Archive for January, 2013

TT: Waving at the New

January 31, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and celebrate the third anniversary of  wandering on about writing, working as a writer, and a bunch of other stuff.  Then join me and Alan as we look at a wave that washed over SF and F, and changed it forever.

New Wave

New Wave

JANE: Alan, last week you said you wanted to tangent off our Tangents…  Go for it!

ALAN: As we’ve talked about all these different SF categories, I’ve been trying to decide just when they began to become important. In my youth, as best as I can remember, we only had science fiction and fantasy. And then the so called New Wave came along with a hiss and a roar and after all the fuss died down, people seemed to start categorising like crazy.

JANE:  The New Wave…  I’ve heard of it, of course.  I’ve heard that the term was coined by Judith Merrill.

ALAN: Yes indeed. She published an anthology called England Swings SF in which she introduced America to a lot of the experimental writing that was happening in England at the time.

JANE: Roger (Zelazny) was often lumped in with the New Wave writers.  Honestly, though, by the time I started reading SF, the New Wave had merged into the rest.  I guess it must have been different for you.

ALAN: It certainly was. I remember when Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of New Worlds magazine in the 1960s and began to encourage experimental writing.

JANE: Can you define “experimental writing” for me?

ALAN: It ranged all the way from the purely mechanical to to the purely intellectual. On the one hand, people were experimenting with William Burroughs-like cut up and reshuffled sentences. On the other hand they adopted the thermodynamic concept of entropy as a metaphor to describe the world, though I’m not sure many of them really understood it – it’s a rather subtle concept. Pamela Zoline’s entropic short story “The Heat Death Of The Universe” is probably as close as they ever came to a manifesto. But there was always an emphasis on exploring the human psyche – they much preferred inner space to outer space.

JANE: Lovely examples.  Thank you…   What did Moorcock’s invitation mean for SF?

ALAN:  It was an exciting time for SF. A lot of so-called mainstream writers wrote stories for the magazine (the novelist Ian McEwan published several stories there, as did the very aptly named Jack Trevor Story) and, probably as a result, a lot of science fiction writers started using mainstream literary techniques such as stream of consciousness and unreliable narrators  in their own works. At the time, many science fiction readers disapproved. “We want spaceships and ray guns!”

JANE: What was your reaction?

ALAN: I rather liked it – but I tended to read more widely than many of my friends and I was not as averse to literary experimentation as they were. By and large, I thought that the field was enriched by it. There were successes and failures, as there always are in this kind of thing, but  I thought that the overall effect was a positive one.

JANE: Successes and failures?

ALAN: Norman Spinrad’s novel Bug Jack Barron, which was nominated for a Hugo award in 1970, was originally published as a series of stories in New Worlds. It was a very cynical novel which was full of explicit and shocking (for the time) words. I doubt it would raise much of an eyebrow these days but back then it horrified a lot of people.  For a time the major distribution chain in England refused to handle the magazine. I think that can be counted as a success!

The failures were a bit more extreme – Brian Aldiss borrowed techniques from James Joyce and Finnegan’s Wake to give us Barefoot In The Head. It’s just as unreadable and incomprehensible as Joyce’s novel was. Aldiss also borrowed the ideas of the French “anti-novelist” Alain Robbe-Grillet and produced Report On Probability A, which is almost certainly the single most tedious novel ever to have slithered across my eyeballs. A triumph of a kind, I suppose, but not one to be particularly proud of.

JANE: What do you think of the New Wave as you look back on it?

ALAN: I think the movement has had a lasting effect, particularly in England. Most of the writers who worked in the genre were English, or ex-pat Americans who were living in England. I don’t think it had much direct impact in America except, of course, through Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies. But you might know more about that than I do.

JANE: Only tangentially…  When I asked Roger about it, he said that he didn’t think it had been a “movement,” as such…  I can actually quote what he wrote me in a letter.

“We were lumped together, despite our differences, because we were similar in representing a reaction to the sf of the 40s & 50s which, while containing some fine ideas & colorful stories, was not particularly noted for the quality of the writing…  A [number] of us simultaneously began importing stuff that was old hat in general fiction but new to sf, at about the same time – stream of consciousness, impressionism, stylistic flourishes, a greater emphasis on characterization…  Most of us deny there was such a thing as a New Wave ‘movement’ because there was no overall plan or manifesto, many of us were not even acquainted in those days, & we are all sufficiently individualistic to dislike being categorized. (February 4, 1990)

I did some research elsewhere and Roger’s opinion seems supported by other American writers of the time.  The New Wave happened, but wasn’t a “movement.”

ALAN: Yes – I thought that might be the case. It always seemed to be much more closely associated with England than it was with America.  Perhaps its ideas have been rather more long lasting and influential on English writers as a result.

JANE: What do you think are some of the lasting impacts of the New Wave on SF?

ALAN: Certainly I think that the New Wave raised the literary standards of the genre a lot and encouraged the exploration of ideas that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside. But it’s interesting to observe that when New Worlds ceased publication, many of the more extreme practitioners of the New Wave fell silent, whereas the genuinely talented writers such as J. G Ballard and Moorcock himself continued producing excellent work. Ballard’s reputation is huge, both inside and outside the genre. One of Moorcock’s  “Jerry Cornelius” novels (The Condition of Muzak) won the Guardian Fiction Prize, and Colonel Pyat, a character that Moorcock developed in his Cornelius stories, was central to a tetraolgy of highly admired mainstream novels that he wrote towards the end of the last century.

JANE: I agree that the New Wave did a lot to raise standards.  As a writer, I am certainly free to use widely varied techniques without any of them raising an eyebrow.   It’s great to be able to fit the prose to the type of story, not be restricted to just one variation.

Sometimes I wish I’d broken in in the days when Major Notice could come a writer’s way just for having a larger than average toolbox.

That said, I agree with you wholeheartedly – the writers who were good storytellers in addition to being great slingers of prose are the ones we’re still reading now.  The ones I might call “special effects specialists” have faded away.

ALAN: But I think an additional important influential effect of the New Wave on SF is in a sub-genre that many people have argued derives directly from the ideas that the New Wave writers were so passionate about. And it’s a category that’s still going strong today.

JANE: I think I can see where you’re headed, but I have a question for you next week.  I fear that we’re due for another tangent off of the Tangents!


Just Over Three Years!

January 30, 2013

It seems incredible to me, but the Wednesday Wanderings are three years old!

Artemis Awakening and Fire Season

Artemis Awakening and Fire Season

I started on January 20th, 2010, with a piece about going to see a local production of Twelfth Night.   In the three years that have passed, I haven’t missed a single week.  I’ve talked a lot about writing, but also about things that interest me – from gardening, to anime and manga, to various trips and events, and, of course, about books I’ve read.

One of  the big news stories – since this is a professional writer’s blog (I hate that word!) after all – was my selling a new series to Tor.   The new series is called “Artemis Awakening.” Originally, the first book was going to be called Huntress.  However, as I wrote, I discovered I kept referring to it as Artemis Awakening.  I consulted with my editor and she was okay with me changing the title.

You can read a bit from the proposal by going to the Wednesday Wandering for 8-22-12.   I’ve now finished the manuscript and given it a first read-through.  I’m now in the midst of  the second one.  Then Jim gets to read it…  I’m pretty serious about polishing my efforts before my editor even sees the book.

The other big piece of news was the release of Fire Season, the first of my Stephanie Harrington “Star Kingdom” collaborations with David Weber.  To our mutual delight, it hit the New York Times bestseller list.  I talked a bit about the series on the Wandering for 10-03-13.  Since then, I’ve finished Treecat Wars, the second novel in the series.  Now, it’s over with Weber for him to give it the final Honorversing.

I also announced that I was continuing my venture into both  e-books and print-on-demand by reissuing  Legends Walking (the sequel to Changer) under my preferred title, Changer’s Daughter.  You can go to the Wandering for 3-14-12 if you’d like the tale behind the tale.

For those of you who are new to the Wednesday Wanderings, let me say a few words about  my goals.  In addition to keeping readers posted about new events, I try to give a window into one writer’s views about what’s important in the art and craft.

However, these are titled “wanderings” because I want the freedom to talk about whatever is on my mind.  I also welcome both comments on specific pieces and suggestions for topics folks might want to hear about in the future.  If you’re too shy to post, you can also e-mail me at  I don’t promise to answer immediately – I usually reserve weekends and evenings for my home life – but I will get back to you.

Now onward…  I hope you’ve had fun with these.  I certainly have.  You might also enjoy tuning in for the Thursday Tangents, which I write with my friend Alan Robson, a New Zealand reviewer and just plain interesting person.  They appear on this same site on…  Yep.  Thursdays!

Catch you next week…

TT: War in Space

January 24, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and consider how much back story is good and how much is too much…  Then come and march with me and Alan as we gird on our blasters, board our dreadnoughts, and sail into the reaches of interstellar war.

Military SF

Military SF

JANE: Last time we were talking about Space Opera.  Certainly, Space Opera cannot be fully discussed without looking at Military SF.

I don’t have a tidy definition from somewhere else to draw on.  How does this one work for you?

“Military SF is science fiction in which the role of the military – whether represented as a space navy or armored combat troops or some other inventive representation of the warfare of the future – is central to the action.”

ALAN:  I can’t argue with that.

JANE: Space Opera certainly has a long tradition of soldiers in space, but this time I’d like to start with some of the more current presentations rather than with older publications.

One of my favorite Military SF series in recent years was Walter Jon Williams’ “Dread Empire Falls” series, which starts with The Praxis.  I really liked his convoluted interplay of civilian and military demands on the navy.  My only regret was that he didn’t do more with the aliens.  I really liked them.

ALAN: I enjoyed the “Dread Empire Falls” series as well, though I would have preferred to have seen it written as two books rather than three. I thought the pacing dragged a bit towards the end. But it didn’t commit the sins that far too much military SF is guilty of and it had a pleasing depth and cleverness to it.

JANE:  What “sins” are those?

ALAN: There are two branches of the genre which I intensely dislike. One seems to regard military campaigning as somewhat akin to a chess game and it spends page after tedious page describing the minutiae of military maneuvering. S. M. Stirling is particularly guilty of this.  While I often find the early books in his various series interesting and fun (because he is setting up the initial scenario), I generally find the later books to be rather dull as they degenerate into long battle descriptions and speculations on strategy and tactics.

JANE: I share the same preference.  For example, I loved Island in the Sea of Time.  I didn’t hate any of the later books, but I do prefer the emphasis on characters to tactics.

By the way, did you know I wrote a story about Stirling’s ultimate warriors, the Draka?

ALAN: No – I didn’t know that. Tell me more!

JANE: Yep.  It’s called “The Big Lie” and appeared in the anthology Drakas!  It’s basically a retelling of Stirling’s novel Marching Through Georgia told from the point of view of a Draka hero who’s a secret coward.  I cheerfully acknowledged my debt to George MacDonald Fraser’s character Flashman.  Steve still talks to me, too…

ALAN: That’s nice. I’ve always enjoyed Flashman…

The other major branch of the genre is typified by Robert Buettner’s novels (particularly his “Orphans” series) which are so full of unthinking  gung-ho patriotism and the glory of war that I can really only describe them as military porn. Not only do I dislike these kinds of books, I find them positively offensive.

JANE: I haven’t read those books, so I can’t comment on them specifically.  However, I can comment on the “military porn” issue.  David Weber and I have talked about this topic a lot.   As I’m sure you know, he is best known for his space navy stories of Honor Harrington and, when you’re blowing up starships, the body count can get pretty high.

Weber said something that meant a lot to me.  This isn’t a direct quote, but I think it captures his philosophy: “It’s war porn when only the bad guys or anonymous troops die.  To understand the cost of war, ‘real’ people, people you care about, also need to die.”

ALAN: I’d never really put my dislike into words, but now that you’ve said it, I find that I strongly agree with Weber. And Buettner’s books, for example, match Weber’s definition of war porn perfectly.

I also find that military SF attracts an oddly pedantic and persnickety audience. For example, in a discussion of John Dalmas’ novel Bavarian Gate, which involves mystic warrior Curtis Macurdy fighting Adolf Hitler’s psychic shock troops in a mythical World War II, one reviewer complained that:

“There were some technical errors that bothered me in the extreme. First the German standard armoured half track did not have doors in the drivers compartment, entrance was through the troop compartment. The second error was that the standard German rifle and machine gun cartridge during WWII was 7.92mm not 7.62mm (modern NATO round) A little easy research would have fixed these mistakes.”

He went on to say that the entire story was ruined for him because of those fundamental  mistakes. I find this attitude hard to understand.

JANE: I guess inaccuracies might ruin a story  for an expert – and fans of military minutia would be drawn to Military SF.  I know I can get turned off  by stories where animal characters nod or shake their heads, as if they’re humans.  I mean, not even all human cultures use those gestures.  Still, I’ll admit, those particular military details would slide right over my head.

ALAN: Me too.

JANE: Moving along, there’s plenty of Military SF that isn’t Space Opera at all.  I’m thinking of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s (some say written in reaction) Forever War.

ALAN: Yes indeed – and I’d add John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to that list. I think the books succeed because they are not really about military things except on the small scale of story details. Heinlein’s novel was a vehicle for exploring the implications of some rather odd, but nonetheless interesting, political ideas. And the Haldeman and Scalzi novels have a lot to say about the futility and wastage of war itself. I’d put Haldeman’s novel (and to a lesser extent Scalzi’s) well inside the same literary spectrum that is occupied by mainstream books such as Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front.

JANE: You’ve made a very good point here.  Books about a future military don’t need to glorify war…  In fact, the best ones make the cost of continual war very clear.

Your comment about John Dalmas’s “mystic warrior” reminded me of one of my favorite Military SF series: Gordon R. Dickson’s books about the Dorsai.  I haven’t read one in years (and now I’m itching to do so), but I remember being impressed by Dickson’s examination of the mental aspect of war – that winning relies as much on the people as the technology.  Of course, some of the Dorsai characters were really remarkable, bred as they were to war, but to me, when I read the books, that only made the stories more fascinating.

ALAN: I found the Dorsai books to be very variable in quality. Some I enjoyed a lot, but others left me cold, I’m not really sure why. Nevertheless they have a good reputation and they probably do deserve a place on my shelves.

JANE: So, we’ve gone from Space Opera to Military SF…  What next?

ALAN: Actually, I have an idea for a tangent that takes off from a tangent.  How about we do that next time?

How Much Back Story Do You Want?

January 23, 2013

Over Christmas, I broke down and decided to try the second part of Sai Yuki in manga form.  As I’ve mentioned before, Sai Yuki (despite its flaws) is one of my favorite anime.  I like the manga, too, but –  as is not uncommon in this form –  the two storylines diverge.

Back Story

Back Story

The second part of Sai Yuki is called Sai Yuki: Reload.  I was turned off  by the anime immediately.  None of the reviews I read encouraged me to make the investment in time to see if it improved.  But, occasionally, I’d wistfully pick up a DVD and read the back…  Eventually, I noticed that they were now re-telling the tale that had been the second part of the manga…

So what the heck did the manga of Sai Yuki: Reload include?

I decided to give it a try.  Within two issues, I realized that I was going to like this story.  One thing I had loved about Sai Yuki was that the characters had rich back stories… both in their current lives and in a shared incarnation 500 years in the past.  (This last is touched on more in the anime than the manga – and I still want the rest of that story!)  Sai Yuki: Reload continued to move the present day storyline forward while delving into past events – including a tie between the beloved teacher of one of the main characters and the sinister Dr. Ni.

I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m enjoying the twists.

Anyhow, all of this got Jim and me talking about how much we both enjoy a degree of back story.  Done well, it adds so much to the characters and to the story at large.  My current audio book binge is revisiting Rex Stout’s stories about Nero Wolfe.  Most of the time those tales are simply good detective stories but, occasionally, as in Over My Dead Body and The Black Mountain, you learn about Nero Wolfe’s past…

That past changes him from a contrived eccentric, clearly indebted to Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock Holmes’ smarter brother), to a rich and vivid character in his own right.  As much as I like Agatha Christie, I wish she’d done something like that with Miss Marple.  In Miss Marple’s case, except for an occasional superficial reference, Jane Marple is a woman without a past, always old, always curiously wise.

But there can be too much back story.  I just finished a very long novel in which no character, no matter how minor, is without a long biographical sketch.  At first I tried to remember these, thinking they would be important.  Then I realized they were nothing but fat…  The author had come up with these character bios, they had gotten onto the page, and –  probably because this author is very popular  – no one had the guts to tell him to take them off.

Right after that, I re-read Andre Norton’s Star Gate.  In contrast to my previous read, especially in matters of character, Star Gate almost seemed like the outline for a novel.  The characters weren’t cardboard or pawns for the action but, except for the protagonist, very little of the pasts of the other characters made it onto the page.  In some ways, this fit the book – Kincar is very much out of place and is the last person to start prying – but I wished Andre Norton had included a little more about the others.

So, how much back story do you want?  How much does it need to tie into the larger story?   When should it come in?  Chronologically?  After the plot already has you hooked?   When does back story become a drag and when is it a delightful spice that adds to the richness of the reading experience?

TT: An Opera That is Not an Opera

January 17, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and join me for a look at a couple of stories built around wolf girls.  Then come back and take part as Alan and I continue our journey into the convolutions of Science Fiction.

JANE: Last time I suggested we move on to a type of SF that many people think of as “hard” SF, but is actually not.  By that, I mean Space Opera.

Space Opera: Voyages into the Improbable

Space Opera: Voyages into the Improbable

First, however, I think we need a definition.  I’m going to borrow one from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by Clute and Nichols, just because.  The article is pretty long so I’m going to pick just a few lines.  After explaining the popularity of radio “soap operas,” the article continues:

“…the pattern was extended into sf by Wilson Tucker in 1941, who proposed ‘space opera’ as the appropriate term for the ‘hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn.’  It soon came to be applied to the colorful action-adventure stories of interplanetary or interstellar conflict.”

ALAN: How does that definition tie in with the conclusions we came to about hard SF?

JANE:  It doesn’t, but the problem faced by many of us who love SF in its myriad forms is that non-readers of SF are most likely to be familiar with SF from visual media interpretations of the worst form of space opera.  In other words, these people think that space opera is hard SF and we SF readers are so stupid that we really believe all the Buck Rogers stuff is possible.

ALAN: That does indeed seem to be all that the visual media are interested in – ever more spectacular special effects at the expense of the story. Who needs a sensible plot when you can blow up gigantic space artifacts?

JANE: Once upon a time, you mentioned to me that you didn’t like space opera.  So, what form of space opera is it you don’t like?

ALAN: I think it is epitomised by the kind of books that E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edmond Hamilton were writing in the early decades of the last century. The stories were full of spectacle and glamour (and extraordinarily bad science – but we’ve already agreed that sense of wonder is the trump card which makes that less than significant).

However, the plots were so childishly naive and the characters were so thinly drawn that I find the books unreadable and dull. Unfortunately, all too many practitioners of the art have fallen into the trap of thinking that space opera is characterised only by its gigantic themes and they seem to spend little time concentrating on the more mundane aspects of the writing art such as character development and plot. Harry Harrison satirised this kind of thing to hilarious effect in his novel Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers.

JANE: But it doesn’t have to be that way…  Jack Williamson’s Legion of Space stories gained richness – and better characterization – from his drawing on literary influences such as the Three Musketeers and Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

ALAN: Quite right! One of the reasons that I find it so hard to think in categories is that there are always exceptions that prove the rule. Even though I say that I don’t like space opera, what I really mean is that I don’t like any kind of story that neglects plot and character. I’m more than happy to read and enjoy space operas that don’t conform to the cliché and my favourite would probably be James Blish’s Cities In Flight novels which are space opera by any definition you care to apply – in the last novel in the series he destroys the universe and creates several more, and you don’t get any more space opera-ish than that!

However, at the same time the books have complex plots and fully realised characters. They make many interesting points about politics, sociology, economics and the dynamics of very large projects – I’m sorry if that makes them sound dry and dull; trust me, they are anything but that. There is a true richness and depth to the books that makes me return to them again and again. I must have read them a dozen times or more. Blish was always a subtle writer even when he was dealing with surface drama and spectacle.

JANE: You mentioned Cities in Flight a while back in another context.  I just finished reading them over Christmas.  I loved them!

Another author who did a great job with space opera elements is Clifford Simak.  He never tried to explain how his ships worked or how the robots functioned.  That wasn’t the point.  The ships were to get us “out there” and the robots…  Oh!  No one has ever done robots like Simak.  Robots who become monks and try to figure out the human need for religion (Project Pope is just one example), robots who keep the candle of human culture and history burning long after humanity has abandoned being human (City).   Wonderful, exciting, lovely stories that you find yourself thinking about long after.

In fact, many people wouldn’t call these “space opera” at all…

ALAN: I never thought of Simak as a space opera writer before, but I can see exactly what you mean and mostly I’d agree. He was a brilliant writer with a unique voice – we could almost do a whole Tangent just about Clifford Simak!

But, without a doubt, the very best space opera I’ve ever read is a truly hilarious novel by Jack Vance. It’s called Space Opera and it is about an opera company which tours space and performs Fidelio, and Cosi Fan Tutte, and Tristan und Isolde to largely uncomprehending and very bewildered alien audiences. It’s an utter delight from start to finish.

JANE: Oh, boy…  That sounds like another one to look for.  My reading list grows.

These days much of what is referred to as space opera has a very military aspect.  In fact, “Military SF” is considered by many to be its own category.  Next time, let’s expand our look at Space Opera that direction.

Wolf Girls: Princess Mononoke and Firekeeper

January 16, 2013

I don’t remember precisely when I first saw the film Princess Mononoke.  I did see it in the theater and shortly before the release of Through Wolf’s Eyes, so that means it was probably sometime in the summer of 2001.

Two Takes on Women Who Run with Wolves

Two Takes on Women Who Run with Wolves

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a long-time fan of anime (see WW 3-10-10) and more specifically of the works of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli (see WW 2-01-12).  There’s no doubt that I would have gone to see Princess Mononoke in any case, but given that this was promoted as a tale of a girl raised by wolves, and that I was awaiting the release of my own novel using that trope, there was no way I would have missed it.

I remember wondering, in fact, if anyone would ask me if Princess Mononoke had been an influence on Firekeeper – since the movie came out before the book and many times readers don’t seem to realize that a book may have been completed years before its release.  Oddly enough, no one did.  Then again, I’ve never been sure the film reached the audience that would enjoy it most, for the movie certainly is nothing like what Disney (who distributed it in the U.S.) describes.

Princess Mononoke is a dark and complex story that goes far, far beyond the tidy little humans versus nature conflict promised on the outside of the DVD.  Even the title is a misrepresentation.  A “mononoke” is a vengeful spirit.  The title “Princess Mononoke” is derisively given to the wolf-girl, San, by her opponents.  Far from being the princess of the wolves, San is a member of the pack because her wolf mother, Moro, has adopted her.  Nor is she the leader of the animals.  They barely accept her, and then only out of respect for Moro.

Nor is the story a simple battle of  humans versus animals or evil industry versus good nature.  I’m not going to provide spoilers, so I’ll just say that what’s being contested is far larger.  I’d go as far as to say that it’s  rooted in what paradigm will dominate a troubled land.

Although the movie was titled after “Princess Mononoke,” the story actually revolves around a young man named Ashitaka.  While defending his home from a nature spirit driven mad, Ashitaka is scarred with a curse that will eventually spread and kill him.  He must leave his people forever in order to seek the source of the problem and look upon it without hate.  Even then, he may not find a cure – only an answer.

What Ashitaka discovers is a problem beyond simple resolutions.  Indeed, the ending of the story attempts to address these complexities, not reduce them to a simple “happily ever after” ending.  I’m not saying this is a story without a happy ending…  Just that it’s an ending that asks you to take a new look at what “happiness” might be.

So…  How did I feel about my presentation of a girl raised by wolves after I saw this one?  Actually, I felt pretty good.  Both San and Firekeeper share an essential wildness that is based not in brutality, but in having learned from the ground up to make decisions based on non-human parameters of right and wrong.    From there, though, they are very different.  San lives in a world where animistic spirits still walk the land, influencing both animals and plants.  Firekeeper’s world is more “real.”  Or is it?

Remember what I said about paradigms?  As is so often the case with Miyazaki’s work, Princess Mononoke offers an opportunity to take a fresh look at what is and isn’t “real.”   It’s a vision that’s provocative and yet somehow “fits.”  Or it does for me…  I hope it would for you as well.

TT: Hard vs. Soft SF

January 10, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and join me in talking about Andre Norton.  Then come back and take a look at the hard and soft sides of SF.

JANE: Well, Alan, last time we tangented off our tangent and had a great discussion about how one of the ways that SF is at its best is when it takes a look at the implications of technological developments for the future.

Hard vs. Soft

Hard vs. Soft

I’d really like to tangent back to our original topic, which was taking a look at some of the definitions that get tossed around fast and loose when SF readers get together.

Obviously, the first big division is “hard” vs “soft” SF.

The definition I’ve heard most often is that  “hard” SF is based on the “hard” sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, and the like.  Soft SF also includes the “soft” sciences: sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, and their kin.  In other words, soft sciences contain elements that can’t be proven in a lab – although they may be based on material found in labs.

What do you think?

ALAN: I think that’s a very good place to start from. Perhaps we could discuss some specific stories to see just how it works.

JANE: How about some examples of “hard” science fiction?

ALAN: Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter are often considered to be the archetypal hard SF writers but I find many of their stories all but unreadable. Egan’s stories often seem to read like dry  transcriptions  of pages from a physics research journal and Baxter tends towards incoherence as he tries to explain something esoteric on the fringes of knowledge.

Interestingly, when Baxter collaborates with other authors, they seem to have a calming effect on his prose. He’s written a series of novels with Arthur C. Clarke which I thoroughly enjoyed and he’s currently writing a series with Terry Pratchett which holds great promise.

Mind you, when hard SF is done properly there’s nothing to beat it. Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity is, as far as I am concerned, the best hard SF novel that has ever been written. It is just superb.

JANE: Those are all good suggestions.  Let me take the lead on “soft” science fiction.

Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein both wrote a lot of stories dealing with the possible evolution of human culture.

In fact, despite the fact that Asimov is often listed as the “A” in the “A, B, C” of  “hard SF,”  I’d argue that much of Asimov’s best known  material – up to and including the Robot stories – are “soft” SF in that they deal with the cultural implications of technological developments rather than developing the technology itself.

ALAN: You’ll get no argument from me about that. I completely agree with you.

JANE: Okay, your turn…

ALAN: Top of my list would be The Disposessed by Ursula le Guin. But other firm favourites would be Bradbury’s Martian stories, Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. In the interests of fairness, I probably ought to point out that these are also some of my favourite books ever!

JANE: I’ve read all of those and agree they are seminal and show the great variety available.  Stranger in a Strange Land was given to me when I was a fifteen year-old Catholic school girl.  I’ve lost track of the number of ideas I was first introduced to in that book!  And, no, I don’t just mean the ones about sex!

Another great Heinlein contribution are his “Future History” stories – especially those dealing with the “Crazy Years.”

Jack Williamson’s stories about the Humanoids are wonderful and frightening explorations of the question of what happens when humanity chooses to surrender a certain amount of personal freedom for safety.  I can’t think about his story “With Folded Hands” without getting the chills.

ALAN: It is noticeable that stories like these often play fast and loose with the hard sciences in order give an underlying structure to the narrative logic. That’s where the willing suspension of disbelief comes in. When the story is strong enough, nobody really minds.

So, for example, Ursula le Guin’s marvelous books, which are full of  “soft” speculations simply couldn’t work without the completely ridiculous instant communication device that she calls an ansible. Nevertheless they are brilliant “fables of a technological age” because of the way that the ansible sews all the plot threads together. By no stretch of the imagination could they be considered to be hard SF, but they are undeniably science fiction – I don’t think the stories could be told outside of the SF framework

It’s my feeling, and I suspect you agree, that most of SF’s really memorable stories are soft.  I think that’s where the genre’s greatest strengths lie.

JANE:  I’m with you on that.  Stories of technological speculation too often become dated or, as we discussed last week, do such a good time of providing warnings as to the implications of certain technological developments that those negative developments never happen.

ALAN: And they can also sometimes be somewhat dull when the scientific aspects become the whole point of the story and the characters are just cardboard actors whose only purpose seems to be to explain esoterica to each other. Someone coined the phrase “wiring diagrams with dialogue” to describe these kinds of things.

JANE: Now, there’s a form of “soft” SF that often masquerades as “hard” SF…  With that teaser, I’ll leave it for next time.

Andre Norton: One Terrific Writer

January 9, 2013

“Andre Norton is a Wo-man!?!”  The young man’s voice broke on the final word in the sentence.

Books and Jaguars

Books and Jaguars

It was sometime in the late 1990’s, I’d guess about 1998.   The setting was Taylor Ranch Branch Library where (at that time) I’d spend a couple hours each week putting the book shelves in order.  (You know you’re a Virgo when you volunteer to organize other people’s book shelves.)

The staff knew that I write fiction for a living.  Every so often they would send someone interested in writing off to find me where I was lurking among in the shelves.  This time it was a young man of high school age.  He was nice enough but trying to hide his shyness with a bit of swagger.

“I’ve never read any of your stuff,” he said, nervously pulling random books off the shelf and putting them back again.  “But then I don’t usually read women writers.”

“That’s okay,” I replied.  “So do you read SF or Fantasy?  Who do you read?”

He paused.  “Andre Norton.  A.C. Crispin.”

I had to swallow a laugh.  Sensitive as I wanted to be to his feelings, I couldn’t resist.  We were in the “N” section.  I pulled out a newer release of one of Andre Norton’s novels.  Inside the jacket flap was a picture of her at her “grandmotherly” best.  I opened it and showed it to him without comment.

“Andre Norton is a Wo-man!?!”

I nodded.  “A.C. Crispin is, too.  The ‘A’ is for ‘Ann.’  She’s often called Annie.”

Relax.  This isn’t going to be a rant about how women writers still must battle against bias in the field.  I just thought it was a funny story.  Anyhow, is there a better way to illustrate the impact of Andre Norton on readership of SF and Fantasy?  I’d read Andre Norton when I was younger than this young man.  Here was someone discovering her as a favorite twenty or more years later.

What is it about Andre Norton’s work that makes it last when so many of her contemporaries have not?  For one, I think it’s her focus on characters, not just cool ideas (though she has a ton of those, too).  For another, she didn’t write just one type of story.  She wrote a whole bunch.

Both Jim and I love Andre Norton’s work, so this morning I went out to our personal library to review the offerings.  We had a good four feet of shelf space dedicated to  her works  – and that was just the paperbacks.  There was Witch World, that marvelous tale of Simon Tregarth and what happened when he fled from our world into an unknown world where everything was different.

There was The Beast Master – featuring Hosteen Storm, a Navajo refugee from a destroyed Terra.  “Hosteen” is a Navajo word, roughly meaning “old man” but also used to indicate any respected man in the community.  Seeing that book reminded me of an anecdote a friend told me.

She was interviewing Andre Norton as part of research for her dissertation.  She arrived soon after someone had sent Andre the “Navajo codetalker” GI Joe figure.  My friend seemed a bit puzzled by Andre’s excitement over this cheap, mass-produced bit of plastic.  I’m betting that Andre would have been remembering the days before Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels raised general awareness of the Navajo tribe, days when no one had heard of the code talkers.  But Andre had known.  She’d had the vision to imagine these adaptable people heading out to the stars.

Next, I picked up Shadow Hawk, a tale set in 1590 BC, when the Hyksos ruled Egypt…  There was The Jargoon Pard, the first novel I read where shapeshifters were depicted as something other than evil werewolves or some other monsters.  There was Star Gate, an adventure-packed tale on alternate worlds where you might find yourself fighting another version of yourself…

And that was just a handful.  I didn’t seem to have a copy of Fur Magic, the story of a young boy who finds himself transformed into – if I remember correctly – a beaver.  I remember being fascinated by how he had to adjust to all the changes in perspective and ability…  I’m sure reading that novel  impacted and continues to impact on my own writings about non-humans.

The one time I had a chance to meet Andre Norton, I was too shy to speak to her.  She’d been signing for a long line of people at – I believe – a World Fantasy convention.  Roger [Zelazny] finished his own lot and went over to say “hello” – they shared an Ohio bond, as well as that of being writers.  I just watched in polite awe as two of my writer heroes chatted just like “real” people.

However, later I did have contact with Andre Norton .  In the mid-1990’s I submitted a short story to Cat Fantastic IV.  It was a “cold” submission, as I recall, so I didn’t have a lot of hope of getting in.  Therefore, along with my manuscript, I sent a self-addressed envelope with the return postage clipped to the corner.

(You did this because “disposable” manuscripts were only just coming in then.  You clipped the postage because if the story was taken, then the stamps weren’t wasted.)

Roger had died a short time before and I was not only stony-broke but relocating.   It’s a muddled time for my memory, but my memory remains sharp of  my surprise and excitement when a standard-sized envelope arrived with Andre Norton’s name in the return address spot.  It contained a short note accepting the story.

It also contained my postage.  I couldn’t believe it.  My hero had bought my story.  She liked it!  And she’d sent me back my postage.  I teared up.

As I said, I was stony-broke at the time, but I couldn’t bear to spend that money on anything routine.  I’d been admiring some Oaxacan jaguar heads at Jackalope, a local market specializing in folk art.  Impulsively, I decided to celebrate.  Not only did I buy one of the large heads, but a smaller, more detailed one that caught my eye.  They hang in my kitchen where I can admire them every day – and remember a lady of great talent and kindness.

When Cat Fantastic IV came out containing “Noh Cat Afternoon,” the publisher didn’t mentioned my story on the jacket or in the lead material, but Andre Norton’s own introduction singled it out for special mention, saying that among the cats readers would meet were: “…talented Japanese cats able to improvise a Noh play to interest a lordling.”   I melted all over again.

Thank you Andre Norton, wherever you may be.  Thank you for wonderful stories and kindness to strangers.  I’m sure I’m not the only person with tales to tell about how your stories added to the richness of their lives.

TT: Science Fictional Implications

January 3, 2013

Want to see what Jim gave me for Christmas?  Page back to the Wednesday Wandering to see my new pueblo storyteller figure.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we take a look at some of the new ideas science fiction has brought to our attention.

Cloning Sheep (in polymer clay)

Cloning Sheep (in polymer clay)

JANE: A few weeks ago, Alan, you and I provided a basic definition of what SF is and  what makes SF different from Fantasy.  This was that SF in some way, shape, or form extrapolates from the universe as we know it.  Fantasy may do the same but also includes magic.

When we discussed Clarke’s Axiom – that suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – I noted that I agreed with Clarke in the way he meant this, that really high tech might as well be magic.  However, I ranted a bit about those writers who use this definition as an excuse to write lazy.

Most of my examples came from Fantasy, but it occurs to me that SF should have a sort of “spiritual” reason for being or it wouldn’t continue to appeal.  What do you think?

ALAN: Recently, I was reading a collection of essays by Brian W. Aldiss and I was struck by something he said that addresses this very point: “Science Fiction stories are the fables of a technological age”.

It has always been the business of fiction to try and explain the world in which we all live. One approach, hallowed by time, is to write the kind of social fiction that Dickens (for example) was so good at. But another very valid approach is to recognise that our world is increasingly dependent on technology and to try and explain our place in it in technological terms.

If you accept that, I think it follows that science fiction in the modern sense simply could not be written until the technological age really got going. Aldiss develops this idea in his book Billion Year Spree which is a critical history of science fiction. He makes a convincing case that, for that very reason, the first science fiction story was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

JANE: I really like what Aldis said, especially since he was clearly aware that fables are stories that are meant to supply a warning of some sort.  Unlike fairy tales (which may also teach a lesson), fables don’t need to contain a supernatural element.

(In this context I leave out talking animals since, as in Aesop’s Fables, these are clearly meant to stand in for humans of different types.)

ALAN: Very much so. And the rapid acceleration of technology is in danger of leaving us all behind if we don’t have tools that will let us come to grips with what it all means. When I was a child, the career that I have spent my life pursuing did not exist. My godson Jamie is ten years old. When he goes out into the work force it is likely that I will not recognise the career he chooses. It seems to me that science fiction, in the sense that Aldiss defines it,  is the very best way of exploring the implications of this.

JANE: Absolutely…  So often the SF/F community is having a discussion about a possible technological development before the idea enters the mainstream.

I had a vivid example of this some years ago…  Remember Dolly the Cloned Sheep?

ALAN: Indeed I do – there was a  lot of interest in her down here. After all, a large part of New Zealand’s income is sheep-related.

JANE: Well, Dolly was really the first time that the concept of cloning an entire creature entered the mainstream.  My mother, who reads both avidly and widely, asked me, “What do you think about all this new cloning stuff?”

I don’t know precisely how I responded but it was something like, “Remember all those brightly colored paperback SF books you never stopped me from reading?  The subject of cloning and its implications, positive and negative, have been being discussed in that format for years.    This isn’t new to me and I’m having a little trouble adjusting to all the fuss.”

ALAN: I have the same kind of feelings about computers. I make my living working with the beastly things and I’m constantly amazed at the way that science fiction authors have explored the implications of their impact on society. John Brunner wrote a whole novel about it (The Shockwave Rider) which had a lot to say about viruses, trojan horses, and worms long before they existed in the real world. So it all seemed very familiar to me when everybody started to sit up and take notice of just what these things were doing to them. Like you, I had a little trouble adjusting to all the fuss.

JANE: Back in 1999, I was asked to be the speaker at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s regional conference.  Since it was 1999, I made my topic “Millennium Fears.”   My teaser was that, although a certain degree of panic met the end of the first millennium, the panic faced at the end of the second was different.

I then went on to discuss how Science Fiction could be said to hold  much of the blame.  It was rather fun.  Since fiction needs conflict, most Science Fiction stories are not about science going right but science going wrong.

It was a long talk, so I won’t attempt to summarize here, but my conclusion was that, as long as fiction requires conflict, SF will create a certain degree of apprehension regarding the future.  I’m not sure that’s what the early SF writers had in mind.

ALAN: I’m absolutely certain that, for some writers at least, it was a deliberate choice. H. G Wells was very aware of this, not only in his famous novels such as War of the Worlds, but also in his short stories. He was particularly terrifying to his contemporary readers when he pointed out the implications that science would have on the conduct of warfare. Nowadays those stories read like simple reportage because all the unthinkable things that he pointed out are just accepted as being the way things work.

The stories written by Arthur C. Clarke (a very Wellsian writer, in my opinion) can also be read this way. I’m particularly fond of how he realised that scientific advances will, sooner or later, be used to distribute advertising!

JANE: You have a very good point there.  I was thinking of the “upward, outwards” sort of SF story.  That’s such a complex topic, I’d like to wait to talk about those later.

I suspect we could both keep going on but I’d like to open discussion to the floor. Anyone else have a good story about how SF either helped you understand developments in the future or otherwise showed you the implications of technology?

Storyteller Celebration

January 2, 2013

Happy New Year to you all…

Storyteller for a story teller

Storyteller for a story teller

Jim’s Christmas gift to me gives me an excuse to tell you about an art form I have admired for many years: the pueblo storyteller figure.  The earliest versions depicted an adult with her (storyteller figures are usually female) lap filled with children to whom she is telling a story.

Interestingly, according to the book Pueblo Stories and Storytellers (which I highly recommend), the first storyteller figure was of a male.  I quote: “The first true storyteller figure did not appear until 1964, when a well-known collector of folk art, Alexander Girard, encouraged potter Helen Cordero (1915-1994) of Cochiti Pueblo to expand on the mother and child concept [of the already extant “Singing Mother” figure].  She eventually made a figure of a pueblo man with five children on his lap and shoulders, inspired by and made in memory of her remarkable grandfather, Santiago Quintana.  Quintana was a Cochiti elder who had followed the ancient tradition of maintaining his village’s culture through storytelling.”

In the years since Helen Cordero honored her grandfather with the first storyteller, the form has spread to most of the other pueblo groups and to the Navajo as well.  Storytellers groups aren’t even always human.  I’ve seen figures featuring cats, dogs, bears, and owls.  Sometimes “koshare” – the trickster figures responsible for keeping ritual order in the pueblo – are depicted.  This seems very appropriate, since stories are the means of passing down traditional values to the next generation.

Sometimes – as in the figure Jim gave me for Christmas – there is a mixture of human and other figures.  To me this reflects the sensibility common among these Indian groups (southwestern indigenous groups usually prefer the term “Indian” to “Native American”) that animals and humans share many characteristics, including telling stories.

If you take a close look at my figure (by Bonnie Fragua of Walatowa aka Jemez Pueblo), you’ll notice that the two cats are not simply there as props.  Like the children, their mouths are open, as if they are responding to the story being told or perhaps telling it along with the storyteller.  (Anyone who has ever told a familiar story to children knows how they love to take part.)  One of the children holds a child in her arms.  To me this seems to symbolize the stories being passed on not just to the next generation but to the one after that.

Storyteller figures vary in size and complexity.  Some are huge set pieces.  One of our favorites was a lovely one that we admired as part of the permanent collection at the Acoma pueblo visitor’s center.  Some are tiny.  Most are of a comfortable size to be kept on a shelf.  Mine is about seven and a half inches tall and four inches wide.

I’ve been admiring storyteller figures for years, but had never found one that seemed just right.   When I opened my package, I was completely delighted.  Much of my own writing is done with a cat or two on hand, so I particularly liked how cats were part of the ensemble.

Jim said, “It seemed about time the story teller had a storyteller.”  I’m very glad he felt that way…  I’m going to find a place for my little group in my office and take pleasure in feeling that when I tell my stories I’m becoming part of this larger New Mexico tradition.