who chooses our required reading? We do

Ever since I read S. L. Huang’ post on who chooses sf classics I’ve been thinking about this:

I don’t understand how we can have a genre where “You haven’t read HEINLEIN (/Asimov/Clarke/Bradbury/Dick/etc.)??” are common and accepted refrains, and “You haven’t read BUTLER??” is almost unheard. Why aren’t we saying it? Why isn’t Octavia Butler considered “required reading” of the classics in order to consider oneself a True SF Fan? Why don’t people feel left out and incomplete if they haven’t read her?

I don’t really know what defines a classic, or who should get to say what one is. But I do know I find myself feeling deeply uncomfortable with any popular mentality that shames people for not reading influential white men while giving a pass to those who skip the influential black women.

Now ideally, as Damon Knight put it, “science fiction is that what we say it is when we point at it”, meaning that it’s an ongoing debate between writers, editors, publishers, critics, readers and fans that determines what the core of the genre is. Put simply, books that are written as science fiction, accepted by publishers as part of a science fiction line, reviewed as such and talked about as science fiction, are science fiction. And vice versa; The Handmaid’s Tale clearly is science fiction, but because Margaret Atwood has taken pains to deny this, it was published by a mainstream publisher and treated by critics as literature rather than sci-fi, it’s not part of science fiction in the same way “If This Goes On…” is.

Clearly if there is such a thing as a science fiction canon, a core group of novels, stories and writers that you should’ve read to be knowledgeable about science fiction, it should be determined in the same way, ever changing and evolving as science fiction changes and evolves, and yet it hasn’t much evolved beyond the holy “Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov” trinity and their fellow mostly male, mostly white, mostly dead Golden Age collegues. Why?

I blame it on the seventies.

The seventies was a watershed moment for (English language) science fiction. The genre as a genre was roughly half a century old and those who had grown up with it in the thirties, forties and fifties were now old enough to be nostalgic about it. Science fiction had grown up from paraliterature only found in cheap pulps into something halfway into respectability, for the first time getting sustained critical attention from outside of fandom. It was popular, but would only truly become mainstream in the wake of Star Wars and it was still barely possible in the early to mid seventies to read every science fiction book published in a given year. The seventies were also the decade where the centre of the genre switched from the magazines to the novel, with novels getting longer as they no longer needed to take into account serialisation.

Finally, there was also the backlash against the upheavals science fiction went through in the sixties and seventies. First there was the British New Wave, where writers like Aldiss, Ballard and Moorcock imported literary techniques into science fiction, which was exported by Judith Merril to the US leading to the American version, more explicitly taboo breaking and political, through Delany, Dick, Russ and LeGuin, to name but a few, which resulted in a new revelance in science fiction, a willingness to engage with the political, sociological and ecological issues of the day. For a lot of science fiction professionals and fans alike, these were not welcome developments and there was a strong, nostalgic backlash against it.

It’s in this climate that the science fiction “canon” got established, through a flood of popular histories and coffee table books, like Brian Ash’ The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction or David Kyle’s A Pictoral History of Science Fiction, as well as through publishing programmes like Ballantines/Del Rey’s The Best of… series, reprinting short stories by the best science fiction writers of the Golden Age. The rough consensus therefore that emerged was conservative and nostalgic in nature, created by people who’d themselves been around science fiction for decades, well read and knowledgeable about it, but perhaps somewhat blinkered to everything that falls outside it.

We’re still living with that consensus, that canon, forty years later; it’s high time we re-evaluate it.

Self promotion: threat or menace?

Adam Roberts doesn’t like the modern science fiction writer’s habit of self promotion. John Scalzi gets a bit defensive about it and explains why a little bit of self promotion is cool, but it shouldn’t be too much. Enter Amal El-Mohtar, who gets annoyed by both of them and explains why these attitudes about self promotion hinder writers coming from marginalised groups:

No hand-wringing or tut-tutting about reading widely or behaving with dignity or integrity or what have you is going to end the practice of brash, confident people telling other people, often and obnoxiously, to vote for them. But, crucially, the hand-wringing and tut-tutting does have an effect: it discourages the people who already feel silenced and uncomfortable from ever talking about or taking pride in their achievements.

You cannot with one breath say that you wish more women were recognized for their work, and then say in the next that you think less of people who make others aware of their work. You cannot trust that somehow, magically, the systems that suppress the voices of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, will of their own accord stop doing that when award season rolls around in order to suddenly make you aware of their work. You MUST recognize the fact that the only way to counter silence is to encourage speech and make room for it to be heard.

To be honest the self promotion of writers like John Scalzi has always annoyed me, all that relentless hyping and huckstering doesn’t fit the fandom I grew up with. Yet Amal El-Mohtar has a point here. Not everybody’s voice is equal in fandom and some people need to shout twice as loud to get their voice heard. And if nobody else does it, you have to do it yourself. Mohtar’s post is where it clicked for me how complaining about self promotion and crass commercialism can be privilege talking, especially in the context of the Hugo Awards.

The truth is that science fiction fandom, certainly that part of it that is defined by e.g. the Hugo Awards, still isn’t as welcoming and diverse as it should be, while the world of science fiction as a whole is much much larger than encompassed by the Worldcon/Hugo Award tradition. I’ve long held that the Hugos have lost much of their relevancy because they’re stuck with a voting audience no longer representative of science fiction as a whole. If left alone, these will keep voting for the same sort of writers they always vote for. Efforts to promote new and underrepresented writers therefore should be lauded, not scoffed at.

Fukitor, transgression and willful misunderstandings

Right. I talked about Jason Karns’ Fukitor before, one of a new breed of independent comics that wallows in the dumb sexism, violence and racism of an earlier generation of comics; a 21st century Gun Fury, if that comic had gotten loving writeups in The Comics Journal. Charles Reece took exception to what I wrote, saying that he wasn’t “the least bit symathetic, for example, to Matthew Wisse’s [sic] view on transgression”, reducing my argument to:

In another words, something is transgressive (and “daring”) only when it violates another’s expectations, not his own committed leftism. Transgression is pissing off some imagined conservative, never the leftist who wants to understand why the other hates us so.

Which really missed the point. It’s not that Karns violates my own “committed leftism”, it’s that nothing he has done is actually all that dangerous; his work is about as trangressive as a Rambo movie, only with more gore and tits. If you use racist, ooga boga stereotypes “ironically”, you better use them to dish stronger fare than “American ninjas versus terrorists”.

To be honest, a lot of people confuse the use of racism, misogyny, torture or sexual violence with transgression, but popular culture is already drenched in these, so how could it be transgressive? All Karns has done is make it more blatant and gory. That really isn’t enough to make it interesting.

And again, it isn’t brave to indulge in the same racism that you can get anywhere already, just by smearing a thin layer of irony on top of it, nor is it cool to pat yourself on the back for enjoying this sort of thing because you are sure you can enjoy ironically and all the racism isn’t real; even though Karns said it was.

Fukitor can feck off

page from Fukitor

Jason Karns, the creator of Fukitor, the comic shown above, wants you to know that these are not lazy Muslim/Arab terrorist stereotypes you see, they are CARTOONS:

First off, the word “muslim” is never implied. Second, the terrorists aren’t real. They are cartoons based loosely on the fact that there are people on this planet who will kill you because you don’t believe in their imaginary god. Again, they are CARTOONS. It’s complete fantasy.

The fact that the villians here are all brown skinned, bearded and wearing what certainly looks like stereotypical Middle Eastern clothing and come from “Ufukistan” — sheer coincidence. Also, you shouldn’t complain about these images because in the same issue Martians are also treated badly.

panelsfrom Fukitor 9

But anyway, even fantasy CARTOONS should be realistic says Jason:

I mean…are YOU serious?? Are you suggesting that cartoon terrorists shouldn’t be depicted as something that’s relatively close to reality? You do realize it’s not a stretch, right? Maybe you don’t.

So it’s not real, but it is realistic. Gotcha. Jason Karns’ defence so far has hit most of the expected points: it’s only a story, it’s not real, actually, it’s taken from real life, pointing out racism is the real crime, criticism is censhorship, what about the Martians, but it doesn’t excuse the Planet of the Arabs imagery:



So why do sensible people like this comic? Jim Rugg explains and doesn’t ignor its flaws:

It’s even more insanely racist than it looks, and also it is insanely misogynistic, exploitative, misanthropic, nihilistic, antisocial, funny, engaging, shocking, dynamic, beautiful, inspiring, scary, and well-designed!

It’s the kind of comics that scared a generation into burning comics in the 50s.

These comics feel genuinely dangerous and entertaining like slasher movies and cheap, violent 80s action vehicles. I’ve never seen any other comics like these. I was happy to see comments that mentioned Crumb, Johnny Ryan, and Vigil’s Faust. This is divisive, complex work. It’s not for everyone. But it’s a reminder, like other great comics, of why I love the comics form. Images and drawings can be powerful. I think many cartoonists do not focus on that aspect of the form.

To be honest though, there was a lot of shitty comics being burned in the fifties as well. The grossout horror and real crime stories could actually be transgressive back then because comics were about the only medium not censored into pablum, largely beneath the notice of the censors, until Wertham found a way to sell more books. Karns’ work takes place in a completely different media environment, one in which anything goes and there’s nothing transgressive or radical about blood and gore, especially not when done by white dudes to brown villains.

Rugg’s comparison to “slasher movies and cheap, violent 80s action vehicles” is telling, because under the gore, violence and the occasional bare titties, these were some of the most conservative movies in the world. Slasher movies always killed off the girl who actually enjoyed sex first (but not after the topless shot, natch) for being a slutty slut who sluttily enjoys slutty sex, while eighties action movies were all about re-establishing American dominance over all the world villains, be they Russians, Cubans, East Germans, Arabs, Vietnamese, or, in Chuck Norris flick Invasion U.S.A., all of them. There’s nothing “dangerous” about imitating them, nothing of Karns I’ve seen so far that looks any more interesting than what Barry Blair did in the eighties black and white boom.

Even without the racism Karns work looks dull, a thirtysomething’s idea of what a thirteen year old would like; with the racism it just leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. It may have struck Tom Spurgeon as weird that you’d “dismiss the transgressive nature of something at the same time you’re trying to shout it down in some fashion“, but just because it annoys people it’s not transgressive, or all muzak ever would be. Nor are people necessarily trying to shout it down in the first place: criticism, even harsh out of hand dismissals, are not censorship. Karns has the right to make the comics he wants to; the rest of us have the right to think less of him for what he created.

If he really wants to shock and be radical and trangressive, why not have the same comic, but with the heroic defenders of Fukistani values defeating the evil forces of the godless west? Show some gleeful, lovingly dismemberment of US soldiers while Osama Bin Laden quips one liners? That would still be dull, but slightly more brave than just putting the boot into your country’s official enemies once again.

Anne McCaffrey again

Tom Spurgeon links to my review of Dragonquest and expands on it:

I think he’s right, but I actually think he undersells those core trilogies, which I think are pretty great for smart kids and teens. There are a bunch of reasons, including but not limited to: McCaffrey’s prose is ideally suited for younger readers, straight-forward and no-fuss; the plots are reasonably complex without being over-challenging in terms of adult themes, the Harper Hall trilogy is where I first discovered the boarding-school fantasy that the Harry Potter books utilize to even greater effect, and the good-guy/bad-guy elements are interesting in that the biggest threat is environmental rather than all-encompassing, directed evil. I was also fascinated by the fact that the two trilogies kind of wove in and out of each other, and by the concept of a civilization that declined rather than progressed. I’m very grateful to have read those books in my tweens.

All points I’d agree with, save perhaps for the declining civilisation; that’s the case in the first book, but by the second it’s clear there’s a renaissance of sorts going on.

Now I have to confess I’d actually never read the Harper Hall books, but by sheer coincidence I picked them up yesterday, meeting my father at Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein flea market. I just finished the first book, Dragonsong today; at less than 200 pages it’s not a long read. But my goodness, this was even more of a wish fulfilment story than the first Harry Potter book is. A girl on the edge of becoming an adult is denied her talent in making music, put down by her family and Hold, runs away and discovers that not only she’s able to impress more fire lizards than everybody else who ever tried, but has her musical gift recognised by the masterharper itself.

Saga — Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

So a couple of months ago I talked about Prophet and how much it seemed influenced by European comics. Well, Saga is another Image series that could’ve just as well been published in Metal Hurlant or A Suivre. It’s written by Brian K. Vaughan, known to me from Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, but whom I haven’t yet read anything from and drawn by Fiona Staples, who I know nothing about but who is seriously good here. Especially her facial expressions:

Saga - cutting the umbilical cord

Saga is the story of Alana, the woman on the left and Marko, the horned dude, starcrossed lovers in a galaxy at war. Alana is from Landfall while Marko is from Wreath, its moon and these two have been at war for seemingly forever, having outsourced it to the rest of the galaxy. Alana and Marko met on Cleave, the latest planet to become a battlefield when he was a POW and she his guard, fell in love and deserted. Now they have to get off planet while taking care of their newborn baby. Hijinks ensue.

Saga - The Will and the Lying Cat

Both sides meanwhile want them dead. From Planetfall Prince Robot IV is sent to Cleave to hunt them down, while Marko’s people have hired freelancers to do the same. That’s one of them above, The Will, with his partner Lying Cat, who can tell if you’re lying to her. The other freelancer is The Stalk, below, whom The Will has history with.

Saga - The Stalk

The story moves slowly over the course of the six issues represented in the first trade paperback, with Marko and Alana trying to get to the Rocketship Woods on the other side of Cleave, while The Will, The Stalk and Prince Robot IV all attempt to catch up to them, one way or another.

Saga - Prince Robot IV

What makes Saga more than just a pretty sci-fi adventure is the simple fact that none of the main characters are true villains or heroes. Alana and Marko just want to live in peace with their daughter, to be left alone, while Prince Robot IV just want to get things over with so he can go home to his pregnant wife. Even the two freelancers are anything but Boba Fett like bounty hunters, with The Will frex having confliced feelings about his former partner, The Stalk.

Saga - The Will and the Stalk

But what really makes the series is the artwork; as said Staples is seriously good at facial expressions, slightly exaggerated at key moments, but also has a good eye for character design and layout in general. In general, like Prophet, this is a series that actually makes me enthusiastic about American comics again, something that shows there are still pleasant surprises to be had.

Prophet — Brandon Graham et all

Opening splash page of Prophet #21 by Simon Roy

That Rob Liefeld, back at Image and having somewhat rehabilitated himself this past decade, would attempt to restart his old nineties titles was expected. That he even would get back to Prophet wasn’t much of a suprise either, but that the new Prophet would become a cult success and a critical hit, that I never suspected. I don’t really remember the original Prophet, just another of Liefeld’s Cable clones, akk hip pouches and big guns, that got his fifteen minutes of fame thanks to Wizard hype with nothing to distinguish it from the dozens of other Liefeldian creations published back then.

Farel Dalrympie has a nice Bilal-like touch

The second time around Prophet has nothing of Liefeld in it anymore, with the only thing surviving from the original series being the title and John Prophet’s general appearance, sans hip pouches. Apart from that nothing connects the two series.

Sex with aliens? This must be Metal Hurlant

I don’t know the people behind the new series: Brandon Graham, the main writer and Simon Roy, Farel Dalrympie, Giannis Milonogiannis, the artists, with Brandon also lending a hand to the art for one chapter. Never heard of them before this, never read anything they’ve done, all I know is one thing. Somebody must’ve read a lot of French seventies science fiction comics.

Prophet as Arzach. Simon Roy does Moebius

It’s the art that you notice this first. It’s rare for artists working in American comics to be this influenced by European art rather than Japanese manga, especially in a science fiction series like this, but the names that come up to compare with are people like Enki Bilal, Philippe Druillet, Paul Gillon, J. C. Mezieres, Jean Claude Forest, and of course Moebius.The designs of the aliens, the vehicles, the flora and fauna of the far future Earth, the slightly trippy setting and matter of fact protagonist, it could’ve been a serial in mid-seventies Métal Hurlant.

Giannis Milonogiannis does have some manga influences

The story too is very Métal Hurlant like: Prophet awakes in an underground pod, on a far future Earth unfamiliar to him, a voice in his head urging him to travel East. The country he travels through is devoid of familiar live, taken over by various aliens, bearing the scars of long ago wars. Over the course of the first three chapters it turns out Prophet’s task is to restore the Earth Empire by activating the G.O.D. satellite. His task complete, we learn that he is but one of a legion of clone brothers, as John Prophets all over the galaxy awaken and the action shifts elsewhere.

Brandon Graham goes cosmic

In all, I’ve no idea how these people got their seventies French sci-fi romp wedged into a nineties Image superhero title, or why, but I’m glad they did. This is a brilliant, original series like nothing else being published and while I keep harping on about how much it reminds me of something like Exterminator 17 e.g., the thing is that this is not an exercise in nostalgia, but something modern, something new, something that hasn’t really been done before. This is actually a series you may want to read as it comes out, rather than wait for the trades.

Metro Art

Art in the Metro

The Amsterdam Metro’s oldest trains are some thirty years old, dating back to when the underground was first opened in the late seventies. They were revamped and gotten a mid life update a couple of years ago and to give them a fresher image, the GVB got some forty artists to design a carriage. The above is my favourite, a representation of what a similar carriage would look like in Mumbai. The complete set of carriages can be seen at the GVB website

Nicola Griffith talks about Slow River

So about a week ago, on my booklog, I wrote the following about Nicola Griffith’s Slow River:

What I only noticed about a quarter of the way in is that these three interwoven stories are actually written in three different viewpoints. There’s the first person point of view for the present, tight second person focus for the years with Spanner, while the chapters focusing on her family are in a much looser second person focus. The difference is that in the first form of second person focus we’re still inside Lore’s head most of the time, with the text refering her as “she”, while the second form, we see her from the outside, as “Lore”. It is of course symbolic for her growing up, maturing, going from what others see her as, to what she sees herself as. A coming of age story that is not nearly as obvious as most such are in science fiction.

I also wrote that it had been first published in 1991 rather 1995, which prompted Nicola herself to correct me in order to be polite and in passing she also explained about how Slow River is arranged (all quoted by permission, natch):

The three narrative layers/POVs (I think of them as points-of-view lacquered on top of each other so that the imagery and emotion bleed through) are formally arranged in an ABA C ABA C ABA pattern:
- C = Lore age 5 to 18 in third person, past tense
- B = Lore age 18 to 21 in third person, past tense
- A = Lore age 21 and up in first person, present tense

I’ve talked in various places (I really should pull it all together at some point, but haven’t yet) about why I chose the POV and tenses. Short version: present tense is an indicator of a dream-like state, which is what childhood is; third person, like past tense, is the traditional POV and tense; first person is my way of signifying that this is the narrative present, this is the Now of the book, telling the reader “You are here.” At the same time, I really wanted the emotions to form an easy narrative through-line so the reader never feels confused.

It worked for me and I’m not the only one who noticed this structure; so did Russ Allberry for example. What struck me about it is that this works even if you don’t notice it consciously, which is the hallmark of a good writer.

If you want to read more about how Slow River was written, the essay layered cities about the city at the heart of the story, as well as writing Slow River, an interview, are highly recommended. Nicola Griffith’s latest novel is the historical novel Hild, which won’t come out until next year unfortunately.

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010

It’s been a while since we’ve done a booklist meme, but the recent publication of Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010, as determined by Damien Broderick and Paul DiFilipo gives a good excuse. Which one of those below have you read (italics), do you own bold or dislike (struck through)?

  • The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  • Ender’s Game (1985)
  • Radio Free Albemuth (1985)
  • Always Coming Home (1985)
  • This Is the Way the World Ends (1985)
  • Galápagos (1985)
  • The Falling Woman (1986)
  • The Shore of Women (1986)
  • A Door Into Ocean (1986)
  • Soldiers of Paradise (1987)
  • Life During Wartime (1987)
  • The Sea and Summer (1987)
  • Cyteen (1988)
  • Neverness (1988)
  • The Steerswoman (1989)
  • Grass (1989)
  • Use of Weapons (1990)
  • Queen of Angels (1990)
  • Barrayar (1991)
  • Synners (1991)
  • Sarah Canary (1991)
  • White Queen (1991)
  • Eternal Light (1991)
  • Stations of the Tide (1991)
  • Timelike Infinity (1992)
  • Dead Girls (1992)
  • Jumper (1992)
  • China Mountain Zhang (1992)
  • Red Mars (1992)
  • A Fire Upon the Deep (1992)
  • Aristoi (1992)
  • Doomsday Book (1992)
  • Parable of the Sower (1993)
  • Ammonite (1993)
  • Chimera (1993)
  • Nightside the Long Sun (1993)
  • Brittle Innings (1994)
  • Permutation City (1994)
  • Blood (1994)
  • Mother of Storms (1995)
  • Sailing Bright Eternity (1995)
  • Galatea 2.2 (1995)
  • The Diamond Age (1995)
  • The Transmigration of Souls (1996)
  • The Fortunate Fall (1996)
  • The Sparrow/Children of God (1996/1998)
  • Holy Fire (1996)
  • Night Lamp (1996)
  • In the Garden of Iden (1997)
  • Forever Peace (1997)
  • Glimmering (1997)
  • As She Climbed Across the Table (1997)
  • The Cassini Division (1998)
  • Bloom (1998)
  • Vast (1998)
  • The Golden Globe (1998)
  • Headlong (1999)
  • Cave of Stars (1999)
  • Genesis (2000)
  • Super-Cannes (2000)
  • Under the Skin (2000)
  • Perdido Street Station (2000)
  • Distance Haze (2000)
  • Revelation Space trilogy (2000)
  • Salt (2000)
  • Ventus (2001)
  • The Cassandra Complex (2001)
  • Light (2002)
  • Altered Carbon (2002)
  • The Separation (2002)
  • The Golden Age (2002)
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)
  • Natural History (2003)
  • The Labyrinth Key / Spears of God
  • River of Gods (2004)
  • The Plot Against America (2004)
  • Never Let Me Go (2005)
  • The House of Storms (2005)
  • Counting Heads (2005)
  • Air (Or, Have Not Have) (2005)
  • Accelerando (2005)
  • Spin (2005)
  • My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (2006)
  • The Road (2006)
  • Temeraire /His Majesty’s Dragon (2006)
  • Blindsight (2006)
  • HARM (2007)
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
  • The Secret City (2007)
  • In War Times (2007)
  • Postsingular (2007)
  • Shadow of the Scorpion (2008)
  • The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010)
  • Little Brother (2008)
  • The Alchemy of Stone (2008)
  • The Windup Girl (2009)
  • Steal Across the Sky(2009)
  • Boneshaker (2009)
  • Zoo City (2010)
  • Zero History (2010)
  • The Quantum Thief (2010)

A decent enough list, with only two books I hate. There are the usual sort of problems with any such list, in that the more recent choices are also more debatable as not enough time has passed since they were published. The Quantum Thief was enjoyable, but one of the best books of the last twentyfive years, or even one of the best books of 2010, I’m not sure. It also overrates decent efforts by mainstream novelists when similar efforts by science fiction writers would not have been included. Some choices are also strange: Barrayar instead of e.g. Komarr or A Civil Campaign? But still, a decent enough list on the whole.