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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Wednesday 28 August 2002

§ The London Review of Books reviews Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination and the Birth of a World by Oliver Morton (Fourth Estate).

One of Morton's strengths is his familiarity with people from the whole gamut of Mars studies. Indeed, if it weren't for his stories about scientists, academics, artists, writers and dreamers, and his interviews with some pretty wacky individuals, it might have been more difficult to carry his narrative so readably through the requisite geology and physics. Better still is the account he gives of the lively, often acrimonious debate surrounding the purpose and ethics of going to Mars. The home of this debate is the Mars Society, an informal aggregation - predominantly but not exclusively American - of people who eat, sleep and dream Mars, scientists or not. These are people who in some sense are already living there. That they do so in the freedom of their imaginations rather than in Portakabins doesn't make their visions any less real.
Other reviews have appeared at This Is London and New Scientist, the latter by Charles Sheffield:
Mapping Mars is beautifully written and carefully edited and produced. A number of authors might fairly claim to have written the best Mars novel, but this is the best factual book on Mars that money can buy.
The book comes out in the US in September from Picador--the cover and link shown here.

§ American Heritage of Invention & Technology for Summer 2002 has an article by Ron Miller, with several good-sized scans of artwork, about Chesley Bonestell.

Saturday 17 August 2002

§ Is it possible to define the current state of American literature? Jonathan Yardley tries.

A cartoon in the New Yorker several weeks ago said it all. Two people are in a bookstore. One stands in front of a section called "Self-Improvement," while the other is browsing "Self-Involvement." That, exactly, summarizes the state of the art of literary fiction in these United States in the year 2002. Much of it is written and constructed with technical facility, for technique is one thing the schools can teach. But it rarely is interested in anything except the inner lives and private experiences of the author-surrogates who are its central characters. It connects with itself but has little to say to the world outside, indeed makes surprisingly feeble effort to connect with that world. It is flat and lifeless--by way of example, consider all those who have followed in the train of that echt minimalist, Raymond Carver, the Jehovah of the writing schools--and just about the only people who appear to read it are other riders on the writing-school circuit.
And a bit later--he doesn't mention SF, though he mentions Michael Chabon--
It also is worth noting that some of the most interesting novels being written these days are not self-consciously literary but are what is commonly known (and often dismissed) as genre fiction.
And in conclusion...
People long to be told stories. The need is essential to human nature. The urge to satisfy it explains why we read bubblegum pop fiction as well as genre fiction both high and low, but also why we still read Shakespeare and Dickens, Cather and Faulkner. The pity is that so many writers who represent themselves as serious and worthy of respect now decline to take up the storytelling challenge. They are content to tell us about themselves, blissfully unaware of how uninteresting they are. ...

Washington Post, July 14, 2002

§ When readers meet writers, what do they want to know? Process, not product.

No matter how well read the audience may be, when it comes to the Q&A, it is always the same. After a few polite interrogatory skirmishes for form's sake come the only questions that matter to the reader.

"Do you write in longhand or on a computer?"

If longhand: "Pencil, ballpoint or old-fashioned ink pen?"

If computer: "PC or Mac? Which font do you prefer?"

New York Times, July 29, 2002

§ Writers who are beseeched to blurb.

Several galleys per week arrive at my door. I always open the envelope, and I always read the editor's letter. I like the personal, the flattering, the imploring: "In so many ways this book reminds me of yours, Ellie -" (Heartwarming adjectives follow the dash.) Or, "I would be in your debt - more in your debt, that is, than I already am for having your wonderful books to enjoy, if only. . . ." Am I truly this novelist's favorite author?

New York Times, August 12, 2002

§ Novelists who hire novelists.

Tom Clancy, for instance, oversees a vast farm of fiction writers who crank out stories that he imagines.

... In order to get away with such sleight of hand, writers need three things: a fruitful imagination, a total lack of personal style or voice, and a reputation as a rainmaker.

... Receiving help on a fiction project seems to be a particularly modern phenomenon. It's hard to imagine Leo Tolstoy writing "War" and someone else writing "Peace." Most great writers don't even get along with themselves.

Washington Post, July 24, 2002

§ You had second thoughts, and deleted that webpage or site. Or you thought you did... Google archives pages.

These days, people are seeing their privacy punctured in intimate ways as their personal, professional and online identities become transparent to one another. Twenty-somethings are going to search engines to check out people they meet at parties. Neighbors are profiling neighbors. Amateur genealogists are researching distant family members. Workers are screening co-workers.

In other words, it is becoming more difficult to keep one's past hidden, or even to reinvent oneself in the American tradition. "The net result is going to be a return to the village, where everyone knew everyone else," said David Brin, author of a book called "The Transparent Society" (Perseus, 1998). "The anonymity of urban life will be seen as a temporary and rather weird thing."

New York Times, July 25, 2002

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