Cake or Death

Charles Stross posted up a little item based on a Mind Meld on SFSignal and this particular quote stood out for me:

In fact, those people who are doing the “big visionary ideas about the future” SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan’s wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don’t realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character.

My first reaction was an unmitigated, “Well, can’t I have both?” It seems to be a running theme with SF, especially hard SF. One can either have grand ideas built on the bleeding edge of scientific theory, or one can have well constructed characters. But you can’t have both. And you certainly can’t add-on top anything vaguely resembling literature.

The first time I encountered this phenomenon outside of grumblings about fans was in an essay by Jonathan Lethem which the Village Voice retitled “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction.” The original is hard to find, but references exist here and there’s a lovely exchange about it between Lethem and a David Barnett here. This focused on the awarding of a Nebula to Rendezvous with Rama instead of Gravity’s Rainbow as a fissure point where literature and SF were forever separated.

I remember someone mentioning Rama had all the literary prowess and characterization of a technical manual. This echoed a complaint from a girlfriend upon reading another of Clarke’s books – lovely ideas, but she hated the characters and it made for a boring read. It can be argued Gravity’s Rainbow shares the same problems, but does so in literary language instead of the language of SF, but once again we run into the same issue: why can’t I have good characters too? Why can’t I follow an emotional arc with someone I can relate to on some level? I have a hard enough time relating to the universe as it exists, much less different types of universes.

Choosing to write in a genre does not allow one to abandon the basics of good storytelling. Your novel centered around the unusual processing techniques for combining lunar regolith with carbon nanotubes to create permanent structures on the Moon may dead accurate. And any good material scientist worth his or her salt will appreciate the conundrums posited within. But if I can’t connect with it on a character level…why am I reading it? I can just read the original research.

In the end, I think Ursula K. LeGuin speaks for me in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction through her essay “Science Fiction and Ms. Brown.” She references Virgina Woolf:

“believe that all novels, … deal with character, and that it is to express character – not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved … The great novelists have brought us to see whatever they wish us to see through some character. Otherwise they would not be novelists, but poets, historians, or pamphleteers.”

she then argues there is room for a Ms. Brown in the world of science fiction, and gives me a good touchstone: Do you remember the name of the characters after you have put the book down? If I do my job right, no matter the genre or literary convention, you should remember the character. And that should lead you back into the novel itself. I won’t give in to the false Cake or Death choice.

I’m going to have pie.


Essays on Heresy and Cognitive Dissonance


“Creed sucks! I hate you, and I hate the band you like!”

Red vs. Blue: Real Life vs. the Internet still maintains a punch. Despite being ancient by our standards, this one exchange depicts a core problem I’ve run into when reading blogs by authors, photographers, and other members of the creative community. When a big film, say The Avengers comes out, people naturally wish to talk about it. Authors are no different. They’ll go on their blogs and write up, usually with great style and aplomb, how they felt about the film, its good points and bad, its ups and downs, as any other person would.

But a funny thing happens when words are committed anywhere. They gain weight, especially if coming from a person with any kind of authority. (Or, as Joss Whedon would have put it, ‘my precious quasi-fame.’)It becomes personal. Folks read this and a rush of emotion comes flying out onto the comments section. Nuance is lost, especially when the author or artist’s feeling conflict with your own. Everything becomes personal.

A simple, “Here is what I think about this…” gains a rider: “… and if you don’t agree with me, you’re wrong! Moreover, you’re a horrible person to boot!” I’ve noted the effect is more intense, the shorter the comment. Facebook posts are a magnet for this phenomenon. Twitter feeds boil over with supposition and misinterpretation. And all is made worse because you lose basic verbal and visual clues to a person’s stated intent.

And then, we get the response. “Hey, this person is attacking something I like. He must be attacking me. How dare he? I have every right to my opinion! You’ve no right to look down on me. Time to give this person a piece of my mind!”

Thus, flamewars are born. And no one has actually said anything horrible or out of line. It’s simply read into the gaps in the text. I fall for it myself. I read a blog site where the editor has a very firm opinion about an author I enjoy, and is quite open about expressing it. But at no point has the editor crossed the line and denigrated anyone who enjoys said author’s work. Yet, because of the simple authoritative gesture of putting words into print, even electronic print, the words gain weight. They sink into the brain and, like a sculpture falling into jelly, our minds fill in the cracks between the words.

Is there a solution? I think we may need to look back and invest in the art of essay writing. When a friend of mine said, “I’m starting a podcast” for his birthday, I gave him a copy of This I Believe: Personal Philosophies of Remarkable People as a guidebook. The simple essay, with its clear structure, often ridiculed in school, gives us a clear key to creating a bridge of understanding, in my view. I think it might be time we all invest in contemplating the grace it provides.