Friday, February 24, 2012
More on the Past's Future
Some of the comments and email I got on that blog entry framed the problem in terms of print vs. online magazines. I am partly to blame for this as I did characterize it as "the kind of story that I keep running into -- particularly in the print SF magazines."
But folks, I actually don't think that distinction is all that relevant, for a couple of reasons.
First, the distinction print vs. online magazine is increasingly blurry; magazines that have print runs are increasing their digital sales, and if reading-in-general migrates to the Kindle, magazines of various kinds are just going to migrate with it.
Second, a big reason I see the issue I'm discussing more in print than in online magazines is a self-selection effect. The stories I read online, I read more often than not because someone linked to them or mentioned them in chat or shared them in Facebook. The stories I read in print, I'm reading because I got the magazine in the mail and I'm reading through it sequentially, while sitting on the tram or in the bathtub. The print mags also have to justify print runs of over 10,000 copies, so they need to aggregate several kinds of SF readers into one readership; some online venues can afford to be more specialized. So it's no wonder if the online stories I read appeal to my specific tastes and those of the friends whose word-of-mouth I attend to, while the print stories are often aimed at some other kind of reader.
Third, it's possible that, because relatively antiquated people like myself often prefer reading fiction on paper to reading it on screens, there is some demographic difference between the readers of the print and online genre mags. But it is imprudent to congratulate oneself too swiftly for possessing a virtue as unearned and transient as that of youth.
The question here is whether SF is employing the future merely as a convenient backdrop, or is engaged in actual thinking about the future. But there is somewhat less virtue in managing to write successfully about 2012, if 2012 (and thereabouts) is all you know. We may well find, come 2040, that the authors writing in such quaint organs as "online magazines" are still stuck in 2012, writing stories in which everyone in The Future is twittering and watching reality TV and navigating through forests with their GPS cell phones... or in which the Future is still imagined as an uploaded* extropian Singualrity, or a climate-change-ravaged ecodystopia... in defiance of whatever 2040 has, by then, taught us about its future.
I should also say: I'm aware that, in a certain sense, I'm being a curmudgeon. What's wrong with simply not caring about the future, or the coherence of the world implied by a backstory; what's wrong with telling whatever story you want in whatever backdrop of setting amuses you to tell it in? Why am I being such a scientifictional prude?
In a certain sense, the answer is, as always, "nothing's wrong with it if you pull it off." I like superhero comics, in which the multiple colliding backstories of the characters make a total surrealistic hash of consistent worldbuilding (in fact that might be what I like best about superhero comics). I rather liked "The Time Traveler's Wife", though its interest in time travel is purely as a trope, a plot device unmoored from its speculative origins. Indeed, it worked because it was unmoored: the clumsiest and wince-worthiest part of that book was the brief regrettable excursion into manufacturing a handwavy speculative explanation for the time-hopping ("he's a mutant!") So what bothers me is not actually stories which don't care about science, or don't care about the future, per se... but rather stories which lure me into thinking that they do care, but actually don't. And that line is obviously very personal.
And to some extent I wonder if what's really at issue here, isn't a kind of battle between two different nostalgias: the nostalgia for Old Timey SF as a set of images (servile humanoid robots and dangerous voiceover-AIs, FTL and "galactic empires", starships crewed by humans wearing uniforms and sitting in chairs and looking at screens, blasters, colony worlds, bump-on-the forehead aliens who are essentially stand-ins for wise, ecological, doomed Native Americans or for terrifying Mongol hordes...) and Old Timey SF as a process (thinking about a future that "might really happen, given what we know today", and setting a tale there). Maybe the second -- at least as any kind of privileged "heart of the genre" -- is as old-fashioned as the first...
* You do realize that in 2040, the word "uploaded" is going to sound as old-fashioned as "analog" and "hi-fi" do now?
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
The Past's Future
I wrote this entry a while ago and never posted it. It's probably better that way, because I'm going to excoriate a story published a while back in one of the print SF mags. I don't remember what it was called or who wrote it, and it's better that way, because I do not mean to pick on anybody. It's not about that story; it's about a good example of a kind of story that frustrates me.
The published SF stories that frustrate me most aren't the ones where a terrible pun or painful cliche or obvious Mary Sue character or worldbuilding gaffe forces me out of the story early. Those are legion, but I shrug at them as a cost of doing business -- of reading stories chosen for a broad audience. No, the most frustrating stories are the ones that are well-told, competently handled, compelling on a per-line level, which handle character and worldbuilding reasonably, but which end not really having achieved anything but competence. I have simply spent time with them, on them, but they have not nourished me. They succeed within the scope of their ambitions, but their ambitions are meager.
I'm not saying anything new here; there was a similar cri de couer blogged somewhere a few years ago about the tyranny of mere competence. (Link, someone?) And the specific dissatisfaction I'm going to kvetch about is one that fueled the New Wave, and cyberpunk, and the Mundanes, and so on. This is an old wound. You've been warned.
So one morning I was reading a story in a magazine. While reading it, I was sort of liking it. The prose was smooth, the character relatively engaging -- a not-particularly-likeable, very flawed loner, engagingly drawn, which is a character I like to see done. The worldbuilding, while not breaking new ground, had nice esthtetic moments. The central macguffin had been ably placed, and events were conspiring to build tension. I was interested to find out what would happen, when I had to put it down to leave the house.
On my bicycle commute, I began to get angry at the story.
The story is set on a contact-has-been-re-established-with-fallen-colony-via-FTL world, populated by new spacefarers, settled descendants of original colonists, and harmless-though-disturbing bipedal intelligent primitive alien indigenes. It's a stock setting; the author relies on the conventions of ninety years of genre SF to sketch it in a few deft strokes (a biological peculiarity of the indigenes whose revelation is the fulcrum of a classic Orson Scott Card book, for instance, becomes here a throwaway line of exposition). The world in question was out of contact with the galactic mainstream for three hundred years, so we are presumably at least -- what? -- four or five hundred years in the future? At a minimum.
The protagonist is a geek. He is most comfortable at work, doing antiseptic intellectual tasks. Invited out for a beer by his co-workers, he finds an excuse. When forced to go on vacation, he goes somewhere with a pool, eats at nice restaurants, and sits in front of a screen. He plays video games.
You know this guy. He's a guy from 2011 -- and the chances his type exists exactly in five hundred years are very low, because he wasn't imaginable in 1611, and it seems unlikely that the next five hundred years, particularly if they involve interstellar travel, will offer less disruption than the last five hundred.
What about the character wouldn't have been imaginable in 1611? Well: his total separation from any tight interpersonal network of family, religious, class, and local interests; the fact that work and leisure are the axes of his existence (instead of, say, property and honor, or faith and duty); the fact that his access to life is mediated by earning and then spending money, acquiring objects and entertaining himself with them, isolated and undisturbed; all that is an obvious product of our specific historical moment, our specific form of economic organization. (And while 2511 might look like 2011 in a few of those regards, it will look at least as radically different along other social, economic, demographic, and psychological axes).
Indeed you might say that this guy and his problems are an acute symptom of our particular historical moment and its problems.
But never mind that now, because I am willing to accept that the story isn't that ambitious, that it's not actually interested in engaging with how 2511 will be different culturally, socially, interpersonally.
The point is, though, you know this guy. And what do you know about this guy?
You know he has a GPS cell phone.
So when he gets lost in the forest on his way home from work, and has a moment of panic, and has to navigate back to the path by dead reckoning...?
I mean, here in 2011, I have a GPS cell phone, and I didn't even want one -- I'm far more gadget-skeptical than I expect this guy to be.
Apparently when the galactic-mainstream high civilization gets to this fallen-colony planet, they put up chain link fences, and build universities and administrative buildings... but they do not put up anything equivalent to a GPS cell phone satellite network.
Similarly, the plot of the story revolves principally on how the guy will lose a certain period of memory, and can rely only on written diary entries to reconstruct what he did. This is a problem for him. It unnerves him. It's obvious -- at least in my reading so far -- that if there was a way to know exactly what he'd done during that period, it would at least occur to him -- if only to be dismissed. So in 2511 they apparently also do not have wearable webcams and lifeblogs.
When this guy takes a vacation, he is completely isolated from his friends and family. He is able to avoid the awkwardness of having conversations with them which he will not remember. He is able to simply retreat into silence. So apparently in 2511 not only do they not have blogs and Facebook and twitter and IM, they also do not have anything that comes after that, anything that makes us more interwoven with each other, that erases place more. They have simply gone back to the way it was before our social topography was reshaped by electronic networks.
Not to belabor the point -- the story, which purports to be set in 2511, is actually set in roughly 1985, i think.
And why did this not bother me while I was reading it, only to make me angry on the bicycle, later?
Because I grew up reading SF stories written before 1985. I grew up reading rediscovered-lost-colony-FTL stories in which the protagonists got lost in the woods, and it was fun. It didn't occur to me then that they would have GPS cell phones. It was easy, this morning, to simply forget the world of today, and read as if I was in 1985.
But on some level this is morally bankrupt.
When you don't know something, you are innocent of it. Once you do know it, though, all that is possible is feigned innocence, or incoherence.
The story wasn't using its 1985-ness in any self-aware way. That would be interesting. A story that overtly erases everything that's happened to us since the Cold War ended, that refuses the internet, that insists on the jet-pack future of yesteryear and does so honestly -- a story that acknowledges, however implicitly, that doing all this is an act of violence against our actual present -- that I could see loving.
But that isn't the kind of story that I keep running into -- particularly in the print SF magazines. The kind of story I keep seeing, is the one whose covert, unacknowledged hatred of the present shows up simply as indifference to how the world actually works now.
We talk about it as nostalgia, as an affection for tropes, as a science fiction unmoored from caring about the world, interested only in playing logic-puzzle narrative games in comfortable settings borrowed from the extrapolations of yesteryear. But I wonder if it isn't more than that. I wonder what we're really doing, with all this refusing of now.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Second Draft Progress
Scrivener tells me that I've made my way through 50 paperback pages of the second full draft of "The Unravelling"; the first draft clocked in at 264 pages, so that gives us 18.9%.
It feels funny calling it a "second draft" when the "first draft" took many years and required many massive revisions, including, you may recall, at one point throwing out 40% of the words I'd written. But this is the first revision after the one where the book actually managed to stumble its way to an ending, so I guess that makes it a second draft.
I solicited a first batch of critiquers for the end of February; at this point it looks a bit unlikely that I'll make that deadline, though it's hardly linear work; some parts I sail through, other times I get stuck for days on one page. I already did one readthrough and markup, of a physical printout of the first draft; now I'm gradually entering the chapters into Scrivener on my MacBook Air, and revising them as I go. It's less line-level at this point (though I can't help fiddling), than addressing a series of structural and continuity problems, some micro-level (I have to come up with consistent language for "this person has two bodies, total" versus "two of this person's bodies were present" -- I'm calling the first "two-bodied" and the second "doublebodied", I think; readers may not parse this consciously but hopefully it will feel right) some larger. A lot of the problems are about the pacing -- both how fast events transpire, and how and when what information is fed to the reader.
I don't want the deadline to slip too much, because it would be very nice if some of my critiquers had read it by Wiscon so I could talk about it with them face-to-face... and I have the vague ambition of maybe talking to agents and such this summer... which idea seems like a palm-tree'd island glimpsed from the crest of the occasional wave before I am borne down again into the deep blue, clinging to the broken spar of routine...
Friday, February 3, 2012
Thomas Covert, Letter #7
Seventh in a series of letters my great-great-great-grandfather wrote home from the American Civil War, exactly 150 years ago.
The first part was written on the 4th, but it was sent on the 5th.
Camp Dennison, Feb. 4th, 1862
My Dear Wife:
I now take this opportunity to write a few lines to let you know that I am well and hope these few lines will find you the same. Theres little or no news to tell you about. Our camp Capt. Myer had a little fuss in his Company yesterday, they went to Millford, a little town that is about a mile from here for the purpose of attending church but instead of that got drunk and came home and got into a fight amongst themselves so there officers put them in the gard house and there was one of Capt. Bartletts Corporals did something that he got put in the gard house for and today he was reduced to the ranks. It was at Dress Parade, so you see it was done before all the Companies. I was on Brigade Gard last night. We had four prisoners in the gard house to gard. One of them has been in about six weeks. He was put in for striking a Colonial of one of the Regements that is here in camp. I was mistaken about that Corporal being put in the gard house. He was not put in the gard house but reduced to the ranks, Feb. 4th. Well I suppose we are disbanded and will be at home or part of the Company will in the course of a month. All I know about it is this. The Captains of all the Companies told there men that the Assistant Agt. General fetched a dispatch to our Colonial & the Colonial was not at home & he told the Major that we were probably disbanded, so the Captain told the men of it and wanted them to think of it and make up in their minds how many of them wanted to go as Infantry. I dont know whether I shall come home or not, nor if we are disbanded I may go to work some place about here but I dont know yet what I shall do.
Charles Pinkins has been worse since I wrote to you. There is ten chances for him to die where there is one for him to get well. Horace Drew & Nathen Basset are taking care of him. Jim & I have got at work. I went down to Cincinnati to get leather but did not have much of a chance to see the place. I started from here at half past twelve P.M. and got back at Four O'clock. Nothing more at present.
Yours As Ever
T. M. Covert.
Six O'clock Wednesday Morning, Feb. 5.
Charles Pinkins is dead, he died at Four O'clock this morning. The Capt. is agoing to send his body home. His death casts a gloom over all the Regement. He is the first man that has died in the Regement. But if we were kept here till next May there would be plenty more that would die. Charles has had the best of care. We have one of the best Doctors that can be found and some of the best nurses.
T. M. Covert