One of Mies van der Rohe’s pupils, a girl, came to him and said, “I have difficulty studying with you because you don’t leave any room for self-expression.” He asked her whether she had a pen with her. She did. He said, “Sign your name.” She did. He said, “That’s what I call self-expression.” (John Cage, Silence [p. 269])
A while back I wrote how no author can help but express themselves. I have to revise that a bit in light of what I just wrote here: no author can help but express themselves as long as they have the means to do so.
I've repeated this before, and in enough variations, that you are almost certainly sick of it by now and want me to move on to something else. But I hammer on it often because it is one of the things I see being most consistently wrong with many of the budding (and not-so-budding) authors I run into. They equip themselves to create copies, or copies of copies, but not something where the unmistakable hint of the author's persona comes through. To use a phrase I always loathed, because it was almost always used in a thoughtless way, they are not expressing themselves. Read more
[Ellen Datlow:] "Science fiction is an extrapolation of what's going on in the world…Fantasy is more about things that cannot be."
That definition felt far too lightweight for me, so here I go sticking my own fool neck out.
A long time ago — this may still be whizzing around the 'net, for all I know — I once said something like, "Science fiction is a mode of storytelling made possible by the scientific worldview."Read more
A few notes on Stravinsky's landmark composition, a century down the road:
... what do the cruel “Rite” and the lofty Ninth have in common? Both have cast enormous shadows. “We live in the valley of the Ninth,” wrote Joseph Kerman, the musicologist and critic. “That we cannot help.”
I've written similar things about The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and all of the other shadow-casters that make writing original SF&F (or some hybrid of them, which is really what Star Wars is) that much more difficult. The authors, audiences, and publishers all see such titans as models to follow in every sense. It's a fantasy story, so it has to be a trilogy; it has to have these elements because that story also had them; and that story sold faster than the iPhone 5, so they must be doing something right; and so on.
We can't help but live in the shadow of such work. I don't want to give the impression being so overshadowed is wholly a bad thing, because the works in question are by and large not bad on their own. What's bad is how we let their shadow encompass and blot out so many other things. The LotR model for fantasy — the Eurocentric, Campbellian-quest, Tolkien-flavored story — has become the default mode, with everything else (I mention Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast often) shoved into the backseat, if not the glove compartment.
Any creator who finds himself working in a field that has such a shadow cast over it has a couple of responsibilities: to know the field, to know the shadow, and to know as much as possible about what lies outside of the shadow. The more work you do to get out from under that shadow, the more you stand a chance of showing others what else is possible as well. It's easy to simply read whatever else would be adjacent to your books on the shelf and call it a day, but that has to be treated as a starting point and not an endpoint.
I'm not sure we provide our creators with enough of the tools to do this. We teach them how to follow role models, but not always how to transcend them. It's not that we lack examples to follow, but that we follow them in the wrong ways and learn from them all the wrong lessons. The big lesson of Star Wars was not that you needed two cute robots (as all of its imitators were wont to do), but that you could take the swashbuckling adventures of the past and charge them with modern filmmaking technology. (We seem to have gotten stuck on that stage longer than we really needed, though.)
One of the books I've been keeping by the nightstand and dipping into a chapter at a time is The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, a series of conversations between Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda over a wide range of topics. Heady stuff; sitting and reading the whole thing through in one sitting would have the same congestive effect on the brain that gobbling a whole Whitman's Sampler would on the stomach. Like the box of chocolates, I've been sampling one morsel at a time. (Make a Forrest Gump joke at your own risk.)Read more
The "what ifs" people breathlessly talk about when they get into this sort of discussion [about SF vs. mainstream fiction as a literature of ideas] are the premises which drive SF stories, and aren't necessarily the themes they address - assuming the story actually addresses theme at all and doesn't just wallow in empty worldbuilding and pie in the sky speculation. It is true to say that SF is a "literature of ideas" if you take "idea" to mean "premises" - the critical acclaim in which SF stories are held often correlates strongly with how wild and out there their premises get. But there is no story in the world which doesn't offer premises. Science fiction isn't the exclusive literature of ideas; at most, it's the literature of freaky counterfactual premises.
The discussion was in general about SF as a literature of ideas, something I've touched on here before, and how mainstream litfic is no less suited to being the same sort of thing with the right approach.
The ideas in Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea are no less challenging than the ones in Frank Herbert's Dune; the packaging and delivery is what's most different. I suspect more people are attuned to reading the latter than the former if they must choose.
Take the test yourself: what's more interesting, a guy poking around some French town musing about the nature of his own existence, or a war over a desert planet with gigantic sandworms that secret the spice which drives the universe? (Okay, it depends on your definition of "interesting", of course, but you get the idea. Most people I know would pick Paul Atreides over Roquentin as someone worth reading about, but that doesn't mean Sartre wasted his time.)Read more