Inhuman Swill : Genre
            

The Bone Clocks: A Novel by David Mitchell
This post about The Bone Clocks contains mild spoilers.

When grappling with works of genre fiction, most mainstream literary critics can be counted on to demonstrate a peculiar tone-deafness. Take the case of The New Yorker's James Woods, who calls David Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks "weightless," "empty," and "demented." So "frictionless" does Wood find it, in fact, that it prompts him to call into question the soundness of such earlier Mitchell works as Cloud Atlas.

Upon reflection, I have to admit that The Bone Clocks is probably my least favorite of Mitchell's novels (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet being the only one I haven't yet read). But I found it for the most part extremely engaging, even thrilling, and I dispute Wood's contention that "the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant" when stacked up against the novel's science-fictional premise.

The Bone Clocks is built, like much of Mitchell's work, around a structural conceit that passes the duty of first-person narrator, like a baton in a relay race, to a new point-of-view character every hundred pages or so. Each of the book's six sections becomes, in essence, a novella of its own, conveying the overall narrative from its intensely realistic beginnings with a runaway teenager in 1984 to its apocalyptic, post-oil conclusion in 2043.

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Shaun of the dead of the dead

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shaun-meta-david.jpg
UPDATE!  After this blog entry was written, I emailed the text of it to John Hodgman on a whim. A few hours later, to my surprise, I received a response. His Honor told me he would endure my "gut punches" if I disagreed with him, but that I should not ask him to answer for Martin Amis.
Dear Judge John Hodgman:

I must take great exception to your summary judgment in a recent episode of the "Judge John Hodgman" podcast, to wit, that Shaun of the Dead is a comedy only and not a horror film.

Your Honor, this opinion is, if you'll permit me, patent hogwash. If we are to accept your definition of a horror film as one designed to provoke terror and dread in its audience and to help that audience confront and process their own existential fears as their on-screen proxies battle horrors from beyond the grave, then in what way does Shaun of the Dead not meet that definition? Yes, we may be laughing at the same time, and we may chuckle wryly here and there in recognition of nods to earlier classics in the zombie canon, but that in no way reduces our identification with Shaun, Ed, and the rest of our heroes, nor does it diminish our well-justified fears for their safety or our investment in their fates. Whatever yuks may be afoot, these characters are in very real peril, and we can't help experiencing that peril along with them. Shaun of the Dead clearly manages the feat of being effective comedy and horror both, at the same time.

I am weary to my bones of the tired assertion that a thing that is one thing cannot also be another thing, particularly when the one thing is seen as high art and the other as low. I recall years ago attending a lecture by literary enfant terrible Martin Amis at the NYU library. His New Yorker short story "The Janitor on Mars" had just been named by Locus Magazine as one of the year's top works of science fiction. During Q&A, a young woman asked Amis if the publication of that story meant that he was now a science fiction writer. Amis hemmed and hawed, eventually asserting that, while he had read and absorbed copious amounts of science fiction as a youth and certainly wasn't embarrassed by that fact, "The Janitor on Mars" merely deployed the tropes and language of science fiction to a higher literary end. It was not itself, he claimed, science fiction.

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Hal Duncan, author of the (forthcoming, if you're in the States, and) highly praised novel Vellum and all around Righteous Dude, holds forth quite cogently on the distinctions (or lack thereof) between SF and fantasy. He calls them less feuding Campbells and Macdonalds than giant extended families that have long intermarried:

In truth, I think this whole division between SF and Fantasy is an illusion, an artificial dichotomy based more on claims of allegiance than on actual practice. Two small subsets of the field may live by their words, creating Hard SF or High Fantasy that do exemplify the warring aesthetics of Rationalism and Romanticism -- probably par excellence. But if you look around the drunken wedding party, ignore the two old maids sitting in their corners, that dusty old duality looks pretty irrelevant. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's fucking Modernism. Pulp Modernism, cheap, populist, balls-to-the-wall-and-entertaining-as-fuck Modernism, but still Modernism. We use mimesis on the one hand, fantasy on the other. We rationalise magic and romanticise science. We combine the exotic and the mundane. We experiment with literary conventions. This isn't the fiction of science; it's the science of fiction. We take metaphoric conceits, fantastic ideas, and we put them to the test with literature as the laboratory. Of course, when we get good results, we do have a tendency to go into mass production mode, churning out dodgy copies from the cheapest of materials for a consumerist market that loves our new toys for a few days before abandoning them for the next shiny doohicky... but, hey, that Big Corporate Structure keeps the R & D department going so I'm not complaining.  [full post]
In a way, Duncan articulates a thought I've had for many years, which is that SF and fantasy, at their best, are the disciplines that employ more of the tools from the writer's workbench than any other. At our best, we can pull off every trick in the "mainstream" writer's playbook besides stirring in half a dozen all our own.
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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

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