Stop press: arbitrary marketing category finally overlaps more respected arbitrary marketing category

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2010

I think we’ll end up looking back and deciding that the favourite critical riff of 2010 in science fiction is the one that goes “hey, look, we’ve won!” Here’s some highlights from a lengthy solo in the same key from io9‘s Charlie Jane Anders:

… the thing that jumps out at you when you read this new wave of lit authors doing SF is how aware they are of the genre. You’re not dealing with Philip Roth writing alternate history without ever having read any of it, or Margaret Atwood denying her SF is SF — Moody is, to some extent, paying tribute to science fiction. Charles Yu’s book is clearly about science fiction. Cronin’s book attempts to channel the style of Steven King as much as possible. Writing a science fictional book without acknowledging the genre would be missing the point for these authors — they’re writing about genre as much as they are about science fictional ideas.

[…]

Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that these two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big. There’s a hunger for heartfelt, even disheartening, books set in the near future, and science fiction authors should be doing more deeply personal near-future stories if they want to catch this wave.

I’ve found myself becoming more and more frustrated with this particular meme, for reasons I’m not entirely able to articulate. I think it’s the underlying sense of patting-ourselves-on-the-back, a subtext of vindication that says “hey, we were right all along, and now everyone else is finally catching up and will have to acknowledge the fact that we were out in front before anyone else”. It’s the last part of that subtext that’s the problem, even if you argue (as I think you can, with a limited degree of success) that the first part is true. Yeah, sure, OK: the ivory tower denizens have looked down upon the works of the barbarians, and found them novel (pun intended). This is not a new thing, really. It’s cultural colonialism at best, and we all know how that works out in the long run: “literature” will use “science fiction” for as long as it’s expedient or interesting, no longer, and there’ll be no gratitude beyond that extended by the writers who’ve borrowed liberally from the toolshed. It’s not about genres, it’s about the stories that speak to readers and writers alike, which in turn is a function of the Zeitgeist – something that, by definition, doesn’t do a whole bunch of sitting still.

Interestingly, Anders ends this triumphalist piece by deliberately undermining the very constructs whose triumphs it seems to celebrate:

So it’s finally come true — the literature of the future has become the future of literature. Our collective literary consciousness is crying out for near-future books that are deeply personal, obsessed with technological change, and viciously satirical. We could just be seeing the first wave of a whole new tide of science fiction novels, with authors from both the artificially constructed “science fiction” and “literary” genres making equally wonderful contributions. Let’s hope so, anyway.

If there’s anything for science fiction fandom (and indeed for everyone else) to celebrate, it’s that there are more good books to read. Much as with the YA craze of the preceding few years, I’m really getting tired about arguing over which particular shelves those good books should or shouldn’t be found on… and the utopian “one day soon, there will be only one set of shelves!” riff just doesn’t wash with someone who’s worked in a public library, I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s to do with the geek psychology of feeling like underdogs or outsiders that causes it, but I worry that science fiction’s thirst for validation from those who once dismissed it out of hand is a sign that, rather than leading the literati into the near-future, it’s being charmed out of the driver’s seat by them. Are we in fact celebrating our own sunset, here?


Genre: the ossification of literature?

Paul Raven @ 13-08-2010

Damien G Walter in full-on chin-strokin’ literati ponder-mode (which is how I like him best): genres are the fossils left by movements.

Movements are conversations between writers, conducted through stories. During the period of movement, writers are talking to each other, exchanging ideas and generally discussing how to move the art of fiction forward. As these conversations develop, the movement develops identifiable motifs. Over time, these motifs solidify in to tropes, which become genres.

Some examples. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling et al shape a movement to reform Hard-SF, which results in the Cyberpunk genre. (And also the Steampunk genre) J.R.R Tolkien, C.S.Lewis and the other Inklings form a movement to bring mythic values back to modern stories, and some decades later the Epic Fantasy genre is the outcome. A motley crew of British and US writers have the ambition to write fantasy and horror with added literary value, and a decade later we have the squid obsessed New Weird.

It’s a workable theory. But what about po-mo genre revivalism, retrogenres, mash-ups?

Is there a movement in the other direction, where writers eat up the fossilised genres to fuel new movements?

Of course there is, because it’s easier than finding new alternatives. Fossil fuels… heh, timely metaphor. 🙂


Chris Beckett: sf is not a genre, it’s a toolkit

Paul Raven @ 26-04-2010

British sf author Chris Beckett has been browsing through the BSFA survey book, and decided to respond to some of Charlie Stross’ comments contained therein regarding science fiction’s longevity and mutation:

I agree with [Stross] that it would indeed be ‘the trump of death’ to try and endlessly recreate the science fiction of a previous generation.  But I increasingly think that it is mistaken to think of science fiction as ‘a genre’ or ‘an art form’ (singular).   Think of  Orwell’s 1984, Ballard’s  Terminal Beach, a Star Wars movie,  Dan Dare, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, District 9…   Are they really all the same genre?  Hardly. But they are all science fiction as I would define it.

Rather than think of SF as a genre, perhaps we should think of it as a resource which can be used for many different purposes, as a pack of playing cards can be used for games from Bridge, to Poker, to Canasta to Snap and Old Maid.  SF’s continuing value as a means of telling stories and exploring ideas is illustrated by the frequency with which authors who don’t think of themselves as SF writers nevertheless make use of it (Orwell is a case in point, but see also Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James, Doris Lessing etc etc.)

Stross is rather sniffy about this sort of thing.  He speaks of SF being ‘colonized by backpackers from the literary faculty, who appropriate the contents of the [SF] toy chest’.   But surely it is precisely the concern to cling onto our toys, to be pure,  to discourage miscegenation, which lead to the kind of death by staleness and repetition that he himself warns about?

Another iteration of a long-running (and probably interminable) debate, for sure… but I was intrigued by its serendipitous chiming with Tom Hunter’s comments about literary outliers in the Clarke Award shortlist earlier today:

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of there being a toolkit for science fiction rather than a manual, but even more than this I’m drawn to the idea that, these days, the science fictional element is simply part of a much larger toolkit for the work of making art and unpacking meaning from our world.

Perhaps I’m being a bit disingenuous, because both Chris and Tom are talking in parallel with my own theory that science fiction is a floating-point variable rather than a binary.

But what about you lot – do you think there is a distinct genre that can be labelled as science fiction, and if so, where (or how) do you draw the boundaries? Can leakage across those boundaries be prevented, and if so, is such prevention an admirable goal?

[ In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Chris Beckett is a client of mine, not to mention a jolly decent chap. ]


Mass Effect II and Racial Essentialism

Jonathan McCalmont @ 03-03-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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Genre is, to one extent or another, all about re-using old ideas. Ideas shared. Ideas reclaimed. Ideas reinvented. Ideas lost. Ideas rediscovered. Encounter enough works of genre over a long enough time period and you will see ideas rise and fall like the tides. You will also see patterns emerging in the way that certain ideas are used. For example, it is no accident that the rain slicked streets of 1930s noir fiction would pop up in the works of Raymond Chandler before re-appearing in the films of the 1960s French Nouvelle Vague, and appearing again in the novels and stories of Cyberpunk in the 1980s. The long shadows and bad weather of noir were an expressionistic manifestation of a sense of unease, a feeling that society was somehow broken. That same intuition has stayed with us over time, summoning noir’s set dressing again and again as new generations of authors deploy the same ideas and techniques to express ideas of their own time and place.

Genres are collections of these kinds of ideas. Ideas that form a shared vocabulary that gets used and re-used to tell new stories. But sometimes a good genre idea or trope will become detached from its metaphorical roots and take on a substance and a physicality of its own. The idea will develop freely as generations of authors engage with it but, because the idea has been separated from its original metaphorical purpose, the idea will forever remain wedded to the time and place in which it was forged. Like mitochondrial DNA, or a forgotten time capsule. A window into a different time and a different place. Continue reading “Mass Effect II and Racial Essentialism”


A fistful of writing tips and tools

Paul Raven @ 29-01-2010

brainstormingIt seems like ages since I last relinked any good writing advice here, so let’s take a look at a few items that got tangled up in my intertube trawler-nets this week. First of all Luke Reid points us toward the blog of the pseudonymous Doctor Grasshopper, a medical student and sf/f author who aims to provide useful tips for other writers who want to include realistic diseases and injuries in their plots:

… what I’d really like to do is provide a bit of groundwork for starting from a desired symptom and working your way to figuring out how to make it happen in a marginally medically plausible way.  Some posts will be symptom-based, and will discuss different ways to produce the symptom.  Some posts will be about broad categories of diseases, and how they work.  Some posts will be organ-system-based, and will basically be me geeking out about how cool the human body is.  And of course, I reserve the right to post miscellany as I see fit.

She’s inviting specific questions from the audience, too, so go subscribe to the RSS feed; expertise is an invaluable resource, after all, and free is the best price.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife blog (an online supplement to the book of the same title) is spooling out a bunch of interesting guest posts at the moment, including this little gem from Jeremy L C Jones; if you’ve heard the writerly aphorism “show, don’t tell” but never quite understood what it means, this post should shed some light on the subject.

… I am often surprised at how many of my students haven’t heard “Show, Don’t Tell” or who have heard it but don’t get it.  There comes a time in each semester when I have to explain the difference between showing and telling.

Usually, this can be taken care of with a simple demonstration.

“I am happy,” I say.  ”That is telling.”

Then I jump up and down, hooting and pumping my fists in the air.  “And that is showing.”

They all smile and nod.  They get it!  I am a proud teacher.

Click through for examples and exercises; excessive exposition and blunt telling are the most frequent problems I encounter in manuscripts sent to me for critique, and slush readers of my acquaintance bump into it a great deal, too. Jones’ post should help you grasp the root of the problem, and show you some routes to solving it.

Shifting gear to a somewhat more meta level, John Ginsberg-Stevens pops in to the Apex Book Company blog to look at one of the less-discussed cogs in the genre writer’s gearbox: the annihilation of history.

… I think this is a vital engine in the creative mechanism of SF.  Whether there’s been a zombiepocalypse, an alien invasion, or a high adventure 10,000 years in the future, the genre thrives on messing with history, taking it apart, or brazenly dismissing it to focus on something else.  This applies to genre history as much as it does to actual history, as later generations absorb or break the past to fuel their own creations. From Heinlein’s classic Future History to recent works like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, history is subjected to an act of destruction that may alter it into something new or unrecognizable, recombine it, or entirely eliminate it. This could be an Asimovian reformulation of the grand sweep of history, or the intimate breakdown and evocation of local history and folklore into something very different.

This act of destruction can produce a lot of creative energy, and can also focus the audience’s attention on what is important in a narrative.

Some good ideas for critics, reviewers and regular readers in there, too.

Last but not least, it’s back to Luc Reid for one of his own posts, which discusses how to turn a neat idea into a viable story – one of the bits I always struggle with! Reid identifies four basic approaches:

A) Create a beginning situation and let the story take its own course
B) Build an outline
C) Develop an excellent scene
D) Write a first sentence as a jumping-off point

Here’s a snippet from the first approach:

Once you have a character who wants something different from what’s going on, the story has a chance to take off. Whatever you do, don’t give the character what she or he wants–at least not right away. Preferably, make that thing more important and more difficult the deeper we get into the story. If you’re writing off the cuff, it pays to throw every new problem you can think of at your character and let your character try to find their own way out. Of course, they have to continue to have a desire or need they’re following to plot their course, at least in most cases.

Good stuff, clearly explained… Reid’s a good writer to follow if you want useful advice on developing your fictional chops. [image by Marco Arment]

Have you got any recommendations for good writerly advice online? Or a tip or hack of your own to share?


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