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Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

If this is not the only post you read this year comparing Beatrix Potter‘s books to Sex in the City, please share your blogroll with the rest of the group.

Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

I started thinking and talking about this question a few years ago. (I labeled it a “personal-intellectual project” of which my “Who’s the medium now?” set of posts in 2010-2011 is one expression). The only counter-example I know well is Dougal Dixon‘s After Man: a Zoology of the Future. An author friend, Alec Nevala-Lee, pointed me to “hysterical realism” (a term for packed-to-the-gills works such as many by DF Wallace, Pyncheon, Don DeLillo, and Zadie Smith) as potential counterexamples:

From James Wood’s review coining the term:

Zadie Smith has said, in an interview, that her concern is with “ideas and themes that I can tie together–problem-solving from other places and worlds.” It is not the writer’s job, she says, “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.”

My dad offered many more well-known and better-loved counter-examples: Beatrix Potter’s books. “They’re about animals, not people.” “Of course they’re about people!” I said. “How so?” “Because they’re about how people feel and think and interact with each other.” My dad then accused me of tautology: I define any work of fiction as being “about people.”

That might be a fair criticism, but not with respect to Beatrix Potter stories, and particularly not with respect to The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. Its first line may be, “Once upon a time there was a Pussy-cat called Ribby, who invited a little dog called Duchess, to tea,” but The Pie and the Patty-Pan is, in fact, exactly like the Sex and the City (TV) episode “A Woman’s Right to Shoes.” Both are surface-funny and subtext-baffling, showing absurd examples of what one may and may not say in certain social circles, what kinds of miscommunications or properly understood communications can or cannot threaten a friendship. Both poke fun at social conventions but apparently without denouncing them. The little animal details in Potter’s book like Duchess begging for a sugar cube on her nose or the doctor being a known and accepted kleptomaniac by virtue of his species (magpie) is probably all that makes Potter’s version easier for me to stomach than HBO’s.

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This is very similar to my argument for Invisible Cities and The Twilight Zone being about people: they use tight, focused, beautiful metaphors to externalize a mind or soul’s internal conflicts. And I think it’s an argument very relevant to speculative fiction fans: the main message of a show like Babylon 5 is always, “Aliens are just people, too.”

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Fandom & adaptations

So who’s seen Ender’s Game?

Is it any good as a movie?

Unrelated question: which, if any, parts of the feel & experience of the book does it get right?

It’s funny, isn’t it, that those are unrelated questions? And movie reviews can only answer the second question when it’s obvious that the reviewer is a fan. e.g. for The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey (3-part Hobbit: WTF?), go straight to Anthony Lane’s review. It summarizes very neatly to “I loved it — but I’m a fanatic” (which is also, word-for-word, my own review of Terminator: Salvation).

I haven’t seen a fan’s review of Ender’s Game. (No, I haven’t searched at Hatrack River, why do you ask?) I knew I was in the wrong place at Entertainment Weekly upon reading, “The problem is, these initiation and training scenes go on forever.” I’m not a Card fanatic, but I’m pretty confident that anyone who considers Battle Room a problem hasn’t the slightest idea what Ender’s Game fandom is about.

P.S. Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham is, in theory, an unadulterated stroke of genius. Please tell me that, unlike Russell Crowe as Javert, it also works in practice.

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Movies & innovation – and _Diamond Age_ racting

One of the great parts of being a speculative fiction fan is watching reality catch up to and surpass one’s favorite authors’ imaginations — or just never take a step in that direction at all. As I’ve written before, I live in dread of the genetic-discrimination world of Gattaca, which I now fear may be here before today’s children are dead (though I’m still hoping it won’t be before I am dead).

On the other hand, I’m chomping at the bit for movie acting to become independent of the actors’ own physical attributes, as in The Diamond Age. Avatar was a great leap forward, but so was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, because that was the first time CGI tried to render human faces and skin in a way that might fool the audience, even for half-second intervals. (Remember how amazing that one-second teaser of a single eye blinking was at the time?) Avatar was not ambitious on that particular score: only the non-human characters are rendered.

But some day we’ll see a movie where all the actors are wearing suits like Andy Serkis‘s (LOTR and Planet of the Apes!), and I can barely wait, because then we’ll finally be able to have movie stars whose ability to use their faces matters more than their facial features. (My favorite part about this in The Diamond Age is the little bit about Miranda studying how to ract a character with “cat eyes,” since she in real life has “bunny eyes,” which are used differently.)

This is how my husband convinced me to see Les Misérables. I didn’t expect it to be impressive musically as compared to any stage production, and indeed I was pretty much not impressed on that score. But letting the actors sing on-camera and mixing in the orchestra afterwards is a new attempt. The actors were clearly and justifiably over the moon about the chance. So I went along promising to have an open mind in trying to evaluate whether this presages the future of movie musicals.

And does it? Well, of course, I haven’t a clue. Quite irrespective of impressiveness, Les Miserables is always overwhelming, and thus hard to evaluate. Yes, the sung sequences are obviously more immediate than in Singin’ in the Rain. But movies, movie stars, moviemaking, and movie audiences — to say nothing of acting styles — are so different now from then that it seems arbitrary to compare how the songs were recorded between the two.

What new innovations are you watching for (happily or no)?

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Interesting reset concepts

Rolling Jubilee is about to kick off, billing itself as “a bailout of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Other comments I’ve seen on this:

I like the idea, in some ways especially the “random acts of kindness” aspect of it. One imagines there’s no way they could actually eliminate any significant fraction of American personal debt, so in some sense randomly is the ‘fairest’ way to try to help anyone. Although they will get some prety impressive ‘bang for the buck’ (in a more literal than usual sense).

This also led my husband and I to look a bit into the actual Bilblical concept of the Jubilee — which turns out to have probably made sense in ancient Near Eastern cultures for reasons including provisioning the armies. See Michael Hudson‘s article in Bible Review 15:01 (1999) “The Economic Roots of the Jubilee.”

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HRSFAlum Academia hits Pop Culture

A shout-out to HRSFAN Aaron J. Dinkin, linguist of the dialectological variety, who appeared as a Major Quoted Someone for Slate last month in an article on the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS aka NCS).

The article is raising awareness of some recent (~our lifetime) re-jiggering of “linguistic turf” for short vowels (cat, cot, caught, &c.), which seems to be radiating outward from areas like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit &c. The write-up is fun, and Aaron sounds in his element.

I like the content of the article, but am not sure where the tone is coming from. Aaron, Emily, and anyone else with opinions and/or data, please chime in:

  • Why does the introductory expert, William Labov, explicitly present the NCS as a PROBLEM? It’s kind of cool to be catching systematic pronunciation change in the act — especially if it may truly be as big a vowel shift as we’ve seen (heard) in the past millennium. And it’s not like Northeast/Midwesterners feel like we can’t understand or be understood by others. Is this actually an aesthetic judgment? I think most of us already feel English vowels are dead ugly, and don’t care except (possibly) in an operatic context.
  • Are the experiments described as supporting lack of self-awareness on the part of NCS speakers (Preston, Niedzielski) presented accurately? Neither seem damning to me. How is “flipping a mental coin” for cat v. cot in isolation — if in one’s own pronunciation they are homonyms — different from flipping a mental coin for to v. two v. too in isolation?
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My errors

I owe Elisabeth a massive apology for some poorly considered writing of mine last winter.

I’m really sorry: it was thoughtless of me not to ask you directly first.

A standard apology probably would have sufficed had I given it when it came due, but that was seven months ago. And culpability, like Rumour, grows swiftly and fearfully. In other cases when someone else here has written something that baffles or otherwise inspires me, I have been more courteous about prior notification of what I’m thinking, so I really have no excuse for neglecting that step in February.

So, just a few more lines to throw out on the question of ‘pleasure’ and/or ‘work’ reading:

  • A new short essay on Aristotelian leisure
  • Franz of Sunday in the Park with George

    Work is what you do for others — Liebchen –
    Art is what you do for yourself

  • A family member overheard someone in an airport security line complaining that he was 100s of pages into a book and nothing had happened. He turned around to see what book the other passenger was reading, and it was American Gods. My family member nearly blurted out, “What do you mean?”
  • This same relative was chewed out by a friend to whom he had recommended Ilium for sending him through an 800-page “slog.” To me (and my relative), reading Ilium is much more like being poor Phaeton in Apollo’s chariot. Slog? How? I’m being dragged too fast for my feet to stick in anything!
  • But one of my blockmates says he would characterize both American Gods and Ilium very similarly, simply because he would define “something happening” in a novel as “a scene advancing the main plot.”
  • Huh. I never would have thought of that.

So in conclusion, I do grasp that, very often, someone else’s reading tastes utterly confuse me because I’m just not imaginative enough. And I should remind myself more often to ask before I expound, even if I can’t ask before I wonder.

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One small step …

Oh, my. I no longer believe I die before Gattaca. This is frightening.

The NYTimes article where I encountered this news has estimates from the study team that the technology could be available in as little as 3-5 years: whole-genome sequencing of a fetus based on only a maternal blood sample and a paternal saliva sampe, with the fetal genome reconstructed from fragments in the mother’s blood.

I still think I’ll die before direct genome sequencing is used in hiring decisions. But it seems suddenly only too feasible that my grandchildren will be born into a society where parents choose to learn genetic propensities before birth, the same as today’s parents often choose to learn a child’s sex before birth.

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Non-fiction for pleasure

OK, so now I’ve had two humanities people tell me more or less categorically that non-fiction reading is not pleasure reading. (The first instance prompted much of what I’ve written here in the past year and a half; the second came initially as a comment on this weblog.) I would not have expected that particularly of humanities people, honestly. I suppose I had assumed that English or classics or folklore majors and suchlike were more likely to be into any and all reading.

In both cases there has been the clarification that the information gained (“understanding stuff about the world”) may give one pleasure “even when reading about it feels like work.” And yet … this still implies that the readers approach vast categories of written documents strictly from a utilitarian point of view—news, debate, most forms of essay, and (most pertinently to these discussions) academic and non-academic book-length works: pop science and ethnography, self-help and philosophy, history and historiography, history of science, biography, literary and art criticism, poli-sci. It truly does surprise me if the ‘not-for-pleasure’ category is that broad for either elisabeth or the grad student who told me she doesn’t read non-fiction.

I am accustomed to expansive, voracious, and usually compulsive reading from my close associates in the hard sciences and social sciences. My dad, an old-school sysadmin, keeps on hand nearly the complete œvres of Faulkner, Vonnegut, Lessing, and Erdrich (one of his most evocative comments on the last: “… so fierce that I can frankly understand her husband committed suicide“). He also keeps a personal subscription to Science magazine, setting himself the goal of understanding one article per issue (an ambitious goal that is by far not always reached). The mother of a mathematician friend had to set a rule during middle school that she would select every other book for his pleasure reading: she chose good classic YA, he plowed through the local library’s math collection. This is the same person who introduced me to The Ancestor’s Tale and, on my recommendation, read The Archivist in a day and a half. My little brother, a history-major-turned-’financial-analyst’ of whom I was seriously proud when he started (with The Fourth Hand) recommending to me books based on his own taste, is an Andrew Jackson buff who is also my original source for King Leopold’s Ghost. A chemistry undergrad friend of mine, now in graduate school, recruited friends for ‘salon’ book groups in two states in which he’s recently lived.

King Leopold’s Ghost and The Ancestor’s Tale are both written with exceptional clarity, perceptiveness, and outreach towards the audience. I have actually “grown” a favoritism for interdisciplinary non-fiction author Steven Johnson, and have wished that I had been a Harvard undergrad more recently so I could have become a disciple of Daniel Lord Smail, whose academic training is in 14th-century French legal documents, but who also is passionately advocating for historians to claim as their field all of human history, the way they used to before Western culture imagined how many orders of magnitude longer than Biblical history all is.

And non-fiction can inspire such awe—often for its subjects (Catherine of Aragon or the early epidemiological triumph of 1854 London, and more shrouded figures/incidents such as Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, and the training of medical residents), but also for the brilliance of the research (Montaillou) or the mind (An Experiment in Criticism).

Truly … people can dismiss all the vast variety of non-fiction as not intended for pleasure reading? Is this another case where I am failing to understand what kind of pleasures others seek from their reading?

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Why to read, when not to read – Part II

Awesomely, one of the New Yorker weblogs published a post musing on another very new-to-me reason for reading, not reading, and/or finishing a book during the same week as the HRSFANS-discuss book recommendation thread I wrote about in July. (By the way, I have started—barely—to collate the recommendations list on the wiki. Please help! “‘Paperbacks-for-the-road’ Recommendations” is linked through from the “Index to the Awesome.”) I considered in parallel from the start Ms. Minkel’s apparent compulsion to show herself “an adult” in her reading life and Tony’s warning of potential future bad volumes in good-so-far series, so here come my musings specifically on the former.

An extract:

On one hand, we have big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end. On the other, the books we’ve sort of read and glibly lie about having finished. Both of these seem tied to some sort of reading scorecard, one in which the readers are measured and judged by—perhaps even more than—the books that they’ve read. …

But is the reading scorecard internal or external? Or are the two so entwined that it’s impossible to answer that question?

Ms. Minkel could mean the “we” impersonally: “On one hand, we have [here an example of] big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end,” but the rest of her post seems to indicate that she does speak as “we” for herself and her assuredly well-read readers (the comments posted seem to presume this, too).

Yet to me this entire concept of a compulsion to finish a book (painful or not) is foreign, bizarre, and surely detrimental to reading health. Does it ring a bell for anyone? Can you explain how this compulsion could make sense inside one’s own head (or how it can compel regardless of sense)?

People who’ve read my posts before may have noticed that I, if anything, tend to brag about my willingness to drop a book at any point, as if it’s macho, or stoic, to leave the story ever unfinished in my own mind. Come to think, in some cases it does feel internally macho, in that I’m deliberately holding myself back from the experience because I do care and yet don’t feel it would be advantageous to continue (Big Love after “Pilot”, new Battlestar Galactica after “Bastille Day”, A Reliable Wife more than 2/3 through, and to a lesser extent The Pillars of the Earth after 300p); in other cases it does feel internally stoic in that I’m accepting that I don’t care a whit about the next phase of the story and would rather turn to more enjoyable pursuits, without necessarily faulting the author(s) for being unable to keep my interest (Potter V 70p in without a single page free of people yelling at each other, Angel after “Reprise”, Farscape after “Season of Death”). When I discovered Ms. Minkel’s post, I immediately opened a chat to a friend whom I’ve mentioned earlier as a counterpoint to my reading style: he once devoured half of War and Peace in two days as escape reading. I opened the conversation (minor typos & grammatical quirks corrected):

me: you’ll have a COMPLETELY different reaction to this than I will …

you won’t think this whole concept of “we have big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end” is foreign, bizarre, counter-to-one’s-reading-health

he:i think that reading is just less painful for me

because i read so fast

… i mean, i am a bit compulsive about finishing books, but that’s more my obsessive nature than it is powering through

what would take willpower is putting them down

it’s not that i feel compelled to finish a book because i started it. it’s because i like reading and don’t like putting books down.

me: Usually a reading struggle for me just means my psyche isn’t keeping pace

I still don’t see how liking reading is a reason to keep reading a story you’re not liking—there’s hundreds of others available just as easily (in your case, without even putting down the device if you’re reading on the iPhone)

he: well, but you want to know how it ends

as i said, i don’t task switch well

if i’m in the middle of a video game

i find myself playing it for several more hours

me: no, I only want to know how it ends if I’m interested in the story

and even then, that’s not the important part

If I wanted to know how every story ends, I’d be even more of a basket case about keeping contact with everybody than I already am—and I never would have cancelled my FB account due to lack of interest

Read for your self, not for your private morals or for their public display. Reading is between you, the story, its characters and/or its world, and the author. Everything and everyone outside is just details—and if they aren’t, read something else.

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Why to read, when not to read

The other month, a to-be-commended HRSFalum asked through HRSFANS-discuss for good books to bring on a long vacation, imposing only constraints that they be in-print (reasonably available) mass-market PBs. As one might expect, this generated an excellent recommendations list (which someone really ought to collate for the HRSFANS wiki—shoot, I volunteered again, didn’t I?), if rather heavy on SF/F and historical fiction with SF/F elements. But there’s nice range to the discussions, as well; and a bit of back-and-forth amongst the recommenders.

One day into the discussion, Tony cautioned:

His Majesty’s Dragon, like Name of the Wind, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and Vlad Taltos are all unfinished series, and I’d really recommend reading the GREAT books on this list that are DONE before reading ones we don’t know how they turn out.

This seems to involve a bit of legerdemain in categorization, comparing “unfinished series” to “books … that are DONE.” A series pretty much by definition comprises several books completed in their own right (or at least to the extent that individual publishing is deemed warranted). His Majesty’s Dragon is done, as are five successor novels: the author is not yet done with all stories she intends to set in the Temeraire universe, but why should her artistic and/or business decision in our reality handicap the readability of books already available?

Even if the intent is to recommend complete series (such as The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) over ongoing ones (from the barely-begun City of a Hundred Rows through the apparently-still-kicking Song of Ice and Fire all the way to, I suppose, Wheel of Time?), why should the expected number of additional related books be a more compelling reason against or for reading volume 1 (or 5) than the qualities of the specific volume in question?

And how does this square with Tony’s own list of recommendations, emailed to the thread the previous day, including “Hyperion by Dan Simmons (only read the first book!)”? Once a reader knows how a set of related books “turns out,” s/he can choose only the “GREAT” one, but that same reader should hold off reading a GREAT book that might yet have good, bad and/or indifferent successors?

Please allow me only barely to mention the undead series, completed by their creators for good or bad and re-animated in subsequent decades (Dune being probably the most extreme example—in this aspect as in others—but with the Foundation books an arguably even weirder case, since they were re-animated first by Asimov himself and then again by his estate!).

I say, read any given book on its own terms. As I’ve written before, if it is a GREAT book there will obviously be further stories to tell, but that does not mean you need feel any duty to seek out any more of those stories, or to believe any related stories just because the same person (or an anointed successor) wrote them.

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