Nexus by Ramez Naam

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Nexus, by Ramez Naam, is book 1 in a trilogy that I’d never heard of until book 3 was spotlighted by John Scalzi on his blog. Scalzi has been tireless and diligent in promoting new authors and connecting them with his fanbase, allowing prospective readers to really get a sense for the imagination behind a given book right from the author’s mouth. I’ve found a number of promising reads there (and I hope Auston Habershaw has his slot lined up…)

Check out what Ramez Naam has to say about his new book – and if you’re like me, you’ll be sufficiently intrigued to buy the first volume – which is on sale for $2.99 (Kindle) at Amazon right now.

(Or, read Ars Technica’s review. Also glowing 🙂

Also, Ramez Naam has the coolest name since Hannu Rajaniemi. 🙂

The Hugo Awards and political correctness

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The Hugo Awards are science fiction’s most celebrated honor (along with the Nebula Awards). This year there’s a political twist: the accusation that the Hugos are “politically correct” and favor liberal writers over those with conservative political leanings.

The fact that Orson Scott Card won the Hugo in both 1986 and 1987 for Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, or that Dan Simmons won a Hugo in 1990 for Hyperion, is sufficient evidence to prove that no such bias against conservative writers exists [1].

The current controversy is a tempest in a teapot, originating because two conservative writers (Larry Correia and Theodore Beale aka “Vox Day”) have decided to make an example out of the entrenched political correctness that both are convinced exists (see: confirmation bias). Here is Correia’s post about his actions and here is Beale’s. One of the common mantras of these people is that their hero, Robert Heinlein, would not be able to win a Hugo in today’s politically correct world.

Past SFWA president, Hugo winner, and all-around good guy on the Internet, John Scalzi definitively refutes the idea that Heinlein would not have won a Hugo and does so with genuine insight and understanding of who Heinlein was, what he wrote, and how Heinlein himself promoted SF as a literary genre. Key point:

When people say “Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today,” what they’re really saying is “The fetish object that I have constructed using the bits of Heinlein that I agree with could not win a Hugo today.” Robert Heinlein — or a limited version of him that only wrote Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and maybe Farnham’s Freehold or Sixth Column — is to a certain brand of conservative science fiction writer what Ronald Reagan is to a certain brand of conservative in general: A plaster idol whose utility at this point is as a vessel for a certain worldview, regardless of whether or not Heinlein (or Reagan, for that matter) would subscribe to that worldview himself.

They don’t want Heinlein to be able to win a Hugo today. Because if Heinlein could win a Hugo today, it means that their cri de coeur about how the Hugos are really all about fandom politics/who you know/unfairly biased against them because of political correctness would be wrong, and they might have to entertain the notion that Heinlein, the man, is not the platonic ideal of them, no matter how much they have held up a plaster version of the man to be just that very thing.

Read the whole thing.

In fact, the whole idea that the Hugo are biased against conservatives is a form of political correctness in and of itself. Steven just linked this article about how political correctness is a “positional good” and summarizes:

briefly, a positional good is one that a person owns for snob appeal, to set oneself apart from the rabble. Ownership of the positional good is a way of declaring, “I’m better than you lot!” And it continues to be valued by the snob only as long as it is rare and distinctive.

The idea, then, is that being one of the perpetually aggrieved is a way of being morally superior. I’m open-minded and inclusive, which makes me better than all those damned bigots out there.

Of course, Steven is invoking this idea as a critique about liberals crying racism; he overlooks the same dynamic at work by conservatives crying about exclusion, possibly because he is sympathetic to the “Hugos are biased” claim.

Regarding that claim, Scalzi had meta-commentary on the controversy overall (“No, the Hugo nominations were not rigged“) that is worth reading for perspective. It’s worth noting that Scalzi’s work was heavily promoted by Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, back in the day, a debt Scalzi is not shy about acknowledging publicly. This should, but won’t, dissuade those inclined (as Correia and Beale are) to lump Scalzi in with their imaginary “leftist” oppressors.

I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is and support the Hugos by becoming a contributing supporter [2] for the next year. This will allow me to vote on nominees and I will receive a packet of nominees prior to the actual voting, which if you think about it, is an incredible value. If you’re interested in supporting the Hugos against these claims of bias, consider joining me as a contributor yourself. Now that I’m a member, I plan to blog about the nominations process as well, so it should be fun.

RELATED: Scalzi’s earlier post about The Orthodox Church of Heinlein. Much like the Bible, and history, the source material often gets ignored.

[1] To be fair, Card and Simmons aren’t really conservative – they are certifiable lunatics. See here and here.

[2] Here’s more information about becoming a member for the purposes of voting for the Hugos. This year’s convention will be in London, “Loncon3” so membership is handled through their website.

the value of creative writing MFAs

Here is a short recollection by writer Junot Diaz, in the New Yorker, about his oppressively non-diverse, anti-racial experience in a creative writing program. It’s worth reading in full, but in a nutshell, his MFA program suffered the same flaw as most MFA programs: it was too white. To elaborate,

Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.

complete Game of Thrones ebook set for $9.99 #asoiaf

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The complete 5-volume set of A Song of Ice and Fire
is on sale right now for $9.99 at Amazon, so grab it quick if you don’t already have it.

The complete series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is probably the authentic heir to Tolkien’s crown of Reference Epic Fantasy. Being American rather than British, it’s heroes are more typified by the tragic Starks than the homely Bagginses. Bilbo and Frodo (and especially Sam!) were the typical WW2-era simple Briton, preferring a simple life but when called upon to great tasks, heroic in their pragmatism and perseverance. Ned Stark’s clan is more violent, impulsive, bred for leadership and heroism and fated for nasty ends. If anything the heroes of ASOIAF are the antithesis of the heroes in LOTR (the closest that LOTR comes to an ASOIAF-style hero is Aragorn, who has the same Starkian bearing but gets to keep the girl and his crown. And head.)

I’ve never read ASOIAF and have no illusions about it being an easy read, but I am looking forward to the journey, especially since by the time I finish it, book 6 will surely come out. I am certain that this series will fill the void left by LOTR that the Wheel of Time series failed to fill.

“genre” vs “serious” fiction

An intriguing essay on the arbitrary distinctions made by the literature community when deciding what books are treated as proper literature and which are relegated to the genre ghetto:

In a strange quirk of history, literature in the late 20th and early 21st century failed to follow in the footsteps of Joyce and Pound. Instead, conceptual fiction came to the fore, and a wide range of writers—highbrow and lowbrow—focused on literary metaphysics, a scenario in which sentences stayed the same as they always were, but the “reality” they described was subject to modification, distortion and enhancement.

This was seen in the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie; the alternative histories of Michael Chabon and Philip Roth; the modernist allegories of José Saramago; the political dystopias of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro; the quasi-sci-fi scenarios of Jonathan Lethem and David Foster Wallace; the reality-stretching narratives of David Mitchell and Audrey Niffenegger; the urban mysticism of Haruki Murakami and Mark Z. Danielewski; the meta-reality musings of Paul Auster and Italo Calvino; the edgy futurism of J.G. Ballard and Iain Banks; and the works of hosts of other writers.

Of course, very few critics or academics linked these works to their pulp fiction predecessors. Cormac McCarthy might win a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Road, a book whose apocalyptic
theme was straight out of the science fiction playbook. But no bookstore would dare to put this novel in the sci-fi section. No respectable critic would dare compare it to, say, I Am Legend (a novel very similar to McCarthy’s in many respects). Arbitrary divisions between “serious fiction” and “genre fiction” were enforced, even when no legitimate dividing line existed.

Only commercial considerations dictated the separation. Literary critics, who should have been the first to sniff out the phoniness of this state of affairs, seemed blissfully ignorant that anything was amiss.

There does seem to be a loosening of these constraints, however. Look at the mainstream success of Neil Gaiman (whose early work fits right into the lineup of authors mentioned above) or new writers like my friend G. Willow Wilson whose book Alif the Unseen is making serious waves.

True, books like the astonishing The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi aren’t going to get the same literary attention – but then again, maybe that’s a good thing. There’s definitely a perception that “hard” science fiction or “high” fantasy are not digestible by the mainstream (even though Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Harry Potter are among the most-read books of all time).

Guide to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga

Mark has posted what must surely be the definitive overview and guide to the Vorkosigan Saga. If you’ve any interest in reading these books, start with Mark’s post.

For myself, I snagged Warrior’s Apprentice and Mountains of Mourning from the Baen Library. I’ll probably get around to the rest eventually – I’m less interested in Cordelia’s story than Miles’ exploits though. At any rate, figuring out where to start and what to skip just got a LOT easier thanks to Mark’s due diligence.

Blogger Shrugged

Atlas Doesn't Care
My friend Dean Esmay is reading Atlas Shrugged, out of a misplaced sense of due diligence. To stay sane, he’s blogging it. I actually read and even enjoyed The Fountainhead, but Atlas is pure literary masochism. I mean, come on:

Her leg, sculptured by the light sheen of the stocking, its long line running straight, over an arched instep, to the tip of a foot in a high-heeled pump, had a feminine elegance that seemed out of place in the dusty train car and oddly incongruous with the rest of her. She wore a battered camel’s hair coat that had been expensive, wrapped shapelessly about her slender, nervous body. The coat collar was raised to the slanting brim of her hat. A sweep of brown hair fell back, almost touching the line of her shoulders. Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body.

It’s like someone wrote an entire book out of Bulwer-Lytton contest entries.

I’m not interested in debating the merits of any philosophy so pretentious as to label itself objective – to me, Atlas is a work of literature, and should be treated precisely as such, nothing more and nothing less. However, since the Randians roam the internet like the Burning Legion, laying waste to blogs that dare refuse to prostrate at Ayn Kiljaeden Rand’s throne, I can’t resist a little visual defiance, hence the admittedly rude image above for which I humbly beg my regular readers’ forgiveness.

whither science fiction as a genre?

There’s been a lot of intropspection about science fiction by science fiction authors recently. It started with Elizabeth Bear’s essay in Clarkesworld, titled “Dear Speculative Fiction: I’m Glad We Had This Talk“, where she personifies sci-fi as a genre into a goth teenager, accusing it of the attitude that “nothing fun can have value; that only grimdark portentousness and dystopia mean anything.” Abi Sutherland had a follow-up in the same vein, where he advises a now-sobbing adolescent Science Fiction (or, “Fic”) to stop “acting like an outsider hoping to join a high school clique” and to “stop mistaking darkness for value.”

To be honest, I don’t really agree with the critique. Admittedly, I am way behind on the Hugo nominated books, but what I do is religiously follow the annual Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Dozois, and as far as I can tell the range of science fiction (at least in short story form) is as wide as ever. I am something of a short-story zealot however – to me it is the purest form of SF.

Meanwhile, Charlie Stross sounds the alarm over the vitality of the genre as a whole, pointing to ebooks as the culprit. I’ll excerpt the main part of his argument:

I am not sure it is possible to write introspective, complex SF as a screen medium. The natural length of a feature movie is around 120 minutes; the traditional movie script runs at one page per minute, with 250 words per page—that buys you, in literary terms, a novella. Add in the expectations of studio executives and the dumbing-down effects of editing by committee you end up with huge pressure to make the script commercial rather than complex. Some director/scriptwriters have the clout to get what they want: but then you end up, as often as now, with George Lucas. Nor is there much scope for a dialog in which directors build on someone else’s ideas. So a large chunk of cinematic SF is stuck, spinning its wheels, mistaking ever better special effects and ever bigger first weekend box-office draws for progress.

Written SF harbours a much more complex ecosystem in part because the works are potentially bigger (big enough to encompass big ideas) and in part because it’s still, to some extent, ghettoised.

Genre, in the ebook space, is a ball and chain. It stops you reaching new audiences who might like your work. You are an editor, presented with “Rule 34”: do you choose to market it as SF, as crime/police procedural, or as mainstream literary fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to market it as all three, with different cover designs and cover blurbs and marketing pitches and reader recommendations and reviews for each bookstore category?

Stross says this problem is unrelated to the issue being discussed by Bear and Sutherland, but it strikes me as quite related indeed – science fiction novelists seems to be chasing after literary validation, in part to escape that genre ghetto and in part to broaden it. Meanwhile, the sub-field of short story sci-fi seems to be weathering the transition to e-formats well – Asimov’s is ridiculously affordable, though there are complaints about formatting. And of course teh aforementioned compilations are great value for cream-of-the-crop – Dozois will release volume 29 this year which is an astounding milestone in and of itself – and the year retrospective he writes about the entire field is worth the price alone. I wonder how many other science fiction authors read it?