Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Short Fiction Reviews

There’s been some discussion recently about the need for more (and better) reviews of science fiction and fantasy short stories, much of which is predicated on the various inadequacies of the few existing short fiction review venues.

In general I think more short fiction reviews can only be a Good Thing, because more critical discourse on science fiction and fantasy literature is never a Bad Thing. There’s not enough of it (as opposed to PR and squee). That said, I have a couple of reservations.

First, if the purpose of short fiction reviews is to be useful for award nomination purposes, I have a problem with that. I appreciate that nowadays there are frankly too many short stories being published for any single person to read them all,1 and that award nominators are looking for ways to filter the reading material down a bit. But I have a problem with the implicit assumption that winning awards is the reason for creating works of art. (Winning an award should be an inadvertent by-product, not the point of the enterprise.) If we’re reviewing short fiction because we’re trying to figure out our award nomination ballots, then we’re reinforcing the notion that art is grist for a career: write a story to generate buzz; generate buzz to win an award; win an award to further the career; ???; profit!

We’d also be privileging the latest at the expense of the greatest: reviewing for awards purposes means you only review what’s eligible for the next award season. A story that is only three to five years old may still be worthy of critique and analysis—may still be worth talking about—but if all you’re doing is reading for awards, it has already disappeared down the memory hole. Functionally speaking, it no longer exists.

Neophilia might be good for the publishing calendar, it might be good for writers’ careers, but it’s terrible for art.

Second, if we’re agreed that there should be more short fiction reviews, I think it’s a bad idea for us to simply review it on our own blogs and journals. It’s too haphazard. There aren’t enough people looking for short fiction reviews to have those reviews scattered across the intertubes. There’s a reason why Rocket Stack RankTangent and Locus came to be: collating reviews from divers hands makes a lot of sense. The reader only has a single place to go.

The problem is that short fiction reviews make absolutely no economic sense. I could easily reboot Ecdysis with a new focus on short fiction reviews, but how would I solicit them? Reviewers would expect, reasonably, to be compensated, but what business model (other than Locus’s, but they primarily do book reviews and trade news) would there be for a periodical focused mainly on short fiction reviews? Book reviews get few enough eyeballs; short fiction reviews would be even worse, and without even the faint hope of affiliate income. It would have to be a labour of love, which in sf community terms means a work done for social capital, and that’s often been problematic too.

I’ll keep thinking about this, and listening to other opinions on this subject.

Infinity Wars

With Infinity Wars (Solaris, September 2017), Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project turns its attention to military science fiction. Each volume of Strahan’s Infinity Project anthologies—Infinity Wars is the sixth—has taken some aspect of hard sf and turned it on its head a bit, offering fresh takes on old themes, often from authors not normally known for writing hard sf. (I reviewed Engineering Infinity, the first book of the Infinity Project, in 2001; last year I reviewed the fifth book, Bridging Infinity. I’ve read them all.) Now it’s military sf’s turn, and if there’s a subgenre of science fiction that could use some shaking off of the shibboleths, this is it.

That’s because military sf has more than its share of detractors, a result of it being associated, rightly or wrongly, with a certain ultra-conservative, anti-government, paranoid brand of American politics, one whose bent has gotten more and more strident as its mantle passed from Heinlein to Pournelle to a younger generation: Disch traces the evolution of this strain in his 1998 study, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.2 See also David Auerbach’s piece for The Daily Beast. These survivalist/soldier-of-fortune power fantasies aren’t the only kind of military sf out there, but there’s an awful lot of them (whereas, as Disch points out, masterpieces like The Forever War are singular), and it’s what people think of when they dismiss military sf.

If Infinity Wars seems like a breath of fresh air, it’s because what Crank! editor Bryan Cholfin once called “war pornography”3 is nowhere to be found. Yes, there are military operations; yes, there’s some awfully clever military hardware; and yes, there’s a mercenary or two (in Elizabeth Bear’s “Perfect Gun,” the eponymous weapon has more of a conscience than its mercenary owner). But the 15 stories in Infinity Wars, by and large, explore war—their remit was for them to imagine the future of warfare—without going so far as to celebrate it. The perspectives are diverse, and so are the authors (fewer than half are men); if there’s a common thread, it’s that most of these stories take place on the ground—at the front, in the trenches, at the supply depot—or after the war is over. The cost of conflict—on populations, on the soldiers themselves—is never ignored.

These stories see grunts and clerks dealing with the fog and confusion of war: a maintenance worker at a depot seconded to the war effort in Carrie Vaughan’s “The Evening of Their Span of Days”; a young and confused soldier sent to defend the aliens whose arrival disrupted the world’s economy in Nancy Kress’s “Dear Sarah.” They see veterans dealing with the aftermath: Eleanor Arnason’s restrained and powerful “Mines,” a story ostensibly about a minesweeper telepathically linked to a mine-detecting rodent that has things to say about PTSD, damage and survival.

These stories also reveal an up-to-date understanding of warfare. And by that I don’t mean tech. As Strahan writes in his introduction, “War seems to have evolved from an easy-to-spot state-vs.-state conflict to something muddier and harder to understand, where individual acts of terrorism contrast with hi-tech conflict conducted at arm’s length by soldier-bureaucrats with devastating affect [sic] for those on the ground.” That understanding shows up in many ways. Two of them, Rich Larson’s “Heavies” and Genevieve Valentine’s “Overburden,” offer takes on colonization and occupation, and the damage occupation does to occupier and occupied alike. Several stories explore disinformation and propaganda. In “The Last Broadcasts,” An Owomoyela tells the story about an information officer told to censor news about a colony world that cannot be rescued; Aliette de Bodard’s “In Everlasting Wisdom” implants “appeasers” with symbionts to enforce loyalty to the emperor; and E. J. Swift’s “Weather Girl” weaponizes weather forecasts, with information on oncoming storms hidden or revealed as part of military strategy. In “The Oracle,” Dominica Phetteplace explores how predictive software can be turned to military purposes.

The anthology ends with a novelette from Peter Watts, “ZeroS,” that touches on a theme Watts returns to repeatedly: the nature of human consciousness. In this story, soldiers’ consciousnesses are suppressed so that they can fight using their non-conscious selves (intelligence without consciousness: something Watts posited in Blindsight). It’s a difficult circle to square, but one deeply relevant to the subject matter. There is a tension between war as dehumanization and war as a deeply, almost quintessentially human activity. What does it mean to have our humanity stripped away? Or more precisely: is what being stripped away here our humanity. Tor.com has reprinted the story, so you can read it online.

These are bracing stories, stories that ring true and feel relevant, in a way that stories about space navies thundering against each other can never be, because those stories are an anachronism: rules of war from the age of sail, transmogrified into an interstellar setting. The best stories about war are universal.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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John Scalzi’s Miniatures

I’ve been expecting a short story collection from John Scalzi for some time now: it’s the sort of thing one periodically sees from science fiction writers, once their novel-writing careers are established enough to warrant one. But Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi (Subterranean, Dec. 2016), his first collection of short stories (apart from the linked collections The Human Division and The End of All Things) is not that collection. Miniatures has a specific remit: it focuses on Scalzi’s short fiction at its shortest, its funniest, and (you might say) its scalziest.

Scalzi’s past career in the newspaper biz trained him to write short and make your point fast: the average length of these 18 stories is 1,310 words. Most of them adopt the form of interviews, memoranda, transcripts, or other non-typical narrative styles — there are even two tweetstorms — which I heartily approve of on general principle, but is almost essential when dealing in super-short lengths.

And they’re also appropriate when you’re writing humour. Because, make no mistake, there are some very funny pieces here. Laugh-out-loud funny. In another context I called Scalzi quite possibly the best humorist working in science fiction today, and these pieces do little to disprove that thesis. (Though I should warn you that there is a cat-story-from-a-cat’s POV in here.) If anything his humour works better at short lengths; when he does it at novel length it runs the risk of tedium. As Scalzi says in the introduction, “If drama is a marathon, humor is a sprint. Get in, make ’em laugh, get out.”

The entire book is about the length of a novella, and will afford a pleasantly diverting afternoon’s worth of reading. His longer short stories are generally available online or as individual ebooks; whether those stories will also be collected remains to be seen.

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Au-delà du gouffre

au-dela-du-gouffreYesterday was the publication day for Au-delà du gouffre (Le Belial’), a collection of Peter Watts’s short stories in French translation. My essay, “God and the Machines: The Short Fiction of Peter Watts,” translated into French by Erwann Perchoc, appears as an afterword.

This represents several milestones for me: it’s the first time something I’ve written has appeared in book form, the first time something I’ve published has been reprinted, and the first time something I’ve written has been translated into another language.

Au-delà du gouffre isn’t listed on Amazon.com at the moment: try Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.fr; it’ll be available through Amazon.ca in January.

Still waiting for my contributor’s copy, though, so I can’t yet feel weird about reading a translation of my words into a language I can read. (Update: It showed up on the 17th.)

Invisible Planets

invisible-planetsIn addition to writing some of the most critically acclaimed stories of the past few years (and I hear his novels are pretty good, too), Ken Liu has also been translating Chinese science fiction into English. His most visible work has been the translation of the first and third volumes of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, but he’s also been translating short stories — more than forty of them so far, according to his bibliography — that have been appearing in the online and print magazines. One of those translations, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” won the Hugo Award for best novelette this year.

Thirteen of Ken’s1 translations, including Hao’s “Folding Beijing” and two stories by Liu Cixin, have now been gathered in Invisible Planets, out this week from Tor (in the U.S.) and Head of Zeus (in the U.K.). It’s a first-rate anthology for a couple of reasons. For one, Ken himself is an elegant writer, and his translations are no less elegant. For another, the process to arrive at these thirteen stories — Ken translating his favourite Chinese-language stories, then picking his favourites of those translations — makes for a selection process akin to a year’s-best or best-of anthology. In other words, we’re getting the cream of the cream of the crop.

At the same time, this is not necessarily a representative anthology — something that Ken warns against in his opening essay:

Any broad literary classification tied to a culture — especially a culture as in flux and contested as contemporary China’s — encompasses all the complexities and contradictions in that culture. Attempts to provide neat answers will only result in broad generalizations that are of little value, or stereotypes that reaffirm existing prejudices.

This is a collection of contemporary stories by up-and-coming writers (with the exception of Liu Cixin, already seen as the dean of Chinese sf). There is no attempt at comprehensiveness or canonicity, though the included essays from Ken and three of the Chinese writers do provide some of the history of Chinese sf. Invisible Planets is in the main about where Chinese sf is going, not where it’s been; it’s an introduction, not definitive.

Ken has also done two things that anthologists tend not to do. Most anthologies don’t have more than one story per author; he’s included three each from Chen Quifan and Xia Jia, and two each from Hao Jingfang and Liu Cixin. And he’s included longer stories. Many anthologies load up their table of contents with smaller stories (more bylines, better value); Ken’s eschewed this. Not only do the stories get more room to breathe, but we also get to see more than one side of each of Ken’s seven writers.

So what can be said about these stories in particular? Ken argues that these share “a sense of imbalance” reflecting the fact that China is a society in extremely rapid transition, split between poor villages and high-tech cities. That sense is most keenly apparent in a story like “Folding Beijing,” with its critique of class, poverty and privilege, or in Chen Quifan’s “Flower of Shazui” — the poor and traditional bump up against the rich and advanced. But it echoes in stories where the cost of that transition is scrutinized, as in Chen’s poingnant “Fish of Lijiang.”

I also think that these stories are engaged — socially aware, concerned with the impact of technological, political and environmental change. The uninitiated reader who assumes that Chinese literature must necessarily exist in a modern-day Biedermeier period will be startled to read something like Ma Boyong’s story, “The City of Silence,” a parable of censorship and repression that reads like Fahrenheit 451 for the digital age.

There is a recurring theme of loss and endings: we see it in stories that focus on old age and the end of life, even the end of human civilization (Xia Jia’s “Night Journey of the Dragon-house”) or existence (Chen Jingbo’s “Grave of the Fireflies“). Care for the elderly is a recurring topic, both literally — Xia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” explores telepresence — and allegorically: Liu Cixin’s “Taking Care of God” looks at the elder care requirements of the dying race that created humanity.

If these stories say anthing about Chinese sf, it’s that it’s a whole, complete, living breathing thing, capable of both pocket-protector crunchiness (Liu Cixin recasts a scene from The Three-Body Problem — using armies as calculators — as a historical tale) and real poignancy. There’s a there there — and it’s worth paying attention to.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Note
  1. To avoid confusion between Ken Liu and Liu Cixin, I’m calling Ken by his first name.