ianmcdonald (ianmcdonald) wrote,
  • Music: Future Sound of London: Lifeforms

These fictions that sustain us

Lou Anders rages hard and holy in his blog about getting medieval on reality's ass. What is this thing we do, and is it worthwhile? What are its especial virtues and characteristics? What can it hope to be?

The drummer Steward Copeland, formerly of the Police, was once asked by a reporter why he went to such lengths with his riffs, traveling to Africa to learn unusual beats and bringing them back to incorporate into his music. "Are any of your listerners really going to understand what it is you are doing here?" the reporter asked. "No, of course not," came Copeland's reply, "but they'll appreciate the music the better for it, even if they don't know why."

Again: It is fine for the analysis and appreciate of art to be equal to the effort that goes into its creation.

But also: It is fine for art to strive for excellence regardless of whether those who will live in the house appreciate or even notice every brick that went into its construction.

Some of us enjoy examining the bricks. Admiring the craftsmanship. Seeing how they pieces fit together. Studying what worked and what didn't. This is fun. This is also instructive for those who might harbor aspirations to "go thou and do likewise."


He makes the point that teh intahweb (and its less connected, more creative manifestations) are opening up new possibilties and new potentials for people to be creative as never before. Good. Great. As I've said before here and in other places, the edit is the art ofthe 21st century. I'm starting a mentoring programme through Belfast's Creative Writers Network to work with a new horror writer to get his stuff out there on to your bookshelves. And that's damned good. None of us ever know where the next thing is coming from. Anyone who tell you otherwise is a liar.

But, Lou says, the prime component of fiction is entertainment and without that, it's not going to accoomplish much else. I have very little patience with writers or performers who complain that their audience doesn't understand them or aren't smart enough to appreciate their genius. Fiction is about reaching people. (And I hope that, with the average Pyr book, readers come away enjoying fiction that is both action-packed and thought provoking. That's the goal, anyway).

Again, quality and popularity need not be mutually exclusive.

That being said, I do feel that speculative fiction in specific has an additional role to play beyond the laudable goal of being entertaining.


I couldn't agree more. 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.

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? 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.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes an editorial on this subject in the October/November Asimov's. It's part of the J'accuse Star Wars debate and also a contribution to the debate on SF's crisis of conscience. And believe me, the genre is going through a crisis of belief. It's not just that the sales are slumping --things go in circles, I firmly believe, so I'm not overkly disheartened (maybe I should be)-- but there's an intellectual collapse whereby a lot of writers are asking themselves, 'well, what is this thing that we do?'. China Mielville has neatly loosened our underpinnings by questioning what it is that differentiates SF from fantasy, and is SF merely a subset of the general literature of the fantastic? From the other side, the termites of the mundanistas have been gnawing at SF's wardrobe of queenly gowns and spandex tights: (pace guys, I commend your good works, though the blog needs updating).

KKR confesses to being a Star Wars fangirl; fair enough. It never did it for me, but then it wasn't an allegory of our War of Independence. After fessing up and drawing up the the parameters of her defense, she says: Why is all this important to my essay? Because, in the dark days before literary tropes hit sf (which in my essay, lowercased, stands for science fiction only), the sf and fantasy genre had the same goals. Large-scope stories, in which worlds or universes were at stake, created new but oddly familiar settings that were far enough removed from real life so that readers could escape their mundane existences. The lead character was not the protagonist; he (and it was usually a he) was the hero. He often followed the hero’s journey (see Joseph Campbell, whom Lucas says he gleefully plundered). No matter how dark the journey, the reader will follow the hero because, the reader knows (and is reassured on a deep level) that the hero will triumph at the end.

Now, any beatifcation of Joseph Campbell's Department-of-the-Bleedin'-Obvious mythologising sets my teeth on edge (why do you think I partially picked that bit?) but let's proceed with the argument.

When literary tropes hit sf in the 1960s, solid characterization, good sentence-by-sentence writing, and dystopian endings became commonplace. “Realism,” both in character actions and in scientific approach, became more important than good storytelling.

Fantasy continued its heroic ways, promising—and usually delivering—those uplifting endings, those fascinating worlds, and those excellent (heroic) characters. But science fiction started resembling the literary mainstream. The novels became angst-filled. The protagonists, demoted from their heroic pedestals, lost more than they won. The worlds became as ugly or uglier than our own.

Suddenly, sf became unreliable. Readers had no idea if they would find uplifting stories or dystopian universes. They didn’t know whether, once they plunged through six hundred pages of nasty, ugly world-building, they would ever emerge into any sort of light. Sometimes, the sf devolved into one long scientific exposition. Or into jargon-filled, hard-to-follow stories that realistically explored situations set up in the bad old days of pre-literary science fiction.


Excrement.

Anyway: the ailment: SF—y’know, the genre that includes fantasy. I have no idea how low the sales would be if we were only talking about science fiction all by its little ole self.

SF is committing the common sin of a dying literary genre. It blames its problems on the outsiders—the tie-in novels, and by extension, the barbarians at the gate—who are crowding the shelves and taking away space for “good” sf.

“Good” sf can retire to the specialty press where the Science Fiction Village can read and discuss it. It’s time to return to the gosh-wow, sense-of-wonder stories that sf abandoned when it added literary values to its mix, the kind of stories that Star Wars, and by extension, Star Trek, Stargate, and all those other media properties have had all along.8

SF’s insularity is murdering the genre. Remember that publishing is a business. As a business, it is driven by sales figures, by profit and loss statements. For too long, sf has been in the loss side of the publishing column. As a result, fewer and fewer sf books are being published.


And the cure: 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.

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. We earn it by entertaining. We earn it by creating characters as memorable as Luke and Han and Darth Vader.


Let me say, if that's the highest I can aspire to if everything I have ever hoped for or dreamed of attaining, how I dared to touch hearts and minds, is measured against that; then the only morally consistent action I can take is for me to give up writing. I would never set paper to printer again if I thought that. And I fucking rage against it.

The argument, it will get people reading sf, is true only as far as it goes. A diet of bubble-gum will turn you into Veruca Salt. Yes, and I read James Blish's sly Star Trek novelisations (his theological speculation on the state of the transported soul I still remember with glee), but it led me on to the first volume of the Asimov edited Hugo Winners. And the first person I met there was Jack Vance: The Dragon Masters. And I was swept away. And Harlan Ellison's ,Repent Harlequin, said the Ticktockman. Worlds more diverse, more sharp and strange and pleasureful than TV SF's limited range of ensemble playing. It's a different medium, its stories are different, its structures and strictures other than the purely written story. Would I have found all this but for Trek? Yes. Hondootedly. Because Trek was never science. It was telly. And there's any God's amoubt of meeja stuff out there already. The curse of our age is 'If You Liked That, You'll Love This...'

It's all very well flooding the market with meeja clones (but isn't it already? As Joel Shepherd said at Worldcon when we discussed this, 'haven't they tried that already?'). But where do you go on to? Where are the Jacks and Harlans to take you somewhere richer and stranger and more rewarding by far than the Federation, or Star Wars' infantile universe? Books touch lives, books change lives, books change civilizations and whole worlds as no TV series, no movie, even, ever has.

As I said, entertainment is where we all begin, not where we end up. Call me fussy, but I'm not after your beer money. Beer is always good, but keep it for the beer: I'm after the money you spend on beautiful, precious things. The ornaments, the treasures. The things that really matter to you. The money you spend on lovers, I want that money. The money you spend on plastic surgery, drugs, hopes, faith and fetishes --the things that change your life, that make and remake you: that's the money I want. Keep your beer money, you've worked for it, I want your triple-distlled whiskey money.

Because it's more than just entertaining.

Lou quotes meme therapy's recent chitchat on What's the point of science fiction? Though I say so myself, most of responses are fairly weak-livered variations on the 'it's just entertainment, basically.' Nothing is just entertainment; that's the hurdle you jump to get out of the slush pile in the first place. Lou makes good points, but it's Paul McAuley who, in typically two-Uzied-style-- chanticleers what needs shouting from the spire tops of Coruscant, or whatever other simplistic, moralising shit they try to peddle you:
Science fiction doesn’t have a job - it’s too busy hanging out on street corners, trying to look tough and knowing, cracking wise and dissing passing scientists: ‘Yo, Hawking! See this? See what I did to your fuzzy black hole my man? You like that?’

Science fiction is the holy fool of literature. It can say what it likes and get away with an examination of truly radical and subversive ideas because no one takes it seriously. When it’s at its best, we’re generally in trouble. Science fiction flourished during the social and economic upheavals of the 1930s, during the Cold War, and during the Iron Age of the 1980s. It should be flourishing now, damn it, but too many people who used to hang out with it have wandered off into some kind of fluffy make-believe world or other. Real science fiction doesn’t make stuff up. It turns reality up to eleven. It takes stuff from contemporary weather - stuff no one else has bothered or dared to question - and uses it to make an end run on reality. It not only shows us what could happen if things carry on the way they are, but it pushes what’s going on to the extremes of absurdity. That’s not its job: that’s its *nature*. And what’s happened to science fiction lately, it isn’t natural. It’s pale and lank and kind of out of focus. It needs to straighten up and fly right. It needs to reconnect with the world’s weather, and get medieval on reality’s ass.



Now I know why I do what I do. Thank you for your attention. You may leave quietly now.
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