I’m going to be extraordinarily selfish today and continue a couple of thoughts I had from Can-Con panels a couple weeks back, today. (Who knows, maybe I can keep mining Can-Con for blog topics until the new year!) The panel discussions – both when I was on the panel and in the audience – were really engaging for me and it always felt, at the end of the hour, that it could easily go on for a good deal longer. I guess I’m going to give myself a little bonus time today.
One panel was a reader’s panel on SF and one of the questions was along the lines of ‘what makes great SF for you?’. I had to think about it, because I like all different kinds of SF writers and stories, but eventually I got it figured.
I guess the defining characteristic of SF is that it includes some kind of future technology or alien world, but for me a really great SF story is still ultimately about people. I want to see how these things affect individual characters, or human society, or I guess ideally both. My favourite SF writer (who you will guess if you’ve read back in the blog) is William Gibson, and although his stories are filled with intriguing speculations about future uses of technology, the meat of the thing is always about what that tech, and what that world, does to the people in it.
SF is an interesting genre in having a big fissure right down the middle of it between ‘soft’ SF (which I have clumsily just described) and ‘hard’ SF in which the science is often the star and the human characters have a secondary role. I read hard SF stories, and often enjoy them. One from way back that I still reread from time to time is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, which is a fascinating book about humanity’s encounter with what they first think is an asteroid, but quickly turns out to be a dormant alien spacecraft. It is a wonderful imagining of what such a ship might be like, how it might work and ideas about a society that is (from the hints we get) truly alien. The human characters, though, are primarily just there to walk around inside the ship and allow all this stuff to unfold, and none are especially deep or memorable. It’s a good story, but I’m not sure I would call it great,for me, because I want the people to be the star, not the alien ship.
This reminds me, now, of a column that was on the Guardian website last week which posited that most famous SF includes massive, impersonal technological constructs (this was in connection to the recent speculation about megastructures – or whatever the objects are – apparently orbiting around a distant star) and not much in the way of humanity. It’s certainly easy to think of examples of this: another Clarke story, 2001, features the famous massive, implacable monoliths and the most intriguing character is a computer. So it’s certainly true, some of the time.
I don’t think I agree overall, though. I suppose it depends in part what you’re defining ‘famous’ as. Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of (if not the) most influential SF books ever written, and it’s far from impersonal. I guess it may not count as ‘famous’, though. Does Ray Bradbury? John Wyndham? A lot of Asimov is primarily about people rather than technology, even if ‘robot’ is in a lot of titles. Hell, E.T. is one of the biggest (in terms of money) SF movies ever, and it’s not about massive impersonal things at all. Those are just off the top of my head, and why I don’t agree with the premise that ‘famous’ SF is impersonal SF but I do accept that that is ‘SF’ to a lot of people. It’s a part of SF to me. It’s not my favourite part, though.
It came up on a separate panel that for a while, SF stories generally involved some sort of problem – often involving space travel or an alien world – which was solved by human ingenuity and the application of technology. This became less the case as we (Western society, anyway) got less optimistic about technology as necessarily being the solution to every situation, and sometimes being the problem, so we don’t see as many of these ultimately optimistic stories any more. There certainly is a great deal of dystopian or post-apocalyptic SF being written and read these days, which may just be the fashion or may reflect broader trends in society; I suspect it’s a combination of both. I like to hope that there’s some room for optimism in our fiction today, though. Certainly another thing about the stories I like best have some sort of positive development in them – you can generally say ‘and afterwards, things were better’ in summation. That’s what I enjoy reading most these days (I get more than enough situations that don’t work out as I or we would like in the real world) and that’s very broadly the kind of thing I like to write at the moment.
I was going to transition over to a point from yet another panel but I think instead I’ll touch on something that just dropped while I was writing this blog – the World Fantasy Convention announced that the recently-distributed World Fantasy Awards will be the last set that will come with trophies modelled on H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft, of course, is an undeniably influential figure in fantastic writing, and some (certainly not all) of his stories are very creative and chilling. Just as undeniably, though, his stuff is also rife with distressingly racist ideas, ideas that he apparently stuck to his guns on even as the world around him was moving forward. While I don’t think this necessarily means everyone has to throw their copies of Lovecraft into the trash (although if you want to, that’s certainly understandable too), it does mean that there’s no way he’s the right emblem for an organization to be using in 2015, so this is unquestionably, I think, the right move.
I suppose some people will moan about ‘political correctness’ but I really don’t think it should be a controversial stance for any group to say that they aren’t going to have a racist as the trophy they hand out as an award any longer. I doubt there was any racial agenda when Lovecraft was picked as the model for the trophy, but since the connotations of his image have been pointed out, and people have said, loudly and eloquently, that it upsets and offends them, it’s a good step for any organization to simply admit that the way they’ve been doing it is wrong and make a change. I’m sure getting rid of the Lovecraft trophy (which is a kind of odd pick for a World Fantasy award anyway) will make things more comfortable and feel more inclusive for writers (and probably fans) from diverse backgrounds going forward.
Also now I guess they’ll have to pick something new for the trophy, and everyone will get to argue about that for a while. With how broad and diverse fantasy has become as a genre, it’s going to be pretty hard to pick something that encompasses all of it, and it might be impossible. For what it’s worth, I don’t think they should do another author head because I don’t think there’s any one author that really works as the figurehead for all of fantasy. (Although if you have suggestions I’d love to hear) I’m going to predict they go with a dragon, because dragons are cool and not too many people would likely raise too much objection to it. If it was left entirely up to me I’d probably do a sword in a stone, in part because of my affection for Arthurian stuff and in part because everyone who gets an award is, in that moment, the chosen one, and so the sword in the stone would be kind of appropriate. But I get that that is pretty ethnically and culturally specific and probably wouldn’t work out. Good thing it’s not up to me.
I’m glad they’ve made the change, for what that’s worth, and I hope it’s part of helping to increase the diversity in speculative and fantastic writing going forward. It can only help the fields we love so much. I also look forward to seeing what the new trophy will be.
And now this is maybe enough for one entry and I’ll leave the other stuff for next week. I’m continuing work on my next book and I feel like it’s progressing reasonably well. I’ve been excited and flattered to have several readers ask if there is a sequel to The King in Darkness coming and I’ve been pleased to be able to say that yes, that’s what I’m working on right now. Hopefully there won’t be too long to wait.
Details on PopExpo in Ottawa are still to come, but they are coming!
Thanks for reading once again.