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Everyone wants a reputation, with the possible exception of people who already have one. It's probably somewhat gauche to start off a review on this tack--books should after all be discussed on their own terms, not on the terms of their predecessors--but David Mitchell's reputation can't be avoided. It's hard to imagine anyone, except perhaps deaf Tibetan monks, picking up Black Swan Green without having at least heard of Cloud Atlas, and it's equally hard to imagine Mitchell being unaware of this fact. Indeed, there's a hint of willful refusal about the whole enterprise; as too many people have been too eager to observer, this time out Mitchell has written a book that, on the face of it, couldn't be further away from the panoramas of his previous work. To be blunt, Black Swan Green looks like just one story: a single character in a single village for a single year.

Furthermore, Mitchell has willingly 'fessed up to the book's autobiographical elements, as if they weren't fairly obvious to begin with, joking in interviews that he's written his first novel fourth. All the signs are there, at any rate. Like Mitchell (we have been led to assume), Jason Taylor grows up in a Worcestershire village ("not the arsehole of the world, but it's got a damn good view of it", 82), in shadow of the cold war (he imagines MIGs roaring over the Malvern Hills), reading Le Guin and Wyndham (and Stephen Donaldson, but we won't hold that against him), watching Tomorrow's World, contributing pseudonymous poetry to the parish magazine, and suffering from a debilitating stammer. And yet: in his career to date, Mitchell has so conspicuously avoided writing in anything that might be taken for his own voice that it's hard to take Black Swan Green at face value.

And indeed (as the excessive caveating above might have suggested), the first-glance traditionalism doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Black Swan Green is as carefully constructed, as much an act of literary ventriloquism, as any of Mitchell's other books. There are thirteen chapters, and they do only cover a year and a month in the life of thirteen year-old Jason. Yet, it turns out, they're not chapters so much as short stories. Some of them have even been previously published, albeit in slightly different forms. Each is discrete, and focuses on a different aspect of Jason's life--his stammer, his relatives, initiation into a local gang, the end of year disco--with some assembly required to discern the full shape of the year. For example, in the first story Jason breaks an expensive watch he inherited from his grandfather; it's not until two-thirds of the way through the book that we learn that he's been diligently searching for a replacement. It wasn't relevant to the intervening stories, so it wasn't mentioned. The restlessness of narrative gaze gives the book a slightly relentless quality. "There's no such thing as something!" exclaims one character, "because everything's already turning into something else!" (120). Particularly when coupled with the first-person, diary-style storytelling, this sort of fixup approach seems fitting, a way of capturing the constant turmoil of early adolescence, when last month may as well be ancient history, a different life.

Even so, and however neatly Mitchell has adapted the form to this particular story, it's clear that at heart it's another variation of the approach he's demonstrated he's most comfortable with. In all his books, Mitchell seems to feel the need to set himself limits--and most of the time the need to then explain those limits to the reader. While Black Swan Green isn't as tightly nestled around a single theme as Cloud Atlas, tending instead more towards the diffuseness of Ghostwritten, it certainly has its moments of brazen didacticism. One crucial central story, 'Solarium', sees Jason visiting Madame Eva van Outrve de Crommelynck, an old woman who appreciates his poetry, challenges him to reach further, and in the process appears for all the world to be explaining to us how to read the book. She argues for limits, berating Jason: "You imagine blank verse is a liberation, but no. Discard rhyme, you discard a parachute" (183). Mitchell gets away with that, just, but then:
"Anyone can be truthful."

"About superficialities, Jason, yes, is easy. About pain, no, is not. So you want a double life. One Jason Taylor who seeks approval of hairy barbarians. Another Jason Taylor is Eliot Bolivar, who seeks approval of the literary world."

"Is that so impossible?"

"If you wish to be a versifier," she whirlpooled her wine, "very possible. If you are a true artist," she schwurked wine round her mouth, "absolutely never. If you are not truthful to the world about who and what you are, your art will stink of falseness."

I had no answer for that. (195)
There you are: the dilemma on a plate. Half a million copies of Cloud Atlas and a Richard and Judy Book of the Year Award attest that Mitchell has been popular, and with Black Swan Green he will probably be so again (for whatever else you want to say about it, it's as compulsively readable as any of his other books; this is a writer who knows how to spin a yarn). But has he been truthful, and if not does it matter? After each of his books we have been asking where David Mitchell is--who he is--but Black Swan Green puts the question unavoidably front and centre.

To begin to find answers, we have to return to Jason, because it's with Jason that the book stands or falls. Unlike, say, The Accidental's Astrid Smart, he is not meant to be an original. He is instead everything thirteen-year-old English boys in books like this are meant to be: lower middle-class, nervous around girls, close enough to believing in himself that he can get there by the end of the story. He starts out as a mid-rank boy at school, not so popular we can't empathise with him, but not so low down that he has nowhere to fall. And he has a way with words, although he's still learning how to fit them to the world. The text is dotted with phrases that are trying just a little too hard--"the sky was turning to outer space" (20), for example, or "something silent smashed without being dropped" (143)--and which stand out all the more because the rest of the writing around them is determinedly informal, full of colloquial dialogue, the occasional arch authorial nudge towards history yet to happen, slang, and brand names. The latter, in fact, seem a false note at first, evidence that, like Jason, Mitchell is trying too hard. There seems to be an excess of detail. Jason doesn't eat crisps, he eats Monster Munch; and he doesn't eat chocolates, or Roses, but Cadbury's Roses. Every song on the radio is titled, every make of car is named.

But this is all part of a pattern. Look at the things that happen to Jason. He has an eventful year, but in all the expected ways. There are visits from his relatives. His immediate family is ok--none of them have much time for him, dealing with business (dad), mid-life (mum) or late-adolescent (big sister) crises of their own, but none of them are bad people--but his cousins are an odious lot, and bring out the worst in all concerned. There are confrontations with the village bullies and their lackeys, and teachers at school--all the recognisable types of English teenage life are here, in fact. There are encounters with local gypsies, and with prejudice. And, given that this is 1982, Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands war are lurking in the background. Most of the stories are brilliantly told--lively, nuanced, affecting, from the intoxicating freedom of Jason's personal odyssey of 'Bridlepath' to the intricate awkwardnesses reflected in 'Souvenirs'. But, eventually, almost everything ends as it should: the bullies get their just desserts, while Jason gets the respect of the people who matter, and his first kiss into the bargain. It's hard to be downcast about the few bitter notes in the closing cadences when the book's very last words are "it's not the end" (371). So apt, so true; we never stop coming of age.

A neat book so far, then. The last thing we need to know upsets the applecart. We need to know about Jason's imaginary companions: the wild cards, the chaos looking over his shoulder. Maggot, Unborn Twin, and most especially Hangman, are (occasionally) the voices of Jason's better angels, and (more commonly) his demons personified. Hangman is his nemesis, his stammer brought to cruel life. "Pike lips, broken nose, rhino cheeks, red eyes 'cause he never sleeps" (31), Hangman strikes with a mocking unpredictability, blocking the dreaded N- or S-words at the worst possible moments. If Jason is quick and lucky, he'll be able to think ahead, pick another word, but it's a constant balancing act: a fight to keep the secret, preserve his reputation, maintain control. If Mitchell actually is anything like Jason, small wonder that his books are so meticulously assembled.

Hangman is introduced on page 3, and explained in the second story. Maggot and Unborn Twin are there from the start, as well, but aren't explained until almost the end of the book, more or less when we learn how the story is really being told. It's not quite what we thought. What appears to be Jason's diary, written as he goes, is in fact a collection of compositions, mostly made long after the fact. At this point, everything slots into place: Black Swan Green, as told by Jason, is an act of self-mythologisation, an attempt to rationalise the year once it has been (mostly) lived. Hence the insertion of Maggot and Unborn Twin into events predating their birth; hence the exaggerated naturalism of the prose, the plotting and description that seem precise almost to the point of being parodic. It's all because this is a book in which writing something down gives you control over it. Jason's stammer forces him to learn how to use words to save himself; at one crucial, ecstatic moment he realises that "Words made it. Just words" (339). And, we realise, that's as true for David Mitchell as it is for Jason.

This is not a departure. Cloud Atlas, in the end, was not so much a book about the world as a book about how the world is described by different fictional forms. A book about the stories we tell ourselves, or about how we distort the world when we make a story out of it, reduce it to words on a page. That's why its components had to be so clearly genre works: because genres are codified approaches to making the world storyable, and they survive only as long as they are doing something right, telling us something useful. They are always under tension, on the edge of ossification. And Mitchell seems to have set himself the challenge of revamping the established codes, finding the truths buried within them--perhaps because, these days, you can't help but be aware of the way stories are told. That's why Mitchell's go to such length to explain what they're about; because otherwise they will be hopelessly naive. The ultimate goal, possibly, is to write a book that succeeds because of its self-awareness: to write what we might call a modern genre novel.

Black Swan Green, I think, is an attempt to write such a book by treating a category, 'semi-autobiographical first novels', as a genre. To take the cliches, and make them into tropes; to wring them into new configurations. But the balance is off. There is something about knowing this--about knowing that Mitchell's use of his own experiences is a pragmatic choice, to lend weight to an overfamiliar landscape--that conflicts with the transparency of Jason's voice. The miracle is that the book still works as well as it does, for, despite their secondhand nature, the characters and situations that fill these pages ring only occasionally hollow. Jason himself is convincing, and the truths Mitchell unearths from his day-to-day life shine freshly in the daylight. Even the coldness, in the end, is worth it, because the book does what it was designed to do. It tells a story; it makes you care; and along the way it explains what Mitchell does without ever giving away who he is.

Here I am, says the author, standing in front of us, in plain sight. We know his reputation; we're waiting for the trick. This is what I'm about, he says, smiling, and then--

Other reviews:
Nell Freudenberger in The New York Times
M. John Harrison in the TLS
David Hellman in the San Francisco Chronicle
[livejournal.com profile] peake here
Laura Miller at Salon
Adam Phillips in The Observer
Steven Poole in The Guardian
Ali Smith in The Telegraph
Scarlett Thomas in The Independent
Daniel Zelewski in The New Yorker
Lee Rourke at Ready Steady Book
And more
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A little while ago I mentioned Simon Ings' new novel, The Weight of Numbers. I also linked to this Guardian review, which seemed to do a pretty good job of putting the book in context. Now I notice all the reviews on Ings' webpage, and in particular this review from The Independent, which is on a whole other level:
Science fiction: which way to the exit? The history of SF over the past half-century has been a balancing act. On one side is its adolescent drive to create slam-bang adventure stories set against the most exotic backdrops; on the other, its adult imperative to extrapolate the impact of social change and new technology on culture, politics and the wider society.

Plenty of authors still guard the hardcore turf, but many others have made common cause with literary fiction. Novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas make the Man Booker shortlist despite occupying territory which would have been indisputably considered SF even a short while ago.
Discuss.

It's also weird--in a good way--to see a review that recognises and engages with the context of the book appear in the pages of The Independent rather than, say, Foundation. Though I wish Murray had gone into more detail (or had had the space to go into more detail) about why he thought it didn't work. "The plot works but the story doesn't" is an interestingly loaded turn of phrase.

(I would like to see lots of discussion of this book, so everyone should go and read it now, please. And as it happens, a review of the book by Abigail Nussbaum will be appearing at Strange Horizons next week.)

In a not-entirely-dissimilar vein, this discussion of reactions to Never Let Me Go may be of interest to some.

Unlabeller

Apr. 24th, 2006 10:21 pm
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There is a rage shared by most critics of the literature of the fantastic. It is the rage we feel when some iteration of that literature--a novel by Jeff Noon, perhaps--is mufflingly misdescribed as non-generic by its publishers, or by some moat-defensive critic more concerned to defend his patch than to tell the truth about the text before his eyes, or even by authors--like Jeff Noon himself, whose increasingly chrome-plated career track seems to require a repudiation of his roots in genre. Noon's recent statement that he does not write sf, and his publisher's contortuplicated efforts not to mention sf in the jacket copy to Falling Out Of Cars (London: Doubleday, 2002)--jacket copy which manages therefore not to mention that Falling is set in a near-future England decimated by a strange plague whose effects on humans can only be staved off by a brandname drug distributed by a mysterious corporation--does rather seem a trahison des clercs.

Because what Noon and his publishers have done to Falling Out Of Cars is a discourtesy to adult readers. They have unlabelled the book, which may sound a noble thing to do ("Let my fable go") but which is not. In the sick, febrile market now operating in the book trade, a book which is unlabelled is not a book readers come to with eyes washed of preconceptions, like Israelites entering a Promised Land; it is a book precisely marketed to mandate a particular kind of preconception in the reader: which is that the book in question is safe, that it is a mundane extension of the mimetic novel, that it is unlabelled because it is unnecessary to label a window into the real world.
--John Clute, Scores, p.392
And then there is an argument based around reading protocols, which goes something like: when Falling Out Of Cars is approached as mimetic, it reads very differently, and (crucially) worse, than when it is approached as science fiction. Having not read the book, I can't comment, but that's ok; my reservation is about his more general point.

There is an awkward interaction here between, as ever, science fiction the marketing category and science fiction the form. I agree with the above to the extent that I recognise the rage, because I agree that most decisions to unlabel a book seem to be made in, for want of a better phrase, bad faith--made as marketing decisions only. I'm less convinced that this matters because it leads us into the work by the wrong route.

Firstly, I'm inclined to think we can work out how to read something as we go, based on the text itself. The label is useful, but it's not essential. (And I can think of cases--one of Michel Faber's books comes to mind--where the unfolding of expectations is so deliciously well-handled that it would be a bit cruel to give the game away on the dust jacket.) But more than that, I'm inclined to think that the act of unlabelling usually Just Doesn't Work. There are arguable cases, like Never Let Me Go, but in general it's a safe bet that a review that bends over backwards to explain how a book isn't science fiction, honest, is in fact a review that tells you, very clearly, precisely the opposite.

So why the rage? For me, Clute got it right at the start: because it's not telling the truth. I'm sure [livejournal.com profile] immortalradical will come along at this point and accuse me of trying to claim texts "for the genre", but I don't think that's what I'm doing; to say something is science fiction doesn't have to involve saying that it's part of the genre. My problem is rather that all the evasions and denials smack of either simple snobbery--the "it's good, so it can't be sf" attitude--or, more seriously, a patronising lack of faith in the reader--"don't worry, this one's ok because it's not really sf." And that's a disservice not just to the reader, but to the book and to the form as a whole.
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Still no actual content here, but there's good stuff elsewhere.

[livejournal.com profile] greengolux has three Worldcon panel reports:
At Worldcon I attended three particularly fascinating literary panels. The first two were on the aesthetics of science fiction and fantasy respectively, and the third was entitled 'Waiting for the Fantastic' and was about those pieces of fiction that never quite break out into explicit sf or fantasy, but feel like they could do at any moment. These three panels, in a way, formed the core of the convention for me. Between them they set out to explore the very heart of the real reason I was there in the first place, attempting to get to the bottom of what science fiction, fantasy, and other works that teeter on the brink of sf and fantasy are trying to do and how they set about doing it.
[livejournal.com profile] zarabee reports a question that China Mieville asked of Gary Wolfe and John Clute during their conversation:
He commented about the the naivety of SF, and the literal reading of things in SF, and asked whether the critical approach and the interpretation which criticism necessitated means that the naievety is lost. He wanted [Clute and Wolfe] to talk about about the battle between naivety and sophistication which ensues when we start to explore the metaphorisation and the meaning of it all.
Jonathan Strahan enthuses about two stories, one by Jeff Vandermeer and one by Geoff Ryman:
I got online this morning and downloaded the night's email. In amongst it was an email from Gordon with the December F&SF attached. I was delighted to see that there was a new Geoff Ryman novelette in the issue, a story called 'The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai'. From what I can tell, it's the cover story for the issue and is quite unusual. The story head note references something called 'monkpunk', and it's tempting to be glib and say this is it. But it would be glib. The story is a very subtle and quite powerful tale of a warrior monk who leads a revolt to save the country he loves, becomes what he detests and, possibly, is responsible for a change in the way the world works. It doesn't matter whether this story is SF or fantasy (my bet is SF, though I'd be curious to hear what Gordon thinks), but it was either going to be masterful or awful. Following so closely on the heels of his completely wonderful novel Air, it should come as no surprise, that it is far closer to masterful than not. A highlight in a year of stories.
Needless to say, I am jealous of Mr Strahan's early-reading privileges.
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Kelly Link's Magic For Beginners is reviewed in the New York Times by Michael Knight (yes, really). He seems a bit confused:
Take ''Some Zombie Contingency Plans.'' It's about a recently released convict who drives around the suburbs looking for parties to crash because he's lonely. There are zombies here, but are they real? The premise is fresh and the characters (the con, the girl whose party he crashes, her little brother who sleeps under the bed) are likable and Link puts a metafictional twist on the narrative voice (''This is a story about being lost in the woods,'' she says), but the story doesn't quite come together, and those zombies -- are they supposed to be a metaphor?
Scott Westerfeld explains:
Allow me to explain, Mr. Non-sf-Reading Reviewer Man. Sure, zombies can “be a metaphor.” They can represent the oppressed, as in Land of the Dead, or humanity’s feral nature, as in 28 Days. Or racial politics or fear of contagion or even the consumer unconscious (Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead). We could play this game all night.

But really, zombies are not “supposed to be metaphors.” They’re supposed to be friggin’ zombies. They follow the Zombie Rules: they rise from death to eat the flesh of the living, they shuffle in slow pursuit (or should, anyway), and most important, they multiply exponentially. They bring civilization down, taking all but the most resourceful, lucky and well-armed among us, whom they save for last. They make us the hunted; all of us.

That’s the stuff zombies are supposed to do. Yes, they make excellent symbols, and metaphors, and have kick-ass mytho-poetic resonance to boot. But their main job is to follow genre conventions, to play with and expand the Zombie Rules, to make us begin to see the world as a place colored by our own zombie contingency plans.
EDIT: A relevant comment at Making Light:
I got into a rather heated argument a few months back with someone who was insisting that Tooth and Claw was good because "it isn't really about dragons." I said that it was too really about dragons, and that it would have been a much worse novel if it had not been really about dragons. "But I mean, really about dragons," said the other person. And I said yes, really about dragons. It didn't matter how many kinds of typographical emphasis she attempted to vocalize: Tooth and Claw is about dragons.

It also does other things, but if every little thing in it was a metaphor for man's inhumanity to radishes or some damn thing, it would suck.
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[livejournal.com profile] grahamsleight points out an article by Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction that's too good not to relay:
If you're writing about the future and you aren't doing forecast journalism, you'll probably be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms - science fiction fantasy, and so forth - and others choose the reverse.

I have written two works of science fiction or, if you prefer, speculative fiction: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake.
If she keeps this up we're going to have to stop mocking her for not getting it, aren't we?

[livejournal.com profile] ninebelow has a roundup of her previous statements on the relationship of her work to sf here.
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Somewhat late to the party on this one, but what the hey: Over at the message boards for The Third Alternative, and specifically on M John Harrison's board, there's an astounding discussion about the state of SF, the future of the genre, and all the sorts of things that make me a happy little geek. It's similar to the sort of thing Norman Spinrad suggested in Asimov's - the breakdown (or mutation) of genre - but it's taking it a step or ten further.

It's a discussion about current SF; the fact that in the past five years there have been incredibly exciting developments all over the place, what they represent, who's writing this stuff, and what it should be called. The suggestion (although by no means consensus) is 'The New Weird', and as a movement it's more about attitude than content - a shameless pilfering of styles and ideas from the whole spectrum of fiction, and the wider world. It'll take hours to read it all, but it's definitely worthwhile; I'm about half-way through and so far have come across contributions from M John Harrison, Alastair Reynolds, Justina Robson, China Mieville, Paul McAuley, Colin Greenland, Charlie Stross, Richard Morgan, Adam Roberts, Cory Doctorow, and many others. This is the sort of discussion you imagine the neophyte cyberpunks having back in the day, but it's taking place in the open, for all to see. If this 'New Weird' thing takes off, this'll be one hell of a historical document.

The discussion starts here, and continues here, here and here. I'm sure I'm going to have to come back and pull some specific quotes out later, but the bare links will do for now.

Edit: Oh, just the one quote, then.
"You can make similar (and similarly inflated) analogies with the gay movement. We can be the Log Cabin movement of genre - I'm a writer just like you, and if I happen to write about the odd monster or two, well, it's all behind closed doors, we're all fiction under the skin aren't we, what does it matter, why can't we all just get along... or we can be Outrage!. We're Here! We're Weird! Get Used To It! I know which I'd rather be."
-- China Mieville

Always good for a quote, Mr Mieville. :-)

Coda

May. 24th, 2003 10:21 am
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I was going to let it lie, but this (courtesy of a far too early-morning text message from Naomi) is too good to ignore. You want 8:48am:
Presenter: [Margaret Atwood] describes her new book Oryx And Crake as 'speculative fiction' because she says it could happen. Well, is she right? Bryan Appleyard, the author and Sunday Times journalist is writing a book about aliens; we're also joined by D J Taylor, the author and Orwell biographer. Good morning to you both.

Both: Good morning.

Presenter: Bryan Appleyard, do you think it's a fair distinction - this 'speculative fiction'/'science fiction'?

Bryan Appleyard: No, I think it's petty literary snobbery. [...] The whole reason it's called science fiction is because it's credible, it's possible, and Margaret Atwood seems to me to be evidently writing science fiction. And no reason why not - there's some very great science fiction writers.

Hurrah for Bryan Appleyard! And boo to DJ Taylor (sample quote: "JG Ballard is not a writer of science fiction; he's someone who merely projects certain elements of his moral and political universe in futurist terms...")

Showdown

May. 22nd, 2003 10:46 am
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So, last night Naomi and I went to Oxford to see Margaret Atwood being interviewed by Peter Kemp (fiction editor for The Sunday Times). All in all, I was pleasantly surprised. She was an entertaining interviewee, much given to wit and digression (one of the questions later, from someone clearly looking for the answer for his A-level coursework, was 'how easy do you find it to write in a broken style?' I didn't fully understand it, either, but based on the interview I'd have to go with 'very easy', because she clearly thinks that way anyway). Of course the matter of speculative fiction vs science fiction ('things we already have' vs 'made up things') came up very early on - unprompted by Kemp, even. But she didn't sound derogatary in the way the interviews I've been quoting made her sound. She clearly evinced a fondness and respect for, say, HG Wells, but at the same time wanted to distance her own work from that tradition. Indeed, she says she makes a point of dipping into pretty much every genre now and then - Western, Crime, Mills & Boon, you name it - just to see what's going on.

Then it came to the questions session, and I asked: "Was Oryx and Crake influenced by any other contemporary speculative fiction authors, and if so, who? And whether it was or it wasn't, in general which other contemporary speculative fiction authors would you recommend?"

The three authors she named were Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson, and John Wyndham. Points lost for not being hugely contemporary (although to be fair, she did admit that herself) - but points gained for recommending John Wyndham. Not just because I also think he's a wonderful writer, but because it basically confirms to me that she is playing the definitions game, which I can't really find it in myself to get that worked up about. You see, as rigorous as Wyndham is, he does include elements that are clearly 'made-up things'; telepathy in The Chrysalids, for instance, not to mention the invasion from the depths of the sea in The Kraken Wakes. So as long as she's not being actively derogatory towards science fiction, I'm happy to let her call her own books what she likes.

Afterwards, there was a signing. I had my copy of Oryx and Crake dedicated 'to the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group, best wishes, Margaret Atwood', explained that the society has been around for donkey's years and was founded by Brian Aldiss, assured her that no, we don't think Star Trek is any good, and in turn received a recommendation: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I'm sure this will make Mike very happy (it made Naomi quite happy, too, since she'd recommended it to me a while back).

All in all, a fine evening out.
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Atwood- and genre-related quotes of the day, from TIME:
Literary fiction is all about nuance. Science fiction is an open invitation to moralizing. In a genre that lets you create your own world, who can resist the temptation merely to blow it all up while shaking a head at what fools these mortals be? Not Atwood. What's missing here is the emotional sinew of Cat's Eye, the complex mortifications of Alias Grace.


And from the New York Times:
I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital 'L,' and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character. It sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favor of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility. Some will ask, of course, whether there still is such a thing as 'Literature with a capital 'L.'' I proceed on the faith that there is. Are there exceptions to my categorical pronouncement? Probably, but I don't think enough of them to overturn it.

Is Margaret Atwood's new novel, Oryx and Crake, science fiction? Insofar as the term has any practical meaning, yes.


Yes, the implied assumption in the second of those is that 'psychological nuance' is inherently superior to, and more worthy of exploration than mere 'conceptual matters'. Forget objectivity; subjectivity is what counts. Sheesh.

AtwoodWatch

May. 4th, 2003 11:28 am
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More from Margaret Atwood, this time in New Scientist:
What do you make of science fiction?

A lot of science fiction is fantasy. It's people flying around on dragons, other worlds of strange life forms. Some of them are quite well thought through, they know what the strange creatures eat, they know that life could be sustainable. Others are just having fun.

Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals. Speculative fiction is when you have all the materials to actually do it. We've taken a path that is already visible to us. In 1984 and Brave New World, you could see all the elements that were farther down that particular path. I don't like science fiction except for the science fiction of the 1930s, the bug-eyed monster genre in full bloom.


(Did I mention that I'm going to see her talk in a couple of weeks? Suggestions for questions I should throw at her gratefully received...)

Anyway, after I've finished banging my head on my desk I'm off to Oxford for the day. And given that I plan to go to tonight's library meeting, probably a non-trivial chunk of the night, as well.
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In the Guardian:

Margaret Atwood's latest novel, Oryx and Crake , is not, she insists, "science fiction" but "speculative fiction". It is a distinction she has also made about her earlier dystopian book, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), currently being staged as an opera in London.
"Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen," she explains. Her work is always researched: Oryx and Crake, a novel blending a biological apocalypse with a genetically engineered genesis, acknowledges a number of personal debts in terms of research and background, but also scrupulously offers a list of documentary sources at a web address.


And then there's the Radio 4 review, from people who clearly have never read any other science fiction. Or paid attention to science news for the last five years.

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