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In which, knowing nothing of necromancy—

I haven’t read Gideon the Ninth, and I’ll be upfront, here: I’m not all that likely to, which is really no skin off of anyone’s nose. This isn’t about Gideon the Ninth, or Tamsyn Muir, who I’m sure is a lovely person, for all I’ve never met or interacted with her. No: this starts off being about something somebody said to kick off a review of Gideon the Ninth:

A lot of the best recent science fiction and fantasy stories are notable for how well they color outside the lines. Disregarding genre expectations and freely borrowing tools from other literary traditions, a slew of writers are reinventing previously hide-bound forms. This is partially a progression of craft, but it’s also possible because of broader cultural phenomena—fantastical tropes, once restricted to a few niche markets, now dominate mainstream media. As a result, storytellers have to do less reinventing of the wheel each time they mix far-fetched elements—even the most general audiences don’t need the lore of vampires or zombies explained to them, so it takes very little narrative lifting to add such ghouls to an unexpected setting.

I’m not sure I can quite express how shiveringly wrong I find that passage, or the thought behind it, and I hasten to remind you that I haven’t read Gideon the Ninth, and so I cannot possibly be said to be saying that it is guilty of taking very little effort in its narrative lifting, just because it’s what someone else gestured toward when wanting to talk about it. —So I turn to what Paul Kincaid said, about another book I’m frankly not likely ever to pick up:

Actually, this use of language for effect rather than for sense, this notion that if you bundle enough images together somehow they will create an impression of something awesome, brings me to another problem I have with the story. There is a carelessness here that is evident both in the way the language is used and the story that the language is used to tell. When we are told, for instance, that “Red wins a battle between starfleets in the far future,” you wonder, given that the characters wander freely back and forth through time, what is meant by far future? Far future of what? That is thoughtless writing. But then, on the evidence of this story, I don’t think that either El-Mohtar or Gladstone has sat down to work out what a time war might be like and how it might be structured. Presumably Red and Blue are immortal (or at least as near immortal as makes no difference) agents who travel backwards and forwards through time changing events in order to create a different future that favours their side. So far so simple, but then Red tells us that “strands bud Atlantises to thwart her,” that 30 or 40 times she has walked away from a different sinking island. So there are multiple timelines; changing one event doesn’t change the future, it just births a new timeline. In which case, what are they fighting for? What could possibly constitute a victory, or a defeat, in such a situation. If everything goes wrong, then there is another timeline where everything has gone right. And if there can be no victory, there can be no cause for war. How do you go to war with an enemy who has just got everything they want in a different timeline? Over and over again throughout the novel I came up against the same notion: that none of this makes sense. There is a time war not because there is any functional purpose in the war, but because the authors need their two lovers to be on opposite sides in a conflict. This is Romeo and Juliet with two Juliets but otherwise no change: starcrossed lovers on either side of an age-old quarrel they cannot repair, needing to keep their affair secret, and leading to seeming death. Make the houses of Montague and Capulet into the enemy camps in a time war and lo you render the whole thing science fiction.

Which not only gets at the shortcomings of sidestepping such narrative lifting, but also demonstrates how pervasive that sidestepping is, or has been, or could become, in SF as it’s currently spoke, and begins to get at how frustrating those sidesteps can be, but, I mean, you don’t need me to tell you that, you saw WandaVision, right? —So I turn what William Empson said, about old bad poetry: “This belief,” he said, of the notion that atmosphere—the taste left in the head—is all, and conveyed in some fundamentally unknowable way as a byproduct of meaning, independent of grammar, unsusceptible of analysis:

This belief may in part explain the badness of much nineteenth-century poetry, and how it came to be written by critically sensitive people. They admired the poetry of previous generations, very rightly, for the taste it left in the head, and, failing to realise that the process of putting such a taste into a reader’s head involves a great deal of work which does not feel like a taste in the head while it is being done, attempting, therefore, to conceive a taste in the head and put it straight on to their paper, they produced tastes in the head which were in fact blurred, complacent, and unpleasing.

The taste in the head—the sylph—is the shiveringly unspeakable concatenation of desire, doubt, belief, of wonder and of terror, brought on by seeing a dinosaur; one does not put down that taste merely by showing the audience a dinosaur. You can’t make me feel like I’m in a room with a vampire by telling me a vampire has entered the room. The narrative lift is all. —And if it turns out your narrative lifting is up to the task of making me feel the actual staggering weight of walking away from thirty or forty sinking Atlantises (why else reach for such overkill?), one after an apocalyptic other, or putting me in the same room as a snarkily magical génocidaire, well. —It’s not you, honest. It’s me. Maybe I’m getting old.

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