Anyway, I’m way late, but I’m going to say what I have to say, and then crosspost these to Librarything. At least I’m not panning all of them!
The Book from the Sky by Robert Kelly is one of those books that made me think about genre. It’s become quite common among authors of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror, etc.) to claim that good SF is good literature and vice versa — and on some level, I agree — but the thing is, my experiences tells me that the various subgenres of SF, like poetry, are not like “mainstream” or “literary” fiction.
In some ways, of course, this is a blessing: once something has to exhibit its own literary worthiness, you find a certain tendency toward turgidity, towards what someone I knew online once diagnosed as “a serious case of serious.” But it’s more than that: it’s the fact that in genre writing, if you don’t know the genre or are unfamiliar with it, you’re likely to start writing bad genre.
I think this is more true of some subgenres, and less true of others. Specifically, I think that the barriers to entry into SF are higher than they are into the subgenres of fantasy and horror. Fantasy writers might go up in arms when they hear me say this, but a simple moment of reflection will reveal that fantasy-like and horror-like writing has been around — and widespread — for ages, whilst SF is a much newer development. As well, there are no hard-and-fast rules of magic that need to be followed: an intelligent, imaginative fledgling author may happen to reproduce the same imaginary system of magical rules that some other author created in a book or series years before, but at least nobody can corner her for getting the rules “wrong,” something to which SF authors are constantly subject.
As well, it seems to me that the high focus on the “neat idea” factor in SF — the focus on what Darko Suvin calls “the novum,” meaning whatever is newfangled and different from our present, but, at least in most of the SF I read, also plausible to soem degree — is so much more pronounced than it is in fantasy. In fantasy or horror, you don’t have people saying, “That’s implausible!”, or at least you don’t have them saying that about your fantastical elements; you might have them say, “That’s boring!” but a truly inspired or truly skilled writer can finesse that. It’s much harder to finesse the problem when you’re dealing with an audience that is not only, as mentioned above, likely to call you on it when you get the physics wrong, but also likely to compile a list of novels in which your so-called innovative idea was first tossed into the SF boxing ring.
That’s not to say SF is harder to write than fantasy — I find it much easier than any form of fantasy to write, because of the way my mind works through narratives and so on — but it is to say that when people come at genre from without, they’re probably swinging with a lower handicap in fantasy or horror than they are in SF. It’s still hard for someone to come in from outside and write an outstanding fantasy novel, or an excellent horror novel, but I suspect that in SF, it’s hard for someone to come into the genre from outside of it and write even a passable novel.
Robert Kelley is a poet and a professor at Bard College. I don’t know if he reads SF regularly, much less if he’s up-to-date on the field. HE has published more than fifty books, which means he obviously must be a competent writer. And in fact, there are a number of passages in The Book from the Sky that display his skill as a writer a poet. But if you look at the publisher’s blurb, you might have some idea of why it didn’t work for me:
“I’m on my way back. I was one of the first they took away.” So begins Robert Kelly’s remarkable science fiction novel about a literally divided self. “I” is Billy, the book’s protagonist, a boy who is captured by a group of aliens who take him to a cave and meticulously, if seemingly by caprice, remove his “young pure smokeless lungs” and other internal organs to replace them with two gray squirrels, a live hawk, a shoe, and a variety of other bizarre objects.
This is, it appears, a poet’s idea of interesting biomodification. To me, though, it just rings hollow: it’s a metaphor for something, I guess… or maybe it’s just a list, one of those evocative lists that poets know they can rely on to build up a metaphorical field, a kind of tension and mood. To me, though, it falls flat compared with, oh, something that could actually happen. Not that Kelly seems to intend it to be read literalistically, or scientifically, or, well, in the way we tend to read SF; but rather, that his “aliens” could just as easily have been mythic Native American forest-spirits, or a band of fae come to kidnap him and hold him hostage in the UnSeelie Court. The two gray squirrels, the live hawk, the shoe, and other bizarre objects could as easily have been clockwork mechanisms and discarded music boxes, or fluids of different colors in various little perfume vials.
In other words, the SFnal content in the story — up to where I could read no longer — is wholly arbitrary and wholly interchangeable with any other fantastical content. The blurb goes on:
Billy’s body and mind are spun off into a curious twin, one whose adventures Billy is forced by his captors to watch and try to make sense of—not a simple task when he sees his doppelgänger stealing everything from him: body, name, family, his beloved Eileen. Complicating matters, and forcing Billy deeper into his ironic journey of self, is a mysterious pamphlet called “The Book from the Sky,” written by what may be yet another variation of Billy himself, Brother William. This stunningly imaginative work, echoing the late novels of Iris Murdoch and the fantasies of Robert Charles Wilson and Jonathan Stroud while remaining inimitably Kelly’s own, offers adventurous readers a “cabinet of wonders” not unlike the body of his beleaguered young hero.
What you really end up with, then, is the use of SF as a kind of mouthpiece for issues of literary obsession concern: a divided self, alien abduction, the act of writing itself in the form of the excerpts for which the book is named.
The problem, to me, might be that I am an SF reader (and writer). It may be that, knowing too much about the genre myself — though I am not nearly as well-read as any number of fans — I cannot help but hold this book up beside a tradition that it appears to attempt to mine, yet fails to reflect in any substantial manner; maybe this is unfair, as Kelly, a poet, surely believes he’s turning these SFnal tropes in on themselves, using them in a poetical manner just as he might a modern retelling of ancient epics. Surely Kelly doesn’t think he’s written an SF novel? He doesn’t describe it that way in the interview I found online. But as an SF reader, I can say that he skates quite close enough to come off as someone who really just doesn’t get SF.
What I’ve noticed, looking around online, is that people who are actually into SF have tended not to say anything about this book, or to acknowledge Kelly’s skill while complaining that the book is muddled, confusing, or just plain bad SF. Whereas people who seem to be into poetry, into mainstream literary fiction ( not just pretentious stuff, but the good stuff too) seem to be quite enthusiastic about it. If you’re into both SF and poetry, like me, then you’ll probably find yourself bouncing from one side — Wow, this guy can write! — to the other — What the hell did the aliens put two live squirrels into his abdomen for?
So I guess that’s a pretty good guide of who will like or dislike the book: if you’re into SF, this is likely not your bag. If you’re not so into SF, but like reading poetry, this might be a novel for you. This is SF the way a famous and pretty good poet would write it: which is to say, it’s maybe not SF for anyone who reads SF.
Eric Brown‘s Necropath is a fine, competent novel that is a kind of SFnal private-detective tale set on a spaceport in the Indian ocean. I rather wished that Brown had made more of the very interesting setting, where Thai and Indian cultures meet on a massive artificial structure in the middle of the water, but instead they were somewhat segregated and the atmosphere seemed to be relatively negligible compared to what he could have done with the setting. There was also something unsettling about his use of teenaged Thai girls, not because I think it doesn’t happen in Thailand today, but because I wondered about how his futuristic Thailand being so much like Thailand today, except with space aliens playing the role that more earthly male tourists so often do there today. But the book was absolutely a page-turner, and I tore through it very quickly, which is unusual for me. (On one level, of course, the ends of all the chapters ended in such a way as to force me on — something that, when it’s as overt as it was here, I actually resent as a reader. But on the other hand, it kept me reading, almost despite myself.) Brown hasn’t made it into my top list for the year, but I did find the book interesting enough. All in all, I’m curious to see where the upcoming Bengal Station books will go, but I’m not in a huge rush to find out.
One thing, though: telepathy — even tech-augmented — is not “hard SF” as I understand it. I’m a bit puzzled what made this novel hard SF, or what made the publisher bill it as such.
Any Given Doomsday by Lori Handeland was a book I tried to read. I barely got past Chapter 2, though. I should acknowledge first that I am not a member of this book’s target audience, which I think is women who are fans of supernatural romance/erotica. Now, I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer — though, still here at the end of Season 3 as I work my way through the series, I’m curious to what degree critics may have panned the TV series as, er, catering to the male imagination — but I’m not bringing that up to flatter Handeland with a comparison to Whedon. Rather, Any Given Doomsday reads something like thinly-veiled Buffy fanfic by [redacted as that was just nasty of me]. The dialog is choppy, the style very heavy-handed, and the book exudes a kind of anxious need to be “cool” that seems to take over and render the whole thing quite sadly artificial, not the least the “witty” quips made by the protagonist on meeting her ex-boyfriend (or whatever he was). It reads like a bad novelisation of a mediocre TV script for a show that was trying to cash in on the popularity of Buffy. I don’t like to be that blunt, but in this case, it’s hard to mince words. After a couple of chapters, I simply gave up on it, and I very rarely give up on books.
I’ve two more freebie books from Librarything to read and review at the moment: Ambrosia: About a Culture – An Investigation of Electronica Music and Party Culture by James Cummins, and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger by Cecil Brown. The former doesn’t seem too engaging — much more, er, the kind of thing I heard club-scenesters say in conversations back in the 90s — but the Brown book is pretty interesting so far.