Saturday, January 31, 2009

Funny How That Works

Huh. Now that I'm finishing this post on a machine that doesn't have my graphic files, I see that this Plateosaur is tipped at the wrong angle -- dude should be rocked back a bit more.

Well, I'm in a much better state at the moment. Some members of my family are going through real trouble and the state of emergency flipped my keep-it-together switches.

I am no fucking good at daily life -- but when things get tough I pull together.

Now that I think of it, that might be one of the reasons I'm bad at daily life -- it's a pretty good way to generate the trouble I need to function properly.


Friday, January 30, 2009

Oh, Boy -- Here Comes The Winter Crazy or Don't Bother Reading This One -- It's All Complaints

So I went to my first life-drawing session in years a few months back. Loved it, loved it, loved it -- but the room was too crowded for me to be able to shift between standing and sitting so afterward my back was a disaster.

This was a blind contour drawing -- keep your pen on the paper at all times so as to draw with one continuous line while
never looking at the page.

Since I could only carry materials in my knapsack I worked on a small pad with pen and pencil and wound up longing for charcoal and a larger piece of paper -- I wanted to work with tone instead of line.

After all this time I was pleasantly surprised when some of my sketches were halfway decent. Having a good model really helped. That does it -- next year I'm taking a life-drawing class.

Okay, here's how it works.

There's a certain mood that sets in at our household when winter really hits. I get moody, the missus gets bossy, and we both get sensitive about the way the other person is treating us. Things hit a peak in February, when we have both of our birthdays and our anniversary and thus feel entitled to nice treatment from one another.

For the past few years it hasn't been bad at all. That's because the drama of the situation is my problem, not Karen's. The reason things have been better is that I've been able to track my mood and keep my emotional state under control. But this year my support system is sucking and I'm in a more volatile state than has been typical.

A big part of this is that I'm taking actions to move my life forward and I'm experiencing some success and it's freaking me out, man. But there are some other things going on in my world (birth and death and divorce and mental illness and on and on and on) that are raising my stress levels past the point where I can stay cool. They're peripheral in my life -- the real issues belong to other people and I'm just catching fallout.

The main sources of emotional comfort that I have when the missus and I are at odds are not there for me now. They may come back, they may not, who the hell knows what's going on? But right now I have no-one that I can talk to about what I'm going through that isn't directly affected by by the circumstances, who won't have feelings of guilt, resentment, or legitimate irritation with me if I try and unload. And since they're dealing with things that are far more serious than my emotional stability I feel like a shit for wishing there were more support for me, me, poor little me.

When I start getting weird, the missus starts gets heavy into compulsive controlling behavior, constantly telling me what to do. And since she's extra-sensitive as well, when I complain about it she feels hurt. Hey, if you're reading this you've probably read a lot of my blog. Imagine me complaining at you -- loud, long, and lucid. It really is awful.

When we were talking about this last night she explained that she can't help trying to control situations that make her frightened or uneasy. This is something I can understand. I can be more patient with her now that I really see that her behavior is a compulsive reaction. She has flat-out told me that I can't ask her not to do this because she can't help it.

But she's steadfastly refusing to see that my reactions to being bossed around aren't any more subject to control than her compulsions. When she tells me to do something -- and this is Queens-style bossing, rude and peremptory -- it hits a node at the base of my brain and I'm jolted with fight-or-flight rage.

See, I was raised in a metaphorical Skinner box that taught me a very bad lesson -- if someone disrespects you then it will eventually escalate to physical violence. I react to disrespect as if it were a physical threat -- accelerated heartbeat, hyperventilation, muscular tension -- my body prepares itself for a fight.

Which can lead to bad behavior on my part. Look, it's not like I hit or threaten people. But I get very loud and emotional and sometimes there are things like stress-puking and wall-punching and suchlike.

Since I recognize this pattern I can usually stay on top of it. But right now I'm vulnerable and so it's difficult for me not to explain to her how and why she's contributing to my problems. Which makes her feel shitty. Which makes her try and control me.

So I'm the one who has to play grownup. And I do not want to. But I can't control her behavior, I can only modify my own. So that's what I'm doing.

But she's driving me nuuuuuuuuts! Last night after we settled down and talked things out and were in a pleasant space of forgiveness she fucking started in on it all over again.

She says she knows it's micromanagement but she thinks I should listen to the Pachelbell Canon on headphones, my latest treatment for insomnia.

So from now on I'm gonna think about that moment every time I think about that piece of music -- this is part of my crazy, these things imprint on me -- and I'm gonna get that rush of pissed-off adrenaline. So a real tool for dealing with my sleep issues has been taken away from me by someone who only had my best interests at heart.

Then when I reach for the melatonin so as to have a shot at getting to sleep, she wants me to take these pills her doctor recommended to her for insomnia. They're calcium pills with "something else in them, I don't know what." So she has no fucking idea of what the pills are going to do or why but if I don't go along with the program the fight starts all over again and I'm the bad guy. This is an example of control for control's sake, of her using me as a means of soothing her neurosis. (Which, admittedly, I've triggered.)

I reluctantly agree. She bring them to me along with a glass of water, bless her heart, and I take them and I wait. And they do not do a fucking thing. So I reach for the melatonin and she tells me not to take it because she wants to know if the new pills work.

Remember, this is taking place in the aftermath of a spectacular fight over my criticizing her over her control issues. When she rudely bosses me around it's out of love and when I complain about it I'm a psycho and/or a prick. It's her refusal to admit that what she's doing is out of line that drive me nuts and it's my bitching about this that makes her defend her actions. So I'm in the wrong no matter what.

That catch twenty-two, it's a hell of a catch.

I've got a ton of stuff that I should be doing. But I'm fucked up and miserable right now. I slept some last night but not much, I puked up my dinner as a result of stress, I've got the horrible hangover that accompanies an emotional fit. (I honestly suspect that an EEG would show some kind of seizure going on when I get that way, no fooling.)

I'm blowing the day off unless I can find a way to make work a release. I've got business at school this afternoon but after that I'm gonna resort to booze. I shouldn't do this but right now my options are limited. Hopefully that'll relax me enough to think about eating, which would make it easier to sleep tonight.

Which means that when I plunge into someone else's drama over the weekend I'll be in a better position to be the good and supportive person I wish I had been last night.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thoughts On Genre 3: Some Things I Like About Genre

Come on, it's an Allosaurus fragilis. Everybody loves Allosaurus!

This next may be taken as a statement of purpose or a pathetic confession.

I write for a number of reasons and if I fail in any of them I don't like what I've written. I write to express myself, to make my weirdo perspective on life intelligible to others. I write with the intent of conveying a moral or ethical position. I write in order to develop and display some degree of craftsmanship -- for the sake of making something and making it well.

And I write to entertain. This is what I love about genre fiction -- for the most part it is unabashed entertainment. If you study genre fiction it can teach you how to take your audience for a ride.

It's been said that all stories are mysteries. I don't buy that -- but the pursuit of a secret and the aftermath of its revelation are at the heart of mystery fiction. And a hell of a lot of other fiction as well. If you read mysteries you'll be able to learn how to control the flow of information to a reader in order to maximize the effectiveness of the fictive experience.

And mysteries provide a perfect form for the exploration of an unfamiliar setting. The investigative mode allows the writer to convincingly engage a wide variety of characters, to move around the world of the story in a way that helps to explain that world.

Other genres like thrillers and horror and romance are focused on particular emotions -- emotions that have their place in fiction of all kinds. This is a limited approach, of course, but you can learn a lot about evoking those emotions by studying the genres devoted to them.

One aspect of writing that I am absolutely fixated on is the visionary. To be able to show a reader things that they would never see otherwise. Science fiction and fantasy at their best give you revelatory glimpses of other worlds -- and this expansion of imagination is one of the greatest gifts an author can give to his readers.

This can come at a cost, of course. Much of my favorite SF plunges you into those new worlds without warning or preparation and forces you to figure out what's going on from context. This is a pleasure specific to this kind of fiction and those who haven't learned to appreciate it -- and this kind of extrapolation is a learned skill -- find this approach to fiction alienating, even angering.

The audiences that support genre fiction frequently have more of a sense of the history of their reading than mainstream audiences do. It's more likely for a classic work of genre fiction to be reprinted and read than for a comparable work of mainstream fiction -- and this tendency seems to be growing stronger.

Right now the tropes and forms of genre fiction are spreading out of the genres. Look at the bestseller lists. Look at the movies that have made top dollar. Even more tellingly, look at the growing acceptance and appreciation of genre fiction in some academic and literary circles.

This is great. But if you're going to use these tropes and forms it's a damned good idea to read widely enough to know something of the history of those forms and what others have done with them. It's a matter not just of respect but of craftsmanship.

And I guess I've said all I need to on this subject for now.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thoughts On Genre 2: On Literary Fiction, As If There Could Be Any Other Kind

Here's the finished version, finally ready to print. I might be bold and print it large on good paper for a change.

Well, that title's a little off unless we define 'fiction' as referring specifically to prose fiction. That said, yeah, I mean it. The notion that there really is no real fiction outside of the world defined by magazines such as the New Yorker or Granta or the small press literary magazines like (ahem) Monday Night is indefensible. To claim that popular fiction is outside the scope of interest of a serious writer...

(A series of profanities alternating with vicious and complicated physical threats, punctuated by the sound of battered fists pounding wallboard.)

Oh, it drives me nuts. The thing is, is that the current conception of 'literary fiction' is one that has been shaped to a great degree by its need to distinguish itself from genre fiction -- which turns out to include virtually all popular fiction, which effectively means dramatic fiction.

I've got to say something here. I'm not going to be able to write about literary fiction with the same confidence with which I address so-called genre fiction. That's because I'm less interested in it -- its rewards can be deep, but its scope is narrow.

But can I defend my claim that 'literary fiction' is a genre?

If you accept my definition of genre fiction, then yes.

Does it have a label? Yep.

Does it have a self-identified readership and a market to serve them? Yes, indeed. They may not go to conventions -- but if you want to go looking for them you can find the Cheever T-shirts.

Does it have a set of traditional forms? Oh, hell yeah. The stereotypical example of this type of fiction would describe an individual engaged in routine activities coming to an emotional epiphany. To say that this describes all literary fiction is horseshit, of course.

But as a genre literary fiction tries as hard as it can to be all bread and no circus -- because the circus is low-class. (And if you think that the desire to define oneself as having literary tastes isn't a class issue you're nuts.) This strikes me as a weakness in any form -- when you start defining yourself by what you ain't instead of by what you is. And while literary fiction acknowledges the presence of drama in life it would prefer to show how people react to it rather than show the moment when the drama occurs. (Just as dramatic fiction can be cheesy, literary fiction can have a dry bran-muffin quality.)

And does it have a body of jargon associated with it? Well, if I describe something as a 'New Yorker-type story' you've got some idea of what I mean. Epiphany. Denouement. Yeah, I think we got us some jargon.

Interestingly, there seems to be a bit of a divide between academically-approved fiction, which is chasing after postmodernism and multiculturalism (the first an interesting blend of insight and nonsense, the second of great importance and utility when regarded from the perspective of inclusionism, a pain in the bee-hind when used as an excuse for the rejection of works of proven value). Literary fiction takes a lot of its leads from academia but it still is intended to be read -- which is anathema to current cultural theory. Academic literature has a strong bias for works which require analysis, which are tough enough to support hours of classroom discussion and pages and pages of critical writing.

Let me be clear. You wanna give me a Thurber, a Jamaica Kincaid, a Yannick Murphy? Great! Bring 'em on! My objections to literary fiction (like my objections to science fiction) are based on the culture that defines the genre, not the works done in it.

It's the self-righteous parochialism of many readers, writers, and critics that makes 'literary fiction' a term of abuse in some circles, some of which I frequent. The phrase itself seems to cast all work outside the charmed circle into the subliterate depths. When you run statements like this --

Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.

The reason this statement is so offensive is that it implies that genre fiction is at a dead end. Never mind that genre fiction is a very, very broad term. Never mind that the vast majority of short form fiction, especially novellas and novelettes, is genre fiction. Never mind the steadily increasing importance of genre fiction in popular culture. Never mind the influences that genre has outside of fiction, extending into music, fashion, design, and on and on...

Genre fiction must be dead; serious writers have buried it.

It's very frustrating for those of us who are aware of the vital literary tradition that has been part of genre fiction from the beginning and which is currently thriving. The best genre writers have always been aware of and influenced by the larger literary tradition -- and they are a valid part of that tradition.

I have to say, this statement was probably made for effect, since later on the writer (Ruth Franklin, in Slate.) also states --

With The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon has finally made the only use of genre fiction that a talented writer should: Rather than forcing his own extraordinarily capacious imagination into its stuffy confines, he makes the genre—more precisely, genres—expand to take him in.

She's absolutely right -- but her statement applies to the extraordinarily stuffy confines of literary fiction as much as it does to any other genre. Hell, it applies to any given art form. It's a truism, but it's not a bad thing to state a truism every once in a while.

But there's something weird happening in the literary world. The kind of broad reading that I've practiced all my life seems to be popping up in some fairly elevated circles -- there's a volume of H.P. Lovecraft in the Library of America collection. The third volume of Clarke Ashton Smith's collected stories has an introduction by Michael Dirda.

I'm not entirely convinced that this is altogether appropriate -- much as I love and have been influenced by the Weird Tales writers, Lovecraft's prose is dreadful and the fun of Smith's is that it goes past purple and well into ultraviolet -- but I can only approve of anything that breaks down the barriers between genres, that allows readers and writers more freedom and more access to works and traditions that will bring them pleasure. In the words of a murderous phrasemongering tyrant, "Let a thousand flowers blossom."

The various tropes, methods, and forms developed in the trenches of genre fiction are tools that can be very useful. However there is one aspect of genre fiction that really is too specialized to be widely useful. I'll be talking about that one tomorrow.

Next time I'll talk about what I like about genre and how it's inspired my own writing. Specialization can be a curse but it does have its benefits...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thoughts On Genre 1: What The Hell Is It, And Where Did It Come From?

And thusly I have gone from this to this.

I've decided to take the blur off of the lake -- thank goodness for smart filters -- but it really doesn't look this tacky at full size. Now I need to go start work on a Psitticosaurus.

Rob Pierce, writer and publisher/editor of the purchasable magazine Swill, made a comment on yesterday's post. It was full of fire and defiance and one of the key statements in it was this:

The whole idea of "genre" fiction is some snob's categorization anyway. Dostoevski wrote about crime. Kafka wrote fantasy. Shakespeare wrote romance, crime and fantasy, a noirist for his time. Then someone with credentials decided only certain types of stories were "literary" and everything else was "genre." Oh, unless the fantasy can be retagged as something like "magical realism."

You might want to go read the whole thing.

Anyway, there's a lot that I agree with here -- but the central premise is not one of them.

Before I throw myself into the fire, let me say that many fans of Latin American magic realism might be surprised to find out that North America and Britain have strong literary traditions that both foreshadow and influence their favorite reading -- names like John Collier and Fritz Leiber and a number of others I'll mention later spring to mind. The stories published in Unknown Worlds magazine would please them -- if they were to hold their noses and creep into the science fiction section of the bookstore.

That's actually a good illustration of what I hate about genre, and what I think Rob was speaking against -- when it turns into the equivalent of a caste system, where it's possible to dismiss or diminish a work by slapping a label on it rather than actually reading it. I've said any number of times that given the amount of romance fiction published the odds are pretty good that there's work being done in the field that I'd love that I'll never find out about just because I'm not going to go looking for it.

(I should revise that last sentence; instead, it shall stand as a grim monument to a moment's lapse of genius.)

But genre exists in the minds of readers, in literary tradition, at conventions and on the shelves of bookstores. It is one of the dominant influences on modern fiction. And I think it's worth examining. Genuine scholars of literature would not doubt disagree with me on many points; kindly correct me when I'm wrong.

Let's start with the history and origins of genre fiction. Which means thinking about literary tradition in general, because that is what a genre is -- a literary tradition, a set of forms familiar to both the writer and her intended audience.

Now since most writers working in most times were the products of cultures that believed in the supernatural, most written works predating the industrial revolution have some element of the fantastic to them. Does this make them fantasy? Not as I'm defining it here. (It does mean that a smart fantasist has some knowledge of folklore and religious writing.)

The traditions of genre as I understand them go back to the nineteenth century. The works of a number of authors, including Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne, provided the templates of what would later become a variety of different genres. Poe in particular gave us the essential forms of much of the short fiction to follow -- he wrote what now seem to be detective stories, horror stories, and science fiction.

But at that point in time they were not labeled as such. They were just fiction.

The label is one of four elements which define a genre. The other three are a self-identified readership and a market to serve them, a set of traditional forms, and a body of jargon that applies specifically to works regarded as being of that genre.

And there seems to be one man who is responsible for all these things -- Hugo Gernsback. He was an inventor and radio engineer who decided to start a magazine called Amazing Stories devoted to fiction that contained scientific elements.

Right from the beginning there was a clubhouse atmosphere to what was to become science fiction. The letters columns of his magazine allowed its readers to network -- guess where this led -- and they began to publish their own small magazines.

The success of Amazing Stories led to the founding of other magazines with similar themes -- and then magazines with similarly specialized areas of interest. Mysteries, horror stories -- the focus of these popular magazines grew more and more specific. (Spicy Western Air Romance, anyone?)

The market's demand for stories to fit into these niches led to the development of traditional forms and formulas which allowed writers to quickly produce works that would satisfy their specialized audiences.

These specialized audiences are with us today. There are people who read mysteries. There are people who read science fiction. There are people who read romances.

And a lot of them don't read anything else. Harlequin romance readers can plow through two or three of those things in a day -- and they do. There are a lot of folks whose commute is made bearable by the latest S Is For Sequel mystery.

And this is the source of my own distaste for much genre fiction -- it is product, created to scratch a certain itch. The good writers doing this kind of work have that itch themselves and scratch it well and honestly. But to write and read the same thing over and over again...

To my mind, that's like saying, "I'm eating frosting from now on." I have no interest in a frosting diet -- but I will say that this kind of market constraint can produce some damned interesting frosting.

But it also produces a lot of nasty frosting. And that's how genre fiction earned its bad reputation -- the vast majority of work produced to fulfill the needs of a genre market is horrible.

While fiction with these kind of themes has always been published in the more mainstream and literary markets, after a certain point (Did it happen in the twenties? The thirties?) genre congealed -- and if you published a story that featured these themes it was regarded as being part of a genre and thus a second-class piece of fiction. And much of the time this judgment is accurate -- to the detriment of many writers working inside of genres and the wider readership who would appreciate their work if it was made visible outside the genre.

As the tropes and formulas of these genres became more clearly defined a body of language grew to describe them. The arcane language describing exactly how explicit the sex is in a given romance novel, 'cozy' versus 'hard boiled' versus 'police procedural' mysteries... And in science fiction the jargon has moved inside of the fiction, giving us 'blasters' and 'hyperspace' and so on.

So now I've defined genre for the purposes of this discussion. Next time I'll talk about how literature fits into this -- and how literary fiction became a genre every bit as restrictive as Spicy Western Air Romance. Let me give you a hint -- it involves a label, a self-identified readership and a market to serve them, a set of traditional forms, and a body of jargon.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Crit List 4: Here They Come and Old Man's War

This one really didn't want to scan -- and I'm too lazy/pressed for time to feel like giving it a full-on Photoshop.

Say what you will about the McSweeney's team -- they produce some gorgeous and well-designed books. The endpapers on this one are really pretty as well as appropriate.

Just to start out. The books I'm looking at this time around are going to get rougher treatment than they merit when examined on their own. I enjoyed both despite the fact that neither was entirely to my tastes and it's entirely likely that I'll read more by both authors.

(Look, as a nascent critic I think I need to make it clear that whether or not I like something is not a good indicator of its absolute value. If it was, they'd be teaching Flaming Carrot and Harry Adams Knight in upper-division literature classes and Henry James's grave would be crusted with dried urine. And that would be wrong. As I've stated before my critical perspective is that of a fledgling writer trying to find out how to better his own work, so expect some odd and very personal angles.)

Thing is, is that I read these two books in conjunction with one another and they made me think about genre. Again. These books were both loans from people who were enthusiastic about them. Here They Come came from my sister and Old Man’s War from my pal Lew. (I also bought this one at a bookstore – I’ve been reading Scalzi’s blog for some time now and wanted to know what his fiction was like so I ordered the book from a local store – and then Lew passed me his copy and a copy of The Ghost Brigades as well. I figured that I’d be a jerk to make a special order and not pay for the book. Oh, well.) These are representative of my sister and Lew’s respective reading habits. One of them is straight-up literary fiction and one is straight-up science fiction. On Sunday mornings I stay in bed with the missus instead of jumping up to get to work; a few Sundays back I needed something to read and I wound up going through these two books in the same day.

As I said, I enjoyed both; neither left me satisfied. I think that has something to do with the way genre works.

Let's get a little nomenclature out of the way here. 'Literary fiction' is not the same as literature. Literature is something going back (literally) thousands of years and encompasses all of human culture. Literary fiction is specifically a product of marketing and academia. It is a genre and a particularly limited one. Most of the great works of world literature would not be regarded as literary fiction if brought to market today. Think of it this way -- in subject and treatment, The Iliad is much closer to Old Man’s War than it is to Here They Come.

Anyway, right now genre in fiction (and when I say fiction I mean storytelling in any form) strikes me as being part and parcel of our current age of specialization. People are finding niches and burrowing deep into them -- and this is neither good nor bad. It's just how it is.


Here They Come by Yannick Murphy is a look at the life of a family living in poverty in New York. This isn't exactly a new subject -- but this is a fresh work. The family is a really interesting group of people and while you can recognize types, the specificity with which the characters are described brings them to life and makes them unique. The interest of this book comes from the characters and from Murphy's prose, which is lovely intoxicating stuff.

And that's what literary fiction regarded as a genre has to offer the reader -- a glimpse of life beautifully written. Ms. Murphy brings more than that to the table, though. Some of the observations and perspectives of her narrator say some things you won't here in many other places. For instance the character John could easily have come across as a creepy child molester -- and in a lot of books his presence would mandate making him the center of a plot.

Instead, while the creepy molester vibe is in place at times, John is alternately a source of comfort and aid, a pathetic victim, a wise man, a fool, and it's plain that the narrator is using him as he is using her. This bothered me -- hey, I've got kids in my life and I'm as fond of simplistic moral hysteria as anyone else -- but this kind of nuanced view struck me as true to life.

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, isn't just a straight-up SF novel; it's one belonging to a very specific sub-genre. It’s military SF. Even more specific – it’s Robert A. Heinlein-influenced military SF. Which means that it’s influenced by a specific Heinlein novel, Starship Troopers.

(Just as an aside, Starship Troopers is one of those novels you read when you’re a kid and it thrills you no end. Then you grow up and it’s hilarious and irritating. Or at least that’s how it worked for me…)

I’ve always been a little puzzled by the cover-band impulse – but I could totally see being in a band that fashioned itself in the image of the Ramones. (As an aside, The Hanson Brothers are my favorite non-Ramones Ramones – and what makes them really crank is the way they bring in another influence, which would be hockey.) Heinlein falls into the same category. I can totally understand the appeal of trying to match what he did in his young adult novels.

But Scalzi isn’t just doing a cover here. There is criticism of a lot of Heinlein’s more grotesque assumptions lurking below the surface. His ideas regarding the development of human personality stimulate thought. And his willingness to suggest that his characters might be in the wrong so far as their actions go shows a political astuteness that seems quite appropriate for the times. A lot of SF is about the present when you look at it closely, and Old Man’s War (and to a greater degree The Ghost Brigades) is, subtly, a product of the Bush years.

And the same way The Hanson Brothers sound like the Ramones, Scalzi reads like Heinlein. Good, solid workmanlike prose, a tone of voice that’s easy to trust. It’s almost like reading a reference volume – if he says it, you believe it. It’s this Now-Let-Daddy-Explain-It-To-You tone that let Heinlein get away with a lot of nonsense. (And I’m not by any means saying Heinlein was always full of shit – but when he was it was some ripe old shit.) Here, the voice of authority seems to be a little more well earned.

Old Man’s War gives the reader action, likeable characters, some interesting twists on the technology and economy of interstellar warfare, and a fistful of oddball aliens. And those are the rewards this genre offers the reader.

So why, despite the pleasure they gave me, was I unsatisfied with these two books?

Well, first off, they both struck me as being a wee tad weak in the plot department. Both of ‘em struck me as being more about one goddamned thing after another than they were about any central sequence of events. (Mind you, these were some pretty good goddamned things – they kept me turning the pages.) Old Man’s War used a narrative thread involving lost love to hold things together; Here They Come introduced a sequence involving the search for a missing father well into the book. Neither seemed strong enough to me. Either thread could have been eliminated without making a crucial difference in the books in question – their real virtues lay outside the plot.

And I think that’s the key issue. The virtues of these books are specific to their genres – and as well as the authors did their thang, I wanted more than they offered. They both were lacking in story, in strong plot resulting from characters expressing themselves in the context of a situation. I felt as though the characters were just doing things imposed on them by circumstance, that their actions and decisions were in the end inconsequential in their own lives. (Scalzi’s book is further away from this than Murphy’s is – but the plot hinges on a major coincidence, which strongly weakens the sense that the characters are leading the action.) A book exploring that idea, which dealt with someone either coming to terms or failing to come to terms with that idea would hold my interest. And there does seem to be an element of that in Murphy’s book but if it’s there intentionally it’s played way down low.

One thing that I found interesting and instructive was that some elements that I tend to associate with their respective genres were flipped. Scalzi was able to take scenes like an assault on a city of half-inch aliens and make them as convincing and tangible as a trip to the grocery store; Murphy was able to make a life of squalor into something dizzying and fantastic. In terms of tone, Scalzi was the realist and Murphy the fantasist – and that was all about prose style.

So at the start of this I mentioned that reading these books together made me think about genre. Here’s the thought, which while not new to me or to the world is still worth consideration.

The virtues or elements of appeal associated with specific genres are not limited to those genres. Beautiful prose shows up in the most unexpected places, as do tight plots, well-drawn characters, arresting imagery, surprising insights into human nature, explorations of social milieus, archetypal stories, etc, etc – all of the reasons we read are not specific to any genre or writer. Genre work is almost always going to be unsatisfying unless on some level and in some way it reaches out of its genre, whether that genre concerns itself with quotidian daily life or space opera. It’s easier to produce a perfect work in a particular form – and I regard both of these books in that light, as being note-perfect examples of their forms – than it is to produce something that is essentially outside of those conventional forms, regardless of how close to perfection it may be.

Hmm. I think I need to talk a bit more about genre in another post.