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bear by san

December 2021



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bear by san

More on the SF/F divide. Also, BPAL: Arachne

Gregory Benford and Darrell Schweitzer on science fiction and fantasy.

scott_lynch responds.

Grr. Okay, I am annoyed by the implication there that George R. R. Martin has somehow betrayed the genre by writing fantasy instead of SF.

I obviously need to order one of those "science fiction is dead" t-shirts. Whenever I encounter somebody who thinks that science fiction is ultimately forward-looking and fantasy is ultimately nostalgic, I want to force them to read different books. And different online arguments. Especially the ongoing Truesdallian argument that SFF was so much better in the old days--if that's not scary nostalgia, I dunno what is. (And what Darrell said about Lovecraft. And even more especially about Crichton: there's where the real anti-intellectualism lies. If fantasy writers could tap into that kind of egghead-hate, man, we'd be rolling in the dough.)

It seems to me that science fiction limits its own audience--especially so-called "hard" science fiction, or the current subgenre that tends to get called "post-Cyberpunk" but is really post-New Wave, except apparently Cyberpunk made such an impression on the genre consciousness that we've somehow managed to forget the revolution in craft and literary sensibility that took place between 1960 and and 1980 (and by this I mean Charles Stross, Chris Moriarty, Mark Budz, Peter Watts, and other fine writers with an uncompromising prose style that kicks the reader in neck-deep and expects him to parse neologisms and work out complicated ideas on the fly)--is hard to read. It tends to lose readers when it gets inward-looking, and doesn't make allowances for the guy walking in off the street who maybe needs his hand held a little. It's the Heinleinian exposit on the fly technique taken to a logical extreme, and it's a literature of alienation, among other things.

On the other extreme is the science fiction that's hard to read because it exposits at length, and the story gets lost in the explanation--or the story is, at worst, a framework narrative tacked on around a bunch of theoretical nattering.

The problem here isn't that fantasy is stealing SF's audience. The problem is that SF isn't making itself accessible to a general audience. It's easy to whine about how nobody likes me when I'm not making an effort to be likable.

It's the Geek Problem. We want the pretty girls to like us, but we don't want to stop talking about Mecha-Godzilla all the damned time. (Why yes, I am still reading the Minister Faust book, How did you know?) Alternately, it's the Ghetto Problem. We want to be accepted, we want people to bring us their business, but we don't want no sellout gentrification here.

...and so it seems a little unwelcoming to those who aren't already in the club.

Also, we want validation as artists.

Dude, right there with ya.

Gotta say, (because I can only talk about my goals, and not the goals of The Genre(s)) as a whole--I don't think my SF is about embracing the future, or my fantasy is about nostalgia, though. I think they're both about finding ways to talk about people's choices, and tell stories about people's lives, and maybe promote a little understanding, and consider the ethicality (or inethicality) of what we do and how we do it. I think in both cases, I'm writing stories about how people suck it up and get through the day and try to hold on, a little, to their souls. There's certainly a pro space exploration theme in the Jenny books. (Corporate space flight, here we go!)

But man. The idea that all fantasy is about nostalgia for simpler times really ignores anything about the genre except the sappiest, sloppiest wish-fulfillment princesses-and-pretty-horses novels, and judging fantasy by that is like judging science fiction exclusively by E.E. "Doc" Smith.

BPAL Description:

A victim of her own arrogance, conceit and hubris, Arachne, the greatest mortal weaver, had the temerity to claim herself superior to Athena. Arachne was truly gifted: not only was her art astoundingly beautiful, but the vision of her in the act of weaving was a joy to behold. When one observer commented that her skill was so great that she must have been trained by the goddess Athena herself, the proud woman scoffed: she was insulted, and proclaimed aloud that the goddess could do no better than she. Athena heard this, and, as she is not a vindictive or jealous goddess, gave Arachne the opportunity to redeem herself. Disguised as an elderly woman, she came to Arachne and warned her against hubris. She laughed at the old woman and declared that she would welcome a contest with Athena. The goddess accepted the challenge. Athena wove a stunning tapestry depicting her victory over Poseidon, thus gaining patronage over the city of Athens. Arachne, who couldn’t leave well enough alone, wove a vulgar piece that depicted Zeus’ dalliances with Leda, Europa and Danae. Appalled at the woman’s audacity and blasphemy, Athena tore Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, crushed her loom, and bonked the mortal on the head, forcing her to feel remorse for her actions. In guilt and grief, Arachne hung herself. Again, because the goddess is merciful, she took pity on the woman and, after sprinkling aconite upon her corpse, transformed her into the first spider. A gossamer scent, as light as a spider’s footfall, touched with sighing mists: pallid flowers, dusty woods and soft herbs.

My Notes:

...because the goddess is merciful.


Vial: Kind of a sour floral.

Wet: Still sour, still floral, traces of sandalwood underneath. Pleasant enough, I guess.

Drydown: sandalwood and flowers

Dry: ...and more sandalwood and flowers. Of course, this lasts much better than the yummy Black Forest did, because life is like that.



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>The idea that all fantasy is about nostalgia for simpler times really ignores anything about the genre except the sappiest, sloppiest wish-fulfillment princesses-and-pretty-horses novels, and judging fantasy by that is like judging science fiction exclusively by E.E. "Doc" Smith.

Jaysus. Mary Gentle? Philip Pullman? China Mieville? Liz Hand? Tim Powers? Neil Gaiman? Yourself?

A tiny selection yanked from my illness-riddled brain.

And actually, there have been some not-bad princess/pretty horse novels (please don't read that as slash). THE BLUE SWORD (IIRC title) comes to mind.

Oh, Tim's all about nostalgia for the past. *chokes*

And then there's skzbrust. No deconstruction in his work. nuh uh.
If Martin's books are in any way about or related to 'nostalgia for simpler times,' then my name is Albert Schweitzer... :)
Was E.E. "Doc" Smith even a real doctor? And if so, how come you never see other people use their professions as nick names. You never see E.E. "Lawyer" Smith, or E.E. "Parking Bylaw Enforcement Officer" Smith.

Just say'n.
Good point!

I am the other sort of doctor, but does this now mean I can be known as Liz 'Doc' Williams?

Just don't play poker with me.
F**kin' A, well told.
Thanks. *g*

I should comment that I don't think that what Chris, Peter, Charlie, Mark, et al. are writing is bad.

I think it's a tad inaccessible to the guy off the street.

I grew up reading Bryant and Delany and Zelazny and Le Guin. I love that stuff. Its mine all mine, and hoi polloi can keep their grubby paws off it.
"I'm sorry, sir, you seem to have confused "fantasy" with what we in the genre refer to as "crap." "

...okay, unfair, and there are some G v. E novels I love a lot. (Tolkien, Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East) und so weiter.

Yep. When a sciffy author actually sells really well for us, the fans become irrate that they've sold out and often times shun them. I find it odd. Just because a larger crowd forces their way into their pigeon hole they've made for themselves, doesn't mean the books are any less valid.

It happens with anything that becomes popular. I remember when my friends use to love Nirvana because they were unheard of but as soon as the PUBLIC liked them, they turned on them like a high strung overbred dog.
What it comes down to is that we're looking at SF/fantasy being treated as a religion. Just compare the response of a typical skiffy fan (the one who claims to know all about science fiction but only knows of writers if they wrote Star Trek or Star Wars novels) to mainstream audiences getting into their pet authors to the halfassed wannabe Christians who bitch about how "pagans" are appropriating their holiday. It's the thrill of having something all to themselves, and I've seen far too many magazines die or become marginalized (*cough*Asimov's*cough*) because catering to the fanatics is more important than trying to get new readers. And so it goes.
Geez. Remind me again why I gave up on science fiction and fantasy, why don't you? (Reading Benford and Schweitzer whimper and whine about how the other has destroyed the genre is like listening to Pauly Shore and Carrot Top bitching about the death of the comedy club scene of the Eighties. If SF is willing to let a Cat Piss Man like Benford speak for its future without smacking him in the head and telling him to shut the fuck up, it deserves to die.)
Right with you on the 'sf = progressive; fantasy = regressive' thing.

I've only read the first of these two links so far (and I haven't read all the comments there), so tell me if I'm missing something, but why hasn't anyone brought up the idea that a Science Fiction novel could be politically or socially Conservative? I find it quite obvious that no two authors need have the same political view, and that being in favour of developing technology, or even portraying 'future' developments, doesn't mean you're treading a party line on anything else, so why does it not seem to be a part of this debate? Is it to do with anti-Communist American SF - is this part of the unspoken genre conventions for some people?

Actually, thinking about it, a strict forwards/backwards definition could put The War of the Worlds in to the Fantasy box. Certainly there would be problems with a profoundly anti-technology future dystopia novel.
Both Fantasy and Sci-fi respond to the deep-seated need within the human nature to acknowledge and hope that there is something out there beyond the boundaries of our perception. Something mystic. Something spiritual. Something Unknown and Other. Be it magic or the incomprehensible mystery of the Universe.

The difficulty with Sci-Fi is that it's plagued by two things:

1) bad writing of many varieties, aka "I have this dissertation on theoretical physics and I thought I'd throw in a babe with a low neckline and call it a novel" or "Hey, Angels and Demons made a ton of money! Lookit this thriller plot I got while I hang a couple of formulas on its ears" or "I am a writer, let the readers learn to read."

2) often it requires higher technical skill than fantasy. Not always. But often. Since the technical progress has ran away from us, the gap between higher education and lower education has dramatically widened. A hard sci-fi writer must be not only an effective writer and an excellent scientist, but also an effective teacher. It's no secret that popularization of science is a science in itself. Sure, you can understand that basics behind a holographic image, but can you explain it to a person of basic high school education, should your story demand it? My father is a classic example of an incredibly educated, intelligent man who CAN NOT EXPLAIN anything effectively. It's not in him.

The third problem related to both fields: laziness. Simple laziness of writers who are comfortable to writing to an audience who already knows what a wormhole is, is familiar with photon torpedos, knows that BDU stands for Battle Dress Uniform, and can tell the difference between a space gunboat and a grappler in a blink.

Perfect example, In Death Ground, by David Weber and Steve White (this sucker saw the light at 1997)page 4 "A pinnace had no shields, no weapons, and no ECM. Because a Hun-class CL did have shields, it could survive a transit which could dump a pinnace within fatal proximity to a star....And while its emissions signature was detectable over a far greater range than a pinnace's, it also mounted third-generation ECM."

Yes, I know it's perfectly clear to most of the people who are reading it. But you are in-genre. To someone outside of genre, this is pure gibberish. I can find an equally convoluted example by picking up a late-date Forgotten Realms novel, so that's not the point. The point is that the writer in this case have made absolutely no effort to seek any other audience than that firmly within "Military Space Science Fiction" limits. As long as we, as a collective writing body, continue down that path, our audience will continue to shrink. /.end rant
oh, a pox on both their houses.

In an interview shown at the 2003 (I think) World Fantasy in DC, Jack Williamson was asked about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. "It's all fantasy," he said. "Science fiction is fantasy that you can convince yourself might actually happen."

works for me.
Me too!
Truly annoying, because the idea of SF/fantasy, I always thought, was inclusion.

Has it not occurred to Benford and Schweitzer that authors, musicians, artists, etc., etc., tend to create the art that works for themselves first? If George R. R. Martin wanted to write techie novels... well, he did. This is something different. And I have no reason whatsoever to mention Lois McMaster Bujold, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, Ursula K. LeGuin, etc., etc., etc., nope nope nope.

Years ago, I worked in a bookstore where, for a brief time, the manager got it into her head that fantasy and science fiction should be separated. This ticked off the entire customer base (as we had a pretty decent hunk of the Ann Arbor SF/F market at the time), and it lasted less than two weeks. The genres go together, because they are tales of the truly imaginative (as opposed to the romantic potboiler or slice-o-life NPR highlight).

I suspect part of the problem, bluntly, is that neither Benford nor Schweitzer can cut it. Benford doesn't want to write SF novels because There Are More Important Things To Worry About? Man, we should just deep-six the entire entertainment industry now, don our Puritan garb, and attend to our labors. I'm wondering how much of this noise is jealousy because he doesn't have an epic series on the NYT best-seller list.
Well, I should of course mention that you could spread my own professional jealousy of Martin on toast. *g*

But I choose to look at that as a motivating force.
Philip K. Dick got recruited into hard sf?

*scratches head*
Were they reading the same copy of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich we were?
I've seen it pop up now and then (although not in major arenas) rephrased as 'Girls can't write hard sf' - with the corollory that 'hard sf' is the One True Science Fiction, thus combining two of the more annoying aspects of both arguments.
"Elizabeth Bear writes so I don't have to." Or something like that.
*g* I feel the same way about pecunium
"...the sappiest, sloppiest wish-fulfillment princesses-and-pretty-horses novels, and judging fantasy by that is like judging science fiction exclusively by E.E. "Doc" Smith."

Aw, now, as the only person in the entire world of LJ with E. E. "Doc" Smith in my interests, I gotta step up for my powered-sugar-donut man. (Oh, wait, I'm apparently the only one who spelled it with a space between the E's. Now I'm one of 9 with the interest! Whoo!)

Doc had neat ideas in his stories, he wrote interesting accesssible stuff, and he talked about what it was to be a human. One of the things I think about a lot from his books is in the Skylark series, when the humans come across a group of aliens who have created a nigh-indestructible substance they use for armor... And the humans have some of it made into straight razors that will never, ever go dull. Hell yeah! I love it when science fiction talks about how live might change in small easy-to-forget everyday ways.

And you can't fault him for inaccessibility. ;) I mean, once you've looked up a few words like "corruscating", you've got it made. His stuff isn't as black and white as some might think, too... His baddies are smart people doing things that make sense from their point of view, and that's a rare and precious thing.

And Doc did speak to what it was to be a good human... That's kind of what his books are about. Be smart, be loyal, learn how things work, do a good job, never ever give up... He made it clear his protagonists were people who were choosing to be protagonists, and why.

He's got a 40s-era view of women, but he does treat them like worthwhile beings, unlike a great many authors up to the 80s. He's got an odd love of oligarchic dictatorship, but anyone who reads SFF is going to be tripping over that every other book anyway. I don't think there's much about Doc Smith to be ashamed of.
I never said that I didn't like him.

I said that you can't judge the entire genre by his work.
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