Russian SF revisited.
Paul Krugman (dimly) remembers an essay about Soviet SF:
... most science fiction is about one of two thoughts: “if only”, or “if this goes on”. Both were subversive, from the Soviet point of view: the first implied that things could be better, the second that there was something wrong with the way things are. So stories had to be written about “if only this goes on”, extolling the wonders of being wonderful Soviets.
Emphasis mine for clarity (I missed the point myself the first time). He is apparently mangling somewhat his memory of Isaac Asimov's introduction to a collection of Soviet SF which I read myself as a kid when I was about eleven or twelve.
"... real talent manifests itself not in a writer's affectation but 'in the exactness of his observation [and] the justice of his situations.'"
Here is a favorite quote of mine:
As Christopher Isherwood once said to Cyril Connolly, real talent manifests itself not in a writer's affectation but "in the exactness of his observation [and] the justice of his situations."
It's rare that I come across such a succinct expression of so much of what a writer is supposed to do with his work.
Lev Grossman on why genres aren't evil.
Lev Grossman says it very well indeed:
Why do we seek out these hard places [Westeros, Panem, ec.] for our fantasy vacations? Because on some level, we recognize and claim those disasters as our own. We seek out hard places precisely because our lives are hard. When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality — but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply. Genre fiction isn’t just generic pap. You don’t read it to escape your problems, you read it to find a new way to come to terms with them...
One of the great things about the literary world is that it’s an expanding pie; it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Literature is not bunk — as Raymond Chandler put it —and genre fiction is not a vice — as Edmund Wilson had it. They’re all just books, and good books are treasures beyond price, and vive la difference.
Literature is only a zero-sum game in the minds of those who think of it that way, who think of it as a matter of turf to protect. rossman also takes a moment to dismantle the idea that what we read should be some kind of badge of pride or status symbol, and to register distrust with the idea that one belongs over the other in any kind of hierarchy. Y'know, I distinctly remember saying something like that earlier ...
See also: The Myth of the Vulgar Cage.
Ambient music, before it became a joke.
I can never quite catch hold of The Pearl. I have listened to this album more times than I can safely count, and yet somehow each time I put it on I feel as if I have never heard it before. I’m not complaining; I’m in awe.
Most albums, if played enough, wear themselves into ruts in your mind the way an LP’s needle furrows out the groove it rides in. I could easy go the rest of my life without ever listening to most of the Led Zeppelin catalog, no thanks to radio airplay turning it all into a giant musical cinder. But The Pearl never seems to get old, in big part because I can never quite nail it down. I listen, I turn away, I listen again, and I feel a whole new album has emerged where the previous one was.
What seems at first glance like a "Blade of the Immortal" clone is anything but.
When I first heard about Enma the Immortal, I am ashamed to admit I was immediately reminded of another Japanese pop-culture phenomenon, one which has lionized the attention of comic lovers: Blade of the Immortal. Aside from the similarity in titles, there are other connections: both start in the late feudal era, and both involve an antihero who’s been given the curse (not the gift) of immortality. But Enma is no BotI clone, and in fact once you start reading Enma it quickly diverges from anything BotI-ish and takes on its own flavor.
In the end, SF is always about the humans -- especially the humans reading your work.
One could imagine a novel that captured the perspective of a baby or a dog in a way that seemed truthful and even relevant, but the achievement would be owed to everything in the book that is not the baby and not the dog. The reward of so much subjectivity in a novel is owed in the end to its incompleteness, so that we may identify the familiar world that is being illuminated in an unfamiliar way.
The implications for SF&F in such an observation should be obvious: think of all the stories that have been told from the point of view of a non-human or even a non-sentient character. Most of them revolve mainly around the depiction of the other, but as hinted above, the main reason why they work at all is because of what they are being contrasted with: us.
What is it that a book does better than a movie? Especially when it's SF?
... this form of storytelling [novels] has a future. This isn’t because written language is somehow better than visual imagery, or because it cures isolation, or even because reading books makes you smarter than watching TV, but because words on a page, as a delivery system for images and ideas, can do things the competition can’t. I would go so far as to say that serious fiction and poetry will survive because of their relative simplicity, not in spite of it.
This is only a very slight variation on something I've said myself on and off: a book is not a movie, but vive la difference! The two achieve different things, for different reasons, and to different ends, and to say that one is somehow better than the other (or, worse yet, better "because of the way we live now" or somesuch silliness) is to miss the point.
What's "ambitious" about a work of fiction? Hint: it isn't the length or the size of the dramatis personae.
B.R. Meyers again:
Underlying the hype [about Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke] is the silly notion that if a work introduces plenty of characters and traipses after them for enough years and pages, it is ipso facto ambitious. The true mark of an ambitious work is its style and depth. We would recognize Anna Karenina as such a novel even if only its first few pages had survived, because they depict characters with extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives.
I scarcely need to defend the proposition that SF&F make the same mistake: a bigger book, a longer series is by definition a more ambitious one or a better one. It's easy to confuse scope or sprawl with depth.
The creative process: it's about discovery as much as creation.
Zal Batmanglij, director of the new Sound of my Voice (among others), has a beautiful metaphor for the creative process as it applies to filmmaking.
I think that filmmaking is like digging more than anything else, and it starts with Brit and I. We start digging, we see the shape of something, the outline, the top of something, and that keeps us going. Then the cinematographer comes and he picks up a shovel, and the production designer and the costume designer and then the actors come. In both SOUND OF MY VOICE and THE EAST, we’ve been extremely lucky, so Patricia Clarkson comes and she picks up a shovel. Ellen Page comes and she picks up a shovel, and then Skarsgard comes and picks up two shovels, and by the end of it we are all sweaty and tired, and we’ve uncovered something and we spend most of our energy doing he digging, so you don’t really have time to worry about budgets and constraints and “I wish I had that. I wish I had this.”
This is completely consistent with my own observations: the creative process is more akin to archaeology than architecture. It's less a matter of building something than unearthing something, one jagged piece at a time.
On the "relevance" question in fiction, especially SF.
The notion that contemporary fiction possesses greater relevance for us because it talks of the Internet or supermodels or familiar brand names is ridiculous. We can see ourselves reflected more clearly in Balzac's Parisians than in a modern American who goes into raptures when his daughter says "Toyota Celica" in her sleep.
I'm going to be quoting a great deal from Meyers's excellent essay (even better in its full-length book-sized incarnation) in the near future, but I wanted to start with this particular snippet.
"Relevance" is a buzzword, and I sincerely wish it wasn't. When we say this or that work of fiction is "relevant", we typically leave off the phrase to our lives as they are now or something of that ilk. We tend to think of Gravity's Rainbow or better yet something like Charles Stross's Rule 34 as "relevant" because they are about things that are immediate or of our current moment in time. It's reassuring to read fiction (or anything at all, really) that understands what kind of world we currently live in and makes some attempt to address its vagaries and difficulties.
Why the success of "The Avengers" is a mixed blessing.
I managed to sneak away from my desk — okay, I was dragged away — and see The Avengers the other day. In deference to all those who have not yet seen it, I won't discuss it in spoileriffic detail. Rather, I'll discuss a few things that the mere fact of the movie brought to mind.
The first is something that was brought up by, of all people, Ross Douthat of the New York Times (the last person I would have ever expected to weigh in on this issue). He noted that the success of something like The Avengers means it is now that much harder for anything not a "property" to get made in Hollywood. I agree, up to a point: it's not possible to spend $150-200 million on something that isn't a proven property, because Hollywood executives were not born yesterday and are not about to blow that much money on something that comes entirely out of the blue. (Cf.: John Carter.)
First installment in this diabolical manga series about a high schooler's psychological torment at the hands of a female classmate.
High schooler Takao Kasuga has two ways of coping with life in the backwater known as Hikari City. Both should be innocent, but they turn out to be anything but. The first is books—the more esoteric and offbeat, the better, and that includes Charles Baudelaire’s poetry (which the title of this series references unambiguously). The second is his classmate Nanako Saeki—“my muse, my femme fatale,” as he rhapsodizes over her. So smitten is he for her, and so intoxicated has he become with Baudelaire’s hymns to lordly indecency, that when Nanako forgets her gym clothes at school one day he hastily swipes them and takes them home with him.
No, even he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a lethal admixture of two normally incompatible impulses: a guilty conscience and an impulsive heart. Stealing Nanako’s shorts and tank top will take him the rest of his life to pay back; this he is positive of. And yet he went and did it all the same … and, worse, he finds out has a witness to his crime: Nakamura. This is not one of the other boys in his class, who rib him about his love of weird books and his moon-eyed feelings for Nanako. Nakamura is another girl, and if the text for Takao’s spirit is a hesitantly-read Baudelaire, hers is an enthusiastically-devoured Marquis de Sade.
Just enough is more, especially when showing as opposed to telling.
In a previous post I mentioned the quote: "Every pixel you take out of the imagination and put on the screen is a pixel you are taking responsibility for."
I swapped a few words in that sentence and got something even more relevant to where I stand: "Every word you take out of the imagination and put on the page is a word you are taking responsibility for." This goes way beyond "show, don't tell" (which I think should be "show and tell in the right measure").
By "the imagination", I'm referring to the imagination of the reader, not just the writer. Every time you call attention to something, describe something, you are asking the reader to surrender that much more of their imagination for the sake of yours.
Why philosophical fiction doesn't have to be boring -- and why SF&F provides an ideal field for such work.
I think there can be a philosophical novel in this day and age, and it’s more important than ever that one is published. But it faces challenges, which Erdal says are essentially “balance” and the question of what it would look like to consumers.
On the balance of it, SF&F seem to be the most likely place to find the philosophical novels of the age. So much of what they have been preoccupied with for so long has been philosophical discussion of things that affects all of us: artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial sentient life, the impacts of technical progress, etc.
That said, very little SF&F is reminiscent of what I would call the "big novel of ideas" approach, the sort of thing the author of the above piece attributes to folks like "Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus and countless others". I will most likely surprise no one when I say I love such books. I'm in the middle of re-reading The Brothers Karamazov now in one of its new translations, and I see firsthand (doubly so in this new translation) what a novel of ideas can do at its most unchained and vivacious.
The tension between "bestseller" and "literary": still a red herring.
A person who can’t fathom why the public fell in love with Lisbeth Salander or Edward Cullen is probably not going to be able to write something they’ll like just as much. Whiling away a couple of summer afternoons reading a trashy novel is a harmless way of wasting time. But writing a book even you wouldn’t want to read? That’s just killing it.
There's some good meat in this article, but the presumptions at the end are ludicrous.
Decades after its release, Brian Eno's first collection of ambient mini-masterworks is still a jewel box full of gems.
The last time I went record shopping—hole-in-the-wall record stores still proliferate in New York City, thank goodness—I walked out with an armload of film soundtracks: Le Grand Bleu, Taxi Driver, and a French SACD edition of Terminator 2 that I found in someone’s cut-out bin for $4. It’s not as if I have it in for actual albums from actual bands; there’s plenty of those to be talked about in time. It’s just that film soundtracks seize my attention in a way that most “regular “ albums don’t, and in a way can’t. They’re not just things unto themselves, but part of something larger that demands one’s full attention.
In most cases the film soundtracks I love are for films I know, but Music for Films is the exact opposite, and all the more fascinating for it. It’s a compilation of film music where the music preceded the films: Eno created the music in 1976, and then sent copies of a limited edition of the album to filmmakers so they could consider using it in their movies. In time, some of the music ended up in films as diverse as John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, and Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. Then again, Eno composed the classic Windows 95 startup and shutdown themes, so I’m used to him popping up in places where his name wouldn’t normally appear.
We are, I think, finally beginning to see the full flowering of a literature of true native Western Buddhism. By this I mean works written by Buddhists who are Westerners first and foremost, and whose understanding of both Western life...
We are, I think, finally beginning to see the full flowering of a literature of true native Western Buddhism. By this I mean works written by Buddhists who are Westerners first and foremost, and whose understanding of both Western life and Buddhism complement each other. Brad Warner was one such writer: it was hard for an Akron, Ohio-born punk rocker turned ordained Soto Zen Buddhist not to have both his Buddhism and his Western-ism speak to each other. His books document all of that in a fun, accessible way for beginners, and perhaps also for experts who have gotten lost along the way.
Rebel Buddha is another well-written general introduction to Buddhism, by way of Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and for that reason alone is worth checking out for beginners. What makes it doubly interesting is how it attempts to approach Buddhism as something that is inherently transplanted from one culture to another. Buddhism has migrated from India to China, Korea, Japan, the rest of Asia, and into Europe and the United States, and along each step of the way has found ways to become a living part of the culture that accepted it.