November 6, 2009

A note on terminology.

tags: , — evan @ 3:01 pm

It strikes me that in my last post, that I was some­what non-​​specific in my use of syn­the­sis. It could be that I’m miss­ing out, with regards to knowl­edge of the crit­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, so I wanted to define my terms.

When I call an author an syn­the­sist, I’m mostly refer­ring to what I call their pri­mary mode of extrap­o­la­tion. By pri­mary, I mean the tech­niques that any one author gen­er­ally uses to drive the ideas behind their sto­ries. I’d say that there are at least three broad cat­e­gories here, and I’ll attempt to name them, offer a brief def­i­n­i­tion, and pro­vide some examples.

  1. Com­pos­i­tive Sythe­sists: This is a cat­e­gory into which I slot Tidhar, Liz Williams, Wolfe, Delaney, Swan­wick, etc.
    Very few of the ideas are new, and occa­sion­ally things that would oth­er­wise flow nat­u­rally from the world build­ing are missed. Rather they’re used with vary­ing degrees of skill to evoke the set­tings and pre­con­di­tions for their character’s sto­ries to nat­u­rally unfold. Inter­est­ingly, I find that thsi cat­e­gory con­tains both some of the best and some of the worst SF dis­pro­por­tion­ately, going from the bottom, where the paint by num­bers crowd oper­ates, to the top, where some of the best artists of the genre pick and chose just the right ele­ments out of the exist­ing prop box to set the drama of their char­ac­ters and plots off to great­est effect. There are some people in the middle, but they seem to be thin­ner on the ground than in my other (self-​​defined) categories.

  2. Con­junc­tive (or Inven­tive) Sythe­sists: These are authors who’re largely work­ing out of the box of stan­dard props and tropes, but they’re inter­ested enough in the ideas that they’re work­ing with that they gen­er­ally con­sider it incum­bent upon them to come up with some fas­ci­nat­ing and novel ideas and cre­ations that shake out nat­u­rally from the quriks of their world­build­ing and how they’re throw­ing their ideas together.
    I’d put Stross, Tricia Sul­li­van, Justina Robson, Bruce Ster­ling, and Richard Morgan here, amongst others.

  3. Sub­ject Experts: These are your scientist-​​authors and your lay experts, who take their deep knowl­edge and research and use it to inform either their story ideas or their world­build­ing. They also draw from the common pool, but their unique bodies of knowl­edge lead to both insights and lacu­nae that other writ­ers with a dif­fer­ent speculative-​​extrapolative approach wouldn’t have come across.
    I’d include Ben­ford, Kim Stan­ley Robin­son, Nancy Kress, Vernor Vinge, and a number of others here.

Short Story Club — The Shangri-​​La Affair

tags: , — evan @ 1:45 pm

This week’s short story club story is The Shangri-​​La Affair by Lavie Tidhar, who I’d never heard of before.

It’s really quite good.

I was struck from the first by the con­fi­dence of the nar­ra­tive voice. The story fol­lows an unnamed pro­tag­o­nist from a quite close third-​​person per­spec­tive through a future war in South-​​East Asia, con­cern­ing a par­tic­u­lar MacGuf­fin in the form of a peace plague (the Shangri-​​La of the title), virally trans­miss­able fellow-​​feeling that stops hos­til­i­ties in their tracks. We only get to see its effects for a moment before every­thing is blown to atoms by the unseen back­ers of our name­less view­point char­ac­ter. The story’s prime emo­tional con­flict is his strug­gle between destroy­ing the peace plague and let­ting it spread. Finally, he decides that peace not chosen is no peace worth having. This strug­gle would have more res­o­nance if we had some theory as to how the peace plague works. If the reader were allowed another view­point on whether or not the plague nul­li­fies free will, it very well might deepen the effect of his choice. The doubt it still there, but I think that it’d be better if it were made a bit more explicit.

The story isn’t per­fect, of course. There are only token female char­ac­ters and the people that we encounter for the most part are generic Men of Action and Con­se­quence. The plot is at least four decades old and the tone is taken straight from smeary spy novels set in war­zones far away from the home front, with­out any real engage­ment with the con­se­quences of the war on the people who live there. What virtue the piece has lies in the clev­er­ness of its syn­the­sis of these ele­ments, and I think that it suc­ceeds very well (that said, I tend towards syn­the­sis ( see update below ) in my tastes, per­haps to a fault, Gene Wolfe and Michael Swan­wick being favorites of mine).

Since read­ing it, I’ve gone on some­thing of a Tidhar binge, and what is out there on line really strikes me as qual­ity stuff, some of it better, I think, than this par­tic­u­lar piece, 304 Adolf Hitler Strasse over at Clarkesworld being the best of the stuff online, in my opin­ion, at least that I’ve found. I also went out and bought Hebrew­Punk and ordered The Book­man, so I may be in the throes of an irra­tional enthu­si­asm. Look­ing for­ward to what he pro­duces in the future.

UPDATE: see here for a clar­i­fi­ca­tion of the ter­mi­nol­ogy that I’m using above.

November 4, 2009

Booklist2009 project cancelled.

tags: — evan @ 10:14 pm

I’ve read ten or so books since the last post­ing, but hon­estly I’ve had a run of bad luck and am find­ing that I don’t have a whole lot to say about any of them that’s par­tic­u­larly pos­i­tive. I’m not entirely sure that this is help­ful to anyone, and since this list was for my own edi­fi­ca­tion, I don’t think that it’s much worth con­tin­u­ing on with. I’ll con­tinue to post about books that I like, but since I am grumpy and they’re fairly rare, I doubt that there will be much here for the next little while, until I think of some­thing else to drive com­men­tary and content.