can see it now! The Cordwainer Smith Award! The
Frank Herbert Award! The David Eddings Award!
Or, conversely, we can continue to leave the
meaningfulness of the awards to the ten people that
actually care about such things.
9 April 2002
[ I suspect all Robert Nesbit was looking for was for someone here to recall the last time Harper's, or wherever, ran an article that trashed SF (in fact there was a review along those lines in that magazine's January 2002 issue). Ironically, evidence of SF bias against the mainstream is far easier to find than vice versa; just read this letter column.
Looking for Evidence of Bias
I am doing a thesis on genre bias against speculative fiction. I need hard evidence
from respected critics that this exists. I have been working almost a year and have
yet to find any critic who is not an SF writer who specifically addresses the problem
or outright attacks SF. It seems that the bias is so deep that it is ignored, much like
Ellison (Ralph) in The Invisible Man.
Although my thesis is supported by a survey of literary anthologies, guidelines of
literary magazines, and actual syllabi, I need references of people speaking out
against SF to me at my e-mail. Articles, authors, anything. I need solid evidence that this bias is there and is not merely a perception of those who feel
Thank you for any help you may be able to give.
4 April 2002
Most Readers Understood April 1
Dear Locus Online,
A friend passed on the url [Batman Books Announces Major Tolkien Venture]. I'm glad I happened to spot the the date of your chillingly plausible-sounding "news" item after looking up, utterly aghast, from the fourth paragraph. It would be churlish not to congratulate you on a job well done and admit that I made an April fool.
5 April 2002
Dear Locus Online,
As a Tolkien fan since those dear, dead days of the naive and decadent '60s, imagine my delight to discover that a new multi-multi-volume rewrite of The Trilogy is in the works. While this may strike some as sacrilegious, for me it's like manna from Heaven, a chance to do nothing for the rest of my life but read (and re-read!) the endless adventures of those delightful Hobbits and associated hangers-on. What better way to spend my declining years, while probably simultaneously going blind? I'm sure the new jazzed-up version will be infinitely superior to the original, thus rendering my pleasure incalculable.
May I suggest, however, that when the inevitable sequels to the sequels are being planned (thereby extending the completed series to upwards of 150 volumes), and since T--B-- and R--J-- will be all used up by then, due consideration be given to employing one G--R--R--M-- to do the job, as he is bidding fair to demonstrate a facility for slavishly imitative fantasy at interminable length which may eventually outdo even the afore-mentioned practitioners of the art. Oh, that I should live so long!
3 April 2002
Oh, imagine my joy in learning you plan a Locus Online Fiction Award! It's so nice to know someone is willing to admit "junk fantasy" authors such as
myself are worthy of some kind of recognition after YEARS of being ignored
by the magazine and all the other awards. I am so PLEASED!
"Canis meus id comedit"
1 April 2002
Dear Locus Online,
I almost fell for the Swanwick plagiarism story, until I remembered the date.
Stefan T. Andrew
1 April 2002
Dear Locus Online,
I wanted to comment on the April 1st letter from James Morrow. I am fairly sure that this letter was an "April Fool" joke. However, I would also
believe that some people in this country do believe that the world would be a
better place without Conservatives either Religious or non-Religious. I
wonder how many people will write you praising James Morrow's series and
asking where they can get it.
Paul S. Howard
1 April 2002
What Do Awards Mean?
Dear Locus Online,
Amongst other things Adam Roberts’s essay implicitly raises questions about the meaning or purpose behind the giving of awards.
It seems a juried award such as the Clarke has much more potential to have a
distinct focus or make a statement than awards given by larger bodies of
voters such as the Hugos, Nebulas, or Oscars. Thus it seems reasonable to
ask what kind of statement juried awards are making, to suggest that they
consider taking on a specific focus. For example, I find the Tiptree award
particularly useful due to its explicitly stated mission.
Does an award serve readers? Does it act as a guide to a particular set of
readers? (My girlfriend’s book group concentrates their reading on winners
of the major literary awards, National Book Award, Pulitzer, Booker, trusting
that this way they are getting a decent sampling of the best that currently
literary fiction has to offer. They find these awards consistent enough to
continue to use them as a guide. While I in my strategies as a
reader don’t find much useful consistency in the Hugo, Nebula or Dick
awards, so I generally ignore them in favor of blurbs from authors I respect.
The type of author blurbing gives me an associational sense of what to
expect within, in terms of content and aesthetic.)
Should awards be used to shine a spotlight on boldly uncommercial works? They
might tacitly reward an entire body of great work, though attached to a
specific book. Or expose previously neglected authors to a wider audience.
Their purpose might also be to make a polemic statement, to shift generally
accepted views of literature in different directions to open up new critical
discourses. Or conversely the underlying effect may be to maintain an
established view or esthetic.
Certainly various purposes tend to overlap in most awards; but when an award
has a particular focus it becomes more useful as a marker, and with some
consistency, gains potency over time.
4 April 2002
What is SF?
Dear Locus Online,
I rather think that I agree with Adam Roberts on all points, and I am especially pleased that he twice invokes the admirable Jack Vance, as in "I think we want more Jack Vance and less Ian McEwan."
Just as a hilarious aside, however, I'd like to point out that Vance himself claims that he doesn't write science fiction. (Absurd, of course, since any definition of SF that doesn't include Vance's classic works is no useful definition at all!) But if one of the most admired craftsmen of SF disputes the genre's taxonomy, how are the poor drudges on the Clarke Award panel supposed to decide what is science fictiony?
David B. Williams
3 April 2002
Correcting the Record
It has come to my attention that in the April 1 Locus On-line, a news article appeared by Mr. Paoli du Flippi linking my bosom to a purported cancellation of Nebula voting. Please be assured that no Nebula nefariousness has occurred due to any mammary attributes of mine. While many an institution may have the resources to conduct such a scurrilous campaign, I'm afraid I haven't the necessary endowment to make it effective. It is true, as mentioned in your article, that I have received a number of proposals as of late, all from gentlemen in Nigeria who offer me sixty-nine million dollars for my hand in marriage if I would kindly open my bank accounts to them. Being a happily married woman I have of course had to decline their generous offers.
In any case, the Nebula voting can't be cancelled. If we have no voting, then we have no ceremony, and if we have no ceremony, then I won't get to wear the gorgeous dress created for me by the intrepid Brenda Clough, who, I might add, called me on the phone to say, "Catherine, you would not believe what is on the Locus site... " But I digress. Surely you see, these rapscallion rumors must be mistaken.
Just think how much saner, uh, that is, I mean how much duller the world would be without the pageantry and sartorial elegance of the Nebula Ceremonies.
1 April 2002
Dear Locus Online,
As the editorial commentary following Robert Brown’s recent letter points out, fairly few of the responses to Adam Roberts’s essay on the 2002 Clarke Awards have addressed the essay’s thesis. Mr. Roberts’s principle concern is not, as Gregory Benford and Gabe Chouinard assert, to argue for the superiority of SF over bankrupt mainstream fiction; indeed, his remarks on the state of mainstream fiction emerge largely at the essay’s end, more as aside than focus. (The quotation from Mr. Roberts that Professor Benford employs is taken out of context.) The SF/mainstream opposition is a red herring; instead, Mr. Roberts sets SF up against itself. He does so by asking to what degree the novels selected for one of the genre’s leading awards should demonstrate what seem to him the genre’s principle qualities. Those qualities he defines as “including its imaginative possibilities, its poetics of strangeness and difference, its mind-expanding, galaxy-spanning, blood-pumping excitement.” Mr. Roberts is concerned that five of the six novels nominated for the Clarke Award veer from outright SF towards the mainstream. He takes this to be evidence of an effort on the part of SF critics (if not the novelists themselves) to promote and encourage SF that more closely resembles mainstream fiction. His worry is that such promotion and encouragement is being undertaken in the interest of obtaining for SF greater respect and credibility among mainstream critics at the expense of those characteristics that distinguish the genre. While respectful of the five Clarke nominees whose status as pure SF he questions, Mr. Roberts champions a number of novels that are examples of the kind of SF he wants to see put forth as representative of the genre (what he calls “non-realist out-and-out SF”).
Mr. Roberts makes an interesting argument, one to which there is, needless to say, no quick and easy answer. At this moment in its history, SF certainly has accumulated a rich treasure chest of tropes, plots, and character types that offer much to the writer. Every time a writer sits down to pen a new galactic empire story, the very number of such stories already in print offer a certain resonance to what s/he creates; the story emerges, if you will, already in dialogue with the genre, a certain metafictional richness built into it. And it goes without saying that even the hoariest of genre cliches can become, in the hands of a sufficiently competent and inventive writer, the stuff of brilliant and provocative fiction. Indeed, one can make the case that generic conventions can function in fiction much the same way that formal conventions function in poetry, giving the writer a structure with which to organize her/his material. As is the case with poetry, such structure can serve to open up new avenues for the writer.
On the other hand, there is the danger that such generic resonance will degenerate into incestuous narcissism. For any genre to remain healthy, it must continue to grow, to reach out into new territory (to the extent that Mr. Roberts does criticize mainstream fiction, it is exactly for this failing). It is hard for me not to think that what Mr. Roberts views as the watered-down SF of the five Clarke nominees in question isn’t actually the genre reaching out in new directions. It’s equally hard for me to think that this is a bad thing. While I understand the desire to preserve and continue to explore what’s best in the genre, I can’t see that a single slate of awards has pushed the kind of SF Mr. Roberts loves to extinction, or anywhere close, for that matter. As his own list of alternate candidates for recognition displays, “non-realist out-and-out SF” continues to flourish. I recognize the validity of Mr. Roberts’s concern about the message such awards as the Clarke send about the nature of SF, but I also think we need to guard against over-reacting to any single set of awards. Without wishing to over-react to Mr. Roberts’s essay myself, the problem I see with his position is that its emphasis on “more science-fictiony SF” makes into an either/or dilemma what is in fact a both/and plenitude. Undoubtedly, “more science-fictiony SF” has something to learn from other kinds of SF, and vice-versa.
Those of us who love and affiliate ourselves with genre fiction must guard against the narrowness of definition and thought to which so many of the respondents to Mr. Roberts’s essay have referred (and which they have occasionally demonstrated). I don’t mean to suggest that Mr. Roberts is guilty of such narrowness himself; he makes admirably clear his own catholicity of taste. I do believe, however, that his argument tends in that direction. A number of the letters addressing Mr. Roberts’s essay have referenced the ghettoization of SF as implicit justification for a parallel response by SF writers to whatever doesn’t fit their particular tastes. This is bad reasoning. One’s experience of prejudice does not justify one’s own prejudice; rather, it is an incentive to ensure that such prejudice is resisted and overcome.
Mr. Roberts notes his hope that his essay will provoke a spirited response, and undoubtedly his hope has been fulfilled. What Mr. Roberts has given us is in fact a manifesto disguised as a polemic. On the whole, it doesn’t seem to me especially balanced, but manifestoes rarely are: they’re calls to rally around one flag or another. They help to give groups of artists a common center. Occasionally, they help to clarify matters; though I disagree with him, this is the effect Mr. Roberts’s essay has had on me. Cheers to Adam Roberts for having been willing to make his stand.
2 April 2002
The ongoing debate on the mainstream's disrespect for core speculative fiction (my choice of that term is deliberate, and probably reveals my bias) just leads me to shake my head. Damian Kilby's remark points at one of the many graying roots of this Gorgon's head: "SF is a ghetto. The inhabitants didn’t build the ghetto walls, they merely have had to learn to live with them." The nicest thing I can say is that this statement bears only partial resemblance to reality.
The walls were built, and continue to be built and reinforced, from both sides. True, the so-called literary mainstream is far from blameless. Conversely, the "core SF" tribe's disdain for anything that doesn't fit its own preconceived notions is just as damaging. Rather than try to respectfully teach those slumming from the mainstream (John Updike being a prime example) what we've already learned, the tribe would rather pour vitriol upon it. Whether deserved or not and, in the case of The Witches of Eastwick, it was deserved that doesn't actually help anyone. The tribe is also equally disdainful of experimentation within the field; those with relatively long memories will recall the ire raised by Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions.
That the mainstream is being counterproductive in its disdain for speculative fiction will get no argument from me. The pot, however, is also black: the almost willful refusal of "core SF" to learn much of anything from post-Edwardian fiction in style, in presentation, and in theme does not exactly support the argument that the tribe knows better. Sturgeon was an optimist.
The whole argument sounds a great deal like the drunken bull-sessions common among undergraduates as course-selection time nears about which scientific discipline is most valuable. Physics students claim that chemistry and biology are just special cases of physics; chemistry students claim that biology is just a big organic chemistry lab, and that physics students are so wound up in their math that they lose the ability to actually do anything other than blow things up; biology students claim that biology is more important because it has direct impact on everyone, and can (unlike physics and chemistry) ordinarily be explained without resort to mathematics. Meanwhile the math majors are off in the corner, trying to embed or unwind obscure insults in their problem sets and failing to communicate with anyone (all too often even themselves).
These different perspectives don't make any one method superior to any other; they only make the perspectives themselves different. Just as the natural sciences are ways to understand the natural world, the literary categories are different ways to understand the human world. There is nothing inherently superior or inferior about any of them. However, relying upon categories often imposed by people who haven't even read the books betrays all the intellectual honesty of Joseph McCarthy.
30 March 2002
What's the Problem?
Locus Online rightly pointed out that the debate over Adam Roberts'
commentary on the Clarke Award shortlist got derailed. Roberts wasn't
making points about mainstream superiority/arrogance. He was making a point
about the perception SF has of itself. The reason for the derailment was a
little pebble laid on the tracks by none other than Gregory Benford. His
gripe with Margaret Atwood seems quite plausible if he wants further
grist for his mill, he should try tracking down the interviews Paul Theroux
did while publicising his ham-fisted O-Zone, which according to him was a
brilliantly original novel that just happened to include SF tropes that
were dated by the 1950s. But the very mention of the ol' mainstream-vs-SF
topic was inevitably going to send the subject right off the rails. Since I
am looking for more ways to distract myself from writing over the next few
months, I can only hope Greg continues to supply us with letters
complaining about how fantasy novels aren't as rigorous as SF, that
psychological horror shouldn't be considered "real" horror, and that Star Trek has lots of bad science in it.
And in passing, I think Damian Kilby's attack on the mainstream for putting
SF in the ghetto cuts both ways. I have heard hardcore SF fans argue
forcefully that a story is not SF even though it is set in a dystopian
future, includes futuristic technology not available at the time the story
was written, and makes speculative extrapolations of linguistic science.
The reason why this novel was not SF? Because it was written by George
Orwell and not H. Beam Piper. For every mainstream writer who wants to keep
SF in the ghetto, there are a dozen SF fans reinforcing the ghetto wall
from the inside.
Back to Roberts' comments on the Clarke Award. I don't really see what the
problem is. I went back through the last ten years of the Clarke Award and
noticed that every year there are one or two "classic" SF novels on the
shortlist. Vernor Vinge is there. Alastair Reynolds is there. Ken Macleod
is there. Stephen Baxter is there almost every year. If we look at other
awards, the same pattern is evident. Sure there are lots of works that are
more marginally SFnal than Hal Clement, but overall awards around the world
consistently shortlist classic, unrepentant SF. And the rules of the Clarke
Award say nothing about whether the work is Clarkean. The winner simply has
to be the "best book" according to the judges. The fact that there are so
many slipstream or semi-SF novels doesn't mean the classic form is in
decline. It just means there are lots of writers who have discovered that
SF can encompass more than the Golden Age archetype. There's more than one
way to write SF.
And let's face it, even before the New Wave was officially declared open,
there were highly successful writers who avoided the Campbell template.
Ballard's The Drowned World came out in 1962. Harlan Ellison wrote
"Soldier" in 1957 and "Time of the Eye" in 1959. Damon Knight's "Not With a
Bang" and "To Serve Man" both 1950. James Blish's "A Case of Conscience"
was 1953, and it won the 1959 Hugo when published in novel format. Fritz
Leiber won the Best Novel Hugo in 1958 for The Big Time. Avram Davidson's "Or
All the Seas With Oysters" won the 1958 Hugo. Alfred Bester's famous story
"Fondly Fahrenheit" came out in 1954 and it relies on the very literary
device of blurring first- and third-person syntax. The Demolished Man, a
novel about telepathy that contains a lot of experimental typesetting and
Freudian handwaving but no recognisable science, won the first ever Hugo.
That's right as far back as 1952, the SF community was giving major
awards to non-Campbellian SF stories. So what are we worried about?
31 March 2002
MacLeod vs. MacLeod
Dear Locus Online,
First, thanks for posting my letter; I'm sure you were inundated. I agree with your comment on my letter. I did not express myself very clearly so I muddled my point. I had hoped to address Roberts' main thesis. This is what I should have written: Let's take Ken MacLeod and Ian MacLeod. Both are heavy-hitting writers of style, craft and vision. I like them both. Ken writes high-skiffy, as genre as I can imagine. He does it very well, and is rewarded with the attention of the skiffy audience, and brisk sales. (He's no Weis and Hickman, but he's doing all right.) On the other hand, Ian writes periphery skiffy, with a great facility and cleverness. No one buys Ian MacLeod's books. They are too skiffy for most people and not skiffy enough for the skiffy crowd. Therefore, in a choice between Ian and Ken, the Clarke award nomination should go to Ian every time. (Since value and quality are not objective criteria, except in a general way-- as in putting both men's books in the running for an award in the first place-- let's balance the books a bit, and confer upon Ian some legitimacy as an artist, and maybe garner some attention for his fines, attention already generated for Ken. That's more what I meant to say, and more of an address to Roberts' concerns. I still disagree with him; this is why. Again, thank you.
31 March 2002
Beside the Point
I have read with some amusement, then growing boredom, this latest installment of the "debate" about Genre vs Mainstream. Point One: by definition, ALL fiction is fantasy to some degree, or it wouldn't be fiction. Point Two: awards are nice, but quibbling about the criteria used to decide nominations and/or winners is a circular exercise at best (particularly juried awards) and is largely pointless. I'm more concerned with the fact that entirely too many novels I've read in the last few years don't seem to have passed within shouting distance of a good edit (most egregiously, 80-90% of the first novels I read, including a prize winner or three. I basically quit reading first novels for the most part a couple of years ago because I got bit once too often) and copy-editing has gotten haphazard of late. Getting miffed about an award in the face of publishing today is like a passenger on the Titanic swearing at the waiter for spilling water on your jacket as the ship is hitting the iceberg. Publishing period is in trouble. Arguing over makeshift labels is re-arranging deck chairs. Regards,
30 March 2002