I’ve got a little catching up to do here. First, on Friday my review of Cassandra Rose Clarke’s robot romance The Mad Scientist’s Daughter went up on Strange Horizons. Of the books I’ve reviewed for Strange Horizons, this was not my favorite. In fact, of the novels I’ve reviewed for Strange Horizons whose titles end in daughter…still not my favorite. I didn’t get around to discussing the novel’s title in the review, but other people have covered the daughter title phenomenon more thoroughly than I could hope to do myself.
In other news, Speculative Fiction 2012 is now available in both physical and digital formats. It’s a for-charity anthology intended to bring together the year’s best book reviews, essays and commentary from genre blogs. Notable writers include Adam Roberts, Abigail Nussbaum, Daniel Abraham, Niall Harrison, N.K. Jemisin, Paul Kincaid, Joe Abercrombie, and many more. Among the much less notable writers is, ahem, me. Seeing my name in such amazing company is inspiring, but I promise fame won’t change this blog. You can expect the same overlong posts, buggy WordPress layout, and months of unexplained silences in the future.
Tags: Brandon Sanderson
Some people have called Alloy of Law a fantasy western, but this isn’t quite right. The premise is that Wax, the main character, is coming back to the biggest city in the world after many years spent as a gunslinging lawman on the frontier. He acts like, and thinks of himself as, a good-guy sheriff, but the novel is actually a mystery set against the backdrop of industrialization. Wax isn’t just a sheriff, he’s Lord Waxillian, a previously unimportant member of an important noble house who has unexpectedly found himself running the show after some unexpected deaths. He tries to take over his family’s extensive business empire, but when a brazen group of railroad thieves start kidnapping people, he can’t help but try to take matters into his own hands as a vigilante. Making this a more attractive proposition is the fact that while he doesn’t really know what he’s doing as the CEO of a huge business, he’s an extremely effective vigilante. This owes a little bit to his hard-earned experience as a lawman and a great deal to his genetic luck, which has given him access to some rare and very useful magic powers.
From that summary it should be obvious that what we have here is not a western or a steampunk fantasy but a retro-superhero story. Wax is Batman, translated into an 1870s-analogue society and radicalized by grief in his adult life instead of his childhood. He even has a sidekick, a wisecracking deputy from Wax’s old life who has his own different but only slightly less devastating combination of magic powers and the name “Wayne”. It takes a lot of cheek to simultaneously reference John Wayne and Bruce Wayne in a book like this, but Sanderson evidently felt he could get away with it in a story that aims its tone at light, fun vacation reading. In fact, Sanderson famously wrote the original draft of the novel in a month as a way to take a vacation from writing the last three Wheel of Time books. Only someone as absurdly prolific as Sanderson (who has published 11 original novels in only seven years…and also the three gigantic Wheel of Time novels based on Jordan’s notes) would take a vacation from writing a novel by writing another novel, but the difference in attitude is unmistakable. Compared with Sanderson’s normal adult writing, the story is much shorter, much more personal, and somewhat less serious. As a superhero story, for example, it operates on what we might call a pre-Watchmen level. The idea that as one of the wealthiest people in the city Wax could help people more by deploying that wealth than running around fighting bad guys isn’t seriously examined, nor is the possibility that the police deferring to a self-appointed vigilante rich person may not be a positive step toward bringing justice to the city. In his other work Sanderson has often shown an interest in trying to reverse common tropes, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his unironic use of the traditional superhero formula here (the formula that even Hollywood understands should be taken apart, even if it usually doesn’t know quite how to do it) is likely a conscious decision to stick to telling a fun story.
There’s nothing wrong with light reading. Viewed as “just” a fun story, Alloy of Law is reasonably successful. The mystery that Wax solves over the course of the novel has a few interesting elements and the plot moves quickly between its generous helping of action scenes. Sanderson’s normal chroegraphist tendencies are on display here, showing step by step how magic is used by combatants. The novel is set three hundred years after the Mistborn trilogy, so Sanderson is able to leverage the complicated but entertaining magic systems from those books and add a few new wrinkles.
No characters return from the Mistborn trilogy, so Alloy of Law theoretically can be read first, but I’d recommend against it. One reason is that perhaps the most interesting part of the novel, and the one aspect that elevates it above the fantasy equivalent of an airport thriller, is the way it establishes the dramatic changes that have occurred in the world since the earlier trilogy. Sanderson has never made any secret about the fact he expects technology to progress in his world just as it does in ours and that furthermore he wants to write a sequel trilogy set a thousand years in the future when the once-medieval society has spaceships and ray guns to go along with their magic. In Alloy of Law the difference in technology is less dramatic, moving from the trilogy’s horses and bows to guns and railroads, but Sanderson has put a lot of thought into how an industrializing and increasingly capitalist society would make use of his magic. Because he is writing a short, fun story there’s not as much emphasis on the setting as one might expect from a fantasy book, but better too little than too much. The good news is that the ending clearly points to a sequel, so Sanderson will be back to further explore this world.
But that’s also bad news, because while immediate matters are resolved, the ending isn’t nearly as conclusive as it might have been. The bigger problem, and the real reason I would recommend reading the Mistborn trilogy instead of Alloy of Law, is that Sanderson’s strengths as a writer are best served (and his weaknesses best minimized) by long, epic fantasy. Sanderson’s characters have never been much of a selling point and this story is no exception, populated mostly with familiar types and not spending enough time with the few interesting people (Steris and Miles). The other potential selling point of a shorter story, style, is also not Sanderson’s forte. His prose is transparent at best and while he attempts to liven up the story with humor, none of those moments merit more than a chuckle and few enough get even that far. All these things are characteristic of Sanderson no matter what he’s writing, but the reasons why he’s very much worth reading in spite of these faults are his great virtues: his rigor, his control, and his discipline. By rigor, I mean he approaches fantasy with the mentality of a science fiction writer: he establishes the rules by which magic operates and then proceeds to speculate on how those rules might be used and abused by the characters of his story. A little of that is on display here, but the magic system and therefore most of its implications are borrowed from the Mistborn books. By control, I mean he is one of the greatest writers of plot in the genre, carefully tying events in the story to revelations about the world so that the end of one of his long stories is incredibly satisfying, paying off all sorts of earlier little mysteries and unexplained elements by dropping in the last missing pieces that make everything fit together perfectly. This too is mostly absent, both because the novel is short and because when not in the epic mode there’s no chance for the sweeping revisions of previous conceptions that make his stories so compelling. And by discipline, I mean that unlike many authors, Sanderson can write very long stories without letting the structure and pace of the story fall apart and he can do it in a reasonable amount of time. Few fantasy authors can say they’ve done as well on this front as he has with both Mistborn and, to a certain degree, the Wheel of Time conclusion, but while that is a rare gift in very long form storytelling, many authors can do it at Alloy of Law‘s short length.
In interviews, Sanderson says that not every story has to be a long, epic, doorstop fantasy and that with Alloy of Law he wanted to do something more along the lines of a standalone episode in a television series. That’s a worthy goal, but good standalone television works because the audience is invested in the characters and is happy to spend forty minutes with them even if the plot doesn’t amount to much. That investment is achieved first by having very well-drawn characters and, second, by putting out a lot of “episodes” so that the audience develops a strong sense of familiarity. In the genre, this technique is most commonly used by urban fantasy series, though it’s not unknown elsewhere. But this isn’t that sort of book, and all the evidence is that Sanderson simply isn’t that kind of writer. Those new to his work should start with the Mistborn trilogy, which still doesn’t have great characters but does put Sanderson’s unique strengths to excellent use. Alloy of Law isn’t a bad, especially if approached with appropriate expectations, but it’s probably best left to big Sanderson fans.
Tags: Kameron Hurley
There is no better introduction to the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy than the beginning of the first novel, God’s War.
Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.
– God’s War
From now on, I expect that first sentence will be mentioned whenever people talk about great science fiction opening lines. But while as a sentence it’s less shocking than the one that opens Steel Beach and with its proper nouns harder to remember than that of Neuromancer, I think it’s actually better than either of them. It’s not a stunt line, or rather not just a stunt line. It shocks and it strikes a grim opening note, but it also has real symbolic significance. Just this first sentence tells us something about Nyx’s relationship to motherhood, and by extension the traditional roles of women.
The two lines that follow continue to relate events in a way that tells us more about Nyx, though there’s a clever bait-and-switch. From these lines we conclude that Nyx is desperate and reckless, but in fact she has lost that money on purpose. Nyx is a bounty hunter, and we soon see that showing up drunk at the fight and losing that money was a ploy to seduce Jaks, and that seducing Jaks was, in turn, a ploy to help locate Nyx’s real target. So far, this sort of reversal is a common technique for beginning a novel. I call it clever because Nyx really is reckless and typically more than a little desperate. Getting drunk and blowing her money gambling on a boxing match is very much in character for her, even if in this particular instance she has an ulterior motive. Although the novel doesn’t ever make this explicit, it’s reasonable to conclude that she could have secretly followed Jaks or found some other way to ingratiate herself, but she chose this method because it’s what she wanted to be doing anyway.
When the book was on the last steps of its very long road to publication, Kameron Hurley’s concise summary of what made God’s War distinctive was: “Bugs. Blood. Brutal Women.” Again, it’s hard to outdo Hurley here, but each of those three elements deserves to be unpacked from soundbyte-level brevity and examined.
“Bugs” is a reference to the setting. The planet Umayma was colonized by humans many centuries before the trilogy (“Umayma” means “Little mother” in Arabic), but before anyone could live there it had to be terraformed. This was done not with machines but with genetically engineered insects. Unfortunately, some combination of a war amongst the human colonists and the inevitable fact that things don’t go according to plan meant that although parts of Umayma became habitable, it never became a garden world. Worse, humans have lost the scientific knowledge that allowed them to cross the stars and create climate-altering insects. Worst of all, the insects themselves are still around and almost completely out of control. The fact that the small minority of humans who remain able to exert some measure of control over nearby insects are called magicians is enough to indicate that Umayma has fallen, but its fall (to borrow Gibson’s famous line) is unevenly distributed. On one hand, they retain capabilities our society can only dream of, such as regrowing lost limbs, but in other areas they have dropped to our level and even below. Complicating matters is the fact that, since colonization, a tiny minority of people have developed the ability to shapeshift into animals. Some limits are placed on this, but the process has only a distant relationship to the conservation of energy. That alone is probably enough to disqualify the trilogy for the not-really-all-that-coveted label of “hard SF”, but despite the depth of speculative thought given to the world, as a matter of orientation the Bel Dame Apocrypha isn’t hard SF anyway. That is to say, although the setting is fascinating and plenty of thought has gone into it, in the end it always remains a complement to the characters and story, not an end in and of itself. I know that’s coming perilously close to saying these books are too good to be considered hard SF, but hopefully you understand what I mean.
As an example, let’s speculate as to why the author chose insects as the almost exclusive manifestation of the world’s biotechnology. Is there some speculative reason we can derive on graph paper for why insects are a better choice for manipulating the climate than bacteria or, say, marsupials? Maybe, but it seems much more likely insects were chosen for the estranging effect they have on most readers. In the antiseptic environment of the modern first world, insects are seen as inherently dirty. If a visitor to your home sees several cockroaches crawling around your floor, they won’t be comforted if you assure them you’ve thoroughly cleaned the cockroaches. A world whose high technology is embodied by insects is one that strikes most of us as irredeemably unpleasant. As literary effects go, it feels just a little cheap because it’s something that only takes place in the reader’s mind (Nyx and her contemporaries don’t have a visceral dislike for bugs). But that doesn’t mean it’s not enormously effective.
So given the use of bugs only makes the world seem unpleasant to us, we must ask: is it actually an unpleasant place to live? The answer to that question (“yes”) brings us to the second part of Hurley’s summary: blood. You might assume that means a lot of people get killed in the course of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, and you’d be right. As a bounty hunter, Nyx is sometimes tasked to bring her targets back alive, but more often she is told to just bring their heads for identification. Moreover, she operates on the Wild West fringes of her society, near borders and among criminals, places where laws are only occasionally enforced and order is kept only through the frequent application of deadly violence. And unlike some tough-protagonist books, she’s not even close to the only one spilling blood. Nyx’s enemies are even more willing to kill people who get in their way than she is, and that’s saying quite a bit. This isn’t one of those trilogies where everyone lives through to the end. Characters die. Most characters, in fact, die. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this is the sort of trilogy where the more sympathetic a character is, the more likely they are to die. Nice folks finish last, if not everywhere than certainly in the sorts of places where Nyx operates.
But the huge body count surrounding Nyx’s misadventures is only the tip of the iceberg. As God’s War opens, Nyx’s homeland of Nasheen has been at war with neighboring Chenja for centuries. Whereas the horrible wars of our twentieth century drenched the world in blood but burned themselves out after a few years, a combination of culture and technology has allowed the war between Nasheen and Chenja to sit in a nightmarish steady state. Nearly the entire male population on both sides is drafted into the war and very few return. Yet both countries manage to replenish their populations through a combination of traditional (polygamy) and technological (artificial births, surrogate mothers) measures. Farah Mendlesohn criticized continuous bloodshed on this scale as impossible, and I am sympathetic to this argument. In our world such a conflict would indeed be impossible and ordinarily I am all for nitpicking novels to death over matters of sociology (despite my own complete lack of qualifications in the field), but in this case both the technology and the social mores were so different from any Earth precedents I was willing to give it a pass. In particular, the demographic and statistical details about how both Nasheen and Chenja produced children were left vague enough that I didn’t have a problem filling in the gaps with details I considered appropriate.
The war is in part responsible for the last, and most remarked upon, piece of Hurley’s equation, brutal women. With virtually no men present in civilian life, every occupation low or high in Nasheen is filled almost exclusively by women. These circumstances have caused a reversal of some of the standard gender stereotypes. Women are considered responsible but also dangerous, prone to drinking and getting into fights. Men are seen as precious and needing protection, almost universally referred to as “boys”, and are viciously ostracized if they are believed to have shirked their social duty to go to the front. I’ve read a number of stories that reverse roles in this way, but this is the first I’ve read where I had the sense that the difference arose naturally from the circumstances and not through authorial fiat. In particular, roles are not simply mirror-reversed. Most importantly, women are still mothers in this society and that still informs their thinking, even if this is complicated by Nasheen’s assembly line approach to childbirth. The bel dames alluded to in the trilogy’s name, for example, are a group that serves a function in Nasheen for which there’s no direct equivalent in our world. Bel dames are government bounty hunters, always women, who are responsible for tracking down deserters, almost always men. They have a license to kill that puts them almost completely above the law, and over the years they’ve developed into an organization whose aims no longer always align with those of the Queen they theoretically serve. Nyx was once a bel dame, still acts like she’s above the law even though she’s not any longer, and sometimes hopes to become a bel dam again. But there’s a tension in Nyx’s feelings about bel dames, and not just because she’s made so many enemies among them. Nyx’s brothers all died in the war, and Nyx’s most important formative experience was getting blown up almost beyond the reach of her nation’s miraculous medical science while trying to protect “her boys”. For someone with Nyx’s skills and background, being a bel dame seems like the highest station she can achieve in life, yet killing “boys” for the crime of trying to stay alive gives even the confident Nyx more than a little cognitive dissonance.
In this area and in many others, the trilogy presents a dissonance that it doesn’t resolve. Or, alternatively, it presents a dissonance but then leaves the resolution for it up to the reader. Are we to see the bel dames as strong women who don’t let anyone push them around, as monsters created but only barely controlled by their government, as victims of a system that denies poor young women a better life than hunting the system’s other victims in the desert, or some combination of all those? As an intelligent and thoughtful, yet also hands-off, piece of fiction, the Bel Dame Apocrypha can support many different kinds of readings. The choice is up to the reader, but I think it’s an illuminating exercise to consider how well the trilogy stands up to these different perspectives.
The most obvious is the surface reading, the gritty, action-packed adventure story. As an adventure–actually I should say three adventures, because although the books share most of their characters and should definitely be read in order, each tells a self-contained story. As three adventures, then, the books are good but not great, full of tense action and vivid characters who I’m going to barely mention in this review despite its length…but also some weaknesses. God’s War has an peculiarly disjointed narrative, with a strange time jump near the beginning and a plot that has a few too many reverses for its own good. Infidel is the strongest of the three, presenting a more cohesive story and sending its characters in new and interesting directions, but it’s not as effective as it could be because Nyx’s core motive is hidden from the reader until the end, a dangerous tactic that here undermines the reading experience because Nyx’s actions feel arbitrary (even though they’re not). Rapture seen on its own is probably the weakest story, ornamenting its desert travelogue with two new characters that don’t seem to go anywhere (Kage and Ahmed) and coming to a conclusion that doesn’t feel all that conclusive. Yet in terms of developing the trilogy’s setting, ideas, and themes Rapture is essential to the whole. It’s that whole that interests me, which is why I’m reviewing the trilogy together and not as the three separate books they way approaching them as merely adventures would have demanded.
Many would say that the books should be read as a character study of their protagonist, Nyx. I think I got halfway through God’s War before I really started to enjoy it, and that was mainly because it took me that long to really get my head around Nyx as a character. Where typical protagonists are distinguished by their ability to either fight or think their way out of virtually any problem (or both, which almost always makes for a dull story), Nyx surmounts most obstacles through endurance. Don’t get me wrong, she tries to fight her way out of problems, but she’s a bad shot in a world where many people have guns, she has no facility with her world’s Clarke’s law magic, she’s got emotional scars that prevent her from having (or at least keeping) any close friends, despite sometimes scoring big bounties she doesn’t manage her finances well enough to keep any of it, she often walks into traps, frequently gets captured, and the list goes on. This is all very interesting, I said to myself as I read, but how am I supposed to sympathize with a character who has low aspirations she’s barely able to accomplish? But Nyx won me over with her grim determination, her toughness, her desire to free herself from the scars of her past and her inability to actually manage it.
Until I really understood her, though, Rhys was the character who kept me interested. Whereas Nyx is brutal but strong, Rhys (at least in the first book) is good but weak. He takes up with Nyx because she can protect him from the rest of Nasheen, but there’s no one who can protect him from Nyx. Although he’s too meek to hold his own with Nyx in a conversation, he nevertheless represents a way of life she’s lost forever, if she ever had it: education, piety, morality, and idealism are all things Nyx has sacrificed to survive the war. They are as fascinating a pair as any characters I can recall not because they are opposites but because everything each of them does reminds the other of what they can’t ever become.
Initially, the most notable thing about Rhys is his religion, and from the titles of the individual books you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a trilogy that was somehow about religion, but…this trilogy is not really about religion. The setting is thousands of years in our future, and while religions are the one sort of human institution that can actually last millennia, they don’t do so without changing. Nasheen and Chenja practice something that has evolved out of Islam while other cultures on Umayma follow the descendants of other faiths, but nothing is quite like we know it today. I was very interested in this idea when I first started reading God’s War, but religion is left largely out of focus and in the background.
”Tell me,” Solome said, leaning in slightly now, suddenly a bit more animated. “This sixth prayer of yours, what is its purpose? No other followers of your book have a midnight prayer.”
”The midnight prayer–” Rhys began, but Nyx had had enough talk of religion.
”Tell me more about Nikoderm and her love of violence,” Nyx said.
– God’s War
I suspect that Kameron Hurley expected Nyx would be speaking on behalf of the reader when she cuts off Rhys and steers the conversation away from religion and toward matters directly relevant to the plot, but at this point a third of the way into God’s War I was much more interested in hearing about the religion. For the rest of the book I waited to hear more about the sixth prayer, but it was not to be. Rhys is an impressive portrait of one sort of religious experience, and in Infidel there is a moment that provides one the most devastating dramatizations of the problem of evil I’ve ever encountered and worth reading for that alone (and worth avoiding, too, if you dislike watching very bad things happening to a likable character), but the trilogy is content to present these things without comment. There’s a huge difference between this and The Sparrow or Flowers for Algernon, where questions of faith are central concerns of the story. The one point the trilogy makes about religion, a point that is implied in the worldbuilding but never stated directly, is that religion is an outgrowth of culture and not vice versa. To restate that with specifics, Nasheen isn’t run by women because there are few male priests in its religion. Instead, there are few male priests in its religion because Nasheen is run by women. Some people have claimed that God’s War endorses the idea that violence is inherent to Islam, but not only does the setting imply this is impossible for any religion, the story really doesn’t have enough religious characters to make any claims about Islam in particular or religion in general. Of the main cast, only Rhys is truly devout, and he is, of course, a pacifist. Well, all right, he’s someone who wishes he was a pacifist…that’s almost the same thing! A few other characters are reflexively religious, but really, if there is a criticism to be made it’s that given how religious their societies are it’s a little odd that so few of the characters seem to care about it at all. Having Rhys as the sole window into religious life on Umayma means that as an exploration of religion the trilogy is interesting but very much incomplete.
Perhaps the most common way to read the Bel Dame Apocrypha is as feminist science fiction. The trilogy has gotten a lot of attention for this, and God’s War was even shortlisted for the Tiptree award. I had read a lot of these reactions before I starting reading and that may have been why it took me so long to become comfortable with Nyx as a protagonist. She’s anything but a perfect role model and Nasheen is anything but the perfect society. In his original review of God’s War, Niall Harrison said the novel was “in dialogue with the tradition of feminist utopian writing”. I suppose he had in mind Nasheen as a sort of reaction to stories like Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, since in Nasheen rule by women has resulted in just as screwed up a state as when men are in charge. The feminist reading is valid and the trilogy does construct its world based on modern feminist conclusions about gender essentialism (that is to say, the lack thereof), but there’s also an aspect that distances it further from utopian fiction: we never get the sense that Nasheen was planned with feminist ideas in mind. The relevant history is left vague, but the impression I got was that there was a scramble for power after which successive queens slowly made Nasheen into a matriarchy to shore up their own positions. The traditional utopia, feminist or otherwise, is planned according to allegedly enlightened principles, and therefore implies that if we readers would just become a little more enlightened ourselves, we too could have a perfect society. The world of Umayma, on the other hand, is the ruins of planned society, and not only is it a pretty miserable place, it’s been getting steadily worse since it was founded. In this sort of setting, a literally conservative worldview makes sense, and indeed Nyx doesn’t fight to change the world for the better, she fights to stop people who she assumes would make it worse.
The fight to make a better world, even the dream that such a thing is possible, is relegated to Inaya and the shifters. This is at least as problematic as the X-men movies deploying a heavy-handed homosexuality metaphor where it doesn’t really work. Homosexuals can’t kill people with lasers from their eyes, and if they could then it would be much more reasonable to be afraid of them. In the case of shifters, the persecuted minorities in our world can’t turn into animals with militarily valuable abilities. What makes it even more annoying is that the presence of shifters creates a tidy, unambiguous social justice problem off on the margins of a world with enormous challenges in gender relations that no one (except Raine, whose motives are suspect) seems to be trying to do anything much about. It’s a shame, because other than this and the unnecessary deployment of metaphysical novelty in Rapture‘s conclusion to her story, Inaya travels what for me is without question the trilogy’s most interesting character arc, moving from a denial of her nature to an unwavering crusade to liberate others like her. She also makes a conscious choice to put her cause over her family, presenting an interesting contrast to the other characters: Nyx more or less involuntarily gives up any hope of having a family, Anneke manages to go off and live the life of a stay-at-home mother, and, most tragically, Rhys defines himself by his family only to have it abandon him. Once again, the trilogy lets us draw our own conclusions about their choices.
But there is still another reading of these books, one which seems less remarked upon than it deserves, and that is to view the trilogy as an examination of the effects of war. The war is the source of every problem, in the background of each character, and central to each novel’s plot. We may not see the full spectrum of religious engagement, nor even a complete examination of gender relations (this would have demanded more time be spent in male-dominated societies and, especially, the divided Mhoria, not to mention a clearer discussion of how Nasheen came to be the way it is), but we do get a comprehensive look at the war from every conceivable viewpoint. Characters run the gamut from veterans to deserters, pacifists to mercenaries, government agents to rebels, plus those whose family members were all those things. We see how the war has affected not just Nasheen but also Chenja and even neutral Tirhan and Ras Tieg.
Yet, and take a moment to consider just how incredible this is, over three books we never see the war. The closest we come to seeing any fighting are nearby biological weapon detonations, and though at one point Nyx finds herself in the middle of a raid, she and her team stay inside and keep their heads down. The war is not shown, and yet the characters we meet, the events that happen to them, and the societies they live in are all the creation of the war. The war is like a black hole, invisible but made obvious by its effects on everything around it.
”Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended…The magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.” — Francis Swofford, Jarhead, as quoted in the New York Times
I don’t think Swofford is right that it’s impossible to depict war without glorifying it, but it’s definitely the case that the pleasing emotions of war (the excitement of battle, the feeling of power, the exultation of victory) are easy to convey in fiction while the negative emotions (pain, grief, despair) are considerably more challenging. Perversely, it’s those negative emotions (along with boredom) that dominate war as it is actually experienced. The Bel Dame Apocrypha could be said to accidentally glorify Nyx’s bounty hunting this way, but its all-consuming yet always off-stage approach to war helps convey war as it truly is: a vast engine of human misery that no one remembers how to turn off. In both God’s War and Rapture, Nyx stops elements that want to use what are essentially weapons of mass destruction to upset the balance of power, even though it’s that same balance of power that is prolonging the war. In God’s War, she justifies it by saying that peace through the obliteration of Chenja isn’t a peace worth having. It’s not at all clear that, seen from a utilitarian perspective, she’s right about this. In Infidel the thinking seems to be that adding a stronger weapon will just escalate the carnage further without solving the conflict, but really the carnage seems surely to be near the limits of what is possible for the societies involved to bear already. But Nyx is a bounty hunter, not a deep thinker. No matter what sort of ethics one favors, it’s hard to see any logical argument for continuing the war. Yet continue it does, in defiance of reason, senselessly continuing for centuries the way World War I continued for years. It might seem as though I’m wrong to praise the trilogy for this when earlier I answered the charge that the war was implausible by saying the details are vague, but this is why I depicts the effects of war, not war itself.
By Rapture, for reasons that are (to repeat myself) left somewhat vague, the incentives have finally shifted to the point where a truce has become possible. Here again we don’t learn anything about peace or how it can be accomplished. Instead, through the war’s absence (this time its true absence), we see what the war has done, for without the war Nasheen’s social order almost immediately falls apart. What will a whole generation worth of men do in a society that sees them as good for only fighting? And if their focus turns inward instead of outward, can anything prevent them from throwing down Nasheen’s oppressive matriarchy and replacing it with a government that swings, like those of Nasheen’s neighbors, too far in the other direction?
As always, the trilogy doesn’t present answers to these questions But if the questions were easily answered, they wouldn’t be interesting or thought-provoking. It’s a big genre, and there are plenty of novels out there that claim to have all the answers. Those stories, though, are the opposite of thought-provoking. Thought-revoking, perhaps. Whatever you think, this is the real answer, they say, so stop thinking. Or, worse, what you already believe is absolutely right, they say, and people who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, they’re villains. Too often science fiction is portrayed as the genre that presents answers when it is most effective as the genre that asks questions. What truly distinguishes the Bel Dame Apocrypha is that it asks excellent questions.
Tags: Rob Reid
My review of Rob Reid’s Year Zero was published by Strange Horizons today. I know it’s been three months since I posted anything, but think of that as some unintentional time off. I’m planning to celebrate being back in action by going twice as long without posting anything. Just kidding. I think. You never know with these things. What I’m actually trying to do right now is elaborate the one sentence review of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha I wrote for Strange Horizons’ 2012 in review article into a review with many, many sentences.
Tags: Karl Schroeder
There have been many responses written to Paul Kincaid’s exhaustion article, but I cannot help but feel that out of all of them Sun of Suns may be the most decisive. Mind you, it was written in 2006, but I read it for the first time recently and can’t help viewing the book in light of the recent discussions. Different people have taken Kincaid’s essay in very different directions, but the original assertion was that (in “best of the year”-anthologized short stories, at least) science fiction authors have lost confidence, conviction, passion, and even their identity as members of a genre distinct from, or at least within, the broad sweep of fantastic literature.
Sun of Suns is full to bursting with all these things. The first in a four book series, it introduces the setting of Virga, a planet-sized enclosure filled with air, water vapor, and floating rocks. The implications of this for its human inhabitants are complex. Light is provided by artificial fusion reactor “suns”, but even the brightest of these generates many orders of magnitude less light and heat than a genuine star. Distance from a sun or even the shadow cast by a city can render a volume of air too cold and dark to inhabit. Gravity must be created through artificial means as well, since with most people not living near the edges, Virga can’t be approximated as a point mass. To get close to the Earth-gravity to which the human body is adapted, Virga’s people must spin their houses, their ships, their villages, and their cities. It is clear that Schroeder has put an enormous amount of thought into how all this would work, and the result is a setting that has more sense of wonder than anything I’ve read in years. As the story progresses the reader is treated to cities of countless linked wheels, three-dimensional “lakes” of globular water, and floating icebergs that fall off the frozen edge of the world and plunge inward toward the core. It is impossible to imagine the author relating these details with anything other than a big smile on his face, and it’s a smile that I think most people with an interest in science fiction will find infectious. I can’t speak for the whole genre, naturally, but I can’t recall ever encountering a setting that felt so new and yet so confidently realized. I’m usually an energetic nitpicker, but I found nothing that in any way shook my belief. I’m not a physicist, so I can’t tell you whether it all is worked out perfectly, but boy does it ever feel like it’s been worked out perfectly.
Sun of Suns strikes me, therefore, like an exemplar of the sort of thing Kincaid is asking for in science fiction. It’s true that Virga is convincing as an object without there being a plausible route by which humanity would come to build such a thing, and if we must label Schroeder, we should probably label him a Singularity author. The society within Virga is deliberately constrained to a pre-Singularity state, a sort of Bizarro version of Vinge’s Slow Zone, but the greater universe outside appears to be populated by a mix of Vingean transcended intelligence and Iain M. Banks decadent humans. The fact I’m invoking other authors here may make it seem like I’m backing away from my assertions of novelty, but the outside is not visited in this novel, only hinted at, with the understanding that genre readers will fill in the blanks until more is learned later in the series. This is, to my mind, an appropriate use of genre tropes. The other Schroeder novel I’ve read, Lady of Mazes, was a very impressive rendering of a far future society, so I think if he does take the story outside Virga the setting will still be in good hands. In any case, despite the association with the Singularity, what Kincaid dislikes about Singularity fiction isn’t present. The comprehensibility of the world is not rejected, nor is there a resort to the language of fantasy or theology. The part of the universe in focus in Sun of Suns is fully rendered.
But if Sun of Suns is an exemplar of Kincaid’s aesthetic, it’s also a criticism of it, because while the setting is fantastic, the same can’t be said for the story. Right from the beginning I took a strong dislike to the protagonist, Hayden Griffin. Griffin is orphaned at the beginning of the book when the navy of the oppressive Slipstream attacks and destroys the sun being built by Griffin’s parents. Had it been completed, the sun would have given Griffin’s home community Aerie its own source of light and freed it from dependence on Slipstream, but instead Aerie is incorporated into Slipstream’s growing empire. Intent on revenge against the admiral who led the attack, Griffin becomes a servant in the admiral’s household and waits for an opportunity to murder him. In another story he might do so and earn some sort of freedom for his homeland, but almost from the very beginning it is clear this isn’t that sort of story. Instead, it’s the sort of story in which the world and people in it are painted in shades of gray. That’s all to the good…except Griffin is so naive he takes nearly half the novel to even begin to realize this. In some other respects Griffin is your typical protagonist “nice guy” but ultimately he’s not very bright, not particularly good at anything, and however tragic his backstory, it spurs him to pursue an idiotic revenge for much of the novel and then ceases having any effect on him.
The story’s other thread concerns Admiral Fanning, the man Griffin considers responsible for the deaths of his parents, and his scheming wife Venera, who has somehow constructed a personal intelligence network and stumbled on a foreign plot to destroy Slipstream. Admiral Fanning turns out to be a generic good guy who happens to work for a morally suspect regime. His wife is an incarnation of Lady Macbeth, unethical and ambitious, but her efforts to save Slipstream drive the story nearly from beginning to end. All right, but why should I care about Slipstream? Griffin’s “Aerie good, Slipstream bad” ideology is eventually portrayed as the product of naivete, but in fact no defense of Slipstream is even attempted. I can only assume this was an effort at Martin-style political realism on Schroeder’s part, but unlike in Martin’s fantasy the characters here aren’t compelling enough for me to care about the political order just because the characters care about it, nor is there the idea that a good guy needs to seize the reins to end the anarchy-fueled humanitarian disaster. Also unlike Martin, as the story progresses the politics fade further and further into the background as even Griffin decides he’d rather his homeland be ruled by the devil he knows than the devil he doesn’t.
The second half of the story has some well-executed set piece battles for Admiral Fanning’s fleet to fight and lots of exploration of the wonderful Virga setting, but I found less and less reason to care about what was going on. Griffin’s sudden romance with that most exhausted of science fiction tropes, the smart beautiful exotic savvy woman inexplicably attracted to the protagonist who is none of those things, was the final straw for me. I finished the novel sure I was done with the series, though the process of writing this review has seen my conviction waver. Well, I’m thinking, the second book is in the same amazing setting and but it’s a different story with mostly different characters. And I did like Lady of Mazes. Maybe it’s worth another go.
Maybe. But Sun of Suns is a reminder that while we’d all love it if every science fiction book was full of startling new vistas, for a novel to be successful it still needs decent prose, characterization, and an interesting plot. The author’s conviction in their invented future isn’t sufficient, and ultimately I’m not sure I agree it’s even necessary. If I have to choose between a novel with good fundamentals and one exercising the unique virtues of science fiction, I’d rather read something with the former. In his essay Kincaid was talking about short stories, and at the short story length, I consider what I’ve described as the fundamentals to be less important (relatively) than the story’s ideas. Well-written short stories that don’t really amount to anything are a dime a dozen, and at the short length there’s no room for depth in characters or plot, which means that a compelling idea (or three) can plausibly be said to be the mark of a great short story. Having to put up with characters I don’t care about for 300 pages instead of 10 completely changes the equation. Sun of Suns doesn’t refute Kincaid, but it’s a warning against applying his argument to long form fiction.
Tags: John Scalzi
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas begins by asking what it would be like to be one of the low ranking bit players in Star Trek. Ensign Andrew Dahl arrives at the Universal Union flagship Intrepid expecting to work on the front lines of xenobiology, but he finds himself on the front lines of a different sort of conflict. It turns out that serving on the Intrepid, particularly on away missions, is essentially a death warrant…unless you are a senior officer. The crew has reacted by doing everything possible to avoid going on away missions, leaving the duty to new recruits like Dahl.
Has there been any show mocked more thoroughly than Star Trek? Over the decades it’s fought a losing war on two fronts, assailed from the mainstream for being geeky (things like pointy ears and funny uniforms) and attacked by geeks for not being geeky enough (things like technobabble and…yes…the red shirt phenomenon). In its opening section Redshirts makes a few of the usual “not geeky enough” complaints, but after dipping a toe into the waters of parody it turns and walks away from the pool. If he set out to do it, I think Scalzi could probably write a funny novel-length parody of Star Trek, or even of science fiction in general, but that’s not his objective here. It’s probably to his credit that he has higher aspirations than beating a horse that, if not dead, has already endured more than its fair share of beatings. Unfortunately, Scalzi’s ambition rather exceeds his execution. I’m reminded of his Hugo-nominated short story, which started out as a serviceable parody but needlessly lurched into trying to Say Something.
Redshirts at least manages the transition better. The early stages where Ensign Dahl begins questioning what is going on around him are the best part of the novel. Questioning the standard account of the world around you has become a cliche in YA, where the adults are always lying about it, but it ought to be more common in adult science fiction. Actual science, you know, that process by which we learn about the world around us, is surprisingly rare in science fiction, so it was nice to see Dahl using scientific methods (well, someone else does the heavy lifting, but Dahl is at least persuaded by those methods) to discover the truth of his world. I won’t spoil the answers he finds even though they arrive less than halfway through the novel because, as I said, the process of getting to them is the best part of the book. In fact, it’s the only part of the book I liked.
That the answers come around the middle of the book signposts a part of the problem: the answers are clear but not really all that satisfying. If they were satisfying, Scalzi would have left them to the end. Instead, Dahl discovers the truth of the world, and then spends the rest of the book wrestling unconvincingly with the consequences. This part of the book wants to be about taking control of your own fate, but Dahl comes up with a solution to his problems which, in fact, makes even less sense than the television-logic the book elsewhere criticizes. But even then it’s still not over: the story is then doused in unconvincing melodrama that only intensifies as the novel enters its titular three codas.
Rather than nitpick the specifics of the story, I will note that the metafictional maneuver Scalzi makes is a well-worn path in fiction. It may be new to many of his readers, since Scalzi is a popular writer and popular fiction generally stays away from metafiction. But popular fiction stays away from metafiction for good reason: it is inherently unsatisfying, and the more you think about it the less satisfying it is. Great writers can get away with this because the reader is too busy admiring the great writing or the insights into the human conditions, and perhaps also because their readers tend to be other writers and (ahem) reviewers who enjoy literary pyrotechnics even if they come at the expense of plot and character.
In a way Scalzi may actually be a great writer, but it’s a way that hurts his fiction. Over his many years of blogging he’s cultivated a very distinctive voice that has made it one of the most popular genre sites on the Internet. This voice is clearly audible not just in his blog posts but also in the mouths of his characters…all his characters. It had been more than three years since I’d read a Scalzi novel when I started the opening scene of Redshirts and the “witty banter” was, well, bracing. Because Scalzi’s debut novel Old Man’s War was a military adventure story, it was easier to forgive the failings of the dialogue and characterization. Here the book is depending on the reader’s connection with the characters to sell the melodrama, but for me at least there was no connection. In fact, looking back at my review of Old Man’s War (the contents of which, needless to say, I had completely forgotten) virtually all of my complaints there can be repackaged for this review. The main character of Redshirts has a really interesting backstory: he went to seminary on an alien world, spent years immersed in their culture, became essentially a pastor in this alien church, and then got kicked off world due to political instability. That sounds like it might be a great novel right there! But alas this backstory is mentioned once or twice and then ignored, and despite it Andrew Dahl is a completely bog standard good guy protagonist. Oh, at one point there is a gesture made toward Dahl’s religious inclinations leading him to use the aforementioned scientific reasoning to question the world when others do not, a bizarre idea that would be simultaneously offensive to the story’s religious and non-religious readers were there any sense that the author actually believed it, but it’s immediately dropped.
And that’s another element of Old Man’s War that continues to lurk years later in Scalzi’s writing: his habit of pointing out some interesting feature of the world or the protagonist’s situation…and then ignoring it. This may be an idiosyncratic reaction but I find this to be a really irritating authorial tic. Scalzi seems to want to assure us that, yes, he is clever and self-aware enough to have noticed this or that issue, but he’s not going to bother to actually write anything about it. The worst instance of this in Redshirts is when the protagonist raises a moral objection to the way the more experienced crew avoids away missions and dispatches new recruits who don’t know any better to their death. This is a real can of worms, because while it is intuitively obvious it is an Immoral Thing these characters are doing, what would be the more ethical alternative? Lottery? A utilitarian calculation of each crew member’s remaining potential utility? Well, no solutions are in fact proposed and absolutely nothing is done about it. The protagonist has a moment of righteous anger and then the whole thing is dropped.
Toward the end of the novel Scalzi has a character mention some similar books and movies. If this was an attempt to pre-empt comparisons, if failed, because I hadn’t read or seen any of those he mentioned except Last Action Hero, a movie which isn’t much like Redshirts in that it succeeded or failed as an adventure piece, not something dramatic or thought-provoking. Instead, what came to mind for me was Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”, which is also a metafictional story about what it’s like to be a character on a geeky television show. Unlike Redshirts, it has dazzling prose, believable characters, and the metafiction doesn’t fall apart upon examination. Also unlike Redshirts, it’s nearly impenetrable on first reading and thus is probably inaccessible to a lot of readers, but anyone interested can find a link on Kelly Link’s site (and my own explication here).
Tags: Jay Kristoff
My review of Jay Kristoff’s debut novel Stormdancer has been published by Strange Horizons.
Tags: Paul Kincaid
There are a number of topics which science fiction authors, critics, and fans never seem to stop discussing. One of them is the decline of science fiction. Another is the balance of science and fiction in science fiction.
One idea that’s not among these obsessions is the right amount of science in science fiction criticism. As far as I know I’m the only one who is annoyed by this. If we want to argue about whether science fiction is in decline, we must show where it was, where it is now, and compute the slope. Is it going up, is it flat, or is it going down? Hypotheses and assertions are interesting, but where is the evidence?
This isn’t meant as a criticism of Paul Kincaid’s essay The Widening Gyre which started the latest round of discussion. But few people have read even most of the stories he cites in his review (and the review won’t exactly send them racing to the anthologies to remedy this) so inevitably the discussion has become frustratingly diffuse. For example, Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan managed to have what was certainly a very interesting discussion with Kincaid about this for an hour and a half, but in all that time none of them mentioned any examples of what any of them thought was bad (except “The Leviathan Who Thou Hast Made”, a story which almost no one defends) and only one example of anything good: M. John Harrison’s novel Empty Space.
Narrowly read, I agree almost entirely with Kincaid’s essay. That there are a lot of mediocre short stories being published is true almost by definition. That there aren’t enough really good short stories to fill the big Year’s Best anthologies was a point that Jonathan Strahan seemed unwilling to dispute on his podcast even though he edits one of them. When the argument is expanded to the genre as a whole, however, I think it becomes far more dubious (although Kincaid did say during the podcast that he thinks novels are doing better than short stories, his praise of novels remained faint, and much of what he says seems to encompass the genre as a whole, such as his pointing to Empty Space as an exemplar).
The most common criticism of Kincaid’s essay is that it is the latest in a long list of essays claiming the genre is in decline, a list stretching back to the beginning of the genre itself. It wasn’t true then, people say, so it’s probably not true now. But what is the evidence? To find out, I went back to Earl Kemp’s 1960 critical survey Who Killed Science Fiction? to see if I could find any similarities to Kincaid’s thinking in the foundational text of genre decline criticism.
On the reuse of old ideas:
- “In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.” — Paul Kincaid, 2012
- If the readers are screaming, they have more reason to. Science fiction is a branch of the entertainment business, the first axiom of which is: if the audience doesn’t laugh, the clown is not funny. Tedious rehashing of elderly themes will not cause the readers to applaud.” — Robert A. Heinlein, 1960
On the experience of reading:
- “The overwhelming sense one gets, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion.” — Paul Kincaid, 2012
- “I haven’t even tried to keep up with magazine science fiction in the past year, but as a book reviewer I am plain bored. Everything that comes in is a retelling (sometimes competent) of a dozen earlier stories. I have to flog myself to read science fiction books, and half the time (at least) I see no reason to finish them or to publish a review.” — Anthony Boucher, 1960
On the conviction of the authors:
- “The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future.” — Paul Kincaid, 2012
- “[The average science fiction writer] may have acquired more technical skill than he had 20 years ago, but he has lost the ability to believe in his own dreams.” — Theodore Cogswell, 1960
It’s a fun exercise, but the truth is I cherry-picked these quotes from over a hundred responses, and if you read Who Killed Science Fiction? (and I strongly encourage anyone interested in genre criticism or history to read it) you will come away with the sense that science fiction has changed dramatically since 1960. The responses are a window into a world where short fiction magazines are all but the entire genre and “pocket paperbacks” are a disruptive technology. It’s a world where writers interested in other kinds of fiction (including fantasy!) write science fiction stories because they sell better. Perhaps most alien to us today, it’s a world where there’s no independent market for novels (almost all of them are short story collections and fixups), no self-publishing, and no e-publishing, so the loss of a few magazines would mean the literal extinction of the genre.
But I think the most interesting difference between the science fiction of 1960 and today is that in 1960 there was widespread agreement about the past and present of the genre. The genre’s commercial origins in the Depression-era pulps are within living memory for the people writing in Who Killed Science Fiction? and because they all read the same magazines they all agree on the current state of the genre as well. You get the feeling that if you asked them to graph the trend of the previous twenty years on a number of axes you would get the same graphs from everyone. In sales, the genre started small, then went through a boom period where demand exceeded the supply, but as of 1960 was experiencing a major correction. In style, the prose steadily improved from poor to at least workmanlike, with the best beginning to aspire toward the standard of mainstream literature. In content, stories were initially oriented around adventure, then gadgets, and then science, strict for a time but slowly loosening.
Despite their agreement on past and present, it’s notable that in 1960 there was almost no agreement about the future and what ought to be done about it:
- “Most of the science fiction I have ever read, including most of what I would classify as good science fiction, has little or no emotional content—and I can see no evidence that improving this situation, which is certainly remediable, would be welcomed by the readers.” — James Blish, 1960
- “It can only be corrected by putting science back in stories, as we did in the old days of science fiction when practically every story I printed had good science in it. This is what the public today wants and demands.” — Hugo Gernsback, 1960
- “The great adventure stories of the past are certainly gone from the scene and this should not be. We could have the adventure story back with the better writing demanded today, but the magazine editors are so concerned with their own pet foibles they will not look at the market as a whole but see only their own narrow viewpoint.” — Martin Greenburg, 1960
- “The popular reader wants to be entertained, and his definition of entertainment is suspense, action, surprise, excitement. He does not like the “literary” story. He does not like satire or essay or parody. He wants a story about a person with whom he can identify himself, who gets in a suspenseful situation and has to fight his way out of it.” — James E. Gunn, 1960
- The pulp writers can’t make a living any more? Tant pis. They made intelligent readers want to throw up. Anybody who announces that he is a science fiction writer is announcing that he is in damn bad company financially and artistically. You are trying to conduct a post-mortem without a corpse. I would love to provide you with one. I would love to see the expression science fiction butchered this very minute in order that stories with science in them not be identified, in the minds of intelligent readers, with pulpers, beginners, and hacks.” — Kurt Vonnegut, 1960
- “The paperback field has increased astronomically in recent years and I think it will continue to do so, regardless of how the magazines fare. In other words, we—the reading public—are going to be able to get good science fiction in the future no matter what.” — Gregg Calkins, 1960
- “Should we look to the original paperback as a point of salvation? For an answer to this one, I suggest you just look at the original paperbacks which have been published. When you stop vomiting, then rephrase your question.” — Robert Bloch, 1960
- “For instance, science has ignored a lot of subjects (astrology, witchcraft, etc.) which DO work (I’ve plenty of proof). I’ve always wanted to write a story in which the future United States is run by witchcraft (after all, think of the 50 pentagrams on the flag, and the Pentagon Building wherein “evil forces are summoned” all too darned often. And what about that Fifth Amendment, h’mm?) But it wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s magazines.” — Hannes Bok, 1960
- “It isn’t science fiction that’s in trouble–it’s fantasy fiction!” — John W. Campbell, Jr, 1960
- “What can be done? Nothing, I suppose. We can’t shoot Campbell.” — Donald Wollenheim, 1960
OK, I cheated a bit by taking the last quote slightly out of context. But only slightly. Then, as now, there were many complaints about the aesthetic choices of the major short fiction markets, but few specifics…except about the editor of Analog. Except in 1960 the recently renamed Analog was being criticized for its lack of science, this being the heydey of John W. Campbell’s psi obsession.
Today there is no shared understanding of the genre. Where was it twenty years ago? Where is now? People’s answers will differ, for they haven’t read the same stories. In 1960 people at least agreed about what science fiction was, allowing them to productively argue about whether it was good or not. Today we understand science fiction not as a fixed particle in space (if indeed it ever was) but a fuzzy, probabilistic cloud. That may seem like begging the original question, but if it’s hard (maybe even impossible) to really compare the genre to, say, five years ago, I think it’s pretty easy to compare it against 1960. I’m sure there are people out there who will argue 1960 has the better of it, but I think most of us are very pleased with almost every difference:
Kincaid started his essay with an epigram from Yeats that emphasized his theme of decline, but I would rather point to the beginning of the poem:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
At one time there might have been a falconer–John W. Campbell or Hugo Gernsback, perhaps–but those days are gone, and the gyre has widened. In that process, science fiction grew from its narrow origins into a genre big enough to include all of those different prescriptions from 1960: science, adventure, literary virtues, psychic powers, and witchcraft. It also includes more and more perspectives that the people of 1960 didn’t even know to ask for, like those of women, minorities, and non-English-speaking cultures. Best of all, it’s a genre supported by technology that makes its extinction impossible until the death of reading itself.
One assumes that John W. Campbell would not like the genre as it exists today, but if you’ll excuse one final quote, he accidentally summarized my thinking in far briefer, pithier language back in 1960: “We’re going better than ever before! First establish that the alleged situation exists! I haven’t found it! Why correct it? What would be more correct than it is?”
If you’re on Twitter you might be interested to know I am now as well. While I will link to posts here I am less concerned with promotion and more interested in it as another forum for talking about stories, Twitter seems capable of filling an arbitrary amount of time and I expect it’ll be a while before I figure out how to balance it.
This blog has been pretty sparse of late as I have been spending most of my time on other projects, but in the next month or two I hope to whittle down my substantial review backlog (I have notes on 10 different books) while continuing to work on the ever-growing to-read list (if you want a shorter to-read list, don’t go to Worldcon).
Last week, I flew to Chicago for the 70th World Science Fiction Convention. It was my first Worldcon. Among other things, I was looking forward with the chance to talk to other people who read science fiction.
It’s Wednesday evening and my roommate, a veteran of more than ten previous Worldcons, is unpacking the books he hopes to get signed. He has brought 10 Robert Silverberg books. I break the bad news about the signing policy (only 3 books per trip through the line) and then, with some embarrassment, I admit I haven’t read any Silverberg. He suggests a novel that would be a good place to start, then asks what I’ve been reading lately. I tell him I read and enjoyed Kameron Hurley’s God’s War on the flight to Chicago. He’s never heard of it.
A week and a half later I am writing the first draft of this post and trying to figure out what novel he recommended, but I didn’t write it down. I have Silverberg’s Wikipedia article open in another tab. My monitor is not even close to large enough to display the published novel list on one screen. Reading Silverberg’s backlist would probably take me multiple years. Just reading the ten books my roommate wanted signed would put a substantial dent in a year’s reading schedule.
According to a post by Gary K. Wolfe, in 2008 alone Locus recorded the publication of 254 science fiction novels and 436 fantasy novels. The rise of electronic publishing and the erosion of barriers to self-publishing seem sure to increase these numbers by an order of magnitude or more soon if they haven’t already.
For the most part this is a good thing. As the genre fragments, readers can find novels aligned to their specific tastes, novels that wouldn’t be viable if less SF was published. Although more bad novels are published, more great novels are published as well. None of this is in any way unique to SF, or even literature. The same process is much further along in music and not as far along in movies and television, but entertainment of all kinds is moving in the same direction, or rather, is moving in all directions simultaneously.
Yet if you like talking about genre fiction as much as reading it, shared context is harder and harder to find. As Wolfe puts it elsewhere in the same post: “To claim a title as the best SF or fantasy novel of the year seems to me to imply a core readership with a common set of values and assumptions, but as far as I can tell that readership has been dismembering itself into various caucuses for several decades now.”
It is Wednesday afternoon, the day before the convention starts, and I have just registered and am putting mental breadcrumbs between important locations in the labyrinthine hotel. As I walk the hall, I hear the words “fen” and “mundanes” used unironically for the first time in my life. The big nametags make it easy to identify other people here for the convention, but in most cases it isn’t necessary. Convention people dress differently, talk differently, and act differently from ordinary guests. I’m amazed that people from all over the country, and indeed in some cases all over the world, seem much more like each other than they are like the people I see every day in my normal life.
Over the next few days I will revise this first impression. Certainly the sample was skewed by the day of the week, as for a variety of reasons the people I saw on Wednesday afternoon crowd were older and much more “fannish” than the actual convention average. But also I soon realize fan culture isn’t as monolithic as it seemed at first, something I should have realized just from reading the program. How many people at the convention were interested in filk? In costuming? In table gaming? In anime? These and many more hobbies could be pursued to the exclusion of anything else if the attendee desired. Alternatively, one could (and I did, I’m afraid) ignore them entirely.
In the convention’s pocket program, the convention chair’s welcome message included the following reassurance: “I promise you, there are several folks you haven’t met yet who are *exactly* the kind of geek you are.”
In this day and age there’s no need to settle for being friends with someone who is almost the same kind of geek you are. It’s not just entertainment that’s fragmenting, it’s culture.
On Sunday morning, I am listening to a panel titled “Historical Reality in Fantasy”. Two of the panelists turn out to have run pen and paper roleplaying games. When they spend a few minutes discussing fantasy roleplaying game settings and answer a question about them from the audience, another audience member raises his hand and objects that while he enjoys roleplaying games, he comes to Worldcon to hear about literature.
I sympathize, but he is one person out of an audience of a hundred or more. Should his concept of the panel prevail over that of the person sitting next to him? By the relentlessly democratic logic of Worldcon his opinion is, by itself, without import. Had he asked for a show of hands, the panel might have paid attention.
It’s Sunday evening and I am sitting in a room with several thousand people waiting to hear the results of the genre’s most prominent show of hands, the Hugo Awards. The Hugo Awards ceremony is the only event without anything programmed against it (on Thursday I went to a panel instead of the opening ceremonies), yet the entire convention population isn’t there. Not even close.
Still, it’s a large group, and toastmaster John Scalzi uses this to make an appeal to unity. The Hugos, he says, bring everyone together. He then builds a description of the breadth of the genre community out of allusions to the nominees. It’s a clever and well-delivered little speech, but do the Hugo Awards really bring everyone together? Is that even possible?
It’s earlier on Sunday evening and I am in the same big room with almost the same number of people twenty minutes before the Hugo awards ceremony will begin. I am saving the seat beside me for my sister, but on the other side of me are two middle-aged men. When I notice they are talking about Ken Liu’s short story “Paper Menagerie” I begin eavesdropping on their conversation. They seem like old friends, and after they both agree Liu’s story was their favorite, they go on to discuss this year’s Hugo-nominated novels. Deadline is faintly praised, Among Others is agreed to be fantastic, but then it turns out one of them hasn’t read a single China Mieville novel even though Embassytown is another of the ballot’s novel nominees.
It is the Friday after the convention and I am back home plowing through an enormous Google Reader backlog. I get to popular British blogger Adam Whitehead’s short post about the Hugo awards. After listing the winners of some of the categories, he takes a backhanded swipe at the fact 2,000 people voted, a number he seems to feel is too small to justify the awards’ reputation as the most prestigious in the genre.
In fact, not everyone votes in all categories. Only 1664 votes were cast for Best Novel, for example. We can’t know how many of those votes were cast by people who, like the man sitting next to me at the awards ceremony, have only read some of the nominees, but it seems safe to assume it was a significant percentage. The numbers are even smaller when one considers ballots cast for nominating works to the short list: only 958 in the novel category. The novel nominated the most times, Jo Walton’s eventual winner Among Others led the field with 175 votes while Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel The Quantum Thief received 70 nominations and missed the short list by a single vote.
So Whitehead actually overstated the size of the voting population, but that’s not to say he’s right that the small scale of the voting, and the small breadth of the voters’ reading, should decrease the awards’ prestige.
It is Sunday evening again and the Hugo ceremony is nearly over. Jo Walton is accepting the award for Best Novel. Afterward the talk about her speech will center on her thanks to disgraced Readercon volunteer Rene Walling for suggesting “Among Others” as the title for her novel, but her first words at the microphone are an apology to George R. R. Martin, as if she has received the award through some irreversible clerical error and not the will of the voters. People laugh as if this is a joke, but she may not have been joking.
If the Hugo voting population was greatly expanded in the way Whitehead implies would provide greater legitimacy, it seems safe to say A Dance with Dragons would have won. In sales of actual books, the most democratic measure of a book’s worth, there would be no contest. Longtime genre award watcher Nicholas Whyte noted in April that even among users of the site Goodreads, a group surely biased toward reading more widely than the general population, four times as many people owned A Dance with Dragons than the other four nominees combined.
The only possible solution to this tangle is to be content to have multiple awards for the best genre novel of the year, each determined by different means. Prestige can then accrue organically. Happily this is already the case. One could argue that the Nebula Awards, given to authors by other authors in a manner similar to the Oscars, ought to in fact be the most prestigious awards, but strange choices and an even more problematic voter pool make them a distant second to the Hugos.
As a side note, as easy as it is to point to a few books and call them bestsellers, it is preposterously difficult to determine what the bestselling genre books of a given year actually are, and someone with access to those numbers could do the field a service by providing the answer. Unfortunately Amazon treats sales numbers the way dragons traditionally treat treasure, so this may be impossible.
It is Thursday evening and I am in the hotel bar surrounded by people with access to at least some sales numbers. My sister, a fantasy author whose first novel was published last year, arrived in the afternoon and has been introducing me to her friends, almost all of whom are authors here primarily to promote their writing and network with other people in the industry. There are exceptions in any group but for the most part they rarely attended conventions before they were published, have few of the cultural tics of longtime fans, and when pressed most admit that since they began writing they hardly have time to read.
One might think that being an author at a literature-oriented convention would be glamorous. Perhaps it is for superstars, but I don’t meet the superstars. Most people I meet are authors who have published their first novel in the last three years or so. These are the 99% of authors, the ones for whom the exposure of sitting on a panel, even if it’s a panel about writing attended almost exclusively by authors and people aspiring to be authors, might make a noticeable difference in sales. Although the names often strike me as familiar, in almost every case I haven’t read anything they have written.
Introductions work differently in this networking-oriented population. People don’t merely say the person’s name, they add something to indicate why people should care about them. Typically it goes “X, author of Y” but there is a “spouse of” present in addition to me, a “brother of”. After an hour of this, I use the fact I have published all of four reviews with Strange Horizons to promote myself to “Matt, reviewer for Strange Horizons“. My sister deservedly laughs at me for being status conscious, but I think I detect a change. Not in the willingness of people to talk to me, for everyone is surprisingly friendly and easy-going, but in their comfort level at the initial introduction. An author’s brother could be anyone: a writer, an agent, an editor, or…just a brother. A reviewer is known quantity.
Later, I am introduced to SF Signal’s John De Nardo. I don’t really know him, but I feel like I do, for his links to SF Signal content made up 90% of my Google+ feed even when I still checked it regularly. Unlike everyone else I’ve met so far, he at least pretends my name sounds familiar. Perhaps it does: I commented on one or two of those Google+ items, and while I’m not sure I think he might have linked to my blog once or twice. But even at Worldcon this blog is obscure enough that I expect to meet no one who reads it.
It’s Friday night, and I’m waiting for an elevator with Strange Horizons editor Niall Harrison. While vacationing in the USA he has been rereading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and tells me that he was reading my review of it on my blog. He very much disagrees with it, he adds, in the friendly manner of someone hoping for a stimulating discussion.
I blink. I reviewed the Mars trilogy? I know I read it in the late 90s, and thankfully for all of us I wasn’t reviewing books online at the time, but all I recall is that I enjoyed some of the political machinations but found the prose drier than I would have liked. Ever courageous of my convictions, I mutter that I’ve been posting reviews online since 2003, that I’ve become a lot more sophisticated as both a reader and as a reviewer since then, and in general I throw my past self and his opinions directly under the bus.
On Saturday morning I am using Google to locate the review Niall mentioned, half-expecting he had me confused with someone else. It turns out I did review the Mars trilogy in 2006. Reading the review in 2012, the language is recognizably my own but much of the content is new to me, in particular the half-hearted discussion of the role of executives in the story. I think I was trying to say that no matter what one thinks of executives, accurately presented most of their activities make for dull reading, but I can’t say for sure. The review reads like something dashed off in thirty minutes and posted without being read over, which was generally my practice at the time.
In one sense, I “know” Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. When it comes up in conversation I have things to say: I have read it, I can describe features of its narrative and style, I can name elements that some people find attractive and elements that some people find alienating. But it is a shallow knowledge, the sort of knowledge people write guides for faking at dinner parties. The details are lost to me until I reread it.
In cognitive science there is a concept of a working set, the amount of information we can hold in short-term memory at once for use in solving problems. How many novels can I recall enough about to discuss in depth? Not very many. It was to avoid the loss of this information that I began to write reviews. By writing down what I think, I can have access to those thoughts in the future! The brief, incomplete nature of this site’s older posts derives partly from their intended use merely as notes to stimulate recall. But whenever I revisit my reviews from before the last couple years, I run into the problem that I am no longer the same person. Six years ago I was someone else, a person who remembered different books than I do today. It’s not easy for us to have a conversation.
It’s Friday night and I am at the Night Shade party having the most free-flowing conversation I will have at the convention. I am talking with reviewer and anthologist Rich Horton, and I can cite stories and novels by name and continue to make my point without worrying he might not have read them. Eventually while discussing K.J. Parker I bring up historical fiction author Dorothy Dunnett. Even this succeeds, for like many genre readers he’s also a Dunnett fan, and we talk about her Lymond and Niccolo series. It’s only when we move still further from the genre that we run aground on the contextual rocks: I haven’t read Raymond Carver and he hasn’t read Faulkner.
It is Monday and I am flying home. I am thinking of the conversation with Horton, and how while I was able to toss out the names of short stories and be perfectly confident he would know what I’m talking about, he was not in the same position. Me talking to Rich Horton about short stories is like the friend at work who talks to me about science fiction having only read Ender’s Game and Dune.
This line of thinking develops into the beginnings of an idea for an unusual sort of convention wrap-up post, a present tense narrative that jumps around in time while following thematic threads. I have a hazy idea this is a standard form for feature articles in magazines, but I don’t read enough conventional magazines to have a good feel for the way such stories are written. I know that if I write it, I will end up aping the Doctor Manhattan issue of Watchmen more than respectable journalism. I decide that while this resort to genre is slightly embarrassing, it’s also more than a little appropriate. Doctor Manhattan’s narrative is intended to underscore his inhumanity by illustrating his nonlinear experience of time, but this is not as foreign from the human experience as we tend to think.
First person novels typically present us with a linear narrative, but this is a conceit that is nothing like how the human memory functions. Not only can I not reproduce the exact words of a conversation I had last week (the way first person narrators often authoritatively provide exact words for conversations taking place years in their past), I have trouble even remembering when in the sequence of half-remembered events a conversation happened. In writing this post I frequently had to resort to the convention program just to determine the day on which something happened. The experience was linear, but the memories that endure are only fragments.
It is Monday morning, the last day of Worldcon, and I am packing. “How was your con?” my roommate asks me. His phrasing is considered. We have been at the same convention, yet my con is not the same as his con. In five days of programming I ran into him outside our room exactly three times: twice at the only two panels we both happened to attend and once in the aftermath of the Hugo awards. In almost all respects, we have been at two different conventions superimposed on one location: different panels, different readings, different conversations, different parties. And there are far more than just two: each attendee experiences a different convention. But how could it be otherwise? Each attendee has been reading a different genre, though they are all called science fiction.