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?”

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.

Climate Change and Science Fiction

March 1, 2012 at 2:12 am | Posted in Essays, Science Fiction | 3 Comments

On the Strange Horizons blog Niall Harrison surveyed books of genre criticism and found their treatment of climate change lacking. Mark Charon Newton responded with the following thesis:

I wondered if there was little criticism because there simply isn’t much Science Fiction being written about the real effects of climate change in the first place? That there isn’t much to really interest Science Fiction writers?

He goes on to argue that climate change is too slow, too incremental…too boring for science fiction. In his response, Niall argued this sells science fiction short, and I agree with him (as did Mark, in the comments). But I do think Mark was right that science fiction writers don’t seem all that interested in climate change, and I think the limited ambition of Niall’s response to this specific point (well, Night Shade has published three climate change books recently) illustrates the issue. Obviously there are science fiction novels that involve climate change, but we need only compare with other tropes to see how muted the genre is on the subject. Zombies, anyone? Yes, most zombie fiction is probably best considered fantasy, but there are plenty of science fictional approaches to zombie fiction at the moment. How about spaceships? Pretty common, yes? And yet for decades it has been obvious that manned space travel of the sort envisioned in the heady early days of the space program quite distant from the present, and science has very little to say about zombies no matter how much authors might wave their hands about viruses or genetic engineering. In comparison, climate change is not just an important area of cutting edge science with large implications for the near future, it’s constantly in the newspapers and on television as people debate the extent of it and what ought to be done.

As always in these genre discussions, there’s a frustrating lack of empirical data to work with, so whether or not you find the above paragraph persuasive, concede for the moment that climate change is underrepresented. Why might that be? Is it just because the process is too slow and subtle? That doesn’t help, I suppose, but I’m willing to go a lot farther and assert that concern about climate change is philosophically alien to most science fiction authors and readers. Before I go into the reasons why, I will disclaim that this is going to entail the sort of unprovable, sweeping generalizations that tend to piss people off, especially those who feel said generalizations leave them out. The SF community is diverse (at least in some dimensions) and I’m not saying there aren’t people who love SF and are enormously concerned about climate change. I’m saying a subset of the community would prefer to read and write about something else. How large and influential the cultural subset I’m describing is (and whether it exists at all) something you’ll have to decide for yourself when I’m finished.

Here’s the short version of my argument: Science fiction is the literature of change, but the modern environmental movement is fundamentally conservative.

I expect the second clause requires some explanation, as I’m using “conservative” differently than the political definition in America or Britain. When he founded the American conservative magazine National Review, William F Buckley’s lighthearted description of its mission was to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” I’m not enough of a historian to say whether that was a good description of his movement in 1955, but it certainly has little to do with today’s American political conservatism, which has fundamentally revolutionary impulses. It’s a fantastic description, however, of the modern environmental movement, and in particular its campaign against carbon emissions. I would summarize the core climate change activism argument as follows: “Human civilization is emitting more and more carbon dioxide and, if this goes on, the result will be calamity. We must take swift measures to reverse this trend, and though the lack of fully developed substitutive technologies means this reversal will cause significant economic pain, the alternatives are considerably worse.”

Even though science fiction ought to be home court for any “If this goes on…” setting, I think there are many reasons why many in the science fiction community, even if they accept the conclusions of climate science, would prefer not to dwell on this argument:

  • SF doesn’t have a strong naturalistic tradition. Yes, Dune is the most popular SF book ever, but vast numbers of SF books take place entirely within wholly artificial environments. Nature has, from the start, been something largely relegated to fantasy, where Lord of the Rings planted a strong ecological note deep within the genre’s subconscious. Unfortunately, fantasy is so conservative that it only rarely deals with the industrial revolution, much less climate change, but it does frequently put forward restoring balance to nature as an important goal, an idea that goes all the way back to the ancient polytheistic traditions. Science fiction, for its part, has from the start almost always rejected balance in favor of change.

  • Environmentalism tends to be pessimistic about technology. Technological change created the means for our vast increases in carbon emissions, the ubiquitous technology of our daily lives requires energy usage we can’t sustain without carbon emitting power, and for a variety of reasons (some good, some bad) most environmentalists are deeply hostile to geo-engineering approaches to halting global warming, insisting on emissions reductions as the only answer. Dune, for all the power of its ecological content, looks very favorably on geo-engineering, and to a lesser degree so do the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars books. On the other side, Iain M. Banks was channeling the conservative nature of the environmentalist movement when he posited that in his enlightened far future, terraforming will be forbidden as an ecological crime, but unlike other elements of the Culture setting this idea doesn’t seem to have proved influential.

  • Carbon emission arguments, whether by coincidence or some sort of psychological deep structure, strongly resemble religious arguments: “Certain things you like doing are, in fact, bad. If you continue in your wicked ways, nothing obviously bad will happen to you immediately. Maybe not even in your lifetime. But eventually the price must be paid. The details are complicated, but scholars far wiser than you have ascertained these truths. If I do not convince you, then you should read their writings, for not only does your sin imperil you, it endangers the entire community, and therefore we must urge you to help us spread these important truths to others. If people will not voluntarily comply, they must be compelled for their own good.” It has often been observed that science fiction has, at best, a distant relationship with religion, and while this is sometimes overstated it has been and remains true that most science fiction will at best avoid it. While the personal right to religion is widely accepted, if a character in a modern SF novel strongly believes that society should reflect the sin/punishment axis they are almost certainly a villain, or indoctrinated by a dystopian society.

  • Climate science, at least in applied form, is the science of constraints. Science fiction is the literature of possibilities. Much as some might wish otherwise, SF is usually happy to ignore science when its constraints are getting in the way of a good story. The obvious analogue is relativity, a theory far older than climate change science and one universally believed among the SF community. Needless to say, relatively is depicted more frequently in the breach than the observance.

Those are all reasons why climate change might not resonate with some readers. Beyond those, there are also reasons particular to writers:

  • Climate change is perhaps the broadest collective action problem ever encountered and, as such, the responsibility for both the problem and any eventual solution is inevitably diffuse, spread across both enormous populations and time. This is just a refinement of Mark Charon Newton’s original point, but while Niall is right that SF can still depict the effect of climate change on individuals, but if we want novels that are “about” climate change instead of novels that incorporate a changed climate into the matte painting behind the characters, it would help if there was a way for a protagonist to defeat it. Or even affect it in any measurable way. By making climate change the central “enemy” of a novel, the author renders the protagonists helpless. It’s true that literary fiction has produced a long line of helpless main characters, but popular fiction has always preferred active protagonists who are able to at least try to change their circumstances. Science fiction is widely considered a populist genre no matter how vibrant its literary wing has become, and American science fiction in particular tends to be strongly individualist and distrusting of collective authority. Even leftist science fiction routinely sets up dystopian rightist governments for its protagonists to fight.

  • Climate science is changing far more rapidly than virtually any other branch of science (considering science, here, as distinct from technology). For rhetorical reasons, the popular literature of climate change emphasizes the science as “settled”, and indeed the idea that global warming is happening and it will be very, very bad if it continues is pretty settled. But bad in what way, for whom, when? These are enormously complicated questions to answer and scientists do not agree. Popularizers tend to wield worst-case scenarios, so the moment some scientist publishes a scenario worse than the one they’ve been trumpeting, they switch to the new one. This makes plausible extrapolation difficult. When I reviewed Rob Ziegler’s Seed for Strange Horizons, one problem I had with the book was I didn’t find its depicted climate plausible, to the point I at first assumed the author had intentionally invented an unrealistic climate. An interview he gave convinced me that, no, he believed it was quite plausible. Was he right and I wrong? I spent some time researching the question since I was reviewing the book, but ultimately I’m not a climate scientist. Unfortunately, in writing the appearance of implausibility is just as dangerous to writers as the real thing.

  • Finally and perhaps most importantly, fairly or not climate change remains controversial, particularly in the United States. On any controversial issue, writing with an activist stance alienates those on the other side. Readers are hard enough for most writers to find as it is. Ambitious writers have an enormous incentive to smooth over any edge even a relatively small minority of readers might consider rough.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable, as demonstrated by the success of The Windup Girl, but I think it’s going to be a while before we see climate change crowding out spaceships and dystopias in genre bestseller lists.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

March 2, 2011 at 2:36 am | Posted in Essays | 2 Comments

I’ve never written about fan fiction here, but I’ve never read fan fiction as good as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality before, either. I guess there’s a first time for everything. I take a position of moderate snobbishness about fanfic: I believe people who say there’s some really good stuff that I’d enjoy reading, but I don’t know how to find it without plowing through a bunch of stuff I won’t like, so I don’t try. It’s nothing personal, fan fiction. If you replace “don’t” with “rarely” that pretty much describes my attitude toward mainstream fiction, historical fiction, etc.

I made an exception and tried reading Methods of Rationality because I was led to believe it was funny. Someone quoted from passages that amounted to criticism of Rowling’s worldbuilding encased in a narrative. Having been known to rant about this myself, I gave it a try. There were indeed some sections that pick some deserving nits, as I expected. What I did not expect was that I would enjoy the actual story tremendously, indeed, far more than I enjoyed the Harry Potter books.

A quick summary of my feelings about Harry Potter is perhaps in order, since apparently I never reviewed any of them here (I could have sworn I reviewed Deathly Hallows…ah, apparently I just wrote a long comment on Abigail Nussbaum’s interesting essay). I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and read all of them, but was never a huge fan. In theory I liked the way the series grew with its readers, but in practice I felt that Rowling’s strengths were better suited to the earlier, younger books…her paper-thin worldbuilding became more of a problem for me the more seriously I was supposed to take the story, culminating in a metaphysical climax whose metaphysics I didn’t respect. But it must be said few writers have concluded a long series without going off the rails, or at least sparking a serious backlash from fans, so I was really impressed she nailed the dismount.

What’s different about Methods of Rationality? The biggest difference is Harry Potter. In this story, his aunt married an Oxford professor and he grows up in a loving home voraciously reading science (and science fiction). What’s more, he’s a genius, a child prodigy of Ender-like proportions who has read and can even quote from dozens of collegiate-level books on science. I was never convinced Ender was a young boy, and I don’t believe for a second this Harry is just eleven, but so often as a reader I’m burdened with characters who are frustratingly stupid that I’m willing to suspend disbelief if that’s what it takes to read about characters who are genuinely smart (other people saying they are smart doesn’t count). Harry Potter-Evans-Verres, as he is named in this story, is genuinely…relentlessly…smart, as are many of the other characters.

The conceit here is the same as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Harry takes his massive knowledge of modern science and, in particular, the scientific method to the pre-enlightenment culture of Hogwarts. This is the perfect setup for the sort of nitpicking I discussed before, and Harry reasons through, with devastating effect, the implications of original Harry Potter series’ depiction of everything from banking to Quidditch to ghosts to snake-talking.

This nitpicking can be fun, but it also serves as a vehicle for education. The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, is what you might call an evangelical rationalist in the Dawkins mold, and he is upfront that he hopes readers will, by reading his story, learn about the conclusions of modern scientific research as well as the very methods of rationality alluded to in the title. Personally, I was familiar with much of the research that Yudkowsky explains through Harry’s mouth, but I would be lying if I claimed not to have learned some things. Although Yudkowsky probably views this as the most important part of his work, for me it’s the least interesting. Thankfully, Yudkowsky avoids the trap (so common in science fiction) of turning Harry into someone smug and perfect, either adored or hated for being special. Instead, Harry makes bad choices and while other characters respect his talents, they tend to do so the way they might respect a loaded gun. Further, while Harry’s knowledge is special, his intellect is not. He may be preternaturally intelligent, but Hermione, Draco, and most especially Professor Quirrell get similar upgrades and can hold their own as later chapters involve increasingly complex webs of intrigue.

Methods of Rationality breaks with typical preachy fiction in another way in that it proves to be surprisingly funny. Reading Bujold’s A Civil Campaign years ago, I was struck while reading the dinner party scene how rarely I see comedic set pieces done well in science fiction (that dinner party being a wonderful exception). Perhaps I don’t read the right books, but in any case, the clothes-fitting scene very early in Methods was, if quite a bit less complicated than Bujold’s party, just as funny for what it was.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality starts out as a satire, becomes a comedy, then turns into an intrigue story, and at present has increasingly grappled with how to live ethically in a world where the consequences of one’s actions aren’t obvious. I say “at present” because, alas, it’s not finished, though at about 400,000 words it’s within hailing distance of the length of the first four Harry Potter books, so rest assured there’s plenty of material here already. The story is being published in serial format, with new chapters being released reasonably frequently. Think of it like an on-going television show. Since there’s still some way to go before any ending, this is a recommendation and not, in the end, a review. When the story is finished I expect to have a lot to say about the answers provided to the questions the story currently is asking about death, justice, heroism, and morality, but for now I invite you to find out for yourself.

Choreographist Fiction

January 18, 2011 at 2:48 am | Posted in Essays | Leave a comment

Any man who claims to remember and can recount each cut, parray, and riposte in a melee like the one we faced is either a liar or did nothing but watch.

The above aside comes from Michael Stackpole’s Talion: Revenant, a teenage favorite of mine that I’m currently rereading. I’ll review it in a few days, but in the meantime I wanted to do something a little different. I’ve seen some people talking about the need for new critical terms lately, and it’s true that most attempts at defining lexicons are either not available online (like Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy lexicon), aimed at writers and not readers and reviewers (like the Turkey City Lexicon, which for the most part is not actually a lexicon), or else comedic (like Lavie Tidhar’s new blog and Adam Roberts’ hilarious Anathem review). I can’t and won’t attempt an actual lexicon, but there are a couple concepts that I find myself mentioning fairly frequently in reviews here, so I thought it would be helpful to coin terms for them and write a little description–not because anyone else will ever use these words, but so I can use them and link back to my previous comments instead of repeating myself.

The first of these is a word I’ve used in my head when thinking about books for a while now: choreographist. It refers to prose fiction that takes it upon itself to carefully choreograph something for you, usually some sort of hand to hand combat. Here’s an example, from a small part of a fight scene from early in Matthew Stover’s choreographist science fantasy novel Heroes Die:

At about this time I realize he’s been pounding the side of my head with his doubled elbow. He can’t get any force behind it, lying down like that; he’s doing it mostly to distract me from his other hand, which is sliding up my neck to hook a thumb toward my eye.

As he swings again I rear back out of his elbow’s path and grab his upper arm, twisting him on around so his back’s to me now, pinning his scabbarded sword with my chest. The hair on the back of his head is matted with blood from a single cut where his scalp split against the edge of the step. I lock my legs around his again and roll us both over faceup just in time—the pair of ogres, who were winding up for free shots at my back, lower their morningstars uncertainly.

My left arm snakes around Berne’s face, over his eyes, to pull his head back while my right hand draws one of the long fighting knives from its sheath along my ribs. I put its point against his external jugular; it’ll take a single second to drive it straight in the side of his neck and slice out though the front, parting carotids, external and internal jugular, and windpipe. He has no chance to survive, and he knows it.

In this scene, Stover has figured out precisely what movements the combatants are making and is explaining it as precisely as possible to the reader. Stover is, by my reckoning, pretty good at this difficult transformation of movements in three dimensions into prose (I should note I haven’t done him any favors by stripping the context in order to keep the length of the excerpt down). His first person narrative renders most of these scenes in a distinctive voice and he sprinkles his fights with a lot of little character moments, similar to but more realistic than the way comic book characters converse while fighting. However, and this is the difference between fiction with some choreography and what I call choreographist fiction, these elaborate fight scenes are clearly a big part, though still by no means the only part, of the novel’s appeal for its readers.

But no matter how well done, what’s really going on here? Action movie envy, if you ask me. Action movies have always been popular, and with the rising popularity of martial arts and the importing of idioms and styles from Asian cinema, the choreography in movies has gotten ever more elaborate. But prose fiction is not a movie, and even if one is reading a novelization of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is it really desirable to recreate it “shot for shot” in prose? The movie Crouching Tiger is actually an adaptation of a novel, so perhaps at some point I should read the original and see how it handles the fight scenes, but in the meantime I will provisionally answer: probably not. And by the way, this doesn’t just apply to hand to hand combat. You often hear people talk about how space battles are exciting, but how many books have space battles that are even remotely as exciting as those in movies?

Fight scenes considerably predate action movies, of course. In fact, I suppose they predate written literature. Here is the end of the most important fight in the Iliad:

As he spoke he drew the keen blade that hung so great and strong by his side, and gathering himself together be sprang on Achilles like a soaring eagle which swoops down from the clouds on to some lamb or timid hare–even so did Hector brandish his sword and spring upon Achilles. Achilles mad with rage darted towards him, with his wondrous shield before his breast, and his gleaming helmet, made with four layers of metal, nodding fiercely forward. The thick tresses of gold with which Vulcan had crested the helmet floated round it, and as the evening star that shines brighter than all others through the stillness of night, even such was the gleam of the spear which Achilles poised in his right hand, fraught with the death of noble Hector. He eyed his fair flesh over and over to see where he could best wound it, but all was protected by the goodly armour of which Hector had spoiled Patroclus after he had slain him, save only the throat where the collar-bones divide the neck from the shoulders, and this is a most deadly place: here then did Achilles strike him as he was coming on towards him, and the point of his spear went right through the fleshy part of the neck, but it did not sever his windpipe so that he could still speak. Hector fell headlong, and Achilles vaunted over him saying, “Hector, you deemed that you should come off scatheless when you were spoiling Patroclus, and recked not of myself who was not with him. Fool that you were: for I, his comrade, mightier far than he, was still left behind him at the ships, and now I have laid you low. The Achaeans shall give him all due funeral rites, while dogs and vultures shall work their will upon yourself.”

This is a prose translation of the poem, but it’s pretty clear that for all his blood, gore, and constant battle scenes Homer wasn’t really writing choreographist fiction. The stock epithets fly fast and furious, but Homer takes it for granted his audience believes in the skill and prowess of Achilles and Hector and lets them decide exactly how it all looked. Of course, tastes have changed, and when I read this in high school it struck me as anticlimactic. If someone were to make a modern movie out of the Iliad the battle would last for several minutes at least (I can’t remember how it was done in Petersen’s Troy but I’m not willing to watch it again to find out). This is now true for most novels as well: the climactic sword fight of Guy Gavriel Kay’s not even remotely choreographist Lions of Al-Rassan carefully describes quite a bit of the back and forth.

You might think this is all an elaborate way of saying I think choreographist fiction is garbage, but I’m not. Now some of it is badly written, and then it is fair game, but otherwise I think this is a matter of reader preferences. There are, as I see it, two reasons one might attack choreographist fiction as a whole. The first complaint would be that in the first person, and these stories are quite often written in the first person, it is flat-out unrealistic. I began with a quote from Talion: Revenant that made this argument, although curiously throughout the rest of the novel the narrator is happy to provide a blow by blow description of his fights. Apparently melees “like the one we faced” are different. Perhaps I simply wasn’t good enough, but I used to be a fencer and five minutes after a bout, while I could remember the decisive moments and the broad outline, I certainly couldn’t provide a detailed description of what happened. The idea of reproducing anything even remotely accurate days, weeks, or even years later is absurd.

The same criticism, however, can be made of first person narratives providing the exact words of conversations, so this turns out to be an objection to the first person perspective as a whole. In truth, with a very few exceptions, every first person narrative is unrealistic. Most people (although not all, see the discussion in the comments here) just accept that as long as it follows certain conventions we can ignore the question of precisely how the text came into existence, just as we don’t require that a movie explain how the camera got there and why no one is looking at it.

The second possible objection, and the one I am more sympathetic to, asks: why we are reading a book in the first place? It’s a cliché of adapted movies that the novel is always better than the movie, but is that because the fight scenes are better in the book? While that’s not impossible, given competent direction I think it’s safe to say only the most ardent lover of books would rather read a fight scene than watch it. There’s a reason that “action” is widely considered to be an actual genre of film but has only extremely weak parallels in the book world. Shouldn’t we read books that emphasize the things prose does well, and leave the things film does better to film and television? I guess some people are text purists, like Johan Jönsson in this Strange Horizons article where he concludes that he doesn’t like maps in fantasy novels because he prefers “a book where the text works without such aids as maps or appendices.” I guess I’m more pragmatic. Maps are much better at communicating geography, so why on earth wouldn’t you use them if you can? Likewise, if the perennially two years away multimedia novel of the future ever becomes common (I have my doubts), then by all means let’s switch to live action video for the fight scenes.

However, despite my sympathies, the reality is virtually all good books appeal on multiple levels. Heroes Die may be “just” a choreographist novel, but it’s also a fantasy novel. In fact, simultaneously, it also happens to be a science fiction novel. It would be a shame if readers missed out on the novel just because they look down on fancy fight scenes. I confess I tend to skim when fight descriptions get technical, but there’s plenty more to like about Heroes Die. For elaboration, albeit not much, you can see what I wrote about it five years ago (lacking the term choreographist, I went with “fighting procedural”).

Now, if a book strikes me as being solely choreographist that’s a different matter, but that’s where a reviewer can help readers figure out whether or not a book is worth reading. Hopefully having a term will be helpful in that regard.

A Song of Ice and Fire: Further Thoughts

August 18, 2010 at 5:16 am | Posted in Essays | 37 Comments

Recently Charlie Jane Anders on io9 linked to my thoughts about the first four books in A Song of Ice and Fire, pairing them with a Martin fan’s discussion of Martin’s writing issues. There’s been a pretty vigorous discussion there as well some interesting comments here, and since I don’t have time to reply to everything individually I thought I’d make a follow up post here. Before I get into the objections some people have raised, I want to make sure a few things are clear.

Unlike some I’m not criticizing Martin for the series’ delays. Writing fiction is hard enough and writing series fiction may be the hardest kind because no one lives long enough to get a lot of experience at doing it. JRR Tolkien, to take just one example, had enormous difficulties writing Lord of the Rings and spent fifteen years in a failed effort to finish the Silmarillion. I wouldn’t dream of second guessing him, or Martin either. By the same token I also am not criticizing his many fans. Unfortunately it didn’t quite come together for me and my post was an attempt at thinking about why that was. I think that with a tighter plot this series would be even more popular, but who knows? Finally, and maybe most importantly, I don’t have any more access to Martin’s mind than anyone else. Maybe less…my guesses about the origins of his work are based almost entirely on the text itself and his Wikipedia article, although over the years I’ve read the odd interview and some (but not nearly all) of his blog.

One more note: I stuck to fairly general observations in my previous article but this time there will be more spoilers, so if you haven’t read these books, you should probably go do that first. While I’m obviously not crazy about the series, there’s an excellent chance you’ll love them and in any case you can do far, far worse when it comes to fantasy.

Now, finally, let’s talk more about some of the responses people had to what I wrote.

An air of realism was the intended effect of the plot structure – I’m definitely willing to say I may have not given him enough credit here. I reasoned that since the standard elements of fantasy were present, just relegated to being second-class citizens to the realistic political story, that he wasn’t intentionally going for realism. But a few people have said he wanted to meld the two together and that could well be right. If so, I don’t think it was very successful. I think the problem is that the fantasy elements are relegated to the geographic sidelines. Almost all of the story (my guess was 85% but I think the io9 piece gave it more credit than a completely wild guess deserved) is set in Westeros, but the fantasy is where Daenerys and Jon Snow are, outside the borders.

The later books are going to tie all this together. – Some will object (have already objected actually) that I’m jumping the gun here. And I totally agree that all this is going to come to a head within the borders of Westeros before the end. But I don’t think it’s correct to say a series that, when complete, will probably be well over two million words can be structured the same way as an eighty thousand word novel, and more than a short story should have the same pacing as a novel. There are limits to the amount of material a reader can internalize. Fans who have reread the extant series ten times can probably speak comfortably about every narrative thread, but for the vast majority the disproportionate detail of the Westeros material is an obstacle to appreciating Martin’s project.

It’s wrong to write off the politics as “window dressing” because all of this will become important in later books. – Well, I disagree. Yes, a unified Westeros seems like it would be able to fend off the evil from the North as well as defeat Daenerys on the beaches when she arrives. But after reading the four books, is it anyone’s impression that but for some small chance this would have happened? The impression I got was that there were absolutely massive fault lines under the surface of King Robert’s nation that would inevitably rip it apart once it was put under the slightest stress. And once apart, all the King’s men are patently unable to put it back together. If Sansa hadn’t told Cersei about Ned Stark’s plans, perhaps Stark would have gotten an advantage for a short time, but would Tywin Lannister have given up his ambitions for his family? I think not. That’s just one example, but for me the takeaway was that Westeros is hopeless without some foreign overlord like the Targaryens to impose order.

But if efforts to staunch the bleeding in Westeros are futile, then why are we subjected to such endless detail of people trying? If a point is being made about power and ambition, why do we need the explicit fantasy sections at all? Why cloud the picture with the evil and the princess when you’re actually talking about mundane human government? And if the point is that in the face of these existential threats the government still cannot function, well, this would be more persuasive if more time was devoted to the existential threats. I think before the fourth book there were, what, ten or twenty people in Westeros who know anything about Daenerys? And if most of the Night’s Watch doesn’t believe they are facing a supernatural evil, or even remember how to fight it, it seems unreasonable to expect the rest of the country to take it more seriously.

Robb and Ned Stark are definitely main characters – Oh, I agree they are absolutely main characters of A Game of Thrones. I just don’t think they are main characters in A Song of Ice and Fire since, as I discussed above, no matter what they did they were going to be ground up in the mill of Westeros before the Ice and Fire parts of the story actually get moving. This is the heart of my concerns. The series is called A Song of Ice and Fire and most would agree that’s a reference to Daenerys and Jon Snow’s stories, but the individual books spend all of their time on Westeros politics. Notice that despite the series title, the titles of the books that have been released (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows) all refer to events in Westeros. The unreleased book titles (A Dance With Dragons, The Winds of Winter, A Dream of Spring) all seem to be referring to the fantasy side of the story.

(Incidentally, apparently Daniel Abraham is a good friend of Martin’s…if so it’s humorous that he swooped in and got to the season-based titles with his Long Price Quartet after Martin had announced the last two book titles but before either were written.)

The story is really about the Stark children – My guess is the story is about Daenerys and Jon Snow (and that Snow is not, in fact, a Stark child) but I could be wrong about that. However if it’s true that Sansa, Arya, and Bran are more central than they appear (without a doubt they’ll ultimately have a significant role, the question is how central they’ll be) then I have a different complaint: why have the main characters been stuck being passive for such an excruciatingly long time? Robb was hugely active but was killed off for his trouble. Sansa, Arya, and Bran have changed due to their experiences, but have spent most of their viewpoint scenes being carted around by other people (and are totally absent from all other viewpoints). It’s nice that Sansa isn’t quite such an idiot any more and Bran has gone about two feet down a two mile spirit journey, but if this is so important why haven’t they been given more to do? Arya does get a lot of screen time in Feast for Crows but unfortunately it was mostly spent on what seems like it’s going to be end up being ninja training, probably the most generic part of the entire series. If the series’ realistic tone is such an asset (and I do agree that, while I’d like more structure, it’s an asset) is it helpful to turn a main character into a ninja? I’m all for strong female characters but I’m anti-ninja (male and female alike) in fiction which aspires to even a passing relationship with reality. Oh well.

This gets back to what, if anything, is “window dressing” in the series. It matters that Robb Stark was killed, in that he won’t be around later, and it matters that Arya has been forced to kill people and become a ninja. But given the number of pieces likely to be left on the board when we start approaching the final act (i.e. way, way less than the number of dead characters) was all the endless detail necessary for the story that was told? I think the answer is no. I know the fans liked that detail, and I certainly liked some of it as well. But surely most people would agree that there’s a point where it gets to be too much. We all draw the line at a different point. Maybe some fans could spend a hundred books of this size on Westeros politics and the characters caught up in it. I felt like my point was somewhere in Feast for Crows. Other people (including the io9 writer I think) didn’t make it that far.

Martin wasn’t “distracted” by the political side of the series, he was focused on it from the beginning – Apparently he’s talked about how he was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, he grew up fascinated by knights, and so forth. I’ll cop to being flippant when I said he got distracted by the politics. Whether or not he intended it from the beginning, certainly neither Martin nor his editor could fail to see it was the focus of Game of Thrones once there was an actual draft. But looking at the first four books together (since that’s how I read them) I still say that it is trying to be a fantasy story. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except that the fantasy structure has been distorted by the narrative emphasis given to the unstructured politics. Being realistic doesn’t mean you have to give up on an orderly plot…I’d point to The Wire as the best recent example of a story that feels real despite keeping tight control over the plot at all times. I think, and I emphasize it’s my opinion, that the series would have worked better with me and probably a lot of other readers if it was written both with a better sense of narrative direction and momentum.

When I was in high school English class we got in groups of about eight and each group performed a Shakespeare play for the rest of the class. For time reasons, we had to abridge the plays, and if I recall part of the grade was based on how well we boiled the play down to its essentials. It felt like sacrilege (and I had the misfortune to be given the role of Macbeth…it turns out that when you boil down Macbeth the best way is to cut out everyone else’s lines and Macbeth just talks to himself and mostly silent people around him for the whole play). I don’t think anyone would ever come away thinking our butchered versions were even close to as good as the original texts. I think it’s a rule of thumb in writing circles that less is more. Less fluff, that is. The most effective stories are lean stories. I couldn’t tell you how true that is but if you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire you can now decide for yourself. Are there scenes that can be removed without damaging the story? No doubt you’ll consider some of these scenes too good to cut. But remember other people are going to want to cut the scenes you liked and keep the ones you didn’t. I think this is why writers are told to “kill their darlings” and cut everything that isn’t needed regardless of how neat it might be. If that was done to A Song of Ice and Fire what would it look like?

We’ll find out one answer when the HBO series airs. I certainly don’t know the right answer. This question is hard, and having to answer it is yet another reason why writing is hard. Fortunately for us, backseat driving on the Internet is a lot easier.

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