Tag Archives: ted chiang

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.

Books:

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.

 

 

Films/TV:

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.

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‘Recordings alone aren’t sufficient’ – speaking Arrival

As is customary at Paper Knife, I will be discussing the whole of the story, the whole of the film. If you want them both to be a lovely surprise when you get to them, I suggest you click away now. In the meantime, let us continue.

Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Before all else, I want to say that I enjoyed Arrival immensely. Indeed it acted so powerfully on my imagination that I dreamt a whole sub-plot for it the night I saw it, something to do with people discovering things about past situations they’d found themselves in, information that would have been helpful at the time, and now vouchsafed to them because they’d at last slipped free of the constraints of time and language.

Will Elwood wondered on Twitter whether Arrival really is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’, which is an interesting point, not least because my first thought, having read the story just before I saw the film, was how do you adapt a story like this, so heavily reliant on shifts in time and narrative tense, into a film? After the film, Paul Kincaid and I initially thought that Arrival could be seen as an improvisation on ‘Story of Your Life, but thinking about it some more, I wonder now if it isn’t perhaps a commentary on the difference between telling a story with words and telling a story with images. To which you would pityingly say, ‘well, obviously, because it’s a film, right?’ And it is, and you are right, but what I’m thinking about is the different ways in which words and images (sounds, too) evoke thoughts in the mind.

I have said before that I am generally not that keen on film or tv; in part this is because I don’t like the way film-makers attempt, sometimes very crudely, to manipulate my emotions. Obviously, writers do this too, but I’ve always felt that words are something I have control over – I can stop reading if it all gets too stressful – whereas images I don’t – I cannot pause the cinema film. Images are just there, projected into my mind, something I find much more difficult to filter out unless I close my eyes and stuff my fingers in my ears.

‘Story of Your Life’ and Arrival tell the same story, more or less. Odd details change – Gary Donnelly becomes Ian Donnelly, Hannah’s cause of death will be different, but essentially, the stories remain the same. It’s the emphases that are different.

One of the several reasons why I like Ted Chiang’s stories is that while they contain much in the way of ideas, on the page they are very pared down. He gives me as much as I need and no more. He is not a writer who indulges in lush description unless for a very specific reason, and if he does, I would take notice, because. Mostly, he leaves it to me, the reader, to bring my own imagination to bear, as much as I need it to, in order to fill in the gaps between the words and the sentences. I don’t want or need it on the page. It doesn’t seem like promising material for a film.

One could imagine a film-maker looking at ‘Story of Your Life’ as nothing more than a synopsis, an opportunity for the special effects department to run riot, and I don’t doubt we could think of directors who would have done just that, allowing spectacle to overwhelm all else. But, for the most part, that didn’t happen here. At the heart of ‘Story of Your Life’ is an achronological, universal language, in which everything is said simultaneously, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things Arrival is trying to do is to explore how the film image tries to be everything simultaneously, but how the experience can differ, according to what visual memory you bring to it. OK, so this is hardly original, but too often it seems to me that locating the intertextual references in film turns into an easter-egg hunt. How smug we all feel for spotting the shop called Micklewhite’s in the Muppet Christmas Carol, knowing that Michael Caine was originally called Maurice Micklewhite. That’s an in-joke, not an intertextual reference; it’s also an artefact, and I’m thinking much more about mood.

Let’s take a few examples from Arrival, some more overt than others. If Arrival is in direct dialogue with any film, it is surely Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though I must admit I also read it in part as a riposte to or subtle reproof of some aspects of CETK, particularly the Special Edition. To begin with, while the huge space ships have shown up all over the world, the film focuses on one that has taken up station in Montana, which I do not doubt is meant to prompt us to think of the Devi’s Tower in Wyoming, the dominant image in CETK. But I’m thinking more of the moment when the helicopter sweeps over Louise Banks’ house at night, before landing in the meadow. The slanting light through the slats of the blinds, the confusion of dark and light, the distortion, the figure at the door, all echo the events when Barry is taken from his mother’s house. And are meant to – the audience is anticipating what Banks is likely to find when she opens the door, and there is the sense of relief that it’s Colonel Weber (though anyone who recalls E.T. might perhaps wonder whether authority figures should be trusted).

The shots of the house by the waterside, the child playing at the water’s edge, and the way the water moved, all made me think immediately of Solaris (and as Andrew M. Butler pointed out after the film, there is also the shot of the wheat field moving in the breeze). The reference to ‘the zone’ can’t help but invoke Stalker, but what about the quality of the stillness of the vast ship, hanging in the air. I thought then of District Nine. And surely everyone who has seen Arrival had at least one moment when they thought of 2001 and the monolith. I doubt any of this is a coincidence, any more than it is a coincidence that every film I’ve mentioned here is very specifically about attempting, or failing, to communicate with an alien group in ways that don’t simply involve trying to shoot them out of the sky.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that Villeneuve is very specifically offering a bank of references for the watcher to draw on if they so desire, his version of leaving spaces between the words. Because, one of the things that does strike me about this film is how comparatively sparse everything is on the screen. Not the space ship, perhaps, but we’ll come back to that shortly. It is as if Villeneuve has striven to put the minimum necessary on screen to actually tell the story. We see unremarkable public spaces that are in no way distinctive (the campus, the garage); they could be anywhere. Contingent spaces, like the cafeteria, could again be anywhere, and the people in them could be anywhere as well. Banks’ own house is more distinctive, but what we note mostly is how isolated it is, how impersonal, how see-through. The army camp is inevitably marked as temporary – we see it put up, and taken down. We see a hundred little reminders – in the furniture, fittings, cramped accommodation, banks of phones for the soldiers to call home – that this is not a place where people will settle. The room where Banks sleeps is small, functional, a place to lie down but not to be comfortable. The only space we ever see that actually seems to belong to someone is Banks’ study, with its book-lined walls; this is where she spends most of her time, and it’s the place she goes back to while everyone else is wondering how to deal with potential alien invasion. (It’s noticeable too that the lecture theatre is the only other place that seems in any way ‘warm’. It’s bigger than her study but it’s still a cocoon; she is prepared to keep on lecturing in the face of the arrival of aliens, no matter how few people attend.)

In all of this it seems to me that Villeneuve is giving us what we need, but no more, unless we want to bring it in ourselves. It’s the visual equivalent of saying ‘Banks’ office’ or ‘the army camp’. The camera rarely lingers; it’s always scurrying along behind Banks, on her way to somewhere else, taking no notice of her surroundings, because they do not interest her. We only really notice the surroundings when, in Montana, Ian is also present, or when Banks is with Hannah. These are the things that are important to the story. Perhaps we might see them as a visual equivalent of the passages in the story that are directly addressed to her daughter. The richer settings reflect engagement, affection.

Earlier, I excluded the space ship from my discussion on the minimalism of the settings. In Chiang’s story, the ships are simply referred to as ‘the ships’. Indeed, they’re really not important to the story except as vehicles to bring the heptapods to Earth. What’s really important are the alien devices, deposited on the ground. They’re called ‘looking glasses’ and described as being ‘semicircular […] over ten feet high and twenty feet across’. Later, it will turn out they’re made of fused silica, nothing exotic. Chiang’s description renders them as being nothing fancy, and I think that’s the point. You could imagine one, on a smaller scale, as a mirror over a mantelpiece in an ordinary house. It’s just that these are bigger.

The story doesn’t need a space ship; it’s taken as read, but the film? Well, maybe it panders to a section of the audience by including an actual space ship, but I wonder too if a twenty-foot mirror isn’t harder to explain than a space ship. And here the space ship can be used to tell us something about its inhabitants as well. What I particularly love about the space ship is its texture, which will echo, to some extent, the texture of the heptapod when we finally see it in detail. (Paul Kincaid thinks this is as part of a dream sequence; I am not so sure of that, but even if it is, the texture has clearly imprinted itself on Banks’ dream consciousness as well.) I like too how the curvilinear form resonates slightly with that curved-mirror artefact that Chiang describes. And also, and maybe this is my imagination, when it finally turns in the sky, I couldn’t help thinking of a contact lens, a huge, grey contact lens, but something else that says ‘seeing’ rather than hearing, and again picks up on something that is present in both story and film, the dichotomy between speaking and writing, and the need to utilise both in order to make contact. I could get all Derridean about this and start invoking ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ – maybe at some point, when I’ve refreshed my memory, I will – but for now I will simply draw your attention to Colonel Weber’s impossible demand that Banks translate the alien speech from a tape recording, with no other clues at all.

Here I should back up slightly – the reference to the mirror in Chiang’s text suggests faces; something that is very noticeable in the film is the emphasis on faces. We see often them very close to, closer than I think is always necessary. Paul Kincaid notes in his own post on the film how often the film focuses on Banks’ face at certain points, but there are instances of it with other characters, and it occurred to me that these moments we are being urged, literally directed, to take note of those expressions. Why? It could be frantic telegraphing of points, yes, but I don’t think so; this film is too good for that kind of cheap manipulation. Instead, it seemed to me that Villeneuve was quietly suggesting that not only should we not be relying on words alone when it came to communicating, we can’t.

The facial thing struck me in particular because I experience tinnitus and deafness in one ear, and it turns out that I’ve been compensating for this for years by lip-reading; I really don’t like it when I can’t see the lower portion of people’s faces when they’re speaking, and that includes in films. What brought it home to me in Arrival is the scene when they first enter the space ship in hazmat gear and attempt to communicate with the aliens. It was screamingly obvious from the beginning that at least some of the team would have to eventually divest themselves of the gear in order to communicate properly, but while one might think of this in terms of showing oneself as a ‘human’, and what a human actually looks like, it is also about revealing the face, the place where communication starts with humans. Similarly, when Banks lays her hand on the screen, it’s tempting to imagine the heptapods thinking, ‘okay, now we can talk’ because she has, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledged their means of communication.

But, of course, this also links back to Colonel Weber’s inability to ‘see’ that communication isn’t simply about words, or recordings, but about bodies, faces, presences, positioning. And as it turns out, vocalisation is not actually the heptapods’ primary means of communication. In Chiang’s story, which is made of words, the emphasis is on figuring out what the heptapods are saying and what this means; by contrast, I’d say that the film is more about how they figure it out, inevitably, because it is a very visual thing. In the story, the heptapods’ writing is described first as ‘a doodle of script, vaguely cursive’; later, as they learn more, it becomes like ‘fancilful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance’. Later, as Banks begins to appreciate the full significance of the heptapods’ written language she talks in terms of calligraphic designs, while noting that ‘No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no one human could.’ And this, to my mind, is one place where the film does something the story never can – it can attempt to represent the semagrams, shown as ink coalescing in liquid, in black and white literally. The designers have opted for circular forms, with complexes of strands branching off all over the place, as if emphasising the conceptual all-at-onceness of heptapod communication. Chiang’s story has scientific diagrams, but it doesn’t, and I think can’t, ever have anything quite like this, because words don’t work like that (as I am inevitably showing here).

And there is one thing I haven’t yet raised –how much of this film is about a lack of communication. Inevitably, perhaps. It would be impossible to resist in a film about first contact, but Villeneuve is as subtle about that. Yes, later, we get the inevitable great big diplomatic tantrums, and threats of war, and it would be wrong perhaps to exclude them, in the same way that we know the military is going to attempt to function on a need-to-know basis, and close down discussion when it most needs to happen – there is something inevitably perverse about the way in which the US military always seems to try to control the flow of information in any given situation while apparently being staggeringly inept at achieving any kind of meaningful exchange. I’m sure that is a point not lost on Villeneuve.

But think back to the beginning, after we’ve seen the death of Hannah, at the point where we might still be thinking that Banks is grieving. By the end of the film, those who don’t know the story should have made the connection, and realised that first contact comes prior to the birth of Hannah, in which case, what is striking when the alien ships arrive? Yes, we note that a linguist is ignoring all the screens as she walks through the campus building, and has failed to notice everyone gravitating towards them. Yes, we note that she presses on with her lecture even though the auditorium is almost empty (you do – I’ve given that lecture, too). But what happens in that lecture theatre? People’s cell phones start ringing, with others passing on the news that the aliens arrived. Now, we could say that for the sake of professionalism, Banks has switched her phone to silence while she lectures, but for the sake of the film, let’s assume she didn’t, and that it was on ‘vibrate’. It didn’t ring before she went into the lecture theatre, it doesn’t ring while she’s in the lecture theatre. The students have to ask her to switch on the screen so they can see what’s happening. In other words, the communications specialist has no one communicating with her socially, has no one to communicate with socially. We can only speculate on what her life at the university is like; apparently, it does not involve collegiality, yet she equally obviously has nothing to do outside except gravitate back towards her university office.

By contrast, everyone one around her seems to be communicating furiously but with little effect. Screen after screen of news reports, the bank of screens communicating with specialists at the other contact sites, and yet no one can figure out what’s happening. The screens provide a handy visual reference for the compartmentalisation of information that is going on. Everyone has a question they want to ask, variations of the question Colonel Weber asks: ‘what is your purpose here?’, but it is as if everyone has suddenly forgotten the etiquette of communication. And both story and film suggest that people are surprised, outraged even, that the aliens abide by the same rules of not giving away anything. Except, of course, that they’ve given away everything if people choose to collaborate; or finally recognise that they must collaborate.

It’s here, I think, that the film seems a little weaker, presenting us with the idea of Banks seeing into the future, and saving the world from global war. The story is rather more low-key – as I said before, it’s about ‘what’, so the problem-solving is, in and of itself, sufficiently satisfying. A film needs more overt drama, I assume, so we have the sub-plot of the group of soldiers deciding to blow up the space ship, for example. I did like how this was done. It’s never discussed but is raised for the viewer through expressions, significant glances, a mention of something on the radio. I particularly liked the way it was assumed by the plotters that the aliens wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t understand what was going on, so it was fine to bring in the explosives in plain view. Or, because they were aliens, maybe they were invisible. There’s a lot going on in just that small sequence.

The larger sub-plot, how Banks saves the world, reaching forward in time to memorise a phone number, stretched my willingness to believe just slightly, but if you look back at the original text, while there is no Chinese general, the text does begin to break down in such a way as to suggest that as Banks works with the heptapod language it is changing her experience of the world, moving back and forth in time. It’s subtle; I missed it the first time but it is there. In the film, though, it seems to need to be made more explicit.

And yet, having said that, it is reinforced in less immediately tangible ways. Paul Kincaid and I have disagreed slightly over the film’s opening. I thought initially it was a little deceitful in synopsising what comes later, perhaps tricking the audience into assuming that Banks is grieving rather than being crashingly lonely, only to reveal later that … The story, I realised after a second reading, is actually a circular thing. The end is the beginning – the question ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ is asked twice, once at the beginning, once at the end. There is an overlap. The film doesn’t do that, I thought, until Paul Kincaid pointed out that at the beginning of the film, in the first shot of the house’s interior, there are two wine glasses, as there are at the end of the film, when the question is asked. The overlap is, as it must be, visual.

And finally, I go back to Will Elwood’s query. Is Arrival an adaptation of ‘Story of Your Life’? And I think the answer has to be no, because it is a translation of the story. Or, if we ‘spoke’ Heptapod, there would be a frighteningly elegant semagram which would bring together words like ‘adaptation’ and ‘translation’ and ‘reworking’ as facets of a larger concept. But we are stuck with words and images and do the best we can.

Archive – The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 26th Annual Collection – Gardner Dozois, ed.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection
Gardner Dozois St Martin’s Griffin, 639pp, pb

After twenty-six years, Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction is not so much an anthology as an institution. Solid, reliable, it arrives punctually every year, offering over quarter of a million words of short story as well as Dozois’s summary of the year’s activities in science fiction publishing. Its arrival used to be an major event for me and I doubt I was the only one who used Dozois’s selections as a pointer for further reading. If Dozois’s word was not law precisely, his undeniable good taste in stories surely prompted readers to take a few risks in what they tackled.

Times change: there are now various annual ‘best of’ anthologies available, with each editor having his or her own take on what constitutes ‘best’ and, for that matter, what constitutes ‘science fiction’. For all the endless rehashing of the genre wars, not to mention what should and shouldn’t be part of the ‘canon’, that the sf ‘church’ is now such a broad one is in no small part thanks to Dozois’s generous promotion of the likes of Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ and many others. So where does that leave his own Year’s Best anthology? Does anything, apart from its size and publishing longevity, continue to set this anthology apart? Looking at this year’s volume, it is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Not least on the agenda is what makes these thirty stories ‘best’? Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ won the 2009 Hugo for Best Novella, but Elizabeth Bear, winner of the Best Novelette Award, is represented by a story co-authored with Sarah Monette, while Ted Chiang, winner of the Best Short Story, is not represented at all. On the other hand, a number of the Hugo-shortlisted stories do appear in this collection. Pick another award: how about the Nebulas? There’s very little correspondence between those shortlists and this anthology’s contents. Then again, there is very little correspondence between the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, period. I could slice and dice award shortlists all day long, but the fact remains that these are the stories Dozois considers to be the best he saw during 2008.

What strikes me is that they are mostly as solid and reliable as the anthology’s reputation. There are no bad stories here, but by the same token, there are few if any that actually excite me. Take Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’: this is a well-constructed story, as one would expect, with a neat idea at its heart. I like the fact that she engages with what it means to grow old and that her elderly characters are passionate, mindful, valuable people. Yet this story is just a little too long, teetering on the brink of sentimentality, and that’s typical of a number of stories here, from Maureen McHugh’s ‘Special Economics’ to Daryl Gregory’s ‘The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm’. As one begins reading, there is the sense of being pleasantly enveloped by the promise of a feel-good ending without being truly nourished on the way. By contrast, Ian McDonald’s ‘An Eligible Boy’, set in his future India, while it initially promises something similar, cheerfully wreaks havoc with the reader’s expectations. His other story included here, ‘The Tear’, although very different, is similarly rich in invention.

Invention, novelty (as in new rather than gimcrack): these are qualities which do seem to be lacking in this selection. I am mystified, for example, as to why Charles Coleman Finlay’s ‘The Political Prisoner’ seems to have attracted so much attention in the last year. It’s a study of wrongful imprisonment and endurance of the system, but it feels old and tired as a narrative conceit. And truly, I did not expect to see yet another alternate history featuring a Kennedy brother, but Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ‘G-Men’ delivers just that. The ‘alternate history’ is little more than a convenient hook on which to hang a thin story of the murder of J Edgar Hoover.

Gord Sellars’ ‘Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues’ is a cleverer and wittier alternate history, examining the fate of the jazzmen who travelled on the Frogships, and I enjoyed it for his knowing reworkings of familiar technology. However, it still feels a little too slick for its own good, and goes down a little too easily. Indeed, the same could be said of many stories in the collection, from Bear’s and Monette’s ‘Boojum’ to James L. Cambias’s ‘Balancing Accounts’ with its robot ship making its way, earning its living. Where is the story that makes one want to rush out and buttonhole one’s friends, saying ‘read this’.

In truth, apart from the two by McDonald (who is anyway one of my favourite writers), there isn’t a story that really excites me. Few that stick firmly in the memory, to re-emerge days later. The anthology feels autumnal, retrospective, conservative and cautious (it seems significant somehow that only one story is drawn from an online magazine, Jay Lake’s wonderfully-titled ‘The Sky That Wraps The World Round, Past The Blue And Into the Black’, which first appeared in Clarkesworld, and which itself reflects on the past). The autumnal chill invades Dozois’s summation of the year, which makes sobering reading as he charts the ups and downs, mostly downs, of the sf industry. And perhaps that’s what this anthology is all about: Dozois’s response to recession, fuelling a desire for stories in which good always triumphs in the best possible way. As usual, Dozois’s generous spirit is shown to best advantage at the end of the collection, with eleven pages of ‘Honorable Mentions’, the Carrollian moment when everyone gets a prize. I’ve seen him mocked in the past for doing it, but it remains a big deal for a writer to be noticed, and part of what Dozois’s Year’s Best has always been about is noticing. I may disagree profoundly with him about the story selection this year, but he remains our witness to the ebb and flow of the genre and of the industry.

Archive – Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection – Gardner Dozois

Another Interzone review from 2008 – I try hard not to rewrite these reviews, but in this instance I have indulged in some very light editing of the punctuation, to save embarrassing myself.


The Year’s Best Science Fiction – Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection
Gardner Dozois, ed., St Martin’s Press, 652pp, hb

I can’t remember which author it was recently suggested on their blog that short-story writing has become akin to making art-house films. Not that many watch the films, not that many read the stories. To push the analogy a little, you’re producing showcase work for your peers to appreciate, and for a few aficionados to admire. In which case, to stretch the analogy further, does that mean that anthologies are like film festivals? Some are still a little off-piste, while others have, like Sundance, become respected for their independent flavour. Others like Cannes are part of the scenery, though they may yield the odd surprise. And Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction is … a one-man Oscars ceremony, with Dozois, like the Academy Awards judges, moving in mysterious ways when making choices which can sometimes seem puzzling, at other times downright baffling.

I used to rely heavily on Dozois’s annual selection to keep me up to speed with what was going on in short sf; coming back to it, I’m immediately struck by the fact that I have no idea what this ‘best’ means any more. Dozois’s judgement was good enough for me, once, but now I’m more sceptical and less inclined to just take it as it comes. How does Dozois make his choices? When he talks about things being better than the year before, or not as good, what does this mean? Does Dozois have some absolute criteria against which he works, year after year? The reader has no way of knowing.

Every anthology has an underlying narrative, and I must assume that in this instance, it’s Dozois’s personal taste. I know that his tastes are, or were, pretty catholic, and in the past he wasn’t afraid to head for the genre’s wilder shores. However, I read these stories and the science fiction they present seems mostly safe, conservative, old-fashioned even. There is an unsettling strand of sentimentality in his choices, and way too many ‘tomorrow is another day’ endings. It could almost be nostalgia. It is interesting too that while Dozois’s Summation notes many new writers producing short stories so few of this highly active new generation figure in the contents. David Moles gets a look-in with ‘Finisterra’, as do a couple of other newer faces, including Elizabeth Bear, but for the most part I’m seeing the same names as figured in the first copies of Year’s Best that I bought, and I’m sure that can’t be right.

Which is not to say that this anthology is composed of bad stories – none is less than competent, but a number feel rather tired, the more so when grouped together with their peers – more that there are few if any that really stand head and shoulders above the rest. ‘Finisterra’, for sure; Ted Kosmatka’s ‘The Prophet of Flores’, and Chris Roberson’s ‘The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small’. Also, and I surprise myself by saying this, I enjoyed Gregory Benford’s ‘Dark Heaven’, less for any science-fictional element it might have, more for his consummate skill in unfolding what is really a police procedural with aliens at a necessarily slow, considered pace. And of course, there is Ted Chiang’s ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, which is perhaps the most perfect sf story I’ve read in the last year, and which gives me more pleasure every time I read it.

Oddly, three out of the five stories I’ve mentioned in this paragraph are also included in Dozois’s and Jonathan Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year #2, which I thought was a much bolder enterprise. One begins to wonder if Dozois’s rubric for this anthology, whatever lurks behind the public ‘best’, has become too narrow for him to admit much of what is now being published under ‘science fiction’. But, as with the Oscars ceremony, whatever we feel about the choices, Dozois’s Year’s Best remains a vital part of the annual publishing calendar, even if we’re no longer quite sure what it’s for.

Things I read on the internet: almost end of year edition

Paper Knife staggers, blinking, into its fourth year of existence (it celebrated its third birthday on December 28th). Yes, I’m also quite surprised I’ve kept it going this long. At present, I’ve no idea what 2014 will bring in terms of blogging. Unlike many of my blogging colleagues, I tend not to make plans but just roll with it. Consequently, my head is full of long, complicated and not easily articulated thoughts about lists, reviews, fan service, publisher service, and so on, which never quite make it to print. In 2014, I hope they will.

I have to admit too to a sense of disappointment with the blog at times. I started it in order to engage with a community I thought existed. Unsurprisingly, insofar as it does exist, if it does exist, it is a community that reads rather than comments (and here I’m as guilty as the next person) so the hoped-for discussion didn’t happen. Instead, I’ve sometimes felt more as though I’m performing to an empty auditorium, refusing to take the hint that it’s time to get offstage and do something else.

Yet still I keep going, even if I am apparently doing it all wrong. I don’t actively court publishers as some bloggers seem to; I don’t particularly care about spoilers, unless I am discussing something very recent. I couldn’t give a toss about cover reveals, nor do I squee or take in blog tourists (I might, but I’ve not yet seen a book I wanted to promote in that way). I write too much, about the wrong books, and I’m always late to the newest controversy. It has been intimated that I am putting people off by being «cough» a little too academic in my approach. Oh yeah, and it’s a rare month that goes by without someone loudly proclaiming the death of blogs … usually on their blog, and without a trace of irony as they do so. (Moments like this, I love the internet.)

Whether any of that is true or not, so be it. Coming into my fourth year of blogging I see myself now as scratching away on my patch of dirt, producing a crop of some sort, keeping myself mentally sustained, and if people want to read too, that’s fine. If I have any kind of resolution for 2014 it’s to be more regular in my reading and writing habits, but we shan’t know if I managed that until 2015, shall we?

The one big change I’ve made lately is to move to WordPress. The entire archive is now here, though I’ll also leave it on Blogspot. It’s taken an age to clean up the html: there are still odd glitches that need sorting out and I have to do some work on the website end of things, but basically, this is where Paper Knife now lives.

In the meantime, have some links … because what is the internet for if not the clicky stuff?

Reading

The New Yorker’s Tim Kreider wondered if Kim Stanley Robinson might be ‘Our Greatest Political Novelist‘.

Meanwhile, The Economist promoted the work of Ted Chiang but also produced a deeply wrongheaded piece on how 2014 would see more science-fictional ‘cheering tales‘ (though I personally predict increased sales of sick bags if they publish much more of this nonsense).

It being Christmas, and Christmas being a time for ghost stories (as though the other 364 days of the year weren’t), here’s an article from the tor.com website, in which Grady Hendrix surveys the work of some women ghost-story writers.

Andrew Liptak discusses the work of Francis Stevens, possibly the first professional female pulp writer.

And here is a letter to a fan from Tove Jansson

Will Wiles on creepypasta

Miscellaneous

London’s lost pneumatic dispatch railway