Friday, May 27, 2016

Currently Reading (8)

A ship crewed by a disparate crew of humans and aliens bags a prize job: tunneling a wormhole to the titular small, angry planet that's the gateway to the core of the galaxy and rich amounts of the unobtanium prized by interstellar civilisations. There's just one problem: the core is barricaded by an ongoing war between clans of a particularly bad-tempered alien species, and despite a brand-new treaty the clan which controls the gateway may not be entirely trustworthy.

So far, it's the stuff of a hundred standard space operas. But Becky Chambers is part of a new cohort of authors who are repurposing the tropes of science fiction and fantasy to explore diversity and identity, and ways of accommodating and accepting difference. Some of the tropes she deploys are a bit too hoary to be redeemed by any amount of irony, but she has a good line in snappy dialogue, the members of the starship crew are nicely drawn and pleasingly variegated, and there's deep back history to her universe and a rich variety of aliens and alien worlds.

Don't expect a conventional plot: the problem of the angry planet and its horde of angry aliens is hectically and quickly dispatched towards the end of the novel. The point of the story is the getting there, and what the crew discover about themselves along the way. 'You're trying to learn how to be good,' one of them tells the latest recruit, a young woman from Mars with an Awful Secret, and one by one the various problems of the various crew members and their back stories are resolved through kindness, understanding and, yes, goodness. Most of the resolutions are friction-free, and one turns on a fantastic coincidence -- the cost, difficulty and sacrifice of caring for others isn't much emphasised here. But it's done with wit and care, and while some may find it a bit too saccharine, it's a refreshing difference from the adolescent attitudes and kick-ass heroism of rather too much contemporary science fiction. This turns out to be the first of a trilogy about these wayfarers. A little more grit next time, perhaps?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

There Are Doors (24)

Monday, May 23, 2016

On Beauty

Photo © Yutaka Kagaya

What do we mean, when we say that prose is 'beautiful'? When we say that 'beautiful prose' is one of the defining characteristics of literary fiction?

Actually, I dunno. It isn't just that 'beautiful' is dependent on cultural context, or that's it's one of those words devalued by overuse, most often by estate agents. See also 'stunning', 'spacious', 'superb', so on. It's also a descriptor that's both too precise and too inadequate for the kind of prose that rises above the mundane.

We know what bad prose is, because it's mostly, as Toby Litt points out, boring. And we more or less know what genre default prose is, too. (In science fiction, the default used to be Isaac Asimov; now it's Internet Snark.) But what kind of prose is better than default? What kind of prose is, if not beautiful, then truly great?

It isn't the kind of transparent prose that some insist is the sine qua non. The kind of prose that doesn't get in the way of the reader's experience. The kind of prose that doesn't snag her attention. The kind of so-called transparent or windowpane prose that George Orwell didn't actually write about in that essay which wasn't, in any case, about the literary use of language. In any case, how can prose pretend that it doesn't get in the way of the story when it is part of that story?

Great prose is much more than not being bad, or simply utilitarian, or merely competent. It's more than being lyrical, or poetic, or moving, although it can be all of those things. It can be precise and thrilling. It can lure you into its mazes and won't let you go. It can be witty and profound, can work on several registers at once, but it can also be stupidly banal when only stupid banality will do. It's the distinctive voice of the author, or the character, or the voices of both twined in dialogue. Most of all, maybe, as Toby Litt points out, it takes risks. It's a high-wire act. It isn't afraid of failure. It doesn't aim to please. It isn't fan-friendly. It doesn't want to be likeable or relevant. It'll be your friend and bake you a cake and take out the garbage, and it'll seduce your partner and steal your children. It laughs in the face of the grammar police and the impotent artillery of amazon reviews. It hides in your stairway and hangs in your curtain and sleeps in your hat. You know what I mean.
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