Monday, July 11, 2005

The Jane Austen of Science Fiction

When I was young, I was a "card carrying" geek. So naturally I read a lot of science fiction. But as I got older, I found it harder and harder to enjoy these books. Eventually I stopped reading SF and moved on to "serious literature." But when looking for a novel to read, I often find myself longing for another world. I desire escape. I want to be taken far, far away to somewhere massively different from New York City in 2005. So I look for some good SF or fantasy, but I rarely find any. Sometimes I ask SF fans for suggestions, but I rarely wind up liking the books they recommend.

I've discovered that if you're a lover of fiction who would like to read good SF (as opposed to a SF fan), you generally won't get very far asking the average SF fan to recommend books for you.

SF fans have different criteria for what makes a good book than general readers. As the SHOULD. They are SF fans. So their starting point is that the book must be SF. They love SF so much that, though many of them don't like bad writing, they will forgive bad writing if they have to -- if bad writing is the only sort of SF writing they can find. The bottom line is, good or bad, they want to read SF.

And many SF fans pretty much only read SF, so they can't really compare it to anything else. They can only measure with the ruler of their genre.

I've had similar problems when asking people to recommend graphic novels. When I say that I want to read a good graphic novel, I mean good when compared to a story by John Cheever or a movie by Martin Scorsese. I don't mean good as compared to Spiderman. It's not that I expect a comic book to be like a movie or a novel. But regardless of the genre, I expect the same level of workmanship and quality. And I'm continually disappointed.

I can't seem to find the Jane Austen of SF. When I ask SF fans to recommend good novels, they generally take "good" to mean better than the crap with the bug-eyed monsters and the ray guns. But that's not good enough. Who is the SF equivalent to Shakespeare?

I have a need for SF, because I like other worlds, but I need it to be GREAT. I need really really good writing (style), I need expert plots, I need realistic dialogue, I need characters that I fall in love with. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the people who are best at this sort of writing aren't writing SF.

Unlike many SF fans (and perhaps this also separates me from many fans of serious literature, too), I don't much care for novels of ideas. I'm a pretty intellectual guy, but I prefer to get my philosophy from non-fiction. When I read fiction, I want to wonder "what's going to happen next?" and I want to fall in love. I want those two things. And in addition I want to be transported to an alien world. And I want all these treats wrapped in evocative prose. I mention my distaste for idea novels, because when I say I'm looking for "good SF," that's what people generally think I mean. "You'll like this book," they say. "It explores some really interesting themes." But I have no interest in themes. I plot, character and language.

In theory, SF could be a hothouse for growing great plot/character/language books. Writers should use their best verbal skills to describe alien worlds; the freedom to go anywhere -- to any planet or "dimension" -- should allow for some rollicking plots. And one can explore unique facets of human psychology by placing characters in extreme situations. SF can (but rarely does) do all these things.

To be fair to the SF writers, people like me are really asking a lot of them. It's REALLY hard to be the Jane Austen of SF. You have to be an expert observer of people, and you have to be a master of prose and dialogue. To expect such a writer to also be a master of creating believable alien world AND to have a degree in physics is a bit much. But that's what is needed.

So what do I do when I need an alien world fix? I generally reach for historical fiction. A couple of years ago, when I read "Memoirs of a Geisha," which was expertly written, I got the same feeling I get reading really good SF. It was set a hundred years ago in Japan, and the world was so alien to me, it might as well have been SF.


Marcus said...

There are other genre novels -- non SF novels -- that don't have the same problems. For instance, historical novels and mysteries. Of course there are plenty of bad ones, but the really good mystery writers are as-good-as the really good "literary" writers.

John Updike and P.D. James can rest much more easily on the same shelf than can John Updike and Robert Heinline. MANY people consider Patrick O'Brian, who writes sea adventures, to be both a great genre writer and just a plain old great writer.

I think if a genre writer is really great, he becomes beloved by both the genre fans and the general readers. This may be the best acid test we have. For instance, my wife doesn't like fantasy, but she enjoyed reading "Lord of the Rings." This says something about Tolkien. (I don't think Tolkien is a genius, but I think his writing is better than the norm.)

So there are many mysteries that I know I could share with non-mystery fans. And I know these non-mystery fans would enjoy them. They are good books first and good mysteries second. But I know of very few SF or fantasy novels like this.

Why? Well, most of the SF writers simply aren't good prose stylists. This must be because the publishers realize that SF fans, in general, don't care about style. So they don't look for authors who really know how to use language in an evocative way. Same goes for characterization.

This is sad, because a good writer COULD write an SF story that would satisfy both the SF fans and the general reader. I'm sure the SF fans wouldn't be turned OFF by good writing. They are just willing to tolerate bad writing in order to get their robot fix.

And with some notable exceptions, the really fine stylists -- and the really crackerjack observers of the human comedy -- are not interested in writing SF (though many do try their hands at mystery and history). They probably shy away from SF because THEY have read some and disliked it. They just assume SF is bad.

I've heard so many people say that they HATE Science Fiction. But when you ask them why, they can't really articualte their reasons. At best, they say that they're interested in people, not space ships and robots. But SF is full of people. And the robots are generally people-like. So that can't be the reason. And it's not because SF is about alien worlds. These same SF-haters love reading novels set in 18th-Century Venice, which is just as alien as anything in Tolkien.

They must hate SF because they've never read well-written SF. They assume the problem is with the genre. It isn't. The problem is with the writers/publishers.

Zed said...

Sean Stewart's Galveston had some of the best realized characters I've encountered (Mockingbird and Perfect Circle are nearly as good.) Neal Stephenson is great at inventive language (though his plot and characterization doesn't always keep up, and his last four books were historical fiction.) Have you read Ursula Le Guin? Karen Joy Fowler? Lucius Shephard? Michael Swanwick? Kelly Link? Howard Waldrop? Theodore Sturgeon? Neil Gaiman's American Gods?

Amy said...

Neal Stephenson writes about other times and worlds, but he is such a masterful and nuanced storyteller that he doesn't usually get labeled as "SF." Snow Crash is good, but Diamond Age is superlative. Cryptonomicon is great, but not exactly SF. The Baroque Cycle (starting with Quicksilver) is also excellent and involving, with only slight elements of non-reality (just like Crypto); Quicksilver itself is a slow start -- if you can believe that a 900 page novel can be one, singular, incredibly slow start. The other two are amazingly good.

As for movies, I hope you've seen Children of Men. It's another genre-defier.

Anonymous said...

I find myself in the minority of persons who find Neal Stephenson absolutely awful as a prose stylist. His writing is downright corny and clunky.