On the New York Times Sunday Book Review Piece
The New York Times Sunday Book Review piece on me and my books is now up, so I thought I’d make a few comments on it:
1. As to your first question of how do I feel about it: oh, come on. I just had a full page devoted to me in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This is the part where I hop, jump and skip. And I think the piece itself was thoughtful and interesting to read; I’m particularly pleased Dave Itzkoff liked The Ghost Brigades more than Old Man’s War, because I think TGB is the better-written book, myself. So, yeah, I’m delighted with the piece; I’d be an idiot not to be.
2. I’m sad Itzkoff didn’t like The Android’s Dream at all, but, you know. If you write a book that starts off with a chapter-long fart joke, you go in knowing not everyone’s going to follow where you lead. I’m not going to fault Itzkoff for deciding that it’s not his thing. That said, I find it amusing that all the things about the book Itzkoff describes as bugs (the fart jokes, the digressions, the informal style, etc) are the things I would describe as features, because that’s the kind of book it is. I’ve openly called it my “popcorn movie” book — i.e., lots of actions and explosions and kiss kiss bang bang (as Pauline Kael would say). I suspect Itzkoff may have been expecting something else; he was expecting steak and got a chocolate eclair. And while that eclair might be tasty, if you’re wanting steak, you’re gonna be disappointed. The good news is he’s got more steak coming in 2007, in the form of The Last Colony.
As for Android, the book has its admirers (“His best book yet” — Entertainment Weekly) and Tor tells me it’s selling pretty damn well. And I’ll be writing a sequel. Mmmm… more eclair.
3. Am I taking a potshot at Robert Heinlein, as Itzkoff suggests I am in The Ghost Brigades, when I have the Special Forces note that unpacking the philosophical concepts in Starship Troopers takes a lot of effort? Not really. The fuller context has the soldiers also enjoying the Starship Troopers movie more than the book, even though they recognize it’s dumber. This is an inside pitch to science fiction fandom, whose general opinion of the movie is that it’s a travesty and betrayal of the book. Having people who are for all intents and purposes actual “starship troopers” enjoy the film more is a friendly fannish nose tweak. At conventions I’ve had fans come up to me, note that particular passage and say, “Dude, that’s cold,” which of course amuses me greatly. Yes. Yes, it is cold.
Fans seem to enjoy the “Ho, Ender” joke, too, which is hard nearby in the text. Indeed, the whole section in which the Special Forces look at all the “old” science fiction is basically a chunk of fan service, even as it serves the more serious purpose of letting the Special Forces understand where “people like them” fit into the cultural imagination of humanity, a point which has implications for the main character Jared Dirac later in the book. Just because you’re doing serious plot work doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it.
So no, I’m not actually whacking on Heinlein. However, that part where I give the Special Forces a wish death on the Ewoks? That’s all me, baby.
4. Itzkoff appears to have the feeling that I’m straddling the fence politically in my work, walking down the middle to avoid offending one side or the other, and hopes that in The Last Colony that I will “articulate a firm position on the political issues that will inevitably define [his] historical moment, [and] take a stance that considerate readers might potentially disagree with.” Heh. My thought about this is that Itzkoff needs to read Nicholas Whyte’s delightfully excoriating take on Old Man’s War; clearly, considerate readers disagree with me already.
I understand where Itzkoff is coming from, but if I’m reading him correctly, I going to have to disagree with him about the need to change my rhetorical tactics. I think they’re working fine; I just don’t think they’re the usual tactics. To explain this I’m going to have to geek out here, so buckle in.
Ready? Here we go: To the extent that one decides to get into politics in one’s science fictional work — and the question of whether this is a good idea at all is a discussion so immense and knotty and exhausting that I’m not even going to bother with it at the moment — there are primarily two ways to go about it: You can build a monument or you can build a room (yes, these are metaphors. Work with me). If you build a monument, what you’re doing is putting your politics and polemics in the center of your reader’s attention and basically making him or her deal with them on your terms. The politics aren’t accessible and aren’t debatable; as a reader you deal with them or you don’t.
If you build a room, what you’re doing is inviting people in — with all their baggage, political or otherwise — and inviting them to unpack and stay awhile. And they unpack, putting all their stuff on the shelves and tables and walls and floors, all of which (to stretch the metaphor to its absolute breaking point) are your underlying political and social views. As a writer, you make the points you want to make, and because you’ve let your readers bring something into the book as well, I think you’ve got a better chance of them being receptive to your points.
I think monument-making is fine, if you’ve got a taste for it. Lord knows there are a lot of monument builders in science fiction, and have been since the early days of the genre. I think I’m a room-builder. I want people to come into the rooms I make and figure out how they best fit into them and can make them their own. I’m happy to let them bring in their own world view; everyone likes a room better once they’ve put in their own homey touches. But, you know. I’m still the architect.
Working this way suits me because to the extent I want to make political points, they don’t really track to the current iteration of “right” and “left,” and even if they did, the way I’ve designed my universe, today’s right-left politics have as much relevance to it as, say, the minutiae of the political gamesmanship surrounding the Prime Ministership of William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, have to do with life in the contemporary USA. Now, the political points I want to make in this universe will happily fit into this real-world historical moment, I think (I suspect this will particularly be the case with The Last Colony). But they’ll do so in ways appropriate to the universe I’ve built up. Likewise I’ll be happy to let the readers discover these points as they come across them in the text. This sort of room-building strategy is arguably not as immediately impressive as building a monument; on the other hand a monument is not necessarily a comfortable place in which to live. I want my readers to live in my universes for a good long while.
Geeking out done now. And to get back to the NYT Sunday Book Review piece: Fun stuff, discussed in one of literature’s big venues. You bet I’m happy.