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Short housekeeping note

I’ve decided to close the comments function on Paper Knife. The only comments the blog attracts are from spammers and I’ve got better things to do than sort through the spam trap every week. You can of course email me if you want to talk about a post.

Reading Poison by Chris Wooding

And again, a brief shift to Foundation, for a review from 2008

Poison – Chris Wooding
(Scholastic Press, 2003)

‘Imagination is as close as we will ever be to godhead,’ observes a character towards the end of Poison. ‘[f]or in imagination we can create wonders.’ But if imagination is the driving force of fiction, why then does one always feel slightly uneasy when an author talks about the process of creating fiction even while creating it. Was that a knowing wink to the audience or did one just catch the author’s eye at an inopportune moment? Did the façade of fiction fall over intentionally, or was it caught a glancing blow by a clumsy protagonist? In flaying the carcass of the work as it progresses, does not the author also risk laying bare its flaws and inadequacies? In the case of Poison, it’s not always easy to tell what Chris Wooding’s intention is, and neither is it easy to tell whether or not that is Chris Wooding’s intention.

Wooding’s most recent novel, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, a young-adult fantasy, was set in an alternative quasi-Dickensian London threatened by wyches, supernatural beings that Thaniel Fox hunted down and killed in order to make his living. The novel was striking for its distinctive, atmospheric settings, its attractive if not always likeable characters, and Wooding’s ability to fuse magic and technology in a manner that felt plausible. Admittedly, the plot was conventionally framed as a race against time to save the world from evil forces, but the story was told with verve, and it rightly garnered critical acclaim.

In Poison, Wooding has set his sights on something rather more ambitious. His approach is best summed up by an incident part way through the novel, when the four main characters make their way secretly through an enemy’s castle, moving along a narrow passageway between the inner and outer skins of the building, peering into rooms as they go. Much of the second part of the novel hinges on a series of observations which they make during this clandestine progress, and their subsequent ability to understand the significance of what they have seen. Even as he tells his story, Wooding invites the reader to slip through the interstices of plot and narration in order to admire the manner of their construction. The question is, can Poison stand up to such intense scrutiny?

There is never any doubt that we are in a novel where storytelling will be to the fore. Poison begins with the traditional invocation, once upon a time, even while it subverts expectations by giving us a self-christened heroine called Poison. Her situation is familiar in its unremitting grimness: she is an outsider in her community, and at odds with her stepmother. Her father is decent but careworn, and she relies on her mysterious friend, Fleet, also an outsider, for support. He tells her stories and gives her advice, not least telling her that: ‘[r]eal life is a story too, only much more complicated. It’s still got a beginning, a middle and an end. Everyone follows the same rules, you know … it’s just that there are more of them.’

An experienced reader will already be struck by the patness of the story, even down to Poison’s possessing violet eyes, a sure sign of literary destiny. There are hints of a deeper, wider-ranging story – Wooding institutes some playing with names (Poison’s original name is Foxglove, her birth mother was Faraway, her stepmother is Snapdragon) and offers a tantalising analysis of the female characters’ various discontents – but this is finally sacrificed to Poison’s story. Swiftly and inevitably, Poison shows herself to be a competent heroine when her sister is snatched by the Scarecrow, a sandman-like figure, and a changeling left in her place. Almost before one can blink, she is standing by the side of the road, waiting to hitch a lift with a wraith-catcher who had fortuitously been staying in the village the night before, and who will take her to the city to begin her quest to recover her sister. Yet this is not formulaic fantasy. Wooding has already expended too much energy on neat touches and on small details which, alas, he will not follow up on later. Clearly something else is happening; the question is, what is it?

‘It was just like the stories,’ begins one chapter, the chapter in which the three companions: competent girl, brainless but beautiful girl; older, reliable male, and their supernaturally bright cat, head into a glaringly perfect fantastic landscape. Indeed it was, and this is what we are supposed to notice, even without Wooding flagging up the fact quite as vigorously as he does. And were we to be left in any doubt, the group quickly encounters a figure familiar to readers of C.S. Lewis. He may be called Myrrk, but it’s very clear that his ancestry includes a large quantity of marsh-wiggle. His entire raison d’etre within the text appears to be to provide a commentary on what is and isn’t customary in a work of genre fantasy, and, more significantly, on authors who do not fully sketch out their characters. His is an unexpectedly large and unsubtle textual intrusion, compared to others in the book, but there are many. Here be not so much dragons as unadorned hints about the artificiality of text.

There is a point to this, it turns out. Poison’s world is one of many that jostle alongside one another, all of them presided over by the Hierophant., whose castle is notable for having a library which is somehow present in all those different worlds. The Hierophant – a person, especially a priest, who interprets sacred or esoteric mysteries – is the creator, the author even, of these worlds, even though his job nowadays is more to give them a nudge, here and there, as they find their own ways, than to actively create new worlds. But when the Hierophant writes, his words literally are law, which means that he is still a force to be reckoned with, even if his creations, or those of his predecessors, appear to exert free will. Which is particularly problematic for Poison, once she realises what the reader must already have guessed, that the Hierophant has written her journey for her, guiding her to his castle to become his apprentice. Given that her entire life has, she believes, been driven by her own free will, how can she deal with this outbreak of determinacy? By exerting her own will, of course, by deciding to die and thus thwart the Hierophant’s plans. And yet, as Poison wills herself to death, everything around her fades, because it’s her own story she’s in control of. The moral is irritatingly clear and of course Poison lives on.

The very neatness of this revelation marks what has become so evident in the story as it progresses. It’s become too tidy, anodyne even. In walking Poison through the conventions of genre, the Hierophant, preoccupied with his sacred responsibility to the text, seems to have eliminated any chance for her imagination to flourish, and the same extends to Wooding in his hierophantic relationship with the text. Plot, as I’ve previously observed, is not his forte, although he is capable of turning out some frankly barnstorming set-pieces. His evocation of Poison’s marshland home fairly reeks of the swamp, and his descriptions of Poison’s encounters with Lamprey, victim of a kelpie, and Asinatra, Lady of the Spiders are terrifying in a way that owes a good deal to M.R. James. He also has the ability to find the telling phrase. The court of Aelthar, Lord of Phaerie, is described as being ‘glutted with perfection and beauty’, a succinct and effective description, simultaneously evoking wonder and disgust.

However, the novel as a whole is undoubtedly less than the sum of its parts. Humans may have the one thing the inhabitants of other worlds lack, but possessing imagination is not the same as using it. We can explain away the artificiality of the plot as an expression of the Hierophant’s need to train Poison. Indeed, at one point, another character comments on how the stories Fleet told her seem to have been ‘more like a survival manual than a story.’ That is the nub of the problem. While Wooding is, I’m sure, trying to convey to his adolescent readers the power of story, how it can bring colour to an impoverished existence and offer hope for the future, he, like his own creations, has told more than he has shown. Inspiration has been replaced by worthiness. Wooding’s aspirations for his novel have, on this occasion, stretched further than his talent to convey them. Had he been a little less ambitious, he might have been more successful in telling a story. Godhead will have to wait for a little longer.

Reading Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism and Beyond, and We See A Different Frontier

Another review from Vector, this time from last year.

We See A Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad ( Publishing, 2013)

Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall (Rosarium Publishing, 2013)

As I’m writing this review, the shortlists of two awards have just been announced. One, for the three David Gemmell Legend Awards, featured seventeen white men. The other, for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, included women and writers of colour on its shortlist of five. Which shortlist then is the more representative of contemporary SF and fantasy publishing? The answer is, of course, the Campbell Award. Yet given the nominating process for the Gemmells is much, much broader in its intake than that of the Campbell, one has to ask just how it happens that so many readers of speculative fiction either do not seem to be aware that it is also being written by women and by writers of colour or, worse, simply don’t want to acknowledge that fact. This is 2014, for heaven’s sake.

This is a question that Bill Campbell, co-editor of Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond, has frequently asked himself. As he puts it,  ‘mainstream, American corporate culture ‘whitewashes’ all culture – past, present, and future – giving people the false impression that America has been, is, and always will be the “White Man’s Country”.’ This is reflected in much of the science fiction emerging from the USA in the last half century or so. I pause here, briefly, so that someone may observe – as someone inevitably will – that the protagonist of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a person of colour. Or that Samuel Delany is a writer of colour. Star Trek! Octavia Butler! While not denying that all these facts are true, an argument that relies on such a small number of data points to prove that US science fiction is not a purely white male enclave is a poor one, especially when it is the same two writers of colour who are continually offered as proof of the genre’s diversity. We can surely do better than this.

What is all too easy to miss is that fantasy and science fiction is being produced by writers of colour but that it remains, for whatever reason, not as immediately visible as the work produced by Anglo-American writers. In part this might be that such stories are not published in mainstream genre venues (several of the stories in Mothership are reprinted from ‘literary’ journals) or simply because these stories are scattered through a wide variety of small-press publications and anthologies, lost in the welter of fiction being published. It takes projects such as these or small press magazines such as Crossed Genres, which has a specific brief to recognise diversity in what it publishes, to draw the attention of the wider reading public to what’s actually out there. Likewise, it has not always been easy for writers of colour to publish collections of their work, though the burgeoning independent publishing scene is mercifully changing this.

Mothership, edited by Campbell and Edward Austin Hall, and We See A Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, are part of an informal movement that directly opposes the idea that science fiction is, or should be, exclusively a white male Anglo-American activity. Charles Tan and Lavie Tidhar have been pushing this idea strongly for some years through the award-winning World SF blog, now alas in abeyance, and it has also been heavily promoted through social media. These two anthologies, both crowdfunded, take different but complementary approaches to demonstrating the genuine diversity of contemporary SF with Mothership offering us a dazzling variety of authors and stories, while We See Things Differently is more philosophical and structured in its approach.

In Mothership, Campbell and Austin have brought together a staggering range of authors, a good half of whom are new names to me (I thought myself reasonably well-read but clearly I’m not). If a preponderance of the authors are resident in the US, this only serves to show how ridiculous is the assumption that SF must be by and about Anglo American men. And if a good percentage of the stories are reprints this serves only to remind us that the genre has been rather more diverse for rather longer than most of us realise. Campbell and Austin also work with a commendably broad definition of genre, what Austin calls an  ‘open-arms, fantasticated-tales-by-and/or-for-and/or-about-people-of-color approach ‘. In practice, this means that a story such as NK Jemisin’s ‘Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows’, a neat take on the effects of the tiny universes we build for ourselves online (all the while in dialogue with EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’) can sit alongside Charles R Saunders’s ‘Amma’, about the fate of a woman who can transform herself into a gazelle, told by a griot in the marketplace, while Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac’s ‘Dances With Ghosts’ is, unsurprisingly, a ghost story, one which wittily reframes themes familiar from Native American novels such as Momaday’s A House Made of Dawn.

These stories challenge the reader’s expectations and assumptions in other ways. It is all too easy for ‘white people’ to look to indigenous writers and writers of colour and either expect to be educated about another culture or to assume that because you read fiction written by someone who identifies with a particular cultural group, this means you have gained knowledge of that group. Throughout Mothership there are stories that subvert such assumptions; indeed, the collection’s opening story, ‘I Left My Heart In Skaftafell’ by Victor LaValle, should stop such nonsense in its tracks. LaValle’s African-American narrator is on holiday in Iceland and notes the reactions to his skin colour from others on the trip but his story isn’t about that; it’s about the narrator’s sustained encounter with a troll. Lauren Beukes’s ‘Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs’ is rich with references to animé; it tells us about Beukes herself, not what it means to be a white South African. SP Somtow’s ‘The Pavilion Of Frozen Women’ is a story about a serial killer, with hints that the killer might have been driven to it because of the pressure of being part of an indigenous minority (and the narrator is herself Native American) but it is primarily about the events leading up to the deaths rather than the issues behind them.

There are so many different kinds of story in Mothership, and stories of such high quality, it is actually very difficult to single out particular favourites. Other than the stories already mentioned, I was particularly taken with Tobias Buckell’s ’Four Eyes’. This deals mostly with a young Jamaican man, Manny, finally acknowledging that his destiny is to become a ‘four eyes’ or obeah man. What really intrigued me is the way in which his teacher, Jimiti, easily accepts that La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, is his spirit guide, although ‘she ain’t even the right mythology for me to see. And she had ask me, “what the right mythology, Jimiti? You a two hundred-year-old blend of cultural mess”’.

Other outstanding stories include Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s ‘Waking the God of the Mountain’, which deals with issues of territorial sovereignty and deep, powerful ties to the land, as well as Rabih Alameddine’s delicate, tender ‘The Half Wall’. But there are so many good things in this anthology. If you want to get some idea of just how diverse SF can really be, Mothership is a great place to start.

We See A Different Frontier takes a slightly different angle, as its subtitle makes clear: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology. Aliette de Bodard’s preface takes up this theme:  ‘When we read science fiction stories where colonists leave their home and hearth, and make contact with funny-looking aliens, we are uncomfortably reminded of the days when English or French or Dutch colonists came to foreign shores … and gradually took over everything under the pretence of “civilizing” barbarians. ‘ The voices we hear in WSADF, then, are those of  ‘the invaded; of the colonized; of the erased and the oppressed; of those whom others would make into aliens and blithely ignore or conquer or enlighten ‘. In other words, these are the voices which supposedly don’t exist, the voices of the Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous subalterns. Yet these subalterns are only too eager to speak.

Shweta Narayan’s exquisitely allusive ‘The Arrangement Of Their Parts’ leads off the collection. The story’s setting appears to be the Mughal empire in the time of Aurangzeb, its sixth emperor, described in this story as a usurper. One of the sons of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, Aurangzeb engaged in a series of wars to overthrow his brothers and gain the throne. This, though, is simply background to a story in which the Englishman, Sir James, encounters what appears to be some sort of automaton. To judge from his workshop, this is not such he has encountered; the others he has dismantled. The Artificer Devi, however, has something else in mind. it is possible to read this story simply as a cyberpunk interpretation of the presence of the British in India, but it seems to me that there is also another more slippery layer of allegory in play, given the significance of the peacock in Indian culture. Sofia Samatar’s ‘I Stole The D.C.’s Eyeglass’ takes us into not dissimilar territory. We see from the point of view of the colonised what it is to be under the rule of an Englishman but also how supposedly lost indigenous technology is brought into play, not only to escape colonial rule but also, and perhaps more important, to escape the mindset inculcated by colonial rule. In Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Them Ships’ the unnamed narrator, a slum dweller, finds herself enslaved by aliens, along with wealthier members of her own country. Chief among them is Leonardo, who  ‘acts like we are totally partners … but he would’ve never even looked at me if we’d bumped into each other on the street ‘. For the unnamed narrator, life under alien rule is not necessarily that bad – there is better food, better conditions; for Leonardo it is intolerable and he compares her to La Malinche, the indigenous woman who acted as Cortes’s translator. The story serves to remind us that under colonial or postcolonial rule, there is no one experience common to all.

As Ekaterina Sedia notes in the collection’s afterword, the main theme of all these stories is the  ‘push-pull of the contradictory demands of assimilation versus appropriation ‘. We see it manifested in so many different ways through the stories, from the suppression and reclamation of a language in NA Ratanayake’s ‘Remembering Turinam’ to Sunny Moraine’s ‘A Heap of Broken Images’ which addresses such issues as guilt tourism and its effect on the culture that has to deal with it. More than one story touches on the presence of anthropologists and their relationships to the cultures they study, including Dinesh Rao’s ‘A Bridge of Words’ which suggests that in the proper circumstances this can be productive rather than appropriative (underlining, of course, that this is rarely so). And, intriguingly, JY Yang’s ‘Old Domes’ considers the fate of old buildings, swallowed up by so-called regeneration. Jing-Li is a cullmaster of buildings, trained to extinguish the spirits of buildings, spirits made out of the history accumulated in their very fabric. Afterwards, the buildings are reused. In this case, though, the spirit of Singapore’s old Supreme Court is reluctant to go. Again, one might read this as an allegorical story, interrogating the assumption that modernisation is good, and that eliminating the old is a necessity in order to achieve that modernisation, but the story is rather more subtle than that, looking at different responses to history and how it affects a relatively new state.

If Mothership is a joyful celebration of diversity in science fiction and fantasy, WSADF is a more focused, more directly political consideration of the effects of colonisation on writers and how that is expressed in their fiction. A number of authors have work included in both anthologies but again in WSADF there are several writers whose names are new to me. In reading Mothership and WSADF together, I feel rather as I did when I encountered Alberto Manguel’s 1983 anthology, Black Water, which first opened my eyes to the variety available in fantastic literature if one did but look hard enough. Reading both these books should prompt SF readers to take a long hard look at the world around them and then ask themselves why they are not reading more by such amazing authors. Because the point is that more diverse genre fiction is out there. It may not be on the shelves in one’s local bookshop but we live in an age when it is easily available online and there is no excuse for not reading it.

Reading Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Memory of waterMemory of Water by Emmi Itäranta
(HarperVoyager, 2014)

Most dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels are very focused on how it happened or on how we are going to change things for the better, and ideally, both. While I can understand why an author would do that – placing protagonists at the centre of the action so that the reader can learn about the situation and how it came into being, and then provide some restorative closure – it always feels rather false to me, not least because this is not how the world works, at least, not on such a grand scale. Maybe I’m just growing old but I am becoming more and more resistant to that ‘man the barricades and we can fix this’ style of fiction, when it is at such variance to what I see in the world around me. Which is not to say that  the concept is bad per se, but it is remarkably easy to do badly, and therein lies the offence. If you are going to build a world you need to do it so well it either fades into the background while you get on with the real story, or else if you make it the focus of the story, you make it sufficiently convincing I don’t feel obliged to make lists of why things can’t possibly work. I can think of too many novels I’ve read lately (Edan Lepucki’s California and Naomi Foyle’s Astra being but two) where this does not happen. However, it turns out that there is at least one more way to handle this, and this is the route that Emmi Itäranta has chosen with Memory of Water.

Noria Kaitio lives in what she calls the ‘present-world’, somewhere in Scandinavia. Climate change has led, as anticipated, to rising sea levels and the inundation of coastal areas. In the wake of this came ‘water wars’, during which sources of fresh water were placed under the control of the military, where they have remained since. Water is rationed, but for some there is never quite enough and some have resorted to constructing illegal pipelines to siphon off water from the controlled sources. ‘Water crime’, with its obviously Orwellian overtones, is punishable by execution, after a period of dehydration and starvation.

And something else has happened along the way – some technical knowledge has been lost, and although they still exist, the electronic goods we take for granted are few, and difficult to get hold of. As indeed is everything else. There is a sense that the military pretty much run everything but it’s not really clear what is going on. Why is it not clear? Because this story is being told from the periphery rather than from the centre; and this is one of the things that makes it so successful. We never see the world as a whole. We see it through Noria’s eyes. She’s seventeen, it’s all she’s ever known, and even though her parents are educated people, who own many books, she takes most things at face value, as do most people. Her life is in the ‘present-world’ and her only real engagement with the ‘past-world’ comes through her friend Sanja’s hobby of combing the rubbish dumps for bits of old technology, which she tries to bring back to life. And indeed, the dumps provide a useful metaphor for the lives the two girls live, a mess of bits and pieces that don’t quite belong together and don’t quite make sense, but it’s all they’ve got.

One of the strongest parts of the novel is the portrayal of the friendship between the two girls, very different in character and circumstances, but tied closely to one another in a myriad ways. Itäranta hints delicately that Noria is in love with Sanja, but we have no clue as to the nature of Sanja’s love for Noria, and that feels right. We might wonder what the future holds for them in a world that seems to be deeply conservative but, within the frame of the novel itself, that is a question that cannot be answered, and indeed almost needs not to be answered. It is just part of who and what they are.

Noria’s detachment from the outside world is emphasised by her father’s craft: he is a tea master, and she is in turn apprenticed to him. This is further evidence, though unremarked on, of past upheavals. It’s clear from background references that China has been, may still be, in the ascendant, and the ceremonies of tea drinking have spread across what was once Europe. One might reasonably wonder how it is that a ritual that depends so much on water persists at a time when water is a precious commodity – and the answer is precisely that, because it is a precious commodity. Wealth and privilege permit one to use water in ways that poor people can’t. The only real surprise is that Noria’s father hasn’t moved to the city, where he might expect to make a less precarious living.

Or perhaps not, given that Noria’s father will not compromise where his craft is concerned. It is this refusal, this exercise of another kind of privilege, that will eventually lead Noria into trouble, once her father shows her the spring hidden deep in the fells, the water from which he uses for his tea ceremonies, a secret handed from master to master. It’s only much later, after her father’s death, once water has been rationed further, and when she sees the villagers suffering, that Noria finally begins to question the actions of her father and his predecessors, that the enormity of her promise to her father, to keep the spring a secret, comes home to her.  Not least because it’s clear too that the water police realise that they are hiding a water source, even if they can’t yet find it.

While Noria struggles with the moral implications of this concealment, she and Sanja have also stumbled on a mystery, contained on a series of old tapes they found in the dump, and which they’ve managed to listen to. These suggest that a scientific expedition of some sort went into the Lost Lands illegally and made an important discovery. Later, finding more evidence of the expedition’s presence at the hidden spring, Noria realises that they had contact with the tea master of the time. She finally discovers the truth in one of her predecessor’s journals, which draws the reader into a whole new consideration of the business of making records. Her father’s journals had been confiscated when the tea house was searched, but were returned, obviously unread. The threat to knowledge is, if you like, more powerful than actually doing anything with that knowledge.

This tension between knowing and not knowing permeates the entire novel. Is it better to know, or not to? And if you do, what should you do with that knowledge? How do you make the right choices when you have no one to guide you? Or worse, when your guide is himself compromised? And the question that is never quite articulated is, just how much has Noria’s father compromised himself in order to preserve his art? And is his art, as a result, itself now compromised. When Noria completes her apprenticeship and is tested by another master, he reluctantly accepts her as such, criticising her for changing certain elements of the ritual as she goes, for not making the choices he thinks are appropriate. Noria defends her choices as sensible accommodations of the situation in which she finds herself but there is an underlying implication that the ritual is in danger of becoming atrophied because its practitioners in the city are seduced by money. And yet, is Noria’s father any better for remaining in the country, seduced by the existence of that hidden spring, whose water will make his tea better?

In the end, Noria makes the choice which must inevitably lead to her death – shut away in her house with little food and water, and that supplied by the water police, who offer her dried food, food that needs soaking, and so on. It is at this point that Noria records everything she knows about the lost expedition and its discovery that fresh potable water is available in the Lost Lands, a thing the military knows and seeks to suppress, and something that Noria had hoped to reveal

And even here, the story does not falter or collapse, because while Noria is dying, Sanja was able to escape before the military arrived; later she will find her way to Noria’s mother, Lian, who moved to the city once she realised what was likely to happen. Sanja will bring their discovery to Lian, but of course we don’t know what she will do. And I really hope we don’t find out. Because this book is so wonderfully self-contained it would be a pity to break the spell that Itäranta has created and extend the story into an actual concrete sequel. Instead, it stays tantalisingly in the mind as we consider the possibilities.

So, instead, let me recommend Memory of Water to you as a necessary corrective to all those dystopian novels with their restorative endings. Exquisitely written, exquisitely observed, it lingers in my memory long after the others have all blurred into one.

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)
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.


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).


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…

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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.