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No matter how technologically advanced your future society might be, its sociology and economics are basically those of the seventeenth century
April 5, 2011 10:54 AM   Subscribe

How To Write A Generic SF Novel
posted by Artw (166 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
...and avoid paragraphs.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:55 AM on April 5, 2011 [16 favorites]


I haven't read a single SF novel that adheres to any one of these 908 conventions, and I've read far too many SF novels. Does anyone know which authors this person is actually mocking?
posted by IjonTichy at 11:00 AM on April 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Am reminded of Bruce Sterling on Stanislaw Lem
posted by fallingbadgers at 11:00 AM on April 5, 2011 [12 favorites]


And they never run out of fuel, power, breathable air, potable water, food, or reaction mass.

Yeah, I don't know how to put this, but we're going to have to let those colonists die because we just don't have the delta-v!
posted by fuq at 11:01 AM on April 5, 2011


... and make sure that your hero is the one person who will change the world, overthrow the bad government, and causes everything to be different than what it was - he cannot, under any circumstances, have anything like a normal life with normal consequences

this works for fantasy fiction too

short version - "so what are we going to do tonight, brain?"
posted by pyramid termite at 11:01 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This dude must really have a hate-on for Simon R. Green.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:02 AM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


And they never run out of fuel, power, breathable air, potable water, food, or reaction mass.

This is why I always found Tom Godwin's The Cold Equations so interesting and so unique.
posted by tommasz at 11:04 AM on April 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


Reminds me of Greg Costikyan's How to Make Big Bux Writing Elfy-Welfies. Costykan has 2/3s of a GFT completed, so he knows...
posted by Mad_Carew at 11:07 AM on April 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


yeah, I've read a lot of cheesy sf (McCaffrey can get that way) and fantasy (Lackey too, though I enjoy both) - but they are cheesy and predictable in completely different ways. More recently I've been reading Bujold who is clearly utterly perfect (Miles does have quips, though they usually go wrong), and Orson Scott Card's Alvin maker series, which is excellent.
posted by jb at 11:08 AM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dear blogger who wrote this post:

If you are reading these books, stop reading them. You have given ample reason.

If you are not reading these books, shut up. Why (and how) are you making fun of stuff you don't even read?

Dave
posted by grobstein at 11:08 AM on April 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


I do love the idea that future societies have the society and economy of the seventeenth century.

of course, in many ways, we today have the society and culture of the 17th century - financial bubbles and crashes, debates on social welfare, religious extremism and violence...

all we're missing are the petticoats and great hats.
posted by jb at 11:11 AM on April 5, 2011 [15 favorites]


Hee hee, nothing so bitter as a militant Hard SF groupie.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:11 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


oh, and serious problems with piracy in unstable parts of the world. And a winner takes all attitude towards development.
posted by jb at 11:12 AM on April 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


It strikes me that this, by far, is a guide to writing bad SF for the boob tube. SyFy has clearly adopted this manifesto for their line of grade-B films, and many of the more mainstream SF-ish tv shows adhere to many of these precepts.
posted by Blackanvil at 11:13 AM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Or you could write good science fiction.
posted by Splunge at 11:15 AM on April 5, 2011


jb, you might be missing great hats, but I have plenty, thank you.
posted by daq at 11:16 AM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dear blogger who wrote this post:

Paul McAuley is quite a good science fiction author. Maybe he has to read this stuff so he knows what not to do.
posted by dng at 11:16 AM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


He has been known to write stuff with big badass spaceships himself.
posted by Artw at 11:17 AM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Man, am I ever enjoying my revisit of Roadside Picnic.
posted by everichon at 11:17 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've read a lot of cheesy sf (McCaffrey can get that way)

And finally she realised, after so many years, that the true love of her life, the one who would keep her into old age and beyond, was the man who'd been there from the start. No longer a father figure, now; he was her lover. And together they would move the stars.

I fucking love Anne McCaffrey
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 11:18 AM on April 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


IjonTichy, if you're unfamiliar with these tropes you've obviously been reading the right science fiction.
posted by cstross at 11:19 AM on April 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Grobstein and Slap *Happy, the author is a well-respected SF writer, not just a fan.
posted by Infinite Jest at 11:20 AM on April 5, 2011


> all we're missing are the petticoats and great hats.

Here we go with the steampunk again.
posted by ardgedee at 11:21 AM on April 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


grobstein: Obviously you missed the fact that the blogger in question is none other than the wonderfully sardonic Paul McAuley, one of the best British SF writers of the past 30 years (and just about unknown in North America as far as I can tell).
posted by cstross at 11:21 AM on April 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


it's true that one of the finest SF tv shows ever made does have a quipping hero who is the only possible person who can save the world (again) and who rarely shows (human) emotion and is often accompanied by a kick-ass woman whom he never marries, and the writers are very handwavy about the technology and timey-wimey stuff.
posted by jb at 11:22 AM on April 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


IjonTichy, if you're unfamiliar with these tropes you've obviously been reading the right science fiction.

I guess that would go with the name.
posted by Artw at 11:23 AM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


True, jb, but I don't think viewers are supposed to identify with the Doctor, whereas the point of Space Muscle Zero-G Sex and Guns Guy is that he's a stand-in for the awesome dude the reader/writer would totally be if they weren't born in this crappy century.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 11:25 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


> And they never run out of fuel, power, breathable air, potable water, food, or reaction mass.

that's been a solved technical problem for a good long time. Did cowboy six-shooters ever run out of bullets?
posted by jfuller at 11:26 AM on April 5, 2011


NuWho has the odd spot that's a bit badly thought out (especially in the RTD days) and lets face it, huge chunks of it are based on handwaving) but i don't think you could ever accuse it of just recycling SciFi tropes in an unexamined manner.
posted by Artw at 11:34 AM on April 5, 2011


Cstross, why is that? I've read him in some anthologies, but it does seem hard to find his work in the US. His work was like a breath of fresh air for me at a time when I was ready to abandon SF for a while. Not that there aren't great SF authors still, but it's an issue of signal to noise.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:35 AM on April 5, 2011


Does anyone know which authors this person is actually mocking?

David Brooks, apparently.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:36 AM on April 5, 2011


Are we counting Banks as established in the US now? That took an ungodly amount of time to happen.
posted by Artw at 11:36 AM on April 5, 2011


Traditionally, SF heroes solved problems by application of intelligence and scientific knowledge. These days, you can substitute lasers or AK-47s for scientific knowledge.

Unfortunately, this one has some truth to it. I've come across too much SF with 'badass' main characters who are basically juvenile fantasy wish fulfillment.
posted by anaximander at 11:37 AM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


jb, you might be missing great hats, but I have plenty, thank you

And indeed, hats are back [NY Times].
posted by Jahaza at 11:37 AM on April 5, 2011


grobstein: Obviously you missed the fact that the blogger in question is none other than the wonderfully sardonic Paul McAuley, one of the best British SF writers of the past 30 years (and just about unknown in North America as far as I can tell).

You're right, I don't know the guy. (Can you recommend an entry-point into his work?)

But my advice does not change. Beating up on bad stuff is bad for the soul. Read (write) good stuff instead.
posted by grobstein at 11:38 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


and just about unknown in North America as far as I can tell

Not by the people who matter, sirrah! (waves hand limply).
posted by Justinian at 11:40 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


How to write a generic SF complaint

No matter how many counterexamples and masterpieces there are, the genre is still typified by its worst, pulpiest exemplars. Go ahead and slam books that sell at airports and macho adventure stories for the semiliterate as though they were part of the same endeavor as Samuel Delany. Polemics about science fiction not having enough science in it totally didn't get old in the 1940s and '50s; you should repeat that charge a lot, because the point of science fiction is really to get people uncritically excited about science and technology, not to ask people to question, explore, philosophize, extrapolate, or speculate about social consequences. Betray no awareness that the reuse of topoi like "spaceport bars" can be a self-conscious and/or ironic gesture of genre membership. Most importantly, insist on lots of One True Genre Definitions to get people fired up: there's nothing that SF readers love more than complaining about SF, so you'll actually do better complaining than producing fiction that exemplifies your vision of what the genre should be.

I actually really liked the McAuley piece but this was too easy to pass up
posted by RogerB at 11:40 AM on April 5, 2011 [31 favorites]


Traditionally, SF heroes solved problems by application of intelligence and scientific knowledge. These days, you can substitute lasers or AK-47s for scientific knowledge.

Unfortunately, this one has some truth to it. I've come across too much SF with 'badass' main characters who are basically juvenile fantasy wish fulfillment.
Have you read Glory Road. (Or, if you want to claim Glory Road is fantasy, not sci fi, we can susbtitute any of a dozen other Heinlein novels.)
posted by Jahaza at 11:41 AM on April 5, 2011


How to write a generic SF complaint

Like!
posted by grobstein at 11:42 AM on April 5, 2011


Man, am I ever enjoying my revisit of Roadside Picnic.
posted by everichon at 2:17 PM on April 5


Yeah, it's great. I'm doing the full-on STALKER assault. Read RP, watched the Tarkovsky movie twice, playing through the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. About all that's left is writing fanfic and waiting for S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2. Fun stuff.
posted by BeerFilter at 11:43 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


And indeed, hats are back [NY Times].

Are those... robots?
posted by Artw at 11:43 AM on April 5, 2011


This isn't scathing criticism. This is affectionate ribbing.

Like when you make jokes about how bad your dad's jokes are, or how predictable your brother's snacking habits.

Part of loving science fiction is appreciating how silly it can sometimes be.
posted by crackingdes at 12:00 PM on April 5, 2011 [12 favorites]


I have literally never read a science fiction book like this. And I am a big fan of science fiction. I read a lot of it.

I guess what I'm saying is, where can I find this book? It sounds like just what I'm going to need after my harrowing four-book Peter Watts binge, Jesus Christ.
posted by pts at 12:01 PM on April 5, 2011


Oh also I could go the whole rest of my life without bullshit strawmen arguments.
posted by pts at 12:01 PM on April 5, 2011


those hats are neither stern nor fabulous enough. I want extreme hats! Also for women too.
posted by jb at 12:03 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I guess what I'm saying is, where can I find this book?

Two words: Honor Harrington.
posted by Justinian at 12:03 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh also I could go the whole rest of my life without bullshit strawmen arguments.

Why do you hate farmers, men, and fertilizer?!
posted by kmz at 12:04 PM on April 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


Not a bad list, except for the part where he mistakenly types "SF novel" where he clearly means "TV and movie space opera". Seriously, I can't remember the last time I read something that fit those tropes that closely, unless it was either a) a franchise tie-in novel or b) erotica. Also, TVTropes. Also also, I can't favorite RogerB's comment often or hard enough. Also also also, cstross' recommendation is good enough for me to at least try this guy's stuff. (Any recco for what to start with?)
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:06 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree with the general idea that McAuley is attacking a strawman, though. Even Harrington only mostly fits and that's about as close as I can come. I mean she's a woman which is sort of contrary to his whole point... but the other stuff fits well. But other than that? I dunno.

My own nominee for "generic SF" is latter day Jack McDevitt. Talk about your pablum. Which is very sad because the first 98% of A Talent for War is brilliant work. Truly wonderful. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio Jack McDevitt?
posted by Justinian at 12:07 PM on April 5, 2011


Everyone acts their part, and is in character all the time.

This is either badly phrased, or actually doesn't make any sense.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 12:10 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Any recco for what to start with?

The Quiet War is a decent way to go. I'm not quite as enamored of McAuley as Charlie is but I recognize that may be a personal taste thing. I prefer, oh, Alastair Reynolds for someone with a similar scope.
posted by Justinian at 12:10 PM on April 5, 2011


This is either badly phrased, or actually doesn't make any sense.

I took that phrase to mean that the SF being described is bereft of believable characters, containing authorial mouthpieces spread over a multitude of parts instead.

But I agree that it's not entirely clear.
posted by pharm at 12:17 PM on April 5, 2011


It seemed to me like he was mocking Mar L Van Name's "Jon and Lobo" novels, like One Jump Ahead. I think I read all three of the books and they all fit this outline to a t.
posted by GuyZero at 12:17 PM on April 5, 2011


Sorry, Mark L Van Name.
posted by GuyZero at 12:18 PM on April 5, 2011


This was sorta how my last NaNoWriMo novel went, but who cares? I had fun. but nobody can ever read it because it's terribad.
posted by hellojed at 12:18 PM on April 5, 2011


The point isn't for this generic sci fi to match every novel - it is to match the uber-novel.
posted by muddgirl at 12:22 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Can we make fun of Kevin J Anderson vis a vis this? I don't even care if it fits. I just want to make fun of Kevin J Anderson. (And then cry when I think about how popular he still is.)
posted by kmz at 12:23 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


The ur-novel?
posted by grobstein at 12:23 PM on April 5, 2011


The ur-novel?

That would be Gilgamesh.
posted by kmz at 12:25 PM on April 5, 2011 [12 favorites]


I'm surprised so few people seem to be aware of Mr McAuley. He may not be the genre's brightest star, but his books make good reading; he's certainly up there in any decent top ten of recent British SF writers. I'd agree that you might as well start with The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, then maybe go back to Fairyland or some of the others. I didn't really enjoy Cowboy Angels, but others might.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:31 PM on April 5, 2011


Gilgamesh? I would have said Snow Crash.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:32 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is like a missile aimed at L. E. Modesitt, whose later novels are something of a blur to me. There's just a genericness to them, like I am in some failed RPG with rayguns and Venusians. The RPG was written in the fifties but someone found that it fell out of copyright due to some loophole and, in the nineties, updated a few tables with some new technological paradigms, then released the whole thing as a PDF.

My friend downloaded it and is the DM, but he could only find me to play with. He's used to setting up mooks for the slaughter but has been reading some Ayn Rand lately and just wants to set the whole thing up as ubermench triumphs over the forces of crusty old collaboration. Towards the campaign wrapup, I'm just looking for it to be over and have eaten so many nachos I am feeling a little sick but Todd insists on playing it to the bitter end and he is pretty sure he can get this finished by 3 a.m., positive.
posted by adipocere at 12:32 PM on April 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


If you use all of these by the numbers without thinking about them, then yeah, you're likely to write poop. But cliches are cliches because they work. Use a few of them straight, take a few and turn them inside out. Be aware of them as you work because they are part of what you build a foundation on.

I mean, I read this list and I felt like at least half of it applies to Delaney's wonderful little book Babel-17.
posted by egypturnash at 12:33 PM on April 5, 2011


I guess what I'm saying is, where can I find this book?
Like robocop is bleeding said, everything Simon R. Green has pretty much ever written and, bonus American version, Jim Butcher. Don't get me wrong, I love them both but they fit oh so nicely into this summary, which I thought was hilarious and on target. Elizabeth Moon is another one and oh, the list drags on. Granted, they aren't really strict SF per se in the usual definition of the term - I guess the Deathstalker books are - but they stock them in the SF/Fantasy section of large chain bookstores so that will have to do.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:35 PM on April 5, 2011


Ha! Here's the real Generic Science Fiction Novel, from back in the days when generic was a sort-of 'brand' (see also Repoman):
Complete with everthing: aliens, giant ants, space cadets, robots, and one plucky girl.
Reviewed (along with the rest of Generic Entertainment's No-Frill genre novels) by the New York Times.

A bit of background.
posted by Herodios at 12:39 PM on April 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


I haven't read bad SF in a long time, although I've certainly read flawed or not-particularly-ambitious stuff (I just finished Altered Carbon, which is a rollicking good bit of neo-hardboiled.) So my current bad science fiction fix comes primarily through first-person shooters and wow, are they bad. So. Here's how you do it.

Start with an extremely (and often improbably) strong protagonist. He (and it's almost always a he) will solve every problem with guns, parkour, or improvised weapons that look exactly like guns. And he will have to, because he's the last hope of humankind, the only person who has any agency left. Everyone he meets will either unreasoningly admire him or completely hate him. If they are a love interest or friend, they might politely rib him a bit.

Character development will basically go from gritty to grittier, as the protagonist will be a completely blank slate who is nonetheless presumably deeply affected by having to slaughter hundreds of living things, even if they're just monsters (which they will be--more on that later.) He will express this by putting his hand on his face, having hallucinations, or having another character look at him and say "Man, you look like hell."

Next, you need an antagonist. You know how they say there are four types of conflict: Man versus society, man versus nature, man versus self, and man versus man? Forget those first three. You are going to be fighting a sentient being who is also completely evil. Aliens, rich people, government agents, and rogue AIs are perennial favorites. They will have three purposes. The first is to somehow create huge numbers of uniformly murderous monsters that will destroy everyone but the protagonist. The second is to be the final boss by somehow making themselves super-strong or fast in a way that can nonetheless be defeated by small arms, whether they're a Lovecraftian horror from another dimension or an evil CEO. The third is to give slick, clever speeches displaying their completely turned-around morality (or lack thereof.) These speeches will easily be the best part of the game.

Lastly, you need a setting. Pick your favorite movie: Blade Runner? Mad Max? The Rocketeer? Okay, now turn it into a beautiful, vibrant futuristic city or spaceship. Then destroy it. Seriously, tear half the thing down, make it look like a few rockets hit it, and kill everyone in it. Turn everyone else into a hostile monster. A huge disaster must have always happened right before your protagonist hits the ground. This will solve the dual purpose of making your level design easier and giving your protagonist license to shoot everything that's moving and steal everything that's not. As an added bonus, you can put in death tableaus that will be invariably described as "moving" and "apocalyptic."

You may wish to put in non-hostile NPCs. If so, please choose up to two of the following:

-world-weary military or police buddy
-crazy hermit
-wisecracking action girl
-friendly but suspicious pragmatist who will ultimately turn traitor
-voice on the headset
-nerdy superhacker-cum-deus ex machina (need that door opened? well, looky here!)
-wacky robot buddy
-dead wife or girlfriend

You may also put in random non-hostile inhabitants, who will all display a single, simplistic reaction to the protagonist.

The last thing you need is a theme. "War is Hell" and "Technology threatens our Humanity" are always good, but far and away the best thing to do is to somehow point out that the character is "on rails." Get it? Because it's just like a video game! Just throw in some sequence that takes control away from the player, have the villain make a speech about your powerlessness, and you've got the making of a half-dozen undergraduate theses. It's also best to put in a few betrayals before then. And there you have it--your next sci-fi FPS plot!

(The funny thing is I genuinely love these games--I'm eagerly awaiting the next Deus Ex, even.)
posted by Tubalcain at 12:42 PM on April 5, 2011 [19 favorites]


Start with an extremely (and often improbably) strong protagonist. He (and it's almost always a he) will solve every problem with guns, parkour, or improvised weapons that look exactly like guns. And he will have to, because he's the last hope of humankind, the only person who has any agency left. Everyone he meets will either unreasoningly admire him or completely hate him.

This is the basic setup of Crysis 2, which I'm playing now (and which t'other half has just finished). Funnily enough, it has a book tie-in with Genuinely Good SF Author Peter Watts*, which you can read a bit of here. He's also done four blog posts where he talks about the super-suit worn by the main character, inherited from the first game, and the SFy excuses for its various powers: one, two, three, four.

*Warning! His blog contains graphic photos of his leg after it was attacked by a horrible flesh-eating space disease that nearly killed him!

At least it's vaguely believable that Peter Watts would write a Crysis book. I'm still convinced that the Predator novel written by Jeff Vandermeer is the product of a mushroom-induced fever dream that somehow entered the real world.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 12:56 PM on April 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


The quip in the first comment by Adam Roberts (whose own mostly-excellent list of SF novels -- I don't much care for the parodies, but I like the regular sf ones -- is highly original and rarely derivative) is priceless. (I picked up a used copy of his novel Snow last week and am enjoying it quite a bit, and I have Yellow Blue Tibia on the To Read shelf.)

To those who don't know what McAuley is talking about, be happy -- you must be staying out of big box bookstores whose sci-fi/fantasy shelves seem mostly to be filled with books churned out rapidly for people wanting novels largely indistinguishable from sci-fi TV shows. The vast majority of times I go into a B&N or Borders, I leave without finding anything in the sf section I consider worth reading. Yes, I'm particular about my sf. I mean, there's a huge amount of great writing happening in the genre -- but relatively little of it can be found on the shelves of big-box stores. (This is true for contemporary poetry as well.)

But cliches are cliches because they work.

Ugh. This is the sort of comment that makes me glad I got out of teaching creative writing (I used to hear it from students stridently defending their own precious cliches). I'll just say, a cliche is not the same thing as a trope.

I mean, I read this list and I felt like at least half of it applies to Delaney's wonderful little book Babel-17.

It's DELANY. And before you go too hard on Babel-17, it was written in 1966 when the author was in his early 20s and the genre was significantly less sophisticated; for its time it was ground-breaking.
posted by aught at 12:58 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


HE STOLE MY NOVEL!!!!1111!!!!
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:02 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'll just say, a cliche is not the same thing as a trope.

And histeron proteron is not the same as syncecdoche. What's your point?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:05 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is like a missile aimed at L. E. Modesitt

Oh man, Modesitt. I read a few of his fantasy novels in my teens. Once a book, the protagonist would wander away the plot and spend a few hundred pages practicing some meticulously researched late-medieval craft - weaving, cabinetry, that kind of thing. Imagine a separate volume of The Lord of the Rings about nothing more than Frodo working as a barback at the Prancing Pony.
posted by Iridic at 1:06 PM on April 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Doesn't remind me of a single scifi book I've ever read. If there really are books like this then I appear to have been magically protected from reading them.

Maybe by my comedy robot sidekick.
posted by seanyboy at 1:07 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


ArmyOfKittens

Ha! I had no idea Vandermeer (who is incidentally one of my favorite authors) had written tie-in novels. Maybe I'll read it and the Predator will turn out to be a Gray Cap or something...

Peter Watts wrote me a bit about Crysis 2, and one of his best points was about how his book was all about rehabilitating the tropes that worked in video games but made no sense in real life, like how an alien race a thousand years ahead of us was still fighting in the streets with guns. It's one of the big problems with making an FPS: Way more so than SF novels, you're sort of married to certain gameplay conventions, and there are other things you just can't do. I've worked with a couple of indie teams as a writer (none of the games saw release), and it's really freaking hard to go from complete narrative freedom to not being able to put another character in because you it would take too much time to model them.

(But that's not going to stop me from poking fun at the Crysis 2 trailer. Not. One. Bit.)
posted by Tubalcain at 1:12 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm no big fan of SF but that seemed remarkably scatter-shot.
posted by Decani at 1:18 PM on April 5, 2011


Ha! I had no idea Vandermeer (who is incidentally one of my favorite authors) had written tie-in novels.

Apparently when he got the cover art back and saw it was a picture of a Predator wrestling with a snake, he went back and wrote a scene in which a Predator wrestles with a snake.

I keep meaning to kindle that thing. Finch could have used a scene in which the protagonist wrestles with a snake.

I'm looking forward to reading Peter Watt's Crysis book; it's on the end of a list that just keeps getting longer, so hopefully by the time I've stopped watching My Little Pony instead of reading and actually gotten round to picking it up I'll have forgotten the plot of the game.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 1:18 PM on April 5, 2011


Wait, didn't we just have another Cory Doctorow post three days ago?
posted by orthogonality at 1:32 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Hee hee, nothing so bitter as a militant Hard SF groupie."

They prefer to be called groupers.
posted by Eideteker at 1:43 PM on April 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


Hasn't space-opera been replaced by the man who confronts his demons through cyberspace/dreams/quantum-body-jumps this cycle?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:51 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Space opera is back, man! Get with the program!
posted by Justinian at 2:01 PM on April 5, 2011


Space opera is back, man! Get with the program!

Well, it was back, but now the de-fringing of Steampunk is where all the cool kids hangout. It made it past the backlash and into accepted subgenre, where everyone is sort of rolling their eyes at Ian M. Banks latest clever shipname and thinly disguised British Aristo-as-Evil (but fun!) Alien trope.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:08 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess what I'm saying is, where can I find this book? It sounds like just what I'm going to need... posted by pts at 3:01 PM on April 5

The "James Bond-style" protagonist put me in mind of Poul Andersson's Flandry books. Which are actually a lot of fun (before the later ones turn darker and not-so-much-"fun", I guess); but, yeah, the Flandry stories do seem to check off most of McAuley's boxes.)
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 2:18 PM on April 5, 2011


Guys, I was thinking this; I would think it would be adorable to read a novel set in the present day where the technology and social institutions we take for granted was described in the sort of amazed detail that characterize in sci-fi.

Jacob's skin stuck to the seats of his car in the august heat, a substance known as vinyl, a synthetic petro-hide pebbled to evoke the grain of animal hides. He turned up the AC, a freon based contraption that used a combustion generator to power a heat engine to bring down the temperature the glass and steel greenhouse that he and Debra hurtled down the interstate inside. "Hot enough for you?" said Jacob macholy.
posted by I Foody at 2:27 PM on April 5, 2011 [23 favorites]


I would think it would be adorable to read a novel set in the present day where the technology and social institutions we take for granted was described in the sort of amazed detail that characterize in sci-fi.

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon.
posted by Justinian at 2:30 PM on April 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


Jacob's skin stuck to the seats of his car in the august heat, a substance known as vinyl, a synthetic petro-hide pebbled to evoke the grain of animal hides. He turned up the AC, a freon based contraption that used a combustion generator to power a heat engine to bring down the temperature the glass and steel greenhouse that he and Debra hurtled down the interstate inside. "Hot enough for you?" said Jacob macholy.

"Case's ass interfaced with the waste-processing network through the porcelain terminal."
posted by acb at 2:49 PM on April 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


Are we counting Banks as established in the US now? That took an ungodly amount of time to happen.

Except the last Culture novel was kind of terrible... so maybe he should have stayed away... correlation... causation.... I mean when 'Deus Ex Machina' is not just a plot device but your whole plot and raison d'etre how could it otherwise?
posted by ennui.bz at 2:57 PM on April 5, 2011


Actually, I was just thinking that space operas have been replaced by Dystopian survival manifestos/futurism, but then again, I often mentally mix the genres (and subgenres) of cyberpunk, sci-fi and fantasy into the same batch - with an occasional dash of horror/graphic novels.

In a world where zombie romance is a legit (albeit temporary) subgenre and V is an allegory for the (Mormon?) view of Christianity, IS there such a thing as pure science fiction anymore?
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:01 PM on April 5, 2011


@Unicorn on the cob: How is V a Mormon allegory??
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 3:06 PM on April 5, 2011


Except the last Culture novel was kind of terrible...

Huh. I thought the last Culture novel was Banks' strongest novel in quite a long time, M or no M. Different strokes, I guess.
posted by Justinian at 3:07 PM on April 5, 2011


Every piece of fiction is genre fiction of a kind. You could easily write this kind of scathing tick-list for the heavy high brow literary novels which are praised at length in Sunday book supplements, have less real content than a below average episode of the Teletubbies, and are forgotten just as quickly as any Bad Day on Betelgeuse adventure.
posted by joannemullen at 3:10 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


How is V a Mormon allegory??

As far as I am aware it is not. Well, it's definitely not an allegory and as far as I am aware it isn't deliberately playing with Mormon symbolism either. Some folks have tried to read it as a commentary on Obama but that's about it.
posted by Justinian at 3:10 PM on April 5, 2011


MidSouthern Mouth: you're right, I was thinking of Battlestar Galactica.

Then again, all that BS about separating the human soul from the body being the key to controlling mankind, and how the soul is the strongest weapon we have... well...

*cough* I'll take "still referencing Christianity" for 200, Alex.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:12 PM on April 5, 2011


Huh. I thought the last Culture novel was Banks' strongest novel in quite a long time, M or no M. Different strokes, I guess.

the whole 'quietus' thing was unbelievably hokey. 'hell' started off interesting but then he pulled his punches: he seems to have become disturbingly sentimental about his characters. and then the 'plot twist'/reveal at the end of pointlessly self-referential. the whole thing reeked of pastiche of different things he had lying around. i mean it is genre fiction and everyone needs a paycheck sometimes but still...
posted by ennui.bz at 3:13 PM on April 5, 2011


More recently I've been reading Bujold who is clearly utterly perfect

You may not know it yet jb, but you and I are best friends.
posted by JARED!!! at 3:15 PM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


You could easily write this kind of scathing tick-list

Your definition of scathing is a lot different from mine.
posted by muddgirl at 3:15 PM on April 5, 2011


'hell' started off interesting but then he pulled his punches

I liked the hell he depicted and saw it as a continuation of a theme he's explored before, with Luseferous: that utterly banal, unimaginative and comical tyrants are still terrifying to the people who have to live under them. But then I loved Surface Detail in general: I know it's not as interesting a book as, say, Use of Weapons, but it was pacey and fun, the characters made me laugh, and I genuinely didn't want it to end. Pulp Culture.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 3:19 PM on April 5, 2011


ArmyOfKittens - I don't know if I identify with the Doctor or not...

all I do know is that if some weird guy shows up with a 1960s British Police Box and asks me if I want to go travelling through time and space, I'm not even taking time to pack.
posted by jb at 3:20 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


and then the 'plot twist'/reveal at the end of pointlessly self-referential

I guess it's fair to call it a reveal (though not a plot twist since an attentive reader should know what is going on by that point) but pointless? It changes the entire character of the novel!
posted by Justinian at 3:21 PM on April 5, 2011


I think Richard Morgans novels fall into a lot of those tropes...
posted by ts;dr at 3:24 PM on April 5, 2011


re: Banks/Surface Detail

oh god, i had blocked it out. I forgot about the whole genetically-engineered-sex-slave sub-plot... now there's a TVtrope for you. I mean the three main female characters were: a sex-slave, an alien-elephant nun, and a Culture superspy who's had her sex organs magisurgically removed. how's that gender-postive future holding up?
posted by ennui.bz at 3:26 PM on April 5, 2011


I Foody: "Guys, I was thinking this; I would think it would be adorable to read a novel set in the present day where the technology and social institutions we take for granted was described in the sort of amazed detail that characterize in sci-fi."

If all stories were written like science fiction stories
“Do you think we’ll be flying on a propeller plane? Or one of the newer jets?” asked Ann.

“I’m sure it will be a jet,” said Roger. “Propeller planes are almost entirely out of date, after all. On the other hand, rocket engines are still experimental. It’s said that when they’re in general use, trips like this will take an hour at most. This one will take up to four hours.”

After a short wait, they were ushered onto the plane with the other passengers. The plane was an enormous steel cylinder at least a hundred meters long, with sleek backswept wings on which four jet engines were mounted. They glanced into the front cabin and saw the two pilots, consulting a bank of equipment needed the fly the plane. Roger was glad that he did not need to fly the plane himself; it was a difficult profession which required years of training.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:30 PM on April 5, 2011 [13 favorites]


V is clearly an allegory/warning against the potential for fascism to raise its ugly head again, especially in the harsh and confrontational political atmosphere of Thatcher's Britain...

oh, I just realised we're talking about that alien tv show, and not V for Vendetta. Gotta remember that there are other V's.

Jacob's skin stuck to the seats of his car in the august heat, a substance known as vinyl, a synthetic petro-hide pebbled to evoke the grain of animal hides. He turned up the AC, a freon based contraption that used a combustion generator to power a heat engine to bring down the temperature the glass and steel greenhouse that he and Debra hurtled down the interstate inside. "Hot enough for you?" said Jacob macholy.
posted by I Foody at 5:27 PM on April 5


and that would be exhibit A for why I don't read much space opera - or even much modern-set pulp fiction. Weirdly, historical pulp fiction tends to be less laden with extraneous description, probably because they don't know all the details.

But there is a kind of thick description that doesn't seem to fall into problems like this, but is instead rich and earthy, and really helps to ground a story. A great example of this is in the beginning of Card's Seventh Son, when Little Peggy is collecting eggs, and later when she's in the spring house. I think it's because the description is a) not overdone, and b) about senses rather than technology. The best description immerses us in an environment and makes it feel as real as possible - and part of that reality is being somewhat matter-of-fact about the environment, even as you give enough sensory detail to help the reader construct it.
posted by jb at 3:30 PM on April 5, 2011


I mean the three main female characters were: a sex-slave, an alien-elephant nun, and a Culture superspy who's had her sex organs magisurgically removed. how's that gender-postive future holding up?

You forgot the woman who was basically joyriding inside a surgical strike spacecraft, and the woman who was a Culture ambassador, and that set against all those characters there's only two male protagonists. And "nun" massively simplifies and pretty much inverts that particular character's role.

Also, what's wrong with having your sex organs removed, and how is it not "gender positive"? I've done it, for example. I'm not trying to come off fighty -- although you hit a sore spot with that last bit -- and I'm not saying it's the best book he's ever written, but your reading contrasts so completely with mine that I'm a bit boggled.

an alien-elephant nun

Since my other half put it in my head, I can't get it out; I see that entire race basically like this.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 3:40 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


If we are using V as an example of anything we are basically fucked.
posted by Artw at 3:42 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd been meaning to make a post about Peter Watts' Crysis novel for ages. Need to read VanDerMeer's Predator.
For some reason I mostly read 70's New Wave scifi. It's weird and druggy.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:45 PM on April 5, 2011


I guess what I'm saying is, where can I find this book?

Well, anything written by Mike Resnick would be a start. The man writes like a Ron Goulart who takes himself seriously.
posted by happyroach at 3:50 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, the problem is basically that some people describe stories in the future like Ayn Rand describes stories in the present?

It's a noble enough cause.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:50 PM on April 5, 2011


I'd been meaning to make a post about Peter Watts' Crysis novel for ages. Need to read VanDerMeer's Predator.
For some reason I mostly read 70's New Wave scifi. It's weird and druggy and everyone has elaborate outfits and too much sex. I prefer my iPhone to most scifi gadgets anyway.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:51 PM on April 5, 2011


It's not my fave M-Banks by a long shot, but there's a lot of bits to Surface Detail that i loved, not least one particular horrendous head-desking fan service reveal at the end.
posted by Artw at 3:51 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Surface Detail was, I think, a welcome return to form after Transitions (plot went to hell towards the end), Matter (tedious, space monsters or no space monsters) and The Steep Approach to Garbadale (Iain "no-M" Banks recycles some of his less happy-fun tropes, like the sibling incest thing and the family-with-ill-gotten-loot thing and the games thing).

Paul McAuley is, however, almost invariably good, if a bit cold and distant (in much the same mode as Al Reynolds). If he doesn't reach the heights of Banks at his best, neither does he plumb the depths of Banks at his worst.

Full disclosure: I've known both of 'em for around 20 years -- all part of the 1980s-90s Interzone thing.
posted by cstross at 4:00 PM on April 5, 2011


You forgot the woman who was basically joyriding inside a surgical strike spacecraft, and the woman who was a Culture ambassador, and that set against all those characters there's only two male protagonists. And "nun" massively simplifies and pretty much inverts that particular character's role.

Also, what's wrong with having your sex organs removed, and how is it not "gender positive"? I've done it, for example. I'm not trying to come off fighty -- although you hit a sore spot with that last bit -- and I'm not saying it's the best book he's ever written, but your reading contrasts so completely with mine that I'm a bit boggled.


Writing a SF novel that features a female sex-robot/slave is setting a incredibly high bar for non-suckitude on several levels such that i'd just as soon not see it tried. Making that sex-robot-slave out for revenge is just a way to have your cake and not feel bad about it as far as I'm concerned.

I'm not sure I'm ready for a full-on gender critique of Surface Detail... nothing wrong with being an elephant-nun or having your sex organs removed for fun or whatever. It all just adds up for me at least (and as I white man I don't have a lot of skin in the game to start with.) Then you can add in the way the 'bad boy' war-like culture ship very much associated 'war' with being male... another not well examined gender stereotype... and why the hell does a super-intelligent AI have to have any gender at all? basically all these things made me lose interest. I guess I don't really care too much about it being gender positive, it's just there's an ocean of room for writing sexually actualized female characters in SF.. who aren't sex-slaves.

also, I can't tell whether the teenage IM-style chat logs between the Culture ships are hilariously stupid or just stupid.

not least one particular horrendous head-desking fan service reveal at the end.

I guess I'm not such a huge fan of 'Use of Weapons.' Actually, the only Culture novel I wholeheartedly approve of is 'Consider Phlebas,' that probably says something about my critical attack...
posted by ennui.bz at 4:02 PM on April 5, 2011


NB: Al Reynolds used to be a working space scientist (working for ESA). Paul McAuley used to be a working marine biologist. As actual working scientists they're certainly qualified to write science fiction. Steve Baxter taught maths and physics and is a chartered engineer. There is something historically odd about the most prominent British SF writers being more qualified in the sciences than their American opposite numbers (a complete inversion of the picture that pertained in the 1950s-60s, if I'm not over-generalizing).
posted by cstross at 4:07 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Writing a SF novel that features a female sex-robot/slave is setting a incredibly high bar for non-suckitude on several levels such that i'd just as soon not see it tried.

Wait, when did we start talking about Saturns Children?
posted by Artw at 4:07 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Steep Approach to Garbadale

You know, I liked The Crow Road a lot so I'm happy with him rewriting it multiple times, but lets face it, the original is always the best.
posted by Artw at 4:11 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


it's just there's an ocean of room for writing sexually actualized female characters in SF.. who aren't sex-slaves

Aye, and you can find many examples of same in his other books.

An iPod probably isn't the best place from which to talk in detail about this - but I'm not ignoring you; I'm just out of time tonight. I'm up for a memail continuation if you are, though.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 4:15 PM on April 5, 2011


It does seem a little odd to criticize Surface Details on that level. The primary non-female characters are, after all, a possibly sadistic and probably psychotic ex-warship and a self-loathing and probably psychotic ex-soldier. So it isn't as if the male, male identifying, or non gendered characters aren't fucked up. It's Banks. There's misanthropy enough to go around.
posted by Justinian at 5:02 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The only answer is to switch off between Dune and Neal Stephenson novels forever.
posted by EatTheWeak at 5:23 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


a possibly sadistic and probably psychotic ex-warship and a self-loathing and probably psychotic ex-soldier

So the women are former sex robots and the men are former instruments of war? Haven't read the book but that's not exactly transgressive on the surface of it.
posted by muddgirl at 5:23 PM on April 5, 2011


So the women are former sex robots and the men are former instruments of war?

No. None of the women are former sex robots and not all the the men are former instruments of war.

But the elephant nun is a dedicated political activist and an angel of death.

This conversation is a little silly, tbh.
posted by Artw at 5:33 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think that science fiction has a tough enough time keeping up with the future to have an inferiority complex about things like viewing "nanotechnology as magic" or focusing on the spaceship running out of air or fuel. Is it so bad to want to skip over crappy chapters on refueling the mass reactors or filling up the oxygen tanks?

And Ian Banks? Come on, he's just a regular guy trying to make a buck. People like to rip on him for being good at what he does (Culture novels), but he really did come up with an interesting universe to exploit in serialized novels. Give the dude some credit.
posted by thebestusernameever at 6:01 PM on April 5, 2011



I think that science fiction has a tough enough time keeping up with the future to have an inferiority complex about things like viewing "nanotechnology as magic" or focusing on the spaceship running out of air or fuel. Is it so bad to want to skip over crappy chapters on refueling the mass reactors or filling up the oxygen tanks?


Exactly. But i'm a sci-fi reader who is utterly scientifically ignorant. I like reading about how science changes culture. The Sameul Daleny novel i'm reading now (Triton) has easy sex change surgery. It's alot closer to happening than the intersteller travel that was more common then.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:15 PM on April 5, 2011


This reminds me of A. Bertram Chandler's John Grimes novels. They are very formulaic, but are really, really fun.
posted by broken wheelchair at 6:38 PM on April 5, 2011


When I started reading the post my mind went to JRPGs. Cloud Strife just might be my science fiction hero. Mostly.

Now that I'm headed towards the end of Consider Phlebas, I'm not going to feel so obligated to read every inch of the series. Thanks.
posted by dragonplayer at 6:39 PM on April 5, 2011


So I'm not the only person for whom David Brooks's Harold and Erica remind me of Frederik Pohl's "Day Million."
posted by bad grammar at 6:42 PM on April 5, 2011


Consider Phlebas easily the worst of the Culture books, FTW. It's got some amazing moments, the stark ending for one thing, but drags horribly in the middle and is a bit all over the place.
posted by Artw at 6:44 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have to read (or at least skim) YA fiction for a living. In YA fiction I've found steampunk turning (distressingly) into something more like The Boy's Own Paper with anachronistic technology.
posted by bad grammar at 6:54 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think that science fiction has a tough enough time keeping up with the future to have an inferiority complex about things like viewing "nanotechnology as magic" or focusing on the spaceship running out of air or fuel. Is it so bad to want to skip over crappy chapters on refueling the mass reactors or filling up the oxygen tanks?

These things are an insane improbability at best and most likely an absolute impossibility. Best to just handwave them away as a magic plot device and get to imagining what a space battle done at impossible fractions of the speed of light might look like over the course of a century.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:55 PM on April 5, 2011


@bad grammar: Are you saying that YA steampunk is becoming religious & moralizing? Well, that just sucks. I never read YA fiction, but kids shouldn't have to put up w/ crap.
posted by broken wheelchair at 7:12 PM on April 5, 2011


I would think it would be adorable to read a novel set in the present day where the technology and social institutions we take for granted was described in the sort of amazed detail that characterize in sci-fi.

25 years ago William Gibson was writing stories set 25 years in the future, and now he is writing stories set in the present, kinda...
posted by ovvl at 7:47 PM on April 5, 2011


Also applies to everything by Ayn Rand.
posted by ...possums at 8:12 PM on April 5, 2011


I would think it would be adorable to read a novel set in the present day where the technology and social institutions we take for granted was described in the sort of amazed detail that characterize in sci-fi.

I think we NEED this to combat the tide of Ludditism that's starting to envelope the world. I was taken on a tour of the Lucas Heights reactor with some fellow writers and I felt like all my sci-fi dreams were coming true. They just got angry. I flew in a plane for the first time recently, and though it's routine a reminder that 'yes, man can FLY' would be great. Reading sci-fi that doesn't have the Internet or mobile phones helps remind me how awesome they are.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:56 PM on April 5, 2011


Modesitt I could not read after I picked one up in a desperate attempt to avoid writing a seminar paper and on the fourth page he had a horse whinny. And it was in quotes, as if the horse said "Whinny!' instead of neighing.

I then immediately noticed he had a seriously weird attitude toward a sort of anthropomorphization of sound that I can't really describe but if you read one of his books you will understand. It was bad.

Terrible science fiction cannot go without mentioning the MEDSHIP books. Spoiler: he does actually come across a woman in the end, and he totally refuses to engage with her in any way due to his whole MEDSHIP Christ complex! I called it!
posted by winna at 9:09 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


MEDSHIP goes beyond shadenfreude and into something like ebullientrevulsion.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:12 PM on April 5, 2011


Consider Phlebas easily the worst of the Culture books, FTW. It's got some amazing moments, the stark ending for one thing, but drags horribly in the middle and is a bit all over the place.

Everybody who's read them seems to have their own special snowflake opinion of the relative merit of the Culture books, so here's mine: Consider Phlebas is the best, by far, followed by Look to Windward, followed by Player of Games. ...Admittedly I haven't read Matter yet, but based on what everyone else says, it's unlikely to place near the top.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:41 PM on April 5, 2011


How to write a literary SF novel

Your hero must be anti-. Like Herzog or the Invisible Man (not that one), he must be conflicted, neurotic, disturbing, but still intelligent and either still a he, or perhaps a she who acts much like a he. Huge amounts of suffering should break your antihero down, reduce him to something like madness, and then allow him to reconstruct himself along more (or, occasionally, less) moral lines that shows how far he has come. Plenty of emotion must be shown, even unto plot languors, though never so much as to ruin the story. Pasts must begin secret, or at least untold, but must be revealed in a graduated way for maximum character development. The world is full of successful and unpunished bad people, unacknowledged good people, and even people who are neither. People behave rationally until they can't take any more and break down and behave like the inexplicable humans we really are. Loose threads and secondary characters are encouraged and justified by the baggy nature of reality. But again, in moderation: problems must still exist, and must occasionally even be solved, though preferrably with a bit of clever social strategizing or a deep philosophical insight. Be sure to include a couple brief discursions on cutting-edge science to demonstrate your committment to real ideas, either well-justified by the current plot or post-modernly flaunting such justification. Nanotechnology, genetic engineering, quantum mechanics, and virtual reality are all basically magic, but that is a good thing in this era of blurred genric boundaries and the respect accorded to literary magical realism. Your world must teem with culture, music and theater and clothing and strange pasttimes abounding, though if you are clever you only allude to a couple characteristics of each to lend your world verisimilitude and scale. Ethnicity and underclasses should abound, though not so much as to create a worldview that seriously undermines the stakes of your plot. Characters must be raw and unstereotyped, or at least least, stereotypes must be carefully blendered and distributed among characters to prevent easy identification; ideally, every recognizable trait should be paired with the one we least expect -- including, as time progresses, this rule itself (hence, no more kickass women, alas). The same goes for cultural touchstones like bars, surely a dying institution; and if you do need all your characters in one place (though the plot shouldn't be dictating the actions of your people!), reinvent that bar as something, I don't know, cooler. Or rougher. Or unrecognizably weird and confusing, as long as people can still get togeher and trade meaty, retro infodumps and reveal unhappy and character-developing bits of their pasts. Technology and economics should be strange, new, and well-thought-out, preferrably with a game-theoretic model on your website, or perhaps a carefully worked-out extrapolation from some anthropological study if math isn't your strong suit. But whether you have spaceships or gondolas, smart pebbles or moons with solar kites, distant unrecognizable futures or distant unrecongizable pasts or jarringly similar alternate presents, you need to work through precisely what the social and technological tradeoffs are -- though worn lightly and kept for the appendix or website -- because otherwise you're just doing fantasy. In the real world -- future or present -- no one is a hero and shit just happens and you make the best of it, learning what you can along the way. And yet ... don't make that limited best too banal, and don't make those spaceships too plumbing-y, and don't take out all the space from the ship (however metaphorical) or get too philosophical because, you know, you have to sell books too. And if all else fails, you can always call it satire.
posted by chortly at 10:00 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


So the women are former sex robots and the men are former instruments of war

The central (in my opinion) character in the entire Culture millieu, and one of the people we're talking about, would tell you that everyone is an instrument of war and everything is a weapon.

But as others have said there are no former sex robots. Or current ones. Also I'm pretty sure a lot of AI would want to kill you if you called them robots. Most of them would manage to resist the temptation.
posted by Justinian at 10:26 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Consider Phlebas is the best, by far

CP could only even be considered for the position if, when you read it, you've never even heard of "The Culture". It derives much of its power from the realization that BHG has been fighting a doomed war for what we would consider the wrong side. And coming to the novel that fresh isn't very likely these days. Besides, all right thinking people recognize Use of Weapons as the apotheosis of the Culture novels.
posted by Justinian at 10:38 PM on April 5, 2011


Related: Frank Zappa's The Radio is Broken is a compilation of sci-fi movie clichés.
The navigator always gets killed by a bad space person.
posted by fartknocker at 10:50 PM on April 5, 2011


CP could only even be considered for the position if, when you read it, you've never even heard of "The Culture". It derives much of its power from the realization that BHG has been fighting a doomed war for what we would consider the wrong side. And coming to the novel that fresh isn't very likely these days. Besides, all right thinking people recognize Use of Weapons as the apotheosis of the Culture novels.

I read it fresh, and it's the first and only one I read. I'm not even sure I understood it and I haven't read any other Culture novels.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:20 PM on April 5, 2011


The Sameul Daleny novel i'm reading now (Triton) has easy sex change surgery. It's alot closer to happening than the intersteller travel that was more common then.

Actually we have that right now! I fell asleep and when I woke up, it was done. Easy!

I concede that some doctor guy might have spent a bit of time on it though

all right thinking people recognize Use of Weapons as the apotheosis of the Culture novels

I'm partial to the lilting pace of Windward, myself.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 2:12 AM on April 6, 2011


25 years ago William Gibson was writing stories set 25 years in the future, and now he is writing stories set in the present, kinda...

I recall Gibson saying that he imagined Neuromancer and such to be set around the 2030s.
posted by acb at 3:16 AM on April 6, 2011


Lovecraft in Brooklyn: CP is fairly easy. Your metaphoric guide is this: firstly, the year is 1942 and our protagonist is a mercenary exile from somewhere like Estonia, fighting for the Nazis, because he's convinced that the Allies are (a) evil and (b) going to lose. Next, we quietly airbrush Joseph Stalin and the British Empire and, oh, the pre-desegregation Deep South out of the picture, because in this universe the Allies are actually a benevolent utopia. Only we're seeing them through the eyes of a guy who is emotionally invested in the Nazi rampage through Europe.

You just need to turn your irony detector up to 11.
posted by cstross at 3:23 AM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Steep Approach to Garbadale

You know, I liked The Crow Road a lot so I'm happy with him rewriting it multiple times, but lets face it, the original is always the best.


Yeah, and it sounds like his next one will be the same...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:59 AM on April 6, 2011


Use Of Weapons is not only the best Culture novel, it's the best 'M' novel, possibly his best novel over all. Anything else is just crazy talk. (It's probably my favourite sf novel full stop).

Phlebas, whilst cool, almost seemed a bit too episodic to me... bit like a dramatisation of an RPG campaign.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:03 AM on April 6, 2011


I guess I am the only one that liked Excession best out of all the Culture novels...
posted by Ber at 5:45 AM on April 6, 2011


No love for the Algebraist?
posted by winna at 5:53 AM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Use of Weapons is the Culture novel closest to my heart, too. I suspect it's because I read it first.
posted by Harald74 at 6:00 AM on April 6, 2011


in this universe the Allies are actually a benevolent utopia.

This is really not how I read Consider Phlebas, which to my mind is far more ambiguous than that. Balveda, for example, clearly regrets her role in the proceedings, and I found her fate one of the most affecting parts of the book. It seems to me that the Culture's meddling in other societies, especially during the Idiran War, is meant to be seen as ambiguously moral at best, as evidenced by the eventual fates of both Balveda and the Mind at the end of Look to Windward.
posted by IjonTichy at 7:19 AM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, I'm not sure that the right historical comparison is with WWII. After all, the Iridans are religious fanatics. It's somewhat telling, I think, that Look to Windward is dedicated to the Gulf War Veterans...
posted by IjonTichy at 7:26 AM on April 6, 2011


Oh hey, thanks to this thread, I looked for (and found) the first two Culture novels at The Strand yesterday (missed jonmc, though).
posted by Eideteker at 8:11 AM on April 6, 2011


in this universe the Allies are actually a benevolent utopia.

This is really not how I read Consider Phlebas, which to my mind is far more ambiguous than that. Balveda, for example, clearly regrets her role in the proceedings, and I found her fate one of the most affecting parts of the book. It seems to me that the Culture's meddling in other societies, especially during the Idiran War, is meant to be seen as ambiguously moral at best, as evidenced by the eventual fates of both Balveda and the Mind at the end of Look to Windward.


This is closer to my view. I wrote a short blog post on the subject.

Phlebas, whilst cool, almost seemed a bit too episodic to me... bit like a dramatisation of an RPG campaign.

This is a good point. I think the loose structure of CP is explained by its thematic aim, to set the brutality of the world against the banality of the Culture.
posted by grobstein at 9:11 AM on April 6, 2011


25 years ago William Gibson was writing stories set 25 years in the future, and now he is writing stories set in the present, kinda...

I recall Gibson saying that he imagined Neuromancer and such to be set around the 2030s.


Virtual Light takes place in 2005.
posted by ego at 10:23 AM on April 6, 2011


You just need to turn your irony detector up to 11.

Man, that's a deeply cynical reading of Consider Phlebas. Which is saying something given how cynical most of Banks is in itself. Ken's stuff is the same way. Does the weather up there make you guys like that?
posted by Justinian at 10:24 AM on April 6, 2011


I would have thought it the only reading possible, and fairly obvious from reading the book, if not for all the folks that pop up on the internet who seem to be desperately hunting around for interpretations where Bora Horza Gobuchul isn't a self-deluding asshole. They're usually American, I don't know why.
posted by Artw at 10:33 AM on April 6, 2011


You just need to turn your irony detector up to 11.

Man, that's a deeply cynical reading of Consider Phlebas. Which is saying something given how cynical most of Banks is in itself. Ken's stuff is the same way. Does the weather up there make you guys like that?


It's cynical in some respects but strangely uncritical about the Culture, which I think the book treats rather ambivalently.
posted by grobstein at 11:10 AM on April 6, 2011


Yeah, that's sort of what I mean but didn't phrase properly. It's cynical about CP specifically because of its un-cynicalness about the Culture in general. Or something.
posted by Justinian at 11:58 AM on April 6, 2011


who seem to be desperately hunting around for interpretations where Bora Horza Gobuchul isn't a self-deluding asshole.

Asshole? Probably. Self-deluding? I don't think that's fair. He is, I think, under no illusions about the Idirans. And his attitude towards the Culture isn't completely indefensible depending on your viewpoint.

Thought Experiment: What is Ken MacLeod's view of The Culture, given his attitude towards AI as portrayed in his novels and as evidenced by his own comments on the subject?
posted by Justinian at 12:05 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thought Experiment: What is Ken MacLeod's view of The Culture, given his attitude towards AI as portrayed in his novels and as evidenced by his own comments on the subject?

That is a very interesting question and I shall try to remember to ask him about it next time I see him (next week, I think).

Hell, if I wasn't so busy right now I'd interview him about it for my blog.
posted by cstross at 1:29 PM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


given his attitude towards AI as portrayed in his novels

You can derive a single attitude towards AI from his novels? I'm not sure there's even a single clear authorial attitude towards the Black Plan.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:54 PM on April 6, 2011


His novels and his comments on the subject. I don't believe Ken is a big fan of the idea of AI.
posted by Justinian at 2:02 PM on April 6, 2011


I thought maybe you'd know the answer already, CS, but I didn't want to presume and ask you directly to speak on somebody else's behalf. If you do find out, though, that'd be cool.
posted by Justinian at 2:03 PM on April 6, 2011


Sorry for the third in a row here. You strike me as someone who was likely on RASFW, ROU_X, and I believe that's where Ken made a lot of the comments I have in mind. You may be able to find them with the DejaVu Usenet Google Groups search if you're interested.
posted by Justinian at 2:18 PM on April 6, 2011


I would have thought it the only reading possible

You don't find the Culture, and specifically Special Circumstances, creepy? In several of the books it's demonstrated that they'll cheerfully ruin people's lives if they think such actions will serve the greater good. Granted, because of the superhuman intelligences running the Culture they're almost always right that the happy consequences outweigh the nasty things that need to be done to bring them about, but I don't think that eliminates the moral ambiguity of the Culture's meddling.
posted by IjonTichy at 2:43 PM on April 6, 2011


His novels and his comments on the subject. I don't believe Ken is a big fan of the idea of AI.

Maybe with his comments (which I don't know) you could do that... but from his novels I'd be less sure. I mean, the Jovian uploads were (if we believe Ellen May, which might not be smart) some bad guys. But it isn't clear at all that Dee or the Black Plan are inimical, and the initial portrayal of the Watchmaker AIs was pretty positive before, oops, they all got killed. And in Newton's Wake, it's the AI uploads that seem to be doing the work of preserving causality across the inhabited universe.

He might mean to be giving a pretty uniformly negative view of AIs, but I'd still rather take my chances with Dee or whatever AI lives in the smartmatter spacesuits than I would with Ellen or David Reid.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:53 PM on April 6, 2011


"Best place to start: Player of Games. Epic Masterpiece: The Algebraist."
posted by ovvl at 6:36 PM on April 6, 2011


Can't remember if this has been pointed out in the thread yet but there's $0.99 deal on Consider Phelbus on ebook this month
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:45 AM on April 8, 2011


I knew I was doing something wrong.
posted by contemplace at 10:18 AM on April 12, 2011


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