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Fantastic and fantasy

2003-09-08 17:32:55.692839+00 by Dan Lyke 11 comments

/. today has a link to Spider Robinson bemoaning the state of SF today:

I believe with all my heart that the pendulum will return, that ignorance will become unfashionable again one day, that my junior colleagues are about to ignite a new renaissance in science fiction, and that our next 50 years will make the first 50 pale by comparison, taking us all the way to immortality and the stars themselves.

On Friday night we watched Jonathan Livingston Seagull[Wiki]. It's been at least 20 years since I read the book, and I was struck by two things: There's a lot of "New Age" claptrap about subjective worlds, but there's also a strong push to seek truth outside the myths of the tribe, to throw off the shackles of conformity and strive. If we evolve that out to The Celestine Prophecy[Wiki], we see that the story has gone from one of exploration to one of revelation, from the desire to excel (How fast can a seagull fly?) to the desire to check out of this existence.

In short: Spider is right, we are losing track of what could be, and have reduced ourselves to metaphors and similes chronicling what is.

In related news, Columbine too is back from Worldcon Toronto and is musing about outcasts.

[ related topics: Books Movies Invention and Design Sociology Current Events Heinlein Birds ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-08 23:27:42.577435+00 by: Dan Lyke

Written in response to Columbine's reaction to the same article:

But where are the ethical conundrums? The big moral questions? The ways technology gets perverted? So far as I can tell they're gone in a big wave of stories with so little meaning that they make the modern literature genre look attractive. I've started buying SciFi recently again in an attempt to find that same provocation that I've found in some of the older works (and yes, older works that I read recently, I went on a Cordwainer Smith rampage two or three years ago), and damn the space opera, nobody's intelligently dealing with the ethics.

Sheri S. Tepper sometimes gets a good setup until, like a teen slasher movie, she kills off the setup in a wave of feel-good utopianism that would make the most "everybody in a happy commune sleeping together" character in any of Spider's stories retch with disbelief. I hate to tell you how many yet another "boy trying to find his birthright" recasting of the tired old Joseph Campbell straitjacket stories that I've waded through recently, or "If I write these humans as scaley aliens with stilted hard to read prose then it'll be good SF" novels from hell.

I recently picked up Spider's "User Friendly" collection of short stories, and it's clear that he's not ranting about the loss of rockets, he didn't play with that much anyway, he's ranting about the loss of big ideas. It's the soul-deadening navel gazing of post-modernism overcoming the optimism and striving modernism, only it's happening about the time that post-modernism has been discredited in the rest of the culture.

That's what's so disappointing.

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-09 00:44:34.488083+00 by: Jack William Bell

My /. comment on that article took too long to write and ended up getting buried in the 600 some odd comments. So, despite the fact I think it was rather insightful, it didn't get much moderation. Of course I would say that, wouldn't I?

In any case the comment does represent my thinking on what has become a rather major hobby horse for me...

Also, check my /. journal for my TorCon reports and read Anita's weblog for hers.

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-09 06:09:13.046882+00 by: Pete

The best SF novel I've read recently:


That's the whole thing. It's playful, gripping, obscene, deadly fucking serious, and fearlessly executed. Go read it. :-)

A gifted author that gets classified as SF but whom I think of as more about satire: James Morrow. I've read damn near everything he's published, and my favorite (but not necessarily the best) is Towing Jehova, which is the first of a trilogy. The last of the trilogy, The Eternal Footman probably has the greatest level of consistenly solid writing and best developed characters of the trilogy (and a subtle dig at Scientology, which Jim claims I was the first to ask him about). While its inconsistency means it has stretches where it seriously falters, Towing Jehova also has long passages of shining brilliance unmatched even by TEF. The opening premise of Towing Jehova: God dies, and leaves a *really* big corpse floating out in the ocean. If you're interested in Big Ideas fiction by someone who has clearly done his homework, that's a damn good place to look.

Also, recently MetaFilter linked to a good short story that is both thoroughly SF and thoroughly fantasy: http://www.newyorker.com/printable/?fiction/030908fi_fiction

#Comment Re: [Entry #6504] Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-09 17:11:03.524197+00 by: Shawn

I think Columbine's being too hard on himself. I don't think he's that messed up. I think he's just buying into the stereotyping of the Normals even more than he thinks he is.

I have some of the same social issues dancing around my brain. They don't mean we're "Fucked Up". They're just there - part of who we are. Except that I'd be happy to even have just geeks think I'm "desirable and pretty".

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-09 17:16:58.143651+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yep. If you wanna see the stereotype of the normals, check out this article about working at Abercrombie & Fitch. I'll see your fat goth and raise you a blond frat boy who hates the ethics of the store so much he won't work there, but still buys from it.

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-14 02:48:41.176222+00 by: Dan Lyke

Damn, Pete, I'd never thought I'd care about another "3 laws of robotics" story, and yet... And every piece of death porn I've read so far has totally squicked me, but that one manages to be embarrassing in how well it pulls off the conflation of death and sex, and I mean that in a good way. The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect raised some cool questions, made the 3 laws malevolent, had somewhat believable "transform the universe" tech premises, and...

Yeah, that was quite readable.

Morrow-wise, I read "Towing Jehovah" and it didn't click with me. Maybe I'll have to tackle the rest of them to see if it was just because it's the beginning of the trilogy, and maybe I've changed since then. I tend to be a Wodehouse and Pratchett fan when it comes to satire.

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-14 06:29:15.092506+00 by: Pete

Yeah, I got a big kick out of it, too. Part of it is the understated puzzle that forms once you're into it a bit, without the book beating you over the head. It just kind of gnaws at the reader, going "but where are...?" :-)

It was so good that I think my evaluation of Doctorow's Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom suffered since I read that right after. Plus, I felt that Doctorow hid from some of the Biggest aspects of his Big Ideas, namely simultaneous copies.

BTW, I learned about The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect from Warren Ellis's die puny humans.

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-14 11:20:26.393503+00 by: Pete

And if you weren't turned on by Towing Jehova, you'll probably hate Blameless In Abaddon (#2), which is drier and more argumentative, so your time might be better spent with other works.

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-15 00:14:39.340115+00 by: other_todd

In terms of Morrow, I'm rather partial to Only Begotten Daughter myself, although it did make me very upset due to unsettling emotional content about midway through (some very distressing things happen to the protagonist).

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-15 15:53:48.109861+00 by: Dan Lyke

Pete, have you put your evaluation of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom[Wiki] up for public perusal? I just finished it on the ferry, and my reaction is not positive.

It reminds me of the worst of cyberpunk, the "how slackers and hipsters will save the world" stuff, except without the sense of dark angst. The progatonist is an unlikeable asshole who is given way too many fourteenth chances by the people around him. The world isn't terribly well realized, there is a whole lot of unexplained arrested development in his culture,

His notion of "Whuffie" is a silly abstraction of money, and people's manipulations of it aren't complex enough to make it real. There's no notion of why the ad-hocracy thing doesn't turn into lynchings and rampaging mobs, especially since murder is so recoverable.

And why is it that the whole "world bores me to death" theme never comes from people who show evidence of actually having tried to experience the world?

I might toss Doctorow a buck or so 'cause he asked, but I've read far better fiction on the net whose authors only asked for an email saying "I've read it".

#Comment Re: Fantastic and fantasy made: 2003-09-15 17:01:06.057193+00 by: Pete

No, I haven't. I mean, how much effort am I going to put into coming down on something that the guy is giving away for free?

And while I do think you're right that many of the questions you highlight remain unexplored, one does seem to have an explanation, even if the book never explicitly connects the dots: maybe a world without death is a world that never feels compelled to grow up. Maybe Doctorow thinks that would make for a very Disney world.

And I hesitate to push into spoiler territory, but it's interesting to see how differently the question of what it means to eliminate death is handled in The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect.