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Sunday, December 12th, 2010 12:19 pm
For anyone wondering about the results of that poll, see here and here, and links to all the other posts from the past week here.
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Sunday, December 5th, 2010 11:35 am
A couple of months ago, Tricia Sullivan gave an interview in which, among other things, she discussed the fact that the proportion of Arthur C Clarke Awards going to women has nose-dived in the last ten years -- one winner between 2001 and 2010, compared to five between 1991 and 2000. I spun this off into a discussion at Torque Control, which eventually ranged far and wide over possible causes and effects.

As part of the follow-up to the discussion, and specifically as a counter to Gollancz's all-male "Future Classics" promotion of a couple of years ago, I've been running a poll to determine the best science fiction novels published in the last ten years by women. You can see examples of peoples' lists here and here, and I'll be announcing the overall top ten at [livejournal.com profile] torque_control over the next week, starting tomorrow.

So, this is a final trawl for votes! I'm looking for the top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). You can email me, or fill in the poll below. All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December, that is, the end of today. I am looking for science fiction, as opposed to fantasy, because in the discussion it was generally felt that in the UK science fiction by women has a much harder time than fantasy by women. But your own definition of science fiction applies; whatever you think counts, counts. Also, you don't have to rank your nominations; they all get equal weighting. And if you only want to nominate five, or one, then please do so -- the ten will emerge from the wisdom of the crowd.

Thanks in advance for voting -- and feel free to link to this post.

[Poll #1653362]
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Saturday, March 13th, 2010 06:49 pm
The nominating deadline is upon us, so if you are a member of Aussiecon 4, or were a member of Anticipation, get to it. Nominations close tonight, Saturday, March 13th, at 23:59 PST (in other time-zones that's Sunday, March 14, 2010 03:59 EDT, 07:59 UTC/GMT, 18:59 AEDT). (And if anyone's interested, here are my noms.)
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Wednesday, June 7th, 2006 06:35 pm
So, OUSFG has an award. This is its second year. It's voted on by the membership, and given to the best speculative fiction book receiving its first UK mass-market paperback publication in the preceding academic year. This is actually fairly straightforward--it's for books students will be able to find and afford. Last year Coalescent by Stephen Baxter won. The current shortlist is:
Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (January 2005)
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (September 2005)
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (February 2005)
Ian McDonald, River of Gods (April 2005)
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time-Traveler's Wife (January 2005)
Some notes: it's obviously not just for science fiction; it's obviously not just for novels; and goddamn, that's a hell of a list.

I mention this because this evening there is a balloon-debate discussion meeting, starting at 8pm, in the Lady Brodie Room in St Hilda's College, which means I'm going to have to decide how to rank them. And man, that's hard.

(On the subject of St Hilda's deciding to admit men ... I don't know what the reasoning behind the decision was, but I'm somewhat surprised that it happened, and it seems a bit of a shame, really.)

(And just to leave on a controversial note: I've finally got around to watching Deadwood--I'm about halfway through the first season at the moment--and I'm not terribly impressed. I think partly it's how stylised everything is; the dialogue bears as little resemblance to how people actually talk as that in The West Wing or Buffy, but where those shows were consciously presenting its characters as smarter-than-life Deadwood is constantly at pains to tell you how Real it is, how True To Life. The style doesn't mesh with the content, for me, in other words. Of course, that could just be a fancy excuse made up to cover the fact that I find all the characters except Jane excruciatingly boring; the episodes I've enjoyed most so far have been when circumstances have forced them to do something, as in, say, 'Plague'.)

EDIT: the ranking determined by the panel, in reverse order:
5. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
4. Cloud Atlas
3. The Time-Traveler's Wife
2. River of Gods
1. Stories of Your Life and Others
And those placings were almost all hotly contested. It'll be interesting to see whether the official result (announced Saturday) is the same or not.
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Monday, May 8th, 2006 03:22 pm
A little while ago I mentioned Simon Ings' new novel, The Weight of Numbers. I also linked to this Guardian review, which seemed to do a pretty good job of putting the book in context. Now I notice all the reviews on Ings' webpage, and in particular this review from The Independent, which is on a whole other level:
Science fiction: which way to the exit? The history of SF over the past half-century has been a balancing act. On one side is its adolescent drive to create slam-bang adventure stories set against the most exotic backdrops; on the other, its adult imperative to extrapolate the impact of social change and new technology on culture, politics and the wider society.

Plenty of authors still guard the hardcore turf, but many others have made common cause with literary fiction. Novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas make the Man Booker shortlist despite occupying territory which would have been indisputably considered SF even a short while ago.
Discuss.

It's also weird--in a good way--to see a review that recognises and engages with the context of the book appear in the pages of The Independent rather than, say, Foundation. Though I wish Murray had gone into more detail (or had had the space to go into more detail) about why he thought it didn't work. "The plot works but the story doesn't" is an interestingly loaded turn of phrase.

(I would like to see lots of discussion of this book, so everyone should go and read it now, please. And as it happens, a review of the book by Abigail Nussbaum will be appearing at Strange Horizons next week.)

In a not-entirely-dissimilar vein, this discussion of reactions to Never Let Me Go may be of interest to some.
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Monday, April 24th, 2006 10:21 pm
There is a rage shared by most critics of the literature of the fantastic. It is the rage we feel when some iteration of that literature--a novel by Jeff Noon, perhaps--is mufflingly misdescribed as non-generic by its publishers, or by some moat-defensive critic more concerned to defend his patch than to tell the truth about the text before his eyes, or even by authors--like Jeff Noon himself, whose increasingly chrome-plated career track seems to require a repudiation of his roots in genre. Noon's recent statement that he does not write sf, and his publisher's contortuplicated efforts not to mention sf in the jacket copy to Falling Out Of Cars (London: Doubleday, 2002)--jacket copy which manages therefore not to mention that Falling is set in a near-future England decimated by a strange plague whose effects on humans can only be staved off by a brandname drug distributed by a mysterious corporation--does rather seem a trahison des clercs.

Because what Noon and his publishers have done to Falling Out Of Cars is a discourtesy to adult readers. They have unlabelled the book, which may sound a noble thing to do ("Let my fable go") but which is not. In the sick, febrile market now operating in the book trade, a book which is unlabelled is not a book readers come to with eyes washed of preconceptions, like Israelites entering a Promised Land; it is a book precisely marketed to mandate a particular kind of preconception in the reader: which is that the book in question is safe, that it is a mundane extension of the mimetic novel, that it is unlabelled because it is unnecessary to label a window into the real world.
--John Clute, Scores, p.392
And then there is an argument based around reading protocols, which goes something like: when Falling Out Of Cars is approached as mimetic, it reads very differently, and (crucially) worse, than when it is approached as science fiction. Having not read the book, I can't comment, but that's ok; my reservation is about his more general point.

There is an awkward interaction here between, as ever, science fiction the marketing category and science fiction the form. I agree with the above to the extent that I recognise the rage, because I agree that most decisions to unlabel a book seem to be made in, for want of a better phrase, bad faith--made as marketing decisions only. I'm less convinced that this matters because it leads us into the work by the wrong route.

Firstly, I'm inclined to think we can work out how to read something as we go, based on the text itself. The label is useful, but it's not essential. (And I can think of cases--one of Michel Faber's books comes to mind--where the unfolding of expectations is so deliciously well-handled that it would be a bit cruel to give the game away on the dust jacket.) But more than that, I'm inclined to think that the act of unlabelling usually Just Doesn't Work. There are arguable cases, like Never Let Me Go, but in general it's a safe bet that a review that bends over backwards to explain how a book isn't science fiction, honest, is in fact a review that tells you, very clearly, precisely the opposite.

So why the rage? For me, Clute got it right at the start: because it's not telling the truth. I'm sure [livejournal.com profile] immortalradical will come along at this point and accuse me of trying to claim texts "for the genre", but I don't think that's what I'm doing; to say something is science fiction doesn't have to involve saying that it's part of the genre. My problem is rather that all the evasions and denials smack of either simple snobbery--the "it's good, so it can't be sf" attitude--or, more seriously, a patronising lack of faith in the reader--"don't worry, this one's ok because it's not really sf." And that's a disservice not just to the reader, but to the book and to the form as a whole.
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Tuesday, March 7th, 2006 09:06 am
I think Gabe was the first to spot Dave Itzkoff's NY Times review:
But what truly shames me is that I cannot turn to any of these people, or to my friends, or to you, and say: Whether you read books because you have a genuine, lifelong passion for literature or because a feisty woman in Chicago tells you to—you should pick up this new work of science fiction I just finished reading, because you will enjoy it as much as I did.

I cannot do this in good conscience because if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual. And you would very likely come away wondering, as I do from time to time, whether science fiction has strayed so far from the fiction category as a whole that, though the two share common ancestors, they now seem to have as much to do with each other as a whale has to do with a platypus.

A perfect case in point is the work of David Marusek, whose first novel, "Counting Heads" (Tor/Tom Doherty, $24.95) was one of my favorite books of last year in any category, and an exemplary entry in the sci-fi genre. And before some overeager publisher starts slapping that endorsement on a fresh set of dust jackets, let me explain what I mean.
Now think of all the people you might expect to have the opposite reaction. Was Dan one of them?
Whether in despair at the impending singularity, or simple acceptance that SF has so often got the future wrong that it has become pointless to pretend you think you're right, a fair chunk of recent science fiction has seemed more interested in game-playing than ambition—emphasising genre navel-gazing rather than any serious discussion.

Counting Heads, David Marusek's startling debut novel, is a book acutely aware that science fiction achieves its true power and potency only when it also exhibits self-belief.

It is not that this is a book divorced from the genre. Far from it—in its depiction of a future ruled by cynical and self-justifying corporations, Counting Heads reminds us of Bester's The Stars My Destination; humans (these are emphatically not posthumans, whatever they may be) are resurrected or "rebooted," as in Doctorow's Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom; in the novel's genetic politics and impenetrable agendas, we hear echoes of Dune; the massive Oships destined for other solar systems tip their hats to Aldiss and Wolfe, Banks and Macleod; and by examining what happens when the space between the real and the illusory is reduced to nothing, Marusek tackles virtuality as well as anyone since Dick. But in all of these areas Marusek offers new visions and asks fresh questions, addressing the perennial issues of the genre but in such a way that he does not lose himself in the process.
I'm about 130 pages into Counting Heads; I was hoping to have finished it by now, but I got distracted by shiny things last night. The headline is--hold the front page!--it looks like Dan and I agree it's a good book, if perhaps not about why.

Anyway, to get back to Itzkoff, there are of course reactions all over the place.
  • Letters to Locus Online by Lucius Sorrentino ("Dave Itzkoff is the perfect foil for those who want to remain ignorant about SF and feel justifiably superior about it"), Elizabeth Hand (Why no women, or writers younger than China Mieville, on Itkoff's list of favourite books?), and L.E.Modesitt Jnr (going off at a tangent: "Our "literary" lights and reviewers within the field, with a few notable exceptions [this will allow all reviewers to claim that exception], focus on their own narrow interests to the exclusion of much good and great work, and paradoxically, often go out of their way to avoid bringing notice to works that are considered "commercial" or "popular."")

  • Matt Cheney tried and failed to read Counting Heads a few months ago (interestingly one of the things Matt didn't like about section two--the fragmentation into multiple viewpoints--is one of the things I like), but takes down Itzkoff's column anyway.

  • Lauren McLaughlin wonders whether Itkoff has a point about the 'geekiness problem'; interesting discussion in the comments.

  • Andrew Wheeler argues--quite rightly in my opinion--that it's not geeky, it's immersive. One of things I'm finding so impressive about the book is how naturally Marusek gets into the heads of his characters, and conveys both the differences and the familiarities of their psychology.

  • Nick Mamatas thinks it's about class.

  • General discussion at metafilter.
I think that's all the major links. Two bonuses: Iain Emsley interviews Marusek, and Marusek wants to know if you want a short story collection (hint: you do).

Unfortunately I don't have time to attempt to synthesise all the points raised in the above links into a coherent or useful discussion, but there's a lot of chewy stuff there, and if anyone wants to get into it in the comments I'd be more than happy to join you.

POSTSCRIPT: Karen Joy Fowler writes about Octavia Butler for Salon, and in the process takes a swipe at Itzkoff. Michael Schaub responds. [livejournal.com profile] megmccarron comments here. And somehow nobody told Marusek about the fuss until now.
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Monday, January 2nd, 2006 10:18 am
Today's Woman's Hour is all about women and sf:
In a special edition of Woman's Hour, Jenni looks at the role of women, both real and fictional, in space.

- The appeal of sci-fi for women
- Women’s relationship with aliens
- The representation of birth and reproduction in sci-fi
- Europe’s last women in space
- Women in the future
The Listen Again link should start working in about 45 minutes, and be available for the following week. I'm impressed that the 'list of recommendations' includes Life by Gwyneth Jones, although they haven't got to that part in the actual show yet, and in fact have spent most of their time so far talking about tv shows and how great conventions are.
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Friday, December 30th, 2005 10:00 pm
Bye-bye Infinite Matrix:
12.30.05

Resistance is futile, but even so, it's best to go out kicking and screaming, don't you think?

So the Infinite Matrix will present a final fireworks of stories, essays and columns, and then will cease publication. The site will stay up for a year or so, although older work may be removed as the rights run out.

Look what we've got: a final Runcible Ansible, with its accustomed bite, a fantastic story by Rudy Rucker, The Men in the Back Room at the Country Club, grafitti photos by A. Fluffy Bunny and original art by Seattle street artist Charles Whiteside, two more columns by Howard Waldrop, an essay on race, TV, and science fiction by Pam Noles, a story by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, an essay by William Gibson. There are even a few surprises to go up over the next few days.

More later. I'll be in touch.

Eileen Gunn
Ach. It's a shame.
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Wednesday, December 28th, 2005 12:53 pm
Following on from the duelling reviews of Learning the World that [livejournal.com profile] immortalradical and I had at Strange Horizons the other week, and from this conversation about valid critical opinions (which itself spun off from this post by Matt Cheney about this story by Eliot Fintushel), [livejournal.com profile] greengolux has a fascinating post here about accessibility as a quality of fiction:
The questions I've been asking myself in relation to all this are: can a reader who is outside of the target audience make a reasonable judgement about the quality of a work, and can a work's overall quality be judged on the size of the audience it's targeted at?
These are not questions with particularly easy or obvious answers, as the resulting discussion shows. They are also questions that come up time and again in discussions about sf, as John Scalzi's recent discussions about 'entry-level' science fiction, and all the satellite discussions of that concept, demonstrate.

After linking to all that discussion, I'm not sure there's a lot I can add, except a brief position statement. I think the answer to [livejournal.com profile] greengolux's first question has to be 'yes and no'. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and I'm sure I'm on record somewhere as saying that an outside (or 'naive', for non-pejorative values of 'naive') perspective is valuable. It's one of the reasons I value [livejournal.com profile] immortalradical's reviews, and more broadly, why some of the most interesting and useful reviews can be the ones I disagree with. But I also think that, as an outsider to something, it is possible to Just Not Get It. Like [livejournal.com profile] greengolux, that's my basic reaction to Jane Austen, and although I would defend my right to have my opinions of Austen's books, I fully accept that I don't have a lot to bring to an informed discussion of her work.

I could learn, of course--any set of reference points can be learned--and that brings us to the second question. Primarily because context is learnable, I strongly doubt that the size of a work's audience has any bearing on the assessment of a work's quality. On the part of the writer, I am skeptical of the idea that aiming for universality is a good thing, or even a possible thing; I'm not even sure what a universal story would be, or what it could say. On the part of the reader, I am skeptical of the idea that that barriers to entry are inherently bad things. Just because I wouldn't give someone who's never read sf Accelerando doesn't make it a bad book, and just because anyone with a reading age in double digits can pick up The Da Vinci Code doesn't make it a good book. Historical context, or conceptual density, or linguistic complexity, or literary context--all of those are things that an individual reader may or may not appreciate. It is not the work's fault if a reader doesn't appreciate its strengths (indeed, it can be a shame, but it's not anyone's fault as such).

Yes, writing within a context may limit the audience to which a book is accessible, and yes, that has to be accepted--and yes, such writing can be artistically limited as well. I'm not excusing works that, to borrow [livejournal.com profile] immortalradical's phrase, preach 'a weak sermon to the baying choir'. It's just that the flipside to those books--the books that extend or develop an ongoing argument (which is one of the things I suggest Learning the World does), or that explore their context in minute depth (say, The Name of the Rose)--are, not infrequently, the books I wouldn't give up for the world.

(Bonus marks for anyone who can link this debate back into the self-indulgence debate of earlier in the year, thus constructing a hideous meta-debate impenetrable to anyone who hasn't read fifty posts on two dozen different blogs. Go on, I bet it'd be easy.)

EDIT: [livejournal.com profile] zarabee comments on accessibility here, and [livejournal.com profile] sartorias does the same here.
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Thursday, December 1st, 2005 10:28 am
Ted Chiang responds to this post by Sarah Monette and suggests a way of looking at the differences between sf and fantasy:
I submit that what distinguishes magic from science--even imaginary science--is the role of consciousness. Magic has a subjective component--the intention, desire, or willpower of the practitioner--that is explicitly excluded from scientific experimentation.

[...]

This perspective helps illustrate why, even though fantasy doesn't have to be pre-industrial, fantasy works so well with a pre-industrial setting. Before industrialization, it was easier to believe that we lived in a universe that recognized persons. And even though fantasy doesn't have to be nostalgic, it's easy to romanticize the days when an individual's labor mattered, and you couldn't be replaced by a machine.

Similarly, this perspective illustrates why, even though science fiction doesn't have to be about technological advancement, it is so often concerned with the notion of progress. Once conscious intention was removed from the creation of devices, inventions could spread so rapidly that you could see society change within a single lifetime. And even though SF doesn't have to be cautionary, it's easy to worry about the dehumanization that can result when conscious intention is removed from too many aspects of life.
EDIT: Jeff Vandermeer (and Evil Monkey) respond here.

EDIT: And [livejournal.com profile] truepenny completes the circle here by arguing that definitions are useful after all.
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Monday, November 14th, 2005 08:51 pm
It’s a truism that in the science fiction community the borders between fan and writer and critic and editor are relatively fluid. And so, curious about the borders, and about the roles I'm probably not going to play, I found myself reading Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller, an unusual, amiable little writing manual masquerading as a memoir. Or possibly it’s the other way around.

It is, in part, the story of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Clarion is the most prestigious and well-known workshop in the sf field: a six-week summer academy at Michigan State University (Lucius Shepard apparently called it a boot camp) for aspiring writers. Alumni include a significant proportion of the most lauded writers in the modern field: Kim Stanley Robinson, Kelly Link, Bruce Sterling, Octavia Butler, and many more. The format is simple. Each week for the first four weeks there’s a different writer in residence (for the last fortnight there’s a two-writer tag team). Every morning there are group critique sessions; every afternoon and evening there is writing, and individual conferences with the instructors, and socialising.

Wilhelm and her husband, Damon Knight, were the anchor team for those final two weeks for the best part of three of the four decades for which Clarion has been existence. And so Storyteller explains how the workshop started, how it struggled, how the two of them got involved, and what they taught, enlivened by anecdotes. At the risk of alienating a fairly large chunk of the people reading this, I’ve always been a little sceptical about the cult of the storyteller--Writers are special flowers and writing is a mystical, magical process!--that workshops seem to encourage. Too, the whole enterprise feels semi-mythological; there have been other incarnations (Clarion West; Clarion South, in Australia) but to date, no European spinoff has been successful, so the stories that filter out have a faraway feel to them. On the other hand, perhaps there’s an element of jealousy--if not specifically for the writing aspect, for the element of community that seems to go with it, and the implausibility of ever being able to take that much time off work in one go (or of being able to find sufficient money to make it feasible). But Clarion doesn't seem to be particularly a bastion of privilege, so it must be possible to go if you’re prepared to give up enough. (When they do something similar for critics, you know I'll be there.)

If I wanted to criticise, I could point to the strange sense of cosiness that permeates the book. Few of the anecdotes have names attached; they just happened to nameless students, adding to the general air of clubbiness (insiders, of course, will know who she’s talking about … right?). But you can see why Wilhelm does it--naming names would make the bluntness of the lessons sting that much harder, possibly even seem vindictive, and since the other main element of the book is too dispense writerly wisdom, it would be a counterproductive thing to do.

With the wisdom comes the other easy criticism: that Clarion teaches conformity; that it teaches how to produce saleable fiction, not art; that it’s responsible for too much mediocrity in the short fiction market. Of course that’s a false criticism too, because art can’t be taught, because editors will buy what they will. And moreover (as Wilhelm and Knight realised early on) some things about fiction surely can be taught. What Clarion really teaches, perhaps, is how to break into the market; how to display the basic competence that will earn the trust that allows a writer to experiment. And while it’s easy (as a layman) to quibble with some of the advice, to debate whether stories really have to follow all the rules, some of the other injunctions are beautifully acute. Some are specific to science fiction; most are surely generally applicable. My favourite observation is the definition of style: ‘how each writer solves individual problems of translating nonverbal material into verbal material’.

Most importantly, what is impossible to deny is that Clarion works. And in the end, the book works too. It gets under all my defenses. It’s a slice of history, a picture of the community, a piece of the conversation. And more than that, it engenders respect: for Wilhelm’s perceptiveness, and her compassion, but most of all her commitment to honesty. There is excessive candour in these pages, from years before John Clute formalised the sentiment. Somewhere (I didn’t note the page, for once; I was too engrossed in the reading, which should tell you something in itself) Wilhelm observes that anecdotes don’t make a story. Her own book just about proves that that rule is no more set in stone than any of the others.
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Wednesday, November 9th, 2005 11:20 pm
A while back, I posted about Hal Duncan’s debut novel, Vellum, and said that while Duncan has much going for him as a writer, I felt his approach to his world made his story less effective than it might otherwise have been. More recently, I’ve been reading Justina Robson’s Living Next-Door to the God of Love, and for me it contrasts with Vellum in a couple of interesting ways.

You could argue, in some ways, that Living Next-Door has complimentary strengths and weaknesses to Vellum. On the one hand, Robson is not as good at writing sentences as Duncan. In particular, she rarely creates a convincing sense of place, whereas many of the settings Duncan visits in Vellum are extremely well-drawn. She is also less good at voice; both novels feature multiple first-person narrators, but Duncan is better at making them distinctive and different.

On the other hand, however, Robson is better at constructing her story. Duncan’s prose may be fluid, and the short sharp segments may be deliberate, but they come across at times as blog gas (as John Clute’s recent review of Vellum memorably puts it). And for me, a significant problem with Duncan’s book was that the vellum felt too much like a literary construct, and not enough like a believable reality. If I believed the story was aiming for a sense of artificiality this wouldn’t be a problem, but it seems to me that Duncan wants us to believe in, be impressed by, the size and scope of the vellum; and as I said in my earlier post, in the end it feels small to me. Like one human imagination, not the limitless possibility of a universe.

Living Next-Door to the God of Love, by contrast, and among its other virtues, evokes infinity with some skill. The book is a (very) loose follow-up to Robson’s previous novel, Natural History. That story ended with humanity grabbing the possibilities offered by Stuff – essentially, magic – with both hands. Living Next-Door starts in a setting where Stuff, and the intelligence behind it known as Unity, can make entire universes for humans to play in. As in Vellum, mind shapes reality. The first chapter, for instance, is set in Metropolis, a universe where anyone can be any hero they want to be. Parts of the book are set in Sankhara, a city in which massive arcologies are just a few blocks away from dirty industrial fantasy. It’s described as ‘high interaction’, and it gets reshaped nightly, according to the dreams of the people who live there (shades of Dark City, at times).

Writing about Vellum, I used Stephen Baxter as an example of a writer who effectively evokes a sense of infinity. The particular example I used was the opening of Time, which speaks to the emptiness of a universe in which humans are the only intelligence. Robson doesn’t use that trick, but she does get to use a similar one; as I said, Unity is an alien intelligence, so instead of a sense of emptiness you get a sense that humans are not the only ones doing the dreaming. But the moment that particularly impressed me is yet another trick, what you might call the experience of immensity. Baxter uses this, too, quite frequently, as for example at the start of Exultant, which pitches us headfirst into a galactic-scale battlefront from the perspective of a young fighter pilot:
He was deep in the Mass, as pilots called it – the Central Star Mass officially, a jungle of millions of stars crammed into a ball just thirty light years across, a core within the Core. Before him a veil of stars hung before a background of turbulent, glowing gas; he could see filaments and wisps light years long, drawn out by the Galaxy’s magnetic field. This stellar turmoil bubbled and boiled on scales of space and time beyond the human, as if he had been caught at the centre of a frozen explosion. (3–4)
This is pure telling, and in that sense perhaps not very sophisticated. But it works: you can see the stars in front of you. Now, here is the comparable moment in Living Next-Door, in which a regular human researcher is given a glimpse of Sankhara’s cosmology. The speaker is his guide:
Space. And scattered within it, glittering dust.

‘Galaxies’

We fell again. The number of musical scales exploded, dominated by the relentless seething fury of the stars in their speeding dance as they whirled around the galactic nucleus. Disk stars and gas were so loud I couldn’t stand to look at them. Halo stars sang in almost single notes by comparison – a relief.

We saw one star.

‘Sankhara’s star.’ (200)
There are a couple of things I like about this. Firstly is the fact that she didn’t have to do it at all - but given that she did, like the fact that Unity is non-human, the revelation that Sankhara is not just a planet (as we have been assuming) but an entire universe reinforces how big an arena the story is taking place in, and how small the characters are in relation to it. The second is that where Baxter bludgeons you with blunt scale, Robson personalises it. Not only does she zoom-in, from widescreen to tight focus, but she shows you what effect it is having on the person seeing it; you feel it that bit more.[1]

The reason this matters is that all three stories – Vellum, Exultant, Living Next-Door to the God of Love – are, to a greater or lesser extent, depicting human actions on a vast canvas. For the actions of the characters in these stories to convince, we have to be able to see them in relation to that canvas. All this is sleight-of-hand: of course Robson’s novel doesn’t literally contain anything outside human experience. But it feels like it does.

I could draw other points of comparison between the two novels as well. For instance, the majority of the humans in Vellum are unaware that their world is but a scratch on the vast yadda yadda, while in Living Next-Door everyone knows what Stuff is and what it does; it gives them a metaphysical certainty that they can control their lives that subtly affects the way they act. Too, both novels investigate layers of character. Vellum has the conceit that Seamus Finnigan is Shamash is Prometheus is Sammael, back past all the shadows on the cave wall to the true character. We are all made of our predecessors, and that can affect us. In Living Next-Door, Unity can absorb other beings into itself, in a process called translation. Avatars of Unity are described as ‘eating’ other characters, taking them within themselves; among other things it’s another metaphor for how we carry others in our memories, and how coming to understand the experiences of others can, again, affect and change us.

But maybe that will be material for another post. In the meantime, I don’t have a conclusion, save maybe to say – this is why getting the science fiction of a story right is important. If you’re hoping to tell human stories in fantastic contexts, your fantastic contexts have to support your human stories. That’s why, in the end, I’ll pick a book like Living Next-Door to the God of Love over a book like Vellum every day of the week.

[1] To be perfectly correct, in Exultant, the character seeing the galaxy – Pirius – has been bred in space, and raised to be accustomed to that sort of vista, so the lack of reaction is actually characterisation. But there are similar moments in other Baxter novels that don’t have that excuse; I’m just too lazy to find them at the moment.
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Saturday, November 5th, 2005 12:12 pm
A Christian Perspective on Fantasy and Science Fiction:
The Time Machine by HG Wells
Morality: C-
Writing: B

[...]
As an adventure story the book is all right, I suppose, although certainly nothing impressive, especially compared to the complexity of much modern sci-fi. The thinly-veiled social commentary, besides seeming slightly dated, annoyed me quite a bit. But my main problem morally was the book's whole outlook on the world -- it assumes not only evolution, but evolution unguided by any purpose, and humans as a fading race, fading beyond recognition in this future era after the glorious apex of their civilization. Christianity holds that humanity has both a purpose and an inherent dignity. This book lacks substantial hope. It's probably too short and straightforward to be harmful, but in its worldview, it's not uplifting. And it's not that well-written, either -- adequate, certainly, but not impressive.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, Jr
Morality: A
Writing: A+

[...]
As you have probably already guessed, this is not only a well-written book but a profoundly religious one. It is drenched in Catholicism and will therefore probably have more meaning (and humor) for Catholics, but I think that Christians of all stripes will appreciate its message of sin and hope. Read it, and then sit on your friends until they read it too.

Tales From The White Hart by Arthur C Clarke
Morality: B
Writing: B

[...]
There's not a whole lot of moral content to this book one way or the other.
via Justine Larbalastier, whose own book got a B for morality, and who makes the perfectly fair point that this a much healthier approach than trying to actually ban Harry Potter. Happily for the rest of us, it's also much funnier.
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Thursday, September 15th, 2005 08:14 pm
My travel reading over the past week has been Hal Duncan's debut novel, Vellum. It's a book which has been attracting a fairly significant amount of attention in the sf world, and it's also getting a big marketing push from Pan Macmillan (the proof copies, from a limited run of 600, are things of beauty). You can read a very short extract here, and a slightly more substantial one here.

Vellum is a tale of War in Heaven. The vellum itself, we are told, is the substrate of existence, on which our own world is but a scratch. The story of Vellum encompasses a good number of these worlds and a good number of characters. It's a swirling, nonlinear, hopscotch of a plot that it would be a nightmare, or a fool's errand, to try to describe. One character suggests that it would be too much to ask for cohesion, and that the best you can hope for is comprehensiveness. So far, so Big Fat Epic (indeed, this is Book One of Two). What sets Vellum apart is the ambition of Duncan's project, and the verve and confidence of his writing; he has described it as 'a superhero comic strip about the war in heaven, written by James Joyce, drawn by Picasso and soundtracked by The Stooges'.

The quality of the writing is easy to demonstrate. Duncan writes fluidly, and often strikingly:
'He sings of the vast void and of seeds, of shatterings and scatterings and gatherings, of seeds of earth and air and sea and flickerings of flecks, the flash, the flux of fire' (242)
He recreates a range of times and spaces--the trenches of the Somme, a dusty trailer-town in the American midwest, a pulpy alternate world not a million miles from Sky Captain's world of tomorrow--and populates them with iconic, almost aggressively cool, images. He gets under the skin of his characters, and demonstrates an acute understanding of human nature. Indeed, with such a sprawl of settings, it's the characters that hold this book together. Most of them are (whether they realise it or not) unkin, more than human, with the ability to see the nature of reality, and the power to shape and define it; but they are also, in Duncan's hands, people.

The overall project, it seems to me, is also easy to describe, but almost impossible to assess until the followup, Ink, arrives next year. What I think Duncan is trying to do is present a Grand Unified Theory of Story. The vellum is 'the media of reality itself, the blank page on which everything is written, on which anything could be written' (42). The worlds of Vellum are written worlds, storied worlds, and the characters of Vellum are characters we know. Phreedom Messenger is Anna is Inanna is Ishtar; Seamus Finnigan is Shamash is Prometheus is Sammael. Jack Carter is Jerry Cornelius is Jumping Jack Flash is ... you get the idea (one of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Duncan unwinds his characters as events progress, revealing their archetypes and antecedents). Their stories are ancient, and provide Vellum with much of its substance. Sumerian myths are remixed with works by Virgil and Aeschylus--and more than that, are remixed with everything and anything Duncan can think of: there are references to Moorcock (obviously) and Bradbury, Lovecraft and Joyce, and many more. In the vellum, every tale ever told, from every genre ever considered, is equally true, and equally mutable.
--Everything's real, said Jack. Everything is true; nothing is permitted.

-- I thought, that's a quote. I thought, I recognise it, but I couldn't place it and it didn't sound quite right. (24)
There's a question here about whether the novel ever becomes more than the sum of its parts--echoes of stories are not, after all, the same thing as stories--but that doesn't stop Duncan using this baseline to make wider points about the artificiality of categorisation, whether by gender or by race or by sexuality or by anything else. To be bad in this book is to divide, to discriminate, to separate--or to try to remake the world into a single narrative. The world can only be understood as the world.

But it's in this area, in its larger construction, that I think the book starts to run into trouble. For one thing, Vellum is so big and messy that it is also patchy. Sometimes it feels bloated; sometimes repetitive. For another, at least for me, by the end of the book the most striking thing about the vellum is not that it feels big; it's that it feels small. Part of this is simply the fact that the conceits involved are so vast and hyperbolic--an ultimate war, on infinite worlds, between gods--that we become desensitised. Duncan clearly knows this is a risk; one character, travelling across the vellum, confides that
'I am getting rather blase about the scale of things here in the vellum, I fear; it's all rather gauche and grandiose for my liking, like the arms-race conversations of children when they degenerate to the level of infinity-times-infinity and infinity-squared and infinity-to-the-power-of-infinity, so there!' (423)
But I think there are other parts to the problem, and that they're more fundamental.

Every world of the vellum is recognisable as a version of Earth. More or less distorted, it's true--the world's inhabitants may have wings or tails, for example--but still identifiable. The reason for this is that reality, in Vellum, is a human-created thing. This is a novel about the unlimited reach of human imagination; the God of Gods may be the Author (which is why, incidentally, I might argue that it's not New Weird (if that term still has any meaning at all). It doesn't trust its fantasy enough, doesn't give it enough independent existence). But in fact, the more I read of the book the more limited the vellum seemed. I kept thinking of the prologue of Stephen Baxter's novel Time:
In the afterglow of the Big Bang, humans spread in waves across the universe, sprawling and brawling and breeding and dying and evolving. There were wars, there was love, there was life and death. Minds flowed together in great rivers of consciousness, or shattered in sparkling droplets. There was immortality to be had, of a sort, a continuity of identity through replication and confluence across billions upon billons of years.

Everywhere they found life.

Nowhere did they find mind - save what they brought with them or created - no other against which human advancement could be tested. (5)
Time is the first in a loose series of stories, known as the Manifold sequence, that feature the same characters in different worlds. Baxter's reason for this is practical more than thematic--he wants a theoretical playground in which he can alter one variable, namely the answer to the Fermi paradox, and then generate a story--and his portrayal of infinity and eternity is just as much a word-built illusion as Duncan's. But the emptiness that so haunts Time is also there in Vellum; and because it is unacknowledged, it diminishes the novel. Something as vast as Duncan tells us the vellum is should not be bounded by human concerns, or should at least be capable of imagining outside them, but that never seems to be the case. If you like, it's a question of infinities--a question which Duncan is clearly aware of, since he describes it in the novel. Human imagination may be infinite, but the universe can contain an infinite amount of thinking beings; aleph-one, rather than aleph-null.

If this paradox is meant to be obvious, if it's meant to be a dissonance at the heart of the novel, then I tip my hat to the author. But it didn't seem that way to me; indeed, it felt uncomfortably parochial. And I worry, too, that it may be an unavoidable consequence of the book's style. Vellum cries out for a genuine glimpse of the infinite, some sense of perspective; but the tightly focused, frequently shifting (modernist) viewpoints that Duncan writes in never allow that scaling-out to take place. I said it was difficult to assess Vellum at this stage, and that seems true to me; but I can't help thinking that where it wants to be vast, and contain multitudes, it instead is oddly empty, and tells only part of the story.

Other takes:
[livejournal.com profile] peake, here.
[livejournal.com profile] kellyshaw, here.
Cheryl Morgan, here.
Lawrence Osborn, here.
John Clute, here.

UPDATE: Matt Cheney's review of From the Files of the Time Rangers by Richard Bowes makes an interesting comparison with some of what I said above:
Epic stories of time travel, particularly ones that try to roam through various parallel universes, are doomed to failure almost from the outset, because in trying to capture so much they highlight all that is, inevitably, left out. I couldn't help but wonder while reading From the Files of the Time Rangers, for instance, why the characters were so focused on the United States, why their world was one essentially created by Europe, why the few references to the Middle East were all of threat and strife, why Africa and South America seemed to lie outside the timestream. These thoughts are unfair to use as criticisms, because a writer can only write so much, and the secret of art is to produce a panorama from a keyhole.

Perhaps failure is the wrong word -- certainly, doom is. Rather, the success of an epic time travel story lies in its ability to make us feel the vast universe beyond us, and that success shows itself in small moments, tiny seconds when the depth of the past seems to open wide, and all the chances of an infinity of beginnings appear, against all odds, to be comprehensible. Such moments occur more than once in From the Files of the Time Rangers, and they are worth savoring.
It's exactly those glimpses of infinity that I think are missing from Vellum.
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Wednesday, August 31st, 2005 07:04 pm
Still no actual content here, but there's good stuff elsewhere.

[livejournal.com profile] greengolux has three Worldcon panel reports:
At Worldcon I attended three particularly fascinating literary panels. The first two were on the aesthetics of science fiction and fantasy respectively, and the third was entitled 'Waiting for the Fantastic' and was about those pieces of fiction that never quite break out into explicit sf or fantasy, but feel like they could do at any moment. These three panels, in a way, formed the core of the convention for me. Between them they set out to explore the very heart of the real reason I was there in the first place, attempting to get to the bottom of what science fiction, fantasy, and other works that teeter on the brink of sf and fantasy are trying to do and how they set about doing it.
[livejournal.com profile] zarabee reports a question that China Mieville asked of Gary Wolfe and John Clute during their conversation:
He commented about the the naivety of SF, and the literal reading of things in SF, and asked whether the critical approach and the interpretation which criticism necessitated means that the naievety is lost. He wanted [Clute and Wolfe] to talk about about the battle between naivety and sophistication which ensues when we start to explore the metaphorisation and the meaning of it all.
Jonathan Strahan enthuses about two stories, one by Jeff Vandermeer and one by Geoff Ryman:
I got online this morning and downloaded the night's email. In amongst it was an email from Gordon with the December F&SF attached. I was delighted to see that there was a new Geoff Ryman novelette in the issue, a story called 'The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai'. From what I can tell, it's the cover story for the issue and is quite unusual. The story head note references something called 'monkpunk', and it's tempting to be glib and say this is it. But it would be glib. The story is a very subtle and quite powerful tale of a warrior monk who leads a revolt to save the country he loves, becomes what he detests and, possibly, is responsible for a change in the way the world works. It doesn't matter whether this story is SF or fantasy (my bet is SF, though I'd be curious to hear what Gordon thinks), but it was either going to be masterful or awful. Following so closely on the heels of his completely wonderful novel Air, it should come as no surprise, that it is far closer to masterful than not. A highlight in a year of stories.
Needless to say, I am jealous of Mr Strahan's early-reading privileges.
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Saturday, August 27th, 2005 12:33 pm
Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham's latest novel, is another one of those mainstream-writers-does-sf books. Not dissimilar in structure to Cloud Atlas, it's made of three stories: one set in 1850, one in the present or very near future, and one in about 2150. The same three characters--or at least the same three souls--crop up in each: Catherine, a woman; Lucas, a boy; and Simon, a man. Each takes a turn as the viewpoint. And as with his previous novel, The Hours, a Literary Figure--Walt Whitman, this time--links the three stories.

There was an interesting and, I think, perceptive review by Michel Faber in the Guardian earlier this month:
Is Specimen Days a novel, or three novellas loosely threaded together? This is just one of the many genre disputes in which this book can become ensnared. The opening story tackles historical fiction, the second takes on the detective thriller genre, the third is science fiction. To many critics in Cunningham's native America, this represents a three-stage journey from the sublime to the ridiculous. "Science fiction will never be Literature with a capital L," the New York Times has loftily declared (apropos of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake), and Specimen Days is encountering similar flak.

[...]

Granted, Specimen Days declines in quality as it goes along. "In the Machine" is a pitch-perfect fusion of gothic melodrama, psychological realism and the mysterious spark that enlivens unforced visions. "The Children's Crusade" builds to a potent ending, but its marriage of profound compassion and cop-show clichés is unstable. "Like Beauty" handles Catareen's alienness with marvellous empathy but is bogged down by the usual demerits of mainstream science fiction: creaky expository monologues about how the future came to be, cringe-making references to people taking a "dermaslough" or hydraulicking their pods, and worship of concepts at the expense of narrative credibility. The wisecracking Luke seems derived from a Hollywood buddy movie, reciting impossibly adult repartee, and the somewhat kitsch finale fails to do justice to the book's overarching ambition.

And yet, while reading "Like Beauty" I was conscious that, had I read it in a sci-fi anthology when I was 15, I would have been awestruck by it, moved beyond tears, changed for ever. Today, I'm sufficiently sophisticated to notice the author wrestling with his material, struggling to beat it into a shape that looks natural, straining to make its hokeyness transcendent. If the aim of reading good books is to be transported, it would be better if we never developed this jaundiced analytical eye, but sadly we do. And perhaps the fiction Cunningham is attempting here is pitched at a reader who doesn't exist: an adolescent who can leap straight from Star Wars to Henry James, or an adult steeped in Woolf and Whitman who nevertheless retains a childlike capacity to be moved by X-Men 2.
It's particularly interesting to compare this review to Paul Witcover's review for SF Weekly, which declares that the book 'builds to a conclusion of mythic proportions, deeply poignant, mysterious, full of hope and longing amid devastation and despair, like Whitman's poetry, like America itself.' How unusual to see the newspaper reviewer criticising 'the usual demerits of mainstream science fiction' while the sf-mag reviewer hails the book as 'a masterpiece'.

Personally, I agree more with Faber than with Witcover--I think the sf is frankly shoddy, and I don't know that even 15-year-old-me would have enjoyed it much--but I'd probably go even further. Faber notes that Cunningham's characters are 'grieved by life's unaccountable refusal to measure up to ideals'; what stuck in my craw about the book was that it seemed to be suggesting that the failure of world is not unaccountable. Rather, that it is industrialisation and progress that have poisoned the well, and that the solution should be, in some unspecified fashion, to go back. Given that, and the fact that the central novella, 'The Children's Crusade', makes so much of terrorism as a symptom of our dystopian present, there is a temptation to read the book as a simplistic overreaction to 9/11. That may be unkind to Cunningham, however. Mostly, I just found it bizarre--and disappointing, because the first two stories are well worth reading.

There's also an interview with Cunningham here. Interesting quote:
"The more I write, the more I also feel that in this vast and dangerous world, one story just isn't enough the way it was for Austen or Eliot. So in my last two books I've told three stories; in the next there'll be even more". It keeps multiplying? "It does. I think I'll have to keep going until every sentence is a different story and then I'll have to stop," he laughs.
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Monday, July 18th, 2005 08:17 pm
I wonder if this will work?
Looking for Something New to Read?

Amazon Shorts are brand-new short-form literature from top authors, available only on Amazon.com. Try a new genre or a new author -- there's something for everyone. It's all digital and only 49 cents. Amazon Shorts are:
The sf titles look interesting, and appear to be a mix of fiction and nonfiction. 'The 'Velt' by Lucius Shepard is the one that grabs my eye first (although this thread makes me wonder if it's strictly a short story at all), but there's stuff by Mary Rosenblum, Michael Swanwick and others as well. The largest problem I can see is that they only seem to be offering the stories as HTML, which is frankly bizarre.

And tangentially, going back to the short fiction thread from a few days ago, does anyone want to own up to being anonymous?

EDIT: Anonymous strikes again! Is my journal being invaded by the dark cabal?

via John Klima
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Sunday, July 17th, 2005 11:16 am
The latest New York Review of Science Fiction (#202, June 2005) is a 'Special Edges and Over Them Issue!' and contains a number of articles that relate, directly or indirectly, to positioning and categorisation of various types of fantastic fiction. The one that particularly intrigued me is 'Traitor to Both Sides' by Karl Schroeder, author of Ventus, Permanence, and other books I should probably have read. The summary:
Science fiction is disreputable [...] SF writers tend to want to solve this problem of disreputability. There are two ways to do this: court literary respectability or court scientific accuracy. I think that both are bad strategies, because the old dichotomy of science vs. the humanities no longer holds true. In fact, sf fits the emerging picture of twenty-first century thought much better than the entrenched academic cultures of either big science or literary studies. The roots of our bad reputation lie in the ideas of another century.
Schroeder then runs through what he sees as these outdated ideas. On the side of Literature, he cites Virginia Woolf, and her contention that 'emotion must come first' in literary art. He then looks at how scientists, or in general people who value objectivity over subjectivity, traditionally react:
Part of my own interest in any argument lies not in whether it's true but in why its advocates want it to be true. What aesthetic extremists such as Woolf are defending--what motivates them to take a side in the war--is a desire to assert the value and dignity of individual, subjective human experience. Many people see science not as something that gives but as something that takes away. It takes away people's right to believe in beautiful and meaningful narratives that illuminate their place in the world--replacing them with mechanical processes. And there is some truth in this, so a stand must be made. Unfortunately, in literature, this stand is represented by the now-entrenched notion that literature is about subjectivity: 'the proper study of Mankind is Man'. I don't think Woolf would have approved of such a simplification of the art. Nevertheless, her stand against the oversimplified techniques of literary realism has been used over the years as ammunition for oversimplified humanism: the realm of the spirit is infinite, while the study of the physical world is finite. The revelation of character is the only means to revealing Spirit.

[...]

By contrast, many in the scientific and engineering communities share an essentially Platonist view of the world: there are appearances, and there is the Truth. And only the True can really be valuable. This idea is so self-evident within this community that it is rarely articulated directly; revealing this valuable Truth is, in fact, what science is all about.
The next thing Schroeder has to do to build his thesis is to demolish these two positions, and show how they are outdated. He does so entertainingly. Against Platonist scientists he cites, of course, quantum mechanics, arguing that its implication that science, although it seeks and can find privileged results, is not itself a privileged or unique process, and is not quantifiably different from other avenues of human activity, has not been fully accepted. His argument against literature is a stroke of either genius or insanity:
On the side of literary art, cognitive science has developed to the point where we can determine whether the very notion of character used in literature is valid. Literary artists have been saddled with pseudoscientific notions of human nature for centuries [...] Cognitive science is making quick strides in determining how people think; as it proceeds, a wider and wider gulf is appearing between its findings and the model of personality used in mainstream literature. For instance, while 90% of human thought is unconscious, there is no subconscious--no realm of seething animal passions waiting to burst out in irrational action. The unconscious mind is as rational and alert as the conscious mind; it creates and executes elaborate plans all the time. But the actions of this unconscious do not necessarily shed light on the 'true nature' of the person, if there is such a thing.
I think we can accept that Schroeder has done his research in this area. I have no idea whether this particular conclusion is valid--and even if it is there's an obvious, if weaselly, counterargument, which is to say that Literature is about the experience of being human, not the truth--but as a piece of rhetoric I love it.

So what's his conclusion?
To me, this means writing about the spirituality of the physical and the physicality of the spiritual. Exploring how character and meaning are mechanisms of the physical world and exploring how this physical world is just another story we tell ourselves. Not picking sides; betraying both, in fact, on the way to something new. [...] If I had one manifesto-like commandment for my fellow sf writers, it would simply be: stop picking sides. If you write sf, you're already in the fertile no-man's-land between the cultures. Follow the path you've already chosen. And don't look back.
Having started out by saying that existing scientific and literary traditions are both outdated, Schroeder's finished up by asserting that sf is Special After All, or at least that it should be. Stirring stuff, and obviously seductive for those of us in love with the form, which is one reason I immediately distrust it. To be fair, Schroder explicitly says that he sees sf as just one of many endeavours that should happen in this no-man's-land; but even so, and as fascinating as I find the idea that most of the criteria we use to evaluate sf are obsolete, I can't quite sign up to his argument. I can't quite escape the feeling that he decided on his conclusion first, and then worked out the argument he needed to get himself there.

As a postscript, Schroeder has a blog dedicated to exploring these ideas, called Age of Embodiment (this entry explains some of his thinking). And on his main blog, he's talked a little about how he sees his ideas relate to those of the mundanes.
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Friday, July 15th, 2005 10:20 am
Chance writes:
What I Believe About SF But Can't Prove

That the ongoing collapse of the short story markets has little to do with distribution problems or any of that crap that is often cited. Rather, it is because most SF writers have no love for the short forms of fiction, and mostly view it as a stepping stone to novels, a diversion, the means to an end, not the end itself. And because of this most writers churn out mediocre story after mediocre story, not willing or unable to invest the time and skill to make something wonderful.
Some not particularly ordered thoughts:

This doesn't sound completely implausible. There's also a chunky group of writers who seem to view short stories as, essentially, adverts for novels. Mr Baxter has certainly been guilty of this in the past, though he's by no means the worst offender.

But is it the whole story? Certainly the Big Three are, as far as I know, still shedding readers, but how many people are the 'zines/small press/online venues reaching, and are they reaching people who wouldn't read the Big Three?

In addition, why are writers like, say, Kelly Link--who certainly takes the time to make her stories work--not being published in the major (genre) magazines? If the answer is 'because they're not submitting to the major magazines', again, why is that?

Further, is it anything new? I was reading the first section of Hell's Cartographers last night. This is a collection of autobiographical essays by sf writers, published in 1975. The first section is by Robert Silverberg, and one of the things that really struck me was that in the first part of his career, in the late fifties and early sixties, he made a decent chunk of his living from short fiction. He was doing other kinds of writing as well, but the the short fiction seems to have provided the bulk of his income for a few years at least, and it did so not because he was crafting a few highly-paid jewels but because he was simply churning out an insane amount of words on a daily basis.

It's also a truism these days that you can't make your living from short fiction (though maybe if you had Silverberg's output you could?), and I suspect that may be a big reason why writers focus on novels.

And lastly, and I suppose most importantly: if this is a reason for collapsing short fiction markets, can anything be done about it, and if so what?

EDIT: On a similar theme, this (not entirely serious) post by Alan DeNiro:
Short Stories, 2015

In light of what science fiction writers are “supposed” to do–be predictive, prophetic, whatever–and with a lot of paradigms floating around lately in terms of perscriptive notions of how to fix genre writing, let’s take some potshots at the future. Short story readership is in decline…I think we can all agree on this? So where does it go? What’s the event horizon? And secondly, how does this change–if at all–the creative processes at work?
Make sure to read the comments.

SON OF EDIT: via [livejournal.com profile] sartorias, who points at Gregory Feeley's blog, who quotes from the introduction to a collection by Robert Sheckley:
"Despite the efforts of NESFA Press and others, almost everybody is looking at novels as the measure of a writer's true quality. If this goes on without challenge, everone from Damon Knight to Harlan Ellison, from Lucius Shepard to Ted Chiang will end up as second rank, and not worthy of Grand Master awards no matter how fine their stories. And to put it bluntly, there are a disproportionate number of excellent short story writers in the SF tradition, but not a lot of first class novelists."

-- David Hartwell