Friday, October 27, 2017

FIRESIDE CHAT: Megan AM of Couch to Moon

Welcome to our latest Fireside Chat! This time I "sit down" with Megan AM, proprietor of the excellent book blog Couch to Moon. She most recently completed a stint on the controversial 2017 Clarke shadow jury where she read a bunch of books, discussed them with others, and then wrote essays about them. Megan also recently attempted, and failed, to read all of the Hugos. She is not, as I once thought, British. - G

G - Thanks for “sitting down” with me! In addition to book blogging, you were a part of the recent Shadow Clarke project. Could you tell me a little about this project came about? What were the goals--and what, ultimately, was your experience like as a contributor? 

Megan - Thanks for having me! Wow, that’s a lot to start with.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how the Shadow Clarke project came about. This project really came from the mind of Nina Allan, who worked closely with Helen Marshall at Anglia Ruskin University to make it all come together. I think Nina had been following my blog by that time and recognized my frustrations as a reader who was getting bored with SF. She invited me, that’s it.

I was already aware of the shadow jury concept from other book awards, including the work of other Shadow Clarke jurors, Victoria Hoyle and David Hebblethwaite, who are shadow jury veterans of other book awards. In fact, I had always admired the idea of regular readers “shadowing” an official book award jury (which I always assumed involves a lot of PR and schmoozing and general buddy-buddy-ness to get a spot on something like that).

The goals of the project probably vary from Sharke to Sharke, but I think we would all agree the primary goal was to open up the SF conversation and, at the same time, do some decent parsing of books. There might be a more historical, or even personal, context to it for some of the other jurors who have watched the Clarke Award move away from its origins as a critical award to a more commercialized, industry-type award, but that was all new to me, being new to the field and 5000 miles away from any British bookstore.

My own personal goal was to demonstrate that good, interesting, literary SF does exist; that it can come from anyone, anywhere, and in any language; and that it can compete with the basic, Americanized, TV-style SF I keep encountering on shortlists. Unfortunately, the 2017 Clarke submissions list didn’t give me much to work with on that front--a lot of the choices were very formulaic, very bland, not to mention very British, white, and male-- but I did manage to find some champions I’m grateful to have read: Joanna Kavenna, Martin MacInnes, Lavie Tidhar, Johanna Sinisalo.

As for my experience as a contributor… I mean, eight people I have admired in this field--most of whom I had never interacted with before-- read and talked books with me. It was the coolest thing ever.

I’m curious what you thought of the whole thing. Watching you watch it from the outside was interesting: You seemed genuinely interested in bridging gaps between contentious parties, communicating good faith in all sides, and withholding judgment until it was all said and done. So, now that it is done, what do you think?

G - Well, first off, I don’t think I would have been able to keep up! So I have to register my admiration for all of you who did. I also really enjoyed reading everything you guys had to say--even when I disagreed. I also enjoyed seeing how much you all disagreed with each other on specific books, like on The Underground Railroad: you, Paul and Jonathan loving it; Nina not loving it. Disagreement is, in my view, productive. I wish people felt more open to disagreement, and to its potential to enlighten. Instead, people feel threatened. 

I don’t understand this view, which is distressingly prevalent today. I mean, I guess it can be threatening, if criticism is framed in ad hominem terms. But criticism that sticks to the text? That’s just an opinion with supporting evidence. You can just say “that’s not convincing” and move on. Or better yet, explore your own feelings in reference to the argument made. 

I also think it’s liberating to embrace the notion of complex feelings. That is to say, we can like and appreciate something but not necessarily everything about that something. For example, I love George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books in many ways--the characterization, the worldbuilding, the lore and so forth. But I’m also uncomfortable with the way certain things are presented: rape, class, foreign-ness, etc. I don’t have to reject the books outright because of those issues, but I don’t have to excuse them either.

I’d also extend these observations to criticism itself. So I try to have a thick skin anytime I press “publish.” Someone is bound to think my ideas are rubbish, and that’s fine. At the same time, authors and fans are often guilty of violating the text/person distinction--taking depersonalized comments on a text personally and lashing out at the person who made them. The effect is to police what critics, bloggers and other reviewers can say in public, and that's bullshit. 

I could go on, but let's get back to the Sharke project! Or rather, back to awards. One thing that’s come up a lot in discussions is the concept of “award worthiness,” i.e. that there is some objective-ish bar that works of fiction must live up to in order to be proper candidates. I’ve bandied this term about a few times, generally when talking about the Hugos. I have a very clear sense of what, for me, constitutes award worthiness in science fiction and fantasy--some combination of ideas, execution, emotional resonance and prose chops. Not always the same combination, but hitting all four to a significant degree, and hitting one or two out of the park.

Sharke made me rethink that premise. Well no--not rethink what matters to me, but rather rethink whether all awards need to conform to this ideal. Sticking to novels only, I’ll note that the Clarke tends to award stuff like this, whereas the Hugos, Nebulas and Locus Awards only do so sometimes.* The rest of the time they award what you might call “SF/F comfort food.” You described the same thing, albeit more prosaically, as “dollhouse fiction where flat, two-dimensional figures move around in a flat, two-dimensional setting and do and explain flat, two-dimensional things.” That’s a stronger characterization than I’d use, because I think SF/F comfort food can be quite successful. But I also can’t put Ancillary Justice on the same plane as, say, Station Eleven

*For the record, I did think this year’s Hugo winner--The Obelisk Gate--was a good choice.

Since you’re from Texas, allow me to deploy this culturally-specific metaphor: I enjoy this kind of thing the way I enjoy a grill-top burger, but I’d rather give an award for barbecued brisket. Only, what if the award is for burgers? In that case, why am I banging on about brisket? Or, to be literal, I didn’t love Ancillary Justice, but it may just be that my expectations for the Hugos are out of step with the voting public. And is that their fault or mine?

That’s a longwinded way of saying that I’ve come to accept the idea of “award worthiness” as both personal and specific: a construct of intersubjectivity among voters or jurors and the publics they address. The very different publics, I might add. So maybe different awards can and even should have different standards of worthiness?

Of course, Ancillary Justice won the Hugo and the Clarke. So what do I know.

Megan - It also won the Nebula. And the BSFA Award. And the Locus. So it must be amazing.

This Texan is a vegetarian (most cost- and time-cutting upgrade I’ve ever done, fwiw), but I get your meat metaphor. However, I hesitate to continue that metaphor in this context because this is where I could get really insulting, because we’re mostly talking about McDonald’s here, and McDonald’s don’t deserve no awards.

Back to Ancillary Justice, it’s funny you bring that up now, because, just a few a years ago, it was a bit radical to say something like, “I didn’t love Ancillary Justice.” I just looked up your old review and it sort of reminds me of my own review from around that same time, in that it seems like we were stretching to point out the good things while equivocating a bit on our criticisms. Even the wording you use now: “I didn’t love Ancillary Justice” is itself equivocating. Why did we feel the need to hedge our opinions like that?

I don’t know about you, but when I wrote my review, I was still green, but aware enough of fandom politics (of which I was completely ignorant the year before) and I knew I was treading on sensitive territory. There is a feeling of suffocation to go against hype and popularity because fans get so swept up in it, and then they take the criticism personally. I had very few readers at the time (still do!), but I still knew I was on ‘uh oh’ ground. I’m only credible as a reviewer if I’m honest, and I want to be sharp and clear, but I don’t want to hurt people. But I’ve also been trained by many good professors (from a number of disciplines, even) to commit and commit hard. (And then those legitimate moments of ambivalence will seem more credible.)

I also completely agree with your statement about reviewers needing to develop a ‘thick skin’. This is the culture of nice, and my style is contrary to what a lot SF fans want to hear, so criticism of my work is expected. But that’s okay because the dominant style of reviewing has done little for me besides deliver more nights of plodding through some bad reading recommendations because lukewarm reviewing (or, urgh, tedious analysis of character behavior) has made it so difficult to differentiate what’s actually ‘mind-blowing’ or ‘beautiful’ from what is simply a competently written storybook.

(That said, this being the culture of nice, I only assume I get criticism, but rarely does anyone put it in my face, and when they do, it’s a schmuck puppy. Sometimes I find this patronizing-- as if they think I couldn’t handle it--but really, I think the gulf between myself and SF fandom is so wide, there’s just nothing to say.) (And I, in turn, prefer to follow a ‘no link’ policy, regardless of whether it’s a good or bad review. I definitely don’t want to ruin anyone’s day, but I’m also not here for writers; I’m here for readers like me, or rather, readers like I was, who don’t know anyone or anything, and don’t care, and just want to read a great SF novel.)

This comes back to questioning the idea of an objective kind of "award worthiness." You mention "comfort SF," which is just as subjective, because I don’t find that kind of SF comforting at all. We’re living in a Trumpnado, where critical reading and thinking skills are devalued, fake news accusations are flying from all directions, nazism is being given a platform in centrist media, and yet progressive SF fans feel threatened by the idea that it might be necessary to sharpen up on difficult, rigorous, uncomfortable novels? I’m not sure it’s appropriate right now to award anything less than radical and complex. And even setting politics aside, the these ‘comfort food books’ are aesthetically old and crusty. Reading award-nominated novels from different decades really helps to put that into perspective: Not a lot has changed in the styling of SF and its “coding” of metaphors, so I’m confused by why we keep awarding the same styles and thoughts... seventy. years. later.

G - I thought Ancillary Justice was more or less successful on an ideational level. It was thought-provoking, and introduced some fairly radical ideas through the stale form of military-focused space opera. Beyond that, though...lots of rehashed tropes, and an overabundance of infodumping--which is one of my pet peeves in genre. As soon as a character breaks the fourth wall to convey information in encyclopedia entry format, my suspension of disbelief collapses.

The culture of nice is another one of my pet peeves, so I’m glad you brought that up. I mean, I try not to be an asshole--no one should be an asshole. But I prefer honest opinions to polite ones. And I’m never going to shy from saying how I feel. I will deliver my opinions politely, more often than not, but I’ll never shy from saying what I didn’t like. My preference is for reviewers who do the same. 

I also enjoy reading reviews that come to different conclusions than I did. Reading is an interaction between reader and text, with the latter mediated by the experiences, perspective and tendencies of the former. It’s always interesting to see how other readers get different things from the books I read, and sometimes an argument is compelling enough that I reexamine my own take.

Back to the notion of SF/F comfort food, I agree that what’s comforting is subjective--from person to person, but also over time. I’ll go through phases where I read a ton of fantasy, and phases where I’m positively allergic to the stuff. So you’re right: “comfort” is the wrong term--perhaps “entertainment fiction” instead? I don’t know--that seems bad in its own way, and I want to avoid being overly normative here. 

That said, I do see a fundamental difference between books that aspire to be good entertainment and books that aspire to be art. I tried to sketch out some thoughts on this once, in the context of review scoring. In any event, I’ll take good entertainment over bad or mediocre art any day of the week, but I usually prefer good art to good entertainment. What’s art? For me it’s mainly in the prose, narrative structure, imagery, allegory and so forth. 

Now, after marking that distinction, I’d like to muddy it up. Books that aspire to be art can be enormously entertaining. I mean, I thought Station Eleven, Cloud Atlas and Strange Bodies were all page turners. Equally, books that aspire to be entertainment can be more than *just* entertaining. I found a rather biting satire of militarism in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, cleverly delivered as by-the-numbers milSF. Part of its impact, I’d argue, derives from the fact that it looks so much like Starship Troopers redux in the first book, which is a set up; in books 2 and 3 Scalzi systematically deconstructs the Heinleinian ideal. 

Now, I don’t think the series is on par with, say, the Culture or Hainish books. But it’s not McDonald’s either. Maybe a tempeh-burger from a place that knows what both tempeh and burgers are supposed to taste like? And also features really good barbecue sauce, with plenty of chili and salt to cut the molasses. Basically, a good rendition of comfort food. Okay, now I'm getting hungry.

Another series I’m prone to bang on about, Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher Saga, should fall into the “aspires to be art” category. It’s one of the most challenging and rich second-world fantasy series I’ve ever read--maybe the most. But it presents itself as entertainment fiction, and so is taken as such. The strength of Sapkowski’s writing is clear from the beginning. Only, as the series progresses, it starts to feel a lot less like a subversion of Tolkien and Moorcock and a lot more like Borges’ lost trove of Elric fan fiction. Yet I think it still works on that comfort food level. So maybe Sapkowski is like David Chang, the guy who started the bo ssam craze at Momofuku in New York. High brow chops but working in the form of everyday food. Do you like this metaphor or hate it at this point? 

Assuming you hate it, let’s finish it off. I think SF/F comfort food, or SF/F that aspires to be good entertainment, can be impactful. The Old Man’s War series was written at the height of the American military presence in Iraq. I can’t tell you if this actually happened, but I can imagine the books causing readers to rethink the notion of war-as-first-recourse. Despite my issues with it, I did think Ancillary Justice presented strong and compelling ideas. And pretty much the whole Anglophone genre world has missed out on Sapkowski because the Witcher looks like an Elric clone from a video game questing within a Tolkienic world (though the books came out, in Polish, long before the games). 

Bringing it back to awards, I’d say these are Hugo books. Also Nebula books and Locus books. Are they Clarke books? I don’t think so. Granted, Ancillary Justice won the Clarke, but to me it fits oddly within the list of winning novels. I would not have chosen it, had I been a Clarke juror, but I did have it on my 2014 Hugo shortlist. And I voted for it too--despite my reservations, I thought it was significantly better than the other shortlisted books that year.

(I also think Hugo voters have chosen some really underwhelming books over the past couple decades, which are kinda sorta McDonald’s.) 

So maybe the Hugos are the Oscars and the Clarke is Cannes, and like those awards, there is rarely much overlap. By extension, maybe it’s unfair to expect the Hugos to resemble the Clarke, and equally unfair to expect the Clarke to resemble the Hugos. They are, after all, determined by different folks who are, generally speaking, looking at different sets of books with different lenses.

The one thing that really disappoints me about the voting awards, though, is that they seem to have abandoned the kind of science fiction that engages in rigorous speculation on the future. I dislike the term “hard science fiction,” because it’s ultra-normative, fetishizes a retrograde understanding of “science” and has more than a tinge of sexism to it. But I do think there’s value in a distinction--fuzzy, I know--between books that extrapolate futures based on present conditions (and plausible paths of causality from there), and those that are simply set in the future.

This is not the only valid approach to science fiction, nor is it the only kind of science fiction I find compelling. But it is a vital element of what makes science fiction compelling as a genre, relative to other genres. If the field declines to engage in this kind of speculation--because the future seems unknowable, because it is too disconcerting or because we find comfort in the genre’s tropes--then I think science fiction loses some of its vitality. Basically what Paul Kincaid was saying back in 2012, that science fiction--in a very real sense--is on the verge of exhaustion.

All this brings up another question I had for you. You recently wrote that you felt fatigued with SF/F in general. This happens to me periodically as well, so I’m curious: what books, or types of books, do you gravitate toward when you feel that way? What relieves that sense of fatigue, or acts as an antidote to it?

M - Well... here’s my take on Old Man’s War.

Oh man, G, this was going so well, and then you had to mutually exclude entertainment and art. ;-) I can never separate the two. What many would call entertaining, I would describe as crusty and boring because it’s lacking art.

Maybe frivolous would be a better word for what we’re talking about, and maybe I can get behind that term because when I read what constitutes standard, unquestionable, basic SF, I often feel like I’m reading A Middle Class Fantasy, A White Man’s Fantasy, A White Woman’s Fantasy, A Hipster Fantasy--stuff that means nothing to me, a welfare girl from public housing, and it definitely means nothing to my husband, a Mexican immigrant who was moved here in his teens (who calls this kind of SF stuff ‘gringones’ whenever I describe it to him). It’s stuff that has no impact on the real world; that too often molds itself to the dominant centrist ideologies of the status quo; stuff that’s not really interested in shaping thought, but conforming to what’s already thought; not getting under the reader’s skin, or challenging things in any meaningful way.

This is exactly why some commenters on the ARU Sharke blog who value The Underground Railroad as a literary work were reluctant to embrace it as a valid Clarke nominee, and probably also why discussion of it as an SF novel messed with so many people’s heads at first: because SF is associated with frivolity, so to discuss a difficult and important novel like The Underground Railroad in an SF context felt like it was undermining the subject matter and Whitehead’s thesis. But you see, that kind of thinking is narrow and misguided, because SF is ideal for challenging public attitudes on a wider scale than even mainstream or literary channels because SF is better equipped to rearrange the world, demand complexity and critical thinking, and disturb our sense of balance.

Old Man’s War is a great example of not doing any of that on any deep level.

Now, Station Eleven is a wonderful literary read, but is just as guilty of recycling and flattening SF tropes as Ancillary Justice. It’s apparent to me that a lot of literary writers who excel at writing real people and real things and provoking real thought seem to hit a wall when they run into SF tools. It’s like the moment they bring out the aliens and the magic, bam, they suddenly go on vacation mode and abandon all efforts at complexity. This is why, like a lot of fans of Marlon James, I’m bracing myself for this fantasy novel he wants to put out next. He’s so brilliant and insightful about people, but I fear we’ll see the same thing other literary and mainstream authors tend do when toying with SF tropes: just another cosplay of SF, because the lit world doesn’t see the potential in SF either. (I am seriously hoping James proves me wrong.)

On your remarks about the different awards, I don’t expect the Hugos to resemble the Clarke, nor would I say the Clarke is Cannes, either. (And I fear the dollar signs that comment might bring to some admin’s eyes.) I agree with your sentiments about voting awards, but I’ve backed off quite a bit from criticizing the current-day Hugo winners because… well, it’s complicated right now. The Hugos have taken a hit, their vulnerabilities are still being taken advantage of, so any victory for the most opposite of a pup is a good thing (although there is a lot of overlap with the pups’ faves that should make some of my fellow SJWs question themselves more deeply). Does that run counter to the grandiose visions I outlined above for award-worthy SF? Definitely. And I’m okay with holding these two contradictions in my head.

Your final question: what do I normally do when I feel fatigued by SF? Read a bunch of beauty blogs and jog a lot, I guess. When I was younger, I lost my enchantment with Terry Brooks, and ended up just scrambling blindly in bookstores and the library. Didn’t finish much of what I got. (Oh, how I wish N.K. Jemisin had been writing back then because that’s just what I needed at that age.) I only started this focused SF reading thing five years ago and only just lost my mojo for it about a year ago. The lit stuff attracts me right now, which is funny because it’s so often characterized as upper- and middle-class white stuff, but that’s where I find the best non-’gringones’ stuff. One of the most glaring truths we noticed on the Sharke panel is that the lit world, particularly small non-genre publishers, are actually doing a better job of putting out brilliant SF-y type stuff, especially from under-promoted voices. I keep championing Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, which has won awards already, but would have been a killer, most-talked-about Clarke submission (I think it was eligible). Some of the most memorable stuff I’ve read during my SFatigue has been from all over time, space, and levels of publication fame: Yuri Herrera, Aliya Whiteley, Marlon James, Toni Morrison, Hiromi Goto, Adam Roberts, Sarah Tolmie, Han Kang, Italo Calvino, and, most recently, Paul Beatty. Those writers have moved me, disgusted me, confused me, bewildered me, and, get this, entertained me.

G - Going to have to stop you there--I didn’t say art and entertainment are mutually exclusive! But I do think we can say some books “aspire to be” good entertainment or good art. So for me the distinction I see is one of approach, of a writer asking themselves “who am I writing for?” I think you can often, though not always, glean that from the text.

It’s deeply subjective whether a book succeeds at either. Plus sometimes books aim to be one and end up the other. Raymond Chandler was trying to write good entertainment but his books are now widely considered to be important works of literature. And some books clearly aspire to be both. So the distinction doesn’t work as a strict typology (what does), but if we think of it as fuzzy and permeable, then I do think it’s meaningful.

Bringing things back to the Clarke, The Underground Railroad is science fiction written for a “literary” audience, which is not to say a “literary fiction” audience, but an audience of people who read genre and are centrally concerned with (a) artful craft, so to speak, and (b) how fiction reflects back on us, our histories and the societies we live in. Whitehead is very successful in addressing this audience, as well as a more traditional “literary fiction” audience. But I also thought it was a very hard book to put down, which is one way to define “books as entertainment” (though “fun” would be a terrible adjective to use for the book). So what does it aspire to be, ultimately? Art, certainly; but maybe also entertainment.

To your other, related point, I also find it weird to think that The Underground Railroad’s literary qualities would invalidate its categorization as a work of science fiction. Somebody much smarter than me once said that science fiction may be set in the future, but it’s really a commentary on the present. The best science fiction certainly is, like The Underground Railroad. So yeah, I don’t get it either.

As for SF/F that reinforces status quo norms, agreed. One of my pet peeves in fantasy is the whole “restore the balance” trope. Also “s/he was a princess/prince all along” trope, inherited from fairy tales, because god forbid we should problematize class barriers in imaginative literature. From SF, the one drives me nuts the most is “United Space of America” particularly in books set 100+ years into the future. Talk about a lack of imagination.

But reinforcing drab status quo norms is also very much an issue in mimetic fiction. A Depiction of Mundane Middle Class Ennui is like 60% of what gets reviewed in the New York Times. A good chunk of the remainder is Everything I Learned, I Learned in My MFA Program. I find both enormously tedious, unless the writing is particularly exceptional. Then I’m down for some good ol’ slices o’ life. 

A lot of stuff I really love is located on the fuzzy boundaries of genre. SF/F authors who get literary, like Sapkowski, or “lit fic” authors who take a stab at imaginative fiction. Though, granted, I agree that “lit fic author slums it in genre” can also mean “person who doesn’t get genre lazily tries to cash in on it anyway.” Did you read The Dog Stars? What a piece of garbage that is. If you haven’t, never read it. It will stain your soul with its awfulness. Murakami’s 1Q84 is another one that drove me up the wall, though it’s better than The Dog Stars. On the other hand, I’ll forgive Station Eleven its tropeyness because it was so captivating on the human level, so vivid and haunting--and also effectively nonlinear in its narrative structure (something I’m generally attracted to).

Okay, I think we need to wrap this up! Readers: if you enjoyed this conversation, please check out Megan’s excellent blog Couch to Moon.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.