Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Getting Even More Medieval

Ian McDonald has picked up on my previous post, "Getting Medieval on Reality's Ass," in an LJ post entitled "These fictions that sustain us." In same, he adds to my bricks of the house metaphor for what we find entertaining, when he says:

"Because entertainment is the mortar than holds our bricks of story. It's a basic and primary as good grammar and syntax. It's not an end point. It's a beginning point. The reader should no more have to ask 'is this entertainming' any more than they shoukld have to ask, are these readable sentences, or, is this printed on paper? It's as fundamental as spelling, if you're serious about your writing. Now, many things entertain. It's not necessasily plot, or cleverness of plot, or speed of plot. I, and many other readers, find the long, seemingly plotless exchanges on shipboard life in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series wonderfully entertaining. Character entertains, and yes, language entertains. Sense of wonder entertains; sense of estrangement entertains. A novel has a totally different structure and purpose and rules of appreciation and criticism from a movie or a teleision programme. It takes place in a different narrative space; it can handle things those other forms cannot --as they do things that the novel canot. Each has its own story-space and language."

Then he references an editorial in the October/November Asimov's by Kristine Kathryn Rusch called "Barbarian Confessions" in which Rusch opinions that:

"Is current SF writing influenced by Star Wars? No, not nearly enough. We need more grand adventure, more heroes on journeys, more uplifting (if not downright happy) endings. Yes, we can keep the good sentence-by-sentence writing, the good characters, and the lovely descriptions the New Wave steered us to. We can even keep the dystopian fiction and the realistic, if difficult-to-read, sf novels, so long as we do them in moderation. They cannot—and should not—be the dominant subgenre on the shelves."

As you might imagine, Ian's opinion of this sentiment is not very high.

And my own thinking on the matter is far more to the side of Ian's than Kristine's. Far more, as readers of this blog will undoubtably realize.

But again: Quality and popularity need not be mutually exclusive.

Ian agrees, when he says:

"Fallacy fallacy fallacy: Cartesian dualities in fiction. Either plot or character. Either action or literary value. Nonsense. We're aiming higher than that. I want it all; and by Christ, I may seldom, if ever attain it, but that's not going to stop me trying to be much more than just entertaining."

And Rusch agrees with this too, when she cites Michael Chabon's lament that "Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people, some of whom write short stories, learn to mistrust and even revile it. "

But despite all this agreeing, the thing is I strongly disagree with Kristine's call to essentially roll back the New Wave, with her ideas of what exactly she feels has to go and why, though I disagree with Ian that TV can never equal the novel. The novel The Illuminatus! Trilogy changed my life. So did the film The World According to Garp. And I loved it when Paul Cornell referenced my single favorite piece of cinema ever when he commented that:

"Where is our Casablanca? That is, an extremely populist work of extremely high quality."

But Kristine is right in diagnosing a problem when she reports that:

"The figures I quoted above for 2004 are down from 2003. In that year, SF counted for 7 percent of all adult fiction books sold. In 2001, SF counted for 8 percent. The literary trend spirals downward while the media trend goes up. Half the new television dramas introduced in 2005 were science fiction, fantasy, or had a fantastic element. Most of the movies in the top twenty for the past five years have been SF. Nearly all of the games published have been SF. If we bring even one-tenth of the people who play the games, watch the movies, or read the tie-in novels into the literary side of SF, we’ll revive the genre. In a few years, we could overtake mystery or even, God forbid, romance."

Again, readers of this blog will know that the disparity between the audience for filmic SF and literary SF is a major concern of mine, but so too is the disparity of the quality between filmic SF and literary SF. And I am not a proponent of format prejudice. The production of quality SF&F is a perfectly attainable goal for either medium, and it is possible to produce highly commercial works while achieving this goal. Lord of the Rings, Dune, Ender's Game, Neuromancer, Altered Carbon, American God's, the Baroque Cycle, even the Harry Potter series, films and books, say what you will.

But I again site the recent USA Today article as growing evidence that the type of SF that is currently flowering is the Paul McAuley take-the-world-to-task variety, or else it very soon will be as the pendulum Ian mentions swings back this way.

I still think John Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence is letter perfect SF, in that it's space opera with a hero on a quest traveling across exotic settings while encountering ideas and artifacts that instill Golden Age levels of sense o'wunder, is chocked full of karate, sword and blaster fights, has FTL spaceships and strange new worlds, epic battles, dark enemies, and even manages to have an unbelievably uplifting ending, but damn is it smart. It's absolutely part of that Science Fiction Village Walter Jon Williams' bemoans, drawing as it does from Ann McCaffrey, Frank Herbert, even Edgar Rice Burroughs, and it's so new and original that I wouldn't mind it being my own son's entry level work when he's of an age to start handing him books. Go check it out already. I was touting the UK edition for years before Pyr came along, and I'm sure not going to stop recommending it just because I publish it in the US.

But I do think that the image of Star Wars and Star Trek does put off a lot of readers who think that's all we are. When Kristine mentions that the mainstream are embracing supposedly discarded aspects of SF in novels like The Time Traveler's Wife and The Plot Against America, she neglects to point out that they are NOT marketed with the type of SW cover designs and copy she seems to seek out and prefer and that the mainstream readers of those books would not be attracted to the mystery work she cites as exemplar of where we need to be.

Now, I agree with John Scalzi that we need more respect for those writing entry level works, and I agree with Ian McDonald that we need the SF that forgoes your beer money and competes for your "triple-distilled whiskey money." I hope that I publish both at Pyr, with most of the books at the center of the bell curve this range represents.

There is a huge range between Martin Sketchley's The Affinity Trap and George Zebrowski's Macrolife: A Mobile Utopia, and I'm damn proud to have published both of them. Both are smart in their own way, and both are entertaining books, though their respective entertainments differ. Thanks to Ian and Jeff Vandermeer for pointing out that one man's meat is another man's poison and that entertainment is subjective. But for my money, Ian's own River of Gods is the novel that blows my mind with sense o'wunder, holds its own against any literary work you care to put it up against, exposes me to a beautifully realized new world and new civilization I'd never explored before, makes me care and laugh and cry and think, and even has an uplifting ending. And it has been garnering an enormously positive critical response - pretty much universally proclaimed as one of the most important books of the year by everyone that reads it- while being commercial successful for us. Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too? Where Kristine is wrong is that - if I am interpreting her thoughts correctly - River of Gods is the type of book that should be culled or curtailed or marginalized in her estimation. Whereas I don't think you can have enough Ian McDonald-esque writers in our genre, and I wish we had a hundred more of him. (Wiliam Gibson & Neal Stephenson are in the same vein as Ian, btw, and look how successful they are.)

Look, whatever you write, aim for the top, not the middle, whatever your genre or medium, whatever your personal idea of "top" is. You may not always find your target, but if you aim for the middle, you may not hit that either. Only one thing is certain, if you aim for the bottom, you're sure to strike it.


Ted said...

But despite all this agreeing, the thing is I strongly with Kristine's call to essentially roll back the New Wave, with her ideas of what exactly she feels has to go and why, though I disagree with Ian that TV can never equal the novel.

I think you're missing a word between "strongly" and "with."

Paul Cornell said...

Let me mention the elephant in the room here: there's an elephant in the room. Okay, no, let me really do that. In British culture now, 'serious' seems to equate with 'alluding to the war in Iraq'. And one can claim such seriousness even though one's reference might be utterly witless. The war has kind of become what repressed child abuse memories were to pop culture in the 1980s: diet depth, the depth anyone can use. American pop culture, on the other hand, hesitates, rather wonderfully, I think, to rush in there. Galactica, for instance, does not offer us a one size fits all metaphor about the war, or indeed, war in general, so much so that liberals and those on the right both feel a little suspicious about it on occasion. What I'm saying is that the existence of an 'easy depth' tarnishes what purports to be the high end of the British market at least, in that the high end now has an easy stepladder leading to it, and you're also apt to trip over screamingly awkard and obvious allusions even in otherwise good books by good authors. Those that seek trashy thrills and spills seem refreshingly blithe and direct by comparison.

ianmcdonald said...

Following on Paul's fine (and true) comment about easy depth; apart from much of it being liberal guilt, is some of it envy that Britain doesn't have a 9/11? It might be quite fun to guess the next easy depth.
Lou: when I commented about films being less influential than books, I meant it in the sense of say, a
'Citizen Kane' versus, say, 'The Communist Manifesto'. There are a lot of books out there people are still prepared to kill for.

Paul Cornell said...

Yay for books. The only medium that can make us kill. (Although Insert Tacky Movie Here made me *want* to kill. Just thought I'd pre-empt that.) I should really be working.

Lou Anders said...

Ted - noted. I will correct.
Paul - have you read GRADISIL?
Ian - noted. And still mulling your 1984 example.

Paul Cornell said...

No, should I?

Lou Anders said...

I would be very interested in your opinion, since it's a near-direct confrontation with the current war, but handled immaculatley as one would expect from Adam Roberts. It also treads a very nimble line between serious and satire, in a way that, now that I think about it, is reminiscent of the best of Heinlein. And it's a book I'd pass to the mainstream literati as something they could read a la THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, etc...

Meanwhile, Ian, I'm fascinated by your idea of British guilt. Sounds dangerous and intriguing.

Joel Shepherd said...

Ian -- speaking of books people would kill for, the exception I guess is Satanic Verses, because those people will kill for books, movies, comics, you name it. The difference being they'll kill the author, not the author's targets. So I guess 'less influential' depends on the audience... but that's pedantic, yes?

As I posted on Ian's blog, I think a part of the problem is that SF today is defined largely by what it's not. I reckon if you asked a variety of people, the 'intellectuals' would claim SF's too stupid, the mass market (define it how you will) would claim it's too wierd or obtuse, others would state it's got no credibility since all things it promised haven't happened (human space colonies, flying cars, robots in every home, etc), the cool people say it's not cool (what with all those Trekies around)... hell, even the mundanes say it's not serious enough, and the Star Wars/Star Trek faithful reply that the mundanes aren't fun. And of course, each claims that their particular negative is the primary reason why SF isn't selling as well.

What it all adds up to is a lot of negative definitions about SF, and no positives. It's like SF is a great black hole of things it's not. How about we try and put out some positives once in a while?

Anonymous said...

Random feedback:

- Could the statistics be explained by a generational shift? (i.e. all those baby boomers getting old and switching from futurism to nostalgia...) Then make a stronger effort to publish books for the Young Adults!

- I wouldn't mind if SF lit gets popular without bearing the LABEL "science fiction". If that's what it takes -- getting rid of the genre label altogether -- then so be it.

- If there is a generational shift (and age demographics seem to indicate it) then abandon the older generations and focus on the younger ones. And don't forget the Latino audience.

- In order to grow a new reading audience, publishers may alienate older readers who get increasingly conservative in their tastes. This is as it should be: Don't be afraid to scare away readers who are older than 50!

Anonymous said...

Oh, give me a break! I am 52 and am not "scared away" by more complex SF -- it's what's kept me reading all these years, NOT nostalgic tie-ins. Seems to me that Star Wars books are being marketed to a younger audience, as are most "entertaining" Sci-fi movies.

What I like about Pyr books is that they're aimed at the intelligent reader, and not on some age-related marketeer's idea of what'll sell. There's no need to "abandon" any reader -- young or old.


Lou Anders said...

Robert - thanks for the comments. I am reminded of Charles Stross, who thought his ACCELERANDO tales were only for a very limited number of slashdot reading computer geeks, and surprised to find that the subset capable of appreciating what he did was far wider.

Anonymous said...

As an early 30's guy who ate up SF/F through high school and college and now rarely touches at least SF, I can only explain my reasons:

1.)I get more than enough politics in the air I breathe, and without inviting it. The last thing I want is to get knee-deep in a novel whose premises or presuppositions bug me. I get all the politics I need from CNN/NPR. Am I the only one who is utterly weary of politics? Voter turnout says no.

2.)As someone who owns original F/SF art, the heavy reliance on digital covers with composited photos of models is always a turnoff. I can't bring myself to buy anything with a digital cover that doesn't at least fool me into thinking it isn't digital (Lockwood). This also tips my interest towards fantasy. There's a reason guys like Whelan, Donato, and Parkinson (RIP) have been so popular over the years.

3.)I'm what someone might call a fairly normal guy. I tried the literary con scene but didn't fit in with the in-jokes, the constant obscure quoting and all that. So, the scene put me off. I'm more comfortable at a paper gaming convention where the media is still SF/F but the people are more everyday. Perhaps something in the literature caused the hardcore fanbase to be so...what they are.

4.)Like most my age, I spend more free time playing video games than reading SF/F these days. Most of what is appealing about SF/F is the visual aspect, which is a large part of why games/movies/tv dominate SF/F consumption, why fantasy art generates large fanbases.

Great stories can be had without any SF/F dressing. I do read normal fiction still from time to time, and non-fiction because I like learning. What SF/F can get me (and part of why I still read mainly Fantasy on occasion) that regular fiction cannot, is sheer, unbridled imagination--stories I can't easily get without the SF/F component.

Recent reads: Murakami's "A Wild Sheep Chase" and currently King's 4th Dark Tower book. I've never read any King beyond these, the story isn't all that "smart" but I am taken somewhere else, somewhere surprising, somewhere visual and so I read them. Murakami's book was just as out there while remaining on terra firma and made up in sheer interest and brevity what it lacked in visuals. they're actually like second-cousins, story-wise, except that I couldn't last books worth of Murakami's world like I can King's.

Meaney's book sounds up my alley. But if smart means political, I'll probably skip it. John Kerry and Dubya could both enjoy Tolkein equally. That's where I, and I think many other regular guys, live.

Joel Shepherd said...

On politics... I hear a lot of SF fans in any medium saying they don't like politics. And then say they love Star Trek, which is intensely political, all those conflicts and treaties and negotiations between Klingons, Romulans and the like. And they love Star Wars, which is also very political, the Empire itself being a political entity, and Episode IV beginning with Darth Vader threatening to abolish the Senate (Princess Leia being a Senator's daughter). And love a movie like the Matrix, which is not only political, but philosophical (yeeks). And love fantasy series like Lord of the Rings, which is crawling with large scale politics (and has been read by some as allegorical of WW2), or George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, which is nearly as political as the West Wing (great long scenes with feudal leaders scheming how to win supporters and discredit their rivals).

To which the people who say they don't like politics reply that, 'oh, I don't consider that to be politics'. But of course it is. What those books/films/TV shows manage to do is make poiltics interesting, even for people who think they hate politics, and are bored with it. They manage to tell highly political stories without much of their audience even being aware that they're watching a political tale. And I think that's what Lou, and other people who think like him (many Pyr authors, to no particular surprise) are saying with all of this -- that the greatest potential of SF, and what it can do that few other genres can, is to transform greatly significant concepts that could under other circumstances be quite boring, and make them exciting, sexy and action packed. And that the best SF has action that's more dramatic, and more gripping in a purely entertaining fashion, because it's actually about something that matters. Otherwise, you have what Hollywood usually turns out -- tremendous action, awesome special effects, within which characters that no one cares about go through a series of action sequences the consequences of which are utterly unimportant both technically and emotionally... so why should anyone care if they survive or not? By avoiding 'cleverness' in plot, they kill drama in the action, thus achieving neither, and a bomb of a movie.

The Matrix (the first one, anyhow) remains probably my favorite example of someone getting it right -- the cleverness in the plot actually creates the action. If the plot isn't so clever, all those fancy martial arts moves can't exist. The action actually feeds off the film's intellect, and each reinforces the other. Thus creating a movie that leaves audiences excited by the action, dazzled by the SFX, and saying 'whoa, that's deep'... and making a huge amount of money too.

Lou Anders said...

Joel - Amen.
I have probably seen The Matrix thirty times (though of course not since REVOLUTIONS came out and spoiled my taste for it), but with Kill Bill, I never made it to volume 2. I enjoyed the martial arts and the interesting directing in Kill Bill, but the story was just a mashup of classic martial arts moments and was emotionally vacuous.

Anonymous - pick up John Meaney's Paradox. When I said "smart," I meant that the had well drawn characters, that his incredibly elaborate alien was constructed with the detail equal to something like Frank Herbert's Dune and that his backstory connects his far flung space opera universe with our world. You might also try Keith Brooke's Genetopia. For that matter, if you want to see a videogame brought to life, with just as many explosions and BFGs, try Martin Sketchley's The Affinity Trap.