Posts Tagged ‘prose fiction’

Big Dumb Objects

24 January 2010

My latest plan was to try and work on a chapter at a time, and thereby tick them off and feel I was closer and closer to finishing. That went the way of all sensible plans – although I am nearly finished on the one I was working on, aside from the typing – so instead I’m working on word counts of the whole thing. I also wanted to ensure I’d read all the Hugo and Nebula novel winners, and that led me to the Big Dumb Object.

That’s a term coined by Roz Kaveney, possibly in her article on 1970s sf in Foundation (which I have obviously read years ago, and before I wrote the book outline, but I was avoiding a reread to try and keep my own ideas) distinct, and it refers to the vast structures that humans stumble upon, and try to investigate. It invokes the old sensawunda and the sense of the sublime, because it is so damn big and mysterious, and hardly speaks to the investigating parties.

There are three clear examples in the 1970s, and then various difficult cases, some of which I’ll gloss over. Larry Niven’s Ringworld is a cylindrical world, which our heroes crash into or onto. They appear to be straded there at first, and then travel across a small portion of the landscape. Every so often there are glimpses of something more – usually an attempt to explain the absurdities of how the environment is actually liveable – but scientific rationalism wins out, even as luck is explained away as genetic rather than narrative convenience.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama was his first novel after 2001, and again the ground need to be reclaimed for rationalism. The characters are eminently sensible, as they explore a vast cylindrical spaceship, and attempt to penetrate its mysteries. Again their are oddnesses – the characters’ sense of deja vu – but as Clute said in his review, it’s all about the c and the w and the gt.

The third example is Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, an honest-to-goodness Dyson sphere, and the answer to Earth’s problem of where to ease the over crowding problems; yet at the same time the novel is aware of the politics of power, and especially of empire and colonialism. Somebody is already there in paradise.

So why these three in half a dozen years? On the one hand it feels like its some kind of response to the fag end of the New Wave revolutions – this science is hard, dammit, it’s not just surrealism. The ghost of 2001 is in the background – the monoliths are as big and dumb as can be imagined. It marks a sense of making the impossible verisimilitudinous – but now is avoiding the cod enlightenment of the stargate journey.

Curiously the most interesting examples – aside from Orbitsville – end up deconstructing the big and the dumb and the object. Priest’s Inverted World begins with a peculiar city travelling across an increasingly surreal landscape and ends up in distinctly psychological, and apparently scientific, terms. Priest had slated Rama and Ringworld in various articles, and it is certainly tempting to read Inverted World as a response to such novels. Meanwhile Terry Pratchett’s Dark Side of the Sun parodies the ‘pataphysics as much as the physics, in a novel which is a dry run for Strata, itself dry run for something rather better known. A big flat planet. Sf, eh. You gotta laugh.

Sally Miller Gearheart, The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women (1979)

18 January 2009

I have a sense that I read a review of this with more or less the single word “unreadable” about twenty years ago.  I tried to read the volume without this in mind, but found that difficult, as there was little ongoing plot to hold onto and it is of a flavour of feminism I’m not exactly sympathetic to. I need to go away and read Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will to get a better grasp of the feminism of the period which I suspect lies under the book.

There’s been some kind of disaster and/or revolution, and the women all live in the hills outside of the city, in harmony with nature and in telepathic communication with each other and animals. Men are confined to cities, and their machinery will only work there. A few select women enter the city to try and re-education men, but mostly life is happy (for the women) in a separatist utopia. To the extent that there is a narrative uniting the chapters/vignettes, it the sense that this can’t go on forever, and the men are not to be trusted not to spoil things. 

The temptation here is to fall back into the essentialism that other feminists undercut – women are allied with nature and men with machines, women with the ciuntry and men with the city. I can see how – after several centuries of patriarchy – women may wish to take their lives elsewhere, but it feels in the realm of the lousy solution. Readable, but uncomfortable.

Samuel R. Delany, Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979, 1988)

19 October 2008

The first volume of Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series, containing five stories and a preface and appendix situating this in relation to the supposed Kolhar manuscript, an incredibly early text translated into several languages. Here we play the literary game of situating your utopia in the past – the same way that Lord of the Rings can be hidden between ice ages. Nevèrÿon is is the line of no-places that include Erewhon (ahem, nohwere?), Nowhere and presumably Russ’s Whileaway.

What strikes me on rereading is how little happens until the second half of the volume – many of the stories are taken up with conversations and tales told by one character to another. And throughout there is the child’s garden of semiotics – I wish I’d reread “The Tale of Old Venn” before writing a piece on psychoanalysis and fantasy as it plays with penis envy and desiring the phallus; meanwhile we get a wonderful reversal of chapter two of Genesis, with the Fall the fault of ‘man, whose genitals are no left exposed and unprotected unlike woman’s.

I thought that initially only “The Tale of Gorgik” – a boy who becomes a slave but is rescued – would be relevant, but all the stories here are from 1976-1978, and so I can discuss them. It’s just as well because Gorgik’s sexuality is only glancingly dealt with in the first story – he sees someone wearing a collar, and is fascinated by it, later in the story he is the sexual toy of a woman (this sex toy thing is something Delany repeatedly returns to). In “The Tale of Small Sarg” there is the assumption that male slaves are fair game for female slave owners, and Gorgik assures him the same will hold true in their case. It is not until “The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers” that we see Gorgik and Sarg as slave liberators, and become more aware of a sexual linkage dependent on the voluntary wearing of the collar. This is consensual SM, but the seventies, still coy. Note also that we have been taught that “gorgi” is a child’s word for genitalia, which inevitably recolours our picture of Gorgik.

There is also the sense that the volume is a metafantasy – not just in the apparatus which in subsequent volumes mixes real and false authors, but in the focus on the shift in culture from preliterate to literate, from barter to token economies, and a knowing awareness of the power of words to enslave. It’s as if the unexamined assumptions of fantasy mechanics become the engine for the (limited) mechanics of the plot.

Further Reading

Danylyshen, Darren. “Where Theory Meets Science Fiction: The Conjoining of Traditional Fantasy with Theoretical Structures in Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryon Series, Or: The Tale of the Iron Ring.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 12.2 (2001): 157-167.

Erisman, W.E. “Inverting the Ideal World, Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Contemporary Utopian Science-Fiction.” Extrapolation 36.4 (1995): 333-44.

Fitting, Peter. “So We All Became Mothers – New Roles For Men in Recent Utopian Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 12.2 (1985): 156-183.

James, Ken. “Subverted Equations: G. Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form and Samuel R. Delany’s Analytics of Attention.” Ash of Stars: On the Writings of Samuel R. Delany. Ed. James Sallis. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. 189-214.

Kelso, Sylvia. “Across Never: Postmodern Theory and Narrative Praxis in Samuel Delany’s Nevèryon Cycle.” Science Fiction Studies 24.2 (1997): 289-301.

Spencer, Kathleen L. “Neveryon Deconstructed: Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Neveryon and ‘The Modular Calculus’.” Ash of Stars: On the Writings of Samuel R. Delany. Ed. James Sallis. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. 127-161.