Archive for category Literary Fiction

A Cloak of Ambiguity

In The Invisibility Cloak, a short novel by Ge Fei (translated by Canaan Morse), Mr. Cui tries to improve his fortunes in life. The Kirkus review back-cover blurb describes our protagonist as a “likable loser,” a description I see as off the mark.

Mr. Cui is proud of his life. True, his sister, brother-in-law, best friend, and former wife view him as less than a winner. But Mr. Cui doesn’t embrace their views. He builds tube amplifiers for wealthy clients who want expensive, superior sound systems. Modern Beijing society doesn’t value his genius, but he sees that as an indictment of modern Beijing society, not of him.

His relationships are troubled and confused. His sister and brother-in-law want him to move out of an apartment they own. There appears to be some unfairness here, as the house his sister and brother-in-law are living in is a legacy from their mother, something which Mr. Cui ought to share in. Mr. Cui recognizes the unfairness, but does not dwell on it. Nor does he dwell on why they are doing what they do. He concentrates on getting enough money to avoid homelessness.

His relationship with his ex-wife is equally opaque. He is obsessed with the loss of her, but has little idea why she left him. His relationship with his best friend is equally unreciprocal. Mr. Cui is disappointed by his friend, but lets the behavior slide.

Mr. Cui is obsessed by his work with his beloved high-end audio equipment–unambiguous components, parts, wires, and tubes. Perhaps the clarity of his work brings him a clearer view of his wealthy clients than he could ever have of family and friends. He despises his clients–for their lack of musical taste, their pomposity, and for their disrespect for his skills.

Mr. Cui finally lands a job with a client he comes to like, but also fears. His experience with this client, and the client’s wife, promises to resolve some of the uncertainties of his life, and both succeeds and fails. For Mr. Cui, ambiguity must always triumph.

This is an odd story narrated by an unreliable protagonist. But it’s not Mr. Cui’s fault he’s unreliable. He can’t perceive what others hide from him, nor what he hides from himself. Throwing an invisibility cloak over large chunks of the world might be the only he could ever move forward.

I liked this book.


Published by New York Review of Books-2016


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Not Scared to be SF

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:…any-other-name/ ‎

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?

Endless Possibilities

Endless Possibilities


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Genre and Me and Me in Different Mediums

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.

Cheer up, Philo T Farnsworth! Your invention is a good thing, and we love it!

Cheer up, Philo T Farnsworth! Your invention is a good thing, and we love it!

Photo: Library of Congress

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What Are Your Sincere Intentions, Author?

Recently, I have listened to, or have participated in, discussions of the differences between mainstream and science fiction. What is the difference between what a science fiction writer writes, and what a lit-fic writer comes up with, when both are working in, say, a near-future setting?

Many years ago, I read P.D. James’s The Children of Men, in which human sperm, worldwide, becomes nonviable. The setup is pure SF. I waited, therefore, for an SF payoff. I expected someone, anyone, some scientist somewhere, to try to find out why this was happening, but no one really did. Oh, they sort of tried, offstage, but then they just threw up their hands and decided it was hopeless. (Yeah, that sounds like scientists, doesn’t it?) Nor did she ever explain why sperm that had been frozen were rendered equally nonviable. Even after I figured out James didn’t care about science fiction, or the sperm, and that this book was about something other than the sperm, I couldn’t turn off the expectation that it should be about the sperm. At least a little. Because she was being totally insincere about the sperm.

Now I’m in the middle of Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot, which the cover copy describes as a near-future, post-apocolyptic novel. The engine of the plot is the FUS events that have changed the landscape of North America. What FUS stands for is pretty easy to figure out, but it so far is a kitchen-sink catch-all concept, with a heavy emphasis on global warming. The first quarter of the book excited me: two sections of two main characters, both of whom I loved. The first, Woo-jin, was my favorite. He is a delightful dishwasher (the best dishwasher in the world) living in incredible poverty. The second, Luke Piper, suffers a devastating loss in childhood, which leads to a one-eighty reversal of his life’s trajectory.

Then we get to Abby, who encounters a bunch of clones, and my heart sinks. It sinks, because the clones are not real, not in any sense that human clones have been depicted in dozens of other novels. They are not emotionally true. They are kind of funny, the endless numbers of them attending an impossibly old grand-dame, aging Mae West style, but at the same time, they feel inauthentic. I do not believe the author believed in them.

Likewise the sentient glacier that ravages Canada and the U.S. Yes, this is a big global warming moment. The glacier sounds totally cool (no pun intended), but it happens as a throwaway, its story given to us in an awkward lump of exposition by a teacher-character to another character who already knows the information. The sentient glacier reminds me of something in Gabriel Garcia Marquez–it hints magical realism–except this is not magical realism. In magical realism, everyone in the book accepts weird events as normal. Here, everyone freaks out. I must conclude, once again, that the author doesn’t care about this magical glacier he has created. He doesn’t love it on its own terms; he is using it. I don’t know what he’s using it for, a symbol, a joke, but at this point, I am expecting the story to grow faucets and a drain, because it is beginning to resemble a kitchen sink.

The farther I get into the book, the more confused I become as to the author’s sincere intent. It turns out that Abby, the character who encountered the clones previously, is a clone herself. Gasp! So that’s why those other clones upset her before! But Woo-jin has come back, too, and that is a good thing. Also, we are alerted early on to a puppet-master, Dirk Bickle, who may very well tie this all together. We’ll see.

In spite of my difficulties with the book so far, I’m enjoying it. It is witty, tragic, and satirical. The parts I like the best, however, are the mainstream parts. None of the post-apocolyptic SF elements are new, and for all their noise and flash, not much of the author seems to be invested in them.

Boudinot is compared to Phillip K. Dick in one of the cover blurbs. There is a paranoid aspect to the novel, but where Dick related a paranoid and dark view of the near future, every bit of what he wrote came out of his core. He was not trying to tell us anything. He was being. He was in every one of his inventions one-hundred percent. I’m not sure Budinot is.

When it comes down to it, intent is the difference between someone who’s writing SF, and someone who’s writing mainstream, but using the trappings tropes of SF for symbol or mere effect.

A force of nature like this one deserves respect.

Photo: Quelccaya_Glacier.jpg (Photo by Edubucher)

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