Itzikoff's NYT SF review
March 5, 2006 10:33 AM   Subscribe

A set of questions related to this review in today's New York Times--it's the inaugural review of a new science-fiction column.

In this review, Dave Itzikoff has some unflattering things to say about the current state of science fiction. For example:

I cannot [recommend the majority of science fiction novels to general readers] in good conscience because if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual. And you would very likely come away wondering, as I do from time to time, whether science fiction has strayed so far from the fiction category as a whole that, though the two share common ancestors, they now seem to have as much to do with each other as a whale has to do with a platypus.

He goes on to suggest, though he doesn't explicitly state this, that much recently published SF suffers because it privileges worldbuilding at the expense of character development. However, you should read the article yourself to determine whether you think my interpretation of it is correct.

I have the following questions. You can answer one or all of them, or take issue with any underlying premises that you believe are unwarranted.

(a) I've read very few SF novels in the past five to ten years--not because I'm prejudiced against the field (in my late teens and early twenties SF was pretty much all I read), but just because that's not where my mind is right now (most of my pleasure reading is made up of volumes of the Library of America, mixed in with an occasional graphic novel like Watchmen, Chris Ware's work, etc.). What are the good character-driven SF novels published in the past few years by new writers? (For what it's worth, the last SF work I read was Tad Williams's Otherland, which I enjoyed from beginning to end.)

(b) Is the bar for what constitutes a complex or emotionally engaging character in SF considered to be lower than it is for mainstream media? (An anecdotal story will clarify this question: last year, around the time the film Serenity came out, a few people in real life and online hyped the Firefly television series to me endlessly, claiming that it had some of the best characters to be found in television, inside or outside the genre. So I sat down to watch it--unfortunately, the last DVD I'd watched just before that was the TV-miniseries version of Scenes From a Marriage, and so in comparison the character development in Firefly seemed woefully oversold to me.)

(c) Itzikoff somewhat facetiously refers to a hypothetical "John Updike of the Asimov set." Is it wrong of him to expect SF to produce a John Updike?
posted by Prospero to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Don't overgeneralize this article.

It was inspired by the incredible frustrating experience of reading David Marusek's Counting Heads. I was 100% with him. Marusek's short stories were extraordinarily powerful -- perfect science fiction and perfect fiction, period. Counting Heads was, therefore, probably the most avidly anticipated serious science fiction novel in a decade or more.

One of the reasons for that anticipation was that, had he been able to make it a novel with the impact and virtues of The Wedding Album, Marusek would have broken through to the general reader better than anything probably since Neuromancer.

That Marusek, while showing all of his prodigious strengths in various places, still managed to thoroughly bollix it up, and in ways that seemingly check every box of the stereotypical indictment against science fiction, really hurt. I personally blame Marusek's editor and agent, who should have demanded a thorough rewrite of this book before it hit the shelves. There's a far tighter and more powerful book inside Counting Heads, and it's a shame we're going to have to wait for Marusek's next book to read it.
posted by MattD at 10:42 AM on March 5, 2006


He goes on to suggest, though he doesn't explicitly state this, that much recently published SF suffers because it privileges worldbuilding at the expense of character development.

This has always been a problem with science fiction, from the very beginning of the genre until now. Which is not to say that science fiction is incapable of blending the two things. See Silverberg's output in the 1970s, for example.

Most people who don't read science fiction expect spaceships, robots, lasers, and so on. Look at this statement from the review (admittedly, of a book I haven't read):

Of course, it is entirely possible that Marusek never set out to be the John Updike of the Asimov set; perhaps he simply intended "Counting Heads" to be an effective satire of life as we may someday know it, which it is, albeit one that might require upgrading your brain with the newest Intel microprocessor to comprehend fully.


Well, shit. I was under the impression that all good science fiction was metaphorical. I'd expect a novel like this to be a satire of life as we someday may know it. Science fiction, contrary to popular belief, is about the present, not the future. It's about holding a mirror up to our current activities, and looking at ourselves to see if what we're doing really is what we want to be doing.

Is the bar for what constitutes a complex or emotionally engaging character in SF considered to be lower than it is for mainstream media?

Yes, the bar is lower, at least for literary reviewers, because most people don't expect much out of science fiction other than spaceships banking in vacuums shooting really slow laser beams, loud explosions, and jive-talking robots.

I'd also argue that most of the science-fiction-reading public doesn't expect much out of science fiction novels; look at the David Gemmells out there, writing novels that are essentially nothing more than Westerns in space. Joe Haldeman writes excellent war novels, and his characters are well defined, but he remains considerably less popular than, say, Harry Turtledove.

Itzikoff somewhat facetiously refers to a hypothetical "John Updike of the Asimov set." Is it wrong of him to expect SF to produce a John Updike?

I'd say that if this reviewer is being facetious about this, he probably hasn't read enough science fiction to be reviewing it. Joking about getting a John Updike out of science fiction is a lot like looking at rock music and saying "yes, but will anything good ever come out of it? Anything with real substance?" Of course science fiction has produced some great writers.

Being able to balance metaphor, science, and character development is one of the things that makes science fiction more difficult to write—and to read—than other genres.
posted by interrobang at 11:03 AM on March 5, 2006


What are the good character-driven SF novels published in the past few years by new writers?

I enjoyed Michael Flynn's The Wreck of the River of Stars, an admittedly minor work which reads sort of like Heinlein meets Patrick O'Brien (in SPAAAAAACE!), and for literate space opera there is none better than Dan Simmons Hyperion novels (not new, but I'm not sure how long you've been out of the SF loop). They are about to be made into a film, which will, of course, suck, because all great SF novels get made into bad movies (2001: A Space Odyssey being the exception that proves the rule.) And speaking of odysseys, (*pats self on back for segue*) Simmons has two new novels out, Ilium and Olympos, which are a retelling of the Iliad in SF form, and are not as bad as that description might lead you to think.

I read Itzikoff's piece and the accompanying sidebar, and I have grave doubts about the critical faculties of anyone who puts Looking For Jake (pompous bloviating) on a list of essential reading and completely ignores the magnificent, magisterial, magical work of Gene Wolfe.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:08 AM on March 5, 2006


What are the good character-driven SF novels published in the past few years by new writers?

That's a very limiting question. I hope you don't mind if I address a different question: "What are some good SF novels with compelling characters since 1995 or so, or that I might not have been aware of as an American reader?"

At least arguably:

Richard Morgan's books about Takeshi Kovacs
Alastair Reynolds books in the Inhibitor/Conjoiner universe Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, if you count that as SF (it's certainly SF in spirit)
Iain Banks' Use of Weapons (late 80s), Inversions, Look to Windward, Excession.
John Varley's Eight Worlds books / stories (70s through 2000's)
Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction or The Cassini Division
Charlie Stross's The Atrocity Archive or The Family Trade or Accelerando
Greg Bear's Queen of Angels, /, and Moving Mars
Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God
Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark

Now, one of the ways that SF has turned in the last 15 years or so is to become more self-referential. If you've never read Gibson or Vinge, you might not get what's good about MacLeod or Stross since they tend to assume that you know what the Singularity is, etc. This might be what Itzkoff is really pointing to. Like BOP, I question how useful a reviewer like this is going to be given that his reading list is either unaware of or dismisses every major turn that SF has taken in the last 20+ years.

So I sat down to watch it--unfortunately, the last DVD I'd watched just before that was the TV-miniseries version of Scenes From a Marriage, and so in comparison the character development in Firefly seemed woefully oversold to me.

The one from the 70s by Bergman? That's a very faulty comparison. You're comparing Firefly to, effectively, cinema, done by a cinema director with cinema goals and as a one-off. People saying that Firefly (or, say, the Moore Battlestar Galactica) has good character development are comparing it, instead and more properly, to the crap that spews out of major hollywood studios onto the small screen. Neither is good like Bergman. Both are much better than Friends or Walker: Texas Ranger.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:27 AM on March 5, 2006


all great SF novels get made into bad movies (2001: A Space Odyssey being the exception that proves the rule.)

2001 was not based on a novel. From the WB movie site:
* 2001 began life as the short story The Sentinel, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1950.

* Clarke and Kubrick, who had been introduced by a mutual friend, began collaborating on a screenplay about man and extraterrestrials. Clarke suggested they base it on that story, which detailed a surveying expedition finding an alien artifact buried on the moon.

* Clarke later wrote a novel based on the screenplay for 2001, which was released in July 1968, three months after the film’s debut.
That's not quibbling; if it had been based on a novel, it wouldn't have been as good. It was the fact that it had only the skimpy skeleton of Clarke's story to work from that allowed it to develop its own form. There's a lesson in there about why most filmed novels are so bad.

In general, sf has made do with less in the way of character development, literary style, and other flourishes readers of "mainstream" literature take for granted (and bash sf for lacking). The difference has lessened, of course, since the Bad Old Days of "Spaceman White gazed at the approaching alien vessel and hastily calculated its velocity and probable point of origin based on the Sqznuth Vectors," but it's still there and probably always will be. There's only room for so much stuff in a story, and if you have to include the kinds of extrapolation and scientific/social imagination sf specializes in, something's going to give, and it's often fully realized characters. (There are, as always, honorable exceptions. I still miss John Varley.)
posted by languagehat at 11:30 AM on March 5, 2006


On non-preview: oops, Varley's still around. Who am I thinking of? Oh yeah, Tom Reamy.
posted by languagehat at 11:32 AM on March 5, 2006


I think Itzkoff trips over his own dick trying to make a point.

I think the point he's trying to make it that he's searching for science fiction that is about ideas and emotion, and not science fiction that is about the granular details of nanotechnology and dilithium crystals. Hence his thesis statement(s): "Why does contemporary science fiction have to be so geeky? ... You would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual."

I'm sure the collective brainpower of AskMe could point him to any number of works that fit the bill.

But he does have a point. I think the recent revamp of Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example. This series is resonating with people precisely because it has focused on characters and emotions, not technology and/or world-building. So why haven't we seen more of it?

Is the bar for what constitutes a complex or emotionally engaging character in SF considered to be lower than it is for mainstream media?

In a way, yes.

Personally, I blame Trekkers and Star Wars Expanded Universe geeks, who proved there was a market for sheer story density over story. Who proved that just showing you the door to a story is the same as actually walking through it.

Example: At some point, it became less about the idea of Klingons, and more about speaking the Klingon language and memorizing Klingon proverbs. They backed away from the power of their own ideas. You've showed me a collision between two wildly different cultures and the best you can come up with is a catchy list of Klingon insults? Bitch, please.

The same can be said for LOTR, Robert Jordan and other fantasy geeks -- witness the Penny Arcade stunt where fans are creating a fully realized fantasy world that amounts to nothing at all, as a sideways means of proving just how empty and arbitrary these works are.
posted by frogan at 12:05 PM on March 5, 2006


The one from the 70s by Bergman? That's a very faulty comparison. You're comparing Firefly to, effectively, cinema, done by a cinema director with cinema goals and as a one-off. People saying that Firefly (or, say, the Moore Battlestar Galactica) has good character development are comparing it, instead and more properly, to the crap that spews out of major hollywood studios onto the small screen. Neither is good like Bergman. Both are much better than Friends or Walker: Texas Ranger.

This gets at the root of my question about whether the bar is lowered for SF character development, and why I'm more interested in hearing about the work of very recent writers of the past ten years or so.

For instance, I think Samuel Delany's Dhalgren is good in the way that Pynchon is good, and that Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun is good in the way that Borges is good. Though I wouldn't put Otherland in that same tier, I do think that it has a number of uniquely interesting things to say about certain trends in literary maximalist fiction, and that it's attempting to engage in a kind of dialogue with books like Infinite Jest. I would say similarly complimentary things about Katharine Dunn's Geek Love and Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist.

So it seems to me to be at least theoretically possible that an SF television series can be good in the way that great television is good, and the enthusiastic recommendations I received led me to believe that Firefly would be great television. If the standard for "some of the best writing to be found in television" is just "better than Friends," and if certain very good things from outside the genre are exempted for arbitrary reasons (for instance, you exempt Scenes from a Marriage because Bergman is a "cinema director with cinema goals", even though he was working within the constraints of television on a very low budget), then what good is the standard? And is it the case that the best recent SF can hold its own against the best literary fiction, or is there an artificially low standard in place for it? When we say "the writing here is brilliant," do we really mean, "Well, this'll do"?

@frogan--I've only seen Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica, but I do agree that it's emotionally affective and complexly drawn in a way that Firefly wasn't, for example.
posted by Prospero at 12:29 PM on March 5, 2006


The sole difference between science fiction and fiction is the world it is set in. So criticizing science fiction for having a lot of world building is like criticizing westerns for having a lot of cowboys, or crime novels for having a lot of crime. Does it happen that some sci-fi novels are essentially all world-building, without any interesting characters at all? Sure. And how many crime novels have the hard-bitten detective who's been hurt in the past, grinding away at catching this killer because of that night in '73 when his wife was killed.... Oh, you've read that one too?

And does it happen that some sci-fi writers are essentially wallowing, luxuriating in newly minted hyper-terminology, making sure that no sentence fails to include a densiscanner or a warbeitor? Absolutely. Marusek is apparently guilty but he's not even close to the only one. I would argue that this type of writing is effectively a sub-genre of sci-fi. I find it annoying just as the reviewer apparently does, but it isn't a large percentage of sci-fi - maybe 10%? Not even.

The largest percentage of sci-fi by shelf space is, of course, Star Wars(tm) and Star Trek(tm) novels. It would be completely fair to use these as the defining example of sci-fi - after all, they sell the most copies. It would also be completely unfair, since they are shit.

Some good sci-fi/fantasy writers:
Gene Wolfe, any
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
China Mieville, any
Iain Banks, any
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Strange and Crake are both extremely character-driven.
posted by jellicle at 12:42 PM on March 5, 2006


Second The Wreck of The River of Stars. It's absolutely character-driven, in that the wreck probably wouldn't have happened if the characters got along better. It's also a good story with a well-thought-out SF backdrop.
posted by Quietgal at 12:45 PM on March 5, 2006


Read this review over breakfast, and it irritated me. I don't want science fiction to be less geeky, I want it to be more geeky. Why does everything have to be just like LitFic in order to count as fiction?

At least some science fiction is called that because it's about science. If it were purely character-driven, then it might be a good book but it wouldn't be good science fiction; it's just using the genre as window dressing. I might agree that the bar is lower for character development in SF, but only because the characters aren't necessarily the central focus of the story as they are in literary fiction.

(Greg Egan, for example. He does make you care about his characters, they're believable and internally consistent and so on -- but often the stories aren't about them; they're just the canvas on which his (too complex to summarize here) ideas get played out.)

Asking for character-driven SF is like asking for horse-driven westerns, or butler-driven mysteries. It's not that those aren't important elements, but they're not the point.

(That said, of course, there's a large proportion of poor-quality, trashy space opera stuff out there dragging down the genre's reputation. But that's always been the case, and probably always will be.)
posted by ook at 12:52 PM on March 5, 2006


Is the bar set too low for the complexity of SF characters? Well, that depends a little on how you look at it. Many SF fans are willing to accept less complex characters in return for a well-realized world, and although that's partly a historical relic from what languagehat calls the Bad Old Days, I doubt that it'll ever go away entirely. However, if you choose to demand a little more, you'll still be able to find books that fit your requirements. The genre's still changing and growing; it seems a little silly to me to say that a genre only half a century from its pulp origins cannot possibly approach the complexity of 'real' literature. Think of the sheer size of the literature section in your local bookstore - how many of those books are truly good? How many were written in the past fifty years? It's still a young genre, still much smaller than 'literature' as a whole, and what it is now is probably not what it'll look like in another ten or twenty years.

How many Updikes [or Bergmans] are there, anyways? A better question than "where is the SF Updike?" is "can SF provide solid, well-written books with interesting stories and complex characters?" To that, I think the answer is a pretty definite yes.

As for examples of relatively recent challenging and complex authors - I'd like to suggest adding stuff by Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, etc.) and Ursula LeGuin (Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, etc.) to ROU_Xenophobe's list. Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God are rightly there already. China Mieville's gotten a lot of press recently, and Perdido Street Station and The Scar are both better than most SF. I'd stay away from Atwood's Oryx and Crake [which is certainly guilty of flat characterization and which says nothing that other SF books haven't said better], although some of the rest of her works have SF themes and are far superiour.
posted by ubersturm at 12:57 PM on March 5, 2006


Morgan's Kovacs novels are most definitely character-driven (and some of my absolute favourite non-Iain M. Banks science fiction). The world and technology are interesting, but they themselves are most interesting for effects they have on the characters (the unique effects the technology has on, say, torture, and the characters' reactions to it, is chilling and fascinating, as is the effect it has on their conceptions of self and reality).

I don't think that the bar is necessarily lower, I think it's that science fiction, like horror, exists on a continuum which many people only experience a very narrow band of, and as such they judge it by an at best incomplete, and at worst completely inaccurate, idea about the genre. There are different kinds of science fiction, with different kinds of emphasis, which is no different from any other genre of writing. Most of everything is crap, science fiction is no different. There's plenty of intelligent, thoughtful, well-developed science fiction writing out there, you just have to wade through the crap to find it.
posted by biscotti at 1:02 PM on March 5, 2006


This gets at the root of my question about whether the bar is lowered for SF character development

No, it gets at a different question about whether or not the bar is lowered for TV character development. It has nothing to do with SF.

The fundamental distinction is probably between individual works of art, of varying quality, and an episodic television show that is far more explicitly a commercial product.

you exempt Scenes from a Marriage because Bergman is a "cinema director with cinema goals", even though he was working within the constraints of television on a very low budget

I exempted it because it's silly to take what amounts to a long movie by one of the greatest filmmakers, period, and use that as the bar for "This is pretty good TV" merely because it happened to be released straight-to-TV.

what good is the standard?

It gets at how you should interpret such a recommendation, more than anything else. You should always hear it as Blah has good character development... for a Hollywood TV show. Not that Blah has good character development relative to a Bergman movie or to Proust, for God's sake.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:17 PM on March 5, 2006


Prospero, this is a wonderful question, and goes deep to the core of a subject that's close to my own heart. I love science fiction, and have since I was a wee lad. It's a genre that sparks my imagination, frees my mind, leads me in new directions.

(Note that there was a question about quality science fiction last summer (featuring a discussion of character vs. story), which sparked a question from me about measuring Quality and Beauty and art.)

That being said: as an adult, I've been chagrined to find that science fiction, as a whole, doesn't stand up well to most mainstream literary fiction. Science fiction is generally ghettoized because it is truly worthy of ghettoization.

The same is true in television and movies. I, too, heard how great Firefly and Serenity were. I, too, watched them. (I'm always excited to experience new visual science fiction.) I, too, was disappointed. This wasn't good. It's better than most other science fiction, true, and perhaps above average television and film, but good? Worthy of shouting from the rooftops? No.

One of the fundamental problems, I think, is that many sci-fi aficionados do not read outside their chosen genre. My cousin reads only fantasy. He'll recommend a great fantasy novel to me, but when I read it I'm appalled. Similarly, I have a close friend who reads only science fiction (and some fantasy). He'll often recommend stuff to me, too. Again, I'm appalled at what passes for the best of the genre. I try to convince my friend that he should read outside the genre, but he refuses. "I've always been happy with science fiction. Why should I read anything else?" he says. It's difficult to argue with that, even though I find the logic mystifying. ("I'm always been happy to eat shit. Why should I eat anything else?")

In the past few years, I've been pleased to discover that there is some fine speculative fiction being produced with real literary merit, stuff that I'm not afraid to recommend to my friends who scorn sci-fi. Cloud Atlas, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Time Traveler's Wife — these are all quality books (though not necessarily perfect by any means), and stand on their own outside their genre. It makes me sad for the genre when people recommend stuff from Neil Gaiman and Isaac Asimov, for example; neither are particularly good writers, and neither can create a decent character. Their characters are types, and are mostly present to serve the needs of the story. Whenever somebody recommends Neil Gaiman as an example of the best science fiction has to offer, I think to myself, "And that is exactly why people do not take science fiction seriously."

Here's a fine example of the problem: Making Light recently posted a strong recommendation of the novel Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. I trust Making Light, and so picked up a copy. I haven't got around to reading it, but my wife, who has probably read more science fiction and more literature than I have, is nearly finished. "It's dumb," she tells me. "The characters are awful. Who recommended this to you?" Now, it's true that some of these differences in opinion are due only to personal taste, but some of the differences are not. It sounds to me as if this is another example of a case where the bar is set substantially lower for science fiction than for mainstream literary fiction.

Anyhow — I'm just rambling and pontificating now, and haven't even bothered to read the article you linked to. Thanks for an excellent question.
posted by jdroth at 1:34 PM on March 5, 2006


The fact that the vast majority of SF readers feel the way ook does is exactly why it's taken this long to get a SF review column in the New York Times. Don't complain about the ghettoization of your genre when you're the ones who put up the walls. To everyone outside of SF's core audience of borderline-autistics, stories that aren't about people aren't about anything at all.
posted by jjg at 1:36 PM on March 5, 2006


it's taken this long to get a SF review column in the New York Times

Excuse me? Have you ever heard of Gerald Jonas? He had a regular sf review column in the Times for many years (here's a list of columns since 1997), and there were columnists before him, all the way back to Anthony Boucher in the '50s (he mainly reviewed mysteries for the Times, but he had a regular sf review column in the Herald Tribune).
posted by languagehat at 1:56 PM on March 5, 2006


Economy of words.

You only have so many words in a story. In a story of literary fiction, you can devote more of them to characters than you can in a science fiction story.

I don't think it needs any more explanation than that to say that yes, the bar is lower for character development in science fiction.

I read for characters. I am not someone driven by a need to know how the plot is going to turn out ("what's the twist?," "who killed the Prof?" etc). I want to read about people. It makes it hard to find sci-fi I like (some of the greats are just plain silly to me: Asimov was a mediocre writer with mediocre characters and a huge ego. Clark wouldn't know a character from a meteor -- his stories are purely about the setting).

But I am a major science geek, so I can appreciate these stories on some level.

I think, at the end of the day, writing a great, character driven sci-fi story is harder than writing a great character driven piece of litfic, which is why there are not copious amounts of it. You have to learn to create artificial settings that characters can exist and make sense in, and you have to learn to do it in very few words, as you need the words for your characters. It's damn hard.

That said, I really love Dan Simmons for his characters: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion and The Rise of Endymion (although some really did not like those last two). He even wrote some great, character-driven horror in The Song of Kali, and straight litfic in Phases of Gravity.

I also think jdroth is right about the ghetto effect. I like Firefly and Serenity, but some folks think they are the be-all, end-all of sci-fi because they don't get out of the genre enough (and frankly, the universe they are set in is very hokey). Many sci-fi readers and writers don't learn to appreciate great literature in general (which has nothing to do with genre), so they can't make it or know it when the see it.
posted by teece at 2:04 PM on March 5, 2006


languagehat, I stand corrected re 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thanks for googling that out for me. And I agree with jdroth about much of the genre rightly deserving ghettoization. On the one hand, it's infuriating to have a good friend, whose taste in literature runs to Borges and Calvino, absolutely refuse to read The Shadow of the Torturer because there's a guy with a sword on the cover. It's as if publishers don't know what to do with works that are both SF/fantasy and "real" literature. On the other hand, few things are worse than a SF writer self-consciously trying to write "real" literature.

I too, left SF behind after college and sated my literary tastes with everything from Henry James and Thomas Hardy to Richard Powers and Borges. I've recently returned to reading a bit of it, and I'm always frustrated by the lack of stuff worth reading. Sure, I like pulp as much as the next guy, and I got great guilty pleasure out of Peter F. Hamilton's Neutronium Alchemist books (the dead walk the galaxy in the bodies of the living! Spaceships are sentient entities bred to serve humanity! Stuff explodes! Good defeats evil over the course of several thousand pages!), but too often I find myself buying books based on a back-cover blurb from an author I like and then being dismayed by how predictable and thin it all is.

And criticism of SF/fantasy seems to fall into two distinct camps: the litcritics, who slam everything because it doesn't measure up to the Canon, or the fanboys, who love anything with dragons or ultrahypermegawidgets.

I'm not addressing the question, so I'll stop now. I just got Tad Williams' Shadowland out of the library, so I think I'll go give that a spin. Fun thread, and stuff I want to continue thinking about.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:06 PM on March 5, 2006


Asking for character-driven SF is like asking for horse-driven westerns, or butler-driven mysteries. It's not that those aren't important elements, but they're not the point.

Maximal disagreement. Good SF is what happens when interesting, well-drawn characters are put into interesting, what-if environments, or are interacting with interesting settings that differ strongly from our own. The first part, having interesting, well-drawn characters, is critical.

Take the differences between Banks' Culture novels, and Asher's highly-derivative and not-well-characterized Polity novels (which are still fun). The differences between Zakalwe or Gurgeh or Horza and Ian Cormac are a large part of what makes Culture novels compelling and Polity novels merely entertaining, at best.

On the other hand, complaints about worldbuilding etc do somewhat miss the point. In good SF, the setting should be seen as another character that the actual characters are reacting to.

Making Light recently posted a strong recommendation of the novel Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

I picked this up from the same recommendation and am disappointed. It is at best entertaining, and the characters are very stock with mostly very stock conflicts with each other -- there's OVERBEARING FATHER and THE RESULTING SON and so on. It's like a Greg Egan book, but without the depth of wacky ideas that makes his books fun. I'm actually rather annoyed at PNH for it (not that I know him) -- he's well-read enough to recognize good SF and to know that Spin isn't it. I don't see why anyone would think it better-characterized or more interesting than Wilson's earlier The Chronoliths.

Whenever somebody recommends Neil Gaiman as an example of the best science fiction has to offer

The problem is that I can't recommend the best stuff SF has to offer to someone who doesn't read SF because they'd have to have read some fair amount of the bad-but-fun stuff in order to get the setting and understand who the characters are and why they're interacting and making choices as they are. The best SF out now is talking to and interacting with a lot of other SF from the past fifteen years or so.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:12 PM on March 5, 2006


So it seems to me to be at least theoretically possible that an SF television series can be good in the way that great television is good, and the enthusiastic recommendations I received led me to believe that Firefly would be great television. If the standard for "some of the best writing to be found in television" is just "better than Friends," and if certain very good things from outside the genre are exempted for arbitrary reasons (for instance, you exempt Scenes from a Marriage because Bergman is a "cinema director with cinema goals", even though he was working within the constraints of television on a very low budget), then what good is the standard? And is it the case that the best recent SF can hold its own against the best literary fiction, or is there an artificially low standard in place for it? When we say "the writing here is brilliant," do we really mean, "Well, this'll do"?

Television, that is, serialized filmic narrative, is not a genre that has produced a huge body of masterful work. It's hard to expect it to produce S/F masterpieces when it rarely produces masterpieces, period.

That being said, there have been quite a few S/F TV shows that have made it into the upper echelon of "Great TV," from The Prisoner to The X-Files (not to mention all-time great Twin Peaks, which had more than a little Sci-Fi thrown into the mix).
posted by maxreax at 2:24 PM on March 5, 2006


As for examples of relatively recent challenging and complex authors - I'd like to suggest adding stuff by Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, etc.) and Ursula LeGuin (Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, etc.) to ROU_Xenophobe's list. Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God are rightly there already. China Mieville's gotten a lot of press recently, and Perdido Street Station and The Scar are both better than most SF. I'd stay away from Atwood's Oryx and Crake [which is certainly guilty of flat characterization and which says nothing that other SF books haven't said better], although some of the rest of her works have SF themes and are far superiour.

I'd go so far as to generall recommend contemporary women S/F authors over men. The domain of almost exclusively male artists for the better part of the century, S/F has only in the past 20 years or so begun to see more women (or for that matter, non-white) authors--adding new, interesting perspectives to the genre, the possibilities of which have, in many ways been exhausted.
posted by maxreax at 2:28 PM on March 5, 2006


@ROU_Xenophobe: if my citation of Bergman is a sticking point for you (which I brought up only because it literally was the last thing I watched before watching Firefly), feel free to replace it with Season 1 of The Sopranos for something that's contemporary and more commercial, or the entire run of The Prisoner for an example of a commercial SF series that had a run of approximately the same length as Firefly. Even then the writing of the series doesn't hold up by comparison, IMO, and I think that for certain reasons already alluded to by other posters, much of its fanbase gives it a free pass as being the best that television and SF have to offer.

@BitterOldPunk: when I read The Book of the New Sun a few years ago, I seriously considered wrapping the cover in a plain brown wrapper. Perhaps marketing has much to do with the perception of SF as a ghetto genre--see the recent Vintage rereleases of Samuel Delany's books, which have little more than the title and author on the front cover, along with some sort of out-of-focus image. It's a clear attempt to rebrand the books as "literature."
posted by Prospero at 2:32 PM on March 5, 2006


BitterOldPunk: I agree with everything you say and would love to buy you a drink sometime (and show you my collection of old sf magazines, which I've finally retrieved from my parents' garage after 30 years).
posted by languagehat at 2:35 PM on March 5, 2006


Fair enough, prospero. I'd agree that the characterization and writing on Firefly isn't in the very top of stuff that episodic television has produced, merely better than most of the stuff churned out every year -- good in that it's refreshingly not crap. I'd even agree that that really says more something negative about television in general than particularly good about Firefly.

That said, I don't think it gets a free pass because it's SF, but rather because for whatever reason Whedon's work manages to strike a strong chord in some people. I've heard lots of SF-fans say some strongly negative things about Firefly (and Buffy); the fan-bases differ pretty strongly in both directions.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:46 PM on March 5, 2006


The domain of almost exclusively male artists for the better part of the century, S/F has only in the past 20 years or so begun to see more women (or for that matter, non-white) authors

Um... Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula LeGuin, CJ Cherryh, MZ Bradley, Madeleine L'Engle?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:50 PM on March 5, 2006


BitterOldPunk: Criticism of SF/fantasy seems to fall into two distinct camps: the litcritics, who slam everything because it doesn't measure up to the Canon, or the fanboys, who love anything with dragons or ultrahypermegawidgets.

You've put it more clearly than I've ever been able to express it. There is, however, a third group, the group you see here discussing this question, people like me and my wife, people who love both literature and science fiction, and have a passionate desire to see the gap between the two bridged.

Also, I should note that I don't begrudge anyone for liking trash sci-fi. I like it myself. I can watch Buckaroo Banzai over-and-over. The difference between me and a Firefly fan, though, is I don't delude myself that Buckaroo Banzai is pure genius. (Even though it is!)

And, lastly, a final unrelated point: the older I get, the more I believe that the first Alien film is one of the finest expressions of science fiction in any form. It's a masterpiece. (Though its characters are stock, not complex.)
posted by jdroth at 3:34 PM on March 5, 2006


I'm a fiction fanatic who snoozes when he reads a "novel of ideas". I thumb my nose at theme, social commentary and satire. (I love ideas, but I prefer them in non-fiction form. Others will violently disagree, but I don't think "idea" is what fiction does best.) I read for plot and character -- but mostly for character. The smallest character nuance fascinates me: Is that a half-smile on Joe's face? Did Mary take a breath before agreeing to go to the dinner party?

Though it rarely rises to the occasion, Sci Fi is well suited for character exploration. Think of it this way: you don't know anything about George, who is sitting in his office, typing a letter. Your assignment is to learn as much as possible about him. Luckily, you have godlike powers. What will you do?

Sure, you can put a sexy girl in the room with him and see how he reacts -- does he get nervous? Does he approach her? You could give him a phone call, telling him his brother has died.

Or you could place an alien monster in there with him. Or you could give him the power of invisibility? (What would he do?) Or you could allow him to exist in his office -- and another "dimension" -- simultaneously. Any of these experiments will teach you many things about George.

The point is that the trappings of SF allow writers to place their human (or human-like) characters in extreme situations. There are other genres that do the same: mysteries, thrillers, etc. But in sci-fi, there's more freedom. Same with horror and fantasy. Shakespeare understood this. He taught us a great deal about human nature in fantastic comedies, like "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and magical romances, like "The Tempest."

But "taught" is a bad verb. I don't want to LEARN from fiction. I want to FEEL from it. I want an empathic link with the characters. I want to confuse my boundaries with theirs. I DO want to learn. I want to learn about MYSELF. How would I react, stuck in a room with a monster? With the power of invisibility? With immortality? If I could fly?

The easiest way I can feel this connection is if I forget the fiction is fiction. The "it's just a story" thing is a killer. If you mostly read for the ideas or social commentary, it doesn't matter whether you believe or not. But for a reader like me, belief is EVERYTHING. I need to be really SCARED of the monster! If I continually remember he's made up, I can't be. The best writers write so vividly that I can -- for long stretches of time -- forget that I'm reading.

For me, the main problem with SF is that -- ironically -- many writers have TERRIBLE world-building skills. By which I mean that, due to their gaffs, I am continually reminded that their worlds aren't real (I realize I'm using "world building" in a non-standard sense).

Often, the problem is mechanics: cliches, weak-word choice, clunky phrases, bad dialogue. These mistakes make me think, "the author made a mistake" or "I'm sure there's a better way he could have phrased that," at which point I'm thinking about the author, not his world. I'm thinking the world HAS an author. It's just made up. The bubble is burst. I'm jerked out of the happy (or scary) dream.

Sometimes the problem is unbelievable character psychology -- or a poorly constructed plot. ANY mistake -- or sloppy choice -- can rip me out of the world.

Since they are imaginative, escape-loving people, I'd initially assumed that I'd find like minds amongst SF fans. But I rarely do. I think there are (at least) two reasons for this: some fans don't read SF to escape into other worlds; they read for ideas. Fair enough. To each his own poison.

Others are just unsophisticated readers. They've read very little BESIDES pulpy stuff. They haven't experienced how transporting great writing can be. So the cliched and hacknied is good enough. But once you've read Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Updike, Marquez and Chekhov -- it's hard to go back to Heinline and Lovecraft.
posted by grumblebee at 3:55 PM on March 5, 2006


cheers, jdroth and languagehat (and I concur with the Buckaroo Banzai and Alien comments).

Prospero: I'd considered the same thing re The Book of the New Sun. I fear Wolfe is destined for a postmortem reappraisal a la PKD (though he's a better writer than Dick ever was, and his signal to noise ratio is considerably higher).

And ROU_Xenophobe: don't forget Connie Willis (To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of the smartest, funniest things I've ever had the pleasure to read) and the late great James Tiptree Jr.!

*suddenly thinking of acquiring sockpuppet MeFi accounts with the handles "ultrahypermegawidget" and "the_bishops_bird_stump"*
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:03 PM on March 5, 2006


Oops! My poorly phrased post made it sound as if Gene Wolfe were no longer with us. This is Not The Case. He is still very much alive and writing.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:08 PM on March 5, 2006


BitterOldPunk, you're completely right about Connie Willis, although The Doomsday Book with its darker tone is the book of hers that struck me first.
posted by ubersturm at 4:37 PM on March 5, 2006


I second you on Alien, jdroth.

I find these threads interesting, if repetitive; we always seem to return to Delany and Wolfe, and the book we point to from Delany is thirty years old.

I find myself mining other stuff from the midseventies, Brunner and Aldiss in particular, when I have a jones for character-driven literary SF.

I must admit to a sense of disappointment in Mieville's work. I had hoped for something that would stand up to Wolfe, and for me, it lacked the depth that Wolfe's work offers.

I assume this is at least a partial reflection of the varying ages of the two men.
posted by mwhybark at 4:40 PM on March 5, 2006


Um... Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula LeGuin, CJ Cherryh, MZ Bradley, Madeleine L'Engle?

Past 30 years then.
posted by maxreax at 5:07 PM on March 5, 2006


More like 50, except for Cherryh.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:17 PM on March 5, 2006


I've found far too many sci-fi authors are so enamored with the interesting concept they came up with that the story, the characters, the conflict, the resolution, really all those parts that make a book compelling, suffer greatly.

How many sci-fi books have you read (cough, Spin, cough) where the ending the ending seems tacked on and unsatisfactory? Where conflict only existed to add conflict, not to to mesh with themes and characters. Where there wasn't story and character development that lead to resolution, there was a vaguely interesting idea that was explored for a few hundred pages and that was that.

In non-genre fiction there is a word for books like these. Unpublished. But

As for good sci-fi that doesn't fall into this trap? Richard Russo's Ship of Fools, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (and possibly Ghostwritten), Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, Ian M. Bank's early Culture novels, Jonathan Lethem's well, everything, Ursla K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, Haruki Murakami 's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and those are just a few.

I think it is pretty telling that many of those books aren't categorized as science fiction, even though they fit the genre.
posted by aspo at 5:27 PM on March 5, 2006


On the female author tip, might I also recommend Patricia Anthony? Long and relevant interview here in which she laments being lumped into the sci-fi camp precisely because her stories are character-driven rather than high concept.
posted by schoolgirl report at 5:42 PM on March 5, 2006


jdroth: I've read _Spin_, and if your wife truly believes that it is "dumb" and that the characters are awful, I'm not sure we would even share a common language for talking about books. The Nielsen Hayden's are right; it's a brilliant book.

My best guess is that people look to get different things out of novels; mainstream fiction is better at giving people some of those things while science fiction is better at others. _Spin_ is wonderful at what it does, but if that's not what you're looking for then you won't enjoy it.

But to say the charactesr are awful? I just don't see it.
posted by Justinian at 5:43 PM on March 5, 2006


I must admit to a sense of disappointment in Mieville's work. I had hoped for something that would stand up to Wolfe, and for me, it lacked the depth that Wolfe's work offers.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks this. Maybe it's just that the hype had me expecting so much more, but I found Perdido Street Station to be formulaic hackery chock-full of tin-eared dialogue, and was unable to finish The Scar. (I can't dismiss him completely, however — some of his short fiction, particularly Report of Certain Events in London — is really great stuff, and I enjoyed King Rat as well.)

I am perhaps revealing my philistinism when I admit that I fail to understand the contemporary fascination with character as the sine qua non of fiction. I've read far too many well-reviewed literary novels about people who might be interesting if they ever did anything (yet they never do) to believe that good characterization can save a novel in which plot, theme, and milieu are afterthoughts. The lit-crit novel about the middle-aged academic/journalist/media wonk who sits around being unhappy about his marriage is a cliché, but god knows there are plenty of these novels, and so help me but I'd rather read volume 347 of the latest fantasy megafranchise any day. I can't help feeling that there are many excellent science fiction novels in which character development is secondary (Jack Vance comes to mind, as does a good deal of cyberpunk — and even some authors who've been cited as examples of character-driven SF in this thread, such as Alfred Bester and John Brunner).

The fetishization of character in fiction seems to me to be a particularly late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century phenomenon driven by the fashion for facile pop-psych philosophy and narcissism which distinguish this particular low point in intellectual culture. But what do I know?
posted by IshmaelGraves at 8:34 PM on March 5, 2006


To everyone outside of SF's core audience of borderline-autistics, stories that aren't about people aren't about anything at all.

Well that's friendly.

You missed my point, which IshmaelGraves just expressed much better than I did.
posted by ook at 8:49 PM on March 5, 2006


I am perhaps revealing my philistinism when I admit that I fail to understand the contemporary fascination with character as the sine qua non of fiction.

Yup, you're right. I really want good characters, but that's not all I want. I also want story.

I remember being a heretic in a lit class because I thought The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was tripe. Yeah, it had brilliant characterization in spades, but there was no damn story. And believe it or not, that is a fundamental element of a, well, story.

I would rather read Clark, with his transparent and inconsequential characters (see Rendezvous with Rama) than someone with characters but no story. But I'd really rather read something with both.
posted by teece at 9:14 PM on March 5, 2006


Nobody's mentioned Ellison?

the first Alien film is one of the finest expressions of science fiction in any form.

True, although it's really just a scary-monster horror movie at heart (one reason it's so effective). I never used to appreciate the horror end of the horror-fantasy-sf spectrum until recently, for various reasons. It's interesting you bring this up, though, because some of the finest early sf was in the horror genre.

I'd have to put Aliens and Terminator and The Abyss close, but then I'm a huge fan of Cameron's brilliant and taut narrative technique, whereas his sf ideas are not necessarily very original. But we were speaking of character writing, and he's a master of that aspect.

Books, though. I dunno. The only recent-ish sf books I've read are Vinge's singularity stuff, which I found absorbing but not always engaging, if you catch the distinction; Connie Willis; and KSR. The latter isn't character driven, it's mainly politics, but I found the characters interesting enough; the main problem is that they exist to take political positions in the novels. Willis is fun and her characters are well-drawn but I don't think that's her point either. I haven't read any of the Baroque Cycle beyond Cryptonomicon and again I think that's not so much using stock characters as it is moving them around like chess pieces.

But while I would recommend any of those for their quality over the great mass of churned-out quadrilogies and such, which seems to be the real problem here (but I class that stuff with the usual airport reading, which isn't great for non-sf purposes), they still count as examples of world-building over, say, an internal character arc.

So I recognize the problem, I agree it exists, and that it's detrimental, and I'm not sure what to do about it, but at the same time I don't think it's a disaster -- there's a lot of very successful sf out there. The problem is that lots of people just don't like sf, period.

This is a bit like the long-sought "crossover" porn film of the 1970s. It never happened -- but now we have mainstream films going as far as porn does. I think that's the same answer -- there's a lot of good character-driven sf that's masquerading its way into readers' hands as not-sf. I just don't know what that stuff is at the moment, but I bet it's out there.
posted by dhartung at 9:33 PM on March 5, 2006


You missed my point, which IshmaelGraves just expressed much better than I did.

No, you're the one who missed the point. I didn't say character, I said people. People are what most people want to read about, and what most SF readers can't be bothered with. There is science fiction that addresses the real human ramifications of the big ideas SF readers hold so dear, but these works (perhaps rightly) are considered deviations from the norm.

Nobody's mentioned Ellison?

Word. Ellison's only interested in "science fiction" to the extent that it illuminates something about humanity.
posted by jjg at 11:25 PM on March 5, 2006


dhartung, I think you mean Quicksilver, not Cryptonomicon. But your point is well taken. I read Quicksilver and resolved to deliberately ignore the other two books. Snow Crash? Genius. The Baroque Cycle? Eh, not so much.

I am in love with italics.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:27 PM on March 5, 2006


The fetishization of character in fiction seems ... driven by the fashion for facile pop-psych philosophy and narcissism which distinguish this particular low point in intellectual culture.

No. There were great characters in Ancient Greek drama (see Clytemnestra). Shakespeare had them; so did Tolstoy, Dickens, Jane Austen and Chekhov.

Pop psychology is TRASH, and it IS a fetish of the late 20th Century -- mostly on TV. All those shows in which characters tell you how they're feeling ("I'm just a little bit brittle right now") and why they're feeling that way ("...because my Dad left me when I was five!") That's just bad, lazy writing. It violates the show-don't-tell rule.

It's usually at its worst in sci-fi (i.e. the empath on "Star Trek" is just an excuse for enless pop-psych). Sci-fi fans who think THAT is character writing will, of course, think character writing is shit.

But you're right about the intellectual part. Character, when done well, is (by it's nature) non-intellectual. One of the great strengths of fiction -- something it does better than non-fiction -- is it's ability to excite the emotional parts of the brain. Again, the Greeks understood this. "Oedipus" tugs at the heart much more than it tugs at the head.
posted by grumblebee at 4:12 AM on March 6, 2006


I have a theory about the sci-fi readers who refuse to read outside the genre. I base it on myself. Like several others here, I read exclusively SF when I was younger. Then, for whatever reason, I read some good literary fiction. I got hooked on the precision of the writing, the craft of characterization and the poetry of the language. When I returned to SF, I suddenly realized these newly-prized items were (mostly) lacking. I spent years looking for well-written SF but rarely found any.

The question is: why DID I spend all that time searching the SF section? If classic and modern, literary fiction gave me what I was looking for, why didn't I happily read those books and give up SF altogether (well, I pretty much did, but I pined for SF)? What did SF have to offer me?

SF, like its cousins Mystery, Western and Thriller, is heavily influenced by film, television and comic books. When you read SF, it's almost as if the author is scared you'll change the channel. So he utilizes all kinds of tricks to keep you reading. Most genre novels begin with an action scene -- a teaser -- that hooks you right away. Or in SF, it may be an immediately-arresting idea, or a mysterious, alluring world. SOMETHING that entices you to stay tuned to this "channel."

I remember, in my early 20s, feeling the urge to read a story. I would glance at my shelves and see "Bleak House," "Childhood's End", "Dune," and "The Hobbit." Many people had told me that "Bleak House" was great -- maybe Dickens's best novel. I really wanted to read it. But I would pick it up, read a few sentences, and it seemed like work. So I switched to "Dune," which sucked me in instantly. The writing was not skillful, but it was EXCITING.

I would resolve to read "Bleak House" when I was done with "Dune," but I would pick up "Childhood's End" instead -- and then "The Hobbit." Literary fiction just didn't play by the TV rule of grab-'em-right-away! I was raised on TV. That's what I was used to. If I managed to stick with a piece of literary fiction for a few chapters, I would get hooked. But it was hard for me to bring myself to start reading one of those books in the first place.

It's hard -- maybe impossible -- to pull someone away from the thrill of immediate adventure. So I'm not surprised that people here have SF-reading friends who refuse to read anything else. And I'm not surprised that many literary people secretly long for the thrill of genre novels.

(Incidentally, I know that SF is not ONLY distinguished by histrionic openings. I KNOW it has other strong points. But those have been discussed. No one is talking about this aspect.)

When I was in my 20s, I was deeply ashamed of this "base" desire. I thought I should be above it. Now I see that it was a normal response, given my upbringing and what I was exposed to.

What changed me? I eventually learned to see the world in smaller sample-sizes. You and I might be bored stiff, looking at a tiny piece of glass, but to a micro-biologist (who has placed the glass -- a slide -- under a microscope), it is teeming with drama. Somehow (due to aging and repeated exposure to the literary novels I DID eventually get around to reading), I learned to see that the slight flaring of someone's nostrils was as dramatic as a planet blowing up. And once I did, the exploding planet seemed like overkill. I didn't need it to be hooked. But this transition took a while.

In another thread, we were talking about Shakespeare. I generally dislike "experimental" productions of his plays. But one poster suggested that they were necessary. He said he'd seen "Hamlet" dozens of times. It would become boring, he suggested, if they were all staged the same way. And I realized the huge gulf between that poster and me.

I've probably seen "Hamlet" 50 times. Since I shy away from experimental productions, most of those 50 were staged in pretty similar "vanilla" ways. But -- to me -- they were UTTERLY, WORLD-SHATTERINGLY different. They had different actors in them for one thing, and these actors would stress different words, totally changing the nuance of lines and moments.

Is a line reading a tiny thing? Is it huge? It depends on the level of granularity with which you gaze at the world.
posted by grumblebee at 4:52 AM on March 6, 2006


And I realized the huge gulf between that poster and me.

And... let me guess... you're on top of that gulf, looking down?

May I suggest that you and that other poster simply have different values and want different, equally valid, things out of theater? And while I'm at it, may I suggest that your youthful desire for a snappy opening and a good story was just as valid as your later craving for "the slight flaring of someone's nostrils"? You may even get bored with the latter in time, and plunge back into genre fiction for a while. And that's OK!

You know, when I got into classical music I despised my earlier passion for rock and roll, which suddenly seemed childish and uninteresting: thank god I outgrew it! Then, after a certain point, I realized that I still loved rock and roll, and there was no need to choose. Life is a smorgasbord, my friend.
posted by languagehat at 6:35 AM on March 6, 2006


Languagehat nails it; science fiction and more mainstream types of fiction offer tend to offer very different things. The difficulty comes when someone asserts that one of those things is inherently superior.
posted by Justinian at 7:07 AM on March 6, 2006


And... let me guess... you're on top of that gulf, looking down?

Why would you guess that?

May I suggest that you and that other poster simply have different values and want different, equally valid, things out of theater?

Agreed.

nd while I'm at it, may I suggest that your youthful desire for a snappy opening and a good story was just as valid as your later craving for "the slight flaring of someone's nostrils"?

Agreed.

I didn't make any value judgements. I'm a COMPLETE relativist when it comes to art. So much so, that I don't even really get the final part of the original poster's question: "Is it wrong of him to expect SF to produce a John Updike?"

Is it wrong? How could it be "wrong" to expect something? You expect what you expect. You may not get what you want, but that doesn't mean you're wrong for expecting it.

There is absolutely NO WAY (ZERO! ZILCH!) that my way of reading can be better (or worse) than anyone else's -- unless we're reading for some specific purpose, like studying to pass a test. In such a case, I guess we could say some reading methods are more effective than others.

But I'm talking about reading for pleasure. Whatever gives you pleasure gives you pleasure. I can't think of anything more absurd than making up rules -- how would the rules even work????

So if there was ANYTHING in my post that somehow made you think I was claiming superiority, I apologize. I was simply trying to explain why some people read only genre fiction and others read only other stuff.

I don't think I'm better than the other "Hamlet" guy, but the fact that I think a word choice is a major event and he things it's barely noticeable DOES mean that there's a HUGE gulf between us. Why does mentioning a huge gulf imply that it's better on one side than the other?
posted by grumblebee at 8:57 AM on March 6, 2006


the fact that I think a word choice is a major event and he things it's barely noticeable DOES mean that there's a HUGE gulf between us. Why does mentioning a huge gulf imply that it's better on one side than the other?

Oh, come on. You have to admit that 99 times out of a hundred, when people talk about there being a HUGE gulf between themselves and somebody else, they're implying they're better—especially when they're basing the "gulf" on the allegation that they notice something the other is oblivious to. If you seriously don't make value judgements, fine, but it's a little disingenuous to imply that my reaction came out of thin air. At any rate, I'm glad we agree about the equal-validity issue.
posted by languagehat at 11:11 AM on March 6, 2006


Consider Kim Stanley Robinson's novels. Robinson writes these remarkable, quiet novels about deep changes in the politics and environment of the world. I happen to like the parts where his novels read like textbooks, but he has complicated characters too. Slipping into the head of Frank in Forty Signs of Rain was disorienting. You come to sympathize with this selfish creature and then feel the changes and growth along with him.

Drawing conclusions about written science fiction and written science fiction is a mistake. They have little in common.
posted by Yogurt at 11:19 AM on March 6, 2006


Oops, I meant "drawing conclusions about written science fiction from cinema science fiction is a mistake."
posted by Yogurt at 11:20 AM on March 6, 2006


Oh, come on. You have to admit that 99 times out of a hundred, when people talk about there being a HUGE gulf between themselves and somebody else, they're implying they're better—especially when they're basing the "gulf" on the allegation that they notice something the other is oblivious to. If you seriously don't make value judgements, fine, but it's a little disingenuous to imply that my reaction came out of thin air.

You're probably right about the 99 times, but I wasn't being disingenuous -- just literal. I tend to be very literal (Aspergers?).

I can't see anywhere in my post (or my email to you, in which I admitted to being confused) that I implied your reaction came out of thin air? What are you referring to? From my perspective, I wrote something unclear, you questioned, I explained. No?
posted by grumblebee at 12:43 PM on March 6, 2006


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