t want to employ brands then surely the neoliberal self industry is nothing but snake oil and if that entire sector of the culture is snake oil then it is crying out to be analysed in terms of its own hypocrisy and artificiality. Do modern-day employees adopt the trappings of the neoliberal self for the same reason that medieval peasants performed ceremonies to cast out malevolent spirits? Is it superstition? Is it magical thinking?  Clearly, Gershon has stumbled into an important area of social critique.

Future Interrupted –Telling People What They Want To Be.

January 17, 2017
iz268

Interzone #268 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 month’s issue comes with a number of interesting-looking short stories:

  • “Everyone gets a Happy Ending” by Julie C. Day
  • “The Noise & The Silence” by Christien Gholson
  • “The Transmuted Child” by Michael Reid
  • “Weavers in the Cellar” by Mel Kassel
  • “Freedom of Navigation” by Val Nolan
  • “The Rhyme of Grievance” by T.R. Napper

As this was the last issue to go to bed before the end of 2016, the non-fiction includes the traditional Year’s Best ‘recommendation’ pieces by Interzone’s non-fiction writers.

Nina Allan‘s column allows her to express how difficult she finds it to write non-fiction and why she admires the ways in which the author Kai Ashante Wilson not only engages with the world through his fiction but also with his own emotional responses to that world.

Nick Lowe‘s column on film (as usual) looks at a number of recent releases but my mind was caught by his suggestion that Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival doesn’t work in part because film is less charitable to certain types of SFnal ideas than raw text. According to Lowe, Chang’s use of language and structure allow him to adopt a degree of obliquity relative to the silliness of his own ideas that allows them to pass when read in a story but to stick out a mile when encountered in the cinema.

The rest of the Booz Zone is made up of five extended reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jack Deighton, Shaun Green, and Duncan Lunan. I enjoyed all of the pieces thoroughly but was enchanted by Duncan’s decision to take issue with the technical and strategic details of Stephen Baxter’s recently-published sequel to War of the Worlds. When I first started writing about science fiction, it was quite common for reviewers to take issue with the factual and speculative elements of the books they had read but that approach appears to have rather fallen out of fashion. Nice to see it make a comeback!

This issue also contains an (unfortunately rather timely) column about Carl Neville’s debut novel Resolution Way. The novel is set in a near-future Britain where waves of austerity have left people desperate and ready to fuck each other over. What makes this piece timely (aside from the fact that many of its plot details could be pulled from the headlines) is that the novel was published by Repeater books, an imprint operated by a group of people including the great critic Mark Fisher, author of the much-sited Capitalist Realism who died earlier this week. Needless to say, my thoughts are with his family and friends.

You’ll be able to read my piece about Resolution Way either by buying the magazine or waiting about 6 months for it to be reprinted here. In the meantime, below the fold is what turns out to have been a somewhat controversial piece about Becky Chambers’ much-hyped and widely-praised debut The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

 

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REVIEW — Indochine (1992)

January 13, 2017
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My first review of the year is of a film that is as intriguing as it is flawed and problematic. First released in 1992,  Regis Wargnier’s Indochine can only be described as a piece of post-colonial Oscar-bait.

The “post-colonial” bit refers to the fact that Wargnier’s film followed the example set by David Lean’s A Passage to India and used France’s colonial history as an excuse to make a beautiful and nostalgic film about an exotic foreign land. Wargnier’s producers knew full well that nostalgic prestige productions tend to do disproportionately well at the Oscars and so Indochine was always a cynical exercise in bringing home the gold. Hence the term “post-colonial Oscarbait”.

However, while the idea of white people from former colonial powers making films about former colonies is always going to be problematic, I think that Indochine deserve some credit for not only siding with the oppressed but also presenting colonialism as a system that was both monstrous and politically unsustainable. My FilmJuice piece about the film can be found here:

Indochine is a beautifully made and well-performed film that handles a difficult subject in both a progressive and sympathetic manner. However, while the film’s production values and ambitions may scream quality, there is no escaping the fact that this was a film about colonialism made by white people for the consumption of other white people. The writers and director do try their best to get beyond this limitation but the decision to use the Vietnamese characters thematically rather than narratively means that the film retains a cool, detached, and ultimately frustrating viewpoint that denies its subjects agency when it should be seeking to understand their actions.

Re-reading my review, it strikes me that Indochine exemplifies many of the problems presented by cultural appropriation. Though many of the film’s narrative problems do stem from a decision to focus on the white characters rather than the Vietnamese characters, having a bunch of French people tell a story about Vietnamese people struggling to defeat French colonialism would arguably have been just as bad.

 

Don’t Vote For Me

January 11, 2017

The New Year has imposed itself as such things are prone to do… The movement from one calendar year to another may be abstract and arbitrary but our lives are shaped by institutions and institutions exist to make the arbitrary and abstract appear concrete and unavoidable.

Like most cultural scenes, the world of literary science fiction is shaped by its institutions. Genre institutions can do any number of things but they are most evident when they are publicising, administering, and awarding prizes for what the charitably-inclined might refer to as ‘cultural excellence’. A year in genre culture is a year in genre awards and a year in genre awards is a year spent actively campaigning for what little validation can be extracted from a cultural space where the provision of content massively outstrips the desire to engage with said content.

What this means in practice is that every year begins with an ungainly scramble for visibility as hundreds of aspiring authors try to get out their personal votes. These visibility campaigns may start on a bashful and self-deprecating note but the pitch soon rises, growing steadily more grasping and unpleasant until finally reaching the level of demented screaming in the run-up to the annual distribution of fish heads known as the Hugo Awards, at which point the voices collapse either into silence or disgruntled muttering before beginning afresh the following December.

The cycle begins in earnest with the opening of the Hugo nominations period but the year’s first tangible chunk of ego-boo is usually the shortlist for the awards handed out by the British Science Fiction Association. For reasons that doubtless made sense to someone at the time, the process for generating BSFA award shortlists has now changed meaning that people are now expected to nominate for a longlist as well as a shortlist. My piece on the history of the New Weird has made it onto the non-fiction longlist and while I am grateful to everyone who took the time to nominate my piece, I would be even more grateful if it progressed no further as I have decided to decline any and all future award nominations.


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Thought Projectors 5

November 22, 2016

The last eighteen months have been nothing short of extraordinary…

As recently as May 2015, most of us were still labouring under the impression that the world was fundamentally the same as it had been since the late-1990s. Sure… the economy had gone to shit and the internet was full of anger but these were all technical problems with technical solutions that would inevitably get solved one way or another. This was the view taken by serious ‘centre ground’ politicians and it filtered all the way down to the parts of the internet where people like me choose to spend our free time.

Since then, a series of unexpected election results have shown not only the depth of public anger at the nature of the political consensus engineered by those technocratic elites but also the extent of the alienation between those elites and the public whose interests they claimed to represent.

Always better funded, better organised, and more disciplined, the right has been able to benefit from the collapse of political formations in which they had always been intimately involved. Back in the 1990s, right-wingers assumed the role of pantomime villains who moaned about abortion, family values, and keeping the pound while a cadre of neoliberal centrists deregulated markets and sold off public goods. When the series of bubbles created by privatisation and deregulation finally became too unstable to support the interests of capital in the late-2000s,  right-wingers happily assumed the role of technocratic fixers forced to implement a politics of austerity after the failed ‘largesse’ of the Third Way.When reality re-asserted itself again and people started to realise that they had now been shafted by at least two distinct political epochs, the right rapidly reconfigured itself as a populist resistance to policies it had itself been pushing since at least the 1970s.

The last eighteen months have provided the middle-class with a series of naked lunch moments: Suddenly, the brutal oppression of racial others required by an unjust and political system is taking place all around them.Suddenly, hardships and inequalities that have long been considered normal in working-class communities are starting to change the lives of middle-class communities where kids are moving home and struggling to find work while ageing parents find themselves having to work longer and harder in order to make up for the shortfalls in their own pensions while everything seems to be getting more expensive and harder to acquire.

The last eighteen months have been extraordinary as they have forced  everyone in the developed world to confront the limits of their own political imaginations. The question is, how are we going to respond to the moment in which we were allowed to glimpse the brutality that lies at the end of every political fork?

A funny thing about important moments is that they tend to play themselves out at almost every level of society. The choice between socialism and yet more barbarism is not just about the way we vote and the way we think about big political issues, but also about the way in which we relate to each other and act in our day-to-day lives. Feminists have long been telling us that the personal is the political because the way in which we think about small things tends to shape how we think about big things too… If you are interested in films then think about the ways in which capitalism determines not only the types of films you get to see but also the messages those films are likely to contain. If you are interested in science fiction then think not only about the way capitalism shapes the discourse but also the ways in which capitalism is shaping and re-shaping the institutions that drive that discourse. Who are reviews written for? What is the purpose of conventions? Who gets to speak? Who gets to shape the debate? Whose interests are served? The answers may be uncomfortable but asking those questions will help to shape the building of the world to come.

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