content by

Kathryn Cramer

Fiction and Excerpts [1]

Fiction and Excerpts [1]

Secretary of the Swedish Academy thinks American lit is too intimate with American mass culture

American literary culture as a whole just got a bracing blast of genre ghettoization: Horace Engdahl, of the Swedish Academy which makes the selections for the Nobel Prize in literature, has a few choice words for American literature. John Lichfield reports in The Independent‘s book section:

In an interview with an American journalist this week, he dismissed the writing of the US – the land of Melville, Hemingway and Fitzgerald – as “too isolated, too insular”. “They don’t translate [foreign books] enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” he said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

American writers were “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” he told the Associated Press. “Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world.”

The specific criticisms quoted are not wrong. It is true that from an intellectual and aesthetic standpoint, not enough foreign language books are translated into English and published in the English language (and this is true for the entire English-speaking world, not just the US). And he’s also correct that this ignorance is restraining. And certainly trends in mass culture have undue influence over literature. (One could have a whole other argument over whether postmodern techniques helped or hurt in that regard.)

[More behind the cut…]

New Scientist doing a “science fiction special”

Alison George writes in New Scientist:

Science fiction is all about the future, but what does the future hold for science fiction?

With the death earlier this year of Arthur C Clarke, the last of science fiction’s Golden Age giants, and with mainstream literature becoming increasingly speculative and futuristic, is science fiction as a genre dying out?

We plan to explore this question in a special edition of New Scientist out on 15 November—as well as reviewing the best new science fiction books and talking to some of the world’s leading writers.

But to kick things off, we want you to tell us about your favourite science fiction.

Vote now and win

The first three names drawn out of a (virtual) hat will win the three best science fiction films and books, as voted for by New Scientist readers.

Vote for your favourite sci-fi film (and explain why it’s your favourite)

Vote for your favourite sci-fi book (and tell us why)

They also have a list of their staff’s favorite SF books:

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Hitchhiker’s Guide is the out-and-out best sci-fi book by several dead whales and one bowl of petunias. Anyone who disagrees with me is clearly a crass Golgafrinchan who should be forced to listen to Vogon poetry for as long as it takes,” wrote one of our editors.

All right then. Tell them about your favorites!

Gloom & Wartime SF: A reponse to Damien Walter

Damien G. Walter has written a think piece, Science fiction doesn’t have to be gloomy, does it?, for The Guardian. On the one hand, he argues that pessimistic SF has a distinguished literary history: “Science fiction evolved into a sophisticated literature of ideas, offering dark warnings of the future to come.” But his concluding paragraph reads:

The challenge for writers of science fiction today is not to repeat the same dire warnings we have all already heard, or to replicate the naive visions of the genres golden age, but to create visions of the future people can believe in. Perhaps the next Nineteen Eighty-Four, instead of confronting us with our worst fear, will find the imagination to show us our greatest hope.

Pessimism in science fiction and fantasy is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few years as an editor of two Year’s Best volumes. While conventional wisdom dictates that readers tend to prefer more up-beat SF and that the Eeyores of the SF field just don’t sell, what I find as an anthologist picking stories during wartime and in the midst of the unfolding of various other dystopian scenarios is that a lot of the best SF and fantasy lately is really dark.

Do the darker stories that catch my eye as the best of the year break down into dire warnings we’ve already heard? Mostly not. Nor do I see much replication of golden age visions except reprocessed via the tools of postmodernism. I also don’t think that providing rays of sunshine through the storm clouds is really the solution particularly, nor necessarily the most workable aesthetic choice, unless you are in Hollywood. And though I am planning to vote for the presidential candidate whose slogan this resembles, I am not sold on an aesthetic of visions of the future people can believe in.

[More below the fold…]

Science-fictional Nuggets Found in the News

A couple of items that crossed my path this week struck me as raw materials for science fiction:

1) How to save your LHC story, now that they switched it on and the world didn’t end: LHC shuts down for 2 months over faulty wiring. The LHC will not be back online until April because of “an electrical glitch caused a helium leak.” So, if I were were writing an SF story about the LHC, the detail of the faulty wiring would be the tell-tale sign that we were in the alternate universe—the one that didn’t end when they turned it on.

2) Readymade dystopian setting: PETA Urges Ben & Jerry’s To Use Human Milk!

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a letter to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., urging them to replace cow’s milk they use in their ice cream products with human breast milk, according to a statement recently released by a PETA spokeswoman.

First of all, the nutritional and chemical intake of the lactating women would need to be controlled somehow. No glass of wine; no Zoloft for that postpartum depression; no peanuts because allergens might be transmitted, etc.

Secondly, PETA has not considered the scale of the B & J’s operation. Production on an industrial scale requires industrial control of a supply line. Speculation on how one might accomplish that is rich material for dystopian science fiction.

The obvious solution: Third World factory farms! After their babies are harvested for adoption mills, women in indentured servitude are warehoused and machine-milked several times a day like cows to provide milk for a new designer ice cream flavor produced by a company in Vermont.

So your protagonist walks into a B&Js and sees a new flavor called “Mother’s Milk.” She is in an alternate universe, one the LHC didn’t destroy. She is pregnant and single and looking for a job. There is an intriguing ad in the paper, but the job appears to involve international travel . . .

So get to work!

John Crowley tries to make sense of it all

John Crowley has a LiveJournal post in which he tries to make sense of the week’s news (Palin, the Large Hadron Collider, the stock market, etc.): The Triumph of Evanescence. It is of course all written in characteristic Crowleyesque prose:

The events on Wall Street add also to my sense that things appearing as large, even huge, and substantial, and long-lasting, and solid, are in fact not so. Billions and trillions of dollar values evanesce in moments, just like the universe eaten by a perfect vacuum. Firms housed in marble halls, on whose worth real lives are founded, vanish like fairy castles. I don’t think that they were fake, or Potemkin villages, cheap impositions on credibility that ought to be replaced by more actual (!) structures that could be better relied on: I am feeling as though substantiality itself is not all it’s thought to be. Great huge long-lasting things are not different from small ephemeral things. “All that is solid melts into air.”

What I am puzzled about is my emotional or spiritual reaction to these things. I feel a weird exhilaration. I don’t mean I feel weird; I feel exhilarated and in some way comforted or uplifted or both; it’s weird to feel that way.

An anonymous person in the comment section replies, “Oh my—a little bit more and I join your cult. Really.”

Meanwhile, Scientific American has just reprinted Benoit Mandelbrot’s 1999 essay How Fractals Can Explain What’s Wrong with Wall Street.

Vietnamese SF

Via the Viet Nam News Agency, I read that there is Vietnamese science fiction: Sci-fi writer inspires real world thinking, being an interview with Vietnamese SF writer Vu Kim Dung. I don’t think I’d previously been aware of a Vietnamese SF field.

Science fiction has its own large-scale world federation. It has developed rapidly and created many promising authors. In Viet Nam, writers such as Viet Linh, Pham Ngoc Toan, Pham Cao Cung and myself have created science fiction for decades. We have attracted many readers, but so far the genre hasn’t fared well.

I’m curious whether any of these folks made it to the Japanese WorldCon. Any of you met them or know their work?

Bookstore as Escape Hatch

The Los Angeles Times published an interesting piece a few days ago by a writer named David Ulin entitled Letter from New York: St. Mark’s Bookshop.

If anyone has any doubt that genre fiction has crossed over—not just into the mainstream but also into more alternative corners of the culture—New York’s St. Mark’s Bookshop offers indisputable proof. I made a quick visit there this morning, and a good half of the featured new and noteworthy titles were mystery and science fiction: Walter Mosley’s Blonde Faith, the anthologies Manhattan Noir 2 and Steampunk—all on the shelves where volumes of Lacan and Derrida used to preside.

Ulin concludes with

This, it seems to me, is the real draw of books—not escapism but real (if temporary) escape. If the scene at St. Mark’s this morning is any indication, I’m not the only one who needs that in the midst of these confusing days.

Ulin makes me want to drop everything and head for the nearest excellent old bookstore to look for a door into a better world.

The LA Times also has a piece by Geoff Boucher on the reissue of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World.

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s Derivative Works Contest

Benjamin Rosenbaum has come up with a clever way to promote his short story collection The Ant King and Other Stories (Small Beer, 2008). Not content just to offer it for download under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, he is holding a contest to see who can create the best works derivative of the stories in the book:

Contest Rules

  1. Create a derivative work of any story in The Ant King and Other Stories.
  2. Place it under the same license (you do this just by including a declaration to that effect on the work in its published form).
  3. Post a link to the work (or some kind of recording or representation of the work, like a youtube video if it’s a live performance, or a picture of it if it’s, like, a vase or something) in the comments to this blog entry.
  4. Derivative works can be translations, plays, movies, radio plays, audiobooks, flashmob happenings, horticultural installations, visual artworks, slash fanfic epics, robot operas, sequels, webcomics, ASCII art, text adventure games, roleplaying campaigns, knitting projects, handmade shoes, or anything else you feel like.
  5. On March 3, 2009 (that gives you six months), I will send signed (and extensively doodled-upon) hardcover copies of The Ant King and Other Stories to the creators of the three derivative works that I like the best.
  6. Obviously, other than what’s covered in the CC license, you retain all rights to your works, so if you’ve made, you know, House-Beyond-Your-Sky-themed coasters, you get to sell them or put drinks on them to keep rings off your coffee table or whatever. And if you want to actually sell the rights to reproduce the derivative work commercially, I will in all probability tell you that you can, unless you’re, like, a Hollywood studio. :-)

It’s an interesting idea, though the stories in the book have a bit of a literary surrealist bent, not the kind of thing that lends itself to shameless sequels or fanfic.

Except maybe the story “The Orange,” about an orange who ruled the world. In my sequel, the world will be ruled by a banana. And when his subjects complain about his phallic military stances, the Top Banana will say, “Orange you glad you’re not ruled by an orange anymore.”

MSNBC on “Totally Fictional Doomsdays”

Doomsday SF is suddenly a hot topic because of all the overwrought news coverage of the Large Hadron Collider: from MSNBC, Totally Fictional Doomsdays. In addition to a really fine and theatrical photo of my dad (physicist John G. Cramer) in the laboratory, and discussion of the “eerie” parallels between the news story and my dad’s novel Einstein’s Bridge, MSNBC’s Alan Boyle provides a list of ten other novels “that explore the fictional frontiers of particle physics.”

[more below the fold…]

The Guardian suggests that Large Hadron Collider scientists haven’t read enough SF

David Barnett writes in today’s Guardian:

I wouldn’t like to go as far as branding the presumably highly qualified and very professional team of physicists gathering on the Swiss-French border today “mad,” but the question must be asked whether the boffins assembling to throw the switch on the Large Hadron Collider have ever read a work of fiction in their collective lives.

If they had spent less time reading Michael Nelkon’s Advanced Level Physics as spotty teenagers and devoted more attention to comic books and spy novels, they might be feeling as much trepidation as the rest of us at their experiments to recreate the Big Bang that gave birth to the universe.

It’s pretty rare to see someone complain that scientists don’t read enough science fiction.

(Barnett is a journalist and the author of several of novels; his website says he’s a client of our friend John Jarrold.)

A Libertarian Reading List

A libertarian anarchist named Dan Clore has published a reading list entitled Essential Science Fiction and Fantasy for Libertarians. In his prefatory remarks, he says: “Many works of science fiction and fantasy portray libertarian societies or otherwise bear relevance to libertarianism; this list names some that I consider the most essential reading for anarchists, anti-authoritarians, libertarians, and whatnot.” He also provides some story notes for each entry.

I am not a libertarian, nor particularly anarchist, but I think he’s come up with a very interesting list. Here’s what’s on it:

[list and discussion below fold…]

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