Everything Is Nice

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Archive for February 3rd, 2010

‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’ by Gregory Benford

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This, the first introduction to The Ascent Of Wonder, is a quite remarkable piece of writing: it is zealous to the point of bigotry, actively affronted by the work it precedes and enough to put you off Gregory Benford for life. It starts with a pat on the back for the brilliance of all hard SF writers. He then moves on to discussing what hard SF is not:

The hard sf aesthetic goals may still occupy the centre of the field – though much recent sf has returned to the old styles, in which scientific accuracy and worldview are subordinated to conventional literary virtues of character or plot, style or setting. Alas, in this sense hard sf may be a paradigm more often honoured in the breach than not. (15)

Alas! Those pesky conventional literary virtues… There will be much more of this sort of thing later but for now he continues:

Still, seeking its cachet, some have tried to appropriate the hard sf name for any narrative which nods however slightly toward science at all. (J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin and Gene Wolfe, for example, do not feature on the hard sf fan’s list, but they have been enlisted in the corps by some.) (15)

It is a wonderfully disengenuous bit of writing. Who are these “some”? Are they, in fact, David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, the editors who have included two stories by each of these writers in this very volume? What Benford is essentially saying he is: Hartwell and Cramer have invited me to write this introduction to their hard SF anthology but they are talking rubbish and glory-hunters to boot.

But if these writers aren’t hard SF, what is it? He does seem to mostly define it in opposition to soft SF and match these directly to the respective disciples of science. Thus he can claim hard SF as the heart of the genre because the central images of hard SF – “spaceship, glittering future city, time machine, alien world” (16) – are also the central images of the genre. He will later concede that time travel is a bit dubious but there is nothing inherently hard about any of those things, unless Benford is rushing to embrace Flash Gordon as an exemplar of hard SF. He seems to have confused physics with physical. For someone obsessed with facts and who thinks fiction is “lies” there is a lot of this sort of muddy thinking and throwaway generalisations. For example: “It often seems more worldly and less wishful than the “soft” fiction based on the social sciences.” (16) Worldly is not usually the first term that springs to mind when one thinks of hard SF. To be honest, I’m surprised he didn’t just come out and say “manly”.

In the second section of the introduction, ‘Keeping The Net Up’, there is actually some interesting stuff about hard SF as a literature of constraint as well as discussing its history and identifying Hal Clement’s Mission Of Gravity (1953) as the first work of hard SF. Even this is marred by another throwaway, that New Wave’s “greatest effect may have been to make hard sf into a recognised opposite” (17). This history and attempted critical defense – complete with further digs at New Wave (was this really published in 1993?) – continues in sections three and four. It is the fifth and final sections, ‘Intersections’, which is the most impressive though, albeit for all the wrong reasons. It opens:

How does hard sf sit in the recent cataloguing of literature by critics – structuralist, postmodern, deconstructionist, etc? (21)

Recent? Benford doesn’t even know what he is talking about here; presumably post-structuralism is the bogeyman he is aiming at (I like that “etc” too). Obviously, this ignorance doesn’t stop him from attacking his imaginary target for the next couple of pages. In its hungry adoption of anti-literature cliches, the introduction reads like a parody of an rec.arts.sf.written poster. I’ve always liked Benford’s fiction so it is a shame to discover he is an idiot. Far from being worldly, his hard SF plays up to every stereotype of an SF fan going. The whole thing is probably best summed up by one unintentionally hilarious anecdote:

Heinlein once skewered me about the freezing point of methane, and I was mortified. (18)

Says it all really.

Written by Martin

3 February 2010 at 16:02

The Shoe’s On The Other Foot

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You might be aware of Metacritic, the reviews aggregator, and you might also be aware that they stopped doing books because it was too hard. So arise SffMeta which brings together reviews for SF novels. This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. The most straightforward is that it is sometimes handy to gather together a lot of reviews like this, giving an overview not only of individual works but wider trends. The rankings themselves – currently Caine Black Knife by Matthew Woodring Stover is top (with an average of 99 from three reviews) and The Harlequin by Laurell K. Hamilton is bottom (with an average of 33 from three reviews) – are pretty spurious but it is interesting to see what is being reviewed and what the general impressions are.

However, it is also interesting for me because they have included a lot of my reviews which they have had to convert from words to numbers. I’m sure authors read reviews from time to time and are forced to scoff “no, that’s not what I meant at all, you fool”. This, then, is a taste of my own medicine. In part it is the nature of the beast: a five star system provides nowhere near enough granularity and even converting five stars into a percentage is problematic. I might give something five stars but I probably wouldn’t ever give anything 100. The two novels to which they have allocated 100 – Anathem and God Of Clocks – I would probably score as 80. I am more intrigued by the really divergent ones though: The Heritage which they score as 40 to my 70 and Subtle Edens which I would score as 10 to their 40. Still, at least they’ve never given any of mine an N/A rating which is presumably code for what on Earth is Harrison banging on about?

Written by Martin

3 February 2010 at 14:02

Posted in books, criticism

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The Cradle Of Civilisation

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What’s the difference anyway, man? I mean, war’s almost over. We’re just about done with this bitch.

In 2003, I watched the invasion of Iraq on television. Later that year Evan Wright published a series of articles in Rolling Stone on his time embedded with the First Recon Battalion of the US Marine Corps, the first coalition unit into the country. In 2004, Wright turned these articles into a book, Generation Kill, which I read in 2006. This was, in turn, filmed as a miniseries for HBO and released in 2008. In 2010, I watched the series on DVD and the war continued towards its eighth year.

All this context is by way of posing the question: what is left to be said? When the book was first published it was still a rare glimpse and an important critique. Now, as the Chilcott Inquiry daintily picks through the paperwork, it is much too late. Generation Kill has passed from journalism to entertainment. To their credit, David Simon and Ed Burns have filed off the rough edges of Wright’s functional approach to create an extremely skillful adaptation. However, if it is too late for truth, it is too early for drama.

Instead, here are two bits of meta-commentary that have lodged in my head. Firstly, Sgt Rudy Reyes – the bodybuilding object of the marines’ homoerotic gaze who find that the war interferes with his diet of sushi and vegetables – is played by… Rudy Reyes. The war has dragged on so long that he has been able to reinvent himself as an actor in his own biopic. Secondly, the guidance on the back of the DVD states that the programme “contains strong language, violence, sex references and real corpses.” What can you say?

Written by Martin

3 February 2010 at 10:02

Posted in television

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