It seemed like a good idea at the time, reading “And I Awoke And Found Me On The Cold Hill’s Side,” “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” “WE HEART VAMPIRES!!!!!!” and “Beautiful White Bodies” all in one go before breakfast. Now I’m not so sure.
Last month the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America gave a Nebula award to a piece that contained no science worth speaking of. There was very little fiction in it either, if fiction is the narrative of imagination; whatever images might have been in its author’s mind, what made it onto the page was determinedly unimaginative, and less narrated than vaguely gestured at. It put forward no fantasy, unless the fantasy that the world is an uncomplicated place populated chiefly by straw men and contrived examples is a fantasy. What writing was in it was mostly bad.
I suppose that as much as there was any of anywhere in it, there was some America. Maybe that’s something.
Let me make a point up front because if I let it go till later someone is bound to get confused. Yes, I am a Californian who deeply resents Temple Square’s interference in the affairs of my native state. Yes, I am a postmodern materialist who hasn’t been to church in twenty years, could probably count the number of times he has been on his fingers, has never believed in salvation through Christ Jesus except for a period of about twelve hours once back when the Berlin wall was still standing.
But I read Gene Wolfe, and find The Urth of the New Sun deeply moving. I read Connie Willis and rejoice with her characters at the hope of eternity offered in Passage and the hope of a compassionate divine plan offered in To Say Nothing of the Dog, even though in the bright light of day neither is a hope I share. I am in the middle of revising a novel in which an aquatic hive mind and a million-year-old alien warship are willing converts to Islam. Agnostic though I may be, I have no stones to throw here. I would welcome a thoughtful and inventive and well-crafted story of a devout Mormon standing up for his faith and in solidarity with his alien fellow believers against ancient and perhaps implacable powers far from home.
But this is not that story.
I actually find myself hoping that the reason “Leviathan” won the Nebula is that there is a constituency out there of Mormon writer-readers who are desperate for any science fiction that speaks to their experience, even when it has nothing to say beyond validating that their experience exists. That would give me some hope in turn that we might eventually see a good Mormon science fiction, a science fiction worthy of the Mormons I’ve known, who whatever our political and religious differences have been, most of them anyway, good-hearted, level-headed people whose unassuming natures often concealed a wry humor and a wealth of well-observed stories. The young men and not a few young women who carry the Mormon faith out into the world, learn difficult languages, go nearly alone into often-hostile places and make connections with people about as unlike the people they grew up with as it is possible to be — or who just go to small hostile Midwestern towns where the Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Catholics and Presbyterians can all agree to have a monthly prayer breakfast open to “any Christian denomination,” so long as that definition doesn’t include Mormons, where they happily do yard work for little old ladies about as likely to convert as the Pope — are brave souls doing what they think is right, and my hat is off to them. They deserve a science fiction that reflects the complexity of their lives and the world they’ve seen, and I hope some day they get it.
But this is not that science fiction.
And I don’t think the desire for that science fiction is enough to explain it.
Here is an interesting fact about the Nebula awards: contra what you might find implied on Wikipedia, and regardless of what you might read on the SFWA web site about the history of the award, there is nothing in the Nebula rules that says or even implies that any Nebula award is for the “best” anything. Unlike the Hugo award categories, which are established in section 3.3 of the constitution of the World Science Fiction Society as Best Novel, Best Short Story, and so on, the Nebula categories are merely Novel. Novella. Novelette. Short Story. The nominees in each category are only the otherwise eligible works that receive the most nominations from the membership, the winners the works that receive the most votes. No guidance is given to the members on what to nominate or vote for, or why.
I would like to say this explains a lot. That it explains how a story with no characters, no setting, no invention, no real speculation, very little plot and a bare sliver of theme — a story that nonetheless managed to drag itself out over 8000 words — was given one of the top awards in the field.
But I can’t. This is not the first very bad story to win a major science fiction award* in recent years (though it is, perhaps thanks to recent procedural changes, the worst to win the Nebula for novelette in many a year). It is not even a new type of bad story. It is representative of a type of story that seems to be gaining in popularity as the traditional science fiction community ages at something like a year per year. Setting barely sketched-in, parasitic on reader memories of better-written worlds. Characters that are really just placeholders, the few who speak either author mouthpieces or caricatures of implausible opposing positions, all of them lacking substance, interiority, consistency, basic humanity. Gestures toward “daring” that are no more than comfortable recapitulations of contrarian reader prejudices. ‘Ideas’ that were old and tired when John W. Campbell was young. Stories stripped of any complexity that would make them interesting or worthwhile, tables tilted always in the author’s favor.
If this is what we want, then we deserve every drop of the contempt we imagine the world beyond science fiction holds for us. If this is what we want, then there is something wrong with science fiction, as a community. I don’t know just what it is, if there’s more to it than fear of the future and fear of the unknown and fear of old age and fear of death; I don’t know what to do about it, or even if anything should be done about it.
I only know that if this is what science fiction is, then I won’t mourn when it passes.
* I am reminded that “Article of Faith” did not in fact win the Hugo for which it was nominated. On the other hand, “Travels With My Cats” did win in 2005. Though as depressingly derivative, inward-looking and cloyingly sentimental as “Cats” is, it is at least better-written than “Leviathan.”
This is the first draft of a novel. Parts of it are pretty good. A lot of it is a godawful mess, and there’s something essentially arbitrary about calling it done. But it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end, in 90,000-odd words, even if reading them straight through is a bit like a long drive in the dark over washed-out roads.
This is a box with the first draft of a novel in it. It’s a European box meant for A4 paper, but you can cram 8½″×11″ into it if you’re brisk.
This is the drawer the box goes in. I used to keep printer paper in there, but I’ve got a whole lot less of that than I did a couple of hours ago.
It’s going to stay the drawer for a bit, while I work on some other things. We’ll see what it looks like when I take it out again.
- will be reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual Edition, due out in July.
- will also be “reprinted” in Allan Kaster’s The Year’s Top Short SF Novels, due out again most likely in July, in e-book and audio editions from AudioText. The audio version will be read by Nicola Barber.
- got a very nice write-up from Hannah Strom-Martin over at Strange Horizons, in which she says, among other things: “That Moles manages to present this alternate world so convincingly in a mere seventy pages is bound to result in accusations of genius.” As yet I’m not aware of any such accusations, but I’ll start preparing a defense just in case.
I’ll also be reading from Seven Cities at FogCon here in San Francisco, at 3:00 p.m. Saturday March 11th in the Washington Room at the Holiday Inn Golden Gateway Hotel on Van Ness. Might throw in a bit of “A Soldier of the City” as well.
I’m also scheduled for two panels:
How to Build Your Own City (Without an Urban Planning Degree): Part II,
Families farming in the urban center of Detroit. Poorly funded
infrastructure causing the collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis. What’s
happening today in our modern cities? How can we handle these issues in
Saturday, 10:30-11:45 A.M.
David Moles, Courtney Eckhardt, Rachel Swirsky, Daniel Starr
Let’s Build a City
Right before your very eyes (and with your vigorous suggestions from the
audience!) our panelists will create a city out of nothing but the room’s
imagination. Will it sit in the crater of an active volcano? Will it have
different districts for people to live in based on their culinary
preferences? Come and find out…
Saturday 8:00-9:15 P.M.
David Moles, Nabil Hijazi, Steven Schwartz, Ann Wilkes
I signed up for a poster session, too, but I don’t know if those are happening or, if they are, what I’m going to do with mine. Possibly something involving Lego.
Hopefully I will be able to attend all of these; the day job promises to be heating up that weekend, so we’ll have to see.
We interrupt our regular schedule of not blogging to plug Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World. I’ve started Thunderer two or three times without getting caught up in it, but Mr. Gilman’s hit his stride now. Half-Made World reads like an Iain Banks novel set in China Miéville’s version of Stephen King’s gunslinger world, only better — better paced than Banks and in more control of voice and language, more coherent and less baroque than Miéville, more imaginative than King. And surprisingly self-contained for something that so plainly sets up its own sequel.
The flap copy will tell you what it’s about. If it sounds the sort of thing you might like, by all means pick it up.
This has been unofficial news for a while now, but now it’s official: “A Soldier of the City,” by yours truly, will be in Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan and available early next year wherever quality mass-market paperbacks are sold.
Engineering Infinity bills itself as an anthology of hard science fiction. I don’t know that “Soldier” would meet the strictest possible definition, but after all the time I spent this winter doing math on the backs of envelopes, if it’s not the hardest story in the book I’m confident it won’t be the softest.
For those keeping score at home, “Soldier” is set in the same universe as my 2004 Asimov’s story, “The Third Party,” albeit quite some distance away in space and time. It will also be my first published story to use Australian spelling.
What does it say about me as an SF writer and reader, that whenever I come across a post that starts like this:
There is an large untapped audience for more popular SF magazines. … Whatever it is SF gives people … people want it and they want it in their millions. This is an untapped audience which exists as part of the mainstream in our society and wants more material … SF magazines could be selling more issues, to more people. SF short stories are an ideal way to give people contained bursts of the most intense and original SF. …
what goes through my head is:
is that true? I don’t think that’s true. assert, assert, assert, why is there never proof? do you believe this, and if so, why? and why not tell us? or do you just wish it was true? do you think that if you wish really really hard it will become true? do you think that’s an appropriate model of causality for someone interested in science fiction? discuss, with examples from the reading…?
To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with Mr. Ellwood’s prescriptions. I mean, what the hell, it’s not like anything else has worked, and there’s at least some recognition that there were changes in the magazine industry between, say, 1955 and 1995. But his premise is about 200% wishful thinking, and worse than that, it’s the same wishful thinking that’s been stalely circulating through the print science fiction world since Star Wars — which is to say, since before half the best writers of short science fiction working today were born. I would like for once to see some evidence.
(Via Jeff Vandermeer, who makes a more valuable contribution than mine.)