books and authors

Dan Simmons, madman

Today’s New York Times Book Review has a piece on Dan Simmons’ new novel, The Terror. After an unflattering acknowledgment of Simmons’ talents—he’s “managed to generate” over two dozen books “in an impressive variety of genres”—critic Terrence Rafferty dismisses this latest effort as an act of hubris. Simmons must have been crazy, he says, to think this was a good idea for a novel.

The Terror is a fictionalized account of a 19th-century British naval expedition that set out to find the Northwest Passage. The two ships involved, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, got stuck in the polar ice, and their crews died (in real life, the men starved and froze to death; in Simmons’ version, there’s also a monster). Rafferty’s objection isn’t to the subject matter, but to the way Simmons decides to tackle it: “[O]f the many possible approaches to making artistic sense of the…fiasco, just about the least promising…would be to turn it into an epic-length ripping yarn.”

Which is just what I was thinking. An adventure story about a doomed polar expedition? Dan Simmons, are you smoking CRACK?

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The “Arcana” controversy

My posting of the Tiptree long list has set off a minor stir in blogland. I assumed that some of the picks would be controversial (wouldn’t be much fun, otherwise), but I was surprised to see that the title drawing most of the attention was Emily Brunson’s “Arcana.” Given that “Arcana” is a work of fanfic in which Harry Potter‘s Severus Snape impregnates CSI‘s Nick Stokes, some of you may be wondering, “How could you not expect that to draw attention?” All I can say is, after you’ve read the child rape, female circumcision, and dragon cunnilingus scenes in Janine Cross’s Touched by Venom, mpreg just seems quaint.

Some of the blog discussions of “Arcana” have generated hundreds of comments, so rather than answer specific objections there, where my remarks might get lost in the noise, I’ve decided to do it here:

OBJECTION #1: It’s a terrible story!

While there’s some excellent fiction on the long list, if your principal interest is top-notch storytelling, you’re starting in the wrong place. Go read Geoff Ryman’s Air. When you’re done with that, check out the short list (I highly recommend Wesley Stace’s Misfortune as reading selection #2).

Fictionwise, the long list is much more of a mixed bag. Not everything on it was picked for its prose, and even where one judge thought a particular LL item was a great read, another judge often disagreed.

OBJECTION #2: It’s fanfic!

This is apparently a huge deal to people, so I wish I could say that the judges at least discussed it, but as far as I can recall, the issue never came up. Nothing in the Tiptree by-laws forbids recognizing fanfic, and even if there were such a rule, in the case of the long list we’d have felt free to ignore it.

OBJECTION #3: It’s terrible fanfic! By putting it on the long list, you create the impression that most fanfic is badly written!

[sound of crickets]

OBJECTION #3, continued: …OK, OK, maybe 90% of everything is crap, but still, if you wanted to give a nod to fanfic, couldn’t you have gone out and found a better example?

One of the reasons I agreed to be a Tiptree judge is because I thought it would be neat to get tons of free books. After slogging my way through the first few tons, my attitude changed.

A downside to the Tiptree Award’s open nomination policy is that it encourages publishing houses to spam the judges’ panel: instead of picking just one or two titles to submit, they’ll grab half a dozen—including some that have nothing to do with gender—and submit them all. Why be selective when the price of entry is a handful of review copies? It’s not as if the judges will ever be in a position to waste the publishers’ time.

So the answer to the question is, much as we might have liked to go searching for more nominees, we were far too busy dealing with the flood of stuff already being sent to us. Please keep this in mind when making recommendations to future Tiptree panels.

OBJECTION #4: Fanfic violates copyright, and copyright violators shouldn’t be recognized by award committees.

There are three separate issues here: a legal issue, a moral issue, and an issue of relevance.

I’m not up on the current legal status of fanfic, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that “Arcana” constitutes copyright infringement, and perhaps trademark infringement as well. Although J.K. Rowling has reportedly given her blessing to Harry Potter fanfic, one of her stipulations is that the fanfic in question not be obscene, and even if Snape impregnating Stokes didn’t cross that line, Ms. Rowling isn’t empowered to speak for the CSI copyright holders. A court of law might find that “Arcana” qualifies as parody or fair use, but realistically, it would never get that far—if Rowling or the CBS network wanted to, they could make “Arcana” disappear with a single cease-and-desist letter. (I hope this doesn’t happen.)

Morally, I judge instances of copyright infringement according to the spirit rather than the letter of the law. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about guaranteeing authors absolute control over their creations; the stated purpose of copyright is “to promote the useful arts” in general. Derivative art is still art, and unless it somehow undercuts the productivity of the original artist (not likely in this case, unless Rowling and the CSI screenwriters decide to read “Arcana” for themselves and suffer crippling aneurysms as a result), I have a hard time regarding it as wicked.

Finally, and most importantly, even a work of art that was clearly illegal and clearly immoral might still be worthy of public notice and discussion—and generating discussion is a big part of what the Tiptree is about.

OBJECTION #5: By drawing attention to “Arcana,” you risk triggering a legal crackdown on fanfic in general.

If putting “Arcana” on the Tiptree long list leads to a general crackdown on fanfic, then a crackdown was inevitable. My guess, given the way copyright law is going these days, is that such a crackdown probably is inevitable in the long run. If this bothers you, don’t complain to the Tiptree judges, complain to Congress.

OBJECTION #6: Emily Brunson didn’t ask to be made the poster child for fanfic.

I don’t know who nominated “Arcana” for the Tiptree Award, but if you’re suggesting that the judges should have asked the author’s permission before putting her work on the long list, please click here.

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Tiptree long list

As some of you may know, I was on this year’s James Tiptree, Jr. Award jury. The winner (Geoff Ryman’s novel Air) and the short list were made public over two months ago, but for some reason the long list hasn’t been posted on the official Tiptree website yet. I checked with the powers that be and it’s no longer secret information, so for anyone who’s curious I’ve put it up it on my own site, here.

I’m going to try and post reviews as well before I head off to Wiscon next week.

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