Press your spaceface close to mine

Put Up Or Shut Up

Posted by Sunday on Sep 7, 2008 at 1:42 pm

I’ve hinted at the following sentiment over the last few months, but I now feel inclined to fully vent: I am mad at literature. And mostly science fiction. Settled down with a sammich and a mug of laudanum? Then let’s begin.

Every once and a great while I go through periods of not wanting to read, and almost always this is set off by reading a particularly terrible book — the great Not Reading Anything of 2001 in the wake of China Mieville’s aneurysm-inducing Perdido Street Station, for example. However, just before I moved across the country (the second time) I had a sudden and unpleasant realization: It had been a while since I read a book I’d actually enjoyed.

I looked over my shelves. 2006 Hugo Award-winning Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge? In the dictionary? Next to ‘Trying Too Hard?’ That’s right, there’s Rainbows End. And don’t even get me started on Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon: I’ll take the high road and just say that nothing spells unintentionally funny like preposterous, confusing sex scenes.

In fact, after picking through my shelves with increasing frustration, I found that Peter Watt’s Blindsight was the extent of the good reads in the last year. Good old Watts. Meanwhile, Altered Carbon was purchased for a reported million fucking dollars to be made into a movie. O, the infinite horror of this dimension that I keep trying to insist is merely chaos but is more obviously the result of a cruel and mentally retarded god.

Unrelated: my doctor seems delighted that I am only 29 and need to be on blood pressure medication. Early and often, as they say.

What is going on here? Have I become hard to please, or is science fiction getting shittier?

I’m inclined to say a little from column A and a little from column B, and not just because I’m a noncommittal poser. I had a half-strength epiphany while camping last week with my family and reading John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick. This being my first Updike (yes, I went to college, shut up – and anyway, I never graduated), I was officially thrown for a loop. Firstly, I remember trying to read Updike years back and curling my lip. Back on the shelf it goes. Secondly Nicholson Baker once wrote a touching ode to Updike, which gave me pause. If Baker likes him, surely…? But no, I still couldn’t be bothered with it. And then, in a fit of pique (“I’ll show those smart people and prove that I don’t like Updike once and for all.”) I picked up a battered copy of Eastwick. And there I was, several pages into it and thinking, “This is fucking brilliant.” It was like reading Baker’s liquid, fizzy train-of-thought, the same bumbling honeybee of prose – but with a story! It’s humane and active, meaningful and profoundly mundane. It is somehow familiar and totally surprising. Stephen King famously complained that Baker’s writing was a “meaningless little fingernail paring,” which is a lot like saying that pie is a pointless trimming of beard hair; also, someday soon Naglfar will be coming for you and it won’t seem so meaningless after all, will it?

Blah blah blah, anyway, I had a mini-epiphany: people don’t know how to write anymore. Or rather, there is no reward for knowing how to write anymore. That has to be it. So that you have these masses of writers who might be technically good but cannot string an arc along to save their lives (any contemporary scifi writer who is obsessed with the singularity, I’m looking at you), and you have these terrible writers who have a whole laundry basket of good ideas but need to be told that no one “stares broodingly”. And they both get five-novel deals with movie options. Huh?

Before I started writing this I thought: I can’t complain if I can’t fix it. But I spent some time with myself, listening to myself’s side of the story, and I came to see a different point of view. I am the consumer. If my TV doesn’t work well, no one expects me to head down to the basement and hack a TV out of a block of butter and some twist ties. Other than MacGyver, who remains disappointed with humanity on a daily basis (like me!). But me, I argued, books aren’t a machine. They are art. Au contraire, me! I said. They are a recipe, like a cake. There are a near-infinite range of variations, but they are still cake, and they are still made according to a finite series of rules (don’t check my math, just trust me). And we’re talking about taste here, anyway. If publishers claim that Americans aren’t reading anymore, I can’t help but ask, is it maybe because the product is shitty? Have you gone off the recipe?

The answer is yes, if you aren’t capable of following my faux-rhetorical questioning.

That just leaves us with my being hard to please, which is straight-forward. In my old age, I find that I want an increasingly rare and perfect balance of real story with quality writing. Poor me. It wasn’t all that long ago that I liked passing time with a book as much as I liked scoring a really excellent read. Currently I’m alienating friends by calling them at work just to read them an especially atrocious sentence of Altered Carbon. DID HE EVEN HAVE AN EDITOR? I guess I’m still upset about it. The point being: popular scifi lit is morphing into a lethal combination of Idiocracy and Fahrenheit 451, and I’m certain it’s not just that I’m getting smarter (I call it “The Dumbening”). But clearly instead of censoring thoughts they are quietly replacing them with lamer ones. And by “they” I don’t know who I mean. I vote Russians. Or possibly Boing Boing.

12 Posted in Literature

In Which We Dogpile On An Unsuspecting Scientist

Posted by Sunday on Aug 17, 2008 at 1:59 pm

This morning a comment was left by Dr. Chris Lintott, astrophysicist. ASTROPHYSICIST. Oh, I am squirming with delight right now. And seriously, if that isn’t awesome enough, he co-wrote the book Bang! The Complete History of the Universe with Brian May – yes, THE LEAD GUITARIST OF QUEEN, WHO IS ALSO AN ASTROPHYSICIST. Buckaroo Bonzai naysayers can stuff it!

In February of this year I wrote an offhand snippet about my adoration of the science fiction movie Sunshine that included a few one-liners aimed at Dr. Lintott. He had been consulted as an astronomer to comment on the movie, and I used his quotes in my own post.

Today Halcyon wrote a response to Dr. Lintott that I wanted to publish it here as a front-page post rather than a comment (both due to its length and my continuing interest in the subject). I am thankful that Dr. Lintott felt comfortable responding to my previous post here at GalacticMu, and I hope that he forgives us for responding on our own turf like this.

Your Captain,


(For ease of reading, I will reprint Chris Lintott’s comment here before Halcyon’s)

“I was asked to comment as an astronomer; to an astronomer, it’s hard not to notice that the science is, well, ‘complete rubbish’. That’s different from saying I didn’t enjoy the movie (which I did), but it does matter. The emotional impact of the film came partly from the fact that we believe this is our world we’re watching – otherwise why does the shot at the end of the Sydney Opera House under snow have such an impact? To me, that’s completely undermined by the fact that physics appears to work differently in the sunshine universe.”

Dr. Lintott, it is truly an honor. Thank you for stopping by our humble blogship.

I’m sad to say you seem to be arguing around the point of Captain Sunday’s post. There is a larger context here, which is explored thoroughly in a newer post. Here’s the gist: our community, the science fiction community, has taken an ugly turn toward realism… mundane fiction, as Sunday calls it. Part of the reason for this shift is that scifi authors have suddenly become quite concerned with what real scientists think of their work. Plausibility is running roughshod over imagination.

Science fiction, as Sunday points out, has never been about empirical science; it has always been about fictional science. The goal of SF is not to illustrate what is real, but to ask “What if?”

Many of SF’s greatest works completely ignore one or more fundamental laws of physics. Take “Fantastic Voyage” for example. The physics are preposterous. That’s a given, part of the contract Asimov makes with the reader at the beginning of the book. Everyone knows it’s impossible to shrink a human being down to the size of a blood vessel, but what if you could shrink a human down to the size of a blood vessel? How cool would that be? How many future scientists and doctors were inspired by that book (and the movie)? And what do you want to bet that Fantastic Voyage was the inspiration (directly or indirectly) behind today’s endoscopes? How about the camera-pill?

Scientific discoveries (and theories) inspire science fiction. Likewise, SF can and has inspired scientists. This reciprocity of inspiration is healthy. But it is lost when scientists take fiction too seriously and when authors (and auteurs) take scientists too seriously.

When SF creators become too concerned with how (as in: “how does this spaceship have artificial gravity”), they wind up sacrificing the what-if. SF becomes devoid of entertainment and inspiration, as dry as a scientific journal. A little suspension-of-disbelief is a small price to pay for a movie as beautiful as Sunshine.

Besides which, suspension-of-disbelief is good for you. It’s a healthy part of a scientist’s diet. Because almost everything you know to be scientifically valid would have been considered complete rubbish by scientists like yourself 100 years ago. And every new theory starts with someone suspending his or her disbelief about how our world works.

Always here to help,
Psych Officer
Galactic Mu

Chris Lintott’s personal blog.

The official Bang! The Complete History of the Universe website.

If You Think of It, Someone Else Is Already There

Posted by Sunday on Apr 1, 2008 at 2:59 am

For a few years now I’ve been quietly hating on science fiction a little. There has been trend of scifi going “normal,” to the extent that writers of the genre are now often writing about today, with only a few stale, chewy treats of speculation, like cheap raisin-bran cereal. On this front, I’ve lost a few of my favorite writers.

I don’t believe that writers have “failed” or any nonsense just because they don’t write the same novel over and over again. Though repetition works for Stephen King, many other writers work their craft because they are interested in it, and in exploring new ideas. When William Gibson, the author I credit for giving my understanding of literature a version upgrade (“You mean, it’s not illegal to write a fragment?”), wrote a novel called Pattern Recognition, there was a fair amount of fallout. You see, “The Father of Cyberpunk” decided to have other children. The most common negative reviews can be condensed into: “Why no more Neuromancer? Boo!” And while I also wish he’d written something more speculative, I harbored no ill will. He already wrote Neuromancer. And I can read it whenever I want to. Expecting him to write another one is like having your significant other say at a party, “Why aren’t you funny right now? Be funny. C’mon and be funny. I expected you to be funny always. My disappointment over your lack of funniness is profound and I have turned against you.”

But, I have this criticism: is it science fiction? Should we be calling it that? My answer is no. I appreciate what the publishers and perhaps Gibson himself are trying to do by staying, ostensibly, in the genre (after all, why avoid your fanbase?), but I also feel a teensy manipulated. And I mean that in the least victimy way possible – I ran out and bought Pattern Recognition in hardback, without reading the jacket flap and without hardly glancing at it, and any fault of that is entirely my own (it was at a live reading and I would have purchased a treadmill from him if he had asked me to). And again my own fault after doing the same thing with Spook Country, the book that followed Pattern Recognition. These were good books; well written, engaging, fresh. But they are science fiction in only the most generous of definitions, a fact that does not keep them from sitting on Border’s scifi shelves and ranking high on Amazon’s scifi lists.

A similar event happened with Geoff Ryman. Some time ago, and despite writing one of the most brain-busting, far-future weird-outs I’d ever read (The Child Garden), he produced The Mundane SF Manifesto, also known as How To Make Subspace Rend Her Clothes. In short, the Manifesto says: there will never be interstellar travel – hence never any alien contact, terraformed worlds, etc. – so stop writing about them. Oh Geoff, why? Why it gotta be like this? To my eternal heartache, a movement thus followed, even such that some, while not directly following the Manifesto, could still be seen carrying the torch (I would unhesitatingly rank Cory Doctorow in this group). An entire movement of people who feel that science fiction is somehow best served by making sure that plausibility reigns.

Happily, there are those other than myself who disagree. Rudy Rucker, a long-time-player in scifi and a Ph.D in mathematics, gently spoke out against the so-called Mundane sub-genre, foremost by pointing out that basing a philosophy on the impossibility of interstellar travel is just bad science (his entire blog is a lesson on how to remain genuinely civil and opinionated at the same time). Pay attention to the comments at the end of his post: people seem to be agitated at the idea that “bad science” might ruin their scifi.

The upside has forced me to examine how I am limiting my own writing: do I discard ideas because they resist explanation? Or because I fear it would be to much work to suspend disbelief? But I still come around to the same lament: since when are there so many predicates in “What if?”

10 Posted in Literature