Review: The Shaman’s Appetites

The Shaman’s Appetites: The Works and Obscure Life of Uriah Bromley, ?-? by Graham C. Macallan

London: Faber and Faber, 488 pp., £16.00 (paper), pub. May 2019

It is one of the cruel turns of English literature that, despite the high reputation he still enjoys among scientists and connoisseurs of science fiction, Uriah Bromley is largely neglected by today’s reading public. In part, he is a victim of his own success: so many of his literary inventions, dazzling in the early nineteenth century, have passed into the world as scientific commonplaces or science fiction clichés, and the visionary, to modern eyes sated with wonder, may now feel derivative. But Bromley’s lack of renown can also be traced to the troubling mystery that precipitated his flight from England, losing him his home, friends, and livelihood. A genius can thrive in spite of scandal — witness Bromley’s contemporary Shelley — but he has to die tragically young to do it. He can’t just disappear, unpunished and unmourned.

This new biography of Bromley, the first since Mowbray Wolfe’s disturbing 1931 work The Fraughting Soul, contains no new revelations and can feel at times uninspired — a word no one would ever use for Bromley’s own oeuvre. But as a corrective to Wolfe’s bizarre phantasmagoria, it serves as a useful re-introduction to the works of the author most informed readers would consider the father of science fiction. Macallan, a professor of British literature at St. Andrews, hews to the known facts of Bromley’s life (such as they are) and undertakes a close analysis of his work, eschewing Wolfe’s mad drug-addled pilgrimages of the imagination for a more sober approach.

Nothing is known of Bromley’s family origins or early life. Contemporaries described him as being a stout man in his forties with strong, heavy-wristed arms and a protuberant belly. He had pale eyes and wore his receding, white-blond hair in a ponytail along with chops and a horseshoe moustache. The look was not eccentric for the time, though much else about Bromley was. His friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge described his accent as ‘Cheshire speech paved with pebbles’ — but Bromley knew even less than the average Englishman about Cheshire. Indeed, he often seemed to lack the most basic knowledge of everyday life: in an 1806 letter to the explorer and naturalist Joseph Banks, Coleridge describes watching Bromley, on a rare visit to the Coleridges in Keswick, fruitlessly attempt to brew tea — ‘At last it was necessary that he enlist Derwent [Coleridge’s six-year-old son] to help him, so completely harrow’d was he by the Tea-Kettle.’ (Coleridge ascribed this to Bromley’s dreaminess, which is a bit rich coming from the opium addict who wrote ‘Kubla Khan.’)

In regards to social class, Bromley was a difficult man to pin down. He struck those he met as intelligent and educated beyond what was then expected of the labouring class, but he was also clearly no gentleman: he had no Latin or Greek, key signifiers of a gentlemanly education at the time. (In her diary — about which more later — his housemaid Elisabeth Tallis writes of him sitting at his desk with a child’s Latin primer, mumbling earnestly.) What seemed most obvious to contemporaries was his nautical background. He bore several tattoos on his arms and chest, classing him beyond question as a man of the sea. Upon meeting him and discovering both his evident seafaring experience and his interest in science, Banks, in his role as President of the Royal Society, tried unsuccessfully to recruit him for one of the many exploratory voyages the Society regularly dispatched to the four corners of the world. Bromley was by this time the author of two novels, ‘scientific romances’ as they would later come to be known, that made him a literary sensation, and he proved understandably reluctant to leave the writing desk in his Surrey cottage for the years such an expedition would take.

Those novels, The Black Velocities and Hawkmoon, both published in 1806, were the first instances of what we would now call ‘space opera.’ Macallan deftly lays the background for these and others of Bromley’s works, sifting through his influences while providing the reader with a solid history of the age. In England, the Industrial Revolution was underway, expanding the promise and perils of technology; also underway were the Napoleonic wars, an epic, all-consuming conflict across land and sea that begged for portrayal on a wider canvas. News of exploration in Africa and the polar regions had captured the English imagination, while Gothic novels such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho were scandalising and enthralling the reading public with their dark undercurrents of lust, perversion, and supernatural obsession. The extent of these influences is easily seen in The Black Velocities, where Bromley portrays ‘iron-hulled star frigates’ battling in deep space, pistols and cannons that fire ‘phased light’, and cavalry careening through forests on electricity-powered jet mounts. Tyrants in sinister black armour lock young princesses up in oubliettes in interstellar ‘star keeps’ where hovering automata inject them with truth serums. Dark family secrets abound — unknown siblings, dubious parentage — and exotic mono-biome worlds are the norm: ice planets, desert planets, wooded moons.

Today it’s hard to credit how novel such elements were to readers of the time. There had been stories dealing with travel to other worlds — Voltaire’s ‘Micromégas’ for example–but the means were usually some sort of astral projection, and the end was often satire. Bromley’s intent was altogether different: he sought to kindle what has come to be known, at times disparagingly, as a ‘sense of wonder’ in his readers; he sought to evoke nothing less than the full splendour and mystery of the stars. His ambition was a timely one. It was, after all, only twenty-five years since the German expatriate William Herschel, living in Bath, had discovered the planet Uranus using his own home-made telescopes — the first discovery of a planet not visible to the naked eye. Herschel was at the time an avid believer in life on our own moon, having spotted what he believed were towns in the moon’s craters and forests in the Mare Humorum, possibly inspiring the forest moon in The Black Velocities.

Coleridge, among others, disagreed with Herschel, writing in his notebook of the 1790s of the ‘Moon at present uninhabited owing to its little or no atmosphere but may in Time — An atheistic Romance might be formed…’ Such debates likely contributed to Bromley’s second novel Hawkmoon; or, The Hood of the Austringer. Unlike The Black Velocities, which takes place in a distant galaxy in the distant past, the setting this time is our own solar system in the twenty-eighth century. Bromley’s heroine, the ‘astronette’ Keziah Ussington, leads the Jovian Confederacy in a war of liberation against the ‘Core Dominion’ (Venus, Mars and the Earth). In the aftermath Keziah, a sort of cross between George Washington and Mary Wollstonecraft, builds a new society on the rubble of the old:

‘There will be no place for Privilege now, but that all have it; no place for rank, or ownership of one’s fellow man. We have conquer’d Scarcity — so shall we conquer Inequity.’ As she spoke, Keziah laid her phase-rifle on the palace floor near where the green marmoreal slabs had fissured above the deep Abyss; at which act her Aureoton troop in their shining gold armour leapt forward to contrive a circle of bristling defense all ’round her. The Core Monarch, his visage grim as he sat upon the Throne of Eons, watch’d this living War-Halo surround Keziah but said nothing to counter her words. Even now from a spar of his battlements swung hungry the noose.

While we can see here another possible cause for Bromley’s modern lack of readers — the prose style of the time has not always aged well — there is a vigour and a fecundity of invention in his writing that would shame many modern SF authors. And the portrayal of Keziah Ussington is bold for its time: ambitious and resourceful and full of grit, she is a match for any man in the novel, and the world she seeks to build is truly radical in its anarchic, utopian vision. This utopian aspiration struck a chord with many intellectuals who had grown disillusioned when the promise of the French Revolution curdled into the Reign of Terror. William Godwin and Percy Shelley were both enamoured of the novel; Shelley, courting Godwin’s daughter Mary, would address her in letters as ‘My merciless Keziah.’

More stories and novels followed, and it can be shocking to scan them and see how essential Bromley was in creating science fiction as a genre. Having mastered the space opera, he moved on to other realms; he was a writer of many firsts, a ‘progenitor of the Fantastic‘ as Mary Shelley, no slouch herself, once called him:

  • ‘An Incident at Goswell Wood’ – the first alien abduction story
  • Noctis Equi – the first ‘zombie apocalypse’ story (Bromley calls them ‘the Unsouled’)
  • ‘Birds of a Scale’ – the first mention of the idea of genes and genetic engineering
  • The Somnium Variations – the first virtual reality story
  • Oberon’s Grief – the first tale of cybernetic organisms (‘Obots’)
  • ‘The Wreck of the Photius‘ – the first story to discuss black holes
  • ‘At Newton’s Throat’ – the story that predicted relativity’s time dilation effect
  • ‘The Shaman and His Huntresses’ – the first ‘time machine’ story

And he didn’t just create the genre of science fiction; with his passion for neologisms, he created much of our current scientific language as well. So much sheer terminology poured from his quill: black hole, gene, terraforming, nano, quantum, obot, software, wetware, hyperdrive, wormhole, technician, scientist, and spacetime, among a hundred others.

There were hints, though, of a darker side. Bromley’s last story is obviously problematic: ‘The Shaman and His Huntresses’ portrays a time traveller who uses his knowledge and advanced technology to create a prehistoric empire. All well and good; but Bromley’s time traveller, Dr. Hekataeos, conquers the Stone Age world with a vast army of suicidally fanatical pubescent girls. What starts out as a sort of Thermopylae as written by Lewis Carroll quickly becomes obsessively, pruriently detailed. As Macallan observes, Bromley was by this time clearly struggling with some sort of compulsion, and wisely chose not to publish the story in his lifetime. It remained unpublished until its inclusion, by Mowbray Wolfe, as an appendix to his biography The Fraughting Soul.

Perhaps ‘biography’ should be in quotes. The Fraughting Soul is, like its author, a strange and troubling piece of work. Mowbray Wolfe had compulsions of his own, and before his murder in a Buenos Aires garret in 1949 he had accrued an intercontinental dossier of offences and arrests fit to shock the most flamboyant social rebel. (That may sound like hyperbole, but this reviewer’s gag reflex is simply too robust to list Wolfe’s transgressions here; Wikipedia, in this instance, must suffice.) He was a true believer: an ardent utopianist of alternately fascist and anarchist convictions, depending on which mix of drugs he was addicted to on any given day, he pursued his vision of socio-pharmacological transcendence to its furthest, most perverse limits, eventually joining Jutta Pfeil-Holtmann’s ‘Aluf’ cult in the Peruvian rain forest and taking part in the Ucayali Horrors (the basis for Jean Arimao’s 1971 film Aux murènes).

So Wolfe was mad; he was also brilliant. He held much of Milton and Shelley, and all of Shakespeare, in his memory. His books on Shelley, Blake, and William Morris are classic examples of politically acute literary interpretation, and his exegesis of Uriah Bromley’s works is subtle, inspired, and free of cant. His conclusions about Bromley the man, however, simply don’t bear scrutiny. The last third of The Fraughting Soul degenerates into speculations drenched in demented paranoia — time travel experiments, condemned prisoners from the twenty-first century used as scientific guinea pigs, etc. As an imaginative work it’s fascinating, in a morbid way: the reader is obviously encountering the mind of a sick genius unfiltered (Wolfe was also heavily addicted to opium at this time). It can be no surprise that this strange, psychedelic book was published privately.

It’s inevitable that Macallan must wrest what he can from Wolfe’s bizarre text, however grudgingly. Even after almost a century of new bibliographic and research techniques there has been very little to add to our knowledge of Bromley’s life; unusually for the time, he left behind no letters or manuscripts, no diary, and of course no will. We know that during his productive period he never left England, rarely venturing more than five miles from the cottage at Farnham where altogether he wrote eight novels and nineteen short stories. And we know that when he wasn’t writing, he was usually fly fishing on the river Wey, often in the company of the pioneering chemist Humphry Davy — who, inspired by Bromley, would try his hand at science fiction as well.

It is really only in the writings of others, like Davy and Coleridge, that we get even a sketchy portrait. Normally not a talkative man, Bromley would open up in conversation under the influence of ‘the Bang and the dam Smack‘ as Coleridge called hashish and opium. He could thrill with his theories about planetary formation or steelmaking or bioluminescence. Discussing Herschel’s recent discovery of ‘calorific rays’ (infrared radiation) with Davy, Bromley speculated about the possibility of using such rays to, in Davy’s words, ‘detect and track anything one could imagine by the interval of their reflection — a flock of birds, a fleet of ships, &c. — even clouds and even electrical charges.’ Davy later credited Bromley’s theories as one of the inspirations for his and Faraday’s 1817 discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Naturally Macallan makes use of the most troubling document of all: the Tallis diary, discovered by Mowbray Wolfe in 1927 among the personal effects of a ‘Mr. H–‘ of Essex. As one would expect, there have been doubts about the diary’s authenticity — it was not unknown for a servant woman of the time to be literate but it was also not terribly common, and Wolfe’s refusal to reveal the name of the estate from which he procured the diary makes the task of tracing its provenance impossible.

Elisabeth Tallis, the daughter of a Farnham ironmonger, worked as Bromley’s housemaid from 1808 until his disappearance eleven years later. Her diary is a rather mundane affair (there is much anguish over a romance with a local stable-boy) until March of 1819, when she records Bromley ‘acting most strange’ following the disappearance of two Farnham children, Sally and Mary Wells. Previously a taciturn though kind man in her account, he now grew more and more agitated, keeping Tallis up late to attend to him as he sat before the parlor fire talking to himself in an anxious undertone. Then, in late March, he woke her up late one night to share with her what she described as ‘a spate of Ramblings that alarm’d me greatly’:

Mr. Bromley told me that he had travel’d farther than any man had ever travel’d before. He told me ‘You see these impulses were my Downfall but also my Salvation. They brought me here and they are the reason I’m here.’ When I asked him what impulses he meant and how they could have led him to Farnham and how they could be his Salvation he said that I was a ‘silly girl’ but that I had nothing to fear from him. I told him that indeed he had given me never [sic] no cause to fear him and had always been kind to me and a most generous employer. Then he said that there were ‘awful, terrible things’ he had done but those were in the past ‘or rather not the past‘ he said and seem’d set to weep right there in my small room. ‘I cannot deny that I have had these impulses but I would not imperil all I have now, I would not do it’ and he said he would always keep them in check. ‘I will not be lock’d up again’ he said as he left my room and afterward I sat in the darkness not knowing what to think and I still do not know.

This can of course be interpreted in many ways. Tallis herself links the change in Bromley’s manner to the children’s disappearance, and Wolfe seems willing to accept the connection. Given the content of ‘The Shaman and His Huntresses’ the disinterested observer could well wonder whether Bromley was guilty of something.

Anxious both for her position and her safety, Elisabeth Tallis revealed Bromley’s agitation to her sister and brother-in-law. This led to inquiries; then, on April 8, 1819, Bromley departed his Farnham cottage in the middle of the night, and never returned. He had withdrawn all his funds from his London bank a few days before. On his writing desk, he left open his edition of Shakespeare’s collected works at Act One of The Tempest, with the following passage hastily circled:

Poor souls, they perished.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth, or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed and
The fraughting souls within her.

Macallan attempts to trace Bromley through passenger manifests or further writings in America or Europe; but, even now, his fate remains unknown.

Which brings us to Uriah Bromley’s legacy, here on the two-hundredth anniversary of his disappearance. There’s no question that his tales served as inspiration for scientists and engineers of the last two centuries. Davy and Faraday both credited him often, if discreetly, as did James Clerk Maxwell and George Sutton. In 1910, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, the physicist Stanley Oakes-Ibbotson quoted in his journal the final line of the story ‘The Wreck of the Photius‘: ‘Poised there on the sprung bourne of a new Age, they wept in distress at what they had wrought.’

Macallan goes further — literally, crediting Bromley even with our expansion into the solar system: the colony on Mars; the outposts on the Jovian moons; the mission now en route to Saturn’s moon Titan. Even the startling discovery nine years ago of entanglement ‘signal-seeding’ by the unknown 51 Pegasi civilization can, in Macallan’s view, be ascribed, albeit indirectly, to the influence of Bromley’s works. It is a debatable conclusion; one can’t credit Bromley with the revolutions that were already afoot when he published his works. But it would be hard to argue with Professor Macallan’s larger point: it is long past time for Uriah Bromley to receive the wider recognition due him not only as a groundbreaking author of science fiction, but as a prophet of the coming age as well.

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Hadley Full of Hate

My story “Hadley Full of Hate” is up at Sockdolager, a really snazzy magazine edited by the talented and enthusiastic duo of Paul Tuttle Starr and my CW classmate Alison Wilgus. If you like Beowulf, baristas, and post-invasion mop-up of alien forces in the woods of Washington state, you should read it — along with Sockdolager’s other great, funny, moving stories that are worth your time.

Virginia Woolf and the Undescribed Internal World

Rereading Joshua Rothman’s marvelous New Yorker article about Virginia Woolf, I’m drawn to this paragraph again and again:

Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance—and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.

The whole thing is worth a read but I don’t have much to share about it because I’m keeping that private…

Clarion West 2014 – Holy hell in a fucking flower market

Now that Clarion West is over I’m having trouble knowing what to make of it. I’m still processing it. Certainly it was a huge boost for my writing — I learned tons, and personally felt like the stories I produced the last three weeks were miles better than what I wrote the first two. (Week 3’s story felt weirdly transitional — it’s probably salvageable but it has deep flaws I need to work on in revision.)

Really the whole experience was a hell of a lot more intense, exhausting, and exhilarating than I expected. There were plenty of days when I felt like I was just in a constant explore-my-own-shortcomings loop, often in my writing but even more so just personally — in my character and temperament and disposition, in how I relate to people and how I apprehend them. There were some nights I just felt defeated by myself, by the messes in my head. It’s weirdly unsettling being around people you really admire.

On the other hand I feel like most of the time I provided, at least externally, a stable presence for some other folks who were going through the same peaks and troughs I was. I even sort of adopted a tattoo’d, bepierced Australian daughter, Marlee, who’s a wonderful person, a trusted friend, and a fantastic, inspired writer.

There were in fact a lot of really, really good writers there. I think if I were younger I might have found the skill level of some of them a bit disturbing, but as it was I could admire it without any sort of ill will or jealousy, and just enjoy their work as a reader.

The stories I wrote while I was there were:

  • Week 1 – Periphilia (1300 words)
  • Week 2 – The Iterations (4100 words)
  • Week 3 – Round About the Keel With Faces Pale (4500 words)
  • Week 4 – Worspect Hobbing (2100 words)
  • Week 5 – Harrower (1000 words)
  • Week 6 – What Would Blackshaw Do? (1200 words)

There’s a definite inverted-V shape in the wordcounts there. My week 4 story was a breeze to write, but after that I found that I just couldn’t get myself to do the work of constructing characters for a 4k-5k length piece. As I was writing a conventionally structured Week 5 story, I realized at 10pm of the night before it was due that I just couldn’t do it. I had too much head-weather aside from the effort of writing careful characterizations, evocatively described settings, etc. So I scrapped it and wrote it in the style of Beowulf over the course of three or four hours, and I was pretty happy with the results. (The title of this post is a quote from it — gotta get that alliteration into your Anglo-Saxon epic any way you can…) My fellow student Shannon (super-talented) said “When you don’t give a fuck you produce stuff like this,” which is pretty apt. I think she meant it in a positive way…

I came out of the whole experience reinvested in writing — not just in novels, which is what I’ve always been working on, but in short stories as well.

Some other stuff:

  • I quit coffee while I was there. It was combining with the rich food (we had a chef making lunch and dinner for us Monday through Thursday so, uh, poor us) to murder my stomach, and not slowly either. So I whittled my intake down day by day until I eventually gave it up altogether. I feel really good now and have no plans to go back to it. I did take up rum-and-cokes while I was there, but I’m now giving those a wide berth as well.
  • It was the first month I didn’t read a book cover-to-cover since at least 1987. In other words, I’ve read at least one book a month since at least seven of my classmates were born. Yikes, man.
  • The instructors were uniformly great. Paul Park got replaced at the last minute by James Patrick Kelly because Paul’s eye was going to explode, and Jim did a great job jumping in and helping us through the inevitably weird first week. Kij Johnson is crazy awesome in pretty much every way, Ian MacDonald is an avuncular shaman, Hiromi Goto is a sure-eyed diagnostician and a joy to be around, Charlie Jane Anders is full of good ideas, and John Crowley is a great guy to talk books with as well as being a master teacher.
  • My classmate Curtis signed with a literary agent while he was there. Congrats, Curtis!
  • We played some fun games I’d never played before: Cards Against Humanity, Fiasco, Dixit, the Things, telephone pictionary. If you get a chance to play The Things with Jim Kelly, by all means do so. But don’t play with Alison — she has a lot of great qualities, including being a super-talented writer and artist, but screaming when she’s tapped to become a Thing is not one of them.
  • I was luckier than a lot of folks in that I could see my family pretty regularly, since I live here in Seattle. My wife came to most of the parties, and my son even came to a few. I also spent a few nights out of the Clarion West house with them, which helped me to keep a steady heart when I really needed it. In the words of Bruce Wayne:

luckyoldman

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?

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)