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Recently I was listening to a sci-fi themed podcast in which the hosts were discussing science fiction's falling book sales, and what might be done to remedy that. One thing they suggested was that common sci-fi tropes, which have been calcifying (my word, not theirs) for decades now, might be making it difficult for new readers, unfamiliar with the jargon, to get into the genre.

Hmm, I thought. Yeah, that might make it difficult for new readers.

This just in: apparently I am new readers.

The other day I picked up a sci-fi anthology called The New Space Opera, because I'm trying to develop an appreciation for short fiction. Right now I find it all but intolerable -- it's either gimmicky, or ends just when I'm starting to get interested -- but there are those who passionately feel that by rejecting short fiction out of hand, people like me are missing out on so much. So I decided to give it a try.

(Also, I love space opera. That was what I wrote when I was a middle schooler banging out my first terrible novels, about assassins and psychics and space pirates with more drama than General Hospital. Aww, yeah.)

But if there's a book that's going to win me over to short fiction, this is not it. The first story was okay -- the second was in-fucking-comprehensible.

The Oort cloud web caught the crew, shied them to the construction yards skeined through the long, cold loops of the cometary halo, which flicked them in a stutter of light-speed to the Fat Gas Giant relay point, where the eight hundred habitats of the new Clade daughter fleet formed a pearl belly chain around the planet; then to the Cladal Heart-world herself, basking in the coronal energies of the senile, grasping, swollen sun, and finally into fresh new selves.

At the risk of making myself look dumb: Huh?

Not in ten reconfigurings had either of them felt such a thing, but the knowledge was deeply buried into every memory, every cell of their incarnated flesh. The Clade Heart-world had engaged its Mach drive and was slowly, slow as a kiss, as an Edda, manipulating the weave of space-time to accelerate away from bloated, burning Seydatryah. Those unharvested must perish with the planet as the Seydatryah's family of worlds passed beyond the age of biology. Calls flickered at light-speed across the system. Strung like pearls around the gas giant, the eight hundred half-gestated daughter-habitats left their birthing orbits: half-shells, hollow environment spheres; minor Heart-worlds of a handful of tiers. A quarter of the distance to the next star, the manufactories and system defenses out in the deep blue cold of the Oort cloud warped orbits to fall into the Heart-world's train. The Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters, the military council, together with the Deep Blue Something, the gestalt ubermind that was the Heart-world's participatory democracy, had acted the moment it became aware of Rose of Jericho's small secret. The Seydatrayah system glowed with message masers as the call went out down the decades and centuries to neighboring Heart-worlds and culture clouds and even meat planets: after one hundred thousand years, we have an opportunity to finally defeat the Enemy. Assemble your antimatter torpedoes, your planet killers, your sun-guns and quantum foam destabilizers, and make all haste for Verthandi's Ring.

And it just goes on like that. And on, and on. Thesaurus-driven prose garnished with made-up words. I'd give you the context, but I have no bloody clue what it is. I skimmed, waiting for it to start making sense, and when it didn't, I said fuck it and gave up. How did this even get published? Wasn't there an editor along the way to notice that it had been generated by a spambot?

(Orson Scott Card has a good line for books like that: Either I can't read, or you can't write. And at this point in my reading career, when I find myself so utterly bewildered by a book, I'm pretty sure it's not me.)

But obviously someone understood it. Not just understood it, but liked it enough to publish it. And then a number of other someones had not only understood it and liked it, but liked it SO MUCH they felt it ought to be included in an anthology of the "finest writers in the field."

And then that discussion of sci-fi tropes pinged in the back of my brain, and it occurred to me that maybe, to people more conversant in the genre, that paragraph -- that entire story -- made perfect sense. That the words they tossed around like confetti might actually be meaningful rather than mind-numbing. That maybe I just don't speak the language they're writing in.

It's a weird idea to wrap my head around, because I've been reading science fiction for as long as I've been able to read, and I consider myself a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, part of my identity. But when I actually stop to think about it, I realize that fantasy long ago outstripped sci-fi in what I read and what I write. The sci-fi that I still pursue is either space opera (Tanya Huff, Karin Lowachee) or Neal Stephenson. Occasional forays into so-called "hard" sci-fi feel like a cold shower -- invigorating, but not something I want to do every day. So even though I've been rubbing elbows with the genre my whole life, I don't actually know it much better than any random yahoo off the street. Hmm.

Example two, from the next story:

Frigid wisps of atomic oxygen and nitrogen marked the alien's upper reaches, with dust and buckyballs and aerogel trash wandering free. That high atmosphere reached halfway to the hull, and ended with a sequence of transparent skins--monomolecular sheets, mostly, plus a few energetic demon-doors laid flat. Retaining gas and heat was their apparent purpose, and when those skins were pierced, what lay below could feel the prick, and on occasion, react instantly

As a descriptive paragraph, that is a complete failure because I have no idea how to visualize what he's talking about. MY KINGDOM FOR A SIMILE. Pair that with a cryptic conversation about language abstractions further down the page, and I'm about ready to chalk up this story as a waste too.

Guys? This is not space opera. Space opera is people in space -- emphasis, PEOPLE. Space opera is Star [Wars/Trek/Gate/etc], Babylon 5, Firefly, Karin Lowachee's brilliant novels, and whatever it was I read and emulated as a middle schooler. It's what sci-fi purists get snooty and elitist about, because space opera is soft sci-fi that doesn't know (and doesn't care) how a hyperdrive works, only that it does. Space opera is less interested the details of alien physiology than the shit that's gonna hit the fan when they meet humans.

Simplicity was the hallmark of a raider's ship. The hull was made from diamond scales bolstered with nanowhiskers, all laid across a flexible skeleton of salvaged hyperfiber. Resting in its berth, Peregrine's ship held a long, elegant shape reminiscent of the harpoons that populated ancient novels about fishermen and lost seas. But that narrow body swelled when liquid hydrogen was pushed into the fuel tanks.

SPACE OPERA DON'T GIVE A FUCK WHAT YOUR SHIP IS MADE OF. Just give me a reason to care. C'mon, dude, I fucking dare you.

Counter-rec: Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, because it is RIDICULOUS FUN. Here are the first few paragraphs, in case you hadn't found this masterpiece before and needed more convincing:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly-napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

When they gave him the job, they gave him a gun. The Deliverator never deals in cash, but someone might come after him anyway--might want his car, or his cargo. The gun is tiny, aero-styled, lightweight, the kind of gun a fashion designer would carry; it fires teeny darts that fly at five times the velocity of an SR-71 spy plane, and when you get done using it, you have to plug it into the cigarette lighter, because it runs on electricity.

The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education PhDs, the Deliverator's report card would say: "Hiro is so bright and creative, but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills."

So now he has this other job. No brightness or creativity involved--but no cooperation either. Just a single principle: the Deliverator stands tall, your pie in thirty minutes or you can have it for free, shoot the driver, take his car, file a class-action suit. The Deliverator has been working this job for six months, a rich and lengthy tenure by his standards, and has never delivered a pizza in more than twenty-one minutes.


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 9th, 2011 02:24 am (UTC)
I'm fairly certain that this probably had not been the author's purpose in his writing, but every little snippet you gave just had me cracking up like a crazy person. I mean, full on laugh-out-loud-freaking-out-the-pets-as-I-collapse-onto-the-floor funny. What an absolutely hilarious collection of random jargon. The best one was the nanowhiskers, because I have no idea what it is, but now I'm picturing miniscule whiskers on this space ship.

On another note, your general reaction to short stories is exactly what mine is. I never have any desire to read them, because if, on the off-chance it turns out to be GOOD, I'm left with a "Well, now what? You gave me forty pages where I became emotionally invested in this character, and now you want me to move onto a completely different story, with a completely different set of characters? I want to know more about this one." I can only handle short story anthologies when they're all related to the same people, like Monette's The Bone Key.
Dec. 9th, 2011 02:57 am (UTC)
THANK YOU, I feel vindicated.

It's one of those emperor's-no-clothes situations, where you're like, "I think this is shit...? But everyone else seems to think it's great...? So I don't want to be the first one to say so...?" o_O

The Bone Key is fantastic. I wish more authors would do short story collections centered around one protagonist.
Dec. 9th, 2011 03:08 am (UTC)
I'm sure that if we ever really felt the incentive to put in the time and effort necessary to traverse this... fascinating, winding path of jargon, it would make sense to us, but I can't imagine I'll ever be able to look at paragraphs like that and not laugh. They just seem to go against every writing lesson ever created, in that there is simply NO FREAKING WAY that someone could just pick this up and immerse themselves in it. And really, shouldn't that be your goal, as a writer? To acquire new readers? (Hold on a moment, I'm still giggling over "nanowhiskers." Kitty cat spaceship! Oh, how cuuuuuuuute! Or maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe it's supposed to be a catfish. Much more manly. "Yep, that space-fish, I that thurr caught it. Made it my space ship fish.")

I get the words intellectually, but when they're all thrown together, I just want to laugh like a hyena. But then, maybe that's the point. Maybe the joke is on the people that take this seriously.

Oh, me too! It's not done nearly enough, and honestly, when you're creating a character, you'd think you'd want to write more of him. You have this backstory and setting and I would think the author would want to write more as much as WE want to read more.

Dec. 9th, 2011 02:29 am (UTC)
Oh the codes of sci fi - they will get you darling, they will.

I'm sorry, I'm probably not going to be coherent enough in this reply to actually respond to your post, but I'm doing it anyway. First, have you read any Sam Delany, particularly from the book Silent Interviews? it's theory, and dense, much denser than Russ though Delany is a huge fan of hers, and dense with a purpose since during that theoretical moment they all felt that one had to be very specific with one's words and make people *work* to read theory. Anyway, he's like one of the 1980s theorists who suggests sci fi has it's own way of reading things and if you're not conversant with the codes you get chucked out of the conversation (or feel as if you don't want to participate in it).

Now, though, I will tell you that the first quote up there I made it through and probably could have parsed if there were some dialog afterwards, but the second? I can't even be bothered to read. ANNOYING (and yes, i consider myself a sci fi fan, with lots of experience reading it). The 'frigid wisps' i actually get an image out of that's a series of bubbles, but that's just me.

And it sounds like your anthology of space opera, becasue it's claiming to be the best of the best, is trying to work on all thrusters - thus includes the stuff that would appeal to the hard sciencers and the guys who insist on their ship propulsion being important.

Have you ever read Catherine Asaro? Hetero-sexist but space opera indeed. Supposedly her ability to talk about whatever warp they use in the stories is bolstered by her physics degree, but what I loved about it was it was like reading fanfic in space - so much emo drama!! and there are like 10 books in her series I think.

Also though, there are subgenres within subgenres of scifi so it's hard i think anymore to be entirely comfortable with all the terms - many people get turned off by the cyberpunk writers while i fucking adore the shorthands they use. Like try Farewell Horizontal or The Glass Hammer by KW Jeter (well, if you can get ahold of them, they're out of print).

OH, also, my favorite sci fi short story writer was always JG Ballard actually - he's got a couple of anthologies out and he was writing in the 60s and later, and is more on the speculative side than what you've got quoted up there.

finally have you seen Harlan Ellison's 'Dangerous Visions' anthologies? Because those might be worth looking into beyond the space opera one you've got. They're stupidly huge books, with like terrible stories mixed in with the good ones, but he kind of helped sci fi do a left turn into more speculative (and less whatever that stuff is up there) when he collected people's stuff into them....
Dec. 9th, 2011 02:49 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's the impression I got -- that if I invested the time and energy into learning the sci-fi codes, then it would make sense. But frankly? I'm not seeing much to convince me that the payoff would be worth it.

Thanks for the recs -- particularly Catherine Asaro, because "fanfic in space" is a rec I can get behind. :D I also have a soft spot for Delany because he writes queer, and reading his Dhalgren is on my eventually list. Likewise Harlan Ellison, because I'm morbidly curious about I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Seriously, with a title like that, how could you NOT be?
Dec. 9th, 2011 03:44 am (UTC)
at least then it'll live ?'up'? to expectations that way!

I LOVE dhalgren with the fiery passion of a million burning suns, but would also say read the warning labels on it before you go down that road - and perhaps it is also good to read it with a glass of wine in hand? dhalgren is like his masterwork, so it does all those mental convolutions that are awesome but also can be read as absolutely pretentious (like the first sentence actually begins in the middle of a sentence..., etc.) His Neveryona series is high fantasy and also like super fun. OH and I've always loved Stars in my pocket like grains of sand too. And trouble on triton (which has the douchiest main character i've ever loved - intentionally douchy)

and i've never liked ellison's own fiction that much, but he's a great editor.
Dec. 9th, 2011 03:52 am (UTC)
I got into the bad(?) habit very early on of skipping over the technical details in fiction. I learned this from reading Star Wars novels, especially the Black Fleet Crisis trilogy, where there would be really exciting human drama followed by discussions of fleet movements, rendezvous points, whether the warp engines would be up to the battle and so on. Middle-school me wasn't so hot on hearing about hyperspace jump coordination. Just tell me more about Luke's quest to find his mom and how Chewie saves Han from certain death yet again!

So even though I've been reading sci-fi for years and generally start my browsing in the sci-fi/fantasy section, passages like the ones you quoted still make me roll my eyes and turn the page. My attitude has largely been that if it's actually important, the author will figure out how to tell me in some other way. As of yet I don't think my enjoyment or understanding of sci-fi novels has been damaged by skipping over descriptions of cryo-tubing in the vacuum of space. I do the same for fantasy too, if the author got a little too embroiled in describing magical spells.

I think this has a lot to do with the skill of the writer, though. If an author can make me care about technical descriptions, I will absolutely read it. I read all the spell detailing in Melusine because it was interesting and actually relevant, instead of being stuck in there to give the book more fantasy cred. I enjoyed the descriptions of the alien world and high-atmosphere sky-village in Adam Troy-Castro's Emissaries from the Dead because it was sensible and not presented in large incomprehensible blocks of text with no context. As a bonus, it was relevant to the plot.

tl;dr If it is good writing, I will read it. If I have to think about descriptions at the end of every sentence and am not enjoying it, it's not good for me.

Loved Snow Crash a few years ago and wish I could find something new to read right now that would be just as exciting.
Dec. 9th, 2011 01:29 pm (UTC)
LOL tl;dr sums up my reaction to dense passages of technical details. If I were an editor, I would get a stamp made that said TL;DR and use it whenever writers -- in any genre -- got too enamored of their world-building.
Dec. 9th, 2011 07:52 am (UTC)
Hard SF is pretty impenetrable for me, I think for a similar reason.
Dec. 9th, 2011 07:56 am (UTC)
oh god, all these descriptions. i understand completely what you mean, because i think of myself as a sf/f fan as well but a lot of the time i'll pick up a book that's been highly recommended to me by a friend, and then once i open it my brain will sort of shrivel up and hide in the corner from the page-long block of meaningless description it vomits out before any characters are introduced. i have a test for sci-fi and fantasy books now: if there's more than one easily-recognisable object that has a needlessly made-up name (fantasy) or is accompanied with a swathe of unnecessary technical jargon (sci-fi), the book gets dumped. also, i usually find that even if i skip the page-long thesaurus-regurgitating descriptions of the inside of a laser gun, the book doesn't suffer, meaning that the should have fucking cut it in the first place. :/

p.s. yes, neal stevenson is awesome. snow crash is totally on my list. behind about... eleventy other books.
Dec. 9th, 2011 01:26 pm (UTC)
Move him up the queue~!

And yeah, I tend to skim descriptive paragraphs, always have. Usually you don't miss anything, but sometimes important action happens in those blocks of text, and then I'll be like, "Wait what, he just died? REWIND!" and have to go back and reread. >_>

My litmus test for when to make up fantasy vocabulary is, Does English already have a word for it? If so, use it. No need to make this more complicated than it has to be. Accordingly, most of the things I find myself *needing* to make up words for involve magic, because it's a recognized branch of study with hundreds of years of history and research behind it. :D
Dec. 9th, 2011 07:12 pm (UTC)
well, i have read about 2/3 of cryptonomicon? which i've found awesome so far, but kind of stopped reading because i got distracted by the hunger games. ;)

"does english have a word for it?" = exactly. it's not a vorpal blade, it's a fucking bread knife.
Dec. 10th, 2011 01:23 am (UTC)
Hahahahaha, maybe YOU don't use a vorpal blade, but by god, when I cut bread THEY WRITE EPIC POETRY ABOUT IT.

Cryptonomicon is aight. It's one of his Serious Bizniss Literature paperweights though, and I prefer the books that he has more fun with. >_> (Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Zodiac)
Dec. 9th, 2011 08:00 am (UTC)
I used to read a lot of hard sci-fi, now referred to as "Classic" -- there's something to make me feel old! I stopped for many of the same reasons you mention. I love Space Opera, I love ships and FTL drives, light sails, light sabers, battles in space, and surviving against all odds.

Most of which is lacking in those swamp-like constructs you've quoted from that anthology.

The Clade Heart-world had engaged its Mach drive and was slowly, slow as a kiss, as an Edda, manipulating the weave of space-time to accelerate away from bloated, burning Seydatryah Huh?

If you like Space Opera, Jack Campbell isn't bad. Not great, but lots of fun.
Dec. 9th, 2011 01:09 pm (UTC)
Not high literature, but great fun, eh? :D I'll have to check him out.
Dec. 9th, 2011 08:07 am (UTC)
Okay. While I can actually parse what might be meant by all those words in the first two paragraphs you quoted, this is still utter crap that should have never gotten past an editor worth their money. I thought that when you write, you should have something to say, and that worldbuilding details were secondary... instead, we get details but no reason to care about them. And all that technology and astronomical knowledge only seems 'advanced' because for all we know this could totally be outdated in the setting of this story, and the pov could be very limited... not showing the VALUE of details makes them obsolete, to me.
Dec. 9th, 2011 01:07 pm (UTC)
And all that technology and astronomical knowledge only seems 'advanced' because for all we know this could totally be outdated in the setting of this story, and the pov could be very limited... not showing the VALUE of details makes them obsolete, to me.

Yesssssss. I was thinking EXACTLY THAT as I was writing this post. What does it mean that the protagonist is driving a Sirius Hypersystems XLS 9000 Starwhatever? Does he get to lord it over the poor bastard next door who's still driving an XLS 6000? Or is the Starwhatever a byword for lemon, and whenever he docks he gathers a crowd because Holy shit, people still FLY those pieces of crap? :O

Context is key.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 9th, 2011 01:37 pm (UTC)
"All the people drama, with delightful trappings of spaceships."

Sounds right up my alley! Thanks for the rec.
Dec. 10th, 2011 01:42 am (UTC)
Like the Miles Vorkosigan books? ^_^
Dec. 10th, 2011 01:45 am (UTC)
I read... Young Miles, I think? And quite liked it. Reading more of Bujold's space opera is on my list. (But my list is very, very long... >_<)
Dec. 10th, 2011 01:48 am (UTC)
Try not to wait too long. The books are genuinely _fun_ to read.
Dec. 9th, 2011 08:56 am (UTC)
I don't know. I can see your point, but I think it's more of a preference thing. Space opera is fun, but I always think of it and hard sci-fi as completely different genres. I like hard sci-fi and I can parse/form a mental image from those descriptions, though they are obviously pretty silly when the wording is pointed out. I enjoy technical detail, but certainly technical detail is even better when in the context of presenting a challenge to the characters. For books like that, Westerfeld's Succession duology is really good, and Charles Stross has his occasional moments.
Dec. 9th, 2011 01:50 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think space opera is more akin to fantasy than science fiction.

And I enjoy hard sci-fi too on occasion, but it's certainly a very different reading experience. The last one I read was Peter Watts's Blindsight (VAMPIRES IN DEEP SPACE OMGWTFBBQ) and I'm sure there are descriptions of the spaceship technology in there somewhere, but he didn't lose me the way these short stories did. Hard sci-fi, done right, is about legitimately cool Big Ideas, and I think good writers know that it's their responsibility to keep you onboard long enough to get to those big ideas.

I've been curious about Westerfeld for some time now -- it's the YA thing that's giving me pause, because whenever I read YA these days, something about the pacing leaves me dissatisfied. Is Westerfeld worth giving it a try anyway, you think?
Dec. 9th, 2011 09:04 pm (UTC)
Actually, these two books are his only non-YA ones, and I would recommend them. The rest of his stuff's pretty hit or miss, so I'd advise against it if you don't like YA.
Dec. 10th, 2011 01:41 am (UTC)
Understood it, yes. Patience to read it? Fuck no.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )

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