Tag Archives: Criticism

Critical dichotomies and science fiction revolutions

Just a few things to share that I thought deserved more than the standard link-dump treatment due to their vague thematic connectedness:

Jonathan ‘SF Diplomat’ McCalmont has been thinking about the dichotomy in genre criticism – which is nothing new, but he’s done it out loud this time:

“So what does all of this mean? It means that SF criticism has been around as long as SF but that it is now, and has probably always been, prone to placing itself in a ghetto constituted from an inaccessible conversation between critics, authors and the occasional genre fan who wants to think a little bit more about the books he has read. The way to satisfy Le Guin’s demands is not simply by producing more critical writing, it is by making sure that genre criticism is read by as wide an audience as possible.”

It’s worth a read, even if (in fact, especially if) you don’t read much sf lit crit. It’s also (though he’ll hate me for saying so*) a little less incendiary than some of Jonathan’s other posts … unless you take offence to the Livejournal jibe.

So, two cultures, you say? A growing gap between them? Sounds like the sort of situation that causes … revolution**! Martin McGrath’s largely unpublicised stealth blog (which you should all subscribe to and read, because firstly he’s a lovely chap and a good critic, and secondly it’ll wind him up no end) features an extended version of a riff I heard Martin deploy at Eastercon, namely that revolutions that occur in science fiction novels are almost invariably improbable in their execution:

The instantaneous change: Even in sf that obeys the laws of physics and outlaws FTL there’s always one thing that travels faster than light, revolution. Nevermind the vast amounts of time and money it takes in the real world to make things even incrementally better – in sf the mere action of announcing the revolution is often enough to have the peasants dressing better, eating better and quoting Shakespeare.”

Ouch. He has a point though, and it’s an intelligent post from someone who actually knows more than he’d really like to know about politics. Go read.

[*You can consider that revenge for the Whitney Houston gag, Jonathan. 😉 ]

[** I warned you the connection was vague, didn’t I?]

A critical situation

Two superb bits of critical writing in the RSS feeds today.

First off, Martin Lewis looks at Richard Morgan’s Black Man (or Thirteen as it is titled across the pond) for Strange Horizons:

“Violent confrontation is the engine of all Morgan’s novels. What makes them unusual is that this confrontation is almost always verbal. At least at first. Marsalis is always happy to crush a windpipe or break a kneecap, but only after trying to assert dominance through words. It is not just winning the fight that is important: you have to win the argument. It is the praxis of force and knowledge, and it brings out the key difference between Morgan and his peers. Black Man is what you might call paramilitary SF, a point on the thriller-to-war-story spectrum somewhere between cyberpunk and mil SF.”

Lewis writes about books the way I wish I could write about books. However, doing so brings its own hazards – a gentleman in the comments appears to have taken Lewis’ critique in a way that I’m sure it wasn’t meant. Then again, maybe I’m misreading both of them – text is an inherently low-bandwidth medium, after all.

Secondly, Vicky and Nic from Eve’s Alexandria do a double-team review of Adam Roberts’ Gradisil. Interestingly, neither of them seem to have been deterred by what I have heard others describe as the very unfeminine female characters in the novel:

“Now it’s true that Roberts’ prose is sometimes pedantic and that his characters are often, and above all else, cold and distant but, as I see it, these qualities serve Gradisil’s ultimate purpose.  The Gyeroffy women, Klara and Gradi both, are quite disagreeable creatures, hard-nosed and closed off.  Neither of them exhibit ‘maternal’ instincts and neither is ‘feminine’ or ‘intuitive’ or ’emotional’, and this is only right.  They are, after all, women living on the outskirts of life, at the very edge of the permissable.  Like all pioneers and colonists they are driven by physical hardship to positions untenable in the heart of society; and they’re both consumed by a vision of the Uplands as it was or as it could be.”

In the discussions of gender and sf that I have read or listened to, there has often been a prevailing condescending (and, sad to say, male) attitude that female readers don’t like science fiction because they find the female characters hard to reconcile with the roles that society has taught them are ‘correct’. Maybe the truth of the matter is that female readers don’t identify with female characters in sf because a great number of their mostly male writers can’t write a believably flawed female character …

The genre ghetto is a myth

Here is a random Livejournalist by the name of Luc Reid who found his way into one of my Technorati tag feeds, talking about that perennial bugbear of genre fiction categorisation:

“The essence of mainstream science fiction as compared to genre science fiction is how it expects its readers to deal with speculative elements, their tolerance and ability to grok them. So mainstream vs. genre is a meaningful distinction that is useful to readers, because it helps them select books that are or are not suited to their tastes…


Why is this important to writers? Because while every book you write has to be a book you love, you also have to know who else out there in the world will read it. If you want to reach a larger audience, you have to tell your story in a way that they will be willing to read. If you want to reach science fiction readers, you need to tell the story in the way that they want to hear it told. And these are basic writing choices rather than simply labels slapped on by publishers.”

Strikes me as sound advice – somewhere in there is a blueprint  for dismantling the ghetto walls, though I’m not sure that’s the intent that Mr. Reid had when writing it. I think I shall keep an RSS eye on him in future.