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.