Sunday, October 15, 2006

Don't Fence Me In

I was supposed to get on with my attempt to jump-start the new novel today, having lost much of Friday thanks to an existential hangover caused by too much desperate fun at the launch of The Joke’s Over, Ralph Steadman’s book memorialising his times with Hunter S. Thompson. But after making some notes on the immediate direction of the plot and some local colour Sunday morning, I engaged in a little bit of monging around on the Web, came across Lou Ander’s rant and assorted associated pieces as noted above. So that was half the morning gone, hey ho.

Then, walking to the Farmer’s Market (yeah, I’ve been getting really bourgeois lately), I became more and more enraged by Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s piece in Asimov's, mostly because it exemplifies the lamentably pious, holy-than-thou obsession with definitions that's becoming rife in the science-fiction community. If you really want to kill SF as a genre, go right ahead and tell people what is and what isn’t really SF, and don’t forget to exclude people whose work borrows from and expands on the central themes and tropes of the genre simply because they forgot to include a heroic narrative or some other tick mark that meets the approval of the Guardians of the True Quill.

Listen, here’s the secret. There’s no one right way to write a novel. There’s no one correct style, or tense, or subject, or angle of attack. But the one thing all novelists should be doing is aiming at the Universal nerve. Literary novelists try to hit the Universal by particularising the experiences and inner life of a character. Science-fiction novelists try to hit the Universal by particularising the Universe. And since the Universe contains pretty much everything, SF should be a big, roomy mansion that welcomes all kinds of fantastic fiction. Instead, it’s becoming a shabby little theme park jealously guarded by self-appointed narrow-minded gate-keepers. If you want to save SF, argue right back. Better still, laugh at them. Because their Achilles heel is this: they don’t have any sense of humour.

And while we’re at it, what’s this American obsession with the New Wave? Look, it happened thirty years ago. It shook things up a bit, it added some useful stuff to the common humus of the genre, but the people responsible have moved on. It isn’t around anymore. It’s as dead as a parrot. So why are people still acting as if filthy dirty New Wavers are about to ravish their precious little genre and piss on the furniture afterwards? Get over it, or get out of the way.

18 Comments:

Anonymous ian mcdonald said...

well said sir! The American obssession with the New Wave is, because, I think they feel they own the SF franchise. Likewise, the current 'back-to-basics' counter revolution is a reaction to the current Brit-SF wave (which has been going at least since the mid 1990s, and, IMHO, refreshed the genre). Oooh, you got me seething again...

October 16, 2006 9:58 AM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Like the bowl of petunias, I can’t help thinking here we go again. I mean, didn’t we go through this back in the early ’90's, when Interzone was being accused of being some kind of third column for New Wave?

As to this back-to-basics stuff, I don’t have anything against old-style SF - it’s what I grew up on after all, and I like a good rousing space battle between giant robots as much as the next person - but I am very suspicious of the idea that sf will be saved by getting back to good old traditional values. For one thing, it’s deeply and ludicrously reactionary - it sounds like General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove, ranting about Communists polluting his precious bodily fluids. For another, it seems to be an attempt to turn what’s left of sf into a branch of heroic fantasy, with blasters instead of swords, spaceships instead of dragons, and
goobledegook about reversing the polarity and elements that don’t exist on the periodic table instead of magic spells. And yes, I know that’s exactly what Star Wars did, and maybe a publisher who was around at the time would like to remind people exactly what happened to sf publishing when Star Wars first came out. And finally and most importantly, I don’t like it because it asks authors to turn their back on the actual world. Not just on real science, and real technology, but on what’s happening here and now in, to borrow the title of William Gibson’s forthcoming, Spook World. Because if sf is good at one thing, it’s dealing not with current events directly, but sideways and upsidedown. It’s good at looking behind the curtain and pointing out that the wizard is just a lost and lonely little old man. It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) ask, why did we go to war in Iraq? But it does (or should) ask, why do people do such dumb things? And, what happens if things go on like this? Y’know, I feel rather dumb myself, having to point such obvious things out. But as far as I’m concerned, the people who have forgotten this and want to retreat pell-mell into a thumb-sucking comfort zone where
they waste their time in endless arguments about what is and what is not Real Science Fiction, and where paper spaceships zoom across paper light years towards forced landings in the happy ending zone and nothing bloody well matters in the end, are an awful lot dumber than me.

Or to put it another way, I read all kinds of novels for all kinds of reasons, but I don’t want to have the same novel shoved jack-boot style in my face forever more.

October 16, 2006 3:37 PM  
Anonymous ian mcdonald said...

I too have absolutely nothing about old-skool SF --especially when it realises that it has an infinitely greater FX budget than any media SF ever will. It's just that, to pick up on your final point, I can think of nothing better guaranteed to put me off SF than getting endless pap/product forced down my gullet. Media SF has so successfuly colonised the lower ground (much as 'Friends', by being so basic, colonised much of the lower ground of situation comedy, and Buffy seems to doing in urban fantasy) that written SF needs to look elsewhere and do something different.

October 16, 2006 4:14 PM  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

Exactly.
Which is why I hate realism (the form) in theatre, because I go to theatre to see that which I cannot experience in film, and watching three people sit around on the sofa and argue about how their life sucks fails to take advantage of the strengths of live performance. To use a related example.

October 16, 2006 4:20 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

For one thing, it’s deeply and ludicrously reactionary - it sounds like General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove, ranting about Communists polluting his precious bodily fluids.

Amen to that. I've been shaking my head over this "back to the roots of SF" move because the people who were consuming SF back then are now grownups and we like more complex, subtle stuff. Yeah, the old stuff was great and I was initiated into SF through the giants, but there are new giants and they are welcome. SF should be huge and have lots of nooks and crannies so that there is something for everything.

October 16, 2006 5:59 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Lassen said...

Let me pile on, and say "Well Said." I appreciate such a succinct and reasoned response to something that just left me sputtering and incoherent.

October 16, 2006 6:10 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

The New Wave smacks of intellectualism and Americans are always on guard against eggheads and beret-wearing, long-haired fruitcakes. In the SF world, there is a slight difference in that pragmatic intelligence (read: engineering) is okay, but other than that, thinking to hard or being self-consciously artful is just, to too many people, pretentious faggotry, Godless Communism, and pederastic relativism all rolled up into one.

October 16, 2006 8:17 PM  
Anonymous Justin said...

The New Wave smacks of intellectualism and Americans are always on guard against eggheads and beret-wearing, long-haired fruitcakes.

Well, some Americans. The others are the eggheads and beret-wearing, long-haired fruitcakes themselves.

October 16, 2006 8:45 PM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Heh. Embarrassed correction - Gibson's forthcoming is actually Spook Country. I was obviously having a Clowes/Gibson crossover moment...

More later, maybe.

October 16, 2006 10:59 PM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

While I'm apologising, as al zorra pointed out over at Ian McDonald's live journal thing, the new Wave had its high point more like forty years ago than thirty. Which of course makes all this ongoing grumpiness about it in certain quarters all the more ridiculous.

October 16, 2006 11:26 PM  
Anonymous Sean Williams said...

Yes, yes and yes. Loved your post, Paul. Everything old is new again--New Wave, New Weird, New Space Opera--but it could be worse. How long until NeoWave, NeoWeird, etc, and the argument starts up again?

October 17, 2006 12:27 AM  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

Haven't you heard? Ian has christened us the New Midievilist.

October 17, 2006 3:13 AM  
Anonymous Rebecca Ore said...

If s.f. now is selling 7 or 8 percent of the market, the answer is to bring back more complex, involuted, experimental stuff like the early 70s had when s.f. was something like a third of the mass market, not drive readers further away in an era where anyone can use fantastic material in novels in or outside of marketing categories.

Some recent writers who have gotten an audience beyond s.f. fandom have been fairly quick to drop the s.f. label: Gibson, Karen Joy Fowler, Jonathan Lethem.

October 17, 2006 2:08 PM  
Blogger Paul Cornell said...

I'm here to say the thing I say: we need a highly populist SF work of very high quality that contains deepness but does not cheat by going for the easy deepness of cheap local comment. I don't believe such a work has been written for quite a while now, with respect to those who write high quality, highly literate, works and are reading this. (Maybe Jonathan Strange, but that is squarely fantasy.) I think, particularly in British SF, the internal forces of the genre are set dead against the popular: this ghetto is built from within. There's a door just over there. You just get glared at if you start to shuffle towards it.

A lot of this is about the playground: if we act, or are, intellectual, we're better than those who mock our genre from outside it. The feeling is that going for a popular audience would be lowering ourselves. And there's a bit of anti-American bigotry involved too, from time to time. I'm in so many bars and panels at British SF events and hear how awful Americans are... oh, apart from you who were listening there, you're not like all the others, why you could almost be British!

In threads like this, the current confusion at the heart of every thing (which is perhaps why everyone has got so obsessed with labelling things, from music genres on ITunes to factions of political parties) is expressed at its funniest by people arguing that the way to be more popular is to really push for being much, much less popular.

I'm as lost as you are, mind you. I just have some jokes I want to tell while being so. Oh, and I'll also link to your blog if I may, Paul. I like to make lists of things while I'm wandering about in the wilds. Cheers.

October 17, 2006 4:37 PM  
Anonymous Kyri said...

As someone who likes nasty, ugly, dystopian worlds, dark stories where people die and things end badly, and deeply broken protagonists struggle and who sometimes fail --

and who not only reads but writes such things and would still like to be included in the SFF community--

Thank you.

October 17, 2006 5:29 PM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Y'all have sent such an embarrassment of good points that I'm going to think over them for a couple of days and synthesise a response. There's clearly something in the air, and I've sort of stumbled into the tailwind. Meanwhile, Paul, and anyone else, I'm of course happy to be linked up. And it reminds me that I must do something about my links too.

October 17, 2006 8:04 PM  
Blogger meika said...

me too, but

isn't slipstream the new sf...

or is that just a crew-cut hair-dos above a orange skivvy

October 27, 2006 11:51 PM  
Blogger Martyn Taylor said...

'Science Fiction' is like a kangaroo, in that when the first Eurpoean saw a kangaroo he turned to his aboriginal guide and asked 'What's that?' and the guide replied 'Kangaroo', which - on translation - turns out to mean 'fucked if I know, mate', but that doesn't stop us called the bouncing marsupial a 'kangaroo'.

As for what the kangaroo thinks about being called a 'kangaroo', nobody who really knows cares that much. I yam what I yam.

October 30, 2006 2:01 PM  

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