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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fifteen thousand words on American science fiction

I've been commissioned to write a long - in this case 15,000 words - chapter on American science fiction, for a huge encyclopedic work on American literature more generally. This is quite a challenging task, and I'm still struggling with it ... which is unfortunate, since my deadline passed late last week.

Hopefully, I'll have it wrestled into shape in the next few days.

Part of the problem is that 15,000 words requires almost as much thought as a book - it requires that a lot of detail be given, with names to be named, works to be described, fairly involved choices of relative importance to be made. However, it doesn't allow description of anything in particular to be at the level of detail that's possible in an actual book. Another part of the problem lies in the difficulty of separating out American science fiction from other kinds, especially British (and, although "American" in this context mean "US", it's rather arbitrary factoring out the Canadian writers).

The biggest part of the challenge, though, is that the chapter is supposed to focus as much as possible on contemporary writing, as in just the last few years. That requires difficult judgments about what should be included, what should be discussed at length, etc. History has not yet made any of those judgments. Leave aside the fact that I've found some embarrassing gaps in my reading (which I will not reveal in public), to be plugged as best I can.

Anyway, you now know where I am at the moment - in my study, but trying desperately to complete this assignment.

14 comments:

Brian English said...

That will teach you to read all them books! Filling your head with learning was always going to cause problems down the road. The spacechickens have come home to roost.
I feel for you. 15000 words is a lot, but as you say, not enough....
Still, you'll get published again. You're increasing your potential to gain some form of literary immortality.

Blake Stacey said...

Wow! Will the final product be readable online (with or without fee), or will I have to rely upon MIT's little-known Humanities Library to see this encyclopedia?

Off to revise that stack of novel I have sitting on my hard drive. . . .

Russell Blackford said...

Blake, it'll be a four-volume hard-copy encyclopedia ... so you'll have to trek to the library. Checking, I see that there are to be 100 entries, which I assume are all of a similar size, so it'll be an enormous thing when it's actually published.

stuart peace said...

I just read "Friday" by Heinlein as a post-exams-read and I was blown away. Sure, the ending sucks, but it was written a year before Neuromancer and is about as cyberpunk as it. I always thought Neuromancer was the original stand alone that started everything.

Russell Blackford said...

That book was a real return to form for Heinlein. Job, which came out in the same year as Neuromancer is also a pretty good read.

Actually, so is David Palmer's Emergence, which also came out that year, and is a perfect clone of Heinlein's style circa Stranger in a Strange Land. It's largely forgetten now, but it was Hugo-nominated that year, and might have won in any "normal" year, i.e., any year that didn't have something as significant as Neuromancer on the ballot.

What really blew people away with Neuromancer at the time was partly the concept of cyberspace, etc., but largely the style (including the depiction of character). No one in the sf field before Gibson had ever written in that way, though you can find influences in the New Wave as well as in Pynchon and in crime writers like Raymond Chandler. William Burroughs and Joanna Russ were also in the mix somewhere, maybe also Delany, but the result was something new. When I read Neuromancer, way back then, my jaw dropped.

The closest equivalent in impact, within the field that is, had perhaps been the early work of Alfred Bester.

stuart peace said...

Yeah Friday was a pretty awesome book, but there was some that bugged me about it. She never had a child of her own, never found out to connection between Boss and that address, and worst of all, ended up marrying the guy that raped her. (which seemed to be justified by Heinlein because he admitted it was his fault because she was 'so sexy')

Anyway that was a good observation about cyberspace, I'd mostly identified the central theme to be the corporation-style-distopia, but yeah, no cyberspace for Heinlein.

And no mobile phones for either ;)

Also, I'll have to chase down Emergence. Currently reading Foundation for the first time - which is kind of boring.

Stuart Peace said...

"Yeah Friday was a pretty awesome book, but there was some that bugged me about it. "

I mean

Yeah Friday was a pretty awesome book, but there was something that bugged me about the end of it.

Russell Blackford said...

That ending where she ends up with the guy who raped her is really horrible. Heinlein could certainly find ways of spoiling good work, at times.

Kristjan Wager said...

The concept of cyberspace didn't originate with Gibson (though the name did), other writers had covered it before - Vernor Vinge and his excellent True Names comes to mind.

For a good encyclopedia on science fiction, I recommend the excellent The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (there is also a companion encyclopedia of fantasy).

Blake Stacey said...

Don't forget the Grid in Gravity's Rainbow (1973). I doubt I'm the first to make that comparison. . . .

Russell Blackford said...

Hi, Kristjan! Yes, you're right that Gibson was not the first person to use something like cyberspace, but he coined the word, imagined it in an especially compelling way, and presented those extraordinary, memorable images of it. Those were among the things that made such a mark when Neuromancer appeared, but the point I was really trying to make was that it was Gibson's language that actually had the greatest impact on us back in 1984/85.

Actually, all of this can be found in his short story "Burning Chrome", a couple of years before, but Neuromancer was where a lot of people first encountered it.

Similar concepts had actually been around for a long time, but yes Vinge's "True Names", a year before "Burning Chrome", was clearly an important synthesis of them. There was quite a ferment going on in the early 1980s.

It's always difficult to credit any one person for any concept in sf because sf is a literature of ideas, and many related ideas are in dialogue over the decades. Our current concept of cyberspace as the internet is rather less dramatic than what Gibson presents, but Arthur C. Clarke imagined something like it in Profiles of the Future, and there may be even earlier examples.

Daniel F. Galouye's book Counterfeit World might be the first English-language narrative to imagine a computer-generated reality, and was certainly where I first encountered the idea, but perhaps there are earlier examples.

Yeah, the Clute/Nicholls encyclopedia is a superb volume, and I use it for reference all the time. (I contributed a number of articles to it myself, but there is a slightly sad story about this - unless you use the CD-ROM version, you can't tell what was contributed by me and what by Richard Bleiler, as "RB" instead of "RuB" has been placed on my entries to the print version ... so the index matches them all up to Bleiler.) Peter Nicholls actually lives here in Melbourne and is a pal of mine.

It's good that new encyclopedias get published, though, not just to keep up to date but also to add fresh perspectives. Gary Westfahl's three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is also useful, but I'm biased towards it because it contains quite a lot of material by me. :)

Blake Stacey said...

When you're done with this task, you might like to check out the British Medical Association's ethical aspects of cognitive enhancement "discussion paper".

Russell Blackford said...

Aaaaarrrrgghh! Almost there, though nearly two weeks overdue. Still, this isn't the sort of deadline that I think anyone will treat as much more than nominal. To my students who may read this ... do as I say, not as I do.

Russell Blackford said...

Two weeks over the ... ahem ... nominal deadline, and I have a good draft. Yay, for me.