Category Archives: Speculative Fiction

Science fiction and/or fantasy.

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar

I read Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar because I’d enjoyed her earlier Kalpa Imperial–earlier in English translation, I mean; I think Kalpa Imperial is a later work. Trafalgar isn’t as good. I enjoyed it, but the premise–an Argentine traveling salesman who, over coffee, regales his friends (including a thinly-disguised Gorodischer) with his fabulous (in the “fable-like” sense) adventures on alien worlds–is up my particular alley. I can’t guarantee the same experience to anyone else.

Cover of Trafalgar

Trafalgar is a series of club stories, stories told by a character within a frame story (often, in older work, guys gossiping at their club; hence the name). Gorodischer uses a structure I haven’t often come across. Club stories often begin with the frame, then launch into straight first person narration. Most of the stories in Trafalgar are conversations straight through, punctuated by questions and interjections from Trafalgar’s friends, notes on what’s happening around him, and regular reports on the state of his coffee.

Here’s my problem. Trafalgar was first published in 1979 and Trafalgar is a very 1979 kind of dude. In his original 1979 context Trafalgar was probably lovably roguish but now he just comes off as thoughtless. What I’m saying is, he’ll fall into bed with any interested woman, and because his author looks after him someone is interested wherever he goes, and that wouldn’t be so bad except he won’t shut up about it. I mean, show him a planet and his second thought, after “what can I sell here,” is “am I going to get lucky?” Also, in the first story a woman who Trafalgar believes is seducing him, due to circumstances too complicated to explain, actually thinks he’s a holographic Mandrake the Magician. Which, whatever Angélica Gorodischer thought 35 years ago, is not funny. Also, there’s a story where Trafalgar finds a planet where it’s 1492 and he thinks giving Columbus a ride to the New World would be cool.[1] So, 1979, then.

(To be fair to Trafalgar, in the last story we learn he’s started traveling with his daughter, and she takes the lead and rescues him when he gets into trouble, and I think we’re meant to take it as a sign that he’s maturing. You could also take it as a sign that he needs a babysitter.)

But! When Trafalgar is not thinking about sex Trafalgar can be interesting. One planet exists in a different random year every day. On another planet undead ancestors nag their descendants into halting scary, unfamiliar progress. On another the locals, having come to understand the universe completely, decided they were ready to drop out and stop using their conscious minds.

I’ll cut a certain amount of slack for a book if it does a thing I like, even when it does the thing with indifferent success. I found myself cutting Trafalgar a certain amount of slack. I thought it might be worth considering what it was doing to earn it. The answer, I think, is that the part of the genre Trafalgar is working in is home to some better books I’ve loved, including Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries and The Cyberiad and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. It’s also a staple of Doctor Who (as in “The Happiness Patrol” or “The Sun Makers”).

Trafalgar, in short, is one of those space operas that have a lot in common with Gulliver’s Travels. Obviously compared to Swift Trafalgar is superficial–the big problem with the Columbus story is that it doesn’t actually think about its central idea! But there’s a certain distant similarity in approach. The biggest hint is how the planets Trafalgar visits read as islands, with small populations, modest economies, and a single major city. A lot of space opera planets work like this. Sometimes you can chalk this up to the writers’ lack of imagination, or failure to appreciate scale–but not always. I’d argue more space opera stories share DNA with Gulliver’s Travels than most SF fans assume, and they share an approach that’s interestingly opposite to much of that genre.

For such a fanciful genre, so much space opera is so serious: either military SF, or grimly earnest thrillers. Look at Star Wars, our iconic space opera, which we also think of as the quintessential light, fun space opera: for all the cute robots and cool spaceships, the dominant recurring image is a genocide machine the size of a moon. Space opera aspires to be not just serious but epic, which usually translates into galaxy-spanning conspiracies, planetary disasters and mass death.

What’s different about Trafalgar, The Star Diaries, et cetera, is a sense of play. Gorodischer’s universe incorporates anything, no matter how fantastic, that will accept a handwavy science fictional veneer: an exact duplicate of Earth, a planet of ghosts. Other books in the same vein incorporate literalized metaphors and wordplay, social satire, and reducto ad absurdum.

These stories avoid high stakes, epic scale, and operatic emotions. Take the not-uncommon SF trope of the time warp that lets the heroes meet themselves. Some of these stories might be after Sense of Wonder (TM), or existential angst, or an excuse to show off the author’s grasp of technobabble. In The Star Diaries, it’s a story about how Ijon Tichy can’t get along with himself for the five minutes it takes to tighten a bolt. As the Tichies multiply they form a dysfunctional government that immediately loses itself in bureaucratic minutae. This is small-stakes comedy with a domesticity unusual in space opera: Tichy wakes himself in the middle of the night, squabbles with himself over breakfast. The fantastic, here, is not mind-blowing sense-of-wonder stuff: it’s everyday–maybe even disappointing.

The comic style is different, too. The fashion in humorous SF is snarky banter, or overt comedy in the vein of (but rarely as successful as) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Gorodischer, Lem, and company are more wry, taking a straight-faced, matter-of-fact tone. Tichy is a poker-faced narrator; Trafalgar is, if a bit more flippant, also sincere about his crazy stories. This subgenre shades into a less comic, more Borgesian kind of SF; Le Guin’s Changing Planes is an example.[2] I’d argue this style is a close relative of more satirical stories. The satirical and philosophical strands tend to mix–even Trafalgar alternates between slapstick and grasping at profundity.

An occasional weakness of Swiftian space opera is that, in the interest of satire, futuristic or alien societies might be their authors’ own cultures wearing a hat. For a lot of SF that’s the wrong approach: different and challenging futures can challenge default assumptions, suggest different possibilities, even just create interesting environments for adventure stories[3]. Also, as Trafalgar demonstrates, cultural assumptions date fast.

On the other hand, the science fiction genre could use a little more playfulness and a little less self-conscious earnestness. I suppose as long as that’s true, I’ll be forgiving towards books like Trafalgar.


  1. Trafalgar emphasizes he brought the Spanish over as “settlers,” not “conquistadors,” but the story doesn’t think to ask whether this makes any difference at all and it barely mentions Native Americans.  ↩

  2. I’d also give an honorable mention to Leena Krohn’s Tainaron; it’s off topic inasmuch as there’s no reason to believe the city of Tainaron is on another planet, or in another dimension, or anywhere else space opera usually takes us, but it has the same feel.  ↩

  3. Despite how I might sound sometimes, I’m not totally down on those!  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Return of Munchausen

I’ve written before about the Russian fantasist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Due to Soviet censorship, he went unpublished in his lifetime only to be rediscovered and translated in the new century. He took his place among my favorite writers on the basis of Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club. Autobiography of a Corpse and the latest release, The Return of Munchausen, are slightly lesser works but still good.

Cover of The Return of Munchausen

Baron Munchausen is as perfect a hero for Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky as he was for Terry Gilliam. Krzhizhanovsky writes philosophical fiction with the tools of the tall tale: literalized metaphors, wordplay, and so much anthropomorphism that his inanimate objects and abstract ideas can be livelier than his people. (Typical of Krzhizhanovsky’s technique is one character’s descent of a staircase: “Stairs scurried under Unding’s feet and then, damply through his worn-out soles, sidewalk asphalt.”)

Munchausen, for the uninitiated, is a fictional character loosely based on an actual German aristocrat. He’s a serial exaggerator. He rides cannonballs, vacations on the moon, and pulls himself out of swamps by his own hair–or claims to.[1]

Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen isn’t just a teller of tall tales, but a defender of fiction, an advocate for fantasy: “I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy.” His motto is “truth in lies.” He has a “theory of improbability”: where probability theory studies things that happen many times, improbability theory studies things that have happened less than once. A scholar protests that Munchausen’s theory is all metaphor, but that’s the point: “People are fractions passing themselves off as ones… and the acts of a fraction are all fractional,” he argues. Probability alone isn’t a reliable guide to anything as unpredictably irrational as human beings.

So when Munchausen is asked to tour and report on the new Soviet Union, he returns with a lecture full of the usual impossible adventures. Here we see why Krzhizhanovsky had no luck getting published. The Russian sequence is a long, caustic vent about Krzhizhanovsky’s every frustration with his country. Secret police and famines get a look in, but Krzhizhanovsky aims most of his satire at the government’s control of ideas and its treatment of artists and intellectuals–understandably, maybe, in Krzhizhanovsky’s circumstances. Trains are fueled by burning books; Munchausen’s train crawls by inches because the engineer is an ex-professor who keeps stopping to read. Munchausen can see Soviet science is advancing because the scientists, lacking blackboards, are running after the trucks on which they’ve scrawled their equations. For modern readers some of Krzhizhanovsky’s less broad and more specific jokes are obscure enough to warrant endnotes: at one point Munchausen is sentenced to a “conditional execution,” which the notes tell us was a real punishment handed down on one occasion to an engineer whose skills the government couldn’t actually afford to lose. But even without the context there’s still plenty of wit here.

Krzhizhanovsky knows this is satire but Munchausen doesn’t share his latest author’s awareness: he thinks he’s created a flight of fancy, unmoored from reality. When he learns his lecture was nothing more than a comic exaggeration of the truth, Munchausen is stricken.

While this review was half-finished, I came across a weirdly appropriate line in one of the blogs I follow. Adam Roberts, in a review of a different book, quoted this bit from Martin Amis’s book Koba the Dread: “Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’”

Munchausen is an intellectual anarchist. For him, tall tales represent freedom; absurdity opens up new imaginative possibilities. So it’s important to Munchausen that his tall tales actually are absurd–that they put some distance between themselves and the reality they depart from. If the world isn’t reasonable, Munchausen’s refusal to conform to reason is nothing special. Now reality itself is absurd enough to overtake Munchausen’s ability to reimagine it, and the jokes don’t seem so Pythonesquely anarchic anymore. Just bitter.


  1. The Baron is often misremembered as pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Next time you hear that figure of speech, remember that it describes an impossibility.  ↩

Catherynne M. Valente, Radiance

I read Radiance last year and took some notes towards a blog post but never wrote it. I came across the file and decided to correct that. This post will be vaguer it might have been if I’d come to it while the book was fresh in my mind, but this was one of the best books I read in 2016 and I wanted to register my approval. (It’s an expansion of Catherynne M. Valente’s short story “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” which is online if you want to see whether Radiance is your kind of thing.)

Cover of Radiance

Radiance views common SF tropes–multiverses, transhumanism, alien ecology–through the lens of the planetary romances written back when people still thought Mars might have canals. In the early 20th century humans, with help from the milk of the alien Callowhales, are living and making movies on Venus and Mars and the Moon. Black and white and silent movies, mostly, because the Edison company has the patent on color and sound.

Percival Unck directs fantasies and melodramas. His daughter Severin directs documentaries. Up until she disappears mysteriously while investigating the mysterious disappearance of a small colonial town on Venus. Percival can think of no better way to deal with his grief and uncertainty than to plan a movie about his daughter’s vanishing, one that might find a solution.

Catherynne M. Valente writes some of the best prose in contemporary SF. Radiance really lets her show off. It’s a documentary/assemblage novel, which is both a great worldbuilding device and an excuse to play with voice. There are scripts, and transcripts, and letters, and diaries, and news articles. And Percival Unck’s movie treatment, which changes style as he revises its genre from film noir to pulp space opera to a musical comedy gather-the-suspects-in-the-drawing-room finale. I knew this would be one of my favorite novels of the year when the mind-blowing, space-and-time bending answer to its central mystery was revealed by a vaudeville tune sung by a Callowhale.

Radiance is full of detectives, real and fictional. Sometimes both at once. At one point an actress famous for playing a sleuth finds herself doing real detective work, and the investigations of Anchises St. John, sole survivor of the lost colony, are fictionalized in Unck’s film treatment. It’s not always clear what’s real and what’s filtered through someone’s story.

People often make sense of their lives using narrative as an organizing principle. They turn life into stories. Which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, because reality is different from stories in crucial ways. For one thing, stories end. Most important questions have final, settled answers. Stories tie off all the loose ends in a way that’s emotionally satisfying; reality keeps unraveling more.

Moving from fact to fiction and back is how Percival ties up loose ends. He keeps a filmed diary and has no compunctions about re-staging his life to best effect. When Severin’s mother left her on his doorstep as a baby, Percival had his assistant carry her back out into the rain so he could dramatically restage her unexpected arrival. For Percival, that Severin is missing is in some ways worse than if she had died: it’s open-ended, questions forever unanswered. His film treatment changes styles because for Percival the key to solving Severin’s disappearance is figuring out its genre.

Severin turned to documentaries in reaction to Percival’s fictions, but she arranges her storylines, too, in her own way. She doesn’t restage her life… but when her expedition arrives on Venus and finds Anchises dazed and wandering the empty village, she puts off trying to talk to him until her crew has set up the lighting. As Severin’s former lover puts it, Percival “lived through things first and then reshot them to get them right, while she hung back until everything was perfect, then called action. Couldn’t live through a thing until the camera was rolling.” Documentaries aspire to objectivity, but it’s important to remember they’re also narratives, arguments building to possibly illusory conclusions.

Unlike a story, reality, barring the actual heat death of the universe, doesn’t actually end. That’s the anxiety-inducing thing about real life. But in the end I think Radiance suggests that maybe it’s also the good part.


On another, disconnected note… In a recent post on Philip K. Dick I wrote that my favorite thing about his writing is the prolifgacy of his imagination, the way he would just throw stuff into his novels. Radiance doesn’t resemble Dick’s work at all, but it’s equally generous with wild ideas. Valente gives us a nineteenth-century solar system, and an alternate history of the movies, and a spooky cosmic mystery, and the next step in human evolution, and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and a glorious patchwork of styles, formates, and genres, and… and I’m sure some people–

And yes, I know I’m setting up a straw man here, but it’s a straw man I’ve observed in the wild–

I’m sure there are people who would ask why we need all of this. Could you have a novel that explored endings, and disappearances, and filmmaking, and storytelling as a straightforward narrative? Or a conventional space opera? Or without the SF angle at all, setting it in the days of silent film?

Of course, the answer is, yes, you could, but it wouldn’t be this novel, one that explores those themes in this specific, individual way. And this novel is excellent. And it’s excellent partly because so many big concepts were generously, and confidently, stuffed into one novel. In that it reminds me of another favorite from the last couple of years, Jo Walton’s The Just City and its sequels, which combine Greek gods and social SF and time travel and robots and philosophical tangents and constantly refuse to take their plots in the direction you’d expect.

Sometimes I pick up a SF novel that’s had good buzz centered on a couple of high-concept ideas. Then I discover those ideas are all they have, the rest of the novel being filled in with default tropes, stock plots, and a voice that doesn’t distinguish itself from its neighbors on the shelf. It can be a little frustrating. It’s not that I don’t understand the comfort to be found in a slightly new but still familiar story. I often need comfort reading myself. (Especially lately!) But I already know how to find those books; it’s harder to find SF that surprises me. I need more novels like Radiance that are not cautious variations on other stories, but instead have the self-confidence to be inimitably themselves.

Philip K. Dick, Ubik

There are writers I count among my favorites even though if I made a list of my favorite books nothing they wrote would be on it. Philip K. Dick is one of those writers. I like his tone, the off-kilter feel of his writing, like he’s not bothering to smooth over the points where his world doesn’t join up properly. It matches the bemusement I’ve always felt when reality itself seemed too random or silly to believe. The real world doesn’t always join up properly, either.

The idea of Dick’s writing was a big influence on me even though I can’t honestly say he ever wrote a book I particularly loved. On my scale none of his novels rise past very good to great, unless it’s the imaginary Platonic ideal Dick novel he never quite wrote. Then again, a hypothetical perfectly artful Dick novel it might not have had what attracted me to his work in the first place: his “let’s just throw stuff in there, why not” attitude.

Cover of Ubik

Take Ubik. Joe Chip lives in the far-off world of 1992. Everything is coin-operated including Joe’s front door, which argues like one of the doors from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ensembles like “a cowboy hat, black lace mantilla, and bermuda shorts” or “a floral mumu and Spandex bloomers” are the height of fashion–Ubik introduces everybody by describing their ridiculous clothes. Joe’s employed by an agency for “inertials,” psychically powered people who counteract other people’s psychic powers. Joe hires a new inertial who counters precognition by traveling back in time to change the present. Meanwhile Joe’s boss Glen Runciter is losing touch with his dead wife, who helps run the company from cryogenic “half-life,” because the teenager a few crypts down keeps breaking into their conferences. Joe and Runciter travel to the moon with some inertials for a job but their contact turns out to be a talking robot bomb; Runciter dies. So Joe carts him back to Earth to be put in half-life. But Joe’s coins spontaneously acquire Glen Runciter portraits, food and cigarettes decay, gadgets turn into worn-out obsolete equivalents, and eventually the world around him becomes Des Moines in the 1940s. More worryingly, his intertial pals are spontaneously mummifying. Then Joe starts getting messages from Runciter directing him to look for something called Ubik that will solve all his problems…

Ubik is full of weird little side details that didn’t have to be there. Like, one character has a nightmare that’s invaded by a couple of psychics, and it’s genuinely disquieting but could just as easily have been cut. And there’s no reason at all for those weird clothes. But Dick must not have felt everything needed a reason. He had so many weird ideas he could just toss them around like glitter.

Dick is not among the great prose stylists of science fiction. He’s abupt, shambolic, and pulpy. Not that he can’t deliver moments of beauty or grab you with whatever emotion he wants you to feel; at times you can tell he put in the work. But the bulk of most Dick novels have this “just bang it out and send it off, I’m on a deadline here” vibe.

There’s the aforementioned scene in Ubik where Stanton Mick, who wants to hire the inertials, suddenly inflates, floats, and explodes. Ubik just says “Stanton Mick floated to the ceiling of the room, his arms protruding distendedly and rigidly” in the same tone it might use to describe Stanton walking across the room. The bomb is just there. And without much in the way of context: “‘I’ve heard of this,’ Runciter said to Joe. ‘It’s a self-destruct humanoid bomb. Help me get everybody out of here. They just now put it on auto; that’s why it floated upward.’” This is astonishingly casual. Runciter doesn’t sound shocked; neither he nor the narrative react like he’s in immediate danger. This casualness is typical of Ubik. When Joe discovers his pocket is full of Glen Runciter money it is at first just another aggravation at the end of a long and trying day. I mean, yeah, he knows it’s weird. But it’s the same kind of weird as ordering coffee and getting it already cold. Joe’s not immediately questioning everything he knows about reality, is what I’m saying.

Standards for what’s considered well-crafted in genre fiction are always changing. Today, a respectable SF novel builds up to the scenes on which the plot hinges. Forshadows the big reveals. Changes the prose style and pacing to suit sudden bursts of action. Artfully slips all the explanations the reader needs into the background as it goes.

Ubik… uh, doesn’t. Ubik is more like the pulp stories Raymond Chandler ruefully looks back on in “The Simple Art of Murder”:

…the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

Philip K. Dick is one of those “have a man come through a door with a gun” writers, only the guy he sends through the door has psychic powers and takes a bite out of the hero’s arm. Dick’s main virtue as a writer is that he’s not afraid to over-reach himself.

And, weirdly, his stylistic awkwardness helps. That humanoid bomb scene I described above is, technically, not well written. But Dick brilliantly captures the feel of dreams. Not the bluntly metaphorical dreams you often get in fiction, like writers use when they can’t think of a good way to work in a theme. I mean actual dreams with their arbitrariness and disjointed shifts. (Dick has a lot in common with David Lynch, here.)

Like… you’re in a meeting, and a guy floats up to the ceiling. And you suddenly know, the way dreamers suddenly know things, that the guy is a bomb. And all of this–the meeting, the floating man, the sudden knowledge–feels normal. Dreams don’t divide the banal from the unreal. You’re in one situation, then you’re in another. That’s how Dick writes in his pulpy “just get things down” mode. Moments other novels would build up to, make a big deal of, Dick describes matter-of-factly. Like the way Magritte undramatically, naturalistically painted a man with an apple for a face. So much of the hallucinatory quality of Dick’s novels comes from the contrast between his wild, prolifgate imagination and his straightforward delivery.

Dick’s style joins hands with his love of surrealism, and his flaws become virtues. I have no idea whether this was intentional on Philip K. Dick’s part. Whether it was or not, I think it’s brilliant.

This is not to criticize craft. As Chandler goes on to say of his years in the pulps: “As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better.” A well-crafted novel, all else being equal, beats a poorly-crafted one. It’s just that Dick’s writing, because of his particular, peculiar, circumstances, breaks the rule. When bad writing successfully creates an effect, intentionally or not, it’s no longer bad. It follows that any prose can be good prose–if only it’s used for the right job.

Mosaic Novels: Datura

One of my favorite authors in the last couple of years has been Leena Krohn. I haven’t yet written about her work here. This post is an excuse to correct that. It’s another in my series on mosaic novels–again, I’m defining this as novels made of vignettes that build up to a cumulative theme instead of a single plot. The last two posts covered The Book of Disquiet and Speedboat which, at least on the surface, aren’t structured much like Krohn’s novels. She writes full-length chapters, with titles, usually chronologically ordered. But the chapters in Krohn’s novels work like those novels’ vignettes. Every chapter could stand as an individual unit of writing. But they aren’t stories as such; again, they read more like essays or descriptions of situations.

Krohn’s novels pick a theme and approach it from different angles, with different strategies. So Tainaron: Mail From Another City, a novel composed of letters from a human living in a city of insects, includes chapters centered on metaphors for life in human cities, others anthropomorphizing actual insect behavior, and others just focusing on the strangeness of Tainaron to convey the feeling of living as an expatriate.

Cover of Datura

Tainaron is Krohn’s best novel, but my favorite is Datura (or a Delusion We All See). Datura’s narrator is the editor and entire staff of The New Anomalist, a low-rent Fortean Times knockoff, the seriousness of which is indicated by the fact that its owner wants its gift shop to sell Big Mouth Billy Bass. As she runs around interviewing cranks and crackpots, the datura she’s taking for her asthma is making her hallucinate. Some chapters describe her research. Some are interviews with people who believe in strange things–plant intelligence, trepanation, the face of Jesus manifested in cheese–which are gently mocking but not scornful. Datura is compassionately interested in these people’s conceptions of reality. Other chapters describe the narrator’s hallucinations: an old woman who’s always ahead of her, a candy shop that seems out of its time. Sometimes it’s not clear what kind of chapter we’re reading. At one point the narrator is passed by a column of empty cars which she later learns were a convoy of real driverless vehicles.

There’s not much plot. The narrator starts taking datura and then stops. We know where this rudimentary story is going from the first chapter. But all of her experiences together–character studies of crackpots, different views of reality, musings about how human beings see patterns and create meaning, datura-induced breaks with reality–all these self-contained scenes, equally important, build to a larger theme. It’s an interesting one, because although Datura’s themes–science, skepticism, anomalies, the nature of reality–are familiar in SF, especially since the heyday of The X-Files, Datura approaches them from a different direction than usual. On the questions of whether plants can think or angels exist, Datura comes down on the side of skepticism, but it’s pro-rationality for a reason that in a lot of SF doesn’t get much play: it’s important to understand the world because we live in it with other people, together. To connect with others we need some common frame of reference, however tenuous. “The truth is always shared. A reality that belongs to only one person isn’t real.” Datura has empathy for its cranks because reality connects us even to people who don’t believe in it.

A traditional plot would not have suited Datura. A strong plot would need an active protagonist with a defined goal, and an antagonist to stop her getting it. A plot would turn Datura’s focus inward onto the protagonist instead of outward to the world around her. There’s nothing wrong with that–obviously, lots of strongly plotted novels are great! But it wouldn’t be this novel.

Leena Krohn’s novels have narrators instead of protagonists; they watch, listen, and think more than they act. Her chapters build on each other and develop ideas and characters. But they work more through accumulation and association, less through the cause and effect of traditional plotting. Her books combine the best parts of essays–a focus on ideas, looking out from the self instead of in at a protagonist–with the novel’s ability to explore character and approach themes through metaphor.

Jacqueline Koyanagi, Ascension (and Starship SF)

I haven’t accomplished much in the last month because the news has had me genuinely stressed out. 2016 has had far too much news, most of it alarming, and I’m trying to back away from following it obsessively. In part that means getting back to writing and drawing, as a distraction. So I finished roughly two thirds of this review in early June and the rest just now; if it seems disjointed, there’s your reason.


Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, a space opera novel, came out a few years ago. I read it recently, having chosen it at random. It’s not bad. It’s not perfect, either, but it meets and exceeds my baseline criteria for “good.” For about half this post I’ll explain further; then, as is my habit, I’ll use this book review as an excuse to wander off on a tangent: What is starship-crew space opera (of which this is an example) usually doing? Why is it more common in media SF than in print? And what do fans get out of it?

Ascension is narrated in first person by its protagonist, Alana Quick. The prose is good; it’s clear this book has paid some attention to word choice. Like, in this world starship mechanics are called “sky surgeons,” and Alana describes her work as “stitching together humanity’s lifeline.” Which tells you Alana sees ships as living organisms, and thinks of her work less as engineering than as lifesaving medicine. Alana’s complex enough that when she did something crazy impulsive–as she does more than once, because that’s her personality–I never lost patience.

Her first impulsive decision is to stow away on the starship Tangled Axon. She wants a job. More importantly, she wants to know why the crew were hired to deliver her sister to the big Wal-Mart-meets-Google corporation that literally travelled from a parallel universe to dominate the run-down local economy. The Tangled Axon’s crew is not thrilled to find Alana in their hold, but for now they’re stuck with her because shortly thereafter everyone’s framed for blowing up a planet.

Ascension is about a starship crew accepting a new member and might appeal to the same audience that liked the similarly themed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I don’t think Ascension is as successful a novel because its world doesn’t feel as complete or lived in as The Long Way’s. The Tangled Axon’s crew rarely interact with anyone outside the main cast. Granted, they are fugitives, and their isolation adds extra complications since Alana is chronically ill and running out of medication. But it feels like the characters live in a bubble, or a movie with a limited budget for speaking parts. The one person they seek out for help tidies herself away by dying as soon as she’s told them what they need to know. Even the big villain is, in a sense, part of the family.

Ascension’s universe is a backdrop in front of which the characters work out their relationships. Despite the presence of generic cargo crates I’m not sure I understand how the Tangled Axon earns a living when it’s not having an Adventure. And although Koyanagi tries, the crew don’t seem to react to the destruction of an entire planet with the warranted level of blue-screen-of-death horror. On the other hand, another story with this flaw is the 1977 film Star Wars, which I’ve heard has done well for itself. On the other other hand, having only recently finished Ascension I already cannot recall how destroying a planet fit into the villain’s master plan.

Anyway, that one thematic parallel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet started me thinking about Starship SF, and the kinds of stories it tells. Starship SF is the space opera subgenre that brings together a disparate bunch of characters and watches them mess about in a starship. Starship SF novels exist, including Ascension and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but the best known examples are TV series–Farscape, Firefly, Red Dwarf, Blake’s 7, Star Trek. These shows like to tell different kinds of stories in their individual episodes. But it’s arguable that their overall series-long stories are, at least in part, about found families or families of choice.

Starships are central to space opera TV shows in a way they usually aren’t in novels; they have a budgetary incentive to set as many scenes as possible on their standing set. (One redemptive reading of Ascension’s lack of interest in the universe beyond the Tangled Axon is that its insularity mirrors Starship SF’s affection for the bottle episode.) A spaceship is a terrarium floating in a void, by necessity an enclosed, self-sufficient world. The crew can’t leave because beyond the walls is airless vacuum–literally nothing. Stick some random people in this situation and it can go one of two ways. One is horror, the breakdown of a miniature society under pressure, as in the movies Alien or Sunshine. The other, more suited to a series, is for the crew to come together as a community. Or a family. Starship crews can be metaphors for either, or both, which is where the consolatory element comes in. These communities, like families of choice, at least aspire to work out their problems and make a safe space for all their members.

I spent the last year re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I hadn’t seen in ages. Coincidentally the blog Vaka Rangi by Josh Marsfelder reviewed the series episode-by-episode at around the same time, so I followed that as well. Gene Roddenberry thought of ST: TNG as utopian SF: the Federation is a post-scarcity society where nobody’s poor because anyone can get whatever they need from a replicator; everyone values self-improvement over money and status. In his reviews Marsfelder repeatedly suggests that, yeah, ST: TNG is utopian, but it’s not the Federation that’s the utopia–we don’t know how the Federation works[1], and the Enterprise often has to fix situations the Federation’s screwed up. The Next Generation’s utopia is the Enterprise itself, because the crew models better ways to resolve conflicts than the truculent posturing passing for drama in grittier SF. The crew, and whatever guest stars have shown up this week, are stuck with each other. If they can’t keep the Enterprise community functional while they’re between planets… well, leaving is more complicated than opening an airlock and walking away. The characters have their differences but The Next Generation’s focus is on how they work them out and come to understand each other.

In written science fiction space opera and military SF are so closely linked they’re often conflated, but that’s not the path The Next Generation took. Yeah, Starfleet looks like a military organization–they have ranks and uniforms–but it’s unlike any military we know. The characters rarely relate to each other like soldiers in a disciplined chain of command. (The episodes where The Next Generation modeled itself on military drama were usually the ones where the show went off the rails.) The Enterprise feels like an office staffed by close and supportive employees. More than that: the bridge crew relate to each other in a way that feels as close as a family. And they really do appear to be each others’ primary family: Star Trek did not have an unlimited recurring cast, so most of the crew have just one or two literal relatives. The only one with an American-style nuclear family is Chief O’Brien.

Most televised Starship SF resembles ST:TNG in that their long-term emotional arcs are about disparate people forming family-style emotional bonds. Firefly is about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Farscape is about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Red Dwarf is, despite Arnold Rimmer’s best efforts, about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Even the Blake’s 7 crew feels a bit like a family, though they’re a dysfunctional one and the series ends in a messy divorce.

You might, if inclined, divide ensemble TV series into two broad groups: the edgy ones, spectacles of people ingeniously betraying and undercutting each other (A Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, House of Cards), and the consolatory ones whose characters support each other and come together to solve problems. Whether these ensembles are SF like ST:TNG, crime dramas like Leverage, or even sitcoms like The Simpsons or Community, the ways the characters relate to each other feel similar. Their emotional arcs take familiar routes regardless of genre. Either a character is emotionally tied up in the A plot (Worf’s family is caught up in Klingon politics, Starfleet wants to disassemble Data), or the B plot is about someone working through emotional issues that tie into the A plot thematically (Data wants to understand some human foible, Barclay is working on his psychological issues). The rest of the cast help them through their problem to an emotional epiphany.[2] Scenes where Geordi explains humanity to Data or Picard works through an ethical dilemma with Guinan aren’t all that different in function from the part of a Simpsons episode where Marge Simpson inspires Homer to briefly locate his better side. You could drop the characters from another ensemble show (maybe not The Simpsons, but certainly Community or Leverage) into a Star Trek show and the usual styles of Star Trek stories would still make sense in a way they would not make sense with, say, the characters from A Game of Thrones.

It’s significant that which plot is the A plot and which is the B plot is not always clear. On Star Trek shows–Voyager in particular–it isn’t unusual for an episode’s external threat to be a vague pseudoscientific problem resolved through perfunctory technobabble, with more running time spent on the character interactions that, structurally, might be some other show’s B plot.

Literary space opera usually doesn’t work like Starship SF TV shows; most starship-heavy novels are Military SF, or thrillers. Maybe that’s because a novel is, like a movie, a one-off event; even if it’s part of a series you’ll probably have to wait a year for the next volume. Starship SF audiences aren’t into plot so much as regular contact with their favorite characters. They want to see what the gang is up to this week.

Not that space opera fans don’t enjoy suspenseful action, special effects spectacle, and clever problem-solving, but in these series the chance to watch allies or co-workers becoming friends and friends becoming family is an important attraction. Starship SF is consolatory and aspirational, and I mean that in a positive sense. There’s a certain escapist pleasure in just watching a bunch of friends hang out.[3] To that extent, most of SF fandom’s favorite shows push the same emotional buttons for their fans as a show like Friends does for its audience. Mind you, I’m not saying Star Trek and Friends are interchangeable. The stories and themes they explore in addition to the weekly dose of camaraderie are different, and have different functions; if that weren’t true, they wouldn’t have different audiences. But they do both have that weekly dose of camaraderie, and it’s a point where their audiences have something in common. SF fans who write fan fiction love having their favorite characters just plotlessly hang out together; there’s even an entire subgenre transplanting characters from different settings into 21st century coffee shops.

I’ve wandered far from my original point here. But I think Ascension would appeal to the audience I’ve just described, who might find the characters’ non-involvement in the outside world to be as much a feature as a bug. Sometimes insularity is privilege or self-absorption. But sometimes it’s just that the outside world is the B plot.


  1. This vagueness makes the Federation more convincingly utopian–the more details you give about a utopia, the more likely it is that the audience will decide some of those details don’t sound all that great.  ↩

  2. On ST:TNG helping resolve emotional arcs was literally Troi’s job, which just makes it weirder that the writers so often had no idea what to do with her.  ↩

  3. Or even just watching the extras: when I rewatched ST:TNG one of my favorite parts was watching the people in the background, who were more visible now that I wasn’t watching on a 19-inch screen with bad reception.  ↩

The Clomping Foot of Orbis Tertius

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

So… as I said in my last post (oh so long ago now), recently I reread Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” after it turned up on the shortlist for the Retro Hugo awards, juxtaposed with pulpy stories by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Leigh Brackett. Which, I grant, seems incongruous.

It’s possible to argue–I’ve seen arguments made, anyway–that salting a SF shortlist with classic literature is a dubious move. That such a list might simply be grabbing at cultural respectability, poaching a work that came from outside the SF tradition and therefore doesn’t really belong with it. What’s interesting about this argument is that it could just as easily come from people skeptical of genre fiction, or from genre fans who resent “literary” fiction and insist the beloved pulp of their childhoods is just as good as–no, better than–the books their ninth grade English teacher forced them to read. I would refuse to belong to these groups even if they were willing to have me as a member.

Genre is just a tool for describing what fiction is doing. Any interesting fiction does more than one thing, and might be grouped with any number of genres. The people of Tlon assume all books are the work of one all-encompassing author, whose mind they reconstruct by juxtaposing such wildly dissimilar volumes as the Tao Te Ching and the Arabian Nights; we probably shouldn’t go that far. But no laboratory test in existence can establish definitively how much of which genres any book contains. I’d argue that anyone who can come up with an argument (reasonable or not) for putting a particular work in a particular genre should feel free to do so. The only excuses you need are “Does this make for an enjoyable argument?” and “Could putting this story next to these others lead to interesting ideas?”[1]

For those who haven’t read “Tlon,” a summary: the narrator, a fictionalized Borges, hears of an imaginary world, Tlon, referenced only in an article on a nonexistent country appearing in a single bootleg copy of an encyclopedia. Later he discovers a volume from the Encyclopedia of Tlon which gives a more complete picture of Tlon’s radically different worldview.

SF still has a lot to learn for Borges. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like much of his work, is a story in the form of an essay. You don’t see this much in science fiction or fantasy. I mean, yeah, there aren’t massive quantities of fictional nonfiction in general. But it’s odd that essay-stories don’t turn up much more often in SF, because the format suits SF so well. Some strains of SF just want to build worlds, or speculate about new technologies’ effects on society, and these are too often the ones with clichéd plots and flat characters. Maybe these stories authors’ only cared about (and, incidentally, had the right sort of talents to deal with) the ideas that weren’t related to plot or character… but, not realizing that fiction didn’t have to be conventionally plotted and narrated, they bolted on perfunctory plots and characters about which they felt no real enthusiasm. A lot of golden-age-style engineering problem stories would benefit from being written as fake journal articles. A lot of epic fantasies would be better off as fictional travel writing in the vein of Leena Krohn’s Tainaron or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. Still, not many essay-stories turn up in Best SF collections; in genre the only writer I can think of who embraced the form enthusiastically was Stanislaw Lem, whose A Perfect Vacuum (which includes a nod to Borges) and Imaginary Magnitude collected reviews of, and prefaces to, nonexistent books.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” uses its essay format to build a world in a small space. Worldbuilding is core to science fiction and fantasy, but it’s often seen as a distraction, an invitation for geeks to vanish down their own navels; M. John Harrison famously called it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. (For the opposing view, see China Miéville.) “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” leans toward Harrison’s vision of worldbuilding as toxic labyrinth–but more on that later.

I sometimes agree with M. John Harrison, but I think there are different kinds of worldbuilding. One kind, the kind that can seduce a writer into compiling a thousand-page wannabe-Silmarillion recording the undistinguished deeds of indistinguishable gods and heroes, is boring. But I think other kinds are relevant to creating worlds with a sense of life, and characters who seem to live as citizens of those worlds instead of using them as sketchy backdrops for narcissistic protagonisting. One concerns itself with the material conditions of people’s lives–their food, their jobs and pastimes, their plumbing. Another, the kind of worldbuilding Borges is doing here, is concerned with how people in this imagined world think–not so much their surface opinions as the underlying philosophies and fundamental beliefs. What makes them tick.

The Tlonites tick differently. Their worldview resembles the “subjective idealism” proposed by the 18th century philosopher George Berkely: Tlon denies that material reality exists. Instead there are actions and perceptions. Tlon’s languages have no nouns; one is composed entirely of verbs, another of adjectives, which they use to describe objects, which exist only when perceived. Tlon’s geometry insists that a moving person modifies the forms that surround them, its mathematics claims that counting changes an indefinite number into a definite one. In Tlon, ideas make things: the desire to find a lost object, or even the hope to find something previously unknown, can create new objects called hronir. In Tlon science and philosophy are more games than searches for truth. The point is to construct arguments that come to interesting conclusions.

In the final section of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, ostensibly written seven years later, we learn about the secret society that invented Tlon at the behest of a rich American who wanted to prove God wasn’t the only entity who could create worlds, dagnabbit. The Encyclopedia of Tlon, it turns out, exists in its entirety.

Which brings us back to M. John Harrison’s suspicion of worldbuilding. When I looked up that famous “clomping foot of nerdism” quotation I was struck by a passage that seemed to resonate with Borges’s story:

It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

The Orbis Tertius group releases the entire Encyclopedia of Tlon into the wild, along with a handful of artifacts apparently from Tlon. Now Tlon is everywhere, more inescapable than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The public devours Tlon’s history, adopts Tlon’s culture. Schools teach Tlon’s languages. It’s what everyone on the internet is writing inane thinkpieces about. Everybody loves Tlon because Tlon is simple. Bizarre, yes. But Tlon is the product of human minds, so can be completely contained in and comprehended by human minds–unlike the infinite, complex, accidental, ultimately unknowable real universe that produced the minds that produced Tlon. In a few years, Borges speculates, the world will be Tlon.

So, worldbuilding. What’s it for? Potentially lots of things. I think a lot of them are good. Worldbuilding can create just the right environment to make a story work. Stories of other worlds can show readers other possibilities, good and bad; other ways of thinking or arranging societies. I’m even sympathetic to worldbuilding as consolation, providing imaginary places to daydream about. If occasional escapism helps someone exist in the world, I’m not one to sneer. (There’s a Lynda Barry quotation that turns up a lot on the internet: “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”)

But in these worlds some people find consolation of another, stupider kind. Science fiction and fantasy, the genres most concerned with worldbuilding, are beloved of geek culture, which in the 21st century is mainstream culture. (See: Marvel Cinematic Universe, inescapableness of.) See, geek culture has this pathology–well, geek culture has several pathologies, but this essay is concerned with just one. Geek culture has a habit of relating to its favorite fictions, especially franchises and expanded universes, through a kind of obsessive collector mentality. Not collecting things, collecting facts–fictional facts, at least. Memorizing every detail of the history of Middle Earth, knowing exactly which issue of X-Men each character was introduced in, remembering the name and personal history of every alien in the Star Wars cantina.

Which sounds harmless, but leads to so many annoyances. Like, any discussion involving a pop culture phenomenon, something like Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes, stands a nonzero chance of getting derailed by obsessives arguing over canon: which fictional facts fit with all the other fictional facts, and which have to be thrown out? I’m usually the first to argue that any critical approach can lead to an interesting conversation regardless of how generous you have to be to describe it as a “critical approach,” but even I must admit this stuff is tedious.

What’s worse are the geeks who form in-groups based on obsessive cataloguing, and resentfully police their boundaries with trivia. You’re not a proper fan unless you’ve read all the right science fiction novels,[2] or agree that the animated Star Trek series isn’t canon, or like the right version of Doctor Who. Women in particular seemingly can’t show interest in geek culture things without being quizzed on trivialities by tedious nerds hoping to expose “fake geek girls.”

And then there’s the way any remake, addition, or slight change to any media franchise brings man-children crawling out from under their rocks crying that their childhoods are being ruined.[3] And we have to put up with this nonsense constantly, because the studios that control 90% of American pop culture have run out of ideas and produce nothing but remakes, additions, and slight changes to franchises. As I write this the internet is up in arms because what appears to be a perfectly inoffensive remake of Ghostbusters happens to star women. It’s exactly as tiresome as turning on the radio and hearing the overplayed single you’re most sick of.

So why does this subset of geekdom treat exhaustive surveys of places that aren’t there with a seriousness normally reserved for nuclear nonproliferation treaties? Why the pathetic overreactions?

You might as well ask why everybody in Borges’s world is obsessed with Tlon. Exhaustively surveying a place that isn’t there is exactly the kind of worldbuilding Orbis Tertius does. As M. John Harrison notes, a literally exhaustive survey of the world would be too big for anyone to comprehend in its entirety. Reality contradicts itself, and it keeps changing–tripping people up with new facts. And, let’s face it, reality has terrible continuity. Like, the characters in the “United States” spinoff are supposed to be incredibly afraid of terrorism, but nobody does anything about the mass shootings happening every other day. What sense does that make? Something here isn’t canon! And then there’s that “quantum mechanics” business, which the writers are obviously making up as they go along. And don’t get me started on the way they keep randomly killing off major characters!

Tlon is orderly. Tlon can be catalogued, managed. Tlon can be mastered. The real world is confusing, but with Tlon the fans can feel like they’re in control… At least until Orbis Tertius decides to rewrite Tlon. Or add some new characters. Or remake it with a non-nerd-approved cast. That’s when the panic sets in.[4] The fans, tripped up by new facts, this formerly managable system out of their control, have to face the fact that they’re not masters of anything at all.

Borges identifies the impulse that drives people to Tlon–the desire to simplify and tame the universe–with the impulse that drove people to fascism and totalitarianism. When I look at the grimier edges of nerd culture I’m not sure he’s wrong. Note, again, how much of the behavior I’m describing is bound up with defining and expelling out-groups, and with sexism in particular–whining when the SF canon lets in authors from marginalized groups, refusing to accept the new, diverse characters added to their treasured franchises. There’s some irony in the fact that science fiction, a genre full of stories about opening minds, discovering new things, and accepting the alien, has fans terrified of the new and different in real life… but fictional difference and novelty are under control, and that’s how they like it. Imagine a nerd foot clomping on a human face–forever.

I have no solution for any of this. Neither does Borges in his story; he just does his best to take no notice. Maybe he has the right idea. There are styles of worldbuilding that don’t pander to obsessives and can handle glitches with grace; there are fictional worlds where two planets can have the same name and Atlantis can sink three times without falling apart.[5] Let the Tlonist geeks freak out whenever their authority over trivialities is challenged; I’ll be over here, actually enjoying myself. Only… maybe they could freak out where I don’t have to listen to them?


  1. Incidentally, the first place I read “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was in an anthology called The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which I read when I was young and just recently interested in SF. Like many older anthologies it had a serious gender imbalance–there were more women it could have included, if the editors had worked harder to find them–but within its limits it was a great anthology. It had lots of translated stories, some by writers I’ve never read elsewhere, and brought writers like Sheckly, Le Guin, and Bradbury together with writers like Borges and Boris Vian.  ↩

  2. Some SF fans will tell you proper SF fans should be conversant with the works of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, which is like insisting that anyone interested in English literature absolutely must read Samuel Richardson.  ↩

  3. Invariably followed by a flood of superfluous online thinkpieces noting that, hey, man-children are crying, what’s up with that?  ↩

  4. Although continuity can be rewritten in the service of Tlonism, too. The last thirty years of DC Comics constitute an endless series of increasingly baroque and preposterous attempts to force their entire line into internal consistency.  ↩

  5. My favorite media franchise, Doctor Who, has over the years has gone off in any number of mutually contradictory directions. I might get annoyed when one particular strand of Doctor Who seems to be playing narrative Calvinball, but I don’t lose sleep over the fact that different strands of the series have featured two different versions of Human Nature with two different Doctors and two different political slants. This is a show that had an episode where the Doctor had to defeat somebody wanting to set Earth’s canon in stone to better catalogue it. And yet Doctor Who fans still have arguments about canon!  ↩

Reasons for a Shortlist

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

Every so often the science fiction convention that runs the Hugo Awards also takes nominations for “Retro Hugos,” a Hugo Award for science fiction and fantasy works published in years before the Hugos existed. Which is great, because there’s something peculiarly appropriate about a science fiction award that retcons itself.

Anyway, this year the Hugo Awards are running Retro Hugos for 1940, and I was amused to see the lineup for Best Short Story:

  • “Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Feb 1940)
  • “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Jan 1940)
  • “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, Sept 1940)
  • “The Stellar Legion” by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, Winter 1940)
  • “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges (Sur, 1940)

One of these things is not like the others. And yet this list isn’t as strange as it seems: for all that Asimov and Borges come to this shortlist from different literary worlds, any definition of fantastic fiction that can’t encompass the works of both authors is, I think, incomplete.

On the other hand, there’s a definite difference in quality here. I was tickled enough by this shortlist that I’d thought of rereading and reviewing all the stories, but it turned out to be a dispiriting experience. The two Leigh Brackett stories are perfunctory dramas built on pulp fiction tropes old-fashioned even for 1940. “Robbie” reads like an outline for the sort of treacly animated short I’d imagine coming out of a studio with the desire, but not the talent or the budget, to compete with Chuck Jones’s “Sniffles the Mouse” cartoons. When “Requiem” turned out to be unavailable from both the public library and my personal book collection I decided not to spend time or money tracking it down; a review I found suggested it wasn’t better than my vague memories of it, anyway.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was, of course, still amazing, and I’m going to ramble about it a bit in a second post. But the exercise left me wondering: what are the Retro Hugos for?

That question is not rhetorical or sarcastic. I honestly think it’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. I’m writing as an outside observer of the Hugo Awards, which are primarily nominated and voted on by the part of SF fandom that organizes and attends SF conventions. As an extreme introvert who counts any day in which I don’t have to leave the house as a success, this is very much not my thing. So I may have ideas about what SF’s most well-publicized award ought to be for[1], but I’m not particularly qualified to lecture the Hugo voters about them.

I’m definitely qualified to look at what they’re doing bemusedly, though, so let’s get on with it. It’s obvious what the regular Hugos are for: they’re supposed to honor the best SF work from the previous year. Not all the voters have the same standards for “best,” but (assuming no one is deliberately nominating crap to spoil other people’s fun) everybody agrees on the actual goal. But there’s more than one perspective from which to judge stories with 75 years of historical distance. What does “best,” mean in this context? In other words, what is this award measuring? I can think of three reasons someone might nominate stories for Retro Hugos, none mutually exclusive.

Historical reconstruction: Stories that, at least as far as anyone can tell, fans would have nominated at the time. This could be why the Leigh Brackett stories were nominated, as well as Heinlein’s “Requiem.” On the other hand, I can’t imagine many SF fans at the time would have been aware of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and I’m not convinced the aggressively twee “Robbie” would have been a popular choice. Also, looking at the whole Retro Hugo ballot, there’s a lot of Heinlein there: out of the fifteen slots under Short Story, Novella, and Novelette, Heinlein took six. And the other two slots under Novella were taken by two stories in the same series by the same authors, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, just as two Short Story slots went to Leigh Brackett. This is unusual–Hugo shortlists rarely have more than one story by the same author in the same category. The amount of repetition on the ballot suggests we don’t remember enough SF from 1940 for today’s voters to guess what fans might have nominated at the time.

Historical significance: Stories that were important to the development of the SF genre. This is probably how “Robbie” found its way onto the ballot. It’s not good, but it was the first story Isaac Asimov published in the Robot series that made him famous. This might also be one reason for “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Borges wouldn’t have been on SF readers’ radar at the time, but he’s influenced a lot of writers. And Leigh Brackett is still remembered (especially for her script work) even if these specific stories aren’t very good. But the Heinlein story is just another Heinlein story, of no special importance. The same could be said of the Heinlein stories in the other categories.[2]

Actual quality: Stories that today’s readers, with 75 years of perspective, believe deserved an award on their own merits. This is, again, a good reason to nominate “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” It’s not a reason to nominate anything else on this shortlist. Or, indeed, a lot of other things on the Retro Hugo ballot: most of the stories on that list haven’t aged well.

What’s interesting about the Retro Hugos is that the voters apparently nominated stories for all of those reasons at different times. Some of these stories are on the ballot because they’re significant, some because they’re examples of SF that was popular at the time, and some because 75 years later we still read them with pleasure. All of these are perfectly good criteria, but based on the results there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on which criteria to follow.

This does mean that the Retro Hugos aren’t quite suitable for any specific purpose. If you want a snapshot of what was popular with science fiction fans in 1940, you’re going to want to look at a subset of the list. If you want to know what SF stories from 1940 are of historical interest, you want a different, overlapping, subset. If you want to read some of the actual best fantastic stories of 1940, you want another, much smaller subset. And probably some stories that aren’t even on this list.

On the other hand, the scattershot approach does produce the kind of list where Jorge Luis Borges can rub shoulders with unabashed pulp hackwork and a cornball robot story. Maybe a juxtaposition that weird is valuable in itself.


  1. Basically I wish they were more adventurous; even when they’re not being distorted by right-wing write-in campaigns, they tend to feature a certain amount of work that’s competent but not truly outstanding.  ↩

  2. The most historically significant work in any category is “A Wild Hare” under Best Dramatic Presentation (Short). This is the cartoon that introduced Bugs Bunny.  ↩

Recent Reading, Unfinished and Ambivalent

I’ve read a lot of books in recent months that I didn’t finish, or felt ambivalent about. I have notes on a few of them.

Will Elliott, The Pilgrims

This is a portal fantasy with a pair of protagonists. The first protagonist is a loser. He finds a door–a literal door–to another world, and it’s the greatest thing to happen to him in, like, ever; he fully expects that in this new world he’ll be a hero. Rather uniquely, the novel realizes he’s an idiot. He does end up touched by Mysterious Powers but his homeless friend, protagonist number two, is the one who’ll probably have something closer to a traditional hero role. This novel is trying to deconstruct stories about schlubs who travel to another world and discover their inner strength. I have a soft spot for this genre, but I still enthusiastically agree it needs deconstruction.

Unfortunately The Pilgrims never arrives where it’s going because it’s the first volume in another damn trilogy that ends on another damn cliffhanger. As usual for the first and second books of trilogies, it feels like mostly padding.

Actually, the padding is interesting to think about, if not to read. I’ve noticed some epic fantasies set lots of action in what you might call “Adventure Land.” Vague fields, forests, or mountains where nothing happens apart from bands of adventurers travelling through having what Dungeons and Dragons calls “encounters.” There’s no evidence that Adventure Land belongs to anyone, or is used for anything, unless it’s been set aside as a park. If so, fantasyland has a very extensive national park system; Teddy Roosevelt would be proud. There might be roads in Adventure Land but these novels rarely mention farms. (Civilizations need agriculture; I’d expect most cities to be surrounded by farms.) There might be a ruin, if the novel is especially D&D-ish. Usually the only inhabitants of Adventure Land are monsters. Or bandits. Or inexplicably self-sufficient cottages which if the protagonist is lucky are owned by helpful allies, and if unlucky by Tom Bombadil.

A lot of The Pilgrims takes place in Adventure Land. It’s specifically mentioned that farming is taking place under a dome. Beyond that, there’s a city, and a castle, and the rest of the land is… I dunno. I’ve got to admit, by the midpoint of the novel I was picturing the characters tramping across a giant lawn.

Graydon Saunders, The March North

Saunders writes SF like John M. Ford did: leaning heavily on incluing for explanations, feeding you only just enough context to deduce the world, the backstory, and the underlying meaning of what’s happening. I find that Ford stays just on the right side of gnomic. For me, Saunders crossed the line into obtuse. This may be partly because The March North is military fantasy, which is not usually my thing. There’s a lot of military jargon and maneuvering and it’s hard to tell how much is relevant, or in what way. The characters spend long passages exchanging technobabble about magic artillery. On the positive side of the ledger, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. On the negative side, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. It’s not particularly interesting, and it’s never clear why it’s relevant.

The characters are mostly ciphers; salient facts about the narrator’s identity and background aren’t made clear for a while, and the soldiers might as well be a formless mass labeled “soldiers.” When a good chunk of them die it’s about as affecting as seeing barrels get smashed in a video game.

There’s a second book set in the same world that doesn’t share the same setup or characters as this one. It might have been better if I’d read that first; maybe I’ll try it someday.

Marta Randall, Journey

Marta Randall’s prose is good so at first this seemed promising. I soon discovered this is a book where it’s considered acceptable for a guy to own an entire inhabited planet and treat the natives as servants. I checked some of the later chapters and didn’t see any suggestion that at any point the novel questioned this. 1978 seems late for something like this to be published.

There’s also some lack of acknowledgement of how big planets are. Like, 200 refugees come to this planet owned by a single family, and the wife wants to make it clear the refugees don’t own the land they’re living on. Because—setting aside the natives, which is, let us admit, a pretty massive thing to set aside—an entire planet inhabited by 200 people is facing a serious land shortage, right?

A. L. Kennedy, the Drosten’s Curse

The Drosten’s Curse is a Doctor Who tie-in starring the fourth Doctor. It’s an expansion of one of the Time Trips novella ebooks the BBC published a couple years ago.

At first the prose style seemed a little strange. The Drosten’s Curse uses a lot of ellipses and run-on sentences. But it felt right, somehow. Eventually it hit me: the prose is a pretty accurate replica of the way Tom Baker talked when he played the Doctor. The narrative voice of The Drosten’s Curse is the fourth Doctor as a Douglas Adames-esque third person omniscient narrator. That’s a smart choice, and appropriate: the novel takes the same whimsical tone as that one year during Tom Baker’s tenure that Adams worked on the program.

Unfortunately, after a while the novel starts to drag. There’s just too much happening, and too much of it feels random. And it may be that the fourth Doctor’s voice only works as prose in smaller doses.

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories

Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories is the book for anyone who’s interested in epic fantasy but put off by series that seem approximately the size of Borges’s Library of Babel. It’s got revolutions and religious wars and political scheming and cursed monsters and a warrior woman riding a giant bird, all in one volume.

(It’s set in the same world as her earlier A Stranger in Olondria. But you don’t have to have read that book to read this one. But you should!)

Cover of The Winged Histories

Olondria is in a bit of a state. Kestenya, one of the provinces, is rebelling. Believers in Olondria’s old religion are fighting the new official religion that tried to suppress them. The Winged Histories views Oldondria’s civil war through four narrators–Tavis, who flees her shabby-genteel family to become a soldier, Tialon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, Seren, Tavis’s nomadic lover, and Siski, Tavis’s more conventional sister. All four are given individual voices and storytelling styles and points of view. The writing is, as in Samatar’s earlier novel, beautiful; it doesn’t just tell us what her characters feel, it conveys what feeling those things feels like to them.

For me, The Winged Histories is likely to be the best fantasy novel of the year. The problem with reviewing a novel that good after a first reading is that it can be hard to explain what made it so good. It’s easier to step back and analyze the books I’m less caught up in. I’m reduced to waving at it and saying “look at that,” and I’m not sure what to wave at first. Although doesn’t it say something that there are multiple waving-targets to choose from? So many fantasy novels just tell a story and leave it at that; once you’ve closed the last volume there’s no reason to think about it again. The Winged Histories is full of ideas.

Maybe history? Because this is a book about history. I will acknowledge that in some fantasy novels historical exposition can be a bad sign. The Winged Histories isn’t that kind of book. The problems with fantasy history come up when novels infodump a load of ancient creation myths explaining where the generic Evil Forces came from and what Mighty Plot Coupon the hero needs to make them go away. The Winged Histories is about history, and brief passages from Olondria’s official history actually appear in the novel, but it’s the kind of history people feel things about. The Winged Histories is about history that affects its characters’ lives and material realities. It matters to Tavis and Siski that Kestenya, their home, is part of Olondria, and that once it wasn’t. It makes a difference in their lives that their family has ties to Olondria’s rulers–their cousin Dasya is an heir to the throne–that, correctly exploited, could make their family important again.

Tavis is not, at first, concerned with history. She joins the army just because she wants to be a soldier. We get her limited view of the border skirmishes that keep the army busy on the edge of Kestenya. Who is she fighting, and why? She’s not totally sure. She starts to think maybe it’s not good that she’s not sure. Maybe, if she’s going to risk her life, she should risk it for Kestenya. The history of Olondria is placed between the narrators’ sections, so we don’t get exposition until we’ve gotten to know Tavis, and she’s started caring about history, and so by that point we care about Olondria’s history, too.

The historical sections are titled “From Our Common History.” There’s an understanding here–often elided in fantasy–that history is told from a certain point of view, that histories choose certain facts to present, leaving others out. Even objective, honest histories–there’s a lot of information out there, too much for any one history to hold. That’s why there’s always room for new histories of events we’ve studied for centuries: there’s always more to tell.

Tavis, Seren, and Siski are family. Tialon seems the odd one out in this novel; she doesn’t personally know any of them, though she meets Dasya and she also has a connection to A Stranger in Olondria, having appeared in that book. Tialon has spent her life in a tower with her father, the Priest of the Stone. The Stone is literally a big rock, covered in criss-crossing carvings, that serves as his holy book. Tialon is an insider and an outsider: she’s watching a family she has no connection to from a center of power she’s never had the chance to leave.

The Stone, it turns out, has a lot more writing on it than the Priest wanted translated. A lot of people wrote a lot of different lines on this rock. Some of it sounds religious, some more mundane. The Priest calls the extra lines “Orphans” after a line he found on the Stone cursing “these orphans darkening my path.” He’s decided they’re just graffiti some punks scraped into his holy artifact although, as one scholar points out, some of the mundane lines might sound profound when taken metaphorically. The thing is, it’s entirely up to the Priest which lines are the voice of his god and which are Orphans. The Stone is a grab bag from which the Priest picked the lines that told the story he wanted to tell. Yet in his mind he isn’t that story’s author: it came from the Stone.

But by picking out the lines he wants and suppressing the others, he’s not getting the complete story. The texts on the stone are woven into and written through each other, all part of the same artifact. Tialon realizes that people, too, are “written into each other.” She doesn’t know Tavis, Siski, or Seren, but their choices affect her life, and, whether they ever realize it or not, choices Tialon makes affect theirs. Lives coexist and cross over; people are context for each other. Even people who don’t know or think anything about each other (that “orphans” line was, after all, probably referring to actual orphans).

Historical infodumps tend not to work in generic epic fantasy, but that isn’t because fantasy history is an inherently bad idea–it’s that less accomplished fantasies don’t understand history as The Winged Histories does. History isn’t important because it’s full of mysteriously accurate prophecies, or because it contains instructions for defeating the Sauron of the Month. It’s important because it’s the context for people’s lives.