September 27, 2015

Slice of PIE: Who Are We Imitating THESE Days? a bit of recent correspondence I had about the slush pile, Bruce Bethke wrote: “Young writers always start out trying to emulate the writers who made them fall in love with the genre in the first place -- I don't know about you, but I for one wrote a tremendous amount of Bad Imitation Bradbury, Sturgeon, Asimov, and Norton when I was first starting out. But judging by what shows up in my slush pile, while there's still a tremendous amount of Bad Imitation Gibson out there, and a surprising amount of Bad Imitation Wells and Verne, almost no one is writing Bad Imitation Tiptree, McIntyre, or Delaney these days…This, I think, says something very meaningful about what it is that people seek to find in SF.”


I never thought deeply about except as it pertained to myself. I know the writers I first imitated: John Christopher (aka Sam Youd, or Christopher Samuel Youd). Long gone now, “The White Vines” was the first story I ever penned…er…penciled. A clear imitation of Christopher’s THE WHITE MOUNTAINS, I shudder to think what it read like.

My second, (recovered here: was a twelve-year-old’s imitation of an Andre Norton book. After that, Alan E. Nourse was the one I imitated in eighth grade. I grew up, and as far as imitating goes, some of my models were Anne McCaffrey, David Brin, Julie Czerneda, and countless others. In fact, I had a recent Probability Zero published in ANALOG, that was imitating the style of Clifford D. Simak.

But what does Bruce Bethke’s comment mean? What did Tiptree, Delany and McIntyre write that is NOT being imitated and what did Gibson, Wells, and Verne write that IS – at least the writing that makes its way into STUPEFYING STORIES’ slush pile?

James Tiptree is, of course the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon. Her early work was “reminiscent of the space opera and pulp tales...with a much darker tone…drastic spiritual alienation, and/or a transcendent experience which brings fulfillment but also death…the tension between free will and biological determinism, or reason and sexual desire…One of the themes prevalent throughout most of Sheldon’s work is feminism…subversive use of genre fiction to produce an unconventional discursive position, the feminist subject". Her name graces “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.

Samuel R. Delaney’s tomes are not for the timid! DHALGREN was my first attempt at reading his novels. “Recurring themes in Delany's work include mythology, memory, language, sexuality, and perception...Class, position in society, and the ability to move from one social stratum to another are motifs that were touched on in his earlier work and became more significant…later…Many of Delany's later works have bodies of water as a common theme, as mentioned…Though not a theme, coffee, more than any other beverage, is mentioned significantly and often…Writing itself (both prose and poetry) is also a repeated theme: several of his characters are writers or poets of some sort…Delany also makes use of repeated imagery…Jewels, reflection, and refraction…of text and concepts…[and] sexual themes to an extent rarely equaled in serious writing.”

Vonda N. McIntyre is best known for her later work as a STAR TREK writer, though even in the “canonical TREK” universe, she deals with themes of “her argued, numerate and humane understanding of how to engage the instruments of sf in feminist concerns.”

William Gibson, sometimes referred to as the “‘noir prophet’ of the cyberpunk [Which Bruce Bethke invented, despite what Wikipedia says!] subgenre elucidates his work as to say: “...we have no future…because our present is too volatile.’…twenty-first-century sf may increasingly need to focus its engines of vision on precisely this evanescent Now, which is so saturated with information that virtual and real become aspects of one another.” Of Jules Verne and HG Wells, DavidO from GoodReads had this to say, “I think you hit most of the differences. Wells wrote social science fiction that could be called pot boilers. While Verne wrote hard science fiction with a focus on the science and details.” Lara Amber added, “The science in both don't stand up well to heavy scrutiny, but the sense of adventure (and quite frankly optimism) of Verne appeals to me over Wells, which is more rooted in the ‘what have you done!!!’ aspect of science.

So, to briefly summarize, it APPEARS that writers are not imitating the works of those who explored feminism and sexuality; rather writers who explore null  or terrifying futures – but with a great sense of adventure.

Of course, this is just what we see at STUPEFYING STORIES. Even so, as I think of what I’ve read of Hannu Rajaniemi, Cory Doctrow, Ken Liu, Aliette de Bodard, and Mary Robinette Kowal; I think I might be able to say that if their themes ARE the same, those themes are latent rather than manifest.

What do you think?


~brb said...

I'd advise caution when drawing conclusions from small and non-random data sets such as the Stupefying Stories slush pile submissions log. There may be thousands of aspiring writers out there who yearn to be the next Tiptree or Delaney, but they're so successful in the "A-list" market that their rejects never sink down to our level. Or there may be a substantial selection bias: they may be reading our submission guidelines and inferring from them that we wouldn't be receptive to their work, and thus are not submitting to us in the first place.

Wait a minute. What am I saying? "Reading our submission guidelines?" Our daily slush pile intake proves that *that* sure ain't happening!

GuyStewart said...

Got that -- but it's food for thought! Makes me wonder what editors see being imitated. In fact, it makes me wonder WHO the "big names" today imitated when they were just starting.

Makes me think I might be able to ask around and get some input from OTHER editors...maybe write an essay and send it out somewhere...hmmmm