Saturday, April 12, 2008

Craft, Art, and SF

My short story collection from Golden Gryphon, Nano Comes To Clifford Falls and Other Stories, is out, and so is the first review, Gary Wolfe's in Locus. Mostly favorable, the review uses my collection as a springboard for a discussion of craft, art, idea, and characters in SF. Wolfe's central point -- or what I take to be his central point, it's a complex discussion -- is that I do well at "craft," sometimes rise to "art," but have few new SF ideas and employ time-honored settings and tropes mostly mechanically.

I think this is fair. I don't have the dazzling ideas of a Bruce Sterling or Charles Stross, and that aspect of SF has never been important to me. How characters interact with the future, what a radical change in setting or technology does to the fabric of human interaction and to a person's sense of his or her place in the universe -- this is what I've aways loved best about all literature. Wolfe is right in saying that the heart of most of my stories could be recast in a mundane world. SF is to me a means of highlighting aspects of human nature, not an end in itself.

This raises a question, though, about the other aspect of my SF career: teaching. Currently I'm writing a critique for Virtual Clarion, an on-line workshop affiliated with Clarion in San Diego. The story I'm critiquing is the opposite of my own preferences: a military SF story focused on ideas. When I critique this sort of approach, whether for Clarion or any other class, I must be very careful to see the story the author wanted to write, not the one I would have written with the same material. It's not always easy.


Joe Iriarte said...
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Joe Iriarte said...

Another blog I read, SF Novelists, had a post this week about book reviews from the writer's perspective. Mike Brotherton raised a good point about how one should review stories for which one is in the target audience, or at least not penalize a story because one happens to be outside of the target audience.

Like you, I think I have a healthy sense of what my relative weaknesses and strengths are. I hope I could take a review that made criticisms I thought were fair with with as much aplomb as you.

But I happen to think speculative fiction's biggest strength is how it allows you to isolate themes as a writer, by using the circumstances of your fictional future society to bring that theme out from the background and to a head. Right now the genetic engineering debate is mostly in the realm of hypotheticals. But what would it be like for people who were engineered before birth to have certain advantages if those modifications were successful beyond anybody's wildest expectations? What would society do to those individuals that were felt to possess an unfair advantage--even if it was one they never chose? I think science fiction allows you to take those hypotheticals and make them real, and make me as a reader really live them.

Needless to say, it is because of your focus on the social/societal rather than on the gee-whiz that I read your novels.

travelblog said...

By 'dazzling ideas' you must mean stuff from last year's New Scientist, as that's all we get. Anyone reading scifi for dazzling ideas will be disappointed , unless they read Peter Watts.