Saturday, 17 October 2009

Off the Shelf

The Sheffield SFF Writers' Group, in association with the Off the Shelf literary festival, presents

An Evening of Flash Fiction.

Monday 19 October 2009

7:30 pm onwards

Upstairs at the Old Queen's Head, Pond Hill.

Panverse accepting submissions

Panverse, a new publisher of all-novella anthologies, is currently accepting submissions for Panverse Two, its second anthology, which is due to be published in late spring 2010.

They're looking for "pro-level" novellas of 15,000 to 40,000 words. Science fiction or fantasy - but not epic fantasy or sword & sorcery. Payment is $75 per novella. Submissions are open until they have enough good stories for the anthology.

Full guidelines are here. Note especially the sort of stuff they don't want.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Dave's favourite SF, part 3

SF goes back as far as you want to look, though the technophilia of the 19th century definitely gave most of its themes a big boost. When I was about eight I saw the 1959 Pat Boone and James Mason film of Jules Verne's 1864 novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth and went on to read the book as soon as I could get hold of it. About the same age I discovered a graphic novel version (though I think they were called comic books in those days) of H. G. Wells' 1898 The War of the Worlds, going on to read the full text novel a little later.

Most of the early SF I've been reviewing here is from that era between 1930 and 1960, the so-called Golden Age of SF. Many of the great themes of SF were established and explored in these years, coloured by a host of wonderful, quirky, eccentric people.

Some more deep future history from that era: since posting up part two of this blog, the gods of SF have placed into my hands just this week another classic of "deep future history", Arthur C Clarke's The City And The Stars, which I somehow managed never to read before. This starts off with a perfect description of immersive VR – he writes:

"it was as if he lived in a dream yet believed he was awake"

- and is it the first of its kind, in 1956? The "real" space of the City is as mutable as VR, so they overlap, which is a terrific theme in itself.

I realised that this novel must be a descendant of Olaf Stapledon's Last And First Men and an ancestor, probably, of Michael Moorcock's The Dancers At The End of Time (see below), and maybe Roger Zelazny's Lord Of Light too.

The core of the story is the thrill of Alvin's discovery of a way out of the City's enclosed world. At the core of life there has to be, as far as I'm concerned, engagement with seeking the mysteries of life. This is why I value weirdness in SF – the world is weird in places, at the edges of normal discourse, and the weird edges of it give escape points from what would otherwise be a prison-planet of physical "scientism" (not that science is bad – it's the blind faith in materialism I call "scientism" that is so restrictive).

Back to Utopias and their pains, and projecting forward into the future from existing subcultures, we have Gwyneth Jones' Bold As Love and Castles Made Of Sand. Yes, those really are Hendrix titles, and the books are thick with 60s references (even including ones to the Grateful Dead, which made me wonder who the series is aimed at – I wasn't aware that anyone under fifty listened to their music). It's also got some true-life type stoner jokes in it.

The background to the novels is the splitting of the UK into its component parts, and a resurgent retro-romantic tribalism, in some areas of which the old 60s counterculture gets to see all its dreams and nightmares begin to come true. This is done with tremendously rich detail. The references to festival life – some of its less savoury characters, its fearless, amoral children, and the absurd or horrific results of "let it all hang out" ideologies show she's lived in that world.

There are a couple of illustrations from veteran comic / graphic novel author Bryan Talbot. The central characters are in a two-men-one-woman triad, and the relationships are very well done. Jones seems to be one the current darlings of the British literary-SF world, and deservedly so.

I expect I shall read the other novels that have come along to follow the first two, though I'm generally suspicious of series – how long can it be before the other-world the reader has come to love playing in becomes a bigger draw than the story, and it all goes thin?

The Bold as Love series has an interesting website. Visit it with your sound on, and hear how cleverly Jones plays on the ideas of Englishness and Britishness.

My taste for cyberpunk's neo-noir and also for stories that raise political questions means I get to read a lot of dystopias.

Fitting neatly into neither of these categories is the first short story I read in the 60s New Wave SF, J G Ballard's 'The Voices of Time'. The human race is decaying into permanent sleep, and the protagonist, like many a Ballardian character, is caught between his old life and the some mutation into an unknown and terrifying future being. This story is almost pure poetry, Ballard mixing bleak post-industrial landscapes with speculative neurology to hint at the alienness of evolutionary process.

Recently re-reading The Drowned World made me remember how brilliant Ballard's writing is:

"These are the oldest memories on earth, the time-codes carried in every chromosome and gene... now we are being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past... Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory... The... central nervous system is a coded time-scale... The further down the CHS you move, you descend back into the neuronic past."

Ballard's densest, most apocalyptic poetry is in the collection The Atrocity Exhibition. I first read 'You and Me and the Continuum', a related story, in a copy of New Worlds from Woolworths' remainders counter some time in the 60s. This was the beginning of the reaction that turned SF from outer space to inner.

One of my all-time favourite novels is William Gibson's Count Zero, second in the Neuromancer trilogy. It's a slickly-written thriller with some really daring ideas, and a plot based around the evolution of artificial intelligences at a stage where they're impersonating Voudon deities. I can't quote the opening lines because my copy is currently missing, but the temporary death of one of the main characters on the first page sets a tremendous pace.

In Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley we have multidimensional characters in a multiverse of political conspiracy. This is clearly a satire on the US imperial role in the world and doubts about it of people in the know. CAs are intelligence operatives of the blackest-ops sort, a bit like James Ellroy's tough guys (in, e.g., American Tabloid) but with a touch of Switters in Tom Robbins's Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, a highly recommended book which I'll get round to discussing later. Satire it surely is, but told from a very USA POV in which everyone not conventional right-of-centre is a communist. But I think this supplies clarity in the transformations that follow – by presenting a stereotypical image of the hawk faction in US life. The dimensions deepen though – our operatives have profound doubts about their Government's policy of interference in parallel Americas to bring about democracy. Conspiracies nest inside conspiracies, black ops inside black ops. The appalling moral and political consequences of this imperial interference in the name of democracy come into stark focus as the tale progresses.

A fairly long book, full of painstaking detail, like Ellroy, I think this novel does a great job of suggesting then showing the moral horror of imperialism done in the name of democracy. Cowboy Angels is SF in the mode of using an imaginative device to make a more powerful or nuanced point about human life than "realism" can do.

Brian Aldiss's recent novel HARM is set in a dystopian near-future UK oppressed by Guantanamo-type torture centres, which oppression is in turn radicalising Moslem youth, leading to an escalation almost into civil war. The situation is running out of control, a feedback loop of increasing brutality on both sides. The protagonist, Paul Fadhil Ali, a British-born apostate Moslem writer, is arrested for making a joke in a comic novel about the assassination of the British PM. Subject to dissociative personality disorder, he finds his identity fragmenting under torture, escaping to a planet colonized by future humans. But it is no escapist fantasy – Stygia contains all the genocidal evil of Earth at its worst, and parallels emerge between his parallel lives.

A dark, dark, disturbing novel, not least because it is so beautifully written, the decayed English of the Stygia colonists full of malapropistic word games and puns.

More cyberpunkish and more optimistic is Jeff Noon's writing, set in Mancunian youth culture. In Vurt he is writing what could be called nanopunk – youngsters get hold of incredibly powerful nanotechnolgy and use it for fun and adventure into other dimensions, and in Needle in the Groove a new recording technology renders music indistinguishable from drugs.

Optimism in SF
This entry is written partly in response to a question from a writer friend of mine who is not particularly into SF: he asked if I thought that if someone wrote an optimistic sci-fi story they would be considered naïve?

One old and buoyantly optimistic example is Howard Fast's short story 'The First Men'. A group of scientists believe that humans restrict the potentials of young people by immersing them in our corrupt and stupid culture, so they isolate a group of highly intelligent youngsters and bring them up in a loving, creative, collective environment. The results surpass their wildest expectations – they have nurtured the first clutch of Homo superior, basically. The children shed the shadow which has haunted humanity since the beginning, the spectre of original sin is banished and amazing new capabilities evolve. Of course, the ordinary human world is appalled by these 'godless', rational, compassionate beings and sets out to destroy them, but their powers are far too great to fall victim to the old race.

This story dates from 1960, and I don't think I've ever read a more optimistic take on the human future. Stapledon certainly didn't seem to believe in human perfectibility, and even inhabitants of Banks's ideal Culture society are prone to terrible doubt about their Culture's effects on other races, and to boredom.

Of recent stories, Jetse de Vries's 'Transcendence Express', published in The Hub 44 (and apparently in other places) is a shining example of optimism*. Set in an African village school where a teaching volunteer who's been involved in the development of quantum computers from organic materials gets the kids to carve their own laptops from wood. Extraordinary things happen in the interface of heuristic AIs and the children, leading to new solutions to old political and social problems.

* whatever happened to The Hub magazine? It's many issues since they included anything of the quality of some of their early stories. They seem to be making a run for the mainstream, publishing exclusively the kind of stories that might get shown on the least-demanding end of TV SF.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Dog Horn Literature & Art Prize announced

Dog Horn Publishing, publishers of Polluto magazine, has announced their first Literature and Art competition for "works of a cutting edge or transgressive nature" in fiction, poetry and art.

"Entries should be experimental, cross-genre or post-something in nature. We want you to challenge traditional forms and ask difficult questions. We want you to have fun and, to coin a cliché, think outside the box. In fact, we want you to take that box, cram it with Semtex and blow it to pieces."

Competition ends 1 April 2010, and the winner in each category will win a publishing contract for a book-length project of fiction, poetry, art of combination of all three.

Entrants must be 18 at time of submission. Entry is not free, but as per the following:

  • short stories cost £5 for the first entry (max 5,000 words) or £7 (max 5,001 - 10,000 words), with additional stories costing £4/£6, respectively
  • poems cost £3 for the first entry (max 40 lines) or £4 (41 lines+), with additional poems costing £2/£3, respectively
  • art submissions cost £10 for the first entry, and £8 for additional entries
See here for full details.