Category Archives: Uncategorized

Accessing the Future

There’s a new crowd-funding project on the block. To be co-edited by Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad, it’s an anthology called Accessing the Future, and it will

call for and 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.

The link to the project’s Indiegogo page is here. And as you will see, I’m offering forensic critiques on novellas (up to 40K) though I could be persuaded to look at several smaller pieces up to a total of 40K.

There are lots of other things going on to promote this project, including a short interview with Kathryn Allan at Fabio Fernandes’ blog, Different Frontiers.

There is also a blog hop underway, details of which are here,, with early entries by Jo Thomas and DavidG.

As Djibril says, ‘The “blog hop” is designed to get writers and readers thinking about ableism and body-privilege in the worlds they create/consume.’

This is a really great project. Please support it.

My Loncon 3 programme schedule

I can now officially announce that I’m on these amazing items on the Loncon 3 schedule. It’s a stunning programme generally and I’m really pleased with my portion of it.

If you want to know if I talk as much bollocks in public as I do online, want to say hello, throw things (please don’t), bring me flowers, etc., here’s where I can can guarantee to be during Loncon 3:

2014 Hugos: Best Novel Shortlist Discussion
Thursday 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 7+12 (ExCeL)

Our panel discusses this year’s shortlist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
Neptune’s Brood
by Charles Stross (Ace / Orbit UK)
Parasite
by Mira Grant (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles
by Larry Correia (Baen Books)
The Wheel of Time
by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books / Orbit UK)

What should win? What will win? What are the notable omissions?

Justin Landon (M)
Matt Hilliard, Ruth O’Reilly, Maureen Kincaid Speller

Constructing Genre History
Friday 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 10 (ExCeL)

Whether through magazine features, popular history, or intense academic argument, what are the perils and pitfalls of constructing a history of SF? How much space is there to revise the history of SF in a journalistic – or blog – setting? What is the process by which ideas about genre theory actually move into and affect the popular understanding of the history of SF? To what extent do the books of the ‘canon’ represent the taste of successive generations?

Gary Wolfe (M)
Maureen Kincaid Speller, Takayuki Tatsumi, Ginjer Buchanan, Suanna Davis

The Politics of Utopia
Saturday 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 10 (ExCeL)

From Thomas More onward, utopianism and colonialism have gone hand-in-hand. New societies set up to embody the Good Life are founded on the erasure of others; or old societies intervene with colonial intent cloaked in utopian liberating rhetoric. How have recent Western writers of SF, Iain Banks being one, grappled with this aspect of the politics of utopia? And how have postcolonial writers, like Nalo Hopkinson, worked to reclaim the idea of utopia?

David Farnell (M)
Adrian Hon, Christina Lake, Kim Stanley Robinson, Maureen Kincaid Speller(

Representing Indigenous Cultures in Speculative Fiction
Saturday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 6 (ExCeL)

Three academics each give a presentation [followed] by a jointly held 30 minute discussion and Q&A with the audience.

Christopher Kastensmidt, “Simone Saueressig and the Indigenous Epic”
Maureen Kincaid Speller, “The Silence of the Indian: Representations of Indigenous North Americans in Science Fiction and Fantasy”
Gillan Polack, “Old cultures, new fictions: introducing three Indigenous Australian writers of speculative fiction”

Ronald Meyers (M)

I Before They, Except After You
Saturday 18:00 – 19:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

Who is the narrator? Where and when is the story being told? These are just a few questions a reader may ask at the start of a new story. For many years, third-person has been genre’s preferred narrative form, but lately it seems first-person narratives are having a resurgence. How do writers choose their viewpoint, and how does it affect the sorts of stories they can tell? Why is YA so often told in first-person, and epic fantasy generally (but not always!) third? To add another layer of complexity, the present tense also seems to be increasing in popularity – Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus are just two notable examples. How does the use of present tense change a reader’s experience?

Maureen Kincaid Speller (M)
Edward Cox, Robin Hobb, Kate Nepveu, Patrick Rothfuss

Generations of Genre
Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 5 (ExCeL)

For one reader, “traditional fantasy” is pre-Tolkienian, pre-genre, sui-generis works; for another, it’s the pattern of story exemplified by Forgotten Realms and David Eddings. Equally, for one reader The Hunger Games is a young adult dystopia, while for another it’s science fiction. Does every generation invent its own reading terminology? Can the evolution of such terms be mapped onto changing demographics — is there such a thing as GenX fantasy, or Baby Boomer science fiction? And do any terms retain their currency, and describe common ground across generations?

Andy Sawyer (M)
Maureen Kincaid Speller, S. J. Groenewegen, Amy McCulloch, David Henley

The Glass Republic, Chapters 25-28 – Tom Pollock

As part of the ongoing reread of Tom Pollock’s The Glass Republic, I contribute a brief discussion of Chapters Twenty-Five to Twenty-Eight …


‘They’re ugly.’ Espel’s jaw looked like she was fighting some rebellious instinct. ‘They’re so empty – so blatantly incomplete.’ (280)

At the beginning of Chapter Twenty-Six, Espel and Pen have taken cover during a weatherturn in what Espel calls Immigration Centre SW 1 butwhat Pen knows as Victoria Station. Here, they witness immigrant half-faces being brought in from detention camps elsewhere, and given IDs (that is, Inverse Depictors or prosthetics, to complete their appearance – Cosmetic, Prosthetic, Completing Your Aesthetic, as the jingle goes). Pen already knows something about this because Espel as a half-face herself needs an ID to, as she puts it, ‘keep me legal’. Here, for the first time perhaps, we fully understand the horror that is London-Under-Glass.

This is a society which is driven entirely by appearance. Perhaps not surprising given that it is a mirror world, and the mirror not only tells us (in theory) what we look like, but reminds us that other people are also always looking. In this world we accept, but rarely articulate and often forget, that other people are always looking. We perhaps become most aware of it when we look at celebrity photographs or cctv footage, yet all of us are on show, every day, in even the most casual encounter. The difference between this world and London-Under-Glass is perhaps that we make these judgements in a very casual sort of way. We are swayed by appearance yet we recognise too in our hearts that appearance is not quite everything. In London-Under-Glass, by contrast, the entire structure of society is predicated on a clearly articulated and institutionalised aesthetic hierarchy, one that is legally enforceable.

Rather than glancing at someone and making aN ephemeral judgement, in London-Under-Glass a person’s face tells you everything you need to know. London-Under-Glass is a panopticon, with everyone always on display, always observable, the outward expression of a deeply conformist society in which everyone is obliged to adhere to one rigidly defined notion of aesthetic acceptability when it is fairly obvious that the ‘norm’ is anything but.
Words such as ‘power’ and ‘control’ are in play throughout these chapters, and one expression of that power is to be found in the insistence that everyone look a certain way; though, here, that insistence works on two levels. First, the half faces must look like the full faces, because otherwise they’re ‘incomplete’, as Espel puts it; but then, having had symmetricality forced upon them, they must work for assymetricality all over again, except that surgically enhanced assymetricality can never be quite the same as the genuine article, can it?

That’s one of the things I find so fascinating about London-Under-Glass. It’s blatantly unequal and yet at the same time, there are even more layers of subtle inequality buried below the surface. Where, for example, we might expect Espel to feel a certain sympathy for the immigrants, because they are like her, needless to say, she doesn’t because she is of course local and they are not. To her they are ‘incomplete’ yet she misses the intrinsic irony of her accusation because she chooses to see herself as ‘complete’ and to ignore the means by which she came to be complete.

And this is perhaps the ultimate reminder of the status of the immigrant in a new city. Pen, or rather, her sister Parva, is immediately successful in London-Under-Glass because she has something London-Under-Glass prizes, or wants, or can exploit. She can immediately rise to the top of the heap. For most immigrants, however, life in a new city is a constant struggle; the treatment they undergo at Victoria is a literal expression of the need to assimilate and integrate, to become like everyone else while permanently marked out as being different.
And yet, as Senator Case would have it, ‘looking’ dilutes power as well as conferring it. For Pen this is particularly significant, given that in our world the sight of her scars causes revulsion whereas in London-Under-Glass, her scars excite envy because of their very assymetricality. In the end, they are still little more than a fashion. What happens when tastes change and people want a different form of assymetricality? Does Pen retain the beauty that London-Under-Glass confers on her? Or is it as ephemeral as the beauty of any model or celebrity in our world? Pen should in theory be happier in London-Under-Glass because of this apparent acceptance of her looks but her experience suggests that even there happiness comes at a price. The Faceless Ones know this … as Pen realises in Chapter Twenty-Five, they hide their faces not to disguise themselves but to step away from that constant judgement: ‘it helped them ignore the aesthetics they’d been raised to judge each other by’ (267).

And if we are in any doubt, it is made clear that Pen’s power is minimal. Her face is well-known, she is famous, but her power is literally skin-deep. She cannot do anything to stop the integration of IDs and half-faces, and her motives in doing so are anyway confused. Instinctively, she recognises that something is wrong here, but there is no quick, obvious way to determine what’s going on, and the weight of practice is against her.
The complexity of these aesthetic discussions is such that it comes as a shock at moments to realise that the other London, the other ‘other’ London is still out there. However, it makes itself felt in the most forceful of ways with the attack of the Masonry Men and their abduction of the immigrants. I’ve noted before my fascination with the Masonry Men and their female counterparts, the Women in the Walls, and although they appear less often in The Glass Republic my interest in them has not abated. Here, though, we see them in a very different role. Whereas we have previously seen them trapped by the activities of the Crane King, or else struggling to survive, here, as Pen notes, ‘They were disciplined; when they swam under the floor, they held formation. I think they had a mission – they were very specific about what they took’ (309). ‘What’ being immigrants. Something, then, controls the Masonry Men. More interesting, though, is how they come to be in London-Under-Glass, when they seem to be so very much creatures of Beth’s London. Which may provide just a hint of what is going on, especially given that Pen recognises the tattoo on the Masonry Man’s wrist, city tower blocks arranged to form a crown. And we all know who’s insignia that is.

Yet, mostly I find myself haunted by the image of them ‘swimming’ through the floor, and of Captain Corbin suddenly finding his leg caught in concrete. There is a dreadful terror in discovering that the world you think of as solid is anything but. Creatures swimming through solid concrete provides a whole new level of horror. More so than stepping through a mirror because there has always been that idea of a world beyond or in the mirror. It’s the cost of gaining entry to such a world that Tom has once again highlighted here.

Counterfactuals

Paul Kincaid posted a letter sent in response to Owen Hatherley’s review of Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History by Richard J Evans, last week’s Guardian Review.

Through the dark labyrinth

Last week, in the Guardian Review, Owen Hatherley wrote this review of Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History by Richard J Evans. It was an interesting review that attacked much of what Evans had said in his book. But Hatherley seemed to go along with Evans in assuming that counterfactuals (and alternate histories, the two were discussed without discrimination) were inherently conservative.

I had to disagree. I wrote the following letter to the Guardian, but since there seems to be no letter column in this week’s Guardian Review, I include it here (note, I kept this short for a better chance of being published, but I could have written on this subject at far, far greater length).

Sir,

In repeating the claim by Richard J. Evans that counterfactuals are inherently, and indeed always, conservative, Owen Hatherley (President Gore? Prime Minister Portillo?, 19 April) is simply wrong.

Yes, many are conservative, but not by…

View original post 121 more words

The Godless Boys – Naomi Wood

The Godless Boys – Naomi WoodNaomi Wood’s The Godless Boys (Picador, 2011) was mentioned a number of times early last year as a possibility the Clarke Award shortlist, along with Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. I never included them on the actual Shortlist Project list but always intended to read them and append my thoughts to the main body of the project. I covered Zone One yesterday; it clearly engages with genre tropes even if it’s also doing something else, and I enjoyed it a good deal. I could see it as a Clarke Award shortlist outlier. However, I cannot say the same about The Godless Boys, for all sorts of reasons, which I shall now enumerate and discuss

Genre, literary and mainstream, whatever they mean as terms individually, are all part of a reading continuum so far as I’m concerned. I’m fairly eclectic in my tastes and move happily back and forth along that continuum. I understand that different writers use the same tropes and devices in different ways and I try to be open to what they’re doing. Whitehead used zombies to satirise elements of contemporary culture but he did so from the point of view of understanding thoroughly how the trope works and, indeed, adding to it in a rather poignant way (which may make him the only person I can think of who has written sympathetically about zombies). Though his novel primarily addresses the problems of rebuilding civilisation using the fragments of a civilisation that was not fit for purpose to begin with, while also being quietly elegiac for that which has been lost, the different elements of story solidly support one another in their overall endeavour.

The Godless Boys<employs another staple of the sf genre, the alternative history. The premise here is that at some point in the late 1940s (there is no indication that World War II ever occurred), an upsurge in religious fervour led to the election to government of a fervently Christian political party. This led to people having to be registered as Christian or non-affiliated, which in turn led to increasing discrimination of the non-affiliated, in a manner deeply reminiscent of the ways in which Jews were treated in pre-war Nazi Germany in our own timeline, mixed in with elements of the USA’s Jim Crow segregation rules and various other bits of discriminatory behaviour taken from recent world history. This leads to the rise of the Secular Movement in the early 1950s, whose acts included firebombing places of worship and results in members of the Movement being deported to an island off the north-east coast of England.

A reader’s understanding of how a trope works can sometimes come into conflict with an author’s use of that trope. Had Wood simply set her novel in a different place, that is, if she’d devised an alternative history, used it as a background without comment, and got on with the story, I might have briefly wondered where the point of divergence had been and got on with the story itself. If the background is sufficiently secure in the writer’s mind, I would argue that it is also secure on the page and the reader will only momentarily pause to wonder.

As it is, Wood spends so much time fiddling around with dates, establishing a chronology for the Movement, the reader’s attention immediately turns to wondering when the point of divergence occurred. In all, it becomes a distraction from the actual story; one spends too much time worrying over how a religious party might have come to power in 20th-century Britain, or rather England, given there is no indication that anywhere else exists in this alternative timeline, as though England exists under a glass cover, cut off from the rest of the world. And so the reader becomes overly preoccupied with things that shouldn’t really matter. As if that were not enough, she also provides a timeframe for the novel itself, providing dates for sections, once again suggesting that she herself is not really clear where in time this novel exists.

Indeed, one might ask whether it exists in time at all, for the novel itself is set almost exclusively on the island, or rather, the Island. It has no other name and, for that matter, no geographical location other than that it is somewhere off the coast of north-east England, a ten-hour boat trip from Newcastle, and thirty years back in time from 1986. Of course, no such island exists, though the situation on the island reminded me oddly of the Channel Islands during German occupation.

The island, of course, is a classic metaphor of isolation, a microcosmic society, a prison. Yet, once again, I found myself asking all those difficult questions about its social organisation and its economy, dependent as it is on those who exiled its inhabitants for pretty much everything. The deprivation is of course a punishment but the motives of the ruling party remain unclear; why send them into internal exile? Why not expel them from the country altogether, other than that it wouldn’t make much of a story.

Except, of course, that it would, because the prevailing political and religious climate, the island’s isolation, are revealed in turn to be irrelevant to the actual heart of the story. They provide things to do, reasons for people to be where thy are, and they make life difficult, but in truth, this story does not need religious extremism any more than it needs to be set on an island. at the heart of the story are teenage boys with nothing to do and a teenage girl looking for her lost mother. This is a novel about grief, mourning, emotional deprivation and failures of communication, and that could be set anywhere. Indeed, it is noticeable that once Wood stops fussing about establishing the setting and the nature of the community and focuses on the relationships between the members of the Malades, a gang of teenage boys led by Nathaniel Malraux, the other islanders and the stowaway, Sarah Wicks, who has come looking for her mother, the storytelling does begin to improve. Wood is much better at evoking that small but significant detail that evokes the nature of a relationship than she is at telling a story that exploits setting and society. Which prompts one to ask why she settled for this unconvincing alternative history of secular persecution and island exile in the first place.

Yes, the Malades exist in order to ferret out evidence of English spies, of people having returned to Christian worship, driven by Nathaniel’s need to avenge his father’s death – Nathaniel wears his father’s work boots, which he literally has yet to grow into – but this is merely a convenient peg on which to hang their existence rather than something central to the novel. Indeed, the Malades owe as much to Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange as they do to anything else. Again, they could come from anywhere or belong anywhere. They need neither an alternative history or an island in order to spring into being.

In the end, this novel simply doesn’t make sense. It feels as though a series of unwise choices were made, forcing the author to tread a certain path, to the point where it was simpler to go on than to turn back. There is a sense of growing confidence in the writing as though the author has finally realised what she wants to write about by the time she gets to the end, but what to do with the material she has accumulated along the way? Easier to retain it than to start again? It’s hard to blame the author after all that work but it does mean that the novel as it now exists feels as though it’s been pulled and pushed all over the place before being wrangled into something that will pass for a novel. That can’t have been satisfying for the writer and it certainly isn’t satisfying for the reader. Not even a helpful subtitle – A Story of Love and Violence – can entirely rescue it.

I suppose the point is that whereas Whitehead understood how tropes work and used them to his advantage Naomi Wood has used tropes to try and paper over the weaknesses in the story, to provide instant background and story setting, without fully appreciating how this might impinge on the actual plot (which is, god knows, thin enough as it is). There is, to be fair, some potential in this novel, but it remains hidden behind the frantic hand-waving and pick-and-mix approach until it’s far too late to be of any use.

The Kitschies, 2012

Belatedly, a note about the 2012 Kitschies, which were awarded last Tuesday, at a very lively ceremony at the Free Word Centre in Islington.

The Kitschies are given annually for the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic. Deliberately, they eschew the use of ‘best’; the emphasis on ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining’ has thrown up some interesting shortlists since the award got started, something I’m going to have to explore in more detail when I have time.

Anyway, this year’s winners are:

Red Tentacle (Novel): Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker (William Heinemann)

Golden Tentacle (Debut): Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo (Jo Fletcher Books)

Inky Tentacle (Cover Art) : Dave Shelton’s A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, illustrated by the author (David Fickling Books)

The Black Tentacle: the discretionary prize for an outstanding contribution to the conversation surrounding genre literature, was awarded to The World SF Blog

So far, I’ve only read Juli Zeh’s The Method (which I reviewed here) but I have the rest of the Red Tentacle and Golden Tentacle shortlists piled up around my study, so will be reviewing my way through them in the next few weeks.

I was particularly struck by the presentation of the Inky Tentacle, for cover art; the presenter-judges made the point that they were looking at book design, cover as part of book, etc. Which made me think of that piece I wrote way back when discussing the 2011 BSFA Artwork shortlist and my problem with judging the nominations. The Inky Tentacle seems to directly address my dilemma then. And what a relief to see cover designs that did not feature hyperrealist depictions of impossibly posed young women and men pretending to be elves, thieves, assassins, whatever. I’ve always disliked the hyperrealist covers and could wish that the latest trend for them could be stifled asap).

So, a very enjoyable evening – how could it not be with rum, tentacles, Nick Harkaway’s suit, and a lively crowd of people who like good fiction?

On Wednesday, Nick Harkaway published his more detailed thoughts on winning the Red Tentacle, and Lavie Tidhar discussed his feelings about the World SF Blog winning the Black Tentacle. Both articles are thought-provoking and well worth reading.

Ghost Planet – Sharon Lynn Fisher

It’s not often that I write about novels that I think are just plain bad; life is short and there are so many other things I could be writing about. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris lately, and the book I’m going to discuss is part of the literary hinterland.

I taught Solaris this term, as a result of which I not only read it again after many years (both translations) but also finally got around to watching the Tarkovsky film and overcame my dislike of George Clooney sufficiently to watch the Soderbergh remake as well, and indeed to enjoy it, despite George Clooney.

It was while I was in the middle of this minor Solaris jag that I came across Sharon Lynn Fisher’s Ghost Planet (Tor, 2012). According to her article on SF Signal Fisher was inspired first by seeing the Soderbergh film, which in turn sent her back to Lem’s novel. And it just so happened she had a title – Ghost Planet, a rather banal title if we are honest – in need of a story. You can probably see where this is heading.

In truth, I knew my engagement with this novel wasn’t going to end well when I read ‘Where Lem pretty much left it up to the reader to decide on the true nature of the alien intelligence, I wanted to explore and flesh out this concept.’ Because, though I may have misunderstood Lem in this, I had rather thought the point was that hitherto it had been absolutely impossiblefor the human scientists to comprehend the ‘alien intelligence’. Indeed, the entire novel was based on a double inability to communicate and comprehend; as the scientists experiment with Solaris, so it is experimenting with them, and has chosen to do so through making material the fragments of thought and ideas that weigh most heavily on its ‘subjects’: in Kelvin’s case this happens to be his dead wife, Rheya/Harey

Fisher goes on to say ‘I stuck with the idea that the nature of the ghosts was obscured (in my story, due to the fact they were created by a symbiotic planetary ecosystem without consciousness). But I wanted their true nature to be at least somewhat discoverable and accessible.’ Which is surely not only having one’s cake but also eating it. And, as it turns out, first smothering it in marshmallow fluff before consuming it and then sliding into a sugar-induced orgasm.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The story is simple. The first-person narrator, is Elizabeth Cole, a psychology postgraduate on the run from a failed relationship, who has managed to get herself a posting on Ardagh 1, ‘more commonly referred to as “the ghost planet” by people on Earth’, just in case we’re in any doubt as to what is likely to be going on here (and what an ugly piece of writing that is – it’s the sort of thing that overly precocious teenagers write before they learn better). The point is that new arrivals on New Seattle very quickly acquire a companion, a companion somehow created by the planet itself. Usually it’s a dead lover, spouse or relation to whom they’ve been close, though in certain circumstances, it can be someone else with whom the new arrival has formed a bond of some sort along the way. Garvey, for example, made a drunken pass at a young woman who turned out to be a lesbian (though in this instance, they’ve formed a strong if prickly companionate bond, so that’s ok, isn’t it?). With Elizabeth, it turns out that Grayson Murphy, who would have been her supervisor on Ardagh 1, was also once her tour guide somewhere in Ireland, and for some reason, she has apparently stuck in his mind. To say this is convenient is to be even more disingenuous than the novel turns out to be.

To begin with, no one, certainly not Elizabeth, realises that she has become a ‘ghost’, not until she fails to pass through a security scanner, almost simultaneously with the arrival of the news of her death. This discovery initiates a complete volte-face in Grayson Murphy’s behaviour as he initiates the Ghost Protocol, designed to cope with the ghosts by ignoring them completely, in the hope they will go away (although it is also clear that some humans and ghosts maintain relationships away from the public gaze) and treating them harshly. By all accounts, this is not working too well but it is seen as rather better than what happened previously, with settlers being sent back to earth as shattered wrecks. For the ghosts, their material wants  are provided for by ghost depots which carry second-hand clothes and poor food. (I think we may be expected to draw all sorts of political parallels from this but the colonial subtext is hand-wavingly crude.) Hitherto, the ghosts have mostly complied meekly with this but, given the story is narrated by Elizabeth herself, we can guess that it’s not going to happen this time, otherwise what would be the point of having the whole novel? Thus, Elizabeth easily tramples through the protocol to find out what she needs to know. Because Something needs to be done about this, not least because she can’t bear the thought of losing Murphy.

Those familiar with the various versions of Solaris will see how this situation has arisen but whereas we see Kelvin and Harey/Rheya struggling to make sense of her existence and the ways in which she is transformed by her new relationship with him, and he in turn being forced to literally face his guilt about Rheya/Harey’s suicide, Fisher manages to reduce this to a script that more or less goes ‘oh, he’s so handsome, I couldn’t bear to lose him, how dare he ignore me, we must overcome this Ghost Protocol and live happily ever after’. That might also be an interesting story if it could rise above the basic tropes of the romance novel, which seem to be ‘flirty flirty, no, I can’t possibly go to bed with you, oh dear, that was a mistake, we mustn’t do that again but you know we can’t keep our hands off each other’ and so forth.

It is, though, very difficult to believe in either Murphy or Elizabeth as high-flying postgraduate scholars. Yes, of course, Murphy has staked his career on devising the Ghost Protocol, which Elizabeth is now trying to undermine, but the tension between them, such as it is, is more about how well and how often their bodies can fit together (remarkably well, it seems, and as often as the plot demands; the term ‘ghost’ is quite definitely a misnomer and ‘when in doubt, fuck’ is very much the order of the day.

By this time, the story needs some sort of conspiracy to keep it going, and along with the revelation that it is in fact possible for humans and ghosts to become detached from one another comes the mysterious private facility to which Elizabeth is taken after she is kidnapped. One starts here to think of Philip Pullman’s General Oblation Board in His Dark Materials, and the separation of children and their daemons. Indeed, the ‘evil’ scientist Mitchell has a very interesting plan to separate humans and ghosts and use the ghosts as slave labour which, fortunately, is stymied at the last minute. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Murphy, reunited, are rescued from imprisonment and join a group of renegade ghosts, who practise the Ghost Protocol on their humans. I know, what an about-face that is.

Throughout all this, Elizabeth and various others have been working towards a notion that the relationship between the ghosts and the humans is meant to be symbiotic rather than based on rejection, and that the human refusal to engage is destablising the planet. Where the protocol is ignored, relationships are fertile – literally, as plants start springing up out of cracks in the ground and so on. Oh, and of course, thanks to the devilish Mitchell, Elizabeth is now pregnant by Murphy (echoing Rheya’s pregnancy and abortion in the Soderbergh film), which is a bit of a problem when her ex-lover, Peter, turns up. Luckily, with his being a journalist, he is equipped to help them expose what is happening on Ardagh 1 and to ensure that everyone lives happily ever after, because of course this is a romance.

So, is this what should have happened to Kelvin and Rheya/Harey? In a world in which Kelvin is played by George Clooney, inevitably. There is a sense that this novel is for those who didn’t get the ending of the Soderbergh film, an ending which is rather more sophisticated than the rest of the film would initially suggest, but I can see that the ‘well, did they, did they not live happily ever after, dead or alive’ ending would not satisfy those who like certainties. And Ghost Planet is undoubtedly a novel concerned with certainties. From the moment one starts reading, it’s clear that this novel can end in only one way, and for all the intermittent obfuscation along the way , the blood and tears and bruising and death are always temporary. It is a win-slightly painful win situation.

In the end, Ghost Planetis novel as frightfully efficient storytelling machine, with all its plot points lined up neatly, its characters popped out of their moulds and trimmed, its language oiled and functional, the whole thing so overworked as to be stripped totally of absolutely anything that might make it interesting. It’s not terribly good science fiction, and it’s definitely a dull and predictable romance. There are occasional flashes of something that might have been but that’s all.

I imagine Stanislaw Lem spinning in his grave.

The Method – Juli Zeh

As part of the run-up to this year’s Kitschie Awards, the organisers invited me to write a review of one of the shortlisted novels. I was delighted to accept. Their selection was Juli Zeh’s The Method, shortlisted for the Red Tentacle Award, and just in time this is my review.


The Method – – Juli Zeh (trans. Sally-Ann Spencer) (Harvill Secker, 2012)

The Method – Juli ZehAt the heart of Juli Zeh’s The Method lies a deceptively simple question: how much personal autonomy are we prepared to surrender for the greater good of achieving a perfectly healthy society? A surprising amount, Zeh suggests; her novel portrays a society which has mostly surrendered its individual freedoms to the greater good. Thanks to following the Method, a system developed by Heinrich Kramer (and I’m sure it is no coincidence that the title suggests a questionable dieting plan), everyone is now fit and well. There is a downside, of course, in the need for constant monitoring in order to maintain this happy state – much of this is achieved through statistics collected via a mandatory microchip implant and through regular check-ups, not to mention monitoring of exercise machines and so forth, but this is surely a small price to pay for good health. But health control goes further than this: no caffeine (hot water enlivened with a few drops of lemon juice substitutes for this), no tobacco, no alcohol (though both substances seem, mysteriously, to be available, as and when necessary) and the wider environment is also controlled and monitored. Parts of the great outdoors are proscribed as being too dangerous. The cleanest, most closely monitored apartment blocks become the epitome for modern living. Yet surveillance goes further than all this in that one is encouraged only to form lasting relationships with the immunologically compatible. Other liaisons occur, although frowned upon, and must be kept quiet (though one would assume that constant monitoring might indicate increased heart rates and so forth). This is clearly a risk-averse society.

The question for the reader, then, is whether The Method represents a utopian or dystopian future, but strangely this seems not to be an easy matter to resolve. On the one hand, who would not want a generally healthy society; the attraction of old-style Benthamite utilitarianism underpinning The Method lies in that idea of maximising happiness and reducing suffering. Dystopian anxiety arises only as a result of the way in which that maximum happiness is brought into being. The Method, for all its promises of general well-being through the absence of illness, can only achieve its ends through a deeply intrusive form of social management, the constant gathering of information. What is missing from the Method, is John Stuart Mills’ insight, that there is a distinction to be made between the higher intellectual pleasures and the lower physical pleasures, between happiness and contentment. Thus, on the one side, in Zeh’s novel, we see people like the cleaners in Mia Holle’s apartment block, who find their pleasure in unquestioningly upholding the process of the Method itself, and those, like Mia, who accept the presence of the Method, and are prepared to pay lip service to it, but for whom the Method is not the be-all and end-all of their existence. Mia happily embraces Cartesian duality: her body is a machine made of meat, which she is happy to maintain in such a way as to keep the system happy. Her mind, however, is her own; without material substance it can be of no interest to the state. This, then, is the form of her resistance to the state. She colludes with it on one level in order to avoid notice on another. And this, to some measure, is what we all do; we keep our heads down and keep going.

Closer scrutiny suggests that the Method has its problems, not the least of which is the confirmation bias of its founder, Heinrich Kramer. This is made clear to the reader in the way that Mia’s relationship with the state has become unbalanced because of her grief over her brother’ suicide. The Method is built on reason and demands of its participants that they are at all times rational. Mia’s lack of reason, her irrational grief for her brother, her inexplicable desire  to withdraw from society and be left alone, pose a threat to the state. The Method has no place for mental imbalance of any kind – presumably because a healthy body leads to a healthy mind.

Depression […] is a corrosive force. People with depression reap the benefits of society’s generosity and goodwill, while making a religion of self-pity. Nothing could be further from their minds than overcoming their affliction. They are missionaries of unhappiness: a contagion. (88)

Yet, isn’t grief expressed a healthy mechanism for coping with loss rather than a contagion? Many people will at times in their lives suffer brief periods of depression as a result of life’s events yet Kramer has constructed a system which can see them only as parasites. Mia is, effectively, one such.

It is the suicide of her brother, Moritz, which decouples Mia from society. Moritz publicly challenged the Method, although one might wonder just how serious he was in his intent – he smoked, he drank, he went beyond the controlled environment, he used the state-suggested potential marriage partners as little more than unpaid prostitutes and yet one looks in vain for some intent beyond living well as the best revenge. One might ask why Mia Holle is so invested in someone who is, to the reader’s eye, engaged in little more than gesture politics. But that, perhaps, is the point: in a system so heavily monitored, how else can one put the message across? On the other hand, might it not be that Moritz Holle just enjoyed a good time? In truth, his most political act is his suicide, the moment when he recognises what personal freedom actually means.

In the Method, there is simply no room for Mia to grieve in the way she would like to, withdrawing from society for a period in order to come to terms with her loss. It is her desire to do so which brings her into conflict with legislators and with Heinrich Kramer himself. Accompanying her through this is the Ideal Inamorata, a figure, an idea, bequeathed to her by her brother, or perhaps a sign of her own madness; either way, the Ideal Inamorata becomes her sparring partner in a series of intense discussions with lawyers and judges. Mia slowly comes to understand that Kramer now needs to test his own system, to find out how well it works, and that Mia, by refusing his system, will act as that test.

There is no certain ending to this novel. We are left with Mia stripped of her protection, struggling to become the freedom fighter her brother saw himself as, ill-equipped to deal with a system that is so overwhelming. Exercise of personal autonomy is not enough in a system in which most people are entirely happy with the status quo. One is constantly struck by the way in which Mia becomes the tool of others whose personal agendas are more clearly defined than her own, which is merely to survive, as well as by the fragility of a world in which health is paramount yet the black market works well in delivering tobacco and alcohol to those who want it, suggesting in turn that the Method is little more than a facade itself.

It’s always difficult to find pleasure in the dystopian without an upbeat resolution to look forward, and some may consider this the case with The Method. Yet, I’d argue that this really is not what the novel is meant to be about. Zeh is not seeking restoration or a new beginning so much as she is laying out the arguments for and against – and both are persuasive. This has always been the problem with forms of utilitarianism: as a philosophy it is deeply seductive, so long as it conforms with one’s own view of what happiness entails. But happiness takes so many different forms.

At a point when some American state legislatures are curtailing women’s reproductive rights to the point where they are trying to insist that all women of childbearing age keep themselves in a state of healthy readiness in case they become pregnant, and where the British government is seriously considering restricting access to some medical procedures for those who are overweight, heavy smokers or drinkers, on the grounds that they haven’t demonstrated sufficient desire to maintain their health, Zeh’s novel presents powerful arguments against a system that simply doesn’t allow for humans to be … well, human.

If you’re looking for a utopian happy-ever-after, this is almost certainly not the novel for you. However, if you like novels that are intensely argued and which step beyond the conventional rhetoric of the dystopia, The Method is undoubtedly worth considering. The language and the writing are both very plain, and the whole thing is intricately constructed, with a constant to-ing and fro-ing of argument, examining the issue from all sides. Indeed, this is one of the things I most like about it, that it doesn’t slavishly follow one viewpoint but instead constantly tests the ideas under discussion. It may be low-key but I think it tackles important issues in a way that feels more plausible and convincing than some novels with what one might call high-production values. So far it seems to have received little attention in the English-language press and what notice it has received has tended to default to an easy designation of it as a dystopian novel, but I’d argue that there is rather more than that to The Method

Sunday links …

A couple of articles on AfroSF ed. by Ivor W. Hartmann, from Ralph Goodman and <Emily Cleaver. My review coming soon from Interzone.

New magazine of Indian SF looks worth checking out.

Fascinating piece from the LARB on the flâneur in literature, featuring Teju Cole’s Open City and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

And a piece debating whether the first sf magazine was actually Russian

In a parallel universe, I am probably a cartographer of some sort, given the pleasure I take in maps in this one. I’ve been reading Simon Garfield’s highly enjoyable On the Map for light relief. Quite by chance, illustrations from the Atlas Blaeu-Van der Hem appeared on the ever-astonishing Bibliodyssey this week.

Oh, and because a map needs monsters

Watching Father Brown

Watching Father Brown
When I heard that BBC 1 had a new adaptation of some of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, I was naturally curious as to what they were going to do with them. It is of course impossible for any tv company to make a straight adaptation of anything; there has to be a spin, an angle, some sense of novelty. To an extent, this is understandable. To suggest that TV adaptations should involve a simple book-to-screen transfer is to be naive and to fail to understand that one is dealing with two entirely different media. On the other hand, I also know that if given a free hand, the dramatist and production company can and will run riot. One only has to look at the more recent Miss Marple productions, featuring Julia McKenzie, to see what I mean: Miss Marple’s character is shoehorned into stories where, previously, she had never been, and frequently in a most unsatisfactorily bitty way. A number of the late Poirot adaptations similarly played extremely fast and loose with the original story, with no discernible artistic benefit. In one instance I could barely bring the original to mind, the adaptation was so distorted. File that one under ‘because we could’.

Yet it is also possible to adapt stories for other media in such a way as to make it clear that we’re stepping beyond the text without entirely butchering it in the process. The Radio 4 dramatisations of Sherlock Holmes were very satisfactory, contained as they were within an ongoing discussion of the business of adaptation itself. Radio 4’s recent dramatisations of Simenon’s Maigret stories are framed by discussions between Simenon and Maigret about the story, blurring the boundaries between author/narrator and character in such a way as to suggest that Maigret was in the bar with his friend, who goes home to write down the stories. Yes, it’s Holmes/Watson again but I like the anecdotal flavour and, given this is Maigret, it underlines the curious way that Maigret tends to go about his business.

The radio adaptations of Father Brown stories are often framed by a narrative in which Father Brown is presented as a great detective, a remarkable and newsworthy man whose fame precedes him, particularly when he is travelling abroad. This, though, is a label he always self-deprecatingly brushes aside.

In the short stories, Father Brown often doesn’t appear until part way through the story, although the reader is quickly attuned to the idea that he is in the background somewhere, and the sense of his having any kind of fame is soft-pedalled. On radio it’s difficult to be invisible when you’re the titular character so the adaptations have tended to focus on Father Brown’s ongoing relationship with Flambeau, the criminal whom he thwarts in ‘The Blue Cross’, but with whom he establishes a friendship, based on their intellectual equality. Flambeau is, eventually, ‘saved’ and crosses the floor to become a detective rather than a criminal. Who knows the criminal mind better? Well, Father Brown, for one, as he explains in ‘The Secret of Father Brown’ how he solves crimes by committing them; that is, he works out how they would be done, placing himself in the mind of the criminal. For, as he notes, a priest is by no means unaware of evil in the world.

And this, of course, is one of the interesting things about Father Brown. We might think of him as a person who is always in the right place at the right time, the place where he is most needed. Indeed, there are moments when Chesterton seems to suggest that Father Brown is a corporeal representative of divine intervention, somehow sent to bear witness to crime and then reveal it. It is as if he can only exist where an act of evil is being carried out. We can, if we want, think of him as a man of the people, or even, if feeling a little Poeish, as a man of the crowd, absorbed by it, constantly on the move, occasionally emerging, blinking, to alter the balance of things. Father Brown is firmly established as both a metropolitan character and one who is remarkably peripatetic. Unlike other fictional detectives, he doesn’t seem to be tied to one locale, and is likely to pop up anywhere, in Britain or across the world, and most often in urban or small-town settings, although he seems to me to be drawn to modernity.

Watching Father Brown And so, to the BBC’s version of Father Brown. The priest is played by Mark Williams, probably best known for The Fast Show, though I gather he was in the Harry Potter films as well, and he is also currently playing Beach the butler, in Blandings, in the rather dubious BBC adaptations of Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth stories. While we are told by Chesterton that Father Brown is a short, stumpy priest, Williams is, to judge from his appearances in Blandings, a tall, broad man, and yet he manages to convey that sense of smallness, roundness and unobtrusiveness that is essential to being Father Brown. He is unremarkable and unremarked on, though constantly alive to what’s going on around him. He is eminently watchable and I find him highly plausible as Father Brown.
Watching Father Brown
The BBC, however, has very bravely decided to reposition Father Brown in a version of England in which the Reformation either didn’t take place at all or in which it had rather less effect on British history than in our own timeline. How else to account for the fact that Father Brown presides over a surprisingly large Catholic congregation in a Cotswold village, holding services in a particularly fine 15th-century church, which acknowledges the effects of the Reformation in being devoid of wall paintings. There is even a mythic element to this as well as Father Brown is supported by a trinity of women: maiden (Susie), mother (Lady Felicia) and crone (Mrs McCarthy), and a Loki-ish trickster figure, in the shape of Sid, Lady Felicia’s chauffeur, aspiring spiv and loveable rogue. The forces of law and order are represented by Inspector Valentine, the long-suffering local inspector (in our timeline, Valentin is the French inspector who comes to England to hunt for Flambeau, in ‘The Blue Cross’, and exercises an intuitive approach to detection very similar to Father Brown’s own. However, in our timeline, Valentin surprisingly commits murder and then suicide in the following story, something I doubt Hugo Speer’s Valentine would ever consider).

Watching Father Brown‘Kembleford’ too is also possessed of that particular brand of flexible topography that exists only in tv series, in that it’s pretty much whatever the scriptwriters du jour want it to be, with a village green one day, an up-to-date hospital another day, and a police station that might comfortably serve several counties. We are a long way from the world of a priest who is ‘formerly of Cobhole in Essex, and now working inLondon’, as Chesterton describes his Father Brown. Indeed, one begins to suspect that Kembleford is in the next county over to Midsomer, given the number of murders per head of population.

The BBC’s is a post-WW2 Father Brown but whereas he is not geographically peripatetic, he seems to have been cut loose in time. We assume that in the BBC’s timeline, World War Two still ended in 1945, and the very latest the stories seem to take place is October 1953, the date on the fake-call up papers displayed by one character in the last episode, who claims he is about to serve in the Korean war. There is a Polish refugee camp in the village – Father Brown’s daily, Susie, is a Polish refugee who works for him and various other people around the village – and the locals feel strongly about the presence of a German priest who comes to the village at one point, but this seems to me to be something that might be regarded differently in 1953 than, say, in 1948. Yet this is a world in which rationing seems never to have happened. One story relies on a murdered character eating pear drops, at a time when they would have been unavailable (sweet rationing was not stopped until 1953). In another instance, there is a ‘guess the number of sweets in a jar’ competition, and in a third example, large boxes of sweets form part of a competition prize. Similarly, the ladies of the village seem to be indefatigable bakers yet there is no mention of it being difficult to do this because of sugar rationing. For that matter, one remains unclear how the local nunnery has managed to sustain a cottage wine-making industry in these straitened times, let alone how it is that Father Brown never seems to be short of meat. There are odd moments when our reality intrudes – the plate of salad and spam that Susie attempts to serve the Father is quickly swept aside by Mrs McCarthy who comes bearing a triumphal casserole with dumplings.

Other things are curious. In one story, a child is ostracised because of a skin condition; her father works at the local atomic research establishment and they fear she is contaminated with radiation. Again, this might place the stories in the early 1950s, but equally, one might argue that the fears expressed by the villagers are much more developed than they would be at this point in our own timeline, when the UK atomic research programme was little more than some huts at Harwell in Oxfordshire. In another, there is a fleeting reference to what is clearly the drug, thalidomide, still at an experimental stage in Germany even by 1953 Most inexplicable of all, at one point, an academic tells his daughter, in her early twenties, that when he was her age, he was reading Rousseau and Derrida. Given that in our timeline Derrida did not publish until 1967, something quite remarkable has clearly happened in this alternative universe and either Derrida was publishing in his pram or else was born about thirty years earlier than one would have expected.

And because this is an alternative timeline, the Father Brown stories themselves have undergone remarkable transformations. There are five wholly new stories, unknown in our timeline, while such familiar stories as ‘The Blue Cross’, ‘The Flying Stars’, ‘The Wrong Shape’, ‘The Eye of Apollo’ and ‘The Hammer of God’, have all undergone changes, some subtle, others less so, to the point where, in one or two instances, the only familiar thing remaining is the title itself. ‘The Eye of Apollo’ has undergone a most grievous transformation, its prophet Kaylon no longer party to an elegant murder plot involving the presence or absence of a lift and instead reduced to defenestrating his partner in a most humdrum sort of murder because she disapproves of him surrounding himself with nubile young women.

At the same time, the BBC has not lost sight of the fact of Father Brown’s vocation as a priest, and does its best to raise a series of ethical conundrums. In fact, the series does this rather well on occasion. Father Brown’s visit to St Bridget’s Home for Unmarried Mothers leaves him as stunned as it might do the viewer, with its unflinching portrayal of the cruelty to which unmarried mothers were subjected and the effects of having their babies taken from them. In another instance, the murdered man is, we learn, bisexual and promiscuous, but Father Brown pauses to talk to the victim’s male lover and offer him spiritual support. It is constantly stressed that Father Brown is a maverick, if not quite a renegade, and he has regard for all God’s creatures, Catholic or not. This issue-driven approach, I presume, stands in for the more intellectual theological discussions in the short stories as written in this timeline. It is perhaps reductive in some ways but I don’t think we are left in any doubt as to Father Brown’s faith, even if he represents it in unorthodox ways, and the series presents an intriguing if slightly wonky snapshot of post-war modernity, and the struggle to make something new.

On a more practical level, the writing of the series is uneven, as one might expect when the stories are parcelled out among a group of writers, but there is also a sense that the series ‘bible’ is less well developed than it might be. Sometimes Father Brown is a whimsical figure; at other times his darker nature emerges, but there is a distinct lack of consistency from story to story, as though the series editor was blinking rather too often. One of the best episodes is ‘The Bride of Christ’, not so much for the story itself as for the presence of Sister Boniface, devotee of the works of Agatha Christie and keenly aware of Father Brown’s reputation as a solver of crimes. The comic interplay between Lorna Watson and Williams was genuinely a pleasure to watch, as was the sly and knowing interrogation of the whole business of tv detection.

I, however, was waiting to see what they did with Flambeau, who had remained conspicuously absent. Flambeau is a master of disguise, so at the point in ‘The Blue Cross’ where the alternative Father Brown finds himself in a railway carriage with three other men one is obliged to play ‘spot the suspect’. Given Flambeau is French, obviously it has to be the most English of the Englishmen. However, while the Flambeau with whom readers are familiar is a thoughtful man who, for the most part, seeks to avoid violence and has a mysterious ‘past’, the alternative Flambeau (I can only describe him as Cumberbatch-lite) shifts between being the thoughtful intellectual and a gun-toting sociopath, with an emphasis on the latter. Which is not my Flambeau. On the other hand, clearly there is already a second series in development, and clearly he will play a part in it.

So, what are we left with? On the one hand, this is a series that seems to wander all over the shop, in a hand-wavingly post-war setting that has little grasp of the realities of post-war Britain, let alone a developed understanding of the history of Catholicism in England, hence my less-than-entirely-serious suggestion that this should be regarded as alternative history. It’s a series that brings together a lot of very conventional tropes of detective fiction and Catholic priests and gives us Father Ted in St Mary Mead. There is probably very little about it that Chesterton would recognise as deriving from his creation, yet ironically, I think the one thing he might actually recognise is Father Brown. He might be sequestered in the depths of the country but Father Brown remains in touch with reality in a way the other characters simply don’t.

Further reading: Michael Newton’s enjoyable piece on Father Brown in The Guardian Review