For the second in my ongoing series of interviews with bloggers from around the speculative fiction community I have 2theD from Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature. If you are one of the thimbleful of people who accidentally come across my little corner of the web but have not visited Potpourri, I highly recommend it. The blog covers the span of science fiction, past to present, and most often goes beyond popular and awarded material to look at lesser known authors and books of the past. Not shy about his opinion, the reviews are full of candor, and thankfully, so too is the following interview.
I will start from the top, particularly the upper-left. Your profile openly states "I don't like Dune...". I am not one of the people who subscribe to its greatness either, but I was wondering if you could explain your dislike, particularly what makes it important enough to place as the opening statement—a shot across the bow, as it were—for people reading your blog for the first time?
I’m not a reader who flocks to Nebula Award winners or Hugo Award winners and I certainly don’t rush out to buy anything on the New York Times bestsellers list. I take pride in reviewing more esoteric novels and collections of short stories rather than jumping to the top of any Top 100 SF list and working my way down (though I have read a number of those books). Dune is the prime example. Whenever I used to read recommendations about SF novels (I don’t care for that any more), Dune almost always topped the lists; therefore, my expectations for the book were set really, really high… and my opinion of the book fell very, very far. So, this opening salvo of “I don’t like Dune…” shows the reader of my blog that this blog isn’t your run-of-the-mill fanboy site or cathedral to the books everyone has read and everyone seems to enjoy (I sometimes doubt their sincerity). Openly denouncing Dune on my homepage is my shrine to SF sacrilege.
There is an excellent mix of old/new, well/less known, short/long sci-fi on your blog. You have captured an excellent cross-section of the field, and if you keep it up, will eventually be able to present sci-fi nearly as whole. Is the variety of material intentional, or are you simply reading whatever you can get your hands on? If intentional, could you explain?
When I started to read SF in 2006, admittedly rather late in my life, I was eager to explore the width and breadth of the entire genre; now in 2013, this passion has yet to ebb. I do a fair bit a research into novels which I think I may like, heeding the opinion of a select few such as Miles and yourself, Jesse, and order these books from Powells.com, but I also like to draw wildcards from the dusty shelves of secondhand bookstores. Some old stuff, like H.G. Wells, is fantastic and unmatched in the modern SF. I don’t consciously decide to buy, read, and review books in any specific decade (or century) but draw on books randomly or as flights of fancy. I don’t think any other SF blog covers my scope, spanning from 1894 (for H.G. Wells’ short stories) to this year (including Brian Aldiss, Iain Banks, and Eric Brown)… 119 years ain’t too bad of a span.
Given this breadth of reading, what is your perspective of how the field has evolved? And, where do you see it evolving in the next 10-20 years?
I haven’t given this a lot of thought, which is odd considering the format of my blog’s review directory, which is separated by decade, so my following answer is given on the fly. Early work in the genre focused on omniscient narration with little attention focus on characterization. Later, in the so-called Golden Age of SF, the norm shifted from the omniscience of the narrator to the omnipotence of the protagonist. Then, shreds of character pessimism and futuristic imperfection started to jam the well-oiled machine of positive progression. This dark vision of the future is something I really enjoy, but it seems that the genre is on an upswing back toward optimism again—lots of ecological positivism and payoffs for sheer human effort. I don’t read much new stuff—only six books from 2012 and so far only three books this year. In the future, as proponents of global warming seem to forecast, when the Earth begins to blush in embarrassment of its most populous children, the genre of SF may shift back to pessimism, toward pointing the finger of our own destruction back to ourselves, our animalistic instincts and failure to collectively rise above these urges.
Also based on this knowledge of the field, who/what do you think are some under-appreciated writers/novels that time is threatening to elide?
Firstly, John Brunner has been a huge influence on my SF reading and some of his lesser works have impressed me more than his acclaimed titles. He was endlessly diverse with his stories and, while there were certainly some stinkers, he continues to impress with his unmatched creativity. That’s right—unmatched! I’ve read 23 of his books and I still look forward to the next with eagerness. Secondly, the Australian author named George Turner is unrecognized for his greatness in dark science fiction, a dystopia view of the future where global warming has ravaged the Earth. Now only is the atmosphere dark and punishing, the human qualities in Turner’s work is also tepidly evil and intrinsically regressive—1988’s Drowning Towers was great! Lastly, though I’ve only read two of his novels, Phillip Mann, a New Zealand author, struck me a humanistic to the nth degree. He’s written very insightfully into emotion, its causes, and even its rehabilitation: The Eye of the Queen (1982) and Wulfsyarn (1990). Though obscure already, I’d hate to see his work entirely disappear… therein, my duty lies.
What would you consider the three most important factors in determining a book's success (from a personal point of view, not the market's)?
I think, offhand, that success is measured by:
(a) The author’s sense of adventure or opera: An adventure or action plot is best written swiftly. Some authors take a step back and add too much detail, thus ruining the flow of the action—Peter Telep’s Red Planet (2000), which I’m ashamed to say I have read. There needs to be a balance of setting, action, respite, scheming, and action again—Brian N. Ball’s Singularity Station (1973). Other authors pack too much into chase scenes or action sequences that they seem to forget they’re writing a book, not a Hollywood movie—like Neal Asher’s The Departure (2011).
Then there’s modern British space opera which, in my opinion, should be all about atmosphere and emotion. Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy is great in the atmosphere category but the dialogue is so stodgy that it tears all emotions away. Iain Banks, though my favorite author, started to fail in his Culture series when each book began to feel repetitious of Special Circumstances gone awry. Peter F. Hamilton strikes many chords of resonance within me, but it sometimes feels that he’s in over his own head with the tomes he produces—Great North Road (2012), for example. Lastly, one author, who shouldn’t even be categorized with these authors but makes a notable appearance only because I seem to have been deemed his anti-fan, is Michael Cobley—mediocrity would be luxury for him having destroyed a mildly interesting series, Humanity’s Fire, with a dud, The Ascendant Stars (2011), which has been on sale for the better part of a year at Kinokuniya and, still, no one has bought it. Ha.
(b) The characters’ involvement: Clear definitions of protagonist/antagonist are so 1900. Openly identifying conflict (e.g. man-versus-man, man-versus-nature) is also so 1900. Modern science fiction seems to be complicated, exhibiting a wide range of conflict big and small, intertwining numerous narrative threads, and creating their own gravity well with its number of pages. This is all fine and dandy for someone who actually likes 1,000-page books, on occasion, but there needs, needs, needs to be some artistic merit behind the character, too. This is where Neal Asher tends to fail with guns ablaze while Alastair Reynolds and the blessed, late Iain M. Banks tend to always shine like rhinestone cowboy chaps. I got off track with my answer… screw it.
(c) My mood: This is on the assumption that my mood affects a book’s rating rather than the obverse—a book’s crappiness affecting my mood. Sometimes, a crappy book makes me happy because, then, I realize that there must be an innate ability within myself that must be able to produce a short story or novel more eloquent or relevant than some piles of steaming cowpie that I’ve read (Charles Pellegrino’s Flying to Vanhalla  and Sydney J. van Scyoc’s Cloudcry  instantly spring to mind). In reality, I think my mood and a book’s quality reciprocate, an exchange of emotional give and take; if I’m shut down from a bad day of work, even Updike at his most articulate or Sheckley at his most ridiculous can only ratchet my mood above “steeping rage”.
Simple question: why no fantasy?
If a unicorn would to descend from the sky with an elfin archer holding the reigns while playing a ditty on his magical lute, bestowed to him from a respected wizard of a far land which is under the control of an unspeakable evil, and saith unto to me “Lo, cherubic sage of yesteryear’s tales of alchemy and sorcery, why haven’t thy perused a morsel of the fantasy which has given pleasure to millions?”, I could say, “Piss off, fairy.” Honestly, my preconceptions of fantasy clichés are like a massive cement dam, if I were to read an entire novel of fantasy I feel that I would have an aneurysm—a massive, massive aneurysm. I’d rather die of cancer, thank you very much. I’m interested in the future, in the scope of human possibility, in space, and in aliens which assume truly alien forms and ways. Wizards and wands, queens and quests, spirits and spells—gag me with a ray gun.
You recently left a comment on my blog regarding your desire to seek out Soviet era sci-fi. What’s the interest? What makes that (tiny?) niche of the field unique?
Life behind the Iron Curtain has been an interest of mine since the first grade when my friends and I looked at a map and chose a place where we’d want to live; the USSR was huge and a swathe of land was untouched (Siberia), so something inside me clicked from a very early age. Perhaps my sister’s comment about life in Russia exacerbated my eagerness to learn more: “The have video cameras in every house!” Much later, during university, I began to read some 1970s-80s Soviet travel books from the Western perspective, starting with Elizabeth’s Ponds’ From the Yaroslavsky Station: Russia Perceived (1988). Now, I even own a copy of the Foder’s 1978 Soviet Union travel guide… for reference, you know? So, my interest in the secretive Soviet Union eventually merged with my other reading habit—science fiction. I guess reading Soviet SF is a sort of voyeuristic—not catching a glimpse of real day-today-day life of the Soviets, but capturing the mindset, hopes, ambitions, and perspective from “the enemy”—in reality, however, Soviet SF is much more about satire and allegory than blatant optimism of a progressive future. I’ve recently purchased Vladimir Voinovich’s Moscow 2042 (1987)… which is the extent of my Soviet SF collection.
I love and am jealous of the background art to your blog. It appears original. Are you creating this yourself?
The current background was randomly swiped from a website, which I cropped to fit the window. I thought it looked pretty sharp, exactly the picture that fit my mind. In the past, I’ve Photoshop-ed a few book covers to format them for a homepage, something which I hope to do again soon since I just got my graphic design laptop back (having been broken since December).
Does the current state of your blog meet expectations, or do you have changes planned?
I didn’t have any expectations for my blog, really. Joachim kept egging me on in 2011, so I finally gave into peer pressure and made a blog, which pretty much is the same reviews as I post on Amazon with the exception of better formatting, more swearing, and much, much more accessible. I like my complicated reviews reaching 2,000+ words on occasion and I really don’t care if many people read them; I review because it’s good writing practice and it helps me remember the stories I’ve read. Though the reviews are complicated, I like to keep my blog simple—just reviews. Nearly all of the reviews are SF-related but I’ve also recently slipped in J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984) and Iain Banks’ The Quarry (2013) because… well, it’s my fucking blog, right?
Any changes planned? Perhaps a 3,000 word review if I find the time and the right book. Otherwise, steady as she goes.