Tag Archives: adam roberts

Things I read on the internet – week ending 26/1/2014

Theory and Practice

12 Fundamentals of writing “the Other”(and the self). From D J Older, co-editor of the forthcoming Long Hidden anthology

Adam Roberts revisits a previous blog article about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, adds current thoughts.

The first in a new series from Alex Dally MacFarlane on Post-Binary Gender in SF

‘”I love your work, Jonathan,” she told Franzen, “but in a way you are smeared by English American literature … I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them,” she said.’ Xiaolu Guo at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

A sort-of-follow-up from Philip Hensher, which strikes me as trying to acknowledge and dodge the point all at the same time.


The Fantastic Foresight of Katherine MacLean by Andrew Liptak (Kirkus Reviews)


The shortlists for the Kitschies 2013 have now been announced, along with some special mentions.

Newly Published

International Speculative Fiction no. 5 is now available

One for the Diary

Comics Unmasked. Forthcoming exhibition at the British Library. And more information via the Forbidden Planet blog.


Oddly mesmerising evil brain from outer space

Things I read on the internet – week ending 10/1/2014

The usual bizarre mix of books, archaeology and the London underground.

Previously unknown letters by Mary Shelley discovered in Essex archive – the mention of Edward Trelawny should also interest people

Interesting piece by John Sutherland on how M.R.James took over Christmas

Fictional London Underground stations

Orson Welles interviews H.G. Wells – I may have posted this before but its wondrousness does not fade.

Adam Roberts discusses the Award Season 2014, and articulates some of my current reservations.

Adam is also currently reading his way through the entire Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. It is hilarious, not necessarily in a good way. I had a complete hardback set of these when I was a child. You may well ask what my parents were thinking.

And while we’re about it, Patrick Barkham extols the virtues of Brendon Chase by B.B. I remember reading this as a child and loathing it. Looking at it as an adult, I can see precisely why I did. While it was quite possible to ‘read’ myself into some ‘boys’ books, and I very often did, this simply resisted all efforts. (Also, I suspect I generally didn’t get along with B.B as I remember reading and disliking The Little Grey Men stories.)

Radio 4 Extra has been running a lovely series of programmes by or about Charles Chilton, who died a year ago at the age of 95. Best known to sf fans for Journey into Space, this particular programme is a delightful half-hour reminiscence by members of the original cast and Chilton himself. (I’d also recommend Chilton’s two autobiographical programmes and The Long, Long Trail.)

Illuminating piece by Martin Lewis about reviewing a book he didn’t like, by an author he does like, with genuinely classy comment by said author.

Aficionadoes of Children of the Stones will find these early maps of Stonehenge to be of interest. They were made by William Stukeley, an eighteenth-century vicar who believed stone circles were made by druids. Stukeley was of course entirely wrong but he nonetheless can arguably be called the father of British archaeology.

Blogging the BSFA Award Shortlists – Non-Fiction

I have a dilemma. Some of will know and others may have guessed from the coincidence of names that my partner, Paul Kincaid, is nominated in this category for a series of posts he made about the Hugo-nominated novels last year on Big Other. It will be perfectly obvious to one and all that I plan to give him my top vote so I am not going to waste any time trying to justify that decision (though I firmly believe that Paul is a very fine critic indeed). Sometimes the heart rules the head and that’s all there is to it. That, and I’d love to see him finally win a popular award for his criticism.

Even without my unique moral dilemma, this category is a real bitch to deal with. I hugely admire everyone nominated, and don’t really want to have to make a choice at all. Also, given the different formats involved (blog, podcast, book) it’s not simply a matter of comparing like with like. No obvious order has emerged as I’ve reacquainted myself with the nominations so I shall have to reason my way through this some other way.

Of the five nominations, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is an obvious anomaly. To begin with, there seems to be no agreement on whether it’s non-fiction or a novel, and there has been some controversy as to whether it should be nominated in Best Non-Fiction at all. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say I actually think it’s in the right place. Spufford’s own introduction makes clear that Red Plenty is a hybrid piece, and indeed raises a number of interesting questions about the nature of non-fiction that I haven’t got time to deal with now but which I plan to come back to after Easter.

Myself, I am thinking of it as a biography of a moment in history, and biography is, I’m quite prepared to argue, as much about fiction as it is about non-fiction. However, the deal-breaker today is ‘how science fictional is this book?’, and I think the answer has to be ‘not quite science-fictional enough for a BSFA Award’. It’s certainly examining important ideas that have shaped the world we know, and I grant you there is something more than passingly unreal about the subject, but ultimately I don’t think it passes my test. So, regretfully, I’m placing it fifth in my list of votes.

Fourth, I’m putting Adam Roberts’ heroic series of posts on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time , in which he describes his responses to reading all eleven volumes. They’re incredibly funny, also incredibly perceptive and informative about the ways in which epic fantasy works. But, and there has to be a ‘but’ otherwise they wouldn’t be in fourth place, Roberts inevitably becomes the victim of the series he’s reading, simply because after a while there is no more to be said. There were moments when I wondered if I’d strayed into some weird genre-related version of Super Size Me. Having said that, the posts are still really funny and I now hurt from laughing.

Third, I’m placing the Coode Street podcasts. I’ve only begun following podcasts with any degree of seriousness in the last year (alright, I admit it’s because it’s only in the last year I have finally figured out how to make my podcast download program actually download the podcasts automatically). I like Coode Street in part because I like the cheerful interactions of the participants, I like the wide-ranging discussions, I like the regularity of the podcasts and I like the fact that I get to eavesdrop on some fascinating conversations between people I wouldn’t normally get a chance to listen to.

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that my personal interest in this category is in critical discussion, and that is why I’ve placed Abigail Nussbaum’s review of With Both Feet In the Clouds on her blog, Asking the Wrong Questions, second. What can I say? I wish I’d written this review. It does everything I look for in a long review. It introduces me to the book, gives me a flavour of its content, engages with that content makes me want to go out and buy the book immediately.

So, in this category, I’ll be voting as follows:

1 – Paul Kincaid for Blogging the Hugos<
2 – Abigail Nussbaum for With Both Feet in the Clouds
3 – Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe (and guests) for the Notes From Coode Street podcast
4 – Adam Roberts for his review of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series in 11 instalments
5 – Francis Spufford for Red Plenty

Mostly, I’d just like to give everyone else second place and be done with it.

Contesting the canon

picture by nikkorsnapper

In the Guardian last Wednesday, Damien G. Walter posed a question: Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon? The article’s subtitle wondered whether 2011 would be the year the Booker Prize judges ‘acknowledge the flowering of British SF and fantasy’. Given the fact they’ve shown scant interest in it up until now, let me speculate a little in turn and suggest that, in 2011, the Booker judges will pay as much attention to sf and fantasy (and here I am eschewing Walter’s apparently preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ – all fiction is speculative, mainly because it is fiction, and I like to be clear what I’m talking about) as they ever have done before. They might put an identifiably sf or fantasy novel on the long list or the shortlist, or they might not. Most likely, they won’t. Will sf and fantasy publishing collapse in a heap as a result? I doubt it. Does it honestly and truly matter if the Booker doesn’t acknowledge the existence of sf and fantasy? I don’t think so.

Walter comments on the “narrowness of the award’s perspective” but this is hardly surprising. As Adam Roberts concluded recently, in Crunching the Booker Numbers, an elegant piece of analysis, “The Booker is not hospitable to genre – or to put it another way: the Booker is a genre prize – the genre in question being ‘twentieth-century/contemporary literary fiction’.” The Booker Prize has been inhospitable to genre for forty years, so there is very little likelihood that the 2011 judges will experience a collective rush of blood to the head and see the error of their predecessors’ ways. As Adam shows, it’s just not that kind of award. And it is not as though the sf/fantasy world is short of awards, from the popular votes of the Hugos and BSFA Awards to the juried Clarke Award, the Philip K Dick Award and so on, awards which derive from the community itself, and which are surely more informed as a result.

Given there are so few articles in which ‘literary’ commentators worry about whether borderline genre works might make the breakthrough this year and get a stab at the Hugos or the Clarke, one wonders why it is so imperative that genre novels need to be recognised by the Booker. Or, indeed, by the ‘literary’ world, as personified by the Booker. I think ‘recognised’ is a significant word here. I’ve been involved in the SF community one way or another for something over thirty years and it feels as though there has always been some sort of tussle going on between those who think that sf and fantasy should remain outside the mainstream literary community (or as Brian Aldiss so memorably put it, “Let’s get sf back in the gutter where it belongs”) and those who demand recognition from the mainstream, like needy children desperately seeking attention from unheeding parents. This article feels like yet one more expression of the latter.

What sort of recognition is Walter seeking? A Booker Prize-winner, obviously, but what will that do for science fiction and fantasy? There will be acclamation from within the community, naturally, and doubtless bafflement expressed by the ‘literary’ community, probably accompanied by yet more foolish and ignorant comments along the lines of “it can’t be sf/fantasy, it’s good”. More perceptive commentators, probably someone like Michael Dirda, will doubtless observe that it is perfectly possible to produce well-written narratives within a genre framework, and there will be a lot of foot-shuffling and throat-clearing as other commentators set out to show how the winning novel is not really that much of a genre piece and how, in the right light, it looks almost literary.

Let us be clear about one thing: it will be the novel that has won the Booker, not the genre. The author will become a Booker-winning author and may experience more interest from publishers as a result, and possibly a certain amount of pressure to produce more books of a kind likely to appeal to people who buy Booker Prize-winning novels. I do not believe there will be a rush to the genre shelves as the scales fall from people’s eyes and they embrace science fiction and fantasy as long-lost prodigal children. The winning novel will probably remain as one of the more wilful jury choices, to be joked over in future years or discussed by people who actually take an interest in the history of the Booker but I do not think science fiction and fantasy will be taken into the bosom of the literary mainstream as a result.

Something else that struck me about this article was its confusion over what this much-craved recognition ought to look like. Alongside the desire for a Booker Prize there is a lot of talk about the literary canon and “SF’s canonical works”. Indeed, Walter himself admits that “the number of SF authors being retrospectively rolled in to the literary canon seems to grow exponentially year on year”. If that were so, I can’t see the problem, but putting aside the misuse of “exponentially”, let us instead address this idea of sf being brought into the canon “retrospectively”. Because, after all, isn’t the inclusion of any author in a canon retrospective, the point being that they have to earn the right to their place by demonstrating the enduring qualities that distinguish them as being in some way “good” literature.

For my own part, I have little patience with the concept of “the literary canon”. At its dubious best, it’s little more than a convenience for teachers, a gathering together of titles which someone somewhere thought that everyone ought to have read (and the canon arose, as much as anything, as a way of providing a blueprint for literary self-improvement), a list from which to compile a syllabus. At worst, it has represented, and to some extent I think it still does, a spurious privileging and legitimising of certain texts, almost invariably those written by dead white males. We can attempt to update the canon or even construct counter-canons, but the canon itself continues to sit there obstinately, accusingly, defying us to mess around with the literary status quo, a reminder that someone somewhere once compiled a list by which people’s reading choices are still being judged.

How exactly are sf and fantasy to break into the canon if, on the one hand, they are already there anyway (not forgetting that many of the ur-texts of fantasy and sf already appear on university syllabuses, beginning with various Gothic romances and Frankenstein, there is at least one MA in Science Fiction Studies in the UK, and goodness knows how many academics writing about science fiction and fantasy in academic journals) and, on the other, canon-building is perforce a retrospective pastime? Or is Walter perhaps proposing something slightly different, namely a shortening of the period required to become canon-fodder in order to get more recent sf and fantasy onto the golden list and lend them some of this spurious authority. Because, brutally, the authority of the canon is spurious, and constraining too. A few authors and titles will be singled out for greater attention, as with the Booker, but again, it will do nothing for the genre as a whole, and possibly not even for an individual author’s complete oeuvre.

As I said earlier, I’ve seen various iterations of this tussle being fought over thirty years. It’s not new. Indeed, at various times I’ve fought on each side of the argument. However, the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realise that the whole idea of science fiction and fantasy needing the imprimatur of the “literary” mainstream is a load of rubbish. Are we honestly so insecure about sf and fantasy that we need the blessing of another genre’s prize in order to feel that we have somehow arrived? Do we really need to participate in a flawed academic exercise in order to convince ourselves of our own worth?

What this demand for ‘recognition’ suggests, in fact, is that we don’t trust the genre to stand or fall according to its innate qualities. We know there is well-written material and poorly crafted hackwork within the genre, but it’s not a situation unique to fantasy or sf. All areas of literary production suffer from it but I don’t recall any of the others demanding greater recognition from the Booker for the “good” stuff.

This is not to say that I am in any way advocating a rejection of the mainstream and a retreat to the teenage bedroom of the genre heartland, accompanied by a fading wail of “you just don’t understand”. Genre has its uses as a down-and-dirty taxonomic shorthand on occasion but I don’t believe these terms and definitions should be used to construct barriers, especially not in order to provide a platform from which to complain that people aren’t willing to make the journey through the barricade. It’s ridiculous and, dare I say, just a little childish.

For my own part, I read “genre” fiction, I read “contemporary” fiction, I read “canonical” fiction, interchangeably and with equal pleasure. I do not need the approval of the academy, the Booker Prize judges or the sf and fantasy community when I make my choices about the books I am going to read. With everything I read, I read critically, and am happy to defend my opinions as required. Awards shortlists can be a talking-point, the canon is a useful jumping-off point and I value the cut and thrust of discussion with my fellow reading fans, but in the end I honestly don’t care a jot whether anyone else approves of what I read, and I certainly don’t feel I need to have my choices sanctioned by the awarding of a Booker Prize.