On not writing positive reviews

What is this blog? A scrap-book, a dialectic (even if only with myself) on the process and purpose of writing? Some way to show that I exist (the name was chosen a decade ago, I wouldn’t be that smart-arsed now)?

Most of the reviews on this blog are negative; if I think something is good, and my opinion fits with the mainstream consensus, I have nothing to add, but if something is getting high levels of praise in the mainstream, and I don’t agree, then I do have something different to say.

Since reading H(A)PPY, I have re-read John Gray’s Soul of the Marionette (non-fiction, but of interest to any serious sf fan), Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, and Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections.

I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Complete Orsinia (a lovely Library of America edition, borrowed from my local library; from its pristine condition I suspect I am the first person to borrow it). Malafrena, the main novel within the collection, is, to me, the most impressive of Le Guin’s works in terms of worldbuilding: to invent a central European country, and for it to be convincing, takes not just imagination and intelligence, but also knowledge, of hundreds of years of European history, culture, politics, religion, and language (she invents a new language too). Le Guin is also refreshingly modest about what she is doing, in the introduction she says: “Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.”

I do not deny the existence of ‘good writing’, ‘good’ as in aesthetically pleasing, and ‘good’ as in tells some truth about the human experience. Perhaps it is reviews themselves I should be wary of, the whole cynical commercial infrastructure of reviews and interviews and click-bait headlines competing for attention? (It is not a coincidence that the above are all re-reads, or from a known and trusted author.)

I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and it was wonderful to finally read something that stood up to all the hype. It is a very good book, that doesn’t flinch from the ugly psychological truths of oppression and how it can warp a personality. I have read Beloved, I watched the remake of Roots, I can kid myself that I ‘know’ what this period of human history was like. I also trust, from interviews and the book’s afterword, that Whitehead did his research, that even the most gruesome acts of violence have historical precedence.

But, it isn’t science fiction! From reading (or maybe misremembering) reviews, I imagined something like the modern-day London Underground joining up all the towns and cities across the US, and was curious to see how the author made it all fit together, but the technology is contemporaneous – even if nobody was building underground trains in the rural US back then, they theoretically could have (The London Underground was started in the Victorian era, and the earliest trains were steam trains). Despite what I said before, about science fiction’s ability to make the metaphorical literal, I still don’t think this counts as science fiction. As well, I don’t think the underground trains really added anything to the story, the characters could have been moved around conventionally (or stepping through magical portals in the backs of wardrobes) and the story wouldn’t have changed in any meaningful way.

I signed up to Netflix for a month (leave your account idle long enough and they give you another free month!) to watch Annihilation, which is a very effective sci-fi/horror film (the end scenes are absolutely terrifying), but not as profound as some reviewers seem to think. Although it was interesting, briefly, to speculate whether the alien phenomenon is a force of nature that only appears to have a conscious drive because of its encounter with humans, or an alien consciousness attempting first contact or an invasion, I can’t say that any of it stuck with me in any meaningful way.

I watched season 4 of Black Mirror, which I think was stronger overall than season 3, even though there were more episodes relying on tosh-science (you can’t recreate someone’s personality from their DNA, and the claim that we only use a certain percentage of our brain is an old myth), rather than speculative technology, but didn’t have a stand-out episode like ‘San Junipero’; ‘Hang the DJ’ was good, but not as good as ‘San Junipero’.

(I also watched The Cloverfield Paradox, which really is that bad.)

I watched most of Channel 4’s Electric Dreams, which was mostly meh, some episodes were 40 minutes of obvious and dull set up, then 20 minutes of obvious denouement, while others were basically nonsensical. Only ‘The Commuter’ and ‘Safe and Sound’ stood out, the former for the strength of its emotional narrative, the latter because it was most like a Black Mirror episode.

On Saturday, I went to the cinema to see Zama, a fever-dream of colonial hubris that I am not sure I entirely understand yet. It had a genuine dream-like quality, there are only a few explicatory concessions to the audience, which gives it that feeling of having to go somewhere and do something, with no idea where or what or why. There are jumps between places and times, with no sense of where locations are in relation to each other; characters that appear without explanation; in one scene the protagonist walks through a rich lady’s salon, into a stable, into a brothel, which seems to be all one building (I know people lived close to their domestic animals in ‘the past’ but everything seems too close and crowded in that scene); there are objects that take on significance without understanding, a letter, a handwritten book, a pair of desiccated human ears.

“The new sci-fi is now in many respects the most biting mode of social and political commentary in China”

In the 1903 preface to his translation of Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, Lu Xun wrote:

The typical reader is bored by the tediousness of science books and cannot finish them. But when dressed up in the form of fiction, the science can seep into readers’ minds without boring them…. As the reader’s heart is touched, the reader gains insight and wisdom without taxing the mind, knowledge that would break down legacy superstitions, improve their thoughts, and supplement our culture. What a powerful tool is such fiction!

“The progress of the Chinese people,” Lu Xun declared, fifteen years before his own first satirical stories were published, “begins with science fiction.”

Throughout the early twentieth century, Chinese science fiction authors took advantage of the genre’s possibilities for social criticism. In 1932, Lao She attacked the weakness and divisions of Republic-era China in Cat Country, a novel set on the surface of Mars, where a cat-like people are addicted to opiate “reverie” leaves and turn to a new ideology called “Everybody Shareskyism” – a thinly veiled stand-in for communism. China’s real Shareskyists didn’t share Lao She’s sense of humor, and for decades after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, sci-fi was either suppressed or molded into Communist propaganda.

[…]

If the science fiction of a century ago was preoccupied with utopian dreams of progress, this new wave, made up mostly of younger writers, is more concerned with the rifts that have been opened in China’s social fabric now that such progress has been achieved.

[…]

The new sci-fi is now in many respects the most biting mode of social and political commentary in China. Long derided and marginalized by China’s literary establishment, it has slipped past the censors who so stringently watch realist fiction. And while much of the genre remains escapist entertainment for the nation’s surplus of engineering students, its more literary practitioners have reclaimed its place at the vanguard of China’s national introspection. They are using it as a Trojan horse to sneak in truths obliquely, offering not feel-good bromides but twisted visions of what modern China has become.

[…]

In his book Celestial Empire (2017), the scholar Nathaniel Isaacson called Chinese science fiction “a vehicle for expressing anxieties and hopes for modernization and globalization.” China’s urban transformation and vertiginous growth have bifurcated society: some live in a rich, privileged world of comfort, cashless payment, facial-recognition software, and high-speed trains; others suffer quietly, building that world. Realist literature often can’t keep up with the pace of the change that China is undergoing. Fictions set in the future are not only safer from censorship but also especially good opportunities to comment on such a hurtling present.

Alec Ash, The Fantastic Truth About China

“If we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish”

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.

S I Hayakawa

I am not sure that I agree with this, there have been many human cultures without written language, they still have rich, complicated cultures and story-telling traditions.

I find the implication that people who ‘don’t read’ have ‘lesser’ lives to be as snobbish as those bucket lists that claim a person’s life isn’t complete unless they can afford to take expensive holidays or eat at exclusive restaurants.

But, it’s also easy to find a quotable quote out of context and miss its wider meaning.

I found it reading this article on Artificial Intelligence, in a paragraph talking about different forms of learning, learning through direct experience and learning through written instructions, an accumulation of others’ direct experience.

What do people need to know? The Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari desert lived a hunter-gather lifestyle that lasted for over 150,000 years, a lifestyle that required them to have “not only an unwritten almanac of dietary knowledge but […] a library of almanacs.” This knowledge was collected and passed on without writing.

Maybe we can say that literature is the compensation for our atomised modern lives? But that’s not really any different to calling it ‘escapism’.

“Is looking at imaginary violence necessary to promote social change?”

Is looking at imaginary violence necessary to promote social change? I find myself puzzled by the logic of this. After all, the majority of viewers of the show are already self-described feminists who are wary of the current administration. And, as many female critics have pointed out, the second season’s obsession with violence makes it a little exhausting for anyone to watch, let alone someone who doesn’t already agree with the show’s ethos.

Sophie Gilbert at the Atlantic wonders whether it is necessary to make viewers endure so much visceral suffering, especially at a cultural moment when “the endless revelations that have emerged since October about abusive men in the entertainment industry and beyond have felt wearying in their range and detail”. Likewise, at the Cut, Lisa Miller considers whether the violence against women we see throughout the series counts as “torture porn”, looking at the ways in which Offred’s suffering is part of a biblical and literary tradition in which “the bravery of the heroine is intensified by her victimhood”.

My frustration with season two is less about its fixation on violent imagery (I’m a fan of lots of violent shows) than on what I see as a veritable lack of imagination in presenting these images in the supposed service of social justice. I don’t think there is any compelling evidence that watching images of female suffering alone will lead to social change and, as Miller points out, one of the reasons that The Handmaid’s Tale images don’t always seem to be galvanizing viewers to action is that they stem from a longstanding tradition of seeing the female experience as inherently painful. It’s hard to imagine a world without female suffering if you keep coming back to these same tired motifs, which are pretty much everywhere in our culture, and I find it frustrating (sexist, even!) that women who have to endure misogyny every day are then scolded for not wanting to see it unfold onscreen.

Arielle Bernstein

“A woman at work asked ‘what exactly are you?’”

A woman at work asked ‘what exactly are you?’, I said we are Arab and Sephardi Jews, that my grandparents came from Syria and Turkey, and that some of our ancestors came from Spain and that’s why we spoke French.

From Claudia Roden: A Book of Middle Eastern Food, a BBC Radio 4 dramatisation, by Anjum Malik, of the creation of Claudia Roden’s recipe collection A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

This line jumped out at me because of the sheer complexity of identity it invokes. Is there a single work of fantasy or science fiction out there with an alien race / elf society / invented human ethnicity which contains a fraction of the intricate history, geography, and culture glanced at in that brief description?

“my main interest as a story-teller is in the way that real people behave in different situations, what it really means to be a human being”

I think of myself as a realist, not a fantasist at all, because my main interest as a story-teller is in the way that real people behave in different situations, what it really means to be a human being. If I write fantasy, it’s only because by using the mechanisms of fantasy, I can say something a little bit more vividly about, for example, the business of growing up.

Philip Pullman, interviewed in imagine … Philip Pullman: Angels and Daemons
(also see review of the programme here)