DOING SOMETHING STUPID: RESPONDING TO A REVIEW

Dan Hartland has posted a review of Rocket Science, the anthology edited by Ian Sales, and he has commented on my story “Pathfinders”. [I’ve always loved Elvis Costello’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – please hum along as you read this post.]

For instance, Martin McGrath’s “Pathfinders” returns us again to Mars, and again to an international team of scientists. As in “A Biosphere Ends,” a catastrophe leads to intense political fallings-out: “The Russians hugged one wall, the Americans the other. The Europeans sat at the table. No one spoke” (p. 101). Meanwhile, China is elsewhere, seeking to outdo the rest of the world. There’s something in McGrath’s admittedly tense and well-turned tale, however, which speaks to a weird lack of inclusivity in Rocket Science: not only is China’s emergence as a power in the space game routinely depicted as something to be feared, but space travel is still largely seen as the province of square-jawed men. McGrath attempts to allow space for queer voices—his main character, Chen, is conducting a homosexual affair with one of the Americans—but even this takes place in light of the fact that “Brad was married with children and neither of them had ever pretended that the relationship had a life beyond the mission” (p. 93). Needless to say, things do not end well for the lovers. There is a real clumsiness about McGrath’s efforts which are very much embedded in a broader set of assumptions evinced at almost every stage of Rocket Science, from its characters to its roster of writers, only five out of twenty-two of whom, for example, are women.

Dan Hartland
Strange Horizons

Never respond to reviews. That’s the rule isn’t it? Never respond to reviews. This is particularly difficult when the reviewer seems to miss the point of your story, even at the most basic level: in this case “Pathfinders” is not set on Mars, it is set on Earth – Antarctica, to be precise (to be fair, there is some deliberate misdirection in the early part of the story and Hartland isn’t the only reader whose missed the switch – so it must be partly my fault). More fundamentally, though, it is frustrating when the reviewer assigns attitudes or views to you or your story that are the opposite to those you hoped to get across.

So, sod the rule. I’m going to respond to the review. Or, at least, I want to reflect on it a bit.

A while ago, in an editorial for Focus about getting reviews, I wrote:

First, never explain your story. Stories are a bit like jokes, if you have to tell someone why a joke is funny then either: (a) the joke wasn’t funny to begin with; (b) you’ve made a mess of telling it; or (c) the person you are telling the joke to doesn’t share your sense of humour and you are wasting your time.

I’m going to break that rule too. But only so I can make a point. Here’s my view of what “Pathfinders” is about:

“Pathfinders” was an attempt to write a story that said that the mythologies we’ve constructed around the “space race” – with all those big, brave, heterosexual, “square-jawed men” setting off to conquer the solar system and plant flags on every moonlet – no longer (if they ever did) make sense. All the space-related stuff in the story turns out to be a fake; they aren’t on Mars; the mission is without purpose; the dreams of the astronauts and cosmonauts about grand off-world adventures could never be fulfilled; they’ve been living in a cave, staring at shadows. The whole thing was a colossal waste of time.

I thought I’d written a story about the essential futility of science fiction’s traditional vision of space exploration. What’s the point of all this “right stuff” machismo while the rest of the world is falling apart?

That Dan Hartland takes the exact opposite lesson from the story is deeply frustrating. But that’s the problem with writing, you can have no control over how someone else reads your story. And, if you follow people around and scream: “YOU’RE READING IT WRONG!” someone is eventually going to take out a court order. Indeed, once the story is out there, you have to concede that other interpretations of your story have as much weight and value as your own.

The sensible reader, and writer, might also take from this that I didn’t do a particularly good job with the story. I’m happy (well, not exactly happyresigned) to accept that. I am aware that my writing has plenty of shortcomings. So, I can grumble all I want, but no amount of grumbling will change the obvious point that I have failed to communicate my thoughts effectively.

So, I’ll try and concentrate on the good bit: “Pathfinders” is an “admittedly tense and well-turned tale” and try not to grind my teeth too much about the the suggestion that somehow my portrayal of a homosexual relationship in which one man, in a public position, hides his sexuality behind the “respectable” front of marriage to a woman isn’t quite homosexual enough.This was deliberate, not clumsy. After strapping over 300 men and women on top of rockets, NASA has never sent an “out” gay person into space and no one really expects that to change soon. Neither have ESA or Roscosmos. That has to have caused distress to those with ambitions to fly but who can’t be open about who they really are.

It is good to get reviewed. It’s even better to get reviewed in a magazine like Strange Horizons, which takes the job so seriously. It is, for me, always much better for a story to be talked about – even if that involves criticism that is painful – than to be ignored. Conscientious reviewing is a tough job that requires commitment and hard work and, as a writer, you can learn something from every review. And I am aware that there are plenty of authors out there whose work I’ve reviewed who would argue that I have completely misunderstood and misrepresented their intentions. They can chortle happily to themselves now.

So, even though I’d disagree with the way in which Dan Hartland has characterized my story, this is not a complaint about the review.

It is, however, an expression of my frustration at my failure to successfully get my point across.

 

An Aside on China

Dan’s comment on the place of the Chinese in modern SF is interesting. There’s a long history of “yellow peril” stories that place the Chinese and Japanese (and sometimes Koreans – are there Thai or Vietnamese equivalents? I presume so…) in the place of the ominous, deeply-foreign, implacable threat to “the West” and “civilization”. And, since the fall of the USSR and the emergence of China as a global economic power, more and more sf stories have simply filed off the serial numbers on the threats that used to be presented by the Soviets and replaced them with Chinese logograms.

So, should I have included the Chinese?

Actually, the first draft of this story did feature a Chinese team as part of the crew but it didn’t work dramatically. Some of the origins of this story are set out here – but basically, following a BFI lecture by Simon Ings, I was thinking about the fundamental difference between Russia and America’s historical experiences of territorial expansion and, by extension, to their approaches to space exploration. With those two extremes set out, I created for my story a multinational team made up of Russians, Americans, Indians, Chinese and Europeans. But, as things fell apart in the story, and I separated the crew along the Russian and American fault line, there were too many people in the middle. So, I made the decision to cut the Chinese team for crudely practical purposes.  They do survive as a strong echo in the story, however. The central character, Chen, went from being a taikonaut to an Italian-born, ethnically Chinese EU citizen.

In a later draft I did add the idea that the Russian commander believed that Russia and America might put him on a one-way, suicide mission to Mars to spite China (it’s mentioned once) – but, as I’ve said, all the space-related stuff in this story is meant to be a lie. It’s just another story Arsenyev has told himself to justify his continued attachment to the old order.

I suppose my choices (I could have cut the EU team and left the taikonauts in place) reflect a Western bias… I am less confident about my ability to write convincingly about China and Chinese people and I probably chose the path of least resistance. I don’t, however, think that I was making a crude political point – in fact, I’m certain I wasn’t – but it is something I’ll think carefully about.

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2 Responses to DOING SOMETHING STUPID: RESPONDING TO A REVIEW

  1. Dan Hartland says:

    Thanks for breaking the rule, Martin – all discussion is good discussion, and you should feel very free indeed to complain volubly about anything I write! For what it’s worth, and I suspect that’s not a whole lot, I’m not sure we disagree as much as you think we do about the content of your story. As you say, early on ‘Pathfinders’ deliberately misdirects the reader, and then switches rather slyly, and I wanted to retain that surprise for anyone inspired to read ‘Pathfinders’ after reading the review. That may have led to some clumsiness in phrasing, so apologies on that front.

    Elsewhere, however, I’m afraid we simply differ on how far the story ‘shows its working’: if ‘Pathfinders’ wants to tell the story of hidden homosexuality, then fine (although as you say it is one so hoary that it barely needs to be done yet again) – but Brad’s dilemma is very far from the centre of the story, and that point is a little lost. It’s not that Brad isn’t ‘homosexual enough’ (whatever that might mean). It’s that the story didn’t for my money sufficiently interrogate that sexuality. Likewise, the absence of the Chinese – their position as shadowy, off-stage antagonist – achieves, regardless of its rationale or of Chen’s vestigial heritage, a kind of othering which isn’t entirely explored, texturised or mitigated by the events of the story itself.

    Finally, of course, I was using ‘Pathfinders’ as a route in to wider problems with the stories in the collection, and if you feel that this gave the piece a shorter shrift than it deserves, or bracketed it with more reactionary work unfairly, that’s a pity. (For instance, the Mars confusion may be a function of that segue – mea culpa.) As I said in the review, there are elements of it which work very well. From my perspective, though, the considerations you cite above appear to have been sunk rather deeply beneath the story’s surface. Here’s to the opportunities of the next story, then!

    Good health, and thanks again.

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