14 min read

Boundary lines

Is that *really* science fiction?
Boundary lines

Happy Friday: you made it through another week.

This weekend brings us Halloween, and I've slacked off this year: I'd been planning to construct a new costume for my son, Wrecker from Star Wars: The Bad Batch, but I just didn't get myself together to do it. I've got a nifty, 3D printed helmet, some sheets of EVA foam, and some templates, but didn't get around to actually transforming those raw materials into anything useful. We ended up picking up a Master Chief costume from Walmart, because we just played through all of Halo, and he's counting down the days until Halo: Infinite. It's fine: he's excited for that, and there's always time to build the other costume for some other occasion.

Speaking of Halloween: if you're in Vermont, I'll be on VPR's Vermont Edition later today (October 29th) from 12:00 to around 12:30 or so. They've asked me on to talk about the history of Halloween and the Halloween industrial complex that surrounds it, cosplay, costume trends, and a bit more. If you're out of radio range, you can listen to the show live via their website. It should be a good time!


There's a question that's been in and out of my head over the last couple of years, something that I've been reflecting a bit on as I approach writing about genre fiction: what is the point of enjoying one particular genre over another? Specifically, why science fiction, other than momentum from my time as a budding reader who was obsessed with Star Wars during my formative years?

I don't know that I have a good answer, other than that I enjoy the imagery of space and the thought of adventure that people might someday have, but imagery, tropes, and scenery aside, we're talking about stories that address some deeper human concerns, whether it's friendship, learning an existential truth about the nature of humanity, or something that gives us a gram of hope as we brace ourselves for an uncertain future.

I've written a lot about the history of genre fiction over the years, and in that time, I've not only thought a lot about why people are attracted to science fiction, but how people approach it.

I've thought about this weird boundary line before, and it's been at the top of my head in the last week after reading a reaction to Dune from an author, who noted that it isn't really science fiction, but epic fantasy that only looks like sci-fi because it happens to be set in space. It's one of those comments that I can't help but roll my eyes at, as one tends to do when someone proclaims that Star Wars isn't really science fiction or that Die Hard is really a Christmas movie. To which I can't help but monologue to myself: "so?"

That line of thought bubbled up again with a question from The Salvage Crew author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne:

Question for SF readers/enthusiasts. Why isn't Michael Crichton discussed as part of the canon of SF? Arguably he has been more widely read than most writers held up from the same period of writing.

This is something that I've specifically thought about over the years: why does Michael Crichton seem to be left out of that larger conversation when it comes to genre literature? There's no doubt that he's been enormously successful as an author, and much of his work could be construed as "genre" </s>, given that he writes about transhumanism, alien organisms from outer space, time travel, lost civilizations, and bringing dinosaurs back to life via cloning. Indeed — the films based on his work are typically acknowledged as science fiction.

And it's not just Crichton's works that seem to have little impact within this particular publishing bubble. A couple of years ago, I attended a panel at Boskone about modern military science fiction. I was hoping to get a good sense of what a handful of authors might think of what was coming out at the moment, given that the genre is chugging along nicely (and, I'd edited an anthology a couple of years earlier about this particular subgenre, so I'm generally always keeping my ears and eyes open for commentary about it).

What I heard was disappointing to say the least: recommendations for Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, John Scalzi's Old Man's War, and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, as well as some misinformed nonsense about the limits of the Outer Space Treaty and how it can (or can't) constrain the use of nuclear weapons in space. Nothing — or very little — about some of the most recent authors writing in the genre, like Kameron Hurley (The Light Brigade) or Linda Nagata (The Red, The Last Good Man). When I asked a question about how people were experimenting with the genre itself, like the military (as I've since detailed in this feature for OneZero) or with thrillers like August Cole and P.W. Singer's Ghost Fleet or similar books, the answers that I got back were dismissive: they just didn't pop up on their radar, and thus weren't consequential to the discussion.

I've thought about that moment quite a bit, and how the idea of science fiction is constructed by people who are fans of the material. On paper, I'd make the assumption that if a book or author is tackling the subject matter that typically makes up a science fiction book, like newfangled technology or sciences, you'd categorize it as genre fiction. That isn't the case: you don't often see the works of Crichton — or for that matter, Tom Clancy and his military thrillers or Daniel Suarez, whose novel Delta-V is explicitly about mining asteroids included in that conversation.

What I think I've come to understand is that "Science Fiction" as a label is largely a construct that's imposed on a body of work by a group of people, and that if you have a book or story that isn't explicitly marketed to that small group of readers by way of a handful of select publishing outlets like Tor or Orbit or DAW or Baen, they might as well not exist.

This goes beyond just the types of stories that deal explicitly with science and technology: books like K. Chess's phenomenal Famous Men Who Never Lived or Tom Sweterlitsch's The Gone World are books that I read and loved because they engaged with genre tropes in some unusual ways, but made nary an imprint in the larger SF community.

Related: Expanding the Crichtonverse

This is something that bothers me a great deal, because it's a set of exclusionary, self-imposed blinders that effectively shuts potential readers out from other works than what's currently floating around in the SF zeitgeist.

I'm not entirely sure what the cause of this is: maybe it's a sense of protectiveness of this walled world that we make for ourselves; that if we set up boundaries for what genre really is, we can somehow fend off those people who make fun of our love of wizards and rocket ships. The feeling seems to be that if it's a book that appeals to a mainstream audience, it's not the right kind of story, and not worth our time. There are the exceptions: Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Meg Howrey's The Wanderers, Marlon James' Black Leopard, Red Wolf, or Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven were books that have percolated into the consciousness of SF fandom. And there are authors who've graduated from the confines of genre fandom like Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Jeff Vandermeer, or Charles Yu, earning widespread acclaim for their works after coming up from the depths of genre murkiness.

For a long time, I thought of awards like the Hugos or Nebulas as good barometers for what genre was, but I don't know that I believe that any longer. Certainly, it's a quantifiable measure of a good read while cruising along the shelves of a bookstore, but ultimately, they're the product of a community of readers with specific tastes that are in turn tuned by decades of preferences and habits from their predecessors.

Kurt Vonnegut posed an interesting observation in 'On Writing Science Fiction,' published a number of years ago (recently republished in The New York Times Book Review), in which he mused about how fandom as a group were "joiners. They are a lodge. IF they didn't enjoy having a gang of their own so much, there would be no such category as science fiction. They love to stay up all night, arguing the question 'what is science fiction?' One might usefully inquire, 'What are the Elks? And what is the Order of the Eastern Star?'"

So, what is science fiction, if nothing but a set of self-imposed boundaries that we lay down for ourselves, a line that most fans don't care to cross over? I got some pushback on Twitter for this — people providing paper-thin arguments that out that Crichton's books weren't very good, or that there was some intrinsic thing about his books that were anti-technology or that his books weren't sufficiently full of wonder – all of which can be found in the books that are fully accepted and canonized by TrueFans.  

The answer that I come to is another question: does setting up definite boundaries matter in any meaningful (read: not academic or overly pedantic) way? My answer to that? Probably not.


Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently Reading

After that rant, I'd love to say that I've got something other than established genre fiction on my to-read list, but there's not much groundbreaking on there.

I did finally finish one book, Cherie Priest's Grave Reservations, a fun, light mystery novel about a psychic who teams up with a detective who's stumped on his case. It's an entertaining book that I blew through in just a couple of days, and I'm looking forward to whatever adventures she might have with the same characters.

This week, I've been rotating through a bunch of books:

I've since added on Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, something I've been meaning to read for years, but now that Metaverse is a thing, [sigh] I feel like I need to get to it.


Further Reading

The Annotation of Dune

Former Gawker writer Max Read launched a newsletter last week, and went through Denis Villeneuve's Dune to annotate it. It's not entirely comprehensive, but it presents a nice, high-level overview of the film and connects those scenes to the deeper lore that Frank Herbert presented in his novel. It's a good read, and he highlighted some things that I never picked up on, like Liet-Kynes being Chani's mother.

Dune vs. Foundation

Paul Krugman devotes his latest opinion column to Dune, and juxtaposes it against Apple's Foundation. He's spoken before about how formative Asimov's Foundation was for him as a younger reader, and he isn't apparently a fan of the adaptation:

"So how does the Apple TV series turn this into a visually compelling tale? It doesn’t. What it does instead is remake “Star Wars” under another name. There are indispensable heroes, mystical powers, even a Death Star. These aren’t necessarily bad things to include in a TV series, but they’re completely antithetical to the spirit of Asimov’s writing. Pretending that this series has anything to do with the “Foundation” novels is fraudulent marketing, and I’ve stopped watching."

I'm not quite sure that I'd go that far, but it is clear that Apple and its team have taken some significant liberties with the plot of Foundation. Personally, I'm holding off on judging the show until I see the entire thing, because it does seem to be pretty precisely plotted, and seeing the bigger picture with a bit of hindsight seems like the best way to go for it.

Regarding Dune, he hits the nail on the head for why I really loved the book and this latest film: "its subtlety and the richness of its world-building."

Dune: Part 3?

To cap off news about Dune in this newsletter, director Denis Villeneuve's already slated to direct Part 2 (I wrote about that here), but in speaking with Entertainment Weekly earlier this week, he explained that he'd like to take a crack at a third installment as well:

"I always envisioned three movies. It's not that I want to do a franchise, but this is Dune, and Dune is a huge story. In order to honor it, I think you would need at least three movies. That would be the dream. To follow Paul Atreides and his full arc would be nice."

He doesn't quite come out and say it, but presumably (and EW hints at it), this third film would cover the events of Dune: Messiah, Herbert's sequel to the original Dune. This would be cool to see, because Herbert really flipped the script on the character of Paul, enough so that John W. Campbell Jr. of Astounding refused to buy the book to serialize in the magazine: Herbert ended up going to Galaxy Science Fiction to publish it, because he charted out a very different path for what Paul would do with his powers.

The book has been adapted before, as part of the SCI FI channel's followup adaptation in 2003 that bundled together both it and the third book in the series, Children of Dune. Herbert considered the series done with Children of Dune, but eventually went back and wrote a couple of additional installments after that book became the first science fiction novel to hit a bestseller list,  and it would be interesting to see if Warner Bros. and Legendary could at least complete that particular story arc, even if Villeneuve isn't necessarily at the helm for that last one.

Presumably, the studios behind Dune are looking to play with the world for years to come if it's handled well: there's already an HBO Max series called Dune: The Sisterhood in the works, and given the far-reaching nature of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson's expanded series, the studio will have plenty of material to mine for years to come.

Lightyear

When Disney bought Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm, there was a cold, hard calculation about IP that can be leveraged for profit down the line. Cynically, it brings about the existence of films and franchises that only exist to continue that cash flow. So, hearing that Disney had greenlit a standalone Toy Story spinoff about Buzz Lightyear seems as though it's the epitome of IP exploitation. Do we really need an in-universe Buzz Lightyear origin story? (Especially since Disney's already done that with a movie called Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and the series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command?)

But at the same time, Disney has produced some really excellent films with those companies, helping them to extend out the creativity that they're known for. And for all those cynical cries of "do we really need this?", the first teaser trailer for this film Lightyear looks like a lot of fun. From the looks of things, it'll follow Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) as a sort of test pilot who goes out and explores the depths of space. There's robotic cats, neat spacesuits (and a tease of that iconic suit that he wore in Toy Story), and what looks like some fun action. There's echoes of the classic space age, and another space ranger who isn't a white guy, but a black woman — a welcome thing to see.

Need, I think, is always the wrong question for art, and I roll my eyes every time I see the complaints that accompany every announcement, trailer, or release of a derivative story like this, especially when we haven't seen the final product. If it's crap, well, it likely won't last long. But maybe there'll be some kid for which this'll be an introduction to science fiction or the sciences. I know for a fact that my kid will enjoy the hell out of this.  

Plus, I'm a sucker for cool space suits. This film looks loaded with them. At the very least, I'm coveting the "Property of Star Command" shirt that Buzz is wearing at the :52 mark in the trailer. I have little doubt that someone will come up with that on RedBubble or Etsy before too long.  

Meta

I'll likely write about this at length in the nearish future, but yesterday's news about Facebook's big rebranding effort to focus on building a digital metaverse made me think of a piece that I wrote for VentureBeat's UploadVR back in 2016: an overview of the books and authors who envisioned virtual reality over the years.

News roundups

As noted last week: I'm spending some more time with this newsletter, shifting some of the news writing that I would have been doing for Tor and other places, and packaging up 3-5 short articles into a roundup every couple of days for paid subscribers.

On Monday, I wrote about some updates about J. Michael Straczynski's The Last Dangerous Vision anthology (As well as updates about Apple's Mythic Quest, Star Wars, Paizo's unionization drive, and a new audiobook for The Wheel of Time).

Wednesday's update included word about Dune: Part Two getting the greenlight, Halo Infinite's campaign trailer, a new HBO Max DC comics miniseries, Jeff Bezos' Orbital Reef announcement, and a new trailer for Netflix's Cowboy Bebop.

My hope is that these posts going out will help cut through the flood of news that comes out every day, and provide a bit of context for what's going on in the SF/F world. If you'd like to get them, sign up here. You'll not only get those, but you'll help keep Transfer Orbit going strong.

NFTs of Ruin

A bubble of controversy erupted in Book/YA Twitter the other day when a group of high-profile YA authors (Marie Lu, Tahereh Mafi, Ransom Riggs, Adam Silvera, David Yoon, and Nicola Yoon) announced that they were producing a collective online story called Realms of Ruin, which would allow readers to participate via Blockchain by minting Non-Fungible Tokens, through which they could contribute to the larger story.

I'll be up front by saying that I detest anything related to Blockchain and the wave of NTF stuff that's flooded the news this year. At worst, it seems like an ideal avenue for money laundering, but also something that's entirely impractical: ownership of a digital asset. It's something that I've only casually looked into, and I'm sure I'll see more about it moving forward, but I don't generally see the point.

What's interesting about this situation is how it seems like an interesting idea that wasn't thought through. TechCrunch has a deep dive into the project and its aftermath, noting that it brought out some interesting questions about ownership, derivative works, and the generally complex nature of blockchain systems in the first place.

I found this particular story frustrating as well, because it does seem like there were some good intentions embedded here: what does a decentralized story world look like — forget the stuff about crypto and blockchain technology, if a group of authors got together to produce a true shared world, what would you get? In my mind, something like what you'd have with AO3, the fan fiction platform: fans are already taking part in those worlds, although without any ownership stake in anything they produce.  

Walking in the rain

Evan Johnson is a good friend of mine from here in Vermont, and over the course of a recent weekend, ended up going on a hike along the Long Trail with his partner and dog. He wrote about the experience for AKU Outdoors, and it's a beautiful piece of writing, and well worth giving a read. He's written a couple of other posts for the site as well, and they're also well worth reading.


That's it for today. Paid subscribers, keep an eye out for a new Foundation recap tomorrow morning. I'll have the November book list out for folks on Monday.

Have a good weekend,

Andrew

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