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Every well-told tale casts a slight enchantment on its audience. How does an author beguile us to believe in a book that's clearly labelled "Fiction"?

That's just the start of their trickery. What on earth are they doing to our minds and hearts when we read Science Fiction or Fantasy: books about things obviously impossible, and hard even to imagine. What mad magic transports us to a world built on dreams, nonsense and lies?

This diary is about what happens when SF/Fantasy and Realism fall head over heels in love. They birth children bigger than either of them, with their heads in the clouds and both feet flat on solid ground.

SF/Fantasy, for Better and for Worse

You already know what SF and Fantasy are. I wrote a diary on Sunday about SF/Fantasy books that become Classic Literature - books like Frankenstein, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1984, Lord of the Rings, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. To clarify my own understanding of the terms, here's what I said there:

What makes a Good SF/Fantasy Book?

A sense of wonder. . . . a brave, enchanting vision of a world we've never seen. For me, the heart of the matter is strangeness and originality. I turn to SF/Fantasy for ideas, devices, creatures and worlds I would never have thought of on my own, or found in any other book. At the center is a radical vision of a world fundamentally unlike ours; on the surface are the trappings of science, aliens, weirdness and magic that allow us to see, to grasp, to live between the covers of all this otherness.

So there's the magic we're looking to make real. I've defined it rather broadly, and this "sense of wonder" is found in a lot of books that fall outside the traditional genres of SF and Fantasy. There's a larger grouping which spreads over all the genres where magic, strangeness and unusual shifts of reality hold sway. This meta-genre is known as Speculative Fiction:
an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature as well as related static, motion, and virtual arts.
SF, Fantasy and all Speculative Fiction sing their siren song to all who want to look beyond the tiresome mundane. These genres are all forms of escape, from the rules and routines of our everyday lives. There is a wild creative freedom in dropping the walls of habit, and peering at the great beyond - for speculative writers, and we who board their ships.

Adults are expected not to run wild, but to abide by the tame and reasonable standards of society. That siren song keens sweetest in the hearts of those who live at the edges of reasonable adulthood: wide-eyed teenagers, asocial nerds, grown-ups with childlike hearts. It seems to me we all get a bit that way, when we're lost in a book. Whatever the logic, SF and Fantasy are not seen as fully adult, as respectable literature. There are many fools serious readers who just don't open SF or Fantasy books. As pico explained in my SF/Fantasy diary:

Yet: there's still the old marketing fear that the science fiction label kills your chances of respectability.  Vonnegut refused to allow his books to be labeled as science fiction (seriously) and more recently, Margaret Atwood made the surprisingly ignorant statement that her sci fi works weren't "really" sci fi because they're about themes and stuff, as if "real" sci fi were written with no regard for content, allegory, or ideas.  So the old snobberies persist.
If you've read much Vonnegut or Atwood, this will surprise you. Yes, they're both very good, serious writers. They also have both written a lot of books that belong more to SF than any other genre. What particularly saddens me is, they are both generally very open-minded, progressive, forward-looking thinkers. They're two of the last people I'd expect to be stuffy about the labels on their work, or to fail to admit the obvious.

SF and Fantasy attract some of the freshest, most creative, and skilled authors alive. The greatest SF/Fantasy novels can go compete in all dimensions and any level of literary excellence there is. Yet, in the end, there is still a certain stigma attached to these "adolescent" genres, and a great SF or Fantasy novel has a snowball's chance in hell of winning a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize.


Realism ruled 19th Century Novels

You don't have to be an adolescent or an outsider to feel that Sense of Wonder. It lives in every human heart. Serious literary authors may not write SF/Fantasy, and they may not admit it when they do. But anyone with a brave and questing imagination will look for ways to weave some of that strange enchantment into their books.

This diary is a continuation of the one I wrote last Friday: Realistic Skin vs. Weirdness Within. I mostly covered Realism in novels, from the first one (Don Quixote, 1616), through the next three centuries.

Realism came into its own in the 1800s. Austen, Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, et al. (follow the link for more) took the loose fabulous constructions of the 1700s, planed their surfaces level, and tightened all their nuts and bolts. They brought a wide panoramic sweep and a gritty, precise detailing to the worlds they painted. Pushing every inch of fiction's envelope, they worked out a hundred stronger enchantments, until we saw their worlds in sharper hues and higher resolution than ever before - and we heard, and smelled and felt them too.

As the 20th Century dawned, this intricately drawn world was ready to lose its balance. I wrote last week:

The most ambitious authors at the end of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s looked so far and so minutely, outwards and inwards, that their worlds broke down into myriad dots of the subtlest hues, an impressionist portrait of a world too rich to fit into a photograph. These authors wove all the threads of the physical world, and portrayed our ever-changing stream of consciousness: Henry James, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
None of these authors was writing SF or Fantasy (well, Woolf wrote Orlando, and the others all have their weird glimmers). But they were all ambitious, questing authors, who were often looking for the limits of human experience and perception. Many mainstream writers in the 20th Century didn't have to go to other planets or worlds to find magic - they found it in everyday living. Ulysses exploded three people's lives into a grand mythical fantasy, without ever leaving Dublin or the hours of one day in June.

You don't need a spaceship or a magic wand to find another level of experience. If your hero travels to another country, or falls utterly in love, or just gets stupidly drunk, you can find a whole other country of perception there. Freud and Jung opened all these inner doors, and authors flocked beyond the stream of consciousness, seeking fresh rivers and lakes. Joyce decided Ulysses was too run of the mill for him, and constructed an empire of sleeping truth, out of pieces of words from dozens of languages and books. Faulkner wrote the first quarter of The Sound and The Fury from the viewpoint of an idiot. In recent decades authors have tried narrating from every mental state there is, and have indeed uncovered fresh countries of perception down those avenues. Our heroes have looked out through Gary Gilmore's eyes, and taken every drug under the sun, and some that never were. You don't need to read SF or Fantasy for strangeness, when all  of this happens in mainstream fiction.


Fantasy and Realism, Falling Head over Heels

When authors experiment, and invent new techniques, their successes spread from genre to genre. Every stream of consciousness, and each new angle to observe the outer world, gradually becomes a part of the toolkit of Fiction, as a whole. The three most omnivorous means of expression are the English Language, the Novel, and Rock Music.

One of the most pervasive ways that actual Fantasy has been smuggled into mainstream novels, for half a century now, is in the form of Magical Realism. It came into its own in Latin America. Borges found elements of it, and Pedro Paramo was a long step in the same direction. But it really grew wings and learned to fly with One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Fantasy has traditionally been interested in the fireworks: how do you take magic and make a breathtaking spectacle out of it, how do you give your readers the maximum wow. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez discovered the unexpected power of going in the opposite direction:


I had an idea of what I always wanted to do, but there was something missing and I was not sure what it was until one day I discovered the right tone—the tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for eighteen months and worked every day.


How did she express the “fantastic” so naturally?


What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories, and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.

That is how Fantasy and Realism finally married their fortunes together. In the hands of a great storyteller, this subtle charm penetrates our mind far more deeply than the fireworks we found in melodramatic teenage fantasies.

Magical Realism is almost implicit in the advances Modernism had made decades before. Latin America is most famous for it, but authors around the world were working on similar techniques. It was an enchantment that the world, and readers, were hungry and ready for. So we find it in Russia, The Master and Margarita; Germany, The Tin Drum; India, Midnight's Children; Japan, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; and the USA, The Witches of Eastwick.

It goes much further than books we consider Magical Realism, though. In many modern novels, which deal very much with our own mundane world, we find little spells cast with the same brick-faced enchantments. They find a graceful balance between our childlike sense of wonder and our adult interest in the Realist details of the scene.

I think of Michael Crichton as a writer of popular thrillers. When you consider the subjects he writes about, you see that he's really an SF author, who wraps his fabulous tales in the same dungarees of Realism that García Márquez wears so well. Not exactly the same fabric, as they write in very different styles. García Márquez is aiming for a literary approach, while Crichton is more journalistic and, as his career develops, more like a screenplay.

Crichton was also looking for a formula to make incredible tales convincing, and made a breakthrough discovery just like García Márquez's. Here he is, describing his own brick-faced epiphany:


When Michael wrote The Andromeda Strain he assumed he had to fill out the characters of all those scientists and make them real people, as in a conventional novel. But that wasn’t where his interest lay, and so he had only done it at the surface level. Somehow it occurred to me that instead of trying to flesh the characters out further and make the novel more conventional, we ought to strip that stuff out completely and make it a documentary, only a fictional one.


What Bob actually said to me was that he thought the manuscript should be factually persuasive, like a New Yorker piece. I thought that was a very interesting idea, but I couldn’t see how to do it. I couldn’t take his suggestion literally, because in those days the signature of New Yorker writers like Lillian Ross was that they were using fictional storytelling techniques in their nonfiction, and my problem was that I had to get away from fictional techniques. Finally, I began to think about what I would do if the story were real. Suppose this had actually happened and I were a reporter, what would my book look like? There was a book on my shelf at the time by Walter Sullivan called We Are Not Alone. I started thumbing through it, noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction.

As soon as I began to do that, it became clear to me that the author of a nonfiction account would not have the access to the characters’ innermost thoughts in the way that you assume for fiction. So I began to take all that stuff out and make the book colder and more impersonal—but I didn’t do it completely. Bob read it and said, Look, this book can either go this way or that way, and you’ll have to decide what you want to do. Ultimately he thought I should just take all the novelistic passages out. He thought the characters shouldn’t have any relationships with each other, and that all the dialogue should advance the plot.

What fascinates me here is that, working in very different styles, García Márquez and Crichton discovered the same way of marrying incredible fables to a detailed Realism, where the conviction and precision of their gritty worlds allow us readers to swallow the impossible.

In each case, this Magic Made Real also gave birth to the writer's mature style. García Márquez became the avatar of Latin Magical Realism, and Crichton one of the best-selling authors of all time, with a brick-faced cinematic approach that influenced hundreds of aspiring novelists and screenwriters.

On the one hand, Fantasy and Science Fiction still aren't winning Nobels and Pulitzers. On the other hand, they are reaching out, and leaving their tentacle-prints all across mainstream fiction.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 06:07 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar & (50+ / 0-)

    Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

    DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
    SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
    2:00 PM What's on Your E-Reader? Caedy
    2:00 PM Bibliophile's Wish List Caedy
    Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
    Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
    alternate Mondays
    2:00 PM Political Books Susan from 29
    Mon 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery michelewln, Susan from 29
    Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
    TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
    alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
    alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
    Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
    WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
    Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
    Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
    THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
    Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
    alternate Thursdays 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
    FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
    Fri 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht; first one each month by ArkDem14
    Fri 10:00 PM Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable shortfinals
    SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
    Sat 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
    Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 04:27:19 PM PDT

  •  Coming Soon to Books Go Boom! (18+ / 0-)

    Oct. 11 - Library of Babel

    Oct. 18 - The Blind Owl

    Oct. 25 - Portnoy's Complaint

    Novels Written by Women:

    Nov. 1 - Emma

    Nov. 8 - Mrs. Dalloway

    Nov. 15 - Nightwood

    Nov. 22 - Their Eyes Were Watching God

    Nov. 29 - Song of Solomon

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 06:15:12 PM PDT

    •  OMG, I have less than a month (8+ / 0-)

      to reread Emma? I can go to Project Gutenberg, but really don't want to read anything that long on a computer screen.


      Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

      by Youffraita on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 10:19:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  To be exact, 'Emma' is four weeks from today, yes. (8+ / 0-)

        Did you already tell me you don't like library books? Because Emma should be in any library, most second-hand bookstores, and perhaps a well-read friend's collection, if that's an option.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 11:15:50 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  erm... (6+ / 0-)

          There was this book I'm sure I returned to the library (it was on top of the stack) that the library is sure I didn't return.

          I think it was stolen from them. This was a small library in the sticks & they didn't pay attention (or secure their returns) but...I can't afford to pay for it, y'know? And all libraries in the county are connected so...

          Library is out, unless I want to read Emma on the premises. Which I don't. Gutenberg would be better.

          Maybe used. Hit or miss around my apartment, but I've never checked out the stores near the college.

          Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

          by Youffraita on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 12:21:35 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  first of all, thanks for the excellent diary (7+ / 0-)

          I've read all of Jane Austen's books several times, with P&P my favorite but Persuasion a very close second. (I totally identify with main characters who thought they were making good decisions but ruined their lives.) The others, including Emma, I like equally well, but not as well. It will be interesting to read your take.

          Your history of and explanation of types of sf/fantasy is fascinating. And thank you, too, pico.

          I'm a few hours from the end of the 37 hour audiobook The North Road by Peter Hamilton. (Thank you for rec'ing this, cfk.) I love it--so many original touches in what started out seeming like a standardish sf/murder mystery blend. I just bought the audio of another huge Hamilton book, Pandora's Gate. I hope I like it as well, since it's book 1 of a 3 book series. (Good heavens he's written a lot of big books-- he has at least two other series. I am in awe: seems as if sf writers, more than writers in any other genre, are superhumanly productive.)

          Today on, Larry Niven's The Mote in God's Eye is on one-day sale. I know it's a classic, am wondering if anyone's read it & recs it?

          I didn't think I liked space opera type books, thought I preferred books like Jo Walton's or Neal Stephenson's, books that put a different twist on the present or recent past, or maybe John Scalzi's shorter more humorous pictures of space travellers. But the four books in the Hyperion series made me rethink that. Those were a marvel of universe building, I thought.

          “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” Napoleon Bonaparte

          by scilicet on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 07:35:21 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I ordered Hamilton's Mindstar Rising (7+ / 0-)

            and the two sequels so we will see...

            Then I may try Pandora's star.

            I am glad you liked Great North Road.

            I crashed and burned early last night so I am here late, but this is a wonderful diary.

            Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

            by cfk on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 07:40:34 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  Titanic series have many icebergs to crash against (4+ / 0-)

            so I admire those that make it to the end unscathed.

            An author may have a burst of inspiration, which flags with each succeeding book. The series which most disappointed me like this was His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. The Golden Compass made magic so very real, and Lyra, the familiars, the compass itself, with sharp story and rich characters. Then the plot and the magic slowly came unglued, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth after the The Amber Spyglass.

            I found the same slow decay, though at a far shallower slope, in the Dune books, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and the Ender's Game series.

            Then you have the authors who get infected with their own dreams: they jump onto their plot, and charge off in all directions. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, plus three strong-minded editors, could have been a thing of real beauty.

            John Scalzi has set eight books in his Old Man's War universe. All I've read of his was The Android's Dream - which was rich enough that I expect he can find eight books worth of ideas for one setting.

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 12:38:45 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  You'd BETTER like library books! (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, Brecht, poco

          Or I will go into Discworld 'Librarian mode' on you!!


          'Per Ardua Ad Astra'

          by shortfinals on Mon Oct 07, 2013 at 11:12:29 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  This is a great diary but the best part (6+ / 0-)

      that sent me over the moon is the schedule. Thank you!

      And congrats for being rescued. Your diaries belong in the Community Spotlight.

      •  I doubt the schedule will take us over the moon (4+ / 0-)

        but it will be a colorful and illuminating journey. I had thought of putting The Left Hand of Darkness as the first book in December, which would take us over the moon, and shine a direct light on feminist issues and the female/male divide. But now I'm leaning towards The God of Small Things.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 12:18:49 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  How you have all that planned out amazes me! (13+ / 0-)

    So, since you wrote

    The three most omnivorous means of expression are the English Language, the Novel, and Rock Music
    that sent me off to google and YouTube for something musical (because I don't think I read in those areas), and I THINK this might be something that fits what you were talking about:

    And now to write a history diary for tomorrow morning.

    Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall

    by Dave in Northridge on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 06:30:41 PM PDT

  •  Wow! This is a great structure for this diary and (14+ / 0-)

    very thought-provoking.

    Let me see if I am getting this right:

    1. There is SF/Fantasy--wonder and unreality
    2. 19th century--Realism
    3. Modernism--which rebels against the unreal realism of 19th century
    4. Magic Realism which owes a huge debt to SF/Fantasy
    5. Crichton which is realistic (19th century version) and fantastic. (SF?Fantasy)

    Have I got it right? Or am I missing something?

    I guess the only thing I would add is that I think of modernism as hyper-realism, and given that, if you are going to focus on inner thoughts, feelings and day-dreams, the shift to magic realism seems rather smooth. (We are all superman in our fantasies. LOL).

    It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

    by poco on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 06:36:42 PM PDT

    •  My only minor disagreement (10+ / 0-)

      is that I think I'd describe modernism as a shift in focus to the formal aspects of art, more so than any real changes in content.  I mean, certain changes in content come naturally with the territory - lots of dreams, symbols, and fantasies - but I think they're mostly getting there by saying, "What is language?  What is form?  What is genre?"

      Lots of my favorite sci fi/fantasy comes from the modernist era: Čapek, Zamyatin, Krzhizhanovsky, etc.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 07:24:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think it is both. I certainly agree with (9+ / 0-)

        you that there is a a greater emphasis on formal aspects, such as language (absolutely) and genre.

        But there was  a similar shift in form from Fielding (18th century) (Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, with a narrator as a viable character to Austen with inner lives of characters, to George Eliot with a sort of half and half.

        The focus on formal aspects actually starts with Sterne (also 18th century); he along with Joyce, does more than most others to question issues of form--especially the questions of genre, or of the Aristotelian model of a set beginning, middle or end.

        I think (and I could be completely wrong) but what Brecht is asking us to do is to see how many of these demarcations are open to inquiry and how so many of the limits that we have taken for granted, actually bleed into each other.

        It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

        by poco on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 07:47:19 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well... Tristram Shandy doesn't have (9+ / 0-)

          much impact, though: it's mostly ignored until its "rediscovery", conveniently enough, by the Modernists (e.g. Viktor Shklovsky's groundbreaking essay on Sterne and formalism).  For most of literary history, Sterne's most influential work is A Sentimental Journey, which is an otherwise straightforward travelogue.  To the extent that pre-Modernists focused on form, it was mostly in the interest of content.  It's not until the art-for-art's-sake movement that form starts becoming an end unto itself, and that unlocks all kinds of Pandora's boxes about the limits of form, and genre, and language.  

          But, your larger point, I agree with completely.  Lit history gets boxed into convenient portions, but those boxes are way more porous in real life, if they exist at all.  That's one of the reasons the Modernists were so easily able to dip back into previous generations of writers - Rabelais, Sterne, Pushkin - and borrow their innovations in new, experimental ways.

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 08:00:25 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  OT @ pico (7+ / 0-)

            Speaking of magical in another sense, I finished Life a user's manual a few weeks ago. It's fair to say I'm speechless and have been going around wanting to hug the book close to my heart. I hope to go back to it soon because my memory is so bad.

            What's amazing is that given all the "constraints" is that it reads so very well as a novel and not as an exercise at all. There's a real sense of an author's voice--compassionate and benign--behind the stories.

            •  Great! I'm so glad to hear that (7+ / 0-)

              you finished it, and that you liked it so much!  And you're exactly right that the author's voice is what holds it all together: Georges Perec himself, the authorial voice, may be my favorite literary creation of all time.  So warm, so human, so curious, so playful, and so, so fucking smart.  

              Have you read W, or a Memory of Childhood?  Quasi-memoir, absolutely shattering.

              As far as Life goes, no surprise that I'm sometimes haunted by the line,

              It is the twenty-third of June, nineteen seventy-five, and it will soon be eight o'clock in the evening.
              (By the way, in the French, each repetition of this phrase is slightly different: "it is almost eight o'clock", "it is just about eight o'clock", etc.  I'm not sure why Bellos repeats it literally each time when Perec is so careful not to.)

              And then you go back to that wicked opening:

              Despite appearances, the puzzle is not a solitary game: every move the player makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the player picks up then picks up again, that he studies, that he strokes, every combination he tries and tries again, every mistake and every insight, every hope and every discouragement have all been decided, calculated, and studied by the other.

              Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

              by pico on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 10:28:52 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  I read A void/Avoid (6+ / 0-)

                but haven't gotten to W, or a Memory of Childhood yet. I know that he lost both his parents and died at a young age himself.

                Perec was very interested in spaces and architecture and I'd like to read more about that too. Some of the descriptions of contents of shelves and cabinets remind me a bit of Joseph Cornell's box constructions though Perec was being far more deliberate.

                The final image of Bartlebooth in Chapter 99 is so powerful and bittersweet, especially as it relates to the Preamble.

        •  You guys are way ahead of me here, since you have (11+ / 0-)

          a much better schooling in Modernism and 20th Century developments in literature. I understand all the terms you're using, but I don't have a mental bulletin board to pin them too.

          Which is a very healthy confusion for me to feel, as it's something my own readers sometimes complain of.

          Deconstructing the formal aspects of art makes me think of things T. S. Eliot wrote essays about. And the Fielding/Austen/George Eliot progression makes sense to me.

          what Brecht is asking us to do is to see how many of these demarcations are open to inquiry and how so many of the limits that we have taken for granted, actually bleed into each other.
          Very much so. I'd been thinking of this as something that happened in the last 40 years. It has been getting faster, with more porous borders, recently. But now I'm thinking it may have started 100 years ago.

          Well, there are two things to look at. You always get your prophets, especially in art, who envision glimmers long before they arrive. So you can point to Shakespeare, Sterne, Joyce, as instances of radical innovation. The second thing is the entire field of mainstream literature, and popular fiction. I think fiction now is a bit like Rock in the '60s: the limits are melting between the genres, even in popular middlebrow fiction.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 08:25:09 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  That "faster, with more porous borders" (5+ / 0-)

            is the rise of the Postmodern in fiction! It's usually thought of as pastiche, and it will appropriate and use all other modes of writing. Thus seeming like a giant mix-up or a genre-bending exercise. I would say, however, that the postmodern novel is, in and of itself, a specific genre. Most fiction right now that isn't genre fiction -- or else what is called "literary fiction" (New Yorker/Writer's camps sort of stuff) -- will probably more or less fall into some gray area of the postmodern. More or less.

            Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

            by mahakali overdrive on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 09:58:41 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Postmodernism intoxicates some authors, offering (4+ / 0-)

              so many clever tricks and turns that they lose their clear shape and original voice. The danger of melting boundaries is, you end up cooking a hodgepodge, with no distinct taste of its own. But in the hands of an author who knows what their doing, it can add a lot of interesting spice to the mix.

              That said, I really need to read some more on Modernism and Post-Modernism. I shouldn't be throwing around large, sloppy categories that I don't have a firm grasp on.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 12:50:13 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Pfft. (4+ / 0-)

                Categories, schmategories. I'm only speaking from the boring perspective of canonical blah-blah-blah here. This is one of those things that are how hirings are structures (literary period, often defined in the 20th C. as "Modernism" and "Postmodernism," roughly -- with a lot of overlap, arguably some going back to late 19th C.)

                To me, what's interesting about it is the concern with the interior subject vs. the concern with culture in general.

                Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

                by mahakali overdrive on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 02:33:34 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

      •  Modernism was driven, in Literature, (6+ / 0-)

        by a quest for a new way to represent interiority and the individual subjectivity of the main character. I'm not sure about other art forms. And here, when I say "Modernism," I'm thinking of Woolf, Pound, Lewis, Faulkner, Stevens, and Joyce as sort of iconic examples of this. Their formal elements shifted because of their desire to replicate or speak to the the subjectivity of time, space, and perception. Thus we see a rise in stream-of-consciousness or other literary devices which try to "catch" temporality, location, the consciousness, and perception itself.

        It's an interesting ouevre of writing. I'm not sure we're talking about the same genre, but Modernist fiction usually has a pretty specific definition which isn't quite the same as Modern fiction.

        Nice to see you! I'm intrigued by this conversation even though I should be working.  

        Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

        by mahakali overdrive on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 09:54:45 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  We might just be talking about (5+ / 0-)

          different traditions of Modernism: in Russia, it was the drive for new formal modes of expression, which Chekhov was parodying already in the 1890s ("New forms are what we need!  And if there aren't any, we're better off with nothing!")  But I was also drawing from the pre-Modernist French tradition above vis-à-vis Parnassianism and decadence, and the focus on the artificial and theatrical over the trappings of realism (certainly the kind of groundwork laid by Huysmans, Wilde, and whole fin-de-siecle package.)  There's a large swath of Modernists even in the West that I'm not sure fit with the interiority/subjective-state side of the movement - but I don't know how people who study Modernism in the West categorize these things, so I may be out of my area of comfort. Do you all consider Marinetti a modernist?  Apollinaire?  Alfred Jarry?

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 12:04:11 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Definitely, the long 20th C. (6+ / 0-)

            is what you're referring to. Hardy's later work, and Conrad, will also sometimes be included here as "proto-Modernists" of sorts. I'm not too familiar with French Modernism beyond Proust, although I vaguely remember Baudelaire being included here in a sort of an early sense again. Most of the Russians we still read were also almost Modernists, and will usually be taught at the University if not by scholars who are specifically interested in Russian fiction, than by some Modernist or another. So I'm very much in the Brit/Am. here since that's generally where the Modernist movement, as it crystallized around WWI-WII (and its aftermath) took root, spear-headed by people like Eliot and Pound, and also Woolf, because they were running publication houses and publishing so many literary reviews and could, therefore, dictate some of the terms of what was included in this canon -- like Rebecca West or the infamous slings that Woolf shot at Proust.

            Marinetti? Yes, but as a subset of Symbolists or even Futurists, IIRC, which are sometimes considered Modernist without a doubt. I know him mainly through Italo Calvino, who really admired him, and whose work I've read (a postmodern author nonpareil!). I know Jarry's name in passing but haven't read him. Ditto Apollinaire, sorry! I'm not sure it's super-important to categorize these as a reader unless trying to understand what the Modernist author is really responding to, which is generally thought to be a response to the Hell of WWI creating a lot of introspection about the human condition in a very limited "nutshell" definition here.

            I was interested in Modernism, rather deeply, during my undergraduate and thought I'd pursue it initially, but then dropped it and never picked it up again. Fickle, right? But this is how US Lit./English Departments are structured. It always aggravated me since I'm far more interested in theory and how we read than period.

            Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

            by mahakali overdrive on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 02:47:45 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  Wait, there's structure here? How'd that happen? (11+ / 0-)

      My original conception was this simple Hegelian scheme: Magic + Realism = Magical Realism.

      Sometimes when I spend a lot of time examining a subject closely, it finds its own shape in my subconscious (as a good story should). I think what happened here is, by the time I'd written the first two slices of my Neapolitan diary, the last had developed a lot of shape along the way.

      You have teased out the main pieces I was chewing on. I can feel there's more in the last paragraph, that I didn't get to. The whole what modernism is, and all the different bits embedded in it. And what happens when stream of consciousness hits the fan of post-modernism. I guess we all get wet.

      This has been very rich chewing. I'm a lot further along than I started, and I'm left with a different set of questions, which are almost as interesting as the ones I began with. I think I have to go reread the long wikipedia entries on Modernism and Post-Modernism.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 07:41:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The Andromeda Strain is still my favorite (13+ / 0-)

    Michael Chriton novel. The distance that his non-fiction fiction produced made it a even more haunting tale. I wonder how it would read today.

  •  if loving SciFi and Fantasy makes me a (13+ / 0-)

    'not serious reader' I am perfectly okay with that though I am rather sad people can be so judgmentally closed minded.

    Der Weg ist das Ziel

    by duhban on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 07:17:31 PM PDT

  •  The synthesis of fantasy and reality (11+ / 0-)

    was well underway when Joyce penned the last sentence of The Dead.:

    His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
    (I could weep when I read that.)

    I started with nothing and still have most of it left. - Seasick Steve

    by ruleoflaw on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 07:24:47 PM PDT

    •  That was my Dad's favorite short story. Superb. (8+ / 0-)

      I've been meaning to reread the first 3/4 of Joyce (Dubliners, Portrait, Ulysses). Imagine living for a day inside Joyce's mind.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 08:34:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Indeed! (9+ / 0-)

        The generosity of spirit and peaceful resignation in the face of death in the last paragraphs of The Dead remind me of Maurya's speech at the end of J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea:

        MAURYA [Puts the empty cup mouth downwards on the table, and lays her hands together on Bartley's feet.]

        They're all together this time, and the end is come. May the Almighty God have mercy on Bartley's soul, and on Michael's soul, and on the souls of Sheamus and Patch, and Stephen and Shawn (bending her head]); and may He have mercy on my soul, Nora, and on the soul of every one is left living in the world.

        [She pauses, and the keen rises a little more loudly from the women, then sinks away.]

        MAURYA [Continuing.]

        Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.

        [She kneels down again and the curtain falls slowly.]

        (I would desperately love to direct this play.)

        I started with nothing and still have most of it left. - Seasick Steve

        by ruleoflaw on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 09:30:14 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  The turbulent poetic Irish soul sweeps us away (8+ / 0-)

          Do you know At Swim-Two-Birds?

          And are your dreams of directing just daydreams, or is this something you actually do?

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 10:18:39 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I have not read it (7+ / 0-)

            but now it is on my list.

            I direct plays for two local community theaters.

            I posted here about the last one I directed. I was surprised that the Board decided to do Shakespeare. I had been after them to do Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, but they wouldn't. It would take some serious persuasion to get them to do Riders.

            I started with nothing and still have most of it left. - Seasick Steve

            by ruleoflaw on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 06:52:21 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I was in a Shakespeare Ensemble in college (5+ / 0-)

              The first play I acted in was Midsummer Night's Dream. Since I started at the bottom (no pun intended), I was cast as the fairy Cobweb, and had about a dozen words. It was very movement-oriented, so I got weeks of dance rehearsals. And I was covered in silver and green make-up. So when the director let me pick what I was the fairy of, I chose Insects and Mud. Fit the name, and my mood.

              By strange coincidence, I saw The Playboy of the Western World in Sligo, on my one trip to Ireland, when I was 11. Of course my father, who named me Brecht, took me.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 01:51:47 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  Sturgeon's law (or revelation) (11+ / 0-)

    Sic-fi writer Ted Sturgeon commented about sci-fi often being judged as non-serious writing:
    Sturgeon's Law

    I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.[1] Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
  •  I find Salman Rushdie (9+ / 0-)

    to be a sci-fi writer to a degree.  In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, for example, everyday things are presented as being all mixed up, and it gradually dawned on me that two universes were colliding.

    To add to your magical realism list, I'd submit Toni Morrison.  Just as a small example, one character in Song of Solomon mysteriously lacks a navel.

    I normally don't read to escape; I want the true, deep emotion of everyday life.  That said, I love Kurt Vonnegut, right down to his most sf book, The Sirens of Titan.

    But good writing is necessary, in all genres, or what's the point?

    •  That all makes sense. Toni Morrison is namechecked (7+ / 0-)

      in the wikipedia article on magical realism.

      The fundamentals of good writing and story-telling carry across all genres of novels (many of them carry through to plays, poetry, non-fiction, etc.).

      There may be some extra criteria which literary writers apply, seeing themselves as the best writers around. They may get extra gold stars for showing off with language; experimenting with voice, viewpoint and character; getting more creative with plotting and shape - all those metafiction tricks which exasperate middlebrow readers, who want a simply-told tale.

      Different readers (and writers) are drawn to distinct genres. Each genre concentrates on certain aspects of fiction. All fans like a well-told tale, with compelling characters; but fans look for more of certain kinds of flavor, in each genre.

      SF fans are keen on bold ideas, on worlds bent out of shape on major axes. To oversimplify - there's a lot more than that to SF. I like the way a real SF classic has to excel as a good book, and on a second scale, as strong SF.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 08:59:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm sympathetic to Vonnegut and (less so) (9+ / 0-)

    Atwood, because of the distinction between the genre to which a novel 'truly' belongs, and the shelf from which the product will best sell.

    I love that García Márquez/Crichton both found the brick face. Very War With the Newts, (he ventured, timidly).

    Just occurred to me that a failed novel of mine and an unrelated sf world/framework might fit together quite well. Have been toying with them, and am finding it difficult to know if I'm pulling off the framework. Perhaps I need a little brick.

    "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

    by GussieFN on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 08:42:34 PM PDT

  •  hmmm (7+ / 0-)

    As I mentioned in cfk's diary, I am rereading Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight, and now I'm thinking about how it relates to this diary.

    See, the conceit is, the main character (called Able of the High Heart) wandered from the cabin in the woods somewhere in the Midwest of the U.S. ... and into faery.

    Now, lots of contemporary fantasy novels have this structure, to bring the modern world in contact with the fantastical.

    What Wolfe does is a bit different. The kid ends up in Midgard (Wolfe has a different name, but Midgard it is), and he's interacting with a Nordic mythos...but the book itself is his very long letter back to the brother he left behind in the Midwest.

    The other thing that distinguishes The Wizard Knight from contemporary fantasy is that Wolfe writes so much better than almost anyone else mining similar material. It's dreamlike in a way, and (for me) wholly convincing.

    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

    by Youffraita on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 10:46:44 PM PDT

    •  P.S. forgot to mention (7+ / 0-)

      the work is called The Wizard Knight. But it was published in two volumes, The Knight first, then The Wizard. Neither book is particularly short, so it would have been a real bug-crusher if published in one volume.

      Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

      by Youffraita on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 10:49:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Those were the first two Gene Wolfes I read. (6+ / 0-)

      The only others were the four in Book of the New Sun, which were interesting but sometimes disconcerting.

      I really enjoyed The Wizard Knight. I thought it was a very colorful story. I like the Norse and faerie elements, and the system of worlds. And it showed me what a clever writer Wolfe was: he starts from the teenage viewpoint, and the whole cosmos gets deeper and more subtle as the boy becomes a man. I don't think Wolfe draws much attention to this gradual transformation of voice, he just does it perfectly.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 11:38:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  So you haven't read the Latro novels? (6+ / 0-)

        There were to be four, but the first two didn't sell (at least, not compared to The Book of the New Sun), so nos. 3 and 4 never were written, afaik.

        They're definitely not for everyone. I thought they were f'n brilliant helps to know something about Greek mythology, not to mention Athens at war. For example, Sparta is called Rope (I think I got that right anyway).

        Latro speaks Latin and Greek and possibly Persian. He is definitely from Italy/Roma, and he's in the Persian army (if memory serves: it's been a while) but angers a goddess and gets a head wound that means his long-term memory is shot. (This is a real brain injury, btw.) So every day he has to write down what happened or he can't remember: he has to read his scroll.

        Which of course means that when he's separated from his scroll or otherwise can't see it, his best friends are new strangers to him.

        But the cool part is, he's a hero in the classic sense once he gets that head wound, b/c he can see the gods, even though nobody else around him can. And he can converse with them. And maybe, if he can make it up with that goddess, he can have his memory restored.

        You see why I am sorry only half the story made it into print (afaik, anyway).

        I don't know whether the writing in the Latro novels is as good as The Wizard Knight only b/c Latro came next after the New Sun & Wolfe had twenty years or more subsequently to hone his craft.

        But Latro blew me away at the time.

        Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

        by Youffraita on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 12:13:40 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  One critic who reads everything (6+ / 0-)

      (Michael Dirda) is helpful in leading the literary readers to genre writers who write particularly well.  He singles out Gene Wolfe for fantasy and Raymond Chandler for mystery.

      •  I avoided mysteries for decades, as I thought that (6+ / 0-)

        the genre was a huge homogenous mass of similar formulae. When I started reading 100 Best lists, they led me to some gems by a few of the top names in the field.

        The only mystery authors I've fallen hard for, so far, are P. D. James, for all the psychology in her characters; and Raymond Chandler, for that startling fresh and crunchy language.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 02:17:54 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  As always, Brecht, a delightful contribution (7+ / 0-)

    for/to those of us who read about reading.
    Although my current object of perusal does not seem even vaguely relevant, I have just come to the chapter discussing magic in Reza Aslan's current offering, Zealot.
    I had some knowledge of the gaggle of contenders for the messiah slot in first century Palestine but none at all that healers, miracle workers, etc., were ubiquitous as well.
    Considering the rather fantastic story of Jesus, maybe the book does, indeed, suit the category after all.

    •  We know he gives a good interview, and that he's (6+ / 0-)

      done loads of research into Jesus' life - so I expect it's informative. Is it also a pleasure to read? Does he make his language and story dance for you?

      As for the relevance, my diaries are intended to get your mental cogs turning - but you can bring your own conversation. Happy to see you here, 714day.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 11:33:12 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Glad to be here, Brecht, and to have laid (3+ / 0-)

        eyes on the vehicle that houses your lovely mind.
        Aslan does have an engaging style to my way of thinking. His presentation of the firmament in which the Nazarene traveled is extremely vivid. This, ultimately, his objective. Since he freely admits there is little to no historical evidence of this remarkable fellow, he paints for us the historical reality of the place and time in which he was spawned. It is this that he believes is the only way to get an accurate portrait of this Jewish man, and even a correct understanding of the supposed reportage of the gospels.
        For example, in describing the place of burnt offerings of blood sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem (operating 24 hours a day to accommodate demand) we read:

        This is as close as you will ever get to God. The stink of carnage is impossible to ignore. It clings to the skin, the hair, becoming a noisome burden you will not soon shake off.
        Without a doubt, I get his picture.
        •  Perhaps Zealot manages to take us closer to Jesus' (4+ / 0-)

          actual world than any previous book. If you read the gospels again, after Zealot, they may spring more vividly to life in your mind, now that you have so much background sketched in.

          This is another kind of marriage of realism with magic - though, in Jesus' case, the mystery is essential, too. It seems to me that much of the power of Jesus, as an icon, a symbol, a paradigm of Good Man, rests on the sparse historical record. We have the things he said, which echo their wisdom and love down through the ages. And we have a handful of stories. Which leaves us, the readers, free to project all of our hunger for someone to believe in, and all our dreams of what humans free of sin might become, onto this thin historical record.

          The Church, artists, writers and architects, have built legends and cathedrals in his name, so that he's far more than just the gospels now. Christianity was lucky that he left enough traces to see a credible human being, but so few that we could pour our myriad hopes and dreams into the holes in his biography.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 11:26:56 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  I stopped reading books on religion (6+ / 0-)

      in the mid-80s, but Zealot has piqued my interest. I have listened to several interviews and read a few reviews and despite myself I am still interested.

      Are you recommending it?

      •  I would highly reccomend it. (4+ / 0-)

        I love reading well researched histories and this, it most assuredly is. His access to primary resources was clearly broad and he has accessed the opinions of historical savants with bailiwicks in that era in the middle east, too. He also has a reasonable grasp of ancient Greek and Aramaic.
        This is solid stuff.
        Please see my response to Brecht upthread. Aslan hits his mark with the you-are-there angle.

  •  Speaking of things bleeding into each other (6+ / 0-)

    from an almost diametrically opposed viewpoint: there is a book called Silverlock, by John Myers Myers, which does not fit distinctly into any of the categories under Speculative Fiction, but is an introduction to Wonder as Literature. (or vice versa, I've never been able to quite be sure)

    At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh.... (Yes, there's gender bias in my name; no, I wasn't thinking about it when I signed up. My apologies.)

    by serendipityisabitch on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 02:49:30 AM PDT

    •  Sounds playful, erudite and unique. Never heard of (6+ / 0-)

      it till now, but it is intriguing. I have a soft spot for sui generis books. Philip José Farmer and Jasper Fforde have both played meta-fiction games with borrowed characters, but not quite in this ballpark.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 03:19:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  This one comes via a side door into SF. (5+ / 0-)

        Karen Anderson found the book and set one or two poems from it to music for filking. Poul and Gordie and Larry and the crowd kind of took it from there. There's some really good poetry there.

        From Tammuz' song;

        I remember joy and pain, neat and mixed together,
        Heat and cold I've known full well, both good drinking weather,
        Light and darkness I have known, seldom doubting whether,
        Tammuz would return again, when he'd slipped his tether.

        At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh.... (Yes, there's gender bias in my name; no, I wasn't thinking about it when I signed up. My apologies.)

        by serendipityisabitch on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 06:57:23 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I love to read but.... (5+ / 0-)

    ....if you want a fantasy world, sometimes it's better just to "live another life, in another world" rather than read about it. You want dragons? Play Skyrim and have them landing right on top of you. You want Ayn Rand's weird world? Play the first Bioshock game, which is set in the sort of hell a society guided by her ideas would have inevitably descended into.

    There's no substitute for books. And ironically, in a game like Skyrim, there are scores of different books lying around, so you can pick up one, sit down in front of the fire, and read. But sometimes it's nice to get a bit further into a world than a book ever can, since a book is fixed, while a game can constantly change as you walk through it and interact with its various parts. And a game can be filled with embedded and implicit narratives, where you start talking with someone or see something that tells a story you have to imagine from the remaining evidence.

    One example from the game Fallout 3 begins when you stumble into range of a low-power radio signal set to loop endlessly. It's a young man's voice saying -- begging -- that if anyone can hear them, he needs a doctor desperately because his son is very sick. You track down the source of the signal.... and find nothing but a bunker with bones scattered over the floor. You're two hundred years too late. But you notice as well that the bones are of two adults. There are no children's remains in the bunker. What happened? Did the boy die and the parents bury him outside the bunker, and then come back to die themselves? Did they kill themselves? There's a pistol on the floor with their remains. Who were they? You'll never know. But you can't help digging through the contents of the bunker, trying to guess.

    These optional narratives can be as complex as a whole quest line, a mini-game in itself, or they can be as simple as a computer terminal with the diary of a civil defense team leader in a hopeless struggle against radiation sickness, or a skeleton in a corner of a man who died with his arms wrapped around a suitcase full of useless paper money. A good game will have hundreds of them scattered about. No two players will ever "read" the narrative in the same order. You shape it by your own choices.

    Of course, the limiting factor is the quality of the work that goes into crafting all the pieces. That can be --umm-- somewhat uneven. But it's improving. Old games used to be mindless blasters because that was all the computer could handle. If you're playing a mindless blaster now, it's choice, not the limitations of the media.

    "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

    by sagesource on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 04:47:31 AM PDT

    •  Thoughtful and intriguing, sagesource (5+ / 0-)

      I don't play these games--a generational defect, I'm afraid. But your description of discovery and layering of meaning and plot development reminds me much of how I might have described the act of reading serious literature at one point in my life.

      My questions about these games (which may spring wholly from my ignorance of gaming) are: how is character development handled in games such as this? Can characters grow, mature, learn from their mistakes, empathise, teach me lessons, make me wiser?

      My son is a huge gamer (at a basic level, given his young age) and so much of what I know of gaming comes from him and the games he plays. In a certain sense, I sometimes feel that a particular game blinkers my imagination: similar to reading a great book and then seeing the movie and thinking, "no, that's not what it looks like!" [Then again, there's Bladerunner, which completely outdid my own imagination applied to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?]

      •  This gives me an idea of doing a series called (5+ / 0-)

        Good Games for DK Gamers, and reviewing some games where the focus is on a character's "life" journey.

        Of course, The Longest Journey and Syberia immediately come to mind, but there are others out there.

        One of these days, lol

        •  "Games for people allergic to games" (5+ / 0-)

          One of the ones I have recommended to people who hate the run'n'gun type of game is Analogue: A Hate Story by Christine Love, which I reviewed a while back. There isn't a shootout in the entire game -- nearly all of it is just talking, or messaging rather -- but it can seriously mess with your head. A great game for anyone you've heard say "How could s/he have ever fallen in love with a person like that?" Or there are experimental efforts like Dear Esther, where nearly everything you associate with a game has been stripped away -- no guns, no enemies, no one else in the entire game, for that matter -- all you do is wander a deserted island in the Hebrides slowly going insane as you try to fit together fragments of at least three separate stories, one of which is the death of Esther, your wife, in an automobile accident.

          "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

          by sagesource on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 12:01:09 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Those two sound very intriguing. I like character, (3+ / 0-)

            puzzle, and densely layered story in a game. And I like ultra-quirky games - the last one I got addicted to is katamari damacy.

            Which is the real problem. I've no doubt there are a few dozen games out there that I'd enjoy like a new kind of drug - but they'd also eat up a few weeks of my life. An absorbing series of adventures, in a vividly drawn world with whole continents to explore, as my character got smarter and more powerful - too much fun. Tempting, though.

            In response to a theme of this whole thread, we live in a rich and changing time for storytelling. This whole era of TV shows reaching for larger, subtler stories, extending in more directions at once is a real watershed. The Age of the Showrunner: The Sopranos, Arrested Development, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, House, 30 Rock, Mad Men, Breaking Bad - and two dozen others, pushing boundaries in their own ways.

            I'm looking from a distance, through secondhand reports, but it looks like Video Games are deepening in some of the same ways, and also with many bells and whistles you can't put in the more passive TV experience.

            This is a generation for brave imaginations. Or perhaps we're advancing to new levels of storytelling, and comprehension. Maybe we've got such a media-rich culture that we are grasping more levels of story at once. You can tell immediately when you watch old TV and movies that they almost all tell stories more sparsely and gradually then we're used to these days.

            But there are different ways of telling stories, and the stately pace of The Godfather, let alone an old Western, may be the most effective way to unfold those particular tales. If every show on TV felt like Breaking Bad, I'd get ulcers.

            Novels also are perfect, untouchable, for telling many kinds of stories. There are ways they can stir up and involve the reader's imagination that just don't work through these more visual media.

            I don't really have a thesis or conclusion here, I just think we're living in rapidly changing times for how we process information and how we tell stories. These are themes worth grappling with, especially for those of us who have stories inside us, that we want to get across.

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 08:53:43 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  With most games.... (3+ / 0-)

              ....well designed ones, that is, you can choose your pace to a certain extent. Some paths are relatively peaceful, or at least predictable; some are extremely dangerous but potentially highly rewarding. For instance, in Skyrim, once you escape the initial dragon attack, you'll end up outside the burning town with one other person who has helped you escape (I nearly always go with the Legion soldier rather than the Stormcloak rebel). The soldier tells you that you can probably get some help from his uncle, the blacksmith in a nearby town, and that it might be an idea to join the Imperial Legion myself (a bold suggestion considering that an hour ago, they were trying to cut your head off, but as the general says if you do join up, "I'm sure that it was all just a terrible mistake"). This is the "easy" option, going straight to a place where you have been told there will be friends and supplies, and then joining an organization with its own questline, where you can improve your character at a steady pace. Or if you're feeling bold, you can just spin the bottle and take off in any direction that you please, mountains permitting. This is far riskier, but also potentially much more rewarding. And if you get banged up, well, there's always that blacksmith....

              If you go in one direction, you'll sooner or later find a shack with a little old lady outside. She's a witch. Win a fight with her, and you inherit her shack, which contains the basic setups for alchemy and enchanting. You also have a chance of being hunted for the rest of the game by her friends, who can turn up at the most inconvenient moments. People who kill everything that moves or steal everything that isn't screwed down are soon crippled by the weight of the consequences. The witch's friends may not show up for a hundred hours of play, or they may be waiting for you in the next town. Or they may never come at all, but you can never be sure that the game has forgotten about what you did. As in life, it pays to be a nice guy.... most of the time.

              (Some of the funniest episodes occur when two or more groups of your enemies arrive at the same time to have it out with you. There's a decent chance they'll go for each other instead, making your life much simpler.)

              I sympathize with your desire to avoid falling into black holes, though. In my opinion, it takes at least two hundred hours to play a reasonably thorough game of Skyrim, and even then I doubt you would see much more than half of what's there. A good open-world game is world-sized. I get away with it because I have no TV. I generally avoid saying that, since some culture snobs like to boast of their boob-tube-freeness. I know there's a great deal of art there, but I can't stand the way it is presented. And besides, I prefer to keep control over my stories, a degree of control at least.

              "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

              by sagesource on Sun Oct 06, 2013 at 12:09:07 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  I have no TV, but I watch several shows on hulu. (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                RiveroftheWest, Monsieur Georges

                That gives me plenty of entertainment when I feel like turning half my brain off, but not so much choice that I get lost there.

                I don't object to Video Games or addictive TV series. I just see them as snacks and desserts - no substitute for the meat and vegetables of writing diaries (and more) and reading books. And exercising and taking care of chores and such. If I ever get entirely on top of my business, and start accomplishing the stuff that matters to my heart, that stretches and builds who I am - then I might well reward myself with a game like Skyrim. It does sound like a whole new kind of fun, and right up my alley.

                Your diary, Dishonored: assassination for pacifists is on the long side, but I'll read it later on this evening.

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Sun Oct 06, 2013 at 06:35:58 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

        •  One or more diaries on Storytelling and Character (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, Monsieur Georges

          Development would be interesting and, I think, popular. You could explain, in a few diaries, a few of your own favorite games - considering them from a Reader's viewpoint. Then you might find other Kossacks wanted to do the same for their favorites.

          I've seen several articles about the Golden Age of Television we're living in. Rightly so - The Wire is the closest I've seen to capturing a novel's worth of storytelling, onscreen.

          I'd like to get a better picture of how Video Games are advancing to new levels of storytelling. And what aspects of storytelling, and of player involvement in the story, are Games pioneering which can't be found in any other medium?

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 09:03:30 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  The AI is still limited..... (4+ / 0-)

        .....and very "artificial" at times. You never find out how damned complicated reality is until you try to simulate it. But yes, in a well-designed game, the other characters (NPC -- non-player characters) will change to reflect what you've done and what others know about you.

        Many games have a global "karma" system that tracks whether you are doing good or evil things, and adjusts the responses of the NPC accordingly. In Dishonored, for instance, there is a huge change in the game between the way it plays when you haven't killed anyone at all (fiendishly difficult, but possible and very challenging) and when you've shot everything that moves. The more people you kill, the less cooperative and sympathetic the NPC get, until some of them begin to betray you. The ten year old girl who is the heir-apparent to the throne is affected as well: if you are setting too violent an example, she becomes corrupted and violent herself. Even the pictures she draws in her spare time change, from happy to disturbing.

        The karma system may keep track of two values, how good you really are, and how good you seem to be to others. For instance, if you do something bad and leave no witnesses alive, your real karma will go down but your reputation will be unaffected. It's quite common for there to be different reactions to the same karma score from different groups -- evil characters becoming more cooperative if you're evil, and vice versa, or even separate reputations for each group, according to the way you've treated its members in the past. Sometimes, you have to deal with inherited prejudices: In Skyrim, for example Argonians simply don't like Khajiit, and vice versa, and if you're playing as a member of one of these groups, interactions with a member of the other will be handicapped.  Sometimes, you can bribe influential members of a group to raise your reputation with that group, or with the entire community. And it's quite common for casual NPC dialog to change according to your specific deeds or general reputation, or even the weapon you happen to be carrying: "Hey, aren't you the guy who...." or "Nice dagger. Who did you have to kill to get it?"

        Of course, since it isn't real life, there are always holes in the system, ways it can be manipulated to produce results that are absurd in real-life terms. One common one is group telepathy: things you do having an instant effect on the whole group rather than the news spreading in a more natural fashion, with the result that even totally isolated individuals instantly know what you did last summer, so to speak. And there's always somebody who will sit up nights for a week figuring out a way to assassinate the Emperor and get a parking-ticket-sized fine in return. But you usually have to go hunting for the absurdities these days, rather than having them shoved in your face.

        "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

        by sagesource on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 11:50:34 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Lovely subtleties. I like the two karma levels, (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, Monsieur Georges

          how some things get easier and some harder as you do good or bad deeds in Dishonored, and the attention to detail where the princess's behavior and even her drawings change.

          As I just said to SoCaliana, I'll bet there are some very interesting diaries to be written on the Video Games which have the best storytelling.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 09:16:42 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  I tried to get this idea across in some of the (5+ / 0-)

      DK Gamers diaries, and you've expressed it so much better! TY :)

      The adventure game has indeed come a long way.

      •  And has a long way to go... but it's going. (5+ / 0-)

        One of the chief enemies of quality, as always, is the marketing wing of whatever company's publishing the game. Good beta testing is lengthy, time-consuming, and very frustrating at times as the programmers chase obscure bugs, but it's necessary for quality. A friend of a friend of a friend, for instance, is one of those beta testing the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online. About a month ago, they were asked to deliberately behave as irresponsibly as they could -- spamming huge chat messages, for instance -- to see if they could bring the server down. And they did, in about five minutes. Whoops! Back to the drawing board. But better now than after the game is released.

        Of course, if you're writing in an established franchise, you can always exploit a group of the faithful to clean up your messes for you. The "Unofficial Skyrim Patch," for instance, fixes over six thousand errors in the game, most of them trivial (plates floating a foot above the table, for instance), but some of them major. And Bethesda, the publisher, hasn't paid a penny for all that love, even though to date they've made over 600 million dollars from Skyrim.

        "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

        by sagesource on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 12:14:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  So I have been sitting here thinking (7+ / 0-)

    about Dicken's Christmas Carol.  I can't remember how old I was when I first read it since I was a child who read Oz books and Alcott and Austen and Dickens all mixed together.

    But, it certainly had an impact on me of huge proportions.  The three spirits and Marley were magic.  The office and the Cratchit's home and the nephew's house are realistic.

    It was such an interesting mixture.

    Thanks, Brecht!!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 08:52:34 AM PDT

    •  I know you're sensitive; but now you're psychic? (5+ / 0-)

      Seriously. I actually planned out in a list all my diaries till the end of the year. I didn't mention the December ones above, because I know my whims, and am uncertain I can stick to a three month plan. But on my list, for Dec, 20, I've written Christmas Carol.

      Congratulations on your sensitive antennae, which reach far into the ether. It'll probably be easier for both of us if you don't probe too deeply into the darkness below the surface of my mind.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 02:26:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I <3 Sci Fi (6+ / 0-)

    It's what I cut my teeth on. It's been a long time since I've had time to read anything much for pleasure, but if I could, I'd surely go back through a lot more Sci Fi. It's such good stuff when done right. Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite authors (I just don't much talk about it).

    Tipped & Rec'd.

    Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

    by mahakali overdrive on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 10:01:42 AM PDT

    •  I know how busy you are, so I'm always happy to (5+ / 0-)

      see you here. You have interesting things to say about every aspect of literature - sometimes even whole diaries to think about.

      I like Philip K. Dick very much too, for his wild imagination, and some very funny writing. My favorites are Man in the High Castle and Ubik. But I have an unopened five novel collection on my TBR shelf, so I'm looking forward to Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly.

      SF is one of my favorite escapes. But I'm trying to read everything, as Ouroboros might, so the SF comes as sherbets between other courses of my eternal feast.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 02:49:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Brecht, I'm always happy to see you too! (4+ / 0-)

        Your really promoting the very best conversation about literature here, and that makes me shine every time!

        He is absolutely amazing, hysterical, and often quite poignant. I would like to sit down and read so much more of his work still.

        You had me at Hitchhiker's Guide, of course.

        I still like a lot of older Sci-Fi. The Island of Dr. Moreau = underrated.

        Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

        by mahakali overdrive on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 06:38:59 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  as someone who writes musicals... (3+ / 0-)

    an interesting parallel exists. The musical I have just completed may as well be sci-fi, and I found the only way to express the 'unbelievable' aspects of the piece could not be explained with dialog, it had to come in on a blanket of music and lyrics.

    For some reason singing with commitment, with musical underscoring to heighten the emotion, has been effective tool to use to bypass all the filters of cynicism the pragmatic mind naturally creates when dealing with sci-fi.

    It's why musicals like Wicked are successful, strong tunes and committed performances, and we will believe what you tell us.

    •  I'm generally not into musicals much. Sure, I've (3+ / 0-)

      enjoyed My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, because they're well-made movies with good stories. But they seldom seem deep and serious to me, with so much singing and dancing thrown in the way of the story.

      In fairness, the really skillful writers marry the plot and the music so that the songs do double duty: they advance the plot, and they add emotional heft to the flow of the story. As you're doing with the songs in your new musical.

      Last Christmas I saw the movie of Les Miserables. It not only succeeded on both counts I mentioned, it went further: for the first time I felt there was no way that story could have been told as effectively, without the rousing musical numbers. Les Miserables is a very specific kind of story, from one of the most popular and successful storytellers of the 19th Century. It is so melodramatic, yet so gritty and detailed. In fact, in line with the theme of this diary, I found the movie did an exceptional job of marrying magic and realism in one overwhelming tale.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 09:36:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  well said (4+ / 0-)

    about magic plus realism equals something amazing

    i actually grew up on science fiction: heinlein, asimov, herbert, dick  and then branched out from there. back then, i even thought bradbury was miscategorized and on the wrong shelf in the library. now i don't what to think any more.

    while i'm less concerned about categories as i find many of the books i like transcend labels, i do find it interesting to out more about them eg the issue of hysterical realism. now would you consider that derivative of magical realism?

    i'm also finding the books i really swoon over don't seem to be on best lists, unfortunately, and they don't necessarily win prizes so lists and prizes don't mean as much to me as they have in the past

    looking forward to the series.

    •  Perhaps Heinlein, Asimov and Herbert set out to (4+ / 0-)

      write great SF; while Bradbury, Vonnegut and Atwood set out to write great books, which happened to include a lot of wonder and some science in their plots.

      I think hysterical realism often tries to weave a kind of dazzling enchantment, that one of the sources it borrows from is magical realism. But I always thought magical realism was something that lived in Latin America - I'm only just beginning to see how far it spread from there, and how many similar discoveries were made in other countries. Yes, to answer the question you asked, I consider hysterical realism derivative of magical realism.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 11:35:08 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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