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March 2017

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bear by san

Chimerae Shivaree

The motto of this blog is: Writing is hard.

Reading is on the hard side, too, frankly, so let's cut the reader a little slack here and there, give him some rungs to climb up on when we can. Give him a narrative to cling to, maybe, or some surfacy stuff. make it accessible where we can. Still.

Still, sometimes you can't. Emily Dickinson says "Tell the truth, but tell it slant," (punctuation mine) and Ursula LeGuin says that the business of the novelist is to tell in words the things that cannot be told in words. And that's the problem, isn't it? There are things that can only be glimpsed from the corner of the eye. And when a story captures them, and somebody asks you to explain what it's about... well, you can't. Unless it's one of those rare stories that manages both that television-stone effect of showing what lies behind it, but also a traditional narrative.

Digression (but an important one): (A relevant digression???)Here's something I've learned from reading fanfic:

Most readers really are reading for a framework on which to hang their own internal narrative. Something upon which to project the emotional responses they want to have, that they find satisfying. They need a net in which to catch their squid, in other words.

They build a good parts version in their heads. And they project their story onto the scaffolding that the writer provides. This is why formulaic thrillers and category romance sells so very well; because it is predictable.

Fanfiction writers have a term for this, borrowed from the porn industry. They call it a bulletproof kink. It's not necessarily a sexual thing; my bulletproof kink is bittersweet endings, sacrifice, and death-or-glory stands. (See: the end of Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry for a type example. Or Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place. The glory can be a very small and personal glory. It still works for me.)

Anyway, as a reader, one must tackle building that good parts version in one's head in a different way when confronted by a Kelly Link story than by a traditional pulp story. Because there's this stuff that I love--the LeGuin, etc--that's just opaque to a lot of people.

I love its introspection, and the way it reflects light around the inside of my head. That's what I need to have a good story that satisfies me. 

(As an aside: as a writer or a critic, one eventually loses the ability to construct that good parts version... because one starts looking at the whole machine. (Consider: famous Connie Willis quote about sacrificing the ability to be surprised as the cost of becoming a writer.)

Once you know how magic tricks work, you stop looking at the trick and start watching the technique.)

Anyway, back to the Good Parts thing. I'm thinking about this because I just read both Century Rain, and "The Faery Handbag," and Kelly Link is a genius, again. This is a television stone story. But it's not a traditional narrative. The Left Hand of Darkness is both, but it's not an accessible narrative, particularly. (Well, it's perfectly accessible if one comes at it from a lit background; not so much for the habitual reader of pulp. Something Matt Cheney and Jeff VanderMeer discuss this week, essay linked below.)

Something I realized reading Century Rain is that, much as I loved the book, there were whole long chunks of it that seemed transplanted from another novel. Not a bad novel, mind you. But a different novel. And this is something I see endlessly in SF (more than fantasy) where I swear the last third of whatever book I'm reading belonged to the first two thirds of a different book. Century Rain is not by any means a particularly egregious example of this, and frankly, it's so prevalent in science fiction that it's almost weird for me to find a book that doesn't have that head-too-big-for-its-shoulders problem.

Specifically, there are places in Century Rain where I can see Reynolds following the scriptwriter advice to complicate, complicate, raise the stakes, ratchet up the tension, tighten the clock--

--and I don't think the book needs it. Actually, in a lot of places, I think the ACTION! detracts from what's really interesting and well-done about the book.

Like Anya, I have a theory. But it's not bunnies.

The theory is this.

Science fiction has become a chimera. And I mean that in a pair of ways. One, chimerical in that it's an animal that doesn't exist, really. SF is dying, SF has evolved into the mainstream, SF is being colonized by these impenetrable lit'ry types (the New Wave has been over for twenty years; can we stop complaining about it now?), SF is whatever I'm pointing at when I say, "Science fiction."

Two, it's chimerical in that it's a collection of different animals. The pulp roots, the "literature of ideas," the Noir of Cyberpunk, the literary values of the New Wave, the grafted-on wings of the Weird and the scorpion sting of the detective genre stuck on the end somewhere. It's seventeen beasties trying to be one.

And that's what I love about it. I love my genre, and its tentacles. But that frustrates some people who require more firmness in their taxonomy for comfort's sake.

...but it also leads to weirdnesses. Like this phenomenon of the bits of book that don't match. Because as writers, we have these pulp influences. Whether we recognize them or not. And our editors are pretty sure that the core audience for SFF does like explosions. And girls in bikinis. And rayguns. (ooo. rayguns.) And tentacled horrors from beyond space and time.

And we writers like them too. But we're not always so very good at integrating them with our Deep Philosophical Constructs. And we run up against a problem, because SFF is also a genre that privileges not just Newness and Ideas, but the Appearance of Newness and Ideas. Which means we as writers and editors tend to foreground anything that looks shiny or ground-breaking in the first half of the book, and then blow up a few planets in the back half (I like to call SFF the Literature Of Testing To Destruction, because we are the people who break stuff--worlds, the laws of physics, societies--and don't put them back pretty [contrast: Blood Music with Prey] at the end of the book, tucked in safe, reset. )

And then around these two disparate (and in some cases mutually contradictory) demands--the thinky bit and the 'splody bit, as I like to call them--we have to fit other bits. We have to tell a story. With characters. And a theme. And all three of those things (plot, characters, theme) need what is usually termed an "arc," although I also like the term "argument." (In the essayist's sense, not in the relationship sense, though sometimes fists go through walls, what can I say?)

And then, on top of that, we're expected to have an at least passable prose style and be able to come up with a few witticisms and some Cool Stuff. And if we can swing a veil of literary merit, so much the better.

And we have to do all that and still remember to juggle and blow stuff up, and pay sufficient homage to our pulp roots to keep A Certain Segment of the fandom (the ones who are still talking about "The Cold Equations," but, strangely, not so much "Light of Other Days") happy in between their pronouncements that SF is Ded.

Hey, this shit ain't easy.


In a moment of synchronicity, I was planning on writing about this before I read this comment of Jeff VanderMeer's and this essay of Matt Cheney's: There is a secret lost continent full of ordinary people, and I must go there. I have some ideas that might be useful to them, and some prose I know they will find accessible.

Comments

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I like your points, but I think it's 360 degrees opposite (which can also mean I'm saying the same thing.)

'Literary' fiction has become a ghettoized genre that leeches on SF and other 'genres' for some sense of currancy and ability to, well, sell copies.

The bulletproof fetish thing is totally on the money--and invoking Anya reinforces it, in the sense that Whedon narratives certainly satisfy an almost strict series of 'fetishes'.

I'm not sure if we lose the ability to be surprised. Watching the film CAHE, I was downright shocked. It was a nice feeling.
Er--"Cache".
mmm, bikini chicks with ray guns.

With ideas. Making things explode.

It's's like SF is the literature of the scientific method, and testing especially. Here's an Idea; will it work? Let's rigorously test it, drag it through some extremes, blow it up, launch it into space, and find out. (Dragging the utopia to the extreme to point out its flaws, and so on...)

So we have a mad theoretician, possibly a social scientist, and his more hands-on warrior chick partner; he comes up with the Ideas, she beats them up. If they can defeat her in honorable combat, we've got a winner. Meanwhile, either way, we get to watch a steel-bikini-clad experimental scientist have a wrestling match with a big hairy fanged and tentacled Idea.

"But -- Doctor, what does it *mean*?"
"Well, Amazonia, here's some theorizing."
"Oh! Well, in *that* case, I'll try judo instead of kickboxing."
THUMP.
"Ah, excellent suggestion! Using the force of the concept against itself, rather than -"
CRASH!
"Look out, Doc! Stray tentacle!"


...or maybe I shouldn't be allowed unsupervised use of silly metaphors. At least not when sugar-crashing.
*loffs*
Wait, back up one from the rayguns. That's the one to coo over. Or better yet, strip the bikinis.

They need a net in which to catch their squid, in other words.

That's very useful, if rather symbolically packed, observation. Must ponder.

Of course, as writers, we also need our own nets. (See above re: gratuitous nudity.)

---L.
That squid thing is *so true.*

I sometimes think that the squid is the ony thing that *really* matters to storytelling.
I'm tempted to say Cheney hit the wrong target. Well, anyway, I see his point, and I defend that side sometimes, but he's way over at the end that says the writer is God, and anything the reader doesn't like (such as misusing the word decry) is the reader's fault.

I like the NLP approach of looking at whether statements are well-formed. A word like accessible or boring or obscene is relational and doesn't really make sense unless both terms are filled in. I certainly don't object to "self-indulgent" writing when the writer's self seems worth indulging.

Anyway, one side is saying that "inaccessible" writers are "masturbatory," and the other side is saying that complaining readers are "narcissistic," which is Shrink for "wankers." This is not a high level of debate.
anything the reader doesn't like (such as misusing the word decry) is the reader's fault.

I should not be laughing as hard as I am.

I liked what Matt had to say and I liked the structure of his essay a lot; I don't agree with all of it. As with most things, I find myself an inveterate fence-straddler. I am bored by books that are too transparent, but I do believe in the writer's contract with the reader. However, I think that the writer gets equal input into that contract. And that it's wording varies from target audience to target audience.

Implicit rather than manifest in my comments (which I was pondering before I read Matt's essay) is the idea that there will be some perfectly good stories that do not have the good parts I want. Just as some stories that I love may not have the good parts that my friends want. I'm not going to privilege my tastes over secritcrush's, though as book taste goes we almost never agree.

But then, I don't believe I download my perfect fictional vision into the reader's brain, either. I think the reader and I make the story together. I've got the map, the directions, and the tour book... and he may be blindfolded... but he's driving.
If it was easy, it wouldn't be fun.
In re Television Stone -- is that just optical-grade calcite, or what?

My mother's a geologist, sue me. :->
It's ulexite.
RE: Consider: famous Connie Willis quote about sacrificing the ability to be surprised as the cost of becoming a writer.

The collaborator and I were discussing this very topic on Saturday when I mentioned that it's difficult for me to watch, read, or listen to damn near anything without deconstructing it or making notes on how they evoke, create, or lead the viewer/reader.

Luckily, I'm kind of dumb so a really smart (or really, really st00pid) writer can still sneak one past me.

The "my bulletproof kink is..." thing is a meme waiting to happen. :)
Specifically, there are places in Century Rain where I can see Reynolds following the scriptwriter advice to complicate, complicate, raise the stakes, ratchet up the tension, tighten the clock--

--and I don't think the book needs it.


It really doesn't. IIRC the last third is basically one long chase sequence, right? It just gets boring.

Is sf a chimera or has all literature become more chimeric over the past ten years or so?
Yes, I think it kind of starts working too hard when the building they're in is [spoilered]. Because, you know, random threats for no reason except to concuss somebody, not so much.

As for your second point, my answer to both questions is: yes. Or, yanno. Literary writers have been swiping SFF tropes forever. (Fantasy is the original literature; memetic fiction is a spinoff, after all.)

Ansible still finds plenty of examples of people saying "Well, it's not science fiction because it doesn't suck." *g* So I think we can cling to our gutter for a little longer. Although if we, you know, find a way to integrate/accomodate/sublimate that pulp sensibility instead of just tacking it on... well, it worked for Leiber and Hemingway. It can work for the rest of us....

Re: great post, thanks!

;-0

On the' other hand...

The arguement could be made for the parallex view. SF has been colonizing / assimilating the mainstream. F'r'instance, what *IS* cyberpunk, if not noir after 6 double expressos and a shot of absinthe to accompany the tech and the new soundtrack? (actually, it depends on how its written... *grumble*... or maybe I shot myself in the foot... hmmmmmmmm...)

Arugably, its all been done before -- there are even a few authors who have made a career doing the same thing over and over again -- Jack Higgins leaps to mind (out of genre, I know, but you take the examples you can).

If I recall the words of my prof., back in the day, Science fiction has always been a multi-headed beast, with SCIENCE fiction, Sci-Fi, speculative fiction, "sciffy" and what not. The thing that went "wrong," so to speak is that it became popular and, thusly, suffered the fate of popular fiction, drifitng into blandness, cross genre writing, social relevance and all the things it didn't have to deal with, back in the "good old days."

The other problem has been the movie industry, where not only is there the need for SOCIAL RELEVANCE, but there is the small matter of the sequel, the re-make and the re-imagining... Starship Trooper... ow ow ow ow ow ow!

Re: On the' other hand...

ahem.

Two, it's chimerical in that it's a collection of different animals. The pulp roots, the "literature of ideas," the Noir of Cyberpunk, the literary values of the New Wave, the grafted-on wings of the Weird and the scorpion sting of the detective genre stuck on the end somewhere. It's seventeen beasties trying to be one.

The whole privilege of the New thing is an illusion. The "new" thing a writer brings is his voice. Very few musical geniuses invent a new form.

You can be a damned fine piano player without being Thelonious Monk. But. All garage bands sound alike.

In very rare cases, it's a true innovation (Marlowe's mighty line, frex. The novel. Realistic characterization.) or a truly new SFnal idea, but mostly, what SF desires is that things be made to *look* new.

And if you think bland and repetitive is a new thing in SFF, you haven't read enough old pulp magazines....
I think you should be making these comments over on the SH bord, and not here, since I'm not really responding to Matt, or talking about the same things he is. *g*

Re: rayguns

The clue droppings tend to wind up cluing me in, too, since I know what to look for. Such is the nature of the animal.

I mean, I like blowing stuff up as well as the next girl. But sometimes a narrative doesn't support a big BOOM ending. Sometimes the climax is otherwise than boom. That's cool. Like, oh, the ending of Brin's The Postman is just weird. Such a cool little book about personal responsibility, and then, BANG! Cyberwarriors? Supersoldiers? Levelling the landscape?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over?

As for Buffy, I loved it. And it betrayed me. I prefer not to remember the relationship now; it hurts too much.

(And yeah, I don't find Le Guin inaccessible, personally. Eco is about as complex as I can get and still be enjoying myself. But some people kind of panic at layers. Or just plain dislike them.)

(Anonymous)

generalizations and specifics

Great post.

You know I think the defense of the complex, the not-readily-accessible, the seemingly self-indulgent is fueled by a certain exasperation. What exasperation? The exasperation that people feel the need to point at the *other* and de-legitimatize it. It's perfectly valid for a reader to say "I don't like this, and here's why." But making the value judgment on the more experimental, weird stuff that "I don't like it and it's because the writer is a wank," that's where the exasperation comes in.

Because it's not an either-or proposition, to my mind. I'd never say *all* fiction should make the reader work that hard--and I always delight in the work of writers who find the perfect pulse-pounding narrative engine by which to deliver very difficult material (even though that isn't, as you say always possible)--but to suggest that fiction that *does* attempt this should be, in a sense, be open to a personal attack (even if a generalized personal attack)...that's where I have a problem with reaction to a piece of fiction.

Especially since, as I've said elsewhere, usually the problems with fiction are not being ambitious enough, not being good enough in very banal ways. It's rare that we have to worry about some empty stylist with nothing to say doing something avant garde. It's common, on the other hand, to find some hamfisted tone-deaf mediocrity banging on the door.

As for the mainstream versus genre someone else made...oy. As if these were two monolithic structures--armies of fiction footsoldiers facing each other across a darkling plain. They're not.

Also, the comment about the half-digestion of influences--I think that's just the sign of a bad writer. Or a writer who hasn't yet found their own voice. That's been happening for centuries. Nothing new there, really.

JeffV

I do think what

Re: generalizations and specifics

It's perfectly valid for a reader to say "I don't like this, and here's why." But making the value judgment on the more experimental, weird stuff that "I don't like it and it's because the writer is a wank," that's where the exasperation comes in.

Yes yes yes yes yes yes I say yes...
um. sorry about that.

I think that's just the sign of a bad writer. Or a writer who hasn't yet found their own voice. That's been happening for centuries. Nothing new there, really.

Hmm. I do think there's a lot of it in SFF, of this very particular "Oh my god! I forgot to have babies!" sort that involves the last third of an SFF novel suddenly turning into a chase scene. Almost as if it's a ticky-box we have to ticky, whether it makes sense or not.

Agree about the armies. We're sneaking a lot of harlots and foot soldiers across the lines, if that's the case.
I've decided that what interests me most is fiction about the future. (And yes, I know the argument that it's impossible to write about the future. But follow that line of thought a bit more, and it's obviously impossible to write about the present -- nearest you can get is writing about the sorta-recent past.) But some stories which interest me in that way are written by people who think they're writing about Eternal Truths of Human Society, or Today's Important Issues. Or whose only intent is to write something funny.

Diversion love

I was very struck by your diversion. It so clearly explains tso me why I could read just about everything in Buffy fandom when I first encountered it, as long as it had Buffy and Spike in it, and now I no longer can.
I've learnt to write, fool that I am, and only about 1 % of fanfic is still enjoyable to me. And only about 1% of anything in print.

*headdesk*
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