New Testament Science Fiction

There's a bit of a to-do over a recent piece on Ian Sales' blog about some comments he made regarding the commonly held 'past masters' of the genre:

"I've complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades. Such reverence frequently results in fans recommending these works to people wanting to try the genre. And that's not a good thing. Readers new to the genre are not served well by recommendations to read Isaac Asimov, EE 'Doc' Smith, Robert Heinlein, or the like. Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it's out of print. A better recommendation would be a current author - such as Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Stephen Baxter, and so on.

I can hear howls of outrage across the tinterweb."

There's a wider argument behind what Ian has to say. For people outside of the genre, authors like Clarke and Asimov are familiar touchstones they've heard of regardless of whether or not they've actually encountered their fiction.

However, these writers also date from a period when many writers - and Asimov was particularly vocal in this context - who believed that the Idea was far more important than the language used to express it; in other words, the 'story' was nothing more than a vehicle for the Idea. If the prose was a bit rough, well, that didn't matter as much as the Idea.

This is why sf has historically been seen as a low-rent form of writing typified by bad prose skills and wooden characterisation. The fact that much of it was written in a time when open racism and deeply offensive views of women were much more common currency can at times become unpleasantly obvious. Elements of this can be found, unfortunately, in some of Heinlein's novels.

This changed to a great degree first with the 'New Wave' sf of the Sixties and later with publications such as Interzone. The quality of the prose became as important as the Idea, as did developing rounded, more interesting and - particularly in the wave of New Space Opera - morally ambiguous characters. In all, things have become much better, and it's rare for me to find pleasure any more in the old-school fiction. I find that I overwhelmingly prefer to read stuff dating from the late Seventies on, with notable exceptions such as Ellison, Tiptree, Dick, Delany, Moorcock and others of similar ilk.

On the other hand, the reason some prefer the old stuff is quite simply because it's relatively straightforward, dating as it does from a time when the available scientific knowledge was still relatively easy to assimilate in a diluted fictional format.

Some critics, such as Barry Malzberg, have argued that the average non-genre reader might well have no idea what is going on in a modern sf story if they were to pick up a magazine and attempt to read the contents; that the concepts and language used to express the Idea can be particularly opaque to a casual browser with relatively little conception of such notions as quantum physics, nanotechnology or dark energy.

The answer for new readers, I think, lies in a middle-ground: accessible, well-researched and well-written fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson immediately springs to mind in this context. So does, despite the density of the ideas involved, Neal Stephenson. Ian's suggestions of Richard Morgan and Iain Banks are apt ones, in my opinion, as would be Dan Simmons and also early to mid-period John Varley.

This all isn't to say that all the older stuff is rubbish, far from it; perhaps the more accurate argument is that the older fiction being recommended is the wrong kind to recommend. Rather than the Damned Holy Trinity of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, we should be recommending Silverberg's Book of Skulls, Zelazny's Damnation Alley, and Philip K. Dick. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the difference between the two forms would be: Old Testament SF, and New Testament SF. The old, mean, lightning-bolt chucking stuff as opposed to the later, more ambiguous works.



The Digitalist

Apparently Pan Macmillan have a website dedicated to publishing in the digital age, called The Digitalist, and fascinating reading it is too. And not just because they've posted my piece on 'short fiction in the age of the ebook' over there, either. It's at TheDigitalist.net.

I'll have some news before too long concerning the increasingly imminent release of Stealing Light as an ebook.



Here's a thought that occurred to me, while I was working my way through the corrections and editorial suggestions for the sequel to Stealing Light: who reads a sequel without reading the book it's a sequel to?

There's a certain degree of infodumping in the new book, designed by me as a kind of 'reminder' of what happened in the first. Most of it happens in the first chapter. Pan want me to be sure people know what's going on if they haven't read Stealing Light. But here's the thing ... maybe it's just me, but I can't imagine picking up the second, third or whatever book in a series without reading the first one. I therefore assumed that if anyone was picking this up, they'd be picking it up after having read Stealing Light.

So does this mean that lots of people out there will read a series of books in any old order? I'm not saying it's always a bad idea - I like George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books, which have a chronological order, but you can pretty much jump in anywhere and have a pretty good idea what's going on. But I can think of quite a few series of books I really wouldn't want to read out of order.

The only time I remember doing so is Vernor Vinge's Marooned in Realtime, which turned out - I hadn't known this when I picked it up - to be a sequel to another book called The Peace War. I could read Marooned fine without having read The Peace War, but if I'd known I think I'd have hesitated.

Just wondering.


short fiction in the age of the ebook

To my surprise, I'm reading more short fiction since I got the Sony Reader than I have in years, mainly because of two factors; short pieces make for a nice occasional break from a full-length work, and I've found quite a lot of sf anthologies for sale online at quite a bit less than they'd cost me if I bought physical copies of them from a bookshop. The same goes for some novels as well. This is a bit ironic, since I recently commented on a Tor.com article that I didn't read short fiction any more because I couldn't find anything to read.

I recently bought Year's Best SF 13 for just under £3.50 from a US store - it was either BooksonBoard.com or Fictionwise.com. The current exchange rate between the US and the UK, obviously, helps a lot. But you get a lot of fiction for your buck. Next in line will likely be a new collection called Seeds of Change, available for about the same price. That's not to say they're all bargains - I bought the ebook of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, ostensibly for research, and that cost me well over a tenner, which hurt. But I've got it now, and the site I bought it from had a rebate that allowed me to pick up a copy of Asimov's (short fiction again) virtually for free. Interzone and Black Static can similarly be had as virtual editions.

A new collection of short fiction by Chris Beckett, whose The Holy Machine I rated very highly here some time ago, is also out, in both paperback and virtual edition, from Elastic Press. I'll be getting the virtual edition sometime in the next couple of weeks, and I note with pleasure that the ebook of The Holy Machine can be had for the equivalent of about three and a half quid again. Considerably cheaper than the edition I bought at a convention, which cost me about a tenner. If you own an ebook reader and you're looking for something to read, you could do an awful lot worse. It would be nice, of course, if some of the other books I'd really like to buy - Jay Lake's Mainspring, for example - were available in electronic format. But hopefully it and others will be someday.

There's a potentially very positive aspect to ebooks in relation to short fiction I hadn't previously considered. Publishers rarely produce collections of short fiction in meaningful numbers any more because they long ago ceased to be cost-effective; much of my early reading was done through the medium of collections by well-known sf authors that would be deemed financially unworthy in the modern age.

Yet without the requirement for printing, binding and shipping, it would be nice to think that short fiction collections could achieve some kind of rebirth in the age of the ebook. Although there are certainly authors such as Beckett and quite a few others with collections out, these tend to come from smaller, specialist presses and thereby both cost more, have smaller print-runs and are harder to find. Ebook publication, I think, places such collections in a better position to be found by the right audience. It certainly means an extra potential revenue source for any author who's had, say, a dozen or so stories professionally published and would like to be able to bundle them in an e-format.

In the meantime, the corrections for the new book, which is still swinging between a variety of possible titles - Nova Light, Nova Fire, Night's End, Stealing Fire, and, er, 'Nova War', the latter being the publisher's suggestion - have arrived, so I have that to work through. While I was waiting for that to turn up, I got started on book three, with about five thousand words on that so far.

I've got a paragraph or two turning up on SFSignal's 'Mind Meld' column sometime soon, and I'll post a link when that appears.


Onto the next book.

I haven't been writing much here because there hasn't been much to write about. I get up, browse the net, curse myself for my procrastination, finally get some guilt-induced writing done, eat lunch, read for a bit on the porch, come back in, browse the net some more, curse my procrastination yet again, and if I'm actively at work doing what I'm supposed to be doing - writing fiction - knock out maybe a thousand words or so.

I did have something to say about my purchase of the Sony Reader, but I felt i'd rather write a long piece about something I had an opinion about rather than several 'what I had for breakfast'-type entries. I did a lot of sitting around after finishing up the current version of the sequel to Stealing Light, with some note-taking here and there along with the occasional 'ah-hah!' moment as potential new plot-twists came to mind. But yesterday - having come up with about ten thousand words of good-enough-for-now plot synopsis - I started work on the third Dakota Merrick book proper.

'He turned to the battered sink, plugged with rags, next to which stood a large plastic jug containing their remaining water. He poured some of the last few drops into a cup and took it over to Parnias, lifting the old man’s head up slightly and tipping it towards the narrow slot that acted as a mouth. The water trickled in and Elah hardly spilled a drop. Elah then returned to the sink and poured the last remaining drops into the sink, touched plastic-tipped fingers to it and abluted the smooth surface of his face, muttering a few words of prayer as he did so. His artificial flesh felt smooth, free of blemishes or wrinkles or any of the myriad afflictions of flesh. For this, he was thankful. '

At some point in the next several weeks I'll have to step away from it, as and when the revisions to the second DM book come through. But so far the publishers seem pretty happy with it, although there's been a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing over what the title should be. At least they're asking, because a lot of publisher's wouldn't bother, to be frank.