By Alasdair Stuart
Magic tricks are stories with applause at the end. They are structured like jokes, designed like heists and executed across a spectrum that begin at Vaudeville and ends at modern art.
Every magician learns the surprise you lose at knowing how the trick is done is replaced by a deeper enjoyment of its craft. That and never do card tricks if you can help it.
There’s elegance in magic, in the implementation of each familiar step in new ways. It’s like hearing your favourite joke delivered so well the comedy is a function of the journey rather than the destination.
I learned this on the Isle of Man, where I grew up. The island is tiny, isolated and in order to get anywhere and do anything you basically have to re-enact bits of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s a lovely place that’s given me a skewed cultural perspective, but it also meant I grew up in a location where culture, any culture, was an ocean away. When every story is over the horizon, you run headlong towards every story.
In my case, it meant that by the time I left the island and finished my MA in English Literature, I had:
- an appreciation of craft as a process separate to originality;
- an ability to break narratives into their components;
- pathological open mindedness; and
- a fervent, passionate need to ESCAPE.
All four components have become the foundation of my critical viewpoint and I’ve often struggled to find the balance. I’m acutely aware of the danger of becoming the kid in the sweet shop, shoving everything into my brain as fast as I could. I’m equally aware of how cold and empty it can be going into any form of cultural engagement assuming the worst. Finding the line that threads between them is tough, but essential.
That conflict is often echoed in modern culture and, for our purposes, science fiction. Old tricks performed by new magicians are everywhere, and a lot of the time there’s massive worth to them. Case in point: The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt, Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and the recent Black Mirror episode USS Callister by Charlie Brooker all play with the ‘scrappy group of likeable rogues in a rubbish spaceship’ trope that’s been around for decades, each in entirely different ways.
Same joke, different punchline. Same rabbit, different hats.
And on the other side of things you get the people breaking new ground. Kameron Hurley’s extraordinary Bel Dame Apocrypha series and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novellas are uniquely voiced and executed stories that present unlike anything else in the field.
New jokes, new punchlines. Not a rabbit in sight.
Two entirely different approaches, each absolutely worth critical attention and engagement. And that’s where I come in. My goal as a Shadow Clarke judge is to use my combination of critical training and cultural engagement to view not just each work, but each approach, on their merits. It’s entirely possible I’ll find I prefer one to the other. It’s entirely possible I’ll surprise myself with those findings.
What I hope for is this: that my time on the Shadow Clarkes will allow me to get better at walking that line between undiscerning joy and the relentless caution of analysis. That I’ll be able to communicate the joy of a trick well executed, and the astonishment of a trick never before seen. To explore the idea that there is joy in skill as well as show, and that when that joy is absent we can learn at least as much as when it’s present.
And, perhaps, to pull a few rabbits out of hats…
When Alasdair Stuart isn’t hosting PseudoPod or running Escape Artists Inc., he’s professionally enthusiastic about genre fiction at places like Tor.com, Barnes & Noble, The Guardian, Uncanny Magazine, SciFi Now and MyMBuzz.
He’s an ENie-nominated writer for his work on Doctor Who: Adventures In Time And Space, and has written for the Star Trek and The Laundry Files RPGs, among others.
Alasdair’s first collection of expanded podcast essays, PseudoPod Tapes, is available from Fox Spirit Books with volume 2, Approach With Caution, out later this year. His short stories can also be found at Fox Spirit, among other places. He lives in the UK with the love of his life and their expanding herd of microphones. Follow him on Twitter as @AlasdairStuart or on his blog, The Man of Words.