Maureen

Maureen died a little while ago and her funeral was yesterday but it’s taken me a while to pull together my thoughts. I felt it appropriate to post this here as my friendship with Maureen was born of the period when I used to publish stuff here and I know she used to read and occasionally comment on the site.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. I consider myself immeasurably richer for having known her and infinitely poorer for the knowledge that I will never see her again. She was unique.

I first met Maureen on one of three separate occasions. Memory rebels at any further attempts at ordering as I cannot remember a time when I was aware of her existence whilst not also being her friend. This is because Maureen didn’t so much meet you as effortlessly envelope you in her social world. She was not one for tentatively moving up through the gears from polite smiles to small talk and then on to shared references… No, she just reached out and included you in whichever conversation it was that she happened to be having. I may not be able to remember exactly when it was that Maureen and I first met but I am certain that the first thoughts I had about her in person were ‘who the fuck is this madwoman and why is she talking to me?’

Maureen’s casual but persistent inclusivity was unusual in that it came less from an extrovert’s need to stage-manage conversations and more from a genuine desire for intellectual connection. Maureen would sometimes speak to me of her youth and I always got the impression that, prior to her relationship with Paul, the people in her life tended to view her love of books as a baffling and border-line embarrassing eccentricity rather like going to the shops clad in a beard of bees.

This lack of early support and encouragement seems to have cast a long shadow over Maureen’s life. It left her feeling as though she were perpetually on the outside looking in, always hearing exciting conversations taking place in other rooms whilst not being allowed to participate. This sense of pre-emptive rejection meant that when Maureen Kincaid Speller included you in a conversation, it was not because she valued inclusivity as some kind of abstract liberal principle but because she wanted to hear what you had to say as a person. More than anyone I have ever known, Maureen believed in the power of conversation and the ability of books to shrink the distances between human hearts. She never once took for granted either her connection to SFF or the connections she made with individual fans.

Maureen viewed herself as a critic. She treated criticism with the upmost seriousness and revelled in that identity even when she struggled to do much writing herself. Indeed, it is telling that two of her final contributions to the discussion of SFF include a lengthy piece about the challenge of engaging critically with a much-loved author and a podcast that was politely trying to clear a space for critical engagement in spaces that have, over time, come to view it with no small degree of suspicion.

A few years ago, Maureen was going through one of her periodic bouts of self-doubt. No longer able to see the value of her contributions to the field, she asked me where I thought her critical strengths lay and I, having been put on the spot, answered that I most valued her voice. At the time, this went down like a lead-balloon as I suspect she was looking to me for reassurance her that she had the requisite number of skill-points to unlock the ‘Critic’ prestige class. While Maureen may not have liked my answer, I continue to stand by it as the things that draw me back to Maureen’s writing are her sensibility and her voice rather than her ‘take’ on any specific book or trend. Maureen viewed herself as a critic and it is only right that we should honour that self-image but I believe that thinking of Maureen in terms of her contributions to criticism is to diminish both the scope of her intellect and the depth of her commitment to the conversation surrounding SFF.

Back when I was most active in SFF, people used to produce manifestos and series of blog-posts expanding their thoughts on criticism and the ways in which it differed from reviewing and the kinds of unpaid PR work that have become increasingly common in book-adjacent spaces on social media. While there is, naturally, discourse to be had over power dynamics within SFF and who has the ability to speak in a disruptive manner in spaces that have come to be dominated by marketing and professionalised cliques, the point is that fandom is a set of social relations and social relations change. The window for certain forms of speech opens and closes with the passage of time and while Maureen seems to have felt most at home inhabiting the role of critic, she was other things as well. In fact, she was arguably one of the most adaptive thinkers in SFF commentary because she was willing to change and to follow the conversation.

Glancing at Maureen’s page on ISFDB, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of her commitment to writing about science-fiction and fantasy. Most people who try their hands at reviewing often wind up burning out or migrating towards other areas but Maureen started putting her work out there in the 1980s and continued producing work right up until this year. As someone whose critical career pre-dated the internet, the scale of Maureen’s output also had physical implications. I remember visiting Paul and Maureen in Folkestone for the first time after being asked by the British Science Fiction Association to help put together a collection of her reviews. They pulled these huge stacks of zines off of shelves that were deeper than a man’s arm and piled them all at my feet. At one point, Maureen flicked through a magazine with some hand-drawn cover art, harrumphed, peered over the round spectacles she favoured at the time and fixed me with one of her fabled Hard Paddington Stares before instructing me that some of these pieces were going to need a vigorous edit if they were ever to see the light of day again.

At the time, I knew Maureen’s work chiefly from its appearances online and in the magazines of the British Science Fiction Association but as soon as I started looking into her back-catalogue, I quickly realised that Maureen’s engagement extended much further. I was lucky enough to know Maureen for more than fifteen years and before I had met her she had already served on award juries, been a guest of honour at conventions, been responsible for convention programming, made the Hugo shortlist for Best Fan Writer and administered the BSFA. I mention all of these things in the same breath because these were all honours and activities I understood as someone whose engagement with SFF post-dated the creation of online venues and spaces. The further back I looked, the more I realised that Maureen was an accomplished and celebrated contributor to SFF before online fandom was even a thing.

This is significant as, back in the noughties, a lot of older and more established fans were acutely hostile to the idea that publishing stuff online might be viewed in the same light as publishing stuff in the form of a fanzine. This may seem absurd in the current climate but a serious attempt was even made to restrict the Hugo fan-categories to material published in traditional zines. To her eternal credit, Maureen was not one of those fans… she was simply delighted to discover that people were discussing books on the internet and so followed the conversation online. In fact, one of Maureen’s more endearing traits was her desire to overcome whichever technological barrier stood between her and the conversation. For Maureen, there was no fundamental difference between mimeographed zines, academic journals, blogs, online magazines, Discord servers or podcasts; they were all just different places to talk and if you wanted to participate in the conversation you learned the technology and adapted your thinking.

It is in this sense of continuity between different venues and forms of conversation that Maureen’s voice really rings out. If you are fortunate enough to read her more recent criticism or receive her editorial advice, you will find the same voice and sensibility that once graced the pages of traditional fanzines like Bottled Lightening, Snufkin’s Bum or Steam Engine Time. That voice was so distinctive and endearing that it not only won Maureen a Nova award for traditional fan-writing, it also helped her become the beneficiary of the 1999 Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund. Decades later, Maureen would still speak animatedly about the many experiences she had travelling the country and meeting American fans. She had even internalised regional American culinary discourse on a number of issues including what constitutes a proper ‘barbecue’.

In the years that I knew her, Maureen tended to downplay the work she had done in non-critical fanzines because that whimsical and intensely personal style of fan-writing had fallen out of fashion in an SFF culture that was growing steadily more serious and commercialised. Whenever I asked to see her earlier writings, Maureen would adroitly change the subject but when I did eventually track down copies of her non-critical work, I was delighted to find the exact same voice that was present in all of her criticism. A voice that was somehow always on the brink of both exasperation and child-like glee; the id of fandom’s passion always held in check by the wry and erudite superego of someone who treated the act of writing with a sense of magisterial solemnity.

I called the collection of Maureen’s early reviews …And Another Thing because Maureen was someone who always had something more to say. There were times when starting a conversation with Maureen was like popping the cork on a bottle of champagne; it was as though her ideas had spent years maturing in an oaken cask beneath a French chateau only for them to force themselves out with such force that you could only stand clear and help mop up the spill. Maureen wrote the way she spoke; in long, looping sentences that moved effortlessly from one insightful observation to another, filling the room as quickly and efficiently as possible lest someone dare to try and shut her up. There was always more to say and more conversation to be had. Lunch at the Speller Kincaid household only ever ended when someone looked up and noticed that the sun had gone down.

Maureen’s commitment to SFF and her desire for intellectual connection broke through all boundaries. When the energy began to ebb away from traditional fanzines and towards online publication, Maureen simply altered her methods and followed the conversation. When the energy began to ebb away from blogs, Maureen altered her methods again and drew more heavily upon her skills as both an editor and an administrator. Many recent arrivals into the orbit of SFF’s institutions may know Maureen chiefly as the long-standing senior editor of the reviews department at Strange Horizons but Maureen’s commitments extended to a number of other institutions including research bodies, journals and small presses. Maureen’s commitment to the conversation was such that she not only followed it wherever it went, she also rolled up her sleeves and did the work required to allow others to participate. SFF culture will miss Maureen because even when she wasn’t participating in the conversation, she was helping to include, empower, and welcome others. The casual inclusivity that Maureen practiced in person was echoed at every level of her work.

Maureen will be missed for everything that she was and everything she did.

Don’t Let Pop Culture Tell You Who You Are

Frequent visitors to this blog will by now have realised that both the form and frequency of my posting is subject to a good deal of fluctuation. Sometimes I crank out sizeable pieces on a regular basis, sometimes I provide only links and other times I post links to short reviews and publish larger essays. The reason for these variations is that my motivations sometimes change and when my motivations change, so to does the nature of my output.  These changes in motivation were particularly obvious when, earlier this year, I ceased to write very much at all.

At the time, I found this sudden lack of motivation rather distressing as I have always been able to re-motivate myself by shaking things up and writing about different things in different ways. In fact, this lack of motivation was so traumatic that I soon came to believe that my time as a critic might have come to an end. Needless to say, this did not actually happen but the reasons for this creative impasse strike me as interesting enough to warrant a proper post, if only for the sake of other people who may be experiencing similar motivational problems.

The problem was that I was going through the process of selling my childhood home and moving to an entirely new town. On a purely practical level, this made sitting down to write rather difficult. On a psychological level, this made it almost impossible to think about anything that was not directly related to the move. Unclear as to why I was finding it so difficult to sit down and write, I managed to convince myself that my motivation for writing has been completely destroyed by the realisation that there was really no point in sharing my views with anyone about anything. The reason I reached this particular creative impasse was that I encountered a number of works that encouraged me to think of myself purely as an introverted outsider and introverted outsiders tend not to be all that interested in sharing their opinions with other people. This is a post about the dangers of labelling oneself and then coming to believe that those labels exhaust your entire identity.

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Why You Want to Fuck Christopher Hitchens – Celebrity, Consumerism and the Search for Online Identity

 

I’d like to open with a kind of history. This history takes many forms and surfaces in many different places with the names of the actors sometimes replaced. Occasionally, the role of the nation-state is assumed by religion and at other times it is the gods of classical antiquity who take the lead. Regardless of which iteration of this history you have heard, its narrative will be familiar to you for it is a narrative of loss.

Once upon a time, people lived in tribes. These tribes were small social entities made up of a number of different family groups that pooled their resources. Members of tribes lived together, worked together and died together and this permanent state of communion with others made their lives meaningful. Of course, human nature being what it is, tribes could not peacefully co-exist and the tribes soon began conquering each other until their dominion extended over millions of people and thousands of miles of territory. Because these abstract tribal groupings were a lot harder to manage than a couple of families that had been living and working together for generations, tribal elders began reinventing themselves as governments who began to rule over abstract political entities known as kingdoms and principalities then as nations and states. Of course, nation states were never anything more than a way of referring to the territory under the control of one particular government but they stuck around for long enough that people began to forget their tribal loyalties and began to see their nationality as a fundamental fact about themselves, a fact no different to their sex, their gender, their sexuality or their race, a fact that took the form of a noun.

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Why Do People Buy Books They Don’t Read?

0. TBR! TBR!

Regardless of whether your passion is for books, films, games or comics, the chances are that your home contains a large stockpile of unconsumed culture. Depending upon the exact nature of your passion, this stockpile can take a number of different forms including:

  • A pile of books marked ‘To Be Read’
  • An array of downloaded or recorded TV series you need to ‘Catch Up On’
  • A Steam account containing games boasting zero hours of play
  • A shelf groaning under the weight of shrink-wrapped DVD box sets

As perverse as this kind of cultural opulence might seem, it is as nothing when compared to the mind-boggling absurdity of our tendency to buy new books and films when we have dozens of perfectly wonderful titles sitting at home on a shelf. Why do we do it? Why do we buy books we don’t read? The answer lies in our postmodern condition, the economics of human attention and the ever-changing nature of the self.

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A post-DVD Future for DVD Labels?

There is no mistaking the air of panic surrounding DVD retail in the UK at the moment. Second hand DVD prices are dropping at both Amazon and CeX while the time between a DVD retailing at full RRP and it appearing on the bargain shelves is shrinking month by month. We may not be quite there yet but DVD and Blu-ray are clearly on their way to the great dead media bonfire in the sky.

The death of DVD is being driven by a series of cultural shifts that are combining to put pressure on traditional ways of selling and consuming media:

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It’s (Probably) Okay Not To Have Any Ambition

0.    Oh Shit

I recently wrote about the difficulties I have relating to groups. As a not particularly well-socialised human being who spends an inordinate amount of time in his head, I frequently see groups of humans as more trouble than they are worth. Yes, I could seek their approval and Yes, I could throw myself into one of their cultural institutions but my general feeling is that most attempts at collaboration are doomed to end in frustration and alienation. As I said, I do not relate well to groups.

One of the symptoms of my frustration with groups is an extreme sensitivity and antipathy to people who are obviously trying to “get on”. I rage at self-publicists and bristle at any attempt to win me over, coerce me or play me. This is one reason why I abhor the performative aspect of Internet life. I groan at the moral outrage of Twitter as I know that its hysteric nature has less to do with genuine expressions of anger and sorrow than it does with broadcasting the fact that you are the type of person who gets really annoyed about this type of thing. Similarly, people engaged in attempts at climbing the greasy poll immediately repulse me. I hate dishonest reviewers who swamp Google search results with jottings designed to secure them more review copies and more invitations to parties and I am horrified by the people who turn their coats and trade in careers as commentators for careers in the industry on which they are commenting. I hate all of these things because I am obsessed with the need to be authentic and I prize nothing above honesty with both oneself and the world around us. Of course, the problem with this attitude is that it is complete and utter bullshit.

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You and Your Entire Family Are Full of Shit. You’re Welcome.

Things are a little slow at the moment.  One reason for this is that I’ve decided to work on a slightly longer project that really can’t be placed online until it’s properly finished.  Another reason is that my last review to be published is currently sitting on a hacked website, so I won’t link to it until the thing gets fixed.

In the mean time, I thought I would share a moment of insight that occurred to me courtesy of my daily blog shower.  I use an RSS reader to follow quite a large number of blogs. In fact, up until recently, the number of blogs I followed was downright alarming as I was trying to keep an eye on the ruins of what was once the culturally vibrant literary SF blogosphere. Since giving up on doing the links roundup for Strange Horizons (long story but camels and backs may have been involved) I have replaced my SF feeds with feeds devoted to politics, games, comics and film. A rush of enthusiasm brings RSS subscriptions, the chilly comedown of boredom and practicality brings purges that are positively Stalinist in their brutal efficiency. Anyway, shaped by recurrent waves of expansion and contraction, my collection of RSS feeds is now something of a motley array of disconnected minds. A lot of the blogs I follow are followed for reasons that are no longer quite clear to me. In fact, my RSS feed aggregator tends to blur one RSS feed into another meaning that I simply do not have a handle on many of the individual blogs that I do follow.  One instance of this process of informational alienation is my following of the BBlog.

I suspect that I first started following the BBlog because it contained thoughtful pieces about video games. X months down the line and the site has morphed away from games and towards a form of techy intellectualism that I find particularly compelling. In fact, I currently provide cheap accommodation to a purveyor of precisely that style of writing. Anyway, the reason why I decided to bring up the BBlog is because a recent post genuinely caused me to stop and think about how I relate to the internet.

 

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Walking Hadrian’s Wall 2011 – Day Eight: Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway

Steps: 35,550

Distance: 21.33 km

Even with hindsight, the walk out of Carlisle remains the low-point of the holiday. Insufficiently caffeinated, under-rested and struggling to digest an almost preternaturally greasy breakfast courtesy of the Hallmark hotel, The Sheep and I greeted the rain with no small amount of ill humour.

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Walking Hadrian’s Wall 2011 – Day Seven: Lanercost to Carlisle

Steps: 31,453

Distance: 18.86 km

Given the succession of easy days, we expected Day Seven to be a little more hard going but leaving Abbey Mill behind us, we soon found ourselves making rapid progress through gently undulating countryside and farmland. In fact, our progress was so swift that a late lunch at Crosby turned into an early one.

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Walking Hadrian’s Wall 2011 – Day Six: Gilsland to Lanercost

Steps: 25,379

Distance: 15.22 km

I’d like to begin this entry with a word about the weather.  We walked the Wall during the first week of September and we went into it knowing that the weather would be what meteorologists refer to as changeable.  ‘Changeable’ is certainly an apt description of the weather we experienced though ‘unpredictable’, ‘random’ and ‘insane’ are perhaps more thematically appropriate.  Day six began with what would become one of the recurring motifs of the second half of the walk: jacket switching.  One minute it would be brilliant sunshine, then there would be bitter cold and howling gales.  Occasionally, the sky would darken and rain would pelt us just long enough to force a stoppage and a change of clothes.  These meteorological mind-games resulted in my playing chicken with the weather and refusing to put on my raincoat on the grounds that the rain simply would not last.  I am happy to say that I won more games than I lost.

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