Shadowing the Clarke

Paul Kincaid isn’t on the Shadow Clarke jury this year but he’s playing along at home (literally) with his own to-read list.

Through the dark labyrinth

This time last year, I was engaged in the struggle to compile my personal shortlist for the first Arthur C. Clarke Award Shadow Jury. It was an interesting and revealing exercise. I was glad to step down from the Shadow Jury this year only because it is a time-consuming process and time is something I don’t have right now. But in every other respect, I was sorry to go and a part of me is itching to put together a personal shortlist again this year.

So why the hell not?

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Through the dark labyrinth

Iain M. BanksHow can sitting in bed drinking champagne be so exhausting? But last night was exhausting.

It started with the announcement of the BSFA Awards. My default response when I know I’ve been shortlisted for an award is to convince myself that I cannot win. But even so there’s a rogue part of the brain that’s going: maybe, just maybe … And then I saw a tweet. I am slow and clumsy on twitter, can never really make it work for me; so it turned out that Maureen had known the result for about a minute already and was just waiting to see how long it would be before I noticed.

The upshot is, I won. Or, to be more precise, my book, Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction) published by University of Illinois Press, won. It is now, what, 12 hours since I heard the news and I…

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Paul Kincaid with a few thoughts on being involved with the John W. Campbell Memorial Award…

Through the dark labyrinth

Every year around this time I have a debate with myself about whether I should retire as a juror on the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. I’ve been doing it for ten years now, which is long enough. It’s a time-consuming job (we’ve had over 100 books submitted this year, and there are a few more I’m hoping to see come in, and I am not a very fast reader), and when I’m supposed to be working on something, like the Priest book that I should be researching, it can be very difficult to find that time. It is also a dispiriting job; there are so many bad books out there, there are times ploughing through another pile of submissions when I wonder what is the point of science fiction any more. Yet it can also be exhilarating, when you happen upon a book that really is fresh and intelligent…

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On wanting to be astonished by science fiction

boneI’ve been trying to find the perfect way into a series of posts about what I’m grandly calling my ‘critical practice’. The trouble is, I’ve been reading so many different articles lately, and thinking ‘oh that fits with X, and I need to work that into this piece somehow’ I’ve managed to both comprehensively distract myself and stall myself when it comes to writing down my thoughts. It’s a known issue – I’ve been exasperating people with it for years. So, rather than striving to encapsulate Speller’s Grand Unified Theory of Something or Other in one neat, unimpeachable blog post, it seems simpler to invite readers to join me on my meandering journey to achieve a better understanding of what it is I think I’m doing when I sit down to write about science fiction and fantasy.

But even before that, I have a problem. It is a problem I’ve had for a long time but it is only within the last year that I’ve realised I really need to address it in some way. Those of you who have been reading my critical writing for a while will know I tend to employ a very subjective definition of sf and fantasy, deriving from the ‘what I point to’ school of thought. Or, as I sometimes term it, ‘stuff Maureen likes’. It is by no means ideal but over the years it has accommodated my preference for the kind of fiction that blurs genre boundaries and takes more pleasure in subverting or ignoring genre tropes than in reinforcing them.

Yet it is not enough to rely on this when you talk to people who are not familiar with your tastes. But neither do I want to be one of those people who defines science fiction or fantasy in excruciating taxonomic detail, working through layers of subgenre to achieve the perfect description of an individual text. It’s one thing to classify living organisms but I’ve never been entirely convinced that applying this ‘scientific’ approach to a piece of fiction is remotely effective.

Or, rather, it might have a limited use in making the broadest distinctions in subject matter – space opera, or military sf, for example – but I can’t help thinking that the moment you begin categorising titles according to the minutiae of content, it is possibly time to move on. Of course, taxonomy, classification, categorisation, call it what you will, brings with it a pleasing sense of rigour, because it is science of a sort, and as we know ‘science’ is good, and especially pertinent to science fiction. Except, of course, that this is not science but performance. This is not deep textual analysis but prescription, boundary-building, gate-keeping, exclusion, scent-marking, and so on. Indeed, I’d say there’s an unsettling implication of a desire to avoid contamination. I’d go so far as to say it is a form of literary germophobia, and something far more pernicious even than the endless debate about the differences between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction. Hint: there are fewer than you think.

I’m always slightly surprised, though frankly relieved, that no one has attempted an Aarne-Thompson-style classification system for tropes in science fiction (I’m discounting TV Tropes at this stage, for obvious reasons). Perhaps the nearest we come to this is Gary K Wolfe’s Critical Terms for Science Fiction, listing thirty-three definitions of science fiction. I’ve read them but none of them seemed to be entirely what I was looking for, and to manufacture one of my own would be to provoke just one more round of discussion on a topic I have now devoted five paragraphs to trying not to talk about. Well done, me.

It was only when I read a piece by Adam Roberts last autumn that I realised I might have been coming at the problem from the wrong angle entirely. That there was another way of thinking about science fiction and fantasy, and it had been staring me in the face all along. Adam’s blog post is entitled ‘How I Define “Science Fiction”’, but it’s not necessarily what you think. Which is in part why it caught my attention.

Adam begins by discussing what he calls ‘the most famous jump-cut in cinema’, in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know, the ape man throws the bone into the air, and just as it begins to return to earth it is replaced by a shot of a bone-shaped spacecraft. Adam says:

…this seems to me an extremely beautiful and affecting thing, a moment both powerful and eloquent, even though I’m not sure I could lay out, in consecutive and rational prose, precisely why I find it so powerful or precisely what it loquates.

In other words, it would appear that the beauty lies in part in the observer’s inability to properly articulate what that image fully represents, even though the observer, here Adam, experiences the meaning. The image defies interpretation even as it invites it. In fact, I’d happily argue that 2001 is full of such moments. It is visually one of the most beautiful sf films I know, but another thing that distinguishes it, and which is worth taking hold of now, as I pursue the discussion, is how little the film itself engages in interpretation. The elements that are most clearly remembered, I’d suggest, are HAL’s attempt to ‘save’ the mission, and his subsequent demise, because this is fully explained, and the hyperspace sequence, because it is not explained at all, only experienced. The rest is open to interpretation, and therein lies its interest.

I’m interested too in Adam’s difficulty in laying out what that sequence means to him. Words are all he has, and are indeed his stock-in-trade as writer and academic, but here somehow they are not, perhaps can never be, quite enough to explicate that experience. Or, maybe, they are too much. Might it be that when Adam starts to try to explain the sequence something is being lost? Obviously, because words are all I have too, I’m going to struggle to fill in what it is Adam cannot articulate, but I wonder if it might go along the lines of the image being so ‘right’, so perfectly wrought, so replete with potential meaning, it almost seems wrong to even begin to essay an explanation.

And if that is true, perhaps I should stop here, now, and never write another thing.

Except, of course, as Adam continued to pursue his argument, so shall I continue with my discussion. I can’t speak for Adam, but if I’m talking about my critical practice, it’s driven as much as anything by a need to make sense, however imperfectly, of the words and images I encounter. So, that is one thing I now know for sure.

Adam’s point is that the ‘bone’ image works ‘not by a process of rational extrapolation, but rather metaphorically [original italics]’. It actualises the ‘vertical “leap” from the known to the unexpected that is the structure of metaphor, rather than the horizontal connection from element to logically extrapolated element that is the structure of metonymy’. For Adam, then, sf is ‘more like a poetic image than it is a scientific proposition’.

This particularly catches my attention because of my own reading background. As a child I read fantasy rather than sf. Such sf as was available to me consisted primarily of Heinlein juveniles and things like the Tom Swift stories. Consequently, sf presented itself very strongly as being ‘for boys’, which probably wouldn’t have concerned me as I tended to run a mile from anything presented strongly as ‘for girls’ (I had no interest whatsoever in the Chalet School, for example). But insofar as I tried most things that came my way, I’m fairly sure I tried Heinlein and Tom Swift and discarded them for one very simple reason – they bored me. They tried to educate me rather than entertain me.

I definitely read some Andre Norton – Moon of Three Rings sticks in my memory, and I think that may be as much because it presented itself as more fantastical than didactic. Slightly later, I read Wyndham but never really thought of it as sf because of the obviously terrestrial settings, then read Foundation to please a friend at school, and hated it. It was only when I started reading Le Guin in my early twenties that I found science fiction that possessed what we might, at this point, think of as poetry. All of which is a slightly overblown way of explaining why I’ve never had much truck with the idea of sf serving as a way of getting children into science, or whatever, so take that, Hugo Gernsback. This is not to say that it might not do so as a corollary, but I still don’t believe that is what science fiction or fantasy are really about. But back to the discussion.

So, let’s run with Adam’s notion that ‘science fiction is a fundamentally metaphorical literature because it sets out to represent the world without reproducing it’. There is a part of me that wants to say, but isn’t that true of all literature, in that even if it is avowedly mimetic, it cannot be fully mimetic, otherwise we’d all be lost in some kind of Borgesian nightmare, all labyrinths, forking paths and no opportunity to forget anything. But seriously, while all fiction is to some extent mimetic, some fiction is more mimetic than it is metaphorical. Unless one wants to argue that some science fiction is mimicking other science fiction … and am I the only person stuck on this solipsistic merry-ground. I do hope not.

But this does bring me to a genuine problem I have with science fiction, or certain strains thereof. The painstaking extrapolation from known to unknown, based on what we currently know about the world, the rivet-counting, the insistence that X cannot happen without Y, and so on. For years I thought I could only be a good science fiction critic if I assiduously read New Scientist every week, and for a long time I did, and watched Horizon (when it was still good), and even made it all the way through A Brief History of Time. Which was, I think now, to miss the point somewhat. It’s one thing to be a science geek, and I like to be informed about science, and am genuinely interested in the history of science, but if I can only fully appreciate science fiction by putting myself through this sort of training programme, then possibly something is wrong. Because it really doesn’t matter how rigorous the science is if a science fiction novel actively sucks as fiction. And bluntly, a lot of it does, even now. A novel that would rather you fawned over the accurate use of equations rather than appreciating the storytelling as a unified thing is not a novel I’m especially interested in reading. But then, that’s not the kind of science fiction I’m interested in writing about.

Large deviations from what is permissible in science fiction are, Adam suggests, more liable to bounce the reader ‘out of her reading experience’. I take that point then I found myself thinking, well why not? Why shouldn’t the experience of reading science fiction be as ‘alien’ (not about aliens) as the concept of sf itself? Suppose we take that to mean that sf invites some sort of detachment from the truly mimetic. Adam invokes Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief; it seems to me that surely the very notion of sf is to invite the willing suspension of disbelief, to think ‘what if’ in the broadest way possible. What does it say about readers if they don’t want that? And yet, too often, I suspect they really don’t. Half the problem with ideas such as ‘the genre heartland’ is that they reinforce the status quo rather than challenging it. The city on the hill is transformed into a citadel. None shall enter, none shall leave. Another version of M John Harrison’s ‘clomping foot of nerdism’, perhaps. Or, as Adam suggests, while ‘worldbuilding is part of the system of a science fiction text […] the point of sf is not its system’. Certainly, I don’t think it should be all about the system.

The point [of sf] is that it transports us – that it takes us somewhere new, that it brings us into contact with something wonderful, that it blindsides us, makes us gasp, unnerves or re-nerves us, makes us think of the world in a different way.

Good science fiction should, Adam suggests, achieve ‘escape velocity’. It should achieve ‘rapture’. It would, I think, be tiring if all science fiction were to go for the full-blown Sense of Wonder, though it would be wonderful if more of it even aspired to that condition. I also really like the way that Adam equates the idea of Sense of Wonder with the Sublime, prompting us to look back to Romanticism. The concept of the Sublime has been overlooked of late and I’d love to see it come back into critical play. But Adam is making a serious point – where is the science fiction that is ‘wonderful, or radically new, or strangely beautiful, or beautifully dislocating’. Or ‘at least flavoured with Strange’. And this, which should be tattooed on the forehead of every science fiction writer, in mirror image so they can read it when they look at themselves in the morning:

[g]reat sf can never situate itself inside its readers’ comfort zones, though commercially popular sf can and often does.


We encounter a bump in the road at this point. Not all sf is great. It’s the way things are. On the other hand, not all less-than-great sf is actively bad. It’s just ‘not great’. Often, the most rewarding things to write about are those which have aspired to greatness but, for whatever reason, have not quite achieved it. The gaps in the carapace are inevitably far more revealing than a smooth, shiny surface. As the oyster requires grit to make a pearl, so a critic often requires less than sublime science fiction on which to work. There is also science fiction that isn’t necessarily great but does what it does incredibly well. We might call that commercial sf. It’s very saleable, and while it may not be elevating it’s very satisfying to read. Maybe it’s the difference between a rare and exotic vintage and a decent workaday wine. You yearn for the one but happily accept the other because it’s fine to drink on a daily basis.

But having said all that, there’s a difference between science fiction that is trying to do something interesting and not quite making it, or that knows what it’s doing and does it to the absolute utmost of its ability, and science fiction that refuses to even look for the way out of the comfort zone. I’ve already mentioned the phrase ‘genre heartland’. It may be an attraction for some but to me it smacks of ‘comfort’ and ‘more of the same’, and I’m not here for either of those things in my reading or writing.

Returning to Adam’s post, for now I’m skirting the discussion of Roman Jakobson’s theories – that’s not an area I want to go into at present – but I find the metaphorical model of science fiction that Adam lays out much more to my taste than the metonymic model that holds so many of us in its thrall.

I want to be surprised by science fiction. Always. I want to be surprised by everything I read, but science fiction and fantasy more than most kinds of fiction seem to offer such a promise, only to all too often snatch it away at the last moment. Having acknowledged that need, that desire, for metaphor, the sense of wonder, even the barest nod to the sublime, this seems to provide a starting point for how I might write about science fiction and fantasy literature in the future.


Before and After

Paul Kincaid on prequels and sequels.

Through the dark labyrinth

There is a congruence in the latest issue of the London Review of Books (4 January 2018) that I find interesting and instructive.

In the final paragraph of his review of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, Colin Burrow remarks:

A great work of fantasy involves testing and advancing the physical and moral laws of a new world; and a great part of the pleasure of reading a book set in an alternative world lies in seeing an author discovering a possibility that stretches the boundaries of the imagined world without wrecking its internal coherence. Writing a prequel to that kind of elastic imagining is exceptionally hard, because so many of the rules have already been invented and cannot be subjected to creative strain, let alone broken. (8)

On the facing page, almost exactly parallel to this passage, in a review of Mrs Osmond, John Banville’s sort-of sequel to

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2017 in Review

Paul Kincaid being rather more efficient about summarising his year’s reading than I ever manage.

Through the dark labyrinth

It’s that time of year again, when I dust off this oft-forgotten blog and post a list of my reading through the year, along with other odd comments.

2017 has been, in some respects, a very good year. My first full-length book not composed of previously published material, appeared in May. Iain M. Banks appeared in the series Modern Masters of Science Fiction from Illinois University Press, and has received some generally positive reviews, much to my relief.

Also this year I signed a contract with Gylphi to write a book about Christopher Priest, which is likely to take most if not all of the next year. In addition, I’ve put in a proposal for another volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction; the initial response has been quite good so I’m hoping I’ll have more to report in the new year. So, in work terms, it looks…

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New year, new plans

Today is the seventh birthday of my blog, Paper Knife. I’ve not worked at it consistently over the years, and in 2017 I began to wonder whether it might be time to do the decent thing and close down the blog altogether, because I had become just so dissatisfied with it. But somehow I can’t quite let go, because no matter how unfocused it’s been, I’ve put a lot of work into Paper Knife and I can’t bring myself to just snuff it out.

And much has happened in the last few months. I’ve watched the ebb and flow of discussion about critical writing outside the academy, and whether there is any point to it, or even any need for it. I’ve watched with dismay as various people have represented reviewing as being purely about promoting books on behalf of authors and publishers, or as a means of assessing fictions’ suitability for being nominated for awards. And I keep thinking, no, no, that is not at all what critical writing is about. Being a part of the Shadow Clarke project in 2017 was also something of an eye-opener when it came to dealing with people’s responses to critical writing.

I’ve seen a lot of other things too. So many things, not least among them yet more ridiculous lists of 10 sf books you should all have read, filled with books by old guys alongside Ursula Le Guin as the token woman. Naming no names but if Andy Weir’s interview in the New York Times comes to mind, then … ok, I’m thinking about that Andy Weir interview. He’s not the only one, of course; he’s just more visible than most.

I also saw the people asking why those of us mocking that interview couldn’t just accept that some people like that kind of thing. And that, so far as it goes, is an entirely reasonable point. The problem with so many of these lists, however, is that they don’t reflect the state of contemporary science fiction and fantasy, or what most people are actually reading, although they generally say an awful lot about what the list compilers were reading when they were twelve, which in many instances is what their fathers were reading when they were twelve. There is perhaps some sense that these texts are foundational, and maybe they were once, if you’re a reader of a certain age, or still are if you’re studying science fiction. But if you’re a new reader, just interested in reading some really good science fiction recommendations? Well, I personally wouldn’t start from those lists.

Or, to put it another way, when I was twelve, I was reading Lord of the Rings, the available fantastic works of Lord Dunsany and William Morris, and Hope Mirrlees’ incomparable Lud-in-the-Mist, but I wouldn’t dream of offering up any of those as the ‘best fantasy’ were I asked to compile a list today, with the possible exception of Lud-in-the-Mist, which I genuinely do think everyone should read because it is such a startlingly good fantasy. So much has happened since then it would make far more sense to point new readers at some good contemporary fantasy and let people find their own way back.

One morning a while ago, I woke up and found Robert Heinlein was trending on Twitter, which seemed a little strange as I was fairly sure he had already been dead for some time. It turned out that Weir’s list had generated a lot of discussion about which authors one should read when starting out in sf, and various writers, most visibly Seanan McGuire, had queried this insistence that one absolutely needed read the old guys. For some people this was a new conversation but for many of us it was yet one more iteration of an old conversation that became much more visible because McGuire and others play a strong social media game. The conclusion, though, seemed much the same – you don’t have to read the old guys to enjoy reading science fiction. And yet that feeling persists. Why is that, I wonder?

It’s a matter I’ll come back to in the future, I’m sure, but for now I’ll just note that it prompted me to say that, were I in a position to teach a class on sf and fantasy, I’d love to teach one called ‘Beyond 2001’, which would only discuss work published in the twenty-first century, with a heavy emphasis on work by women and writers of colour, and as much work as possible from outside the usual US/UK publishing axis. A number of people responded very enthusiastically to this idea but given I am unlikely to ever be in a position to teach such a course, it seemed doomed before it even got going.

But thinking about it later, I realised I could do quite a lot with this concept, and at the same time respond to another discussion that’s been going on, about the way in which we write critically about short fiction. Or, rather, how we don’t. Here, I’m thinking about the very inadequate reviews of short fiction on sites like Rocket Stack Rank, by no means the only site to devote itself to trying to apply some sort of order to the vast outpouring of short fiction, but possibly the most nakedly egregious in the way it sets about its self-appointed task. This is not reviewing; it’s triaging material for those who want to nominate for awards. Again, I’m not going to have that discussion in detail right now but ranking stories according to their nomination potential, a process that not coincidentally allows the ‘reviewers’ to bring into play a slew of exceedingly distasteful personal prejudices, is not critical writing; it’s barely even reviewing as I understand it.

So I have come up with a new plan for Paper Knife. During 2018, I’m going to devote more space to writing about sf and fantasy published after 2001, and also focus on discussing short fiction in depth. I’m also going to talk more about my own critical practice, because getting involved in the Shadow Clarke project made me realise that there is a lot I’ve begun to take for granted about my own work, and it feels like the time has come to reassess what I’m doing.

I’m excited about this plan, and looking forward to getting down to work. It’s been a rough couple of years for me personally, but these last few months things have begun to fall into place and, even despite the world outside looking like a dumpster fire right now, I feel a little more optimistic about life generally than I have done for a long time.

In which case, it is clearly time to write.