December 1st, 2005

bear by san

review, link salad, navel gazing

Sort of a mixed review of Worldwired up at Reflection's Edge. Spoilers.

Representative sample:

...both new and old series readers may want to skip the first 45 pages, which are more confusing than helpful. Bear succumbs briefly to Star Trek talking head syndrome with a crew of not-yet-differentiated scientist characters; to complicate matters, they are sometimes called by first names, sometimes last names, sometimes nicknames, sometimes specializations, and sometimes nationalities. Even with a cheat sheet, it can be hard to keep track of how many people are in a room. Fortunately the story picks up once characters split into easier-to-manage subgroups, especially since it means they start doing things instead of just talking about them.

Most of Worldwired is about attempts to find common ground - whether within a broken family, between countries on the brink of war, or with aliens so truly alien that humans may not be able to communicate. Bear excels at breaking world-altering political acts and military coups into personal ambitions, compromises, and politicians who are neither gods nor monsters; United Nations hearings are neatly balanced with bargains in men's rooms, hotel suites, and private telephone calls. The alien first-contact scenes are less nuanced and harder to identify with, but are a welcome contribution to a limited library of non-human intelligence concepts.

below lies my nattering, not so much a disagreement with the review (the only thing I take exception to is the word "cyberpunk") as a discussion of how odd it is to see readers reacting to what one wrote.

The best part of reviews is the range of reactions. Specifically, getting to see how differently different people react to what you've written, and how it interacts with their internal landscapes. It's incredibly cool!

So as I'm reading the above, I'm thinking: uh huh, uh huh.... aww! I like Leslie Tjakamarra. And his quirky sense of humor. And his first contact problems. And boy, has he got problems.

And also, yeah, yeah, the one name per character rule. Which I think is a silly fetish anyway, and which only works if you have characters who always think of other characters by the same name. Considering that my head turns to "Sarah," "Bear," "Ebear," "Sarah Bear," "Elizabeth," and "Wishnevsky," and scott_lynch has got me halfway trained to answer to "Liz!" that becomes a little problematic when you're sticking to deep POVs with an ensemble cast.

And then my brain goes haring off on a tangent, and I find myself thinking: I can't wait for the reader response to the barbed-wire thickets of Wills and Toms and Roberts and Johns and Edmunds in The Stratford Man. Thank God for Kit and Ben and Dick, or I'd be completely sunk.

I've discovered that now that I have some assurance that what I write will be published, I find myself very conscious throughout each book what readers are likely to react to, what things are going to annoy the everloving bejebus out of writers who are at the stage of craft where they're unable to skim a sentence or they're very dependent on whatever auctorial fetish is trendy this week. (Hey! That's against the Rules!) and that I'm also very, very aware of the tradeoffs I'm making with every choice I make as a writer. So I know, when I choose to show a scene from X's perspective, that I'm losing things by not showing it from Y's.

This is all stuff I used to do by instinct, and now it's different. The instinct is still there--but I can explain why I have that instinctive reaction. Why I'm avoiding Z (because it's a genre trope) or embracing X (though it's also a genre trope) or undermining Q (a third genre trope.)

It's like the sex and mud and beard lice in A Companion to Wolves. No sex, no beard lice, no book. Because part of what that book is about is an argument with the tendency, in certain tendrils of the fantasy genre, to kind of sweep anything vaguely unpleasant under the rug. The Inciting Incident, of course, was the infamous semi-elided dragon-mediated rapes and less-infamous extremely-elided institutional homosexuality in the early Pern novels. But then the book takes on a life of its own, and the worldbuilding does too, and if you pull out that one thread (i.e., isn't a bit icky that dragonriders are making off with teenaged boys, some of whom are going to wind up bonding to green dragons, and we all know what those green dragons are like, and wouldn't it be interesting to tackle those social issues head-on rather than eliding them) then the whole structure of the book collapses. And you essentially have a fuzzy wish fulfillment fantasy about a boy and his wolf fighting trolls and obtaining an understanding of the world, and the world really doesn't need another one of those.

And yet, I know perfectly well that if that book goes to press, there's going to be a faction of readers who are like "oo, icky, the sex totally ruins this nice YA novel!" Collapse ) and there are going to be readers who are like "there's all this sex, and it's not erotic at all, what's with that?" and then, Goddess willing, there will be a faction of readers who are like "Whoa! Genderfuck! And an honest appraisal of the difficulties in living your life while dealing with a physical response to the biological rhythms of another species! And negotiation and compromise and people making sacrifices to defend their families! And the psychic cost of war! And dude, pitched battles in Lovecraftian troll-tunnels, and beheadings, and beard lice, and GIANT PSYCHIC DIRE WOLVES! How cool is that?!"

And it's that last guy I'm aiming for. Dead between his eyes. Because there are books for the other two already, and they don't need my book.

Also interesting that this review calls the Jenny books a "true trilogy," while the Locus review calls them one novel busted up into chunks, and the Agony Column meditation-on-form says they straddle the gap between the two forms.

I'm really going to confuse the heck out of people with the not-a-trilogy of the Eddas books (All the Windwracked Stars, The Sea thy Mistress, By the Mountain Bound). Which are intended to be a three-book series that you can read in any order, and get an emergent story every way you read them. (Three novels about three characters, spread out over something like 2500 years, each novel focusing on a different member of the triad, though they all three get POV in each book. Yeah, it's a mess. If it was easy, it wouldn't be fun.)

And Worldwired, still not cyberpunk. You can tell by the complete absence, in this book, of any of the characteristic genre markers of cyberpunk. Well, okay, except for the odd mechanical limb. But those are practically de rigeur, these days. I think you can probably just scrape Hammered under the edge of the cyberpunk rubrick, because in large part it consists of deconstructing a bunch of cyberpunk tropes. (Locus's comment on the Jenny books re subgenre: "Hammered has a strong cyberpunkish center with annexes extending into other motif areas: ancient alien artifacts, nanotech, experimental stardrives, ecological breakdown, AIs, and the possibility of a posthuman condition. The series completions(s), Scardown and Worldwired, exapand deep into all those spaces and make story labels nearly impossible.)

Maybe we should call it syberpunk.... or use Chris Moriarty's term, Chick Punk. Because really, her book, not so much the cyberpunk either. Or the Punk.

Hey, kristine_smith, you listening? What do you think we should call this stuff? You're writing it too; get in here.

P.S. I call everything I write eco-Gothic, which is descriptive rather than a prescriptive subgenre kind of deal. And generally translates as, preoccupied with mankind's place in the natural world, and also dark and a bit baroque.

(Also, a hundred pages of gunfight, frantic interspecies negotiation, revolution, ecological breakdown, assassination, codeslinging , and fish kills aren't a climax? Dammit. I knew I left something out of that book...)

(No, I'm not actually arguing with the review. I'm kind of...meditating on the review. I'm too amused to work up a good argument.)

Reflection's Edge also offers a lovely article from Hanne Blank, on researching for fiction: "Verisimilitude and the Competent Con."

kateelliott on American Fairy Tales.

pecunium on General Pace, USMC.

jlassen has a novel solution for preventing rape: don't rape people.

via slithytove: Avenging Unicorn Playset!

...damn, there goes the merchandising campaign for Blood and Iron.

bear by san

One day I'll be a minstrel in the gallery, paint you a picture of the Queen.

Jeff Vandermeer on Ted Chiang on Sarah Monette on the difference between fantasy and science fiction.

I still say there isn't one. *g* But then, I'm writing fantasy that deals with manipulating perceptive tunnels as a form of magic, and science fiction about using the observer effect to alter probability. What the heck do I know?
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bear by san

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Progress notes for 1 December 2005:


New Words: 899
Total Words: 5,092 (6,250)
Pages: 25


Zokutou word meterZokutou word meterZokutou word meter
6,250 / 12,500

Complete novel:

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meterZokutou word meter
6,250 / 105,000

Reason for stopping: end of scene. I am determined not to push this book; the proposal's not due until the end of the month, and I'm halfway done with the pages, and the actual first draft of the movel isn't due until next August. And I about killed myself with the books this summer.
Mammalian Assistance: smelly dog
Stimulants: Bengal Spice tea
Exercise: none
Mail: previously commented upon
Today's words Word don't know: mojo, wetware
Words I'm surprised Word do know: n/a
Tyop du jour: "probe you can be taught"
Darling du jour: n/a
Mean things: Andre is in wayyyyyy over his head.
Books in Progress: The Adams-Jefferson Letters; Nick Tosches, The Devil and Sonny Liston
Spam name du jour: n/a
Other writing-related work: finished my half of the first revision pass of A Companion to Wolves and handed it back to truepenny; rewrote "Stella Nova" a bit.
Interesting tidbits: Also previously noted

bear by san

My name is EBear, and I'm a failed reader.

Matthew Cheney outs himself as a failed reader.

I'm one too. I've failed to appreciate some of the best and brightest of literary and genre scenes. I've failed to read Irving and Updike, Miéville and Bain. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

One thing I have learned as a writer, however, is how to appreciate what they're doing even as I fail to enjoy it. I suspect that's a victory of sorts.
bear by san

Critical Theory

because I'd rather be doing anything than working:

matociquala: Hmm. You know, the (recent, ie, last 30 years) science fiction and fantasy that is taken seriously by the literary establishment? Is muchly by a bunch of chicks and queers and black people.

truepenny: Ironically, it's getting harder for middle-class white men to be taken seriously, because if you're black or queer or female, critics are more likely to assume you have something to say.

matociquala: I figure the patriarchy will struggle through somehow.

truepenny: Oh, no doubt, but it helps to account for that slightly hysterical edge to their voices.

matociquala: know, they almost sound shrill. And defensive. I wonder what that's like?

(xposted to bad_feminists)
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bear by san

Some say the Devil is a walking man.

nihilistic_kid adds his usual layer of smart snark to the ongoing conversation about genre expectations.

truepenny's got a bit more on genre definitions.

To which I responded: pocket definition of science fiction has nothing to do with science, or technology. I define it as "the literature of testing to destruction." Which neatly includes sociological science fiction--testing societies to destruction--and "if this goes on" stories as well as stories of advanced technology.

And you know, I still like that definition. For one thing, it firmly puts Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut in the us pile and Michael Crichton in the them pile, just the way we like it. And since it's all about sorting things into piles...

...oh, wait, no it's not.

I agree with truepenny in terms of the need for a vocabulary for critical discourse. I'm a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, and so I tend to look at things and go "Oh, that's X" and then have to come up with reasons to justify my snap judgement. The Cooler? Fantasy. Definitely. In a subtle underhanded American Magic Realism sort of way. Star Trek? Mostly not science fiction.

I tend to subscribe to papersky's definitional subsets: all fiction is fantasy, and it crunches down from there into smaller and smaller subsets--Science fiction is fantasy that plays by a number of generally accepted rules, and in which the fantastic tropes follow some clearly defined guidelines. (Alternate history is okay, time travel is okay, psionic powers are kind of iffy at best.) Mimetic fiction is science fiction that follows even tighter guidelines--the physical rules are exactly as they are on our earth, say, and everything is just like here, except maybe there's a big city on the east coast of the US somewhere between Washington and Boston in which there's a certain precinct with a red-haired cop in it....

Or a hotel in New Hampshire inhabited by a person in a bear suit. Whatever. You know what I mean.

So yeah, I can fliply say that there's no difference between SF and Fantasy, and what I mean by that is that there's no difference between red and orange. Or orange and yellow. But there is clearly a difference between yellow and red, right? So somewhere in the middle of orange, there must be a line you can draw and say "Everything to the right of this is red, and everything to the left is yellow."

Except you can't.

You can draw all the color charts you want, and you can establish what a 50% mix of red and yellow look like at any number of saturations, and it still doesn't matter. There will always be some things we can clearly identify as red (Robert Forward's Dragon's Egg, say, Christ imagery and all, doesn't have a hell of a lot of yellow in it) or yellow (Ummm...*pulls Mercedes Lackey out of a hat and dusts her off*) and yeah, there you go, there are clearly two different things.

The thing is, in real life, unlike in the human brain, categories aren't so tidy. The bleb and interfere, and nobody's going to look at that 50/50 mix and say "it's red!" unless they're pushing an agenda. It's orange, and they know it's orange.

I don't actually have a dog in this fight. I like science fiction and fantasy. I write both. I try to write both as literature (by which I mean, I take my writing seriously: I may in fact be a hack, but if I am, then I'm a hack who tries real goddamned hard to write the best books she can), and also as cracking good stories, because I do not think the two things are mutually exclusive. I see some cosmetic differences between the two, but I don't have a philosophy going of what SF or Fantasy ought to be, and left to my own devices, I generally refer to "SFF" or "speculative fiction."

It is indeed commercial fiction, and nihilistic_kid's comment that most of it is crap is taken under advisement. And frankly, I haven't got a thing to counter that with except Sturgeon's law and the fact that, like Ursula Le Guin, I love my ghetto. And I love its breadth and depth and quirkiness, and all the weird little corners it has, and I have absolutely no investment in saying science fiction should be this or should be that. I haven't got an ideology of speculative fiction; I'm happy to cast my net over the New Weird and the New Pulp and just about all the rest of it. And I love the ways it edges out into the mainstream unnoticed and then doesn't get called "science fiction" in much the same way that Joanna Russ talks about the suppression of women's writing, because if it's any good then it's not science fiction.

And yeah, you know, some of it is imperialist apologism, and so is some fantasy, and I'm interested in undermining those tropes and trying to say some interesting things about our cultural assumptions too. And I find fantasy and sf very useful for that, because they are so very flexible, and sometimes it's easier to talk about something if you can divorce yourself from reality a little.

I dunno. I don't really have a thesis statement here, or anything to prove. But man, I think--science fiction writer, fantasy writer, fantasist, whatever you want to call him--Theodore Sturgeon could write. And if you say well, there was only one of him, I refer you to Ms. Russ's book. And Ursula Le Guin. Who can also, dare I say it, write.

Send in the talking bunnies, man.