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Adam Roberts' feature review of the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist is up at Infinity Plus. I think [ profile] immortalradical might enjoy this one:
Can the novel still be novel, in this age of ours? There are times when, traipsing through the marshlands of silver-age fiction and derivative slush that constitutes the mainstream novel in the early twenty-first century, a reader might be forgiven for despairing. But surely SF isn't like this. Surely Science Fiction, of all genres, is one place where not only intellectual but formal newness would be welcomed? A literature of ideas, an imaginative entry into alien-ness and unfamiliarity, a canvas that apprehends the entire continuity of space and time rather than just the emotionally fraught goings-on of middle-class people in multicultural London or Chicago -- surely we can hope, surely expect, to encounter newness in SF?

I'm being heavy-handed. Of course we all know how much of the SF backlist is worryingly conventional, unadventurous: written in functional grey prose (or worse, in Thoggish cliché); structured according to a frankly 19th-century model of set-up, linear or interleaved plotline development and climax; populated by cookie-cut 'characters' that barely deserve the name, feeble types from Joseph Campbell's cardboard supply. If a novel doesn't make new in some sense, what good is it? Why read a third-generation retread of a classic original when you can, you know, just read the original?

This year's Clarke shortlist is a good list, not least in the sense that no obviously standout SF title published in the UK in 2005 has been omitted (with the possible exceptions of Justina Robson's challenging but brilliant Living Next Door To The God Of Love and James Lovegrove's witty Provender Gleed). But I find myself wondering: how many of them are doing anything conceptually, formally, tonally new? That, in Hamlet's once-new, now hackneyed words, is the question.
All that and a rant about cats, too.
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Making Book is a collection of highly entertaining essays by editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden (whose blog is very good, but frustratingly lacks a full-text RSS feed). They date from the eighties and early nineties. Most are autobiographical anecdotes (e.g. 'God and I', in which Our Heroine is excommunicated by the Mormons), but there are also a couple of bits of parodic fiction, a justifiably vitriolic review of American Psycho--and also a wonderful piece called 'On Copyediting'. You'd think that a style document intended for copyeditors working for Tor might be dry reading, but no! For instance, this recollection on When Copyeditors Attack SF:
I have faith that none of Tor's copyeditors would take the interesting approach once used by a freelancer working on an SF novel for another house. He decided that all the scenes involving time travel were metaphorical, and accordingly went through and recast them all in the subjunctive.

Far better the approach of one production editor who noticed that, in a future New York City, a character went in an impossible direction while crossing into Brooklyn via a bridge that exists today. Since he hadn't read the entire novel, he phoned the editor to ask whether, in that future, Brooklyn had moved. It hadn't; the author had made a simple directional error. But that production editor had Right Attitude.

I have had the idea in my head for a while of reading as many of the Very Short Introduction series as possible, since many people have said good things about them. I started with Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction by Ian J Deary, which is excellent. Each chapter of the book deals with one of the Big Questions about intelligence--the relative influence of genes and the environment, for example, or how intelligence varies with age--by focusing on one or two 'key datasets' in the area. Deary explains scientific findings as clearly as any writer I've ever read, offering just the right balance of explanation and interpretation. Next up, the VSI: Lit Crit, I think. Suggestions for which one I should try after that are welcomed.

When I started reading Adam Roberts' story collection Swiftly, I had bold ideas about reviewing each of the stories individually for [ profile] shortform; sadly, real life got in the way, so you get this summary instead. Roberts is not known for his short fiction, but I thought the collection was a good mix, if perhaps more interesting than successful. Many the stories feel curiously traditional and curiously modern at the same time: traditional in the way they take a classic SF idea such as time travel or contact with aliens--you can see Roberts working through his list of subgenres--but modern in the way the story is framed--take 'Blindness and Invisibility', for instance, in which the existence of a technology to make people invisible is less important than the impact it has had on one retired veteran.

The best stories are the longest. 'Swiftly' and 'Eleanor' form a pair, both set in a world in which Gulliver's travles were real; of course, the Liliputians have become slaves, and the Brobdingnagians are conscripted to fight on the battlefields of Europe. 'Swiftly' is the bigger, bolder story, while 'Eleanor' is the more thoughtful. Indeed, in 'Eleanor' the Liliputians are very much in the background. The story is of young Eleanor's (unhappy) marriage to a wealthy industrialist; that said industrialist traffics in Liliputians (or more accurately, Bleufuscans) is, for much of its length, almost incidental. I also liked 'Stationary Acceleration', which is primarily a portrait of a (probably) self-deluding scientist--one of those stories where the sf element could just be all in someone else's head--but ends up all the more effective for it.

Two other observations. One, most of these stories are obvious, and are eager to tell you at some point What They Mean. This can be irritating in the shortest stories (I liked 'Tour de Lune' right up until its final paragraph), though in the best pieces, such as 'Jupiter Magnified' (even in the chopped-down version presented here) it's a mistake to take any explanations at face value. Indeed, in 'Jupiter Magnified' the answer is almost beside the point; it's the thinking that makes it matter. Two, it's not really hard sf (and a couple of the stories are out and out fantasy) but it is logical sf. Accept the premise, and what follows is elegantly inevitable.

Now, this is a real oddity: Kling Klang Klatch, a graphic novel scripted by Ian McDonald and illustrated by David Lyttleton. It's completely loony, in the best possible way.

In Toytown, a panda has been murdered. The killing seems to be racially motivated. Inspector McBear is on the case. The writing is none-more-noir--
Pandatown. Twenty years on these streets I still can't pronounce. It's a whole different universe down there. In Pandatown, the time is always half past a nightmare. The bones are rolling. The rats are running. The chips are down, and a tenor sax is blowing in an empty doorway. And the neon is still the exact colour of hysteria.

--but the illustrations are brightly-coloured, and the characters look for all the world like mean-spirited teddy bears. So what's going on? Is it a posthuman playground? Is it a child's fantasy? A bit of both, actually, and more: it's a riotous mix of metaphor and Tom Waits lyrics and just plain ol' weird shit. Needless to say, I'll be lending it to everyone I know. Most intriguingly, it was part of a series of graphic novels by sf authors. I'd love to see what M John Harrison's is like.

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