Let's talk about sex

I’m not enjoying writing at the moment. I don’t know if I’d call it writer’s block but I can’t work out where to go with Shards at the moment. It’s been a year since I finished the first draft and I’m still doing rewrites. The main stumbling block’s been getting my head around some of the themes, but recently there’s been another problem. The direction of the story has changed a lot and it’s causing a conflict for me with two of the characters.

They were going to be my star-crossed lovers, to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, but in rewriting it their story has become less of the focus. Now I’m not sure where to go with it. The romance is still there but it’s not as important; I could cut it out, but the story would still lose something. Or I could keep going with it, but I’m worried it might seem exploitative… like the only reason it’s there is to follow formula.

Maybe I’m making too much of it, but I don’t want it to be one of those books where the dynamic just doesn’t feel right… particularly the sex. We’ve all read those books which seem hollow or have sex for sex’s sake; if you’ve read I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe you’ll know what I mean, and I still don’t know what Robert J. Sawyer was trying to do in Humans (a human and a neanderthal, WTF?). Writing sex scenes always makes me uncomfortable but the challenge is finding an aspect in the scene that affects the greater story… without the preceding scenes here, I’m not sure I can.

Anyway, while I’m working that out, it’s brought up an interesting topic. We’re a highly sexualised society, but we still rarely seem at ease with our sexuality. We watch sexy movies, read juicy novels, but do we talk about sex itself? Perhaps amongst our closest friends, but beyond that it’s usually awkward and behind closed doors; likewise we’re still uncomfortable with public displays of affection. It’s strange that sex can be seen as such a commercial entity, yet still remain something of a taboo as well. So when does marketing sex go too far? When does it become gratuitous?

I’m not sure myself. I was trying to think earlier of books/writers I’ve read that have used good sex scenes and I can’t think of many. Maybe Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Bear’s Darwin’s Radio… Bret Easton Ellis and Neil Gaiman for giving scenes an interesting dynamic. And of course DH Lawrence. But overall I don’t think many writers write sex scenes that well or realistically. Most scenes seem to be either lyrical and wafty or anatomical and overly detailed. I know Laurel K. Hamilton’s are dull and don’t interest me much; in a vampire novel, that’s not a good thing. There’s even an award for it – The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

A lot of sex scenes seem distant and it’s strange really that they’re presented in such a detached way; sex is such a natural part of our lives, you’d think writers would want to explore it in a more satisfactory and natural way. But maybe a realistic sex scene is almost impossible to write because it’s something words can’t adequately describe; it destroys the illusion, the feeling. A sex scene can be funny, awkward, escapist, but can it be interesting if it’s made to seem too real? Perhaps not; then it just becomes voyeurism.

I’m not sure I’d agree that writers include sex scenes purely for saleability or formula, though; I’m sure some do, but I’d hope that most still consider it a part of the story and the development of the characters. For that matter, I’m yet to see evidence that you need to have sex in a book for it to be marketable; for any books that don’t sell, it probably has more to do with plot and pace than whether or not the characters shagged on page 180.

There’s been a lot of fuss made over David Duchovny’s new series Californication recently and that sort of plays into this as well. Californication is an adult sex comedy, something of a throw-back to the ’70s movies like Shampoo, and it’s been garnering criticism for its content; one columnist went so far as to call network executives pornographers, while some conservative groups are calling for a boycott of sponsors who advertise during episodes. Personally I find the controversy bizarre. Certainly Californication is not to everyone’s taste, but I don’t see what the networks have done wrong; over here it’s on at an adult-only time and each episode has an M/MA rating. It’s not for children and no-one’s suggesting it is; it’s probably not even appropriate for some adults. But we’re a democracy, aren’t we? If you don’t like a show, turn it off – seems like the ultimate form of free choice to me. What I’ve seen of Californication is actually quite interesting; yes, there’s sex and drugs and nudity, but beneath it is a story about a lost man trying to get his family back. The writing’s sharp and at least it’s something other than reality TV for a change.

Californication definitely markets itself on its adult content, but I don’t think it crosses the line in to exploiting it. This website, though, has to cross that line. It’s for a German company that has created a new cosmetic fragrance for men called Vulva Original. It’s marketed as “the erotic, intimate scent of an irresistible woman… a beguiling vaginal scent”. Um, what? This has to be the most bizarre product I have ever heard of. Just who would be interested in a product like that? And for the love of God, why? It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so gross.

But it’s an example of how an entire industry has evolved around our fascination with sex. Some of it is part of a healthy sexual appetite, but then you get something like this or the rise in pornography; you could argue that it doesn’t hurt anyone but look at Maddison Gabriel being named the face of Gold Coast Fashion Week – she’s just twelve. It sexualises her to adults and surely must be going to mess with her head later on. But it creates publicity and so it’s achieved everything the organisers wanted.

And that brings us back to this idea of marketing sex. As a culture we’re fascinated by sex, so it’s inevitable that that fascination would be exploited. The simple truth is sex sells and companies, writers, directors, musicians use it for marketability. The real question is how far is too far? Something like Californication is pushing the boundaries; I think something like Vulva Original has gone way past them.

For writers, though, I think it’s fairly simple: if you aim for the characters and story to change though the scene, you’ve done your job. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with Shards… so I’ll probably keep those scenes. Now I’ll just have to go back and finish it! 😉

Timescape by Gregory Benford

TimescapeGregory Benford’s Timescape was an important novel when it was published in 1980 as it was one of the first science fiction novels to accurately depict scientists as people. Praised by critics for its accessibility and mix of character development, interpersonal drama and SF themes, it received the 1980 Nebula and 1981 John W. Campbell Memorial awards. Benford has written some of my favourite novels in the past – notably Great Sky River -, so I’ve always felt a little guilty that I’ve not read Timescape. Well, I finally got round to it, and while it’s still a good read, it’s dated more than I thought it would have.

Timescape‘s story is an interesting one, topical in 1980 and it still is today. It’s told from two different viewpoints, both 18 years distant from the novel’s publication in 1980. The first storyline takes place in 1998, at a time when the Earth is falling apart due to human waste; ravaged by ecological experimentation, the climate has changed drastically, giving rise to algal blooms and threatening numerous species. In England a team of scientists connected to the University of Cambridge, headed by John Renfrew, begins a project to try and contact the past to warn them of the effects their experimentations shall have in the future. The second thread of the story involves Gordon Bernstein, a young scientist at the University of California, La Jolla, who in 1962 begins to notice interference in one of his experiments – a message he tries to unravel…

As the critics noted Timescape‘s strongest aspect is Benford’s depiction of his characters. They’re scientists and often deal with complicated equations, but the story rarely becomes bogged down by details because it’s about much more than science. The characters are complicated, textured; the intricacies of their scientific worlds are well sketched out, but likewise are their private lives portrayed with careful detail. Ian Peterson, who oversees Renfrew’s project, is a womanizing member of the World Council who becomes infatuated with Renfrew’s wife Marjorie; Renfrew’s reserved insecurities are played out throughout much of the novel; Bernstein’s growing obsession with deciphering the message begins to impact his relationship with girlfriend Penny. It’s a balance of science and believable drama that few writers achieve in SF.

The characterisations serve another purpose in the novel as well: they draw a parallel with Benford’s scientific worlds. There’s no way around the science in Timescape; it’s detailed and to make his ideas accessible, Benford uses the characters as a bridge. Bernstein’s storyline, for instance, revolves just as much around his interactions with Penny, showing a distinct collision between their different ideologies: the worlds of a Democrat and a Republican, a New York Jew and a Californian Gentile. If the reader can accept the collision of their worlds as reality, then accepting the collision between 1962 and 1998 seems more believable. Likewise with each metaphysical jump in the novel, a physical equivalent is created to reflect it; the shelves in Marjorie’s and Renfrew’s kitchen shift each time a new scientific idea is introduced, starting crooked, before straightening, and becoming aslant again. The literary elements work to support the scientific concepts, forming a rather unique hybrid where no element can exist without the other.

This is where Timescape started to date for me, though. At times it felt like Benford created his characters purely to draw those parallels; he reinforces them frequently and at times the characters slow the story more than the science. Perhaps that shows how much has changed since 1980, that we’re more accepting and understanding of hard science in a story now, not needing it to be meshed with endless characterization to be accessible. Still, given the amount of detail in the characters, it’s strange that several just disappear toward the end of the novel. Marjorie, after her affair, barely appears again; neither does Penny. It feels like they served their purpose and were just discarded at the end. Timescape has also dated with its technology; limited computers, no mobile phones… having lived through the differences, the 1998 storyline feels more foreign than 1962 (which is the point, in the end).

Putting those details aside, though, Timescape holds up well. Its story is interesting, the science is still current, and its mix of science and characterisation is rare in a genre not often recognized for its depth. It remains accessible to people who might not normally read SF, as well as to fans of the genre, and is well worth reading for anyone interested in visiting (or revisiting) Benford’s worlds.

The Book Quiz

You’re The Sound and the Fury
by William Faulkner.
Strong-willed but deeply confused, you are trying to come to grips with a major crisis in your life. You can see many different perspectives on the issue, but you’re mostly overwhelmed with despair at what you’ve lost. People often have a hard time understanding you, but they have some vague sense that you must be brilliant anyway. Ultimately, you signify nothing.
Take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.

I found this quiz a few days ago. It’s a bit different to a lot of the ones you come across; it has 6 questions and 64 different outcomes, with each question taking you in a different direction. Seems to know me pretty well: strong-willed but deeply confused, I signify nothing… that’s me in a nutshell. 😉

5 graphic novels that defined the genre

“Graphic novel” is a moniker that’s often used to distinguish between artistic novels and traditional comics. But it’s really meant to apply to works created as a single narrative, exploring complicated themes. Here are 5 that have helped to define the genre.

5) The Dark Knight Returns
Frank Miller
Originally published as a DC mini-series, Frank Miller’s take on Batman reintroduced readers to the psychologically dark Batman of the 1930s when most still associated the character with the 1960s TV series. Featuring a tortured character who returns to fight crime 10 years after his retirement, The Dark Knight Returns was notable for introducing more adult-oriented comic storytelling to the mainstream and sparking the more realistic era of superhero stories.

4) David Boring
Daniel Clowes
Daniel Clowes is perhaps best known for Ghost World and David Boring is similar in many ways, depicting the stark realism of ordinary life through the eyes of an indifferent anti-hero. Primarily it’s about the romance of Boring and Wanda and Boring’s learning about his father, and what might be the end of the world. It’s a dark tale of an ordinary man in a larger than life story and is difficult to encapsulate; it’s unique and deliciously funny.

3) A Contract with God
Will Eisner
Consisting of four short stories detailing life in the Bronx in the 1930s, A Contract with God is a mix of autobiography and existential narrative. Eisner’s work was the first genuine attempt to tell truly human stories through images and words; the narratives are interwoven only through their common setting, immigrant culture and themes of life, death and faith. A work with all the complexity of literary fiction, it’s often regarded as a standard-bearer in the genre.

2) Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
Art Spiegelman
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is a memoir that presents the Holocaust in comic form. It recounts the story of his father’s hardships and survival through the Holocaust, but has a sad satirical edge that shows the true effects of war. By depicting the characters in animal forms – Jews as mice, Germans as cats, etc. – and showing the effect on the survivors in later years, Spiegelman presents an uncompromising look at our history. Maus transcends genre and is filling an important role in keeping the Holocaust alive as fewer survivors remain each year.

1) Watchmen
Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Watchmen is the graphic novel that, with The Dark Knight Returns, Maus and Moore’s other great work, V for Vendetta, changed the perception of comics forever, giving rise to “serious” graphic novels. Watchmen can only be described as the deconstruction of the superhero; set in a world where superhero’s are real and face everyday ethical and personal dilemmas, it examines the idea of power and control in society. Its realism and humanity is unparalleled, with all but one of the superheroes having no recognizable superpowers. Watchmen was the only graphic novel to be included in Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels list.

Natural History by Justina Robson

natural.jpgI’ve been wanting to read Justina Robson for a while. Through novels like Silver Screen (1999) and Mappa Mundi (2000), Robson has developed a reputation for writing cutting-edge SF while still paying attention to the characters and the idea that the future is based on our present. That’s why when I finally picked up Natural History (2003), I was a little disappointed.

Natural History begins with an incident in space. Voyager Lonestar Isol collides with debris, which she soon realises is really the remains of an alien ship. But there is something else here as well, an artifact left drifting for thousands of years. It is a jump engine and allows Isol to return home… only, it is not Earth it takes her to first, but another planet, a planet Isol has longed to find – a place that could become home for the Forged and the rest of her kind.

The Forged are another form of human, who have been engineered to serve the Unevolveds; the first Forged were given the forms of terraforming starships that brought life to Mars and other planets, and now their forms range from scout ships (like Isol) to animal-like Forged who perform menial tasks on Earth. Isol is one of the most senior Forged, and a heated debate is raging on whether the Forged should be granted independence from the rest of humanity. Isol wants the planet, called Idlewild, to become a homeplanet for the Forged if they secede, but the Unevolved (and several Forged) are uncertain… they don’t trust this engine technology Isol has found, and want to know that Idlewild is safe and devoid of life before making a decision. Isol reluctantly agrees to take an archeologist to Idlewild, to discover its secrets…

Robson is often described as the future of British SF and you can see why with Natural History. She paints a vivid landscape of a future far-removed from our own, tossing around theories about the essence of humanity and transcendence. So its being a bit of a mixed bag is disappointing. The premise for NH is solid, but I found that too much of the story becomes bogged down in politics and unnecessary detail for it to be truly engaging. It’s 200 pages before archaeologist Zephyr reaches Idlewild, the most interesting storyline; the rest is filled with the politics of the Forged and the Unevolved. Many of the character arcs feel largely underdeveloped as well; one character, Corvax, undertakes a journey of transformation in Uluru, an artificial universe only Forged can access, while another, Gritter, engages in petty crime and seems pointless. Robson utilises so many character perspectives that it seems to swamp the story; the most interesting characters are often neglected for long periods of time, particularly Zephyr, who has nothing to do until she reaches Idlewild.

Probably the biggest complaint I have with NH, though, is in not believing it. Robson goes to extreme lengths to convince the reader that her Forged are human, if unlike any kind of human we know… yet I didn’t find that convincing. They’re all supposed to be Forged, but Isol and Tatresi are so far removed from Corvax and Gritter as Forged that they could be different species, not different classes; they just don’t feel real. Also, while Robson tries to draw parallels with our own times to make her work accessible, in many ways that doesn’t work either; the idea that these giant human starships would use the same language, the very same expressions as we do now, seems ridiculous, thousands of years into the future – not to mention Corvax’s journey through Uluru, trying to be Unevolved and “normal”. And the ending is abrupt as well; for a person like Zephyr, who treasures being human so much, to give that away so willingly doesn’t seem like a natural conclusion, given her suspicion of the alien Stuff and Isol.

Still, it’s not a bad novel. Robson’s talent is there and the science is cutting-edge, particularly when dealing with 11-D and creating a decidedly alien race. And in many ways Natural History pays homage to vintage SF; a story of humans struggling to find themselves amidst a strange future and the mysteries of an alien world. It’s just a pity then that the rest of the novel is weighed down by its pace and characters, and ultimately feels hollow.

Greed, boycotts and the impact for aspiring writers

Bookshop chain puts bite on small publishers
I’ve just been catching up on some of the news I’ve missed over the past week. Not sure how this slipped by, but apparently Angus & Robertson have started asking distributors and publishers to pay to have their books stocked and displayed in A&R stores. A&R is the most successful retail chain in Australia, one of the few to still be surviving despite increased sales for discount stores like K-Mart and Big W. I can’t understand what they’re doing; they’re practically shooting themselves in the foot. Getting people to support Australian authors is difficult enough, and now they want to alienate publishers so they don’t have any stock?

It’s created the bizarre situation that the leading bookchain in Australia will not be stocking the Miles Franklin Award winner for 2007, Carpentaria. And it seems like it’s all because of greed. A&R wants their smaller suppliers to subsidize losses for unsold books, and wants to make them pay before they even have the books on the shelves. Does that make sense to anyone else?

SMH published Michael Rakusin’s response to A&R’s decision. I was impressed by his letter. It’s articulate, angry, but doesn’t score cheap points; it’s not often you get to write a letter like that. Next time I get a condescending letter, I’m going to use “voluble hilarity” in the reply. From my point of view, I don’t blame A&R for wanting to increase their profit margin, particularly with strong market competition. But what the company has done is issued an ultimatum, and the people they’re really hurting are Australian authors. If publishing companies give in, advances will only be smaller, and while A&R won’t stock their works, that’s less exposure and fewer readers for their work as well. It’s a no-win situation. A&R claim they are “committed to stocking a wide range of titles and supporting Australian literature”, but right now that just seems like absolute garbage.

The Australian Society of Authors seems to think so too; they’ve condemned A&R and recommended book buyers boycott A&R owned stores over the new policy. I think I feel the same way. A&R appears to only want to stock books with guaranteed saleability, and for a company which is supposed to be proudly Australian, that is unacceptable. Where does it leave aspiring writers? Where does it leave people in small towns who can’t find books anywhere else? A&R are letting greed get in the way of their other responsibilities and we can’t just let that go.

I’ll be buying all my books from Dymocks and local book stores until A&R overturns their decision; seeing I have a birthday coming up in a month, that could be a few books. I’m glad to see that this has been gaining traction overseas as well, as it could set a dangerous precedent. Corey Doctorow lambasted A&R on Boing Boing, and Teresa Nielsen Hayden broke down the correspondence to make it understandable. Can you imagine if this happened in the US and Borders refused to stock Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? There’d be outrage; Oprah would be hitting them over the head with her microphone. Here, we’ll just have to see how much Angus & Robertson take before they reverse their decision.

Air by Geoff Ryman

air.jpgThis is the first review I’ve posted for awhile, mainly due to the fact that I haven’t read as much recently as I’d have liked. But I’ve been looking forward to reading Geoff Ryman’s Air. It comes with extremely good recommendations and has swept most of the major SF awards; it won the British SF, James Tiptree Jr. and Arthur C. Clarke Awards and was on the short-list for the 2006 Nebula. Perhaps more importantly, it’s regarded as one of the few recent SF novels which is highly literate – beautifully written and as much about character as science. So with these recommendations, I was curious to read Air. Unfortunately I didn’t have the reaction I expected.

The premise of Air is that in the near-future, a new information technology is developed. Called Air, it promises to link everyone around the world without concern of power or social status. When the world decides that Air will go live on a set date, it’s up to Chung Mae, the fashion expert of her tiny village in Karzistan, to try and ready the villagers for the immense changes approaching. But during a testing of Air, Mae is accidentally trapped inside Air… changed by the accident, and turning against the traditions of her village, it’s feared Mae may destroy the village before Air even reaches them…

There’s no doubt that Air is a beautiful novel. Geoff Ryman is a gifted writer; his prose is elegant, understated in the way it reflects the changes in Mae’s village – the novel begins with brief, sporadic sentences, the way an illiterate villager might speak, but changes as Air comes to the village, the dialogue and prose becoming more esoteric with new-found knowledge. It’s also a beautifully structured novel. Every part of the novel is multifaceted and, much like the prose, reflects the changes happening within their society; Mae’s pregnancy represents the new children to be born after Air, the Flood wipes away the last vestige of opposition, the poor in the Third World become equal through knowledge…. it’s a mirror of change, and there’s no doubting the strength of Ryman’s commentary on developed nations and their exploitation of the Third World. My problem with Air, though, is that a lot of it seems exploitative as well.

I’m referring in particular to Mae’s pregnancy. The first 150 pages or so of the novel are interesting, but past that, once her pregnancy starts to become more apparent, the tone of the novel shifts. The pregnancy is just not believable. The whole idea that a person could sustain a pregnancy outside of their uterus (bringing a foetus to term in their stomach) is a stretch to say the least – but that someone would give birth through their mouth is simply hideous. It’s not physically possible… and so the only explanation we’re left with is that it happens because it’s simply meant to happen; it’s a metaphor for the new age Air is ushering in. Even on that level I object to it. During the course of the novel, as Mae’s mind is trapped within Air and bonds with her dead neighbour, she becomes half insane and her village begins to disown her. She goes against their traditions, and this mythic pregnancy should serve to further ostracise her from them… but it doesn’t. They’re unsettled, yes, but they don’t turn against Mae; if anything, the women seem to accept her even more, and that just doesn’t feel right. Getting away from the believability of the pregnancy, the symbolism of it just feels too heavy-handed. Mae says to her child on page 389 “You are blind, but you will not need to see, for we can all see for you, and sights and sounds will pass through to you from us. You have no hands, but you will not need hands, for your mind will control the machines, and they will be as hands. Your ears also burned away, but you will hear more in one hour than we heard in all our lifetimes.” There’s nothing subtle about this; I found it extremely exploitative, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

My other problem is that at times Air seems at odds with its own ideas. What starts as a clash between worlds, the ideals of the old and new, descends into a cleansing. Half the novel is spent with Mae trying to convince the villagers of the benefits of Air… but it doesn’t matter. In the end the people who don’t believe are washed away, and the others are scared into opening their eyes. I also didn’t quite grasp the idea of how Air is supposed to be spread. It’s this idea of the Internet in your head, making everyone equal… but it’s not something people can choose. Air is forced upon everyone whether they would choose it or not, and I can’t see the Western world promoting that, or the UN implementing it.

The other reason Air has been talked about recently is that it’s one of the more high-profile Mundane SF novels. Mundane SF is a sub-genre of science fiction which attempts to focus on stories featuring a believable level of technology and science. I’m not knocking Mundane SF, but Air to me actually doesn’t represent its tenets in a lot of ways. The pregnancy is not based in any science I know of, and the cleansing is symbolic; while it follows the manifesto in some ways (Air itself), there’s still more of a fantastical or mythical feel to Air than I expected.

Still, I can see why many people have received Air so well. It’s beautifully written and structured, and the concept of the novel is intriguing. If you can accept the pregnancy, then you’ll probably really enjoy Air. The literate nature of the novel may even make it accessible to people who wouldn’t normally read science fiction. For me, it didn’t work, but it’s definitely a book you should read for yourself and make up your own mind.

5 SF story collections which should be in your collection

5) Best Australian Science Fiction : A Fifty Year Collection
Rob Gerrand (Editor)

4) Adventures in Time and Space
Raymond J Healy and J Francis McComas (Editors)

3) The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume 1
Robert Silverberg (Editor)

2) Best of the Best: Twenty Years of the Years Best Science Fiction
Gardner Dozois (Editor)

1) Dangerous Visions
Harlan Ellsion (Editor)