I confess that I was in my early 20s before I realized how fundamentally shallow Star Wars is. I still enjoy it (well, I enjoy the movies I saw when I was a kid, and I don't much care whether they're really better than what followed—though I think they are—or whether it's the Nostalgia Goggles™ making me think so) but it eventually dawned on me that there was better, meatier stuff out there.
I find Rusch's description of the genre simplistic, anyway. I'm far more aware of fantasy than of science fiction, myself, if one cares to make the distinction, but to my mind fantasy's turn into darker territories is getting back to what made it so appealing in the first place. Uplifting endings? What the hell has she been reading?
And that description is why an awful lot of people I know don't read SF. They see that whiz-bang sparkly franchise spinoff stuff and think that all of it's like that. I have a colleague who won't touch it—and yet Jonathan Carroll is one of her favorite authors.
Exactly! I meant to make that point --it's the Star wars/Trek stuff that ghettoises SF and turns people off. (Too busy trying to get my LJ cuts to work --they didn't)
I agree with the person above who said that in fact Star Wars and Trek novels are what put people off. Also with regard to comments made about building worlds and bright and happy endings, what is the point in reading a book if you know what is going to happen?
What universe is this coming from, where "Fantasy continued its heroic ways, promising--and usually delivering--those uplifting endings, those fascinating worlds, and those excellent (heroic) characters" in the 1960s? "Continued" implies a large amount of heroic genre fantasy being published and bought, by individual readers and libraries, in the 1950s and 1960s. In the universe I grew up in, well, there was The Lord of the Rings, not very popular at the time [and full of academic-seeming appendixes], and I gather people sought out second-hand copies of Dunsany and Cabell.
See also Ursula Le Guin on the amount that Star Wars lifted from Leni Riefenstahl.
Lord of the Rings's ending isn't exactly with the mega-happy, either. I mean, it's a lovely ending, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows and puppies, you know? (Just mostly.)
2006-10-09 11:25 pm (UTC)
What's with all the and/or thinking in these quotes?
This was a great read. Thanks for it!
So ... I don't understand the reason for the fat division happening in the articles you quoted. Every good writer I've ever read includes everything plus the kitchen sink in their book. I know I do my best to include both the petty and the epic in my novels (or anything I write for that matter).
What I don't understand in all this is why people don't use both epic grandeur and realism, and then choose one or the other where it's called for (or hell even a little of both and give the reader an epic-leptic joy fit). Look, you don't read a book because it's purely vapid escapism, you read a book because one minute they're eating a fantastic but humble meal that you realize you could make at home, a meal that makes you hungry despite just having had dinner or it being 3:00a.m.; and then in the next chapter they are in some freakin' amazing place you would never have thought up yourself, blowing your mind wide open, food now entirely forgotten. Here, I should point out that most humble or petty things have great links to epic history and culture in them. Food is the heart of all ritual, just as an example. And if a writer writes about a huge ritual without using any reference to the food served (I mean as if she forgot about that part) then you know, no one believes it. Some things are universal and most of those are petty.
It's also perfectly acceptable to have a traditionally "epic" story with a lot of Very Important (read: Very Realistic) Shit in it. Richard Donner wrote, of his movie Ladyhawke: "It's adventurous, outrageously romantic, and pure escapism, which I prefer to films which set out to show how dull everyday life is ... and generally succeed." Amen! Nothing bores me more than a book aiming to show how boring life can be. I live that already! And nothing can be more teeth-grindingly real-life than the scene in that movie where you're watching the old priest yank a bloodied arrow out of a woman's chest... Sure this lady happens to also turn into a hawk during the day -- and becomes a woman again at night -- but you're getting the epic and the bloody realism in a fat and delicious sandwich!
The hardest thing a writer can do is provide narrative of the mundane with an overwhelming sense of entertainment. Ever cracked open The Lord of the Rings just to read Tolkien's page-long descriptions of how Frodo and Sam walked from Bagshot Row to the open country just beyond Hobbiton? Read it OUT LOUD sometime. Then you can't conveniently skim that, and it makes you realize how difficult a passage like that is to write. And let me tell you, today we'd just fake in a movie-style "cut to:" so we can avoid writing about the plodding walk along the road. Why? Because it's easier on the writer! This is where I think we have to be careful in our job. Short-cuts for us are just damn boring for the reader.
But I still re-read those narrative passages of LOTR description, and every time I think to myself: How the hell can Tolkien make walking down a damn road that freaking entertaining? Your own mileage may vary on that -- but I just wanted a concrete example of how someone needs skill and talent to make something very realistic, very mundane, hold your attention until they get to the next big fascination.
So, yeah: you absolutely need both. Pettiness (or reality if you like a pretty word for it) is the glue that holds the epic grandeur together. Pettiness in the face of the huge philosophical issues that you wish to address in the novel, for example, allows the reader the escape from your dogmatism. It gives them a back-door until they want to face the issue you raised in the book.
Realism. Epic-grandeur. They are the shoes on both your feet. Bunch'a people are hobbling arout without one shoe on, and it really shows.
(Think I'm gonna make this a post over on my LJ and cross-post to yours for my readers to reference.)
2006-10-11 06:43 am (UTC)
Re: What's with all the and/or thinking in these quotes?
This is a gorgeous comment, and I immediately thought of authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez who do this all the freakin' time, there's something in Love in the Time of Cholera about a parrot just for example that is deliciously fun to read, and I mean, it's just a parrot.
I read somewhere once that Tolkien disliked traveling by car and preferred to walk. That may be apocryphal, but having read some of those lovely descriptions you mention, it's easy to believe.
2006-10-09 11:54 pm (UTC)
you may leave quietly
.. or dancing.
2006-10-10 01:37 am (UTC)
The heart of the question
I think you and Rusch agree a lot more than you think you do, Ian. The disagreement is really over a difference in perceptions. You wrote: "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 sould 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?"
I agree -- the reader shouldn't have to ask that. The problem is, with a majority of current sf, the reader does have to ask that -- because all too often, the answer is "no." Personally, I hate dystopian endings. I hate them in real life. I hate them in sf. I hate them in fantasy. I hate them in movies. I hate them in plays. I hate them in any form, in any genre, in any storytelling format of any possible description. By definition, I do not consider a story with a dystopian ending to be entertaining. That, I think, is what Rusch was trying to say: there are a lot of readers out here who are like me, and if you the SF-writing community try to feed us a steady diet of dystopian stories, eventually we're going to stop buying it. Many of us already have. And that's a big reason why sales of mainstream sf are down so much.
[signed] -- JSW
2006-10-10 01:57 am (UTC)
Re: The heart of the question
It's interesting, the reaction people seemed to have to my novel Rocket Science often ran along the lines of "thank god, a dispatch from the Golden Age!" I'm one of those people who loves dystopian exploration, but I recognize that JSW and many others (including myself in certain moods) wants the upward lilt, too. I am afraid that I have literary disease, my own self, sadly.
Apologies if the following is a little disjointed. I have several reactions, but they don't go together amazingly well.
Books touch lives, books change lives, books change civilizations and whole worlds as no TV series, no movie, even, ever has.
It's hard to think of any science fiction book that has changed the world even as much as say "Super Size Me" did. But that's an easy target. I'd argue that television, increasingly, does touch and change just as the best literature does - "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" springs to mind as an example of a show that's famed for having precisely that effect. And sure, it's the exception rather than the rule, but that exception does seem to be becoming more common.
Are tie-in novels taking shelf space away from SF? Hell, no. The tie-ins, from SW to Trek and beyond, are keeping SF alive. If we, the sf writers and publishers, want more shelf space, we have to earn it. We earn it by telling stories, some of them old faithfuls that the fans like to read, the things that have been published before.
Of course KKR would say that - take a look at what she's written.
One of the biggest problems SF and Fantasy face is that from outside the ghetto, it all looks like Star Trek/Wars, The Matrix, or whatever else was big last year...
I'm Buffy agnostic, and despite its wide-spread fanbase, its difficult to see the expression 'Whedonesque' spreading beyond that base in into general society the way that 'Orwellian' (specifically meaning 1984) has.
You want power and beauty, I think. I couldn't agree more. I'm not sure uplifting heroes is the requirement to achieve that, but what the hell, I haven't uplifted much yet in my career thus far.
Think about what you want you poem to do, what you want it to say, when you choose your diction. As with many things, consistency is key.
"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."
I completely agree with this statement. And would add that beyond a beginning point, it is a way of effective communication.
I once had a teacher of linear algebra who gave entertaining lectures and made a pretty tedious subject rather enjoyable, along with keeping us awake in a warm, dim, lecture hall after lunch. At the end of the quarter, he was very offended by our reviews of his teaching that we found him entertaining to listen to. He ranted that he was there to teach us, not entertain us. I lost all respect for him then. How can you teach or entertain if you bore you audience into a stupor? There is joy and entertainment in all human endeavors, be they reading or writing fiction, studying history, writing code, rebuilding an engine, or doing original physics research. Those who do these things who cannot express that joy to others often are lacking in a vital communication skill, rather than engaging in something they personally do not care to be doing.
If science fiction is failing anywhere, it is in not conveying its own joy in itself and its explorations.
That's two days running you've put up superb posts.
Not taking anything away from Father Ted, this one's real food for thought. Gracias.
They've had a post up all day claiming that Obama supporters can't name any of his legislative qualifications.
2006-10-10 05:47 am (UTC)
Why do we do what we do?
All that rises.... Haven't writers always introspected along these lines? Coleridge and Wordsworth certainly did. Well, all the Romantics did, but the best 18th C. musings about it were in Biographia Literaria. I'll bet Patronius sort had his moment after The Satyricon hit Rome and Nero had him slicing open veins at a party.
Why do we do what we do? The trite answer'd be, "Because we have to." or perhaps, "For the art's sake." Posh. We do it because...
Sorry, but this debate chaps my ass something fierce. Science Fiction vs. Fantasy seems like such a false dichotomy. I had the pleasure of being Bob Sheckley's friend, and you can believe we talked around this one, as probably everyone reading this has. He like to call his stuff Science Fantasy. He told me once that he wasn't smart enough to write really good science fiction, and he wanted wiggle room when he wrote himself into a corner. Bob was smart enough, of that I'm sure. I think he simply wanted to write what he wrote without extrinsic meddling and the market niche polis that desperately needs to pigeonhole and seperate, putting big fat walls and scads of floor space between various literatures in a conspicuously arbitrary schema that fails to define the difference, one from another.
Fuck 'em. Write what you write. For God's sake, don't stop, whatever you do.
2006-10-10 06:18 am (UTC)
Re: Why do we do what we do?
I'm with Sheckley on that.
PS: As for the Mundane SF falacy, I am currently writing a Mundane SF novel ... just for the chops, so I can go back to writing space operas with a light heart, knowing that I've got your serious strait-laced preoccupation with realism right here, buddy. (And for added points, it's Mundane SF with zombies. See! It walks!)
huzzah for mundane zombies!
2006-10-10 07:38 pm (UTC)
I just wanted to say thanks for that post. Why can't we have it all as readers and as writers? I've loved your work for a very long time and when I was growing up it was inspirational because you did (and do) everything and anything.
The most important point for me in your post concerned what can be considered "entertaining". I think "entertaining" is sometimes equated with simply surface plot or drama in work that isn't firmly in the humorous vein. But, like you, I find those conversations in those O'Brian intensely entertaining. And all kinds of other things that I don't think get thought of automatically as "entertainment". Which is, as you say, just the starting point.
Hi Jeff, thanks for this and your kind comments. Of course I agree: as writers we aspire to the highest common factor, now the lowest common denominator. I do think there's a lot of confusion between plot (and, specifically, plots that resemble screenplay and teleplay structure, which is different from novel structure) and entertainment, when there are many more things to enjoy (with emphasis on the 'joy') than 'and then and then' plot-harried writing. There's a dreadful inverted snobbery about our genre(s): fantasy is breaking out of it, alas, it seems SF may be becoming moe reactionary. What's the old quote? 'Get SF out of the classroom and back in the gutter where it belongs'? Well, to parry with an older quote, 'we're in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.'
2006-10-11 04:00 pm (UTC)
Did I say that? It sounds vaguely intelligent, and we were in the bar most of the time, so it couldn't have been... but I'll claim it. (you linked to the pyr webpage, by the way) :-)
I know the Poms like to claim everything, but I think classification is a universal disease. It's also a disease primarily of the intelligent and educated, like snobbery itself, which classification usually is. I'm very wary of intelligence, as a concept, because as a concept, it's such a fraud. Those things that claim to be intelligent, meaningful, or worst of all, worthwhile (puke, puke) are these days usually all of these things in inverse proportion to what they claim.
Literary fiction is to insight what lard is to cuisine (always floating on the surface), most modern art is less creative than the galleries that house it, modern classical music sounds like a truck load of instruments thrown into a cement mixer, and the whining, hysterical, self-flagelating rubbish that passes as intellectual discourse on current events sounds more like a group therapy session than a reasoned analysis of today's world.
None of which is to excuse any of SF and Fantasy's various conceits, merely to wonder where anyone, and in particular the self-appointed 'intellectual' arbiters of quality, gets off on casting aspersions upon any genre as 'unworthy'. And then you've got the mass market, and those who pursue it frantically, claiming that SF and Fantasy are not entertaining enough either... or 'unintellectual enough', they mean, well knowing that all the high culture I've mentioned is entirely supported by government spending because no one else is stupid enough to pay for it (any wonder they're all leftists?)
The result being that SF and Fantasy is solely defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. One big, fat negative, not smart enough for the snobs, nor stupid enough for the mass marketers. So what are we? I think some positive definitions would be useful here, I don't like being a negative.
you did say that. We were in the bar with Tobias Buckell, talking all manner of airy nonsense. Damn good fun.