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Tuesday, July 24, 2007


I still read a fair amount of science fiction, though not as much as i did even ten years ago. I make sure to keep up with Gardner Dozois' Year's Best SF and SFWA's annual Nebula Award volumes. And anything new from Gene Wolfe.

I was thinking maybe it had something to do with how our world has changed so much over the past 2 decades, and maybe SF hasn't kept pace. William Gibson, for example, is writing about virtually the same world he wrote about in the early 80s, except now he's our most realistic, and best, narrator of the world as it is. Pattern Recognition was barely SF, and the reviews i've read of Spook Country have me thinking it's more of the same. (Don't misunderstand; Pattern Recognition is one of the best novels i've read in the past 10 years.)

But i'm in a SF reading group with Joe and a few other people, and our current volume (name withheld to protect the innocent) opened my eyes.


You see, in a good SF novel, there are one or two changes from the world in which we live, and these changes have percolated, resonated, and steamrollered through the novel's society, changing it in ways that make it unrecognizable to our own. Or so many authors believe. And the narrative device by which these changes are made known is often the infodump. In a less skilled hand, the infodump is analogous to a brick wall across the freeway, simply impassable. Why this should be, i can't say. The infodump was an essential part of golden era SF, and Asimov and Heinlein, who were not terrific prose stylists, handled it easily. But in much of what i've read from some of today's young masters, the infodump, and its close cousin the Laundry List of Things That Make This City Different, are just indigestible. My friend Terry has a theory. As the price of mass-market paberpacks has increased to $8 and $9, both publishers and readers feel that a book's heft is indicative of its value. Think of J. G. Ballard's early 60s catastrophe novels (The Wind From Nowhere) pumped up to the size of Sherri Tepper's Grass. It's like SF's own steroids era. A lot of stuff that could (and would have been 40 years ago) edited out, is not only kept in, but artificially inflated to the size of a Macy's parade balloon.

Which got me thinking about a novel i could write.

A guy walks into a bar. It's a bar on an alien planet in a far solar system being terraformed. He orders a beer. As the bartender pulls the tap, he starts telling the guy about how the grain that made the beer isn't barley, but a genetically modified rice brought over on the first ship 40 years prior, although the hops are actually Cascade from the Yakima Valley, which happened to thrive in the moist soil and the often overcast long days. The yeast, however, is native to the planet, but so similar to Saccharomyces cerevisiae that neither biology nor cosmology can explain how two planets, 150 light years apart, could produce nearly identical organisms. He goes on to describe to farms in the Southern hemisphere where the grain is grown, and the semi-intelligent native species that have been domesticated as labor to keep the farms productive, the presence of an underground movement dedicated to ending the exploitation of the native species, how things are Different in the rock and sand factories up north, where the natives can't survive the long winters. There's a sidetrack to a history of the various governors the planet has had, and the different structures the government has experimented with, including references to the times back on Old Earth that similar structures were used with varying degrees of success. Thinking about the Free Labor movement gets the bartender to ruminate on the 25 hour day, 8 day week of the planet, how there's only one day off during the week, how the days of the week and the hours of the day got their names (because they're not the same as the ones we, the readers, know. How could they be? there's 8 of them).

Two hundred pages later the bartender says "Here's your beer. That'll be 4 Leinsters."

The guy reaches into his manpurse for some cash, and starts ruminating about money, and the faces on the various bills and why they were chosen for which denomination, and the other history of the planet and the terraforming project which, as a former foreman for the Really Big Company which had roots on Old Earth, he has the special inside knowledge of.

One hundred and thirty pages later, he utters the phrase which gives the novel its name, "Keep the Change."



  • LOL!

    This explains why so much SF puts me right to sleep.

    Verbiage creep isn't unique to SF. I recently attempted to read a business book for a group I'm in. The book could easily have been edited down to a magazine article. Probably not a particularly long magazine article.

    One of the things I noticed reading this book--perhaps a more subtle, obscure and hidden version of listomania--was the need or desire or compunction to say the same word, phrase, sentence or idea in slightly, subtly different ways. There were many phrases, sentences, run-on sentences, bundles of words that were afflicted with these annoying, disruptive mini-lists of comma-separated words, as well as an obfuscating, gratuitous overuse of unnecessary, page-bloating adjectives.

    By Anonymous cd, at 8:39 AM  

  • I see why you share my admiration for Gene Wolfe. He's always been wary of exposition--he loves to just throw you into the story and let you pick up the context however you can. I was several chapters into the first "Long Sun" book before I figured out the form of the world in which it's set. And don't get me started onn the "Soldier" trilogy!

    On second thought, do get me started--I just picked up Soldier of Sidon a few weeks ago, and I need to reread the first two so I can experience it in full.

    By Anonymous Rah, at 1:25 PM  

  • Wolfe is, i think the best there is at so completely imagining a new and different world, and, explicating it to his readers exactly the same way he would if it were the world we in fact live in. He leaves you to figure out what's wondrous, and what's mundane.

    The Soldier books are worth the re-read. I wish he had been able to finish them 20 years ago (i assume there will be a 4th volume), but i wouldn't have traded the books he did write (the Long Sun and the Short Sun books) for them.

    Have you heard about the ABC series
    "Masters of Science Fiction"? It looks like it's been somewhat scaled back from it's original conception, but the first episode is based on a John Kessell story, which is always a good thing.

    By Blogger Barry Ragin, at 4:55 PM  

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