Category Archives: Criticism

Represent the world without reproducing it

science fiction is fundamentally a metaphorical literature, because it seeks to represent the world without reproducing it. Now the structure of metaphor as such is the knight’s move, my favourite manoeuvre in chess: leading you in a certain metonymic direction, the logically correct A to B to C, and indeed sometimes it leads you quite a long way down that consecutive path, but only in order to leap suddenly, not arbitrarily, but poetically, expressively, marvellously, in an unexpected direction.

It’s the way the carefully world-built society of Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ falls apart under stellar Sublimity, or the way the intricate anthropological detail of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness is leavened by actual supernatural foretelling—a.k.a. magic—as a correlative to love, which is that novel’s wondrous theme, wondrously handled. It’s the way the scrupulously rational computational logic of Clarke’s ‘Nine Billion Names of God’ steps, in its last sentence, into amazing impossibilities. It can be the beautifully unexpected outgoing, as when Ellie Arroway enters the alien world-construct at the end of Contact, or it can be the beautifully unexpected homecoming, as at the end of Kij Johnson’s superb ’26 Monkeys, also the Abyss’. It is the famous jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the hurled bone that turns, unexpectedly, impossibly, yet somehow rightly, into a spaceship.

The thing is: this structure I’m describing here as formally constitutive of science fiction is also formally constitutive of the joke. The structure of a joke is a knight’s move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer’s flourish of the unexpected. The joke can’t be capped with a merely random or left-field unexpectedness, or it won’t be funny: but the flourish at the end must work. This is not to say that SF needs to be full of jokes to work. I am not talking content, I am talking form; and the point of this form is that the unexpected twist releases a quantum of joy. That’s why jokes are great, and that, although its content is very different, is why SF is great.

Adam Roberts on sf as a metaphorical literature. Mostly parking this for further thinking later on, when life is marginally less hectic; that form/content distinction he’s making seems like it could unpack in lots of interesting (and critically useful) ways.

I’m thinking in particular of an echo I’m getting from a riff of Clute’s in which he argues that capital-S Story “is inherently non-mimetic”; that Fantastika is coextensive with Story, and has “an inherent non-allegorical bent”, being a genre wherein the work “is a kind of representation of itself”; that Fantastika is “pure Story: not a lesson, but the thing told”. As I recall, Clute denies sf as being inherently metaphorical, but I think perhaps he and Roberts understand that term slightly differently; the form of the joke, after all, is also “not a lesson, but the thing told” (or so it seems to me).

The Roberts riff on the magician’s flourish above also opens up the possibility of rereading Priest’s The Prestige as a work of metagenre… though I suspect that doing so would only incur the writer’s wrath.

Surrealism comes for us all: Miéville’s Last Days of New Paris

The Rex’s guards search them and incompetently question them and let them in to noise and warmth and the smell of drink, dirt, and sweat. Rows of seat-stubs slope down the tumbling hall. people are dancing. Women and men watch the huge screen from a raised half-floor above. What is showing is snips of images, monochrome light. Someone in the projection booth is stringing bits together, grabbing ripped-up centimeters of whatever film is by their fingers and running it for seconds, then replacing it. Melodramas, old silent movies, entertainments, news, documentary footage.

Surrealism comes for us all, Thibaut thinks.

I imagine that Last Days of New Paris is an even richer read if you’re more familiar with the canon of Surrealist art than myself; you don’t need to be an expert, certainly (and the glossary/bestiary of manifestations that Miéville provides at the end of the book offers the opportunity to become something more of one, should you wish), but I imagine it might be a tough read unless you know the basics.

But then Miéville is never an easy read, and that could be what I enjoy about his work: it demands effort from the reader, but that effort is rewarded with rich layerings of irony and metaphor. I’m not going to unpack the book entire, because this isn’t a review proper so much as a recommendation of a book I’ve enjoyed, but this tale of a multivalent fight for the soul of a Nazi-occupied Paris of an alternate 1950s has — if you choose to read fiction in search of such things –plenty to say about the timeline (and the particular moment) which you and I actually do inhabit: the art of war meets the war of art; fascism’s loathing for and longing to exploit the subversive power of of the image; greed, betrayal, guilt, chaos, loyalty, ideology; bargains made, promises kept, deals broken, lies told.

And if you don’t choose to read fiction for such things, well: rogue impossibilities ripped from art history at war with Nazis and demons from Hell in the streets of mid-20th Century Paris! A pulpy premise whose execution only occasionally allows that pulpiness to surface, written in that hard-to-pin-down but nonetheless idiosyncratic Miévillean prose style: images only half-described that nonetheless and unexpectedly unfold fully in the mind’s eye; sentences that twist upon themselves or terminate unexpectedly like trap streets.  It’s a text (in part, at least) about Surrealism, but is it a Surreal text? I’ve no idea; ask an expert.

Of special technical interest — and if you’re the type that worries about spoilers, then you’d probably best consider this your warning of the potential presence thereof — is the Afterword, which reframes the story of Thibaut’s adventures as a twice-told tale from an alternate timeline (and perhaps also something of a club story?), delivered to Miéville under strange circumstances by an unreliable narrator whom Miéville (within the text, or at least within this outer frame thereof) comes to assume is rather more reliable than he’s playing it.

I’m of two minds as to whether this device was strictly necessary, in the sense that the novella preceding it could conceivably have stood alone perfectly well in its absence*. But I’m certain that the device changes the stance in which the story stands, and that Miéville had a particular effect in mind when he decided not only to (re)frame it thus, but also to do so in an afterword rather than a preamble: we initially take the story as we find it, and only afterwards do we have it twisted so as to more explicitly connect its other reality to our own. On one level, I admire the strategy and the execution alike; but on another, I wonder what I would have taken from the novella without the framing narrative appended.

Then again, given that one of the tenets of Surrealism was that an object or image introduced into a seemingly inappropriate context has the power to provoke revolutionary thoughts and feelings, perhaps my inability to resolve this question to my satisfaction is exactly the point.

* — In the sense that it’s Miéville’s work, and hence none of my business, the framing narrative is of course self-evidently necessary. I’m not trying to edit the man’s fiction in retrospect, merely to understand how it works, and thus to perhaps intuit the why behind the how.

The present tense and the present tension

Present-tense narration is now taken for granted by many fiction readers because everything they read, from internet news to texting, is in the present tense […]. Past-tense narration easily implies previous times and extends into the vast misty reaches of the subjunctive, the conditional, the future; but the pretense of a continuous eyewitness account admits little relativity of times, little connection between events. The present tense is a narrow-beam flashlight in the dark, limiting the view to the next step—now, now, now. No past, no future. The world of the infant, of the animal, perhaps of the immortal.

Ursula Le Guin (p261, Words are my Matter, Small Beer Press)

On objectivity

This essay by Cara Ellison is both a fairly bravura bit of internet-era confessional rage-ranting and an insight into the lifestyle and finances of the freelance games reviewer (which is much like that of many freelance writers, I suspect; I certainly recognise the bit about measuring gigs in terms of what percentage of one’s next rent payment they represent). For my money, though, this ‘graph is the slamdunk:

The necessary rise of the satirical website ‘Objective Game Reviews’ is enough to make me feel depressed, but if you want to see what an ‘objective’ review looks like maybe go and fud yourself silly on that site and come back to me when you are 1) older than sixteen 2) would like my goddamn experienced opinion on a game. The only reason game criticism exists is so that you can orientate yourself around a particular critic’s taste. If the critic is any good you can tell from their analysis whether you will like the game or not, regardless of whether the critic in question actually thought the game was any good at all.

Amen to that; I suspect there will be readers who misunderstand the role of criticism for as long as there are readers, and I am reassured to find that I give less of a crap for what they think as the years go by.

Oh, while you’re here — did you fancy buying a copy of Twelve Tomorrows so you could read my story, but didn’t fancy getting a copy shipped from the States? Well, everyone’s favourite disintermediatory retail-disruption corporation has got you covered with a £6.21 UK Kindle edition, available now. Let me know what you think, if you like.

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

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! ]