"Conceptual fiction plays with our conception of reality"
September 27, 2014 2:30 AM   Subscribe

"I loathe science fiction," Vladimir Nabokov declared to a BBC interviewer in 1968. A few months later Nabokov published an elaborate sci-fi novel.
Nabokov's Ada or Ardor is one of the works in the Science Fiction in Transition (1958-1975): New Wave & New Directions reading list put together by Ted Gioia, in his day job a jazz critic and music historian.

The list is only one small part of Gioia's Conceptual Fiction site, dedicated to "exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction". Its guiding principles are set out in notes on conceptual fiction.

But this is only one of Gioia's literary websites. There are also:
posted by MartinWisse (33 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
 
That SF in transition list is awesome... just a deep dark pool of amazing books.
posted by selfnoise at 5:14 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


Lists like this always remind me of this story from the Believer (partial, sorry), where the author is given the job of buying the "1500 most important works of literature" for a doctor who wants to spend his retirement reading them. He has all sorts of specifications - books that, for example, are the first known specimen of a novel in a developing country, or an essay that changed world history, or the best example of a certain kind of literature, or a piece that is a cornerstone of a social or political movement.

He takes the job, thinks about it properly, has a little breakdown and then decides he's never going to be able to read them all, so he turns to the best-of lists. But the heartbreak of best of lists! Because of course with lists you're always uncovering new treasures and you have to replace one treasured work with another and you're limited, in his case, by the actual physical space of the bookshelves or, in his employer's case, by the amount of time you have left on earth. Because obviously, if there's limited space on the ark, you will save Lolita, but then what about Pale Fire? Ada or Ardour? No, it would be a crime to include that much Nabokov and loose the Stanislaw Lew completely...

If you have the means to find the full text of that story, highly recommended. I'll just be here in the corner thinking about how many Delany books I'm never going to get around to reading.
posted by theweasel at 5:56 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


And for the record, I would lose Ada or Ardour.
posted by theweasel at 5:59 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wow, this list. I grew up in the 80s, devouring shelves at a time the SF section of Davis Library in Bethesda, MD, and this is what I grew up with -- what I learned to think of SF as being and what somewhere in my heart I still want SF to be, though tradition has mostly moved on.
posted by escabeche at 6:04 AM on September 27, 2014


Where's the Leguin in this list? And you can dump the Heinlein. I'm constantly baffled that he gets top billing with the likes of Lem, Ballard or Delaney.
posted by dis_integration at 6:04 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Where's the Leguin in this list?

If you mean the Science Fiction in Transition list, The Left Hand of Darkness is #36, The Lathe of Heaven is #45, and The Dispossessed is #56. (The ordering is chronological.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 6:17 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Important conceptual fiction with no Doris Lessing or Margaret Atwood? I think not.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 6:24 AM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


So in the middle of the transition from the mostly fascist golden ghetto to the teen paranormal romance fantasy section, there were some pretty good books.
posted by localroger at 6:33 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


Atwood's best stuff was written after 1975, though.
posted by penduluum at 7:14 AM on September 27, 2014


That SF in Transition list is pretty much my adolescence, as I've read easily ~70% of those titles. But if he's allowing anthologies like Dangerous Visions, I'd throw in the Nebula Awards collections, too. At the time, they were a great overview of New Wave short fiction.
posted by Bron at 7:49 AM on September 27, 2014


Very nice list, thank you! :)
posted by jeffburdges at 7:57 AM on September 27, 2014


Whew! Gioia's list is functioning like a madeleine for me; suddenly I am a freshman in high school, having an intense and awkward conversation with the boy I have a terrible crush on about Harlan Ellison and Robert Heinlein.

I think I might make this list my reading project for 2015. After 2014's year of reading (mostly) women, it'll make an interesting contrast.
posted by minervous at 8:36 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's like a list of books that I've read that I really liked!

And you can dump the Heinlein. I'm constantly baffled that he gets top billing with the likes of Lem, Ballard or Delaney.

I'd agree that Heinlein is kinda over-rated, but I can't deny that he is influential. Gioia makes a fun defense of Heinlein's goofy 70's epic 'Time Enough for Love'.
posted by ovvl at 8:43 AM on September 27, 2014


Such lists, if they're any good (which Gioia's is), are always contentious since their examples have to restrict and omit as well as define and include. In this case, while Atwood at least gets name-checked elsewhere on his site, Lessing remains outside his remit, despite her Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) arguably meeting all the criteria for his "conceptual fiction" category.

On the other hand, he is sufficiently catholic in his tastes that he proposed JK Rowling as her parallel-reality laureate in his list the Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe.
posted by Doktor Zed at 8:49 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


That is a great list, but... no Strugatskys?
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell is definitely the most glaring omission for me.

Great lists though. The whole site is a wonderful find. I've been reading through it all morning.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:20 AM on September 27, 2014


So in the middle of the transition from the mostly fascist golden ghetto to the teen paranormal romance fantasy section, there were some pretty good books.

This is actually a completely perfect summation, thank you. I need it on a plaque or something.
posted by selfnoise at 9:20 AM on September 27, 2014


Poking around on the other sites, I'm moved to ask, is Ted Gioia truly a single human? Certainly one capable of reading and writing in prodigious amounts.

Thanks, MartinWisse, for your continuing devotion to SFnal topics.
posted by Jesse the K at 10:02 AM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


Every time I read a review of Dhalgren it always implies (or downright states) 'you won't get through this book' while also stating 'this is an important and great work'.

I got about 700 pages through it (many years ago), and always felt guilty about not finishing it (I mean, if I could get through that much, why not finish it). But I was convinced there would be no conclusion, no satisfying (or even unsatisfying) ending, so it is left unfinished.
posted by el io at 11:44 AM on September 27, 2014


> Every time I read a review of Dhalgren it always implies (or downright states) 'you won't get through this book' while also stating 'this is an important and great work'.

I got about 700 pages through it (many years ago), and always felt guilty about not finishing it


That's hilarious! I bought Dhalgren when it came out because I loved his earlier work so much; after plowing through it with increasing bewilderment and difficulty, I left it on the window ledge in the bathroom one day and a breeze blew it into the toilet. I took it as a Sign and never went back to it. Glad to know I'm not alone!
posted by languagehat at 11:56 AM on September 27, 2014


Very happy to see Moderan made the list. Discovered it in a little used bookshop in Vermont and was really captured by it.
posted by the sobsister at 12:38 PM on September 27, 2014


"Ada" is one freaking weird book, bordering on pornographic, as well. That last is not necessarily disapproving either, just true.
posted by hwestiii at 1:01 PM on September 27, 2014


Love Delaney, also bewildered by Dhalgren. What was that book about again??
posted by Ansible at 1:24 PM on September 27, 2014


a breeze blew it into the toilet.

I call bullshit, languagehat. I carried Dhalgren around for a few weeks and nothing short of a gale would have blown that book into the toilet.
posted by escabeche at 6:15 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I first read 'Dhalgren' when I was rather young and impressionable, and the loose story envisioned the interconnectedness of thingys in a profound manner for me. I was most impressed. I read some of it by fire-light when the power went out during a winter ice-storm, which added to the overall haunting atmosphere.

'Dhalgren' is one rare book that I loved when I was young, but I don't really expect anyone else to like so much. I think that if I read it now for the first time I wouldn't be as interested.

Note: as mentioned, if you like Delany, but maybe thought that 'Dhalgren' was a bit too challenging or loose or weird, then Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is probably perfect.
posted by ovvl at 6:48 PM on September 27, 2014


I've owned Dhlagren for a few years but only opened it once, when I was unpacking my books in a new apartment. I decided to read the first page, and I was entranced. I sat on the floor near the bookshelf and read the next ten or so pages before I finally put it on the shelf. I expected the book to be incomprehensible, but through some magical power of Delaney's language, even if individual sentences didn't make sense, as a whole I could envision what was happening.

That being said, I sincerely doubt that it will hold me rapt for another 690 pages or so, so I haven't returned to it since.

As for Bunch, I'm disappointed to see that neither my public library system nor the university system has any of his work. I might use interlibrary loan in order to check him out. Here's the worldcat entry for Moderan if anyone else is interested.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:14 PM on September 27, 2014


My Dhalgren story:

I got fifty pages away from the end of this book before realIzing - "Ah shit, I've read this before."

Seeing as the theme of amnesia plays such a major role in Dhalgren, I found that fact kind of ironic.

(And yes, I did finish it. Again.)

But, now that I think if it, even after having read the book twice ( that I can remember) I still have no idea what the damn thing is about.

Apparently, I'm not alone.
posted by hoodrich at 7:23 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


loose the Stanislaw Lem completely

And cry havoc!
posted by straight at 8:05 PM on September 27, 2014


The tirck with Dhalgren is to not worry about the story, just trust Delany and let it flow over you.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:57 AM on September 28, 2014


> "So in the middle of the transition from the mostly fascist golden ghetto to the teen paranormal romance fantasy section, there were some pretty good books."

This kind of comment is why it amuses me how many science fiction fans claim that sf by nature attracts forward thinking people whereas fantasy in contrast attracts those who idolize the past.
posted by kyrademon at 11:39 AM on September 28, 2014


Doktor Zed: On the other hand, he is sufficiently catholic in his tastes that he proposed JK Rowling as her parallel-reality laureate in his list the Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe.

Holy moly, that alternalist is just so parochial and ahistorical and just plain wrong that I don't even know where to start. Actually, yes, I know where to start, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa couldn't have received the Nobel because his claim to fame and only published work came out after he was dead. Similar reasons apply to Kafka. Also, there are few enough women who received the Nobel Prize in Literature to begin with and the alternative list has even fewer. And fuck me is it cringingly Anglo and Euro-centric.*

It has to be said, that list makes the Nobel Prize committee look pretty good in comparison.


* And even if we accept that the problem with the list of Nobel Prize winners is its lack of English-language writers, what kind of tin-eared nincompoop puts Heinlen on the list but not Wodehouse?
posted by Kattullus at 1:03 PM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


found this link to a free download of the David R. Bunch title on the list, as Goodreads had one for $100 and Amazon for $50 - http://bookzz.org/g/David%20R.%20Bunch
posted by TMezz at 1:38 PM on September 28, 2014


Important conceptual fiction with no Doris Lessing or Margaret Atwood? I think not.

Speaking of Lessing: What to call her?
posted by homunculus at 1:29 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


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