Mar 18, 2014
Derek Künsken gets it
I'm finding that the more a reviewer knows classic space opera (the 20th century version) the more they "get" Lockstep. Young Adult reviewers have been particularly kind, but now Derek Künsken, writing in The New York Review of Science Fiction, has explicitly compared Lockstep to its predecessors, and to what's often called the "new space opera." In the article (which you can find here, mind that it's $2.99 to buy the issue) he takes as a challenge my own assertion that with this book I've reinvented space opera, and sets out to see whether I'm right. To do this he compared the novel to its classic forerunners as well as recent works by Banks, Greenland, McCauley, McDonald, Reynolds and Stross. He starts by admitting that
Schroeder has preserved the interesting bits of the space opera setting, the light-year-spanning civilization, without jettisoning respect for known physics. This is an impressive addition to the canon.
His analysis is a fascinating read and a good reminder to those of us who've lost track over the years, of where this beloved branch of science fiction came from and what it's evolved into. In doing so, he highlights one of the issues that led me to write the novel: the pessimism of much of the current genre. There's no sense of innocence in science fiction these days. Now, I'm a firm believer that SF needs to shed its technophilic naivete; the time has passed when we could write starry-eyed tales about how science will cure all our ills. The hero of my long-running short story cycle, Gennady Malianov, is a pathologically shy Ukrainian arms inspector who, in tale after tale, ends up cleaning up the messes left by exactly that kind of naivete. So, I'm right there.
However, not only is there space for a mature optimism in SF, I believe it's absolutely essential. Anyone who has kids has to be an optimist, and we who are to bequeath a transformed world to our descendants are equally obligated, as a society, to work toward a positive future. That doesn't preclude being grimly aware of the mess we're in and the messes we could still create, as Gennady well knows. But it means we can still dare, and dream big, and care about the world we're for good or ill bringing into being. Space opera is a primary myth-form for that civilizational task.
As Künsken puts it,
Schroeder does not undermine, as Letson and Wolfe noted for writers of new space opera, the optimism present in the classic space opera form—quite the opposite. Lockstep is a novel overflowing with the optimism of a simpler time, fully embracing in its tone the adolescent yearning for the adventure, grand gestures, and romance of the classic space opera. Lockstep asserts thematically that it is possible to go back, to recover that innocence of an earlier age.
So, in the end, does he think I've "reinvented" space opera? Actually, no. Instead,
He created conditions under which the charm and wonder of classic space opera could live again. This is an equally valuable feat.
Good enough. I'm happy now.
Sep 15, 2012
A recent review pushes well-worn buttons
Declinism is the theory that the world used to be better than it is now--it is the conviction, common to many people, that Things Are Getting Worse. There's a brilliant example of the theory at work in a recent, very thorough and well-written review of three Best-of-Year SF anthologies at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Now, the problem with declinism in art criticism is that everybody has their own model for what the best of a particular genre or style is. If your favourite SF was all published before 1980, you're going to believe SF has been in decline since then. If it was 1960, then... well, dates differ. But declinists can always find some cut-off point where things started going downhill.
In this case, the reviewer, Paul Kincaid, seems to place the beginning of the end in the late 1990s, and he has this to say about the best SF of the past couple of years:
In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.
Is this true? Or is it rather Kincaid's own perceptions that have shifted? There lies the problem--one can't tell. But even if it's all in the eye of the reader, if everybody else is having the same reaction to SF as Kincaid, then it's a real effect, whether the exhaustion lies in the stories themselves, or in the minds of the readers. What seems to be true, however, is that this particular reader is finding that he's no longer inspired by science fiction. And that really is a problem.
The bigger problem, for me, is that Kincaid goes on to list my story, "Laika's Ghost," as emblematic of this malaise. I can't let that stand. He says this about the story:
It is one of the best stories in these three collections, but it is almost anti-SF in its affect: the future has run its course and come to an end; what was one of the most exciting aspirations of science fiction—the promise of life on another world—is here made available only to those looking backward to a former time. It is a story that makes manifest the exhaustion that is immanent throughout these three collections.
This is great stuff--but (quite apart from the fact that SF never promised its readers a technological and metaphorical rose garden) it's also a clumsy misreading of the story. First of all, "Laika's Ghost" has to be read in the context of the other Gennady Malianov stories. It only sorta kinda stands on its own; the fact is it is part of a continuum of stories that paints a very specific view of the near future. That view is not of an exhausted world, but of a world that is shifting gears--undergoing civilizational change. Sure, the scions of the old world order may be exhausted, but there are plenty of new and dynamic forces at work in Gennady's world. This is most thoroughly shown in another of these stories, "To Hie From Far Cilenia."
Secondly, Gennady himself is a necessary character for science fiction at this time. Why? Because he's neither a starry-eyed optimist nor an apocalyptic nihilist. He's a realist who fully intends to have a future, and for the world he lives in to have a future too. So while the people around Gennady rise and fall, taking whole civilizations and possible futures with them, he's cleaning up the mess. It's what he does.
The necessity of buckling down and tidying up the trash left by 100+ years of techno-optimism in no way contradicts the wondrous potential of the future. It's just a necessary piece of the whole process. Gennady knows this; he knows that decommissioning old nuclear reactors is a manifestation of Progress. Shooting radioactive camels in the Gobi desert is one of the prices to be paid for our industrialist past, and somebody has to pay it. Gennady represents that side of technological progress that we in SF so rarely acknowledge: he's a trash collector.
It's not starry-eyed wonder that we need at this point in history; it's a rolling-up of the sleeves to finish what we started when we introduced electric power, vaccinations, indoor plumbing and all the other critical inventions of modernism. In that sense, "Laika's Ghost" is not the best of a bad lot. It's a reminder that science fiction ultimately reflects where we stand in the world right now. And where we stand, is at a time when there's work to be done. If the science fiction of today represents that harder-edged and less sentimental vision of the future, then great! I'll write more of it.
Jul 14, 2012
Ha ha! Yes, I'm getting more and more abstract lately. But it's high time we dug into the deeper subtext of my novels
I started reading Ian Bogost's latest book last night. Alien Phenomenology, or What it's Like to be a Thing seems an unlikely excursion for a theorist whose major work so far was a literary theory for video game criticism. (I used the ideas in Bogost's book Unit Operations as a major theoretical framework for the scenario-fiction writing technique I outlined in my Master's thesis.)
It's not often that I have the experience of hopping up and down, gnashing my teeth and shouting "well of course!" but I've been having it since starting Alien Phenomenology. But I don't mean that in a bad way; I had the same experience when I dove into Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, and more recently exploring the work of philosopher Graham Harman. It's the frustration of a long-delayed recognition of kindred minds. I talked a little about that recently, and here's that same new feeling again.
So, as I'm reading Bogost and I come across statements like
That things are is not a matter of debate. What it means that something in particular is for another thing that is: this is the question that interests me. The significance of one thing to another differs according to the perspective of both.
...I am forcibly reminded of, how, nearly fifteen years ago now, I imagined Jordan Mason sitting on the shore of a lake, and listening as the smart-dust nanotech that pervaded the entire surface of the planet Ventus tried to figure out what it was:
He could hear the song of the lake. It was deep and powerful, belying the tranquility of the surface. Thin grass grew here, but the soil beneath his feet was shallow, quickly giving way to sand. Below that... rock? He couldn’t quite make it out, though it felt like there was something else down there, a unique presence deep below the earth.
There was no indication that anything supernatural dwelt here.
He sat down, mind empty for the first time in days, and watched the water for a while. Gradually, without really trying, he began hearing the voices of the waves.
They trilled like little birds as they approached the shore. Each had its own name, but otherwise they were impossible to tell apart. They rolled humming towards Jordan, then fell silent without fanfare as they licked the sand. It was like solid music converging on him where he sat. He had never heard anything so beautiful or delicately fragile.
He didn’t even notice the failing light or the cold as he sat transfixed. His mind could not remain focussed forever, though, and after a while he made up a little game, trying to follow individual waves with both his eyes and his inner sense.
He tried to follow the eddies of a particular wave as it broke around a nearby rock, and in doing so discovered something new. It seemed like such an innocent detail at first: as the wave split, so did its voice. From one, it became many, then each tinier individuality vanished in turbulence. As they did, they cried out, not it seemed in fright, but in tones almost of... delight. Urgent delight--as if at the last second they had discovered something important they needed to tell the world.
This quote from my year-2000 novel Ventus presents a vision of the self-definition of the world becoming visible for the first time to a human being. The designers of the Ventus terraforming system imagined a technology that would dissolve into everything in the world and actively investigate it. The nanotech in and on a tree would figure out that it was a tree; a rock would know it was a rock, a hill that it was a hill. And each of these objects would be able to communicate to the human settlers of the planet what it could do for them. "I am flint, you can build a fire with me." "I am mint, you can eat me." The only problem was, this magnificent system for identifying things had to be able to invent its own categories in order to do its job; and it did that too well. When the human settlers arrived, it quickly decided what they were--but on its own terms, and using its own ontology and semantics. As far as the humans were concerned, the nanotech didn't recognize them. But something far more interesting had in fact happened: it saw them, not as they wanted to be seen--not through their filter--but as it had come to see things.
And so the nanotech (which later generations of humans called the Winds) destroyed all the settlers' competing technologies, knocked them back to the stone age, and went about integrating them efficiently into the artificial ecosystems of Ventus.
Ventus was far more than a cautionary tale about technology run amok--in fact it wasn't really that at all. I wanted to talk about how objects see other objects; but back then, I had nobody to talk to about it. Bogost's new book is another indication that the hourglass has turned, and that these ideas are finally current.
I've since moved on to next steps--but I would recommend Alien Phenomenology because Bogost also senses the need to go from discussing OOO in the abstract, to working out what it means in practice. Alien Phenomenology is the first book I've seen that explicitly challenges its readership to employ and deploy the ideas of speculative realism. This will be no mean feat, and I've already spent five years planning how to do that for my as-yet unwritten third novel in the Ventus/Lady of Mazes series, a book I've tentatively titled The Rewilding.
Because now that an entirely new world--new universe, in fact--lies open to us, it's time to stop pointing at it, and time to start exploring it.
And building in it.
Jun 03, 2012
Reviews for all the Virga books have been overwhelmingly positive
On the heels of great reviews at Locus and Canada's premiere newspaper, The Globe and Mail, I'm delighted that SF Site has looked at Ashes of Candesce and pronounced it good. It's not just a ringing endorsement of this last Virga novel; the message that's emerging from people who've read all five books is that there's no low spot in the series. The books are consistently good.
For me, there's always two goals: each book had to be as good as it could possibly be; and the series as a whole had to be excellent. The reviews for each individual book have been stellar, but it wasn't until I read Greg. L. Johnson, in this latest review, saying "With Ashes of Candesce, Karl Schroeder brings his Virga series to a rousing, fitting conclusion," that I started to believe I'd succeeded with Virga as a whole.
Russell Letson had already said this over at Locus:
In a recent (as I write this) Locus Roundtable post, Karen Burnham posed the question of the appeal of SF and fantasy – ‘‘Why do you enjoy this crazy brand of literature?’’ I responded with several paragraphs of babble, but I think I could have just offered this series as my answer.
All this clearly places Schroeder’s work in discussion with that of Greg Egan, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, and Vernor Vinge, among others.
In the SF Site review, Johnson also says,
Karl Schroeder is also exploring many of the ideas that have dominated hard science fiction for the last twenty years or so... Those themes place the Virga series and its author in the company of writers like Greg Egan, Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, and others.
And, summing up,
That the story and character development never lags as a result makes the Virga series a first-class reading experience both for long term fans and anyone looking for a good introduction to the ideas, and artistry, of contemporary hard science fiction.
I've been proud of the individual Virga books. Now I'm proud of the series, too.
May 12, 2012
...And a surprise review on The Atlantic's website
Nikola Danaylov sat down in my living room last week and grilled me for over an hour about my thoughts on technology, the Singularity, and my alternatives to it. The whole interview can be seen here, or downloaded as a podcast; be warned, it covers a huge amount of ground and I don't get much chance to fully flesh out the ideas I'm throwing around. Hence much of it may sound like gibberish.
There is much that I told Nikola that bears extensive expansion and I would love to lay out these ideas (eg. about the Technological Maximum and the Rewilding) in a book... but only when somebody pays me to write it. I am sadly unable to take on a project like that without backing anymore; I'd starve before I finished the thing.
Meanwhile, others seem to be discovering my work. There's a new review of Lady of Mazes on The Atlantic's website! It's a pretty awesome exploration of the key themes of the novel; I have to say that, seven years after the novel came out, people finally seem to be ready for the conversation that it proposes. Should we control the technologies that influence our lives, or do we willy-nilly spin the roulette wheel of technological change and simply accept what comes out of it? This is the question Lady of Mazes asks; there could be no more relevant a question for the present, yet when the book first came out, there wasn't much said about that aspect of the story. People didn't really... get it. Now, it seems they're starting to.
Apr 09, 2012
--And references my work for the Canadian military
Over at io9, Andrew Liptak has written a well-considered article about the national differences in military-oriented science fiction--contrasting American SF with Canadian, British and other nations' takes on the future (or lack thereof) of war. He extensively references my 2005 short novel Crisis in Zefra, which I wrote for the Canadian military. Zefra has been widely read and commented on; it was even excerpted in Harper's magazine. Liptak praises Zefra for presenting something different from the American perspective on war, by describing a multi-stakeholder peace-keeping mission without any of the 'winner takes all' characteristics of U.S. triumphalism.
To say that I'm ambivalent about war would be a huge understatement; I come from a Mennonite background, after all (you do the math). Nonetheless, while my attitudes definitely played into Zefra, the document is ultimately a reflection of Canadian military doctrine and forward thinking.
Yes, we think differently up here; and we wage war differently, too.