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Lessons of Sharke

September 5, 2017

Megan has put up an excellent post about her experiences as a Shadow Clarke Award juror and, seeing as a couple of other things I’ve been working on appear to have stalled, I thought I’d add my own short rejoinder.

 

 

 

 

Firstly, my time as a Sharke juror included some of the best experiences that I have ever had writing about science fiction…

Over the years, I’ve written quite a few pieces about the state of online conversation about SF and while they’ve mostly been resoundingly downbeat, my experience as a Shadow Clarke juror gave lie to all of them. Suddenly, after years of intellectual isolation came a momentary outbreak of solidarity, comradeship, and the ability to have a meaningful conversation about books.

My only regret is that my regrettable lack of interest in the back end of the official Clarke shortlist meant that I couldn’t really maintain the level of output that I felt the project deserved.  I write about science fiction on a fairly regular basis but it had been a long time since I’d been a staff reviewer committed not only to finishing but also to reviewing a series of books. Evidently, my methods and tastes have now shifted to the point where I can no longer force myself to either read or write at the kind of length I felt the project required. To this day, I regret being unable to contribute more to the project and feel that I rather let the side down for not doing so.

There are some ongoing discussions about the possibility of another flotilla of Sharkes and I certainly hope that comes to pass as everyone who writes about science fiction online deserves to have the kinds of experiences I had as a Sharke. Thank you not only to Nina Allan but also to my fellow Sharkes for allowing me to have the kind of experience that I have always wanted from writing about stuff on the internet.

 

Secondly, while I revelled in the sense of shared purpose and togetherness I experienced during the project, I do wonder if the process might not be improved…

For starters, I think that writing an essay about each book on both the personal and official shortlists is a bit much. Aside from putting quite a lot of pressure on the jury to deliver content, it can also get a bit repetitive for readers who can wind up being subjected not only to endless essays about the same books, but also to endless essays about the same books making almost the exact same points over and over again. At best, this kind of repetition will result in readers ‘tuning out’. At worse, it will feel like some kind of weird conspiracy.

I think the roundtable format took some of the weight out of the repetition but I am worried about that format resulting in group-think as people with unpopular opinions will inevitably wind up self-censoring and even if we people don’t actively self-censor, the format does rather tend to narrow the focus of discussion to the point where you naturally end up talking within quite a limited cultural space. Experienced moderators and editors might be able to stop that happening but I wonder if a tweak in the format might not minimise the risk of group-think.

Rather than having people write individual essays about the books on the shortlist, might it not be better to adhere to the traditional method of shortlist reviewing, namely writing one long piece about all the books at the same time? If everyone were to write one long piece about the official shortlist and then move on to more in-depth roundtable discussions of individual books, people might feel more inclined to defend the line they took in their longer pieces. This would also give people the chance to go long or short on books and subjects that left them unevenly inspired. It would also set up the possibility of people changing their minds in discussion, which always makes for an entertaining read as far as I’m concerned.

 

Thirdly, I was encouraged by the nature of the pushback.

One of the reasons why I decided to take part in the project was that I believed – and still believe – that genre publishing is going through a period of aesthetic retrenchment. Look at the way that even established and award-winning authors are manacled to conventional forms and you’ll find an industry that is desperately trying to consolidate existing readerships while desperately trying to make inroads into the profitable but aesthetically conservative YA and YA-adjacent markets. As a result of this period of retrenchment, genre publishing is producing less aesthetically ambitious works than it was five, ten, or fifteen years ago.

This period of aesthetic retrenchment has coincided with a catastrophic collapse in the range of tolerated discourse with regards to genre literature. Ten years ago, genre culture was home to a thriving blogosphere that encouraged a broad range of attitudes towards science fiction literature. Since then, that blogosphere has largely collapsed and a fan-centric ethic of honest self-expression has been replaced with an industry-centric ethic of enforced positivity.

I was happy to get involved in the Shadow Clarke project because I wanted to a) help challenge the presumed supremacy of genre publishing by broadening the discourse to include science fiction novels from outside that cultural sphere and b) show that it was possible for regular readers to engage with the literature of science fiction in public using not only the full range of their emotions but also their own ideas about what constitutes good writing and good science fiction.

Regardless of whether you want to provoke change in existing social structures or create new social spaces embodying different principles, you need to be able to show what you’re about… if only to prove that alternatives to the status quo can exist. The Shadow Clarke project was by no means a flawless undertaking but I think it was successful not only in broadening the scope of genre discourse but also in demonstrating that ordinary readers can contribute more than simply hitting retweet and dutifully nominating their faves.

I expected both hostility and opposition because the Shadow Clarke project embodies a very different set of ideas about how we ought to engage with science fiction on the internet. Some might argue that those ideas and methods have always been present in genre culture but times change and cases must always be made anew. Looking back over the months I spent as a Sharke, I am proud of the writing we produced as a group; I think we championed books that would otherwise have been completely overlooked in genre circles and I think we provided dozens of articles that interrogate science fiction from a variety of nuanced and personal positions.

Hopefully, next year will bring another group of Sharkes… Ideally, every major award in the field will start casting its own shadow. Even if this was nothing more than the last gasp of a critical tradition that no longer has much of a place in genre culture, every fresh beginning requires a proof of concept and I think the Shadow Clarke jury provided exactly that.

I don’t know where we’re going tomorrow but today I stand, like Megan, SFatisfied at what I helped to produce.

 

 

 

Auto Focus (2002) – Made Free, Yet Everywhere in Chains

August 31, 2017

Paul Schrader is better known as a writer than a director. Having co-written most of Martin Scorsese’s better-known films, his own directorial efforts have often left him stranded between two cinematic cultures; his themes are often two weird and downbeat for Hollywood and yet his style is too conventional for the aesthetes of Cannes. As a writer/director, the creative high point of his career remains the beautifully demented and heavily-stylised Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Well-received at the time and since largely forgotten, Auto Focus is very much a companion piece to Schrader’s best-known film: Like Mishima, Auto Focus is a biopic chronicling the rise and fall of a relatively obscure cultural figure. Like Mishima, Auto Focus uses cinematic style rather than narrative or dialogue to deliver its intellectual substance. Like Mishima, Auto Focus is about a man who is hollowed out and destroyed by his commitment to an unsustainable model of masculinity.

 

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Future Interrupted — The Consequences of the Present

August 29, 2017

Interzone #271 has been a thing in the world for a little while now. 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 stories are a typically intriguing bunch:

 

  • “The Rocket Farmer” by Julie C. Day
  • “Gods in the Blood (of Those Who Rise)” by Tim Casson
  • “If your Powers Fail you in a City Under Tin” by Michael Reid
  • “Chubba Luna” by Eliot Fintushel
  • “When I Close my Eyes” by Chris Barnham
  • “Cryptic Female Choice” by Andy Dudak

 

As ever, the non-fiction is superb… Nina Allan writes about J. Robert Lennon’s art house thriller Broken River and considers the state of the ‘conversation’ in genre culture. Nina quotes part of a conversation I had with her and my fellow Shadow Clarke jurors in which I (predictably) point out that genre books inevitably improve the second they are published by anyone but a genre publisher and after failing to write about most of this year’s Clarke award shortlist, I absolutely stand by that assertion. In fact, this issue also includes an excellent review and interview with Allan by Maureen Kincaid Speller that contains an observation that perfectly articulates what I value not just in SF but in all art and culture:

 

“I love work that shimmers with a sense of the numinous, work that has something to say about the landscape and the time in which it was written. Above all, I admire deeply personal work that doesn’t give much of a toss about fashionable trends, and thus illuminates all the more brightly our sense of where we are as individuals, and as a species.”

 

Which is a great point at which to move onto this month’s reprint. The column was written last year not long after the American election and is a look at what I still consider to be one of the best science fiction novels published in 2016. The novel in question is Carl Neville’s Resolution Way from Repeater Books.

 

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RW

 

On Tuesday 8th of November 2016, Hilary Clinton failed to beat Donald Trump in the presidential election. As news of Trump’s victory spread fear around the globe, people everywhere looked to the future and asked a question that lies at the heart of all great science fiction: What Next?

Literary science fiction’s reluctance to answer this question is a result of its economic history. When the pulp magazine market began to collapse in the 1950s, genre fiction ended its strategic alliance with popular science. Faced with economic ruin, genre editors and writers began to shift the field’s economic heartlands away from factual content and towards literary fiction. Building on ground broken during Cele Goldsmith’s tenure at Amazing Stories, Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds stressed the literary nature of contemporary genre writing while people like Judith Merril and Harlan Ellison shouted themselves hoarse confronting the entrenched assumptions of the American genre marketplace.

Nowhere is the call for economic reconfiguration more obvious than in J.G. Ballard’s famous essay “Which Way to Inner Space?” First published as an editorial in New Worlds, Ballard calls for science fiction writers to stop producing space exploration stories and begin producing stories that use genre tropes to explore the workings of the human mind. One interesting thing about this oft-cited essay is that Ballard bases his call for aesthetic renewal on economic factors; according to Ballard, America’s real-world space programme was proving to be so apocalyptically tedious that it was going to destroy the market for stories about spaceships. Another interesting thing about this oft-cited essay is that Ballard’s analysis was completely without foundation. Ten years after Ballard wrote the essay, Star Wars turned escapist rocket ship stories into a cultural phenomenon while the New Wave broke and Feminist SF wound up seeking refuge behind the walls of academia.

Genre publishing has spent the last forty years accelerating away from anything that might be described as realism. When the rise of big-budget science fiction movies undermined the market for escapist science fiction stories, genre publishers turned to epic fantasy. When technology finally caught up and multinational corporations started putting huge fantasy worlds both online and onscreen, the market for epic fantasy contracted and so genre publishers shuffled closer to YA but Young Adult fiction already had its own imprints and so we are left with a hollowed-out literary culture where everything looks and reads like epic fantasy and nobody is allowed to find their own voice.

 

NB

 

Given the extent of the commercial and cultural decline experienced by literary SF since genre publishers bet the farm on escapism, I wonder whether it might not be worth thinking about returning to the future. Not a future in which space admirals unleash righteous slaughter or grizzled psychopaths confront puissant magics in post-apocalyptic landscapes but a future in which we are confronted with the consequences of the present.

A recent example of how to approach the near-future is Carl Neville’s debut novel Resolution Way. Resolution Way is set in a Britain that has been pulverised by wave after wave of punitive austerity. The book begins by introducing us to an ambitious middle-class journalist who stumbles across a beautifully-written piece by an author who disappeared before he was able to get any of his work published. Fuelled by a lethal cocktail of smart drugs and entitlement, the journalist uses social media to piece together the author’s social networks and sets about badgering his surviving friends into handing over what is left of his literary estate. Right from the start, the journalist comes across as a duplicitous predator who wants nothing more than to pass the abandoned work off as his own but before we can settle into a nice comfortable hate-read, Neville switches viewpoints.

Much like Lavie Tidhar’s superlative Central Station, Neville’s book is less a conventional novel than a series of interlinking short-stories designed to show us a particular time and place from a variety of different perspectives. The journalist character provides us with a path into the Britain of tomorrow but most of the book’s speculative heavy-lifting is done in images taken from the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to get by. Having begun the novel from the perspective of the ‘haves’, Neville proceeds to shuffle us back and forth between the perspectives of different ‘have-nots’ including single mothers who are hounded by loan shark-like council officers, aspiring musicians who are forced into indentured servitude when they fail to pay back their student loans, and local shopkeepers who are trapped on abandoned high streets by negative equity mortgages. Each of these futures is rendered in an affectless and under-punctuated prose that perfectly conveys Neville’s vision of a socially and economically desolate future. The lives of the characters intersect at acute angles but so do the oppression and exploitation that is forced upon them by the system.

One of the really remarkable things about Resolution Way is the way that it shows the systemic nature of capitalist oppression. Neville crawls inside each character’s skin and unveils the source of their pain and misery but every time we think the source of the oppression can be traced to a particular agency or person, Neville catapults us into the mind of that potential oppressor and forces us to empathise. In one vignette, we are asked to understand a council worker who smashes families and hurls people into prison because the only other option would be to lose their job and risk it being taken by someone who actually enjoys the power. In another scene, we are confronted by people working for a private letting company tasked with turning run-down Victorian seaside towns into venues for expensive steampunk-themed staycations. They understand that jacking up rents and forcing poor people out of town centres only serves to create social and economic problems but nobody cares and nobody listens.

Another remarkable thing about this novel is the way that Neville pushes the limits of empathy beyond those who are merely complicit in the exploitation of others. Having ignored the ambitious journalist for over a hundred pages, the book deposits us in the life of his equally ambitious middle-class wife. The journalist’s wife paints a picture of a man who invested all of his being into the dream of becoming a successful novelist; well-schooled, well-connected, and well-disciplined, the man did everything that society asks of its cultural entrepreneurs only for his dreams to be smashed by accusations of plagiarism. Like many middle-class people, the journalist followed the rules and sacrificed his humanity but still this was not enough to save him from a system that treats everyone like fodder. Even the billionaire funding the journalist’s quest turns out to be trapped on a treadmill, forced to run ever-faster lest he fall off the back and wind up being sucked down into penury. Some may benefit more from the system than others but its grinding inhumanity ultimately consumes us all.

 

CR

 

Neville’s vision of the future owes an acknowledged debt to that elaborated in Mark Fischer’s superb essay Capitalist Realism: Tomorrow’s Britain does not so much produce new things as slowly dismember and digest the remnants of the past as tycoons compete for ownership of teenaged mix-tapes and unpublished novels using money made from turning the welfare state into a torture chamber.

For decades now, science fiction has devoted itself to the task of providing people with a means of escape from their day-to-day lives. Fictional universes built in accordance with transparent moral imperatives and simple narrative logics might have turned some writers into household names but the genre as a whole is less wealthy and less visible than ever before. It is time for a change of direction… rather than helping us to escape the world, science fiction should start preparing us for whatever is coming next. Someone needs to.

REVIEW — A Quiet Passion (2016)

July 25, 2017

After a period of considerable silence on my part, FilmJuice have my review of Terence Davies’ wonderful biopic of the American poet Emily Dickinson entitled A Quiet Passion.

It was interesting to find myself writing about Davies for the second time in five months after having spent a number of years bouncing off his films…

Whenever you acquire a passion for a particular cultural form, there is always a period in which you wind up feeling obliged to be a good citizen and, at the very least, experience the great canonical presences of the field. This gravitational pull can arise from social gatekeeping but even if you never experience a dude in a stained T-shirt snorting dismissively at your faves, you can still wind up being drawn into a cultural gravity well.

For example, once you acquire a passion for a particular cultural form, it is only natural to seek out respected commentators on that form and when those commentators all point towards the same cultural artefacts then it is quite hard to avoid engaging with those tastes and values. This is particularly obvious in the world of film criticism where an already limited range of canonical critics all tend to wind up writing about a limited range of canonical directors.

Davies is a director who sits at the bottom of quite a deep critical gravity well, which is to say that his work is respected by a lot of very respectable people and the amount of gravitational force he exerts on the culture around him means that there will always be some pressure to give his work another try, if only to try and work out what other people see in him.

I wrote about Davies’ long-awaited Sunset Song back in April and found it sorely wanting. A Quiet Passion is very similar to Sunset Song in that it is also quite dark, emotionally controlled, and oppressively internal. However, while the aesthetics of Sunset Song seemed a questionable fit for the source material, those same aesthetics turned out to be a perfect fit for the life of Emily Dickinson:

 

A Quiet Passion reads a lot like a critique of contemporary liberalism: It begins as a light and fluffy comedy of manners in which brilliant young women drop truth bombs on stuffy 19th Century caricatures but the comedy of manners collapses into tragedy when it turns out that material reality is immune to your zesty one-liners and epic owns. What follows is an absolutely uncompromising vision of genius and depression rooted in the realities of 19th Century life. Indeed, while many of Dickinson’s friends and family affect a form of world-weary cynicism, Dickinson expands those insights beyond the punchline and towards their logical conclusion in the realisation that society is built upon a series of monstrously unjust lies.

 

I went into the review-writing process rather unsure of my feelings on Davies and so I talk a bit about how I view Davies’ career and I begin to elaborate a narrative about the aesthetics of British art house film that I may wind up returning to at some later point:

 

The root of the problem is that Davies is a director in the great tradition of British art house film. Indeed, while many of the art films to come out of continental Europe tend towards the abstract and novelistic, British art films tend to be theatrical and rooted in social realism. To put it another way, European art film is a house built by Andrei Tarkovsky and Jean-Luc Godard whereas British art house film owes considerably more to left-leaning social realists such as Alan Clark and Mike Leigh. Unfortunately for Davies and many directors like him, the 1990s saw the economic heartlands of prestige cinema shift a lot closer to the American middle-class and while the abstract tendencies of European art film survived the transition, the British art house tradition did not.

 

 

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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