Visions of Paradise

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ratner's Star and Useless Things

Some random thoughts.

Awhile ago I read an online interview with Samuel R. Delany, but while I do not recall where I read it, one part of it stands out in my mind: Delany was in a bookstore watching an employee shelving an early novel by Don DeLillo called Ratner’s Star. Delany commented that the novel was science fiction, since its plot involved contact with aliens from another planet. But DeLillo is one of the darling of the “literati,” and the woman became visibly distressed at Delany’s observation.

Why would somebody become upset when an obvious sf novel was identified as such? Because there are two totally different classifications of science fiction. “Insiders” might disagree on specifics, but generally agree that any novel which contains plausible speculative elements beyond our accepted world falls somewhere under the sf umbrella. But “outsiders,” whether lovers of literature or merely people mostly unfamiliar with written science fiction, tend to view it as fiction which resembles the type of popular special effects thrillers which masquerade as movie sf. If there are not big, bold battles and lots of pyrotechnics, it is not science fiction, no matter how speculative it might be.

I wonder if that is not the reason why Margaret Atwood has made statements distancing her fiction from sf in the past. She does not seem deliberately insulting or narrow-minded, and several of her novels certainly qualify as science fiction, but I think that she has no idea that sf is more than Star Wars and The Matrix, and if she did so she would certainly accept that, at least in part, she is a science fiction writer.


I recently read a very good story “Useless Things,” by Maureen McHugh, which was first published in the original anthology Eclipse Three, but I read it when it was reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection. The story examined the effects of the recent economic downturn on average people. The main character lives with her two dogs in a small house in the New Mexican desert, making a meager living by sculpting lifelike dolls which she sells online.

The story mostly examines the woman’s life, the sole excitement taking place when her house is broken into and one of her dogs runs away. Eventually an old man living in a trailer park finds the dog and phones her, so she goes there and retrieves it.

And that is the entire story. I really enjoyed the views McHugh gave of the depressed lifestyle, as well as the development of her character. And the scenes about the missing dog were genuinely heartrending. But I could not help but asking myself one question when I finished reading the story: Why was this story selected by Dozois for his collection?

There is basically no plot and very little resolution except for some development in the woman’s character. Nor is it recognizably science fiction, except for a brief mention of Tom Cruise undergoing a scientific treatment to extend his life by 40 years. Gardner Dozois is a leading proponent of “core science fiction” as opposed to slipstream, magic realism, and all the other types which tease at being science fiction without ever really doing so.

“Useless Things” does not fall into “core science fiction” and probably had no right being in The Year’s Best Science Fiction except for one weakness of Dozois which I share: it was very good reading, and sometimes that trumps everything else.


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