Monday, May 18, 2009

A Response to the Aurealis Review of Canterbury 2100

Ordinarily, I don't respond to reviews -- good or bad. But in this case, the review is appearing in Australia's best-known SF venue, and it is appearing just two weeks before the National Convention, and of course, the subject of the review (Canterbury 2100) is on the Ditmar ballot therein.

That being the case, I think it falls to me, as the editor, to take the review on board, and use it to promote the anthology and the writers therein. The original review itself can be found right here. The response is as follows:

I’m very pleased to note that the Aurealis review of Canterbury 2100 can't pigeonhole the book as either ‘future history’, or ‘themed anthology’. Obviously, the reviewer was uncomfortable with that, and of course, his personal response — while disappointing — is entirely valid for him, as a reader. However, I personally remain very proud that the anthology was so clearly and recognisably something completely new in what has become a very well explored genre, a belief borne out by the review in Aurealis #43. A genuinely new concept in speculative fiction in itself is one hell of an achievement, and in bringing it to life on the limited budget of a small press house — well, that's something even more.

Canterbury 2100 was always going to be a risky work. One of the issues of which I was sharply aware, during the editing process, was that of internal consistency; a shared 'future history'. To that end, all the writers were given a rough outline of the imagined next hundred years so they could set up their stories accordingly.

Bearing in mind that the imagined future of Canterbury 2100 holds a period of roughly fifty to sixty years of near-anarchy in England, following massive social breakdown due to pandemics, resource and energy shortage, and drastic climate change, I always felt that there was no need for the history to be too detailed. After all, modern-day eyewitnesses at well-reported public events give highly inconsistent accounts of occurrences when called to task. So what of people reporting on events often long past?

The historical process itself is fraught with inconsistency. How many different views of the Viet Nam war existed in 1970? And how many times has that war been reconstructed, re-edited, rewritten? Is Ronald Reagan the Hero of the Cold War, or is he an elderly B-actor with dementia who kicked off the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression with his massive overexpenditure and wholesale financial deregulation?

Recognising such issues, I felt that people telling stories to one another on a train, purely for the sake of passing the time, could probably not be relied on to offer a coherent, consistent account of an enormously chaotic period in history. Yet I also believed that if I edited carefully, and the writers caught the idea, it would be possible for the readers to look between the lines, as it were, and gain insight into the culture of Canterbury 2100. That we succeeded is obvious from Keith's review: he remarks that many of the stories revolve around 'survival' and 'loss', which I believe would be extremely powerful and central cultural ideas to a people trying to rebuild after a world-shaking disaster.

In a way, it’s a little like trying to reconstruct the early 21st Century by watching a series of prime-time TV shows. For even as television is the most widespread form of mass entertainment available today, in the world of Canterbury 2100 where technology has to be largely salvaged and electricity is in desperately short supply, I think it’s fair to assume that storytelling, perhaps the oldest form of human entertainment, would regain its long-lost position of importance. And where modern TV reflects themes of importance to 21st century culture through entertainment and fantasy, so too do the stories of Canterbury 2100 reflect the culture that spawned them. It is not a precise, mirror-like reconstruction, naturally. It is the immersive and kaleidoscopic reconstruction of popular entertainment, which relies on a set of shared cultural mores to be effective. As modern readers, we don't share the cultural assumptions of the people of Canterbury 2100, but in reading their stories, we can hope to learn what those cultural assumptions are.

In other words, a lack of ‘internal consistency’ in the Canterbury 2100 stories is not an error, nor a weakness. It is a carefully considered reflection of human nature, expressed in literary terms. Although created by very real modern authors, the imaginary tale-tellers of Canterbury 2100 are spinning yarns for one another, not for you and I. If their stories were perfectly consistent in ‘future historical detail’, the reader would be forced to raise an eyebrow and ask, quite rightly, exactly who it was that taught such a uniform brand of history to these travellers — and likewise, why they bothered telling one another about events which are obviously such common knowledge that all agree upon them.

Indeed, it seems to me that even Chaucer took this into account. I note that “The Knight’s Tale” is not a true and accurate accounting of Chaucer’s historical era. It is, in fact, a fantasy set in an impossible Ancient Greece, where Greek Gods and celtic fairy-myths rub shoulders with knights in armour. And yet the reader is not distressed with Chaucer for playing fast and loose with myth and history. Nor does the reader believe Chaucer failed to realize that the Ancient Greeks didn’t fight according to the rules of 14th century chivalry. Chaucer’s readers understand that the Knight is weaving a story to pass the time, for the entertainment of his imaginary fellows. And for the modern reader, that in itself is fascinating: a glimpse of the themes and ideas that constituted ‘fantasy’ and ‘entertainment’ in Chaucer’s time.

There’s no such thing as a perfect work. Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ suffers from a sameness of voice, despite putatively moving from narrator to narrator with each tale. (Boccaccio’s Decameron is even more flawed in this fashion. Oh - and Boccaccio’s framing narrative is a completely unbelievable fig-leaf, a wholly trivial throwaway device designed to do nothing more than showcase Boccaccio’s lovely stories. And as for offering any kind of ‘internally consistent’ history... the idea is hilarious.) Nevertheless, the tales are lively and vivid and greatly enjoyable even today, so long as we understand the work for what it is: not a historical document, but an entertainment, and an exploration of human nature through the medium of late-medieval storytelling.

Canterbury 2100 was never going to be perfect either. Yet to criticise it for a lack of internal consistency, or to suggest that the stories don’t sit comfortably in the framing narrative is no criticism at all. This is not ‘future history’. It is at most a form of imagined “oral future history”, necessarily replete with the kind of problems which any historian can explain at length. (We do, after all, study history from written texts, not from anecdotes.) And of course, since the narrators of these stories are consciously setting out to entertain rather than inform, it is by intent something altogether different to even an ‘oral future history’.

The Aurealis review, while clearly reflecting the reviewer’s own disappointment with the work, gratifies me as the editor considerably. Stevenson devotes the first six paragraphs of an eight-paragraph review to the manner in which Canterbury 2100 does not behave like the two forms of SF anthology it superficially resembles. This argues very strongly indeed that we achieved exactly what we set out to do, and created something genuinely new. Since the last two paragraphs of the review speak kindly of a number of the stories and contributors, I suggest that this review represents the strongest endorsement yet of the anthology, and on that basis, I recommend you track down a copy to enjoy for yourself.

It should be appearing on Amazon within two weeks!

Aussie SETI Signal Excitement

So it turns out an Australian astronomer has decided to help out SETI in a different sort of way. Fuck all that radio shit, he says. ET is gonna zap us all with frickin' laser beams. And whaddya know? Maybe he was right.

Not that it really matters. Because if the Internet has taught us anything, it's not goddam Klingon Carl Sagan we should expect to hear when we finally get a signal from Out There. Nope: odds are the first genuine alien signal we discover will be porn.