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Future Interrupted –Telling People What They Want To Be.

January 17, 2017

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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The history of science fiction teaches us that a little social relevance can be a dangerous thing. Commercial science fiction did not come fully-formed, it sprang from a pre-history littered with prestigious ancestors who laid foundations, coined phrases, and paved ways. People like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell prospered because they recognised the thematic links between this pre-history and the emerging crazes for popular science and amateur radio. These early fandoms provided editors with pre-existing audiences and commercial science fiction was born of the desire to pander to those audiences by validating their identities and telling them what they wanted to hear.

Leaf through a collection of old stories like Robert Silverberg’s excellent first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and you’ll see that science fiction spent the 1930s selling fantasies of technical competence to amateur engineers. By the late 1950s, that audience had collapsed only to be replaced by a much larger audience made up of men desperate to forget all of the terrible things they had seen and done in Europe, Japan, and Korea. Ever happy to connect, science fiction pandered to those sensibilities and sold them war stories in which the enemy’s inhumanity justified any and all actions taken against them. When the Vietnam War divided America into two political camps, genre publishing sold Heinlein novels to the veterans who still believed in just wars and Haldeman novels to those who returned from war filled with alienation and guilt. Science fiction became a mass-market commodity by positioning itself somewhere between harsh reality and complete fantasy; pre-historic literary tools designed to open up complex worlds now served to simplify reality by knocking off awkward moral edges and producing moral fantasies that vaguely resembled the truth.

The commercial decline of literary science fiction stems from the publishing industry’s failure to recognise groups that were as vulnerable to exploitative pandering as the white, middle-class men of the 1950s and ‘60s. Sure… the New Wave, Feminist SF, Cyberpunk and Paranormal Romance all found their audiences but none of those populations proved insecure enough to ensure the long-term financial stability of genre publishing. Of course, it doesn’t help that the industry’s prejudice and self-regard also made it slow to react. Indeed, while genre publishing might have got in on the ground floor when it came to constructing the 20th Century nerd, it has now spent decades on the back-foot; jumping from one collapsed subjectivity to another. What was Grimdark fantasy is not an attempt at pandering to teenage Dungeons & Dragons players that arrived decades after most of those kids had already grown up and moved on?

With sales of epic fantasy on the decline, genre publishing now finds itself in search of a new economic heartland. Given the similarities in subject matter, you would expect genre publishing to begin pumping out Young Adult novels but institutional sexism and general incompetence allowed genre publishing to miss yet another boat and now it faces the impossible task of imposing itself on a mature marketplace complete with its own imprints and hierarchies. Thankfully, the critical and commercial success of Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy revealed an emerging mass market for grown-up science fiction but with genre publishers still encouraging popular science fiction authors like Aliette de Bodard and Kameron Hurley to write fantasy novels, the race is now on to turn the old tanker around and become the imprint best able to bridge the gap between old-fashioned science fiction and new-fangled senses of self.

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Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was a small crowdfunding initiative until it was sucked into the gears of genre publishing by an unexpected nomination for best debut novel at the 2014 Kitschies. Republished by Hodder & Stoughton in 2015, the novel soon found itself on both the shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award and the longlist for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. These nominations alone were enough to make Chambers’ book an important work of science fiction but there is no denying that it speaks explicitly to the now.

Small Angry Planet begins with its wealthy point-of-view character taking a job as PA to the captain of a privately-owned star ship that builds hyperspace motorways for a polity known as the Galactic Commons. This captain turns out to be an ambitious man and his desire to upgrade his ship and pursue bigger contracts pushes him to accept a job that sends his unarmed ship and crew into a warzone. Despite much of the plot revolving around the desire to acquire and spend money, Small Angry Planet has no interest in developing any kind of critical distance from the social, moral, and psychological pressures that capitalism brings to bear. Small Angry Planet may be a novel about work but its vision of work is as much of a moral fantasy as Heinlein’s vision of warfare.

With the book’s plot, world-building, and set-dressing all trying very hard to pretend that the New Wave never happened, praise for Small Angry Planet has mostly accrued to its liberal politics and the fact that each member of the ship’s crew operates as a stand-in for a variety of marginalised groups. Thus, the protagonist is presented as being privileged by virtue of her planet-based upbringing while humans raised on spaceships are representative of a more numerous and less-privileged working class. From there on in, the representation grows ever-more awkward as Chambers begins carving up old stereotypes and stitching the pieces together to produce a variety of alien races and cultures. For example, there’s a race of lizard people who are more sexual and more emotionally-expressive than humans in a way that recalls racist caricatures of African American people. Also familiar are the race of technologically-advanced fish people who are enigmatic and delicately beautiful as per the Orientalist fantasies that are frequently projected onto the people of South East Asia. The crew also includes alien twins who occupy a single identity because of a mystical virus that turned them into the skiffy version of an autistic savant and an engineer whose Luddite mother refused him treatment for Dwarfism. The list of recognisable identities goes on and on, each of them serving principally as an opportunity for the book’s privileged protagonist to win people over by learning about differing cultural attitudes to things like personal space and pronoun usage. It all seems amazingly sweet and earnest until you realise that this vision of workplace understanding is just another example of bad science fiction selling us a vision of the world with all of the uncomfortable edges sanded off.

At a time when professional spaces demand greater acts of ruthlessness and social spaces demand greater performances of righteousness, this novel tells ambitious middle-class people that it is easy to be morally righteous and politically progressive. Most people who are raised middle-class are raised to engage with society in a way that perpetuates existing hierarchies and so contributes to the grotesque social inequalities that define the capitalist system. The first step towards becoming a progressive is to recognise that the society that gives you wealth and status dehumanises others and that every step you take up the ladder is assisted by centuries of brutal prejudice. Chambers is selling a fantasy because in her universe you don’t need to check your privilege, make sacrifices, or work for meaningful change. You just turn up, behave professionally, use the right pronouns, and marginalised groups will literally fall over themselves to shower you with status, money, sex, and the kind of acceptance that is rightly denied to those who actively benefit from the immiseration of others.

Small Angry Planet achieves this fantasy by severing stereotypes from their real-world origins and projecting them onto a universe where fictional analogues of real identities are naturally occurring and not products of a pervasively dehumanising capitalism. By removing capitalism from the equation, Chambers creates a fantasy world in which you can be righteously progressive and unapologetically ambitious. Just as Heinlein once sold fantasies of righteous genocide to guilt-ridden war veterans, Chambers is selling fantasies of political correctness to people who yearn to be part of the solution when everyone from their parents to their co-workers expects them to grow-up, behave and assume their place as part of the problem. Sometimes a little relevance can be a profoundly ugly thing.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2017 5:08 pm

    Oh good, now I don’t have to write up my problems with Long Title, I can just point here.

    Like

  2. January 18, 2017 1:30 am

    I don’t think The Long Way… was intended to leave the reader vaguely unsettled, but the last interaction with the warlike aliens was enough to finally cinch in my mind the way it treats both personal and cultural difference in a particularly (dangerously?) shallow way.

    See also: Abigail Nussbaum’s review of the book on Strange Horizons, which I’m sure you’ve read.

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  3. January 20, 2017 4:44 pm

    I was somewhat worried after seeing on Twitter your… impatience with “woke SF” that you would give Leckie’s trilogy a critical drubbing. As it’s one of my favourites, I hoped not to see evisceration. Luckily, it’s given passing mention here in a review of the type we’ve known to expect and love from you. If one day, you decide to write something of Ancillary Justice, I’ll swiftly respond with a passionate defence ;-)

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  4. January 20, 2017 6:49 pm

    Yeah… That’s not going to happen.

    I found AJ more boring than anything else. I’ve never been a massive fan of space opera at the best of times but nowadays I find it almost completely unreadable. I don’t like fantasies of righteous violence regardless of the identities that ground them.

    I understand that people enjoy those kinds of books and films, but I’m not one of them. There was a time when I would have followed the conversation and written about the books that genre culture considered important but — to be honest — that time has long since passed. Life’s too short to read books I don’t enjoy and it’s definitely too short to subject myself to the anger of outraged fans.

    I wanted to write about this book and I’ve written something about Paul Cornell’s urban fantasy novels but my plan is to steer well clear of commercial genre fiction.

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  5. January 20, 2017 6:50 pm

    Hi again. Enjoyed the post.

    Thinking about literary history we tend to focus on the cutting edge, on the books that changed their field, and where they may have come from–neglecting the reality that genres are carried not merely by original, striking, classic works, but the great mass of soon-to-be forgotten works that follow in their wake; and by the readiness of a commercially viable audience to accept both the classics and the lesser books. The reminder is well-taken–and I think you get a lot right here about how the genre found its audiences over time. (Just one quibble about the ’50s. It’s worth remembering that in that decade the most popular magazine was Horace Gold’s Galaxy, where writers like Pohl and Bester and Sheckley produced their classics–a leftish, satirical stream of science fiction that merits some acknowledgment in a consideration of the genre in those years. Indeed, even Heinlein’s Puppet Masters passed through Galaxy, and bears the marks of it.)

    As to the question of why science fiction and fantasy have had so much difficulty finding an audience since the ’70s, I suspect that, apart from the obvious (that audiences have become more fragmented and Protean, that other media were competing for them, etc.), a key factor was that publishers were less willing to settle for the kind of small audience for which earlier publishers had been content to settle. Campbell in 1959 rather defiantly declared that science fiction would never be “mass-appeal” stuff, but from the ’70s on–because of changes in the business, because of Star Wars–they pursued the idea that they could sell books on the same scale that post-Jaws blockbusters did. Pursuing this extremely ambitious goal seems a factor of some significance (along with the others you mention) in their missing many a possibility.

    (I think of what’s been happening with cable as comparable. Once there was a heavy stress on various channels’ distinctive type of programming, but they have increasingly discarded their identities in chasing after colossal, mainstream hits, even as these get harder and harder to achieve.)

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  6. January 20, 2017 7:00 pm

    Hi Michal — I don’t think it’s intentional either but I found the book quite unpleasant almost from the opening scene…

    There’s a bit quite early on when the introverted guy who runs the algae tanjs goes to the captain to complain about the fact that he’s relentlessly bullied by his co-workers. Rather than treating the bullying as a problem, the captain pretends not yo understand and so makes the guy increasingly angry and frustrated until he lets slip a racial slur. At which point the captain feeks entirely justified ignoring the bullying complaints and publicly humiliating the guy who just wants a quiet life.

    On a shallow level, that scene is all about a racist being defeated but in reality it’s about a social hierarchy that weaponises racism to punish the unpopular and protect the popular.

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  7. January 20, 2017 7:40 pm

    Hi Nader :-) — Interesting about the Pohl and Sheckly-centric satirical stuff. I think the Space Merchants is the most visible artefact of that strand?

    Really good point about the pursuit of Star Wars-type numbers. This ties in with what some older-authors refer to as the death of the midlist – genre publishing wants to create Martins, Jordans, Scalzis, and Hamiltons. This means that it encourages authors into those moulds and would rather produce 10 forgettable fat fantasy novellists and have one of them break big than 10 artistically interesting novellists who all find smaller audiences.

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  8. January 20, 2017 9:06 pm

    I’d say Space Merchants is that–but again, just the most visible of a rather large body of material.

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  9. January 21, 2017 12:37 am

    (Jonathan, I hope you knew I was being halfway facetious. I know you’re not terribly interested in fan outage or space opera. Was just joshing. <3 )

    Like

  10. Mark Pontin permalink
    January 21, 2017 6:02 am

    Like Nader says, Pohl and Kornbluth’s THE SPACE MERCHANTS is just the iceberg tip of a large amount of American SF cultural production from the 1950s that took a very class-based, cynical tack to the future societies it depicted.

    In Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION, for instance, the neofeudal capitalist lords who run the Inner Planets — the Trump-like Presteign of Presteign, for instance — are obviously in this vein. So are Phil Dick’s depictions of society in his first book, SOLAR LOTTERY or, really, any of his SF novels, where you routinely find background riffs like the future rulers of the U.S. using a time machine to bring forward Herman Goering so as to get some really solid advice on how to run things.

    I was weaned on this sort of stuff primarily, I guess, because Kingsley Amis — in the SPECTRUM anthologies he did during the 1960s with Robert Conquest and in Amis’s own SF criticism — took the heterodox British tack that what Pohl and co. were doing was the real point of American SF, not that Heinlein-John Campbell stuff.

    Indeed, what was done in the 1950s and extended upon in the 1960s and early 70s _was_ arguably the pure quill SF for a while because Fred Pohl edited the dominant SF mags of the 1950s-60s, and in the early 1970s was a book editor at Bantam, where he published the likes of Delany’s DHALGREN and Russ’s THE FEMALE MAN. Then 1977 STAR WARS and Del Rey books happened.. That Nader would now need to fill you or anybody in on Pohl and co., Jonathan, is just one index of how much infantilization George Lucas and the Del Reys inflicted on the genre

    Obviously, Nader’s other point is also correct — that because of Star Wars publishers (and writers) pursued the idea that they could sell books on the same scale that post-Jaws blockbusters (sold) — and the subsequent search for dumb ‘mass appeal’ has led to many wasted possibilities.

    With that said, it’s not clear to me that what Pohl and other SF writers of his ilk would ever have thrived in such a larger ‘mass appeal’ market. Many of the smarter 1950s writers repeatedly stressed that what they were doing in the SF genre they would never have gotten away with in a respectable, ‘mass appeal’ genre. Pohl, for instance, was a former member of the American Communist Party and would have been a prominent target if SF had been a respectable publishing genre in the decade of Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

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  11. masonk4 permalink
    January 21, 2017 12:38 pm

    Loved the review of Resolution Way. A great call for SF to engage with the present political (un)reality. Robert Macfarlane made a similar call in Generation Anthropocene https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/01/generation-anthropocene-altered-planet-for-ever which I also took to heart http://kelvinmason.weebly.com/stories

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  12. January 22, 2017 2:20 pm

    I concur with what Mark says here–both about the important legacies of this period (as with Pohl’s later career, where as Galaxy’s editor he did provide a key venue for the innovators of the ’60s), and about science fiction status as a relatively safe place to write politically critical stories in the ’50s.
    Writers took advantage of the fact, and their doing so was a significant part of what was not just interesting but novel about the period (not just in hindsight, but also at the time). One may wonder if the genre’s higher profile–not just the let’s-shoot-for-a-megahit commercial thinking, but the greater attention paid to it in general–is not causing writers to play it safer than they did then. (Consider how ambiguous the young adult dystopias so fashionable over the past decade have tended to be.)

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  13. February 10, 2017 5:13 am

    Didn’t see it in my first read of Interzone #268, as it’s in your ‘best of’ for the year rather than your column, but saw your bit last night about genre culture and the war between “…rising 21st century fascism and a collapsing late-20th century neoliberalism…” and the “moral entrepreneurs from both sides of the American political spectrum” flooding into genre spaces. Fucking nailed it.

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  14. February 10, 2017 8:59 am

    Thank you :-)

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