2.10.2004

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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2.09.2004

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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Abominable

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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2.07.2004

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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2.06.2004

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.

Nick,

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.

Sincerely,

Trent

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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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2.05.2004

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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2.04.2004

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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2.03.2004

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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2.02.2004

A Reason for Movement, a Movement for Reason: Interstitiality, Mundane and other future causes for movement (bowels not included)

Before reading further, you may want to read (or refresh) yourself on confuscation, fear of science/fear of reason, what science can do for you, deconstruction vs. deconfuscation, and what theory is (in addition, here are a few general thoughts on theory, its problems, and movements). These are not random tellings. Much of these background theses unravel ideas about an Interstitial theory here.

Can We Have a Movement?

Why the hell not?

All you need is evidence. You can create the evidence now or wait for it to accumulate. The Surrealists created their own movement based on theories of Freud/Jung. In the genre, John W. Campbell created a new SF with the idea of better reasoned science and tighter writing styles. The New Wave was as much self-propelled as not with Moorcock and Merril and Knight and Ellison all actively investigating and instigating the phenomenon.

Why are people so frightened of movements anyway? It reinvigorates everyone. The New Wave got Isaac Asimov to reconsider his approach (temporarily). The New Wave also put Robert Sheckley back into the forefront of writers [see especially: Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?]. Finally, the New Wave put a bunch of writers on the map that may not have been able to enter and garner attention within the field in any other manner (Tom Disch).

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if a writer isn’t attempting to make it new in some fashion, he’s digging a hole to bury his manuscripts in [see below]. Besides, if we can become active creators, the state of fiction is nearly moribund everywhere that we could become the new cutting edge. All it takes is a little vision and drive.

***

Toward a Firm...

There are a couple of ways to misread Derrida: too stiffly and too loosely--the stiffs get political (applying techniques only to opponents), and the loose think that any circumlocution will produce similarly profound results. Derrida, on the other hand, used circumlocution in order to be careful with words (perhaps too careful, at times) to show us how we too can be careful. Hence, his difficulty in being read.

Taking a look at their website and forum definitions, Interstitiality appears to be falling into both problems of Derrida derivations. We have the beginnings of what could an interesting idea--crossing-breeding art forms--that usually devolves into rattling off names of works and artists that do so, which defines nothing except the enthusiasm which these authors feel about what they’re attempting to do. One can be both rigorous in definition (allowing people to get a feel for and get excited for what you’re up to, instead of leading people to think you’re up to nothing but circumlocution), and broad enough to encompass the possibilities.

The best definition I’ve found so far is in John Clute’s SF Encyclopedia describing of Robert Scholes’ “fabulation” [Page down to #11 (don’t worry--it’s in English)], but Jed Hartman’s article helps through describing how certain works are interstitial (James Patrick Kelly has several other links).

The major problem with too loose of a definition is that it contradicts the aim it has set for itself: to categorize the uncatagorizable. The fear of a good definition probably stems from a fear of being wrong. But who cares? The fun part of having a definition is bending it, testing out how rigorous it is. If experiment is to succeed, it has to be prepared to fail.

(Bruce Sterling also had this to say about anything-goes definitions:

"Some people think it's great to have a genre which has no inner identity, merely a locale where it's sold. In theory, this grants vast authorial freedom, but the longterm practical effect has been heavily debilitating. When "anything is possible in [Here Sterling writes 'SF' but can we not substitute 'Interstitial' for a more present relevance?]" then "anything" seems good enough to pass muster. Why innovate? Innovate in what direction? Nothing is moving, the compass is dead. Everything is becalmed; toss a chip overboard to test the current, and it sits there till it sinks without a trace.")

...Yet Flexible

The first of two problems of borrowing from political stiffs is that they have a legitimate reason to be political. To borrow from their rhetoric would be melodrama on the movement’s behalf, and demeaning to the valid political causes represented.

The second problem is that Interstitiality is born of genre. To borrow from causes of disunity is to separate (intentionally or not) and distance the mother from her child. The child must grow up, but it doesn’t have to be estranged. To claim Interstitial works as marginalized necessarily pits One against the Other in an oppositional polarity that doesn’t truly fit what is happening in our scenario, anyway. Moreover, we need not to unify against something--the traditional method of starting wars, rebellions, and other trips of poorly justified persecutions--but unify for in the effort to create.

Consider SF itself: it is probably one of the few practicing for unity left in the universe. Its work has impacted the world: Scientists, who have generally read SF at one time, are among the few groups that actually cross national boundaries often, sharing results in an effort to build the field. We can thank Asimov (et al) for creating one humanity, and Sturgeon for including minorities and homosexuality in the discussion, and Will Jenkins (Murray Leinster) for saying we don’t have to destroy the Other--all of this well before the New Wave hit.

Unifying against, therefore, is a preventable paradigm that we need not perpetuate. We can work together toward an end, instead of working toward one end by erasing the progress made by an artificially constructed opposition (I’m not saying that Interstitiality has done this, but that it should be careful not to do so, especially when real-life evidence demonstrates that unifying for is a viable option).

...Definition

I. Analogs to Create a Mental Framework for a Definition

To define a forest, we must change our focus from individual trees to examine group commonalities. The first step in defining, then, is to step back--take in the whole: how does it function? What is its real-world analog? How do they compare?

A. The human body’s interstitium: It is not an organ, but is essential to all organs, within and between, even creating its own proteins unique to the body. I like this analog for 1) its bridging essential organs, 2) its being often forgotten but essential part of the body, 3) its unique products available in no other part. The analog fails from its inability to change since the body requires certain functions.*

B. Creole: Scientific American had an article on this some ten years ago or so. Children of two different languages meet and exchange words, creating a new form of language which evolves into something wholly different. There are a number of Creoles around the world: here in the U.S., Basque, Haiti, and so forth.*

C. Cross-breeding/Genetic Manipulation: This intimates a manipulator: one who tests out the breeding--sometimes successfully, sometimes not; sometimes the success can spawn new successes, sometimes it was a one-shot success. This intimates experiment with possible usefulness.*

What all these analogues demonstrate is that Interstitiality should make something new or develop what is in existence (see below).*

II. What a Definition Should/Would/Could Do

A. The definition should define something new--or that once was new--or it won’t mean much to us, lacking any literary relevance. And combining art forms is always new. Ways of making of it new:

--be the first
--be the best
--reinvent with a new angle, or broaden
--bring back a forgotten path with a contemporary perspective

B. Similar terms need to be defined/redefined in order to make a case for your definition. For instance, magical realism would be a naturalistic subset of Interstitiality. From my understanding (correct me if I'm wrong), Scholes defined fabulation as anything not realistic, including SF.

C. A new category would be helpful to experimenters, for it legitimizes experiment and play, which (it bears repeating) leads to new technologies.

D. A definition should not only give us an understanding and insight into the field overall, but should also provide some practical application when trying to deal with individual works.*

* = If anyone is interested in my developing any of these possibilities into a working theory (i.e. one with practicable techniques for application), let me know. I’ll need a set of integral Interstitial stories (not novels, not novellas, preferably not novellettes because I'm too slow a reader with writing to do of my own, and I'm not getting paid to do this)--integral stories that are quintessentially Interstitial, which is to say not merely a good story but very Interstitial--and time.

If not, I still wish the interstitials the best in developing their theory into something useful.

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2.01.2004

does size matter?

Pandora's Star should enthrall me. I should be over the moon reading it; it's a ginormous epic of a novel, written by Peter F. Hamilton, author of the thrilling space opera Fallen Dragon and the equally ginormous Night's Dawn Trilogy. I should love it.

Instead, I'm slogging through it, attempting to keep my chin off my chest, attempting to find some redeeming quality to keep me going while waiting for Olivia to wake for her next feeding. But the words that I'd hoped would spring to mind - 'thrilling', 'exciting', 'rip-roaring', 'epic', 'fantastic' - are failing, and the word that keeps popping up instead is 'extraneous'.

Pandora's Star is filled to the brim (Brin?) with plots and counterplots, a host of characters, vast alien technologies, conspiracies that writhe like a Gordian Knot of Gordian Knots, and enough ideas on every page to keep even the most inveterate hard SF reader enthralled.

Yet it all seems so… well, 'extraneous'.

I'm not prepared to review Pandora's Star yet, as there's still hope that I'll finish the remaining four hundred pages. But it has touched upon a thought I've been having lately regarding length, popularity, and the thrust of speculative fiction.

Reading Pandora's Star, I'm struck by the similarity to the vast epic fantasies of Robert Jordan, George RR Martin, Terry Goodkind and their compatriots. And that's gotten me thinking… have we conditioned ourselves (or been conditioned by publishers) right out of appreciating shorter fiction?

I find it strikingly odd that in our current climate of cultural norms, when we are so distracted by a mass of technologies and distractions all clamoring for our attention; when everything is getting shorter and smaller, and when our need for information has distilled everything to soundbites and realtime tickertapes, that we instead take the opposite tack in our literary adventures.

It seems to me that, particularly in SFF, the saw of 'bigger is better' has been taken to extremes in the past decade. I wonder, how closely has this trend tied to the decline of the short fiction markets?

I wonder, is it the length or the girth of a novel that matters? And what happened to thrusting ability?

How is it that in a hyperactive society, longer and denser works succeed over shorter, less time-consuming works?

The question, I think, rests upon the investment that a reader is willing to apply to a work. And I think readers have been conditioned to appreciate longer, more 'bang for your buck' works. But where does that conditioning come from?

When browsing the bookstore shelves, I often find myself drawn to larger works, whether it's Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White or Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space, or George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire doorstoppers. It is not a conscious decision, but in the back of my mind, there is the little voice guiding me along: "Is this book gonna be worth the nine bucks you're gonna plonk down at the register?".

And yet, while I appreciated and enjoyed all of those novels, I also find that they are not necessarily the works I most enjoy. Rather, I find that I actually enjoy shorter works; works that require less time investment, but which pay off with tighter, more punchy prose and wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am payoffs. Books like Charlie Stross's Singularity Sky or any number of novellas produced by PS Publishing. Particularly in SFF, it isn't the length that matters; it's about how you use it.

This has always been the case in speculative fiction. Before the late 1970s, it was rare to find a novel that reached 300 pages, which was partly due to the economics of printing, but also partly due to habit and tradition. The short fiction markets were doing well, and the strength of speculative fiction lay in its ability to deliver big ideas in small spaces.

We could argue that it was the New Wave that fucked it all up, with their insistence on pesky details like 'character development' and the injection of literary style… except that doesn't explain the current doorstoppers. In Pandora's Star for instance, the characterization is thin at best, and onionskin at worst. And Hamilton continues to use the transparent prose that is science fiction's hallmark, plain jane workmanlike words used to describe Big Ideas.

Rather, I think we can point our finger at epic fantasy.

Epic fantasy, like epic science fiction, is all about plot. Plot, plot and only plot. The more plot, the better; the more tagboard characters, the better. Cast of thousands, epic journeys and more twists and turns to the storylines than an Escher print.

Readers gobble it up.

Science fiction has followed suit. More and more, we're seeing huge epic sf tales that have all the trappings of epic fantasy… because they sell. They sell, and they sell to the same people that are reading epic fantasy, and they sell just because they are BIG.

Frankly, I'm tired of it. Or rather, exhausted by it.

It takes work to read Pandora's Star, and it takes an investment of time that I, with my three children clamoring for attention, do not have. If I have twenty minutes to read, I'd rather burn through a short story; at least then I don't have to spend ten precious minutes backtracking the last fifty pages to make sure I've got the characters and plot in place before moving on. And in a big, epic novel, all those characters and plot points just seem so… well, 'extraneous'.

Worse, readers have come to expect big, extraneous novels. It is the bread and butter of their reading lives, and it boils down to perceived value.

It is that voice in the back of the mind that says "If I'm gonna spend eight bucks on a paperback, it'd better be big and heavy so I get my money's worth". And publishers are forced to feed that voice, and authors are forced to feed those publishers, so we find ourselves trapped in a feedback loop without escape. Change our reading habits? Pshaw! Write shorter novels, and hope to compete with the doorstoppers? Double pshaw! Publish shorter novels so they can be lost amid the Big Fat Ones? Triple pshaw!!!

So writers continue to fill their novels with extraneous detail, extraneous characters, extraneous plots in order to attract readers and to sell. And unfortunately, it is ultimately leading to a downgrading of speculative fiction, a regression of quality that will essentially ruin the field if left unchecked. We need more Big Ideas crammed into Small Spaces, and we need to promote those stories and writers with all our hearts. Because that is the heart of speculative fiction, and where it works the best.

And with luck, I'll finish Pandora's Star by the time its sequel comes out, offering up another 700+ pages to peruse.


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Lonely in a Dark House

The motto of s1ngularity::criticism is "do not be afraid." But from time to time I run across something that leaves me belt-chewing afraid. I can only hope that s1ngularity can somehow save the day.

This time it was an interviewwith Kim Stanley Robinson about his latest novel, Forty Signs of Rain. According to the title, KSR "upholds the left wing of SF"

Mr. Robinson is a fine writer whose works I've admired for a long time. I don't know what his personal politics are, but within the content of this article, I can barely figure out why Mr. Robinson has been assigned responsibility for carrying the banner of the left. He seems to think "free market" is a scam and he states "[a] worker population makes its nutrient goo (surplus value, life force, stuff) and has it extracted by a small minority with superior force at its command."

Radical, dude. If that's all it takes to be labeled a leftist--if this is what passes for a non-conformist position in our genre, in our culture--no wonder we're suffering from a dearth of new and vigorous ideas in our genre.

It wasn't that long ago when it wasn't enough to talk about capital originating from worker to be a leftist: you had to be actively working to redistirubte it from the capitalists to the workers. Have we become so centrist, the outlook of our genre so conforming to the same heavily trammeled, narrow thought-space that even the slight deviation presented in this interview earns you the title of standard bearer for the left? Where are the great works, the great writers who took on the major issues of the day, and were rewarded by readers who seriously considered what they offered, and, thinking for themselves, broadened it, changed it, adapted it.

Unhappily, does this make Mr. Robinson a brave man for daring to separate even this little bit from the "Commerce is G*d" flock?

If so, I'm petrified. Because it's going to take a lot of thinking and observation to steer us through the shoals of technological development that our culture is sailing into, blind to the reefs and even ignorant of the benefits that might really matter. Where once the magnificent thought experiments of SF provided us with lighthouse, compass and chart, now we must ride below decks, the dead helmsman lashed to his post.

Once there was a dawn of a New Age. SF writers saw it coming and wrote about it. Now we are at the twilight of that New Age with a new one dawning, carrying with it new dangers and new struggles. To adopt Mr. Walters' quote from Mr. Asimov, let us not retreat from the challenge.

Best Regards,
Alan

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1.31.2004

What Is Theory and Why?

Theory is the method of learning what more texts have to reveal to us than the surface of their words. I have already done a number of practical applications for examples, but I’ll demonstrate again on a famously misunderstood poem in a bit.

But here, it seems we are between a rock and a hard place in our discussion. In the one corner (in the blue-collared shirt sleeves), we have those who haven’t learned any theory. So it’s difficult to discuss Derrida. But in the other corner (in the gold-lamé cape and silver-plated knee-highs), we have the aristocrats who suspect they know all there is to know, sniffing at any discussion and anyone else who hasn't also heard it all.

The elitists would have you believe that only they can analyze texts because they have read Derrida. You don’t need Derrida. You don’t need Saussure. All you need is your mind and acquire (if not already acquired) the ability to abstract concepts from particulars (i.e. metaphors). Don’t get me wrong, elitists. The theorists do help, but only after we have a deeper understanding of the foundation. Let us be communists of intellect and share our understandings.

A Famous Misinterpretation Necessitates Theory

Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is all about how the road “less traveled by... / has made all the difference” in this famous poet’s life, right? But which route is he really describing as better?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both....

[I] took the other, as just as fair....
Though as for [one path having a better claim over the other] the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay...
Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Frost’s narrator doesn't have a clue how he got to be who he is, but "I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence." Look at the very title of the poem. Which road is he thinking about? My God, how the world has so long misunderstood this most famous poem! Isn't it amazing?

So obviously there is a need for theory, a need to understand these works of literature better.

Terry Eagleton writes that theory is

“the labour of acquiring new ways of speaking of literature.... The economist J.M. Keynes once remarked that those economists who disliked theory, or claimed to get along better without it, were simply in the grip of an older theory.... [W]ithout some kind of theory, however unreflective and implicit, we would not know what a ‘literary work’ was in the first place, or how we were to read it. Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion of one’s own.... What is truly elitist in literary studies is the idea that works of literature can only be appreciated by those with a particular sort of cultural breeding.... Theory was a way of emancipating literary works from the stranglehold of a ‘civilized sensibility’, and throwing them open to a kind of analysis in which, in principle at least anyone could participate. 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.”

In other words, we all already have a theory of literature--like it or not--and, I might add, it may be based on faulty reasoning. It’s difficult, but as Eagleton writes about literature in general, “By having to grapple with language in a more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual, the world which that language contains is vividly renewed.”

The Dangers of Theory (or Do I Mean Theorists?)

“Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge?” -- Isaac Asimov

I have discussed potential problems with theory here and here and here. The above Asimov quote hits another important point. Too often in literary theory, we spin our wheels discussing all the things we don’t or can’t know.

When Eagleton debates what literature even is, he shoots himself in the foot. He tries to state, using Derridaean logic (I told you Derrida was everywhere), that there is no such thing literature, which for hesitant book buyers would effectively encourage them not to buy a book about something that does not exist. Yet he decides he will use the terminology anyway, despite not believing in literature's existence (so we can see that his own subconscious disagrees with this dubiously reasoned conclusion).

He bases his rational on the inability to read Icelandic sagas as literature--without bothering to consider whether they actually have any value as literature... or whether he lacks the proper tools at this time for assessing what makes the sagas literature. We do know that they are crucial to understanding a people historically and comparatively -- among other methods of analyzing who and what humans are. Maybe that's all the reason we need for reading them.

He posits that Shakespeare, like Icelandic sagas, may have no future relevance. That’s certainly a possibility. It’s also possible that the Creationists are right. But do we teach Creationism in the classroom (no, with rare exceptions)?

He posits that our values change as a society, but concludes finally that we all share a common underlying value-system that allows us to discuss these values:

“We may disagree on this or that, but we can only do so because we share certain ‘deep’ ways of seeing and valuing which are bound up with our social life, and which could not be changed without transforming that life.”

But to realize this, we don’t need a time machine. We need look no further than our own backyard: Would you--whether you’re a Republican or Democrat (Labour or Conservative, for the Brits)--respond fundamentally differently from your ideological opponents if a step-father killed your father? Would the Chinese not feel Oedipus’ shock and shame of killing his father and marrying his mother? Would no man in Africa shake his head in sad agreement at the cruelty of fate and of former friends who kick you when you’re down?

Finally, to parse the difference between literature and a biology text, which he has difficulty doing, both are pragmatic--not immediately pragmatic while you happen to read them, but pragmatic, nonetheless. After reading Job, the shock of getting kicked by former friends can be shared with someone else in history (albeit, a rather gloomy sharing).

But literature is also inherently emotional and full of personal meaning beyond the text on the page. If one is able to draw personal analogies from biology or a street sign in the London Underground system (‘Dogs must be carried on the escalator’), this is a literary act of interpretation, true. But it isn’t literature because it is not taking the form of literature: Literature is a design (i.e. plot, theme, character development) meant to convey additional meaning. A street sign that can potentially be misread is not necessarily conveying additional meaning, but merely misleading.

Absolutely, do mention our possible misunderstandings of what literature is or does (just as we might mention Creationism as a brief but possible footnote although it certainly doesn’t organize and explain our knowledge as well as evolution does), but let us dwell on building on what we know and not, as Asimov exhorts us, retreat from knowledge.

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1.30.2004

see?

I am not a curmudgeon, I am not a curmudgeon, I am not a curmudgeon.




I am a lovecat.


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Deconstructing Derrida Deferred to Deconfuscating

It’s hard to know to what extent one’s ideas have been manipulated to distortion. Jacques Derrida is political, yet his work isn’t driven by a political agenda. Unfortunately, deconstructionists have used Derrida to show disunity within a text so that it might dismissed for whatever blindered agenda they may have--which is not to say that texts don’t have disunity. They do. But sometimes they are intended as part of a unity to emphasize, and sometimes simply as humor. And sometimes the reasoning in a person’s literary work is truly faulty.

What I like about Derrida is his “playfulness” (which, as we just learned, is a method of coming up with advanced technological tools) and “politics” and his generally odd approach to reason. This is why I’d rather deconfuscate rather than deconstruct as the term has come to be used.

The first problem in his most famous work is his title, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”. What does he mean by “human” sciences? All sciences derived by humans? Science about humans? He may mean “social sciences." But whatever his intent, its imprecision allows the very nature of all science to be called into question. It is a pun. Puns, by nature, exist on multiple levels simultaneously until one level is invalidated by its context. The longer the pun is sustained, the better the pun. This pun, since it is never directly invalidated or addressed, is so well executed that it has led to much confusion.

Empire of Science and Reason

A similar confusion occurs with his use of “empirical” and “empiricism”:

“I have said that empiricism is the matrix of all faults menacing a discourse which continues... to consider itself scientific.... [A]n empirical essay... can always be completed or invalidated by new information.”

Such usage pulls in a number contradicting definitions and connotations: 1) a method of medical quackery, 2) our bourgeois gag-reflex of hating anything related to aristocracy, 3) a suggestion that the described is already fully known, and 4) a conclusion that is derived by too little experience or observation.

So when he calls us against the scientific method, we are already in his corner. Any human pursuit may never arrive at the goal of complete understanding of a subject. But we humans assume, when lack of full knowledge is called into question, that the knowledge is faulty. One does not need to measure every light beam to know at what speed it travels at. One does not need to know the answer to the Grand Unified Theory to understand Newton’s laws. If one’s knowledge is incomplete, it does not mean we cannot draw conclusions based upon what we do know. It is from this foundation that we confirm or invalidate the foundation and move on. Human knowledge is the edification of what is known/knowable, by building on to it and tearing out the rotten wood.

As Claude Levi-Strauss says:

“Critics who might take me to task for not having begun by making an exhaustive inventory of South American myths before analyzing them would be making a serious mistake about the nature and the role of these documents. The totality of the myths of a people is of the order of the discourse. Provided that this people does not become physically or morally extinct, this totality is never closed. Such a criticism would therefore be equivalent to reproaching a linguist with writing the grammar of a language without having recorded the totality of the words which have been uttered since that language came into existence and without knowing the verbal exchanges which will take place as long as the language continues to exist. Experience proves that an absurdly small number of sentences . . . allows the linguist to elaborate a grammar of the language he is studying. And even a partial grammar or an outline of a grammar represents valuable acquisitions in the case of unknown languages.”

And all of those in favor of reason within reason said: “Amen.” Like Zeno’s paradox, knowledge may never be completely erected, but we don’t have to, therefore, tear down all of what we do know or we’ll have no shelter to rest our heads.

Finding Center Where There Appears to Be None

Derrida writes:

“[T]he structurality of structure... has always be neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or of referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.... [T]he entire history of the concept of structure... must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center.... Where and how does this decentering, this thinking the structurality of structure, occur? It would be somewhat naïve to refer to an event, a doctrine, or an author in order to designate this occurrence.... The discourse on the acentric structure that myth itself is, cannot itself have an absolute subject or an absolute center.”

The problem here is one of perspective. If every perspective here in Omaha, Nebraska can be moved to another perspective in Trenton, New Jersey, why then there is no good perspective at all. [This is an example of disunity used as humor--irony used to reorient us toward unity.]

It is good that Derrida calls our attention to bias. However, one can start making conclusions about humanity in Hoboeken even though there are also humans in Idaho. Idahoans can bring their potatoes to the table of discussion of humanity and spot similarities and differences with those in Hoboeken.

Drawing conclusions can be a centering problem. For instance, Ptolemy sat on Earth and concluded from observation that everything must revolve around it. After all, look at the sun. We’re standing still, and it’s moving overhead, right?

But Derrida forgets Copernicus and Kepler who lived on Earth, too, and who were able to draw conclusions about how the planets do orbit the sun. All one needs is the scientific method and careful reasoning. If it looks like you’re moving backwards when the car beside you is edging up to the stoplight, look at the ground. All you need are several reference points. You can triangulate all sorts of phenomena in this manner. One does not need to be at the absolute center to draw conclusions.

One final point we can make is that in statistics, there are degrees of freedom. We can move variables around, but only within limits of an equation or the set you’re working with. There’s much we can derive--but the values of a discourse are not infinitely variable; hence, humans are capable of communication.

Decentering may prove useful on occasion when dealing with the Ptolemys of the world, but let’s not abandon our reason and the body of knowledge available to us when doing so.

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What Science Can Do For You!

The January 16, 2004 issue of Science had some amazing articles. It also featured a book review by none other than Rudy Rucker (who declared David Foster Wallace’s new work, Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞, “a train wreck of a book”). Marc Lavine describes Mark E. Eberhart’s Why Things Break: Understanding the Way It Comes Apart in such a way as to make a book of Materials Science (told in a biographical manner) appealing to anyone, especially its “getting society to recognize the compromises among safety, reliability, cost and the need for all objects to fail at some stage in their lifetime.”

These are not the article I wanted to talk about.

David Premack asks “Is Language the Key to Human Intelligence?” Drawing off a number off articles--some of which is original research found within that issue, some of which was his own--he makes a strong case.

Humans, he says, have six symbolic code systems: genetic, spoken, written, numeric, musical notations, and choreography (the first two have evolved, the latter four were created).

Recursive language, which he describes as layers of words that can be understood despite being far apart as in the "If/then" statement where one set of words depend on another set. Monkeys cannot learn recursive language, which he says explains why that kind of language has not evolved for them.

Chimpanzees do not call to get attention but pound on resonant surfaces or, if separated from another, look silently until they spot that other and rush toward him. Vocalizations are, therefore, reflexive in its usage--as are their facial expressions. He mentions that chimps could conceivably, to create a language, pound on resonant surfaces or use rocks (a scenario which echoes how the men of science communicate in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels--but this leaves a similar problem).

While many species can copy objects, few can copy motor functions as human infants can--except chimps (although they do require training). However, that training won’t come from the chimp’s Mama since she does not teach, correct mistakes, or even look at what her children are learning. What takes a human days or weeks to learn can take a chimp ten years.

Chimpanzees can do analogies of perception (two different sized objects look similar in shape) and function (two actions perform similar functions). They can also call up the name of an object, which is similar to what humans do by talking about things not present. Chimps are limited to a few hundred words. Moreover, their words experienced sensorily, incapable of using analogies to make words.

Most animals are limited in flexible intelligence such as bees that dance, nuthatches that locate hundreds of caches of acorns, and beavers that build dams. You can’t mix and match these abilities as they have evolved as adaptive survival mechanisms. But humans are more flexible.

Flexibility manifests in other areas: While those half-wit baboons sit regally, chimps can lie down in various postures. The analogy to humanity is clear: if you want to be smart, slouch. Forget what your Mama taught you.

Chimps can imagine known actions or objects to solve problems, but they cannot recombine imaginary objects and actions it has not observed which humans can do. When chimps play, they translate it into technology: the childhood game of sticking straws in holes is useful for retrieving termites from their mounds. Baboons cannot learn this trait despite watching chimps perform it. They come in after the chimps leave and scrape up the leftover termites. This may be analogous to human experiments: by playing, we learn new attributes of, say, fiction. Hence, the importance of experiment in fiction is clear.

The last and most crucial point [from The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, pg 758-60] is that emotional expression uses the right hemisphere, but linguistic expression uses the left. This means that, setting aside emotional nuances, linguistic acts are governed by the logical half of the brain. In other words, we should feel free to use reason while uncovering the structure and purpose of language.

This would lead one to wonder why literary theorists don’t use science more to understand what they are attempting to describe. Although much has been uncovered intuitively and reasonably in the Greek sense, by ignoring science, literary theory may be lagging behind other human pursuits.

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1.29.2004

Fear of Science, Fear of Reason

Mike Allen may be the embodiment of genre, which is the reason why I am examining him here in detail.

When I read his magazine, Mythic Delirium, I immediately noted that Allen took science fiction poetry literatim, however it's parsed--speculative, fiction, science: idea made manifest in words--including variations that do not stray from the use of such a term.

His own poetry is much the same. As I was rereading the poems and contemplating Derrida, Genre and Movements (Interstitiality and Mundane*, in particular), I uncovered the structural key that unlocked the whole book.

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But first let me give lip-service to a review since I promised. This is where I say all the mean stuff because afterwards I’ll dive into all the fun interpretation stuff that I’ve only begun to tap into. I’ll leave the rest for an academic to unpack in its full glorious detail.

The material in Defacing the Moon covers the first seven years of his publication history; hence, the writing can on occasion be over-wrought as early poetry (and especially SF poetry) can be. “Defacing the Moon” and “Planeta do Favela” are lushly written without giving into the grotesque sentimentality that some employ in the interest of sounding “poetic” (although he does give into this impulse when writing about the Romantic writers). All of the experimental poems are interesting but some actually work quite well in their design: “Momentum” and “Phase Shift.” Often in the genre, individual SF poems tend to suffer from banality, but when they rub together, they create a spark of artistic inspiration. One must take these poems as a whole--and as a whole, I’ve never seen so many sparks fly.

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During WWII, Americans trusted their government to do the people’s best interest even though the people were unaware of what specifically the government did in their best interest. Read the fiction of the era (see Theodore Sturgeon if you need a particular), watch the movies (I recently found it in Bela Lugosi’s Phantom Creeps). Whatever government did had to be done with the utmost secrecy lest loose lips sink ships.

Science was king. Logic was queen. We looked forward to a happier future of space-age gadgetry and comforts that they provided their subject with. But faith in these monarchs eroded when we learned what men did in the name of our rulers.

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The aforementioned blink of history is to show I don’t think Allen intentionally set out to instill this in his work. Probably a good deal of genre digestion has reemerged in his own work. Keep in mind that at times, the intent of pain-inflicting science is somehow played (paradoxically) as a good thing. No doubt, Allen fancies himself a pro-science fanatic as the rest of us do. But how do we really see science? This will become more apparent in a subsequent post as I move on to the topics I spoke of above. If I chide Allen, I chide us all -- even myself -- for, despite my enthusiasm for science and reason, I had a blast uncovering all these anti-science connections!

Once you see the first instance, you cannot fail to see it emerge throughout: most obviously in the second poem: “Munchausen vs. the Aliens.” Who else should these aliens represent as they attempt to dissect Munchausen and “imprison” his body parts in specimen jars--unsuccessfully?

So we return to the first and title poem “Defacing the Moon” in which an astronomical object’s “face” of science is removed so that “you” can be on there “to catch winds of your whimsy.” What is whimsy but flight of fancy or fantasy? Taking down the moon’s science isn’t enough. for you must also “stare down the sun.”

The poem most popular among reviewers appears to be “Disaster at the BrainBank ATM” in which not only does technology fail, but it penalizes the users for its failure. How interesting that this should be the most popular.

In “Watching the Pot” a scientist is listening for signs of alien signals but fears he won’t be there when the signal comes--as though the aliens were impish and their imaginary description is ominous with its mysteriously silent intent: “Yet you can’t help / imagining that compound or cat-like / alien eye, leaning down on its stalk / to look around every time you turn away.”

The “Universal Night-Life” of an alien bar allows primitive cavegirl’s to be turned on by “[c]old phantoms” but the princesses have “to beware the lonely lobster-men,” the “Space spiders” have “unearthly legs in wanton grind,” and fairies of fantasy are scorched by that mutant of science, Godzilla.

The “Sojourn on Barsoom” tells us that “Asimovian robot[s]” are “forged in man’s self-centered image” and that “All Golden Age pomp and circumstance” is “sifting mindlessly for ghosts in dust.”

Spiders (who isn’t creeped-out a little by spiders?) are once again the manifestation of science as they are now part of the “Third Shift at the Plasteel Spider Factory.” Science, as we shall see multiply, causes pain: “her breath is a hiss of steam / as she vents the pain of her contractions.... // venom [presumably from the spider’s children] leaks between my fingers; / [the children] seethe up my arms, wailing, scratching; / their spinnerets spit out hot-melt threads, / silver strands of web that sear my skin.”

The astronomical sun in “The Ungrateful Son” empties the narrator to a husk, and the Earth breaks his body, burns him to ashes in her molten mouth and “always she draws my screaming soul... // to endure for eternity / the agony of a mother’s immortal love.” The death wish appears again in “Shadow’s Solstice” where “[v]oices raised to darkness praise, eclipse the starshine from the sky,” which is mirrored in the love of darkness over enlightenment found in “Phase Shift” [see below].

In “Host,” “Three Meditations” and “Momentum” is the recurring motif of the opening mouth as an entry and exit for pain and parasitism, for the narrator to “shout, / scream,/ inhale atoms, exhale fusion [which is what suns do]” and again he screaming as all the cold science is too much, “overload[ing] / my synapses, / icy knives / shave skin... // compelled / by my masters / to bear their / meaningless / cargos.” For whatever reason (though probably not reason), science is seen is random, without meaning and substance as three narrators plunge into the “void” highlighted in bold typeface. The same “meaningless[ness]” appears in “Moment” as a squiggles on a white screen “that conceal / strange knowledge.”

“Phase Shift” continues the “plunge through / cold blue radiance / diving toward / bright freezing white” -- again this view of science as cold and freezing and light. The narrator fears losing himself as his “body dissolves / into this essence / of everything; / all universes / converge / at the freezing point / of light.” But darkness (or unen-light-enment?) is a “warm blue dusk” that the narrator “soar[s] through.”

The poem “Gears” shows its technology in disarray, breaking down: “interlocked in tarnished idiot grins...// loosened axles, / crunch all their crumbling prongs... // corroded... / radioactive fusion bile.../ spit slow atomic fire // and unholy glow... / out into infinite empty Cosmos // clanking. Crushing. Cracking. Groaning.... // pain of decay; / strange echoes bear words of fear.” Ah. The word I’ve been waiting for. (The word appears a second time in the anti-science-implied title of “Prophecy: a fragment” where “his fear-filled mind[’s].../ tortured scream [is].../ used to bind / his sleeping soul against the light [of enlightenment].”) The poetic hero, whose aim is “to stop the clockwork” of gears, is again the victim of science as it damages “his skin / consumed and seared / burned.” “[W]ith glee” he successfully dismantles science.

Science burns the retinas and neurons in “Starpunk,” through attacks of “brain-shattering solar flare[s].” Science is a destructive predatory monster in “Planet from the Black Lagoon.” Men of science do their raping and pillaging of the natives’ home in “Planeta do Favela” and put the natives in slums.

Pre-science myth of “celestial spheres” was the only thing preventing “the impending battle between Universe and Man” in “On the Brink of Hyperspace,” which is a misnomer since the intrepid astronauts plan to plunge possibly to their deaths apparently before they’ve used the scientific method to test the safety of doing so. Similarly, hackers dive virtually into a “Cyberspace Singularity” but still die.

Then a set of four poems deal with love--a stark contrast to all the pain and suffering in the prior poems. But what do these poems concern? “The Romantic Age,” of course--the age that rebelled against the Age of Reason.

As I said before, there’s much more to unpack, but this is plenty to demonstrate our unconscious fear of Science and its lover, Reason. But more of that later.

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*You haven’t heard of the Mundane movement in SF since we’ve been working out the theory in private for the past year. Its ideology, however, is stamped all over this piece and others to come. I’d publish our manifesto here, but it’s been promised elsewhere. Yes, it’s another new movement, but it’s pretty fucking cool. Suffice it to say for now, that we seek a return to Science and Reason, but in a way that has not consciously been attempted before to our knowledge. Will it ever get off the ground? We do have two well-known SF writers in our projected anthology. If you're interested, may be able to help sell the book, and are politically committed to at least a moderately left of center ideology, let me know:

blzblack[at]yahoo.com

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