Future Interrupted: All That Science Fiction Allows
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.