The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Boskone: Writing Advice – The Next Level

 

Writing Advice: The Next Level (Saturday, February 16, 2013)

Writer Nick Mamatas says, “By the time someone finds their way to a panel at an SF con, stuff like ‘Don’t quit your day job’ and ‘Read widely’ and ‘You have to finish a story before you submit it’ is no longer necessary. There is certainly a need for higher-level advice. I had a student recently who had never heard of Freytag’s triangle.” So let’s elevate the answers, people — and the questions.
Jeanne Cavelos (M), Elizabeth Bear, Beth Meacham, David Anthony Durham

 

Cavelos opens with a question to the panel: What are some pieces of advice you would give to a new professional writer just starting out?

Bear quotes a fellow editor: “I read a really great story the other day, but it fell apart at the end. It made me sad.” Says this quote points out two things. Firstly that endings are really key, you can’t just leave your story without a solid conclusion, regardless of how great the ideas and characters are. Secondly, the editor is your advocate, not a gatekeeper. They are looking for good work and the want to publish you. You need to give them a good reason why.

Durham remembers that as a young writer, he was a pretty arrogant artiste, focused disproportionately on the literary as opposed to the story. He says he had an attitude of “they should read this for their own good.” This led to problems, doesn’t recommend for getting you anywhere in the field. Also emphasizes that plot is essential. As a young writer he was all about the literary fads of character and mood, but something has to happen. As a writer, you should be  looking at your characters and asking yourself, can I *do* that, is it something that is actionable.

Bear agrees and admonishes new writers to simplify their prose, make it clear and sensible. Don’t use obfuscating words like obfuscate.

Cavelos observes that a lot of new writers seem to struggle with structure. Suggests a quick practical way that can do a lot of good is to think of the story in three stages. Protagonist needs a goal, always motivating everything. Then put this in a three-part structure: there should be two turning points before the climax. The turning point means that, due to some conflict or challenge, the protagonist has to change his/her goal or approach to the goal in some meaningful and emotionally significant way.

Cavelos continues into style, comments that it is under-appreciated by new writers. Should be aware that style has meaning. Long sentences increase emotional content, we are trapped and flowing with the sentence. Short sentences deliver punch and impact.

Durham says you must read widely, even the genres you don’t write.

Bear talks about the bane of her existence when she was a slush pile reader: “the curse of the Page 2 (or Chapter 2) flashback.” Start with the first interesting moment and NO EARLIER (and certainly no later).

Cavelos goes back to what Durham said about plot. It’s such a let down to have great situations and ideas, but no plot. Raise the stakes! The worst form of this is when writers don’t want to harm their characters. Bear continues with this thread and says you should get your characters into a corner that YOU don’t know how to get them out of. Then either stop, figure it out, or kill them. A lot of times you find that a story finally works when something has to break irrevocably.

Meacham finally gets a word in edgewise and comments on the importance of reading/writing nonfiction. She suggests that writing nonfiction, even blogging, is a great way to build the core skill of writing good exposition. She says the world in which the story is set is itself a character — treat it as such.

Bear talks about what makes worlds realistic: “The real world is inconsistent, but it’s inconsistent for a reason.” She gives the example of how Russian dashboard cameras were able to catch incredible video of a recent huge meteorite streaking across the sky. On the surface, there is no reason for why a bunch of Russian drivers randomly have dashboard cams. But it seems that there is a lot of crime and the police often are complicit, so citizens need their own evidence… so there is a reason for it.

[So basically, acknowledge that people’s behavior often doesn’t make sense, or make decisions that an outside perspective would consider rational. Compare this to J. Rios’s comments on what makes mythology credible in the panel Mythology in Science Fiction.]

Durham admonishes writers that readers can often lose track of the main story if you are distracting them with too many shiny things. Remember that side and back stories should be in there only to inform the main story. If the tangent is really that interesting, write that story instead.

Cavelos says that the questions editors leave on your manuscript are likely to be the questions your readers will have. Maybe you want them asking those questions, maybe not. But they are there to help you.

Bear says something that is hard for writers to do is remember that words and both malleable and expendable. Treat them as such. Learn to let go when you have to. Sometimes structural problems mean you just need to start over with the same premise and pieces. Also, confusion is not the same thing as ambiguity. And don’t preach.

Audience member asks what the panel’s opinion is on workshops.  Meacham says that they tend to homogenize the talent that shows up, but concedes that it’s always useful to receive informed criticism. Durham recalls that writers in a workshop often have such a diversity of genre that it’s hard to find a common base of what we are trying to say in our stories and why. Bear is very negative on workshops, saying they can break people, often unfairly. Cavelos (who runs the Odyssey Writing Workshops) counters that they provide opportunities to diversify your writing, build a network, and can also be very empowering.

Audience member asks about their writing process. Answers are so all over the place that I won’t even bother writing them. There is no consistent process. Find one by writing.



Boskone: The Changing Face of Science Fiction

 

The Changing Face of SF — Editorial Viewpoints (Saturday February 16th, 2013)
If you want the widest possible view of the ever-evolving science fiction landscape, ask a bunch of editors to tell you what’s really happening. (And who, and why.) So we did.
Jim Frenkel (M), Ellen Asher, Shahid Mahmud, Beth Meacham, Julia Rios

Frenkel (Sr. Editor at Tor) opens by commenting that it is becoming a “multiverse of media and genre” with many areas of writing that were once separate blending (gives examples of fantasy and manga). He says that in some ways it feels like the 1960s again, with political questions coming to the forefront and linger issues of civil rights and white backlash. And that there are counter-trends to these trends as well.  With regard to what gets published, he says “we don’t print anything that we don’t already have orders for”. He labels Steampunk a fashion statement, and comments on the prevalence of urban fantasy and paranormal, etc, says that in the face of these trends there is still good hard SF out there, for example from Stross and Vinge.

[I note that Stross and Vinge are, though certainly hard science fiction, also mostly concerned with electronic / cyber / AI / computer type subjects. I would suggest that these subjects, while remaining important, have taken a back seat to bioinformatics and bioengineering in the past decade. I would love to see more hard science fiction in those areas, rather than continue to beat the cyberpunk drum from the 1980’s and 1990’s.]

Asher notes the existential crisis of science fiction caused by the fact that it is now popular. Almost all top-grossing movies and many of the top TV shows are science fiction. SF has won the culture wars and doesn’t know what to do with itself. Geek is no longer an exclusive cult, and that is creating conflicts of identity, of who is a “real” geek or fan. She also claims that the audience for hard SF is now the smallest part of the field.

Rios highlights the recent trend of online magazines becoming respected places to publish work and look for award-winning science fiction.

Meacham says that SF has been leading the field (of publishing) in getting things online and into digital formats. Comments on how even Newsweek recently has changed over to digital only. She says that at F/SF moves further into the mainstream, we should start to act like it, demands the respect of a genre that is being such a leader.

Mahmud reiterates the popularity of the blockbusters of science fiction and fantasy like Tolkein and the new Star Trek movies. “We are living in Science Fiction now.” He recalls Nimoy once saying that the cellphone is now far better than the communicator. He hopes to see more crossing of genres and even leaving behind the idea of genre entirely. Asher counters and says that maybe genre will continue to create smaller and smaller subdivisions with the ease of dissemination and clumping with people who share your view. An extreming of genre as opposed to leaving it.

Rios bemoans the amount of steampunk, alternate history, and dystopia out there. Wonders if it is the fact that we now live in a world where so much is changing so fast. Is it impossible to predict in such a world?

Many of them go around about how science fiction has always been political (Frenkel mentions Apollo 8 earthrise photo), about how SF claims to be about the future but is and should be about the present, a commentary on our times. Meacham wonders then why we don’t see more climate change dystopia, or other scientific challenges that we face.

[Overall I really enjoyed this panel, but I am curious why — especially in a session called The Changing Face of SF — no one broached the subject of diversity in the genre. By my own rough estimates, the conference was about three-fourths over 40 years old, two-thirds male (and most of the females were artists, not writers), and about 99.8% white.]



Review of “Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction” (Anthology)

Menial: Skilled Labor in Science FictionMenial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction by Kelly Jennings (editor)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Crossed Genres has released a great collection in MENIAL. Rating an anthology is always difficult, because my ratings for individual stories tend to vary. I would really like to give MENIAL a 3.5; alas, that is not an option, so I’ll go conservative and 3 it is.

Here’s the good. Firstly, I LOVE the theme of the anthology. MENIAL focuses on the people whose lives, hopes, struggles, and dreams would never have crossed the minds of the bridge crew of the Enterprise. They are the common folk, the laborers. The sometimes reviled, but more often ignored. And they are always at the mercy of the exploitation of those at the top of the food chain, and their own vulnerability to the vagaries of chance. Secondly, as with all of what Crossed Genres publishes, MENIAL features characters whose meta-identities are disproportionately ignored or invisible in the greater tapestry of speculative fiction (in authentic ways at least). By these I mean anyone but straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, anglophone, white males. Not that such characters (or writers) are bad or need be eliminated from the genre, I hardly mean that at all. Just that their stories should not be 99% of the stories being told. CG does a fine job of advancing the genre on that front, and MENIAL is no exception.

For the above reasons alone, I strongly recommend taking a look at this anthology, especially if you are a writer. Exposure to the perspectives of the speculative working class and the conflicts of identity presented herein will make your own reading and writing more aware of all facets of the human element.

Here is my complaint. I’m not one who believes that “speculative fiction” means that you can do whatever you want. Believable worlds (even imaginary ones) must be self-consistent, and I believe many of the stories in the anthology fall short on that count. Advancing diversity in the genre should not come at the price of diluted rigor.

Science fiction should most certainly speculate on what we think could be true; and certainly no holds barred on anything we do not know for sure cannot be true. But if you are writing fiction that blatantly violates known laws of physics, chemistry, or biology, there had better be a damn good (and explained) reason. Fantasy is not exempt: superheroes, wizards, and Jedi all must use their powers in particular ways, which are governed by rules that create consistent limitations (and interesting plot points).

As one example, if your story takes place in an asteroid belt (especially ours), then it is ludicrously improbable that one could be suddenly hit by one. The asteroids are hundreds of thousands of kilometers apart, with relative velocities perhaps in the tens of kilometers per second or less. It is highly unlikely that you would even be able to see another asteroid while flying near any particular one, and you’d have days or weeks to see one coming (especially with the level of technology required to have private spacecraft flying around). You’d have to intentionally try to hit one, and it it would be difficult to do so. This is simple math on facts that are not hard to look up. I’ll leave it there with this one example, but I highlighted close to forty instances.

In several stories, it was never really explained why such menial positions exist for humans at all, given the level of technology explicit or implicit in the milieu. Though several of these stories had interesting characters and consistent science and technology, it was hard to concentrate on the story when the engineering part of my brain would remind me every page or two that “we already have robots that could do this… faster, cheaper, and better.” This is of course a hugely unexplored consequence of the future trajectory of the “knowledge economy.” As Pournelle says, if you invent a technology that drives the truck for you, what do you do with the truck driver? No doubt this made writing stories for MENIAL quite difficult.

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an excellent job of seamlessly integrating the theme into a solid story without sacrificing rigor or consistency:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • The Belt, by Kevin Bennet (though I question the effect of one major collision)
  • Air Supply, by Sophie Constable
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet<
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen (absolutely fascinating projection of nanobot technology into military use)
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an exceptional job of rendering believable, authentic characters who promote diversity in science fiction without being gratuitous:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Carnivores, by A.D. Spencer
  • Snowball the Rabbit Was Dead, by Angeli Primlani
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

And double props to the following stories which made at least one of the above lists AND did it through great prose (i.e., the writing itself was also enjoyable):

  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

I note that Ember is the only one to make all three lists. I wish it were more science fiction than fantastic, but I can’t argue with how much I appreciated it as a work of speculative short fiction.

I will conclude with a positive as well. MENIAL has definitely been a strong influence on the process of planning a novella/novel I am working on, through which I am attempting to explore social justice issues projected forward into a near-future, space colonization setting. As one of my main characters would probably fit in with many of the protagonists in MENIAL, it’s easy to see how I have this anthology to thank for many new ideas which are now simmering.

In sum, notwithstanding my ranting about consistency, I think that MENIAL is worth the read (especially for the particular stories that I called out) and also to support the diversification of the genre.

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Review of Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

The Moon Is a Harsh MistressThe Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will undoubtedly be branded a science fiction heretic, but I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.

I can respect Heinlein’s technical proficiency as a writer, particularly the highly consistent dialects and comprehensive rendering of technology. I can appreciate how forward-thinking (in some respects) Heinlein was in anticipating the space era in a novel written in the mid 60’s. I can also see how this novel undoubtedly influenced many writers down the line.

None of these merits, however, makes The Moon is a Harsh Mistress either enjoyable, informative, or insightful to the contemporary reader. Its technological futurism is obsolete, its view of humanity mired in a bygone era of chauvinism and nationalism, and its social commentary amounting to little more than Ayn Rand in Space.

I care about none of the characters, because I cannot relate to them — thus it to me fails as a story. Nor does the story bring me to any new understanding of the human condition, because its postulates in this regard are archaic — thus to me it fails as art.

My impression of Heinlein’s masterpiece is something analogous to the Deuteronomic Code: it has its set place in the establishment’s canon, mostly for historical reasons, but ultimately has very little worthwhile to say to contemporary society.

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Boskone: The Year in Short Fiction – 2012

 

The Year in Short Fiction: 2012
Short fiction may be making a welcome comeback, in both print and e-media. Let’s discuss last year’s most notable stories. What new authors and markets are emerging? What promising trends are developing? What are we already getting tired of? What can we look forward to for 2013?
David G. Hartwell (M), Jack M. Haringa, Don D’Ammassa, Toni L. P. Kelne

Hartwell opens with the statement that is “an extraordinary time” for short fiction, and that we seem to be in the early stages of a revival that we haven’t seen the likes of since the 30s and 50s. He recommends reading “Old Paint”, which appeared in Analog last year. He remarks that he liked it despite that fact that it is “sentimental, which is hard to take in science fiction.”

(Note: Compare this to comments made in the Mythology panel, in which an audience member also commented about the expectation that science fiction be cerebral. My opinion is that if science fiction really does want to expand into new markets, its going to have to actively fight the image of being solely for cerebral-minded men who like spaceships. There is SO MUCH of current and past science fiction that does NOT fit this stereotype, and plenty of room to expand it outward as well. I’m not criticizing Hartwell… he is a giant of editing and no doubt knows the field better than I could hope to. Its just that the offhanded remark kind of struck me as a common theme that I’ve been seeing in a lot of the panels and other discussion around SF.)

Hartwell highlights the contributions of Robert Reed and Ken Liu to the body of short fiction produced in 2012, remarking that one of the hardest things about the year was deciding which Ken Liu story to include in just about everything.

Hartwell goes on to praise Liu’s recent work with translation, saying that he hopes this will become part of a larger trend towards more translated works. He says there is a huge untapped universe of non-US science fiction work out there since the 1950s that we simply don’t have adequate access to. Specifically, he would like to see true comparative criticism of science fiction across nations and languages, that compare movements, ideas, and reactions between cultures.

Haringa says that 2012 was a great year for collections and anthologies and thinks the trend will continue. He points out that the rise of POD and small presses does mean that there is more crap out there, but also that there are more avenues to get out there for formats (like novellas) that are hard for the big presses to touch.

(There is a back and forth here for several minutes between Hartwell and Haringa about the role, quantity, quality, and trends of small presses, particularly with respect to print periodicals. I was not able to follow the conversation, but my interpretation was that their disagreement came down to semantics on what constituted a periodical.)

I asked the question about what specifically they were getting tired of and what we could expect for 2013.

Hartwell: There is a proliferation of new markets and a fanning out of where the field is at any one time. The downside of this is that its impossible for any one person to really stay on top of what’s happening in the field, but the upside is that there are a lot of opportunities for new young writers. He sees trends in examining artificial intelligence particularly in light of the biotech revolution, and what the new bioengineering era will bring in terms of visionary futures.  He is tired of zombies and vampires.

Kelner: anthologies seem to be rising and hope to see more of them. Tired of stories that are all mood and no plot. 2013 trends will probably include more crossed genre work, blending of fantasy, science fiction, horror, urban fiction, etc.

Haringa: Noticed a lot more submissions for the Jackson awards from university presses. This seems like a good sign that we have infiltrated academia as a genre. Used to be they wouldn’t touch us as a serious genre. Tired of the dystopian boom, but thinks we’re probably dropping off of that anyway since it was likely jut a reaction to the sudden instability of the times. Hoping to see more short story collections and great themed anthologies in 2013.

(Note: I wonder if the reason anthologies and collections are selling well is the coherence of theme. A magazine issue is a collection of short stories as well, they generally aren’t related. Whereas an anthology can be marketed and sold as a diverse set of variations on a particular theme that may be of interest to the reader.)



Boskone: Mythology in Science Fiction

 

Mythology in Science Fiction
    How have myths and fables from our past affected SF writers’ development of fictitious off-world or future-world mythology? Are most of their myth systems just the old stuff dressed up with different names, or is anybody coming up with anything truly new? Does a mere hint of myth make an SF story a fantasy?
    Julia Rios (M), Debra Doyle, Greer Gilman, Margaret Ronald

Doyle: Myth is great for structure. Use it as a template.

Gilman: As humans we make patterns and map the heavens — this is how we navigate the unknown. Stories are mapmaking, stories are cosmography — little candles to help us along the way. They are the intersection of the familiar (story tropes) and the totally alien.

Rios mentions that Western stories are often the template, and wonders if we are telling the same stories over and over again, in space.Refers to the dichotomy between known myths on the one hand and the totally new on the other. (Note: I think there is room for the in-between. E.g. myths that are not totally new, at all, just unknown to the bulk of English-speaking readers. Why not bring in more eastern, middle-eastern, african, and native mythologies from around the world? Some of these are used more than others, in more or less “diversity-shopping” ways, but I think there is a huge set of untapped possibilities here.)

Panel and audience mention some sci fi that do mythology well: Stross’ Accelerando, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and Anderson’s Goat Song.

What are the oppositions between science and myth? Cursory discussion.

I ask the question, what makes a mythology credible in fiction, and is that related to what makes it publishable? Ronald responds that she would have to believe that this is a story that would be voluntarily told over and over again, because it is really a story about the people who tell it. Gilman says that stories are the old way and the best way, those that are told over and over again. Ronald continues that the mythology can’t be “too tailored” to the story, e.g. too convenient to the plot or characters to where it seems contrived. There needs to be some sort of cognitive dissonance related to a sense of awe. Rios says that she thinks what makes a mythology believable is that everyone sort of has their own take, that the story is told over and over but in different ways, and that the whole thing is actually inconsistent leading to a modicum of instability and dissent. Real myths and real societies are inconsistent, and it is a mark of human authenticity to be so.

Gilman: A good mythology should give us “the illusion of a huge cultural space” behind what we see.

Audience member points out that the mythical tends to stimulate the emotional side of us rather than the cerebral side, which is counter to the purist notion of what science fiction is. (Note: I think some of the most wonderful science fiction out there is on the more human side… consider Flowers for Algernon, GATTACA, and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind… excellent books and movies that many don’t even consider to be science fiction because they are so human, though of course they are.)

Panel considers the difference between a story based on a mythological template (mythology of the writing) vs a mythology that is espoused and believe by the characters (or encountered by the characters).

Gilman wants to see more stories that alien races tell about themselves, with writing that has something to say about who we the audience are as humans. What would an AI that just woke up believe about it’s origins? If it were truly intelligent, would that mean that it would create a story about its own beginnings and purpose?



Boskone: Reinventing Sherlock Holmes

As I’ve been mentioning on my twitter feed (but am now realizing that I forgot to blog about) I am at Boskone 50 this weekend. As New England’s oldest science fiction festival, Boskone annually brings together writers, artists, scientists, and fans of science fiction and related literary fields. I’ll be tweeting (@quantumcowboy) on hashtag #boskone and sending out rapidfire (and largely unedited and unrevised) blog posts whenever I get a chance.

I just hit my first panel and took a break for dinner since I was starving. So here’s my first report from the front.

Reinventing Sherlock Holmes
From Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr. and beyond, how does the dashing Victorian detective keep pace with the changing times? How do the new films and television shows measure up their predecessors as well as to the fictional sleuth who first wound his way into the hearts and minds of the reading public through his unparalleled wit, tenacity, and relentless deduction? What more might be in store for the old boy in the future?
    Joe Siclari (M), Brendan DuBois, Tony Lewis, Vincent O’Neil, Toni L. P. Kelner

Overall a general discussion of fan favorites and how the interpretations of the great detective have changed over time.

DuBois pointed out that one of SH’s unique characteristics is his (“borderline asperger-ish”) obsession with his current task at hand. He referred to Holmes’ famous remark, in which Watson asked him if he didn’t know about the earth revolving around the sun, to which Holmes replied with something to the order of that it didn’t make a difference to him so why should he waste the brain space on it. Made me think: so much of the discourse now (certainly in teaching) is on interdisciplinary knowledge and how each subject study and mode of self-discovery can influence all of the others. “Cross-disciplinary ideas”, “STEAM” (Science Technology Engineering ART and Math), and the nonlinear nature of innovation are examples. I wonder if a single-minded character that relies so heavily on direct, linear logical deduction runs the risk of being seen as archaic in the modern world.

(As an aside, I am now thinking that whole Holmes character kind of assumes an underlying reductionist/deterministic view of the world, which fits perfectly with Victorian times I suppose. I love the BBC show, but in a “real” sense, is a Holmes-like character really credible in a more holistic age?  Or societies with more holistic worldviews than the Western tradition typically has featured?)

Tony Lewis clearly has a huge trove of knowledge on the subject and did have many thought-provoking points. I latched onto a remark he made about “Mary Sue” fan fiction (will need to look this up, but it’s something related to Star Trek and female fans wanting to melt Spock’s cold heart). He seemed to be implying (I’ll assume best intentions and say unintentionally) that women writers’ interpretations of Holmes can be lumped into the same category of mere fantasizing or fan fiction. I was happy to see Toni Kelmer (the only woman on the panel, btw) push back on this and rise to defend and clarify the role of female interpretations of a Victorian classic.

During the Q&A, I asked the panel if a non-Western Holmes could be both credible and authentic. DuBois, Kelmer, and O’Neil responded in the affirmative, but we were close to the end of time and I wasn’t able to press for much in the way of details. DuBois mentioned a character (didn’t catch the name) who channeled Holmes as non-Western character though still with “Victorian sensibilities”. Siclari mentioned that he had heard of Indian interpretations of detective stories and though he had never seen/read them, he knew that they existed. O’Niel followed up with the observation that Holmes’ take on crime was that “the more bizzare the crime, the easier it is to solve – it’s the simple crimes that are the hardest to solve” as a universal statement.

Other interesting topics that came up which I don’t have time to write about right now:

  • Lewis suggested that the three major hero archetypes (unsure of the scope) were: Holmes, King Arthur, and Robin Hood
  • Moriarty as the archetype of the twisted genius, a truly brilliant criminal who is the spider at the center of the web.
  • Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” (bookmarked for later).
  • The possibility of Sherlock Holmes as a lower class hero instead of the Victorian elite.

More later.



Review of “Majesty’s Offspring” by A.J. Vega

Majesty's OffspringMajesty’s Offspring by A.J. Vega

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Entertaining reading for the bus, waiting in line, or whenever you have a minute to kill… but it didn’t really make me think. Plot is mildly interesting but not very complex, characters are on the shallow end, and the dialogue is trite. I really don’t think space opera is my thing.

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Review of “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In terms of interest, the plot is little better than decent. Also, the characters are fairly flat. Why five stars you may ask? Sheer force of ideas — in quantity and quality. Anathem exemplifies one of my favorite roles of science fiction as a genre: to play with the possible and to spur highly intelligent imagination.

This is a difficult book to review without spoilers, and I’m not going to even try. However, Though knowledge thereof is not necessary to understanding the book, I can recommend Anathem highly if you enjoy any of the following subjects: mathematics (particularly geometry and topology), quantum physics (particularly the many-worlds / world-branching hypotheses), Latin, the structure of religious orders, hierarchies of thought, philosophy, metaphysics, the sociology of religion, cycles in history, individual spirituality, and/or political intrigue.

I think it is destined to enter the canon of Great Science Fiction Novels That Any Self-Respecting Fan Should Have At Least Read.

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Whither Science Fiction?

Science fiction, like so many aspects of the world right now, feels like it is on the cusp of a major shaking up. One year ago, Neil Stephenson provoked a flurry of discussion with his article on the decline of bold and innovative ideas in our contemporary society, and science fiction in particular. More recently, Jonathan McCalmont posted am extensive assessment of a the state of science fiction, provocatively entitled “Cowardice, Laziness, and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future,” which has drawn fire for criticizing the science fiction publishing establishment and some of the most lauded authors in the genre.

I don’t agree with everything in either of those articles, but I do agree that science fiction is due for a makeover. What has been done was brilliant in its way — generations of writers and artists who dreamed of what we could be and warned us against what we could become. But so much has changed about our society and I don’t think that the media establishment, including traditional publishers, have changed with it. Innovation is ultimately driven by and for people, and who we are as a people no longer conforms to where the genre has been.

I am particularly interested in the perceived narrow appeal of science fiction. Why is the stereotype sci-fi geek a particular race, class, gender, and personality? Is it because the genre is inherently of interest only to this set of people? Or could it be that what gets published and awarded attracts only that set, who are the ones that rise up in the genre and in turn become the publishers and awarders?

Put more specifically, does the current portfolio of literary science fiction published in the United States actually reflect the current cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and gender demographics of literate Americans? I really don’t think so. So why is anyone surprised that the appeal of the tried and true seems to be waning?

The tide is changing however. New periodicals like Lightspeed Magazine for example are embracing new publishing models, going with solely electronic format and easy mobile web access from the very beginning. They also explicitly embrace diversity in their submissions:

We believe that the science fiction/fantasy genre’s diversity is its greatest strength, and we wish that viewpoint to be reflected in our story content and our submission queues; we welcome submissions from writers of every race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation.

In a similar vein, The Future Fire has been accepting submissions on an anthology call entitled We See a Different Frontier. They are more blunt about their purpose:

We See a Different Frontier will publish new speculative fiction stories in which the viewpoint is that of the colonized, not the invader. We want to see stories that remind us that neither readers nor writers are a homogeneous club of white, male, Christian, hetero, cis, monoglot, anglophone, able-bodied Westerners.

I don’t know where this is going nor am I sure that it will necessarily be better. But I seem to have discovered a love for writing fiction during a major shift in social attitudes, which has made me think about my experiences and personal perspective in interesting ways.

It’s definitely going to be a writing weekend…

Edit 10/13/12: Repaired the link to McCalmont’s article.




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