Episode 125: Of lists and rambling

In one of our most problem-free podcasts of recent times, Gary Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan return to the Waldorf Room high atop the corporate tower that is the Coode Street Motel Six to discuss lists, the Locus All-Time Poll that has just closed, and essays/articles by Paul McAuley on “Lets Put the Future Behind Us” and Jonathan McAlmont on “Annoyed with the History of Science Fiction“, with passing reference to Gary Westfahl and Paul Kincaid (but only passing). Along the way lists were made, recommendations avoided, and a laugh or two was had. It’s one of our longest podcasts of recent times, for which apologies, but as always we hope you enjoy it. See you next week!

10 thoughts on “Episode 125: Of lists and rambling”

  1. Thanks for the mention gents :-)

    I complete agree with the idea that Connie Willis was influenced by Heinlein as the future stuff in Blackout is a clear example of show-don’t-tell now that I think of it. In fact, that may well go some way to explaining why I found those sections of the book so thin.

    I’m afraid I don’t buy Gary’s argument that SF criticism has not yet had the time to develop its own critical arsenal as film is about as old as SF and the critical language surrounding film is immeasurably richer than that surrounding SF. In fact, as I quoted in my piece, the first generation of post-War film critics were using quite a complex technical patois to describe films. Gary may well be correct that time will make the emergence of this type of thing more likely but I think serious SF criticism could be more highly evolved than it is.

    The psychic powers stuff is really interesting. I get the impression that that set of tropes featured quite heavily in SF of the 40s, 50s and early 60s as a lot of people believed that it was only a matter of time before scientists discovered hard evidence of ESP. However, as that possibility was ruled out and ESP became increasingly the preserve of cranks, the trope moved across the aisle to fantasy and horror. This, along with the fading popularity of FTL, shows how scientific thought interacts with the field.

  2. Ha! I voted in the Locus Centuries Poll, and I had Crowley’s “Great Work of Time” in 3rd place on my list of 20th century novellas. Thanks to Gary’s observations, I’m going to feel smug for weeks!

  3. The Crowley is a genuinely great story and belongs on any top novellas list, I think. I don’t know it would have made my personal Top 5 list. I think the main reason I didn’t participate in the Poll this year was that I couldn’t find the time to give it the thought it really demanded to do it properly. I can say Lucius Shepard’s “R&R” would always be in my top 5, though.

  4. I think you’re right about how it demonstrates the way that scientific thought can interact with the field. You see something very similar in the way writers portray Mars now. It’s now the preserve of fantasy to discuss canals etc (as per maybe Gardner Dozois’s forthcoming Old Mars anthology). Given the landing earlier this year, though, I expect to see some pretty gritty settlement stories coming up over the next year or three. As Paul McAuley points out in his Nov 13 blog post “Let’s Put the Future Behind Us” (http://unlikelyworlds.blogspot.com.au/), there’s still a lot of contemporary science that SF is silent on, which is disappointing.

  5. I’m sorry you didn’t participate, Jonathan. The lists that emerge from this exercise need as many informed opinions as possible in order to deserve our respect … and hopefully to send many of us in pursuit of the works we overlooked or underrated. People like you and Gary could easily dash off very strong ballots, and I don’t think it matters if you forget about the odd book or story.

    The 1998/1999 Locus All Time Poll produced pretty convincing results (“convincing” as in “representative of what readers like”), and I hope these are the same.

  6. I enjoyed listening to this conversation, thanks! And thanks also for the pointer to Egan’s “Reasons to be Cheerful”, which I hadn’t read before. I would pick one nit with the “we aren’t seeing much innovative new SF, but at least there is a lot of good writing” argument (if I may exaggerate it). The writing may be technically good, but at least as far as I can tell from what I have read (a big caveat) it’s still incredibly narrow stylistically. For example, you could ask why the voice of the Egan story — told from the perspective of someone who is undergoing drastic changes to his brain — doesn’t reflect those changes in the slightest. It’s described very well, but it’s described almost in the manner of a report. I don’t intend this as a criticism of the Egan story (it is what it is, and does it very well, and did it first), but as an example of the kind of stylistic range which I don’t encounter very often in SF. If it were really true that we were seeing old tropes “written better”, one would expect to see more. The authors who do are (I would wager) often the same ones that are innovative in their content.

  7. Gary,

    Great Work of Time was on Mark Kelly’s “short stories” list. It is novella-length and was originally published as part of a short story collection (Novelty). It was published separately later, after it won the World Fantasy Award, as part of Bantam/Spectra’s ill-fated experiment in publishing standalone novellas in the early 1990s.

    I would list as my #1 sf novel (favorite, definitely; most influential, not so much; most important, probably) The Book of the New Sun. Yes, it came out while I was in my mid-teens (I’m Jonathan’s age), but I think it stands as brilliant summary of the first 50 years of the science fiction genre and a signpost toward the next 50.

    Wolfe is also excellent at novella length, but I think I would be hard-pressed to name a shorter work that impressed me more than Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit”, for all the reasons that Silverberg discussed in Worlds of Wonder. (Even Asimov didn’t think that “Nightfall” was *his* best story, let alone the best sf story ever.)

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