Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Lawrence Durrell and My Bookshelves

In response to a request by Jeff Vandermeer on his blog here, below are the books by, and about, Lawrence Durrell which I currently own. And yes, that is a copy of Pied Piper of Lovers...

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Alt.Fiction 2008

That's the third alt.fiction finished. And each year it has grown bigger, and more areas of the labyrinthine Assembly Rooms have been opened to the event. I only made it to only two items during the day - a reading from his new novel, Kéthani, by Eric Brown (with the able assistance/prompting of Tony Ballantyne), and a talk by my agent, John Jarrold. I did want to attend the talk on 'Science Fiction' given by Eric Brown, Tony Ballantyne and Charles Stross. But it was the last item on the agenda at 8:15 p.m, and I didn't want to get home late. Sorry I missed it, guys.

All attendees were given an ARC of Charles Stross' Halting State in their convention pack. I had a chat with Charlie - mostly about the appalling cover art to the US edition of his Saturn's Children and his upcoming signing tour of the US - and then got him to sign the ARC. On which subject... There were no dealers present - other than the redoubtable and near-ubiquitous Elastic Press, NewCon Press and TTA. This was both good and bad. Bad because I might have been able to pick up a few hard-to-find titles from the wants list. Good because it saved me money. The event organisers were selling books by the attending authors, and there was a signing session arranged about halfway through the day. But there was a poor choice of titles available, and they were pretty much all massmarket paperbacks. But then alt.fiction isn't a convention per se, and that's reflected in the attendees. This was particularly obvious during John Jarrold's talk. Alt.fiction is aimed at unpublished writers, and in that respect the many talks provide some very useful and helpful information. And, of course, an opportunity to network.

Annoyingly, I forgot to take my camera along - although one or two people were happy I'd left it behind. I can't think why... But, despite that, despite the lack of dealers, I had a good time, and I'll certainly be attending next year's alt.fiction.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Breeding Always Shows

For April's entry in my 2008 Reading Challenge to try each month a classic author I've never read before, I picked A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell. It's actually the first book in the 12-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and was first published in 1951.

In his 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939, Anthony Burgess describes A Dance to the Music of Time as "a work we may not always like, but we cannot ignore it". That's hardly a ringing endorsement, but the fact that he's named it as one of the ninety-nine says much. Even the most cursory of googles will throw up plenty of approving reviews. Time magazine even included it in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. A Dance to the Music of Time is clearly a highly-regarded series of novels.

A Question of Upbringing opens with its narrator, Nick Jenkins, in his final year at Eton. It is 1921. Jenkins describes several incidents which took place that year, and serve to introduce the characters who will reappear throughout the series: Charles Stringham, Peter Templer and Kenneth Widmerpool. After finishing at Eton, Jenkins visits with Stringham, and then spends a few days with Templer. He next goes to stay in France, ostensibly to improve his French, before taking a place at Oxford. There he meets up with Stringham once again, and joins Professor Sillery's coterie of possible future movers and shakers. The novels ends with a car crash: Templer on a visit drives his car into a ditch while carrying Jenkins, Stringham and some others as passengers.

As plots go, not much happens in A Question of Upbringing. Admittedly, it's a relatively thin novel - 223 pages in my Fontana paperback edition - and it is only the first of twelve books. It's an introduction, chiefly to the characters. Powell's prose, in fact, focuses on the people, often at the expense of everything else. There are no sweeping passages of landscape painting as you'd find in Lawrence Durrell, or even John Jarmain. Jenkins analyses everyone he meets, and every action or utterance they make. It's as if you're standing before a large painting, armed with a magnifying glass and peering through it with your face no more than inches from the canvas. There is no clue to the "big picture" in A Question of Upbringing (which seems slightly weird, when compared to modern-day blockbuster high fantasy series).

The period in which the novel is set also invites unfair comparisons with PG Wodehouse or EF Benson. But A Question of Upbringing is no comedy of manners. The cast might all be upper-class twits - as Burgess points out, "Powell cannot take the lower classes seriously" - but Powell does draw his characters with a sharp eye, and he takes them very seriously.

The writing throughout is mannered, but very good. There is some strangely old-fashioned grammar - a tendency to run on sentences using colons, for example; but it doesn't impede reading. Burgess' pyrotechnics might be memorable, as are Durrell's lyrical purple passages; but Powell is not so flamboyant. There are some striking images - A Question of Upbringing opens with a description of snow falling on a workmen's brazier, which effectively sets the motif for the entire twelve-volume sequence.

I enjoyed and appreciated A Question of Upbringing. Which makes it the first success of this year's reading challenge. While I've no plans to dash out and buy the other eleven books, should I see them in some second-hand book shop or charity shop: then yes, I will buy them and read them.

Besides, I've a feeling A Dance to the Music of Time improves a great deal as more of the big picture is revealed...

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The future is for the old, not the young

There's an interesting article on the New Scientist blog pointing out that NASA's workforce is greying. The average age of the organisation's employees is now 47. During Project Apollo, most of the engineers and technicians were in their twenties. On 31 January 1971, when Alan Shepard walked on the Moon, he was, at 47, the oldest Apollo astronaut.

The greying of sf fandom is another established fact: the average age of people who attend sf conventions has risen each year.

I have to wonder if the two phenomena aren't related. Of course, not all sf readers are rocket scientists and not all rocket scientists are sf readers. But both groups surely share a fascination with space exploration and space travel, with the universe out there. Away from planet Earth. The future, to both groups, lies in space, where humanity is no longer dependent upon a single fragile world.

Admittedly, space exploration is expensive and dangerous. But so is the War in Iraq. And many developed nations are happy to throw money into that. Of course, once - if - it's all over, there'll be vast profits to be made, rebuilding all the infrastructure destroyed by the invaders. But there are also huge profits to be made in space. The ROI on sending a M-type asteroid to Earth orbit from the Asteroid Belt would be phenomenal. And there's all that real estate - not exactly habitable, it has to be said - waiting out there to be sold and tamed...

Is it that outward vision which society is slowly losing? There are no blank spaces left on maps of the Earth anymore - now we're just dotting the i's and crossing the t's. And thanks to Google Maps, you can see anywhere on the globe from the comfort of your own home. You would think that now the Earth now holds so few mysteries, we'd go hunting for more away from the planet.

But instead we appear to be looking in and at each other. Even the War on Terror is just more inward-turned gazing: our enemy is hiding in our midst; watch each other; be vigilant; trust no one. Perhaps that's the problem - all this overt and covert surveillance is taking the mystery out of our daily lives. And without small mysteries to sustain us, we can't engage with the bigger ones. Pioneer spirit is like a muscle, it needs regular exercise...

Is sf engaging with those big mysteries? Looking at this year's BSFA Award shortlist (see here), it would seem not. Three novels set in the near-future (Black Man, Brasyl, The Execution Channel), one set in an alternate present (The Yiddish Policemen's Union), and only one featuring an interstellar humanity (The Prefect). Oh, and a meta-fictional graphic novel (Alice in Sunderland). In fact, it appears these days that the most popular forms of sf with interstellar settings are military sf and space opera. And both chiefly involve war, both chiefly involve entrenched political systems falling apart or struggling to adapt to violent change.

It's a cliché, albeit a true one, that sf inspired a great many young men and women to become rocket scientists. And it was those people who helped put men on the Moon. I don't believe for a moment that sf's role is inspirational or didactic - even if that's what Hugo Gernsback intended when he first published Amazing Stories in 1926. Science fiction is a branch of literature, and it has no responsibilities other than those which attach to it as such. I'll confess I liked the idea of Mundane SF as an antidote to increasingly right-wing military sf and shoddy space operas. But on reflection it's only another call to look inwards, to ignore what's out there. Writing about the possible is hardly engaging with the big mysteries. It's giving small-minded solutions to small problems.

Sf needs to re-engage with the big mysteries. Maybe then we can start looking up and out again. Maybe then we'll be allowed to look up and out again.