Friday, May 27, 2005

Hugos -- Short Story

So I've now read the five short stories nominated for the Hugo this year. They are:

My Travels with Cats
A Princess of Earth
Decisions
Shed Skin
The Best Christmas Ever

I have to say I think short stories -- especially short stories in the genre -- are at a real structural disadvantage. The requirements of building a full world (with alien cultures, rules of magic, etc.), well-rounded characters, and a satisfying plot make anything under 7500 words a real trick. I really memorable short story is a rare and wonderful thing. Novelettes and novellas are easier.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Travels With My Cats the story of a visitation/romance between a living reader and the (dead) author of his favorite book. The narrator is a profoundly isolated man whose profound lonliness calls forth the spirit of a pretty, young adventuress. They have a series of conversations in which she points out that he's terribly lonley, and then she is lost when the book (a very rare limited edition) is destroyed. The story fell a little flat for me. The dialog on which the story relied didn't begin until late in the story (the beginning being taken up by a summary of the narrator's acquisition of the book, descriptions of the book's contents, and the narrator's entire adult life to the point at which the visitations began), and then took over the story.

A Princess of Earth (also by Mike Resnick) is a very similar story. In it, the narrator is a profoundly lonely man (recently widowed) who is visited by a figure from a book he read in childhood -- this time John Carter of Mars. They have a very long conversation, after which John Carter's body dies (transporting his spirit to Mars and his true love if he's authentic, just killing him if he's a nut job who only thinks he's John Carter), and the narrator is left to choose his own suicide or possibly flight to Mars.

It's intereresting to read what is essentially the same story twice. Even the structure -- summary, encounter, conversation, parting -- is the same. Neither story was as complex or compelling for me as some of Resnick's other work (Kirinyaga must, of course, spring to mind).

Decisions is a story I wanted very much to like. The initial conceit -- an astronaut returns to the earth six months before he is scheduled to leave -- hooked me. But then when that turns out to have been a misdirection by aliens set to decide whether we are ready to join the galactic community, I was let down. The writing on the story was fine, but the trope on which it relies -- humanity judged by aliens to determine whether we are worthy -- has been done and done well so many times (and poorly so many more times) I needed to see something startlingly new done with it. Instead, the story reminded me pleasantly of being young, and watching the original Star Trek. To the degree that the story is an homage to that tradition, it's fine. I just wouldn't put it on par with Jeffty is Five, The Very Pulse of the Machine, or A Study in Emerald.

Shed Skin also reminded me of Star Trek -- it is another treatment of the Transporter Problem: If you have two copies of one consciousness, which one is Real (tm). This is an issue that has been addressed in Star Trek episodes and in other stories (Think Like a Dinosaur especially springs to mind). But I confess this particular consideration lost me in its mundane details. I was lucky enough to know a SWAT team negotiator when I was in college, and I'm afraid the inaccuracies of the hostage situation made me start thinking about the real-world background too much. And once I began to question, the tissue of the story fell apart.

The "original" character can't stand being restricted to the pleasure colony created for "shed skins". So instead he chooses to take a woman hostage and threaten her life? Does this not seem likely to lead to a much less pleasant confinement? The "original" demands to talk to the copy on the theory that he will be able to talk his duplicate into suicide. This also seems unlikely. And (the thin edge of the wedge for me) a hostage negotiator aceeds to the demand of the abductor without trying to lower his expectations of success or walking through the consequences of his actions? While the sentence-by-sentence writing was good, there were too many logical flaws in a story that relies upon the worldbuilding to give the situation emotional presence.

Which leaves me with The Best Christmas Ever. Which I thought was very well done. There is very little summary, and what there is gets broken up enough to not intrude on the flow of the story. There's also an emotional complexity that comes from the girlfriend-bot's surprise decision to provide the main character with the means to kill himself or else her. I was a little confused by the flags that marked the beginning and end of the narrator's interactions with the main character. And the main character's reaction to being given responsibility and choice is an emotionally complex, surprising, and believable one that I found very satisfying.

Why?

Like Safe Light I am here because of awards marketing. Not too long ago I got a book in the mail, which had me excited. FREE BOOK, woo hoo. Once of the reasons to join [MY WRITERS ORGANIZTION], I'd once been told, was to get FREE BOOKS. So I opened the package and took out said FREE BOOK and read the letter that came with it.

Dear Stygian Dark:

I read [YOUR STORY HERE] and really liked it, enough to rec it for Nebula, and in the author notes I read you were from [YOUR HOMETOWN HERE] and thought I'd write to you because I [DROVE THROUGH/VISITED/SNIFFED] [YOUR HOMETOWN HERE] once in [SOME RANDOM YEAR] and thought it was really [ADJECTIVE].


Well, you get the idea, it went on from there.

At first I thought, hmm, neat, then talked to a few friends, and they'd all gotten the same letter with appropriate filled in details. I was shocked, shocked (well, no I wasn't, but nonetheles...) as I realized this was an attempt to get the book on the Nebula ballot.

So then I read FREE BOOK, and it was okay. But not award quality. So I didn't nominate it. But sure enough, I saw that right after this process FREE BOOK suddenly started getting nominations. This frustrated me when something similar happened again, not too long ago. Which got me to thinking:

Said author was sending this to the wrong people. I have nothing against marketing, but marketing to other writers/neo pros in SFWA just seems odd. Why wasn't said author offering give aways on his website to his fans? Why wasn't he giving copies aways to more reviewers and online reviewers?

Is the author's implicit thought in the act of giving away a load of books in hopes of a Nebula nomination the assumption that the Nebula will increase the sales of the book? If so, where can we find out if this is true or not? Or does the author assume that the book is good enough for a Nebula, and if so, why did they assume I needed a letter and a free copy of the book to help me come to that conclusion?

I don't know, I may be wrong, but it seems that the awards should be something that are awarded to authors for the perceived quality of the work. The money and time spent on trying to get on the final ballot could be better spent just promoting the book to potential readers and fans... not other writers.

So here I am... trying to look for the stuff that will enable me to vote for stories, not friends.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Jeffrey Ford's "The Scribble Mind"

I just went to SciFi.com and read Jeff Ford's "The Scribble Mind". It's the story of an artist--and that always raises a red flag for me. I've written about artists, but for years I avoided writing about writers or artists because it was so easy to get precious and to fall into the cliche about inspiration and angst. There's a little of that in Ford's story, although his artists, thanks God, do not become wildly successful. The one that does have a career has the sort of career one associates with midlist writers. His artist is figurative rather than abstract (this in the 80's when figurative work was quite respected--look at the paintings of neo-expressionists like Francisco Clemente, Julian Schnabel and David Salle, and landscape artists like Diane Burko, just to name a few) and although he mentions Cy Twombly prominently in the story it's only to disparage him. We writers tend to like figurative artists because they are narrative. The art doesn't really ring true for me, and it's especially heavy handed when the narrator, Pat, does a painting he calls "The Scribble Mind".

The story revolves around a woman named Esme, who is the wild, brilliant, sort of self-destructive woman that women artists sometimes feel they have to be, and a kind of conspiracy about a kind of scribble. People who can draw the scribble 'remember' and people who can't don't. There's some nice hugger-mugger about that involving conspiracies and some handwaving about government forces or maybe giant pharmaceutical companies. The story works, as so many sf stories do, on the adolescent feeling of being on the outside and the secret wish to be special. It's an easy read (sometimes a little too easy. The prose is quiet, conventional, what is sometimes called 'transparent prose.')

The best part about the story is the ending. I thought I knew the ending about halfway through and a conventional sf or fantasy story would, in fact, end with a moment of transcendence. "The Scribble Mind" does something else, something that feels in fact more startling, more grown-up, and moremovingly sad, although it's been well prepared for and therefore has that sense of rightness that a good story has.

Do I like it? Yes. Do I love it, no.

Why am I here, and what this anonymous thing is about

Ok. The race goes not always to the swift. Got it. But still...

Here's what happened:

A few weeks ago, I got a book in the mail from a fellow SFWA member. And with it was a letter addressed to me, talking about how much my fellow writer admired me and my work. If you're in SFWA and nominated a novel for the Nebula, you probably got a copy too. A bunch of the other writers I know certainly got them, all with customized letters praising their work. This was a guerilla marketing campaign.

Credo: literary awards and recognition should go to brilliant stories, not brilliant ad campaigns.

I've come here as an unpaid lobbyist on behalf of quality. I'm going to recommend stories and novels that I think are worth attention, I'm going to say why they're worth attention, and I'll try to be open to folks telling me what I've misunderstood and why some other story is better. I also intend to take on the unpleasant task of reading all the nominees for some of the major awards and giving not just my opinions, but the thought behind my opinions. I'm going to make a case.

I'm hoping other folks will do the same.

Along with that, I hope that we can create a civil, engaged conversation about what our hopes and visions of speculative fiction are.

What I'd like you to do (as a reader of this sort of thing) is, when you vote for some award -- the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus Awards, any of the juried awards you find yourself saddled with -- vote for quality. Don't vote for your friends. Do't vote against your enemies. Don't nominate someone because of their gender or ethnicity or political affiliation. Vote aesthetics. And if you think I'm wrong about a story, tell me so in a reasoned, civil way.

Civility. That brings my to the anonymous thing. If I have the strength of my convictions, why not just stand up and shout it? Why the hiding behind a mask?

Because the last thing I want is someone sending me their stories so I'll maybe talk about them on the blog. And you know it would happen.

Anonymity has its price. The price is civility. I'm not going to use this as a chance to insult people. I will express opinions, including about some things I don't like. If I have something mean or cutting or bitchy to say, I'll say it someplace else with my name attached.

More recognition for better work. It's not taking over the world, but it's a start.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

This blog is the brainchild of a number of people and I just happened to be the one who offered to do the actual set-up here on blogspot. It’s a place to talk about science fiction and fantasy in the long tradition of serious discussion of the field, as inspired by sources as diverse as Bruce Sterling’s Cheap Truth and the symposium Khatru. From the start we wanted this discussion to be anonymous for a couple of reasons. First, we are writers but we don’t really want this to be about our careers. Second, because being anonymous allows a certain amount of freedom.

I'm here because I read the genre for years with a sense of excitement. Sometimes the stories were conventional but often they were strange, to me at least. There were battles being waged in prose by people like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, Arthur C. Clarke, James Tiptree Jr., Robert Heinlein, Gene Wolfe and Ursula LeGuin, to name just a few. It may only be the spectacles of nostalgia that makes the books and stories of those writers seem so memorable. Maybe now I see the books and stories of many of my contemporaries from the perspective of a writer rather than a young fan, and so I have a different sense of them. But often, the books and stories that win awards don’t seem to compare with work like Neuromancer, or Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”, or “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Maybe work isn’t being done like that any more. In some ways, writing in the genre has gotten a lot better and the bar has gotten a lot higher. A writer is expected to do a lot of things well these days, and some of the works that were so astonishing to me then feel a little naïve now. There is a sense in which a writer who does everything really well within the genre—creates interesting new ideas, astonishing extrapolation that doesn’t repeat old motifs among other virtues—eliminates the readers who aren’t already pretty tuned into the genre. A lot of stuff that would have been sf or fantasy fifteen years ago, like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, or The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or even The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (an alternate history in which Lindbergh becomes president in 1940 instead of FDR) are now published as non-genre. (Although Roth would have been non-genre fifteen years ago, the way The Handmaid’s Tale was somehow science fiction but non-genre, at least according to Margaret Atwood and the publishing industry.) In movies and television, science fiction and fantasy aren’t a genre. The X-Files and Buffy were watched by people who don’t walk over to the sf and fantasy section of the bookstore. Video games don’t distinguish themselves by story content so much as by style of play, like a first person shooter like Halo or Grand Theft Auto, or a puzzle game, like Myst.

Maybe the genre, like jazz, is evolving into something else. There was a time when jazz was the music that kids listened to so they could piss off their parents—long before it became the music of a certain kind of smart person who didn’t listen to classical. The genre may have already become the love of a certain fairly large group of cognoscenti.

Wherever the genre is going, genre shattering works are still being written. I'm hoping we'll find them and talk about them.

As to why the others are here, well, they'll have to tell you themselves.