It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Oops, I did it again

Long time readers of this blog may remember a piece I wrote back in 2008, in which I took apart Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ and explained why I felt it wasn’t the greatest science fiction story ever – you can read it here. It received a lot hits. About two months’ worth in the space of a weekend, in fact. And it provoked quite a reaction.

So a couple of days ago, in response to a number of best sf series lists I’d seen, I posted a list of The Worst Science Fiction Series (here). It received a lot of hits. About four months’ worth in the space of two days. And the reaction this time was a bit more severe.

And yet that reaction was essentially for the same thing: I dared to suggest that Asimov was a crap sf writer.

There are other writers named in my Ten Worst SF Series post. Some people felt their inclusion was undeserved. Just as others felt they’d earned their place. But the biggest amount of bile was generated by those who were upset at my comments about Asimov.

For the record, I’ve been reading science fiction for thirty-five years. Yes, that includes Asimov and EE ‘Doc’ Smith. I also review books for Interzone (see the non-fiction tab above). So when I write about science fiction, I do know what I’m writing about. I’ve even written the odd bit of science fiction myself, and I plan to write more.

For those whose reading comprehension is clearly wanting, I shall say it again: Asimov owed his high place on my list because he so frequently appears in best of lists. “Best” means “of the highest quality”. It does not mean “seminal”. It does not mean “made a good fist of it for his debut”. Let me repeat that: “highest quality”. In other words, the writing is the best the genre has to offer, as is the invention, characterisation, world-building, etc.

Do you really think that’s true for Foundation, and its sequels and prequels and mid-quels and side-quels and inter-quels, etc.?

That’s why Asimov was at #2 in my list. Because it is not of the “highest quality” but is repeatedly claimed to be. Yes, the Mission Earth books are worse than the Foundation books – but no one is stupid enough to suggest they’re the best books in the genre.

I wish I could respond to all of the comments that were made about my Ten Worst SF Series list, but a great many were just too stupid. (There are one or two such in the comments thread to my actual post.) However, I do want to make one important point: I did not include the Wheel of Time, or David Eddings, or Terry Goodkind, because the list was “Ten Worst Science Fiction Series”. Not “Ten Worst Science Fiction and Fantasy Series”. I titled the piece The Worst Science Fiction Series because it was about science fiction.

I’d also like to point out that my list was intended to be light-hearted. There were clues in the phrases I used – “powered by a million hamsters running around a million wheels”, for example – which is not an expression typically used by critics or reviewers. I stand by my opinions – I have a low regard for Asimov’s writing – but my list was written to amuse.

Having said all that, I’d like to thank everyone who dropped by, and everyone who linked to my post. It’s clear to me that Asimov is some sort of sf sacred cow, and you tip him at your own peril. That kind of uncritical adulation is not good – for readers, or for the genre. We need more debate – proper debate, the sort that doesn’t involve calling the other person a moron, questioning their sexuality, or confusing opinion with fact (people do that all the time. Fact.).

Finally, for my next trick I will post articles here explaining why: a) the Dune series books actually increase in quality after Dune, b) Robert Heinlein is plainly a fascist, and c) The Search For Spock is the best of the Star Trek films… So don’t forget to come back often and read my posts… just in case I ever do get around to writing the articles.


The Worst Science Fiction Series

Yet another site puts together a list of the “greatest science fiction book series” and has Asimov’s Foundation series in the number one spot. (I won’t link to the site because my anti-virus software didn’t like it.) Sigh. Do people honestly think that’s the best the genre has to offer? A badly-dated trilogy with perfunctory world-building and cardboard characters, and written in prose which possesses all the charm of a dead badger? “Best” means “of the highest quality” – not something you remember enjoying when you were twelve and still believed in the tooth fairy. Foundation plainly isn’t “of the highest quality”, not by any sane or accepted yardstick.

However, in the spirit in which that original list posited Asimov’s lumpen opus as the best sf book series, I shall now present the very worst of the genre. The following are science fiction book series whose label as science fiction embarrasses me, whose continuing popularity puzzles me, and whose fans I feel deserve a smack upside the head with a very large and nail-studded cluebat.

10 Honor Harrington, David Weber
These start well enough but, like a well-known fantasy blockbuster series currently being demolished by Adam Roberts on his blog, they soon turn obese, turgid and dull. The title character also becomes increasingly implausible, and I would not be surprised if the final book in the series – should it ever appear – has Harrington magically transform into a goddess and create an entirely new universe using some wildly implausible authorial hand-waving. Read the first two or three by all means, but ignore the rest unless you want your will to live to be slowly drained from you.

9 Four Lords of the Diamond, Jack Chalker
I could have chosen any Chalker series, to be honest. They’re all pretty much the same. And every series feels like a novelette stretched out to fill three or four novels – with this happened and then that happened and then they all sat around and talked about it for a bit before that happened and this happened. The rambling plot usually leads to a weak resolution, which makes you wonder why you bothered reading the books in the first place.

8 Grand Tour, Ben Bova
I like the idea of these books: a series of hard sf novels about the gradual colonisation of the Solar system. But they’re a real slog to read. Bova’s prose is not so much workmanlike as bolted-together. If prose should be a sleek and powerful Italian sports car, then Bova’s is a great lumbering tank powered by a million hamsters running around a million wheels.

7 Pern, Anne McCaffrey
I’ve never understood the attraction of these books. They have dragons in them. But they’re not fantasy. Honest. They are, however, gooey. McCaffrey’s writing makes your teeth rot. Reading them is like eating a bucket of candyfloss – insubstantial, sticky, and so sweet the slightest sudden movement makes you feel nauseous.

6 Projekt Saucer, WA Harbinson
The central premise of this series is a well-documented conspiracy theory and quite loony. It goes like this: during World War II, the Nazis invented flying saucers and they used them to flee in 1945, and have, variously, either a base on the Moon or in Antarctica. In Harbinson’s series, written in the finest deathless prose, the saucers were actually invented by an American genius who went to work for the Nazis, and he is now the head of a secret scientific organisation with a hidden headquarters in the Andes. From there, he plans to take over the world, muahaha. Despite their cool premise, these books are painful to read.

5 Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith
I could have picked any of Smith’s series, but the Lensman series – despite being out of print – still seems to be popular. It was written a long time ago. A long, long time ago. And it shows. Back in those days, sf was written by dirty old hacks or spotty teenagers. Women were either alien creatures or centre-folds. They certainly weren’t as clever or resourceful as men. A lot of them were naked too. These books are in no way representative of sf in the twenty-first century. They’re not even representative of sf as a genre.

4 Saga of the Seven Suns, Kevin J Anderson
Sadly, this series might well be representative of sf in the twenty-first century. Kevin J Anderson is a fiction machine. He churns out books by the metre. And his prose has all the wit and grace of prose written by a machine. Except he doesn’t actually write his books. He dictates them as he hikes around his backyard – otherwise known as the state of Colorado. It shows. These books do not contain carefully-chosen words, but the sort of words you pick as you scramble up a hill being chased by a goat.

3 Mission Earth, L Ron Hubbard
Anyone who thinks that Battlefield Earth is the greatest sf novel ever written is either a Scientologist or brain-damaged. Or perhaps both. But Battlefield Earth is, amazingly, better than the Mission Earth “drekology”. Rumour has it Elron was dead when he wrote the Mission Earth books. It shows.

2 Foundation, Isaac Asimov
This trilogy, while not as actually bad as some of those lower down this list, deserves its high place because it appears as number one in so many “greatest sf book series” lists. It’s not the greatest science fiction book series ever published. It’s not even very good. Asimov’s prose is like tofu – it is bland and tasteless, and when you find it in your food you’re never entirely sure what it is.

1 Legends of Dune, Kevin J Anderson & Brian Herbert
These books get the number one spot not only because they are badly-written, were cobbled together out of sf furniture stolen from 1930s pulp magazine covers and 1950s B-movies, and feature characterisation on a par with Dan Brown… No, they get the number one spot because they took a large dump from a very great height on a very good series of books. Frank Herbert’s Dune novels are excellent; I would happily include them in a list of the greatest science fiction series. But the Dune books were never completed – Frank Herbert died before starting work on “Dune 7”. So KJA & Herbert Jr wrote it for him. In order to bolt on their own ending – it was all the fault of a Giant Computer Brain, apparently – they first had to rewrite Dune‘s back-history. And they put brains in jars in there. That looked stupid back in the 1930s. It’s even more stupid now. There are many, many things wrong with these books – every single word in them, in fact.

Yes, there are worst books than those above – and some of those I picked are no longer in print for, one would hope, good reason. But whenever people promote science fiction, some of the series I’ve chosen are the ones they use. And I find that incomprehensible. When there’s so much good stuff out there, why push the badly-written crap you liked once upon a time. It may well have been your entry into the genre but you were a kid at the time. The ten series above are, I suppose, an anti-list. They are the books which should never appear on any “best of” or “greatest” list.


Those who don’t know their science fiction are doomed to repeat their history

While there are between three and thirty-six plots depending on your source, and no such thing as a new idea in science fiction… that’s not what this post is about. Those are topics for another day. Possibly.

Instead, consider this: if a One True Science Fiction FAQ existed, it would consist of a single question: “what if?” Of course, this pretty much holds true for all fiction. But there are two particular types of story, common in sf, that “what if?” inexorably leads to: the thought experiment and the cautionary tale. (Which is not to say that a story can’t be both types.)

The author posits a situation – an invented future, or an invented world – and then tells a story set in it. It might be what will happen, or what has happened. Whichever it is, the author is offering insight into the consequences of the fictionalised situation. The usefulness of that insight depends on whether or not you accept the author’s argument – even if the author’s sensibilities run counter to your own. At the very least, it should provoke thought.

Some people think fiction should be solely for entertainment. It should have no greater ambition than to keep the reader amused. Rubbish. No artform should be just bread and circuses. It needs to engage with the real world, not ignore it. “You watch your X-Factor while we assemble this police state around you.” Why on earth would an author encourage people to turn their backs on what’s happening around them? Good fiction has something to say, whether you agree or not with what is being said.

Science fiction, as a genre, was initially created to do more than merely amuse. Hugo Gernsback intended sf to be both didactic and predictive. It’s no longer either of those – which is not necessarily a bad thing. They were limiting. But that doesn’t mean sf readers should privilege escapism over “message stories”. Besides, there’s no such thing as a “message story”. There are stories that engage with the reader qua reader, and stories that don’t. It’s the ambition of fiction to do the former. Yes, entertainment is important, but it shouldn’t be the one and only aim of a piece of fiction.

Yet despite its infrequent moments of outspokenness, sf’s cautionary tales and thought experiments are often taken as nothing more than amusements. And they’re then pillaged for terms to label the very situation they cautioned against. But if readers are unwilling to attach real-world significance to a sf story, then it’s hardly surprising its concerns are only validated after the fact.

Perhaps sf needs an agenda once again. Perhaps the genre needs to shine a brighter light on the real world, and then document what it sees.


The Gatekeepers of Genre

My friend Bob approached me the other day. It’s not his name, but I call him that and he doesn’t seem to mind. Bob reads a lot, but he’s not an adventurous reader. In fact, he tends to avoid anything that smacks of genre. His preferred reading material is contemporary fiction. That’s what he likes and that’s what he reads. So, anyway, Bob comes up to me and tells me he’s decided to give thrillers a go.This is something of a shock. Perhaps it was a full moon – I couldn’t tell as it was a bright sunny day. But, whatever wires had crossed in Bob’s brain, the ensuing conversation went something like this:

“You know all about them, so what book do you think I should read?”
“That’s easy. Moonraker by Ian Fleming.”
“Sounds interesting. When was it published?”
“So it’s over fifty years old?”
“Er, yes.”
“Why would I want to read a book over half a century old? See this book?” He brandished a copy of A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks – somewhat threateningly, I thought. “It was published six months ago.”
“But Moonraker is a classic. Everyone’s heard of it. They even made a film of it.”
“Ah, right. I think I remember that. James Bond? Space shuttle in the Amazon jungle? Space station?”
“That’s the one.”
“Actually, that sounds pretty cool.”
“Er, they’re not in the book.”
“The book’s different?”
“Surely Bond is the same?”
“No, not really. He’s, well, he’s pretty sexist in the book. And racist too. And there aren’t any gadgets.”
“But it’s a classic?”
“Oh yes. Everyone’s heard of Moonraker.”
“I’m not sure. What else do you suggest?”
“Um, well, there’s Live and Let Die.”
“When was that published?”
“Who wrote it?”
“Ian Fleming.”
“So it’s another Bond novel?”
“Er, yes.”
“I don’t want to read a book about a racist, sexist spy from the 1950s.”
“But you said you wanted to read a thriller. The Bond books are the quintessential thrillers.”
“Oh well, in that case… Now where did I put my copy of Ian McEwan’s Solar…?”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a conversation that takes place about science fiction on a regular basis. I’ve said before – on many occasions – that sf fans who recommend old (alleged) “classics” to readers new to the genre are doing those readers and science fiction a disservice. Old sf bears little resemblance to media sf, and those wanting to move from film and television sf to book sf are going to be turned off the genre if recommended Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein or EE ‘Doc’ Smith. No one does the same for fantasy – ask a fantasy reader to recommend a novel, and you’re as likely to hear Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss or Brandon Sanderson, as you are Tolkien, Robert Jordan or Stephen Donaldson. Is it any wonder science fiction is suffering from declining sales? We’re our own worst enemy.

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Nineteen Turns: authenticity and appropriation

The dictionary definition of “authentic” is “entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence”. At first glance, this doesn’t seem relevant when discussing science fiction or fantasy. Where are the “known facts or experience” in an invented world? Where is the “unquestionable evidence”?

Authenticity determines how immersive a story’s world is – the more real the world feels, the more immersive it is. Any wrong detail which trips up the reader prevents immersion. And, conversely, any detail which has the ring of authenticity makes immersion more likely. Because for an invented world, the story and its setting has to feel real. It has to convince, from large to small. The world of the story has to seem hermetic, a thing in and of itself. It has to seem as though it would continue to exist independently of the story set in it. (Unless not doing so is a deliberate artistic choice, of course.)

In October 2008, I read We Have Capture, the autobiography of astronaut Thomas Stafford (see my review here). In that book, Stafford describes the death of Soyuz 11 cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov. He writes:

Seeing that the front hatch was still sealed, the crew realized that the leak was probably coming from that ventilation valve, which was located under Dobrovolsky’s seat. They tried to crank it shut – there was a backup master valve, but this unit, like a basic steam valve, was mounted over the crew’s shoulders and took nineteen turns to close.

That “nineteen turns” is authentic. It’s the sort of detail which tells you the author knows what they are writing about. It’s not a commonly-known fact; nor do many people have experience of the Soyuz spacecraft. But by including that one small detail, Stafford’s description is “entitled to acceptance or belief”.

But not all sf or fantasy stories are set in invented worlds. Equally, those invented worlds might well be based upon something real. In such cases, authenticity will to some extent be inherited from the real world. Yes, there’s still room for “nineteen turns”, but the broad strokes of the world are likely to be known by most readers. The little-known details will only add verisimilitude, and the authenticity is a product chiefly of those broad strokes.

But there’s another issue which has to be considered in such cases. Artistic integrity demands that the story’s setting be as close as possible to the real world, or real-world model, for “acceptance or belief”. It should not rely on clichés, myths or misinformation, or pander to prejudices or stereotypes. Bad research is bad research. If a writer is going to appropriate another culture for their world or model, courtesy alone suggests they should do so as accurately and as considerately as possible.

To most sf fans, “hard sf” refers to the branch of science fiction which is rigorous in its use of the “hard sciences” – physics, chemistry, biology, etc. But for genre writing to be authentic, all of it has to be “hard”. Science fiction or fantasy. The selfsame rigour that hard sf authors used with the sciences has to be applied to every element of world-building. A successful story has to convince in every aspect, and if it takes “nineteen turns” to do that… then the author has to go and hunt down that detail.

To do otherwise would not only insult any appropriated culture, but the readers too.

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You’ll have to speak up a bit…

Last night, I saw one of my favourite bands perform live: Persefone. They’re from Andorra. Yes, Andorra. They’re currently touring Europe with Obituary. Persefone were excellent and, halfway through their set, they suddenly broke into the theme tune to Star Wars, including the Cantina Band tune. After their set, I went to buy a T-shirt from the merchandise stall. One of the guitarists from the band was behind the table, chatting to the person manning it. When I confessed I’d actually come to the gig to see them and not the headliners Obituary, he was so chuffed he gave me a hug.

It was clear, however, that most were there for Obituary. By the time they appeared on stage, there were about four or five times as many people as there had been for Persefone’s set. I’d never heard Obituary before. I knew they were an old Florida death metal band, dating back to the beginnings of the genre. And I like a few bands from that period – such as Death and Morbid Angel. Sadly, Obituary were nothing like those two. They also seemed to be only going through the motions. And they looked a bit like a shampoo advert…

Anyway, here’s a bit of Persefone to enjoy. It’s from their 2009 album, Shin-Ken. I gave it an honourable mention in my best of the year post here.


It’s time for… “dark science fiction”

Now that Waterstone’s has decided to shelve urban fantasy / paranormal romance separately as “Dark Fantasy” – and I’ve also heard mention of a “Dark Romance” book shop category – I thought perhaps it might be time for…

“Dark Science Fiction”.

We’ve had Mundane science fiction and optimistic science fiction and New Space Opera, so why not a new one?

I see “dark scifi” (which is no doubt what it will be shortened to) as a very specific subgenre. It will feature feisty kick-ass heroines battling rogue robots and having cybersex with AIs. Lots of cybersex. And maybe a few cyberdates as well. The stories will take place in futuristic cities, which may not necessarily be on this planet. Some stories, I expect, might even be set in space stations. Or on mile-long spaceships. Wherever there are rogue robots that need their asses kicking.

You may be thinking there’s not much that’s actually dark about “dark scifi”. Well, no. But then there’s not much that’s dark about “dark fantasy”. Yes, it’s all werewolves and vampires and zombies, rather than Peasant Heroes and Hidden Kings and Dark Lords, but…

Um, perhaps, our feisty heroines should kick rogue zombie robot butt, then. And maybe we should throw in some cyber-vampires and were-aliens.

It’s the literature of the future. I think it could be a winner.