Tag Archives: paul kincaid

A month of things read, things watched – January 2017

It’s hard to think straight at the moment, given I seem to be living in every pessimistic sf novel I’ve ever read.  The nightmares of my teens and twenties have all come true in the last ten days and writing this seems excessively indulgent when other things need to be attended to. At the same time, I remind myself that I do all the other things in order to carry on doing this, so it would be pointless to stop now.

So, here’s a round-up of things I read and watched in January 2017.


black-and-britishDavid Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) is linked to the recent BBC series of the same name. It’s a good basic introduction to the history of black people in the UK, if you’re new to the subject: my historical interests in the last few years have been such that I already knew something about most of the pre-20th century material (and quite a lot about Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson’s anti-slavery work – I recommend Adam Hochschild’s Bury These Chains, if you want to read more), though there was enough new detail to keep me interested. I was less familiar with the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century and post-war material so that took up most of my attention. The book did show some signs of being published in a hurry – there are more editorial mistakes than I thought seemly – but it does have a decent critical apparatus. It also reminded me to buy Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, which I’ve been intending to read since forever.

the-ash-treeI’m nothing if not eclectic in my reading (actually, I’m not – it’s pretty much equal parts history, various kinds of nature writing, fiction – predominantly science fiction and fantasy, and criticism these days) so next is Oliver Rackham’s The Ash Tree (2015) one of the Little Toller Monograph series. I find these to be something of a mixed bag (Iain Sinclair’s The Black Apples of Gower was entertaining, though possibly not for any reason he intended; my favourite by far is Adam Thirlwell’s On Silbury Hill). I was eager to read this because, well, I like ash trees, but the book felt rather leaden and dully fact-heavy until, towards the end, Rackham started taking a pop at various authorities over the ash dieback crisis.

wolf-borderSarah Hall’s The Wolf Border turned out be less than I was expecting, after a promising start.  I was hoping for something a bit more wolfish than I ended up with. I did not expect to get what is, to all intents and purposes, a contemporary version of the Gothic romance of the 1970s. Hated them then, really don’t like them now, even with a fresh spin. All the really interesting stuff was going on in the novel’s interstices, where we and the protagonist could only glimpse it. As a novel about national identity, it seemed have a lot to say about pregnancy. Exquisitely written, exquisitely frustrating.

weird-and-eerieI was only dimly aware of the existence of Mark Fisher as a writer, and it took his death to draw my attention to his last book, The Weird and the Eerie, which came out last year. I’ll not say much about it now as I’m planning to reread it and write about it, but I will note that I did not expect to read a piece of work published in 2016 that was so white and so male in its critical approach. Only three texts by women were discussed, and a lot of the material discussed was old. The section on Alan Garner focused on ElidorThe Owl Service and Red Shift, as though Strandloper,  Thursbitch and Boneland, all equally pertinent to the discussion, had never been written. I’m also not sure whether Fisher realised that Yvonne Rousseau’s Murder at Hanging Rock (which he discusses in the section on Picnic at Hanging Rock, bu unforgiveably does not mention in the bibliography) was intended as spoof scholarship. And yet, there was much about the basic critical thesis that I found very useful, hence much of my irritation with the text.

loveLast but not least, I read Love Beyond Body, Space and Time: An indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology, edited by Hope Nicolson. I’ve a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons so I’ll link to that when it appears.





Chiang.jpgI also read (possibly reread) Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Lives as I was going to see Arrival and wanted to read ‘Story of Your Life’. Ted Chiang is an excellent writer of a particular kind of sf that I happen to like, so job done.




book-cover-green-knowe Other rereads were Alison Uttley’s The Country Child and A Traveller in Time, and Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe. I’ve never much cared for A Country Child as a story, but see now that’s because it isn’t, not really. To my adult eyes, the descriptions of landscape and country ways are beautifully done; Susan Garland remains annoyingly priggish. For that kind of thing I would rather read Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.




We went to see both Arrival and Rogue One, both very well done. I’ve already written about Arrival  so I won’t repeat myself here. Rogue One is, in many respects, everything I missed from The Force Awakens. Diverse cast, women flying X-fighters, enough nods to the original without being overwhelmingly cloying and sentimental in its fan service, funny, sarcastic, genuinely tragic, bizarrely life-affirming. This is my favourite Star Wars film.

We also went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Tempest. The general view seems to be that the special effects probably work better if you’re in the theatre; they do not come over well on broadcast relay. (N.B., for anyone who has ever asked me what it’s like to have no depth perception without glasses, if you saw this play as a relay broadcast, now you know.)

Much as I have always loved Simon Russell Beale as an actor, I’m forced to the conclusion, reluctantly, that he now does Simon Russell Beale in a play rather than the character he’s playing. His Prospero was … okay, better than his god-awful Lear and the so-so Timon for the Royal National Theatre, but I’d been expecting more and I did not get it. Ariel and Caliban were far better, and that set me thinking about them as physical embodiments of the two aspects of Prospero’s character. Miranda was also rather gutsier than I’m used to, which is good, and Ferdinand was wet, as usual.

I’ve written about watching the BBC productions of The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time on DVDChildren has fared well over the years, Traveller not so much. I’m glad to have the DVD but the production has entirely lost its magic for me.

I’ve also just finished catching up on the BBC’s fourth series of Father Brown, which I continue to regard as alternative history, in a Britain where the Reformation never happened. The series bible now seems to be firmly stuck around about August 1953, though the background culture is quite clearly changing constantly. I’ve been struck in this series by the sudden influx of actors of colour, and not all of them playing villains, for a wonder. The only way to cope with the series is to entirely forget about G.K. Chesterton and think of it as Midsomer Murders in the Cotswolds, with a Catholic priest, though the last episode of the series featured John Light’s disturbing Sexy!Flambeau. The writers of this episode seemed to have some slight understanding of the complexities of the relationship between Flambeau and Father Brown, for a wonder, and it was rather enjoyable in its own funny, fuzzy way. There must surely be a spin-off series called Flambeau! any moment now.

BSFA Awards shortlists

Two shortlists in one day, as the BSFA Awards shortlists were also announced yesterday. Another interesting set of nominations. And for the second time, Paul Kincaid, Karen Burnham and I are all up against one another in the Best Non-Fiction category.

Best Artwork:

Richard Anderson for the cover of Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, published by Angry Robot Books.

Blacksheep for the cover of Bête by Adam Roberts, published by Gollancz

Tessa Farmer for her sculpture The Wasp Factory, after Iain Banks.

Jeffery Alan Love for the cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, published by Gollancz

Andy Potts for the cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, published by Egmont

Best Non-Fiction:

Paul Kincaid for Call and Response, published by Beccon Books

Jonathan McCalmont for ‘Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines’

Edward James, for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers and the First World War

Strange Horizons: Nina Allan, Dan Hartland, Martin Lewis, Juliet McKenna, Kari Sperring, Maureen Kincaid Speller for The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium

Karen Burnham for Greg Egan, published by University of Illinois Press

Best Short Fiction:

Ruth E J Booth for “The Honey Trap”, published in La Femme, Newcon Press

Octavia Cade for The Mussel Eater,  published by The Book Smugglers

Benjanun Sriduangkaew for  Scale Bright, published by Immersion Press

Best Novel:

Nina Allan, for The Race, published by Newcon Press

Frances Hardinge, for Cuckoo Song, published by Macmillan

Dave Hutchinson, for Europe in Autumn, published by Solaris

Simon Ings, for Wolves, published by Gollancz

Ann Leckie, for Ancilliary Sword, published by Orbit

Claire North, for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, published by Orbit

Nnedi Okorafor,  for Lagoon, published by Hodder

Neil Williamson, for The Moon King, published by Newcon Press


Things I read on the internet 10/2/2014


Publishers Taylor and Francis have made a bundle of articles entitled Gothic Origins free to view online until the end of March. Also, and almost more interesting, they are downloadable too.

People Writing About Science Fiction and Fantasy and the Weird

Paul Kincaid writes about Boon, a little-read but much-cited novel by H.G. Wells.

Tom Pollock talks about Keeping It Real in a passionately argued piece.

Steve Rasnic Tem on Southern Gothic and the Appalachian Weird

World SF

Islam and Science Fiction is currently running a series on Pakistani SF

Urban Studies

Geographically correct subway maps

Clips and Stills

The Importance of Winston T Zeddemore in Ghostbusters.

First aerial photograph of Lower Manhattan

Salvador Dali’s last Film: Impressions of Mongolia (the search for a giant hallucinogenic mushroom

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with narration by Orson Welles

Visual Static

R. Crumb illustrates Philip K. Dick’s religious experiences

Saint-Exupery’s original watercolours for The Little Prince

Paper Studies

I’d feel a lot better about my book-buying habit if I could use the packaging in my garden.

Dept of Wait! What?

Scientists strap fake tails to chickens to figure out how T Rex walked. I think the moral of this is, don’t keep chickens, ever.

Fifty Shades of Wrongness

Five Things To Consider About Science Fiction by Steve Davidson. I don’t even know where to start with this piece, which seems to boil down to ‘guys, you just don’t understand’. On the basis of some of this, no, I don’t think I do, and I’m not sure I want to.

Nine Amazing Books That Feature Magic Realism – only part of that heading is accurate.

Archaelogical Digs

Virginia Woolf visits Stonehenge

Last Thoughts

The Periodic Table of Storytelling – not because I necessarily agree with it but because I like periodic tables.

I would dispute whether The Dreadnought Hoax is the greatest hoax in history, but it’s an interesting one.

Ghosts of a Parisian apartment frozen in time

The Secret Lives of Action Figures in Imaginary Everyday Scenarios

Archive – James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon – Julie Phillips

Another Interzone review, from August 2006. The reviews editor at that time had the idea of asking Paul Kincaid and me to write a pair of linked reviews of Julie Phillips’ biography of James Tiptree, Jr. Paul has kindly agreed to put up his review of the same book at his own blog, Through the Dark Labyrinth, and we’ve linked them, so you can read both parts of the diptych.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon – Julie Phillips
St Martin’s Press, 480pp $27.95 hb

Even before she was a person, Alice Hastings Bradley was a fictional character. At the age of six, she featured in a children’s book, Alice in Jungleland, written by her mother, Mary, a well-known author and society hostess. Here, Bradley described how, during a sea voyage to Africa, the young Alice was dressed as a doll and placed in a wooden box, after which she was carried into a fancy-dress party. Much to everyone’s surprise, when the box was opened Alice remained perfectly still, ‘just like a real doll in a box’.

The sense of relief contained in that anecdote is almost palpable, as well it might be, for Mary Hastings Bradley had a great deal invested in her daughter’s good behaviour. The expedition which she had helped to fund was headed for the Congo, to film and shoot gorillas. Bradley had been publicly criticised over her decision to take her daughter with her and she knew that she would be permitted to take on the role of explorer only if she could also demonstrate that she was a competent mother at all times. Thus the young Alice Bradley became the unwilling centre of attention, required to appear immaculately dressed and well-behaved at all times, conforming to society’s demands in order to support her mother’s claim to a life beyond what society deemed proper. All the while young Alice was, as she later acknowledged, the baggage on the trip, denied the adventures her mother craved because she was too young

The irony of this was surely not lost on the adult Alice, whose lasting fame rests not on her work as a research psychologist, nor even on her career within the CIA, both carried out in her own name, but for her creation of another fictional character. James Tiptree, Jr. was the by-line who unexpectedly came to life, achieving a strong and vivid existence on the page, and providing Alice (Alli) Sheldon, his progenitor, with a voice for all those things she felt she couldn’t say as a woman. As it turned out, Tiptree’s existence was to prove as fragile as that of Alice in Jungleland. When Tip’s true identity was accidentally revealed in 1976, it effectively robbed Alli Sheldon of her voice, while young Alice proved not to be a beautiful doll, but a troubled little girl who struggled hard to come to terms with life as an adult.

The story of how James Tiptree, Jr was revealed to be Alice Sheldon, ‘nothing but an old lady in Virginia’, is now well known, but the territory between Alice in Jungleland and James Tiptree, Jr has so far been little explored. Julie Phillips’ ambitious, multi-layered biography now reveals that the life of Alice Sheldon was every bit as strange and exotic as the life she bestowed on Tip; and more to the point, that much of his life was indeed her own.

For much of her life Alli was tortured by the sense of not knowing who she really was. A confusing childhood left her with, on the one hand, a very well developed sense of her own artistic and intellectual abilities (among other things she was an accomplished artist and an excellent mathematician) but on the other, an inability to apply herself to her work in order to improve her skills. She wanted to make her own way, but was reluctant to give up the comforts of her parents’ house and money. Yet she was stifled by her adoring mother; and for many years Allie associated love with possession. More than once she described her mother as a ‘queen bee’, needing to always be the centre of attention, but it is clear that the bond between mother and daughter was very strong throughout their lives

Alli’s acquaintances – almost everyone interviewed for the biography seems to start by saying ‘I didn’t know her very well’ – clearly regarded her as a strong woman who conducted life on her own terms. However, her journals suggest that she was very uncertain about her gender identity and her sexual orientation. She could not come to terms with her wild crushes on women, none of which seem to have been entirely reciprocated, nor reconcile these with the fact that she preferred the company of men as friends, although all her sexual partners appear also to have been male. She could ride a horse, fire a gun, fish as well as anyone she knew; she puzzled over how a woman might reconcile such skills with motherhood and managing a home. In an unfinished essay, ‘Femininity and Society: A Discussion from the Standpoint of the Atypical Woman’, she wrestled with this dilemma, concluding that male and female were cultural categories, and that the sexes are really divided into men and mothers, and that the female reproductive system was a ‘vampire’, themes she would often return to in her stories. In the light of this, her eventual decision to more fully ‘inhabit’ her by-line is perhaps not so surprising, in that she was finally able to give voice to a part of herself that had remained suppressed for so many years.

One might wonder why Sheldon needed Tiptree as much as she seems to have done, considering the remarkable variety of things she tackled during her life. She had an impressive war-time career in the CIA, working on the interpretation of surveillance photographs. Later, she helped her second husband to run a chicken farm, work that turned out to be far more time-consuming than they initially supposed. Later still, she went back to university, finally becoming Dr Alice Sheldon, research psychologist. However, as Phillips shows, the work always came between Sheldon and her artistic side, rather as motherhood had got in the way of writing and exploration for Mary Bradley. Becoming James Tiptree gave Alli permission to write, providing her with a space as well as a voice. Whereas Woolf advocated that women should have rooms of their own in which to work, Alli Sheldon literally took this a step further, and created a persona in which to work. Having said this, I think that Phillips perhaps misses a trick in not considering that having attempted to present Alli as a feminist (I’m not always entirely persuaded of the argument in favour of this), she never really addresses the fact that Alli transforms herself into, effectively, a male version of her own mother, or even, the man her mother would have most liked to be.

In Tip, Alice Sheldon seemingly reached her apotheosis, brief as it turned out to be. Critics agree that the stories written after Tip’s identity was revealed were never as good as those before. It seemed that Alli could write only by distancing her creative ability from her physical self; once the distance was removed, her writing began to wither away. With that went her reason for being. Alice Sheldon had all her adult life suffered from depression. She was terrified of old age, and terrified of what it would do to her and her husband, Ting. They had made a suicide pact, but at the point when Alli decided the time had come for them to die, Ting’s only problem was failing eyesight. It seems likely that her depression had convinced her otherwise; consequently, on May 19, 1987, she shot Ting as he lay asleep and then, after ringing a lawyer and her step-son, she turned the gun on herself.

Tiptree’s legacy is well-documented. The discovery that he was in fact she has prompted much critical discussion on how to read masculinity and femininity in writing, and taught a couple of generations of readers to be more careful about making judgements based on the author’s name and supposed gender. The James Tiptree Award is now an institution, promoting work which pushes the boundaries of our understanding of gender portrayals in science fiction; it is supported by one of the most fiercely loyal communities within the sf world.

Alice Sheldon has become very much overshadowed by her own alter-ego, and this biography is therefore a very welcome redressing of the balance. It’s all too easy for us to be admiring of the carefree Tip, pounding out his stories, or to acclaim Alice Sheldon’s audacity in creating this vibrant persona for herself. It’s far too easy to represent the creation of James Tiptree, Jr. as a conscious feminist statement, a thumbing of the nose to the masculine sf establishment. To do so is, I believe, to overlook what it was that drove Alice Sheldon to transform herself as she did. Julie Phillips’ carefully researched account of the life of Alice Sheldon is a stark reminder of what has happened to too many women, not only to writers, who have tried to find a balance between their daily and creative lives. James Tiptree, Jr triumphed but it was Alice Sheldon who fought every inch of the way, and Julie Phillips who brought that remarkable story to our attention.

Bridging the Gaps II

More things I found on the internet

Animated Short Film about the History of Typography

John H. Stevens follows up on Paul Kincaid’s near-legendary article on the ‘exhaustion of sf’, discusses ‘exhaustion as an ever-present part of the artistic process’ and speculates on what happens next.

Worlds Without Ends has a nifty compilation of all the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlists.

And while we’re about the Clarke Award, Tom Hunter, the Award’s director, has gathered together most of the coverage of this year’s award, won by Chris Beckett for Dark Edens here.

Jess Nevins in the LARB on a new edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s Classic Stories, ed. by Roger Luckhurst. I’ve not yet seen the edition but Luckhurst apparently situates Lovecraft as part of the Weird. Nevins disagrees. I’m agnostic until I see the introduction.

And Roger Luckhurst himself on ‘H.P. Lovecraft and the Northern Gothic Tongue’

A short story by Karin Tidbeck, Sing, available at the Tor website, and well worth reading. The below-the-line comments, not so much.

Thought-provoking article at Strange Horizonsfrom Rochita Loenen-Ruiz: So what do you think of my story where I made use of another person’s culture?

Emptying the Inbox

A few links to keep you amused until the next “proper” post …

At last, a full video of Heartwood: Robert Holdstock and Telling the Matter of Britain, held at the British Library on 2nd September 2011, chaired by Graham Sleight, featuring Stephen Baxter, Donald E Morse, Lisa Tuttle and, standing in for Brian Aldiss at the very last moment (like thirty seconds before the event) Paul Kincaid.

The Los Angeles Review of Books is apparently bringing out one of its Digital Editions on Science Fiction. More information here but it looks interesting.

OMNI Magazine available online

Welcome to the Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction, a new online journal from the Eaton Collection at the University of California at Riverside.

Coelacanth genome sequenced – because coelacanths will never be anything but utterly cool.

Also recommended: Channel 4 documentary on the rediscovery of the coelacanth. I can’t describe how happy it made me to finally see film of a living coelacanth.

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.

Blogging Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

We were having lunch when I happened to mention I had started reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. ‘Are you going to blog it?’ asked Niall Harrison. I hadn’t given the idea any thought, but it turned out that while all of us had either read bits of the Anatomy or had always meant to read it, we couldn’t actually muster a complete reading between us. Thus was born the idea of reading and blogging our way through the entire Anatomy of Criticism.

‘We’ are Niall Harrison, Paul Kincaid, Jonathan McCalmont, Paul Graham Raven and me, Maureen Kincaid Speller. The book comprises a ‘Polemical Introduction’, and four Essays, plus a Tentative Conclusion, so we have shared out the Introduction and Essays, and each of us will introduce one of them and open discussion. We will all respond to the Tentative Conclusion.

The project begins today with my comments on the Polemical Introduction, in the next post, and the rest of the blogging timetable should look like this (with the caveat that life happens so there may be some slippage).

7/3 Polemical Introduction (MKS)
14/3 Theory of Modes (Paul R)
28/3 Theory of Symbols (Niall)
11/4 Theory of Myths (Jonathan)
25/4 Theory of Genres (Paul K)

It remains only to begin the discussion.