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Monuments and rooms

John Scalzi gets it. He has a very nice little essay riffing off the page-long review of his work in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, in which he discusses writing about politics in one's science fiction. He uses a really cool metaphor here, and the fact that it's an extremely useful and interesting metaphor just makes it even cooler. Thing is, you can build a really stylin' monument (or a really ugly room), and I've read examples of both, as well as the "God damn, is that nuclear ugly?" monuments and the "Oooh, seductive furniture!" rooms. The difference is all in the quality - well-written books (like Scalzi's) either make you think while you're being entertained or just slip in their ideas in the background while the action is happening. Poorly written books (like, say, Kratman and Ringo's Watch on the Rhine) not only have gigantic, ugly monuments cluttering up the landscape but insist that you spend all your time at them. Polemic, bah! It's poor quality writing and I say the hell with it. (Via Instapundit)

As a side note, the link to Nicholas Whyte's critical post on Old Man's War is well worth reading, along with the comments, in which Scalzi replies to Whyte's criticism. It's a useful illustration of how people can read things that aren't there into what somebody else has written, and a RL example of how imposing your own context on the book can completely distort its meaning.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, I need to do laundry and clean up around here.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 24th, 2006 07:14 am (UTC)
I did a follow-up post as well, responding to some of the criticisms of my first piece!

Well, even Scalzi admits that the Bender character is meant to be a caricature, in other words a joke; I just happened to find the joke in poor taste, and given my own background it seemed to be a signpost to Scalzi's politics. OK, so I misread the signpost.

But that leads me to the key criticism of the book which I stand by. The reason I misread it is that, as Chinua Achebe says about Joseph Conrad, Scalzi "neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters". This is in fact the same charge made by Itzkoff, and the one which Scalzi spends the most time rebutting in his own piece on Itzkoff's review, prompting him to resort to metaphors about architecture.

The metaphor is OK, but I don't think Scalzi has actually delivered on the architecture; he has failed to slip his ideas in in the background while the action is happening in Old Man's War, and in my view that is a failure of art.
Dec. 24th, 2006 07:31 pm (UTC)
>I>and given my own background it seemed to be a signpost to Scalzi's politics. OK, so I misread the signpost.</i>
It happens, and given your background it was a perfectly understandable mistake.

At the risk of sounding unnecessarily hostile, I think that assuming the views of the main character are also the views of the author is an old problem in SF criticism, and one you've fallen prey to. It's an understandable assumption, considering that the whole field started out (in the US, anyway) as a bunch of pro-technology, pro-engineering polemics. However, as the field has evolved and improved in its storytelling skills, the assumption can't be made as automatically as it used to. There are unreliable narrators all over the lot.

When we get into analysis of an SF text, I think we deprive ourselves of the simple pleasure to be had by just reading the book and enjoying the story it tells. Sometimes an adventure story is just an adventure story, and it tells you nothing about the author and his personal opinions. As Larry Niven is fond of saying, "There is a name for people who assume that the opinions of the main character are those of the author. We call them morons." I wouldn't be nearly that harsh, but as Scalzi implied and I said, sometimes we read things into the book that aren't there.

Thanks for responding to my post.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )