Day 110: My science fiction risk proposition

When I was a kid, for five or six years I was mad for science fiction. I read Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, the Foundation trilogy. I read Anne McCaffrey and Poul Anderson and Harry Harrison and Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. I subscribed to a pulp magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I was member of the Science Fiction Book Club, which sent me cheap editions of new and classic novels for a few dollars each.

Then I lost interest at around age 16. Moved on, read more literature, more narrative journalism, more class assignments like Antigone and Catcher in the Rye. In my undergraduate years, I think I read only one book that could be classed as science fiction: Slaughterhouse-Five. Read it in a Philosophy 101 class, so how cool was that TA?

Decades went by before I discovered William Gibson and found that cyberpunk was to my liking. That led to me sampling other authors—Neal Stephenson, China Miéville, M. John Harrison, writers who displayed expansive imagination, intelligence, and willingness to grapple with immense ideas. It was exciting. I tried Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter and thought it was brilliant. I watched the film Arrival and through that found the extraordinary short-story writer Ted Chiang. I finally started on Ursula K. Le Guin and was beguiled. Admired the nerdy spectrum-tinged virtuosity of Greg Egan. I didn’t care that academics and critics and literary tastemakers disdained sci-fi—the genre’s scruffy, outsider, punk vibe made it more, not less, appealing. I had no trouble following an Alice McDermott novel with Phillip K. Dick, or reading Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man and then plunging straight into Kraken. I became a fan of the Blade Runner movies, and of The Expanse and Counterpart and the most recent Battlestar Galactica.

In my office, off to my right on the shelves next to my writing desk, you will find every book written by William Gibson, five of them in hardcover. I’ve assembled a good assortment of Miéville and Egan and M. John Harrison and plan to buy every one that I don’t already own. I’m buying the Library of America editions of Le Guin as fast as LOA can issue them. I’ll throw down 20 bucks for anything by those writers with no anxiety.

But devoting attention to a raggedy bunch of outsiders means wading through a lot of meagre work. I have learned to sample even acclaimed contemporary sci-fi books and authors only when Amazon offers a Kindle edition for $1.99. What got me excited for the second time about science fiction (or speculative fiction or weird fiction or transrealism or call it whatever you want, I don’t care) was the work of a subset of exceptionally smart and skilled artists like Gibson, Miéville, and Le Guin. I ended up with an overestimation of the genre's current practitioners; so much of what I've found in a deeper dive has, I'm afraid, reinforced its bad reputation. It is just bad—emotionally vapid, clichéd, poorly reasoned, populated by two-dimensional characters who engage in stilted, banal dialogue that makes me wonder if the authors have ever paid attention to how people actually speak. I get no further than six or eight pages and delete the book from my iPad.

Case in point: a young man with more than a half-dozen published novels to his credit and a growing reputation among the sci-fi cognoscenti, an author I’ll call LR. I’d been reading about him for a while when Amazon offered one of his novels for the magic $1.99. Last night I finished Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty and decided to give LR a trial read. Fifteen minutes later I put it down, probably for good.

The novel begins

“Dag Calhoun sipped his third macchiato and considered that fickle bitch, power. The creamy sweetness of the steamed milk cut the earth acidity of the espresso. A solo bassist plucked jazzy scales in the cafe behind him. A balmy spring breeze ruffled Dag’s thick brown hair, the gust an unexpected blessing in this country ravaged by the twin specters of drought and violence.

Oh dear.

Really, “that fickle bitch, power”? The sentence reads like the author has taken to heart the hack advice that the first line of a story must grab the reader. (Advice to new writers out there: never grab readers; it is impolite and likely to be misconstrued.) The clichéd tough-guy tone invites derision, and embodies another sort of derision best avoided unless you have a very good reason to invoke it.

Okay, so what does the improbably named Dag make of this fickle bitch? Hard to say because he seems mostly to be considering his macchiato, and considering it in the bland, flat prose of consumer food magazines. That solo bassist plucking “jazzy scales”? There’s no such thing as a “jazzy” scale—scales are the same in any music. You can employ them to create jazzy riffs or jazzy melodies, but the wording here tells me the writer doesn’t know when he’s out of his depth, which does not bode well. Dag’s thick brown hair ruffled by a breeze? Can’t happen. A breeze will barely move thick hair, much less “ruffle” it. And a breeze doesn’t gust—if it gusts, it’s wind, it’s not a mere breeze. By the time I got to “this country ravaged by the twin specters of drought and violence,” I was groaning inside. A specter is either a ghost or a frightening prospect, neither of which, I would maintain, could do much ravaging, even in a stiff ruffling breeze.

So in one short graph, LR has convinced me he does not pay attention. He does not pay attention to language, he hasn’t paid enough attention to music to write about it, he doesn’t pay attention to tone, and he doesn’t pay attention to what he has his protagonist doing.

The third graph leads with the banal, “History was badly plotted and written by committee.” Am I supposed to be impressed by this insight? Then we learn that when Dag visits this particular part of Mexico, it “never failed to remind him of the delicate, capricious cascade of events that had shaped the geopolitical fortunes of the Americas.” Oh really. Well, Dag is one deep, if overly caffeinated, fellow, isn’t he? We learn in the next sentence that Dag is here to “rest a finger on the scale.” So I gather he is a professional cliché-monger.

Perhaps LR really is in control of these sentences and means to send up young Dag, set him up as a shallow, self-impressed twit on his way to a fall. But the author does nothing in the next few pages to convince me that he’s a writer in sufficient command of his prose to be deliberate in what he’s done so far. Nor does he present anything to suggest he’s an observer worth my attention. An elderly woman at a nearby table, half of an elderly couple, has “lustrous skin and elegant features that hinted at Mayan heritage.” Huh? I’ve no idea what the Mayans looked like, and I’m not convinced that LR does either, so what does that say, exactly? What am I supposed to see? “Trust emanated from the couple like scent off a rose.” Oh, please. Dag somehow dips a toothpick into his macchiato and draws on his napkin—mind you, draws on a cheap paper napkin with coffee for ink—a sketch that “lacked mimetic detail” but “captured something essential about their rapport.” Yeah. I see that all the time in Starbucks.

And what of Dag’s consideration of that fickle bitch, power? Beats me. He seems to have forgotten all about it. At least the author has. Three pages in and I am now convinced that life is too short for any more of this.