For whatever reason, I’ve been watching old episodes of Alias, a show I never got into when it was running, and while ordinarily I’d be game for anyone who said, hey, let’s mash up La Femme Nikita and Hudson Hawk, maybe see what happens, there’s something so pedestrian about how the show goes about showing how mad the writing seems to think it wants to be—but then the penny dropped: the thing about J.J. Abrams filmmaking (to pull a name from a hat) is how it’s the filmic equivalent of transparent prose: images, that get out of the way of the story—
Wesley Osam’s undertaking a series of posts on the Novelization Style, which is a fine-enough name for a thing that thinks it has no name, that imagines because it sounds just like everything else around it can’t be heard, but that once you’ve finally seen it can’t be unseen, like the goddamn arrow in the FedEx logo, poking your eye on every commute, now. —The notion of “transparent” prose, to tug a loose thread, has always so bedeviled me, if only because the sheer folly of seeing one’s chosen medium as an impediment, to be done away with, has always struck me as, well, sheer folly: I’ve whittered on about it before, and it was the subject of perhaps my first-ever twitter rant, but Wesley’s digging in with grace and purpose; go, read. Myself, I just want to take up just a little bit of it, here—
In effect Novelization Style has no narrator—or, at least, the narrator, and the implied author, is neutral, impartial, and devoid of personality. No one is telling this story. It’s a camera, pointed at a set, with no one behind it.
So you don’t ask “Who is the narrator?” which means you also don’t ask questions like “Why is this narrator telling this story? Why did they make these decisions about the plot, or the characters? What do they want me to think about all this, and do I agree?” The story feels less like something someone made, and more like something that just sort of happened. This does not exactly encourage you to think about what you’re reading. When I read a book like Leviathan’s Wake it’s a struggle to actively engage with the book instead of… well, just sort of skim along the surface with it.
This is where the writing gets tricky, because this disengagement is an accidental side effect. But it’s going to sound a bit like I’m accusing writers of writing this way to discourage questions about what they write. This is not even remotely any writer’s goal. I thought I should pause to explicitly note that, to forestall confusion.
Because maybe, if we’re reading something like those old space operas with no place for women, reading thoughtlessly reinforces ideas we’d be better off questioning. A few years ago, because it seemed popular at the time, I gave Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy a chance. What I remember is that the pro-democracy, reformist male lead gained some political power and quickly became a dictatorial tinpot general because, gosh, going all Pinochet just worked better. The books seemed barely aware they were making a political argument.
—and set it next to this, from Ethan Robinson’s critique of so much more than The Weave—
A book that raises such specters needs to deal with them; this one does not. In her review of the musical Urinetown Erin Horáková, paraphrasing and expanding on something I once glibly tweeted, analyzes the ways in which a work of art, by presenting a political critique that stops just short of where it needs to, or goes awry at just the right (wrong) moments, can present the appealing appearance of opposition while in effect serving to prop up the system it appears to oppose.
—from which I’ll then move on, to Erin’s critique—
I don’t think the show means to so thoroughly betray its political content and its Brechtian form. It’s not evil; it’s just stupid. In trying to “blow your mind” with this final turn and add another layer of cynicism, Urinetown manages to undo every scrap of work it’s done thus far. Then it has the nerve to sneer that:Little Sally: I don’t think too many people are going to come see this musical, Officer Lockstock.
Lockstock: Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?
It’s rich to say that people won’t hear this story and change, when the musical itself has pretended to be a revolutionary text and then said change is too dangerous, the workings of power too mysterious and wise (however corrupt), and that thus the wisest thing one can do is nothing. This is like that shitty Doctor Who episode “Stolen Earth,” where Davros tells the Tenth Doctor that his problem, as a character, is that he “makes people killers!!” Now that character, at this point in the run, had a score of serious issues, and none of them were that? So the show burns a straw man and tells itself and its audience that it’s gotten to the heart of the matter, that it’s done its repentance. Again, the fail-condition of criticism is reification. In misdefining a problem and/or not offering possible ways to fix a problem while dwelling on that problem in your art, you can just reinforce said problem. Radicalism has issues and is capable of failing itself and those it advocates for, but not quite in the boring, simplistic way depicted herein. Rather than attacking the culture of overweening corporate power and its control over our lives and how that control is redefining our ideas of privacy, the body, etc. (which would be fairly apropos right about now), suddenly Urinetown is talking about vague ideas of personal responsibility, but not in a tangible, useful way. Shit, was the last act written by a Republican?
—and then round it all with this, from Teju Cole:
In McCurry’s portraits, the subject looks directly at the camera, wide-eyed and usually marked by some peculiarity, like pale irises, face paint or a snake around the neck. And when he shoots a wider scene, the result feels like a certain ideal of photography: the rule of thirds, a neat counterpoise of foreground and background and an obvious point of primary interest, placed just so. Here’s an old-timer with a dyed beard. Here’s a doe-eyed child in a head scarf. The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were. They are astonishingly boring.
Boring, but also extremely popular: McCurry’s photographs adorn calendars and books, and command vertiginous prices at auction. He has more than a million followers on Instagram. This popularity does not come about merely because of the technical finesse of his pictures. The photographs in “India,” all taken in the last 40 years, are popular in part because they evoke an earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like, what the accouterments of their lives should be: umbrellas, looms, sewing machines; not laptops, wireless printers, escalators. In a single photograph, taken in Agra in 1983, the Taj Mahal is in the background, a steam train is in the foreground and two men ride in front of the engine, one of them crouched, white-bearded and wearing a white cap, the other in a loosefitting brown uniform and a red turban. The men are real, of course, but they have also been chosen for how well they work as types.
Clear? (—“It strikes me that one of the similarities between great fiction and great marketing copy is the ability to sell the content of whatever it is you’re writing about,” writes RandyC, extolling the importance of transparency in prose, but “Weaker photography delivers a quick message—sweetness, pathos, humor—but fails to do more,” writes Cole. —Which is true not just of photography.)
So I was setting up to fold the week’s laundry in the living room, and I was looking through the DVDs for something to watch, mostly because the last working Apple remote has gone walkabout, and maybe it’s because the Wachowskis have been in the news lately or maybe it’s because it’s one of the best films of the aughts, a pinnacle of cinematic achievement, but anyway I grabbed Speed Racer.
I mean, the opening sixteen minutes or so alone, a thrilling overture that blithely delivers a payload of unthinkably dense exposition—here is our protagonist, here is his backstory, here his family, his brother who went before him, here’s how the sci-fi cars work, and also all the tricks we’ll be using to tell the story, pay just enough attention to clock our moves, the time-shifts, the colors, the floating talking heads of sports commentators, as-you-know-Bobbing their polyphonic takes on the various narrative threads—it’s a real piece of Gesamtkunstwerk, and you can’t help but feel a little taken aback when the movie downshifts into the first act of its actual, y’know, story (though the disappointment is anticipated, cushioned, soon enough wiped away).
So anyway the story’s unspooling, and I’ve folded a bunch (amazing, the laundry a seven-year-old can run through), and here comes the quiet beat when Ben Burns comes to see Speed Racer in the locker room, after Speed’s DNF’d the Fuji Helexicon, and you realize, damn, they just ran a whole sequence in a conditional tense—anyway, it’s quiet, as I said, and contemplative, we’re at what you might call the hinge between the first act, and the second, which I wouldn’t, but there’s Ben Burns, whom the story’s already told us is our Fisher King, who’d lost his soul by letting them let him win a race, the race, the Grand Prix, only to discover that all he can do after is sit outside the castle, and cast sports—but here he is, come to speak to our protagonist, Speed, and what does he say?
Nice race. Haven’t seen moves like that in a long time.
And, I mean, Speed Racer is technicolorly, obviously a fantasy in any of a number of senses, but I’m speaking strictly Cluthian, for the moment: we see that the world (of racing) has gone wrong; that (its) honorable ideals have been thinned (by corporate corruption, and greed); our protagonist is then recognized (as the racer who can win in spite of it all); and thus the world returns (with all those flashbulbs, and a bottle of cold milk, and a kiss).
So you might think Ben Burns says “Haven’t seen moves like that in a long time” (and not, “Damn, I’ve never seen moves like that before”) because he’s thinking of Speed’s brother, Rex, or of his old rival, Stickleton, or even of himself, and it could be any one of those, or all of them at once, or none, but the real reason why he says that is because Speed must be recognized—and to be recognized, one must’ve been seen before. Maybe not in a long time. But now, again.
(And but one can argue nor would I stop them that the real recognition comes later, at what I’d never refer to as the hinge between acts two, and three, when Speed’s about to storm out of the Racer household in a rage, in an echo of Rex’s storming earlier, much earlier, when Pops sits Speed down to tell him what he didn’t tell Rex, what he wishes he’d told Rex, what might’ve kept Rex from dying, as it were, but sequences can multitask, and I have always read this scene as a fantasy of what a parent might sit down to tell a child who’s somehow, somewhich coming out, a parent who’s come to see how wrongly, maybe, they’d treated a child who came out before, a parent who’s life’s been thinned by the regret of that loss, who’s recognized in the second child a second chance, and oh, the return—)
Anyway. (Did I say that already?) —That, all that, or some approximation of that, was part of what was running through my mind when I got up from where I was sitting, and paused the DVD, and stepped, carefully, over all the folded laundry around and about to the keyboard, and after a moment’s thought, typed this:
We've not seen this in a long time. —fantasy— Kip Manley (@kiplet) March 13, 2016
We've never seen this before. —sf
We're not gonna see this again. —horror
I’m told that professionals, when recording on the road, in a hotel room, away from the studio, will climb into bed and pull a blanket up over themselves, to cut down on ambient noise, I suppose; but I didn’t hear that until after, which is maybe why the audio’s not so great on my end—well, that, and my habit of speakingquiterapidlytillthemomentIsuddenly, uh—
—pause. And the swerve. —But! Jonah Sutton-Morse, proprietor of Cabbages & Kings, invited me over (in part, I believe, based on this old post) to talk about reading, and genre, and reading genre to our kids, and it was a blast: he’s a gracious and a generous host, and he keeps it moving in his finished pieces, and somehow even focussed—despite the material I gave him to work with!
So go, have a listen. —Jonah assembled a slideshow of book covers, a partial list of the titles we discussed, and it skews young, which is to be expected given our focus and purpose, but there’s another skew I wanted to note, here, at least: it’s rather almost entirely pale. —And that’s understandable, I suppose, given our purpose and our focus, and who I was and what I read when I was young, but the very fact I’m saying it’s understandable is telling enough, isn’t it? Or the itch I feel to soothingly point out that it’s a list of things I have read, not a list of recommendations to read, though I don’t not recommend them, or not all of them, anyway, and it is what it was, which is awkward, which it should be, which is useless, which leaves me, what?
(There are moves I could make. Other lists to itemize. But.)
—A footnote, though: one of the last books we talk about was one of the first that ever made an impression on me, in the way that books can, even though I only ever saw a school library copy, and then not ever again for years afterward, forgetting the title, the author, the illustrator, the names of the characters, most of the plot, but not—that thing? Whatever it is, that’s useful to us in a story, when all the rest is worn away? —Once Taran was old enough, I took those bones of a memory and went looking for the book, which it turns out is something the internet’s pretty good at.
Something Queer is Going On. How (further) disappointed I am in myself, that I might’ve forgotten a title like that! —There was something of a disorienting madeleine-moment, opening the envelope, seeing a lost memory restored and reified with one rather swell foop of that vanilla-ish old-book smell, but more dizzying was opening up those worn boards (the front cover has since fallen off, and been taped) and reading it aloud, feeling the ghosts of the word-memories under what I was hearing my mouth speak, but above all having the two main characters restored: Jill, whose mother is “O.K.”, and Gwen, with her habit of tapping her braces when she’s thinking, and their friendship, which—and there’s nothing that revolutionary about it, it’s not like this was the only or first time it’d ever been done, but still: how shiveringly odd to hold in my hands the first time I’d ever so long ago met the archetypes I’d later lean on, when I started to write about Ysabel, and Jo.
If publishing a book takes one year, then why do George R.R. Martin’s publishers only need three months? Learn how blockbuster novels can change the book production process.
A standard publisher’s contract gives the publisher the right to conform the text to house style. If this clause is not changed, preservation of the author’s punctuation is a matter of chance—it depends entirely on the discretion of the publisher. If the clause is changed, however, this STILL doesn’t guarantee that the author’s punctuation will be respected.
Once the structural edits are approved by the editor, the manuscript is “accepted” by the publisher and a laser-focused line edit process begins. Line edits are just what they sound like, a line by line editing of an entire manuscript. The editor typically champions this task, keeping the author in the loop in regards to questions or significant changes that the editor wants to make to a line. This can be something as simple as correcting a homophone or deleting a repeated reference (such as Davos clutching his finger bones). Or the edit can be something significant, like changing the tone of dialogue to make a chapter read differently in comparison to the chapters before and after. Sometimes the simple and complex line edits are the same thing, like when a singular word choice abruptly reveals the answer to a series-long mystery. Line edits take a variable amount of time depending on the size and complexity of the manuscript and the series it takes place within, but they typically do not stretch beyond two months.
After line edits, the manuscript is sent out for copy edits. These can be handled by the author’s editor or by a separate editor specifically tasked with copy edits for multiple titles. Copy edits correct lingering grammar and spelling errors, and are focused on technical corrections and continuity rather than content and tone corrections. This process usually does not take more than a month, but is subject to the length of the manuscript and the availability of the copy editor. (Many authors, especially in the fantasy genre, work with a preferred copy editor who is familiar with the world’s terminology and the author’s voice, rather than a copy editor who must learn these from scratch. Having a consistent copy editor for a series also makes continuity errors easier to catch.)
The text was quite complicated, so I offered to meet the copy-editor before she started work. I had made a special trip to New York to try to settle possible difficulties in advance. I had five books that were coming up for completion; I was desperate to get back to them before they were gone; I wanted everything to be as simple and clearcut as possible. My editor called the copy-editor, who said she would rather work through the book first and send me her mark-up. The editor, copy-editor and production manager all assured me that the copy-editor’s comments were only suggestions; I could change anything I didn’t like, and then the book would be sent to the printer. I asked whether there were any points on which the editor felt strongly. If anyone wanted to make a case for some particular point I was happy to discuss it. The editor and copy-editor both said there was no point on which the editor felt strongly; no one wanted to make a case for any particular point. I reminded everyone politely that my contract gave me the last word.
The copy-editor made thousands of gratuitous changes to the book, for which she was, of course, paid an hourly rate. It was then necessary to go through the book thinking about these suggestions—if someone has “corrected” a grammatical mistake, it is always possible that it is a genuine mistake, so one must consult various works on usage to ensure that one has not been wrong all these years. I went through, anyway, marking up the mark-up, and I again made a special trip to New York to make sure there were no problems.
The subsequent line editing and copy editing processes cannot be skipped in the same manner. However, for a title as hotly anticipated as The Winds of Winter, external market forces, a publisher’s annual profit quota, and the intensity of consumer demand for the book would ensure that once a manuscript was completed, George R.R. Martin and his editors would be working on nothing but that book, hour by hour, day by day. So while the intensity of demand wouldn’t necessarily shorten the editing process, it would guarantee an immediate and uninterrupted editing process.
In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.
I say: LOOK, if perceived norms did not exist it would not be possible to mark a text as departing from norms, it is not possible for the texture of a text to be different, to be perceived as original, without marking itself off from norms by departing from them.
What I really needed to focus on was persistence. I’ve worked in the publishing industry and I’ve worked on the floor in book retail before, so I’ve seen marketing from many sides, where it begins, how it’s executed, and how successful it is. And to create an awareness of a new author really takes persistence in all of these areas. A marketing person at a book publisher deals with lots of authors and is probably overworked, so you have to remind them that you’re there, but in a helpful way. Which means updating them on what progress you have made, and suggesting work that you can do to help with their marketing ideas. Your own persistence makes you an ongoing presence to your publisher and the marketing department, which may open up a larger number of venues for you to be presented within. And this all starts way before your book is even out.
They’re looking at me in an embarrassed, pitying way, and it’s kind of funny, because as it happens I am actually a, perhaps even the, world authority on this subject. I really am. The concept of propriety in ancient literary criticism was the subject of my doctoral thesis. It covered ancient criticism, rhetoric and theories of correctness of language from Homer to St Augustine, it took in sociolinguistics, it looked at the subject of linguistic Atticism, it looked at the whole tradition of Shakespearean scholarship with special attention to 18th-century objections to Shakespeare, it looked at the Homeric scholia, it did groundbreaking work on the conceptual difficulties raised by distinguishing propriety (which was seen as stylistic) from purity of language (which for ideological reason was meant to be neutral, a degree zero)—not only was it a monster of erudition, it also brought to bear modern theories of language and literature. The problem is not that I am speaking from a position of ignorance. I am speaking from a position of knowledge to people who don’t know what knowledge would look like. I am talking to people who are afraid that other people who also don’t know what knowledge would look like will read the book and think it is full of mistakes.
What is a good editor like? A good editor offers you decent advances, and goes to bat with his publisher to make sure your book gets promoted, and returns your phone calls, and answers your letters. A good editor does work with his writers on their books. But only if the books need work. A good editor tries to figure out what the writer was trying to do, and helps him or her do it better, rather than trying to change the book into something else entirely. A good editor doesn’t insist, or make changes without permission. Ultimately a writer lives or dies by his words, and he must always have the last word if his work is to retain its integrity.
There’s just one slight problem, which Marx and Bourdieu have thrashed out. A veil of decency separates the search for the ‘best possible book’ from sordid financial considerations. The novel, that bourgeois form of art, has no qualms about poking around in the dirty corners of money and power, but the people who bring these books to the market have a euphemistic discourse all their own, one which makes it possible to talk about money without talking about money. Other forms of art have their own systems of euphemisms, but they are different systems, adapted to the sources of revenue. Bringing the traces of writers’ methods of composition to the market would involve talking in a non-euphemistic way about means of infiltrating those other systems of discourse; people who are euphemising successfuly in one field find that very uncomfortable; it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Market forces also affect the production process of a title. While a novel begins as a work of personal expression by its author, it will eventually be seen by a bookseller as primarily a product. The task of a publisher is to balance the artistic expression of the author with the demands of the marketplace on the product. For a debut author, the publisher and bookseller must work together to generate initial demand for that author and their story. In George R.R. Martin’s case, booksellers want the product as quickly as possible, so a publisher’s task becomes maintaining the integrity of the writing while satisfying the intense demand for the product.
—Well, there’s a couple days left. But! One of those hard-hitting exposés of self-publishing get-rich-quick schemes; an argument that shot itself in the foot, for which it was most assuredly aiming; I went and read some words aloud, that I had written; I entered into a (very) limited exclusivity deal with a titan of e-commerce (and cloud computing, so-called); and, of course, there were four novelettes, kicking off the third volume of City of Roses: “ – the thin ice – ”, “ – vilissima & infima – ”, “ – two sweetest passions – ”, and “ – only borders lie – ”. —What’s next? Well! The fourth novelette’s queued up to appear for free in a couple of weeks, and I think I know what body-part I’ll shoot at next. —But otherwise, I mean, it’s a leap-year, 2016. One whole extra day. Anything is possible.
I’ve more been working on the thing-that-argues, and not so much the argument, and you should understand whenever I make a pronouncement like that it’s with an air of selfish mockery: how could what I do ever have any regard for how I say it’s done? —As if such a thing could ever be just what I’ve thought it ought. —Anyway, thus the (relative) silence. I’d point you to some recent quotes mined hither and thither; I’d also (coyly) note that patrons have already received a rough cut off what will be no. 26, and are about to be slipped a mix of a scene that will subsequently never appear—a might-a-been, and you know how I feel about those. —You could avail yourselves, if you like. —And also, on a whim, I decided to try to scare up more readers by dangling some Kindle-bait: thus far, I’m told, four whole Kindle Edition Normalized Pages have been read! —Slowly, surely.
Dragons can be beaten, sure. But the most important thing that fantasy teaches us is there’s this factory, just over the hill, that won’t stop churning out more.
So Benjamin Gabriel, Erin Horáková, Ethan Robinson, and Aishwarya Subramanian got together over at Strange Horizons to chat about Jupiter Ascending and if you’re anything like me, you’re not reading this anymore; you’re over there, reading that. —There’s a lot to love in the giddy watch-me-for-the-changes interplay (friends with wing benefits! every young girl a Skydancer commercial!) but I’m going to focus on those teleological bees, or rather the incoherently ateleological, and Aisha’s neatly apt coinage of “world-furnishing” (as decidedly opposed to the clomping foot of world-building), if only because it dovetails nicely enough if you push it with points I’ve made about grit v. grain, and if I don’t leave it at that I’ll just keep babbling on, so.
We generally speak of the doings and goings-on among the local f--ries as we walk to the bus stop, Taran and I. It’s quite a vibrant little neighborhood, with elderly elm mansions, a great apartment complex in a towering hedge of arborvitæ, and a holly bush bank. (All holly bushes are f--ry banks, I’m told.) (One afternoon, on the way home from the bus stop, we knocked on the doors of f--ry houses and ran away, quickly; they like pranks, I was assured. We both woke up the next morning exhausted and foully tempered from restless dreams.) —Today, she was pointing out the various berries and berry-like fruit growing from this tree or that shrub: they are f--ry pumpkins, a fresh crop grown to get ready for Hallowe’en. (Strawberries, it turns out, are really perfectly sweet little f--ry pumpkins for f--ry pumpkin pies.)
We passed a holly tree, and the berries on it turning from green to red. “See?” said Taran. “More f--ry pumpkins.”
“No,” I said, “those are holly berries. You don’t want to upset the Holly King by calling his berries pumpkins.”
“No, they’re f--ry pumpkins,” said Taran. —She’s heard stories of the Holly King before, and the Oak King. They don’t impress her.
“But he is a f--ry,” I said. (I’m fudging things a bit here, granted, but one does tend to do so when one is in a hurry to catch the bus.)
“No he isn’t,” she said.
“Yes, he is,” I said. (One must be firm once one’s flag is set, you see.)
“Papa,” she said, and she held up her hand. “Look at this text I just got from the f--ries. It says he isn’t. He’s just a legend. Okay?”
Reading the Attebery’s been interesting, and good, most especially the chapters on structure and (most especially) character, but I’m coming up on the last chapter, the one I got into it for, “Recapturing the Modern World for the Imagination,” all so I could start to get at what he had in mind when he coined “indigenous fantasy” which, I mean, well. We’ll see. —I mean, I’ve peeked; of course I peeked: the opening of the second paragraph alone:
Of all the subgenres to emerge within fantasy in recent years, the one that promises to reshape the genre most significantly is as yet unnamed, or rather no name for it has proved adequate.
Written in 1992, five years after I’d already got lost; by 1992, I’d already read Ægypt (The Solitudes, anyway) cover to cover and back again, and oh God Folk of the Air. And since then, but since then, that promise—the promise embodied by this swirling mess of indigenous fantasy (soi disant), this low fantasy, contemporary, postly modernist, magically realist, paranormally romantic, this syncretistic mulch of pulped megatexts, superheroic, supermagical, superscientifictional, these fantasies that “describe settings that seem to be real, familiar, present-day places, except that they contain the magical characters and impossible events of” say it with me now, URBAN FANTASY—what happened? What became of it? Of us? —I mean, we ate the damn world, or what we could find of it, and what good did any of it do?
But in all this, welling up out of all of this, there’s a specific refusal? rejection? repudiation? that I struggle to apprehend, much less articulate, when I turn from this model I’m building to argue with, yell at, kick against, to take up the thing that kicks, that yells, that argues? sermonizes? —There’s an abjunct, between that all-of-this, and the very specific feeling of tuning a sentence just so, of overdubbing detail, of rigging or tripping over structural rhymes, the very peculiar shiver that can obtain with just the simple repetition of a cocked and loaded phrase—map and territory, theory and praxis, forest and trees, I know, I know, but still: I’m either wrong there, or wrong here, and I know where I’d rather not be right.
—Anyway, permit me some links: just about a quarter of the next volume of praxis has appeared since June; I’m hoping the larger cycles have begun to hove into view, and you can see the shape I think it makes, might yet end up making, and that I can keep this discordant bolus soaring, not crashing in a mutter of nothing-or-other:
Not only has SF lost some of its power, it has lost its innocence in a world in which the products of science include horrifying war machines and seas of waste. SF has always had both optimistic and pessimistic strains, both A Modern Utopia and The Time Machine, but the difference has been largely a matter of one’s view of human nature, not of the capability and fitness of science itself. Now, however, some writers seem to have lost faith in the scientific imagination, looking outside the scientific megatext for other ways of seeing and judging. Yet there are very few alternative megatexts sufficiently powerful, comprehensive, and familiar to act as a commentary on science. Even religion lacks the authority it once had for many readers, because it cannot match the material payoffs provided by science.
The discourse of fantasy can challenge SF, partly because it pays its own tribute to science. Impossibility itself, one of the elements of fantasy, is defined largely through reference to the current scientific worldview, especially where that coincides with common sense. Because it is the current view of reality that is violated in a fantasy, inventions that were once fantastic may be no longer, or vice versa. The transmutation of metals might serve as an example of both sorts of change: once part of science, then impossible, and now achieved. Nonetheless, we can tell whether the transmutation is to be viewed as possible or not by the discourse that surrounds it. If an alchemist’s description of the philosopher’s stone were inserted verbatim into a modern fantasy, it would cease to testify to the existence of such a miraculous substance and become part of the rhetoric of the unreal. The same description within a science fiction text might be used to represent exploded myth or to highlight the mysterious properties of transuranic metals.
If fantasy were only the denial of science, however, there would be no contest between them. But in affirming impossibility, fantasy opens the door to mythology, which is the name we give to cast-off megatexts. Gods, fairies, ancestor spirits, charms, spells: a whole host of motifs no longer convey belief and yet retain their narrative momentum and—and here is one of the great differences between science fiction and fantasy—their congruence with the ways we wish we saw the world. They are emotionally and psychologically, if not scientifically, valid, and therefore most potent where science fiction is traditionally weakest.
I still rarely put in an appearance in my own sex fantasies. I remember being startled and a bit alarmed when I learned that other people—so-called normal people—did: the person squirming under the hail of blows, or lecturing sternly as their arm rises and falls, is the avatar of the dreamer herself. That seemed to me, when I first heard about it, like only half a fantasy. It still does.
What I love about my two-faced fantasies is that I get to body-surf. Sometimes I’m the spanker, strict and loving, doling out punishment and affection, slowly chivvying my charge back into the world of acceptable behavior. Sometimes I’m the spankee, nervous and filled with dread, embarrassed as I drop my pants and bend over, fighting to remain stoical and then losing the fight, collapsing in tears and remorse.
If I’m by myself or nobody is watching, I might even whisper the dialogue to myself, complete with the appropriate facial expressions (indulgent smile, disapproving frown, quivering lip, tearful grimace).
I keep expecting to outgrow these fantasies and mature into something more appropriate, but I turned sixty last birthday, and the fantasies have stayed about the same, changing only in a 21st century update to the casting (Captain Picard spanking Q, Spike spanking Giles—you get the general idea).
So it should come as no surprise that in my kinky life, I am a switch, someone who enjoys both ends of the paddle or strap or cane. Nor should it be all that startling to learn that my sexual persona is male, and that I expect my partners to treat me as such.
But that’s in the bedroom, or the dungeon. What about at the writing desk?
One imagines that one can escape a category by collapsing it, but if one tries to collapse the category, the roof falls on one’s head. There a person is, then, having not escaped the category, but having only changed its architecture. Once it was a category with a roof, now it is a category in which everyone is buried in the rubble made of what once was a roof over their heads.
Oh, e-Books Downloads dot net, you irrepressible publishing disruptor, you! I’m chuffed at the numbers you’ve already racked up—858 downloads for The Dazzle of Day? 570 for “Wake up…”? 85 people so far have read the omnibus edition? (And how do you count the reads, anyway?) —It’s adorable, how the copyright complaint form on your website actually bothers to tell me that it fails every time I hit send; it’s hilarious that I can’t point and laugh at this over on Twitter, since apparently they think your whole domain is spammy, for some reason. (I’m highly recommending to my readers that they clear cookies and caches if they do click any of your links, by the way.) —But hey! Thanks for spreading the word!
“And maybe—here’s where I really stick my neck out; you’re welcome—you’re tangled up, too. Maybe you did think they talked like that, or that you should be able to say that word, or that rape is just a gross thing that happens pretty rarely outside of crime procedurals. I mean, I’m white and straight, and I can’t even forgive you on behalf of all the other white straight ladies, but speaking purely for myself: That could be okay. If you weren’t a woman yourself, you could easily be a good person and just not know certain things. Adam Horovitz didn’t. People don’t know things, until they do. Education was invented for the sole purpose of addressing this well-known human problem. So yeah, you turned the wrong corner, took the wrong train, thought rape was rare: You turned back around once you realized the mistake, right? As long as you get to the right place, we can hang out. If you take the wrong turn and stick to it out of pride until you eventually walk into the ocean, then I worry.” —Sady Doyle
This goes a long way toward explaining why I love her work so much, I think; often it fixates—again I think the word is accurate—specifically on the question, what makes this work different from any other? what makes it “fantasy” (or, more rarely with her, “science fiction”) rather than otherwise? and answers: one is allowed neither the luxury nor the irresponsibility of taking anything for granted.
When I was very young that sort of thing was frightening because it represented a breakdown of the logic of the world. A worldbuilding incompatibility that cast doubt on the author’s grasp of the narrative, as it were. Eventually I grew up and saw the invisible world as a rhetorical device to avoid ever talking about violence, cruelty, and responsibility, and that didn’t make it any better. That’s just another way that the world breaks down.
And some time ago, John M. Ford went and said:
Fantasy doesn’t make different stories possible, but sometimes it makes different outcomes possible, through the literalization of metaphor that is one of the key things fantasy does. Moral strength can change the real world—and a good thing, too—but in a fantastic story it can make dramatic, transformative, immediate changes. The idea that such transformations always have a price is what keeps fantasy from being morally empty—magic may save time and reduce staff requirements, but it offers no discounts.
I should probably also note, for whatever passes for the record around here, that I remain perplexed by the esteem in which the Mixon Report is held, greatly disappointed by the quarters from which praise for it has issued, and frankly appalled that it managed to win a Hugo.
This has generally been a puppy-free zone—you’re welcome—but I did want to highlight the highly, importantly, most terribly salient point—the ur-point, one might say, of any further disagreement—that Jim Henley, with great charity, manages to extract from Burnside’s elegy.