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Some thoughts on modern-day literature

There will come a time
This life you live
Will catch up with you
And no one will be left
When honesty is blind
In ignorance exist the fallen.
We’re begging for the truth

I just returned from a trip to Chicago to visit dayo. The flight's a little over two hours, plus ancillary waiting-about at the airport after passing through the absurd farce we laughingly call "security," so I brought a book along with me.

I had quite a lot to choose from. I've recently received rather a large pile of books from Amazon, as a result of the not inconsiderable credit I'd built up with them over the past year.

The book I chose is one of the best pieces of literature I've read in a very long time. It follows, in a non-linear fashion, the story of a man--a soldier, and a veteran of several wars--who is running from something in his past. The narrative peels back the story of his life, through flashbacks and memories told so deftly that they make Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury seem positively clumsy and hamfisted by comparison; the main character is illuminated in stages, bit by bit, with a sympathy and a narrative skill that makes every part of the book a delight to read.

The book is Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks, and there's a reason it has not won a Pulitzer Prize. At the very least.

It's not a very good reason, mind. But there is a reason, and that reason is quite simple: The story is science fiction.

Had it been set in any other genre, in any other setting, the book would be taught in college literature classes all over the country. Oprah would be discussing it on TV, and comparative lit classes would probably be putting the story alongside Tales of the South Pacific and March.

Had it been set in any other genre.

Night comes and the shadows fall
The lights appear
Across the city
I wonder where you are
The words you say are false
There is no compromise
No absolution.

The main character travels in a spaceship instead of a steamship; the battles in which he engages take place on distant planets, not distant continents. Because of that, the story is relatively unknown. And frankly, I think that's a damn shame. It's rare that so dark a journey into a character's mind can be pulled off with such a light touch, and the author's treatment of the main character is simultaneously sympathetic and unflinching--a neat trick, considering the book's subject and the character's history.

I think it's interesting that even in this day and age we still make broad assumptions about classes of literary works. "This is Serious Literature; that over there is Science Fiction. Serious Literature is real literature; Science Fiction is mindless fluff for overgrown geeks who still play Dungeons & Dragons in their mothers' basements.

It's quite rare that a contemporary book can bridge the divide. William Gibson's Neuromancer is one of the relatively few works of science fiction to be treated as Serious Literature; older works, like those of Jules Verne, occasionally get a nodding respect out of deference to their age, though rarely the respect they deserve. Spaceships and planets, it seems, aren't thought of as appropriate settings for serious explorations of the human condition.

Which is odd, given that science fiction is arguably the most forward-looking exploration of a species that has over the past hundred thousand years carved its place in the universe by virtue of its ceaseless forward progression in its understanding of the physical universe.

To some extent, I suppose, it's inevitable--much of science fiction tends to obsess over the nuts and bolts of technological ideas that don't exist yet. Popular science fiction gives us the sterile banality of Star Trek, or the facile, juvenile universe of Star Wars, without depth or any apparent understanding of what it means to be human.

But pop literature of any sort can be argued to have that same flaw. It's not like The Da Vinci Code exactly shines a spotlight on the nature of man, or The Bourne Identity plumbs the furthest recesses of the human spirit. Yet nobody would automatically place these works into a mental bin marked "Serious Literature Not Found Here."

And that's rather annoying, y'know?

Anyway, it's a damn fine book, and one I recommend without reservation. Even to folks who think they prefer Serious Literature to Science Fiction.


( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 30th, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
You know, I have to disagree with you about Trek. One of the reasons Spock became the most popular character in TOS was because of the ongoing & ever developing story of the conflict between his human & Vulcan halves and what that said about humans. Plus episodes going back to the beginning with "Where No Man Has Gone Before" dealt entirely with "what does it MEAN to be human?"
I could go on & on about the subject.

As for Wars (the original trilogy not the idiotic new one), it is, as Campbell noted, the quintessential hero's journey story but doesn't delve deeply beyond the baseline of that premise.
Oct. 30th, 2008 07:34 pm (UTC)
Oh, I could go on for days about it, too.

Star Trek tries hard to explore the human condition. It really, really does. It fails, owever, because it considers its own characters sancrosect, and is unwilling to take risks.

You'll never find that McCoy has a dark secret buried in his mind, a memory of something terrible evil he did. You will never see Captain Kirk placed in a position where he must make a moral choice of profound consequences, where every option is cloaked in shades of gray and people will die no matter what he chooses.

Even the "duality" in Spock is written crudely in crayon. Humans are emotional, Vulcans are not emotional. OK, OK, we get it! Humans are emotional, Vulcans are not emotional. Fine, as far as it goes. Now, how about exploring the depths of those emotions? How about illuminating something about the way in which those emotions influence our choices, for good and for ill?

But no.

We get clean, antiseptic starships and clean, antiseptic characters, with no hint of moral decay. We get problems couched in the simplest of moral terms, unframed by ambiguity. We get problems that are solved in tidy 49-minute chunks by cross-reversing the neutron polarity generator with the tachyon field emitter. And above all, we get a show terrified of questioning its own premises and just as terrified of exploring anything that might be the least bit uncomfortable.

The show could have been so much more. Even the short-lived Firefly explored more of the human condition in its abortive one-season run than Star Trek has in decades.
(no subject) - james_the_evil1 - Oct. 30th, 2008 07:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ab3nd - Oct. 31st, 2008 02:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylvar - Oct. 30th, 2008 07:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Oct. 30th, 2008 08:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - james_the_evil1 - Oct. 30th, 2008 08:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - james_the_evil1 - Oct. 30th, 2008 08:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tyroticon - Oct. 30th, 2008 07:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pstscrpt - Oct. 30th, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 30th, 2008 07:22 pm (UTC)
I constantly suggest Banks to my transhumanist friends. He explores concepts of transhumanism, post-scarcity society and just indistinguishable from magic technology in a variety of contexts. I just reread Look to Windward recently after finishing Matter and wanting to reread all of the Culture books but not actually finding them all.

I find it ridiculous that speculative fiction like this is often dismissed. Oddly you'll get authors such as Kurt Vonnegut who are both science fiction and considered literature, but it seems that this is only the case because of other literary techniques used, not the subject matter itself.
Oct. 30th, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the recommendation, I've been looking for a few books to read on my next break from school-related reading.

It really does dishearten me, the extent to which any 'genre' literature is disregarded. A lot of it is *trash* (and trust me, I've read plenty), but there are gems. Gibson's books are definitely on the list (though not all of them), as are a few of Neal Stephenson's works.

The real shame, though, is that it takes so much effort just to convince someone to *try* reading a good sci-fi book. I've been trying to get the GF to read Neuromancer for 5 years, and she's a modern lit major.

Out of curiosity, what's your take on the new Battlestar Galactica, if you've seen it?
Oct. 31st, 2008 02:21 pm (UTC)
I've seen the new BSG and I really quite like it; it's one of the best things on TV these days. I'm kind of surprised and impressed that something so interesting came out of the cheesy rubbish of the 70's show, but they got the tone of the new show exactly right; there's no realistic way to make a series about the genocide of the human race without it being dark.
Oct. 30th, 2008 10:39 pm (UTC)
sci fi
was a treky way back, when young, find some of the best writing is sci fi, Arthur Clark is one of the greatest.
Oct. 30th, 2008 11:17 pm (UTC)
If you've read it, would this book read similarly to Pohl's Gateway?
Oct. 31st, 2008 02:34 pm (UTC)
I haven't read Gateway, though from reading the plot summary, it seems that the stories are very different.

Use of Weapons is set in The Culture, a huge and extremely technologically sophisticated, post-human, post-scarcity society where strong AI, effortless nanoscale assembly, and faster-than-light travel exist. The society is loosely organized and largely anarchistic, largely overseen by AIs that are thousands of times smarter than humans, and introverted to a great extent. Most humans in the Culture live on artificial Orbitals (think "ringworlds" on a larger scale) or on General Systems Vehicles, spaceships with populations in the tens or hundreds of millions.

Most of the Culture is, in fact, pretty boring. No disease, very low rate of accident, no scarcity of anything, no aging, no death. The place where it gets interesting is when the Culture, which is arguably the most technologically advanced civilization in the galaxy, encounters other societies.

Within the Culture is a group called Contact, whose job is to act as the interface between Culture and non-Culture societies. Within Contact is a very small group called Special Circumstances, which is the espionage, subterfuge, and dirty-tricks department. They steer other societies, particularly societies with pre-FTL-travel and pre-AI capabilities, in directions that make them (in theory) better neighbors.

The main character in Use of Weapons is not a member of the Culture, but he works on behalf of Special Circumstances, primarily by involving himself in brushfire wars along the Culture's edge to influence the outcomes of those wars in directions the Culture finds desirable. The Culture as a whole hates war, but is exceedingly good at it.

The story in Use of Weapons is told nonlinearly, in a fashion that's somewhat reminiscent of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (in the sense that past events are revisited in the mind of the main character and revealed to the reader bit by bit). The main character has a special affinity for war and for battlefield tactics that makes him quite useful to Special Circumstances; he is aggressive, smart, brutal, occasionally sadistic, and yet his story is still told sympathetically, even when he is involved in acts of atrocity.
(no subject) - peristaltor - Nov. 1st, 2008 01:25 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 31st, 2008 12:11 am (UTC)
Woot, Iain Banks love! That is all. :)

(Actually, Excession is my favourite of the sci-fi 'Iain M. Banks' stuff, but The Crow Road rocks out of his non-M/non-scifi books.)
Oct. 31st, 2008 02:36 pm (UTC)
I just read Excession before Use of Weapons, and I liked it quite a lot, though I think Use of Weapons rises to the bar of Serious Literature in a way that Excession does not. The complexity of the storytelling model, the depth and moral ambiguity of the main character, and the revelations about the main character's past all put it in its own category, I think.
Oct. 31st, 2008 02:08 am (UTC)
Next time I find myself in a bookstore, I'll keep an eye out. Or I'll just put it on my PaperbackSwap wish list; someone's bound to post it eventually, if they haven't already.
Not that I don't already have a crate of books sitting next to me that I have yet to read...
Oct. 31st, 2008 08:55 am (UTC)
Pretty much everything Iain M Banks has written is really worth reading (well, Inversions didn't work well for me). He's particularly good at writing AIs that are much more intelligent than humans (and have wicked senses of humor to match - the names that his warships choose for themselves are worth a read in their own right).

Note that he alternates writing fiction and science fiction novels - when he's writing fiction, it's under the name "Iain Banks" (no M). His favorite work to date is "The Bridge" (as Iain Banks).

Oct. 31st, 2008 02:37 pm (UTC)
I haven't read any Iain Banks stuff. I've heard The Wasp Factory is worth a read, and it's on my list of "eventually I'll get this" books.
(no subject) - ab3nd - Oct. 31st, 2008 02:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 31st, 2008 02:36 pm (UTC)
If you haven't read any of Bank's other Culture novels, I recommend "Excession" highly. "Look to Windward" is also good, but towards the end SC does something that seems pointlessly (in the sense of "this does not add to the plot or my understanding of the characters") horrific.

That's actually one of my ex's biggest complaints about Banks. There are times that awful things happen, and they advance the plot. An example would be a drone's revelation of some of the excesses and failings of the Empire of Azad in "The Player of Games". That's fine. There are other times that awful things seem to happen just because Banks seems to enjoy describing them, in unflinchingly graphic detail. That gets to be tiresome.

I personally don't have that huge a problem with it, but it put my ex off enough that he stopped reading Banks.

Oct. 31st, 2008 02:44 pm (UTC)
I've read Excession, Look to Windward, The Player of Games, Consider Phlebas, and Use of Weapons, and enjoyed them all, though I do definitely think that Use of Weapons stands apart from the rest of the Culture novels both in its literary ambition and in its achievements.

I don't find the horrifying elements of the Culture books off-putting; in fact, I think they're deliberate, and act as a sort of contrast to the Utopian elements of the Culture itself. Banks has developed an idyllic society that looks a great deal like Utopia, and has developed a distaste for anything related to conflict, but nevertheless still is very good indeed at war--and is capable of atrocity. Seems to me that's kind of the point, in fact. The Utopia survives largely because the people in Special Circumstances are willing to do what the vast bulk of the Culture's members are not.

I also think that even the members of SC are aware of the moral dimension of the things they do. In Excession, we see that many of the Culture's warship Minds have a certain degree of self-loathing, the result of the contradiction between the Culture's ideals and the acts in which they engage.
(no subject) - ab3nd - Oct. 31st, 2008 03:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Nov. 3rd, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 1st, 2008 09:02 am (UTC)
I was really surprised to read that SF is not considered "serious literature". Come on, Ray Bradbury is not considered serious literature? By whom?

I suspect it's a Western thing. Maybe it was just how I was raised; but my impression is that Russian readers in general always took SF seriously, and still do. I think it might be related to the fact that in times of the USSR, SF was pretty much the only way you could write serious things about society and government and people and still get published ("Hey, that's not a critique of our regiment, it's on whole 'nother planet, see?!").

My first exposure to serious philosophy was SF. And it is not surprising -- this is the genre where you can play with your own universe and experiment with different ethical and social systems, ask the "what if?" questions and come up with answers that are highly relevant to here and now. But I kinda thought this was obvious. I mean, I met people who thought SF was all about fighting with lasers and stuff, but I'm surprised to learn that it is the general attitude.

Actually, now I checked around the web -- Stanislaw Lem, the first name that comes to (my) mind with the words "serious SF" -- had many awards; among them, he was nominated for the International Booker prize in 2005. So maybe it's not as general as you think?

- Ola
Nov. 3rd, 2008 08:49 pm (UTC)
I almost wonder if part of the reason is cultural, and ties into America's culture of anti-intellectualism. A great deal of science fiction seems to deal with topics that we don't much like. Perhaps it isn't generalized, and is instead another manifestation of our own peculiar cultural distaste for science in general.
(no subject) - ladyj_kat - Nov. 4th, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 3rd, 2008 02:46 am (UTC)
another iain m banks book you should give a go is feersum endjinn. its not a culture book but its still very good. its possibly the one that stands out the most for me from the rest of his sci fi. But nonetheless, Use Of Weapons is amazing. One of the things i love about it is the poem/prologue at the start of the book, that just seems tossed in as afterthought but is actually astonishingly beautiful...or that could just be me.
Nov. 3rd, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC)
That's another of those books I've heard good things about, but haven't yet put on my list of Stuff To Read. I've heard enough recommendations for it that I think I'll put it on the pile.
Jun. 14th, 2014 08:42 am (UTC)
I'll be looking up this book.
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )