Episode 102: Live with Gary K. Wolfe!

With the sun slowly setting over the Coode Street Motel 6, Gary and I headed for the Waldorf Room to record episode 102 of the podcast. For the first time in two years we had show notes, we had plans, and we had news: surely nothing could go wrong!  Surely!

We had much to discuss:

  • the Nebula Awards winners, which had just been announced;
  • feedback from Cheryl Morgan on Episode 101 and whether women write rigorous SF;
  • gender and whether the gender of the author affects how we perceive the genre of their work;
  • and more! Really.

For those seeking show notes, we did discuss all of the above, along with mention of the Tiptree Centenary (time to start planning!), Gary’s upcoming attendance at Wiscon and Readercon, and other stuff.

However, this is the Coode St Podcast. It soon became clear Gary had not *read* the show notes, that we couldn’t fit in everything we’d planned and…well, we did the best we could. As always, we hope you enjoy the podcast. Next week, Wiscon!

9 thoughts on “Episode 102: Live with Gary K. Wolfe!”

  1. Great podcast. Here I am, listener chiming in as requested, on whether genre-straddling works are more likely to be pushed over the fantasy side of the fence if written by a woman.

    I don’t think you’re looking through testosterone-coloured glasses, but wanting to apply one definition to a changing landscape over time.

    I don’t think any classic science fiction I have read has been as “rigorous” as Greg Egan or even Kim Stanley Robinson.

    Seriously, how rigorous is a “positronic brain”? Just as rigorous as “thread.” It was the writers who used “soft” sciences, like the ecology of Herbert and the anthropology of LeGuin, that was ACTUALLY scientifically rigorous.

    When I read Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man”, I laughed to think that this was once called science fiction. Telepathy in Harry Potter is called Legilimency, and it is magic. The “science” in that Hugo-winning “science fiction” book is not even worthy of a hokey new age expo.

    Not to be biased against men, I recently picked up Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s “House of Zeor” – a paranormal romance if I’ve ever read one, and I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense.

    Just that it might not be the natural recommendation for a person who enjoyed “The Testament of Jessie Lamb”, “Lightborn” or “Zoo City,” and so it’s a good thing we have lots of different shelves.

  2. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the podcast, and thank you for commenting! It’s always good to hear from listeners.

    Your point about wanting to apply one definition to a changing landscape over time is a valid one, though the thought that occurs to me is this – when does the definition change? When do you say this one thing that fell outside the definition is now within in it? I don’t have an absolute answer myself, but sometimes the definitions change and sometimes things are shoe-horned in that actually don’t belong.

    I do agree with you, wholeheartedly, though about the “rigor” of some classic works of science fiction. I still love some of them – like The Demolished Man – but I wouldn’t put them forward as rigorous hard SF in any sense. And yes, many of the SFnal explanations are nothing but hand waviium.


  3. That’s an excellent point about positronic brains, and especially about the popularity of telepathy as a theme in the 40s and 50s. Philip K. Dick’s pre cogs probably fit in here as well, as would most of Van Vogt. I don’t know if any readers of that period actually thought of such works as scientifically rigorous, but it’s interesting to note that as themes of telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, etc. began to fade away in SF, they migrated toward horror fiction as well as fantasy. Think of how much mileage Stephen King has gotten from them, in works that almost no one views as SF.

  4. As always love the podcast with lots to think about.

    Growing up along side the Nebulas I always felt it was more focused on the quality of the writing whilst the Hugo’s were more focused on the more popular and entertaining novels. Sometimes those two things coincided but not always. But to be honest over the past 10 years or so I have been left scratching my head over some of the novels that have been nominated or won. Though, as Lethem has pointed out elsewhere, the rot did start much earlier when Rendezvous for Rama beat out Gravity’s Rainbow.

    Maybe the issue is that the membership of the SFFWA has broadened to the point that a vote from the collegiate becomes little than a popularity contest. Maybe the Nebulas need to introduce at least in part a jury system?

    Having said that the problem for me is more in the Novel category. The short fiction categories still seem to get it right more often than not.

    I think that the gender of authors does influence the perception of the reader. Whenever you approach a story you approach it with a set of cultural filters. For better or worse (OK mainly for the worst) that will affect the way in which a novel is read.

  5. “When does the definition change?” – Cheryl might suggest that it changes when you need to exclude girl-cooties from your club.

    But I think if that’s the case, it’s been spectacularly unsuccessful. You can raise the “aspergerish” requirement as high as you like, and you are never going to exclude Justina Robson, Nancy Kress or Sheri Tepper in the eyes of actual scientists who want rigor in their science fiction and recognise a fundamental grasp of physics as being equal in value to a fundamental grasp of biochemistry or Boolean algebra.

  6. I would never want to or suggest you’d exclude any of those writers. One question – is it some hypothetical group changing a definition to exclude something or another hypothetical group changing it to include something?

  7. Actually I suspect that the definition changed when fantasy became a marketing phenomenon. As soon as publishers felt that they could sell women writers more easily if they labeled them as fantasy then they tried to shoehorn everything that women wrote into the fantasy box.

  8. I agree with Cheryl. Readers experience books through the intermediaries of publishers, which complicates the gender perception question.

    There are books like Kaaron Warren’s Walking the Tree which is clearly SF, yet has a label from its publisher Angry Robot that says explicitly “File Under: Fantasy.” Lauren Beukes’s Clarke-Award winning Zoo City has “File Under: Urban Fantasy.”

    On the other hand, Richard Morgan’s current series is Jack Vance/Gene Wolfe-style “so far in the future it looks like fantasy” science fiction linked to some of his previous SF, yet is marketed as epic fantasy. So it happens to men, too. Is it because the sales projections for fantasy were higher? Is it an author-approved strategy to conceal textual surprises?

    Regarding science fiction specifically, it’d be interesting to have some sort of large-scale survey of SF book covers, looking at things like how often characters are depicted versus objects like spaceships. After a quick look at my own nearby bookshelves, my sense is that more often men get impersonal objects while women get character close-ups. Cherryh, Bujold, Shinn, Butler, Traviss, E. Bear, all have people, or at least faces. KSR’s Mars trilogy, Banks, McDonald, Reynolds, Scalzi, McAuley, McDevitt, all have an absence of people–they have planets, metallic objects in space, etc. Male SF author’s covers also trend at being more photorealistic, and are often scenes of action; while those of women tend toward more stylized poses and compositions, and have less sense of motion.

    So there’s certainly a story about how different genders write that readers are being fed; how much readers believe that story is another matter.

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