Thursday, January 12, 2012

You Know, I Learned Something Today

One of the disadvantages of reading a lot, over a period of years, is that I become a bit harder to impress. Not impossible to impress: I still find a good many books that delight me, and I never forget how ordinary the vast majority of published writing is.

There's a famous principle, Sturgeon's Law, named after the science-fiction writer who, when told that ninety percent of science fiction is crap, retorted, "Ninety percent of everything is crap!" It's a snappy comeback, but in fact, ninety percent of everything is just ordinary, run-of-the-mill, average, mediocre. There's no reason why it shouldn't be; the really important thing is that you never know in advance where the extraordinary, head and shoulders above the rest, above-average, brilliant work will come from. And one of the wonderful things, to my mind, about writing is that you don't need special training to do it well, nor do you need to come from a long line of writers. All you need is access to books that other people have written, followed by the conviction that you want to do it too; and after that, five hundred pounds a year and a room of your own.

It seems to me, however, that the level of mediocrity in science fiction and fantasy has risen in the past fifty years. By that I mean that even today's ordinary writers write better than ordinary writers did in the Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s. It's partially a result of rising standards among editors and writers alike, plus writing workshops and classes, and perhaps just that a lot more people are writing. What can't be taught, though, is originality -- let alone brilliance.

But readers change too. I didn't know, when I began reading science fiction about fifty years ago, that many of the stories I encountered were reworkings of themes that were already old: the first time I encountered them, I thought they were new. Partly because of the relatively limited amount of sf available to me, I read older work, including Golden Age SF from before I was born, and some of the first critical and historical work on the genre was also being done in the 1960s. So I began to get a sense of where SF had been before I started to read it.

Nor is it a bad thing to take another crack at an idea or theme that's been done before. SF has a number of basic ideas, and I think it was the Noble Engineer Heinlein who argued in the 50s that there are only three or four basic plots. In SF, writers often tried to write the definitive Time Travel Paradox story, for example. When Isaac Asimov began writing robot stories, he was aware of what other writers had done, and tried to put his own spin on the subject. The idea of extraterrestrials coming to earth to bring us the benefits of their millions of years of civilization was also old hat when I first read Edgar Pangborn's 1953 story "Angel's Egg," though I didn't know how old hat it was at the time.

As I got older, though, I began to notice recurring themes and cliches. I liked William Gibson's Neuromancer, for example, but I soon recognized it as refurbished noir, like a lot of SF: just put your hardboiled private investigator on another planet or in another galaxy, give him a blaster and a space suit instead of a .38 and a fedora, let the femme fatale be a Catwoman, and voila. (SF readers had been complaining about that syndrome for decades before Gibson updated it a bit.) I also recognized that, contrary to what a lot of people were saying, Gibson wasn't writing "hard" SF, the kind that's based in some scientific knowledge and extrapolation: Gibson knew nothing about computers when he began writing his cyberpunk stories. That didn't make them less fun to read: they were very well written and imagined. But they were no more 'about' computers or technology than a Philip Marlowe story: they were about male anxiety.

All this is just prologue to some comment on a new anthology I just finished reading, Human for a Day, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Jennifer Brozek, published a couple of months ago by DAW Books. It's an "original" anthology, in that none of the stories has been published before. I presume they were solicited to deal with the overall theme, that of non-humans who become human for a day. (Unlike many such anthologies, there's no introductory material at all, just writer bios at the very end.) That leaves a lot of wiggle room.

I'm not sure what I was expecting or hoping for, but I was let down. Of the writers I'd only heard of Tanith Lee before, but according to the bios they're all well-established and some have won Hugo and other genre awards. The trouble as I see it is that almost none of them have anything to say about the unifying theme. The stories are mostly ideas rather than stories, which set out their situations and characters, describe how the protagonist became "human for a day", and then turn him or her back; finis. One or two even feel like the opening chapters of novels, rather than stand-alone stories, which isn't good.

Almost all the stories are fantasy, rather than SF, which isn't bad in itself -- I like and have read a lot of fantasy. Still. If I'd been editor, the third story ("Cinderella City" by Seanan McGuire) would have opened the book. Here the being that becomes human for a day is the city of San Francisco, personified and humanized by an evil sorcerer, and even in human form followed everywhere by rats and pigeons. It's well done, and it entertained me better than the actual openers did. Ian Tregillis's "The Mainspring of His Heart, the Shackles of His Soul" (gratuitous Harlan Ellison allusion there) is set in an alternate universe where Dutch alchemists learned to build metal clockwork slaves with magical souls, and so came to dominate Europe and the Americas; the theme is the slave's desire to be free. The second story, "The Blade of His Plow," by Jay Lake, is about an effectively immortal soldier who'd been present at the crucifixion of Jesus and so must wander the world for thousands of years until he's set free. It's just military fantasy, full of details about soldiers' gear over the centuries. Several stories are built around war or swordplay, with severed limbs and blood geysers for the younger set. Anton Strout's "Tumulus" flaunts its writer's research on Celtic religion and magic. Tanith Lee's contribution, "The Dog-catcher's Song," is a cut above the rest in execution; Lee has been writing for a long time, so it should be. But the story itself didn't do much for me.

I was entertained by Laura Resnick's "Mortal Mix-up," in which a sophisticated New York vampire finds herself the victim of a body switch with a spoiled teenager. The spell is reversed, of course. I was not entertained by "Band of Bronze" by Jean Rabe, in which several statues from Central Park become animate for a day. Narrated by the Mad Hatter, who's accompanied by William Shakespeare and a soldier from a World War I memorial, it tells how the three take on muggers and purse snatchers, culminating in an exchange of automatic weapons fire and grenades with Crips and Bloods. Rabe has Shakespeare ("Bill") quoting his own plays, probably because she can't imitate Elizabethan English herself: she gets it wrong every damn time she tries, though I'll blame a subliterate copyeditor or a spellchecker for the time "Thou" is spelled "Though." ("Though abominable doghearted hedgepig!") The Hatter, for some reason, speaks slangy turn-of-the-21st century American English instead of the 19th-century British English I'd expect. There's a zombie story too.

I should stop to praise David D. Levine's "Into the Nth Dimension," which I hesitate to summarize here because I really don't want to spoil it. It verges delicately on camp without quite crossing over the line, and sweetly confirms what you always suspected about certain comic-book characters. There are a couple of stories in this collection with passing gay content: it's not their central point, just something that happens to be there, and I appreciated that. On the other hand, it's another of the stories which can't conform to the overall subject, but maybe that's the fault of the subject.

Praise be once again to public libraries, the training grounds of socialism. Someone (I can't remember who, but it was online) recommended Human for a Day, and I'm glad I could check it out to read, instead of spending money on it. Maybe I'm just jaded. Maybe to some thirteen-year-old just discovering SF and fantasy, these stories will be small revelations. Don't take my word for it; read it yourself if you want. Some negative reviews absolve me of any obligation to read a book; others make me want to read the book myself, because I can tell that I'll like what the reviewer didn't. I'd like this post to do both, or either, as the reader finds useful.