Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 14, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

HUGO THREAD....Last week I finished reading all the nominees for this year's Hugo Award for best novel. Not quite all, actually I'm not planning to read A Feast for Crows since it's long, not available in paperback, part 4 of 7, and not really my thing anyway but I've read the other four and I figure that's good enough for now. So here's how I'd rank them:

  1. Accelerando, by Charles Stross

  2. Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

  3. Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

  4. Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

There's a pretty clear dividing line here: I liked the first two and didn't like the last two. Spin was readable, but the characters and situations were cardboard thin and the payoff at the end wasn't especially memorable. Learning the World was a slog: generation ship meets First Contact with nothing interesting or surprising during the entire 300 pages. It's the only one of the four I'd flatly not recommend.

Of the top two, I'd say that maybe I respected Accelerando more than I liked it and liked Old Man's War more than I respected it. Old Man's War was a fun romp, breezily written and great for an airplane ride, but in the end it was just a little too insubstantial for a Hugo, anyway. Plus, for my taste, it left a few too many big questions completely unanswered, and not in a good way.

Accelerando wasn't quite as accessible as Old Man's War, but it was a helluva lot of fun, with great characters, wonderful use of language, and an intricate, entertaining plot. And the real hero turns out to be a cat! What more can you ask for?

I'm sure lots of my readers have read all the Hugo nominees too. So what did you think?

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (126)

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Comments

The series that A feast for Crows is part of has to be one of the best fiction reads I have ever come across. The series - A Song of Ice and Fire - begins with the book - A Game of Thrones. A war of the roses type plot that involving such a complex weave of characters - where the author has no remorse for killing off characters unexpectedly. Its brilliant.

Read A Game of Thrones - and see if you get hooked.

Posted by: Canuck on May 14, 2006 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

I have only read "old man's war", but I agree with Mr. Drum's assessment completely. Fun, could have been very interesting, ultimately pretty fluffy.

Posted by: jefff on May 14, 2006 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Accelerando should definitely win. No doubt at all.

Posted by: Gore/Feingold '08 on May 14, 2006 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I second Canuck: I urge you to reconsider the SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books. I'm not a big fan of high fantasy, but George Martin's books are flat out incredible. They rival Tolkien.


-l.

Posted by: LauraJMixon on May 14, 2006 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against Martin, and I read fantasy occasionally as well as science fiction. But I'd have to start at the beginning of the series and then I'd have to wait until about 2018 for the series to end. That's a huge disincentive to dive in.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on May 14, 2006 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK


Accelerando
is also available to read for free (under a Creative Commons license) from accelerando.org. You can read it online, or download it formatted for one of several different e-book readers. (I recommend Plucker if you have a palm PDA.)

Accelerando is also the only one of the nominees that I've read (although I intend to read Old Man's War at some point). My only problem with it was that it read like a deserialized serial novel -- i.e., you'd get repeated exposition sometimes. But that's a minor quibble. I'd recommend it to anyone who is curious about the "coming technological singularity" and what it might look like to those living through it.

Posted by: Rhett on May 14, 2006 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Haven't read the others, but _Acc_ is a pile of stories stapled together, not a novel. And in fact it's a pile of interesting ideas stapled together with a a can of Campbell's Character Soup poured over it. It would have been much better as a long essay, esp. since after a few stories the whole thing becomes tiresome.

Posted by: rilkefan on May 14, 2006 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

why are so many bloggers (this rhett person, goldberg, reynolds etc etc) into sci fi / fantasy? because they're all superannuated nerds? because they're all superannuated adolescents? because sci fi is great and it only appears absurd to people like me who are fiction snobs? anyway, not many sebald, houellebecq, lydia davis, deborah eisenberg fans i can see. not even any david mitchell fans. what's going on? "ah, when will anusol enter the starits of mogodon with the princess mylanta?"

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

A Houellebecq fan shouldn't sneer at Princess Mylanta fans.

That said, there is a strong libertarian streak in a lot of sf. As well as work that appeals to liberals - e.g. LeGuin.

Posted by: rilkefan on May 14, 2006 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

Lucretius: Feel free to start your own blog and discuss the kind of fiction you like any old time.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on May 14, 2006 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't read #2 yet, but I have read the other three--or at least, as much of them as I'm going to. I'm speaking as a fan of science fiction, one who has stuck with it into his 30s and still greatly enjoys a well-written wonder-tale. In fact, I just enjoyed reading David Marusek's first book, "Counting Heads." But I have to say, the three of these I've read were all disappointments--and I mean that, I really had higher hopes for each of them, each time I picked them up. None of the three had functional characters, people you felt were people--even RCW's, which is odd for him. Accelerando is written in a breathless turmoil, which I like, but when you think about it, nothing terribly new is portrayed, and the characters are, like those in the MacLeod, perpetually chipper and can-do. These two are really sub-Heinlein, sub-Asimov, in their writing--and I mean that in the sense of those two writers being good imaginers, but terrible creators of people on the page. I didn't know you were allowed to be that sketchy any more. And I was quite excited for the MacLeod book too... :(

Where the hell are the well-written SF novels right now?

Posted by: Thomas on May 14, 2006 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

I second the George WW Martin vote. I tend to HATE fantasy, but Song of Ice and Fire is pretty unique and incredible.

Even if you don't like fantasy, you should give it a shot. Even though there are magical and fantastic elements, they are largely in the background. The real focus of the book is the clash of power and rivalries in a fairly realistic high medieval setting, reminiscent of the War of the Roses.

Martin is great with conversations and setting, and sets up great cliff hangers, which have real suspense to them because he isn't afraid to kill off central, point of view characters from time to time.

It's just a lot of fun. I have reread all four books. You can pick up the first book, A Game of Thrones, very cheaply in paperback. You should be hooked after the first few chapters, the story moves very quickly, and after that you are going to be seriously jonesing for the rest of the series.

Posted by: aplomb on May 14, 2006 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

A Song of Fire and Ice isn't really 'my thing' either (I started reading it because my son was reading it), but it really is an extraordinary work of fiction. Great (complex, interesting, believable) characters, richly detailed world, fascinating plot. Read it.

Posted by: Tom Hilton on May 14, 2006 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't read any of Charles Stross's books because I am flat-out tired of books about the Singularity. It's Rapture Porn for nerds.

I enjoyed Spin and found it more substantial than Old Man's War, which was a good read but not Hugo-worthy (but then, Harry Potter won, so who am I kidding?). I really like Robert Charles Wilson's imagination. All three of his books which I have read have been unique.

Posted by: Luke on May 14, 2006 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

Well I haven't read any of the nominees -- but would like to plug a 2006 entry for next year -- Ian McDonald's "River of Gods," which is quite amazing. I like all his books but this one is a lollapalooza of good writing. Talks about India in the year 2047, tons of innovative AI speculation and great cultural observations.

As for why anyone likes science fiction -- I have no idea. I've loved it since I was old enough to read. Oh -- anyone else like William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition?" I thought it was one of the best books I've read, SF or otherwise.

Posted by: Nightprowlkitty on May 14, 2006 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

err, so i risk snarky little jibes if i comment on kevin's posts in a way he doesn't like? terrific. i'll move on and y'all can carry on snickering about google eyed aliens, clouds of gas with iq's of 308 and beautiful shield-bearing, leather-clad maidens with three tits.

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Add my voice to the chorus. The Song of Ice and Fire series is absolutely amazing. The characters are stunningly vivid and consistent, your favorite characters are killed off with impunity making for a wildly unpredictable story, and the prose is just spectacular.

Posted by: Bryon Gill on May 14, 2006 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

Google eyed aliens do not take kindly to being snickered at, lucretius. Clearly you have never read science fiction, or you would know that.

Posted by: Nightprowlkitty on May 14, 2006 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Lucretius, I can't stomach the stuff either, but I think part of the answer is that for genre fiction, it's goodness or badness as literature is somewhat beside the point. I'm not saying that sci-fi fans don't understand what good literature is. I'm saying that the metrics for evaluating or enjoying the stuff are simply different. I'd also wager that the market for quote-unquote serious fiction is pretty small. In other words, sci-fi readers aren't the exception. They're the norm.

There's an analogy to be made with music. I happen to like Bob Dylan a lot, but it doesn't particularly surprise or bother me that many don't. I don't listen to much jazz, although I can certainly grasp its appeal. And I have little doubt that a classical music aficionado could build an impressive case that Mozart is simply better than Beastie Boys along every reasonable criterion we use to evaluate music. But I don't care. I still prefer listening to the Beastie Boys.

As a fiction snob, it seems pretty obvious to me that sci-fi falls short in almost every way. (This is actually a disappointment, because I also happen to be a pretty big nerd, and I think I could get behind some really great science fiction.) For me, "pop" and "serious" just coexist less comfortably in fiction than in music.

Why is this? No idea. In answer to your original question though: the bloggers you mention are boys with keyboards. Is it really surprising they like sci fi?

Posted by: crabshack on May 14, 2006 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

crabshack - i happen to be a classical music freak too. i have, however, seen the beastie boys live thrice. the fact that chopin is pretty obviously better than the beastie boys is probably immaterial, you're right. music is like sex or food: sometimes even the worst of it is sensational.

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

well, that didn't take long... ten posts in and the anti-sci-fi snobs are here telling the rest of us what we should be reading.

Posted by: cleek on May 14, 2006 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

I think that The Atrocity Archives are Charles Stross' strongest work to date--it's explicitly broken up into two separate novellas, the characterization is reasonably well done, and it's quite funny.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 14, 2006 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

nobody's telling what you should be reading. we're just wondering what the appeal of sci fi is. i know lots of people, and none of them is a sci fi fan, so i always wonder what it is about the genre that is so compelling. i had many arresting moments with michael moorcock and ray bradbury as a teenager, but 'dune' broke me. too many funny snakes and people called gingallox, not enough about the daily difficulties of being human.

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

I've been having a great time with George R.R. Martin's series, but I wouldn't compare it to Tolkien. It's more like if James Michener wrote fantasy.

Posted by: nolo on May 14, 2006 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

I've only read Spin and Learning the World. I meant to get both of the others (and will, someday), but alas, they fallen victim to the budget axe so far.

Spin was a cool idea poorly served by its characters, Learning the World had great characters poorly served by the plot. Neither, IMHO, rises to Hugo-level.

And, lucretius... I can't speak for anybody else, but I read sf for the ideas - I'm especially attracted to sf that examines cultural/social issues outside of our own context for those. While there have been many good "literary" books that examine our own society/culture, I love the way sf writers take what we think or know about human nature and try to imagine how it would affect cultures/societies far different from our own.

I also like writers who try to imagine what differences we might find in alien cultures. Julie Czerneda is particularly adept (IMHO) in exploring how biology different from our own would affect the culture of aliens that possess it. (She's a biologist by training, so she comes up with really *cool* biological "questions" to examine.) C.J. Cherryh is another one who's particularly good with that, although her aliens' biology isn't quite so prominent in the story.

But, that's just me. And, I don't turn my nose up at a good military or adventure yarn either, so I'm not a purist or anything...

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Lucretius: There are billions of people in the world, and therefore billions of different tastes in fiction. And they all read fiction for different reasons. Why is it so hard to understand that people who don't share your particular taste aren't necessarily cretins?

Posted by: Kevin Drum on May 14, 2006 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

I now wait for a series to be concluded before going at it--otherwise, I end up having to reread earlier novels. I agree on Old Man's War: pretty thin soup, though a few good lines. However, I did like Spin quite a bit: big-vision space opera. It's no A Fire Upon the Deep, but what is?

Posted by: LeisureGuy on May 14, 2006 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Lucretius --

Didn't you ever notice the clones, etc., in Houellebecq and David Mitchell? If you're fans of them, you already DO like science fiction, whether you realized it or not.

Posted by: T Hodler on May 14, 2006 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

nobody's telling what you should be reading

well, perhaps. though only if we assume condescension and ridicule isn't another way of saying "i know better than you". and that's a pretty big leap.

not enough about the daily difficulties of being human.

oddly, that's pretty much what Spin is about: how does humanity in general, and people individually, act when the existence of the humanity is completely uncertain? what happens to religion, government, romantic and sexual relationships and law and order, when nobody knows if the world will end today or tomorrow? compare that to the last bit of "serious fiction" i read, The Quincunx, which was an interminable homage to Dickens and the subtleties of 19th C. British inheritance law. yawn.

sounds like you just haven't read enough sci-fi to see that it isn't simply about those "google eyed aliens, clouds of gas with iq's of 308 and beautiful shield-bearing, leather-clad maidens with three tits".

Posted by: cleek on May 14, 2006 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

I found this interesting:
(excerpt taken from www.totse.com)

The following was distributed by Bill Battista of ANALOG & ISAAC ASIMOV'S
SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINES at the Nebula Awards banquet and conferences, held
4/25-4/27. This is only a part of a larger survey. Nevertheless, it is of
interest. So THIS is who reads SF...)

Audience Profile:

Male 74.6%
Female 25.4%
Median Age 36
Attended/Graduated College+ 86.9%*
Masters of Doctorate Degree 24.4%*
Professional/Mangerial Occupations 57.6%*
Average Household Income $41,200.00
Homeowners 75.3%*
Second Homeowners 11.4%
Personal Computer Ownership 32.0%*
Plan to Acquire Personal Computer
Next Twelve Months 34.8%*
Annual Hardcover & Paperback
Book Purchases 28.0%**
Automobile Ownership-Median 2.5
Paid Circulation 200,000
Subscription 82%
Single Copy Sales 18%
Readers per copy 2.2
Time Spent Reading-Mean Minutes 121**

*Top 5% of all consumer magazines published in the U.S.A.
**Top 1% of all consumer magazines published in U.S.A.

In a cover letter, Bill noted that the common assumption is that the average
SF reader is 16. The survey indicates that the actual audience is comprised
of affluent, well-educated adults. While this, and the relatively low
female turn-out, were, uh, briskly discussed, it should also be noted that
the survey was produced by Mark Clements Research, Inc., a "highly
acclaimed research organization," that it is the only scientifically
controlled study that is exclusively devoted to science fiction.

Another survey is in the works and should be ready by May of this year.


(A Short Note: In forum discussion, Bill repeated a conversation he had
with the publisher of the assorted "World" computer magazines--PC WORLD,
AMIGAWORLD, etc. He was surprised at the fairly high percentage of computer
owners. The WORLD publishers was, too; HIS publications average only around
25%!!!)

Posted by: Canuck on May 14, 2006 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

everybody's getting very sensitive for mother's day. i looked back at my posts trying to find where i'd called people who liked science fiction 'cretins' - i had no luck. thanks to those who have made an attempt to describe the pleasures they derive from sci fi. yes, at some point i'll probably read a little more of the genre.

as for mitchell and houllebecq being sci fi writers: when they use sci fi tropes, that's when i turn off. i don't like either of them that much anyway. but enough about me, what do you think about me etc....

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Blogging is an act of science fiction.

Posted by: cld on May 14, 2006 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK


Houellebecq and Mitchell have used elements of sf and fantasy in some of their novels. HP Lovecraft is a big influence on Houellebecq, who wrote a book-length essay about HPL.

SPIN's my favorite of the novels for some of the reasons Cleek cites above. ACCELERANDO is a nifty collection of novelettes and novellas, but not a novel; it lacks the necessary unity.

Someone above cited Ian McDonald's RIVER OF GODS -- it's a terrific novel, better than any of this year's nominees, but it was originally published in 2004 and won the brit sf association's top award last year. It's been out too long to be eligible for a Hugo. It WAS just published in the U.S., so it's easily available over here for the first time. Those who prefer literary works will find it stylishly written -- McDonald's one of the best prose writers in the field -- and sf "sense of wonder" fans will find plenty of that.

Posted by: Tom B. on May 14, 2006 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

Never in a million years will I understand how grownups can read fantasy and science fiction. So boring; I could DIE from boring. Give me biography and fine novels any day where I can learn about the human condition and its history, and how it fits into today's world.

Heresy: Can't stand Harry Potter. ::::ducking::::

Posted by: Nicely-Nicely Johnson on May 14, 2006 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

I found the ending / underlying plan of Spin to be immensely disappointing. It doesn't make sense if you think about it.

Accelerando is great. Sure, it isn't "tied" together ala Tolstoy, but as a treatment of one possible (real, at some point) future, it is really great and readable.

I couldn't finish "Fire in the Deep." I just didn't care about the characters, or find any connection.

Posted by: Gore/Feingold '08 on May 14, 2006 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

hear hear! on harry frackin' potter, nicely. the onion put it best (as ever):'children, creepy middle-aged weirdos caught up in harry potter craze' (i paraphrase).

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

You may as well begin reading the Song of Ice and Fire series now because you will read it eventually.

It's cinema equivalent is Star Wars (without the shitty prequels). Eventually everyone has to experience it. It's a genre buster and just a great story.

Posted by: Ten in Tenn on May 14, 2006 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

I'd also vote for Accelerando, though as so many others have said and I agree with, Old Man's War was an excellent, if fluffy, read. I hear the sequel answers a lot of the questions from OMW that went unanswered, so I'm looking forward to that.

And I'll also add my voice to the chorus of commenters praising A Song of Ice and Fire. I was daunted by the fact that there were three in the series already, but once I started a Game of Thrones I was completely hooked and tore through the books very quickly. Now I'm all caught up with book four and have to wait for the next one, like everyone else. Argh.

Posted by: Hobbes on May 14, 2006 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

I sort of have to agree with Cleek - Lucretius simply isn't reading the science fiction that might appeal to him.

Lucretius, for alien-free sf examining "the difficulties of being human" try

Cyteen, by C.J. Cherryh

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

The Masters of Solitude by Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin

Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter (there's two more in the series, but they involve aliens)

Shockwave Rider by John Brunner (more accessible than his "masterwork" Stand on Zanzibar)

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (I won't ask you to dive into Cryptomonicom right off the bat, that would be cruel.)

Beggers in Spain by Nancy Kress (If you like it, there's two sequels)

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

For *minimal* alien influence, try

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge.

Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

The Four Lords of the Diamond by Jack Chalker

I'm sure I could add a lot more if I perused my shelves, but these are the ones that stand out in my mind as being "human condition" type stories.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

i wasn't far off:

"Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos Swept Up In Harry Potter Craze"

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

wow, KarenJG, i am humbled by your industry on my behalf.

by way of recompense, i now sincerely promise to buy at least one of the above titles, read it and report back in these comments pages at some point in the next week.

thanks again.

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin hates fantasy? Figures. :D

Hah, actaully I haven't read any of them. I've been more into political books and realismo magico type stuff lately. Also, writing my own.

Posted by: MNPundit on May 14, 2006 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

Since I'm not familiar with the authors you mentioned, I can't just pick one that might give you the best experience... maybe someone else can?

For nearest to our own society, I'd say "Speed of Dark" - an autistic young man in the near future, offered the chance to be "cured" of his autism. Beggars in Spain is also near future, and Coalescent is history-through-near future. A little less accessible, since it flips back and forth between history and the characters' "present" in our near future...

Market Forces is probably the most recent on the list, and should be widely available in bookstores still.

Anyway, please do read one... or some (g)! There are many, many sf books exploring the "human condition" and many authors (not all) do it with excellent writing to boot!

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

btw, I am joking. Also, Song of Ice and Fire will probably end the day after Wheel of Time ends, so you only have to wait a few more years.

Those of unlucky enough to have been hooked on WoT more than 10 years ago... well most harbor some level of hatred towards the series by now but by god, we are going to finish it!

Posted by: MNPundit on May 14, 2006 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

MNPundit "also writing my own" - cool! SF or real-world?

I too am a pre-published novelist (and at this rate, it may be many more years before I take that "pre" off of the title). SF, natch.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I'm relatively new to your site, but have you ever posted your Top Ten SciFi novels? I've been a sporadic but appreciative reader of the genre for 60 years, although I've never been a true fan, and I'm curious if I've missed any supposed big ones.

Posted by: buddy66 on May 14, 2006 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

Lucretius, from someone who liked De Rerum Natura, I would suggest you read Gene Wolfe's _The Shadow of the Torturer_, LeGuin's _The Dispossessed_, John M. Ford's _Growing Up Weightless_, Kim Stanley Robinson's _Antarctica_, Michael Swanwick's _Stations of the Tide_.

I would avoid _The Diamond Age_, which is incoherent and eventually boring. _Beggars In Spain_ has an interesting idea or two but isn't much otherwise. _Lord of Light_ is a great book but rather more fantasy than sf.

Posted by: rilkefan on May 14, 2006 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

thanks for the recommendations, rilke fan. by the end of the week i shall no doubt be hooked on science fiction, incapable of having a conversation with a woman and wearing a cape. joke.

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

There's nothing wrong with not liking science fiction, as far as I can see. The only sci-fi book my girlfriend (who seems at least to me to be a splendid person in general) has ever mentioned enjoying is Connie Willis's _Bellwether_. It seems to me, though, that a variant of Sturgeon's law holds here: perhaps not that much science fiction is great as fiction, but the best of it as fiction is about as good as anything you'll find elsewhere--books like _Doomsday Book_, _Use of Weapons_, _Far Rainbow_ that leave you with that kicked-in-the-stomach feeling I associate with powerful fiction.

The other thing is it seems to me that these arguments always devolve into claims as to whether science fiction talks about the human condition effectively or not. People who don't like sci-fi say it doesn't, people who do say it does. The fact that there are other things besides interactions between people (and nature just as it is, ala Jack London or more obliquely Hemingway or DH Lawrence) that are important, worthy of artistic consideration, seems to be underconsidered (or perhaps misunderconsidered). Science fiction seems to be the only genre that takes such questions seriously as a rule.

Posted by: JakeBCool on May 14, 2006 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Stanislaw Lem, Gene Wolfe, and J.G. Ballard, methinks, have to be taken seriously as writers. Ballard, imho, is the greatest living British stylist. I find it interesting that many of the most popular writers of literature have resorted to incorporating sci-fi elements into their work: Michael Cunningham's latest and some of the work of Jonathan Lethem come to mind. This is also true of good recent film: Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, for example.

Posted by: Phil on May 14, 2006 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, let's not forget Pynchon. Sesshu Foster's latest novel, Atomik Aztek, combines sci-fi with a beat sensitivity and indigenismo. The late Octavia Butler combined sci-fi and race and gender issues to produce some of the most interesting explorations of American consciousness today.

Posted by: Phil on May 14, 2006 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

> Read A Game of Thrones - and see
> if you get hooked.

Unfortunately, you might. GoT was quite good - the first fantasy book I have been able to finish in about 20 years. The next three went progressively and rapidly downhill - one giant deus ex machina waiting to be sprung whenever it suits the author.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on May 14, 2006 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

> The fact that there are other things besides
> interactions between people (and nature
> just as it is, ala Jack London or more
> obliquely Hemingway or DH Lawrence) that are
> important, worthy of artistic consideration,
> seems to be underconsidered (or perhaps
> misunderconsidered). Science fiction seems
> to be the only genre that takes such questions
> seriously as a rule.

Very nicely put.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on May 14, 2006 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

rilkefan - thanks for chiming in! Not having a knowledge of the authors he liked left me with nothing to base my recommendations on. I thought those were the most accessible to non sf readers, but I bow to your knowledge of his literary preferences.

(And _The Diamond Age_ was not incoherent or boring! (Which essentially means that *I* liked it.) So there.)

Different strokes, and all that.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

I'm still trying to get thru the very hungry caterpillar

veryhungrycaterpillar.blogspot.com/

-George

Posted by: The man with the yellow hat on May 14, 2006 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, and also, rilkefan- I agree that Beggars in Spain isn't the best Kress book, but I was limited by the "no aliens" thing. My favorite Kress book is Probability Moon which asks what I think is a particularly apt question in this day of red/blue divide... what kind of culture would you have if the idea that someone else has a different worldview *literally* causes you actual, physical pain?

I have to say, though, the discussions of probability theory practically caused a sonic boom as they zoomed over(my)head.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

KarenJG, I don't think it's possible to make inferences about what sf a person would like based on a long Latin poem about primitive physics - I just recommended stuff I happen to like.

If you made narrative sense out of the last half of _The Diamond Age_, you're a far better reader than I. There's an exciting novel about a girl and her book in there somewhere, but as far as I can tell Stephenson can't keep interested in characters for more than a few chapters and lets arbitrary plotting take over.


Another fine SF novel without much alien taint that might appeal to fans of epic poetry - Simmons's _Hyperion_. I wouldn't bother with the followup novels though.

Posted by: rilkefan on May 14, 2006 at 4:16 PM | PERMALINK

what kind of culture would you have if the idea that someone else has a different worldview *literally* causes you actual, physical pain?
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`
You would have our current world history.=)
The Name, maybe -"Savage Intelligents"

One man or country trying to force their belief system on another, to this day, continues.

From poverty wages, which inflict physical as well as mental pain, to those whom think torture will change anothers belief system mentally and physically.

As far as the Sonic Booms these are air eggs and they can't harm anyone, they will not be created by those whom have harmful intent or greed.
Only those with simple pure, unbiased, unweighted, non prosyletizing thought, that enhances ALL belief systems, will create these snaps pops and cracks.

Those will come after this post and ridicule these words. This I have come to accept.

Be you that are diligent, unbiased, light of heart, with absence of hatred and an indomitable uncorruptible spirit will attain this level.

Be forever diligent, be forever honest, be forever for the universal good and understanding.
-AckSyn JAckSyn

Saper Aude

The Turtles Are We.

Posted by: AckSyn JAckSyn on May 14, 2006 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

More of those air eggs from your post, AckSyn ;-)

But in Kress's novel, just the IDEA that somebody sees the world differently is what causes the pain. As in, somebody says seomthing that shows that they think the world is different than you think it is, and you get a violent, debilitating headache...

Oh. I see what you mean.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

>btw, I am joking. Also, Song of Ice and Fire >will probably end the day after Wheel of Time >ends, so you only have to wait a few more years.

So true.
Song of Ice and Fire is still a better written read. Wheel of Time is great depending on which POV you are in - but definately intended for dedicated fans willing to really, really wait.

Posted by: Canuck on May 14, 2006 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK

I would have no hope of relating to today's WP "Back From Iraq" article without having read/watched military SF&F. Cherryh, Weber, Bujold, Moon, Babylon 5, and Space: Above & Beyond aren't talking about today's military, but they are talking about how military culture responds to new situations.

Reading science fiction and fantasy lets me see parts of the world, the universe, and other worlds that I otherwise never could. It lets me imagine new ideas and new strategies. And it lets me see how people might react to very different lives than mine. SF&F writers can tell more stories because they have more options in character, setting, plot, and theme. People who don't read those stories are probably missing out on some they'd enjoy.

Posted by: Jade on May 14, 2006 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting discussion, as all these book discussions here tend to be. I only wish Kevin had less monomaniacal tastes, and would post about different kinds of fiction every so often -- but it's *his* blog, so nyah, one allows ...

I have sympathy for lucretius, and am impressed by this person's graciousness as the discussion evolved. I'm less charitable in my views about genre fiction, having had a fiancee who has devoted a decade of her life at this point attempting to finish the SF/Fantasy novel she started writing at age 16 ....

I mean, geez ... if you have a book inside of you, then just *write* it. Don't worry about how to storyboard it, how to pitch it to an agent, how to *make it conform* ... I can't tell you how many countless chunks of her paycheck she's spent at seminars, sitting at the feet of Masters of the Genre, or even try to visualize the groaning shelf in her apartment stuffed with manuals, guides and how-to's ... heh, which reminds me, I should really mail her back her copy of Strunk & White ...

I share feelings with some of the sci-fi dissenters here; I grew up loving it (JD Salinger, Arthur C. Clarke and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. were my favorite authors as a young teen) and then grew out of it -- after a dalliance with the estimable Ursula K. LeGuin. I went to an alternative highschool which taught a class on SF (which turned me on to LeGuin), so I've read two fat paperback collections of Hugo/Nebula winner stories and novellas from the Golden Age -- though I couldn't tell you much about them today. I remember plots and ideas, but can't for the life of me recall who wrote them or what the stories were called ...

What happened was that same highschool also taught classes on Thomas Pynchon and TS Eliot, and being exposed to that level of writing (even if it took years to fully comprehend it) instantly ended my literary childhood ...

The problem with sci-fi is embodied in its famed duality between hardcore technicalia and scientific versimilitude, and the more humanistic side of its agenda. It seems that one sort of writer does the one very well, and is painfully weak on the other. Even LeGuin comes up with painful plot-resolving deus-ex-machinas like the FTL communicator (the ansible) in The Dispossessed. With Clarke, you nod at his deep respect for science and groan painfully at his characterizations ... It almost seems like a left brain/right brain kinda thing ... I know of no sci-fi writer who can balance that knife-edge convincingly, and if anyone has recommendations, I'd like to hear them ... Octavia Butler sounds like a very interesting writer picking up on some of the terrain opened up by LeGuin in The Left Hand of Darkness ... I should probably at least check her out.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 14, 2006 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

> .. I can't tell you how many countless
> chunks of her paycheck she's spent at
> seminars, sitting at the feet of Masters
> of the Genre, or even try to visualize the
> groaning shelf in her apartment stuffed with
> manuals, guides and how-to's ...

Sounds like an MA in English Literature from a top-10 university.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on May 14, 2006 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

thanks for the props, bob, but if you go to the most recent comments section (ie 'eating liberally') you will see that i'm not always so gracious.

anyway, to me, the problem with sci fi is that can address 'grand issues of universal import' etc, but i'm more worried about making the payments and how my children will turn out and the fact that i just don't seem to know what's right and wrong any more. sci fi might take my mind off stuff like that for a while, but i kind of feel a duty that, if anything, i should spend more time with my mind *on* them.

Posted by: lucretius on May 14, 2006 at 4:54 PM | PERMALINK

Bob, share with your girlfriend some advice *I* got from a ...well, maybe not grand master, but a writer who actually makes a living at it...

Reading about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Thinking about writing is not writing.

The secret to writing (a novel particularly) is "butt glue." As in, "glue your butt to the chair and WRITE until you're done."

Which reminds me, I'm *supposed* to be writing today... Well, I've got the first part down, anyway. My butt is firmly glued to this chair... But between Kevin and Firedoglake, there's been entirely too much reading and not enough writing today.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

Lucretius

i'm more worried about making the payments and how my children will turn out and the fact that i just don't seem to know what's right and wrong any more. sci fi might take my mind off stuff like that for a while

The best of it won't. But it will make you look at those things in a new light.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

I'm going to dissent from Kevin on Spin - I loved it, and in fact thought the strength of its characters kept it going in spite of an occasionally muddled central conceit. In fact, I would say it's definitely one of my favorite novels of the year, and in the top 10 of the last 5 years.

As a rule, I'm more drawn to a well-told story than I am a brilliant idea (I loved The Time Traveler's Wife, despite the fact that the time travel involved was far more of a story-telling enabler than sci fi per se). A commenter above noted the tendency for hard sci fi to be more about the science than about the fiction, which has turned me off from it in the past. Considering that only an extremely small percentage of technical concepts explored in sci fi are even remotely possible (and even then, requiring rather significant assumptions about resources, physics, and so on), to me the value of speculative fiction has been far more in what is says about people and how they react to the unexpected than its contributions to science per se. I do love the sense of exploration and possibility, though. Just my two cents.

Posted by: Geoff on May 14, 2006 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know if it's technically science fiction, but you can't go wrong with Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber.

Posted by: cld on May 14, 2006 at 5:19 PM | PERMALINK

Cranky:

Nahh, she's a theater MFA from a state university.

KarenJG:

We broke up ages ago, actually (and, I think, fortunately). "Butt glue" is exactly correct :)

lucretius:

Well, that's kinda slidin' into John Gardner "On Moral Fiction" terrain -- and I don't buy it. I think all fiction (and music, too, for that matter) has something inevitably "escapist" about it. I don't like the idea of holding fiction authors to any kind of practical or edifying agenda. Not that there's anything *wrong* with fiction that attempts to address more quoditian concerns; only that agendas cannot be foisted on authors from any critical perspective, no matter how nobly meant. Socialist Realism proved to be an aesthetic dog for a *reason*, you know. And I love me some seriously out-there experimental and postmodern fiction ...

I mean what does *Donald Barthelme* have to say about living in modern society? It's flippin' surrealistic prose poetry, and speaks very intensely to *me* -- but I couldn't rattle off any kind of agenda after the fact of what he's trying to *say* ... Yet he's without question one of my favorite authors -- and often makes me laugh out loud.

Thomas Pynchon -- the greatest living prose stylist writing in the English language today according to Edward Mendelson, and my all-time favorite novelist -- has been excoriated for creating characters with absurd names that merely plug into grand allegorical schemes ... I'd counter that by saying that Pynchon has taken those criticisms to heart and his last two novels show some beautifully moving characterizations. Also, I think his characters have always been deeper than this criticism credits, only suggested obliquely rather than spelled out more traditionally through the omniscient narrator.

Pynchon, to me, fulfills the promise of the best science fiction -- a speculative fiction of the past rather than the future, providing secret histories to show how we've arrived at our cultural moment. Technology, scientific laws and our perverse relationships to power are ever his abiding themes ...

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 14, 2006 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

Geez, Kevin, a couple of months ago, I bought Spin on your recommendation! And now you tell me that you didn't like it? After I've gotten hooked on the guy?

I really, really liked it -- one of the better, more interesting SF novels I have read in a while. I am very fussy about which authors I read, generally sticking with the chosen few, but I found Robert Charles Wilson's book really good. Since Spin, I've picked up about five of his older books from used bookstores -- I've read A Bridge of Years (pretty good, not great), The Chronoliths (better) and just today finished Darwinia (best of the three, maybe better than Spin). I will be starting either Blind Lake or The Harvest this week. Any thoughts?

Posted by: jsmdlawyer on May 14, 2006 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

No kidding about Spin not being memorable!
I had to go to Amazon reviews to remind me of the plot, and it's only been a few weeks since I read it.

Posted by: marky on May 14, 2006 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

I also recently finished the Pandora's Star dyptich of Peter Hamilton. They're a great read---Hamilton really knows how to keep his plot lines going and keep them consistent.

Posted by: marky on May 14, 2006 at 5:42 PM | PERMALINK

I read for pleasure, so I read scifi to the extent I enjoy it. Also fantasy, but lately more scifi (once I finished all the Terry Pratchett books, that is). I have very much enjoyed Lois McMaster Bujold (Miles Vorkosigan books). I recently read Enders Game because my daughter liked it, but I found it only moderately interesting. I have also been reading some military scifi (Honor Harrington and such).

I *rarely* enjoy Hugo winning scifi, because they tend to be depressing. Even when I read literature I tend to avoid the more depressing end of it.

Posted by: EmmaAnne on May 14, 2006 at 5:55 PM | PERMALINK

If you like both Miles Vorkosigan and Honor Harrington, try Elizabeth Moon's Heris Serrano and Esme Suiza books. As well has her new Ky Vatta books. (Three of the planned four Ky books have been published, the other two are "complete" so you can read straight through, if you like.) I like her characterizations far better than Weber's, and the plots are "cleaner" to my mind.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 6:13 PM | PERMALINK

Er. I mean the other two *series* are complete, in case that wasn't clear.

Sheesh.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

Spin is probably not the worst book I have ever read. In a lifetime of reading science fiction it is one of three books I put down without finishing. It was so bad I started talking back to it about the stupidity and innanity of it. The characters are not worth developing and he doesn't bother.
George RR Martin does character development. He creates characters so well that you are able to be sympathetic to the guy that you want to see killed off.

Posted by: thebewilderness on May 14, 2006 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

Martin is great with conversations and setting, and sets up great cliff hangers, which have real suspense to them because he isn't afraid to kill off central, point of view characters from time to time.

Emphasis added.

Funny, I liked A Game of Thrones well enough, but I'm having difficulty getting through the second volume (A Clash of Kings); I'm about 2/3rds through and stalled.

I think Martin is Tolkien's better (sorry, the comparisons with Tolkien are inevitable because both works are just so, well, epic) when it comes to chacaracters: they're complex, multifaceted, and psychologically deep -- just like real people. Martin likely has an edge in plotting, and in dialogue, too. But I think the one area where he's weaker than Tolkien -- and I wonder if anyone else feels the same way -- is setting.

I just don't get a very strong sense for what Westeros looks and feels like. Martin simply doesn't provide much description. I've noticed that Marin (rather irritatingly, IMO) goes on at great length to describe the garb and physical appearance of various characters. But I think he neglects the description of places. It's been quite a while sense I last read Tolkien, but in my mind's eye I can still picture the quiet fields and villages of The Shire, the wide green plains of Rohan, the dark forest of Mirkwood, and the desolate, dry wastes of Mordor. Westeros simply doesn't seem as real as Middle Earth.

Just my .02. But thanks, Kevin, I've been looking for a thread that touches, however tangentially, upon Martin's opus, just so I could get that off my chest. Done.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida on May 14, 2006 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

Literary science fiction ... try Norman Spinrad, anything by him is pretty amazing (I particularly like Little Heroes because of its rock & roll theme). And there is no book in the world of any genre that is as astonishing as Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I also am a big fan of Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin. William Gibson is great, Pat Murphy, too.

Posted by: Nightprowlkitty on May 14, 2006 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

A strong second for Robert Charles Wilson's work. I also like Jack McDevitt's stuff. He one of that rare breed of hard SF writers who excels both at the really cool idea, and believable, interesting characters.

Posted by: LauraJMixon on May 14, 2006 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

Oh and for those still looking, there's always this list of "Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read" By China Miville

http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/50socialist/full/

I haven't read all the books on the list, and didn't like some of them that I have read, but it's a worthy effort to point out sf that appeals to those with a more left-leaning philosophy.

Posted by: KarenJG on May 14, 2006 at 6:50 PM | PERMALINK

Really interesting to see the diametric reactions to Robert Charles Wilson. Some commenters say he's great -- others so bad he's not finishable (and these seem to be sci-fi fans ... )

Anybody have an idea why this is so? How can a book be both award-worthy and killer-awful simultaneously?

As for me ... recently I've read Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves -- a graphically challenging multi-leveled exegesis of an infamous Blair Witch Project-like horror documentary ... the young author is prodigiously gifted and can evoke many different voices believably.

Also David Foster Wallace's short story collection, Oblivion. I consider myself a Wallace fan -- though I know his amphetamine-freak self-consciousness is not for everyone. I think he's brilliant, maybe even a genius -- though his masterwork has yet to be written. Infinite Jest was a fascinating encyclopaedic near-future dystopia -- which got many predictions laughably wrong (amputee Quebecois separatist terrorists in wheelchairs, anyone?) -- and yet, captured the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous so believably and poignantly (without a droplet of excess sentimentality) that the book, for all its flaws and excesses, still stands as the Great American AA Novel ...

The big disappointment: William T. Volmann. Pynchon-heads strongly recommended him to me -- and a blurb likens him to a cross between Pynchon and William Burroughs -- but he's even too creepy and nihilistic for my blood, and that's saying a lot. He's got this obsession with prostitutes and prostitution that goes well beyond the anthropological ... And while there are decided echoes of Burroughs at low points on his mental health chart -- there's not very much genuinely Pynchonian. That laurel's still worn by Wallace ...

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 14, 2006 at 7:15 PM | PERMALINK

"I just don't get a very strong sense for what Westeros looks and feels like. Martin simply doesn't provide much description. I've noticed that Marin (rather irritatingly, IMO) goes on at great length to describe the garb and physical appearance of various characters. But I think he neglects the description of places."

As the series progresses, you get to know Westeros a lot better. The beginning is mostly centered on what the lords and ladies experience in Winterfell and King's Landing (and Dany's PoV) but later on people are tramping around more and visiting other areas of the Seven Kingdoms, and mixing with the common folk more and visiting more obscure castles and towns. Eventually you get a real feel for the differences between, say, the North, Dorne, the Iron Islands, the Riverlands, Highgarden, etc., as we shift back and forth between the PoVs.

Maybe he doesn't do it as well as Tolkein, but I think most fans who are current with the series come to think of Westeros as a living, breathing place.

Posted by: aplomb on May 14, 2006 at 7:15 PM | PERMALINK

Whenever I think of lit snobbery now I think of Paul Giamatti's asshole character in Sideways, writing a 1000 page novel centered around his father dying, or something like that. There really is a certain breed of lit snob who reads primarily for the pleasure of condescending toward the reading tastes of others. It was easier, I suppose, in the past, when literacy alone could allow the elite to feel superior to the masses; now you have to actually seek out the most pretentious, plotless drivel you can find. It's tough these days.

I'm not sure how contemporary lit snobs felt about Twain, Orwell, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc., but it's pretty obvious how today's lit snobs would have felt had they been around at the time. There would be nothing but dripping contempt for their linear, coherent plots, and for their lack of willfully obscure allusions. Good thing few people other than undergrads majoring in English pay attention to the reading recommendations of lit snobs...

Posted by: ChiSox Fan in LA on May 14, 2006 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

rmck1,
Having married an MFA myself, I know what you mean. But my point was that I didn't see much difference between what your girlfriend was doing and what goes on in the typical master's degree in E.Lit at a first-rank university. Except that as much as your girlfriend paid, it probably wasn't as much as 3 years tuition at such a school.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on May 14, 2006 at 8:21 PM | PERMALINK

Mild spoiler on Song of Ice and Fire follows

> but later on people are tramping around
> more and visiting other areas of the Seven
> Kingdoms, and mixing with the common folk
> more and visiting more obscure castles
> and towns.

Don't get too attached to those common folk. Combine the climate situation with a scorched-earth war just before harvest, and I don't see how less than 1/3 if not 2/3 of them can avoid death by starvation.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on May 14, 2006 at 8:24 PM | PERMALINK

Accelerando by Charles Stross is available for free download at:

http://www.accelerando.org/

It's a fixup novel, nine short stories relating the history of three generations of a dysfunctional family as told from the viewpoint of the family's cat.

He's also got a new novel, "Glasshouse", coming out in June. It combines PTSD treatments for war vets in the 27th century with chunks of the Milgram torture experiments and a dash of 1950s style American suburban conformity all wrapped up in a spy-thriller cum murder mystery. I suspect this book will make the Hugo novel list for 2007 although it will be up against Vinge's "Rainbows End".

Science fiction is the literature of "what if". The EngLit novel industry has been exploring the human condition for the past hundred and fifty years until all that is left to look at is a greasy spot on the tarmac. SF has been asking "what comes next" for only eighty years or so and still has a long way to go and is still a live culture.

If you like prose stylists you will find them in SF -- Bester, Wolfe (Gene, not Thomas), Sturgeon, Ballard. If you want ideas about where the human race is going and how we might get there, look at Vinge, Sterling, Varley. Big concepts, trans- and post-human thinking, well there's Stross, Egan, Baxter (minus the mammoths) and the older masters like Stapledon and Huxley.

Theodore Sturgeon is the one who coined the famous saying "Ninety percent of everything is crap." This is true of SF as it is of all literature. The difference is that SF is still being written, literature is a shambling zombie sucking on brains in the academic world.

Posted by: Robert Sneddon on May 14, 2006 at 8:24 PM | PERMALINK

Funny, I can't get through most of Stross's stuff--with one exception. He wrote a short story, "A Colder War," that is available online and is just stunning; a meditation on mutual assured destruction and nuclear weapons filtered through H.P. Lovecraft. And I loved Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution books, so I keep trying to like what he's written since; but so far no such luck.

As for SF and fantasy, I still read it, and every once in a while find something to really love, most recently Peridio Street Station. But let's face it, if Sturgeon was alive today, he'd up his percentage to about 98.

Posted by: gzk on May 14, 2006 at 9:04 PM | PERMALINK

Robert Sneddon, please. Charlie's a sweet guy, but he's not the Kwisatz Haderach, and frankly, Accelerando is pretty weak as a novel. It's been a weak year in a listless genre.

Canuck, those stats you quote? They're from the late 1980s or early 1990s. Combined paid circulation for Analog and Asimov's is below 100 K, and dropping fast. And it's not only magazine sales that have declined. [rummages] Ah:

"[T]he IPSOS survey firm reported that the SF/Fantasy category of popular fiction sold 20,181,000 books in 2003. [...] That's about 6% of the total popular fiction market (and down about half a percentage point from the previous year).

Total sales of popular fiction (in all formats -- hardcover, mass market and trade paperback) rose 1.6% to 662,696,000 books in 2003.

Romance was 33.8% of that, and mystery/spy/suspense was 25.6%. General fiction was 24.9%, and "other" (including religious, occult, historical, western, male adventure and movie tie-ins) was 9.7%."

So SF/F has been losing ground in a growing market. Sounds about right. (I wonder what the median age of the readership is. Probably about 45-50.)

Posted by: Carlos on May 14, 2006 at 9:19 PM | PERMALINK

Funny, I liked A Game of Thrones well enough, but I'm having difficulty getting through the second volume (A Clash of Kings); I'm about 2/3rds through and stalled.
Posted by: P.B. Almeida

make it through ... the 2nd book was the weakest thus far, IMO. The 3rd book is un-fucking-believeably good.

I see what you mean WRT setting ... characterization is done so well that I forget the scarcity of some other details. also, wars and battles are rarely, if ever, described, which is a welcome novelty. less rip-roaring adventure, but more head games.

Posted by: Nads on May 14, 2006 at 9:53 PM | PERMALINK

I like SciFi, but prefer fantasy. Good writing is good writing. I don't expect outstanding literature in genre writing, but think there's no reason why the very best writing of a genre shouldn't be acknowledged as good literature. "The Dispossessed" simply is a great novel, for example.

The Fire & Ice series is going downhill just as the Wheel of Time series has done. Bang up first book, an OK second book setting up some interesting situations, and slog, slog, slog since then. Tyrion is a spectacular character and Arya is not far behind, but the rest? Yawn. Becoming more cardboard with every page. Place is generic "ye old fantasy land", and the politics are not very well done. Too much signaling of what is going to happen, too much predictability, too much unbelievable and tasteless gore for gore's sake. Also, magic saves the day too often.

Tolkien isn't the appropriate comparison, as he was writing something that was only tangentially a "fantasy" work. He was writing a reflection on the triumph of modernity and the loss of G-d in the 20th century. It started with his own experiences of WWI and came to a sharp and despairing head during WWII. The works were both escape from and answer to his own sense of loss.

As to place, JRRT was a sharp naturalist. His descriptions of physical locations are direct and exact, particularly with regards to vegetation. Martin can't touch it, but that's no real slam on him as very few writers have that detailed a view on their environment.

As for good fantasy, please read "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell" if you want something exceptional.

fercryinoutloud

Posted by: fercryinoutloud on May 14, 2006 at 10:14 PM | PERMALINK

I can't believe everyone's letting Kevin get away with this 4-of-7 nonsense. A Feast for Crows was supposed to be the 4th of 4. It ended up being way too long to fit in a single volume (even the mammoth volumes of this series). But it finished the series.

Martin divided the 4th book into 2 volumes -- A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. They have both already been written. The second will be published in 6-8 months. We've already read the first chapter.

Reading The Song of Fire and Ice is a lot of work. But it is well rewarded every step along the way. But please don't pretend it's more work than it is.

Posted by: scotus on May 14, 2006 at 10:15 PM | PERMALINK

I was given a Wheel of Time novel as a gift a few years ago. I finished it only as an act of good faith and gratitude. I have have barely spoken to the people responsible since.
I've read some rubbish in my time, but this was unreadable rubbish.
And kudos to the person earlier who made the comments re adults and fantasy/science fiction/Harry Potter. These are the literary equivalents of Super Size Me, but without the rewarding slaty, fatty taste...

Posted by: MO on May 14, 2006 at 10:16 PM | PERMALINK

Make that salty. It's getting cold down here and the neurons aren't working as they should.

Posted by: MO on May 14, 2006 at 10:17 PM | PERMALINK

aplomb:

If you wan to see what westeros looks like, you may want to check out The Hedge Knight, a graphic novel set a few generations before the events of SOIF.

Posted by: Bryon Gill on May 14, 2006 at 10:32 PM | PERMALINK

Chisox Fan in LA:

> Whenever I think of lit snobbery now I think of Paul Giamatti's
> asshole character in Sideways, writing a 1000 page novel centered
> around his father dying, or something like that. There really is
> a certain breed of lit snob who reads primarily for the pleasure
> of condescending toward the reading tastes of others. It was
> easier, I suppose, in the past, when literacy alone could allow
> the elite to feel superior to the masses; now you have to
> actually seek out the most pretentious, plotless drivel
> you can find. It's tough these days.

You know, at the risk of introducing snark into an otherwise
fairly pleasant thread -- I can tell you, Chisox, that it's
*quite* easy to feel superior to drivel like the above :)

Gee whiz ... you like books, man? Really? Which ones? Why?

Nope, not a word about the kind of fiction you like, just
misdirected bile at nameless, faceless "literature snobs."

> I'm not sure how contemporary lit snobs felt about Twain, Orwell,
> Dickens, Shakespeare, etc., but it's pretty obvious how today's
> lit snobs would have felt had they been around at the time.

It's quite obvious that you know next to nothing about literature.
Start educating yourself with Hawthorne and Melville -- and pay
close attention to the difficulty that those two great American
writers had their entire careers existing in the marketplace. These
guys wrote to tell uncomfortable truths about American culture
-- and American culture was most often less than responsive.

> There would be nothing but dripping contempt for their linear,
> coherent plots, and for their lack of willfully obscure allusions.

Well, that's a truly moronic statement, considering that literary
experimentalism didn't get underway in a genre-influencing manner
until well after WW2. Sure, there were the Chinese boxes of Tristram
Shandy -- the 18th century's precursor to metafiction -- but while
prized as a curio, nobody ever considered it a coherent work or a
anything remotely like a great novel, either. And yes, there was
the artistic ferment between wars that produced TS Eliot, Ezra Pound,
Gertrude Stein, James Joyce -- but they weren't widely influential
until decades later. And you know, while I'm a certified Thomas
Pynchon freak, I've never managed to get past page 2 of Ulysses ...

I somehow didn't grow up *resenting* James Joyce or his
legions of admirers and academic boosters for it, though.

> Good thing few people other than undergrads majoring in English
> pay attention to the reading recommendations of lit snobs...

And a good thing that jealous guardians of personal ignorance don't
have much of an influence on books either way. Most of the formal
innovations of high modernism -- stream of consciousness, analepsis,
nested chronological schemes, shifting PsOV -- have been duly
assimilated into more "mainstream" fiction -- sci-fi, especially.
Joseph Heller's monumental (and hugely popular) Catch-22, Vonnegut's
Slaughterhouse-Five, are impossible to imagine without them.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 14, 2006 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

I just finished teaching a course on sci-fi for high-school seniors. We read Snowcrash, Neuromancer, Dune (all three adored by the class) and Stranger in a Strange Land, which they found to be dated, to peter out badly and to hit the reader over the head with its message. Next year I'll probably replace it with either Ender's Game or The sparrow (Andrea Doria Russell, which is the most thought-provoking sci-fi I've read lately.
I'd say that the great advantage of sci-fi as a genre (and don't get me wrong - I also greatly appreciate people like Houllebecq and DFW) is that it allows spectcular thought experiments - let's tweak an epistemological or ontological given just a little bit, and see what happens.

Oh, and Tolkien - "Proust for 11-year olds" (Louis Menand). My father knew JRRT, and describes him as "an exceptionally boring, monotonous lecturer, who would occasionally look up from his notes and grace us with the most beatific smile."

Posted by: The Sophist on May 14, 2006 at 11:08 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, there's one reason I haven't yet seen mentioned for why you may want to go ahead with the Song of Fire and Ice Series: George is writing a series whose events are much more like history than like typical narrative. You can read about the Napoleonic Wars and want to know more without feeling like you shouldn't start until you have a volume about the next decades in hand. There are genuine plots in George's series but they are not following any dramatic convention of development. So you read about people's lives for this period of time, and then you read about them in the next period.

I think this history-like quality is a big part of what many of us fans rave about, but not everyone articulates it quite this way.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh on May 14, 2006 at 11:56 PM | PERMALINK

fercryinoutloud:

Very articulate and intelligent post; I'm quite sympatico to your POV on what makes good stories.

I managed to avoid the JRRT craze (I came of age in the 70s), but recently did see the three Peter Jackson movies. Absolutely; LotR is an allegory of the modern world, conceived in the despair between the two wars that produced so much great and painful reflection on the collapse of an old order ...

You touch on why it is that I don't read much genre fiction. It's not that I have some kind of superiority complex, or treat fiction as a kind of intellectual puzzle (that's not the sort of [post]modernist lit I prefer), or even that I haven't been known to wolf down the occasional Stephen King copped in an airport or train terminal (the guy knows how to spin a yarn) ...

It's that I can't stand feeling *manipulated*. And this speaks to the reason I'm not very fond of pop music as well. Sure -- commercialism is the mechanism by which the stuff gets that way -- but the essence of Bad Art, to me is, plainly put, predictability ...

So it really marred an otherwise entirely excellent novel when the ansible pops up at the end of The Dispossessed to solve the philosophical problem that animated the development of Shevek's character from the beginning. This is just what you mean by magic saving the day all too often ... Because technological feats like this conform to no known physical laws save the author's imagination, they feel entirely unearned ...

It's not that the fantastic can't be woven into an evocative novel; I think Lem's Solaris is one of the best hardcore science fiction novels ever written, because it desperately seeks but ultimately cannot explain the phenomena on the surface of the planet ... the focus becomes both psychological for the characters and historicist for the fascinating, Borges-like development of Solarian theories ...

It's not that my preferred aesthetic forbids "happy endings" or neatly tying up plotlines in the name of postmodernist aporia -- Gravity's Rainbow has one of the most haunting centipetal endings in modern literature precisely *because* plot-ends are tied together (though you'd never know it by the first generation of reviews), or that novelty has to take precedence over sentiment.

It's a tricky, difficult high-wire act to balance these elements, and what it yanks out of authors who are successful at it is what we call Art.

And no formula can ever ultimately account for it.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 15, 2006 at 12:23 AM | PERMALINK

i had many arresting moments with michael moorcock and ray bradbury as a teenager, but 'dune' broke me.

That's like saying you were into fiction, but 'atlas shrugged' broke you. All this meant was that you'd matured beyond your teenage years.

Reading fiction to explore the human condition is insane, because fiction remakes the world as if God existed.

Posted by: Goran on May 15, 2006 at 1:02 AM | PERMALINK

"By the end of the week I shall no doubt be hooked on science fiction, incapable of having a conversation with a woman and wearing a cape"

I don't care if you think that SF is the greatest thing since sliced bread, or not. That's fucking funny!

Posted by: SteveK on May 15, 2006 at 3:17 AM | PERMALINK

SF is fiction that stimulates an emotion (or possibly a brain state) that isn't generally recognised or respected -- the emotion that SF fans call the "sense of wonder".

I suspect that this is the same emotional state that is stimulated by religion -- which might explain why many SF fans have a religious attachment to the genre, and why so many fans are atheists (they don't need religion, they're getting their fix elsewhere).

Posted by: Arnold Bocklin on May 15, 2006 at 4:00 AM | PERMALINK

JakeBCool, I concur about "Doomsday Book" and "Use of Weapons". Both are great books. I would add

Earth Abides (by George R. Stewart)
The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clarke)

The Clarke novel has little character development or insight into the human condition, but anyone who thinks that every serious work of fiction needs to be strong in these two aspects is completely missing the point.

Posted by: PostHuman on May 15, 2006 at 4:40 AM | PERMALINK

Arnold Brocklin: "SF is fiction that stimulates an emotion (or possibly a brain state) that isn't generally recognised or respected -- the emotion that SF fans call the "sense of wonder".

"I suspect that this is the same emotional state that is stimulated by religion -- which might explain why many SF fans have a religious attachment to the genre, and why so many fans are atheists (they don't need religion, they're getting their fix elsewhere)."

-----------------

Sorry Arnold, you are wrong. If you were widely read in science fiction, you would be staggered by its incredible diversity. There are no dogmas, no standard teachings -- and that alone puts science fiction outside the realm of religion.

Religion: "Shut up and believe in this book and in no others."

Science fiction: "What is verifiable fact? What is pure guesswork? We can help you think about the difference by bombarding you with literally millions of very distinct futures."

Posted by: PostHuman on May 15, 2006 at 5:10 AM | PERMALINK

rmck1 wrote: I know of no sci-fi writer who can balance that knife-edge [of science and character development] convincingly, and if anyone has recommendations, I'd like to hear them ...

Iain Banks: "Use of Weapons". After you read this, I guarantee that the man known as Cheradenine Zakalwe will be one of the most memorable characters you have ever encountered anywhere in fiction.

There are many more great stories. "Use of Weapons" is recent enough that you should have no trouble finding a copy.

Posted by: PostHuman on May 15, 2006 at 5:30 AM | PERMALINK

PostHuman:

I dunno if that's precisely what Arnold Brocklin was saying. I think he's arguing that the "sense of wonder" found/exploited in sci-fi rather *displaces* the religious impulse -- and that might be why so many fans and authors of the genre tend toward atheism ...

I dunno how true that is as matter of empirical fact -- but certainly mouthpieces for the genre like Isaac Asimov were well-known as anti-religionists. As for other authors and fans -- I'm not so sure. Certainly there's a *deistic* impulse that runs through the whole notion of creating imaginary worlds, and many sci-fi stories take up themes that are at least sociologically congruent with the religious impulse ... I'd say that negotiating with superior lifeforms, with the whole idea of order in creation, of overthrow of overlords -- are not only staples of sci-fi thematics, but are also steeped in theological implications -- although clearly not of an orthodox or dogmatic sort.

As for The City and the Stars -- I loved that book as a 14-year-old, flawed and stiff as a first novel as it is. The twin cities of Diaspar and Lys, the talking insect Krif, the interstellar creature Vanamonde -- embossed on the very fabric of space -- as well as descriptions of the city's ceramic mosaics, the hidden rail line to the forgotten city of Lys, the ventilator shafts at the roof of Diaspar ... all these things have stayed in my head for a good 30 years, which surely attests to Mr. Clarke's talent as a storyteller.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 15, 2006 at 5:32 AM | PERMALINK

...The sparrow (Andrea Doria Russell, which is the most thought-provoking sci-fi I've read lately.)

That's Mary Doria Russell, you're thinking of the famously torpedoed boat.

Anywho, I love when Kevin has a sci-fi post, I always leave with at least five new books I want to read. And I too am surprised by the lukewarm reactions to Spin. Though the ending was unsatisfying, (the downhill slide began with a certain characters untimely assassination), I still thought the general idea was fascinating and the characters were good, or good enough. Kinda felt the same way about Chronoliths, but again, a very good read.

As far as fully accredited sf high-lit worthy writers, I thought JG Ballards Memories of the Space Age was haunting and beautiffuly written, and Lem is great, as attested to by previous posters.

Posted by: Blame America on May 15, 2006 at 8:39 AM | PERMALINK

Old Man's War (read on Instapundit's rec) : Pretty good sci-fi fluff.

Spin (read on Kevin's rec): I liked contemplating the physics of it, wished I had lost it just before finishing so I could wonder how it gloriously ended (not).

George R.R. Martin series: Awesome read. The character of the Imp reminds me of Claudius from "I, Claudius". The plot twists and dialog and descriptions overwhelm the fantasy parts, which are pretty small. I disagree with whoever made the deus ex machina comment. In the middle of the third book at the moment. Stands above its genre. Not quite the literature of Patrick O'Brien's seafaring books, but most excellent.

Other super interesting book recently read...The Nature of Order by Christopher Alexander.
http://www.natureoforder.com/

Posted by: Red State Mike on May 15, 2006 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

I keep hearing the name JG Ballard in these threads ... more than a few times, and always with the highest praise for his/her literary gifts ...

Okay, as long as the thread appears to be nearly played, let me rant s'more about two more favorite (if problematic) postwar American novelists:

I *adore* William Gaddis. He's a disshevelled mess, a repetitive, decadent, Burroughsian monomaniac -- but his vision is exemplary. He's also precisely the kind of writer who would annoy Chisox to no end -- precious, full of his noble self, obscure to the point of overwrought convolution -- and made an object of cult worship of by the postmodern generation of literary authors that followed. DFW homie Jonathan Franzen (the guy who wouldn't let Oprah carry his hot new book in her book club) named The Corrections as a homage to Gaddis' dark, unsung masterpiece The Recognitions -- a book (about artistic authenticity in an age of mechanical reproduction) I very much need to read again.

Concision is Gaddis' friend; his short novel Carpenter's Gothic is an utterly fantastic read, a well-plotted crystallization of the Gaddis apocalyptic. A Folly of His Own -- about the absurdities of the legal system -- has some fine satiric moments in it and well-drawn characters, but it suffers from being too long and repetitive, though still eminently worth reading. His magnum opus, JR, won a National Book Award a year after Gravity's Rainbow -- but it's a formal experiment in sustained squalor that's -- sad to say -- virtually unreadable (though I did somehow manage to finish it).

I'm also quite find of Don DeLillo, though he doesn't quite live up to his immense literary reputation. White Noise, Mao II and Libra are all very finely-wrought books, with deep things to say. DeLillo carries some of Pynchon's concerns with the technics of modernity, though he aims more at emotional realism. That makes his style somewhat more button-down, flatter -- though he achieves a Pynchonianly intense level of historical versimilitude. His long and highly acclaimed Underworld has a positively hysterical Lenny Bruce routine on the night of the Cuban Missle Crisis ...

Still ... there's something about DeLillo that leaves me a little cold; I didn't think Cosmopolis was all that good (about a NYC gazillionaire driving downtown to get a haircut stuck in traffic all day) -- its moment quickly overshadowed by 9/11. He's great at evoking overlooked detail, but seems less than the sum of his parts; the Big Picture isn't gripping in the way of Gaddis and Pynchon. I'd have to say Libra -- an imagination of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald that "solves" the assassination conspiracy -- is probably my favorite of DeLillo's, as it's the most conventionally novelistic.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 15, 2006 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

worship of by = worship by
find = fond

Posted by: rmck1 on May 15, 2006 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK
Sorry Arnold, you are wrong. If you were widely read in science fiction, you would be staggered by its incredible diversity. There are no dogmas, no standard teachings -- and that alone puts science fiction outside the realm of religion.

The element of religion that he was claiming SF was parallel to was the appeal to a sense of wonder, not dogmatism. So, in claiming that he is wrong and then attacking the absence of dogmatism in SF, you are attacking a strawman.

Further, while dogmatism is a feature of some religious systems, its not a universal feature of religion, so certainly highlighting the absence of dogmatism isn't a good way to cast doubt on the "SF appeals to the same sense as religion" idea.

I think there is some truth to Arnold's idea -- beyond the sense of wonder, I think it appeals to the kind of broadmindedness and willingness to consider that things could be different either than they in fact are or than they are accepted to be, which are common respectively in less dogmatic and less judgemental varieties of religion.

Posted by: cmdicely on May 15, 2006 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

rmck1,

Hey, this thread ain't dead until someone mentions "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." For some reason I doubt that book would be very popular these days.

Posted by: Tripp on May 15, 2006 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

River of Gods was on the 2005 Hugo ballot for Best Novel, because a lot of people did read it in 2004.

Shakespeare and Dickens and Twain were writing the low-brow popular fiction of their times; most of the "respectable" literature of those times is now largely forgotten. This doesn't mean that Harold Robbins necessarily has a future in English literature curricuula as one of the literary giants of the 20th century (most popular trash of past ages is also now forgotten)--but it does mean we shouldn't be too quick to assume, on the basis of current respectability and/or popularity, that we know who will occupy that spot.

Why do people read sf? Not because it's about gadgets or aliens, but because it's about people, human beings, and how they react to new problems and strange environments. In literary fiction--the genre that thinks it isn't a genre--the writer gets the world as a freebie, and invests all the strangeness and creativity in the characters, characters who behave and react, all too often, in ways that are wholly implausible if you make the mistake of thinking of them as real personalities, rather than literary constructs. And going hand in hand with unreal character behavior is the implausibility or total absence of plot.

What genres other than the literary genre offer (not just sf, but fantasy, romance, and mystery, as well) is the realistic style of storytelling, something currently out of favor in the literary genre. The less respectable genres still remember the basic, underlying purpose of all literature, the undergirding beneath whatever specific purpose a particular writer might have: Tell me a story. That's the basic rule. You can break that rule, and still produce something good, even wonderful--but only if you remember that the rule exists, and know why you're breaking it. Most writers in the literary genre have forgotten.

I'm another person unwilling to embark on a Very Long Fantasy Series, even in the hands of a very good writer, and not willing to vote for a middle novel of a long series that isn't completed yet for the Best Novel Hugo. The other four--I enjoyed them all, but I agree that Accelerando is the one that ought to win. Yes, it's a fix-up; it's an extremely well-done fix-up, and a really fine piece of work overall.

Posted by: Lis Carey on May 15, 2006 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

Bob/rmck1--
I find myself allergic to most of the current big-name writers like DeLillo, Wallace, etc. (I found John Dolan's evisceration of _The Corrections_ to be unspeakably enjoyable (http://www.exile.ru/2002-March-21/book_review.html)), but that first scene in _Underworld_ is also nearly magical, putting together the shot heard round the world, Jackie Gleason & co., and the interaction between the other two characters in the stands.

Posted by: JakeBCool on May 15, 2006 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

I'm going to be a contrarian with regard to George WW Martin.

I've always had a hard time sustaining my interest in fantasy. After Tolkien, everything else seems derivative and repetitive (not that Tolkien himself wasn't derivative, but he made up for it) and Martin especially so. I'm only 300 pages in to Game of Thrones, but I find his settings to be simplistic and his characterizations just so-so. The most unique aspect of his plots is the shock factor, but for that I feel like I could just go read some Gor novels. Seems like Martin's appeal is to adult-sized adolescent boys.

Posted by: Gor on May 15, 2006 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Recommended SF&F for non-sf&f fans:
_The Man in the High Castle_, by Philip K. Dick. [Actually, I thought that was, by law, the first recommendation in lists of this sort.]
_Hart's Hope_ by Orson Scott Card, before he went crazy. [Ender's Game gets all the attention, but this is a beautiful book. Yes, I know the last page is a steal from a famous short story - what of it?].
_Freedom and Necessity_, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. Sparkling wit, compelling characters, social significance, and a delightful guest appearance by Friedrich Engels.

Not necessarily my top recommendations, but books that depend relatively little on established conventions of SF&F and thus are more accessible to those unfamiliar with them.

Posted by: Skott Klebe on May 15, 2006 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

JakeBCool:

I tend to agree with those observations. The first scene in Underworld, with Jackie Gleason chain-munching hotdogs and throwing up next to J Edgar Hoover in the ballpark, is almost worth that entire brick of a book. One of the best scene-openers of any novel I know ...

I'm also trepedatious about dipping my toes into Franzen, Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, etc.; I'm fully aware of the bad press. DFW's two recent collections have been panned, somewhat exasperatedly, by critics still in awe of his talent. Oblivion was a mixed bag for me -- still enough moments of brilliance to sustain my infatuation, though his style can be quite grating. And as I noted above, William T. Volmann -- who I heard so many good things about -- turned out to be a thanatophilic pervert ... sigh.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 15, 2006 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

The hero turns out to be a cat!

...

Kevin, you owe me a new keyboard for that, you lovable optimist.

Posted by: Charlie Stross on May 15, 2006 at 5:49 PM | PERMALINK

Lis Carey:

Well, it's kind of amusing to speak of the novel as "high art" or belles lettres at all, considering that the novel was decidedly a low, popular form that took a century or so to gain any respect at all (universities in America didn't teach the novel until the 20s -- and under much dissent, just as cinema wasn't part of college curricula until the 50s).

Which is why speaking of Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain (oh my!) as lowbrow champions is kind of a red herring; there wasn't the sort of widespread learning and book publishing available in the 19th century to give a mass audience much of a *choice* between these streams.

While I totally agree with you that the anonymous and collective cultural process which creates greatness is unknowable and high vs low no predictor centuries hence, I think you're slighting modern literary fiction with a few overdrawn stereotypes.

First, there *is* something called commercialism which makes it very, very difficult for authors to tell uncomfortable truths about society, and it's not merely a product of the 20th century mass market. As I noted earlier, the careers of Hawthorne and Melville are instructive in this regard. And while, yes, storytelling is of the essence, the demands of generic convention can quash human characters and believable plots as easily as contrived experimentation.

The idea that modernist/postmodernist fiction is somehow plotless or somehow unconcerned with plot is for the most part a straw man. There was a very small subset of literary innovators (Joyce and Stein were the main progenitors) who cut to the heart of structure, and in the interest of existential truth, produced self-conscious, self-referential narratives that tried to fracture the relationship between author and reader. (e.g. some works of John Barth, Robert Coover and William Gass.) But this was a very narrowly read subset of academic fiction that -- unlike Pynchon, Wallace and DeLillo -- never made it anywhere near a middlebrow critic's list of great novels or a book award committee -- let alone the best seller list. Even Gaddis' "fiction of waste" JR -- a book intentionally mired in repetitive, squalid, unmemorable detail (as a metacritique of capitalism) has a conventional, linear plot.

What has happened, rather, is that many of the formal innovations of early 20th century modernism have become assimilated into all but the most hidebound genres. The stream-of-consciousness interior monologue we owe to Faulkner and Henry James. The chronological structure of LeGuin's The Dispossessed -- alternating chapters set on different worlds which go in opposite chronological directions until the last chapter of the first set is followed by the first chapter of the second set -- we owe to literary modernism. Plots have become complex, narrative omniscience problematized, perspective and PsOV more broadly distributed. While this might make a book a shade more difficult to read than your usual conventionally plotted novel -- this has all been done in the interest of storytelling, not experimentation. These devices were picked up from their innovators because they *worked*.

While I agree with you that literary modernism's biggest problems are with characterization, I most emphatically disagree that modern literature presented the world as a "gimmie" in order to focus its innovative energies on characters. Quite the reverse. It's conventional genre fictions that take the world as a gimmie (even extraordinarily fanciful worlds) -- at least at the level of social relations -- in order to focus the energy of emotional sympathy/antipathy on characters. As Ursula K. said about the Golden Age of sci fi: it's the Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri.

High modernism -- at least the postwar apocalyptic fictions that have been claimed as the precursors of postmodernism -- is attempting to do quite the opposite: Find the extraordinary in the ordinary, to locate the tragic turn in history, to find the aporias -- Unbehagen, Angst, to use Heidegger's terminology -- that lurk beneath the surface of everyday events. And this is why their characters so often seem so stilted -- off on boobish quests that they half-understand, or often just allegorical stick-figures representing some social process in the larger historical conspiracy. This is the eternal criticism of Pynchon's work through Gravity's Rainbow -- and I'd argue passionately against it -- but as an overview of DeLillo, Vonnegut, Heller, Barth, Pynchon -- it's true enough as it stands.

But Mr. Pynchon as usual has the last word. His NYT Book Review essay "Is it OK to be a Luddite?" is edifying here, starting with CP Snow's "two cultures" (scientific and literary, but also High and Low), it's a thumbnail on the history of the Gothic novel, and its central trope, the Badass. Pynchon's been on the knife-edge between high and low cultures his entire career, attempting to destroy the artificial boundaries between them, out of a deeply felt humanist universalism that is the antithesis of snobbery, literary or otherwise.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 15, 2006 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK
Well, it's kind of amusing to speak of the novel as "high art" or belles lettres at all, considering that the novel was decidedly a low, popular form that took a century or so to gain any respect at all (universities in America didn't teach the novel until the 20s -- and under much dissent, just as cinema wasn't part of college curricula until the 50s).

I don't know from "amusing", but certainly its hardly a stunning revelation that something might be regarded today as "high art" through age and progressive acceptance that was, when it first emerged, shockingly vulgar.

While I agree with you that literary modernism's biggest problems are with characterization, I most emphatically disagree that modern literature presented the world as a "gimmie" in order to focus its innovative energies on characters. Quite the reverse. It's conventional genre fictions that take the world as a gimmie (even extraordinarily fanciful worlds) -- at least at the level of social relations -- in order to focus the energy of emotional sympathy/antipathy on characters. As Ursula K. said about the Golden Age of sci fi: it's the Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri.

That seems...backwards. "The Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri" is a fair description of much Golden Age sci-fi, but only, I think, if you interpret that as noting that such fiction takes much of the social context as a gimmie in order to focus energy on the relation between the novel technical elements of the setting and the remainder of the social context (sometimes, this plays out on the micro-level, with an intense focus on characterization, sometimes its on a much more macro level, with the nominally focal characters metaphorically providing something for the zoomed-way-out view to center on -- I'd say that much of Asimov's best-known writing, particular the Foundation trilogy, falls into this category.)

This reflects the classic science-fiction idea of the novel as a kind of thought experiment, where existing society is taken as a given, and the effects of a single or small number of hypothesized developments are explored.


This contrasts with some more modern strands of sci-fi (and "genre fiction" more generally) that abandon the familiar to build most of the social context up from scratch; often, this reflects much the same "experimental" style as Golden Age science fiction, but takes only (for example) human nature as a constant, and posits a radically different environment and sets out to work out the consequences.

Literary fiction, being as it usually is set in the real world (either historical or in the amorphous present) gets to take much more of the context as a freebie, as the reader (presuming common culture, of course) knows what to expect, and tends to focus on character more than most any kind of "genre" fiction, simply because genre fiction is defined largely by what else besides characterization it focuses on.


Posted by: cmdicely on May 15, 2006 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely:

Well, Chris, I don't know where you get the idea that "literary fiction" is focused on character. For the most part it's not. For the most part, the relentless drumbeat of critique from middlebrow dissenters has been that literary fiction gives short shrift to character, that character is played for laughs or allegorized into unbelievability.

At least that's true for the postwar American "black humor" apocalyptics. Maybe this stereotype arose from readings of Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, James, Nabakov, etc.

But after the war, with systems theory, the military-industrial complex, corporate statism, consumerist reification of desire, etc. -- it was the preoccupation of intellectuals at that time that conformist America had entered into a dangerous new age. Consider the non-fiction of that time: The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, The Power Elite, The Affluent Society, Growing Up Absurd, etc. etc. etc. There was a sense of deep crisis emanating directly from the heart of Leave It To Beaverville.

And that's precisely what authors like Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, Heller, Vonnegut, tried to capture. The surreal, ghastly core in the very plexus of normalcy. Because social theory was ascendant, individual motivation was deemphasized. The idea of a protag taking a journey through adversity to wind up with a moral truth was considered widely insufficient. Character-slighting wasn't a result of lack of literary skill (as it often merely is in genre fiction) -- it was a deliberate aesthetic choice, brought on to reflect a new mass reality.

Contrasting this with sci-fi -- even later sci-fi -- reveals a form much more inherently conservative. While sure, for every Heinlein libertarian there's a humanist LeGuin -- the essence of the style still takes human nature as a given.

Contrast this approach with William Golding. His Lord of the Flies took the archetypical "what if" situation, and plunked human nature down into a unique situation stripped of contemporary social norms.

The result was barbarism.

That's the kind of hard truth brought out by the best litarary fiction, IMHO. No escapism allowed.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 15, 2006 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

litarary = literary

Posted by: rmck1 on May 15, 2006 at 8:50 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely:

The contrast I wish to draw here is with fiction which still takes human will and agency as primary. That's what I mean when I say that sci-fi reduces to human nature, or takes it as a given.

The actions of individuals still control events.

Pynchon's fiction proceeds from an entirely different base: Cybernetics, social conditioning, psychological manipulation ... there is ultimately very little a Pynchonian protag or antihero is in control of at the end of the day. It's a literature contra the mythos of individualism -- although Gravity's Rainbow still arguably uses Campbellian mythic templates to structure the picaresque misadventures of Tyrone Slothrop -- although in a parodic and/or self-conscious fashion.

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 15, 2006 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely wrote: Further, while dogmatism is a feature of some religious systems, its not a universal feature of religion, so certainly highlighting the absence of dogmatism isn't a good way to cast doubt on the "SF appeals to the same sense as religion" idea.

That is untrue. -Every- religion has dogma. Every religion enforces (sometimes violently) some central set of beliefs without which the religion would be a different religion, or not be a religion at all. For example, would Buddhism still be Buddhism without Nirvana? Where would the Abrahamic faiths be without the idea of God?

In contrast, science fiction celebrates the exploration of the infinite possibilities of the future. Any idea can be put forward and discussed -- the more mind-blowingly different, the better. We fans only ask that the author be reasonably consistent within the framework of the story. The tolerant attitude of science fiction towards other ideas is completely the oppposite of religion.

Posted by: PostHuman on May 15, 2006 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

rmck1 wrote: I dunno if that's precisely what Arnold Brocklin was saying. I think he's arguing that the "sense of wonder" found/exploited in sci-fi rather *displaces* the religious impulse -- and that might be why so many fans and authors of the genre tend toward atheism ...

No, the "sense of wonder" in science fiction is completely the opposite of the religious impulse, and the reason is precisely the absence of dogma in the one and the suffocating pervasiveness of it in the other. Science fiction readers are hungry for -new- experiences, the more mind-stretchingly different the better. We do not cling to the One and Only Eternal Truth and abjure all other points of view, as religious people do.

Posted by: PostHuman on May 15, 2006 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

rmck1 wrote: As for The City and the Stars -- I loved that book as a 14-year-old, flawed and stiff as a first novel as it is. The twin cities of Diaspar and Lys, the talking insect Krif, the interstellar creature Vanamonde -- embossed on the very fabric of space -- as well as descriptions of the city's ceramic mosaics, the hidden rail line to the forgotten city of Lys, the ventilator shafts at the roof of Diaspar ... all these things have stayed in my head for a good 30 years, which surely attests to Mr. Clarke's talent as a storyteller.

Well, I am glad for you that "The City and the Stars" had such an impact on you. My life, and yours too, I'm sure, has been richer for having read that story. But I suggest that you drop your dismissive attitude towards it. You should read it again, this time as an adult, because the colorful things you loved about it as a kid -- Krif, Vanamonde, perhaps the giant polyp -- were only incidentals to some very deep ideas that Clarke wanted to explore. (Some of which, by the way, were religious.)

Posted by: PostHuman on May 15, 2006 at 9:57 PM | PERMALINK

PostHuman:

Well, I think you're getting hung up on terminology, and in truth I don't think that you, Arnold Brocklin, cmdicely or myself are really disagreeing on anything fundamental.

Don't call it "the religious impulse," if by that you mean the impulse to adhere to religious dogma. Call it something else ...

It's simply a sense of awe. It's that "holy shit!" feeling you get while standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Freud -- that noted atheist -- called it "the oceanic feeling." It doesn't have to be religious; it can be entirely secular -- but the catch-all phrase "sense of wonder" I think works. It means something so mindfuckingly flabbergasting that neither words nor reason can capture it.

And it's a feeling that can be evoked by both religious contemplation and contemplation of things secular, if not, in a sense, any less holy or reverent -- like, say an incredible symphony that took you to musical places you haven't been to before. Or a new girlfriend. Or a good sci-fi story ... Or even an incredible *hamburger* -- if you happen to be stoned enough :)

And while I agree with you that most sci-fi fans are probably secular because they're allergic to dogma, and like open-ended speculation which can be different for each new story -- I don't think this precludes religious people from enjoying science fiction. All you need to do is think of CS Lewis. And beyond the direct Christian allegory of the Tolkien-inspired Chronicles of Narnia, there's his more hardcore sci-fi trilogy which begins with Out of the Silent Planet ...

Beyond this, religion often plays roles within various science fiction universes. After all, an author, being the God his/her work, creates a universe with a certain set of rules, often as rigid as anything religious. Dune has tremendous religious overtones, with prophesy, monastic orders and a Messiah. You yourself mentioned the religious implications in The City and the Stars. And think of Clarke's Childhood's End ... who is over the Overlords?

Because sci-fi so often deals with different races of beings, often with different abilities which lead to dominance and conflict, it's kind of inevitable that the fundamental groundrules would work themselves into the plots. Think of the stories The Nine Billion Names of God. A Canticle for Liebowitz. Even among hardcore science aficionados like Clarke and Asimov, religious questions emerge ...

And then of course there's L Ron Hubbard, who took an exceedingly cheesy sci-fi epic and *turned it into a literal religion* ...

There's no question about it. The sci-fi bone and the religion bone share some ligature ...

Bob

Posted by: rmck1 on May 16, 2006 at 12:17 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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