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starship sofa #306

I’ve just finished listening to the audio adaptation of Automatic Diamanté featured in last week’s episode of the Hugo award winning Starship Sofa podcast.

In the hands (and vocal cords) of the very talented Nick Camm I had the odd feeling of not having written the thing at all. Nick’s wonderful narration managed to bring new levels of both creepiness and empathy to the central character. (Moreover, his pronunciation of Chalchiuhtlicue is faultless.)

I heartily recommend subscribing to the podcast if you haven’t already (it’s free).

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It’s commonplace for evaluations of the speculative fiction canon to hinge upon the predictive accuracy of its texts. You know the sort of thing: Arthur C. Clarke invented the communications satellite, Jules Verne described the moon landings in meticulous detail and Philip K. Dick predicted which aerosols you could extract cocaine from after a three day DMT binge at a shopping mall.

This is a shame as it’s not only often the least interesting aspect of the writers in question, but also the reductive implication that when a work’s predictions are wildly wrong or anachronistic then the text is somehow devalued.

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Image courtesy of Zoe Harley

This is clearly bunkum. Huxley’s Brave New World isn’t any the less valuable because it imagines a world where people whip back and forth from one orgy to the next in helicopters. (A vision of the future which only really accurately predicts the lifestyle of Jay Kay from Jamiroquai).

Instead of telling us what our smart phones will be doing next week or how we’ll update our Facebook status by arching our eyebrows (or the mileage that Jay Kay will get on his jet copter) it seems to me that the most interesting aspect of the genre is the way that it can give us an intimate and subversive sense of what the future might feel like.

This subversive streak runs thick in speculative fiction and I suspect it is caused by the interaction of two things:

  1. What the cultural theorist Raymond Williams calls structures of feeling.

    “[these are] meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt … characteristic elements of impulse and restraint and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships” (p132).

    So, rather than historical or technological proxies for a given age (e.g. steam-trains and Victorian England), structures of feeling enable us to imagine what it might feel like to be alive in a particular milieu at a given historical (or imagined) moment.

  2. The fact that speculative fiction is not an entirely respectable literary tradition.

For his part, Williams shows how different structures of feeling give rise to three different components of culture which he calls the residual, the dominant and the emergent. While the residual refers to those aspects of contemporary culture that originate in the past and the dominant provides a framework for the lived experience of the majority (what cultural conservatives might refer to as “what is normal or natural”), the emergent is where, “new meanings and values, new relationships and kinds of relationship” (p123) develop.

And here we come to the crux of the matter: far from predicting technological advances surely what the best speculative fiction actually does is articulate, inform and incorporate these new structures of feeling into art and entertainment. Indeed, the reason it can do this so readily is precisely because it sits far from the disapproving eye of “respectable” literature in the bug powder dust party of the emergent.

At its best then, speculative fiction isn’t just about ray guns or steam-powered blimps or spaceships (although these are all well and good): it’s about how automated birthing might change how we value human life, wondering what it might feel like to be gendered for only part of an earth-year or how being practically immortal might alter our psychology and sexuality.

It invites us to imagine worlds where notions of humanity and its attendant cultures are very different from our own and then try them on for size. The fact that dear old Arthur C. came up with space elevator really is the least of it.

So, somewhat amazingly, my story Automatic Diamanté came second in the James White Award, placed after Shannon Fay‘s “You First Meet the Devil at a Church Fete”! Congratulations to

Me on stage with Sarah Newton, 'science fiction behemoth' Stephen Baxter, Paul Cornell and Donna Scott.

Me on stage with Sarah Newton,’science fiction behemoth’ Stephen Baxter, Paul Cornell and Donna Scott.

Shannon and a big thank you to the judges: Hugo nominated Aliette de Bodard, Hugo Winner Ian McDonald and the Interzone editors Andy Cox and Andy Hedgecock.

Speaking of which, the Interzone editors said so many positive things about my story I’m beginning to wonder whether a crumpled fiver found its way into my submission:

“Our initial response to Automatic Diamanté was that it is smart, dark and engaging. Our next reaction was that it’s the work of a talented writer who we would hope and expect to hear from in the future. It tackles big ideas of self, identity and consciousness: these are ambitious themes for a short story, and they carry a risk that narrative can collapse under the weight of philosophical speculation and be reduced to the status of ‘thought experiment’. But this is an adroit piece of writing that avoids this pitfall through its wit, its emotional resonance and the controlled energy of its language.”

Thanks also to everyone for all the kind words of congratulations, both on the interwebs and at the event (which was part of the BSFA awards ceremony at this year’s Eastercon) as well as to those who were kind enough to forgive me shambling onto stage to give an impromptu speech (based largely it must be said on my previous blog post). Chuffed doesn’t really cover it (so you have to excuse the blowing of one’s own trumpet). Likewise, if you want to see the judges’ feedback on both stories it’s here (so you can see I didn’t make it up or get my missus to claim to be a judge, write nice things on a napkin & present it to me with dinner).

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It really is a bit of a thrill to have been shortlisted for this year’s James White Award and not simply because it’s

banner-graphic2 always exciting to be shortlisted for something (the Nasty League of Meanies’ shortlist for most despicable pipe-smoker of the year being a notable exception), but also because there are three very good reasons to be thrilled about the JWA in general:

  1. It’s international: as a British writer I’m keenly aware that the short story is a form better regarded by our cousins in the United States and as result there’s just a fraction of the number of U.S. markets here. It’s my hope then, that international awards like the JWA might have the dual effect of strengthening the domestic short story market as well as broadening the cultural flavour of the imagined worlds that populate speculative fiction.
  2. It’s judged anonymously: it’s only human nature to be swayed a little (either positively or negatively) by a big name. Anonymising submissions avoids any of these complexities.
  3. It’s open to “non-professional” authors: obviously the definition of a professional author isn’t without its difficulties, since few writers are able to scrape enough money together from their words to support themselves financially. The JWA side-steps this by using the Science Fiction Writers of America yardstick for a “professional”, that is: a writer with 3 or more stories published in “pro” magazines to their name. In theory then the JWA (and awards like it) offer an excellent opportunity for emerging writers to throw their collective hats into the ring.

Finally though, and perhaps most importantly the JWA is entirely fan-dunded funded, so after having headed over here to read the first 250 words of this year’s shortlisted stories why not click on the donate button and throw a little money their way.

james white award

20110613-034153.jpgI’ve just found out that my short story Automatic Diamanté has been shortlisted for this year’s James White Award. Really excited and honoured to have been selected. The full list is up on their site along with the first 250 words of each story. http://www.jameswhiteaward.com/archives/795#more-795

As a follow up post to the discussion of ye olde space-opera, I’ve gone through the comments people left and compiled a list of titles recommended by them. There was quite a lot of debate about this at the time and there are too many books here for me to have read them myself, so I can’t comment as to their relative merits or lack thereof.

20130213-185049.jpgFirstly we have a list of more specifc titles:

Eluki Bes Shahar’s Hellflower series
Helen Wrights’s A Matter of Oaths
Alis Rasmussen’s Highroad trilogy
Banks’s Player of Games
Colin Greenland’s Tabitha Plenty
Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit (and pretty much anything else)
Vonda McIntyre’s Starfarers Quartet
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga
Vernor Vinge’s space opera series
CS Friedman’s This Alien Shore
Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers.

Secondly, a more general tip of the hat to the following authors:

Yoon Ha Lee
C J Cherryh
Octavia Butler

Let me know if I’ve missed any authors or titles from the original thread. Similarly, if anyone else has any further suggestions just post a comment and I’ll add them to the list and repost.

I used to love space-opera. As an Earthlet I grew up reading Clarke’s Rama, Asimov’s Foundation, Heinlein’s bugs, A.E. Van Voight’s icky inspiration for Dan O’Bannon’s Alien and Blish’s Spin-Dizzies. As I got older though, I got more interested in Burroughs and Borges and Vonnegut and drifted away from the spaceships ‘n’ aliens end of speculative fiction. This might have had something to do with the fact that the girls I liked all liked Burroughs and Borges and Vonnegut, but there you go. Superficial me.

Recently though, I dipped my toe back in the water to see if there were still thrills to be had in the veritable old genre. I don’t know if I’m just getting cynical and jaded (actually, I know I’m getting cynical and jaded, so no comment necessary there), but I’m sad to report that what I read suggested the genre might have become something of a prisoner of its conventions.

Firstly, a word about setting. I don’t know if this is perhaps a manifestation of our perceived contemporary economic and cultural uniformity, but much of what I’ve recently read seems to treat the universe as one huge mall in a, “humanity reaches for the stars and builds a Starbucks on every bleeding planet it arrives at” kinda way.

This is only exacerbated by another problem that afflicts some space opera: world-building Tourettes. I don’t really need to know the exact nature of the concrete used to build a space-bridge nor how the protagonist’s galacto-socks are held up, unless, of course, the story is about how her galacto-socks came up with a really neato new formula for the concrete of said space-bridges.

A more troubling observation is the that women in many of these stories still seem to tend towards the whore-bitch-mother stereotype (or that late 20th century addition to the canon: “action-man-wearing-a-bra”). Even in the more enlightened books where your gutsy pistol-totting heroine doesn’t sport a figure-hugging jumpsuit and a pair of intergalactic chest-zeppelins, there’s a good chance she’ll be sexualised to a degree that male protagonists never are.

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Moreover, these male protagonists themselves seemed to be wish-fulfilment writ large. White Anglo-Saxon middle-class billionaire types with multi-wives predominated. When they weren’t tanned, lantern-jawed George Clone-ys they were spindly geeks who made billions selling hyperwidgets over the interspatial cyberweb. Despite the fact that these fellows lived forever due to advanced medicine their psychology was, somewhat puzzlingly, exactly like ours. If I was cynical I might conclude that is because pondering how immortality might affect what it means to be human is hard, whereas writing about chicks in cat-suits is, you know, fun*.

Many plots tended towards the generically anodyne and epic. Some ancient horror is discovered/awoken/remembered it had always intended to wipe us out, but had gotten distracted and lurches towards us across the void of space. However, the empire of billionaires isn’t ready for this because they spend most of their time drinking space-lattes at the space-mall and bedding pneumatic pistol-totting bitch-whores. The narrative that follows builds a bow-wave of palm-sweating anticipation as characters spend the next 500 pages discussing how to escape via a really, really big space-bridge and panic buying galacto socks.

Alas, this sense of threat evaporates when The Evil-Ones finally materialise in their million strong battle fleet and turn out to be bees crossed with pigs that wear hats. The millinery obsessed bee-pigs demand the empire’s cheese reserves. No! cry Earth’s leisure-suited masses: our cheeses you cannot haz! before engaging their grizzled family warrior/retainers in a desperate battle to decisively set up the next tome in the series.

In summary, I think the thing that I found most disappointing about the books I’ve read over the last few months was how bland many of the imagined worlds and protagonists were. Despite its reputation as a medium where “sensawunda” abounds, these books for the most part explored a very limited set of tropes through to very inevitable conclusions.

20110816-050101.jpgThat said, I’m keenly aware that these observations are only based on the works that I’ve read recently, which again can only be only a small percentage of what’s out there, so does anyone care to steer me in the direction of books that take good ole Space Opera somewhere where no-one has gone before?

*I have nothing against the fun, just bored of the lazy.