I’m not sure what commentary I could offer that would improve this.
“It was decided to terminate the experiment.”
“Just forget about it?” Little Tib asked.
“The experimental material would be sacrificed to prevent the continuance and possible further development of the phenomena.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The brains and spinal cords of the boys and girls involved would be turned over to the biologists for examination.”
“Oh, I know this story,” Little Tib said. “The three Wise Men come and warn Joseph and Mary, and they take Baby Jesus to the Land of Egypt on a donkey.”
Gene Wolfe, “The Eyeflash Miracles”
Each year he came to Beech Hill by bus, with an overnight stop. The stop had, itself, become a ritual. In fact, the entire trip from the moment he carried his bag out of the apartment was marked with golden milestones, events that were—so strong was the anticipation of pleasure—pleasures themselves.
“Beech Hill,” Gene Wolfe (1972)
“A neural substrate of prediction and reward,” Wolfram Schultz, Peter Dayan, & P. Read Montague (1997)
So, over on John Scalzi’s blog yesterday, he was all like this:
And, knowing his commentariat and being a man of his word, was soon motivated to make slight emendations to a comment he found less than salubrious, resulting in this:
Which, perhaps predictably, led me down a dank, winding corridor of eldritch and disturbing thought culminating in this:
To which Scalzi, bless his heart, responded quite kindly with this!
Which cheered me greatly.
But there was more to come! For he then went on to pen the following post:
In which he made the following announcement:
Thereby promoting my insurpassably original idea from the mire of the comments section to the Frank Lloyd Wright penthouse of the main blog, on the comfortable yet stylish black leather sofa of John Scalzi’s delight. In consequence of which I am now, for somewhat liberal values of “FAMOUS,” INTERNET FAMOUS.
I will be happy to furnish a standard 15% commission to anyone who can turn John Scalzi’s undying love for me into cold, hard cash. Or, failing that, beer. Consider this the JOHN SCALZI INTERNET FAMOUS BUSINESS PLAN COMPETITION. Just don’t expect a quick turnaround on your applications—I’m absolutely inundated with hits and comments.
Well, I will be. Any minute now.
Larry McCaffery: Could you discuss what sorts of things have drawn you towards writing SF? Do you find there are certain formal advantages in writing outside the realm of “mainstream” fiction, maybe a freedom that allows you more room for exploring the issues you wish to develop?
Gene Wolfe: It’s not so much a matter of “advantages” as SF appealing to my natural cast of mind, to my literary imagination. The only way I know to write is to write the kind of thing I would like to read myself, and when I do that it usually winds up being classified as SF or “science fantasy,” which is what I call most of my work. Incidentally, I’d argue that SF represents literature’s real mainstream. What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certainly belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature’s mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use.
LM: That’s why I began by asking if you weren’t attracted to the freedom offered by SF—it’s only been since the rise of the novel in the 18th century that writers have more or less tried to limit themselves to describing the ordinary world around them….
Wolfe: It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist. Now as soon as you open yourself to that possibility, you are going to find yourself talking about things like intelligent robots and monsters with Gorgon heads, because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that such things could indeed exist. But what fascinates me is that the ancient Greeks already realized these possibilities some 500 years before Christ, when they didn’t have the insights into the biological and physical sciences we have today, when there was no such thing as, say, cybernetics. Yet when you read the story of Jason and the Argonauts, you discover that the island of Crete was guarded by a robot. Somehow the Greeks were alert to these possibilities despite the very primitive technology they had—and they put these ideas into their stories. Today it’s the SF writers who are exploring these things in our stories.
Here’s the rest. Highly recommended. (Some spoilers, at least about THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS, possibly about the Book of the New Sun.)
My brother is putting together a proposal for a course titled “Wizardry and Wild Romance,” self-consciously stolen from Michael Moorcock’s indispensable book of the same name. The idea, as I reconstruct it, is to examine contemporary epic fantasy and its classic antecedents in their mutual light, which means mining a literature of criticism on contemporary fantasy that isn’t especially familiar to either of us. We shot around ideas about it for a while, and it occurred to me in the course of the conversation that I’ve consumed a lot more relevant and semi-relevant online material than I’d realized. So I compiled the sources I can remember (plus a few I only just stumbled on) and sent them to him in an email, which I’ve only just now realized might be of general interest. So here it is.
China Mieville on why Tolkien rocks: http://www.omnivoracious.com/2009/06/there-and-back-again-five-reasons-tolkien-rocks.html (worth reading if only to savor the phrase “the remorseless sylvan bonheur of Tom Bombadil.” Remember, in French, happiness is le bonheur.)
A collection of neat essays on China Mieville at Crooked Timber, including a longish response by Mieville: http://crookedtimber.org/category/mieville-seminar/
Jeff VanderMeer interviewing CM on weird tales is probably irrelevant, but looks fun: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/06/16/god-thats-a-merciless-question-china-mievilles-interview-from-weird-tales/
Jonathan McCalmont complaining about the critical apparatus of sf vs. film studies: http://ruthlessculture.com/2012/11/28/annoyed-with-the-history-of-science-fiction/ (the more recent post on Adam Roberts looks like it could be interesting, though I haven’t finished it, in part because I’m not familiar with Adam Roberts; however, it’s possible neither is relevant to epic fantasy)
As unfortunate counterpoint, SALON’s Andrew Leonard writing a while ago on the Malazan Book of the Fallen: http://www.salon.com/2004/06/21/erikson/ — I’m conceiving this as sort of an object lesson to hammer home the value of a more educated critical approach, because otherwise you get crap like:
“Give me, instead, the evocation of a rich, complex and yet ultimately unknowable other world, with a compelling suggestion of intricate history and mythology and lore. Give me mystery amid the grand narrative. There’s no need to spell it all out; no prefaces, please, elucidating the history of Middle Earth as if to students in a lecture hall. Instead, give me a world in which every sea hides a crumbled Atlantis, every ruin has a tale to tell, every mattock blade is a silent legacy of struggles unknown.”
… when Steven Brust at least has been doing exactly this since 1980 (and still isn’t done!), Martin and Rothfuss do it, Gene Wolfe does it, Gaiman does it, &c. These goals and approaches are really not that uncommon. Leonard gives GRRM crap for spending “page after page describing the household sigils of this noble family or that, or what the knights were wearing just before they ran off to joust,” which maybe I don’t remember because I’m inured to it from a misspent youth, but Martin’s approach to the First Men, the Doom of Valyria and the Targaryen conquest, and all this stuff is exactly what Leonard is asking for. Argh. Anyway. (Expanded thoughts on this matter here.)
The New York Review of Science Fiction has Steven Erikson taking on the idea that Tolkien has dominated fantasy; his review is in the May 2012 issue, and I can’t find it online, but there’s a quote on the Malazan Book of the Fallen Wikipedia page here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malazan_Book_of_the_Fallen#cite_ref-Not_14-0
This New Yorker article by Arthur Krystal and its linked predecessor may be interesting (as might the Lev Grossman article in Time, also linked), although Krystal is pretty obnoxious: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/10/its-genre-fiction-not-that-theres-anything-wrong-with-it.html
Having looked a little bit more closely at some of the material, I heartily recommend the Mieville/Vandermeer interview and the McCalmont essay, and regret to say that “obnoxious” is a generous descriptor of Krystal. I need to check back in my copies of Le Guin’s THE WAVE IN THE MIND and Delany’s SEVEN ESSAYS, FOUR LETTERS & FIVE INTERVIEWS ABOUT WRITING to see if there’s anything relevant. If anyone can find Erikson’s NYRSF article, please send me a copy!
It hits a lot of formal sweet spots: It’s shelved as fantasy, which I appreciate, but it’s effectively a YA book, and although I’m glad for me that it wasn’t categorized that way (because I would probably have passed it over), I’m a little sad for the YA readers who won’t be reading it—and a little bit for Walton, because I think it could have been a bunker-buster. It’s also a proper British boarding school story in the vein of “Such, Such Were the Joys” or BOY or STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD (if it’s fair to call an essay and two memoirs the same thing as a novel), which I appreciate largely in comparison to Harry Potter, not that Harry Potter doesn’t do a decent job. And it’s a coming-of-age novel in a quiet way, and a love letter to classic sf, and also a Lupine puzzle where the things a common-or-garden fantasy author would have lavished thousands of words of hard-sweated description on are instead offscreen, in the past. So there’s a lot to like in its various approaches. And Mori Phelps is a great character—damaged and vulnerable in some ways, but also smart and opinionated; doesn’t suffer fools but sociable with her people. Plus great taste in sf, can see fairies.
On first reading, I’d say it’s not perfect for my taste; a bit too much is left to wonder about Mori’s mother, her twin, and the nature of the fairies, and the basic issue of the “reality” of magic is left totally unresolved. But I wouldn’t trust either of those judgments. First, because they’re both solidly de gustibus, and second, because I’m not sure they’re even right. If Gene Wolfe had written this, in fact, I’d be confident that they were wrong. And I think I’m willing to trust Walton as much as Wolfe. So I think I’ll be reading this again in due course, with a magnifying glass, paying close attention. And I think I’ll be giving it to my daughter in a decade and change, or sooner if I can.
In Yaichka, they say a child draws her first breath through her ears, her second through her eyes, and her third through her mouth. This is why it sometimes takes a moment for a baby to cry The first breath is for the mother, the second breath is for God, and the third breath is for the father. The breath through the mouth brings the most pleasure, and we forget immediately that we ever knew how to breathe any other way. When a child in Yaichka cries, his mother will pick him up and hoist him on her hip and laugh and say, Look at my little bearlet, breathing through his eyes again! And the child stops his crying because he likes to be called a bearlet.
Look, if that doesn’t get your blood up to do some reading, I can’t help you. I realize the right thing to do is furnish clever enumerations of Valente’s juxtapositions of the fantastic and the geopolitical, talk about the language and the imagery, then say how it’s really all about the characters. So that’s done. But be reasonable, at least—the muse can write a blank check for all the language and imagery and high-wire conceptual combination in the world and still not budget for that little twist of craft. But that’s where the magic happens, comrades.
“Yaichka” is from the Russian яйца, “egg.” If you don’t know why this is important, read the book.
My Goodreads review more or less sums it up:
Full of ideas, some really cool, but the mix of Charlie Stross and Jane Smiley didn’t quite gel for me. I think she may have built the right world and found the wrong story to tell in it—in a world that’s plagued with so many really terrible problems, it just constantly rings odd to be focused on a girl from a well-heeled political family in her freshman year at a fancy liberal arts college (though at least it is in space). It’s a weird enough approach that I kind of want to recommend it, but the execution starts rough and doesn’t consistently improve.
It did win the 2012 Campbell award for best novel, though, so somebody’s mileage varied.
Of course, it’s possible I’m just sensitive because one of the running jokes is that Amherst once accidentally admitted a robot.
The one thing I’ll add is that I would try out Slonczewski’s earlier work on the strength of THE HIGHEST FRONTIER. I really like the way she applies her biological training to her speculation. I just think there’s an intrinsic, almost structural problem in building a world that’s full of really dire stuff and then looking at it through the eyes of a person who’s as protected from that stuff as it’s possible to be. (For one thing, it sure blunts the stakes of the presidential campaign that runs throughout the book; the fate of the world is supposedly in the balance—and it’s not implausible, but the main character’s family is so powerful that it’s hard to imagine her coming to much harm even if billions die.)
I could be wrong about this. I suppose I’m implying that a college novel kind of has to be a novel of manners or some kind of personal journey, and I don’t exactly want to be that restrictive. But I do, a little. I went to one of these colleges. I learned a few things and made some lifelong friends, and I go back every year—and, like Joan Slonczewski, I’m an academic who hasn’t much trod outside the ivory. So, and maybe we’re headed into de gustibus here, I view myself and my fellow alumni as having led basically charmed lives. Some of them have gone through very bad things, of course—the recent rape scandal is testament to that—but most, like me, haven’t. Charmed lives are great to live, of course, but I think it’s hard to make them interesting to read about, especially when they’re the only thing in your field of view. We do get a bit of “reality” in the form of the town, which relies on the college EMS and its future version of Habitat for Humanity, but no sustained engagement.
(As with MEMORY, I chose this book based on what looked most interesting between Okorafor-Mbachu and Valente. The library didn’t have THE ALCHEMY OF STONE, and this narrowly squeaked out over THE HOUSE OF DISCARDED DREAMS, largely because it was written by an academic and because I know I’m going to get around to Ekaterina Sedia eventually. I may have drawn the short straw on a book-versus-book basis, but now I know about a new author, which is cool.)
The title of this post presents a concept that I’ve been tossing around the last day or two. It feels like, if I’m going to bother at all, it ought to be in the context of a reasonably well-thought-out essay, rather than the off-the-cuff crap I usually post here. But, in tossing around the concept, I naturally consulted the repository of all human thought. Although the entry on “infants” contained no germane material, the entry on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reproduces an interesting interview with Zoe Kazan on the topic:
Do you think of Ruby as a manic pixie dream girl?
[Makes a face.]
What? What do you think of that term?
Well, I am not a fan. Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie. That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.
Well, yeah, there’s a line in the movie that basically questions the idea of manic pixie dream girls: “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing are not real.”
Sure. What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.
It is perhaps obvious that I use the term “interesting” euphemistically, mostly.
I mean, I’m in sympathy with the idea that seeing the world through TVTropes-colored glasses is not always a good thing. But the whole thing is such a shambles that you can sort of only begin at the beginning.
“Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie.”
Because the creator’s conscious motivations are the Rosetta Stone? Maybe you wrote her that way unintentionally. (Really, would anyone write a character that way intentionally?)
“That term is a term that was invented by a blogger…”
“… and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use.”
Right. Noticing a trend that organizes lots of art is a critical act, not a creative one. Is this a problem?
“It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist.”
This (skipping merrily past the questionable use of “diminutive”) is the grammatical Necker cube that buys Kazan the appearance of an argument. It is correct inasmuch as the MPDG archetype is an instance or possibly a consequence of (presumptively usually unconscious) misogyny. This sentence is constructed, perhaps also unconsciously, to deflect that misogyny onto anyone who deploys the concept. It’s easy to see how this ramifies later on.
“I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality.”
Here she lets slip an understanding of the term’s actual etiology and use.
“But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing.”
Notice who’s being reduced. Not characters; people. Who are we talking about here?
“What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference.”
The last sentence is plainly wrong; categorizing things doesn’t preclude acknowledging differences. But again we see it: “women” get described that way. It’s reflective of how a man thinks about “that girl,” not about who she “really” is. Kazan has taken a term explicitly defined to characterize some women in fiction and asserted that the term is pernicious because it diminishes women in reality. It goes bizarrely unacknowledged that anyone who thinks the MPDG archetype is useful would agree resoundingly that it doesn’t describe real people. The very reason to have a term for it is to make it easier to understand this particular, problematic way that fiction systematically deviates from reality.
I have no opinion about RUBY SPARKS, Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, or Diane Keaton in ANNIE HALL; Kazan may be more than justified in defending her movie and those actresses. But it is nothing short of fascinating to me that Kazan both wrote and played the very character who occasioned this rodomontade—and, more amazingly, that character is literally a fictional character made real. It is patently crackers and yet nearly unquestionable that this whole torrent of denial and self-contradiction is secondary to Kazan’s conflation of herself with Ruby Sparks. When Sparks is attacked, she feels attacked; when Sparks is stereotyped, she feels stereotyped.
And where I’m trying to go with this is there seems something strangely universal about it, and I’m struggling to articulate what. It’s something like: We are all romantic leads in our own movies, prey to an audience prone to “misunderstanding.” Sometimes they point out that our characters are adhering to some script that is insultingly worn-out or simplistic, so much so as to have a derogatory name affixed by a group of bronies and tentacle-porn connoisseurs. We’re insulted by this, because sometimes people really act that way or it’s subversive or if you knew what I knew you’d understand. Because we’re up to our ears in the motivation we’ve worked out in our heads, and we’ve conflated it with the script we’re reading.
But the RL Trope is one back from the TV Trope, of course. RL Tropes create TV Tropes. This is critical. The RL Trope is thinking of women as vessels of a particular kind of pleasure and redemption; the TV Trope is the MPDG. It is sexist to apply the TV Trope to a real person; to apply the RL Trope to a real person is to accuse that person of sexism, which may or may not be justified but is not of itself sexist.
But if you can’t tell the RL Trope from the TV Trope, you might think it was.
So this is where I am, some wibbly-wobbly idea that people think (e.g.) acknowledging racism promotes racism because of this confusion between script and character, essence and extension, the fundamental attribution error, something. Some idea that you can’t see fiction that way unless you see real people that way; you wouldn’t perceive these correlations if you didn’t at some level endorse them.
Which actually might arise from a certain childlike trust in the provenance of fiction.
Or maybe it’s just a backfilling Yalie phoning it in. I don’t know, and I’m up too late. But it feels like there’s something here, still waiting.