Tag: Paul Kincaid

The art of science fiction

Martin Lewis has been wondering just how many (or how few) contemporary science fiction writers are really stretching with their art – not just writing well, but going further to create works which are uniquely their own, rather than cleaving too closely to the well-worn paths of the genre. People like M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts… I joined in with the comments, which concluded that it’s hard to think of many such authors.

This discussion comes in the wake of a review by the science fiction critic Paul Kincaid of three ‘best of the year’ anthologies, in which he argued that many of the stories in those books felt tired, carried a sense of going through the motions. Responses to Kincaid’s review included Martin Lewis’s one about aesthetics, and Jonathan McCalmont‘s more political take, where he suggested that sf authors were shying away from serious engagement with the issues facing us now and in the future.

I recognise the problem McCalmont highlights, but I’m closer to Lewis’s view here. Partly this is because, by inclination, I’m more interested in the artistry of fiction than its politics. But it’s also because I think there are many valid ways of using the tropes of sf to create fiction with substance – and that it’s substance in general that is most lacking from contemporary sf  (to be clear, by ‘substance’ I mean the kind of artistry for which Lewis is calling).

There’s a clear reluctance in the published genre right now to write across established conventions rather than within them. Martin Lewis comes up against some of the problems inherent in this when he sees ‘resource sf’ take contemporary issues of scarcity and consumption and then fall back on traditional narrative patterns, thereby losing its edge. Fiction can’t engage fully with the specifics of issues unless it develops specific approaches to writing about them. This is why Adam Roberts’ By Light Alone speaks so loudly to the present: not just because its concerns are current, but because there’s also a freshness to how it treats them.

But the tropes and tools of science fiction don’t belong solely in the box marked ‘science fiction’, and haven’t for some time. I would go so far as to say that you are more likely to find creative approaches to sf (however successful) in works published as mainstream. It’s there where writers seem to feel most inclined to go their own way with sf tropes. However successful you consider (say) Girl Reading, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, all present a distinctive vision; their authors shape the material of sf in ways that others wouldn’t. The field is richer because of that.

This is not to say that genre sf couldn’t also show the mainstream a thing or two. A couple of months ago, Max Cairnduff argued in a blog post that contemporary Anglo-American literature wasn’t doing enough to engage with the contemporary world. It’s not all that different from the challenge Jonathan McCalmont makes towards sf. I could see mainstream realist literature drawing usefully on the techniques science fiction has for making arguments about the world (the question of whether genre sf needs to draw more on those techniques notwithstanding). But I also think genre sf could do with taking notes from its mainstream cousins on how to strengthen its own art.

What I’ll be doing at Eastercon

I have some news.

Eastercon, for those who don’t know, is the British national science fiction comvention. It’s held in a different place each year, over the Easter weekend; this year’s is Odyssey 2010, at Heathrow. I went last year for the first time, just for a couple of days; it was fun, but I decided that I’d only really get the best from it if I went for all four days. So, this will be my first full Eastercon.

But that’s not the news. The news is another first.

I’m going to be on a panel.

I should explain how this came about. Last year Niall Harrison of the British Science Fiction Association conducted a survey of British sf and fantasy writers (a follow-up to an identical survey run by Paul Kincaid twenty years earlier), exploring what they thought about their work, whether and how ‘Britishness’ related to it, and so on.

The results of the new survey will be published (along with a reprint of the 1989 survey’s) next month, but Niall also decided to organise a panel of non-writers to discuss the results at Eastercon — and he invited me to take part in that panel.

I was surprised to be asked — after all, I’d never done anything like it before — but also pleased, naturally. And now I’m more than a little nervous, as I really have no idea what it’s going to be like. I never anticipated, when I booked for Odyssey, that I’d end up particpating, but that’s what’s going to happen.

As far as I know, the panel is scheduled for 5pm on the Friday — and, of course, I’ll be at Eastercon all weekend. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

Spoiler warning?

This post is about the inclusion (or otherwise) of spoilers in reviews, and was partly inspired by two posts on the subject (here and here) by Paul Kincaid (‘partly’ because I’ve had these thoughts in my mind for a while anyway, without writing them down; and also because this is not intended to be a direct response to Kincaid’s thoughts).

I don’t like spoilers in reviews, and I try to leave them out of mine; but there’s an issue, I think, over what exactly constitutes a spoiler. In my view, revealing plot points or character developments does not equate to spoiling per se; it depends on why a reviewer makes the revelation. I think that a review should try to illuminate the work under discussion, to enrich the reading experience for someone else; and I’ve been known to go as far as quoting the final sentence of a text, with that aim in mind.

What a review shouldn’t do is detract from the reading experience; if it does, that’s what I’d call a spoiler. But here we tread in uncertain waters because, as Kincaid says, people read books in different ways, and what may be a major revelation to one reader may be something another reader has seen many times before. I’ll try to set out my view by using a specific example – The Lord of the Rings.

Is it a spoiler for The Lord of the Rings to say that, by novel’s end, the forces of Sauron are defeated and the One Ring destroyed? I would say not (except perhaps for the most inexperienced of readers), because it’s a convention of this kind of story that “the heroes” will triumph – we expect it to happen, so it’s not really a spoiler to say that it does.

Is it a spoiler for The Lord of the Rings to say that Gollum, not Frodo, is the one ultimately responsible for destroying the Ring, or that the hobbits return to the Shire to find it ruined? I would say yes, because these are events which, to an extent, subvert our expectations of what will happen. Equally, though, there may be readers who would be happy for these to be revealed as illustrations of some of the book’s themes.

Is it a spoiler for The Lord of the Rings to say that Frodo’s resolve is tested whilst he bears the Ring, or that the ultimate defeat of evil is more problematic than the characters could suspect?. These comments hint at the points made above without stating what happens outright; and this is the kind of thing I prefer to do in my reviews. I don’t think these are spoilers, though of course others may disagree.

In the end, we all have to decide where to draw our own line when it comes to spoilers. Personally, I’d be wary of revealing major developments, even if they did help explore a point; but I’m also interested in testing the limits of what I think it’s acceptable to reveal. I would always hope, though, that what I write about a book will not spoil it for anyone.

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