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Gender Bias and Reading Lists: A Dose of Self-Criticism June 29, 2011

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Recently I’ve read a number of articles suggesting latent sexism when it comes to discussing science fiction, fantasy and genre fiction in general. There was a poll in the Guardian of the best sf novels and out of the 500 books mentioned, someone worked out that only 18 were written by women. There was also the well documented case of a horror anthology put out by the British Fantasy Society featuring a total of zero female authors. This was apparently a case of unintentional gender bias, described by the publishers as ‘lazy sexism’, the editors were too busy focusing on who they wanted to include to realise who they were omitting, (and what they might have in common.)

Stuff like this always makes me want to examine my own tastes to see if I have any blind spots as it were. (Oh, FYI I’m a guy.)  When it comes to reading in general, my favourite authors tend in fact to be women; Donna Tartt, Scarlett Thomas, Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie would all push other favourites like Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolano and John Le Carre to the lower end of my top ten.

Looking back at the ten or so reviews on this blog however, the only female author to be found so far is Scarlett Thomas, whose works can probably only just be described as speculative fiction. Now ten books isn’t really a big enough representative sample but when I try to think more broadly, of the science fiction and fantasy books I’ve read in the recent past, things seem to get even worse… I’m struggling to think of any!

Why is this? As I’ve written before, I’m in the process of rediscovering a love for sf, after a long period of not really reading anything in the genre. This could have an impact in a couple of ways. Firstly I tend to pick books on the basis of stuff like reviews in magazines and blogs, awards, recomendations and so on, so what I choose might be reflective of a more general pre-existing bias in these sources. Secondly, I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I was a kid; Frank Herbert and Tolkein loomed large in my reading lists for many years. I probably did tend to pick books by male authors at that point, pre-pubescent boys not being known for their gender blindness. So, I’m wondering, are my current tastes being informed by associations formed back then?

For whatever reason it seems that I’m missing out, and I’m going to make a conscious effort to try and read more sf by women authors. I’ve got a few lined up, all of which suspiciously fall into the category of books that I’ve been meaning to read but for some reason I keep putting off. I’ve got a few more reviews and things lined up for this blog first, but after that you might be seeing a few things by Catherynne M Valente, Mary Doria Russell, Connie Willis, Justina Robson, and Lauren Beuekes among others.

Any other suggestions gratefully recieved of course!

Oh and because I’m a wikipedia addict I came across this on Lauren Beukes page and found it mildly amusing;

Where’s My Jetpack? By Daniel H Wilson and Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku June 28, 2011

Posted by futurewired in Daniel H Wilson, Michio Kaku, Non-Fiction, Reviews.
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‘Underpromise but Overdeliver’ is a mantra often heard in the customer service industry, wherein I am currently employed. Viewing the world through the prism of science fiction you could be forgiven for thinking that the future as it appears so far doesn’t quite seem to deliver the goods. 2001 has come and gone and there’s no sign of superintelligent, if a tad neurotic, computers, moonbases or manned missions to Saturn. The singularity appears just as far off as it did a decade ago. A long time ago they might have had lightsabres and interstellar travel but, despite innumerable youtube efforts, the real thing is yet to make an appearance.

Where’s My Jetpack? and Physics of the Impossible are two books that seek to make the best of this considerably disappointment, albeit in two slightly different ways.

 

                                

I’ll start with the lighter of the two by Daniel H Wilson. The author has a PhD in robotics as well as form in the area of comic/popular science books, having written a guide to surviving a robot uprising. The book takes a number of staples of science fiction over the last century and looks at currently existing efforts to see how far science is from realising the dream. Beginning with transport, the titular jetpack is discussed – various versions have been tried but the main obstacle is the fact that nobody really wants to make them on a large scale. They would be worse than useless as a mode of transportation, there’s no real military application so the only peeople actively pushing for them are going to be extreme sports enthusiasts. Flying cars, moving pavements and that steampunk classic, the Zeppelin are all covered.

From here we move on to future forms of entertainment, superhuman abilities, space travel and the home of the future. We learn of a woman who lived with a dolphin for a year in a semi-submerged house, Soviet experiments in building a ‘space mirror’ – an orbital superweapon, teleportation through quantum entanglement, artificially cultured meat and the fact that the Pentagon developed the power bar.

One interesting thing is the extent to which technology has moved on in the last four years. Developments like the widespread commercial use of 3d technology in games and tv – without the nausea and vomiting that accompanied the first attempts to develop 3d without glasses – and the introduction of backscatter machines in airport security.

Where’s my Jetpack? is great fun to read, the kind of book you can flick through, pausing on those sections that catch your attention, or that you can devour easily in one sitting. The research seems solid enough, but the author eschews lengthy digressions into science and engineering, preferring quick, snappy descriptions of the history of the future and the strange, eccentric and surprising stories that come with it.

Michio Kaku is a physicist, an academic, a key figure in the development of string theory and a fantastic popular science writer. Physics of the Impossible basically uses speculative technologies from sf as a jumping off point to talk about the fringes of physics as we currently understand it. The author desribes three levels of impossibility; technologies that are beyond our capabilities at the moment but do not violate any physical laws of the universe, technologies that may be possible but are thousands or millions of years beyond our current capabilities, and finally, technologies that violate the laws of physics as we currently understand them.

Under the first category the author tackles such sf staples as forcefields, phasers, artificial intelligence, UFOs, teleportation, Death Stars and telepathic powers. He takes current theories and technologies and extends them to speculative models of possible future versions, with the expected references to Star Trek, Star Wars and other popular culture sf classics. The science here is pretty detailed but perfectly accessible; indeed one of the joys of the book for me was the way Kaku explains in simple paragraphs the kind of basic scientific facts that you are dimly aware of but if pressed might have difficulty putting into words. Stuff like superconductors, how lasers work, Bose-Einstein condensates, the kind of thing that crops up a lot in hard sf, along with a good helping of quantum physics all delivered in a fashion that is neither condescending nor overly technical. A masterclass in how to write popular science books.

The second class of impossibilities goes deeper into science fiction territory, covering faster than light travel, time travel and parallel universes. In each the author gives us a bunch of competing ideas to out line the parameters of the debates between competing theories, while giving his own views on what theories seem most likely (at least within the next ten thousand years or so.) Again, a useful for aspiring sf writers, if you’re writing a space opera and want a consistent model of interstellar travel, this would be a good starting point.

Class three impossibilities cover precognition and perpetual motion machines. These may violate the known laws of the universe but Kaku nevertheless gives a few intriguing suggestions as to how this obstacle might be overcome. The discussion of zero-point energy from the vacuum is particularly interesting. As with the rest of the book however it’s the combination of free-wheeling discussions of physics peppered with examples from history and fiction that really make these chapters.

Among the many things I learned from this book are:

King Kong, while visibly impressive would not be able to walk; his legs would collapse under his own weight. (A slightly disappointing revelation if, like me, you happen to be a fan of giant monster movies.)

The US patent office won’t issue a patent for a perpetual motion machine without a working model. (On account of too many applications over the years; the French Academy of Science stopped taking submissions in 1775 because of the sheer volume.)

There is a version of the strong Anthropic principle that suggests that the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ operates at a universal level; intelligent life develops in a universe by chance and then goes on to create it’s own ‘bubble’ universe, fine tuned for life. This cycle continues making it more likely than not for life producing universes to exist.

Both of these books are worth a read, having the capacity to reignite any latent enthusiasm for science, gadgets and novel modes of transportation. They help link fantastic ideas from fiction to real world examples and offer up different ways of viewing sf from a technological perspective.

 

A couple of links today. Here’s one to an article by Michio Kaku from 2005 in Prospect Magazine on the possibility of escaping into a parallel universe;

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2005/02/escapefromtheuniverse/

 

And an extra one, to the excellent site Paleofuture, looking at retro visions of the future;

http://www.paleofuture.com/

Light June 19, 2011

Posted by futurewired in M John Harrison, Reviews.
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Light by M John Harrison is a dark, complex book, spattered with sex, violence, and esoteric interpretations of quantum mechanics, all delivered in a cold, detached style of prose that somehow manages to be both compelling and ultimately slightly unsatisfying.

 

There are three main strands to the book, following three characters, one in the 20th century, two in the year 2400. They are linked by tormented visions of their past, by often hallucinogenic experiences of a mysterious entity, and by the Kefahuchi tract, a space time anomaly/Big Dumb Object, a source of fear and fascination in equal measure.

 

The first of the three characters Michael Kearney is a theoretical physicist, on the verge of a breakthrough in quantum computing that will one day form the basis for interstellar travel. He is also a serial killer, driven by visions of ‘the Shrander’, a creature with a horses skull for a head, whose dice he stole and uses as a guide on aimless journeys. His only ongoing relationships are with similarly damaged individuals, his anorexic ex-wife, his neurotic lab partner, and Valentine Sprake, a ‘magician’ and accomplice in Kearney’s murders.

 

Flashing forward to 2400. Seria Mau Genlicher – a slightly weird pun on Sarah Michelle Gellar – is a rogue pilot of a K-ship, permanently bonded to alien technology, her mind able to be one with her ship while her body remains in a chemical tank. She too is haunted in her own way, by dreams of her past and the vision of a mysterious man in evening dress. Seria Mau is detached to a pathological degree by her situation; capable of killing without reason, in response to a fit of pique. (One reason for this is that, having bonded with the ship at a young age, she has never had a chance to mature.)

 

Parallel to this runs the narrative of Ed Chianese, a daredevil pilot turned virtual reality addict, wandering through a sleazy space port world of vice and crime. His encounters with the mysterious Sandra Shen being to point towards the answers to the books many questions. This narrative feels like a cyberpunk variant, but with an unusually apathetic central character. While Kearney is fleeing something, and Seria Mau is searching for something, Ed seems largely to drift from woman to woman. He eventually finds himself a position predicting the future at Sandra Shen’s circus, although his real destiny lies in a different direction.

 

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in the book; information as a substance, fractal unfolding of space. The Shadow Operators are a great idea, abandoned algorithms, conscious bits of code that lurk in the corners, sometimes taking on one-shot cloned bodies. There’s also an intriguing solution to technological problems that sf narratives often throw up; all the innovative solutions to faster than light travel work, even as they rely on mutually exclusive models of the underlying physics. No one knows why, there are hints about decoherence from superposition, and that this is one of the mysteries for which deciphering the Kefuhachi tract might provide a solution.

 

For me though, something about the book didn’t quite work. It might be to do with the aforementioned prose style. This is the first novel I’ve read by M John Harrison so I don’t know how typical this is of his work. To me it was cold, detached, matter of fact, especially when dealing with violent topics. It seems like a conscious decision, it reflects the way the characters view things, particularly Seria Mau and the Shrander. The Kearney sections around the middle tended to drag a little too; I’m all for morally ambiguous characters and dark themes but there seemed to be something lacking here, an absence that made the ending feel a little hollow. There are some great touches though, some absurd juxtapositions that I liked, such as when Ed Chianese’s noirish fantasy is interrupted by a giant yellow duck to indicate that his time is up.

 

Light is an interesting book, a compelling read but one that I found hard to have strong feelings about. I might give M John Harrison another go, I’ve heard good things but this just left me a little cold.

The Kraken Wakes June 10, 2011

Posted by futurewired in John Wyndham, Post-Apocalyptic/Disaster Fiction, Reviews.
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John Wyndham has often been depicted as the prime purveyor of so called ‘cosy catastrophe’ fiction, in which following an apocalyptic disaster a small group of usually middle class survivors rebuild civilisation according to their values. His most famous book, the Day of the Triffids is perhaps closest to this formula, in which different groups of survivors formulate different responses to the issues of power, sex and resource allocation that arise following the twin catastrophes of widespread blindness and aggressive flora. The Kraken Wakes is a slightly different beast in many ways, depicting the response of nations and governments to an unknown alien threat over the course of ten years or so, as it impinges on the lives of two individuals. It’s an intriguing book, satirical, with flashes of horror and violence that in my opinion, like a lot of Wyndham’s work, resists the limitations of the formulaic constraints it’s usually consigned to.

 

Much like H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a series of apparent meteor strikes herald the arrival of an alien ‘invasion’, this time of the deepest parts of the ocean. This is witnessed initially by the protagonists, Mike and Phyllis, a married couple who work for the English Broadcasting Service (EBC – a fictitious commercial organisation, the confusion between it and the BBC forms a running gag.) Almost no one realises the significance of this at the time, however as events proceed, ships are lost, there are indications of large scale engineering beneath the waves, governments start to feel threatened. The first strike from our end comes after the loss of an exploratory bathysphere, with the testing of an atomic bomb over the same area. Other countries soon follow suit.

 

The book is written as an after the fact account by Mike, describing the events that led to their current situation as they impacted on their lives. This is done extremely well and I think really shows off a side of Wyndham’s writing in terms of structure that can often be overlooked. It allows for the protagonist to group together disparate events into distinct phases of the ‘war’, even as they explicitly are shown to be overlooked or dismissed at the time. It also avoids one of the pitfalls of personal accounts of disasters/crises, particularly those set over a period of time – what you might call the ‘when does Jack Bauer go to the bathroom’ problem. Mike makes numerous references to the fact that in addition to the events he describes, their lives went on in the usual way, their marriage went through its ups and downs, Phyllis continues to write her novel, there are occasional references to the loss of a child earlier in their lives. This adds a real sense of realism to the narrative and balances out those occasions upon which they are perhaps too conveniently placed for key events. A brilliantly subtle touch is evident in the final section, the real ‘disaster fiction’ portion of the book, which only comes about in the last 90 or so pages. Much of this is described sparsely, with only passing references to elements that in other hands might be central – gang warfare in a drowned London, the overthrow of the government in exile. All we are left with a sense of the cold, the privation and despair even as the protagonists struggle to maintain a façade of resolve ; Phyllis at one point describes the flooded city as being like living in a cemetery. The overwhelming sense is that this period in their lives is simply too close to the time of writing to dwell on, the memories are too recent unlike the beginning of the story.

 

The book balances sometimes clumsy satire – the cold war forms the backdrop for the action and the propaganda by both sides verges on the ridiculous, some characters maintaining their belief in the Russian’s culpability, right to the end – with some truly unnerving moments. The early portions in which submerged observation bathyspheres connected to science ships by metal cables are neatly snipped away, disappearing into the dark of the deeps are surprisingly potent. A real element of horror comes about with the appearance of the ‘sea tanks’ – grey spheres with sticky tentacles that lash out and drag back any living thing they come into contact with. Mike for a long time is haunted by dreams of a friend being dragged along the street by her hair. He notes that her partner being dragged alongside had ‘mercifully’ broken his neck in the fall. Neither are seen again.

 

The book is a product of its time; published in 1953 its characterisation and politics reflect the period of its authorship. Wyndham has often been accused of having a less than enlightened attitude to his female characters and there is a degree of this present here; Phyllis has the odd hysterical reaction, is flirtatious to secure advantage and has elements of the 1950’s sci fi woman in her. She is nonetheless a strong independent character, while close to her husband she is not as dependent as is sometimes argued – she has her own career, interests, she takes independent action, their lives are saved by something she does without telling Mike, and her emotional responses to trauma it turns out are actually healthier than his. Other female characters do not bear up as well under scrutiny however.

 

There are a few slightly off-putting moments in terms of politics; Dr Bocker, the books recurring scientist who seemingly correctly identifies the true nature of events at every turn, expresses contempt for democracy, for the common people and the popular opinion as expressed in the press, and events are depicted as proving him right. There’s a right wing strain running through the book in a sense, in which the educated, anti-populist, self-sufficient landowner is best placed to meet the challenges of the time. The real target of the book’s satirical content is of course the political divisions of the time, between left and right and between the USSR and the West; various factions appear, including the jingoistic the ‘Bomb the Bathy’s’ tendency, as well as various pacifists and conspiracy theorists.

 

The book ends with what some have seen as an example of deus ex machina; I read somewhere that a previous draft ended a few pages before on a far bleaker note. This version is hopeful, if uncertain and closer to the Day of the Triffids in tone.

 

The Kraken Wakes has been seen as second-rate Wyndham, but I would count it among my favourites, above both Day of the Triffids and the Chrysalids. There are issues with it, the charge of sexism can’t be easily dismissed and it is very much a product of its time – the way in which Wyndham describes the production of news borders on the quaint. For me though, the plot, the unfathomability of the alien menace, the mixture of humour and horror in a way that is peculiarly British, these make up for its shortcomings.

Instead of online fiction, here’s a link to a blog posting with a bunch of different covers for John Wyndham books, worth a look

http://causticcovercritic.blogspot.com/2008/08/john-wyndham-post-that-made-my-brain.html