Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Bobble, bobble, toil & trouble

Posted by John Holbo on 07/17/05 at 05:11 AM

Lest Theory's Empire fatigue set in ... something light.

I am plotting one more big post about the volume, but I don't want to deprive the posts we've got of attention they deserve. Speaking of which, don't miss Brad DeLong's unsolicited contribution to our forum, "Two Months Before the Mast of Post-Modernism".

And now for something completely different ...

Last night I relaxed with an old Vernor Vinge paperback, The Peace War. What I am about to quote will do for plot summary, but I cannot refrain from noting Amazon's collation of the books 'statistically improbable phrases': bobble generators, bobble burst, been bobbled, sortie craft, banana wagon.

Our heroes - rebels, known as the Tinkers - are creeping as close as they can to the sinister Peace Authority's main bobble generator; concealed in their banana wagon, they reflect on the oddity of their situation ... and here Homer nods.

Wili was reminded of some of the twentieth-century fantasies Bill Morales liked to watch. These last few days - and hopefully the next few as well - were like Lucas' Lord of the Rings. Mike had even called Mission Pass the "front door" last night. Beyond these mountains (actually low hills) lay the "Great Enemy"'s ultimate redoubt. The mountains hid enemy underlyings that watched for the hobbits or elves (or Tinkers) who must sneak through to the plains beyond, who must go right into the heart of evil and perform some simple act that would bring victory.

The similarity went further. This enemy had a supreme weapon (the big bobbler hidden in the Valley), but instead depended on earthly servants (the tanks and the troops) to do the dirty work. The Peacers hadn't bobbled anything for the last three days. That was a mystery, though Wili and Paul suspected the Authority was building up power reserves for the battle they saw coming.

There ought to be a name for this slip: foregrounding genre conventions by permitting your characters to notice the oddity of their obedience to them. Minor slips in this vein may be unavoidable. The hero of humble origins who turns out to be a wizard/king/destined to save the world must marvel at the improbability of his fate, though this risks breaking frame by drawing attention to the sheer probability of a well-worn narrative rut. But you needn't go diagramming point by point how you are, in effect, just retrofitting Tolkien with shiny bobbles.

From Brian Aldiss' Billion Year Spree:

Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts. Most frequently, the scientific dressing clothes fantasy. And fantasies are as meaningful as science. The phantasms of technology now fittingly embody our hopes and anxieties.

No shame in that, but decency demands that the dressing stay on.

This post probably makes it sound like I think Vinge is a hack. As a rule, he is a highly competent genre practitioner. 'Bobble' sounds silly, but spread through the novel it is charming (a wink of thought-experimental simplicity.)


"As a rule, he is a highly competent genre practitioner.”

Geez, can anyone really admit to being so evaluative any more?  I’ve actually gone through all of the SF/fantasy/"weird tales” novels that I’ve read (a surprising fraction of the total ever written) in order to produce a scheme of division by quality in order to speed up thinking about which books to recommend, but I thought that this was something that no educated person ever did, or at least admitted to doing.  But Vernor Vinge is male and white, so you can probably get away with (accurately, in my opinion) labeling him a highly competent genre practitioner without getting flack from anyone except certain SF fans.  And it is well-known that SF fans are notoriously non-evaluative, in that no matter how pedestrian the writer, there will be some sub-group of fans that thinks of them as the best of our time (or, rather, that think of every writer as the best of our time).  In that sense fans are just as non-evaluative as literary studies theorists say that people should be.

But we’re supposed to get out of Theory’s Empire mode—the tic of having characters think about genre conventions, though still uncommon, became more common as fantasy became decadent.  (See http://www.strangewords.com/archive/cheap1.html for general decadence of fantasy, though not for particular examples of self-reference).

By on 07/17/05 at 10:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Vinge’s _A Deepness in the Sky_ may be the best space opera of all time…


By on 07/17/05 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree that “Deepness” is a true classic. but I rank higher than Vinge the killer B’s: Bear, Banks and Brin. (No Benford for me, thanks.)

By John Holbo on 07/17/05 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

D.V., a reading of J.V. will show you both the monstrous error of your ways.

By Jonathan on 07/17/05 at 11:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Brad, I really respect your economics writing, but I don’t see why you think that Vinge’s _A Deepness in the Sky_ is so great.  It’s got a truly grating stereotyped bad guy, and is indifferently written in terms of technique.  Let’s see, I turn to the beginning of Chapter 44 at random and find a paragraph that begins with “There is always an angle.” and ends with “For almost twenty years of her life she had played the angles and prospered—if only by the standards of this dump.” Pure stereotype. Iain Banks has written far better space operas that aren’t even in his first rank of work.

John, I have no idea why you like David Brin.  He writes potboilers.

Just to give you a fair chance to scorn my recommendations, if I were going to recommend something in the SF/fantasy/whatever genre to someone who was used to reading literary work and wanted something that could withstand a similar level of evaluation, I’d start with the best works of (in alphabetic order) Iain Banks, James Branch Cabell, Philip K. Dick, Mervyn Peake, and Edgar Allen Poe (this last subject to genre argument of course).  I’d consider John Crowley more if I was recommending individual books rather than authors; the rest of his ouevre doesn’t really stand with _Little, Big_.

By on 07/17/05 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Vernor Vinge quote seems much too heavy-handed, but I think if it’s done better it might avoid being bad. (Does Phillip K. Dick’s “We can remember it for you wholesale” count as an example of this being done well?)

But I agree that usually the characters must not be aware of the genre conventions. If the plot is that a group of teenagers decide to spend the night in a haunted house, they must not have seen any horror films (however implausible this might be).

If I remember correctly, there are no superhero comics in the world of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”.

By on 07/17/05 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Crowley’s “Beasts”, “The Deep” and “Engine Summer” rank pretty high up there, Rich. I like Brin because ... I like potboilers. I think “Kiln People” is extremely well done.

By John Holbo on 07/17/05 at 09:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The Deep” was a really good first novel, but it reads like a first novel.  “Engine Summer” was indeed very good.  “Beasts”, I thought, too heavily reworked his thematic material from “Engine Summer”; how often can you write that you really think that civilization is a bad idea?  Well, often enough, I suppose, but I prefer the mythic treatment of the theme in “Little, Big” to the pseudorational one of “Beasts”.  The “Aegypt"/"Love and Sleep"/"Daemonomania" trilogy, unfortunately, do not add much to the overall value of his work, in my opinion.

As for Brin, he does write competent potboilers; they are amusing.  But there are a huge number of authors who are competent and amusing; that’s why I’ve read so many of these novels, because you need something to read when you’re tired.  “Kiln People” was better than most of his stuff, but on the other hand, he also wrote a postumous extension of Asimov’s Foundation series and boasted about it on a special page on his Web site (http://www.davidbrin.com/foundationbooks.html), an act that screams out “hack” for all to hear.

By on 07/17/05 at 09:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t Elizabeth Bennett very much aware of genre conventions? And isn’t that one of the things that makes _Pride and Prejudice_ so great?

By on 07/18/05 at 12:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere, Brad! These are my favorite sorts of cases, thanks for reminding me Elizabeth Bennett is one. (I can’t say I really remember. It’s been years.) I usually pick more contemporary pop examples like “Unbreakable” and “Galaxy Quest”. Terry Pratchett does it a lot, too. (It’s a classic parody gag, really, but just having Austin Powers deduce what is going to happen next based on his knowledge of the genre isn’t the most interesting case.) Per SusanC’s comment, when Alan Moore isn’t making sure not to let any illegitimate knowledge of genre rules bleed in, he just slices open the vein with “Supreme” and “Tom Strong” and “Top 10” and such.

By John Holbo on 07/18/05 at 03:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I should add that in cases like “Unbreakable” the oddity of the characters coming to realize they are inhabiting a genre is a feature, not a bug. In Vinge’s case, it’s a bug because he isn’t playing any such games.

By John Holbo on 07/18/05 at 03:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The “Aegypt"/"Love and Sleep"/"Daemonomania" trilogy, unfortunately, do not add much to the overall value of his work, in my opinion.

Isn’t this supposed, at some point, to become a tetralogy?

Do you think that late in life, Razumikhin recollected his youth and thought that he really was generally the reasonable reasoning one, and Raskolnikov was rather schismatic?  I was very pleased, when I first read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that Stephen noted his family name.

By ben wolfson on 07/18/05 at 02:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Funny, Brad, the one thing in Deepness that really didn’t work for me was the economics. :)

Talk about slips and marveling at improbabilities; how about the bit where the characters are scratching their heads and saying Gee, theory predicts that our little closed space economy is too small for black marketeering to generate efficiency gains, but somehow—maybe because one of the things the book is trying to be is an advertisement for anarcho-capitalism?—it works!

Back to your Coase, Dr. Vinge…

By David Moles on 07/20/05 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: