Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My toe in the YA scifi market

I've started a program to familiarize myself with the work of my teachers-to-be at Clarion West. To pick a low-hanging fruit, I just read D.A. by Connie Willis. Apparently both she and Paul Park write a lot of YA stuff. Not that that bothers me; the YA label must be so broad it means practically nothing if it can include Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series.

But D.A. is very YA. Begin with the length; the book clocks in at under 20k words by my count. It's really more of a novella (novelette? I never get that straight). I've written things just a little bit shorter that were supposed to have been short stories.

The tone is also very teen-girl, and the book is focused on the kind of problems teenagers deal with every day. Theodora Baumgarten, the heroine, is surrounded by stuck-up twits who are always saying things like "Ohmigod! Ohmigod!" She is a good student, but she hates all the boring assemblies she has to attend. The first scene in the book involves a teacher trying to take away her cell phone. Speaking as a person whose profession requires him to be surrounded by teenagers I can tell you that whatever else you say about Willis, she knows kids.

Theodora attends a school full of strivers, every one of whom wants nothing more than to be a space cadet. Every one except Theodora, that is, who can't imagine anything she'd like less than to be crammed into a sardine can with a bunch of other people speeding through a lifeless vacuum hundreds of thousands of miles away from any sign of civilization. This makes her a lot like my wife, who has expressed similar astonishment that anyone would actually do that by choice, let alone that I would if given half a chance.

Needless to say, when the school learns that one of their students has been selected to be a cadet, it turns out to be Theodora. And she has to leave in two hours. And no one will stop congratulating her long enough to listen when she tells them that she never even applied, let alone took the exams and the three levels of clearance interviews necessary to even be considered.

Most of the rest of the book is devoted to Theodora trying to talk her way off the ship, with the help from earth of her hacker friend Kimkim. There's some good hard sci-fi details in there showing that Willis did her homework, like what the Coriolus effect does to you on a spaceship with centripetal gravity (apparently it makes you think everything's tilting toward you, something I didn't know).

The ending is a little too neat and tidy, with a few pages of exposition-through-dialogue dispelling all the problems too easily. But the reasoning behind the plot makes sense well enough, in the sense that it's disputable but not absurd. In short, I think I can definitely learn something from this woman.

I also got Fight Club from the library. I wish that I had found a different Palahniuk there, or alternately that I had never seen the movie (which I enjoyed, but it's going to taint how I view the story).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Q: Will things get better or worse? A: Yes!

I have made some fun of the mundane SF movement before. So it's only fair to point out that I have discovered a mundane-oriented writer who is making some waves with actual stories, as opposed to blogs, wikis, manifestoes, rants and other substitutes for fiction.

I first saw Paolo Bacigalupi's name mentioned in a flier at Boskone for a panel discussing some of the "up and coming" names in sci-fi. I didn't go to that panel, but I have since seen his name mentioned in a couple of other places, and I finally decided to search out his website.

Luckily he has a few free stories up, and I have read one of them, "The Tamarisk Hunter." I will get to reading the others soon, but I have to write something myself!

First of all, let me say it's a good story. I am a Southwesterner myself, and a future in which California steals the water of the rest of the West is all to imaginable. He's got a great sense of characterization, and is an excellent world-builder. The story is clearly on the dystopic side of things, but there's nothing wrong with that. I am going to look for Bacigalupi's book of short stories, "Pump Six." He is a welcome new voice in the genre, and is covering a field that most other writers out there are not.

That said, I still don't think that Mundane Sci-fi is going to be the salvation of the genre that its champions made it out to be, or even as big as popular sub-genres like steampunk or cyberpunk. There are two reasons for this. One has to do with marketing, and one has to do with a misused word.

Mundane champions often like to talk, correctly to be fair, about how sci-fi is losing its audience. The mundanists' reason is that the star-hopping space-opera future of sci-fi is just too hard for people to believe anymore. The implication is that what people are really aching for is stories that show us how things really are going to be.

Which couldn't make less sense. The best-selling sci-fi books, as I understand, are series and movie knockoffs like Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars and Star Trek stuff; ie the least realistic of all. The truth is that sci-fi with a shitty future has existed for decades. It used to be the shitty future was about post-nuclear radiation-glowing wastelands; if all the mundanists can do is update that to a world overwhelmed by global warming, with Lady Liberty in the Atlantic up to her tits, they have not by any means, as they promised to do, "changed the way [I] think about science fiction."

Again this is not a criticism of Bagucigalpi's writing in particular. There has always been a small but steady demand for well-written dystopias; I've tried to play around in that ballpark myself with far less success than Paolo has. But it's just natural that these are always going to be a minority of the market, because when most people buy genre books they're usually trying to escape reality, not have it rubbed in their face. There will always be a small cult market for the more challenging stuff with dweebs like me (and probably you), but it won't outsell the work that's more fun.

That brings me around to another term that's bugging me a bit, that I have seen brought up in various contexts: 'optimistic' sci-fi. This has often sloppily been used as a shorthand for the alternative to Mundane. In optimistic sci-fi we all upload our personalities to computers, hop around with warp drives and go back and time to make out with our great-grandmothers.

The idea that a future with interstellar travel must be optimistic, while a future without must not, is completely ridiculous. Phillip K. Dick, a hero of many of the Mundane sci-fi writers, used interstellar travel in most of his stories, as I've pointed out before. But no one ever called his work optimistic.

On the other side, you can write an optimistic mundane story. For that matter, that's how it was supposed to be. If you look at the manifesto (no longer available online), it was supposed to be about people figuring out how to solve the world's problems without technological magic wands.

But taking it a step further, the whole division between optimistic and pessimistic sci-fi is a bit absurd. Things don't get just better or just worse. Both things happen at the same time. Look at the twentieth century. We cured TB and smallpox, we revolutionized food production, invented the telephone, television, computer, etc. etc. Then there was the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Stalinist purges, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and countless other horrors that made all mass killing that came before look like amateur hour.

I, for one, am glad that Mundane sci-fi appears to now exist as an actual sub-genre of fiction, as opposed to a Borgesian imaginary concept of one. Mundanists could have avoided a lot of the flak they've caught if they had spent more time on their stories and less time dismissing and overgeneralizing about other people's work, as I think Bacigalupi has.

But no matter whether you're writing sensawunda space opera or smog-choked "n"-punk, the stories that are going to matter are the ones that acknowledge the future will hold unimagined wonders and horrors beyond our worst fears. Things will always get better, and they'll always get worse. The fun part is imagining how it might.