… worth considering is the comment that Martin Lewis made in an earlier post of mine. In response to a comment Aidan Moher made about how “the problem doesn’t lie with the bloggers making the list, but rather with the genre as a whole and the manner in which publishers,” Martin said, “It is pretty pathetic to abdicate all responsibility like this.” There is much truth to this. If someone is going to construct a list and presume that said list will have value to others, then that list constructor better damn well be more proactive and thus basing his/her selections on what s/he receives passively from others. While there are certainly some valid arguments that could be made to the notion that reader/reviewers have the right to choose their “favorites,” once any list is presented as reflecting any sort of “authority” (and publicly posting decade’s best list, especially those derived from several who have a privileged relationship with the publishers compared to the average reader), then those reader/reviewers have certain obligations to meet in regards to considering more than their own personal tastes if they want their lists to hold any authority and if they don’t want to be called out for putting blinders on and failing to see just how diverse and wide-ranging speculative fiction (or other genres of literature and material culture, for that matter) really is.
Paul McAuley, The Quiet War (2008):
It took Sri and Alder more than a day to reach him, travelling in stages down a series of elevator shafts, a vertical journey that on Earth would have taken them to the edge of the discontinuity where the continental plates rafted on molten lava. On Europa, it delivered them to a canyon cut into the underside of the ice and filled with air. Huge biome chambers had been excavated on either side of the canyon, and its walls were hung with tiers of platforms gardened with alpine meadows and dwarf pines and furs, jutting out above a silverly halflife membrane that flexed and undulated with the heavy wash of currents beneath. Despite the elaborate seals along the edges of the membrane, a faint curdled-egg odour of hydrogen sulphide leaked in from the anoxic ocean, and although chains of sunlamps brightened the air and panels of ice were tinted with bright, cheerful colours, it was very cold. The older citizens wore long fake-fur coats and tall fake-fur hats, and many of the younger citizens had been cut to give them thick, lustrous coats of fine hair and insulating layers of fat — seal-people with human faces and human hands and feet, clad only in shorts and many-pocketed vests. (125)
Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream (2009):
To one side of the white towers, an arc of pale aquamarine appeared across the whiteness. The stranger led him to this arc, which proved to be a broad rampway cut into the ice, dropping at a very slight angle, down to where it cut under an arch or doorway into a long wide chamber.
They descended; the chamber under the ice roof had broad white doors, like white gates. At the bottom of the ramp they waited before these. Then the gates went transparent, and a group of people dressed in blouses and pantaloons of Jovian hues stood before them, in what seemed a kind of vestibule. The stranger touched Galileo lightly on the back of the arm, led him into this antechamber. They passed under another arch. The group fell in behind them without a word. Their faces appeared to be old but young. The space of the room made a gentle curve to the left, and beyond that they came to a kind of overlook, with broad steps descending before them. From here they could see an entire cavern city stretching to the near horizon, all of it tinted a greenish blue, under a high ceiling of opaque ice of the same colour. The light was subdued, but more than enough to see by; it was quite a bit brighter than the light of the full moon on Earth. A hum or distant roar filled his ears. (51-2)
I’m working on a review of Galileo’s Dream at the moment, and posting these here because I probably can’t justify including two quotes this long, certainly not when one of them isn’t even from the book at hand. But I’m fascinated by them, and how differently they describe what is essentially the same thing — a traveller arriving in an under-ice city on Europa; how they get down, the quality of the space they find themselves in, the nature of the people there. The difference, of course, is the viewpoint character. Both are scientists, but Sri is native to the time, and knows what she’s looking at, whereas Galileo has been whisked forward hundreds of years, and doesn’t. I can’t help feeling you shouldn’t be able to get away with the second one in a work of twenty-first century sf — it’s a tour of utopia (except it’s not utopia); how quaint! — and yet in a sense it works because it’s a work of twenty-first century sf, because we can sense (or impose, if you don’t believe Robinson did the research) the detail beneath the surface that Galileo sees.
Out of interest, which do you prefer?
Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison’s, Leiber’s, Ashton Smith’s and many others’, the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that’s a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen–stories occur–within it.
So dominant is this mode now (as millions of women and men draw millions of maps, and write millions of histories, inventing worlds in which, perhaps, eventually, a few will set stories) that it’s difficult to see what a conceptual shift it represented. And it is so mocked and denigrated–often brilliantly, as in the ferocious attack by M. John Harrison, that outstanding anti-fantasist, wherein he describes worldbuilding as the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism’–that it’s hard to insist that it brings aesthetic and epistemological possibilities to the table that may be valuable and impossible any other way.
This is a debate that needs to be had. These are stories contingent to a world the reader inhabits–full of ‘ideal creations’ that the writer has given, in Tolkien’s words, ‘the inner consistency of reality’. Whatever else it is, that is a strange and unique kind of reading. Tolkien not only performs the trick, indeed arguably inaugurates it, but considers and theorises this process that he calls ‘subcreation’, in his extraordinary essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. It is astounding, and testimony to him, that his ruminations on what is probably now the default ‘fantasy’ mode remain not only seminal but lonely. Whether one celebrates or laments the fact, it is an incredibly powerful literary approach, and the lack of systematic, philosophical and critical attention paid not to this or that example but to ‘subcreation’, world-building, overall, as a technique, is amazing. To my knowledge–and I would be grateful for correction–there is not one book-length theoretical critical work, or collection, investigating the fantastic technique of secondary-world-building–subcreation. This is astounding. In Tolkien, fully 70 years ago, by contrast, we have not only the method’s great vanguard, but still one of its most important and pioneering scholars.
(And four other reasons why “Tolkien rocks”.)
In the TLS, reviewing Anathem. It is not, in my view, a particularly good review; in the first paragraph, he seems to imply that Cryptonomicon is Stephenson’s fourth novel, and refers to the Baroque Cycle as the “Baroque Trilogy”; in the second he asserts that Anathem starts out looking like “high fantasy”, which really isn’t the description I’d choose; and he gives away what’s really going on in the book (a revelation withheld until about two-thirds of the way through which, though it’s not an easy call, I’d say puts it beyond the bounds of discussion in a first-look review) without, in my view, adding any striking insight. It almost seems as though the review is an excuse for him to say this:
One of the great things about (much) science fiction is that its authors really mean it. They do think, for instance, that the human species is doomed to exhaustion and dieback if it does not get itself into space, and soon, while we have the technology and the resources, a window of opportunity shuttered by NASA’s inept bureaucracy. They really do believe that humans could be educated to their full potential and far beyond the levels reached by the tick-the-box grading systems of modern colleges, if we exploited available computer- and nano-technology. To them (some of them) mathematics is not just fiddling with abstractions but a guide to ultimate reality. Some of them think we need never die. In every case, though, there is strong awareness of the obstacles in the way of converting possibility to hard fact, some of them theoretical or technological, but even more of them social, financial, attitudinal.
It’s nice that Shippey likes advocacy-based sf, but it would be even nicer if he realised it’s only one of the strings to sf’s bow. I mean, at the moment it looks like he thinks the many sf writers who don’t believe these things simply write bad sf.
What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.