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.