“Litfic: Literary Science Fiction and Recent Hugo Winners” – Jeb Kinnison

“Litfic: Literary Science Fiction and Recent Hugo Winners” – Jeb Kinnison

I’m one of those people who straddles STEM and the literate arts with reasonable skills and interest in both. I took time off to study literature-type writing with a crew at Harvard, and John Updike visited one day. He made it clear he was a craftsman aiming at a specific audience, highly-literate Northeastern upper class sorts, but I doubt he would have looked down on someone writing for readers who like adventure stories. Dickens and Stephen King wrote for mass audiences and were looked down on by the literati of their day, but over time they became respectable and suitable for PhD theses.

The definition of “literary” is fuzzy. It’s confused with “inaccessible” and often the most obscurantist works are lionized mostly because only a few people can appreciate them, since they require study not enjoyment — e.g., James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon. Modern art became a thing because commercial, mass-produced representational art had flooded the world with photographs and advertising that made art accessible to everyone, so artists set out for new territory, fleeing the old world of representational art and pioneering obscure abstractions and art-as-statement. Wealthy patrons had to be persuaded that paying more for art that was impossible for them to actually appreciate was going to give them higher status. Pretending to appreciate the avant-garde became another class signifier. Modern literature similarly fled the masses and accessibility to keep exclusivity and high status.

But “literary” in the sense of complex, deep characterizations and prose that uses the full vocabulary available to the very well-read is still with us, and valuable. It is satisfying to read a story that is not only emotionally powerful but challenges you to learn new ideas, words, and phrases. Go too far in that direction, and your appreciative audience shrinks to nothing (and if you do get critics’ support and New York Times book reviews, your book will be bought by many but finished by few.) Too light, and you have grade-school pulp, which can be satisfying and gain you big sales, but isn’t challenging readers.

The problem with the Hugos is partly a lack of good material. My ideal science fiction leads readers through an involving story that also explains and projects new science and technology’s effects on the future. Many of the greats of the past were a little weak in characterization (Asimov, Clarke), but they were keenly interested in explaining the ideas that molded their fictional worlds. Recent literary science fiction tends to lack that emphasis on explaining new ideas, partly because there simply aren’t as many good writers as there were, and the younger ones tend to lack scientific backgrounds. And in fantasy, so much has been done that new ideas are rare.

A recent online discussion of “The Windup Girl” (2010 Hugo and Nebula awards) had many criticizing its implausible science and economics. If I’ve studied literature and come into science fiction and fantasy to write colorful, elaborate stories without much background knowledge, my stories may fall flat because people who understand science and reality see them as implausible. If one good literary value is complex and realistic characters, one good science fiction value is complex and believable science, and a good worldbuilding value is plausible economics and government. And there aren’t enough new science fiction books that have all of those these days, which is one of the reasons I read less.

“There were giants in the earth in those days…” Has the field been exhausted? I think not. The thinness of the last decade of SF&F is a consequence of the lack of money for writers now compared to several decades ago — if you want to be commercially successful now, you have to be willing to go into growing subgenres where a less literate population with reduced attention spans are buying. Comics, movies, and games satisfy the impulse for cool speculative stories and provide pre-marketed platforms for new work, while a standalone science fiction novel is trying to create a world all by itself and has to overcome the flood of new products set in worlds that have already satisfied millions. Both Hollywood and publishing are now finding marketing the key bottleneck, which explains the flood of reboots and copycat stories. Talented writers have left for the more fertile fields of Hollywood and games, leaving academics and part-time authors to fight over a declining pie.

When a field stops growing, it stagnates. The mainstream literary fiction market is deathly ill, with the green shoots of flash fiction on cell phones too minor to make up for the loss of millions of readers to other entertainments. The legacy publishers are now staffed with underpaid graduates of literary programs, not the war veterans and market-conscious editors with varied backgrounds of the post-WW2 era. Meanwhile, the funding of higher education by loans and subsidies exploded, producing excess graduates in English and literature who dream of writing for a living. Supported by grants, fellowships, and low-paid adjunct teaching jobs, they write part-time and flood the few remaining markets for short fiction hoping to get recognition and a “real” publishing contract. Many have invaded SF&F where there is still a better chance of getting published. An entire ecosystem of virtue-signalling self-congratulatory nonprofit writers now validate each other’s work and denigrate “popular” work. While there were always trust-fund babies writing for little literary magazines and being made fun of by successful writers, there are now more of them than there are self-supporting writers.

Being a writer was tough and never a good way to get rich before this happened. Now it is almost impossible for even some of the best to survive on only writing earnings. And that’s where self-publishing has helped — by routing around the right-thinking gatekeepers and the high costs of legacy publishing, self-directed writers can package and sell their own work quickly and cheaply. If it’s entertaining, a few years of writing can build enough of an audience to support full-time writing with the higher royalty rates self-publishing allows.

Jeb Kinnison writes on science, politics and relationships at JebKinnison.com and SubstrateWars.com. In his three-novel series The Substrate Wars, a band of liberty-loving college students rebel against an oppressive near-future security state after they discover quantum transport.

174 thoughts on ““Litfic: Literary Science Fiction and Recent Hugo Winners” – Jeb Kinnison

                1. Breaking news — This Just In: I have been advised that Life is a cabaret.

                  Theologians are left asking: Who is gonna pick up the tab?

                    1. one of the weird things at my college was all the drink machiens had Tab because the assistant dean drank it

            1. So America once more hoists the Hoyt flag? Huzzah Three cheers and a tiger!

              Now, get some sleep.

            2. Um, so, how long until you get home? Just curious, friendly curiosity is all, really. *tries not to glance over shoulder at pandemonium that had been the adult-drinks bar area while studiously not thinking about the rotunda below the observatory* Any long lay-overs coming up?

              1. Don’t worry, those Roomba-Tesla cleaning drones will have everything cleaned up in a jiffy.

                    1. You just need to know how. Don’t go looking for him, just bang his food pan and wait for him to come to you.

              2. We landed in Denver. Met older son by adoption,and snuggled grandkids in Pete’s, then almost fell asleep on the way home. (Yep 20 minutes or so in traffic.) Woke at six, and am setting the house to rights. Didn’t sleep really well because Havey needed to reassure himself we were still home EVERY HALF HOUR.

              1. Ave creatricum calamitatum!
                Ave regina caelorum, prava sed pulcra!

                (this took me way longer than it should have, but it was fun)

  1. I think ‘suspension of disbelief’ is an important metric,and for Science Fiction, the bar is much higher than ‘literary’ writing. Other than FTL, which often the author can get a ‘pass’ (great quantum mechanical ‘device’ for FTL in Substrate Wars works, because it is tied into the other science in the books), but FTL to a bunch of stars with no economic or social basis gets old fast.
    Fantasy can be a little easier, ‘its magic’ will cover a lot of sins, but the stories that still have farmers, villages, marketplaces and industry seem to have a better basis in ‘reality’.
    One novel I remember fondly (if only I could remember the title) dealt with SSTO/suborbital UPS pilots. Fast delivery, the science tech was near real time, the emphasis on the plot was not in the basics, but how such an innovation impacted society as a whole.

    1. Was it Michael Flynn’s Firestar series? There was a rocket modeled on the DC-X that I think was used for delivery, but that function was just story background. We saw it in action in a military sequence.

      1. I loved that series, particularly the first two. Then-near-future SF can be hard to get right and be entertaining, and I think that series nailed it.

      2. I had not realized that it was a series. Thank-you thank-you thank-you!!!!

        1. My pleasure. They were great fun. The first one was my favorite, but the rest were really good, too.

    2. I find the old Campbellian rule of allowing a single fancy, everything else must proceed according to knowledge present and’or extrapolated, a good baseline. There is only so much belief the suspender will support; overload them and your pants are at your ankles.

      One thing in which belief cannot be suspended is human nature; characters, societies must be credible. Fortunately, to the moderately informed the infinite variety of human culture offers a rich palette from which to paint one’s characters and cultures.

      1. And human nature is usually the first thing to be suspended. If you have to disregard human nature to make something work, it doesn’t work.

      2. OSC phrased it as a writer is allowed one piece of balognaium per story. For example, you can have FTL* and genetic engineering, but one of them had better look plausible.

        * Although by this point, FTL may be exempt in many cases since it is taken as a baseline by over half the writers and a lot of readers.

    3. An engaging storyline and characters can paper over scientific plotholes, but too much of the award winning stories today just pull a conceit and write around that, expecting the idea that said conceit is different, groundbreaking and visionary without fleshing out rest of story.

      1. that said conceit is different, groundbreaking and visionary

        Sadly the “said conceit” may have been used in the past by better writers.

        Too many of the “literary science fiction writers” haven’t read that much science fiction. 😦

        1. Even if it has not, some just read like high school creative writing reaches. Just like a poor author reaches for the most grandiose word in the thesaurus.

      2. An engaging storyline and characters??!!!? Do you realize how difficult it can be to do those? Far easier to simply make sure the message is right. Heck, that’s what Ayn Rand did and look at how well her stuff is selling thirty-four years after her death!

          1. Ayn Rand also wrote her books to challenge the fundamental belief that seemed to be so pervasive in society during her time: that it’s best to work for the common good, even if it means that you crush the individual in the process–indeed, that the individual has no value, except in contributing to the common good.

            I *think* interest Ayn Rand’s books are tapering off, now that the message that individuals matter, and that you can’t be contributing to the common good if you’re crushing individuals, has been adopted wholesale by our culture.

            Haha! Just kidding! So long as collectivism is taken seriously, there’s going to be a need for Ayn Rand’s message. That, and despite the messaging, there happens to be some interesting storytelling there as well, particularly for the shorter works. (“Anthem” in particular has always stayed lodged in my imagination…)

            1. That, and too many of Ayn Rand’s works (and most dystopians in general, actually) have been adopted by politicians as instruction manuals rather than as cautionary tales…

            2. Not too sure. Just seems that message is even louder that only certain individuals matter. Everyone else matters only as much as the group they affiliate with

            3. I’ve noticed a lot of interest in Rand the past few years, especially from attractive young ladies. One was a lady carrying one of those custom message bags with “Who is John Galt?” on it. Most recently one was at the library asking for The Fountainhead.

        1. Actually Ayn Rand’s audience is limited, as is that of most literary science fiction writers. The difference is that Rand staked out a corner of the market with no competition. She was the only one selling a product like hers, and while it wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, there was a hunger for it, and she basically had a monopoly. The problem for the literary science fiction writers is that most of them are offering cheap generic knockoffs for name brand price, in a glutted market.

          1. So, you’re saying Rand was the Fox News of her time, filling a narrow niche of 50% of the public?

        2. Actually, Rand’s plotting is solid, as is her characterisation. They just a bit implausible if you understand human nature . But within the framework of the universe she created, things work.

          Which kind of makes it decent science fiction.

            1. And because so many people denounce her. “Hmm, if those guys hate [author], she can’t be all bad. I should see what’s got their knickers in a twist.”

  2. I think a big part of the current upheaval in genre publishing (SF/F is the genre I’m most familiar with, but I don’t think the upheaval is limited to just this one) is that the democratization of publishing caused by easy indy publishing of ebooks is being fought against very vigorously by most of the legacy hard-copy publishers. Since they’re (by their nature) based in large cities, they tend to be fairly leftist in outlook. At least, that’s the default worldview of the large majority of their employees. They see a leftist view of the world as the only valid one, since they have little or no experience with anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that view.

    And that’s why you get the perception of the genre as stagnating or dying. These publishers are certainly doing so, since as you recognize they’re infested by virtue-signalling non-profit writers who disdain writing anything that would be popular with the masses (i.e., the people who would pay money for a book). However, indy publishing is going gangbusters in this genre, and probably others as well.

  3. Jeb, I think you pegged for me why I did not like Gene Wolfe the first time I tried to read the New Sun novels. I was struggling through Faulkner at the same time, and the two are too close. Not in terms of stories, because Wolfe’s characters go places and do things, but that both are what I think of as high literature. I was looking for something to wash away Faulkner, not to echo him. Faulkner is playing with language, layering stories and symbols, and assumes that the reader knows an enormous amount of background (Bible, mythology, culture). Wolfe was building a world but one that resonated with some of the same elements. I just wanted an escapist brain break.

    1. Agreed on Wolfe. I consider his work as fully literary as that of any of the acknowledged classical literary authors. Definitely not light reading (most of the time), but worth the effort.

    2. Since modern literary authors no nothing about the Bible, mythology or culture, and ‘escapism’ is merely warporn; I guess all that is left for them is to lecture us on our social deficiencies.

    3. I read two of those, I think. My problem was, by the time the characters got somewhere and started doing something, I was so bored by all the verbiage I no longer cared.

    4. The New Sun books were a slog here and there, but they were so full of startling images and ideas that I kept going–in fact, I’ve now read them three times. I see literary techniques as used in modern mainstream litfic being kept in chains by failure of imagination. A lot of those writers could write startling SF and fantasy if they chose to…but as best I can tell they feel constrained to tell tales about unimportant and disfunctional people in extremely narrow surroundings (basically New York in nature if not in name) with despair the only color on their palettes.

      I’ve read plenty of litfic, and while I can appreciate the skill it represents, it leaves me hungry for concept and breadth, not to mention hope. That’s why I write humor and idea-driven hard SF. That’s why all of us need the Human Wave.

      1. I think you’ve identified another part of the litfic problem, Jeff. If you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. There’s very little variation within them. I for one am not interested in reading about the inner life of another neurotic New Yorker.

          1. I think that he’s an exception to the rule. I don’t like LitFic and I enjoyed his story “One Bright Star to Guide Them” .

      2. When I saw the presented definition of literary, I first thought Kratman, then realized that John Wright seemed to fit much better.

        1. Wright is definitely literary, which isn’t my favorite genre, but I can recognize and appreciate his talent, and actually enjoy it in small doses. I couldn’t sit down and read a series written by him, however.

          1. Very much so. I enjoy his shorter works (as I do Faulkner’s) but his novels are a bit richer than I like just now.

        2. Boggle. Kratman is literary? He doesn’t read that way. You can tell that he’s echoing something from history but his novels are accessible and pull you in. His Amazon Legion is incredible. Also read David Drake. He was an undergraduate Classics major but none of his effort shows in his novels. Read his notes on his Belisarius series or Raj Whitehall series. I wish that adventure movies were as well done as his novels.

          1. Kratman was more or less my gateway drug into literary reading. His every detail tends to be measured. It rewards careful reading followed by thought or asking Kratman what was going on. (The way Kratman, Drake and Wright use language impresses me.)

            He writes stories in a minimum of three layers:
            1. The entertaining story that is accessible and stands on its own merits. He figures it owes it to his readers as the price for the other stuff.
            2. ‘Did you learn this in the Army yet boys and girls?’
            3. Trolling leftists.

            1. Kratman is message fiction, very, very good message fiction, but still message fic. I don’t know that I would have called him literary, however.

              1. Even as message fiction, he layers a minimum of two messages that can be missed if you don’t have the background.
                1. Some sort of military technical lesson. ‘These tools can be used for this at such cost’.
                2. Some sort of political trolling that may depend heavily on knowing what he is talking about. While reading one of his books, I found myself wondering until I remembered the specific people he was trolling.

          2. Drake’s Classics background shows strongly in his military fiction, much of which is based on Classical Greco-Roman (and in one case Norse) epics and the history of the Classical Mediterranean.

            1. It shows very strongly if you are familiar with the epics and history he rewrites, but even so it doesn’t read as regurgitated mush. And he has never attempted to label his stories as originals, he openly states where he gets his story ideas from.

            2. When he gave a talk at LibertyCon, Kratman started with Leuctra and Cannae. I may have been grinning a little too much and ticking off points too often (Epaminondas? check. Roman navy as infantry on boats? Check.) But yeah, Drake shows his background, like Turtledove does some times.

              1. When I was watching the second to the last episode of Game of Thrones for the past season, first thought when our heroes got enveloped: “Oh look, it’s Cannae.”

      3. New Sun and Gene Wolfe in general is one of those few occasions where I recommend reading summaries and spoilers and fan theories before even touching the books. When I finally did tackle New Sun all the way through, it was with a copy of Lexicon Urthus near at hand, and I immediately looked up every new character and item.

        I’d also recommend getting the audiobooks read by Jonathan Davis if possible. Davis does a fantastic job capturing the little nuances of Severian’s voice during narration, and it’s something special to hear the cadence of the prose while it’s being spoken aloud.

        1. If I have to do that much work on a text, I’d rather do it on a sacred text or on an already classic text.I’d rather read Euripides or Aristophanes than Wolfe.

          1. It helps if you love worldbuilding, so it didn’t feel at all like work to me. The light the lexicon shines on the background, the possible history, the cosmology, the players both terrestrial and extraterrestrial and the speculation thereof is fascinating. The sort of thing that inspires other writers (like me, blush and shuffle feet) to take odds and ends that Wolfe himself only touches on and explore them in their own fiction.

            And Wolfe draws on a low of those classic and sacred texts, so it doesn’t have to be an either/or. You’d probably be in a better position to enjoy the story.

          2. And on an added note, Wolfe is one of very, very few fantasy writers whose world-building I would put on a level with Tolkien.

            1. Book of the New Sun is one of those books you have to be in the right mood for. But it really doesn’t require work.

              Freaking Thomas Covenant – that was work.

            2. Maybe it’s taste. But I can’t Wolfe’s Urth books. I am repelled rather than drawn in by them.

              1. I share your criticism — I cannot wolf Wolfe’s Urth books, either. I found them reasonably readable but very easy to put down and difficult to pick back up. If I ever aid one down and accidentally walked off without it — as once traumatically happened with Biggle’s Still Small Voice of Trumpets — I probably wouldn’t exert much effort to find another copy, even though Amazon guarantees it wouldn’t require the ten or so years Biggle ended up needing.

                    1. Wait. Jan Darzeks? I have found The Still Small Voice of Trumpets (among my 20 favorite books of all time) and The World Menders (meh-ish though not bad.) WHAT AM I MISSING?

                1. On the plus side, this talk has inspired me to grab my audiobook of Shadow of the Torturer and join Severian on his strange travels again. Possibly some more little details will strike me, like when I first re-read it and understood why Baldanders’ teeth were so small and widely spaced.

                  A two-headed monster holds the hero by the ankle over a drop. He’s standing in the eye socket of a mountain-sized sculpture.

                  You meet a sailor full of tales of far-off shores, and realize he’s served on the crew of a space ship and the ‘sails’ are solar sails.

                  You hear an old fairy tales that’s formed from myths and history, combining the story of Theseus with the fight between the Monitor and the Merrimack, or The Jungle Book with the first Thanksgiving, and somehow synthesizing it into a coherent tale.

                  For my final argument, I submit the audio sample:


      4. For some people, authors who are capable of deploying the fall and flexibility of the English language are a feature, not a bug.

        Also, being sent to the dictionary, every so often, is not a hardship, if you tend to read it anyways for fun.

  4. > self-directed writers can package and
    > sell their own work quickly and cheaply.

    Robert Silverberg has been releasing collections of his short stories and novellas, spaced by his recollections and notes about what editors he targeted the stories to, how he pitched them, and what eventually sold them.

    The collections start in the 1950s, which was vastly different in how things worked… but while that era bears little resemblance to modern tradpub, it looks a whole lot like… indy. Silverberg’s market was a dozen-odd regular editors and occasional wild card sales instead of Amazon, but there’s still much useful information in those comments.

    Also, like many successful writers, Silverberg’s two keys to success were A) he wrote a *lot* and B) he’d write *anything*. Science fiction, fantasy, hardboiled detective, popular science, targeted magazine articles… he didn’t narrow his focus to just science fiction until he was *already* an established author.

    1. he didn’t narrow his focus to just science fiction until he was *already* an established author.

      Back in those days there we vanishingly few full-time science fiction writers. (RAH being the lone exception to my knowledge.) There were plenty of full-time writers, but the stf field was not big enough or lucrative enough to support a full-time career. Even many that we now think of as pure stf authors wrote western, detective, and straight adventure stories.

      Nowadays, the markets have changed, and the stf genre has become one of the easier to enter. Some may long for the days when we had fewer works but better and still consider those the golden days of stf.

      1. Gordon R. Dickson was a full time author from the time he left college.after WWII.

      2. It is drifting back the other way, look at how many science fiction* or science fiction and fantasy writers have branched out into other genres in the last few years. Ringo and Kratman are just a couple of the bigger names to have done so, but there are plenty of mid-list and indy authors who are branching out. Indy is I suspect a big help in this, since they don’t have to try and sell a story outside their specialty to an editor that is more interested in a known market for said author than a gamble, or the extra work of trying to open up a new market.

      1. Over on the mystery/detective side, Lawrence Block wrote a lot of porn too. And much of it is still in print.

        It was hardcore porn by the standards of the 1960s; “generic romance” in the 21st century.

        1. A lot of people represented by the Scott Meredith Agency also wrote porn for their secret porn publishing arm.

          Note how many agencies today have ebook publishing arms.

          1. I’ve heard a number of older authors (e.g. 65+ years old) mention similar tales. They had to pay the bills.

            1. Yup. Florence King wrote an autobiographical novel with a single hysterical chapter devoted to her excursion into Porn To Pay The Bills (“Can you do a gay male book?” “Yes! We’ll call it Forever Umber!”) and Mike Resnick farmed the damn stuff out. 😀

  5. … a band of liberty-loving college students rebel against an oppressive near-future security state

    Sorry — not credible. I can’t see this one Berning up the pages.

    Excellent essay, so I am forced to register my interest in participation in the comments by lateral comment.

      1. So, near future story, then … because the current trendline strongly suggests that college admissions will be screening for liberty-loving, especially in STEM programs. Can’t be having students who dispute the settled science, after all.

      2. You just committed a politically incorrectness….STEM is now known as STEAM – Science Technology Engineering Arts Math – the poor little arts majors were whining this initiative ignored their contributions and was therefore discriminatory.

        1. Offers a whole new insight into STEAMPunk.

          But it does recognize Engineering as an art.

            1. The kind ones do so by handing the Arts majors shovels and pointing to the piles of coal.

              The less-kind ones, thankfully, are too busy with twirling their handlebar mustaches (every man in steampunk has a handlebar mustache, it’s part of the Steampunk Characters’ Union employment regulations*) to actually carry out the plans they’ve made involving Arts majors and how, precisely, they could be used to heat the boilers.

              * Which are, of course, ironclad.

        2. Heck, I’m surprised the whole STEM thing didn’t get shunted off into “trade school.”

          1. If they could, a lot of college administrators probably would shunt engineering off to trade schools, except it would cost them a buttload of money, so those philistines are tolerated if only for that point.

            1. During my brief sojourn at the local state college, they had already shut down most of their engineering program, and they were bragging about how the resources were being reallocating to much-more-important “arts” programs.

              I was apparently a bad fit for a totalitarian business structure anyway…

              1. One of our local colleges was expanding their curricula, and had managed to have Doctoral programs in Math and Physics. Then along comes former Senator Trible as president. First, he discontinues the ‘Nurse’s School’, which was a curricula the University had promised the local city in return for the property the College originally set upon. Then he p*sses off the Math and Physics faculty, and the ‘University’ only offers 4 year Bachelor degrees in those majors.

                  1. No matter how much they lower their standards, they’ll still have profitable students who can’t handle a STEM curriculum.

      3. Of course they are — they even talk about how the rest of the campus is dominated by SJWs. STEM is where reality testing is still respected, where “it *should* be true” is suspect. Even there, profs with tenure have to watch what they say to stay out of trouble. But people are still hired in STEM for subject area knowledge, not to promote politics. But as seen in those recent “feminist glaciology” papers, the rot is spreading as funding depends on pleasing political masters.

        1. Example paper: http://reason.com/blog/2016/03/07/this-university-of-oregon-study-on-femin

          “Glaciers are key icons of climate change and global environmental change. However, the relationships among gender, science, and glaciers – particularly related to epistemological questions about the production of glaciological knowledge – remain understudied. This paper thus proposes a feminist glaciology framework with four key components: 1) knowledge producers; (2) gendered science and knowledge; (3) systems of scientific domination; and (4) alternative representations of glaciers. Merging feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions.”

          1. Pity they didn’t take these researchers via helicopter to the top of a glacier (in an undisclosed location in Alaska), and leave them there.
            Just human-ice interactions? The only thing that comes to mind here is a woman performing oral sex on a man with ice cubes in her mouth.

          2. This is the sort of academic, ahem, thing that makes me facepalm and want to pretend my degree is really in art history instead of environmental history with an emphasis on climate reconstruction.

            1. I confess I don’t really understand the term climate reconstruction. If it is changing, how can we reconstruct it? I mean I guess we could cause a nuclear winter, but that really wouldn’t be reconstructing the ice age.

              1. Not remaking the current one, but how can we identify/reconstruct what it was like in the past, when we didn’t have standardized thermometers, the ocean sensor system, and other tools. I spend a lot of time in old newspapers and diaries looking for freezes, frosts, storms, drought, flood, average rain, how hard did the river freeze over (in the late 1800s it was cold enough in winter in Albuquerque that freight wagons drove across the ice on the Rio Grande.) Which garden plants did well and which didn’t, that kind of little “tell” as to weather and weather patterns.

        2. Part of the rot seems to be because of the current STEM fad. Rot and ruin has caused the humanities and other studies to decline in value. STEM has largely retained value, so it looks better than other degrees. Hence the fad.

          With the fad has come the determination that the pipelines in earlier education have been fixed, and that any statistical oddities of gender must be in need of addressing.

          I suspect that current system modifications are making secondary and especially primary education substantially worse at preparing students for STEM. Furthermore, systemic fraud may be plausible, and this might have a disparate impact on preparation gaps for women and minorities.

          I am not convinced that the current politics are beneficial to the students.

  6. But “literary” in the sense of complex, deep characterizations and prose that uses the full vocabulary available to the very well-read is still with us, and valuable. It is satisfying to read a story that is not only emotionally powerful but challenges you to learn new ideas, words, and phrases. Go too far in that direction, and your appreciative audience shrinks to nothing (and if you do get critics’ support and New York Times book reviews, your book will be bought by many but finished by few.) Too light, and you have grade-school pulp, which can be satisfying and gain you big sales, but isn’t challenging readers.


    The thinness of the last decade of SF&F is a consequence of the lack of money for writers now compared to several decades ago — if you want to be commercially successful now, you have to be willing to go into growing subgenres where a less literate population with reduced attention spans are buying.

    For most of us, literary has a bad reputation because for decades the issue is message over realism and quality. My favorite example is Their Eyes were Watching God, a work panned when it first appeared because it didn’t give the “right” message, but later embraced when another generation found an acceptable message in the work. To those of us burned by sitting in lit classes, dark and dreary, we consider “ . . . complex, deep characterizations and prose that uses the full vocabulary available to the very well-read . . .” as fine writing. And the very best do so transparently.

    It’s like a house and church I know of, both built in the latter half of the 19th Century by immigrant German carpenters. A casual visitor admires the style of the architecture. Those of us who know a little about construction marvel at the workmanship. Such as a 90° corner on the back porch where the boards were cut and tongue and grooved in a fan shape. That was all done by hand, the tongue and groove cut by planes. Most look at that incredible workmanship and only notice that it looks nice. But had they simply lay the decking in a “block” with the end of one side butting against the side of the other, or even if they had lay the interior of the corner at 45°, it wouldn’t have looked as nice. Fine workmanship comes through.

    The same holds for writing. Give us a well written story and the craftsmanship comes through. Those of you in the knows, who see how the writer put it all together, can appreciate what they have accomplished. The rest of us, who don’t realize how it’s all put together, only know we’ve just read an outstanding book. Yet if an author doesn’t (or in my case, can’t), it’s obvious. Oh, it might be nicely done and a fun read, but we know there’s little substance to it.

    This is where I take exception with the term “less literate population.” It depends on your definition of literate. If it’s possessing a knowledge of Latin, as was the case at one time, most of us aren’t going to make the cut. We can argue whether this is a good thing or bad, or of the necessity of catching a reference to Icarus, and lament that growing numbers fail to understand the meaning of a road to Damascus experience. But while these are gaps in knowledge, do these gaps make one less literate? To me, literacy is the ability to comprehend the written word, which included grasping definition by context.

    We can debate whether there is increasing illiteracy – and it seems to be, by declining numbers of those who read for pleasure – but here lies a subtle trap. A poor grasp of the written word does not necessarily indicate stupidity. Word-wise, Hemingway wrote on a middle school level. But even if we think he has a better than deserved reputation, he crafted stories like The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Contrast these with a flurry of “reduced vocabulary” works that showed up in our high school and which students panned because the writers assumed a limited vocabulary meant a limited grasp of deeper concepts.

    Just because someone doesn’t know how to build a porch doesn’t mean they’re going to hire a carpenter who figures customers will buy crap because they don’t know the difference. But someone will hire a carpenter who does descent work, even if it’s not on the same level as a master craftsman.

    You give every good arguments as to the decline of quality of writing. But there may be another: Message fiction has dominated literature for so long that the common perception is that is what makes fine literature. So it’s message first and everything else second. Then there’s the error of thinking that a certain style is what determines fine writing, and the results are like a movie set: All facade and no substance. But expose people to a well written tale, and they learn that such things are possible. Once a writer knows that, they have something to aspire to other than courting the smiles of self-appointed intelligentsia.

    I don’t know how we would have handled a porch corner like the one at that 19th Century home. I do know that if my old boss had seen it, he would have tried if he had run into the same problem, using a wood shaper to cut the grooves. And that makes all the difference in the world.

    1. There’s a certain “Emperor’s New Clothes” quality to how art and literature evolve into dead end corners — the mid-level gatekeepers, like Maxwell’s Demons of what is promoted by big media, are out to increase their own reputations and influence. If you’re booking NPR book segments, you look for books that reinforce the prejudices of the established audience, and promoting an already-successful commercial author doesn’t give you any logrolling credits, while promoting the obscure and more academic author whose story promotes the narrative does — grateful author, burnished cred with your peeps, and safely free of icky profit.

      Gene Wolfe is a good example, and Wright – certainly for the erudition. Thomas Pynchon had science-fictional elements embedded in an obscurantist framework — “If this is hard to understand and hints at numinous importance, it must be literature.” But Wolfe and Wright don’t have the right Message, while establishment outlets promote those who do. Unwind the inaccessibility and there is often nothing there but Message. But Philistines who reject the faddish modern art and literature just confirm how good it is. All The Right People display their interest and show how discerning they are.

      1. I remember a bit of a tempest in the comments at iowe9 when “Gravity’s Rainbow” was listed as one of the top ten must-read-to-understand-the-genre sci-fi books. No one dared claim that it wasn’t a great work, but some had serious doubts about its SFnal status.

      2. Too light, and you have grade-school pulp, which can be satisfying and gain you big sales, but isn’t challenging readers.

        Since when is challenging readers the point of fiction?

        1. Of course that depends on what your readers want. Sheer light entertainment is fine, but the double-barreled “rollicking good yarn with mindblowing new ideas” is my ideal. I’m happy just to be enthralled mostly…

        2. Sometimes I like popcorn, and sometimes I like to chew. Of course, as under the weather as I’ve been, sometimes I can just about stare at a speck.

          1. And sometimes after chewing on something for a day or two, without being able to masticate it into digestable size chunks, you spit it out.

            1. and sometimes you can chew something for weeks, and still get interesting flavor out of it.

  7. OT, sort of, but evaluation requested:

    From National Review gangblog The Corner:

    Calling the Next Great American Author . . .
    By Ian Tuttle — July 26, 2016

    From our friends at Taliesin Nexus, for creative types who love liberty:

    Calling the next great American author! If that’s you, then September 9 – 11, 2016, have us fly you out to New York City, put you up in a hotel, and spend an entire weekend developing your work at the Calliope Authors Workshop. You will have the opportunity to get thorough notes on your in-progress work as well as career advice from successful novelists, nonfiction authors, publishers, and literary agents.

    Part of what makes Calliope unique is that while most writing workshops focus exclusively on short stories, we accept novels, long-form narrative non-fiction, graphic novels, and short stories. We balance workshopping with panels on Traditional and Self-Publishing Strategies, Research and Outlining, and How to Develop an Effective Career Plan. Moreover, you’ll be joined by 12 mentors and panelists and 15 peers, growing your personal network and knowledge of the publishing industry.

    Taliesin Nexus also awards five scholarships annually to students to help pay for study in an MFA program with grants up to $3000.

    I’m excited to be one of the panelists at this year’s workshop. If you’re interested, applications are due August 8. Click here for more information!

    — — —
    “Taliesin Nexus” and “more information” links embedded at original post; use link embedded in post header to access.

    1. Just realized this ran today! I wrote it when my brain was actually working. I’ve had a sinus infection which is just winding down, so brain no work so good….

      Re: Taliesin Nexus Calliope: good workshop if too short, great networking — I did it last year at UCLA. Sarah is helping teach it this year (last I heard) and I’ve urged some likely suspects to apply.

  8. “But “literary” in the sense of complex, deep characterizations and prose that uses the full vocabulary available to the very well-read is still with us, and valuable. It is satisfying to read a story that is not only emotionally powerful but challenges you to learn new ideas, words, and phrases. Go too far in that direction, and your appreciative audience shrinks to nothing (and if you do get critics’ support and New York Times book reviews, your book will be bought by many but finished by few.) ”

    Perfect description. I like literary – as long as it doesn’t stop the story in its tracks to rhapsodize about the dandelions. Literary quality in the writing elevates anything you write – and takes more time and effort. Go too far, and you have books widely bought (because coffee tables) and not finished. Or loved by some but with VERY interesting negative reviews which say, “this is terrible and I don’t know how it got so popular,” preferably supported by examples (so you know the reviewer isn’t the idiot).

  9. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    The problem is that the current crop of editors in most of traditional publishing are technically illiterate. Because the liberal arts programs and colleges in general eschew teaching technical skills and look down on getting your hands dirty, there’s no contact with the nuts and bolts of technology that the likes of Hugo Gernsbeck and John W. Campbell had. Because they don’t understand the ideas behind the story the current crop editors stay away from the big ideas. It’s a shame, because the well that comes across my sight daily would make such fun stories. there’s no market though as long as the system is the way it is.

  10. Reblogged this at the Starship Cat blog with the comment:

    The desire to make science fiction more literary, or at least more acceptable to the literary gatekeepers, goes back at least to John W. Campbell’s pronouncements that Astounding Stories (now Analog Science Fiction and Fact) would no longer be publishing stories that were in fact just westerns or war stories or sea stories or whatever, tarted up with some sf gadgetry for the cool factor. Henceforth, he would only be accepting stories in which the speculative element was essential to the story, and if it were removed the story would fall apart.

    (continued at the Starship Cat blog)

    1. There is a difference between “more literate” and “more literary” — current literary trends being post modern, which I don’t think any living being enjoys reading (I don’t know about dead ones) we don’t need that in SF/F

      1. You can always ask those dead Chicago voters if they enjoy post modernism. 😉

  11. (Trying again because my first attempt to post seems to have vanished into the bit bucket).

    Reblogged this over at the Starship Cat blog and commented:

    The desire to make science fiction more literary, or at least more acceptable to the literary gatekeepers, goes back at least to John W. Campbell’s pronouncements that Astounding Stories (now Analog Science Fiction and Fact) would no longer be publishing stories that were in fact just westerns or war stories or sea stories or whatever, tarted up with some sf gadgetry for the cool factor. Henceforth, he would only be accepting stories in which the speculative element was essential to the story, and if it were removed the story would fall apart.

    (rest of the commentary at the Starship Cat blog).

  12. Of course there are limits to how literary writing can be in fantasy or SF.

    Was realizing this when reading Ombria In Shadow. McKillip is very poetical, of course, but she was using a lot more simile than metaphor.

    The great rule of never using a metaphor that might be taken as literal means there are limits when the genre doesn’t provide them.

  13. “Talented writers have left for the more fertile fields of Hollywood and games, leaving academics and part-time authors to fight over a declining pie.”

    Hollywood, sure. But games? I can count on two hands (okay, I might need my toes too, if I’m being generous) the number of games I’ve played that were actually well-written. Where are all these talented writers working in games?

    Or is this a subtle reference to how gaming is now being infected by the same kind of virtue-signaling nonsense that has plagued sci-fi for years? Because not all of those writers are talentless, objectively speaking. It’s just their ideas that are ridiculous.

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