Sometimes I get the impression that the reason SF&F and the literary worlds tend to be at such odds — with exceptions, and I'll go into one such example separately — is because most of the folks involved with the latter surround themselves with an environment that discourages real experimentation.Read more
... in an article in Science Fiction Studies, [Lem] explains his issues with genre fiction as a whole: "If anyone is dissatisfied with SF in its role as an examiner of the future and of civilization, there is no way to make an analogous move from literary oversimplifications to full-fledged art, because there is no court of appeal from this genre. There would be no harm in this, save that American SF, exploiting its exceptional status, lays claim to occupy the pinnacles of art and thought." This makes sense, given that the rise of Lem's fiction didn't arise through the shared influences of the American genre, or even the underpinning cultural influences that informed it. In many ways, Lem was an alien in and of himself to the regular language of science fiction, and his viewpoint is a good way to recognize the limitations of the fiction emerging from the United States at this point in time. It’s also a good reminder that science fiction existed outside of North America and the United Kingdom.
I neglected to mention Lem before in my discussion of how SF&F is enriched by bringing in outsiders, when now that I think about it his name should have been one of the first on that list. His was among the first SF I ever read, and I kept waiting for the other stuff I came across in the field to live up to or surpass his example. Rarely did it ever do so, and soon I realized I'd started with the exception, not the rule.Read more
I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it's fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you've got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that's your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living. You shouldn't lie.
This echoes back to my previous post — that baggy pair of trousers that Spike Lee and Snowpiercer each shared a leg of. I read Gardner's book in which he espoused this and other ideas (incidentally, it contains a great argument for E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is not a good piece of work), and while at times I worried he was sliding over into finger-waggling moralism, I see his point.Read more
Matt Lees has a fine little video in which he talks about (among other things) the way the gaming industry has become cyclically insular. Teenage boys who play games aimed mainly at them grow up and become part of an industry where they create video games aimed at ... teenage boys.
Sound like another cultural sphere we talk about here a lot? It sure did to me.Read more
In the comments section of a really good essay on Spike Lee's best and most widely debated movie is this gem. I have excerpted it here in full, because it deserves it, and because I'm about to go off on some major tangents with it.
I think the point on why audiences expect films to moralize is kind of simple: we use film, in America at least, to live vicariously through others so we don't have to engage in the actions ourselves. Most films acknowledge this, as there's a distinct narrative difference between false actualization and legitimate call-to-action. Most American cinema falls into the former, while something like DO THE RIGHT THING pursues the latter, which is also why that film troubled many American cultural critics (and audiences) in the time of its release.
As an example, America doesn't want revolution; it just wants the explicit promise of it, and often a constant stream of entertainment that feeds into that narrative. It's why THE HUNGER GAMES is so popular. We're pissed about what our country has become, but we're too lazy to do anything about it; so Americans can live through Katniss as she does the things most of us only fantasize about. This is why most post-apocalyptic fiction and revolution-leaning cinema are infantile in the way they handle the scenarios they propose, at least when compared to much of what Lee has done as a director. Lee's films often end in frustrating ways, such as with SCHOOL DAZE, where the central problem isn't resolved, and, in fact, transfers its righteous anger from its characters onto the audience and expects them to follow up on what the film was attempting to accomplish. You aren't allowed to feel like anything was finished or made better, because, realistically, nothing in life ever is — we spin in endless cycles of mindless violence, racial inequality and nationalistic soul-searching.
... since there is no way of eradicating man’s destructive drive — which is the price he pays for the faculty of invention — we should try to direct it toward books instead of gadgets. Literature can mitigate this drive without much risk. ... Unlike the scientific civilization that has made us more fragile than our ancestors were before they learned to fight the tiger, under a literary civilization more impractical, passive, and dreamy men would be born. But at least these men would be less dangerous to their fellows than we have grown to be since we voted for the gadgets and against the book.
A good essay, but with some dunderheaded conclusions.Read more
The more I think about end-of-the-world fiction, the more I'm seeing it as a red herring. Not just because we're surrounded by so damn much of it lately (it started most recently with, I think, The Walking Dead and it's just gone on unabated from there), but because it's predicated on a few assumptions that I'm finding harder to swallow as I go along.
First, the core premise: things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc. It's hard for me to look at such things and not see them as a gross underestimation of the resilience of human ingenuity. If we're good enough to stick it out that fiercely after things collapse, doesn't that imply we'd be good enough to keep it together from collapsing to begin with?Read more
Point of clarification. When talking about "just different enough", it might be easy to think I'm stumping for the kind of far-out creativity that is epitomized by everything from Naked Lunch to bizarro fiction. Well, not really.Read more
Elysium is one of those movies that feels like it ends just when it's really getting interesting. That's not something I wanted to say about a film from the man who gave us District 9, one of the few recent SF movies that despite its action-ride ingredients actually felt like a science fiction movie and not just a tarted-up shoot/beat-'em-up. Neil Blomkamp's successor to District 9 has a larger budget (although, paradoxically, it doesn't feel like a much larger movie) and more explicitly political ambitions, but in ways that work against it. The earlier film was allegory; this one is just a tract, and a not especially insightful one at that.
Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con factory grunt in a horribly overcrowded future Earth, where robot policemen administer impersonal beatings and Max's parole officer is a dingy computer. The rich and powerful have retreated to Elysium, a massive and idyllic orbital colony that looks like one giant Syd Mead painting. There, they enjoy near-immortality thanks to medical technology they refuse to share with the rest of the world. One day Max suffers an industrial accident that gives him a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, and so he takes a suicide mission from an old war buddy of his in the underground. If he helps them take Elysium, they'll let him heal himself in one of Elysium's doc-bots — a favor he'd also like to grant his girlfriend's little girl, if possible.Read more
Dystopian novels portray a society, usually of the future, that has arrived at the destination we’re all headed for if we don’t change now. The great dystopian novels and the scary developments they portray convince us of things that are all too possible in the society we live in, if we hadn’t spotted them for ourselves. The most shocking dystopian novel is the first one you read, when the whole idea of the arbitrariness of human arrangements comes over you, with the realization that the future is contingent on the present, and can be affected by something you do or don’t do now.
The review in question is of Chang-Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea, which I haven't yet read but which I understand is in something of the same general vein as books like Cormac McCarthy's The Road — an ugly future as depicted by an author nominally best known for avowedly literary work. But this line from the review caught my eye, especially the bit about how the most shocking of dystopias is the first one we run into.Read more
What I termed the serial thinking or the general serial form in the fifties, or what I designated as musical through-organisation then, has by no means been forgotten or become superfluous. Rather, it has been integrated into a more comprehensive concept: integrated into the musician's mental armament. It is now applied in such differentiated areas, that it can no longer be identified only in the domain of material (or in the characteristics of the sound). Today such terms as serialist, or through-organisation or general serial form are applied to entire style aggregates. It is possible. for example, to imagine the conception of modulating an African style with a Japanese style, in the process of which the styles would not be eliminated in order to arrive at a supra-style or a uniform international style - which, in my opinion, would be absurd. Rather, during this process, the original, the unique, would actually be strengthened and in addition, transformations of the one into the other, and above all two given factors in relation to a third would be composed. The point is to find compositional processes of confrontations and mixtures of style - of intermodulations - in which styles are not simply mixed together into a hodge podge, but rather in which different characters modulate each other and through this elevate each other and sharpen their originality. In my opinion, that is the problem since circa 1960, not only in the field of music.
Emphasis mine. Hymnen was composed between 1966 and 1967, which (in my view) was at the tail end of the time when the high arts were still taken seriously by laypeople as a place where genuinely new and interesting things could happen. The problem is of course not the arts themselves, but us, our own stagnancy, but that's its own argument for later.Read more
We live in an age of invented, alternate worlds. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Rowling’s Hogwarts, the dystopic universe of “The Hunger Games,” the places where vampires and zombies prowl: These places are having their day. Yet in spite of the vogue for fantasy fiction, in the finest of literature’s fictional microcosms there is more truth than fantasy. In William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi and, yes, the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez, imagination is used to enrich reality, not to escape from it.
I never got around to writing about this before (an impending move will knock all thoughts of "getting caught up" clean out of your fool head), but Mr. Rushdie echoes one of my own long-running sentiments with this one. It's not that the vampires, zombies, and hunger games are lesser for being fantastic, but that any of those things can be made greater by dint of a more complete understanding of the world we do have.
It's not the fantastic alone that enthralls us, but the way we connect with an identifiable human being who is also reeling in the face of that fantasy. It's not Middle-earth that enthralls us alone, but the process of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins encountering it. It's not the Death Star, but Luke Skywalker going up against it. Not Panem, but Katniss; not the amusement park, but Chihiro. It's the human that's the most real of all, and real in the most important way.Read more
Steven Savage has talked about Robinson Meyer's piece in The Atlantic about how looking to SF for ideas about the future via things like the Google X lab was a mistake. Steve's piece is worth reading, and he invited me to draft my own response — something I wasn't even sure was possible given how thorough his own essay was. So, while I'll respond on kind, consider this more of a string quartet to his symphony.
The big question I would pose to Meyer would be this: if looking to SF for a vision of the future is a bad idea, can we specify which SF he might be thinking of?Read more
Earlier this month I swung by one of the local used bookstores and snapped up Robert Silverberg's Hawksbill Station for cheap. SIlverberg is one of those SF authors who doesn't get much credit — he was more workmanlike and dependable than brilliant, and I kept getting him confused with that other Robert (Sheckley), whose acid humor set him a cut above the pack. But Silverberg was also quite good — The Man in the Maze, for instance, is a great little book, and Dying Inside is one of the few times an author has crossed freely from "SF" to "literary" territory without tripping on the threshold in either direction.
The idea behind Station is pretty neat: political radicals in America's future are exiled into the Cambrian era rather than executed, and have established a colony of sorts that's teetering on the edge of collapse. What I found most interesting about Station is two things about SF generally that pop out at me more and more: the way it's always dominated by the moment of time it was produced in, and the way casual sexism makes a lot of otherwise-good work from SF's earlier years hard to read.Read more
I feel bad admitting to people that there was a time in my life when I stopped reading SF entirely for something like years on end, despite having been steeped in it as a kid. It's a little like confessing you haven't eaten in that restaurant since you got slightly sick in there ten years ago, despite them having changed the staff and remodeled the place.
I'm willing to accept some of this as a product of being attached to whatever it was I grew up with (Lem, Dick, Sturgeon, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Tiptree Jr., Delaney, Zelazny, Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, etc.), but also a matter of the way my expectations changed for it. A lot of what I encountered of SF as a kid was escapism, but the stuff that really stuck with me, that convinced me SF was not just escapism and had the seeds within it for saying things as profound about the human condition as any other literature could, became my bar-raiser.Read more
One of the better pieces of creative advice I've received is "Look for the cracks in things." Leonard Cohen has a couplet along those lines: there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in. But the right way to apply that advice eluded me for a long time.Read more
I've got several possible review items on my desk, most of them for the Science Fiction Repair Shop, and something crossed my mind as I was figuring out which one was best to talk about. Is a comic book movie best approached as a kind of fantasy, or can we sneak it into the SF Room by sliding it in under the door, so to speak?Read more
Despite being a long-standing science fiction fan, I have trouble seeing the point of knowing the finer points of Dr Who or Star Trek continuity, let alone that of the endlessly retconned comic-book superhero universes. Such things are the meat and drink of some corners of geekdom, but I find that obscure knowledge of media franchises does nothing for me at all. After all, when the actual creators don’t give the appearance of caring two hoots about continuity, why on Earth should I care?
The way I've seen it, most such trivia-collection is a sort of shibboleth to indicate one's devotion to the material in question. If you care about it, so the thinking goes, then you'll care about it to know absolutely every petty detail about the setting so that your devotion can stand up under scrutiny. Cue the tiresome discussion about "fake geeks".Read more
In an earlier post, Steven Savage pointed out in the comments how "we often find people like tech but hate modernity." I'd expand that to include generally people who live in the modern age and benefit from all of its conveniences: modern sanitation, antibiotics, good hockey teams, etc.
To my mind, the one benefit they claim most unthinkingly is that it is, I would wager, a good deal easier than ever to find a place to live in this world where you can benefit from the presence of others without also running the risk of being killed by them for no particular good reason. The presumption of peaceful living is now easier to entertain than ever before, but we're still entirely too capable of obliterating each other to start patting ourselves on the back all that fiercely — and we only got this far because of ceaseless struggle, not because human nature automatically lifts us up where we belong.
Consequently, I find myself wondering what goes through the heads of people who live in the modern age but pretend it hasn't conferred a single real advantage upon them. No, that's the wrong way to put it: they discount those advantages. They pay lip service to them, but are clearly more interested in being the product of an age they idolize without knowing what living in it would really cost them.
I run into this a lot in fantasy-novelist circles, which seem to be peopled by a disturbing number of folks who disdain modernity not just in the technical sense (damn those iPhones!) but in the existential sense — e.g., the idea that anything we could possibly want from the modern age is a delusional byproduct of having been born into it, or that everything we call progress is just a delusion, or any of a number of different riffs on that particular one-note theme.
Dismantling an idea this dumb doesn't take much effort; if the hypocrisy of the stance alone isn't enough, the sheer deliberate ignorance of actual history and sociology would do it. But the hypocrisy of the stance is bad enough. Most people who evince such an attitude do so because they're dreaming of a time when things would be conceivably better for them, not because things were better universally — and I'm betting it's because they aren't really interested in how a rising tide could lift all boats.
The idea of being asked to trade today's imminent ecological collapse for yesteryear's violence and squalor isn't a trade I would want to make, but in the end I know I'm better off sticking with what I was born into and making the best of it, because it's all I've got.
The people who love what tech gives them but hate the era it produced need to choose, because they can't have it both ways. Better yet, they need to cope. The world, and the people in it, are a bigger force (and a more positive one) than they are.
The problem with getting a room full of smart people together is that the group’s world view gets skewed. There are many reasons that a working group filled with experts don’t consistently produce great results. For example, many of the participants can be humble about their knowledge so they tend to think that a good chunk of the people that will be using their technology will be just as enlightened. Bad feature ideas can be argued for months and rationalized because smart people, lacking any sort of compelling real world data, are great at debating and rationalizing bad decisions.
I suspect there's a name for this kind of effect: you assume that your brains have entitled you to dispense with processing evidence directly, and instead proceed to a conclusion by way of pure thought.
But in the end, this is a by-product of putting too many of the same kind of people together, period. Pack a room full of geniuses, squeeze out all the air, and their own unquestioned assumptions about things will leave them just as hamstring as a room full of idiots.Read more