Sign me up for the Anglo-American team:

From Adam Gopnik’s “Facing History: Why We Love Camus,” sadly hidden behind a paywall:

Olivier Todd, the author of the standard biography in French, suggests that Camus might have benefitted by knowing more about his anti-totalitarian Anglo-American contemporaries, Popper and Orwell among them. Yet in truth the big question Camus asked was never the Anglo-American liberal one: How can we make the world a little bit better tomorrow. It was the grander French one: Why not kill yourself tonight? That the answers come to much the same thing in the end—easy does it; tomorrow may be a bit better than today; and, after all, you have to have a little faith in people—doesn’t diminish the glamour that clings to the man who turned the question over and looked at it, elegantly, upside down

I’d never thought about the issue of meaning quite like this, but I’m definitely on the Popper-Orwell team, the one that asks about making the world “a little bit better tomorrow,” or at least finding something meaningful to do today that might lead to the better world tomorrow. The “grander French” question used to hold more attraction, when I was younger and stupider; now it just looks pointless. If there’s no reason to live, there’s also no reason to die. That’s the essential point Todd Andrews realizes in John Barth’s novel The Floating Opera, and it’s the sort of profundity that seems utterly obvious in retrospect. I’d add one other point: if life is meaningless, you can append any meaning you want, and making things little bit better tomorrow is a pretty choice (you could also say that you’re trying to conduct a marginal revolution that takes small steps toward improvement).

People who find ways to make life meaningful and find ways to be more than just a consumer are, in my view, the ones who win big these days, when we don’t just have meaning handed to us. Instead, we have to try harder to find it. I like the Anglo-American answer, as given by Gopnik’s reading of Camus, but that might just be my own latent Anglo-American culture.

Never the Face: A Story of Desire — Ariel Sands

Never the Face starts with the narrator recalling a dream. Or, rather, the dream seeks here, and she “found myself hurtling back across the years, back to a spring morning in California when I was—

This implies she isn’t awake while she’s writing. Notice too how she’s abrogated responsibility for her actions: she “found [herself] hurtling back across the years,” instead of going there willingly. She doesn’t make the choice, implying that she’s metaphorically asleep, waiting for someone to wake her again because she can’t awaken on her own. Dreams run throughout the novel (although this novel feels more like a memoir, given its intimacy and tone). On its penultimate page, the narrator is “Afraid that those fabulous, shimmering dreams he had dreamt for me—for us—were about to shatter.” She’s right, since dreams can’t last forever outside of science fiction. Even at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the characters must leave Titania’s forest. The same is true of Never the Face, but maintaining the dream isn’t the responsibility of the protagonist—notice how David, the “he” of this love story, is the one who “had dreamt for me—for us.” He does this through sexual bondage. The details are interesting but essential; read the book if you want them. Read this post if you want some of them and some idea of what they might mean.

The narrator says that she had dreams about David, and not about anything else. Still, there’s hesitation: “a dream was one thing. Did I want the reality? Assuming that it was real?” Judging by the 200 pages to follow, we can guess the answer is yes. She feels more real when she’s told what to do. When they begin having sex, David instructs the narrator to open herself. She does. He speaks to her like an animal:

‘Good girl. Now, what do you say?’
I said nothing.
‘You say, “Please fuck your bitch.” ‘
With the involition of someone in a dream, I heard my voice saying, ‘Please fuck your bitch.’

David “accepted the invitation.” The narrator is giving up agency, which gives the encounter its power. We have an effectively infinite array of choices. To have them removed is taboo, and in violating the taboo she feels pleasure. She is both dreaming and awake. Later, the narrator says that she “climbed into bed and surrendered myself to dark dreams, dreams I didn’t like to acknowledge even to myself. I am chained up, spread-eagled. But my lover is ignoring me. Another woman kneels in front of him, and he is fondling her breasts, he is about to—” We don’t know what. The “dark dreams” end, and the narrator “pulled my mind back.” It’s too much, which is strange, given what her fantasy life is like. She says, “I felt as if I was cradling a bomb that at any moment might explode and blow my head off. I pulled the blankets tight around my body.” Maybe she’s missing a sense of danger, and while some might fill that sense of danger with climbing mountains, she fills it with sex. One is socially valorized, the other socially castigated. The sentences the narrator ends with an em-dash represents those places even she feels she can’t go, the places where she needs to break off.

Those points of breaking off leave things to the imagination. At one point, David tells the narrator to “Tell me your fantasies.” She resists, momentarily, but that resistance feels perfunctory, like all or almost all of her descriptions of resistance. She says that she “took a deep breath, snuck up to my place of dark dreams, and opened the door. I am tied up, legs spread. Men, I cannot see their faces—” She says aloud that that she fantasizes about “Rape. Especially gang rape. That’s probably my most common fantasy.” Another metaphor appears here, this time about opening doors instead of sleeping / wakening. Such metaphors point to understanding, growth, development, knowledge, whatever word you want to choose. Of becoming by being.

The narrator notes that she doesn’t “really want to be raped,” and David says, “I know you don’t, Kitten. No one does. It’s the idea that’s powerful. Giving up control.” It’s not just giving up control, however, but giving it up to the right person; in their book Why Women Have Sex, David Buss and Cindy Meston describe some of the research around rape and say that “In erotic rape fantasies, the male is typically attractive, dominant, and overcome with sexual desire for the woman […] the fantasy typically contains no realistic violence.” Those are all traits the narrator sees in David. In addition, you don’t fully need fantasy to become reality; you need enough fantasy to alter your reality. It’s hard to imagine the narrator going back to the Bobbies of the world after she’s been with a David.

Bobby was the narrator’s former lover. While the narrator is speaking with a friend, she says:

A memory from years before came into my head. I am naked. Bobby is whispering, “I’m going to kiss you all over.” He begins kissing my neck, my shoulders, my ears. I know I am supposed to find this sexy, romantic. But while my body is lying there being kissed (now he’s at the small of my back, now at the back of my knees), my mind is thinking about calculus problems, and whether anyone might have taken my clothes out of the dryer.

Note the contrast between what the narrator is “supposed” to feel and what she actually feels. That conflict generates the narrator’s erotic tension; so does the way she wants to live in the radical present. David achieves that through pain. Bobby doesn’t: he lets her mind think “about calculus problems,” instead of jerking her mind into the now, away from the daily grind and towards the moment. She wants to live in the present tense, which is incredibly hard for some people. The narrator understands this to some extent: she says thinks it difficult “To generate a feeling of safe danger.” She’s looking for an oxymoron, and someone who can deliver it is special. She is “Exploring places you don’t normally go, scary places, with someone you trust. It’s very controlled.” The places are slightly physical but mostly mental; they’re about making the mind and body fuse. It helps that David has the traits of a romantic hero: he is self-assured, powerful, knowledgeable. She thinks, “I wonder if he’s good at [going down on women]. He’s good at everything else” (Emphasis in original). Being skilled and competent is attractive; he’s also conveniently rich, a man who “was on the waiting list” for a country club with “a joining fee of $70,000.” Maybe she thinks it easier to trust someone rich.

Regardless, his competence lets her trust. David tells her that what they’re doing “is about surrender, giving up control. It has nothing to do with liking pain or wanting to be hurt.” That’s specious: if it had nothing to do with pain, pain wouldn’t be the mechanism used to achieve the end David perceives as surrender. He would use some other mechanism. You can’t separate ends from means no matter how much you might want to. You don’t beat someone without that beating being somewhat about beating. In this case, the beating also serves as contrast, with poor Bobby being the punching bag. Midway through the novel, the narrator says:

I thought of Bobby, how he always fell asleep after he came. For a moment, I conjured him, sprawled on top of me as if I was part of the bed. He could sometimes manage sex twice a day. But David—

He’s superhuman. No: Superman. I’m fucking Superman!

Or, rather, she makes him into Superman. One wonders if Bobby could’ve been molded in the same way. Still, Bobby’s kisses are quite different than sex with David. When David comes in, he “twisted my hand in my hair, forced my face upward, and kissed me. The kiss was rough, violent.” He leaves, and the narrator’s body reacts in a way that will grow predictable but still perturbs her on some level: “Trying to ignore how aroused I was, I turned back to my books.” She can’t control the way her body feels, which is part of what she likes. It’s part of her divided mind. David has a theory about this: “Pain quiets your mind and opens you to pleasure.” Under this theory, pain is a borderland between normal existence and extraordinary existence. The question remains: how do we get to extraordinary existence? How can we travel there through experience? He says: “It’s that when you cry, I know I’ve got you. I know you’re completely present, a body reacting and responding. You’re not thinking about anything, or worrying: you’re just there.” It’s so hard to live in the present, especially among a certain segmented of the highly educated, highly repressed, highly skilled part of the population. It takes an effort to live in the specious present. You wouldn’t want to live there all the time, but for a while, it can be extraordinarily powerful because we do so so infrequently. Habit becomes stultifying: we need to break from it, at least if we’re unusually open to new experiences. This passage, a conversation between the narrator and her friend Sally, captures the idea:

“Well. I don’t know what your experience has been—do you find that sex with most guys is more or less the same?” I said.
“Yes,” she said, rolling her eyes slightly. “Yes.” She laughed. “Some of them like to carry you about more than others. But that’s about it.”
“This was different. Totally different.”

Difference can be scary; it also can’t be fully explained. Sally wants explanation; the narrator can’t fully give it. She prevaricates, because what else can she do? It’s a bodily experience unlike almost any other. The narrator knows how it would be judged, and she’s internalized her friends’ reactions; at one moment, she says, “I thought of what Sally would say if I told her, ‘You wore his wife’s skirt? To a restaurant? Are you insane?’ ” But that’s the point: to transgress. You aren’t supposed to have affairs, even with the wife’s blessing; you aren’t supposed to be a masochist, even if you are; if you do those two things, you definitely aren’t supposed to wear the wife’s skirt. The question starts to become, where are the lines? If you don’t have any, you become scary. Dangerous. The sort of person who might steal someone else’s mate, who is threatening the foundations of social order. Hence you have to be labeled as “insane.” The idea is hardy a new one: Hester Prynne gets her famous Scarlet Letter for transgression. She’s achieved the state David Axelrod describes in his article “Laws of Life:”

‘Internalization’ is the word psychologists use to describe the compliance with norms out of feelings of right and wrong. A norm is internalized if violating it is psychologically painful even when the consequences are otherwise beneficial. Thus, cheating on an exam might result in persistent guilt even if it were not punished and did succeed in raising the student’s grade […] if everyone [strongly] internalized a norm […], there would be no incentive to defect and the norm would remain stable.

Families and societies work hard to achieve exactly this effect, especially in educating the impressionable young, and they sometimes succeed. Still, it is rare for a norm to be so thoroughly internalized that no one in a group is tempted to defect.

Violation is psychologically painful but also satisfying. In Never the Face, the narrator’s main manifestation of guilt comes from the writing of the novel, and we can’t help but think that guilt is awfully minor. She doesn’t look into where that guilt comes from, but the usual suspects are out there: society, other women, religion, schools. In “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions,” Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs posit that in many societies women are responsible for restricting female sexual agency. They might be right. But Ariel Sands isn’t asking those questions, even though they arise in my mind. Dan Savage said that “When it comes to human sexuality [. . .] deviation from imaginary and tyrannical ‘norms’ is the norm.” He’s probably right. Books like Never the Face make you think “probably” might not be strong enough.

The narrator says that “Those desires, those dark desires that lurked in the shadows of my mind—most of the time I tried to hide them, even from myself. I had never let myself speak of them.” She hasn’t, and relatively few others have. David has a theory, that at her “core,” the narrator is “Someone who wants to surrender, to be taken.” She “started to protest” but doesn’t. What is there to be said? This novel also arouses the fear that, if these “dark desires” lurk in the mind, others might too. What happens if they are awakened? What might we find there? The worst answer might be “nothing.”

While David leaves, the narrator “stood on the sidewalk, thighs and buttocks smarting, my body alive with desire.” If it’s alive with desire, is it dead the rest of the time? Or asleep? If so, then she should be glad: we like being woken up. It disturbs us to be asleep, to be unaware; that’s why so many stories deal with entering an unknown and previously unperceived world. In “The Unreal Thing: What’s wrong with the Matrix?“, Adam Gopnik writes that, in The Matrix, “reality is a fiction, programmed into the heads of sleeping millions by evil computers.” In this book, we get the sense that reality is, if not a fiction, then at least a tedious drag, programmed into the heads of sleeping millions by social convention that binds us without our knowing it. Notice how Gopnik, too, resorts to the language of slumber to convey his point. He goes on to point out the idea’s history:

The basic conceit of “The Matrix”—the notion that the material world is a malevolent delusion, designed by the forces of evil with the purpose of keeping people in a state of slavery, has a history. It is most famous as the belief for which the medieval Christian sect known as the Cathars fought and died, and in great numbers, too. The Cathars were sure that the material world was a phantasm created by Satan, and that Jesus of Nazareth—their Neo—had shown mankind a way beyond that matrix by standing outside it and seeing through it. The Cathars were fighting a losing battle, but the interesting thing was that they were fighting at all. It is not unusual to take up a sword and die for a belief. It is unusual to take up a sword to die for the belief that swords do not exist.

The idea of “what you see is what you get” probably goes back even further: hence the idea of what we might now term magical thinking among many pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers, who so often believe that spirits control and animate the world. Or contemporary people who send mental notes conventionally referred to as prayer, to a fellow who goes by various names but sits (if we imagine him being corporeal) in a cloud, seeing everything and noting down a demerit every time you masturbate. Whether you’r the narrator of Never the Face, Neo in The Matrix, a hunter-gatherer tribesperson, or a modern monotheist, you don’t want your everyday existence to be all there is. You want something more, but how do you get there? Through kinky sex, appeals to the spirits, gathering in a group of people and reciting chants / songs? Given the choice, I know which one I’d choose, but the similarity of the goal—transcendence, extra-normal power—makes me wonder what could connect all these practices, especially given how practitioners often dislike those using other methods. The highly kinky and heavily religious do not appear to have much overlap.

One thing that sets The Matrix apart from the innumerable comic book movies in which good guys and bad guys try to kick each other’s asses is the underlying idea that reality might not exist (Gopnik says the sequel “is, unlike the first film, a conventional comic-book movie, in places a campy conventional comic-book movie”). One thing that sets Never the Face apart from the innumerable books of erotica that describe, in detail, how things feel is the discomforting sense that maybe we never really will awaken from everyday life without the assistance of some activities described in the book; I shy away from using the book’s direct language—do I feel I haven’t earned it? Gopnik says that “the idea that the world we live in isn’t real is one that speaks right now to a general condition,” and I would posit that Sands feels the same way, or that her narrator does. But for her, the fake world is fake because it has been stripped of sensuality, of tactile sensations, of intensity; those feelings have been denuded by Big Macs, large personal spaces, telephones, and a social sense that forbids discussing erotic life for fear of any number of things, including political correctness. We don’t want to acknowledge what we might want if we really freed our minds.

It’s notoriously hard to look past our cultural and biological conditioning, even when part of our cultural conditioning is to recursively question our cultural conditioning. But we try anyway, because a certain number of us don’t like not being to think something that we could possibly think. To return to Gopnik, “In a long article on the first “Matrix” film, the Princeton philosopher James Pryor posed the question “What’s so bad about living in the Matrix?,” and, after sorting through some possible answers, he concluded that the real problem probably has to do with freedom, or the lack of it.” The “freedom” answer, however, still smells to me of cultural conditioning, but I buy it. Plus, it seems like cultures that value “freedom” appear to be better, on average, at getting along with their neighbors and not murdering their neighbors.*

And I buy the value of Never the Face not just for the dirty bits, but also because it seems like we should be free to want to be hit if we want to be hit, regardless of the important political and social convictions we might justifiably hold in other aspects of our lives. As Paul Graham says in his essay “What You Can’t Say,” “To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.”** Freedom applies to sexual freedom too, and being able to explore your desires so long as those desires don’t hurt others.

For the narrator, sex and the activities around it let her live in the now. She says, “As usual after a savage beating, I was in a daze. My mind had gone blank; the internal monologue was silent. I as just there, in the now, without thought.” With Bobby, she thought about calculus; with him, she thinks nothing, which might be the greatest challenge for intellectuals. You wouldn’t want to go blank all the time, but for the moment it’s thrillingly, astonishingly different. In the novel’s rhetoric, it wakes her up, as discussed above.

Being awake lets the narrator see and feel things she wouldn’t otherwise. She sees the essential. She feels it. David says that beating someone is “Way more intimate than fucking. [. . .] Because it strips away pretense and self-consciousness, it reduces you to your essence.” The sex and bondage the narrator experiences isn’t, under this reading, about sex and bondage; they’re about understanding yourself and the world around you. The same thing that sports books say sports are about and that art books say art is about. The difference is that sports and art are valorized by society, while sexual exploration isn’t and probably never will be. It’s not just about the sex, either; as David explains in a perhaps self-serving way, the bondage “takes trust [. . .] You don’t need to trust someone to fuck them. But to put yourself in someone else’s power, to make yourself that vulnerable—that takes trust. [. . .] That’s why it brings such closeness.”

Is he right? The question is beside the point: he’s right in the narrator’s eyes. If he wasn’t, she wouldn’t stay with him. She wouldn’t want their relationship to continue when he breaks it off to stay with his wife, who knows about his relationship with the narrator. She encourages it. But the novel ultimately implies that such an arrangement can’t last. Society must be paid its dues. Plus, one challenge is simple: where does it end? Towards the novel’s end, the narrator says that David “had set upon me with if possible, a new level of ferocity.” Eventually, the logical conclusion becomes death, which I doubt the narrator wants. Neither does David. But you have to reach some maximum this side of the underworld.

Normally, I wouldn’t include spoilers in an essay about a book, but in this case “what happens” is besides the point, and the narrative tension doesn’t really exist. The book isn’t about what happens, but how and why it does. The answer is ultimately pre-verbal, like the reason for the adventure that propels Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. We can use language to approximate the feelings invoked by experience, but in this case the approximation is wider than most art. That, I think, is what feels so subversive: Never the Face suggests that you will never understand without trying it for yourself. If you do try for yourself, you will be indulging a set of possible desires that social life tells you you shouldn’t have, and if you do have them, they should be repressed, and if they can’t be repressed, they at least shouldn’t be spoken, and if they are spoken, they at least shouldn’t be written and distributed, and if you write and distribute them, you at least shouldn’t let others read it. The layers of taboo violation go deep.

She says that she had dreams about David, not about anything else. Still, there’s hesitation: “a dream was one thing. Did I want the reality? Assuming that it was real?” Judging by the 200 pages to follow, we can guess the answer is yes.

* Neal Stephenson discusses how our culture propagates itself visually in “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” which should be required reading for people who want to know how things work.

** Graham, later: “If you can think things so outside the box that they’d make people’s hair stand on end, you’ll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.”

Science Fiction, literature, and the haters

Why does so little science fiction rise to the standards of literary fiction?

This question arose from two overlapping events. The first came from reading Day of the Triffids (link goes to my post); although I don’t remember how I came to the book, someone must’ve recommended it on a blog or newspaper in compelling enough terms for me to buy it. Its weaknesses, as discussed in the post, brought up science fiction and its relation to the larger book world.

The second event arose from a science fiction novel I wrote called Pearle Transit that I’ve been submitting to agents. It’s based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—think, on a superficial level, “Heart of Darkness in space.” Two replies stand out: one came from an agent who said he found the idea intriguing but that science fiction novels must be at least 100,000 words long and have sequels already started. “Wow,” I thought. How many great literary novels have enough narrative force and character drive for sequels? The answer that came immediately to mind was “zero,” and after reflection and consultation with friends I still can’t find any. Most novels expend all their ideas at once, and to keep going would be like wearing a shirt that fades from too many washes. Even in science fiction, very few if any series maintain their momentum over time; think of how awful the Dune books rapidly became, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. A few novels can make it as multiple-part works, but most of those were conceived of and executed as a single work, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (more on those later).

The minimum word count bothers me too. It’s not possible for Pearle Transit to be stretched beyond its present size without destroying what makes it coherent and, I hope, good. By its nature it is supposed to be taunt, and much as a 120-pound person cannot be safely made into a 240-pound person, Pearle Transit can’t be engorged without making it like the bloated star that sets its opening scene. If the market reality is that such books can’t or won’t sell, I begin to tie the quality of the science fiction I’ve read together with the system that produces it. Heart of Darkness—forerunner to modernism and one of the deepest and most mysterious novels I’ve read—had only about 40,000 words. In those 40,000 words, it contains more than the vast majority of novels I’ve read with four times as many. The Great Gatsby isn’t very long either—60,000 words, perhaps?—and yet by the standards of contemporary science fiction, apparently neither would be publishable. If this is true, then the production system for science fiction might be harming the ability of writers to produce fiction at the highest possible level.

The other rejection came from an agent who read the entire manuscript. He said he liked it and thought the writing was sharp—an adjective I’ve seen before in rejection letters—but that it was “too literary” and shouldn’t be as “complex.” It can’t bode well for science fiction in general if its gatekeepers are allergic to the idea of literariness, that ineffable quality that haunts this post even as I don’t or can’t define it. To be sure, it’s possible that the agent who called Pearle Transit “too literary” was being nice or using a euphemism and really saying he thought it was boring, or stuffy, or something to that effect, but even if he was, I still think his word choice is illustrative.

The two rejection letters and the literary quality of Day of the Triffids show specific examples of a general phenomenon regarding science fiction. It’s unfortunate that the entire genre gets tarred as junk by some critics and readers when in reality it’s not entirely junk—if it were, I wouldn’t write a long essay describing it. I have a theory as to why science fiction often gets labeled as junk: it values other qualities than aesthetic novelty/skill and deep characterization. It’s more concerned with ideas rather than how ideas are expressed, while the greatest literary fiction sees ideas and their expression as inextricably linked. At the same time, though, I think that science fiction’s defenders might bring on the literary snobs’ ire by doing things like calling them literary snobs when many aren’t actually snobs, but just have standards that science fiction too infrequently reaches in part for the reason I just stated. This is also why, I suspect, science fiction has trouble achieving the critical and academic recognition it should probably have, especially given its larger impact on the culture. I’m one of the defenders of good writing being good writing regardless of where it comes from, but the more science fiction I read, the more I realize so much of it just doesn’t have the skill in narrative, detail, character, sympathy and complexity, language, and dialog that readers of literary fiction demand. I still like a lot of science fiction, but most of it now causes me to roll my eyes and skip pages: characters have no life, the books have no lifeness, clichés abound, and strong setups devolve into variations on cowboys and indians.

There are very significant exceptions, as I said regarding Day of the Triffids:

The only science fiction novels I’m aware of that could stand on their own as a literary achievement is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Some others are serviceable and worthwhile, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Walter Michael Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Philip K. Dick’s better novels. But none are great novels, though Gibson comes closest, and while I don’t think the genre is incapable of housing real greatness, the relative lack of literary merit gives me pause when I continue searching for satisfying science fiction.

Jason Fisher of Lingwë – Musings of a Fish wrote an e-mail pointing out that Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 probably belong in the “exception” category too. I agree, as long as they’re fully included in the science fiction umbrealla—while Orwell and Huxley were kind of writing science fiction, their books were much closer to the traditions of allegory and satire, even if they happened to use some of science fiction’s trappings. Someone like Stanislaw Lem or Le Guin, on the other hand, produced genuine science fiction. Bradbury I’d forgotten about, but it’s been too long since I read his books to judge them. Granted, this argument might turn into boundary dispute regarding what’s science fiction and what isn’t, but I think there is something to be said for the science fiction that’s grounded solidly in the “science” as in the technological future world, whereas I see Orwell, especially, and Huxley, to a lesser extent, as being closer to something like Gulliver’s Travels.

Typing “Top science fiction novels” in Google reveals lists like these: the top 50 science fiction novels, the top fifteen great science fiction books, and the top 100 sci-fi books (never mind that some science fiction writers and readers hate the term sci-fi for reasons that are still unclear to me). Most of the novels on those lists don’t meet conventional—an inappropriate word, given that great literature is by definition unconventional—literary standards, with the exceptions already mentioned. Dan Simmons’ Hyperion gets close—very close—but still has that “not quite” feeling.

That Michael Crichton gets on any lists is a bad sign: the best review I’ve seen of his wildly popular and equally wildly uneven, and usually bad, work is in Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché, when he praises Crichton at his best as “a blend of Stephen Jay Gould and Agatha Christie” and then discusses what’s wrong in the context of The Lost World, but it could be transposed to most of his Crichton’s novels:

The job of characterization has been delegated to two or three thrashed and downtrodden adverbs. ‘Dodgson shook his head irritably’; ‘ “Handle what?” Dodgson said irritably.’ So Dodgson is irritable. But ‘ “I tell you it’s fine,” Levine said irritably.’ ‘Levine got up irritably.’ So Levine is irritable too. ‘Malcolm stared forward gloomily.’ ‘ “We shouldn’t have the kids here,” said Malcolm gloomily.’ Malcolm seems to own ‘gloomily’; but then you irritably notice that Rossiter is behaving ‘gloomily’ too, and gloomily discover that Malcolm is behaving ‘irritably.’ Forget about ‘tensely’ and ‘grimly’ for now. And don’t get me started on ‘thoughtfully.’

So many science fiction novels suffer from the same problems: adverbs that proliferate like triffids, characters who are more alive silent than when they speak, and descriptions that deserve the Amis treatment, above.

Even Philip K. Dick, who aspired to be a literary writer prior to turning to science fiction, gets mixed notices, which Adam Gopnik explores in the New Yorker:

As an adult reader coming back to Dick, you start off in a state of renewed wonder and then find yourself thumbing ahead to see how much farther you are going to have to go. At the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences. His facility is amazing. He once wrote eleven novels in a twenty-four-month stretch. But one thing you have to have done in order to write eleven novels in two years is not to have written any of them twice.

That’s probably why Dick’s reputation as a serious writer, like Poe’s, has always been higher in France, where the sentences aren’t read as they were written. And his paint-by-numbers prose is ideally suited for the movies. The last monologue in “Blade Runner” (“All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die”), improvised by Rutger Hauer on the set that day, has a pathos that the book achieves only in design, intellectually, because the movie speech is spoken by a recognizable person, dressed up as a robot, where Dick’s characters tend to be robots dressed up as people.

Gopnik is right. Dick himself wrote How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, which Jason sent me. It’s a wonderful essay more about ideas and coherency than skill in conveying ideas through words. It’s hard to imagine him writing something like Kundera’s The Art of the Novel or E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Maybe Aspects of the Science Fiction Novel, but that cordons science fiction from the greater literary sphere. I dislike the cordon, and yet the more I realize regarding what science fiction seems to value and what literary fiction seems to value, the more I wonder if it’s really undesirable. In his essay, Dick is ready to join literary writers when he says: “The problem is simply this: What does a science fiction writer know about? On what topic is he an authority?” I read much bemoaning of what place, if any, the author has in times of national strife, like 9/11. The answer seemed to be, “not much.” So Dick has something in common with literary authors. In his essay, however, Dick proceeds on a metaphysical binge rather than the deeper realms of what makes great fiction, as James Wood does in How Fiction Works, or Jane Smiley does in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, or Francine Prose does in Reading like a Writer. He writes with great verve and depth about the nature of reality, our place in it, and societal problems—but he doesn’t handle aesthetic problems or people as manifestations of those problems well. Characters come off as manifestations of problems instead of people, which is another way of saying what Gopnik did.

Other writers, like Roger Zelazny in the first section of The Great Book of Amber, is more bad than good, and his writing is frequently irritating for its James Bond tone in passages like this:

I forced my mind back to the accident, dwelled upon it till my head hurt. It was no accident. I had that impression, though I didn’t know why. I would find out, and someone would pay. Very, very much would they pay. An anger, a terrible one, flared within the middle of my body.

The lack of a conjunction between “accident” and “dwelled” doesn’t work here and is jarring, along with the running together of the sounds “it” and “till,” especially when followed by the alliteration of “head hurt.” Finally, the endlessly repeated action-hero trope of “someone would pay,” is expressed exactly the same as it has been thousands if not millions of times before. Occasionally Zelazny wanders in the land of exquisite, terse writing, almost by accident, as when he says: “The night was bargaining weakly with the sun.”

I’ve discussed a few of the novels that appear on those top science fiction lists and I’ve read most of them, although some, I admit, not recently. I like many though love few and suspect I would like far fewer had I not read them in that formative period where novelty is much easier to achieve simply because you haven’t read all that much relative to how much you will. I think there is also something in the modern adolescent temperament that science fiction and fantasy appeals to: the idea that you’re being held back and oppressed and that with time you will acquire devices or skills that lend you great power to overcome forces that seem to be evil. Later, unfortunately, you discover that those forces are not so much malicious as incompetent and lazy and that the structure of the world is very hard to change; what those novels often don’t show is how the heroic quest is symbolic in the real world not of battling demons but of study, thought, and work. As Paul Graham says:

But if a kid asks you “Is there a God?” or “What’s a prostitute?” you’ll probably say “Ask your parents.”

Since we all agree [about lies to tell kids and forbidden questions], kids see few cracks in the view of the world presented to them. The biggest disagreements are between parents and schools, but even those are small. Schools are careful what they say about controversial topics, and if they do contradict what parents want their kids to believe, parents either pressure the school into keeping quiet or move their kids to a new school.

The conspiracy is so thorough that most kids who discover it do so only by discovering internal contradictions in what they’re told. It can be traumatic for the ones who wake up during the operation.


I remember that feeling. By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance. Every kid grows up in a fake world. In a way it would be easier if the forces behind it were as clearly differentiated as a bunch of evil machines, and one could make a clean break just by taking a pill.

And when you’re 15, you also have a lower threshold for art because, at least in the United States, most 15-year-olds aren’t all that well-formed and haven’t experience much; hell, I’m 24 and still don’t feel all that well-formed. Still, if you get someone with plots about breaking through the surface world into some other world underneath, you’re going to speak, in many cases, much more convincingly to 15-year-olds than you are to disgruntled adults who have the freedom to seek whatever they think the truth of the world is and choose not to exercise it, or who are responsible for keeping those 15-year-old dreamers fed and going to school on time. I’ve left out a small but very important group of adults who are still dreaming of greatness and trying to pierce the veil of reality, but I suspect they are entirely too small a group, and those who might join it are often invested in ideologies or systems or other simplifiers of what is a world too complex to explain through simple chants, or what Alain Badiou calls simulacrum and betrayal in his book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil.

I still like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and I still appreciate some of the criticisms he directed at judgmental society. But if I read him for the first time today, I would’ve already encountered his ideas, and there wouldn’t be the depth of characterization or the skill in writing to carry me through. Then, it seemed original, and I wasn’t old enough to perceive Stranger’s paper-thin chatter masquerading as philosophy. Even Brave New World, for all its virtues, has some of those problems, as when the savage discusses Shakespeare.

This essay discusses science fiction, but its sister, fantasy, suffers from some of the same problems, which I alluded to in my review of The Name of the Wind and The Daughter of the Empire. In contrast to those writers, Tolkien gets deeper and stronger as you get older and more sophisticated, and I suspect Lord of the Rings is a well that will never run dry. First-rate fantasy seems to pop up more often than science fiction—here I’m thinking of Le Guin with Earthsea, or Philip Pullman with His Dark Materials. Even then, it’s still common for writers to churn out elements in different configurations instead of trying, like Paul Muad’Dib in Dune, to break the nature of the genre publishing system itself. How ironic that a genre dedicated to transcending the scrim of reality relies on endless repetition of its core language and features.

After almost 3,000 words, I’ve described a problem, diagnosed some of its causes, shown some ways it operates, but not come to any conclusions. I’m not sure any exist, given the marketplace and reader incentives involved with both the production and consumption of science fiction. And if there is a solution, I hope readers of this are looking for it, and that I can be a part.

EDIT: A follow-up post deals with some of the issues raised in the comments and via e-mail.

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