The Problem of Humor

Last night I attended a poetry reading by local graduate school students. The first girl poet was rather good, using humor to crack the ice of her audience in the cramped space between bookshelves and shifting bodies that did not arrive early enough for a seat.

The veteran poetry intellectuals came armed with guffaws and used them readily from the first glimmer of humor. But she was really funny--even if not always laugh-out-loud funny (one on dating Warren Buffet, another on a sexual escapade while embalming someone and listening to Gordon Lightfoot). After each poem, the audience clapped. I was still warming my hands from outside, so I made the sound of one-hand clapping--against the bookshelf of the travel section.

The next poet shuffled to the stage in her shy, sweet smile and mid-length blonde hair falling over her cheekbones to hide her face. She invoked the labor of youth, our ire against early treatment of Native Americans. No one laughed, and no one clapped after each poem. One could see the toll that no-one-clapping took by the straining of her smile. It was not that her poems were bad--if occasionally over- or underplaying what the drama should be--but the audience was growing tired and had forgotten they'd clapped after each poem of the first poet.

I wanted to comfort her and tell her, "It's okay. The other poet will never win an award. People who use humor never do."

I no sooner thought it than Robert Sheckley came to mind.

"Never" is a strong term, of course. Certainly R.A. Lafferty won a Hugo for "Eurema's Dam" and Connie Willis has won a few awards herself (but then humor is not necessarily her main mode of storytelling).

Sheckley did win a Jupiter, a short-lived award given by the "Instructors of Science Fiction in Higher Education," back in '74 (no mean feat if you consider that the other stories are considered major classics today). His Author Emeritus award is certainly nothing to look down on, but it is interesting that, aside from sharing the title with authors who have all retired, William Tenn is the only other who worked primarily with humor and irony. The Grand Master list has none who worked primarily with humor and irony as Sheckley and Tenn did.

When a writer asked me why I thought Bob Urell's petition to make Robert Sheckley a Grand Master was so sparsely signed in comparison to his realm of influence, I speculated on possibilities: 1) unfathomable politics, 2) no one's read him these days, 3) he's gotten an award already.

But this new reflection on humor strikes me as the strongest possibility. Humor sneaks past our guard, disarms and charms us more quickly than a normal narrative. Of course, that is all some humor manages to do, eliciting a chuckle or even a guffaw. Lawrence Block once wrote an essay where he sat in on a movie based on his work where the audience laughed heartily, but when he asked their final assessment, he found them negatively disposed. You can make them laugh, but you can't make them love.

Likewise, not every Sheckley story is equally important simply due to the presence of irony or humor. But my suspicion is that because this irony or humor immediately charms and disarms us, we automatically dismiss it from deeper significance. Or, even if we admit a deeper significance, we assume the significance is cheaply or artificially won. I've demonstrated on a couple of Sheckley stories already that his humor and irony is not cheap but far more profound than one would assume due to our (largely American?) prejudice against any insights delivered through humor.

(But if we dismiss Sheckley, we forget his reprints in well over three dozen major anthologies--retrospectives of year, genre, or magazine--as well as his acknowledged or unacknoledged influence on major writers like Douglas Adams, David Brin, Alan Dean Foster, Matt Groening, Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, Spider Robinson, Rudy Rucker, and perhaps even Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22, which he'd begun working on around the publication of Sheckley's "If a Red Slayer"--some uncanny resemblances arise from comparison). As I've said, there's a transformative power in reading Sheckley en masse that one simply does not find even from such Grand Masters as Robert Heinlein, who clearly deserves the award for easily delineated contributions to the genre. And maybe that's Sheckley's problem. His contributions are much more insidious--in the best sense of the term.

Look at all the awards Kurt Vonnegut has won. More tellingly, look at the major literary awards. Off the top of my head, I can think of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, but could his recent death at the time have influenced that choice? It seems the field of SFF may have less prejudice toward humor than elsewhere.

If we dig deeper, we may find the problem of humor is merely a tributary vein of a larger bias: entertainment. It's like the old phrase we've all used: "Anything that tastes that good can't be good for you." If some are reluctant to accept SFF as holding any profundities, perhaps our misunderstanding of humor can in part answer why.

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Ulysses Gets Panned

Roddy Doyle and another critic give reasons why Ulysses is a failure.

I've only read sections of Ulysses, which I found amusing, so I cannot argue for or against. I will add that time does seem to play a factor in critical opinion and that an "ethical aesthetics" (one that has regard for all of fiction's parts as well as broader views of where it fits into the schemata of literature--in other words, a critical theory of practical use) is crucial. Hype eventually dies. If Ulysses is better than the attacks--never fear, fans--it shall breathe again to critical acceptance.

What's next? Remembrance of Things Past?

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James Van Pelt talks plot

On March 1, the Online Writing Workshop is sponsoring an online discussion group on plot, led by James Van Pelt. The drawback is the steep workshop fee ($49/year & $30/6 mo.). If you don't try to do anything too fancy and you're looking for a workshop and you've got money to burn, this may be the place.

Van Pelt is a good man for the job. I've yet to read a story of his that was not well-structured. Take a gander for yourself:

"The Last of the O-Forms" (up for this year's Nebula, third on Asimov's Reader Poll)

"The Wreath"

"A Flock of Birds" (in Dozois' Year's Best, 26th on the Locus Poll)

"The Miracle at Ramah"


"Parallel Highways"

If you ever visit the Speculation's Rumor Mill, look for his posts. Always worthwhile.

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Think I better dance now!

Sorry. Tom Jones gets in my head and that's it....
So, since it was brought out in the comments section of a couple of posts ago, I guess it's fair game to blog about it: What am I doing besides talking about it?
Well, unfortunately, not much. In the last year I've begun putting the pieces together for the unveiling of a new fantastic literature reading series here in Portland, OR. We're basing it on Ellen Datlow's KGB series and she's been good enough to give us advice and smacks on the head when called for. "We" being a group of Portland writers and publishers whose names I do not have the permission to disclose, excepting perhaps Jason Williams who has already mentioned this somewhere else in the distant past.
I'm also still pushing for Bob Sheckley's installment as SFWA Grand Master. I think this is more important than it looks on the face of it because, one, it's a clear, reasonable goal, and two, it shows that we're not just a flash in the pan "movement", whatever that means, but a divergent, self-aware branch of fantastical literature with a history and an honest to gawd purpose. I think anyone who loves SF/F/H of a literary bent owes Bob a huge debt for helping identify and overcome the trend toward juvenilia and escapism that marked the genre pre-1951. It's not much, and it's not enough, but it's something.
And then there's the most concrete difference of all: My own writing. Yep, I'm a writer. Even worse, I'm a writer who's completely aware of the fact that writing will never support my family. Therefore, I'm a writer who writes stories with all the honesty and frankness that I can. I've got no audience to lose and no career to destroy, so I can do that, I can write about death and racism and misogyny and I can write those stories with all the harshness and passion that I feel for and against these things. Even better, I've got friends who've taken the time to help me get along, even if it's to say that I've got a long way to go.
I know there's been a lot of hot air and hype blowing through this blog, and not a small portion of it's been mine. But the thing is, even if we never get anything done at all, at least we're not sitting on our asses in the shadows laughing at anyone else who tries, right? This thing may never accomplish a single thing, though I think that's unlikely. Maybe the most we'll ever do is sell some books by authors who deserve it. But maybe that's enough to justify our existence right there.
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British Book Event

Steve Aylett and China Mieville are appearing at the Bath Literature Festival on 4 March.

Aylett's latest (last?) book of the Accomplice series was just released: Karloff's Circus.

How to describe the series? Take Alice in Wonderland. Now take out Alice. Now put in the Wonderland characters and have them make sense of Wonderland. It's that damned crazy--if not crazier and a little seedier.

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[method three]

Here's a meme for you.

I call it Operation:Get 'Em On The Shelves.

Here's what to do.

On March 1st (or any time during that week), go into your favorite chain bookseller. Take a look at the SFF shelves. Is anything missing? Are there any particular books that you love, which you'd like to see on the shelves?

Order 'em. Three copies, actually.

Personally, I'll be heading to Borders, where I'll be ordering three copies of Graham Joyce's awesome The Facts of Life, which I never saw on the shelves.

See, if you order multiple copies of a book and never pick them up, odds are they'll be added into inventory... which means they'll go on the shelves until the next 'pull'. The pulls take place monthly, so if you do it at the beginning of the month, odds are they'll remain for at least the month of March, and maybe April.

When you order, ask for an email confirmation. Once you receive that confirmation, forward it to guerrillaSFF@yahoo.com, and I'll report the number of respondents.

Will it work? Will it accomplish anything besides headaches for bookstore employees? I don't know.

But it's worth a try.

So go forth and spread the word. Tell your friends, tell your lovers, tell your family. After all, no one is going to happen upon a new book that isn't on the shelves....

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Genre Idiosyncrasies

I find all the talk of genre idiosyncrasies fascinating.

Alan Lattimore begins the discussion here.

Matthew Cheney takes off from there.

(Matthew and I discuss various implications here.)

And, not so tangentially in my mind, Alan talks further about the genre in regards to Jonathan Lethem's essay.

My first response to Lethem (and to Gabe) essentially said that SF turned its back on the literary culture long ago, but of course it is much more complex than that. In the process of separation, I believe, it's developed an art quite different from the tradition literary culture (the "Who Shot SF?" essay attempted to point out one aspect of its art through Robert Sheckley as did this other essay on another aspect of genre art where stories that may seem insubstantial separately add up to something more thought provoking)--an art which, if we recognize it, we also tend to turn our back on since it's that big scary unknown thing we call art. But acceptance of art in the genre goes through its cycles. (An academic essay was floating somewhere on the web regarding Lethem's essay--where "Who Shot SF?" had become a footnote--although I cannot find it now for further references.)

In fact, I propose that SFF continues to invent new art forms, it just doesn't know it. This is what I've been trying to get people excited about and encouraged about and to get us to EXPLORE FURTHER for a while now (I made one proposal of a new art form within the Interstitial movement, but since it didn't encompass the whole movement, it's been downplayed, but I hope it eventually gets air-time.) We could be on the tip of a huge iceberg.

I'm not yet sure where Gabe's going on the main website, but his ideas are starting to gel and excite me--is he on the verge of a conceptual breakthrough? I shall wait with bated breath. (If not, who cares? It's the attempt that's important, and as Tarkovsky says, "If one were to perform the same single act..., the world would be changed." I hope we one day fulfill Jeff Ford's prophecy: "They eventually lead to other universes." Is this just hype? Or the real thing? Stay tuned to find out.)

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The Chain of Responsibility Has to Start Somewhere

I'm helping out with reviews at TangentOnline. They're backlogged, so I'm just now reviewing the Spring '03 issue of The Third Alternative. Way in the back, in Peter Tennant's review of Tideland, is the following:
On the cover, Terry Gilliam describes the book as 'F*cking wonderful.' Sorry Terrence, but you need to read more.

I am gratified to finally see people who write blurbs publicly held accountable for their endorsements.
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The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction

Jonathan Lethem's essay on how post-New Wave science fiction took a wrong turn and lost our innovative edge to mainstream writers. Don't sit there-read it. discuss this post at our messageboard


Meaning/Change/Theme/Dreams/Hope/Love/Truth in "The Sacrifice"

I'm conflating the terms in the above title because I see them as related. I'll parse out some of the differences here, but it is this necessary entanglement of our existence that our postmodern "enlightenment" has lost sight of--a loss that Andrei Tarkovsky lamented.

Colleen @ Del Rey asked what I thought about Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. I think everyone should see it. I'll unravel just the beginning, so that you may unravel the rest for yourselves--the truth/change/etc. If you see dreams/hope/love as the vector that drives a character toward change, which leads to lifting the corner of a page in the book of meaning/theme/revelation/truth, it is difficult not to see things from Tarkovsky's perspective.

The story begins with Alexander helping his son, Little Man, to erect a dead tree. He tells his son if he waters the tree for years, one day it will blossom:

"A method, a system has its virtues. If one were to perform the same single act,like a ritual, unchanging systematic..., the world would be changed.... Something would change. It would have to."

Later, the two bump into the bicycling postman who, being something of a mystic, warns Alexander, "We all are waiting for something. I've always felt as if... the living I've done, so far, hasn't actually been real life, but a long wait for... something real.... We hope, we lose hope, we move closer to death. Finally, we die and are born again. But we remember nothing. And everything begins again, from scratch. Not literally the same way, just wee wee bit different. But it's still so hopeless and we don't know why. Just the next performance so to speak."

Alexander responds, "Do you really think that mankind could devise a universal concept, a model... of Absolute Law, of Absolute Truth? Why it'd be like trying to create a new universe, to be a demiurge [dramaturge?]. Do you truly believe...?"

"Yes," says the postman, mounting his bicycle. "If I truly believe, it will be so."

Alexander takes his boy into the woods, where they will meet a couple motoring down a dirt road. He tells the boy, "In the beginning was the word. You are mute, mute as a fish. We've lost our way. Humanity is also on the wrong road, a dangerous road."

One of the couple is a doctor who, on reflecting of the child's speechlessness, says, "Gandhi had one day a week when he spoke to no one."

The couple head back to the house in the car while Alexander chooses to finish his speech to Little Man although, when the major points are revealed, "Little Man" is not listening but gone.: "We had no map. We forgot to bring one.... There is no such thing as death.... there's the fear of death and that... makes people do things they shouldn't. [Typical anti-science speech]. Savages are more spiritual than we.... How weary I am of all this talk.... If only some could stop talking and DO something instead. Or at least try to."

Later the postman hands Alexander a birthday gift of an old map: "Every gift requires a sacrifice. If not, what kind of gift would it be."

"It must have been lovely when men thought the world looked like this," Alexander said. "This Europe looks more like Mars. That is, it has nothing to do with truth."

"No. But people lived then."

"I have a feeling that our maps have nothing to do with truth, either."

Watch for maps, opening/closing of doors, bicycles vs. motor cars. Think of the story as one of a cycle of such stories--i.e. Abraham and Isaac, etc.--and the ending should become quite clear.

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give me particulars

But why, in particular, is fantastic fiction in all its varied forms, important? Why should we encourage other people to read it? Why should we care, when we have a strong core of readers that barely changes over the years?

I'm looking for specifics. Actionable, quantifiable specifics that can be utilized instead of resorting to people shrugging and saying "because it's cool" or something.

This is important. To me, at least.

For example, I think a lot of the techy sorta-SF works that have been put out by Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, etc. are important because they help us deal with 'future shock' (for lack of a better term). Like the cyberpunks, these writers give us an 'inroad' for understanding and adapting to rapid change in technology.

I'd be more coherent if my head wasn't pounding so badly....

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Joe Public and Barry N. Malzberg

Why is speculative fiction an important, necessary component of our culture? What makes it worth Joe Public's time read an SFF novel?

Jeff Vandermeer and Matt Peckham have already discussed that one success of SFF is that is it shares certain similarities to other fiction. I agree, but more importantly so does T.S. Eliot:

"[N]ot only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors assert their immortality most vigorously."

But as Eliot points out, there are also dissimilarities or we'd have mimicry, which would fall short of art.

A second aspect that Joe Public should already be aware of, if he didn't already know from our popular climate or from McSweeney's Mammoth anthology, is that one of the genre's priorities has always been entertainment.

But this still doesn't make the genre unique as other genres could easily accomodate this attitude.

One of my favorite genre aspects is that it has invented or changed-up more reliable modes of storytelling than others. I gave Fredric Brown's "Letter to a Phoenix" as an example that may be disappearing ("The Weapon" would also qualify as one whose effect requires displacing the character change into the reader, but while less common than it once was, this is probably not in danger of extinction).

Another example would be the discursive-discourse style of Barry N. Malzberg. I'm not sure if a Malzberg-type could be published today--not that his style was always effective but it was almost always pertinent which few writers can claim. Moreover, when his discourse-fiction mode was spot-on mixed as in "Understanding Entropy," we encounter both powerful thought and emotion.

The genre used to pride itself on its variety, but I wonder sometimes if we've become a codified commodity. Perhaps the genre's too big to notice all the new invention in its corner pockets. If so, why are they in the corner pockets?

Noam Chomsky had an interesting theory of evolutionary/natural-selection education that went something like: those who do as they're told become worldly successes, those who go against the grain become taxi drivers.

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I think there have been some misconceptions around what it is that I, personally, want to accomplish within the field of speculative fiction. Some people assume that I am out to change the genre itself; that somehow, I don't like speculative fiction, and would like to see the field either co-opted or coerced into something that resembles my personal favorite vision.

Quite the contrary.

Rather, my mission, such as it is, is something a lot more complex and a lot deeper than that.

My goal, my aim, is to bring speculative fiction out of the 'ghetto' and into the world-at-large. I want to break down those barriers that we've erected that keep the field from interacting with the rest of the world. I'm interested in ruining the dichotomy that persists between the SFF Reader and the Non-SFF Reader.

I believe that speculative fiction, moreso than any other form of fiction, has social and cultural relevance that is overlooked and denied to non-SFF readers. I believe that, with the proper goading and proper coercing, the field of speculative fiction can bridge the gap between popular entertainment and full-blown 'Important Literature'. In some ways, I am like the Fan of old, the boy that believes that Fans are Slans, that SFF is a superior form of fiction. But where the typical Fannish mindset is exclusionary, my mindset is more inclusive. I don't want to close the field to 'mundanes'; I want to embrace them, to show them exactly why I think SFF is vital, important culture.

There are many angles of attack to pursue in this mission. One way, which I'll be exploring in depth with s1ngularity.net, is via proper marketing; the idea that the "revolution will be marketed". Another method is through the critical study of speculative fiction, which encourages both discerning readers and more rigorous reviewers. Yet another angle is to discover (and encourage) the "whys" behind speculative fiction; why we read it, why we write it, and why others should read it. In essence, we must explore the reasons for speculative fiction, so we may properly describe why others should bother reading it.

So, bloggers and blogreaders… start your engines.

Why is speculative fiction an important, necessary component of our culture? What makes it worth Joe Public's time read an SFF novel?

Speak out.

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Frederic Brown: the Arena of SF

One of the problems of focusing on the present is that we bypass standing on the shoulders of giants who have made great yet forgotten strides in whatever field. Robert Sheckley is one name you’ve heard much mention of here. Frederic Brown is another.

The best essay on Brown is by Barry N. Malzberg found in his genre collection From These Ashes. He writes, “[Brown] has in the last few decades fallen almost completely out of print.” This is rather astounding, considering that his shorts have appeared in around a dozen or two of the year’s bests as edited by Judith Merril, Isaac Asimov, and Everett Bleiler--not to mention major retrospective anthologies like Terry Carr’s Treasury of Modern Fantasy and SFWA’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

“Arena,” his most famous story, is tenth on William G. Contento’s reprint list and fifteenth on SFWA’s list of best stories between 1929-1964, which is not too shabby considering the stories on that list. After one reads that story, the connection to Orson Scott Card’s masterwork, Ender’s Game (also influenced by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers), is unambiguous.

His best story may be “The Weapon,” which some may consider a vignette due to its brevity but packs a narrative arc which makes it unmistakably a full short story with the potency of stories ten-fold its length. But he wrote a number of works at this length and shorter that have more power than people generally give them credit because readers may fail to reflect on the portent of meaning/purpose/truth/theme/change [see forthcoming essays on meaning in life and in Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice] unpacked in relatively short space--a lesson in brevity that only passionate readers of poetry seem to be aware of [see forthcoming essay on the connection between poetry and SF]. One would have to take “Abominable” as another example--here, however, both Emshwiller’s and Brown’s stories combine for a greater effect than either alone.

His greatest work, however, gives its effect in a form that inhabits almost solely in the SF realm--an effect almost forgotten by our present-tense only eyes for genre [again, refer to future essay on poetry]: “Letter to a Phoenix.” The time-spanning effect we can grant to Olaf Stapledon who used it to compress entire histories of the universe into one narrative (although Wells predates both in his finale of The Time Machine). But Brown does it to such an impact that neither predecessor quite achieves through its use: as Malzberg writes, “[it] holds that humanity may be hopeless but it is absolutely unassailable.”

This is but one major attribute of SF almost wholly forgotten except in a few brief glimmers today (i.e. Paul di Filippo), which gives us the first in a string of examples of what the genre could learn from the example of poetry [see future essay on the connection between SF and poetry].

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Okay. I did my best to construct a reasonable argument here. I appealed to emotion here. I threatened you here.
The only fallacy I haven't yet committed is ad populum. So that's what I'm gonna do now. Sign my petition and you'll have your name in the same list as Jeff Ford, Kage Baker, Lucius Shepard and Nick Mamatas. That's kinda cool, right?
Apologies to those who very much wish they didn't have to read about this anymore....

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to blog or... to blog?

I'm tearing myself in half. That's my only solution.

While getting s1ngularity::criticism up and running (for better or worse, y'all, simmer down!), I neglected dear ol' s1ngularity.net for roughly a month. I've just spent the evening working on it, adding some links and such. But now I'm stuck.

My time is horribly, horribly precious (says baby Olivia, who even now is grunting on the verge of waking...), and I don't want to neglect either site. So I won't be neglecting either.

However, don't be alarmed if my posting habits at either site are erratic and distrubingly unfocused. Until I manage to get into the swing of things, I'll be trying various things to keep involved at both blogs without killing myself or anyone around me. Which, come to think of it, plays well with the experimentation scheme....

At any rate, I'm still here. Just working toward a balance.

Meanwhile, I'm about halfway through lost boy lost girl, and I have to say I haven't enjoyed a 'horror' novel this much since House of Leaves....

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The First Science Fiction Textbook?

The publication of some very recent compilations of academic writing on the subject of what science fiction was, is, or should be, has led me to reconsider an earlier thought process, namely that there is this urgent need to theorize science fiction in order to rebuild its intellectual edifices and colonize the bastions of the mainstream elite.

It turns out we're much closer, embryonic though the discourse may be, than I believed some mere weeks ago, thanks to the recent (as in 2-3 months recent) efforts of some considerable talents.

The important thing is of course and firstly that there is an organized effort underway, and moreover, an effort currently led by the right thinkers in my estimation. It is to this group that I challenge anyone reading this critical blog to now turn and electrify the dialectic.

I'm referring to the recently published (2003) Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, with whom anyone who's heard of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction or Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century will probably be familiar.

My three minimum qualifications for a literary field textbook:

- Should approach the subject with an eye to and the language of the collective/accumulated literary theory leading up to the twenty-first century.
- Should contain both historical and critical approaches.
- Should be a collection of multiple authors and perspectives from acknowledged experts in the field.

With the publication of this companion, I propose all three conditions have been met, and that we have our very first candidate for a true "core" textbook. Bear in mind that I am in no way intending to exclude other previous works whose applications as texts in somewhat more advanced or focused tracks of study is unchallenged; I'm simply saying that I don't believe we have yet seen the release of a text that meets my three minimum qualifications, which are also the standard qualifications of any academic text intended to be both a primer in the histories of *and* critical approaches to an acknowledged subject of inquiry.

The burning question: is it a good one? I'll have to get back to you on that one, as I just picked it up and have merely scanned the perimeter, but already the list of contributors (Jim Gunn, Brian Stableford, Gary Westfahl, Gary Wolfe, Brian Attebery, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Andy Duncan, and several notable others) the tenor of the foreword by Gunn and the introduction by Mendlesohn, and the historical and theoretical range (pre-genre to now + Marxist, feminist, postmodern, queer, et al theory), is tantalizing.

More to come...

Here's the Cambridge spin-up on it.

The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction
Edited by Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn

Published November 2003

326 pages

(Click here to view the softcover edition at Amazon, $24)

Science fiction is at the intersection of numerous fields. It is a literature which draws on popular culture, and which engages in speculation about science, history, and all types of social relations. This volume brings together essays by scholars and practitioners of science fiction, which look at the genre from these different angles. After an introduction to the nature of science fiction, historical chapters trace science fiction from Thomas More to the present day, including a chapter on film and television. The second section introduces four important critical approaches to science fiction drawing their theoretical inspiration from Marxism, postmodernism, feminism and queer theory. The final and largest section of the book looks at various themes and sub-genres of science fiction. A number of well-known science fiction writers contribute to this volume, including Gwyneth Jones, Ken MacLeod, Brian Stableford Andy Duncan, James Gunn, Joan Slonczewski, and Damien Broderick.

List of contributors
Foreword (James Gunn)
Introduction: reading science fiction (Farah Mendlesohn)

Part I. The History:

1. Science fiction before the genre (Brian Stableford)
2. The magazine era: 1926–1960 (Brian Attebery)
3. New wave and backwash: 1960–1980 (Damien Broderick)
4. Science fiction from 1980 to the present (John Clute)
5. Film and television (Mark Bould)
6. Science fiction and its editors (Gary K. Wolfe)

Part II. Critical Approaches:

7. Marxist theory and science fiction (Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr)
8. Feminist theory and science fiction (Veronica Hollinger)
9. Postmodernism and science fiction (Andrew M. Butler)
10. Science fiction and queer theory (Wendy Pearson)

Part III. Sub-genres and Themes:

11. The icons of science fiction (Gwyneth Jones)
12. Science fiction and the life sciences (Joan Slonczewski and Michael Levy)
13. Hard science fiction (Kathryn Cramer)
14. Space opera (Gary Westfahl)
15. Alternate history (Andy Duncan)
16. Utopias and anti-utopias (Edward James)
17. Politics and science fiction (Ken MacLeod)
18. Gender in science fiction (Helen Merrick)
19. Race and ethnicity in science fiction (Elisabeth Anne Leonard)
20. Religion and science fiction (Farah Mendlesohn)

Further reading.


James Gunn, Farah Mendlesohn, Brian Stableford, Brian Attebery, Damien Broderick, John Clute, Mark Bould, Gary K. Wolfe, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, Veronica Hollinger, Andrew M. Butler, Wendy Pearson, Gwyneth Jones, Joan Slonczewski, Michael Levy, Kathryn Cramer, Gary Westfahl, Andy Duncan, Edward James, Ken MacLeod, Helen Merrick, Elisabeth Anne Leonard.

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while the gabe's away...

Three hellacious days of moving things, switching sofas from one home to another and sending my sofa to yet another home... needless to say, it's been a draining, exhausting, muscle-aching experience. However. The good news is, Heather and the girls now have *everything* at our new apartment (and never mind that it's been four months, eh?), and there's no more ties to the old house.

The bad news is, while trying to yank a half-drained waterbed mattress out for disposal, we managed to tilt the entire bedframe until it broke, landing squarely on my poor, thin, pasty ankle. I now have a bruise and scrape covering my entire left ankle, and a limp that makes me look like Igor.

The good news is, having the sore ankle has allowed me to utilize a leftover Darvocet, coupled with a couple glasses of [yellow tail] merlot.

What does that have to do with s1ngularity::criticism?

Not much, beyond explaining why I haven't posted in a few days. And the outgrowth of the moving and all means that as I 'rest up' the ankle, I'm finally delving into Peter Straub's most excellent novel lost boy lost girl, which I will have some choice words about....

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Altered at "The Altar" of Robert Sheckley

Bob Urell asked me what my favorite Sheckley story was. I wrote back, "Surely, ye jest!" There is no such thing. That's like asking, "What's the possibility of impossibility?" or "What's your favorite Jelly Belly... if they finally perfected every single flavor possible?" or "How many stars are in the sky, on a cloudless night, without pollution... or atmosphere, and with a perfect vision that can detect the least quantum packet of energy emnating from a speck in space once every 100 billion years?" Yes, the question is that absurd. There is only my favorite Sheckley story for this time of the day/month/season/life/mood.

That said, I am more than willing to share one of innummerable stories of Sheckley that I am inordinately fond of.

You've read him, too, haven't you?

You'd know. At least if you read one of his collections, you'd find you've been led down street after street you thought you knew--only the directions have been changed. Things you thought were the same have been twisted around. This is not the town you thought you lived in.

And yet it is. He is. Sheckley is the town you live in. You no longer live in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvannia but Sheckley, PA--no longer Eugene, OR but Sheckley, OR.

One Sheckley story is not enough to change your world. You must read at least a collection. And then he becomes yours. You own him. And he you. You possess him, horde him as a troll madly desires the billy goat gruff that passes over his bridge. You read his collections until the covers fall off and weep tears of sad joy. And you will find the only responsible thing for any human being still having the least faculty of sense is to sign Bob Urell's petition for making Robert Sheckley Grand Master, which he already is in all but name. It's just a terribly small gesture of your support for the meaning he's added to your life.

When I stop to think about it too seriously, I do get a little (if you'll pardon the sentimentality)... a little, well, let's just say I can't put it into words without a hanky. I'd read Sheckley stories before, but only read them as a group last year when I most needed the light of a little humor about and enlightenment of humanity. Here's as an overly simplistic guide to the periods of Sheckley--they're all Sheckley but variations on his many aspects:

50s (wit master)
60s (extension of the fifties but focused on books and other genres like spy thrillers)
late 60s-late 70s (experimental)
late 70s-late 80s (wit with Twilight Zonish aspects--darker, more )
late 80s-mid 90s (colloborations, media novels)
mid 90s to present (Sheckley reborn! The Phoenix arises from the ashes of media tie-ins)


"The Altar" can be misread. One misreading is the kind of Twilight Zone that you watch but leave with little more than being entertained by a twist. Another misreading is to take it as disparaging toward other cultures. These misreadings are due to carelessness. The difference is only the fraction of a second it takes to pick up what each clue is really telling us about our world. Moreover, all science fiction at its best unveils the history of all humanity. And few have the humanity that Sheckley has for humanity. But, as I've said, you have to read more than a handful of random stories.

Not one of our ancestral lineages can claim a purity of humane humanity. At some point in our past we've dipped into the belief that the harvest will be bountiful if we sacrifice this young girl, that we will become stronger if we eat our enemy. It is only slowly, slowly that we've learned to turn our backs on our more loathesome pasts....

Or have we?

How distant is our past? Could uncivility come to even our own small town where we know every inhabitant by name? Wouldn't the mayor know it if we were invaded by darker elements of our past?

Mr. Slater of North Ambrose thought so until his "pleasure to be alive, a joy to be commuting" was interrupted by his encounter with the strange man in the light blue topcoat.

Soon the preoccupation of these encounters makes him late for and distracted at work. There's only on thing for it....


Sometimes I wonder: Might I not have been a smarter, wiser man had I read Sheckley en masse at an earlier age? Might I not have avoided the Temple of Dark Mysteries of Isis?

And you: did you know that they've set up a Temple of Dark Mysteries of Isis in your neighborhood? Do you know what paths that man might lead you down? Do you know which man is the man in the light blue topcoat? He might have changed coats between now and then.

(To learn more about Robert Sheckley, visit this webpage--always under reconstruction.)

(To sign the petition for asking SFWA to recognize Robert Sheckley as the Grand Master he is, visit this webpage.)

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A Letter from Sandra M. Gilbert

Although you may not be shouting “Amen, Sister, tell it like it is” after every sentence as you should be, you should at least recognize the pertinence of each sentence to us all -- poet, writer, genre, critic, etc. You may want to read it multiple times as I have enjoyed doing.

Sandra M. Gilbert, doctoral professor at U.C. Davis, may be one of the biggest names in that cross-section of feminism, poetry, and criticism. She has edited
The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women and the Library of America’s Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories. Her collection, Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems 1969-1999, won the 2001 American Book Award.

Her letter appeared in this month's issue of
Poetry, one of the most consistently best poetry magazines since 1912, publishing T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland among other major highlights of poetry and poets in the twentieth century.

Thank you to both Sandra M. Gilbert and Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, for their permissions to reprint.

Dear Editor,

I applaud the lively dialogue on the place, purpose, genre, and gender of the poet-critic that you’ve aired in these pages (see “Is Anybody Out There,” [Dec]ember 2003 and “Letters to the Editor,” [January 2003]). As a poet, a critic, and -- yes -- a poet-critic (i.e., a reviewer), I’ve long been concerned about the declining visibility of those who are willing to do this kind of work, and over the years I’ve speculated in print on what I consider some sources of the problem. Indeed, I consider the position of the endangered species we call the poet-critic so dismal that I’m not sure we could assemble a large enough sample of these creatures to offer statistical evidence, one way or another, of Averill Curdy’s hypothesis that none of those extant are young women. And unlike some of your respondents I lament these declining numbers.

To be sure, I agree with Eavan Boland’s assertion that what’s most crucial for each poet is the “making of a critique,” which I take to mean the development of a personal poetics. Yet, with Emily Warn, I believe that one builds and brings to consciousness such a set of aesthetic assumptions not just through a solitary engagement with one’s own imagination but also through a scrupulous examination and appraisal of writings by others. That, as Mary Kinzie rightly notes, this activity can be perilous (“it does not make one many friends”) may be all too true. Since the advent of email, with its potential for rapid-fire response, my own reviews in these pages have as frequently elicited nasty cracks (in some cases virtual poison pen letters) as they have drawn warmly supportive notes of praise. Nonetheless, I don’t agree that “to lend oneself imaginatively to another sensibility” ultimately “exhausts and enervates.” On the contrary, when the sensibilities of other are as fine as many now responsible for new books of poems, the task of lending oneself to them seems to me not only inspiring but deeply educating. Just as I learn from the impassioned reading of poems I choose to teach, so I learn from intensive readings of the strongest poems I review.

What, then, has caused the phenomenon I’ve termed the declining visibility of the poet-critic? I’ve speculated lately that the problem can be explained through a study of institutions currently shaping much of our literary life: on the one hand, college and university English departments in which, for the most part, there’s a yawning gulf dividing those who theorize or “historicize” “texts” (i.e., critics) from those who produce poems or stories (i.e., “creative writers”); and on the other hand, a realm of literary journalism dominated by, say, Oprah’s Book Club along with newspapers (including the venerable New York Times) that seldom or never represent or review poetry.

It was not ever thus. To begin with my point about the division between critics and creative writers, just a glance at the contents of the relatively new Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism will supplement Averill Curdy’s allusion to a line of English-language poet-critics beginning with Sir Phillip Sidney by reminding us that this lineage continued through Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Emerson, and Poe to Eliot and Ransom. In other words, it continued right into the middle of the twentieth century. When I was going to school in the fifties and sixties, in fact, the writers whose works we read when we read “criticism” were largely poet-critics. But as professional, high-cultural criticism moved into the university, it increasingly institutionalized and certified itself through the production of what we now call “theory” rather than through the practice of poetry. And similarly, as “creative writers” (aka poets and novelists) found jobs on campuses where they led workshops and instructed other writers in “craft,” they certified themselves through the productions of poems and novels rather than through the practice of criticism. And never, or hardly ever, would the twain meet.

Or, if the twain might meet, they’d do so in that realm of literary journalism I mentioned earlier. But as I noted, that realm is increasingly dominated by commercial media whose leaders have little or no taste for verse, to understate the case. That we poets, whether or not we also aspire to write criticism, are all too aware of our own marginality -- no, obscurity -- in the literary marketplace, was emphasized for me by the assumption articulated by Averill Curdy’s piece and in the comments of several respondents that we really only write criticism of poetry for each other. Noted Curdy, young women might be “too aware of the negative impact a critical review might have on their own relationships in the close-knit poetry world.” Added Kinzie, such reviewing doesn’t “increase the sense of community among writers.” Declared Brian Phillips, “the poetry world has become deeply uncritical of itself.” Concluded Peter Campion, the “ ‘Poetry World’ has become bigger and more diverse,” making it “easier for reviewers and editors to give up on aesthetic judgment.” None of these writers appears to believe that poetry might be of interest to anyone outside the “poetry world” or “community.”

Yet when Lord Byron speculated that the mind of John Keats, “that fiery particle,” might have been “snuffed out by an article” (of poetry criticism), he made his comment in the best-selling ottava rima mock-epic known as Don Juan. And when Eliot attacked Milton and celebrated the metaphysicals, his pronouncements soon became common currency, if not in the New York Times, at least in the hallowed halls of academe. Can those of us who inhabit “the poetry world” with passion and purpose transcend the insularity that has somehow been forced upon us? (Can we have forced it upon ourselves?) Or has an “interest” in poetry come to seem an outré hobby like stamp collecting or bird watching, only rather more esoteric?

Sandra M. Gilbert

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Dear readers...

Just a quick note to those who are interested in such things. I was happy to accept gabe chouinard's invitation to be a part of s1ngularity, and have enjoyed my time here. What I've come to realise during these past weeks, though, is that there is no such thing as a casual critical blog. You need to spend time on it, thinking and working and preparing for your moments in the sun. Sadly, I have accepted that I don't have the time to do it at the moment and have reluctantly decided to hang up my literary spike. I wish the remaining team the best of luck with the experiment. I'd love to see it work out.

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Matthew Hughes's "Mastermindless" and other ways to enhance your love-of-F&SF-life

Welcome Matthew Hughes to SF Site, everyone, then grab the March 2004 F&SF and enjoy the best tale in it this month, full of goofy grin inducing wit and just the right amount of unpretentious smartness to make it go down smooth as a chuckling sand burr. As Hughes puts it, "The stories are sort of 'Sherlock Holmes gets mugged by Jack Vance with P.G. Wodehouse driving the getaway car.'" Not nearly enough smart dark comedy like this in the genre.

I'll make just one minor amendment to Matthew's blogsite, by pointing out that fandom has always been "full of young (i.e., thirty and under) novel readers who simply do not know that venerable sf pulp mags like F&SF, Asimov's and Analog are still publishing." I don't expect much of fandom, and it doesn't bother me much that after seeing I, Robot this summer, most of them will, at best, think of Asimov as "that forerunner to that scientist, whashisname, that fella on that space trek show that designed that android thingy, wasn't it called Megabyte or something?" Never mind how many could pick the name Philip K. Dick out of a lineup of the last decade's (extremely) popular skiffy movies. I'll grant Matthew's point that the grandmasters are growing off the populist cinematic vine quicker than mutant pumpkin-sized red peppers (saw some of these in a Hyvee the other day, talk about oddly enough), but how different is that from stuff like 2001, Minority Report, and Solaris? Not to mention the larger mainstream cadre of school-taught writers who rocket to still greater fame with A Room with a View, The Great Gatsby, Howard's End, and Shakespeare in Love?

This month's F&SF stirred a bit of scum up from the mudbucket of this reader's head tank:

- Do we need a column by Charles de Lint called "Books To Look For" stacked aside a secondary column by Elizabeth Hand called "Books" where both are, whatever their picks, the same column? Maybe I'm overreacting to all the reading lists of late, and I'll buy the different audiences argument, but would like to see Van Gelder (if it's his call) pare things back and push more stories over reviews. Make that font smaller, up the page count, and give me 1-2 novelets plus 5-10 short stories. I want to see what more people are up to. A lot more. (And bear in mind that Locus is charging you $6 a pop for a crapload of color photos of authors at conventions that are about as interesting to me as Average Joe or Fear Factor -- anyone want to run the numbers on Locus's readership versus F&SF's?)

- I'm really not looking for True Science stuff in a place like F&SF either. Especially not a story on something as controversial as global warming. Give it to me in Scientific American -- a hugely read mag across a massively diverse demographic -- and in F&SF instead give me another short story about the secret cabal of anti-bovine speciesist scientists creating a genetic form of massively methane farting cow designed to hurry the onset of global warming and require the extermination of cows everywhere. Maybe even a new section for flash fiction (which is sorely missing an outlet in the pro mags). I know, my tongue is on fire, get out the bar soap and all that.

Otherwise, love ya love ya love ya, F&SF. Keep the Hughes stories a-comin'.

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The Hindsight Awards

So many awards, so many interesting books, yet all so very now, so completely 'published in the last twelve months', such instant hindsight. Hence, the Singularity Collective Hindsight Awards. Make up your own category and announce the award; everything culturally produced in the last hundred years is eligible for all categories. Could it be any simpler?

Some instances:

The Singularity Collective Hindsight Award for the Best Short-story Collection Title goes to ... The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980) by Gene Wolfe.

The Singularity Collective Hindsight Award for the Best Last Line of Any Pop Song goes to ... 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss'.

The Singularity Collective Hindsight Award for the best Alternate History Novel that Nobody Realizes Is Alternate History in the First Place and Which Is Also About Incest goes to ... Ada (1969), by Vladimir Nabokov

Nominations are still open in the 'Best Use of the Word "Of" in a SFF Novel Title' and 'Best Thing' categories.

Thank you, and good afternoon.

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Mike Resnick’s “Travels with My Cats” in Asimov’s, February 2004

When Resnick says that this story is one of his three best, he must mean by its ability to emote. And emote it does: a story of the kindling of one man’s passion.

Ethan has never really loved before but for a copy of a limited edition, self-published travelogue called “Travels with My Cats” written by a single woman who has long since died. Suddenly, she begins to appear for a few hours each night on his porch with her cats until something changes the course of his history. The title plays double duty here, which is always nice.

Resnick has tapped into a rarer territory for him in this fantasy. It may not match the ambition of his Kirinyaga stories, but what it lacks in imaginative ambition it makes up for in emotional ambition.

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Here’s an interesting literary trick I’m not sure many are aware of:

Judith Merril collected Frederic Brown’s 1960 story “Abominable” in her 6th annual Year’s Best SF (reprinted from a magazine called Dude--aka. lad mag?).

A knighted Brit, Sir Chauncey, goes in search of the world’s most beautiful woman who was last seen kidnapped by a yeti.

One might say the character objectifies women: “he was a connoisseur of women” even though he “had never seen Lola Gabraldi, in the flesh.... the most pulchritudinous movie star Italy had ever produced.” Produce.

In Brown’s defense, there’s a switch at the end in which Chauncey becomes the object, from which the title earns its keep. Despite this, it may have proved troublesome to a woman who may have read it and published a story with the exact same title as a response.

Damon Knight published “Abominable” by Carol Emshwiller twenty years later in Orbit 21 (the story was later reprinted first by James Gunn for The Road to Science Fiction #4 and later by Pamela Sargent for Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years.

Here we have a group of men stalking the mountainside for these elusive creatures called women. Their techniques are laid out as a Wild Kingdom docu-narrative and are amusingly predictable. The title has quite another connotation altogether.

It’d be nice to see these two laid out side by side. In fact, someone ought to do an anthology of these kinds of stories that reflect off one another to good effect.

The Frederic Brown story may be found at NESFA.

The Carol Emshwiller story may be found at Small Beer Press.

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Charles Coleman Finlay’s “Pervert” in F&SF, March 2004

As always, Finlay has constructed a well-written story--this time in a world that has “two kinds of people... homosexuals and hydrosexuals.” The narrator is neither. He is in love with a woman, Ali--a feeling which constitutes his perversion. Because he cannot interest her, he is swept away in the current of his society, following the societal proprieties and rites of marriage.

The narrative is strong and emotive, especially in the last scene's final revelation. But one wonders what shape the story might have taken had the hydrosexuality been more developed to give us glimpse of what the implications this change might have wrought. It’s a nifty idea--I just wanted a tad more unraveling and rippling of its effects.

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What about Bob?

Alright, I'm not going to get all pseudo-academicy on you, but here's the scoop on Sheckley and why you should read his stuff right freakin' now.
I think I'll start with an accepted authority on the matter, John Clute and Peter Nichols' wonderful The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In it Sheckley's stories are described as
unfailingly elegant and literate; their mordant humour and sudden plot reversals separate them from the mass of magazine sf stories of the time, for the wit and surprises usually function to make serious points about the calamitous aspects of life in the later 2oth century. At the same time, RS clearly found it worthwhile during these early years to express the corrosive pessimism of his wit within the storytelling conventions of sf, to dress his nihilism in sheep's clothing.

That's a nice summation of the personal nature and content of the stories, but lacks in that it neglects to illustrate the impact upon the genre at the time. Bob became something of a star writer for Galaxy under Horace Gold, and continued to influence and be influenced by that magazine until just shortly after Gould was oustered. The early period of Sheckley's work, '51 through '60, was filled with acerbic explorations of all the traditional milieus and tropes that persisted in the contemporary magazine sf out of the pulp traditions of the latter two decades. Sheckley obviously thought more of sf than his contemporaries, he continued to write within the genre he continually lampooned, and yet I get a sense that he had more than a passing interest in the potential of the literature as more than escapist fan fodder. Bob's best stories (most of which come from this period) choose a particularly hoary (to Bob) theme and caricaturize it (Absurdism). Bob Sheckley, fully engaged with his subject, is a kid holding a magnifying glass over an ant, the ant being those enduring elements of the genre, the muscle-bound scientist/heroes, the wicked aliens, the helpless, ever virtuous women, that abounded in the science fiction of the early fifties. Bob obviously, on some level, saw the absurdity of the accepted model and he did his part in helping science fiction to move more toward character and idea driven literature, rather than jumped up plot driven stories writers inherited from the 30s pulp tradition. In fact, I’m willing to go out on that limb and say that Bob helped set the stage for Moorcock’s New Wave, in that he pointed out all the things that weakened science fiction that later writers banished from their own writing. That seems like an important contribution to me, and certainly worthy of something more rewarding than the proverbial gold watch that Author Emeritus represents to Bob.
If you’re looking for what I see as the best of Sheckley, try Untouched By Human Hands and Is That What People Do? first. Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? is also a treat, though not as deeply motivated as the others. In Bob’s later work, and especially in his longer stuff, there’s a kind of capitulation that is disaffecting and hard to ignore. This is, in the most part I think, due to his incredibly strenuous personal situation, in which he’d bounced from one bad marriage to another, one home to another, and essentially sabotaged himself. Of his longer works, only Dimensions of Miracles hit me as Bob at his best; the other novel length works seem more like a man searching for the spark that fueled what he used to do, rather than what he could be doing now.

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Clarifying Anti-Intellectualism and New Contest Proposal

Elmo Fuzzbuster’s political opponent, Wascawy Wabbit Hasenfeffer, accused him of wearing trifocals to bed. Oh, this is silly, Elmo thought and waved away reporters shoving microphones in his face. Elmo didn’t even own trifocals although he was a staunch supporter of the nose-piece-tape union, which his opponent made frequent reference to. Elmo figured a lack of any tangible evidence would suffice for the voters. Alas, no. A Gallup poll in the next morning’s newspaper showed his popularity had flagged. One question in the poll asked if the respondents felt Elmo was guilty of wearing trifocals to bed. “64% of locals felt Elmo was guilty.” A television crew and a handful of protestors with signs announcing “Down with Trifocals!” and “Stay Home, Four Eyes!” milled about his lawn....


At the Iowa Democratic Caucuses John Kerry said a remarkable thing that went more or less: I learned a valuable lesson: That I have to defend myself.

I puzzled over this. Is that true? Indeed, it appears that accusations alone can sound convincing. Unfortunately, defending yourself is a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-don’t. If the defendant says “No comment,” he looks like he's evading guilt. If he challenges the accusation, he looks like he’s backpedaling, defensive and guilty.

Moreover, it takes me a long while to compose. I have to pick and choose what I respond to if I want to get anything else done. I appreciate my fellow bloggers who support me and think I don’t need to defend myself, but I feel I should respond, nonetheless, if John Kerry’s testament holds any water. There’s been too much misunderstanding.

“Science fetishism” is a contradiction in terms if the term “fetish” is meant as a magical object. If the fetish is unquestioning reverence, that too is a contradiction in terms. Science seeks answers based on evidence--in fact, it is not satisfied with any old answer but probes and tests to see if it's the best fit. Not to question is not to do “science.” If by fetish some sexual fascination with Bunsen burners is meant (oh that burns me up--har!), I’m afraid my sexual history was inadequately investigated. It’s the Erlenmeyer flask that turns me on.

Do I trust science? Absolutely. No other field of study knows as much as it does with such certainty. Does science have all the answers? I never suggested this. I echoed Strauss’ sentiment by calling it, “reason within reason.” I also called for us not to be afraid of reason.

So if we fully understand what science is and does, how can we call it a fetish? It sounds like a fear of science or anti-intellectualism. If someone doesn’t want to hear about all this “art” stuff (no matter how big into science or philosophy he is), that too is anti-intellectual. Anti-intellectualism is no slur. I even asked myself if I were subconsciously afraid of intellectualism.

Anti-intellectualism is not a crime, not a sin, and not a stupidity. I accused Jacques Derrida of avoiding science (by example and by a logic somewhat similar to philosophy). Yet, as I’ve said, I admire Derrida--his style, intellect, caution, probing into “common sense,” etc. I admire, as writers, E.T.A. Hoffman, Mary Shelley, and Nathaniel Hawthorne more than I do Jules Verne, but they were all anti-intellectuals (Shelley less so). Likewise, I love my Christian brothers and sisters dearly, but I’m troubled when they reject evolution without seeking to understand it first. They are not stupid. In fact, some may technically qualify for genius, but they close off avenues of discussion before they’ve been opened.

A cultural anthropologist would have a field day tracing the changes in attitudes toward science through the movie industry alone (science fiction in print is problematic considering several are scientists growing up in a science-positive society which they maintained through science-negative societies).

In 1936, Einstein and Edison were the two major role models for science and technology. They were seen metaphorically as transforming society before their eyes. Horses were replaced by motorized vehicles. Candles by light bulbs. People could talk on telephones to someone in their house next door or in the next state where before they had to wait for the postal service.

In 1936, in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the bad guy scientists experiment lethality on prisoners while the good guy scientists still come up with inventions of their own. In the last quarter of a century, our movies have the failing technology of the rebels and the primitive tree-dwelling Ewoks fighting the no-human-flesh-showing, machine-looking storm troopers. Not to mention LOTR.

Somewhere along the line we associated science misused by humanity with science being bad--undoubtedly, due to unethical scientists. FGCtU showed poorly executed and unethical “scientific” experiments, but it didn’t suggest we had to get primitive--back to basics. We just have to use science with care (I am using FGCtU as a cultural signpost, not as an example of great art, btw. It’s a legitimate use).

Despite a thematic undercurrent of anti-intellectualism, I still enjoy the original Star Wars series and Lord of the Rings. I don’t hate them--just as Delany respects the talent of the New Wave but notes an underlying anti-intellectualism (not that the New Wave didn’t create mind-blowingly fantastic art: see discussion of Hoffman, Shelley, Hawthorne above). But I think these all offer signs to us who are willing to read them.


You don't know me and I don't know you. Because I'm a slow writer, I simply don't have time to respond in detail to each of your posts. The "Lars" post the other night made it sound like this was all some kind of machismo joke.

As a truce, if you want, we can set up a contest where people pseudonymously write in ad hominems against me (ad hominem only--no pseudo-logic, just ad hominem: an example being the old "You're so ugly your mama put your picture over mouseholes" or "You're so dumb the Richter scale on a balmy day in New Jersey puts you to shame"). You can be the judge. I'll hold the actual names and forward the insults. I'll buy the winner a copy of your book. How's that?

So long as people don’t harbor false impressions about me, I couldn’t care less what they say.

The strings attached?* From here on out, assume the best is intended. Try to tone it down to whomever. No ad hominems. No out of context. Just the basic guidelines of debate.

And forgive me if I don’t answer all your questions. Amongst other things, I’ve been working on a system for decoding Interstitial stories and have found what may be at least one strong theoretical system--not exactly based on the previous post’s proposal or on the present Interstitial definitions, however. IAF may not be wholly new, but it may be reinventing itself which is new, and, depending on how widespread the phenomena are, it most certainly qualifies for requiring a new category.

*all other contests previously proposed by me are null and void. Instead, I’m buying myself copies of Matthew Stover’s books.

Do not send me the insults until Nick publicly accepts. If he does, send your insults and names and addresses to blzblack[at]yahoo.com. No posts sent to the comments section will qualify. How will I be honest? You can bitch and moan when yours doesn't appear on the list. Deadline will be Thursday, February 12, 2004, 12pm, CST. Nick can use all day Friday to decide. Insults about anyone other than myself will not be accepted. Winners can choose to remain publicly anonymous. My apologies if you want to play and Nick is not interested.



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Hey, dammit!

Sign my petition or I'll come find you and shave your eyebrows! Or maybe I'll just keep whining....
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Rock on, Bob!

It’s not just the comments that are out of whack but a blog I was sitting/sleeping on--to find the right format for--magically appeared even though I never sent it in.

Delany is difficult. As are John Clute and J.G. Ballard and Donald Barthelme and Samuel Beckett and half of modern and postmodern poetry. I don't think they lose sight of what they're saying but their concepts are complex--which requires a different approach and/or rereading--usually dense and careful. They, like most people, want people to understand them. It's just a different way of thinking--more intense. We have to strap our thinking caps on and be ready roll with the author in a kind of mud-wrestling match of the brains--complete with bruises.

As Terry Eagleton wrote (words I find worth rereading), “By having to grapple with language in a more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual, the world which that language contains is vividly renewed.... [Theory is] the labour of acquiring new ways of speaking of literature.... Those who complain of the difficulty of such theory would often, ironically enough, not expect to understand a textbook of biology or chemical engineering straight off. Why then should literary studies be any different? Perhaps because we expect literature itself to be an ‘ordinary’ kind of language instantly available to everyone; but this is itself a very particular ‘theory’ of literature.”

We should not interpret difficulty as some sort of intended slight to our intelligence. It isn't. It's just what the concepts require.

I find it useful to bring out a pencil and talk to the text as though we were in conversation--i.e. "Yes!" and "My man!" [Read/Listen to Billy Collins' "Marginalia."] Feel free to interrupt Delany with questions (he won't mind--he'll pick up right where you left off or back up to an earlier point if need be). This approach may enlighten the text. For example, I wrote "Are you sure?" when Delany was deconstructing "theme" while using theme to do so. Later, Delany admitted to this inconsistency (which may have been his point), but it helped me stay engaged and not get trapped in the wrong frame of logic.

It's like a difficult class. If you raise your hand and ask questions about the material, you're less likely to fall asleep and more likely to not only take an interest in the proceedings, but also understand it better.

The true strength of this blog is as an experiment. We should be grappling with the complexity together, willing to walk through the brambles and thorny bushes and mosquitoes and chiggers and gnats... to arrive at the mountain. Abandon all ego, ye who enter. Everyone--author, reader--should be willing to get scratched up and bruised in the effort to arrive somewhere we haven't been before. Never mind who else may have made the trip before. It's a journey, our journey. If we reframe ourselves as protagonists with the same aim, we'll find a narrative we will all eagerly read. Virgil awaits.

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Of course we're changing the genre!

Okay, give me a chance to work this out. The comment feature is down, and I've very little time to get this posted.
Critics do shape literature. It seems pretty simple and affirmative to me, but in the comments on chouinard's "Changing the genre" assertion in an earlier post, both Jonathan and Jeff VanderMeer jumped in to say that it's the writers and not the critics and reviewers that shape the day to day face of the genre. Sorry, I'm not buying. Brass tacks: The readers are the numero-uno-ain't-gettin-around-it-800-pound-gorilla behind change in this and every other literature in the free world. The readers either buy or don't buy the books. The readers are the focal point of the genre, and the readers are just who the publishers look at when they decide whether or not to buy a script, promising and beautifully written or not. The readers are the income, and therefore the readers are a professional writer's employer. That means that the readers dictate the content of the shelves and the roster of the publishers. And the readers need someone to give them advice on what's out there and what they should invest time and money on. And, if we do this right, through execution and promotion, we'll have a big chunk of the readers coming here to see what's good and what's not, and therefore what they'll plunk down their ducats for and what they'll let rot in the bargain bins.
If we can get a significant percentage of readers to listen to and trust us, then you're damn tootin' we'll be changing the genre! Instead of picking up the next dead forest courtesy of Robert Jordan, they'll be clamoring for City of Saints and Madmen or Caine Black Knife. Kage Baker will quit her day job and turn that house in Pismo Beach into a palace. Terry Goodkind will be washing windows inside of five years! You don't think that's change? You don't think we can do it? It is and we can. We're gonna.
Stay tuned.
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Book Review: Samuel Delany’s Shorter Views

This book were real good. I liked it lots. Buy it. It had good stuff to say:

"For the sixties and seventies, SF was the privileged just-sub-literary genre. I think we may be entering a period where that position may soon be filled by pornography."

"[I]t would be warming to see such a debate informed by an awareness of critical debates in which any critical discourse is embedded today [i.e. contemporary literary theory]."

"Centered around Moorcock's New Worlds, the British New Wave of the 1960s was largely anti-theory, which, in retrospect, seems only a continuation of the generally anti-intellectual current that has run through the history of science fiction."

"We might even say that a recurrent 'theme' of the poststructuralist wave of these dialogues is that all such urges are distorting, biasing, untrustworthy, ideologically loaded, and finally blinding, so that they must be approached with continuous oppositional vigilance."

"As an interim strategic inversion, then, I would like to propose that 'New Worlds,' 'The Alien,' 'Technology,' 'Time,' 'Space,' and 'Utopia/Dystopia' are not science fiction's themes [crossed-out] at all and can here and now be abandoned to the archaeology of our criticism. And as a longer-term strategy, I propose that what is deeply needed in our field is people to read science fiction carefully, sychonically with the historical and social occurrences (both inside and outside the SF field) around its composition, who are willing to discuss with precision, creativity, and critical inventiveness what they have read. What we do not need any more of is people who merely glance at SF and say the first thing that comes to mind--usually something that comes most pointedly from somewhere (anywhere!) else, rather than from the texts read [Delany gave a course and had non-SF-reading students list off the top of their heads the SF themes [crossed-out] and they named the above]."

“My presentation [at the 1968 MLA Christmas meeting] was... a paper that would eventually be titled ‘About 5,750 Words.’ After I’d read it, immediately the pleasantly portly, affable-looking [Darko] Suvin... threw up his hand for a question...: ‘I very much enjoyed your presentation, but...’ here he paused significantly, ‘I think I disagree with everything you said.’ Laughter rolled through the room, then stilled. For a moment, I was disconcerted.... Suvin went to make a tiny point referring to the last sentence or two of my paper, that, really, contained no disagreement at all with anything....

“Ten years later... [a]fter Suvin was introduced, I found myself listening to a jejune explanation.... Later, in the science fiction session, when a young woman finished giving her presentation... and she asked for questions, Darko’s hand was the first to go up...: ‘I rather enjoyed your presentation. But...’ and here he paused meaningfully: ‘I think I disagree with everything you said.’ Laughter bloomed throughout the room. The young woman looked momentarily flustered--then smiled. Darko went on to make a minuscule point, which only pertained, if it pertained at all, to her paper’s last sentence or two. And I understood, then... he hadn’t bothered to follow the presentation at all... without any intellectual weight whatsoever.”

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Bob Sheckley for Grand Master

So I interviewed Bob about a year ago, and since then we've become pretty good friends. He's one of those rare souls who've had success and lived through it relatively unscathed. He's also one hell of a writer, and an important figure in the genre.
I'm editing a short story collection for Bob, and maybe another after that, if things work out. The first is a reprint anthology, with one or two original stories at the end. It's a retrospective of Bob's career as seen by about a dozen of the best writers I know. They've eached picked their favorite Sheckley short stories, and they'll each be writing a short introduction explaining what that story or what Bob himself means to them. Yeah, I know about the Avram Davidson thing, but I only heard of that after I'd thought of the idea for myself, so bite me. Anyways, all this came about out of my desire to put Bob forward for a Grand Master nomination. It's something Bob wants, and I think he deserves it. So I wanted to help.
That's what I'm doing. Here's what you can do. I've set this thing up so that, if you agree with me that Bob should get this thing, you can sign up and maybe we can make enough noise to get the SFWA's attention. Maybe it won't work, maybe it can't be done this way, but I think it's worth a shot, and I hope some of you do too.
Thanks for listening.
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Whence, Future?

The Arthur C. Clarke Award nominees have been announced, and while the titles proves interesting, I was struck by the fact that almost all (with the exception of Gwyneth Jones's Midnight Lamp and portions of Tricia Sullivan's Maul) seem to be set in either the present day or the past. Perhaps this is an anomoly--I don't think science fiction necessarily has to be set in the future--but I find it curious nonetheless, and makes me wonder what will result from this looking backward. Any thoughts?

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a buncha hamhanded bastich mofos...

As some of you may know already, I've had a few scattered incidents of manifesting manifestos, perhaps a few polemical moments, and maybe a couple of ranting bits that have slipped out when they could have stayed inside. But with the s1ngularity::criticism blog, I've tried to stay away from all that, tried to let things grow and develop on their own.

Some of you haven't allowed that to happen. Some of you have been judgmental, criticizing a lack of focus or direction, wanting us to turn the blog into what YOU want it to be. That really isn't very cool. Thought I'd tell you that.

But at the same time, I'm sensing some reader discomfort, and I don't want that either. I like my readers; my readers are my bestest friends in the whole wide URLverse.

So here's what I'm going to give you - a philosophical point behind starting the s1ngularity::criticism blog. From me to you, with all my blessings.

david g hartwell is a smart guy

In his seminal work on science fiction, Age of Wonders, David Hartwell made an offhand remark while discussing the rise of the fantasy readership over that of science fiction. He said:

"There is to my knowledge no center of critical theory or location (or publication) that represents a consensus on standards of what works and what doesn't, what's good and what's not."

Yeah. I'm down with that, Davey G. And I'll go you up one better. I'll say that there IS NO consensus on standards within genre fiction of any kind. That's what I've been saying; no one can define what's good, and no one can define what's bad.

That's partly why we're here.

laying a stable foundation is the best way to build a house

Another part of what we're doing here involves building the foundation for the future of speculative fiction. One piece of that involves discussing literary theory, and attempting to define our own theory of SFF. We're playing with concepts, and we're looking at what works and what doesn't. There's a reason we're doing it in public, too: user feedback is a necessity for success. Barking up the wrong tree? So tell us! That's the point.

I understand that not everyone is interested in lit theory, and I sure as hell don't expect you to read it if you aren't interested. But you wanna know something else? The fact that there are so few people that are able to distinguish with critical aplomb whether or not a work is successfully written, whether a book is 'good' or 'bad', only continues to erode the quality of the works being published. Take a look at the shelves, people. What do you see there? SHOULD it be there? Where's the good stuff? Which works actually contribute to the canon of SFF?

We may not all like lit theory, but it's a necessary component of what we're doing here.

…but that doesn't mean we aren't listening

Yeah, we all know that we've sunk to a low point over the past couple of weeks. We may be fascinated with our theories, but we also need to offer execution as well. We fucked it up real good, and we all know it. So here's the deal. Keep with us, and tell your friends as well. Because there's been enough discussion in the background, and enough background postings on the blog.

Now, we get to kick it up, start messing around, and start showing what we're really about.

There you go.

Now I'm giving to you, so it's time for you to give back. Show me some love, fuckers! Spread the s1ngularity::criticism word; there's some new kids in town, and they're ready to make some points.

Lock up your daughters. SFF just got a bit sexier…

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Bob's Planting His Flag....

Okay. Message received. The blog is foundering and the readers are befuddled. Guess what? So are we.
Hi. I'm Bob Urell. I'm a 30-something blue-collar worker by night, a full-time college student by day, and Super Daddy every single chance I can squeeze in between. I'm a lifelong SF reader of vastly eclectic and mutable taste. I'm a loudmouthed demagogue. I am not an academic, but I play one cuz I like the costume. I think Northrop Frye was a genius, I think Harold Bloom can't get over that. I love Science Fiction. I write it, I read it, I dream it. And almost all of my friends are professional writers and editors.
That's why I agreed to do this when chouinard asked me if I was interested. I see a lot of things right about what we've done with the genre we've inherited. In some ways it's better than ever, sleeker, stronger, deeper, which shows good stewardship on our part. But there are a lot of things wrong with today's SF as well. Things that bother and sadden me. Things I think need drawing out into the light and examined under microscope. Both of these, the good and the bad of contemporary SF, need observant, intelligent criticism. That's what criticism is, or at least what pragmatic criticism is. It identifies what works and what doesn't work and why. That's what I want to do here, even if I haven't managed to do so yet.
In fact, from the reader comments we've gotten, you definitely don't think we've done what we set out to do as yet. And we hear you. Loud and clear. And the e-mails are flying back and forth backstage, and we're hashing out what to do, and how to do it, and even if anything actually needs doing at all....
So here's my flag in the dirt, my independent declaration. When I post to this site I will try to always keep you in mind. I will try to show you what it is that I see happening in the genre, whether it be on the bookshelves with my reviews or in the out of the mouths of my favorite -- and even my least favorite -- authors with my essays. I will always try to show you why you should care and, if I can, what you can and should do about it, whatever "it" might happen to be. I will share with you everything I have learned to love about this genre, its people and its future (as I see it), and I'll do it in such a way that you'll at least understand where I'm coming from, even if you don't agree with me. I will, in short, tell you everything I can about what I think of SF and why. That's my promise to you, and it's all I thik you can ask of me.
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"BRAINS!"--Return of the Living Dead (and other real-life motion pictures)

People have bandied theories about that Americans are anti-intellectual. I'd always figured the theory-bandiers were dismissible as anti-American. But maybe it's true. Or maybe since Americans are humans imported from every continent, all humans distrust the intellect. Does that mean we trust intuition over reason? What could have lead us to such a crux (crutch?)?

Is this why Interstitiality is distrusted? Do we switch on our auto-distrust-pilot because we hear words we don't recognize?

Is this fear of intellectuals tied into a fear of science? and hence, a fear of science fiction? Is that why people truly hate science fiction?

I'd thought of talking about the history of the genre here, but would that be intellectual? (Ironically enough, we can trace the first anti-science sentiment to Jonathan Swift of the Age of Reason although it makes more frequent apparences in the age to follow: E.T.A. Hoffman, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, et al.)

I never thought of myself as intellectual, but is that only because our society fears intellect? (I wouldn't think so, but...) Are Ingmar Bergman films too intellectual? Oh well.

I just watched Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence--Bergman's trilogy of faith, which traces what happens to society without God (atheists, worry not: the hypothesis is that we have no God to begin with).

By the second viewing, Through a Glass Darkly became my favorite. We have four characters, three of which have their own strong story threads. When the threads intersect, the power emitted is incredible. For instance, the play within a play plays Lars Passgard, son of Bjornstrand, in love with a ghost which is played by his mentally disturbed sister. Lars is in love with his sister outside of the play. But ostensibly Lars is also playing his father, Bjornstrand, a writer who is willing to give up the real world for the glory of living with the ghost of writing. The father does not fail to miss this latter connection, nor do the sister and brother fail to notice their father's reaction. The sister (mentally disturbed, remember but also prescient) represents our last path to God--who turns out to be worse than imagined (yet, which world does she prefer to remain in?). She gives this powerful speech:

LARS: Are all these things real, Karin?

KARIN (Harriet Andersson): I don't know. I don't know. I'm always half between them. I do know that I was very ill, and my illness was like a dream, but these aren't only dreams: They must be part of reality. [urgent whisper] They must be part of reality! ... I find that I wander from one world into the other, and there's nothing I can do to change it.

Winter Light was my least favorite. What surprised me most in this film was how Gunnar Bjornstrand, a man I found attractive in the first film, is suddenly ugly. I don't understand how Ingrid Thulin's character could be attracted to him. Yes, Bjornstrand is manipulative in the first, but he realizes this even by the way he writes in his diary of what he's doing in a negative tone. Here, his pastoral character is just cold. When the working-man character played by Max von Sydow approaches the Bjornstrand pastor for dealing with his fear of China now having nuclear weapons and who may use them, Bjornstrand just talks about his lack of faith to which Sydow responds by shooting himself in the head. Bjornstrand shows no remorse for his complicity--not even comfort to Sydow's widow who now has to care for the (three?) children on her own. (I'm only slightly less troubled by his treatment of his mistress since it's her bitterness toward God that appears to have infected Bjornstrand, yet it too is troublesome that he abandons her because she has eczema). I'm sure this is how I'm supposed to feel toward Bjornstrand, but he could have been played a little more humanly--with or without God.

Initially, The Silence appealed to me most: all the disjointed symbolism and bizarre imagery that actually added up to something. A boy, his mother and aunt travel to a foreign country by train. We see the aunt is sick, coughing up blood. The boy is insatiably curious, poking into everything. He peers out the window and sees a train carrying tank after tank heading in the other direction. Gradually, one begins to wonder where all the men are. They are all in the street, wandering around. Some are in uniform. One drives his belongings in a cart pulled by a disgustingly gaunt horse. Although the aunt is a translator, the women cannot speak the men's languages. The boy, too, at one point, cannot articulate what he feels about his mother leaving him for another man, and a tank pulls up beneath their window. The boy acts out his frustrations in a punch and judy show. When the aunt comforts him, the tank leaves. The issue of incest is more blunt in the first film, but here the issue is more complex--perhaps because it is layered, submerged, and harder to swallow: sister to sister, mother to son. The aunt, like Max Van Sydow in the first film, appears to be the most sympathetic victim, yet why should I feel more sympathy toward the aunt? I suspect it is because in both we have the Fall of the House of Usher, but in the first Sydow's character is outside the house while the aunt is at its epicenter.

Fascinating films. Plenty of interpretations to follow from within and between the films. (i.e. the relationship of father to son--what happens when the father is gone?) If you're not averse to intellectual stimulation, go watch these films. Some think Winter Light is the best, for some reason, so watch it too. I just happen to find the characterization and symbolism dead/static, which is in part the purpose, but I still think they could have been more human and integral, respectively.

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