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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (teuthidae vacuumorum)

Squids In Sp-a-a-a-a-a-ce

Uniquely among the genre fictions, SF is always judged in the popular mind by its very worst examples. This can lead to some less than desirable outcomes...

Popular culture is epitomised by movies and television programmes, and the makers of these things are very familiar indeed with most of the generic categories. They have no difficulty understanding the tropes of detective, crime and mystery fiction; they are very happy with the western; they are fully aware of how to handle a romance story. And so there are many first class examples of all of these things available for your viewing pleasure. Therefore, because everyone is very well aware that excellent works of art can be found in these genres, there is no sense of shame attached to working in them. Consequently, when a writer is contemplating a new novel, they are usually quite happy if their plot and theme requires them to write (say) a detective novel. Well respected mainstream writers such as Kate Atkinson seem perfectly happy to have their books shelved with the other crime novels. And even writers who intentionally restrict themselves solely to genre fiction (Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, John Harvey and Reginald Hill spring to mind) quietly produce books of genuine literary merit which are often reviewed purely as novels rather than as examples of the genre within which the publisher has categorised them.

Furthermore, sometimes a moribund genre can be completely re-vitalised when a mainstream novelist chooses to go slumming in it. The western/cowboy genre was generally agreed to be a literary dead end with so few authors writing in the field that it was, for all practical purposes, non-existent when Larry McMurtry wrote Lonesome Dove and won a Pulitzer prize for it.

The same cannot be said of science fiction. The popular media don't understand it at all and seem to be completely unaware of exactly what the genre is capable of. They mainly use it as an excuse to produce lots of sound and fury which generally signify nothing very much. And so we have utterly gorgeous spectacles such as the movie Avatar which is at one and the same time both visually stunning and yet so na´ve and simple-minded in the story it tells that it is positively embarrassing to sit through. This happens so frequently that many people simply assume that such shallow triviality is all that the SF genre is capable of. It is well known that the only way to enjoy the vast majority of film and television SF is to turn off your brain and just drool and dribble mindlessly at all the pretty colours.

Curiously, this attitude is now so firmly established in the popular mindset that the SF label seems to be reserved purely for such lowest common denominator, utterly thoughtless, simple-minded banality. When a science fiction film with depth, and subtlety and artistic merit is produced, its purveyors never attach the science fiction label to it. It would probably never even occur to them to do so, trapped as they are in their narrow-minded world view of SF-as-shallow-spectacle. A perfect example of this attitude would be the reaction to Quentin Tarantino's movie Inglourious Basterds. The film is an alternate history story, a legitimate branch of science fiction that has been played with by many people over the years both within and without the genre – Mark Twain and Winston Churchill both dabbled in it, as did Philip Roth (not to mention L. Sprague de Camp and Harry Turtledove). But you'll find no mention of that SF aspect in the publicity material and the many critical discussions of the film.

So when a mainstream novelist such as Margaret Atwood chooses to write a story that is thematically SF it is quite understandable that she feels a certain amount of shame at being tarred with that very dirty brush, and she squirms and wriggles and insists that she isn't writing science fiction at all; no, no she's writing something much more serious than that. She's writing speculative fiction; quite a different thing. It's got fully rounded characters, it deals with important and interesting themes, it has things to say about the human condition. It doesn't have any talking squids in space; it can't possibly be science fiction. (She ignores the fact that Robert Heinlein seems to have coined the term 'speculative fiction' to describe the kinds of things he was writing in the 1940s and 1950s, and you don't get any more prototypically SF than Robert Heinlein. But I digress...)

The only reason she does it, of course, is because she has accepted the popular definition of science fiction. Consequently she assumes that this view of SF as an essentially shallow and completely trivial (not to say childish) genre means that, if she allows her own writing to be categorised as science fiction, it will automatically be trivialised and dismissed by her peers. And who can blame her for this attitude when the evidence is so overwhelmingly in her favour?

Also, it doesn't help at all that many SF commentators, hugely vocal, anally-retentive, obsessive-compulsives with an urgent need to categorise and pigeon-hole everything that crosses their tiny attention spans, fall upon her books with glad cries of glee. Seeking legitimacy for themselves and for her, they try immediately to claim her as an SF author and they write pompously nit-picking essays that discuss the derivation and applicability of her themes, comparing her work to SF classics that she has almost certainly never heard of and which she would probably find impossibly boring to read. Perhaps they are unconsciously hoping to redeem themselves by proving to the world that not all the works that inhabit their beloved genre are banal trash.

Wouldn't you run away screaming if such a thing happened to you?

It doesn't have to be that way, of course. Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, has no problems at all with having some of her novels categorised as science fiction. She is fully aware of the mature and literarily significant work that has been produced by other writers in the genre and she is happy to have made a significant contribution to the field. She's a science fiction fan from way back who thoroughly enjoys the company of other fans and who feels no sense of shame in considering herself a genre writer. Indeed, she has stated quite publicly that she is very proud of her science fiction novels and considers them to be among her best works.

In many ways it's a silly storm in a very tiny teacup. Does it really make any difference what label we use to define a specific work? Surely it is the work itself that matters rather than the category we choose to place it in?

In his guest of honour speech at a science fiction convention many years ago, the writer Gene Wolfe said something along these lines. This isn't a verbatim quote, but it certainly reflects the spirit of what he said:

I just write stuff. I write the story that needs to be written in the way that the story requires itself to be told. It's just stuff. When it's finished, I send it off to my agent and my publisher and they tell me what I've written. Science fiction, fantasy, whatever. They know best how to categorise it; that's their job. My job is different. I just write, and what I write is just stuff.

Given that these two extremes exist in the world, perhaps we can do something constructive with them. Since the science fiction label has apparently been adopted by the popular media and since the perception of it in the public mind is probably now unalterable, let's just give it to them, accept their interpretation of it, and move on. Meanwhile, those people in the SF ghetto whose principle passion is categorisation and pigeon-holing should now add the term 'speculative fiction' to their vocabulary. Wow! An extra category for the filing cabinets of the collective mind! I can practically hear the orgasmic screams already.

And the rest of us, who simply don't care, can just carry on reading stuff – but only the stuff we enjoy, of course. Stuff like this:

The first thing to say about Connie Willis' new novel Blackout is that it tells only half the story. It seems that the final manuscript was so long that the publisher decided to publish it as two books. The final volume (All Clear) is due towards the end of 2010. Unfortunately for the reader, the division between the two volumes has been done in the crudest possible way by just chopping it in half, and Blackout ends on a cliff hanger with nothing resolved. It's extremely frustrating and you may want to put off reading it until the second volume is available. Of course, if you do, you will probably find that the first volume is out of print when the second volume appears – publishers do that kind of market destroying thing all the time – so make sure to buy Blackout now and put it safely away on the shelf until such time as All Clear arrives in the shops.

The second thing you need to know about Connie Willis' new novel Blackout is that it is utterly brilliant (which makes the cliff hanger ending even more frustrating).

The novel is set in the same universe that she used in Domesday Book and To Say Nothing Of The Dog. Time travelling historians from Oxford University are sent back in time to observe the past as it happens. In Blackout three historians are sent to England during WWII. One is sent to cover the Dunkirk evacuation, one to cover the story of the thousands of children evacuated from London to rural England, and one is sent to work as a shop girl in London during the Blitz.

The historians have a lot to contend with. There are the normal hardships of living as 'contemps' in WWII England of course, but those are expected hardships and, by and large, the historians are trained to cope with them. However it becomes clear as the novel progresses that something has gone seriously wrong with the mechanisms of time-travel and possibly even with the "laws" (such as they are) of history itself. And that brings a whole new set of stresses to bear.

As far as the protagonists are concerned, it is axiomatic to time-travel theory that the time travellers themselves are merely passive observers; they have no ability to change the events that unfold around them. However the historian who is involved in the Dunkirk evacuation seems to have broken this "law"; he has rescued soldiers who would have died on the beaches without his involvement. Who knows what the ramifications of that will be? Ominously, ever since this seeming change in the fabric of history, all the historians have completely lost touch with the Oxford University of 2060; the portals that would allow them to go home stubbornly refuse to open...

Connie Willis has done a superb job of invoking the atmosphere of wartime Britain. It's a time and a place that seems to utterly fascinate her and this is not the first story she has written about it (see, for example, her award winning Firewatch). That fascination, together with the depth of her research, really brings the story alive on the page.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, far too many of her characters are the usual extremely annoying and utterly dysfunctional idiots that we've come to expect from Connie Willis – if only they'd slow down, take a deep breath and actually listen to what people are saying to them they'd have far fewer problems to contend with (and perhaps the book could have been published in one volume instead of two). I swear there were times when I wanted to reach into the pages and grab them by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into them. They really are that irritating, which is a shame because their wilful stupidity makes it much harder for the reader to identify with them, which in turn is a barrier to the willing suspension of disbelief.

Amusingly, the book has lots of solecisms for the discerning reader to laugh at – for example a letter posted in 1940s England with a 2 cent stamp on the envelope! Actually, Connie Willis, for all the depth of her research, is really not very good with British currency at all; at one point in the book she refers to 5p when it should more properly have been 5d – or, more likely, 6d as in half a shilling. But perhaps we can forgive her for this – everyone knows that pre-decimal British currency was a deliberate plot designed to confuse Americans, at which it succeeded brilliantly (perhaps Americans think that duodecimal is something to do with the way library books are shelved rather than the way money divides up).

She also has a little bit of a tin ear for the way that people actually talk in England and she allows a lot of Americanisms to creep into her dialogue (people in England don't look out the window, they look out of the window, for example). And she seems to think a pillar box is something you make a telephone call from.

It would appear that all of her copy editors were American rather than English, which is a shame. A quick once over with English eyeballs would have fixed a lot of the embarassments.

But in the end, these are peccadilloes; Blackout is definitely her best book to date and hopefully, once it is complete, it will win every award going. It certainly deserves to, assuming the second volume maintains the same high standard as the first, and I see no reason why it shouldn't.

Connie Willis has also written the foreword to Slow Sculpture, which is Volume 12 of the collected stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Originally the series was planned for 10 volumes but, like all science fiction series, it has grown out of its creator's control. However it seems clear that Volume 13, due at the end of 2010, will indeed be the final Volume. So when it is complete, the whole thing will be a trilogy longer than it was initially meant to be. So to speak...

Connie is a huge admirer of Theodore Sturgeon, as indeed am I, and we both recommend this series unreservedly.

Not Less Than Gods is a novel by Kage Baker, who died last month. It seems likely that this will be her the last book (though rumour says that there is at least one more novel and some short stories in the pipeline) and it is certain that it was written under the stress of her last illness. But you would never know that; the book is a delight from beginning to end – funny and full of mysteries. I loved it to bits.

It is a sidebar novel to her major series, the stories of The Company. But don't worry if you haven't read any of those stories, Not Less Than Gods stands alone perfectly well, though there are lots of sly references to Company matters for those of us in the know. The novel tells the story of the early life of Edward Bell-Fairfax, a character who, in his maturity, will be closely involved in the unravelling of the Company – but all that is yet to come, and it is not the concern of this book.

In England in the nineteenth century there exists "The Gentlemen's Speculative Society (GSS)." Its singular purpose is the development (and protection) of science and technology and, to this end, it has created many wonderful gadgets which it uses to guard both itself and the milieu of Victorian England within which it operates. The origins of the GSS itself are hard to document – it is an ancient society, possibly pre-dating the start of recorded history. Some of its early members in historical times reputedly included Archimedes, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Dr. John Dee. It also has some cloudy contacts with future incarnations of itself and it seems clear that one day it will metamorphose into The Company.

The story begins with a senior member of the GSS, one Dr Nennys (yes, if you've read the other Company novels you will know who he "really" is). Using a date rape drug on one of London's vapid and mildly decadent gentry, he creates a child who becomes Edward Bell-Fairfax. Dr Nennys involves himself closely in Edward's education and upbringing. When the time is right, he introduces Edward into the GSS where he is initially sent on some training missions which are designed to develop his both his personality and his extraordinary powers. Then he is despatched on his first real mission which aims to control the development of the history of Europe. Political machinations are afoot in the Crimea. Edward and his fellow agents make very good use of the lethal armoury of gadgets and advanced technology developed by the GSS as they brave the heat and dust of the Middle East, outwit enemies in Constantinople, and fight to the death in the freezing streets of St. Petersburg.

The story is very episodic and I can't help wondering if that is a reflection of the strain that Kage Baker must have been under as she wrote it. Perhaps she was only capable of small bursts of effort. But the structure certainly does not detract from the story (indeed, in many ways it enhances the story).

The characters are larger than life and twice as natural, the steampunk spy action is thrilling, the dialogue is witty, and the jokes are funny. It's a wonderful book.

Coyote Destiny by Allen Steele is a direct follow on from his earlier Coyote Horizon and will probably be incomprehensible to anyone who has not read that novel. Indeed, Coyote Horizon contains chapters which are grouped together as Book One and Book Two. Coyote Destiny begins with Book Three and finishes with Book Four. Obviously the two novels are really just one long story and the division between them is merely a publisher's whim. It is also the seventh (and probably last) novel in a series that Allen Steele has been writing for almost a decade now.

It opens about twenty (Earth) years after the end of Coyote Horizon. The star bridge that was damaged by the explosion of the starship Robert E. Lee has been repaired and the people of Coyote have prospered and continued to trade with the alien worlds revealed in previous books, but there has been no further contact with Earth – the aliens won't allow it. The people of Earth are considered to be too violent, and they are, effectively, quarantined.

Unbeknown to the people on Coyote, there was one survivor from the Robert E. Lee. Hawk Thompson, the human spiritual leader of Sa'Tong, a philosophy embraced by most of the alien worlds and by many people on Coyote as well, escaped from the ship in a lifeboat. He was rescued and taken to Earth. Now, twenty years after those events, a ship has arrived from Earth with news of Hawk Thompson. It seems that he has been instrumental in essentially closing down all of Earth's colonies in the solar system and has set up a policy of isolationism. The pilot of the starship is the same person who originally rescued Thompson from the lifeboat. He is very bitter about this and quite vehement in his accusations against Thompson. He also has information about the person who manufactured the bomb that destroyed the Robert E. Lee; a person who is still alive on Coyote.

Because of Thompson's importance to Coyote, an expedition is sent to Earth to seek him out, though this requires some delicate political manoeuvrings to get permission to travel from the aliens.

The rest of the book tells the parallel stories of the hunt for the bomber on Coyote and the hunt for Hawk Thompson on Earth. Neither story is exactly what it seems to be and there are shocks and revelations galore before the final denouement.

The book is an excellent closure to the Coyote series. But it probably isn't worth reading if you haven't read the other volumes, particularly Coyote Horizon of course.

The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry is a book about the rules of verse. It explains the rhythm that makes up an iambic foot and shows how five of them give us a pentameter. It discusses the utterly different rhythms of alliterative Anglo-Saxon verse, and it guides the reader through the intricate rhyming schemes that can be used to build various formal verse structures. In short, it teaches you how to write poetry. That is – it teaches you the mechanics of poetry, the metrical structures that will enable you to construct your poems properly. But by itself, it won't turn you into a poet. The information presented in this book is necessary for that, but it is by no means sufficient.

I was astonished to find how much of this stuff I already knew. Obviously all those lessons I learned in English and Latin classes at school had stuck. I found that I knew all about iambic pentameters, and how enjambment, caesuras and end-stopping work. I knew when the 10 syllables of an iambic pentameter were allowed to be hendecasyllabic – 11 syllables ending with an unstressed syllable and, of course, requiring the next line to begin with a trochee.

Strangely I did not know the technical terms that define these conventions; I only knew about the effects, and I suspect that was because I spent so much time at school reading various Latin and English verses out loud to the class. You simply cannot read Shakespeare (for example), and make any sense of what you are reading, without your voice doing these things quite naturally, and so I quickly and easily picked up the rhythmical skills without necessarily knowing their names. Indeed, I'm not sure if I was ever taught their names in any formal sense. I was simply taught the techniques.

Fry insists throughout the book that the examples he gives absolutely must be read out loud in order to understand how they work. Reading them to yourself with the little voice inside your head is not good enough. I am actually quite skilled at reading poetry (I've won prizes for it) and so I was happy to go along with him. And he's quite right – it all becomes very clear once you start wrapping your tonsils around the words.

Mind you, I found the compositional exercises that he set to be quite difficult and not a lot of fun. It very quickly becomes very tedious to count syllables and choose words whose stresses fall in the proper place. I'm happy to read the (properly constructed) poetry of others, I'm less than happy about constructing it myself. Sometimes the bars of the cage are too confining. Make no mistake about it, this stuff is hard.

The Ode Less Travelled is a fascinating book, full of insights into the way language (and poetry) work. It's not a book to read in a sitting. It's a book to dip into, a book to savour in small bites. It's a book stuffed full of erudition, wisdom and wonderful fryvian wit. If you are at all interested in how poems are constructed, you really must read this book.

Connie Willis Blackout Ballantine
Theodore Sturgeon Slow Sculpture North Atlantic Books
Kage Baker Not Less Than Gods Tor
Allen Steele Coyote Destiny Ace
Stephen Fry The Ode Less Travelled Arrow
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