Reviewing Politics?

If it's rubbish, should we say so?

Is it because I is right-wing?

Some of you may remember my review of Neal Asher’s Orbus. I wasn’t kind, and I thought quite deeply about that as I wrote it. Asher’s brand of gung-ho adventure, it seemed to me, had far more potential than its execution allowed, and, as Jonathan McCalmont later suggested in a more recent review of Philip Palmer’s Red Claw, science fiction might deserve more careful writers of entertaining adventure. As an example of how this lack of care, rather than any inherent faults of intent or purpose, might result in poor work, I said that the book’s “politics, if soft-headed, aren’t pernicious.” Again, I thought quite carefully about that phrase – I was very conscious that I didn’t want to be seen as dismissing Asher’s politics because I disagreed with it. Rather, it was the slapdash approach to expressing that politics (and, indeed, the book’s other ideas) with which I had a problem.

On which note, a comment left on the review this Monday by someone identifying themselves as, er, Neal Asher: “Tristan, that very often depends on which axe is being ground, and which axe it is the reviewer’s preference.” Tristan had said that, “I take the position that political content is orthogonal to literary quality. The problem is that writers with a political axe to grind often present simplistic versions of political positions that could be treated with a great deal of nuance.” (Well said.) My perception of Asher’s reply, however, is that he perceives my criticisms to proceed from political, rather than literary, differences. (This isn’t helped by a post which appeared on Asher’s own blog on the same day, bemoaning the pompous orthodoxy of the leftie literati. But no one review is mentioned specifically, and one wouldn’t want to assume.)

For the record, this was emphatically not the case. In defense of the Asher comment, the discussion following the review veered more deeply into politics than I did; by the same token, it was in that very discussion that I first explained my approach to the issue. If Asher had managed to give his characters and story a convincing political grounding of any stripe, I would not have been able to complain. (Indeed, I’ve been known  to – whisper it now – enjoy the writings of right-wing and conservative novelists. I might even say that to start ticking the left and right boxes next to a writer’s name is in itself pointless. I don’t do it.) Instead, Orbus presents politics without nuance, and political manoeuvrings without subtelty. On page 98 of the novel, the Prador’s political and military history is swiftly relayed: “since alliances tended to change very quickly, with betrayal and murder of one’s allies an utterly accepted political tool, […] technical knowledge gradually spread.” In case you were wondering, it doesn’t make any more sense in context.

The cynicism of the libertarian, the deep distrust of government and collective action, pervades Asher’s novels. But in Orbus at least, it is so baldly applied – so dulled of anything but the bluntest satirical edge – that, agree with Asher or no, it cannot convince in and of itself. This may or may not be bad politics; it’s certainly bad writing. In the comments to that review of Red Claw, Asher (if it is truly he) thanks McCalmont for cementing his position as “the SF-literati whipping boy.” But criticisms of his work aren’t personal. And they’re certainly not political.

Politics Imitating Art Imitating Politics

Barack Obama made great play during his rally in Orange County yesterday of taking off his jacket – going so far as to ask the audience for permisson to do so, as if they might mind. He then took unscreened questions. When I heard about this, I was sure some other political figure, smart and savvy, had done the same thing to great success a few years ago. Who had clearly so inspired the big guy? Was it Blair? Cameron? It surely couldn’t have been Bush. I racked my brains.

Oh, yes. It was Josiah Bartlet.

On meeting the writer of The West Wing, Obama reportedly told Aaron Sorkin that he’d be stealing some of the scribe’s lines. He’s made good on the promise! Richard T Kelly, meanwhile, points his readers to the blog of former Blair consigliere, Alastair Campbell, who recently attended a screening of Armando Ianucci’s new satire, In The Loop. A version of his thoroughly cynical TV deconstruction of New Labour’s governing style, The Thick Of It, one is left wondering if this waspish film about the US and UK waging another shady war has missed the zeitgeist, in an era when the real President of the United States is quoting a tool of liberal wish fulfilment.

The film’s released on April 17th and has a very good buzz … so we’ll see.

Past as Prologue

This Is England

This Is England

Cat-sitting for Anna’s parents last night, we settled down for a calm and gentle night in by popping Shane Meadows’s This Is England into the DVD Player. Dan last saw the film a few years ago when it was first released in cinemas, and remembered it for its pungent portrayal of neo nazi ‘politics’ and its simultaneous affectionate depiction of the skinhead youth culture. In short, he remembered it primarily as a hugely successful period piece – all fried egg sweets and Ben Shermans, resentful council estates and spiralling unemployment. As the furious fascist Combo, a superb Stephen Graham was terrifying and pathetic in equal measure, reaching into the darker recesses of the English working class.

For Anna, though, it was impossible to enjoy this first viewing of the film as anything but an experience full of contemporary relevance. Separated by just a few years from its release date, This Is England now seems a little closer to home: the festering distrust of ‘foreigners’ coming to ‘steal our jobs’ cannot but now remind you of the images in the newspapers just a few short weeks ago, of wildcat strikers in the north of England looking wild and angry. The BNP’s involvement in those disputes only emphasizes the parallels. And has anyone noticed how many Ben Sherman shops are springing up? In the same way that Top Shop seems disturbingly stocked with the fashions sported by the women in the film, we doubt mere coincidence.

Anna continued with the 80’s theme today, by deciding to have a bit of a potter around Wolverhampton Art Gallery, where the theme of violence carried on. The Gallery is currently showing ‘The Northern Ireland Collection: Fresh Perspectives’ (November 08-09) to mark ten years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The collection of works is brilliant, and portrays the often very personal reactions of artists to the situation in their country during the thirty years of violence and blood shed on both sides. One work was made from the cell doors of a women’s prison; through the shutters you can glimpse glass tears suspended against a bright red background. Other works included photos of life in Northern Ireland, in which painted colours (orange, or red, blue and white) on banners, flags and walls, separated communities.

The Gallery is a bit of a hidden gem in the Midlands, and often shows some really thought provoking exhibitions. We would recommend it! Currently, the Gallery is also showing a Pop Art exhibition, documenting the theme of 50s and 60s consumer culture. The pieces chart artists’ worship of post-war consumerist America, through to their later skepticism.

Skepticism can lead to disillusionment. With the economy dipping the world over, it’s difficult not to find parallels in the past, even – perhaps especially – in those moments we might hope are passed.