Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

March 29, 2011

Patricia S Bowne – Advice From Pigeons

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 8:54 am

Hiram Rho is a junior demonologist at the Royal Academy of Osyth, and also a natural philosopher—in this context, someone who can communicate with animals, rather than a proto-scientist. Unlike the normal magical academy this one is thoroughly modern, complete with all the bureaucratic paraphernalia of academia in the real world; the major difference is in the subjects they study and research, and this is carried through into the rest of the society. Wizards work in construction, sorcerers heal, and alchemists change the nature of reality by their will.

Demonology works by belief, by defining the demon into existence and persuading it to believe what you tell it about itself. A corollary of that is that a demonologist’s own skills & abilities are continually negated by the practitioner’s own necessary academic analysis of them, removing their unquestioning belief in themselves. It’s a much more interesting take on demonology than the more traditional realm-of-hell version, and gives a nuanced take on the iron will and self-belief required of the summoning magician. It’s also a good reflection of the traits it takes to survive in academia!

The book begins with a rather forced infodump about the Institute’s magicians, but I can forgive a scene much for lines like this.

He felt himself go cold and then a comforting thought burst on him like sunlight. He was the one furthest from the door. He’d be the one disemboweled, not the one answering questions.

The character thinking there is Warren, a classic academic middle-manager; the book’s second major plot strand is a rather interestingly metaphysicalized dramatization of his midlife crisis. The first is Hiram Rho’s quest to define his academic path, his career, and his self. He’s a graduate student with all the socialization of a starving badger, torn between two schools of magic which promise him very different things, and unable to trust or like his colleagues. Despite that, he’s still an interesting character to spend time with, and deftly drawn.

The book also features gay characters, without making a special point of it; the world apparently has no problem with homosexuality. The text also treats Rho’s past as a sex worker quite matter-of-factly, and it’s a nice change to see that with a male character.

Overall, definitely recommended for anyone interested in the metaphysical nuts and bolts of wizardry (as distinct from the more traditional kind of magic-system fantasy) or for academics, unless they’re desperately trying to repress flashbacks already.

Edit: (since I forgot to note this originally) You can get it from Double Dragon Publishing here, and read the first chapter online here.

March 19, 2011

Collage Criticism

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 3:57 pm

Lud-in-the-Mist Collage This is made from selected parts of an e-text of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, which I typeset, printed out, and ripped up. (No actual books were harmed in the creation of this artwork.)

I’ve done a few of these; the first was H. Beam Piper’s classic short story Omnilingual, and I’m currently working on a large one made from a play script of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Don’t worry—that one had a long and happy life, and died a natural death before I saved it from the recycling and turned it into art.) There’s an interesting transgressive feeling to using printed matter like this, even when it’s printed matter I caused to exist purely for the purpose; I don’t think I could bring myself to rip up a physical book that was still in a readable state. Play scripts are a different matter, because an upbringing in the theatre means I regard them as essentially ephemeral: there to be scribbled on, ripped up for prompt books, broken, repaired, and tossed away.

The other Issue I have around this is down to which texts are legitimate targets. Instinct, of course, tells me that they all are; if it’s a text then it’s there to be analysed, reinterpreted, made to jump through hoops. Cutting it up and sticking it back together in a different order—in an entirely different way, in fact—is basically the same thing as literary criticism, albeit interestingly disciplined by the inability to add any new text.

On the other hand, doing this to the work of living authors (and especially living authors I know) is socially and morally fraught. I can’t think of any legal justification for forbidding it, but that doesn’t mean a great deal when it comes to intellectual property versus artistic reimagining and community investment; just look at the perennial debates over fanfic.

It isn’t just the authors, of course. The idea of reifying e-books by printing them out, and doing things to them which can be done to a physical book—treating the digital text as though it were always intended to be paper and ink—is an interesting artistic one in itself, especially when it involves re-typesetting them. But any alteration in the formatting or typesetting of a digital text means changing the work of editors & designers, and while designing for the screen (even when screens are as diverse as those of modern computers & e-book readers) is a very different discipline to designing for print, I still respect the original designers enough not to second-guess their work.

What are your feelings on this? How would it make you feel if I did this to some of your work, and would it make a difference to you if I started with an electronic version or a physical book?

March 12, 2011

Literary SF examples, redux

Filed under: essay — Tags: — Sam @ 4:41 pm

I had a lot of good comments to my post “Literary SF—some examples”, so here’s an updated list. Asterisks mark something I’ve read; all the rest are going on my if-I-see-it list.

To recap the eligibility rules briefly – a work must be arguably SF, ie. published as SF or claimed as such by the author, and not literary-approaching-SF, ie. no Atwood or Okri.


Stephen Baxter, Time
Chris Beckett, The Turing Test (collection)
Keith Brooke, Genetopia
David R. Bunch, Moderan
*Karel ?apek, War with the Newts
Raphael Carter, The Fortunate Fall
*CJ Cherryh, Cyteen
John Clute, Appleseed
John Crowley, Engine Summer
Samuel Delany – Dhalgren, Nova
Philip K Dick, A Scanner Darkly
Thomas M. Disch, On Wings of Song
*John M Ford, The Dragon Waiting
*Mary Gentle, Ash
*William Gibson, Neuromancer
*Molly Gloss, The Dazzle of Day
Lisa Goldstein — The Dream Years
Andrea Hairston – Mindscape
M John Harrison, Light
Gwyneth Jones: Bold as love
*Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon
*Ursula LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris
*Ian MacDonald, River of Gods
*Maureen F McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
*China Miéville, The City and the City
*Walter M. Miller Jr, A Canticle for Leibowitz
Christopher Priest, The Separation
Adam Roberts – New Model Army, Yellow Blue Tibia
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
*Geoff Ryman – Air
Josephine Saxton – Queen Of The States
Lewis Shiner – Glimpses
Gary Shteyngart – Super Sad True Love Story
*Catherynne M Valente, The Habitation of the Blessed
Kit Whitfield, In Great Waters
*Connie Willis – passim, particularly Passage
Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus
*Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
*Roger Zelazny: Lord of light


Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary
Colin Greenland, Take Back Plenty
M John Harrison – Signs of Life
Liz Jensen, The Rapture
Gwyneth Jones – Life
Marcel Theroux, Far North

Total: 44. 15 women, which is above-average for the field as a whole. Two in translation—War With the Newts from Czech and Solaris from Polish, translated through French apparently. Two Three I know to be non-white (Hairston, Yu and Delany); if anyone else has light to shed on others here, I’ll edit. Three (The Habitation of the Blessed, Ash, The Dragon Waiting) are set in the/a past. Six (Gloss, Valente, Russell, Miller, Zelazny, and MacDonald) deal with religion as a central theme.

If any of you have more data-mining to contribute, want to argue over any of these books, or have more suggestions, the comments are open!

March 10, 2011

“Spec Fic” & mimetic fiction

Filed under: essay — Sam @ 9:10 pm

There’s been rather a kerfluffle recently (well, in the last few months) over the term “spec-fic” or “speculative fiction”. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s usually treated by its adherents as an overarching category for SF, fantasy, sometimes horror, sometimes magic realism, sometimes mythology or fairytale retellings, steampunk, dieselpunk, mythpunk, fantastika, the Weird, and other stuff that doesn’t get reviewed in big glossy mainstream magazines. It’s also used in opposition to “mimetic fiction”, ie. the stuff which talks about places, people, situations that really do (or could) exist.

To others, “spec fic” is problematic. Sometimes this is because they don’t feel that “speculative” represents what’s important about the literature they write or read—it marginalizes imagery, archetypal stories, wonder, linguistic playfulness, and almost everything else in favour of rigorous what-if speculation. (It will come as no surprise to anyone that this is an extremely gendered bias.)

Others have pointed out, repeatedly, that “speculative” is a misnomer—all literature is speculative, in the sense that it postulates Something Which Is Not. “What if there were faster-than-light travel?” is not materially different from “What if a doctor married an heiress, and a social improver fell in love with an artist?”

My personal objection to the term is that the whole “rigorous speculation” element of SF is actually complete bollocks. It was never rigorous, it always involved changing multiple factors at once, it was almost universally full of unexamined social assumptions and prejudices, and it was universally wrong. If you value speculation, then ipso facto you must value accuracy, or else all you’re doing is opening people’s minds up to the enchanting possibility of a myriad different varieties of utter nonsense. The correct, sane, and rational response to the history of SF’s attempts to imagine the future, over the last century or so, is to do something else, and to their credit a lot of people are attempting to do just that.

As for “mimetic fiction”… well, it’s a truism so commonplace as to be completely ignored that the real world is stranger than we can imagine. Slime moulds, natural nuclear reactors, whale song, functionalised Langmuir-Blodgett films, light-harvesting dendrimer molecules, the government of Poland-Lithuania, early 19th Century British electoral theory & practice: all these are fantastically bizarre and amazing, and they’re just the examples that occur to me in a few moments’ thought. Science fiction, in its specifically “speculative” incarnations, rarely contains anything so amazing, and it (by definition) never contains any of the fractal detail and wonder that the real world does. But that’s OK, because that’s not what we’re reading SF for, is it?

…is it? What about the old sense of wonder, the mindblowing awe of seeing hugely phallic miracles of engineering plunging into suns and sending them into explosions the size of a galaxy?

The thing about the sense of wonder is, it’s a gateway drug when done right. Getting it from SF can be really useful in order to wean teenagers onto the hard stuff, ie. reality. I have helped to recreate Christopher Marlowe’s theatre in sound and light, using cutting-edge technology and a lot of swearing, on the original site on Bankside. I have held a vial of fullerene molecules in my hand, and turned it into something that had to the best of my knowledge never existed before. I have thrown away wire coat-hangers on a scale previously unimagined by man, and put the Buddha in a skip. I have swabbed down an entire laboratory with chloroform, and peered down a microscope at individual atoms. I have done a collaborative performance of the entirety of Paradise Lost, and taken residential poetry workshops with both the National Poet of Wales and the Makar of Scotland. I’ve seen explosions, and even caused a couple. Spaceship-based synthetic wonder substitute does not impress me.

I’m not dissing fantastika here, you understand. I love it with my heart and soul, because it’s a way to tell stories that cannot be told any other way, to echo and twist our oldest dreams, hold up a sea-rippled mirror to our myths… in its best form.

But so often, it’s so focused on setting and on story that it disdains its own textuality, takes its unreality as an unexamined given, and obsesses over internal consistency and realism within the constraints of its own rules. So we end up with carefully measured timescales, dramatic unities of time and place, careful explanations of anything that looks Unlikely, and (on the fantasy end of things) magic systems with all the interesting complexity and potential for innovation of a Kinder Egg.

When “it could really happen that way” is held up as an ideal to aspire to, that’s… about as mimetic as it gets.

March 8, 2011

How disability affects me as a reviewer

Filed under: meta — Tags: — Sam @ 6:21 pm

This isn’t universal, of course; other people will have completely different approaches. It’s also not comprehensive, because the nature of mental health issues (I have chronic depression and an anxiety disorder) is that they affect us differently in different situations. I owe a couple of you emails; this isn’t meant as a coded note to you, just some general observations.

1. I do this as a hobby. I do not take on obligations, beyond a few short-range projects now and again, and I don’t do schedules.

2. Because of this, I’m not bribable. (Well, not so far, anyway. You’re welcome to try; I recommend single malt Scotch, 85%+ dark chocolate, and really good books.) If you’re giving away free stuff, that’s great, but I won’t feel obliged. If you’re offering free stuff under an explicit contract (eg. a book embargo) then that’s fine, and I’ll decide on a case-by-case basis whether to take it or not. Free books don’t count as a bribe, because the time I spend reading and quite likely reviewing it is worth more to me than the book was to you.

3. I’m much more likely to read-and-review a physical book than an ebook; I’ll get through it more quickly, I’ll be able to flip back and forth to check things, and I don’t have to faff around with software & file transfers. I don’t do DRM-protected ebooks; it’s too much faff to deal with the special software, even if they don’t have the repellent “deletes itself after a few weeks” feature that I found on some e-ARCs I was given.

4. I don’t keep a shit list, but I do keep a spoons list. (If you’re not familiar with spoon terminology, read this before continuing.) I genuinely like hearing from people—readers, publishers, critics, reviewers, bloggers, authors, artists—but approaching people I don’t already know quite well is always difficult, so please don’t mistake it for standoffishness. If interacting with you uses up spoons, then I’m only going to do it if I have a lot of energy to spare, or there’s something quite big in it for me.

Everyone starts at around zero on the spoons list; you can move up it by wanting me to come to you, spamming me, making information hard to find, being unfriendly or ignoring my emails, or acting as though the interaction between us is much more beneficial to me than to you. Just because you’re high on the spoons list doesn’t mean I don’t like or admire you, only that interacting with you (debating, reading your books, reviewing your books, helping you with projects, or just chatting) takes a lot of energy.

You can move down it, on the other hand, by being proactive, being friendly (genuinely friendly, that is; if you don’t feel it, don’t fake it, because we can tell), making it easy for me to find the information I need, and being concerned with what we can do for each other rather than what I can do for you.

Do other disabled reviewers have similar issues? Any others that are different to mine?

March 3, 2011

Literary SF – some examples

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Sam @ 10:20 am

Further to my previous post, I’m getting curious about what “literary SF” actually is.

There are two basic ways of defining a (sub)genre in literary criticism. One is to argue about themes, styles, motifs, sensibilities, modalities, et al; another is to choose some examples, wave your hands around a bit, and say “things like that”. We’ve been trying the first, so let’s have a collective go at the second.

Disclaimer the first: this is not implying that non-literary SF has less merit or is less interesting.

Disclaimer the second: this is not implying that “literary SF” is a globally useful term. You do not need to pay attention to it.


  • No more than six examples of core literary SF; others may be noted as “penumbra”, if they’re less literary, or less SF, but still worth talking about.
  • Only things you’ve personally read in their entirety.
  • If in doubt, leave it off.
  • Must have been published as SF (ie. science fiction in this context): SF imprint, author’s assertion, spaceships on the cover, whatever.
  • No explanations or justifications of your choice, unless someone asks for them. If you don’t like someone else’s list, suggest your own.

Karel Čapek, War with the Newts
John M Ford, The Dragon Waiting
Molly Gloss, The Dazzle of Day
Maureen F McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
Catherynne M Valente, The Habitation of the Blessed

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