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Sufficiently Accurate for Poetry: Charles Babbage and the Analytical Mind


So doing research for an alternate history I’m working on, I read through the Wikipedia entry on Charles Babbage and was particularly struck by the following passage:

Babbage once contacted the poet Alfred Tennyson in response to his poem “The Vision of Sin”. Babbage wrote, “In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,[43]

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

… If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest [that the next version of your poem should read]:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.

Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.”

This made me LOL, and I thought I’d share.

REVIEW: Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter


Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter Title: Morlock Night
Author: K.W. Jeter
Pub Date: Reprint: April 26th, 2011
(original: 1979)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced steampunk adventure, with strong Arthurian roots and a well-grounded setting.

The best science fiction is protean by nature, combining facets of just about every other genre and defying neat classification within the bounds of SFdom. K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night straddles many sub-genre fences: Victoriana secret history, steampunk, and Arthurian legend. Originally published in 1979, the book is judged one of the progenitors of the steampunk sub-genre, and its author as credited with inventing the steampunk label (in a 1987 letter to Locus). Having heard of the book but never read it, I was jazzed to read the new edition from Angry Robot. I was especially curious to see how one of the earliest steampunk novels compares against contemporary clockwork fare, and I am happy to report that thirty-two years from its initial publication Morlock Night remains an enthralling, atmospheric, and fast-paced read.

Morlock Night was originally written as part of a ten book Arthurian series which was to be written by Jeter, Tim Powers, and Ray Nelson (alas, the series never took off). The concept was to show King Arthur reincarnated (or awoken) at various points throughout history when Britain needs saving. This fact is intrinsic to Morlock Night, and at one level firmly sets the book in the Arthurian tradition. However, Jeter’s execution of this concept is unique and exceptional.

The book takes place in London in the autumn of the Victorian era. Like the best contemporary steampunk and alternate history authors (e.g. Cherie Priest or Michael A. Stackpole), Jeter uses voice to establish his character’s in time. The story is told in first-person perspective through the eyes of Edwin Hocker, and his word choices and sentence constructions are firmly rooted in the cadences of the late Victorian era. In the hands of a lesser author, such vocal tricks might make the prose dated or stilted to modern sensibilities. Perhaps, if Jeter had chosen to employ third-person perspective, that might well have been the case. But by choosing to tell the story through the eyes of Edwin Hocker, the story gains immediacy in spite of the distancing typical of late Victorian writing styles.

We meet the questing hero as he departs from a dinner party. At this dinner party, Hocker was regaled with an incredible story about travel to the far distant future, and the strange creatures his host encountered on the way. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it should: Morlock Night is actually a sequel to H.G. Wells The Time Machine (which itself was first published in 1895, three years after the events of Jeter’s book).

Jeter builds much more immediacy into his story by eschewing the framing narrative that Wells employed. We meet Edwin Hocker as he departs the dinner party that frames Wells’ classic, and our hero is then swiftly sent by the mysterious Doctor Ambrose (Merlin) to a war-torn future London where he must fight and flee Morlock invaders sweeping across time to take over the world. Jeter does an amazing job establishing the setting for the story. The first chapter takes place on the foggy streets of London, late at night, after the close of the dinner party. Jeter’s narration is atmospheric – literally, and figuratively – and the fog gradually seeps into both his character’s perception and the reader’s. The brooding city streets, the hazy lights gas lamps, the damp: these are elements that one feels reading the book. When Hocker is thrust into the future, the rubble-strewn London he finds himself in remains recognizable, though shattered as if by the Blitz.

Ambrose pulls Hocker (and a woman he meets in that war-torn London) back to the Victorian era, and uses the traumatic experience to convince Hocker to save Britain. Ambrose explains that the dim-witted Morlocks described in The Time Machine were but the Morlock’s uneducated working class, and that when Wells’ Time Traveller returned to the future following the dinner party, the ruling Morlocks captured him, and used the time machine to travel back to 1892. Now, with the aid of an Anti-Merlin character, the Morlocks intend to conquer the past. And this risks unraveling time and destroying the universe. To save the day, Merlin needs Hocker to free the reincarnation of King Arthur from the clutches of that Anti-Merlin, and to reunite the reincarnated king with the scattered pieces of Excalibur.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward, with a standard quest-based structure: step one, step two, complication, step three, complication, climax. But despite the prosaic structure, the characterization, world-building, and pacing make the book a delight to read. The quest for Excalibur takes Hocker into the sewers beneath London, and Jeter’s descriptions of this dark and dank environment are by turns chilling, thrilling, and fascinating. Loving the real London as much as I do, I can easily imagine the detritus of two thousand years washing up beneath London’s twisting alleyways.

It is in those subterranean environments that Jeter comes closest to employing the tropes of the modern steampunk movement. Looked at from the perspective of a modern reader, Morlock Night has a notable dearth of steampunk conventions. There is little (if any) real clockwork, no steam-powered machinery that I can recall, and certainly no airships. The closest approximation is an ancient Atlantean submarine which figures prominently in Hocker’s adventures in the London sewers. But that is a strange, foreign, and ancient technology: neither a product of the Victorian era, nor an extrapolation of Victorian-era technology.

Jeter doesn’t use the steoretypical steampunk devices because the story simply does not need them: it is centered around the character of Edwin Hocker, and the challenges he faces. Technology is incidental to that, and so Jeter wastes no time lovingly describing it. And despite the lack of steampunk window dressing, the book remains undeniably steampunk. In many ways, it is the quintessential steampunk novel: every element – including technology – is seen through the eyes of a late Victorian-era narrator, with the concomitant sensibilities, values, and preconceived notions. That grounds the book in the Victorian era, and conveys that undeniable feeling of almost-plausibility that is characteristic of the best steampunk. At the same time, Jeter’s careful attention to setting, and the atmospheric, layered descriptions root the story firmly in the London of 1892.

Despite its many strengths, the book does have two weaknesses. The first (minor) weakness is that I found the end of the story a bit predictable. That might be because I’ve read plot structures like this one many times over, or it might be because Jeter’s careful foreshadowing built a certain inevitability into the story. However, the book’s predictability is only a minor weakness; even if I was able to guess how it ended, I still loved the ride. The tension remained high, and I continued to be avidly engaged in the story long after I’d figured out the end. That fact is a testament to Jeter’s excellent management of pacing and tension.

The second weakness I consider more substantial. Early in the book, Hocker meets a woman named Tafe in the war-torn future version of London. She returns with him to his own time, and proceeds to be his companion on his various adventures. She represents Hocker’s love interest (of sorts), and a device for furthering plot and motivation in certain key scenes. When we first meet Tafe, she is in charge: much more strong-willed and competent than our hero, Hocker. But as the book progresses and Hocker takes the fore, Tafe recedes. I was disappointed by this perceived weakening of the character. I understand why it happened, and I understand why it might even have been necessary. But I would have preferred it if Tafe continued to have the strength of character and personality that she had initially.

On the whole, I am inordinately pleased that Angry Robot has reprinted Morlock Night. I especially enjoyed Tim Powers’ introduction and the afterward by Adam Roberts’. For fans of genre history, I recommend reading both essays as they provide valuable perspective on the significance of Jeter’s book. As for the book itself, I consider Morlock Night a must-read for any fan of steampunk. Three decades after its initial publication, it continues to be an excellent, enjoyable, fast-paced story. Fans of Cherie Priest, George Mann, and Gail Carriger will find much to love.

Awesome list of Genre Review Blogs


Courtesy of Grasping for the Wind, I’ve just posted an awesome (and huge) list of science fiction and fantasy review blogs. You can find the full list here.

Why bother with science fiction, fantasy, or horror?


Article first published as Why Bother with Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror? on Blogcritics.

“That stuff’s for kids.”

“Elves and trolls and aliens are silly.”

“None of it’s real, anyway.”

“It’s all escapism.”

“Those are boy books.”

Many people wouldn’t be caught dead holding onto The Hobbit, or Stranger in a Strange Land, or The Haunting of Hill House. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. Not everyone is going to enjoy SF, some people won’t get a kick out of fantasy, and others may shudder at the very thought of horror. That’s a question of taste, and really who am I to argue with individual’s tastes? But saying that a particular genre isn’t to your taste is very different from blithely discounting the entire oeuvre. The latter is like a toddler insisting that they don’t like a dish they’ve never tasted before.

Many grown-ups wave genre fiction away by saying that it’s for kids. I get it: it’s an easy argument, really. Society’s perception already pigeon-holes it, so playing to that misconception is an easy out. And history – genre’s roots in the pulps, the Victorian fairy tales for children, etc. – all lend it credence. But on closer examination, this argument falls apart on several levels:

On the one hand, it is factually inaccurate. No one can seriously argue that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War are books for children. Thoughtful kids might get some enjoyment out of the adventure, but the themes these books wrestle with are definitely of concern to adults. This applies across the genres, where at least since the 1950′s the majority has been written with an adult audience in mind.

On the other hand, this argument forgets that kids are much more discerning readers than adults. Consider how easily kids see through weak plots, how quickly they stop caring about milquetoast characters, how they lose interest when the pace sags. When was the last time you saw a ten-year old enjoy a Saul Bellow book? If the purpose of literature is to entertain, and to broaden our understanding of the human condition, then I think we’d be hard-pressed to find books that execute better than middle-grade and YA fiction. Consider Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, or J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. They’ve sure got some fantastical elements to them (teleportation to alien planets, talking animals, and Never Never Land respectively), don’t they? But they employ fantasy as entertainment and to highlight themes that speak to our hearts. Kids books – and all genre books, whether targeted to kids or not – use fantastical elements as tools to highlight their themes. Bear in mind that kids see right through pretension, and have no patience for it.

One can argue that elves and ray-guns and monsters are silly, unrealistic, and as a result offer no value. They might be entertaining, but who cares about entertainment? All of us, I’d wager. We read books, watch TV, listen to music to be entertained. Sure, we also want to have our horizons broadened but first and foremost we want to be distracted from the concerns of daily life. One can sneer at such escapism, but escapism relaxes us and makes us more productive. How is that a bad thing?

I’ve seen folks denounce genre fiction to a room full of fans as “mindless entertainment” – strangely enough, I’ve never seen anyone say the same about watching football at a sports bar. Entertainment in and of itself has value, and genre fiction simply employs a bigger toolkit than “mainstream” fiction. Using monsters to provide a concrete visualization of humanity’s dark side is a time-honored storytelling tradition that dates back to the first fireside ghost stories. If we reject genre for employing such tools, then so too must we reject classic myths, legends, and folk tales.

Sure, it’s not real. And there are plenty of people out there who don’t like fiction. Fine: if you only like reading non-fiction, more power to you. But if we accept that fiction of any kind has inherent value, then so too must all flavors of fiction. Why would realistic fiction have value and fantastic fiction not? Do George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells have nothing to add to our understanding of humanity? All three wrote plenty of realistic fiction as well as speculative fiction. What are they remembered for?

The last argument I find most pernicious, since it continues to consistently crop up in circles where it shouldn’t. Just several days ago, Ginia Bellafante published a review of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ in the New York Times. Putting aside her comments on the actual show, she patronizingly fobbed off George R.R. Martin’s bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series (and all of fantasy) as “boy fiction”. I guess twelve year old boys have much greater buying power than I thought. After all, the latest installment (A Feast for Crows) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Such misogynistic disdain for genre fiction is equivalent to saying that only women enjoy romantic comedies. I’m a red-blooded, steak-eating, bacon-enjoying American male, and like many others I enjoy a good rom com with the best of ‘em!

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror is enjoyed by people of all ages, all genders, all religions, all backgrounds. Yes, it is entertaining. But like Whitman, it contains multitudes. There’s something for everyone’s tastes on the genre shelves: Looking for Jane Austen-esque comedy of manners? Check out Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, or Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. Looking for beautiful magical realism? Check out Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths or Italo Calvino. In the mood for fast-paced quasi-corporate thrillers? Take a look at William Gibson’s cyberpunk (Neuromancer, Idoru). Want some light-hearted parody? Pick up some Terry Pratchett (any of the Discworld novels) or Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Want blistering social satire? Pick up James Morrow’s City of Truth or Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird. Want political intrigue? Pick up George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In the mood for some thoughtful, soul-searching philosophical musings? Read some Samuel Delany, or Ursula K. Le Guin.

The science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres do as much as the mainstream literary genre. Yes, mainstream literary is a genre. In many ways, its reliance realism as a storytelling tool is one of its defining characteristics. Mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction have the same job: to entertain and to elucidate. Rejecting the fantastical genres just because they have a greater variety of screwdrivers and hammers in their narrative toolbox is silly.

Would you do the same when hiring a plumber?

REVIEW: Mockingbird by Walter Tevis


Mockingbird by Walter Tevis Title: Mockingbird
Author: Walter Tevis
Pub Date: 1980 (original)
June 2007 (reprint)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Dystopia that can make you cry.

With Tor.com celebrating “dystopia week” not too long ago, I decided to read Mockingbird by Walter Tevis. Reprinted about four years ago in Gollancz’s fantastic SF Masterworks line, it had been sitting on one of my “to read” shelves for quite a while before I threw it into my travel bag for a business trip. I wasn’t reading it with an intent to review it: all I knew about the book was that it was supposed to be a classic dystopia that I’d never read. But the book had such an impact on me that I felt like I just had to share some of it with you.

The book opens with Bob Spofforth, a “Make Nine” android, enacting a private annual ritual: he tries to throw himself off of the top of the Empire State Building. But his programming prevents him from doing so. The narrative description in the the first chapter paints an utterly believable image of 25th century Manhattan: buildings still stand, buses still run (sort of). The city remains recognizably New York, but humanity has faded and turned inward. Skyscrapers line the streets like Mastodon bones bleached in the sun, and it is through the clinical, analytical description seen over the shoulder of Bob Spofforth that we get the sense of mankind receded, silent, and sad.

Through Spofforth, we learn that some time ago humanity came to believe in a principle of supreme privacy: that so much as talking to another person or looking them in the eye can impinge upon that privacy. Like soma in Huxley’s Brave New World, Tevis’ humans rely on drugs to help manage their moods and adjust their daily lifecycle. With machines to do everything for them, with indoctrinated cultural rules about privacy in force, humanity is rudderless, with no purpose, direction, or even concept of such. The robots are there to do it all for them. And since no humans remain who can repair the robots, the machinery that keeps society treading water is slowly breaking down.

Spofforth is a suicidal tyrant more human than many of the actual people we meet in the book. He knows that the species homo sapiens is dying out, with negative population growth. Into Spofforth’s Manhattan comes Paul Bentley. At first blush, the reader expects Paul to be a Promethean figure, having discovered a version of the Rosetta Stone (a film through which he could match words to a reading primer) and taught himself to read. Paul offers to teach others how to read, but instead Spofforth assigns him to do audio-recordings of the title cards in ancient silent films.

Paul is fundamentally a flawed hero. Despite his one act of initiative, he remains a product of his society: unwilling and unable to transcend the limits imposed by his value system. He does as instructed, despite niggling hints of rebellion in the back of his mind. Then, he meets Mary Lou: a dyed-in-the-wool rebel living in the city zoo who refuses to live by society’s neat rules. He introduces her to reading, and together the two of them re-discover the written word. It is this section of the book – perhaps the book’s first half – that reduced me to tears. Watching Paul and Mary Lou learn to read taps into everything wonderful about books, language, love, beauty, and what makes us human. Using the simple, limited vocabulary of a functional illiterate Tevis subtly broadens his characters’ horizons with masterful subtlety. Tevis suggests that our desire and ability to read are at the core of what makes us human, and that the moment we lose touch with the written word we risk fading into meaningless despondency.

The second half of the book remains solid, but I didn’t find it as emotionally powerful as the first. Shortly after Spofforth discovers Paul and Mary Lou’s exploration of reading, he has Paul arrested and sent to prison. In prison, Paul must develop the independence of spirit to break free and return to New York and Mary Lou. It would not be fair to say that the second half of the book is weak: it is not, and the final climax that resolves the fates of our three heroes (Paul, Mary Lou, and Spofforth) is particularly poignant. But despite the quality of the second half, it is the first which remains heart-wrenchingly perfect.

As I mentioned last week, I disagree with Jo Walton’s argument that dystopia isn’t science fiction. But Tevis’ Mockingbird does offer her POV some evidence. Looking at his career in total, it’s a bit of a stretch to call Walter Tevis a science fiction writer. Of his six novels, only two (Mockingbird and The Man Who Fell to Earth) can be called science fictional. The others (of which The Hustler and The Color of Money are probably the best known) are all mainstream literary works, several of which have been adapted into excellent movies.

However, Mockingbird does employ some of the techniques earlier put to work in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley’s Brave New World. Where Tevis departs from the earlier dystopian mode is to present his dystopia not as the consequence of people-who-know-better controlling the sheep. There is no “grand conspiracy” at work to keep mankind down. In fact, the only character who has the power to enforce such a conspiracy (Bob Spofforth) is as much a prisoner of the dystopia as our human heroes. This adds a dimension to Mockingbird which I find particularly interesting, as it places the blame on creating a dystopian world squarely on its creators: us.

Gollancz has consistently excelled with their SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks series, and the actual physical product of Mockingbird is very well done. It sports an attractive cover by Dominic Harman which really sets the tone for the grim, dark world of 25th century Manhattan. And – much like Tevis’ book – it suggests that hope may be just around the corner.

On the whole, Mockingbird is hands-down the best dystopia I have read in a very long time. It provides an emotional and philosophical gut-punch that is difficult to rival. I think this is a must-read book for anyone who loves books, who loves reading, and who loves language. In the passages where Paul discovers new words and ways of looking at his life we can find all the truths of the world.

A Brief Post on Dystopia


I’m really sorry for the brevity of this post, but I’m traveling in Europe on business this week and my insane and constantly-changing travel schedule has forced me to do a much shorter post today than I normally do. I’ll try and make it up to everyone with another more in-depth post later this week. In the meantime, here’s some brief thoughts on dystopias:

The folks at Tor.com are celebrating a week of dystopia (I detect some irony in this, considering it’s the week when taxes are due in the US). As a result, they’ve got a lot of great bloggers and authors writing about dystopia as sub-genre of SF, or about particular examples of dystopian media. It’s early days yet, but already there have been two really interesting posts that I’d like to call attention to:

The first is an essay by Jo Walton where she asks Where does dystopia fit as a genre? She contends that the “classic” dystopian novels like Brave New World, We, 1984, etc. are not really science fiction. She readily admits that they have science fictional elements, but in both the essay and comment thread she makes the case that Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin were not writing science fiction because they weren’t readers of science fiction, the majority of their other (non-dystopian) writing was outside the realm of science fiction, they weren’t writing in their contemporary science fiction tradition, and they were relying on techniques more commonly found in mainstream literary writing than in genre.

She has a valid point that these progenitors of dystopian tradition are clearly different from their contemporary SF peers. In the 1920′s and 1930′s, science fiction (or “scientifiction” as some contemporaries preferred) was primarily confined to the pulp magazines, which were filled with stories by authors like E.E. “Doc” Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, John Wyndham, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft. Primarily under the influence of legendary editors Hugo Gernsback and later John W. Campbell the pulps had a significant focus on technology and predictive extrapolation, and with a predominantly young, male audience they tended towards more commercial adventure than satire.

The dystopias, however, are all first and foremost books of thought. Whatever “adventure” they contain takes a back seat to their themes. In that sense, it is perfectly fair to say that the early dystopians diverged from contemporary SF tradition. But does the fact that they diverge mean that they’re not SF? Or that they should be lumped with their “mainstream” contemporaries like Sinclair Lewis? I don’t think so. I think the early dystopias enriched science fiction by showing that technological extrapolation and world-building can be applied to philosophical and sociological themes. Fun as the pulps might be, most 1920′s and 1930′s SF wasn’t particularly meaningful.

I don’t believe one needs to read science fiction in order to write it. Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin all wrote amazing works of science fiction, set on certain technological precepts and then extrapolated them to their logical conclusions. That act is what makes their work science fiction. So what if there isn’t a single raygun or spaceship in any of the books? That fact shouldn’t matter. So what if they never wrote another piece of science fiction? That in no way diminishes the science fictional work that they did.

Okay, that’s enough of a rant out of me for now. I promised this would be a short post, and so I’m not going to go on at length on this. I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts though: are those dystopias science fiction? What about contemporary dystopias like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, or Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl? Walton seems to suggest that dystopia is more of a mainstream tradition than a genre one, but is that the case?

The second essay that I’d like to draw your attention to is one that’s a lot more fun: are you aware that the Jetsons is a dystopian cartoon? I certainly wasn’t, until I read this fun essay from Clay and Susan Griffith. What I found really interesting is how they argue that the 1980′s saw a significant shift in the United States’ perception of the future: from the up-beat mechanistic futurism of the 1960′s, to the down-trodden perils of technology in the ’80s.

This struck a particular chord with me because the day I read this essay, I had just finished reading Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird, a Nebula-nominated dystopian novel first published in 1980. The book is amazing, simply amazing: I might put up a more complete review of it later this week if I can find some free time. But it perfectly captures that transitional moment from Jetsonian push-buttan robotics to the bleak, soulless dehumanization that came to dominate in the ’80s (especially in movies like Blade Runner, The Terminator, 2001, etc.).

Since I’ve got to dash to another meeting, let me leave you with a question: what do you think about the 1980′s changing perception of the future? Was the perception changing? Has it changed since?

Some Ruminations on “Geek Culture” in Response to Chris Braak’s Post


Over on io9, Chris Braak put up a thought-provoking rant where he seems to compare the culture of genre fandom (including fan fiction, cosplay, conventions, etc.) with mainstream literary culture, and the culture of broader mainstream (read: non-genre) America.

There’s a lot of hyperbole in the post, but he seems to make two key points – each of which I have to disagree with.

When Chris can’t find examples of Shakespeare cosplay or fanfic, he concludes that Shakespeare, Melville, Proust, Faulkner, Tom Wolfe, etc. are all dead and contribute nothing to our cultural growth. As a consequence, he claims that Geek Culture is the “ONLY legitimate form of American culture” (the caps are his). I suspect that part of this is hyperbole for rhetorical effect, but I see a basic problem in the logic: it conflates community behavior with culture itself, and that’s simply incorrect.

Kayan Woman with Neck Rings

Kayan Woman with Neck Rings, via Wikipedia

Consider the Kayan Lahwi, a people indigenous to Burma. The Kayan women are famous for wearing brass neck rings which over time reshape there clavicles and compress their rib cages, giving them the appearance of elongated necks. Most people in the United States don’t wear neck rings. Does that mean that US-residents don’t have culture? Or that the Kayans don’t?

Of course not. All it means is that each of these two communities expresses its culture in different ways. Fashion, visual arts, writing, dance, and behavior in group encounters are all expressions of culture. In “Geek Culture” we may dress as super-heroes or anime characters, but is that in any way “more cultured” than a Maasai tribal dance?

Cosplay, fan fiction, conventions, etc. are all ways for us to identify ourselves as part of a community with whom we share common interests, perhaps values, etc. We participate in that community to have fun. Other communities have different ways of doing the exact same thing. That does not mean that genre fandom’s methods of expression are “more legitimate” than those of Melville fans. The fact that Melville fans don’t grow massive beards, or Shakespeare readers don’t wear ruffs, or Van Gogh lovers don’t slice off their ears tells us absolutely nothing about the cultural value or currency of these artists. The only conclusion we can draw is that the Melville/Shakespeare/Van Gogh communities express themselves differently than genre fandom. And the closest thing to a credo I’ve found in genre fandom is that different does not necessarily mean bad.

As individuals, and as a society, we are vast and contain multitudes. I don’t need to wear a ruff to be influenced by Shakespeare in my own writing. I don’t need to slice off my ear to paint a beautiful painting (although, considering my utter lack of painting skills it probably couldn’t hurt). Shakespeare and Melville aren’t “dead” because their influence continues to percolate through every contemporary creative endeavor. Why do we still read Shakespeare? Because they tell us to in school? That’s a major over-simplification. Shakespeare still provides us with new and interesting insight into ourselves and our society. We don’t need to write Shakespearean fanfic to benefit from that. Genre creators who haven’t been influenced by past masters are thin on the ground. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, after all.

Chris goes on to say that contemporary genre works will stand the test of time better than contemporary mainstream literary works (which are also a genre, BTW). None of us has a (functional) crystal ball, and so that prediction may even be correct. In all honesty, I actually agree with that prediction. But that’s because I believe that a greater proportion of SF/F/H works have relevant things to say about the human condition. That’s a result of the quality of the creative products: it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the community behavior of its creators.

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