The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, April 18, 2005

Not a Good Word to Say

A fixture of SF conventions is the Dealers' Room. It's mostly books, of course, and these mostly second-hand, but you can also find craftwork, from real deadly daggers to dragon-patterned hairclips; jewellery and embroidery, T-shirts and tiaras. But it's mostly books. Usually I buy one serious critical work, new. This year I bought a funny critical work, David Langford's The Complete Critical Assembly, and a load of old paperbacks. Six of these were issues of New Worlds, the 1970s paperback series that succeeded the SF magazine of the same name. Specifically, they were New Worlds numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10. I read them all as they came out.

They contain some of my favourite stories from the time, and many that I loathed, but the main thing that has stuck in my mind from them is the criticism, largely by John Clute and M. John Harrison. At the time I enjoyed it. I still do, in a way. But what strikes me, on re-reading, is how negative it was. Harrison, in particular, has with very rare exceptions (Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron, Arthur Sellings' Junk Day) not a good word to say about anything published as SF. It's a tellingly selective range that he targets. Most of the books he notices are now forgotten, and were marginal at the time. (Colin Wilson's The Black Room, anyone?) Those that weren't (e.g. Tau Zero) are lined up to have their cardboard characters kicked and their clunky dialogue ridiculed. Their specifically science-fictional strengths - and come on, a competent book about travelling at relativistic velocities to the end of the universe has to have some science-fictional strengths - are passed over with a yawn. It's like reading SF criticism by someone who despised SF; who just didn't see the point of SF's existence in the first place.

(Clute's a different story. No matter how harsh he was, you always got the feeling he thought there was something there worth worrying at. He has gone on to become the field's most erudite, exacting and comprehending critic. Harrison's strengths were and are as a fiction writer, and his early exercises in criticism may have been just that, exercises: wrestling with the genre and building his muscles for other feats entirely. And they are great feats.)

Now you could say that Harrison - and the New Wave generally - was just railing at SF's failure to live up to its possibilities, its lazy contentment with life in a literary slum, its windows steamed up with potboilers. But what rather tells against that is this: in the whole of that series, I can't remember - I may have missed it, but the point is there's nothing that sticks in the memory - anything at all about the good stuff that was coming out at the time. I owe this recognition to a conversation at the con with Farah: when I ventured that the New Wave's critical negativity could be explained by the fact that the early 70s in SF were a bad period anyway, she pointed out that, on the contrary, it was a period of immense vigour: some of the best work of Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman's debut, the first wave of feminist SF ... I've just checked the half-decade's details in (where else) John Clute's Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia, and here they are:

The New Worlds paperback series series came out between 1971 and 1976. Let's allow a year for publication lag, and look at some notable titles of 1970 to 1975: Larry Niven's Ringworld, Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside, Ian Watson's The Embedding, Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider, Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World, Bob Shaw's Orbitsville, Samuel Delany's Dahlgren ... there was a lot of SF being written that just didn't fit the neat New Wave classification of on the one hand boring rightwing mechaporn militarist nerdwank and on the other bold experimental fiction that really is vastly superior to all that.

What that left out was the gripping hand. (That's an American SF joke. Never mind.)

Now, I knew all this. I'd read most of these books at or soon after publication. I'd also and likewise read, of the major books that came out between 1976 and 1983: The Alteration (Kingsley Amis), The Malacia Tapestry (Aldiss), If the Stars are Gods (Benford and Eklund), Gateway, JEM, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (Pohl), The Ophiuchi Hotline (Varley), The Martian Inca (Watson), Timescape (Benford), The Book of the New Sun (Wolfe), Star Songs of an Old Primate (Tiptree), Worlds (Haldeman), Helliconia Spring (Aldiss), The Anubis Gates (Powers), Golden Witchbreed (Mary Gentle).

And yet I've said, of that period between the end of the New Wave and the beginning of cyberpunk:

The New Wave collapsed in a dribble of exhausted froth.

Other developments - the rise of self-consciously 'hard SF' which didn't fudge the physics - failed to re-ignite the genre's engines. The late seventies and early eighties were pretty dire - in SF, and in the world.

What rubbish! How completely, embarrassingly, crushingly wrong! I don't even have the excuse of ignorance. I've thought, and said and written, that I didn't read much SF at that time. Yet it's obvious now, looking at those titles, that I did read them more less as they were published. And it's not that I didn't like them. In almost all cases I enjoyed them, admired them enormously, and enthused about them. And there's the rub. At that time my enthusiasm met a cold blast of indifference or hostility from most of the people I talked to about it. When I wasn't struggling vainly to be a scientist, I was working at crap jobs. When I wasn't active in the most philistine of the Trot sects, I was hanging out in its milieu. Then, in the mid-80s, just as cyberpunk came along, I got a job as a computer programmer and walked away from the sects and finished my thesis, and within a short time was organising an SF club at work and writing The Star Fraction. No wonder, then, that many years later my backward glance at the period between the end of New Worlds and the publication of Neuromancer was bleak. It wasn't dire in SF, or fallow in my own reading of SF, but in the response I got to my talking about SF, and this darkened my view.

I've also attributed the New Space Opera and the British boom to the application of 'a British New Wave [...] sensibility to traditional tropes'. The Americans, I've suggested, supplied the big ideas, and the Brits came along with the literary sophistication and political complexity. This is just insultingly wrong, as well being as an unconscious, and thus all the more galling, echo of that British declining-imperialist conceit of being Athens to the new Rome. For the books I've listed above, and many that I haven't, are quite clearly among the true ancestors and inspirations for New Space Opera and the British boom. They're certainly not lacking in political and literary sophistication. In Britain SF was, with some shining exceptions, indeed in the doldrums in the late 70s and early 80s, but in the US it was flourishing, and branching out in all kinds of new directions. Its contribution, in terms of style and subject-matter and challenge, has proved far more lasting and fruitful than that of most of the British New Wave.

There remains the interesting question of why one of its consequences is, at the moment, a specifically British boom, but that was the subject of another conversation, with Charlie, and for another time.
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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Vote against war

Come the General Election on May 5th, I'm going vote for a candidate who has no hope of winning the seat. In fact, in the unlikely event of this candidate getting a much bigger vote than last time, the result might be to get the Tory challenger elected. That's a risk I'm willing to take. I'm not doing it for the candidate. I'm doing it for the party. If enough people vote for this candidate's party we have a real chance of electing a government that won't take us into another war. Yes, I know - this is pure gesture politics. I'm going to vote my conscience and hang the consequences. I'm going to vote Labour.

Because there's only one possible Prime Minister who can be relied upon not to involve Britain in another imperialist war: Tony Blair. He can be relied upon, because no one will ever trust him again.

Michael Howard could stand up in the Commons and announce that a friend of a friend had heard down the pub that Al Qa'ida had supplied the Real IRA with North Korean nuclear missiles, and within 45 minutes South Armagh would be toast. Tony Blair could introduce Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac, and Hans Blix, all swearing blind that this time he is telling the truth and the sky is, in fact, blue, and he'd be trampled in the rush to the windows. Imagine him trying to freeze our blood with talk of Iranian or North Korean WMD capabilities, or Syrian Ba'athist repression!

Vote for the party of imperialism, of crony capitalism, of attacks on civil liberties. Vote for the party of lies and spin. Vote for the man of blood.

Vote for peace.

Vote Labour!
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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Space Station Hinckley

I spent the Easter weekend at the Hinckley Island Hotel, as one of the Guests of Honour at Paragon 2, this year's Eastercon or British National Science Fiction Convention. The hotel is outside Hinckley and, as its name suggests, is a bit isolated. But not to worry. Bar the odd trip by supply rocket (£5 inc tip), it's fairly self-contained. Its reception area is a mirror-ceilinged polygon dominated by a 4-metre plaster statue of Neptune. (The god, not the planet.) This docking pod is at the end of one of the station's long habitation arms, which radiate from a central hub with a glass roof, through which you can observe the universe. These arms are called streets, and are lined with fake shop windows full of real tat, which you can buy at reception. There is one real shop, which sells cigarettes, magazines, and newspapers, except on Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, when by ancient tradition nobody smokes and nothing happens. The whole forms a starfish starship shape half-buried in an artificial mound built by some folk whose rituals required broad expanses of flat tarmac. It faces on to a fake lake containing real fish, on whose bank is a fake museum containing a real stage-coach and a real hackney cab, between the shafts of which are fake horses.

The bar serves real beer, and also by tradition, this ran out by Sunday.

Being an Eastercon GoH was, for me, a real honour, and I was very well looked after by the con committee - for which, many thanks. I took part in several programme events, went to more, and spent some time in the bar. Vivid memories include having a sort of continuing conversation across several panels with Richard Morgan, who heroically volunteered for every panel; longer bar or dinner conversations with Justina Robson, David Langford, Geoff Ryman, Ian Hocking, Frank Wu, Del Cotter, Farah Mendlesohn, Neil Williamson and friends, Charlie and Nojay; watching Dr Who on a big screen in a packed hall; accepting on behalf of the artist Stephan Martiniere the BSFA Award for best artwork, for the US cover of my novel Newton's Wake; eating elk salami on rye at the Scandinavian party; and having my brain eaten by Chthulu. Beyond that it's all a bit of a blur.

I came away from the conversations with a few new thoughts, which I intend to return to here over the next few weeks. Here's one for now. SF fandom is an odd community, and one that those outside it tend to lump together with media fans, technology geeks and enthusiastic hobbyists. But it isn't like that at all. The only group I know that is like SF fandom, and which oddly enough barely overlaps with it, is scientists. Scientists, at least the kind I used to know, dress idiosyncratically, drink lots of beer, talk about anything and everything, and talk in italics.
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Saturday, April 02, 2005

A canticle for Wojtyla

I have conflicting emotions about the Pope, which go beyond the compassion anyone must feel for an old man in his last hours. His dignity abashes disagreement. To the end he is living the meaning of his life. But here is the conflict. On the one hand he is a reactionary. The contrast with the last pope to be popular beyond the RC church, John XXIII, is striking. He has beatified and canonised some of the most sinister and pathetic figures of recent times. He contributed quite significantly to, not the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but the depth of regression that followed. He has stuck to a doctrine that's contributed directly to the spread of AIDS. The Catholic theologian Hans Kung has recently written a scathing analysis of The Pope's Contradictions, which goes into these and other dark aspects of Wojtyla's papacy in detail. (Via).

The other side is that he has stood for peace and human rights in a way that set his face against not only Communism but certain aspects of imperialism and neoliberalism. He condemned the attack on Iraq. He moved the church to a greater acceptance of modern science. He has been more open to other religions than previous popes. He began a repentance toward the Jewish people. He rehabilitated Galileo and apologised for the Crusades.

Like the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, he became a figurehead of an inchoate global humanism that has little to do with what he (and the others) specifically stand for. Fidel Castro is an awkward fourth in that company, but - like it or not - he belongs in it. All four of these old men have their roots in the Cold War, of which they are the last men standing. It's a measure of the strangeness of the New World Order that they all, in very contradictory ways, have become icons of its discontents.
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