Review: Irregular Verbs and Other Stories

I hesitated before requesting a review e-copy of Matthew Johnson’s short-story anthology Irregular Verbs and Other Stories – for, though it was labeled “Science Fiction/Fantasy”, I had a suspicion that the author might attempt to commit literary fiction.

The introduction, a gush of praise for the author’s artistic sensitivity and his nuanced command of language, did nothing to allay my suspicions. (Also, the word “transgressive” was used. This is generally a sign that wearisome levels of dimwitted political cant are oncoming.) The introduction read exactly as though I could expect the anthology proper to be lit-fic – that is, an extended stylistic wank in which the author continually mistakes either the fine details of the emotional lives of imaginary persons or his own meta-expressive language games for interesting subjects.

Parts of this anthology aren’t quite that bad. Other parts are worse. A few are pretty good (most of the better ones were first published in SF magazines). In the remainder of this review I will use Johnson’s work to explore some of the boundary conditions of the SF genre – how it differs from literary fiction and from genres such as mystery and fantasy.

Because I’m going to be saying a lot about genres of writing, I want to be clear on what I think a genre is. It’s two things: one is a set of expectations a reader has about the kind of experience an instance of the genre will deliver, the other is a set of genre-specific codes and expressive techniques that the genre writer uses in the expectation that readers will receive them as the author intended. Like all codes and languages, the purpose of genres is to make communication easier by allowing both parties to assume a repertoire of common referents. Genre art fails when the production of the writer fails to match the genre referents and constraints as known by the reader.

This analysis generalizes Samuel Delany’s observation that SF is not merely, or even mostly, a way of writing; it is a way of reading, too. The same is true of other genres, in different ways.

We will also require the following definition of science fiction (due in its most developed form to Gregory Benford): that branch of fantastic literature which affirms the rational knowability of the universe, and has as its most particular reader experience the sense of conceptual breakthrough – of having understood the universe in a new and larger way. Every constraint in this definition is important; removing or relaxing any of them lands us in other genres.

The first story in this anthology, Irregular Verbs, is representative in both its virtues and flaws. In the Salutean Islands, the natives are so gifted at language that pairs of them constantly spontaneously generate new ones. It takes a daily public act of social will to maintain a common public tongue intelligible to all. Senderi Ang, mourning the death of his beloved wife Kesperi ten days ago, discovers that he is beginning to forget their marriage-language.

This story is like SF in several ways. The premise is fantastic (counterfactual) but not obviously impossible; the consequences are worked out logically and with respect for the reader’s intelligence. It uses the characteristic SFnal device of indirect exposition – the counterfactual aspects of the world being shown mainly not by expository lumps but through the thoughts and actions of the characters.

Despite this, as SF, it fails – in fact, it’s not even really trying. The lesser reason for this is its failure to participate in the SF genre’s historical conversation. The worldbuilding shows no awareness of or references to previous works of SF with similar or related premises (Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao, for example, or Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, or a James Tiptree story I’ve forgotten the title of). This failure would not in itself be fatal.

The greater reason, the fatal failure, is this: all the premise is used for is a meditation on the psychology of grief, loss, and the need to remember, ended by a futile symbolic gesture surrounded by fine language. To be specific: Senderi Ang has a friend tattoo a grammar and lexicon of what he can remember of his and Kesperi’s marriage-language on his skin. The author invites us to believe that this keeps the language alive, but it doesn’t – the tattoo is just a static representation of the language’s anatomy, not living use of it as an expressive medium. It’s a curious confusion, coming from a writer.

There is no sense of wonder here, no conceptual breakthrough; the reader is never given either a true nor a false but emotionally plausible sense of walking out of the story with more understanding than he or she walked into it with. Not only that, but what is dramatically presented as a solution to the central problem of the story is a false one.

I think we can locate a key difference between literary fiction and SF here. Johnson seems to consider Senderi Ang’s tattoo a resolution because it is a performative act that expresses the character’s emotions in a socially visible form; the fact that it does not actually fulfil the character’s expressed desire is somehow irrelevant even to the character. This is the discourse of modern and postmodern literary fiction: there is no truth and no objective reality, only people fooling themselves for comfort.

SF has much stricter standards for what would constitute a correct resolution. If this were an SF story, it would end something like this: Senderi Ang would find some functional reason for other islanders to want to preserve the language as a living medium; then he would begin teaching classes in it and find his fulfillment in that. Most likely the story would end as he begins teaching the first lesson. It is not merely the condition of his mind that would change but the objective condition of the world.

That didn’t happen. Thus, as a reader of SF receiving an anthology labeled “SF/Fantasy” and a story co-opting some SFnal ways of conveying counterfactuals, I felt cheated by the story and its ending.

I would have felt more cheated if I had not begun reading with a strong suspicion that the author’s understanding of what is central and particular about an SF reader’s expectations is defective, and that he would therefore likely fail to meet them. It was no fun being right about this.

The next story, Another Country, is in some ways better. An unexplained natural phenomenon has opened ways for “prefugees” from the historical past to come forward to the present. Again, the setup uses SFnal expository techniques. Johnson’s imagination of the sorts of things that might happen when ancient Romans and Goths collide with modern technology and pop culture is intelligent and witty. Some of the bits about that do deliver an SFnal sort of reward, a sense of increased understanding about where the flashpoints would be and how people on both sides of the divide would be likely to react.

We get those as appetizers, but there’s no main course. The story trails off into what, in SF terms, is a diffuse and unsatisfying ending. There’s no reveal; it is never even quite clear what the main character’s intentions were, or whether he was being truthful at various earlier points in the story. One suspects we are supposed to consider this ambiguity artistic and sophisticated, when in fact it just feels cheap and evasive.

This story seems to be intended as SF; the techniques of it suggest that we are supposed to be in a rationally knowable world. But like the previous story it ends as bad SF; SF’s promise to the reader is not fulfilled. Alas, worse is to come.

Public Safety is an initially cute little construction about a timeline in which the French Revolution’s odder attempts at breaking with the past didn’t fail and are manifest in an alternate New Orleans. The month of Thermidor is on the calendar, the watches use decimal hours, and “REASON OVER FERVOR” is on government buildings – it was a nice subtle touch that the author gives the motto only in Latin for the reader to translate. This is some high-quality SFnal scene-setting by the telling detail!

Turns out we’re in a police procedural where the detective is investigating a note threatening death to an unidentified woman on a specified date. All the most advanced methods of the 19th century are employed in the investigation. Phrenology! Graphology! Physiognomy! Racial theory! All of which we are straight-facedly invited to treat as the hardest of hard sciences. Meanwhile, machinery is mysteriously degrading – omnibuses are breaking down, and mechanical gear in theaters is suffering dangerous failures.

But the story squanders all that promise. On the appointed day, the detective guesses that the murder victim is to be Dame Reason herself. Natural law collapses; we get no hint of how this was even possible or why it was done or who might have done it, outside of speculation that the agents of chaos were scientists themselves.

The SF form requires of authors a central undertaking to the reader: that there are rules to the unknown, and if you are bright and observant enough you can comprehend them. Here that undertaking not merely broken but perversely inverted – the point of the story is that rational knowability itself has been murdered. This is not merely bad science fiction, it is a sort of nihilistic antimatter inverse of science fiction that is all the more repellent to an SF reader because of the technical skill and superficial cleverness with which it was set up.

Beyond the Fields You Know is a fantasy that chillingly subverts a cherished trope of children’s stories: what if the magical creature that invites you to adventure in another world is actually recruiting slaves to do scutwork in a magical war, and you can never go home? There isn’t really any internal logic here, just a sort of creepy dream sequence about a boy who breaks his chains. Rational knowability is out the window, but as we were not led to expect that it is not the exercise in perversion that that the previous story was.

What we have here is a correctly constructed instance of genre fantasy; it gets its pull from the evocation of old and emotionally powerful tropes from folklore and myth. The SFnal experience of conceptual breakthrough is not the aim, nor will fantasy genre readers expect it.

What You Couldn’t Leave Behind is the first story in this anthology I unequivocally enjoyed. How often do you run across a hard-boiled-detective pastiche set in a Buddhist afterlife populated at least partly by Egyptian gods?

Curiously, this Thorne-Smith-meets-Raymond-Chandler theological fantasy is also the first story in the book to fulfill SF’s genre contract – if you accept the Buddhist premises about reincarnation and nirvana the ending follows perfectly logically, and its kicker is a small but respectable conceptual breakthrough. Bonus points for the Casablanca reference at the end. Would that all the work in this anthology were so good.

When We Have Time is a chilling little vignette the likes of which Frederic Brown might have written. When the twist at the end comes, you realize it’s a possibility you should have seen coming. You had the clues, and the logic is impeccable, but the author stayed a step ahead. This is true SF, and would not have been out of place in any SF magazine from the early 1950s onwards.

This story exhibits a structure many SF stories have in common with murder mysteries, and the reason crossovers between both these two genres are so often successful. In both forms the author is required to play by the rules of rational deduction. The writer wins the game if the reader reaches the big reveal without having anticipated it but with the realization that the solution is correct; the reader wins if he or she gets to the truth before the author’s reveal. The author plays fair by leaving open the possibility that a sharp enough reader can win, and the work is judged more by how well and how audaciously the author plays the game more than by conventional literary criteria.

What distinguishes an SF story like this from a murder mystery isn’t the absence of murder but the presence of at least one premise in the story that is fantastic, e.g. counterfactual.

The Wise Foolish Son examines the way history is polished into myth. We might be in a rationally knowable universe here; there is magic but hints that it follows discoverable rules. But their discoverability is irrelevant to the appeal of the story; the appeal is in the resonance with folktale motifs we half-recognize. Thus we are in the territory of fantasy rather than SF.

Long Pig is a joke, a faux restaurant review in which you’ll know the punchline in advance if you recognize what the title means.

With Talking Blues, the expected wearisome political cant arrives as a folk singer manque attempts to unionize Hell. For our genre-analysis purposes it’s an allegorical fantasy and not much more needs to be said; the premise is so wildly implausible that there is no point in seeking rational knowability anywhere. The author probably thinks he has uttered a clever comment on capitalism, but I found myself thinking of Tom Lehrer’s We’re the Folk Song Army: “Ready! Aim! Sing!”

The Face of the Waters is a very slight bit of SF about somatic manipulation of the human germ line being turned to an obvious purpose for unobvious reasons.

Outside Chance is SF, too, and much more substantial. It’s a novel take on the well-established SF trope of change wars among alternate timelines. More than any of the SF in this anthology so far, it feels connected to the rest of the genre, as though it was written with awareness of similar past efforts.

Closing Time is set in a fantastic not-quite China where the ghost of a restaurant owner’s recently-dead father is bankrupting the joint by making his wake run too long. It is gentle, funny and unforced, avoiding the sense many of these stories emit that the author is perhaps trying a bit too hard to be clever and cute.

Lagos is bad SF, because the premise is broken. Nobody will ever hire poor Nigerians to run vacuum cleaners or wash dishes by telepresence, because by the time the infrastructure for that is in place autonomous robots will do the job better and cheaper. Johnson should have known better, since robots almost good enough already do exist.

Bad SF is not the same as non-SF or anti-SF, however; this is a far less serious offense against the form than Public Safety. The story is partly redeemed by clever intertwining of Nigerian folk magic with a technology-centered problem.

The result is almost what is called in the SF genre a “technology-of-magic” story, one in which it is central that magic works and the rules are rationally knowable. But not quite, as it is left ambiguous whether what is going on is magic or particularly insidious technology filtered through the perceptions of illiterate and near-uneducated people who nevertheless find a way to turn it back on itself. A writer whose sensibility is centered in SF would consider that distinction important.

The Dragon’s Lesson is another fictive folktale, a style Johnson is manifestly rather good at emulating. This one is didactic, with the fantasy device being used to set up a moral in the manner of one of Aesop’s fables.

In general Johnson is better at fantasy than SF, and I think the reason relates directly to SF’s genre rules. Genres exist not only because different kinds of readers seek different kinds of aesthetic rewards but because writers do too. For Johnson, fantasy seems to be deeply expressive but SF more in the nature of a technical exercise; his fantasies are fully realized but his SF bloodless and often defective in form.

Au Coeur Des Ombres seems to begin in the same alternate New Orleans as Public Safety, evidently well before the events of the previous story. The characters must cope with the consequences of Indians up the Mississippi having been deliberately infected by smallpox via trade blankets. As with Lagos, this presents a situation in which different participants view a situation in rational versus magical/religious terms; but in this case it is much clearer that the rational perspective can explain things the other cannot.

We are more clearly in the territory of correctly-constructed SF here, which makes the perversity of Public Safety harder to explain. The least hypothesis, I think, continues to be that Johnson’s understanding of the SF form is weak; thus, he readily imitates some of its surface features but does not really grasp its essence.

In Jump Frog, the author’s technical competence as a prose stylist is again on display as he successfully imitates the voice of Mark Twain. The result is a kind of SF premised on the counterfactual that early-19th-century speculations about electricity being the vital force of life were actually true; but mainly it functions as a pretty good joke.

The Afflicted is another swing at an SF trope now becoming rather tired; the zombie as not a supernatural phenomenon but disease victim. I don’t think any of the authors who have tried this have improved much on Richard Matheson’s trope-defining I Am Legend (1954), and Johnson doesn’t manage it either.

Nevertheless, this kind of story is worth some attention because it exemplifies one of SF’s central impulses – to extend the perimeter of the rationally knowable, sweeping in not merely unknown places and times and aliens accessible to science but also motifs and images that originated in myth and fantasy and horror. The evolution of SF can be charted as a steady widening of that perimeter – to other planets, beyond the solar system, to other times and alternate histories, then to technology-of-magic and possibilities even more estranged from the world of immediate experience.

It is not clear whether Johnson really cares about this aspect of the SF form; the defects of some of his other SF stories suggest he does not. But in some ways his performance here is more interesting if he does not; it suggests how exposure to SF can teach some of its concerns and reflexes to writers who have little actual investment in SF’s core values.

Holdfast is, again, a well-constructed fantasy that approaches and perhaps reaches the state of of technology-of-magic. I won’t summarize it, as it doesn’t pose any interpretive problems we have not already encountered. It is a strong story, though; one of the best in this collection.

The Coldest War is a puzzle on two levels, one intentional and perhaps one unintentional. On the intentional level, we wonder what if anything has invaded the Arctic island where a soldier keeps his lonely vigil. On the meta- and perhaps unintentional level, we wonder just what the author thinks he is doing with this story. Who is the invader? What has become of the soldier’s partner? Is there an invader at all, or has the protagonist gone mad?

Some of the superficial furniture of SF is here; the story depends on devices for cold-weather warfare that don’t yet exist, and the logic of protagonist’s actions given what he thinks is going on is detailed. But the essence of SF is not. The puzzle is not resolved; there is no reveal. The protagonist cannot decide whether he is sane or insane.

Lit-fic writers think this sort of thing is clever and artistic. SF readers think it is maddeningly perverse. What is the point of writing a problem story if you’re not going to resolve the problem? It’s as wrong as writing a story that invokes all the tropes of a murder mystery but ends with the reveal that the victim died for reasons completely unrelated to any of them, or didn’t die at all.

Written By The Winners is another change-wars story with a darker, Orwellian angle. The interpretive problem that it poses is that the plot turns on an impossibility.

Sometime in the personal past of the characters, a totalitarian political organization used a device to change history to its liking. The impossibility is that the change is patchy, and some objects from the old history survived into the new one (one in the story is a vinyl record album). People exposed to these parachronic objects may do what the Party fears most: remember the old past.

This premise only appears possible because we mistake a brain’s view of reality, lumping it unto objects like record albums, as being more fundamental than it is. To see why this is problematic, ask why the history-changing process left exactly that record untouched, but not atoms in the objects arbitrarily close to it. And what does “close” mean, anyway, when we’re talking about the materialization of an entire timeline around it?

There’s a convention in SF called the “one-McGuffin rule”; you’re allowed one impossible premise per story, and FTL travel doesn’t count. So we might let this one slide by, except that what the story does with human memory is even more ridiculous. When people see parachronic objects and that causes them to recover memories of an erased past, where where those memories stored before? Are people supposed to be somehow psychically connected with versions of themselves that don’t exist?

The more you think about both premises from a scientific point of view, the more ridiculous and insupportable they get. This is bad SF; it is an SF writer’s responsibility not to utter tripe like this, because it violates the core premise that the unknown has to be as rationally knowable as the known.

Heroic Measures is better; a calm and darkly funny study of the problems of medical care for a superhero with terminal multiple organ failure. Awfully hard to run diagnostics on a man with invulnerable skin, since that includes opacity to X rays.

For the first time here we are unquestionably involved in the SF genre conversation; this story was obviously written with Larry Niven’s tongue-in-cheek Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex in mind. The general impossibility of the superhero gets by under the one-McGuffin rule.

The conclusion is inevitable, too. You put Superman out of his otherwise endless misery with Kryptonite, even if you have to face down Lex Luthor to get it. The conceptual breakthrough here isn’t in the solution but the reader’s growing understanding of how terrible the problems of having a body that can patch-heal itself forever could be.

The Last Islander is pretty good, too, in a more serious way. It extrapolates some consequences of immersive virtual reality and directed dreaming in detailed ways, and explores whether these have the staying power of organic human memory.

And that is it. A very mixed bag, but a good set of examples for examining the nature of genre in general and SF in particular. And the failures are cautionary lessons in why anyone who wants to write good SF should avoid becoming infected with the habits and limitations of lit-fic.

49 thoughts on “Review: Irregular Verbs and Other Stories

  1. The tl;dr version: A bunch of stories from a guy who doesn’t really get SF, but occasionally stumbles over it.

  2. TL;DR the reviewer has a set idea of what makes SF, and refuses to give the label to anything that doesn’t fit the narrow definition in the reviewers mind.

    (Whether that definition is correct or not is an argument for another time. But, the so called “one-McGuffin rule” appears, after a very quick search of the interwebs, to be a rule invented by the reviewer. Whether that is true or not is something I’m not sure of. But considering that a “McGuffin”, as defined by TV Tropes, “is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose.”, it seems odd to say that an impossible thing is a McGuffin, unless it is being used to drive the plot. Also consider that there is no way to learn this convention by merely reading SF (because good SF may follow it, but bad SF may not), and I think it’s time to consider if it actually exists.)

  3. Of course, regarding my parenthetic comment above, I suspect that I merely ignorant, and that a quick search is insufficient. I shall welcome any pointers to things to read on the topic.

  4. >But, the so called “one-McGuffin rule” appears, after a very quick search of the interwebs, to be a rule invented by the reviewer.

    No, it’s commonly taught at SF writing workshops. I wish it had a better name; I actually don’t like the one we seem to be stuck with. The variant spelling “Maguffin” is sometimes encountered; I believe the term, with the meaning TV Tropes gives, was originally native to murder-mystery readers/writers/critics before being adopted into SF, and one description I have seen gave the Maltese Falcon as an example.

    I think I recall that the “FTL doesn’t count” clause was added by Theodore Sturgeon, but I may be wrong about that.

  5. It is very interesting you should post this extended, somewhat-meta, review today, because just yesterday I finished Demolished Man (and a before that, Stainless Steel Rat — both because of your list of intro to SF novels), and I was thinking that, although there are SF elements in both, they are really Crime Novels (or perhaps SSR is a Caper/Heist story). They are not SF in the way that I think of Mote in God’s Eye, which is SF through-and-through.

    Do you think the best SF (or SF in its definition) is about SF, or uses SF to tell a story about something more conventional/universal?

  6. >Do you think the best SF (or SF in its definition) is about SF, or uses SF to tell a story about something more conventional/universal?

    I’m not sure what yo mean by “SF about SF”, but the second is certainly both possible and common.

    The undoubted fact that Demolished Man and The Stainless Steel Rat are crime novels does not prevent them from being SF. It is possible for a work to fulfil multiple sets of genre expectations at once, and in both the SFnal elements are essential. Neither is just a crime novel with futuristic set dressing.

  7. Do you know of anybody with a solid background in SF who’s made a serious attempt at literary fiction, and how well they did? I’m interested in how well the reverse can be done.

  8. >Do you know of anybody with a solid background in SF who’s made a serious attempt at literary fiction

    Can’t think of any obvious examples. I will note that a very few writers have managed to successfully combine these forms; James Morrow and Michael Swanwick leap to mind, and Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide is the best example I can think of. Usually the attempt fails horribly, producing inferior lit-fic and abysmally awful SF or anti-SF.

  9. > Are people supposed to be somehow psychically connected with versions of themselves that don’t exist?

    Can a particle that can pass through either of two slits create an interference pattern with the version of itself that doesn’t exist?

  10. Actually, Michael, it’s not just Eric’s definition. The definition I’d read many years ago was “Make one change to the world as it is now, and then explore the ramifications of that change – but don’t mess with anything else.” I think it was Larry Niven in his explanation of the ARM series, but I’m not sure.

  11. >Can a particle that can pass through either of two slits create an interference pattern with the version of itself that doesn’t exist?

    This analogy is misleading for the same reason the persistence of a vinyl record album across timeline editing is preposterous. As Eliezer Yudkowsky memorably put it,

    You have the absolutely bizarre idea that reality ought to consist of little billiard balls bopping around, when in fact reality is a perfectly normal cloud of complex amplitude in configuration space. This is your problem, not reality’s, and you are the one who needs to change.

  12. >[Larry Niven:] “Make one change to the world as it is now, and then explore the ramifications of that change – but don’t mess with anything else.”

    Left out of Niven’s definition, but implicit, is that the quality of your deductions from the one change has to be high (that is, without logical errors) or you’re uttering bad SF.

    Definitions of SF of this general type go back to Heinlein and Campbell, the originators of modern SF. Benford’s definition improves on them by encompassing work with SFnal structure and concerns set in highly counterfactual worlds such as Melissa Scott’s Roads of Heaven sequence. It also explains the difference between SF and fantasy very well.

    (I could actually write a whole ‘nother blog post on the problems with Niven’s definition. Maybe I will.)

  13. My take is that the one McGuffin rule is more appropriate to early sf– HG Wells or so. After a while, people got jaded and wanted more invention than that per story.

    Take Drake’s Birds of Prey– the one honest man in corrupt Rome is faced with a dinosaur, time travel, a human from the far future, and an alien menace. This is what I’d call pretty normal science fiction.

    Or A Fire Upon the Deep– this is a multi-McGuffin story, and that’s necessary for the amount of fun.

    I nominate Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin as the best example I’ve seen of combining literary fiction with big idea sf. IIRC, it only had one McGuffin, but it was a really good McGuffin.

  14. >My take is that the one McGuffin rule is more appropriate to early sf– HG Wells or so.

    You’re mistaking counterfactual for impossible. Birds of Prey has no McGuffins at all (the impossibility status of time travel is currently unsettled). A Fire Upon the Deep has FTL which is considered not to count.

    “At most one McGuffin” is different from Niven’s “change just one thing”.

  15. Nancy – H.G. Wells explicitly articulated the rule this way:

    “For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader to play the game properly, he must help him in every possible unobtrusive way to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. He must trick him into an unwary concession to some plausible assumption and get on with his story while the illusion holds…
    “The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. How would you feel and what might not happen to you, is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you? How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you were changed into an ass and couldn’t tell anyone about it? Or if you suddenly became invisible? But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats, and dogs left and right, or if anyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting if anything can happen.”

  16. > You’re mistaking counterfactual for impossible [...] the impossibility status of time travel is currently unsettled.

    Well, physics tells us that the explosive growth of vacuum polarization of quantum fields (quantum fluctuations of the quantum mechanics) may always prevent spacetime (special relativity) from developing closed timelike curves (i.e., prevent “backward time travel”)… BTW I wholeheartily recommend “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy” by Kip Thorne. Yeah, there are scientists that are working on whether time travel can exists, and if it does what properties it would have (e.g. paradoxes).

  17. _Heroic Measures_ also reminds me of _Ubermensch_. Superman landed in a small town in Germany instead of Smallville, USA, and since Superman of our comics had his peak adult years in the 1930′s, so does his Germany equivalent…

  18. esr: I’m not sure what yo mean by “SF about SF”…

    Well, there is a well-known subgenre sometimes called “Inside SF”. It includes works like “Who’s Cribbing?” and the story whose name escapes me where the time traveler from the year 3000 keeps getting his stories rejected by Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The characters are writers of SF living through an SF story. These stories may be incomprehensible to non-fans of SF, since they are extended in-jokes.

    I’m not sure if this is what was meant by “SF about SF’.

    Cathy

  19. “Actually, Michael, it’s not just Eric’s definition. The definition I’d read many years ago was “Make one change to the world as it is now, and then explore the ramifications of that change – but don’t mess with anything else.” I think it was Larry Niven in his explanation of the ARM series, but I’m not sure.”

    For some reason Niven is often considered to be among the hardest of hard-SF writers, probably because of his extended logical development of concepts like the Ringworld that are extrapolations of real physics. But I have trouble getting past the fact that psionic powers are so important in so many of his stories. SF, definitely yes, but not as “hard” SF as, say Gregory Benford.

  20. “Do you know of anybody with a solid background in SF who’s made a serious attempt at literary fiction, and how well they did?”

    Does Ray Bradbury count as “a solid background in SF”, and do his later non-SF novels qualify as “literary fiction”? Different reader may disagree.

    Certainly Bradbury is one of the best examples of an SF writer who outgrew SF and went on to larger audiences elsewhere.

  21. “But the story squanders all that promise. On the appointed day, the detective guesses that the murder victim is to be Dame Reason herself. Natural law collapses; we get no hint of how this was even possible or why it was done or who might have done it…”

    Ugh. I hate this type of story. I remember a novel whose title escapes me — it is set in a universe around WWI where a liner crosses the Atlantic and finds that Europe is a weird, exotic jungle that looks nothing like the real Europe. The premise is intriguing, and a reason for it is ultimately given that fit within SF, but at the end everything disintegrates into a mess with nothing resolved. I was left very frustrated.

    John Campbell: “State your problem — but solve it!”

  22. “Sometime in the personal past of the characters, a totalitarian political organization used a device to change history to its liking. The impossibility is that the change is patchy, and some objects from the old history survived into the new one (one in the story is a vinyl record album). People exposed to these parachronic objects may do what the Party fears most: remember the old past.”

    Unfortunately there are a lot of examples of this in otherwise-good-SF novels. Mona Lee’s _Branch Point_, or _The Company of the Dead_, _From Time To Time_, and I’m sure there are plenty of others I’ve forgotten.

    It makes you realize how well written _Thrice Upon A Time_ is — when time travel is used in that book, the entire timeline resets, and no one remembers the old one. Period. The only thing left is the message received from the future that caused the change. (One could argue that this should disappear as well, but that’s not as serious a logical problem.)

    And there are many, many time-travel stories where there are no “psychic objects” from the other timeline exist, but in which the timeline is altered and leaves time-travelers with memories of the “old” timeline, which they use to realized it has been changed and change it back. The _Time Patrol_ series, the _As Time Goes By_/_Time On My Hands_ detective stories, etc.

  23. > when in fact reality is a perfectly normal cloud of complex amplitude in configuration space
    Not a word of that contradicts the idea that the two timelines are both aspects of the same higher-dimensional object. Once you grant that someone can change the past, adding in “spooky action at a distance” (measured not in spacetime but “parachronically”, in whatever higher dimensions separate timelines from one another) that somehow entangles objects and memories isn’t really all that much of a stretch. If this-me and that-me are just two 4D surfaces of 5+D greater-me, then maybe there’s a way for that-me to see/hear something and this-me to know it.

    But the author has to explain it to you so that it makes sense. They have to present some kind of internally-consistent logic to it, so that you can follow that logic. They are allowed to take their sweet time getting it all laid out, just so that they make clear at the beginning that they intend to do so. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of waiting for the next Deus Ex Machina to come along. That’s about as rewarding as playing a game with a young child who keeps making up the rules as they go along. Or arguing with a leftist who keeps moving the goalposts. But I repeat myself.

  24. >That’s about as rewarding as playing a game with a young child who keeps making up the rules as they go along.

    Ha! As a child, I did that at least once. I was trying to invent a card game.

    By the way, I’d like to know our host’s take on the idea of higher dimensions.

  25. I wonder what that Tiptree story about a fast-changing language might be.

    There’s a Sheckley story called “Shall We Have a Little Talk?”. An expedition from Earth needs some contractual kerfluffery to have an excuse to conquer aliens, but before you can have contractual kerfluffery, you have to have a contract– and the alien language changes so fast there’s no way for humans to write the contract.

    My feeling about that first story as you describe it is that the author had a really cool idea and no idea of what to do with it. I don’t, either (I’m not convinced they could stabilize the meanings of a written language), but I’m left with appreciation of how valuable relative stable language is for us, and wondering how much culture such a species could have– it’s conceivable that almost all of their cultural memory would be what could be taught non-verbally.

  26. If we look at the purpose of Wells’ rule– limiting the amount of chaos in a story, then I don’t think the difference between counterfactuals and impossibilities is important.

    It’s probably more important to have the counterfactuals and impossibilities early in the story so the reader doesn’t feel ambushed as the plot unfolds.

    Speaking of, am I the only person who finds James White too annoying to be worth reading because it never seems as though the medical team has enough clues to solve the medical mysteries?

  27. > [...] “spooky action at a distance” [...]

    … is the domain of quantum entanglement, and the enemy of quantum anything is decoherence – macroscopic objects like humans or vinyl record album are in non-entangleable mixed state.

  28. >>That’s about as rewarding as playing a game with a young child who keeps making up the rules as they go along.

    >Ha! As a child, I did that at least once. I was trying to invent a card game.

    BTW there is a card game called Bartok / Wartoke / Last One Standing where the winner of each round invents a new rule which must be obeyed for the remainder of the game. It starts from limited “shedding” rules similar to Crasy Eights / Macao. Very nice to play with the good company. We usually stop when late, or when the inventor of the rule doesn’t remember to use it ;-)

  29. I came up with a word game where every rule must obey itself and all previous rules– for example, “Every rule must begin with a vowel.”

  30. >Isn’t [inferior lit-fic] being redundant?

    Heh. Yeah, so most of it since 1910 or so has been pretty awful, and I’m not sure whether the pre-1910 stuff averaged better or only looks that way because the relative crap is long forgotten. Still, it is possible to discern a difference between the few writers who play that game well (Jorge Luis Borges, say, or Umberto Eco) and the vast wasteland of John Irvings and Norman Mailers and the like.

  31. Is it merely a matter of lit fic being subject to Sturgeon’s Law, or do you think the odds of good stuff is lower than in genre?

    I’ve read some of Borges memetic fiction, and it struck me as very uninteresting.

  32. FWIW, both Mary Robinette Kowal and John Scalzi are highlighting Irregular Verbs and Other Stories today, Mary as part of her “My Favorite Bit” series and John as part of his “The Big Idea” series. Both pieces are actually by the author, giving his answers to the (implied) questions of each series’ title.

  33. >do you think the odds of good stuff [in lit-fic] is lower than in genre?

    I do think that, because in modern lit-fic the idea of communication with a mass audience seems to have been largely abandoned. You get writers writing for other writers, for critics, for academics, and for an elite market that treats the product mainly as a form of display good rather than something they actually enjoy. The results tend to be cramped, incestuous, and sterile.

    Of course, the same degenerative process is visible in a lot of other forms of modern art, too.

  34. >Both pieces are actually by the author, giving his answers to the (implied) questions of each series’ title.

    Mostly there isn’t much there there, but one sentence in the first piece suggests that Johnson dumped a bunch of factory seconds and rejects into this anthology. Of course he dresses this up as an artistic statement.

  35. >I’ve read some of Borges memetic fiction, and it struck me as very uninteresting.

    I recommend The Garden of Forking Paths and Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Have you encountered either?

  36. Yes, I’ve read a fair amount of Borges’ philosophical fiction, and liked it. However, he also wrote short stories about knife-fighting in gangs (this is from faint memory), and those seemed undistinguished.

  37. >Yes, I’ve read a fair amount of Borges’ philosophical fiction, and liked it.

    That’s the only part of his output I’ve encountered. There’s no guarantee of any author being creatively brilliant all the time, of course.

    Given that Borges’s eyesight was failing by 1939 and gone by 1954, he probably never became aware of genre SF at all. That’s a shame; he had the intelligence and interests to do it well.

  38. I’m not sure that Borges work would have been improved by contact with genre sf– he was doing something unique.

    Now that I think about it, I’m surprised that no one else (at least in English) seems to have followed his lead.

  39. 1) I have never before seen “mcguffin” used to mean “a science-fictional premise”, only the original Hitchcockian meaning of “the object that motivates the plot”. I’m not entirely surprised to see this extension; it would sound right, and no one ever coined a term for the SFnal meaning.

    2) … Indians …. deliberately infected by smallpox via trade blankets. A myth which has become absolutely canonical on the Left, despite a total lack of evidence that it ever happened. (There is one letter between British colonial officials which discusses it as a possibility.) OTOH, no one on the Left knows that the U.S. government sent paid vaccinators among the western Indians in the early 1800s. (This was actually corporate welfare – the fur-trading companies got their pelts from the Indians, and didn’t want them to die off.)

    That Johnson invokes this myth is confirmation of where he’s coming from – as if “transgressive” wasn’t enough. Just as if an author included the “blood libel” as a “plausible” plot element.

  40. >… Indians …. deliberately infected by smallpox via trade blankets. A myth which has become absolutely canonical on the Left, despite a total lack of evidence that it ever happened. (There is one letter between British colonial officials which discusses it as a possibility.)

    I have seen a pointer to documentary evidence that the British attempted it after the siege of Fort Pitt in 1763 – a letter from a trader speaking of “the desired effect”. The left-wing folk belief that the U.S. Army or civilians did this during the opening of the West is unsupported by evidence – and, I think, rather unlikely for a really grim reason. Smallpox spread so rapidly among the Indians after first contact that by the time of the Louisiana Purchase essentially every native who hadn’t acquired immunity was already dead.

  41. It is considered canonical at Williams College (Williamstown, MA) that Lord Jeffrey Amherst (after whom Amherst College is named) pioneered the practice of giving infected blankets to American Indians. I believe this is the Fort Pitt incident to which Eric referred.

  42. I actually fired this post off to the English prof who taught me the university’s Science Fiction class most of a decade ago. It seemed appropriate, given one of the things that felt most wrong to me about his class was his definition of sci-fi(which I don’t remember verbatim, but which was fairly heavily based on it being invariably used as metaphor, despite his choice of a Jules Verne short story which he explicitly admitted had no metaphor)

    “Yes, I remember you. Hard to believe it’s been so many years. Thanks for passing this along. It really is a great little interrogation of what defines the SF genre. As to my values, I think I’ve evolved a little bit (fingers-crossed). I try to teach SF as a series of possibilities at the genre level. So, it might be hard SF, it might be a technologist branch of fantasy, or it might be a particular writing technique (the language of possibility). This author has obviously picked a side (though I do find it interesting that he quotes Delaney, who is easily the guiltiest writer of SF “lit-fic” I can think of). Still, I’m glad to be reminded of how intense this debate can be. It’s good to see how purists (of any school of SF thought) view the integrity of the genre. Thanks again. Hope post-grad life is going well for you!”

  43. “Do you know of anybody with a solid background in SF who’s made a serious attempt at literary fiction, and how well they did?”

    Iain [M] Banks?

    While I agree that there is a tendency of modern literature (and art generally) to dispense with such banalities as Proper Plots and descend into ‘artistic’ self-absorbed wankery, I’m not sure I agree that the lack of a clear and logical plot resolution is inherently a bad thing nor that such a lack automatically disbars a work from the right to the label of sci-fi.

    There are some excellent SF stories out there, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ which diligently build plausible worlds following the definitions of the author, Niven etc. There are also others which do not but are equally enjoyable and no less deserving of being shelved in the SF section. Some of the more powerful SF can in fact be those stories which use SFnal worlds as a vehicle to explore concepts and questions, whether psychological, anthropological, theological or other -logical, which the author may not feel they can adequately or interestingly explore in the context of the known world. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a classic example, being lit fic that I would absolutely also class as SF. And yes, I am aware that Atwood herself does not like the label but I call literary snobbery on that one.

    I disagree quite fundamentally with such a constraining definition of SF and I consider that one of the great joys of SF is in fact its inherent lack of solid rules and the resulting variety. As far as the constraints providing clear expectations to the reader, I would consider that to be the province of the *sub-genre*, of which SF has many and which is most definitely a necessary thing for all the reasons the author outlines. As far as I’m concerned, SF = world slightly or fundamentally extrapolated from any past or present known world, with any or no specific plot devices as desired. Fantasy being the same thing but without the extrapolation. YMMV of course, which is half the fun!

  44. Cathy, might the annoying novel have been Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia? I don’t usually sympathize with the bad guys, but iirc gurl jrer pheeragyl nyvir, naq gur uhznaf jrer n ercrngvat fvzhyngvba.

  45. >Cathy, might the annoying novel have been Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia?

    I think that’s it, all right. I recognized the description and that it was one of Robert Charles Wilson’s books but couldn’t place the title.

  46. > I do think that, because in modern lit-fic the idea of communication with a mass audience seems to have been largely abandoned. You get writers writing for other writers, for critics, for academics, and for an elite market that treats the product mainly as a form of display good rather than something they actually enjoy. The results tend to be cramped, incestuous, and sterile.

    I have been meaning to ask several times how the huge and incredibly varied output of “lit-fic” in English can be reasonably summed up in two sentences – are we to take them as literal definitions or polemical jokes?

    Maybe I’m biased by my own background and interests – for my English studies at University I had to read lots of non-European and non-American fiction in English. Apart from the intrinsic value of these books, what kept surprising me is the huge difference in the issues and points of view under the thin veil of a, say, coming of age story.

    On the contrary, in Eric’s and other regulars’ comments I sometime see an incredibly narrow view of English literature, as if all writers of “lit-fic” in English were born in New York, AND called Susan Sontag.

    I think that this dismissive attitude misses an obvious fact, namely that most of “lit-fic” in English is definitely NOT aimed at an elite market, and is on the contrary quite popular in style in content. I am quite sure about this, since I do live in a country, Italy, where Italian literature (and to an extent, even the Italian _language_ itself) has been restricted to an elite.

    From the outside, I can see that the huge readership of fiction in English inevitably falls into rather rigid reading habits and that most English fiction, is actually genre-fiction. Only within such a vast literature can a review begin like this: “In many ways, this is the classic married-middle-aged-wife-is-abandoned-by-husband-but-learns-to-face-life but with an interesting twist”.

    I suspect that many of the traits Eric dislikes so much are just conventions blindly followed by writers, editors and readers, that are just necessary because of the _popular_ nature of that type of fiction, aimed at a potentionally huge market. In this sense, much of English fiction is under the same constraints of a Hollywood bluckbuster, or prime time TV, and should be approached as such. The tormented hero, the social sensibility, the doomed genius etc are just tropes that reassures the reader but in the end say nothing whether the show is worth watching. A thinking reader should be expected to see beyond these tropes.

    Just my 2 cents, but do be aware that the “elitist” accusation aimed at the most popular literature in the world would sound very odd outside the US – maybe some explaining could help …

  47. “Cathy, might the annoying novel have been Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia?”

    Bingo, that’s it. It really turned me off to anything else by the same author, so thank you for reminding me of his name.

    “gur uhznaf jrer n ercrngvat fvzhyngvba”

    I don’t have a problem with a problem with a fvzhyngvba being the key reveal and central plot element, and in fact I think there’s room for much more SF built on that, but I felt like there wasn’t any resolution at the end. Others may have other opinions.

  48. “It is considered canonical at Williams College (Williamstown, MA) that Lord Jeffrey Amherst (after whom Amherst College is named) pioneered the practice of giving infected blankets to American Indians.”

    I know he wrote a letter recommending this, but I am not certain if it is solidly established that this actually happened vs. being merely proposed. (I’m also not saying that it didn’t. But in the absence of firm evidence, I remain a bit skeptical.)

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