skiffy
May 14, 2011 2:01 AM   Subscribe

Today's Guardian Review is a science fiction special

The stars of modern SF pick the best science fiction
Science fiction: Images from other worlds – in pictures A new exhibition at the British Library presents the rich history of SF down the ages, from Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century to the Russian novel that inspired 1984
Gene Wolfe by Neil Gaiman
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (recent Arthur C. Clarke award winner) – review by Gwyneth Jones
A life in writing: China Miéville
Ten of the best - Aliens in science fiction
Iain M Banks: Science fiction is no place for dabblers
Great voices of science fiction (interviews with Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, JG Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut Jr)
Being a Little Well by Brian Aldiss (poem)
posted by fearfulsymmetry (89 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nifty. Banks' article in particular was a nice take on the "genre fiction" dismissal; vehement without being contemptuous.
posted by Lorc at 2:56 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's funny that one of the comments to the Banks article (yes, the Guardian is unique among newspapers in having a comments section that is occasionally worth glancing through) mentions Shikasta as the only SF book they've been able to read, because that catastrophe is exactly what I was thinking of all the way through the article.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:21 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Fantastic article, wish RingWorld, Mote's, and Sigfried.
posted by Mblue at 3:34 AM on May 14, 2011


I forgot Shiku, the winged janitor.
posted by Mblue at 3:50 AM on May 14, 2011


All fiction is genre fiction. Literary fiction is just another genre.
posted by joannemullen at 3:54 AM on May 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Literary fiction is just another genre.

That's only because 'literary fiction' is a category invented for marketing purposes, and doesn't really mean what it says. There's plenty of non-genre fiction about, literary and otherwise, not to mention genre fiction that is extremely literary.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:22 AM on May 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


I like the Banks article as well -- it comes off as much more restrained as I imagined him to be while writing it, hammering away at the keyboard and cursing through gritted teeth...but with a smile all the same.
posted by a small part of the world at 5:40 AM on May 14, 2011


I always enjoy seeing what my favourite writers reccomend but the list is pretty much what you'd expect: Clarke, Herbert, LeGuin, Wells, Lovecraft, nothing too surprising or out of the ball-park.
posted by Fizz at 5:58 AM on May 14, 2011


Heh. That Banks article is giving me flashbacks to some of the more breathless reviews of Oryx and Crake - So original! So innovative! A distopian future with genetic engineering!
posted by Artw at 6:14 AM on May 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


And yet nary a mention of Lem in the articles or the comments at the Guardian...
posted by a small part of the world at 6:55 AM on May 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


I didn't like the Banks article because I thought of it as an attack on Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which I thought was nearly perfect. Its virtues are not the same as the virtues of an Iain Banks novel, and the fact that its SF elements are not new is not particularly relevant to the work it's doing.
posted by escabeche at 7:11 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Re: banks, it reads more like an attack on Atwood.
posted by dhruva at 7:15 AM on May 14, 2011


My sense (echoing Artw) is that if the Banks article was directed at any recent event, it was probably Atwood's Oryx & Crake.
posted by a small part of the world at 7:17 AM on May 14, 2011


(dhruva beat me to it)
posted by a small part of the world at 7:17 AM on May 14, 2011


On the topic of Asimov, rethinking and personal reflections on the classics, and several other beats hit up above, I've been enjoying the Foundation Week articles over at io9. Not to be taken as an endorsement of Gawker overall, of course, but these have been good.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 7:29 AM on May 14, 2011


Went out and bought it as soon as I read this. Reading Kurt Vonnegut interview now.

I'm reminded of the day I bought the Saturday guardian because it came with a free DVD of the original Japanese version of Godzilla - Gojira, which I had never seen.

The Guardian fucking rules. Between this and the sunday NY Times, I do hope reports of the demise of newspapers is greatly exaggerated
posted by Hickeystudio at 7:49 AM on May 14, 2011


The encomium for Gene Wolfe is nice.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 7:58 AM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oooh, the Banks article is great. I suspect it's aimed just as much at Cormac McCarthy as it is at Atwood.

Writing in YA, I can't tell you how many times I've come across the attitude of YA writers who want to write dystopians and so they made a conscious choice not to read any of the reams of dystopian novels (YA or otherwise) already written. This seems especially true for sci-fi. "I don't want to accidentally steal idea, so I won't read any books about spaceships."

I've never really encountered that attitude among genre readers. I, for one, am abundantly aware of my influences and predecessors.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:59 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


PhoBWanKenobi: It's cool, you can just call out The Hunger Games by name.
posted by pts at 8:03 AM on May 14, 2011


I am actually like the only YA writer not writing a dystopian.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:06 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, if I was, it'd probably be more A Canticle for Leibowitz or Riddley Walker than THG, The Giver, and Battle Royale. Cause that's how I roll.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:10 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The encomium for Gene Wolfe is nice.

Oh fuck yes for GENE WOLFE. Especially the

Fantastic stuff that might someday be on a par with LOTR (yeah I'm a blasphemer I know I know...). Especially The Book of the New Sun series.
posted by Skygazer at 8:10 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Especially especially special...The Book of the New Sun.
posted by Skygazer at 8:11 AM on May 14, 2011


I loved the Gene Wolfe article too - except that it's revealed he's 80. :-( I want him to live a long time, he seems incapable of writing a dull word.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:13 AM on May 14, 2011


My major objection to the Banks article is that things might have been done before, but the execution matters. His example could superficially describe What a Carve Up! (other than the butler IIRC), which was a lovely book nonetheless.
posted by ersatz at 8:17 AM on May 14, 2011


I suspect it's aimed just as much at Cormac McCarthy as it is at Atwood.

There's a few like that, not just Atwood, but she really jumps out because of her tendency to make weird snobby statements about what is and isn't science fiction. And to be fair, given that she's written one authentic scinece fiction masterpeice that thoroughly deserves it's Arthur C. Clarke Award, Oryx and Crake *could* be good - I've not actually read it, having been put off by said overly-impressed reviews which made it sound like it was all fairly standard SF tropes and a ton of "Call a Rabbit a Smeerp"-isms, maybe once you get past that there's some good stuff in there.
posted by Artw at 8:25 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I found Oryx and Crake to be really, really bleh, in terms of both characters and the execution of ideas (her worldbuilding is painful, full of cheesy terms like "CorpSeCorp," which is a shame because Handmaid's Tale was so wonderful at just that). I'm a pretty big fan of hers generally, but I just do not get the cooing over O&C.

My major objection to the Banks article is that things might have been done before, but the execution matters. His example could superficially describe What a Carve Up! (other than the butler IIRC), which was a lovely book nonetheless.

"[W]hile, off-stage, barely heard, howls of laughter and derision issue from the science fiction community." I suspect he feels differently about how lovely these books are.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:30 AM on May 14, 2011


China Miéville leads radical SF's invasion of the mainstream
posted by Artw at 8:45 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


China will go down as one of the greats of the genre. Trust me on this one.
posted by jscalzi at 8:49 AM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorry, but the first article sends a clear message: The best science fiction (with rare exception) was written prior to 1965.

What's favored seems to be the minimalist universe stylings of writers who didn't put much energy into describing details and workings of their worlds. And while that can be fun to read, it's not inherently better than more current SF.

At least Octavia Butler got a nod. God, she was brilliant.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:06 AM on May 14, 2011


To be fair most of time in which books have been written written was before 1965.
posted by devon at 9:10 AM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well we all know the golden age of sci fi is 14
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:14 AM on May 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


I think it's more to the point that the authors were discussing books which influenced them, and most of the authors are north of 40 years old.
posted by jscalzi at 9:14 AM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Devon, I don't know if that's true of science fiction though.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:14 AM on May 14, 2011


no but the period of opportunity to read something is greater the older it is. I think jscalzi's explanation is probably the most likely explanation here though.
posted by devon at 9:22 AM on May 14, 2011


As true as that may be, if someone is going to go out on a limb to pick the 'best science fiction,' then I expect them to have read widely in the range of all the science fiction published, not to rely on their own childhood influences.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:26 AM on May 14, 2011


The stars of modern SF pick the best science fiction

We asked leading SF writers to choose their favourite novel or author in the genre

I guess the title and subtitle are not quite the same thing, I think the article is the really the latter.
posted by devon at 9:33 AM on May 14, 2011


Devon, the editor turns up in the comments to confirm that it's the latter.
posted by Infinite Jest at 9:34 AM on May 14, 2011


The elements of Oryx and Crake were not particularly original, but I feel that it was meant to be a parody of generic "30s science fiction clichés", and that the distinctive thing about it is its unique style, that sweet sharp Atwood snark.

I'm not entirely convinced Banks' cautionary tale is subtly teasing Atwood here, but I would be really curious to hear his response if asked outright what he thinks of Atwood's SF work.

As far Atwood's past comments about SF, it don't think she was targeting forward cannons on the genre of Space Opera itself so much as expressing her discomfort for some of the genre labels involved, especially when applied to her own work. She stated her personal alliance to the new-wave label "Speculative Fiction".
posted by ovvl at 9:36 AM on May 14, 2011


Heh. That Banks article is giving me flashbacks to some of the more breathless reviews of Oryx and Crake - So original! So innovative! A distopian future with genetic engineering!

but what made that book so good IMHO was not the dystopian set up but how it absolutely eviscerated the culture of science and scientists and did so mainly from an emotional/moral/sociological stance. this is not something standard SF authors do very well if at all. the point wasn't that genetic engineering leads to doom, but that science built on callow careerism and naive self-absorbtion becomes servant to things outside of it's ken. plus, her portrayal of the people who feed 21st century nihilistic corporatism was more evocative than most dystopian SF.

the point being that as a novel O&C is more about the people involved than the operatic story...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:41 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


He [China Miéville] marked the year with an arm-spanning tattoo of a "skulltopus"
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:53 AM on May 14, 2011


And yet nary a mention of Lem in the articles or the comments at the Guardian...

Planet Solaris shoulda got a shout-out on the list of Aliens. Lem wrote the best aliens.
posted by ovvl at 9:58 AM on May 14, 2011


Banks is gently teasing 'genre-dabbling', but he carefully qualifies his statements. He doesn't say "never do it", he just reminds us to beware of the pitfalls and trust in personal voice, and he concludes that genre-dabbling is part of a healthy literary culture. Banks himself started out with several volumes of Borgesian literary fantasy before he found his middle initial, so his first volume of Space Opera could have been considered genre-dabbling at the time it came out... (for the sake of argument, that is. Actually, it was apparent that 'Consider Phlebas' had pretty thoroughly absorbed the conventions).
posted by ovvl at 10:19 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Banks is gently teasing 'genre-dabbling', but he carefully qualifies his statements.

But his overriding argument seems to be that literature is a discussion, even between genres, and that discussion necessitates knowledge of the genre you're writing in. Also, he suggests replacing "write what you know" with "write what you love" rather than appropriating a genre with an uninformed opinion of it and then viewing that genre with derision.

Though he seems realistic about the fact that he's being optimistic about this--in the end, for whatever (sad!) reason, it might not be feasible to suggest that literary writers (gasp!) read in the genres they're dabbling.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:24 AM on May 14, 2011


The Banks Literary Novel is almost a genre in itself now - I call it "Sort-of-Crow-Roady".
posted by Artw at 10:26 AM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Skygazer, if your a blasphemer, we'll go to hell together. New Sun is light years beyond LOTR.
posted by HumanComplex at 10:26 AM on May 14, 2011


I think I read the target of the Banks article as Atwood, also. Amusingly, they'll never have to duke it out face-to-face, since he tore up his passport and she won't fly due to environmental aspect.

Me: love Banks, was introduced to Atwood with Handmaid's Tale (good but not stunningly original), thought Oryx and Crake stunk.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 11:09 AM on May 14, 2011


Into a mute crypt, I
Can't pity our time
Turn amity poetic
Ciao, tiny trumpet!
Manic piety tutor
Tame purity tonic
Up, meiotic tyrant!
I taint my top cure
To it, my true panic
Put at my nice riot

To trace impunity
I tempt an outcry, I
Pin my taut erotic
Art to epic mutiny
Can't you permit it
To cite my apt ruin?
My true icon: tap it
Copy time, turn it; a
Rite to cut my pain
Atomic putty? Rien!
posted by overyield at 11:49 AM on May 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


This seems like a good time to ask some other people about their thoughts on Mr. Wolfe.

Specifically, while I enjoy his fiction he seems to have a single protagonist. This protagonist is a man, probably somewhere between 25 and 35, but he may be slightly older or younger. He is quite good at fighting, generally better at it than anyone he comes across, often by a margin so wide that it would qualify as a gulf. He is, finally, Innocent. The protagonist from the Wizard books is a 9 year-old boy in the body of a man. Latro was hit on the head in a battle and has lost his memory. Severian was raised in a monastery of torturers and is fundamentally honest and literal as a result. His books tend to be the following of this protagonist as he interacts with the world in an honest, straightforward way that eventually overcomes the difficulties that it puts him in with its dishonest inhabitants.

Does this seem fair, or am I missing something?
posted by kavasa at 11:50 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The only Gene Wolfe book I've read is The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and it doesn't really have any of the elements you've described at all, except that the protagonists are men.
posted by dng at 11:54 AM on May 14, 2011


"the point wasn't that genetic engineering leads to doom, but that science built on callow careerism and naive self-absorbtion becomes servant to things outside of it's ken"

I haven't read the story, but this summary doesn't really do it any favors from where I'm sitting. That essentially sounds like "bad people do bad things," which is both probably true and also shallow and easy.

The sad reality is that good people do bad things for good reasons, bad reasons, and wrong reasons. People are generally not all bad and all good, bad people do good things for bad reasons, and so on. All that messy complexity is far more true to life and compelling to me than what you've summarized, which sounds very straw mannish.

But again, I haven't read the story, so I have no idea how accurate any of that is.

dng - that's one I haven't read. Perhaps I'll sneak it on to my BF's kindle.
posted by kavasa at 11:56 AM on May 14, 2011


Damine G Walters seems to be The Guardians big SF guy, and I have to say that he does a great job of it (also appears to be in love with China Miéville)
posted by Artw at 12:06 PM on May 14, 2011


Banks himself started out with several volumes of Borgesian literary fantasy before he found his middle initial, so his first volume of Space Opera could have been considered genre-dabbling at the time it came out...

He actually started with the Culture; _Use of Weapons_ was first written in 1974 but wasn't remotely publishable until Ken MacLeod suggested revisions that gave it the 1 - XII - 2 - XI... form.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:06 PM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Damn I love that book, especially it's structure. Consider Phlebas just seems sprawling and pretty directionless for long stretches by comparison
posted by Artw at 12:09 PM on May 14, 2011


In the unlikely event that I get asked to write a short essay on my favourite SF book by the Guardian it's probably my pick. If they asked me just this moment, anyway.

Oh noes! It was published in 1990! Clearly the last twenty years have been a vacuum empty of all good science fiction and all is lost!
posted by Artw at 12:11 PM on May 14, 2011


This seems like a good time to ask some other people about their thoughts on Mr. Wolfe. Specifically, while I enjoy his fiction he seems to have a single protagonist.

That's been my (sole) criticism of his most recent few novels, although I noticed a different set of attributes. The protagonist is either male and extremely good at piecing together little hints from earlier in the novel, which he then uses to overturn the assumptions of every other character about what's really going on. Or she's a woman who talks nineteen to the dozen and alternates between brash confidence and tearfully clinging to the nearest male.

He's still my favourite writer. It's just that he seems to like certain characters too much to let them go from one novel to the next.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:21 PM on May 14, 2011


If the woman alternated between brash confidence and kicking peoples spines out he'd be the Warren Ellis of SF/F.
posted by Artw at 12:25 PM on May 14, 2011


_Use of Weapons_ was first written in 1974 but wasn't remotely publishable until Ken MacLeod suggested revisions...

Sorry, I was going by the assumption of published body of work. Interesting fact, tho.
(I'll concede details about the work of IMB to ROU any day).
posted by ovvl at 12:33 PM on May 14, 2011


Amusingly, they'll never have to duke it out face-to-face, since he tore up his passport and she won't fly due to environmental aspect.

Ah, I can't say for sure, but if they ever got together they might have a swell time. They're both smart, and they both love teasing. I think they could find things in each others work that they respect. But they wouldn't back down from a frank exchange of views.
posted by ovvl at 12:42 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does this seem fair, or am I missing something?

Well, consider what Owlcroft of Great Works of Science Fiction and Fantasy writes of Gene Wolfe:
Wolfe writes tales about people, but almost always in the form of journals: he is giving us his protagonists' lives as they themselves are experiencing them, with all the tricks and quirks of memory--their memories--making the narratives untrustworthy both to us and to the characters themselves (though they often don't grasp that). We, and they, can only await later events that will cast light back through time and show us the earlier events in a new and--possibly--now correct perspective. Or maybe we, and they, will never really know the "truth" of what once happened to them. (Rashomon, anyone?) Moreover, some of Wolfe's characters deliberately lie in their tellings, certainly to us and probably to themselves.

In a way, the further forward we go in a Wolfe tale, the further back we go, for the events happening now are, in effect, revising the events that happened then.

Reading such works, and understanding what is happening in them and what we may take away from them, is not simple, but neither is it the "jigsaw puzzle" that is often suggested. We need only abandon the convention, and an artificial one at that, that the author of a tale must always be telling us what "really" is happening: what Wolfe is telling us is what "really" is happening inside his protagonists' minds. How "real" that is in an objective sense is left for us (and them) to work out in the fullness of the tale's term.

That's the bottom line: listen to Wolfe's characters tell their tales, but believe their tellings no more, or less, than you would a story from any stranger. Then, when the telling is done, make your own judgements.
Now, Owlcroft may be partial to some writers, and totally not interested in others--but he gets deep into why he likes who he likes. Pick any author you appreciate and if he thinks at all highly of him or her, too, you will come away with a new respect and a deeper appreciation of that particular author. Now, there is a standard for reviewing any writer of any genre.

Now, while I am not entirely satisfied with much of Wolfe's more recent new work, like An Evil Guest or Home Fires, for instance, I can still respect the fact that the man is experimenting with his writing, trying new things and pushing the envelope of what he can do, so that, even with these lesser efforts, he manages to do more than most writers even attempt in the first place.

None of which can be said for most of these reviews.

Truth be told, I found these articles to be a set of crackerjack boxes, each half full of crappy candy popcorn comprised of half unpopped kernels and one crappy prize per box. Best Aliens, for instance. Oh, for Christ's sake! What a waste of space and time. I want my ten seconds back.

Which includes the Wolfe encomium. "Like, he's my friend... still...'-- how nice for him but, all the same, why bother ? It was so short and so much more about the writer than Wolfe.

I did appreciate Brian Aldiss's appreciation of Olaf Stapledon, however. That was worth the time spent. Otherwise, it was pretty much the sort of writing that would not have been out of place in, say, the Seattle Times or Tacoma Tribune. Which I do not bother to read. The Guardian should be capable of printing and posting better than these mostly mediocrities. Color me surprisingly disappointed.

Your mileage may, of course, vary. Just do not park on my lawn, thank you.
posted by y2karl at 12:52 PM on May 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think I read the target of the Banks article as Atwood, also. Amusingly, they'll never have to duke it out face-to-face, since he tore up his passport and she won't fly due to environmental aspect.

She was in London a few months ago. Not too far from Banks.

I suspect it was mostly aimed at her, but also The Road - and not so much just at the authors but at the critical reception as well.
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:04 PM on May 14, 2011


Sorry to nibble at the bait again, but I'm seeing some disrespect for 'Oryx and Crake' here, and it makes me wanna reiterate that I think it is one of the best SF novels of the 21st century so far.

None of the basic concepts in it are particularly original, so it does come across, on the surface, as bunch of cliches. But the brilliant thing about it is how she twists and teases these cliches into something original in style and effect. Not everyone likes this sort of thing, you have to be in sympathy with the ironic tone to really appreciate it.

Obviously Banks is more committed to genre SF than Atwood is, but neither of them are purists. The great thing about IMB is how he took the cliches of Space Opera and transformed them with his unique voice.
posted by ovvl at 1:11 PM on May 14, 2011


Since we're on the subject of Banks, can someone tell me if I'm likely to enjoy the other Culture novels if I really hated Consider Phlebas? It seemed to me that the plot was based on the assumption that I cared about the protagonist and his McGuffin, but there wasn't nearly enough characterization done to hook me in and the book ended up looking like a paint-by-numbers series of sexy-assassin-lady wisecracking-robot-sidekick clichés.

(And sign me up as an Oryx and Crake hater. I think she really overindulged her tendency to play to her concerned-middlebrow-British-center-leftist audience and the whole thing just seemed enormously smug and self-satisfied. But then again, dystopias almost always have this problem.)
posted by nasreddin at 4:48 PM on May 14, 2011


eviscerated the culture of science and scientists and did so mainly from an emotional/moral/sociological stance. this is not something standard SF authors do very well if at all.

You must have been reading a really different set of SF from the last ~200 years than I have. That's a standard SF trope, probably coming in right after "there is nothing that reason and humanity cannot achieve", "there are things man was not meant to know/do", and "gosh, rocketships sure are neat".
posted by hattifattener at 4:59 PM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Since we're on the subject of Banks, can someone tell me if I'm likely to enjoy the other Culture novels if I really hated Consider Phlebas?

CP really does have strong differences from the other Culture books.

You might try _The Player of Games_. You might well hate that too, but that would be a far better indicator of whether you'd like other Culture novels.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:27 PM on May 14, 2011


God, I love the The Stars My Destination. Someday, it won't be made into a movie, although I remember it was greenlighted a while back.
posted by nikitabot at 8:49 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


But then again, dystopias almost always have this problem.

This dystopian thing often happens with genre-dabblers: Brave New World, 1984, The Machine Stops, A Clockwork Orange...
posted by ovvl at 8:51 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Specifically, while I enjoy [Gene Wolfe's] fiction he seems to have a single protagonist.

Wolfe definitely has a fondness for this sort of protagonist (although there are plenty of exceptions: Peace, Castleview, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, "The Death of Doctor Island"...). I don't think it's a sign of his limitations as a writer, though. He's interested in a particular constellation of themes -- what you might call an ethics of masculine self-identity -- and when he writes quest-based fantasy, those interests are bound to play out in the way you describe simply because of the nature of the genre. Quest fantasy demands an uprooted protagonist who achieves self-definition by sticking to a code of honor in a violent world. Most fantasy writers take the ethical component for granted, either upholding the values we all already share (Tolkien et al.) or rubbing our noses in how "unrealistic" that is in a pre-modern world (Martin, Erikson). Wolfe takes it seriously. So we see Severian wrestling with the legacy of his monstrous upbringing, Silk miraculously adhering to his morality and his faith, and Horn trying to live up to Silk's example. It stands out, because no other fantasy writer I can think of puts their characters through authentic moral struggles like that.

It's also true that Wolfe loves to play variations on a theme -- after all, this is the guy who wrote "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" and followed it up with three "other stories" about islands, doctors, and death. Most obviously, the Short Sun books are a response to the Long Sun books, and both of them are responding to The Book of the New Sun. But Latro is also an exact inversion of Severian: the far-future self-chronicler with perfect recall and a non-magical sword becomes the self-chronicler in the distant past with anterograde amnesia and a sword that really is magical. From what I recall, Peace is another inversion: Alden Dennis Weer is old, immobile, and haunted by his failure to engage in the ethical self-definition that preoccupies Severian, Silk, and Horn. Hell, "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is about the exact same thing, but the approach is completely different. (Ditto "The God and His Man.") In my opinion, there's nothing inherently wrong with coming back to the same themes and tropes like that; Bach and Beckett did the same thing. What matters is whether the variations are interesting.

Severian was raised in a monastery of torturers and is fundamentally honest and literal as a result.

Oh, neat. I never thought of it that way: the torturers who trained him to be cruel also taught him to be honorable. I think I need to go re-read The Urth of the New Sun.

posted by twirlip at 8:57 PM on May 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Does this seem fair, or am I missing something?

Pandora by Holly Hollander. Possibly Free Live Free?

God, Wolfe is the best.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:58 PM on May 14, 2011


twirlip, thanks for that post! I'd always sort of concentrated on the similarities between Latro and Severian, but the differences are striking as well. Very cool. And clearly I need to read more of his things.

So much stuff to read!
posted by kavasa at 1:06 AM on May 15, 2011


Also I'd totally forgotten about Castleview. I mean, I read it at some point and can picture the cover image, but I can't really remember what goes on it. Some sort of castle visible from a town in.. Ohio? Maybe?

Hm.
posted by kavasa at 1:07 AM on May 15, 2011


OK, I've read nothing by Gene Wolfe. Where should I start?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:39 AM on May 15, 2011


Where should I start?

I started with Fifth Head of Cerberus. I do not recommend this. Latro in the Mist would be good.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:33 AM on May 15, 2011


OK, I've read nothing by Gene Wolfe. Where should I start?

This is a difficult question to answer. Most people start in with Wolfe because someone has strongly recommended the "Book of the New Sun" series. It is as good a place as any to start, but when you start it, do so with a patient and attentive attitude, which the book will amply repay. But for shorter attention spans not up to a dense, 4 (or 5, depending how you look at it) volume series, it might be better to begin with some of his amazing novellas, though they're not all collected in the same place (the first section of The Fifth Head of Cerberus, "Forlesen," "Seven American Nights," "The Eyeflash Miracles," "The Ziggurat," "The Death of Dr. Island," "Empires of Foliage and Flower," "Tracking Song."
posted by aught at 8:11 AM on May 15, 2011


Oooh, the Banks article is great. I suspect it's aimed just as much at Cormac McCarthy as it is at Atwood.

There's been a spate of "dabblers" in recent years, other examples including Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (particularly since it was made into a big budget movie), but also Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days, P. D. James's Children of Men, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. Most of these suffer from some basic conceptual flaws as sf novels per se -- but then so do many of the books eagerly embraced as very good (Hugo, Nebula, Locus winners) within the genre, of course.

The slice of the market I continue to find very exciting are the novelists who are aware of the genre's conventions and history and write a hybrid -- people like Jonathan Lethem or David Mitchell.
posted by aught at 8:33 AM on May 15, 2011


I disagree that Book of the New Sun is "as good a place as any" to begin with Wolfe. It is way heavy, complex and introspective. I actually started it three times before finishing, and I'd read a lot of other Wolfe first.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:29 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I knew I was forgetting some - Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife, Ian McEwan's Solar, Rick Moody's Four Fingers of Death, Larry Doyle's not very serious Go Mutants!, and of course all those Doris Lessing Canopus in Argos books (which I admit I have never read). I am thinking there might be a T. C. Boyle novel or two that would fit this "sf dabbler" category too but I am drawing a blank at the moment. Oh, and a couple of Richard Powers's novels skirt the border of sf (Galatea 2.0, Plowing the Dark, and Generosity in particular), but since they are contemporary as they deal with science issues, I don't think they really cross over into genre writing for most people.
posted by aught at 10:43 AM on May 15, 2011


Hmm... I'd say Doris Lessing is very much on home territory with Canopus in Argos.
posted by Artw at 11:05 AM on May 15, 2011


Jeanette Winterson wrote a science fiction novel (The Stone Gods) fairly recently as well, which I haven't read but was reviewed quite positively by Ursula Le Guin in the Guardian.

Also it seems a bit unfair to accuse Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing of dabbling in the genre.
posted by dng at 11:23 AM on May 15, 2011


eviscerated the culture of science and scientists and did so mainly from an emotional/moral/sociological stance. this is not something standard SF authors do very well if at all.

You must have been reading a really different set of SF from the last ~200 years than I have. That's a standard SF trope, probably coming in right after "there is nothing that reason and humanity cannot achieve", "there are things man was not meant to know/do", and "gosh, rocketships sure are neat".


It does sound a bit Caveman Science Fiction.
posted by Artw at 1:19 PM on May 15, 2011


The encomium for Gene Wolfe is nice.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 7:58 AM on May 14 [2 favorites +] [!]


Agreed. I've found all his later stuff largely unreadable though, which is a pity given my stratospheric regard for Book of the New Sun and the first two Soldier books.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:01 PM on May 15, 2011


my stratospheric regard for...the first two Soldier books

I was perplexed when Soldier of Sidon was published. The first two books seemed like the story of his book, and that story was clearly done. Sidon seems tacked on and awkward. I sort of pretend it doesn't exist.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:12 PM on May 15, 2011


other examples including Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (particularly since it was made into a big budget movie)

I couldn't bear to watch that movie... but I would if it starred Dan Radcliffe and the Harry Potter gang.
posted by ovvl at 7:12 PM on May 15, 2011


What's your favourite SF novel?
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:48 AM on May 16, 2011


aught pretty much beat me to the "dabblers" list I was about to make, though honestly I'd throw Lethem and Michael Chabon into there as well. I can certainly sympathize with Banks's (er, M. Banks's) ambivalent feelings about having something that seemed a little special because it was explicitly out of the mainstream suddenly become something which that same mainstream feels free to use as a little dash of flavor to spice up its "serious" works. It's also a little odd how some authors (eg, David Mitchell) seem to be able to get away with writing pretty straightforward science fiction and have it published as "literary" fiction for some reason.

I'm also a little flabbergasted that there's any doubt as to Atwood's commitment to (or chops in) the genre, as I'd always thought The Handmaid's Tale to be an established classic of feminist-leaning science fiction, shoulder to shoulder with notable works by Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and other contemporaneous authors.
posted by whir at 5:40 PM on May 17, 2011


China Mieville tours the science fiction exhibition at the British Library
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:59 AM on May 22, 2011


Note there's an autoplay video on the above link
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:00 AM on May 22, 2011


I'm also a little flabbergasted that there's any doubt as to Atwood's commitment to (or chops in) the genre,

I think true blue SF fans often over-react to the way Atwood has denied that her writing is "science fiction" (something that in some of her older quotes she believed required "monsters" and "rockets"). On the other hand, there is this. (I get the impression her earlier opinions of sf genre writing have evolved in recent years to something a bit more nuanced.)

Also, some sf critics and fans have pointed out that her sf novels, while written in accomplished literary prose, often deal somewhat ham-handedly with concepts considered routine or even cliched for those familiar with the genre (but which get labeled as original and groundbreaking by mainstream book reviewers ignorant of the sf field).
posted by aught at 6:40 AM on May 27, 2011


though honestly I'd throw Lethem and Michael Chabon into there as well.

I give Lethem a pass because he started out writing slip-streamy fantasy novels (and has never been shy about citing P. K. Dick as a major influence, nor disavowed the genre) before becoming accepted by the big-time literary scene. Michael Chabon I can see the argument for, but if he's a dabbler in the genre, he did his dabbling much more successfully in The Yiddish Policeman's Union than P.D. James, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Atwood in the Oryx and Crake books did.
posted by aught at 6:48 AM on May 27, 2011


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