I left academia this year, probably for good, but I look back fondly on all the mysteries. Cognitive science has unearthed a constellation of enigmas – systems in the mind that alter or completely defy our ideas about how we think. Introspection, it turns out, is a bit shit; self-awareness deeply myopic. There’s a lot more going inside our skulls than we realize.
One central idea that’s turned up again and again is the power of exposure. It turns out that much of our cognition is associative. When it comes to thinking, we are, to a surprising extent, what we see, what we hear, and what we read. Everything that comes into the brain adds to a semantic network that influences our thoughts and actions. People do act on what they consume, and, if I may overstep the bounds of firm science for a moment – writers do write what they read.
Everyone, not-writer or, in particular, writer, should read Catherynne Valente, just in order to have her inside their skulls.
In today’s post, I admit to altering my opinions in response to someone else’s argument, costing me my bid for Minister of Authority Heuristics. Speaking of which – I’m blown away by the reception to ‘A Plant (Whose Name is Destroyed)’, including fantastic reviews on Tangent Online and BestScienceFictionStories.com.
After the cut: why I sneered at worldbuilding, how Kate Elliot made me change my mind, and fiction by a very capable friend.
My story ‘A Plant (Whose Name is Destroyed)’ is now up on Strange Horizons, accompanied by a podcast reading in the voice of Fearless Leader Anaea Lay.
I’m very proud of this story. People often ask me whether genre writing, concerned with questions of what if and what next and what’s out there, must sacrifice some of its humanity to achieve its goals. I like to think that moving away from the mundane real doesn’t have to mean moving away from human truths. Distance can provide parallax, or make the familiar strange.
I’d like to talk about this story – and my other short fiction on Beneath Ceaseless Skies – in more depth, but Kate Elliot’s interesting points about worldbuilding are up next.
Kate Elliot, prolific fantasy author, said some very interesting things about worldbuilding that I’d like to touch on, and I’d planned to write about them next. But since it’s fresh – my thoughts on Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, and why it didn’t work for me. (Spoiler: it’s not just because it’s pretty sexist! Really, though: spoilers.)
The science fiction and fantasy genre has always included brilliant, diverse creators, but when it comes to those outside the white cis straight able male category, they’ve often been denied their centrality, spoken of as an earnestly appreciated sideshow even and especially when their work was vital. The most powerful voices in genre fiction today come from, and speak of, a larger world.
With the same parochial bent, genre has often pushed back against the critical hegemony of traditional literature by deriding it, demeaning the mundane and the merely real, slighting the value of prose style and the importance of subtext or substantive critical theory. The development of style and critical thought in genre is not a recent matter, but the production values of writers like – to name a few of my personal inspirations – Kij Johnson, Kelly Link or Catherynne Valente speaks to me of a genre less afraid to be literary, to engage with the ‘pretentious’ ‘competition’ on its own terms.
With all that said, I’m going to spend the rest of this post talking about a cis white guy known for his young adult novels, because when I sat down to write this post, I’d just finished a re-read of his space opera duology Succession, and I wanted to say something about it. I’m sorry! Continue reading