Friday, January 07, 2011

Recent Reading

I read Jack McDevitt's new novel Echo, which I went right through. He writes an odd combination of cozy mystery and space opera. This book, not my favorite, is mostly cozy mystery with only a little space opera at the end. I say it's an odd combination, because cozies rely on the familiar and the safe. The murder that happens is not safe, but the world into which the murder intrudes is one of small towns, country houses, comfortable neighbors, adequate incomes, where life goes on (mostly) in more or less ordinary ways, without large and frightening changes.

Space opera, on the other hand, is about huge distances, vast expanses of time, change and danger.

In order to be cozy, McDevitt's books have to give us the familiar: characters with recognizable Anglo-Saxon names, societies very much like our own -- but set in the far future, when humans have faster-than-light travel.

I enjoy his books, even though I don't believe that a society with FTL travel will be like our society, and I don't expect the future to be peopled with humans with Western European names.

The other book I have been reading is Iain M. Banks' most recent novel, Surface Detail. His space operas are full of horrifying violence and cruelty. I am well into this one and thinking, "Why am I reading this?" If I want to read about torture and murder, I will read the news; and I do try to keep up on the news -- not the human interest crimes, but the political and economic crimes. They are horrible and enraging. I don't much want to read such material for entertainment.

The message of Banks' novels seems to be, This is what war is really like; this is what capitalism is really like. What else is new? I figure fiction ought to give a new insight on the world, and best of all -- a way to change the world. Not a complete blueprint for utopia, but ideas for a better life on a better-run planet.

So is this the current problem for science fiction? Are visions of the future either too horrible to contemplate or unconvincingly cozy?

Probably not. There is a lot of science fiction published. But coming up with a convincing vision of future that is not utterly depressing is difficult.


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