Category Archives: non fiction

Reading Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright

Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright (Adventure Rocketship!, 2013)

Let’s All Go to the Science Fiction Disco, the first volume in a new anthology series, Adventure Rocketship!, is ‘devoted to the intersection between SF, music and the counterculture.’ With a remit that broad, it is not surprising that it lacks a clear focus. Are we talking about science fiction involving music or about music using sf themes? The answer is apparently ‘both’, though in practice we’re dealing with the relationship between rock, pop and sf in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century. And though the table of contents suggests a historical survey one has little sense that the pieces were specifically commissioned with this in mind, which would account for the bittiness of coverage, particularly between 1980–2000.

Contemporary classical and experimental electronic music are mentioned only because of Delia Derbyshire, inevitably included here for her realisation of Ron Grainer’s Dr Who theme rather than for her other groundbreaking work as a composer and musician. Her presence also underlines the paucity of women subjects or contributors, though N.K. Jemisin offers a storming piece on her identification with the work of Janelle Monáe. There is only one significant female protagonist in the fiction, in Tim Maughan’s excellent ‘Flight Path Estate’, and only one story written by a woman, Liz Williams. Odd when you consider that punk provided opportunities for women musicians to get their music heard as never before.

Most of the best articles concern the 1970s, with David Quantick’s well-observed piece on Bill Nelson and BeBop Deluxe, Minister Faust’s thoughtful discussion of the relationship between George Clinton’s Mothership and the Nation of Islam’s Mother Plane, and Mark Sinker on the electrifying weirdness of Boney M. Going back to the ’60s, Sam Jordison’s encounter in early 2013 with Mick Farren (who constantly assured Jordison that ‘I’m not dying’) stands now as an epitaph. But too many of the articles feel like unformed anecdote, or stop just as they start to get interesting. Christopher Kirkley’s piece on mp3 markets in Mauretania is a prime example of the latter.

The fiction is also a very mixed bag. Apart from Maughan’s story, Lavie Tidhar’s ‘Between the Notes’ stands out, not only for acknowledging the existence of music pre-1960 but for its account of a time-travelling serial killer specialising in musicians confronted with a moment of great personal uncertainty. The poignancy of Martin Millar’s brief encounter between Hendrix, Joplin and other ’60s musician resists accusations of sf cliché but other stories demonstrate how difficult it can be to achieve a satisfying balance in mixing sf and music while avoiding banality.

Nor does Science Fiction Disco achieve an entirely satisfying balance between fiction and non-fiction, not while the magazine style – short articles, half a dozen short stories, ‘20 Mind-bending Ways to Start Your SF Album Collection’ (no, really) – seems ill-at-ease with the book format. Adventure Rocketship! clearly has potential but could look less like a grab bag and more as though it has a clear editorial direction with each issue.

Reading Osiris by E J Swift

And for a change, a review that is original to this blog, though it’s been floating around in my files for a little while. I have a review of Cataveiro (2014) upcoming in Vector, and a review of Tamaruq in a forthcoming issue of Interzone.

Osiris – E J Swift
(Nightshade Books, 2012)

I’ve found it difficult to write about Osiris by E.J. Swift. Not because I didn’t like the novel – in fact, I liked it very much indeed, and enjoyed the sequels too – but because I found it so very intense as a novel, so elliptical and elusive. Which is perhaps what one might expect from a novel about a city whose inhabitants believe themselves to be the last people left in the world. Yet the first mystery in this novel is what has actually happened? We are told that sea levels rose sharply, causing flooding, and this was just the last straw on top of other catastrophes. Boatloads of refugees found their way to the city, but after a while no more came, and nothing more was heard from the outside world.

For those who did make it to Osiris, the city has proved to be less of a sanctuary than they might have hoped. The novel is a little vague about exactly how long ago the refugees arrived in the city, but it seems that about a hundred years have passed,  and ever since they arrived the refugees and their descendants been corralled in the western quarter of the city, in desperately overcrowded conditions, struggling to survive. In the eastern part of the city the original Osirian settlers live comparatively comfortable lives, while the city’s rulers deny themselves nothing, and live surrounded by every kind of extravagance.

This vagueness about certain things does not arise from poor storytelling on Swift’s part. Instead, it gradually becomes clear that vagueness, among other things, has become institutionalised within the city’s upper echelons. The ruling council is a bureaucratic nonsense, intended to continually defer any unpleasant decision to another day; its protocols appear deliberately designed to exclude anyone who doesn’t not already know how the system works. Indeed, once you consider that keeping the refugees in the western quarter has persisted as a temporary measure for at least a hundred years, it becomes clear that Osiris’s governing structure is moribund. That the city functions at all is another mystery, although it is clear that the council relies heavily on a notably repressive police force. And the city’s future is uncertain, as it is running out of natural resources, although this is another thing that the council doesn’t seem especially worried about.

If vagueness has become institutionalised, so have paranoia, ennui, and hopelessness. It is difficult to understand what it is that the ruling elite fears so much that they have so deliberately turned in on themselves, and yet worry still about maintaining face in front of their colleagues. Indeed, it is almost as though they no longer know themselves. A significant portion of the youngest generation pursue lives filled with hedonistic pleasures, but which are effectively devoid of meaning. They allow themselves the luxury of ennui or else pursue seemingly pointless hobbies. Those who attempt to become involved with the running of the city are viewed with suspicion by their elders, as though they dread the slightest change.

On the other side of the divide, the westerners long for change, but a repressive regime coupled with so many previous failures brought them to a situation where, while the activists may plot against the city, they lack any real desire to foment revolution, or indeed the skill to do so. Occasionally, a talented or charismatic leader may arise, someone like Vikram Bai, might make some brief headway, but the sense is always that he or she is doomed to fail. Apathy is the killer. Eking out a living leaves little time or energy for a revolution.

Even on the other side of the divide, where Adelaide Rechnov’s twin brother has vanished, although Adelaide suspects foul play, her attempts to find out what happened to her brother are, at best, inept, and at worst being covertly controlled by her own father, who wants to suppress the incident. And the point is that this is not about Axel’s disappearance, the cause of which is self-evident but about Adelaide’s inability to grieve properly because, like almost everyone else, she is emotionally stunted.

It is only when she is more or less tricked into acting as Vikram’s patron, guiding him through the coils of the City’s bureaucracy as he endeavours to secure better conditions for the westerners, that Adelaide discovers some sort of purpose. Even then, it is not the one that we might initially expect. Axel’s death is put to one side as the two come to realise that there are survivors beyond the city, and that the city has hidden this fact for almost a century.

To get to this point is to not so much read this novel as to shoulder one’s way through it. Not because the prose is bad (though there are moments when it is perhaps a little overwrought) but because the misery and desperation of the people are so palpable. Thousands of them are effectively shut up in a tin can in the ocean because for a few people the thought of engaging with outsiders is intolerable. There is, of course, more to it than that, but  this will not become clear until much, much later. As this novel closes, we know only that someone is very keen indeed to suppress the knowledge that the outside world is still there and still functioning.

By this point, Vikram, having apparently succeeded in persuading the city to listen to him, now works on behalf of the refugees, while Adelaide, having been kept imprisoned by her family, manages to escape into the western quarter, only to be recognised. The novel closes with each believing the other lost. Vikram is on a boat to the mainland, almost as though someone might want to get rid of him, while he believes that Adelaide has drowned.

Osiris is a hugely stressful novel to read, with all that emotion and uncertainty crammed between the pages. The terrible plight of the westerners is set against the disgusting refusal of the elite to care about anyone but themselves, but none of this is tempered by a rational explanation. One might wonder how it has come to this but Swift plays her cards very close to her chest. Only much later will we realise it was always going to be this way. For now we can only marvel at a society that is so self-absorbed it cannot see that it is doomed unless it admits that change is not only necessary but inevitable. And even that is not the half of what is going on.

That’s one of the things I like about this novel, that it confounds expectation all the way, and indeed the entire Osiris Project will continue to head off in unexpected directions, keeping the reader guessing until the end. It’s a bold move to eschew the obvious narrative structures and try something different, but I think it works well. Though perhaps you only realise just how claustrophobic Osiris really is when you begin to read Cataveiro and are suddenly thrust into a world of intense brightness and seemingly infinite space.

Reading Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination

A change of venue, as I reprint a more recent review from Foundation,  originally published last year.

In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination – Margaret Atwood
(Virago, 2011)

It is almost impossible to write about Margaret Atwood in relation to the science fiction and fantasy genres without reference to her now notorious ‘squids in space’ comment. What seems to have been originally an off-the-cuff remark on a tv morning chat show has been taken up by genre fans and commentators as the prime example of Atwood’s ignorance of and lack of sympathy for the contemporary genre. On the other hand writers who want to use genre topoi while rejecting that problematic genre label now brandish the phrase as a shield against what they regard as the wrong sort of critical attention. In subsequent interviews Atwood herself has come back to versions of the phrase, though whether because she sincerely believes what she said, because it has become part of her ‘brand’, or because, as I have come to suspect, she simply likes winding up critics of genre is not clear.

Given there is no ignoring the presence of the cephalopod in the Atwood sitting room, how then does one address In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, which one might take as Atwood’s definitive statement on the subject. The collection is comprised of three parts. First, we have the three Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature given by Atwood at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, in 2010. Secondly, there is a selection of reviews of and introductions to science fiction novels, written by Atwood during the 2000s, with an outlier from 1976. Lastly, there is a selection of short fictions by Atwood which she has designated (confusingly, for reasons that will become clear later) ‘science fiction’.

To begin with, we should be clear that Atwood knows what science fiction is, or rather, she knows what it is she points to and calls ‘science fiction’, in much the same way that most of us have a personal working definition of sf. Atwood’s definition is distinguished by two things: its unusual rigidity and the fact that Atwood, as a public figure, is better placed than most to promulgate that definition. John Clute noted in his review of this book in the Los Angeles Review of Books that during the ‘squids in space’ controversy he had argued ‘that a person who had attained a public voice had a public responsibility […] not to allow offhand comments to be understood as discourse’. Similarly, he reminded us that Ursula K Le Guin ‘made it clear that the squids-in-space bon mot was genuinely discourteous’. I see no reason to disagree with either statement. It may be that Atwood’s comment was simply careless but it is a terrible reminder to us of the power of words, and of the care that needs to be exercised in using them, not least that ten years later we cannot escape their effect.

Nor do I seek to frame this discussion in terms of an ongoing disagreement between Atwood and Le Guin about the nature of science fiction (though if I were to do such a thing, I would say here and now that my sympathy lies mainly with Le Guin, whose perception of genre is both more capacious and yet more nuanced than Atwood’s [or at any rate, it did when I wrote this review. I’m still reading through the material pertaining to the Ishiguro incident, and have only just read the novel, but my views have undoubtedly shifted somewhat.]) yet Le Guin’s presence looms over every page of this collection, from the dedication to her, through Atwood’s discussion of Le Guin’s review of The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake, which initiated another round of discussion as to what Atwood means by ‘science fiction’, to Atwood’s inclusion of her puzzled review of Le Guin’s The Birthday of the World and Other Stories.

In fact, let’s start with that review, which very clearly articulates Atwood’s lack of ease with the term ‘science fiction’. ‘[I]t’s an awkward box: it bulges with discards from elsewhere. Into it have been crammed all those stories that don’t fit comfortably into the family room of the socially realistic novel or the more formal parlour of historical fiction, or other compartmentalized genres: westerns, gothics, horrors, gothic romances, and the novels of war, crime, and spies’ (115). And that’s before Atwood goes on to list the many subdivisions of sf and fantasy in tones of fascinated horror. Her choice of words is interesting, too – ‘discards’ carries with it a certain flavour of the orphan child, or the unacceptable by-blow, while ‘awkward’ and ‘bulges’ suggest a lack of neatness. All of these are clearly antithetical to the ‘comfortably’ that is associated with the ‘family room’ of the ‘socially realistic novel’.

It is this last category that we should necessarily take note of. For Atwood’s perception of science fiction is founded in part on her fierce need to distinguish between the social realist and the fantastical, and to make an equally fierce distinction between the novel and the romance. The novel belongs to social realism while the romance is the form associated with the fantastic. And for Atwood ne’er the twain shall meet. In theory at least, though in practice this becomes rather more difficult, for what then is one to make of The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that most regard as science fiction, yet which is clothed in the trappings of the social realist novel, as defined by Atwood – texture, detail, character.

And this is where Atwood performs her great feat of legerdemain. First, she proclaims her own ‘lifelong relationship’ with science fiction, which she defines, from the outset, as ‘not of this here-and-now Earth’ (1). Yet, on the following page, Atwood admits that, as of 2008, she ‘didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction meant any more’ (2). Four pages later, Atwood redefines science fiction again: ‘What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds […] whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” [Atwood’s preferred term for her sf at this point] means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books’ (6). Neither definition of sf is objectionable in and of itself; most critics and academics are able to hold both in their heads simultaneously. Atwood, however, seems to prefer, indeed to insist on dichotomy and thus one must have one or the other but no kind of synthesis.

Yet Atwood, and despite her own protestations to the contrary, also seems to be driven by a need to keep making definitive statements about meaning, and this brings us back to Le Guin. In 2010, the two writers took part in a public discussion, during which Atwood, by her own account, found that what ‘Le Guin means by “science fiction is what I mean by “speculative fiction” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.” […] When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance.’ (7) Again, these conclusions might seem unsurprising to scholars of genre, but with Atwood having apparently found her way to a broader understanding of the terminology, one might suppose that the matter would be finally closed.

Except that the Ellmann Lectures suggest that the situation is otherwise. Indeed, in ‘Dire Cartographies’, the third in the series, Atwood offers us yet another new perception of her ‘science-fictional’ works. They should now be read as ‘ustopias’, a word Atwood claims to have coined by joining utopia and dystopia, on the basis that in each utopia is a latent dystopia, and vice versa. Her tone does smack rather of the clever if poorly read undergraduate coming up with a brilliant new idea, without taking due regard of the considerable body of criticism and analysis of utopian literature, yet it is clear from Atwood’s account of her postgraduate studies that at some point at least she was more than passingly familiar with the state of utopian studies, even if she did not keep up with her critical reading.

Indeed, it is this facet of Atwood’s account of her relationship with sf, or at any rate with utopian literature, that is to me the most interesting and revealing part of the lectures, in that we see a young and thoughtful Atwood putting together ideas that, while they may seem old hat now, were most likely fairly cutting-edge at that point, and one can’t help wondering how her storytelling might have turned out had she maintained a closer relationship with academe.

Similarly, the glimpses of the child Margaret are illuminating. We see two children (Atwood and her brother), with limited access to forms of culture we take for granted, pouring their imaginative energies into creating a race of rabbit superheroes. It is clear from Atwood’s account that her early apprehension of science fiction is intensely visual, influenced as much by comic strips and the occasional film as by the drawing of the rabbits’ adventures, and this is reflected in her later concern with the defining of science fiction (‘if you put skin-tight black or silver clothing on a book cover along with some jetlike flames and/or colourful planets, does that make the work “science fiction”?’ (2)) but also in her fascination with utopian literature, which she identifies as in part being about making lists and describing things. Indeed, it would seem that Atwood’s understanding of sf is literally superficial, in that to her it is all about surface and appearance, whereas utopian or ustopian literature, despite its similar preoccupation with things, or perhaps because of its avowed interest in paraphernalia, has been transmogrified into a form of social realism after all.

Anyone who comes to this collection of writings in search of a definitive answer as to what it means when Atwood uses the words ‘science fiction’ is probably going to be disappointed. However, the Ellmann Lectures do provide a valuable glimpse into the foundations of Atwood’s thinking on the issue. Having said that, it does seem to me that Atwood is using the quasi-academic context of the Ellmann Lectures (addressed, so far as I can see, to a general rather than scholarly audience) as a means to establish a discourse in which her unusually narrow definition of science fiction is given a greater validity than I ultimately think it deserves.

The alert reader almost immediately notices that Atwood returns to the same few exemplary texts over and over again, texts which are now extremely old. This is true of the lectures and of Atwood’s reviews. Sterling and Gibson get a mention apiece, as does Silverberg, but it’s clear too that for Atwood, sf or utopian literature stopped dead in the 1950s, at the point when she abandoned her PhD. Similarly, looking at the selection of reviews offered here, one has the sense of Atwood constantly reploughing the same single furrow. Perhaps the most revealing moment comes from seeing how little her view has shifted between her 1976 review of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, which Atwood insists is a utopia, to her most recent reviews. Certainly, in her most recent reviews, there is a sense of weary familiarity, as Atwood once again reaches for the set responses.

Scholars will also note the lack of a useful critical apparatus; footnotes are minimal and those that exist are often risible, as though their compiler had no sense of the audience for whom this book is intended, and there is no accompanying bibliography for those who want to read further. Indeed, the collection as a whole is not indexed so it is difficult to track repeated mentions of particular texts unless one takes notes.

If as I suspect, the Lectures were supposed to state Atwood’s position once and for all, then they have failed in their intent. Or rather, the Lectures present a coherent argument in and of themselves, though one that it is easy to take issue with. It is when they are considered in relation to Atwood’s reviews in this collection alongside the five stories, which she does actually describe as ‘science fiction’, though all of them are clearly ‘utopian’ in nature, that Atwood’s argument collapses yet again. (The inclusion of these reviews and stories or extracts is something of a mystery. Clearly the three Lectures were considered too insubstantial to form a book by themselves but one is left with the impression that Atwood literally went through her files, looking for anything mentioning utopian or science fiction, and included them to bulk things out.)

Presumably, Margaret Atwood will continue to formulate explanations of her work that insist that certain aspects of it are not, contrary to appearance, science fiction, and elements of the sf community will continue to express anger and frustration at her apparent wilfulness. The point is that try as she will, Atwood cannot control the reader’s response to her writing, and for many commentators The Handmaid’s Tale, The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake and Maddaddam are as much science fiction as they are utopian, ustopian, or speculative fiction, or whatever else Atwood chooses to call them. In the end, what they actually are has become almost less interesting than Atwood’s attempts to tell us what they are not.

Other forms of science fiction

This is a review article I wrote for Vector back in 2010. I should note that my views on sf poetry have changed somewhat since then.

These days, the forms of SF and fantasy most people encounter will be fiction, film and television. However, I have been recently reminded that it also exists in other forms, though they are often far less visible. I wondered why this might be. Is it that some narrative forms are better suited to SF than others? Is it actually possible to create science fiction poetry or drama, to take two examples?

In February 2010, on the Guardian’s Theatre blog, Natasha Tripney posed a similar question, asking: “Shouldn’t there be more sci-fi on stage?”[1] Tripney speculated that contemporary playwrights were afraid of looking silly if they did try to bring science fiction into the theatre: “playwrights who choose to stray into sci-fi territory often do so almost apologetically – creating plausible near futures, recognisable worlds that differ from ours in only minor details.” This seems hardly surprising, not least because SF on film has undoubtedly raised expectations about how SF drama should look. Tripney herself noted that “what might be acceptable on screen and paper can look absurd on stage”. I think it’s telling that the book-to-theatre adaptations she cites – Blind Summit’s version of 1984 and Poul Ruders’s opera of The Handmaid’s Tale – adhere to the “recognisable world” model. Perhaps the closest the stage can get to “proper” science fiction is through the portrayal of androids or robots; Tripney mentions Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential and Tamsin Oglesby’s recent Really Old, Like Forty Five, and we should also recall Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. Reading the comments on the post, it seems that for many people, science fiction in the theatre means spectacle or something deeply outré, preferably both. Ken Campbell’s huge productions of Illuminatus! and The Warp from the 1970s were invoked again, the implication being that science fiction theatre also means weird and unwieldy performances, something that is clearly not going to suit a West End theatre audience.

If we have a particular idea of how science fiction should look, it becomes too easy to miss stage productions that aren’t obviously presented as SF. I’d argue that J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls – revived by Stephen Daldry at the National Theatre in 1992 to great acclaim – is as much science fiction as it is social critique. Priestley was interested in J.W. Dunne’s theory of time and this is reflected in all the Time Plays, An Inspector Calls among them. I don’t doubt that a sophisticated SF reader would surely appreciate Priestley’s arguments. More recently, the National Theatre has returned to Priestley with a well-received production of Time and the Conways, though his fascination with time is, in this play, less immediately obvious and it inclines more towards drawing-room drama. However, T.S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion, produced at the Donmar Warehouse last year, played with ideas of time and identity in ways that seemed entirely familiar to me as an SF reader.

However, to return to Tripney’s blog post, a number of comments suggest that the real SF theatre action arises in smaller, regional venues and in places where – and it seems odd to say this – the suspension of disbelief becomes a more self-conscious exercise. One commenter talked about “leaving room for the audience/reader to do some of the imaginative work for themselves”, which I had naively supposed was what theatre was actually about. This suggests that there is a received idea of what a stage production ought to be like. Without an elaborate West End-style set, how can one put on a play set on an alien planet? If one understands that one is in a theatre with a limited budget for sets and so on, it becomes suddenly possible. Anecdotal evidence suggests that all over Britain small theatre companies are putting on all kinds of adventurous productions that most of us will never ever see because of their inevitably limited outreach. I wonder what we are missing.

Which leads me to the play script for The Last Pixel Show by Graham Andrews. Produced by New Theatre Publications, a publishing house owned by the Playwrights’ Cooperative, it is a one-act drama clearly aimed at a small (presumably amateur) theatrical company. The plot revolves around a scientist who has run into a problem with his computer which has been subjected to a power surge from a supernova and is now behaving oddly. The scientist suspects that this is evidence of artificial intelligence having achieved autonomy. Unfortunately, no one will listen to him, and the bulk of the drama revolves around a set of almost incomprehensible interactions between various people who seek first to understand and then dismiss his claims.

Why, one might ask, are the characters so desperate to reject the notion of the existence of an autonomous artificial intelligence? It is clearly not out of fear, nor out of scientific ignorance. Despite its curious 1970s feel in terms of character portrayals and gender attitudes, this is a world where such things as holographic communication are normal, to the point of being annoying when they don’t function properly. However, by the same token, there is a lot of curiously unnecessary explanation of computers and how they work, couched in language that once again takes us back to the 1970s. In the end, I feel the science-fictional element of this playlet is included for rather ham-fisted comic effect rather than as a contribution to the genre.

Two recent publications from Hilltop Press – Mistaking the Nature of the Posthuman by Steve Sneyd (described by Ian McMillan as “the best science-fiction poet in the land”) and Time Grows Thin, a collection of the work of Lilith Lorraine, compiled by Sneyd –reflect the beginnings and current state of SF poetry, and raise similar questions. There is no way of knowing how many science fiction poets there are in the world, but clearly enough exist to sustain the Science Fiction Poetry Association which gives two annual Rhysling Awards (named for the blind poet Rhysling in Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth”). Many well-known names are featured among the winners but how many of them are known primarily as poets? Conversely, how much does science fiction poetry impinge on the consciousness of the average science fiction reader, let alone those outside the genre? In the same way that I wonder whether theatre can be a successful medium for science fiction, I question whether poetry and science fiction are suited to one another.

There is a long history of the fantastic in poetry, stretching as far back as Beowulf. My favourite medieval poem is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; it is clearly a favourite of a lot of present-day poets, with Simon Armitage the latest to recast it in modern English. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had more than a passing taste for the fantastic (“Christabel”, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” are three that spring to mind). Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and Browning’s “Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came” shouldn’t be overlooked, while across the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe was as much poet as short-story writer. In modern times, perhaps the nearest we come to something science fictional is the Martian poetry movement, active in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which poets – most notably Craig Raine – sought to defamiliarise the familiar by describing ordinary things as though they were being seen by a Martian. I doubt whether it was science fiction in the strict sense of the term but it chimed with the desire to unsettle the perceptions that seemed to emerge in post-New Wave SF. And more importantly, it was visible and discussed outside the genre.

Although Lilith Lorraine was at one time well-known among genre readers, her work was probably not that visible to outsiders and even within the genre she had been forgotten until Steve Sneyd began to promote her work. A good half of Time Grows Thin is taken up with the results of his biographical research and Lorraine’s story is undoubtedly fascinating. Lilith Lorraine is the pen name of Mary Maud Dunn Wright who was a newspaper reporter and radio announcer as well as an early SF fan and a writer who produced science fiction poetry during the first half of the Twentieth Century. However, while we should rightly honour Lorraine as a pioneer, I am not convinced that her poetry has worn that well in the last sixty years. It is difficult to get any sense of how her work was originally received, though Sneyd suggests that her work was much admired. Encountered as individual poems in magazines, I can see that her poems may well have seemed strange and exotic. Read now as a collection, it is difficult to avoid noticing a sense of sameness about them. She does not seem to have experimented with form to any significant degree and such structural variation as there is seems to come about as much by accident as by intent. She favoured traditional rhyme schemes wherever possible; the science-fictional content emerges from her choice of image and vocabulary. The poems themselves rely heavily on a post-apocalyptic nostalgia for a long-dead past, frequented by wise and ascetic aliens, not unlike Ray Bradbury’s Martians. The mood is almost invariably dark while the brooding intensity of so many of the poems now seems rather angsty and adolescent.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that while Lorraine seems to be constructing some sort of internal narrative history – referring to named characters and so forth – it is impossible to get a broader sense of her universe. She saw her work as “inspiring the heroes who will face the last frontier. Let us only hope that they will lead an ape shambling into the Pleiades armed only with the club of the atom, but one who is more than man, armed with divinity and glorified with humanity”, which positions her among the writers who saw the potential of science fiction to promote an expansionist agenda in space, and yet this sits oddly with the sense of disappointment in so much of her writing. I do think Sneyd has done an important piece of work in bringing together these poems; what I would like now is to see her work compared with that of other writers working in the same period, to see if any useful connections might be made.

Looking at Sneyd’s own collection of poems, Mistaking the Nature of the Posthuman, I return to the question of what makes an SF poem. Sneyd is clearly much more adventurous in his writing, in terms of form, structure, language and even punctuation. His choice of subject is also much more varied than Lorraine’s and his poems are littered with references to the work of earlier poets. Sneyd’s science fiction is certainly not tinged with nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened yet but faces the future squarely and pragmatically. Indeed, his subjects and images are often unexpectedly mundane, reflecting the fact that science fiction is now very much part of everyday life. And yet, on occasion I could not help thinking there was something a little too self-consciously science-fictional about individual poems, as though he were trying slightly too hard to make the point.

I doubt SF poetry will achieve a wider currency in the immediate future. There is a gap, not easily bridged even among readers who are familiar with a wide range of SF, between a genre that is fiercely narrative and a form that seems better suited to contemplation than to action. The broader cultural awareness of science fiction is still focused on a limited range of tropes and images drawn mainly from cinema and tv and it is difficult to see how SF poetry for the general reader can work easily once one moves beyond the hackneyed cliché. This suggests that SF poetry and SF drama are unlikely to ever to enjoy the same popularity as novels or films, and that there will not be a clear body of poetic or dramatic works that can be pointed to as examples of SF. Conversely, this suggests that SF poetry and drama can exploit an element of surprise in ways that novels and films no longer can, and that they will always turn up in unexpected places, challenging people’s perceptions.




Travels with ‘Terry Pratchett’

I don’t really have any stories about Terry Pratchett. We met at conventions, back in the day, and I liked him, as everyone did. The last time I saw him was late one night at the 1999 Worldcon, in Melbourne, when Paul Kincaid and I were hanging around in a far-flung part of the conference centre foyer, and much to my surprise he wandered over, and we sat around, talking about fandom and conventions and things and people we knew. He seemed to know a lot more about my activities in fandom than I’d imagined he might and was approving. And no, he really hadn’t muddled me up with anyone else. I was quite tickled by this. Then, people began to notice he was there and as they began to gather he got up and drifted quietly away before a scrum developed. It was all very surreal but hugely enjoyable.

However, as some of you know, Paul looks sufficiently like Terry Pratchett to have been mistaken for him many times, especially when he wears a fedora in the winter.


*Man accosts Paul on the platform of a London station:

‘Are you a writer?’

‘Yes, but not the one you’re thinking of.’

*Another person:

‘You look familiar. Do I know you?’

‘No, but I look like the person you’re probably thinking of.’


The other person in this picture is our friend, James Mackay, being suitably starstruck

*Me, lying on a back board in Ashford A&E (don’t worry, it wasn’t serious), begging the nurse to go and find Paul in the waiting area.

‘How will I know him?’

‘He looks like Terry Pratchett?’

‘Er …?’

‘Trust me, you’ll spot him.’

Nurse returns with Paul. ‘You’re right, he does!’

*Me collecting my gown for my graduation, with Paul in tow.

Porter on door looks at Paul, announces loudly to room: ‘Terry Pratchett!’

*You get to guess who Paul went to an office fancy dress party as. Easiest costume ever!

As a friend of ours said earlier in the week, going out in (or indeed with) the hat in future could be quite interesting. Possibly Paul needs to learn to speak in small capital letters.

Still Thinking About Walking

Back in December 2012, I wrote about reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, and commented then on how few women walkers there seemed to be; how few women seem to casually drop things and wander off to walk in the way that Macfarlane does. They seem either tied to a very small piece of ground (Nan Shepherd – walking into the landscape rather than across or out of it) or else emphasis is laid on their singleness (i.e. the implied freedom to move around) and their interactions with men as they travel (I was struck by this in the readings of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild I heard on the radio, but it is an old, old trope).

This morning, reading Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker review of Helen Macdonald’s award-winning H Is For Hawk, it occurred to me that there is another aspect to this, and that’s illness – in particular, grief. Or, rather, in Macdonald’s case, as a falconer, she has always been able to walk the landscape on her own, with the hawk on her wrist as a spurious indicator of authority for her right to be there. But it is her father’s death and her grieving over that death, embodied in her decision to train a goshawk, that grants her ‘permission’ to write about it.

I read the book over Christmas and liked it very much. I will write about it at some point, I’m sure, but for now, I’ll say only that my reading was not framed exclusively in terms of of Macdonald’s struggling with grief to a level that seems almost irrational to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, and so far I have not (although, undeniably, this is in part what Macdonald wrote about). Instead, I saw it more in terms of the discipline of training a goshawk imposing some sort of shape to Macdonald’s life at a point when she had few other anchors. And yes, by Macdonald’s own admission, there is a point where she recognises that she has in some way gone feral, but to me it’s significant that she can see this and act upon it.

Yet Schulz frames this element of the book in terms of ‘coming home’.

Macdonald’s story has a different ending. One day, crouching over a rabbit she has just killed, feeling like “an executioner after a thousand deaths,” she comes to see that she has been travelling with her hawk not further from grief but further from life. Scared by her own numbness and darkness, she begins to seek help: from loving relatives, attentive friends, modern psychopharmacology—all the advantages she had that White did not. Slowly, her grief starts to lift. As it does, she finds that she disagrees with Merlyn and Muir. “The wild is not a panacea for the human soul,” she writes. “Too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” All along, she had wanted to be her hawk: fierce, solitary, inhuman. Instead, she now realizes, “I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.” Her father, she knows, will never rejoin the human world. But she can. Like a figure in a myth who followed a hawk to the land of the dead, Macdonald turns around and comes home.

There is a delicate path to be traced through this, because on the one hand, Macdonald knows better than any of us what it she experienced, and I cannot and must not presume to understand her grief better than she does. On the other hand, I found myself bridling somewhat at Schulz’s ‘comes home’. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to believe that you never can come ‘home’, because ‘home’ is always behind you. Where you arrive is not where you left, even if it looks the same, because you are not the same. Tolkien may put those famous words, ‘Well, I’m back’, into the mouth of Sam Gamgee, but ‘back’ implies that everything is precisely as he left it, whereas we know that it is anything but. Not all the restoration in the world can alter that fact.

To me it seems that to recognise that ‘The wild is not a panacea for the human soul’, as Macdonald does, is not the same as to reject it, something I don’t think she does. But home? With all the connotations that carries? I wonder.

I found myself thinking of Margery Kempe, the fourteenth-century mystic. she was an extraordinary woman, famed for her impassioned weeping. No wonder she wept. The mother of fourteen children, some of whom may have survived to adulthood, she clearly experienced at least one episode of post-natal depression, possibly more. She experienced visions, which she, being illiterate, persuaded someone to write down for her. She sought a chaste marriage with her husband, and travelled extensively on pilgrimages, and also to visit the other mystics of her times. Should we think of her as someone who sought to come home, or who carried on travelling?

Another book out recently is Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, in which Norbury begins a walking project in order to assuage her grief after the loss of a much-wanted child because of a miscarriage. Again, the walk is framed as a project to ameliorate a feeling rather than as something that exists as a thing in and of itself. Can the walk only be justified because it has an ulterior, distracting purpose?

Reading for the future

I read Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker article, ‘The Percy Jackson Problem’ (22/10/2014) with mounting irritation. And then wondered why I was so irritated by it. Children’s reading habits are of no particular interest to me, except, of course, that they are. Indeed, there is an extent to which they must be so long as we continue living in word-based cultures. And despite all the claims people make about the shape of the future, my feeling is it’s going to be predominantly word- rather than image-based for a long time to come.

And here, by word I mean written (printed) or spoken, although my own particular bias is towards the written word. After all, how would I express the content of this paragraph in images? I can’t, and if I tried, I wonder how many would be able to interpret it, given that we are, most of us, the product of print cultures. The intermittent claim that the written word is dying generally seems to boil down to some fear of the electronic page superseding the printed, which is not at all the same thing as fearing the loss of the written word. In my world the two happily co-exist. I prefer print to pixels for study (though at some point I must train myself to annotate electronic texts the way I annotate printed texts) but I read ebooks without difficulty – one tablet device can contain a mighty travelling library, and I need never be stuck without a book ever again (though it will probably be only a matter of time before I start carrying an extra reader just in case.)

So whatever else I feel about them, for me books are tools; as a rule I are more interested in the content of the text rather than the mode of its presentation. I’m a critic and reader, not a bibliographer or collector. And while I may be sentimental about books at times, as are most of us, I think, I hope this won’t ever slide over into a misplaced nostalgia about the superiority of print on paper. (And yes, there is an argument for print on paper being more permanent, an argument which disintegrates, rather as do the pages, when you look at twentieth-century texts printed on cheap, badly made paper. Ink on parchment is far more durable so let’s …)

That misplaced, or perhaps overly nourished, nostalgia, I’ve come to realise, has expanded in a number of ways, not least to address the ways in which we expect children to engage with texts, and in particular, the way in which a story is told. This has been vaguely simmering at the back of my mind for a while, not least with the fondness of sf commentators of a certain age for recommending Robert Heinlein’s stories as starter texts for young people interested in reading sf. I had cause to reread Starship Troopers last year and was genuinely shocked by how dreadfully old-fashioned it was, yet I regularly see it recommended as a good piece for modern teenage readers to begin with. It is as though, in some perverse way, the sf community doesn’t want young people to read sf. By all means teach it as part of a historical survey of science fiction, but for pleasure? I think that’s something readers need to come to for themselves.

So why recommend it? Nostalgia? Yes, of course. I’m sure many people recommending it cut their sf reading teeth on the Heinlein juveniles, and remembering them with pleasure, wanted to pass on that pleasure to a new generation of readers. (I appear to be in a minority in that I read them because they were in the library but took little if any pleasure in them and retained no memory of them.) Which is fine so far as it goes yet it takes no account of how the world changes. This, I think, is at the heart of Rebecca Mead’s complaint.

Her concern is with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, or rather, with Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, in which our eponymous hero has been asked by his publisher to retell the Greek myths in his own inimitable way. In case, like me, you’ve missed the Percy Jackson phenomenon, Percy has discovered that he is not an inept adolescent but a demigod, a son of Poseidon and a mortal woman. As a result, he is sent to Camp Half Blood where he meets various other demigods and starts to learn the skills that befit his position. Hogwarts for classical bastards, you might say.

I’ve not read any of the Percy Jackson novels, and I suspect a steady diet of them might pall about as rapidly as the Harry Potter series did, somewhere around book five, film three. But that’s not a problem because on the whole they are not meant for middle-aged women, unless perhaps they’re studying classical reception in the twenty-first century, and I’m not (though if it’s children’s books about Native Americans? Very different). The whole point is that the Percy Jackson stories are written with a very specific audience in mind by a man who taught that specific audience and knows what they like. Which is, as Mead put it, ‘a slangy, casual style […] which often read like a faithful transcription of teen uptalk.’ And Mead is at great pains to suggest that the books are deliberately written to keep adults away (unlike the Harry Potter novels which are, of course, for everyone; Mead is keen on a number of occasions to represent the Harry Potter novels as being somuch better). From Mead’s brief descriptions, it seems that Riordan has very cleverly adapted the gods of classical mythology for contemporary America in a way that appeals to teenagers while being faintly reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

So what, you might ask, is Mead’s problem? Apart from that sense that there’s something going on that her children have access to while she doesn’t? She seems prepared to concede the popularity of the main series but has baulked at Greek Gods because of its being ‘inscribed with obsolescence (Craigslist, iPhones, and the Powerball lottery are invoked) and delivered in the kind of jaded teen argot that proves irresistibly cool to kids from grade school up’. Apparently, actual retellings of myths and legends require something else. But what might that be?

If I think of retellings of myths and legends from my childhood I immediately turn to Roger Lancelyn Green and Ruth Manning-Sanders, both lovely storytellers – indeed, I still own several retellings by Lancelyn Green and reread them with pleasure. But we have to face the fact that the language is rather heightened for modern tastes and while they’re texts I would read to a child, they’re not texts I’d ask a child to read on its own, though if a child were to find them in the library and read them of their own volition, I’d naturally be delighted.

This, I think, is Mead’s difficulty. Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods is a book a child will happily read if asked, or by its own choice, but it is not a text a parent can as easily engage with. Mead as good as admits it herself when she draws on her own reading memories and on school syllabuses and comes up with Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, something which I suspect is better known in the USA than over here. It was originally published in 1962; in other words, it’s over fifty years old.

I took a look at the opening sentences:

In olden times, when men still worshiped ugly idols, there lived in the land of Greece a folk of shepherds and herdsmen who cherished light and beauty. They did not worship dark idols like their neighbours, but instead created their own beautiful, radiant gods.

Compare this to:

In the beginning, I wasn’t there. I don’t think the Ancient Greeks were, either. Nobody had a pen or paper to take notes, so I can’t vouch for what follows, but I can tell you it’s what the Greeks thought happened.
At first there was pretty much nothing. A lot of nothing.
The first god, if you can call it that, was Chaos – a gloomy, soupy mist with all the matter of the cosmos just drifting around. Here’s a fact for you: Chaos literally means the Gap, and we’re not talking about the clothing store.

Interesting differences, I think. The d’Aulaires start from the point of view of the people who created these gods, and their gods are beautiful and radiant. No mention of Uranus being castrated, for instance. The Percy Jackson retelling, by comparison, is more upfront and features a chapter called ‘The Golden Age of Cannibalism’! The Jackson retelling is colloquial and vivid, like an older sibling telling a story, while the d’Aulaires’ version is very serviceable but not really that exciting. Indeed, it seems rather to talk down to its audience. It’s clear which version a modern child is going to choose, and a parent who is surprised that it’s the Percy Jackson version is clearly not paying attention.

Which brings us to a further problem, again one highlighted by Mead. Should we leave children to find books for themselves or should we be prescriptive. In her article, the laissez-faire approach – ‘just so long as they’re reading’ – is expressed through reference to Neil Gaiman’s lecture given on behalf of the Reading Agency (link in the article), which argues that it’s all too easy to kill a child’s enthusiasm for reading by forcing texts on it. It’s a view I have some sympathy with.

Like Gaiman, I’m a product of the ‘laissez-faire’ approach, to the extent that I was pretty much left to my own reading devices as a child, though I suspect his libraries were rather better stocked than mine, and if the story I heard is true, I did not have sufficient chutzpah as teenager to blag a reading ticket to the Bodleian in the same way he managed to obtain one to the British Library. Then again, we both liked books, we both liked reading, we were always going to find ways to get to books. My siblings grew up in the precise same circumstances as me, with the same outlets available to them. One read nothing but Mills and Boon while the other eschewed fiction for extremely dense books about the architecture of the Great Western Railway, which he could discuss with great enthusiasm from an early age. There are people who would regard my siblings as somehow lesser because they don’t read the Guardian Review or have an opinion about the Booker Prize (and I have to say it’s really hard to make conversation with people who don’t share your interests) but the fact remains that they function perfectly well in the world. There is even the possibility that I am in the minority rather than them.

The contrasting argument comes from Tim Lott (link in the article), who suggests that if you don’t give children and teenagers ‘good’ stuff to read, they won’t find it on their own. In effect, they must be made to find it, or have it forced upon them. His argument, that E L James does not lead to Shakespeare, is valid so far as it goes, but then again, did anyone ever say that it would? I don’t think so. Lott’s problem seems to be that he feels young adults don’t have the grounding in literature that they once did, which might point to a problem with the way the educational system delivers its literature teaching these days but does not, I think, suggest that children themselves have changed. Rather as I disliked reading Jane Austen as a teenager, most of the students in my first-year lit class did not enjoy Northanger Abbey. On the other hand, they spoke knowledgeably about a wide range of so-called classic writers and at times gave extremely nuanced readings of the texts they enjoyed. Not all of which they had read in order to pass exams.

Which one would hope for as they were English Literature students. But that is surely the point. They trained to be there, they (mostly) wanted to be there. They could read E L James for fun, admit it was rubbish, and discuss Shakespeare and Plath as well. Somewhere behind them are all the people who were obliged to read Romeo and Juliet to pass an exam, who will never read one of Shakespeare’s plays ever again. Are they intellectually impoverished? Maybe, if they decide to go to university later, but on the whole, probably not.

And this is my problem. It seems to me that there are as many experiences of reading as there are people reading, but no one actually wants to admit that the world is not going to end if Mead’s children learn about Greek myths from the Percy Jackson stories (she admits herself that they know a good deal as a result of this encounter) rather than from the d’Aulaires’ version or older translations. If they’re interested, they’re going to read more. If they aren’t, why make them. Indeed, we might even end up with a situation where a new generation of children know considerably more about the myths than their parents did, because the Percy Jackson books have encouraged them to read more.

The same holds true for a lot of other things. I’ve always thought that if you want to interest teenagers in Shakespeare, take them to see the plays or act out versions rather than expecting them to simply read round the class, as happened in my day (my first trip to the theatre to see Shakespeare performed was a revelation!). Why not update them? If it sparks interest, the original text hasn’t gone away just because there’s a new version in town.

So, I suppose I’m sitting here on this new fence I’ve built, arguing that yes, children need to be left to their own devices, but that it’s also good to push a few improving texts their way if you accept your suggestions might be rejected, so don’t force it. But mostly, I think I want us to eschew Rebecca Mead’s fastidious veiled snobbishness and accept that just because our children read it doesn’t mean it will appeal to us, and that just because we loved X, it doesn’t follow that our children will too. The world has changed.

Giving Up on Doctor Who

I’m giving up on Doctor Who again. This time it may be final.

I first gave up on Doctor Who in 1966, after The Tenth Planet. Or rather, I was banned from watching it for a while after an incident involving my dreaming there was a Cyberman in my dressing-up box. (I’m not sure how long the ban lasted as I saw a fair amount of Troughton’s Doctor Who but I am still wary of classic Cybermen.)

Once back, I watched all the way to Colin Baker’s Doctor Who and then stopped because of Bonnie Langford, and completely missed Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor.

I watched Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor but finally gave up on the Doctor Who reboot halfway through David Tennant’s stint in the role.

I gave up mainly because I’d got tired of watching talented actors reduced to eye candy and acting out the fantasies of overgrown adolescents who had somehow finagled their way into writing scripts. Where they were writing scripts that looked like old-time Doctor Who, without necssarily understanding why old-time Doctor Who worked and more importantly why it didn’t.

For the sake of nostalgia, I watched the mainly incoherent mess that was the 50th anniversary episode and the Christmas episode that made the anniversary episode look as though it had been rigorously edited. (And was incidentally glad I’d never watched any of the other Matt Smith episodes because … well, Geronimo. And if you don’t know why that upsets me, watch this.)

And I started the new series because … Capaldi.

I like Capaldi. He’s an excellent actor (as indeed was David Tennant, and Christopher Eccleston before him; and I think Matt Smith will just get better and better, too).

But three episodes into this new series, I’ve had enough.

Where to begin?

First, bear in mind that I write as a casual viewer, one who has not assiduously watched every reboot episode several times (except the anniversary episode because the soundtrack was so noisy I couldn’t follow a thing and I hate watching with subtitles).

But I have to say the writing seems to have deteriorated since I last watched regularly.


It really is true what people say about Moffat’s inability to write women, or for that matter, to encourge others to write them well. Episode 1 of this series was my first proper encounter with Clara, and several people told me she is written so much better this series than last.

Really? That poor girl. It must have been bad if this is better.

I gathered too that the lizard alien, Madame Vastra, and her human wife, Jenny, are previous characters, which seems not to explain why we then had to go over and over and over the fact that they have a relationship, even before the lizard-human kiss. Because I was having a really hard time figuring that out until Moffat told me, and then went on to recreate Brookside all over again. And all that inbetween the casual objectfying of women. (And yes, if one woman objectifies another, it is still objectifying, honest.)

I still can’t decide whether to chalk it up to schoolboy prurience or daring progressivism, Moffat-style.

“See, puny humans, I can so write real women characters. So, yeah, ok, one is a lizard. But she’s a lady lizard. And a bit like Sherlock Holmes, too. Wow. Edgy, or what?”

OK, let’s instead say “I’m showing my insecurity about my ability to write women again, aren’t I? My wife says I’m good at writing women. I am a grown-up, honest. Please like me.”

And indeed, all three episodes are marked by a terrible insecurity and anxiety, particularly about Capaldi’s age and appearance. I suppose, after the girl cootie hysterics, it’s almost refreshing to turn to male-directed ageism. Though given that Moffat is not exactly a spring chicken and many of Doctor Who’s most devoted fans are not themselves in the first flush of youth, one might wonder quite where this anxiety springs from.

Jon Pertwee, the Doctor I remember most vividly from my childhood, was in his fifties when he played the role, and I don’t recall as a child being worried about his age. So one might assume the current child audience is unlikely to be bothered either. But neither, as an adult, am I bothered that Capaldi looks older than recent Doctors. (Capaldi is in fact, just over a year older than me, and believe me, I enjoy seeing someone close to my own age playing an action character – or I would if the scripts were any good).

Which suggests that somewhere along the way someone perhaps decided there was a target audience who wanted to see a Doctor who was pretty much like them in age terms, and that might also be flattered by having a slightly younger version of themselves to identify with, only to have it brought home to them in this series that yes, actually, we are all getting older. Or, to put a good face on it, we can all be grown-ups and still have fun.

Which is fine, but why do you have to keep going on about it? One school of thought explains to me that this shows the script team being aware of the sensitive feelings of their audience and addressing their anxieties about an older Doctor directly. And isn’t that wonderful of them?

Given the only response I’ve seen from the Doctor Who fans I know is “wow, Capaldi, yes”, inbetween “you know, John Hurt was a wonderful War Doctor”, I’m not sure exactly who it is they might be addressing about this issue. Themselves, possibly? This is beginning to feel like scriptwriters of a certain age playing out their own hopes and fears.

But all this is a distraction from the thing that is really annoying me this time around. Shoddy narrative, shoddy structure.

I’ve been struck by how none of the episodes so far actually fitted their allotted time. Episodes 1 and 2 both seemed to be dreadfully padded while last night’s episode suffered from quite the reverse, with an abrupt change of pace two thirds of the way through, as though Mark Gatiss had suddenly remembered it wasn’t a two-parter after all and, jesus, he had better start winding up NOW. Leading to the distinctly Bulldog Drummondish moment of Robin Hood and the Doctor fortuitously finding an off-screen blacksmith’s forge in order to release themselves from their shackles (though frankly, seeing them scrapping over that might have been more amusing than some of what passed for humorous interplay last night).

Last week, it was endless Dalek-on-human shooty-shooty in a series of wobbly corridors while Clara reactivated Hal, I’m sorry, Rusty, the good dalek, while in episode 1 there was so much infill and so many comic interludes it was hard to find a plot at all. There was probably about half an hour’s worth, which meant forty-five minutes of often exquisite tedium.

I’m also less than thrilled about the bolting on of moral points, and the relentless setting up of a story arc (i.e. the appearances of Missy, and references to The Promised Land. Shades of Bad Wolf again). It’s not that I object to story arcs per se. Handled well, they can be amazing things, but they need the individual stories to be strong as well (and here my view is shaped by watching Babylon 5, in its first two or three series one of the darkest things around). With Doctor Who it seems to have turned into a process of “bugger, another weak story, so hey, let’s put in something about the Doctor’s moral and existential angst a-n-d another story arc plot coupon. Collect the complete set to figure out what’s going on. The fans – the real fans – will love it.”

Possibly they will. Already, I am seeing critical commentary on this series that basically boils down to “and we learned this, which may mean that …”, which is not so much critical commentary as being a contestant on one of those solve-a-fictional-crime game shows so beloved of Radio 4. It’s also being used to elide the fact that the individual plots are as flimsy as hell, with a pop-up revelation at the end of each show.

And then there is the humour. Now it may be that I am indeed a humourless bitch, or it may be that as I said last night online, “My problem is that I like my comedy subtle rather than being elbowed in the ribs every two minutes to admire the waggishness of it all.” I could just about tolerate Strax the comedy Silurian Sontaran [Sontarans, Silurians, Silurians, Sontarans – let’s call the whole thing off] in episode 1, a little more than the arch exchanges between Vastra and Jenny, but last night’s attempt to recreate every cliché from every Robin Hood film ever became irksome (I can’t decide whether it would have been more irksome not to know the references than to be able to spot them, and yes, I knew them all – Gatiss is not the only one with a misspent youth). And there seemed to be slight but definite pauses before each stolen setpiece, as though to telegraph that it was coming. And after that came the meta-commentary on the laughing. As an observation it was spot on, but inevitably Gatiss overdid it, because they always do. On the other hand, I gather that children enjoyed the silliness of it all.

But, but, but, couldn’t it have been silly and told a better developed story as well? Like dealing with the whole notion of what Robin Hood means, as a real or fictional artefact, in more detail? Because then the silliness would have been a part of something else, rather than being the sole “thing” in the episode. As it was, it was obvious all the way through what was going on, even down to Robin Hood not being a robot. Even if one accepts that the Doctor has reasons for not “noticing” that something is wrong, one might wonder how, in the first episode, Clara didn’t notice, say, the oddity of the diners in that peculiar restaurant, because it was the first thing every viewer noticed, surely?

And perhaps that goes back to my earlier point about collecting story arc plot coupons. It seems to me that the audience is being flattered to believe it is cleverer than the Doctor and Clara in noticing these things, and that it will find the answer ahead of them. Even that isn’t in itself a crime but it is done so blatantly, and I find that offensive. All fiction, be it written or visual, is a form of manipulation of the reader or viewer, but the art is surely to do it without the consumer noticing. Unless, of course, you want them to notice and admire your cleverness, or encourage them to admire their own, a form of fan service.

And now we seem to be into reprising past shows. We’ve had the “mad dalek”; next week is this series’ “Are you my mummy?” episode. Which will of course remind us that Moffat did once produce an episode of genuine terror. (So much so that it had me awake in the night and sleeping with the light on, several nights running; it really was just like the good old days.) Somehow, on recent showing, I don’t think next week’s episode is going to do that.

Which is not to say that there aren’t good moments. There are, but they are very few and show how bad the rest of it is. The burgeoning relationship between Danny and Clara was surprisingly tastefully done, but feels like it’s a pilot for a totally different series in which a former soldier turned schoolteacher comes to terms with his past and makes a new life for himself in the civilian world. Could be quite gritty and all that. (One should also note Tom Baker’s cameo in the anniversary episode, which was probably the best thing about it after John Hurt.) And indeed, I find myself wondering whether Moffat isn’t now actually bored, having helped reboot the Doctor. I mean, where do you go next?

My single favourite moment of the entire series so far came last night as the arrow thudded into the Tardis and Capaldi just looked at it. Nothing was said. He just looked. And it was brilliant. Infinitely funnier than all the knockabout because it came out of incredibly good acting that turned a cliché into something special.

But that’s the problem. I can’t waste forty-five minutes of my life every week waiting for moments like that. Nor do I have any interest in collecting the plot coupons. I’m caught in a place between the people who can watch each episode totally uncritically and those who are so steeped in the lore of Doctor Who that every word, every slight nuance has so much meaning it would take a lifetime to accumulate the knowledge necessary to fully apprehend what is going on. And I don’t have the time to expend the effort needed to do that. In fact, I don’t want to have to study that hard in order to enjoy my Saturday night tv viewing to the full.

I want a tv series that can exist for those who watch regularly, a little out of nostalgia it’s true, but who also want a well-constructed narrative alongside the entertainment for the littlies and the fan service for the geeks and nerds, and that seems to be the one thing that Moffat et al are unable to provide.

In which case I shall with regret take my leave.

Accessing the Future – How Not to Do Disability SF

I’ve already written about Accessing the Future, an exciting new anthology that seeks to “publish speculative fiction stories that interrogate issues of dis/ability—along with the intersecting nodes of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future”.

Its editors are Kathryn Allan, who has edited Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013, Palgrave Macmillan), and Djibril al-Ayad, co-editor, along with Fabio Fernandes, of We See A Different Frontier as well as being editor of The Future Fire.

With fifteen days to go before the fund-raising campaign finishes, I invited Kathryn and Djibril over to Paper Knife, to talk about a few of the stories that they feel get portrayals of disability spectacularly wrong.

Thank you, Maureen, for welcoming us to Paper Knife and letting us complain (and snark) a bit about some of the terrible examples of disability in science fiction out there. There are LOTS but since we don’t want this to be an encyclopedia of “what not to do when you include a person with disability in your story,” we’ll just highlight a handful of the examples that put the bee in our respective bonnets.

First off, let’s give an example of the type of story that is quite common: where a “negative” representation of disability appears thoroughly “positive” on the first read. One such story is Edith Nesbit’s “Uncle Abraham’s Romance,” a truly lovely ghost story about the narrator’s old and disabled Uncle Abraham, and the story of the love he almost found when a young man. This piece is deeply sensitive; the characterization of the gentle, resigned, peaceable old man is perfect, carried in every ounce of the story down to the subdued, monotonous tone of the prose itself. There is heartbreaking pathos in the repeated refrain, “Although I was lame, and the girls laughed at me.” In many ways this is a very positive story; Abraham’s disability is believable and not mocked, he is in no way less than human, and the reader has nothing but sympathy for him.

But that right there’s the problem—he’s a figure of sympathy, of pity. His disability causes him to fail at the one thing that might have brought him happiness, and he spends his whole life alone and, if not unhappy, certainly lonely and regretful. Although Nesbit is to be praised for humanizing the character, this story never questions the prevailing stereotype that a person with disability is defined, constrained and ultimately defeated by their disability.

So yes, it’s possible that a writer can be well-intentioned, but they nevertheless end up repeating harmful stereotypes and assumptions about disability. Now, on to the undeniably “bad” examples!

H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau is particularly disturbing and awful with it’s descriptions of animal-people-monsters, heavily relying on words like “cripple,” “dwarfs,” and all types of medicalized terms for people with disabilities. If you were ever curious about the transformative possibilities of vivisection (which is surgery or experimentation on live animals), this is the book to read. Wells was a well-known proponent of eugenics, and much of his early work (like The Time Machine) explores the potential “horrors” that could be prevented through eugenic programs. Ugh. Pass.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is often talked about as a novel that explores the dangers of eugenics (a.k.a., genetic engineering) but it is really about the dangers of state-controlled eugenics programs. Huxley was against big government but fine with using eugenics to remove “degenerates.” Don’t believe it? Here’s a line from his follow-up work, Brave New World Revisited:

And what about the congenitally insufficient organisms, whom our medicine and our social services now preserve so that they may propagate their kind? To help the unfortunate is obviously good. But the wholesale transmission to our descendants of the results of unfavourable mutations, and the progressive contamination of the genetic pool from which the members of our species will have to draw, are no less obviously bad.

Pro tip: don’t refer to anyone, ever, as a “congenitally insufficient organism.”

A. E. van Vogt’s Slan is just crap. Honestly, how did this book ever become one of the touch points of early fandom (spawning the “fans are slans” slogan)? Don’t answer! Not only is Slan poorly written, but it’s chock full of sexism and advocates for the world where some people are better than others (e.g., they are more intelligent) and so deserve to be in control (and those that are too different/less intelligent are ignorant monsters who deserve to die). This is one “classic” that needs to go away.

William Gibson’s “Winter Market” is an interesting story about the philosophy and metaphysics of mind-upload, in which a young woman with a “wasting disease” who uses a mechanical exoskeleton chooses to “upgrade” to living entirely in cyberspace to escape her disabled body. This story is sometimes discussed as one of the foundational texts of the debate around whether the human brain can ever be replicated in a computer, whether personality can be captured by electrons and bits, and whether the person could live on in the machine if you switched off and discarded your body at that point.

It’s a powerful story, but it starts with (and never questions) the assumption that a person living with a disability, with a body that needs prosthetics in order to move around, in constant pain, doesn’t have much to live for. We love the tech and the grittiness, but Gibson never stopped to consider that actual people with disabilities might not want to transcend the physical world in favour of digital avatars. Sigh.

And we certainly can’t forget Robert A. Heinlein’s “Waldo,” in which a disabled man develops superpowers through sheer force of willpower. Not only does this story succumb to the the worst of Heinlein’s glorificatory corporatist and libertarian instincts, but Waldo is a distilled example of the “inspirational” or “motivational” disabled person. He is a genius inventor, a fabulously rich industrialist, and incredibly hard worker (because everyone wealthy and powerful is so by merit), and he ultimately discovers how to tap into the power of parallel universes and to control almost every aspect of physical matter, including his own (because people who don’t manage to overcome their disabilities apparently just aren’t trying hard enough).

Amusingly, this story is now only available as a double-bill in a volume including a novella in which trade unionists are literally the servants of Satan. Note the description of Waldo (in bolded, 40 point font, no less) on the back of the book Waldo and Magic, Inc. (1970): “Fat, Ugly, And Hopelessly Crippled On Earth.” So. Much. Cringe.

Let’s end on a high note: because we don’t like being unremittingly negative, we encourage you to go and read some examples of good representation of disability in SFF for yourself, in stories by Anna Caro, Jack Hollis Marr, Nick Wood and Aliette de Bodard, or check out some recommendations of longer fiction from Kathryn at Pornokitsch. And, of course, please help us bring even more realistic representations of disability in SF into the world by supporting our co-edited anthology, Accessing the Future at Indiegogo.

You can also follow Kathryn and Djibril on Twitter, as @bleedingchrome and @thefuturefire respectively, and check out #disabilitysf for more blog posts about the project.

Reading off-piste – the Hugo shortlists 2014

Yes, I have another project; reading the shortlists for the Hugo Awards 2014.

Last week I read an article in the New Yorker by Christine Smallwood. It’s a review of The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, by Phyllis Rose. Smallwood describes it as a ‘stunt book’, in which Rose ‘reads through a more or less random shelf of library books’. That someone might undertake such an exercise, Smallwood suggests (and one has the impression that Smallwood isn’t actually that impressed by this feat – and I can’t say I am, either) is a reflection of the ‘embattled climate of bibliophilia’ in which ‘authors undertake reading stunts to prove that reading–anything– still matters’.

Apparently, the number of Americans who read has been declining for thirty years, and Smallwood suggests that those who do read ‘have become proud of, even a bit overidentified with, the enterprise’. This overidentification seems to find its expression in merchandising. ‘Alongside the tote bags you can find T-shirts, magnets and buttons emblazoned with covers of classic novels; the Web site Etsy sells tights printed with poems by Emily Dickinson’. Why??? Meanwhile we’ll draw a veil over the paint colours inspired by literature. Smallwood comments that the ‘merchandising of reading has a curiously undifferentiated flavour, as if what you read mattered less than that you read.’ Except that this seems to me to be less about reading than about advertising that you read.

Rose describes her own ‘adventure’ as ‘Off Road or Extreme Reading’, and draws comparisons between her reading and Ernest Shackleton’s explorations of the Antarctic (though presumably not the one where his men had to overwinter while he and a small crew sailed over 1000kms and then trekked across South Georgia to fetch help). The brief pause here … is me rearranging my face to avoid an expression of utter incredulity at Rose’s comparison. I didn’t do very well.

Because obviously, Rose carefully selecting a suitable random shelf (no, really – this is a whole new definition of random) in the New York Society Library is absolutely analagous to Shackleton and his crew heading for the Antarctic. Apparently, there is a whole subgenre of books in which readers conduct such armchair expeditions. I’d been dimly aware of such books existing but hadn’t felt moved to read any of them, perhaps because I’ve always got my own reading projects on the go and am associated with online communities where other people are similarly engaged. And I’d argue my reading projects are rather more directed than Rose’s. Of course I’d argue that.

And I suppose I’m feeling just a little bit unsettled about this as I have another reading project getting underway right now: a read through some of the Hugo Award shortlists for 2014. And there’s the rub. I have this whole project set up in my head, the reading loaded onto my tablet … and yet, isn’t this all just another performance? Am I really any better than Rose with her ridiculous analogies? I have form, after all – see The Shortlist Project.

And the answer is, of course, both yes and no. To read through a series of shortlists is a feat in itself, one made more complicated by the fact that one nomination is in fact eighteen volumes (needless to say, the one question on everyone’s lips has been, ‘Are you going to read the whole Wheel of Time, to which my response has been ‘yes, if I can’) but whereas Rose’s project is mainly notable for its sheer randomness (well, its highly structured, with an eye to publication, randomness), coupled with a strong sense of ‘no one else has ever done this before’, I would like to think mine contrbutes to the community endeavour of determining which nominations deserve to win. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

In fact, as I’ve started preparing for this project, it’s begun to turn into a personal enquiry into the politics and practice of reading and criticism, or rather, my practice and my take on the politics of reading. I could try to explain that in detail now, but I think it will be better, more effective even, to discuss the issues as they arise and let the picture unfold gradually. And the first issue is whether this is mere grandstanding or a serious critical endeavour. Possibly that can only be judged at the end of the project

Oddly, Smallwood’s article picks up on similar issues. Moving on from Rose’s enterprise, Smallwood provides a thumbnail sketch of different approaches to reading over the last century – close reading, theory, the wrenching open of the canon to include ‘women and people of colour’, ‘surface reading’ (which apparently describes rather than decodes) which is also ‘just reading’, which apparently focuses simply on what is manifest in a text. I linger momentarily on that because, to me, it is impossible to ‘just read’ when ‘just reading’ brings so many other things into play. That may be my academic training intruding, but ‘just reading’ suggests the words fly past one’s eyes and somehow sidestep the brain, whereas I’d argue that there is always some sort of judgement, however rudimentary, involved.

Rose’s book, apparently, engages mostly in plot summary, which is fine so far as it goes, but in my view it doesn’t really go that far. Most people could read a book and provide some sort of summary of its content and I have very little patience with the sort of criticism that does nothing other than recapitulate the story. Rose is also what Smallwood calls ‘a social reader’; that is, she sees her reading as encounters with the authors. She ‘meets’ her authors, and in a couple of instances does actually meet them. To me, this is anathema. Not the meeting authors in the flesh (authors are, for the most part, people too, and some of them are excellent company) but the assumption that one can ‘meet’ authors by reading their books. I may no longer be a thorough-going Barthesian (it’s all far more complicated than the mere death of the author) but neither do I believe that what is on the page is, on the whole, the sum of the person who wrote it. Which is not to say either that the author’s personal presence never intrudes either, but I’ll come to that later. Having said that, I’m interested that Rose came across the work of Rhoda Lerman and indeed tracked her down, even if Lerman turned out not to be quite what Rose expected. But that’s kind of incidental to anything I’m attempting here.

So, I start on my own extreme, or more accurately endurance, reading project with an uncomfortable feeling that yes, I am ‘performing’, though I hasten to reassure everyone I’m not planning on comparing my endeavours to Shackleton’s expeditions because, well, because that’s silly. But yes, in a way I am performing. I’d like to feel the world is hanging on my words of wisdom as I offer my opinions, because I’m not so bad at being a critic, but I have a strong suspicion it will boil down to whether I can make it through the entire Wheel of Time. Game on.