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Future Interrupted: All That Science Fiction Allows

January 13, 2016

Interzone #262 is a thing in the world. Those desirous of their own copies are urged to visit the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any purveyor of eBooks with a search bar and a robust commitment to science fiction.

This issue’s non-fiction is typically excellent. Nina Allan kicks things off by considering the ‘One Book a Year’ publishing model imposed on most contracted authors and how the pressure to deliver a new book every twelve months serves to bridle the impulse to innovate or experiment.  Allan’s piece rather reminded me of this quick trip delivered via M. John Harrison’s blog:

Why are genre writers so desperate to convince? Treat ’em mean keep ’em keen seems to be lost advice. The result is chapter after opening chapter of needy, to which the experienced reader is only going to react with contempt.

Timidity is a learned response to the condition of selling your work to companies that no longer believe in your product. If your editor and publisher don’t believe in your process, why should you?

Other excellent non-fic in this month’s issue include Andy Hedgecock’s interview with Dave Hutchinson as well as his double-review of Europe in Autumn and Europe of Midnight (which are both sensational). Also excellent is Nick Lowe’s bravura critique of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which is not in the least bit sensational):

In the meantime, for everyone missing Christmas 1977, here’s a beardy bloke in long robes to help with who’s naughty and nice, because in Disney’s new contracted universe every Christmas from now to ever and ever will be a Star Wars Christmas. May the force be with us all.

I share many of Lowe’s misgivings about the film’s haphazard plotting, nonsensical world-building and general sense of hugely expensive slapdashery.

Between Force Awakens and the horrors imposed upon the Star Trek franchise during his tenure, Abrams has emerged as a man not merely consumed by his own inner demons but a man intent upon using his considerable cultural reach to impose those demons on the rest of us. Normally, I’m a big fan of artists using their work as a form of therapy but every film Abrams produces inevitably winds up being hand-wavy inter-textual nonsense about how Daddy Issues.

It’s not just that Abrams is repeating himself, it’s that he’s repeating himself in a way that suggests complete psychological paralysis. Film after film features tedious self-inserts working to secure the respect of an older generation only to wind up trapped between the urge to please Daddy and the urge to murder him for his many crimes. Once Bad Dad is killed, the characters enjoy a moment of exhilaration as they finally achieve the responsibilities of adulthood. However, the next film in the franchise inevitably deposits them back at square one: Poised on the bring of adulthood, angry with Dad, and yet desperate for his respect.

Abrams’ refusal to let his own characters reach adulthood intersects with broader issues surrounding the infantilisation of adult audiences under contemporary capitalism and is manifest in a cloying devotion to the source material of the franchises with which Abrams works. Thus, Star Trek could not be made without the new actors being anointed by the original cast and Star Wars: The Force Awakens features endless scenes in which batons, swords, catchphrases and assorted bits of lore are passed from one generation to another. This shit is not just tedious, it is downright sinister as textual obsessions with nostalgia and parental love inevitably fuse with the orgy of consumerism that surrounds each and every one of Abrams’ films. You may never be able to win Daddy’s love but Mickey Mouse’s rates are surprisingly reasonable.

ANYWAY…

This month’s short fiction includes:

  • “The Water-Walls of Enceladus” by Mercurio D. Rivera
  • “Empty Planets” by Rahul Kanakia
  • “Circa Diem” by Carole Johnstone
  • “A Strangle Loop” by T.R. Napper
  • “Dependent Assemblies” by Philip A. Suggars, and
  • “Geologic” by Ian Sales.

The presence of Ian Sales’ story in this month’s issue has worked out nicely as “Geologic” is very much a story in the style of Sales’ Apollo Quartet, which is the subject of this month’s reprinted column…

***

People used to say that self-publishing was going to revolutionise genre fiction. They said that genre imprints were out of touch and overly cautious. They spoke of creative bottlenecks and how authors were going to unlock the raw potential of genre by moving beyond the bean-counters and gate-keepers of traditional publishing. They said a lot about how self-publishing was going to change the world but the reality turned out to be a billion shades of grey and the occasional flash of colour such as that provided by Ian Sales’ magnificent and ground-breaking Apollo Quartet.

Comprising three novellas and one short novel each set in an alternate history of NASA’s Apollo programme, the Apollo Quartet uses a variety of literary techniques to explore the complex relationships between science, fiction, history, and the history of science fiction. Growing ever more sophisticated and ambitious with each volume, the Quartet is best approached in the order in which it was originally published: One, two, three and oh-most-definitely four.

 

AQ1

 

Winner of the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Short Fiction back in 2012, Adrift on the Sea of Rains takes place in a version of the 1970s where nuclear war has destroyed the Earth and left a group of astronauts stranded on the surface of the Moon. Written in a style that is almost as poetically desolate as the surface of the Moon itself, Adrift revels in a level of technical detail that you would normally associate with only the hardest works of Hard SF. However, where Hard SF uses technical detail as a means of promoting understanding and making things clear, Sales uses it as a smokescreen to conceal his characters’ true feelings.

Trapped on the surface of the Moon and hoping that an old piece of Nazi technology will allow them to escape to another universe before they all die of starvation, the astronauts immerse themselves in checklists and maintenance protocols as a means of escaping the feelings of grief and terror that threaten to overwhelm them every time they look upon the irradiated wasteland that was once their home. Miserable, traumatised and trapped in a toxic ‘Right Stuff’ ideal of masculinity that precludes anyone discussing their feelings, the astronauts cling to the mind-crushing tedium of their daily routines as the misery and tension push them ever-closer to madness.

 

AQ2

 

The second book in the Apollo Quartet also uses Hard SF tropes to pursue literary ends. Set in an alternate version of 1999 where the success of the Moon landings encouraged America to push on first to Mars and then to other solar systems, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself features an astronaut who is brought out of retirement in order to investigate an extra-Solar colony that has unexpectedly cut off all communication with Earth.

Eye sets the terms of engagement by immersing us in a world of lies and conspiracy. Universally recognised as the only Human to set foot on Mars, the novella’s protagonist is horrified to learn that the secrecy born of his discoveries on the red planet has matured into a corporate culture dominated by paranoid gossip. Questions haunt the protagonist all the way to Gliese 876 but rather than answering his fellow astronauts’ questions, the protagonist keeps the truth hidden behind a veil of secrecy: Classified, can neither confirm nor deny. Sales echoes these feelings of uncertainty with regards to whether or not the protagonist’s wife has left him; like Schrödinger’s Cat, the marriage is neither alive nor dead until someone bothers to open the box and check.

Eye is structured like a mystery but while the text of the novella uses certain themes to hint at an answer, the real solution lies buried in the book’s appendices. Much like maps and glossaries, appendices have acquired something of a bad reputation in genre circles as they are usually a sign that authors have allowed their world-building to get away from them. However, while all of the Apollo Quartet books feature glossaries, timelines and other bits of lore, Sales uses his appendices not to flesh out fictional worlds but to destabilise them by blurring the line between reality and fiction. Little more than a whisper in the earlier books, Sales’ postmodern tendencies are given full voice in the third book of the series.

 

AQ3

 

Initially, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above feels more like two separate stories than a unified narrative. The first strand is set in an alternate 1960s where an ever-escalating Korean War has allowed women to become America’s first astronauts. Rich in period detail, these passages explore a singularly unpleasant female version of the ‘Right Stuff’ and ends with a female astronaut worrying about the militarisation of space as a spy satellite drifts beyond her reach.

The failure of the astronaut’s mission dovetails mysteriously with the book’s second strand about a navy diver who is called upon to collect a canister of film from the bottom of an oceanic trench. Upon descending to the bottom of the Atlantic, the diver finds a graveyard of planes and ships that appear on no maps or scans creating a sense that he has arrived in a place that simply should not be.

I say that Ocean’s two strands dovetail in a somewhat mysterious fashion as the strands unfold in two separate timelines: For the astronauts, the Korean War lasted until the 1960s. For the diver, men went to the Moon. However, while the two strands may be taking place in different timelines, there appears to be a connection between the failure of the astronaut’s mission and the diver finding some film that causes the Cold War to turn hot. Sales accounts for this connection in a third act devoted to his characters’ real-world counterparts and an invitation to compare and contrast the three different histories: Would the Korean War have turned nuclear had our world’s diver been able to recover the film? How close did we come to an all-female space programme? You tell me.

 

AQ4

 

The final book in the Apollo Quartet is also the most ambitious. All That Outer Space Allows is set in a version of the 1960s where one of the Apollo astronauts happened to marry a science fiction writer. At the beginning of the novel, Ginny is a woman who is trying to balance her desire to be an author with the demands placed upon her as an air force wife. Initially quite unpleasant, the sexism that Ginny encounters becomes downright dehumanising once her husband joins NASA. Unable to wear her own clothes and terrified of sitting down to write lest another astronaut’s wife drop by see her being a writer rather than a full-time wife, Ginny draws on her experiences at NASA and turns them into a beautiful story about the male tendency to make women and their concerns disappear.

Aside from being a character study of both an astronaut’s wife and a female science fiction author from the 1960s, All That Outer Space Allows also constructs an alternate history of science fiction in which men are a Sad Puppies-style lunatic fringe proclaiming that “womanly gossip and high heels” have no place in a literature of ideas. One man’s petulant fear that women will take his genre away is beautifully juxtaposed with a devastating final scene in which Ginny is suddenly brought to tears by the realisation that a man has taken not just her genre away, but everything she was and everything that she had ever hoped to be. Already powerful, this conclusion is rendered all the more unsettling and urgent by made-up critical essays and Science Fiction Encyclopedia entries written by male critics who are more than happy to downplay Ginny’s influence and talk-up the role of male editors whilst erasing the contributions of women editors who actually did the bulk of the work on Ginny’s story. The really horrible thing about Sales’ fictional essays and encyclopaedia entries is that they look just like those written in our world about real-life female science fiction writers of ‘50s and ‘60s. Ginny’s world may be fictional but it is far too close to our own for comfort.

From beginning to end, The Apollo Quartet is a tour de force. Complex, moving and technically ground-breaking, these books are a reminder that self-publishing should be about raising the bar and not sinking to the lowest common denominator.

 

6 Comments
  1. James May permalink
    February 8, 2016 9:48 am

    When are people like you and Sales going to stop promoting the insane feminist version of research called “where-there’s-white-men-there’s-fire”?

    One of the single greatest frauds propagandized by feminist SFF authors since 2009 is the idea men purposefully excluded women from SFF during its crucial formative years in American magazines from 1912-60. Other than women obviously being a minority presence in SFF, there is no evidence to support the view men worked to bring that about or why men would want to do so in the first place other than the bizarre and concocted feminist notion men are misogynists and oppressors. Magazine content was driven by money, not an imaginary male supremacist ideology that acted to guard SFF.

    “At just about the year 1912, the impact of the advertising agencies began to force changes on the popular magazines that acted further to reduce their publication of science fiction. Earlier, COSMOPOLITAN, EVERYBODY’S, THE METROPOLITAN, HAMPTON’S MAGAZINE, and even THE RED BOOK had been ‘family’ magazines with reading matter for everyone. Advertisers, discovering that women controlled the purse strings, allocated the lion’s share of the budgets to publications that slanted toward the fair sex.
    Magazines which had been the dimensions of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC increased their size to make a more effective showcase for advertising. THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, COLLIER’S, LADIES’ HOME JOURNAL, and WOMAN’S HOME COMPANION had always used the oversized page. Now, one by one, COSMOPOLITAN, HAMPTON’S, EVERYBODY’S, RED BOOK, THE METROPOLITAN, PEOPLE’S and others bowed to the trend. At the same time, they became more woman-oriented, and science fiction by social happenstance became segregated in the pulps.” – Sam Moskowitz, Under the Moons of Mars, 1970

    In other words, in that crucial golden era of SFF which formed the genre in America, it was not men who segregated women out of SFF and SFF out of the “slicks” and into the cheaper pulps, but catering to women which acted to segregate men and their taste for reading SFF into them. Remember that every time you read nonsense about women “devalued,” “underrepresented,” and “marginalized” in SFF. Women had in effect marginalized themselves out of SFF based on their general reading tastes while taking the “lion’s share” in the mainstream, being – in feminist jargon – overvalued, over-represented and taking a central position. This is precisely the opposite of the myths feminists sell, and one they are not eager to advertise. Feminists today act like the pulps were the place to be but in fact they were the second-rate place not to be in terms of ad dollars and writing income.

    There’s your lie about the patriarchy in SFF. In fact it was marketing and money which told the tale, not misogyny; women didn’t care for SFF, men did and advertisers and publishers catered to that fact. Hardly a supremacist conspiracy. SFF was very popular in mainstream magazines 1900-22, but due to SFF’s increasing segregation out of the “family” magazines Weird Tales became the first genre magazine in 1923 and Amazing Stories followed 3 years later. The creation of magazines like the first all-crime pulp in 1915 – Detective Story Magazine – also worked to further turn magazines into single-genre publications by taking readers from general interest publications, which is exactly what happened. Why go to a “family” magazine for one or two increasingly rare SFF or crime stories?

    Far from marginalizing women, and directly contrary to feminist myths, the Munsey Magazines which largely catered to and helped create a taste for SFF in America 1910-20 tried to stem the tide by featuring portraits of women on their covers and having more stories for women. 8 of 10 stories and all 7 poems in the August, 1916 issue of the often SFF-heavy All-Story Weekly were by women and SFF author Francis Stevens had her first important story in the April, 1917 issue (with a close up portrait of a woman in a stylish hat on the cover). Not only was All-Story SFF-heavy, but the flagship for magazine SFF in America. To be clear, All-Story Weekly tried and failed to appeal to women, even though Munsey’s most popular and prolific SFF author of that period, Edgar Rice Burroughs, had stories centered around romance. Feminists assuming women 100 years ago had the same taste for SFF they do today but were kept out is a straight up myth. If anything the truth is the opposite. The idea Munsey magazine editors would allow their own magazines to fold rather than allow women in is straight up feminist insanity. Over at Blue Book in 1916-7 all 12 issues with Burrough’s Jungle Tales of Tarzan featured generic portraits of women as covers.

    And let’s not forget the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s scores of novels featuring women written by women 1910-20 and beyond. The reason Stratemeyer didn’t cultivate an SFF heroine is there was no market for such a thing. Beginning in 1930, Stratemeyer’s Nancy Drew would solve crimes on Earth for 7 decades, not Mars. Ironically, Munsey’s Magazine, started in 1889, was re-titled All-Story Love and continued until 1955.

    Feminists can’t accept the simple and innocent fact that women had far more interest in the Saturday Evening Post than Railroad Man’s Magazine and that SFF had more appeal to men. Moskowitz writes that when it came to the WW I era’s magazine “subject matter that most appealed to women. Science fiction was very low on that list, since it was read primarily by men and teenagers.” The truth of this is reflected in the fact women writers of non-SFF at the Munsey Magazines not only far outnumbered women SFF writers but were actively cultivated.

    The idea women (or black folks) were ever “marginalized” out of SFF doesn’t even rise to the level of an opinion; it is a blatant falsehood. In a world where business was done by mail, there was never any way to tell who was who nor signs of anyone wanting a mechanism in place whereby one wanted to know who was who based on their race or sex in the first place. If SF author Alice Sheldon could fool editors in the mid-’70s into thinking she was a man named James Tiptree, Jr., anyone from 1912 on could’ve certainly done the same had they felt the need to – they didn’t. Women of the great burgeoning era of SFF of the teens didn’t hide themselves from editors and editors in turn didn’t hide women from their readers.

    That remained true in the SF-only pulps from the ’20s to the ’50s. Singling out the pen name of the popular woman’s SF author of the ’50s Andre Norton as some signature event when in fact it was rare is moronic and dishonest; virtually 100% of women in SFF 1912-60 used their own names. Even Edgar Rice Burroughs – from the very beginning the giant of the Munsey Magazine’s fortunes who outshone even H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle – didn’t meet a Munsey editor in person for 3 years after initially submitting the manuscript for his first Mars novel out of complete obscurity. Burroughs could’ve been anyone. And don’t forget Mary Gnaedinger was the sole editor of Famous Fantastic Mysteries for its entire 1939-53 run and Dorothy McIlwraith the editor of Weird Tales for the final 15 years of its 31 years of existence, 2 of the most loved SFF pulps ever. Then there is Cele Goldsmith, editor of Fantastic and Amazing 1958/9-65 and SF author Judith Merril, who was also an SF anthology editor 1954-68, missing only 1955. Feminists may dote on gay feminist Joanna Russ’s “How To Suppress Women’s Writing” but that is another lie. Russ was pro published in ’59, when she was still in college.

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  2. February 8, 2016 1:54 pm

    All That Outer Space Allows make no such claim.

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  3. sadpress permalink
    February 8, 2016 2:40 pm

    James, fwiw – just as a rule of thumb, anybody who finds themselves debunking some kind of burning feminist conviction in a masculinist conspiracy, or in an agenda of deliberate, purposeful exclusion, is almost certainly attacking a paper tiger.

    Of course, the language of conspiracy and deliberate agency *does* get used sometimes — sometimes for its rhetorical energy, and/or out of analytic sloppiness, and/or out of misplaced good faith that people will know what’s intended.

    And of course, some horrific things *are* done deliberately, either definitely deliberately or plausibly deliberately, and those tales got to get told too.

    And of course, on the internet, strawmen ARE real, so you probably could go out and cherry-pick an antagonist, & find somebody to espouse the kind of plodding feminist melodrama you are keen to attribute to Jonathan & Ian here.

    But honestly, pretty much any batch of Marginalization Muffins whatsoever is going to contain the flour of money & the sugar of marketing, as well as the milk of misogyny. And egg I think. It’s not about claiming one causal mode is true at the expense of the other … these are the kinds of modes that blend together, amplify, reinforce, complement, yadda yadda.

    You sound really pissed off by the way

    Also I do not literally mean that marginalization is some muffins

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  4. February 8, 2016 3:11 pm

    James —

    Relax! There’s no reason for you to get this upset about a simple difference of opinion. Think of your health… think of the field! Who is going to rant about feminism when you have a massive stroke? Chill baby, it’s all good :-)

    I think Sad Press covered a lot of what I wanted to say in response but I do think that you are attacking a series of straw men.

    i) Nobody has ever claimed that institutional sexism completely prevented women from getting published. Pointing to women who *did* manage to get published may disprove that claim but nobody (least of all me or Ian) has actually made that claim.

    ii) Nobody has claimed that there was a deliberate conspiracy to exclude women from the field. Sure… I could point you to letters that used to appear in fanzines expressing disgust at the presence of women and stories about womanly things but these were obviously just the rantings of a misogynistic lunatic fringe. Suggesting — or even proving — that there was no deliberate conspiracy to exclude women in no way undermines the observation that the field of science fiction has long been subject to institutional sexism.

    My view is that, in order to understand sexism in the field, you need to understand not only the gendering of science but also the gendering of reading and how genre science fiction was an attempt to sell stories to men by presenting said stories as being about science, engineering, and technology. No conspiracies here… simply social forces and the repressive confines of imaginary gender differences.

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  5. February 10, 2016 2:56 am

    Of course, a point that seems to elude James here is a “chicken or the egg” problem. Were women avoiding SFF because of its aggressively masculinist tendencies (eg Conan) or did these tendencies rise to the top of the market because of women’s avoidance of SFF? Jonathan, you make the excellent point about the gendering of science (consider that everybody is at least familiar with Watson and Crick but have no idea who Rosalind Franklin was) and the gendering of reading (is it Peter Gay who wrote about reading practices in the Victorian era?). One proposed reason for the hyper masculine — almost camp — nature of Golden Era SF is the lack of prominent women in the field but also due to the relatively rigid gender roles of the contemporary era. Women read X while men read Y and never shall the twain meet, or at least until science fiction written by women became a) marketable and b) profitable — which raises yet again another “chicken/egg” problem: did women SFF masters gain prominence because of changing social mores or did social mores within SFF change thanks to these trailblazing thinkers? Perhaps the answer is more complicated, not only to this question but to James’ overall rebuke: the intersecting vectors of identity, politics, and art are always impossible to untangle.

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  6. February 10, 2016 8:17 am

    Well said Matthew.

    I haven’t read Peter Gay but the gendering of reading has its roots in the narrow bourgeois gender roles that emerged from the industrial revolution: Men went out into the world and did stuff while women stayed at home. The novel was a form of entertainment perfectly suited to women who spent their time sitting at home. This intersects with the way that gender roles perpetuate themselves and you have a sense that SFF needed to be a woman-free zone.

    If women were seen to be reading and writing SF then SF was just another form of literature and reading for fun was something that women did… Not men. Hence SF developing this semiotics of practicality and an anti-literary bent: It didn’t come in novels but in science magazines, it didn’t really feature characters and it certainly didn’t feature romance!

    Those boundaries and conceptions of gender have shifted and now a lot of this seems silly and/or misogynistic but traces of that thinking can be found in the performative machismo of grimdark: Game of Thrones isn’t your standard fantasy novel… It’s got TITS and RAPE and MURDER and it’s really just a masterclass in power politics. It’s definitely not a load of silly escapist fluff about dragons because that stuff is for girls!

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