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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 - 09:11 am:   

New F&SF website column has been posted: Thoughts on Paraspheres and the Mainstreaming of SF.
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John Joseph Adams
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 - 11:06 am:   

Here's a link to the column:
http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2007/dt0707.htm
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Ahmed A. Khan
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 - 05:04 pm:   

Well, as far as SF is concerned, Dave's tastes seem to run quite parallel to mine. Good article, Dave.

Ahmed
http://ahmedakhan.journalspace.com
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 - 06:26 pm:   

Dave, a few comments:

1. Glad to see no sideways or direct cracks against radical feminists or mention of a double standard . . .

2. Egad, man. I counted up the equivalent of 31 pages of prose -- that's a course paper!

3. I can't believe I read the whoooole thing. (that's an inside joke for those of us oldies who remember the Alka Seltzer ad from the 70s)

4. I usually can't get enthused about genre turf wars or discussions thereof, seeing them as nothing more than irrelevant battles between jealous siblings over who gets what side of the backseat. However, I read your article to see what was up because this has been discussed on my friendslist at livejournal and so I was curious.

I take it your main complaint about /i{Paraspheres} is that it does not accomplish what it claims to -- that is, to present material that in some way broadens SF to appeal to a more literary crowd, and/or vice versa. It also transgresses a very central (in your mind) requirement of SF -- "domesticating the strange" and instead "estranges the domestic." In other words, it's a failure at what it sets out to do and produces not-SF not-litfic but a bad amalgam of both.

Your other complaint is that these heretics want the SF community to give this new-fangled genre bending our stamp of approval. I mean, as if. :-)

I wonder what all the noise is about. I don't see much of a market for this kind of sf lit fic. I just can't see this "movement" doing much of anything for SF or for literary fiction. It's like mating two extremely small very inbred dogs - say, a Chihuahua and a Papillion. You don't get a bigger more generalist dog in the bargain, you get another very unique small dog with appeal to an even smaller group of dog lovers.

Now, if you want to create a really big pup, you need a big mother and a small father - coz it doesn't work the other way due to structural considerations. If SF is the father, you need a big mother, like mystery, or romance or espionage or crime thrillers. The result may please readers of mystery, romance, espionage or crime thrillers, but I suspect not SF readers. I can't help but think that the SF will get overwhelmed in the process.

What is it about SF that turns off the average reader? Is it essential to SF to have that trait that turns the average reader away? Must we jettison that or disguise it in order to broaden SF's appeal?

Why does the average reader prefer Cornwell, Kellerman, J.D.Robb, Nora Roberts? Why are there so few SF books on the best-seller lists and why are the ones that get there are focused on boy wizards, vampire slayers, Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds, and media tie ins?

Is it possible to write SF mystery, SF espionage, SF crime thriller, SF romance and thus open the market for SF up? Will the average reader buy SF if it is disguised as something else?

I did enjoy Norman Spinrad's article at Asimov's, but I felt he was being unfair.


quote:

But as something wrapping itself in the literary cloak of hard science fiction, using the hoary and even clunky literary techniques of hard science fiction to further blur the distinction between true science and rubber science, between true scientific speculation and high-grade bullshit in the minds of readers in a culture where such distinctions are in danger enough of disappearing already does that culture a serious disservice.




In other words, stay away from my Hard SF! If you're going to write Soft SF, don't even pretend to include any serious science because us hardies don't want to be fooled.

I dunno. I thought the inclusion of vampires in Blindsight qualified as pretty soft science . . . Maybe I should get all upset when a Hard SF writer includes soft science . . .
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 - 07:08 pm:   

Elizabeth: "I take it your main complaint about /i{Paraspheres} is that it does not accomplish what it claims to -- that is, to present material that in some way broadens SF to appeal to a more literary crowd, and/or vice versa. It also transgresses a very central (in your mind) requirement of SF -- "domesticating the strange" and instead "estranges the domestic." In other words, it's a failure at what it sets out to do and produces not-SF not-litfic but a bad amalgam of both."

That's pretty much it in a nutshell, Elizabeth, though there will always be exceptions. Someone will come along and write an "estranging the domestic" story that will blow me away, and thank goodness for exceptions to the rule.

"What is it about SF that turns off the average reader? Is it essential to SF to have that trait that turns the average reader away? Must we jettison that or disguise it in order to broaden SF's appeal?"

Very technical jargon even turns me off, when it goes on and on. I appreciate it when an SF story does something clever with a sfnal "concept" which anyone who likes SF can assimilate, if the author--through a character or a bit of narrative--can explain to the uninitiated reader. You know, um, something like the concept of what Dark Matter is, for example. If you know what it is then you'll get quite an extra bang out of Stephen Baxter's "Last Contact" in _The Solaris Book of Science Fiction_. If you haven't a clue what Dark Matter is, then Baxter gives enough of a _non_ scientific explanation of it to make this chilling story work for you anyway.

If one wants to read SF, and if SF writes UP to the intelligent reader, then I don't like to see its basic concepts dumbed-down for a lazy reader. SF demands more of the reader than the literary mainstream does; this has been said over and over for as long as I've been reading SF, and it's a fact. I'm all for making an SF story accessible to the average (non-science oriented) reader, but SF can only go so far in explaining some elementary scientific concepts without writing for Dick and Jane and Spot. ;)

If one wants to read an historical novel of the sea from the 1850s for example, a lot of the language, idioms, and nautical terms used might turn a reader off if used without regard to the average reader. But if the reader has read even a little of that period before, then he won't be as lost in the terminology or customs or conventions of that sort of literature.

Same thing with SF. If the reader doesn't know what FTL refers to, then by golly look it up somewhere. If one is reading some historical novel and doesn't know what a doublet is, then by golly look it up. If a story about robots refers to a Turing Test and you're lost, then look it up. It's not SF's responsibility to cater to those who can't be troubled to learn BASIC stuff about their world in a lot of areas. If things get way too technical and aren't explained smoothly (integrated into the text) then we have a problem; this simply isn't good storytelling. But most SF isn't that technical. A lot of SF deals in the effects of a change in any number of areas; scientific, social, political, etc. If one isn't at least a little hip to some of the basic _concepts_ in these areas, then he'll be lost--unless he decides to educate himself. SF isn't for dummies, and it shouldn't be watered down for them when it comes to the basics.

At least, this is how I see it. :-)
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 - 07:59 pm:   

Elizabeth: "Is it possible to write SF mystery, SF espionage, SF crime thriller, SF romance and thus open the market for SF up? Will the average reader buy SF if it is disguised as something else?"

Alfred Bester long ago proved that the mystery/crime/SF mix a viable one. THE DEMOLISHED MAN is one of SF's greats. Greg Bear (and others) also write quite effective SF espionage/thrillers. And Catherine Asaro has carved out her own commercially successful niche with her unique blend of SF and Romance (remember that she's a physicist).

It's all in how it's done. Asaro's Skolian Web books are rife with SF concepts, yet she manages to explain it to her readers (both male and female) with no real problem. Greg Bear manages to center some of his thrillers with cutting-edge science in one area or other, and tell it with the pacing of an espionage thriller. Both Asaro and Bear manage to balance the SF stuff with their particular hybridization. It can be done, and done well. But both are combining other genres, however, and don't attempt to mix the genre "style" of storytelling with the "literary mainstream" style, which historically eschews plot.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 - 09:42 pm:   

Yes, but Dave, the works you cite brought those particular genre elements to SF readers, rather than bringing SF elements to mystery readers or romance readers or espionage readers. Can we bring science fiction to readers of Le Carre or Patterson or Cornwell rather than bringing mystery and espionage and crime thrillers to sf readers?

For example, we know that a lot of women read, and a lot of women read romance. I realize there is a sub-genre in romance called "paranormal romance" that deals with SFnal themes or settings. The vampire/fairy/demon/werewolf romance sub-genre looks to be fairly robust, so it seems as if fantasy and dark fantasy in particular are able to breach the divide between the two camps.

I wonder how well SF as in "science fiction", even hard science fiction, does or could do in that regard. I don't know, as I don't read romance of any sort, so maybe others here can provide a few titles.

The point being that if we are going to broaden SF's appeal, it will have to be a one-way street -- from the very niche market to the broader market, rather than the other way around.

In other words, the works will have to feel like those other genres, but with SFnal elements incorporated in an unobtrusive way. This may challenge some people's notions of what constitutes "science fiction". Is it still science fiction if it is a mystery set on a near-future Earth where some science phenomenon (hard science or soft) is part of the killer's MO? And will mystery readers pick up such a book? Does that depend on how the novel is marketed?

Seems to me that there would be a number of hard SF fans / writers who would balk at that kind of hybrid.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 - 10:04 pm:   

Elizabeth: "Is it still science fiction if it is a mystery set on a near-future Earth where some science phenomenon (hard science or soft) is part of the killer's MO? And will mystery readers pick up such a book? Does that depend on how the novel is marketed?"

I'll let others pick up on your questions for now (though I have easy-enough answers for you, but I'd like to see what others have to say). I'd rather confine my remarks to SF trying to mix with the literary mainstream, as per Paraspheres and others of its ilk as outlined in my column.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 - 10:12 pm:   

I picked up a copy of /i{The Road} by Cormac McCarthy the other day and spent some time skimming the pages to see what all the hubub was about. I haven't read the book so I don't know for sure, but it seemed to me that what characterizes this kind of novel is that the SFnal element is backdrop, context, rather than focus. In The Road we follow a father and son as they make their way across a post-apocalyptic landscape. The novel focuses less on the cause of the apocalypse, at least from what I could see, and more on the character interior and relationships of the people still alive and how they deal with the reality. I would expect a science fiction novel dealing with the same element -- a post-apocalypse scenario -- but with more of a focus on the science itself; with the cause of the apocalypse, with the problem it poses to the characters and how they address those problems, perhaps even using science and/or tech to solve them.

So, to me, it's not that people are turned off by science, but perhaps, they are more turned on by the plight of vivid characters and their relationships rather than science ideas, tech and problem solving.

Perhaps, science fiction will always be very niche because science and ideas are the central focus. Yes, the very best sf writers have great characters and explore relationships, but there must be something -- the necessity of some degree of science knowledge for example -- that turns off the average reader. None of us have to get out an encyclopedia to read and understand a character story about personal loss and recovery, but those without some basic understanding of or knowldge base in science might have to search out a text in order to understand what's going on in a hard sf novel (or sit through a tedious infodump) and that might be offputting. It's not that people are lazy readers -- they are not reading for the same reason that hard sf readers are.

I am turned on by great sf ideas and so I like to be challenged when I read, but I have a background so I can go with the flow when it comes to the science involved. Someone without that background will not be able to do so.

I guess I just don't see that it's possible to keep SF the way it currently is, esp. hard sf, and expect to broaded interest in it. It will have to change, or a whole new subgenre will have to be created, leaving hard sf as an even smaller niche market.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 07:43 am:   

A lot of sf people like to trash Margaret Atwood. The mainstream does read Atwood's novels. Most of them have been on the bestseller list at one time or another. She has enough name recognition to sell her books and probably wanted to avoid the taint of SF with her novels because it might reduce her sales.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 08:02 am:   

If one wants to read SF, and if SF writes UP to the intelligent reader, then I don't like to see its basic concepts dumbed-down for a lazy reader. SF demands more of the reader than the literary mainstream does; this has been said over and over for as long as I've been reading SF, and it's a fact. I'm all for making an SF story accessible to the average (non-science oriented) reader, but SF can only go so far in explaining some elementary scientific concepts without writing for Dick and Jane and Spot. ;)

It's probably attitudes like that which lead to mainstream or litfic novelists thumbing their nose at the SF community . . .
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 08:43 am:   

Elizabeth: "but there must be something -- the necessity of some degree of science knowledge for example -- that turns off the average reader."

Um, yes and no, and not necessarily. For example, if one has a background in sociology then he or she would probably gravitate toward some of Le Guin's SF. If one had an interest or background in history, then he or she would probably gravitate toward a Harry Turtledove SF novel. If one had an interest in ecology then a Brin (EARTH) or Tepper or KSR novel would be to their liking. If one's interests are in the areas of cosmology or physics or biology or nanotech, etc. then one could find a Baxter or Benford or Bear (or any number of others these days) SF novel that he or she would appreciate. An "SF" novel doesn't automatically mean technical science as in _some_ of what is considered to be "hard SF."

Again, SF (at its best) is written for an intelligent audience. There's something here for everyone. But if one knows nothing of sociology, history, environmentalism, social issues, psychology, math, cosmology, biology, or any _other_ subject with which SF deals, then it probably isn't going to be for you. If you don't know nuttin' about nuttin' then almost any SF novel will be beyond you (save for shoot'em ups in space, or the trite fantasy template where Good triumphs against the Evil Hordes).

The reader _has_ to bring _something_ intellectually to the dance to begin with. This is just the nature of the "SF" beast, and what makes it so challenging and exciting to read. Not to mention separates it in many fundamental aspects from literary mainstream fiction, which deals primarily with the here and now. Maybe the following quote will help explain the difference.

From James (SFWA's newest Grand Master) Gunn’s essay “The Worldview of Science Fiction”

"Mainstream fiction's preoccupation with the present reflects an apparent desire to freeze reality in its current state, and a belief that everything that has happened or is likely to happen is of little importance except as it reflects upon the present. Mainstream's preoccupation with the reactions and reflections of individuals who have little influence in their own times and no historical influence suggests that reality is less important than the way people feel about it. To put it another way, the concentration by mainstream fiction on social interactions seems to incorporate the conviction that the most important, if not the only important, aspect of existence is the ways in which people relate to each other.

"Science fiction, on the other hand, incorporates a belief that the most important aspect of existence is a search for humanity's origins, its purpose, and its ultimate fate. Mainstream fiction may seem more "real" because it reflects the reality that most people deal with in their everyday existence: the social world and our interactions with it and our feelings about it. But is the evolution of humanity less real because it is less quotidian?

"The shape of mainstream fiction is dictated by its belief in what is important. It is dense with character not because that is what "good fiction" concerns itself with but because that is what mainstream fiction is about. Science fiction, which has often been criticized because of the thinness of its characterization, is similarly the result of SF beliefs. When one is concerned about the way in which people are the products of their environments and how one can free oneself to act in ways other than that one has been conditioned to do, the feelings of the characters about their situations, or even aspects of individual character or reactions to the general predicament, seem of little moment.

"Similarly, mainstream fiction has minimized or discarded plot as "mere incident," while plot remains at the heart of science fiction. This suggests that for the mainstream what happens does not really matter; nothing new is going to occur, and the only proper concern is how character should react to repetition. Science fiction, on the other hand, exists in a world of change, and the focus is on external events: What is the change and how are humans (or aliens) going to respond to it?"

The entire piece can be found at:

http://www2.ku.edu/~sfcenter/sfview.htm

I wanted to include this in my column, but alas, forgot all about it until it was too late. He first gave it as a speech at a Sturgeon/Campbell conference in the mid-90s, and I ran it in one of the earlier print versions of Tangent. Gunn says several things here, one of them focusing on Change as one of the defining predicates of SF.

Unless the SF reader can intelligently bring an awareness of his place in the world and in the universe to his reading of SF, then he won't "get it." It's not the fault of SF, but that of the reader. Where SF is concerned as a distinct literature, the default position is one where the reader must know at least the _bare basics_ when it comes to any of a variety of disciplines, i.e. be an intelligent reader.

It's a mistaken belief that "SF" in general is indecipherable to the "average" reader. _Some_ "hard SF" _may_ be, but not SF in general. Most of it _is_ written so that the "averagely" (?) educated and curious reader can enjoy it. If you barely finished high school, and maybe graduated with D's at that, and never cracked a book in your life (as a general proposition only), then even the most dumb-downed SF isn't for you.
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 09:17 am:   

SF demands more of the reader than the literary mainstream does; this has been said over and over for as long as I've been reading SF, and it's a fact. (Dave Truesdale).

-------------------

The difficulty I have with your opinion is that there is no single SF. Which SF sub-genre are you talking about here? If by SF you’re talking about the stagnant (and predominantly U.S.) “rockets, rayguns and robots” SF market of the early 1960s, then reading a washing machine manual was probably more demanding.

Whatever your view of the SF New Wave, it challenged this tired old market, and it raised the bar in terms of grammar and style. It foregrounded satire and psychology, and it wasn’t afraid to wear its surrealistic and artistic influences on its sleeve. It was certainly a child of its time, but it’s not strictly true to say it failed – like all artistic experiments, its influences are still with us.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 10:21 am:   

Dan: "It was certainly a child of its time, but it’s not strictly true to say it failed"

Then you're arguing with Tom Disch (and others), who have proclaimed its failure both artistically and commercially. Try explaining your disagreement to those of them who were there, and wrote it, and have proclaimed its demise.

"like all artistic experiments, its influences are still with us."

Well, of course. It opened up SF stylistically, in the level of its prose, but the New Wave was about much more than just raising the bar when it came to line-by-line technical execution. Where it mattered most (to them), it failed, for some of the very reasons I cited in my column (see the quote by Budrys in particular).

"The difficulty I have with your opinion is that there is no single SF."

Yes there is, if you look at "SF" as a distinct form of literature in its very precepts, which are opposite to those anchoring the "literary mainstream." Their worldviews are in total apposition to one another. One is static, the other dynamic. There are individual "types" of SF, yes, but they all adhere to the same basic, fundamental principles which separate SF from the literary mainstream. See the (just posted) excerpt from Dr. Gunn's essay to see what I mean.
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 10:46 am:   

Dave: I like Tom Disch, but I'm not bothered by the fact that someone who took part in the New Wave apparently disagrees with me. If Tom Disch wants to have a chat, I'm more than happy...

As for Dr Gunn: Science fiction, on the other hand, exists in a world of change, and the focus is on external events...

Incorrect. Plenty of SF is concerned with stagnation and stasis, plenty more SF is concerned with internal events (inner space), as explored by the New Wave.

Good debate, keep it coming.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 11:09 am:   

I don't really like all this "genre" turf battle, because it tends -- like all such battles -- to find small or even imaginary differences and magnify them to make a point and distance one's self from "the other", and in the process, ends up misrepresenting the degree of difference.

With all respect due to Gunn, I don't think that I or other people read SF in order to learn "the way in which people are the products of their environments and how one can free oneself to act in ways other than that one has been conditioned to do". Nor do I accept the argument that mainstream fiction does not focus on this as well as the feelings and reactions of characters. I think that's setting up an artificial dichotomy for rhetorical purposes and thus, the argument may sound impressive but it loses relevance because it does not reflect reality.

I don't read SF for that purpose. I read it because I like to imagine a future I will never see. Period. People who don't like SF generally aren't interested in imagining the future. Period. I like to imagine living in the future, and do so vicariously through SF that is set in the future. That's why I like a character or characters who can act as a medium for me. I do think that "good fiction" has good strong accessible characters. That goes for SF as well as mainstream fiction. Those characters don't have to be "like" me -- they can be different, and in fact, that's why I read -- so I can imagine living in a different person's skin in a different time or place with a different reality.

When I read SF, if I don't get into "the feelings of the characters about their situations, or even aspects of individual character or reactions to the general predicament" I shut the book and toss it into the trashcan. I can read non-fiction books about physics or astronomy or some other science if I want to read about science.

To me, fiction is transportment into times, places and experiences I will never have. I think humans are situated in a character -- ourselves -- and thus require other characters in order to gain access into other worlds or time. Characters are vehicles to experience the other.

In my opinion, we need characters' feelings about their situations and "reactions to the general predicament" to really appreciate the other time or place fully. Getting into another world with its unique situations and seeing how people react to and deal with it is precisely why I read historical novels, science fiction novels, and fantasy novels, espionage novels, etc. in the first place.

I may be just one person, but I don't read the kind of SF that focuses solely or even majorly on the ideas at the expense of character and emotion. I say this is not the defining characteristic of SF, but of a form of SF, probably a minority form. Some people may prefer this kind of SF, and more power to them, but please don't define SF in such a narrow way because you're not talking about my SF.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 11:10 am:   

Dan: "Plenty of SF is concerned with stagnation and stasis, plenty more SF is concerned with internal events (inner space), as explored by the New Wave."

Dr. Gunn is speaking to general operating principles, Dan, to the Literature of Science Fiction seen as a distinct reaction to the mundane concerns of the so-called traditional literary mainstream, not to each and every story published over the decades. As a general principle, and clear-cut point of departure, SF and the Literary Mainstream operate from different worldviews, different perspectives and _concerns_. This is reflected in _what_ each choose to write about and _how_ each choose to write it. Dr. Gunn makes this clear in his essay.

I hope I've understood what you're trying to say, and that this clarifies some of your questions.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 11:48 am:   

Elizabeth: "I don't read the kind of SF that focuses solely or even majorly on the ideas at the expense of character and emotion. I say this is not the defining characteristic of SF"

Nor do I. Nor does Dr. Gunn. Both are ideally required (again, as a general principle and where necessary). I'm reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's classic short story "The Star." It's a terrific little "idea" story that does not _require_ any character development at all, yet it makes its religious point quite effectively. But when character development _is_ required, it should ideally be in tandem with a nifty idea, or a nifty take on an idea that will affect human beings in some way or other (you know the drill). I don't think anyone today is espousing the idea that SF should be about the Idea and nothing else; certainly not me.

Remember, too, that in a short story there isn't _usually_ much time for full character development _and_ an exposition of idea. Short stories--good short stories--are very difficult to write. In a novelette or a novella there is more room to breathe, to have that sought after 50/50 relationship between idea and character development. Just a point to factor into the discussion, but worth noting.

To really appreciate and understand (not that it is absolutely necessary, but it helps to put into context) what Dr. Gunn was "saying" in his essay (not just picking out a line or two here or there that may appear to narrowly define SF), it helps if one has read some of, if not all of, his 6-volume "The Road to Science Fiction" series, which has been published to high acclaim over the past several decades. There are quite a few essays there that help to give a better understanding of where he (and SF) is coming from, and where it is now. David Hartwell's introductions to his pair of books are also quite informative _and_ entertaining: VISIONS OF WONDER: The Science Fiction Research Association Reading Anthology (1996), ed. with Milton T. Wolf; and, THE ASCENT OF WONDER: The Evolution of Hard SF (1994), ed. with Kathryn Cramer. Both books include great stories and great essays and really give one a much wider understanding and appreciation of the total SF reading experience (from all perspectives and ideologies).

So try not to tease too much out of a _seemingly_ incongruous line or two from a single essay, especially where the much larger picture is involved. We're trying to get the big picture here, of SF and the mainstream, and their major differences and approaches, and why (in my view) mixing the two opposite approaches won't work.
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 01:52 pm:   

Gunn: New Wave SF, for instance, tended to describe the environmental aspect of human behavior but, like naturalism, stopped at that. Or, rather, it assumed that people are moved more by obsession than rational choice, and that crippled their ability to cope with change. J. G. Ballard's stories and novels are good examples, with their characters paralyzed by change rather than adapting to it or moved to action by it.

--------------------------

Don’t you think that people are moved more by obsession than rational choice? Humans are certainly good at rationalizing their own behavior (and that of others) Dave, but rationalizing isn’t the same as operating in a rational manner.

As for Ballard, Gunn is quite wrong in his analysis of Ballardian characters being paralyzed by change; so wrong in fact, that one wonders if he has even read any Ballard. At the very least, the typical Ballardian character is notable by their ambivalence towards their changing environmental conditions. More often however, Ballard’s characters welcome and even embrace these external changes, thereby adapting and (sometimes) surviving.This is particularly evident in his early SF novels: Kerans, in The Drowned World; Sanders, in The Crystal World; and Ransome, in The Drought.
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 02:11 pm:   

Elizabeth L: People who don't like SF generally aren't interested in imagining the future.

=========

I like this phrase, Elizabeth. I'm not sure if it's true, but I'd like it to be. It could also be that people who aren't interested in imagining the future don't like SF. Either way, I'm sure there's a link between wanting your mind stretched and certain forms of SF. If you've never tried The Time Machine (HG Wells), give it a try. You sound like you might like it.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 02:13 pm:   

Dan, I can't be expected to speak for Jim on everything he has written, or to explain what _he_ meant, in all but a very few cases. I could try, but I won't. I've met and talked with him quite a number of times over the years (he lives around 30 miles east of KC in Lawrence, KS). His opinions are just as open to discussion and debate as are anyone else's, but I will say that they are well respected in the SF, teaching, and academic communities.

It would be a very easy matter for you to go back to the webpage with his essay, and find a link which would lead you to his email address. Seriously, try getting in touch with him and ask him your questions on this matter, or let him know you think he's full of hot air when it comes to Ballard. He's a very nice, gentle soul, and I'm sure he would respond. I sorta hope you do this, and report back here with whatever he says. I'd like to know myself.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 02:18 pm:   

Oh, and Dan? I just now clicked on your name to have a look at your profile. I see you're brand new to this message board and are from the UK. Welcome!
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 02:49 pm:   

Thanks Dave!
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 03:11 pm:   

Dan: "Thanks Dave!"

You're welcome. Don't know if you get out much, or have an opportunity to see or speak to SF authors where you live (I don't know where it is in the UK you're from, and if it's not London then I'd still be lost), but if you have the chance, give my best wishes to Pat Cadigan. Before she moved to the UK some many years ago, she went to university at Lawrence, KS and studied SF under the tutelage of James Gunn. Maybe she could give you her views on Dr. Gunn's position on Ballard's writing. You could see if they square with yours or not.

Just a thought....
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 03:43 pm:   

Interesting article, Dave. There are a number of books like this published.

In general, I think speculative fiction is coming to the fore overall, with tendrils in every other "genre" or type of writing. That which is thought to be traditional seems to be in retreat.

And short fiction - well - since that's your specialty, you know best. I just think a sense of fun and joy is the most important. Ray Lafferty certainly had a great time. Probably the better stories and writers in the book you reviewed did as well.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 03:46 pm:   

it helps if one has read some of, if not all of, his 6-volume "The Road to Science Fiction" series, which has been published to high acclaim over the past several decades. There are quite a few essays there that help to give a better understanding of where he (and SF) is coming from, and where it is now . . .

So try not to tease too much out of a _seemingly_ incongruous line or two from a single essay, especially where the much larger picture is involved. We're trying to get the big picture here, of SF and the mainstream, and their major differences and approaches, and why (in my view) mixing the two opposite approaches won't work.


Pretentious patronizing poppycock. He's made a clear claim about SF and mainstream fiction. I'll repeat it here:

mainstream fiction has minimized or discarded plot as "mere incident," while plot remains at the heart of science fiction. This suggests that for the mainstream what happens does not really matter; nothing new is going to occur, and the only proper concern is how character should react to repetition. Science fiction, on the other hand, exists in a world of change, and the focus is on external events: What is the change and how are humans (or aliens) going to respond to it?"

Gunn's claim is either valid or not. I don't think it's valid to make such large sweeping claims about "SF" or mainstream fiction when the two are so varied and have so many forms. I could name dozens, hundreds, of stories and novels in SF that have a great focus on character, and a similar number of mainstream fiction works that have gobs of plot where change occurs.

Besides, it is clearly biased towards SF, as if SF is somehow priviliged.

I think Gunn's essay, like a lot of academic work, seeks to categorize and abstract away the subtlety that exists in the real world in order to create the illusion of some kind of clear division that does not exist except in abstraction.

That's fine for academics to toss around at each other, and believe me, I've been involved in such stratospheric academic debates about classification and categorization of various phenomena, but I think it falls apart once you reach the ground -- reality in other words.

Does his claim help me to understand SF and mainstream fiction better? Or does it hinder understanding by eliding similarities and over-emphasizing minor differences? If every single piece of mainstream or science fiction I pick up fails to fit into his description of the differences between the two, of what worth is it?
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S. Hamm
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 04:48 pm:   

SF demands more of the reader than the literary mainstream does; this has been said over and over for as long as I've been reading SF, and it's a fact.

Fact? No. It's a load of risible hooey. The only people who have "said [it] over and over" are SF fans, who tend to have a strong exceptionalist streak and are extremely prone to a) self-flattery, and b) delusions of persecution by the mundane world. Fans are Slans, remember?

What "mainstream literature" are you talking about? What SF are you talking about? The new Rona Jaffe is certainly "less demanding" than The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, but then The Gold Bug Variations is rather "more demanding" than Hammer's Slammers vs. the Kzin or Dune #352: Fuckbuckets of Dune, no? Steven Baxter reads better if you know a little cosmology and physics. Does that make him "more demanding" than Nabokov? Joyce? Proust? Pushkin? Lawrence Sterne, Jane Austen, William Faulkner? Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec (to pull a couple of names from the Oulipo hat)? If so, how? And: to whom?

Without at least a minimal level of specificity, the discussion is utterly pointless.

It's perfectly legitimate to say that SF and literary fiction make different demands on the reader, or engage different parts of the brain; Samuel Delany has been making that argument in some detail for years now. The first step is trying to codify what those demands are. To simplify greatly: with genre fiction, it's mostly a matter of prior experience, of knowing the ropes. The SF reader who sees the closing line "Jerry was a man" can pretty much figure out, if only from the author's name (Robert A. Heinlein) what sort of story precedes it -- while a mystery reader who sees the closing line "Juno was a man!" under Mickey Spillane's byline knows to expect a whole 'nother sort of experience.

The basic parameters for reading literary fiction are harder to isolate. They're more likely to vary from "school" to "school," author to author, even book to book; the web of allusion and influence tends to be broader, less manageable than is the case with genre stuff. Readers who subsist on a steady diet of genre fiction may not understand the "protocols" of literary fiction, or even apprehend that those protocols exist.

Maybe it's a matter of hard-wiring. There are plenty of extremely smart people who love straight literature but who are never going to "get" SF: it doesn't tickle the requisite pleasure centers in their brain. That's their loss. And there are plenty of extremely smart people whose brains are tickled by nothing but SF; that's their loss too.

But the attempt to valorize genre over mainstream, or mainstream over genre, or genre over genre, is fatuous and futile. You like the shit you like better than you like the shit I like: there's a shock. The trick is not to dismiss all the stuff you don't "get" out of hand. The hollow clang we sometimes hear when our heads collide with a work of art does not always mean that the work of art is hollow.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 06:00 pm:   

The hollow clang we sometimes hear when our heads collide with a work of art does not always mean that the work of art is hollow.

Oooh, I like that. It's a keeper. :-)
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Alex Irvine
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 06:03 pm:   

Mr. Hamm, I can't tell you how many times I've delivered a perhaps slightly less eloquent version of the above screed on convention panels. Bravo, sir.

And I'm still baffled by the assertion that the "mainstream" (whatever that is) doesn't care about Lethem or Atwood. Sales, review space, and commendations would all suggest otherwise.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 06:44 pm:   

Young Irvine,

Less eloquent?? God help ya.

BTW, has Wonder Woman tumbled to your true nature yet?
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 10:03 pm:   

Elizabeth: "I could name dozens, hundreds, of stories and novels in SF that have a great focus on character, and a similar number of mainstream fiction works that have gobs of plot where change occurs."

You're missing the point entirely, Elizabeth. No one is saying that SF doesn't have a focus on character, or that mainstream works don't have plots. What you're misunderstanding is that we're referring to the "literary" mainstream. It's a term used to describe a cadre of east coast literary intellectuals who long ago defined what was "acceptable" or "proper" to write about, and how it should be written. This is what is meant by the "literary mainstream." It connotes something else entirely from what is now casually thrown around as mainstream (which for the most part means anything written that is non-genre related).

I think our problem here is one of understanding the terminology, which I _think_ I can clear up at least somewhat, so we're at least on the same page when using the term "literary" mainstream.

Back in 1997, in a print issue of Tangent, I ran this great article by Dave Wolverton (ON MY WAY TO PARADISE, Bantam, 1989--one of my favorite SF novels ever). It deals with what Dr. Gunn says about the mainstream vs. SF, and created quite a stir in a subsequent lettercolumn. John Kessel, Dave, I think Steve Carper, and others had quite a go of it. I reprinted Dave's article for Tangent Online. It can be found at:

http://www.tangentonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=529&Itemi d=284

Check it out and let me know if it helps any, otherwise we may just end up talking in circles and at cross-purposes forever. :-)
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 10:19 pm:   

Dave,
So are you saying that Cormac McCarthy and other mainstream writers who don't live on the east coast are not considered part of the "literary mainstream"?
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Saturday, June 02, 2007 - 10:37 pm:   

Ellen: "So are you saying that Cormac McCarthy and other mainstream writers who don't live on the east coast are not considered part of the "literary mainstream"?"

I'm talking about the cadre of east coast _critics_, who long ago set down what was "proper" to write about. C'mon, Ellen, get serious. ;)

Check out that Wolverton article I linked to above. Remember it from back in the day?
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S. Hamm
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 12:06 am:   

Dave,

Thanks for the link to the Wolverton article.

William Dean Howells as father of postmodern literature? Wowie. I would not have thought it possible, but you have somehow stumbled across a critic whose abject ignorance of his subject matter makes you look like a paragon of erudition.
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des lewis
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 12:46 am:   

What happened to 'Interstitialism'?
There seems a lot of bewildering things being said here ... that is, according to my eclectic way of choosing what I read (or write).
I live on the east coast of UK. What's this about East Coast critics?
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 05:33 am:   

Ah, now I see it...when Dave talks about SF, he's talking about U.S. SF; when he talks about east coast critics, he's talking about U.S. east coast critics; when he talks about New Wave having failed, he's talking about New Wave having failed in the U.S.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 07:06 am:   

What you're misunderstanding is that we're referring to the "literary" mainstream. It's a term used to describe a cadre of east coast literary intellectuals who long ago defined what was "acceptable" or "proper" to write about, and how it should be written. This is what is meant by the "literary mainstream." It connotes something else entirely from what is now casually thrown around as mainstream (which for the most part means anything written that is non-genre related).

Oh, so it's even more irrelevant than what I initially thought.

Fine. Thanks for clearing that up.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 07:19 am:   

From Wolverton:

A story that fascinates is better than one that bores. A story that is eloquent is better than the babboon howlings of the verbally damned . . .

If we are to have great art, it is important to recognize what makes great art.


Sheer profundity.

I note that he uses a foreign film, Il Postino in order to criticize a literary movement . . .
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 08:59 am:   

William Dean Howells as father of postmodern literature? Wowie. I would not have thought it possible, but you have somehow stumbled across a critic whose abject ignorance of his subject matter makes you look like a paragon of erudition.

I don't think the article was discussing "postmodern literature" so much as discussing Dave's idea of "literary short fiction." And the article was published first ten years ago.

Agreed that he should have turned to actual stories/writers to make his examples. But I found it interesting that he mentioned William Dean Howells. I've never seen that posited before; it's more convincing than one might think. Although Howells was part of the larger movement toward realism and social examination at that time.

"The Canterville Ghost" is one of my favorite stories, BTW (viz. Oscar Wilde). No one suggests Oscar couldn't write and wasn't literate and that his work was somehow "second rate."

It's all about chest-beating and posturing.
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 10:14 am:   

A story that fascinates is better than one that bores. A story that is eloquent is better than the babboon howlings of the verbally damned . . .

========

I'd take him seriously (but only slightly) if he could spell babboon (sic).
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 10:33 am:   

If we are to have great art, it is important to recognize what makes great art.

==========

Pompous baboon.

Plus, I'm always suspicious of people who lecture us on what defines 'great’ or ‘high’ art. Before making such lofty pronouncements, perhaps they need to define what 'art' itself actually is; and then, in damning something as being not great art, to explain to us their criteria, their convictions and their reasoning that leads them to this conclusion.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 11:04 am:   

S. Hamm: "William Dean Howells as father of postmodern literature?"

While I don't pretend to be any sort of expert on the history of postmodern literature, this raised an eyebrow from me too. In the next issue of Tangent's lettercol, John Kessel and Steve Carper took strong issue with this as well, which led to a really ...lively debate.

Whether Howells is the father of postmodern literature isn't really the overarching point Wolverton was making though. It was that certain strictures were placed on writers that in fact did become the accepted and default positions of many of the hoity-toity literati at the time, and through the years came to be defined as the "literary mainstream."

I personally took issue with Wolverton's statement that SF wasn't being taught at the college level. IIRC, it was Mark Hillegas in the very early 70s who first taught an SF college-level course at, hmm, I want to say Colgate University, but I could be mistaken as to the location. After dropping out of college for a few years I went back to finish up in the mid-70s. I immediately signed up for the SF course at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Where, incidentally, the cool prof asked if anyone in the class knew what a "fanzine" was, and would anyone like to start one. Only one person raised their hand...me. And the original incarnation of the sercon genzine TANGENT was born. First issue was Feb., 1975. ;-)

Dan: "I'd take him seriously (but only slightly) if he could spell babboon (sic)."

The spelling error was mine, Dan, when I transcribed the article. Hardly a valuable criticism in any case, regardless of who made the error.

Have you read PARASPHERES, by the way? Were you aware of the history of (a few) sf writers wanting to move away from the genre in the 50s for the reasons given by Judy Merril? Were you aware of what Panshein, Budrys, Gunn, Disch, and Finch had said about the history of SF through the years where it concerns the subject of the marketability of mainstream short fiction since the 1920s, or what the differences were between SF and literary mainstream have been defind as, for a working model for discussion of this issue, or the running debate re the erosion of SF in the magazines in favor of more mainstream-type stories? Well of course you've read PARASPHERES, and you were intimately familiar with what each of these respected folks had to say, because we all know you keep up on all of these things as part of your interest in, and love of SF.

I'm guessing that if you had read PARASPHERES, and had already been familiar with what Merril, Panshin, Budrys, Gunn, Disch, Lafferty, and Finch had said and were able to discuss them from and educated point of view, your comments just might be more germane and helpful to the discussion and less petty. You say you can't take Wolverton seriously because you thought he made a typo. I don't see how this makes you more the one we should take seriously on these important subjects when all you seem intellectually capable of doing is pointing up a lousy typo.

Seriously, I'm certain you _are_ capable of more valuable, educated discourse, and hope you'd apply your energies to such. Snarking is not valuable criticism and adds nothing to the discussion.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 11:23 am:   

Dan: "Before making such lofty pronouncements, perhaps they need to define what 'art' itself actually is; and then, in damning something as being not great art, to explain to us their criteria, their convictions and their reasoning that leads them to this conclusion."

Since you're so sure that Wolverton's personal _opinion_ is dead wrong (though he _does_ explain his own _personal_ criteria for assessment of literary art--we all have our own criteria, of course), this implies that you have your own criteria for judging what good art is and isn't--which is no better or worse than his on the purely subjective level. Wolverton was expressing his own personal opinion on what makes great art for _him_, in an opinion piece, and he told us why he felt that way. He was NOT telling everyone else that his views were RIGHT and all others were WRONG. Like some others in recent memory, I seriously think you need to retake the course on Reading Comprehension 101. Sheesh, Dan, c'mon.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 11:28 am:   

Amy: "Agreed that he should have turned to actual stories/writers to make his examples."

No big deal, Amy, but Dave did say that all of the movies he used as examples were all based on books (IL POSTINO, OUT OF AFRICA, etc.).

Unless I'm misunderstanding you and you're referring to something else in Dave's article, of course.

Cheers.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 11:29 am:   

Some things aren't worth much more than a snark, Dave.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 11:55 am:   

Dave,
Sorry, I was reading quickly to catch up with the posts and misread/misinterpreted was you'd said.
I hadn't read the Wolverton as I posted after two days/evenings of running around at BEA.

However, just because a bunch of literary critics/editors proclaimed something over 100 years ago, doesn't make it valid today.

I've certainly heard of the "genres" given short shrift by many academics and particularly post doc courses giving genre writers a hard time, but when I was at University I took courses in the Restoration literature, Southern Literary Renaissance (including Flannery O'Connor), and Science Fiction. And that was way back in the early 70s.

When I worked for Holt, Rinehart, and Winston (now Henry Holt) for three years in the mid-70s, we published writers including Edward Whittemore, John Nichols (Milagro Beanfield War), David Springer, J.G. Ballard (before his mainstream), and Robert Sheckley.

So it seems to me that the "walls" have been breaking down between realism and fantasy for quite some time.
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 12:03 pm:   

Dave,

I was being as serious with regards to typos as you were being in your Martini piece (which I thought was hilarious, by the way; spot on satire - some of the people having a go at you on the boards were being so humourless and literal).

Petty - me? Not at all. But you do seem a bit touchy about people disagreeing with you. Chill, it’s not personal, y’know…

Look, if somebody claims to be an expert, and has the bona fides to back up that expertise, that's one thing. If that person then starts making what I think are vague and, quite frankly, rather silly statements that really can't be verified (e.g. on good and bad art), then of course they're going to get challenged - whether they get challenged in an intellectual or satirical manner is not your call.

I’ll repeat – my real issue with Wolverton was his art statement ( If we are to have great art, it is important to recognize what makes great art.). It’s a meaningless sentence, because art appreciation is so subjective (as you pointed out a moment ago). Impossible to verify, his sentence is almost a political slogan.

Anyway...Paraspheres - not read it yet. On my rather large list.

Am I aware of what Disch, Budrys et al. have said over the years? - Yes.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 12:27 pm:   

Ellen: "So it seems to me that the "walls" have been breaking down between realism and fantasy for quite some time."

Yes, and thank goodness, and it's about time. But there is still fierce resistance when it comes to the _best_ of the NEW genre SF, which is written exceedingly well by anyone's standards. Witness the reviewer/critic quotes somewhere upstream regarding Atwood et al. Some of them are just plain unbelievable, aren't they?

We'll get there one of these days. ;)
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 12:34 pm:   

Dan: "I was being as serious with regards to typos as you were being in your Martini piece (which I thought was hilarious, by the way; spot on satire - some of the people having a go at you on the boards were being so humourless and literal)."

For that alone, Dan, you are officially invited to every party I may throw throughout the rest of my life, and all of your drinks are my treat. :-)
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 01:37 pm:   

That'll be very expensive single malt then...;)
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 02:04 pm:   

"Some things aren't worth much more than a snark."
"So it seems to me that the 'walls' have been breaking down between realism and fantasy for quite some time."

Actually, I think the topic is one of the more important that have been discussed here recently. I attended the (highly literary, dominated by east-coast critics) Eaton Conference of Science Fiction for many years. Held at UC Riverside, the Eaton was the premier west of the Mississippi conference where (supposedly) both academics and professionals (i.e writers of SF and F) met, mingled and exchanged opinions on the health of the field. What I observed, almost without fail, was the critics judged SF mainly by the standards of literary fiction, and found it wanting. The story, the idea, even the characters sometimes, were not important. Deconstruction was king, the sentence existing only to be picked apart for whatever reason was in vogue with the critics at the moment. And the SF that was favored by these critics? Almost always dead authors. They didn't seem to want to hear from the living writers of works, and when they were forced to listen, couldn't wait to contradict the author's own experience or intention when it didn't fit with their preconceived ideas. (I myself was told, rather angrily, by a critic that I 'obviously' didn't understand my own writing process when I ventured to answer a question on how I decided whether a piece I was engaged in writing was SF or F.)

I taught the Lit. of SF for a number of years at the college level, and while it was popular with students it had no support from the administration or the rest of my faculty. (I once made up a list of about 20 "mainstream" authors who had ventured into the muddy land of SF and posted it in the mailroom: Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Dean Koontz, Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut.... There was absolutely no reaction.)
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S. Hamm
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 02:16 pm:   

Whether Howells is the father of postmodern literature isn't really the overarching point Wolverton was making though.

Glad to hear it, because it's perfectly obvious the poor yutz has no idea what "postmodern" means -- I guess he thinks it's a synonym for "current." But at least he can spell "baboon." (Typographical question: was it you or Wolverton who fucked up the Williams poem?)

It was that certain strictures were placed on writers that in fact did become the accepted and default positions of many of the hoity-toity literati at the time, and through the years came to be defined as the "literary mainstream."

"Placed" by whom? "Accepted" by whom? "Defined" by whom? Oh, by "many of the hoity-toity." What nebulous horseshit. Blind man gropes a toenail and comes back to favor us all with the inside scoop on elephants.

Do yourself a favor: Google up "realism war." You can read a lot of funny, bitchy things the late 19th-cebtury Realists said about the Romantics, and a lot of funny, bitchy things the Naturalists said about the Realists. Realism was NEVER the exclusive "default" mode of American literature, even in its heyday; there were plenty of other vigorous strains in play, just as there are today. Howells was a big macher at both the Atlantic and Harper's, but he was by no means an uncontroversial figure, and his blinkered aesthetic drew potshots even from the writers who were working that realist groove alongside him. (Uber-realist Henry James: "Howells is now monarch absolute of the Atlantic, to the increase of his profit and comfort. His talent grows constantly in fineness, but hardly, I think, in range of application. I remember your saying some time ago that in a couple of years when he had read Saine-Beuve, etc. he would come to his best. But the trouble is he will never read Sainte-Beauve, nor care to. He has little intellectual curiosity; so here he stands with his admirable organ of style, like a poor man holding a diamond and wondering how he can use it. it's rather sad, I think, to seem Americans of the younger set so unconscious and unambitious of the commission to do the best.")

You are fond of quoting Thomas Disch on the New Wave, so let me give you Howells's own assessment of his lasting influence, from a 1915 letter to James: "I am comparatively a dead cult with my statues cast down and the grass growing over them in the pale moonlight." But if you disagree with Howells, if you do in fact believe that his silly, outmoded strictures represent the foundation of "mainstream literary fiction," however you're defining it this afternoon, then kindly give me the names of three influential critics and/or editors, post-1950, East Coast or otherwise, who:

-- proscribe writing about "interesting" characters--such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth;

-- reject exotic settings (such as Rome or Pompeii) and uncommon events;

-- strongly advise against any mention of murder, debauchery; arson; pillage; ghosts; beasts; hair-breadth [sic] escapes; shipwrecks; "monsters of self-sacrifice" (Stella Dallas??) and 5,000-year-old ladies; and

-- prohibit sexual innuendo.

Since Mr. Howell's aesthetic absolutely dominates the magazines, the publishing houses and the critical journals, you will undoubtedly have oodles of names at your fingertips. I'm only asking for three.

Tell you what. Make it one.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 03:26 pm:   

What I observed, almost without fail, was the critics judged SF mainly by the standards of literary fiction, and found it wanting. The story, the idea, even the characters sometimes, were not important. Deconstruction was king, the sentence existing only to be picked apart for whatever reason was in vogue with the critics at the moment. And the SF that was favored by these critics? Almost always dead authors.

My first trite response to this is -- BFD!

I have no doubt that academics in English departments criticise SF and judge it by the standards used to judge literary fiction. I'm married to an academic with a background in English literature and philosophy who does. It's hard. :-) He didn't start appreciating SF until he started teaching the history and philosophy of science. Then, his eyes opened -- a bit.

From my very little experience with English departments, Genre is looked down on and is seen as a five-letter four-leter word. For the most part, literary fiction is the focus and so I wouldn't expect them to examine SF using any other standard -- not because I think that literary standards are adequate to judge SF -- I really wouldn't know. That's just a statement acknowledging reality.

But my question is this: is this whole kerfuffle nothing more than an esoteric academic turf war with each side trying to gain the other's respect or enforce some kind of authority?

So what if literary critics use literary standards to judge SF? Does their opinion really count for much? Do the debates in the classroom and at academic conferences and in the pages of litcrit journals really affect me as a reader? Does they affect what gets on the bookshelves and what my favorite writers write?

Does knowing what a group of East-Coast literary critics said about how fiction should be written a century ago really educate me and make me a better reader of SF?

I do not have the vast background that Dave has in the SF literature, and am a very uneducated SF reader. I've read SF all my life, but I have never once taken an academic course in it. I suppose what I'm responding to in Dave's column is the notion that smart enlightened people read SF and lazy misled people don't. I think that's biased hubris.

It's these -- irrelevant -- battles Dave chooses to fight -- I just shake my head.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 04:09 pm:   

"(Typographical question: was it you or Wolverton who fucked up the Williams poem?)"

I didn't goof that one up. Typed it exactly as it came in to me. I've never read the poem so didn't know how it was supposed to read, or look. No one has ever mentioned this error before now, fwiw.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 04:41 pm:   

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

The long lines are precariously balanced atop, or "depending upon," shorter lines -- visually evoking the lip of the wheelbarrow under which the chicks have presumably huddled during the rainstorm.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 05:10 pm:   

Elizabeth: "So what if literary critics use literary standards to judge SF? Does their opinion really count for much?"

It does if you write a "sort-of" SF, or a New Weird or New Wave Fabulist Spec-Fic and are trying to break into the ranks of the annointed via the favorable reviews and welcoming acceptance of the literary critics who, like it or not, help shape public opinion in such circles through their reviews and academic papers, and other various sorts of pronouncements, etc.--which is what forms a large part of the focus of my column: how these new sort-of SF movements are trying to woo the mainstream audience and its critics by trying to write what I see as a watered-down and barely recognizable SF.

Despite the isolated views of some here, this is not an irrelevant discussion, but one that has been taking shape in the SF community for over 50 years. I related how some of our respected critics in SF have viewed various attempts to break into the public mainstream (as well as the literary mainstream) down through the years. I even gave evidence that the New Wave failed both artistically and commercially from a highly respected writer and critic who was _part_ of the New Wave.

But no one seems willing to accept any of the arguments presented even by SF's own--be they writers, critics, or both. Rather than countering the critics' own evidence (the quotes by Budrys and Panshin, and not Howells, he wasn't part of the article), they either say the discussion is irrelevant (in which case don't take part), or merely say "it ain't so."

My response to those writing some of this so-called "new" stuff, is just that, a response to these various movements or manifestos or whatever, who've been proclaiming for years that this is where the NEW exciting stuff in SF is being written; the cross-genre, interstitial stuff--whatever you want to call it. They're getting further and further away from SF and so create all these new monickers for stuff that's been tried over and over before. I think, and it's just my preference, that most of it is boring. It doesn't move me, excite me the way that SF does. So I wrote a critique of these cross-genre, literary movements being touted today _inside SF_ and as a _part of_ the SF field (witness their nominations here and there for certain awards), and unashamedly defended genre SF at the same time.

They promote (and defend) what _they_ like; I defend what _I_ like. What I don't care for is the approach they take (re PARASPHERES and other like-minded books), and which I described in my article and so shan't go into again here. It's _not_ an irrelevant discussion to those who care about such things, and critics on both sides are a necessary part of the machinery of discussion and standards, like it or not. Value judgments, however subjective, are necessary in this business, and this debate is over these standards and judgments.

I quote the late Jack Williamson, SFWA's 2nd Grand Master (1975). He was a college literature professor for many years. This is from _Starlog's Science Fiction Yearbook_ (1979, ed. David Gerrold, compiled by Dave Truesdale), as a preface to the section on "AWARDS."

Williamson: "One man's Nebula will always be another's boredom. That's because literary values are never absolute. When I used to teach literary criticism classes, we examined every way of looking at literature we had time for, from Plato and Aristotle down to Marshall McLuhan and modern linguistics, always concluding that critical judgments are relative and subjective.

"Values, of course, really do exist. Socially, literature communicates culture, sometimes criticizes it. Individually, it lets us share the whole experience of humanity. Comparative judgments can and must be made."

and,

"Some of us prefer Edgar Rice Burroughs, others Ursula Le Guin or Philip K. Dick. Certain writers command vast audiences, because they share and communicate the values of the multitude. Others, who often feel themselves superior, find smaller audiences or none at all. This may seem lamentable to them and their friends, but no lamentation can make truth or value absolute."

You can't imagine how I felt back then, to receive this intro in the mail and read the whole thing for the first time...from Jack Williamson! I haven't looked at it in many years...until this evening. It's as relevent to this ongoing discussion now as it was then, over 30 years ago, and adds truth to the point that critics _do_ matter, and are a necessary part of the machinery of debate and discussion we find ourselves engaged in.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 05:28 pm:   

Dave,

So I guess you're saying you would like to head up a cabal of Midwestern SF critics who, in the course of establishing strictures for the genre, will define what is "acceptable" or "proper" to write about, and how it should be written?
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 05:48 pm:   

S. Hamm: "So I guess you're saying you would like to head up a cabal of Midwestern SF critics who, in the course of establishing strictures for the genre, will define what is "acceptable" or "proper" to write about, and how it should be written?"

Very funny. Of course not. You're misreading my remarks and stacking your "question" with obviously loaded words such as "cabal" and "strictures" and "how it should be written." No one, least of all yours truly, is saying anything like that. It's obvious you've no real desire to understand what I'm saying, and are instead intent on twisting my words into something they are not.

When you want to be serious, I'll respond in a serious manner, but not to this conscious attempt to undermine by distortion the easily comprehensible points of my position. As I said elsewhere recently, I'm tired of swinging at curve balls in the dirt. You throw one over the plate and I'll take a whack at it.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 06:45 pm:   

Dave,

Two issues:

1) Stacking my question with loaded terms? I'm using the exact same terms you've used elsewhere in the discussion. ("Cabal" is mine; you said "cadre.") You want to talk about the dangers of commingling genre SF with "mainstream literary fiction," but you keep refusing to define "mainstream literary fiction." All you will say is that a group of (unidentified) East Coast intellectuals have somehow, over the years, imposed a set of strictures that determine what mainstream literary writers will be allowed to write and publish. When I ask you for specifics -- which intellectuals? -- which writers? -- what strictures? -- you repeatedly duck the question as if it's too obvious to require elucidation.

It's not obvious.

Without specifics, I cannot look up at my shelf and ascertain whether a given book is the dreaded mainstream literary fiction or something else altogther. That means I can't join the argument. I can't say, "Hey! SF could sure do with a dose of Michel Tournier!" or "Eeeuu! I don't want any Jayne Anne Phillips mixed up in my SF!"

2.) What is it you fear will happen if cross-genre, new-weird, "slipstream" science fiction is allowed to proliferate? Is it that writers who find an outlet for their kinkier, more experimental stuff may want to write more of it, and thus stop cranking out the harder SF you prefer? Or is it that the (ever-dwindling) pool of readers will migrate from the harder stuff to the squishier stuff -- that VIFM (Vandermeer's Interstitial Fiction Magazine will eventually drive Analog off the stands?

I certainly don't see the latter happening. Engineers will always need something to read on the can.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 07:55 pm:   

They're getting further and further away from SF and so create all these new monickers for stuff that's been tried over and over before. I think, and it's just my preference, that most of it is boring. It doesn't move me, excite me the way that SF does. So I wrote a critique of these cross-genre, literary movements being touted today _inside SF_ and as a _part of_ the SF field (witness their nominations here and there for certain awards), and unashamedly defended genre SF at the same time.

Yeah, OK, you find the material in Paraspheres boring. You're fully entitled to your opinion.

I find some SF boring as well. I don't take affront that people dare to write such boring tripe. I know that some people actually like it -- can you imagine?! -- and that it is a matter of taste. SF is big enough for a variety of preferences.

You may not personally like that fact, but there is more to SF than the kind that pleases you -- unless of course, you see yourself as the arbiter of all that is truly SF . . .

You're being just as proscriptive as those old fogeys you're criticizing if you're trying to narrow down the definition of SF to what you happen to "like" or find "exciting" or "moving".

S. Hamm's question is mine as well -- what are you afraid of with respect to SF and these genre-bending writers?

Writers can try to start a new movement melding SF and podiatry texts and it will either take off because there is a large audience among podiatrists for stories about the lack of bunions in space, or, more probably, it will die off because no one will read it.

I suspect it will be the case with Paraspheres-like work -- either people will want to read SF like this and it will garner a certain share of the market or they won't and it will die off.

Are you afraid these writers and their work will harm SF's reputation -- guilt by association? Are you afraid it will steal "your version of SF's" market share? Or, are you afraid that the kind of SF that gets recognition from the litfic types is not the kind YOU think should get recognition?

What exactly is your fear?

Dredging up an SF professor who clearly dislikes Literary mainstream fiction and who cites a century-old "cadre" of Dead East Coast Literary Critics as a menace to fiction and bashing them about as a means to discredit the literary mainstream genre-bending in Paraspheres just seems so -- Quixotic.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 09:47 pm:   

To both S. Hamm and Elizabeth,

At this point I shouldn't have to define what literary mainstream is. I'm not your high school or college lit teacher. Look it up, educate yourselves, and do your own homework.

And for the very last time, I am NOT trying to be proscriptive in my definition of SF. All I've iterated and reiterated time after time in various pieces is that all I ask of SF is that it at least have some "SF" in it. That's pretty all-inclusive and the direct opposite of proscriptive or prohibitive, so I can't understand you both still trying to get folks to believe I'm trying to define a narrow, personal view of SF.

SF can deal with almost any subject: biology, geology, physics, history, sociology, pyschology, economics, politics, religion, etc., and do it in any number of forms: straight narrative, satire, allegory, and effectively use any literary tools at its disposal (symbolism, foreshadowing, etc., etc.). Joe Haldeman in his 70s novel MINDBRIDGE even used a technique Dos Passos used in his USA trilogy from the early 20th century to tell his story. A lot of folks might think my definition of SF is too broad, in fact.

So I'm not trying to restrict anything. I just ask ONLY that there be some element of sfnal speculation in my SF. Much of this New Weird/New Wave Fabulism doesn't supply this.

Hamm: "All you will say is that a group of (unidentified) East Coast intellectuals have somehow, over the years, imposed a set of strictures that determine what mainstream literary writers will be allowed to write and publish."

I don't know their current names for heaven's sake, and it's not any "formal" group, but a loose set of critics and intellectual literati types of like mind. I didn't just make this up. It's been mentioned on SF panels and on message board discussions and in private discussions with editors and authors over the years. Mostly editors who work in the New York area in the publishing business who are hip to these things. Heck, I don't know; maybe Gordon or Gardner could tell you about this better than I can, and place it all in an historical perspective.

How's about you tell us _your_ theory as to why the literary mainstream is heavy with character and incident, and thinks how characters _feel_ about a here and now situation is more important literature, as opposed to a sfnal extrapolative exercise where characters must cope with a _new_ situation is less relevant as Literature, and why they believe plot is more or less irrelevant. But wait, I forgot, you don't know what the literary mainstream is. Frankly, I don't have time to educate you or anyone else on the bare bones basics of the 50-year old discussion about this issue. It would slow the rest of us down who want to move forward.

I suppose an analogy could be made here with those who don't understand hard SF, but can easily understand STAR TREK. It's a matter of an intelligent audience who likes to be challenged vs. those who only know ST and try to discuss the cultural ramifications of a coming Singularity--without even knowing what a Singularity is. In both cases, those who want to discuss an issue must at least bring a _basic_ understanding of the terms to the discussion or they're going to feel left out and frustrated.

The whole class doesn't deserve to be held back by a few who haven't taken the time to get up to speed. I know how this must sound, but that's the way it is. Learn the terms, do some research reading on the history of this subject and then come back with a more informed opinion. We can't discuss anything _beyond_ the article if we're continually stuck having to explain terms the class should already know. This is the only way I now how to put it, and I'm sorry if it sounds harsh.

Get to any used bookstore, or a library and check out some SF non-fiction works dealing with the issues that have informed the ongoing dialogue SF has been having with itself almost since its official inception in April of 1926. You can be as mad at me as you want to, but if you do this I think you'll come away much the better for it.

I'd like an informed discussion of Panshin's and Budrys's claims, for instance. They're both highly respected voices in the SF community. Are their stats wrong? Have they made wrong assumptions? What do you think of what Sheila Finch wrote in her Nebula volume essay? Have you read enough SF to even offer an informed opinion? Do they make valid points? Does Lafferty? To answer their stats and opinions one must first be informed with plenty of background info, _part_ of which is a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of the history of the field. Again, one either acquires this knowledge through experience in the field or an extensive reading background of the biographies and histories and critical tomes written about the evolution of the field.

Like I say, SF ain't for dummies (not saying anyone is), but knowledge opens all doors.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 10:41 pm:   

Elizabeth,

I seriously doubt Wolverton is a professor. Earlier tonight my son, who's about to start high school, showed me a list of books from which he is supposed to pick two titles to read over the summer. I cracked up when I read this caveat:

"Teachers in the department are well aware that some of these books have been adapted as films. Viewing a film based upon any of these books cannot serve as a substitute for reading the book itself. When writing on these books in your English class, you should demonstrate a solid understanding of what you have read."

Just had to share.

If Mr. Wolverton had given me his essay back in the Stone Age when I was teaching Freshman Comp, I would have given it back with a big red "F" at the top of page one. If I'd known then what I know now about books and Hollywood, the "F" would have been bigger and redder.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 11:23 pm:   

Dave wasn't writing his essay as part of a classroom assignment, or a "book report." It was an informal opinion piece attempting to do something else entirely and for a decidedly different audience. He used the movies he cited because he figured more people might have seen the movies than had read the books, and that might speed the process of making his points. That's all. He also cited the movies (written from books) to show how the repetition and sameness of these movies took their cue from the formulaic "in style" novels that apparently subscribed to the "literary" theories prevalent at the time. I.E. the movies reflected the same literary strictures, styles, and mode employed by the novels.

You accuse Dave of one thing while he was trying to do something else. Sort of like criticizing an author for not writing the book you wanted him to write, rather than assessing the book the author wanted to write. A common mistake among some beginning reviewers.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 11:44 pm:   

Dave,

"Nobody calls mainstream writers "mainstream" except for those of us in the ghetto of the fantastic. The very notion that slipstream writing needed to be placed in a genre of its own came from measuring it against science fiction and fantasy . . . . The writers of slipstream who do not come from the genre side of the divide, however, never worry about its connection to science fiction, and do not talk about it unless prompted by questioners attempting to link their work to SF."
-- From the Kelly/Kessel introduction to Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology

Cards on the table? I do not doubt for a moment your superior knowledge of the SF field, or your deep familiarity with Panshin and Gunn. Your article, however, is about the need to maintain the ghetto wall that keeps "mainstream literary fiction" out of SF, and vice-versa. I keep asking you for your definition of mainstream literary fiction not because I am slow, but because I am trying to tease out of you some vague reassurance that you know fuckity-fuck-all about the subject. To be harsh, I ain't getting it. I don't think you read enough mainstream literary fiction to fill a thimble. I don't think you know what you are trying to protect SF from.

After all, mainstream literary fiction is a big wide wonderful world, and contains things undreamt of in your wizened conception of it. If you never expose yourself to the stuff, how could you possibly know what sort of cross-pollination is already taking place? Would Paul Park get a kick out of Jim Crace's Quarantine? Maybe he already has. Would Liz Hand or Esther Friesner, to mention two of this year's Nebula nominees, get a kick out of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by Roberto Calasso? Maybe they already have. Would Dave Truesdale get a kick out of The Insult, by Rupert Thomson, or Great Apes, by Will Self, or Masters of Atlantis, by Charles Portis? Why, I'll bet he would! At the very least he'd be shocked how little they resemble the straw-man prototype put forth by Mr. Howells and demolished by Mr. Wolverton.

Your brain may not be wired for the straight stuff, Dave, but until you make at least a token attempt to sample it you'll never know what kind of cross-genre fluid-swapping is going on behind your back. Don't let the undeniable joys of SF blind you to the pleasures, or the complexities, of literary fiction. As Kessel & Kelly said, the mainstream types don't hesitate to borrow from SF when it suits their needs. Why would you want to send SF writers into a fight with one hand tied behind their back?
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S. Hamm
Posted on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 11:55 pm:   

Dave,

A guy who draws any conclusions about a book from the movie adaptation is a fucking idiot, full stop. A guy who draws any conclusions about a literary school or movement from the movie adaptations is a fucking idiot cubed.

Don'tcha love it when the narrator hooks up with Holly at the end of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's? Don'tcha love it when Roy hits that home run at the end of Bernard Malamud's The Natural?
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Marguerite Reed
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 04:05 am:   

If the reader doesn't know what FTL refers to, then by golly look it up somewhere. If one is reading some historical novel and doesn't know what a doublet is, then by golly look it up. If a story about robots refers to a Turing Test and you're lost, then look it up.

OMG, thank you. Yes. One of my biggest pet peeves as a writer is a reader who will complain that they had to look something up, be it a concept or a word. That's a gift, man--to have someone throw something at you that you don't know, that you have to explore further. At least, that's how I feel when I run into that situation.
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 04:58 am:   

S. Hamm puts forth an obvious yet overlooked truism – that so-called mainstream literature contains some real gems, much it written by people that have not only written SF, but that have influenced it to some degree, or have been influenced by it. Cross-pollination – I like that word.

We all love our little lists, so mine can be taken with a pinch of salt; however, if I were to suggest some books that any diehard SF’er ought to read, then these would be a good start:

The Third Policeman – Flann O’Brien
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Super-Cannes – JG Ballard
The Hothouse By The East River – Muriel Spark
On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House – Peter Handke
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
The Fermata – Nicholson Baker
Lanark – Alasdair Gray
If on a winter’s night a traveller – Italo Calvino
Mao II – Don DeLillo
Djinn - Alain Robbe-Grillet

Within these fictions, we’ve got (to name but a few): entropy, infinite regress, psychopathology, mass hysteria, rocketry, physics, variable realities, temporal regression, hell, stasis, time travel and dreamworlds.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 06:38 am:   

I suppose an analogy could be made here with those who don't understand hard SF, but can easily understand STAR TREK. It's a matter of an intelligent audience who likes to be challenged vs. those who only know ST and try to discuss the cultural ramifications of a coming Singularity--without even knowing what a Singularity is. In both cases, those who want to discuss an issue must at least bring a _basic_ understanding of the terms to the discussion or they're going to feel left out and frustrated.

Those who don't understand hard SF . . .

You give yourself away. Dave, that is just so elitist and makes me suspect that you've never been around ST fans.

In my experience, people who like ST (like me) actually have read non-fiction books on AI and the singularity and its possibilities (like me). While some of us are not science professors or hard SF authors, we can still understand the term well enough to appreciate it and discuss its cultural ramifications, which is why some of us who like ST also like Stross. Imagine that. Most of us, when we encounter a term we don't know, are quite familiar with dictionaries and encyclopedias and google just about everything we don't already know (we're geeks and nerds, ya know).

Honestly, I don't know what audience you're thinking of when you refer to these ignoramuses, but I suspect it's one of your imagination.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 06:47 am:   

The whole class doesn't deserve to be held back by a few who haven't taken the time to get up to speed. I know how this must sound, but that's the way it is. Learn the terms, do some research reading on the history of this subject and then come back with a more informed opinion. We can't discuss anything _beyond_ the article if we're continually stuck having to explain terms the class should already know. This is the only way I now how to put it, and I'm sorry if it sounds harsh.

Yeah, it does sound that way, Dave.

Pompous. Elitist. Patronizing. Condescending.

What this says to me is that your article, other than acting as an opinion piece on Paraspheres, is irrelevant to the vast majority of F&SF readers. I suspect there are few other people like you who are in on the entire turf war and have all the terms and history behind them and so can engage you in the kind of debate you wanted out of this.

I didn't realize your column was a master class, intended for the serious student of SF and literary criticism. I thought it was going to be relevent to the, you know, average reader of F&SF.

My bad.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 06:55 am:   

S. Hamm, I was referring to Dave's reference to James "Dr. Gunn" Gunn. I don't know what Wolverton's credentials are.
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 07:06 am:   

Well, before this gets too into minutiae, it looks like Dave did respond to the context of the book Paraspheres. I just read the book's introduction and he is responding directly to their original assertions.

The term literary fiction, which implied quality, had long ago been defined by most critics as narrative realism and admitted nothing that was non-realistic, with the relatively recent exception of magic realism. All other non-realistic fiction was relegated by most publishers to the various “formula” genres, where the non-realistic elements were assumed to further the primary purpose of escape into worlds ranging from unlikely to fantastic, where readers were entertained but not enlightened.
Of course, there has always been another form, non-realistic fiction, that attempted more than entertainment and often gave us new insights and perspectives. No one would be taken seriously if they denied that Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 have this quality, as well as lasting cultural meaning and value, more than half a century after the last of these was written. Some have given these works a sort of honorary status as Literary Fiction, even though they do not meet the otherwise required standards of Narrative Realism. Still others relegate them to the genres, but admit that even some genre stories can have valuable cultural meanings beyond mere escape and entertainment.


This does not strike me as particularly "cutting edge." Not sure why.

They were inspired by this: Then in the fall of 2002, Conjunctions, the literary journal from Bard College edited by Bradford Morrow, came out with their issue number 39, guest-edited by Peter Straub. They used the term “new wave fabulists,” described thus: “For two decades, a small group of innovative writers rooted in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been simultaneously exploring and erasing the boundaries of those genres by creating fiction of remarkable depth and power.”

Peter Straub (no one who's ever read a Peter Straub book or talked to him about writing would accuse him of being a hairy-knuckled, chest-beating sci-fi writer - but he's also a HORROR WRITER).
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 07:44 am:   

Amy,

The reason is, as various people on this board have been saying in different ways, is that this cross pollination between the "mainstream" and genre fiction has gone on for decades. Sterling just codified it first by calling it slipstream but most of the novels he cited were not new when he cited them.

I had a pleasant recognition of what Bruce was saying as I read his essay and his list of "slipstream" novels because I had been reading that kind of fiction from my teenage years on, revolting from the realistic side of the realm to those books that contained bits of the fantastic even if they weren't referred to as sf/f/h by the critics or the bookstores.

As an editor, I encouraged the continual cross-pollination by publishing and even commissioning a wide range of fiction in OMNI for almost twenty years I was there, and I've done it ever since.
While at OMNI, I commissioned short shorts by Patricia Highsmith, Daniel Pinkwater, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and Joyce Carol Oates, went after and published stories by Julio Cortazar, William Kotzwinkle, Jonathan Carroll, William Burroughs, Jack Cady, and other writers who have been or were writing fiction on the edges of sf and fantasy and horror.

"This does not strike me as particularly "cutting edge." Not sure why."
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 07:51 am:   

I had been reading that kind of fiction from my teenage years on, revolting from the realistic side of the realm to those books that contained bits of the fantastic even if they weren't referred to as sf/f/h by the critics or the bookstores. (Ellen Datlow)

=========

Bingo! This is so much my experience too.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 08:23 am:   

Hamm: "Don'tcha love it when the narrator hooks up with Holly at the end of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's? Don'tcha love it when Roy hits that home run at the end of Bernard Malamud's The Natural?"

I like other non-SF works too. One of my majors back in college was English. I read tons of "mainstream" works. Some I liked and most bored me to death. I read Saul Bellow's (for just one example) _Mr. Sammler's Planet_ (not for any college course), and while certain little portions of it were interesting, I found the whole thing tedious and boring. Great "truths" of Life can be found in almost any type of literature, including SF.

I'm not saying that non-genre works can't be entertaining or fun or enlightening. I'm not saying that non-genre popular mainstream writers can't borrow from SF; I'm glad that they do. But when _some_ of these new movements like New Wave Fabulism (as represented in Paraspheres) try to write _their_ idea of "sf" for a supposed wider mainstream audience, by blending the two types of writing, they for the most part and in many cases lose the stuff that makes sf, sf. The Sf "speculative" element is subsumed, or lost altogether, because the literary stripe of mainstream fiction is written _differently_ than SF is, with different core concerns (character is king and screw everything else). SF focuses more on the external and uses plot for resolution (see Budrys). Literary mainstream tends to focus on the aspects of internal to character story and in many cases eschews plot. Oil and water. Literary mainstream is a "style" of writing coupled with a focus on internal character alone. The two forms are mutually exclusive. Again, I refer to Gunn's quote about the two from upstream.

The other kind of mainstream mentioned many times here is also just a marketing category to separate it from "genre" fiction like SF, Romance, Political Thriller, etc. Some of it does borrow from SF, but these also have plots and deal with the external rather than the internal. _This_ sort of "cross-genre" SF works. But, in my estimation, this "other" attempt at cross-genre like Paraspheres tries to do, doesn't.

An SF story has the advantage because it can also deal within its specific framework with deep character if it so chooses without losing its "SF"-ness. If a purely literary mainstream story tries to do this (incorporating an SF speculation into its framework), then it de facto becomes SF, because the "literary" mainstream (as a class) deals with the here and now, with the familiar.

Many of the original stories in Paraspheres don't include any "SF" speculation at all and do not have plots. They exhibit a string of events that happen to confused or bewildered characters who see (or simply imagine they see) weird happenings in flower pots (was the pot in that spot on the veranda yesterday, or was it over there: what does this mean? I'll call a friend and find out), or wander around small towns and imagine things that may or may not be happening to them--and then move on. Or they write one three or four page paragraph telling three somehow linked stories of rather inconsequential scenarios amounting to flip. Again, no external plot, but merely a series of events happening internal to character about little stuff, minutaie, musings about the mundane aspects of the here and now.

Yet the editors of this book say this is a mix of sf and the mainstream, when all it is in many cases is mundane, here and now, mainstream concerns and themes thinly cloaked in some variation of magic realism (see my article for a further explanation).

There is a distinct and definable difference in this New Wave Fabulism and SF, and folks reading the stuff in Paraspheres might get the impression that this is what SF really is, when it only vaguely resembles several types of _fantasy_ and not SF at all. My article gives several examples of this which I need not repeat here.

Read Ira Sher's "Nobody's Home" from Paraspheres and then compare it to Nancy Kress's (short version of) "Beggars in Spain." There's no spec or SF element to Sher's story at all, while the Kress has a seriously speculated SF idea along _with_ characterization. If there is any sort of "change" in an original Paraspheres story (that is not clearly SF or F) it is internal to character--the outside world is for the most part irrelevant. While dealing with "change" in the external world and its events is what traditionally defines SF (see the Gunn quote above).

Let's try this: screw the definitions on both sides for a moment. Never mind that Paraspheres bafflingly included straight SF, straight F, and straight literary mainstream in their cross-genre collection. Choose one of the several stories inbetween. Read it and then compare it to a straight SF story. Analyze the structure, style, and central conceit/theme, and then compare it to an SF story. The differences are readily apparent and quite striking.

This is what I decided to do (and said so in my opening paragraph): let the stories speak for themselves and place the definitions off to the side for the moment. Go to the source first was my own mandate, and then go from there. The result of my findings were reported in my article. Individual likes and dislikes of the stories will vary, of course, but the overall pattern to me was clear, and I wrote about what I came away with.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 09:18 am:   

Dave, I haven't read Paraspheres so I can't comment on the stories and whether they achieve the goals set out by the writers and editor.

While not a master's student of genre fiction or literary fiction, I can comment on the project of trying to widen the appeal of SF to a more literary crowd and vice versa -- as a life-long reader of SF and some literary fiction. I think I'm a pretty good example of an educated SF reader -- I have studied science in university, have graduate level studies in social science, and I have read the (now) oldies (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein) as well as the new writers.

I think that the very best SF has great literary value and develops strong memorable characters and has meaning beyond entertainment. That literary mainstream critic types don't recognize this fact is their loss, but they're pompous asses so who cares? :-)

The debate about what constitutes "SF" is quaint for the average reader like me. I don't really care nor do I zealously police my SF reading to be sure I read only the kind that fits into some academic definition of "science fiction". I don't care about this debate unless the debate actually harms the genre. I can't see that a bunch of writers experimenting with boundary pushing and publishing an anthology with examples is going to harm the field as a whole. So your Sturm und Drang seems quite puzzling to me except as a "I'm as good (or better) than you so there!" kind of educated rant.

Maybe what was published in Paraspheres passes for SF in some people's minds. You can quote Budrys or Gunn all you want -- it doesn't really matter. You seem just as willing as the literary critics to establish hard boundaries in some effort to deny the other a certain merit. With you and those who think like you, SF is somehow superior because it, priviliges plot/idea over character/feeling. To quote Gunn, "When one is concerned about the way in which people are the products of their environments and how one can free oneself to act in ways other than that one has been conditioned to do, the feelings of the characters about their situations, or even aspects of individual character or reactions to the general predicament, seem of little moment".

I just don't buy that argument. Mainstream and even literary fiction often shows people changing, rising above their situations, "freeing one's self to act in ways other than one has been conditioned to do". Besides, SF that doesn't care about "character or reactions to the general predicament" gets tossed in the dustbin where it belongs.

I don't think this kind of turf war is going to accomplish much other than take up bandwidth. Writers will write SF the way they will. Readers will get out of the SF books what they will. Publishers will try to buy books they think will sell. Critics will try to make a name for themselves and make a living. Academics will publish papers that no one outside of academia will read.

So while I can't comment on the book, I can comment on the whole idea of bending boundaries, and I can comment on the tone of your column and your apparent attitude to the subject matter.

To me, this seems an irrelevant esoteric tempest in a teapot since the publishing of Paraspheres is hardly a portent of SF's doom. Your apparent desire to maintain some strict boundaries as defined by SF grandmasters past and present, and your rejection of literary fiction (and its readers) and valorization of SF (and its readers) makes you appear as hoity-toity as those you criticize.

YMMV
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Daniel Ausema
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 09:25 am:   

Since you're fond of quoting various critics, let me refer you to LeGuin's essay on Left Hand of Darkness. (I most recently read it as the intro to the book in the fairly recent paperback edition I found in the library a few months ago, but I believe it's in one of her collections of essays as well, any one of which is well worth the time.)

In it she addresses the question of whether science fiction writers predict the future. Her answer is unequivocally NO. All a writer--any writer--can write about is how s/he sees the world. Today. Here and now. It might imagine things about the future, imagine things about how technology or other sciences will change, but really that's just a way to say things about us humans and the world around us today.

This is where your argument falters. Despite your disavowals, you are prescribing certain approaches for what you define as SF--scientific extrapolation. You wall it off from the fantastic as much as from realism. I understand the attraction to certain types of people. That hint of science (hard or soft, realistic or pseudo-) allows them to imagine that it's somehow a higher form of literature or somehow more worthy. But LeGuin's essay is one of a number of reminders of why that's a false distinction--anything speculative no matter how scientific or fantastical is really simply bringing us back to us today.

Again, you can say you prefer for your own reading that illusion of science to somehow justify it to yourself, but the line between your version of SF and what you would consider fantasy is so blurred and subjective that it becomes nonexistent. And once you understand that that line is gone, then it's logical to wonder in what other ways we can push our speculations, whether to flowerpots or inexplicable events around the town. So holding up one particular paradigm of writing as better, except in the narrowest sense of "I like this better" is silly. And you say you're simply arguing your own preferences, but when I read your essay it looks more like you're arguing why all fans of speculative fiction should agree with you.

I am, and I don't.
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 11:29 am:   

The reason is, as various people on this board have been saying in different ways, is that this cross pollination between the "mainstream" and genre fiction has gone on for decades. Sterling just codified it first by calling it slipstream but most of the novels he cited were not new when he cited them.

Yes, I think so, Ellen. The thing is, it's coming back around now. I think the field (of storytelling in general) is wide open. There's no reason whatsoever to obsess over what name something is called - better to obsess about what stories one might tell or choose not to tell.

All I can really speak to is my own small experience. No "non-genre" readers who read anything I've ever written said, "Hey, that's science fiction!" One of the few small pleasures of my life is that when friends or acquaintances do give it a try, they're like, that's NOT science fiction! Well, THANKS. I mean it. Because I write for readers. I'm not interested in readers with "problems" of definition, categorization and kind - I'm interested in just plain readers, of a broad range of ages and types of people.

I've had a lot of little "moments" over the years. Considering I do have a background in literature, my impression of Paraspheres was that it looked to be a book of "Me and My Friends" with a GRANTA cover.

In my opinion, Ellen, horror is much more closely aligned with the broader stream of "literature" than obsessed in-genre (difficult for the average reader to read) sci-fi. It just plain is literature. Everything, to me, is pretty much "literature."

How many of us have imagined, or have seen, a ghost? How many have experienced irrational fears -- only every child who thought the boogeyman was under the bed. What if someone tries to break into the house while I'm here alone? What if my baby isn't born okay, it's like 'Rosemary's Baby?' Every nightmare touches on something like horror.

Last year at one of the conventions, I got a big laugh by doing a trick I thought of 5-6 years ago. By way of saying, "We live in a science-fictional world," I took out my Palm Treo and said, "Beam me up, Scotty!" Ba-doom-boom. "Look, it's got his picture!" (actually, it's a picture of Badger, but "they" couldn't see). Well, only a few weeks after that, here comes the commercial for the actual show: How William Shatner Changed the World.

Right now, I'll tell you what I'm thinking about. I am finishing my current book, and it's the most internal "me" thing I've ever done. Putting that aside, I am thinking that there is something wrong in the world; the center cannot hold. Why? Because no matter how well any of us are, no matter how tightly-wrapped, we will see and hear dozens of things each day that will shock us, buffet us, batter us. Our collective psyches are under constant assault of the petit and grand brutalities of the world at large. From murders to Iranian madmen, from the viciousness in our personal lives, to the trauma of Paris Hilton going to jail.

That's supposed to be funny. Since when is a hotel heiress who thinks the entire world should be enamored of her crotch funny?

Vernor's Singularity? He would see the math -- but the shockwave of the pattern? What does it really mean?

Stories can help us make sense of things. In an increasingly senseless world -- well. I don't know. These are just my thoughts of late.
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des lewis
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 12:28 pm:   

Stories can help us make sense of things. In an increasingly senseless world

Agreed, and we can actually try to make more and more sense of it by some form of Aesthetic 'wish fulfilment' as we write fiction away from genre nearer towards (2) below. Fiction can be controlled, reality can't.

(1) Magic Realism: A settled term: Fiction that creates fantasy from reality.

(2) Magic Fiction: I define this as Fiction that creates reality from fantasy.
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 12:48 pm:   

"As real as, but something other than, the world that is."

HINT: I have a whole shelf of signed books from him and he is NOT a science fiction author, he and I shared the same favorite book (WONDERFUL LIFE by Stephen Jay Gould) and I got in a great deal of trouble for knowing what a jacaranda was and daring to discuss it and Hallucigenia and Wiwaxia with him . . .

To cast more darkness on the discussion of "literati" vs. the non-literati or SF-heads, or hairy-knuckled sci fi writers and airy fantasists and magical-ink daubers (like the would-be thief who rubbed lemon juice on his face to foil the security cameras) -

The argument is essentially about "fiction for children" and "fiction for adults."

http://wrt-brooke.syr.edu/courses/205.03/bloom.html
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S. Hamm
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 12:50 pm:   

Dave,

Sorry; I was too obscure for the house. The narrator doesn't hook up with Holly at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany's. He's gay. And Roy Hobbs strikes out at the end of The Natural. But moviegoers would have no way of knowing that unless they'd read the original books. (Just one of many reasons why we should judge a book neither by its cover NOR by its cinematic incarnations.)

Elizabeth,

Sorry for the confusion! Dr. Gunn is indeed a professor.
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 12:52 pm:   

And this:

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2003/09/24/dumb ing_down_american_readers/
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 01:24 pm:   

If there is any sort of "change" in an original Paraspheres story (that is not clearly SF or F) it is internal to character--the outside world is for the most part irrelevant. While dealing with "change" in the external world and its events is what traditionally defines SF (see the Gunn quote above).

This view of "science fiction" seems very pallid. What about stories that focus on how advances in science/technology affect the "internal" or "emotional"?

Are those not a legitimate subject matter for, or part of, science fiction?

Given technology X changes -- it will ultimately affect humans internally and human society externally. By your measure, all SF should care about is how the external is changed -- and it better be scientifically accurate based on existing science!

How anemic is that? How impoverished?

Let's consider a story set in the future on a colony in much lower-gee. What if the story focuses only on how a lower-gee environment affects the "internal" -- say, the neurochemicals, emotions, the feelings, etc. of the individual humans who populate the colony. Does that not qualify as science fiction? I mean, it may not be what you consider to be interesting or exciting, but is it not science fiction?

If a story focuses primarily or even soley on the internal emotions of an individual who is on affected by changes in science or technology, is that not properly science fiction?

Are love and desire and dreams not appropriate subjects of science fiction?
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 01:31 pm:   

S. Hamm -- no problem. I put the "Dr. Gunn" in quotes because, from what I can tell by his biography, he is a "professor", but not a "Doctor of Philosophy" as in PhD. I personally don't care what his letters are, but I am somewhat amused by Dave repeatedly referring to him as "Dr. Gunn".
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 01:55 pm:   

Thanks for the link, Amy. I read Bloom's diatribe with amusement. Doesn't every generation lament how bad the world has become? Look with fond nostalgia back at the good old days? Complain how horrible the younger generation is?

"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place
of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.


Guess who wrote that?

The very first novel my daughter read was Harry Potter. It kindled in her a love of reading, which led her to Anne Rice and Christopher Pike, and now she reads exclusively YA vampire novels (she's 14) when reading fiction. She also reads non-fiction science and biology books because she is a budding ornithologist.

Should I be afeard that she'll turn out to be a WalMart Clerk instead of a Professor of Biology because she's read Rowlings rather than Kipling?

She knows a hell of a lot more about the world than I knew or my mother knew at her age because of her contact with television and the internet and just knowledge in general. I grew up with very limited television as I lived in remote parts of Canada where cable television was not available. I didn't use the internet until I was in my thirties.

In contrast, my daughter is a total tech geek, has had access to the internet from her first days, has watched CNN and National Geographic Channel and the like now all her life. She has web pages and chat groups and participates on forums for a variety of issues that are important to her (wildlife and wildfowl primarily, plus vampires). She is much more aware of the world than I ever was at her age and I read Dickens and Kipling and William Golding and Twain in school.

Honestly, I really don't know if reading The Jungle Book was any better for me than reading King's The Stand. As a child who grew up in the nuclear age during the cold war, I suspect The Stand was far more relevant to me than Kipling . . .
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S. Hamm
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 02:28 pm:   

Amy,

Thank you for the excerpt from the introduction to {Paraspheres}, which explains a lot:

The term literary fiction, which implied quality, had long ago been defined by most critics as narrative realism and admitted nothing that was non-realistic, with the relatively recent exception of magic realism. All other non-realistic fiction was relegated by most publishers to the various “formula” genres, where the non-realistic elements were assumed to further the primary purpose of escape into worlds ranging from unlikely to fantastic, where readers were entertained but not enlightened.

This is, of course, a total crock of shit, and (I suspect) represents another case of SF types, who are obsessed with categorizations, misappropriating a mainstream critical term they do not quite grasp, as Wolverton did with "postmodern." Many aeons ago I went to grad school at SUNY-Buffalo and we were a highly methodological, lingo-slingin' bunch, but I never heard the term "literary novel" used in any kind of strictly definable sense; it was just a loose catchall phrase for novels with some degree of artistic ambition, as opposed to "commercial fiction" or "formula fiction." There was, of course, a general understanding that the categories sometimes overlapped, that a genre book might have literary virtues, or that a literary book might sneak onto the bestseller list; these were both, when they happened, considered good things.

But "realism" was NEVER a requirement for "literary" status. It was never about subject matter; it was all ambition and execution. Naked Lunch, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, At Swim Two-Birds, Chimera, The Dead Father, and Mulligan Stew are all pretty much untainted by realism, but if you tried to argue that they weren't "literary" novels? -- people would look at you as if you were batshit crazy. (Okay, if it's not a literary novel, then what the fuck is it?) Experimental novelists such as Abish, Federman, etc., were literary by definition -- in fact, nobody would willingly read them except acolytes of the cult of literature, namely critics and grad students -- but again, their formal stunts had nothing to do with realism. They weren't about the real world; they were about literature.

Genre trappings were a hurdle, but not an insurmountable hurdle. Joseph McElroy's \i(Plus), about a disembodied brain in orbit, was understood to be a literary novel using the trappings of SF. Doctorow's Welcome to Hard Times and Oakley Hall's Warlock, a couple of westerns, were also accepted as literary novels that just happened to include gunfights. And so on.

Has the general usage of the term "literary fiction" changed in recent years? Not that I'm aware of. Here's an anti-litfic rant (http://books.guardian.co.uk/critics/reviews/0,5917,532924,00.html) the Guardian ran in 2001, in which Robert McCrum defines the term "literary fiction" as -- well, as a nebulous catchall:

What is 'literary fiction'? To many, it's the titles on the short list for the Booker Prize. To some, it's those serious-minded novels of high artistic intent by writers with a passionate commitment to the moral purpose of fiction. To others, it's a slippery piece of book jargon. It's certainly a label that's attracted its share of critical opprobrium. 'Literary' can be synonymous with 'highbrow', but I've heard 'pretentious' and even 'unreadable'.

Literary fiction is what many writers aspire to, though quite a few will also run a mile at the first hint of it, too. Every reader will have his or her idea of what constitutes such a category, but the acclaimed masters of Anglo-American literary fiction today probably include, among dozens, Michael Ondaatje, W.G. Sebald, Don DeLillo and Jeanette Winterson. Such are the names that sit at the top table, but below the salt you'll find an extraordinary galère, ranging from magical realists to provincial miniaturists . . .

One or two critics have begun, nervously, to point out that literary fiction has become just another genre, like humour, crime or adventure. Some have even gone so far as to observe that the label could simply be a way of describing a novel that places style before content, puts prose before plot and subordinates character and narrative to nebulous aesthetic concerns.


McCrum also cites a famously controversial opinion piece from the Atlantic, "A Reader's Manifesto," by B. R. Myers (apologies if the link doesn't work; the article is behind a subscription firewall):

For years now editors, critics, and prize jurors, not to mention novelists themselves, have been telling the rest of us how lucky we are to be alive and reading in these exciting times. The absence of a dominant school of criticism, we are told, has given rise to an extraordinary variety of styles, a smorgasbord with something for every palate. As the novelist and critic David Lodge has remarked, in summing up a lecture about the coexistence of fabulation, minimalism, and other movements, "Everything is in and nothing is out." Coming from insiders to whom a term like "fabulation" actually means something, this hyperbole is excusable, even endearing; it's as if a team of hotel chefs were getting excited about their assortment of cabbages. From a reader's standpoint, however, "variety" is the last word that comes to mind, and more appears to be "out" than ever before. More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be "genre fiction"—at best an excellent "read" or a "page turner," but never literature with a capital L . . . .

Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be "literary fiction"—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. It is these works that receive full-page critiques, often one in the Sunday book-review section and another in the same newspaper during the week. It is these works, and these works only, that make the annual short lists of award committees. The "literary" writer need not be an intellectual one. Jeering at status-conscious consumers, bandying about words like "ontological" and "nominalism," chanting Red River hokum as if it were from a lost book of the Old Testament: this is what passes for profundity in novels these days. Even the most obvious triteness is acceptable, provided it comes with a postmodern wink. What is not tolerated is a strong element of action—unless, of course, the idiom is obtrusive enough to keep suspense to a minimum . . . .

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway.


The critics above are almost Truesdalean in their preferences, but it's quite obvious that neither of them considers "literary fiction" a subset of realism.

I have a sneaking hunch that the editors of Paraspheres overheard a conversation about Raymond Carver-school minimalism in which the term "literary fiction" was being bandied about, and mistakenly assumed the two were synonymous. Unfortunately, SF readers who rarely venture out into the Big Wide World Beyond the Wall are unlikely to recognize the mistake, and may therefore perpetuate it, as Dave has been doing on this thread.
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 02:45 pm:   

Elizabeth, I hate to try to read Dave's mind -- I can barely read my own some days -- but I think we're getting it wrong to imagine he has such a narrow vision of sf.

Of course internal change is important, just as in mainstream, and maybe that change is the whole point of the story: the world doesn't change, the character does, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. But with sf, the event that changes the character is something that doesn't exist now -- but could, in the near or far future. (If it could never exist, then we're dealing with magic, and that means we're talking about fantasy. No value judgement here; I'm just trying to define sf.)

I wrote a story several years ago called "Miles to Go" which told of a disabled man who had come to terms with his disability and made a name for himself as a wheelchair racer. In fact, he found himself better known and more successful (because of his athleticism) than he had been before his accident. Then a doctor invents a technique which will promote nerve re-growth and offers him the chance to walk again, but the price, of course, is he will give up the renown he has worked so hard to achieve. It's a very internal story, focussing intensely on his struggle to make a decision while preparing to take part in a marathon. But I believe it qualifies as sf because the cells that can make nerves regenerate don't exist at the moment. (They might, in the near future, according to the research I did.)

There's another factor here. I remember discussing with Damon Knight the shortest definition of a short story that we could come up with. I put forward "something changes." (No change = vignette, not a short story.) Damon amended that to "something changes for somebody" because, he said, sometimes the one who changes is the reader. Perhaps the stories in Paraspheres operate like that for some of the readers? If so, all the better. But unless the stimulus for that change comes from the sciences or the future, it isn't sf.

Does it matter what we call it? Probably not. I read a great deal of non-genre fiction these days, and I don't find myself worrying about categories as I turn the page. But it does affect marketing. If it didn't, why would authors from Atwood to Vonnegut insist they're NOT writing sf?
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 04:03 pm:   

Yet even Don DeLillo--who apparently sits at that table--has written sf: White Noise.

"Literary fiction is what many writers aspire to, though quite a few will also run a mile at the first hint of it, too. Every reader will have his or her idea of what constitutes such a category, but the acclaimed masters of Anglo-American literary fiction today probably include, among dozens, Michael Ondaatje, W.G. Sebald, Don DeLillo and Jeanette Winterson. Such are the names that sit at the top table, but below the salt you'll find an extraordinary galère, ranging from magical realists to provincial miniaturists . . ."
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 04:36 pm:   

As the novelist and critic David Lodge has remarked, in summing up a lecture about the coexistence of fabulation, minimalism, and other movements, "Everything is in and nothing is out." Coming from insiders to whom a term like "fabulation" actually means something, this hyperbole is excusable, even endearing; it's as if a team of hotel chefs were getting excited about their assortment of cabbages.

LOL!

Thanks for that. I needed a good yuk. :-)

There's another factor here. I remember discussing with Damon Knight the shortest definition of a short story that we could come up with. I put forward "something changes." (No change = vignette, not a short story.) Damon amended that to "something changes for somebody" because, he said, sometimes the one who changes is the reader. Perhaps the stories in Paraspheres operate like that for some of the readers? If so, all the better. But unless the stimulus for that change comes from the sciences or the future, it isn't sf.

Agreed, especially on that last bit, which I've highlighted. I imagine (but don't *know* -- I'm not schooled in literary theory) based on everything I've ever read, that this notion of "something changes for someone" applies to most fiction, short or long. Something usually changes -- in the reader, the environment, the main character's attitudes, opinions, state of mind, circumstances. There may be a small subset of fiction, mainstream or otherwise, in which there is no change whatever other than time passing, but I would think that is rare and the exception.

So, what separates science fiction from other forms is, as you suggest, that the change comes from some aspect of "science" however defined (I imagine that's a whole *other* debate) or takes place in the future, which necessarily requires the author to think about changes that might take place leading to *that particular* future.

The requirement that "science fiction" focus on external events rather than internal is pretty suffocating, IMO.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 06:23 pm:   

Sheila: "But unless the stimulus for that change comes from the sciences or the future, it isn't sf."

Correct, and thank you. That's as good a workable definition as we're likely to get, except that using science as an umbrella term, I would also include under it disciplines that many wouldn't consider sciences; such as psychology, sociology, Art, economics, that sort of stuff. My very loose SF definition actually includes quite a lot. :-)

Elizabeth: "The requirement that "science fiction" focus on external events rather than internal is pretty suffocating, IMO."

Actually, I believe what Sheila said was that the external SFnal event is the _stimulus_ (i.e. the _catalyst_) from which internal or external change occurs in the character. NOT that it _has_ to be the focus, as you've stated. Think "Flowers for Algernon," which I think is a perfect example, and still my favorite SF story of all time after all these years.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 07:45 pm:   

Found a pre-publication interview Jeff VanderMeer did with the editors of Paraspheres. It turns out I guessed wrong: they come not from SF, but from poetry. They seem, nonetheless, to be largely innocent of the non-realistic literary stuff that's out there, and that's always been out there. (Major revelation: "literary critics agree" that, despite being non-realistic, "works by Orwell, Huxley, and Kafka" are serious literature. Who'da thunk it?)

Darja Malcolm-Clarke of Strange Horizons wrote a review that praises the fiction, but makes the introductory material sound like even more of a mess than Amy's excerpt would indicate.
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Daniel Ausema
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 08:38 pm:   

Thanks for the links--I remember that Strange Horizons review now, and it struck me then that the approach outlined in the various essays and such (at least as reported by that reviewer) were exactly backwards from what we should be saying--putting down the rest of speculative fiction to build itself up as more worthy instead of saying that here are examples to show how stories rising from the genres can reward a literary approach as much as anything else.

The lineup of writers sure sounds great though.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 09:20 pm:   

Wow. This is the first time I've seen the Strange Horizons review of Paraspheres. Sh*t, a lot of it sounds like what I was working around, albeit I "worked" some of the same points very differently. Even most of the stories cited in both places are identical. And though viewed _slightly_ askew (i.e. from different approaches to the book), the SH review says, or hints at, many of the same things I said, or else referred to in one way or the other, but again in my own way of saying things. The reviewer and I obviously differed on some of the stories we liked, but if you read the SH review and then read my piece you'll find remarkable similarities. The review in SH goes on and on about the various definitions and why they are so hard to pin down, or even understand. I devoted a long footnote to the same thing, but from a different perspective (mostly marketing), and of course addressed the differences between literary (mainstream) fiction and genre fiction in the body of the piece, the same subject taking up a decent amount of space in the SH review as well.

I tried to understand the Paraspheres 13-page explanation of New Wave Fabulism and gave up in confusion. Seems from the comments by the SH reviewer, the editors of Paraspheres were the most confused of any of us. :-) No _wonder_ this particular experiment wasn't pulled off as successfully as the editors would have liked; the SH reviewer took issue with almost everything they said in their introduction.

My article questioned why there were so many straight SF and F pieces in a supposed collection of "cross-genre" works. The SH reviewer mentions there were straight genre stories included as well.

Of course, I don't agree with everything SH had to say about Paraspheres, but boy howdy were we in synch on a lot of other stuff (if you read behind the lines of what the SH reviewer was "saying"--sort of akin to interpreting political talk that uses "key" words or phrases to mean certain things), some of which we both addressed but from our own perspectives.

While the SH reviewer and I came to different conclusions as to the worth of the book, if nothing else, one can at least now place my article in better perspective (whether one still agrees with all or parts of it or not).

Thanks for the link, S.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Monday, June 04, 2007 - 10:14 pm:   

Dave, I didn't mean to suggest I was attributing that narrowness to Sheila. If you read it that way, my apologies.

It was you who was being so narrow in your demand that SF be defined through a focus on the external and plot rather than the internal and character.

I quote:

"SF focuses more on the external and uses plot for resolution (see Budrys). Literary mainstream tends to focus on the aspects of internal to character story and in many cases eschews plot."

So, I wasn't commenting on Sheila's definition, since hers didn't include any reference to "internal/external" but only to the necessity of the fiction containing some element of science as the stimulus of change or the future.

Change can come from within and be internal rather than external. Think of a story about a random genetic mutation which is the cause of an internal change in a character.

Does that qualify as SF? There's nothing external about it.
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Alex Irvine
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 06:46 am:   

Having taught as a professor at a state university for the last two years (and spent five of the preceding thirteen in grad schools), I can tell you that any lingering genre prejudice is on life support. The oldest guy in our department, who has spent his life in the bee-loud glades of avant-garde poetry, walked up to me a couple of months ago to tell me that he had just read Stan Robinson's latest. The other fiction guy there (I teach mostly creative writing, but also American lit) is a fan of Bester and Delany and Dick. Several of the faculty have taught Le Guin in courses on utopia and feminism. I myself taught a grad seminar on American SF just this past year, and I routinely include genre texts of all sorts in my other courses. Nobody cares.

I mention this because this idea that there is a Academic/Critical Establishment that hates SF just isn't true. It hasn't been true for a long time. I mean, for chrissakes, Phil Dick and HP Lovecraft have Library of America editions.

Anyway, I'm still pissed that The Dead Father didn't win the Hugo or the Nebula. I mean, I loved Towing Jehovah, but Barthelme was there first...

Sammy: Wonder Woman has yet to see me in my true guise. May it ever be thus.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 07:50 am:   

Elizabeth: "Change can come from within and be internal rather than external. Think of a story about a random genetic mutation which is the cause of an internal change in a character."

Those of us using the term "external" use it to mean in the outside world rather than in a character's head (i.e his thoughts). From that, a genetic modification would be in the "real" external world.

Elizabeth: "It was you who was being so narrow in your demand that SF be defined through a focus on the external and plot rather than the internal and character.

I quote:

"SF focuses more on the external and uses plot for resolution (see Budrys). Literary mainstream tends to focus on the aspects of internal to character story and in many cases eschews plot."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was not "demanding" anything, only quoting Budrys analysis as a long time critic and observer of both types of literature, which is a statement of what he has found as a difference of _approach_ between what Literary Fiction seems preoccupied with (internal character change stories very often told without a plot structure), and that of SF which works from a different set of assumptions, and tells its stories in a different way. That's all.

I think its a useful and worthwhile observation on his (and other critics') part. They're not saying one is superior to the other (see Gunn) only noting a marked difference in approaches to literature and each's concerns as viewed through an historical lens.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 08:02 am:   

I mention this because this idea that there is a Academic/Critical Establishment that hates SF just isn't true. It hasn't been true for a long time. I mean, for chrissakes, Phil Dick and HP Lovecraft have Library of America editions.

Thanks, Alex, for your post and perspective. It's like a brisk wind that clears away the fog.
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 09:08 am:   

Good to hear that on at least one campus sf is welcome, Alex. I don't know where you live, but my experience has been markedly different. Even the sf scholars who read papers at the Eaton Conference were more comfortable with the dead sf writers and not so conversant with what was going on in the magazines today. By contrast, my "straight" lit colleagues liked to talk about the vibrancy (their word) of the literary small magazine world. Perhaps the examples you gave were not representative; Dick, Bester, Lovecraft are safe, dead. LeGuin has always been the darling of of the English department because of her impeccable academic pedigree, Delaney is a Harvard professor and black and gay, so therefore quite respectable. And Stan's work has been embraced by the folks who believe in ecological disaster (some of whom, judging by the reviews) didn't realize they were reading sf. More power, of course, to those authors and their bank accounts. But I'll take seriously the Eng Dept crowd when they send in their subscriptions to F&SF -- let alone Analog.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 09:52 am:   

Genre is a minor focus at the English department at the university in the city where I live. You can take courses in fairy tales, science fiction, fantasy, horror and genre in general. The vast bulk of courses are on what could be called "literary" works, both historical and contemporary, and then by various sub-groups, such as Commonweatlth literature and American, etc. I haven't taken one of these specialized courses, but I just might. I think there is only one prof teaching these courses, so perhaps he is the token genre prof. :-)
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 10:38 am:   

LOL - yeah - of course there are some schools that are receptive to SF/F. And there was a huge to-do at one of my schools over who from the English Department would get to teach the Lord of the Rings semester-long humanities combo course. I suggested the professor who'd recently been out a semester due to an unexpected heart problem and open heart surgery - which pleased everyone, including him.

They're still hostile as all get-out here in Southern California. They do not mind using their published genre folk to advertise for students and programs, but heaven forbid they get any respect otherwise.

It is Socrates, of course!

And mine is John Fowles.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 10:41 am:   

Young Irvine,

Yeah, even back in the day SUNY-Buff had a few guys who were open to genre stuff, including Leslie Fiedler, who was a great champion of Philip Jose Farmer. On the other hand you had tightasses like Samuel R. Delany, who taught there a couple of years before I showed up. Now there was a strict realist -- no patience at all for what he used to call "non-quotidian art." People around the department would ask him about Max Beerbohm or Boris Vian, just to watch his blood pressure shoot up. "That shit's crazy!" he'd bark at them. "It's all made up!"

Yeah, shame about The Dead Father. IIRC, it missed the Nebula ballot by two votes, coming in just behind Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
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Alex Irvine
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 01:44 pm:   

People complain that nobody in the academy reads SF. I give counterexamples. Then people say, well, yeah, but of course they read those people (with various appended caveats that in fact don't have much to do with why the people I am speaking about read those books), that's not who I meant...

Yeesh. Some people are never happy unless they're miserable. My students didn't know Bester and Dick were dead. They didn't know Delany was either black or gay until one of them emailed him and got into a conversation that really contributed to the class.

Are we complaining that nobody in the academy reads SF, or that they don't read the SF we want them to read?

It takes time for contemporary writing of any sort to percolate into syllabi and course discussions. That's not a genre thing. And I don't know about Eaton, but at ICFA you can hear papers about stuff that was in F&SF the year before. SF scholars, like any other scholars, work with people they're comfortable working with. Usually, within or without the genre, that's going to be people with a substantial body of work and about whom there is already the beginning of a scholarly discussion. to come at the same question from beyond the genre horizons: Do the people who are publishing their stories in Hobart or Ninth Letter complain that nobody at the MLA convention is writing about them?

And anyway, nobody at an English department subscribes to any magazines but the ones they (or their friends) publish in. That's not a genre thing either.

Sammy: even today, the mention of Shelley Jackson or Laird Hunt makes Delany break out in hives.
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 02:16 pm:   

Sorry I was posting this here, but I will anyway.

I'll never teach again, in hopes I'll have some type of career as a writer.

http://asterling.typepad.com/incipit_vita_nova/2007/06/books_for_grown.html
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 02:35 pm:   

Alex, you misunderstand me. I realize the students enjoy sf and couldn't care less if the author is white, black or a little green man from Mars. I'm speaking of the professors who choose the works in the first place. ICFA is heavy on author participation, so I would expect the atmosphere to be friendly and contemporary. Other scholarly conferences that profess to be about sf, less so. (And Fiedler was one of the few truly knowledgeable presenters at the Eaton.)

I'm not trying to contradict you or argue with you; I'm glad your school is sf friendly. Would that more schools were like it!
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 03:39 pm:   

Sheila,
ICFA has not and is not always author friendly. In fact, a few years ago rumor had it that the board was unhappy that so many writers were attending and bringing down the tenor of the conference. I believe they got over it.
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Alex Irvine
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 04:00 pm:   

I think more schools are like it. I talk to other people (by which I mean faculty) at other schools fairly often, and they're almost always interested in SF even if they don't know much (or anything) about it. But all politics is local, as they say...
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Gordon Van Gelder
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 07:52 pm:   

Ansible quoted this review in its "How Others See Us" column. A propos of this thread, I had to check it out for myself and it's certainly relevant:

http://www.slate.com/id/2165763/
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 08:05 pm:   

Ellen: Oh my Lord!

Alex, where are you located? I should move there. {g}
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 08:15 pm:   

Coincidentally, I picked up the Chabon novel in my local B&N today -- I need something to read other than veterinary articles about the treatment of tick-borne diseases that have been occupying me for the last ten days since my greyhound came down with a mysterious ailment that may/may not be Lyme, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or some other tick horror.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 08:40 pm:   

I'll dream tonight of bitch-slapping some sense into the snobby, elitist, ignorant, arrogant hole for a brain of Ruth Franklin. Absolutely unbelievable, the digs she makes at genre fiction. Unless I zipped over it too quickly, she never does acknowledge that Chabon's novel could easily be considered SF as an alternate history, but only that it is a hybrid of genre fiction. I think she mentions that it might be some kind of alternate history, but never ties this to being an SF work. As if she just couldn't bear the thought of using the words "science fiction." Sheesh.

Well, whaddya spect from a commie-pinko rag like Slate.com anyway? VBG (Just kidding...sorta)

Anyway, thanks for sharing, Gordon. Wouldn't have missed that clown circus-performance for anything.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 09:14 pm:   

I'm really pissed off at Franklin. It really is a truly ignorant, snotty review...unfortunately all so typical of a certain type of short sighted reviewer.
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 10:17 pm:   

I read that a while back. I'm so used to reading this type of thing it seems par for the course. Not even considerate of the book, I didn't think.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 10:52 pm:   

Franklin is obviously quite taken with the book. The odd thing is that she insists on treating it as a repudiation, rather than an outgrowth, of Chabon's fascination with genre: Chabon has finally made the only use of genre fiction that a talented writer should: Rather than forcing his own extraordinarily capacious imagination into its stuffy confines, he makes the genre—more precisely, genres—expand to take him in.

As if he's the first. Maybe she could have used a few helpful blurbs on the dustjacket: "The Yiddish Policeman's Union -- it does for the Jews what Pavane did for the Catholics!"
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S. Hamm
Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 11:02 pm:   

It occurs to me that someone should link to Robert Sawyer's blog entry on the need to drag SF into the mainstream, which I discovered via Matthew Hughes's Archonate.com.
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Alex Irvine
Posted on Wednesday, June 06, 2007 - 06:57 am:   

Sheila: I'm in Maine. We love everyone here, unless you're from Massachusetts.

And re: Sawyer's blog post: part of me thinks that the literary genre as we understand it--i.e., as a set of co-dependent narrative conventions and interpretive practices that exist in a symbiotic relationship with a certain part of a bookstore--is a relatively fleeting historical phenomenon.

Franklin's review doesn't bother me that much. She doesn't know enough about what she's trying to talk about (genre-wise) for me to take her comments seriously.
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Wednesday, June 06, 2007 - 07:53 am:   

Alex: LOL.
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GSH
Posted on Wednesday, June 06, 2007 - 11:44 am:   

S. Hamm: Thanks for the link to the Robert Sawyer blog. I hadn't read it before.

Seems to me Sawyer's thoughts on the paragraph from Glasshouse ought to be given careful consideration. Maybe this is an example of what can happen when science fiction writers focus too narrowly and exclusively on current science fiction readers, and pay a bit too much attention to established genre conventions. While doing so may result in writing that the current audience much appreciates, insularity invariably sets in. Prospective visitors from the outside begin to find the local lingo incomprehensible and the borders too intimidating to cross. Inside, population declines, and the local customs become first quaint, then moribund.

I got a lighter dose of this same thing a couple of times late last night while thumbing through the July/August edition of Analog. A page or two in I found myself abandoning stories, put off by linguistic stage props that clearly identified a tale as science fiction but served no other real purpose. I found myself wondering if the writer had simply attempted to produce a sample of a generic product designed to fit the needs of a generic science fiction consumer. (Maybe this is the dark side of following well-meant advice to study your market?)

What I'm generally looking for as a reader are the compelling ideas and possibilites that are best presented within a context of science fiction and fantasy, or speculations about the effects such might have on believable characters, human or otherwise. Of course, we all want to be entertained in the process.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Wednesday, June 06, 2007 - 02:05 pm:   

"What I'm generally looking for as a reader are the compelling ideas and possibilites that are best presented within a context of science fiction and fantasy, or speculations about the effects such might have on believable characters, human or otherwise. Of course, we all want to be entertained in the process."

I concur 100 percent.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Wednesday, June 06, 2007 - 07:57 pm:   

Also of interest, from the latest Atlantic (and again, apologies if the link doesn't work; the full article is behind a subscription wall), a profile of thriller writer Harlan Coben that focuses on "branding," self-promotion, and the genre/literary fiction divide:

In Las Vegas, I asked Coben how he felt about being invisible to the world represented by The New York Times Book Review, and about the parallel-universe status that so much crime fiction, including his books, has. At first he was au fait about it, but then got worked up. “If I asked you to name five great books that survived 100 years that don’t have a crime in them, you couldn’t,” he said. “Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo.”

He thought for a moment about what he’d just said. “Successful people don’t need to put down mass-market books as a whole,” he said at last. “Who classified these things? Those in the crime-fiction world who worry about this are failed writers. Who am I to whine about it? I get lots of e-mails from people who say I’m the only writer they read. Those readers are fine with me. I want them all. David Foster Wallace is one of the most intelligent writers in the world, and I remember him one time telling me, ‘You know how to end a book. I never know how to end a book.’ He’s never looked down on me” . . . .

Last year, The Harvard Business Review published an analysis of the marketing of James Patterson suggesting that the sameness of an author’s books actually contributes to commercial appeal. “Brands are nothing more than trust,” Patterson was quoted as saying. “I trust I’m going to pick this up and I’m not going to be able to put it down. There will be tension. And pace. And some kind of human identification, not just with the heroes but also with the villains.”

Some readers, of course, like variety, just as there are other readers who prefer to stick with whatever’s working for them. And there are degrees of sameness: A reader who desires consistency might read only James Patterson, or he might read everything by Richard Ford, and then move on to Chang-Rae Lee, then go back to Updike’s Rabbit novels, and from there to Revolutionary Road and The Ice Storm. But if branding is the goal, publishers improve their odds by going after the readers whose tastes are the most static. There’s no point in arguing against this as a business model: Given the economies of scale, branded thriller writers beat highbrow novelists in a landslide. It’s book publishing as product management.

The Atlantic
is also offering a web-only compendium of older pieces on mystery and thriller writers, including Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder" and Christopher Hitchens's characteristically snide but entertaining take on Ian Fleming, "Bottoms Up" ("If Fleming had not been quite a heavy sadist and narcissist and all-around repressed pervert, we might never have got to know Rosa Klebb or Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.").
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Wednesday, June 06, 2007 - 08:56 pm:   

There is also this thought-provoking article:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200210u/int2002-10-02

Agree or disagree with the authors chosen to represent his viewpoint, his basic argument, I think, is a valid one.
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S. Hamm
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 12:05 am:   

I agree with him on three out of the five. The other two I'm willing to cut some slack because, after all, they do write SF.
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Mark Lord
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 04:11 am:   

An interesting and lively debate. I was interested to see that in recent years a number of 'mainstream' authors have been nominated for the World Fantasy awards - Easton Ellis, Murakami etc. Is this a good thing? Their books are fantastical in plot, but are not branded as genre titles. I think that can only be a good thing. It's a bit sad when people from both sides of the divide are in danger of missing out on good writing.

I have always been eclectic in my tastes, enjoying both 'genre' and 'mainstream' work. It's sad that one does always feel a bit guilty and geeky to be reading a SF book though - perhaps because of the genre's isolation. I wonder actually whether this isolation isn't really created by authors and readers, but by Book Publishers and Retailers who are more comfortable with their tidy categories? I think this is particularly noticable when you go into a US bookstore (I am from the UK but have visited the US a number of times), when you see all the SF and particularly Fantasy books with a standard size format and similar cover styles.

It's really no wonder that there is such a divide.

I wouldn't really worry about what the 'academy' thinks - they don't live in the real world after all!!

Regarding short fiction crossing the genre divide, what's the view from people of magazines such as Postscripts. I had a subscription to this magazine last year as I thought it would publish fantasy and 'soft' SF (my main interests). However, most of the stories seem to be of the sort contained in Paraphrases - i.e. sometimes plotless and only loosely SF/Fantasy related. To be honest I haven't enjoyed the magazine that much, although some of the stories have been good, there tend to be not enough to justify subscribing again.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 07:26 am:   

I find some good horror in Postscripts, which is really what I'm looking for. The big fat World Horror issue (#10) was chock full of good stuff.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 10:50 am:   

Mark: "fantasy and 'soft' SF (my main interests)"

It seems as if F&SF might be more to your tastes, Mark.
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Jacob Locke
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 12:43 pm:   

(This is may drift a little. Or a lot. Really, though, the drifting is what's important.)

I'd just finished a story, the first short story completed in years, and was looking for F&SF's submissions address when I stumbled across this article by Mr. Truesdale.

Forget submitting it- now I'm both wary and confused. Is there really, as implied by this thread, some sort of territorial warfare between "hard" SF and "soft" SF? Do people really distinguish between the two?

And, most importantly and addressed particularly to Mr. Truesdale, does the F&SF community really have some sort of grudge against anything even remotely literary?

Is it some manifested jealousy or, as I picked up in the article, a disdain for intellectualism?

I dislike pseudo-intellectualism and the arbitrary movements as much next reader, but as a writer and a reader, I openly enjoy the literary.

Sure, style isn't everything, but it's something, isn't it? If most books are rehashings of the same elements, can't style allow an author to present a cliché in a new light?

Nabokov, I'll admit, has had the largest influence on me of any writer. Is there anything wrong with incorporating the same narrative play Nabokov uses (though, obviously, not so elegantly as he does) in my sci-fi stories, if it makes them more entertaining?

Following closely behind Nabokov, in terms of influence on my own writing, are Gibson, Bradbury, and Emily Dickinson, but I'll leave her out of this.

Gibson has written dark, character driven short stories that, though incorporating lots of technobabble and pseudoscience, don't hinge on some "real" scientific truth.

Bradbury's stories often have a clear perspective and language, but dark and character driven and literary as well.

Am I misunderstanding this debate? Perhaps I am- I'm young, and lots of the apparent resentment and opinions seem to stem from issues before my time.

My story is horror. No, my story is sci-fi. No, my story is a surreal fantasy. No, my story is a literary slice-of-life about overcoming grief with, oh with the heck, a bit of the macabre mystery thrown in for good measure.

Or, to paraphrase someone whose name I've forgotten, can science fiction be what I point at and say is science-fiction?

Anyways, I'm confused. As usual. Perhaps one of my many naive questions could be answered?

(Yikes. I think I used more question marks than periods in that post.)
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Mark Lord
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 12:47 pm:   

Dave - yes I prefer F&SF, also a big fan of Interzone and have tried Black Gate, which I liked but they had a big gap between issues recently
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 01:36 pm:   

Jacob: Just read a few issues of F&SF. Gordon has published a lot of my work and I'm definietly NOT a hard sf writer. The science most of my stories is based on is linguistics, a soft science by most purists' reckoning.
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Jacob Locke
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 01:50 pm:   

Sheila: I have read quite a few issues of F&SF- whenever I'm at Borders or wherever I try to grab a copy. And I have noticed that a lot of the science, if any, is "soft."

But is this common to much of the genre publishing world, or is this unique to F&SF? (Note: The local bookstores only get F&SF, and I haven't bought a sci-fi or fantasy novel in forever. I tend to buy short story collections. =P)

Also, it's not just the science content I'm wondering about- it's the style, or the presence of a literary style at all.

P.S. Based on linguistics? Now I'm going to have to track your stories down! :-)
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 03:39 pm:   

Jacob: "Forget submitting it- now I'm both wary and confused."

Jacob,

The opinions expressed in my column are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or its editor.

Write whatever you want to write the best you know how, and then by all means submit it.

Jacob: "Is it some manifested jealousy or, as I picked up in the article, a disdain for intellectualism?"

Neither. It's a long story. :-)
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2007 - 06:24 pm:   

Jacob: Warning. Serious self-promotion following: THE GUILD OF XENOLINGUISTS will be out from Golden Gryphon next month. All the linguistics-based stories will be there.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Friday, June 08, 2007 - 08:25 am:   

Opinion piece in today's New York Times:

"Philip K. Dick: A Sage of the Future Whose Time Has Finally Come" by Brent Staples.

I quote for your consideration:


Philip K. Dick was still an obscure pulp novelist known mainly to teenage boys when a friend predicted that he would one day have more impact on the world than celebrated writers like William Faulkner, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. The prediction seemed almost delusional in the 1960s, when Dick was popping pills around the clock and churning out novels in a science fiction ghetto from which he seemed destined never to escape.

He did get out, but only posthumously. And with his recent celebration as the sage of futurism, and his pervasiveness on bookshelves and in Hollywood, the early predictions about the growth of his influence have come to seem prescient.


And:

His best books distinguish themselves from ordinary science fiction by focusing not on technology, but on the toll that technological advances often take on human values — and on the soul itself.

And:

The science fiction writer’s job is to survey the future and report back to the rest of us. Dick took this role seriously. He spent his life writing in ardent defense of the human and warning against the perils that would flow from an uncritical embrace of technology.

Your thoughts?
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Friday, June 08, 2007 - 08:50 am:   

Yes, exactly. No surprises there. The best SF looks at the strangeness and weirdness of the future and reports back on how it's likely to affect us. (Finally, the NYT got it right!)
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Alex Irvine
Posted on Friday, June 08, 2007 - 10:28 am:   

There was another article in the Times on PKD in May.
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Dan McNeil
Posted on Friday, June 08, 2007 - 11:44 am:   

Some of PKD's best work is found in his short stories. And my God, was he prolific...
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Friday, June 08, 2007 - 02:28 pm:   

Jacob: "Based on linguistics? Now I'm going to have to track your stories down!"

This article/review might help you on your way:

http://www.sfsite.com/vault/dave23.htm

I wrote it back in 1997, so it's only complete up until that time, and I believe Sheila wrote to say there was one earlier tale I had missed; I think from an issue of AMAZING, IIRC. Sheila?
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Jacob Locke
Posted on Friday, June 08, 2007 - 08:25 pm:   

The best definition of- or, rather, explanation for- science fiction that I've yet heard is: "Humans cast against imagined and technological background, as to better show the essential truths about the human nature."

Admittedly, it was written in half as many words and twice as eloquently (at least) but it's late and I've just graduated; I have an excuse.

So, anyways, if you can get the basic core premise out of that mangled saying, that's what I operate on and assume when I do write genre fiction. I try to use the science-fiction background to better, well, reveal humanity.

As Philip K. Dick did, I suppose. Through a Scanner, Darkly is one of the most brilliant and accurate stories about drugs I've yet read.

Oh, and if anyone could identify the original quote and its speaker, I'd appreciate it.
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Dave Truesdale
Posted on Friday, June 08, 2007 - 09:22 pm:   

Congratulations on your graduation, Jacob!

I remember very well the night I graduated back in the first week in June of 1968. After driving around a bit with a couple of friends and drinking sloe gin mixed with coca cola in cans (we didn't even have enough to get anyone even slightly drunk), we went to a friends house around 1 AM to learn that Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated at a rally in California. Some graduation night _that_ was.

Doesn't mean as much now, almost 40 years later (unless you were around back then and of an age), but back then it was huge and will always be one of _those_ dates one never forgets. Almost, but not quite, like the day JFK was shot and the question always asked was, Where were you when JFK was shot? --and everyone always knew exactly where they were and what they were doing that fateful day. It almost became a game of sorts every time JFK's assassination came up in the news or in conversation.

Just think, you graduated on the same day Paris Hilton went back to jail crying for her mommy!

Sorry, but the thought occurred to me just a second ago, and I couldn't resist. :-)

Enjoy your new freedom.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Saturday, June 09, 2007 - 09:04 am:   

"Humans cast against imagined and technological background, as to better show the essential truths about the human nature."

Jacob, I like that definition and agree with it to a certain extent. I even used a variant of that argument to explain to my best friend, who is doing an MFA in Literature, why SF is a great field that was less about rockets and more about humanity. While the rockets are cool, it is what the field says about humans that interests me.

Your definition raises an important issue. It suggests that human nature is somehow fixed such that we can even talk about its "essential truths".

There may be some biological imperatives that govern us today, such as our need to breathe oxygen, eat, sleep and reproduce, but I suspect that our flexible brains, our minds, our psyches, are plastic enough that those "essential truths" and even those biological imperatives can change.

Does increased/advanced technology and greater knowledge change us at our core or are we still just primates with big brains flying rocket ships?

I think science fiction can and does also speak about how human "nature" changes in changing circumstances. For example, does knowing that the stars are burning balls of gas billions of miles away make me a different person than a human alive thousands of years ago who thought they were holes in the fabric of the heavens?

I think science fiction asks and explores these questions, speculates on what humanity might be like in a future we will (most likely) never be alive to witness. It does rely on a notion of what humanity is like today though, so perhaps even the image of the future presented in SF is always and necessarily a comment on the present.
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Jacob Locke
Posted on Saturday, June 09, 2007 - 08:49 pm:   

Mr. Truesdale: "Where were you when Paris went to jail?" I look forward to my grandkids asking that. :-)

Ms. L: I do believe there are essential truths about the human experience- and when any of us writes, or reads fiction, and sees meaning in it, aren't we also assuming that different humans can share certain experiences/feelings/thoughts/whatever?

I'm not aiming for some absolute standards that will be part of humanity forever. Obviously, we've changed overtime.

But if the Greek playwrights can still speak to us today, and if I can still chuckle at Sei Shonagon's witty observations, a world and centuries away...

Obviously, there's some connection.

P.S. Yes, Sei Shonagon was a brilliant writer. Read "The Pillow Book" if you haven't already.
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Elizabeth L
Posted on Saturday, June 09, 2007 - 11:42 pm:   

I don't want to suggest I know what I'm talking about. I don't. :-)

I would never argue that we are completely different humans than those who lived thousands of years ago. Obviously, we're still human. However, isn't it possible that what the Greek plays meant to the Greeks of the time is different from what the Greek plays mean to us today? I remember when I read Antigone that I really couldn't connect to the motives of the characters and the themes of the story. Reading it without knowledge of Ancient Greece and the whole Greek pantheon, a reader would likely tear their hair out at the foolishness of the characters. I had to have the Greek ethos explained to me before I "got" it.

I grant you that some of what the ancients wrote makes sense today, but I'm not convinced that's because the works reveal something eternal, but rather that we humans have the capacity to relate our own experience to that of other people. We also create meaninging where it might not exist -- read into a work what we expect to find, filling in blanks to make sense of something nonsensical.

Would an Ancient Greek reader be able to make sense of Stross?

If I had to choose between reading Sophocles or Stross, I'd take Stross, thanks. :-) YMMV.
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Sheila Finch
Posted on Sunday, June 10, 2007 - 09:32 pm:   

Seems to me that what would puzzle an Ancient Greek reader encountering Stross is the technology referred to -- often obliquely because today's readers have the background to figure things out -- and perhaps the style.* But the human nature displayed might not prove so difficult to decode. Antigone acts according to the conventions and beliefs of her time, a motive we can understand (once it's explained to us) because we too act according to our societal and familial mores even if we wouldn't act quite as she does. I find her insistence that her brothers' bodies need proper burial more understandable, fr'instance, than today's suicide bomber's belief that if he blows up innocents -- including children -- his god will be pleased and will reward him. (But I can accept that *he* believes that.)

*(Today's readers have a similar problem with the conventions of the Greek stage at first.)

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