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.

Frankie and Johnnie

My copy of Dune looks like this.
My copy of Dune is vintage.

Over on the Guardian Books Blog, Sam Jordison continues his slog through past Hugo winners with Frank Herbert’s desert planet epic, Dune. I have a great deal of (possibly nostalgic) affection and admiration for the novel, and Jordison seems to, as well. I was particularly interested by his observation that, “The fact is that Herbert writes wonderfully and can carry all but the most cynical over any amount of rough ground as a result.” It’s not often you here that an SF writer is saved by his prose.

Dune could undoubtedly have been a mess in another writer’s hands: its labyrinthine, often absurdly complex, plot is all dynastic conflict and shadowy conspiracy, and as Jordison notes some of the characters are too one-note for the reader to fully buy their motivations. It is bold and bonkers.Yet the setting is so rich, and the writing so careful, that the reader doesn’t mind: there is more than enough in Dune to make up for its imperfections as literature.

I’ve just finished reading Rabbit, Run, the first of John Updike’s famed series of novels featuring the ‘everymerican’ figure of Harry Angstrom. Updike’s reputation is not one which has made me eager to read his work; to boot, my only previous exposure to his novels was his late career philandering chronicle Villages, and that misfire didn’t encourage me to read further, either. Following Ian McEwan’s rhapsodic eulogy for Updike, though, I decided to give the old boy another chance.

So too is this photo of Updike.
So too is this photo of Updike.

Undoubtedly, Rabbit, Run is both better written and philosophically more interesting than Villages. And yet the things that most frustrated me about that book are present in the earlier work: the self-absorption, the attitude to women, the distancing style. Updike’s sentences are frequently things of true beauty, replete with arresting images and new perspectives. But it’s hard not to question whether there’s anything (or, at the very least, anything palatable) to all that verbiage. Rabbit, Run is as expertly written as any novel I’ve read, yet somehow it lacks the exquisite quality of a novel which is also about something else.

In this sense, and to follow Jordison, Herbert’s Dune achieves a richness Updike lacks. I might hesitate to say I’d read Dune over the Rabbit novels – Updike’s language is still purer stuff than Herbert’s, and despite the absences that lurk beneath it this represents a very special richness of its own – but it is certainly true that in Dune SF can at least claim to have something which addresses the world beyond itself (and indeed which challenges it, something which again seems beyond the bounds of Updike’s interest). There is something small and suburban about not just Updike’s characters but his prose, too: his books seem to care little for the existence of things except insofar as they affect the self.

There are more things in heaven and Arrakis …

The Ends of a World: Allegory and SF in Sam Taylor and Vandana Singh

The Island at the End of the World, by Sam Taylor
The Island at the End of the World, by Sam Taylor

The Island at the End of the World has a very effective PR man. For any book which rests on a twist, the marketing conundrum must be: ‘How do we sell this book without giving away the best thing about it?’ I am about to give away the best thing about Sam Taylor’s third novel, so look away now if you don’t want your enjoyment spoiled as I stick it to The Man.

My review copy of the book came from Strange Horizons, an online magazine specialising in science fiction and fantasy. The book’s blurb sets it in a near future in which the seas have risen and the world as we know it has ended, leaving a father, his three children, and their ark marooned on an isolated blob of dry land. A review in The Independent gave the reason for this turn of events as a ‘total war’. A clear case of mainstream SF, then – Niall Harrison, Strange Horizon’s reviews editor, set me to work.

The only catch was – and here is where I stick to The Man – all of this is nonsense. Taylor’s book, like his first novel, The Republic of Trees, is more an allegory of social government in which he contrives for his characters to be set apart from wider civilisation in some way barely plausible, enabling them to be a bit Roussean and a bit bonkers. In The Island at the End of the World, this crazy takes the form of the father’s increasingly fractured religious mania; there has been no apocalypse, and there has been no flood. In truth, he’s a survivalist who is lying to his children, secreting them on the top of a remote mountain and building – incredibly – a moat around them in order to convince them they are surrounded by an impassable ocean.

Even part way into the novel, it’s not hard to guess this ‘twist’ – very early on, in fact, the father is seen to be a liar. But the careful silence of its publicity on all this did leave Strange Horizons without a book to review – even the war the Indie mentioned demurely is so far from immediate, let alone total, as to render everything about it, bar the name of the President, a thin echo of Iraq or Afghanistan.

So Taylor cheats, employing the setting of an SF story for his convenience, and establishing it without much of a nod towards plausibility. The family drove out to the mountain, rather than rowed out; the children, fortunately, were too young to remember it, and too dull to guess; their mother joined them at first, but eventually left with nary a peep to the kids; the water around them is rainwater which Pa has collected in his little ditch; he has bought along with him clothes, books and a computer, which he uses frequently to look at old photographs. Here, the allegory – the elaboration upon his theme from The Republic of Trees, of how we build societies and upon what we build them (lies and malevolent charisma) – is king, quite lording it over any pretence to credibility. Taylor is interested in how fleeting can be the delights of Nature, how inevitable is the human will to power. As the chaps at Three Guys One Book have noted, this is a direct extrapolation from that first of Taylor’s novels. The Island at the End of the World is an infinitely more mature work, but it still doesn’t bother to be believable in setting.

Distances, by Vandana Singh
Distances, by Vandana Singh

This sort of thing drives SF critics barmy, of course – and with some good reason. As Matt Cheney noted long ago, “One of the appeals of any form of fantasy fiction is its ability to make what would be metaphorical in one context into literal reality within the context of the story.” Allegory can after all be very weak, since it is so gruesomely difficult to craft one which is all encompassing, and is so deadening an interpretative tool; the way in which mainstream authors so often appropriate SF trappings for their shoddy thought experiments does a disservice to some of the hugely thoughtful worldbuilding which goes on inside the genre.

I’ve just finished reading Distances by Vandana Singh, an over-long novella which nevertheless has the not inconsequential strength of resisting the temptation of allegory. The far-future world crafted by Singh has a whole range of relevances, but no one focus. This refusal to reduce is one of the things which makes science fiction compelling: unlike metaphor, it does not pretend to match our experience exactly, to summarise it neatly. In short, at its best it tends not to cheat.

Still, Taylor is both a better writer and a more empathetic presence than Singh. If his tale is absurdly simplistic in many senses, his sense of voice and character invests it with real vitality – Pa in particular is a pungent narrator, veering between Biblical piety and foul obscenity, and his mental degradation is riveting. His son, divorced from civilisation, has developed an odd pidgin dialect which grants his passages a poignant quality, whilst his sister, who has learned language from Shakespeare, is all poetry and pith. Singh, on the other hand, is somewhat bloodless – her complex world falling on the deaf ears of a reader insufficiently engaged by her limp narrator.

Naturally, I’ll resist the temptation to wax allegorical about the relationship between mainstream and genre fiction – there are after all bland literary authors and vibrant genre characters. It does seem to me, however, that Taylor – though ultimately intellectually unsatisfying – crafts a more memorable fiction purely through vivid prose than Singh manages through careful and considered worldbuilding. Taylor is light but purple, and Singh dense but detached; were I to review The Island at the End of the World for a Strange Horizons more amenable to the mainstream fable, I might say that, as unlikely and unconvincing as it is, that trick of character makes for a ‘future’ which feels more immediate than Singh’s, for all the latter’s commendable thoroughness.

It’s a cheat’s trick, but it works every time.

Homage to Arabia: Rushdie, Valente and Oral Storytelling

In last Friday’s TLS, Geert Jan van Gelder discusses the torturous history of the 1001 Nights:

It is part of Arabic and European literature, it contains stories and motifs that may be traced to Sanskrit, Persian and Greek literature. […] The great majority of the stories are set in Iraq, Egypt, or Persia rather than the Arabian peninsula. Galland [its first European translator] did more than merely translate: he shaped the text into what became a more or less canonical form.

Penguins New 1001 Nights
Penguin's New '1001 Nights'

This most famous of story cycles is, then, a mishmash of influences, a sort of discourse between a panoply of contributors. Van Gelder goes on to discuss the myths of ‘popular’ and ‘highbrow’ literature, the ambivalence amongst Arab scholars for the work, and the problems of transliteration. His point is ultimately simple: that there is no such thing as “an ‘original’ text of the Nights”. This sensuous, boisterous and hugely influential work is essentially a layer cake of interpretation.

This has never stopped other writers plundering it for inspiration – indeed, it may well have encouraged them. If nothing else, its arresting frame story of the young wife Shahrazad telling stories to save her life, each night ending on a cliffhanger to ensure one day more of continued existence, is enough to lend each story an added power. But of course story cycles are in and of themselves captivating things, as Chaucer and Boccaccio both understood long before the Nights was known to Europe. In their pages lie a tumult of perspectives, and a confusion of lives; what they offer to the reader is something close to a cross-section of life as it is lived. To writers of fiction, this lure is irresistible.

The Enchantress of Florence
'The Enchantress of Florence'

Salman Rusdie is a writer particularly alive to the potential of the multi-strand narrative. Midnight’s Children in particular is consistently praised for its awareness of the slippery qualities of the storied life. “To understand me,” its narrator advises, “you’ll have to swallow a world.” In his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie consciously evokes the form and premise of 1001 Nights to make this point anew: the visiting European Mogor dell’Amore, our principle storyteller (though everyone in this fiction has one to tell), sits in the court of the Grand Mughal, perpetually balanced between acceptance and condemnation, and weaves his worldly tales. (And as van Gelder points out in his TLS piece, the frame story of the Nights from which Rushdie takes his cue may well have originated in India.) His stories are alternately bawdy and reverent, epic and domestic. As is his wont, Rushdie straddles East and West, with a foot in both India and the Tuscan city of Florence (birthplace, of course, of that other great story cycle, The Decameron).

In this book, stories have power. As the Mogor tells his tale, it seeps out of the palace and into the streets, and the denizens of the city begin to dream of it. “When the sword of the tongue is drawn,” the Emperor Akbar muses, “it inflicts deeper cuts than the sharpest blade.” In part, this efficacy is due to the Mogor’s undoubted charisma – people fall in love with him in an instant, listen to him for hours, think of him for the rest of their lives. He is characterized a magician, and his sorcery is verbal – his charm is his wand.

Yet the book feels somehow without charm, even without bustle, despite its wealth of incident. It is dreamily told, which is of course deliberate, emphasising as it does the hazy mysteries of the Mogor’s tales, yet this languid tone lends the narratives more torpor than tension. Rushdie has never been the most ingratiating of writers, but here he sells so much on the basis of his principle character’s dynamic personality that the lack of zest in the writing undersells its premise. There are many appropriately sensual episodes in the book, and much of the rest of the material is fitting to Rushdie’s influences: his Florentine sections fizz with incident, and his cast of Indian characters seems to cut through society and personality with a familiarly leveling determination; but still there feels something too contrived, something a little cold even, about Rushdie’s treatment.

In The Night Garden
'In The Night Garden' (no, not the Igglepiggle one)

Rushdie wrote in Shame that “realism can break a writer’s heart,” and this is a fitting admission from a writer who began with full-blown fantasy (Grimus, 1975). Certainly The Enchantress of Florence does not shoot for mimesis: it is an impressionistic, fabulating work which goes some way towards the miraculous. But it is not straight fantasy, since it applies a layer of the magical to historical settings. In her The Orphan’s Tales duology, on the other hand, Catherynne M Valente paid similar homage to the Nights (here a young woman trapped at the court of a Sultan tells tales to a mercurial prince), but created a fairytale world of fiercely contemporary concerns to do so. I reviewed the two volumes in the series for Strange Horizons (In The Night Garden and In The Cities of Coin and Spice), and found them to be fizzing, vital pieces of work by a writer fully engaged in the act of seducing the reader.

In no small part, Valente’s success over Rushdie is down to the beauty of her prose. Though Rushdie is a master stylist whose sentences never seem unwieldy or unplanned, the less disciplined Valente nevertheless conjures up such startling similes, such penetrating metaphors, that her tales become precisely what we are told they are: visual, vital, enchanting. In creating her own individualised world, Valente in a sense made this untethering from the prosaic easier on herself; but simultaneously no worldbuilding is ever easy – it is the root cause of many a science fiction novel’s failure – and her world is so perfectly balanced, so beautifully poised, that it is not fair to accuse Valente of shortcuts. The Orphan’s Tales in fact represent a mammoth undertaking, an internally consistent universe in which all stories may happen in their own worlds, and yet may interlink.

<i>In The Cities of Coin and Spice</i>
'In The Cities of Coin and Spice'

The richness of Valente’s work rests very much on a melange of folk traditions; like Rushdie (but perhaps more so), she begins at 1001 Nights but fans out towards European and then North and South American story traditions, forcing the parts to cohere through sheer strength of talent. Rushdie’s work is in comparison a very literary confection, a thing interested more in texts than the oral tradition of the stories it seeks to mine. And this, it seems to me, is what hobbles it: whilst resting itself upon the strength of the stories we tell each other, it neglects almost entirely the way in which we tell them. Most often, this is not through text, but through the bob and wheel of voice. Any replication of oral delivery on a page will lack something of the performance; but it is possible to capture it in motion rather than in amber.

In his defense, Rushdie is crafting a novel, whilst Valente is far more obviously composing a story cycle – its frame story is lost in a Russian doll formation of ever-increasing depth, stories nesting within  stories told within stories about stories. But this only adds further value to this richly rewarding excursion into the power and potential of the tale – Rushdie, in comparison, feels as inert as ink on a page. Necessarily Rushdie’s is a constructed world; but it is too obvious in its artifice.

Fantasy and science fiction readers often talk about the ‘sense of wonder’, the feeling they ascribe often exclusively to their chosen genre and which constitutes a sort of dizzied amazement at the multiplicity and breadth of a universe when considered from a level other than the quotidian. It’s not quite fair to hive off this feeling from other fictions which do the same thing differently; but in Valente they have found a master of its evocation. Rushdie, in comparison, writes a nice sentence. This mastery is the fundamental building block of his project to reconst Eastern and Western texts into a sort of hybrid mode, and his work is a clever and deeply allusive novel, effusively praised as such in all corners … but it doesn’t make him much of a successor to Shahrazad. Van Gelder calls the wily vizier’s daughter “resourceful and eloquent”; for that level of narrative suppleness, we should perhaps turn to a fantasist, a builder of whole storied worlds, over a mere fabulator of texts.

Round 17. Fight!

In response to my last post, a lot of people talked about football. This is my fault for using dirty analogies. Over at Torque Control, though, Niall asked, “what’s so bad about sticking up for your crowd against playground bullies?” He of course missed out ‘the other’ from that sentence. My original point was not just that SF is bullied, but that it also bullies. Or rather, that any community sufficiently full of itself will.

What I’ll always hope for is a way in which critics can take a genre piece, examine the way it interacts with that genre, and then fold out a sufficiently decent work into other traditions – even, dare I suggest it, beyond them. Genre is a tool rather than a toolbox – focusing too much on a work’s generic component will inevitably weaken criticism, or leave it hectoring to fellow hectorers. Which is cool, if that’s what you like.

I’m just reading Tristram Shandy, an eighteenth century novel saved from the blustering self-importance of its century by taking blustering self-importance to stratospheric comic heights. It also includes the best bit of sensawunda I’ve felt all year:

In the planet Mercury […] the intense heat of the country, which is proved by computators, from its vicinity to the sun, to be more than equal to that of red hot iron, – must, I think, long ago have vitrified the bodies of the inhabitants, (as the efficient cause) to suit them for the climate (which is the final cause); so that, betwixt them both, all the tenements of their souls, from top to bottom, may be nothing else, for aught the soundest philosophy can shew to the contrary, but one fine transparent body of clear glass (bating the umbilical knot); – so, that till the inhabitants grow old and terribly wrinkled, whereby the rays of light, in passing through them, become so monstrously refracted, – or return reflected from their surfaces in such transverse lines to the eye, that a man cannot be seen thro’; – his soul might as well, unless, for more ceremy, – or the trifling advantage which the umbilical point gave her, – might, upon all other accounts, I say, play the fool out o’ doors as in her own house.

Lovely. And Sterne was not, I think, ever a Worldcon Guest of Honour.

Science Fiction: Genre, Community, Literature

A few weeks ago, Strange Horizons published my review of Junot Díaz’s immigrant novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Both Jonathan McCalmont and the commissioner of the review, Niall Harrison, were kind enough to link to it and say it was half-decent, but of course the comments section of the review itself inevitably descended into fannish naval gazing.

For those of you unaccustomed to science fiction reviewing, here’s a rule of thumb: reaction to a review will always hone in on the point most applicable to the community that reads science fiction, rather than anything which might relate to science fiction itself. In a way, this is inevitable in a field of criticism largely conducted by enthusiasts, and in a genre so thoroughly sealed off from respectability (national newspapers frequently review crime fiction, but rarely give science fiction more than a passing nod).

What to say about genre? It’s been observed by many writers that most other genres are named after the effect they aim to have upon the reader: horror, thriller, romance, even fantasy might be said to capture in their label the quality for which they are read. Westerns appropriate a geographical locator; crime fiction an element of their plot. Science fiction is in this cast of labels curiously – and excitingly – broad. It leads inevitably to endless debates and quibbles about which books should be given passage through the genre’s gate, and which should be asked to reside in a gentrified suburb a safe distance from the ghetto. But surely what most interests about SF is its endless capacity to reinvent itself and to tackle almost anything to almost any effect.

Díaz’s Oscar Wao is similarly drawn to the ‘sense of wonder’ permanently possible in science fictional writing. It is what fixates him and seduces him, in no small part due to the drudgery of his everyday existence. Díaz is in a way guilty of stereotyping: his Wao is a typical fan, all acne and airfix, memorising episodes of Star Trek and referencing obscure comic books. And yet, it seems to me, Wao too would have replied to my review with a comment about my mischaracterisation of his community. Stereotypes can still be accurate.

Some years ago, Niall Harrison, aforementioned editor of Strange Horizons Reviews who doubles as editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal of record, Vector, interviewed me for a fanzine article he was writing. He asked me whether I self-identified as a ‘fan’. My instinctive response was in the negative: being a fan, I argued, meant putting aside some or all of one’s critical faculties.

A Manchester United fan may gripe about team selection, but he will probably never abandon his team. If you’re going to talk seriously about books, you need to be able to abandon the ones that are bad. Being a fan is like carrying the card of a political party: it asks you to bury your misgivings and stick up for your crowd against the other bullies in the playground. I was alone among Niall’s respondents; the rest quibbled about what the definition of ‘fan’ was – the response of someone already signed up to a self-selecting tribe. (There are of course tribes with tribes: SF fandom is nothing if not endlessly recursive.)

Such is science fiction criticism: a field in which amateurs are as welcome as academics, which in a way is a beautifully egalitarian thing, but in another simply suggests that everyone’s just a bit too close to their subject. Science fiction, that boundless literature of future shock and alienation, is in truth a bit cosy. Inevitably, in a community so small, sealed off, and self-selecting, the artifacts themselves become vehicles for the movement. A book as light on consequence as Ken Macleod’s Learning The World is seen to be in rapturous dialogue with its genre by throwing in references only the initiated will catch; an author who disowns the community (Salman Rushdie, even Kurt Vonnegut) will be quietly shuffled out, like a senile old uncle; a book that is embraced by the mainstream (Cloud Atlas) will not be shared happily but held on to for grim, stultifying death. What matters is not so much the work as the way it talks to the community.

I pause for breath. Because Paul and Martin are decent, thoughful chaps, and not at all rampant fanboys whose every rabid waking moment is spent thinking about Fandom, I feel a bit unfair. (In fact, thanks for reading the review and taking the time to respond, guys.) They’re both active SF critics, though, and it seems to me to become an unthinking response of such writers to refect upon – to include in their cogitations – The Community. It is not that what makes the genre particular (if anything beyond marketing strategies) is not worth studying; it is that there are wider perspectives to bring to that study than the purely generic dialogue of a given work. Nay, if Díaz has not written about a fan I recognise – or one that another reader may recognise more than the one I do – it may well mean that there are wider perspectives even within the community, Oscar, than are dreamt of in your taxonomy.