Sunday, September 4, 2016

Modern Sci-Fi, Why Do I Even Bother?

Overdrive is the poor man’s Audible.  It’s a cell phone program that allows you to check out books from your local public library.  You can even listen to audio books which you can download from Project Gutenberg’s Audio Books section or through the local library branch.   

The books available on Project Gutenberg are all public domain works, which include a wealth of riches for those of us spelunking in the mines of the Burroughsian, Howardian, and E.E. Doc Smithian pulps.  The quality of the human read audio recordings ranges from great to fine.  (The robot read stories aren't worth your time.)  The list of available works is short, but well worth a look for any fan of audiobooks. 
The local library branch on the other hand…

My local branch has 350 audiobooks available in the sci-fi category, most of which consist of teen books in the vein of the Hunger Games or worse, Hugo Award winner aspirants – and I mean that in the most pejorative sense possible.  Just about anything not written for angsty teens is written for fans of either gimmicky pseudo-intellectual posturing or Oprah-style relationship drama dressed up in a silver spandex suit and parading around the bridge of a planet busting spacecraft. 
There are bright spots.  A smattering of Burroughs’ titles are on the list, but these are generally books that sit, well worn, on my shelf.  My most recent listen, Out of Time’s Abyss is a fun little romp if not quite up to Burroughs’ finest.  Aside from the few diamonds in the rough, for the most part it’s the same dreary literary chaff one finds on the shelves of the big box book stores.

What can man do in the face of such tedium?
How about taking a deep breath, opening up your mind, and giving some recent work a shot?  A collection of short stories called The New Space Opera presents an excellent opportunity to dip one’s toe into the relatively current state of fantasy and sci-fi.  After all, if you never experience what the current market has to offer, how can you complain about it?  And so it was with some trepidation that I gave some modern sci-fi a listen.

Some of us just never learn.
The book opens with an introduction by the editor, Gardner Dozois, which discusses the origins and evolution of ‘space opera’.  It starts out great, name checking some undeservedly obscure authors like A.E. Van Vogt, E. E. Doc Smith, and Jack Vance, and even admits that science fiction as a whole abandoned its rollicking good fun and aspirational value in the 1960s in favor of chasing the approval of social engineers and ivory tower literary critics.  Unfortunately, he presents this change as a good thing, and barrels straight on into the standard self-congratulatory praise of modern sci-fi as a clear cut improvement over its predecessors.  He even goes so far as to mention that disgusting pervert Samuel R. Delaney in a positive light.  That’s a deal breaker right there, but with traffic snarled and the essay over, we can get to the stories themselves.

Photoshopped for more accurate portrayal.
Before we do, let’s dispense with the need for a concrete definition of ‘space opera’ that clearly demarcates it from other genres.  We all know what it requires, big dang spaceships, multiple planets, adventure, romance, and colorful characters, and it should all operate on a grand scale.  This is opera, but in space.  It’s right there in the name.  It should be a little bombastic, a little over the top, and evoke big feelings in the reader.  These are general rules, of course, and there’s room on the margins to quibble.  The point here is that my disappointment from the stories in this collection stems from their quality as stories, and how space operatic they feel, rather than whether or not they meet specific criteria for ‘space opera’.
First in the docket, Saving Tiamaat, by Gwyneth Jones, is one long lament by an assassin working as an odd combination diplomat and security officer for a space UN.  It’s written in the heavy gimmicky style favored by the right people these days.  I couldn’t finish this story because it was far more concerned with the main protagonist’s gloominess and clever prose that only ever hints at what the hell is going on than it was with establishing any sort of conflict or stakes or reason for the reader to care about any of this. The full story is available online for free, right here, if you want to verify for yourself.  Strike one.

Second up, Verthandi is Rising, by Ian McDonald, also left me bored.  It starts out with an intergalactic war fought over millennia by soldiers grappling with time dilation, but the meat of the conflict is just set dressing for the real tale.  That story features two members of a three person crew searching for the third member of their triad.  That third member went awol in order to allow the galactic empire’s defeated enemy to flee through a wormhole to a parallel universe, in order to spare them from genocide. 

Let me borrow a quote from Travel by Thought, “At first blush, the tone and style of “Verthandi’s Ring” take some getting used to, primarily because McDonald aims for the atmosphere and cadence of poetry.”   He definitely succeeds in an atmosphere of cadence and poetry.  His prose is definitely lyrical.  Shame it takes such an effort to penetrate his prose to determine what the heck is going on in the story.  Again, from Travel by Thought, “Verthandi’s Ring is one of those stories that needs a second reading. That is when the pieces fall more securely into place, the narrative becomes clearer, and its artistry unfolds like a flower opening up to the morning sunlight.” He says that as though impenetrable prose is a good thing.  It’s not.  I did understand it the first time, but the effort to do so killed the fun of it.  The whole story left my with an irritated feeling of, why didn’t you just say so?
Again, this is a writer more enamored of literary tricks and poetic license than he is with presenting a story.  The MFA students and professors might lap this up while on the clock, but there’s nothing appealing about it for casual readers looking for an enjoyable slice of entertainment.  Strike two.

Finally, Hatch, by Robert Reed, in which the author plays games with flashbacks and dribbles out information so slowly reading the story is like eating an onion, you slowly peel back the layers and consume them one at a time, always hoping this is the last one and knowing that in the end all you’ll be left with is a bad taste in your mouth.  The backdrop to this boring tale is a planet-sized generation ship whose engines were knocked out of commission during a long war against a sentient space-blob.
Let me say that again.  This is a story about a planet-sized generation ship.  It’s engines were knocked out. During a war.  With a sentient space-blob.  Robert Reed made that boring. 

Now that is quite the literary accomplishment.
Let me give you one example of how Robert Reed stuffs great ideas into the background in order to focus on tedious relationship drama.  The main protagonist and best friend meet in a vaguely described location.  It sounds pretty epic, some form of massive cliff overhanging a cloud of space-blob remnants that contain the rare earth metals and ooze-encrusted machinery that allows the small refugee settlement that survived the Space-Blob War to survive, or on the cusp of a city-sized dead thruster?  It’s not entirely clear, but it sounds like it might be awesome.  Reed glosses over it to get to the important thing – the friendship of a young man and his mentor.  That mentor, we learn after reading two full conversations with him, is actually an ancient trilobite-like alien.  Reed doesn’t just bury that lede, he forces it to drive itself out into the desert, dig its own grave, and then shoot itself in the head.   And that’s just one example out of many.  Strike three.

With that third strike, The New Space Opera lost its place on my hard drive.  All three stories are clearly written for critics, and not for readers.  Ironic, given that this reader has nothing to offer but criticism.  The top priority for these three stories is signaling to other writers that they possess a supreme command of the English language – that they have mastered the use of tone, metaphor, mood, and prose.  Unfortunately for the reader (or listener as the case may be), all three put the story and the reader’s enjoyment near the bottom of the list.
Bear in mind, this is not to say that these stories am too smart for me simple brain.  Quite the contrary, these stories are far too clever for their own good.  They fall all over themselves engaging in high-brow literary signaling that they forget the point of the exercise – to tell an evocative story.  They are like the guy who successfully signals his wealth by buying a high maintenance and flashy sports car that he can’t drive in the rain.  Yeah, everyone knows he’s rich, but he can’t go anywhere – he forgot that the whole point of a car is to get you from one place to another, in much the same way that the authors of these stories forgot that the point of a story is to tell a story.

You know who could tell a hell of a story?  H. Beam Piper.  That man could tell a story.  Think I’ll go download a few short stories of his.

1 comment:

  1. Good Call, Mr. M.

    You can't go wrong with H. Beam Piper.

    John E. Boyle