Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I've moved!

Hey, everybody. Thanks to the folks at FantasyBookSpot, I now have new hosting and have set up shop at http://www.scifibookspot.com/markley/. Please update bookmarks or links accordingly. I hope I'll see you there!

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gender in science fiction publishing

My unfortunate habit of taking a week to finish chewing over something I’ve read before commenting on it strikes again. (I’m one of those people who always think of devastatingly witty comebacks two days after the conversation is over.) Last week over at SF Signal, they asked the following question for their Mind Meld:

Gender imbalance in genre fiction publishing is an ongoing point of discussion in the blogosphere. Is there an issue here? If so, then what are possible solutions? What can readers, writers, editors and publishers do to rectify the situation?

I’m going to focus here on science fiction, both because I know it better than fantasy and because it is much more male-dominated. I’m also going to focus mostly on American society, since I actually know enough about it to speak on it with some confidence.

I think the discussion is hampered by the widespread and largely unexamined assumption that a gender disparity in publishing or awards constitutes, in itself, proof that something objectionable is going on within the publishing industry. Everyone except Mind Meld contributor Andy Remic and (at her own blog) Cheryl Morgan thus pays little heed to the elephant in the room: for whatever reason, men and women tend to differ in the stuff they like.

It makes no difference whether this is because of innate differences or socialization; science fiction editors control neither human evolution nor the history of Western culture.

Of course, there are women who like stereotypically male interests and men who like stereotypically female interests, but whatever the cause, the general trend is obvious. Because of this omission, it’s somewhat surreal to observe much of the discussion of this issue; I feel like I’m reading a historian who’s trying to explain the last 60 years of American foreign policy without ever acknowledging the existence of the Soviet Union.

It’s important to keep in mind that this does not require any unbreakable iron laws about what men and women can write or want to write; it merely requires a tendency. People often act as if disproving the existence of the former disproves the latter, and so end up attacking strawmen. For instance, in his contribution to the Mind Meld, Hal Duncan writes:

…even if you take the most "masculine" paradigm for what SF/Fantasy is meant to be (and I don't) there's no reason that can't be written by women (other than the possibility that, well, maybe they're not interested in writing that sort of bollocks). There are male Romance writers. And in SF you had Alice Sheldon writing so "masculinely" as James Tiptree Jr. that Silverberg argued she couldn't possibly be a woman. In this context, it seems to me you're really just dealing with a lot of presumptions and prejudice about the capacity of a writer of a certain gender to tell a particular kind of story. I don't buy the idea that female writers aren't going to be just as good at writing to that market.

Well, yes, there are male romance writers. The obvious question is, How many, compared to the number of female romance writers? Yes, it’s foolish to say that no female writer can write well in a stereotypically male genre, but that’s not at issue.

Feminists have argued for years that girls in American schools are discouraged from pursuing math and science; I think that’s true, though I suspect it has more to with the peer environment than the teachers, and I think innate factors come into play as well. In any case, if women have indeed been discouraged from taking an interest in science by our society, then it is to be expected that there will be fewer women interested in science, and thus fewer women reading or writing science fiction, especially hard science fiction. Indeed, the feminist critique of the way girls are educated and socialized and the claim that the disparity in science fiction publishing and awards must be caused by publisher discrimination are in conflict; if women in present-day America were writing quality science fiction in the same quantity as men, that would be a good reason to believe that American society and education doesn’t discourage females from pursuing math and science, which most feminists would likely find a surprising result, as I would I.

Now, I agree with those who say that it would be good if girls were given more encouragement and support by our culture in areas like math and science while they’re growing up, but that’s a culture-wide issue. Growing up, being a known geek in school is rough on boys in American culture, but my impression is that it’s even worse for girls. As long as they pay a higher price for nerdy interests, they will “buy” less of them.

Of course, the decision-making process at publishing companies isn't the only place in SF, nor the most likely one, where sexism might come into play. I’ll be posting some more on this issue shortly, so I hope you’ll stick around. I would also highly recommend Cheryl Morgan’s very interesting post about this issue.

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Monday, July 7, 2008

The problems of science fiction in movies

A few weeks ago, John Scalzi had an article at SciFi Scanner, arguing that movies widely considered classics of science fiction cinema are not at the level of the classics in other genres. This got me thinking more generally: why are so many science fiction movies bad? I don’t think it’s just a matter of most movies in general being poor- there’s plenty of horrible dramas, comedies, action movies, etc., but there are still lots that I like, whereas the pickings in science fiction are very slim.

First is a problem inherent to the genre: science fiction is usually just ill-suited to film, in my opinion. Science fiction tends to be much more setting-based than other forms of fiction, be it “genre” or “literary.” In a two-hour movie, you just can’t build that much of a world. You can show what a world looks like, but that’s not the same as the way the written story can really show you its guts and workings, or just a slice of them. The same is largely true of imagined technologies. Thus, science fiction has to a great extent become simply a subgenre of action movies, or sometimes horror, with generic sci-fi tropes used for coolness factor or visual pizzazz.

This also has the effect of reducing the talent pool, since many science fiction writers would likely chafe under the limits of the medium even if Hollywood treated the genre more respectfully than it does. Imagine if, for some strange reason, a large percentage of jokes were just inherently less funny when shown on a screen, or couldn’t (even in the absence of any censorship) be made at all. This would hurt comedy films directly, of course, but it would also discourage talented comedians from wanting to do movies in the first place; a greater number would remain in vaudeville or radio or stand-up. Comedy films would have to be graded on a curve, if they were still made at all; we would probably have some dramatic films with comic relief, but few full-fledged comedies, and even fewer good ones.

The other major issue that no one really insists that science fiction movies be good. Generally speaking, Hollywood neither understands nor respects the genre. Gregory Benford wrote an article for Baen’s Universe addressing this. (A subscription is required to read all of it, but the preview has the relevant quote.) Benford recounts a meeting with some producers who wanted to adapt one of his ideas as a movie:

We had gone over the whole plot structure, the breakdown into three acts (a Hollywood commandment, Act I ending at 30 minutes and II at 90 minutes in a two hour film)—plus character, logic, setting, the works.

Everything seemed set. Everybody agreed. They thought that the female lead character seemed particularly right, a match of motivation and plot.

Then the producer, a woman in her thirties, leaned across the lunch table and said, "She's just about right, now. Only . . . how about, halfway through, she turns out to be a robot?"

I looked around the dining room, at the murals depicting famous scenes from old movies, at stars in shades dining on their slimming salads in all their Armani finery, at the sweeping view of little purple dots that danced before my eyes because I had neglected breathing after she spoke. "Robot . . . ?"

"Just to keep them guessing," the producer added helpfully. "I want to really suck the juice out of this moment."

"But that makes no sense in this movie."

"It's science fiction, though—"

"So it doesn't have to make sense," I finished for her.

There’s more at the link.

Hollywood can’t be fully blamed for acting like that, though. There simply aren’t enough people who actually care strongly about the specifically science fictional virtues of science fiction to make that group worth catering to very much- not with the budget of a modern feature film, anyway. Thus, science fiction serves mostly as a way to amp up the degree of visual spectacle possible in movies, especially action movies. Perhaps more cynically, it also allows a greater degree of sloppiness- it’s science fiction, it doesn’t have to make sense.

The fans can’t be blamed for being few in number. Some of them can however, be blamed for something else. Put simply, there are many science fiction fans who will simply consume whatever slop is put on their plate, at least where movies and (even more so) television are concerned. That’s somewhat understandable, especially where TV is concerned; SF is a niche genre at the best of times, and until fairly recently there was almost no SF on television. Even in movies, there are usually only a few big science fiction films a year. One can’t condemn a starving man if his palate is less than discerning.

Of course, the problem is much exacerbated by the fact that many people get their science fiction only from visual media, or if they read, only read media tie-ins, and thus have to take what they can get. Simple rule of relationships, whether personal or narrowly economic: the more willing you are to just walk away, the more power you have. But for those who like (or love) science fiction but don’t read much, there’s simply nowhere to walk away to. And of course, even people who do read a lot would often like to see what they love in other formats.

So, simply put, Hollywood doesn’t make much good science fiction because Hollywood doesn’t have to. People respond to incentives. If people in the market for a new automobile were just as likely to buy a tinfoil-covered cardboard box with the word “car” written on the side as they were to buy an actual working motor vehicle, the major car manufacturers would probably let their quality standards slip.

The problem is probably insoluble, given cultural constraints, because I don’t see any realistic way to change the incentives. I suppose the most effective way of combating this problem would be to get more science fiction fans reading, so they have more alternatives to what Hollywood puts out and thus less reason to tolerate mediocrity in movies. That would require a lot more people to get interested in actually reading for fun, though, which doesn’t seem to be in the cards any time soon. The relative weakness of science fiction film compared to other genres is probably something we must resign ourselves to.

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Review of Hyperion

My new column at Crucial Taunt, about Dan Simmons, is now up.

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Friday, July 4, 2008

Perhaps I'll feel better once I've blown something up

I love the 4th of July. Growing up, several of my summers revolved principally around the massive horde of illegal fireworks and flammable materials my friend who lived next door possessed, so this is usually a great day for me. Unfortunately, the universe delivered an emotional straight knee directly to my groin earlier this week, so I’m less celebratory than usual. Neither getting a copy of Neal Asher’s Polity Agent from ebay nor spending last night at my local bar getting Phenylethylamine Girl (previously introduced here) to laugh at my goofy childhood anecdotes has been able to lift me out of my bad mood.

On the plus side, I see that Tobias Buckell linked to my Crystal Rain review at Crucial Taunt. Look for the next edition of my column there in a few days, and a new review here as well. Reading Buckell actually helped some poorly organized thoughts I’d been having for a while about race and science fiction to finally congeal, so watch for that too.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Review of "Crystal Rain" by Tobias Buckell

My new Crucial Taunt column is up, reviewing Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain. I'm currently reading his second book, Ragamuffin, which is fantastic so far.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Everything is better with death metal!

My apologies for the silence. Real life intruded rather nastily over the last few days.

Interesting post at Boing Boing- the new Neal Stephenson book Anathem has its own original soundtrack CD. I’ve long thought that it would be cool if books had soundtracks, either an original score or just a compilation of appropriate music. I know the cost would be prohibitive, unless perhaps you limited yourself to old public domain recordings, but I can dream.

I often listen to music while I read. I don’t pick music according to the book- I have a big CD collection that I just rotate through, keeping about six albums in my changer at a time and listening to each a few times before swapping them out- but sometimes the book and the music synch up in cool ways. During one of the climactic parts of Glen Cook’s Soldiers Live, for instance, I had Amon Amarth’s Fate of Norns on, and it was just perfect- epic military fantasy and Swedish death metal. Can life get better than that? No, sir. Well, not legally.

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