Linkorama

1. Some interesting discussion at Gabe Chouinard’s journal last week about the lack of online sf criticism. Oh, there are a number of pretty good review sites (Vector‘s reviews are also excellent, of course, but we’re still primarily a print journal), not to mention some excellent bloggers who write about sf at least some of the time. But aside from Excessive Candour and the archive of SF Studies, and the odd individual essay, there’s precious little depth—and while I don’t think that originality is the be-all and end-all of criticism, there’s something to be said for knowing what the major critical voices in the field have been saying. Oddly enough, and despite being a child of the online age through and through, I can also understand some of the reasons why people might be reticent to put their work online. When you publish in print there’s a disconnect between you and the reader. If someone corrects me on something (as Tony Keen did with a review I wrote for Foundation), it’s usually a couple of months after I wrote it or even after it was published, and it doesn’t have so much sting. When I put something up here, anyone can wander by and tell me I’m a wronghead instantly. (On the other hand, that’s also the thrill of it.)

2. Kameron Hurley wonders where the popular radical feminist books are, or why The Left Hand of Darkness seems to be the only one people name. In fact, she raises a number of related issues, each of which probably has a different answer. On the question of why The Left Hand of Darkness is The Book That Everyone Talks About when it comes to having their eyes opened about gender relations, well, it’s probably partly just how reputation works—it’s self-perpetuating; plus the groupmind only has room for one book at a time—and probably partly down to the fact that you can only have your mind truly blown a limited number of times. (Although see also.)

On the question of where the modern equivalents are, I think Susan Marie Groppi’s report from the Feminist Fiction is So Five Minutes Ago panel at Wiscon is probably an accurate assessment of the changing goalposts for feminist fiction, radical or otherwise. On the question of genderfucking books specifically, there seem to be to be a few related trends in what’s being written, which at root all turn on Cheryl Morgan‘s point that what is radical becomes familiar. First, in sf at large, it’s now pretty common to see books like River of Gods, where the presence of agendered individuals is just one part of a multivariate future (tm Graham, possibly); or books like Iain Banks’ Culture novels, where gender-switching has been taken on board as one component of a utopia; or books like Justina Robson’s Living Next-Door to the God of Love, where fluidity of gender is a glancing reflection of a more general fluidity of identity. (Not to mention what happens to gender in the Eganesque or Strossian posthuman futures; although see Elizabeth Bear’s feminist critique of the singularity.) Second, and more tenuously, I think it’s possible we’ve started to see more mainstream examinations of gender identity—I’m thinking of books like Matt Ruff’s Set This House in Order, or Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. And third, you get more explicitly feminist sf books like Gwyneth Jones’s Life, which you could describe as being a hard-sf take on the ramp-up to a genderfuck singularity, with brilliant (if somewhat frustrating) characters: books that know they can’t just restate the problem, but have to look for mechanisms by which change could happen.

All of that said, the name that kept coming to mind while reading Hurley’s post was Tricia Sullivan, who seems to me to mix intelligence, style and passion in the right quantities to achieve a more general popularity without shortchanging her ideas (or ideals). Neither of the two novels I’ve read by her so far (Maul and Double Vision) have been complete home runs, but both are very good; and I still have the Clarke Award-winning Dreaming in Smoke on my to-be-read pile.

3. I’ve been meaning to post something about Bruce Sterling’s uneven but interesting collection, Visionary in Residence, but I don’t think I’m going to have time to work my thoughts up into a full post or review. So, instead I will link to two thoughtful reviews elsewhere, by James Trimarco and Paul Kincaid, neither of which I really agree with. Both reviews spend a fair amount of time talking about the two ribofunk stories—perhaps not surprisingly, since they’re two of the most substantial stories in the book. But both are also co-written (‘The Scab’s Progress‘ with Paul di Filippo, and ‘Junk DNA’ with Rudy Rucker) and both, I think, show evidence of that, being flabby and over-excited. The two most satisfying stories for me, and the two that I think best fulfill the promise of Sterling’s introduction, in which he says that being an sf writer “is an excuse to get up to any mischief imaginable”, are ‘Luciferase‘ and ‘User-Centric’. The former comes on like a scientifically literate version of A Bug’s Life; it’s tremendous fun, and a more brazen incorporation of science into story than you usually see. The latter, an email exchange between a group of designers which segues into the story they have been designing, is interesting because it’s so literal a guided tour to the process of creating science fiction. And because it refuses to end: it ends with one character telling another that, “There are no happy endings. Because there are no endings. There are only ways to cope.” Sf, of all forms of writing, should hold to that sentiment more often than it does, I think.

4. Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria reviews Peace by Gene Wolfe. This is my “Gene Wolfe’s last chance” book. I read The Fifth Head of Cerberus and found it dry as dust and less than the sum of its parts; I read The Wizard-Knight and found it enervating, massively longer than the points it was making needed or deserved; I read the stories in Starwater Strains, and the odd older piece here and there, and found some of them unutterably brilliant, and some of them complete bobbins. Peace is the other book I have a copy of, the other one I’m planning to read at some point, before making a final decision about whether it’s worth embarking on The Book of the New Sun (and associated work) or not.

5. Yesterday I went to see Thank You For Smoking, a satire about a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). Part of the plot has him meeting with “Hollywood Superagent” Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe); the sf connection is the scene at the end of the trailer:

Jeff Megall: Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they’re looking to make.
Nick Naylor: Cigarettes in space.
Jeff: It’s the final frontier, Nick.
Nick: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?
Jeff: … Probably. [beat] But, it’s an easy fix—one line of dialogue. “Thank God we invented the …” you know.
Nick: Whatever.
Jeff: Device.

I genuinely cannot tell whether including a science error (space stations don’t have all-oxygen environments) in a gag about how quickly factual accuracy goes out the window when confronted with product placement is a screw up, or an apt and None More Ironic dig at sf films in general. The rest of the film was pretty good, so I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

17 thoughts on “Linkorama

  1. You are not alone on the Gene Wolfe. Although I like Fifth Head of Cerberus, despite its dry dustyness.

    Just don’t read Castleview.

  2. I read The Fifth Head of Cerberus and found it dry as dust and less than the sum of its parts

    Me too, but then the friend who’d given it to me sat me down and explained how it all fitted together, the world-building behind the story, a whole elaborate series of explanations which brought it all together and made the sum of its parts seem worth something, at least, though personally I’m not sure whether it was worth all the trouble. My problem with Wolfe is that reaching that sum seems to take such a massive feat of mental puzzling out. It requires you to read the book in a very particular way, and pick up on the very particular carefully laid clues, and go through a series of particular logical steps to get to the story. The story isn’t in the text per se, it’s somewhere behind the text, guiding it, and can only be reached through a complex process of reasoning out from hints that are to be found in the text.

    I appreciate that this can be incredibly rewarding for people who read books in that way, and that it’s extremely clever of Wolfe to be able to construct such a puzzle. But for me, reading Wolfe just makes me feel stupid, because I often don’t see the clues, and if I do, don’t know how to go about putting them together to make sense of what I’m reading. On the rare occasions I can put them together to puzzle out the story, it’s a bit of a let down, because I don’t get much satisfaction out of solving puzzles, so I’ve gone to all these lengths to figure out the story and after all that, it is only a story and not some huge, meaningful revelation.

    And yeah, now I sound like a lazy reader who’s complaining that Wolfe doesn’t lay it all out simply for me. I admit that reading Wolfe makes me feel stupid and lazy, for the most part. I think, though, that the point I’m trying to make is that the work he makes you do when reading his work simply isn’t worth the pay off, for me. I’m not averse to putting effort into reading, but I’ve got to get something out of it at the end, instead of feeling like I’ve gone to great lengths with a work only to feel let down by it. I end up resenting being made to feel dense and slow and having to work so goddamn hard, when the secret underneath it all is really not all that special or interesting anyway.

  3. The frustrating thing is, I can think of other books and writers where I really like that sense of hidden story. And on one level, I can also respect it; without having read the Books of the New Sun or the Long Sun, I gather that part of the reason for hiding the story is a total commitment to the limitations of narrative voice, what the narrator can know and how they can express it.

    I think my problem with it in Wolfe is the insularity of his work. There’s a scene in The Wizard-Knight where we get a glimpse of the true situation, and it’s utterly gobsmacking because of its rarity; it’s almost the only time in the whole 900-page brick that we get a sense of what’s really going on. But once you’ve got over the impact, you realise that the revelation itself is tired and overly familiar. So yeah, what you said, more or less: the story is always feeding back on itself, looking inward and trying to understand itself. That way lies a dead end, and Wolfe doesn’t make the process of puzzling it out interesting enough to compensate.

  4. Yes, absolutely, I know what you mean about being able to respect Wolfe on one level. Intellectually, I can admire what he does (and as you say, some variations on his techniques can work well for me, when employed by other writers) but it doesn’t produce a satisfying reading experience for me.

    Or not if I read them the way they’re designed to be read. Perversely, the only way I can enjoy Wolfe is to read his stories without trying to puzzle them out. One of the things that makes hidden stories work for me is the opportunity they give me to embrace a deep sense of mystery. Don’t get me wrong, I love knowledge and I love seeking answers, but sometimes the fact is that there just aren’t any satisfactory answers, and I look to art and fiction to reflect my experience of feeling slightly adrift in the universe, my experience of not having the answers but really wanting and hoping they’re out there. Hidden stories do that for me, and Wolfe’s especially, because I know that in Wolfe’s works there really are answers in there somewhere, so my hope is justified. But because the answers themselves are a bit of a let down, letting the stories stay hidden in order to give me a sense of hope in a story that isn’t yet comprehended but could be, is a much more powerful reading experience for me.

    I know that’s kind of a perverse reading of Wolfe though, that it’s not engaging with the text as it was designed to be engaged with, and I feel vaguely guilty about reading him that way.

  5. I must say that when I read Living Next Door, I always thought of Jalaeka as male, even when he transforms himself into Cadenza. Cadenza just seemed like a suit of clothes Jalaeka put on – more cross-dressing than transgendered. But maybe that’s just me.

  6. Tony: I wouldn’t say it’s a major element of the book but I did get more of a sense of genuine transformation than you did, because as I said I think it was another manifestation of Jalaeka’s general fluidity. Strictly speaking Jalaeka has no gender, because he’s pure Stuff; but he’s what the other characters want him to be, and most of the time they want him to be Jalaeka. One element of the book is Jalaeka coming to terms with how much he wants to choose that identity for himself, I think.

  7. Peace is the other book I have a copy of, the other one I’m planning to read at some point, before making a final decision about whether it’s worth embarking on The Book of the New Sun (and associated work) or not.

    The four novels which make up (the original) The Book of The New Sun are worth reading, although I personally was irritated with the gaps in the narrative which occurred between the end of one volume and the beginning of another (the first-person narrator archly suggesting that something important had happened to separate the characters, but the author manipulating him refusing to hint what that might have been) and it’s true that you do have to work a bit to extract the fullest from the story. But don’t bother with its sequel, The Urth of The New Sun, which was written at the insistence of the Tor editors who’d published the tetralogy and thought there was more that could be said: there wasn’t, and the novel is 300-odd pages of Wolfe covering the lack of actual content with one misdirection after another.

    And that, unfortunately, seems to have set the tone for all his work since, or as much of it as I could bring myself to read before I got so frustrated with him that I gave up. Free Live Free went on and on and on (spreading its slim idea thinner and thinner) until it stopped; There Are Doors went on and on and on until it became obvious that the author had no explanation for what was happening to his characters (and I stopped); the four books of The Long Sun began as a standard generation starship/conceptual breakthrough tale, began to look towards the end of the second book as though it was about to subvert that cliche, and then petered out in meandering conversations between minor characters while all the actual events (the revolution which overthrows the rulers, the arrival at the new plant — i.e., the cliche) happened offstage. Pointlessly twisty; insubstantial; wholly unengaging.

    Bluntly, I suspect that the fact his editors allowed him to get away with one novel in which not much happened and the reader was led down one blind alley after another led him to believe that he could get away with that form of story-telling for other novels as well — presenting the tale as one of substance and importance but leaving it to us to work out why we should care. But I don’t — and I know from reading the reviews of his stuff that have appeared over the past ten years that I’m not the only one to have reached that conclusion.

  8. OK, it looks like someone needs to put the deliberately contrarian case here and try out the argument that, maybe, Gene Wolfe isn’t all that bad.

    I think, for starters, his peak period was between 1975 and 1983 or so: his finest single books, for me, are The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories and Peace. And yes, the work there is very much about the difficulty of perceiving the world properly (or, equivalently for Wolfe, morally); and it imposes a lot of work on the reader too. But when you do get to a secure reading of a good Wolfe work, it’s enormously enriching *because* you’ve done the work. Example – “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”. On one level, it’s about a young boy in a screwed-up family situation who retreats into pulp comics; the fantastic element is provided by the comic characters seemingly coming to life. But the story of the family screw-up is only told in bits and – although it’s in the 3rd person – from the boy’s point of view: you have to do the adult work of figuring out what’s really happening. It’s all the more moving because the stuff that really matters is only partially glimpsed, and the last line of the story hints that the boy is destined to be just as screwed up as his mother. But, again, you need the perspective of not-being-10-years-old to see that.

    I take that as a model for how to read Wolfe: that almost all of his protagonists are either not telling the whole truth or not able to tell the whole truth. It’s your job, as reader, to bring your experience of the world to bear to complete their stories. I certainly don’t think Wolfe’s later career can be blamed on anyone but Wolfe: I feel there’s a marked decline, especially in The Book of the Long Sun, but the idea that his editor or anyone else would get away with telling him what to write strikes me as…implausible.

    There are things I’m uncomfortable with in Wolfe: predominantly his conservatism and his treatment of women. And I don’t see why the job of perceiving the world rightly always has to be so difficult for him. But his good stuff is clearly (to me) worth the effort.

  9. I certainly don’t think Wolfe’s later career can be blamed on anyone but Wolfe: I feel there’s a marked decline, especially in The Book of the Long Sun, but the idea that his editor or anyone else would get away with telling him what to write strikes me as…implausible.

    I didn’t mean that at all. What I said was only that his editors had convinced him there was enough material for a fifth novel in the New Sun sequence when in fact there wasn’t. But his having produced such a manuscript, making much out of little, seems to laid down some sort of template for what came after. I have no idea whether, and if so to what extent, his editors intervene in this (they probably don’t , although at one stage in reading The Long Sun sequence I was half-convinvced that his editors were only indulging him because he was Gene Wolfe, successful author).

    For what it’s worth, I think the material Wolfe wrote up to The Urth of The New Sun is very good; reading it repays the effort. But everything afterwards seems to have marked a slow but progressive decline.

  10. I didn’t mean that at all. What I said was only that his editors had convinced him there was enough material for a fifth novel in the New Sun sequence when in fact there wasn’t.

    I’m not sure what your source is for this. Certainly the account I’ve heard from David Hartwell – Wolfe’s editor, singular, for his novels since at least 1980 – was that GW wrote Urth of his own volition and was happy to. Hartwell is also on record – in Wolfe’s collection Plan[e]t Engineering about how little editorial intervention Wolfe’s books need: he said, I think, that he couldn’t find a single correction to make on The Claw of the Conciliator. Relations between editors and authors are always private to some extent, of course, but it seems to me a bad idea to speculate on such things – unless you have evidence?

    FWIW, I agree that Urth marks a falling-off from the preceding four volumes and that Wolfe has only rarely approached the density of his peak work since. But he does, I think, in The Book of the Short Sun and in shorter works like “The Ziggurat”.

  11. A PS to my previous comment, from GW’s Nova Express interview here:

    Q: And did you feel you needed to write Urth of the New Sun to make [Severian’s] spiritual progression clearer?

    GW: No, I felt I needed to write Urth of the New Sun to show what the ultimate outcome was. Really, David Hartwell said that I should put a paragraph in at the end that says “Oh, Severian leaves Urth, and saves the sun, and everything is OK.” (laughs) And I said “David, that’s more than a paragraph.” It’s really like the Acts of the Apostles, you read it to find out what happened to St. Peter. Well, what happened to all these people, what happened to all these places? Did the sun in fact die? It was written to answer those questions.

  12. I’m not sure what your source is for this.

    Nothing less than an interview with Wolfe himself, in a interview I conducted for Vector way back in 1983 or 1984. My archive of the magazine from that period is long gone to the SF Foundation, but as I recall I asked what the impetus for writing Urth had been, and he said that he’d had a conversation with Hartwell in which the latter had convinced him there was lots more to be said.

    You indicate that he’s since said something different about its genesis. Clearly, both statements cannot be correct.

  13. Graham, I’m not saying Wolfe is bad, in fact, I think there are many many good things about his writing. Instead I’m saying, very subjectively, that his work is unsatisfying to me as a reader, given the type of reader I am and given what I look for in a reading experience. I was just trying to explain why my reading approach doesn’t fit with Wolfe (or fits only in a perverse sense), not trying to criticise his work.

    But when you do get to a secure reading of a good Wolfe work, it’s enormously enriching *because* you’ve done the work.

    Maybe it is for you. Not for me. That’s not to say I think Wolfe is bad, it’s saying that doing the work with his fiction doesn’t get me to a place where I’ve got what I wanted to get from a reading experience. That’s a very personal thing, and isn’t a judgement on the quality of Wolfe’s work. I think I can see how and why his fiction does work for other people (for precisely some of the reasons you state) but it doesn’t seem to work for me in the same way.

    It’s your job, as reader, to bring your experience of the world to bear to complete their stories.

    I was trying to explain that I don’t get job satisfaction from doing that with the Wolfe I’ve read. I’m not sure why exactly, but I think it’s partly because of the fact that I get more satisfaction just knowing it’s a job that it’s possible for me to do, while not actually doing it, and partly because the experiences he requires readers to bring to his works don’t seem to be experiences that interest me hugely or that I’m interested in seeing explored in fiction.

    Though it’s always possible that I haven’t done enough work or brought enough of my experiences to my readings of Wolfe to have yet made it all seem worthwhile. I don’t know how to tell if I need to try harder, or if it’s just not my cup of tea. Given what I’ve said here, what you know of me as a reader, and what you know of Wolfe, do you think there’s a chance I could get more out of his fiction if I just put a bit more work in? (I’ve so far read The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, and a couple of other shorts by Wolfe.)

  14. Book of the New Sun is worth it no matter what you think of the rest of Wolfe’s books! It’s worth reading several times, in fact.

  15. The Book of the New Sun was going to be my response to Geneva’s “should I bother reading any more Wolfe?” query. But I hesitated, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as I hinted upthread, I’m not entirely comfortable with Wolfe’s treatment of women. Thecla, Dorcas, Jolenta et al are certainly differentiated characters but they all end up as sex objects for Severian, and there’s a sense that they don’t have any existence that matters except to the extent that they intersect with him. Secondly, related to that, there’s the sense that it is (massively complicated and sophisticated) a very old pulp story: the unknown boy who turns out to be at the centre of the universe, around whom existence is shaped. Thirdly, to address Geneva’s point, I’m not sure I see *why* I have to work so hard to reach some of the deeper meanings of the text – why, for instance, Severian almost-conceals-but-doesn’t-quite who his family are.

    But it is damn good.

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