A man in our town is so fond of the short stories of Lydia Davis that he never wants to see a photograph of her. He explains that for him, she is a texture of words, and if asked to elaborate will explain that the composite portrait offered by her overlapping and exactly-sketched characters, which are almost certainly no more or less autobiographical than those of other writers but which somehow, due to the concision and clarity of her style, seem to embody a consistent presence, is more satisfying than any mere mechanical reproduction of her physical appearance could be expected to be.
Tag Archives: review
Ada Palmer, 2016, Tor
I have been looking forward to this ever since I heard that it was a medium-future science fiction novel written in the style of an eighteenth century conte philosophique, two of my favourite literary forms. (Medium-future as in a couple of centuries from now, between near-future, which is decades away, and far-future, which is your Olaf Stapledon or Stephan Baxter stuff when humans have evolved into moonbats or the universe is running down and the sun’s turned into a cannonball.) It’s such an ambitious book — the narrator is describing a twenty-sixth century world which is several technological marvels and a world political revolution distant from our own, but is doing so from another imagined future perspective, after it’s all changed again. This doesn’t quite work as well as I’d like it to, particularly in the book’s treatment of gender: I felt like Terra Ignota’s conventions were not well-established enough before the narrator starts poking holes in them. But I forgave this for the fact that it’s a future history which is about radical social change. (Altered Carbon, which I was looking forward to after seeing people rave about it on Twitter, is a depressing example of how lame most sf is: the hero wakes up after 250 years and nothing seems to have changed except that the rich are meaner. Everything’s still a shopworn cyberpunk dystopia which, let’s be completely honest, was always just Chinatown as seen by a scared white kid.)
The other thing to point out is that the book comes with an in-universe title page, rather lovingly done in imitation of the sorts of eighteenth century books it’s emulating, complete with content warnings from the relevant organisations. Most of the text on this page is incomprehensible unless you’ve read the book and got your head around the very different political structure of its future world, but the content warnings themselves are straightforward, accurate, and should be taken very seriously. It’s an easy book to spoil, and I don’t want to do that, except to warn you that there aren’t many novels where I’ve read certain pages and then had to make a conscious decision whether I wanted to keep reading it in the morning.
I’m glad that I did. Palmer has created something quite unique and exciting, which reminds me of a bunch of authors I never thought to see yoked together. She acknowledges her debts to Asimov and Bester with a couple of sly references, and the portrayal of an utopian society about to unearth social forms which it has buried or obscured reminded me of Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man stories, in content if not in style. And, most unexpectedly, the baroque characterisation made me think of R A Lafferty, who is not an author I ever expected to compare to anyone.
M John Harrison, 2017, Comma Press
The first collection of Harrison’s short fiction since Things That Never Happen in the early noughties. I think it would make a very good introduction if you haven’t read him.
One way of looking at fantasy and sf is that they are about incursion. Something new, wonderful and frightening, enters the character’s world. Often it’s an obvious metaphor, especially in popular forms, for sex or the racial other, bureaucracies both private and public, but leave that aside for a moment and think about the seam between the fantastic and the real. Although even “seam” is too literal. I was fascinated, as a child, by the way in which you could distinguish the background painting from the animated figures in a cartoon, not just because the latter were moving, but because of their texture or grain. In the literature of the English-speaking world, we have strict border patrols between genres which do this and those which don’t, and even in those forms when the fantastic is permitted, there are a lot of conventions about how and in what way it manifests itself, about how the imaginary or the impossible is allowed to be imagined or narrated. It’s these, as much as the repetition of props and tropes, which can make genre fiction so dull even if you aren’t prejudiced against it.
One of the things I admire about Harrison is how he handles this disjunction, always with originality, with a kind of offhand deliberation that evades the usual rituals. Sometimes by making a liminal zone apparently explicit, like the first journey to the land of Autotelia, the focus of some of the longer stories in this collection: it’s literally referred to as “transition” by a guard announcing it on the train journey, but the standard lecture from either narrator or character, guided tours on the reader’s journey into strangeness, is absent. The verisimilitude of piled-up facts, internally consistent details and clever extrapolations is abandoned — it’s good to see that Harrison’s anger at worldbuilding is still burning bright, in the vignettes about the sordid and comical lives of the royal family of Elfland — what we get in exchange is something more valuable, in which the journey to an imaginary land takes on the unspoken and strange qualities of the boundaries (of work, home, between social roles) which we cross countless times every day.
Autotelia, like the city of Viriconium from earlier in Harrison’s career, is more convincing for being unexplained and multivalued. To me it echoes something of the relationship between England and continental Europe and between the developed world and its former colonies, while not being a literal metaphor for either of these. (For the fans: yes, there is a Viriconium story in the collection, and it’s a good one.)
There are a few novellas, many short stories and a number of even shorter pieces of fiction, which made their first appearances on Harrison’s blog. A bunch of terms occurred to me for these, the chummy old sf label “short-short”, “parable” or “epigram” or “microfiction”, but none of these seem suitable. Even the ones which at first glance are parodies of sf/f clichés, like the Elfland stories or “Earth Advengers”, have got something more disquieting and interesting happening if you pay attention.
The collection’s title is apt: not so much an invitation as a warning, with the implication that there’s no time to waste, and no promise of comfort. For a sample, here’s one of the stories in full: “The Crisis”
I’ve read and enjoyed lots of Haldeman’s short fiction, but when I came
across this recent interview it reminded me that I hadn’t read The Forever War, although I had a kind of ghostly memory of it which might have been the result of reading it at an age when I was too young to really get it, or of having read an excerpt or a review long ago. So I downloaded the e-book, which is available from SF Gateway – if you’re my age and an sf nerd, you’ll have a Pavlovian response to the Gollancz-yellow typographic covers.
The novel more than lives up to its reputation as cracking military sf, although that’s not a genre I’ve really read much of – the descriptions of combat could have been written yesterday, although if they were there would probably be much more stuff about computer viruses and all-purpose nanotechnology, which is all to The Forever War’s advantage as I’m bored with the “computational turn” of sf. This is a seventies novel, so it uses the genre toolkit of its time, that peculiar bow-shock of plausible tech and recent astrophysics which actual science and technology pushes before it into its fictional amanuenses: low-temperature physics, “collapsars” (stellar-mass black holes), stasis fields and relativity played with the net up. The combat and training are as numbing an alternation of boredom with haphazard brutality as any actual modern battle, and the succession of alien worlds on which war with the Taurans plays out are free from the contrivances and cliches of planetary romance. (They also include two of my favourite astrophysical objects, Epsilon Aurigae and the giant star S Doradus.)
The most famous feature of the novel is the dislocation caused by time dilation, which stretches the main characters’ subjective timelines out over what become centuries back on Earth. Haldeman was in Vietnam, but the disjunction between the main character and his home planet isn’t played out in the political clichés of home-front contempt which have come to dominate how we think about that war: they feel like they would be applicable to any combat veteran. The most dated aspect of the novel is its treatment of homosexuality, which is promoted by the world government as a remedy for overpopulation. It’s not that it’s homophobic, Haldeman giving the impression of a decent open-minded straight dude doing his best, but its assumption that orientation is completely malleable, or that a majority-gay society would mirror our society’s homophobia, aren’t credible.
Another aspect of the novel’s treatment of sexuality which I disliked is the baseline 1990s military culture at the start: mixed-gender troops with mandatory partner-swapping which amounts to a form of enforced prostitution. This is the occasion of some fairly unpleasant humour and is on the whole no more convincing than the broader social changes later in the novel. (I ended up wishing that all the sex stuff had been written by another writer, Samuel Delany, for instance.)
It’s still a great book – one of the best of that subgenre of sf which uses relativistic time-dilation as a powerful metaphor for the friction between time as lived experience and time as history, something which gets to us all these days, soldiers and civilians alike – and deserves its reputation.
On Photography, Susan Sontag
Mr Turner, Mike Leigh
Ancient Laughter: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up, Mary Beard
I’m a latecomer to Susan Sontag – I think On Photography is the first book of hers I’ve ever read. It’s really good, in spite of a very late 70s-early 80s tendency to swoon about like the End of Days is At Hand, and made me wish she were still around to write about the people who get freaked out by selfie-sticks. The racist trope of the native fearing the camera’s soul-stealing powers is pretty old-fashioned, but photography is still enough of a novelty that its new manifestations – which are really just an acceleration of the trend to cheapness, portability and popularisation which Sontag records – arouse responses which it doesn’t seem unfair to call superstitious.
I’ve not been much of a Mike Leigh fan – Naked is one of the very few films that I wish I’d walked out of – but I really enjoyed Mr Turner, which contains a nice set-piece at the very start of photography’s history. I’m not much of an artist-biopic fan, either, but Leigh mostly avoids the genre’s cliches, his 19th century has a very convincing, lived-in feel, and Timothy Spall’s performance is admirable. It’s worth seeing on the big screen, as the cinematography is excellent. The audience I saw it with tittered in embarrassment at some of the parts which I found most touching and convincing – Turner singing out of tune to an out of tune pianoforte at a patron’s country house, for example. By our standards, there would have been so much slightly-off music in the days before recordings – George Bernard Shaw’s early work as a music critic is very instructive.
I’d been looking forward to Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome ever since I saw a copy in Melbourne last year, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a dried and more scholarly work than her Pompeii – Life and Death in a Roman Town, but that added to the austere pleasure of a text which not only describes the most ineffable of emotional responses – the history of theories of laughter is something like a narrative of repeated attempts to catch smoke – but also attempts to register that response’s echoes across the gulf between ourselves and the ancient world.
A big sprawling sf novel from 1968 which I’ve long been uneasily aware that I should have already read, given that I love the weirder reaches of the new wave. The kaleidoscopic structure, which interleaves excerpts of in-universe texts and high-speed montages of headlines and advertising slogans with more straightahead narrative chapters, make it seem more experimental than it actually is, but also make it more fun than your average dystopia, and a lot less of a slog than it otherwise could be. (It does get to be a slog toward the end, as one subplot turns into a sort of spy thriller, a genre I always find hard work.)
It’s set in a 2010 in which world population has reached seven billion. Apart from this one spot-on prediction, it would be a bit tiresome to list exactly which technologies and social changes Brunner did and didn’t get right, but the flavour of his overcrowded and stressed world is weirdly familiar enough to make it cut thorough the layer of ersartz-nadsat-futurespeak which is one of the book’s most dated features. But no-one, as someone observed on Twitter, ever gets future slang right, and everyone in the 60s thought that pop music in the 21st century would be much weirder than it actually turned out.
Being an ambitious 60s sf novel, there’s a Big Author Mouthpiece, a macho pop sociologist with the very BAM name “Chad C Mulligan”: another thing that 60s sf in general got wrong was that the future would have even wilder gurus, whereas we ended up with squares like De Botton and Gladwell.
Overall, it’s impressive and thought-provoking, and I was right to feel guilty: I should have read it years ago.
I never got around to reviewing the second volume of the Library of America’s science fiction anthology! Here you go.
Robert A Heinlein
Wow. Robert A Heinlein was such a bullshit-artist.
The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester, on the other hand, wrote preposterous space opera with more panache than anyone, before or since. Forget Heinlein: Bester does science fiction libertarianism as it should be done, a tattooed teleporting madman with a fistful of sub-atomic dynamite.
A Case of Conscience
Father Ruiz-Sanchez, the thoughtful Jesuit scientist who reads Finnegans Wake when he’s not pondering the theological implications of the peaceful, religion-free inhabitants of the planet Lithia, is still one of my favourite characters in literature. The first half is a beautiful first contact story: the second half, which moves to an overcrowded and decadent Earth, is much less convincing. The satire is shrill and dated, and the Lithian ambassador to Earth is an unconvincingly camp false prophet in the centre of a bad Wyndham Lewis pantomime.
I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this, as projections of the Cold War into the 80s from the 50s rarely satisfy, but it was surprisingly good: a controlled and deliberately ambiguous story of a scientist who is returned from East to West after a lab accident, having been rebuilt as a cyborg by Soviet scientists.
The Big Time
A short and impressive novel which deals with an aeon-spanning time war in an elegant and effective way: by setting the action in a pocket universe/bordello used by the agents of one faction for shore leave. A bit marred by the narrative voice – the story is told by one of the girls in a corny sub-Judy-Holliday-in-Born-Yesterday vernacular – but if you consider that Leiber’s parents were touring Shakespeareans of the old school, and treat it as farcical theatre, the whole thing snaps into focus. (Curiously, the narrator of the Heinlein novel is an actor, and he is, somewhat mystifyingly, given that it’s set on like the Moon or something in the 21st century, and that Heinlein is supposed to be a master of social world-building, an incredibly corny caricature, just the sort of old stager who was disappearing in 1956, so, yeah, as I said. A bullshit-artist.)