Monday, 31 January 2011

Locusonline SF Best SF Novels of 2010


Locusonline asked me to write something about my personal top ten SF novels of 2010 and I did. In fact I sent them a list of 11! Then they counted how many I had listed, and found that there were 10. I'd really thought I'd drawn up a list of 11, but in fact ... I hadn't. Which goes to show that counting is a much harder skill than that vampire on Sesame Street makes it sound.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

James Lovegrove, Age of Odin (2010)


James is a good friend of mine. You'd probably consider any praise from me for his ripping, roaring 'Pantheon' trilogy compromised by that fact (though there has been plenty of praise for all three titles from a great many people entirely unconnected with the author). But I can say this, irrespective of personal bias: the acknowledgements page at the end of Age of Odin is the best acknowledgements page I have ever read. If there were an annual award for 'Best Acknowledgements Page' it would win hands down. Have a look: I dare you to disagree.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Hughes Brothers, The Book of Eli (2010)


HUGHES A1: You know what's cool? The Road. Did you see that film? That's a cool film.
HUGHES A2: You're not wrong, my brother. Kind of a downer, though.
HUGHES A1: All the way down.
HUGHES A2: You know what it was missing?
HUGHES A1: What?
HUGHES A2: Ninja swordplay.
HUGHES A1: Well -- what film isn't improved by Ninja swordplay?
HUGHES A2: Ninja swordplay is cool.
HUGHES A1: Way cool!
HUGHES A2: Tell you what, though. You know what's cooler than a Ninja swordsman?
HUGHES A1: What?
HUGHES A2: A blind Ninja swordsman!
HUGHES A1: Wowz! Like Rutger Hauer in Blind Fury?
HUGHES A2: Rutger Hauer is cool. Who's cooler? -- except, maybe ...
HUGHES A1: ... a black Rutger Hauer?
HUGHES A2: You read my mind!
HUGHES A1: Obviously a black Rutger Hauer is going to be cooler than some pasty-faced white Rutger Hauer.
HUGHES A2: That's nothing but the truth. There's something missing though. What? What's missing?
HUGHES A1: Cannibalism?
HUGHES A2: Obviously we'll include the cannibalism.
HUGHES A1: Scenes from Deadwood?
HUGHES A2: Yeah, yeah. But ...
HUGHES A1: Mad Max 2?
HUGHES A2: You think I'm an idiot? Of course Mad Max 2! No ... something else ...
HUGHES A1: Distinguished elderly British character actors making fools of themselves in rags with fake US accents?
HUGHES A2: Goes without saying. No, I'm thinking something else is needful.
HUGHES A1: [Pulling the name from thin air] Truffaut's Farenheit 451?
HUGHES A2: What?
HUGHES A1: Not all of it. Just the last scenes.
HUGHES A2: That's it! That's the perfect combination of cinematic influence for the greatest film ever made in the history of mankind! The Road meets Blind Fury meets Mad Max 2 meets Farenheit 451 with a dash of Deadwood and Rising Damp, just for good measure.
HUGHES A1: Let's do it!
HUGHES A2: Yeah!
[Pause]
HUGHES A1: You don't think ...
HUGHES A2: What, my brother?
HUGHES A1: You don't think ... that people might think ... it's a bit silly?
HUGHES A2: Did they call The Road silly? Is a Utah Film Critics Association Award silly? Is it?
HUGHES A1: You're right! Let's do it!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Oscar Wilde, Salomé (1891)



I came across a copy of Vyvyan Holland's translation of Wilde's Salomé in a charity shop recently. It's a nicely judged piece of Englishing, decadent without ever being over-ripe, and deftly capturing the languid cruelty of the original. The edition in question was a 1974 reprint of a 1957 edition, and even better than the translation were Frank Martin's rather nice illustrations. He manages to sidestep the oppressive reputation of Aubrey Beardsley's pen-and-inks, and mediate his compositions through a sweetly 1950s visual idiom, whilst staying close to the mood of Wilde's prose. The blue-black-white colouration is especially well chosen. Lovely, although a couple of them are a little too H&E Magazine for my taste. Not that I'm a prude, you understand. [Click on any image for a larger version]






Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Man Booker Prize: Crunching the Numbers


The Man Booker was first awarded in 1969. It has subsequently been awarded annually, except for 1970 (until 1970 the prize was awarded to books published in the previous year, while from 1971 onwards it was awarded to books published the same year as the award, which had the effect of passing over 1970). Last year a special 'Lost Booker Prize' was convened, and Farrell's Troubles was retrospectively given the 1970 prize.

I teach a course on the Booker prize at Royal Holloway University of London, and decided to crunch the numbers on winners and shortlisted titles, parsing them via nationality, gender, genre and other things, to see if any interesting conclusions emerged. For completeness sake I included the 'lost booker' shortlist and winner.

The data fields I used are: this list of Booker winners, and this list of all the shortlisted titles. You can check my stats against them if you like.

There have been 44 winners overall; 45 including 1970’s ‘Lost Booker’.

—There are more winners than years the prize has run, because in 1974 and 1992 two titles won (the prize was tied between Nadine Gordimer’s Conservationist and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday in 74, and between Ondaatje’s English Patient and Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger in 92.)

Winners by nationality

  • UK writers have won 27 of those 45 prizes (counting Kazuo Ishiguro, Iris Murdoch, VS Naipaul and Salman Rushdie as UK)—which is 60% of the total.
  • 4 Australian books have won: counting D B C Pierre as Australian (the grounds of his eligibility; he considered himself Mexican at the time his novel won)—Keneally, Schindler’s Ark 1982, Carey, Oscar and Lucinda, 1988, Carey again for True History of Kelly Gang 2001 and Vernon God Little 2003
  • 3 Indian novels have won the prize: God of Small Things 1997; Inheritance of Loss 2006; White Tiger 2008. All of these are from the second two decades of the prize. If we count Rushdie as Indian, then 4 Indian novels have won the prize (of course, Midnight’s Children won in 1981).
  • 3 South African novels have won: Nadine Gordimer, Conservationist 1974; Coetzee Michael K 1983; Disgrace 1999
  • 3 Irish novels have won: Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha 1993, Banville’s The Sea 2005 and Enright’s Gathering, 2008. Including Farrell’s ‘lost Booker’ win for 1970 with Troubles, and counting the Anglo-Irish Farrell as Irish, this number goes up to 5, 11% of the whole. Iris Murdoch is sometimes considered Irish, but I am not doing so here.
  • 3 Canadian titles have won: Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient 1992, Atwood’s Blind Assassin 2000, Martel’s Life of Pi 2002,
  • 1 New Zealand title has won: Keri Hulme’s Bone People 1985
  • 1 Nigerian title: Ben Okri’s Famished Road, 1991
(If we want to call Naipaul West Indian, then In a Free State winning in 1971 counts for Trinidad and Tobago. Naipaul, however, is a British resident and citizen)

But here's what is interesting. Take that '27 of the 45 winners have been UK writers' statistic (60% of the total).

—IF we split the Booker period into early and late halves (the two decades 1969-1989, and the two decades 1990-2010):

  • from 1969-89 18 of 23 winners were UK (78%)
  • whereas from 1990-2010 only 9 out of 22 winners were UK (41%)

In other words, comparing the prize’s first two decades and its second two decades, the proportion of UK writers winning the prize has halved from c.80% to c.40%. I would argue that this is symptomatic of a more general ‘postcolonialization’ of the novel: that is to say, a shift in taste away from bourgeois, domestic, homegrown fiction towards more multicultural, globalized and historicized writing.

Here are the figures for all shortlisted titles, not just winners: from 1969-2010, and including the 1970 ‘lost Booker’ shortlist, 250 novels have been nominated for the Booker. You can see the shift from domestic to global fiction in the second two decades of the prize:

Booker shortlisted novels by nationality 1969-2010

1969-1989 (and as %)

1990-2010 (and as %)

Total (and as %)

UK

91 (76%)

64 (48%)

155 (62%)

Ireland

10 (9%)

19 (15%)

29 (12 %)

Australia

9 (7.5%)

9 (6.8 %)

18 (7%)

Canada

5 (4%)

9 (6.8%)

14 (5.6%)

India

3 (2.6%)

9 (6.8%)

12 (5%)

South Africa

4 (3%)

7 (5.3%)

11 (4.5%)

New Zealand

1 (under 1%)

1 (under 1%)

2 (under 1%)

Nigeria

1

1

2

St Kitts (WI)

1

1

Sri Lanka

1

1

Tanzania

1

1

Pakistan

1

1

*Egypt

1

1

*Libya

1

1



[Notes: I can't explain the following anomalies: the prize rules say that novels by writers from the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth are eligible. But South Africa was not a Commonwealth country in 1986 when Coetzee won for Michael K. (SA rejoined Commonwealth in 1994) Also Ahdaf Soueif (Egyptian) and Hisham Matar (Libyan) were nominated in 1999 and 2006 respectively. Odd.

Plus Sybille Bedford was nominated in 1989, despite the fact that she was German. Her actual name was Frejin [ie Baroness] Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck, and she lived most of her life in Continental Europe and the USA—though she was resident in the UK from 1979 til her death in 2006]


Winners by gender

Winners by gender: 15 women and 30 men. That’s to say, one third of the winners have been women and two thirds men.

Compare this with the figures for all shortlisted authors: 94 have been women, and 156 men—which is to say 62% of shortlisted titles are by men, 38% by women. So, by the numbers, women very slightly underperformed when it comes to winning -- although not by much, and the one third/two third split is broadly true of shortlisted titles as well as winners.

How does that compare with publishing as a whole?

Figures are hard to come by, and I'd assume that some genres (Romance and chicklit say) are disproportionately represented by female authors. But if we take ‘fiction’ as a whole, a survey by the Complete Review suggests that only between 15 and 24% of all titles written that get reviewed are by women.

This says nothing about overall numbers of books published, since only a small number of published titled get reviewed. But there’s no reason to think that the gender proportions are particularly different in the larger world of publishing.

Overall, female representation in the Booker shortlists has got marginally worse over the whole life of the prize: nominations for the first two decades = 54 women, 77 men (41%, 59%). 1990-2010 = 40 women, 79 men (34%, 66%)

This is despite the fact that more women have been on judging panels. 1969-89 35 women judges were appointed as against 58 male (37%, 63%). From 1990-2010 the number of women went up to 49, men down to 56 (47%, 53%)

Now, you may feel that the Booker is to be commended for ensuring that more female writers are represented in its deliberations than is, proportionately, the case in publishing as a whole; or you may feel it is to be deplored, on the (reasonable, it seems to me) grounds that a 50:50 split between male and female authors ought to be the default, and the prize falls short of this ideal. I suppose that's debateable. There is evidence that more women than men read fiction, and it is certainly the case that more women than men study it at university.

Genre
Now we get into more contentious territory. This is how I'd break down the winners by genre/mode:
  • 23 have been Contemporary Fiction in a realist mode, broadly conceived.
  • 20 have been Historical Fiction (including Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and A S Byatt’s Possession, which are divided between the past and the present)
  • 2 have been Magical Realism (Ben Okri’s Famished Road, Martel’s Life of Pi). We might want to describe Midnight’s Children as magical realist of course: although personally I prefer to see it as a historical novel retelling the recent history of India.
  • 4 of the prize’s 45 winners have been debut titles (The Bone People 1985; God of Small Things 1997; Vernon God Little 2003; White Tiger 2008)
No science fiction or fantasy novel has ever won the Booker Prize. Atwood’s Blind Assassin (the novel is a family saga of 20th-century Canadian life, but contains, as one of its embedded narratives, a Pulp SF story) is the closest this genre has come. Only 4 SF novels have ever been shortlisted: Lessing’s Sirian Experiments (1980), Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and Oryx and Crake (2003) and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005). I don't think it would distort matters to call these (with the exception of Lessing, perhaps) 'non-genre SF titles'.

No crime novel has ever won.

No novel for children or YA fiction has ever won, or been shortlisted.

No graphic novel has ever won, or been shortlisted.

In 2009, Booker judge John Mullan got into hot water for suggesting that science fiction was, as a genre, unworthy of Booker notice (he characterised it as sold out of its own sections of bookshops that were patronised by peculiar people who kept themselves to themselves). At least Mullan's prejudices were open: in 2010 the Chair of Judges, Andrew Motion, said in interview that he and his fellow judges had decided not to shortlist, or indeed longlist, any science fiction or crime novels 'because these sorts of books have prizes of their own.' This strikes me as bordering on the disingenuous -- historical fiction, books by first-time authors and novels by women all have 'prizes of their own', but of course Motion and his judges would never exclude any of them from deliberation. I suspect Motion and his judges simply don't like science fiction, and consider crime fiction infra dig. That is (of course) their prerogative. But it does reinforce the idea, often argued, that the Booker is itself just as much a genre award as the CWA Golden Dagger or the Arthur C Clarke. The numbers suggest that the Booker almost always goes to a novel of contemporary life, or a historical novel. Indeed, we can take this one step further: most of the novels I count above as 'historical' fiction limit their historical engagement to the twentieth-century, often only a few decades before the novel itself is written, frequently linking that past directly to the present. By a more stringent definition, and if we choose to include all novels set in the twentieth-century under the rubric ‘contemporary’, then there have been—

3 5 winners we can call ‘historical fiction’: Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), Golding’s Rights of Passage (1980), Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1992) and Carey's True History of the Kelly Kang (2001), Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).

Even if we add in Byatt's Possession, we're still talking about only 4 6 out of 45 winners being historical (13%). The Booker is predominantly a prize for contemporary-set or near-contemporary-set literary fiction.


Some conclusions:

1. The Booker has tracked a shift in taste away from domestic UK fiction and towards a more globalised, multicultural and postcolonial writing. (In the first two decades of the prize about 80% of winners were by UK writers; in the second two decades only 40%)

2. Women do slightly better in the Booker than in publishing as a whole.

3. The Booker is not hospitable to genre—or to put it another way: the Booker is a genre prize—the genre in question being ‘twentieth-century/contemporary literary fiction’.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Dan Simmons, Endymion (1996), The Rise of Endymion (1997)


Endymion is early Keats, and it’s not very good: inchoate, and written in lumpish rhyming couplets, its most famous bit concerns beauty—‘a thing of beauty,’ the poem’s opening line informs us, ‘is a joy forever’. Contrast this sentiment with the couplet from mature Keats (mature, though only a year-and-a-half older!), the ‘Grecian Urn’s celebrated equivalence: ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’ There’s a world of difference between these two statements; not least in the fact that the former is clearly wrong, where the latter—once we comprehend the chilling, unillusioned force Keats focuses through his particular sense of ‘truth’—not only right, but profound.

Vols 3 and 4 of Simmons’s pretentiously named ‘Hyperion Cantos’. Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, unwind a further 1400 pages of story from the Hyperion-spool. They are not entirely terrible novels, though they are woefully overlong. There are a couple of quite effective set-pieces here and a degree of narrative cumulative power. But compared to the excellence of the first of the Cantos, Hyperion itself, they are terribly weak stuff. There’s a reason for that. Keats’s great insight is that joy dwells with beauty, beauty that must die: that to enjoy the taste of a grape you must burst it upon your tongue. His mature theme, in other words, is that joy is necessarily a transient thing; that beauty is a function of transience—this is his Grecian Urn’s truth. That, not to put too fine a point on it, a thing of beauty is very specifically not a joy forever. Now Simmons, a clever man who certainly knows his Keats, pays a kind of narrative lip-service to this idea at the end of quadrilogy. The villains of the piece, a sort of malignly cathected evil Catholic Church (familiar from Dan Brown, not to mention countless C19th English Protestant anti-Catholic writers) have achieved a kind of sterile immortality. The books’ messiah, Aenea, preaches the necessity of mortality, change and children. (‘the great power of her message is that the Pax [ie Catholic] version of resurrection was a lie—as sterile as the required birth-control injections administered by the Pax. In a finite universe of would-be immortals, there is almost no room for children. The Pax universe was ordered and static, unchanging and sterile. Children bring chaos and clutter and an infinite potential for the future that was anathema to the Pax’, RoE 742). But everything about these novels contradicts this too-pat moral: they are, on the contrary, testament to an authorial desire to keep the Hyperion story going on and on and on.

What makes the first book, Hyperion, so remarkable, over and above its fantastically accomplished embedded stories, was the way it repudiated explanation or indeed conventional narrative satisfaction. The real theme of that first novel was pain, embodied in the hideous, merciless capriciousness of the Shrike, a kind of biological robot, all quicksilver and razor wire, able to travel through time, appear without warning and snatch victims away to impale them on a great metal tree of agony. The book sends seven characters on a quest to get to the bottom of all this, and the naïf reader may expect the origin, rationale and meaning of the Shrike to be disclosed before the last page is reached. This does not come to pass. Brilliantly, Simmons novel understands that pain, as a feature of human experience, is not explicable. We can talk about it meaningfully on a banal physiological level; but on an existential, ethical or ontological level it is quite nonsensical. Hyperion spins unillusioned variations on two Biblical fables of suffering, Job and Christ. To quote Slavoj Žižek:
Like Oedipus at Colonus, Job insists on the utter meaninglessness of his suffering ... The Book of Job provides what is perhaps the first exemplary case of the critique of ideology in human history, laying bare the basic discursive strategies of legitimizing suffering: Job’s properly ethical dignity lies in the way he persistently rejects the notion that suffering can have any meaning, either punishment for past sins or the trial of his faith. .... And it is in the context of this assertion of the meaninglessness of Job’s suffering that we should insist on the parallel between Job and Christ, on Job’s suffering announcing the Way of the Cross: Christ’s suffering is also meaningless, not an act of meaningful exchange. The difference, of course, is that , in the case of Christ, the gap that separates the suffering, desperate man (Job) from God is transposed onto God Himself, as His own radical splitting, or, rather, self-abandonment. [Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: the Perverse Core of Christianity (MIT 2003), 125]
In Hyperion, quite apart from the Shrike, Simmons constellates some genuinely excruciating scenes: the priest Paul Duré crucified for seven years upon an electrically-charged tree, burnt to death daily in unimaginable agony only to be wrenched daily and unwillingly back to life by the cruciform parasite he carries; or the poet Martin Silenus suffering a stroke and losing the one thing, his command of words, most important to him; or the parents of Rachel watching her move helplessly back in time, growing younger and younger until the day when, inevitably, they will lose her. All this is potently written, and more potent for Simmons refusal to offer any pat justification of the suffering.

I admire the abrupt non-ending of Hyperion very much. Many readers, though, did not. The reader is monarch, of course. So Simmons provided a sequel, Fall of Hyperion, the job of which was to dissolve away all the unsettling brilliance of non-closure provided by the first novel, and paint over a series of ‘explanations’. The Shrike is causing suffering in order to tempt out a rival God of Compassion from His hiding place. By the end of the Endymion books, the Shrike has become effectively humanised, turned almost into a hero, and thereby robbed of all the dark glamour and power it (or he) possessed in the first book. ‘Give us answers!’ clamoured his fans, and, to his discredit, Simmons obliged them. He knows his Keats well enough to know that central to the Keatsian aesthetic is negative capability, something generated brilliantly by Hyperion, but poisoned and diluted by the remaining three volumes.

Endymion and The Rise of Endymion are set three centuries or so after the first two Hyperion books. Our hero Raul Endymion escorts the young girl Aenea, the daughter of a John Keats clone, as she flees the clutches of the evil resurgent Catholic church. They travel through various worlds and environments, as many as Simmons needs to pad out the many pages of his narrative. We know from the opening—Raul retrospectively musing on his life from inside ‘a Schrödinger cat box in high orbit around the quarantined world of Armaghast’, a capsule that will kill him if he tries to escape, or if anybody tries to rescue him—that he and Aenea will become lovers, which gives the first book (when he is fully grown and she is 12, or so) a bizarrely Lolita paedo vibe. But with a little help from Einsteinian physics, their ages realign so that they are both able to enjoy a bit of consenting-adult hanky panky. And Aenea does indeed become the messiah, preaching a good deal of stuff about the Void that Binds and love and the like. Which is very edifying, or hippy-dippy, depending on your point of view.

Then, at the end of The Rise of Endymion, in a scene worthy of a Saw or Hostel-type film, Aenea is tortured to death by the Catholics. But it’s alright: her message has been spread throughout the cosmos. In a bogglingly-anticlimactic move, Raul hears the music of the spheres and is able simply to step out of his Schrödinger cat box. He gets the girl—miraculously resurrected from her grisly death. And why shouldn't he get the girl? Because after all, what does any red-blooded male want to do with a female Christ, except shag her? On a flying carpet, at sunset, whilst an android recites a Keatsian sonnet? Oh, the disappointment. It turns out Simmons wants his thing of beauty to be a joy forever after all. How art thou fallen from heaven, Hyperion, son of the morning!

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Dan Simmons, Hyperion (1989)


I'm writing an introduction for the forthcoming Gollancz Masterworks edition of this classic title, so I re-read it earlier this week -- it's considerably better, actually, than I remember. (I'm presently barrelling through the three sequelae, and none of them are anywhere near as accomplished). The six embedded tales are all good, and two or three are genuinely outstanding. Plus I like the way the novel deconstructs its narrative as it goes along, refusing many of the more facile plot-driven satisfactions of SF-blockbusterism, not least in its splendid non-ending. This latter in particular annoyed a number of Amazon.com readers, of course: 'at last I abandoned this novel, hiding it under a car seat because I could not bear to look at it.' Now that's what I call a reader response!

I can only hope that the new Gollancz edition copies over the blurb from the older Future Classics edition I've just re-read, reproduced up-top of this blog-post (you can click it for a larger view). 'Seven pilgrims set fourth on a final voyage to Hyperion.' I daresay this is a simple typo, and the sentence ought to read: 'seven pilgrims set eighth on a ninth voyage to Hyperion. Tenth.' Yeah. That must be it.