Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Science Fiction categories, Part 2

All science fiction can be divided into people-oriented or plot-oriented fiction. This is not a judgmental categorization although on first glance people-oriented sounds a lot nobler than plot-oriented. But aren’t all Harlequin romances people-oriented? And, perish the thought, where does pornography fit into these two categories? I don’t think even the most rabid erotic fan would consider than plot-oriented! And what about fiction in which the idea is central (which is certainly true in some science fiction, such as Olaf Stapledon’s galaxy-spanning epics)? For the sake of simplification, idea-oriented is an obvious sub-category of plot-oriented, since both are concerned more with the what than they are with the who.

All science fiction can be divided into escapism or literature. This distinction is actually symptomatic of all fiction. I feel obligated here to remark that I am not referring to that narrow restriction of literature which is fiction accepted by the literary establishment, but rather literature in its broadest sense, which is all fiction about the human spirit. This categorization is a lot less definitive than genre vs. non-genre, especially since one reader’s escapism can sometimes be another reader’s literature. Consider a novel such as Dune. To many people this is the quintessential “good read,” which sounds like plot-heavy escapism. But it has also won numerous science fiction polls the past thirty years as the best sf novel ever written, and I’m sure a lot of those voters consider it true literature. The solution might lie in the twilight zone where escapism and literature overlap. After all, can’t a novel be primarily concerned with the human spirit yet still contain large dollops of escapism? Charles Dickens might be an excellent example of this. His novels were written for the general populace as serializations, intended–to paraphrase Alfred Bester–to grab the readers by the lapels and hit them repeatedly in the face until the author’s arm grew tired. There was a genuine element of escapism in every Dickens novel, yet who would deny that they are not great literature?

All science fiction can be divided into science-oriented or history-oriented. Surely there cannot be much controversy here? Either an sf novel is concerned with science–Stephen Baxter, Larry Niven, et al–or it is concerned with historical development–Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Kim Stanley Robinson. Oh, yeah? What do we do with the fact that the name “science fiction” is merely an antique creation of Hugo Gernsback who insisted that all fiction printed in his pages must not only be about science but must be designed to teach science to his young readers? Within a few years after he made that proclamation Amazing Stories slipped out of his control and immediately the breadth of genre science fiction began spreading. F. Orlen Tremaine made no such claim for Astounding Stories; nor did John W. Campbell, Jr. a decade later, although both their tastes ran towards science-oriented stories. F&SF and Galaxy did not insist on such a restriction two decades later, and when genre science fiction began spreading into original paperbacks courtesy of Ace and Ballantine Books in the 1950s, it’s safe to say that “speculative fiction”, the name championed by New Wave devotes in the late 60s, was a more apt description of the field, in spite of the resistance of purists who insisted that “science” was a necessary ingredient in sf. To which I point to Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Bishop as counter-evidence. Every one of them is accepted as a full-fledged member of the genre sf fraternity, yet all are less concerned with science in the majority of their fiction than in future history. So unless we’re willing to declare that any accepted aspect of the real world is a form of science, “science” fiction is a sub-genre of the speculative fiction category rather than the main emphasis of it.

So what’s the point of all these categories? Individually, probably not much, but combining the four categorization groups into one grid we can get a fairly accurate description of a particular story’s emphasis by how it fits into all four categories, so that a reader might have a better idea if a story appeals to his or her taste than simply by a rather amorphous description such as “literary space opera” or “fast-paced urban fantasy”. Let’s try placing a few stories as an example.

Title / Genre vs non-genre / People vs Plot / Lit vs Escapism / science vs history
War of the Worlds / non-genre / people / literature / science
Childhood’s End / genre / plot / literature / science
Canticle for Leibowitz / genre / people / literature / history
Lord of Light / genre / plot / literature / history
Forever War / genre / plot / escapism / science
Neuromancer / genre / plot / escapism / science
Brittle Innings/ genre / people / literature / history
Mars trilogy / genre / people / literature / history

Considering my personal preferences, I’m much more likely to choose a novel such as Canticle For Leibowitz or Brittle Innings, because of their people/lit/history orientation, than Forever War or Neuromancer with their plot/escapism/science orientation. Not that I don’t appreciate the latter books, but I would not want a steady diet of such types (while I could probably go several months reading books of the former type). While my categorizations above are not intended to be totally black-and-white, they do give an overall description of a book which might serve as a reader’s guide of sorts, especially since book reviews have an otherwise built-in weakness: the prejudices of the reviewer. Presumably readers of VoP have read enough of my reviews to know my taste, and thus know how much to be guided by what I like or dislike, and that’s probably similarly true of regular reviewers in other publication as well. But since most zines are irregular, and most reviewers are virtual unknowns to the reader, unless each review contains a detailed description of the particular reviewer’s taste and prejudices, reading one or two reviews by a person might be a futile experience causing a reader to select an acclaimed book that they quickly learn after a few dozen pages might be outstanding but does not necessarily appeal to their own particular taste. I’ve done that a few times myself.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Science Fiction categories, part 1

All science fiction can be divided into two categories...

Uh, yeah, that’s true, but the problem is what two categories are they? There are probably as many different categorization breakdowns of science fiction as there are definitions of it. And since I’ve never been afraid to offer my own definitions of sf, why should I shrink away from categorizing it either? So here goes...

All science fiction can be divided into genre versus non-genre. I know in this day and age that sounds a bit like a marketing category rather than a solid demarcation, but it really does make a difference in the type of science fiction being read. Genre science fiction is the offspring of Hugo Gernsback who isolated sf into magazines devoted to it during a time when all the pulp fiction magazines were fragmenting and genre-type fiction was either finding its own special niche or dying out. Gernsback’s definition of science fiction was a rather restrictive one, a restriction shown by the name itself which was coined by Gernsback, but it served the purpose of allowing true fans of science fiction, both readers and writers, to devote themselves to it divorced from outside influences. This concentration of efforts enabled science fiction writers to examine its ideas far beyond what could possibly be done in a more-scattered mainstream, as well as to explore those ideas in considerably more depth. Even though there were several dozen sf magazines being published at various times between 1927 and the present, most serious writers of the genre were familiar with virtually everything being done, certainly with everything important being done, so that writers regularly took an idea introduced by somebody else and expounded on it considerably. This feedback loop gave genre sf a wealth of well-developed ideas, many of which might be stunning to an outsider approaching the genre for the first time.

This might be one of the factors why science fiction which appeals to “outsiders” or the “mass public” tends to be old-fashioned to genre insiders–think Star Trek or Star Wars here–since its ideas are somewhat simpler and more easily accessible. But to a devoted insider, science fiction to some extent is ideas. Thus it is not surprising that even the finest examples of non-genre sf often appears weak in ideas or examining aspects of ideas which have been done decades ago and probably numerous times in genre sf. Look at two relatively recent examples of non-genre sf: Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs and Russell’s Sparrow. Both examine fairly standard genre ideas, one going back pre-genre to the seminal Frankenstein and the other at least as far as James Blish’s groundbreaking A Case of Conscience. Both received some resistance from lifelong insiders because they offer absolutely nothing new in the way of ideas but instead are purely literary examinations similar to what has been done in-genre decades ago. This is certainly not unprecedented, even in-genre, as writers continually examine traditional genre ideas with new foci. The main difference is that genre writers tend to explore more deeply ideas related to their topic that have floated through the genre for decades while non-genre writers show an obvious ignorance of them. Thus their works often demonstrate a naivite with regards to a topics that to a genre insider seems simplistic or even condescending. This seeming condescension along with its dearth of new, exciting ideas makes it unsurprising that some insiders reject non-genre sf as reflexively as some mainstream writers reject genre sf because their own primary image of sf comes from non-genre filmmakers warping and dumbing-down of the finest genre works.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Shadow Year

Jeffrey Ford is one of the very best f&sf writers of the current decade. Stories such as “The Cosmology of the Wider World,” “The Empire of Ice Cream,” and “Botch Town” are among my favorite recent pieces of short fiction. But when I read that he expanded “Botch Town” into the novel The Shadow Year, I was actually undecided if I wanted to read it. Sometimes an expansion of a beloved novella can be extremely disappointing. Only the fact that I have liked every Jeffrey Ford story I have ever read convinced me to give it a try. But my expectations were not particularly high.

The Shadow Year, like its predecessor “Botch Town,” is a rite of passage story set somewhere between the 1960s and 1970s. The narrator is still unnamed (although I assume his name is Jeff since he is likely based on the author), a 6th grade student with an older brother Jim in middle school and a younger sister Mary. His father works three jobs to keep the family fiscally above water, and the mother works one job, then comes home and proceeds to get drunk every night while the father works his night job. The grandparents lived in a converted garage adjacent to the house. In spite of that description, the family is neither dysfunctional nor stereotypical, but loving and supportive, although it does have some disputes typical of such families.

The main plot of the book and novella concerns a prowler who is seen periodically peeking in windows around town. The three siblings consider themselves detectives who try to find the identity of the prowler. They achieve a breakthrough of sorts when the narrator realizes that Jim’s miniature town in the basement–the Botch Town of the novella's title which contains all the town’s houses and neighbors in miniature–also contains a prowler who mysteriously moves to whichever location where he is seen in the real town.

The original “Botch Town” was a very spooky story, much more effectively emotional than a blood-and-gore horror story, and the novel retains that atmosphere. The scene when the narrator encounters the prowler in the library is still genuinely scary, but where the novella thrives on spookiness alone, The Shadow Year has a fully-developed plot involving the three youngsters’ search for both the prowler and for the murderer of several townspeople.

But unlike many typical horror novels, Ford also spends much time fully developing the characters in the novel, primarily the central family, although several other townspeople as well. The town itself also lives and breathes as much as a real 70s town could.

Don’t for an instance believe that The Shadow Year is pure mainstream though. Younger sister Mary has an uncanny ability to move figures around Botch Town prefiguring what will soon happen in the town. And both the prowler and the murderer–neither of whom actually show up in “Botch Town” but are important characters in the novel–are anything but mainstream characters.

When I reviewed “Botch Town,” I moaned the fact that the novella had to end, and I felt similarly when I finished The Shadow Year. I immediately put this novel on my short list of best f&sf novels of the decade and it convinced me that I am not content to read occasional Jeffrey Ford short fiction but will seek out his other novels and collections as well. He is a great writer.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Last Seen in Massilia

I’ve mentioned in this space before that I am not a particularly big fan of genre mysteries, but I make occasional exceptions when the mystery is actually a small part of a larger framework, whether sfnal or historical fiction. Two of my favorite novels of the early part of this decade were historical mysteries by Iain Pears (An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio) and recently I have fallen in love with Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set during the time of Julius Caesar. The Judgment of Caesar told the story of Caesar and Cleopatra from a much more politically-astute point of view than most revisionist novelists usually offer. Last Seen in Massilia is the story of the siege of Massilia by Roman forces. Massilia was an ancient Greek city which evolved into modern-day Marseilles. A former ally of Rome, the city supported Pompey in his civil war with Julius Caesar, and thus resisted Caesar’s attempt to enter it with armed forces. While Caesar himself took the main body of his troops to Spain, he left behind an army large enough to subdue the city were they able to break through their enormous gates.

As usual in this series, the main character is Gordianus the Finder, a proto-detective whose cases have involved Caesar himself as well as Pompey and Cicero. He came to Massilia seeking his adopted son Meto who was a confidante of Caesar until he supposedly turned against him in support of the Massilians. Gordianus sneaks into the city and encounters a fascinating group of characters, mostly real historical figures, although so little is known about several of them that Saylor has the leeway to create mostly fictional lives for them. They include a disgraced Roman who was exiled by the Senate under the instigation of Cicero with help from Gordianus; the ruling First Timouchous of the city whose daughter is so malformed she hides herself behind layers of veils; and Hieryonomous, an official “scapegoat” appointed by the First Timouchous to bear all the sins of the population and who is treated likely royalty until his sacrificial death by suicide at the sacred Sacrifice Rock.

Of course there is a murder which involves the First Timouchous, but it really serves as an excuse for Gordianus to explore life in the city under siege more than drive the entire plot. Saylor is a phenomenal storyteller who creates a vibrant, breathing city filled with believable characters living during exciting times. I recommend Last Seen in Massilia as strongly as I did The Judgment of Caesar, and I anxiously await more Roma Sub Rosa novels.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Nebula Award Best Novel winners

The Nebula Awards were announced recently, and the results have been posted on several websites already. I was most pleased by Michael Chabon receiving the Best Novel Award for his fabulous The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so I have decided this might be an appropriate time to list all the winners of the Nebula Best Novel awards. While I don’t necessarily agree with every winner, there is still a lot of outstanding reading on this list, and I think I can safely say that every one of these novels is worthwhile reading for serious sf fans!

Thanks to Mark Kelly’s Locus Online website for the following list:

Year Title / Author
2008 The Yiddish Policemen's Union / Michael Chabon
2007 Seeker / Jack McDevitt
2006 Camouflage / Joe Haldeman
2005 Paladin of Souls / Lois McMaster Bujold
2004 The Speed of Dark / Elizabeth Moon
2003 American Gods / Neil Gaiman
2002 The Quantum Rose / Catherine Asaro
2001 Darwin's Radio / Greg Bear
2000 Parable of the Talents / Octavia E. Butler
1999 Forever Peace / Joe Haldeman
1998 The Moon and the Sun / Vonda N. McIntyre
1997 Slow River / Nicola Griffith
1996 The Terminal Experiment / Robert J. Sawyer
1995 Moving Mars / Greg Bear
1994 Red Mars / Kim Stanley Robinson
1993 Doomsday Book / Connie Willis
1992 Stations of the Tide / Michael Swanwick
1991 Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea / Ursula K. Le Guin
1990 The Healer's War / Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
1989 Falling Free / Lois McMaster Bujold
1988 The Falling Woman / Pat Murphy
1987 Speaker for the Dead / Orson Scott Card
1986 Ender's Game / Orson Scott Card
1985 Neuromancer / William Gibson
1984 Startide Rising David Brin
1983 No Enemy But Time / Michael Bishop
1982 The Claw of the Conciliator / Gene Wolfe
1981 Timescape / Gregory Benford
1980 The Fountains of Paradise / Arthur C. Clarke
1979 Dreamsnake / Vonda N. McIntyre
1978 Gateway / Frederik Pohl
1977 Man Plus / Frederik Pohl
1976 The Forever War / Joe Haldeman
1975 The Dispossessed / Ursula K. Le Guin
1974 Rendezvous with Rama / Arthur C. Clarke
1973 The Gods Themselves / Isaac Asimov
1972 A Time of Changes / Robert Silverberg
1971 Ringworld / Larry Niven
1970 The Left Hand of Darkness / Ursula K. Le Guin
1969 Rite of Passage / Alexei Panshin
1968 The Einstein Intersection / Samuel R. Delany
1967 Flowers for Algernon / Daniel Keyes
Babel-17 / Samuel R. Delany
1966 Dune / Frank Herbert

A few comments...

• Three authors have won Best Novel Nebulas in consecutive years:
Samuel R. Delany (‘67-‘68)
Frederik Pohl (‘77-‘78)
Orson Scott Card (‘86-‘87)
• Ursula K Le Guin and Joe Haldeman have each won 3 individual awards
• The authors with the most Best Novel nominations each have one win in the category:
Gene Wolfe, 10 nominations
Robert Silverberg, 9 nominations
Jack McDevitt, 8 nominations