David Brin’s list of “Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy Tales” is actually a series of 14 lists divided into such categories as “Dire Warnings and Self Preventing Prophecies,” “Harbingers of Hope,” “Alternative History/Parallel Worlds,” “Huh! I Never Realized!” and “Sheer Beauty.” Also available on the page are links to his essays on “The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy” and “How to Define Science Fiction.”
I regularly promote Charles Stross’ novel Accelerando which traces three generations of the Manx family as we pass into the Singularity. It’s one of my favorite SF novels. I’m currently rereading it and stumbled upon the Accelerando Technical Companion, a glossary of various concepts and terms in the novel, useful for even some regular SF readers and a godsend for anyone teaching the book.
You haven’t read Accelerando? You should give it a try. In fact, Stross offers it for free download in the following formats: ePub, MobiPocket, Aportis, and Rich Text Format.
Back on World IP Day, I argued that as part of our reflection on “how patents, copyright, trademarks and designs impact on daily life,” the point of World IP Day, we should consider “the original purpose of copyright laws and concept of intellectual property, we should consider how the concepts of copyright and intellectual property as products of the printing press are modern creations which post-date Shakespeare, and we should consider how vastly the concepts of copyright and intellectual property have changed during their few hundred year history.” Among other things, I noted, we should reflect upon the fact that the first copyright law in the United States, passed in 1790, granted a creator a copyright of 14 years plus an additional 14 years if they exercised their right of renewal, and its purpose was to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” In contrast, today individual copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years and corporate copyright lasts for 120 years.
This matters for many reasons and it may matter far more than we currently realize. Consider, for a moment, a posthuman future1
A couple of days ago I pointed to Lev Grossman’s discussion of genre fiction vs. literary fiction, which was written for his weekly book column in Time. Among the things Grossman takes issue with is the charge that genre fiction is escapist. Since I’ve been known to take issue with this claim as well, I note with some bemusement that Charles Stross, one of my favorite SF authors, has suggested in a recent blog post that most science fiction is escapist. It’s not the focus of Stross’ piece, however, so I’ll set the issue aside for another day.
Stross’ blog post “SF, big ideas, ideology: what is to be done?” is a slightly revised version of an essay he wrote in response to a SF Signal Mind-meld question of whether or not SF is still the genre of big ideas. Specifically, they asked, “Are SF writers “slacking off” or is science fiction still the genre of “big ideas”? If so, what authors are supplying these ideas for the next generation of scientists and engineers?” As is clear from SF Signal page, the question has its origins in Neal Stephenson World Policy Journal article “Innovation Starvation,” in which Stephenson argues that SF is in a dystopian rut and is, therefore, no longer serving to inspire future scientists and engineers as SF did during the Golden Age.1 As with all SF Signal Mild Meld forums, multiple SF authors respond to the question, so Stross’ essay is but one of many responses, which means you really should visit both SF Signal discussion as well as Stross’ blog.
In the essay, Stross argues that SF has not really been the genre of big ideas although there have been big ideas within SF from time to time, and that SF has been “spinning its wheels” for some time now with only cyberpunk and the singularity being its only innovative subjects in the past 30 years. Furthermore, he argues that the really big ideas authors in SF are largely ignored. (I’ll leave you to read the piece to see who they are.)
Ultimately, Stross argues that the big problem SF faces today is that the sense of wonder it is so good at evoking is becoming harder and harder to engage. He explains:
We’re living in the frickin’ 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%. There are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We’re carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn’t a 1980s cyberpunk vision that’s imploded into the present, warts and all, I don’t know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.
We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don’t much like it.
Stross ends his essay asking a different question: “If SF’s core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?”Both his essay and the responses from readers which follow are well worth reading.
Lev Grossman, book critic and technology writer for TIME, defends genre fiction today in his weekly book column, which he wrote in response to Arthur Krystal’s New Yorker piece “Easy Writers.” In “Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology,” Grossman begins by agreeing with Krystal that there is a distinction between literary and genre fiction, and then takes Krystal to task for characterizing as overly relying upon cliché while simultaneously invoking the biggest cliché of all: that genre fiction is escapism.1
The two big points I take away from Grossman’s piece, points I have commented on myself when I talk this issue with friends, is that (1) genre fiction writers have made plot their art form and that the best of them far surpass anything done in literary fiction, and (2) the borders between literary and genre fiction are increasingly blurring as literary fiction writers draw from genre fiction and genre fiction writers draw from literary fiction.2 To give you a flavor of what Grossman argues and how he does so, here’s a few passages:
On Krystal’s charge of escapism:
Being as how Krystal busts genre writers for using clichés in their prose, I think it’s only fair play to scold him a little for relying so heavily what has become a critical cliché. In my experience at least, to dismiss genre fiction as escapism is to seriously under-think what happens when someone opens a genre novel. According to the escapist theory, people read genre fiction to leave behind the cares and sorrows of reality — a genre novel is, in Krystal’s words, “a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives.” It’s like we’re sucking on a literary pacifier: genre readers ‘simply want the comfort of a familiar voice recounting a story they that they hadn’t quite heard before.”
On the subject of plot:
It’s hard to talk about what plot does, but that’s not the fault of genre fiction. If anything it’s because criticism has failed the genre novel. Most of the critical vocabulary we have for talking about books is geared to dealing with dense, difficult texts like the ones the modernists wrote. It’s designed for close-reading, for translating thick, worked prose into critical insights, sentence by sentence and quote by quote, not for the long view that plot requires. But plot is an extraordinarily powerful tool for creating emotion in readers. It can be used crudely, but it’s also capable of fine nuance and even intellectual power, even in the absence of serious, Fordian prose. The emotions and ideas plot evokes can be huge and dramatic but also complex and subtle and intimate. The things that writers like Raymond Chandler or Philip Pullman or Joe Abercrombie do with plot are utterly exquisite. I often find that the complexity of the narratives in genre fiction makes the narratives in literary novels look almost amateur by comparison. Look at George R.R. Martin: no literary novelist now writing could orchestrate a plot the way he does. Even if you grant that the standards for writing and characterization in genre fiction are lower than in literary fiction, the standards for plotting are far, far higher.
And, finally, on the blurring of boundaries between literary and genre fiction:
There’s a vast blurry middle ground in between genre fiction and literary fiction that’s notably absent from Krystal’s essay. Cormac McCarthy now writes about serial killers and post-apocalyptic worlds. Michael Chabon writes about alternate realities and hard-boiled detectives. Philip Roth writes alternate history. Kazuo Ishiguro writes about clones. Colson Whitehead writes about zombies. Kate Atkinson writes mysteries. Jennifer Egan writes science fiction, as does Haruki Murakami (and as did David Foster Wallace). And on and on. (The borrowing happens the other way, too: writers like Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Catherynne Valente, John Green, Susanna Clarke, Richard Price and China Miéville, to name a very few, are gleefully importing literary techniques into genre novels, to marvelous effect.) Krystal brings up Gary Shteyngart and his love of Zardoz (not the movie, oddly, but the novelisation thereof), but what he doesn’t mention is that Shteyngart’s last novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is science fiction. These days, I find, literary novelists are much more interested in plot and much less interested in plausibility, or in realism, than literary critics are.
There’s far more to the essay that what I’ve quoted above. Go read it. It’s well worth your time whether you’re a fan of literary fiction, genre fictions, or both.
- Krystal relies upon a number of other commonplaces of the topic: genre fiction is poorly written, it is superficial in its presentation of society and the human condition, etc. Grossman responds, “What he’s describing sounds more like shitty genre fiction. […]. God knows there’s plenty of bad writing in literary fiction, too, but Krystal never talks about that. The badness tends to be a different kind of badness — slow, earnest, lugubrious prose, or too-clever and self-conscious prose — but bad it nonetheless is. You wouldn’t want to judge literary fiction on the basis of its mediocrities. So why judge genre fiction that way?” [↩]
- He also touches upon my favorite rant: “And to say that such books ‘transcend’ the genres they’re in is bollocks, of the most bollocky kind. As soon as a novel becomes moving or important or great, critics try to surgically extract it from its genre, lest our carefully constructed hierarchies collapse in the presence of such a taxonomical anomaly.” [↩]
Miskatonic School for Girls is a deck building card game currently seeking development funding through Kickstarter. It looks quite cool:
They’re taking pledges through December 5, 11:21 am EST. A $45 pledge will get you a copy of the game with custom insert. (For those of you who don’t know how Kickstarter works, it’s a “funding platform for creative projects” that runs on an all-or-nothing system. People design projects and then present the concept at Kickstarter. If they reach their funding, pledges are collected and the project goes forward. For more information, check out their FAQ.
A thanks to Brendan Riley for making sure I knew about this.