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Rudy #8. In The SF Drawer

This will be, I think, the last of my guest posts here on Charlie's Diary. It's been fun to have such a big audience, and some of your comments have been quite valuable.

I'm pleased to have stood in for a man who's one of the greatest SF writers to come along in years. Charlie Stross, Cory Doctorow, and Lauren Beukes are my faves among the SF generations after mine. Not to mention all the wonderful weirdos I've been publishing in my free online zine Flurb over the last five years. Click the cover image to see issue #12. The preceding issues are online as well, and there's an index by authors. If you root around, you'll even find an old piece by Charlie.

Sometimes I get a little tired of being cast as a science fiction writer. In my mind, I see my novels as surreal, postmodern literature. I just so happen to couch my works in the vernacular genre form of SF because the field's tropes appeal to me. The downside is that, since my books have that SF label on them, many people don't realize that I'm writing literature.

In academic philosophy, they use the phrase "category mistake" to refer to a situation where one tries to apply a property to something that cannot possibly have this property. The classic example of a category mistake is the question, "Is virtue triangular?"

Sometimes I feel like my whole career of writing literary SF is a category mistake, and I wonder if there might be a way to get my work relabeled.

As Kurt Vonnegut famously put it in 1974, "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'Science Fiction' ... and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal." Not too long after this, Vonnegut did make it out of the drawer. Although he never stopped writing SF, he got people to start viewing his works as literature.

More recently, Jonathan Lethem is a strong example of a former SF writer who's managed the escape-from-the-ghetto move. He's a high-lit writer now, but in some sense his books are still SF, or at least fantasy-tinged. He has some interesting ruminations about this in his new book of non-fiction pieces, The Ecstasy of Influence. At this point, if I'm reading him right, Lethem seems actually to be saying that he'd always meant to become a mainstream writer, but that he'd deliberately detoured through the SF scene because he thought that would be cool. His early SF novel As She Crawled Across the Table was very good.

In terms of crossovers between mainstream and SF, others start out as a mainstream writers, and then begin adding SF elements to their novels--some weeks nearly every novel reviewed in the Sunday Times is some variant of crypto-SF. Of course these kinds of books tend to be called speculative or imaginative fiction rather than SF.

Enter bitter rant mode: The cosseted high-lit mandarins tend not be aware of just how familiar are the chords they stoop to strum. To have seen an SF movie and to have dipped into Heinlein, Asimov and the estimable Neuromancer is sufficient SF research for them! Their running-dog lickspittle lackey mainstream critics are certainly not going to call their cronies to task if they fail to create original SF. After all, science-fiction writers and readers are subnormal cretins who cannot possibly have made any significant advances over the most superficial and well-known representations, and they should only be grateful when a real writer stoops to filch bespattered icons from their filthy wattle huts. Exit bitter rant mode.

When I gripe about my SF-label to my wife, she laughs at me. "Not science fiction? You're writing about robots and talking cuttlefish and flying saucers and trips into the fourth dimension! What do you expect people to call your books?"

If my autobio doesn't break me out into the mainstream market, I've got The Turing Chronicles on deck. This is an already-finished novel about a love affair between computer pioneer Alan Turing and the Beat writer William Burroughs. Turing finds a way to turn people into shape-shifting slugs. That one will be commercial mainstream high-lit, right? No? Oh well!

I know it's only rock and roll, but I like it.

And I'm lucky to be able to write and get published at all.

Finally---please do check out my new autobiography if you get a chance. Nested Scrolls!

59 Comments

1:

Hm... and there's me wanting to be a 'mere' science fiction writer, only my tutors on the recent uni course I attended in creative writing consider me a literary science fiction writer. Me? Literary? With all my robots and computers and space flight and underwater adventures?

But wouldn't it be nice to turn the world on its head and make science fiction, literary fiction, whilst dumping the rest of literary fiction into their respective genres? Well I can dream, can't I?

2:

Literary SF. Only thing that comes close IMHO is the work of Lucius Sheppard, such as Life During Wartime. The rest is well written books based on hackneyed ideas, done to death by real SF writers.
I also share your contempt for the literary establishment. I recall reading a rapturous review of a book by a mainstream author who had come up with the brilliant idea of some kind of parallel universe plot.
Anyway, at bottom its all just people making up stories that are not factually true.

3:

The real reason is that the (The hi-lit crits) have such a disdain for SF is their poor little brains can't cope.
They reallyt are NOT educated, as I would count the word or description.

I went past an exhibition at the V&A the week before last, and had a look at it
It was ghastly.
Pseudo-"artists" making up stuff about technology and manufacture, with almost no relevance to the "real "world.
There was a tiny corner devoted to rep-rap.
Also, what really got me steaming, and walking out muttering to myself was a really beautiful AND useful object (See William Morris, my local hero here) ruined.
What had they done?
Taken an artificial hip-joint insert, beautiful stainless stell and polished ball-end, and ... put a bit of "knitting/tatting/crochet" on to it.
Destroying both the original beautiful structure/image and the utility of the object.

Contrariwise, some time ago, I saw some work by the "pop-art" people at, I think, the Tate.
I wasn't impressed by the art as such (even the R. Lichtenstain) but what showed was the superb, really-polished craftsmanship of the work presented.

4:

"The real reason is that the (The hi-lit crits) have such a disdain for SF is their poor little brains can't cope."

I imagine that would certainly be the case if they cracked open a classic Egan story such as Diaspora.

5:

Rosie, Yes, writing and publishing SF is in itself a daunting and worthy goal. One suggestion I might make is that, in developing your style, it's not a bad idea to include some mainstream writers as your models, rather than just emulating other SF writers...if you do that, you can end up with an airless, echo-chamber effect.

6:
That one will be commercial mainstream high-lit, right? No? Oh well!

Well it ought to be, if Burrough's Naked Lunch and Nova Express are considered mainstream. And with a decent word processing program you don't even need scissors and paste to create word salad like his.

I'd be curious to see what would make Turing fall in love with Burroughs. AIUI Turing had a taste for lower class bad boys; Burroughs was pretty bad, but I don't think he acted very lower class. On the other hand, casting the two of them in another story might be interesting. Turing as Snow White and Burroughs as the Queen has lots of resonance; they both have apples prominently in their life stories.

7:

Well, it's a book I would never buy.

8:

Everybody an artist now. Except for people who can draw. They are only illustrators.
There is, or was, a woman writer in Kansas the hi-lit crits said was a literary science fiction writer. But she was a English professor.

9:

I read once that artists not only knew nothing about science, they were quite proud of their ignorance. (I think the context was how Snow's "Two Cultures" was doing in contemporary times).

If true, then literary writers probably will never do SF well, especially hard SF.

But why do niche genre writers want to be in the general lit category? More recognition? More money?

10:

There have been “literary” novelists who’ve used science fiction tropes (Margaret Atwood as one example I can think of) such as time travel, genetic manipulation, dystopian worlds, and thus refuse to accept that genre tag – or at least when the Booker panel shortlists their work, though I guess the distinction is between those who wrote one sf novel out of several and someone who calls themselves an sf writer. Last year’s short-list, even though it had no sf elements, seemed (from what i’ve read and heard) to be more accessible than the more elitist of old.

There’s the literary snob’s view of SF “sci-fi” as being about a concept around which the plot and dialogue serve (though there are many fine books that fit this bill), written exclusively for men. But now these books are being made into films that show they can have a mass appeal, for both genders. And, I think, more recently the phrase ‘literary sf’ is no longer widely considered an oxymoron. So there is room for optimism, if no longer on high street bookshelves.

11:

I think that attitude is, thankfully, gradually changing. We're seeing more and more programs like DXARTS at UW in Seattle (which I considered majoring in a few years ago) aim to achieve a synthesis of art and technology/science.

To be fair, DXARTS is still at least as pretentious as "mainstream" fine art, but at least you don't have the ridiculous displays of Luddism that you often find elsewhere. In UW's case, "elsewhere" is literally the next building over: the fine arts department.

12:

I think you should start writing fantasy. Then, you will understand. But you will have to work hard at it.

13:

Remember when the "literatzis" bullied the New York times into creating a separate children's bestseller list when Harry Potter took over half of it? A writer/illustrator of children's American history books told me that the complaining "mainstream" authors should reconsider what they were writing.

14:

Well, SF does tend to require more from the reader of necessity- you cannot write decent stuff _and_ deliver all the exposition at once. It would read like hell. So the reader has to have a mental filing cabinet ready to hold explanation about lots of info on the setting. If you don't have that file system in your brain, you'll spend all your time frustrated you don't know anything about the setting...and go back to reading books set in modern New York or Cleveland or a private liberal-arts college in New England filled with angsty post-teens or whatever.

On another amusing front, it's always good to remember that the Iliad had androids in it...

15:

Alain, my latest novel, JIM AND THE FLIMS, is to some extent a fantasy, concerning a trip to the afterworld. Although, having an analytic mind, I couldn't resist sticking in somewhat logical explanations for most of the wonders.

Alex Toley, you wonder why should genre writers want mainstream acceptance? I think it's that they'd like to reach a wider audience and get more attention.

This said, we authors are notorious for being dissatisfied, back-biting, envious, bitter, resentful, peeved. On every floor there's a new ceiling, and every donut has a hole.

Even John Updike, the consummate successful mainstream writer, was dissatisfied...because he never got a Nobel prize.

So he wrote a perhaps inadventently touching story about his writer character Bech getting one!

Brucecohenpdx, you can find many posts about my creation of my Turing novel THE TURING CHRONICLES on my blog www.rudyrucker.com/blog, just use the search box and look for Turing or Turing story. It's too big a topic to go into here!

One chapter from the book, this chapter in the form of letters supposedly written by William Burroughs, appeareac in FLURB, see
http://www.flurb.net/5/5rucker.htm

16:

I hate to break it to you, but your early books were part of my SF indoctrination while simultaneously showing me how limited Burroughs (ER), Tolkien, and Howard were. Spacetime Donuts and Master of Space and Time overloaded my fragile little post-evangelical juvenile mind, and delightfully so. I think we need the crossover between "literary fiction" and SF to bust our preconceptions and crack open our imaginations.

17:

To be fair, ERB was writing adventure stories and Tolkien was essentially making up his genre as he went along - neither should be judged by what we expect of the writers who followed in their footsteps generations later.

18:

Totally agree about not limiting my reading to SF in order to write SF... you never know where the ideas come from for starters.

One of the things about SF is that your imagination can go to places where the more conventional literati don't. My guess is that they are finding themselves constrained these days, having explored most of the themes available, and this is why they are spilling over into SF.

The free reign on imagination is what attracted me to the genre in the first place. Anchoring that imagination to some reality is the real challenge. Making that imagination credible in writing is an even bigger challenge. I do wonder whether it is this credibility-making that some people think makes an SF book also an literary book.

19:

The real reason is that the (The hi-lit crits) have such a disdain for SF is their poor little brains can't cope.

Actually, that's not true any more.

The "hi-lit crits" who are aged under 50 have grown up with the same cultural influences as the rest of us. They sat through "2001" and "Star Wars" in cinemas as kids or teens, they may have seen men walk on the moon, they own smartphones and laptops. Like us, they're living in a science-fictional world. Consequently ...

There is a lit-crit career track, leading all the way up to permanent lecturer (US: full professor) in science fiction studies. (This is explicitly about books; there's a parallel track for media studies, film and TV and the like.) The folks who get to the top of that track like SF and fantasy, otherwise they wouldn't be toiling away in underpaid academic slots writing papers about Ken MacLeod and Terry Pratchett. Or dissecting the history of young-adult fantasy and anatomizing our genre.

(While this may lack appeal for you, it is very useful to me to know that there's a body of theoretical analysis I can turn to if I want to know if an idea has been used before, or is a cliche, or if there's a particular gap between existing works that I can slide into and exploit ...)

It's important to distinguish academic literary theory from the academic creative writing ladder. I harbour grave doubts about the latter -- it strikes me as being dangerously close to a pyramid scheme -- and I have heard of some faculties that famously look down their noses at the fantastic. However ...

The problem with our genre is that, around 1900-1920, the nascent modernists in literature came to a fork in the road: they could choose to document the existing human condition in photographic detail, or they could choose to explore the human condition via metaphor, confabulation, and extrapolation (the tools of SF and fantasy). They took the former path; thus defining SF/F, by virtue of having taken the other route, as a refutation of the literary virtues.

Over the past 20-30 years, however, something has happened in mainstream literature that most of us, with our noses stuck in our little genre ghetto, haven't noticed: more and more of the literary establishment have concluded that their existing program is mined out, and they need to turn elsewhere to understand the human condition in a science-fictional world dominated by rapid technological, scientific, and cultural change. You can find this in the works of Douglas Coupland, Don DeLillo, Liz Jensen, and doubtless a host of others who I've forgotten. Indeed, if you evaluate his body of work as a whole I could make a case that Neal Stephenson is a mainstream author who has simply dipped a toe in the SF field with two novels ("Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age"). And we have folks like Lev Grossman, a PhD in lit-crit and the freaking reviews editor of TIME, writing a fantasy trilogy. Here he implicitly explains why he's doing it.

My forecast for the next generation is that the elder luminaries of literary fiction (from the era of micro-focused realism and rejection of the fantastic) are ageing and over the next decades they will retire or die. Their replacements are cool with lasers and dragons.

The future, in other words, belongs to us. Although we might find it a bit uncomfortable on top of the pile as a bunch of authors with very polished character skills start moving into our dorm.

20:

Atwood first began publishing in the 1960s, as a literary academic, at a time when the literary faculty genuinely was biased against the fantastic. She is now somewhat older and has walked back her denials of being an SF author.

21:

"So the reader has to have a mental filing cabinet ready to hold explanation about lots of info on the setting."

ie the novel is a complete failure since the author never does explain what a so-called "proton" is, or does.

22:

"...was dissatisfied...because he never got a Nobel prize."

Aren't we all.
However, it is fitting since I have not done anything to deserve one. So I can live with it.

23:

Of course, there's also the case of William Gibson's last three being shelved in SF or Fiction, depending on the bookstore, or depending on who's doing the shelving--I've seen them on both in the same store.

And, also of course, there's Iain Banks, with the M. or not. How does intentionally segregating your writing fit in?

24:

Not to be petty, but as I read Rudy's post, I go the distinct feeling I'd read this somewhere before. Then it hit me: I had read it before, but last time it was called "Ghetto? But I Thought..." and it was written by Larry Niven. There's also some relevant commentary in Niven's essay "Criticism". Both can be found in his collection Playgrounds of the Mind. This just goes to show how long people in SF have been thinking about this.

Similarly, I've been seeing an increasing amount of what I'd call fantasy or science fiction turn up in the general fiction section at my local bookstore. As for Charlie's comment about Neal Stephenson, at least one bookstore can't decide where to put him, so he turns up in both. Oddly, Anathem, which I think is unquestionably SF, found its way into general fiction...

25:

Charlie remarks, "We might find it a bit uncomfortable on top of the pile as a bunch of authors with very polished character skills start moving into our dorm."

This is a key point. One of the greatest weaknesses of genre SF vis-a-vis mainstream lit is characterization. Often we're so excited about launching our latest thought experiment that we neglect to provide our characters with fresh back-stories, particularized modes of speech, emotional kinks, and the like.

Thickening up my characters' texture is in fact why I like the method that I call transrealism---when in doubt, I like to base my characters on actual people whom I've observed. There's nothing really new about this, certain painters very often work on sketches of models to fill in their crowd scenes.

26:

The "hi-lit crits" who are aged under 50 have grown up with the same cultural influences as the rest of us. They sat through "2001" and "Star Wars" in cinemas as kids or teens, they may have seen men walk on the moon, they own smartphones and laptops. Like us, they're living in a science-fictional world.

I don't know about "hi-lit crits", but the university students of today most certainly have not seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. They would have to be exposed to it in class. Star Wars (fantasy) is another matter.

As Grossman says in the article you referenced, people live in a world of tech, but don't understand it at all, only how to make it work for some applications. One of the "contradictions" of our time is that the so-called young "digital natives" might well be very competent at texting and some social media, but they are most definitely not comfortable with using technology for more traditional purposes - like using computers to compute.

A major theme we see in the movie versions of SF is fear of technology that is out of control. (c.f. Spielberg picking up rights to Robopocalyps). Is that simply because that makes a more salable product, or does it reflect a general fear of the non-tech public, and by association, literary folks? If the latter, how will literary people be able to write SF if they don't understand science or fear it?

27:

Their replacements are cool with lasers and dragons.

The future, in other words, belongs to us.

lasers = Star Wars light sabers (swords) [and blasters].

So who is this "us" you speak of? Surely not hard SF authors based on this analogy. What if the future belongs to fantasy, because literary writers are unable to distinguish sufficiently advanced technology from magic...?

28:

" One of the greatest weaknesses of genre SF vis-a-vis mainstream lit is characterization."

I read SF primarily for the ideas, with characterization being secondary. It's why I stopped reading Stephen King - excellent characterization, very weak ideas.
If mainstream authors try to move into SF and lack the ideas, I doubt whether it will impact the sales of most SF authors. When it will do is bring more mainstream readers into SF.

29:

"A major theme we see in the movie versions of SF is fear of technology that is out of control. (c.f. Spielberg picking up rights to Robopocalyps). Is that simply because that makes a more salable product, or does it reflect a general fear of the non-tech public, and by association, literary folks?"

It reflects a kind of nihilistic laziness.
It is very easy to imagine a world heroically going down in flames. It is a lot harder to imagine a world where the exponential rise of technology continues. For most writers, esp mainstream ones, we are already into the leading edge of the Singularity and they cannot see beyond it - that being a key point of its definition.

30:

"What if the future belongs to fantasy, because literary writers are unable to distinguish sufficiently advanced technology from magic...?"

What if there is no point in distinguishing sufficiently advanced technology from magic? I certainly cannot see a point from a literary stance.

31:

Could we have # 25 in Roman characters, and preferably English - please?

Or the cuurent BBC interpretation of Sherlock Holmes on TV? Hi-tech and very well done. (?)

32:

One of the greatest weaknesses of genre SF vis-a-vis mainstream lit is characterization.

One of the greatest tyrannies of mainstream lit is getting the SF genre writer to believe that.

One of my delights is to [re]read old SF and revel in the ideas, unencumbered with its well developed characters.

I question whether they would be "better" with a more modern characterization. They would certainly take longer to read.


33:

And it says something about the audience for SF and Fantasy that Lois Bujold is one of the most popular writers in both fields (she has won 4 Hugos and 2 Nebulas, which shows both her popularity and the respect given her by her peers), based on stories with strong characterization and strong ideas (the "Chalion" novels are probably the best examples of that: each is told from the POV of a strong personality with serious internal and external problems, and the plot of each depends critically on an extremely well-worked-out set of ideas about the nature of reality and the place of humans in it).

34:

I promised myself not get embroiled in interesting debates, but what the heck?

I agree with (29) - it's far far easier to take away attributes from this world and extrapolate what the remainder will look like, than to think of something completely and literally out of this world and add it into our world. So I foresee a tendency for mainstream writers to lean towards the dystopian SF. What the real SF writers can and do do is the additive in ideas. There will always be the divide between the world adders and the world subtractors. This means for the short to medium term there will also be a tendency to have better defined characters in dystopias.

For 25, 28 and 32: The other side of the coin is that if your protagonist has lived in your invented world for a significant period of time, then that world will have shaped the way he or she or it acts. Traits we are not used in mainstream literature will and must come to the fore. Hence there will be the complaints from some of the mainstreamers that the SF writers don't have enough characterization, just because we are writing about something they are not familiar with.

There is one thing I can say... inventing two strange worlds (either of which adds to our understanding of our current world) side by side and then working the consequent behavioral society and how the protagonists fit in that society and brain-mare (sorry meant to say nightmare). Does anyone think most of the mainstream writers are up to this? I for one, don't.

35:

Oh please do stop fretting about character building skills, you two. You're telling a story, not writing a biography.

36:

Characterisation in SF?
Try Genly Ai, or Shevek
(Left Hand of Darkness & The Disposessed, repectively)

37:

Both by Ursula K. Le Guin, grandmother of literary science fiction - I guess, both sides of the field can claim her.

38:

Off-Topic: Hi, Rudy. On the subject of the Transreal being about the real . . . if it's not too personal, could you post a few more pictures of Arf? I was looking at the pictures you had up for your paper life box and saw only one of him. What you wrote about him last time was some of the best character stuff I've ever read about a nonhuman.

Having had the death of a canine family member in the recent past (hard to believe it's been more than a year now! Seems like only a few weeks ago that I was sniveling in the (human) canned meats aisle while buying her last meal), I completely understand if you say this is getting too personal. But I would like very much to see photos of Arf in his doggy prime.

39:

Sorry, scentofviolets, I just don't have the time and energy to start posting special request photos!

But you can find lots of Arf stuff in my electronic lifebox, just search it for Arf, with the capital, and some of these links may lead to photos.

http://www.rudyrucker.com/blog/rudys-lifebox/

Sorry to hear your dog died!

40:

@Rosie & @Dirk

It is very easy to imagine a world heroically going down in flames. It is a lot harder to imagine a world where the exponential rise of technology continues.

I don't quite buy that argument. Purely anecdotally, I was just listening to Drew Magary on NPR, who was suggesting some dystopian SF as a way to promote his own new book.

It seems to me he was strongly of the opinion that "it must all go wrong" and that we could not sustain a modern economy without collapse. Why we should have vampires and zombies doesn't follow from this premise, but anyway...

Now that sort of opinion might be natural for people who do not have a technical training and see almost any highly complex system as rather like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff. Bound to fail. Plus a dose of "get some hubris, you techies".

So perhaps I would tend to think that Dirk could be correct in suggesting that the modern world has already reached the singularity for literary folks. But it seems to me this attitude has been going on since for at least a couple of centuries with Romanticism.


41:

It's hard for us techies to really notice the radical changes going on around us. Partly because we are involved in some way, and partly because we understand it's not magic. Then we have people who don't have a clue how even something as simple as a TV works, and then they suddenly (2011) see a talking computer beat the best Humans on a popular game show. Then Siri arrives on their phone. To them that is scary REAL AI - it's arrived. Then they see Asimo or Big Dog or the more humanoid stuff. Even the iPad is something they only saw previously on ST:TNG. The perception is one of serious, rapid and highly visible change.

42:

Perception? I'd say the reality is one of serious, rapid and highly visible change.

The difference between the techies and the clueless is that the former sees it coming. You probably read about speech recognition years before Siri showed up, and appreciate that google is doing something similar - so to you Siri is an evolutionary technical triumph pushing back the boundaries of user interfaces. Some people don't have that background and can only see it as magic out of nowhere.

As to the fad for failed-technology dystopias, I don't know; perhaps part of technical training that we don't think about much is the subtle lessons that machines sometimes break down, when they don't work there's a reason, and that a properly trained and equipped person can usually deal with the problem.

43:

No worries. Sassy passed in September of 2010. Some things stick longer with you than others ;-)

Anyway, my thought regarding transrealism is . . . why not write a story about a dog? Only, he's not a dog, he's an alien. Bonus! Your doggy alien isn't any smarter than Arf was - but where Arf really wanted that chicken and couldn't get it because he couldn't "see" that all he needed to do was go around the other way, your alien has that "easy upgrade" for intelligence.

There have been quite a few authors using their dogs to tell a story (and cats, mustn't slight the cats), but in terms of characterization, they don't see to be very good at getting it right. The Call of the Wild might have been a quintessential Boy's book, but as far as dissecting the doggy psyche . . . meh. What a coup for the transrealists if they can actually publish such a book first!

44:

These people sniping about being put upon by lit crits: I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that they tend toward the libertarian and conservative and don't actually read that much mainstream fiction.

How do I know this? Because this sort of nonsense came up all the time in the old Usenet discussion groups. The last time for me was sometime in 1996 when I asked these worthies to actually name a book they had read with angsty English prof characters doing their angsty thing after which much angst ensued.

I think that after much mumbling and shuffling, maybe two books were finally named, one by me and the other by James Nicoll. Nothing at all from the usual complainers, who seemed mainly to be demanding more women like late period Heinlein used to write 'em.

Iow, frozen in time, and no more than five years after the first Moon landing :-(

45:

scentofviolets, maybe someday I'll write from a dog's POV, sure, I like dogs. WHITE FANG is another Jack London book with dog POV, and it seemed quite good to me, read it about 2 years ago.

And I guess you know I have a talking dog character Wow in FREK AND THE ELIXIR.

46:

OTOH, Athena Andreadis has a very different take on the SF of ideas.

http://www.starshipnivan.com/blog/?p=5692

47:

@ 42
Repeairing breakdowns ...
IF the repair techs are allowed to, and there are enough of them.
Look at Rome.
The aqueducts kept on working for many years, even after the "first sack" in 410, but later in the mid 500's there was constant local warfare, the 'ducts were wrecked, and never repaired, and the population fell from 500 000+ to below 50 000.

For decline try Detroit as a model - 2 million, down to 800 000 & shrinking

48:

Yes, and also if they have the necessary tools and spare parts.

But...it's interesting that you use aqueducts as an example. Are you familiar with the Eifel Aqueduct? To sum up its history briefly: It was built by the Romans, semi-broken in 260AD and never repaired, and forgotten for centuries. The locals raided parts of it for stone, and nobody else knew or cared. After a while Europe got more populated, and in the 1930s there was again a city in the area needing water; a team of surveyors looking for a good route for a water system poked a hole into the old channel...where they found the water was still running. Not being crazy, the 20th century team arranged for a pickup pipe to be installed and service picked up pretty much where it had left off nearly 1800 years earlier.

Darned if I know how to fit that into an SF tale, but it's a lovely little piece of technology history.

49:

Hm... the necessity for repairs can lead to invention of its own kind from which spin-offs happen...

A lot of invention can be predicted, but far from all. There is a lot of observations by chance and serendipity of combining technologies in the right way to produce a given gadget. It is this luck element that is unforeseeable by most people. This is where the imagination of the SF writer can fly: to boldly go where no imagination has gone before.

Most literary writers can only take the written SF tropes and tweak them to their own ends. Yes they may write better books and the like, but it is only after the SF writer has shown the way.

50:

SoV: Iow, frozen in time, and no more than five years after the first Moon landing :-(

That's about right. And I hope you'll all forgive me for not wanting to stick around in the tar pit with the sinking dinosaurs.

I maintain that if fiction is about anything (other than raw entertainment) it's about the study of the human condition. And science fiction is about the study of the human condition under circumstances that have been modified by science or technology (fictional or otherwise) that either doesn't exist yet or which is just coming into view.

It's possible to write SF with no human condition -- no humans -- but it's very difficult to keep it interesting.

51:

I can think of two stories I've read that were written from the POV of a machine that wasn't AI. In both cases the trick was very heavy personification and a lot of teleology. The end result was to make the machines seem like humans on the autism spectrum, but at least the reader could see them as humans, not machines. WIthout that the stories would have been engineering use cases, not science fiction.

And now I think of it, one of the stories was from sometime in the early '60s and was about a robot rocket mail carrier. It was written long after Clarke first published his idea of synchronous communication satellites, and not long before Telstar 1 was orbited. International teletype transmission was fairly common by then, and I think fax transmission of photographs had been experimented with. That's a real failure in prediction, eh? We've got the drones for that job, but they're used to deliver bombs, not letters.

52:

This excerpt from Ursula Le Guin's review of Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream illustrates a lot of what bothers me about science fiction and fanstasy writing:

The beauty of the thing is the idea of it: a novel by an obscure hack named Hitler. The danger, the risk of it is that that idea is embodied in 255 pages of--inevitably--third-rate prose.

...I doubted my own instinct here, and checked back with the stories in the collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (Avon 1970). Vivid, imaginative, and powerful, the stories make their impact through their ideas and despite their prose. They are mostly written on about the level of this sentence from "Once More, With Feeling": "There was an expectant tension in her voice that he couldn't fathom but that rippled the flesh of his thighs." Like most prose described as "punchy," "gutsy...... hard-hitting," Spinrad's is actually a highly over-intellectualized style. Nobody who responds sensually and perceptually to the sound and meaning of words could write or can read that sentence with satisfaction. How do you fathom a tension? with a plumb-line? How does her tension ripple his thighs? does it make little waves like grass in the wind on the skin, or little ridges like a washboard?--Of course one isn't expected to ask such questions, one isn't supposed to react, to the false concreteness of the verbs except in the most generalized and fuzzy way--just as with political slogans and bureaucratese.

Some literary critics are uncomfortable with the content of science fiction, but I definitely think science fiction fans are more forgiving of their writers' prose than they should should need to be.

53:

...fiction is about anything (other than raw entertainment) it's about the study of the human condition.

I have to wonder what exactly is left to explore. Isn't this a major reason why mainstream lit has run out of steam? (or so said the late Douglas Adams).

... science fiction is about the study of the human condition under circumstances that have been modified by science or technology (fictional or otherwise) that either doesn't exist yet or which is just coming into view.

How much can the human condition change and still be identifiable to readers? To some extent, we can no longer easily identify with our ancestors of just a handful of generations ago due to changing medical and technology advances. If we cannot easily identify with our descendents (and we have trouble enough with other contemporary cultures), will SF's impacts on the "human condition" seem just like philosophical thought experiments? I hope not.

54:

"but I definitely think science fiction fans are more forgiving of their writers' prose than they should should need to be."

IIRC it was Asimov who said that when reading a story you should be unaware that you are reading a story. Or something to that effect. The idea is that the story is told smoothly and with no obtrusive prose, either good or bad.

55:

I have to wonder what exactly is left to explore. Isn't this a major reason why mainstream lit has run out of steam? (or so said the late Douglas Adams).

The human condition is defined by the interior landscape, and its frontier with the exterior -- its environment. To the extent that we are changing our environment, that means the frontier is changing. For example, those older mainstream authors who are uncomfortable with computers or mobile phones are unlikely to tell us anything interesting about the social interactions of kids who grow up with social networking and texting. They're still human, but the cognitive landscape they inhabit may be radically different from that of their elders, just as the cognitive landscape of a 1940s-born Eng. Lit. major is different from that of their 1840s equivalent. If for no other reason than antibiotics and the germ theory of disease having banished childbed fever and the 10% mortality rate associated with giving birth, and the 50% mortality rate among children ... thus leading to radically different family sized (and hence social norms).

Put it another way: a mainstream novel set in the US mid-west in the 1960s, with antibiotics and electricity and a 2-kid nuclear family would read like the most exotic imaginable science fictional future to a reader in the 1860s.

56:

SF is (mostly) fun. So it can't be "literary.” From what I can tell human condition must fallen and still be falling if it is literary. CS jumped on me for going into that, so I will sit here and not even hurt a fly.

57:

Just received your bio from Amazon look forward to reading it.

bob

58:

    Even without having any characters who are particularly like oneself, one can write closely observed works about your own life experiences. And if you transmute these experiences with the alchemy of science fiction, the result is also transreal.

Rudy, are you familiar with autofiction? It's common in contemporary French writing. Your transreal writing strikes me as the exact same thing, except with a SF bent. :^)

59:

3lucid @ 58
See also the late Philip Jose Farmer.
To the point that it became deeply tiresome, in fact.

Specials

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