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Archive for May 19th, 2010

Semantics

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First some background. Last week SF Signal published a Mind Meld entitled ‘What Science Fiction Books Should Be in Every Fan’s Library?’. This inspired a conversation at Nextread and a conversation about that conversation on OF Blog. Today, the second half of the Mind Meld went up (including a contribution from Gav Nextread) and, on the OF Blog post, Gav wrote that he was yet to be shown that his premises were incorrect. So I though I would.

Premise 1: The automatic reaction is to look to past instead of the present.

The evidence for this is the Mind Meld itself but let’s ignore the fact that this is very limited evidence to base such a sweeping premise on. Instead let’s look at what the question asked and how people answered it.

Part of the joy of a Mind Meld is that the participants are free to interpret it as they wish. In fact, the initial suggestion came from John Klima who intended something rather different from the actual question posed:

Often, when a library weeds a collection they look at how often something circulated and how easy it is for patrons to get the book from their library system. If it’s something that wasn’t checked out much and there were a lot of copies in the system, you could feel safe pulling it from the shelf. But, were there books that you wouldn’t weed no matter what? And what science fiction books should every library have in their collection?

So he was clearly thinking in terms of what is essential for an SF library. The actual question asked – what science fiction books should be in every fan’s library? – opens up other rationales as well. What books are underappreciated gems that deserve to come to a wider audience? What books give a representative sampling of all the genre has to offer? If I was answering this question I would aim to be using a mixture of all of these: great books, both old and new, from across the globe, acclaimed and overlooked, from all subgenres and styles.

But how did people actually answer? I’m just going to look at the first part of the Mind Meld since this is all that had been published when Gav wrote his post. The oldest work mentioned is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published in 1818. The most recent work mentioned is Finch by Jeff VanderMeer, published in 2009. Just behind are The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez and Implied Spaces by Walter John Williams, published in 2008. That is quite a span and gives an idea of just how much science fiction has been published. As for Klima himself, he picks both The Time Machine by HG Wells (1895) and Accelerando by Charles Stross (2005). From my perspective this is a good sense of balance. Now, I’m not going to go through every recommendation, look up the date and then produce a bar chart showing when they were published (although if anyone else want to, please do). However, casting an unscienctific eye over the list, it seems pretty representative. It is true that there are more old titles than new titles but that is just a numbers game: even if we charitably say that “new” means in the last two decades that still leaves sixty years of modern genre fiction prior to that and another hundred of immediate precursors before that.

For me, the most modern list of recommendations is also the least useful. This is the list from Alan Beatts, owner of Borderlands Books, with publication dates added by me:

Market Forces by Richard Morgan (2004)
Implied Spaces by Walter John Williams (2008)
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (1990)
Blindsight by Peter Watts (2006)
The Skinner by Neal Asher (2002)
The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi (2006)
The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod (1996)

I think some of those books are good, some of them are great and some of them are essential. I also think some of them are utterly mediocre. Beyond my own taste though, I think it is hard to argue that covering just the last twenty years of fiction is not too narrow. This narrowness is further reflect in the choice of fiction: no women and a strong focus on space opera and the action-oriented end of the SF spectrum. Is this really all SF has to offer?

Given how critical he was of the other lists, it is interesting to look at Gav’s list:

The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Stone by Adam Roberts (2002)
The Gabble And Other Stories by Neal Asher (2008)

You will notice it is rather short. Obviously he was free to pick between one and ten titles but most other participants picked many more than him (although Michael A. Burstein just nominated The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, the idiot). It is surprising that someone who is so passionate about new writing and felt it was getting a raw deal was unable to come up with any more suggestions for fans. In terms of the actual content, it doesn’t seem that different from other contributions. The Hitchhiker’s Guide clearly should be in every fan’s library and that is why half a dozen people suggested (and it is thirty years old). No one else suggested Roberts but they did suggest his peers. The real odd one out is the Neal Asher collection and even then Beatts also suggested Asher. All of which leaves me slightly puzzled by Gav’s reaction to the Mind Meld. To return to the premise, I don’t think we should automatically look to the past or the present (a false dichotomy if ever I heard one). Luckily the Mind Meld doesn’t do this and covers the whole range of the genre. If anyone is automatically ignoring a huge chunk of literature, it is Gav.

Premise 2: The support that old books get is not reflected with the same ferocity when it comes to newer works.

I find this ironic because from my perspective the exact opposite is true. Rather than being bogged down in nostalgia, the modern genre community could do with a bit more historical perspective (and extra-genre perspective but that is a different conversation for a different day). The modern publishing and the blogosphere which increasing functions as a wing of the publishing industry are remorselessly focused on the new. There are, of course, exceptions; Gollancz do sterling work with their Masterworks and others series. It is clear though that backlist is much less important than it once was and that the amount of blogging about the new massively outweighs the amount of blogging about the old. We even had a conversation about this just recently.

Premise 3: New works are dismissed as without merit before they’ve been through some peer-assessed value system.

There is a bit of a flaw with the premise here because if new works really were dismissed as without merit they would never have the opportunity to go though a peer-assessed value system. It is more accurate to say that new works are value neutral until they have passed through some peer-assessed value system and we call that peer-assessed value system “readers”. If I wanted to sound like a twat I could say that books exist in a state of quantum indeterminancy until the act of reading them collapses their wave function.

To be honest, it is hard to rebut the premise because it requires a worldview so divorced from empirical reality that it is hard to find any common ground from which to start a discussion. All books are automatically dimissed? Seriously? It seems to stem from an unexamined assumption that the world of readers is divided into Fans (who read out of love) and Critics (who read out of hate) and never the twain shall meet. This is a relatively common view in SF fandom (for example) but is so weird and poisonous that it worms its way into other conversations like this and destroys any ability to have a rational covnersation.

Written by Martin

19 May 2010 at 11:47

Posted in genre wars, sf

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