Archive for category Fantasy
Speculative Fiction: some people don’t like the term. Don’t be chicken, they say. Call it science fiction, not speculative fiction, or worse, spec fic.
I’m not much for spec fix as a term; I believe we should pronounce entire words most of the time, rather than automatically shortening them. I do enjoy speculative fiction, both the term and the stuff itself, however. I’m not afraid to say I read science fiction, because I do. I also read fantasy, selected horror, mystery, and mainstream. I even read that stuff they call literature once in a while.
I divide my reading roughly between fiction its authors consider to be “real,” and fiction from authors who consciously depart from the real–in other words, speculative fiction. Speculative fiction includes science fiction, which in turn encompasses hard science fiction, anthropological, political and other fiction of the soft sciences, cyberpunk, steampunk, space opera, alternate history, new weird, utopian, dystopian, and time travel. Speculative fiction also includes fantasy, itself a term which takes in high fantasy, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, and fairy tales. Then you have the stuff that’s not quite real but not quite not: magical realism, slipstream, and whatever it is that Murakami does. (I like the term “not normal.”) I read all this stuff, and I have need of a term that includes all of them, that differentiates them from that other stuff.
The other stuff also has genres. Examples: literary, historical, mystery, police procedural, political thriller, war novel, spy novel, and romance. The other stuff might go by the umbrella term of realistic, or mimetic, fiction. If I throw the term speculative fiction into the wastebasket, what is my umbrella term for all the types of fantastic fiction I enjoy? Non-mimetic fiction? I don’t like it. Non-realistic fiction? I don’t like that either, for the obvious reason that no matter how far-out my science fictional or fantasy premise is, the human element needs to be dead-on realistic.
The only purpose even to discuss genre, to categorize literature, is so that you and I can have a discussion about the stuff we read. For that discussion to be sensible, we need some agreement between us of the meaning of the terms we are using. Here we run into some trouble. I have no confusion about how I choose to sort books out, but because everyone reads a book differently, different people categorize differently. For instance, people were all over the place with China Mieville’s The City and the City. It is categorized as crime fiction, weird fiction, police procedural, and it won fantasy awards, as well as the Hugo. I call it science fiction for reasons given in a previous post:
But does it matter if we don’t always know what genre to put a work in? Isn’t part of the problem–if you want to call categorizing fiction a problem–that authors are becoming ever more inventive and interesting in the combinations of genres they choose to include in a single work, thereby making the assignment of genre that much more difficult?
That fashion makeover series ended recently, and it put me in mind of my own set of rules for writing, and more importantly, reading. When I pick up a book, digital or paper, I try to be flexible. I try to get into the author’s world, the world s/he has built for me.
I try very hard not to constrain the author with my expectations, even though I always have expectations. I’ve read the blurb, I’ve looked at the cover, I’ve considered previous work of the author’s I might have read, I’ve considered what I’m in the mood for, and only then will I make a judgement about whether or not I wish to dive in.
And a book is never exactly what I expect. Or hardly ever. I try to be flexible, to go along with the author’s plan. I don’t have to instantly agree one-hundred percent with every authorial decision. I am forgiving. What s/he does right is much more important than what s/he does wrong. I am picky, but not unreasonable.
That said, there are a few things that stop me cold. I may not throw the book across the room, but I may put it down and go watch TV or play Candy Crush.
I would prefer you don’t:
1) Overuse italics.
Italics are wonderful for indicating emphasis, foreign words, or a character’s internal dialogue. For pages-long backstory or flashback, they are horrible. Exposition of backstory in itself has issues, but put it in italics, and it ruins my eyes as well. It’s not easy to read. A multi-page chunk of italics signals: Here comes a bunch of stuff I somehow have to get through before I can continue with the actual story. So please just give me the actual story.
2) Let a single paragraph go on for pages and pages.
All right, maybe I don’t have that much of an attention span. Or maybe I need to rest my eyes. Or I’m sleepy and need to turn out the light. Whatever the reason, I like to stop at a logical place. If a chapter or scene break isn’t coming up soon, I’ll stop at the first paragraph at the top of the page. I don’t enjoy stopping mid-paragraph.
3) Use science fiction or fantasy tropes only as metaphor or literary device:
Many years ago, I picked up P. D. James’s The Children of Men. I kept waiting for scientists somewhere to figure out the physical cause for the worldwide male infertility at the center of the novel. Chapter after chapter passed, but scientists were barely mentioned. It seemed we were meant to believe they had given up, that somewhere, off camera, they were shrugging and saying, “Oh, well. That’s too bad.” Eventually, I understood that no cause was being offered, that the author had no interest or curiosity whatsoever in a physical cause. Universal male infertility was a literary device, a metaphor for an expression of the author’s religious views. Realizing that was a kick in the ovaries for me.
Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses time travel as a literary device to tell the story of a romance and marriage. Although it was enjoyable, the story as a whole fell flat for me. Time travel becomes mundane used in this fashion, reminding me more of the trials of any married person who can’t keep track of the comings and goings of a spouse, rather than the mind-blowing possibilities inherent in time travel.
4) Go on and on about whaling, to the detriment of character and relationship development:
I’m talking to you, Herman Melville.
5) Let your isms show:
Are you a communist? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as China Mieville, I am happy to read your work. Are you a conservative Catholic? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as Tim Powers, I’ll read your work, too.
Every one of us has deeply held beliefs the right of which to express are guaranteed by our Constitution, and bestowed upon us by our Creator. Those beliefs will be embedded in our fiction, but subtly, if we are good storytellers.
The foregoing is not intended to tell anyone how to write. It is intended only to express my opinion. What are your great reading gripes?
As I finished up my most recent post, I knew a reader or two was likely to tell me of restaurants in SF that I had not known about. Sure enough, a friend suggested The Vlad Taltos series from Steven Brust. Naturally, I wanted to check it out. My normal modus operandi these days in such a situation is to download it immediately. Unfortunately, I found the first novel in the series, Jhereg, was not available in digital form, although later novels in the series are.
I punched buy with one-click! on Amazon to obtain Jhereg in pb, and then wondered, what else isn’t available digitally? My first thought was to look for great, but obscure works, items that survive on my shelf through years of culling. I was a little surprised by what was there, and what was not.
The most glaring omission were the novels of Patricia Anthony. The only novels of hers available in electronic format were Brother Termite, and Flanders. Missing was my absolute fab fave, God’s Fires, as well as everything else. (If you think you might like a novel about the Inquisition with a science-fictional twist, this one should appeal to you.)
We lost Patricia Anthony a couple months ago, and as it happens, every one of her eight books was published in the nineties. Eating Memories, and Flanders, her last books, both came out in 1998. It pains me to think that because her body of work is “old,” having missed the ebook revolution, and because she is now gone, all her fine work could be forgotten. I consider Patricia Anthony to be a significant SF and mainstream author, and I urge anyone who missed her in the 90’s to look her up. Start with the ebook if you like, then, if necessary, go for the real books.
A book I did not expect to find, and yet was disappointed not to find, was Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax. I have heard that novel was a disaster commercially, and had a negative impact on his career.
I was sorry to hear that. I loved it. Give me a thoughtful, out-there, possibly controversial version of a religion or a religious figure, and I am really, really happy. What others consider blasphemous, I consider speculative and thought-provoking. I have never believed the The Great Spirit is particularly annoyed or injured by any sincere inquiry. The Gospel of Corax is one of my favorites of these, and I also enjoyed The Three Marys, by the same author.
Beyond those two examples, I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books missing from digital stores. Many will become available, in good time, but some may not. I suppose the same goes for music, film, and TV. This distresses me. I’m not usually the quickest to adapt to new technology, but digital culture and entertainment are different. I have become entirely accustomed to having everything that has ever been played, written, or filmed available instantly. I am willing to pay for it; I don’t expect it to be free, but I want it RIGHT NOW.
And, although Jhereg wasn’t available RIGHT NOW, it arrived within forty-eight hours.
I don’t remember the name of every dearly departed restaurant my husband and I used to love going to, but I remember the food, the ambience, and the basic serenity that descends upon one while being waited on and nourished with excellent food. Here is a short list of the departed:
Bangkok 4 and 3
That French restaurant in Tustin
The Iron Squirrel
The Four Seas
It hurts when a favorite restaurant closes.
I have vivid memories of restaurants visited away from home, in Albuquerque, San Francisco, Brighton, Calais, Paris, St. John Cap-Ferrat, Venice, and Rome.
If restaurants are so important, why don’t we see more of them in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy? When I Googled “Restaurants in Science Fiction,” the results were mostly for Disney, plus an ad for Ruth Chris’ Steak House. I had the same result when I searched for fantasy. Why?
One reason may be related to plot. Restaurants are places to pause, to relax, to have a nice meal…to restore oneself. SF tends to be literature involving action, often in places too remote in time or space to have such amenities. Even is they were available, our characters don’t have time to sit around and restore themselves. And if they do go to a restaurant, someone recognizes Lady Catelyn, and a huge fight breaks out. We never get to see the dessert tray!
Another reason restaurants are thin on the ground, especially in science fiction, is that they may not exist, in the same form, in the future. They might all be automated, with no human wait staff. The food may, indeed, all be printed from machines, sort of like the pellet diet I feed our cockatiels. Or we may end up in the world of The Windup Girl, where Monsanto has taken over the food supply.
An unappetizing thought. And no, I don’t really think it’s going to be that way.
And the more I think about it, the more I can come up with memories of restaurants in SF:
1) A teahouse figures prominently in The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald.
2) They stop at inns for nice meals in The Hobbit quite a lot.
3) Poppy Z. Brite has a delightful mainstream series–Prime, Liquors, and Soul Kitchen, which are entirely about two chefs and their restaurant, but it is entirely non-SF.
4) And what about The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams?
I guess maybe what I’m looking for here is something a bit different than the above, like a picky eater with a craving she can’t quite define.
Okay, I can define it: It’s the individually owned, sit-down venue with excellent food at slightly expensive but-not-ridiculous prices. The bistro. And it is this exact sort of place I think is in dinosaur mode. It’s much easier not to have wait staff or a lot of square footage devoted to seating. Much better to have most of your sales be take-out. This appears to be a trend. As for food quality, it depends on what is available, affordable, and demanded in various areas of the world. The number of hopeful chefs on TV competitions leads me to believe no one is going to give up cooking any time soon.
About ninety percent of my reading is in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Back in the eighties and nineties, the split was more like fifty-fifty between Spec Fic and “other.” And it’s more than that. I can say that ninety percent of the literature I revere is in science fiction and fantasy, and only ten percent in other fields.
Revere is a strong word, but it is the word that comes to mind. I like a lot of things, and I admire talent in a lot of genres, but it is science fiction and fantasy that hits me in the gut and sets my brain on fire, that makes me wonder “…how the hell did he/she come up with this?”.
While moaning about the demise of The Hour, and re-watching season four of Mad Men, I realized something perhaps a bit odd: My percentages for genre in television would be exactly opposite. Ninety percent of what I revere in television is not science fiction or fantasy. The list goes on and stretches back for decades.
Revered in Comedy: Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, M*A*S*H, Keeping Up Appearances, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Revered in Drama: Breaking Bad, The Hour, Sopranos, Mad Men.
In the drama category, a case could be made that mainstream TV gives me a lot of what I love in SF literature, my number one draw to SF, which is that I am transported to a different time and/or place in which everything is different from what I know. Or, almost different.
I have been to Albuquerque, but met no one while there who was involved in cooking or selling crystal meth. The shots of the desert in that show take my breath away, so starkly beautiful in Breaking Bad.
I have also been to the nineteen-sixties, but I did it as a teenager, not as an adult at a Manhattan ad agency. The time travel aspect of Mad Men is a bit sf-nal.
Comedy, on the other hand, seems to be about home, whatever its genre, whatever its locale. Comedy transports me in a different way, and it is much more difficult for me to pin down what makes me laugh. Why did I laugh at the mother-in-law/hippo joke in Reginald Perrin every time? What was so funny about Mystery Science Theater? That concept should not have worked, but it did. And all, somehow, are about home. Remember, the characters in MST3000 return to live together in an apartment in Wisconsin at the end of the series.
I don’t notice genre as much in television. Sure, there’s the SyFy channel, but the genres do tend to bleed together more. Community gets a Hugo nomination. People not otherwise interested in fantasy watch Game of Thrones. No one seems to care quite as much about genre in TV as they do in literature. And perhaps literature is the key word here. Some books are supposed to be good for you. Books that are good for you are called literature. If you actually like books that are good for you, well, you must be an intellectual! And if you read that sci-fi stuff, you clearly are not.
On the other hand, television is not good for you, no matter what. I’ve been hearing that from the time I was old enough to operate the channel selector. (We did not have remotes in those days.) It is assumed that, if you are watching television, you are wasting time. Distinctions matter less. Oh sure, there can be the occasional PBS documentary, but when you’re knocking around a broadcast lineup that includes Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Real Housewives, My Secret Addiction, and dozens of others, watching Dr. Who, or Buffy, or Star Trek Next Generation doesn’t seem all that bad.
My point in all this is that television is more than not-always-that-bad. It is often good. It is is occasionally, in recent years in particular, as brilliant as any writing done in any genre and any form in all of time.
Photo: Library of Congress
It isn’t, but it could be.
This is not an attempt to compare my situation with my house with those who have lost their homes in natural disasters, or by other means. It’s just that the house is such a potent symbol for one’s world, one’s life, one’s self. Termites eat away. Paint peels. Clutter lies about. Dust accumulates. Everything is what it is, and everything is a metaphor for something else as well. I’m not certain what all of this has to do with my state of mind when I’m writing. Does it depress me? A little. Does it shame me? Not like it used to. Would I really want everything to be perfect? I don’t think I would.
Having a house perfect costs money, and it also takes time. Most significantly, for anyone who works at home (like a housewife-writer), it means contractors and other life forms intruding on my peace and quiet. They have questions. I need to make sure I give the right answer and that they understand me. Sometimes, I don’t know the answer. They could be speaking Neptunian, for all I understand. “Just do it!” I say, but it is not enough. Everything takes longer than you think it will. There is the warping of time. Twenty minutes is really ninety, in the land of contractors.
They make noise. They move things. Some are better at cleaning up after themselves than others.
All of the above runs through my brain when I contemplate home maintenance. As a result, I often procrastinate having things done, in order to maintain the peace and tranquility I crave. I get away with this, mostly. I am married to someone who could live through the destruction of Pompeii, and still think everything was just fine. He might notice a change eventually, maybe. (“Didn’t we used to have a wall here? How long have we had lava pouring through our dining room? A volcanic eruption? Really? When did that happen? You didn’t tell me!”)
I cannot give in forever to my procrastinating nature. The house really could fall down. Also, disrepair and disorder carry their own burden of chaos. At a certain point, you have to take care of it. And when I do, when I really take care of a problem, I feel as though I have tamed a dragon. I do a little dance when the formerly broken thing has been put right. But my latest dragon-taming success had to do not with structure, or plumbing, or cosmetics. It had to do with the digital world of Cable TV.
The more s&*# we have, the more that can break. All those computerized goodies we can’t live without. And we really can, except to do so really will make our lives a lot more work, and a lot less fun. It me takes one-tenth the time to pay bills than it did in, say, 1990. About one-eighth the time to make plane reservations. In a little tiny device, I carry a telephone, still and movie camera, address book, calendar, bookshelf full of books, calculator, road maps of the entire world, photo albums, notepad, yellow pages, multiple messaging systems that did not exist a few decades ago, a big chunk of my music library, information from around the world, including weather, sports, news, traffic reports, and opinions. Oh, and I can shop from my phone, too. And play games. I would have required a small panel van to carry around all those functions in 1990. But if I were driving a panel van around with all that stuff in it, I would know what I had. I would feel its weight, and understand the difficulties in its maintenance.
I don’t understand and don’t want to accept the difficulties of maintenance. My electronic magic toys pull me away from attention to the tactile: termite-chewed wood, rodent chewed cable, and paint sloughed from house trim like dried-up cake frosting. The digital world is like air. It is invisible, or nearly so. It is my personal magic wand that has seduced me into thinking anything is possible, that I am Mickey Mouse in a wizard’s hat, dancing in Fantasia.
I am reminded the broomsticks are impossible to control.
Now that I’ve submitted my Hugo votes, now that I’ve said all I have to say about this year’s nominees, I wish to revisit my basic discomfort with awards.
We have to have them, I think. They are a way for fans and professional organizations to celebrate the work that gives us all so much joy and meaning in our lives. They spur us to read stuff/see stuff/ listen to stuff we might not otherwise. For the authors, a nomination or award becomes a tag they can attach to themselves forever, which will further their success. And there’s the drama of the event itself, who’s going to win, and how excited are they. Awards are fun.
Then there are the problems. For instance, the apples-and-oranges problem.
Every year, the field of speculative fiction widens. It’s beyond science fiction and fantasy; it’s alternate history, and urban fantasy, and epic fantasy, and steampunk, and military sf, and near-future dystopia, and so on and so forth, every one of which has its own aesthetics, tropes, and flavor. In the Hugo Best Novel category, we have 1) A coming-of-age fantasy, 2) The fourth book in a six-book epic fantasy series, 3) The second book in a zombie trilogy 4) A far-future, end-of-the galaxy, political/anthropological/sociological sf novel, and 5) a nearer future science fiction novel of a more traditional sort. It is difficult to compare any of the two in absolute terms, because they are truly five different sub genres. They may be among the best examples of their respective sub genres, but they are not easy to compare.
I could say to myself, “Is this book a superior example of a coming-of-age fantasy/fourth book of epic fantasy series/second book of trilogy/etc.?” And, “Is this a better second book in a zombie trilogy than that is a far-future, end of the galaxy, political/anthropological etc., etc.?”
I could do that, or I could just vote for what I like. In this case I like (and was predisposed to like) numbers 2 and 4 the best. Number 4, the political/anthropological/sociological sf novel is my favorite genre-within-a-genre. Number 2 is not normally my thing, but I’ve seen the TV show, and I’d read the first three books, and the epic had its hooks in me. Number 4 did get my first-place vote, but Number 2 was further down the list, because I did not feel the fourth book ranked as high as some of the previous volumes in the series. (Yes, George R. R. Martin was in competition with himself, as well as with the others.) But I still loved it.
At the other end of the spectrum, Number 5 could not pull me in at all. It’s not my favorite type of sf, I was already tired from all my intensive reading, and I just wasn’t in the mood for something I didn’t feel drawn to. It must be said, this is not the fault of the book. I don’t think it’s an unworthy book, only that it’s not my thing, and in my less-than-open frame of mind, it could not seduce me.
In the end, my ranking came out of my sincere attempt at best apple vs. best orange analysis, combined with “Oh man, I loved this best, I really did.” I feel honest and fair about my efforts. I also got through the novellas, novelettes, short stories, and fancasts. I actually feel almost “hip,” and “with it,” rather than “square,” and “out-of-it!”
I am ready to see who wins, and to get into possibly passionate discussions about the results.