Tag Archives: margaret atwood

Reading Sightings by Gary K Wolfe

And this, the most recent of my reviews for Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Wither by Lauren DeSteffano

Reviewed for Foundation in 2011.

Wither – Lauren DeSteffano
(Harper Voyager, 2011)

One might construct a genealogy for Wither that combines Logan’s Run with The Handmaid’s Tale and then pours it into the template that produces the kind of young adult dystopian novel so much in vogue at present, Suzanne Collins’s much-praised The Hunger Games being an obvious example. However, to do so would be to grossly over-read Wither and assign to it a pedigree it in no way deserves. Indeed, if one believes that a major prerequisite of science fiction is scientifically verifiable world building, Wither has already failed at the first hurdle. The world it offers the reader is so fragile, to query it even slightly is to cause the edifice to immediately topple.

Wither is ostensibly set in America, sufficiently far in the future for a world war to have completely obliterated all landmasses except America (by ‘America’, I suspect the author means the USA, rather than North America). Despite this catastrophe, America has become entirely self-sufficient as a manufacturing nation, and one is left with the inescapable impression that the war affected America only insofar as it destroyed the import business. This might in itself be enough to raise an eyebrow but America has also, thanks to startling advances in genetic engineering, eliminated disease and created a generation of perfectly healthy human beings. Unfortunately, although the first generation of ‘perfect’ humans are leading long and healthy lives, in subsequent generations females die at twenty, males at twenty-five, with a promptness that is as surprising as it is nonsensical. So far, researchers have failed to discover an explanation for this occurrence.

The corollaries of this situation are that, on the one hand, there are vast numbers of parentless children barely subsisting in government-run orphanages, and on the other, a flourishing trade in kidnapping young adolescent girls, to be sold into sexual slavery as breeding stock for (and it requires a certain amount of reading between the lines to grasp this) wealthy families desperate to continue their blood lines. Given the ready availability of young girls – who already prostitute themselves to make money – it is not obvious why such subterfuges are necessary, except to deny the girls any negotiating capability in the marketplace, that and the fact that kidnapping, coerced marriage and the prospect of forced sex might be more thrilling for an impressionable reader than a simple financial transaction.

The author has clearly not given much thought to the economic or political structure of this future America. It doesn’t so much exist as only come into view when the author needs to underline yet again the difference between the wretched world outside, where orphans starve and freeze to death, and the almost unbelievable opulence of the big house in which three kidnapped girls, Rhine, Jenna and Cecily, are imprisoned. Mostly, we learn about the world outside from Rhine, the first-person narrator. Unfortunately, Rhine is maddeningly vague about her life before she arrived at the house. She offers the reader scraps of memory and fragments of history, but is unable to provide a fully coherent account of what has happened. If one didn’t already suspect that Wither was never intended to be a science fiction novel, this would surely confirm it. No one is engaged with the world outside.

Instead, DeSteffano’s characters exist in a setting which refuses any pretence of reality, surrounded by the trappings of immense wealth, indicative of the fact that the science fictional references are purely hand-waving, the ill-chosen background for a romance novel which owes far more to the gothic creations of the late Victoria Holt. The remote manor house, the exquisite couture, the elegant social functions, the husband who is practically a stranger, the difficulty in putting an actual date to the novel’s setting, are all hallmarks of that style. Admittedly, the future setting grants DeSteffano the licence to be a little more daring in her portrayal of sexual mores, including polygamy. The wife who was a prostitute is Linden Ashby’s regular bed companion while the wife who craves a baby is carrying his child, leaving the virginal Rhine to exchange thrilling but chaste kisses with the handsome servant, Gabriel, while keeping Linden at arm’s length. At no point does anyone actively query this or ask if it is truly acceptable.

Rhine is, or so she says, desperate to escape in order to find her twin brother, Rowan, but her desperation manifests itself in a curious inertia, coupled with a vague air of anxiety about the behaviour of Linden’s father, Housemaster Vaughn. Part Victor Frankenstein, part Duke Bluebeard, Vaughn spirits away Linden’s dead wives and babies and conducts experiments on their bodies in his basement laboratory, having presented Linden with fake ashes. He is apparently seeking a solution to the premature deaths, but Rhine is suspicious of his activities. That Linden reads Frankenstein aloud to Rhine might be interpreted as some sort of clue to what’s going on but if it is, Rhine misses the hint, and it is the only indication that Linden himself may suspect that something is wrong. In fact, whatever it is that Vaughn is doing is, like everything else of interest, kept firmly off the page; with Rhine mostly imprisoned on an upper floor of the house, there is little opportunity for the plot to go beyond yet another bath or dress-fitting. Indeed, one half-wonders if, in a nod to Northanger Abbey, Rhine hasn’t entirely misunderstood what’s happening, but there is no chance to find out.

Wither expects very little from its readers. Indeed, too close a scrutiny reveals just how flimsy its premise really is. The frankly disturbing subtext, that forced sex is not necessarily a bad thing so long as it is not happening to you, lies unquestioned. The science-fictional elements of the novel are poorly conceived and poorly applied. One can only hope that the teenage girls who are its intended audience recognise Wither’s many shortcomings and turn to something more challenging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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