Thursday, October 23, 2008

Incandescence Review

I've got a review of Greg Egan's latest novel of science, Incandescence, up at SFSignal today.

What I don't do in that review is wrestle with a dilemma: in Incandescence some elements are front and center which distinguish SF from "literature." The book has a plot, and it has a philosophical core/argument. It does NOT have convincing characters or poetic prose. It is, in fact, didactic, hearkening back to the days when Hal Clement taught us about gravity. In my mind, Incandescence is the best physics lecture I've ever read, and I understand gravity and General Relativity better for having read it. And I liked it!

It's an old problem: I want to defend sf as literature, but ghod love me, I love it even when it isn't. How is one supposed to define consistent standards/aesthetic under these sorts of conditions? I love Stapledon but I think Baxter's characters are woefully underdeveloped? I love Gene Wolfe for his sweep-you-off-your-feet prose, but also enjoy reading Asimov and Heinlein? How can I possibly justify these stances? Old question: why was A. E. van Vogt so loved when by most objective standards he was lousy? Going back further, James Blish (as William Atheling, Jr.) had to ask why Abraham Merritt was so loved when he was so obviously awful.

Most of the time I want sf to stand up with the best mainstream literature has to offer, and ideally you could get someone with the ideas of an Egan and the prose of a Wolfe or Chabon. It's times like this though, where I start to understand the drive towards (and difficulty of) developing a separate aesthetic for sf.


John D. said...

Awesome review, as always. You put the rest of us to shame!

>>How can I possibly justify these stances?
Because, while you can look at a book objectively (and note prose, structure, plot, character development, etc.), you also have a subjective impression of a story as well. Even though you know it ain't "healthy", you can haz Cheezburger and like it.

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks John, but honestly you guys are no slouches.

>>Even though you know it ain't "healthy", you can haz Cheezburger and like it.

I can haz Eganburger? Yayz!