A number of years back I had the opportunity to meet Michael Swanwick. I attended a modest science fiction convention in Edmonton (Canada), hoping to hang out with my Canuck colleagues, put faces to some of the names that had been popping up alongside mine on the contributor pages of various genre magazines and anthologies. I was surprised that someone of Swanwick’s stature was attending—must have been a combination of a fortuitous touring schedule and the alignment of the planets (cue “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, please). I had fun at the convention, tootling about with my buddy, Dan, glancing surreptitiously at nametags, looking for people I knew only through their work. Met colleagues like Peter Watts and Robert Runte, Sean Stewart…good folks. I had no idea what Swanwick looked like and someone finally was good enough to point him out to me.
I approached him with some trepidation, hoping he wouldn’t recall that I’d panned one of his books, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (or something like that) in the New York Review of Science Fiction. Couldn’t help it; bad book. It was like Swanwick, a hard science guy, was tentatively dipping his toes in the lucrative fantasy market. He was simply out of his depth and the book was a stutter step in an otherwise excellent body of work (see: Vacuum Flowers, Stations of the Tide).
Fortunately, I had a good ice breaker since something he’d written, a short story or novella (I forget which) had just won a Hugo Award. I congratulated him and introduced Dan, everyone dutifully shaking hands. I saw his eyes dart down to our name badges but no bells rang because the conversation stayed genial…
…until I made a fateful mistake.
We were talking about the state of contemporary science fiction, all of us agreeing that the genre was in pretty good shape, some exciting writing out there. Then I made the observation that I wished the scientists who moonlighted as sci fi authors would spend as much time in the English Literature racks as they did their bloody physics textbooks and I saw Swanwick’s face harden like quick-drying cement.
“That’s why it’s called science fiction,” he snapped, or words to that effect.
“And that’s why science fiction writers are looked down on by mainstream critics,” I countered. “They may get their tech shit right but their prose is clunky and…”
Well, the conversation broke off not long afterward, Swanwick moving away to seek friendlier company. I could see Dan shaking his head in amusement.
For the record, that wasn’t my only social gaffe that weekend. It was around the time that Stephen King got hit by a van while out walking and suffered grievous injuries. I’m not a fan of King’s and when someone in a group I was passing brought up the accident, I remarked that if I had been driving, I would have backed up and finished the job. I’d had more than a pint or two of complimentary beer at that point but the jab was tasteless, no question, and received with appropriate shock by those present.
“Who is that guy?” someone hissed.
Well, truth be told, I’m a snob. And an elitist. I don’t read for pleasure, I read to learn something from the writer, picking apart their prose, analysing their style and word choices, point of view. There aren’t many genre writers who stand up well under such close scrutiny.
Fantasy writers…well, fantasy writers are uniformly terrible. Their audience is made up of pointy-eared boneheads who can’t wait for the next installment of the latest Robert Jordan abomination, a thousand pages of muck he manages to churn out on a monthly basis. Airheads. Twats of the first order.
Horror fiction has gone the way of the dodo—odd, that. Especially since there has been a host of high-grossing (emphasis on gross) slasher flicks over the past couple of years. You’d think publishing houses would be catching on and breathing some life into their dormant horror lines. But, then, publishers and editors aren’t that bright or observant, I’ve argued for years that most are barely sentient.
Science fiction…well, I’ve always had a soft spot for space operas, galaxy-spanning works by the likes of Iain M. Banks and Vernor Vinge. Lately I’ve taken a hankering to guys like Richard K. Morgan, Tony Daniel and Charles Stross. I really dig the dark, depressing visions of Peter Watts.
But even as I’m reading my faves, that critical eye of mine is darting along and I’m frowning at the pages of exposition describing the deployment of nanometer thick solar sails or the operation of ram scoop starships, etc. etc., blah, blah, blah. Why do these fucking geeks feel the necessity of having every rivet of their imaginary space vehicles certified by NASA or some computer jockey at JPL? Who gives a shit?
Exposition is exposition, folks. And all that impressive science is getting in the way of the story, slowing things down to a crawl while you impress us with your research and erudition.
And have you noticed that while sci fi scribblers are quite good at describing possible futures involving A.I., FTL, “grey goo”, terraforming, et all, when it comes to creating the three dimensional people who populate these worlds, they fall flat on their faces? And the sex scenes, my God, have these guys (mainly guys) ever had penetrative intercourse? Maybe that’s why this whole “transhumanist” shtick is so big with the geeks—virtual sex isn’t so sticky and icky and maybe, with some careful engineering, we can get rid of the messiness of reproduction and evacuating waste in one technological swoop.
So, hey, you hard science types, put away your slide rules and Blackberries, shut off those role-playing games, shitcan those fucking physics texts and take a bite out of some of the great mainstream authors out there whose talent leaves you eating their book dust. Scribes like Paul Auster, Robert Stone, Colson Whitehead, Cormac McCarthy—they have a lot to teach you (probably more than you dare believe). For sheer power of the printed word, you can’t beat the Annie Dillard (Holy the Firm will make you want to break every pen on your desk and tear up your latest paper on “Theories Relating to Anomalous Telemetry on the Interstices of Event Horizons”).
One last observation: all of the theories and extrapolations scientist-slash-writers are taking such great pains to present (to readers who will skim past that techno shit anyway) will likely be trashed by future discoveries and extrapolations. That’s the way science works. Better, instead, to shoot for universal truths—Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, which includes not a single equation or long-winded description of the engines that brought the Earthmen to the Red Planet, will be read a hundred years from now. It’s the power of the writing, dummies, the beauty and music of the prose.
Outdated science is quaint, laughable. In twenty years, likely less, the cosmological musings of the smartest egghead in the class of ’07 will be viewed with the same amusement and condescension as the cannon-propelled spacecraft from the 1936 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Things to Come.
Science is finite.
Good writing, on the other hand, lasts forever.