Thursday 4 April 2013

Memento Mori

Iain Banks, friend of my uncle, and doyen of the Scottish and British SF world, is dying.

Go here, to Banksophilia, and let him and his family and friends know how much he meant to us SF&F types.

Then, raise a glass to him. Slainte, Iain!

Friday 29 July 2011

A Distinction Lost In The Mists Of Avalon?

Athelstan, who is so far my most useful foil, raises an interesting point. Can SF and Fantasy be seperated into two distinct genres?

I think they can, and, unlike SF, it can be boiled down to a single element: magic. Not monsters (for what dragon or vampire can compete with SF's strangest aliens?), nor plate armour or plots, but magic. It is the presence of Gandalf and the other wizards and witches that make Middle Earth a fantastical text; similarly it is the blood magic in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series that places it firmly in the realm of the fantastic.

For in SF, no matter the background level of technology, no matter the plot, there is nothing that cannot be explained by some form of science - be it handwavium or the hardest of hard science. But magic; oh! magic is the realm of the unknowable, the spirit world, the darkness between realities... and it is a fantasy. Real magicians are tricksters, who lie and manipulate - often with great skill - for our entertainment. The magic of, say, LeGuin's Earthsea or Terry Pratchett's Discworld, defies analysis. It simply is, and often comes with gods and demons.

Now, of course, as has been said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and the Time Lords of Dr Who were a Type IV Civilisation as stated by the Time Lord Marnal: "We had no equals. We controlled the fundamental forces of the entire universe. Nothing could communicate with us on our level"

But these gods are technological gods. Their magic is science.

The reality is, then, that Fantasy, unlike SF, relies on magic - be it ever so little - to root it in the genre of Fantasy.

Apologies, by the way, for the shortness of this post and the lack of an update on Wednesday; I have been a bit busier than normal at work and am as a result less inclined to do much more than relax with my family and then collapse into bed...!

Monday 25 July 2011

Continuation: What Is SF?

Right then! Let's pick up where I left off, shall we?

I was busy contending that SF is not necessarily defined by technology, be that steampunk difference engines or ultra-high-tech weapons systems. Some examples are now required, lest I fall into the trap of stating things without evidence. Let us consider the exemplary SF Masterworks series of books, a library that, frankly, no SF fan should be without. In its list of publications, we have works such as Bring The Jubilee by Ward Moore, which features time-travelling Confederates, The Invisible Man (H.G. Wells), and Sheri Tepper's Grass. All of these feature technology as a central part of the framework and plot of the novel, be it the Invisible Man's chemistry set, or Sheri Tepper's colonised world.

Yet they also publish the post-catastrophe novel Earth Abides by George R Stewart. Technology is not a central part of the novel in any way; indeed the protagonist survives the disease that destroys civilisation because he is lying in a cabin up a mountain recovering from a snakebite. There can be no doubt that Earth Abides is SF, but why?

My answer is this: It is a vision of society stripped to the bare essentials, a future history showing us how thin the veneer of civilisation really is; telling us how quickly we would regress in the event of the complex framework of the modern world collapsing. It holds a mirror up to us, and forces us to consider ourselves in a cold light. SF, particularly Analytical SF, is first and foremost about contemporary society and imagining future societies, be they dystopic or utopian, or simply mundane.

Literature may argue its case for exposing the human condition, but I would rather read Earth Abides or We than suffer through On Chesil Beach or force yet more overrated Dickens into my brain. SF, simply put, is this:

Any work that utilises an imaginary society, be it past, present or future, to analyse contemporary society for entertainment or provocation.

It differs from literature in that literature roots itself firmly in the now, or the past. Occasional flirtations with fantasy such as the Magical Realist school of Latin America and Spain notwithstanding, literary fiction is often unable to offer the same depth of analysis as SF because it is stuck within the contemporary society it attempts to discuss. That said, there are many notable exceptions and I do not wish to claim that ONLY SF can provide a coherent critique of society; for every Earth Abides, 1984, or We, there is a Lensman, Stainless Steel Rat or Gaunt's Ghosts - equally, for every godawful upper-middle-class self-obsessed navel-gazer of a novel there is a Cannery Row or a Half of a Yellow Sun.

However, in the end, once you get past the death rays and space empires, SF is all about social analysis, not the technology that provides merely a framework of otherness.

Friday 22 July 2011

The First Antithesis! And An Update

I wanted to post this as a comment, as that would make for a much better-flowing back and forth synthesis of our points, but instead Google decided I'm not allowed to do that. Ah, the wonders of technology!

So, in reply to Aethelstan's point about Iron Man:

Sure, however, while Iron Man rapidly ditches Afghanistan for the US of A, the beginning of the film is quite clearly fuelled - at least in part - by a revenge fantasy, as is the segment where Stark, in his finalised battlesuit, flies into a hostage situation and kills all the terrorists for no loss of friendly life.It's absolutely true that the update abandons Vietnam and Those Goddamn Commies, at least in part (depending on what you think of Iron Man 2), but then it had to; SF must shine a light on its own, contemporary society. That said, you've touched on two interesting themes which I will return to. Racism and propaganda.

And now I return you to your regular schedule.

Before I go on to discuss the Analytical strand of SF, and before I discuss anything else, I need to provide you all with a definition, which I foolishly forgot to do earlier. What is SF? For me, SF is a very broad church. It encompasses everything from pulp epics like Star Wars through to the time-travelling alternate history Guns Of The South by Harry Turtledove, via Frankenstein and quieter, subtler works like Survivors and Threads or the bizzare surrealism of Emma Peel and Mr Steed in The Avengers.

But why is this? Surely there are core, identifiable elements that make, say, The Man In The High Castle by P.K. Dick an SF work, and, say, Turtledove's (mediocre) Hitler's War not, despite both being alternate history novels. And indeed there are; Hitler's War remains entirely rooted in reality, with a single point of divergence - Sanjurjo's survival - from which branches a whole new timeline. There are no leaps in technology, no meddlers from the future.

On the contrary, High Castle has an Axis victory in WW2, followed by spaceships, the draining of the Mediterranean, colonies on Mars and the Moon... quite clearly an SF work. The difference at first appears clear: technology. But, is that all it is? Rayguns and aliens, nanomachines and spacecraft? I would argue no, but I am currently out of time; so I shall conclude my definition more neatly later.

In the meantime, please, add your own ideas and I will respond.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Pulp SF - from the pages of Astounding! to the silver screen

Whilst SF has been around for a long time, at least since the 19th century and arguably a lot longer, what I call Pulp SF only really began to appear in the inter-war period. Writers like E.E. 'Doc' Smith and others, who first published with The Skylark of Space in 'Amazing Stories' in 1928, wrote grand and sweeping stories concerned with two things: getting paid (in the case of Skylark, a set fee of US$125), usually by the word; and entertaining the editor and readers of the magazines that published their stories.

So, to fulfil this, lasers and death rays were fired, rocketships blasted to Epsilon IV to save damsels in distress from evil emperors, and Flash Gordon had just 24 hours to save the Earth. It is not a coincidence that Pulp SF shares its name with Pulp Fiction; stories of gangsters and private eyes were just as popular and for good reason. They were pure escapism, in a world that was reeling from not only the effects of the Great War, but from the Great Depression and, in America, the Prohibition Wars.

Out of such beginnings came a lucrative strand of SF, which has since developed into a myriad of forms. Starguard and Warhammer 40,000 represent it on the tabletop, Traveller and Paranoia enable you to live within Asimov's Foundation or Orwell's Airstrip One, '2000AD' and Marvel Comics can give you pulp in comic form, and - of course - the film industry has given us marvellous films like Doomsday and, yes, the Matrix trilogy. Pulp is still going strong in written form, as well: a quick trip to any Forbidden Planet or your local bookshop's SF section will show that.

But, more importantly, what does this mean, and where am I going with this?

Well, at the simplest level, it shows there is still a demand for pure escapism, particularly of the kind that pays well and which entertains before anything else; and as for my point, that's easy: Pulp is, of course, not all rayguns and robots. Pulp, by its very definition, has a role to play in any social analysis. It is an indicator of the state of a society, or at least of the state the creators feel society is in. Dan Dare, for example, celebrated 1950s Britain, with its Empire, as a great thing. The upper-middle class Dare and his working-class subordinate, together with Miss Peabody, bring a stiff upper lip and a vicious uppercut to bear against the Mekon and emerge victorious as Britain has from the Second World War... whilst Gerry Anderson's Captain Scarlet underlined the marginalisation of Britain and the emergence of the UN (or, in most of his puppet shows, the World Government) as the arbiter of peace and prosperity - threatened only by Mysterons and aquatic enemies.

The reality is, of course, that with such a huge genre as 'SF' cannot neatly be split into two halves. A venn diagram would be much more useful; works can be Pulp with a significant element of social commentary or analysis, and vice-versa. The important thing to realise with Pulp SF, however, is that the style of it is the key. Is it bright and upbeat? Is it gloomy and bleak? Is it cynical, comic, ironic or straight-laced? The answers to these, and similar questions, shine a light on the society in which it was created. Just look at the Pulp SF of the Cold War - Hammer's Slammers, for example, which re-fought the Vietnam War with hovertanks, or films like WarGames and even Ghostbusters, which to a greater or lesser extent reflected the fear of MAD and the Soviet Union.

So what now, in the age of the War on Terror? Already some Pulp - such as the reboot of Savage in '2000AD' which had Britain occupied by Volgs (Russians - a throwback to the original Cold War inspired fears) which dressed like Americans and were fought by suicide bombs and ambushes - has begun to reflect things like the occupation of Iraq, while films like Iron Man demonstrate the appetite for visceral revenge, even in make-believe, against Islamic terrorism.

Pulp, then. Simple to digest, easy to dismiss, often important and always amusing. What's not to like about, for example, the fast-paced action of John Scalzi's Old Man's War, after all? Or maybe there are things to dislike. Let me know; a dialectic requires an antithesis.

Monday 18 July 2011

An Introduction

Hello, dear Readers!

The site that lies before you is my humble attempt at getting down, in some form or other, my thoughts and meandering musings on SCIENCE FICTION, also known as: Future Fiction, SF, SciFi, SyFy (eugh), Future Fantasy, Science Fantasy, and many other names besides.

I have been a fan of Science Fiction - hereafter referred to as SF - in all these guises for many years; certainly since I was very small. My uncle (on my mother's side) is a noted SF author, my father has written one published SF work and a few that remain in manuscript form only, and I - it must be said - live much of my life within its boundaries. If I am not painting up National Bolshevik Republic troops to fight the European Federation, or watching something like Blade Runner or Children of Men, I am reading a ripping yarn such as The Invisible Man or a zarjaz graphic novel like Sinister/Dexter: Slay Per View.

SF entertains, informs and educates. It provides us with a glimpse into the human condition, and enables the creators and consumers to explore society. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, through to Ursula K LeGuin's The Disposessed and on, SF has been used to present a critique of society, and in many cases, an alternative to the norm. This, I feel, is the main function of the first of two main strands of SF: social analysis. It can be overt, as in Peter F Hamilton's laissez-faire post-warming world of Mindstar Rising, or subtle, as in J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World.

The second strand, perhaps unfairly, I shall crudely label 'pulp'. This is the realm of the raygun, of the monstrously large galactic empires, Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless, beautiful women and nuclear rockets. It is, more than anything else, there for entertainment and - in many cases - to make the author a quick quid. And there's nothing wrong with that. Pulp can be insightful, inspiring and subtle: witness, for example, Harlan Ellison's "Repent, Harlequin!" Said The Ticktockman, written for Galaxy magazine. Equally, Pulp SF can be heroically daft: Barbarella and Barb Wire both spring to mind.

So, we have two broad types of SF - Analytical, and Pulp. These are, of course, crude measures, and I am certain that I will alter this definition as I blog. I want to develop a dialectic with you, my readers, so - there - my first Thesis. Present me with an Antithesis, and, in the grand manner of Hegel himself, we will synthesise them into a new Thesis... only to continue the cycle.

Now, with that short, and possibly rambling first post out of the way, I will sign off with the promise that I will blog as often as possible.

Onwards - to new futures!