Tag Archives: science fiction

ArtSunday: Are we seeing more character development in genre fiction?

Not long ago a good friend asked me if I’d take a look at this novel he was working on. He felt it was one of the best things he’d written, but was getting no bites from publishers. He was committed to making it work, and he wondered if I had ideas about what might be missing. So I read it.

The novel set out to be a genre piece – sort of a mystery story with a little bit of thriller thrown in at the end – but I could see why nobody wanted it. Truth was, the plot and action didn’t crackle like a successful genre novel, and while it had some very promising characters, none of them were sufficiently developed to stand the book as a “literary” work.

He was caught in the no-man’s land of contemporary publishing, and as our friend Jim Booth has suggested, that’s no place to be in 2012. My observation was that, the perversions of the publishing industry notwithstanding, what this particular novel wanted was to be more literary.

If you don’t follow what I mean by my opposed usage of the terms “genre” and “literary,” here’s the short version. Genre literature encompasses things like murder mysteries, adventure thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. They’re driven by plot, and the characters tend to be static, not really evolving or growing a great deal during the course of the narrative.

Literary fiction is more or less the opposite. It’s all about character development, and in some cases you can read hundreds of pages without anything noteworthy actually happening in the way of plot. And we find ourselves in a place economically where not only are publishers not generally interested in manuscripts that are caught in-between, the culture of writing itself is divvied into opposed camps. I think back to my creative writing program. At the risk of over-simplifying to illustrate the point, the lit types regarded the genre types as little better than $5 whores working the docks while the genre types sneered at the self-indulgent navel gazing of the “serious” writers. The mutual contempt was palpable.

Hopefully not all writing programs are like mine was in this respect, but the general tendency I describe will serve us for this conversation.

What I told my friend, then, is that there wasn’t enough in the way of action to sustain a true genre novel, but if he spent some time fleshing out the characters – especially a couple of the female protagonists – he might have something with significant literary depth to interest potential literary publishers.

He has now conducted a major revision and I’ll be diving into the manuscript right after I finish Christopher Moore’s Bite Me: A Love Story.

I found myself thinking back on the literary/genre discussion recently as I read Mark Todd’s Strange Attractors: A Story About Roswell. This book sets out to be a science fiction tale that, as the title might suggest, reimagines what went down in the New Mexico desert back in 1947. Todd follows an unusual path getting to Roswell, to be sure, and in the process forces us to think more closely than we might like about the implications of certain kinds of biotechnical research being conducted in the here and now. I won’t spoil the twist – instead, I’ll encourage you to read it for yourself. (Be patient – the first part of the book was driving me nuts because I couldn’t get a grip on what had happened, but then the wheels caught, as it were, and from that point on it got more and more interesting.)

In other words, Strange Attractors is a successful genre novel, mining the increasingly untenable terrain of science fiction. Intriguing premise (doubly so, given that it engages with real-world events), solid continuity of scientific plausibility, a narrative strategy that keeps you driving in the direction of revelation, unanticipated twists, etc. (One of the things I didn’t see coming was especially gratifying in that it explicitly violated some of the conventions of genre and forced me to question how formulaic sf can be. Loved that.)

But. I found myself repeatedly noticing, as I read, that much of what was most compelling wasn’t baked into the plot, per se. Yes, the mystery pulls you forward, but you find yourself diving ever deeper into the two main characters: research scientist Morgan Johanssen, who is unwittingly a critical pivot in human history (if you know the language of Chaos and Complexity theories, she is an archetypal strange attractor) and the odd alien ingenue, Gamma Ori. As with my friend’s novel-in-progress, I found myself drawn more to character than is perhaps common for genre lit.

All of which set me to thinking. The truth is that the genre novels I enjoy the most tend to have the most interesting characters. Neal Stephenson comes immediately to mind (not for REAMDE, of course – that’s a roadtrip into the heart of pure thrillerdom), but for the assortment of Waterhouses and Shaftoes (and the Baroque Cycle‘s divine Eliza) in CryptonomiconQuicksilverThe Confusion and The System of the World. Then there’s the cast around which the remarkable Anathem revolves. These novels are unarguably genre – very much plot-centered and not even remotely averse to bursts of intense action – but the characters are far from static. As the books unfold, the characters grow and our understanding of them deepens. Not only that, when you consider the conjoined saga of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, which spans centuries, we’re past character development and into the intricate evolution of bloodlines.

William Gibson, my other genre hero, also enjoys getting inside a character’s head (especially if it’s a female protagonist) and he does so in ways that extract all kinds of resonance from the dynamic between personality and material culture (a la Cayce’s phobia of labels, logos, trademarks and other trappings of consumer brands), which is as quirky a hook as you’re likely to encounter in the world of mainstream genre fiction.

Maybe I’m imagining things. Or maybe not. For sure, none of the works I’m talking about here are Salingeresque in their character obsession. And as I admit earlier, the literary/genre divide is abstracted to make a point. I mean, it’s not like nothing exciting happens in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Still, I have hated for years the kinds of sniping I saw in grad school and the ways in which those kinds of ideological rivalries balkanized literature. That the publishing and marketing landscape reinforces this artificial stratification of literature only exacerbates the problem. I mean, I’m not sure that Twain thought of what he was doing in these terms. He probably imagined that a good story and interesting characters sort of naturally went hand in hand.

In any case, don’t take this as an attempt to pronounce anything conclusive about The State of Literature at the Present Time®. Rather, consider it more something that I think I’m noticing and that I like, if in fact it’s really happening. Also, as always, take it as an invitation to comment and enlighten me if I’m missing something.

Predicting the 21st Century: Nostraslammy’s ten-year review

Ten years ago, at the turn of the millennium, Nostraslammy took a stab at predicting the 21st Century, with a promise to check back every ten years to see how the prognostications were turning out. Odds are good I won’t be able to do a review every ten years until 2100, but I figure I’m probably good through 2030, at least, barring some unforeseen calamity. And if you’re Nostraslammy, what’s this “unforeseen” thing, anyway?

Let’s see how our 22 articles of foresight are holding up, one at a time.

1: Researchers will develop either a vaccine or a cure for AIDS by 2020. However, it will be expensive enough that the disease will plague the poor long after it has become a non-issue for the rich and middle classes (although this is one case where political leaders might fund free treatment programs). The end of AIDS will trigger a sexual revolution that will compare to or exceed that of the 1960s and 1970s (unless another deadly sexually-transmitted disease evolves, which is certainly a possibility). Continue reading Predicting the 21st Century: Nostraslammy’s ten-year review

Democracy & Elitism 2: performance elitism vs privilege elitism, and why the difference matters

Democracy+ElitismPart two in a series.

“Elite” hasn’t always been an epithet. In fact, if we consider what the dictionary has to say about it, it still signifies something potentially worthy. Potentially. For instance:

e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism (-ltzm, -l-) n.
1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.le

That definition, while technically accurate enough, could use a bit of untangling, because it embodies the very nature of our problem with elitism in America. In popular use, the term “elite” and its derivatives has been twisted into a pure, distilled lackwit essence of “liberal” – another once-proud word that fell victim to our moneyed false consciousness machine. Continue reading Democracy & Elitism 2: performance elitism vs privilege elitism, and why the difference matters

Reality is making us sick, and fantasy can’t cure us

You’re honey child to a swarm of bees
Gonna blow right through you like a breeze
Give me one last dance
Well slide down the surface of things

You’re the real thing
Yeah the real thing
You’re the real thing
Even better than the real thing

– U2

Fantasy stories, myths, legends, tall tales, fairy tales, horror, all these have been with us for a very long time. Science fiction, as well, has been with us since Mary Shelley found herself in a bet with Lord Byron about the possibility of writing a new kind of horror, one not grounded in the gothic.* So the presence in our popular culture of stories based in unreality of one form or another is certainly nothing new.

It seems to me that there’s been a lot more of it lately, though. Continue reading Reality is making us sick, and fantasy can’t cure us

Michael Vick and the problem with forgiveness

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has conditionally reinstated former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, who was convicted of running a dogfighting ring in 2007. Vick served 23 months in federal prison, followed by two months of house arrest.

Last Thursday the Philadelphia Eagles answered the question as to which team would sign a convicted dog-killer (there were 32 possible answers to the question, and “none of the above” wasn’t one of them), and in doing so touched off a long-awaited PR war for the souls of their stunned fans. Continue reading Michael Vick and the problem with forgiveness

Jon Stewart, Jim Cramer and the rampaging cowards of journalism

First, just in case you haven’t seen it, please review the video (in three parts).

Continue reading Jon Stewart, Jim Cramer and the rampaging cowards of journalism

ArtSunday: the Blade Runner Effect

Last night we watched the Final Cut of Blade Runner again, and if you don’t have this package I can’t recommend it highly enough. 25 years on, Ridley Scott was able to finally re-craft the film as he wanted it originally, and the result is a stunning achievement. Scott has been one of our greatest directors for a very long time, but this may be his finest moment to date.

This viewing (probably my 35th or 40th – I lost count a long time ago) got me to thinking, all over again, about how little the film was acknowledged at the time of its release. Continue reading ArtSunday: the Blade Runner Effect

My god – it’s full of stars: 2001, Frankenstein and autonomous technology

I used to work with a HAL 9000. Back when I was at US West in the late ’90s we had a voice system into which we would record the day’s company news so that employees without Internet access could dial in and keep up with the latest events. As with any such system there was a dial-in sequence, buttons that had to be pressed in a certain order, etc.

One day, as I was working through the first stage of the sequence, our phone system apparently achieved sentience. For reasons that I still can’t explain, a decade later, and that nobody at the time had any clue about, the machine sort of … intuited what I was about to do. It performed an action or two that, put simply, it could not do. Continue reading My god – it’s full of stars: 2001, Frankenstein and autonomous technology