Rhapsody: Notes on Strange FictionsRhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions by Hal Duncan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Everything you ever wanted to know about SF/fantasy/horror/literary fiction, but were afraid to ask. This is one of the most exciting and challenging books on genre criticism that I have ever read.

It joins such classics as The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine by Samuel R. Delany, Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction by Darko Suvin and Reading by Starlight by Damien Broderick.

Indeed, Hal Duncan dedicates this book to Delany and Thomas Disch; one of his particular achievements here is to make heavyweight theorists like Suvin and Delany understandable and relevant, which is no mean feat.

What I loved about this book is that it is both a rigorous analysis of the development of SF criticism, as well as a fascinating debate about the relevance of genre fiction, and the distinction between SF and the Sci-FI of Hollywood.

Here Duncan wears multiple hats as writer, fan and reader. He is not afraid to skewer various sacred cows along the way towards his goal of explicating a broader fiction of the fantastic, strange fiction, that eschews any labels or genre definitions.

Rhapsody is also extremely well written. Duncan uses the central conceit of the SF Café, located in the less salubrious areas of the city of New Sodom, downtown from the more upmarket and favoured Bistro de Critique. Here old timers and young bucks kvetch and argue fine points.

I stepped through the doors of the SF Café with a borrowed copy of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot in my hand, expecting to find more of the same, only to find Philip K. Dick sitting at a table, obsessing over Gnostic demiurges and ersatz realities, Robert A. Heinlein across from him, spouting libertarian aphorisms but paying for Dick’s coffee. The talk at that table was as much philosophy as science, as much monsters and messiahs as spaceships and simulacra. Palmer Eldritch and Valentine Michael Smith fought, like Zoroastrian deities, over my soul.

The framework that Duncan assembles in this book to both discuss and classify SF is largely based on Delany’s essay ‘About 5,750 Words’. Duncan argues that strange fictions can only be understood in terms of their particular aesthetic modalities:

Coulda, woulda, shoulda—the words in use here are markers of modality, judgements written into the text. As the earlier references to epistemic modality might suggest, such judgements come in more hues than just the judgement of possibility. There is: epistemic modality, judgement of fact; alethic modality, judgement of possibility; deontic modality, judgement of duty; and boulomaic modality, judgement of desire/dread.

If this sounds overly complicated, fear not: Duncan explains at length, and with great finesse. He uses easy-to-understand text fragments throughout, which he then proceeds to break down and analyse according to their specific modality. Duncan is also a voracious reader of SF, and his prodigious knowledge of the genre is amply on display here.

Duncan himself is a proponent of the so-called New Weird, with such books as Vellum and Ink, and his recent collection Scruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites. Yes, Duncan is unabashedly, and transgressively, queer, and brings a lot of the same anarchic energy and offbeat humour of his books to his critical writing.

As a final note: Towards the end, Duncan discusses Bruce Sterling’s concept of ‘slipstream’ fiction as well as ‘infernokrusher’, the spoof SF literary movement curated by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. He adds, in passing: “On a hot summer day, about a thousand years ago, it seems, when I was sixteen years old, my brother stepped out into the path of a Ford Capri. Death is full of surprises.”

The final quote, fittingly, brings us back to Delany:

the crescent sun is high, the moon low;
life is not for the faint-hearted;
so why the fuck should art be?

I was completely blown over by this book. It is definitely one of the most important non-fiction SF books of recent times, and deserves to be read by anybody with any sort of abiding interest in genre fiction.

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The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Andy Weir’s debut novel, a self-publishing sleeper hit, seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people who do not normally read SF. Of course, he is writing within a venerable sub-genre, both in terms of Mars novels and NASA politics, from The Martian Race by Gregory Benford to Voyage by Stephen Baxter.

There is nothing spectacularly original about The Martian, not to mention that it has particular problems in pacing and structure. What seems to have caught the imagination of readers is the character of Mark Watney himself, a latter-day, larger-than-life Robinson Crusoe whose wit and endurance in the face of adversity is luminous and affecting.

I was quite surprised at how science-heavy the book is, as Watney’s struggle to survive on Mars is rigorously extrapolated and analysed. Despite all the science though, Weir engages in heavy mythologising, particularly of astronauts (as immortalised in The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe). Maybe astronauts are the new cowboys, and what Weir has simply done is write a John Wayne-type novel that happens to be set on Mars.

I need some encouragement. I need to ask myself, “What would an Apollo astronaut do?”
He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.

Early on in the novel Watney manages to re-establish contact with NASA, while Weir also widens the scope of the novel by adding various characters in Houston. Annie, NASA’s media relations officer, seems suspiciously like a female version of Watney: a foul-mouthed yet endearing wise-ass. We also get introduced to the crew of the Ares mission that abandoned Watney for dead on Mars, and who are now headed back to Earth.

This broadening of focus ratchets up the narrative tension and increases the stakes for all concerned. However, Watney loses comms again, whereupon Weir reverts to the single-person for the final act. This section feels repetitive and lags quite a bit.

Another problem is that Watney is (understandably, I suppose) rather anti-Mars. I wish that Weir had engaged in some objective nature writing to attempt to convey some of the majesty and size of our neighbour, as Kim Stanley Robinson did so memorably in his trilogy. This would not only have given Watney a larger context, but also helped the reader get a sense of humanity’s own dwindling significance against the scale of the cosmos, and hence a better understanding of how important inter-planetary exploration truly is.

It is unclear if Weir is assuming any sort of political stance here, as in whether or not NASA should be more committed to space exploration. The fact that China has to help out the US with an additional booster rocket is a nice touch, as is the sobering bit where the Chinese ops director comments that they have had to scrap a mission of immeasurable scientific importance to simply save one man.

Well, not any man. Mark Watney, of course. That Weir chooses to end his novel when he does – I will not divulge the ending – was hugely disappointing for me. Let us hope that Ridley Scott’s big-budget adaptation, with Matt Damon in the lead role, does not make the same mistake.

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