Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I’ve been reading Gwenyth Jones Life (Aqueduct Press 2004.) She won the Tiptree for White Queen and Life is another gender exploration book. I really like gender exploration books so that’s all right by me. It’s the story of a woman, Anna, who studies biology. It starts in college with Anna in college and follows her, and many of her college friends, through jobs and Anna’s discovery of a genetic process that gives evidence that could change our understanding of evolution and alter our gender. There is, in many ways, nothing science fictional about it, except that it starts in the present and goes into the future a few years. It’s a book about five minutes from now.

What I like best about the book are its very literary virtues. The prose is really good, the characters are complex and feel real. We get just enough of their backstory to have a sense of them as members of a social class and culture. At the same time, Jones is too much of a pro not to have her science good and her extrapolation knowing. In an early exchange between Anna and a complicated little piece of work, a problem girl-child named Ramone, Anna and Ramone are squaring off in a good natured pissing contest about liberal arts versus science. Ramone makes the observation that Biology is second class, and that guys all go for Physics, which is where the glamor is. Girls gravitate towards Biols.

“Shows how much you know about science,” retorted Anna. “Do you call Biology second class? That’s ridiculous. you’re living in the past. So you really think people are going to be worried, a hundred years from now, about missing Z particles and up and down quarks? It’ll be like phlogistron or something, people will laugh. Just look at the board, look at the evidence. They have big money, but that alphabet soup is dead in more ways than one. The boys go for Physics because they’re conformists. I mean, really, doesn’t it remind you of Alfonso of Castile?”


“You know. King of Castile in the fifteenth century. When they showed him the latest cat’s cradle of celestial spheres that was supposed to reconcile astronmer’s observations with the stationary earth. He said, 'If God had consulted me, I would have suggested something simpler.' Haven’t you read The Sleepwalkers?”

“I couldn’t give a shit about Alfonso of Castile—“

The book is very British, and one of its rare failings is Spence, the American Exchange Student who is described as being very witty and American, but who speaks pretty pure British English. He snogs. He talks about making some easy dosh. Okay, it’s a failing of the book, but grit your teeth and ignore it. The rest of the book is worth it. I suspect it’s the very Birtishness of this book that hurt it when it came time to find a US publisher. White Queen and the two other volumes of that trilogy, North Wind and Phoenix Café (smart books about first encounters and, of course, gender politics) were published by Tor.

It’s not getting a lot of attention. That’s not entirely because it’s British. China Mieville, and Ian McDonald are doing all right in the U.S. People talk about Jones as being difficult, but if I had to describe this novel I’d say it was domestic—as much about life, marriage and childrearing as about huge social changes and biology. It takes a lot of pages, almost half the book, before the implications of Anna’s research become plain to her (and to us.) It could be that it’s pleasures are not entirely the pleasures that people look for when they go to the science fiction section of their Borders.

It is, to me, another case of science fiction that doesn’t meet genre expectations, and I wonder what Jones career would be like if she had started publishing in the last couple of years rather than in the early nineties. White Queen and, as I understand it, the series she is working on now (including Bold As Love) which I haven’t read, are very much the kind of work that demands a lot from a science fiction savvy reader. But Life could very easily sit next to Oryx and Crake, and is a much better book.


Blogger Johnny Dark said...

Onyx wrote: There is, in many ways, nothing science fictional about it, except that it starts in the present and goes into the future a few years. It’s a book about five minutes from now.

Interesting; an earlier post had discussed "mainstream" writers who write works using science fictional elements, but consider them as mainstream; from your description this is a book by a science fiction writer and considered as science fiction, but essentially "mainstream"-- that is, it's penetrating the barrier the other direction.

Of course, it's been a long-standing observation that the barrier between SF and mainstream is more permeable in Britain... look at Brian Aldiss getting a OBE!

Sounds like an interesting book. Is there no US edition, or is it just that there's no US edition yet?

5:55 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

What "barrier"?

6:02 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

There is a small press US edition, johnny dark. My post doesn't make clear, she is usually a Tor author, but this book went to a small press in the U.S.

My bad.

I'd put it on my Nebula list.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

Hi Alan. The barrier that takes books considered 'science fiction' or 'fantasy' and puts them in the part of the bookstore where people who might really like Gwenyth Jones books don't go. The same people who when I say I write sf, tell me, embarassed, that their 14 year old really likes sf movies. And then when they read my books, tell me that they aren't sf. (Meaning usually that they 'like' my book but they don't 'like' sf. Ergo, my book that takes place a hundred or two hundred years from now cannot in fact be sf.)

In Britain, my books were intially not categorized as science fiction, simply because the industry was less categorized there. Books that would go in a special section of the store in the U.S. were not separated out of the general fiction stacks in the U.K. I don't know what the state of things is now.

Now I think in the U.S. the barrier is becoming very strange. There are books that are 'genre sf/fantasy' that go in the sf/fantasy section of the bookstore (even books like Susan Palwick's _Flying in Place_ which feels very much like a book that would appeal to the same people who liked _The Lovely Bones_ by Alice Sebold) and books that have sf/fantastical elements (like _The Lovely Bones_ which is told by a dead girl or Michael Chabon's _Kavalier & Clay_ which has a golum in the beginning or Mary Doria Russell's _The Sparrow_ which has Jesuits sending an expedition to another planet in a hollowed out asteroid, and they contact two alien races, one of which looks like a giant kangaroo, but _The Sparrow_ was carefully marketed so it was at least initially not shelved in sf--now it shows up in all sorts of places in stores) that are considered 'not genre.' Unfortunately, once a writer is in the Border's database as a genre writer, it is very difficult for them to get shelved somewhere else. And that's a major factor in determining who reads them.

So that is one barrier. Artificial as it and most barriers are.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Thanks for replying...I still don't see that as a barrier, particularly in jd's use of the term ("penetrating the barrier")--it just seems like a turgid way to go about categorizing things.

I don't mean this flippantly, but how and why does it really matter whether person A thinks of a book as "science fiction" or not? Because he or she doesn't jump through the hoops of calcified genre tropes? (I'm speaking more generally here.)

There is no such thing as a mainstream. Science fiction is not a genre. It existed what we think of as the genre and will continue to do so after.

I think using, unquestioningly, terms like "mainstream" only fetishizes imaginary barriers. And most good books, in a chain store or elsewhere, are woefully unread. Shelving issues are really only the back-end; unless one of us becomes the buying manager for BandN or Borders, it doesn't matter. Byzantine bookstore-industry fuckups shouldn't dictate our frameworks. What we can control, however, is what we write--the processes we use--and how we talk about what we write. And, there are no shelves in cyberspace. Or blogs! Anyway, just some late night thoughts.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

It existed before what we think of as the genre and will continue to do so after.

My bad.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

Alan, you're right, but you know, part of thinking about my work as a writer and artist is thinking about who will read it and what are the conditions set on it. Slam poetry altered the audience for and the conditions set on poetry.

So it does matter to me when person A thinks 'ick' about science fiction and then tells me they love my book. Maybe they love my book because they know me and read it with that prejudice. Maybe they love my book because of the writing, and they are just a small portion of an audience.

In one sense, I'd love not to care about audience. To be Henry Darger, making art in my apartment. (Although I think Darger's audience might have been God, and his art may have been part of a battle against a horrible pain.) But I'm not. I want an audience.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see a lot of overlap in the US market, at least when it comes to trade paperbacks. You see fantasy and SF trade paperbacks on the general new tp table in Borders, in amongst the general fiction tps, for example, in addition to them being stocked in the SF/F section. My editor at Bantam, Juliet Ulman, has done an excellent job of coordinating covers that do not turn off a non-fantasy reader but also appeal to readers who only read fantasy. At least, in my opinion. I will say I think it's easier to get away with this re fantasy books as opposed to SF.


10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ian McDonald does not do very well in the US. He doesn't have a single book in print here. River of Gods is coming out from Pyr later this year, which is great, and I certainly hope it does better than his previous books; but it's indicative that it didn't sell to one of the larger SF publishers.

Possibly you were thinking of Ken MacLeod?

I've never seen Susan Palwick's Flying in Place in a science fiction or fantasy section; every US edition I've seen has had mainstream packaging.

--Mely, http://coffee-and-ink.livejournal.com

10:48 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

"Onyx": I agree, but I don't think it's an either/or choice between Emily Dickinson and Dan Brown. Whether a person likes a book or not is contingent on many factors, genre expectations only one of them. Readers are weird. What I guess I'm reacting to (not, specifically, from your post) is how these commercial expectations get in the heads of writers as ways to produce books or stories, and get confused with aesthetic choices. But, anyway, we're probably mostly in agreement. (In terms of Life, I think it was a novel I respected more than enjoyed. Would be interested to hear your take on the Tiptree co-winner Troll: A Love Story)

(btw, I'd also contend that slam has very little effect on most of the poets I know, whether academic or experimental--and that for better or worse the slam poetry scene and others usually don't intersect. But that's another post for, perhaps, another blog!)

12:05 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

Mely, I was thinkng of Ken MacLeod. Is Susan Palwick's Flying in Place shelved in general lit? That's good to know. I could be wrong about it being shelved in genre when it came out.

Alan, Yes yes yes to the way commercial expectations get mixed up with aesthetic choices in writer's heads. And sometimes, commercial expectations are affected by aesthetic choices although the effect of aesthetic choice on commercial viability is not nearly as clean as 'dumb equals commercial' and 'good equals non-commercial'. We all 'know' a lot that isn't true, I suspect.

Slam doesn't have much affect on the poets I know either, who are mostly literary journal poets, but it has had a major affect on poetry in America, if only to create another genre of poetry that is practiced. I hear a lot of slam at open mike nights, for example. Slam may have a different audience than written poetry. But the world of art in the U.S. is different because of slam. Does that make sense?

That's a very interesting aesthetic choice, to choose a different form of art--performance over publication--and it has ramifications for the work. Slam poetry is shaped to performance.

I haven't read Troll: A Love Story but I'll try to track it down.

I'm about to be eaten alive by work. Looking at some travel and a lot of work/sleep/work/sleep days so I may disappear for awhile.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Johnny Dark said...

Sorry; I hadn't intended to hijack this into a discussion of the "barrier" between mainstream and genre, and whether it actually exists, if it's only a markettng gimmick, or if it's a psychological barrier.

It is, though, perhaps a worthwhile discussion, so I will move make a new top-level post to discuss the other issue in the post.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Cool discussion. The book sounds interesting.

In addition to "science fiction" and "mainstream fiction" there's a type of fiction that's so scarce it's not even a subgenre; "mainstream fiction that's about science" (logically that would in fact be called "science" fiction, but no...).

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Geoffrey A. Landis said...

...the quote from the book doesn't read very realistically, though-- I can't think of any physicist who would call biology "second class;" and I can't think of a biologist who wouldn't dismiss such a comment pretty much out of hand. Even the president of MIT is a biologist. It's been common wisdom for so long now that it's a cliche that the 21st century is the century of biology. At the moment molecular biology is definitely the "cool" science. (and to the extent that there's a cool physics, it would be cosmology and string physics, not particle physics anyway.)

2:27 PM  

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