science fiction

On Negative Reviews

Strange Horizons has my review of Anthony Huso’s Black Bottle. It is not kind:

All this leaves the story mired in accident, and it becomes difficult to draw out salience from the glutted page. The withered attempts to enliven what are at times indecipherable proceedings, to jump on a bandwagon which has itself long since become part of the generic landscape, fail to do for Huso’s story what Sena does for Caliph Howl—revive it. The early matching of Pandragor with the USA—it suffered a Civil War in ’61 and perceives itself to be “the freest country north or south of the Tehesh Plateau” (p. 38)—come to very little, perhaps because by its very nature the novel itself isn’t capable of very much. Either way, however, Black Bottles‘s focus turns rapidly inwards—to sexing-up magic or telling Westerosian tales of aristocratic derring-do. We have seen this done before and better, and reading Huso is to be left wondering what the point was.

I once had a reputation for being a shark of a reviewer – though Nina Allan recently, and generously, placed me in the same tent as Paul Kincaid, John Clute, Matthew Cheney and Messrs McCalmont, Harrison and Lewis, so I’m not sure whether this is still the case – and it’s possible, what with reviews like this one, that some might imagine I enjoy writing hatchet jobs. Certainly there’s a satisfaction to turning a decent argument, but ultimately there’s very little joy in reading a book you don’t like and then having to ‘fess up about it. Black Bottle has a lovely cover and some decent blurb – I cracked the spine expecting, and wanting, to like it. That wasn’t to be.

Richard Cooper blogged recently on “the tricky but interesting position of trying to bring the language of criticism – heartfelt, individualistic, provocative, unashamed – into the world of fandom”. There’s a professionalism – and a respect – about finishing a book you don’t enjoy and then being honest enough to say why. Cooper deals at length with the resistance in Doctor Who fandom to this kind of approach to discussing a writer’s work, but what he says is true for much of SF&F fandom – in fact Paul Kincaid, he not just of Allan’s admiration but of the exhaustion meme I mention in the Huso review, tweeted that, “I’ve been on the receiving end of this [hostility to criticism] way too often”. Kincaid is a grand old man of SF&F reviewing – if his criticism is considered too harsh, my negativity must at times seem positively malicious.

In fact, it isn’t. Some of my favourite works of fiction are SF&F – but the genre disappoints more than it enlightens, and a comparison with work from outside of the ghetto walls – I agree with Martin Lewis that “I  get a sensawunda from literary fiction more frequently than SF” – does not help books like Huso’s. All of this is by way of thinking the obvious out loud, though since my policy on negative reviews has never been to sin the sin of the soft-pedal it’s worth writing it down. Most importantly, you should contribute to Strange Horizons’s fund drive – because the magazine consistently supports honest, robust and useful criticism of precisely the kind many SF&F sites avoid like the plague.

Advertisements
Standard
Books, science fiction

“At The Mouth of the River of Bees”

My review of Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees is up at Strange Horizons today, and here’s a flavour:

In Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep (2010), however, Seo-Young Chu has attempted a theory of representation in science fiction by focusing on “referents which are virtually unknowable and that all but defy language and comprehension” (p. 245). This is something of a get-out-of-jail-free card for the metaphor in science fiction, issued on the basis that what is being allegorized is unrepresentable in any other way; on the other hand, this might be a good description of what is going on in Kij Johnson’s remarkable new collection of short stories, At the Mouth of the River of Bees.

Chu’s governing concern is estrangement: science fiction metaphors, he argues, are uniquely placed to tackle our contemporary impossibilities, the way in which financial derivatives, for instance, are so much less grokkable than pennies. In Johnson’s short stories, the ineffable is likewise repeatedly evoked without ever quite being literally present—that is, the stuff of estrangement is referred to rather than described.

I quote at length to give some context to a response I should probably make to a few reviews of the book published since I finished mine. In particular, Erin Horáková in the LARB is significantly less impressed by the collection than I, for reasons I might ordinarily expect to share. “I didn’t like this collection as well as I feel I should have,” she says. “These stories resist reductive, simplistic themes, but they also seem to resist all forms of pin-downable purpose. It’s difficult to guess what about a particular story made Johnson feel she needed to write it. The stories are well-written at the line and scene level, but you can’t sink your teeth into them, can’t love and hate and discuss them.” To my surprise, however, I find myself arguing that this quality of absence is one of the things to admire about the collection.

At Far Beyond Reality, Stefan Reits writes of Bees that, “Regardless of length, many of these stories employ an economy of wording that, at times, seems to be at odds with their content”, and I think that gets at what I also found in Johnson’s stories: a certain withholding, a distancing of the stories’ fantastica which might at first appear, as in the great empty space at the heart of ’26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’, to render the stories hollow. In fact, I’m with Sessily Watt at Bookslut: “This is Johnson’s fiction: the familiar combined with the inexplicable.” What Johnson does is enact, rather than depict, estrangement.

On the other hand, Horáková is right to worry at the sexual politics of the collection: even as my own review lengthened beyond reasonable limits, I was conscious of referring to this key question only glancingly (the ‘Other’ I focus upon in the review is the rather rarer one of the animal), and I agree with her that the absence of queer voices is striking in a collection essentially about heterodoxy. On the other hand, and as I conclude in the review, “Characters in this wildly inventive, laudably diverse collection—their lives and worlds—don’t stand for something else”; Horáková asks what is new about Johnson’s stories, arguing that “straight couples: how do they work?” is a dull old refrain, and in response I might provisionally suggest that it is refreshing, particularly in a work of genre, to see characters allowed to be themselves, rather than definitive figurations. Johnson may be a patchy writer who needs to expand the types of story and character she tells successfully (laudable diversity in content doesn’t always equate, of course, to laudable consistency), but she is attempting something a little smarter than going through the motions.

Standard
Books

The Weird

My review of the book ensconced in this month’s ‘Words We Like’ sidebar, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s The Weird, is published today at Strange Horizons. As you might imagine with any anthology of this sort, there are criticisms – too few female authors, a skew towards Anglo-American voices as the volume proceeds (though this neglects to mention in particular the wonderful ‘Dust Enforcer’ from Reza Negarestani). But by and large this is a wonderful collection which captures the weird mode of fiction in what feels like a faithful and creative way.

Indeed, between completing that review and it being published, the VanderMeers have published this post at the Weird Fiction Review, explaining a little about their ‘approaches and foci’ in editing the volume. You’ll get a good sense of the character of their book from this list of priorities, particularly as any single review will struggle to encompass all of them satisfactorily. In particular, when the editors write that, “Beauty and fascination are as wedded in these stories as are horror and fear of the unknown,” they nail the eroticised heart of the weird, which, as I suggest in the review, is curiously drawn to images of sensory overload.

In this way, the weird is related quite strongly to sf – that is, it is concerned with contrary information, data which contradicts what we think we know. Its difference, again as I argue over at SH, it is in what the VanderMeers call the mode’s ““slippery” quality”: this makes it not just difficult to identify in terms of genre, but, internally within a story, defiant of definitive readings.

Why are you still here? Go and read the review (and, better yet, the book).

Standard
Books, science fiction

“A knowledge of each other; a community”: Heidegger and “Embassytown”

"Mmm, gnarly quiddity."

The Strange Horizons Clarke Award shortlist review is, as it is every year (hem hem), worthwhile reading. This year, Adam Roberts – who modestly and coquettishly demurs from placing his own novel in his list of this year’s unjust also-rans – has taken the baton. It is impossible for him, too, to narrate this year’s shortlist as anything but a controversial, Sphinx-like offering, begging more than is usual for explication. I was reminded on Twitter this week of the 2005 shortlist, and in that light 2012’s offering is strange beer indeed. If I haven’t quite found a true trainwreck amongst the nominees yet – Roberts is right that The End Specialist is a clumsy, superficial novel, but in the context of the episodic airport thriller it aims to be it passes inoffensively – this is not, alas, the same as saying the shortlist is good.

Amongst the first triad of books he considers, there is only one that Roberts seems genuinely to believe should be on a shortlist of this kind: China Miéville’s Embassytown. Consequently, he spends the largest and most entertaining part of his piece discussing said playful treatise on Language and metaphor. Here’s the money shot: “The problem, if I can put it like this, is that Miéville’s conception of language itself is insufficiently Heideggerian. […]  The ground of Embassytown‘s linguistic conception of veracity (“Everything in Language is a truth claim,” the novel tells us (p. 60)) is parsed via an unexamined correspondence theory of truth [… and this] very lack of dialectical possibility, except in the authorial get out clause of “madness,” in the Host Language vitiates precisely the ground of the novel as a whole.”

Roberts likes the final revolutionary third of Embassytown – when the Hosts learn how to lie and in their conceptual madness destroy the society they have built around their assumptions – but he finds the novel’s central metaphor fatally undermined by an intellectual stumble: baldly (Roberts knows few of his readers will have so thorough a grounding in linguistic philosophy as he), and contra Miéville, it is not useful to conceive of truth as objective. It is at this point, dear reader, that my recent reading collides, and I risk mixing not metaphors but philosophers. Here’s John Lanchester in a recent LRB, on Marx at 193:

In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist. He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated. Since this is what most of us think we’re doing most of the time it marks a fundamental break between Marx and what we call common sense, a notion that was greatly disliked by Marx, who saw it as the way a particular political and class order turns its construction of reality into an apparently neutral set of ideas which are then taken as givens of the natural order. Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.

I don’t think that the blindspot Roberts identifies in Miéville is entirely divorced from this Marxist rejection of empiricism (of which school the Hosts are the fundamentalist wing). Where Heidegger places value on being in the world, Marx prizes changing it. For Marx, empiricism is suspicious precisely because it makes conceptual breakthrough more difficult. In my own post on Embassytown, I wrote that the novel “links language not just to sentience but to will.” I think, and I would say this, that thinking about Miéville’s purpose in this way goes some way to squaring Roberts’s circle: that Language is, as characters in the novel happily accept, impossible – that it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what truth is, and how we can arrive at it, that it is static and didactic – is part of the point. Remember Iron Council, that other Marxian Miéville novel which shouldn’t have won the Clarke Award? Embassytown‘s like that, but a bit better. It’s about steaming away from common sense.

I’m not really arguing with Professor Roberts – in fact, I agree with practically every word of his review (though maybe not with “tweedledumtweedledee-ish”), and Miéville’s self-imposed difficulty is that he has muddied the waters between language and politics – but it’s worth adding this warp to the weft of his critique.  Indeed, to follow through on my emerging theme for this year’s shortlist, Embassytown is about creating a new kind of community. That can only be done, within the confines of Embassytown’s exploitative capitalist model, by rejecting precisely the anti-Heideggerian conception of truth Roberts identifies. If you’re to change the world, you first have to change the way you think – and if you’re to depict that change, you must depict the way of thinking that holds it back. Embassytown can be seen, for better or worse, to literalise this process in Language. Its shortcomings – and, like Besźel and Ul Qoma before it, Language certainly has them – are, in its defence, part of the point.

Standard
Books, science fiction

“Argument Against Usefulness”: Christopher Priest’s “The Islanders”

Like so many others, when reading a novel I hold the book in one hand and a pencil in the other. I underline and scribble, and, modest though my marginalia may be, the act of scrawling helps me wend a way through the prose. There are, however, times when a book is so involving, confounding or both that the pencil is cast aside for a second read: no amount of exclamation marks beside the text will help when a text reads at first so elusively.

Christopher Priest’s The Islanders is one such novel. My last book of 2011, it was also one of the strangest. Indeed, it has troubled reviewers, leaving Le Guin frustrated, Adam Whitehead of The Wertzone with self-contradictory fragments, and even the inestimable Adam Roberts mostly searching for comparators. On one level, this is simply a function of Priest’s formal invention: not a narrative, and not a collection of short stories, The Islanders is a kind of travelogue – it features alphabetical entries guiding the readers around the various outcrops of the Dream Archipelago, a location of dubious reality which has cropped up before in Priest’s work. At the same time, however, it features several longer entries which do not pretend to guide or inform, but read more like traditional vignettes told from and by a range of views and voices: characters mentioned in a gazetteer piece recur as the first-person singular of a narrative passage, or artists described and located in the guidebook sections are complicated and humanised in extracts from a piece of journalism or a judicial report.

It is, then, hard to know how to read The Islanders (thus the enforced vacation for my pencil hand). What might it mean, for instance, to follow the REFERENCES clearly indicated in the text, to treat this novel as hypertext rather than start at page one and go forwards? Should we hang our interest on the peaks of narrative which rise above the topographical detail, following the relationship of the reclusive novelist (and author of The Islanders‘ introduction), Chaster Kammeston, and the revered social revolutionary known to the public only as Caurer? Can we read this novel, as we did The Prestige, as a story about public rivalry, doubled identity and the cost of creation, and is the murder of a stage magician part of that tale or to one side of it? Indeed, might this whole ‘novel’ in fact be a form of self-reflective criticism, with a character who writes a novel called The Affirmation, others artists who in some cases literally disappear into their own works, and cartographers attempting to map impossible landscapes? Is the book all of these, or none of them?

In one of the best reviews of the book I have read, Niall Alexander at Strange Horizons emphasises this intense uncertainty, arguing for the multivalence of Priest’s text, the endlessly movable frequency of its concerns. He personally opts for a vision of the book as a disputation on art, but I rather agree with (for it is again, Pimpernel-like, he) Adam Roberts when he urges specifity and uses the word ‘connections’; on the other hand, I think the connections of art are only one aspect of the way in which the novel interrogates the ligaments of its world – after all, Priest lingers over interpersonal connection, too, and indeed his entire text tests and teases how we understand narrative causality.

The novel ends with an elegiac chapter focusing on the relationship between a Yin- and Yang-ish pair of conceptual artists named Yo and Oy. Yo tunnels – at times so vociferously and inspirationally that she inspires one island to sink itself – and in doing so creates connections that would otherwise not exist. Like the time vortex that lies at the heart of the archipelago, Yo’s installations weird distance, toy with transit. They do so not just as art but as physical paths from one place to another – you can walk across the surface, but you might also follow an entrance to an exit.

Where Le Guin’s disappointment finds its justification, however, is in her criticism of the book’s heart. Alas, for a novel so clearly about connection it can at times fail to, well, connect: its characters, from the apparently (but not conclusively) serial-killing painter Dryd Bathurst to the campaigning journalist Dant Willer, can at times feel more like literary tools than real people. And yet. The Dream Archipelago is precisely that, a device of prosody: in The Affirmation, it is the fictional space of the schizophrenic novelist Peter Sinclair; Priest himself has written a sequence of short stories named after the islands the current book proposes to describe. “Reality lies in a different, more evanescent realm,” writes Chaster Kammeston in his introduction to the book-within-the-book (an introduction he would be incapable of writing was the book, which depicts his death, entirely rigorous). The way in which The Islanders leaves the reader feeling distanced and disoriented, then, is part of its effect, one of its many means of interrogating what it is we mean when we say, write or read ‘connection’. This gives it a weirdly unsatisfying sort of completeness.

The Islanders attains its depth from the intricacy of its formal invention – it shouldn’t work, but it does, and it is this quite magnificent structural achievement which off-sets what might traditionally been seen as the weaknesses arrayed against its success. Also at Strange Horizons, both Paul Kincaid and Duncan Lawie write of second reads, and I might add that a fourth, fifth and sixth would also probably reward. This is a measure of Priest’s cold kind of boldness, and ultimately of what is a remarkable novel. It deserves reams of marginalia – next time.

Standard
television

Politics and Personality in “Game of Thrones”

There’s a curious discussion going on over at Strange Horizons, in the comments section of a two-headed review of HBO’s Game of Thrones. In his half of an assessment of the show’s first season, m’learned friend Niall Harrison opines that “Game of Thrones has managed to raise my political hackles in a way few Euromedievalesque fantasies do”, as a result of its quite brutal and breath-takingly ossified feudal political system. I had some responses to that, but regular enfant terrible S.M. Stirling got there first with not quite the words I might have used: “21st-century political sensibilities are just -utterly meaningless- in a feudal culture like this. The questions are not whether there will be a monarchy, but what type of monarch; not whether there will be lordship, but whether it will be ‘good lordship’ (a technical term in that context) or bad.” Abigail Nussbaum, the organ’s reviews editor, is spot on when she responds that this is absolutely not what is implied by the season’s depiction of persecution, prejudice and primogeniture.

Stirling’s soft-headed comment reveals more about how many in the modern day imagine ‘merrie olde England’ than it does the ways in which Game of Thrones defends itself against Niall’s entirely admirable knee-jerk reactions. I’ve just finished watching the first season – aided by a bout of manflu in the last few days – and it seems to me that the show’s whole trajectory is determined by the gravity of its leads’ charisma. As Eddard Stark, Sean Bean plays Sean Bean – a bluff, down-to-earth northerner who has sympathy with the lower orders and an innate nobility that manifests itself as a refusal to kow-tow to the smug consensus of the chattering class. He is the moral centre of the piece – even his Thomas More-style refusal to give up honour in favour of his life is cast aside for a more contemporary commitment to his nearest and dearest. (Not for the first time whilst watching this season, I was reminded of The Tudors, which had one of its very few successes in Jeremy Northam’s dignified portrayal of a More who stuck to the morality of his own time.)

In this way, Game of Thrones isn’t at all sited, as Stirling seems to argue, in the (and here you’ll excuse the pun) mores of its own invented period: in the at times overly precocious Arya Stark, we are presented with the sort of independent-minded young woman we’ve come to expect in modern period pieces (I entirely agree with Abigail’s negative assessment of Arya’s portrayal); in the storyline of Jon Snow, we have entitlement deconstructed by proximity to poverty; in one of the best scenes in the series, the ‘wildling’ woman Osha gets to skewer the oddness of Westeros’s political system, cannily utilising her supposed ignorance to cast its hypocrisies in high relief. In this, I’m closer to Nic than Niall, and in particular her analysis of the gender politics of the season is well worth a read: Game of Thrones attempts to make a virtue of the degragations many of its women go through in the course of its ten episodes, using them with variable effect to question and undermine the dominant mode.

Eddard Stark’s wife Catelyn, for instance, is played both fiercely and humanely by Michelle Fairley, in another of the show’s defining turns. Catelyn is not questioner of the Westeros system – indeed, she is deeply embedded within it and all too often wont to make overbearing use of it – but, at the same time, she exhibits love and mercy, characteristics very often in short supply in what is a violent, relentless world. Catelyn – ruddy, subdued, dark – is placed in stark contrast to Cersei Lannister, the Queen of Westeros and one of its vilest schemers. As Cersei, Lena Headey routinely receives direction which asks her to hide the character’s thoughts and feelings behind an inscrutable half-smile, and it is hard not therefore to assume theside the show might take in a contest between Ladies Lannister and Stark. (Though here I again defer to Abigail, who unlike me has read Martin’s novel and perceives some significant attempts on the part of the series to soften and justify Cersei’s Macchiavellian behaviour.)

There are other key turns which don’t fit so easily into a theory of the show’s moral centre, however. The always reliable Aiden Gillen offers real value as the amoral Master of Coin, Petyr Baelish, and of course Peter Dinklage’s Emmy-winning scene-chewing as the ambiguous Tyrion Lannister is a centrepiece of the season. This suggests a less than Manichean world-view on the part of the show’s writers, in which they neither wish us to accept Westeros as we find it, nor really to presume there is any quick fix or measure of objective good: one might remember King Robert’s complaint that he cannot rule as he wishes since he owes half his kingdom’s worth to the Lannister family’s coffers, and wonder how far removed from this our own system, warped and pervaded by big finance, might really said to be. Furthermore, the show is guilty itself of some unforgiveable slips – its presentation of the Dothraki as uncivilised savages, for instance, or its wasting of Esme Bianco’s steely Ros in scene of sexposition after scene of sexposition.

Which leads us back to Niall: “Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about the portrayal of the Dothraki horselords, as the only darker-skinned characters in the series, is that it’s deeply unfortunate.”  Ultimately, Game of Thrones is in this incarnation a souped-up I, Claudius: an at times stilted and “unfortunate” TV family saga set in a degraded world populated by repellent people, which gains its momentum from its cast. It is at times ponderous, and at others thoughtless. It works to cultivate a moral ambiguity, even relavitism, which might free its viewers from Niall’s political objections (though at times the viewer still cannot work up enthusiasm for any of these squabbling, selfish families). At the same time, it is far easier to gulp down than a lot of HBO fare because, despite its lovingly crafted fantasy worlds, it is somehow less dense, the dialogue always explaining, the action always reiterated. What keeps this lumpy, unwieldy thing rumbling on is that gravity of charisma . The show has visual flair, a sense of humour and a fine cast, and if fairly obviously the first season’s purpose was to spend the show’s initial moral compass spinning, that other centredness will be what keeps the show on course: it eases a forgiveness of all those sins.

Standard
blogging

O Blogger, Where Art Thou?

The short version: life continues to get in the way. The longer version: I’m not for want of things to write about, but the time since I experienced them flies by so fast it feels odd to return – blogging is, after all, meant to be an immediate medium. Mostly, this smacks of falling out of the habit. I need to get back into the saddle.

In the meantime, check the sidebars for new activity: Julian Barnes’s latest collection of short stories, Pulse, is a lovely, ruminative thing; A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s new record should find its way into everyone’s collection; and A Single Man, which we caught up on recently, deserved far more attention than it got at the time.

Finally, a review of mine just recently went up at Strange Horizons. Check out Zoran Živković, you’ll like his work.

Standard