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.