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Villagers & Torches

The Agony Column for May 8, 2003

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

Don't mess with angry villagers. They're not going to put up with you.

It doesn't take much to bring out the villagers and torches. Witness the decidedly cool reaction of professional science fiction to Michael Chabon's 'Thrilling Tales'. Over at, they're massing at the gates, with Scott Edelman and Kristine Kathryn Rusch grabbing the megaphones. They ponder the intended audience, the unintended insults, even the imagined audience: "I don't recognize those writers or readers," huffs Edelman. "They are straw men." (For the purposes of this essay, Edelman and Rusch will be be the straw men, er women, er --) "Chabon's essay is for the literary mainstream only" adds Rusch. "-those folks who read the prescribed Literary Novels (The National Book Award Winners; the New York Times Recommended Reading List) and the short stories that appear in the Atlantic and the New Yorker and nothing else." Gee, you say that like it's a bad thing.

Is a steady diet of highfalutin' litrachur bad?

Is a steady diet of highfalutin' litrachur bad? I have a hard time accepting that; it's certainly no worse than a diet of highfalutin' speculative fiction. You could easily compose a single reading list that would satisfy both tastes. In fact, I want to see a tag-team wrestling match where Edelman and Rusch go up against Chabon and Eggers as both teams try to claim that 'Frankenstein' belongs in their camp damnit!

I would be willing to inflict physical harm upon the person who tried to take a first edition of Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' away from me.

"It's high literature!"

"It was intended as a campfire story!"

"Give me that corpse you schlockmeister!"

"That festering wound is mine you pretentious twit!"

Oh, the humanity.

What's at stake here is three pages of introductory material. Both villagers like Chabon's very clever "nurse romance" metaphor, which uses up about a page of the three. Both writers even manage to say a few words about the 463 pages of fiction that follow the 3 pages of introduction, though both allow that they were so incensed by Chabon's words that they could barely get round to actually reading the fiction. Writes Edelman, "The stories, which include contributions by Harlan Ellison, Karen Joy Fowler, Dave Eggers and even Chabon himself, are quite good." You mean that damn Pulitzer-Prize winning writer could write a decent "plotted" story? Do tell! Rusch contains her enthusiasm a bit better. "Only on Sunday night did I pick up the book again and this time, begin with the stories. They're quite entertaining, and worth the look."

I've taken more than 50% off the size of this original editorial.

You've got to feel sorry for Chabon. Here he is, whiling away the time not spent contemplating his Pulitzer Prize by trying to bring a boatload of talented writers together and asking them merely to have fun. His reward? He's vilified for his introduction. Now this is not to say this intro is perfect. Edelman's right; Chabon does talk down to his audience. But if the guy who writes a prize-winning novel about writers of superhero comics and Spiderman movies cannot talk down to us, then who can?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch breaks out the torch for Chabon's three pages, no scratch that two pages of remarks he ought to reconsider. I've probably written three books worth of remarks I ought to reconsider. If you take into account my vocal performances, we're into trilogy territory.

Rusch is right; Chabon's audience is essentially a pack of literary snobs. Rusch has good reason to feel a bit of resentment. Fifteen years ago, she created and edited 'Pulphouse', a hardcover anthology of literary pulp fiction featuring Harlan Ellison and a host of other fascinating writers. It's very fair to say Chabon's McSweeney's issue totally rips off Rusch's work. In fact, 'Pulphouse' is much better than McSweeney's Mammoth. It's hardcover. The selection of authors is more diverse, the book production is yards better, the non-fiction selections have more pith and diversity. It's safe to say that this is not a new phenomenon. Often the speculative fiction world gets there first and better than the literary world. Don't hate literature because it's beautiful!

Kristine Kathryn Rusch trumped Chabon's shtick 15 years ago with this incredible series. Try to find them. Try to find them. You can't have my copies.

But guess what? The villagers may have missed this, but if you look beyond the packaging, McSweeney's is a magazine, with subscriber base that's read pretty much nothing but snobby literature in every single previous issue. Rusch understands this, but she's still annoyed.

Once again, a literary exploration into genre fiction has all the genre critics atwitter with indignation. Given that this is my second essay on the subject, it's obvious I'm atwitter as well. It's definitely grist for the speculative fiction criticism mill, and nice chewy, meaty grist at that. We don't often get something this good and this high-profile to make fun of. I find the whole affair quite exciting, because it indicates to me that on all sides of the genre fences, editors and commentators - even publishers -- are trying and vying to pull down the fences. They're focusing on what's important: giving the readers high quality and enjoyable reading. Does the genre of the material matter? Not one whit.

Lem is always the first one there and the last one noticed. And even then, he gets a mediocre movie adaptation. I say let Charlie Kaufman loose on 'The Chain of Chance'.

But readers of all stripes need to hear about the good stuff. It's easy to miss. Stanislaw Lem has the most cogent and best words, to be found in the collection 'A Perfect Vacuum'. His review of the nonexistent book Pericalypse covers the problem with the arts in a nutshell. "If finding forty grains of sand in Sahara meant saving the world, they would not be found, any more than would be the forty messianic books that have already long since been written but were lost beneath the strata of trash...And so, ere we can steep our souls in those revelations, we bury them in garbage, for there is four billion times more of the latter."

That Bozo nose is there to tell that this is a novel, in case you couldn't otherwise figure it out.

How can you go wrong with Max Ernst, J. G. Ballard, and Arkham House, illustrated by J. K. Potter?

OK, so Lem's uncharacteristically optimistic here. Let's look at some books that have escaped the notice of both the literary and the SF establishments. First and foremost in my mind is Ira Sher's 'Gentlemen of Space'. Here's a novel I can see with an entirely different cover, had it been bought and sold as science fiction; a sort of orange cover with a nice garish painting of three astronauts looking up towards the blasting-off Apollo-topped Saturn V booster. But no. 'Gentlemen of Space' was bought and is being sold as literature, which means that the many science fiction readers who might otherwise find a wonderfully ambiguous low-key novel are practically guaranteed to walk right past it. 'Gentlemen of Space' is of the little genre I recently made up called retrovisionary science fiction. That's SF set in the past. Sher's book imagines that there was an Apollo 19 flight, and that the big brains at NASA came up with the idea of reinvigorating the program by sponsoring an essay contest, the winner of which would accompany Aldrin & Armstrong to the moon. The boy who tells the story is an adult looking back at himself as the nine-year old son of that civilian astronaut.

Sher's work offers the best aspects of science fiction, surreal fiction and literary fiction. His SF invention, inserted into a past that now seems dim even in the memories of those who lived through and loved it, is intriguing and inspirational. His handling of the plot keeps the tension up but without resorting to thriller clichés. His characterizations and his carefully-layered points-of-view are intellectually entertaining. Readers who enjoyed J. G. Ballard's 'Memories of the Space Age' will find a similar feel in this novel. Sher's visions of astronauts in spacesuits waddling about apartment complexes carry the same sad wistfulness that runs so strongly through Ballard's bleaker vision. The two books also present a fascinating collision of times. Ballard's book, written between 1962 and 1988 is a look at what to him was the future, and to readers, now feels like the past despite the fact that it's set in times when we've at least reached a bit beyond the moon. Sher's novel is written in a future that even Ballard couldn't imagine. Ballard might have thought himself to be bleak when he wrote the stories in 'Memories of the Space Age'. But his future is not as bleak as the future from which Sher looks at an imagined past. 'Gentlemen of Space' is truly a book beyond genres, a book of all genres. Or, most importantly, it's simply a good book.

What I'd like to know is where the science fiction commentators and editors are with 'Gentlemen of Space' ? Is it getting coverage in Locus (not yet -- though they tell me that they intend to) or (no)? It's understandable to be offended when an editor talks down to you, less so when you've done some talking down yourself.

This cover is an illustration of the first scene from the novel. That's Isol, one of the main characters.

I'd like to see SF readers regularly yanked out of the lurid-cover zone and into the regular book zone as much as I'd like to see the New Yorker publishing work by Justina Robson, say, whose latest novel 'Natural History' has all the earmarks of great science fiction and fine literature. In her latest, Robson has eschewed the near-future character portraits she plied in her first two novels for something that is both serious and seriously entertaining. Robson's novel starts out in deep space, as something that was once human but is now a deep space probe encounters something profoundly alien. Robson's vision of the future is itself profoundly alien, and reminiscent Lem's encounters with the incomprehensible. But don't look for a review in the NYT. Robson's not even published in the US. You'll have to order overseas, but make the effort and fast. Her work is funny, touching, chilling and will create truly alien thoughts in the brains of even the most literary readers.

But neither of these books is bringing villagers with torches, hoping the light the path to good reading. While we concern ourselves with STEPHEN KING and PULITZER-PRIZE WINNING MICHAEL CHABON, while the literary snobs snuffle up the latest offerings from Isabel Allende and Margaret Atwood, while the genre readers snarf up the latest by Tad Williams and Margaret Atwood (well, it's not all bad news), we're missing some very nice novels by writers who, in the end, are just writing, writing books.

And if I find myself holding a torch outside the castle, I hope to use it to read. I don't have time to burn the monsters; moreover,I'd love to just see the monsters. Having read the introductions, I'm here for the rest of the book. I'm here for the rest of the books.




Rick Kleffel