Respect for genre

I’ve previously written about how some literary authors don’t really understand nor respect genre fiction. Of course, that doesn’t appear to give them pause before sitting down with their quill and parchment – literary authors exclusively use olde timey equipment: true fact – to knock out a genre novel. Their attempts at writing genre tend to reflect this disdain and ignorance of the form, and they end up doing a poor job of writing it.

Enter the nineteenth most powerful person in British culture, Mr Ian McEwan, an author so influential that Simon Cowell ranked higher on that list. He – Ian not Simon – recently made headlines for his comments about science fiction.

genre respect
Source

Well, at least we know he’s treading on well-worn paths and reinventing all the tropes he’s painfully unaware of with his latest novel. But good on him for flying the ignorance flag so high so we don’t waste our time as readers.

It gets better. I received the monthly recommended review books from Penguin and saw McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, on the list. This was the publisher’s blurb:

Our foremost storyteller returns with an audacious new novel, Machines Like Me.

Britain has lost the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. In a world not quite like this one, two lovers will be tested beyond their understanding.

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control. Source.

Yes, it even has a love triangle. This is certainly not a bog-standard sci-fi novel at all. No sir. This explores big ideas… This is the cover art…

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Looks very professional. Not a first attempt at self-publishing nor creepy at all. 

There are several potential explanations here:

  1. McEwan is one of the arrogant literati who would never stoop to reading such crass material as genre fiction. Of course, when they write it, it is very important literature that you should absolutely buy and praise them for writing it.
  2. McEwan is painfully ignorant to the point that someone really should have taken him aside during the (above quoted) interview and shown him the Wikipedia page for Science Fiction on the magical communication box they carry in their pocket.
  3. McEwan is hoping that his comments will stir controversy that will help sell more copies of his books.

Now I am a bit late to the internet pile-on that inevitably results from modern faux pas as it is reactionary and lowers the quality of discourse. Definitely not because I got distracted on other things. Anyway, the reason why I have come back to this incident is that it ties into a thread I have been commenting on for several years now: Literary snobbery, or the Worthiness argument.

People like to think of the difference between genre and literature as akin to the difference between entertainment and art. Because no art is entertaining. Some have suggested the difference is in the plot-driven versus character-driven narratives. This doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, as some call literature just another genre, and others have suggested it is more about genre being built on structure. A lot of people will also exclaim, “I know it when I see it.” But this ignores the reality that literary merit is a spectrum.

But the most interesting argument I have seen defining the difference between literature and genre fiction was around the class divide. The snobbery was literally built into the divide because genre stories were published in cheaper books for the workers and the more literary stories were published in fancier books for the new middle class.*

So it is quite possible that the reason why we have comments like McEwan’s is because they are tapping into 150 years of class snobbery that disallows them from reading or appreciating genre fiction. If they do read some, it will be classed as a guilty pleasure, because they can’t be seen actually acknowledging genre as having substance.

Or it could just be about attention seeking to sell some books.

The argument doesn’t really discuss what rich people read. I assume that the rich people were too busy counting money to be bothered reading either genre or literature. 

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Book review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

AutonomousAutonomous by Annalee Newitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Future slavery gets around slavery laws by cleverly using a different word.

Jack reverse engineers pharmaceuticals so that poor people can afford life-saving drugs. She reverse engineered a new wonder work drug but finds out too late that a BigPharma company made it 100% addictive, and now people are dying. In this (dystopian) future, intellectual property and patents are protected by private armies with killer robots. One agent and his bot, Eliasz and Paladin, are hunting Jack down for her crimes as she is desperately trying to engineer a treatment for the addictive drug.

This book was difficult to review. As a novel, the writing, plotting, characters, and themes are all interesting and well done. On that basis, it is a solid 4-star book. But there was quite a bit about the premise and key plot devices/points that had me making squinty faces as my scepticism was triggered. And the more I think about those points and the premise, the more flaws I see with them.

For example, slavery is a theme discussed for humans and bots – giving rise to the title of the book. In the future companies and governments were so clever they were able to reintroduce* slavery by calling it “indentured”. This felt lazy and unrealistic. Especially since there was another part of this idea explored with franchising – parents paying to set their kids up with an education and ability to get a job – that extrapolates on the current situation for haves vs have-nots and draws upon the criticisms of capitalism. To my mind, the two ideas don’t sit together that well and meant the latter idea was wasted.

Others had some interesting things to say about the bot-human relationship. Suffice to say, it could have been done a bit better.

I suppose I was disappointed with this book. For a novel that was so well written and had clearly had a lot of thought put into it, Autonomous just couldn’t manage to drag itself away from lazy anti-corporate conspiracy ideas to the more interesting material it had on offer.

*It could be argued that slavery never stopped.

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Book review: Artemis by Andy Weir

ArtemisArtemis by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know you’ve been reading too much fantasy when a sci-fi book refers to their currency as Slugs and you just assume they use terrestrial gastropod molluscs as money.

Jazz Bashara is barely making ends meet in Artemis, the moon colony. After a series of bad life decisions, she is living poor and having to hustle to survive. Then Trond Landvik offers her a lot of money to do something shady, a crime that could change her fortunes. Of course it will go smoothly…

Before Artemis was released I tried to get my hands on an Advanced Review Copy. I loved The Martian, the first hard sci-fi novel I’ve enjoyed in decades, so I was really looking forward to Andy’s follow up. Unfortunately, I missed out and had to buy the paper edition when it arrived in stores. My fortunes didn’t improve. Everyone in my family decided they needed to read my copy of the book, so over 6 months later I decided I’d have to get another copy, this time the audiobook read by Rosaria Dawson. No one stole this copy. Yay.

This is obviously a very different novel to The Martian. The narrative format, the main character, and the antagonist are all far removed from the Mark Watney diary about a man vs nature adventure. Instead, Jazz is more akin to a likeable antihero, one who has to use her big brain to solve the continuingly mounting problems.

While this was never going to be comparable to The Martian, this was another very entertaining novel from Andy Weir.

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Book Review: Space Team by Barry J Hutchison

Space Team (Space Team, #1)Space Team by Barry J. Hutchison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a Space Review of a Space Book.

Cal Carver is all charm. That’s why as a low-level crook the warden decides he should spend the night in a cell with the most ruthless cannibal on the planet. This would have been a concern if he wasn’t accidentally recruited for a team whose goal is to stop a pathogenic outbreak that could start a war. In space! Cal is teamed up with a by-the-book rookie, a mechanoid whose abilities are dialled in, a humanoid wolf, and a Splurt. Together they are Space Team… when they aren’t trying to kill each other.

This was lots of fun. As Hutchinson notes in his author comments, this story was meant to be entertaining escapism. No deeper meanings, nothing serious, just fun. And it succeeds masterfully. The pacing is quick, the jokes come thick and fast, and the adventure keeps you entertained.

I’ll be reading more from Barry and this series for sure.

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Book Review: Burn by James Patrick Kelly

BurnBurn by James Patrick Kelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the Upside, no one will take your calls.

Prosper Gregory “Spur” Leung wakes up in a hospital. All he can remember is the fire and his skin burning. After the docbot patches him up he makes a few calls and heads home to his farm on the utopia of Walden – a planet being gradually terraformed to forest, orchards, and farms. Those few calls make the homecoming… interesting.

Every time I put this book down I made the same comment, ‘I don’t know what this book is about.’ Even now that I’ve finished I’m still at a loss as to what the point of it all was. In the background, there are some ideas. In the foreground, there is a naive protagonist you could use to explore those ideas, but I’m not sure the ground overlapped at any point.

That isn’t to say that this book isn’t well paced, exciting, and entertaining; it is. There are some interesting themes as well, like environmentalism and competing interests. I breezed through and enjoyed reading the book, but can’t help but feel that the story was missing something.

I received an advanced review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Book review: Obscura by Joe Hart

ObscuraObscura by Joe Hart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In space, everyone goes a bit crazy.

Dr Gillian Ryan is frustrated. She is trying to develop a brain scanning technique in order to help her daughter to avoid the same fate as her late husband. Losian’s disease is thought to be caused by the rapidly increasing environmental destruction and affects memory and concentration. Then a team from NASA show up promising money and technology to help her work if she agrees to go to a space station to figure out what is wrong with their crew. Of course, NASA hasn’t been completely honest with her about where they are going and the risks involved, but that’s okay, she didn’t tell them about her painkiller addiction.

This novel was a lot of fun. Joe Hart has mixed together sci-fi, thriller, and suspense in good measures. The main character’s addiction and frustrations pour out on the page as you wonder if she is going mad or something more nefarious is happening. Added to that is the brisk pacing that doesn’t get bogged down like some novels with similar themes tend to. I don’t know what a hydro is, but after reading this novel I feel like I need one.

Well worth a read for sci-fi and thriller fans.

NB: I received an advanced review copy in exchange for an honest review.

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When is the future?

I came across a very cool article about when the future is for science fiction. The question is interesting because we often think of THE FUTURE as being a long way away, but as the saying goes, some infinities are larger than others.

In response to a Tweet, iO9 and researchers Ben Vrignon and Gordon Jackson decided to look at the proportions of science fiction set in the near-future (0-50 years), mid-future (51-500 years) and far-future (+501 years). They took a random sample of 250 science fiction works (books, comics, movies, and TV) created between 1880 and 2010 that were available in the USA in English. Because only the USA matters. Eye rolls are appropriate here.

The results are interesting and broken into decades:

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As you can see, some periods of time emphasise some futures more than others, whilst other periods are more equally spread. The most notable of these is the shrinking of far-future science fiction from the 1970s until the late 1990s. It could be argued that the lack of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s could have been due to the rapid rise of technological change in society, such that everyone viewed the future as being just around the corner. Then after that time, we start to realise the technology just gave us cat memes and we still had a long way to go.

In the original article, they suggest that the changes were due to uncertainty about the future post-2001.

It’s possible that during periods of extreme uncertainty about the future, as the 00s were in the wake of massive economic upheavals and 9/11, creators and audiences turn their eyes to the far future as a balm.

Now it would be remiss of me to draw too many conclusions from this, nor try to offer explanations for any “trends”. We are talking about a dataset that only covers an average of 2 works per year. Two is hardly enough to be representative of any year, and 20 works is at best a smattering of any given decade. E.g. Futurama could be the only representative of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s yet Asimov’s Foundation Series was still going (he wrote his final novel for the series in 1993), the Xeelee Sequence had just started, as had the Hyperion series. Clearly, there were many works not being counted.

It would be interesting to see someone add more data to this analysis and do some breakdowns by media type. Make it so.

Supplemental Materials: More Detail on Middle Future Dates

One of the interesting discoveries we made was that the mid-future (51-500 years in the future) seems to be the most popular period for science fiction, across the last 130 years. So Stephanie created this chart breaking out our data on mid-future SF so you can get a sense of which periods are most popular — you can see that the 100-200 year future is common.

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