Press your spaceface close to mine

Put Up Or Shut Up

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

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.

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September 7th, 2008 | Literature

12 Responses to “Put Up Or Shut Up”

  1. xadrian Says:

    I’ve been wanting to Put Up for years and yet I find myself confronted by the same indelible fact: Writing is hard.

    That said, I’m not sure I’d know good from bad science fiction. I do know what bores me, I know what makes me roll my eyes and I know what will get a book thrown in the fire – but I can’t tell you it’s because it’s good science fiction.

    I know I tried giving Ilium several chances and when I finally did it was worth it. But it was a hard nut to crack; disparate threads and glacial story movement didn’t help. (Aslo, Olympos was a bit of a let down.) Point being, science fiction, nay all literature, is like wine. Not that it’s an acquired taste or you have to sniff it first and only eat cheese and talk about how it tastes of currants (like we’ve ever eaten a currant) but that the taste it shows you depends on you, your body chemistry, the time of day, etc.

    I’m going to disagree with you, I think the product is less because there are fewer readers and those that are still around aren’t as sharp as we used to be. I won’t jump into the ice-hole of “print is dead” but I will say our gorging on media has I think reduced our capacity to both create and appreciate the creation with any skill.

    Longest comment ever? Waiting for the quagmire rebuttal.

  2. Sunday Says:

    The good-from-bad scifi thing stumps me on a daily basis. I mean, I’ve got my “serious” scifi loves (Canticle for Leibowitz), my classic allegiances (Dune never fails to make me happy, ever), my hard scifi addictions (Peter F. Hamilton, you remain, as ever, The Man), my scifi crushes (Mr. Watts, you are a biologist and a gentleman), and my crappy scifi indulgences (sometimes a girl just wants to read Anne McCaffrey in a room with the blinds drawn and a pitcher of White Russians at hand). But what makes any of these good? Or bad? Or badly good? So yes, like wine or cheese or chocolate or bourbon: on what day are you asking? What is the weather like? How happy am I? Each of these has a final bearing on my taste.

    I also realized that I wrote a sentence poorly (well, lots, but I’ll focus on this particular one for now). I originally wrote:

    “(…) and I’m certain it’s not just that I’m getting smarter (…)”

    When I meant to say: I am certainly getting dumber. So in that, I agree with you. I’m absolutely not as sharp as I used to be and I most definitely do not have the patience to wade through entire new made-up languages or entire books of “future slang”.

    I know that every generation must think they are losing ground over the last, but I also suspect every generation is correct in this fear. Man, I don’t know. Maybe not. I recently re-read Looking Backward — a book that floored me in college — and thought “Meh. It’s okay.” What happened? Am I more cynical? Less? 10 years ago I thought it very clever. Now I am distracted by bad storyline.

    I tried to sell a manuscript, but was told there was no market for scifi satire. Which is probably true. An agent asked if I had any Young Adult, which I guess was a compliment. Unless you’ve seen anything by Stephanie Meyer, who proves that no matter how shitty you write, as long as you write about vampires you can get a book deal.

    No offense, Watts. Heh.

  3. Aaron Says:

    you’re a crazy. i found the illium/olympus line to be some of the best i’ve read in a long while. and yes, while there were a numerous (not disparate) story lines, they all tied together and were never hard to follow. and i certainly wouldn’t call the story movement glacial. i lost many hours of precious sack time on account of that book.
    “just going to read to the chapter’s end,” i say. “going to bed soon,” i’d say. and then POW 200 pages later the book would still be staring me in the face as i desperately tried to ignore the nagging glow of the alarm clock incessantly reminding me that i had to be up in an hour.
    i’m currently working through cryptonomicon. (and enjoying the crap out of it.)
    my only complaint: he keeps hopping between four different story lines, two of which take place in the past and have different characters, and two of which take place in the present and have the same characters. and he keeps swiching between the latter two with no warning.
    it causes me to stumble.

  4. Sunday Says:

    Don’t you say nothin bad about Cryptonomicon on my website.

  5. Aaron Says:

    i didn’t. in fact i said i was ‘enjoying the crap out of it.’
    also, one of the story lines seems to have recently ended.
    so. i stumble no more.

  6. xadrian Says:

    @Aaron – my apologies. Ilium was indeed enjoyable, to the extent that I wanted to draw all the characters, something I’m not normally moved to do. I only used it as an example of a book that’s hard to get into. You have to admit, starting with the Professor at Troy and then the dandy humans on the NeoVictorian estate, THEN the robots on Jupiter was jarring. It literally took me three time to start it. The human parts were just too boring at first, BUT it was a rough time in my life and when I started it later (and during a better time) I was able to get through it and enjoy it. To wit, personal current situations impact your tolerance for the literature.

    However, I’m currently reading neuroplasticity and cortical mapping books, so what do I know? ;)

  7. quagmire Says:

    @xadrian: Actually, I think your comment is right to the point and well stated! I especially like your analogy to wine and cheese and what is going on in a person’s life at the time they ‘ingest’ a book, music or whatever. It all has to do with what those dendrites store in our memory-hole. I still think of wonderful snowy days when I smell real vanilla. Growing up in the south, my mom would make what po’ folks called snow-cream. We couldn’t afford ice cream, so she’d mix fresh fallen, pristine (no yellow!) snow in a big bowl with a little cream and vanilla … sigh

  8. Sue London Says:

    “I tried to sell a manuscript, but was told there was no market for scifi satire.”

    Well, you can pull a Scalzi and laugh all the way to the bank until you get tired of putting up the paypal button for it, then have a major publisher finally publish it WHILE IT IS STILL AVAILABLE FREE ON THE WEB.
    Free Web Version
    Pre-order through Amazon (available 10/28)
    Review from Fantasy & Sci-Fi Lovin’ Book Reviews that tells the story (scroll past the excerpt).

    Seriously, no market? That’s some of the only sci-fi I will go for anymore because, quite honestly, I got tired of the crap. I’m older than you so it happened longer ago for me. We’ve discussed this before… Some books are not to be lightly tossed aside but to be hurled with great force. (Thank you, Dorothy.)

    Keep at it, Sunday. I’m sure your sci-fi satire is delightful.

  9. David Says:

    Neal Stephenson is the most overrated author in the history of science fiction, possibly the English language. After wasting a summer reading Cryptonomicon I couldn’t get rid of my autographed copy quick enough.Nor can I possibly say anything bad enough about it. As for your reaction to Perdido Street Station….well, no accounting for taste. I wouldn’t trade a page of Mieville for everything Stephenson has written since Snow Crash.

    Btw, I arrived here via your review of Nova. That’s rousing space opera, not rousting for christ’s sake. For the record, I’ve been reading Delany since 1965. As for Sue, above, I’ve been reading it longer than she has and I still am. Love Peter Hamilton, but he’ll never be more than a “B” list for me.

  10. quagmire Says:

    @ David: I dunno lad, me thinks Delaney capable of writing a space opera that could drive me (roustingly) from complacency, roughly or unceremoniously … fer Buddha’s sake.

  11. Sunday Says:

    Do you have a crush on me, David? Cuz you’re talkin’ real purdy.

  12. halcyon Says:

    Reading Mieville is like watching a mental patient hump a thesaurus. You have to just stare and shake your head. There’s no accounting for taste.

    The best thing to do in this situation is to discretely close the door. Continued attention will only aggravate his pathology.

    Always here to help,

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