The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Newspaper of record notices SF author actually good

Mainstream media comment on SF is usually ignorant and derogatory, so it's refreshing to read a major article in the New York Times Magazine about veteran SF author and noted stylist Jack Vance which is respectful, informed and informative. (Via, also worth reading.)

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End of world near :-)

The 'as others see us' whine gets on my wick, to be honest. I think SF authors (and fans) should be more interested in *why* people who aren't SF fans think that, still think that, need reassuring that Cloud Atlas or Never Let Me Go or Under the Skin or whatever don't count as SF. Because what holds Vance back from widespread recognition is the company he keeps - lots of terrible, lazy, badly-written books.

And I think that part of the reason is the Adam Roberts Thesis - - that SF rewards things SF fans like, rather than novels that are well-written or challenging.

If you look at the comments here,, the whiny, entitled, how-dare-he tone of them ... there's yer problem.

When I read Iain Banks or, indeed, Ken MacLeod, I do it as much for the characters and wordplay as for the Big Ideas. I do it to have my worldview challenged by someone smarter and better informed than me, not just a little bit allegorised and exaggerated and stocked with people who don't speak or act like people.

Most of the Hugo nominees, most years, need special pleading. And I think it hurts writers - Stross and Baxter, say, could be so much more if they weren't thinking about someone buying them a beer at an SF convention. They write like SF fans expect them to, and they've got lazy.

Now ... can anyone answer this question: how the F does Neil Gaiman get away with it? The Graveyard Book is *literally* another book with the serial numbers crossed out and the prose enworsenenified. That's not only a description of the book, it's what Gaiman *says* the book is. Is this just the Joss Whedon thing of fans liking something he did in the nineties *so much* that the glow hasn't faded yet?

Anon, I am very severely tempted to delete all anonymous posts that make personal criticisms (of people other than me, that is). Stross is (full disclosure) a friend, and Baxter is a guy I like, so no one can expect me to be objective, but I don't think it's at all fair to say that they write with an eye on 'someone buying them a beer'. They both have a ferocious work ethic, so I don't think they're lazy.

I know, you don't mean they don't work hard at the keyboard - you mean they don't work enough at character and wordplay, at quality rather than quantity. But if you look at how their work has developed, these are precisely the areas where they've improved most.

As to the Adam Roberts Thesis: the fan-based Hugo Awards reward things SF fans like. Quelle surprise. (Not that I don't think he makes some very sharp points.)

I don't see that the tendency of awards to "reward things fans like"-e.g., prejudices and enthusiasms that have nothing to do with quality or merit-is unique to science fiction (this is absolutely the case in the rest of film, literature and media as well, even if the prejudices are different)-or that those prejudices necessarily run counter to "good" literature. A review of the list of Hugo, Nebula or BSFA nominees turns up a lot of accomplished writing.

My thought on this (and at the moment, I'm working on an article that attempts to make some sense of the history of SF during the last few decades) is that the mainstream is mired not only in ignorance of sf (perhaps furthered by the broader fragmentation of culture), but in a prejudice favoring what Literature Ph.Ds call "nineteenth century realism" (which equates "good" drama with things like the sex lives of petit bourgeois doctors and lawyers), while the really elite end of that mainstream is wrapped up in postmodern pretentiousness. This goes at least as much for decisionmakers as broad audiences.

Incidentally, agreed about Stross and Baxter, both of whom I've read and admired. And anyway, if you're really looking to max out the money, you'd probably write something besides hard sf (though for some, that's admittedly easier said than done).

'Anon, I am very severely tempted to delete all anonymous posts that make personal criticisms'

I'm sorry for any offence - it's not my intention to make a personal attack, and I'm definitely going for the ball, not the man. Part of my point is that I don't really care what these guys are like as people, I'm interested in their writing.

I speak as someone who's bought and read every Baxter novel and plenty of Stross ones. There was a point where Baxter looked to be stretching his horizons, but Time's Tapestry and Flood both suffer from 'SF style writing' - things that are bundles of characteristics instead of characters, great chunks of exposition. No ... poetry. Flood has some great ideas and it's stuck with me, but it's almost despite the prose.

Adam Roberts, I think is asking an interesting question: *why* do SF fans like what they like? They like things comfy, they like meat and potatoes writing, there is a definite infantalising tendency. And I definitely think there are books that play up to that market, rather than try to challenge or move it along.

'the mainstream is mired not only in ignorance of sf'

It's not, though. I read Time Traveler's Wife and I thought the basic idea was sub-PKD rubbish ... but the writing and characterisation are leagues ahead of 'SF standard'. And the mainstream loved it. If you think that, say, Never Let Me Go is 'just The Island and there are thousands of SF novels like that' have missed the point spectacularly.

There's a place for all sorts of things, all readers should have a balanced diet. The problem I have with SF is that there's a definite SF dialect, and the people who read books in it are increasingly insular, delighted that people speak like they do and not so worried about what they say, and it's *they* that don't have the balanced diet.

It would be much more constructive to realise that if 'everyone' dislikes SF it might be SF that has the deficiencies, not 'everyone'.

Anon, no offence taken, and maybe I was a bit prickly.

Maybe some more detail on what you mean by 'SF style writing' and 'SF dialect' would help. I don't see that much difference between Baxter's prose in Flood and most popular genre prose (crime, technothriller, etc).

"...the Adam Roberts Thesis: the fan-based Hugo Awards reward things SF fans like. Quelle surprise."

Of course you're right. Though the thrust of the blog piece has to do with the Hugo's prestige as an award, not the voting protocols. Being the genre's blue riband prize seems to me to entail certain responsibilities. I could be wrong, of course.

Steve Baxter is (full disclosure) a friend of mine, and a writer I admire immensely; I agree with Ken that one of the ways he's gotten better over the last decade is precisely by trying new stuff with the form as well as the content of the genre. Not prose style, particularly; he's stayed wedded to a clear declarative approach as far as that goes. But in terms of characterisation, narrative form, metaphorisation and so on he's doing notable and interesting things.

As for Charlie Stross: I'm pretty disobliging about Saturn's Children in that blog post, I know; and Stross has plenty cause to pissed off at reviews I've written about him in the past. He seems to me so self-evidently a major contemporary writer of SF; but maybe I could spend more time restating that apparently self-evident thing before detailing negative criticisms. I didn't think very much of Saturn's Children, true; but it would be insane to suggest that he's a small-c conservative writer, or lacking in imagination. Or balls. A much more significant sf writer than I am myself, for instance.

I'll stress again that I buy every Baxter book in hardback - I can see glimmers of stuff and definite ambition. My frustration is purely that ... well, Iain Banks is one of the great contemporary British novelists, no qualifier needed. Baxter's one of the best *SF* novelists. It's not that I think he's rubbish, it's just the opposite - I think he's brilliant, but I think he's never going to reach all the people he could, or his own artistic potential. I think there's an SF mindset that's limiting him and I think he knows that, but I think it's still trapping him.

The SF dialect I'd say is one characterised by on the nose descriptions, a real avoidance of any sort of ambiguity or lyrical language or wordplay beyond horrible puns or particularly clunky symbolic names (I bet there's a character called Jesus Dawkins in an SF book by now).

When a new detail is revealed, it's not elusively or through hints, someone - usually the omniscient narrator - sits down and explains it. There's often quite a simplistic, mechanistic world - it's a place where there are clear problems with clear solutions.

To avoid accusations of one-dimension characters there's definitely a distinct 1.5 dimensional character in a lot of modern SF ... she's a tough hardnosed scientist - and single mother; he's a oceanographer who's latest discovery will have global consequences - and he's a Muslim. So you get all the 'as you know, Jeff' dialogue with a 'and I'm a single mother' at the end or 'so, ocean floor subduction is increasing exponentially, praise be to Allah'.

Clearly, I caricature a little, but I don't think I'm being *completely* unfair.

Ken - I have every book of yours in hardback - doesn't write in that dialect. It's much more playful. And freeing. I don't know - it just feels more widely read.

My original point was this, really - I agree with Dave Langford that SF is bigger than people on the outside seem to think. They'll get by just fine keeping on thinking that. Most mainstream things have SF tropes and trappings, now, or at least spots of fantasy or magic realism. The 'mainstream' is not averse to SF. As I say, the constructive thing to do isn't just go 'people on the outside think SF is rubbish', it's not even to construct it as 'us and them' it's to ask *why* 'people' think that and to see if a few tweaks might fix the problem.

Anon - I quite agree about the problems of SF writing quality (though, as I said, I don't think it's worse than the level of writing in most popular genres). But the example of Iain Banks does raise a relevant point, which is that lots of mainstream critics (not just reviewers but people in the lit-fic industry generally) who like his mainstream work won't even look at his SF. He'll say something about the next culture book, and they'll say, 'Yes, but when's your next novel coming out?'

But for my money that points to a problem with SF, not with those people. There are plenty of critically-acclaimed novels lately that ... use SF rather than *being* SF as such. Most Atwoods, all the recent Chabons, Under The Skin, Never Let Me Go, Cloud Atlas. Some of that is that if Ishiguro writes SF, the literary fiction types can look at the author's name and hold their nose about the genre. But a lot of it is that Ishiguro's ... well, a good writer.

There are a couple of places where it's not the writers' fault:

I think it ties back to your 'thriller' thing. If there's some crappy writing about, I dunno, terrorists taking some oil workers hostage in Nigeria or something ... there's really a Nigeria, there's really an oil industry. People can feel they're learning a little in a very literal, direct way about the real world. It somehow makes it more respectable than if it's space terrorists taking hostages in the Nigrax IX warp crystal orbital platform. It's also much easier for the SF writer to skip the difficult stuff and the research.

I think audiences like to know what they're getting, once they know, they don't mind so much what it is. A lot of my friends had a visceral dislike of The Prestige movie because it - spoiler - suddenly became an SF movie.

But, ultimately, a big part of the problem is that SF fans often set the bar awfully low. There are probably people who think Battlestar Galactica is a searing exploration of the War on Terror ... OK, now watch Generation Kill.

Now he's here, it feels odd putting words in Adam Roberts' mouth, but ... SF should be aiming higher. Fandoms encourage pandering and comfort, not challenge and experimentation, pretty much by definition. Winning a Hugo's always going to be easier than winning a Pulitzer or Booker. Good luck to anyone that does, wouldn't mind one myself, but it's all a little too cosy.

my parents love Vance's work like i love yours, Ken. he's never really done it for me, but i appreciate his talent. he doesn't write women so well, imho. some of his early stuff is just embarrassing, from a feminist perspective. still, nice to see him get a nod.

Enjoying the discourse greatly:

Ken - I have every book of yours in hardback - doesn't write in that dialect. It's much more playful. And freeing. I don't know - it just feels more widely read.

On this note, I've given Ken's books to several friends, only one of whom is "into science fiction". She was the only one that did not share my enthusiasm -- mumbled something to the effect of "too much real world type politics." Based on the other SF that she has recommended (much of which has been excellent), I think that she is trapped by the formuleic SF style that has been extensively discussed here. The other readers, however, who do not typically read much SF, but are fans of the works of Calvino, Murakami, Eco, Chabon, etc. are now eagerly devouring my wake as I hungrily consume every piece of MacLeod literature I can find. So whether or not Ken's books are more widely read, they seem to be accessible to a widely read audience.

And on that note... Ken, I'm greatly enjoying Learning the World (though very sad that it's the last of your currently published novels that I haven't read). It's making me think about different types of things than some of your other books (I'm spending a little less time googling socialist political figures). It would seem that the short story Lighting Out is maybe set in the same future. Which was written first?

chicago dyke and ilorien - thanks!

Learning the World was written first. 'Lighting Out' (and 'Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?') were written later.

Ah Vance...Marvelous stylist, plotter of variable skill, not very good at writing female characters but my god that language...My favorite bit is in "The Asutra" when a gang of slavers walks into a tavern and announce "All persons present may now consider themselves our property." One of the patrons stands up and, in what just HAD to be a hurt tone, says "This is not customary procedure!"


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