Monday, October 29, 2007

A Troubled Question

I just finished reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's novella "Recovering Apollo 8" in the February 2007 ASIMOV'S (I'm a little behind in my reading). Although I have always liked Kris's work, this is not my favorite among her fiction. But apparently many, many other people disagree, since on the ASIMOV'S forum, this story is often named as a favorite from the entire year. What am I missing? Or, more precisely, what makes a story a favorite?

There are as many answers to that, of course, as there are readers. But I'm after something here that increasingly strikes me as true of hardcore SF fans: It doesn't seem to be the quality of the story in literary terms (complex characters complexly drawn, sparkling prose, dead-on observations of human nature, going psychologically or atmospherically where no man has gone before, etc.) Nor does it even seem to be the gee-whiz technology and scientific and political speculation that SF is often known for. Instead, much successful SF seems to simply take as its subject matter things that SF fans are interested in -- space exploration, robots, warriors of all ilk, AI -- and whether it handles the subject well or badly hardly seems to matter.

Note: I am NOT saying that "Recovering Apollo 8" is badly handled. But neither does it have the polish and pace and insight of some of Kris's other work. However, it deals with an alternate reality that appeals to SF. Apollo 8, instead of being the first successful lunar orbital flight, ended in disaster. A hundred years later, the bodies of the three astronauts, Lovell and Borman and Anders, have all been recovered from deep space. This keeps the main character, who has spent a lifetime in this pursuit, from committing a suicide we never saw him contemplate.

Does subject alone guarantee a story's success? If not guarantee it, then help it along? How important to us is the "nifty idea" vs. the exexcution? Is this science fiction or science fiction?

And how many of you out there are going to hate me for even questioning it?


Blue Tyson said...

I am not much of a fan of alternate history, but I am one of the people that liked this story.

Alternate history astronauts is much more interesting than Hitler or Civil War or what if these Guns were there, sort of thing. Speaking of wars though, it does have the 'recovering the brave dead' element that lots of the news stories you see about older people going to old battlefields to try and find comrades. If that association doesn't spring to mind maybe the story has less power.

I don't see any of the problems you suggest. It isn't as good as Craters, but better than the Analog xmas story, but most of the other things by her I have read have been fantasy of some sort, generally.

Contrast with your Fountain of Age story which I think you said you liked more than a few of your other recent pieces? I didn't like that much for all the reasons you state above, basically (poor pace/subject handled badly compared to many other examples/mediocre plot). However, saw some people that did like it quite a bit.

Content is important in SF, absolutely.

If an editor included an excerpt from say, Mark Twain's autobiographical travel accounts in a science fiction anthology they would deserve to be smacked upside the head for sucking, despite said author's obvious literary talents.

That is an extremely silly example of course, but if you veer towards the 'contentless' or "idealess" (if inventing bad new words is ok) then certainly some people will feel they have been ripped off.

The same would apply to crime free mysteries, gun free westerns, or happy ending free romances.

Take Robert Reed's 'Roxie' as a recent example. If you don't like dogs, some people will be very annoyed by this obvious homage to his pet with 'dangerous heavenly body' tacked on as extremely incidental and not being really relevant, otherwise. It could have been 'common natural disaster X' and nothing much would have changed.

Or Skillingstead's possibly nutty guy on a bus, recently. Even closer, probably, to the SF contentless state.

Jack Skillingstead said...

Well, Blue, I'm sure Nancy will agree when I say it's always nice to hear from a fan. Of course, you're dead wrong about both our stories. "Strangers On A Bus," for instance, contains obvious SF content, even though it's not of the recover-the-dead-astronauts type.

Blue Tyson said...

No, sorry, my opinion is right, to me, being my opinion.

You may not agree with me, doesn't make me wrong, though. ;-)

Given this was just a discussion about people with different opinions of stories.

Seeing you wrote it, doesn't make you overly objective from that point of view, either, as far as the Bus story goes?

I'll pretty happily bet you I am not the only one that finds your ending a bit wishy-washily ambiguous. Likewise I have seen a couple of people say they really like on.

A better question would be, did you set out do it that way deliberately? If so, why, if you talk about that sort of thing, or know.

On evidence so far it would seem that you are a writer whose work I am likely not going to like much (5 stories, 2.90 average), very much the opposite of our esteemed host here (21, 3.81) who I think is one of the best around and has written a couple of my all-time favorites, not to mention some favorites this year.

Of course, might have just come across a few I didn't care for as much to start with, etc.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Honoring the bodies of the dead goes =way= back. Past Homer. (Remember the fights over the bodies of the slain in the ILIAD?)Back to the Neanderthals, who buried their lost with flowers and tools. Something in us demands it.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

Well, I liked the story, but you have to compare what Apollo 8 was competiting against.

Skillingstead is always a good bet.

I liked the story mainly due to the Alternate History theme. But as to what makes a good story in the Reader's minds, I've no idea. I'm sometimes surprised at what qualifies as a favorite or not.

S. F. Murphy

Blue Tyson said...

And as soon as I say that I of course, discover two of Mr. Skillingstead's stories on his website that are rather good. :) Which makes him a rather more respectable 7/3.21.

That's a good point, though, for those of us not writerpeople, we may not be able to articulate why we like something in the same sort of technical detail or in the same was as someone like our host, or even at all.

David de Beer said...

I'm kinda glad you posted this, cause honestly I've been thinking along similar lines.
Now, course it's not always true, but yeah, when I take a look at stories I liked/ disliked and how others received them (on the odd occassion, even just how they interpreted them which can be a bizarre experience of a different kind), and, hmm, it does seem that in SF more so than in fantasy or horror, subject is more equated with "good" than the handling thereof.

I do think there's truth in that statement, although it's hard to pin down exactly. What it comes down, is what Roger Zelazny (I think, may have been someone else) wrote in an essay. This essay I have is in a Writers of the Future antho, collecting ten years of winners. Anyways, Zelazny raised the question of how do judges choose when presented with the "nifty" idea adequately written as opposed to the decent idea well written?
He said, more of than not, they choose the idea.
The belief is - skilful writing can be taught easier than generating ideas. Therefore, the choice hinges on the eventuality of the writer learning to write better.

I can see where he's coming from, but I do find it troubling. It's not dissimilar to the Armgageddon premise - the premise that it's easier to take riggers and turn them into astronauts than take astronauts and teach them how to drill.

There are more problems I can see with choosing idea/ subject over handling than vice versa:

1) there is no such thing as an original idea. I'm sorry, but only idiots disagree with this notion (and if Asimov himself would disagree, well then he is sadly an idiot at least in this regard);
2) writers cannot be taught to generate ideas, but they can be taught to present ideas in more compelling form. This seems to agree with Zelazny, but it doesn't. This adds on to 1), and the goal of writers is to strive to present themselves better. Otherwise, what's the damn point in learning to write? or seek to write well at all? just toss the idea in whatever form adn there we are. Zelazny's choice betweent the two doesn't award writing, it awards story generating.
3) purely personal preference? but it's always been about how the idea is treated, rather than the idea itself.
3a) to me, it's not the end that makes a story, it's how they get there. I can know the ending, see the ending, and still like it. I can completely be fooled by how the story ends and loathe it. Basically, the success of a story to me is not measured in how surprising the end is. With a little effort, there is nothing easier to do the twisty dance and surprise a reader at the end. Pardon my language, but if I don't give a shit about what happens along the way, then I really don't care how it ends.
4) when we praise good writers we talk about their "skill". Skill is in how they handle subject matter, no? The purpose of workshops and crit groups is to improve the technique and "skill" of writers.
Casual readers can be forgiven for not needing to distinguish between idea (the premise/ subject) and story (how the subject is presented). Writers, editors and reviewers cannot.
We place all the emphasis on execution and reward our "hot button subjects" instead. In comics, this is fanboys writing for fanboys, it's the perpetuation of the cycle rather than growth of the trope.
Now, I don't think it guarantees success, but yeah, it most definitely helps it along.

There's probably a better, more precise way to word this, but I'm just tossing some thoughts loosely. In a nutshell, yes I'd agree with you:
>much successful SF seems to simply take as its subject matter things that SF fans are interested in and whether it handles the subject well or badly hardly seems to matter.

Zelazny was wrong, IMO.

Amusingly enough, and as I said before, fantasy and horror hungers for their tropes/ hot button subjects as much as sci-fi does, but they distrust them far more.
It's not enough to just write about vampires, elves or zombies, you had damn well better bring something relevant to the table.
I'd go further and say F&H puts more pressure on writers handling familiar tropes than ones who do not/take less known tropes.
Sure, in urban fantasy, you have fans delighted to see an increase in vampire novels. But they also get scrutinized with way more intensity and criticized more vehemently than ones who don't.
Nothing gets bashed with as much glee as how writers handle their characters.

Hard to explain? but in SF it seems almost like the need is for reassurance/ continuation of the subjects, rather than increasing critical pressure to improve and expand them.

Blue Tyson said...

No such thing as an original idea?

Are you sure you are from this dimension? :)

Or do you mean in the 'there are only six basic plots' sense? Might be some truth to that.

In a broader sense, clearly rubbish, when talking about people. Given you are writing this on a computer and internet that didn't just magically appear, let alone Cimmerian warriors, uploaded sentient lobsters, torrented magic (speaking of just today) or dreaming Elder Gods from the depths of space an time, or even Platonic reality shifting, if you want to bring up Zelazny.

none said...

I can't talk about stories in Asimov's, as I don't get it, but for me what makes a story a favourite is resonance. Something that keeps me thinking about it days, weeks, even months later. Like a story where a woman is watching her daughter playing with a frog while discussing sabotaged science. Ahem.

Resonance can come from the writing, or from ideas, or from the thoughts that the story sparks--or just from the tremendous fun of reading it.