Express your opinion! What's the state of SF today?
Do it in the dark.
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.
I’m still thinking about Nick Hornby and Banks, and what that says. I looked back at my original post for which I’ve been chided for being naïve about the sf market. But the post isn’t really about the market. It’s about an aesthetic issue. Relationship of the artist to the audience stuff. Economics does affect that, of course. One of the things that being incomprehensible to all but a fairly small audience does—you know, writing books for 10,000 people to read—is it gives people a lot of freedom to write what they want.
Science fiction is, like all fiction, a fiction of conventions. Conventions like causality, which works a lot more strongly in narrative art than it does in real life. Conventions like the way that showing a character with a lot of books, or reading, or learning something like music or French will signal a sympathetic character. (It’s a modern day white hat.) One of the tricks of art is to work enough within the conventions that a your audience gets what you’re doing. Stephen Spielberg is really good at this. But work that is too conventional is cliché and although there will always be readers who do like cliché (particularly naïve readers) the majority probably won’t. There was an Italian actress in the nineteenth century, Elenora Duce, who was the hot actress of her day. She is considered one of the three great European actresses of the century (along with Sarah Bernhardt, no relation to Sandra, as far as I know.)
The theater repertoire of the day was heavy on melodrama, and in one play, Elenora Duce, as the young mother, stood with her young son in front of her, back against her long skirts, which her husband explained why he was abandoning them. There are lots of famous gestures from the days of melodrama, like the back of the hand against the forehead. Elenora Duce was considered a very naturalistic actress in her day, a kind of Italian Meryl Streep. A conventional melodrama gesture would be to fold her arms across her chest, hands against her shoulders. Instead, La Duce leaned down and folded the boy’s arms across his chest.
Audience members sobbed. Critics wrote about the scene. What she had done was to take the convention and re-interpret it, not so much that the audience didn’t get the information conveyed, but enough that it felt fresh to the audience. That bit of novelty seems to be a conduit for emotion.
So, I go back to Nick Hornsby. Bank’s Excession is incomprehensible to him. It’s not to me. I like Excession quite a bit. Banks is a little like La Duce in that he has taken a really old hoary set of conventions—the galaxy spanning empire, huge starships, spies, gadgets and exotic cultures—and updated the convention. But over the years, we’ve seen a lot of writers take those conventions (Star Trek used them, for God’s sake, and Star Wars, and Asimov) and do stranger and stranger things with them. Dune’s navigators had to have spice and didn’t really seem like the dashing spacemen of old. But other conventions in Dune were rigorously followed, like the hero as special (in this case, the Messiah) and a traditional political system that takes its conventions from feudal history. Dune was weird enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to follow. I mean we all get the noble Duke versus the decadent Duke.
Delany’s Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand gets weirder with them. The language is weird. The sexuality is weird. The audience is smaller.
I’m not crying for Banks. I’m saying this is an issue we can consider as writers. Our own expectations of the rigorously new extrapolation of conventions means that the barriers between us and the reader gets higher and higher. But science fiction doesn’t have to only be about rigorous extrapolation, no matter what John Campbell said. The stuff that is escaping the genre is often far less rigorous. And some of it is downright irritating. In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s unabashedly apocalyptic future novel, the world is populated more and more by genetically engineered animals who have escaped, like genetically engineered corn cross-pollinating into other corn fields. One of the animals she describes as having escaped and adapted to the wild is white rabbits that glow in the dark. I read about Alba, and Alba is pretty neat. But as an ecological niche for an herbivore, glowing in the dark just sucks. Not one of these critters would live to breed. But nobody but me is griping about that. People hated Oryx and Crake for other reasons—it’s anti-technology bias for example (technology and the people who make it are evil).
David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest has a science fictional element in the dead center of the plot. A film maker who has committed suicide before the novel opens has created a film that people can’t stop watching. (Neal Stephenson did a similar thing in Snow Crash.) Does he rigorously extrapolate what a future society might be like where brain control could come over your television set? Advertising? Porn in such a future? No, in one sense it’s like those old stories where there Tom Swift would invent something and off we would go. Because ‘rigorous extrapolation’ is a convention of genre. We admire it. It’s never accurate, science fiction doesn’t predict the future. We just like extrapolation that has multiple ramifications because its an accepted virtue in the genre. It’s like La Duce crossing her arms protectively across her bosom. And it’s a nice place to go, ‘Ah, isn’t that cool.’
Which makes me wonder if science fiction is an interesting place to be anymore? There are other things science fiction does, besides rigorous extrapolation. Near future sf often doesn’t extrapolate at all. Or it extrapolates just enough to comment on society, i.e. in Vonnegut-like fashion it isn’t pretending to show the future so much as blatantly pointing out the present. (All sf is about the present anyway.) Some sf is nostalgic. It consciously echoes the sf of the past. My favorite of these is Karen Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” which both responds to “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr. and the White Men On Expeditions and Great Apes stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I like nostalgia quite a bit. But a little goes a long way for me. It can get gimmicky really fast.
SF has built a box. And the question more and more for me is what can I do in that box? Boxes aren’t necessarily bad, a sonnet is a box. And a wonderful little mechanism whose very structure insures that something will happen in the poem. I don’t know if the sf box allows me to do what I want. As an artist. These were some of the ideas that I was starting to grope towards when I posted about Nick Hornsby. And I'm still turning it over. I don't think I'm anywhere done thinking about this.
"Balanced Ecology" by James Schmitz
"Becalmed in Hell" by Larry Niven
"A Better Mousehole" by Edgar Pangborn
"Better Than Ever" by Alex Kris
"Calling Dr. Clockwork" by Ron Goulart
"Come to Venus Melancholy" by Thomas M. Disch
"Computers Don't Argue" by Gordon R. Dickson
"Cyclops" by Fritz Leiber
"Devil Car" by Roger Zelazny
"The Eight Billion" by Richard Wilson
"Eyes Do More Than See" by Isaac Asimov
"A Few Kindred Spirits" by John Christopher
"Founding Father" by Isaac Asimov
"Games" by Donald Barthelme
"The Good New Days" by Fritz Leiber
"The House the Blakeneys Built" by Avram Davidson
"In Our Block" by R. A. Lafferty
"Inside Man" by H. L. Gold
"Keep Them Happy" by Robert Rohrer
"A Leader for Yesterday" by Mack Reynolds
"Lord Moon" by Jand Beauclerk
"The Mischief Maker" by Richard Olin
"Of One Mind" by James Durham
"Over the River and Through the Trees" by Clifford D. Simak
"The Peacock King" by Ted White & L. McCombs
""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison
"Slow Tuesday Night" by R. A. Lafferty
"Souvenir" by J. G. Ballard
"Though a Sparrow Fall" by Scott Nichols
"Uncollected Works" by Lin Carter
"Wrong-Way Street" by Larry Niven
"Coming to Terms" by Eileen Gunn (Stable Strategies and Others Sep 2004)
"The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Anne" by Mike Moscoe (Analog Nov 2004)
"Travels With my Cats" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's Feb 2004)
"Embracing-The-New" by Benjamin Rosenbaum (Asimov's Jan 2004)
"In the Late December" by Greg van Eekhout (Strange Horizons Dec. 22, 2003)
"Aloha" by Ken Wharton (AnalogJun 2003)
Really sorry I haven't updated this in awhile, but I have been very busy... [some good stuff cut for space. -Onyx]
...I was walking up 6th Ave and then I saw God filling up the sky. Really! GOD! He was everywhere all at once; beard, muscles, blazing eyes, streams of light coming out from behind his back, arms from horizon to horizon. And He pointed at me and told me He wanted me, Joanie, to raise an army and drive the English out of France! The voice, it was like sitting on a thunderbolt, I felt my whole body, the whole street, shake, but nobody else seemed to notice it, or when I fell to my knees. I'm agnostic!
The blog turns to being the story of a present day Joan of Arc. It's wry and funny and surprisingly poignant by turns. It's a clever idea story, but it feels the right length for a clever idea story.
Also good, David Moles' "Five Irrational Histories" and David Lomax's "How To Write an Epic Fantasy Novel" (the latter suffers from being a bit too long, I think, but does the postmodern thing of telling a story while pretending to just be informing the reader on how to do their own story--again, strange and poignant by turns.) (Both in Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo, copyright 2004.)
Flytrap: a little zine with teeth (number 4/May 2005) has a story by Jeff Ford (about a kind of performance artist--did I mention that I am immediately a bit suspect of stories about artists? China Mieville does it a lot, but he at least seems to be aware that he is echoing the cliches of the 19th century.) Although nothing stood out for me like the Mamatas piece of the two from Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo, it was a good read. The magazines were all uneven, but Asimov, Analog and F&SF are uneven.
Bittersweet Creek and Other Stories (copyright 2003, Small Beer Press) is a short, swift read. Christopher Rowe can write the socks off a snake as evidenced by "The Voluntary State", his Nebula nominated story. The five stories in Bittersweet Creek are all set in rural Kentucky and Tennessee except for the last, "Men of Renown". They are all before pre-telephone and although they are lyrical about life, they are also unflinching about things like girls getting married at fourteen and the violence of rural society. They are ghost stories and revenge stories. They don't have the wild, strange and funny quality of "The Voluntary State" and unlike "The Voluntary State" none of them are science fiction. (You could argue with me on the first story, "Baptism at Bittersweet Creek" but it reads to me as a kind of faery story reversed, where the denizen of some other world gets trapped in ours. He could be from an alternate universe, but his special skills, whistling and communing with animals, as well as his muteness, all feel fantastical to me.)
Other Cities, by Benjamin Rosenbaum (copyright 2003, Small Beer Press) is equally a treat. Fourteen short shorts, each an evocation of a different fantastical city, that is more than the sum of its parts.
Amea Amaau--or Double A, or Dub, or Dub-Dub, or DB, or Popstop, as it is also sometimes called--is a new and gleaming city in a matrix of six hundred and forty-three cities exactly like it. Somewhere in the terribly exciting part of the world. The citizens of Popstop--but there are no citizens, for everyone who slept in Amea Amaau tonight will be moving on in the morning. They will roll out of silver water beds, vacuum the night's spit and eye good and wrinkles from their faces with handheld vacuums considerately installed in every wall...
Each is short (that's nearly half of "Amea Amaau", which is one of the shortest) and each turns on a wry note at the end. They are literary magic tricks and I read to see what he would do with each one, and with each one he did something different.
So why am I dismayed?
After I'd read the lot (over the course of a day, mostly) I came away feeling a little as if I'd had cookies for dinner. The stories were often fairly smart stuff. But the majority of them felt neither fish nor fowl. We're post Borges and the although these stories were often clever, they weren't astonishingly clever. They often were about things I already knew. That sex is mysterious. That when we are titillated by pain, we lose a little piece of our humanity. There are stories about the need for self-actualization, affirmations of the things we all believe. Most of these stories play at being strange, but underneath, a lot of them aren't very strange at all. Somehow they end up falling between literary and genre rather than, well, slipstreaming. They often felt like literary-lite. They had lovely images, competent writing.
I thought about Kelly Link and what makes her stories stand out, and part of what they have is a narrative voice. I'm thinking, for example, of the narrator of "Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose" who is dead and stuck in a afterlife which consists of a rather creepy hotel by an even creepier sea. He can remember he's dead, and he misses his wife. He can't remember her name and he keeps trying names, hoping one will sound right. The feeling is of barely contained anxiety and tedium--a common enough experience in life (it's been said that war, for example, consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by periods of terror) but there's no affirmation. Not even escape. No self-actualization. No heavenly 12-step program after which the protagonist gets to deliver some affirming life-lesson. Other than "joanierules.bloggermax.com" I found very few stories where the author seemed in control in that way, where the writer was setting a tone, maybe a different tone than the first person narrator. I wanted more artifice in these stories ('artifice' comes from the same root word as 'art'--it's what we writers do.)
The stories weren't really doing things that would make them publishable by the commercial magazines. Fine, neither was James Joyce, which was why he was published by a friend rather than, say, Knopf. I'm tickled to death that people who can't find a commercial publisher are publishing themselves. I think this is the place where many of the brightest and the best of the next generation are polishing their craft. I find it interesting to note that Chris Rowe's fiction became more interesting, more powerful, more strange and new, when he added science fiction into the mix. I want to push a lot of these young writers--not towards sf per say, but to something more. Do something with your fiction--narrator, science fiction, strangeness, unsettling truths, humor. Push a little harder.
It's the same thing I tell myself I have to do with my own work.