The product of many hundreds of years' worth of evolution since George Washington's tree-killing ass went in the dirt, the obvious answer.
--from Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis. Happy President's Day.
Boing Boing references an essay by Pam Noles about the lack of race in science fiction and fantasy.
I think Noles has a real point, but she (perhaps intentionally) avoids one of the implications of pulp-derived literature like SF. While there isn't, generally speaking, a lot of variety in human race in the genre, aliens/monsters/metahumans often stand in for other ethnicities. They undergo discrimination, taboos against miscegenation, racial stereotyping.
That doesn't excuse the lack of non-White people, in my opinion. In fact, it worsens the situation. When authors use that kind of metaphor to examine real-life racial tensions, it also carries the message that there's something non-human--or less than human--about anyone who's not a Caucasian. The common use of stereotypical attributes to define aliens and monsters (like Tolkien's noble elves and hateful orcs) only worsens the problem--I'm sure other people have noticed that the violent, brutish, sexually aggressive Klingons of Star Trek fame were also darker-skinned, practically parodies of Black stereotypes. Eventually, if I remember correctly, even the show's writers noticed. But by that point they were hamstrung by 30 years of backstory.
There's a lot of room in science fiction to explore these kinds of contemporary issues, which is why it can be so frustrating to read "post-human" books which dismiss and jump past our reference frame. It's unfortunate that the tropes of the genre have made it so easy to explore them badly.
Crooked Timber's seminar on China Mieville, including his response to the essays.
This is posted for the members of my book club, since we're reading Perdido Street Station this month. Good reading for anyone who's enjoyed Mieville's fiction, though. It contains spoilers, so don't read if you haven't finished the book yet.
First Judah thinks the bounty man is human, but he accepts his commission with a guttural alien chuckle, flexes his neck and closes his eyes in ways that mark him as abnatural. He rides something that is not a horse but a vague equine semblance, the impression of a horse, a horse burr under the skin of the real. He shoots with a matchlock pistol that spits and mutters and is sometimes a rifle and sometimes a crossbow. He will not tell Judah his name.
They run together on their horse and their horse-bruise through the plainlands in the ripples of the rails, lands not colonised but infected, as life once infected rockpools. Four days of tracking with ideograms of hexed dust and the bounty-man finds Oil Bill, confronts him in a quarry. The white stone is marked, crosshatched with chisel lines, which make a grid behind the bandit's head.
--You, he shouts at Judah with the rage of the stupid betrayed, and the bondsman kills him and his weapons eat the corpse.
Iron Council, China Mièville, page 188-9
Reflections on a USB/Gamecube/PS2/Dreamcast adapter from Lik-Sang.
"Now look," James says, as he finishes the last cable tie and emerges around to my side of the white wall. An old laptop stands on a milkcrate, hooked into the cables. There's a blinking Linux prompt on the screen. James runs ps, looks at a list of bizarrely named programs, nods to himself, and then types:
All those orange status lights flicker at the same time as the Dreamcasts load a fat chunk of code. Fans kick in as they digest it. And then, as the laptop screen clears, every LED in the wall begins to blink in a pattern, forming a seemingly random binary display. "This," says James, "is the farming database for three towns. Now they will manage their crops, check sale prices from their homes. They will be more efficient." On the bed, his girlfriend yawns and turns the page of a cheap fashion magazine.
I scribble in my notebook. Earlier that day James showed me the "computers" that the farmers will use when they "dial in" to the cluster of networked Sega hardware. To my surprise, they are not cased in plastic and resin but in wooden boxes, carefully carved and heavy. Opening one reveals a mish-mash of parts--a hand-soldered breadboard, a DVD drive with the PS2 logo still on the front, a Palm VIII with the backplate missing and the antenna wired to chunks of circuitry I can't identify (though they are vaguely familiar). An old IBM Presario keyboard plugs into the front. I write:
remix culture vs. grim meathook
James tells me that all of the parts came from overseas friends who went dumpster-diving, or bought the technology in bulk on eBay. Some of it is likely stolen, but none of it is really worth anything, so no serious effort was made to catch the thieves. "You throw so much away," he says, shaking his head. "And what did you need it for in the first place?" I ask him if he had heard about the initiatives from a few years back, to create cheap, wireless, hand-cranked laptops for developing economies, and James laughs. "Why would we want that?" he asks. "What would we use them for? To look on the Internet, measure how poor we are?"
I have no idea where to go with this. I just find my train of thought running somewhere along these lines nowadays. The Grim Meathook Future is (c) 2005 Josh "No Relation to Warren" Ellis.
Apparently visitors to the Clarendon Barnes and Noble are not at all interested in having their books wrapped by two attractive young things practically radiating holiday cheer and pleasant banter. So Belle worked on Mario Kart, and I read the first 150 or so pages of Neil Gaiman's most recent book, Anansi Boys. It's very good, and very funny--Belle can attest to my distracting snickers at various passages. It is, however, very reminiscent of Douglas Adams in tone, with a comfortable level of exaggeration and many meandering asides. If it weren't for the obsession with myth and a skill with juggling points of view that Adams never really mastered, you might even mistake the author. This isn't entirely surprising, since Gaiman knew Adams, and wrote the definitive history of the Hitchhiker's Guide. It is a bit out of character. I've enjoyed Gaiman's books and think he's a fine writer, but I've never thought of him as "funny."
There is a subtle difference between Gaiman and Adams that proves telling, however. It concerns their approach regarding a main character. Both here and in other titles, Gaiman writes about someone who comes into contact with weirdness, and is changed. The protagonists become more adventurous, lose their tolerance for a tedious normal life, and eventually lead a fuller life. We are meant to see this as an improvement. In American Gods, the change is even framed as "becoming alive."
In contrast, the main character of Adams' Guide books was Arthur Dent, a profoundly normal and slightly boring man, who really only wanted to go back to being normal and slightly boring. It is one of Adams' finest subtle jokes, in reflection, that Dent is not only heroic by complete accident, but he wouldn't really want to be any different and he doesn't attempt to become so. We are used to characters that grow more outgoing, distinctive, and ambitious. Western cultures, as I was saying earlier, encourage that kind of individualist approach. Of course, Adams probably didn't mean anything profound by it. More likely he found that a steady, stereotypically-British straight man was the best foil for his particular comedic strength of satiric set pieces and off-beat conversation. Gaiman can clearly write those, but his aim is for a different target.
The lesson that I'm taking away from it is that sometimes the best characters don't have to be heroic. I know that sounds cliched, but it's often hard to remember when writing because we want to root for someone. It's hard to write fiction that's comfortable enough to slack off a little. I think Anansi Boys does take itself less seriously, and the protagonist is stronger for it. In contrast to the bland hero's journey of Richard in Neverwhere, or Shadow's drift through American Gods, Fat Charlie has a better dynamic with his surroundings (particularly with Gaiman's clever use of embarrassment as a motivation), even if he must eventually become less of a mark (I couldn't resist peeking at the last few pages before we left). I'm looking forward to finishing the other 150 pages, and finding out if my theory's correct.
There is a certain amount of shame and dismay to reading science fiction. I can get away with it because I am a Journalist and a Rock Musician of Note, but for someone with more self-doubt and less god-like power, I can understand how it would be difficult to admit reading SF, and there's simply no hope for those who read fantasy. It's pure societal guilt, of course: while there's a lot of crap out there, there's also a significant amount of science fiction that may even (grab the rails, kids, this is rough) be better than traditional fiction. I read the good and the bad about equally, myself.
Meanwhile, I'm in two book clubs, one run by my girlfriend and another by a coterie of frustrated intellectual friends. The latter reads Nietzche, Freakonomics, and Johnny Got His Gun. The former, on the other hand, is a more recent development and has only completed Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Which I hated.
My problem with EL&IC is the sheer amount of gimmickry that packs the book. It certainly doesn't need it: although he's a little bit precious (and precocious), the 9-year old main character is charming and very well written. His name is Oskar, and his dad died in 9/11, turning an almost-autistic kid into a rambling weirdo. Foer doesn't need to mark up certain pages with red ink (Oskar's father was a compulsive proofreader) or include lots of grainy black-and-white pictures (supposedly an Oskar-eye view). With Oskar's voice so strong, it's surprising that his grandparents, blind and mute respectively, are so two-dimensional and rely on more typographical tricks. And Foer's closing pages, a reversed flipbook of a man falling from the WTC buildings, undermine what otherwise was a passably weighty ending.
The final impression is that the book, supposedly about September 11, is really all about Foer. I'd have rather read an actual story rather than watch a man jump through increasingly precarious flaming hoops. You may disagree, of course. The rest of the book club certainly did, with one member saying something I thought was interesting: these were ways of going beyond the novel form, of stretching the medium.
Well, maybe. I'm still not buying it. And I think it's frustrating that narcissistic styles like Foer and Dave Eggers get more respect than Iain Banks or William Gibson. But I'm curious about the concept of going "beyond the novel" in literature, especially since I don't think that clever typesetting is anything to write home about (pardon the pun). What would it take to rewrite the novel? At the book club, I proposed hypertext, which got a bunch of blank looks. In retrospect, that's probably just another tricky font choice, although you could probably do some interesting work with timelines or footnoting.
If a science fiction novel did that, would anyone care in the same way? Would it be called (perhaps) a heartbreaking work of staggering genius? Or would they just say it's another toy for the geeks? Why do I think that it would be the latter? I'm a little bitter about that. Never mind.
More importantly, does the novel need a new way to tell a story? I guess I'm a bit of a traditionalist, but what exactly is a novel lacking? If your job is to present a narrative, the simple power of words on paper, one after another and without external embellishment, seems hard to argue with. Readers of literary fiction are looking for something different than I am--the next book for the club is Wickett's Remedy, which apparently contains margin notes from the dead.
It stings a little, knowing that margin notes from the dead are probably better received than, say, American Gods or Perdido Street Station. Doesn't it?
I'll say this much: I don't think we need to reinvent the novel. I like it the way it is, and I like tricks to be in the story, not on it. But I find it curious how few science fiction books I can think of that employ literary fiction's games--and I wonder if there's a link between that lack and the perception of triviality.
In order to move the previous self-promoting post down the page, I now submit the following script, which I wrote about a year ago after watching Darkness Falls. The movie was so bad, and so ruined its premise of the Tooth Fairy gone bad, that I decided to redo the first scene my way. I called the result "Baby Teeth."
BEGINNING CREDITS--A NIN-STYLE MONTAGE OF TEETH AND PICTURES OF TEETH, SURROUNDED BY MONEY AND SMEARS OF DARK LIQUID
SCENE - ELEMENTARY SCHOOL YARD - DAY
The kids are at recess. A number of them, six or seven, have gathered by the slide, which is not much used, because these are fifth graders and they are getting a little big for it.
As the camera moves closer, we see that the group arranged in a semicircle, focusing on one girl with bright red hair and a deadly serious expression. One of her eyes is just enough off center to make her gaze difficult to meet. Finally, the camera drops level with her head--we are now one of the kids hanging on her every word.
He punches another boy on the sleeve and runs, taking most of the group with him. Melanie stays by the slide, watching them with her off-center eyes. As one of the boys runs by the swings, he trips on a loose patch of gravel and face-plants. We get a close-up view as he lifts his head, an expression of shock on his face. He looks down. A single tooth lies between his hands, and a shadow falls over him. It's one of the teachers supervising recess.
The blood drains from Robert's face. He gets up, cradling the tooth and stares up at her.
SCENE - ROBERT'S BEDROOM - NIGHT
Robert climbs into bed, looking very small compared to the room. His parents say their goodnights and hit the light switch, leaving the room only half-lit. The room is a mess of dark shapes against the white wallpaper. Against the wall opposite the door is a giant toybox, not a solid cube, but made of sturdy wooden rods. It is half-full of stuffed animals. Robert rolls over, clearly trying to force himself to sleep. One hand reaches under the pillow, Robert stiffens, and the hand re-emerges with a single tooth in it. He stares at it, then closes it tightly in a fist and clenches his eyes shut. We pan upwards, first looking barely over the boy's head, and watch the door swing silently shut. As we continue upward, we gradually reveal a dark, hunched figure standing in front of the doorway.
The shape begins to move forward. We can't see much--it's scarier that way. We can hear something soft and almost insectile, but the outline of the shape flutters and moves, as if loose cloth is draped over it. Robert's eyes flash open. He bolts upright and SCREAMS as he catches sight of the thing. Reflexively, his hand flies open, launching the tooth across the room. The shape moves, as if following its trajectory, and launches itself after the tooth. Robert leaps in the opposite direction, a quick close-up flashing his panicked eyes to the camera as he searches for refuge.
There! The toybox! Robert flings open the top, which has a strap running through the bars for a handle, and crawls inside, pulling the lid shut over top of himself. He clings desparately to the strap.
BAM! The dark figure drops in front of him. It is only slightly bigger than he is, and we can see its shapeless form a little more clearly now, but it only confirms that whatever moves under the torn and tattered shroud is not remotely human. It sniffs at the bars of the toybox. One claw is extended, and in a mocking gesture taps on the lid. Robert shakes his head.
The shape cocks its head, and a stray beam of light falls across the lower part of what should be a face. The surface is mottled, grimy, and slick, but then it cracks and we see--with growing horror--that the thing is SMILING. Its smile has far too many teeth, some new and some decaying, but clearly they are all different, as if from different mouths. Prominently displayed in front is Robert's lost tooth, now wedged into the maw.
The shape taps the lid again, then turns and vanishes in another swift leap. There is a pause, and the camera moves in on Robert as he tries to sink into the toybox. In the background, we hear that odd insectile movement, a door opening, and the mixed screams of a man and a woman in horrible pain. The door slams, but the screams continue. We pull in on Robert as he pulls his eyes tightly closed, choking off the sobs that are coating his cheeks in tears. Finally, the screams end, and a low, inhuman chuckle rings through the house.
FADE TO BLACK
Leonard Mackerton is the world's worst venture capitalist. He stands in front of the CEO and Board of Directors for Sanctified Steaks, Incorporated. His ill-fitted suit is even more depressing because it was custom-measured and tailored for Leonard--but he just has one of those bodies on which nothing will ever hang gracefully. You could put a silk toga on Leonard Mackerton, and he would look like someone had wrapped him in a beaten tarpaulin.
By contrast, the CEO of SS, Inc. looks relatively refined. Despite his wealth and power, Mr. Roquefort is not a bad man, and he uncomfortably glances around the room before raising his hand slightly. "Um," he says. "Let me see if we have this straight, Leonard:"
"You want to take all the bits of the cow that we don't use, squeeze them into tubes of indiscriminate flesh, and then offer them to our customers as a light meal?"
"Exactly!" cries Leonard. "Even better: put them on a piece of bread--or two pieces!--and add ketchup! It's handheld, it's easy to make, and it's cheap. It's like a donut hole, for meat. You'll make millions! We'll--" he adds slyly "--make millions."
Roquefort sighs and, again, looks around the room. No-one is going to rescue him from this one. He takes a drink of water.
"You've heard of hot dogs, right, Leonard?"
Leonard looks puzzled. "I'm not following you." One of the board members begins snickering softly behind his hand.
"Hot dogs. Frankfurters. Meat products that are sold on a bun, with condiments."
"Yes, yes," says Leonard. "I know, hot dogs. But seriously: what about my idea?"
The CEO leans forward. "We'll be in touch." he says, and nods Security forward.
I have a notes.txt file on my PocketPC where I keep all of the random ideas and brainstorms that pop into my head. I haven't really cleaned it out in years, and I have no idea where some of this stuff came from.
So for the last week I've been trying to write a short story around one line that's sitting there: "like a donut hole for meat." And it's hopeless. I'm going to give it another shot later today or tonight, but in the meantime, if you're feeling creative, give it a shot for yourself in the comments.