More on science fiction (again)

Earlier posts on science fiction (see here too) and fantasy have elicited some reactions worth considering; John Markley writes Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic and has a post called The stigma of imagination that I mostly agree with until the last paragraph:

Respectability for fantasy or science fiction is most likely a hopeless cause, at least in the current cultural climate. It has the stigma of childishness and Nerd Cooties at the same time. A genre might be able to get away with one; you won’t get away with both.

Maybe—but I’m not so sure. One very positive outcome of Deconstructionism has been the relative rise of genre fiction and an increase of the perceived merit of texts that aren’t purely in the tradition of Flaubertian realism. Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick have Library of America volumes dedicated to them, cultural studies flourishes, Tolkien has a peer-reviewed journal named “Tolkien Studies,” and Clark University, my alma mater, offers English courses in science fiction. Michael Chabon’s genre bending has engendered widespread critical admiration, and he defends the idea of genre as part of literature in his wonderful essay collection Maps and Legends, at one point saying:

Yet all mystery resides there, in the margins, between life and death, childhood and adulthood, Newtonian and quantum, “serious” and “genre” literature. And it is from the confrontation with mystery that the truest stories have always drawn their power.
Like a house on the borderlands, epic fantasy is haunted […]

To be sure, Chabon could be the exception that proves the rule. Nonetheless, I don’t think so; I mentioned Chandler and Dick already, and Philip Pullman has earned a strong and real reputation that brings him a spot along with le Guin among major literary figures. Chabon’s aware that some double standard still exists, saying that “From time to time some writer, through a canny shift in subject matter to focus, or through the coming to literary power of his or her lifelong fans, or through sheer, undeniable literary chops, manages to break out,” but I think he’s overstating the case and that the the double standard he’s implicitly writing about is shrinking by the year. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson wield as much literary authority as anyone this side of Ian McEwan and Louis Menand, and Chabon is busily demolishing whatever barriers might be left.

The result, however, will mean that science fiction is judged relative to other literary books, and by this standard it still too often doesn’t reach high or far enough. Beware of the walls that come down: it lets you into the world, and it also lets the world into you. My problem with science fiction and fantasy isn’t as genres, but when the formula of genre is used by bad writers and then defended by those who don’t appear to have really thought about what great writing means or done the heavy lifting real criticism demands. Some writers—Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you, and The Name of the Wind counts too—the find vociferous followers whose overall literary knowledge often seems low, causing the rest of us who defend the genre but not bad manifestations of the genre much angst.

I have one other partial quibble which isn’t about his assertion but the reasons behind it when Markley writes:

That might explain why magical realism is usually considered legit literature: it has imaginative elements, which is iffy, but it doesn’t compound the sin by thinking about the imaginative elements rationally.

Part of the reason magical realism gets good marks is because it’s associated with what academics like me call post-colonialism, which has been a major topic (or fad, depending on perspective) in universities. This is probably more political than aesthetic, but it partially explains why magical realism has been more accepted than fantasy. Nonetheless, the distinction, if there is one, has been fading, and is likely to continue to fade, like the idea that genre literature isn’t real literature. Notice that magical realism began growing in earnest after Deconstructionism, just like respect for fantasy and science fiction. In addition, speculative elements have long been in literature, as something like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or the vast body of myth and myth criticism demonstrates. In some ways, the acceptance of fantasy and science fiction is more a return than an all-out change.

(On a side note, Markley’s post on science fiction and ideology is also worth a read. I’ll add a comment a former professor kept repeating, which is that fantastic literature inevitably returns to comment on the society in which it is produced. I suppose this is opposed to the art-for-art’s-sake school, but I’m buying it nonetheless.)

The Barnes & Nobel Book Clubs forums have a fairly low-level discussion, and I’d like to respond to one poster who says:

I am not familiar with the author of the post on that blog, but what I am assuming they mean is the academic defintion of literary merit. Whether or not one agrees with that point of view (some people see “academic” as elitist), there is a particular approach to evaluating texts seen as standard. However, even from that approach that is a small list. Interestingly, though, in a college course I had on SF and Fantasy lit a few years ago we did read Solaris, Left Hand, Canticle, and Ubik (PKD).

(Mistakes in original)

I responded in the thread with a variation on this and a reply saying that I’m approaching science fiction from overall aesthetic and literary perspective that isn’t really academic. Rather, I think the issue is that some science fiction readers and others are talking past literary critics like the Martian and Tomas in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

By that I mean too much science fiction and fantasy aren’t sufficiently concerned with freshness and vividness in language and expression, which is the positive way of saying they’re too often filled with flatness and cliche, whether in character or plot. So is much literary fiction, but the best rises. What I’m describing will no doubt be misinterpreted: I’m at a very broad level, and to understand it in full would demand reading books like Jane Smiley’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche, or even Stanislaw Lem’s Microworlds, a book that preempted many of my criticisms about science fiction. Some authors transcend this—in addition to Lem and Le Guin, I might add Stephenson’s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.

My position isn’t that science fiction is automatically not literary or is literary, but that it can be literary and too infrequently is. Unfortunately, much of the conversation in blogland and print tends to want binaries and fights, and too often the background reading necessary to really contribute to the conversation hadn’t been done. Consequently, as one critic’s comment about the fantasy du jour goes, “There’s not one beautiful sentence in the entire first three books of the Twilight series.” It’s true, at least of the first half of the first one, but if you haven’t put in the time and reading to think about what makes a beautiful sentence, that probably just comes off as snobbery when it’s (probably) not. Real snobs wouldn’t give fantasy or science fiction real attention in the first place, while the rest of us are looking for what we’re always looking for: vigor, crispness, vivacity, and fidelity. If only we could find it more readily, whether in science fiction or elsewhere.

Favorite words

Literary agent/blogger/spandex-clad crime fighter Nathan Bransford asked for favorite words on his blog, and I answered: that “my favorite is callipygian, followed closely thereafter by defenestrate.”

Later, he asked for least favorite words, and I settled for academic clichés like epistemological, trope, and destabilize.

Anyone else want to share?

The Stuff of Thought and Steven Pinker in Tucson

It’s sometimes harder to describe what comes naturally than it is what comes artificially. We learn to speak by virtue of being around adults who speak, and yet analyzing the languages humans have developed and what those languages represent is harder than it is for a toddler to intuitively learn them. Speaking develops with no schooling aside from the “school” of other humans—and yet its manifold distinctions are the subject of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, a complex book that gives some answers leading toward still more questions as he tries to explain the paradoxical mysteries of consciousness and perception.

The subtext of The Stuff of Thought seems to be that language affects us more than we consciously realize and that our uses of language tends to occur in previously unexamined patterns that, once perceived, can be better used to our advantage. Such bold statements take some explaining: language reveals a great deal about us, Pinker argues, including theories of causation embedded inflectionally in some languages and syntactically in English. Some examples are simple: “John threw the ball” indicates who acted on what, and in that model it is difficult to misinterpret what is being said and who is doing what to what. Throw in prepositions and other spatial features encoded in language, however, and it becomes steadily harder to grasp precisely why “A sad movie makes you sad, but a sad person is already sad,” even if we understand the difference without being told the rule. The Stuff of Thought is a guided tour through what we didn’t know that we know. “I am exploring my sexuality; you are promiscuous; she is a slut,” and while all three phrases or words might describe the same fundamental behavior, and yet each has very different and apparent shades of meaning, from positive to pejorative.

This is an example of how we “flip frames,” or understand an event in multiple ways depending on its context. In Newsweek, Lynne Spears—the mother of children famous for celebrity and fecundity, in that order—said of one who recently gave birth at 17, “But [despite] a situation that has fallen in her lap, she’s doing exceptionally well[…]” Notice the phrase, “a situation that has fallen in her lap,” as if the person involved had no agency and was struck by a meteor on her way to school. Then again, maybe the girl in question didn’t have as much agency as classical economists would believe; in Dan Ariely’s excellent Predictably Irrational, he discusses an experiment in which students who were aroused admitted to considerably risk taking in an inventory of potential sexual behaviors than those who were not.* The frame Lynne Spears uses betrays at least some idea of her “frame,” but if we’re not paying attention to her statement, we’re likely to miss it. Furthermore, to be fair, Lynne Spears might refer to her daughter’s choice long after conception, at which point it’s too late to remake the past and one must deal with the options at hand. Temporal ambiguity—a subject Pinker discusses in Chapter 4, “Cleaving the Air”—becomes essential, and nothing about what Lynne Spears said indicates the precise time period she meant. It turns out that such relativity is inherent in language, which applies imprecise spatial metaphors to time, leaving us with the uncertainty much celebrated by Deconstructionists.

Other chapters in The Stuff of Thought deal with metaphors, naming, and game theory, but to go into each would expand this post into a weak shadow of the book, rather than a pointer in its direction. Some extra discussion is warranted, though, and Pinker also discusses swearing and how it changes over time in Chapter 7, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television,” and especially why so much revolves around excretion, sex, and religion. The power of the latter has declined in much of the West along with belief in a literal manifestation of God, and Pinker speculates that phrases like “go to hell,” or “damnit,” that are sufficiently innocuous to be broadcast on television, might have been more threatening when people believed they were Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God (sample: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some detestable insect, over the fire, detests you, and is dreadfully provoked”). Those around excretion and sex, however, still hold more power because they’re both vectors for disease, literally, and the latter can also be a vector for emotional disease, as many pop songs and novels about jilted love attest.


The good news is that Pinker visited Tucson on his tour for the paperback edition of The Stuff of Thought. The bad news for readers is that he hewed so closely to the material in it as to render the talk itself redundant. The points were identical and the examples to support generalizations merely less frequent and deep. But he did expand slightly on issues of swearing and “how to identify and quantify the material world,” and perhaps the most interesting part of his talk was not the talk itself but the audience’s reaction to his discussion of swearing. It’s fairly unusual to hear an impeccably dress professor speculate about the tabooness of words like “fuck” and “cunt,” and the audience tittered appropriately. Pinker can euphemize with the best, referring to “the gynecological-flagellative term for uxorial dominance” at one point in The Stuff of Thought. He leapt between high and low registers with relative ease, and I suppose after discussing the issues numerous times it becomes easier to keep one’s equanimity around swearing. At the end Pinker discussed using language and knowledge of what others know as a way to redefine relationships, expressing the dangers of being too blunt or not blunt enough, and suffering the consequences in the form of missed opportunities or social blunders. One might avoid the kinds of problems from Chapter 8, “Games People Play,” by refusing to feel awkwardness or by reducing one’s susceptibility to societal influence. But he never went that far, and some problems he presents leaves us with the implied answers or ameliorations, like a coyer version of Machiavelli in The Prince.

The sense of Pinker giving only a small taste of his book was reflected in the question and answer period: someone would ask a question, Pinker would begin to elaborate, and then refer the questioner to the relevant chapter. Materials as complex as his can’t easily be summarized and grokked, particularly because one of his book’s major virtues is the wealth of examples and metaphors he uses to describe the general principles he and others have derived from language itself. It’s also a drawback of this post: I’ve tried to give a general overview of Pinker’s ideas, but my own writings are at such a surface level that they can do no more than point to the book. Call it the difference between something like Lily Koppel’s The Red Leather Diary, which would’ve been better left a newspaper article and The Stuff of Thought, a book whose teachings are easier to describe than to apply. Pinker has accomplished a difficult task in synthesizing so much research, but its readers have the harder work of deciding what to do with what we’ve learned.


* I won’t give away the experiment design; for that, you’ll have to read Predictably Irrational.

Michael Chabon shows how it's done in Wonder Boys

It would not spoil Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys to know that, about halfway through the novel, the wayward protagonist Grady Tripp speculates about the knowledge of his eccentric student, James Leer:

I wondered if perhaps it were all dawning on him at last; if he were beginning to realize that, having engaged, the night before, in activities as diverse as being dragged bodily and giggling from a crowded auditorium, committing grand larceny, and getting a hand job in a public place [from a man], he was now on hi sway to spend Passover, of all things, with the family of his dissolute professor’s estranged wife, in a dented Ford Galaxie within whose trunk lay the body of a dog he had killed.

What a sentence: its breathlessness mirrors the wild preceding 24 narrative hours. Each event described is, to be sure, unusual, and piled together they make us realize the sheer outrageousness of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Chabon’s skill is such that that this improbable series seems not only plausible but even normal, like good fantasy novels that make supernatural powers an aspect of the landscape no more extraordinary than cars are to us. In another spot, Chabon turns cliche on its head with the chiasmus, “I suppose that I derived some kind of comfort from the fact that my relationship with young Hannah Green remained a disaster waiting to happen and not, as would normally have been the case by this time, the usual disaster.” Notice the adjective “young” placed in there to emphasize the distance between Tripp and Hannah, along with the temporal play between the expected and actual.

In another section, a character is alive more thoroughly in a paragraph than most achieve in a novel:

He was given to epigrams and I filled an entire notebook with his gnomic utterances, all of which every night I committed to the care of my memory, since ruined. I swear but cannot independently confirm that one of them ran, “At the end of every short story the reader should feel as if a cloud has been lifted from the face of the moon.” He wore a patrician manner and boots made of rattlesnake hide, and he drove an E-type Jaguar, but his teeth were bad, the fly of his trousers was always agape, and his family life was a semi-notorious farrago of legal proceedings, accidental injury, and institutionalization. He seemed, like Albert Vetch, simultaneously haunted and oblivious, the kind of person who could guess, with breathtaking coldness, at the innermost sorrow in your heart, and in the next moment turn and, with a cheery wave of farewell, march blithely through a plate-glass window, requiring twenty-two stitches in his cheek.

Wonder Boys is not flawless—the middle sags like the paunch of its middle-aged protagonist—but even in such a condition Chabon is still leaner and faster than most writers ever are, and the end picks up enough to clear that cloud from the moon—although the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere and hence doesn’t have clouds. But I feel them clearing anyway.

This is the kind of novel that reminds me why I like to read so much, and why I find bad books disappointing out of proportion to their menial sins: because those bad books suck up the time, space, and energy, both mental and physical, that could be devoted to the wonderful and extraordinary.

Michael Chabon shows how it’s done in Wonder Boys

It would not spoil Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys to know that, about halfway through the novel, the wayward protagonist Grady Tripp speculates about the knowledge of his eccentric student, James Leer:

I wondered if perhaps it were all dawning on him at last; if he were beginning to realize that, having engaged, the night before, in activities as diverse as being dragged bodily and giggling from a crowded auditorium, committing grand larceny, and getting a hand job in a public place [from a man], he was now on hi sway to spend Passover, of all things, with the family of his dissolute professor’s estranged wife, in a dented Ford Galaxie within whose trunk lay the body of a dog he had killed.

What a sentence: its breathlessness mirrors the wild preceding 24 narrative hours. Each event described is, to be sure, unusual, and piled together they make us realize the sheer outrageousness of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Chabon’s skill is such that that this improbable series seems not only plausible but even normal, like good fantasy novels that make supernatural powers an aspect of the landscape no more extraordinary than cars are to us. In another spot, Chabon turns cliche on its head with the chiasmus, “I suppose that I derived some kind of comfort from the fact that my relationship with young Hannah Green remained a disaster waiting to happen and not, as would normally have been the case by this time, the usual disaster.” Notice the adjective “young” placed in there to emphasize the distance between Tripp and Hannah, along with the temporal play between the expected and actual.

In another section, a character is alive more thoroughly in a paragraph than most achieve in a novel:

He was given to epigrams and I filled an entire notebook with his gnomic utterances, all of which every night I committed to the care of my memory, since ruined. I swear but cannot independently confirm that one of them ran, “At the end of every short story the reader should feel as if a cloud has been lifted from the face of the moon.” He wore a patrician manner and boots made of rattlesnake hide, and he drove an E-type Jaguar, but his teeth were bad, the fly of his trousers was always agape, and his family life was a semi-notorious farrago of legal proceedings, accidental injury, and institutionalization. He seemed, like Albert Vetch, simultaneously haunted and oblivious, the kind of person who could guess, with breathtaking coldness, at the innermost sorrow in your heart, and in the next moment turn and, with a cheery wave of farewell, march blithely through a plate-glass window, requiring twenty-two stitches in his cheek.

Wonder Boys is not flawless—the middle sags like the paunch of its middle-aged protagonist—but even in such a condition Chabon is still leaner and faster than most writers ever are, and the end picks up enough to clear that cloud from the moon—although the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere and hence doesn’t have clouds. But I feel them clearing anyway.

This is the kind of novel that reminds me why I like to read so much, and why I find bad books disappointing out of proportion to their menial sins: because those bad books suck up the time, space, and energy, both mental and physical, that could be devoted to the wonderful and extraordinary.

Neal Stephenson and Anathem

Jacket Copy, the L.A. Times’ book blog, just posted bits of Neal Stephenson interviews old and new.

My favorite questions relate to Snow Crash and geography:

S.T.: What made you set “Snow Crash” in L.A.?
Neal Stephenson: At the time I was living in New Jersey, and I was really in the space between Philly and New York. So I was in this place where there really was no city center: You could drive for hours in either direction and see the same landscape repeating itself, of strip malls, and…. I don’t think I’d ever lived in anything like that before. You read science fiction, and it’s always on a giant urban core, or it’s on a space station — but from where I’m sitting that’s not the future. From where I’m sitting, the future is this landscape of low-rise sprawl. I think I put it in L.A. — it’s been a long time — because it gave me more options. You have the entertainment industry there, you’ve got high-tech, the Pacific Rim factor…. It just gave me more surface area.

S.T.: You’ve been in the Northwest for a long time now — Seattle’s working for you?
Neal Stephenson: It is really working for me. I like this kind of weather. I like the neighborhoods. There are a lot of interesting people around because of the high-tech world here. And there’s a gritty, practical side to the city that’s easy to miss. But it really informs the way the city works. I think of about the time of the dot-com bubble bursting, there was a crab boat that went down in the Bering Sea — the entire crew was lost. It put everything in perspective. Nobody was whining about the high-tech [bust] anymore.

I just moved from Seattle to Tucson, and although I don’t entirely agree with Stephenson’s comment about Seattle’s grittiness, he nailed the point about interesting people and neighborhoods. Tucson, on the other hand, is vastly more akin New Jersey: endless strip malls and roads until the desert begins. Everything manmade looks pathetic, rundown, and designed to interact with other machines rather than the people who presumably operate said machines. In short, it’s like Snow Crash without the technological wonderful. The designers failed to take into account Jane Jacobs‘ lessons about cars—like many Western cities. Seattle and Portland are the two primary exceptions.

If you’re going to read Stephenson, begin with Cryptonomicon, then go back to the science fiction, and skip the Baroque cycle, which is too much idea and too little story, and what story does exist is sublimated to improbably coincidences and thin dramatizations of debate from that time. But he’s another author so marvelous that his best excuses his worst. Expect to hear more about Anathem.

If that’s not enough Neal Stephenson, see Salon’s fluffy but approving piece, the fuller piece from the L.A. Times, Wired’s preparation guide, and Discover Magazine’s discussion of ends that occurs at the beginning of its review.

Mid-September links: Kindles, swimming, Chile, and programming

* According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Kindle-dominated world would mean, um, something new. But what?

* The 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest results are in, and the winner offers a typically horrendous opening that is paradoxically special in its own way:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.”

I just got inspired to send an entry for next year’s contest as I wrote this entry. Watch this space for more.

* By way of Paper Cuts, In literature, as in life, the art of swimming isn’t hard to master. I mentioned the issue previously at the bottom of this post.

The follow-up about running is here. Yours truly comments in both threads.

* Funny: Bruce Schneider wrote a post for Wired about creating fake identities and the increasing tenuous and yet important link between us and the “data shadows” we generate:

It seems to me that our data shadows are becoming increasingly distinct from us, almost with a life of their own. What’s important now is our shadows; we’re secondary. And as our society relies more and more on these shadows, we might even become unnecessary.

I say “funny,” because I just finished the second draft of a novel that plays with these very ideas. While on the topic of Schneider, he also asks, who needs reason regarding Homeland Insecurity when we can have a culture of perpetual fear instead?

* Speaking of ideas regarding identity, the digital world might be transforming Latin America. In Chile, the New York Times reports a sexual revolution of sorts among the young, driven by technology and connectivity. I wonder what Roberto Bolaño would say.

* Want to be a good programmer? Consider reading.

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