Monday, May 10, 2010

This Glitteratti Life (Part 5,285)


There I am, holding a glass of champagne again.  The inimitable Henry Wessells and I are toasting Hope Mirrlees at a party at Henry and Mary Jo's house in Montclair, New Jersey.  It was not, however, a party to celebrate the fact that the book I wrote and Henry published, Hope-in-the-Mist is currently on the Hugo ballot for Best Related Book.  Nor was it held to celebrate Ellen Kushner's The Man With the Swords, which Henry published the previous Monday, though both Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman were present as well.

It was Henry's birthday.

Happy birthday, Henry -- many many more!

And, wonking happily away . . .

So does my book have a shot at the Hugo?  Well, let's take a look at the ballot:

  • Canary Fever: Reviews, John Clute
  • Hope-In-The-Mist: The Extraordinary Career and Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees, Michael Swanwick
  • The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teens’ Science Fiction, Farah Mendlesohn
  • On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn
  • The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of SF Feminisms, Helen Merrick
  • This is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This is “I”), Jack Vance
Canary Fever is the latest collection of John Clute's reviews, and Clute is indisputably the bull goose critic in the science fiction world, so that's always a strong possibility.  I buy the collections as they come out, so obviously I like 'em.

I also liked Helen Merrick's book, though any book with the word "Feminist" in its title is going to find its first-place votes seriously eroded by a collection of essays about Joanna Russ.  Who is not only one of the smartest writers within genre but (I'd argue) one of the smartest writers in feminist theory as well.

I haven't seen Jack Vance's autobiography but he's one of the last giants standing and one of the pioneers of modern science fiction, so a lot of us are going to feel we owe him one last award.  I'd guess he's the front-runner right now.

At first blush, it looks like Farah Mendlesohn would be cutting her vote in half by having two books on the ballot.  Not so.  The Hugo vote is counted by the Australian ballot system, and my own experience is that having multiple works in a category is an actual advantage there.  So The Inter-Galactic Playground may have a very good shot indeed.  I've got the book on order from Big Blue Marble, but haven't read it yet.  However, I'm anticipating it will be very good indeed.  I've seen the collection she amassed to research it, and it included not only all the major works of YA and children's science fiction, but also all the mediocre works that made a lot of money and were read by millions.  It's an impressive and appalling achievement, which I myself would never attempt.  I can only quote the immortal words of Ruby Kipling:  "You're a gunga man than I am, Betty Din."

And that leaves my own book.  Its chances?  Well, it was published in an edition of two hundred, which works against it.  But the Hugo Award administrators are putting together some kind of virtual package of either all or most of the nominated works, which makes a Hugo not entirely impossible.  Not likely, mind you.  But I'll have to arrange for a designated acceptor, just to be safe.

So what do I think's going to win?  For two reasons, I'm not going to say.  The first is that when the voting actually occurs, everything goes chaotic.  Too many factors come into play for even the most informed person to make a reliable prediction.  And secondly, and more importantly, my predictions are almost invariably wrong.  So I wouldn't want to jinx the person I'm rooting for (after myself, of course) but making my guess public.

But what a strong category!  I'll be happy with the outcome, whoever wins.



David Stone said...

Even if you win that prize, you should give it to Jack Vance. Because... you know... Jack Vance!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Michael!
I look forward to reading your next excursion into the literary history of the fantastical.

And since we have bragging rights through the summer, all we need say is, may the best book win!


Matthew Brandi said...

My major vice is my almost unconditional love for Joanna Russ. If I'd a shred of religious feeling, I'd have founded a cult devoted to her.

In that spirit of unreasonable affection, I must question one of the smartest writers within genre. Surely, one of the smartest writers of prose fiction. What kind of genius would it take to write a novel to eclipse The Two of Them or The Female Man?

"The Second Inquisition" will haunt me to my grave, I think:

Then I would add, "Which are you?" and she would only shrug and smile a little more. She would prop her chin on one long, long hand and look into my eyes with her black Egyptian eyes and then she would say in her curious hoarse voice:

"It is you who must say it first."

"I think," I would say, "that you are a Morlock," and sitting on the bed in my mother's rented room with The Time Machine open beside her, she would say:

"You are exactly right. I am a Morlock."

We are not worthy!

Now, if only someone would release a CD edition of the LP she made ...

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Echoing Matthew Brandi, I owe Joanna Russ a lot. When I was ten years old she - through the agency of "The Second Inquisition" - screwed the top of my skull right off and I've never quite managed to get it to fit properly since.

[Matthew - I'm very gratified to find someone else as impressed with 'The Second Inquisition' as me. It's one of the foundation stones of my literary world. Also - what LP?]

Then again, Jack Vance. Autobiography. I read the _Planet of Adventure_ series, again at the age of ten, and I think they set me up for life.

And I loved and was saddened by _Hope in the Mist_ and it finally led me to reading _Lud in the Mist_ after all these years of meaning to.

As for Clute - I'm in the odd position that I loath his writing (every sentence seems constructed purely to say this: but I just as strongly respect his critical faculties.

And I don't know Helen Merrick from a bar of soap, but _The Secret Feminist Cabal_ sounds well worth a go.

Tough year.

Matthew Brandi said...

Hannah's Dad - Yeah, I love the story so much, I've a chunk of it stuck up on the wall. The use of repetition ('she', 'long', & 'eyes') in the first paragraph I quoted dazzles me, and it maybe explains how I came to love jazz drumming. ;)

The LP: I saw a review of it in IASFM in the late '70s or early '80s, but I never saw a copy. It has her reading her stories, including "Gleepsite", if I remember correctly. I'd have to go through the back issues to check details; nag me, if you want them.

Michael Swanwick said...

Good Lord! I have actually been caught underpraising Joanna Russ. I am appalled.

I hate to use unconditional superlatives when talking about writers because that makes it sound as if this were a competition in which Joanna had bested and humiliated the competition in a Brutal Battle of the Brains. Clearly, though, I should have said she was "as brilliant as anybody in ..."

She really is spectacular. As good as anybody we have. And her critical writing can be as incandescent as her fiction.

Matthew Brandi said...

I don't want to knock things like Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans, and Perverts and How to Suppress Women's Writing, but I like to think of Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex as the science fiction reader's call to the barricades.

Think of Ms. Russ as standing to fiction writers as Wittgenstein to philosophers or Miles Davis to jazz musicians. It's not that they do what the others do only better, it's that they do their own thing, and they do it with such grace that one can only look on in slack-jawed wonder.

As for "besting and humiliating the competition in a Brutal Battle of the Brains", well, one wouldn't necessarily back Miles in a cutting contest, and I doubt sophistry was Ludwig's strongest point.

See also a showdown between Ornette--a man ineluctably following his own path--and Coltrane--closer to being your standard jazzer, but on steroids (and therefore more easily imitated).

While we've any number of Miles clones and wannabe Wittgensteins, I'm not sure that we've had any Russ followers, though doubtless there have been plenty of PhD theses on her work.

It's not that we'd benefit from JR knockoffs, but you know: imitation ... flattery ...

I fear she has been more respected than loved, and that is a scandal.

Michael Swanwick said...

Her work could be hard to love sometimes because she asked the hard questions and came up with hard answers. Which, by mere example, suggested that the rest of us weren't living up to the task. Which in turn bred a kind of guilty resentment.

Which is ironic because she really does love science fiction in an almost fangirlish way. It shines through her F&SF reviews.

Matthew Brandi said...

Hard questions and hard answers? They are tofu and beetroot juice to me. (In fairness, I've always found it easy to think the thought, even when it is hard to walk the walk, but I'm given to understand that my fellow humans are not all like that.)

Other things that might make her work hard to love? The only example that springs to mind is her strategy in We Who Are About To ... of making her avenging angel hard to love, but that is there to keep the reader from identifying with the protagonist--it wouldn't do for the thing to collapse into a revenge fantasy for the reader--, though we do feel for her, and the book is the better for not being an easy pleasure, no?

If she loves SF in an almost fangirlish way, isn't it just that she sees the eleventh commandment, thou shalt write serious fiction only in the nineteenth century realist mode, as woefully misguided.

Doesn't she say somewhere that non-realistic fiction is in the end more what fiction is about? That is, make-believe. That's from memory, and doubtless garbled, but comes from a piece in which she talks of the mainstream mode of fiction being non-realist for most of fiction's history, and in which she praises didactic fiction (with reference to the middle ages, I seem to recall).

I'm not pushing Technicolor, crash-bang-wallop fiction--and neither, I believe, is Russ--, but the fact that the "world of the fiction" (scare quotes very much needed) need not be like the world we live in brings us smack up against the fact that fiction is not describing the world. (Nor, of course, is it describing some other possible world, whatever David Lewis might think.)

It can make us think about imagination, language, and just how thin our conceptions of them sometimes are.

Of course, there is a contrary tendency in SF, one that doesn't want us to think about the absolute strangeness of "he cut through the couldn't-possibly-existium hull with his unobtanium broadsword": as if these metals just happened not to be found around here, but that is McFiction.

Where am I going with this? Right back to realistic fiction, of course: it is not as if Sherlock Holmes just happens not to exist. Non-realistic fiction does for the rest of language what all fiction does for proper names, one might say.

Well, that's my back-of-a-fag-packet defence of "fangirlish" enthusiasm for SF: it can more comprehensively pull the rug out from under one than realistic fiction, indeed it can take the floor, and maybe the planet; we could all benefit from the condition of falling.

So, yeah, she is trying to keep the rest of us up to the mark, but that's just one more reason to love her.

Matthew Brandi said...

This seems a good time to quote Virginia Woolf:

Art is not a copy of the real world, one of the damn things is enough.

Matthew Brandi said...

Also, on the slipperiness of language, consider Hilary Putnam's example:

What if cats had turned out to be robots from Mars ...