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Posts Tagged ‘Cordwainer Smith’

Ian Sales, in Don’t Look Back in Awe wrote “Here we go again. I’ve complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades.”

Hat Being Worn: Snide & Dismissive.

Could that have anything to do with jealousy over (take your pick) – awards they’ve won, market presence they command or always being told that ‘so-and-so’ has ALREADY written that story?

Hat Being Worn: Fair and Balanced

Truth be told – I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Ian and his subject focuses not directly on the entire OLD works of the genre but on the recommendation of those works as a tool to get people to read SF.

Hat Being Worn: Investigative Journalist

Ian justifies his statement with: “Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it’s out of print.”

Point by point: No Longer Relevant.  OK.  Relevant to what? The history of the genre?  Seems pretty relevant to me on that score.  To a writer looking for new ideas?  Pretty relevant there too unless you really do want to cover old stories with new tricks that will be outed in the most painful and embarassing manners possible. To the reader of the contemporary author who said ‘I read and was inspired by (hoary old non-relevant SF author born before TV was invented)’?  Seems pretty relevant to them.

Written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers?  Maybe. If modern readers are A: hung up on political correctness and B. Totally incapable of understanding that history is context and things do change with time.  Of course, if both of those things are true for our hypothetical reader for whom old SF is not relevant, they aren’t readers of science fiction.

Usually has painfully bad prose: Oh, so you’ve read each and every last old non-relevant short story, novella, novelette, novel and series and haven’t found a single sentence of well-written prose?  Doubt.  Serious doubt – about which I’ll get to more in a minute.

Mostly hard to find and out of print:  Actually, completely untrue.  ABE, Amazon, EBay and individual collector/providers – not to mention SFRA, NESFA Press and a host of other resources are available and you can find just about anything you might be looking for.

Four declarative statements, all of which are either broad, essentially meaningless opinion (presented as fact) or untrue.

One really wonders about the motivation of an author who is actively promoting the idea that we should all run screaming away from our roots. Shame? Why? Sales didn’t write that awful stuff and won’t be held accountable.  Oh, except for those people who will hear that he writes SF and immediately associate his works with a centuries worth of awful writing.  Except that those people will not be familiar with those old works.  So who the hell is Sales talking to?

Sales offers up Nightfall as his strawman and then proceeds to burn Asimov in effigy.  All the while, Sales misses the point, surprising, because he himself says that such stories are ‘historical documents’. (Fear the historical documents my son.)

Of Nightfall (the award-winning short story by Asimov that was later turned into a novel by Silverberg) Sales says: “By all criteria, ‘Nightfall’ fails as a good short story. And yet it’s still regarded as a classic. Some people will even suggest it’s a good example of science fiction. Rubbish. It’s built around a single, not very interesting idea – a world has never seen darkness… and then it gets dark. Wow. There’s a comment on the boom-bust nature of civilisations in there, but it’s pretty much thrown away.”

Ahem. (Tap tap tap on the shoulder) Ian, it’s an HISTORICAL DOCUMENT. When Isaac wrote that story in 1941, all previous stories that had featured planets with multiple suns treated them just like Earth, except that there were two (or more) suns in the sky and multiple (many-tinted) shadows on the ground. No one before Ike had taken the idea to its furthest extreme, a world where the sun never set – except once in a great long time. 

And Ian also missed the meta-story inherent in Isaac’s tale: there are things out there of which we are completely unaware, that can and will bite us hard if we don’t put aside superstition in favor of fact.  Seems to me that’s a pretty relevant story concept that is STILL very much alive in ‘modern’ SF.

But see, this is what happens when you’re not familiar with the HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS.  You miss nuance. Fact that you are blissfully unaware of come back and bite you.  Hard.

Ian goes on to further attack the ‘primacy of idea’ in old SF: “In part, this harkens back to my earlier post about the primacy of idea in science fiction. ‘Nightfall’ contains a very obvious idea and it appears to me that many think the sheer in-your-face nature of it overrides all the story’s faults.”

Except, of course, since Nightfall is only an historical document, you missed what the REAL idea of the story was.  You failed to place it in proper historical context. No one, least of all me, is going to try and claim that Asimov wrote sterling prose that tripped lightly off the tongue. Just for contradiction’s sake, here’s Scalzi’s recent take: “Generally I like Asimov’s work quite a bit and fully acknowledge its (and his) importance to the genre, but speaking from a writerly point of view I don’t find his fiction writing skills hugely impressive. He is probably one of the best examples of a “classic” sort of SF storytelling that is heavy on very cool ideas but weak on things like character development — his writing is a vehicle to tell the story rather than adding to the story itself. There’s nothing wrong with it (I lean more toward that direction of things myself, after all), but on balance I wish there was more there there when it came to the writing itself.”

Let me remind you that Sales’ initial proposition was that it is WRONG!recommend old science fiction to new people.  Here we have Scalzi, a contemporary and award winning NEW SF author saying that he likes Asimov, recognizes his importance, knows that Ike was an ‘idea man’ and wishes his writing was a bit more there.  But he likes him.

Ian – there just may be a few potential SF readers out there who just like Scalzi.  Maybe a few thousand.  Readers who are perfectly capable of liking an idea based story just as much (or maybe more) than they like a prose based story.  Maybe they like both. Maybe their tastes are so eclectic that it won’t matter what you stick in front of them.  Or maybe they prefer idea based stories and just absolutely hate all that high-falutin lit’rury crap that so many NEW SF writers seem to want to turn out.  Maybe.

Just who are you recommending books to, Ian? 

Ian does try to redeem himself a bit at the end by saying “I don’t think we should refuse to read old classic works, but we must recognise that they’re historical documents. And add that caveat to any such recommendations or commentary. Further, modern sf readers shouldn’t need to be aware of everything which has gone before, but modern sf writers certainly ought to.”

This is all I have to say about that: “Here’s this really old, out of date, badly written, idea-based historical document, Billy.  Not only must you read it, but you MUST hate it. Later, we’ll have milk and cookies while I read you a modern SF tale with wonderfully written sentences in it.”

Good idea for writers to read that stuff though, Ian.  That’s a really good idea.  They might want to take a little historical context with them when they do.

But there’s more.  Several people riffed on Ian’s piece, like this one: “When I first joined GSFWC I went on a bit of a crusade so I could get up to speed with the “background knowledge” that everyone else seemed to have. I made a list of the classic writers and hit Obelist Books and Future shop for examples. I read one Clarke (Childhood’s End – enjoyed the idea-quota, but couldn’t believe how quickly the story was skimmed), two Le Guin (Dispossessed and LHoD – loved them), a Delaney (Nova – again, loved it), and got on okay with Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith and James Blish too. On the other hand I found Asimov and Heinlein unreadable. But that’s just me.”

“I read one Clarke…”

Ok, now this guy seems a bit more reasoned (“…it would seem a bit pointless to still hold those texts up as the best we have to offer, but on the other hand we’re looking at them out of context. At the time, they made a big splash for good reasons. They were all about challenging the ways people thought about the world, the universe, about science and the future. They were about challenging people – writers and readers alike – to expand their imaginations. They weren’t about good literary standards. No-one pretended they were, or indeed really cared much.”) – but we were originally talking here about ‘recommending these works’ as a way of introducing readers to SF and I’m sorry, but reading ONE story by Clarke does not by any means equip you to make recommendations to anyone else. (Nor does Ian’s background reading equipm him either, apparently, since he dismisses everything pre 90s out of hand.)

Childhood’s End is kind of dark, open-ended and requires a fair amount of background sophistication to really ‘get’ if you want our proto-SF Lit-Virgin to understand why it was a recommended piece and what was to be gained from it.

If I really wanted to get someone ‘into’ Clarke, I’d probably start them off with Tales From the White Hart.  They’re innocent stories, short, often amusing and successfully convey the idea that an SF tale is about having FUN exploring possibilities. 

The truth is that readers of SF DESERVE to be exposed to the classics – the right classics, in the right way, at the right time and in the proper context.  Their appreciation of the genre will be enhanced, their perspective on the genre wil be enhanced and (perhaps dangerous to some modern writers) they will be better able to judge newness, originality, relationships and whether or not that thar ritin has got improvification.  Plus they’ll be better (SF) people.

I just don’t get this NEED to attack the classics.  Doing so doesn’t make you any better as a person. It certainly doesn’t improve your own writing or sales. You don’t want to read the classics?  Don’t. Someone else does?  Let them.

If the issue really is ‘how to introduce new readers to the genre’, well, that’s an highly individualistic enterprise, isn’t it?  I mean, at least if you want to be real (and effective) about it. Every single successful convert is going to require a tailored capture methodology.  This friend likes SF film – find a book tie in. That friend is into Hard Boiled Detective Pulps – find some writers who worked in both genres.

It’s HISTORY man. That which has gone before has MADE THE WORLD WE LIVE IN NOW. As too many would-be writers have discovered, those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it in writing. An that gets you a rejection slip for UNORIGINALITY. 

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Horn tooting first: Both File 770 and SFSignal have linked to me today, and for two different items (!)so it should be a good day for stats. (One mentions my praise of the Cordwainer Smith website, the other the release of Chapter 9 of Pulp Comic Fairy Tale)

I’d still like more commentary though. I could engage in the hubris of assuming that since there are not that many comments, most folks agree with me (cause you know that silence IS tacit approval – right?) which means that my finger is firmly on the pulse of the world.

I just posted chapters 8 and 9 of Pulp Comic Fairy Tale.  The STUNNING conclusion is about half finished (I’m just looking for one more perfectly juicy cover).  My brain is filled with pulp mag imagery right now – each and everyone one of them inspires in some way or another.  I think the next thing I do with them will be a retrospective on pulp heroines wielding whips – seems to be a common theme…

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Michael Chabon is my new hero.  Google alerts picked up on his LA Times interview and I thought – cool, I’ll be able to get this out there before most everyone else – only to find that waking up at 6 am instead of 3 am put me behind the SFSignal eight ball.

Nevertheless, Chabon has become my new hero because he advocates for genre fiction (comics, sf, detective) from the ‘highly respected lit’rury’ podium.

Someone, somewhere categorized his advocacy as ‘highbrow meets lowbrow’ – which is a quick way of summarizing while still managing to dis genre fiction.

Chabon’s general concept seems to be that all of it falls under the rubrick of ‘entertainment’ and that by the achievement of having successfully entertained, the definition of genre becomes unimportant.  He also seems to be saying that ‘literary works’ often forget the entertainment aspect despite all of their wonderful prose and high-falutin ideas, and that it’s not necessary to write fabulous prose in order to entertain.

I hope Michael formalizes these thoughts in some physical/internet fashion, like a website or some such where “high brow and low brow writers can get together in praise of entertainment” .

I do know that he ought to get together with Gary Wolf who has often expressed many of the same sensibilities and has similar cred.

Here’s where Chabon’s argument gets summed up:

Let’s talk about this in a specific instance — Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” and its reception.I thought it was an excellent novel. The least interesting thing to me as a reader was that it was science fiction. It presented a very pure example of post-apocalyptic literature, pared down to the essentials of a post-apocalyptic vision. But it’s nothing that anybody reading science fiction over the last 60 or 70 years hasn’t seen done many, many times before — maybe not by writers of McCarthy’s caliber.In terms of the vision it was presenting, it was notable only for the intense, McCarthy severity.

 
In fact, I responded to it much more as a work of horror fiction. But the response you saw out there generally was the sort of oh-my-God isn’t this incredible, Cormac McCarthy has written a science fiction novel! Sometimes a little bit of a panic sets in, where critics aren’t sure what to do about it or say about it.

And when this happens, when a writer of unassailable literary reputation, like McCarthy, does produce a work of genre fiction, under his own name, unlike say John Banville, the critical machine prints out and issues a pass to a writer: “This isn’t science fiction, because it was written by Cormac McCarthy.” Or, “We think all science fiction is bad, unless it’s written by a Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy.”

In some ways the book may be closer to a work of prophecy, biblical prophecy, than anything else, and that’s what we’re responding to.

Ultimately with any great work of art, whether it was written by a Ray Bradbury or a Philip K. Dick or Cormac McCarthy, it’s really the intensity with which it’s been imagined and been brought into language.

Hmmm:  Genre writers are the ones who come up with the nifty ideas and sometimes mainstream writers render those ideas with beautiful prose and their own, unique, compelling style, and then confound the critics because they’re playing in the mud…

It takes equal parts nifty idea and cool presentation.  I also think – at least on the part of the critics – that it takes a willingness to recognize that good works DO NOT have to feature sterling prose to qualify.  If you get that without it interfering with the story – bonus. 

Another way of looking at it is this: high literature is obsessed with the crafting of a sentence and the words themselves.  Genre fiction is obsessed with the idea (Chabon alludes to this with his comment about genre writers writing ‘too fast’); I often think that many SF writers are racing like hell just to get the visions in their head down on paper, while the literary writer is flipping through the thesaurus and the OED, spending days on a single sentence to establish just the right emotional tone.

And it is only when the two come together in proper balance that we end up with a real masterpiece that transcends the whole genre vs mainstream discussion.  And that can be accomplished (and has been) by any writer, regardless of their stripe.

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Hell, it would be great if some large media conglomerate decided to sue me in Federal Court – that’s BIG pr, man.

Lacking that avenue of promotional greatness, I’m forced to simply tell you that Chapter 8 of Pulp Comic Story (which has now been retitled Pulp Comic Fairy Tale – something I said I might do a while ago) is now available here.

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A few other things while I’m thinking about it:

Fred Kiesche had to take a sledgehammer to my head to make me realize that his blog – which used to be called The Eternal Golden Braid is now called -

THE LENSMAN’S CHILDREN

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I’ve been thinking about this for a bit: what would entice someone to read the classics if they weren’t already inclined to do so.

I’ve spent a fair number of words exlaining the ‘whys’ here already (do your homework you lazy, good-for-nothing) so let’s just assume (momentarily or otherwise) that they’re valid reasons.

Of course I don’t mean at the expense of contemporary SF.  I mean in addition to.  As a means of obtaining some grounding, some history, some appreciation, some respect for the people who all the awards are named after (yes dear, there are real people behind those award names and good reasons for naming those awards after them – The Hugo for Hugo Gernsback, father of popularizing the genre – the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, because JWC had a nack for finding and developing new talent within the pages of Astounding SF (and the other award of the same name for best novel, given out by SFRA) – Andre Norton for YA lit, given by SFWA because she wrote so many tales that introduced young-uns to SF – Arthur C. Clarke for Best UK SF, because he helped found the UK SF dynasty and because he was, you know, British – Cordwainer Smith, for rediscovering overlooked authors of merit – Damon Knight, SFWA Grandmaster award because Damon founded the org – James Tiptree – for works that explore gender, because SHE did just that - Philp K. Dick, for having so much of his original work published in paperback – Robert A. Heinlein, for so much excellence – Theodore Sturgeon, for excellent short stories – if it weren’t for those folks we’d be giving out awards named for something stupid like The Spaceship Award or The Raygun Award.

Many of those people worked very hard at what they did and (should) leave a lasting, honored memory. And they deserve to be read, along with all of their brethren and sisteren.

So what I thought was – how about if we poll the contemporary favorites and compile a referral list like they do at BMG for music (if you liked so-and-so, you ought to like whosiswhatsis too).

I mean, we already know that If you like John Scalzi, you’ll probably like Robert A. Heinlein too and If you like David Weber, you’ll probably like A. Bertram Chandler, but who else?

So let’s ask some contemporary authors the following questions:

1. Did you read SF before you were a writer?

2. Who were your favorites?

3. Who do you think influenced you the most?

4. Which of the classic authors do you think your work most resembles?

Maybe if we tell the kids this, they’ll give those classics a try.

Maybe John at SFSignal will ask this one…

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Fred Kiesche – college buddy, SF reviewer extraordinaire, game designer, new hound and, best of all, a reader who shares most of my own likes and dislikes (Cordwainer Smith and A. Bertram Chandler among them) has reinstated his blog – The Eternal Golden Braid. Fred also writes for Texas Best Grok and SFSignal. (Please note: Fred had a very personal experience on 9/11 and his write up of the event – it took him two years to finally get it down on paper – is viewable over there.  It’s a very deep, disturbing and painful account of how the event affected him.  I wouldn’t draw attention to it usually, but as Fred points out, we’re all tending to get a little complacent.)

***

I was honored by an email visit from Gregory Benford who gave me permission to print his note:

“But I’m not that old!” – Gregory Benford

Mr. Benford wrote in response to the Top 150 Classic SF Authors list.  I very carefully returned Webster’s definitions of ‘OLD’ and ‘CLASSIC’ to this fine author of excellent tales and appear to have mollified him. 

Classic, at least in the sense I used it, is not meant as an euphemism for creaky and decrepit: it means “of the first or highest quality’.

Mr. Benford is the author of the Nebula Award winning novel Timescape – and lots of other fine SF, including collaborations with Arthur C. Clarke and David Brin.

a pretty darned complete bibliography of his works can be found here.

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Boing Boing has this; thanks to them for picking this up.  A vast collection of classic European SF is being bibliographitized by the collector’s widow and she needs some help.  Please head on over to her site and help out.

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SFSignal has picked up on the updating of the Cordwainer Smith website.  There’s been a flurry of Cordwainer Smith activity lately, including the Ebay auction of the magazine containing his first published SF story – Fantasy Book #6.  The final price was $51.00 – twice what it would have cost you to purchase a copy of The Instrumentality of Mankind from NESFA Press.

Roasana Hart (Smith’s daughter who maintains and blogs at the site) at my suggestion, has joined The Bastion, a yahoo group for SF cat lovers (Smith and the whole family were big on cats) and has been warmly received.

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The Lord Jestocost, C’Mell the Girly-Girl, Roderick McBann, Mother Hittun and her Little Kittuns, Vomact the Scanner chief and many more wonder, strange and completey out of this world characters, places and history (future) are yours to enjoy at the recentlty updated Cordwainer Smith website.

Just go here.  If you’ve never read Smith – don’t stop at GO, go directly to the site, the library or NESFA press.

We’ll wait.  Or you can read Rosana Hart’s blog and THEN go read some Cordwainer.

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I’m a crotchety old fan.  I’m a curmudgeon.  An old fart.  I happily subscribe to the world view that change is bad and therefore we must fear it.  Nothing good ever comes from change. 

I’m an uber science fiction fan.  I’ve been reading the stuff for four plus decades and, while I can’t hold a candle to Forry Ackerman in the longevity (or even the collection) department, I’m certainly on his side of the generational divide.  I think Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Russell, Chandler, Smith (all three), Brackett, Brunner, Aldis, Anderson, Niven, Pournell, Pohl, Dick, Disch, Dickson, Delaney, Moorcock, Spinrad Kornbluth, Silverberg and yes, even Ellison, are science fiction.  

Alas, I seem to be in the minority.   That’s ok.  Kids never seem to know what’s good for ‘em until they’re old enough to be waving their own old-man stick around.  What gets my goatee are the reasons I’m in the minority.

Old scifi isn’t literary enough.  Old scifi lacks characterization.  Old scifi is, you know, old

I’ll defy any whip-snapping guttersnipe to explain to me what ‘not literary enough’ means.  There’s words on the page that make sentences.  Several follow each other in paragraphs.  Eventually they all combine to tell a story.  Does every single paragraph have to appeal to each one of my five senses?  Do I have to keep a copy of the OED handy when I read?  Is a program required to keep track of the characters?  Must I be transported on airy waves of meaningless, time wasting drivel?  Fah.  Take an English class.

And what’s all this crap about characterization? I’m sorry if the younger generation has been so swaddled in sensory overload that it takes a sledgehammer to make even the minutest impression on their creaseless brains, but I shouldn’t have to pay the price.  They’re so out of touch that they can’t even recognize a stereotype anymore.  Stereotypes make it easier to get to the story.  We read for the story – remember?

I don’t need to know whythe bad guy is a bad guy – he’s a bad guy with bad guy motivations who’s gonna do bad guy things.  Scientists will invent neat stuff because they’re scientists.  Engineers will figure out how to solve technological problems because they’re engineers.  Nubile young daughters will fall in love with heroes because they’re nubile young daughters and heroes will win the day for the obvious reason.  What the hell else do you need to know? If you want to spend all your time trying to figure out who is who and why is why – go read a suspense thriller, but stay out of my science fiction.

Old.  Outdated. The world they wrote in no longer exists.  The references aren’t relevant.  Some of them don’t even mention computers (thank god).

To which I say – what the hell happened to your sense of wonder?  Do you mean to sit there and tell me that you’re going to let the lack of specific technological advances put you off a science fiction story?  That you can’t imagine your way around a reference to vacuum tubes or punch cards?  What a sorry bunch of intellectual wimps! 

So what that it didn’t happen that way.  It might have.  If you listen to the latest theories on how the Universe really works, you’d know that there are probably an infinitude of parallel universes.  For really real.  You don’t even have to pretend anymore, not even a little.  Because you know what?  There IS a universe where they went to the Moon using punch cards to plot ballistic trajectories.  There IS a universe where computers are still room-sized behemoths, another where people fly around cities using personal jetpacks, another where Venus is inhabited by intelligent amphibians and still another where the imagination of science fiction fans isn’t straight-jacketed by ‘what really happened’.

Science is now telling you that everything you can possibly imagine - in infinite and endless combination – is really happening somewhere.  The old authors and ancient stories give you a ringside seat into some of those worlds and what do you do?  You stick your sense-of-wonder in a box and retreat into the gray, toneless world of only accepting things you can see. 

Talk about fearing change. 

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