Is there such a thing as literary science fiction? It’s not a sub-genre that you’d find in a bookshop. In 2015, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro debated the nature of genre and fiction in the New Statesman. They talk about literary fiction as just another genre. Meanwhile, Joyce Saricks posits that rather than a genre, literary fiction is a set of conventions.
I’ve not read a whole lot of whatever might be defined as literary fiction. I find non-genre fiction a little on the dull side. People — real people — interacting in the real world or some such plot. What’s the point of that? I want to read something that in no way can ever happen to me or anyone I know. I want to explore the imagination of terrific authors. I’ve heard that literary fiction is meant to be demanding. I don’t mind demanding, but I want, as a rule, a stimulating plot and relatable or, at the very least, interesting characters. I suspect My Idea of Fun by Will Self (1993) is the closest I’ve come to enjoying a piece of literary fiction, but I was far from entertained. And so I read genre fiction — mostly science fiction, but anything that falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction.
It turns out that some of what I’ve read and enjoyed and would recommend might be called literary science fiction. This is sometimes science fiction as written by authors who wouldn’t normally write within the genre, but more often than not regular science fiction that has been picked up by a non-genre audience. Literary fantasy is not so common as literary science fiction, but there is a lot of fantasy, both classical and modern that non-fantasy fans will be familiar with (many are put off by the label “fantasy,” and maybe an awful lot of terrible 1980s fantasy movies). Of course there are J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the Chronicles of Narnia and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. These books are only the briefest glimpses into both the imagination of some terrific authors and the scope of fantasy fiction. It isn’t all about hobbits and lions and wizards. There’s much more to explore.
You’ve likely read most of these examples; if they’ve piqued your interest and want to explore more genre fiction, here are some suggestions for next steps.
Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart is a grim warning of the world of social media. There’s not a whole lot of plot, but Shteyngart’s story is set in a slightly dystopic near future New York. There are ideas about post-humanism, as technology is replacing emotional judgement — people don’t need to make choices; ratings, data, and algorithms do that for you. As an epistolary and satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story engages well. The science fiction elements are kept to the background as the characters’ relationships come to the fore.
Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. In Cline’s near future, like Shteyngart’s, there is economic dystopic overtones. Most folk interact via virtual worlds. In the real world, most people are judged harshly. Wade spends all his time in a virtual utopia that is a new kind of puzzle game. Solving clues and eventually winning it will allow him to confront his real-world relationships. Friendships are key to the enjoyment of this novel, as well as how technology alters our perception of them. Are we the masters or servants of technology?
Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson is a complex and knowing satire. The world is full of drugs, crime, nightclubs, and computer hacking; “Snow Crash” is a drug that allows the user access to the Metaverse. Stephenson examined virtual reality, capitalism, and, importantly, information culture and its effects on us as people — way before most other authors. Like Cline and Shtenyngart, technology — in this case the avatars — in Snow Crash is as much a part of the human experience as the physical person.
Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best and most surprising novels in the science fiction genre. It is the story of childhood friends at a special boarding school, narrated by Kathy. Slowly the world is revealed as a science fiction dystopia wherein where the privileged literally rely on these lower class of people to prolong their lives. The science fiction-ness of the story — how the genetics work for example — is not really the purpose of the story. Ishiguro writes brilliantly about what it means to be a person and how liberty and relationships intertwine.
Spares (1996) by Michael Marshall Smith tells pretty much the same story, but with a different narrative and a more brutal full-on science fiction realization. Jack Randall is the typical Smith anti-hero — all bad mouth and bad luck. He works in a Spares farm. Spares are human clones of the privileged who use them for health insurance. Lose an arm in an accident; get your replacement from your clone. Spares is dark yet witty, and again, muses on the nature of humanity, as Jack sobers up and sees the future for what it really is. He believes the Spares are people too, and that it’s time he takes a stand for the moral high ground, while confronting his past.
The Book of Phoenix (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor is another tale about what it means to be a human in a created body. A woman called Phoenix is an “accelerated human” who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression: Americans and their corporations taking the lives of people of color as if they meant nothing. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps his most famous work, and maybe his best. It is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, an anti-war chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army, who was captured in 1944 and witnessed the Dresden bombings by the allies. This narrative is interweaved with Billy’s experiences of being held in an alien zoo on a planet far from Earth called Tralfamadore. These aliens can see in such a way that they experience all of spacetime concurrently. This leads to a uniquely fatalistic viewpoint when death becomes meaningless. Utterly brilliant. Definitely science fiction. So it goes.
A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick. Like Vonnegut, Dick often mixes his personal reality with fiction and throws in an unreliable narrator. In A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor is a drug user (as was Dick) in the near future. However, he’s also an undercover agent investigating drug users. Throughout the story, we’re never sure who the real Bob is, and what his motives are. It’s a proper science fiction world where Bob wears a “scramble suit” to hide his identity. Dick’s characters get into your head and make you ponder the nature of who you might be long after the book is over.
Little Brother (2008) by Cory Doctorow takes a look at the world of surveillance. Unlike Dick’s novel, this is not an internal examination but an external, as four teenagers are under attack from a near future Department of Homeland Security. Paranoia is present and correct as 17-year-old Marcus and his friends go on the run after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Doctorow’s usual themes include fighting the system and allowing information to be free.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. After a religiously motivated terrorist attack and the suspension of the U.S. Constitution, the newly formed Republic of Gilead takes away some women’s rights — even the liberty to read. There is very little science in The Handmaid’s Tale — indeed, Atwood herself calls it speculative rather than science fiction. The point, however, is not aliens or spaceships, but how people deal with the present, by transporting us to a potential, and in this case frightening, totalitarian future.
Bête (2014) by Adam Roberts is also a biting satire about rights. Animals, in Roberts’ bleak future, have been augmented with artificial intelligence. But where does the beast end and the technology take over? The protagonist in this story is Graham, who is gradually stripped of his own rights and humanity. He is one of the most engaging protagonists in recent years: an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, the author forces us to consider the nature of the soul and self-awareness.
Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the ideas of a feminist utopia from the perspective of three American male archetypes. More of a treatise than a novel, it is science fiction only in the sense of alternative history and human reproduction via parthenogenesis. Gilman suggests that gender is socially constructed and ultimately that rights are not something that can be given or taken from any arbitrary group.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin is regarded as the novel that made her name in science fiction. Humans did not originate on Earth, but on a planet called Hain. The Hainish seeded many worlds millions of years ago. In The Left Hand of Darkness, set many centuries in the future, Genly Ai from Earth is sent to Gethen — another seeded world — in order to invite the natives to join an interplanetary coalition. As we live in a world of bigotry, racism and intolerance, Le Guin brilliantly holds up a mirror.
Ammonite (1992) by Nicola Griffith also addresses gender in the far future. On a planet that has seen all men killed by an endemic disease, anthropologist Marghe journeys around the planet looking for answers to the mysterious illness, while living with various matricidal cultures and challenging her own preconceptions and her identity. Griffith’s attention to detail and the episodic nature of Marghe’s life result in a fascinating and engaging story — which is what the women of this planet value above all else. Accepting different cultural ideologies is an important factor in science fiction and both Le Guin and Griffith have produced highlights here.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers. There’s a ship called the Wayfayer, crewed by aliens, who are, by most definitions, the good guys. A new recruit named Rosemary joins the ship as it embarks on a mission to provide a new wormhole route to the titular planet. Chambers writes one of most fun books in the genre, featuring aliens in love, fluid genders, issues of class, the solidarity of family, and being the outsider.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke. In this folk-tale fantasy, Clarke writes a morality tale set in 19th-century England concerning magic and its use during the Napoleonic Wars. Somewhat gothic, and featuring dark fairies and other supernatural creatures, this is written in the style of Charles Dickens and others. Magic is power. Who controls it? Who uses it? Should it even be used?
Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) by Zen Cho is set in a similar universe to Clarke’s novel: Regency England with added fantasy. Women don’t have the same rights as men, and foreign policy is built on bigotry. The son of an African slave has been raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal. As in Clarke’s story, magic is fading and there are strained relationships with the fairies. This is where the novels diverge. Prunella Gentleman is a gifted magician and fights her oppressive masters. Cho writes with charm and the characters have ambiguity and depth. This is more than just fairies and magic, it is a study of human monsters, women’s rights, and bigotry.
Alif the Unseen (2012) by G. Willow Wilson. Take the idea of power, politics and traditional magic and move it to the Middle East. We’re in a Middle-Eastern tyrannical state sometime in the near future. Alif is Arabian-Indian, and he’s a hacker and security expert. While having a science fiction core, this sadly under-read book has fantasy at its heart. When Alif’s love leaves him, he discovers the secret book of the jinn; he also discovers a new and unseen world of magic and information. As with those above, this is a story of power. Who has it, and who controls it. The elite think they do, but the old ways, the old magic is stronger.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. Everyone’s favorite surrealist fantasy begins with a bored little girl looking for an adventure. And what an adventure! Dispensing with logic and creating some of the most memorable and culturally significant characters in literary history, Carroll’s iconic story is a fundamental moment not just in fantasy fiction but in all fiction.
A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) by Haruki Murakami sees the (unreliable?) narrator involved with a photo that was sent to him in a confessional letter by his long-lost friend, The Rat. Another character, The Boss’s secretary, reveals that a strange sheep with a star shaped birthmark, pictured in an advertisement, is in some way the secret source of The Boss’s power. The narrator quests to find both the sheep and his friend. Doesn’t sound much like Alice for sure, but this is a modern take on the surreal journey populated by strange and somewhat impossible characters, with a destination that might not be quite like it seems. You might have read Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — both terrific novels — but you really should read Murakami’s brilliantly engaging exploration into magical oddness.
A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) by Lavie Tidhar. Was Alice’s story nothing more than a dream? Or something more solid? Shomer, Tidhar’s protagonist, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. Having previously been a pulp novelist, his dreams are highly stylized. In Shomer’s dream, Adolf Hitler is now disgraced and known only as Wolf. His existence is a miserable one. He lives as a grungy private dick working London’s back streets. Like much of Tidhar’s work, this novel is pitched as a modern noir. It is however, as with Carroll’s seminal work, an investigation into the power of imagination. Less surreal and magical than Alice, it explores the fantastical in an original and refreshing manner.
The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. A classical fantasy tale of English folklore, despite being set in “Gramarye.” White re-tells the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Queen Guinevere. This is an allegoric re-writing of the tale, with the time-travelling Merlyn bestowing his wisdom on the young Arthur.
Redemption in Indigo (2010) by Karen Lord takes us on a journey into a Senegalese folk tale. Lord’s protagonist is Paama’s husband. Not at all bright, and somewhat gluttonous, he follows Paama to her parent’s village. There he kills the livestock and steals corn. He is tricked by spirit creatures (djombi). Paama has no choice to leave him. She meets the djombi, who gives her a gift of a Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world.
A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki. Diarist Nao is spiritually lost. Feeling neither American or Japanese (born in the former, but living in the latter), she visits her grandmother in Sendai. This is a complex, deep, and beautifully told story about finding solace in spirituality. Meanwhile, Ruth, a novelist living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach — possibly from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Ruth has a strong connection to Nao, but is it magic, or is it the power of narrative?
American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman. No one is more in tune with modern fantasy than Neil Gaiman. This is an epic take on the American road trip but with added gods. A convict called Shadow is caught up in a battle between the old gods that the immigrants brought to America, and the new ones people are worshiping. Gaiman treats his subject with utmost seriousness while telling a ripping good yarn.
The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes causes some debate. Is it science fiction or is it fantasy? Sure it is a time-travel tale, but the mechanism of travel has no basis in science. Gaiman, an Englishman, and Beukes, a South African, provide an alternative perspective on cultural America. A drifter murders the titular girls with magical potential, which somehow allow him to travel through time via a door in a house. Kirby, a potential victim from 1989, recalls encounters with a strange visitor throughout her life. Connecting the clues, she concludes that several murders throughout the century are the work of this same man. She determines to hunt and stop him. As several time periods occur in Beukes beautifully written and carefully crafted novel, it allows comment on the changes in American society.
The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara. Whereas Gaiman and Beukes use fantasy to comment on culture from a removed stance, Yanagihara looks at cultural impact head on, with the added and very difficult subject of abuse. Fantasy isn’t all about spells and magic rings. In a complex plot, Western scientists visit the mysterious island of U’ivu to research a lost tribe who claim to have eternal life. Yanagihara’s prose has an appropriate dream-like quality as it explores our perceptions through the idea that magic is a part of nature to some cultures.
The Harry Potter series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling. The story of a magician and his friends who grow up learning how to use magic in the world and to fight a series of evil enemies. As with other teen fantasies (such as TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), these books are more about growing up and understanding the world than they are about magic and monsters.
The Magicians (2009) by Lev Grossman is, from one perspective, Narnia remixed starring Harry Potter at university with swearing and sex. Which sounds great to me! From another, it is about addiction and control. Quentin (Harry) loves the fantasy books Fillory and Further (Chronicles of Narnia). Thinking he is applying to Princeton, he ends up at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy (Hogwarts). He learns about magic while making new friends and falling in love, while is former best friend, Julia, who failed to get to Brakebills, learns about magic from the outside world. There are beasts and fights and double crossing and the discovery that Fillory is real. Rollicking good fun with plenty of magic and monsters, but Grossman adds an unexpected depth to the story.
Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a perfect fantasy novel for anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s. I’d imagine it is pretty enjoyable for everyone else too. This time, there is no formal education in magic. Set in Mexico, Signal to Noise charts the growing pains of Meche and her friends Sebastian and Daniela. The make magic from music. Literally. Magic corrupts Meche and her character changes. Moreno-Garcia nails how selfish you can be as a teenager once you get a whiff of power or dominance. In the end, everything falls apart.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
The single best joke in Woody Allen’s canon can be found in 1980’s Stardust Memories, in which the fans coming up to his director character to say how much liked his “early, funny” movies. The joke was Allen’s way of not just jabbing at his own pretensions, but also to signal his frustration with the limitations of the creative box he had put himself into and that his appreciators seemed intent to sit heavily on the lid of. The joke was ultimately on those imagined fans because even though it was no fun to sit through Allen’s earlier Ingmar Bergman/Federico Fellini-aping work, eventually he broke out into a richer idiom that allowed him to toggle between satire, drama, and gags. There’s no Crimes and Misdemeanors without Allen getting through Interiors first.
If the end result was a similar creative chrysalis, it would be easier to take Neal Stephenson’s stiff-necked pre- and post-apocalyptic imaginarium of a novel Seveneves. It’s not that this novel doesn’t have scope or ambition. That wouldn’t be a fair assessment of a nearly 900-page work that starts with the line “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason” and ends several millennia later when the human race has been reconstituted along seven distinctly unique genetic strains battling amongst themselves while figuring out how to recolonize Earth. But what it doesn’t have is humor. This is especially disappointing when talking about a novelist like Stephenson, who unlike Allen (whose works tend to come out stamped “serious” or “funny” with no in-between) could always use comedy of a particularly deadpan vibe to grease the wheels of his data-heavy plots.
We are now over 30 years away from Stephenson’s first stab at alternate world-building, The Big U. But it seems even further. That messy splat of a sophomoric freshman novel hurled terrorist splinter cells and nuclear waste into a madcap satire on university life that included ruminations on Julian Jaynes and pitch-perfect renderings of the role-gamer mentality. Rough-hewn and self-impressed, it isn’t a book that aged well. One can see why the author was okay with it being out of print for awhile, particularly after he published novels that still showboated but were more confident about it.
In the 1990s, Stephenson looked like the best thing to happen to science fiction since William Gibson blew things open with Neuromancer the previous decade. Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) tangled with big ideas like the onset of the Web and nanotechnology years before they entered the popular nomenclature and knocked them into dramatic shape with humor and pop-culture savvy. Here’s the famous opening of Snow Crash, establishing the character of one Hiro Protagonist, a master of samurai sword usage, hacking, and near-future high-speed pizza delivery:
The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.
It’s all there, particularly Stephenson’s sinuous interweaving of technospeak (gleaned, unlike so many current-era genre writers, from actual technical know-how) into his slashing slacker-era snark patter. Sure, the book gets high on its own supply of over-oxygenated wordplay well before the conclusion.
The Diamond Age, albeit a more mature book that decanted a similarly smart-ass vintage into finer china, is much the same. Take this passages that describes what happens after the establishment of Feed, a worldwide nanotech system that can create just about anything anybody wants, anytime:
The company was thinking hard about things Chinese, trying to one-up the Nipponese, who had already figured out a way to generate passable rice (five different varieties, yet!) direct from Feed, bypassing the whole paddy/coolie rat race, enabling two billion peasants to hang up their conical hats and get into some serious leisure time — and don’t think for one moment that the Nipponese didn’t already have some suggestions for what they might do with it.
Too self-aware by half, perhaps. But damn if you don’t go back to those books again and again, paging through those high-wire riffs, laughing and awestruck by not just the humor, but Stephenson’s ability to channel the gestalt of a time and place that hasn’t even occurred yet.
That gonzo energy courses through even his lesser earlier works, like Zodiac, a goofy eco-warrior suspense novel, and the technothrillers he published under his Stephen Bury pen name. As for the Baroque Cycle — that elephantine historical trilogy set in late-17th- and early-18th-century Europe — it was punishingly dense stuff that pulled back on literary pyrotechnics and doesn’t lend itself as much to re-readings. But still, threaded as it was with fascinating sidebars on an fraught collisions of religion, politics, and science, and haunted with conspiratorial darkness, it reads almost like a less-gossipy precursor to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books.
All of this roundabout summing-up is a means of avoiding the stubborn truth about Seveneves. After a welcome semi-return to form with Stephenson’s overlong but still larkish thriller Reamde in 2011, Stephenson’s first big science fiction effort since 2008’s Anathem is a joyless heap of jargon. Its astounding leaps of imagination and eagerness to ignore most of the narrative conventions of the genres it’s toying with ultimately come to naught. There are few if any laughs, less than zero memorable characters, and not much high-altitude wordplay.
What the book has in spades is great big slabs of idea-mongering and world-building of the sort that Stephenson normally leavens with sprightly characters and wiseacre dialogue. At first, it’s actually not much of a problem. Stephenson begins things in classic time-zone-jumping disaster-novel mode. After the moon is smashed into a cloud of fragments by an unknown entity, the scientific community comes together in record time to inform its leaders that very shortly that debris will descend on the Earth in a fiery cloud. They call it “the Hard Rain” and say that it will destroy everything. So in the manner of classic, can-do hard sci-fi, everyone gets busy figuring out how to get as many humans up into a semi-sustainable orbit before the surface is turned into a Hieronymus Bosch-ian hell.
It’s a good start, somewhere between the hard sci-fi typified by Greg Bear and the grittier disaster sci-fi of Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer (without the quasi-white supremacism), tinged with the occasional hint of killer-comet narratives like Deep Impact; only there’s no Téa Leoni tearfully awaiting death by tsunami. The scientists race to figure out how to build out the already-manned space station into a kind of Earth 2 and to surround it with as many jury-rigged “arklet” capsules for fleeing humans, while the politicians try to break the bad news to the people of the Earth. The closest thing to a hero in the book is Stephenson’s Neil deGrasse Tyson stand-in, charming, popular TV scientist Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris (aka “Doob”), who muses how he would break the news:
Look, everybody dies. Of the seven billion people now living on Earth, basically all will be dead a hundred years from now — most a lot sooner. No one wants to die, but most calmly accept that it’s going to happen.
That strain of no-chaser non-emotionalism runs throughout the book, particularly once the story gets narrowed down to the astronauts and selected non-astronaut smart people busy putting together their post-Hard Rain plan in orbit. At that point, the Earth-bound action recedes quickly (as it will when seen from space) and we’re left with white-boarding and bickering amongst a bunch of engineers.
There isn’t anything wrong with all this, of course. Certain corners of sci-fi have long been reserved for those comfortable (as they must be to read Seveneves) wading through pages and pages of flat dialogue about controlled burns, orbital arcs, “bolides,” ham radio frequencies, Lagrange points, and the finer points of genetic engineering. It can feel at times like the sort of thing engineers might like to read when sitting in the break room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in between grouching about how the goobers at NASA always miscalculate their parabolas.
The sad thing here is that once Stephenson’s idea factory truly takes off in the last quarter or so of the novel, most readers will have given up. The characters, bland when not just plain unpleasant, will have long since blurred together. Even then, after Seveneves takes its bold leap millennia into the future when humanity has reformed itself along more quasi-scientific and Isaac Asimovian lines, Stephenson can’t ever kick his narrative into high gear. More critically, he never engages with the deeper philosophical entanglements of the fascinating scenarios he keeps uncorking: ringworlds, designer races, the impossibility of humanity ever leaving the near-orbit of Earth no matter how advanced our technology. Too much sci-fi has been ground down into series work these days. We need big thinkers, bold ideas, brave writers. This should have been it. A heavier editorial hand might have done the trick.
But, per Allen, maybe this is a necessary step in Stephenson’s writerly arc. Seveneves might be what had to be written before he could embark on another kind of writing. Maybe his Match Point is still to come.
As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.
I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.
When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.
My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.
In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.
There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.
By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.
In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.
What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.
The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.
The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.
Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.
When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”
Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”
At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.
“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.
Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”
“Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”
I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.
“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”
Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.
Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.
Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.
We should try to write some novels for them.
Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.
We should try to make games for them.
We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.
Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.
At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.
Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.
In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.
Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.
In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.
While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.
When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.
“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”
With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.
Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.
This is a story about how China Miéville opens eyes. It begins in Detroit in the 1950s with a boy who flat loves to read, who can’t get enough of Dr. Seuss, the Hardy Boys, and the Flash (Marvel and Zap Comix will come much later). He reads an actual newspaper every day, and he cherishes his first library card the way kids today cherish their first iPhone. (This doesn’t make him wiser or better than kids today, just luckier.) When the boy’s mother enrolls him in the after-school Great Books Club, he’s thrilled to discover such “grown-up” writers as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, then Hemingway’s quietly complex Nick Adams Stories.
Some 50 years later that boy is me, a writer who has spent his life reading novels and short stories that can fairly be regarded as the offspring of that Great Books Club – what some people call “literary” fiction and others call High-Brow Rot. This dutiful quest for quality has familiarized me with most of the pantheon’s usual suspects, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But it left little time for supposedly inferior “genre” or “mainstream” fiction. Only a few things seeped through – the addictive crime novels of my fellow Detroiters Elmore Leonard and Loren D. Estleman; a few best-sellers that rose above the herd by being deeply felt and sharply written, such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. As for science fiction and fantasy, only select boldface masters reached me – Verne, Wells, Tolkien, Huxley, Orwell, Ballard, plus the trippy paranoia of Philip K. Dick. I’ve read too few contemporary poets – Philip Levine and Fred Chappell are beloved exceptions – and I’ve never read a western, a vampire novel, a bodice-ripper, a self-help book, a political or showbiz memoir, or a single piece of chick lit. Overall, a pretty limited roster, and on bad days I began to suspect that my high-mindedness had blinded me to whole worlds of reading pleasure.
And that, conveniently, was when China Miéville came into my life.
He was recommended by a friend who has been a life-long fan of fantasy and science fiction. I trusted her because she’s smart and she made a documentary movie about William Gibson in the 1980s, when Gibson was helping forge the “cyber-punk” sub-genre of science fiction. At her urging I read Gibson’s early short stories, and I was blown away by their prescience and hip wit, particularly “The Gernsback Continuum,” “The Winter Market,” and “Burning Chrome.” To top it off, the writer who coined the term “cyberspace” didn’t even own a computer. He wrote on an old manual typewriter. My kind of Luddite!
Despite the pleasant surprise of reading Gibson’s short fiction and Neal Stephenson’s splendid SF novel Snow Crash – what’s not to love about high-tech skateboards in the service of on-time pizza delivery? – I had modest expectations when I opened China Miéville’s first novel, King Rat. Published in 1998 when the author was just 26, it tells the story of a Londoner named Saul Garamond who is wrongly suspected of murdering his father. He’s sprung from his police holding cell by a mysterious creature in a gray overcoat, the furtive, foul-smelling rodent of the book’s title. What ensues is a mind-bending journey across London’s rooftops and through its sewers as Saul learns that he’s part human and part rat and therefore a vital weapon in the war against a murderous Pied Piper figure who wants to annihilate all of the city’s rats and spiders. It ends with an orgy of violence at a Drum and Bass rave called Junglist Terror.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the novel. Was it just a delicious stew of weirdness? Was it an allegory about the need for solidarity among the underclass as it fights prejudice and oppression? Whatever it was or was not, the book whetted my appetite for more.
While King Rat was a respectable debut, it barely hinted at what was coming. Perdido Street Station, published in 2000, anointed Miéville as a star of the fantasy genre – or the “New Weird” – and gave birth to a cult following. The novel is an astonishment, the work of a writer with a fecund, feverish, inexhaustible imagination, a brilliant world-maker. We are on the world of Bas-Lag, in a suppurating cesspool of a city called New Crobuzon, where humans and strange races and brutally altered convicts called Remades jostle and thieve and whore under the eye of a vicious, all-seeing militia. The city festers around the spot where the River Tar and River Canker meet to form the River Gross Tar. It’s peppered with evocatively named precincts – Smog Bend, Nigh Sump, Murkside, Spatters – and rail lines emerge like an evil spider web from the titular train station.
There are human frogs called vodyanoi, half-bird half-men called garuda, green-skinned cactus people, and intelligent beetles called khepri. People get strung out on shazbah, dreamshit, quinner, and very-tea. In their midst, a rogue scientist named Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin receives an unusual commission: a garuda needs a new set of wings because his were hacked off as punishment for some obscure crime against the garuda code.
And then there’s Mr. Motley, the crime boss who commissions Isaac’s khepri girlfriend to immortalize him with a life-size statue fashioned from her spit. Mr. Motley is one malevolent eyeful:
Scraps of skin and fur and feathers swung as he moved; tiny limbs clutched; eyes rolled from obscure niches; antlers and protrusions of bone jutted precariously; feelers twitched and mouths glistened. Many-coloured skeins of skin collided. A cloven hoof thumped gently against the wood floor… “So,” he said from one of the grinning human mouths. “Which do you think is my best side?”
Then, just when you’re starting to get your bearings in this otherworldly world, Miéville brings in the slake-moths. These are flying beasts that use the pooling light on their wings to mesmerize their human prey, then proceed to suck the dreams out of their skulls, leaving behind drooling, inert zombies. For good measure, the slake-moths then spray the city with their excrement, fertilizing a plague of nightmares. A simple question comes to propel the galloping narrative: Will the humans and constructs and Remades of New Crobuzon find the will and the way to defeat the ravenous slake-moths? The answer makes for one very wild ride.
Perdido Street Station would have been a career peak for many writers, but Miéville was not yet 30 and he was just getting warmed up. In 2002 he returned to Bas-Lag with The Scar, but instead of revisiting the dank alleys of New Crobuzon he took to the high seas, where two New Crobuzon natives have been captured by pirates and sequestered on Armada, a vast floating city made of lashed-together boats, all of it dragged slowly across the world by tug boats. As they plot their escape, Bellis Coldwine, a gifted linguist, and Silas Fennec, a vaguely disreputable adventurer with curious powers, piece together the great mystery and mission of Armada: its rulers are working to raise a mythical mile-long beast from the deep, the avanc, so they can lash it to the bottom of the city and move at much greater speeds – toward… what?
Once again the fauna is irresistible: the Lovers, the autocratic couple who rule Armada and cement their bond by constantly giving each other identical scars; a Remade with octopus tentacles grafted onto his chest who gets gills cut into his neck and becomes an amphibious human; huge mosquito women who split open their prey (hogs, sheep, humans) and then suck them dry; amphibious cray who inhabit underwater cities festooned with seaweed topiary and 8-foot tall snails; a human killing machine named Uther Doul; and, of course, the monstrous avanc. Together they propel a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure.
By now my original questions were coming into focus. I realized Miéville was not writing allegories, in which things stand for something else in order to convey a deeper, unstated meaning. Miéville’s humans and hybrids and monsters are not symbols; they are simply what they are, and they demand to be taken literally. This was stunning to me, and I realized it would not have worked if Miéville were not so good at creating unforgettable characters and creatures, at making sentences, at telling compelling stories. I also realized that a couple of themes run like strands of barbed wire through all the books: the dubious merits of demagogues and messiahs, and the vital importance of resisting absolute power. These are grand themes, and in Miéville’s hands they help turn good books into great ones.
He expanded on these themes in Iron Council (2004), in which a group of renegade workers commandeer the construction of a railroad that is crossing the continent, crushing everything in its path in a mad quest for profit. With a civil war erupting back in New Crobuzon, the renegades succeed in traversing the uncharted, forbidding continent, ripping up the tracks behind them and re-laying them in front as they inch along, writing history. The train itself, this Iron Council, soon goes feral. It’s led by Judah, a master at making golems out of dirt, corpses, air, even time, and eventually it must decide if it should return to New Crobuzon to help the revolt, or continue on its epic journey. Interrupted by a long flashback in the middle, the novel is more overtly political than its predecessors, with a subtext about the pain of unrequited love between saintly Judah and a male disciple named Cutter. It’s both brutal and tender, with plenty of monsters and combat and high adventure, but fans and critics were sharply divided.
After its publication, Miéville cited Iron Council as his personal favorite among his books. It’s not hard to understand why. The writing is lean, free of pyrotechnics, fearless, a sign that the writer has attained full confidence in his powers, in his characters, and in the weird world they travel through. Miéville no longer had anything to prove to himself or anyone else. What writer wouldn’t revel in such liberating self-possession?
Miéville was entitled to a breather, and he took it in 2007 with Un Lun Dun, a delightful children’s book that posits there are “abcities” that live alongside real ones – London has Un Lun Dun, and then there’s Parisn’t, No York, Lost Angeles, and others. Into Un Lun Dun come two London girls, Zanna and Deeba, lured to the abcity because, as they learn, Zanna is the much-coveted Shwazzy (a play on the French word choisi, or Chosen One), who supposedly possesses powers that will help the residents of the abcity defeat the virulent Smog. This noxious organic cloud, fed by London’s pollutants, threatens to burn everything in Un Lun Dun – books, buildings, people – then inhale their smoke, increasing its size and power and knowledge until the abcity vanishes.
One of Miéville’s themes – the dubious nature of messiahs – is cleverly tweaked here when it turns out that Zanna is a zero and Deeba, the unchosen one, is the true heroine. As Alice did in Wonderland, Deeba fearlessly negotiates the wondrous abcity with its donut-shaped UnSun, its flying double-decker buses, its “moil” buildings (Mildly Outdated in London) made of discarded TVs and record players, and Webminster Abbey, a church made of cobwebs. She teams up with a kindly bus conductor, a talking book, a cuddly milk carton named Curdle, and the binja, protective trash bins that know karate. Their battle against the Smog and its devious human allies draws on Miéville’s twin strengths – his boundless imagination and his ability to whip a narrative into a frenzy. He even illustrated the book with deft pen-and-ink sketches.
Next came The City & the City (2009), which, though it just won the 2010 Hugo Award, strikes me as the weakest of Miéville’s novels. It’s essentially a noir police procedural set in a pair of intertwined cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same space but never interact. Under threat of severe penalty, citizens of each city learn to “unsee” the other. Miéville is to be applauded for resisting the temptation to get too comfortable on Bas-Lag, in London or in Un Lun Dun, but for me the novel is a one-trick pony, under-worked, thin. Not everyone agreed. The novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Locus Award for best fantasy novel of 2009.
Miéville returned to London with this summer’s Kraken, which is the German plural for “octopus,” and a bit of a misnomer because the novel’s titular creature is actually a giant squid. When it disappears mysteriously from the Natural History Museum, a curator named Billy Harrow is drawn into the police investigation and soon finds himself in the other London – a netherworld of cultists, magickers, angels, witches, stone cold killers, and some people who are trying to engineer the end of the world. One of them is a talking tattoo. Another wants to erase the achievements of Charles Darwin. More than a few people believe the giant squid is a god. The novel is Miéville’s grandest achievement to date, brainy and funny and harrowing, its pages studded with finely cut gems, such as: “The street stank of fox.” And: “The presence of Billy’s dream was persistent, like water in his ears.” And: “All buildings whisper. This one did it with drips, with the scuff of rubbish crawling in breezes, with the exhalations of concrete.” This other London, Miéville writes, is “a graveyard haunted by dead faiths.” Like all of his worlds, it is not merely plausible, it is engrossing precisely because it demolishes old notions of plausibility and writes its own. In other words, it’s an eye-opener, a revelation.
By the time I finished reading Miéville’s novels I had come to understand that what matters most about fiction is not somebody else’s idea of what’s great, what’s good or, worse yet, what’s good for you. What matters is a writer’s ability to create a world that comes alive through its specifics and then leads us to universal truths. Miéville engages me with his writing because he is brilliant and because he cares about me as a reader, and this, I’ve come to see, is far more precious than a book’s classification, its author’s reputation, or the size of its audience. As the late Frank Kermode said of criticism, Miéville understands that fiction has a duty to “give pleasure.”
He does this by working that fertile borderland where pulp meets the surreal. He’s an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, mining not only the texts of his chosen genre, but also mythology, folklore, Kafka, children’s literature, epics, comics, Melville, westerns, horror, and such contemporary pop culture totems as graffiti, body art, and Dungeons & Dragons. For all that, his worlds are surprisingly low-tech, more steam-punk than cyber-punk, which speaks loudly to the Luddite in me. People use gas lamps, typewriters, crossbows, flintlock rifles, and bulky “calculation engines.” There are no spaceships, death rays, or other threadbare hardware that furnishes so much old-school SF. The one exception is a witty nod to “Star Trek” in Kraken, including some acts of teleportation. But it’s the exception that proves the rule.
Best of all, Miéville’s worlds are not governed by tidy morality any more than they’re governed by the strictures of hard realism or hard science fiction. Virtue is not always rewarded and evil often goes unpunished, which is to say that his weird worlds have a lot in common with the world we’re living in today. In fact, weirdness for Miéville is not something that exists outside reality; it’s just beneath, and next to, and right behind, and inside of the everyday. “‘Weird’ to me,” he has said, “is about the sense that reality is always weird.” In the end, his fantasy novels are not about otherworldly worlds, not really. They’re about the possibilities that are all around us, waiting for someone to open our eyes so we can see them. Someone with the imagination and the writing chops of China Miéville.
For him, weirdness is not an end in itself, but a means to a much higher end. He has said that his “Holy Grail” is to write the ripping good yarn that is also sociologically serious and stylistically avant-garde. The only better description I’ve heard of his writing came from a fan who wrote that, in Miéville’s books, “Middle Earth meets Dickensian London on really good acid.” Perfect.
As fine as it often is, Miéville’s writing is not flawless. Especially in the early novels, over-used exclamations become tiring, such as “By Jabber!” and “godspit!” A handful of words get worn to the nub, including “judder,” “drool,” “thaumaturgy,” and “puissance.” Some predators “predate” their victims instead of preying on them. Miéville – godspit! – has been known to use “impact” as a verb, which ought to be an international crime. And like many middle-aged faces, his prose would benefit from a little tightening here and there. But these are quibbles, and they should have been addressed by a halfway competent copy editor. Besides, they’re a bit like walking away from a sumptuous banquet and bitching that the shrimp weren’t big enough. No writer is perfect, mercifully, but a few, like Miéville, start with a bang and just keep getting bigger and stronger and weirder and better. That’s as much as any reader has a right to ask of any writer.
Word is getting out of the genre ghetto. Even the Decade-Late Desk at the New York Times gave Miéville the full treatment after the publication of Kraken – an interview in his London home that duly noted his middle-class upbringing, his shaved skull and multiple ear piercings, his degree from the London School of Economics, and his numerous literary prizes. “And,” the article concluded with tepid Gray Lady praise, “his fan base has come to include reviewers outside the sci-fi establishment.”
True, as far as it goes. But the Times article barely touched on what might be the most startling aspect of Miéville’s career to date. Rather than trying to distance himself from the fantasy genre, he has embraced it. Another writer who has done this is Neal Stephenson. “I have so much respect for Neal on that basis,” Miéville once told an interviewer. “I could kiss him. So many writers perform the Stephenson maneuver in reverse. They perform the (Margaret) Atwood – they write things that are clearly weird or in the fantastic tradition, and then they bend over backwards to try to distance themselves from genre.”
Not China Miéville. Which is why I’ve written this mash note – to thank him for helping me see that genre books, that any books, can be great, and for teaching me to quit worrying and just kick back, relax, and realize it’s totally cool to love the monsters.
I doubt that I could improve on John Derbyshire’s review of the Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson’s “octology” of historical fiction. The Baroque Cycle is actually three big volumes: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, all published in 2003 and 2004. There are some well-respected American writers out there who have published bricks of comparable length and to whom Stephenson could conceivably be compared, if for nothing other than his ability to make readers turn pages, lots of pages. Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon have all produced acclaimed doorstops. But despite some pretty robust sales of the Baroque Cycle, or perhaps because of them – and Stephenson is not shy about discussing his sci-fi roots – the author enjoys a much lower profile than all of the above. I cannot review the Baroque Cycle until I’ve read it, and at this rate that could take years. I’m halfway through The Confusion and have begun to fall under that blessed curse of too many other titles and authors competing for my attention. And, as I said, I doubt that I could add much to Derbyshire’s review. Derbyshire does a particularly good job of explaining the rather complex themes and scientific antecedents that run through these books, which follow the lives of three principal characters through late 17th-early 18th century Europe and beyond. The Protestant Reformation and England’s Glorious Revolution, the contrasting subjugation of the French nobility by Louis XIV, the opening up of the Americas, the slave trade, advances in Europe’s mercantile economy and monetary systems, the development of higher math, The Calculus, cryptography, and encryption (precursor to information technology); all figure prominently in the Baroque Cycle. Historical figures from Sir Isaac Newton to The Sun King wander in and out of the narrative. The principals wander far and wide: Boston, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Algiers, and Cairo are just a few of the cities they pass through, and Stephenson captures the essence of each place with skillful description that tends toward the fantastic. Reading these books is like diving into a massive landscape painting, what one might have seen adorning the walls of Versailles at its apogee. Suddenly the small figures toiling away in the foreground take form, their presence no longer merely giving scale to a world of unfathomable expanse, but instead demonstrating the interconnectedness of people and ideas. Whether concerned with noble folly, bourgeois intrigue, picaresque adventure, or scientific missive, Stephenson’s touch is as light and easy as the torrential dialogue that flows between his characters. Breezy as his fiction writing may be, Neal Stephenson has a penchant for deep thoughts. He is a polymath, someone who comes across as very learned in a number of areas, and his books present a sort of unified field theory of human systems (and also come complete with bibliographies). But at heart, Stephenson is a science fiction writer, two of his previous books, Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, fitting more obviously into that genre. The latter deals in part with cryptography and code breaking in WWII, and is a sort of primer for the Baroque Cycle despite being set hundreds of years later. That the Baroque Cycle is set in the past obscures what would otherwise be a fairly obvious connection to sci-fi. Call it historical science fiction. Indeed, before I did a bit of research into Stephenson, having read only Quicksilver, this connection was lost on me. But I find this aspect of Stephenson’s writing appealing: ultimately metaphysics is more important than mere physics. Why is more important than how. Is it not impossible to answer the question why without moving from a discussion of hard science to a discussion of something more ineffable? The last piece to the Neal Stephenson puzzle that I’m attempting to assemble here is his website. It’s a good site because it’s a place where someone can read cranky musings by the author on why in the world people wish to seek him out and the innumerable ways in which his work is misunderstood, and also purchase some pretty cool Baroque Cycle t-shirts. One can only smile at the introductory salvo: “The existence of this page: narcissism or necessity?” While Stephenson would have you believe that it’s the latter only, the true answer would seem to be a bit of both. Yet, like his books, Stephenson’s website is both interesting and informative (and, not surprisingly for a man with some geekish tendencies, rather well put together). And isn’t some didactic crankiness refreshing in a world where so many of us are content to tiptoe through the tulips? My favorite portion of the site is where Stephenson equates his personal notoriety to that of the mayor of Des Moines. Hmm. One thing is certain: of the two, Stephenson has sold more books.
So, maybe you’re curious about what books people are reading right now. I’ll start with new fiction. There’s a lot of interesting new books out there right now. The book that everyone is talking about remains The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem has recently been interviewed in periodicals ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the Paris Review, and the book is the current pick for countless book clubs. Despite the hype, this book is a worthy read, and you’ll have something to talk about at cocktail parties. In the category of science fiction for those who don’t typically read science fiction comes Quicksilver, the first book in a new series by Neal Stephenson. The book has been out for a week and is already flying off the shelves, most likely to the very same folks who are always telling me how much they love Stephenson’s previous novels, especially Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Meanwhile, Zoe Heller is nearing breakthrough status with her second novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which is about a teacher who carries on an affair with her fifteen year old student. It sounds trashy, but from what I hear it turns out to be a nuanced and moving character study. It’s been short-listed for the Booker Prize and is beginning to sell accordingly. Also short-listed and selling incredibly well in England is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Following in the footsteps of fellow young Londoner Zadie Smith, Ali’s debut novel is another unsparing look at multi-cultural London. Finally, another debut, this one is a cleverly wrought time traveling romance by Audrey Niffenegger titled, appropriately, The Time Traveler’s Wife. So there you go. A few things to read this fall. Stayed tuned for the next installment: new non-fiction.