Episode 51: Live with Gary K. Wolfe!

With birthday celebrations now receding into the past (no baked goods were harmed in the recording of this podcast), Gary  and I turn our attention once more to matters at hand. The Locus Awards nominees have been announced, so we discuss the usefulness of awards, how 2010 looks in retrospect, and how 2011 looks from here (with specific mention of China Mieville’s Embassytown, Greg Egan’s Clockwork Rocket, Michael Swanwick’s Dancing with Bears, Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, and Jo Walton’s Among Others), and I set Gary a reviewing challenge. We hope you enjoy it, as always!

PS: Yes, we know it’s ridiculously long! Sorry. We’ll do better next time. Probably. No. Really. Well, possibly.

5 thoughts on “Episode 51: Live with Gary K. Wolfe!”

  1. This comment contains spoilers for Jo Walton’s Among Others. Anyone who has not read the novel may wish to skip this comment in its entirety.

    Okay. Here goes nothing. Among Others is not a mimetic school novel with extra added fantasy bits. It is a fantasy novel that includes a mimetic school narrative. Gary keeps saying that Mori is like any young person who feels like an outsider, and that’s the sticking point, right there. Mori doesn’t feel like an outsider. She is an outsider. She is a young woman who has come fully into her magical power, fought a great battle, defeated the enemy, saved the world, been sorely wounded, and lost her precious sister. She is, in short, a cognate of Frodo the Nine-Fingered, returned from the Cracks of Doom. And the hero is in boarding school. This is the trick that Tolkien couldn’t quite pull off: imagining healing, imagining an ordinary life after the great battle. You can say a lot of things about this novel, but you can’t say it doesn’t go in at the deep end.

    In case you miss it on the way in, by the end of the story we have Huorns coming out of that book to take action in this one, resolving another battle.

    Mori is isolated in school, and she has limited options for bridging the gap, because if she talked about her experiences and her background she would literally become less explicable to her classmates with every word she spoke. Less explicable and more suspect. Shutting up, sitting down and reading the library from wall to wall isn’t just a good idea, it’s the only viable option. The book club offers the opportunity to talk about the shared and safe experience of reading the same books, becomes a place to talk about worldbuilding and in doing so mutually to build a world and share it. That’s important to Mori for more than one reason, because her deepest fear is that her magic, which curves the world a little until it moves into the channel of her wishes, may cause those around her to perform her will. In a world her magic made, she would be truly alone (and strangely like a Dark Lord, too).

    Honestly, guys, if there’s some way to make fantasy more central to this book than it already is, I can’t imagine it. It’s about identity and community, yes, but in the context of the use of power and the building of worlds. And it has those nifty, original fairies, too.

    You could, I think, write a mimetic novel about these characters in this school and this book club, but the backstory would likely overwhelm the frontstory, both in emotional intensity and in the level of detail needed to describe the damaging events. If you didn’t handle it perfectly, you’d run the risk of making the protagonist pathetic instead of heroic. And it would inevitably be about damage and recovery. Among Others is about power and victory instead, and about the brilliant achievement of an ordinary life in a socially constructed reality. The familiar fantasy motifs streamline the backstory wonderfully.

    So, yes, I think it has to be a fantasy novel.

    It’s morning in the US right now, so good morning, Gary, and good night, Jonathan.

  2. Hi, guys. I have an electronic version of Soft Apocalypse, but I haven’t read it yet. You mentioned that it was an apocalypse brought about, not by a catastrophic event, but a consistent societal decline and wondered if this had been done before. I’d have to say that it has been done in Octavia Butler’s Parable novels. Since I read them years ago, it always struck me that hers was one of the most disturbingly plausible end of the world scenarios ever dreamed up.

    On an entirely unrelated subject, I’ve heard you guys on earlier shows mention a couple of times that it’s not possible for another editor to have an effect on the field like John W. Campbell did. I haven’t listened to every one of your shows, so I don’t know if the point I’m about to make has ever been brought up, but I believe it is possible for another editor to have such an effect on the field. Whether or not that will ever happen is another story. The reason Campbell was such a giant was that he worked hard to bend the field to his will. He didn’t stop at shaping it by the mere act of choosing which stories he’d run. He also asked for rewrites that went beyond cosmetic alterations and instead reworked the science fictional ideas and consequences upon which the original story was based. On top of that, he seeded the field by asking writers to develop ideas that he’d come up with. You guys know all of this, of course. I think it’s entirely possible that an editor today could do the same things he did. Aside from the constraints of time and wherewithal, I know that your first objection will be that the field is much larger and much more diverse than it was seventy years ago and one editor can’t reach a portion of the field substantial enough to make great changes. I think, though, that a modern editor with a good reputation working on diverse, high-profile projects can have an immense impact on the field that could ripple outward in direct and indirect ways. There you go, Jonathan. All you need to do is reach out and seize the reins of Campbellian greatness.

  3. While I sometimes think you guys value awards way too much, I did think the exercise of looking at Hugo nominees 10, 20, and 30 years ago was pretty interesting.

    I’d still argue that a work being an award winner doesn’t tell you all that much about its quality or how long its reputation will last. (“Best” according to what criteria? Were all its “competitors” examined?) But nominees … well, I think your exercise showed that lists of nominees — like the Locus Recommended Reading List — are a useful guide. However, I still prefer “best of” lists that are made up by one individual.

    And stop apologizing for your ramblings! I like your wanderings.

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