Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’
Jetse de Vries has an post in which he sets out seven reasons (although he calls them “excuses”) why SF writers might not want to produce positive SF. As you might expect from that framing it contains more than its fair share of tendentious crap but I was interested to what his rebutal of my position was. He summarises this position as “I will not confirm to your positivist agenda: nobody tells me what to write.”
The first thing to say is that de Vries proceeds from a fundamentally different starting to me, for him “the genre is overwhelmingly bleak”. If it is I hadn’t noticed. He also describes it as “highly reactionary” and “a comfort zone for unambitious writers” which I am happier to agree with, although not in the way he means. So de Vries sees a problem in need of a solution and I see, well, nothing much. In contrast to the status quo, he sees positive Sf as difficult, risk-taking and relevent and because of this writers are scared of it. There is nothing like patting yourself on the back.
Returning to the “excuse”, de Vries says that saying writers should write what they want is tantamount to saying they should never be questioned or challenged. As he goes on to say in his next sentence, this is nonsense (he then digresses into the economic health of the genre). The point about challenge is interesting though. Challenge is, of course, healthy but if the challenge is to be succesful – positive, we might say – it has to be specific and accurate. The positive SF movement amounts to what is essentially a broadside, a huge generalised criticism that attacks everything but refuses to name names, with the result that it seems more motivated by ideology than art. This is fair enough if you take the utterly functional view of science fiction that de Vries seems to but for those of us who don’t it is always going to be unpersuasive.
(If the original post is tl;dr – or, more likely, too thin; couldn’t read – then James Bloomer summarises at Big Dumb Object.)
Last month a new groupblog appeared, the intriguing titled Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics. The people involved were a motley bunch and it wasn’t at all clear how the title would relate to the content. The mission statement is more than a little vague:
Our mission is to celebrate everything positive, funky and exciting in the Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror Universe! The SFFE is a core platform, a hub of authors who have banded together with the aim of celebrating all that is positive in genre fiction. We aim to make an ethical stand, to do what is right and leave cynicism and negativity at the door. We aim to concentrate on what makes us smile, what entertains us, and what brings light and joy to our SF, fantasy and horror worlds. That’s not to say there is no place for criticism— there’s plenty bad in the world. However, this little digital corner is a place for positive progression. Somewhere you will (hopefully) come if you want to smile and be entertained.
So their “ethical stand” appears to be to cheerlead things they like and ignore things they don’t. Fair enough. However, it is also implies the things they like are breezy upbeat numbers that bring a smile to the face. This from a group that includes Conrad Williams, a writer not well known for his happy-clappy fiction. Is this just another (and slightly unlikely) iteration of the positive SF movement?
I’m not the only person confused by this. Today’s Mind Meld poses these question to the group: Why do you think there is an imbalance towards a negative futuristic outlook? How did we get here and how has this affected the genre? Can you give some examples of positive/upbeat ideas in your genre? The answers are by no means uniform. At the end Andy Remic, founder of the group, tries to shed some light on the situation (and the name):
I believe there is a new wave coming. A new wave of positive genre fiction, as can be seen in de Vries Shine anthology, but also a positive movement in the industry and community. I believe there’s a lot of people out there sick of the constant whining and moaning and tearing down – after all, it’s much easier to destroy than create. That’s why myself, and so many other brilliant authors, are involved with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics project (the SFFE) because we want to promote a positive attitude in the industry, and make and ethical stand against the constant poison and vitriol which, I think, has been invading and escalating for a long time. I chose the name “Ethics” not because I wanted to explore the ethical contexts of novels or films, but because I wanted to make an ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres. In short, I wanted to do what I believed was intrinsically, morally, ethically and intuitively right. I want to celebrate everything that is good in SFFH, because it’s all subjective, right?? – and, hopefully, we can lead by positive example.
So the obvious question is: who are the motherfuckers?
Damien G Walter says science fiction used to be too optimistic and now it is too pessimistic. Why can’t it be somewhere in between? To which I would say, why can’t it be anything it wants? I always react bady to this sort of attempt at constraint. If you want to write in a particular way get on and do it, don’t feel you have to stick your nose into what everyone else is doing.
Walter says he isn’t calling for science fiction that would “replicate the naive visions of the genres golden age” but naive is a good word to sum up his article. His sense of the importance of science fiction in particular is massively overblown:
The best science fiction, as with all great art, doesn’t just reflect the world but seeks to influence it. The dark warnings of science fiction have had innumerable, immeasurable effects on the world. The darkest and greatest of all, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, ranks among the most influential works of literature ever written. How many more totalitarian states would persist today if Nineteen Eighty-Four had not warned generations against the threat they represented, both abroad and at home?
This is a rhetorical question but I will answer it anyway: zero.
He also makes some interesting factual claims about the genre in support of his thesis that it is all doom and gloom:
Biotechnology and genetic research offer fantastic advances in medicine, yet their portrayal in science fiction is typified by the gloom of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Really? This is a vast area of speculation that has produced a riot of different ideas and stories. Genetic tinkering leading to the human race being wiped out is certainly one strand of this but it by no means typifies it. Then there is this:
The internet is already democratising many new areas of society, but our political future is still most commonly depicted as one flavour of Big Brother dystopia or another.
This is less outright wrong than just debateable. It certainly seems to me that there are more of a plurality of futures out there than Walter thinks. It is noteworthy that the only two modern writers he mentions are Atwood and Cormac McCarthy who both write science fiction from outside the genre and such writers concentrate almost exclusively on dystopias and post-apocalyptic scenerios (with a bit of alternative history thrown in.)
There are a few assumptions about the Transatlantic publishing gap that quite a few people make: UK paperbacks are better quality than US ones, US hardbacks are better quality than UK ones and UK covers are better than US ones. The latter is certainly something that I’ve always believed but ajr has an interesting post about whether it is true any more. He was inspired by this Bookseller article but the original article loses points for not having a poll. It does contain an interesting quote from designer Jon Gray that suggests this is a recent change though:
In the US, the designer, art director, editor and author will create a cover that they feel is right for a book, and then that will be shown to a sales department. It would then be shown to the trade. This often means that your cover is first and foremost a nice piece of design, relevant to the book. In the UK over the past year or so, we’ve started to work backwards.
As always this is the fault of the supermarkets.
Anyway, I can’t say this new design-led approach in the US is one I have witnessed, particularly within the science fiction industry. Indeed when ever someone in the science fiction world pleas for slightly nicer covers there is always someone from the industry quick to pop up and say: “ugly covers are the way we’ve always done it, besides that is what the punters want and authors should be grateful just to be published”. That is not to say there aren’t plenty of good US SF covers but the overall standards are not very high and the lows are just so much lower than in the UK.
(I am obviously a corporate stooge because I have spent this entire post playing the man, not the ball…)
Before I start talking about the slipstreaminess of the stories in Feeling Very Strange is is only fair to say that I have a substantially different conception of what slipstream actually is to Kessel and Kelly. This is evinced by the title of their introduction: “Slipstream, the genre that wasn’t”. Personally I am closest to a position that they dismiss early on:
To assert that it inabits the space between otherwise-accepted genres and realistic fiction is to say it is nowehere.
Kessel and Kelly, on the other hand, persist in seeing slipstream as a genre, find it wanting in those terms and so turn to another hypothesis, that slipstream – like horror – is a literature of effect. Hence the title of the anthology. To me this seems to prioritise one aspect of Sterling’s tangled, off-the-cuff original piece in a way that is not necessarily helpful to a discussion of how slipstream has evolved since. In this they take their cue from David Moles in a discussion on his blog which they reproduce as interstitial text between the stories in this collection.
Where we can find some agreement is their checklist of traits:
1. Slipstream violates the tenets of realism.
2. Although slipstream stories pay homage to various popular genres and their conventions, they are not science fiction stories, traditional fantasies, dreams, historical fantasies, or alternate histories.
3. Slipstream is playfully postmodern. The stories often acknowledge their existence as fictions, and play against the genres they evoke. They have a tendency to bend or break narrative rules.
Simply put these are works that aren’t wholly realist, aren’t wholly fantastic and are pretty postmodern. So let’s see, shall we?
Actually, one more comment: even taking into account the (presumably publisher dictated) constraint that the anthology only contains US writers it does look a lot like the usual suspects. None would look particularly out of place in an issue of F&SF.
I don’t really want to prescribe the remit of this blog as I am sure it will evolve in ways I can’t predict. One things is certain though, it will contain some writing about books.
I thought I would start things off by looking at the stories in Feeling Very Strange, an anthology edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly. I was sent a review copy of this for Strange Horizons but in the end their reviews editor, Niall Harrison, decided to review it himself. The book has since languished on my shelf.
Feeling Very Strange is an anthology of slipstream stories and I am aiming to look at them as both works of fiction and works of slipstream. Hopefully I will manage to post about one story a week.