Wednesday, 15 April 2015

On the present Hugo mess and why I still want one.

The current unpleasant thing happening in the SF world - there's always something - is the hijacking of the Hugo award nominations slate by a group of vested interests with leanings to the extreme right. Neo-fascists isn't too strong a term. They're racist, homophobic and intolerant of anyone who doesn't subscribe to their ultra-conservative religious beliefs. I won't even begin to unpack the grisly complexities behind this, the Sad Puppies versus the Rabid Puppies, but if you're coming to this completely cold, here is as good a summary as any:

It's a vile, offensive stunt, cynically motivated, and one that does real damage to the reputation of the Hugo award. At the moment, within the constitution of the World Science Fiction Convention, there is only so much that can be done to limit the harm. Those who know the system better than me are trying to work out which is the best strategy for limiting the impact of the Puppy slate - whether it's best to attempt an honest ranking of the nominated pieces in each category, or simply vote "no award" in each slot. Unfortunately, the Puppies have more or less guaranteed to pull this stunt year after year unless their nominated stories pick up the awards. Presently it's not at all clear what can be done, while preserving the spirit of the Hugos.

I'll be honest - I've had a decidely mixed relationship with the award. As a young SF reader, I was drawn to books that had won the field's two big awards - the Hugo and the Nebula. They seemed like badges of merit that could be trusted. Of course I had no idea how these awards actually functioned. That only came later, once I'd entered the field as a writer and begun to understand something of the wider SF community and its mechanisms.

I always thought it would be great to win a Hugo or a Nebula. Technically, I've been a professional SF writer for twenty five years, although I'm not sure whether Interzone, where I made my first sale in 1989, would have been considered a qualifying market. Nonetheless, I got paid and soon began to try placing my stories and novels with other markets. There were times when I couldn't sell anything, and it still took a decade before I got a book deal, but at no point did I feel like the field was actively conspiring to prevent me getting ahead in my career. I just figured that I wasn't quite hitting the right marks. It never bothered me that I wasn't on the radar of the Hugo or Nebula awards. That, I hoped, would come later, if it came at all.

I did eventually get a Hugo nomination. That was in 2011, at the Reno Worldcon. It was for my story Troika, which I'd written three years earlier. I was stoked - absolutely over the moon.
As it would be my first Hugo ceremony as a contender, I made a real effort to smarten up. The evening was exciting. I remember waiting in the holding area before the ceremony proper, looking at the changing light over Reno as the sun went down. The sky was an intense lemon yellow, something I've only ever seen in the desert. I didn't really rate my chances of winning, but at the same time, I couldn't honestly dismiss them either. I was a bag of nerves as the novella category finally rolled around.

I didn't win. No biggie. I'd made it onto the ballot - that was all that mattered. Afterwards, I went to one of the parties running in one of the big hotel suites. The atmosphere was jolly and I enjoyed winding down from the tension of the ceremony. I hung out with the Locus crew. It was a relief that the whole thing was over, and my mind was turning to the long journey I had facing me the day after, and the early start that was necessitated.

I missed the 2012 Worldcon for some reason or other. In 2013 I made it to San Antonio. My wife was with me in town, and since she didn't have a membership, and rather than leave her on her own for the evening, I thought the best thing would be to skip the Hugos and go to see a film. As it was I fell soundly asleep in the cinema, so I'd probably have nodded off during the ceremony as well.

In 2014 I was again at the Worldcon, but I'd been involved in a starship seminar all afternoon (as you do) and once more couldn't make it to the ceremony. I went to the pub instead, catching up on the news as it filtered through via social media and the live television feed running in the pub.

I hadn't gained another nomination since Troika, and far from heralding a long and glorious imperial phase of hitting the Hugo ballots with ominous regularity, I'd actually done progressively worse in each successive year. My stories were not only failing to make the nominations, they were sliding ever further below the cutoff! I'd be lying if I said this didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the Hugos just a wee smidge. The truth is, lots of writers get one nomination in their careers. Be grateful for that, I suppose. Plenty of writers better than me have never had a nomination at all.

Enthusiasm dented, though, I didn't bother voting after 2011. I didn't feel sufficiently well informed about the state of the field to do so. My reading was falling ever further behind the curve, and besides - I felt that if I had horses in the race, or at least potential horses, it wasn't really my job to vote. I wouldn't vote for myself, but equally I didn't want to vote myself off the ballot by unwittingly nudging another piece ahead of my own.

That said, it never occurred to me that there might be some kind of institutional conspiracy going on to keep the likes of me off the ballot. And even if I had suspected that - well, screw it. Life's too short. Move on and worry about something else.

 SF is about tolerance, inclusiveness - the accepting of other viewpoints, up to a certain point. Or at least, it used to be. Most of us involved in the field, I think, still want it to be like that. Friendships are more important than ideologies. Art is more important than doctrine. The Puppies can't see that, though. A handful of middling talents haven't yet managed to get their works on the slate through orthodox means, so they've elected to game the system.

The odd thing is - or perhaps it isn't odd at all - is that the ongoing trouble with the Puppies only makes me feel more warmly disposed to the Hugos. I certainly should have voted. It would have taken a lot more of us to outweigh the block voting effect of the slate ballot, but that's no argument not to have tried. As I've mentioned earlier, I've been striving to read a lot more short fiction this year, and I already feel a lot better informed about the state of the field in 2015 than in recent years. And yes, while the Hugo award has been damaged - it's hard to see a way around that, irrespective of what happens later in the summer - I would still like to win one eventually. I hope the award can weather this storm, and continue on as it should be - a prized part of SF's collective heritage.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Bad Science - 7th April

If you're in the area tomorrow, why not pop along to the Edinburgh Science Festival? In company with Doctor Stephen Brusatte, I'll be talking about the science - good and bad - in Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park.

Event info and tickets:

Monday, 30 March 2015

Reviews for "A Murmuration"

I don't usually bother posting reviews of my short fiction, if they exist at all, but I'm delighted with a couple of responses to "A Murmuration". Over on the Locus website, Lois Tilton says

"It can get tedious sometimes, going through story after barely-distinguishable story, largely registering a resounding “meh” on the wunder scale. Then, finally, comes a piece that makes it worthwhile, that sends a galvanic tingle through my story receptors and makes me sit up straight in front of the screen."

Meanwhile, critic and reviewer and fellow Interzone contributor Jonathan McAlmont says

"I think this is the best thing that Al Reynolds has written since Revelation Space. Ostensibly a hard science-fiction story about bird-watching, “A Murmuration” is also a study of professional obsession, isolation and creeping madness."

Lois Tilton hasn't always liked my stuff, and Jonathan is a hard man to impress, so I'm doubly pleased with these kind responses.

Incidentally, "A Murmuration" is the second story of mine to be partly inspired by personal experiences of the peer review process in scientific publishing. Here's the other one.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

It's out!

Today's post brought two handsome copies of Interzone 257, which contains my new story for the magazine. See earlier post for a short excerpt from the story.

It's always a pleasure to be back in Interzone. Not only was the magazine instrumental in getting my career off the ground, by publishing my first stories and helping foster the professional contacts that eventually led to a novel deal, it had an immeasurable impact on the state of British science fiction. Interzone launched many new writers, but more than that it brought a vital centre back to the field, reigniting a conversation (sometimes fractious, but always interesting) that had all but faded since the demise of New Worlds. I still think Interzone is one of the best places to get a sense of where science fiction is at, and where it's headed.

You can subscribe to Interzone here:

Or you can find it in newsagents and specialist SF bookshops. Go on, give it a try.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Station Eleven

Christopher Priest has already given a far more eloquent appraisal of this novel than I am capable of - read his review here - but I cannot resist adding my own response. What a phenomenal book: beautiful, complex, haunting, humane, surprising at every turn, and so marvellously constructed that you hardly dare breathe. Like the best science fiction (I am not sure quite what I would call this book) it makes us see the world through fresh eyes, with a luminous new clarity.

The end of air travel is a recurrent motif running through the novel: the characters are constantly looking up into the sky, remembering what it was to like to see planes, and the people born after the collapse of civilisation have no real understanding of how aircraft operated. There's a marvellous scene in which one of the older characters patiently tries to explain the purpose of runways, and that rocket ships were not the same as airliners. Later, the action converges on an airport, where the rusting forms of airliners still litter the runways and parking slots.

Not for the first time, I was reminded of this piece by Alain de Botton:

How we would admire planes if they were no longer there to frighten and bore us. We would stroke their steel dolphin-like bodies in museums and honour them as symbols of a daunting technical intelligence and a prodigious wealth. 

Similarly, Emily St John Mandel's book reminds us what a privelege it is to be alive in the present day, in this time of wonders and miracles that we mostly take absolutely for granted.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Coming soon...

I published my first story in Interzone in 1990. Now it's 2015. I'm still here, and so is Interzone.
Coming up in IZ 257 will be my thirteenth story for the magazine.

What we call the "hut" is a couple of insulated portable cabins, with a few smaller sheds containing generators, fuel, wind turbine parts and so on. The main cabin contains a chemical toilet, a wash basin, basic cooking facilities and a set of bunk-beds. The second cabin holds our desks, computer equipment and supply stores. Two or three of us can share the hut at a time, but there is not normally a need for more than one to keep an eye on the experiment. Resources being tight, lately we tend to come out on our own.

In all honesty, I prefer it this way. Birds draw out the solitude in us. They repay patience and silence - long hours of a kind of alert, anticipatory stillness. The days begin to blur into each other; weekends and weekdays becoming arbitrary distinctions. I find myself easily losing track of the calendar, birds and weather becoming my only temporal markers. I watch the migration patterns, record the nuances of altering plumage, study the changeful skies. I could not be happier.

There is just one thing to spoil my contentment, but even that, I am confident, will soon be behind me.

I will finish the paper.

Read the rest of the piece in IZ 257. You can subscribe to Interzone here:

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Asimov's Science Fiction - February 2015

Following my review of the January issue of Asimov's SF:

Let's have a look at the fiction in the February issue.

I was pleased to see a Michael Bishop novelette as the first piece in this issue. "Rattlesnakes and Men" has a characteristically well evoked Southern setting. Wylene, Reed and their daughter Celeste, made homeless after a tornado hits their town in Arkansas, hitch a trailer to their pick-up, load up their belongings, and drive to Georgia. There's a chance of employment for Reed, following up on an old Army contact (the splendidly named Dusty Shallowpit), and the narrator of the piece - Wylene - will be able to take on various jobs including tour guide at a local wildlife refuge. So far so straightforward - we're clearly in something like the present day, at least given the evidence at hand. Things soon take a surreal turn, though. On being welcomed into their new community, Wylene's family are granted a gift they can't very easily refuse: a rattlesnake, which they're meant to keep inside their new home. In fact rattlesnakes turn out to be a very big deal in this new community, to the extent that men wear them as accessories, carry them in little holsters and so on. Pretty quickly we clue up to the fact that rattlesnakes are supplanting the role of guns, and in fact as we read on so we deduce that firearms simply do not exist in this world, and that wars and military actions still involve bows and arrows. It's a patently ludicrous set-up, but Bishop treats it with absolute conviction (the domestic rattlesnakes, which function like guard dogs, are the product of genetic engineering) and in its way no more ludicrous than rampant gun ownership in our own world. Bishop has a story to tell here, more than just presenting a funhouse reversal of our own norms, and this biting, witty, thoughtful piece, drenched in Southern summer heat, leaves us with a lot to think about.

Derek Kunsken provides the second story, a clever take on generational hauntings. Brian, our protagonist, can't shake the ghost of Paolo, a dead paleobiologist who likes to whisper things like "Eumelanin is inferred to have been present in the eyes of ancient fishes by the trace metals found in fossils." Paolo is harmless - his whispering and scratching no more than a nuisance. The catch is that Paolo used to haunt Brian's aunt, and has only now latched onto her nephew. Brian's girlfriend Vanessa doesn't care for having Paolo around, though, and urges Brian to get it sorted. Ghosts, it turns out, lock onto inherited patterns in DNA, which is why Paolo is now fixated on Brian. But with that comes the possibility of exorcism via sophisticated gene therapy. Kunsken doesn't just gloss over this - he tells us how it might be done, with convincing talk of gene expression, receptors, proviruses and so on. It's a slickly written story throughout, and a fresh examination of an old trope.

Reading these first two stories, the Bishop and the Kunsken, I was struck by the inherent novelty of their central premises. We often hear that there are no new ideas in SF, but what are the odds that anyone has ever written a story in which rattlesnakes take the role of guns, or in which targetted gene therapy is used to rid hauntings? SF's ideas mine is an infinitely renewable resource. We're nowhere near Peak Idea.

Onto Elizabeth Bear next, with the issue's second novelette, "No Decent Patrimony". It's the first straight-down-the-line piece of extrapolative SF, being set in our world, in the future, and concerning itself with the social impacts of a radically disruptive technology, in this case life-extension technology. Structurally, it's quite a simple piece, with much less foreground action going on than you might otherwise expect for a relatively long story. The narrator, Edward, has just lost his father in a vehicle accident - we're clued in early on to suspect that the fuel-cell explosion was anything but an accident - and must now face up to life in a world no longer dominated by the presence of his immortal forebear. It turns out Edward's father was one of the early investors in the biotech firm which produced the immortality treatment, and Edward himself is now fabulously wealthy. But this is no utopia of immortality for all. The technology is strictly controlled, and since the ruling elite now get to run things for centuries, change will only happen slowly, if at all.

Edward was hurt in the accident that killed his father, but after five days in hospital, he's ready to return home. Marna, the family's counsel, takes Edward back to their grand mansion in New England. When they get there, though, there's a reporter waiting for a scoop. Edward reluctantly consents to give an interview, and in the ensuing exchange we get a larger sense of this world and its background. I said that not a lot happens, but that's actually to the story's benefit, rather than its detriment. Bear takes her time to set the scene, conveying a pin-sharp evocation of this climate-disrupted future, lingering over the details of the house and its furnishings, the drowsy heat, the summer light. We wouldn't get a sense of changelessness, stasis, without this additional context. Too many SF stories devolve into little more extended dialogue exchanges, chewing over this or that social, philosophical or technological issue. While these diagrammatic exercises seem very popular when the awards come round, Bear's story reminds us that there's more than that to effective fiction.

Reading this piece, I was struck by the sense - which I think has also been articulated by Gardner Dozois - that we're starting to see the emergence of what you might call the "New Default Future". Bear's world is one of vanishing privacy, information for all, continued social inequality, climate change as a given, radical lifestyle changes effected by new biotechnology. You can tweak the parameters a bit, but it does seem as if writers are once again beginning to converge on a shared sense of the future. No, it doesn't necessarily involve space colonies or rolling roads or flying cars, but it's no less valid, no less fascinating.

 "Red Legacy" by Eneasz Brodski is the one story in the issue that really tries to do anything interesting with form. In the review of the January issue, I spoke about the hazards of viewpoint shift, especially if it only comes about because the writer couldn't find any other way to round off a story. Brodski's piece shifts from first to third person and back to first, but in this case the viewpoint modulation is structurally integrated, as if the form dictated the content, rather than the other way around. That said, it's debatable if the viewpoint shifts actually add anything beyond a minor variation in tone. It's the Cold War, and we're in a Soviet research compound about to be infiltrated by a smooth-talking Western agent with a penchant for the Walter PPK. Brodski's central idea is that Lamarckism theory of acquired characteristics is valid, and (in a nice turn) deemed to be morally superior to the decadant Western adherence to "capitalist" Darwinism. In the compound, Marya is working with Lamarkian principles to create a bacterial agent which will provide humans with resistance to radiation. But there's also something else going on ...

There's a certain coldness to this piece which may be deliberate - it's hard to get really invested in anything that goes on - but there's plenty of ambition here, and the writing is never less than solid. Oddly enough, it's only the second piece of SF I can think of which treated Lamarck's ideas as valid, and both had "Legacy" in the title.

"Forgiveness" by Leah Cypess is another short story, and - like "No Decent Patrimony" - it takes a good hard look at the social consequences of a plausible new biotechnology. Not life-extension, in this case, but a neural technology which enables transgressors to be returned to society, safe in the knowledge that they won't be able to commit the particular crime that got them into trouble in the first place. Anna, our narrator, is in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend, Michael, who has left bruises on her arm. Michael had just come back into her life after being treated, given a neural chip rather than jail time. Cypess's story is another of those highschool, juvenile-viewpoint pieces that I complained about last time, but in fairness, it's a nicely told piece that demands the youthfulness of its protagonists to frame the ethical issues as cleanly as it does. Michael is all contrition and repentance - but what does that mean, if the implant means he's no longer in control of his impulses? And what would Anna's forgiveness mean, in that context? What sory of forgiveness has Michael actually earned? There's nothing groundbreaking in the telling here, but it's an effective little piece nonetheless.

Onto the longest and last story in the issue, the novella-length "On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers", by Nick Wolven. It's a terrible title, but the story itself is magnificent, one of the best I've read in quite a while. It's a kind of Conradian Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now-type quest to make contact with a reclusive, Colonal Kurtzian figure, one Ribbeck. The catch is that Ribbeck is a famed financial analyst, the only person who may be able to understand what sort of event the "AI quants" - the stock market's predictive supercomputers - are beginning to hint may be coming down the line. The protagonist is Gabriel Boateng, trader for Kappalytics, a firm in Downtown Manhattan. Chiding him for being late back from lunch, Gabriel's boss assigns him the task of going uptown in an attempt to get some sense out of Ribbeck. To do that, Gabriel will need to brave nighttime New York. It turns out that, quite literally, this is the City That Never Sleeps. In fact no one sleeps, ever. The biotech innovation in this society - which again plays quite nicely as a slice of the New Default Future - is a pill that banishes sleep. But I don't want to spoil the fun too much, other than to say that Gabriel's journey to Ribbeck is a tour de force of sustained, high-energy invention, and some quite phenomenal writing.

At night, the streets in this area glowed with Roman-candle light. Pothole bonfires, mulitcoloured chemical torches, the lambent reflections of firelit windows, all filled Broadway from dusk to dawn with a wavering glare. In this ever-spirited sector of the city, the acolytes of libertine self-investigation had leased the dark territory of the night for experiments with personal release that year by year grew steadily weirder. Was it boredom, Gabriel wondered, the tug of the Moon, some lupercalian dream lurking in darkness itself? Wickermen on the tenement rooftops went up nightly in whuffling flame; masked figures moved through the steps of obscene dances; drugs, illegal or legal, circulated through the alleys like scurrilous words; gluttons fed to the point of purgation on street-food feasts. In the Village, promiscuity wasn't just a liberty. It was the law. 

All of this is merely the prelude to Gabriel's ultimate, harrowing encounter with the dementedly sane Ribbeck. This is a dark masterpiece of a story.