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Making Excuses for Science Fiction
December 27, 2013 7:04 PM   Subscribe

When I published my first novel 20 years later, I found myself faced with the same challenge: how do I talk about this book to people whose entire conception of science fiction and fantasy are built around Star Wars and The Hobbit? How do I convince folks that stories about the dissolution of a marriage in Montreal in 2155 are just as serious an endeavor as writing about the dis­solution of a marriage in Montreal 1955?
posted by Brandon Blatcher (43 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
How do I convince folks that stories about the dissolution of a marriage in Montreal in 2155 are just as serious an endeavor as writing about the dis­solution of a marriage in Montreal 1955?

The current method is:

1. Write some other books that aren't sci-fi.

2. Don't call your sci-fi sci-fi, any other name is fine.

3. (The hard one) Keep the science-fictional elements in the background as much as you can.

Ishiguro, Atwood and James did it, and so can you!
posted by StrikeTheViol at 7:37 PM on December 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


Yeah, I was really not expecting the ray gun battles in The Remains of the Day.
posted by Gin and Comics at 7:40 PM on December 27, 2013 [14 favorites]


I think it's marketing's fault. They've done so much research about target demographics that they're missing the trees for the forest. In promoting and segregating novels based on identified small markets, they are missing the potential for big breakout hits (at least, hits right after initial publication--someone who knows a lot more than me may speak to the backlist/long tail effect if they wish).

SF/F writers these days know how to write for mass audiences. People don't have to believe in dragons to believe in the characters of Game of Thrones. People don't have to know anything about relative time dilation to get wrapped up in the love triangle of Spin. But booksellers and publishers sure as hell act like readers need to be fully immersed in science and fantasy, and that pushes a lot of readers away.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:46 PM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I was really not expecting the ray gun battles in The Remains of the Day.

Space Nazis. I hate Space Nazis.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:57 PM on December 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


I look at the works of SF which I admire the most: works by Brunner, some of Silverberg's pre-Valentine work, Delaney... They are all pretty unapologetic for being SF, and contain within them such magnificent explorations of the human condition, easily on par with or exceeding what great "mainstream" novels have done...

It's surely only that truly great works of SF require a reader to project and interpolate as opposed to reflect and relate that stands as a barrier to them being considered a niche genre instead of simply being mainstream. But it is often the inventions which allow them such creative exploration. And really, Jane Eyre, with the mad wife locked in the attic... Is that not fully as inventive as anything in SF? I don't think those things happened in real life all that often, but audiences accept them somehow better than any mechanism created by a deep SF author to further their own storytelling.

Peculiar, but true.
posted by hippybear at 8:07 PM on December 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


I agree completely with infinitewindow. I have read a lot of novels, and I'd put Peace by Gene Wolfe up against any of them. (Maybe that's not science fictional enough. I'd also put The Book of the New Sun up against any of them.)

It does bother me that pedestrian books like The Road (one of Cormac McCarthy's most minor of minor efforts) get a ton of credit as if they're breaking new ground when the post-apocalypse has been a popular setting in science fiction for decades. The same is true, to a lesser degree, for Never Let Me Go, which is a better book but no more unique if compared within the "genre." By writing "literary" fiction, and avoiding the genre classification, these authors get too much credit for books that wouldn't warrant a passing glance otherwise.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:07 PM on December 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


I seem to have the opposite problem. I don't have any problem getting people to read my stories. I was a little nervous when I admitted to my 70 year old father, who had lost his beloved wife just a few months before, that I had written a novel and it was kinda popular in some circles and I thought he should know it existed because I felt a little bad because Mom had never known about it. And he read The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect and called me on the phone the next day to tell me it was the best thing he had ever read and full of comments about details and questions about what things meant. That zombie rape scene? Didn't seem to bother him a bit.

But publishers don't want to give me the time of day, because whatever I'm doing even though it seems to work doesn't seem to fit in any formula they recognize. So it's still self published, though at over 2,000 copies sold and only God knows how many readers online because all those people bought it even though they could read it for free if they wanted to it's more successful than just about anything other than the few weird breakouts that went mega.

The thing is, the industry formula for SF is toxic to a lot of non-SF readers. That old canard about starting your readers off in a cave with the lights off and let them figure out where they are from the clues ... that fucking sucks. People who aren't puzzle junkies hate that. Hell I self-identify as a SF fan and I hate that.

And perhaps if the OP is thinking of depicting marriage breakups in 2155, maybe there is a little different problem of too much world-building and too little wonder. A simple non-SF romance set in 2015 with smartphones and geolocation and social media would probably look quite SFnal if you published it in 1970. And there were even a few stories like that in that era; they were considered experimental and mostly not too popular even when very good.

The best SF (and the signature author for this is the late Iain Banks) brings you into the story with enough familiarity to make the transition from our world to the story world natural, then hits you on the head with something so fucking huge you barely survive the encounter. Unfortunately, the current formulas demanded by publishers and therefore supplied by writers don't quite follow that.
posted by localroger at 8:09 PM on December 27, 2013 [18 favorites]


SF/fantasy did a lot of this to itself by publishing tons of mediocre, overwrought, padded-out series that declined in coherency and originality the further along you got. If you wandered into a bookstore (when we still had them) and went to the "genre" table, you would first have to get past lurid cover art that looked like it belonged on the side of a van, then open up the first chapter to see names (usually 20 or so of them in the first chapter) f'ull of a'pos'tro'phes, written in either fake techspeak or fake Ye Olde Tolkeinish.

Try a few of those and you can easily lose your desire to try any more. It didn't help that even the good writers often got the van-art cover treatment and so looked indistinguishable from the rest.

I think this is why YA sci-fi snuck through the radar. It was less set-apart; the plots/characters were kept simpler by the requirements of YA itself, and the covers needed to be somewhat hip and appealing so that teenagers would be willing to carry them around. The Twilight books were not good reading, but they had a great set of covers for the series. The Hunger Games books, likewise.

Meanwhile a quick n' dirty Google search of 2013 science fiction book images still shows the same Starship Framed by Explosions and Planets/Planets and Mystic-Looking Cityscapes/Hero Sillhoutted Against Techy or Magicy Explosions themes.
posted by emjaybee at 8:31 PM on December 27, 2013 [24 favorites]


How do I convince authors that there are worthwhile stories that aren't about the dissolution of a marriage?
posted by straight at 8:57 PM on December 27, 2013 [27 favorites]


More Queequeg!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:40 PM on December 27, 2013


More Queequeg!

"Ahab rolled over in bed and thought grimly about the upcoming meeting with the marriage counselor. How long would it take for Moby to accuse him of chasing after other cetaceans? 'It's anything with a tail with him, Ishmael!' 'Dammit,' sighed Ahab, 'I'll have to call Ishmael in the morning.'"
posted by yoink at 10:06 PM on December 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


Weeeeell... look, I was looking forward to God's War coming out for years and she has all my sympathies, but I couldn't finish it either. Not because it was "too weird" or too difficult to comprehend, but because it's an incredibly brutal book and I just hit my limit while reading a torture scene and had to stop. And usually it's easier for me to read something like that rather than watch it, so..... I'm not saying it's bad at all, it is just literally not an easy read even for the target audience. But that's her subject matter, and she's good at it...I just thought I could take it, and in the end I could not. Sad but true.

On the other hand, my friends and family almost never read my work or want to, or tokenly say they want to and then don't. Why? Because my work isn't their bag or what they'd pick to read on their own. You just kind of have to accept that.

But I do think she's right that the plot of a story is what sells it. Not the author, not even whether or not it's SF for those who don't like SF, but "do I want to find out what happens next?"
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:11 PM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it's not even so much "Do I want to find out what happens next" as it is "I want to fnd out what happens to these people". A lot of science fiction and fantasy is weak when it comes to making interesting characters people want to read about; there's a reason the Eight Deadly Words are "I Don't Care What Happens to These People"
posted by happyroach at 10:34 PM on December 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


I think it's not even so much "Do I want to find out what happens next" as it is "I want to fnd out what happens to these people". A lot of science fiction and fantasy is weak when it comes to making interesting characters people want to read about; there's a reason the Eight Deadly Words are "I Don't Care What Happens to These People"

I agree that it's about the people/characters above all. For me, what separates a book that matters to me and a book that doesn't hinges on whether I felt that I entered into the characters' perspectives and world. A lot of science fiction (and fantasy) writing seems prone to collapse a character's individual POV into the world's general POV -- in an effort to cover a lot of world building, I guess. But that makes the character's POV seems so diffuse and impersonal that it can be very tough for me to actually get into the book.

In that same vein, I find that a lot of science fiction and fantasy -- even when it's otherwise very good -- is *terrible* at physical reality. How people fight, how fast children mature, dealing with the heat and cold -- often they'll be handled as though the writer has never lived inside a human body. That's not just in cerebral or "mystical" stories -- it also comes up in everything from Star Wars novels (will never forget two-year-old Han Solo having ludicrously advanced survival and coping skills while living on the streets, in an otherwise good story) to Dani being suspiciously not hot/sweaty/itchy while traveling through the desert in a cloak with her hair growing in, in A Song of Ice and Fire. It takes me completely out of the story.

Since detective and horror stories tend to be very caught up in the anatomical (how things work in a very literal sense, piecing things together...also often in a very literal sense, the human body and its limitations) I think they're actually the best kind of stories to place in a sci fi or fantasy world. Literary fiction is already so cerebral that it seems impossibly difficult to pair with a genre that, by definition, has already got a lot of huge concepts to explain w/r/t its settings.
posted by rue72 at 11:15 PM on December 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


how do I talk about this book to people whose entire conception of science fiction and fantasy are built around Star Wars and The Hobbit?

If my entire conception of fantasy was built around Tolkien's The Hobbit I would have extraordinarily high expectations of any book calling itself fantasy.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:52 PM on December 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


What the hell is a True Crime novel? Is it a True Crime or is it a novel?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:58 PM on December 27, 2013


I just read Solaris over the holidays, and the cover art was a still from the George Clooney remake. I was worried my family and friends would think I was reading a romance novel.
posted by victory_laser at 12:01 AM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]




How do I convince folks that stories about the dissolution of a marriage in Montreal in 2155 are just as serious an endeavor as writing about the dissolution of a marriage in Montreal 1955?

For starters, you'd better have a reason why it has to happen in 2155 and not in 1955. Are jet packs a necessary part of the story? Or do you expect it to take that long for a certain change in society to occur?
posted by pracowity at 1:12 AM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think she's mostly right, but there's another part of sci-fi and fantasy that hooks me and that's the places. Getting transported somewhere fascinating and organic and vivid and alive. Lots of genres do this well, but being able to make the jump to where I really care about the kingdom of Gored or Lyra's Oxford or the people on Ganymede is a great feat for a writer to have.
posted by NoraReed at 1:36 AM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree that it's about the people/characters above all. For me, what separates a book that matters to me and a book that doesn't hinges on whether I felt that I entered into the characters' perspectives and world.

Whereas I'm as likely to be hooked by an interesting plot or setting or interesting ideas whether the characters are interesting or not.

I'm tempted to say that a science fiction story is one where the characters aren't the only thing that matters. A story where the reader doesn't just enter into the perspective of the particular characters of the story, but also into a different world (whether it's our world with a small but significant difference, or an entirely different time or place). In a good science fiction story, the reader will care about the particular characters and their lives, but I think there's also a sense in which the reader has a direct encounter with the new ideas or situations in that world that's not necessarily mediated by the experiences of the story's particular characters.

Some science fiction stories can succeed in providing that direct encounter with a new world without good characters, but I think those are inferior stories and that some people can't (or don't want to) connect with them at all in the absence of characters they care about.
posted by straight at 2:16 AM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile a quick n' dirty Google search of 2013 science fiction book images still shows the same Starship Framed by Explosions and Planets/Planets and Mystic-Looking Cityscapes/Hero Sillhoutted Against Techy or Magicy Explosions themes.

good god am I glad that everything is epub and on my ipad now so I don't have to carry around that embarrassing "muscle bound hero with robot cleavage chick in front of space ship" godawful nonsense that the publishers slap on every SF cover. like 95% of the time they are completely unrelated to the story! AND look terrible! who does this crap??
posted by young_son at 2:26 AM on December 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


I want to say that while I mostly agree with the sentiment, the article itself isn't written in such a way as to let me believe she's writing the great American novel. Even as she's explicitly making note of the fact, she continues to undermine herself with cheeky asides. "My sister wasn’t reading a science fiction novel about a perpetual holy war on a far-flung future world, fueled by mad boxers and bug-powered magic. Ok, well, maybe she was." I have not read her work. One thing I know about art is that it has to be executed with confidence in its own intrinsic value.
posted by newdaddy at 3:08 AM on December 28, 2013


The Twilight books were not good reading, but they had a great set of covers for the series.

True, that. Before I had any idea what Twilight was, I saw the covers in Barnes and Noble. It got me to wander over to them. Sorta like you would to a poo if it were cast in silver and jewels stuck to it.
posted by angrycat at 4:23 AM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


For starters, you'd better have a reason why it has to happen in 2155 and not in 1955. Are jet packs a necessary part of the story?

Why stop there? You'd better have a good reason to set it in 1955 and not 1855. Are cars and telephones really necessary parts of the story?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:05 AM on December 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


I was actually just thinking about this very topic while washing my hair, so I'm happy to see it turn up on the blue.

Honestly, I've read a lot of SF where it's about a marriage dissolving in 2155 and it doesn't need to be science fiction because nothing new is added by the SF setting and the story might as well be (usually very sub-par) Cheever or Munro - where the SF setting functions as a sort of poorly-worked-out magical realism but also takes up so much space in the story that there really isn't enough room left for characterization or insight. (Where you learn that people are trapped by their past! Or that memory is unreliable! Or that straight white men's marriages sometimes fail because they are emotionally unavailable!) Inevitably, several hundred years of social change have not changed the human relationships at the core of the story very much.

I think this is a built-in tension in SF, because (with Joanna Russ) I think that SF is didactic literature and it isn't built to do the whole 19th century novel/psychological realism/individualism thing naturally. (There are exceptions to this - I'm not saying that SF can't produce detailed psychologically realistic stories. Gwynneth Jones's not unproblematic but also amazing novel Life comes to mind...and of course, some people insist that, like, The Time Traveller's Wife is SF because it has time travel in it (which I think is a bad conclusion))

My point being that when you're writing individual-psychology stories where the point is to illuminate individual psychology (rather than to illuminate a new or potential social formation or technology and its effects on people) it can be easy to be shallow and hackneyed. (I think there's some less-than-successful middle period Le Guin short stories where the "message" is pretty trite, for instance. And Le Guin is a great writer.)

It's really easy, I think, to write revenge adventures set in space - where the hook of the story is "a woman seeks revenge for [injustice]" and the science fiction only functions as decorative trappings, or to smooth over plot problems. I expect, actually, that some of those stories are pretty interesting in a pulpy way. I think people are entitled to write and read whatever SFnal material they like (which is obviously big of me) without too much theory getting in the way. But I do think that there's a difference between SF where the point is the SF and SF where the point is using the SF as frosting, and if you're using it as frosting, I like there to be a substantial cake underneath.

Earlier I was trying to make a list of SF and fantasy that I felt really did do both SF/fantasy and traddy characterization well - books where the characters were written with a depth that could have also sustained a non-SF/non-fantasy novel. I don't think this is the hallmark of a good SF/fantasy novel, particularly - there are lots that don't do this and that are excellent, ranging from, say, Brokedown Palace (so misogynist! so gripping!) to Ammonite (an excellent SF hero protagonist, well realized in an SF tradition, and an awesome novel.) Or Shevek, in The Dispossessed, is a rather thinly drawn character. Or Pirx the Pilot. Etc etc.

But some books do both, for whatever reason, and this was the start of my list: A Stranger in Olondria, The Book of the New Sun, quite a lot of Delany, Nights At the Circus, The Folk of the Air, Gwyneth Jones's novel Life, Timmi DuChamp's Marq'ssan books (where actually the characterization and non-SF plot pretty much trumps the SFnal elements)....
posted by Frowner at 7:17 AM on December 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


Why stop there? You'd better have a good reason to set it in 1955 and not 1855. Are cars and telephones really necessary parts of the story?

No, that's exactly the point. If I'm writing a story where it's basically Jason and Belinda from Williamsburg breaking up on a loft roof, only I think it's more exciting if the loft is on Saturn, that's going to be a blah story. It will be just as blah - and probably more of a failure - if I just put Jason and Belinda in the clothes of 1855 and ignore the many differences between now and then, the social issues that would contour their relationship, etc.
posted by Frowner at 7:21 AM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


But I do think that there's a difference between SF where the point is the SF and SF where the point is using the SF as frosting, and if you're using it as frosting, I like there to be a substantial cake underneath.

This is very well said. SF where the point is the SF is usually done better in short stories, wich is why Nightfall was one of the most powerful short stories ever written but a fairly awful novel. It takes a lot of pure SF to fill out a book without getting tiresome.
posted by localroger at 7:27 AM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


The boundaries of genre are really tricky to identify - and it's easy to think that we shouldn't even bother, because who wants to be the genre police? And yet, there are things that make SF into SF, there's a history of SF as a genre (whether you start in Russia in the late 19th century or in 1925 with the pulps, etc), there are all kinds of things that SF does well naturally and a bunch that it often does poorly...SF is a literature of work, for example. There's not a lot of high culture literature about work (for a variety of reasons), but SF portrays work all the time, often with a great deal of detail and realism. (Nicola Griffith's Slow River, for instance; quite a lot of Delany.) Obviously, SF isn't the only literature of work - nothing is the only literature of anything, so to speak - but it's one of the places where work can be addressed. (Take Triton for example - it has some great sections about work, even though the work is not as we know it.)


This is very well said. SF where the point is the SF is usually done better in short stories, wich is why Nightfall was one of the most powerful short stories ever written but a fairly awful novel. It takes a lot of pure SF to fill out a book without getting tiresome.


I do want to distinguish between "hard SF" and science fiction as a whole, though. It is difficult to fill a book with nothing but exciting and dramatic hard SF technology-stuff, yes, but it's not hard to fill a book with world-building and the kind of characterization which SF does well. Nicola Griffeth's novel Ammonite, for instance, is really really good science fiction qua science fiction - it critiques and reworks all kinds of SF tropes, it has a great adventure plot, there's some Actual! Science! (and some well-integrated hand-waving about parthenogenesis) and it has a great, heroic/romantic/well-realized main character. The main character is awesome, but she wouldn't cut it if you dropped her into War and Peace - she's not written in the 19th century mode. That doesn't mean she's written in a flat, generic or boring way; it's just that the purpose of the book isn't the same.

Or take Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood trilogy - in those books, the SF setting is key. It enables Butler to say some things about embodiment, choices, race, labor and history that are really smart and amazing. And Lilith is really reacting to SFnal things - she's not just having experiences in a future setting; she's having experiences with the future setting, and her character is established by what we see of her experiences. It would be possible to write a book which says similar things about labor, race, choices and embodiment in a non-SF setting, sort of, but the SF setting provides force, clarity and Brechtian estrangement which give the ideas political power.

Obviously, you can write a story about the break-up of a marriage in 2155 that has a lot to say about 2013 and says it by using the SFnal setting - that's pretty much how most of Joanna Russ's short stories work. (Consider "Nor Custom Stale"!)

Science fiction, IMO, is sort of this dance (or else it's like double-entry bookkeeping) where the SFnal setting and the contemporary world of the writer dance together (get added up in different columns) to produce something that you couldn't get just by sitting down and making up either a short story set in the now or a role playing game module set in the future. SF isn't exactly about the future - it's about the present, it can only be about the present. But it's about throughlines to the future.
posted by Frowner at 7:42 AM on December 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Jason and Belinda ... breaking up

If Jason is a nanobot infested cyborg integrated into the grid and Belinda is a fully artificial AI and the breakup is a literal wire cutter to their direct fiber connection, then you've got the making of a fine SF novel.
posted by sammyo at 7:43 AM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Honestly, I haven't had a lot of trouble getting people--like, normal people, like my father-in-law--to read my books despite their being both outside the typical formula of YA novels and pretty damn genre (I even approach worldbuilding through incluing, which I think is fine, contrary to what localroger says). The key, I've found, is a snazzy pitch. "My So-Called Life meets 'Jews in Space!'" tends to work in a pinch. It makes people laugh, at least.

That said, I did do a lot of apologizing for the fact that there is hot alien kissing early on, and I've learned to quit that. It's not 1997, and there's no high school bully around to beat me up for writing fanfic, so I've learned to quit acting like there is.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:59 AM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


A good pitch works wonders. I spent like two days boiling my current comic project down to two sentences: "It's about a robot lady who's dragged outside of reality by her ex-boyfriend. She's got to pull herself together across four parallel worlds before a hive-mind can take over the universe."

I have only been to ONE convention where that first sentence didn't result in 99% of the people who slowed down for my table laughing, saying something like "Oh I had one of those exes!", and picking it up and flipping through. And that con was one that was advertised as being "comic-con for queers" and turned out to be "comic-con for gay dudes", who unsurprisingly have little interest in femmy comics by femmy people.

I don't apologize for it being SF. I don't try to hide the fact that it's SF, either. But I went digging for the emotional hook and condensed it down to one sentence at the beginning of my pitch. Pretty much everyone can connect to "the ex who shows up again and makes life complicated". Very few people can relate to "being stuck in a Philip K. Dick novel".

It doesn't matter when and where your story is set. If the people and their relationships are bland and uninteresting, you're gonna have to be doing something pretty damn amazing to get people to read it, finish it.
posted by egypturnash at 8:31 AM on December 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Why stop there? You'd better have a good reason to set it in 1955 and not 1855. Are cars and telephones really necessary parts of the story?

Writers generally write best about the people and things they (and their readers) know. Most great fiction is set in the writer's lived past.
posted by pracowity at 8:34 AM on December 28, 2013


Writers generally write best about the people and things they (and their readers) know.

I'd say the point of science fiction is to write about people and things and places that writers and readers don't know. So it's not surprising if it's harder to do well.
posted by straight at 10:06 AM on December 28, 2013


"It's about a robot lady who's dragged outside of reality by her ex-boyfriend. She's got to pull herself together across four parallel worlds before a hive-mind can take over the universe."

AH! I know that comic!

And it's an excellent example of how to do an SF novel that has distinctive memorable characters, that are at the same time informed by their culture and technology.

Decrypting Rita is a perfect example of a story where the issues involved, both large scale and personal, couldn't be done in a 1955 or 1855 setting. And it does it while I say I do care about three characters.
posted by happyroach at 11:28 AM on December 28, 2013


If you wandered into a bookstore (when we still had them) and went to the "genre" table, you would first have to get past lurid cover art

And that image has been projected since at least the 1920s on the covers of pulp magazines and "dime novels" printed on cheap quickly-yellowing paper with covers aimed at a LCD demographic. Not to mention the movie posters of early SF films!

The publishers who FED ON the early SF writers (including the beloved Gernsbach) were interested in big profits. Likewise, the estate of beloved Hubbard FED ON his notoriety in the 80s when a melange of his "masterpieces" were re-created with garish covers slathered across every bookstores SF section for a decade.

Lots of people's opinions of SF have been strongly conditioned by such representations. Decades ago a colleague's opinion of me drastically changed when he found a SF novel on a table in front of me ... he actually got -angry- over the subject, and called me all kinds of adorably unrequested things.

It's funny now, but the critique born out of ignorance (or hatred or fear of technology, or whatever their bag is) can't be easily erased. Every cycle of garishness conditions another decade of spleen. We can only suggest to those bent on spleenish venting that they actually invest some time in reading [list of authors rich enough that they didn't have to crank out crap for a living like Dick did] and then leave them to stew in their crankiness.
posted by Twang at 12:35 PM on December 28, 2013


Honestly, my grandparents married in Montreal in the 1950s, and I would have a harder time writing a believable story about the dissolution of a marriage there in 1955 than 2155. No more a different world than a lot of SF.

Judging from stories my grandfather told, I imagine if the marriage was childless, it would probably involve greasing the palm of a bishop to get an annulment.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:56 PM on December 28, 2013


Eh. If you have a kneejerk reaction that science fiction isn't literature, you're an idiot and I don't care what you think. If that sounds elitist, I don't care about that either.
posted by Zed at 7:47 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


philip larkin on working on the booker prize committee: "Personally, I found myself asking four questions about every book: Could I read it? If I could read it, did I believe it? If I believed it, did I care about it? And if I did care about it, what was the quality of my caring, and would it last?" I think science fiction struggles to retain familiar, resonant elements about how people are and how they behave, and to stay believable in a unfamiliar universe where rules we have now about how people travel/communicate/live/what they value are altered. clearly hard to do well for the reader even when it is enjoyable for the writer to go off the deep end.
posted by half life at 7:09 AM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was thinking about this thread this morning: one of the things I enjoy the most about science fiction and fantasy is something that's contextual enough to probably impair their appreciation in a broader audience, and that's innovation in worldbuilding. Sometimes I read a novel and on every page of a 500-page book the author introduces details that are quite creative and which I've never seen before. And they just keep churning it all out unrelentingly, and it's an absolute joy because it's almost like temporarily developing the ability to keep up with a world-class marathon runner, imagination-wise.

And then it's even better when all those pieces of the worldbuilding have been shaped and polished perfectly so that they slide together, and with each revelation you're like "but wouldn't that mean that..." and shortly it becomes apparent that the author has thought out all of the same implications of their own ideas you have and many more besides. And hence it's evident that the author probably brainstormed much more innovative stuff than actually showed up in their published writing, which makes the whole endeavor seem all the more epic, a positively superhuman gush of imagination and creativity.

But I'd think the ability to enjoy that aspect of it can be impaired by 1) too little context, where you aren't familiar enough with the work of the genre to know which details are innovative and which are derivative, or see which ones are building on old tropes in new ways, but also 2) too much context, the exhaustive hyper-intensive inquiry and analysis that appears to typify 21st-century academics in literature in the humanities and the hyper-specialization that develops in mature academic fields, that perhaps lets the reader see how many of the puppet-strings aren't really held by the author themselves in a piece of writing.

(And of course, reflecting on what I've said above, this is probably just a complicated way of claiming that everyone else is either too low-brow or too jaded to appreciate the same stuff I like. But it's totally true!)
posted by XMLicious at 9:15 AM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's a quote from Susan Sontag that I'm still trying to parse, on the way to rebutting;

"Science fiction —
Popular mythology for contemporary negative imagination about the impersonal"
(11/1/64)

What even is "contemporary negative imagination"?
posted by newdaddy at 12:36 PM on December 29, 2013


And really, Jane Eyre, with the mad wife locked in the attic... Is that not fully as inventive as anything in SF? I don't think those things happened in real life all that often, but audiences accept them somehow better than any mechanism created by a deep SF author to further their own storytelling.

Aside from the important feminist writing on the subject of madwomen in attics in 19th Century English Lit, innumerable people were in fact locked away (in attics or other confined parts of the house, or indeed in asylums) in Victorian society -- "crazy" women (often a euphemism for uppity or headstrong), illegitimate children, and children with deformities or mental issues. That said, I can think of any number of ways this kind of socially acceptable abuse (abusive, that is, from our early 21st Century POV) could be redone in an SF context. And you wouldn't even need aliens.

Stick an early teen into the world of 2155 with a disability -- severe allergic reactions to everyday electronic implants -- and see what happens when their family locks them away, metaphorically or actually.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:59 PM on December 29, 2013


What even is "contemporary negative imagination"?

That quote seems to be part of a passage about the depiction of nuclear armageddon, specifically in films:
Yet alongside the hopeful fantasy of moral simplification and international unity embodied in the science fiction films, lurk the deepest anxieties about contemporary existence. I don't mean only the very real trauma of the bomb—that it has been used, that there are enough now to kill everyone on earth many times over, that those new bombs may very well be used. Besides these new anxieties about physical disaster, the prospect of universal mutilation and even annihilation, the science fiction films reflect powerful anxieties about the condition of the individual psyche.

For science fiction films may also be described as a popular mythology for contemporary negative imagination about the impersonal. The otherworld creatures that seek to take "us" over are an "it", not a "they."
So it seems she's saying something like, the contemporary science fiction films of the 1950s and early 1960s were essentially about Commies... in... SPAAAAAACE!

For context watch The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), if you haven't seen it before.

(I mean, I'd imagine she was saying something much more sophisticated than "Commies in space", and from a different perspective on the Cold War and the mid-twentieth-century than we have in the 21st century looking back, but she probably wasn't saying something in general about science fiction.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:17 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


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