Posts Tagged: science fiction

The Voices of Leicester Forest East

Magnus, a friend of mine from back in the day, runs a weekly audiobook podcast called Telling of Tales. This week he’s recorded a version of one of my stories, Leicester Forest East. It was written at the start of this year after reflecting on Paul Kincaid’s review “The Widening Gyre: 2012 Best of the Year Anthologies” for several months. Leicester Forest East , then, is one of my attempts to write a science fiction that’s more quotidian than what’s generally out there and explores our shared common failures.

Please do tell us what you think of the story and podcast by leaving us a comment. I have also been told to share the fact that Telling of Tales is starting a short break so do send your stories to him if you enjoyed his efforts here.

On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction


If SF is something more than fairy tale fiction, it has the right to neglect the fairy tale world and its rules. It is also not realism and has the right to neglect the methods of realistic description. Its generic indefiniteness facilitates its existence, for it is supposedly not subject to the whole range of criteria by which literary works normally are judged. SF is not allegorical, but then it says allegory is not its task: SF and Kafka are quite different. It is not realistic, but then it is not a part of realistic literature. The future? How often have SF authors disclaimed any intention of making predictions! Finally, it is the Myth of the 21st Century. But the ontological character of myth is anti-empirical, and though a technological civilization may have its myths, it cannot itself embody a myth, for myth is an interpretation, an explication, and you must have the object that is to be explicated. SF lives in but strives to emerge from this antinomical state of being. It becomes more and more apparent that its narrative structures deviate more and more from any real processes, having been used again and again since they were first introduced and having thus become frozen, fossilized paradigms. SF involves the art of putting hypothetical premises into the very complicated stream of socio-psychological occurrences. Although this art once had its master in H.G. Wells, it has been forgotten and is now lost. But it can be learned again.

On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction, Stanislaw Lem


Paintwork is a short film directed by Alan Tabrett and Tim Maughan based on Tim Maughan’s short story of the same title. It’s set in a near-future Bristol, a city known for its graffiti scene (with Banksy as its most famous export), and observes the moments on a cold, wet night in which a graffiti artist called 3Cube resprays the QR code on a Coca Cola billboard to project a heightened view of the city’s tower blocks, and not the pin-up girl straddling a can of overpriced and over sweetened flavoured water.

In Paintwork’s press release and on its YouTube page the film’s debt to Chris Marker’s La Jetée is made clear and open. Paintwork is a photo-montage just like Marker’s film. It’s black and white too, and the film’s story is delivered to us by a narrator helping us to interpret the images on screen. In its presentation, Paintwork owes everything to La Jetée, and I don’t see that as a negative, because its recollection of what I consider to be one of the best science fiction films ever made transplants La Jetée’s form into a contemporary context.

When talking about Paintwork to an American acquaintance, he noted that the British have an obsession for near-future police states. I can only agree with him on this point. As a nation that’s never been invaded and have only been the invaders, we have developed a compulsive cultural desire to design futures where oppression is delivered by complex bureaucracies. See The East India Company and George Orwell’s 1984. Paintwork takes La Jetée’s form, discards its Gallic New Wave romanticism, and replaces it with damp British oppression.

Tabrett and Maughan’s film is also an observation of life in inner-city Britain in general. Another reason why our culture devotes so much time to depicting the moderately oppressive is because it still reflects what’s happening. In Britain 2013, police attention is focused on stamping steel-toe-capped boots on petty crimes of desperate poverty rather than corporate tax evasion or billion pound banking fraud schemes. And in Paintwork, the police are always patrolling, not in armoured personal carriers, but in blue and white diesel Vauxhalls. 3Cube has to work fast to stencil over Coca Cola’s protected billboard. The implication is that if she’s caught the punishment for her crime is excessive.

She succeeds in spraying her subversive stencil onto the billboard and the film ends after eight minutes without any change to 3Cube’s physical or physiological being. Paintwork is eight minutes of moody observation that doesn’t attempt to hard sell you a product, physical or ideological. In a sense it’s a disposable film: eight minutes that you’ll watch and probably forget about. But there’s also the chance that because its disposable, and not trying to convince you of anything, that you’ll watch, absorb, think about, then break apart, sample and remix it’s elements to create something new.


On & On & On

I finished reading Gabriel Josipovici’s book “Whatever Happened to Modernism” a couple of weeks ago (maybe more, who knows?). It has left an impression. On the one hand I agree with large tracts of it, such as his definition of modernism being the moment where an artist recognizes and then continues to confront and struggle with their awareness of their own lack of authority and with limits of forms instead of being a stylistic period, because it articulates sensations that I’ve felt for the longest time. On the other hand, I don’t quite see things the way he does, but that’s a matter of perspective and understanding that Josipovici doesn’t set out to establish the definitive version of modernism. I’m afraid that for those who know me that this is a book that I’m going to go on and on and on about as I continue to struggle with it.

The book developed out of a paper in the Times Literary Supplement which itself was adapted from the John Coffin memorial lecture given at the Insitute of Germanic and Romance Languages, University of London in early 2007. There is a copy of the paper which can be read here.

Two paragraphs from the paper seem worth considering in light of the recent trend to talk about the exhaustion of Science Fiction.

{13} Mann the novelist could enter the mind of a modern composer precisely because the problems attendant on Modernism are not confined to one artistic form. In fact the novel has become the contested site of Modernists and anti-Modernists precisely because, more than music or poetry, it embodies the multiple paradoxes of the modern situation. For the novel is not a genre but precisely that which emerges when genres no longer seem viable. A genre is a bit like a family: you do not have to explain who you are each time you enter the room, you are taken for granted. But families can seem constricting as well as enabling. Similarly a moment comes when confidence in genre starts to wane. A symbolic moment here, convenient because it is not too far from our key date of 1789, is Dr Johnson’s criticism of Milton, in his Life of the poet, for choosing to express his grief at the death of his friend Edward King in the form of a pastoral elegy. At this point it is clear that genre has come to seem, like aristocratic privilege, a false imposition rather than a natural condition.

{14} Where the subtitle “epic” or “comedy” or “pastoral elegy” prepared readers or spectators for what they were about to experience, and helped the writer enter his subject, the novel, from the start, pretended to be something else – the true memoirs of a rake or a whore, the true story of a seduction or a shipwreck. At the same time the novel asserted, like Descartes at the start of the Discourse on Method, that its creators would bow to no authority, that they would rely on nothing but themselves. Genres were the sign of submission to the authority of tradition, to the authority of the fathers, but the novel was the new form in which the individual would express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition. But here it faced a paradox. For if it threw off all authority, where then did it get its own authority from ? The answer had to be: from the novelist’s inspiration or experience of aspects of life not known to the reader. But who conferred this authority upon him ? No one but himself. From the beginning, then, the novel was caught in a double bind – asserting its truth and value (which genre-derived works had never needed to do, since it was the culture that provided them with these things), yet knowing at heart that these were assertions and nothing more.

In other news the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! arrived in the post this week. This will also be played over & over & over again until I’m deaf or sick of it. It will be worth it.

So something is clearly broken somewhere

It’s been a while. August was a series of daily struggles at work with the evenings spent exhausted and trying to rest. September looks the same. Everything might get easier a few weeks into October once Jen’s move to mine is completed and we’ve settled down to a new routine. What little time there’s been has been spent reading/dissecting V.S. Pritchett and Lydia Davis stories.

The two things that have caught my attention recently are Paul Kincaid’s review of two of the 2012 best of the year anthologies and Ian Sale’s post on the continuing parochial nature of the Hugo awards.

The overwhelming sense one gets, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion.

Paul Kincaid makes very few new allegations: the charge that the genres of the fantastic are exhausted is not new. Cheap Truth asserted the same thing about fantasy way back in its first issue. The symptom Paul identifies is that science fiction’s authors and audience have lost confidence that the future can be comprehended. It seems that few have been able to get over that crisis; most seem to have resorted to repeating the same faded tropes endlessly. Even the best stories are exercises in nostalgia. I’ve had similar feelings for years. But then I grew up in the noughties when everything was already broken. I suspect what excites me as a reader and writer in their mid-twenties doesn’t overlap much with what gets Gardner Dozois & Richard Horton excited. I’ve an affection for the motifs of SF but find the content lacking, so get better literary kicks from other genres.

Last Sunday saw Hugo Awards handed out to several people for producing, or so the award would have us believe, the “best” of their category in the previous year. It’s complete nonsense, of course. The Hugos, despite half-hearted changes implemented over the years, are based on a model of fandom which hasn’t existed since the 1960s.

Ian Sales criticises the Hugo Awards again, and I mostly agree with him as the Hugo’s bore me senseless. Its voters are all older and more American than me: we’ve lived very different lives and it shows in the books and other media we get excited by. It’s that difference in generational and geographical demographics appearing again.

People have disregarded Paul and Ian’s criticisms. I don’t care to argue against them for doing that. They have reasons to preserve the status quo; I don’t. If nostalgia is the prevailing mood then it’s time to examine the foundations of science fiction for extensions, restoration, even, if needed, demolition.

Something is clearly broken somewhere. This is clearly an opportunity to rebel and explore new space.

La Jetée

I can watch this and Sans Soleil repeatedly.

Playing Games with Genre

I love games. Everything from the many flavours of video games, tabletop role-playing games, board games, card games, even, as a spectator, team sports like football, rugby and cricket get my attention. Hell, one of the points of rock climbing, for me, is its arbitrary rules that create interesting experiences.

Due to this deep passion for games I treat my own encounters with the arts playfully. Take the idea of genres. Now at this point I’m convinced that trying to define broad labels such as Literary Fiction & Science Fiction is foolish. Definitions abound at this level of labelling but none of them satisfy, either being too universal or too selective without hitting that hard to describe aesthetic sweet spot that makes a game interesting. So I don’t care about these labels or their many definitions apart from when they are used to stamp on other people.

Really from a game point of view I’m interested in the playgrounds that sub-genres create. Now sub-genres, because they have a tighter focus, do have characteristics that can be identified and played around with. They can start with a name and a short list of requirements to sketch out playground’s toys and conventions. If you like, a form of OuLiPo applied to genre. How can this work? Well these playgrounds don’t have any intrinsic meaning so make up a name: Dirty Mediaevalism. Decide on some conventions that apply to it.

How about:

  1. Dirty Mediaevalism is the fiction of everyday life in a society that is post-classical age but pre-industrial.
  2. Dirty Mediaevalism protagonists are not wealthy or powerful.
  3. Dirty Mediaevalism shows are world where magic & religion are always oppressive forces.
  4. Dirty Mediaevalism cares about small personal incidents portrayed within the landscape of the characters.
  5. Dirty Mediaevalism has a muddy and foggy colour palette.

So there’s a new sub-genre and its manifesto, of sorts. A new playground to write in created in five minutes. Genres are just games. Go play and let thousands of new playgrounds be built.

There is an untapped audience for SF magazines

There is an large untapped audience for more popular SF magazines.

There are millions of people who already read SF novels, and who watch SF based film and television. Even more people also read SF flavoured comics, play SF inspired computer games, listen to music and look at art that could have stepped from the pages of an SF story. Whatever it is SF gives people: challenging ideas, original thinking, mythic storytelling, entertainment or sheer untold weirdness, people want it and they want it in their millions. This is an untapped audience which exists as part of the mainstream in our society and wants more material to consume.

SF magazines could be selling more issues, to more people. SF short stories are anideal way to give people contained bursts of the most intense and original SF. It is fiction that fits in the small gaps of time that permeate modern living and provide a complete experience. Films and novels are lifestyle products. They are cultural events which demand the attention of their audience. Why do SF magazines not demand the same attention?

I do not think that there are any SF magazines at the moment interested in that sort of attention. Is it because at present SF magazines are deliberately niche publications? Maybe. It keeps the costs down and the expectations low. When success happens it is good, and when lack of sales force the magazine to close then no one is too disappointed.

To actually get people reading SF magazines beyond the present small circulation there need to be new magazines which adopt different tactics. These new SF magazines must demand the readers attention, just as films, books and other SF in the mainstream demand attention. But how?

An successful SF magazine must be a container for radical and entertaining ideas. Ideas able to inspire and enthuse thousands of people, just as the genres original magazines inspired thousands of people their day. Stories that could provoke controversy and discussion on important questions our society faces, and the futures we face.

Tomorrow’s SF magazines must make the short story a prestigious and financially attractive form for talented writers to write for. The stories must not appear to be the work of amateurs. They must not be written as second rate alternatives to making a TV show or film. They must be written in the full belief that short fiction can tell unique stories in unique ways that no other medium can manage, or not written at all.

Tomorrow’s SF magazines also need to be beautifully designed and efficiently distributed. At the moment SF magazines are at best a couple of years behind contemporary magazine design. They all look dated. This is not helping them attract new readers, and it is not helping people read the stories inside. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should be winning important design awards. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should also be on the leading edge of digital distribution so they are readable by anyone around the globe.

And holding together the best ideas, the best writing and the best design, the SF magazine of tomorrow must have a strong identity. Each magazine requires it’s own unique high concept. SF magazines can not continue to face the question: What is an SF magazine? With the answer, a magazine with SF in it. Each new SF magazine must have as strong and relevant concept today as the original SF magazines had in their day.

I think that having popular and widely read SF magazines is important. To me the health of all genre fiction depends on it. Short SF is often seen as the crucible of new ideas in genre fiction, and I think that it can be. However it can only serve this purpose if these stories are being disseminated to a wide audience. Without successful SF magazines the pace of progress in genre fiction slows, and we risk becoming irrelevant and fixated on old ideas and forms; losing readers in a vicious cycle of boredom and nostalgia. To survive in tomorrow’s markets, SF magazines must grow into the imaginations of new readers who will help enrich all genre fiction with new stories to tell and new worlds to imagine.


This article was first published August 18th 2010 on Damien G. Walter’s blog. It gathred a lot of comments. Today I am reposting the essay because I read the first issue of Arc. This magazine forfulls some, if not most, of the critera I set forth. As Arc has sound backing from the people at New Scientist behind it I hope that this magazine will survive beyond the difficult early editions.

You can buy the Kindle edition of ‘Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins’ from Amazon. Follow them on twitter.

First US edition: J.G. Ballard “Crash”