Locus Online

Page 1, 2




E-mail Locus

March 2002

Posted 28 March:

Posted 27 March:

Posted 26 March:

Posted 20 March:

Note: Return e-mail addresses will be posted only if you include it in your closing, or your subject matter specifically requests some sort of response; otherwise it will be omitted.

More on SF vs. Mainstream

Dear Locus Online,
     In his letter posted March 27th, Mr. Irvine gets it absolutely right in his discussion of the "mainstream" vs. "genre" fizzle. Look, I know the economy is down and the budget is tight, but can't we get a new straw man? This poor bastard is tattered beyond recognition. Why would anybody expend so much energy defending a genre they had so little faith in? Science Fiction and Fantasy aren't going anywhere. They may be changing, though. It is easy to get nostalgic about that old straw man. He really knew how to take a beating, but, now, he definitely deserves a rest.

Jeffrey Ford
26 March 2002

Dear Locus Online,
     I agree completely with what Alex Irvine said in his recent letter regarding mainstream and genre. The cross-pollination has already occurred. It's been occurring for years. It will continue to occur. There are people on both sides — genre and mainstream — who don't like it, but while they waste energy arguing about it, there are plenty of other readers and writers who rightly ignore the debate and the division as a false one. As a writer who happens to write mostly fantasy, for example, I'm going to steal and use as many techniques and ideas as I can — from every book I encounter: mainstream, genre, genre disguised as mainstream, mainstream disguised as genre, slipstream, cyberfunk, steamjunk, polypunk, flapjack, scrapplemech — whatever crazy-ass sub-category someone cares to invent next to straitjacket fiction...

Jeff VanderMeer
27 March 2002

Dear Locus Online,
     Kudos to Alex Irvine for his clear-headed response to Gregory Benford's diatribe against "mainstream fiction." As Irvine points out, the very phrase "mainstream novel" is a misnomer: Browse through the fiction section of any large bookstore and you'll find historical romances (Sontag's Volcano Lover, Frazier's Cold Mountain), westerns (McCarthy's Blood Meridian, McMurtry's Lonesome Dove sequence), war novels (O'Brien's Going After Cacciato), gothic horror (pretty much everything by Angela Carter and Joyce Carol Oates), and SF and fantasy (Richard Powers' Galatea 2.0, DeLillo's White Noise, Carroll's Sleeping In Flame, Helprin's Winter's Tale, Ruff's Fool on the Hill, much of Vonnegut's fiction) in addition to the "exhausted, backward-looking, unimaginative" works of "realistic fiction" that Benford and Roberts claim to despise so much. Such categorization has less to do with notions of artistic purity than simple marketing. If Ballard sells more books if he's shelved between Atwood and Chabon than Asimov and Clarke, or if John Crowley's publisher can connect with more readers by pitching Little, Big to fans of Nabokov and Pynchon as opposed to say, Terry Brooks, the whole of Literature (encompassing all genres and schools of opinion) benefits.
     Benford's notion of a looming ideological "war" between SF and mainstream literature is ridiculous, reeking of paranoia and a kind of reverse elitism. (I find it hard to imagine that the editors at The Atlantic Monthly or The New York Review of Books are quivering with fear at the possibility of having to cover Hugo voting some day in the not too distant future. And Harper's latest "attack" on the genre contained a very nice appreciation of Greg Bear, whom the author acknowledges as one of SF's best contemporary practitioners.) Genre SF isn't going to replace mainstream literature any time soon; what's more likely is the ongoing Pynchonization of mainstream literature, as more putatively mainstream writers adopt SF tropes in their work, as T.C. Boyle has aggressively done so with his recent books, or the defection of SF writers to the mainstream, such as Fowler, Scholz, Stephenson, and Lethem.
     Even more puzzling is Benford's assertion that "literary fiction" is out to get any writers or genres that fail to meet their draconian standards of quality, citing mystery fiction as a prime example. I can't understate the historical inaccuracy of this comment. Throughout the history of the genre, plenty of crime and mystery writers have been embraced by high-brow critics, from Hammett and Chandler through Thompson and Highsmith, in addition to modern writers like Leonard, Ellroy, Mosley, Block, and Burke. Their reputations may be due to the fact that these writers cultivated a sense of style, atmosphere, and psychological acuity, qualities that the vast majority of SF writers have generally regarded as ballast.
     Which raises an interesting question, one that's troubled me for a long time. As with science fiction and fantasy, there's lots of fluff in mystery publishing (books about crime-solving cats, lousy Holmes pastiches, novels casting improbable historical figures as detectives), in addition to the dozen or so crummy Thomas Harris or Crichton knockoffs that reach the bestseller lists every year. But there are also intelligent writers who deal with serious issues, such as Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, who receive ample media attention and reach a substantial audience. Why can't SF publishing sustain a similar class of writers? Why the constant reliance on hackneyed genre images as a selling point? SF fans and pros invariably insist that the genre is about more than "spaceships and rayguns," but the fact remains that every other SF paperback cover has a spaceship or a raygun on it. (And every other fantasy novel has bad Tolkien calendar art on the cover.) I can't help but feel that most publishers unconsciously (or consciously) reinforce the genre's image as frivolous escapism, irrelevant to all but a small clique of closeted obsessives, and hostile to idiosyncrasy and invention.

Lucius Cook
26 March 2002

Dear Locus Online,
     Interesting that even as the back-and-forth goes on here, the current Harper's, of all things, has Guy Davenport giving lead position and most of a page to the resuscitation (ongoing, one hopes) of Avram Davidson's work.
     Synchronicity? Conspiracy? Either way or neither way it's a reminder, and one that comes in the month of the equally neglected R. A. Lafferty's death, that occasionally some readers (sic) on the outer side of the divide do honor to sf's best and most ambitious writers and works, just as critics (sic) on either side continue to focus on the divide itself.

Keith Ferrell
27 March 2002

Knee-Jerk Stereotyping

Dear Locus Online,
     Reading Gregory Benford's letter, I was struck by the fact that he could simultaneously applaud Adam Roberts' dismissive comments about the "mainstream novel" — whatever that is — and decry Margaret Atwood's characterization of SF as childish. Both attitudes are in fact the same attitude: knee-jerk stereotyping.
     If it is true that the mainstream novel, as Roberts says, "is by and large an exhausted, backward-looking, unimaginative mode of art," it is equally true that the SF/fantasy novel is by and large uninspired, derivative, and juvenile. This does nothing to change the fact that there are in fact utterly brilliant novels of every stripe and genre, and the concomitant fact that no literary mode is ever exhausted as long as human ingenuity works within it. It strikes me that this ongoing antipathy between certain writers of "mainstream" fiction and a greater number of writers of SF is just pointless. Did Margaret Atwood call SF childish? So what? Does the editorial board of Harper's like SF? No? So what? People are entitled to their reading preferences (as a good libertarian like Benford ought to know), and SF writers and readers and critics cast as many slings and arrows at "the mainstream" without reading it as "the mainstream" does at SF — also without reading it.
     Has Adam Roberts read Russell Banks or Tim O'Brien? Has Margaret Atwood read Kim Stanley Robinson or Octavia Butler?
     Doesn't matter.
     Benford wraps up his argument with the following:

My point is that we should realize there has been a long campaign to knock down the credentials of all genres (ask the mystery guys). Why? Because we're the rising competition. Harper's and Atlantic Monthly don't repeat their attacks out of the blue every five years or so for no reason.
     Another way to look at it (although admittedly not a way that encourages the sort of embittered esprit de corps so typical of SF writers and fandom) is that SF's residence in the literary ghetto is at least partly the result of attitudes like Benford's and Roberts'. If you sneer at "the mainstream," the mainstream will sneer back. On the other hand, if you, like Philip K. Dick or Ursula Le Guin or Jonathan Lethem or etc. etc. etc., read widely and without prejudice save an abhorrence of crap, guess what? Those old mainstream meanies all of a sudden aren't so mean after all.
     I get sick and tired of hearing people in SF complain about a lack of respect from "the mainstream" and then in the next breath make snide and unsupportable comments about "mainstream" writing. There is no coordinated war on genres; there are just people who profess a distaste for them. Big deal.
     SF writers and fans need to be a good deal less thin-skinned.

Alex Irvine
26 March 2002

Recognition for Lafferty

Dear Locus Online,
     R.A. Lafferty's recent death spurs me into thinking that there needs to be a solid campaign to get him more widely recognized. True lovers of the past master's works will always be a minority — but they could be a far larger minority than they are. I want to suggest an initial five-year phase of targeting eminent writers, editors, sympathetic academicians, and literary critics. Harold Bloom is a controversial figure, but his advocacy for John Crowley has been useful. And what about science fiction courses? Do they even mention Lafferty? My point is that we need to reach outside the science fiction community. Sooner or later there needs to be an official Lafferty society, and it needs to be in very competent hands. After five years or so there could be a Best Short Stories volume, published by a large house. I am not sure who should edit it; perhaps Michael Swanwick? And it seems reasonable to ask Gene Wolfe to write the introduction. Think big folks!

Allen Parmenter
24 March 2002

Ridicule Them

Dear Locus Online,
     The Adam Roberts commentary on the Clarke Award is insightful. I fully agree with his central point:

I think the mainstream novel is by and large an exhausted, backward-looking, unimaginative mode of art. I think that SF makes for the greatest art if it is uninhibited in its imaginative scope.
     He seems puzzled that the Clarke panel takes mainstream values as higher than those specific to SF. But this comes from who they are, and the relentless campaign waged by the literary establishment to hobble our (and other) genres.
     A brief example: Over a decade ago, on a speaking tour of Canada, I remarked on TV that Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale drew from SF sources, and not well. Atwood demanded right of reply, and got it (!) on the same show a week later. She furiously denounced "scifi" and took insult that anyone thought she had not invented everything in her novel out of pure originality. Even the host didn't buy this, but she insisted that SF wasn't literature at all, and pasted the "childish" label on it. (Childlike is closer to the truth.)
     My point is that we should realize there has been a long campaign to knock down the credentials of all genres (ask the mystery guys). Why? Because we're the rising competition. Harper's and Atlantic Monthly don't repeat their attacks out of the blue every five years or so for no reason.
     What to do? I think laughter is our best weapon. Don't be defensive. Ridicule such blinkered imaginations, and be funny while you do it.
     Who knows, maybe even the Clarke panel will hear you. Though I doubt it.

Gregory Benford
23 March 2002

Resist Slavery

Dear Locus Online,
     Major kudos to Adam Roberts for his delightful, incisive essay on the 2002 Arthur C. Clarke Award nominees.
     While I have spent many a long moment arguing for stylistically superior SF and fantasy, and while I have ranted and railed for pure quality within the genres, I am nonetheless unabashedly proud of the fact that I am a genre reader/writer/lover. As such, I think that we in the community need to take care to tread a delicate balance between encouraging the development of SF as a literary form, and ensuring that we do not become slaves to the conventions of mainstream fiction.
     It is the ideas and sense of wonder resting at the core of SF/F that give it such power, and we must never sacrifice those integral parts for something as tangential and transient as 'mainstream appeal'. I believe that SF/F has the ability to overtake mainstream literature — but I think it will do so solely because of its excitement and vitality, rather than through its practitioners whoring themselves out to the masses.
     I laud any writer who is able to bring the conventions of modern (or postmodern) literature to the SF/F canon. But to do so at the price of what makes SF/F a singularly unique genre? Never!
     Praise be to Adam Roberts for standing up and voicing these thoughts.

Gabe Chouinard
21 March 2002

Time Machine: The Musical?

Dear Locus Online,
     Like your other commentators I have read and enjoyed H. G. Wells's The Time Machine. I have even written about it and how well it has held up as an example of hard science fiction due to rigorous logic and good luck.
     We did arrive a little late but it may be significant that I sat in the theater for some minutes before it dawned on me that my friends had taken me to something that did more than share a title with Wells's classic. Obviously everyone is on the wrong tack. This newest movie is an SF aficionado's comedy based loosely on the book: the Galaxy Quest of the year. Can a Broadway or East End musical be far behind?

Catherine Mintz
21 March 2002

Glaring Errors

Dear Locus Online,
     Having read it, I agree with Mr. Westfahl's assessment of the film's overt romanticism and political correctness, but I'm afraid he avoided the glaring scientific errors committed by Simon Wells's interpretation of the story. These errors, which could easily have been recognized by even a schoolboy, destroyed my enjoyment of what was a technically beautiful attempt to retell the original story. For example, the creation of what could have passed for the Grand Canyon from the volcanism and tidal forces ripping the Earth apart could not have been accomplished in a mere eight hundred thousand years. For another, the romantic notion that a steam-powered engine could produce fusion energy to drive the time machine was tantamount to forcing a perpetual motion machine down my throat. Further, the Eloi "regression" to a more "primitive" society in order to emphasize that our reliance on modern technology has become nothing more than a slavery to convenience (no matter that some of our modern time-saving devices waste more of our time than ever), and their use of the English language, which has only been a complete language for five hundred years, showed the producers' complete ignorance of anthropology and linguistics.
     To say that I came away from the film unsatisfied and somewhat numb is an understatement. It would appear that George Pal's film is still the king.

Therri Moore
20 March 2002

They Don't Care a Whit

Dear Locus Online,
     Please forgive what follows. I don't normally take it upon myself to write letters disagreeing with film critics, especially regarding a film I haven't seen, but I must say that the reviews of the new Time Machine movie seem overly generous given the reviewers' own descriptions. I realise that neither review was very positive, but they still strike me as being written in the spirit of trying to find nice things to say.
     I happen to adore the original Wells novel. It's short. It's punchy. It manages to be both a scientific adventure and a rumination on political philosophy and the cosmic insignificance of humanity. From the descriptions provided, the film has only the adventure — and not a particularly coherent one at that. To my mind, that makes it a dismal failure.
     Perhaps most disturbing is the positive spin placed on the new holocaust that befalls mankind. John even called it "one of the film's more imaginative moments". Well, I hate to say it, but the occasional 20-megaton excavating nuke isn't going to break up the moon and rain it down on the Earth. I won't bore anyone with the full explanation. A web search on the term "Roche limit" will reveal plenty of explanatory material. But even intuitively it should be obvious that a few nukes aren't going to blow up an entire moon.
     Now this may seem like the sort of hard SF nitpicking we all know and hate, but to break with basic science is the antithesis of Wells. Whilst he was never the technomaniac that Verne was, Wells still went to a lot of effort to get the science right. He applied evolutionary theory with devastating impartiality. Humans were doomed in his novel not because of a cinematically-pleasing holocaust, but because evolutionary pressure would drive a wedge in the species. And Wells description of the sky during time travel remains remarkably accurate today. This is some feat given that the scene was written before we even knew what galaxies were.
     Wells was also aware of the potential for time paradoxes and structured his plot carefully to avoid them. From your descriptions, the film makers introduce all sorts of silly time paradoxes (presumably unintentionally) and then fail to address them (eg., having the villain melt away instead of disappearing to live the rest of his life elsewhere). These are not little glitches. They are evidence of filmmakers who don't care a whit for the intelligence of the audience.
     When I see films like that take intelligent, sophisticated novels and turn them into mindless special effects romps, I'm not just a little disappointed. I'm insulted. I felt the same about Empire of the Sun and the second half of Total Recall and Enemy Mine (if Ballard or Longyear are reading this, they have my deepest sympathies). I have nightmares about this sort of film-making. I imagine a version of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" where Gregor Samsa wakes up at the *end* of the film to find it was all a dream. Phew! Or the Crime and Punishment version where Raskalnikov repents at the last moment and has his sentence commuted by a sympathetic judge. After a action-packed escape sequence, of course. But they're not SF. So it won't happen. What about a film version of Harlan the Great's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" in which the Protagonist wins his freedom by making the Computer explode in response to the question "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?" Or a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey with every skerrick of intelligence and subtlety squeezed out? Oh, hang on, we've already had that. It was called Mission to Mars.
     And that's why I think the reviews are too generous. This film spits on Wells's grave. It steals the showy parts of his story and ignores his reasons for writing it in the first place. It treats the audience like mental slugs. Hollywood has figured out that SF fans will watch almost anything. Unless we start telling people to save their money on bad films and buy the books instead (and you can read the original "Time Machine" novella in about the time it takes to watch a movie), then we'll just see more and more sewerage coming out the Hollywood SF pipeline. Do we ever want to see another film as good as Blade Runner? A film that actually improves on the original story? Unless the SF community starts rewarding intelligent filmmaking and punishing lazy special effects epics, we're going to see a lot more stupid SF...
     You can call it crap if it is crap. I'm sure Paul Riddell will.
     Ah, that feels better. Sorry about that.

Chris Lawson
11 March 2002

Missed the Sign-up

Dear Locus Online,
     Does Gary Westfahl know something this white male doesn't?

We know today, however, that it is the members of the dominant, predominantly Caucasian class who will go underground to survive during perilous times (even as I speak, members of President Bush’s “shadow government” lurk in some bunker, prepared for nuclear disaster), leaving the poor persons of color on the surface to fend for themselves.
     Much like my Jewish friend who often laments the failure of the International Conspiracy to mail him his monthly check, I seem to have been left off the rolls of those intended for underground shelter. Where do I sign up?
     I have rarely read a sillier batch of commentary upon any film, yea or nay, than Westfahl's ramblings on The Time Machine. Somebody STOP him, before he reviews again!

Kim Owen Smith
12 March 2002

The Mothman Review

Dear Locus Online,
     Just read John Shirley's terrific review of an equally terrific — and as he points out sadly misgenred film — The Mothman Prophecies. I can also highly recommend this movie and it had me thinking about it days later as well. It's sold by marketeers as a horror film, a sort of X-Files clone — and it's far from that. I found the film in fact, to be spiritually reaffirming in many ways. It's great to read a review that shared the same thoughts I had after seeing the film. Thanks for the great review John.

Bob Eggleton
10 February 2002

© 2002 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved. | Subscribe to Locus Magazine | E-mail Locus | Privacy | Advertise