I was thinking of the uses of SFF. When I was a kid, the stories told me about police states and nuclear holocaust, which was a lot more honest than 1950s sitcoms. Of course there is escapist SFF and wish-fulfillment fantasies, but the best of SFF is real and — because it isn’t confined by current reality — it can issue warnings and show better alternatives. Good stuff.

Literary Fiction



The above link is to a Washington Post review of a ‘literary’ novel by R. F. Kuang.

I checked Kuang’s Wikipedia entry. She has previously published fantasy. I wonder if part of the problem — for this reviewer — is SFF does not focus on character the way ‘literary’ fiction does. Someone trained in SFF may not develop characters to the satisfaction of a literary reviewer. In addition, the reviewer here complains of info dumps, which are often okay in SFF — and necessary and interesting. Though they are less interesting if the dumps are about the contemporary real world. (I am struggling with a dim memory of a story, I think by Lin Carter, which is a parody of Gernsback’s Ralph 24C41+. The protagonist rides a contemporary NY subway, while explaining how the subway works and what a scientific miracle it is. The story is very funny.)

To a considerable extent, SFF is about information: a different society, strange creatures, weird ideas… The people often exist not as complex personalities, but as guides to the environment and the ideas.

And you describe an environment differently if it isn’t real. The reviewer here complains that Kuang doesn’t do a good job of describing the publishing world as it is. I bet Kuang doesn’t know enough about the publishing world. However, accuracy of detail and the conviction that the author has gotten the real world right does not work in SFF. Rather than recording the real world, the SFF writer invents.

I love Jane Smiley’s Moo, because it’s about a Midwestern land grant university. I grew up in a Midwestern land grant university. Smiley is 100% correct (and funny as hell) about department secretaries. But the pleasure of recognition is different from the pleasure of surprise.

Having written that, I remember that much realistic fiction introduces us to new places and societies. Dickens’ London is very different from the American Midwest circa 2000. I think the question of how SFF is different from Dickens is too complex for me right now. And I tend to think of Dickens as SFF. Remember the magalosaurus dragging its way up a London street at the start of Bleak House. The line between the animate and inanimate is often unclear in Dickens. Houses are described in human terms. Humans are described as being like machines. (I can’t remember the name of the guy in one novel who chugs around like a steam tugboat.)

I am going to stop here. I have to go out and buy asparagus at the Farmers’ Market.

The Golden Days

(This post is pulled from facebook and begins from a Jonathan Letham story in The New Yorker, which is based on the Robert Heinlein story “And He Built a Crooked House.” If you try the above link you will run into a paywall. Sorry about that. I will see if there is a way around it.)

I kind of miss the old days, when SFF was an enclave of not-well-respected readers and writers and when SFF would not appear in The New Yorker, unless it was by an established literary writer doing their own version of fantastic fiction.

Two things have happened since the golden days of my youth. SFF has overwhelmed popular culture, due in good part to CGI. (Once you have CGI, you have to use it, and what better, more spectacular way than SFF?) The other thing has been the blurring of the boundary between literary fiction and fantastic fiction. I’m not sure why this happened. Maybe a lot of artists of all kinds grew up on SFF and did not leave it entirely behind. The line between SFF and literature was never as strongly drawn outside America, so another element was writers like Calvino and Borges, clearly fantastic and clearly literary.

An important element in the US (I think) is McCarthyism. A lot of American writers retreated into psychological novels about the middle class as a way of avoiding trouble. (My old friend John Rezmerksi said I was wrong here, and the psychological novel goes back to Henry James. Could be, but a fear of attracting red baiters may have made the psychological novel suddenly attractive after WWII.) SFF became a safe place to write about more varied topics, because it was pulp fiction, kid fiction. No one paid much attention to it. To me as a kid it was far more realistic than realistic fiction, since it talked about nuclear holocaust and police states and the horrible pressure to conform…