This Blog is going to feature reviews mainly and other occasional pieces orientated to the future. Nick Hubble @Contempislesfic @SocialHums
This is the post excerpt.
This Blog is going to feature reviews mainly and other occasional pieces orientated to the future. Nick Hubble @Contempislesfic @SocialHums
I’ve been intending to post on Joanna Russ’s 1972 Nebula-Award-winning short story, ‘When it Changed’, reflecting on teaching it for a ‘Mini-Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism’ held on the Monday morning of this year’s Eastercon, as well as also having taught it earlier in the year to university undergraduates (which I have done on and off for the last decade or so). Since then, however, the title of the story has also been incorporated into an upcoming online conference, ‘WHEN IT CHANGED: WOMEN IN SF/F SINCE 1972’, which is being organised by the Science Fiction Foundation in association with Glasgow University’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic and Games and Gaming Lab. The conference, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of both Russ’s story and Foundation, the journal of the Science Fiction Foundation, will take place on 3-4 December, with keynotes from Cheryl Morgan and Joy Sanchez-Taylor. The CFP closes on 1 August 2022. I’m intending to submit a paper proposal.
The idea of the ‘Mini-Masterclass’ is to provide a very condensed version of the bi-annual three-day SFF Masterclasses run by the Science Fiction Foundation (I taught on the 2018 edition, in which I focused on Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex and Gwyneth Jones’s Kairos). I was asked at short notice to take the Eastercon session (because the availability of the slots was only confirmed late in the day) and so I picked ‘When it Changed’ partly because I had taught it earlier in the year and therefore it was relatively fresh in mind. Furthermore, this year was the first year that I have ever experienced pushback against not just the story’s perceived essentialism but also against its perceived misandry. Therefore, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore these issues with a different audience and see what they thought (they didn’t pushback!). At no point until we were actually in the Eastercon session and Tony Keen, the SFF Masterclass coordinator, pointed it out, did it dawn on me that 2022 is indeed 50 years after 1972 and therefore that it was the 50th anniversary of ‘When it Changed’!
Aside from being an academic, I am also a qualified secondary school teacher (I actually have two PGCEs for my sins) and channelling the latter more than the former, I had a timed lesson plan for the session (which I reproduce here for posterity):
After preambles and introductions, I briefly mentioned the recent discussions of essentialism with respect to novels in which all (or most) men die (or disappear) suddenly such as Lauren Beukes’s Afterland (2020), Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men (2021) and Sandra Newman’s The Men (2022); novels seen in a number of quarters as problematic. I didn’t go any further into that (the topic for a future essay perhaps?), but I did point out that there is a longer tradition of the ‘Y-Plague’ trope in SF and that the various books employing it are not all doing the same thing. Then we ran through the plan – discussing if we’d read the story before, how our understanding changes while reading the opening paragraphs etc, and up to further reading recommendations such as Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Gwyneth Jones’s 2019 book on Russ – which I reviewed for Strange Horizons – and Jones’s own fiction (having already mentioned other secondary sources on Russ, such as Farah Mendlesohn’s edited collection, On Joanna Russ , during the course of the session).
The broad questions I asked during the session were (i) What did this story mean at the time? (pointing out that I wasn’t suggesting there was a single meaning) and (ii) What does this story mean now? These are often the questions I ask because my interest as a critic lies in social context, and how a text interacts with that context, and how the politics of this interaction can be read. To be clear, the point is not that texts should be judged by the standards of the time they were written, but rather that we need to weigh up the balance of the extent to which they reflect and contest those standards. Then we need to think about how that balance of reflection and contestation plays out within our contemporary context and how it is likely to continue to play out in the years to come.
For example, by looking at what was happening in 1972, when ‘When it Changed’ was first published, we realise that we might now be celebrating 50 years of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, which was approved by the US Senate on 22 March 1972 (on a bipartisan vote of 84-8, following passing Congress in 1971, on a bipartisan vote of 354-24). To be incorporated into the US constitution, an amendment also requires ratification by three-fourths of the states, which wasn’t achieved quickly and therefore there is no Equal Rights Amendment. Although, in fact, the amendment did eventually pass the hurdle for ratification by states on 27 January 2020 and should thus have come finally into effect in January of this year; but it is still awaiting a certification by the US national archivist that may never come (I’m drawing here on an article ‘Fifty Years Later, the Equal Rights Amendment Is Ratified. Now What?’ by Carrie N. Baker in Ms.) But rather than still be waiting for this amendment, or even marking its 50th anniversary, we might have been celebrating its 100th anniversary because immediately following the certification of the 19th Amendment, ensuring the right of women to vote, on 26 August 1920, campaigners, such as Alice Paul, began campaigning for an Equal Rights Amendment: ‘When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.’ The context of ‘When it Changed’ includes all of these possible timelines (with a sense of the past and the future), as well as many other strands of course.
The opening words of ‘When it Changed’, ‘Katy drives like a maniac’, set us up for a page-long mini short story in its own right, as the reader is metaphorically thrown around the inside of the car by a series of misdirections. We learn that Katy is the narrator’s wife but she doesn’t like guns. ‘Katy and I have three children between us, one of hers and two of mine.’ We learn that the narrator has fought three duels. It’s only at the end of this short opening section that we realise that the narrator is also a woman, as we learn that the cause of the fast driving is men: ‘They’ve come back! Real Earth men!’. As becomes clear over the rest of the story, we’re on a planet, Whileaway, where there was a plague six centuries ago in which as the narrator, Janet, notes laconically, ‘We lost half our population in one generation.’ She is breaking it gently to a man who keeps asking the women in front of him, ‘Where are all the people?’ Then when he finally twigs that all the men died in the plague, there is a moment of shocked silence as he reflects on the ‘tragedy’ before triumphantly noting, ‘But it’s over.’
The narrator steps out on to the porch and encounters another man, who turns round when he becomes aware of her:
Then he said calmly in excellent Russian, ‘Did you know that sexual equality has been reestablished on Earth?’
‘You’re the real one, I said, ‘aren’t you? The other one’s for show.’
Then follows a menacing conversation in which this man declines Janet’s offer of ‘cells’, noting the defects of ‘parthenogenetic culture’, and comments that they don’t want ‘to use you for anything of the sort […] surely you can see that this kind of society is unnatural.’ The subtext is clear: now they have found Whileaway again, men intend to come back and restore heterosexual patriarchy with bodily sexual reproduction.
The story ends with Janet reflecting that she should have ‘burned them down where they stood’ but of course that wouldn’t stop more men coming: ‘When one culture has the big guns and the other has none, there is a certain predictability about the outcome’. She doubts that sexual equality has been reestablished on Earth and worries that her own experience and that of her society are being reduced to the kind of quaint curiosities and oddities that you read about at the back of compendia of trivia.
Writing this following the overturn of Roe vs Wade (itself, nearly 50 years old, dating from 22 January 1973) at the end of June by the US Supreme Court, with the rhetoric and threats that have accompanied that, such as evocations of a ‘Christian Taliban’, makes the story seem uncannily prescient but of course similar moments of aggressive ‘backlash’ to women’s rights have regularly punctuated what we like to think of as the modern democratic history of the last hundred years (as reflected by the always-just-on-the-horizon-but-never-quite-reached Equal Rights Amendment). Until we break the cycle of heteropatriarchy, we are stuck in a dystopian cycle that it is proving very difficult to escape from precisely because a large number of people – mostly but not only men – benefit from its perpetuation. Or, at least, they think they benefit from it within the ideologically shaped and hierarchical social world that we live in.
This supposed benefit must be why some men have reacted badly to this story. A classic example of this is found in Michael G. Coney’s letters to the fanzine the Alien Critic (Here I’m drawing on Helen Merrick’s chapter, ‘The Female “Atlas” of Science Fiction? Russ, Feminism and the SF Community’ in Mendlesohn’s On Joanna Russ). Coney described ‘When it Changed’ as a ‘horrible, sickening story’ and went on to write:
The hatred, the destructiveness that comes out in the story makes me sick for humanity and I have to remember, I have to tell myself that it isn’t humanity speaking – it’s just one bigot. Now I’ve just come from the West Indies, where I spent three years being hated merely because my skin was white – and for no other reason. Now I pick up [‘When it Changed’] and find that I am hated for another reason – because Joanna Russ hasn’t got a prick.
As Merrick comments, Coney does rather set himself up – he also more-or-less complains that ‘white non-religious males of heterosexual leanings’ are the most put upon group in society – but she also makes the acute observation that:
In narratives like Coney’s, the socio-political basis of feminist and Black critiques are refigured as biologically determined, direct attacks on his white, male person – who, because of his body marked by its color and penis, is vulnerable to (but not responsible for) such ‘bigoted’, ‘unhuman’ challenges.
In other words, the essentialism lies not in Russ’s story but in the bigotry of those who feel their (social and ideological) privilege to be under threat. This is the key point to remember alongside the fact that ‘When it Changed’ is very much the opposite of essentialist in the way it portrays gender and sexuality. Indeed, I think it is actually the way it challenges essentialism and the supposed natural hierarchy of biology (which some people are determined to cling to at all costs) that unsettles people. Therefore, when I taught this to undergraduates earlier this year, I did have some pushback along the lines of how ‘convenient’ it was that all the men had died and maybe that was due to nefarious activity on behalf of the women. I pointed out that Russ, herself, was obviously aware of that line of criticism because she incorporates it into The Female Man (1975) in which slightly different versions of Janet and Whileaway exist. Here, one of the alternate versions of Janet, Jael, suggests that Whileaway came about because the men were killed and the idea of the plague is just a story that the women told themselves until they believed it – but there is no reason why we should trust Jael on this score; she is an unreliable narrator. Therefore, I’m inclined to treat this aspect of the novel as Russ playing with the heads of critics of the Coney type. This is not to say that all criticisms of essentialism levelled against contemporary versions of the ‘what if there were no men’ story are misplaced. A novel like The End of Men seems merely to be suggesting that everything about contemporary society – no particular challenge is made to capitalism and neoliberalism – would be fine if we lost 90% of men. While this novel has its moments as a pandemic/disaster fiction, it is not a particularly profound political manifesto and depicts a scenario that was much more effectively (and hilariously) satirised in one of the timelines of Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (2003). The problem is not biology or men per se but the restrictive norms imprisoning people of all genders and sexualities, and the solution lies in finding a way to move society as a whole beyond those norms.
This is what ‘When it Changed’ offers us: a chance to step outside the norms – at least in those opening paragraphs in which Russ plays with gender roles in just about the most non-essentialist ways that could be imagined at that time. (I’m sure she could have imagined other alternatives, but the story is pitched to draw in a wider readership). The absence of men from Whileaway for six centuries is the imaginative contrivance which gives her the space to portray a society not based on binary gender roles or heteronormativity. Towards the end of the story, Janet reflects on how it amuses her to think about those men looking at her and her wife and never quite daring to ask ‘Which of you plays the role of the man? As if we had to produce a carbon copy of their mistakes!’ The fact that same-sex marriages are now common in the twenty-first century undermines some of the impact of the story’s opening, but it also blinds us a bit to the radical nature of Russ’s questioning of all gender roles. A postheteropatriarchal society will not just be a more ‘diverse’ version of contemporary Western society but of necessity be structured differently and develop its own traditions and modes of living, as portrayed in Russ’s Whileaway.
Finally, ‘When it Changed’ is not an ‘end of men’ type story; indeed, they’re very much there at the end of the story! Instead, we might ask whether the end of the story is too downbeat? Is Russ being pessimistic and defeatist? I don’t think so. As discussed above, in 1972 when the story was published, the assumption would have been very much that the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution would be ratified and certified before the decade was out. Therefore, when the second man’s claim, that sexual equality has been reestablished, causes us to wonder when the first such period was, I think we should assume that it dated from the later 20th century as viewed from the early 1970s. Whether that ‘sexual equality’ would in and of itself enable the kind of freedoms Russ envisages is doubtful and I suspect she would have been sceptical about that while considering it a necessary step forward to a more liberated future society. However, I think it is exactly this scepticism and concern with the political questions of 1972 that leads to the future setting and ending of the story. The ending pulls us back to reality in 1972 (or post-Roe 2022 for that matter) but the beginning of the story expands the context from sexual discrimination and the long fight since the 19th Century to achieve equality, to framing the struggle in terms of the survival of a future society freed from heteropatriarchy. In other words, Russ shifts the moral framework from the rigged values of 1972 liberal democracy to the values of postheteropatriarchal Whileaway. If we want to live in that future, we need to align our lives and actions with the moral values of that future and not the apparent norms of (neo)liberal democracy. This perspective of looking back from a future idea of liberated society is crucial to achieving social change in the present. The logic of ‘When it Changed’ is not that we should orientate our actions in defence of the equal rights which seemed to be on the threshold of being achieved in 1972, but that we should orientate our actions around defence of the postheteropatriarchal Whileaway that we hope to achieve in the future. In other words, we have to fight to protect the change we haven’t yet achieved if we want to stand any chance of achieving it. It is worth noting that this logic is not just restricted to Russ but can also be found in other works of the period, such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).
This conclusion brings me round at last to the upcoming ‘WHEN IT CHANGED: WOMEN IN SF/F SINCE 1972’ Conference. I’m really glad that this is framed as women in SFF rather than as women’s SFF:
When Joanna Russ’s short story, ‘When It Changed’ (first published in Again, Dangerous Visions ), won the Nebula Award in 1973, it seemed like a game-changing event for feminist sf. Fifty years later, and the major prizes are being won by women, among them N.K. Jemisin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Laura Jean McKay and Martha Wells. To these we can add the posthumous success of Octavia E. Butler and the mainstream acclaim of writers such as Susanna Clarke. Despite such controversies as ‘Puppygate’, sf/f now appears to be a more inclusive place, partly because of the role played by women.
If sf/f has indeed changed, in what ways did women help to bring this about? On the other hand, does the glamour of sales and literary prizes for a few select authors disguise structural inequities within sf/f that endure from the 1970s?
I don’t think the latter paragraph is intended as an either/or proposition because I suspect most people interested in the conference would think that SF/F has been changed by women but that nonetheless serious and significant structural inequalities do persist, which is not surprising because, despite the fact that SFF is a ‘counter public sphere’ from which the dominant values of cisheteropatriarchal capitalist society can be contested, we do still live in that society and are subjected to its forces. However, in line with how I read Russ’s story, I think the date of when ‘it’ changed is dependent on how effectively we can defend the values (yet to be determined fully) of a future postcisheteropatriarchal society. So, now I just need to write an abstract for a paper that will show some of the ways we might do that.
And all of a sudden it is more than two months since Eastercon. Doesn’t time fly when you are insanely busy? Despite the delay however, I still want to fulfil my intention to write some thoughts arising from my participation in the panel, ‘Where are the Workers: Class and Caste in SFF’. This was my first in-person talk for two years but it already seems from another era given the fact that everyone was wearing masks when moving around and sitting in audiences. Nevertheless, the panellists on either side of me both tested positive after the Con. Fortunately, I avoided it this time round given my various travails with Long Covid since March 2020.
In terms of context, there was a panel on ‘Working-Class Heroes’ at the 2021 Eastercon, which I discussed in the course of my Con report here, and last Autumn there was a special issue of Vector on ‘SFF & Class’, which I had the honour of guest-editing. Related articles on the Vector website include Ivy Roberts’s ‘“Who do you think is powering that spotlight?”: Social mobility and resistance in Black Mirror’s “Fifteen Million Merits” and a review by Lars Schmeink of The Tragedy of the Worker: Toward the Proletarocene by The Salvage Collective. One article in particular from the special issue – Marie Vibbert’s ‘Jobs and Class of Main Characters in Science Fiction’ – was discussed in the run-up to, and during the 2022 Eastercon panel. The panel, which took place at 4.30pm on Sunday 17 April, was summarised in the programme as:
Fantasy characters are regents and wizards, but actual people in fantasy worlds are servants or peasants. Similarly, SF stories focus on people high up on the social scale. Are servants and spaceship-scrubbers set dressing with no agency? Do readers demand rigid class structures where only the ruling class get to do anything interesting? Or is it just boring to write (and read) about mud and maintenance? Where are the boundaries between ‘poverty,’ ‘working-class,’ and how both are written about?
The other participants were Ali Baker, Eli Lee, Tej Turner, and Neil Williamson (moderator). There is an excellent twitter-thread of the panel by Zoë Sumra and therefore I’m not going to summarise the discussion here. Instead, I want to focus on a couple of things that came in the immediate aftermath. One was an issue brought up rather insistently by the guy who approached the panel at the end and insisted that it was all nonsense and that one could simply ignore class and tell middle-class people where to get off if they became too uppity (or something along these lines – unfortunately I was completely exhausted at this point and not in a position to fully process this claim, let alone address it). This position is not entirely without substance: for example, there are situations where people are on a level playing field and therefore don’t have to accept middle-class definitions of taste or whatever. However, I suspect such situations often reflect individual status such as when someone has attained a privileged-enough status that they can afford to ignore the otherwise dominant cultural middle-class norms. Such cases are not the norm. It’s actually quite difficult these days (as opposed to during the 1960s and 1970s when Britain was briefly a more socially equal country) to gain such status without making some kind of accommodation with middle-class values which makes it much less likely that one will challenge those values when one is finally in a position to do it. In any case, most people will not be in a position to do this because of the extreme levels of social inequality which characterise the twenty-first century; they are too busy trying to pay the rent. Moreover, individual dissent does not in itself represent a challenge to a ruling middle-class culture that is predicated on individualism.
So, the answer to that gentleman is, ‘No, you can’t simply say that class is all nonsense and choose to ignore it.’
I had another conversation a bit after that one about the fact that the discussion of class and particularly of the relationship between working- and middle-class people often doesn’t seem to take into account that anyone dependent on wage labour is working class according to Marx’s analysis. Indeed, I had intended if the opportunity arose to quote Engels’s footnote to the 1888 English edition of The Communist Manifesto which clarifies the relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie:
By ‘bourgeoisie’ is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. By ‘proletariat’, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.
This is true and the source of the hope that social change can be effected because theoretically there is a (vast) majority who would benefit. Hence it is in the interest of the ruling capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) to encourage divisions within this majority. These divisions are created and disseminated through culture because culture is controlled (via the media and publishing industries) by the ruling class. One of the things that bourgeois-controlled culture creates in England (more completely so than the other nations in the UK) is a cultural divide which groups wage labourers into working-class and middle-class people (this is further supported by modes of employment etc but I would argue the principle driver is culture). Within this divide the individualism that characterises middle-class culture is not a mark of refinement or individual attainment but simply a reflection of the ideological individualism of the minority ruling bourgeoisie (i.e. ‘bourgeois individualism’ and its associated ‘classical liberalism’). In contrast, working-class culture is not necessarily more authentic than, or somehow superior to, middle-class culture but rather its value lies in the fact of its being oppositional to that individualism. The potential of the working class for collectivist organisation – not just unions and mass political parties but alternative educational and publishing structures – gives it the possibility of controlling its own cultural means of production (and potentially all means of production) and thereby challenging the ruling Western bourgeois order. Certainly, there were several periods in the twentieth century when culture was seriously contested (as it is today).
So, while all wage labourers are indeed part of the proletariat (whether they like it or not), it is still possible to distinguish between different strands of working-class and middle-class culture within their massed ranks.
While in the panel we ended up talking a lot about the representation of working-class characters in SFF and also a bit about how publishing is a very middle-class industry, we did also make the point that to have this conversation is inherently political and a form of opposition to the ruling order (however limited the consequences of one panel must necessarily be). This opposition in itself raises a level of difficulty to the subject because the long-established gradients of British culture are oriented away from confrontation towards deference or, at least, some form of muddled concept of a common culture (which is often anything but common). Alternatively, there will always be self-appointed sophisticates for whom this whole discussion is just too ‘obvious’. However, I also think that there are particular reasons why this discussion can touch a few nerves in the world of SFF.
For a start there is the fractured boundary between SF and Fantasy. The framing of the panel did a good job of stressing the similarities between the two but it is difficult to get entirely away from the residual linkage of (epic) fantasy to feudal forms and SF to progressive futuristic perspectives. The problem in many ways reduces to the problem of class society itself, which is that it is difficult for anyone who is not at the apex of that society to express their agency fully. Hence, Queens, Emperors, Lords and Ladies abound in even progressive (epic) fantasies, while the apparently classless futures of SF often involve imaginary scenarios in which everyone has liberal middle-class sensibilities (but of course everyone cannot be middle-class; it is a class position that depends upon being defined against another ‘lower’ class and another ‘upper’ class). In practice, I usually find myself more sympathetic to the former of these approaches than the latter. But, more importantly, SFF doesn’t have to be caught up in these contradictions because it is, in its origins with writers such as Wells and Bogdanov, an oppositional form designed to counter the hegemony of bourgeois literary culture. That, in part, is ultimately why SFF has its own literary and critical apparatus (such as Eastercon, the BSFA, the Clarke Award etc) outside the literary establishment.
So, if we don’t have to play by the rules, the question becomes one of how to overcome the ideological constraints imposed by a hierarchical capitalist society. In terms of writing (whether creative or critical), this means ignoring the shibboleths of bourgeois literary sensibility, such as privileging style over content, valuing ‘experiment’ over social realism, complaining about ‘infodumps’ or platitudinising about ‘show not tell’. Which is not to say either that those binaries should be reversed. There is no reason – as Kim Stanley Robinson demonstrates to significant effect in recent novels such as 2312 and The Ministry for the Future – why modernist experiment can’t be blended with infodumps and overt social comment to produce powerful, socialist, anti-capitalist SF. There is a long tradition of left culture employing such heterogeneous approaches to great effect (especially during the interwar period, including Virginia Woolf’s SF).
We see the workers in SFF at the point when they exercise collective agency through control of the means of production. The example I gave in the panel was of Ken Macleod’s latest novel, Beyond the Hallowed Sky, in which in response to discovering that the Governmental elites have kept the discovery of FTL from the people for decades, a group of workers on the Clyde build their own FTL ship. Going forward, it is possible to imagine a future where technological advances enable many, many more people to have control over the means of production in the form of, for example, 3D printers. This is not necessarily a case of everyone being able to then do what they want as individuals. In Monica Byrne’s recent The Actual Star, the nomadic members of the global society, depicted in the future segment of the novel, have 3D printers allowing them to produce food and whatever else they might need for existence while travelling but they also have social codes, which restrict them to only possessing what they can carry, and which guide other aspects of their behaviour. In this the novel reminded me of the historical analyses in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, which argues that there have been a significant number of historical societies which achieved complexity without a rigid hierarchy (i.e. a class system). I’d like to read more SFF set in such societies at any period in history or, rather, one might say at any time outside history (‘History’ being largely a top-down account of hierarchical societies). That’s where the future of the proletariat lies.
First published in 1988 by Unwin Hyman, Kairos was reissued in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series in 2021 in a freshly revised edition with an (excellent) introduction by the author. For me this is not only one of the best British SF novels written in the last 50 years, but also one of the best of all contemporary British novels. Not only does it brilliantly capture the counter-revolutionary mayhem of Thatcherism, but it also uncannily anticipates the corporate neoliberal horror that followed it. Along with Jones’s Bold as Love series (2001-2014), Kairos shatters the illusion of the mirror world we inhabit by showing how what is relentlessly portrayed by the media and the politicians of the two main parties as sober, bland, realistic, normal life is in fact nothing but a relentlessly vile and hostile assault on any attempt to establish a good society, or even any form of community, rooted in love, freedom, and collective organisation.
On original publication, the novel was shortlisted for both the BSFA and Clarke Awards. In 1995, a revised paperback version was published. I read this in 2008 in response to Niall Harrison’s review on the Vector editorial blog, which was then called ‘Torque Control’. This is an excellent review, although I disagreed with it a bit in the comments (especially with the idea of the 1980s as a cliché), and it is interesting to look back on the discussion. I note that I have singularly failed to map out the tradition of British post-catastrophe writing that I referred to at the time (which reminds me that somewhere I have an unfinished essay discussing M. John Harrison’s Light  and Jeff Noon’s Falling Out of Cars  that I really must resuscitate and complete some time). Ten years later, I got as far as inflicting both Kairos and Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex (1977) on my students for the Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in 2018 and tried to relate them to a particular historical reading of British SF as contesting the ideology of mainstream British culture (there might also be some notes from this but I can’t find them at the moment).
I picked up the threads of my thoughts again for my review of the SF Masterworks edition. This first appeared in BSFA Review 17 (Spring 2022) and is below reproduced with some additional comments in square brackets and an additional ‘Afterword’ and (bonus content!) a ‘Note’ on the textual differences between the three editions (1988, 1995, 2021) of Kairos. This note results from my subsequent reviewing of the new SF Masterworks edition of Jones’s Life (2022)  (a review which has already been published in the Spring 2022 issue of ParSec on pp. 81-2), which led to me realising that Jones seems to have lightly revised all of her novels being reissued by Gollancz and then, in turn, wondering if I’d actually understood the relationship between the different editions of Kairos correctly. Because the 2021 edition lists the text as ‘copyright © Gwyneth Jones 1988’ and what I was reading in it was different in places to the 1995 Gollancz paperback edition that I already owned, I wrongly assumed that the text must therefore be the same as the 1988 original. However, after realising that the novels were edited for the new SF Masterworks editions, it occurred to me that the differences I had read were more likely to be recent amendments. Therefore, I got hold of the 1988 first edition as well and proceeded to compare the various texts. As I explain in the ‘Note on the Texts’ below, the differences between the 1988 and 1995 editions are pretty minimal (as Jones does say in her afterword to the 1995 edition) but still quite interesting if you are as fascinated by the author’s work as I am. Having noted that, I don’t think my slight misinterpretation of the relationship of the new edition to its forebears significantly affects the substantive point I make, which is that Jones’s depiction of the countercultural attitudes and values of 1988 speak more directly to our 2022 present than they did to either the mid-1990s or the first decade of the current century (as demonstrated by Harrison’s review and the related comments on the Vector blog). Here is the review:
Kairos by Gwyneth Jones (Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2021)
Reviewed byNick Hubble
It’s fantastic to see Gollancz reissuing so many of Gwyneth Jones’s novels in the, ahem, ‘Masterworks’ series. Whether one should wish classic status on any author is a moot point, but I can’t think of many writers in the SF field whose work over the last four decades is as distinctively personal and yet as universal in its significance. While the Clarke-Award-winning Bold as Love (2001) and Life (2004), previously unpublished in the UK, are perhaps the most obvious selections for this series, the inclusion of Kairos is the one that gives me the greatest joy. This is in part because some of it is set in Brighton, where Jones lives, in areas well known to me such as the wasteland near the racecourse and the Whitehawk neolithic camp. Generally, the ambience is evocative of the rundown alternative Brighton, rather than the developers’ nightmare which has emerged in recent years. However, more importantly, Kairos is the novel which best captures the magnitude of the change during that strange period in the 1980s when British history was to jump track so catastrophically.
Following an opening line – ‘It was as cold as an August day can well be’ – which in the best British SF traditions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Day of the Triffids alerts us to the fact that time is out of joint, we meet one of the main protagonists, Sandy Brize in St Paul’s Cathedral. As Jones helpfully glosses in a new introduction to this edition, Sandy is the ‘underclass girlfriend’ of left-wing politician’s daughter and lesbian activist, Otto (originally Jane) Murray. Sandy and Otto are drifting apart not least because the revolution which they had been struggling for when they were young had ‘faded ignominiously away’. As Sandy reflects in St Paul’s, now they are in an ‘age of sanitised newscasts; of a tough-minded acceptance of poverty and squalor as part of life’s rich tapestry; of pragmatic revival of the gender roles.’ Although the novel is set in an early twenty-first-century future, the comparison being made here is between the still-heady days of the mid-1970s and the cold new Thatcherite era which had become established by a decade later.
Interestingly, this new edition seems, as far as I can tell, to have reverted to the text of the original 1988 hardback publication rather than that of the revised 1995 paperback version [ed: as noted above and below, the 1988 and 1995 editions are actually very similar and most of the differences have been introduced by Jones’s revisions for the current edition]. Therefore, the utopia that Sandy and Otto are fighting for is restored to its original uncompromising formulation of ‘Lesbian-Bisexual-Utopia’ [ed: I came to this conclusion for reasons discussed in the ‘Note on the Texts’ below but in fact this formulation is present in all three editions, just not necessarily in the same corresponding sentences]. Indeed, the rough, sharper-edged antagonism of the original text seems uncannily to predict the divisive class and gender politics of 2021. Even amidst Jones’s brilliant representation of the uncertain realities of a disintegrating landscape (fully equal in achievement to Philip K. Dick’s Ubik or Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven), Sandy’s clear-sighted rejection of all binaries speaks directly across the years to a contemporary readership: ‘I’ve always hated being a woman … But I wouldn’t be a man either’. While the novel is resolutely anti-patriarchal, Sandy has no time for the idea of establishing a matriarchy, suggesting that they are two sides of the same coin: ‘It’s just like the old class war. Being shat upon doesn’t mean you’re a nicer person. Well, I’m done with them both, I mean all.’
This continued relevance is hardly surprising given that one meaning of the word ‘kairos’ is an imperative immediate sense of now! In some ways, as Jones implies in her introduction, we are always simultaneously living through our own time and the end times. Only by holding these two realities in superposition, through acts of the imagination, as Sandy and Otto are able to do by the end of the novel, do we gain any perspective from which to act. The ‘now’ of Kairos and Jones’s other work is still the now of today. I hope these new editions bring her to a younger generation of readers.
Afterword: I have spent some time recently writing and talking about representations of the working class in SF (with more to come) and so I can’t not say somewhere here that Sandy Brize is one of the great working-class protagonists in SF and also (and arguably not unrelatedly) a great nonbinary character. The rest of this afterword is really just several more thoughts, which I address to my future self, if no one else,in the hopes that I will eventually write something longer on Jones. On hearing that a number of her novels were going to be included in the SF Masterworks series, my original intention was to write a review essay of those texts, with the potential for it to expand into a full career retrospective, but, as things have panned out, all I have managed so far is this review of Kairos for the BSFA Review and the review of Life for ParSec. Having said that, I did also present (online) a paper on Life for the academic track at Discon III, the 2021 Worldcon, the text of which can be found here. Furthermore, there is also some discussion of Life in my academic article, ‘The Woolfian Century: Modernism as Science Fiction, 1929-2029’, which can be found online as part of a ‘cluster’ on ‘Science Fiction and Modernism’ on the Modernism/modernity print plus platform. And this leads me on to my last point which is that I see Jones’s work as one of the key arguments for making a case that the future of modernism turned out to be SF. I don’t want to say much else about this at the moment as I’m sure that 2022, the centenary of 1922, will provide plenty more opportunity to expand on this point. However, I thought I’d end this with a quote from Kairos that has to be read in the context of the full novel to be fully appreciated but which nonetheless also makes its point explicitly and speaks to the twenty-first century rather than the twentieth:
[Otto] had always detested Finnegans Wake, deciphered enough of it to be sure (it was her business to find out these things) that it was both everything that was claimed for it, the pinnacle of a civilisation; and a load of old garbage. What she hated was the puerile delight in the allfalldown build up again: allfalldown build up again. The timeless world of patriarchy, the endless cycle. No progress, never, nothing new under the sun … meaningless … (1988/1995: 177; 2021: 229)
Note on the Texts: I explain above how the copyright page of the 2021 SF Masterworks edition led me to assume that it used the text of the 1988 first edition. The precise passage from the 2021 edition that led me to the conclusion that ‘Lesbian-Bisexual-Utopia’ was in the 1988 hardback and not in the 1995 paperback was the sentence in which Otto’s son, Candide, is described as ‘a loyal but not uncritical foot-soldier in the army of Lesbian-Bisexual-Utopia’ (2021: 60). On reading this, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t remember it saying that when I read it before!’ (just to note, I think I have read the paperback three times between 2008 and 2018 – I don’t always remember texts in this much detail) and looked it up in the paperback where I found: ‘he was a passionately loyal but not uncritical footsoldier in the army of utopia’ (1995: 40). In passing, I can’t help adding that I find the return of hyphens, as in foot-soldier, depressing, when we had come so close to eliminating them completely. I worry that in a few more years we’ll be forced (by Microsoft) to write ‘to-day’ again (a form last in general usage before WW2). Of course, changes of this nature might be due to alignment with Gollancz’s current house style. Anyway, returning to substantive matters, I put two and two together and thought that ‘Lesbian-Bisexual-Utopia’ was probably the original 1988 usage and it must have been toned down for the paperback published in the bland, unconfrontational 1990s. However, when I did finally examine the first edition, I found that the sentence there is identical to the 1995 paperback. In both earlier editions, the (uncapitalised) phrase ‘lesbian-bisexual-utopia’ is used earlier in the paragraph and therefore it is not repeated in the sentence in question. But the earlier usage is almost a throwaway comment and certainly less consequential. Therefore, the 2021 edit moves the phrase to a sentence where it is more impactful and, in that sense, may be seen as rearticulating those 1980s values more forcefully for our 2020s present, as I suggest in the review above (further reinforcing this argument, a subsequent mention of what is just ‘utopia’ in the earlier versions [1988: 129; 1995: 129] is also changed to ‘Lesbian-Bisexual-Utopia’ in the new edition [2021: 169]). I should make it clear that the phrase is also used on other occasions in all versions – it first occurs as a jibe voiced by the loathsome Luci (1988: 21; 1995: 21; 2021: 36) and then further discussed (1988: 23; 1995: 23; 2021: 38) – it is not a one-off but a clear indication of the novel’s moral and political compass.
Broadly speaking, the 2021 edits are stylistic. For example, ‘In Africa and Asia the various wars began to blur into one: cloud shapes breaking and reforming on a red sunset sky’ (1988: 40; 1995: 40) becomes ‘In Africa and Asia scattered wars began to blur into one: cloud shapes breaking and reforming against a sunset sky’ (2021: 60). Nevertheless, there are still some interesting points worth noting briefly. I’ll begin with the differences between the 1995 and 1988 editions.
In the ‘Acknowledgments’ at the end of the paperback (which are new to that edition and not included in the 2021 edition), Jones prefaces a fascinating list of sources with a note stating: ‘This book was conceived ten years ago. I intended to revise it for this edition, but in the end I made only a few tiny changes; mostly removing obsolete political labels (EEC; the Soviets; the FDR; White South Africa)’ (1995: 261). Apart from anything else, this is quite a useful reminder of how much the World changed between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. As an example of these changes in practice, the sentence ‘We protest about what WEU does too’ (1988: 117) was changed in the paperback to ‘We protest about what the EU does too’ (1995:17). (WEU stands for ‘Western European Union’ – I had to look it up despite having been a newspaper-reading adult in the mid-1980s). Interestingly, the SF Masterworks edition does here revert to the 1988 text – ‘We protest about what the WEU does too’ (2021: 30) – which suggests that the new edition probably was prepared from the 1988 text and this was missed (unless this was a conscious decision not to mention the EU in our post-Brexit times). There are several instances, where the text is different in all three editions: ‘EEC’ (1988: 45) becomes ‘EU’ (1995: 45) becomes ‘UK’ (2021: 66). A more complex set of changes occurs in the passing background descriptions of the major war that has broken out in Africa, partially reflecting shifting geo-political realities over time, as well as changes in sensibility and conventions:
Meanwhile, barely six months after the brutal annexation of Botswana, Zimbabwe and the allies were contemplating an unholy pact with Israel and the White Minority in Pretoria, as West Asia, the North Coast and the Sub-Sahara moved ominously closer together. The cult of that inhuman Unity were pulling the whole of Africa into war on a scale that not even Africa could swallow – much as it had absorbed in the last decades: the political famines and the decimation of disease. (1988: 30)
Meanwhile, barely six months after the brutal annexation of Botswana, Zimbabwe and the allies were contemplating an unholy pact with Israel and the Mad Zulus in Pretoria, as West Asia, the North Coast and the Sub-Sahara moved ominously closer together. The cult of that inhuman Unity were pulling the whole of Africa into war on a scale that not even Africa could swallow – much as it had absorbed in the last decades. (1995: 30)
Zimbabwe and the allies were contemplating an unholy pact with Israel, as West Asia, the North Coast and the Sub-Sahara moved ominously closer together. The inhuman Unities were pulling the whole of Africa into war; war on a scale that not even Africa could swallow. (2021: 47)
At another point, the awful antagonist, Luci is described as having earnt his ‘athletic look’ (1988: 21; 1995: 21) but in the new edition this is transformed into his ‘fascist athleticism’ (2021: 36). This is a good example to finish with because it illustrates again how some of the changes to the text reflect that the political stakes are once more laid bare in the early 2020s, as perhaps they haven’t been since 1989. Kairos is still very much a novel for our times.
Here (finally) is my annual review of the BSFA non-fiction shortlist (primarily intended as a survey of the shortlist rather than a guide to voting). Last year’s can be found here; two years ago I reviewed the BSFA Award shortlists for Best Novel, Best Shorter Fiction and Best Non-Fiction (index here). I might get back to the other awards (or at least the novels) again next year but I can’t this time because I’m mid-way through a second year on the Clarke Award Jury. I’m continuing my policy of not ranking BSFA texts but I will reveal which one I put in first place on the ballot (although, if this year runs true to the form of the previous two, my choice won’t win).
As usual, the shortlisted works (see all the lists on the BSFA website here) vary in form: this year there are four books, a podcast series and an online article. In an ideal world, my personal preference would be to expand award categories to distinguish between books and other forms (Best Related maybe?) but I realise that this isn’t a viable option for the BSFA, who are operating on limited resources. I apologise in advance for the disparity in length of these reviews but there are always some topics I find I have more to say about or, indeed, go off on a tangent on. I should also note that they are not full reviews; ideally I would write several thousand words on each book at least (but then this post would be so enormous that nobody would have the time to read it). So…
Val Nolan, ‘Science Fiction and the Pathways out of the COVID Crisis’, The Polyphony
This is short but very cogent and concise article. You can read it much quicker than I can summarise it. I totally agree with Val Nolan’s argument that SF is key to imagining a post-pandemic world and that the experience of the pandemic is another indicator that SF is now the realism of our time. SF is potentially a means of both promoting necessary (from the perspective of the climate crisis as well as that of the pandemic) changes and ‘modelling the directions available to policymakers and individuals in their quest to understand what happens next…’
From having read pretty much all of the SF novels published in Britain during 2020 and 2021, I can tell you that there were as many pandemic novels in the pipes before Covid-19 hit as have been written during the course of it. One issue the more recent pandemic fiction has to face is that now we have lived through a pandemic, we have all got more idea what would actually happen and can dismiss at least some of what we read as unrealistic (e.g. one single vaccine will completely solve the problem). At the moment, fiction is still dealing with the pandemic itself, I think it will take a while to deal with post-pandemic society in near-future detail. There is a short scene in Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock that envisages an app that can tell you who to go near or not based on the possible consequences for either party. For those seeking a longer-term view, one strand of Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star imagines a society a thousand years hence completely transfigured following several centuries of pandemics and extreme climate change (on the bright side, white supremacist heteropatriarchy is eliminated with civilisation as we know it!). Nolan mentions British SF’s tendency towards cynical stances and I’m sure there will be plenty of this, especially given the current situation of pretending its all over even while hundreds of people are still dying every week. However, I think what we need to beware of is the tendency of what is repressed to re-emerge when least expected. A lot of fear and anger has been temporarily repressed as well as collective trauma at the tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths which happened in the first couple of months of the pandemic. We urgently need SF examinations of how that might play out because when it finally erupts, the consequences might be extreme (especially in England).
Anna McFarlane, Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades (Routledge). 168pp.
Every now and again I am reminded of the fact that my first degree is in Philosophy and Literature. In this case, the trigger came from Anna McFarlane’s claim that the author of Phenomenology and Perception (1945), Maurice Merleau-Ponty sounds like a ‘posthuman cyberspace cowboy’ (23). I wish I’d seen it that way during the course of that long-ago demanding third-year module on Phenomenology that I inflicted upon myself. But then how we perceive things or, indeed, recognise patterns is very much the point of McFarlane’s analysis of the work of William Gibson. She describes her approach as ‘gestalt literary criticism’ (2) – which I take to be an approach concerned with the configuration of a work in relation to its environment rather than one that focuses on a work’s individual components – and her aim is to road test this on Gibson and thereby assess its potential wider application to the SF literature of the twenty-first century. From one perspective, therefore, this monograph deploys a very high-level theoretical framework, drawing on the work of figures such as Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, and makes sophisticated literary comparisons – for example, between Gibson’s Zero History (2010) and Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881). However, as McFarlane’s irreverent characterisation of Merleau-Ponty suggests, this is not so much an attempt to bring SF under the auspices of the Academy as a fairly audacious exercise in reverse colonisation. In particular, by building on both Katherine Hayles’s argument that ‘deconstruction’ is a product of the information age and that the pattern/randomness relation is more fundamental than the archetypal presence/absence binary, and Cary Wolfe’s distinction between good and bad posthumanism, McFarlane folds multiple binaries in to an SFnal perspective focused on pattern and performativity. In this way, academic literary criticism is appropriated from its steadily contracting institutional powerbase and put to work in the service of a cyberpunk culture, which has perhaps become dominant in the twenty-first century (while the traditional arts-and-literature establishment and the majority of our political leadership in the West have been looking the other way).
However, McFarlane’s monograph is not just a celebration of Gibson’s novels. She is critical in particular of Gibson’s most recent novel, Agency (2020); a novel which he was forced to revise while drafting in response to such shock political events as Britain voting to leave the EU and the USA electing Donald Trump as present. Such events were seismic anomalies according to what perhaps we can loosely think of as the liberal worldview. In her chapter on Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), McFarlane discusses 9/11, which features heavily in that novel, as causing a paradigm shift. 9/11 was an event that people had difficulty processing at the time even as they watched it unfold on live TV. It was the very fact that so much of what happened seemed anomalous that led to the conspiracy theories (which are attempts to account for anomalies within a worldview that is otherwise unable to provide an explanation of how such an unexpected event could take place). In other words, 9/11 and the conspiracies that grew around it provide a demonstration of the limitations of pattern recognition; how, as Parkaboy explains in the novel, pattern recognition can be both a gift and a trap. As McFarlane notes, drawing on the work of Thomas Kuhn and others, when one has too many anomalies from a scientific point of view, then it is time to change the paradigm by retheorising our scientific understanding. SF, with its deployment of cognitive estrangement, may perhaps be conceived as a means of seeing beyond the specific form of pattern recognition that is currently dominant (the current paradigm). McFarlane concludes: ‘In this sense, Pattern Recognition acts as “social” science fiction; science fiction about the gaps between one social paradigm and the next, rather than one scientific paradigm and the next, as the previous paradigm has been shown to be inadequate through the anomaly of 9/11’ (80). Such a situation is not solved by the map-making processes that operate within a paradigm (which is loosely how McFarlane characterises Neuromancer and its sequels) but by a ‘gestalt switch’, which is not quite a paradigm shift (which would be simply an abandonment of the old paradigm and the adoption of a new one, as generally happens in science) but a switching back and forth between different perspectives. Therefore, McFarlane endorses Fredric Jameson’s claim that Pattern Recognition, despite on the surface being a relatively realist novel, is actually more not less cyberpunk than Neuromancer. Nevertheless, as deployed in Agency, this mechanism of gestalt switch seems to function more as a means of expressing nostalgia for outmoded paradigms such as the idea of Hillary Clinton becoming US President or the SFnal trope of AI as a single person-like consciousness as opposed to an infinite network of algorithms operating beyond our comprehension. McFarlane suggests that the ostensibly happy ending of this novel is sarcastic or ironic, indicating a more melancholy coming to terms with the limits of perception.
Overall, this is obviously an essential book for Gibson scholars and cyberpunk researchers (and it certainly left me wanting to reread Gibson and his cyberpunk peers). More widely, it concerns the limits of SF and perception in general for dealing with a time of repeated anomalies (to 9/11, Brexit and Trump, we can now add the Covid pandemic and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine). At the very least, a lot of gestalt switching is now required. McFarlane refers to Amitav Ghosh’s discussion of the limitations of literary fiction in conveying the climate crisis in The Great Derangement (2016) and notes that the linear nature of the novel and its need for closure leaves it ill equipped as a genre to deal with such crises (this is also key to Mark Bould’s book on this BSFA shortlist, discussed below). I entirely agree that we also need to refer to other forms of media and adopt intermedial approaches to literature but I think novels still have something to offer (and nor do they have to end in bourgeois closure – I discuss Fredric Jameson’s argument concerning this in my review of Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting). Reading Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology inspires me to wonder about other SF writers writing social SF about the gaps between social paradigms. Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow and Kim Stanley Robinson immediately spring to my mind but also the slightly more leftfield bodies of work by, for instance, Gwyneth Jones, Ken MacLeod and Tricia Sullivan. I suppose what I’m saying is that I still believe in SF but reading McFarlane’s excellent and thought-provoking monograph makes me realise that now is the time to have a go at gestalt literary criticism and set out the coordinates of that belief so that it doesn’t simply collapse into a form of nostalgia.
John Coxon, Alison Scott, and Liz Batty, Octothorpe Podcast, Octothorpe
I probably lose all fannish credibility by admitting that I didn’t know about this podcast before. Now I do and I will listen to it because, as we all know, podcasts are great for playing on your headphones when you’re on the train or doing mounds of washing up on your own or in many other situations. But, as with Val Nolan’s essay, I don’t think anything useful is served by me summarising an episode of it as opposed to just chatting about it a bit. So, choosing between the episodes suggested in the BSFA Awards booklet, I plumped for episode 44: Quite a Lot of Big Buts. Leaving aside the turnips vs. pumpkins debate, this was mostly about Eastercon and possible models for running it in a post-coronavirus world. Amusingly, the news had just broken (this episode is from last November) that Reclamation was going to use the Radisson Hotel and Convention Centre at Heathrow. They didn’t predict the ridiculously long queues for hotel check-in!! (Yes, I am writing this section at the very last second from within the Radisson in the middle of the night, having fallen asleep for several hours after eventually getting into my room).
The main options for future Eastercons seem to be student accommodation or campsites/festivals. As it happens, I know of some student accommodation going cheap which is very conveniently located for Heathrow – aside from the slight issue that students are in it at Easter. Mind you, as discussed in the episode, neither of these options probably would be likely to happen at Easter (camping especially is only really an option for the summer – and I say that as someone who has camped a lot in the UK). As also pointed out, moving from Easter is unlikely to be popular or practical for many reasons, including when people (and children) have holidays; not to mention the growing cohort of academics in fandom. This was a fascinating discussion and all I can really do is doff my hat to those who run cons. I shall definitely be listening in again (I should add that there was also a good discussion of the recent Dune film, which was out at that time – the episode wasn’t entirely about Eastercons).
Joy Sanchez-Taylor, Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color (Ohio State University Press). 188pp.
This is a good, crisp, scholarly-but-accessible book; I hadn’t got very far when I made a note to myself to add it to the reading list for my second-year module on genre fictions, which includes work by Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin – authors who are discussed in some detail here. What I particularly like about this book (set out in thematic chapters rather than as a chronological survey) is the way that it deftly blends analysis with clever, enticing descriptions of the novels and stories it discusses. The aim here is clearly partly to connect potential readers to texts by demonstrating why they would want to read them rather than constructing an authoritative canon and commanding the study of the great works included. I like this approach personally because I feel academic writing is often insufficiently descriptive in that one can read essays and come away with no overall idea about what the text discussed is about. But times are changing and Academia is no longer the institutional authority it was; it needs to embrace public engagement and meet the needs of readers and fan communities. In the book’s conclusion, Sanchez-Taylor provides a really useful overview of the various initiatives that have promoted SF (at the beginning of the book, she explicitly commits to SF rather than speculative fiction) written by people of colour, which is the sort of information that is often not included in academic books. Above all, however, and this is a theme that runs throughout Diverse Futures, the decision not to provide an authoritative linear chronological account of SF by writers of colour is in itself a key means of resisting ‘Eurowestern patriarchal thinking’.
I think what I liked most about this book (even more than the accessible analysis) is that it really made me think about the future in a different way (and I try and think about the future a lot). An implicit question is what kind of ‘diverse futures’ are there. To be diverse, a future can’t be all white or all heterosexual or all binary gendered. But the solution to this issue is not just a matter of representation but also one of structuring narratives differently. For example, Sanchez-Taylor cites Agnieszka Podruczna in explaining how ‘one approach to challenging colonialism in the science fiction genre is to create narratives that “transcend the binary nature of the imperial system and question the most fundamental assumptions of the colonial discourse while giving the voice back to the silenced colonial subject”’ (25-6). The crucial context here is survival. Are we heading towards a future in which only the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy survives? Ten years ago, I would have framed that question rhetorically, if at all. Now, I’m pretty certain there are people modelling, and planning towards, such futures. Therefore, it is imperative to tell different stories because the future is being fought over right now. I sometimes joke (from a British perspective) that the twenty-first century hasn’t really got going yet. But actually that is profoundly wrong because not only is it going but it is also being played out at lightning speed. All the social and political features of the UK and US which I would describe as reactionary are not throwbacks but active twenty-first-century interventions that, in some cases, are designed to result in an acutely Eurowestern hierarchical ‘solution’.
So what can we do? Well for a start I want to reread this book while reading more of the primary texts covered and more of the secondary sources referred to. And, as I wrote above, incorporate this more into my work as a public educator.
Francesca T. Barbini, ed., Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction (Luna). 206pp.
I like these annual academic collections from Luna. I was quite tempted to submit to the Tolkien CFP but decided that the World was not yet ready for my ‘Bad Galadriel’. Apologies to Francesca Barbini and Luna in advance because, as with last year, I don’t have time or space to review all the contributions to this collection (as I would do in a full review) and therefore I’m not doing this book full justice. Worldbuilding is a central feature of SFF but discussion of it often takes on a zero-sum aspect (‘I liked the worldbuilding’, ‘it was all worldbuilding and no plot’, ‘there is no worldbuilding’ etc etc). Although there are articles on worldbuilding in existence, it is good to see so many more here. I shall be working through these for some time to come but here is a flavour of the one I read first.
Cheryl Morgan’s ‘Worldbuilding with Sex and Gender’ is concerned with the limited ideas of sex and gender generally displayed (there are obviously honourable exceptions) in the depiction of aliens in SF. She points out that ‘the natural world on our own planet is full of creatures that do sex and gender very differently from humans’. This leads to a great chapter intercutting discussion of hermaphroditic leopard slugs with references to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s matriarchal spiders in Children of Time (2015). In particular, I enjoyed the discussion of the descending sequence of relative male-to-female size involving the angler fish, the paper nautilus, and the green spoon worm, the latter of which I certainly hadn’t heard of before. Nor was I aware of the parthenogenetic bdelloid rotifer (which sounds like something out of Douglas Adams). The chapter as a whole is written with a beautiful blend of wit and social comment, and a wealth of reference to relevant SF: ‘In Motherlines (1978), Suzy Mckee Charnas introduces a society of women who have developed the ability to reproduce through parthenogenesis, though apparently they need some help from their horses’ (62). I particularly recommend this chapter as an antidote to the kind of febrile transphobia that populates the Sunday Times on a weekly basis.
Mark Bould, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso). 160pp.
This is a punchy, provocative, polemical book, which brings together some exhilarating readings with a genuine sense of urgency concerning the impending climate disaster. It begins with an instruction for us to imagine the world to come if ‘we carry on doing too little too late’ (1): flooding, unbearable daytime temperatures, millions dying, millions more refugees, border wars, the sixth great extinction, complete collapse. It is in this context that Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016) asked why most forms of art and literature far from highlighting the crisis we face, have been drawn into concealing it. Bould, however, argues that this position is not the case and that we can find representations of climate change catastrophe in most cultural forms with the exception of ‘mundane fiction – what Ghosh calls “serious literary fiction” – [and] […] this is because the mainstream bourgeois novel mistook exclusion for insight, a glitch for a feature’ (3).
Most of the rest of the book is concerned with showing exactly how mundane/literary fiction fails to equip us for climate change in contrast with fantastika and/or popular cultural texts. In practice, this entails lively, detailed readings of texts that don’t normally rub shoulders in the same volume, such as, on the one hand, both the Sharknado (2013-) and The Fast and the Furious (200) movie sequences (to which Bould devotes eight and six pages of analysis respectively) and, on the other hand, Paul Auster’s thousand-page 4 3 2 1 (2017), Lucy Ellman’s thousand-page Ducks, Newburyport (2019), and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, four-thousand-page My Struggle (2009-11) (to which Bould devotes four pages, two pages, and three pages respectively). I have neither read nor watched any of these texts and have absolutely zero desire to do so but nonetheless I really enjoyed these lightly done but penetrating analytical expositions, which serve to support Bould’s argument. Indeed, I enjoyed all the readings in this book (despite having not watched or read pretty much any of the other texts either). Curiously, the only novel discussed that I might actually be tempted to read is Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range (1957), which gets three pages of analysis, and the only films that appealed to me were Dead Slow Ahead (2015), a documentary concerning the voyage of a dry-cargo freighter (seven pages of analysis), and Still Life (2006), a Chinese film that is set against a background of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (three pages). I describe this structure at some length because it seems to me that the main component of the book is the readings and whether one likes the book or not is going to depend on whether one enjoys the readings, which I did.
What I am not so convinced about is the logic by which ‘serious literary fiction’ is equated with ‘mundane fiction’ and then given the status of the villain of the piece. Don’t get me wrong, I very much like the cognitive estrangement which is generated by referring to literary fiction as mundane fiction, so that something we used to take as existing at the pinnacle of the cultural hierarchy is discarded as less worthy of our attention than the genre and popular texts which used to be treated as garbage. But the operative verbs here are ‘used’. Aside from isolated residual pockets, there is no longer a cultural hierarchy of this sort in existence and there hasn’t been for some decades (at least for the duration of the present century). Therefore, to my mind, ‘serious literary fiction’ is functioning as something of a straw man here, as though at times The Anthropocene Unconscious has fallen down a rabbit hole back into the kind of inferiority complex that used to plague SF criticism back in the day.
Bould traces the history of the ‘mundane novel’ from the eighteenth century onwards, as ‘it fantasised the regularity of bourgeois life, which it equated with plausibility. It promoted the rational, the orderly, and the statistically normative. Having no time for the extraordinary, it was “deliberately prosaic”’ (34). The examples he gives are Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë; with a list of exceptions ranging from Melville to Dos Passos that ‘are really just articulations of the norm’ (35). The logic here is basically that of the old-fashioned Marxist argument that the dominant form of culture in a bourgeois society will be bourgeois (i.e. in the interests of the property owning classes) and this has some validity as a rule of thumb when talking of, e.g., the Victorian novel. However, I don’t think Bould is justified in linking nineteenth-century ‘bourgeois individualism’ to John Updike’s idea that what is central to the novel is a ‘sense of “individual moral adventure – of the evolving individuals in varied and roughly equal battle with a world of consequence”’ (37; a quote which comes via Ghosh’s book). What Updike is describing sounds to me very much like the postwar American novel, of which he was an exponent. And while one might argue that the protagonists of such novels are middle class and so are the protagonists of Jane Austen’s novels, they’re not really the same class of people in terms of material conditions, historical context, and social outlook. Of course, Bould is employing a kind of shorthand here for the sake of brevity but even so to lump several hundred years of the novel together as one monolithic structure of bourgeois literary fiction is to concede rather too much ground to twentieth-century proponents of ‘great traditions’ and ‘canons’. Far from mundane fiction continuing to form a mansion through which ‘bourgeois monads’ (48) will continue to walk alone for many years, it is long since bankrupt, mortgaged, and sold off.
Therefore, the last thing we want to be doing in the present context is giving any credence to the idea there is still some sort of functional binary opposition between mundane fiction and fantastika. Or to put it another way, it is possible to do SF and SF criticism without framing it in opposition to ‘serious literary fiction’ and literary criticism. One way of doing this is, as Bould concludes, by starting from ‘the position that all cultural texts are about climate change’ (132). I agree with him entirely that the ‘often recondite practice’ of criticism can become a form of activism, a source of ‘transformative praxis’ (132). What I would have liked to see would be an even more programmatic call for us all (especially all of us academics who have internalised far too much of the logic of the neoliberal university [see 31-2]) to ‘walk away from the life’ (142) and read cultural texts through the lens of climate change (and thereby also through the lens of necessary social change):
Not just as opportunities for dialogue, discussion and debate, but as adventure playgrounds, workshops, studios, festivals, carnivals, invitations to creative play, to thinking through, to action – as close to unalienated labour as we might get. (132-3)
But maybe I’m being unfair here because this book is a pretty programmatic call to people like me to get off our backsides. Therefore, my quibbles about the exact class-based status of certain types of literature (which are a product of my own somewhat recondite obsession with 1930s proletarian literature) are themselves perhaps something of a displacement activity. The only correct attitude to this book would be to organise and participate in exactly such activities as those outlined in the quote above. If we entered into that project fully, then there is the potential to resolve all the old contradictions.
Thoughts: As ever, I have enjoyed reading (and listening to) and writing about this shortlist. In a world where there is always far too much to read (or listen to), I have found this annual shortlist to be a useful selection tool. The BSFA represents a shared interest group and although one could be negative about that (by seeing it as a ‘bubble’, for example), I prefer to see it as a means of participating in a collective. It’s a way for an individual, engaged in what seems the very individual pursuit of reading books to participate in a wider process of cultural production. To that end, nominating, voting for, and reading the shortlists of this award are an essential part of my annual cultural activity (alongside reading the BSFA publications and sometimes attending Eastercon). Furthermore, that activity is also political in a lowkey, non-party way because this process does something in society. My big takeaway from this year’s shortlist – most of which directly advocates for SF as a tool to change things in the world – is that we all need to contribute more to this collective effort (I always feel that I should be doing more due to the guilt I have never been able to quite shed at being lucky enough to make a living from reading, writing on, and talking about books). I say ‘more’ but I don’t just mean more of the same, rather I want to build on the sense from the items on this shortlist that SF has a role in addressing the climate catastrophe and the social crises of our time, precisely because it does cause us to question the way that things are. In the end (after dithering between the books), I gave my first preference to Joy Sanchez-Taylor’s Diverse Futures, but it was a tight choice between excellent options, all of which suggest approaches for an activist criticism that I hope both to follow up personally and to see followed up elsewhere.
[Edit: And the winner is Francesca T. Barbini, ed., Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction (Luna).]
This is a revised and extended version of a review that first appeared in BSFA Review 16 (Winter 2021/22).
Cwen by Alice Albinia (Serpent’s Tail, 2021)
Reviewed byNick Hubble
‘Why is “gynotopia” not listed as a word in either the OED or Merriam-Webster? Answer: Because men have erased such places from our memories.’ This putative pub quiz question, found on the back of a grocery bill along with a list of ideas such as giving every girl five acres at birth and a process of mandatory re-education for men aged seven to seventy-seven, is read out in court as part of the ‘Inquiry into Unfair Female Advantage in the Islands’ which is narrated in Cwen. The ‘Islands’ are an unnamed archipelago off the east coast of Scotland, whose culture has been transformed by a subtle programme of intervention in support of women led by former cabinet minister’s wife, Eva Harcourt-Vane. Her recent disappearance at sea during a storm has brought her social experiment to the attention of the UK media, leading to a frenzy of predictably sensationalist headlines, such as ‘FEMALE TAKEOVER OF ISLAND’S LEADERSHIP’ and ‘FEMALE EDUCATORS CAVORT TOGETHER NAKED’. The loose inquest format of the novel, in which the women Eva has worked with testify as to their collective motivations and achievements, invites readers to ponder whether it is indeed time both for a thoroughgoing overhaul of the patriarchy and to put gynotopia in the dictionary or, indeed, on the map.
While this is a serious question, the novel as a whole is characterised by a pitch-perfect lightness of touch which blends deft social commentary and a gentle infusion of the fantastic with an engaging story that centres on Eva’s granddaughter, Zoe. It is this approach, and the quasi-documentary structure rooted in the courtroom evidence, that allows Cwen to penetrate beneath the alarming capacity of human beings to adhere without question to the ways they believe things have always been done, and so reveal some of the elusive currents of social change that actually underpin what they like to construe as a stable, familiar present. Thus, reported extracts from Eva’s documentary project of interviewing islanders at six-month intervals reveal how life has been transformed for everyone even though the male participants deny that anything has altered for them. We see one such respondent led grudgingly step by step to the realisation that the reason he is spending much more time with his grandchildren is due to the socio-economic rebalancing of island life that Eva has instigated.
‘Cwen’, as we are informed by the novel’s epigraph, is the old English word for ‘woman, wife, female, ruler of a state’. Here, it is also the name of a small, unmanned, island and the spirit presiding over its Neolithic cairn and nearby spring, who also fulfils the function of chorus in the novel, punctuating the courtroom chapters with reflections on several thousand years of experience. This structure and set-up work to reinforce the idea of a fluid, shore-foraging, island-based history, which is at odds with the idea of human civilisation evolving through male hunting and then the adoption of a hierarchical societies based on the accumulation of agricultural surpluses. In this respect, it is one of a number of recent novels, such as Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star, which chime with the argument of David Graeber and David Wenlow’s recent The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity that hierarchical centralised states are not an inevitable consequence of complex societies and, therefore, we can build alternatives beyond the tired patriarchal and binary structures that still residually dominate much thinking.
Quotations throughout Cwen from sources ranging from Tacitus to Gilles Deleuze, which reinforce the association between islands and women, have left me keenly anticipating Alice Albinia’s forthcoming non-fiction book on Britain, The Britannias. In an article for the Guardian, ‘From Boudicca to modern Britain: the dream of island utopias, ruled by Britain’, Albinia discusses both Cwen and The Britannias in the context of utopian ideas and climate change, before concluding that ‘it is time to inject some of Britain’s ancient female power into our modern social fabric’. I like this idea but I also like that Albinia, in a nice metafictional touch, also seems to inject some of herself into Cwen in the form of the character Alice.
What distinguishes Cwen, and similarly themed novels of recent years such as Aliya Whiteley’s Skein Island, is that they have moved beyond the battle-of-the-sexes novels of the late twentieth century to consider the more profound question of what life after patriarchy will be like. As Cwen, herself, ruminates, women can live with men, the question is ‘whether they can live together, and beyond themselves, with the things not like them’ such as the rest of the natural world. This delightful, profound, and intersectional novel – which includes trans and nonbinary characters among its women – provides all of us island dwellers with some hope in that respect.
I was lecturing on Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ this week as part of my Genre Fictions module. During the first 6 weeks of the module, we read a couple of short stories a week ranging from the late nineteenth century up until Amal El Mohtar’s ‘Seasons of Glass and Iron’ (2016). Each story is an object of interest in itself but also serves to indicate a particular period. In the case of ‘The Cold Equations’, the period is the ‘Golden Age’ of SF, which is often associated with John W. Campbell’s tenure as editor of Astounding Science Fiction. This gives me an opportunity to show Jeanette Ng’s celebrated denunciation of Campbell as a ‘fucking fascist’ when receiving the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the Hugo Awards ceremony at the 2019 Dublin Worldcon (I was in the audience at the time and can testify that it was an electric moment). Subsequently, of course, the award has been renamed the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.
As part of discussing ‘The Cold Equations’, I drew heavily on Sherryl Vint and Mark Bould’s chapter, ‘There is no such thing as science fiction’ (in James Gunn, Marleen S. Barr and Matthew Candelaria, eds, Reading Science Fiction, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). In the story, a pilot, Barton, making a crucial medical delivery in a small spaceship becomes aware of a stowaway, whose additional weight in addition to the exactly-calibrated load will prevent the ship reaching its destination leading to the death of those awaiting the cargo. The stowaway turns out to be Marilyn, a teenage girl, who, after some agonising and resigned acceptance of her fate, is ejected from the airlock to die in space. As Vint and Bould point out, in order for the story to be read “correctly” according to the logic of the Golden Age, ‘Marilyn must be seen as “x, the unwanted factor in a cold equation” rather than “a sweet-faced girl in her tweens”’ (44). The effect of this is ideological, as they note: ‘The story conflates physical laws with human rules, thereby denying responsibility for consequences which at least in part reflect the priorities of human political and economic policies’ (45). Their argument is that the story is not just about what might be seen as an engineering solution to a problem rooted in the laws of physics, it is also implicitly about attitudes to both gender and colonialism in the 1950s. In particular, ‘The story works hard to reinforce the premise that space and the frontier are not for women’ (46).
I chose this essay as a useful secondary reading precisely because it highlights these gendered aspects of the story and provides an excellent model of how these matters can be critically discussed. The module proceeds to investigate this question of gender in other texts. For example, the other story for this week is Kit Reed’s ‘The New You’ (1962); the stories for next week are Pamela Zoline’s ‘Heat Death of the Universe’ (1967) and Joanna Russ’s ‘When It Changed’ (1972); and we also read Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) in the second half of the module.
However, as I was reminded when re-reading the essay before giving the lecture, there is another important argument made by Vint and Bould, which is expressed in its provocative title, ‘There is no such thing as science fiction’. They start their chapter by noting how the boundaries between the genres of SF, fantasy and horror are dissolving leading to ‘blurring, spicing, sampling, dubbing and remixing’ (43). However, they argue that this is not an epochal shift but rather a reflection of an ‘impoverished’ understanding of genre because ‘there never was such a thing as SF’. The idea of SF as promoted by critical constructions such as the ‘Golden Age of SF’ is in fact a reflection of processes of production, marketing, distribution and consumption such as those embodied by Astounding during Campbell’s editorship. Vint and Bould’s reading of ‘The Cold Equations’ is intended as a particularly telling case study of the how these factors came together to create so-called ‘Hard SF’:
Just as Barton ejected Marilyn from the airlock so this new category [of SF] ejected horror, fantasy, aviation stories, detective stories, and so on. Likewise, Astounding ejected science fantasy and other kinds of SF deemed insufficiently “rational,” such as the colourful and more exotic planetary romances and space opera; and such expulsions continue to be made by many readers of SF (49).
Of course, this process was not solely down to Campbell and Astounding; the initial winnowing of the field began when Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories in 1926, using the term ‘scientifiction’ in the first issue. However, as anybody who has ever read up on debates about the history of science fiction in the broadest sense will know, it was being written earlier by, for example, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne (Gernsback regularly published stories by both of these in Amazing Stories), or even earlier, as by Mary Shelley, or even earlier still, as in classical antiquity. In short, we have always had speculative SF-type stories and narratives, but the idea of a core SF genre is a twentieth-century artefact, created by conditions which no longer exist. Indeed, I agree with Vint and Bould that it never really existed in that pure form. Even during that Golden Age period, there was plenty of other stuff being written that would not satisfy the types of guys who used to come up to complete strangers at Conventions and evangelise about the ‘magazines’. The fact that there is no pure form of SF today is therefore not a sign of the evolution of the genre but rather that the blinkers have been taken off and we can now see the messy, blurry reality of the diffuse field that has always existed.
Rereading Vint and Bould’s chapter, and reminding myself of SF’s non-existence, made me think of another ‘core genre’ that appeared to be there in the 1920s, and which has exerted an unhelpful influence for decades, but which in fact also never existed: I refer, of course, to modernism. Just substitute Ezra Pound (from the 1910s onwards) for John W. Campbell and think about similar processes of production, marketing, distribution and consumption producing an equally commercial artefact. I don’t need to spell it out. Indeed, rather than painstakingly set out the argument, I was tempted to write a mash-up crossover-style fic blending ‘The Cold Equations’ with Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown’, which ends with Arnold Bennett being thrown out of the airlock (note that Woolf certainly did write SF in the broader sense). This sounds like a happy ending, but it has been compounded over the years by followers throwing out everything else that is human. Modernism even has its own ‘magazines’ and conventions. Nevertheless, despite this being the magical centennial year of 1922, I feel we need to finally face up to the fact that it never existed as a core genre, rather than a melange of styles, perspectives and approaches which can be traced throughout recorded literary history.
However, not only were core SF and core modernism products of the 1920s, but also core Eng Lit, founded by I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis. In short, there is no such thing as English Literature, either: a situation which is becoming increasingly evident in the Academy (and compounded of course by the belated recognition that theory-inflected academic literary criticism is not the master discipline that it seemed to promise to be in the 1990s).
This is a slightly revised version of a review which first appeared in BSFA Review 15 (Autumn 2021).
Big Echo Anthology edited by Robert G. Penner (bigecho.org, 2021)
Reviewed byNick Hubble
‘The Death of Science Fiction had remained a perennial, if tiresome, subject for reviewers of SF novels for decades’, proclaims the first line of Gord Sellar’s ‘The Incursus, by Asimov-NN#77’. This is a mock book review of a 931-page doorstop written by ‘an emulator’, combining genetic material supplemented with ‘a horrifyingly complex reverse engineered schematic of the author’s cognitive patterns and dispositions, literary tics, and writerly style’. Aside from, according to the reviewer, producing more readable texts than the original, the other advantage of the emulator – as it writes on its own website – is that it excludes ‘those troublesome aspects of the man’s behaviour that, acceptable perhaps in his own time, have grown notorious in the decades since his death’. Indeed, as we know, all those old classics are much easier to update and repackage once the ties to their creators have been irrevocably severed. Perhaps that is exactly where the secret of the success of the old genre that is SF lies: what is dead cannot die.
Robert Penner, the editor of this anthology, started the e-zine Big Echo: Critical SF with Paul Klassen in 2016. The initial idea, as Penner explains in a brief introduction to the anthology, was to publish sf ‘which was more or less “hard,” and that was also, at least to some degree, a self-conscious engagement with the historical conditions that made possible the production of science fiction as both idea and commodity’. This almost sounds like a valedictory project; a sense that is reinforced by the fact that ‘The Final Issue’ of Big Echo appeared last year and, according to twitter, the aim of this anthology is to raise funds to keep what is already there online. As it happens, though, the works Big Echo ended up publishing, while often anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, ‘grew increasingly avant garde and experimental in style’ so that they linger, open-ended, continuing to pose their questions to a civilisation that hasn’t yet quite realised, even amidst a global pandemic, that it has stalled.
These stories take many forms, ranging from Tim Maughan’s realist depiction of a near-future California in ‘Don’t Be Evil’ and Vajra Chandrasekera’s time-travel yarn ‘Ruin’s Cure’ to Clifton Gachagua’s exquisite sonnet ‘Landing in Ganymede’. However, they mostly all concern the boundaries between life and death, and self and other. The point is that such boundaries are not intractable, as is made clear in the first story in the anthology (which is organised chronologically), Peter Milne Greiner’s ‘Plexaure’ from issue 1 of August 2016. Here, more happens in seven pages than in most of the planetary romances and generation starship novels ever written, and the allure of theology is laid bare. Wm Henry Morris’s ‘It is a Rare Thing the Emperor Requireth’ also involves aliens and God, while performing an almost anthropological analysis in the manner of Lévi-Strauss’s ‘The Structural Study of Myth’.
Some of the stories are even more explicitly philosophical. Natalia Theodoridou’s ‘Postscript to Mauser’ riffs off a line from Deleuze, although I’m not sure he ever speculated on whether ‘our clavicles are little keys to the secret of the universe’. An interesting interpretation of Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment informs Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s ‘Parable of the Cocoon’. Jo Lindsay Walton’s ‘Cat, I Must Work!’, the longest story in the anthology, is a teasing, riddling story in which it is not clear whether a game designer and a philosopher are indirectly competing or engaging in a Socratic dialogue. Is Nia telling the truth when she claims to be able to ‘overcome the distinction between “individual quality of life” and “agitating for systemic change”’? Or is that just a lie we all tell ourselves?
Other fine stories by Elae Moss, Wongoon Cha, Stephen Langlois, Ahimaz Rajeesh, and Rudy Rucker add to the richness and variety of this collection. Carlos Norcia’s ‘We were The Workshop for (a torturer’s) Utopia’ expresses a particular nightmare of mine: the idea of the authorities infiltrating speculative fiction groups. The title of Brendan C. Byrne’s ‘The Three Stigmata of Peter Thiel’ has the immediate uncanny effect of reminding us that we now live in a world of Philip K. Dick novels made real. The abrupt but entirely logical shift from Thiel’s desire to become everybody in the world to an intense meditation on the assassination of Donald Trump reads like one of the condensed novels in J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).
Similarly to Ballard’s work, I don’t think these stories are a manifestation of the death drive but an attempt to find a way beyond that, which can only come at a price. It is interesting that one of the earliest submissions published by Big Echo, Mileva Anastasiadou’s ‘The War of People’ – the third story in this collection – is described by Penner as helping him to find a way out of the initial, constrictive hard-sf conceptualisation of the e-zine. The story can be read quite simplistically as showing the reality of neoliberalism as war but it also includes the fatalistic philosophy of what the German critic Walter Benjamin once called ‘the tradition of the oppressed’: ‘What does not kill you does not make you stronger. It deprives you of hope. You cease to care about life. Not even your own.’ The point being that there are some things, such as a misplaced belief in the inviolability of the universal liberal subject, that it is better to let go of before they are stripped away from you.
Therefore, I can think of no better way of recommending this volume than with some of the concluding remarks from Sellar’s review of The Incursus: ‘But for those of you with courage, and especially for those of us who find science fiction no longer so mind-blowing as it once was, this text goes a long way to providing a substitute. So long as you are not too attached to the idea of one’s own ultimate existence in any recognizable form, that is.’
Britain might have officially left the European Union on 31 January 2020 but in practice it didn’t properly leave until the end of the ‘transition period’ at 11pm GMT 31 December 2020. In order to mark a year of glorious isolation on the plague island (the first year since the 1980s when I have not set foot on continental Europe), I thought it appropriate to post this review, originally published in BSFA Review 8 (Winter 2019).
Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea Devils by James Lovegrove (Titan Books, 2018)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
In this third and concluding volume of the Cthulhu Casebooks, we finally learn ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn the truth behind the suspicion that Holmes must have been subsisting on more than just ‘sea air and honey’ during his rural retirement beekeeping on the Sussex Downs. If the sequence title is suggestive of where the plot is eventually going to take us, the deceptively straight forward narrative ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn actually leads us by some diverting roundabout ways. Lovegrove adds to the fun by providing a little framing narrative of his own, before and after what is presented as Watson’s manuscript, which in turn necessitates a further ‘Publisher’s Note’ reassuring us ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn, not entirely convincingly, that ‘James has been receiving treatment and is said to be on the road to recovery’.
I can’t help suspecting there is more than a modicum of truth behind the joking ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn because on the face of it Lovegrove has been pursuing something of a masochistic task in writing his Holmes novels (which also include half a dozen or so volumes that are not Lovecraft crossovers). This is because he denies himself two of the staple ways in which Holmes has been successfully resurrected: by being transported into the contemporary world or by being played for laughs. At first I was thinking ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – while curled in my armchair as the wind and snow howled past outside – that writing Holmes fairly straight must be hard work and then I found myself mysteriously transported twenty pages further into the text having got entirely caught up in the narrative spell ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn woven by Watson’s monotonic misdirection.
Fortunately, being a professionally trained academic and literary critic, well versed in the black arts of deconstruction and the secret knowledge that at the heart of meaning ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn there is no meaning, I quickly realised that Watson is an unreliable narrator masking Lovegrove’s true purpose in Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea Devils of writing the great Brexit novel. For example, as Baron Von Herling, the German Ambassador tells Holmes and Watson, ‘Europe is fracturing before our very eyes. Somehow we must hold the continent together before it falls apart completely’. Yet our intrepid heroes are not deceived for one second by this veneer of genial reason and so an inexorable chain reaction of events is unleashed which results in a wide-ranging traversal of the fantasy of our imperial past (including a brilliant moment when Watson boorishly blunders with a Boer). By the end of the novel, the Germans and other monsters of the night have learnt the hard way ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulthu Br’xit wgah’nagl fhtagn that the ‘most tempestuous and unyielding force of nature’ is indeed ‘the Englishman who has been pushed past breaking point and has nothing to lose’.
Reading Lovegrove’s beautiful reconstruction of late Victorian and Edwardian pulp serves as a timely reminder of just how deep some of these imperial English archetypes run. It’s not that my pulse doesn’t also quicken every time the game’s afoot but beyond those embedded childhood reflexes there is also something melancholic about these stirring tales of derring-do: however many times we vicariously close the Hellmouth with our heroes, we know that it will always open again because it is born of the horror that we carry around inside us.
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu Br’xit wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu Br’xit wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu Br’xit wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu Br’xit wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu Br’xit wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu Br’xit wgah’nagl fhtagn.
If anything, it has been a weirder year that last year. I made a phased return to work in early January following sick leave due to my postviral fatigue syndrome and I had various plans but then after only a couple of weeks, my son had to go into hospital with an ankle infection, which then involved a transfer to Cardiff (at the height of the pandemic) for emergency surgery. This all worked out well and he subsequently made an excellent and quick recovery but he was in hospital for 18 days (and we had to take turns staying in with him). So it did contribute to the early part of the year being a bit of a slog until Easter, but after then things seemed to be picking up. On 12 May 2021, I wrote a positive day-diary for Mass Observation. I wasn’t happy with the way things were going politically but I seemed to be improving in myself and had a better idea of where I wanted to go workwise than I had for the previous year. In June, I began tweet-threading the headlines (although not daily as I first intended) just to give me some sort of grip on what the hell has been happening in the world. Also in June, I wrote a piece Celebrating Trans and Nonbinary Visibility as part of a pride month series for Brunel’s website. Then in the summer, I felt good and had a good holiday in Cornwall and Brighton, before getting a slight cold which slightly aggravated my postviral condition. Still, I got over that and felt confident for the autumn, having also reduced my hours at work. During late September and early October, I felt the best I had physically for a year. And then, I got another virus – the ‘cold from hell’ – and although I fought that off, the postviral consequence was that it put me back to square one. Hence, I’ve been off work again in the run up to Christmas and the comforting narrative of gradual progress I was telling myself has been shot to pieces. So, back to the drawing board on that, but here are the positives to take forward.
Highlights of the year included the publication of my co-edited (with Luke Seaber and Elinor Taylor) volume, The 1930s: A Decade of Modern British Fiction, which came out in January, although I didn’t actually see a physical copy until months later (I wrote a bit about the book here). Following the article I wrote for Tribune in December 2020 on ‘How Sci-Fi Shaped Socialism’, I spoke on that topic for the Last Refuge podcast in January. In November, I wrote another article for Tribune on Ursula Le Guin, which was republished in various places including in French translation for Contretemps. I also guest-edited this special issue of Vector on ‘SFF & Class’. I helped judge the Arthur C. Clarke Award which, as announced on BBC Radio Four’s Front Row, was won by Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in that Country. I ‘went’ (i.e. virtually) to both EasterCon (report here) and the WorldCon (my paper for the academic track here).
Reviews of non-fiction books include this one I wrote for The Modernist Review on Matthew Chambers’s London and the Modernist Book Shop, which focuses on the Parton Street Bookshop frequented by the likes of Dylan Thomas and John Cornford, my take on the BSFA Award for Best Non-Fiction shortlist and this one on Gwyneth Jones’s Joanna Russ for Strange Horizons. I’ve also reviewed novels and short story collections for ParSec and the BSFA Review. The BSFA Vector blog has republished a number of my fiction reviews from this and previous years: Christopher Priest’s The Evidence, Nina Allan’s Ruby, M.T. Hill’s The Breach, James Lovegrove’s Firefly: The Ghost Machine, Paul McAuley’s War of the Maps, Rose Macaulay’s What Not, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin, and Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Binding Thorns.
Last year, I joked that the pandemic made it easier to review cultural activities over the year because it limited activities to a necessarily finite level. This applies equally to 2021, where I have managed four trips to the cinema (Nomadland, No Time to Die, Dune, and The Halfway House ), three trips to the theatre (The Winter’s Tale at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, as featured in the Guardian in the week I saw it, The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, both at Aberystwyth Arts Centre this autumn), and two exhibitions (‘Richard Slee: Mantelpiece Observations’ at Hove Museum, which I wrote about on my other blog, and ‘Human Threads’ at Ceredigion Museum). I enjoyed all of these precious trips (some requiring covid passes) very much but I especially rated the Mantelpiece exhibition, which is still on until 25 January 2022, and The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe, which makes me want to look out for more from Dyad Productions.
At home, I’ve read a lot. I’m including some of the books I enjoyed most (but not contemporary SFF because I’m Clarke-tied on that) in this ongoing end-of-year tweet thread. I didn’t get around to tweet-threading a reread of something as I promised last year but that was because I haven’t spent much time at work (I see this as a hotel evening activity). I have been ploughing through the four-volume History of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s drafts edited by his son Christopher, and that might bear some fruit down the line. Despite it being a resolution for 2021, I have completely failed to watch much TV (we did enjoy a belated watch of Dogs of Berlin on Netflix) or many films at home; so that is going back on the resolution list for 2022. I do have a desire to revisit a lot of film and even write about some. At the beginning of my academic career, I taught a fair amount of film, including SF, Westerns, Classic Hollywood and Film Noir but never published anything on it because I had other priorities at the time and so I feel that I have unfinished business there. Music-wise, I’ve bought two CDs that actually came out in 2021: St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home and Sleater-Kinney’s Path of Wellness. Maybe I will see something live in 2022. I think we’re just going to have to see how things go – at least for the opening months. No predictions for things I will be writing, as I singularly failed to complete the projects I predicted this last time last year. I also want to take some more photos following on from some efforts this year.
Here is the (tidied-up) text of the paper I gave yesterday (by Zoom) to the Academic Track, DisCon III, 79th World Science Fiction Convention, Washington DC, 15-19 December. This is the third consecutive decade in which I have given a paper to the Academic Track at Worldcon (my previous appearances were in-person at Glasgow in 2005 and Helsinki 2017). As I noted before delivering the paper, this isn’t a close reading of the text (one will be forthcoming at some point as I plan to be working on Jones in more detail) because I didn’t think that would work well in the format as inevitably many audience members won’t have read it. Talking of audience, this was an interesting experience because I had no real sense of audience other than my fellow panellists, who were the only people I could see. Despite this slight strangeness, I very much enjoyed the panel, ‘Manifestations of Gender’, and the presentations of my fellow panellists: Jennifer Zwahr-Castro’s ‘Author and Character Gender in the Hugos’ and Marcia D. Nichols’s ‘Gynoids, Fembots and other Mechanized Women’.
‘Where will it all lead?’: Gwyneth Jones’s Life
Towards the end of Gwyneth Jones’s Life, the protagonist Anna Senoz is visited by a ghost:
It was a woman. Maybe she’d lived here when the house was young. Anna began to see, in her mind’s eye, a woman in Edwardian dress, a sensible dark skirt, short enough so it would not become draggled when you were in the street on foot, stout boots, a neatly belted waist, a tailored jacket. The face was indistinct in feature, but it gave an impression of briskness, endeavor, hope. This figure was not an apparition, but an inner vision that felt like a real visitation, not something imagined. (337)
This ghost is figured to us as a representative of the generation of Edwardian New Women and suffragettes:
She was a state of hope, a woman trying to be free and equal, a woman at the beginning of the great project. She was determined to escape from bondage to take her fair share of glory and hand over in return, to the man she loved, the great gift of equality. Never thinking where will it all lead?’ (338)
The implication is that Anna, a scientist living in a projected early twenty-first century, is the end point of that emancipatory project. However, in a twist on this notion of linear progress, Anna points out the flaw in this rose-tinted vision:
“You think you want to be me,” said Anna. “You DON’T. You want to try your wings and prove your worth, and at the end of the story go back to being the angel of the hearth. That’s what you want; I know that’s what you want.” (338-9)
Anna says this because her life, portrayed over the previous 300+ pages has been one long constant struggle against sexual violence, male superiors and endless low-paying fixed-term laboratory jobs. Considering the dichotomy between the life experienced by Anna and the life desired by Edwardian New Women leads us back to the question raised by Jones of ‘Where will it all lead?’ What actually lies beyond the Edwardian dream of equality between men and women? Let’s think about this briefly in terms of Jones’s own status as an SF writer.
Life was published in 2004 by Aqueduct Press in San Francisco. Next February it will be included in the Orion Gollancz SF Masterworks series. This sounds good – indeed it is good news – but the jaw-dropping part of this equation is that this SF Masterwork edition will be its first UK publication. It’s a novel about the career of a female scientist, Anna Senoz, from a working-class housing estate in Manchester, who discovers a phenomenon called “Transferred Y” or “TY”: the tendency of sections of the Y chromosome to crossover to the X chromosome which might potentially mean the redundancy of the former (and, by implication, of men). This makes it sound rather more melodramatic than it is. It is not an ‘End of Men’/‘Y plague’ aftermath-style story. As Suzy McKee Charnas notes on the backcover of the Aqueduct edition, ‘the axis of the story is a central question of science fiction (as speculative inquiry rather than adventure romance): what will it take to end social gender inequity—and what will it cost?’ Furthermore, as Kim Stanley Robinson (to whom Life is dedicated) blurbs it, it is also a rich literary novel: ‘Exceptionally vivid, this is one of those novels that remind you what novels at their best can do, evoking a total sense of how we live now.’
I’m describing Life in this way to try and illustrate its status. It’s simultaneously an excellent literary novel and a key work of ‘feminist SF’ – a term I’ll come back to in a minute – but although it is a classic as indicated by its forthcoming inclusion in the SF Masterworks list, it has a curious publication history for a classic by one of the main lights of British SF writing of the last four decades, in that it has never been published in the UK. Moreover, Jones, who has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award more times than any other writer, even self-published a novel in the 2010s, The Grasshopper’s Child (2014), rather than struggle with publishers (for further details see my review of The Grasshopper’s Child). Jones noted in a 2011 short panel discussion on ‘Women and SF’ on BBC Radio Four’s Women’s Hour that there was no ‘heavy lifting’ of her work by publishers despite her status and reputation. She also said that she wished she had used a male pseudonym for her feminist novels in the earlier part of her career ‘because, if you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public’ but also because it meant that all her work was treated as though it was feminist science fiction, which in effect meant that it was pigeonholed. Another member of that panel, Farah Mendlesohn, commented that there was often an ‘inability to see a female writer as anything other than a feminist writer’ and therefore rather than being treated as SF writers per se, women writers were cordoned off in various ways, such as only being discussed in the single ‘feminist’ chapter of a critical book, while the vast majority of the analysis in other chapters would be concerned with male writers.
I think this context illuminates some of the choices made by Jones in her critical study of Joanna Russ for the University of Illinois Press’s somewhat problematically titled Modern Masters of Science Fiction series (which I reviewed for Strange Horizons). In that book, Jones argues for a version of Russ that does not reduce to the implied second-wave radical-feminist narratorial position of The Female Man. Instead, Jones sees the author ‘Joanna Russ’ as an act of self-invention by a writer engaged in perpetual self-transformation and devotes space to analysing how Russ drew on modernist influences to achieve this self-invention. In this sense, Russ was a modernist writer as much as an SF writer and this all goes some way to challenging the designation of Russ as a, or even the, feminist SF writer, which is actually a way of pigeonholing her and bracketing off her work from not just the general field of SF but from literature, art, culture and … life in general. In this respect, Jones discussing Russ as a modernist is a similar manoeuvre to Kim Stanley Robinson describing Virginia Woolf as an SF writer (‘The Fiction of Now’, New Scientist 2726, 19 September 2009; Robinson also gave a great talk on the topic at the London Worldcon in 2014). I don’t think Robinson’s point was any more that we should consider Woolf really an SF writer and not a modernist, than Jones’s point was that we should consider Russ a modernist and not an SF writer. The point is rather that these writers transcend these categories and if we just consider them within a single category then we are not really engaging with what they are telling us about life as it is lived now. The same goes for the work of Gwyneth Jones herself.
In what follows I’m going to suggest that Jones’s Life can be seen as a milestone along the century of struggle and work that Woolf predicted would be necessary for the emergence of a fully unrestricted women’s writing. I’m committed to this as an academic argument – indeed, I have an essay on exactly this topic forthcoming in the online print-plus platform of Modernism/Modernity, the journal of the Modernist Studies Association – but at the same time I am wary of the issues entailed in making such an argument. I don’t want to argue that Jones is only significant because we can view her in a certain modernist tradition. I suppose I want to break free of those restrictive categories and argue that these books are important because they talk to us about life (but at the same time, I don’t want to sound like I’m F.R. Leavis talking about the novels of D.H. Lawrence). Anyway, here goes the quick version of the argument:
In 2009, Kim Stanley Robinson argued, drawing on the correspondence between Virginia Woolf and Olaf Stapledon, that Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941) ‘ends with Stapledonian imagery, describing our species steeped in the eons. Woolf’s last pages were a kind of science fiction’.  I think that not only is that the case but that some of Woolf’s other writing, including parts of A Room of One’s Own (1929), can also be read as SF. In particular, Woolf pastiches a novel she calls ‘Mary Carmichael’s Life’s Adventure’: Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a laboratory together…’. Many critics would consider the subject of this pastiches to be Love’s Creation (1928) by Marie Stopes, writing under the name of Marie Carmichael. The protagonists of this novel are Lilian, a biology student, and her sister, Rose Amber, and they have conversations together on topics such as how, as a consequence of Darwin’s concept of evolution, theological debates concerning the interpretation of the Bible no longer matter and the great question of the age has become the need to understand the relationship of the self to society. Rose explains to her sister that only a change to the whole social system can sort out the miserable tangled mess of people’s private lives. Beyond divorce reform and the Equal Franchise Act, more radical change is required: ‘Our whole social life is built up of the idea of an old-fashioned novel, in which people fall in love, marry and live happily ever after. Our happiness and our very ideas of what is decent and proper are built up on that, and it jolly well isn’t true. . .’.
Unfortunately, however,despite this analysis, Love’s Creation is a conventional novel which upholds the social norm of heterosexual romance. Nevertheless, Woolf thought Carmichael hadn’t done too badly in terms of making a start and commented “Give her another hundred years […] give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book”. This judgement on Carmichael’s book is repeated later on as the conclusion to A Room Of One’s Own which, despite the title’s apparent endorsement of individualism, is related to a broad intersectional conception of social and gender equality:
… if we live another century or so – I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals – and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the courage to write exactly what we think…
As I note in my print-plus Modernism/Modernity essay, the vision of a radically transfigured future society that Woolf expresses here is simultaneously modernist and science fictional. Jones’s career indicates both how far women’s writing has come since 1929 in terms of being able to write freely about women’s bodies and desires without fear of critical backlash; although, as discussed, there are still publishing problems and the issue of pigeonholing. Anna, the scientist protagonist of Life, manages, despite the many setbacks of her career, to actually discover “Transferred Y” (TY) and the implied redundancy of men, which I think we should view as corresponding to a real-life argument that the ways in which masculinity is typically culturally constructed are increasingly redundant to society. However, in the novel, as a consequence of her discovery, Anna becomes notorious in the media as the ‘Sex Scientist’ and experiences a breakdown. It is at this point that she finds herself haunted by the Edwardian ghost, a New Woman such as Stopes’s Lilian and Rose Amber, and the question of ‘where will it all lead?”
By the end of Jones’s Life, her equivalent of Woolf’s Chloe has escaped from the role of the ‘angel of the hearth’ and is free both to ‘like Olivia’ and to run her own major laboratory research project, but the novelenvisages further developments: ‘In time, TY may create a situation where there are no genetic traits exclusive to ‘men’ or ‘women’: when sexual difference is in the individual, not a case of belonging to one half of the species or the other’ (362). Indeed, in 2021, many of us have moved beyond the binary and think in terms of a gender continuum. This change is itself both a consequence and a driver of the break-up of the hierarchies and binaries of the Victorian symbolic order (the long decay of which dominated the twentieth century and still exerts residual cultural sway). Culture in its broadest sense (which includes science) is the battleground on which these changes are struggled for; and progressive change is driven in part by writers writing about life, the common life that we all experience. This has implications for the categories we use to organise culture, literature, and publishing, such as SF (feminist or otherwise) or modernism. To really appreciate and understand a writer like Jones, and to learn what we can from her about life itself, we need to move beyond those categories.