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Letters from Proxima Thule

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The Math
whale
catvalente
Had a long Twitter conversation which will lead to a longer post about how and why my work never gets classed as science fiction no matter how hard I try to write science fiction.

In the evening, this was followed by dramatic readings at rosefox  and sinboy 's of the pornier Philip Jose Farmer materiel--a writer no one has accused of being fantasy or ever questioned being a science fiction author. (The book in question even proclaims a bold new experience in science fiction on the cover.)

I came to this conclusion:

We are tremendously gratified at your interest in our little red project, and pleased that you recognize the potential growth opportunities inherent in whole-planet domination. Of course we remain humble in the face of such august and powerful interests, and seek only to showcase the unique and challenging career paths currently available on the highly desirable, iconic, and oxygen-rich landscape of Mars.


=


Not science fiction.


He was the Sunhero. Stud-god to a million adoring females.

After 800 years of exploring the stars, Space Commander Stagg had expected a hero's welcome--but this was awesome. First, they grafted real antlers onto his head. Then they invested him with the pure sex power of 50 bulls and turned him loose on a screaming frenzy of fired-up virgins. Now he was on an ecstatic public fertility tour that took in every available female--and could soon take his life...
(PJF, Flesh)

=

Science fiction.

Awesome.


(Deleted comment)
The reviewer is a woman--

also the "silly skiffy" name she calls out is a Russian word. And "our Mars" is integral to the story. The metaphor is in the mind of the narrator, not in the reality of the story.

Many of the other silly skiffy names are references to classic other SFnal visions of Mars.

Hi Cathrynne,

We've been talking about women in SF over in the UK and you're one of the people I think should not only be published there (PLEASE) but considered part of the SF conversation.

FYI http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/2010/10/05/women-and-the-clarke/

fwiw

My agent and I just talked about how much we want to cement a UK deal. Fingers crossed! Clicking over now.

But... but... but... of course it's SF, it says "space" right in the second sentence! And "stars". That must totally be it!

What a silly reason for your story not being SF. Why can't a SF story be a metaphor for personal fulfillment / the inherent emptiness of capitalist society / the lack of pink-coloured cotton-candy-selling stalls nowadays?

Ah, sorry. There should be laser guns in SF, and real planets, and they should take themselves utterly seriously. I forgot.

Well, also, she's wrong. There is some metaphor there, but in the reality of the story Mars is real--the narrator has made it into a metaphor for his own purposes. Among all the things the story was meant to do, it has the subtext of salesmen making everything wonderful into a sales pitch.

O_o

They have to be joking. It's as if they don't realize that Sci-Fi can use all those fun literary devices or serve multiple purposes, similar to to how every other setting based genre does.

Science fiction is a setting requirement, NOT A NARRATIVE STYLE OR MATERIAL RESTRICTION.

I feel a rant coming on. X(

Part of the whole idea of the story was that when something is normal in your world--like going to Mars--it becomes part of your personal metaphorical system. That's how humans roll.

I wonder what that reviewer would think of "Golubash, or Wine-War-Blood-Elegy" which is one of my favorite pieces of yours. Even if your Marses are metaphors for excellence how does that make the story not science fiction? Ray Bradbury gets to be literary and science fiction. I'm thinking "The Long Rain," "The Veldt," and "There Will Come Soft Rains," among many others.

One of those silly skiffy names is Ylla--from Bradbury's Martian Chronicles.

As for Golubash, that is the only SF story of mine that hasn't had people practically falling over themselves to reassure everyone it's not SF. Even then, it was pointed out that my silly system of space travel made it pretty much fantasy.

Apparently it's just science fact now.

LOL!!!!!!!

Literary and category fail!

Cat, Cat, Cat.

You are not a cis-gendered white male. OBVIOUSLY YOU CANNOT WRITE SF. Duh!

Everyone KNOWS that SF can only be written by tapping the letters out using a heterosexual white penis on a keyboard. No longhand either.

N.

I know, I know. How silly of me. It is so hard to type with my clit after all.

I boggle at this...

What would she say about much of Ursula LaGuin's work?

Also, my college upper level 'Philosophy in Science Fiction' class would be much the poorer without metaphor. However, the reviewer would probable dismiss my course as fluff. (It counted towards my major.)

While nex0s has a point, I'm thinking it's more about branding than sexism. The very, very back of this reviewer's brain was saying, "Cat Valente only writes fantasy, ergo this SF story is obviously fantasy. You must prove this in 500 words. GO!" Leaving her actual brain to make a fool of itself, as back brains sometimes do when confronted with data that does not fit their preconceptions of reality. Given more data, that preconception may change into 'Cat Valente writes anything she damn well pleases. I better deal with it.' Which means you have to write more SF.

Now there's a nice thought.

I want to write more SF. But I cannot express how discouraging it is to write something and then over and over have the main point of discussion be that it's not SF, as if that matters so much more than anything else. I feel like I'm trying to please an insane robot that will never love me.

The last SF story I wrote? Many of the commenters said that it should not be allowed to be printed in a fiction magazine because it was so obviously personal and autobiographical. No one has ever said this kind of thing to me in fantasy, nor shown such hostile teeth.

But as Boxer said, I will work harder.

You mean you don't write SF? But, but, you are one of the few SF writers I read. I mean I usually prefer fantasy, but . . . wait, I guess that's why I like your books. Huh, and here I thought it was wit and brilliant writing that kept me reading.

Good thing we have people to tell us these things. ;)

The distinction between sci-fi and fantasy is tenuous at best and mostly hanging on intent rather than setting. If you say Mars Overlord and The Radiant Car are SF, I can't see in them any reason why they should not be.

What I don't like are negative definitions - "this is not X". If that critic says Mars Overlord is definitely not SF, I'd like at least to now what she thinks it is; "a metaphor for this and that" is not a genre.

I always thought that question was silly. There is not a line between sci-fi and fantasy that everyone would agree on, even among the publishers, let alone the fans. The only reason for it is to give you some idea of what to expect, but you can't get that from the genre label, To my mind the point of that whole set of genres (fantasy/scifi/horror) is to be as creative as you can. The creative things have to struggle to be labeled, the non-creative things are obvious.
The people that really care about what genre something is labeled like to read things that don't push the boundaries. They want to know what to expect inside the first few paragraphs, and not be surprised. If those people want to push your works out of the genre they 'like' it just means that you're being too creative for them. Take that as a compliment and move on, don't try to make them happy.

There are plenty of classification snobs out there who want to define their classification in a 'pure' way and can't see past their blinders.

On the other hand I've seen books badly misclassified just to get a specific label, or force re-written (even after being published) to fit a perceived trend. I remember one author a decade or so ago who wrote a near future SF tale which didn't sell so well who's publisher decided it needed to be re-written and Vampires added in (as they were the hot trend in fiction at the time) and then re-released it in the new form a few years later with a variant title. The fact that there were vampires added nothing to the story, or the premise.

Then there are those who write what is classified as 'Magical Realism' which gets them Literary Prizes but in reality they are simply writing Modern Setting Fantasy with Hidden Tropes (and even heavier metaphor).

The boxes of genre as are generally defined to control marketing to those who have very limited personal mental boundaries as to what they read. Its a business tool, but one that is mishandled again and again. They want books that can be shelved in one place in the store, and not on several shelves. They want to further sub divide the Dewey Decimal System (which itself is archaic) as they are the sort of folks that think in very tight little categories on everything.

I don't entirely agree. Marketing categories are tough little buggers, but they are an attempt to quantify the ultimately unquantifiable: what people read and how to make them buy more of what they read.

Absolutely there are authors who get very picky about how their books are categorized and marketed - Margaret Atwood and Nicholas Sparks, for example, famously make a lot of noise about how they don't write genre fiction (spit spit) but proper literature (scare quotes implied). Atwood, at least, is upfront about her motives - she doesn't think sci fi gets prestigious enough awards.

But the majority of genre authors are not enormous heavyweights like Atwood and have little control over how their books are marketed and categorized. So the publishers and booksellers are left to try to figure out how to move stock. This is ultimately a numbers game; they have at their disposal statistics for who buys what, and they categorized, market, and shelve books accordingly.

Then we the authors and readers argue about those categories in terms of genre.

It's an incredibly complicated system, of which I don't pretend to have anything beyond the most superficial understanding. And it's going to take a lot of work, from everyone involved, (readers, authors, critics, award-givers, publishers, publishing houses, enormous chain bookstores, etc.) to change it.

So... if it's got sex, it's science fiction?


Ah, the myth of genre... I remember a review once that criticized jazz music and musicians for their imprecision in following the sheet music, proving once and for all that all classical musicians were superior in all conceivable ways to all jazz musicians. Genre is a marketing convenience. We write what we write, and the tales we tell are what they are, and the labels get attached according to other criteria that are largely beyond our control.

... Wow. I would love to see that review. Where did you see that?