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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

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Canadian SF “Canon” and the Vexing Case of Margaret Atwood

Posted by Miriam Jones on 05/24/05 at 12:35 AM

Anyone interested in Canadian literature, sf, or, particularly, Canadian sf, is no doubt aware of the periodic controversy that swells up whenever Margaret Atwood is accused of writing science fiction. Atwood is surely too well-read to believe her own statement that science fiction is about “intergalactic space travel, ... teleportation, [and] Martians.” Is her demurral, then, merely a bid to enforce cultural boundaries? To retain the privileges of the “literary” as opposed to the “commercial” writer? Or is she not so much turning her back on genre fiction, as aligning herself with what she perceives as the more current trends within the genre?

To a large extent, it does not matter what she thinks.

Critics, fans, and other writers may grouse about her, but Atwood has received significant affirmation as a writer of science fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 and was a finalist for the Nebula Award. So the question rebounds on sf critics, reviewers, and readers. We have, by and large, accepted Atwood into the fold, albeit kicking and screaming (both her, and us). And why have we done this? Are we taking the moral high ground with a display of magnanimity in the face of ingratitude? Or is it bare-faced literary social-climbing? And are her novels really science fiction anyway? (If they are, they are “mundane” science fiction, to use the term coined by Geoff Ryman and others to indicate science fiction “of the world.”)

I am interested in questions of genre and categorization — critical categorization, and marketing — and Atwood provides an interesting case study. I tend, myself, to use the terms “sf” or “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction,” because they are more inclusive and seem better to reflect changes and expansions in the genre. But to retain such usage when discussing Atwood would only be confusing, as she has admitted to writing “speculative fiction,” by which she means a text that extrapolates from present trends — we can let that sit— while denying that her texts are “science fiction.” She is correct: Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. But not because it falls into the more rarified category of “speculative fiction.” Rather, it is not science fiction because it fails to be so. It has many of the earmarks; it seems to signal its intent: but these are feints.

It does not present a tangible, believable future. For example, Atwood’s neologisms (“wolvog” for a wolf/dog hybrid, for example, or “AnooYoo” as the name of a company that offers rejuvenation products) are frequently jarring, even awkward. Atwood may disdain Madison Ave. but surely she cannot deny that they are slicker than this. It is an astonishing thing to say of an acclaimed stylist, but in this regard, her language lacks wit. And this lack is not merely stylistic; it betokens a larger failure of vision. World-building is something that science fiction has always done, and well; her world is neither convincing in the traditional world-building sense, nor is it comparable to the kaleidoscopic, self-conscious discourses of William Gibson et al. It comes down to this: science fiction, broadly speaking, is a “macro” form: it concerns itself with big questions that are grounded in the shared material reality — physical, social, political, ecological — of this world. Atwood may personally be concerned about such questions, but her fiction usually is not; one may argue, but I think it would be fair to say that she has historically been more interested in characters. Characters in situ, but ultimately singular. Oryx and Crake is no exception. In some ways it is even more narrowly focused than other of her work. Unlike in Alias Grace, for instance, in Oryx and Crake there is only one voice, though that voice changes as the character’s name and situation change. Certainly Snowman’s narrative offers its own dissociative poetry, but it fails to point outwards in the way that similarly singular sf protagonists do (I am thinking here of Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, to choose an extreme example). More egregiously, at least from a genre standpoint — and accepting the definition of science fiction as a “macro” form — Atwood’s plot relies too much on the actions of individuals. This was no doubt her intent: to create characters who are impelled to disrupt the mass consensus under which they live. However, in credible contemporary science fiction — as distinguished from space opera or adventure stories — the world is neither saved, nor destroyed, by isolated hero(ine)s or mad scientists. In this novel, not only do individual actions have irreversible global consequences, but individual actions in a social vacuum. It is more a solipsistic hallucination than a call to action, no matter how many books about the ecology Atwood recommends on the McClelland and Steward Website. Oryx and Crake is more a parable and the science-fictional elements merely trappings, for, as John Clute points out, Atwood’s vision of technological and cultural trends is both static and retro. In a strange twist Oryx and Crake is speculative fiction that is probably less appealing to most habitual readers of the genre, than to a more general audience. And in that sense, Atwood is positioning herself just right.

[Full disclosure: I am going to a sf conference early next month, where I will be taking about Atwood. So any comments, unless you tell me otherwise, may be used, with full acknowledgement of course.

Cross-posted on my blog.]


Comments

Atwood ought not be taken too seriously, esp. on the basis of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is only speculative in the way that all derivative works written 50 years after-the-fact are derivative.  I can’t believe the situation’s come to pass in which I could hawk Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night twice in one week, but it has: The Handmaid’s Tale is a terrible attempt to recreate the harsh realities Burdekin presaged in some abstract, ahistorical feminist re-visitation of territory already well traversed by Kafka.  (And yes, I said all that to avoid the adjective “Kafka-esque.") Atwood is a hack, and unlike P.K. Dick or a number of other talented hacks, she’s not even all that talented.  She revises the work of an author who should belong in every feminist and historicist revisionist canon of early 20th century literature...and then accepts the critical plaudits, most of which focus on the conceptual framework she “borrowed” straight from Burdekin, without mentioning Burdekin’s name?  (She also borrows heavily from the Swedish writer Karin Boye’s Kallocain, but I’m not indicting Atwood for doing her homework, only for not citing the works that’ve influenced her.)

I actually worked up a substantial essay on the competing influences of Atwood-mania and feminist-revivalism on the re-reception of Burdekin follwing Swastika Night‘s publication by the Feminist Press.  I’m more venting than arguing here, but I think that all discussions of Atwood ought to include the caveat that she derives from a tradition of feminist literature the very material she’s applauded for “creating” by mainstream publications.  And before anyone asks, yes I once loved Fugazi…

By A. Cephalous on 05/24/05 at 02:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The argument about whether Author X is “really” science fiction, like most arguments, is two definitions warring for possession of a single term.  Literary-minded science fiction fans want science fiction to mean “science fiction as analytic category”: if a work has a certain subject matter that is recognizably science fiction, then that work is science fiction.  Literary authors who reject the label and less-literary-minded fans who embrace the label mean “science fiction as genre”:  a continuous tradition of writers and readers who share expectations about narrative and stylistic gestures.  Both definitions are right, but acknowledging that has not stopped an argument yet.

By Walt Pohl on 05/24/05 at 04:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’m more venting than arguing here, but I think that all discussions of Atwood ought to include the caveat that she derives from a tradition of feminist literature the very material she’s applauded for “creating” by mainstream publications.”

Frankly, I’m appalled by this suggestion.  Aside from the simpleminded view of tradition and intertextuality (within genre fiction streams in particular) it implies, I fail to see why any author be held responsible for things written by others about her work.  Should all discussions of Philip K. Dick also include a similar caveat about his borrowings from Burdekin (in “The Man in the High Castle")?  If not, why not?

By Laura on 05/24/05 at 06:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A. Cephalous, I haven’t read much Atwood, but your vent appears to be rather questionable.  First of all, on PKD as “talented hack”.  Do you mean in this as a sort of recapitulation of Stanislaw Lem’s line of criticism of PKD, all the stuff about him being a naive craftman hawking his wares by the side of the road, and using junk to transcend junk?  Or do you mean that his work doesn’t have literary merit?  Because I think that if any American writer in the second half of the 20th century deserves canonization, PKD does.  PKD’s books always used to be sold with this fatuous blurb from U.K. LeGuin that he was “our Borges”.  If you have to do that kind of meaningless comparison, then I’d say that he’s not our Borges, he’s our Tolstoy.

Secondly, the bits about borrowing, especially:
“She also borrows heavily from the Swedish writer Karin Boye’s Kallocain, but I’m not indicting Atwood for doing her homework, only for not citing the works that’ve influenced her.” How do you know that this work has influenced her?  Why couldn’t it be that both writers were influenced by an earlier writer, or that both were influenced by the zeitgeist?  Umberto Eco lays out these issues very simply in “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence”, collected in _On Literature_.

By on 05/24/05 at 09:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s a fun moment when “I don’t write that awful sci-fi stuff” gets the response “You’re not good enough.” But genre-in genre-out arguments can waste so much time.... I don’t keep a comprehensive enough library to have examples at hand, but I believe we could find some published-as-sf books and stories with all the characteristics you call out in Atwood. I remember encountering plenty of stillborn neologisms, the tritely character-centered, and the sentimentally heroic over the years. I think Atwood could be published as sf if she wanted to, but she’s enough of an edge case that she doesn’t have to. So why should she? As you say, such edge cases are likely to be found more daring when published as mainstream fiction than as sf or fantasy.

Thank you for the link to Clute’s review, by the way.

By Ray Davis on 05/24/05 at 09:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The idea that fiction writers of any kind should footnote or credit anyone else strikes me as odd.

Regarding feminism, I heard Atwood read ~25 years ago when she was just a poet, and when first-wave feminism was still a presence, and she claimed then that feminism and what she was doing were like parallel lines going in the same direction, but never meeting.

I have the feeling that she moved from poetry (where she was very highly regarded) to fiction because she got tired of writing for tiny audiences of very similiar, rather depressed people. Of course, her switch brought her money and fame, but I can’t blame her at all.

The idea that fiction writers of any kind should footnote or credit anyone else strikes me as odd.

Regarding feminism, I heard Atwood read ~25 years ago when she was just a poet, and when first-wave feminism was still a presence, and she claimed then that feminism and what she was doing were like parallel lines going in the same direction, but never meeting.

I have the feeling that she moved from poetry (where she was very highly regarded) to fiction because she got tired of writing for tiny audiences of very similiar, rather depressed people. Of course, her switch brought her money and fame, but I can’t blame her at all. (I remember her as having a regal presence.)

She had a queenly presence.

By John Emerson on 05/24/05 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Cut-and-paste error, sorry.

By John Emerson on 05/24/05 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura,

The computer I have all the Atwood material is currently being used as a table, so I can’t cite the particular interviews in which she accepts, as the basis for answering a question, interviewers’ appraisal of The Handmaid’s Tale.  She’s read and knows Burdekin’s work, but never credits her.  Compare that to, say, Jonathan Lethem’s open acknowledgement of his influences in “The Beards”: “The work I’ve chosen bears a suspicious resemblance to the rooms [of bookshelves] themselves.  My prose is a magpie’s.  Perhaps anyone’s writing is ultimately bricolage, a welter of borrowings.  But, of the writers I know, I’ve been the most eager to point out my influences, to spoil the illusion of originality by elucidating my fiction’s resemblance to my book collection.”

It’s not that she belongs to a tradition, or that she borrows from a tradition...what bothers me is that appropriates the framework of an earlier, then-forgotten novel, works that material with a similar polemical point in mind, but never credits Burdekin.  For the sake of clarity, an example: Someone rewrites 1984 from Julia’s perspective.  That’d be acceptable.  Someone rewrites 1984 from Winston’s perspective, acknowledges having read Orwell, but then accepts all the accolades that accompany his or her vision of a dystopian future, etc. etc.  Not acceptable.  To my mind, that borders on intellectual dishonesty.

Rich,

I meant “talented hack” as an unabashed complement. 

As for how I know the work influenced Atwood, it’s because she’s mentioned in it interviews she’s given and essays she’s written...but never in reference to The Handmaid’s Tale.  The situation’s akin to catching a student plagiarizing a paragraph, sitting down with him or her, then listening as every single sentence in the essay is justified...except for the ones that’ve been plagiarized.  I admit that this bothers me on a gut level--hence the threat of descent into book-chat--because I absolutely loved The Handmaid’s Tale when I first read it, and felt betrayed as I read Swastika Night

As for zeitgeist, as an academic I favor historicist models that capture the individuality of a historical moment.  I’m not a fan Geistesgeschichte, and consider the broad sweeps taken by, say, Marxist or Foucauldian “historicists” intellectually lazy.  I’m not a fan of cherry-picking the historical record to spin politically convenient (academically) whig histories.  (Not that that’s what you’re advocating.)

By A. Cephalous on 05/24/05 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The idea that fiction writers of any kind should footnote or credit anyone else strikes me as odd.

John, while I agree with this in principle, I think the practice of speculative fiction almost demands citation.  When ideas drive narrative to the extent that they do in Swastika Night, The Handmaid’s Tale, Blood Music, or almost anything by Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, etc., citation may not be altogether a horrible idea.  At the very least, a preface or afterward that acknowledges the debt would be nice.  As many writers value originality as craftsmanship, and although I understand why one would consider the ideas more impressive than the craftsmanship, I don’t think there’s any shame in writing novels like, say, Henry James.  (Not that James didn’t have ideas--I’m obviously over-simplifying here--only that his narratives aren’t driven by their development in the way that Dick, Bulter or Bear’s are.) But as long as I’m screeving off the cuff, I may as well declare that when I’m elected King of these United States, all authors of speculative fiction will be required to register their ideas with the…

By A. Cephalous on 05/24/05 at 01:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to make things weirder, Orwell was accused of plagiarizing Zamyatin’s “We” for “1984”, IIRC.

Orwell’s review of Zamyatin

By John Emerson on 05/24/05 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Full disclosure: A couple of years back I taught a course called “The State of the Future” in which the students read Zamyatin, Burdekin and Atwood, as well as Bellamy’s Looking Backward, London’s The Iron Heel, and Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.  I didn’t teach Orwell or Huxley, but they were discussed at length.  The similarities between 1984 and We and The Iron Heel were apparent to the students, but I think they were overwhelmed by the superficial similarities.  Most successful novels are like Joseph Mitchell’s “Old Mr. Flood,” i.e. artful composites.  A bit of this, a bit of that...but The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a composite of multiple other works so much as a portrait of one.  Hence my extreme irritation with critics who praise Atwood for Burdekin’s conceptual labor (and with Atwood for accepting that praise).

By A. Cephalous on 05/24/05 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I unabaashedly recommend Plotnitsky’s Complementarity.

And Rich, I don’t recall Lem being as condescending to Dick as you seem to indicate. Are you referring to the piece in Microworlds?

By Jonathan on 05/24/05 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yep, Microworlds.  From “Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case—with Exceptions”:

“Trash is present everywhere in Dick’s books; from time to time, though, in some of his novels, he succeeds in executing a master stroke.  I am convinced that he made this discovery unconciously and unintentionally.  [...] In this way, he makes trash battle against trash.”

From “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans”:

“A second characteristic trait of Dick’s work, after its ambiguity as to genre, is its tawrdriness, being reminiscent of the goods offered at country fairs by primitive craftsmen who are at once clever and naive, possessed of more talent than self-knowledge.”

By on 05/24/05 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I don’t think that’s as condescending as you indicated.

Dick did report Suvin, Jameson, and god knows who else to the FBI, you know. And Lem was the smartest man in Poland at the time (possibly still is, but you’d need to bring in a qualified psychometrician to assess this).

By Jonathan on 05/24/05 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A. Cephalous, I guess I can see how you meant “talented hack” as an unabashed complement, but I don’t think that most people would.  I also don’t think that it really is accurate when you consider Dick’s biography.  He wanted to write literary fiction, turned out six or so early novels, had no sales, and decided to go with whatever would let him continue to write.  He was forced to be commercial, yes, but so were many other writers who ended up writing high quality work.  The normal meaning of “hack” is “a person who works solely for mercenary reasons” or “a writer who aims solely for commercial success”, and I don’t think that is true of PKD.

As for Atwood, are you sure as a matter of fact that “she’s mentioned in it interviews she’s given and essays she’s written” that were done *before* she wrote A Handmaid’s Tale?  I think it’s also possible that she wrote A Handmaid’s Tale first and had people tell her “oh, Katherine Burdekin wrote something similar” afterward.

By on 05/24/05 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, here is the sum total of what I wrote in characterizing Lem on this aspect of PKD: “all the stuff about him being a naive craftsman hawking his wares by the side of the road, and using junk to transcend junk”.  I came up with one quote for the naive craftsman part (although I misremembered the country fair as the side of the road), and one for the junk to transcend junk part.  If you want to read the original as not as condescending as my summary, well anyone can read any text in whatever way they like, but I summarized that aspect of Lem on PKD accurately. 

Lem is a great writer and one of SF’s best critics, and I’m not saying that he’s precisely wrong about PKD.  I had just thought that Lem’s views might be what motivated the “talented hack” comment.

I don’t see how the history of PKD’s paranoia matters in whether Lem was being condescending or not.  As far as I remember, PKD actually directly attacked Lem, and it was a very big controversy at the time, but again as far as I remember, I think that Lem had written the Microworlds essays before that.

By on 05/24/05 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All I know of Lem is his story about the world’s stupidest, most short-tempered computer.

By John Emerson on 05/24/05 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

An unbold statement: PKD’s early work--Mary and the Giant, Puttering About in a Small Land, Broken Bubble, and Confessions of a Crap Artist--surpasses his later work in all those qualities associated with literary instead of speculative fiction.  (Just as Bijou, the French adaptation of Confessions of a Crap Artist, surpasses all PKD adaptations not helmed by Ridley Scott.) That claim isn’t sufficiently deficient, however, so let me say that I’ve read all 44 of the published novels, and of them, I can only vividly remember the earliest, latest, and the first one I read (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch).  I think this is because as fertile as his middle-period was from a quantitative standpoint, from a qualitative, the novels suffer from insufficient intellectual digestion and editorial revision; that is, they’re only intermittantly brilliant.  Thus “talented hack.” Who knows what those middle-period books would’ve been like had he the “luxury” of revision.

The Atwood interview in question was from ‘91 or ‘92 (around the time of the Schlöndorff adaptation) and in it she stated that she had read Constantine’s Swastika Night as a teenager and that it had made an indelible impression on her.  (Burdekin had written under the pseudonym “Murray Constantine.") The interviewer, unfamiliar with Burdekin’s book, moved on to ask about The Handmaid’s Tale and Atwood talked about how she had created the Republic of Gilead ex nihilo, etc.  I’m unreasonably harsh, I understand that, but if it’s any consolation, I feel much the same way about Barthes’ innovative conception of “The Death of the Author” and the intentional fallacy.

By A. Cephalous on 05/24/05 at 04:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All I know of Lem is his story about the world’s stupidest, most short-tempered computer.

“Trurl’s Electronic Bard,” which I first read with face full-pimpled and voice all a-crack, remains a favorite.  If you’ll permit a cheap shot, this description is appropos not only of “homeostatic Homers,” but of, uh, other people too:

“The machine was self-programming, however, and in addition had a special ambition-amplifying mechanism with glory-seeking circuits, and very soon as a great change took place.  Its poems became difficult, ambiguous, so intricate and charged with meaning that they were totally incomprehensible...”

By A. Cephalous on 05/24/05 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A. Cephalous, I understand what you’re writing about PKD, it’s sort of what I thought you meant by “talented hack” in the first place.  But I don’t see how you can describe “suffer from insufficient intellectual digestion and editorial revision; that is, they’re only intermittantly brilliant” as being an unabashed complement.  It doesn’t sound like much of a complement at all.

As for the claim that his early work “surpasses his later work in all those qualities associated with literary instead of speculative fiction”, well, I disagree.  His early work surpasses his later work in genre, yes, if “the qualities associated with literary fiction” means genre.  But I would really question the claim that _The Broken Bubble_ or _Mary and the Giant_ is worth being remembered for literary reasons, and _The Man in the High Castle_ (or _Martian Time-Slip_, or _A Scanner Darkly_, or even _The Transmigration of Timothy Archer_) is not.  PKD’s early works are generally somewhat clumsy, rather tired realistic character studies (except _Confessions of a Crap Artist_, which is at least a somewhat polished, energetic realistic character study); his best later works are much better written.  I think that the analysis that you seem to be using comforms in important respects to Lem’s, it has the same flavor of “oh, if only PKD could have had an editor and a critic”.  Which is true to some extent, but misses the important ways in which PKD conformed his style to his subject.

Lastly, geez—why read 44 books if you can’t vividly remember one from another?  Sure, PKD wrote a lot of minor works, so does every major author.

As for Atwood, thanks for explaining the details.

By on 05/24/05 at 05:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Forgive me.  It’s “compliment”.

By ben wolfson on 05/24/05 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben,

Thanks.* You’ve written John Bruce another essay: “A. Cephalous makes mistakes!  What right does he have to teach our infallible children?” I could head him off, call it an experiment in meme…

...and anyway, they’ve only been proper doublets since c. 1725.  I need a little time to adjust.

Rich,

And the second-to-last shall be first: the reason I read 44 books is because I loved each and every one of them.  That’s also the reason I read them as quickly as I did.  (Sadly, the same is true of Vonnegut; not so sadly, it’s also true of F. Saberhagen, R. Jordan, M. Zimmer Bradley, etc.) In consumer terms, after splurging I can’t tell my red Prada pumps from my red Pravda...you know what I mean. 

His early work surpasses his later work in genre, yes, if “the qualities associated with literary fiction” means genre.

This was all I meant, hence the unboldness of my claim.  When I say middle-period, I mean approx. ‘64 to ‘74 with a few exceptions.  I don’t rate Do Androids Dream... as highly as others, but I’ve heard the arguments and will include it among the exceptions.  But Galatic Pot Healer, Martian Time-Slip, etc. are mediocre sci-fi.  Either he’s pumping dry wells he divined in earlier works or he’s fumbling around with inchoate ideas he’ll develop more coherently in later ones. 

And “intermittently brilliant” for a decade bookended by two decades of disconcerting brilliance is an unabashed compliment.  I’d reconsider and call it an “abashed compliment,” but much as I love the faux onomatopoeic etymology of “abash,” it’d make no sense...so let me instead say that short of papal infallibility, I think the best any human being, much less writer, can accomplish is intermittent brilliance. 

*But you missed “intermittantly.” Now the editter needs an editer!

By A. Cephalous on 05/24/05 at 07:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

shurely there’s a lot more to atwood than just the novels that may or may not be s-f (depending on how you define it). i realize this is a discussion of her as/not a s-f writer but the sweeping dismissals don’t account for the brilliance of her novels in other genres--such as “alias grace”, for example.

(by the way i recommend her essay, “in search of alias grace” to anyone teaching the contemporary historical novel to undergraduates.)

and speaking of s-f and citation, amitav ghosh samples a number of ghost-stories from other indian language traditions in his great “the calcutta chromosome”. this knowledge is only available to those who’ve read the original stories or to those who’ve read bishnupriya ghosh’s mention of a conversation with ghosh in which he mentions this (in a recent article in “boundary 2"). this is not mentioned in the book itself or in any of the reviews of it that i’m aware of. in ghosh’s case, at least, it isn’t “plagiarism” in the sense a. cephalous refers to it; it is a reworking of received influence/tradition in a new context (hence my reference to it as sampling).

By arnab on 05/24/05 at 07:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since I stole this conversation from Miriam, it’s my responsibility to return it to her:

However, in credible contemporary science fiction — as distinguished from space opera or adventure stories — the world is neither saved, nor destroyed, by isolated hero(ine)s or mad scientists.

Would you number Octavia Butler among the stable of “credible contemporary science fiction” writers?  Because often as not, her worlds are saved/destroyed by isolated hero(ine)s.  In the Xenogenesis series, Lilith Iyapo saves/destroys the world, as does Jodahs; in the Parable series, odds are Lauren Olamina will do one or the other. 

I won’t mention Robert Heinlein, as libertarians are necessarily individualistic.  But what about Orson Scott Card?  His, uh, “unsavory” politics aside, Ender certainly saves the world in Ender’s Game.  Same (sans the unsavory politics) holds for Laura Webster in Sterling’s Islands in the Net.  Or the original settlers in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy?  The favored politics of the settled- and born- Martians are collectivist (sometimes), but individual political agency drives the development of the colony. 

All of which is my way of asking whether by “credible contemporary science fiction” writers you refer exclusively to Delany and Mieville?

P.S.  Apologies for the hijack.

By A. Cephalous on 05/24/05 at 07:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For more on Lem’s criticism of PKD, try this Bruce Sterling essay.  If you
don’t want to read all of it, the highlight sentence is probably “It’s a doomed effort, full of condescension and confusion, like a ballet-master analyzing James Brown.”

Sorry to keep disagreeing, but _Martian Time-Slip_ mediocre?  I thought that book was a better commentary on the human condition than many a classic literary work.  You have a child driven crazy by nothing more than foreknowledge of the horrors of his old age, destroyed by his inability to maintain the same illusions as the rest of us.  And the scenes of ordinary people and their interactions were often spot on, such as the bartender who spouts eugenicist garbage to one of his patrons, finds out that the patron has a disabled kid, then tries to apologize but only succeeds in becoming angry because he’s made a fool of himself.

I also have a strong liking for _Galactic Pot-Healer_, though I admit that it’s one of PKD’s lesser works.  It’s a satire of every book about a mediocre person who is challenged to heroically transcend himself.  In _Galactic Pot-Healer_, the sympathetic normal guy just tries, tries, and fails.  Fails not by letting everyone down and with the world being destroyed, because that is also an SF cliche, but fails in a mediocre fashion; no one really needs him.  I feel the urge to re-read it every time Star Wars is hyped again.

Thanks for the discussion.

By on 05/24/05 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Resisting the temptation to proofread Miriam again, I can’t do the same with Cephalous, on accounta someone might want to look up the movie:  it’s Barjo, not Bijou

My take on PKD’s style, which I think is consistent with his own opinion of it, is that in the Fifties, the realist work was indeed better-written and more substantial than the (novel-length) sf and culminated in _Crap Artist_ and _The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike_.  He only really started to watch his prose with _The Man in the High Castle_, but that was followed (shortly after _Martian Time-Slip_) by a few years during which he churned out bimonthly amphetamine-fueled novels that were made mostly of adverbs, books in which one would be hard-pressed to find a coherent paragraph.  His style started to recover when he could afford to write more slowly, around the time of _Ubik_ wherein he found his satrical voice, and improved throughout the Seventies.

In other words, I’m with Puchalsky as to the sf novels worth singling out as examplary of nonhackishness, and would recommend to others a second look at those named, not only for their unhackish style but for, as Rich points out, the lovely strokes of social psychology and micropolitics that you’d be hard-pressed to find done by their contemporaries.

By on 05/24/05 at 08:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the catch, Josh.  I meant that as an honest recommendation, not the prelude to a wild-goose chase.

By A. Cephalous on 05/24/05 at 08:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Slight correction: not only the stupidest and most short-tempered computer, but also the stubbornest. I knew it was a triad.

By John Emerson on 05/24/05 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A. Cephalous, you ask a good question. I may have (ahem) overgeneralized. I actually like Octavia Butler, though the one Pattern novel I read disconcerted with its religiosity. In the Xenogenesis series, there are single hero(ines), and any of the novels read alone might give that tired old saviour-of-mankind (sic) impression. But they form a trilogy; the torch is passed; and overall there is much more of a sense of community channelled through representative individuals. Yeah, please don’t mention Heinlein; I try not to, though I know that’s heresy in some circles. As for Orson Scott Card, I have gotten into trouble for saying this before, but I cannot easily separate his politics from his fiction. I have only read one of his novels—Pastwatch—and it made me crazy with its “great man” version of history (and this was before I knew anything about Card’s politics). I don’t think I mean, at all, the sort of thing Robinson does with the Mars trilogy; as you say, that series is about groups of people, and I certainly hope that I’m not denying individual political agency. What I do mean is a sensibility, and a view of history and culture, more common to (bad) fantasy, perhaps, and to (bad) space opera. Gosh, I hope that doesn’t leave me with only two writers to read, even if they are Delany and Mieville.

By Miriam Jones on 05/24/05 at 09:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just for pure anecdotal purposes and not as a means of providing evidence for A.Cephalous’s claim, but Delany thinks PKD is a bit of a hack also, or at the very least doesn’t like his stuff. (I don’t know if he’s written this anywhere, I only know from conversations with him). Delany also really does not like the term “speculative” fiction. I made the mistake of using both (PKD and speculative) in the same sentence to him and, well, you can probably figure out the rest....

And as way of recommendation for Delany and Mieville fans, I really strongly recommend Steve Erickson. Days Between Stations and Tours of the Black Clock have just come back into print and are both truly amazing.

By on 05/25/05 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Miriam,

I didn’t mean to take all your books away.  Had I not already sold them to pay for all this soup for all these orphans, I’d even consider returning them.  That said, if you’re not talking about the idea that works of “macro-” science fiction strip individual actors of political agency, then I’m a little mystified about why you’d criticize Atwood for building on the idea that the exercise of individual political agency can have real, substantial political efficacy.  (Of all the political fantasies out there, I personally like the ones on which grass-roots movements can be founded.) As James points out, Erikson’s another writer worth grouping in the “macro-” clan--same with Neal Stephenson and Frank Herbert--and...and as I write this it occurs to me that the novels of most of the writers who fit into the “macro-” mold share a sprawling quality, within individual massive tomes and across the arcs of series (of massive tomes), in which case the relationship of political agency to genre might have as much to do with the “world-building” imperative of these novelists.  It’s easy to show how an individual can save/destroy an entire world if there’s been no investment in its creation.  The greater the investment, the greater the complexity; the greater the complexity, the less likely any individual actor is to have autonomy enough to save/destroy everything.  (Mieville’s desire to write a bestiary in the Believer interview points in one direction; the Autarch’s ascent in Gene Wolfe’s series another.)

By A. Cephalous on 05/25/05 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the link to the Believer interview, A. Cephalous.  It was odd reading it and seeing the traces of comments from the Crooked Timber series.

James, Delany’s view of PKD, at least as of 1985, was mentioned in the _Diacritics_ interview in his book _Silent Interviews_.  I quote:

“I’ve always felt the thing that makes Dick popular—with, indeed, the people he’s popular with—is his stories’ insistent endorsement of what, from time to time, has been called ‘the liberal-Jewish worldview’”.

[Pause to Google “liberal-Jewish worldview”, find zero hits.]

Delany goes on to say that “short of an outright social reorganization”, it’s the worldview that he subscribes to, and goes on in next para:

“The problem with Dick is simply that he wrote so much and, often, so badly.  I mean sentence by sentence.  What people claim to like in Dick in his constant interrogation of reality [...] But what remains solid underneath it all is the liberal ideology beneath that material uncertainty: and that’s very reassuring to a certain readership.”

It’s really difficult to know where to start with this one.  With _The Pre-Persons_?  With Dick’s Christian mysticism?  With Dick’s constant scorn towards unions and collectives?  I guess that you can find those liberal Jews, or at least their worldview, wherever you like to look for them.

What’s left past this unfalsifiable assertion of hidden ideology is the ‘wrote so much, so badly’ claim that we’ve already seen parts of in Lem and above in this thread.  Well, yes, we all know that Dick wrote a lot, and misused drugs while doing so.  I’d still take his best prose over Delany’s any day.  But maybe that’s just because of my liberal-Jewish worldview.

By on 05/25/05 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A. Cephalous, your point about the breadth of the “macro” books is well-taken, but I would argue instead that the books are broad in the first place because of the authors’ (historically grounded) world view. And I must not have expressed myself well because I was certainly not arguing against agency or grass roots organizing; far from it. In fact, that’s exactly what is missing from Atwood; instead, we have isolated individuals behaving more like wizards in a tower than members of a community.

By Miriam Jones on 05/25/05 at 06:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Miriam,

You expressed yourself just fine.  My head’s stuck in the Progressive Era, in which solipsistic hallucinations are calls to action…

By A. Cephalous on 05/25/05 at 08:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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