You got semiotics in my space opera! You got space opera in my semiotics! lightbulb This episode of The Sometime Seminar discusses China Miéville’s 2011 science-fiction novel Embassytown, a space opera informed by Walter Benjamin and the philosophy of language.
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Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer best-known for novels including the Man Booker Prize-winning Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, both of which are set in the near future. British novelist China Miéville often describes his work as “weird fiction”; his books, including Kraken and Un Lun Dun, have been credited with changing the rules of the fantasy and science fiction genres. Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific American novelist, poet, and essayist, as well as author of the recent memoir A Widow’s Story. Her works frequently explore the “other world” located in the human psyche and seek to recreate what she has called “the drama of human personality.”
This panel discussion from the 2012 seminar was moderated by acclaimed science and technology writer James Gleick. He leads Atwood, Miéville, and Oates through a discussion of the tensions between the real and the unreal inherent in writing and reading works of fiction. “All fiction,” says Miéville, “revolves around an oscillation between recognition and estrangement.” “People read or go to art not to get answers,” explains Oates, “but for a thrilling experience that is essentially mysterious.” And while Atwood stresses fiction’s obligation to be “true to life,” she argues that even “ordinary domestic reality” (Gleick’s phrase) often appears surreal, wild, or supernatural when depicted truthfully.
The novelists also discuss the readerly tendency to try to “decode” or “understand” strangeness in fiction and the exceptions to rules that create great works of art. “You can do anything you want” in fiction, says Atwood, “if you can pull it off.” Along the way, the novelists discuss a range of influences and examples, including German author Franz Kafka, Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, science fiction writer J.G. Ballard, philosopher George Santayana, and ghost story writer Algernon Blackwood.
British novelist China Miéville is a three-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, given annually to the best science-fiction novel published in the U.K. His books include The City & The City, Iron Council, and, most recently, Embassytown, and he has drawn comparison to such writers as Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Phillip K. Dick. Miéville is also active in left-wing politics, has stood for the House of Commons for the Socialist Alliance, and published Between Equal Rights, a book on Marxism and international law.
On this recording from the final day of the 2012 seminar, Miéville sets out to explore genre, “the elephant in the room,” in a lecture which he says could be titled “in defense of pigeonholes.” The human mind is “a neurotically clucking connection maker,” says Miéville, “a taxonomic engine” that cannot help but divide art and literature into subdivisions. He argues that such separation into genre and sub-genre needn’t be seen as reductive, but rather ought to be embraced as a taxonomy that allows us to determine the ways in which one book stands in relation to another. Furthermore, says Miéville, quoting hip-hop artists Jay-Z and M.I.A., the distinction between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction can be reduced to a difference in “swagger,” or the way in which one presents oneself, one’s ideas, and one’s work. In a five-minute question-and-answer session at the end of the recording, Miéville talks about The City and the City and its indebtedness to crime and fantasy genres, his willingness to transgress the terms of genre, and the role of critics in creating genre distinctions.
Science fiction is the marmite of literature – people tend to love it or hate it. Yet no one could deny that it has produced many of the great myths of our age, from Frankenstein’s monster to William Gibson’s cyber-reality.
SF blogger Damien Walter joins our panellists to discuss where it is now, and why we should all tune in to a genre that can be satirical, prophetic, political and plain good fun, often all at the same time. He also outlines some of the titles to look out for in 2010.
We also look at John Wyndham’s previously unpublished novel, Plan for Chaos, and interview China Miéville, rising star of the "new weird".