Thursday, February 4, 2010

Writers of the Future

Novelette by Charles Oberndorf

An unusual dystopia where humanity is stalled into permanent stability with no change and no thought of the future. The literature of the time is both a symptom and a cause: science fiction no longer exists, every book is a choose-your-own-adventure novel and the public would never want to read something they disagree with, or where a character makes a morally ambiguous choice. Also Earth has been destroyed by the artificial intelligences we created and humanity lives on an ever decreasing number of stations sprinkled around in the former Mars orbit; but in the story the real horror of this dystopia is the facile literary culture and the insistence that all books be warnings against change or reliving of the glory days (Westerns).

I'm not sure where it comes from, but somewhere I've got the idea that it is a sin to like stories about writers/aspiring writers. I'm certain there is a lot of drivel out there about aspiring writers, but this isn't it, this is a story worth liking. But if you take any story with a writer as a main character, you are guaranteed to find reviews complaining that the public is not interested in writers and the story only exists because of the ego and self-centeredness of the author, and any good reviews of such a terrible story are because all those other writers like stories about themselves, but of course the public wouldn't want to hear it (they are never so blunt of course, but that's what they mean). Curiously you never see this sort of criticism when a scientist or doctor writes about their job. When a person writes about where they grew up, or millions of other examples where someone follows the old Write What You Know advice. I don't know who decided that writing was an inferior profession or pastime for fictional characters, but I'm not buying it.

All ranting aside this is a good but not great story. Writers' workshops and the writers at them are made fun of a bit, as is the habit of being so offended by a book's discussing sensitive subject matter that you don't ever read it to see what it has to say. The narrator's infatuation with his workshop roommate well done, he comes across suitably awkward and her more extreme rebelliousness is portrayed well, especially given the change her idealism takes towards the end.

The main theme I find in this story is disillusionment. The narrator settles for a lesser love, and never achieves any of his goals, but maintains his youthful devotion to absolute principles and thinks about both rebellion and writing, while never going through with either. His roommate sacrifices her ideals for practicality and expanding her own knowledge. She is able to become successful and extremely controversial but in the process becomes the same sort of writer who disgusted her when she was young.

The reinvention of science fiction, on stations named after Heinlein and Varley does suffer some plausibility problems I think, but the names do show what a long way people fell. All the other stations are named after cities though. But I suppose Vonnegut station committed ethical suicide and Asimov had one too many robot malfunctions. What happened to Lovecraft Station is too horrible for me to describe, which is for the best since the very knowledge of that event would drive any blog reader into madness.

So the main theme is well done, with good writing and characterization. But the world and the plot suffer from being a bit too unlikely and the satire seems heavy handed. Not bad, and loses no points from me for being about writers writing science fiction, but still just 3.5 out of 5.

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