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?
Mysteries, whether cozy English, police procedural, or noir detective, fill a psychological itch for us. The police, the detective, and the justice system represent the societal order we all need to feel safe, and the moral order that allows good to triumph over evil. The protagonist outwits the criminal, and brings him or her to justice. The act cannot be undone; the murder victim cannot be restored to his or her unfinished life, and so the detective’s victory is always tempered by the reality that there is more evil out there, always.
Most readers of SF I know read the occasional mystery. I heard someone say that every SF story is at heart a mystery. That may be too sweeping a generalization for me, but the affinity between the two groups is undeniable, given that many writers of SF have also worked in the mystery genres. More than a few writers have written both in the same book.
One of the favorite combos is the mystery combined with alternate history. The alternate history usually deals with different historical political outcomes and shifts of power. Three examples come to mind: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Jo Walton’s Farthing, and China Mieville’s The City and the City.
Some might question my inclusion of the Mieville work as alternate history, but as a kind of alternate now, it has many of the same combination of qualities I find so appealing in the alternate history/mystery sub-genre. The mystery genre has a utopian view of justice, in which the truth outs and justice prevails. The real justice system can never measure up. The alternate history political system strives to impose order, but causes its own chaos. The marriage of the two makes for very interesting fiction.
I finished Farthing, and immediately downloaded the second and third books of the trilogy, having found the first book a page-turner the likes of which I haven’t experienced in years. It begins with a country house murder set in an England that made peace with Hitler in 1941. The investigation of the country house murder, and the Inspector’s solving of the crime, is supposed to return us to the security of a lawful society, as per the world-view of the mystery, as described above. But there’s a problem, and that problem is the corruption of a sane and orderly legal system by the madness of a British government being overcome by fascism. How does the truth-seeking Inspector Carmichael restore order, when the integrity and fundamental morality of that order has been gutted?
China Mieville’s police detective has a different problem. He is attempting to solve his murder case as a citizen of a city state that coexists with another city-state that occupies the same territory, but which he must ignore. All citizens must ignore the other city-state which is right before their eyes. Reality has been fractured, and perception cannot be trusted. How can truth be found in such a state? The detective’s own perceptions are distorted by the lifelong conditioning of his culture, of not-seeing what is right in front of him. What greater handicap can a seeker of truth have than self-blinding from what one is forbidden to see?
The existential threat to Detective Landsmen in Chabon’s alternate history is at once remote and immediate. The lease on the temporary Jewish settlement/homeland in Sitka, Alaska, is about to run out, throwing the detective and all of Alaska’s Jews into statelessness. In the meantime, crime goes on, including murder, one of which Landsmen is tasked with solving. He expects to keep doing his job, in spite of the imminent demise of the jurisdiction he works for. Talk about being a lame duck. Madcap alternate history/police procedural it is, but Chabon also points squarely at a serious dilemma we’ve all faced. Why bother to do the right thing, if no one cares, and if it seems not to matter, to make any difference to anyone?
So here are my speculations for the week: What do we do when 1) We learn the authority that comforts us, and that we depend upon, has become hopelessly compromised? 2) We learn that we have been in denial all our lives about what is true and what is not? Or, 3) Our moral and ethical best efforts are probably meaningless to the world around us?
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.
Every year about this time, I travel to the Twin Cities for Diversicon. It’s a small convention, about 100 people, but over the last 20 years has attracted terrific guests and fans. Last weekend, I attended Diversicon 21.
In a later post I may go into why and how a kid from California became a regular panel participant in a small Minnesota convention, but for now, simply accept the fact: this is what I do.
One of the great things about Diversicon is its programming, which, as the name of the convention suggests, is diverse. It covers science fiction and fantasy, and touches on literature, films, and TV. The panelists come prepared. The attendees come prepared. fights don’t exactly break out, but frank and spirited discussions take place. Oh, and the people are smart. They aren’t afraid to be intellectual. They manage, however, to be smart and intellectual in a polite, Minnesota sort of way. They talk, but they also listen. I always come back home energized. Last weekend was no exception.
All of the above does not prevent trepidation on my part every year as I open my programming schedule. It’s always an emotional thing. This year, as others, followed the familiar pattern of interest, excitement, dismay, and “…did I really volunteer to moderate that?” I always have to remind myself that moderating can be easier than being a panelist…you don’t need to know much yourself. All you need to do is come up with a bunch of questions. Asking questions is always a good tactic if you don’t know the answer yourself–and sometimes, even if you think you do.
Another aspect of moderating has to do with structure. This can mean keeping the panel on-topic, reining in an overly talkative panelist or audience member. I strive for balance. Allow audience participation, but make sure the panelists have priority. You can defer all audience questions until the end, but sometimes it pays to be flexible. On the Sunday afternoon Iain M. Banks memorial panel, for instance, I had four very knowledgeable and distinguished panelists. I therefore went in with the notion of being fairly restrictive with audience participation, so that I would have ample time to pick the distinguished panelists’ brains thoroughly clean.
No need to worry. All but one audience member were content just to listen, and the one who did talk was as knowledgable as the panelists. I picked his brain as thoroughly as I did the panelists’.
I was on a Friday afternoon panel on “Recapturing a Sense of Wonder.” I approached that panel with some trepidation: Upon careful reading of the program, which I apparently had not bothered to do before volunteering, it appeared to have a lot to do with YA fiction, which I have only passing familiarity with. And, the panel included Jack McDevitt, Guest of Honor. When a Guest of Honor is on the panel, one can be a bit self-conscious about one’s role as fellow panelist.
But Jack didn’t come to play Visiting Celebrity. He spoke knowledgeably, and he listened attentively to anything anyone else said. Jack McDevitt is a genuine, charming Guest of Honor, as well as being a terrific writer.
A word about the Special Guests: Catherine Lundoff is a sunny and energetic presence, and also a terrific writer. Roy C. Booth showed us his very strange short film, “The Day Lufberry Won It All.” I need to watch it again, so I bought a copy.
Diversicon 22 will happen July 25-27 in St. Paul, MN. If you like small, serious-but-relaxed SF conventions. I recommend it. If you go, don’t forget to ask a lot of questions.
Oh, and the yellow shoes? I wished to demonstrate that a weekend convention wardrobe could be built around a single, colorful accessory. I succeeded, pairing the yellow shoes with a series of neutral clothing. No one, however, appeared to notice. The programming was that good.
I’m not surprised that some oppressive cultures have attempted to outlaw some or all forms of music. Music is a drug. It alters mood and brain. Music cannot be controlled.
The cover–a redo of a song made famous by someone else–is a tricky proposition. Many are good, some are a waste of time. The transformative cover–when something brand new is brought to a song–can be a very happy thing indeed. Here are eight of my favorites, listed in alphabetical order by artist.
1. “Ruby Tuesday” — Franco Battiato
Battiato is apparently well-known in Europe, perhaps not as well known in the U.S., certainly not by me. He sings in a standard pop style in the general direction of Andy Williams or Tony Bennett. This style should not work on this Rolling Stones hit, or any other iconic rock and roll tune. I’m no fan, for instance, of Frank Sinatra’s covers of “Yesterday” or “Something.” They’re pretty, but they aren’t right. What makes Battiato’s cover right is that he picked a song that isn’t quite so sweet. “Ruby Tuesday” has itself a bit of grit. A bit of poingancy. Battiato’s sweet, heartfelt rendition, made me listen–in a fresh way–to the lyrics, and to realize just what a good song this is.
2. “Twist and Shout” — The Beatles
The Twist was a dance craze that emerged in 1960, lasted into 1961, and gave us such songs as “The Twist,” “Peppermint Twist,” and “Let’s Twist Again, Like We Did Last Summer.” Then, in 1964, in one of the great rock and roll singing performances of all time, John Lennon took this three-year-old, dead-as-a-doornail dance craze song, and blew the lid off it. He didn’t sing from nostalgia, or to do it again like we did before, he did it Now and Forever More, and There Can Never Be Another. I still get goosebumps when I hear this.
3. “Bad Moon Rising” — Thea Gilmore
Like many listeners, I misheard the lyrics in this Creedence Clearwater Revival hit from 1969. It was played extensively, a huge hit, has been covered numerous times since, but I never truly heard the lyrics until Thea Gilmore covered it on her Loft album, in 2004. John Fogerty (according to Wikipedia) was supposedly inspired by a hurricane when he wrote this, but in Gilmore’s version, it seems unmistakably about the Vietnam. I hear a resigned lament from a soldier about to go out on patrol, and not expecting to return.
4. “All Along the Watchtower” — The Jimi Hendrix Experience
One of the most famous covers, and for good reason. It isn’t that easy to cover a Bob Dylan song, in my humble opinion. The temptation, I think, is to make it sound too pretty. Jimi Hendrix keeps the apocalyptic drive going, and the result is beautiful, but not at all pretty. Perhaps it should be considered cheating for Hendrix to have played guitar as he did, and to be allowed to cover songs, but last I looked, it was not.
5. “That’ll Be the Day” — Modest Mouse
Lots of people have done lots of fine covers of Buddy Holly’s work, but none has whipped my head around like this. This song, as done by Buddy Holly, sounds jaunty, upbeat, and very pop. The jaunty pop sits in direct opposition to the lyrics, and jaunty wins. Modest Mouse has slowed it down, and added marvelous buzzy guitar, which bring the music in alignment with the words, and reveals the song for the tortured and ominous piece that it is.
6. “The Rains of Castamere” — The National
Hey, Game of Thrones fans!!! Does this really count as a cover? I don’t care. The lyrics are by George R. R. Martin, a fictional song if you will, sung repeatedly and mentioned often in the book, where it serves as a theme and warning to all non-Lannisters. It never had an original version, exactly, but with music by Ramin Djawadi, the song has moved to the TV series, where it has been used often and well. This version was played over the credits in an episode in season two, and what a delightful surprise it was. Because, while the melody is reminiscent of medieval tunes, The National’s performance is contemporary. It is not trying to be rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s not trying to be “period,” either. It isn’t trying to be anything; it just is, and it’s perfect.
7. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — Cat Power
The original 1965 version of this song is my ring tone. I loved the song as a teenager because the adults were appalled by it. Eventually, I got all the lyrics, and said, wow that’s actually a good song. I never liked any of the covers of it, though, until I heard this one. The song is slowed way, way down, and as with “That’ll Be the Day,” above, the technique delivers. I not only hear the lyrics, I am forced to think about them. This song was written half a century ago, and yet it sounds like today. In the heyday of Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, etc., Jagger/Richards were overlooked as songwriters. I’m looking at them now.
8. “Real Love” — Regina Spektor
I was in Trader Joe’s parking lot when I first heard Spektor’s version of this song. It was before I had Shazam, and so I had to sit there and wait until the the KCRW deejay back-announced the track. I then had to wait months before it became available for download. This is perhaps the most transformative cover of all. The song is a John Lennon “leftover,” a track he never released. Sometime in the eighties, the three surviving Beatles got hold of it, went into the studio, and made a final Beatles record, using Lennon’s recording. The product made many of us very, very sad. Many of us wished the track had never been released. I felt that way, until I heard this cover. Regina Spektor takes this song, and lifts it above the mediocrity I took it to be. Her performance strengthens my faith in the ultimate goodness of the universe, that things really do come right in the end.
So that’s my list. To repeat, I’ve listed my favorites IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER (sorry to shout) in order not to imply that one choice is more fave than the others. Because, in truth, I cannot decide.
Creating links is boring. I trust all you kids out there are Internet capable enough to hunt all these guys down if you so choose, and in fact, you’re probably so hip, you’ve already got them on your own playlist.