Redshirts by John Scalzi

September 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

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).


Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

September 19, 2012 at 11:52 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Fantasy | Leave a comment

My review of Jay Kristoff’s debut novel Stormdancer has been published by Strange Horizons.

No More Falconer: Science Fiction’s Past and Present

September 19, 2012 at 3:04 am | Posted in Essays | 4 Comments

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?”

Quick note

September 12, 2012 at 11:58 am | Posted in Site News | Leave a comment

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).

Worldcon 2012: Fragments

September 12, 2012 at 5:17 am | Posted in Essays | 11 Comments

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.

From the outside, Chicago’s Cloud Gate presents a coherent (if in places distorted) skyline.

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.

Beneath Cloud Gate the image splits into diverse but overlapping fragments.

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.

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