Posts Tagged literature

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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Conflicts With Conflict

Conflict is the heart of any story, and the driver of all plots within the story. Conflict–which many of us like to avoid in our daily lives–is what we eagerly seek out in fiction, both as writers and as consumers. Conflict can be anything from a tear in the fabric of space-time that threatens to swallow up all of reality (Dr. Who) to over-done women carrying a grudge over how someone dissed someone else (Real Housewives of Wherever, Shahs of Sunset*).

In the case of the latter, I become impatient. I want to tell the self-involved dummies to get over themselves and pay attention to what matters in life. In the case of the former, I also become impatient, because a conflict that’s too big can also become tedious. Dr. Who fell into this for a while. I mean, come on. You know reality isn’t going to go up in a puff of smoke. What would happen to the show, then? So why keep making that the arc of the season? Can’t we just have some fun adventure?

Conflict is a matter of scale. The Doctor is a Time Lord able to travel through space and time in the Tardis. He has his wits and a magic screwdriver. The most satisfying of the stories are neither to big nor too small for his persona. My favorite this season so far is “The Rings of Akhaten,” where a child is saved from sacrifice. That was lovely. On the other end of the spectrum, I became so very weary last season of the tedious and portentous story lines of the Doctor’s death, and the whole mess with Amy Pond, River Song, and Rory. I simply didn’t buy any of it.

Conflict is also a matter of perspective and depth. Generic makes my eyes glaze over. The oft-repeated advice to the writer, “Begin with a character with a problem…” makes my mind go numb. I need to begin with something specific, be it large or small. More accurately, two or three things come together, and then two or three things are added, and so forth. In the masterpiece that is Mad Men, we spend most of the first season collecting and arranging these specific pieces, i.e. characters in a quite specific time and place. I remember being unimpressed with the first episode I watched, in which Peggy starts work, Joan struts around like an office queen bee, and Don drinks and smokes and screws around. It seemed a bland period piece, until toward the end of the first season, when the real characters emerge from the carefully crafted images that era demanded. From that point on, the series has been driven seamlessly by character conflict. Twist and turn goes the plot, but it manages to both shock and  be inevitable.

Conflict is a matter of quality. Does exploration of this fictional conflict somehow enlighten and inform me on the subject of the human condition? Does it seem real? If not, I see it as a waste of time. This is my general gripe against recent literary fiction, that it seems to be about nothing. (And not in the Seinfeld sense, the show the that pretended to be about nothing but in fact was about everything.) Quality conflict moves me. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me want to talk about it to others who have watched or read it. It is highly subjective. What matters to some, doesn’t to others.

While avoiding conflict in life whenever possible, I indulge my addiction with several doses daily of the fictional variety. I’m reading two books now, The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson, and Cyroburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold. On the TV front, I am watching Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, Parks & Recreation, CommunityMr. Selfridge, and EastEnders. I haven’t seen a movie in months, but I have seen three stage plays in recent weeks, two of which were excellent and which I will name here: The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter, and The Parisian Woman, by Beau Willimon. I’m finding Mr. Selfridge a bit conflict-lite, a bit contrived, but I’m soldiering on with it anyway. EastEnders is a British soap opera. Many of its conflicts are stupid, but it is fun to make fun of.

I love being addicted to conflict and to have so many opportunities to get all drugged up with it every day. I love the conflict with self and family in the Hopkinson novel and the Hunter play. I love the disparate social and political commentary of Bujold, Parks & Rec, and Community. I love the very different kinds of heroism shown in Dr. Who, in Bujold, and in Game of Thrones. I love the anthropological and psychological dissection of the Willimon play and of Mad Men.

It’s a lot going on. I’ve had a bit of a problem lately in that I cannot help visualizing Peter Dinklage as Miles Vorkosigan, even though I know darned well Miles is not a little person. The wit, swagger, and toughness of the two characters of Tyrion and Miles bear comparison, somehow.

One more interesting note about fictional conflict: Even when I have real conflict in my life (and no one can avoid it completely) I still need the approximate same daily dose of the fictional variety. The difference is, during rough times, I focus on the resolution. Fiction does such a better job of resolution than real life does.

Inherent conflict: First, I will admonish you. Then I will offer you a barrel of flowers. How are you supposed to feel?

Inherent conflict: First, I will admonish you. Then I will offer you a barrel of flowers. How are you supposed to feel?

*I am treating Reality TV as fiction. Please tell me it is.

Photo: Speculative Martha

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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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Landscape–the Map of the Story

I had a strange recovered-memory incident last week. It was morning; I was getting dressed. I put on shorts, and an old camp shirt.

For those not familiar with the style, this is a short-sleeved, not-tucked-in, collared, button-up shirt that is rather square in its shape. I liked this style a few years ago, not so much now, but it was hot, the shirt was weather-and-task-appropriate, and I was in the mood for it. I put it on and walked out into the day’s hot, dry weather, where I was assaulted by memories of a summer camp I went to as a child.

Stanley Ranch Camp was located north of L.A. in rolling hills near Saugus. The terrain was desert chaparral, and daily temperatures in the middle of summer hit three digits every day. The camp offered swimming, horseback riding, lanyard making, fire building (yes, in 100 degree weather, in Southern California, by 10 and 11 year olds), hiking, campfire singing, and quiet time after lunch, when it was too hot to do anything else.

I remember getting heat rash, skinning my shin badly, disastrous lanyards, steep hills to climb, being dehydrated, and failing to get my fire started. We slept outside each night, on cots, under oak trees; no one worried, apparently, about mountain lions, rattlesnakes, coyotes, or ax murderers. The bathrooms were outhouses. We didn’t shower; that’s what the daily swimming was for. Half the stuff we did then wouldn’t be allowed today. It felt a bit like Moonlight Kingdom, except none of us had any wilderness skills whatsoever.

As I ran through all the memories of people, activities, and locations, up came a complete mental image of the entire landscape. First the images were individual, like a slide show. Then I strung the pieces together, and suddenly I was remembering the entirety of the camp–a time-traveling Google Map, courtesy of my brain. I was surprised to find how strong my emotional connection was to the setting of that camp, how much fun it was to revisit. I guess I really did like the place, even if most of the memories seemed to involve injury or extreme discomfort.

The Internet told me that Stanley Ranch Camp has, in fact, endured all this past half-century, and I found it returned to its “original location” last summer, a site now operated by VT Ranch, Camp & Conference Center. I Googled that, and their site had a map. And, yes!!! My memory of the landscape was correct in all its particulars, not counting some new paving, new buildings, and other buildings torn down or repurposed. The pool, the sports field, the mess hall, and the amphitheater are all in the same positions I remember.

Landscapes are powerful in our memories, and settings are powerful in fiction. I think of the Congo in Heart of Darkness, or 1940s Los Angeles in any Raymond Chandler novel. For future or fantastic landscapes, I might think of Ian McDonald’s mid-century Istanbul in The Dervish House, or Westeros and Essos in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. And Moonlight Kingdom was all about setting, wasn’t it? Have you ever seen so many maps in a movie? Setting is essential to story; it is a character in and of itself, bound by time as well as space, and interacting with the characters and the reader’s imagination. Ideally, we become immersed in it, irrespective of whether it comes mostly from our real world, or that of our imagination. We go on vacation (or to summer camp) to escape our mundane lives. We read fiction for the same reason, and there is no shame in that.

The Stanley Ranch Camp of my memory did exist, but once it crossed over from mere historical reality to become entwined with my childhood memory banks, it became more important as a idea than as the humble place it actually was. It became a character in my memory. Because it was all activities, all the time, because every hour of every day was planned for us, my time there had something of the quality of a script, a teleplay. Difficulties at home, uncertainties at school, and nascent adolescent social anxieties did not figure in this script. I had a role, the role of camper, and I knew how to play it. Heat rash and dehydration were part of the plot. It was like going to the movie theater on Saturday afternoon…and getting to be in the movie.

Wrinkled, and in the great outdoors. What landscape to explore next?

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Finding “Moi”

Gustave Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” When I searched the phrase, I came up with a number of results, many of which were student or professor pages asking what he meant by the statement. Some of the answers looked for biographical points of similarity; others looked for similarities in personality traits or temperament, and they found a few. None of the results matched my take on the statement.

When Flaubert says that he and Bovary are the same person, he is merely stating a fact every writer should embrace. Our memorable characters are us, and if they are not, they are not memorable.

Any real person is, of course, too complex, and too multifaceted to fit into a fictional character. No fictional character, however complex, has the dimensions of a real person. Nonetheless, we need to recognize our characters, and we need to know them well. We need to be able to pick the pieces of them out of our mirror.

We need not always be conscious of this process when creating our characters, but we can be.

John Glore, Associate Artistic Director at South Coast Repertory Theater, taught a playwriting seminar back in the ’90’s. He had an exercise that went like this: List a dozen of your own personal characteristics, i.e. fun-loving, stubborn, and so forth. Next, split the characteristics into groups of three, four items each, in any way that seems to make sense to you. Then, use the three trait-clusters to create three separate characters. Finally, a comet is going to hit and destroy the Earth in ten minutes. Write a ten-minute play with the three characters reacting to this event.

A fun exercise that makes a good point: Just because they’re all c’est moi doesn’t mean they’re all alike. Au contraire, we’ve got all sorts of folks living inside us. The trick is discovering who they are, and where they live.

As writers, most of us do this very well, and quite unconsciously. The first appearance of a character in our brain may be inspired by someone we know, a mother-in-law, an ex-boss, an acquaintance, or even someone famous. For that inspiration to flesh out and begin breathing on its own, so to speak, we need at some level to be moved by that character’s situation, to learn where they’re coming from, and to empathize with them, to feel something about where they’re going. We need to invest ourselves in them. This is true of villains as well as heroes, monsters as well as saints.

Every successful character has at least one over-arching priority, one desire, belief, or goal. More often, they have conflicts clusters of needs, desires, and goals, two or more of which conflict with one another. The good characters are a little bad, and the bad ones, a little good. The key to moiness is to empathize with your verbally abusive, chemically dependent, good-for-nothing, s.o.b., and to be quite judgmental toward your law-abiding nice guy or gal.

Most of the time, the author doesn’t want to be too recognizable in his/her characters. There are exceptions of course, but the thing that prevents us from creating characters that are too recognizably nous is that we cannot truly see ourselves as others do. We have the perfect view from the inside, but only others see the outside. When we look in the mirror, we might as well be wearing goggles with Vaseline smeared on them. We’re flipped: left is right, and right is left. We focus on the blemishes. Our image is distorted, like that map of the U.S., as drawn by a New Yorker. We are so used to ourselves, we don’t see anything remarkable there. The last thing I think of when I look in the mirror (especially first thing in the morning) is “Oh, look, what a fascinating character!”

But I guess I am. And I know you are, too.

The Crowded Mirror


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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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