Halting State

Like various other members of this parish, a little while ago I received a proof of Charles Stross’ new novel, Halting State. I’ve been reading it (somewhat guiltily) alongside McAuley’s Fairyland, which makes for an interesting comparison in a number of ways that I hope to write about at some point. I’m also looking forward to seeing what others make of it, and in particular what they make of the style.

Poking around on the internet and in back-issues of Locus, NYRSF and Interzone last night, I discovered something a bit surprising: not many people have really examined Stross’s style. There’s Adam Roberts’ review of Accelerando, Graham Sleight touches on it in his NYRSF review of Singularity Sky, but really that’s about it. (Paul Kincaid also touches on matters of style in his review of Accelerando, but spends more time looking at — and is to my mind very perceptive about — the mindset Stross is applying to sf.) The only Stross that Gary Wolfe has reviewed, so far as I can tell, is The Atrocity Archives, and that not at great length; and though John Clute has reviewed a bit more, it’s a slightly oddball selection — Singularity Sky, the first two books of the Merchant Princes, and “Missile Gap”.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with focusing on what Stross is saying more than how he’s saying it; but Stross’s style, the way he uses geek idioms etc etc, is one of the most noticeable things about all his books, and at least in my experience tends to be something people comment on in casual conversations. So I’m hoping Halting State inspires some more reviews that look at what I will pompously call the aesthetic side of Stross’s writing — it seems to me that it should, because I’m coming to the conclusion that the choice to write the entire book in the second person throws Stross’s strengths and weaknesses into sharp relief. Admittedly, the two two reviews I’ve seen so far both note the style and then move on again to the ideas, so I may be imagining things and/or being overly optimistic. But Stross clearly put some thought into how the style interacts with the things any science fiction novel has to do —

The second person’s big strength is that it lets you show by doing, and it renders infodumps — those big, intrusive gobbets of metainformation that are so useful to the jobbing science fiction writer who’s trying to portray an unfamiliar world — transparent. (It’s big weakness is that if it isn’t done carefully, it feels like an itchy straitjacket to the reader, but you already know that, don’t you?) It’s not so much about metafiction as about metainformation for the fiction at the centre of the narrative process. If you fine-tune your use of the interior monologue you can illuminate your character’s experience of their universe, lending the “showing, not telling” narrative some experiential references and weight so that it feels familiar, even if it’s full of novel placeholders. And you can banish the old didactic mode for good, consigning it to the howling wilderness of pulpish prose where it belongs. (After all, we’re trying to commit literature here. Right?) You have the technology to tell this story the way it needs to be told. All you have to find now is the courage to use it.

— so it seems not only fair but necessary to talk about whether he succeeded in his goals.

Of course, I’m not saying this should be the only aspect of Stross’s work that people should talk about or even, necessarily, the first. I’m not completely comfortable with Jeff VanderMeer’s response to Matthew Cheney’s column about “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” — “In short, the story feels not like cultural misappropriation so much as misappropriation of technique” — because I can’t imagine myself placing such a purely aesthetic response before all other possible responses. It’s just that it’s my perception that the aesthetic aspect of Stross’s work hasn’t yet received the examination it deserves.

48 thoughts on “Halting State

  1. A question I don’t have time to answer myself, I’m afraid… Are there any substantive (and, ideally, linkable-to) reviews of Stross’s work by women?

  2. Oh, and now you remind me of it, also Cheryl Morgan on Glasshouse. (I just asked the question because I was struck by the all-maleness of the names in your second para and wondering if, eg, Farah or Liz Hand had ever written on his works.)

  3. That’s a misreading or possibly I didn’t express myself clearly enough. I think breaking the fourth wall in the way Ryman did is what broke Pol Pot for me. So the technique is what ruins the story for me. As a reader, I can’t get past that to anything else the story offers. And, in fact, it so infects the story, is hardwired into it, that it *is* the story.


  4. Hi Jeff — thanks for the clarification. I can imagine a story so technically horrible that nothing else about it registers with me, so I see where you’re coming from. I admit I have a hard time imagining “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” as that story. And, while accepting that the aesthetic aspects of a story can’t be unyoked from the political aspects, I still think of you as someone who is, in general, more likely to look first at the former than the latter. Does that sound fair?

  5. I find it interesting that Mr. Stross talks candidly about “info dumps”, “big, intrusive gobbets of metainformation”. I mentioned the tendency of SF writers to indulge in such practices in an article I wrote called “Good Science = Bad Fiction” and got raked over the coals for opining that all the technical gobbledegook in sky fy is a ridiculous form of exposition and should be lanced to the bare minimum. The geeks came out of the woodwork to tear a strip off me for my presumption. I like Mr. Stross’ work and appreciate his candor–like many writers out there, he could use a good editor to pare down a rather profuse imagination that he (at times) has trouble keeping under authorial control. Over-writing is the bane of all scribes but it is something that SF writers, in particular, need to control and mitigate.

  6. Cliff, that’s your article here, right? It may more simply be that sf is a different kind of beast to mainstream fiction, operating according to different aesthetics, and that the approval of mainstream critics is therefore a really poor metric for whether something is good sf or not. (For the record, I don’t think “fantasy writers are uniformly terrible”, either…)

  7. But Accelerando relies on the big intrusive gobbets of metainformation as part of the style, to convey the futureshock and information overload. Like it or not, if you pared that down to the bare minimum you’re going to be losing part of what makes the book what it is. I’m all for authors remembering that they are writing a book and not a scientific paper and not infodumping for the sake of showing off what they’ve done, but I don’t think it all needs removing.

    Mind you, I also like reading for pleasure and don’t think all fantasy writers are rubbish, so we may disagree on this point as well.

  8. I’m with Liz. Stross doesn’t infodump out of naivety or lack of skill; he knows exactly what he’s doing, and–with considerable panache and daring–he uses infodumping to create a certain literary texture. The rules of perspective (say) are great things for young artists to learn and follow, but it’s possible to be a great artist who nevertheless deliberately distorts and disregards them, and if you as critic find yourself saying ‘but Mr Picasso, you don’t seem to understand perspective’ you’re really pretty much missing the point. Personally, I’m not convinced that Stross does pull it off, but plenty of smart people think he does, so I may well be wrong; and I admire him for trying.

    Still, I love the way Cliff Burns writes ‘over-writing is the bane of all scribes’. Way to ironize, dude.

  9. Can you imagine a western novel which features a two page description of a pivotal gunfight? “The bullet left the barrel at approximately 1586.34 feet per second, spinning due to the centrifugal forces of…” That’s the equivalent of these info dumps and/or lessons in higher physics foisted on us by some (not all) scientist-slash-SF scribes. And meanwhile characterization and syntax suffer and stylistic/thematic innovation go out the window…well, I’ve said all this before. Hugo finalist Peter Watts decries info dumps as well…while sheepishly admitting to falling victim to them on the odd occasion (Peter’s a very honest guy). Again, it comes down to good, tight editing. I have a feeling that many SF editors aren’t comfortable dealing with the higher science stuff and defer too much to the author rather than saying “Does it advance the plot, illuminate some aspect of one of your characters? Then dump it!”

  10. Cliff, I think you’re a) constructing a straw-man version of what hard sf is and b) ignoring what I’m saying (and I think Adam and Liz also are) about the nature of sf. You’re also retreating from your earlier claims about sf as a whole (“while sci fi scribblers are quite good at describing possible futures … when it comes to creating the three dimensional people who populate these worlds, they fall flat on their faces?”) and acknowledging instead that you’re talking about “some (not all)”. Which is a perfectly sensible and pragmatic retreat, I guess. But the central point remains – well, I’m going to quote Joanna Russ because she’s so much more eloquent than me:

    “Criticism of science fiction cannot possibly look like the criticism we are used to. It will – perforce – employ an aesthetic in which the elegance, rigorousness, and systematic coherence of explicit ideas is of great importance. It will therefore appear to stray into all sorts of extraliterary fields: metaphysics, politics, philosophy, physics, biology, psychology, topology, mathematics, history, and so on. The relation of foreground and background that we are used to after a century and a half of realism will not obtain. Indeed, they may be reversed. Science fiction criticism will discover themes…which may seem recondite, extraordinary, extraliterary, or plain ridiculous. Themes we customarily regard as emotionally neutral will be charged with emotion. Traditionally human concerns will be absent; protagonists may be all but unrecognizable as such. What in other fiction would be marvelous will here be merely accurate or plain; what in other fiction would be ordinary or mundane will here be astonishing, complex, wonderful…For example, allusions to the death of God will be trivial jokes, while metaphors involving the difference between telephone switchboards and radio stations will be poignantly tragic. Stories ostensibly about persons will really be about topology. Erotics will be intercranial, mechanical (literally), and moving.”

  11. I’m still trying to make my mind up about Charles Stross (whom I’ve never met, I should say straight away). I was very impressed by Singularity Sky and Accelerando; less by The Atrocity Archives (though that may be because I was, quite unfairly, very annoyed by the fact that it used quite a lot of ideas I’d been thinking about as good subjects to build a novel round, but used them quite differently from how I’d thought you would use them).
    I think Halting State is pretty good, and will probably review it properly when it comes out, though I’ll read it again first. Part of the reason I don’t review as much as I might is that I try to read everything I do write about twice.
    I have no objection to the second person as a device, and I think what Stross says about it as a mechanism for infodumping is probably right, just as I’m sure Adam is right in saying that Stross knows what he’s doing. On the other hand, I don’t know anything about coding and geek stuff, so all it does is offer this kind of reek of authenticity: this geek knows about this stuff, I think.
    When I get the thirty-fourth paragraph of acronyms for Linux sub-programming, or whatever the hell it is, part of me is saying, yeah, yeah, I know you know about this stuff.
    I don’t think he’s actually all that good at delivering a concise explanation of what it is. In Halting State, for example, because I’ve never played a computer game, I have very little idea at all how the treasure in the game adds up to real money in the real world. Yet I have read magazine articles about gold farms and second life and so on which did make me feel I understood something about it. But it doesn’t fundamentally impede my enjoyment of the book, which, as I said elsewhere, I did think was very good fun.
    But I’m now reading Spook Country and I don’t think ayone would claim that Stross is a stylist in the way that Gibson overtly is, (though actually I thought a couple of Gibson’s early books were quite badly written).

  12. Cliff: Like several other posters in this thread, I guess I must be looking for something different in my SF than you are. I’m all in favour of novels that place a strong emphasis on characterisation, as I said in my review of Stross (linked higher up in this thread); I’m equally (perhaps more) keen on thematics, style, and plot. But I’m also well aware that SF/F has other priorities, and one of them is creating the texture of an imaginary/extrapolated world *for its own sake* – not just as a servant of, or a pretty background to, these other elements. That’s a large part of its appeal.

    A Western novel doesn’t need to establish the physics of a gunfight, only to describe the course of a given gunfight; we’ve all seen enough Western films to get the gist, and in genre terms it’s extraneous detail, adding nothing to the story being told. Within SF, however, such detail can be integral. SF novels *do* have to lay the groundwork of what is possible and permissable within their settings, because those settings only exist somewhere between current scientific theories and the writer’s imagination.

    Detail that doesn’t advance character or plot isn’t intrinsically a technical flaw, it’s just an aspect of the genre that can be done well or badly – like anything else.

  13. I’ve had SF readers explain to me, in other forums, that they’re really not interested in technically proficient writing, they’re looking for authors who come up with neat ideas/concepts or escapist fiction. They state this a bit defensively and then some go on to insist (as Ms. Russ seems to) that the same aesthetic and critical scrutiny that mainstream fiction is subjected to shouldn’t be directed at genre fiction. That kind of attitude has rationalized mediocre writing for too long: over-stuffed prose, short stories with cool central ideas stretched into 300 manuscript pages (the great thing about info dumps is that they take up a lot of room). I’d like to see more critical thinking from SF readers, editors, reviewers, I’d like them reading further afield, familiarizing themselves with the best literary writing out there, the guys and gals pushing the envelope, bursting genre constraints and speaking in authentic voices. Good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre involved. The same rules of grammar and syntax apply and word choice delineates a rank amateur from a writer of stature. Hacks have tin ears and some authors can make music with three syllables. I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Stross, I enjoy his writing immensely. But he’s not perfect and I think, honest chap that he is, he’d be the first to brush off the slightest impression of infallibility…

  14. Cliff: you seem to be working on the premise that only SF does info-dumping.
    I can think of examples from the ‘mainstream’ where pages are spent setting scenes with supposed historical verisimilitude, geographical sense of place, and technical detail. Thomas Harris has two pages in The Silence Of The lambs on preparing a body for skinning, for instance. Salman Rushdie spends whole chapters building up Indian history for the reader, Jim Dodge details the various forms of poker, Sarah Hall the preparation of tattooing equipment. Examples of good and bad info-dumping are everywhere.

  15. Cliff, you seem to be going round in circles a bit. What the others are arguing, I think, is that creating an sf environment is a technical challenge different to that involved in recreating the world that’s already around us, and that portraying that environment can therefore involve technical solutions not found in “mainstream fiction”. So it’s not that sf readers aren’t interested in technically proficient writing, but they’re looking for different areas of technical proficiency. Obviously this can be done badly — anything can be done badly. But you haven’t yet convinced me that just doing it is a bad thing.

    Andrew, thanks for the comment. We have slightly different Stross rankings; I thought Singularity Sky (and Iron Sunrise) were very definitely second-tier Stross, and was much more impressed by Accelerando and The Atrocity Archives. I’m still mulling over my opinion of Halting State, though as I said in the post, I think it throws Stross’s strengths (creating a future) and weaknesses (creating people in that future — although these people are probably his most convincing to date) into relief.

    “This kind of reek of authenticity” is a central point, I think. There’s an assumed audience of people who *do* get the references, and that’s something that comes through in the whole mindset of Stross’s fiction, not just the technical details. I do find that interesting, because I don’t think there are many other writers approaching that demographic, and it’s a mindset that casts interesting light on sf. And though I wouldn’t claim Stross a stylist in the same rank as Gibson either, I do think there’s something special about the way he’s adapting and using geek idiom. Ultimately, though, the test has to be not whether, say, programmers recognise Jack as a convincing programmer but whether non-programmers come away from the book with a sense of how “being a programmer” is a part of Jack’s identity, and there I can’t really speak; I’m not a programmer, but I know enough to know that Jack rings true. (Which is another reason to wish for a wider range of reviewers to tackle the book.)

  16. Niall, I certainly find the bedsit, caffeine-fuelled, crap-T shirt kind of aspect of his programmers completely convincing (and, funnily enough, kind of attractive). I think that may be part of what you get with any description of a closed world. I’m not, and wouldn’t want to be, eg, gay, a Freemason or Amish, but I am very nosey, so I find those worlds and lives fascinating. Of course, that’s what I do for a living in the day job: one minute I’m writing about a particle physicist, the next a circus clow, or a rapper, or a war hero. But it’s what I think most people go to fiction for. It’s the equivalent of travelling on a train and looking in people’s windows at night and wodering what sort of lives they have. I just don’t know whther you need *more* than enough to give you the flavour; coversely, if you do, I think it has to be clear enough for the most ignorant audience (and when it comes to programming, that’s me)

  17. Cliff, are you suggesting that I (or Adam Roberts, or the other posters here, or Joanna Russ) aren’t exercising critical thinking by our attitude to sf, and that we’re not acquainted with literature outside the genre?

  18. It will therefore appear to stray into all sorts of extraliterary fields: metaphysics, politics, philosophy, physics, biology, psychology, topology, mathematics, history, and so on.

    Doesn’t all literature do this?

  19. Niall: Yes, The Carhullan Army is one of the books I’m most eagerly awaiting at present. I’m not overly surprised she’s gone that route, both Haweswater and Electric Michelangelo had moments I felt were close to alternative history, and the latter felt near slipstream occasionally. (Hey there’s a new genre slip-slsipstream!) She is a superb novelist.

  20. Graham:

    My comments on the state of SF writing are general and not directed toward particular individuals in this forum. I admit to having little affinity for Ms. Russ, a glitch on the literary scene (does ANYBODY read her any more?) so her remarks in defense of the field carry little weight with me. Posters on any site range from the intelligent to the moronic–and I’ve certainly encountered both when discussing various points of view. I’m a writer who’s been published in literary journals, anthologies and genre publications so I’ve seen “both sides now” (as Joni Mitchell states). I’ve been a professional author for over 20 years with accompanying credentials. My perspective is not simply an attempt to lob mortar bombs into the enemy camp–it is a heartfelt belief that SF scribes and their readers should be working harder, demanding better WRITING, more original and innovative work (whether in books, films, television, etc). SF, on the other hand, is in far better shape than fantasy and, especially, the horror genre, which has never really recovered from the inanities of the splatter writers. A topic for another time, perhaps…

  21. Mister Burns, I feel confident in saying that the people with whom you are debating are absolutely, one and all, concerned with quality of sf writing. While you may well have heard responses in other forums from people who do not value good writing, and from people so browbeaten by genre ghettoization that they have ceded literary virtues for what they feel is a safer position from which to argue, those are not the people or values you are engaging here.

    Your argument has been engaged. Commenters have made substantive counter-arguments attacking the close coupling you have drawn between exposition and literary demerit. Particularly they have made positive claims for the necessity of it in light of certain sf ambitions. It is an argument predicated (to my mind, my sense of it) on a view of sf that values examination of ideas that can be derived from our immediate experience of qualia only through a long chain of cognitive tools.

    You’ve made two comments that seem to relate to the points made. That the arguments raised have been used to rationalize bad prose, and that you are not impressed by Joanna Russ. The first has little relevance unless you are asserting that those arguing against you are rationalizing bad prose. That amounts to asserting they are either deluded about the necessity of sfnal exposition, or that they are arguing in bad faith, throwing up this smokescreen to hide from your literary scalpel of reason. Neither possibility constitutes an engagement of the argument’s merits. As to your disdain for Joanna Russ, that does not comprise a rebuttal.

    Perhaps it is true that when present in mainstream literature, exposition is a clear marker of literary poverty. However, the assertion here is that in the speculative fiction context, it is a tool which produces genuine product. That’s the argument you need to engage seriously if you don’t want to look as if you’re merely reasserting a revealed truth.

    I’d be interested in seeing that argument. At the moment however, you look like you’re just trying to ignore (or trivialize via caricature) the points scored against you. We’re all friends of quality here, or at least wish to be, and that deserves serious engagement.

  22. I’ve scanned my responses to see where I might have given the impression that I believe those who have disagreed with me in this forum are “deluded about the necessity of sfnal exposition, or that they are arguing in bad faith, throwing up this smokescreen to hide from your literary scalpel of reason” .

    I actually agree that substantive points have been raised and engaged.

    In science fiction exposition produces genuine literary product? Well, see, there I think you might find some disagreement. Stross admits in his article that info dumps can be badly handled (Peter Watts would concur)–do you disagree?

    I trivialize no one and, again, find your last comments puzzling. Where have I not seriously engaged? Where have I trivialized?

  23. Cliff: “In science fiction exposition produces genuine literary product? Well, see, there I think you might find some disagreement. Stross admits in his article that info dumps can be badly handled”

    The operative word here, surely, is *can*. Which is what several of us having been saying all along – exposition, like any other literary technique, can be done well or badly, but is not inherently and automatically bad, and may in fact be necessary for genre writing.

    As to trivialising: does this ring any bells?

    “I’d like to see more critical thinking from SF readers, editors, reviewers, I’d like them reading further afield, familiarizing themselves with the best literary writing out there,”

    Dismissing your discussants’ reading tastes in one fell (and, needless to say, inaccurate) swoop, and thereby implying that they have no grounds to hold a valid opinion on the subject in hand – does that not sound just a little like trivialising, to you…?

  24. Nic:

    As I indicated, the comments I made, the ones you quoted, were general remarks and not relating to particular people (i.e. folks in this circle). Do you feel, in general, the statement was inaccurate re: average science fiction fans? Tell me why and I’ll keep an open mind.

    I’m expressing an opinion in the “Good Science = Bad Fiction” essay (and my responses in this forum) but, as I’ve said, it’s an informed one, not some rant from a guy on a soapbox with bats in his hair. Exposition is a big bug-bear of mine, to the extent that some reviewers complain my stories and novellas end too soon or don’t provide enough details. I prefer a minimalist approach to fiction and bristle when I see the bloated and over-written offerings clogging the bookshelves. It’s “Show, don’t tell”, remember? Regardless of the genre involved…

  25. Cliff: Many fans of any form of writing are devoted only to that form, but they aren’t the ones who read blogs like this, articles like yours, because they don’t fit that form either.

    However a cursory glance at this blog you are commenting in reveals a readership intensely familiar with contemporary literary fiction in all its forms. To dismiss those readers so casually is to invalidate your own readings by your apparent unawareness of the range not only of SF itself (since Charles Stross is hardly typical) but of SF readership.

  26. Is anyone aware of an critical attention for the books of Stross? I’m interested in SF literary criticism but haven’t seen anything related to the work of Stross.

  27. Kev:

    Where do I “dismiss” the readers of this blog? And where do I display my “unawareness of the range of SF”? Simply because I draw attention to some of its shortcomings?

    I’ve got the credentials to make comments and assertions relating to the genre. I feel it’s my duty as a writer, reader, fan to speak out about problems where I see them. I know of one reviewer who admitted to me privately that he/she rarely reads anything any more that they know they aren’t going to like…largely because of backlash from the community when this critic has reviewed a book negatively. Is that the state of the genre? What will such attitudes have on critical thinking and improving the overall quality of writing?

    Disagree with me if you like but at least characterize my arguments properly and address specific points that bother you, that you feel can be effectively rebutted.
    I look forward to hearing your thoughts…

  28. Cliff: “As I indicated, the comments I made, the ones you quoted, were general remarks and not relating to particular people (i.e. folks in this circle).”

    Fair enough. But you can see, can’t you, why – in the course of telling a bunch of SF fans on an SF-oriented blog that you think SF is full of bad writing – saying that SF fans need to read some non-SF Literature so they’ll get a clue *might* be taken as somewhat dismissive and patronising? (even with your later disclaimer)

    “Exposition is a big bug-bear of mine, […] It’s “Show, don’t tell”, remember? Regardless of the genre involved…”

    And here is where we’ll just have to agree to disagree. :-) It’s my opinion that what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writing really depends on what the form and purpose of said writing is – there may be substantial overlap, but different genres and traditions have different aims. Just as writing produced in other centuries and other cultures can (should) also be held to the standards they were written for: e.g., would you apply ‘show not tell’ to Virgil? Cervantes? Austen?

    (To reiterate, that’s not to say that there’s no such thing as bad writing, only that the goalposts for such can be in different places – and, furthermore, that any set of goalposts can be kicked over to interesting effect. Your comment about syntax way up the thread just made me think – Joyce? Kerouac? etc)

    Like I said, agree to disagree…

  29. Cliff: You dismiss us when you write this:
    I’d like to see more critical thinking from SF readers, editors, reviewers, I’d like them reading further afield, familiarizing themselves with the best literary writing out there, the guys and gals pushing the envelope, bursting genre constraints and speaking in authentic voices.

    The implication is clearly that you don’t believe we do this.
    You make it worse when you say your comments aren’t aimed at anyone in particular but are general comments because then it includes us all.

  30. Cliff: “I know of one reviewer who admitted to me privately that he/she rarely reads anything any more that they know they aren’t going to like…largely because of backlash from the community when this critic has reviewed a book negatively. Is that the state of the genre?

    Is that a rhetorical question? Let’s pretend not; let’s answer it … no, that’s not the state of the genre. Did you read the review linked in Niall’s original post under my name? Would you characterise that as a positive review? Stross has plenty of passionate fans, and friends in the world of sf, and that review received no backlash. Indeed, I saw Stross at the last Clarke awards and he omitted to knock me to the ground with his big meaty fists. I review a fair bit, sometimes in a pretty biting way, and I’ve never yet been been lashed back. My sense is that there’s a far freer to-and-fro of sometimes vigorous opinion in sf than in literature more generally. It’s one of the things I like about the genre.

  31. Kev:

    Do you consider yourself “average” SF fans, editors, writers, fans or do you have higher aspirations than that? I’ve been accused of being an elitist and I have no problem with that–I am not a “:general” reader and I’m hoping the folks in this forum aren’t either. Up to you how you see yourselves but please don’t try reading my intentions and motivations. I didn’t sign on and respond on this site just to kick around SF geeks or show my superiority. I had something to say, something to contribute to the discussion and I did so.

    If you would rather I not continue to comment, it’s your blog and you can tell me to move along and I will be happy to accede. It’s been interesting but I’ve got other projects on the go and time is at a premium around here.

    Good luck with your discussions and speculations…

  32. Adam:

    Sorry, I must have been writing as you posted.

    I would disagree quite strongly that there’s a “far freer to and fro of sometimes vigorous opinion in SF than in literature more generally”. Not in my experience, bucko. Folks like Patrick and Teresa Nielson Hayden flew into a rage when they read my “Good Science = Bad Fiction” piece and I was nailed with hate mail and invective from their crowd for some time.

    There have been ugly discussions in other forums too (on “Librarything”, etc.). Few people were defending my right to speak out on the state of the genre, most took on that clever debating tactic of “Oh yeah? Well, you suck!”. Interestingly, though, I have received private communications from writers and others who have told me they agree with my contentions and support the bulk of what I’m saying.

    I reviewed for a magazine some years back and can remember getting nasty letters and communications passed on to me through third parties re: some of the negative critiques I made.

    I don’t think the SF community is tolerant, Adam, I’m afraid our experiences don’t jibe at all. Still, as Nic says, agree to disagree and all that. And, Nic, in terms of syntax (and everything else) Kerouac was a wanker, Joyce a genius.

    See? I say rotten things about mainstream authors too…

  33. Cliff,

    I’m in a rush here; but I assume that your reference to Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden is at least in part about what happened on this open thread on Making Light. (For speed-readers: Cliff’s posts are nos 133, 137, 151, and there’s some more general discussion by others of his essay around that point; PNH’s response is at 146, TNH’s is 813.)

  34. David: I don’t know of any criticism on Stross that goes beyond review-level — not that some of the reviews out there aren’t very good, mind, my comments in the original post notwithstanding.


    If you would rather I not continue to comment, it’s your blog and you can tell me to move along and I will be happy to accede.

    Well, it’s my blog, and I’m not going to tell you to go anywhere. But if you do decide to hang around, I have to say I would prefer it if you made fewer sweeping generalisations (about “average sf fans” or anything else) and more specific comments about the points at hand.

    I have to say my experience of critical discussion in sf is more in line with Adam’s than it is with yours. Mind you, when I come across “Oh yeah? Well, you suck!” reactions, I tend not to file them under critical discussion.

  35. Folks:

    I cringed when I followed your link to the Nielson-Hayden site. I had no idea the discussion proceeded like it did after I made my hasty exit, followed by hoarse cries of “Blog pimp! Blog pimp!”.

    This is pretty vile stuff–the defensiveness and anger just kind of radiate off the screen, don’t they? Erm. Well. Nothing further to say on this front except: Adam, Niall, perhaps now you better understand what I’m talking about when i say that my experience with SF fans/readers/ writers/editors is somewhat different than yours.

    Shit. This Nielson-Hayden stuff is going to creep me out for awhile…

  36. Cliff: I tend to object when anybody categorises any disparate group in such a sweeping way as you initailly did. That is the problem we seem to have here. Most of the commenters on this blog are widely read, tolerant, narrow-minded, wrongheaded, open, liberal, passionate, apathetic, highly-qualified, ignorant, and many more things at different times. I know that many SF fans are fiercely protective of ‘their genre’ or ‘their authors’ when an apparent outsider comes blazing in, even as they may make the same comments within the circle themselves. I know that you think you were being constructive and you wonder why I reacted against that, but as I hope has been demonstrated it was the manner of your comments, their widescreen prejudice rather than specific reasoned commentary, that alienated me from what may be very valid points in some instances (but not all.)

    Now, lets look at specifics as Niall says, and maybe this discussion will prove productive after all?

    You condemn the ‘bloated and over-written’ and I can appreciate the sentiment, and yet at the same time I can see how some of my favourite writers would be described that way and that is one of the things I love about them. Nabokov, for instance, is one of the funniest writers I know in his long, convoluted, grandiose sentences. Thomas Wolfe’s huge, structureless, sprawling novels somehow reflect life in that very sprawl. In other hands this virtue is a failing. And that is true of many aspects of many writers styles including Charles Stross as our case at hand, whose sheer exuberance of idea generation is sometimes enough to overcome the clumsiness of the infodump. Perhaps that pause is even necessary given the breakneck speed he sometimes throws the reader around.

  37. I honestly can’t imagine why you might get a strong reaction to a post which declares that all fantasy writers are terrible, their readers are airheads and twats, that publishers and editors are barely sentient, and postulates that most SF writers have never had sex.

    I agree with your central point that some science fiction books spend too much time talking about the science and background research of the author to the detriment of the book, and I think a lot of the commenters here would agree with you, but there are better ways to make your argument than broad generalisations about all SF writers and readers.

  38. LIz:

    In the very first posting on my blog I talk about “hyperbole” and “satire” and I think you’ll find some of both in just about every piece on my blog (including the fiction). This means my work certainly isn’t for all tastes–any strong point of view (regardless of wording) is bound to offend somebody. Later in that Introductory post, I also mention my affection for people like Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, guys who liked it pretty far out there on the edge. Humor via scalpel…or meat-axe.

    Kev, I understand you might have some misgivings as to my purpose for popping up here, dissing SF and its acolytes. But I don’t think I’m an outsider…I’ve been around more than two decades, publishing professionally around the world. I guess to be fair I’m not really a SF writer, just somebody who borrows the props and terminology. I suppose I’m more of a fabulist. But I have earned my chops in the genre, anthology appearances, etc.
    and I do have very high expectations for the field, what it offers at its very best…

  39. Cliff: Hyperbole and satire? Or just gratuitous insults? Its a very fine line and without context how do we know which side you stand?
    I don’t know if you are an outsider or not, I’ve never heard of you I’m afraid, but what I said was ‘apparent outsider’ which is how you came across.
    As someone else who has been reviewing and writing about SF for two decades now, (a significantly shorter career than many of those you have been in discussion with here or elsewhere, incidentally.) I too have very high expectations for the field. I don’t see how sweeping generalisations acheive those expectations.

  40. “Is anyone aware of an critical attention for the books of Stross? I’m interested in SF literary criticism but haven’t seen anything related to the work of Stross.”

    I gave a paper at ICFA last year comparing Stross’ “Glasshouse” with Egan’s “Schild’s Ladder” in the matter of post-human gender, and I think it will be showing up in NYRSF sometime. But that is a very narrowly scoped piece, and certainly doesn’t take up wider issues of Stross’ body of work.

    I have to say that I’ve enjoyed Stross more when he focuses on plot, such as “Singularity Sky,” “Atrocity Archives” and the Merchant Princes series. When he does that his interesting ideas seem to flow a little more naturally than when he’s in pure info-overload mode in “Accelerando.” That has its place of course, and it’s an interesting stylistic choice to just hit you over the head with future-shock, but I did find it hard to read compared to his other stories.

    I haven’t read “Halting State” yet, so I’m a bit jealous.

  41. This weird stuff on the Nielsen Hayden site got me thinking and I dug around and found a quote that I think is appropriate. It’s from Martin Rees, a Brit scientist some of you folks are likely familiar with:

    “(The internet) is allowing all of us to ‘filter’ our input…Rather than sharing experience with those whose attitudes and tastes are different, many will in future live in echo chambers of their own design and need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Without any difficulty, you are able to see exactly what you want to see, no more and no less…there is a danger that (the internet) promotes isolation and allows us (if we choose) to evade the every day contacts that would unavoidably bring us up against conflicting views. Sunstein discusses ‘group polarization’ whereby those who interact only with the like-minded have their prejudices and obsessions reinforced, and shift towards more extreme positions…”

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