Tag Archives: Speculative Fiction

On Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s Tone


What I mean is, I’m writing on Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s book Tone, not their, y’know, tone. Although that’s interesting, too. This is imaginative criticism, not dryly analytical but poetic. Books about art can also be art.

Cover of Tone

Tone, as a literary concept, isn’t as easily defined as plot or character. “Tone” seems to mean less the more you repeat it. (Tone. Tone? Tone tone tone.) Online literary discourse (and it is mostly discourse, in its incarnation as the term for sniping and squabbling on various Twitter methadone sites, rather than discussion or conversation) hinges on plot, character, and visible surface politics, and not much else. Tone mostly comes up in the context of accusations that someone is trying to police it. You start to feel like any consideration of it is cop-brained.

But it does mean something, albeit something elusively complex; Samatar and Zambreno are approaching a definition, not declaring one finalized and laminated for safekeeping. Singular authority is what this book is running from; it’s written in first person plural for a reason.


It’s not voice, for one thing. A book with a consistent tone can contain many voices and one voice can speak in different tones. Readers often have very different feelings about the first three Earthsea books and Tehanu. (I’m lukewarm on the former and loved the latter.) They’re all in Ursula K. Le Guin’s voice but she’s writing in different tones.

Some of the metaphors Samatar and Zambreno use to approach tone:

  • Windows. (Lighted windows, stained glass windows, computer windows.) A window frames what you see through it, maybe colors it. You can be inside looking out or outside looking in. Is this the difference between the writer and the reader? Which is which?

  • Synesthesia. Tone can be a color—some books are grey, some blue. Tone can be an odor or a background noise. Sense-impressions create atmospheres; atmospheres remind us of sense-impressions.

  • Speaking of atmospheres: Ecology. Tone is established through relationships—how the materials of a text relate to each other in a complex web, like the elements of an ecosystem.

Samatar and Zambreno illustrate their arguments with close readings of several novels, and their reading of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn lays out (even for someone like me who has not yet read it) how the ecological metaphor works. Samatar and Zambreno argue The Rings of Saturn has a distant tone, an atmosphere of parts:

  • The Rings of Saturn is structured by a long walk through Sussex—a distance travelled horizontally—after “a long stint of work.”
  • The book repeatedly watches things from heights—from a cliff, a plane, the top of a well.
  • There’s a model of the Temple of Jerusalem, which not only seems distant—we look down on models like we’re looking from a great height—but models something distant in time. The novel ponders the history of the territory the narrator walks (and “the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place”), and also thinks for a while about the 17th century writer Thomas Browne.
  • Sebald’s prose is itself old-fashioned, temporally distanced, originally written in an archaically-tinged German.

Writers arrange images, incidents, and language to resonate against (or with) each other. And then this feedback loop happens: the resonance becomes an organizing principle in itself; readers interpret images, incidents, and language through the tone.


Tone is a general exploration of tone, and also offers readings of several specific books, and at a certain point you realize you’re also reading cultural criticism. Samatar and Zambreno are writing about the tone of the world—the affective atmospheres we breathe without noticing.

The books Tone analyzes, in relation to each other, set a tone—Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, about a Black woman academic; Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate, about a writer working a temp job at an Amazon warehouse; Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, about people working absurd, meaningless jobs; Sebald’s meditations, which take in historical disasters. Samatar and Zambreno investigate tones specific to their own experiences as women in 21st century academia (the atmosphere breathed by a visiting scholar, for instance) and more broadly the tone of the world everyone shares, where capitalism is a sickening and collapsing end in itself instead of a means.

Tone is about the relations between elements in a text, but it’s also about seeing the relations between people in a culture that atomizes us and nudges us into an individualist mindset: we’re the hero, others supporting extras. In the end, Tone concludes, the book has been as much about “making a space where certain things can be said” as about tone itself.

Good criticism, like any other kind of good writing, has got to do more than one thing at a time.


These points where Samatar and Zambreno talk about tone in ecological terms struck me hardest. Another word for an ecosystem is the environment. “Environment” can also mean a social or cultural or architectural environment. In any case it’s an arrangement of materials that relate to each other in particular ways and create particular effects (or affects), and we are among those materials in both senses of the word.

In the Peanuts strip that ran August 11, 1970, Linus is just back from a trip. Everywhere he went he saw the same malls and motels and restaurants they had back home. “Every town looks like every other town… It doesn’t matter where you go… you never left!”

A lot of SFF books—popular fiction in general, really, but SFF is the genre where I keep most up to date—feel like featureless lumps of gray teflon. My attention slides off them. I’ve always found the reasons hard to pin down—nebulous and most likely myriad. But one piece of the puzzle that is my alienation from pop culture is likely a loss of cultural biodiversity. 21st century SFF favors reboots and retellings. It’s marketed as bullet lists of safely familiar “tropes” legoed together into microtargeted subgenres. Every book needs its comp titles; the most marketable use mostly the same materials in mostly the same configurations.

Tone is part of this. High-profile SFF stays within a limited range of marketable tones—straightforwardly invisible, snarky, heartwarming, spunky (this last usually written in first person present tense). SFF paints deep space, fairyland, and contemporary New York in the same tones; they color the speech of medieval Europe, the Paleolithic tundra, and posthuman Pluto. Tonally, these stories are interchangeable geography-of-nowhere theme park suburbs. A literature where, no matter where you are in space or time, you can always get McDonalds.

(It’s easy to see why media execs are comfortable with AI art: AI is inherently remixed, no potentially off-putting tone of its own. A portfolio of proven successes blended into a palatable Soylent shake.)

Samatar and Zambreno quote a speaker at a conference who says Kafka’s style is unlike any other kind of German, like a “meteor” fallen to earth. What with the books’s focus on relationships I don’t feel like it makes sense to talk about this as individuality of tone. Maybe specificity is the right word. Kafka compels because the tone of his work, like the language, is determinedly specific.

Samatar and Zambreno write that the most compelling reason to return to a book is “to breathe that air again.” But first it needs air of its own.

Raskolnikov, C’est Nous

A cartoon of Newt Gingrich reading Slan.

Compulsive readers get used to finding unexpected connections between books. I also make random connections while wasting time on the internet. Sometimes, like now, this leads to a blog post’s worth of dubious, rambling speculation and crazy theories.

A few days ago I read a blog post at Welcome to My World by Martin McGrath called “Why Does SF Hate Ordinary People?”1 finding a strain of contempt for ordinary people in certain science fiction and fantasy novels.

“Ordinary” has many definitions, so before proceeding I should explain what, in this case, it doesn’t mean: As I write, among the memes stumbling around the internet is a quiz based on a new book by famed statistic-mangler Charles Murray. It supposedly measures how much contact you have with “ordinary” Americans. Actually, it asks questions based on a stereotype of rural white midwesterners (Can you identify this NASCAR driver? Do you have a fridge full of Pabst Blue Ribbon?) and suggests anyone who can’t answer in the affirmative is living in a “bubble.” It must be a very large bubble. It would have to contain most of the country’s actual working class.

The culture-war definition of “ordinary” is not what this blog post is about. Being staggeringly bored by cars driving in circles very fast is not less legitimate than being entertained by them. Another term for making judgements about culture is having taste.

These “ordinary” people have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are not wealthy, famous, heroic, or adventure-prone. They hold down middle- or working-class jobs and keep regular schedules. Their biggest worries aren’t crusades, revolutions, or the impending apocalypse; they’re rents or mortgages, health care, child care, and putting food on the table. They’re “ordinary” only in the sense that they live like the vast majority of people in our society–or whatever fantastic society they call home, which may or may not have mortgages but certainly has people whose main concerns are not the stuff of high drama. As an example McGrath cites Colson Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic zombie potboiler Zone One, which judges the average American too inept to survive an emergency, valorizing, in McGrath’s words, “the loners, the socially inept and those who chafe against the ‘burdens’ imposed on them by the social contract that knits the rest of us together.”

When I finished reading McGrath’s post my brain turned to thoughts of Newt Gingrich. Which sounds, I grant you, quite the random leap. I can explain. See, in one of the endless series of Republican presidential debates, Gingrich revealed a cunning plan to solve school budget problems and reduce the dropout rate: child labor.

“New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.”2

Not long after the debate I read a post by “Kay” at Balloon Juice, “Only the Elites Insult the Working Adults Who Pick Up After Us,” that made explicit something not everyone picked up on:3

While it’s certainly interesting that opposing child labor laws is now a mainstream position on the Right and among conservative news personalities, I hear something else entirely in Gingrich’s statement than the pundits and politicians heard. Newt Gingrich told us all last night that nine year olds can replace the grown men and women who currently do these jobs. Newt Gingrich believes janitors and cafeteria workers and people who work in school libraries and offices can and should be replaced by children.

That’s how much respect Gingrich has for the work that these people do.

Gingrich, of course, is an SF fan who loves Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and has co-written several alternate history novels. McGrath, on his blog, traces a thread of science-fictional disrespect for the ordinary back to the “golden age” of SF, when:

…the triumph of the “golden era’s” omni-competent men, the math-wizard engineers, scientists and the all-knowing astronauts, was always about the final victory of those who felt they were hard done by in a society that did not properly value their obviously superior intelligence.

Which is true. And not necessarily political; I was reminded of Gingrich, but McGrath sees disdain for the ordinary in both right-leaning and left-leaning SF. The thing is, I don’t think “Why does SF hate ordinary people” is the right question. You might ask it about fiction in general.

Dostoeyvsky parodied this attitude over a century ago in Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov, the self-styled “extraordinary” man. According to the Raskolnikov theory the world revolves around powerful, charismatic Great Individuals, the lynchpins and keystones of civilization. If they’re in politics, our safety and security depend on their strength and resolution; if they’re in business, our prosperity depends on their innovation and creativity. Whatever these extraordinary people do, we can’t hold them to the same rules the rest of us follow. Sometimes, to get the job done, they have to break them. You might remember these ideas from such novels as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, but it’s also the premise of every second Hollywood action movie, ever.4

A few days after McGrath asked his question, Gareth Rees’s post about the teapot-tempest stirred up by a book review at Strange Horizons led me to Caleb Crain’s New York Times review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work:

Describing a manager who feeds him lunch, de Botton writes that “years of working around noisy machinery had left my host mildly deaf in one ear and given him a concomitant habit of leaning in uncomfortably close during discussions, so close that I began to dread his enunciation of a word with a ”˜p’ or a ”˜g’ in it.” For good measure, de Botton adds that the man bores him, perhaps as a result of his “surprisingly intense pride in the plant and its workers.” If de Botton were genuinely concerned that work today lacks meaning, surely here was an opportunity to ask questions. But is he worried that work today lacks meaning? Or just that some work means more to other people than he thinks it should?

This is aimed at the same target, but from a different direction. It’s the contempt of the counterculture for the squares–contempt from outside as opposed to Raskolnikov’s contempt from above. Contempt from outside sees regular, orderly lives as a curse and the people who live them as dupes or zombies. It sees white collar workers as gray killjoys, blue collar workers as Morlocks. They’re buttoned-down and repressed; obstacles to be routed around, or beaten-down victims who need a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to loosen them up and teach them to enjoy life. Contempt from outside sees Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces telling the waitress to hold the chicken salad between her knees, and thinks Bobby DuPea is a free spirit sticking it to The Man rather than, as I think the filmmakers intended, an asshole.

Gingrich sees “ordinary” people as inept, inferior–in comparison his own success is proof of his competence. De Botton sees “ordinary” people as limited, unimaginative–in comparison, he’s deeper, more free. What these attitudes have in common is that they help their holders define themselves as something other than ordinary.

I don’t think many genuine full-time Gingriches and de Bottons exist. In real life, hardly anyone hates ordinary people. In real life, most of us are ordinary. But these kinds of contempt are basic assumptions in many books and many movies–fundamental to the narrative’s world view–and, as long as we’re reading or watching, we go along with it.

The reason is simple: in fiction, ordinary is boring.

It’s hard to hold an audience’s interest in a very long and intricate description of a hero washing dishes. We’ve washed our own so often it takes genius to show us anything fresh. Fiction centers around the most important, most dramatic events of its characters’ lives; unusual, extraordinary events, even adventures. The characters who aren’t going through big changes aren’t the main cast, they’re the extras. Fiction skips the quotidian details.

At this point Raymond Carver busts into the room, waving a copy of Best American Short Stories. “Hey!” he says. “I’m standing right here, y’know!” And Ray has a point. Huge swathes of stories, ranging from great to unreadable, anchor themselves in the everyday. As pro-genre as I am, I’ll admit when it comes to ordinary people the novels filed under “literature” have a better track record than the ones that get filed under “genre.” Heck, sometimes the skill with which a book deals with the ordinary determines where we file it. Still, the protagonists of even the weightiest of serious literature have deeper thoughts and more passionate affairs than most of us have most of the time. If the protagonist is an Uncle Vanya or a Madame Bovary, living entirely without excitement or drama, chances are the story is about how he or she wants that to change:

I am clever and brave and strong. If I had lived a normal life I might have become another Schopenhauer or Dostoieffski.

Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

In reality, thinking like Vanya lead people into weird places–especially if Vanya starts listening to Raskolnikov. Maybe, thinks Vanya, I can be Raskolnikov, too! Yeah, maybe now he’s filed away in a tiny beige cubicle. But the Great Individuals didn’t get their amazing, superhuman abilities by educating themselves or devotedly practicing their craft. Their talents just sort of came to them, because they’re special. Just like, deep down inside, he’s special. Someday he’ll be Great, too. All he has to do is believe in himself.

Our popular fiction is swarming with spunky nobodies discovering natural God-given talents–not skills, because they rarely need to work at them–and overcoming hidebound establishments and opposition from nay-saying friends and family to fulfill their dreams. Often this is a fantasy-hero thing–see The Matrix, Star Wars, or other stories about Chosen Ones who inherit their powers, or unleash their inner badass after very little training. I’m often struck by the contrast between modern adventure movies and older Hitchcock-style thrillers whose average heroes muddled through extraordinary adventures without manifesting heretofore unsuspected Kung Fu.

In the movies, the follow-your-dreams hero is as likely to become an entertainer, or some other kind of celebrity. These stories combine the “special person” narrative with the “outsider vs. the squares” narrative–their heroes succeed because they’re more soulful and free-spirited than the hoi polloi. Who are–to bring this essay back to the point–us, in the audience, watching.

It’s tempting to identify with the hero’s point of view even when, technically, that point of view doesn’t like us very much. One of the attractions of fiction is that people think in stories. We make sense of our lives by organizing them into narratives in which we’re the central characters. We feel like protagonists, exceptional people. In a way, from our own viewpoints, we are exceptions: every one of us is the only person whose head we live inside–the one person whose thoughts and point of view we have full access to, as we have access to the thoughts and POV of a novel’s protagonist. It’s the protagonist that we measure ourselves against, not the extras and walk-ons. When the narrative point of view tries to open some space between the hero and the herd we instinctively side with the hero.

Which is fine. The danger comes when too many of our stories define their heroes as better than everyone else. Stories are one of the big ways a culture or subculture spreads its values. Hearing a message over and over again habituates us. It can become part of the cultural furniture, something those who share these stories unthinkingly assume to be true.

There’s long been a toxic strain in SF fandom, a subculture-within-a-subculture that actually believes SF fans are superior to the common horde. Some fans in years gone only half-jokingly coined the phrase “fans are slans,” comparing themselves to the scorned superhumans of A. E. van Vogt’s novel Slan. Even today SF appeals to more than its fair share of inflated egos. Even those of us with no interest in formal, organized fandom run into these people when we make the mistake of reading an internet comment thread. Would-be writers convinced their self-published zombie-vampire-dragon trilogies would sell millions if the market weren’t conspiring against them. Self-styled omni-competent men who think all they need to reveal their true potential is the breakdown of civilization. Guys who whine about “political correctness” if a book’s protagonist is female or gay or something.

Part of getting along with people, functioning in society, and maintaining a working sense of empathy is keeping in mind that, though we’re our own protaginists, so is everyone else–to others, we’re supporting characters or extras. If we find this tough to accept, maybe our culture–whether “our culture” means SF fans or American culture in general–isn’t hearing that message often enough. We could stand to be more comfortable in our ordinariness.

  1. Via ↩

  2. And yet Gingrich is upset by a janitors’ union negotiating for a living wage. I guess it’s because he’s an elite! ↩

  3. Via ↩

  4. As well as a lot of comics. R. Sikoryak once drew a mashup of Crime and Punishment and Batman, with Batman as Raskolnikov. They fit together frighteningly well. ↩

Not Less Than Gods

Cover Art

Not Less Than Gods is one of the last couple of novels Kage Baker finished before her death, and the final novel in her Company series. For anybody familiar with the series, this is the backstory on Edward Bell-Fairfax, and how he grew into a strange fusion of Victorian idealist and sociopath. For anybody else, it’s a 300 page chunk of steampunk espionage that stands perfectly well on its own.

Of course, between a reader coming to a book cold, and one who’s already read the author’s other work, I think the fan is getting a better deal. You often hear of avid readers who find an interesting writer and obsessively track down everything that writer ever wrote. You might assume they’re just after more of the same. Nah–there’s more to it than that.

Most writers–and artists in general; painters, directors, whatever–have styles they prefer, tricks and techniques they reuse, thoughts and questions they return to. A few artists are stylistic chameleons, never the same from work to work. I actually find these artists less interesting! The best thing about having read many of a writer’s books is that you start to see patterns, and then you’re reading with a whole extra set of tools. Reading one book is like standing in a landscape; read more and you catch a glimpse of the map.

So, yeah, Not Less Than Gods is fun. But it holds an extra meta-interest for me because it demonstrates three techniques Kage Baker turned to often, and was very good at.

(Spoiler note: Later in this post, I discuss the ending of Not Less Than Gods. Also, there’s a somewhat vaguer spoiler for her fantasy novel The Anvil of the World.) Continue reading Not Less Than Gods

Cherie Priest, Boneshaker

Cover Art

Last year, the SF blogosphere was so excited about Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker you would have thought it had caused actual bones to be shaken. I suspect massive name recognition was a major reason this novel ended up on both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, because Boneshaker does not aspire or pretend to be anything more than a light, breezy adventure novel–the kind of book that meets the baseline standard of “entertaining” but isn’t meant to step beyond into “exciting” or “compelling.” This is a good and worthwhile thing for a book to be… but it’s not unusual.

From the Nebula or Hugo shortlist, I expect something ambitious, or moving, or thoughtful, or beautiful. Something significant, memorable, and mind-blowing. A book that a reasonably well-read person might honestly judge to be among the five or six best SF novels published in the past year. I am, in other words, in Adam Roberts’s camp on the whole Hugo Awards deal.

Yes, I know. The fact that Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi were nominated for Little Brother and Zoe’s Tale, neither of which rose to Boneshaker’s level of craft–or that Robert J. Sawyer and Jack McDevitt have ever been nominated at all, for anything–should have squashed my illusions. Still, I cannot extinguish the small ember of hope that whispers maybe, this year, the nominators followed some criteria more stringent than “What are people talking about on the internet?”

The problem with this, I’d argue, is not so much that it’s unfair to other, more ambitious SF novels that go unrecognized. They’re big books and can take care of themselves. What’s worse is the vast disservice it does to books like Boneshaker.

A reader’s experience of a book depends partly on the assumptions they bring to it. It’s like James Thurber’s story “The Macbeth Murder Mystery”: Pick up Macbeth thinking it’s a detective story, and you’ll read it wrong. Anyone who reads Moby-Dick like a C. S. Forester novel will be bored and annoyed and will miss all the really good bits, and you can say the same for a reader who comes across the Horatio Hornblower stories while looking for another book like Moby-Dick. Or a reader who reads a light adventure novel expecting an award nominee. I read Boneshaker because it made the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, and was left without much patience for a book I might otherwise have enjoyed. When the Nebula judges saddled Boneshaker with a nomination, they guaranteed that a large chunk of its potential audience would come to it with the wrong expectations.

So, ignoring the nominations… how good is Boneshaker at being what it actually tries to be? Here I have to admit that, with different expectations, I would still have been… not necessarily the wrong reader for this book, but not the ideal reader. I’ll overlook a lot if a book pushes my buttons; I cut Boneshaker less slack because the buttons it pushes belong to other people. One reason Boneshaker got so much attention was that it managed to incorporate two current internet fads: it’s a steampunk novel about a city overrun by zombies. Steampunk I can take or leave. Zombies are boring, and I absolutely cannot wait for SF fans to get over their fascination with the things. The zombies are not Boneshaker’s main focus, so I can’t say they bothered me, but I wasn’t excited to see them, either.

So when I say I thought Boneshaker wasn’t as fast-paced and breezy as I’d like, that it in fact seemed drawn out far too long… well, it’s a relative judgement. One of Kage Baker’s Company novels, Mendoza in Hollywood, is a couple hundred pages of time travelers just sort of hanging out in 19th-century California, followed by a slight trace of plot. I couldn’t put it down. I like spending time with Baker’s characters and her world, even when her characters have so much downtime they spend an entire chapter watching a movie. If you like spending time with zombies and steampunk gadgets, maybe you’ll want as much Boneshaker as you can get.

Me, though… I thought the novel would have been stronger if it had been cut in half. And there’s a specific half that’s disposable. Boneshaker is split between the points of view of Briar Wilkes, the widow of the man whose pulp-villain-style drilling machine loosed a plague of zombies on Seattle, and her son Zeke, who kicks things off by sneaking into the now-walled city to find traces of his dad. Of the two leads, only Briar is interesting.

Zeke’s only function in this story is to be rescued, and his rescue would have been more suspenseful if we’d had no more idea than Briar of what had become of him. Instead, we spend every other chapter watching Zeke bounce from character to character and fail to accomplish anything. Whenever Boneshaker switches to Zeke’s point of view, the story starts running in place. Typical of Zeke’s half of the book is a chapter in which he’s put on a dirigible leaving the city; it turns out to have been stolen, the original owners show up to retrieve it, and Zeke runs away. Neither dirigible crew appears in the novel again, and the incident has absolutely no effect on anything. It’s just a teaser for another novel in the same universe.

Briar is smart and resourceful and drives the plot. Boneshaker is really entirely her story–it’s about getting her life unstuck and into a place where she can talk about her past and move on. The escaping-from-zombies bits might go on a bit too long for my taste, but Briar’s chapters have all the excitement missing from Zeke’s. A sign of the skill and craft behind this book, and the thing that most impressed me, was one of the climactic revelations–without saying too much, one of Boneshaker’s central mysteries is a question of identity; Cherie Priest’s answer seems superficially anticlimactic but is actually far more interesting than the alternative, and it sets up a bigger revelation at the end of the book.

So am I recommending Boneshaker, or not? I guess I’d recommend half of it, to steampunk fans. Fortunately, it’s easy to read just Briar’s half: the chapters are prefaced with engravings of a pair of steampunk goggles or a dirigible, depending on whether they’re Zeke’s chapters or Briar’s–and Zeke’s chapters don’t drive the plot, so the novel is perfectly comprehensible without them!

Memories of the Future

Cover Art

The best science fiction/fantasy collection of 2009 was a book of 80-year old stories: Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. If anyone out there knows how to pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky,” leave a comment. I’m really curious.

Memories collects seven stories written in the Soviet Union during the late 1920s. (It might also have been published in 2006 as Seven Stories, which I haven’t seen. On the other hand, maybe those were seven different stories. Another story, “Yellow Coal,” is available on the web.)

Most of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are fantasies of the kind filed under “magic realism.” “Memories of the Future” is flat-out science fiction, written in reaction to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. All of them are way the hell better than anything American SF writers–I guess at the time they would have been “scientifiction writers”–came up with in the 1930s. Project Gutenberg has been digitizing early out-of-copyright issues of Astounding, and, let me tell you, trees should not have been reduced to pulp for that dreck. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to the SF genre if Krzhizhanovsky had slipped past the censors, if he’d been translated into English, if his stories had reached western SF writers and shook it awake a little. Could the New Wave have hit the shore thirty years early?

When SF fans talk about writing, someone usually shows up to promote “transparent prose.” “Transparent prose” is writing notable for its unwillingness to impinge on the readers consciousness. It’s a “window” onto the story; you read through it. I think this kind of prose is okay, if not exciting. It’s a good minimum standard.

But for readers who hate “literary” writing transparent prose is the only way to go. Writing is about communication, they say. And they’re right. Good writing communicates clearly. But prose that communicates clearly and beautifully communicates more than plain transparent-as-glass prose. It encodes more information. Here’s a small nonstandard use of a verb, from Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Branch Line”: “Under the conductor’s canting a red beard bubbled.” Can’t you just see that beard? In more detail than you might have seen “a curly red beard?”

One sign of great writing is the unexpected but perfect image: when it would never have occurred to you to describe something that way, but it’s exactly right. Great writing renews familiar things with surprise and estrangement. It kicks down your door and shouts “Hey, you think you’ve seen this before, but look again!” That’s Krzhizhanovsky’s specialty. On every page you’ll find at least one striking image, from the small to the significant (“We’re still immured in our old space, like the stumps in a felled forest. But our lives have long been stacked in piles, and not for us but for others.”)

Great writing is always doing at least two things at once. On the surface Krzhizhanovsky tells stories; subconsciously, his style tells us how he felt living in the Soviet Union. Krzhizhanovsky frequently uses synecdoche when referring to people–“briefcases,” “the earflaps,” “a five-digit number that had promised to put in a word to the right people.” People seem reduced to objects, functions; we’re also reminded of fairy tales and parables of inanimate objects that act out human failings. Some stories progress through the abrupt shifts and transitions of dream logic. Krzhizhanovsky’s world, like Stalin’s, is ruled not by sense but by arbitrary fiat.

Krzhizhanovsky’s stories weren’t published until 1989. He couldn’t get them past the censors. He had to content himself by holding readings while working a day job as an encyclopedia editor. So it’s not surprising that Krzhizhanovsky is preoccupied with the difficulties of being a writer in the Soviet Union. The star of “The Bookmark” is a frustrated writer, a “theme-catcher” who spins stories from the smallest hints–a cat on a ledge, a wood shaving blowing by in the wind–but has no outlet for his stories beyond telling them to acquaintances and passers-by.

The theme-catcher goes to a Soviet publisher with a book called Stories for the Crossed-Out. “Are you one of the crossed-out or one of the crossers-out?” asks the editor. Someone “able to cross things out” would be more in line with the times. Another editor invites the theme-catcher to write something safe: a biographical sketch on “Bacon.” The theme-catcher asks which one. The editor, surprised, tells the theme-catcher to write about “The Brothers Bacon.” The theme-catcher points out that Roger and Francis Bacon lived three hundred years apart. The editor screams “You’re all of you alike!” and storms out of the office. I think this is autobiography. The way the editor covers his embarrassment with sudden, wild hostility has the ring of truth. In the Soviet Union, good Party members were rewarded with jobs they were totally unqualified for. It was a nation of Heckuvajob Brownies. I’ll bet Krzhizhanovsky dealt with these guys all the time.

The narrator of “Someone Else’s Theme” meets another down-on-his-luck writer named Saul Straight who’s come up with a “theory of separation.” Lovers, says Saul, should be forcibly separated: weak, imitation love will fizzle; true love will grow stronger with distance. Saul has a lot of ideas like this. He’s provisioned with philosophical ramblings and not much else. When the narrator meets him, he’s trading aphorisms for food.

Saul also has theories about art. Art is our way of giving back to the world which provides us with so much: “the painter pays for the colors of things with the paints on his palette, the musician pays for the chaos of sounds produced by the organ of Corti with harmonies, the philosopher pays for the world with his worldview.” And it’s got to be good: “talent… is not a privilege and not a gift from on high, but the direct responsibility of anyone warmed and lighted by the sun, and only metaphysically dishonorable people–of which the earth is full–shirk their duty to be talented.”

The narrator is a writer himself. He’s probably been dealing with the same crap as the theme-catcher. He can’t pay what he owes to the world because politics is everything, the Soviets scrutinize every word, and his only option is to take the metaphysically dishonorable path and play along. He’s separated from himself: “And when your “I” is missing, when you’re just the binding from which the book has been ripped out…”

But the narrator of “Someone Else’s Theme” isn’t the author. The narrator passed his story to another writer–presumably Krzhizhanovsky himself–who’s told the narrator’s story in the narrator’s voice. Now Krzhizhanovsky is faced with a problem: how can he gracefully transition back to his own voice? And writing within the limits imposed by authority, buried in someone else’s themes, how can he hold on to his own “I”?

These stories aren’t all about writers. “Red Snow” is about coming home to find a light in your apartment window. That might sound reassuringly homey. In the Soviet Union it was bad news. “Red Snow” is the most nightmarish and disorienting story in the collection.

“Quadraturin” is about the apartments themselves. In the early days of the Soviet Union masses of population moved from the country to the cities. Housing was scarce. The government turned people’s homes into communal apartments; people who’d lived in a place for years found themselves living in a couple of rooms while strangers were installed in other parts of the apartment. Sometimes entire families lived and slept in one room. According to the introduction, Krzhizhanovsky himself thought it worth noting in a letter when he discovered a way to stretch his legs while sitting at his desk. “Quadraturin” is a Moscow apartment-dweller’s fantasy–more room!–that goes horribly wrong.

“Quadraturin” is about space; “Memories of the Future” is about time. The USSR was a jam-tomorrow kind of place. Comfort, abundance, and luxury goods were waiting at the end of the five-year plan–all it would take was a little shock work. And then a little more. Somehow the good times remained out of reach. Soviet citizens lived in, and for, a purely theoretical future.

So, in a way, does Max Shterer, the mad scientist at the heart of “Memories”–which really is one of the great time travel stories, one that would have influenced the genre if life were fair. Max’s big ambition is to build a time machine. He’s born into a comfortable family around the end of the 19th century, sent away to school, drafted into the Great War, stuck in a German POW camp, and disinherited by the Revolution. Max barely registers any of this. He’s thinking about his time machine.

Eventually Max builds his machine, leaps forward, and finds… something. The climax of “Memories” is stunning, not despite but because we’re not entirely sure what Max sees. This is a time travel story written like a ghost story: what’s implied, what we imagine, is scarier than anything Krzhizhanovsky could have described outright. No wonder this story didn’t get the Soviet stamp of approval: the future feels less like a time and place than a Lovecraftian monster waiting to swallow the Russians who lived for it.

When Memories of the Future was reviewed in the New York Times the reviewer complained that Krzhizhanovsky’s “refusal to wake to the reality of his times can fog the clarity of his visions.” This is dumb. Krzhizhanovsky is engaged with the reality of his times; he engages it slantwise, through metaphor. And the times Krzhizhanovsky lived through were in many ways unreal. I can’t blame him for turning to the literary equivalent of lobster telephones and melting clocks. If he wanted to keep his grip on reality, surrealism might have been his best option.

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War

Cover Art

The Quiet War thinks people are no damn good. It’s set a couple of hundred years in the future and citizens of human colonies on the moons of Saturn are evolving themselves into posthumans. This is a common theme in SF. One of the genre’s ongoing projects is an expansion of the definition of “human.” But most people back on The Quiet War’s Earth would rather not have their definition expanded, and the more radically posthuman colonists think unmodified humans are uncouth genetic throwbacks.

Late in the book one character talks about ring species. Ring species are unusual species which trick you into watching a creepy videotape and then, seven days later, jump out of your television. No, wait. Actually, ring species are species which live in a ring-shaped habitat. At the two ends of the ring are distinct species, so different they can’t interbreed, but in between are a series of interbreeding populations, each a little different, gradually shading into the two species on the ends.

The Quiet War sees humanity defining itself as this kind of continuum, othering the ends of the continuum, and declaring war.

The thing is, Earth and the colonies don’t know why they’re going to war. The powers that be—the monarchical families that rule earth, and the influential personalities who guide public opinion in the direct democracies of the colonies—think they’re going to war for revenge, for resources, for philosophical differences, or for control of the solar system. But at bottom, they’re going to war because even the leaders who have the people under their thumbs are themselves under the collective thumb of the mob… and the mobs hate each other’s guts.

No matter where you are in the solar system, humanity in The Quiet War gets meaner and stupider in the aggregate. And it won’t stop with one war: wipe out the people at the ends of the ring, and the people left in the smaller ring redefine the new ends as not quite human. Repeat the process long enough, and there’s not much of humanity left.

So, yeah, grim. And not necessarily what I needed to read coming out of winter. (Could we please have more SF about cool futures? You know, where most people are basically going to be okay? It’s not like an utter dystopia is a necessary prerequisite for conflict and drama.) It didn’t help that of the five point-of-view characters, four were, as far as I was concerned, villains.

But I still read the whole thing—enough to find out that, luckily, the single sympathetic POV character gets a happy ending, and most of the few other characters I cared about made it through all right. The Quiet War is a decent thriller. Paul McAuley’s prose isn’t earth-shatteringly beautiful—what I look for in prose are “I never thought of it that way” moments, the bits where some observation, word choice, or turn of phrase makes me think of whatever’s being described in a new light. But The Quiet War isn’t badly written, either; it’s what readers suspicious of highfaultin’ lit’ry stuff call “transparent prose,” and a better than average example of the form.

If The Quiet War has a problem, it’s that McAuley is sometimes too anxious to show us his research. Technical detail is good—this is hard SF, after all—but McAuley gave more detail than I needed, or cared, to know. A small, typical example occurs in a battle scene when a dead soldier’s body is frozen to be sent home. McAuley is careful to inform us that he’s frozen at two degrees Celsius. Why do we need to know the exact temperature? You could slim this thing down by fifty pages, and be left with a better book, just by cutting the excess technobloviation.

Cory Doctorow, Makers

The cover art for the British edition, which looks so much better than the American cover.

One complaint I hear from people who don’t like science fiction is that it’s about ideas and not people. Given the amount of SF I read I obviously don’t agree, but even I think they sometimes have a point–about Cory Doctorow’s Makers, for example.

For me, Doctorow is a love-it-or-hate-it writer. His best book is Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Unlike his other novels, Someone is a surrealist fantasy. Maybe that helped. Writing about a guy whose parents were a mountain and a washing machine, Doctorow has fewer occasions for awkwardly wedged-in futurist polemics about technology, copyright, and geek culture.

In Makers Doctorow writes about lots of things–solutions to the obesity epidemic (which lead to new and worse problems), clever uses for RFID tags, amusement parks–but mostly about a new economy where 3-D printers and cheap computers let small startups compete with bigger companies, and how to transition from here to there. And Makers’s characters pontificate endlessly on these subjects, and as they do so they sound just like Doctorow’s nonfiction.

Makers doesn’t have characters so much as mouthpieces. Everything its characters say is a speech. Everything they do is a demonstration. Some characters are good examples who embody Doctorow’s ideas. Some are bad examples. None feel like people. I never was able to keep Lester and Perry, Doctorow’s two geek heroes, straight.

Makers is weirdly Ayn Randian in its style of argument if not its worldview. (Doctorow is similarly keen on the kind of economics currently and not always accurately characterized as “free market,” but while Rand dreamed of a world ruled by captains of industry Doctorow sympathizes with ordinary people and believes the best ideas come up from below.) One of the villains is a journalist the heroes call “Rat-Toothed Freddy.” Not only does he question Makers’s worldview, but like Rand’s villains he’s ugly and petty and makes his case as offensively as possible, with gratuitous personal attacks.

Freddy doesn’t learn anything because he’s the bad guy, and Lester and Perry don’t learn anything because as the book begins they already embody Doctorow’s ideals. The last we see of them it’s years later and they’re back to their old tricks. The only character who ends the story as a better person is the second villain, Sammy, a midlevel Disney executive. At one point Makers states “Lester came to understand what it meant to be responsible for people’s lives.” But that’s something we’re told, not shown. We don’t feel what Lester is feeling, and after his moment of revelation he acts pretty much the same. At the climax of the novel the “good guys” do the right thing, the thing that solves everyone’s problems, only because it gives them a chance to humiliate Freddy.

There’s a moment, somewhere around then, when Lester (or was it Perry?) has a brief flash of insight and wonders whether Freddy has a point. Then it’s gone, and he worries no more. Which is too bad. Sometimes, Freddy does have a point. He’s the only character willing to question Makers’s worldview, and there are questions Makers ought to ask of itself, and doesn’t.

How easy is it for people who’ve dedicated their lives to a company to pick up the pieces after their jobs blow away in a hurricane of “creative destruction?” Lester and Perry’s associates skip from job to job with songs in their hearts, but for some people the stress of having their cheese moved on them all the damn time takes years off their lives. How many little startups can the market support? (Maybe not so many, given how quickly the New Work implodes.) What happens to the people whose companies fail? What about health insurance? (There’s not much sign that Makers’s America has solved its health care problems.) In practice, much of the New Work produces tchotchkes, bric-a-brac and dime-store kipple–to borrow William Morris’s rubric, things neither useful nor beautiful. How liberating is the New Work if people are still just selling each other junk they don’t need and don’t really want?

On the other hand, I do admire Makers for making kipple look fun. Makers succeeds at one thing: celebrating making. Makers respects people who do things, and do them well, regardless of who they are.

Sammy’s salvation lies in coming up with an idea he cares about, and although the Disney corporation in general serves as a villain Makers allows its good-guy journalist, Suzanne Church, to be impressed by the pride and attention to detail of the people who build and rebuild Disney World.

Of course, the Disney workers have something the Makers don’t: stability. There’s an idea floating around, courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell, that to really master a craft you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it. (Which may be why I’m great at my job, but less great at the things I love to do when I’m not at work. I need to work on my attention span for my hobbies.) 10,000 hours is a glibly arbitrary number, but it’s true (even with simpler tasks like selling electronics, as Circuit City discovered, to their cost, after they laid off their most experienced employees) that you’re more likely to find expertise in places where people have the job security to concentrate on mastering their trade.

In Makers‘s New New Economy of laissez-faire, layoffs, and dizzyingly rapid boom-and-bust cycles, just surviving takes half of everybody’s energy. Energy they could be using to, y’know, make things.

Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

Cover Art

I’m starting to write reviews again. I’m not entirely convinced by this one, but at some point I have to stop fiddling with it, so here it is.

Clark Gifford’s Body is an obvious reference to the old song about John Brown, who sparked the Civil War with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. (Which may have been a blessing in disguise; arguably, only the war could have put an end to slavery in anything like a reasonable amount of time.)

A hundred years later, in the far-flung year of 1959 (Clark Gifford’s Body was published in 1937; no explicit date is given for the raid, but, as Robert Polito points out in the introduction, it’s not hard to work out), Clark Gifford and his “Committee for Action” seize radio stations across the country–Gifford himself takes WLEX in Bonnfield–and spark a twenty-year civil war.

The New York Review Books Classics edition of Clark Gifford’s Body demonstrates the importance of typography–in this case, the importance of getting the page numbers right. The page numbers are in the same font as the text, printed at the same size, located just under the text, where the next line would be, if there were one. So on the left-hand page my subconscious was constantly interpreting the page number as part of the text, and I kept getting knocked out of the story by phrases like “The short-wave of a number 200 of local stations…”

Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body in fragments. Narrative islands, written in different styles from different points of view, form a bigger picture like the dots in a pointillist painting. The sketches are set up to thirty years before and thirty years after Gifford’s raid. It’s a history of the future.

As such, Clark Gifford’s Body is technically science fiction. It may not satisfy many SF readers: socially and technologically, the future looks a lot like 1937. I’m willing to forgive. Within the story, we have a limited view of this society, and that twenty year civil war would not have laid a smooth road for the march of progress. In more critical terms, this kind of near-future SF is really about the present. Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body about his own world.

Continue reading Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

The Year of Intelligent Tigers

Cover Art

Kate Orman’s The Year of Intelligent Tigers is the book every Eighth Doctor Adventure wanted to be.

Every era of Doctor Who has its own stereotype. The Terrance Dicks/Barry Letts template includes UNIT, the Master, 1970s earth, chases, and Venusian Aikido. Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories are horror pastiches starring charismatic master villains; Saward-era stories are violent, cynical tales with a surfeit of tough guys and mercenaries. The EDA stereotype has an alien planet (usually a human colony) inhabited by a couple of squabbling factions, whose mistrust of the TARDIS crew hinders the possibly amnesiac Doctor’s efforts to save everybody from some hitherto-unsuspected threat (usually a forgettable alien monster).

The Year of Intelligent Tigers is about a human colony inhabited by a couple of squabbling factions (humans and Tigers), whose mistrust of the TARDIS crew hinders the amnesiac Doctor’s efforts to save everybody from the hitherto-unsuspected threat of an apocalyptic hurricane season. It’s the ur-EDA! But done with so much more skill it seems to have descended from some distant galaxy to let the children boogie. YoIT (YOIT! Great acronym!) is almost hard to review; I’m tempted to spend 1000 words just listing all the ordinary things YoIT gets right that other EDAs missed. But that would be unfair to a book that’s pretty incredible on its own terms. YoIT’s not a tie-in that rises to the level of an ordinary novel. It’s a smart, exciting, elegant science fiction novel in its own right, something you could give to anyone who loves SF whether or not they care about Doctor Who.

Continue reading The Year of Intelligent Tigers

Doctor Who: Managra

Cover Art

Interviewed for a Doctor Who Magazine article years after Virgin Books published his Doctor Who novel Managra, Stephen Marley recalled being “excited about what the series almost was”¦ I thought the point was to consider what it would be like were it done properly.” And, lo, the traditionalists were heard to mutter “how dare he!” On the other hand, this was exactly the point of these books as far as I’m concerned, so I’m pretty much Marley’s ideal reader.

Marley thought the Missing Adventures “went too far in terms of ‘period’ feel.” Still, Managra fits the mold of the early Tom Baker seasons produced by Philip Hinchcliffe: a gothic horror adventure centered around a charismatic madman rather than a “monster.” The difference is ambition. Managra is epic: a big world with a big story reaching back through time and the Doctor’s life, but comprehensibly human on the character level.

Doctor Who was conceived to take people from our familiar world into strange new environments, anywhere in time and space. The 1990s-2000s approach sees the primary purpose of the series as bringing time and space into a familiar world. New worlds are deemphasized; in books like The Janus Conjunction or The Infinity Race, or in the new television series, they’re spaces just large enough to contain a plot for the Doctor to foil. The inhabitants have no lives outside their purpose in the Doctor’s story.

I think we’ve lost something here. Travel between worlds enlarges Doctor Who, allowing it to move between, and colonize, new genres. Endless invasions of Earth make the universe seem smaller. Strange environments are flexible, with great scope for telling different kinds of stories (in the UNIT years, the writers feared the series might become a series of alien invasions—what we’ve seen from the last two decades of Earth-based stories). New worlds provide more space for satire, commentary (contemporary alien invasion stories usually work on the level of “pick a trend and make it evil!”), and exploration of character under unusual circumstances.

And sometimes they’re just fun.

Continue reading Doctor Who: Managra