Tag Archives: Criticism

The flavours of science in science fiction

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

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

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 googling”), 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

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

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…