Sunday, 20 April 2014

2014 Hugo Shortlist

I have occasionally blogged my reaction to previous years' Hugo shortlists. After all: it used to be the genre's blue riband award. Still, I think most folk would agree that it's been in quite serious credibility trouble for some years now. And now we have this year's shortlist, which rather puts me in mind of Tom Lehrer's stated reason for quitting writing his satirical songs: 'political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.' Some of the fan categories are strong, and there are one or two worthwhile works dotted here and there; but taken as a whole, and noting especially its leap-up-and-grab-you-by-the-lapels elements (Robert Jordan? Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles? Vox Fucking Day?) it is the SF Award Shortlist equivalent of Kissinger's Nobel. It is self-satirising. It renders any subsequent comment by the likes of me superfluous.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

David Ramirez, The Forever Watch (2014)

An intriguing debut, this: part generation starship story, part urban noir policier, part wizard duel extravaganza. Earth is ruined; the last survivors departed for the stars centuries ago on a vast spaceship called ‘Noah’, a craft which is now about a third of the way along its millennial journey to a new star. Life on board is Nineteen eighty four-ish: all but the elite ‘mission critical’ senior crew living grim, functional lives, everywhere observed and regulated. Indeed, with the neural implants everyone wears surveillance reaches down to the level of individual’s thoughts and feelings. Our narrator, Hana Dempsey, is bit-part player in the ship’s ubiquitous, controlling bureaucracy, and the main story concerns her investigation of a horrible murder—so, like Al Reynold’s recent Blue Remembered Earth, this novel is in part about the commission and investigation of violent crime in a world where crime, and the avoidance of detection, really ought to be impossible. As she investigates, Dempsey uncovers layers of secrecy, conspiracy and monstrosity.

I thought this novel began poor but ended strong: after a clotted and misfiring opening quarter it settles into a more assured stride which then built to a gripping and powerful, even devastating, conclusion. That’s not (ye budding authors out there hardly need to be told this) the ideal way around, especially for a debut, but it evidently didn’t put Hodder off from acquiring the title. And it shouldn’t put you off, gentle reader: stick with it, and the pay off at the end is richly worth it.

What’s wrong with the opening? Well the first few pages (in which Hana wakes up having done her civic duty by giving birth to a baby which, according to the oppressive rules of the ship, she is not allowed even to see) is fine; but then there’s a long period in which the novel strains to get the reader up to speed with the intricate worldbuilding required for the rest of the novel to work: the nature of the ship, the implants, the psi-powers that those implants augment, the hierarchy of things, what is permitted and what not. This is something of a slog, and it includes what strikes me as the novel’s major misstep. Hana’s boyfriend is a big lug ex-army policeman (or ‘Enforcer’) type called Barrens. In an early scene Hana is horribly and gratuitously raped by a ‘senior engineer’ called Holmheim, who gloats that since he is mission critical he will suffer no consequences for his assault. Then Barrens comes along, after the rape, and beats Holmheim bloody. This in turn leads to a physically passionate (which is to say: violent) sexual relationship between Barrens and Hana predicated in part upon his innate animality ‘when he is It and primal’ (‘he has seen me at my moment of deepest shame, grimy and befouled and betrayed in an alleyway … he holds me down when he is It and primal … when It is taking me with the force and speed of an avalanche marking me with his teeth and his claws we howl together, flushed and breathless’). All this struck a false note, I thought; a failure of tact as well as taste. But things certainly improve. The relationship between Hana and Barrens is compelling enough to enable the plot twist (can she trust him?) and twist again (of course). The discovery that humans did not originally build the Noah is only the first of several well handled reveals, building to the Big Secret about the mission. The sweep of the Rebellion Against Big Brother narrative arc is well developed, and the end is no anticlimax.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon (2014)

We’re in Lagos, the city that takes its name from the Portuguese for ‘lagoon’, hence this novel’s title. Something falls out of the sky—I like that it lands in the sea not with a BOOM! but a more maternal MOOM! Three strangers on the beach, all with names beginning with ‘A’ (a marine biologist called Adaora, more-or-less this crowded work’s protagonist; a too-truthful-for-his-own-good soldier called Agu; a famous rapper called Anthony), see a beautiful woman walk out of the sea. She’s a shape-shifting alien, and she is bringing change. So: the novel is in three parts. The first is slow moving, though it builds a believable Lagos world, the interactions of various characters as they encounter the alien, now called Ayodele, who has taken the form of an Igbo woman (Okorafor is herself a Igbo woman). To begin with the alien is benign. But in the second section ‘Awakening’ the Nigerian army open fire on her in Day The Earth Stood Still mode, and she becomes angry. Lagos descends into vividly written chaos: rioting, millennial Christian hysteria, the full works. Meanwhile all manner of alien manifestations pop up, from individuals to giant Lovecraftian structures. The third section is called ‘Symbiosis’ and loses some of the drive of section 2.

It’s a strange book, in a good and bad sense—good in the way it properly captures the strangeness of alien encounter, less good in the sometimes jumbled, skittish way it agglomerates its multiple characters into a single story. This latter I take to be a deliberate strategy on behalf of the writer, for in other respects Okorafor is evidently a very accomplished writer—for instance, she very skilfully glides between the hard-sf and the magical-realist takes on her extraordinary events, and the African mythical underpinnings to events are compellingly elaborated. The deliberateness of the aesthetic jumbling (if that's what it is) didn't quite convince me, though. There are other elements in the book that also seemed to me to misfire (for instance: there’s a repeated sort-of Douglas Adams theme where the alien’s presence gift sudden intelligence to a tarantula, a bat and so on, only for the newly uplifted creatures to get run over or splatted moments later. If these were supposed to be funny, then they didn't connect with my funny bone). I liked the scene in which Ayodele manifests as Karl Marx in order to impress the Nigerian president. I liked less all the spider related stuff. But then I hate spiders. *shudders*. Overall, though, this is a notable book, and you should read it.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Stage the Future: The First International Conference on Sci-Fi Theatre (Saturday 26th - Sunday 27th April 2014)

Here's a heads-up for this forthcoming event: there's still time to sign-up for it. It's happening at my gaff, Royal Holloway, University of London at the end of April. Keynote Speakers: Dr. Jen Gunnels (New York Review of Science Fiction) and the brilliant Dr. Nick Lowe (Royal Holloway, University of London). This event brings together scholars, critics, writers and performers for the first international academic conference on Science Fiction Theatre. You can find out more, including the schedule, at the end of this link.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Rob Latham (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (forthcoming 2014)

I have a chapter in this. An email from the editor informs all contributors that its publication date is now September, and passes on this (rather handsome) cover art. Looking forward, I am.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

21st-Century YA Fantasy: the Meaning of Victoriana

A few weeks ago, Jenni Hill at Orbit sent me an ARC of Charlie Fletcher’s forthcoming new YA novel, The Oversight. This was kind of her, and I enjoyed it very much: it’s about a secret society who police the borders between the mundane and magical worlds in a richly imagined Victorian world.

I liked the way it refused to talk-down to its audience: from characters speaking untranslated French to one another to a series of properly macabre and chilling set-pieces. It is Gothic as all get out, with a splendidly eerie sense of the way the unearthly lies cheek-by-jowl with the mundane, and with cheerable goodies and grotesque baddies. It’s possible the publishers hope that it will coast to success on the Potter slipstream—the young adults (now adults; plus of course the older adults) who loved HP and are looking for the next iteration of it; the youngsters, whose life-experiences are presumably not that different to the previous generation who fell in love with Rowling’s world, and who might just as easily fall in love with a well-realised and busy world in which magic and mundanity interpenetrate. In which your p.o.v. characters get to fight old evil. In which the utilitarian ugliness of modern life is overlaid with something more elegantly styled, something a little more old-fashioned.

I don’t know about that—it’s a good novel, and might do very well; but I have a poor record of predicting such things. Still, thinking about it has got me pondering the particular logic of YA Fantasies that have been so culturally dominant recently. I reach, metaphorically speaking, into the great stream of the many hundreds of books published this century and aimed at this market and grasp in my hands the ones—series, all of them—that seem to me to have had the biggest cultural impact. And this is what I throw, wriggling, on the riverbank: Potter; His Dark Materials, Unfortunate Events (poorly named ‘a series’, since the books read more as if wired together in parallel); Philip Reeve'S Mortal Engines tetralogy, sometimes called the ‘Predator Cities Quartet’ (2001-06);  Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series (2001-12); Horowitz’s Alex Rider books (2000-present); the Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black (2003 onwards); Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Books (2003-05); Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series (2003-8); Collins’s Hunger Games books (2008-10; also relevant are her Underland novels, 2003–2007); Meyers’ Twilight trilogy (2005-07); Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books (2005-09) and Cassandra Clare’s six Mortal Instruments books (2007 onwards).

That’s a pretty diverse list of titles, of course; but a couple of obvious points can be made with respect to them all. The main one is the way almost all of them are predicated upon a dynamic between the mundane and the magical—they are, to one extent or another, Fantasy. (Alex Ryder is a James Bond fantasy, which is a fantasy of a slightly different kind; and there's no 'magic' in Blackman's alt-reality. But otherwise Magic and Fantasy are the dominants here). I think we can pull out Potter, Pullman, Collins, Meyers as the four authors who have had the biggest cultural footprint over the last 15 years or so; but I’d say that in a smaller way Unfortunate Events, Bartimaeus, Mortal Instruments and maybe Artemis Fowl have also made big splashes. What does this mode of fantasy say about 21st-century children’s literature—or about 21st-century children?

Well, the first thing to note is that older modes of Genre Fantasy are still current: kids are still reading (and watching) Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and Narnia. And that helps us sketch out a broad cultural chronology of 20th- and 21st-C Fantasy writing. There are many precursors, of course; but Tolkien is the keystone. Not so much the original appearance of these books in 1952-3, but their discovery by the 1960s generation, set the terms for the explosion in 1960s-90s Fantasy writing. There’s lots to say about this, but the thing I want to concentrate on at the moment is the particular kind of historical nostalgia the books embody. Middle Earth is, broadly, medieval and older. Narnia likewise. In both worlds, elements of 18th/19th Century bourgeois respectability exist as a kind of leaven, to connect the pre-Modern world of the story with the (necessarily) Modern world of the readers. The great tide of post-Tolkien Heroic Fantasy titles carries this on: we read about worlds that are more magical and colourful than our world, and they are presented as being those things because they are less Modern than our world.

For Lewis (and also for Tolkien, though for different, more theological, reasons) the medieval world was—simply—to be preferred to the Modern. Where the 20th-C was mechanised and brutal and ugly, medieval art and literature opened the mind into a world more beautifully conceived. This has at least two layers for Lewis: both that the medieval world appealed to him, and that he found in the medieval world a validation for the  pleasure of looking back in time, rather than concentrating on the present, as such. In The Discarded Image, Lewis describes the delight such backward and forward gazing into other times gave Medieval Man:
Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration.” [187]

A little later he notes ‘other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination … I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree’ [216]

Well, I’m not here to say he was wrong in that; although I tend to think he was. I’m more interested in the way Fantasy as a contemporary mode has been, is being, shaped by the kick-back against Tolkienian-Lewisian medievalism of conceit. This kick-back has taken several forms. One of the least successful, I think, was Mike Moorcock’s insistence that Tolkien, so far from being Medieval/Anglo Saxon, was on the contrary too bourgeois—too safe and cosy and middle-class. That Lord of the Rings represented, in his resonant but misleading phrase, ‘Epic Pooh’.

It’s not that Moorcock misses the target with this jibe; it’s that Tolkien's conception of Fantasy was in a precise sense pre-bourgeois, pre-Modern, closer to fascist reappropriations of the heroic warrior code of a rigidly hierarchical society. Modern post-Tolkien Fantasy as a mode has stampeded towards the Bourgeois, of course; because it knows its readers. But that's a different argument. Grimdark represents a different critique: in effect, it says ‘Tolkien and Lewis believed the medieval to be better than the modern, but it was much worse; not elegance, splendour, sobriety, and coherence, but violence, violence, violence and more violence—a war of all against all of truly dystopian ghastliness.’

The problem with the medieval focus is that it exists at too distant a remove from modern life. If a work of literature, after all, says nothing to me about my life then how can I engage with it? ‘Medievalism’ becomes escapist—dressing up, Disneyland, an imaginative act whose point is precisely its removal from the present.

How then to engage with the present? Realism, it seems, doesn’t cut it; we don’t need the actual present, we need the present interpenetrated by magic—and this is precisely the problem, because we are Modern but magic is pre-Modern. Magic is what has been usurped in the Modern age by Science. The difficulty a writer of Fantasy faces, therefore, is in bridging the pre-Modern and the Modern. The Lord of the Rings was amongst other things one attempt at a solution to this problem, constructed by braiding together modern perspectives (the cosy Edwardian hobbits, with their pipes and steam kettles and gardening) and pre-modern (the medieval Gondor, the Old English Rohan), not only in terms of story but style—the hobbit chapters are of course written with a kind of early-20th-century contemporaneity of narratorial voice, where the later sequences inhabit a more antiquated and high-flown idiom, full of inversions, dated vocabulary, invocative and rhetorical stiffness, although at the same time rather splendid and suitably heroic.

But it's surprising how few writers have attempted to imitate Tolkien's stylistic strategy in this, although of course they have stolen plenty of other things from his writing. There are other ways of tackling this problem: for instance, rather than sacrifice a modern style many Fantasy writers have given up the medieval setting: there's clearly no problem with using a 19th-century novelistic voice to describe a basically 19th-century world, as in the work of Ian MacLeod and China MiƩville.

I’d peg the fountainhead of this mode of Fantasy with Mervyn Peake—a writer Moorcock praises in proportion to the amount he pisses on Tolkien. It’s not hard, of course, to trace the Peake influence on Moorcock’s own fantastical writing.

In one sense the Gormenghat books are ‘nineteenth-century’ is style and form, because of the cod-Dickensian prose and characterisation that Peake deploys. But at the same time, the castle itself has a more ancient and timeless feel to it; because the point of the Gormenghast fantasies is that its world stands outside history. I remember my startlement when, reading through the original trilogy as a youngster, a motor car rolls up in Titus Alone. Say what?

Adult Fantasy as a genre has ploughed (via Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Robert Jordan, Branden Sanderson and so on) a pretty deep Tolkienian furrow; and reactions against Tolkien, like G R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie, are still marked by that from which they so ostentatiously depart. Latterly (as I mention above) the Weird has attempted to relocate the ‘past’ into which Fantasy hurls its plumb line from sunny Medieval to smoggy nineteenth-century. This in turn is connected to a broader resurgence, or indeed surgence, of interest in Neo-Victoriana. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

A similar shift is evident, I think, in children’s literature—which brings me back to Fletcher’s Oversight. For a while Children’s Fantasy rode the post-Tolkien wave: I’m thinking in particular of Ursula Le Guin’s peerless Earthsea books (1968-72, with later additions), or Lloyd Alexander’s marvellous Chronicles of Prydain (1964-68).

But to look at the list of the major 21st-Century YA Fantasies, up there, is to see how little interest there seems to be in all that. (Incidentally: this is one of the reasons I’m pretty convinced Disney’s gigabudget blockbuster Maleficant is going to flop, big time).

This is probably the place with some general observations about the Neo-Victorian phenomenon. Here’s a quotation from the book that put that field on the map, critically speaking (at least: in an academic sense of critically speaking):
Neo-Victorian literature is more than historical fiction set in the nineteenth-century … it must in some respect be self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and revision concerning Victorians’ [Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999–2009 (Palgrave 2010), 4]

It goes back a long way. The Beatles were dressing as rainbow-recoloured Edwardian soldiers in the mid 1960s. Even if we stick just to the novel, Lin Pettersson traces the rise in ‘Neo Victorian’ lit from John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984), through A S Byatt’s Possession (1990) and up to a detailed reading of the aesthetics of voyeurism manifested in Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002).

‘Although neo-Victorian literature could loosely be defined as contemporary fiction set in the nineteenth century—in part or entirely—the term needs further attention, as it is a complexly revisionary highly metafictional and intertextual.’ She argues that the key thing is that neo-Victorian texts are crucially about ‘approaching the Victorians from a different viewpoint; and especially by ‘includ[ing] the perspective of previously marginalised characters to bring to view eclipsed narratives in order to give voice to the silenced.’ [Lin Pettersson, ‘The Private Rooms and Public Haunts’: Theatricality and the City of London in Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White’, in Sian Adiseshiah and Rupert Hildyard (eds), Twenty-First Century Fiction: What Happens Now (Palgrave 2013), 98]
It would certainly be hard to over-stress how ubiquitous a cultural style the neo-Victorian and neo-Edwardian is, now. Steampunk is one iteration of it; Dr Who another (for what is the Doctor if not an Edwardian English gentleman who happens to possess super-advanced alien technology); the resurgence (once, twice, thrice) of popular fascination with that most Edwardian of gentlemen, Sherlock Holmes. Pettersson’s focus on The Crimson Petal and the White pinpoints one of the ways this fascination works. The Victorians take cultural force from being more elegant and refined than us moderns, but also from being more repressed. The thing that links books like The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Crimson Petal and the White and Fingersmith is the seemingly paradoxical one that by writing a more sexually repressive world liberates erotic charge. Look how Faber’s novel is marketed, for instance:

That only seems a paradox, of course. Freud knows very well (and Foucault has excavated the Victorian age according to precisely this logic) how repression works to magnify libido, not to eliminate it. Neo-Victorian art becomes a way of engaging with the past, of exploring previously marginalised voices, but above all it becomes a way of representing sex.

But presumably this isn’t the reason why children’s literature has so fallen in love with the neo-Victorian. And fallen in love it has; after making her name with contemporary-set kitchen-sink narratives of remarkable emotional power, Jacqueline Wilson, has recently hit it big with a series about Victorian urchins (2009 Hetty Feather, 2009; Sapphire Battersea, 2011; Emerald Star, 2012; Diamond 2013).

Speaking comedically, Gideon Coe’s The Pirates in an Adventure with … series has done very well; as have the Horrible History series, of which the ‘Vile Victorians’ is one of the best.

But it’s in Fantasy that the Victorian/Edwardian vibe comes through most potently. Look back up at that list of the biggest impact YA series of the century so far. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Books books are set sort-of contemporaneously; but it’s a ‘now’ in which wizards have seized power and held back societal development at more or less 19th-century levels—Crystal Palace is still standing, for instance (it’s where the denouement of the first book takes place). Philip Reeve Mortal Engines books are set in the future, after a devastating war; but all the props and settings are core Steampunk.

Pullman’s Dark Materials opens in a gloriously steampunky-Edwardian Oxford.

Clare’s Mortal Instruments books are set now (they’re gimmick is: humans and angels interacting); but she has followed the initial books’ success with a series of Victorian-set prequels: Clockwork Angel (2010), Clockwork Angel (2011) and Clockwork Princess (2013).

Twilight of course is set nowadays; but Bella’s love, Edward, was born 1901 making him strictly speaking a Victorian (in this I suspect Meyer was influenced by Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

That leaves two of the biggest, of course: Rowling’s Harry Potter and Collins’s Hunger Games. Here the circumstances are not, I think, Victorian in any meaningful way. But both series are historically backward looking, and in that (I’d say) is the crucial thing. In Rowling’s novels we muggles inhabit the modern world, but the wizards and witches live a kind of posh 1950s, or perhaps posh 1930s realm—old fashioned, a bit antiquated, but with style and charm and (in a very literal sense) breeding simply not present in 21st-century existence. In the Hunger Games we’re notionally in the future, and there are some SF-nal futuristic plots; but the majority of PanEm lives a nightmarish reversion to the low-tech, dust bowl poverty of 1920s-30s America. And, actually, this point is reinforced if we consider Koushan Takami’s Battle Royale, the 1999 (written in 1996) Japanese novel from which, almost certainly, Collins drew [UPDATE: people in the comments take exception to this claim, with good cause]. There schoolchildren are shipped to an island; an elderly teacher issues them all with weapons or tools and tells them to kill one another. Which they do, in a series of gruesome ways. What’s going on here, I suppose, is a the younger generation’s sense of how the older generation is obsessed with violence and death. Takami was born in 1969; his parents’ generation fought World War 2. That’s what’s behind the symbolic logic of the novel’s extraordinary violence.

These two texts bring me to my thesis, the argument I want to make. In a nutshell it’s this: what these YA Fantasies all share is a fascination with history not as history, but as a way of conceptualising the parental generation. Tolkien-Lewis’s far distant medieval pageant has no relevance here: it is too far back. ‘Victorian times’ might seem a little remote too—but the key, I think, is that these fantasies operate by the symbolic rather than chronological logic. The Victorian-Edwardian period is a style (of dress, of machinery); a code (repressive and aiuthoritarian, if elegantly so) and embodiment of ‘past-ness’ itself. The key conceptual perspective here is Jameson’s Postmodernism (1990), and his argument that one of the features if postmodernity is the replacement of history as lived experience with history as a pastiche of empty visual styles (of dress, of architecture and so on) that are then shuffled about by culture.
Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation....Faced with these ultimate objects -- our social, historical, and existential present, and the past as "referent" -- the incompatibility of a postmodernist "nostalgia" art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent” Instead of genuine historicity, postmodern art conveys pastness … through stylistic connotation” [Postmodernism, 18]
The Victorian age styles ‘the older generation’, and the real focus of all these YA fantasies is the absence of, or failings of, the parents. Books either, like Percy Jackson, style themselves as explicitly about the absent but divine parent figure; or, like Potter, they dramatize the peril in which the children find themselves (and from which they must extricate themselves) as the consequences of what their parents’ generation were unable to finish; or like Twilight, more perversely, the (great-grand) parental generation furnishes the heroine with her lover-husband—and integrating the past into the present becomes a kind of lived pharmakon (because it will make Bella immortal, unless her pregnancy kills her first). In Philip Pullman’s more complex symbolic orchestration of this trope, the children—in Subtle Knife the only creatures ‘pure’ enough to be able to travel between the worlds—must negotiate a complex, dangerous path between their actual but hidden parents (as with Lyra, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter) and the divinities, Metatron and the Authority, whose real business is shown to be—that they must die, but enable the next generation to flourish. This business, the appalling strangeness and glory of coming into individuality that we call ‘growing up’, is tangled up with the origin-points of that individuality—parents as people, and parental culture as authority and ‘the past’—in fantastically powerful and dialectical ways. These ways cannot be well captured by ‘mimesis’, I think; and because the psychological forces at work as so immanently forceful ‘magic’ is the symbolism that most writers have lighted upon, to articulate it.

Monday, 17 March 2014