Sunday, February 23, 2014

Potlatch: Saturday

Crime & Fantasy: When Genres Collide. Consisted mostly of recommendations of a) SF books that are also crime stories; b) crime stories that would appeal to SF readers, usually for the detail of their world-building.
In my comment from the audience, I used one of my favorite SF stories to raise a question about why mysteries often don't appeal to me. The story was "The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance, the plot of which is technically a murder mystery. The amateur detective has to identify which of three men is the disguised murderer. The thing is, while it matters greatly within the fictive universe which man it is, because he has to arrest the right one, it matters not one whit to the story. In fact, though I've read the story many times, I can never remember which one it is. All that matters is how the protagonist figures it out, which I do remember, and above all the exotic culture which raises the difficulty in the first place: that, not the plot, is the story's real subject.
So "The Moon Moth" is a nominal mystery: it uses the format, but the reader can ignore the mystery part of the plot. The problem is, I have the same difficulty with genre mysteries. I can't work up any interest in identifying the criminal, and I only enjoy such stories when, as with "The Moon Moth", that's the least important part of the book. That's why I enjoy most of Dorothy Sayers, but not Agatha Christie. Someone in the audience had just recommended The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King. I loved the first half of that novel: sprightly young woman meets elderly Sherlock Holmes. But then they get involved in solving some mystery, and my interest rapidly plummeted. I never finished the book.
So my question was: what is my problem, since so many others obviously don't have it? The panel gave a collective shrug, but a couple other audience members came up to me afterwards with comments which, if this had happened online and I reported it, would be derided as "The lurkers support me in e-mail."

Book of Honor: The City & the City. John D. Berry, from the audience, raised an aesthetic problem with this novel, which I endorsed. He didn't like the way the setting was non-specific generic Eastern Europe: an imaginary city in a location not specified but somewhere around there, made of bits of Czech, Hungarian, Romanian, and other cultures all mushed together. Such amalgams are common in that setting, and it often indicates an author not knowing or caring about the culture being used, though surely MiƩville is not that crude. You don't see this sort of mush in American settings, John said. From the master book-designer in the SF world, such an aesthetic critique must be taken seriously, yet the rest of the audience proceeded to respond in a massive display of Not Getting It. They said there's plenty of "generic Midwest" in fiction. But that's not presented as an amalgam of different cultures. Contrary to some claims, the US Midwest is nowhere near as diverse as Eastern Europe - anyone who claims it is knows nothing of either - and stories set there don't consciously try to mush together the diversity that does exist. Lisa Harrigan cited Kansas in The Wizard of Oz. But not only is Kansas hardly that diverse, but Baum is not trying to mix together Kansas City, the Flint Hills, and the High Plains into one setting. If it's nonspecific within Kansas (which it isn't - Baum specifies the prairies), it's through lack of detail, not through accumulation of contradictory detail.

Books of Honorable Mention. Moderator: "Our next book is, um, how do I pronounce this foreign title? Has anyone read this? Anyone have any comments? Anyone? Well, let's go on to the next one." (Actually, it wasn't that bad at all. It just seemed that way.)

Science Fiction/Science Fact. I wrote down two lines from this one. Ellen Klages: "We are now recommending books which, if you ignore the plot and the writing, are pretty nice objects." Gerald Nordley: "If you don't understand it, don't explain it."

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