Tuesday, August 22, 2017

FIRESIDE CHAT: Jonah Sutton-Morse of the Cabbages & Kings Podcast

Welcome to another Fireside Chat with The G! This time I welcome Jonah Sutton-Morse of the excellent Cabbages & Kings Podcast. We talk fantasy and science fiction, and how fandom can actually be a pretty cool "place."

G - So what have been into lately, books-wise? Are there any that have really stuck with you?

JSM - At the moment, I'm reading Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series. I've read the first few books, but never finished the series. This go round, I've finished King's Dragon (book 1), and just started Prince of Dogs, so I'm still firmly in reread territory.

I'm also working on C S Lewis' Till We Have Faces for a possible podcast book club, will probably read The Horse and his Boy for the same. I'm working through the stories of a Djinn Falls in Love, which has had a number of really top-notch stories.

Recently, I still can't get Treside McMillam Cotton's Lower Ed out of my head - top-notch book showing how to create a narrative informed by both data and lived experiences. On the SFF side, Lavie Tidhar's Central Station was excellent (how often do you say that about a fixup novel?), and Ernest Hogan's High Aztech (which I picked up based on one of Vajra's Strange Horizons columns) was wierd and fascinating Cyberpunk. Plus I'm working on Adam Roberts' History of Science Fiction, which gives me plenty to think about and argue with.

So that's a big list to potentially jump off from. I'm curious about the Witcher books, because I think you said you've just finished the series, and praised it highly. How do those books relate to what got you into SF/F, and how do they relate to what you like to read now? Were they close to an introduction for you? Would you pick them up today if you hadn't started the series a while back? What do you love about them that you also love about the genre? (Or what do you love about them that you don't see elsewhere in the genre?) give me the story of The G and SF/F via The Witcher books :)

G - It always strikes me how many more books people read than I do! I’m a slow, plodding reader. But anyway--that’s an interesting list. Kate Elliott is great, of course--one of the best fantasy writers out there. Ernest Hogan is another good one, but for whatever reason he doesn’t get the attention he deserves. I read Smoking Mirror Blues a few years ago and really enjoyed it. It’s SF-meets-magic-realism, and also genuinely funny at times. There should be more humor in genre--not humor books, per se, but humor in books.

...and that’s a good segway into the Witcher Saga, since it also fits on the magic realism tree. I mean, this is epic fantasy, so maybe “realism” is a misnomer here. But the influence of Latin American magic realism is palpable, and is, I think, one of the reasons why these books resonate with Spanish-language readers--besides just being fantastic books, of course. They tap into a literary history and cultural tradition that Spanish readers will be intimately familiar with.

For me, well, I’ve realized that the Witcher Saga has pretty much everything I could ever want from a fantasy series. The characters are great, and their relationships with one another take center stage. There is real warmth and love--and pain too. There’s humor--the books can be quite funny--and romance. Not the cheesy stereotype of what romance is, ripped bodices and Fabio lookalikes, but the kind of thing romance readers tell us we are missing out on. The kind of thing that might convince a skeptic like me to read an actual romance novel.

Most of all, though, the books are just emotionally devastating--frightening and sad, yet redemptive at the same time. I felt very unnerved and upset at the end, but also--I don’t know--validated? It’s hard for me to describe.

The question inevitably comes up about how this series fits into fantasy styles and subgenres, and in a sense it doesn’t. It starts as a sword and sorcery subversion of fairy tales, then turns into an epic fantasy subversion of Tolkein and then turns into something else entirely, something more akin to Gene Wolf or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s also very political. There are no clear “good guys” or “bad guys,” aside from the main characters. I know that’s become quite fashionable these days, but it’s not done like it is in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire, where the solution is basically just to make everyone either bad or a victim. Here it’s about presenting you with certain assumptions, and then calling those into question. Another way to think about it, is this is Sapkowski exploring what a Tolkienic universe would look like if it were populated by actual people rather than avatars.

And the books are stylistically daring--the storytelling is elliptical from the get-go, but by the fourth book, the narrative fragments completely. I wasn’t completely sold until I understood where Sapkowski was going with things. And the payoff is considerable.

So yes, you should read it. I think it’s the best fantasy series I’ve ever read. Everyone should read it.

JSM - man, I want to talk about The Witcher Saga, but only after I've read it, so I'll have to read it and invite you on. And similarly, I like what you said about humor (and my goodness High Aztech was hilarious), but again, I just don't have much to say about humor. There should be more, but I don't like books that lean into it a lot. We need to find a good topic! We could bond over feeling like we read slowly. I need to get off Twitter…

Here's a possible topic - what, if anything, is a common thread between say Kate Elliott (who I read as writing solidly within the Epic Fantasy tradition), something apparently genre-bending like The Witcher, and the humorous and punk SF of Ernest Hogan? What even is "genre" anyway? (And how do you and I, who I think have very different touchstones even if we've read some of the same titles, have that discussion?)

I don't think this is a great topic. We need a better one. But that's hard when our go to "these books define what I love about the genre" are (I think) so different? Is that worth exploring? Can we do better?

G - I’m of two minds about those kinds of topics. On the one hand, it’s good to explore why you like things. On the other, it’s bad (in my opinion) to define it in such a way that you only select books fit inside those boundaries. But in the spirit of the former, here goes:

I’m particularly attracted to certain substyles of SF/F: space opera, near-future SF, post-apocalyptica, sword and sorcery and epic fantasy. And I’m attracted to stuff that sits on the boundary of SF/F and mimetic fiction, like J.G. Ballard, Marcel Theroux or Emily St. John Mandel. I’m generally not into urban fantasy. The reason for that is very personal--I just can’t suspend disbelief. It’s like, I can accept elves and magic in the Kingdom of Narhav’a, but not in New York or London. I’m not trying to knock urban fantasy here, this is a matter of personal taste. I just can’t do it. I have done it, a few times, but in general it just doesn’t work for me.

The binding tie, for me, is that I want fiction to be imaginative, to be more than just people doing things in sequence. It should be that too, but not just that. And I think that’s a pretty good conception of genre: imaginative fiction. I didn’t come up with that; I think Jeff Vandermeer uses the term in Wonderbook. It’s a good term. Both science fiction and fantasy are imaginative genres. All genre is imaginative--crime and romance too. But science fiction and fantasy put the imaginative-ness up front and center. Those of us who are attracted to SF/F are probably all inveterate daydreamers.

What about you: what do you see as the binding tie in your reading preferences? And does that potentially speak to a conception of what genre “is” or “isn’t?”

JSM - I'm really, really wary of "all of us" narratives at this point. One of the things I'm becoming acutely aware of as I interview people for the podcast is how many different paths into these overlapping genres that marketers have decided should be shelved together we all took are. Just a general note, "what was your early experience with the genre" followed by "have their been any bumps on the way to here" are excellent questions I wish people asked more often.

For myself, I grew up on Epic Fantasy, got bored somewhere in the midst of Robert Jordan, and then NK Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed and Long Hidden pulled me back. Somewhere along the way, I decided to actually figure out more about Science Fiction, which I'd interacted with but never really immersed myself in, which means that I spend a lot of time with SF thinking about what it is and how it works, while I just immerse myself in fantasy I'm reading unless I specifically try to distance myself from it.

But also like you I have trouble with urban fantasy. I've never been all that interested in Sword & Sorcery or Space Opera, though I've tried to read enough to get a sense of what they both are. I avoid mimetic fiction like the plague because it makes me feel dumb.

I'm losing the thread here. Yes to your idea of "imaginative", I like that term. I like that as a unifying idea. I'm also wary of unifying notions. I suspect that at the moment, reading SF/F for me is simply a way of defining my identity. I am a reader of these books, and people I know who read these books are reading certain titles and having kinds of discussions and so I will participate, and so the process repeats itself. But also I think about Tolkien's "I desired dragons with a profound desire". That's a good one for me too. Over and over again, books that just say "the world around you is a constructed thing, and there are other realities" are speaking to me right now. I didn't *love* Ninefox Gambit, and I think the Calendrical System is maybe a bit too nail-on-the-head, but I *like* that part of the book. (I liked other parts of the book too. It's fine, not exceptional, in my opinion.)

I want to ask you something smart about borders, and how urban fantasy is fantasy intruding into what could be mimetic, while the mimetic that tends towards fantastic is what you find appealing, but I'm so underread that I can't think of what to say. Did you read Brisset's Elysium by any chance?

I'm going to jump to that question for later now, as well.

G - Funny you mention Wheel of Time as a jumping off point. It was for me as well--I think somewhere around book five or so. Prior to that, I read a ton of SF/F. But that series just sort of killed the joy for me. Afterwards, I migrated toward gritty realism, like Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Tim O’Brien and Denis Johnson, and classic noir--Raymond Chandler, mostly. Then I started reading stuff on the boundary of genre, like JG Ballard and Don DeLilo. That was a gateway back into SF, which was a gateway back into fantasy. Like a lot of people, I started back up with A Game of Thrones. I have not been impressed with the direction that series has taken (especially in A Dance with Dragons), but at the time, the first three books reminded me that fantasy can be complex and smart.

So here’s another question: what, if anything, has been frustrating you lately? In terms of books or conversations *about* books. Or twitter. You should stay on twitter, by the way--it’s the best.

JSM - Twitter is the worst except when it's the best, and also it's a habit and those are hard to break and I'm putting my energy elsewhere at the moment. I have two objections to conversations about books at the moment. First, they seem so rarely to be about books. Like actually the text. Passages, characters and how they develop or interact with the world. They seem much more to be about shoehorning books into existing conversations. (Note how I'm not being particularly specific here? This is me perpetuating bad discourse while I criticize it. Erin's reading here is excellent. This reaction to Sharke reviews of Ninefox Gambit isn't excellent, but it's at least trying to engage with what people are actually saying.)

Second I think these conversations don't make space for the different ways we come to the genre. I've learned a lot by listening to people for whom seeing themselves in media is both a rare and empowering experience, but I can't join those conversations, and when I try to participate (or even when I'm just chatting with people who use that lens), it's pretty easy for me to say something hurtful or be dismissed. Similarly, there's a critical strain that the Sharke project claims to want to see more of that can easily come across as harsh and unpleasant if you don't buy into it, but can also be energizing and stimulating, and a bunch of the reaction to the project seems to be "this isn't for me". I wish "we" (fans online) were better at figuring out that we're having different conversations, and not trying to apply our approach to everyone. Sometimes just listening is good. Sometimes just ignoring that obnoxious take (or the conversation that's not intended for you) is good.

I feel like I'm being vague and not helpful. Is there anything there worth grabbing onto? We need to edit like 80% of this out!

G - With regards the former, I think I know what you mean--when a review of a space opera becomes a commentary *on* space opera, to the point where the book itself is just a vehicle. Is that correct?

As far as the latter goes, yeah, well, the critical approach rubs people the wrong way for a few interrelated reasons. First, self-identified critics are elitist. There’s no way around that, and the fact is that a lot of people resent elitism--particularly in genre fandom. Second, there is a culture of nice of genre fandom that’s antithetical to the critical approach. Like, you should only post reviews when they are positive. Critics don’t do that.

The culture of nice is a pet peeve of mine, by the way. I don’t think reviews should be unnecessarily brutal, or belittle other people’s preferences, but I value honest opinions that are illustrated through supporting evidence. Doesn’t make them *objectively true,* or anything like that--they are still, ultimately, quite subjective. Even still, I value an argument that can be assessed on its merits. There are some reviews that I think are quite off, but nevertheless good and important to read. Okay, I’m getting off topic now.

There’s one more reason why critics get flack, and its related to the culture of nice. The fact is, a lot of people just can’t tell the difference between comments on a text and comments on the person who wrote it. Writers are obviously invested in their work, and fans often identify with their preferences--to the point where each can see criticism of text as a personal attack. But this is nonsensical. Disagreement is good, and healthy. We should all be able to read stuff we disagree with and not feel like it’s a personal attack--provided, of course, that it actually isn’t a personal attack. This also goes for critics and reviewers: if we make an argument *about* a book, and someone publicly disagrees with it, we should also be open to continuing that conversation. Again, provided everyone is sticking to the text.

Not long ago I had an interesting interaction with Cora Buhlert. I’d made some comments on the Nebula shortlist, basically saying that none of the nominees in the novel category involved rigorous speculation on the future--implying that this was a problem. (And I do think it is.) She challenged that in a blog post, after which point we had a very good conversation about it. I enjoyed that. I’m glad I *can* enjoy that, rather than raising shields and arming the photon torpedoes.

Granted, sometimes that isn’t possible. For example, if I read a review and it hinges on some kind of social group animosity, I’m out the door. Ditto something that’s purposefully antagonistic, or a threadbare hot take. But a lot of the stuff we get hot under the collar about doesn’t fit into any of these categories; it’s more “they said my favorite book is bad.” So, ignore it and move on. Or, better yet, say why it’s good. Jonathan McCalmont and have disagreed about John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books. He thinks they are militaristic garbage; I think they are a clever subversion of militaristic garbage. I love Jonathan’s critical writing--as much or more than any other person’s writing on SF. But we don’t need to agree on this. Actually it’s better that we don’t, because I’m not sure I would have felt compelled to articulate my own long-form thoughts on the series if we hadn’t had that discussion.

In the end, I agree with what you said about people recognizing that there are different streams, and we don’t have to follow all of them. Sometimes it’s good to listen, as you say, or even just ignore. To the greatest degree possible, though, I think people should try to engage with ideas and opinions that challenge our assumptions.

JSM - I guess challenging assumptions is probably not usually a bad thing. But I don't think it's necessarily a good in and of itself either. I mean, in general, I'm really wary of complacency, *especially* because I'm really privileged, and I think that when I'm getting complacent it usually represents me acquiescing to systems that are designed to cater to me at the expense of others. So clearly in that case challenging assumptions is good. But I don't see it as an intrinsic good.

That said, I get the impression that one area we'd both agree on is that it can be extremely rewarding to learn from other people, so maybe we can go out on some lessons we've learned from others around the internet? Either because of what they said or what they prompted us to think about?

One of my most important early lessons was that when SFF-fandom is angry about something, it's not generally because people enjoy being angry, but rather because books or creators have said or done something incredibly offensive to many of the people in the community. That's a good reminder to me when I see frustration brewing that it's (usually) not rooted in drama for it's own sake. Similarly, I try to keep an eye on my anger and snark, and inquire whether I'm offended, or enjoying the performance.

It was Renay who taught me that I should be proud of loving the stories and characters that I love, not because I can defend their critical value in some way but because they genuinely bring me joy, and that's a pleasure.

It was Kate Elliott and Rose Fox to who taught me to ask where the marginalized characters are in a story, and what communities they've found for themselves.

Nerds-Feather reminds me that the simple act of regularly writing and thinking about the stuff we're consuming is difficult, excellent, and an essential piece of keeping this community (however cohesive or uncohered it may be) moving

The list could go on, but the point is that I'm a better reader and a better person online and off because a whole bunch of us decided to go along with the categories that marketers decided to stick on shelves together and talk about the books and movies and games and stories we love, even if we love them for very different reasons. I think that's where I'd want to leave my part of this conversation where it seems like every time one of us got excited about a particular book or idea, the other was just ho-hum about it. We don't have to get excited about (or have read) the same things to enjoy talking about this thing we both love.

G - That’s a good question, and one worth thinking about. Yes, I do agree that it’s important to listen and learn from other people. But just to clarify, when I said it’s important to engage with ideas that challenge our assumptions, that’s pretty much what I was getting at. I don’t mean to say that all assumptions are by nature off-base. Rather, it’s the process of engagement that helps us assess the validity of our assumptions. About half the time, it ends up reinforcing rather than undermining preconceived notions, turning assumptions into understandings. And by “understandings” I mean: things we have thought about, subjected to a form of review and then determined whether they still pass the smell test. I think that’s an important process, and I also think it’s intrinsic to learning from others. Then again, I’m an academic, so I’m trained to think that everything should be endlessly scrutinized and re-evaluated.

In terms of who I’ve learned form, there are too many people to cite. Pretty much everyone I regularly engage with on Twitter is someone I try to learn from. I engage with them because I feel like their opinions are worthwhile and interesting (usually also because they are nice, fun people). There are a few people I think of as my “big siblings in fandom,” mainly because they sort of took me in and showed me the ropes in one way or another. I’ve been reading SF/F all my life but I’m relatively new to fandom, so that was an important part of entering the community. Aidan Moher in particular, but there are many others. Speaking of Aidan, I still miss A Dribble of Ink and wish it would come back, though I get that he’s happier now writing fiction. Also, his fiction has gotten quite good! But I digress…

I share your view of fandom as a happy place. I mean, it’s not always a happy place--it can be an angry place, like you say. But ultimately this is one community I really enjoy being a part of, even though I’m not a joiner by nature. Then again, I’ve been really lucky to fall in with a good crowd. I think of you guys as my friends, even though I’ve never met most of you in real life. Hell, I’ve only met half my fellow nerds of a feather in real life! Despite all the problems inherent to social media, it’s kind of amazing that this is possible now.

So I think I’ll end it there too, on pretty much the same note you did. We can think differently, like different things and even disagree vociferously, but the fact that we can come together to have these conversations, and keep having these conversations, is awesome.