Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

October 5, 2012

What I see when I look at fantasy book covers

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:26 pm

It’s not all fantasy that’s like this (thank goodness) but you can see the basic tropes making this unmistakably Extruded Fantasy Product.

  • Importantly, there is no frame: the full-bleed background extends to the edges of the cover. It must be as photorealistic as possible, and preferably show either a wild romantic landscape or a dark gritty urban scene.
  • The cover text is very much not part of the image, but splashed on top. Text is metadata, the image is in the world, and the two must never ever interact (beyond decorative overlapping) or the author’s legion of dedicated fanboys will get very nervous and shouty.
  • The title font is unnecessarily ornate & curly, with the metallic foiling that tells the discerning fanboy “this is really High Class fantasy”.
  • This is a really High Class author, so he gets metallic foiling too, and an enthusiastic blurb from a completely & very distinctly different author in the same genre.
  • Extruded Fantasy Product often contains a lot of compound nouns in the title, usually made up of at least two of the following components: sword, horse, crown, shadow, throne, star, demon, dragon, blade, thorn, bone, wind, skull, moon. Otherwise, it is mandatory to use an invented place name or culture name in the title, viz. “Throne-Moon of Corokhai”, or “Revenge of the Aaladrii”.
  • Magic sword. You can tell it’s magic because it has that purple swirly halo effect. Magic is purple. And swirly. In some cases, you have the sword without the magic swirly bit, or vice versa. This may or may not be the sword referred to in the title; it may be the crowndragon, whatever a crowndragon is.
  • The all-important Hooded Man. If it doesn’t have a bloke with a big weapon front & centre, it just ain’t got that fanboy appeal. His features are in shadow, to avoid spoiling the “it might be YOU” feeling. Also important: stubble (not shown) for that handsome gritty look. He should be muscular & Hollywood Grimy for the full effect, in a very homoerotic manner. NB: The man is depicted in a dark, moody, gritty colour palette. This does not mean he is not white. Sometimes, the figure may be female; if so, she will be depicted in a very sexualised manner, and almost certainly in an anatomically unlikely pose. She will often be wearing a corset, possibly designed to look like armour; she may or may not have a face. Her hair, in any event, will be long and will not be tied back.

October 1, 2011

The asymmetry of erasure

Filed under: essay — Tags: , — Sam @ 7:59 pm

(Or: some further thoughts on Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death.)

The author tweeted that I’d pointed out something few others had, that there were almost no white people and no legends of white people. It took me rather aback that few others had noticed this, but I suppose that’s normal for white reviewers; erasure isn’t at all symmetrical.

Non-white readers have to deal with erasure, invisibility, non-representation, in almost everything they read. When people with their skin tones and facial features (for race in Who Fears Death is much more subtle and complex than skin colour, as you’d expect from an author who lives real differences, not paintbox differences) do appear, they’re often thin and stereotypical caricatures of real people. There’s a lot of discussion here and there about whether that’s better or worse than outright erasure, but not only is that out of my text but I don’t think there’s any general answer at all.

White readers, on the other hand, have the dual luxuries of plentiful, complex, nuanced representations (and internally sketched representations at that, of white people by white people for white people; an endless conversation with themselves) and of a perceptual default, colonizing not only their own territory but the neutral, unmarked territory too. An undescribed character is, in the absence of any crashingly obvious clues, assumed to be white; there’s always more white people in the next book along; and the whole trajectory of history as white people are taught it tends towards whiteness, exaggerating the differences between white ethnicities into story-defining oppositions. Which, to be fair, they are… within the sometimes quite parochial bounds of those stories. But there have been a great many non-white people erased from British history, and that’s never justified. Many of them are still there to be rediscovered (the sheer mass of data means that many are only buried in archives, rather than scoured away; many others are only conjecture or conclusion) but it still grates having to work at finding oneself there.

For white readers, on the other hand, seeing ourselves erased from a text can be rather fun; it’s a sort of mild, transgressive, dislocatory feeling, like draping a sheet over your head and running down the street as a ghost. In fact, it’s a very good thing, because there really are so very many stories in the world that don’t involve us; very few people are telling us not to read them (with the exception of some tribe- or culture-specific ritual practices & histories) and when you’re used to having privileged access to narratives, it’s good to have that changed about, to be knocked off the top of an ontological pole and sent sprawling to look up at a story dark against the stars.

April 27, 2011

Privilege & fantasy

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:32 pm

In my last essay, I talked about two forms of nostalgia, and the characterization of History within fantasy texts. This time around, it’s time for an assertion: it’s much harder for the privileged classes to write literary fantasy than it is for the oppressed and marginalized.

Let’s start with some definitions (do feel free to take issue with them in the comments—I’m not going to be ideological about them):

Literary: of enduring worth; of complexity; supporting multiple disparate readings; possessing novelty or making an original contribution. Layered and polysemous enough that it isn’t immediately accessible in its entirety. Possessing an awareness of itself as a text.

Fantasy: That Which Is Not: a change in the philosophical and/or metaphysical nature of the world, which I’ll tentatively call a diversa after Suvin’s “novum”. A desideratum, or an elegy. Passion is a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for fantasy; there are some unpleasant words for fantasy without passion. Popular trope fantasy is perhaps the apotheosis of advertising, without any product. It’s normally impossible to tell it from pisstake fantasy.

Privileged: Possessing something inherited or innate that makes life easier for them than most people, and, in general, not aware that this makes a difference. Tending to ascribe their success entirely to hard work or luck. Generally, in the case of fantasy writers, it means “middle-class white cis urban-dwelling Western/minority-world men whose first language is English, and who aren’t disabled”, and it covers most of them.

April 4, 2011

The time-binding of nostalgia

Filed under: essay — Tags: , — Sam @ 1:43 pm

I’ve been reading a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay recently (Under Heaven, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road, and The Lions of Al-Rassan) and have therefore naturally been thinking about identity, passion, and pride.

It’s a commonly accepted trope amongst many fantasy critics, scholars, and commenters that fantasy is, at its root, about nostalgia. I’ve never quite agreed with this, but I think that’s partly because nostalgia comes in several flavours. The word comes from the Greek nostos, a homecoming, and algos, pain, and was coined as a medical term in 1688 to describe Swiss mercenaries’ longing for the mountains of their home. (As a Welshman, I can relate to that! The Welsh word hiraeth is mostly untranslatable, but Schweizerheimweh does seem like a cultural analogue.)

In recent decades, however (and especially by the English) it’s been coopted to describe a kind of early 20th century idyll. You know the one—ploughmen, foaming nut-brown ale, small children waving at steam trains, The Countryside or The Beach two hours’ journey away, a distinct lack of brown people. It’s basically thinly disguised neo-mediaevalism, or rather neo-mediaevalism (in fantasy writers of a certain age, at least) is a proxy for their yearning for the kind of social certainty that supposedly existed in the recent past.

I feel compelled to point out here that that past (either of those pasts) never really existed, and the only way to pretend that they did is by wholesale erasure of the experiences and histories of women, the working classes, nonwhite people (there have always been nonwhite people in Britain, at least back to the Romans if not before) and Jews. Not to mention (and people rarely do mention) those who are more than one of those. It’s fairly safe to blame the Victorians for making up the mediaeval idyll. We’ve been reimagining recent history ever since, and it’s not as though revisionist history started in 1820 for that matter, but it was the Victorians who pioneered the mass production of History.

So that’s one way in which nostalgia is expressed in English-language fantasy fiction: the desire for an imagined past. That can be a joyful escapist wish, as with William Morris, or a heartfelt elegy for something that could never have been, as with Tolkien. In either version, the past (in the context of the novel, ie. the created world’s own imagined past) is seen explicitly as a good thing, a lost Golden Age.

There’s another version of nostalgia, however—nostalgia in its most etymologically strict sense, the pain of longing for a homecoming—and that is the one experienced by those whose home is contested, denied, erased. The interesting thing about that is that in the latter, the past-within-the-text is usually unpleasant, problematized, or generally Not Even Slightly Golden.

April 2, 2011

Trithemy & the smell of old books

Filed under: essay — Tags: — Sam @ 11:37 pm

NB: This is a slightly tidied-up version of my presentation notes from a talk I gave at Eastercon 2010.

“Trithemy” means the loss of information through the decay of the physical media that carries it, or the loss of any tools necessary to read it.

It’s a coinage from Trithemius, who was a frankly amazing man. Reading about him first started me thinking about this. He disliked printing, because the books were less durable, and because it meant books weren’t being copied mindfully by scholars who could improve & redact them, and merge different versions. Mind you, he was a born manager, and never worked his way up through the usual monastic channels, so it’s unlikely he ever spent much time in the scriptorium himself; we have to take his views with a bit of salt.

“All of you know the difference between a manuscript and a printed book. The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Hoc posteritas iudicabit – only time will tell.” — Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim. De Laude Scriptorum (1492), ch. 7, tr. Roland Behrendt.

Information wants to be lost. It’s a constant battle against entropy, and we all know how that goes. Some things can’t be encoded—there is no way to represent them in any way other than themselves. A lot of what I learnt as a chemistry student involved intuition, fine shades of vision, and muscle memory; there’s no way to teach those from a textbook or a video, only from another person and from experience. We couldn’t record everything that happens even if we wanted to, and we’re in a better position to do that than any other generation who’ve ever lived. We can’t put a man on the moon next year, or in five years’ time, even using the same processes we used before. The UK is facing a critical shortage of nuclear engineers, despite having built and operated a great many nuclear plants in the past.

A basic question: Why do we want to preserve information, and for what purpose?

    Either for reference, or for a backup.
    To use later; for other people to use later; so that we will not be forgotten.
    Because we have a visceral fear of loss.
    To protest cultural erasure.

Of course, some people want to destroy it.

    Cultural warfare – to subjugate a people or a class.
    Or from an ideological opposition to learning in general, because learning is so often used as a tool of political & social repression.
    Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered all philosophy books from states other than Qin burned in 213 BC.
    Spanish destruction of Maya books
    Burning the books of heretics. Generally very enthusiastic about this.
    Trying to suppress Judaism. (There’s also some cultural conflict internal to Judaism here, with the destruction or deprecation of Yiddish texts in comparison to Hebrew.)
    To be freed from the chains of the past (cf. John Barnes’s Thousand Cultures series, where history is irretrievably muddled in an effort to avoid cultural conflict)
    Because it’s immoral (Bonfire of the Vanities; Farenheit 451; private diaries, including Byron and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu)
    When the creator doesn’t want it to survive (Virgil’s Aeneid, Hopkins’ early poems, Larkin’s diaries)

History of archiving: papyrus, paper, weird shit media. The best reference for this section is Papermaking by Dard Hunter.

“Heaven does not permit such a divine art to be made easy for mortals here below.” — Fr. Imberdis, S.J., Papyrus sive Ars conficiendae Papyri (1693)

    Stone is easy to carve, with a decent blade and a mallet, if you’re not trying to do anything complicated. Therefore, Ogham, designed specifically for ease of stone- or wood-carving.
    Clay holds impressions really well, and can be stored almost forever. It’s intensely vulnerable to flooding or impact, however.
    Papyrus is hard and complicated to make, and doesn’t fold (thus: scrolls). Parchment was a compromise, invented when supplies of papyrus were running low. Paper is much easier to produce in large quantities.
    Paper follows the standard tech trajectory: first work out how to make it good, then work out how to make it crap because crap is cheap.
    Stamping-mills and rags produce really good paper. Anything with fibres in can be used for that, so worn-out clothes are what’s generally used.
    1666: English Parliament decrees that only wool may be used to bury the dead. Encourages wool trade and reserves other fibres for papermaking.
    1682: The Hollander is first recorded. It’s basically a set of huge churning blades, which cut the fibres so the resulting paper is easier and quicker to make but has less strength.
    1684: Edward Lloyd makes paper out of asbestos. There’s a line in one of Cory Doctorow’s books, about how in the 1970s it was normal to look at any weird object and say “that would make a great bong”, and in the 2000s it was “that would make a great wifi antenna”. In the 17th century it was “that would make great paper”. No matter what sort of weird vegetable matter or natural substance you can find, someone probably tried making paper out of it.
    1719: René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur makes paper out of wood filaments.
    1774: Scheele invents chlorine-lime bleach
    1840s: Mechanical pulping of wood
    1861: French gov’t stops insisting on stamping-mill paper for Stamp Office.
    Rosin-alum sizing introduces sulphuric acid even to 100% rag paper.

Their failure modes, and efforts to remedy them.

    Paper containing wood (specifically, lignin) is acidic unless specially treated, and the lignin and hemicellulose molecules react with the acid to a) turn it yellow and b) smell nice. The smell is diagnostic, ie. you can tell what sort of paper it is and what’s happening to it by the smell. It’s a complicated chemical soup usually containing acetic acid, vanillin, anisol, benzaldehyde, and furfural/furan-2-carboxaldehyde. It’s highly path dependent, so the smell of each book is unique.
    At high temperatures or under UV (including sunlight), it oxidises too, but oxidation is not relevant at STP – so special oxygen-free facilities are more or less a waste of money. (Though they do keep bugs, mould, &c. out.)
    Nobody noticed that the new, cheaper paper would do this till 1930, when books made of it, er, started doing this.
    Kelmscott Press books don’t smell at all; Morris was obsessive about proper paper.

Preservation techniques
Cold is good, but consistency is more important. Humidity should be around 45% – too high causes mold & rot, too low makes it dry & brittle. Air circulation is important.
Intersperse carbonate-buffered paper – open packing helps a lot. Single sheets never give the characteristic smell.
Split in plane & insert good paper in between the halves.
Deacidification techniques: diethyl zinc infusion. Works well, if you get it all out; strengthens & lightens paper, and adds oxide buffer. If you don’t get it all out, the books catch fire when exposed to oxygen. Plants have to be sited well away from libraries, because the reagent has a nasty habit of exploding. This makes it basically uneconomic to do.

History of archiving: magnetic, optical, internet/cloud.

    All these methods are summarizable as plastic, and prey to all the ills that plastic is heir to. MacLeod, The Sky Road (cite? I remember a scene with the grey dust of the magnetic media falling out of a disk case, but can’t find it looking back. May well be remembering something else). CDs haven’t been around long enough for their ageing abilities to be properly assessed.
    Magnetic storage is vulnerable to field effects.
    Internet storage looks better, but relies on vastly more layers of technology, and in the end it’s just sitting on a hard drive somewhere else.

Their failure modes.

    The media themselves decay and break, and the magnetic domains break down.
    Increased complexity of the tech tree—tech FOREST—required to support them, and unavailability of the hardware needed to read them/display them. 5.25” floppies, or even OHP sheets, generally can’t be used these days without special and unusual equipment. Information may not be transcribed to the new medium for any number of reasons, including inefficient curation, or just taking advantage of the change to do some spring cleaning.
    Transcribing “up” to a new medium introduces data loss too, because every new system introduces new constraints on what you can do. (Database fields, for instance.)
    Media may not be forward compatible: the 1986 Domesday Project is only viewable by emulation, or by using a very few legacy systems, eg. in the British Library. HOWEVER! This is at least as much because of social/legal considerations of data/project ownership. Given the number of layers involved, the IP entanglements and the project-ownership and -investment are wearisomely prohibitive. It’s like negotiating separately for the books, the crypto key, the card catalogue, the shelving that fits them, and the contract for the only librarian who understands the language the catalogue’s written in.

History of archiving: the oral tradition

    Amazingly reliable, with enough people, but it depends on performance; constantly checking it against others’ memories, ie. social consensus. Everyone owns the data, in a manner of speaking. The only text is the bard, and in many societies every bard has/is a slightly different text.
    Oral intersects with written at Ossian. Faujas de St Fond, Marianne MacLean of Torloisk (a dazzling, intellectual, talented bluestocking, living on a clifftop on Mull in the eighteenth century, an epic journey and an even more epic sea crossing from the culture of Edinburgh), and Dr Johnson. Johnson didn’t believe in written Gaelic old enough, or Gaelic poets good enough, but then he was the same man who managed to ride twenty feet from Mull blackhouses and not see them, and to dismiss as uneducated, untravelled savages men who had served in the army in Canada.
    The limitations of the oral tradition: the colophon at the end of The Dream of Rhonabwy says that nobody can tell this tale without a book, by reason of the complexity of it.

“And this story is called the Dream of Rhonabwy. And here is the reason why no one, neither bard nor storyteller, knows the Dream without a book – by reason of the number of colours that were on the horses, and all that variety of rare colours both on the arms and their trappings, and on the precious mantles, and the magic stones.” — The Dream of Rhonabwy, tr. Jones & Jones

Language is a technology too – linguistic shifts can make meaning much less accessible.

Go, little book! Go, my little tragedy!
Before I die, God grant thy maker
Might to make a comedy!
But, little book–don’t envy other work.
Humble yourself beneath poetry,
bow down and kiss the ground
where Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Stace, and Lucan walk.

I fear there’s such diversity in English,
written, spoken, type, or txt,
pray God that none miscopy thee!
- or worse, mismeasure your lines aloud.
And wherever you’re read, or even sung,
I beseech God you’re understood!
Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer

The big push to regularize spelling &c. in the 18th C. was to try and slow down changes and make sure authors’ works stayed readable. (Cf. Bragg, the Adventure of English.) Relates to the effort to translate everything into Arabic so Arabic-speaking scholars everywhere could have access. Also alchemical notation – can still follow & use their notebooks, but only if you know what the terms refer to, and we’ve lost a lot of that or can only reconstruct by guesswork.

Access vs preservation, and accessibility vs coverage. Relevant texts here are Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, David Brin’s Uplift books, and Wikipedia.

    Just because something exists doesn’t mean anyone knows about it; just because someone knows about it doesn’t mean everyone knows about it; and even if everyone knows about it it may be impossible to get at.
    The eternal Wikipedia debate: inclusivity vs being able to get to the good stuff through an ocean of Pokemon-related crap.

The ease of commercial capture of digital data – a lot of older texts from the British Library have been digitised, but are only available through Amazon. The nature of digital archives makes denial easier in the same way that it makes access easier, and makes gatekeeping (eg. paywalls, or tech constraints) even easier. It’s down to the number of layers, and the ease of swapping in another one with a filter.

The enemies of completeness: targeted curation. Almost the greatest enemies of books are librarians.

As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy. It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, which I feel strongly as I write, perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them.
But he did not write them. He slighted my life, in his poem. He scanted me, because he only came to know who I was when he was dying. He’s not to blame. It was too late for him to make amends, rethink, complete the half-lines, perfect the poem he thought imperfect. He grieved for that, I know; he grieved for me. Perhaps where he is now, down there across the dark rivers, somebody will tell him that Lavinia grieves for him.
Lavinia, Ursula K LeGuin

Archival preservation only comes in after three steps already:
1. Noticing interesting questions to start with. Only things considered important by generally-male and -white scholars. Cf. McKenna, Butler. Ossian?
2. Choosing data to record, often exemplary data. There’s lots of crunchy theory stuff, both information-science and anthropology/sociology/women’s studies, here.
3. Not throwing the damn stuff away, either to make room for other things or for political reasons. Cf. Alexandria by Lindsay Davis, NASA re: Apollo.

The consequences of loss. There could be hundreds more classic scenes like this, lost to us forever.

STUDENT: Well, all right then. Once Chaerephon asked Socrates whether mozzies hummed through their mouth or through their bum.

STREPSIADES: And what did Socrates say about the mozzies?

STUDENT: He said that the mozzie’s gut is a narrow canal with only a small space for the air to travel through so that, when the mozzie hums, that air travels hard and fast through this canal all the way to its bum, so then, the bumhole being simply a hole attached to the narrow canal, vibrates as the wind is forced through it, see?

STREPSIADES: I see, I see! The mozzie’s bum-pipe is a trombone! Oh, blessed and blessed twice again is he who could penetrate through such a gut-blasting problem! Such a mind would have no worries at all about winning law suits! Imagine having such an intricate knowledge of a mozzie’s bumhole!

Clouds, Aristophanes (tr. Theodoridis)

What we’ve lost: two full-length Bach passions. Nearly all of Sappho’s work, and all of Heraclitus’s. We only know of Eratosthenes’s book On the Measurement of the Earth because Cleomedes summarized it. Chaucer’s Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde. Nearly all of the monastic libraries of England. The play Black Batman of the North, Part II (Chettle & Wilson, April 1598. Presumably there was also a Part I, which we don’t have either). We thought we’d lost Shakespeare’s Cardenio forever, but then Theobald’s Double Falshood was discovered to be a version of Cardenio. We still don’t have his original text.

There’s a hell of a lot of stuff out there, and always more being created. We lose vastly more than we can record anyway.

THOMASINA: But instead, the Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?

SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book that will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We will die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march, so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Arcadia, Tom Stoppard

March 19, 2011

Collage Criticism

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 3:57 pm

Lud-in-the-Mist Collage This is made from selected parts of an e-text of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, which I typeset, printed out, and ripped up. (No actual books were harmed in the creation of this artwork.)

I’ve done a few of these; the first was H. Beam Piper’s classic short story Omnilingual, and I’m currently working on a large one made from a play script of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Don’t worry—that one had a long and happy life, and died a natural death before I saved it from the recycling and turned it into art.) There’s an interesting transgressive feeling to using printed matter like this, even when it’s printed matter I caused to exist purely for the purpose; I don’t think I could bring myself to rip up a physical book that was still in a readable state. Play scripts are a different matter, because an upbringing in the theatre means I regard them as essentially ephemeral: there to be scribbled on, ripped up for prompt books, broken, repaired, and tossed away.

The other Issue I have around this is down to which texts are legitimate targets. Instinct, of course, tells me that they all are; if it’s a text then it’s there to be analysed, reinterpreted, made to jump through hoops. Cutting it up and sticking it back together in a different order—in an entirely different way, in fact—is basically the same thing as literary criticism, albeit interestingly disciplined by the inability to add any new text.

On the other hand, doing this to the work of living authors (and especially living authors I know) is socially and morally fraught. I can’t think of any legal justification for forbidding it, but that doesn’t mean a great deal when it comes to intellectual property versus artistic reimagining and community investment; just look at the perennial debates over fanfic.

It isn’t just the authors, of course. The idea of reifying e-books by printing them out, and doing things to them which can be done to a physical book—treating the digital text as though it were always intended to be paper and ink—is an interesting artistic one in itself, especially when it involves re-typesetting them. But any alteration in the formatting or typesetting of a digital text means changing the work of editors & designers, and while designing for the screen (even when screens are as diverse as those of modern computers & e-book readers) is a very different discipline to designing for print, I still respect the original designers enough not to second-guess their work.

What are your feelings on this? How would it make you feel if I did this to some of your work, and would it make a difference to you if I started with an electronic version or a physical book?

March 12, 2011

Literary SF examples, redux

Filed under: essay — Tags: — Sam @ 4:41 pm

I had a lot of good comments to my post “Literary SF—some examples”, so here’s an updated list. Asterisks mark something I’ve read; all the rest are going on my if-I-see-it list.

To recap the eligibility rules briefly – a work must be arguably SF, ie. published as SF or claimed as such by the author, and not literary-approaching-SF, ie. no Atwood or Okri.


Stephen Baxter, Time
Chris Beckett, The Turing Test (collection)
Keith Brooke, Genetopia
David R. Bunch, Moderan
*Karel ?apek, War with the Newts
Raphael Carter, The Fortunate Fall
*CJ Cherryh, Cyteen
John Clute, Appleseed
John Crowley, Engine Summer
Samuel Delany – Dhalgren, Nova
Philip K Dick, A Scanner Darkly
Thomas M. Disch, On Wings of Song
*John M Ford, The Dragon Waiting
*Mary Gentle, Ash
*William Gibson, Neuromancer
*Molly Gloss, The Dazzle of Day
Lisa Goldstein — The Dream Years
Andrea Hairston – Mindscape
M John Harrison, Light
Gwyneth Jones: Bold as love
*Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon
*Ursula LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris
*Ian MacDonald, River of Gods
*Maureen F McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
*China Miéville, The City and the City
*Walter M. Miller Jr, A Canticle for Leibowitz
Christopher Priest, The Separation
Adam Roberts – New Model Army, Yellow Blue Tibia
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
*Geoff Ryman – Air
Josephine Saxton – Queen Of The States
Lewis Shiner – Glimpses
Gary Shteyngart – Super Sad True Love Story
*Catherynne M Valente, The Habitation of the Blessed
Kit Whitfield, In Great Waters
*Connie Willis – passim, particularly Passage
Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus
*Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
*Roger Zelazny: Lord of light


Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary
Colin Greenland, Take Back Plenty
M John Harrison – Signs of Life
Liz Jensen, The Rapture
Gwyneth Jones – Life
Marcel Theroux, Far North

Total: 44. 15 women, which is above-average for the field as a whole. Two in translation—War With the Newts from Czech and Solaris from Polish, translated through French apparently. Two Three I know to be non-white (Hairston, Yu and Delany); if anyone else has light to shed on others here, I’ll edit. Three (The Habitation of the Blessed, Ash, The Dragon Waiting) are set in the/a past. Six (Gloss, Valente, Russell, Miller, Zelazny, and MacDonald) deal with religion as a central theme.

If any of you have more data-mining to contribute, want to argue over any of these books, or have more suggestions, the comments are open!

March 10, 2011

“Spec Fic” & mimetic fiction

Filed under: essay — Sam @ 9:10 pm

There’s been rather a kerfluffle recently (well, in the last few months) over the term “spec-fic” or “speculative fiction”. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s usually treated by its adherents as an overarching category for SF, fantasy, sometimes horror, sometimes magic realism, sometimes mythology or fairytale retellings, steampunk, dieselpunk, mythpunk, fantastika, the Weird, and other stuff that doesn’t get reviewed in big glossy mainstream magazines. It’s also used in opposition to “mimetic fiction”, ie. the stuff which talks about places, people, situations that really do (or could) exist.

To others, “spec fic” is problematic. Sometimes this is because they don’t feel that “speculative” represents what’s important about the literature they write or read—it marginalizes imagery, archetypal stories, wonder, linguistic playfulness, and almost everything else in favour of rigorous what-if speculation. (It will come as no surprise to anyone that this is an extremely gendered bias.)

Others have pointed out, repeatedly, that “speculative” is a misnomer—all literature is speculative, in the sense that it postulates Something Which Is Not. “What if there were faster-than-light travel?” is not materially different from “What if a doctor married an heiress, and a social improver fell in love with an artist?”

My personal objection to the term is that the whole “rigorous speculation” element of SF is actually complete bollocks. It was never rigorous, it always involved changing multiple factors at once, it was almost universally full of unexamined social assumptions and prejudices, and it was universally wrong. If you value speculation, then ipso facto you must value accuracy, or else all you’re doing is opening people’s minds up to the enchanting possibility of a myriad different varieties of utter nonsense. The correct, sane, and rational response to the history of SF’s attempts to imagine the future, over the last century or so, is to do something else, and to their credit a lot of people are attempting to do just that.

As for “mimetic fiction”… well, it’s a truism so commonplace as to be completely ignored that the real world is stranger than we can imagine. Slime moulds, natural nuclear reactors, whale song, functionalised Langmuir-Blodgett films, light-harvesting dendrimer molecules, the government of Poland-Lithuania, early 19th Century British electoral theory & practice: all these are fantastically bizarre and amazing, and they’re just the examples that occur to me in a few moments’ thought. Science fiction, in its specifically “speculative” incarnations, rarely contains anything so amazing, and it (by definition) never contains any of the fractal detail and wonder that the real world does. But that’s OK, because that’s not what we’re reading SF for, is it?

…is it? What about the old sense of wonder, the mindblowing awe of seeing hugely phallic miracles of engineering plunging into suns and sending them into explosions the size of a galaxy?

The thing about the sense of wonder is, it’s a gateway drug when done right. Getting it from SF can be really useful in order to wean teenagers onto the hard stuff, ie. reality. I have helped to recreate Christopher Marlowe’s theatre in sound and light, using cutting-edge technology and a lot of swearing, on the original site on Bankside. I have held a vial of fullerene molecules in my hand, and turned it into something that had to the best of my knowledge never existed before. I have thrown away wire coat-hangers on a scale previously unimagined by man, and put the Buddha in a skip. I have swabbed down an entire laboratory with chloroform, and peered down a microscope at individual atoms. I have done a collaborative performance of the entirety of Paradise Lost, and taken residential poetry workshops with both the National Poet of Wales and the Makar of Scotland. I’ve seen explosions, and even caused a couple. Spaceship-based synthetic wonder substitute does not impress me.

I’m not dissing fantastika here, you understand. I love it with my heart and soul, because it’s a way to tell stories that cannot be told any other way, to echo and twist our oldest dreams, hold up a sea-rippled mirror to our myths… in its best form.

But so often, it’s so focused on setting and on story that it disdains its own textuality, takes its unreality as an unexamined given, and obsesses over internal consistency and realism within the constraints of its own rules. So we end up with carefully measured timescales, dramatic unities of time and place, careful explanations of anything that looks Unlikely, and (on the fantasy end of things) magic systems with all the interesting complexity and potential for innovation of a Kinder Egg.

When “it could really happen that way” is held up as an ideal to aspire to, that’s… about as mimetic as it gets.

February 26, 2011

Literariness & Science-Fictionality

Filed under: essay — Tags: — Sam @ 12:00 am

Every so often (by my calculations, it’s on an average of once every 3.6 days) the SF blogosphere erupts with grumbling indignation over some mainstream critic or novelist’s impingement upon genre. Said impingement takes one of two forms; either the critic, whom we shall for the purposes of brevity refer to as Birdbolt, entirely dismisses genre as an irredeemable morass of tedium and invention, or he (Birdbolt is more often male than not) claims some author that SF regards as its own as literature, and often uses a phrase closely resembling “transcending the limitations of genre”. The latest breath of oxygen for this charcoal-burning pastime is this article in the Guardian by John Mullan, which is effectively an attempt to claim literary fiction for a worthwhile thing-in-itself—an recognizable artistic body of work of commercial value, or in other words a “genre”. Of course, Mullan in his role as Birdbolt doesn’t use that word; in fact, he specifically says:

What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a historical novel. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, the leading British prize for science fiction. Yet you only have to think about these two examples to see how they escape their genres.


February 20, 2011

Some common myths about JRR Tolkien

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:27 pm

There are a couple of immutable truths about any discussion of fantasy subgenres. Someone will talk about “rewriting the Lord of the Rings”; and someone will completely misunderstand what Tolkien was writing about. So I’ve listed a few common myths about his work, with refutations. This shouldn’t need saying, but it does: I’m talking only about the books here. The films are good in their own way, but they are not the same artistic entity and not aimed in the same direction.

Myth #1: The Lord of the Rings is purely consolatory fantasy. Everything gets better in the end.

This is arrant nonsense. The book has four endings, because it needs them; the message is that winning is hard, and protracted, and there are more battles to fight beyond the final push, the secret weapon, the big resolution. And that there will always be scars. Some things just don’t get better. Frodo and Sam are genuinely resigned to death after Mount Doom, before the sheer kitschy wonder of Iluvatar’s own SAR squadron coming down out of the north; while we were off destroying one evil abroad, another evil was destroying and corrupting our home; and when we’ve beaten that, despite all the rejoicing and celebration, some people don’t recover. Lobelia is frail and humbled; Will Whitfoot is starved thin; the Gaffer’s own home is demolished; and Frodo’s wound never quite heals. And in the fourth ending, the Ringbearers go over the Sea to Valinor, but that’s hardly an unmixed blessing. Deathlessness is not given to mortals unless they really, really need it—Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam need to spend time there to rest and heal.

It extends to a larger scale, too. The Elves are sailing westwards, taking the Rings of Power with them, and the Wizards too. Magic is going out of the world. (That may or may not be a Bad Thing; personally, I think it isn’t, and that it’s a necessary development. I also like to think that the Professor agreed with me.)

Myth #2: The main plotline of The Lord of the Rings is the battle against Sauron, and his destruction.

Sauron is a sideshow, really. He doesn’t do anything himself during the course of the entire book; his entire MO is to corrupt others and to make them do his work, even when they oppose him. (Denethor, for instance.) So it’s not as though destroying him would do very much to prevent the current apocalyptically bad spread of evil.

Instead, the quest is to destroy the Ring, into which Sauron placed the essence of his corrupting power and control—it’s a reified metaphor, and the heroes refuse to be mastered by the glamour of evil. (Incidentally, that’s a truly dreadful stealth pun. I love the Professor for so many reasons.)

Myth #3: All the good guys are Aryan.

The Rohirrim are certainly tall and blonde (since they’re Anglo-Saxon Cossacks), but the descendants of the Númenoreans are generally fair-skinned, dark-haired and grey-eyed. In Letter 211, Tolkien actually described the Gondorians as Egyptianate—that would certainly explain the tall stepped architecture. (Tolkien’s Middle-earth doesn’t look like Medieval Europe – Michael Martinez) I don’t think we can entirely get away from picturing the Men of Gondor as white people, but they’re certainly a mongrel race of some sort; nine ships full of colonists, in one wave, are not going to make a country without significant intermarriage.

Tolkien’s Dwarves are well-known to be influenced by Semitic cultures—in fact, they’re quite a blatant Jewish stereotype, progressive for its time but still problematic. Clannish, conservative, and magnificently bearded, the men keep their women to themselves and love gold and beautiful things. They do not serve the Enemy in themselves, but can in extremis be corrupted through their greed. They’re ferocious (The OMT is “doughty”) warriors; Israelite—and Israeli—armies had a fearsome reputation for a very good reason. And the Dwarves are very definitely, implacably on the side of Good.

Myth #4: Tolkien’s aesthetics are clear; beauty is good, and evil is ugly.

Denethor loses none of his grandeur and nobility in his despair, and Saruman’s voice is still utterly beautiful. The Silmarils, the most beautiful pieces of craftwork ever made, turned kin against kin, race against race, and set off tragedy after tragedy. Fëanor so loved his work that he doomed the world to live forevermore without the light of the Trees.

As for Good, nobody ever describes Dwarves as pretty—or Hobbits, for that matter! Strider, when he first appears in the Prancing Pony, is never described as handsome or even clean, and the hobbits take against him for his looks; he describes himself as having “rather a rascally look”; and even says, “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.

Myth #5: The countless imitators are somehow accurate representations of Tolkien’s work.

Like whom? The ones most often cited are Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, David & Leigh Eddings, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin. Brooks & Goodkind have no similarity beyond swords-and-horses, cool-stuff-happening-in-secondary-worlds superficialities. Eddings was very specifically a Campbellian formula writer; Jordan’s entire fantasy oeuvre is an unnecessarily extended artistic response to Eddings; and Martin is not discernably descended from Tolkien at all, but rather from Shakespeare’s versions of the Wars of the Roses. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry is in some ways similar, but it’s a portal-quest trilogy, bringing in 20th century Americans; the idea of modern people ever being able to interact with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is just bizarre. It would be like transporting Sir Orfeo and Ysbaddaden Chief Giant to Deptford.

Fundamentally, if anyone ever mentions Tolkien on the cover of someone else’s book, it’s marketing fluff. Ignore it.

Myth #7: The Lord of the Rings is wish-fulfilment fantasy.

It’s not written in a boulomaic modality (ie. “things are not this way; they should be”) at all; it’s an elegiac might-have been, an alternate distant past that might have led to this future. Also, and this is vitally important: it is a text, not a world. The epistemic modality we’re given is not that of the events of the story, or the people; instead, we are asked only to pretend that this book exists, that there is a history called the Red Book of Westmarch, and to treat it in the same light as we do Herodotus’s Histories or the History of the Kings of Britain.

Fantasy readers are almost universally extremely bad at that. We have the ingrained reflex of trust, of epistemic acceptance (suspension of disbelief)—we take it merely as a convention that these things did not happen, never happened, could not happen, but are nevertheless written about. It is hard for us to see the text for the story, the telling for the tale. To preempt a sadly obvious quibble—this is, of course, not to say that SF readers are any better. We don’t see the text any more than we look through a window and see the glass. But in the final analysis, a book is not a window, any more than it is a world.

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