Tuesday, February 10, 2009


On reading a funny Adam Roberts review of Anathem, full of parody neologisms, I was struck (in the comment box) with the idea of the yawnpiphany. In some seriousness, that's the best name I've yet been able to think of for a certain New Wave SF writing technique.

It goes like this. Let's say that you want to rebel against the tired old forms of SF. In some sense, you want to be literary. But you're also rebelling against literariness itself; you don't want to merely imitate Modernist classics or join in the forming post-modernism. You want something that is a specifically SF form of iconoclasm.

That means that formal innovation is probably out. SF never had any sort of advanced formalism to reject. What SF had are "ideas" and adventure. So the best rebellion is a long-drawn-out attempt to bore the reader. Not by simply writing a bad book -- anyone could do that. But instead a purposeful, skillful repetition of the same thing over and over until the reader has a yawnpiphany that makes it impossible for them to see standard SF quite in the same way anymore.

Yes, Waiting for Godot has been done. But I think that there is a specifically SF form of this. I wrote about this a bit when considering Brian Aldiss' Hothouse, a novel of anti-ideas. A better example is his Report on Probability A, an anti-novel. But I don't feel up to considering that book at the length it deserves yet. So I'll just mention it -- there's a bit about it in the post on Hothouse -- along with two other candidate works that I immediately thought of: Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream and Michael Moorcock's Pyat Quartet.

The Iron Dream is a work that I can't seem to convince anyone else of the importance of. It's structured as a laugh, an "oh, that's clever", a long grind, and a yell. I keep thinking that people who think that it's good but not great somehow don't appreciate the long grind. The laugh is the splash page from the publisher at the beginning, which says how popular the author of The Iron Dream, Adolph Hitler, is with SF fans and how his costumes are special favorites at SF conventions. The "oh, that's clever" is the first chapter, in which the protagonist, in a dead-on savaging of every Golden Age SF trope, sets out to save the pure humans via necessary genocide against the wholly evil mind-controlling twisted mutants. The yell at the end is the afterword by a supposed critic of the book. But it's the long grind that gets undervalued. By the end of the first chapter, you've realized that the book is an SF adventure story that recapitulates the real Hitler's actual rise to power. It goes on and on as he and his followers rejoice homoerotically as they wipe out the evil mutants and the mutant-lovers, and there's a real temptation to just skip a few chapters, since, after all, you've gotten the idea.

But you can't. Reading the same thing over and over, you start to realize -- or at least I started to realize; I don't really know whether anyone else reacts similarly -- just how often you've read the same thing over and over, better concealed, in real SF. I've referred to this as "strapping your inner fanboy down Clockwork Orange style." You know intellectually what point Spinrad is making after the first chapter, but you don't feel it, in your gut, until a point somewhere near the end. This is the yawnpiphany.

Or there's the example of the Moorcock Pyat series. I've only actually managed to make it through the first one of these books, myself. I've never read a more determined attempt to make a wholly unsympathetic protagonist. (There's a good review here). Pyat is a cocaine-fueled self-hating ultra-right schemer whose only talent, as he goes through the 20th century, is to con people into having sex with him, and to fool others and himself into thinking that he is capable of SF engineering feats which, of course, fail. He lurches from one country to another, getting involved in every fascist movement going, and escaping each one badly used and having badly used others. This might seem like a shockarama, and at the beginning perhaps it is. But it's the same thing over and over. By the middle of the first book, I was flipping pages forward, thinking that OK, I've learned all there is to learn from this horrible unreliable narrator. Is there anything more?

Again, this is intended, I believe, as a source of the yawnpiphany for every historic-fantasy-adventure book, most particularly Moorcock's own. It's the kind of thing where I can describe the idea of the book, and you the reader can think that you get it, but you can't really get it until you've pushed past the point of boredom and said, "Wow! This is really quite like..." which is when your boredom becomes identified with the slight boredom that you felt when reading, say, the middle of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and its strangely cute crypto-authoritarianism. Which is not a bad book, but that's the point of the yawnpiphany; at its best, it can change your whole reading of a subgenre.

At any rate, that's it for the yawnpiphany. Most of my ideas on SF, like it, are dialogically half-formed out of comment boxes, a process of uncertain value. But anyone still reading this far should really check out this really amusing post by John Holbo about the philosophical thought experiment of Lewd and Prude, complete with some fanfic I wrote in the comment box. That's really what blogging should be about.

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