Monthly Archives: July 2008

Interesting comments on xenophobia and literary manifestos from Iain M. Banks

Peggy at Biology in Science Fiction recently asked, “Could We Evolve Into The Culture?” As in The Culture from Iain M. Banks’ sf novels (which I’ve not yet had the pleasure to read, an error I mean to correct eventually). In her article she refers to an e-mail Q&A at Banks’ website in which he answers questions from readers. One reader asks what Banks thinks is the most important development humanity could make in order to advance to a Cultured society; Banks answers:

Genetically modifying ourselves, I suspect. Finding the set of genes that code for xenophobia in general – these days usually expressed though sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, Romaphobia and so on (and on, and on) – and knocking them out. Possibly then we’ll be nice enough for the Culture or something like it.

That’s a good answer, and I can’t help but notice it nicely parallels this comment from Octavia Butler from the racism essay I posted about a while back:

Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other “isms” that cause so much suffering in the world.

Both authors point out that there is some general underlying facet of human nature (whether you call it xenophobia or hierarchical tendencies or whatever) that is behind a wide range of nasty human behavior. Is it something that can ever be tied to a certain complex of genes? Is it something that could be engineered out of us? I have no idea, but I suspect it’s very possible.

Another reader asks Banks about his views on literary manifestos or movements, to which he replies:

I’m always a bit sceptical about any movement or even allegedly coherent group of writers really existing for much longer than whatever lunchtime the idea of said movement was dreamt up.

Hehe… yeah, I think there’s some truth to that.

Answering the question of what kind of movement he would create if he had to create one, Banks says:

If I was going to have a manifesto – just for the sheer flipping heck of it – I’d draw up one that denigrated cliché, demanded greater realism in narrative and bound its adherents to resolutely refuse to acknowledge the existence, even as handy plot devices, of any form of supernatural or spiritual force whatsoever.

Now THAT’S my kind of literary movement! (Anyone familiar with my book reviews will know I’m usually not happy seeing supernatural elements in science fiction.) Very intelligent fellow, this Banks. And it’s now more definite than before: I WILL be reading some of his work at the earliest opportunity.

Hitting the quality barrier, and bouncing back. Sorry, Frank.

Frank Herbert’s 1968 novel The Santaroga Barrier starts off as a great tantalizing mystery, a puzzle of the strange and unknown, drawing the reader in through the burning desire to find out just what’s going on. Then you start to get some answers, and they’re not very interesting ones, and alas, before the book is over it decays into a confused jumble of psycho-babble and philosophical gobbledygook. In other words, I was not impressed.

The book starts with psychologist Gilbert Dasein traveling to the Santaroga Valley; he has been hired by a conglomerate of business interests to investigate the valley and its people due to some bizarre circumstances there. In a nutshell, the people of Santaroga are strange. They apparently have zero incidence of juvenile delinquency or mental illness; they don’t leave their valley for long — they may go to college, or do a stint in the military, and then move back home; they seem totally immune to advertising; and they won’t spend one penny at any outside business that moves in. This last part simply can’t be tolerated by the business world, so they send in Dasein to investigate. Dasein goes in with the knowledge that two previous investigators died through apparent “accidents” in the valley. He may have one advantage, though: his ex-girlfriend Jenny lives in Santaroga. Jenny was a student in Dasein’s department at college, but suddenly moved back home after getting her degree, leaving Dasein after he wouldn’t agree to her strange demand that he move there with her.

When Dasein arrives in the valley, he soon hears constant references to a substance called Jaspers, which seems to be in most of the food and drink. This substance begins having an effect on Dasein, and it soon becomes apparent that Jaspers is the reason for the valley’s behavior; it sharpens people’s minds, heightens their awareness of humanity’s flaws, and gives them a subconscious group solidarity. The question then becomes: what is Jaspers, exactly? Through various discussions, investigations, and adventures, Dasein finds out Jaspers is a drug based on some kind of fungus growing in some nearby caves (and apparently nowhere else in the world). There are several passages of Dasein tripping on this drug and having deep trippy pseudo-philosophical insights as he does so. To which I can only respond: “whatever.”

I have three major problems with this book:

1. Dasein can’t ever make up his mind what he wants to do — finish his investigation and report back to those who hired him, or settle down in the valley with Jenny and go native. His constant flip-flopping is very annoying.

2. Science fiction writers are, in my opinion, far too obsessed with the concept of drugs as a pathway to enlightenment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pious anti-drug crusader; people should be free to put whatever they please in their own bodies. I’m just not of the opinion that drug use does anything positive for you, including expanding your mind. I may be a bit hypocritical here, since some of my favorite sf novels include such drugs playing a central role — Herbert’s Dune and Silverberg’s A Time of Changes come to mind. However, I think the idea is vastly overused in the genre in general. It’s far too easy an answer, a kind of deus ex machina. You want your characters to have extraordinary thoughts or existential insights or other special qualities? Oh yeah, just make up some drug to provide them.

3. Another thing I’m disappointed to see so many sf writers eagerly embracing is the silly (and obviously wrong) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I don’t know why linguistic determinism appeals so much to sf writers, but apparently it does, and Herbert uses the idea here:

We sift reality through screens composed of ideas. These idea systems are limited by language. That is to say: language cuts the grooves in which our thoughts must move.

Come to think of it, I believe Herbert had Leto II saying something similar in one of the chapter headings in God Emperor of Dune — a tiny flaw in that otherwise fantastic book.

And that brings into focus just what The Santaroga Barrier has taught me: that there is quite a range of quality in Herbert’s writing. I consider the Dune series to be the absolute pinnacle of science fiction, and his ConSentiency books are also mighty fine. On the other end of the scale are books like this one, which hardly even seem worth the time spent reading them. Either I’m missing something deep this book is trying to say, or Herbert was just “slumming” with this one.

Odd and random blog facts, part 2

Yeah, it’s time for another installment of Odd and Random Blog Facts, because I’m just too damned tired right now to come up with anything of substance to say. It’s one of those “do or die” times at work, meaning long hours and lots of stress. Maybe in a few days I’ll have the leisure to write some more book reviews. For now, though…..

1. After a very long and busy day at work yesterday, I came home to find it was a very busy day for the blog too. In fact, it was my busiest day so far, with the number of hits more than tripling my previous record. This was largely due to my “Classic Authors Speak….” post, which seemed to be extremely popular and was noticed and mentioned at numerous sites: sfsignal (in their “SF tidbits” feature), Lou Anders’ Bowing to the Future blog, Matt’s Bookosphere, a French sf forum called ActuSF (they think my blog is “intéressant” — merci beaucoup, amis!), and what I think is a Korean blog, although I’m not 100% sure on that one. I’m a bit surprised at the interest shown in that small video (suddenly my highest-traffic post), but I’m glad so many people enjoyed it.

2. The oddest search term to lead here recently: “sci-fi channel movie about sex with a co.” Huh? A co-what, I’m wondering? Doesn’t sound like anything I wrote about. Why do I attract the weird ones?

3. I recently came across a site called the Business Opportunities Weblog (via somone else’s blog, I can’t remember which), that has a calculator program thingy that scans your blog and all its links and tells you what it’s worth. My result:


My blog is worth $2,822.70.
How much is your blog worth?

Not very impressive, I suppose, compared to lots of other blogs; and I have no plans along commercial lines anyway. I just thought it was interesting.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Stay tuned.

Classic authors speak on the value of science fiction

Here’s a short video clip of some of the big names in science fiction saying a few words about the genre. These are outtakes from a series of interviews recorded by James Gunn between 1968 and 1978 as part of his Literature of Science Fiction Lecture Series. You can actually purchase a 2-DVD set of all the interviews from The Center for the Study of Science Fiction (University of Kansas), although if you ask me it’s a bit pricey.

Anyway, this clip is only about 9 minutes long, and most of the comments are of the sort you’ve probably heard or read before. But sometimes it’s nice to get it from the horse’s mouth, and see the faces and hear the voices of some of these famous writers of a past age; it gives a sense of connection, I think. This clip includes: Poul Anderson, Jack Williamson, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Clifford Simak, Frederik Pohl, Gordon Dickson, Damon Knight, and Isaac Asimov. (Wow, what a distinctive voice Brunner has!)

Narrative hooks: some favorites

First a definition, courtesy of wikipedia:

A narrative hook (or hook) is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep reading on. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally is the opening sentence.

I’ve been thinking for quite some time of sharing some of my favorite narrative hooks from science fiction novels; but through a combination of laziness, forgetfulness, and being busy with other things (mostly lots of reading), the idea has been sitting on a back burner, undeveloped. However, I recently got an inspirational kick in the posterior when I read an io9 article about Great Opening Sentences From Science Fiction.” Some of the examples in that article are good ones, some not so good, but then that’s just my opinion. A great hook for one person may be totally boring to another. But for what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite hooks from science fiction (and fantasy). And by “favorite” I don’t mean judged by some abstract literary measurement; I simply mean that they worked for me. They drew me in and made me feel compelled to keep reading, and that always helps make the reading experience more pleasurable. I won’t restrict myself to single sentences, as the io9 article did, because a good hook usually takes at least several sentences to develop. So……

I mentioned this one a while back in my review of Heinlein’s Friday:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.

That works beautifully to capture the reader’s curiosity. What is a Beanstalk and why is it in Kenya? Why is this one person following the other person, and what could be so important about this that it should involve death? Was the death justified (morally, legally) or not? It sure kept me reading.

Here’s the beginning of one of my all-time favorite novels, A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg:

I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself.

That statement is so strange to me that it screams in my eyes. I look at it on the page, and I recognize the hand as my own — narrow upright red letters on the coarse gray sheet — and I see my name, and I hear in my mind the echoes of the brain-impulse that hatched those words. I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself. Incredible.

When I first read those words I had no idea it was a science fiction novel, nor any idea who Silverberg was. It was just some book I found in a box from a yard sale. But once I opened it and read those first words, I was hooked. I just had to know why this Darival character was shocked at himself for what he wrote; I had to know why it was “incredible” to him.

Another very effective hook comes from Roger Zelazny’s Nice Princes in Amber:

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them, three times.

The room grew steady.

Where the hell was I?

That first sentence is a pretty good hook in its own right. But the more you read on, the better it gets. The first several pages constitute a fantastic hook for the novel, but I’m not going to quote that much.

All of the above examples depend on creating an air of mystery. Another way to go is to set up a grand flamboyant atmosphere, as Alfred Bester does in The Stars My Destination:

This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying…. but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice…. but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks…. but nobody loved it.

It can’t be an accident that he uses the word “fascinating” in there, because the whole effect of those lines is to fascinate me and make me want to learn more about this future time.

Then there’s the deep and/or philosophical and/or metaphysical sort of opening, as for example in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep:

How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.

Wow! If even the omniscient viewpoint can’t handle what’s about to be described, then I’m pretty damn sure it’s gonna blow my mind.

So there you have some examples of the kinds of opening lines that hook me. What hooks you?

Starship: vehicle for an unexceptional story

I just finished Starship by Brian Aldiss (published in 1958 and known as Non-Stop in the UK), and I just can’t find a whole lot to say about it. It neither impressed me with greatness nor offended me with shabbiness. It was passable, serviceable, tolerable, but nothing more.

The basic plot device is intriguing enough. It’s about a group of primitive people who are descended from the crew of a colony starship that takes generations to make its journey (it’s on the return trip home). Somewhere along the way something goes wrong, and these descendants lose all knowledge of where or who they are. Their entire world consists of rooms and corridors, but they have no idea all this is contained within a vessel moving between the stars; they think the metal walls around them are the natural world.

That’s a fascinating concept to work from, but Aldiss doesn’t seem to make the best use of it. Before I even started reading the book, I was expecting a big payoff at the end, a big awe-inspiring moment when the characters finally discovered the truth and had their minds blown away. But that was pretty much ruined by the fact that some of them already had some idea of what was going on, even very early in the book; and even those who didn’t have a clue didn’t seem appropriately awed when they finally found themselves gazing upon the stars.

In addition to that problem, Aldiss included some strange elements and plot choices that I didn’t much care for, and that didn’t add anything to the story as far as I could tell. For example, the intelligent rats and the telepathic rabbits and moths — too strange for my taste. Also, the people on the ship had gone through some odd changes during their descent from the original crew, and consequently they live four times faster than ordinary humans. This had something to do with why they couldn’t leave the ship after learning the truth; this wasn’t explained too well and seemed an ad hoc justification for keeping them where they were, which was necessary for the ending in which they all stress out and start tearing the ship apart.

Some of the characters were halfway interesting (but only some, and only halfway), and also some of the mythology they had built up over the generations. But there were some things that didn’t hold up well to logic and required quite a stretch to swallow. I also thought the overall writing style was a bit dry. All in all, a very unexceptionable novel.

Octavia Butler essay on rasicm

Here’s an essay written by Octavia Butler for NPR in connection with the U.N. Conference on Rasicm. You can also listen to an interview with her on the same topic. She talks about the subject in real life terms, as well as from the perspective of her science fiction. I’ve never read any of her work myself, but I hear great things about it, so I’m planning (in a vague, unplanned sort of way) to try one of her novels before too long.

The essay begins with this comment:

Several years ago, when I was about to start a novel, I thought I might get some mileage out of the idea of a civilization in which people somehow felt — that is, they shared — all the pain and all the pleasure they caused one another.

That’s an intriguing idea, and I’m sure variations of it have been used before. What it reminds me of is the “shared reality” of Nancy Kress’ Probability series, in which the members of a certain species must all share the same basic worldview and attitudes in order to avoid excruciating head pain; indeed, in such a species, racism (and lots of other isms) would be pretty much impossible.

Butler talks about humanity’s hierarchical urges as the source of much of our unpleasant behavior towards each other, and sums it up this way:

There is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people.

Undeniably true (although I don’t think that’s always a bad thing).

Anyway, I just thought I’d put this up for any Butler fans who may be reading. Hope you like it.