October 2002

Joseph J. Finn

sf libertine

Brave New Worlds

Ah, it's been a pleasant month full of nice calm weather and George W. Bush being lucid. Oh, wait...that was Bizarro world. In our world, the weather's been scrappy, and Bush hasn't realized that Brave New World was the more plausible novel, while 1984 is starting to look rather silly.

Remember, about eighteen years ago, everyone was reaching for allegories between Reagan American and the fascist society of Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984? Seems a little bizarre now, doesn't it? (If you're just entering college, sorry about this; we old fogies of 29 tend to go on about the America we grew up in.) How much more plausible to teach the children not to question in the first place, through a combination of visual & aural deadening of the intellect and over-drugging. Suddenly, 1984 looks like a fantasy and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World seems far too real.

This just goes to show you that books can go into and out of fashion, just like any other form of art. Twenty years ago, everybody who started out in science fiction was reading Asimov. He was still producing mightily, the Foundation series was humming along with Robots and Empire, and his books were all over bookstore shelves. Now, while his influence is certainly undiminished, his books have fallen out of style. They're just not as...prominent as they once were. Now you have more hard-edged writers like Iain Banks and Neal Stephenson who are in style, with their multi-layered prose that would have been unthinkable in mainstream speculative fiction even a decade ago.

Who knows? Maybe we'll enter a retro Tom Corbett-style phase next, and whiz-bang novels will be back in fashion. After all, with the Lord of the Rings movies coming out, I have a horrible feeling that we're about to encounter a whole strew of hastily-written Tolkein knock-offs, just like in the 60's and 70's. It's all a matter of timing and fashion. Thankfully, there are those writers who can be considered classic and should be read to get a grounding in speculative fiction. To that end, here's a short list of authors you would do well to check out for timeless writing:

Isaac Asimov
Robert Bloch
Ray Bradbury
Jorge Luis Borges
Octavia Butler
Arthur C. Clarke
Avram Davidson
Harlan Ellison
Jack Finney
Neil Gaiman
The Brothers Grimm
Robert Heinlen
Mark Helprin
Homer
Stephen King
Ursula K. LeGuin
H. P. Lovecraft
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Terry Pratchett
Salman Rushdie
Connie Willis

By no means an exhaustive list (I know someone's going to write in and suggest a Golden Age author which will make me slap my head), but it's a good starting list. I've based it on the principal that a great writer should have a body of work, not just one great piece (which sadly eliminated Pamela Dean, of whom I think her one great piece is Tam Lin). Some of the authors are not classically considered to be science fiction or fantasy writers, but are certainly influential in the field (Marquez is a great example of this). Also, I'm horrible with the Asian and African writers, so any suggestions there would be helpful.

If you look at the above list, you'll see that there are plenty of authors who are currently not in bestseller land. Whether by style or taste or death, their writing has dropped from the collective consciousness of book buyers and get skimmed over on the shelves. Sometimes, a style comes into fashion (I'm particularly gratified to see that Mr. Gaiman is finally getting the sales he deserves), whether by reviews or by simple word of mouth. That's how a community of readers should be. You love something and you force it on other people at the office or in your classes. A King novel turns you on (so to speak)? You tell your lover she should read Bag of Bones.

This is what I want from the readers of this column. I want to hear from you - what you're reading, what you're enjoying, what sucks so badly you wanted to get in a car, drive to the authors house and blow a raspberry at him (note for younger reads: this is making a rude nose - not throwing raspberries; go ask your parents about a Bronx Cheer). What ennobled you? What was a good cry? What was the kind of fiction that you put down at the end of the day and just stared off into the distance for awhile, absorbing those last precious paragraphs?

Look, I'm not asking you to do my work for me. After all, I'm the one who has to write these columns. Just let me know, and we can all be the better for your recommendations.

***************

Another thing I would like to talk about this month, and that's cover art. Being of a Certain Age, there's been a vast improvement in printing technology and capability over the span of my lifetime (and how). Hardcovers that used to have monochromatic covers now sing with wonderfully imaginative covers (a personal favorite of mine is the cover for Mark Helprin's Memoir From Antproof Case). Sure, there were beautiful covers, but the printing technology was much less capable of transmitting the awesome beauty of a Michael Whelan or a Wayne Barlowe painting. Now, hardcovers are just plain better looking. The only problem is: why hasn't this translated over to mass-market?

Look at almost any good science-fiction novel. When it comes out in paperback, suddenly an imaginative cover tends to transmute into some standard guy-girl-spaceship pose (the Honor Harrington covers by Mattingly come to mind, though they're the height of the form). I really don't have an answer for why some publishers think this is a good idea. After all, why pay for a new piece of art when you have one already there? When Peter Gabriel's So went from vinyl to CD to cassette, they didn't change the cover elements. The graphic designers simply cropped accordingly. If anyone who is in the publishing industry can give me a good reason for this, I'm all ears.

***************

What I've been reading and at least somewhat enjoying: All Night Awake, Sarah A. Hoyt, American Gods, Neil Gaiman; Troublemakers, Harlan Ellison (his first collection for younger readers who may not want to read about gargoyle sex); Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art, Vincent Di Fate (a fantastic look at the great science-fiction artists, with tons of illustrations and an introduction by Ray Bradbury).

***************

Finally, I would like to commend Mr. Warren Ellis on the occasion of the end of Transmetropolitan. For five years, it's been a beacon of insanity in the comic landscape, and Mr. Ellis' brand of monthly cultural satire will be missed. I know he's going on to other projects and other stories, but I'll raise a glass to Mr. Ellis and Mr. Robertson, the grand co-creators, as Spider Jerusalem rides off into the sunset. Now go read the trade paperbacks and you'll see what I'm talking about.