Author Topic: Let's Talk about Sci Fi  (Read 587 times)

Wahoo Redux

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Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« on: January 20, 2023, 09:05:09 PM »
So, tell us what you read, what you think, what you get from it, what it means, how it is evolving----whatever.  Let us learn from each other.
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kaysixteen

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #1 on: January 20, 2023, 11:16:53 PM »
Harry Turtledove is at the top of the list, as alternate-history is my strong preference.   Also John Scalzi, S.M. Stirling, people like this.

Wahoo Redux

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #2 on: January 20, 2023, 11:32:16 PM »
I could never really get into Scalzi, although I know several people who are mad about him. 

One of my favorite books as a kid was City of Darkness by Ben Bova.  I read it at least three times as a junior high student.  I couldn't remember the title or author but I could remember the story-----my wife, bless her, scoured the web and found it.  It's still awesome.  It was written during the mad year 1976 when the kids seemed out of control and our cities were facing bankruptcy and dereliction.  Dystopia----what junior high kid wouldn't respond to that?

I'm interested in stories that are considered sci fi by most readers but are not really sci fi----or speculative fiction, if you'd rather, kind of like City of Darkness.  Such as "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omerlas" by LeGuin, one of the all-time great short stories.  But is it sci fi?  Or "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby.  Or "Enoch" by Robert Bloch.  How are these sci fi?

Okay.  Troubling sleeping these days.  Gotta go to bed.
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ergative

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #3 on: January 21, 2023, 01:59:08 AM »
Ooooh, yes, let's!

One of my favorites series is Greg Egan's Clockwork Rocket, which has truly alien aliens, and very, very hard science. My understanding is that Egan is a physicist, so when he decides to build a world around 'what if the speed of light wasn't constant', he knows whereof he speaks.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time was very, very good, and I really look forward to reading the sequels.

Ann Leckie's Ancillary series was very good, although I didn't enjoy her standalone follow-up, Provenance, as much.

Yoon-ha Lee's Machineries of Empire trilogy was great, but I haven't enjoyed his other work as much.

Then, of course, there's Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb series, which is . . ?? I guess ??... sci-fi, as much as it is anything. My book group is actually having an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss Nona the Ninth, which made absolutely no sense, but kind of in a brilliant way that might turn out to be genius once Alecto the Ninth comes out. Discussion is needed.

Scalzi is fun; I like Scalzi fine. But I didn't like his Collapsing Empire trilogy as much as I'd hoped I would, and I haven't made a point of seeking out his newest (The Kaiju Preservation Society), even though it sounds incredibly goofy and fun. I should do that.

I was fully engrossed in all the Expanse books all the way through Book 8, and then Book 9 came out and I haven't gotten around to reading it, even though by all accounts it finishes the series very well indeed. I think I'll need to re-read Book 8 first, but I fully intend to.

I find Ted Chiang writes really, really great concept-based stories (Omphalos and Exhalation in particular, as well as Stories of Your Life), and I loved Arrival (the movie by Denis Villeneuve) so much that when I heard Villeneuve was making an adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama I decided it was time to dive into Clarke. But RwR was god-awful. Aged very, very badly.

In general I find that classic golden-age scifi ages so badly that I can't really enjoy it for what it is. There's the social stuff, sure, a patina of mid-century misogyny of varying degrees of thickness, but also there are conventions of what counts as satisfying characterization, which have changed so much that we don't get things like character arcs and inner life in the older books. It's all sort of sterile meditation on concepts, avoiding any personality of characters as if that detracts from the purity of the ideas. Authors! You can do two things at once! (Fortunately, I feel like modern authors have figured that out--although, occasionally, they go too far in the opposite direction, and then I get bored from all the navel-gazing and want some more space explosions.)

Larimar

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #4 on: January 21, 2023, 05:59:16 AM »
I generally like Ben Bova's Grand Tour novels. Mars had too many characters and too much politics for me, but Venus is very good, as is Jupiter. The sequel to Jupiter, The Leviathans of Jupiter was forgettable, though. Mercury also is not my favorite, but it's interesting in that it's like a sci-fi retelling of Othello, except there are 3 Othellos who Iago wants to ruin, and Cassio and Desdemona are guilty this time of the adultery they are accused of. Like the Shakespeare play, it's a tragedy in the end. I hope that's not too much in the way of spoilers.

The best of the series in my opinion are Saturn, Titan, and Uranus. I'd also recommend Jupiter and Venus. I like that in several of these, they discover appropriately alien life on these planets.

Unfortunately, the new Neptune is awful. I'd been looking forward to its release and was very disappointed. The characters had no depth, and their motivations and relationships didn't make much sense. I also found it creepy when the main character's desire to find out what had happened to her father wandered into Electra complex territory. I'd say stick with the good stories instead.

Parasaurolophus

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #5 on: January 21, 2023, 09:15:34 AM »

I'm interested in stories that are considered sci fi by most readers but are not really sci fi----or speculative fiction, if you'd rather, kind of like City of Darkness.  Such as "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omerlas" by LeGuin, one of the all-time great short stories.

If you're not familiar with it, I expect you'll rather enjoy Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker.


Quote
But is it sci fi?

Definining genres is a thorny issue in the philosophy of literature. At a first pass, I'd say that genres are characterized by clusters of conventions and features which are taken to be standard for the genre, such that possessing these features counts towards the work's classification in that genre. So, for example, the fact that a story explicitly takes place on an exoplanet tends towards its classification as scifi (although of course this is not a necessary condition, and probably not sufficient, either!). At the same time, certain clusters of properties are taken to be contra-standard, so that their possession tends to count against classification in a particular genre--again, for example, the fact that a story explicitly takes place on an exoplanet tends to count against its classification as a biography or as historical fiction. And then a whole whack of properties are variable for the genre; so, for example, 'takes place on an exoplanet' is variable for the genre 'mystery' (e.g. Alastair Reynolds's Century Rain, or Mur Lafferty's Six Wakes [although neither is actually set on an exoplanet, but you get the point]).

As a result, we can see that genres are fairly porous, and can overlap quite a bit, and individual stories will tend to deviate somewhat from expected clusters of standard properties (perhaps even introducing some typically contra-standard properties), all of which explains why it's so hard to classify so many stories. At the same time, of course, deviating too much from a genre's standard properties will land you in another genre--if you start with a cozy mystery but then turn up the violence and sex a notch or two, you end up with a noir, not a cozy.

And we can also get a sense of what the process of genre formation is like: an increasingly robust group of people, authors and readers alike, become increasingly interested in certain clusters of properties, which they take as standard for the stories they're interested in producing and consuming. Often, perhaps even typically, that's as a result of authors playing with the genres of their stories and diverging in some way from the conventions and properties taken as standard or contra-standard from the genre, and then interest starts to attach to new clusters of properties. That's how, for example, we go from the gothic to the female gothic, horror, and fantasy (if you'll forgive the crudity of that sketch).

So: is Omelas science fiction? Sure, I think so. I think it fits neatly into the utopian/dystopian sub-genre, which we associate with scifi for reasons having to do more with history than content.

On the other hand, I don't think that Frankenstein is (per your post in the other thread). To my mind, Frankenstein is a gothic novel, and predates scifi. It's certainly a precursor, and helped to establish some of the conventions of the genre, but like Lucian's True History, it doesn't come out of a historical moment when there's a robust cluster of conventions and properties which are widely regarded as standard for a new genre. And to retroactively classify it as scifi is, I think, to do it an injustice. We don't need to do that to see its influence, or to show how it's related. And if we do, then we lose sight of its actual historical importance--which is as a gothic novel. (Incidentally, I think that the bulk of its association with scifi passes through the 1931 film and its many, many sequels, rather than the novel; that's where the mad science comes from, for example. But it's been a long time since I read it.)


I'm afraid I'll have to return to the technophonia stuff from the other post. I'm out of time for posting at the moment.
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ergative

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #6 on: January 21, 2023, 10:04:47 AM »
And sometimes you have authors like Ryka Aoki, who blatantly mix genre tropes with complete disregard for common clusterings of conventions. Light from Uncommon Stars has both space aliens and Faustian deals with the literal devil who offers magical violin bows.

Wahoo Redux

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #7 on: January 21, 2023, 10:36:52 AM »
I heard Villeneuve was making an adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama I decided it was time to dive into Clarke. But RwR was god-awful. Aged very, very badly.

NO! No, wait!   You can't say that!  It's impossible!!!  Impossible, I tell you!  No...no...head...imploding!!!
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
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Wahoo Redux

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #8 on: January 21, 2023, 11:38:28 AM »

As a result, we can see that genres are fairly porous, and can overlap quite a bit,


On the other hand, I don't think that Frankenstein is (per your post in the other thread). To my mind, Frankenstein is a gothic novel, and predates scifi.

OR! Is Frankenstein the first true sci fi novel? 

Of all the genres I am aware of, sci fi is the post protean.  Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are pure noir, one of the easiest fits into sci fi; Left Hand of Darkness is very hard to define----is it a pseudo-medieval quest narrative or political novel?  The brilliant and unparalleled RENDEVOUS WITH RAMA is an interesting sub-genre which essentially has no plot, at least not a driving plot, but spends the entirety of the book imagining how an advanced race from another world could negotiate the vastness of space.  Clarke was a scientist, after all, and the only person nominated for both the literature and science Nobel Prizes.  He had clearly imagined how animals could travel light years in space.  Andromeda Strain is a book written by a doctor which has a great opening and then a very dull development precisely because Crichton spent much of the book imagining what a top-secret, state-of-the-art scientific base would look like.

In any event, yes, absolutely, Frankenstein has all the hallmarks of a gothic novel (scary medieval house, tainted bloodline that destroys the family, deadly secrets, love endangered, adventure...but, importantly, the supernatural actually IS supernatural and not the mere appearance of the supernatural----via science).

In Frankenstein we have the first use of science, as understood by Shelley, to create a new thing and extend the borders of knowledge. The doctor uses electricity to reanimate flesh.  And, just like H.A.L. or the atomic bomb or the case of Charles Dexter Ward, Frankenstein uses science to create a thing, a monster, that quickly gets out of the inventor's control.  That is sci fi.  The book comes out right on the doorstep of the Industrial Revolution when machines and their possibilities and horrors both advanced and terrified the Victorian world.  Fiction predicated upon science.

There is a lot of stuff out there about Frankenstein as sci fi.  The Atlantic has a good article on Google about all the sci fi that predates our common understanding of sci fi.  Some critics push back sci fi all the way to Paradise Lost when Milton first conjectured life on other planets.  Others push sci fi all the way back to medieval manuscripts and fairy tales.

Sci fi, being protean, perhaps the most protean genre, can take on all sorts of guises. 
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.

Parasaurolophus

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #9 on: January 21, 2023, 12:33:23 PM »

OR! Is Frankenstein the first true sci fi novel? 


I really don't think so. What we see is that scifi concretizes as a distinct genre, replete with its own conventions, in the early twentieth century (although you could potentially bargain me down to the late nineteenth century). Ccertainly, it's fully-fledged by the 1920s. Frankenstein is at least forty or fifty years too early. It certainly influences the genre's development, and it shares some properties in common with what would become standard properties of scifi. But it isn't itself a work of scifi, even if we like to talk about it that way today (wrongly, in my opinion).



Quote
Of all the genres I am aware of, sci fi is the post protean.  Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are pure noir, one of the easiest fits into sci fi; Left Hand of Darkness is very hard to define----is it a pseudo-medieval quest narrative or political novel?  The brilliant and unparalleled RENDEVOUS WITH RAMA is an interesting sub-genre which essentially has no plot, at least not a driving plot, but spends the entirety of the book imagining how an advanced race from another world could negotiate the vastness of space.  Clarke was a scientist, after all, and the only person nominated for both the literature and science Nobel Prizes.  He had clearly imagined how animals could travel light years in space.  Andromeda Strain is a book written by a doctor which has a great opening and then a very dull development precisely because Crichton spent much of the book imagining what a top-secret, state-of-the-art scientific base would look like.

The Left Hand of Darkness is through and through a work of science fiction. That it may also overlap with other categories, or contain elements standard to other categories, doesn't change that. The same is true of Neuromancer and Androids. As for The Andromeda Strain... I wouldn't classify it as scifi, myself. Some of Crichton's works definitely are--Jurassic Park, Timeline, and Sphere, in particular--but Andromeda hews closer to a thriller, I think; the kind of 'techno-thriller' Crichton was so good at writing. But, hey. That's not a hill I'm gonna die on.

Quote
In any event, yes, absolutely, Frankenstein has all the hallmarks of a gothic novel (scary medieval house, tainted bloodline that destroys the family, deadly secrets, love endangered, adventure...but, importantly, the supernatural actually IS supernatural and not the mere appearance of the supernatural----via science).

In Frankenstein we have the first use of science, as understood by Shelley, to create a new thing and extend the borders of knowledge. The doctor uses electricity to reanimate flesh.  And, just like H.A.L. or the atomic bomb or the case of Charles Dexter Ward, Frankenstein uses science to create a thing, a monster, that quickly gets out of the inventor's control.  That is sci fi.  The book comes out right on the doorstep of the Industrial Revolution when machines and their possibilities and horrors both advanced and terrified the Victorian world.  Fiction predicated upon science.

I just don't think that's a sufficient condition for science fiction. It's too broad.

By way of analogy, think of conceptual art. That's a kind of art that was developed in the late 1970s after several decades of accumulated work by Isidore Isou, Sol LeWitt, Henry Flint, Joseph Kosuth, and others. It's doesn't emerge out of nothing--nothing does. But it's not an artworld category until the late '70s.

So: Are Duchamp's readymades works of conceptual art? No. How can they be? They predate the movement by nearly sixty years! They certainly have features in common with it, and that's no surprise because they were significant influences on the development of the movement. And they, in turn, are heavily influenced by cubism and Kandinsky's expressionism, which are in turn heavily influenced by aestheticism, impressionism, and post-impressionism. But we shouldn't retcon them into conceptual art. To do so is to erase precisely what made them so strange and revolutionary, and to force them into an anachronistic mould.




Quote
There is a lot of stuff out there about Frankenstein as sci fi.  The Atlantic has a good article on Google about all the sci fi that predates our common understanding of sci fi.  Some critics push back sci fi all the way to Paradise Lost when Milton first conjectured life on other planets.  Others push sci fi all the way back to medieval manuscripts and fairy tales.

Sci fi, being protean, perhaps the most protean genre, can take on all sorts of guises.

Yeah, but unfortunately they're wrong. They're right to trace the origins of scifi that way, but to call those works science fiction betrays sloppy thinking about the nature of genre formation. That's certainly fine for ordinary discourse, but it won't do for anything more rigorous. (I'm sorry to double down this way, but that's what we philosophers do.)

A social kind cannot pre-exist the network of conventions and institutions which make it possible. Concrete objects come first, social consensus later. Consider cyborgs; were the first people with peglegs or hooks cyborgs? Surely not. Prosthetics are a crucial component of the concept of cyborgness (it is, after all, parasitic on the concept of prosthesis), but that doesn't mean that any old prosthetic body part turns you into a cyborg. Onund Tree-Foot, one of Iceland's first settlers, wasn't a cyborg. He just had a pegleg (which got stuck in a beached whale's blowhole during a fight, leading to his death).
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ergative

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #10 on: January 21, 2023, 12:51:35 PM »
I heard Villeneuve was making an adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama I decided it was time to dive into Clarke. But RwR was god-awful. Aged very, very badly.

NO! No, wait!   You can't say that!  It's impossible!!!  Impossible, I tell you!  No...no...head...imploding!!!

"Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless, but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of an unholstered lady officer through the control cabin."

Wahoo Redux

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #11 on: January 21, 2023, 04:39:36 PM »
Sci fi, being protean, perhaps the most protean genre, can take on all sorts of guises.

Yeah, but unfortunately they're wrong.
[/quote]

If the Frankenstein had been written in 1918 instead of 1818 would it be science fiction?
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Wahoo Redux

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #12 on: January 21, 2023, 04:42:07 PM »
I heard Villeneuve was making an adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama I decided it was time to dive into Clarke. But RwR was god-awful. Aged very, very badly.

NO! No, wait!   You can't say that!  It's impossible!!!  Impossible, I tell you!  No...no...head...imploding!!!

"Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless, but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of an unholstered lady officer through the control cabin."

Yeah...by our standards most sci fi of the era is incredibly, even unbelievably sexist.  Try reading Stranger in a Strange Land.

It's kind of like the comix and video games of today. 
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.

Parasaurolophus

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #13 on: January 21, 2023, 05:09:25 PM »

If the Frankenstein had been written in 1918 instead of 1818 would it be science fiction?

I'm not sure. It would be possible, at least, but my intuition is that it would still hew closer to a gothic novel.

But then, like Menard's Quixote, a 1918 Frankenstein wouldn't be Frankenstein, would it?




Yeah...by our standards most sci fi of the era is incredibly, even unbelievably sexist.  Try reading Stranger in a Strange Land.


I've tried SiaSL twice, once as a teen and once as an adult. Both times, I dumped it about 3/4 through (which I otherwise never do), at the point where our friendly billionaire genius tells us why women are responsible for their own rapes.

Misogyny aside, it's almost unbearably woowoo (I hate this so much about so much '60s and '70s scifi). But that was the final straw. Heinlein's work is all over the place, and most of it has aged poorly. But man, that's a bad one. I don't imagine I'd be very pleased by re-reading Farnham's Freehold, either (not that I was at the time, but I at least finished it).
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jimbogumbo

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Re: Let's Talk about Sci Fi
« Reply #14 on: January 21, 2023, 05:55:03 PM »
Heinlein really has to be split into two groupings. SiaSL led to all the later stuff where he really fixated on Lazarus Long in not a great way. The hard science fiction in the material prior to the 1960s and the YA books were really quite good for that type, and I'd argue that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a true classic.

FWIW I'm lumping Glory Road and Farnham's Freehold into the SiaSL and later material. Starship Troopers is in it's own separate category.

The books I think are under appreciated from that 1960s era are by John Varley.

Author who holds up the best from that time is Phillip K. Dick, hands down.

Is Vonnegut science fiction? I'd argue not.