It’s what we point to when we say “good”

Posted by Paul Raven @ 03-06-2012 in Criticism

OK, philosophy-of-literature time. Good buddy and shiny-domed death metal maven Ian Sales has an irate post reiterating his belief that the quality of any piece of literature can be assessed objectively. Go read it, it’s pretty brief. (Unlike this thing.)

So, my instinctive response to this statement is always “NO WAI!!”, but I figured it’s high time I figured out why. Postmodernism – which I’ve always viewed as a lens for examining the mechanics of culture, rather than as an ideological standpoint on how things should work – is a big part of it. Also, reading Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance at a formative age left me with an awestruck fear of the utter hollowness of the word “quality”: like “love”, we say it all the time, but we don’t know what we mean when we say it. Or rather, we know what we mean when we say it, but the assumption that everyone – or indeed anyone – else understands it to mean the same thing is demonstrated to be false countless times every single day. I’m not going to reiterate Pirsig’s assaults on quality here, because that would be counterproductive; suffice to say that if you can’t furnish a universally acceptable definition of a property, then you can’t even begin to defend an objective measure of that property. First principles, innit?

But I’m going to continue anyway, because it seems to me that the text of Ian’s complaint reveals that he’s not actually claiming what he thinks he’s claiming. So, let’s go piece by piece.

If there is no such thing as good – because if it’s entirely subjective and personal, then it’s completely useless as a descriptive term – then how do editors choose which books to publish, how do judges choose which books to give prizes to, how do academics chose which books to study? And why don’t they all choose completely different books?

Now, Ian undermines his own argument here by including the counterargument as a throw-away: yes, “good” is completely useless as a descriptive term. It’s an emotional term, a relational term. Goodness is not an intrinsic property. Goodness is bestowed by the speaker. To argue otherwise is to make a case for a higher being, some deity or demiurge, capricious and inscrutable, that bestows the phlogiston of goodness upon some objects or phenomena, but not upon others; and to make the further case that you can somehow divine the presence of this mystical property, despite lacking a testable methodology for the process.

So how do editors, prize juries and academics choose good books? I submit that they make choices based on their own tastes, and apply – after the fact, and largely subconsciously – retroactive reasoning to justify that taste. That reasoning is informed by unending projects of canon-building and reconstruction; it’s informed by the opinions of others interested in the same field (those opinions being modified by existing biases toward their holders in the assessor), and a variable degree of willingness (or, in some cases, puckish intent) to hold a contrary opinion for its own sake.

And why don’t they all choose different books? Why, but they do – look at the different sorts of fiction published by, for example, Gollancz and Baen, two popular and respected genre publishing houses. If there was an objective measure for quality, then every publishing house in the business would be in a bidding war over the single current best-book-on-the-market. If there were an objective good, an objective best, then we would not observe the spectacular diversity of form and style that pertains to almost every field of the arts, fiction writing included.

They can do all this because the quality of a book can be determined objectively. It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and sensibilities.

The second sentence here completely undermines the first. If assessing a book’s quality is not an exact science, then it is by definition not objective. If the definition of quality “is subject to changes… or re-evaluation”, then it is by definition not objective. From good ol’ Wikipedia (which, for the sake of gratuitous po-mo snark, I should point out is not a truly objective source, but – or so I’d argue – good enough for purpose here):

A proposition is generally considered to be objectively true when its truth conditions are met and are “mind-independent”—that is, not met by the judgment of a conscious entity or subject.

So, if we could develop a computer program or some sort of manual checklist by which the goodness or quality of a book might be assessed, and have that test agree faultlessly with the opinion of every single person who had ever read the book in question, then we’d have a good case for an objective measure of goodness.

But that’s a project doomed to fail, and not for any reason related to the difficulty of the programming. On the contrary: it falls over because it relies on a unanimous agreement among readers. If quality is truly objective, then it should be self-evident to anyone with the capacity to perceive it. Compare to an objective property, like, I dunno, blueness*: a thing that is blue, that possesses an intrinsic blueness, will be perceived as blue by all who behold it. By way of contrast, I defy you to find a book that would be rated as “good” by every single person who read it, over a realistically-sized sample of readers. Never going to happen. Subjective, you see.

Now, if you want to make an argument that not every reader is qualified to assess the goodness of a book, well, I have some sympathies with that… but it completely undermines this whole “goodness can be measured objectively” thing. So I put it to Ian that he’s not making the argument that he thinks he is.

If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless.

Well, I’m glad to see we agree on something! (Though I’d make the statement more precise by saying “Best [X]” awards are completely pointless as generators of answers to the question they pose, whereas they have a wider set of implicit subcultural and social functions which they evidently achieve quite well.) As measures of quality, awards are only as reliable as their voters… and the above is a very strange defence statement from someone whose regular carping about award shortlists I greatly enjoy. You can’t have your cake and eat it; if awards sometimes – heck, ever – fail to recognise this objective property of goodness and laud a bad book (or even an indifferent or flawed book), then not all voters or jury members are recognising goodness when they see it… which means goodness is being determined subjectively within the system in question.

This is, of course, a microcosm of the actual book marketplace, which frequently sees bestsellers made of books which have been scorched with the universal opprobrium of almost every critic capable of typing a coherent sentence. If there’s an objective goodness to a book, how come some many people not only loved The Da Vinci Code, but adamantly defend their love of it from those who would (quite rightly) point out that its prose is dreadful, its tropes hackneyed, its appeal based largely on seductively specious conspiracy theories?

The defence could be made that those readers – or the voters in our imaginary award – simply don’t have the right checklist or program with which to detect goodness. And I’d agree – to a greater or lesser extent – with that defence, too… while pointing out that it reframes goodness not as an objective property, but as a property that can only be properly assessed by those with access to a specific set of knowledge. This is intrinsically an elitist argument.

And that’s fine: people who work with literature are surely more knowledgeable about it than those who do not; the reader who reads fifty books a year has a more informed opinion than does the person who reads just one. I give greater weight to the opinion of a working mechanic on what car to buy than I do to the opinion of a florist on the same matter. But if you then argue that only the expert opinions have any value at all, you’re silencing a huge swathe of voices, rebuilding the ivory tower. And that’s one of my core arguments in favour of subjective quality: it means I can have my opinion – and argue passionately in defence of it, with all the knowledge I’ve picked up along the way, if the desire takes me to do so – without denying anyone else that same right, and without anyone else being able to deny it to me. Which brings us to:

And studying literature, well, that’s a complete waste of time too. After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual’s value judgment is worth exactly the same another person’s? There’d be no such thing as an expert. All books would have exactly the same artistic value.

Well, no. There is a canon of literature considered to be great, but that canon, as Ian himself pointed out earlier, is in a state of continual (if at times glacially slow) flux, as critics and academics return to obscure oddities from the past to place them on fresh pedestals, toppling a few dusty statues of last year’s heroes in the process. This is subjective consensus generation in action! (The final interview in Delany’s About Writing goes into glorious and intimate detail on the mechanics of canon formation, and it’s his cogent arguments there that I’m making a rough hash of here.)

And while I can’t speak for everyone, for me the value of studying literature is not so much to seek for an objective truth (which is arguably the demesne of science), but to develop a theory and defend it against attack, or modify it in light of new discoveries. Literature, and the study of literature, is a perpetual discourse, a rambling debate upon which no one (hopefully) will ever call time. It’s not the winning, in other words, not the being the rightest, but the taking part. (Yes, I’m being thoroughly idealistic here. After having been warned about the travails of academia over the long term, I’m trying to enjoy my naivete while it lasts.)

OK, then: having, I believe, successfully demonstrated that the objectively-assessed goodness Ian makes claims for cannot actually exist, I want to see if I can tease out what I think he’s really chasing after – because it’s something I, as a fellow writer, am also chasing.

… there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used to determine the quality of that piece of fiction. It’s what makes one writer more talented, more skilled than another writer. It’s what makes one story worthy of study and another not worth giving away for free.

[...]

… everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour, graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research…

There’s an implicit bias in these statements which, when made explicit, turns them into perfectly reasonable and logical statements. That bias is Ian’s perspective as a writer – and not just a writer, but a writer embedded in a community of other writers, critics and literary demagogues.

If “everybody” agreed that clumsy prose and tone-deaf dialogue made for bad fiction, I submit that Ian wouldn’t get much mileage out of his (agreeably entertaining) trolling of Asimov fanpersons! Furthermore, Asimov has his defenders inside the circle as well as outside of it, and their positions might be paraphrased by saying that the value of Asimov’s works are as an important nexus of development in the history of a particular genre. Asimov’s work would likely be bounced by publishers nowadays for being hackneyed and poorly-written, but there was demonstrably a time when that was not so.

So goodness must be a moving target; quality evolves, iterating through countless new attempts by writers and critics to pin down and define “good” writing. Every book written is an attempt to contribute to this evolution, and critical discourse combines with commercial success (or lack thereof) to act as the evolutionary pressures acting upon it.

Ian tweeted to me earlier that “it’s important to me to know how to improve my craft”, and that’s a goal I fully sympathise with; I am trying to do the same. But here again is that schism between the way a writer perceives a book and the way someone who reads for pure pleasure perceives it.

The reader is interested in the affect of the writing as an end unto itself; it matters to them that it succeeds in entertaining (or scaring or enlightening or sensawundering) them, but they are indifferent to how or why that affect is produced. The writer, however, wants to know how that affect is produced, in order that they might replicate the technique (or perhaps avoid it).

By way of analogy: a PC owner doesn’t care about how the code of a program is put together, so long as the software does what they want it to do. But a programmer cares very much about how the results were achieved: could it have been done more elegantly, using less CPU cycles, more function objects, less loops, so on and so forth? The craftsperson’s attitude will always be different to the consumer’s. That’s what makes them a craftsperson – what makes them an artist.

So, to wrap up something that’s already waaaaaay lobger than I meant it to be, here’s a declaration of my own for everyone to kick around:

“Quality or goodness in art is inherently subjective; furthermore, any art for which there can be defined a demonstrable objective measure of quality immediately ceases to become art, and becomes mere engineering. Corollary: much engineering is not actually pure engineering, because its praxis incorporates the subjective value-judgements of its practitioners, predominantly in terms of aesthetics but sometimes also in philosophy or methodology; as such, many if not most good engineers are also, in some respects, artists.”

Discuss. :)

[ * - I'm pretty sure there are arguments to be made that blueness isn't a truly objective property, being a function of our senses and hence fallible. But when you start going in that direction, you can end up saying that even the existence or being of a thing is not objective, and that way lies madness, solipsism or a career in high finance. Philosophy is fun! ]

OMFG SPOILERS

Posted by Paul Raven @ 24-05-2011 in Essays • General

In response to viewer and listener feedback received during the recently-finished football season, the BBC has decided that pundits and newscasters on all BBC media properties will be forbidden from mentioning specific details of league matches until it has been determined that everyone interested in watching or listening to the live commentary has had a chance to do so.

Barraged by complaints from viewers stuck at work or with family while crucial matches were broadcast, the Director General felt obliged to respond and address the issue. “Obviously, it’s been unfair of us to discuss major events and turnarounds in football matches – final score, goalscorers, red cards and the like – when there are still loyal fans who’ve yet to watch or listen to the game via timeshifted media. Why should they be denied the chance to enjoy our football-related programming just because there’s a chance the element of surprise might be removed from their enjoyment of their home team’s performance?”

Asked how the BBC intended to deal with the possibility of other media outlets leaking the same details while some fans remained unfulfilled, the Director General replied: “We’re planning to set up a dialogue with other venues to establish a sort of universal code of practice. It is to be hoped that rogue venues will not breach the code and race to broadcast the full detail of a match in their discussion of it; it would be very callous of them not to consider the possibility of a fan accidentally clicking through to a discussion of a game they had yet to watch. After all, it’s not the fan’s responsibility to avoid every venue where discussion might occur; that onus lies clearly on the media and the punditry, and it’s to the shame of this industry that we’ve let this run unchecked for so long.”

Faced with the suggestion that such a code of conduct would be unpolicable and tantamount to a form of censorship, the Director General asserted that it is clearly the duty of the media to forestall discussion until a point where everyone can participate in it equally. “It’s just the right thing to do, isn’t it? After all, if we told them they’d be better off avoiding football-related media until they’ve had a chance to catch up, we’d be being monstrously unfair to that minority of people. They should be able to read, listen to or watch whatever they want without fear of finding out something they’d rather not know yet, and we have to consider that desire – born as it is of a form of deferred gratification – to be more important than the inconsiderate lust for discussion of everyone else. That lust has led to pundits taking an almost sadistic glee in discussing the particulars of certain matches, especially the most important or contentious ones, and – to be frank – the sooner we quash this unpleasant thread of elitism, the better off everyone will be.”

When pressed, the DG suggested that the same protocols will eventually be rolled out into all sports programming, and finally all news content in general. But wouldn’t this mean that eventually the BBC would be completely unable to discuss anything that had happened at all, ever? “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, I suppose,” responded the Director General. “But I’m positive that those to whom we extend the privilege of forestalling the discussion will be grateful for not having to think about what they read or watch, and that is reward enough for everyone, I’d have thought.”

For more background on this story, click here. Unless you’re worried that clicking there might reveal an important component of the events in question that will spoil your enjoyment of the discussion as a whole, of course; after all, you shouldn’t have to make that judgement call yourself.

Science fiction’s future-flinch

Posted by Paul Raven @ 15-02-2011 in Criticism • Science Fiction

It occurred to me that, although I mentioned it at Futurismic, I didn’t plug my induction to the hallowed Locus Roundtable blog here at VCTB. So consider this an attempt to redress the issue: should you be interested, you can observe me firehosing my overly verbose and underinformed opinions around in the company of people far more knowledgeable, well-read and concise than myself, covering such topics as the aesthetics of science fiction, sf’s troubled relationship with the (un)foreseeable future, and the travails of genre taxonomy. You can also read my very own “origin story” about how I found my way into the scene (which is a high-water mark of self-indulgent introspection, even for me; selah).

The real purpose of this post, though, is to take the opportunity to post the full text of my response to the “SF vs The Future” question, which – thanks to its prodigious wordcount and numerous digressions – was shaved down somewhat before being included in the final article. To be clear, I had no objections to it being shortened, especially as, in light of the other responses, some of my points were inverted or rendered redundant; I include the full copy here primarily for the sake of adding it to my online archive of critical writing (which I mean to expand with a lot of my as-yet-uncollected reviews and essays in the months to come, time permitting). So, feel free to get stuck in – comments, curses and cries of “what the hell are you on about” are – always – more than welcome. :)


OK, so: those of you who follow cyberpunk’s very own apostate chairman-in-voluntary-exile Bruce Sterling with even a shred of the obsessiveness with which I do so (fanboy is as fanboy does, after all) will have encountered his word for the “problem” that sf (and almost every other sphere of human endeavour) is having at the moment: atemporality.

Paraphrasing somewhat (and confessing to considering myself to have the open licence on rewriting the concept to suit my needs that said concept implicitly embeds within itself): atemporality is basically end-case po-mo (and has also been labelled as “altermodernism”). It’s what the world looks like when the conceptual space you inhabit is – and always was – saturated with po-mo’s erasure of metanarrative; when you’ve learned from birth that if you don’t construct your own narratives pretty fast, someone else will construct them on your behalf. (And then charge you for the privilege of featuring in them, most likely, unless you’re on the lower tiers of their freemium package, in which case you’re getting some sort of intangible and easy-to-scale benefit in exchange for reinforcing said narrative. But I digress… which is very unlike me, I know, and your indulgence is appreciated.)

The Future (caps deliberate) was old-school sf’s metanarrative; The Future used to be somewhere awesome and clean which we could either build, conquer or travel to. But the closer we got to the real (uncapitalised) future, the more it looked like… well, a lot like today, really, or even yesterday, only faster, more ruthless, more worn at the corners, and packed full of grim new threats alongside a remarkably persistent cast of old classics (Teh 4 Horsemen Haz A Posse). The future isn’t somewhere that anyone – except possibly the more hardcore transhumanists, who are getting intriguingly vocal and self-assured of late – wants to escape to. Indeed, I think most of us, at some level or another, are more interested in escaping from the future.

So there’s your crisis… and to paraphrase the late Doug Adams, it’s a difficult crisis for us to see for the very same reason that a tourist in Trafalgar Square struggles to see England. What’s interesting is the schism between the two responses to it, which I’m going to hastily label Consolatory Nostalgia and The Future As Engineering Problem (and doubtless regret the choice of labels later, but hey, this is how the altermodern critic works – it makes sense to me at the moment I’m writing it, and that’s pretty much the best I can hope for).

Interestingly, you can see these same responses cropping up in a lot of other arts, though sf’s history of speculating about the future gives it a set of tools which, while available to many other types of artist, it has a unique familiarity and aptitude with. As such, Consolatory Nostalgia pretty much rules the world of music right now: a pandaemonium of subsubsubcultures, all based on reappropriating the nice idealised aspects of bygone eras (and, of course, glossing over the nasty bits, which tend to be spookily mirrored by events in The Now) by mimicking the sounds of that moment. (Interesting, though, how the 80s revival in music and fashion started long before anyone but the smarter economists saw our latest financial shitrain nudging its way over the horizon; a smart person with time on their hands could probably learn to read these things like tea-leaves… though monetising it – as always – would be the real challenge.)

Indeed, music seems to be going through its own double-dip creative recession; even the traditionally futurist field of electronica is deep in a trough of retro. Electronica was pop music’s High Modernist moment, the point after which the ultimate experimental possibilities were, if not actually exhausted, then at least demonstrated to be little more than intellectual curiosities. There’s only so much you can do with words of English on a page and still have it entertain and fascinate the average non-academic reader; in the same way, there’s only so many different things you can do with the frequencies between 40Hz and 40kHz, which is why pop music is increasingly homogenous, retro revivalism (ironic, faithful or otherwsie) and genre mashups are ubiquitous, and the only true groundbreaking steps being made in music are – quite literally – painful to listen to.

But back to sf, where the Consolatory Nostalgia approach gives us steampunk, increasingly baroque space opera and increasingly violent mil-SF. It’s nostalgia for The Future, for a future we now know we’re never going to get: a future where the imposition of White Western Male-brand hierarchy and order (and maybe a bit of empire, even if only economic in nature) automatically led to Better Things (if only for People Like Us).

Now, what’s interesting to me is that the writers and editors who stand accused by the traditionalists of breaking (e.g. Jetse de Vries) or abandoning the genre (e.g. Bill Gibson) are the ones cleaving most closely to the underlying impetus (if not the intellectual machismo and cryptoracism) of the original Cambellian vision of competent folk solving existential risk problems… or, in other words, of The Future As Engineering Problem. Now that it’s become plain that strong-jawed men with toolkits going places in rockets won’t change much for anyone but the strong-jawed men themselves, then that dream of strong-jawed manliness becomes Narcissus’ reflection. Why look at the real future when The Future we dreamed up before was so much more user-friendly? Much space opera and much mil-SF, as has been pointed out by far smarter folk than me many times before, is actually fantasy with rayguns, and is becoming more and more so; steampunk is fantasy with, er, steam. It is escapism. And there is nothing wrong with that, either; diff’rent strokes, and all that.

But you can get a fairly decent idea of what the future will look like if you stop staring into the mirror of The Future and turn your eyes to The Now. It’s not a pretty picture, granted, but from a writer’s perspective it’s packed full of interesting and genuinely terrifying ways to place your characters – and the rest of their species – in some very deep shit indeed, and without the need for any of the implausible aliens or FTL-powered empires or other stuff from The Future. But the sort of inquisitive mind that spots those potholes in the turnpike is probably the sort of mind that finds itself wondering if there’s a way to swerve and avoid them… or even take another road (the ultimate Route Less Travelled) entirely. We’re going to end up in the future whether we like it or not… so why not think about how we can make it slightly less terrifying? Or, like jaggedly gloomy gadfly Paolo Bacigalupi, become a sort of mudlark prophet, digging around in the slimiest recesses of our planetary psyche for the end-games of our wilful ignorances. “If this goes on…” is another classic sf riff, but the guy plays it on a guitar strung with cheesewire.

(I should note at this point that it seems eminently possible to use classic widescreen skiffy tropes to examine The Now in pertinent ways, and I would offer David Marusek as an example thereof; likewise, I’m sure there’s steampunk that does more than yearn for a past when the future was still full of promise, and that there’s small-m mundane sf that falls into every consolatory drinking-den it passes. These patterns are observed generalisations rather than proscriptive divisions, so tell the villagers to douse the torches and put away the pitchforks, mmmkay?)

So, to answer – at long last – Karen’s question: is sf struggling to catch up with the future we’ve found ourselves in? I don’t think it is; I think a non-mathematical half of it has lost all interest in the future (because it doesn’t look like The Future, refunds are not forthcoming, and re-runs are as comforting for the viewer as they are cheap for the broadcasters), while the other half is doing its best to not get sucked across the singularity and into the future before managing to come up with a way to survive the experience (with being able to walk away afterwards considered a definite bonus).

Sf isn’t struggling to catch up with the future; on the contrary, it’s schism’d and reeling from having met the future in person, unexpectedly and with some considerable threat of violence, in an alley behind a franchise restaurant in downtown Mumbai.

The City & The City & The (un)Dead Author

Posted by Paul Raven @ 30-04-2010 in General

China Mieville, on being asked whether TC&TC is an “interstitial” work:

I consider it a crime novel, above all. The question of whether or not it’s fantasy doesn’t have a stable answer; it’s to do with how it’s read, what people get out of it, and so on. Certainly I was very aware of genre, and of the fantastic, and there’s a certain kind of (I hope good-natured) teasing of readers about the whether-or-not-ness of a fantastic “explanation” for the setting. And other issues, I think, about the drive to world-creation, and the hankering for a certain kind of hermetic totality that you see in fantasy, and so on. Not I hope that that stuff is heavy-handed, but it’s there in my mind. I don’t mind whether other people think the book’s “splipstream,” or “interstitial,” or whatever. I think of it as within the fantastic tradition, but for me that’s always been a very broad church. Whether it’s “fantasy” in the narrower sense, I don’t much mind. Certainly I’m not abjuring the term—it would be ungrateful and ridiculous for me to distance myself from a set of reading and writing traditions, and a set of aesthetics and thematics that have furnished my mind since forever.

And on whether he has sympathies with allegorical readings:

Personally I make a big distinction between allegorical and metaphoric readings (though I’m not too bothered about terminology, once we’ve established what we’re talking about). To me, the point of allegorical readings is the search for what Fredric Jameson calls a “master code” to “solve” the story, to work out what it’s “about,” or, worse, what it’s “really about.” And that approach I have very little sympathy with. In this I’m a follower of Tolkien, who stressed his “cordial dislike” of allegory. I dislike it because I think it renders fiction pretty pointless, if a story really is written to “mean” something else—and I’m not suggesting there’s no place for polemical or satirical or whatever fiction, just that if it’s totally reducible in a very straight way, then why not just say that thing? Fiction is always more interesting to the extent that there’s an evasive surplus and/or a specificity. So it’s not saying there are no meanings, but that there are more than “just” those meanings. The problem with allegorical decoding as a method isn’t that it reads too much into a story, but that it reads too little into it. Allegories are always more interesting when they overspill their own levees. Metaphor, for me, is much more determinedly like that. Metaphor is always fractally fecund, and there’s always more and less to it. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that in no way do I say some of those readings aren’t valid (though I must say I have very little sympathy for the “East” versus “West” one, which is explicitly denied in the text more than once), but that I hope people don’t think the book is “solved” by that. I don’t think any book can be so solved.

Fascinating full interview by Paul Witcover, compiled for the TC&TC paperback edition backpages, available at The Inferior 4 + 1.

The flavours of science in science fiction

Posted by Paul Raven @ 15-04-2010 in General

Regular readers (especially those from the Genre-fictional League of Critical Motherfuckers) will be aware that I loves me a good taxonomy.

And what do you know, here’s one now: a chap called Eric Van (who I’m not sure I know) has categorised the flavours of science in science fiction [via Niall Longshanks Harrison]. The list was originally developed to comment on sf cinema, but Van suggests it’s easily adapted to use with the written form; I am very much inclined to agree.

Of special note for its concise definition of a very slippery concept:

Bad Science. An attempt is made at one of the above categories, and although the science isn’t demonstrably Wrong, it still doesn’t work for you; it takes you out of the story and makes you wince at its stupidity. That’s Bad Science. Whether Speculative Science strikes you as Bad usually depends on your scientific knowledge. With the other varieties, Bad Science seems ultimately a matter of taste. That the alien mothership in Independence Day apparently runs the Mac OS is Fake Science, but for many it’s Bad Fake Science. Botching the hand-waving explanation is a classic form of Bad Science; The Force in the original Star Wars trilogy was (like almost all psi powers in sf) simply Magic Science, but the introduction of midichlorians in the prequel trilogy struck many as a turn to the Bad Side, in that the explanation added nothing. In fact, a good criterion for identifying Bad Science is that fixing it would improve the story—if Jeff Goldblum’s character had to struggle to interface with the alien OS, that could have been exciting and funny and needn’t have taken more than twenty seconds of screen time.

This, incidentally, is the one you always see from writers who thought they’d take a crack at writing sf without knowing anything of the genre beyond the mainstream cinema and televisual canon. As a result, it’s almost impossible to explain to them why it doesn’t work.

Distinguishing the good from the great

Posted by Paul Raven @ 23-02-2010 in General

The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones on why the creative world needs critics more than ever before:

It is the job of a critic to reject the relativism and pluralism of modern life. All the time, from a million sources, we are bombarded with cultural information. A new film or the music of the moment can enter our minds regardless of quality and regardless of our interest. In fact, in this age of overload, indifference is the most likely effect of so many competing images. If we do make an aesthetic choice it is likely to be a consumerist one, a passing taste to be forgotten and replaced in a moment.

[...]

Real criticism is not about distinguishing good from bad; it is about distinguishing good from great. There’s plenty of terrible art around, but it usually finds its level in the end. The curse of our time, in the arts, is mediocrity and ordinariness: the quite good film that gets an Oscar, the OK artist who becomes a megastar. Truly remarkable art is rare and to see it when it comes, to fight for it, to hold it up as an example for the rest — that is the critic’s true task.

Not sure I agree with him entirely (I’m not letting go of pluralism just yet, because I see it as less of a creed and more of a phenomenological map of the human cultural consensus, if that makes any sense), but I like the general shape of his argument. What about you?

Science fiction and pornography, the myth of critical objectivity and anonymised reviewing

Posted by Paul Raven @ 09-02-2010 in General

Three things make a post, as the old gag goes. So, try this for size:

Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep?

That’s the title of an intriguing book I reviewed recently for SF Site; the subtitle reads “Critical Perspectives on Sexuality and Pornography in Science and Social Fiction”, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Funnily enough, I don’t think anyone else expressed an interest… I guess I’ve finally found my niche in the genre criticism ecosystem, eh?

It’s an interesting book, albeit something of a mixed bag. Skip to the money-shot:

Like good science fiction, the material collected in Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? leaves us with more questions than we arrived with; if you can stomach the subject matter (which shouldn’t really appall anyone but the most prudish and conservative, to be honest, though my perceptions may be somewhat skewed), this is prime fuel for your imaginatory engines. The focal character of James Tiptree, Jr.’s story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” suggests that, as humans, “we’re built to dream outwards” [pp 239], to project our desire onto “the other”, whoever or whatever it may happen to be. It’s an insight that makes more sense each time you read it, and serves to underline the basic commonality between sex and science fiction, or indeed art in general — they are both ways in which we try to subsume ourselves into (or control and dominate over) that which we are not.

Love makes us do strange things, after all.

It really, really does. :)

The (Schis)matrix reloaded; criticism and subjectivity

I can’t remember where I saw the first link to There Is No Genre, but I do remember Casey Samulski’s opening post made me think [he/she]‘d have interesting things to say in future, and subbing to the RSS feed. Today, that trust was rewarded with a repost review of Chairman Bruce’s Schismatrix (which I fully intended to review after re-reading it late last year… and so it goes) with a coda born of hindsight:

… this really is the tricky part of good criticism. Ultimately, it is subjective. An author can do their best to ensure that a particular effect resonates with his or her readership but it’s no guarantee of that outcome. No two people read something identically. We each take to a work our own experiences, including previous works read, our own sense of beauty, and our own preconceptions about the novel at hand. This is not to say that you cannot have some objectivity in this process — I have read things that I haven’t enjoyed but that I have appreciated for their craftsmanship. Instead, I would argue that objectivity is something of a distant shore to be paddled towards but never landed upon.

Preference. Mood. Taste. These are all culprits at various times and they are inevitable, responsible for sabotaging even the most sober of inspections. In order to criticize well, you must remember that these reign over your judgment, tirelessly skewing your sense of direction. Most importantly, I think you can never pretend that you understand a work completely — there must always be the admission that you are only witness to what you were able to discern and that, like all art, this does not define what is actually there.

Yes, yes, and thrice yes; I always thought that subjectivity was implicit in any and every review ever written, but the peridic cycles of angst und wagling about negative reviews and uppity critics serves to demonstrate that’s surely not the case. And now for the resonant chime in a passing pair of sentences from Jeff VanderMeer in a Booklife post:

… there’s also the uncomfortable truth that no one is ever going to perceive your book exactly the way that you intended for it to be perceived. In coming into contact with the world the text changes, given an additional dimension by readers.

temple bell, Korea

[image courtesy nurpax]

Reviewing while blindfolded

But what if, to stymie future complaints about reviewer bias and preconceptional baggage, you inverted the normal anonymity curve of the reviewing process, namely naming the reviewer (generally uncredited in a lot of non-genre venues, or so I’m led to believe) but concealing the author’s identity (and, presumably, publishing details) from said reviewer?

… the editors of this magazine asked if I would be interested in being part of an experiment in criticism. They were curious what would happen if we inverted the standard “anonymous review†formula—if instead of the reviewer having the cloak of anonymity, we were to keep the book under review anonymous from its critic, and thereby shield it from any and all prejudice—whether positive or negative, whether directed at the author, the publishing house, the blurbers, the cover art, etc. I swore several oaths to stay true to the project (Eds.: “No googlingâ€), and soon enough a book arrived at my house. Its covers, front matter, and endpages had all been stripped, and the spine blacked out with a Sharpie. I didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it or who was publishing it or when. I didn’t know if it was the author’s first or twenty-first publication. Fiction? Nonfiction? Genre? Self-published? I didn’t know anything (and at this writing, I still don’t) except that it wasn’t poetry. What could I do? I began to read.

Rose Fox of Publisher’s Weekly (thanks to whom I found that post) mentions that it mirrors periodic calls for genre venues to anonymise the slushpile – a suggestion plainly motivated by the “good stories lose out to established names” theory of short fiction publication.

The ones most readily identifiable–written by writers with very distinctive voices, or making use of familiar and copyright-protected characters or settings–would presumably be routed directly to the editors anyway, so generally anonymizing the slushpile seems like a reasonable way of reducing possible bias against authors with certain types of names. It wouldn’t do a thing to reduce unconscious bias against certain types of stories, but it would probably make it more obvious, which is not a bad thing.

Moving back to book reviewing, though, the point is made in the comments that with genre fiction, some sort of filtering is required (so that a romance reviewer doesn’t end up with a Greg Egan collection, f’rinstance)… but as I see it, that truism actually weakens the original thesis, which seems to be predicated on the ongoing fiction that there is some sort of objective measurement of quality that can be applied to all writing in the same way. With reference to the above links and quotes, I suggest that the myth of critical objectivity is long overdue for burial; there seems to be an evolving collective consensus on such matters when viewed en masse and at a distance, but once you zoom in close it’s subjectivity and personal opinion all the way down.

That this is unclear to so many people is a source of perpetual bafflement to me, but then so is Dan Brown’s status as a bestseller. So there you go. :)

Friday No-photo Non-blogging

Posted by Paul Raven @ 29-05-2009 in General

Yeah, slacking off this week, for a whole assortment of reasons – but principally because I played a gig last night and am hence very much the worse for wear. But it went pretty well, and we’ve been offered our first support slot at a big venue (way off in October) so we’re pretty stoked.

If you’re really hankering to read some of my pontifications, though, you can pop on over to issue #4 of Fruitless Recursion, where my review* of Reading Science Fiction is now available to one and all.

Have a good weekend!

[ * It kinda mutated into a discussion of potential new platforms for collaborative criticism and dialogue around science fiction. What can I say - non-fic collections designed with generalism in mind are hard to review in any interesting fashion. Selah. ]

The heart of the Matter

Posted by Paul Raven @ 24-04-2008 in General

Matter by Iain M BanksWelcome to part three of a rambling email-based discussion of Iain M Banks’ Matter between Niall “Vector” Harrison, Jonathan “SF Diplomat” McCalmont, James “Big Dumb Object” Bloomer and myself.

Make sure you check out parts one [does it Matter to you?] and two [mind over Matter], else you may find yourself a little lost. And if you’re the sort of person who gets twitchy about spoilers, I’d best warn you that [pirate voice]‘ere be many spoilers, me hearties[/pirate voice].

[ For the sake of context it may be worth pointing out that "the interview" we keep mentioning was the BSFA event where Farah Mendlesohn interviewed Banks ... which was a fascinating insight into Banks as a person, but somewhat obfuscatory from the perspective of attempting to actually get beneath the skin of the man's books. ]

I’m particularly proud of my conjectural thematic sandcastle that I build at the end. If anyone who’s read Matter would like to tell me that they can vaguely comprehend how I might possibly have conceived of that idea, that’s be just great. That said, calling me a nutcase is probably the easier option. YMMV. ;)


Paul: By my calculations, my tardy response signals the requirement for another question, so I’ll step up to the plate with:

What did Matter say to you? What was the theme, as perceived by you as reader, and how was that theme expressed at various levels?

Jonathan: To me Matter is a book about social class.

This operates on two levels. Firstly, on an individual level we have the sense of class that drips from Hausk’s children as a result of their childhood educations: Ferbin as the Diplomat and Orumen as the Scholar. They’re also loaded. Their lives are completely alien to those of other individuals from their own culture who have to try and pull together a living. What is interesting about this portrayal of class is that while we are told that the Empire of Hausk the conqueror is something he created in his lifetime, the society is already showing signs of being hide-bound, with clueless upper class generals and spoiled rich kids playing at being knights while the actual business of fighting a war takes place thousands and thousands of kilometers away. It’s a very fast progression.

The second level on which Matter‘s depiction of social class operates is on the civilisational level. In Excession, and arguably even way back in Consider Phlebas, we saw that the Culture universe has always had quite a strict pecking order with some civilisations being clearly less developed — both morally and technologically — than others. Banks has flirted with the idea that this hierarchy exists purely in the minds (and Minds) of the Culture, who are endlessly smug in their moral certainty. However, Matter suggests that social class also affects galactic civilisation: Elder civilisations sit back while younger and less advanced cultures desperately scrabble for position and patronage, in a manner reminiscent of Ferbin’s servant.

The end result is one of complex social stratification and a very clearly defined status quo, almost reminiscent of that present in many of the more romantic works of the fantasy genre; we even have a Big Bad whose ultimate motivations are never really discussed but who we know is bad because he threatens the status quo in a most destructive manner.

Niall: “Clearly defined status quo” — Yes. As you say, hierarchy is the key to Matter. I liked how a character’s position in that hierarchy influenced how they interpreted, well, just about anything. Anaplian, for instance, considering her father’s career from her Cultured perspective, finds herself unimpressed, thinking of him as “just another strong man, in one of those societies, at one of those stages, in which it was easier to be the strong man than it was to be truly courageous”. Moreover, to her, the development of societies through such stages is “as natural and obvious as the progression of a star along the main Sequence, or evolution itself”. (How to make history interesting to sf readers: compare it to stellar physics.) But equally, it’s made clear that the leaders of Sarl — both Hausk, and tyl Loesp after him — know exactly where they sit on the great galactic ladder, and unsurprisingly resent it more than a little. So they seize what opportunities the societies they perceive as higher offer them (indeed that’s how Anaplian came to be given to the Culture in the first place — in exchange for ideas that are slowly kick-starting an industrial revolution on the Eighth) in pursuit of a “glitteringly pragmatic future”. I think there’s even a moment when tyl Loesp thinks to himself that he hopes such brutality as defines his life will become obsolete. (Which makes him so much more satisfying as an antagonist than the straightforwardly evil Luseferous in The Algebraist. But maybe I’ve beaten that drum enough.) To achieve that goal he’s willing to allow himself and his people to be used quite nakedly. Paul, I believe this is your cue to mention postcolonialism.

Anyway, all of that means that I would say that intertwined with class, and as important to the book, is the question of what freedom means. There are characters like Oramen, who are obviously not free and characters like Anaplian, who in theory are ultimately free, but in reality are constrained in subtle ways. Oramen puts it this way: “while [inhabitants of Optimae civilizations] had what appeared to be complete freedom within their societies, the societies themselves had very little freedom of movement at all. […] There was simply not much left for them to do on any grand scale.” One of the things that made me warm to Oramen, in fact, is the way he was able to come to these realizations without (unlike Ferbin) being beaten over the head by grand revelations … meanwhile, Anaplian is wrestling with the fact that interventions that on the face of it will relieve oppression will actually “subtly, incrementally but most certainly remove all freedom and dignity from the very people one sought only to help”. If you like, it all comes down to this speech that Shoum gives, when Ferbin finally finds him:

“You find yourself the unintended victim of a system set up specifically to benefit people like the Sarl, prince; a system which has evolved over the centieons to ensure that peoples less technologically advanced than others are able to progress as naturally as possible within a generally controlled galactic environment, allowing societies at profoundly different civilisational stages to rub up against each other without this leading to the accidental destruction of demoralisation of the less developed participants. It is a system that has worked well for a long time; however, that does not mean it never produces anomalies or seeming injustices. I am most sorry.”

All the Culture novels are, in some sense, Omelas problems — what is the cost of maintaining utopia? What Matter does most satisfyingly is attack this question (or this sort of question — what is the cost of achieving and maintaining civilization) in a setting that is politically intricate and resonant with our own history, while keeping alive the sense that it is a grand and important and universal question. It investigates specifics without getting lost in those specifics.

James: I thought there was going to be some “going on a journey” theme/message, but apart from the fact that everybody went somewhere (and some came back) I don’t think that very much can be made of it.

The Galactic hierarchy left me thinking that if I had to live anywhere in that universe it would have to be in the midst of the Culture, minding my own business and living the high life. Why would anyone bother working for Special Circumstances? Even if you had to join SC to get “into” The Culture, why not then leave and take it easy? I don’t think any of the SC operatives’ motives convince me. Having said that, the person at the bottom of the pile, and not Culture, is the one who survives, but maybe more by luck than anything else.

Jonathan: That’s actually an interesting point. It occurred to me a while back that ideology seems to have drained out of SF. Heinlein’s works may have essentially became fora in which he could appear as an appropriately father-like Mary Sue and then mouth off about whatever political issue was getting his goat at the time, but I think that nowadays genre is struggling to keep in touch with the idea of people being genuinely politically motivated.

The Culture books are weird in that they’re frequently political but the politics aren’t particularly fine-grained. The result is that you have characters working for SC out of a genuine desire to further the political aims of SC but as those aims are frequently unclear, the politics serve quite poorly as character motivation, merely resulting in lots of people being enigmatic and secretive.

I think that type of writing works in morally simplistic universes as characters can be secretive, enigmatic, maybe a bit ambiguous but ultimately good. Once you remove that easy moral safety net and you have to deal with real issues that motivate real people, it becomes a lot more tricky to make it convincing.

Paul: OK, the theme of Matter. Well, the clue is in the title, and even gets referenced quite explicitly a little over half way through [page 340 or so in my ARC]. Ferbin and Holse are talking to Hyrlis about surveillance, reality, truth and the Simulation Hypothesis (though not in those terms, natch). Ferbin (true to form) ignores the revelations, but Holse has the instinctive grasp, and so Banks feeds us the core of the theme through Hyrlis to Holse and out onto the page.

“If we assume that all we have been told is as real as what we ourselves experience — in other words, that history, with all its torturings, massacres and genocides, is true — then, if it is all under the control of somebody or some thing, must not those running that simulation be monsters? How utterly devoid of decency, pity, and compassion would they have to be to allow this to happen, and keep on happening under their explicit control? Because so much of history is precisely this, gentlemen.”
[...]
“War, famine, disease, genocide. Death in a million different forms, often painful and protracted for the poor individual wretches involved. What god would so arrange the universe to predispose its creations to experience such suffering, or be the cause of it in others? What master of simulations or arbiter of a game would set up the initial conditions to such pitiless effect? God or programmer, the charge would be the same: that of near-infinitely sadistic cruelty; deliberate, premeditated barbarism on an unspeakably horrific scale.
[...]
Just as reality can blithely exhibit the most absurd coincidences that no credible fiction could convince us of, so only reality — produced, ultimately, by matter in the raw — can be so unthinkingly cruel. Nothing able to think [...] could encompass such purposefully envoked savagery without representing the absolute definition of evil. It is that unthinkingness which saves us. And condemns us, too, of course; we are as a result our own moral agents, and there is no escape from that responsibility.”

The theme is certainly connected to hierarchy, but the human hierarchies are mirroring the bigger one — the hierarchy of truths, of actualities.

Now the problem is that I can’t put this into words very well, because it was one of those revelatory things that rolled on in from the sidelines while I was reading the passage in question. I suppose the best way of grasping toward the feeling it produces when I think is to talk about Russian dolls of reality — not stacked universes or dimensions or anything (though they, again, mirror the same thing) but realities as perceived by players within them.

(Banks’ love of games manifests here as well — I think he’s saying that ultimately life, consciousness, sentience etc is a game that the universe plays with itself (like an only child, perhaps?). Complexity increases as we move toward entropy and heat death; as energy coalesces into matter. Matter is an emergent form of complexity — maybe Einstein’s God doesn’t play dice with the universe, but there’s evidence that the universe isn’t averse to rolling for snake-eyes while it waits for the bus. But I digress.)

Those perceived realities have the added complication of intersecting in time and space — they are conceptual territories that share space-time with the territories of others, and so matter goes to war with matter, over matter …

I’m not explaining this well, am I? I really need to read the whole thing again with an eye for the clues and intrusions of this theme (just in case I have in fact invented the thing out of whole cloth without realising it). But I think it was more obvious because I’d been utterly buried in Brasyl prior to reading Matter, which uses a similar idea in different ways.

In short, I’m saying something like Jonathan, but I see the layering of perceived realities reaching out way beyond notions of class and civilisation, and into the way everything interacts. The class thing is just one facet, one expression of the overarching principle. From the mighty empires, transcended races and Cultures and so on, right down to ticks on horses, and chemical reactions. The WorldGod is, to Ferbin, a god. To Hyrlis, it’s just an unhinged and inscrutable member of a mostly transcended elder race. Same corporeal entity, different things to different people — and the way they see it is a function of the reality they perceive.

This is why the Shellworld is such a great set-piece. It’s not just an awesome sensawunda BDO, but a mirror of the bigger idea — nested realities, each with their own ecology of sentience that makes no sense to someone or something at a different scale.

And this is why I think Holse is chosen as the person who can actually grok it, even though it takes him a while. Holse can understand (and ultimately manipulate) hierarchy because he always saw himself as somewhat aloof from it. It doesn’t control him in the way it controls others because he is more aware of it as a system, as a set of interlocking rules and principles. He doesn’t see monarchy as some expression of divine right; monarchy simply is, and he deals pragmatically with things as they stand. This makes him a survivor, and ultimately an agent of change.

Because Holse, you see, is the Culture in microcosm.

James: All I’d add to that is that at Alt.Fiction Banks said that he used the title Matter because it was the working title for The Steep Approach To Garbadale, so he used it again to annoy everyone on the interwebtubes…

When Amazon’s recommendations get it right – Rhetorics Of Fantasy in my inbox

Posted by Paul Raven @ 08-04-2008 in General

(a.k.a. “We like it when statistical analysis results in us receiving serendipitous recommendations for books by people we know and like”.)

Amazon recommends Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics Of Fantasy ...

Congratulations, Farah! :D

[ Having heard a good chunk of Farah's proposed taxonomy via Brian Stableford at last year's Masterclass, I can say with certainty that this will be a book well worth reading for anyone who likes to dissassemble their reading matter and find out what makes it tick. So maybe you should order a copy, hmm? ]

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