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Thursday, September 18, 2014

No, Repetition Does Not Mean Science Fiction is Stagnating...Per Se

(This is going to be a bit ranty.  Be prepared.) 

There's been a bit of talk lately about Project Hieroglyph, an Arizona State University anthology (and website) which attempts to address the argument in Neal Stephenson's "Innovation Starvation."  I recommend reading that essay yourself; it makes some compelling points about science fiction and the failure of contemporary culture to meet the demands of the 1960s imagination.  Here, I'd like to talk about Ed Finn's (editor of Project Hieroglyph) article at Slate.com:  "The Inspiration Drought:  Why Our Science Fiction Needs New Dreams."

In fairness, I came to this article via a wildly misleading headline on io9.  Finn's actual argument concerns the recycling of ideas within and outside of science fiction proper and its impact on science.  Finn argues that

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Purpose of Science Fiction (and, Technically, Fantasy)

In the 200th episode of The Coode Street Podcast, the hosts (Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe) and guests (Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Silverberg, and Jo Walton) briefly discussed the seemingly nebulous question, “Does science fiction have a purpose?”  It's worth a listen.

I would respond initially by saying that the question is somewhat malformed.  In what sense does any literary product have a purpose except that provided by the author, which is necessarily individual?  Even if the author defines a purpose, should that have any bearing on whether the text is perceived as having that defined purpose?

I personally subscribe to the view that in matters of interpretation, intent is irrelevant.  What the author meant to do, insofar as we can even know it, has no bearing on how the work can or should be perceived, in no small part because what a reader perceives is more valid than what the author thought they were creating.  Perception is the conversation.  I also tend to think that unless we can have universal access to intention, by which we would need not only biographical and personal writings, but also actual access to the mind, then an author's intent is useless to us.  How am I supposed to know what the author really intended to do?  This is not to suggest that we can't discuss intent, mind; rather, I'm suggesting that we shouldn't assume intent as the sole arbiter of interpretation or perception.

However, purpose is something quite different from intended-reception.  whatever the author intended as the purpose of a written work need not determine how we interpret that text’s purpose.  Intent and purpose, in other words, are different beasts, as the former concerns the activity of production while the latter merges production and perception together.  We can, after all, discuss the success of a text in its presentation of a message while also discussing the other interpretative possibilities of a given text.  Indeed, the purpose, insofar as one is defined, only offers possibilities, as it does not suggest "this is the only way to read the text," but rather that "the author meant to do Y, but what we see are A, B, and Q."  (Alternatively, it might be helpful to avoid the total linguistic separation and simply make a distinction between "purpose" as an intention" and "purpose" as an end product.  But maybe that's abstract, too.  Oh well.)

To return to the question of science fiction's purpose:  as I noted in my post on the taxonomy of genre, science fiction doesn't seem to me to fall under the traditional category of genre anymore because it lacks the narrative devices which define all of the other market genres (crime, etc.); science fiction, in other words, is a supergenre because it is conceptual, though it s possible to think that at one point, science fiction had a narrative practice.  In a similar sense, I think the purpose of science fiction has been obscured by time.  At one point, the most obvious purpose for the genre might have been to entertain (as in the Pulp Era) or to expound upon the radically changing world of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and so on and so forth.

Now, I think the genre's purpose is less apparent, and perhaps for good reason.  It can entertain, experiment, extrapolate, examine, elucidate, and encapsulate.  There is no singular purpose anymore than there is a singular narrative space.  And that's another reason why I think science fiction is one of the most important literary genres, as its narrative spaces, purposes, and perspectives exist in an endless sea of variations.  One can write science fiction for any number of reasons -- and one should feel comfortable doing so.  Entertainment, experimentation, whatever.

The idea that we can identify a singular or minute number of purposes for this genre is an exercise in futility, because science fiction cannot be a genre of limits if it is to also be a genre of endless narrative possibilities.

What do you all think?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Video Found: John Brunner on SF

This is making the rounds: John Brunner talking about genre classification, sf poetry, and so on. What it reveals, I think, is the cyclical nature of the sf community. We keep coming back to the same questions, but it's surprising how little progress we seem to have made in these matters. At least a good number of academics have stopped trying to define sf.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Robin Williams

You have probably already heard about the death of Robin Williams by (apparent) suicide.  Given the public nature of celebrity deaths, I have a feeling a lot of people are somewhat desensitized to the whole thing.  I, however, feel inclined to say a few words about Robin Williams.

I was born in 1983.  Basically, I was a 90s kid.  I grew up on 90s cartoons.  I grew up on 90s movies.[1]  Among my fondest memories are those films which featured Robin Williams.  Hook (1991), FernGully (1992), Aladdin (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Jumanji (1995), Jack (1996), and Flubber (1997).  My siblings and I watched a number of these films many times over.  They brought us joy.  Robin Williams had a way of making us laugh -- his greatest gift.

In a small way, Williams helped make our lives better.  Those that know me are probably aware that my childhood was pretty crap.  I wrote about some of that here.  Movies and video games were some of the methods through which I survived that growing-up experience.  Robin Williams was a part of that.  And so, for me, his death had a personal feel to it.  The man who made us laugh.  Who brought joy and wonder.  He's gone.  Forever.

I'll never forget the laughs.  It's just sad that we won't have any new laughfests from Robin Williams.  We'll only have the memories.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Anonymous Comments = Off

A quick note for readers:  I ran a bit of an experiment with comments to see if turning off registration requirements (even with something like Open ID) would affect the activity on this blog.  Unfortunately, all that seemed to happen is that spammers got more comments into my moderation queue than real people with real things to say.  For that reason, I'm turning off anonymous comments.  It'll prevent my statistics from being skewed and it'll make my life easier, since I won't have to delete mountains of annoying spam comments from my inbox.

Hopefully, this won't be a problem for anyone.  You should be able to use any social media account to leave a comment here (via Open ID), which I imagine almost all of you have.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Review: All Those Vanished Engines (2014) by Paul Park

"It occurs to me that every memoirist and every historian should begin by reminding their readers that the mere act of writing something down, of organizing something in a line of words, involves a clear betrayal of the truth." -- All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park (Pg. 173)
Of the novels I've reviewed in the last year, this is by far one of the most difficult.  All Those Vanished Engines (2014) by Paul Park is not your typical SF novel.  It is layered, divergent, and postmodern.  If I were to describe this book in a single phrase, it would be "a destabilized metanarrative about art and history with mindscrew tendencies."  Though I appreciate the ambitiousness of Park's narrative styling and prose, All Those Vanished Engines is a somewhat cold work.