you're reading...
Criticism, Genre Fiction, The Writer's Life

The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe of Genre Fiction, Part 1

I tried and I failed. I wanted so much to do it that I sought recommendations and advice. But in the end I just couldn’t read a so-called classic science fiction tome.

I’ve been dabbling in genre writing in the last year, churning out bits of psychological horror, but written in my usual, literary, character-centered style. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and the freedom that comes with experimenting in a new realm. But I knew I needed to learn more. I asked some members of the genre writers group in which I participate for recommendations. Last week I ordered one of those titles, Hyperion, a Hugo Award winner by Dan Simmons, and when it arrived I eagerly dove into Chapter 1.

Or actually, the Prologue, which as any literary novelist knows is often the mark of a hack writer. But I overlooked that, only to enter a world of such vague, insider jargon that it was unreadable to any but the most inured sci-fi fiction fans.

A sampling from the opening pages:

“The situation is very confused,” said Meina Gladstone. Her voice was weary. “The consulate and Home Rule Council fatlined us three standard weeks ago with the news that the Time Tombs showed signs of opening. The anti-entropic fields around them were expanding rapidly and the Shrike has begun ranging as far south as the Bridge Range.” Confused indeed.

“A FORCE:space task force was immediately dispatched from Parvati to evacuate the Hegemony citizens from Hyperion before the Time Tombs open. Their time-debt will be a little more than three Hyperion years.” What does any of that mean? Talk about not grounding your story…

It wasn’t just the obscure space-speak that put me off, it was the weak writing, the reliance on a character who is a didactic author substitute, whose purpose is to explain the setting to readers as though they were children. The story may ostensibly be about the future, but this style of writing is planted firmly in the 1800s.

What made me laugh hardest was the scenario for Chapter 1. As a member of several writing groups over the past six years, I have often reviewed the submissions from potential members who wish to write sf. So many times have I endured an opening that goes something like this: a mysterious space traveler awakens from a cryogenically-induced sleep, into a mysterious world of which he knows nothing. His first clues come from a mysterious message, thoughtfully left for him by his mysterious captor or benefactor, which details the tasks he must pursue if he is to discover the mysterious secret of this new world…

Gag me.

Well, guess what Dan used to jump start Hyperion. You got it—the mysterious “Consul” awakens after a cryogenically-induced…

Who am I? Where am I? Gag me again.

Now I know where the inspiration for that nonsense came. It’s published (honored, even) writers like Simmons who have poisoned the keyboards of many beginning genre writers with this weak, smarmy style.

Maybe the book gets better, but I’ll never know. After twenty pages of this mess, I threw in the towel and put the book on the shelf. Perhaps I’ll have it cryogenically preserved and try to read it again in 100 years. I still believe there are good genre books out there, and I am determined to find some. But in the meantime, I’ll stick to good old literary prose in my genre stories.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


8 thoughts on “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe of Genre Fiction, Part 1

  1. The problem, one might suppose, Mr. Ponepinto, is who is giving the recommendations. Also, one should be warned that a Hugo or Bram Stoker award is not necessarily a symbol of excellence, but rather of political largesse. Just as National Book Awards and Pulitzers are sometimes reflections of corporate influences.

    May I recommend instead these genre books for perusal:

    -“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

    -“Night In The Lonesome October” by Richard Laymon

    -“Perdido Street Station “(I had a problem with this novel, but I am a lone voice of reason in my issues with the author) China Mieville

    -“Name of the Wind” (I thought the world building and character definition superb) by Patrick Rothfuss

    -“Foundation” by Issac Asimov

    -“Dune” by Frank Herbert

    and just about any anthology by Harlan Ellison, Phillip K. Dick, or William Gibson. You might like “Neuromancer”…the book which gave us the term Cyberspace.

    Something else for you to consider is that genre isn’t just about flying saucers and ghosts, it can be the spy novel, the techno thriller, the western, etc. And as I’ve stated in other places, “literary” fiction is itself a genre, sometimes praised for being self-serving rather than possessing lasting merit. Consider such works as “The English Patient” by Onjaate or “The Sports Writer” by Richard Ford. We can praise both these works for elements, but as a whole, they have enormous flaws which we can overlook (hence my above inclusion of “Perdido Street Station.”

    If we look at spy thrillers, for instance, who can deny the literary skills of LeCarre, or Deighton. And yet, Fleming, whose James Bond books are often pure pulp (God forgive me for ever having said this, and I’ll deny it in the future), have had an indelible stamp on that genre.

    Finally, one has to consider the marketplace, and what a book stands for. Something like Simmon’s “Hyperion” is disposable fiction, probably gone from memory in five to ten year’s time. Many people reading genre want their tropes. They are like children who will be told the same fairy tale over and over again, and will eagerly wait for the anticipated moment where the bad guy falls and they can clap their hands in delight. It is escapism. The writing is secondary.

    However, before the “literary” author reads the above paragraph and feels smug, he should consider the function of his own work and where and how it stands within a constantly shifting definition and perspective of artistic excellence. Too often, it seems, a literary author writes for….other literary authors or would be literary authors. Not a large group. And while that may be enough, it is a small and lonely closet of self-satisfaction.

    For me the more satisfactory path is one of balance. There is intelligently written genre, and hack work (and I enjoy both depending on my mood). There are times when I read challenging literature (right now I am fighting my way through an example of, in my opinion, bad Shakespeare (“Coriolanus”), and times when I choose not to be challenged.

    Or as an old Language Arts teacher once put it, “We need a varied diet.”

    Posted by ssternberg | December 20, 2011, 3:49 PM
    • Many thanks, Stewart, for what I’m sure will be many good reads. Hyperion was most likely a blip on the genre radar that should have been targeted for annihilation.

      But, since you continue to bang the “literary is genre” drum, I am compelled to correct a few misconceptions. By your own definition, genres in fiction are fairly narrow corridors of writing that are shackled into standard formulas of plot, theme and the inclusion of tropes. This is not to say that they can’t be well written, and they can even be literary in their own way, but in the end, they are slaves to a fashion, and should they step outside the bounds of their genres, they are labeled as something else.

      Literary writing is beholden to no such formulas. Read the stories in current literary journals and you’ll find a wide variety of themes and characters, as well as experimental styles that challenge readers to determine the meanings of stories based not only on the text, but on how the text relates to their own life experience.

      Where is the challenge in a trope that has been written the same way time and time again (see the blog above—one more mysterious space traveler awakened from cryogenic sleep and I swear I’ll take to a bell tower…)

      I believe you’ve just started reading Matt Bell’s book, How They Were Found. How would you classify the story “Dredge?” Horror? Literary? How about “The Receiving Tower?” Is it sf, or is that one literary? My own story, “The Face Maker,” about which you said, “This is horror.” (And which you said was one of the best you read this year—I won’t let you forget that.) Rather than somehow trying to justify a story as fitting two genres, wouldn’t it be more logical to say these stories transcend their genres because they explore the psychologies of their characters and don’t just rely on plot or tropes?

      Simply stated, literary is a style of writing that centers primarily on character depth and development, and it can be applied to any genre, or any non-genre work. I actually don’t think we’re that far apart in our view of this, except for the application of labels.

      Posted by jpon | December 21, 2011, 1:54 AM
  2. I second Stewart’s recommendation of “American Gods” and “Perdido Street Station” (although I may have enjoyed Embassytown more).

    I would also recommend “Onion Girl” by Charles DeLint (urban fantasy)

    “Anubis Gates” by Tim Powers (steampunk)

    “Monstrous Affections” which is a short-story genre collection by David Nickle (literary genre in the gothic style)

    I’ve never read “Hyperion” although I tend to stay away from the hard-core space sci-fi stories.

    Posted by Christine Purcell | December 20, 2011, 4:35 PM
  3. Thanks, Christine,

    I should have sought out more recommendations from the start.

    Posted by jpon | December 21, 2011, 1:55 AM
  4. The situation is very confused. Not unlike the alpaca killer…

    Posted by Kelly Davio | January 3, 2012, 6:05 PM
  5. Ah yes, the alpaca killer. For the uninitiated, here is a line from that infamous story: “Tom was no stranger to such hard-ons. Like the alpaca killer, those hard-ons usually struck at night.”

    Posted by jpon | January 3, 2012, 6:16 PM
    • This line from the aplaca killer is hysterically funny. I wonder how ssternberg would defend that one, though I take into account his view that people want to be entertained, using their lowest denominator of intelligence.I admit to watching talent shows for relaxation myself.

      Posted by nadiaibrashi | March 24, 2012, 4:46 AM
      • I will have to dig up that complete story. I think it’s on an old hard drive somewhere. Some friends and I have thought about doing a “So Bad It’s Great” anthology, and this piece would be a natural.

        Posted by jpon | March 24, 2012, 12:40 PM

Tahoma Literary Review Now Open for Submissions

TLR is officially open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. To find out more about this new (paying) literary journal, please visit us at Tahoma Literary Review.

Enter your email address to subscribe to Joe's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 7,385 other followers