From three of the most interesting things I've read recently and, thus, started thinking about together...
M. John Harrison:
A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass. It has no V. It has no Dog Years. It has no David Foster Wallace. It isn’t a generous genre. The same few stolen cultures & bits of history, the same few biomes, the same few ideas about things. It’s a big bag but there isn’t much in it. With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.
Ian Sales on Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey:
There are some 150 million people living in the Asteroid Belt. The greatest concentration is six million in the tunnels inside the dwarf planet Ceres. There is no diversity. There is passing mention of nationalities other than the authors’ own – and a bar the characters frequent plays banghra music – but the viewpoint cast are American in outlook and presentation. Ceres itself is like some inner city no-go zone, with organised crime, drug-dealing, prostitution, under-age prostitution, endemic violence against women, subsistence-level employment… Why? It’s simply not plausible. Why would a space-based settlement resemble the worst excesses of some bad US TV crime show? The Asteroid Belt is not the Wild West, criminals and undesirables can’t simply wander in of their own accord and set up shop. Any living space must be built and maintained and carefully controlled, and everything in it must in some way contribute. A space station is much like an oil rig in the North Sea – and you don’t get brothels on oil rigs.
Further, what does all this say about gender relations in the authors’ vision of the twenty-second century? That women still are second-class citizens. One major character’s boss is a woman, and another’s executive officer is also female. But that female boss plays only a small role, and everything the XO does she does because she has the male character’s permission to do so (and it’s not even a military spaceship).
Paul Di Filippo on Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany:
Given that the book achieves liftoff into SF territory halfway through, you need to know that Delany does not stint on his speculative conceits. His hand is as sure as of old. The future history he creates is genuinely insightful and innovative. But it’s always background, half-seen. Because our heroes are living in a semi-rural backwater and are self-professed “Luddites,” their mode of life is more archaic than the lifestyles of others. But the shifting world keeps bumping up against them, rather in the manner of Haldeman’s The Forever War. Eric and Shit move ahead almost in a series of discontinuous jumps, waking up at random moments like Haldeman’s returning soldiers to find the world growing stranger and less comprehensible and less welcoming around them. It’s as if they are riding a time machine whose intervals of travel are ever-increasing. By the end of the book, the two ancient lovers are relics, fossils, and the mutant children who, in a sense their actions helped birth, are golden-eyed and alien.
Delany’s focus on such humble men—both Eric and Shit proclaim their lives to have been full and happy and joyous, but ultimately inconsequential, and no other character beside Robert Kyle is a Bigtime Player, and he’s mostly offstage—is the ultimate enactment of the goals discussed in Ursula Le Guin’s essay “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown”. No wars, no heists, no inventions, no high drama, no bigger-than-life supermen propel this story. To pervert the title of Aaron Copland’s famous work, it’s a “Fanfare for the Common Horndog.” And yet by this very limitation, by the intensity with which Delany inhabits the simple lives of his heroes, the book assumes that majesty which all eternal and humble things acquire, when seen a-right.