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‘How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera’ by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

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The introduction to The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell, opens with a brief section that serves as a defence for their previous monumental anthology, The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution Of Hard Science Fiction. That volume opened with three contradictory introductions that did absolutely nothing to illuminate what the editors believed hard science fiction actually was. The nine hundred odd pages of fiction that followed were similarly confounding and left critics scratching their head. Cramer and Hartwell are sticking to their guns though. The editors may have restricted themselves to a single introduction (although the individual story introductions are much longer) but they warn us they faced “a similar set of problems” and intend to “pursue clarification by representing perhaps conflicting examples”. Eek.

The next section opens: “For the past twenty years (1982-2002), the Hugo Award for best novel has generally been given to space opera.” Since The Space Opera Renaissance was published in 2006, there is a bit of a disconnect here. This is because this part of the introduction was originally published as an essay of the same name in 2003. The editors have simply regurgitated it here with expanded examples but no real revision. I say “editors” but tellingly the essay uses “I” throughout with the clear implication that it was actually written by Hartwell (who similarly was solely responsible for much of the jointly signed material in The Ascent Of Wonder). This is here changed to “we” but I see little point in going along with this charade.

Most of the essay is given over not to defining the New Space Opera but a history of the evolution of the term space opera. Whilst this context is useful, it displays unmistakeable traces of bitterness that Hartwell has been caught on the wrong side of history. Of space opera’s pejorative origins, he says:

A lot of people don’t remember this and that distorts our understanding of both our present and our past in SF. Perfectly intelligent but ignorant people are writing revisionist history, inventing an elaborate age of space opera based on wholesale redefinitions of the term made up in the sixties and seventies to justify literary political agendas.

Let’s put that patronising and frankly embarrassing second sentence to once side; the claim that interests me is that in the first sentence. How exactly does ignorance of the past distort our understanding of the present? Perhaps Hartwell believes the New Space Opera can only be defined in opposition to the old space opera but I can identify shinola without needing to look at shit. The redefinitions he is talking about took place 25 years before the time he was writing yet he can’t let go of them. Later on he notes that: “Leigh Brackett, by the mid 1970s, was one of the respected elder writers of SF: in the middle and late 1970s, Del Rey Books reissued nearly all her early tales, calling them space opera as a contemporary term of praise!” The pearl clutching exclamation mark is impossibly quaint; it is 2006, who could possibly be shocked by this? There is a lecturing, tediously fannish tone to the whole piece; he has the facts on his side, damn it.

Eventually we get to the point where we could have come in:

Thus the term space opera reentered the serious discourse on contemporary SF in the 1980s with a completely altered meaning: henceforth, space opera meant, and still generally means, colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focussed on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action (this bit is what separates it from other literary postmodernisms) and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. What is centrally important is that this permits a writer to embark on a science fiction project that is ambitious in both commercial and literary terms.

This does contain the core of a definition, albeit a not useful or interesting one, but it also contains a couple of weird twists. In the brackets we are directed to “this bit”? Which bit? Plot action? None of the preceding characteristics have any relationship to literary postmoderism. Nor do any of the ones afterwards. This leaves the parenthetical remarks a Hartwell brainfart inadvisably stabbed into the text. Then there is the closing sentence: why is it centrally important that it allows a writer to be “commercially ambitious”? Hartwell doesn’t say and I cannot guess. As for the definition itself, it is more of a casual description and I would have hoped for something a bit more incisive at the start of such a large anthology on the subject.

The essay concludes: “The new space opera of the past twenty years is arguably the literary cutting edge of SF now.” That certainly was arguable in 2003 but my sense is that this would be a much harder case to make now. To return to Hartwell’s earlier test, no space opera novel has won the Hugo in the decade since the essay was published. In fact, by my count, only half a dozen have been shortlisted over that period. Space opera still makes up one of the two dominant forms of contemporary SF but in terms influence, the bloom is off the rose.

Written by Martin

17 April 2012 at 17:26

The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

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‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’ by Gregory Benford
‘On Science And Science Fiction’ by Kathryn Cramer
‘Hard Science Fiction’ by David G Hartwell

Part 1

‘Nine Lives’ by Ursula K. LeGuin
‘Light Of Other Days’ by Bob Shaw
‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne
‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke
‘Proof’ by Hal Clement
‘It’s Great To Be Back’ by Robert A. Heinlein
‘Mimsy Were The Borogoves’ by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
‘Davy Jones’ Ambassador’ by Raymond Z. Gallun
‘The Life And Times Of Multivac’ by Isaac Asimov
‘The Singing Diamond’ by Robert L Forward
‘Down And Out On Ellfive’ by Dean Ing
‘Send Me A Kiss By Wire’ by Hilbert Schenck
‘The Xi Effect’ by Philip Latham
‘A Descent Into The Maelström’ by Edgar Allen Poe
‘Exposures’ by Gregory Benford
‘The Planners’ by Kate Wilhelm
‘Beep’ by James Blish
‘Drode’s Equations’ by Richard Grant
‘The Weather Man’ by Theodore L Thomas

Part 2

‘Transit Of Earth’ by Arthur C. Clarke
‘Prima Belladonna’ by JG Ballard
‘To Bring In The Steel’ by Donald Kingsbury
‘Gomez’ by C.M. Kornbluth
‘Waterclap’ by Isaac Asimov
‘Weyr Search’ by Anne McCaffrey
‘Message Found in a Copy of “Flatland”‘ by Rudy Rucker
‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Goodwin
‘The Land Ironclads’ by HG Wells
‘The Hole Man’ by Larry Niven
‘Atomic Power’ by Don A. Stuart
‘Stop Evolution in Its Tracks!’ by John T. Sladek
‘The Hungry Guinea Pig’ by Miles J. Breuer, M.D.
‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson
‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ by Bruce Sterling
‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ by Ursula K LeGuin
‘Heat Of Fusion’ by John M. Ford
‘Dolphin’s Way’ by Gordon R. Dickson
‘All The Hues Of Hell’ by Gene Wolfe
‘Occam’s Scalpel’ by Theodore Sturgeon
‘giANTS’ by Edward Bryant
‘Time Fuze’ by Randall Garrett
‘Desertion’ by Clifford D. Simak

Part 3

‘Kyrie’ by Poul Anderson
‘The Person From Porlock’ by Raymond F. Jones
‘Day Million’ by Frederik Pohl
‘Cage Of Sand’ by JG Ballard
‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things To Rats’ by James Tiptree Jr.
‘In the Year 2889′ by Jules Verne
‘Surface Tension’ by James Blish
 ‘No, No, Not Rogov!’ by Cordwainer Smith
‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ by George Turner
‘With The Night Mail’ by Rudyard Kipling
‘The Longest Science Fiction Story In The World’ by Arthur C Clarke
‘The Pi Man’ by Alfred Bester
‘Relativistic Effects’ by Gregory Benford
‘Making Light’ by James P. Hogan
‘The Last Question’ by Isaac Asimov
‘The Indefatigable Frog’ by Philip K. Dick
‘Chromatic’ by John M. Ford
‘The Snowball Effect’ by Katherine McLean
‘The Morphology Of The Kirkham Wreck’ by Hilbert Schenck
‘Tangents’ by Greg Bear
‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson
‘What Continues, What Fails…’ by David Brin
‘Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum’ by Michael F. Flynn
‘Bookworm, Run!’ by Vernor Vinge

So, having read 67 stories over twelve months, 990 pages and three mysterious sections, I have now finally finished The Ascent Of Wonder. Was it worth it? I would have to say no. A fiction anthology may have a historical or critical purpose but, for me, it lives or dies by the quality of its stories. The problem is that the standard of stories collected here simply isn’t high enough to justify the investment in such a mammoth volume.

A further inescapable problem is that Hartwell and Cramer have subtitled their anthology ‘The Evolution of Hard SF’ but they have singularly failed to put forward a clear definition of what hard science fiction actually is. Nor does a definition emerge organically from what are frankly a fairly disparate bunch of stories. There are certainly stories here that I would point to when asked to point to hard SF but is that enough? Many of the stories here clearly aren’t hard SF, no matter how hard you squint, and in their introductions Hartwell and Cramer frequently acknowledge this, making the inclusion of these stories particularly willful. (I have seen it suggested in several places that Hartwell alone wrote these introductions.)

As well as the baffling individual introductions, the three (three!) main introductions provided me with no helpful guide: Benford is childish, offensive and represents the worst of the genre, Cramer merely impenetrable and Hartwell relies solely on handwaving and unsupported assertion. Other critics were equally bemused. I have decided to give the editors one last chance, however, in the form of Cramer’s chapter on hard SF in The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn.

After a page or so of prevarication, Cramer defines her approach to hard SF in way that reads an awful lot like a justification for The Ascent Of Wonder:

Since a literary genre is a form of conversation among writers, one useful approach is to find writers who say they are writing hard sf and see what they do and say about it. This means including writers who seem out of place, have a bad attitude (that is, who display inadequate faith in and enthusiasm for science and technology) or choose unorthodox tactics for yoking the science to the fiction. This approach occasionally enrages hard sf purists, as it results in a more sprawling sub-genre.

There is much to argue with here. Is a literary genre primarily a form of conversation among writers? Examining writers who claim to write hard SF is certainly one approach but how justifiable are these claims? How well examined are the writers own beliefs about their work? Are they simply delusional? I would hope that a critic would give a bit more thought to these issues rather than simply taking such assertions at face value. We then have a kitchen sink second sentence which allows us to include anything we want under the umbrella of hard SF and provides the rationale for The Ascent Of Wonder. I’m not surprised this enrages hard SF purists, it presumably enrages purists of all stripes who foolishly believe that a definition should actually define something. It certainly enrages me. That final sentence gives an example of one of those alleged enraged hard SF purist but when turn to the reference we find this:

Of this approach in David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds., The Ascent of Wonder (New York: Tor, 1994), David Samuelson complains in ‘A Softening of the Hard-SF Concept’, at p. 409, that ‘[it] deprecate[s] the real thing, watering it down so much as to virtually destroy any generic consistency’

So yes, Cramer is talking about her own book here, although she doesn’t come out and say that in the body of the text. But who is Samuelson and at p. 409 where? A quick Google reveals she is actually referring to David N. Samuelson and the unattributed source for ‘A Softening of the Hard-SF Concept’ is Science Fiction Studies Vol. 21, No. 3 (1994). This source is revealed in the Further Reading section at the back of the book but it seems perverse to give a full reference to subject of the criticism and leave the reader to root out the source of the criticism itself. Errors do happen but this seems abysmally sloppy. Anyway, Samuelson’s review is, as you might expect, pretty damning:

Hartwell’s stated aim is to make accessible to a larger audience something which, depending on one’s side in the argument, is the most hidebound or most authentic form of sf. His and Cramer’s means of achieving that goal, however, cast doubt on both the quality of hard sf as literature and its claim to be called a distinctive branch, let alone the center of the sf universe, as alleged by all three of the book’s introductions… Like his essay, this collection of stories is disorderly and diffuse, trying to serve not only the announced purpose, but others as well, among them a history lesson, a pleading for literary quality which may imply terms antithetical to sf “hardness,” and a questioning of the very bases outlined in the introductions that supposedly constitute the subject at hand.

Back to Cramer’s definition. It seems clear that by approaching hard SF as a “contentious conversation”, Hartwell and Cramer have been forced to attempt a synthesis of irreconcilable viewpoints. The result is that they are left with no single coherent thread on which to hang The Ascent Of Wonder. Cramer herself warns of the dangers of “solipsistic definitions” but that is exactly what they have lapsed into. Works of hard SF “are usually characterized by attitudes found in previous examples of hard sf, but may instead be characterized by attitudes found in opposition to or in argument or dialogue with such attitudes.” To which I can only say: pft. Frankly, I’ve had enough.

Samuelson charitable concludes his review by saying: “I would grant that a third of the sixty-seven stories are quite good”. So let’s move on to the stories themselves…

The Good

It would be impossible to publish an anthology as big as The Ascent Of Wonder and not include a few gems. For me, the best thing about the book was that it brought John M. Ford to my attention. ‘Heat Of Fusion’ is wonderful; a great hard SF story, a great SF story, a great story full stop. It makes you believe that not only does hard SF exist but it is a good thing it does. His other story, ‘Chromatic’, is also good but – as with so many of the stories – out of place here.

Then we have Gregory Benford whose introduction almost turned me off his fiction for life. Luckily it didn’t because, despite the fact he is clearly an arse, he remains one of the few authors who can actually write hard SF as demonstrated here by ‘Relativistic Effects’. The same is true of a pair of classics: James Blish’s ‘Surface Tension and Day Million’ by Frederik Pohl’. ‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ by Ursula K LeGuin, on the other hand, is an example of one of those stories Cramer refers to as violating the attitude of the subgenre whilst remaining hard. Unfortunately this only throws into starker relief those which do not.

For example, we get a clutch of excellent (then) contemporary science fiction in the form of ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson, ‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ by Bruce Sterling and ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson which have only a passing aquaintance with that part of the genre. Other stories are superb but don’t even inhabit the same universe as hard SF. ‘Drode’s Equations’ made me want to seek out more by Richard Grant but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much. Similarly, ‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things To Rats’ by James Tiptree Jr and ‘The Planners’ by Kate Wilhelm made resolve again to properly approach their respective back catalogues. (Both were presumably included to bump up the abysmal number of stories by women, just seven out of 67.)

The Hard

It is fair to say my tastes don’t naturally incline towards classic hard science fiction. There are a clutch of stories – ‘What Continues, What Fails…’ by David Brin, ‘giANTS’ by Edward Bryant, ‘Proof’ by Hal Clement, Benford’s ‘Exposures’ – that, whilst they didn’t do it for me, I would commend to a fan of the hard stuff. To be honest, I was expecting many more stories of this type so you can imagine how bitterly disappoint I was with what I did get.

Some of the older stories make a good case for the subgenre’s existence prior to Mission Of Gravity, Hal Clement’s 1953 novel which the editors identify as the birth of modern hard SF. ‘The Land Ironclads’ by HG Wells and ‘A Descent Into The Maelström’ by Edgar Allen Poe make excellent proto-hard SF stories and I was completely charmed by Raymond Z Gallun’s ‘Davy Jones’ Ambassador’ which I think is the real deal.

Then we have ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Goodwin. It is quintessentially hard science fiction. It is a steaming pile of shit. When people think of hard SF this is what they think of and it is a pinched, ugly subgenre which hates the written word. Supposed grandmasters like Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein make contributions to this anthology that make me wonder how on Earth the canon was formed (I felt similarly about ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke but there was such an outpouring of support for the story that I think this has to be just me.)

It is the bread and butter stories that really show the subgenre’s weakness though. I summed up ‘The Singing Diamond’ by Robert L Forward as “very hard, very short, strong on science, weak on character” and there are several more of this ilk: ‘The Person From Porlock’ by Raymond F. Jones, ‘Atomic Power’ by Don A. Stuart (AKA John W Campbell Jr), ‘The Xi Effect’ by Philip Latham. For me, these represent the antithesis of what fiction should be; for others, they represent the very heart of science fiction.

And The Ugly

Many, many of the stories are neither good nor hard. I have forced myself to read them and forced myself to write brief assessments but I am going to say no more about them. Occassionally, however, this dreadful monotony has been broken by some stories that are easy to write about for all the wrong reasons. Women are conspicuous by their absence in this anthology but even when they are depicted it is often in breathtakingly sexist terms. ‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ by George Turner and ‘The Weather Man’ by Theodore L Thomas impress but the gold star for wrongness goes to Donald Kingsbury’s ‘To Bring In The Steel’ though. This really has to be read to be believed but if you don’t have access to a copy check out my post and marvel at this story of an asteroid miner and his happy whore.

Finally, a special word needs to go to ‘Making Light’ by James P. Hogan. This is the fictional equivalent of Benford’s smug, conceited introduction. The attitude that fans are slans and belief that hard SF is the high church of science fiction are one of the main reasons I am so ambivalent about fandom. A story like this – and to a lesser extent The Ascent Of Wonder itself – is almost enough to put me off science fiction completely.

Written by Martin

23 February 2011 at 14:50

The Ascent Of Links

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So, with ‘Beep’ we reach the end of Part One of The Ascent Of Wonder. Even this is not without controversy though, because what does Part One mean and why does it exist? The book has an appendix by Kathryn Cramer which says:

In one phase of this book’s gestation, it was to be divided into sections according to the manner in which science was used in the story. This appendix gives an alternate order from the table of contents in which to enjoy the stories.

Crucially and bafflingly, the question of the actual order is left unmentioned. The stories aren’t in chronological order or even alphabetical order, they don’t appear to be grouped by theme or, indeed, anything else. What makes Part One different from Part Two? Perhaps all will become clear but at the moment I have no clue which is surely a major failing on the part of the editors. Answers on the back of a postcard please.

Cramer has also helpfully put together An Interactive Introduction to The Ascent Of Wonder which include all the introductions, except Gregory Benford’s. The chief benefit of this is that I can cut and paste the weird remarks from their (his?) story introductions rather than type them out. The anthology also has its own wikipedia page which I started to tidy up a bit but then couldn’t be bothered to continue.

Returning to that earlier post, having read a third of the stories and a third of the story introductions I am no clearer on what Hartwell and Cramer mean by hard SF. Their inclusions are every bit as eclectic as the initial introductions promised. Speaking of which, Paul Kincaid’s review is also available online, although sadly Gary Wolfe’s is not.

One final link: in the course of searching for additional supporting information I was reminded of the fact Cramer wrote the chapter on hard SF for The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction so – once I’ve slogged through the remaining two thirds of this anthology – I might give my thoughts on that as well.

Written by Martin

15 April 2010 at 11:02

Less A Theory Of SF Evolution Than A Kind Of Literary Creationism

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Since I didn’t have much joy with those introductions to The Ascent Of Wonder I thought I would see what some other people thought. Here is Gary K Wolfe from his Locus review:

Both Hartwell and Cramer, in their introductions, agree that hard SF is widely perceived by readers and writers as somehow being at the core of the SF enterprise, but beyond that they never quite let themselves get pinned down to a usable definition… Most SF readers are likely to come away, as I did, convinced more than ever that hard SF is a fuzzy set – but that it’s not this fuzzy… we’re left we a fuzzy set with clear center and no boundaries at all – there’s no principle of exclusion, no acknowledgement that any subset of SF exists other than hard SF. In other words, there’s a fair amount of fudging going on here.

And here, having noted that Benford and Cramer “both assume we know what hard sf is”, is Paul Kincaid from his Vector review:

It is, therefore, left to Hartwell in his main introduction and in the individual story introduction, which appear to be mostly his work, to provide the agenda for the anthology, to define hard sf and place the disparate stories within that definition. Unfortunately, he presents no one coherent argument, but a series of conflicting perspectives… If hard sf is so fluid in intent, in style, in content, then we are hardly dealing with one clearly defined subset of science fiction, we are dealing with a number of subsets which may share some characteristics, and which may huddle close to each other, but they are not the same thing. The argument may work if we are talking about the core of science fiction, it is a multiform genre after all, but it was to fail if Hartwell is presenting just one branch, one aspect of sf which stands central to sf but is somehow clearly distinct from all other forms. Trying to pull all these statements and counter-statements together we are left, therefore, with no straightforward, easily graspable account of what hard sf actually is, as opposed to sf in general.

I still have those individual story introductions to look forward to. Here is Wolfe again:

The soft-shoe routine really go into high gear in the story introduction, which seem to contain the real keys to the editorial process but which are much less clearly focussed that the straightforward informative comments which helped make Hartwell’s horror anthologies so valuable. At times rambling and pedantic – as though it’s necessary to reassert the editors’ authority at every opportunity – the notes sometimes seem directed towards the general reader, sometimes toward the aficionado, and sometimes toward no one at all.

Oh joy.

Written by Martin

14 February 2010 at 11:06

‘On Science And Science Fiction’ by Kathryn Cramer

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I read Cramer’s introduction last night but was completely unable to penetrate it. I put that down to tired eyes but re-reading it today I’m still unable to make much progress. Paragraph follows paragraph with little sense of an argument building or even much of a connection between the various assertions. Not only do I have no idea what Cramer means by hard SF but I find it hard to work out what she believes about anything so often does her writing fold back in on itself.

It is also, in its own way, as disingenuous as Gregory Benford’s introduction. Early on, Cramer says: “There has been a persistent view that hard sf in somehow the core and center of the sf field.” (25) No mention of the fact Benford has just stated this view a couple of pages earlier; each introduction exists in a strange vacuum.

Written by Martin

8 February 2010 at 22:39


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My long review of The Secret History Of Science Fiction, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (and previously mentioned here, is up now at SF Site. The introduction is blunt but to the point:

The Secret History of Science Fiction is a very good collection of short stories. It is not, however, a very good anthology.

It is a problem I’ve had more than a few times – the gap between the individual stories and overall of aim of the editor – and it is a problem I’m sure I will have again.

Speaking of which, for the next of my story by story reading projects I’m planning to read The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution Of Hard SF, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. It is an absolute monster: just under 1,000 pages. It has three introductions, for God’s sake, one for each of the editors and a bonus one for Gregory Benford. Having read Paul Kincaid’s review of the anthology – in which he takes strong issue with the editors’ definition of hard SF – and sharing similar concerns to him, I suspect this will be another anthology which I find frustrated by its editors. We shall see.

I will start with Benford’s introduction later this week but the whole thing will probably take me until the end of the year.

Written by Martin

1 February 2010 at 16:14


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