Clarion West on Dagobah

Clarion West starts on Sunday; today I start picking folks up at the airport. Right now I feel pretty relaxed about the whole thing but I suspect that’s like Luke at the start of his Jedi training.

This blog will probably be pretty quiet from now through July. I suspect that, at six weeks, the workshop is longer than Luke’s training period on Dagobah, considering that, while he’s there, Han and Leia just fly around amid the asteroids for a day or two before going to Bespin (though granted without hyperdrive, somehow) and hanging out there long enough to wonder where Threepio got off to. I’m guessing that whole part of The Empire Strikes Back adds up to…a month? Maybe?

“Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily.”

I read “Who Goes There?” for the first time this morning, the novella by the infamous John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart) that served as the basis for The Thing From Another World and The Thing and The Thing and “The Things” but is unrelated to The Thing. It’s a quick and fun read but man, those adverbs:

The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue. The Thing on the floor shrieked, flailed out blindly with tentacles that writhed and withered in the bubbling wrath of the blow-torch. It crawled and turned on the floor, it shrieked and hobbled madly, but always McReady held the blow-torch on the face, the dead eyes burbling and bubbling uselessly. Frantically the Thing crawled and howled.

I’m just going to repeat those first three sentences because I want you to try and really imagine what the hell’s going on there:

The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.

And the writhing and the withering and the wrath! Great stuff.

Spufford’s Elegy for Iain M. Banks

Francis Spufford has a lovely year-later eulogy for Iain Banks in The New Humanist, focusing almost entirely on his SF works. As I mentioned in my last post, I finished Use of Weapons last week, and enjoyed it in spite of the twist ending. There’s nothing particularly new for Culture fans in Spufford’s article but it’s heartening to see a strong case made for the longevity of Banks’s reputation.

Spufford himself is also an interesting, unpredictable writer, incidentally. I read his memoir The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading a few years back (checking my reading list, I see I read Roald Dahl’s similar-sounding memoir Boy: Tales of Childhood about a week later). It’s a lovely book the contents of which you can probably guess from the title. Somewhat like Geoff Dyer, though less restlessly, Spufford seems to follow his idiosyncratic interests wherever they lead, with titles like I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (one of a long list of hundreds of books I’ve owned but sold before reading at some point and later bitterly regretted doing so) and Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin to his credit.

Mansfield and the Art of Reviewing

Katherine Mansfield’s perfect diagnosis of forgettable fiction:

Her standards hang on intangible qualities — strangeness, passion, a divergence from the worn path even at the expense of simple enjoyment. “Readable, yes, eminently readable,” she says of F. Brett Young’s The Young Physician –“readable to a fault. If only Mr. Young could forget the impatient public and let himself be carried away into places where he thinks they do not care to follow!” Hugh Walpole’s The Captives is faulted for that finest of distinctions: “we feel that it is determination rather than inspiration, strength of will rather than the artist’s compulsion, which has produced [it].”

Despite the cavalry/Calvary mix-up — one of my chief annoyances in life, really — this look at Mansfield’s book reviews is full of interesting insights, not just about Mansfield (whose Letters and Journals I’ve been dipping into for a few months now) but about book reviewing as well:

It can be a little bit staggering wandering through the book graveyard of this collection, encountering title after title that no living soul has ever heard of, much less read — Stephen McKenna’s Lady Lilith, Horace W. C. Newte’s The Extra Lady, J. C. Snaith’s The Adventurous LadyLady Trent’s Daughter, by Isabel Clarke, and those are just the ladies. Yet there’s a bracing reminder for the critic as well, that reviews are destined to be entombed alongside those books like so much pharaonic paraphernalia unless they save themselves by containing something brilliant or beautiful — unless they can stand alone as works of art.

It’s a worthwhile point (and incidentally Horace W.C. Newte is hands down the best name ever). One of several reasons I’ve been writing fewer reviews on this site is that I see what someone like Abigail Nussbaum or Ethan Robinson can do when writing about a book, and I feel a bit inadequate. Why spend an afternoon crafting a review of Use of Weapons (which I just read, and had complicated but basically positive feelings about — Banks sure had a weakness for the pointless plot twist) when Nussbaum delves so expertly into its virtues and faults?

I think there’s a distinction to be made between criticism on the one hand and reviews on the other. Certainly it’s not an airtight distinction; but generally criticism takes apart a book or film and looks at how it works: how its themes resonate, how effectively the style and content are integrated, problems of execution. Reviews, meanwhile, basically answer the question: “Is this book or film worth the time I would invest in it?” (Obviously, the distinction wouldn’t apply to the visual arts, since you invest no real time at looking at a painting or sculpture — “Don’t even commit five seconds to gazing upon William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World! It’s schlock!” — though certainly it could apply to an art exhibit, since there’s a time investment there).

I think the work of Nussbaum or Robinson would fall in the criticism column of my little rubric, whereas I’m not sure if I’m writing criticism or reviews. The questions I’m interested in are generally more about the book’s effect on the reader — either intellectual or emotional, though I tend to feel that that’s a false distinction. How does the book’s structure create a narrative resonance for the reader? Does the climax fit in stylistically with the rest of the book and spring naturally from the characters? Is the language fresh and evocative? What are the problems of execution? (Now that I’m writing this, I think both Nussbaum and Robinson, and a dozen others, do this as well. They’re all-rounders, I guess.)

ready-player-oneI recently read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I could imagine a critique that looks at the larger questions posed by this book’s existence, questions that weren’t the ones the author is necessarily interested in: questions about cheap nostalgia, fan wankery, the art of catering to the reader’s prejudices. Those are interesting questions and they certainly occurred to me while I was reading it. But what interested me more, what really engaged my critical faculties, was the question of the gormless lack of tension through the latter half of the narrative. Why did Cline whisk away Wade and his friends to the safety and comfort of the videogame magnate’s estate for the book’s climax, rather than ratchet up the tension? Why slacken the urgency? Why, after the wonderful, horrible turn of events that led to the destruction of Wade’s marvelously imagined RV-stack neighborhood, do we spend the rest of the book meandering from one silly plot token to the next?

These are worthwhile questions, but only insofar as they relate to the actual reading experience. Why do we read? Nostalgia is one reason — certainly it must be the reason Ready Player One was so popular, as the narrative itself is utterly artless (in both senses of the word, I suppose). But I read because I’m hoping for a complicated kind of enjoyment — not just nostalgia, or in-jokes, or “characters I like.” I’m not looking for, and am indeed usually uninterested in, a formal challenge à la Robbe-Grillet. What I really value is a sense, as the book goes on, that I’m being surprised, even skillfully and subtly manipulated, by the turn of the plot. I want the sense that my basic yearnings from actual life — that the evil be punished and the good prevail, that people act in sensible and comprehensible ways, that tensions resolve themselves — are being frustrated in some sort of paradoxically satisfying way that feels organically grown, rather than consciously jury-rigged for critical approval.

At this point I’m looking around quizzically wondering “Wait, where did this post start, again?” I realize I’m rambling a bit but I want to touch on one other reason I’m not reviewing much here. It’s related to another point Sacks makes in discussing Mansfield’s review work:

This is the truth so often ignored in the perpetual debate over the ethics of negative reviewing: Book reviews are a genre of literature. Just as you can’t dictate to novelists how likable they should make their characters or how happy their endings ought to be, you can’t insist on lip-service praise without consigning a reviewer to irrelevancy.

This is something I realized quite early on in this blog’s existence. In person, I can be quite scathing about books I think are bad (including one or two I’ve written myself). But I’m very reluctant to be too negative in print. It’s not just about books: I might be the only person on the internet who has never written something nasty to someone in a comments thread, even anonymously. I find it impossible — not because I’m a shining beacon of benevolence, because I’m emphatically not. I just have a hard time committing cruelty to print, possibly because it feels so insidiously effortless when you’re not doing it to someone’s face.

On this blog I’ve written two negative reviews — one on China Miéville’s Kraken, and one that was quicker and more ambivalent on Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief — and I had to grit my teeth to do it. I did it because it feels necessary to point out something that’s not worth someone’s while. I think Kraken is, by any standards, an awful book (Rajaniemi’s book had good qualities and I could certainly see where someone would like it, whereas someone enjoying and admiring Kraken seems frankly incomprehensible to me).

Again: this is bad

Again: this is bad

The thing is, though, me giving a negative review of Miéville is absolutely not going to hurt Miéville at all. Really, he’s going to be just fine. But when I recently read a favorably-reviewed debut SF novel that was epically awful, in a lot of ways that would’ve been interesting to write about, I just couldn’t do it. The author is young, and I would’ve felt shitty about putting such a negative assessment out there for Google to index.

And maybe there’s an element there of wanting to be liked — or, more accurately, not wanting to be disliked. I really admire Adam Roberts; I haven’t yet read any of his fiction, but his criticism is fearless, and the thought of writing the kind of brutal takedown he recently wrote of Ramez Naam’s Nexus, when he could in fact meet Naam at some point, seems crazy to me. That is the sort of socially awkward moment I devote a fair amount of time to avoiding.

So, given that I’m reluctant to write negative reviews, what is the point of writing them at all? There’s certainly value in pointing folks to works that are less well-known, like Maureen F. McHugh’s After the Apocalypse; so for now that’s my focus. Debut authors can’t use my negative reviews, and Iain Banks doesn’t need my on-balance positive review of Use of Weapons (even when he was alive he didn’t need it) but maybe a deserving author like McHugh will benefit from it.

“A kind of visionary energy”

“Self-censorship is central. Writers are avoiding difficulty in the structure or surface, difficulty in the science (when there is any); they’re avoiding political or philosophical positions which might offend, characters whose strengths or eccentricities might prevent reader-identification & stories which go against the broad grain of audience expectation & preference. The reasons for it are obvious, commercial & long term; but, since the 80s, turbo-publishing has turned timidity into a technical discipline–part of the “craft” of being a writer. The result is a novel without a meaning &–worse–without the pulp vigour of genre. For me these are the real losses SF has suffered: the loss of connection to the world, the loss of something to say about it & the loss of drive & energy to make the point in cascades of live imagery. I’ve had a problematic relationship with genre all my writing life, but at its best it has a kind of visionary energy–open, untutored, uncluttered by the need to be literary or to conform to the commentariat consensus of its day. It’s a kind of trash collider where half-digested science can be smashed together with metaphysics & politics in search of exotic states–demotic ontologies and epistemologies–showers of gorgeous if shortlived intellectual & emotional sparks. I could probably name a score of authors who do that, or try to, every time they write; but against their efforts have to be balanced thousands of LFTB happymeals a year.”

- M. John Harrison, “Pink Slime Fiction” (in the comments)

Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago

An Infinite Summer was a fortuitous find at Twice Sold Tales. I knew there were collections of Christopher Priest’s stories floating around, of course, but I hadn’t got around to pursuing them, despite how much I admired his earlier books The Space Machine and A Dream of Wessex. Reading An Infinite Summer quickly led me to Priest’s 2011 novel The Islanders, just released last month in the US by Titan Books; I’ve been half-living in the Dream Archipelago ever since.

infinite-summerThere are five stories in the collection. “An Infinite Summer” and “Palely Loitering” both explore time travel. The title story follows a young man cast out of his own era in Edwardian England just when his dreams of happiness are about to be fulfilled, while “Palely Loitering” is a novella about a curiously retro future. Both of these stories are excellent and enjoyable; but the real attractions here are the three other pieces, all set in the Dream Archipelago.

A vast, world-girding chain of tens of thousands of islands on a sort of shadow-Earth, bracketed by two warring nations at one pole and an icy, battle-scarred wasteland at the other, the Dream Archipelago is a conception Priest has been revisiting since the ’70s. As with most of his work, it’s a milieu that doesn’t quite claim a tight niche in fantasy or science fiction or slipstream or horror, though there are certainly elements of each.

One of the main things that distinguishes the Dream Archipelago from much modern SF and fantasy is its reluctance to engage in worldbuilding. It seems strange to claim that a book like The Islanders, expressly conceived as the exploration of an imaginary world, has disregarded the worldbuilding convention that so many genre readers crave. But for Priest a setting portrayed so coherently, adhering to a dogma that demands such close attention to internal consistency, would be airless and artless.

For example, we see him mirror contemporary technology throughout the stories — there are cars and planes and radio, and by the time he writes The Islanders there are drones and the internet and email and DNA profiling. But there are also anachronisms: writers who spill ink from inkjars and smoke cheroots, miniaturized surveillance bots. And there are lacunae: unknown regions, blank spots on the map (or, as Priest avers: “No maps are allowed. Not even to me.“).

The concept of a modern age of air travel and instant communication that still permits unexplored regions seems inconsistent; but like any great artist Priest will always sacrifice the consistent for the evocative. It is dream logic for a dream archipelago, and like dreams it may be inconsistent but also incredibly haunting.

So we get a piece of intense body horror like “Whores,” or an eerie tale of obsession like “The Watched,” or a lovely study of moral choice like “The Negation.” As Priest points out in his brief, charming introduction:

The Dream Archipelago is more an idea than an actual place, but if it has a correlative reality then it would be a kind of fusion of the Channel Islands and Greece, with bits of Harrow-on-the-Hill and St Tropez thrown in for good measure. I should like to issue a small warning here (knowing, as I do, what the stories are about): each story in the Dream Archipelago is entirely self-contained.

This is true, as far as it goes: any of these stories, and for that matter The Islanders, could be enjoyed without reading any of the others. But one of the many pleasures of reading The Islanders is the elliptical references to those earlier stories. While it’s a bit disappointing to find only passing mention of the island of Tumo or further exploration of the Qataari, for example (both featured in “The Watched”), Priest sketches in some historical context for the horrifying events of “Whores” and provides a melancholy resolution to “The Negation.”

islandersWritten in Priest’s usual lucid, measured style, The Islanders takes the form of a gazetteer of selected islands, with longer stories interspersed throughout. The gazetteer entries allude to quirks of geography or custom, while the stories explore the mysteries and injustices and horrors of the islands, and the effects of the endless war in which the islanders do their best to stay neutral.

There are through-lines, of course, connecting threads woven through the novel: the dreaded thryme of Aubrac Grande, an insect species that inflicts a horrible, lingering death on anyone it infects; the unravelling of the mystery surrounding a performer’s murder on the remote island of Goorn; the intertwining lives and loves of artists like Dryd Bathurst and Jordenn Yo and writers like Chaster Kammeston and Moylita Kaine. There is a tale of intrigue as a woman working for a covert mapping agency on Meequa seeks to learn the fate of her lover on the mysterious neighboring island of Tremm. And there is a marvellously eerie novella, an expert blend of psychological horror and Cthulhuesque weirdness, set on the isles of Goorn and Seevl.

It’s these intrigues and unresolvable weirdnesses that prevent the world of the Dream Archipelago from collapsing to a mere analogue of our own world, and that make a persuasive case for uncertainty and mystery in a hyperconnected, Google-mapped age.

Stray observations:

  • The garish and surreal cover of my 1979 US edition of An Infinite Summer (see above) surely must have made Priest shudder, but it’s actually an accurate representation of elements from two unrelated stories in the collection.
  • Priest has a lovely essay on his site about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Guardian review of The Islanders, pointing out that she probably didn’t recognize that the character of the writer Moylita Kaine was in fact drawn from his brief acquaintance with Le Guin herself. He also mentions that Kaine’s novel The Affirmation (a title that Priest recycled for one of his other novels featuring the Dream Archipelago) as described in “The Negation,” is modelled on The Magus by John Fowles. The Magus is also clearly the inspiration for “The Watched” — it’s no surprise to learn that it’s one of Priest’s favorite books.
  • Halfway through writing this I realized I was listening to the soundtrack of The Prestige (which we re-watched last week). Must be Christopher Priest month here in the Smith household.

The Promise of the E-ELT

paranal

Great article in the Guardian about a massive telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT, being built in Chile (once they’ve blown the cap off Cerro Armazones). The first thing that got my attention was the description of the existing observatory complex at Paranal:

More than 100 astronomers, engineers and support staff work and live there. A few dozen metres below the telescopes, they have a sports complex with a squash court, an indoor football pitch, and a luxurious 110-room residence that has a central swimming pool and a restaurant serving meals and drinks around the clock.

Sounds swank. I could definitely imagine a satisfying stay there: eat, sleep, exercise, investigate stellar phenomena, repeat.

The second thing that got my attention was this quote from Cambridge University astronomer Professor Gerry Gilmore:

“We can see exoplanets but we cannot study them in detail because – from our distant perspective – they appear so close to their parent stars. However, the magnification which the E-ELT will provide will mean we will be able to look at them directly and clearly. In 15 years, we should have a picture of a planet around another star and that picture could show its surface changing colour just as Earth does as the seasons change – indicating that vegetation exists on that world. We will then have found alien life.”

Uh wow. I did not realize this was on the horizon. I’m certainly hoping it’s not just hyperbole.

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