Thursday, August 14, 2008
Science, Fiction

Pre-post note: I'm having a spectacularly shitty week. I haven't decided yet whether I intend to write about it -- sometimes I think I probably will, and other times I think, what's the point? And when I try, it comes out mangled and confused because most of my part in events is made up of bewilderment and a complicated mixture of sorrow, fury, philosophical resignation, and relief. It's hard to get that right in prose. So even if I do write about it here, it's going to happen later, when I've managed a bit more perspective.

But it's still been more than a week since I last posted and I want to get something up, so here's one I made earlier and put up in the freezer for just such an occasion:

I've been doing some reading.

I decided to make a superficial sweep of the science fiction section -- not trying to be exhaustive, but rather just hitting the high points, the genre benchmarks, the "classics." SF isn't really my genre, which is maybe surprising since I read so much science non-fiction and hold in high regard SF's narrative potential. But in the past, with only a few exceptions, the actual body of work always lets me down. I'd done a lot of them previously -- I've read the standard-issue Philip K. Dick, my Octavia Butler, my Gaiman, even that fascist bigot Card. And they're all okay for what they are, but they aren't what I'm looking for. I don't need a lot of fantasy in my literature, I'm not into fanboy idolatry, I really just want a well-crafted story that uses science-y ideas to explore this whole "human experience" thing in ways that might push beyond our current limitations. It's not so much to ask, right?

There are a few that do it for me: Douglas Adams is always worth reading, though I have trouble counting his books as real science fiction. It's more SF-themed comedy writing than anything. Harlan Ellison is still on my list of favorite-ever writers. I know I need to get better-acquainted with Vonnegut, and Slaughterhouse Five is next on my list. But there's got to be more out there.

I read Asimov's Nightfall years ago and really liked it, so I started on the Foundation trilogy. And it was fine, meh, whatever. Considering the entire book was basically men talking politics, it wasn't as unreadable as it might've been, but considering the series is one of the backbones of SF literature, I was hoping for something a lot more significant. I suppose it earned its place on the shelf if only for establishing so many standard SF themes, but I'm not sure that simply being the first to do what every high-minded SF novel since has also done counts for much really.

I read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash on the recommendation of a co-worker, and I hated it. It's fucking terrible! The characters were universally devoid of depth or life, the plot was annoyingly convoluted, and the forecast of a near-future United States -- written in 1992 as about twenty-five-ish years in the future, so the book is supposedly occurring more-or-less right now -- is pathetically laughable. This has always been my problem with cyberpunk. I'm sure that all of these weird little predictions about a future digital-age dystopia seemed perfectly plausible at the time, but if you're going to invent a future, it's probably best to put it out there far enough away that when you get it wrong -- which you will -- it at least seems charming. But to write about a currently-developing phenomenon as it might exist in the near future is just asking to be rendered irrelevant.

For example: major character engages in a sword fight (god help us) in the "metaverse," (virtual reality.) He slices up some random NPC's avatar. So far, totally plausible -- it happens a million times a day. But then the avatar just sort of falls apart into wiggling chunks, because the programmers apparently never thought that there would never be any call for blood and gore in virtual reality.

This book was written in 1992 -- Mortal Kombat was just coming out and being heatedly criticized for it's then-unprecedented amounts of grue. And ever since, the two primary uses of "virtual reality" have been masturbation, and butchering your friends in new, creative, blood-sprinklering ways. It's what little kids do after they get home from school every day.

Seriously, like Neal Stephenson couldn't see that coming?

It's a relatively small error, but it's the sort of thing that makes it impossible to take the story seriously. And the story is pretty bad to begin with and needs whatever help it can get, which only compounds the failure. By the end, I was begging for the fucking book to just be over already. And it was a shame, because I could see the fragments of worthwhile ideas underneath the piles upon piles of bullshit. But they all got lost under the crushing weight of an ill-devised alternate reality transposed on top of another ill-devised world.

And yet, it's a standard in the genre. A touchstone. A benchmark.

The closest thing I'm reading to a decent-quality science fiction novel right now is actually written by an author of modern westerns. I finally buckled and picked up The Road, which isn't so much science fiction as future-stone-age literary apocalypse porn, but at least McCarthy knows that the simplest ideas make the best raw material. This is some bleak, humanity-is-doomed shit, and the writing is amazing, so it has everything it needs to make a compelling book. My only complaint -- and I'm not sure that it really is a complaint, because I almost suspect it was intentional, and if it was, it would be the best proof of the writer's genius I could ask for -- is that at a certain point, around page 200, the book sort of "broke" for me.

Up until that moment it had been full-on, slit-your-wrists heavy, despairing, unbearable. But then, in a brief scene involving the spit-roasting of a certain unconventional foodstuff, it pitched headlong into black slapstick, and now I can't read it without seeing it through the lens of dark comedy. Fuck me and my Gen-X irony; the end of humanity is the last thing I might take seriously, and Cormac McCarthy had to fuck that up for me, too.

So I'm looking for some suggestions here. I want to read just one science fiction novel that transcends the genre and alters my perception of what science fiction can be. There are an awful lot of books in our SF section, so I figure there has to be one in there that'll fit the bill. And maybe one of you knows which one it is. So tell me.
11:38 AM ::
Amy :: permalink