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.