Adam Roberts rounds up the year’s science fiction. Jonathan McCalmont continues his assault on “the hotbed of empty phrases” that is traditional sf criticism. While Tim Maughan explains himself to Sense of Wonder. I like Maughan’s first answer– “the western middle classes … feel like the future – which they were always told would belong to them – is slipping out of their grasp” –because I’m interested in writing the deflation & melancholy of the people he describes. More interested, in a way, than pursuing the “future” that has left them behind. Science fiction has always defined a future as a global trend successfully isolated & described: the futurologist’s future, the cultural analyst’s future. All that interests the sf writer is the wavefront, the shock of the new. Cold, man. Because the future is also the umwelt of those who are left behind & muddle on–accepting this, rejecting that, failing to acknowledge or even detect macroeconomic shifts. In fact that’s really the only actual future, the non-discourse future, the non-speculative, non-theoretical future, the future on the ground. It’s all around, now. One of the many ways science fiction might delimit itself is to write in that direction, rather than always going for the shiny stuff, the Googie of the day. Bruce Sterling meets Anita Brookner & they totally fail to understand one another at the Hotel du Lac.
“Harrison is best known as one of the restless fathers of late-modern sci-fi, but genre questions are a distraction in the face of writing of such consistent brilliance and originality.” Robert Macfarlane selects Empty Space as one of his books of the year.
If you untie an old knot, Bob Almanac showed me, the original colours of the rope shine out again from a nest of convolutions — pink, yellow, green, orange, much as they were in a quiet shop on a wet afternoon in winter. “You release the light that was caught up in the knot,” he said. “I think of it as releasing the light.” He smiled shyly. “I thought you’d like that.” Out running in the early morning to avoid the heat, I found three pairs of women’s shoes someone had thrown into a ditch at the top of Acres Lane where it bent right to join the Manchester Road. Delicate and open-toed, with very high heels that gave them a radical, racy profile, they were all size four: one pair in black suede, an evening shoe with a brown fur piece at the toe; one in transparent plastic bound at the edges with metallic blue leather; and a pair of light tan leather sandals with a criss-cross arrangement of straps for the upper part of the foot. Inside them in gold lettering was the brand name “Marquise”. It was a little worn and faded, but otherwise they seemed well-kept. They were still there when I went back the next day, but by the one after that they had gone. I couldn’t imagine who would have thrown them there; or, equally, who would pick them up from a dry ditch full of farmer’s rubbish at the edge of the moor. [From Climbers, 1989.]
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Moored with weedy strands of rope against an absent tide, the fishing boats are canted at all angles. They are stumpy & made of wood, all colours like a box of sweets, red & blue with fluorescent pink fenders, green & yellow with white numerals on the side. Pennants stream from the masts of the bigger ones in the wind. A dog runs between them. After it has gone, & its pawprints have filled slowly with water, nothing happens for twenty minutes. Then a woman walks across the sand & climbs laboriously into one of the boats. The bottles clink in her shopping bag. Rain comes on. A hovering gull is reflected for a second in the rain-polished stones of the harbour, before it creams away on urgent business, flying very straight and level above the town until it swoops down & disappears among the roofs. Someone you know walks past hunched up against the rain, never looking up at the window.
It’s hardly a new story. The priests convinced people that the world wouldn’t work without their intervention. They constructed myths about which anything we can say is only another layer of intervention, a wad of the same cultural chewing gum which sticks to everyone’s shoe. So usually I would bypass “history” & write about the site as it is now, the ruins I see in front of me & the people I see working among them. But today no-one’s working, so that’s out too. In the end there’s the landscape, the footprint planed off the top of the hill thousands of years ago for reasons I can’t hope to understand, the white tower of cloud building up in the blue sky above the mountains to the south; the black smoke on an adjacent hilltop. Oh, & I can say I like the shade trees, which are a shock and a comfort in this high, dry heat. Down in the town, which is named after a local plant with seedheads like accretions of oily dust at a street corner, people drive around in pick-up trucks trying to sell one another liquid propane; all the computer keyboards are configured so that to produce some quite common symbols you have to make no less than four keystrokes; there are oompah bands & parades of children in identical tracksuit bottoms. After two or three days it’s the most boring place you’ve ever been. The gods don’t come forth. The priests are long dead. The approaching thundercloud stays on top of the hill & after a few grand but silent flashes of light, nothing happens. & that’s a good thing, because they were all quite clearly mad anyway.
Wind all yesterday evening and now rain. It poured in the night but I heard nothing. I was struggling with a nightmare in which it was impossible to leave the earth. Now lights burn orange behind the tinted glass of the stacked apartments: people are appearing on balconies & at windows, staring morosely out at the wet tiles & ruffled water of the swimming pools. Slick palm fronds whip to & fro in the wind. It is as dark as a winter morning in Britain out there; everything we came to escape. Drink another cup of coffee. Read the labels off the tins. “What do we think this is?” “It’s sugar.” “& anyway why would you decorate a self-catering apartment in Tenerife with crap reproductions of Goya?” La Nevada O El Invierno: gales, ice, bent trees. Five figures struggle forward, leading a donkey on to which is strapped a dead pig. They are accompanied by a dog, & they are looking as if they wished they hadn’t come. The dog can’t understand any of it. Neither can I.
The dancer from the dance:
#2 in a series of found explanations