Monday, August 11, 2008

Incredible Gene Wolfe interview


Tonight I was trolling around the web, trying to find authors similar to Gene Wolf (huh... RIGHT! As IF!!!) when I suddenly and quite surreptitiously ran across this lengthy and absolutely astonishing interview with the man himself. (The link is also posted at the end of this - um - post!) Let me put this into perspective (if that's possible)....

It's been probably a little over a year since I discovered Wolfe and read the massive Book of the New Sun. I count it as THE highlight of my reading career, and I'm still stunned and amazed by the sheer inventiveness and audacity of that series. The intelligence, the subtle and perceptive grasp of human nature and of the nature of reality and the universe.... in other words, things you seldom find in genre writing (which Wolfe's work most definitively ISN'T, though with their penchant for labeling, bookstores are forced to put him in with the sci-fi and fantasy authors - he fits in with them about as well as Shakespeare fits in with soap opera writers).

And now I feel like I've already found the very best.... there's basically no chance of ever topping his work. Since then I've been WANTING to find authors that exist at that dizzying pinnacle... TRYING to, and despairing of it ever actually happening. I've made a few really excellent finds in the attempt, such as Paulo Bacigalupi, Ted Chaing (who's book Stories About Your Life and Others I just picked up and am enjoying immensely), and David R Palmer, who's story Tracking was serialized in three recent issues of Analog magazine and soon to be printed as a novel, along with the long out-of-print Emergence, to which it's a sequel. But really they don't stand up to the comparison. The only authors I've read extensively who do would be J G Ballard and Angela Carter for their immense ability to create self-contained worlds of pure bravura imaginativeness (if that's even a word).

Incidentally, it occurred to me after making that recent post about what I'm reading that this imaginativeness, this ability to CREATE a thematically-unified world that isn't just a copy of drab reality is the unifying thread that binds together all my favorite authors, including even my earliest such as Andre Norton and Keith Laumer, who I mentioned in that post as writers of (somewhat) standard narrative fictions (as compared to the more poetic writers that post was mainly concerned with).

Wow, sorry, I don't mean to run to such loquaciousness.... let me try to cut to the chase.

In this long interview, Wolfe explains that his fiction is essentially the OPPOSITE of genre science fiction.... that rather than create little worlds where characters can act out simplistic ideas, he weaves a dense tapestry filled with intertwining concepts that cover pretty much the gamut of human thought... with an especial consideration for the more profound, such as language and how it shapes thinking and character, memory (and in particular memories of memories... ) why monsters are really US, and the unreliability (relativity) of narrators for various reasons. He says there's no separating form from subject... they interpenetrate and create each other in a symbiotic relationship.

... And as I was reading, it suddenly occurred to me that his ideas are very similar to those of the Absurdists, who's theories I recently wrote about. But I Must say, I vastly prefer reading his books to watching the plays of Samuel Beckett or the rest of the gang.

Following are a couple of excerpts from the interview to whet the appetite:

Larry McCaffery: Could you discuss what sorts of things have drawn you towards writing SF? Do you find there are certain formal advantages in writing outside the realm of "mainstream" fiction, maybe a freedom that allows you more room for exploring the issues you wish to develop?

Gene Wolfe: It's not so much a matter of "advantages" as SF appealing to my natural cast of mind, to my literary imagination. The only way I know to write is to write the kind of thing I would like to read myself, and when I do that it usually winds up being classified as SF or "science fantasy," which is what I call most of my work. Incidentally, I'd argue that SF represents literature's real mainstream. What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certain belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature's mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use.

LM: That's why I began by asking if you weren't attracted to the freedom offered by SF—it's only been since the rise of the novel in the 18th century that writers have more or less tried to limit themselves to describing the ordinary world around them....

Wolfe: It's a matter of whether you're content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you'll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist. Now as soon as you open yourself to that possibility, you are going to find yourself talking about things like intelligent robots and monsters with Gorgon heads, because it's becoming increasingly obvious that such things could indeed exist. But what fascinates me is that the ancient Greeks already realized these possibilities some 500 years before Christ, when they didn't have the insights into the biological and physical sciences we have today, when there was no such thing as, say, cybernetics. Yet when you read the story of Jason and the Argonauts, you discover that the island of Crete was guarded by a robot. Somehow the Greeks were alert to these possibilities despite the very primitive technology they had—and they put these ideas into their stories. Today it's the SF writers who are exploring these things in our stories.

Wolfe: It's the hackneyed notion: "The medium is the message." As I work on a story, the subject matter often seems to become an appropriate means of telling it—the thing bites its tail, in a way—because subject and form aren't reducible to a simple "this or that." "That" and "this" are interacting throughout the story. That's what I meant when I said I'm trying to show the way things really seem to me—my experience is that subjects and methods are always interacting in our daily lives. That's realism, that's the way things really are. It's the other thing—the matter of fact assumption found in most fiction that the author and characters perceive everything around them clearly and objectively—that is unreal... Fiction that doesn't acknowledge these sorts of interactions simply isn't "realistic" in any sense I'd use that term.

... and a link to the entire thing. For anyone who's interested in writing IN ANY FORM I cannot recommend this highly enough!!!


Anonymous said...

Wow! Great interview, I'll read the whole thing tonight, but it's interesting to see what he says about genre and yah, Jason and the Argonauts has a giant robot but is not in the sf section...It's very interesting what he says about perception esp considering the report today by the AP: WASHINGTON - Scientists say they are a step closer to developing materials that could render people and objects invisible. Researchers have demonstrated for the first time they were able to cloak three-dimensional objects using artificially engineered materials that redirect light around the objects.


Darkmatters said...

Wow, a Cloak of Invisibilty!!! just like the Klingons had!!!

... Now if only they could really invent those X Ray Specs they always used to advertise in the comic books.....

Hey, you just reminded me of a great X Files episode where a guy wishes to be invisible (from a Genie... long story) and first thing he does is go out and get hit by a truck.....

Seriously though, I Love what Wolfe has to say about science fiction and fantasy actually BEING the mainstream, and ALWAYS having been! HEAR HEAR!!! DOWN with boring social realism!!!

J G Ballard has said that he believes sci-fi is the only relevant mode of fiction in this age.... the only one that matters. Of course, he also wasn't talking about simple genre fiction (like the ongoing series of Star Trek novels) but a more literary, humanist kind of writing that just happens to involve elements of imagination and surrealism.

Anonymous said...

I take issue with Wolfe's idea that Homer would have joined the SF Writers of America... The dude was Greek! :P (Probably he'd have emigrated to the 3rd largest Greek city in the world, Melbourne Australia. Maybe in my own mostly Greek suburb - hey, he could give me a hand with my script about a voyage down the Styx.) But I'm with Gene when he says imaginative fiction is the mainstream!

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ heh. funny.
(^ i consider ALL science to be fictitious, and all fiction to be the bass note of fact.

(^ factorin the facets continuosly and the bell curve created shows no sign of the tangents used to plot out the points in chipping details away to the point of smooth surfaced cabushahlm or however you spell a domed piece of jewel that has no facets left.

(^ abserdists just punch a wHOLE through the concept that anything fully understood is worthy of note taking and easy to read sentance strucuresds often lie through omission statements.

(^.. gorsh that was fun
to write right rite!

(^ USe yOUR eWEs !
(^ ferrGET th' peesendques!

(^ woa.
spell check THAT missed stir!
spleck peesendques =
resending deliquescent

Darkmatters said...

Hey Pros, sir!!!

I wish I had your instinctive grasp of it all. I seem to have a set-in stain of Rationalism to eradicate through gradual elbow-grease scrubbing bubbles like this post. Got a Rug Doctor I could rent?


R.S.Cole said...

I wish I had the time to read as often as you do Mike. I don't know If you caught when I wrote on the board somewhere that I've started having my computer read your articles for me using Applescript Editor. I thought that would save me time and I could work while just listening to it but, this last one was so interesting that I had to just sit back in my chair and listen, very entertaining!

It's like 'books on tape' but, if you keep writing these long ones, I may need to have a musical backdrop! :)

Darkmatters said...

Wow, I didn't know anything like that existed!!! Applsescript Editor... wonder if I've got that? What... does it sound like Steven Hawking reading blog entries?

R.S.Cole said...

There are a number of voices to choose from that all have names. Pick which one you want in System Preferences in the 'speech' settings, that's in the same place where you pick the voice like if you want the computer to 'say' the time on the hour. You can sample each voice and even tweak how fast or slow it will read. Yes, one of them sounds exactly like Mr.Hawking! I prefer 'Bruce'.

The way it works is, you copy and paste all of what you want into the editor window and then type the word 'say' followed by the open quote symbol ("). That goes before what you want it to read and then at the end, you type another quote symbol to close (") and then type... using "Bruce"

That name needs to be in quotes and it can be any of the names on the list of voices in System Preferences. The only pain in the tuckus is that you can't have any quotation marks in the block of text it is reading because it reads them as the end of the block so, you need to skim through the text and remove any you find first.

R.S.Cole said...

Oops, forgot the last part, there is a button on the top of the editor window that says 'run' you hit that in order to play it. You can even save them!

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ don't MAKE me come intHere and fix yer widgets..I'm tired and need sleep.

(^ BUT: as tio the voice synth. if it were tweeked with a parcifier: let darkstrider = this voice: let mysterious ron = this other voice:

(^ get it? a dialog distortion filter.
any "(^" come across in the text could be set to randomly alter the playback voice until the next ">" shows up, and the quotes could be found/relplaced witha narator's wave file dump of " say name of sender)said, ..." then slip to next voice mode.
sigh. if i were hovering over the audio tech and mumbling directives to what needed alias list batchfiles to make the thing less cludgy, the voice TO text/ then text to CHARACTERvoice filtering would make a pretty sweet little application for script writers to change voicovers without having to actually hire voice actors to vocalise the screenplay.

(^: end rant. g'night
(^ g'moUrn, 2U2.

Darkmatters said...

Whoah!!! It actually worked!!! I just listened to this post read by Bruce! I had no idea my computer could do something like that!! Occasionally it's hard to make out a word, or it uses the wrong form (for words with multiple pronunciations like "read" or "tear". Us came out U. S.

But overall pretty damn good!! Amazing that such a screwed-up thing as written English can be broken down and read aloud by a machine!!! It feels like the future calling. Of course I realize this technology has been around for a long time now, but I've never encountered it until now, and it felt like my computer had suddenly turned into a magic creature sitting on my desk and told me a story.

R.S.Cole said...

I'm so glad you got it to work, it's a bit of a pain to scan through to take out existing quotation marks but, it's cool how it points out where they are if you miss some. My son likes to create conversations between the voices by writing them directly into the box and giving each one a different personality, it's very funny.

It even fakes emotions, maybe you noticed? If a sentence ends in a question or an exclamation mark, it will alter the voice to fit that inflection. There's even a voice that sings!