When Manaugh met Miéville

Paul Raven @ 02-03-2011

With no qualification whatsoever, I commend unto you the BLDGBLOG interview with China Miéville, which is just about as full of good stuff as I could have hoped. If someone wanted to put on a symposium where Manaugh and Mieville could just talk about stuff that interested them for an afternoon – perhaps with guest stints from a few other smart people – I’d be there with figurative bells on. (Though I’d be careful not to jingle them while the clever people were talking, natch.)

The most interesting part for me (on my first read through, at any rate) was where Miéville explains why allegorical readings of his work are a little repellent to him:

… I dislike thinking in terms of allegory—quite a lot. I’ve disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.

The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading—a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.

It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about “what does the text mean?”—and I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things.

I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.

There’s much more, so go read the whole thing. Miéville’s attitude toward allegory throws some interesting and hard-to-avoid caltrops into the road of criticism, because he’s simultaneously declaring himself to be a dead author while admitting (or so it seems to me) that the intentional fallacy is an attempt to graft nonexistent conscious impulses onto extant subconscious authorial concerns.

Of course, I could just be reading him wrong. 😉

Deep worry: writing the meathooks

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2011

Over at SF Signal, John H Stevens pokes through some dystopian short stories to see if he can throw any light on Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent statement: “I’m starting to think that if science fiction isn’t deeply worried about our present, it should be taken out and shot.” From his conclusion:

… my first thought is that SF as a literary field has become somewhat less focused on, less worried about the present. This is not because the genre lacks a focus on politics as a part of speculative storytelling, but because much of that work, while a product that may reflect some ideas and anxieties of its time, do not seem to focus vigorously on current concerns. There are some, certainly, but there seems to be no pervasive sense of “deep worry” across the wider genre. This is a point, however, that I would stress needs more consideration and surveying to answer more concretely.

At the risk of seeming to contradict Stevens using the same evidence, I think the “deep worry” is actually hiding in plain sight. The widespread refusal to grapple with grim meathook futures is the surest sign of existential terror that I can think of, and also displayed itself in the kneejerk rejection of Jetse de Vries’ optimist manifesto – even worse than the prospect of writing about the many possible pitfalls along the civilisational superhighway is the prospect of imagining how we might overcome them! If you’ll forgive me the vanity of quoting myself:

The Future (caps deliberate) was old-school sf’s metanarrative; The Future used to be somewhere awesome and clean which we could either build, conquer or travel to. But the closer we got to the real (uncapitalised) future, the more it looked like… well, a lot like today, really, or even yesterday, only faster, more ruthless, more worn at the corners, and packed full of grim new threats alongside a remarkably persistent cast of old classics (Teh 4 Horsemen Haz A Posse). The future isn’t somewhere that anyone – except possibly the more hardcore transhumanists, who are getting intriguingly vocal and self-assured of late – wants to escape to. Indeed, I think most of us, at some level or another, are more interested in escaping from the future.


Sf isn’t struggling to catch up with the future; on the contrary, it’s schism’d and reeling from having met the future in person, unexpectedly and with some considerable threat of violence, in an alley behind a franchise restaurant in downtown Mumbai.

Speaking from my own limited personal experience, near-future sf is the subgenre I’m driven to write, but I still feel a sort of paralysis of potentiality every time I start a story; an embarrassment of possible dooms, you might call it. A large part of that paralysis stems from my lack of skill and experience, I fully expect, but another part of the problem is my interest in not just exposing that “deep worry” Stevens talks about but addressing it, too: interrogating it, attempting to answer its concerns, trying to see what people might actually do in a world which – depending on which angle the light catches it – seems on the brink of either catastrophic collapse or civilisational transcendence. As should be obvious to regular readers, that’s an extension of the project that Futurismic has become… unless, perhaps, it’s the other way around.

To be clear, I’m a fellow-traveller of Jetse’s optimist project, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s something all – or even most – writers should be doing: it just sits well with the sorts of stories I want to tell, and the reasons I want to tell them. I’ll leave it to more experienced fiction writers and more widely-read critics to determine whether or not that underlying drive is in some way inimical to the writing of stories that people actually want to read; in the meantime, I figure that the only fair response I can make to my own hypothesis is to get my Ghandi on and become the change I want to see.

Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events

Jonathan McCalmont @ 02-02-2011

It could have been ugly. When the French developers Quantic Dream announced that they were working on an ‘interactive film’ that used quick time events as the primary mode of player interaction you could hear the sceptical harrumphing from orbit. Many gamers compared the game to Cinematronics’ infamous laser disc-based arcade game Dragon’s Lair (1983).

Screenshot from Dragon's LairAt a time when most video games were comprised of poorly animated coloured blocks, the cartoon imagery of Dragon’s Lair was ground-breaking. Here was a game that did not simply suborn the language and titles of films; it actually looked like a film too. The only problem was that when players fed their money into the machine, they soon discovered that they didn’t actually have control over the on-screen action. Continue reading “Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events”

An origin story: it all started when…

Paul Raven @ 24-01-2011

I’ve been a bit lax in not mentioning this before (blame the January churn, if you like), but better late than never, eh? Over at Locus Online, Karen Burnham’s busy rebooting the Locus Roundtable blog; one presumes they decided on including some fringe amateurs to balance out the heavy hitters, because yours truly has been invited to contribute. By way of introduction, Karen’s been posting the origin stories of the contributors – how we got our start in genre fiction, basically – and my little potted history appeared there just last night. So if you’re curious as to how I ended up reviewing science fiction novels and blogging about the shape of the imminent future, by all means go and find out!

Alternatively, check out the more interesting and erudite histories of such notables as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Gary K Wolfe, Adrienne Martini, Paul DiFilippo, Charles Tan, and many more yet to come. (I figure if one is going to indulge in a bit of Imposter Syndrome, then it might as well be generated by the company of genuinely interesting and smart people.)

There are many more conversations and debates on the cards for the months ahead, so if you’d like a side-serving of meta-discussion with your usual science fiction diet, you could do far worse than clip that RSS feed into your reader…

Digital: A Love Story; Nostalgia, Irony and Cyberpunk

Jonathan McCalmont @ 05-01-2011

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.  Originally coined in 1688 by a medical student investigating the tendency of Swiss mercenaries to become homesick to the point of physical incapacity, nostalgia soon changed from being a curable physical ailment to being an unassuageable psychological condition, a sickness of the soul.

This shift was the result of nostalgia being partly decoupled from the concept of homesickness.  Homesickness can be cured by allowing the sufferer to return home, but nostalgia came to signify a longing not for a particular place but for a by-gone age forever out of reach… short of someone inventing time travel.  However, despite becoming de-pathologised, nostalgia never quite managed to shed the negative connotations of its medical origins and the late 20th Century’s decision to turn nostalgia from a condition into a marketing strategy did little for its respectability in certain circles. Continue reading “Digital: A Love Story; Nostalgia, Irony and Cyberpunk”

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