Snow by John Crowley

snow

You can read this story for free courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.

Okay, back to problems with the editor’s prefatory notes.

Crowley is here referred to as ‘One of the most respected authors of our day’. There’s no qualification there to say ‘within he science fiction’ or anything of that sort, which seems to imply that Crowley is a towering literary figure. From his wikipedia page, though, I see he’s won only one non-genre award listed, and that’s not entirely clear whether it’s a prize or one of their annual bursaries. It’s absolutely true that he has a strong critical reputation with the Locus gang and at the literary end of the genre critics, but outside of that audience? How many people do we think have even heard of him?

Even if we assume that Dozois is talking about within the science fiction community, what does ‘respected’ really mean here? Respect is a fairly vague idea, but in these circumstances it almost always seems to mean ‘literary’. ‘Respected’ writers in science fiction may have middling sales but they get good reviews and award nominations, and they’re the writers held up when critics outside the genre question its literary credentials.

But this kind of ‘high’ style of science fiction has never been my scene. It’s ‘high’ science fiction in the same sense as high Anglicism, I think. It clings to the the incense and idols – metaphors big and small, symbolism and allusion – of the old literature, divorced from the inconoclastic fundamentalism of a speculative fiction based on material, scientific reality. (And if we want to push this analogy too far – and why not? – then maybe the big franchises are televangelists and fantasy writers are New Age cults.)

John Crowley is a writer I’ve never sought out, not despite his ‘respected’ status, but because of it. This type of science fiction seems to lack the breadth of vision that great science fiction embodies. Consider how Pat Cadigan’s Roadside Rescue sketched out an entire relationship with and alien race – a core science fictional concept – in just a few thousand words. Here, we get nothing of that.

This is a story of a relationship among the one percent, and that’s a bit alienating, too. The narrator is the widower of Georgie, who married him as a kind of toy boy. Her money came from a former spouse who also died, but not before he gifted her a ‘wasp’, a tiny camera that followed her around recording her whole life. The idea is that it will form a memorial of the subject when they’re gone, and their loved ones will be able to commune with them forever.

But this story isn’t describing a changed world. It’s not a story that has an idea of technological and social change and then follows that through. The world depicted is pretty much exactly like ours, in fact. There’s no attempt to unspool the central concept – a kind of side cam that records everything you do for your descendants after you’re dead – into anything so gross as real-world change. Instead, the story is taken up with ruminations on traditionally deep’n’meaningful literary topics – the nature of memory, the relationship between love, marriage and ownership.

Despite the formal skill on display, this doesn’t feel like a good science fiction story. It feels like an exercise in character and metaphor rather than an attempt to picture real life in a possible future. Of course, M John Harrison – another of our ‘most respected’ writers – called this world-building instinct ‘the clumping foot of nerdism’ that ‘numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain’.

Well, we nerds invented science fiction and maybe we prefer our own clumping footsteps to the effete tread of the critic and academic through our genre. The passage I quoted from Kingsley Amis in my previous post seems apposite here, as well:

[Edmund Crispin] said to me once, about newspaper reviewing, but the point holds, ‘I don’t think there should be any criticism; any effect it might have on the writer is bound to be bad’ … literary self-consciousness means that your purpose ceases to be, say, telling your story as effectively as you can; it comes to include doing what other people have decided you should be doing. A close and intricate relationship between novelists and academics means that the novelists are writing for academics, not for anything as vulgar as fans.

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

Science fiction belongs to the the pale, male, stale and proud so leave us alone!

This amazing image is by Jim Burns. I first saw in the Harry harrison-authored art book, Mechanismo.

This amazing image is by Jim Burns. I first saw it in the Harry harrison-authored art book, Mechanismo. I have no idea why it’s come out so tiny – click on it for the real version.

When I wrote about Nancy Kress’s story Trinity, I began by pointing out that this was the first story by a woman that I’d read in this whole, long series. That’s over sixty stories, with just one by a woman, and published almost sixty years after the first story I read in the series. In The Best of the Best, there are seven stories by women out of thirty-six, so about a fifth.

That’s a better ratio than the classic era anthologies, but not the fifty-fifty parity we might expect to see, all other things being equal. In fact, in general, I think it’s fair enough to go further than this and say that science fiction has been and is dominated by straight, white, Anglo Saxon males.

It’s a popular sport to challenge this these days. We had the Jonathan Ross kerfuffle recently, and last year’s Hugos were greeted by great gnashing of teeth  after the wrong books found their way onto the list (even the guardian got in on the action). Many blame the pale male and stale fan and creator base for this. Many call for greater diversity in the genre – Mistress Works and World SF Blog projects are among the better examples of people putting this into practice but there’s a great deal of posturing and hand wringing at the side lines.

However, being somewhat of a curmudgeon I wonder whether rather than being circumstantial, could the overwhelmingly ‘pale, male and stale’ domination of the audience and creative voice be definitive of science fiction?

Now, this not to say that other voices aren’t present at all. Individual woman writers have achieved great critical and commercial success – Ursula le Guin, Lauren Beukes, Connie Willis, Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffery, Margaret Atwood, C L Moore, James Tiptree Jr, Pat Cadigan and Lauren Beukes to name a few.

Different ethnicities can be harder spot, without even considering the use of pseudonyms. I can think of Octavia Butler and Spider Robinson, Samuel R Delaney and N K Jemsin who are, I believe African American writers, and Charles Yu and Ted Chiang who are Chinese Americans. You can probably name some more.

Different gender identities are even more difficult to spot. I suspect, though, that if an individual only ever expresses themselves through their preferred gender, then maybe it makes no difference, at the end of the day. Very few people saw through James Tiptree Jr’s pseudonym after all. Her sexuality makes hers an interesting life story, but her writing stands on its own merits and was generally assumed, during her lifetime at least, to have been written by a man.

But even considering recent efforts, the middle class straight white man still occupies the central genre demographic and his preferences tend to drive its focus of interest. There are, however, understandable reasons why science fiction audience has evolved this way, and it seems extremely silly to ignore these. It is still today very much a product of the circumstances and cultural influences that obtained for the first generation of writers in the first half of the twentieth century.

The male bias reflects the genre’s roots in technical magazines aimed at literate and curious – if not, by our standards, highly educated – men. Gernsback’s successful commercial formula casts a long shadow over the whole genre. He set the tone that carried through right to the end of the golden age and is evident in even the cyberpunks, the new hard SF and whatever the latest faddish movements, I guarantee it: racy thriller plots, a dash of sex, and some furrowed-brow ruminations on the threats and opportunities facing mankind in a rational and materialistic world. Look at all those sexy aliens and chainmail bikinis that grace the classic pulp covers – it’s pretty clear who the original audience was.

It was also a time of enormous ambient sexism, if not actual misogyny. Women’s lives were constrained by social norms that in turn had their roots in generations before. Not only were the technical and political questions raised by science fiction generally considered ‘manly’ topics, the economic status of women, comparative to men, gave them less access to the type of education and support networks that supported the idea of being a writer, let alone a science fiction writer.

Science fiction’s overwhelming whiteness reflects the cultural mix of the writers that populated the golden age. The early writers were either recent immigrants or descendants of Northern or Central Europeans – Scots and English, Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Hungarians, Austrians and from some of the more westerly reaches of Russia. The roster of early names at the forefront of science fiction is significant: Gernsback, Heinlein, Kuttner, Sturgeon, Pohl and Asimov as well as Campbell, Bradbury, Matheson and Clarke.

Their cultural background included a particular type of fiction with its roots in the western philosophy. It’s a European rationalist tradition of utopia and satire that goes back to writers like Voltaire, Swift, Thomas More, Erasmus and Roger Bacon, and back into the classical age. It presents a realist vision of alternative societies based on the protestant idea of a remote – at best – god and a whiggish political instinct against kings and divine right in favour of rational government for the best of the majority.

It’s incredibly short-sighted to ignore how closely tied science fiction is to this protestant Anglo Saxon intellectual milieu. It’s a type of thinking, of course, that has spread all over the world, for better or worse and as it’s done so, it’s taken science fiction with it. In his review of the ‘Best of’ volumes of short fiction in 2011, The Widening Gyre  (yes, that again!) Paul Kincaid says:

It is, perhaps, not entirely coincidental that Lee and Tidhar, along with Aliette de Bodard, are among an emerging generation of writers of the fantastic (their work tends more towards fantasy than science fiction) who mostly are or have been resident in America or brought up in Britain, but whose background is not straightforwardly Anglo-American. Other examples include Shweta Narayan (“Pishaach” in the Nebula collection) and Amal El-Mohtar (“The Green Book,” also in the Nebula collection). Without wishing to exoticize what they do, it is notable that their somewhat tangential approach to the traditions of Anglophone SF and fantasy can, at its best, produce some of the livelier examples of the genre today.

I haven’t read all these writers, but I’ve read plenty of stories by Lavie Tidhar and some by Aliette de Badard. They are both fine storytellers, but whatever their backgrounds they have entirely bought in to that same essential tradition of thought-experiment writing that was laid down as the genre took shape. Science fiction is shaped by the technocratic ideology that’s at the heart of westernised civilization – free market economics, the principle of civil liberties, and the scientific method.

Even books that critique these philosophical approaches – and there have always been science fiction books that have – are based on a view that they are in some sense essential to the operation of society. Their embededness in the prevailing social mechanism is what makes them such powerful tools for prying it open.

Given that science fiction is so intimately bound up with western cultural traditions, I’m not sure why we’re all that keen for writers from other cultures to adopt the science fiction mode? Why should people from other cultures necessarily be interested in science fiction? Maybe, as readers, instead of asking people from other cultures to speak our language, it would be better learn theirs?

So much of the recent controversy around ‘diversity’ in the genre focuses on blaming the audience, which is to say the paying readership and the mechanisms that support them. Critics blame the publishing industry for not encouraging enough diverse or daring fiction, and the publishing industry blame readers for not buying it.

While there’s may be something to be said for the idea that some of the big publishers to do more to reach out to a bigger pool of creators, I suspect they do a pretty decent job given what they’re offered. In addition I think it’s surely inarguable that they must be driven by what their established audiences will buy – people spending money to read novels and stories is ultimately what finances the whole enterprise. If the established audience doesn’t want to buy this sort of writing, then what do you do about it?

Well, I don’t think you necessarily can do anything about it. I mentioned a couple of projects that surely have the greatest to foment change, but the real problem is perhaps that the largely male and adolescent obsessions of the established audience lie deep in the roots of popular science fiction – dreamlike secondary worlds, with exciting high tech decoration and a hint of danger. These geek dreams of super-heroism depend on a rationally argued and materialistic world that reacts in a predictable way to the actions of the protagonists. Even if things don’t go their way it’s not just the vicissitudes of fate but a result of their own actions calculated against those of their antagonists. These are worlds that the classic Heinleinian capable man – or indeed Vancian rogue – can manipulate according to their own intent, for good or ill, based on a shrewd understanding of its natural processes.

There is a more literary science fiction culture – the ‘speculative fiction’ crowd if I may be so bold – that wants to see science fiction as a more academic type of literary fiction. I enjoy this sort of writing, too, but I enjoy a lot of different types of writing (although you may struggle to believe that from this blog which – to paraphrase The Blues Brothers – deals with both types of story, science fiction and fantasy). However, Kingsely Amis has this to say about that tendency.

[Edmund Crispin] said to me once, about newspaper reviewing, but the point holds, ‘I don’t think there should be any criticism; any effect it might have on the writer is bound to be bad’ … literary self-consciousness means that your purpose ceases to be, say, telling your story as effectively as you can; it comes to include doing what other people have decided you should be doing. A close and intricate relationship between novelists and academics means that the novelists are writing for academics, not for anything as vulgar as fans.

There are plenty of writers writing for fans, of course, but the genre seems polarised between the mil scific, media tie-ins and never ending series on the one hand and the highly literary approach aimed at critics, the sort of thing that gets short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award.

Maybe what we’ve lost is the mid-list, writers like the Asimov and Clarke with clever ideas and a talent for expressing those through stories. You can see it in The Best of The Best; while a few real science fiction stories sneak through, many have a more literary than science fictional character. Rather than simple stories about gewgaws and whatnots (a gross simplification but let’s go with it for a second) you have people arguing that science fiction itself is just a mode and it’s gewgaws and whatnots just another way to explore the same old ground, what Sam Goldwyn might refer to as fucking and fighting.

In the end we’re left with a genre that’s defined entirely by categorical and social elements: science fiction is what gets marketed as science fiction and what the fan community decides to embrace. The idea of science fiction being a matter of content seems to have been pushed aside and it’s become instead a style tribe. It’s a place to find a community rather than knowledge, wisdom or enlightenment.

Which of course brings back to the bell I keep ringing: science fiction is dead. The generation of science fiction writers are as dead as the beats, the modernists, dada, the romantics and the Augustan poets. All that’s left to argue about is who owns the corpse.

Posted in books, geek culture, science fiction is dead, SF

Roadside Rescue by Pat Cadigan

Included in this anthology, as well as Cadigan's own collection 'Patterns'.

Included in this anthology, as well as Cadigan’s own collection ‘Patterns’.

You can listen to a podcast of this story courtesy of Escape Pod. It’s really cool you should give it a listen!

This is more like it! Here we have a meaty short with a laser-like focus that takes one of science fiction’s founding conceptual motifs – aliens – and takes another look at it with modern eyes. Aliens are a great metaphorical device. They can be a kind ‘wise fool’ figure, pointing out the oddities and contradictions of human existence. If this story did just that, it could still be a great story.

But what makes it a great science fiction story is that as well as this, Cadigan sketches out a believable human and alien relationship in just a few pages; as well as metaphor and satire it also works as realist speculation. This is the kind of multi-stranded thematic structure that science fiction does so well.

Cadigan quickly establishes a weird vibe between the humans and aliens early on in a terrific opening paragraph:

Barely fifteen minutes after he’d called Area Traffic Surveillance, Etan Carrera saw the big limousine transport coming toward him. He watched it with mild interest from his smaller and temporarily disabled vehicle. Some media celebrity or an alien – more likely an alien. All aliens seemed enamored with things like limos and private SSTs, even after all these years. In any case, Etan fully expected to see the transport pass without even slowing, the navigator (not driver – limos drove themselves) hardly glancing his way, leaving him alone in the rolling, green empty countryside.

The alien itself, when it arrives is uncanny and seductive.

The creature on the end of the seat seemed to have coalesced out of humid semi-dark, an off-white mound of what seemed to be fur as close and dense as a seal’s. It might have repelled or disconcerted him except that it smelled so good, like a cross between fresh-baked bread and wildflowers. The aromas filled Etan with a sudden, intense feeling of well-being. Without thinking he reached out to touch it, realized and pulled his hand back.

The alien doesn’t mind, though, quite the contrary, and Etan ends being the victim of what we might consider a sexual assault, albeit a rather eccentric one, and then paid off with wads of cash.

This is not the first science fiction story about sexually predatory aliens, of course, and it’s not the novelty of the idea that’s so strong here, but it’s presentation. Here it’s seen not as overt violent rape, but a more subtle and coercive force. This also makes the story feel very current as we re-examine our definitions of sexual abuse to include non-physical coercion and mental abuse.

It’s our old friend colonialism, as well, although instead of plucky human colonists battling against a hostile environment, here we get the post-colonialist view: humanity is just another indigenous peoples exploited by a colonising force. Whatever harm is done by treating another human as a commodity to be bought and paid for like livestock can be quickly papered over with dollar bills if you are rich enough. And if you’re poor and disenfranchised enough you’ll accept it as your lot.

As well as all this, though, it’s a convincing portrayal of how things might work between humans and aliens in certain circumstances. It doesn’t feel contrived as Cadigan keeps her inventions to a minimum. It’s clearly some kind of future, and alien contact seems settled but relatively recent – ‘even after all these years’ implies decades rather than centuries.

It’s a world not all that different from ours, in fact, and while we don’t get a lot of character detail, Etan feels like a relateable protagonist. He’s not the slightly intimidating geniuses in Blood Music or Trinity and his situation is convincingly mundane. He’s an everyman and this makes it easier for me to identify with the bizarre situation he finds himself in.

Despite the old theme of aliens on the pull, this story feels fresh and interesting. It packs a lot into a few pages. It’s probably the shortest story so far but never feels shallow or lightweight. A really terrific story!

Themes: colonialism, sexual abuse, aliens, exploitation

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, short stories, The Best of the Best

Dinner in Audoghast by Bruce Sterling

crystalexp

You can read this story for free courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.

This story is told with Sterling’s usual aplomb but once more I am led to ask: how is this story science fiction? It was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1985, of course, so it says science fiction on the tin. But if you look carefully at the ingredients, it doesn’t seem to include any science fiction at all.

It’s set in the middle ages in a prosperous city on the edge of Sahara Desert where the ‘genial and accomplished slave dealer Manimenesh’ hosts a dinner party for his friends, the caravan master Ibn Watunan, the poet Khayali and the physician and assassin Doctor Bagayoko. Proceedings are described with the kind of knowing sensuousness that we’ve come to associate with this style of exoticism:

They finished the coffee and a slave took the empty pot away. A second slave, a girl from the kitchen staff arrived with a wicker tray loaded with olives, goat cheese, and hard boiled eggs sprinkled with vermilion. At that moment, a muezzin yodeled the evening call to prayer.

“Ah,” said Ibn Watunan, hesitating. “Just as we were getting started.”

“Never mind,” said Manimenesh, helping himself to a handful of olives. “We’ll pray twice next time.”

“Why was there no noon prayer today?” said Watunan.

“Our muezzin forgot,” the poet said.

Watunan lifted his shaggy brows. “That seems rather lax.”

Doctor Bagayoko said, “This is a new muezzin. The last was more punctual, but, well, he fell ill.” Bagayoko smiled urbanely and nibbled his cheese.

The amoral luxuriousness reminds me of classic fantasy of Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Lieber and Jack Vance. I associate Sterling more with the free-wheeling gonzo style of cyberpunks, all those overenthusiastic researchers and venture capitalists egging each other on, but his first novel – Involution Ocean – has the same kind of tone, though mixed through the New Wave fantasy writers of the sixties.

For entertainment, Manimenesh calls in a local lunatic prophet to amuse them all with his ravings. and I suppose you can guess what happens next: the prophet predicts violent death for his hosts and

Naturally, the prophet himself who tells these truths is reviled and hated. He’s considered the village idiot, but he thinks clearly enough – clairvoyantly, in fact – to understand how a prophet is treated.

“As yet, the people of Audoghast laugh at my prophecies. I am doomed to tell the truth, which is harsh and cruel, and therefore absurd. As my fame grows, however, it will reach the ears of your prince, who will then order you to remove me as a threat to public order.”

The dinner party guests find him and prophecies of doom no better, and he’s ejected from the premises, leaving everyone feeling miserable.

This is the kind of story that winks at the reader using knowledge available to us but not the characters. Manimanesh and his guests see their world as the centre of history and culture and can’t picture a time when it will never be so. We know that all things must pass though, and Sterling asks us to learn from the hubris of the people of Audoghast.

It’s not a bad example of this sort of thing, but it’s hardly a new idea, and not even a science fictional one. The exotic background makes the story feel a bit like fantasy – fantasy fiction is just historical fiction without the research, after all – but it’s what I would call a fable, a story with a folkloric fantasy element and a moral lesson of some sort attached. This type of story has a strong tradition in literary fiction, from Burton’s Arabian Nights, Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories. This could have been written by Mark Twain or Robert Graves or Michael Chabon or some hip young writer from the New York or London literary circles, as much as by any science fiction writer. While we complain these days about mainstream writers jumping on the science fiction and fantasy bandwagon, I think that science fiction and fantasy writers have been selling mainstream stories to science fiction magazines for much longer.

Maybe it’s this tendency that old Kingsley was getting at in his introduction to The Golden Age of Science Fiction:

The occasion was the British science fiction convention in 1961, the speaker E C Tubb, prolific author of the Dumarest novels. His view, passionately though civilly urged, was that the result of bringing highbrow values into what was an essentially popular form or field would be to ruin it. I did my best to sneer this off at the time, naturally, but it was not long before I began to see what I think Ted meant. Since what could defensibly be pinpointed as the very year, 1960, that science fiction’s progress to respectability has been matched with spine-chilling exactitude by its decline as a branch of literature.

Several of the stories in The Best of the Best haven’t felt like science fiction or fantasy of the core genre type I found so frequently in the Ashely and Amis anthologies. Only Blood Music and Trinity have felt, to me, like stories that speak to the main concern of science fiction – thought experiments based on scientific advances. The others, while enjoyable, feel like something else. As we read on, maybe we’ll be able to figure out what that is.

Themes: hubris, exoticism, lost civilization, the fate of the prophet.

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, short stories, The Golden Age of Science Fiction

Flying Saucer Rock And Roll by Howard Waldrop

I’m the sort of reader who tends not to read introductions. By and large I’m interested in the meat of it – the stories – and if I want or need more context I’ll find it in a longer biography or critical work. In my experience, the introductions of the sort we see here – appreciative bio- and bibliographical sketches of a few hundred words – rarely really add much to the story they introduce, and occasionally they can start things off on the wrong note.

The introduction to this one ends with this dread sentence:

In the classic story that follows, one which has assumed cult favourite status over the years, he brings together flying saucers and a rock and roll band – with some rather startling results.

Cult favourite. The middle of the 80s – this story was published in 1985 – was the golden age of the cult favourite. Back then, the recent past was beginning to resurface through the medium of television, via both cable channels with hours of airtime to fill and the explosion of the home video market hungry for content.

The cult movie started to go mainstream, and the nostalgia era began to focus on the baby boomer childhood being replayed before them. It’s more or less the period between Elvis going into the army, which brought the fifties to a close, and the assassination of JFK, which brought the sixties into being. It’s the kind of influence that sunk into the mainstream through movies like Stand By Me, Diner and Dirty Dancing and was the breeding ground for the type of movie that began to dominate the idea of the ‘cult classic’ – The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Repo Man, Gremlins, Amazon Women On The Moon and huge list of lesser movies (yes, lesser even than Amazon Women On The Moon), with a rock and roll soundtrack and attitude.

This story fits right in to that 80s trend. It’s set just as The Beatles are driving rock and roll and doowop off the charts. Our heroes are a group of boys who’ve formed a close harmony group – The Kool-Tones – and hope to get somewhere singing a capella versions of rock classics like The Five Satins’ ‘(I Remember) In The Still of the Night’, Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’, Frankie Lymon’s ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, and so forth.

They’re working class kids – a mix of black and white – who live on the edge of juvenile delinquency. The main character is Leroy, the 12 year old counter-tenor who’s run away from a foster home and lives with his sister in the city trying to avoid the authorities. He has two dreams of escape – one of being of being a rock and roll star and one he finds in his collection of books abut UFOs.

One evening, the band find themselves in the wrong gang territory – in typical Sharks and Jets fashion – and must defend their honour in a singing contest or have to drink a quart of piss each. The latter half of the story is a description of the contest and its amazing climax which involves – fleetingly – a UFO.

I’ve read this story before and I think about it now the same as I thought then: it’s a nice story, but is it science fiction? When I was a kid, this was the sort of ‘science fiction’ story that would annoy me: where are the aliens, the robots and the space ships? It’s basically a mainstream story with a science fiction flourish to the climax. The UFO itself could be an angel or a god and the story wouldn’t have to change too much. Maybe that’s the point: Waldrop is proposing the non-nuts and bolts theory of UFOs. Leroy’s own feelings about UFOs seem to reflect this idea, in part at least:

Leroy hadn’t read any more books by people who claimed they’d been inside the flying saucers or met the Neptunians or such. He read only the ones that gave histories of the sightings and asked questions, like why was the Air Force covering up? Those books never told you what was in the UFOs, and that was good because you could imagine it for yourself.

UFOs and other Fortean phenomena were a big feature of classic science fiction, in prose – this one’s a bit like Don’t Look Now – and films, and mined for camp nostalgia by the cult classic movies of the 80s. This story does the same thing. It’s another one that’s a good read, but closely wedded to the concerns of its times and not really science fiction of the purest sort.

Themes: cult favourite, Forteanism, rock and roll, nostalgia, low lifes

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

Trinity by Nancy Kress

trinity

It’s worth noting that this is the very first story I’ve read for this series that was written by a woman. In the previous volumes I read, there were no stories by women at all, perhaps unsurprisingly. Equally unsurprisingly, women are better represented in this volume providing seven of the 36 stories.

It’s a topic that needs addressing. There’s no doubt that the history of science fiction is dominated by white, heterosexual men and fandom is currently wrestling with issues of of inclusiveness. However, it seems somehow counterproductive to use the first appearance by a woman writer to deploy a shallow analysis of genre gender politics intended to establish my own right-on credentials. Instead, let’s extend this story the same courtesy as we have all the others so far, and focus on the text.

Superficially, Trinity reminded me a little of William F Temple’s 4-Sided Triangle. That also dealt with the tangled matter of love and sex when natural methods of reproduction are superseded by technology. Where do we draw the lines of kinship with a clone? Is it incest to sleep with a clone of your sibling, or even a clone of yourself?

“Seena?” Keith said. He covered my hand, laid upon his thigh, with his own hand, and turned his head to look at me questioningly. I leaned forward and touched my lips to his, barely in contact, for a long moment. He drew back, and his head tried to lift min. I tightened my fingers.

“Seena, no…”

“Why not?” I put my mouth back on his, very lightly. He had to draw back to answer, and I could feel that he did not want to draw back. Under my lips he frowned slightly; still, despite his drunkenness – so much more than mine – he groped for the word.

“Incest…”

“No. We two have never shared a womb.”

He frowned again under my mouth.

So he should! I think most of us would baulk at a highly technical definition of incest like that one. Keith is the clone of Seena’s sister, Devrie and their tangled relationship forms the back drop for a very dramatic story of love and sex, and intimate family betrayals between two sisters and their clone brother. It makes for a compelling story with some weighty ideas under the spot light.

However, there’s another big theme sitting along side all this, and it’s another old favourite of the golden age: the place of God in a technological universe. Attentive readers will recall how I think that this is one of the big themes of classic science ficiton. It’s alive and well here.

“What good is living and breathing, existing, if there’s no purpose to it? Don’t you realise how many centuries in how many ways, people have looked for that light-filled presence and never been able to be sure? And now we’re almost there, Seena, I’ve seen it myself – almost there. With verifiable, scientifically controlled means. Not subjective faith this time – scientific data.”

Finding God in the story involves the other key speculative element, aside from human cloning. The details somewhat eluded me, but it seems that when scanning the human mind, experiments have detected the presence of another entity somewhere in the background. This signal is boosted when two minds are brought into a kind unity through drugs and sex, and it works best with people who are closely related. Thus, clone incest.

The climax of the story lead to a not entirely unexpected revelation. It hints a little bit at cosmic horror: the God that’s found is apparently unaware of humanity’s existence:

The third presence – or some part of it – swirled around us, racing along our own unprepared synapses and neurons, and what swirled and raced was astonishment. A golden, majestic astonishment. We had finally attracted Its attention, finally knocked with enough neural force to be just barely heard – and it was astonished that we could, or did, exist.

On top of these ideas, the story makes a few gestures at futurity of a rather 80s sort. We get the ‘mailnet’, the kind of limited-functionality internet that was approaching rapidly by 1984 when this was published, and some passing mentions of the kind broken cyberpunk society – ecological catastrophe, pandemic, violent crime out of control – that was considered inevitable in the 80s. I think these elements ultimately overburden an already rather over-full story and would have been better avoided.

They felt a bit like a last straw that led me to question how well the twin themes (if you’ll pardon the expression) actually work together. There’s passing mention of the contrast between the child who seeks God, and the scientist father who sought to become God through creating cloned life but the connection feels like a weak one. As a result, the set up feels a little contrived – without either of the clone or God themes, the story would feel incomplete, but the two circumstances don’t grow organically out of each other. This is a gripping story of families at war with themselves, but it asked me to believe just a little too much in one mouthful.

Themes: clones, love and sex, God, the 80s

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

Salvador by Lucius Shepard

Salvador is included in this fantastic collection.

Salvador is included in this fantastic collection.

You can read this story for free, thanks to Baen e-books (via the Free Speculative Fiction Online site).

This is an undeniably powerful story that tackles the mad business of war with chilling precision. It suggests a near future dystopia USA that’s stuck in a jungle war in Latin America supported by man power brought in by a draft. The American soldiers rely on some kind of stimulant drug to encourage a zealous approach to combat. Our hero, Dantzler, is one of the draftees, despite his own sense of unfitness for the whole enterprise:

“The chickenshit infantry should take ’em,” the D.I. had said. “You bastards are brave already. You’re born killers, right?”

“Right, Sir!” they had shouted.

“What are you?”

“Born killers, Sir.”

But Dantzler was not a born killer; he was not even clear as to how he had been drafted, less clear as to how he had been manipulated into the Special Forces, and he had learned that nothing was optional in Salvador, the possible exception of life itself.

However, the drugs make everything easier, and Shepard gives us a vivid sense of what it’s like to be battle high:

Gradually his arms and legs lost their heaviness and his heart rate slowed. His vision sharpened to the point that he could see not only the pinpricks of fire blooming on the slope, but also the figures behind them, half-obscured by brush. A bubble of grim anger welled up in his brain, hardened to a fierce resolve, and he started moving toward the volcano. By the time he reached the base of the cone, he was all rage and reflexes. He spent the next forty minutes spinning acrobatically through the thickets, spraying shadows with his M-18; yet part of his mind remained distant from the action, marvelling at his efficiency, at the comic-strip enthusiasm he felt for the task of killing. He shouted at the men he shot and he shot them many more times than was necessary, like a child playing soldier.

The story’s got heaps of atmosphere and conjures up the claustrophobic nature of jungle warfare brilliantly. Sorry for another long quote, but check this out:

They had planned on negotiating the cloud forest by nightfall, but they had underestimated the difficulty. The vegetation beneath the clouds was lush – thick, juicy leaves that mashed underfoot., tangles of vines, trees with slick, pale bark and waxy leaves – and the visibility was only about fifteen feet. They were gray wraiths passing through grayness.

There’s only a few directions a trajectory like Dantzler’s can take him, and maybe that’s what makes me less enthusiastic about this story than the enormous technical skill on display perhaps deserves. It feels very much of its times; this one was first published in 1984 (in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy) and I remember those days very well. This story combines two of the great themes of the era, American imperialism in Latin America and the Nam story.

America’s interventions in Latin America were a live issue in the 80s, with scandals like the Iran-Contra affair and secret deals with Pinochet and other South American strong men coming to light. At the same time, the ’Nam generation was maturing and beginning to reflect on its experiences, which saw the boom in ’Nam-era stories like the acclaimed movies Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July and their lesser brethren starring the likes of Arnie, Sly and Chuck. This story fits right in to that kind of narrative, left or right – innocent grunts driven to the edge by a fickle high command and corrupt politics. The Latin American setting brings with it a light gloss of Carlos Castaneda-style Indo-American shamanistic magic realism, with the combat high acting as the kind of initiatory psychedelic sacrament.

There’s also something about this story that doesn’t quite feel like science fiction. Replace the jungle with the desert and the story nearly gets things right. The powerful battle drugs (although the military has always issued soldiers with stimulants of different kinds) and the open war in Latin America are really the only speculative elements here, and the soldiers lack any of the telecoms,  computerised maps, helmet-mounted cameras or drone recon that we’re familiar with today. Far from futuristic, this story ends up feeling quite old fashioned.

Themes: Uncle Sam eats his young, war is heck, drugs, colonialism.

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

A Cabin on the Coast by Gene Wolfe

genewolfe

So, where do we think the barrier between science fiction and fantasy lies? It’s one that’s hard to police, and I’ve always felt that I fall more on the good cop end of the spectrum: any definition of science fiction that doesn’t allow for Star Wars or Dune is probably not much use, in my opinion.

There’s got to be a limit, though. There are some things that – no matter how you dress them up – can never be part of science fiction. I would say that fairies are one of these things.

So I’m a bit surprised to find a fairy story in this anthology. Timothy Ryan Neal encounters a fairy ship while staying in a beach house with his girlfriend. He’s forced into making a deal and ends up, of course, getting the wrong end of it. I mean surely we all know – and especially a man with a good Irish name like that – that you never win in the fairy bargain.

There’s some modish 80s-era talk about a po-mo approach to reality that feels like a gesture towards answering the question ‘fairies, WTF?!’

‘Are you about to tell me you’re a leprechaun? I warn you, I won’t believe it.’

‘Me? One o’ them scamperin’, thievin’, cobblin’, little misers? I’d shoot meself. Me name’s Daniel O’Donoghue, King o’Connaught. Do ye believe that now?’

‘No,’ Tim said.

‘What would ye believe then?’

This this is – some way, somehow – what people call a saucer. That you and your crew are from a planet of another sun.’

Daniel laughed. ‘’Tis a close encounter you’re havin’, is it? I can do that too.’

‘Don’t bother.’

‘All right, I won’t, though ’tis a good shape. A man can take it and be whatever he wants, one o’ the People o’ Peace or a bit o’ a man from mars. I’ve used it for both, and there’s nothin’ better.’

Well, I don’t really know what kind of definition of science fiction that Dozois is using. Probably a fairly loose one, based on this evidence. None of the stories in the golden age anthologies I read was quite so overtly fantasy, and that makes me wonder if there was some kind of change during the sixties or seventies when this kind of thing was considered to be part of the broad umbrella of science fiction.

I realise, of course, that fantasy and science fiction have always had a close relationship, but I’m led to ponder what this anthology is actually about. Is it ‘the best of science fiction’ or is it ‘the best stories that were published in the magazines that we agree constitute a shared culture, that we call science fiction regardless of their content’? I realise as well, of course, that this community has also always been part of science fiction: attempts to define what science fiction actually is are always undermined by the fact that science fiction is as much about a shared culture as any rigorous external literary approach.

I offer once again my three-pronged theory of genre. This anthology seems – albeit based on the evidence of two stories – to be hewing more closely to the ‘community’ definition than one that relies on symbolism or thematic structure. The same wasn’t true of the golden age anthologies I read: none of them flirted with outright fantasy imagery (although I admit there a couple of marginal cases in The History of the SF Magazine volumes).

So, I wonder is that an evidential point about some fundamental change in the genre betweem 1960 and 1984, or is it just editorial preference? Hm, I guess I’ll to think about that one as I read through. What do you reckon, gentle reader?

Themes: fairies, fable, fantasy.

Header image: a photo of Gene Wolfe I swiped from the internet: if it belongs to you I’ll happily take it down if you prefer. However, it’s everywhere, you know that?

 

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

Blood Music by Greg Bear

This is the edition I remember.

This is the edition I remember.

You can read this story for free, thanks to Baen ebooks (via Free Speculative Fiction Online).

It’s an encouraging sign that I’ve already read the first story in this collection. It suggests that I’m possibly not as disconnected from science fiction’s recent history as I sometimes feel, although whether you can call thirty years ago recent history. Well, I haven’t quite read this story, in fact, but did read the novel based on that came out, wikipedia informs me, in 1985. I think I was in my first year at uni when I read it, which would be 1986; I can actually remember buying it from the Huyser Bookshop in the Willis Street Village.

I remember being wildly impressed with the novel, and this story still impresses. It does everything good SF should do: it takes current scientific and technological knowledge and thinks it through to a logical conclusion. In this case, Bear raises the possibility of using molecular biology to build tiny computers and how they might interact with other elements of the eco-sphere, namely us, and Wikipedia says it was the first story to describe nanotechnology and explore the ‘grey goo’ scenario. It’s tightly written, with a good clear scientific explanation and an eye on pace and a rising sense of panic that’s wonderfully paid.

It’s exactly the type of story that Hugo Gernsback had in mind back in 1926, although maybe old Hugo had a more optimistic outlook than the average cyberpunk. In fact, it has deeper thematic connections with the golden age: Vergil is basically a mad scientist whose work is rejected by the mainstream of scientific opinion and who carries on his research in secret. It’s given an 80s twist – Vergil is dismissed from a bio-tech start up rather than the halls of academia – but the hubris and ultimate downfall are as old as the hills.

It’s a variation on the ‘things man was not meant to know’ story but instead of destruction, the new technology offers a kind of evolution, a different but no less valid mode of existence. In the story, it’s hinted at by the final paragraphs where Edward and his wife Gail begin to merge into each other. In the novel, it’s taken a step further into the kind of science fictional rapture that The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1999) compares to Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End. However, the vivid body horror made me think of the 1980s films of David Cronenberg. It’s hard not to picture scenes from of The Brood, Videodrome or The Fly while reading of Edward’s final transformation.

‘Eddie…’ she whispered. My name was the last sound I ever heard from outside.

Standing, we grew together. In hours, our legs expanded and spread out. Then extensions grew to the windows to take in sunlight, and to the kitchen to take water from the sink. Filaments soon reached to all corners of the room, stripping paint and plaster from the walls, fabric and stuffing from the furniture.

By the next dawn, the transformation was complete.

I no longer have any clear view of what I look like. I suspect we resemble calls – large flat and filamented cells, draped purposefully across most of the apartment. The great shall mimic the small.

His fate has the same nightmarish and ambiguous quality as Max Renn in Videodrome, chanting ‘Long live the new flesh.’ As with Brian O’Blivion, there’s something compelling about what the culture in Vergil’s blood is telling them. I suppose it’s a bit like the way that Lovecraft so lovingly describes the apocalypse that the old ones will bring, but here there’s less sense of terror and more of wonder. It’s an early example of the trans-humanist idea, that progress is tied to man’s ability to transform not just his environment but himself.

Themes: nanotech, mad science, transcendence, genetic engineering.

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

The Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois

bestof best

Unlike the volumes I read last year in my survey of classic science fiction, this doesn’t come with an exhaustive historical or critical essay as an introduction. Instead we get a celebratory foreword from Robert Silverberg and a brief preface from Dozois that focuses on thanks and giving credit where it’s due.

This is a bit frustrating for me, as it leaves me with nothing to leverage against. Instead, then, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

This volume begins in 1984, when I was seventeen years old. At that time, my favourite writers were probably Michael Moorcock, Isaac Asimov, Harry Harrison and Ray Bradbury. I was just on the verge of discovering Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut and then the cyberpunks, starting with William Gibson then Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker and Greg Egan. In my later teens I started reading Interzone regularly and the American magazines occasionally and of course I began writing myself.

me

Me in about 1984

It takes us through to the year 2005, when I was probably just coming off the peak of reviewing for The Zone and related publications. I started writing for Tony when I first came over to the UK in 1995, just eleven years into the 30 year time line – or 339 out of 655 pages – of this anthology. I must have written hundreds of reviews and dipped my toe a little in fandom. Around this time I developed a passion for Jack Vance and got involved with the Vance Integral Edition for a little while, and it was probably the peak of my second hand bookshop habit, too, before the internet killed all the fun in that.

By 2005, I was beginning to get frustrated with SF in general. It was starting to get a bit stale and stifling for me, I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the rise of a new generation and what looked to me like the repetition of the old arguments, given a freshen up with the latest pop critic and academic language. In the meantime SF and fantasy media exploded across the mainstream. The days when we looked back on Arnie’s Conan as the best swords and sorcery movie ever – with The Sword and the Sorceror a distant second place – were long gone, even by 2005.

The mainstream of SF began, I suppose, in 1977, with the release of Star Wars, seven years before this volume opens. Back in those days, being a science fiction fan was still an occupation for weirdos and outsiders, and it was only with the rise of cyberpunk that SF and technology became cool.

By the mid-90s the cyber-cool movement was probably at its height. But at the same time the fantasy genres were on the rise: heroic fantasy, super-heroes and the urban fantasy in comics and books, starting with Ann Rice and Sandman in the 80s and going through Hellblazer, Anita Blake and True Blood. Within a few years they eclipsed science fiction completely.

I’m going to be interested to see if I can trace this pattern through this volume. I’ve read at least half a dozen of the Dozois volumes (which is maybe less than a man of my self-certified erudition should have) so I must have read some of these stories before, that was true of the golden age collections, too. The difference, I suppose, is that I lived through these times and remember the context and era of these stories myself. That may bring a different perspective.

Posted in boring crap about ME, geek culture, reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

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