Reading it Right

An interesting post by Gord Sellar, about reading Adam Roberts’ On:

I was always so puzzled about my response to Roberts’ work. After all: I wanted good characterization. I wanted lovely, stylish prose. I wanted some intellectual challenges, and some philosophical dilemmas to wrestle with. Roberts had all of these things in spades. How come I always emerged from his novels finding myself so very frustrated, or at the least so very uneasy?

Well, a good part of it — not all of it, but a good part of it — has to do with the insistences and expectations I was bringing to his work. It was, in large part, because of how I was reading him.
[...]
On reading Puchalsky’s review [of Splinter], I was reminded of how compelling a storyteller I’ve always found Roberts despite the things I haven’t liked about his books — of his wonderful style and distinct imagination — and so I decided to pick up On, and then while reading it simply to step out of the way and let Roberts tell me the story he wanted to tell, with the nuances he wanted to polish and shine.

This is, of course, easier said than done, possibly for Adam Roberts more than many writers; I’m reminded of Farah Mendlesohn’s comments in her book about Diana Wynne Jones to the effect that the first generation of Jones-readers had to learn how to read those books, how to get the most out of them, because they weren’t quite like other books that were being published. Sellar’s post makes me want to revisit On, which I didn’t much like at the time, to see whether my perception that Roberts has improved over the past decade is accurate, or whether I’ve just got better at approaching his work in a useful way. More generally, the ability to approach a text openly (or, as Alvaro mentioned the other day, recognising when you’re not) is such a desireable skill, I think, both in terms of critical technique and simply in terms of reading pleasure. This is not to suggest that all books are good if you approach them from the right perspective; what I mean is, there’s pleasure in recognising and appreciating how many different ways there are to do fiction.

Quote for the Day

Saladin Ahmed:

I wish writers — white, Black, Arab, etc. — would just say “I have X personal experience with this place/culture, have done Y amount of research, and have tried my best. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is SOME SHIT I MADE UP.” There are lots of things in our writing we can take a deep stake in — but ‘authenticity’ is probably the least productive one.

More to the point, I wish reviewers/critics would stop using this as a criterion. 90% of critical/readerly praise for authenticity amounts to either “this guy imagines this culture in a manner which agrees with my imagining of this culture,” or “I didn’t know anything about Malaysian street culture, but now I do!”

(via.)

Preach it!

What Larry said:

… worth considering is the comment that Martin Lewis made in an earlier post of mine. In response to a comment Aidan Moher made about how “the problem doesn’t lie with the bloggers making the list, but rather with the genre as a whole and the manner in which publishers,” Martin said, “It is pretty pathetic to abdicate all responsibility like this.” There is much truth to this. If someone is going to construct a list and presume that said list will have value to others, then that list constructor better damn well be more proactive and thus basing his/her selections on what s/he receives passively from others. While there are certainly some valid arguments that could be made to the notion that reader/reviewers have the right to choose their “favorites,” once any list is presented as reflecting any sort of “authority” (and publicly posting decade’s best list, especially those derived from several who have a privileged relationship with the publishers compared to the average reader), then those reader/reviewers have certain obligations to meet in regards to considering more than their own personal tastes if they want their lists to hold any authority and if they don’t want to be called out for putting blinders on and failing to see just how diverse and wide-ranging speculative fiction (or other genres of literature and material culture, for that matter) really is.

Links

I’m still in Cologne at the moment, but have some links to keep you amused. One: Paul Witcover’s Locus review of The Secret History of Science Fiction:

Kelly and Kessel have selected stories from inside and outside the genre to demonstrate that, in fact, despite the continued reliance of publishers on such marketing labels as science fiction and fantasy, “the divide between mainstream and science fiction is more apparent than real,” and that “outside of the public eye,” writers on both sides of the supposed divide have been producing work that, on the one hand, has the ambition and sophistication of literary fiction, and, on the other, makes use of the tropes of speculative fiction, though not necessarily labeled as such by writers, critics, or readers. This is the secret history to which the title refers.

It’s a bold assertion, and I have a lot of sympathy for it. In fact, before I read this anthology, I was inclined to agree with it. But as I read these stories, I began to doubt it more and more, and finally I became convinced that Kelly and Kessel are wrong in an centrally important way, and that there really are substantial differences between genre speculative fiction of literary ambition and what is written outside the genre, even if it contains speculative elements. And I think these stories prove it: that is the secret history of The Secret History.

Note that John Kessel turns up to discuss in the comments.

Two: Mark Newton and Dan Abnett discuss tie-in fiction:

I’ve never known tie-in novels receive so much fanfare and review coverage as [Sebastian Faulks' Bond and Eoin Colfer's Hitch-Hiker's]: because that’s the other bizarre thing – franchise fiction tends to be ignored by reviewers, especially in major genre magazines. They treat it as a lesser product, and hate to give it air time. I’ve heard some talk that, because it’s assumed tie-in fiction always involves a one-off payment and no royalties, the author gets little benefit. That’s certainly not the case for several franchises, and Some tie-in books make careers.

Sometimes I find that genre magazines are ignoring the very “brands” that sell hundreds of thousands of copies – brands, therefore, that readers want to know about.

I merely note that I was out at dinner the other night, and my colleagues were discussing Harry Potter and some other franchise I temporarily forget, and expected me to know all about them; when in fact neither interests me in the least. [EDIT: still can't remember what the other franchise/series discussed was, but I did remember the other thing I wanted to say: Faulks' and Colfers' books may have attracted a lot of attention, but not much of it was positive.]

Terry Bisson interviews Kim Stanley Robinson:

There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.

And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost, there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.

I really must re-read Pacific Edge soon.

And for good measure, another KSR interview, this one by Alison Flood:

But this rapid change, in turn, leads to another sort of crisis. “Depending what we do in next 20 years, it’s very hard to be plausible, to say this is what’s going to happen. At that point you can’t write science fiction, [so] the genre is in a little bit of a crisis, and all the young people are reading fantasy.” Robinson himself, however, presses on undaunted. He’s considering future novels set around Saturn or Mercury; he’s looking into a book about Herman Melville, who “after his career as a novelist crashed had another career as a customs inspector”; he’s keen to put what he learnt from Galileo – the work ethic, “the tenacity of the man”, into practice.

But he worries about “the crisis for this tiny genre”, recently launching an impassioned defence of science fiction in the New Scientist, where he accused the Man Booker judges of neglecting what he called “the best British literature of our time”. “It’s a different situation than it was when I began, the relation between world and genre. Back then you could read science fiction and get a sense of what the world was going to be – now, I don’t think you can be prophets in the same way,” he says. “If the world is a science fiction novel then what do you read? What can the literature do for you?”

Oh, and Dollhouse has been cancelled, though all 13 ordered episodes will air. Not in the least surprising, and in some ways deserved, though I will still miss it; there are plenty of failures on tv, but very little ambition.

Writing About Europa

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War (2008):

It took Sri and Alder more than a day to reach him, travelling in stages down a series of elevator shafts, a vertical journey that on Earth would have taken them to the edge of the discontinuity where the continental plates rafted on molten lava. On Europa, it delivered them to a canyon cut into the underside of the ice and filled with air. Huge biome chambers had been excavated on either side of the canyon, and its walls were hung with tiers of platforms gardened with alpine meadows and dwarf pines and furs, jutting out above a silverly halflife membrane that flexed and undulated with the heavy wash of currents beneath. Despite the elaborate seals along the edges of the membrane, a faint curdled-egg odour of hydrogen sulphide leaked in from the anoxic ocean, and although chains of sunlamps brightened the air and panels of ice were tinted with bright, cheerful colours, it was very cold. The older citizens wore long fake-fur coats and tall fake-fur hats, and many of the younger citizens had been cut to give them thick, lustrous coats of fine hair and insulating layers of fat — seal-people with human faces and human hands and feet, clad only in shorts and many-pocketed vests. (125)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream (2009):

To one side of the white towers, an arc of pale aquamarine appeared across the whiteness. The stranger led him to this arc, which proved to be a broad rampway cut into the ice, dropping at a very slight angle, down to where it cut under an arch or doorway into a long wide chamber.

They descended; the chamber under the ice roof had broad white doors, like white gates. At the bottom of the ramp they waited before these. Then the gates went transparent, and a group of people dressed in blouses and pantaloons of Jovian hues stood before them, in what seemed a kind of vestibule. The stranger touched Galileo lightly on the back of the arm, led him into this antechamber. They passed under another arch. The group fell in behind them without a word. Their faces appeared to be old but young. The space of the room made a gentle curve to the left, and beyond that they came to a kind of overlook, with broad steps descending before them. From here they could see an entire cavern city stretching to the near horizon, all of it tinted a greenish blue, under a high ceiling of opaque ice of the same colour. The light was subdued, but more than enough to see by; it was quite a bit brighter than the light of the full moon on Earth. A hum or distant roar filled his ears. (51-2)

I’m working on a review of Galileo’s Dream at the moment, and posting these here because I probably can’t justify including two quotes this long, certainly not when one of them isn’t even from the book at hand. But I’m fascinated by them, and how differently they describe what is essentially the same thing — a traveller arriving in an under-ice city on Europa; how they get down, the quality of the space they find themselves in, the nature of the people there. The difference, of course, is the viewpoint character. Both are scientists, but Sri is native to the time, and knows what she’s looking at, whereas Galileo has been whisked forward hundreds of years, and doesn’t. I can’t help feeling you shouldn’t be able to get away with the second one in a work of twenty-first century sf — it’s a tour of utopia (except it’s not utopia); how quaint! — and yet in a sense it works because it’s a work of twenty-first century sf, because we can sense (or impose, if you don’t believe Robinson did the research) the detail beneath the surface that Galileo sees.

Out of interest, which do you prefer?

Quote of the Day

China Mieville:

Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison’s, Leiber’s, Ashton Smith’s and many others’, the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that’s a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen–stories occur–within it.

So dominant is this mode now (as millions of women and men draw millions of maps, and write millions of histories, inventing worlds in which, perhaps, eventually, a few will set stories) that it’s difficult to see what a conceptual shift it represented. And it is so mocked and denigrated–often brilliantly, as in the ferocious attack by M. John Harrison, that outstanding anti-fantasist, wherein he describes worldbuilding as the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism’–that it’s hard to insist that it brings aesthetic and epistemological possibilities to the table that may be valuable and impossible any other way.

This is a debate that needs to be had. These are stories contingent to a world the reader inhabits–full of ‘ideal creations’ that the writer has given, in Tolkien’s words, ‘the inner consistency of reality’. Whatever else it is, that is a strange and unique kind of reading. Tolkien not only performs the trick, indeed arguably inaugurates it, but considers and theorises this process that he calls ‘subcreation’, in his extraordinary essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. It is astounding, and testimony to him, that his ruminations on what is probably now the default ‘fantasy’ mode remain not only seminal but lonely. Whether one celebrates or laments the fact, it is an incredibly powerful literary approach, and the lack of systematic, philosophical and critical attention paid not to this or that example but to ‘subcreation’, world-building, overall, as a technique, is amazing. To my knowledge–and I would be grateful for correction–there is not one book-length theoretical critical work, or collection, investigating the fantastic technique of secondary-world-building–subcreation. This is astounding. In Tolkien, fully 70 years ago, by contrast, we have not only the method’s great vanguard, but still one of its most important and pioneering scholars.

(And four other reasons why “Tolkien rocks”.)

Hunt the Centre

Jeffrey Ford:

Lord knows I’m not exactly an astute observer of the ebb and flow of the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, but I have been looking, if sometimes with glazed eyes, for more than ten years, and in recent months, maybe over the past year, it strikes me that the genre(s) are re-centering. The energy in publishing and I suppose a good deal of the writing and reviewing seems to be flowing back to classic forms and styles. I don’t take this as either positive or negative but merely an evolutionary development. I mean scientific evolution, devoid of the concept of perceived social “progress.” Just as environment shapes organic evolution, I suppose the current fiscal environment is responsible for a part of this. It just makes sense that publishers, in order to stay viable, have to bet on projects and books that they feel certain will have a chance of bringing in some income. The ready cash to take chances has dried up as it has in the greater economy. I see this in the themes of proposed anthologies, in the popularity of certain novels, etc. I’d like to be more specific, but I don’t really give a shit enough about the issue to do the leg work. It’s just a perception I figured I’d throw out there and see what others thought. I’m not of the mind that this says anything about the quality of the fiction being published. It strikes me that there are as many great writers around as there ever were, and many of the newer writers (this is anyone younger than me, and at this point that’s a lot of writers) generally amaze me with their abilities. There are still writers traveling the marchland at the boundaries as there always have been and always will be, but the general energy seems to be flowing again to the center. What do you think? Is this one of those instances where I’m finally getting what has been evident to pretty much everyone or in my own addled way am I on to something? Maybe even the idea that the energy of the genre(s) has ever been anywhere else has been an illusion or delusion. What say ye?

What I say is: how would you go about establishing whether or not this is the case? On the one hand, I guess, you could look at something like the SF Site “Reader’s Choice” lists, comparing, say, 2001 and 2002 with 2006 and 2007.The first two of those lists, which include Kelly Link, Maureen McHugh, China Mieville, Jeff VanderMeer, Carol Emshwiller, Kelley Eskridge, and M John Harrison, to my eyes do perhaps look less “centred”, than the latter two. On the other hand, Robin Hobb is there in both 2001 and 2006, and Steven Erikson is in all four lists. You could look at Hugo award shortlists, though I can’t discern any great differences there — and, of course, last year Michael Chabon won with a book that is, for all that it uses a classic form (several forms, even), arguably a boundary case. You could attempt to analyze a list of forthcoming books: I suppose you’d have to control for publisher as well as genre (and sub-genre).

The idea that something of the kind Ford suggests might be happening chimes with three things in my head, though. One is the discussion of “normal” and “revolutionary” sf that Gary Wolfe kicked off on the Locus blog; another is Jonathan McCalmont’s column about a new generation of British sf writers; and the third is the ongoing background concern about “entry-level” sf, or the lack thereof (which overlaps with the ongoing discussion about YA sf, I think). Which is to say, I think, that I’m as interested in what might be driving such a shift — readers or writers or publishers — as I am in the fact of it happening or not. Ford suggests it might be publisher-, and ultimately economy-driven; on the other hand, there are many more sf-focused blogs now than a few years ago, and most of them focus on core genre books, which may give a sense that that aspect of the conversation has got louder. My gut-level response is that, to the extent I see a degree of re-centring in my reading and in the spread of books I’m looking forward to, I see it in the output of genre publishers, but I also see, if anything, an increasing number of mainstream-published sf novels to look forward to: Xiaolu Guo’s UFO In Her Eyes, Toby Litt’s Journey Into Space, and Bernard Beckett’s Genesis, for instance, not to mention a new Margaret Atwood sf novel later this year. All of which is to lead up to an inevitable question: what do you think? We’re probably too close to the issue to really know one way or the other, but let’s speculate.

Posted in Quotes, SF. Tags: , . 10 Comments »

As Tom Shippey Sees Us

In the TLS, reviewing Anathem. It is not, in my view, a particularly good review; in the first paragraph, he seems to imply that Cryptonomicon is Stephenson’s fourth novel, and refers to the Baroque Cycle as the “Baroque Trilogy”; in the second he asserts that Anathem starts out looking like “high fantasy”, which really isn’t the description I’d choose; and he gives away what’s really going on in the book (a revelation withheld until about two-thirds of the way through which, though it’s not an easy call, I’d say puts it beyond the bounds of discussion in a first-look review) without, in my view, adding any striking insight. It almost seems as though the review is an excuse for him to say this:

One of the great things about (much) science fiction is that its authors really mean it. They do think, for instance, that the human species is doomed to exhaustion and dieback if it does not get itself into space, and soon, while we have the technology and the resources, a window of opportunity shuttered by NASA’s inept bureaucracy. They really do believe that humans could be educated to their full potential and far beyond the levels reached by the tick-the-box grading systems of modern colleges, if we exploited available computer- and nano-technology. To them (some of them) mathematics is not just fiddling with abstractions but a guide to ultimate reality. Some of them think we need never die. In every case, though, there is strong awareness of the obstacles in the way of converting possibility to hard fact, some of them theoretical or technological, but even more of them social, financial, attitudinal.

It’s nice that Shippey likes advocacy-based sf, but it would be even nicer if he realised it’s only one of the strings to sf’s bow. I mean, at the moment it looks like he thinks the many sf writers who don’t believe these things simply write bad sf.

Quote of the Day

Daniel Mendelsohn (via):

What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.

Yes? No?

Posted in Quotes. Tags: . 4 Comments »

Candidate of Dune

The problem was not Obama; the problem was that at the instant when Hillary Clinton at last conceded, the nature of the campaign changed. It was, I considered (perhaps under the influence of the kind smile and exhortatory squeeze on the arm bestowed on me by Jimmy Carter, president of my darkest adolescence, as he passed me in the doorway of a LoDo Mexican restaurant), like the change that might occur between the first and second volumes of some spectacular science fiction fantasy epic. At the end of the first volume, after bitter struggle, Obama had claimed the presumptive nomination. We Fremen had done the impossible, against Sardaukar and imperial shock troops alike. We had brought water to Arrakis. Now the gathered tribes of the Democratic Party—hacks, Teamsters, hat ladies, New Mexicans, residents of those states most nearly resembling Canada, Jews of South Florida, dreadlocks, crewcuts, elderlies and goths, a cowboy or two, sons and daughters of interned Japanese-Americans—had assembled on the plains of Denver to attempt to vanquish old Saruman McCain.

Michael Chabon, of course.

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