Call me behind the times, but I'd never actually read anything by Andrew Breitbart until I came across a piece he did — and what a scurrilous, smear-job piece it is; I'm not linking it here — about the political controversies currently roiling the SF world. His position is entirely predictable: those social justice warrior types are driving all the real diversity out of the field and replacing it with thinkalike conformism imposed from the Left on across.
This is one of those areas where I know there are bad actors on both sides, and so the way the two sides have been putatively divided up (SJWs on one side, "conservatives" on the other) is misleading. Don't get me wrong: I kvelled to learn about Vox Day getting a good hiding for his repugnant opinions. But I shouldn't have to side with people whose tactics I find questionable to be considered not in his company.
Breitbart's piece helps this situation not one whit, in big part because it cases everyone on the right side of this particular room as being the true embodiments of diversity — I guess by the mere fact that they're not toeing that coercive lib'ruhl line, or unafraid to speak their minds, or something. This is about as insightful as saying that the greatest example of someone giving their lives in the name of self-determination and free will is a jaywalker who gets creamed by a passing bus.
... writers are required to create convincing characters who are different from themselves. But in video games, writers have tended towards idealized versions of themselves. I take this as a sign of limited ability and of limited ambition, driven by the concerns of marketing. In any case, it is not easy to find a Hilary Mantel or a Joss Whedon or even a Rhianna Pratchett or a Neil Druckmann. (This piece in The Guardian argues for and against the most notable women characters in literature who were created by men, and is worth a read.)
Rather than tackle this argument head-on, I'll start by tackling it sideways, by way of an analogous problem Harlan Ellison complained about in the 1970s: the lack of genuine character in SF, with vanishingly few exceptions. The notion of SF as a literature of ideas could be taken a little too far, it seemed; a lot of the material produced under said aegis made it more like a literature of nothing but ideas. It's notable that most of the big exceptions come from SF in film and TV, and not from literary SF — although I don't know how much of that could be chalked up to literary SF taking a major backseat to film and the tube. (When literary SF gets mentioned at all these days, it's typically in the context of a book that's just been optioned for an adaptation of some kind, and not because someone's championing a book that deserves to be read. Feh.)
Given that most SF&F doesn't do character well, if at all, I'm not surprised most of it doesn't do female characters well, or at all, either. That said, I don't want to assume that's the real culprit; it's more like one symptom among many. Too much of SF has been written for, and read by, an audience presumed to be mainly male, mainly interested in women as objects of one kind or another — even when the people picking up said books weren't necessarily like that. Especially when some of those audience members were women as well.
If there's any particular thing that allows the member of one sex to write the other sex well — or that allows anyone to write anyone that's not close to them well — it's empathy. Such a mushy word, but I'll try and make cement from that slurry if I can. Empathy isn't just the ability to feel what someone else feels, even if their experiences don't map to ours, but the ability to understand what that means, to build a bigger picture of the world outside of ourselves through that.
In short, it's a growth process, which explains why a literature and a genre that has for too long been treated as a growth retardation process has had such trouble manifesting it.
CONSUMER NOTE! I wrote this post while feverish, so I'm even crankier than usual.
Also, INJURY WARNING! Do not read this linked piece unless you want to sprain your eyes rolling them.
those writers who feel the pressure of precursors and who successfully take poetry or prose in new directions deserve consideration beyond what we normally extend to writers who produce satisfactory work in various genres. Just because there is no objective list of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. I’m not suggesting that one can’t fully enjoy James Crumley, James Lee Burke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card, but I’m not sure one can love them in the way that one loves Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov, and Joyce. One can be a fan of Agatha Christie, but one can’t really be a fan of George Eliot.
It's rare I see someone swing so freely between lucid insight and dunderheaded foot-in-mouth-ism in the same paragraph, possibly even the same sentence. Heinlein and Dick (jury's out on Card, if you ask me) can be described as many things, but alluding that they merely produced nothing more than "satisfactory work in various genres" is to either be honestly ignorant of what kind of work they did and why, or to be studiously, snootily ignorant of it.
Sigh. Just when I thought we'd gotten past this kind of mingy provincialism, it rears its head again, and in the silliest contexts. The whole point of the article was that a canon should be a conversation, one populated by voices that span the spectrum of literary experience. If the whole reason to make such a statement is just to draw a line in the sand and then kick some of said sand in the faces of those unlucky enough to be on the wrong side of it, why bother? SF has a right to be here just as much as anything else does, proving its worth on a case-by-case basis — the same way, oh, all of Herman Meville only became canonized because his defenders fought (albeit posthumously) to have Melville recognized as a literary giant. I would no sooner go without Dick than without Melville — in fact, I might well give up Melville first, since it's Dick that spoke more directly to me in my time.
And as for that parting shot — well, let's just say the author has a very different idea of what a "fan" is than many of the self-professed fans I know do. It takes a lot of nerve — and of a very highly developed kind, I think — to tell people what such things are, aren't, or can and can't be.
Look, I get it, believe me. I've got room on my shelf aplenty for Dostoevsky and Dick, for Shakespeare and Simenon. The canon's just as important to me as it is to anyone making a living professing about it. What's not cool is pretending only certain select elites have the right to engage in a conversation with it, for reasons that have as much to do with the politics of the canon as any merits the works themselves possess. The least we can do is kid ourselves a little less about this!
What's wrong with the movies? More than we can see, that's for sure:
There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing. ... Optimists usually say lighten up, because, after all, good movies always find a way to get through. But here’s the thing: They don’t. The evidence that good movies survive is the fact that every year brings good movies, which is a bit like saying that climate change is a hoax because it’s nice out today. Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort.
The truly cynical part of me thinks of this as one of the consequences of a culture that doesn't know what it wants, and so will settle for whatever it's given. We don't know what we want, so we leave it to people who are far more ambitious, searching, and driven than we are to provide it for us. Whether or not it's better that way is something I have to leave for another essay, but my point is that there are consequences to not knowing what we really want.Read more
Random thought about the disdain for SF in literary circles, about what it stems from. Far as I can tell, most of it comes from a few different things, most of which go unacknowledged by literary types:
Of the four, I think #1 and #2 are the most unsung, and the latter two are the most self-evident. It's easy to assume that people hate on SF because it's "popular" or "lowbrow", and it's not entirely wrong to start from that assumption. Most negative opinions of SF, even to this day, are rooted it in it being written as crowd-pleasing work, or as material aimed at juveniles — even when the SF in question just begins from those points and doesn't necessarily end with them.Read more
An article on the way Buddhism and science intersect on certain key issues features this line: "Unlike Christ, who promises eternal life, the last words of the Buddha reportedly began, 'Decay is inherent in all things.'"
It's timely and appropriate that I came across this piece right around the same time I started reading Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life, that man's philosophical treatise on the collision between the romantic impulse to live forever and the grim certainty that eternal life is more of an idea than it can ever be a reality, and how that collision is vital to human life and not an obstacle to it.Read more
... Lem preferred to depict societies bogged down by excess information and technology. “Freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea,” he writes in his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice, “because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors … ?” This observation rings eerily true today, but Lem wasn’t only trying to critique modern society. He wanted to imagine what the future might actually be like.
The reason why SF has traditionally trafficked in a cautionary view of the future is as a corrective to human hubris. I don't think having a positive, actionable vision of the future necessarily results in a positive, actionable future: you might bring to life some of the artifacts of that vision, but the vision itself is just that: a vision, not real.
Plus, once a vision leaves your hands, it's not yours anymore; it can be turned against its original conceit and wrenched out of its original context as easily as it can be deployed.Read more
io9 (which I normally don't read) just posted an extract from one of the stories in Hieroglyph — "By the Time We Get To Arizona," by Madeline Ashby — and it looks intriguing — just edgy (I hate that word, but whatever) enough to be skeptical, and just curious enough to be optimistic. If the rest of the anthology is in the same vein, then I'll be making a meal of my previous words with a side order of crow and a helping of Werner Herzog's boiled shoe leather.
Most of my skepticism — read: cynicism — about the project revolves around the way technical achievements are too often by themselves taken as prima facie evidence of progress. To wit: a concept for the tallest tower on earth, one which could serve as a launch platform for sending objects into space. A discussion of something like that needs to be fully rounded: the labor issues, the dangers involved, where to put the thing in the first place — and in a tone that's more thoughtful than "you can't make a future omelet without breaking a few present-day eggs", or something to that effect. We always need to ask where our future comes from and what cost we're willing to pay for it, and I don't just mean long green.
I've ordered the book and will be diving into it over the coming week.
More about the other day's post. I'm still stung at the tone I used to describe that stuff — Cory Doctorow in particular — but I suspect it's an abreaction, a consequence of being bombarded by so many we're-going-to-change-the-world-with-our-website types.
Zach Bonelli had his own take on it which is a more reasonably worded version of mine: "I’m not sure which I dislike more — wholesale acceptance of anything technological, or wholesale refusal to admit that anything technological might be of value." Some of that dichotomy was at the heart of Flight of the Vajra, too, although my feeling was that people would tilt towards technology by default anyway, because who really wants to not live with the conveniences offered by same? I was also deeply skeptical of the idea of a "post-scarcity" society, since after a certain point the concept of scarcity is more sociological and psychological than physical, and it becomes hard to tell a real scarcity (no clean water) from merely not being able to keep up with the Joneses (his broadband is 100 MB next to my paltry 20 MB).
Zach is right in that it's not about figuring out which one is right and going that road. It's about a dialogue between the two, something that doesn't end at any given moment, one where (as he put it) "one optimal human society might engage in endless self-reflection and criticism about the proper use of technologies, alongside a scientific arm endlessly churning out new theories and constructs."
My feeling is that no human society will elect to divide itself that neatly, because such a divide — as someone else once put it about good and evil — runs through every human heart. The struggle's going to be incarnate, first and foremost, inside each of us. Every time we wonder about what to put into our car (or our bodies), every time we choose where to live or what kind of job to work at, we're struggling with those things, even if the broader consequences of that struggle would never reveal themselves to any one of us, but only to humanity as a whole a hundred years from now.
Some follow-up notes on my earlier post about Hieroglyph.
First off, I'm just as fed up as anyone else is with SF as a "wet blanket", as someone else put it. I do not believe the point of SF is to talk obsessively and commiseratively about how much the future is going to suck.
But I also don't think the point of SF is to talk about how great the future would be if only we invented this or that. The two are, I think, manifestations of the same mindset at different extremes. One is naïve optimism; the other, naïve cynicism.
There's a middle way between those two that combines both vision and skepticism, and very little such SF has ever been produced. I would further wager that very little of it will ever be produced (Sturgeon's Law), because of the gravitational pull that both extremes exert on someone trying to walk that path.
I should not have made it seem like I did not want a project like Hieroglyph to be produced at all, only that I'm skeptical of how useful it'll be if it amounts to little more than a shill for a bunch of things that haven't been sold yet.
ADDENDUM TO THE ADDENDUM: Regarding Cory Doctorow - I apologize for the acid tone of my earlier statements about his work. That said, I still plan to read the book and see how his work and everyone else's holds up in the light of what I mentioned. I'd honestly like to have my gut feelings proven wrong here.
Word reached my ears recently of a new anthology, Hieroglyph, in which a whole gaggle of SF authors have been called upon to produce bright, shiny, optimistic, smiley-faced visions of the future instead of the dystopian grimdark gloomndoom nowayout stuff crowding the shelves. The way they put it is "optimistic, technically-grounded science fiction stories depicting futures achievable within the next 50 years":
"Why do we end up with the technologies we do? Why are people working on, for example, invisibility cloaks? Well, it's Harry Potter, right? That's where they saw it," he says. "Why are people interested in hand-held devices that allow you to diagnose diseases anywhere in the world? Well, that's what Mr Spock can do. Why can't we?"
The first thing I notice about this whole endeavor is the emphasis on the technical and the technological. Well, that's SF for you, right? Yes, but only in part.Read more
Capping off a splendid encomium to Jack Kirby, this graf:
I can’t help but feel saddened and depressed by the notion that the greatest feeling in the world is sniveling at the feet of monolithic corporations for the privilege of aping people you admire, for twisting their work and motivations, for doing things counter to the way they would. It’s much more fulfilling and important to leave You-shaped holes in the world. Don’t crawl through the Jack Kirby-shaped ones. Build your own pyramids; building someone else’s leaves you nothing with nothing but a bad back and sore feet.
Why stop at comics when talking about this? It applies no less to other franchises that had a spark of greatness in them once but have since been bricked up inside their own legacy (Star Trek, Star Wars) and that now survive only by being fed the blood of the next generation of creators.Read more
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