Style and Substance

Stephanie S. on Science Fiction literary quality:

It also matters what the pretty words actually say.Style does not necessarily indicate substance. Style can, in fact, be used to cover up an author’s complete failure to imagine the Big Idea that is supposed to be one of science fiction’s hallmarks. I decided to jump in and become a Hugo voter around Sad Puppies I; since then, I have seen a number of stories – particularly in the short fiction categories – that use fantastic elements as superficial glosses over what, in truth, are extended ruminations over characters’ emotional states in which nothing of any consequence actually happens. In many of these cases, the emotion is very well-rendered, but digging deep reveals a foundation of sand. The textbook example of this phenomenon is “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” in which the event that inspires the “content” of the story is based on an improbability and the point-of-view character is left powerless to do anything but rage at her plight.

I read science fiction for ideas.  I’m an ideas man.  Characters are nice, and I certainly wouldn’t want to read a story without characters, but a story that is “character” driven, in the traditional sense, is terrifically boring.  That’s because what often passes for “character” is really quirkiness, overlaid on top of a Myers- Briggs randomizer.  Then we just watch the emotions play.  That’s like fireworks: red, green, blue.  I need a reason to be there besides just to see the show.

For me, the most recent sweet spot was actually Ancillary Justice.  What a lot of interesting ideas to follow!  and yes, there was some work involved in verifying it all added up at the end.  The sequel, Ancillary Sword, just didn’t cut it. An older book that also knocked my socks off recently was The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin.  Again with the ideas, and not that much with the plot.

On the other hand, I just can’t read Kevin J. Anderson, so I guess style has to count for something.


So this is a little geeky but:

There’s a thing called the Hugo Awards, which gives an Oscar-like prize in various categories of the best science fiction stories of the year. And for the last few years, there has been some controversy over the kinds of works which have been winning.  I’m very much an outsider, but the impression I get is that the conflict is between one set of people who think that popular fiction ought to win more often, and another who think that something more literate ought to win.  I’m not exactly sure even who is on what side, or if I have the sides right.  But that’s irrelevant to my point.

Because there has been such controversy, I’ve learned a few things about the process that gets me interested.  The big difference between the Hugo awards and something like the Oscars is that the Hugoes are actually pretty easy to get in on.  To vote for your favorite book, you have to be a member of the World Science Fiction Society, which membership costs $40 a year.  That’s a pretty low entrance fee.  But here’s the icing on the cake:  In order to vote, you need to have read all the nominated works in each category, and in order to do that, the WSFS makes a solid attempt to provide its members with a digital copy of every nominated work.

So, for $40, you can get a copy of the best science fiction of the year.  Yes, it’s probably more than it would cost to get a copy of everything at the library. It’s a lot cheaper than Amazon.   And perhaps your local library doesn’t keep a ready copy of the 70 best science fiction works each year.  Perhaps you are not a master of the interlibrary loan system.  Maybe the thought of redefining “the best science fiction” amuses you.

Anyway, if you read science fiction, you should join.  It’s not a bad investment.  This year’s nominees were announced today, here. It looks as though the popular fiction crowd is in the ascendancy.