*What makes this book so great*

That is the title of the new Jo Walton book, and the subtitle is Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It is an extended paean to the pleasures of re-reading, exhibiting a taste which is interesting , useful, and yet uneven (fifteen separate works by Lois McMaster Bujold are covered, each with its own chapter.  I do like her, but…).  Most of the book offers analyses of individual works, here is one broader bit:

In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character.

In a mainstream novel, the world is implicitly our world, and the characters are the world.

In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven.

…The difference between a mainstream novel and a SF one is that different things are just scenery.

She is trying to tell me that I should attempt Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren again.  She recommends re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, but can’t bring herself to say it is good.  Overall buying this book caused me to make four additional Amazon purchases, a good sign that is was worth my while.


I have been reading these at tor.com for some years, they have been wildly uneven but a lot of these books really shouldn't have passed into obscurity at all and a few of these essays are quite good.

"In a science fiction novel, the world is a character" is an old chestnut, but not very helpful. It at first seems true for stories like Ringworld, Dune, or anything by Hal Clement. It also seems true for sociological SF, like Stranger in a Strange Land, Brave New World, or anything by Ursula LeGuin. But then it's true in the same way for any fantasy novel, noir novel, literary novel about culture clash, or English comedy of manners.

But back up: What's a character in a novel? A character, at least protagonist/antagonist, generally represent one way of thinking or one side of an argument. A main character has a character arc in which that view changes. Worlds don't do that. Worlds are at best secondary characters in any novel (unless it's Solaris).

All genres have accumulated a thick crust of conventions and affectations, from historical accident and marketing wisdom. Go back and look at some of the early SF: Frankenstein, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Last and First Men, War of the Worlds. About none of those would you say the world was a character.

It would be more true to say that in a fantasy novel, the world is a character. EM Forster said that fantasy is when the world itself has a personality or an attitude. Tolkien said a fantasy world is one in which moral and magical law have the force of physical law. The world, in a classic fantasy novel (I'm not talking Game of Thrones), forces the characters to admit that its built-in moral rules always work. A fantasy usually has a scene where the hero must follow some rule which appears to be stupid given the situation and will probably get everybody killed, and then the universe rewards his stupid but loyal obedience to the rules: Frodo spares Gollum, Luke turns off his computer, Lir faces the Red Bull, Aslan allows himself to be killed.

The world in a typical science fiction novel is indifferent to human morals. It will let you live if you're smart and kill you if you're stupid. Really not a character at all.

If Dhalgren isn't your thing after 2 chapters, reading the rest of the book won't make it your thing. If you don't like James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, you're probably not going to like Dhalgren. If you do like James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, you should re-read Joyce or Pynchon instead.

The world in a typical science fiction novel is indifferent to human morals. It will let you live if you’re smart and kill you if you’re stupid. Really not a character at all.

I don't see this at all. The world in a typical science fiction novel is typically meant to contrast with our world in a specific way that requires the main character to adapt. That's one reason why there are so many dystopias -- it's an easy way to drive conflict.

Setting a story in a world plagued by overpopulation or ecological collapse, overly regimented, or anarchistic is absolutely not indifferent to human morals.

that's one aspect of iain m banks' brilliance, I think - to conjure up so many varied adventures in a universe we've already essentially "won". much more creativity required to wring drama from a utopia.

Ian M. Banks is pretty terrible. Maybe that's part of the reason why.

The author's decision of where to set a story is not indifferent to morals, but the setting itself doesn't have an opinion on the matter. Science fiction is consequentialist: The world is a set of physical laws indifferent to human values, and a protagonist should act rationally, choosing an action so those laws will produce good outcomes for him/her. Fantasy is deontological: If the protagonist acts virtuously, the world will reward him/her by stepping in to supply an outcome good on the human scale.

Great point - under this definition, the main "character" in Pride and Prejudice is the social and legal norms of the English 19th century aristocracy.

Overall buying this book caused me to make four additional Amazon purchases, a good sign that is was worth my while.

Someone writes 130 blog articles and that encourages you to buy four books? That is not a particularly good strike rate.

However the obvious question is which four?

In any great novel, the world is different than what you thought it was. Otherwise, it is an inferior novel. Genre makes no difference.

... and in any popular novel, the world is exactly like you hoped it was.

I only recently discovered Jo Walton's essays on old sci-fi books while researching my review of the Nolans' "Interstellar." In 2009, she wrote an insightful analysis of Heinlein's elegant 1956 juvenile about Einsteinian time paradoxes in interstellar exploration, "Time for the Stars," and mentioned things that would be different if that book were written today, which make it sound even more like "Interstellar:"

"Earth would be dying because of global warming and pollution, not simple over-population. The book would be four or five times longer, with much more angst. The focus would be on relationships, not on adventure."


Once you get past the gobbeldy-gook language of Anathem the story is very straight forward and boring. I thought it was going to be a foundation type story but Stephenson came nowhere close.

Just got Asimov's Foundation series for Xmas. Now that's a sci-fi story with fantastic world building. But the difference between the world building in Foundation versus Aanthem is that Asimov does incredibly interesting things with his world instead of just leaving the world building at the side as self indulgent window dressing.

>Now that’s a sci-fi story with fantastic world building

Travel between planets is extremely cheap yet there is no trade? The world of the Foundation is completely unbelievable and unrealistic in every way.

Huh? One of the key sections of the original novel Foundation (it's actually a fixup of short stories and novellas) is called "The Traders" and is all about the importance of interstellar trade. Are you maybe thinking of a different book?

There are also no encyclopedias in the foundation, very unrealistic ;)

I couldn't get past the gobbledly-gook language...

I thought Anathem was good. It dragged a bit, not Stephenson's best work, but definitely good.

I can't help but suspect that the 21st century will treat much science fiction as the 20th century treated Walter Scott.

Steve Sailer would be ideal man to explore the essential Jewish and anti-czarist nature of huge chunks of SciFi.

The 20th century is truely amazing. We invented skyscrapers, the UN, aliens, dinosaurs, viruses, and computers. And moving pictures! And airplanes! and cars! We are stagnating, help.

On this point I have been reading Science Fiction since the 1970's and still like to get out a few of the golden age classics every now and then. They generally wore well in most of that time, but just in the last few years, they have begun to seem very outdated.The world of the 1950's seem to be able to imagine the mundane parts of the world up to the early 2000's pretty much accurately (except for the robots and the moon bases and flying cars) but many of the plots fall apart once you introduce hand hand supercomputers/videophones, with access to pretty much all books and films, with GPS so you know your location to within meters, the ability to order for delivery next day pretty much any artifact and so on. Smart phones are so ubiquitous now, and so used, so any modern or future drama will have to incorporate them into the plot as a major plot device, or explain why they are not being used. Probably this will lead to more historical drama, it is easier to have convoluted plots in the past based on misunderstandings that otherwise can be resolved by a text or google search.

It's a good point; that's been a major lifestyle change. OTOH there are still plenty of areas that wireless internet and cell phone service do not reach.

Jack Vance took the trope "the world is a character" one step further by making his protagonist the setting.

I'll go ahead and say that Anathem is very good. The vocabulary is a minor hurdle, and the story is very interesting and propulsive.

As one of the characters says, the book is written about people with "attention surplus disorder," and it probably benefits the reader to have a similar attitude. But it rewards the attention.

I agree that Anathem is very good, and I have some trouble viewing it as anything except peak Stephenson.

Another vote for Anathem. Really loved it, certainly his best since Quicksilver. Maybe it does require some effort, I've always had my efforts repaid by him so was happy to do it.

"The difference between a mainstream novel and a SF one is that different things are just scenery."

Not happy with this at all.

"The world is a character" in most interesting novels, and in her role as an artist of disillusionment and illumination of the quotidian, the novelist attempts to estrange us from even our most familiar environments. I fail to see that the setting, defined broadly enough to include society and manners, is "mere scenery" in Moby Dick, Typee, White Fang, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart, Gatsby, Age of Innocence, Pere Goriot, Wings of the Dove.

Trying to exchange the backgrounds of War and Peace with Gone with the Wind (let alone Dead Souls and Huckleberry Finn) radically changes those novels.

One might describe the novel as being the placement of recognizable and identifiable characters (or becoming so by plot) into an environment alien or strange (or made so by art) in order to show the effects of environment on character.

SFF is simply bourgeois sociological fiction with rayguns.

In addition, re-reading Wharton upon inspiration provided by Peter Brook on French melodrama, I came across this clause:

"...and the first chords of the Spohr symphony were strewing their flower-like notes before the bride."

I don't know about you, but intelligent chords strewing notes like flowers created for me at least as much of Darko Suvin's "cognitive estrangement" as giant sandworms.

What is bourgeois about Stranger in a Strange Land or The Dispossessed? What would be some examples of non-bourgeois sociological fiction?

Comments for this post are closed