Category Archives: non fiction

The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

Before other things got in the way, I’d hoped to write about some of the books other Sharke judges had put on their shortlists. Since then the actual Sharke and Clarke shortlists have been chosen, and the award finally made, to Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad in case you missed it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t return to my original plan. I’ve been wanting to write about Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives. More fool me, I didn’t include it on my own shortlist, which was silly, given that I’ve argued often enough that the novella is the word length par excellence for sf; and given too that we’re in the middle of a resurgence of interest in the novella as a literary form.

I will talk about the science-fictional elements of The Arrival of Missives in due course, but I’m going to begin by thinking out loud a little about what Arrival initially most reminded me of, certainly in its initial stages, and that’s Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, the story of Jean Brodie, the outspoken teacher with unusual methods, working in an atmosphere of stultifying conformity to transform a group of girls into la crème de la crème by countering the school’s emphasis on hard knowledge with a diet of art, romantic poetry, and her own extensive views on the world. It’s funny, yes, but tragic too, though not necessarily for the reasons I think people generally suppose. It’s tempting, perhaps, to see Jean Brodie fighting a lonely battle against a Gradgrindian emphasis on facts, but turn back to Spark’s original novella and you are quickly reminded that it is about Jean Brodie, an egotistical monster, overweening, self-regarding, deeply manipulative. She cares very little about the future of her girls, or about what they will do in the world, but a great deal about what they can do for her.

Thus, Brodie’s pleasure lies not in educating the girls for their own sakes, but in using them as proxies to play off her ex-lover, the one-armed art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, against her would-be lover, Gordon Lowther, the singing teacher. One of the most striking things is Brodie’s cruelty towards her protégées, especially poor put-upon Mary, who can do nothing right, though her behaviour towards Sandy and Rose is not that much better, as she manoeuvres Rose towards Teddy Lloyd’s bed, and attempts to enlist Sandy as her spy. The difference lies, perhaps, in the fact that Mary is desperate to please Miss Brodie whereas Sandy is much more detached. Yes, she and her friend Jenny are, in their way, obsessed with Jean Brodie, but their obsession is articulated through the collecting of knowledge about her. And what it is to have knowledge, as Sandy will come to realise.

For, after all, train a girl as a spy, and what is the likelihood that she will spy on you as well? Thus, much of the fascination in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie lies not in Brodie’s hideously misguided enthusiasm and admiration of Mussolini and Hitler, but in the fact that Brodie has sown the seeds of her own destruction by creating a figure who will watch her, cold-eyed, learn her strengths, such as they are, and her weaknesses, which are many more than she will ever allow, and then use them against her at the right moment. If Jean Brodie has played a long game, then Sandy, her pupil, has played an even longer one, and played it better, not least because she recognises the damage that someone like Jean Brodie can do to genuinely impressionable minds. In fact, the key thing about most of the Brodie Set is that for all Jean Brodie’s careful selection of them, they will mostly escape her influence, though she will inevitably leave her mark on them. Sandy’s method of escape will prove to be possibly the most extreme, perhaps because she has paid most attention to Jean Brodie’s ways.

But what has this to do with The Arrival of Missives? It was the presence of Mr Tiller, the school master with a war wound, physically disabled, ‘not a real man’, that set me off on that particular train of thought, but the question I eventually found myself considering was the girlhood of Jean Brodie. Where does a creature like that come from? Arrival does not directly answer that question, but I feel the two novellas are somehow in dialogue with one another. Having said that, I believe Arrival is also loosely in conversation with a whole group of narratives published in the late 1920s, early 1930s, all written by women, and addressing issues concerning class and the education of young women. I’m thinking of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, Alison Uttley’s A Country Child, and Nan Shepherd’s The Quarry Wood, to name but three I happen to be familiar with, but there are many more. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in 1961, but it’s set within the same time frame, as is arrival.

If there is a difference between Shirley Fearn and the other protagonists, it is perhaps that she is never less than utterly sure of herself, and of her destiny. There is little in the way of struggle, little to cause self-doubt. She knows with a burning certainty that she is intended for greater things than life as a farmer’s wife, and has determined that becoming a teacher will be her route out. For the reader, Shirley’s ambition is a disappointment, for it is not teaching in and of itself that absorbs her but the thought of teaching alongside Mr Tiller, her own teacher, with whom she believes herself to be in love. Thus, her horizons are already more limited than she seems to realise, even though she is aware that those set for her by others – her parents, the villagers – are just as limited. So, Shirley’s determination is less focused than she might believe.

But there are things that Shirley is aware of, not least that she is under constant scrutiny – her daily routines are so well-known she needs to account for even the slightest deviation, despite all her protestations that she can come and go as she likes – yet she is naively convinced that somehow, when it counts, she is invisible. She assumes she can apply to the teacher training college in Taunton without anyone noticing, whereas the moment she takes her letter to the post office, it becomes the talk of the village. She believes that her love for her teacher is a secret, yet everything about her screams the knowledge to even the least observant person. She may believe herself to be devious and powerful, but bookish Shirley Fearn is herself an open book.

The village, as we will learn, has a completely different plan for Shirley – and I don’t think it would be going too far to say that the entire village does connive in this. As the only farmer’s only child, Shirley will inherit the farm, but it is already presumed that she must marry in order to maintain the farm. Shirley might present herself as being as free-spirited as Bathsheba Everdene, but unlike Bathsheba, she has made no attempt to understand how the farm works, and from the village’s point of view she cannot be relied on to run it properly. And this is important for the village, at a time when many would still be looking to it for work of one kind or another.

Post-World War One, the need to maintain continuity is even more important, perhaps, given that so many have not returned. There is the perceived need to restore what has been lost, and to prevent it being lost again. That deeper attachment to land and family lends a folk-horror flavour to the narrative as the farmer and the church elders settle among themselves that Shirley will be May Queen, with all the attention that brings with it. It is also, though they don’t quite say it, a sexually charged occasion, and everyone has already settled on who Shirley’s husband will be – Daniel Redmore, the younger son of the blacksmith: clever, bookish, not unlike Shirley herself, and with absolutely no interest whatsoever in running a farm, although no one seems to have realised this. Like Shirley, his intention is to get away. In many respects he understands better than Shirley does what is involved in getting away. The question is, how can they achieve it when so many people have already determined their future.

As a result of a fumbling encounter during the May Day celebrations Daniel, whose lack of interest in farm affairs is brutally underlined by his having no idea whatsoever about how sex works, believes that he has ‘compromised’ Shirley, and must therefore do the decent thing. Shirley knows perfectly well that this is not the case – the encounter holds more significance for her because she is an active participant and has become acutely aware of her power over Daniel, and how different her feelings are to those she has for Mr Tiller. She wants Daniel as much as he wants her, if not more. The ‘compromise’ is a technicality, and yet she is willing to abandon her plans for teacher training for the immediacy of marriage, and a new status within the village.

We might argue that Shirley’s interest lies in finding a situation where she remains the centre of attention: “It will soon be past midnight, and I will no longer be anyone’s Queen’ (84). That, though, would be a little unfair to Shirley. She is struggling to understand what has happened and seemingly powerless to stop the marriage bandwagon as it rumbles on. Everyone assumes, approvingly, she is pregnant; that is what was expected of her. She knows full well she is not, and that she has effectively deceived Daniel.

They said I was clever.

I see now they meant that I was bookish, and suited to becoming a learned woman. A learned woman is a very different object from a wise man. I have had no experience of life; how could I see all the traps, particularly the ones that looked like my own choices, my own happiness? Keats did not warn me, and neither did Dickens. I did not find myself within their writings. (85)

Whether Shirley does truly understand, even now, I’m not sure. To be bookish does not mean one is necessarily suited to becoming a learned woman (and how eighteenth-century that sounds). But if she is correct in realising that books could not warn her, Shirley is nonetheless not asking another question a bright girl ought to ask – why are there no books that might warn her? Evidently, she has not read Middlemarch; one can therefore only assume that Shirley’s access to reading material has also been somewhat limited, and this comes as no surprise, given her situation.

There is a mystery embedded within this story, and it takes us back to the presence of Mr Tiller, and hence to the presence within Mr Tiller. As the story opens, Shirley sees all her happiness as lying with Mr Tiller, the school teacher whom she idolises yet we know very little about him. What we do know seems mostly to be conjecture. He was apparently, wounded badly during the war; he moves stiffly, uneasily. The rumour in the village is that he is ‘not a real man’, which is usually code for his injuries being such that he has no sexual function. Shirley knows well enough what the term means but believes she will engaged in a relationship that is sacred, above such base needs, because her love and their holy mission as educators will be sufficient to sustain them. We might smile at her naivete, but it is as well to recognise that this is a stage in growing up – the interest in relationships coupled with the unwillingness to commit to an idea of physicality.

At this stage, Shirley’s obsession is such that she resorts to spying on Mr Tiller, and thus makes the discovery that indeed Mr Tiller is not a real man: he is in part composed of rock. This is the single most remarkable moment of the narrative, so much so that, rather like Shirley, we might find it difficult to comprehend.

It is solid, and juts forth from the bottom of his ribcage, making a mountain range in miniature, sunk into the body in places and erupting forth in others. There are seams of a bright material within it that catch the lamplight, and glitter, delicate and silvery as spider thread (15).

Isn’t that an extraordinary image? My first thought was to imagine Mr Tiller as one of Milton’s fallen angels. However, it would seem that Shirley has not studied Paradise Lost as the thought does not occur to her. In fact, she seems not to have any frame of reference whatsoever other than the geological. And of course she doesn’t. In this world, there is no science fiction. Hugo Gernsback has not yet invented science fiction as a genre, and it seems unlikely that Shirley Fearn has yet encountered the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. One wonders what she will make of them when she does. And will she later chance upon the work of Olaf Stapledon? Because it is his perception of a massive future history of Earth that seems to me to come closest here to Mr Tiller’s account of being a vehicle for a being or beings attempting to shape the history of Earth, and the massive distances in time and space that their story encompasses.

Even his name is evocative, suggesting, as it does, his role as a means of finding a safe passage through potential dangers. But whose hand, we might ask, is on the tiller? His story implies that Mr Tiller himself is entirely reliant on whatever entity it is that resides in him – he says as much – and thus in no position to question its diktats if he wants to remain alive. And one might suspect that having survived the war to end all wars, he would be only too willing to ensure that the same does not happen again. Yet he, the supposedly educated man, does not question the story the beings have told him. Instead, he is focused on ensuring that Shirley Fearn fulfils her destiny as the mother of great men. Like everyone else, he knows that Shirley is infatuated with him, and he exploits her feelings, unformed as they are, for what he perceives to be the greater good.

What we have, then, is a mirroring on a macrocosmic scale of the situation in Westerbridge. For the villagers, it is important that Shirley marry Daniel, and that they keep the farm going. How would they respond to hear Daniel proposing that he and Shirley might move away and live their lives as they want? For the mysterious rock, it is vital that Shirley and Daniel marry. Or, to be precise, it is vital that Daniel does not marry Phyllis Clemens. So Shirley’s significance resides in the fact that she is not Phyllis rather than in the fact of her being Shirley. It’s not her they want except as a convenient receptacle for Daniel’s sperm. Tiller, and the people he represents, are in it entirely for themselves – there is no interest in either Shirley or Daniel. They are pawns in the biggest game imaginable.

It is only late in in the story, when Shirley demands to speak to the people controlling the rock, that she begins, finally, to question the story she has been told, and to see what is really going on: the absence of women in the world created by the men of the rock, the absence of anyone except old white men. We have moved from a Stapledonian apprehension of vast historical cycles to a much more human dimension. Shirley is faced with a dilemma: will this world come about if she and Daniel do not have children, or if they do? And does she even want this world to come about, given what has already happened? Tiller has committed murder to save the people of the rock, and it’s clear that Shirley’s life is of little interest to him; the same is true of Daniel’s. Their job is to fulfil the prophecy; and it’s probably not World War Two that Tiller is concerned with but something so far in the future it’s beyond human comprehension.

It’s at this point that Shirley makes a genuine sacrifice. She has come to understand that she and Daniel might have a real future together, though it won’t be quite the one she might have romantically imagined.

Truth be told, the more time I spend with [Daniel] the more I appreciate that I could love him. For love is not the high ideal of beauty, of sacrifice, of noble deeds and chaste embraces that I had imagined when once I dreamed of Mr Tiller. It is a dirty business, of wanting and struggling and making do, and being each other’s comfort because the world is cruel and there are few who want to do right by you with no thought of their own needs. I feel the glimmerings of that kind of love with Daniel, I think. And when he touches me I feel something altogether different. Not love, but want. I want him. If I will not get anything else from this life that I desire, why can I not have this one thing? Why can I not have Daniel to distract me? (88)

This is an extraordinary passage, where Shirley finds truth in uncertainty rather than in the beauty offered by Keats, as provided by Mr Tiller. Almost too late she realises that Keats and his ilk were nothing but a palliative. Similarly, she has come to understand that her infatuation with Tiller was just that, and nothing more. Her revealing to Tiller that she is not pregnant, and her decision to call off the wedding to thwart Tiller’s plans, prompt him to take more drastic action, murdering Phyllis Clemens, Daniel’s other potential partner, and then vanishing.

Perhaps the most surprising person in all this is Shirley’s mother, who has seemingly thwarted her ambition all along. Now, when it is far too late, she finally confides in Shirley. Through Shirley’s eyes we have seen her as someone who can’t be trusted or relied on, someone Shirley cannot turn to. Now she says:

‘I wanted you to be better, to be beyond all this.’ She gestures at the ground, the sky. ‘But the more you learned, the further you got away from me, until I could not recognise myself in you. I have been so lonely, watching you make your plans from such a distance, with your head in the clouds. And I became bitter as you excluded me. I could not understand it. But this act [Shirley’s breaking off her engagement] – this I understand.’ (109)

Jonathan McCalmont suggests the novella’s ending is botched, and I’m not going to disagree with that, though I’d perhaps say fumbled. It’s all a little bit too hopeful, a little too Wellsian – the presence of the tandem a little bit ‘Daisy, Daisy’; Shirley and Daniel wobbling hesitantly into an uncertain but perhaps hopeful future has a flavour of Mr Polly and Ann Veronica about it. If they stay together, will they make something of their lives? One wants them to, of course, because they are young, but old enough to know they can’t go one as before. But are they hungry enough to survive? Will they ride out of a Wells novel into something a little more J.B. Priestley? And either way, what will Shirley do? She has rejected the idea of teaching: ‘No more rooms of quiet, seated, suppressed children’ (109), and with that no more thoughts of shaping young people’s lives. She has observed, like Sandy, but unlike Sandy the stories in Shirley’s head have up until now been about herself entirely and have not included others. Where Shirley is like Jean Brody is in her inability to genuinely share and confide, though she is belatedly coming to realise the necessity to do so. In the moment where she says to Daniel ‘I know my own body’, one senses both her frustration, and the beginnings of a path through the world.

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{and then} – a writing life beyond reviews

{insert obligatory introductory section detailing how I learned to read, what I read once left to my own devices, my life as a young library user, how I “found” fantasy and science fiction and so on. Because that is how I always seem to start these “state of me and my critical practice” articles when I write them}

Or not, because I have trained myself to delete rather than publish them. It interests me that almost invariably when I write such articles (and over the years I’ve begun a few) I do so by laying out my history as a reader, as a genre reader and so forth. Why do I do that? I presume I do it to establish my authority and emphasise that I am knowledgeable about the genres I review in. That is, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve never questioned why I do it. I barely noticed until recently. And now I’ve noticed I can’t stop noticing it. I have binned so many articles half-written because I keep on doing the same thing. I bore myself rigid even as I’m doing it. It’s become like a ritual. I can’t begin anything until I do this. But still I do it. I did it with the first version of this, and then binned five hundred words. I am almost about to do it now, so let’s end this paragraph and move on.

Oddly, the one thing I never seem to mention is how I came to start writing reviews and criticism (maybe I get too bored before I get to that point). That’s simple. Paul Kincaid listened to me talking about books and, when I said I could never be a reviewer, gave me a book to review for Vector, commenting only that all I had to do was to write down the things I’d been saying. (Now you know who to blame.) There was, as I recall, no theory of reviewing, no particular way to review; I just did it. I’ve looked at that first review fairly recently, and it’s not bad. Naïve in places, and prone to making sweeping judgements and statements, and I would undoubtedly do it very differently now, but it’s not bad for a first attempt.

What is interesting at this point is why I thought I could never be a reviewer. At such a distance of time, I’m guessing, of course, but I suspect I thought one needed a university education in order to be able to review; to be better read than I was; and possibly, just possibly, I’d noticed that most of the reviews I read were written by men. Especially in the amateur genre press. I doubt I’d fully theorised any of that, but I am sure I’d already noticed that men talked about books, not women. It had never occurred to me that anyone might be interested in my opinions. Certainly, I would not have dreamed of foisting them on anyone other than Paul Kincaid, because no one else seemed interested.

{fast forward thirty years, and several hundred reviews and pieces of criticism for venues such as Vector, Paperback Inferno, the BSFG Newsletter, Foundation, Interzone, Strange Horizons, The Zone, and this blog, Paper Knife}

My dissatisfaction with my critical practice seems in part to be cyclical, in that I have often gone through periods of discontent and then got back in the groove. But each time this happens, getting back seems to get harder. Limpets, which are creatures of habit, return to the same patch of rock after their nightly perambulations; to the exact same spot, to the point where they wear a groove in the rock, into which they can then settle. You have to wonder if, after a while, they go there because that tiny patch of rock fits them better than any other patch of rock in the world, and it’s just easier and more comfortable to keep going back. Does habit enslave the limpet or has the limpet just figured out what it takes to make life easy.

I am not a limpet though I can see the attraction of the limpet lifestyle. Just keep doing what you do, over and over, bedding in, digging deep. For some people, that works, perhaps because they’ve already reached a point where they are utterly secure in what they’re doing and they can move on to polishing the skills they’ve painstakingly acquired. I still have too much work left to do and the groove only ever fits for a little while before it is time to move on. And here we are again.

{skip boring recitation of dissatisfactions with current reviewing practice}

Well, not entirely, because, as Paul Kincaid pointed out the other night, it is to some extent my own fault that I spend so much of my time reviewing shitty first novels by writers who seem to have been untimely ripped from their literary wombs and spat out prematurely by the publishing machine to satisfy … well, satisfy what or who? Reviewing first novels too often feels remarkably like marking first-year undergraduate essays. Same damn mistakes, over and over. Somewhere in the back of my head lurks a template review, I’m quite sure. I suspect I keep on reviewing them because I long to find those first novels that, while they might be messy and unruly, at least show signs of promise and make me want to jump up and down and say ‘look at this. Look. At. THIS! It’s amazing. I cannot wait to read this writer’s next novel, to see what they do next.’ No, I don’t remember me doing that much either.

It is much easier to write about something you don’t like; in effect the review writes itself, though I flatter myself that if I write a negative review of a novel, I at least make it clear why the novel sucks rather than simply performing variations on a theme of “dear god, this novel is bad”. My reviews tend to be quite heavy on the whys of awfulness.

But perhaps this is where the doubt is creeping in. Very often now, I see novels I have read and believe to be flawed being trumpeted as “Best Thing Evah”. While I naturally allow a certain latitude for taste, it nonetheless seems that everything is the best thing ever these days. I find this at best disconcerting, at worst concerning. Concerning because frequently nowadays I find myself doubting my own judgement. That is, not my judgement of novels on a book-by-book basis but I wonder more and more if I’m not in danger of becoming like one of those people who is convinced that no decent sf has written since Asimov or Clarke put the covers over their keyboards. Well, maybe not that extreme, but am I really keeping up with changing tastes? Or is an awful lot of contemporary sff as flimsy and insubstantial as I think it is? Am I too demanding as a reviewer? Too fussy? Looking for things it is unreasonable of me to expect to be present?

{insert digression on taste, aesthetics, and whether I should be tailoring my reviews to anyone’s tastes but my own}

For some time, I have been teetering on the brink of giving up writing reviews and criticism, altogether mostly because I wasn’t clear why I should keep going. Why was I struggling to keep writing when the very thought of opening another book, any book, made me feel sick, let alone actually writing about it.

{pause to wince because that sounds like I’m asking for approbation and validation. I’m not. Actually, possibly I am, but don’t indulge me or patronise me. I’m an adult, I shall work this out on my own}

The simplest answer is that I couldn’t imagine not doing it. Having been been a critic, reviewer (and latterly a blogger) for thirty years, it would be hard to just walk away from it. But if I were to write my reviews in a notebook, for my own personal consumption, would that be enough? Obviously not, so equally obviously there was (is?) a part of me that wants to be a public rather than a private critic. But how public is a specialist publication (“nobody reads print reviews” said an anonymous author a while ago, someone I am sure pays no attention whatsoever to print reviews of their own work) or a low-traffic blog (my stats suggest my blog exists mainly to do US students’ Frankenstein homework for them). Is the simple act of consigning a piece of criticism to a blog enough?

{those are rhetorical questions, and anyway, I have switched off comments on my blog. Or have I}

Then, as is sometimes the way with the internet, the source of so many of our trials and joys nowadays, a series of very different articles all turned up in my aggregator at around the same time and I began to make some sense, finally, of the source of my discontents this time around.

It isn’t the texts that are the problem (well, some of them are, but we know I am quite capable of handling that). It’s the reading culture that’s changed. Or at any rate, my relationship with it.

{here, for the second time, we are going to step around the autobiographical material I would normally insert here, save to observe that, as previously noted, for a long time my reading culture consisted of reading books, reading other people talking about books in the commercial and small presses, and talking to Paul Kincaid about books. Later, it took in various apas (amateur press associations – like bulletin boards, but on paper), and then came the internet}

LiveJournal never really worked for me as a venue for discussing books. It ought to have done, given that I was in charge of my own journal but I learned quite quickly that leaving things open gave total strangers (that is, people who had followed me of their own volition) the apparent right to lecture me on what content I should include, and how my journal should look, but that making the journal “friends only” brought its own difficulties. Joining reading communities revealed the exciting world of people who judged their reading prowess exclusively by how many books they could get through in a year (the thinner the better, the more the merrier) and presented me with my first ethical dilemmas (I never listed manuscripts I worked on, nor anything I read only part of – I read parts of a lot of textbooks). And then I realised I didn’t like listing my year’s reading anyway, because although I think it was supposed to provide hooks for conversation and discussion, it ended up looking like boasting.

Bulletin boards and discussion forums, I never really mastered, in part because dial-up was expensive, and later, when I got broadband, I found it really difficult to keep up with discussions I wasn’t in on the beginning of. Endless reading, to end up adding the not tremendously helpful “me, too” because everything had already been said.

{I rarely engage in conversation or discussion on the internet because of this sort of thing. Also, I am poor at boasting. However, I am a top-level lurker}

Oddly, Twitter, once I discovered client apps, has worked better than anything else as a forum for casual discussion, despite the format being utterly inimical to discussion. But there is nothing people love more than challenging the limitations of a format. Multi-tweet explanations are an art form in their own right, and I was lucky to fall in with people who liked to tweet links and recommendations. Twitter has at times been a powerhouse of suggestion-trading. It’s been fun.

And yes, that is a past tense. It’s not that it isn’t still fun but the dynamic has changed as people’s interests have shifted, and as a whole slew of special-interest groups (publishers, agents, editors, authors, or people who would like to be publishers, agents, editors, authors, or something, anything in publishing) have experimented with social media. A couple of weeks ago, Jonathan McCalmont posted a very interesting article at Ruthless Culture, called What Price, Your Critical Agency? which made me feel as though he’d been poking around in my brain as he seemed to have articulated a lot of my discomfort with what has been going on these last few years, and particularly more recently.

It was always the exciting cover reveal tweets that got me in the early days: “Omigod, omigod, large commercial publisher has given little old me the chance to take an early look at this cover you’ll all be seeing anyway any day soon. Aren’t I lucky, aren’t you jealous?” As I have never bought books according to their covers, I found this a little baffling. Obviously, it was just one more way of flagging up that X book is being published soon. These days, either I’ve managed to mute or unfollow the very worst offenders, or else, and I hope this is nearer the truth, most publishers have realised that letting loose the dogs of cover-shilling on social media annoys a lot of people. I don’t mind seeing authors and editors I know being excited about their covers (though cynically, we know they’ve probably been asked to be excited, just as we all know they’re generally not going to be out there weeping and gnashing their teeth unless a publisher has done something truly appalling, like egregiously whitewashing the protagonist, at which point they’re right to shout about it publicly) but I’m a critic and reviewer and as a rule covers are not my business. I did wonder, as I looked at the rebranding of the Apex Books of World SF, what the etiquette was when confronted with a truly ugly cover. It turns out you say what’s on your mind and everyone ignores you, which is probably as it should be. But it really is ugly.

Jonathan’s post talks about cultural ecosystems and the relationships between publishers and reviewers. In part, he focuses on the currency of review copies and what a reviewer’s obligation might be if they accept a free review copy, and what a publisher’s expectation of a reviewer might be. Needless to say, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot, particularly the issue of neutrality. As a rule, I don’t chase publishers for review copies because I write too irregularly for my own blog, and because, bizarre as it might sound, it never occurred to me until fairly recently that I could and indeed should actually pitch reviews to sites rather than be content with what was offered to me by the publications I have worked for.

{we will take as read the discussion about how women do not put themselves forward, unlike men, though it probably explains why, after thirty years, comparatively few people have still ever heard of me}

For that matter, publishers do not beat a path to my door to offer me unsolicited review copies. I’m not remotely surprised by this, given I do not write user-friendly reviews that overflow with the kind of comments that make good sales copy. Nonetheless I am often reminded that I am at a tangent to that particular reviewing community when I see the tweets about books received, the photos of books sent by publishers, and so forth. And yes, of course I’m sometimes envious, because austere as I might appear, I like the validation of a freebie as much as the next person. Having said that, it also reminds me of nothing so much as queuing to get into a fashionable club, hoping to be one of the lucky few to be allowed in, having dressed innovatively with scrupulous regard to the club’s dress code. It’s all very aspirational but I have always known that were I in that queue, I wouldn’t be getting in.

{I could at this point boast outrageously about the proof we found waiting for us when we got home from our holiday because, seriously, it is awesome … but I hope I am better than that, not least because it wasn’t sent so that I would promote the book but as a thoughtful act from an old friend, and I want to retain a shred or two of integrity}

Jonathan lays out the difficulties that ensue if/when you get caught up in the New Shiny hype culture. How prepared are you to sacrifice yourself to commercial interests to keep yourself in books to review? Given my particular tastes, not very (though I might just be persuaded to sell my soul to a couple of smaller presses that publish a lot of fiction in translation). Wading through endless epic identikit fantasies isn’t really how I want to spend my time. And yet a niggling thought persists – assuming I want people to look at my blog, how do I get them there, if not by reviewing nice new books? Of course I’d like more traffic at Paper Knife – most people want to know that their writing is being read, and I am not immune to that – but at what cost?

“Why do so many bloggers make it look as though they are working an extra job as unpaid interns in the entertainment industry?” asks Jonathan, before going on to suggest that “One possible answer is that we surrender our free time in return for a sense of community”. Which was once true, perhaps, but it’s fairly clear that some view blogging as a step on the road to finding employment in the industry: a presence on social media becomes a way of performing “professionalism” in order to attract the attention of actual professionals and parley an entry. It’s the dance-club queue all over again. And yes, I’m a little envious of them, too, but at the same time I am disinclined to go through the necessary hoops of compromise to achieve such a goal. And anyway, I know realistically I’m an unglamorous nitpicking copy editor and proofreader type rather than a promotions and publicity sort of person. But still … For that matter, most people seem to regard being a critic as a remarkably unglamorous pursuit (though someone did accuse me of trying to sleep my way to the top, when Paul Kincaid and I became a couple – clearly, the Reviews Editorship of Vector was more highly prized than either of us had ever realised).

{name one famous contemporary copy editor or proofreader. Famous for being a copyeditor or proofreader. No, I can’t either}

And that is the answer to one question I have, insofar as I know now what I don’t want. It is important to me to be able to write freely: entertaining other people is an incidental benefit rather than a goal. As to what I do want? I have no idea.

{here we might note that I have now written some three thousand words, which is of course far too much for anyone to read, as we are constantly being told. This, though, is another advantage of having a blog of my own. I can write as much as I want or need to}

The second blog post that felt as though it was scraping out my brain came from Abigail Nussbaum, another blogger whose work I admire a great deal. In Ten, a post celebrating the tenth anniversary of Asking the Wrong Questions, she explores some of the same issues as Jonathan, and indeed, I see, rereading her post after a few days, in not dissimilar terms to those I’ve been using here – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, truly. We seem to have reached similar conclusions about our blogs, though I’d venture to suggest that Abigail’s blog is a more consistent artefact than mine, not least because it is five years older, but also because she is a fiercer writer than I am. (I was rather startled, though, to discover that Paper Knife has persisted, more or less, for almost five years – my longest-running personal project, I think.)

It was this comment, though, that really resonated with me: “I think that there is a danger in writing to please only yourself that Jonathan doesn’t touch on, which is that you can end up talking to yourself, spewing words onto the screen for no purpose but to get them out of your head, expending your time and energy on something that doesn’t mean anything to anyone but yourself”.

I’ve wondered quite often if Paper Knife isn’t, at heart, a vanity project. I write and write (and write and write – I wonder now why I didn’t call this TL:DR), pour out my thoughts, press “send” and then start all over again. When I look at my stats, the most “popular” post is that throwaway piece I did about giving up on Dr Who; and the only reason that garnered so much attention was because it got picked up on Metafilter and (mercifully to a lesser extent) Reddit. We Need To Talk About Dragons comes in second place, mainly because it was picked up by Making Light, and after that come the post about the Royal National Theatre’s double production of Frankenstein (now I think about it, probably because it mentions Benedict C*mberbatch), and my post about Town of Cats by Sakutarō Hagiwara, and that only because there is a Murakami story of the same name.

{please, no sympathy. I’ve brought it entirely on myself with my choice of topics, and none of this is about the hits, right}

With such a wealth of material to draw on, Abigail is now starting to produce themed ebooks, drawing on her archive, which is a fantastic idea, but not one I can follow, at least not until Paper Knife develops a more solid foundation and I find an underlying line of enquiry I’m happy with. Did I mention I wasn’t happy with my writing? I am now haunted by the question: do I have anything to say? Really, anything to say, or am I just spewing out words for the sake of it?

{I was reading Gary K. Wolfe’s review of Paul Kincaid’s Call and Response, in which he talked at some length about the overarching themes in Paul’s work. It made me realise that I really don’t have anything except a pile of reviews I’ve done. There are no connections between them – at least, nothing that seems obvious other than that I wrote them all – nothing that can be stitched together to make a coherent narrative}

But where to go next? It may be that this is a thing that will emerge naturally, with time, though one could wish that after nearly five years it was showing some signs of appearing, and that it would do so before I die of terminal frustration. But never mind.

{Meanwhile, David Hebblethwaite nails it in under 140 characters}

It had become clear to me during the course of writing this essay that I have become trapped by the review format, even before David posted that tweet, but also that I maybe work better with a project. The Shortlist Project exemplifies that approach (though it is worth noting that once again it is all about reviews). I was gratified by its being shortlisted for a BSFA Award and I am, to an extent, still pleased with it. Having said that, I have also come to realise that any attempt to redo it is probably a bad idea. I didn’t blog the Hugos last year, despite doing the reading, because I injured my hand and couldn’t type comfortably for some time. Once the hand had recovered, the project had lost impetus (the awards had been made). This year? Life is short and I really don’t want to spend it writing about shit fiction.

{also, turn these words into a well-known phrase or saying: barrel, fish, shooting}

I have one ongoing intermittent project which I will return to as time allows, but I don’t want Paper Knife to become obviously themed or to be transformed into a series of research projects. Which doesn’t give me that many other options. I keep coming back to the question of what is missing here.

One thing that has struck me of late is that what is lacking in my writing is “joy”. Not literal “I am so happy about writing this” joy but something closer to “jouissance”. I’m not trying to go the whole philosophical hog here, but I think I am looking for something closer to the idea of intensity in pleasure, of somehow being close to the edge almost to the point of suffering for that pleasure. What set me thinking about it was Renay’s most recent column at Strange Horizons – Communities: Weight of History. I admire Renay’s writing a great deal: I am fascinated by it in part because it’s so very different from what I do. I’m always struck by how intensely she experiences things, be they novels, tv shows or fandoms, and how this intensity, which I am going to term “jouissance” for the sake of convenience, suffuses her writing. My writing, framed as it is by interminable years as a student, has become rather austere and formal, I think. Renay writes widely, I write narrowly, and I don’t think I benefit from that constraint at all. Which is not to say that I’m planning to start writing like Renay, because, well, I can’t – I’m not Renay. But I am interested in how she is able to write about reading culture as a lived thing rather than, as I feel a lot of people do, as a performed thing.

Weight of History begins as a discussion of Renay’s decision to read some older science fiction – and here it is worth bearing in mind how certain groups of people are rather too fond of saying that one can’t write about science fiction without doing the homework first. To write about contemporary writers one must know all the old stuff to understand how the newbies are in conversation with them.

{I used to believe this. Of late, I have come to the conclusion that this is actually bollocks. Or worse, a most pernicious form of gatekeeping, because it’s been a long time since anyone could keep up with everything, and nor should they try}

This is the pith of the experience for Renay: “Instead, by focusing on older work, what I’ve rediscovered is the subtle pressure to read books by men that I keep having to crawl out from under. It’s ruined my excitement for the entire process. Fair or not, it’s also colored my experience of new material that I want to read (especially by women), because I feel guilty not reading new books by men that are coming out to acclaim and predictions of brilliance and game-changing ideas before they even hit shelves. Then I feel guilty for feeling guilty? It’s such a strange set of emotions. I’m not really sure how to verbalize it, which means for the last three months I’ve been puzzling over how I engage with books rather than reading books, which is dire.”

While my experience is not precisely the same, the sense of frustration, of being diverted from what you really want to be doing, comes through very, very strongly. For me, it’s that constant pressure to be reading all the new stuff all the time (“best thing evah”) that grates. I think I’d rather be exploring the work of one or two writers at a time, reading their complete works so far. Yet, as a rule, I wouldn’t really write about that because I’ve been trained to strip emotions from my responses (that’s trained generally, in a social sense, not just in academe, though it gets in the way of critical responses too).

{there is probably a reason I rarely write about books I really enjoy. I am not sure I have a vocabulary for that any more}

I’m struck too by that line about “keen pressure to be educated in the genre, the genre lines, and the fandom’s history itself”. That’s pretty much what I grew up with, and it took me a long time to feel satisfied that I actually knew enough about sff to write a review that was anything more than a superficial plot synopsis with some critical comments attached. And I have a ten-year headstart on Renay, and was a late developer anyway. I wonder if, in part, that emphasis on being educated comes from an earlier generation of fans who didn’t have the chance to go into higher education and instead transformed themselves through self-improvement into auto-didacts. I’ve always felt that the traditional fandom I first encountered still found a certain cachet in this idea of self-education, and expertise and authority, especially authority, gathered through experience. I may be wrong, but I do wonder.

{I am not knocking this, not least because it is an idea that kept me going before I finally went to university, but I query the fetishising of it}

Here’s another thing that occurred to me while I was reading this column. It would be lovely to write criticism without feeling driven to define, taxonomises or contextualise the sff I’m reading. You know, to just accept that it is a science fiction or fantasy novel, and take it from there, rather than wandering through the halls of sff literature, looking for type specimens. Yes, sometimes one needs to refer back, but I suspect that it is no longer necessary to do it every single time.

And last in this group of blog posts that all arrived at about the same time, there is Nina Allan’s The Weight of History, which, as the title may suggest, is a direct response to Renay’s column. Reading it, Nina is prompted to examine her own history of reading sf, and to consider how male-dominated that was. I began by reading fantasy – there seemed to be more women visibly writing that, even in my childhood (and indeed more than I knew, given I’d assumed Andre Norton was a man) – so the disparity didn’t dawn on me until much later. Luckily, almost as soon as I began reading sf, I encountered Ursula Le Guin so the first element of the necessary corrective was in place almost before I realised I needed it.

Having said that, Nina raises a number of interesting points, not least of which is this: “[N]othing exists in a vacuum and history happened. We need to study history, to an extent, to come to a proper understanding of the present. Is it not particularly important that we make ourselves aware of the least savoury aspects of that history in order for it not to be perpetuated?” Here, Nina seems to me to be suggesting that we need to keep one eye on our history, not least to understand how we got to here, and to ensure that, going forward, we don’t repeat the mistakes made along the way.

At the same time, she argues persuasively for the idea of everyone having their own individual canon of essential writers. This is a thing I already believe in, in that I tend to work to a definition of sff consisting of “stuff Maureen thinks is sff and likes”. I have a very loose definition of sff but it works for me. The canon is an interesting but much abused concept. In truth, there is more than one canon. The one I’m mot familiar with, unsurprisingly, is the canon in education, which is in effect a rolling list of books used to teach courses. It has an element of “50 books every literary scholar ought to have read” about it, but in truth, the main qualification for the educational canon these days, at least in the UK, is “is there a relatively inexpensive edition in print?”

{no, really. Trust me}

But the canon as list is also part of that substantial tradition of self-improvement I’ve already touched on. I was given reading lists of novels in secondary school, and being the dutiful little thing I was, I worked my way through them in the belief that once I had read everything on the list I would be a well-rounded literary type.

{I still have some of those lists lurking in my files. They rise to the surface occasionally, and I note with a sigh that I still haven’t read all of them, nor am I likely to now}

One of Nina’s great abilities is to be constantly aware of what is coming up. I don’t know how she does it; I’ve long since given up the struggle and rely on others, like Nina, to alert me to interesting things coming up. David Hebblethwaite’s another one who is good at this, as is Aishwarya Subramanian. Arguably, I need to cultivate this skill for myself, but I enjoy getting the recommendations from others.

And possibly this is the clue I need as to where I should go to rekindle my own joy in reading and writing. If I am driven by anything, I’m driven by curiosity, and there is something very appealing about actively going in search of stuff I like rather than dutifully charting the inexorable rise of more guys writing bad cookie-cutter sff. Which is not to say that I am entirely abandoning looking at the bad stuff, but plain and simple reviewing is undoubtedly not the way forward here. If I am to continue indulging my strange fascination with post-apocalypse novels written by women seen as working outwith the defined genre, I probably need to do something comparative rather than writing about them one by one, often more in sorrow rather than anger.

{n.b. not all men write bad sf, but it is amazing how many bad sf novels by men I can think of. Consult the 2014 and 2015 Hugo shortlists if you require some examples. On the other hand, I can think of some stinkers by women too – equal opportunities also exist for bad writing. Edan Lepucki’s California is a sadly unironic example of this}

Towards the end of her post, Nina says: “I want to read books that feel as if they mattered to the writer”, and I realise now that I want to write about books that feel as if they mattered to the writer. Where that will lead me, I don’t know.

{there should be a nice tidy conclusion here. There isn’t}

Disappointing Minions

Last week we went to see Minions, a film I had been keenly anticipating as I loved Despicable Me 1 and 2, and had been thoroughly enjoying the Official trailers for Minions (1, 2, 3). It would be going way too far to say that I actually hated Minions, because I didn’t (it’s very difficult to actually hate Minions, because they are adorable ), but neither did I love it. There were so many moments when I could have loved it, indeed should have loved it, and yet, each time it failed me. Children, I gather, are enraptured by it, their parents not so much. Me? I was disappointed. Very disappointed.minions

I read an interview with Pierre Coffin in which he talked about striking a balance between entertaining children and entertaining their parents, but I wonder now whose parents he was actually trying to entertain. For example, I thought it was telling that the day we went to see it, the only people who laughed at a lot of the musical references were Paul Kincaid and myself, the grandparent generation, possibly even great-grandparent generation, in an audience of fairly young parents who seemed not to have heard of the Monkees or to get many of the other musical references. For that matter, for those young parents, Queen Elizabeth II has always been an old woman, Spitting Image and the gin-swilling, gun-toting Queen Mum never happened, and the idea of a young Queen Elizabeth karate-chopping her way through an attempt to steal her crown wasn’t so much hilarious as utterly incomprehensible (as was the notion that she ended up as some sort of air hostess). And if I’m correct, and Scarlett and Herb Overkill are loosely (ok, very loosely) modelled on Sonny and Cher, for that audience, Sonny Bono is possibly the man who skied into a tree while Cher is … ok, perhaps they’d get the Cher reference, given her remarkable triumph over age and gravity, but I’m not sure. Richard Nixon? Who he?scarlet overkillWhat struck me most forcefully about the film was the thinness of the narrative structure. It was bursting with great ideas, none of which Coffin and Co. really followed through on. The story was thin to the point of invisibility at times. I’d assumed that the Nelsons, the family that pick up the hitchhiking Minions on their way to Villain Con in Orlando, would play a much greater part in the story than they did (a dreadful waste of Alison Janney and Michael Keaton), particularly as the film got off to such a storming start with that wonderful robbery and chase sequence. Instead, the Nelsons pop up at intervals, more of a running gag than actual participants. I suppose it is impressive that the film-makers could throw away such riches on a running gag, especially when they also had an actual running gag – the fan-man dressed as Scarlett Overkill. I felt similarly about the arrival of the yetis at the Minions’ North Pole base – so much potential there for a comic schism of groups of Minions, each convinced they’d got the best new boss, and yet all of it thrown away casually on a weird Minions travelogue.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I see the film as a series of set-pieces with little to link them. Much of the opening sequence was already familiar from the trailers (boy, did those trailers give away an awful lot) but despite having viewed them many times, they still had the capacity to make me laugh (sadly, the sequence with the upside down pyramid will never not be funny – a piece of me is a child). The car ride with the Nelsons was deliciously well-observed and the romp through the department store and Buckingham Palace were typically enjoyable Minion fare. On the other hand, London as seen by foreigners was tiresomely weird, as usual, and I cannot help feeling the campish newsreaders drinking tea between reading out sentences smacked of threadbare imagination, as though the film’s makers didn’t quite know how to express 1960s London (mini-skirts and bubble cars, gonks and unironic Union Jacks might have been nearer the mark, maybe, to match the tie-dye and long hair of the US). Slightly better was the portrayal of London after dark, all alleyways and Mary Poppins rooftops, with the sudden light and clamour of a bar, and a sense of something altogether more dangerous, though not eventually realised.

nelsonsIn the end, however, we come to an ugly truth. Bluntly, the Minions are nothing without Gru. Before Gru, the Minions are cute but really not that exciting. The Minions have worked their way through history, looking for the perfect boss. They appear to be genetically wired to follow the biggest, baddest villain around at any given moment, and yet they fail constantly to keep hold of their boss. Why might that be? There’s a clue, perhaps, in the response of Mrs Nelson when the car stops and she opens the door, to look down on ‘these adorable little freaks’. While the Nelsons are obviously nowhere near bad enough for the Minions to be interested in them, the sequences with the Nelsons work because the Nelsons actually like the Minions, whereas there is little evidence that any of the other supervillains does. But clearly the Nelsons don’t possess the aura of power that attracts Minions, perhaps because they’re too self-sufficient. Similarly, Scarlett Overkill may like the idea of having minions, but the only person she really has eyes for is Herb (their relationship is, in its way, rather touching – Scarlett’s unhappy childhood is another plot strand vaguely waving but underdeveloped). Herb rather likes the Minions, not least because he has something similarly childlike about him – the sequence in the torture chamber is peculiarly funny, as they all play together – but he is not, in his heart of hearts, a villain, so that’s not going to work.

When I saw the film, as it came to the moment when Scarlett Overkill was making one last bid to steal the crown and was suddenly frozen, along with Herb, a child’s voice rang out from the back of the cinema: ‘Gru!’ even before Young Gru actually appeared on the screen. One very attentive viewer had nailed it totally, and as if by magic the atmosphere in the cinema suddenly changed. Maybe it was because everyone knew they were now in familiar territory, but I wonder too if it’s not because while Gru may be a villain, he is as charming as his Minions, and more particularly he is charming to his Minions. He sees them as individuals and knows their names; not only is he the boss, he is a paterfamilias, though it takes him an entire movie to realise that he wants to be a father. And as we see in Despicable Me 2, the Minions continue to follow him even when he’s not being evil – they’ve spent their lives associating power with evil when, in this instance at least, the power lies in love. It’s always a little difficult to believe in Gru as a villain, perhaps because he never seems especially evil. He may have put morals aside during the course of his work but he seems more than anything afflicted with the sadness of duty rather than actively taking pleasure in what he does. Villainy is a challenge rather than a vocation.Or something.

I’m grossly overreading Minions, of course, but it intrigues me that the last five minutes of the film, as the Minions stream down the road after Gru, are so much more exciting (with the possible exception of the early chase sequence) than anything else that’s happened so far.

The Weird ~ The Crowd ~ Ray Bradbury

I have decided to pick up a project I put down some time ago because, well, life, stuff, the usual reasons, mostly life and stuff. So it’s back to reading The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.


Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Crowd’ is the last of a group of stories in The Weird (the others were Wollheim’s ‘Mimic’ and Fritz Leiber’s ‘The Smoke Ghost’) which seemed to focus very specifically on the intrusion of weirdness into the mundane. In many respects, Bradbury’s story is the most mundane of the three. While Leiber transforms the oppressive smoky atmosphere of the city into something tangible, and Wollheim speculates about the nature of the people who hide in, and on, its anonymous buildings, Bradbury turns instead to a common-or-garden phenomenon: the crowd that gathers when an accident occurs.

We’re probably all seen it. Something happens. A crowd very quickly forms. In this instance, Mr Spallner has crashed his car, and for a moment there is silence. And then ‘The crowd came running’ (284). As Bradbury says, ‘They had all come from – where? Houses, cars, alleys, from the immediate and the accident-shocked world. Out of alleys and out of hotels and out of streetcars and seemingly out of nothing they came’ (284).

On the one hand, we might see this as simple curiosity. People want to know what’s happening. And yet Bradbury has already imbued the scene with a subtle menace: ‘they came running’ somehow sounds more threatening than it ought to, given Mr Spallner has had an accident, and that menace is enhanced by the reference to ‘the sound of their numerous feet’. It makes them sound more like charging animals than human beings, and perhaps this hints at the nature of Mr Spallner’s anxiety. The crowd isn’t people so much as a thing in itself: urban living has been characterised for a couple of centuries at least by that fear of the crowd, the mob, the capacity for violence. One can get lost in a crowd, true, but simultaneously, the crowd can turn on someone. There is a moment when you might think of the crowd as being like one of those big flocks of birds on their way to winter roosting, twisting and turning in the sky, an entity made of individuals. It’s a very curious thing indeed.

Mr Spallner is alarmed by the crowd. They pronounce upon his survival as he is lifted into the ambulance, like a gathering of street sibyls, but while he is reassured by this, knows that they are right, something isn’t right.

The crowd looked at him and he looked back at them and did not like them at all. There was a vast wrongness to them. He couldn’t put his finger on it. (284)

Perhaps it is that Mr Spallner doesn’t like to be the centre of attention:

The ambulance doors slammed. Through the windows he saw the crowd looking in, looking in. That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity. (249)

This seems to me to be about more than a man surrounded by people after an accident. Instead, it touches perhaps on a deeper dislike of living too close to other people, of having too much of your business known.

Except that, unlike the crowd, Bradbury has the delicacy to turn away from the story at this point. Instead, there is something else bothering Mr Spallner: the spinning wheels on the car. There’s a nicely filmic quality to this detail. You can imagine a hallucinatory montage – the wheels spinning, the ring of faces, the wheels spinning, the ring of faces …

And finally, Spallner works it out. Or at any rate, it’s played so long on his mind, he thinks he’s worked it all out. The wheels on the car are still spinning. How did the crowd get there so quickly? Spallner’s doctor suggests that his sense of time has been affected: what seemed like a short time was probably much longer. And that may be true, though the only time I was ever in a road accident, my experience was that while it might have seemed to go on for a while, I know the whole incident was over in seconds because the same news item was being broadcast on the radio. So time dilates rather than contracts. (For that matter, people arrived on the scene very quickly indeed, which suggests again that Spallner’s concerns might have a psychological origin.)

Much of the middle portion of the story is predicated on the idea that once you notice something, you can’t stop noticing. And thus Spallner, having become obsessed with the speed at which the crowd arrives, can’t stop looking at the crowd when it does arrive, and making patterns. If it weren’t for the confirmation offered by a taxi driver about how odd it is, perhaps he would let the matter drop. But he doesn’t, and there is the moment when he witnesses the aftermath of another accident, notes the speed at which people come running, and hears someone in the crowd saying that the victim shouldn’t have been moved. And the moment when he feels the faces, or many of them, are familiar.

Spallner starts looking at old photos of crowds at road accidents for some sort of confirmation of his new idea that it is the same people reappearing. ‘Old photos of crowds at road accidents’– it’s all too easy to forget how this sort of thing was once news to the extent that you might record the presence of the living as well as the vehicles themselves. (And this is not a thing that Bradbury has made up specifically for this story – there are historical photos all over the internet.)

So, we have moved from Spallner’s sense of wrongness, which we might interpret as a personal dislike of proximity, to an external confirmation of the presence of the same people at accidents, over and over, though Spallner has not, so far, connected the two. But I find myself wondering, given the fuzziness of newspaper photographs, how he can be so sure. Or does he want to be sure. Has he constructed an explanation that makes even less sense?

Quite late in the story it’s hinted that Spallner himself has started finding his way to accidents, looking for these people, these members of the crowd, but somehow is always thwarted in his attempts to actually speak to them. And we might begin to wonder then what Spallner himself has turned into. Do these people even exist? How is it that they always ‘slip into the crowd and vanish’ (287).

And you’ve probably already guessed how this is going to turn out, more because it is inevitable than because it is heavily signalled, although it’s fairly clear what is to happen once Spallner realises that the same people keep appearing.

But what we never know is why they are doing it. Or what it is they are doing. According to Spallner, they arrive ‘to make certain the right ones live and the right ones die’ (288), which makes them sound like some sort of urban Fates, though he quickly enough turns this into murder, so it’s not a passive exercise. And yet, it is as though Spallner himself doesn’t know what they are. They are ‘the faces, the construction, the cast’ (289), somehow always there. Or at any rate, since the city grew up. What was it before car accidents, I wonder? Riding accidents? Carts overturning? Or did they emerge into being specifically because of the car smashes?

We never know. In fact, we never can know. That’s the beauty of the story. And yet, ever afterwards, you can never look at a street accident in quite the same way.

We Need To Talk About Dragons – John Mullan, George RR Martin, Game of Thrones and the triumph of fantasy fiction

It was something of a surprise to find John Mullan discussing fantasy fiction in the Guardian just a week ago. A surprise because, on past accounting, Mullan and genre fiction do not make good bedfellows. The nature of Mullan’s distaste for genre fiction is still not entirely clear to me, other than it is not literary fiction, his preferred kind of fiction. As I’ve noted elsewhere, one of the problems with this stance seems to be Mullan’s failure to recognise that literary fiction is itself a genre, with distinctive characteristics of its own, characteristics which Mullan himself has delineated in various articles.

So, what are we to make of George RR Martin, Game of Thrones and the triumph of fantasy fiction? My first response, when I read it, was that the article was poorly constructed and poorly referenced drivel. At the time someone suggested I was being a bit harsh on Mullan, as the article did seem to suggest that he had perhaps changed his mind about fantasy, and was attempting some sort of rapprochement with the genre. And perhaps I was being harsh: I decided to put the article aside for a few days and then look at it more analytically. In the meantime, two things happened: a lot of people noted that Mullan’s article had mentioned no women writers, to the point where the article briefly achieved a certain viral notoriety, and then the Hugo nominations were announced, after which all previous topics of discussion were lost forever. There is little I can usefully contribute to the Hugo discussions right now that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, but I can go back to Mullan’s article and give it the rigorous analysis I think it deserves.

Before all else, I should say that I’ve no problem with Mullan’s tastes in literature. Why should I? We all like different things, after all. My problem lies with his apparent desire to write articles about things for which he clearly has little if any sympathy, and about which he is obviously not that knowledgeable. This lack of knowledge has been noted before. In 2010, Niall Harrison reported on an encounter between Mullan and China Miéville at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, and commented then that:

it became awkwardly clear that while the discussion was going to be primarily about the absence of category sf from the Booker list, only one of the participants could and would talk fluently about fiction from all over the literary map. Mullan had almost no recent primary experience with category science fiction.

I’ve been using the word ‘genre’ here, but I’m now going to switch to using Niall’s term, ‘category’, because I think it will help make a little more sense of Mullan’s arguments as this discussion unfolds. So, to recap, while I think Mullan makes a distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction, he fails to recognise that ‘literary fiction’ is as much a category as ‘science fiction’ or, as we begin this analysis, ‘fantasy fiction. And in fact, possibly the first thing to note about Mullan’s article is that there is a rigidly enforced distinction between science fiction and fantasy, to the point where science fiction is not mentioned at all, although at least two, maybe more, of the authors mentioned in this article have as much right to be described as sf writers (or horror, for that matter). I grant you I have a very fluid approach to defining sf and fantasy, but equally, it’s clear that for Mullan the streams will never ever cross. Which again is not a crime in and of itself but I think it is generally revealing of his attitude in approaching this discussion.

Mullan begins with a question:

Has fantasy fiction, for decades a thriving literary genre, finally taken its place in the literary mainstream?

It’s a nice, friendly sort of question. Mullan represents fantasy as a thriving genre, a literary genre even, which definitely sounds like an improvement on his previous stance. He goes on to note that fantasy does not need ‘bien pensant “literary” admirers”, and comments too on how fantasy fandom is characterised by ‘companion volumes, analytical websites, conferences and online commentaries’. It is also a genre [category] that has ‘always generated critical expertise, and fantasy novelists have long been in a dialogue with their readers that other novelists must envy’. (In particular, Mullan notes Neil Gaiman’s 2.2 million followers on Twitter.)

This all seems unobjectionable, though by the end of the paragraph, I did find myself want to keep inserting ‘and sf’ into Mullan’s description, and it did strike me that this description of the activity surrounding fantasy fiction was very carefully couched in terms that would resonate with a more scholarly audience. Substitute ‘conventions and blogging’ and the tone shifts entirely.

However, Mullan goes on to say is this:

Fantasy’s devotees must feel rueful as the critics now rush to declare their addiction to HBO’s Game of Thrones […] or record their admiration of Terry Pratchett.

And then says:

The debt to fantasy fiction of The Buried Giant, the new novel by one of Britain’s leading literary novelists, Kazuo Ishiguro, must seem overdue vindication of the genre. [my emphasis]

Are we rueful about the critics rushing in? By which I guess Mullan means the critics from the mainstream press rather than the category press. I suspect many would see praise for Martin or Pratchett as vindication of their tastes rather than encroachment upon them, but perhaps it says something about Mullan’s perception of ‘fans’ of fantasy fiction. By the same token, why would ‘we’ regard Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant as a vindication of our tastes, particularly if, as Mullan is simultaneously proposing, we are so insular we are supposed to resent mainstream critics saying nice things about ‘our’ category. All this would suggest that Mullan has some sort of agenda in writing this article; in particular, he seems to be suggesting the existence of a cultural power struggle between fantasy fans and mainstream critics. This might have been true once, given that sf and fantasy fans have at times shown a tendency towards insularity, but I’d argue that these days fans, in as much as they give it any thought, welcome intelligent commentary wherever they find it. What intelligent commentary might look like is something that I shall be discussing during the course of this article.

However, I think the issue that lies at the heart of this article is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant which has drawn a good deal of mystified commentary since its publication, since it seems to use fantasy markers, such as ogres, elves and dragons, oh my. I intend to discuss The Buried Giant in more detail in a later post, and indeed in other venues, but for now, to get some slight perspective on this lack of comprehension, I will just point out that ogres, dragons and elves are similarly mentioned in Beowulf, a text that is explicitly referenced in The Buried Giant on more than one occasion, and for very good reason. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed critics growing apoplectic that the unknown composer of Beowulf was using such figures in their fiction, so quite why mainstream critics have been so exercised, I’m not clear. On the other hand, I have been embarrassed by the way that one or two of fantasy’s own have criticised Ishiguro for talking about his novel as fantasy, but again, that’s an issue I’ll return to in another post. For now, I’ll observe merely that I’ve read his novel, I’ve read fantasy novels too, and I do not find Ishiguro’s observations particularly controversial. Indeed, The Buried Giant is precisely the kind of fantastic writing I like best.

But Mullan hasn’t let up on that cultural struggle he seems to think he has uncovered. ‘Ishiguro has spoken in the past few weeks of how the barrier between this once disdained brand of fiction and “serious” novels is breaking down’. Which, looking at the interview Mullan links to, are two actual things he did not say. In that interview Ishiguro explains his own ground rules for writing The Buried Giant, and is very clear about how he is writing within the world view of the characters, a world view which admits ogres, elves, pixies and dragons. I refer you back to that well-known work of fantasy, Beowulf (I’m using the Seamus Heaney version as my translation source, and he definitely says ogres, elves and dragons ).

At this point we’re two paragraphs into Mullan’s article, and already we’ve moved from fantasy fiction being a thriving genre for years to one that was ‘once-disdained’. How long ago was it ‘once-disdained’? Mullan doesn’t say and I’m not even sure he really knows. However, this shift of emphasis is important as he has begun to discuss George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) sequence, at which point we learn that Martin has a ‘host of fans who resent the low status accorded to their favoured genre and some distinguished admirers who rather agree’. What low status is this, I wonder, and who is according it? Because a moment ago, the genre was thriving and the writers and readers were happy: what happened between the lines?

Whatever went terribly wrong between the full stop at the end of one sentence and the capital letter of the next, Mullan can help, by invoking the ‘accomplished literary novelist’, John Lanchester, who likes both ASOIAF and Game of Thrones, and wrote an article to that effect in the London Review of Books a while ago. It’s rather a good article, in fact – Lanchester is clearly familiar with both text and series and writes well about them. He is also clear that people who are snobbish about not reading the likes of GRRM are missing out, but his target is people on the literary side of the divide, and he is not at all patronising about people who read a lot of fantasy. This is also an article that seems to have been drawn on rather heavily as research for Mullan’s article. Obviously, legions of disgruntled GRRM fans will be relieved to know from Mullan that they now have the support of an ‘accomplished literary novelist’ alongside the support of those presumably less accomplished non-literary novelists who also like GRRM’s work.

At this point, Mullan refers to ASOIAF as a roman fleuve, leading me to suppose Lanchester had done so. He didn’t, as it turns out, but this is the first sign of something else that becomes apparent as this article continues: Mullan is, I think, trying to construct a critical vocabulary for talking about these fantasy novels he’s discussing. So, rather than simply talking about a series or sequence, Mullan turns to roman fleuve, which I am inclined to think he uses slightly wrongly. Mostly, though, he is using Lanchester’s words to comment on the ‘richly imagined world’ and the ‘prevailing “sense of unsafety and uncertainty” of that world’, presumably because no non-literary critic or novelist would ever have managed to describe it in such terms, or if they did, their judgement has now been validated by an ‘accomplished literary novelist’. For example, we are told of ASOIAF that any ‘connoisseur of narrative drive’ who ‘crosses that divide’ ( by which he means the unbridgeable crevasse that Lanchester refers to in his article, although I’m not at all sure Mullan and Lanchester actually are on the same side of that crevasse) will be amazed at the drive and inventiveness in Martin’s novels, because obviously neither sf nor fantasy as category fiction are ever all about the narrative drive.

By now, it seems clear to me that if Mullan is going to praise fantasy, and I still think he is trying to in some way, he is nonetheless going to praise it with faint praise indeed, and mostly in a very backhanded way. In fact, I eventually realised that what Mullan was attempting was first to construct a lineage for fantasy, but then to construct a kind of reading schedule in which one begins with fantasy-fantasy but gradually, as one becomes more enlightened, one moves away from that towards something more literary, like, oh, let’s say Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant which is of course a serious literary novel.

Tolkien, we are delighted to learn, ‘has not been entirely cold-shouldered by serious critics’. Honestly, if someone had given me this as an essay to mark I would have by now plastered it in red ink, saying ‘define your terms!!!’, the exclamation marks increasing with each use of an undefined term. Having said that, while I might agree to some extent that Lord of the Rings is probably more of a cultural artefact than it is a great book, what is a great book? LOTR is a much-loved book, it is a book that has moved so many people in various ways. It has many constructional flaws, undoubtedly; it could be argued that it is guilty of nostalgia, that it lacks female characters, and that the language is stilted. It could equally be praised for the breadth of the project, for the mesmerising beauty and horror of some of the sequences (the journey through the Dead Marshes does it for me every time). And it could be argued that both Tolkien and Ishiguro are in their various ways drawing on the same stuff of Britain to tell stories, albeit with very different results.

I’m fascinated by an anecdote that Mullan interpolates at this point, of the 14-year-old Mullan being taken to meet Tolkien at Merton College, Oxford, because he knew one of Tolkien’s grandsons at school, and having his ‘battered paperback copy of Lord of the Rings, much reread’ signed. Fascinated because, if the time line fits together the way I think it does, while this was going on, several miles across town a 14-year-old girl was almost certainly embarking on her umpteenth read of a similar paperback copy, unaware at that point who precisely Tolkien was, and that she had spent much of her childhood regularly passing his house. And thus, forty-two years later, Mullan and I finally reach this point.

As to why Mullan inserts that anecdote then, I assume it is to provide two things: first, an imprimatur for what he is saying, in that he met Tolkien, and secondly, that he is firmly establishing LOTR as a childish thing, which can and must be put away as one grows older. Not least because Mullan moves on to offer us ASOIAF as the real deal, because it is ‘emphatically fantasy for grown-ups’. It’s not just the sex and violence but the Machiavellian principles, apparently, but I daresay the sex and violence helps. (I should say here that, assuming he has actually read ASOIAF, Mullan may have the advantage of me here, as I have not; on the other hand, I have read the whole of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time sequence, may god forgive my desiccated soul, and I doubt he has, so maybe we are even.)

Apparently, ‘Compared to The Lord of the Rings, [ASOIAF] is morally complex and undecideable’, and obviously no other fantasy novel has ever been like that before or since. At least, none that Mullan has read. And here I refer you back to Niall Harrison’s observation at the beginning. Mullan is in effect constructing a reading chart based on what seem to be a few very popular writers, writers who have in terms of popularity actually pretty much transcended the category to which they’ve been assigned by Mullan, and yet it’s clear that he has very little idea of what is going on in modern fantasy writing.

You can see this in the pegs on which he hangs his discussion. There is a long disquisition on the use of maps in fantasy novels. While Mullan correctly notes that Tolkien almost certainly initiated this habit he seems unaware that in turn the inevitable presence of the map has itself become an object of mockery. But Mullan is instead fastening on the fact that children love to draw maps – you can probably see where this is going.

He notes, citing Lewis’s Narnia books, the fact that there is ‘invariably a route from our world into a magical one’ (though it would have helped, when talking about Lewis’s ‘first Narnia book’, to actually note the title, because technically, while The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is the first published, the wardrobe is also mentioned in The Magician’s Nephew, which is of course the first book, chronologically… but maybe that is too much information). While Mullan is correct in noting that Alan Garner’s Elidor requires the children to cross into another world, the whole point with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is that the magic comes to them, on Alderley Edge – there is no secondary world (and for some reason that is not clear, Mullan persists in referring to secondary worlds as alternate universes, which is not the same thing at all).

Which is interesting as Neil Gaiman is cited as the writer ‘of fantasy for adults’, whose stories ‘admit the deities and demons of different mythologies to this [world]’, again as if this has never happened before. Though I mostly treasure Mullan’s announcement that ‘Gaiman composes like the TS Eliot of horror-fantasy, patching together stories and personages from incongruous sources, amid a flurry of literary allusions, as if all pagan stories of the supernatural comprised a single compendium of our deepest fears. And perhaps Neil Gaiman does, but he is neither the first nor the last to do so; it’s more that he is cleverer at it than everyone else. But that’s actually irrelevant. More important is that comparison with TS Eliot. Because much as I like both Eliot’s writing and Gaiman’s writing, you know something? Eliot is no more Gaiman than Gaiman is Eliot. I call bullshit.

We’ll slide past the embarrassing encounter with the work of Terry Pratchett, and the bit where Mullan suggests that Pratchett stopped writing fantasy and started writing commentary on it instead through his satires, which are apparently not fantastic. ‘Many of Pratchett’s readers must also be readers of fantasy fiction, able to relish the irreverent parody as well as the real thing.’ Perhaps that would be because the irreverent parody as a version of the real thing is real thing itself. Possibly, just ever so possibly, fantasy readers read Pratchett, and Pratchett fans vice versa. They might also understand what’s happening because the tropes that Pratchett is dealing with have already long since infiltrated our culture. That would be, before ASOIAF arrived on the scene.

And finally, we return to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Buried Giant, confirming my suspicion that the dalliance with ASOIAF as the real fantasy deal is but a smokescreen for what is really on Mullan’s mind. Is The Buried Giant a fantasy? With Mullan’s guidance, we’ve been led from Middle-earth, all pastoral nostalgia (no, it wasn’t, really it wasn’t), to the gritty, sexually and militarily violent and incestuous reality of Westeros, and here we are, finally, in the rarefied surroundings of imaginary sixth-century England, in a work written by a literary novelist. We have undergone our quest and have won through, and got to the good stuff. Except, how is he going to justify that dragon: ‘Dragons are the grandest inhabitants of the genre’, which I think means Mullan is wondering how he deals with Querig.

How Mullan deals with Querig is by claiming that The Buried Giant is ‘no more echt fantasy than When We Were Orphans was a detective novel or Never Let Me Go a work of science fiction’ (a Clarke shortlisted non-work of sf, no less). Mullan, by past account, is quite keen on representing things that read like category fiction but that he likes as having transcended their category. So, like Wolf Hall and Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant has transcended the perceived limitations of category. ‘It declines to provide much of the superstructure that the genre addict would expect.’ What superstructure does Mullan mean, exactly? No map? No gritty military action and incest? He doesn’t say, but as Niall Harrison also noted, Mullan is a man who thinks very much in terms of category templates; I suspect that the need to construct a ‘three ages of fantasy’ for this article is in part born out of his not being able to find one easy template for fantasy (to go along with his past failure to find a single easy template for science fiction). That desire for a category template surfaces too in his endless reiteration of this notion that bookshops have special rooms for, variously, science fiction and fantasy. I assume he means the shelves that are marked ‘science fiction and fantasy’ as a marketing tool, for half the argument here is really about category in marketing rather than genre qua genre, because that’s actually an entirely different theoretical argument, as well he ought to know.

So, what are we to do about that dragon? She is ‘disappointingly undernourished and lethargic’ … thank god, she is not a proper dragon after all! Thus, Mullan can confidently state that Ishiguro ‘is using some of the conventions of fantasy fiction to produce a fable of violence – always at the heart of the genre [i.e. category] – and about the capacity of societies to forget the violence of their pasts. Fantasy has enabled him to do this obliquely, daring us to take seriously a kind of narrative that is often called childish’. Mostly, I would venture to suggest, by mainstream critics. Fable is the weasel word here, a way of saying fantasy without saying fantasy.

And then, suddenly, finally, for no reason I can see, we’re back to GRRM and the announcement that he ‘employs a shifting of viewpoints that some critics do not expect from the moral and narrative conventions of fantasy writing’. Because, again, no one ever did that, not even Tolkien – oh, wait.

It is easy, far too easy, to poke fun at Mullan’s article, because it is so woefully wrong-headed in its execution. He raises some interesting points along the way but rarely in such a way that they are actually germane to whatever he is discussing at any given point. The article is one long betrayal of his lack of familiarity with what is going on in modern fantasy writing or indeed his failure to understand the breadth of modern critical work on the fantastic. Even just reading Farah Mendlesohn’s The Rhetorics of Fantasy and Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland might have helped him to develop a more nuanced view of the critical side of things, and god knows there are enough histories of fantasy as a genre or category available to us all.

The big take-away for many people from the article was the fact of no women writers being mentioned, except Amanda Craig as critic, and Trudi Canavan as a quiz answer (which latter leads me to believe that was interpolated by someone else because if Mullan had got as far as reading Canavan at all, I would like to think he might have managed to mention her in the main text too). But, much as it pains me to say this, the failure to mention women writers is not the main issue, but symptomatic of a broader failure to understand fantasy as a category at all. Or, rather, Mullan’s use of fantasy is done so to co-opt some visible markers of the category in order to construct an argument as to why a book he wants to talk about isn’t fantasy, despite its own author being entirely comfortable with the fact of the book’s being a fantasy. He was never was interested in fantasy except insofar as he could relegate it to childhood.

reading Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition by Farah Mendlesohn

First published in Science Fiction Studies, in 2006


Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition – Farah Mendlesohn. (Routledge, 2005)

Like many people I first came to Diana Wynne Jones’s novel as an adult rather as a child. More than twenty-five years later, I still read her fiction with the greatest pleasure, as do many other adults I know. I mention this specifically to support Farah Mendlesohn’s introductory contention: while Diana Wynne Jones may be a writer of children’s books, her audience is much broader, and it is therefore entirely legitimate ‘to discuss her not as a children’s writer but as a fantasy writer’.(p.xiii) I cannot speak for anyone else but I always found Jones’s fiction to be ‘different’, in a way that wasn’t easy to explain but that was good to read. It was well-wrought, which always brings satisfaction for an attentive reader, and I was pleased with the way that Jones often employed mundane, contemporary settings and characters, but there was also a sense that Jones was doing something else with the fantastic, something really unusual, and doing it in plain view of the reader if she could but understand what was going on. This sense of ‘doing something else’ is what Mendelsohn sets out to examine.

I have more than once described Jones’s work as subverting fantastic tropes, which is why I find Mendlesohn’s overall thesis so intriguing. She argues that ‘Jones is both a fiction writer and a critic’, and contends that ‘her fiction can be viewed as a sustained metafictional critical response to the fantastic’. (p.xiii) This suggests then that Jones is not so much subverting the genre as holding it up to scrutiny in a subtle but distinctive way. As Mendlesohn puts it, ‘[f]iction as written by Diana Wynne Jones is a critical process. (p.191) We know from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland that Jones is both critically aware and critical of the construction of fantasy as a genre; some of the entries in the Tough Guide were memorably scathing about the assumptions made by those writers who used the trappings of the fantastic without understanding what made them work. Jones’s approach, Mendelsohn argues, is very different.

Jones’s fiction constantly tests the reader’s expectations and assumptions about fantasy, and also about reality. The magical and mimetic worlds both operate according to certain conventions, but nothing is quite as it seems. We might wish to operate according to a comforting binary opposition of real and not-real, magical and mundane, good and bad, but Jones points out time and again that nothing is ever that straightforward. Mendlesohn suggests that in Wilkins’ Tooth Jones is developing ‘an alternative cartography of fantasy’ (p.7), picking up on the concept of the rough Tough Guide. In other words, Jones is teaching her readers how to read fantasy, and more importantly, how to interpret and question what they’re reading, as they read. More than that, even, she is also engaging with what might be considered to be the standard fare of ‘children’s fiction’ and querying how it is presented to a child reader.

Agency and the passage to adulthood are topics that figure in literature for children and in fantasy literature as well. The acquisition of power is often used to signal a move into adulthood; too often, however, the assumption of an author is that power automatically confers maturity. By contrast, Mendelsohn argues, Jones ‘reverses the route map to adulthood’. It is therefore the acquisition of agency that brings power, and Jones is concerned in all her novels to address the notion of what it means to acquire agency and to gain access to power. If agency is, therefore, about making conscious choices, with choice comes consequence and also responsibility. As Mendlesohn points out, Jones’s characters are constantly having to address the meaning of power, and indeed are learning to operate within moral constraints in order to exercise their powers most effectively. Throughout Jones’s work, characters are brought to the understanding that intent is as important as external behaviour when they attempt to use magic. It’s far to easy to assume that magic confers agency when in fact to use magic effectively one must be aware of how power can and should be used. ‘It is the intelligent negotiation with magic, rather than magical power, that leads to agency.’ (p.44)

The most complex chapter of Mendlesohn’s study focuses on the way in which Diana Wynne Jones uses time in her novels. Jones’s use of time travel is itself complicated; Mendelsoh notes that her approach is ‘distinctively that of the writer of science fiction’ (p.53) rather than merely using time-travel as a fantastical convenience. Here she draws on John Ellis McTaggart’s theory of A-Series and B-Series (relative and absolute) time to examine the ways in Jones uses past events to establish the story in the present, and also destabilises the use of a linear narrative in order to move back and forth through the story, presenting it from different viewpoints. For anyone used to a straightforward presentation of a series of events, one after the other, the time shifts in Jones’s writing can be an unwelcome challenge, but for those who relish complexity, Jones’s fiendish plotting is a joy. Here, Mendelsohn’s theoretical exposition opens up the beauty of the narratives’ construction in a whole new way and effectively demonstrates the skill behind the plotting.

For me and for many other readers, the most striking features of Jones’s narratives is the way in which she makes the mundane fantastic. This is sometimes achieved through the setting – she was one of the first writers I ever encountered, along with Ann Halam (Gwyneth Jones) and Alan Garner, who seemed to be comfortable about placing characters in worlds recognisably analogous to our own, with characters for whom the encounter with the magical, the inexplicable was bruising rather than comfortable and easily resolved – but just as often through the kinds of domestic dilemmas her characters encounter. The key seems to be that ‘the dividing line between magic and reality is deliberately blurred, unassailable by logic’ (p.136). As Mendlesohn notes, Jones’s novels ‘manipulate irony and equipose to challenge the presumptions behind the concept of realist fiction, and to reverse some of the conventional patterns of fantasy’ (p.137). This I think is at the heart of Jones’s work, that desire to challenge and test conventions.

As Mendlesohn notes, ‘Each novel Diana Wynne Jones has written takes children through the art of logic, the nature of story, a writing and editing course, and a discussion of ethics. She demands of them that they continually question the assumptions on which any happy ending rests.’ (p.193) This is true, I think, for all readers of Jones’s work, whatever their age, if one accepts that reading at its best is a serious engagement between reader and author. I began this review by saying that for me ‘there was also a sense that Jones was doing something else with the fantastic’. As a result of reading Mendelsohn’s book, I genuinely feel I have a better understanding of what Jones is trying to do with her oeuvre. If Mendlesohn’s argument is correct – and it is certainly extremely convincing – the implications of Jones’s undeclared project are breathtaking; Mendlesohn has done a great service in laying them out for further discussion. One can only hope that other authors will help shoulder the burden of trying to teach everyone to read critically.

Reading Sightings by Gary K Wolfe

And this, the most recent of my reviews for Foundation


Sightings: Reviews 2002-2006 – Gary K Wolfe
(Beccon Publications, 2011)

In the December 2003 issue of Locus, Gary K Wolfe reviewed, among other things, John Clute’s Scores: Reviews 1993-2003. Wolfe and Clute have a number of things in common, not the least that they are major genre critics who are best known to the reading community through their work in what Wolfe, in his review, calls ‘monthly venues’. While Clute elsewhere ploughs a highly visible if sometimes idiosyncratic theoretical furrow, thanks to his ongoing work on the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Wolfe’s impact on the field is less immediately obvious, though no less significant, be it as an editor (he has recently edited a collection of sf novels for the prestigious Library of America) or as a literary critic (see Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, his 2011 collection of extended essays), or more recently as one of the hosts, along with Jonathan Strahan, of the weekly Coode Street podcast. No one could ever accuse Wolfe of shirking his responsibilities as a critic and commentator.

Wolfe suggests that one should not approach Scores with ‘the idea of gaining a comprehensive overview of SF or fantasy’ but I would argue that this is to an extent what Wolfe himself achieves with Sightings and its predecessors, (Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996 (2005), Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001 (2010)), not least because of the magnitudeof his output. He has been writing reviews for Locus for twenty-odd years, and in that time he has created a formidable rolling overview of a particular facet of the genre through this series of monthly snapshots.

Wolfe’s Locus columns employ a comparatively straightforward formula. Each month Wolfe reviews a handful of titles, novels, short story collections, anthologies, and occasionally works of non-fiction. How these titles are chosen remains obscure; one assumes Wolfe has some say in the selections, not least because certain authors reappear regularly in his reviews, and they are authors for whose work he clearly has some affection. It is also immediately clear that Wolfe is playing a long game. Each title he discusses is carefully situated in its historical or theoretical context. To take a particularly effective example, the very first review in the collection, covering Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, and two anthologies by Gardner Dozois, Supermen: Tales of the Posthuman Future and Worldmakers: SF Adventures in Terraforming not only offers a sharp and pertinent discussion of the ways in which alternate history is nowadays so often debased but also provides an illuminating potted history of the theme anthology. Wolfe’s reviews are invariably studded with such helpful nuggets of contextual information, intended to bring the reader quickly up to speed on particular genre issues, and valuable even to the experienced reader. At such times, Wolfe’s prodigious knowledge of the field is elegantly but unobtrusively displayed; the reader is informed but not intimidated.

This raises, then, the question of how Wolfe perceives his Locus audience. Locus has always, formally or informally, represented itself as the trade paper for the genre, providing a steady stream of information about markets, sales to publishers and forthcoming publications, alongside reviews and interviews. Precisely what niche Locus now fills is not clear, though it has gone far beyond its original intention, to keep fans in touch with what was being published in the sf field. I suspect that one can no longer guarantee that the Locus audience will have a deep knowledge of the history of sf alongside an interest in contemporary work, not least because there is now simply too much to read. In which case, Wolfe’s reviews serve, in part, as a primer in sf history, situating the texts under discussion as part of the broader continuum of genre. In fact, there is a distinct flavour of the seminar about these reviews at times, perhaps not surprising given Wolfe’s own background as an academic and educator.

This raises further questions about the nature of Wolfe’s criticism. His analysis is very sharp but as Matthew Cheney noted in a 2011 review of Evaporating Genres, ‘it is the sort of analysis provided by good book reviews: interesting, provocative, concise, but not thorough’, which is of course precisely suited to this particular venue. What is also notable is Wolfe’s scrupulous fairness in these reviews – almost too fair, as one occasionally wonders if he is capable of saying a bad word about anyone (not helped by a widespread anecdotal perception that Locus only publishes positive reviews). While it is difficult to imagine the ever-courteous Wolfe carrying out a vitriolic takedown of an author (though I find myself wondering what such a thing might look like, were he to be driven to it; and indeed, what would drive him to do such a thing), a close reading of his reviews reveals more than the occasional note of asperity when an author has done something particularly crass (though often softened by being enclosed in brackets). At such times Wolfe writes more in sorrow than in anger; it is remarkably like having a beloved tutor inform you that he is very disappointed in you. At other times, he has the ability to sum up a discussion which has generated thousands of words in other venues in one pithy sentence. I think particularly of his comment on the endless controversy of Margaret Atwood versus SF: ‘She’s not demeaning the SF market so much as protecting the Atwood market.’

Bringing the reviews together in a collection such as this reveals another, perhaps unconscious, facet of Wolfe’s project. Individual reviews are transformed into cumulative wisdom, as Wolfe creates a dense fabric of critical connective tissue through some well-placed cross-referencing, encouraging the reader to think beyond the individual review. While reading an entire collection of these reviews will not provide a detailed portrait of sf activity in those years covered it will nonetheless still flag up the most pressing issues in the genre at any given moment. When discussing the writing of Ray Bradbury, as Wolfe does several times in this collection, he frequently expresses the belief that in Bradbury’s work it’s not so much the individual story that is Bradbury’s métier as the short story collection, and I wonder if the same couldn’t be said for Wolfe himself. As individual reviews, these are enjoyable, educative, perceptive but inevitably ephemeral; it is only when the reviews are collected that their true strength can be fully realised.

Which is not to say that the collection is in every way perfect. At times, one could wish for a little more bibliographical detail within the reviews – tracking the history of the republication of Kim Stanley Robinson’s and John Crowley’s short story collections might have been easier had there been a year of publication at least. The text is also marred in places by distracting typos and odd little formatting flaws, which momentarily force the eye away from the page as the brain tries to make sense of what it has just seen. However, the sheer usefulness of the text as a whole outweighs the nuisance value of such things.

Returning to Wolfe’s review of Scores, he concludes that it ‘amounts to a long and pleasant evening in which too much wine is drunk and too many ideas are flung on the table, but from which one returns, veering a bit, with the conviction that this stuff matters.’ Much the same might be said of Sightings; to finish reading it is to emerge with a new sense of engagement with science fiction, as well as a strong determination to do better with one’s own reviewing.