Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hunting quackers in the shallows with Montaigne, with sevens


Sometime back there, maybe a decade ago, a reviewer grumbled about one of my books (it might have been Gaudeamus) in a fairly affectionate way:

"Linearity is not exactly Barnes's middle name."

This led to seven thoughts:

1.     Gee, I wish it were. I could use Lin as a nickname, which would be a lot less common than my first name, and stop being confused with the very large number of Johns Barneses I am not. (The count of just the ones I ran across one way or another is now up to about 70. And I’m still the only one of us that is me.)

2.     "J. Linearity Barnes" would make a much more interesting byline, anyway. Maybe next time I jump out of genre I'll use it.

3.     If I'd had a twin, he or she could have had "Collinearity" as a middle name.

4.     What sort of parent would give "Linearity" as a middle name? One who did fine at elementary algebra but bombed out in analytic geometry and trig, and has now become anti-calculus in perhaps the same way some people are anti-evolution?

5.     Of course there are a lot of people nowadays who invent names for their children based on mellifluous sounds, particularly sticking syllables they really like together, and it's possible that someone might invent that name without realizing it had any meaning whatever.

6.     Linearity does have kind of a nice Celtic-derived-sounding "arrity" at the end, like McGarrity or Moriarity.

7.     "Lini" is a very pleasing combination of syllables to the ears of many nations in Europe, whether you make that first syllable a short i or a long e. It could be a type of pasta, a picturesque town in Central Europe, a Mediterranean island, a microstructure inside some gland or other, or perhaps an interesting geological feature.

Now, for reasons I don't completely fathom, I find if I type seven observations and then start rambling on about them, I end up with a few thousand words that I like very much. Since the whole point of the blog is to have someplace to put words I like, in the hope that other people will like them too, it’s a pretty good trick and I should make myself do it more often.

I don't really understand why seven is such a good number, myself. Maybe because:

1. it's the number of registers, give or take, in human short-term memory,

2. it’s the lowest prime, and also the lowest positive integer, that isn’t a factor in the base of any culture's numbering system,

3. it’s the number of bins the majority of people in an open-ranking marketing survey will arrange a distribution of subjective quality into,

4. it’s the largest semistable number of competing unequal powers in Boulding’s theory of conflict,

5. it derives naturally from the interaction of the lunar and solar calendars,

6. Psychophysically, in Western culture, it underlies octaves and rainbows

7. It’s such a good number for wonders, warning signs, Santinis, sins, and dwarves.

See, seven interesting things about seven. I could go on. And on and on.

Nonetheless, onward again! ... now here are seven really interesting things (at least really interesting to me):

1.     In January I started reading Montaigne*, which I’ve never done before. I thought it might take a year, but my laziness and the intrinsic rewards of doing it slowly may make it take even longer. This project was triggered by Sarah Bakewell's terrific biography/summary of Montaigne, which I read the summer before, and which I highly recommend. Montaigne, the man who more than anyone else invented the essay in its modern sense, simply revels in digression and wanderings around the subject, backing and filling, not being sure of anything but always including a huge splendidly inconsistent pile of examples, drawing from his own time, classical antiquity, and a lifetime of deep, focused reading. Seeing how huge and open the possibilities of the essay are, as demonstrated by an author right at the core of our culture's understanding of it, is closely akin to the revelations about the novel I got from Fielding, Dickens, and Conrad, or about playscripts from Corneille, Euripides, or Chekhov.

2.      What is sometimes called linearity, sometimes "tight plotting," and in general means one-main-character-with-one-main-problem-and-nothing-else-so-get-on-with-it storytelling, bores the living shit out of me, even more in my reading than in my writing. If I know what the Major Dramatic Question (Grebanier terminology) or Thematic Statement (Egri terminology) or Polar Opposites (Hodge terminology) or agon (tons of scholars mis-explaining Aristotle terminology) is, at any time before about three quarters of the way through the story, thud goes the book into the do-not-finish-straight-to-Goodwill bin. If I a Syd Fields third act is inevitable before his midpoint or a Robert McKee Meaning of the Final Major Reversal is leaking out at the Climax ... no. No. No. In a 200-page book, if I know what it’s really about before page 150, it is not worth finishing; there is hardly an exclamation I enjoy exclaiming more than, “Oh, that was why that was there!” in the last ten pages, the way I did reading The Player of Games, A Prayer for Owen Meany, or The Hellfire Club. Show me a likeable hero/ine with a mythical resonating problem winning through an escalating series of challenges, and I'll show you the door.
This set of literary prejudices keeps me from wasting too much time in the bookstore's genre sections; I read a few pages at the beginning, flip the book over, and read the ending; sometimes I check random pages in the middle if necessary, but it seldom is. If I see how it all hangs together from that cursory flip-through, it's not interesting enough to read. ** If on the other hand the samples seem to come from different (but all well written by the same author) books, I'm on board.

3.     My reading the ending before reading the book puzzles many people who don’t understand why I want plots that go somewhere interesting but don’t care if they are “spoiled.” The truth is, I don't care about spoilers and can't imagine why anyone does. I try to respect people's feelings on the subject and not "spoil" in much the same way I try to respect religious proscriptions on foods: all right, I won't serve you a cheeseburger or ask you to eat anything fried in bacon grease, but from where I stand, it makes about as much sense as the Monty Python mattress/dog kennel sketch. I suspect that’s just a deep psychological difference between people like me and people not like me (speculation about the sizes of those sets is gently discouraged. I like the process of getting to an interesting place. I don’t care if I already know where the road runs or have a good map or guidebook (sometimes it may help and I might not get there by other means; I have to admit that I’m reading Montaigne with Sarah Bakewell and M.A. Screech as my guides and I probably wouldn’t get a tenth out of it what I get with them showing me the way, even though it means I know where I’m going). The fun thing about a surprise, for me anyway, is to see how artfully it was constructed**, and it’s easier to see the second time through.

4.     "Tight plotting" and “linear plotting” are often lumped together but they are independent of each other. Plot can be:
tight without being linear (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Tom Jones, The Last Good Kiss, Appointment in Samarra, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Godfather, The Three Musketeers, The Hanging Garden)
 loose and yet quite linear (Wreck-It Ralph, the Iliad, Scaramouche, 'Salem's Lot, The Princess Bride, Butterfield 8, Rabbit, Run, A Tale of Two Cities, Shardik, Downbelow Station).
tight and linear (The Maltese Falcon, Heart of Darkness, Of Mice and Men, Merchanter’s Luck, The Great Gatsby)
loose and non-linear (A Confederacy of Dunces, Gone with the Wind, The Catcher in the Rye, Look Homeward Angel, Huckleberry Finn, The Dispossessed, From Here to Eternity, David Copperfield, Doctor Zhivago, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Robber Bride, The Cider House Rules, Lord Jim, The Odyssey, The Good Soldier). I suspect the ease with which I came up with so many examples of that last category reveals where my heart really is as a reader. (And I just realized that it wouldn’t take long to finish up an essay for The Book Doctor’s Little Black Bag on this very subject).

5.     I recently got around to reading Nicholas Carr’sThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doingto Our Brains, which gave me a certain smug pleasure in realizing that hey, at least I was still able to read Montaigne and think comparatively about large numbers of novels and I still write long rambling essays and not short punchy heresmypointsgimmeacookies. That smugness, in turn, gave way to the uncomfortable realization that when I’m on line, I do tend to do all the knowledge-avoidance and learning-prevention tactics that he points out the net is engineered to encourage. And the realization led to my implementing a few personal tactics, of which more once I know whether they work or not, for limiting internet damage to the brain and the mind. Most of them were based on things I know about ancient and medieval memory training systems (memory training is not the same as mnemonics; I don’t mean the Palace of Memory and such, I mean things that were thought to strengthen the memory).

6.     The one-star reviews of The Shallows on Amazon are without exception hilarious because they not only betray the problems Carr is saying the internet induces in the human command of attention that is necessary for learning, but do so in a sort of quacking defensiveness that insists on exhibiting the problem and having it declared the solution.*** These are the voices of the dipshits who passionately don’t want to learn or think but insist with fervor that their react-quacking must be rewarded in exactly the same way as learning or thinking. Some of them quack reruns of the rules for marketing copy, some quack populist everything-in-its-box right wing religious talking points, some just flutter their wings and honk a general furious medley of click to the tits. I have just decided that “click to the tits” is the phrase I will hear whenever someone asks for a cut to the chase.

7.      There is actually no intrinsic need for the world to speed up just because we’ve now got automated information search at high speeds. In fact, one of the reasons why Montaigne is a great essayist and most of what’s on the net is quack quack quack quack quack quack quack is that (did you go back and read each quack individually? Don’t you realize that they were all put in different typefaces and sizes and so on, so that you could get six times as much quack in the same time? Aren’t you quack quack quack quack quack quack better quacked than you’ve ever been quacked before?) oh, look, that was a closing parenthesis, now we’re getting back to the point: is that to find something he’d already read (and Montaigne was by the standards of his day spectacularly well read and had a huge personal library) and wanted to quote or think about more, he had to remember enough context about that bit to be able to find his way to the book and the page, and that context was his access path and was his knowledge and learning.

 Knowing where you got it, what it fit in with, where you cut it away from its surrounding matrix and what used to be there, what you are abstracting it from, is not just an unnecessary burden of trivial stuff that the internet sweeps out of your way; it is very often the reason for knowing in the first place, the embodiment of the process of thought, and the whole point of having been there.
More people seem to see this in a context of hiking—a view or a fishing stream you take a bus to is not the same thing as one you climbed or hiked to—or getting to know a neighborhood: Google directions are great if you just want to get to the supermarket and back, but asking directions allows you to meet several of your neighbors and hear how they interpret the neighborhood’s topology; you save time with Google, you know more with your neighbors.

Well, I suppose by current standards that was about seven blog posts right there, but now that I’ve warmed up a bit, let’s range around and talk about where all this stuff hooks and hangs together. Naturally I like finding that Montaigne rambled and wandered through things, and that centuries of readers have enjoyed wandering with him. First of all it at least means that some people get away with writing what I like to write, and they can’t all be the sort of polymathic genius Montaigne was. Secondly it generally validates my take on what real learning/intelligence/book-smarts/humanistic knowledge is all about: it’s not about being able to access facts, but about the way things all go together.
Why do I think so highly of that kind of reading/thinking, other than having spent a lot of years of my life in training to do it well? Because most online discourse reminds me of why I hate being at writer and literary parties generally: one is surrounded by people who are trying to use having a stock attitude (snark, which I hate, or political sincerity and high-mindedness, which I loathe, or intense concern about feelings and relationships, which I find deeply intrusive, or superficial brittle gaiety, which is amusing but exhausting) plus a set of one liners for all subjects, in order to pass themselves off as bright and thoughtful.
Online people,like people in the literary-publishing world, are very facile with words.  They have to be or you wouldn’t see them. But communicating with them is like talking to an Eliza program, i.e. they’re just sending the words back over the net, linked to the connection they know for that word. Some genuinely interesting people with good minds and an interesting take on the world support themselves by writing, and some splendid minds are online at any given moment, and  it’s always fun to meet them.
  But in and among those saving people are a significant number of facile quackers, and talking to them is like being trapped at the DMV with only a smartphone for amusement—you have to sit there awkwardly pushing, sliding, and trying to connect in order to have something occasionally interesting pop up, and if it does, something else (usually an attempt to sell you something) will leap up in front of you again.
And in a quack-rich environment, nothing is treasured like getting to the point. Getting to the point is the torn up stale white bread of online and literary-party discourse; gulp it down, resume quacking, and leave it behind you in slimy little piles that will be gobbled by the next duck, and the one after that.
Novels can have points, but if they do, good ones  have many mutually contradictory points.  They are more like what The Shallows advocates and Montaigne is. They wouldn’t have a middle name of Linearity except as a joke, and then they’d lie about it and have several other middle names too.
The major thing I like about the novel is that it’s the narrative form where there’s enough space to get lost. Short stories are delivery systems for points, ideally for subtle clever well thought out points , but points nonetheless. The classic surprise-ending short stories like “The Open Window,” “The Lottery,” “All You Zombies,” “Clothes Make the Man,” “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” and “Two Bottles of Relish” deliver a jolt that is the point (and some jolts, let me add, like the ones in all those stories, are delicious). Revelation-about-the-world short stories like “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” “A&P”, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “Rachel in Love,” “A Man Called Horse,” and “A Letter from the Clearys” open like windows into mirrors at their ending, suddenly shining back at you with a vision you hadn’t expected to have. Develop-a-mood short stories like “The Brute,” “Big Blonde,” Heinlein’s “Requiem,” “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” “It’s a Good Life,” “The Conversion of the Jews” and “The Ugly Little Boy” deliver a pure wallop of feeling. But no matter what, that’s the job the short story does: shoots something or other into you, puts the package on your doorstep and watches while you open it, or gives you a good kick in the brain.
In that regard, the short story is really not a literary form (i.e. having to do with literature, which is to say “letters”, which is to say reading for its own sake) any more than movies are a form of photography or broadcast radio is a form of electromagnetic radiation. That is, of course they are, in terms of how the information is moving, but in that case the medium is merely the medium. Short stories are about “something that happened to someone sometime” (as Rust Hills put it; I would add that every time you can put “interesting” after a one of the indefinite pronouns, you’ll have improved the story a bit). It is thus a dramatic form, in the strict Aristotle sense of “the imitation of an action.” It merely happens that the medium of imitation is written words and the method of decoding is reading, but the short story has more in common with a movie, graphic novel, or stage play than it does with the novel.
Now, some novels, particularly short tight linear ones, do something similar to the short story, and are more dramatic, but the big rambling monsters I love are a literary form. To read and understand them in a literary way, you have to process them the same way you do the general world of knowledge, the way you would a Montaigne essay or a long conversation with interesting people or a season of your life. Things link forward and back and it’s up to you to make those links, depending on your will to do it, your skill at doing it, how many of them the writer created the possibility for, and how much you want to have a world rise around you.
The literary novel is not properly a sequence of scenes (as short stories are or as “action novels” are) but a landscape to be explored. Huck Finn is a lost, innocent kid who falls into Tom Sawyer’s silly pretend games, the Duke and the Dauphin’s crooked con games, and the feuding family’s lethal games with the same resigned spirit of “if the people around me, who tell me they know more than I do, are doing this, it must be right.” It’s that pattern that leads him to the brink of a final betrayal of Jim, and then to the realization that he has to reject his notion of “right is what the people who know more than me know”—which he can only phrase as a decision to be wicked. 
As readers, it’s up to us how much to compare those disparate things and how closely to weave them together. We decide, on this trip down the river with Huck, whether it is more interesting that a kid who grew up accepting slavery as natural finds a way out of that, or that a wildly distrustful kid who falls for anyone’s line learns to harness and apply his distrust, or whether Twain’s way of putting so many of the interesting facts in our way while pretending to be a naive kid is the point.
Is the attraction to evil that we feel when we enjoy those scenes in The Godfather (you know which scenes. The ones you wish you didn’t enjoy) the same as young Vito Corleone’s, as Michael’s, as Kay’s, or as Tom Hagan’s? Do their attractions comment on ours or undercut them or have nothing to do with it? Do you separate honest (Sonny, Clemenza) from perverse (Luca Brasi) brutality, or unite and compare them?
And which the hell side is Joseph Conrad on in The Secret Agent or Nostromo, after all?
The sort of nonlinear, not-always-tight novel that I love best is like a big park with some marked trails and obstacle courses,  and permission to just follow a stream or climb a hill that happens to be there. It’s got more life and experience more densely interconnected than you can get on one trip through. 
There may be a great chase in there, but you don’t have to cut to it, and if the author does, s/he may be cheating you. Or using my newly preferred terminology, there might be some very interesting metaphorical tits in there, and reading a novel by trying to get to the good bits as fast as you can is very much like “exploring the net” by Googling “massive bazongas,” or for that matter like the activities of those strange obsessive souls who sift through the whole filmography of every star looking for a few square inches of flesh to pop out.
It’s got a great deal to do with people’s models of education, about which Montaigne has more than a little to say. Montaigne’s idea was that the more trivial stuff could be looked up; there were charts and compendia and so forth even in his day. What he thought a child should learn to do is to read and experience the world of books in a virtuous way, by which he seemed to mean, consciously taking and processing the diverse materials in front of him/her into something s/he would choose to make a part of herself, or to isolate from herself, or to understand but not join, according to the precepts and approach of a good person.
Now, you can’t do that easily with the internet, because the internet is all built around distracting you with the next shiny bit. Literary learning is more about constantly looking at the last ten things you learned, considering them all as candidates for belief (partly by doing what Carr calls “reading deeply,” i.e. shutting the fuck up and letting those thoughts sit in your mind to see if they are comfortable there). Then there’s picking from among those candidates the two or six or ten or zero that are worthy of further consideration (based not just on how comfortably they sat in your own mind, but on whether you want them to be comfortable where they are). After that, you bang on them, revising them till you really incorporate them into yourself because you and the ideas now have matching dents and lumps, and repeating the process endlessly through your life. This is of course an analogy to how we learn from life itself, The internet can often tell you the way to San Jose, but you don’t really know it till you’ve been away too long, lost your way, found it again, discovered it’s different, discovered it’s the same, reconnected with the old friends. The internet is a great big freeway and it’s great if you’re going to be a star in a week, but you don’t know San Jose till you’ve crashed on a friend’s couch there. (Luckily, he has a lot of space).
(Aside from just having fun with an old song there, I do think it’s amusing that nowadays San Jose is right in Silicon Valley, the only place phonier than LA).
You can much more easily do that kind of literary back-and-forth, chew-and-digest, accept-change-delete process with The Shallows, which is fairly light pop nonfiction (although a surprising number of people seemed to be unable to follow the unusually clearly laid out through line of the argument and threw hissy fits about critical arguments and examples that they perceived as digressions. Some of them also having decided what he was going to say, managed to see whatever they had decided on in places where he doesn’t say it at all. As I mentioned, the parts of it I provisionally think are true are altering both how I analyze the world around me and what I do to interact with it.  
Now, the incorporation/digestion/choice process is really the only way to read Montaigne; if you just run your eyes over it so you’ll know where to look up isolated quotes, or so that all the words will have passed through your head, you’ve missed everything that makes him great. You have to consider and recall and reconsider not just his formulation of the idea, but the formulations he rejects and critiques as well, and the ideas next to it, and some of his history of how he came to think that way. Then once that swarm of quarreling ideas is enough yours to fit into your mind, you have to import the whole swarm and continually interrogate his connections between all of them. When you can’t think of this subject again without thinking of Montaigne, that’s the moment when you start to “get” him. 
That kind of literary consciousness is what used to be thought of as the whole point of liberal education. For the nitwits for whom history began last week, I should probably point out that although some and perhaps many humanities teachers are “liberals” it is called liberal education because it is education which is appropriate to free people (as opposed to training, which was appropriate to slaves. Since we hope that the world will be done with slavery as soon as it can be, liberal education is appropriate for everyone.  Even pigheaded conservatives, so long as they choose to be free, or think they are, or aspire to be.). 
When you practice that expansive, exploratory, memory-and-connection-rich literary process with the work in front of you, you take a few more steps in the direction of being able to really consider what life might be about (or that it might not be about anything).
And that literary way of thinking just can’t run/grow/become on “access.” The points have to be active in working memory with each other, alter and merge and mutate there, return to long term memory to be called up in their new form, and so on, and it is this kind of literary reading (I think, if I understand him) that Montaigne regards as vital to the training of a good mind (as opposed to what I would call a good quacker****).
 That sort of literary reading is the sort that, ideally, we do when we read a novel that is worthy of that kind of reading, by which I mean that it rewards it. The right match between individual and novel at any point in time is highly individual, of course, and there’s nothing at all wrong with reading for other purposes. Also, dramatic reading is not necessarily inferior to literary -- it’s just for different purposes -- and if you pick a theme, say, the hollowness of material success for its own sake, it’s by no means clear that Babbitt or Less than Zero are better or worse expressions of it than Death of a Salesman or Glengarry Glenn Ross.
 But nonetheless, the Montaigne way of reading, writing, and thinking, it seems to me, is undervalued and underused in the modern world, and a sizable number of people who would at least have been pressured to try it in past generations are now growing up without really ever seeing it as a possibility. And since, if I am right, that sort of reading and processing is what the novel is about, as a novelist, it saddens me (I guess I’ll be writing more ad copy) and as a citizen, I find myself dreading the day when my fellow, sovereign citizens, in their wisdom as voters, are responding to the short, punchy message from page three, and not to the slow deep rhythms of incorporated experience. The noosphere, as much as the ecosphere, needs to be diverse and complex and madly inefficient, and a good place for aimless wandering, if it is going to feed and support us all.


*For those of you not acquainted, what there is of Michel de Montaigne is one gigundous whacking collection of essays, so to "read Montaigne" means making your way through the Essays. Indeed, the modern concept of the essay begins with Montaigne; he can be fairly said to have named the form. If you're not acquainted, then you missed out on a bit of cultural-literacy trivia which is fully on par with Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame," Einstein having said that God doesn't play dice with the universe, and the Scarecrow-brain/Tin Man-heart/Lion-courage triplet. Look up Michel de Montaigne on Wikipedia; he's a splendid addition to anyone's repertoire of authors to pretend they've read. I decided, by the way, to cheat severely, by reading in translation; I'm using M.A. Screech's translation, which has the side benefit of extensive footnoting from Screech, who is lucid about translator issues and, if not perfect, is still surely more likely to be right than my own very rusty reading French.

** This might explain, come to think of it, why my favorite mystery writers are Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, and Ian Rankin, after having been schooled in appreciating the modern mystery by James Crumley, whom I knew and who could talk technique better and more lucidly when blind stumbling drunk than the average contemporary editor could with two auxiliary brains and a lifeline to a panel of geniuses.  All those writers write nice twisty-turny plots but you don’t have to be surprised by the twist to enjoy it (in fact it’s more fun the second time when you see how carefully it was prepared).

*** The 2-star reviews are intellectually a much more mixed bag, with some pretty astute notes from some people who actually know something and a couple things that are even goofier than the 1-stars.

**** Two senses of good here, and I’m going to treat myself to alluding to G.K. Chesterton’s valuable distinction that a man who drops his grandmother with a single head shot at 500 yards is a good shot but not a good man, an allusion I am too fond of and use too often, in part because Chesterton and a dozen other writers between 1860 and 1920 created a fad for aphorism that I wish would revive, and that's such a nice vivid and obviously true aphorism.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Book Doctor's Little Black Bag: The Book Doctor Picks Up His Bag Again: My Old Se...

The Book Doctor's Little Black Bag: The Book Doctor Picks Up His Bag Again --> As I was working on resuming many things I've been neglecting (I'm a natural unitasker in a multitasker world, but at the moment the unitask is getting everything else going again), I was looking through the materials that had been patiently waiting for me to turn them into Book Doctor's Little Black Bag posts, and the more I looked, the more I missed book doctoring. Or rather I missed the best parts of it, doing good work with my dream clients on their dream books.  And I started to think of a way that maybe I could do that again, and here's what I came up with.  Click on over, little black bag fans.  More material in the main blog here, too, I hope tomorrow.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Wandering from defending what I wrote to defending what I write to defending what I read

So, I keep thinking I'll resume regular blogging, and I keep being wrong, but here I am thinking it again, and since I've had this piece nearly ready to go for ages, I gave it a few hard kicks, and here it is.

Just as the favorite subject of fandom is fandom, in the weird little subworld of hard SF, the hard SFnal people do go on about it.  I guess in that regard we're not much different from baseball statistics junkies, jazz enthusiasts, oenophiles, or fashion fans -- to us, there's just so much to say, and to pretty much everyone else, that's one of the most mysterious things about us.  So, fellow hard SF enthusiasts, here's something to kick around, along with ten million other pieces, and I kind of hope I said something new here but probably all this has been said before and I just didn't happen across it in my reading.

Nonetheless, here goes, and there'll be more stuff, I hope, pretty soon, and this place will get busy again.
Hard sf is my favorite flavor of sf both to read and to write. Quite a few reviewers of Losers in Space have quite correctly noted that as someone who loves both reading and writing hard sf, I was explicitly attempting to peddle it to the contemporary teen audience, which gets relatively little of it.  In this regard, I suppose I’m little better than the cigarette companies, who have to find fresh young faces to sell to because the old, prematurely aged and wrinkled faces are attached to bent-over bodies coughing up blood and pus till they drop from lung cancer.*  

Anyway, my announced intention to peddle hard sf in a YA book led to a pretty good four-sided squabble, among:

•people who thought there should be YA/hard sf and that this was good example of it

•people who thought there should be but this was a bad example

•people who used to think there should be until they read this, at which point they changed their minds about the whole idea, and, of course,

•people who loathe hard sf and did not want this falling into the hands of any As while they were still Y because they were hoping this sort of thing would go extinct in this generation.

I very much appreciate the first group, but there’s not much to say to or for them that the book didn’t already say. I had little to say that would interest the last group, so there’s not much point in talking about that either. 
So it was the second and third groups that said some things I’ve been mulling over, and as things usually happen with me, I ended up somewhere that’s sort of orthogonal to where I thought I was going.

So in the spirit of my well-established habit of longwinded excursions that arrive at their points eventually but not right now, walk along with me here as far as it seems interesting, and here’s what I think I’m seeing:

For those who have not read Losers in Space, well, get off your lazy butt and–
No, wait, come back, just kidding, I meant to say, for those of you who were just thinking about reading it, I tried what some people seemed to think was an innovation and what I’d call more of an adaptation of an old trick.  A goodly bit of the science and worldbuilding stuff was broken out into short articles called Notes for the Interested.  These naturally became less frequent over the course of the book, because after a while everything that needs explaining has been explained and any new information late in the book would be quite fairly judged to be unnecessarily withheld. Most Notes for the Interested are in the first third. 
My self-imposed rule, announced in Note for the Interested #0, was that if it was actually essential to following the story, it went in the main text of the story, via the usual hard-SFnal devices like people talking about it or a few quick sentences taking the place of a section break, but if the information was just the kind of cool stuff that I read hard sf for, it became a Note for the Interested.

Now, that trick is absolutely not new. The four big novels on which John Brunner’s fame rests all included brief factual articles and expository chunks broken off into sections. People thought he was copying John Dos Passos but he himself said he was working off Harold Innis’s fictional modes. In the 1960-85 era there were many school anthologies that paired fact articles with science fiction short stories; the first time I read “A Pail of Air,” “Star, Bright,” and “The ColdEquations,” [[]] they were followed by short encyclopedia-ish articles about low-temperature physics (I seem to remember the fussy note that the world wouldn’t cool off fast enough for the narrator to be as young as he was), the question of how or if we would understand intelligence far greater than our own, and an essay about lifeboat ethics the gist of which seemed to be that “Someday you too will be able to solve differential equations and subject teenage girls to explosive decompression.” 
I think it was the first time I had an inkling of that calculus was a powerful intellectual tool that could induce hideous, excruciating suffering in young people. 
Often when Isaac Asimov thought he’d been extra clever, he’d write a fact article about the concept from one of his stories and the article would actually be longer than the story. 
Anyway,  I was a little surprised that anyone was surprised or found Notes for the Interested to be something new, but I guess everything is new to anyone once.

Now, it’s a necessary preliminary, I think, to say that there were many reasons why some people didn’t like Losers in Space, and the exposition was far from the only reason. People found plenty of other reasons, wise and foolish, legitimate and not, to dislike Losers in Space:

•the usual complaints about likeable v. unlikeable characters (some people don’t like to have to identify with anyone they wouldn’t room with or date)

•what people call the SPOILER HIGHLIGHT TO SEE morally ambiguous ending, in which Susan has definitely found a purpose for her life, but she is now single-minded enough about that purpose to quite literally kill for it END SPOILER.

•complaints, mostly by people who have been sucked into the Perpetual Wannabee Exploitation Circuit, about violations of various rules that their silly workshops have taught them.**

•growls from longtime hard sf readers were deeply annoyed at  having things explained that  Arthur C. Clarke explained  better sixty years ago. ***

•absolutely normal grumbles and countergrumbles and revised grumbles about worldbuilding.

•some people’s favorite bit was also other people’s most disliked: SPOILER HIGHLIGHT TO SEE.  When Fwuffy pops up about halfway through the book, for some people the character crossed the line between startling and jarring. Others were apparently unaware that the technology that could produce talking pink elephants is already very far advanced (so I guess I needed a Note for the Interested about that). A few people were upset by my phonetically representing Fwuffy’s genetically-hardwired childish speech****, which they viewed as either ableism or a violation of a rule (against ableism?) from some workshop or both. END SPOILER.

But most of those complaints not specifically about exposition were primarily complaints about execution; the entirely reasonable complaint that in their sovereign consumerly opinion, I had not done a good job of writing the kind of book that the cover (I think accurately) promises. They, and many more people who didn't comment publicly, thought I hadn't delivered a good version of YA SF; I, and some thousands of others, thought I had. 
That's what differences of opinion are all about, but again, it's not a pathway to anything very interesting for me to comment further about. 

The much more interesting and serious complaint I found in the negative reader reviews, with some frequency, was not that I attempted a good thing and did it badly, but that I did not do the right thing.

Complaints that I had not done the right thing seemed to be grounded very much in the argument that the “this is true” in hard sf should not be established with explanations, diagrams, references, or other this-is-real-and-how-it-works material, but just a feeling of authority.  They wanted the assured manner of a writer who has done his homework rather than the evidence that he did (let alone a copy of that homework for the readers to check over and think about themselves).

Indeed, several reviewers, including some teachers and librarians, rather sternly scolded me in the name of a rule that was argued in avant-garde literary reviews a century ago, but has apparently since become a law: “within the story, rules must be consistent, unexplained, and arbitrary."  
Consistent because that's playing fair with the reader.
Unexplained because the story should divide readers into an in group who get it and an out group who don't, and the merit of the story is fundamentally the merit of the in group.
Arbitrary because if it's rooted in or based on anything, it elevates that thing beyond the story (and elevates the in group on a basis other than their literary skills).
So all this real-science stuff was misguided, indeed oppressive because it pretty clearly assumed that knowing about protons was somehow better than knowing about werewolves.
Well, yes, to declare it bluntly: I do think that knowing about protons is genuinely better than knowing about werewolves.

I think that reaction reveals two important truisms: 
1) hard sf is the awkward center of the genre, 
2) science fiction depends on having an awkward center.   
And the way in which that works extends beyond hard sf to help explain why some streams of recent sf work as well as they do.

For science fiction as a whole, embracing all the subgenres and side-and-slipstreams and overlaps with fantasy and so on, I think Theodore Sturgeon explained it best: the “science” in science fiction is science in the medieval/Renaissance sense of the word, which meant something more like “knowing,” “knowledge,” or “awareness.”

Science fiction is fiction about the purposes, ways, and consequences of knowing things. To some extent all literature is about that, but science fiction makes that concern its unique core, in a way that other genres do not.*****

Anyway, I’m with Sturgeon: SF is about knowing. I think it’s fair to extend that argument and say that the different flavors of sf are about knowing different things, in different ways, for different purposes, and with different consequences. Military SF is one way or another about knowing how weapons and soldiers work at the micro level and about how wars work at the macro level.  Sociological, anthropological, or “soft” science fiction is about knowing how society shapes personality (micro), about how societies cope or fail to cope with meeting each other (meso), and about how cultures and societies take on new shapes to adapt to a changing environment (macro).  Much of literary sf is about knowing how the tropes of fiction shape imagined reality (micro) and about mapping/deconstructing the barrier between “mere entertainment” and “serious literature” (macro).  Environmental sf is about knowing how a genuinely ecological view reshapes our perception of the world, within a character, a situation, or possibly a whole planet. Feminist sf and the various kinds of post-colonial and Third World sf are about how the experience of a group’s moving into a less overtly marginalized cultural position reshapes its members, and how they redefine the group for their own and the group’s purposes. 

Attempt to roll a saving disclaimer against nitpicks: all of those are also about some other kinds of knowledge too; I’m making this up as I go and being anything but exhaustive.

One big difference between the rules being “known science plus highly predictable not-inconsistent-with-known-but-fake science” and the rules being “whatever I thought would be cool for this book” is that the former are a lot, well, harder.

In most of the subgenres of sf, the accuracy of that “science” (again, in the broader sense of “knowledge”) is a poor third to internal consistency and author confidence. Plenty of science fiction, some of it widely admired,  rests on unworkable-in-reality knowledge:  
•The visual tropes and tricks of pulp-cover illustrators (hello, Star Wars)
•Much of alternate history
•Nearly all of steampunk (Lord Kelvin, a Victorian himself, could have explained steampunk's problems with power density and mechanical information transfer better than many of the people who write steampunk)
•Various versions of “scientific psi” like Stephen Gould’s Jumper series. 
•“Rationalized magic” like S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire books.
•Wonderful oddities like Richard Lupoff’s Into the Aether, Melissa Scott’s Silence Trilogy (which begins with Five-Twelfths of Heaven), or Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! 

Among all these subgenres of sf, hard sf is central, because so much of the first really popular science fiction was hard sf, and it is from hard sf that science fiction got most of its expository tricks for laying out that consistent, knowing-stuff-matters universe.  Thus the readers, critics, and writers can’t get rid of that hard sf heritage, and mostly don’t want to.

And yet it’s awkward. It’s hard for the rest of sf to make peace with hard sf, or find one comfortable place in which to confine it, exactly because there’s an awkward, ineradicable difference between telling the reader “you need to know this for my story to work” and “you need to know this because it’s true, and here’s a story about it.” 

Hard sf never quite sits right with the rest of science fiction, because whether you like it or not, science fiction may sometimes be the genre of Analog, Hal Clement, and "engineer fiction" but it is ever so much more the genre of Superman, Star Wars, Avatar, and The Terminator, all of which will give you about as accurate a view of the possible technological future, and of real human reactions to it, as Tarzan of the Apes will give you of the real behavior of gorillas and the culture of indigenous Africans. 

That overlap between the myth-real of pulp fiction and the real-real of modern science is awkward. You may have heard the actor’s rule about not working with kids and dogs on stage, and it's a real rule, because no actor, be he or she ever so trained and talented, can be as comfortably real as a three-year-old or a cocker spaniel.  In very much the same way,the insistent reality of hard sf spoils the illusion of many other kinds of sf -- though not all other kinds. In a little bit here I'll be talking about how much of contemporary identity sfs (that is, the science fictions that are in part or whole about the experience of a different identity than the Standard First World White Straight CisGuy) are awkward in just the same, wonderful, blessed way of grounding their authority more in the realism of broad-sense science and less in the tropes of fiction.

But for the moment, let's stick to the awkwardness and centrality of hard sf.  That awkwardness spreads out from hard sf and its other external-reality sourced cousins, and into the more purely fanciful subgenres, like refrigerator mold through yogurt. Interesting things that are not necessary to the story weasel their way into final drafts because they have important real world consequences, and as long as the topic that a reader does have to understand is so close to this important real world stuff, why not slip a bit of it in? The awkward intersection of real-real with mythic-real encourages a snarkish tendency to make fun of the media version of everything, since it is an iron law that the media version of everything is always wrong.******  That same awkwardness leads us to overvalue and draw too harshly the distinction between thinkers/talkers/planners on one side and doers/whackers/improvisers on the other; we might make our Person Who Knows Stuff into a hero who shows the jocks were wrong, or into a hapless, ineffective dork to be shoved aside by the jocks who At Least By God Take Action, but we write very few real Hamlet types suspended between an external need and capability to act and an internal, moral need to get it right. A hard sf story is always wobbling down a too-narrow channel between the encyclopedia and the instructional filmstrip on one side, and the crudest sort of adventure story on the other.

Now, I buy the truism, articulated by critics in many different arts, that it’s the limitations, difficulties, and awkwardnesses of a genre that make it what it is. Musical comedy can only achieve what it does because it has to solve the problem of oscillating between a representational street corner to a singer on the stage of imagination; action-adventure comics draw their energy by converting the complex interactions of violence between bodies into a flat, stationary, divided page; and pop songs need to be commercials for themselves, crystalize new audience perceptions, and situate everything comfortably in the familiar, all at once.   

Hard sf’s noisy back door opening into reality, behind its gaudy facade of pop fiction, isn’t a permanent weakness or chasm. It’s the whole reason for doing it.

And when that chasm is treated as the source of energy rather than an awkwardness to be papered over, hard sf can be pushed into new realms by new advances in science or by clearer understanding of existing science.  This means that sf can take us to genuinely new and strange lands, which is one of the mutually contradictory pleasures in reading, the other of which is the connection to myth, i.e. familiar stories and truisms that primarily reassure us that we “always already know” that our culture has the world figured out.

It’s taken a large part of my life to see a major  mistake in my thinking during my first decade or so of fiction writing. I used to think this subjugation of real wonder to mythic goshwow was a bad thing and a betrayal of promise; in a fairly-often-reprinted speech at an American Library Association convention quite a few years ago******* I made far too much of the point that science fiction contains wonder in the same way that a cylinder contains gas, a quarantine contains plague, or NATO contained communism, that is it keeps it from getting loose into the general world.

It does, of course.  The fictional apparatus keeps the wonder within bounds, but that also makes it tolerable to have it carried out into the world, and the vessel is always waiting to rupture from the force of what’s inside it, and without the vessel, no one would go near enough to encounter the wonder.

Of course not every vessel harbors that saving, awkward core. Most don’t. For example, Star Wars’s real controlling Force is the immense pile of tropes from a century of adventure movies, and though that goes many places, it doesn’t go anywhere new.

Now historically, hard sf has tended to contain, or outrightly confine, more than it explodes. Hard sf has done pretty well at describing the effects of a massive infalling of antimatter into a black hole, twenty centuries in the future, but only by witnessing it from the viewpoint of a Purdue Class of 1947 mechanical engineering/Army ROTC small town Presbyterian Republican radio ham and hot-rod builder.  Nonetheless, hard sf has continued to provide at least a few escape hatches that lead to tunnels out of consensus reality (even if they only lead to consensus reality next door), and its particular hatches are part of the basic definition of the genre. Every now and then there’s a little shock in there for the careful reader who discovers the universe is a little bigger and a lot different.

Let me go a little deeper into a comparison that might offend people on both sides of it: the abundant new Anything Except More Middle Class White Straight Guys science fiction, whose rapid growth and spread and diversification is the biggest story in our genre in the last twenty years, is another awkward center, and one reason it's revitalizing the field so vigorously is that it's doing what  hard sf did at its best. 

The reason hard sf was always the irritant that couldn’t be expelled and just kept causing more pearl to form was that invasive, painful immutability: it wouldn’t dissolve and it wouldn’t shatter and it wouldn’t go away, it was central and awkward and coping with it made everything else in the field grow up, and that was because, dammit, the equations said what they did (and they were cold), and explosions really don’t make noises in space and the Van Allen belts are there and other planets are really far away and things like entropy, bandwidth, and mass ratios mean your time machine, cyberreality, and rocket yacht just don’t work.

Well, that’s what gay, and feminist, and Third World, and all the combinations and mergers and flow-togethers of all that sf does: puts an indissoluble, immutable core of reality that won’t go away right there in the middle of a big old comfy ball of genre tropes. 

Ultimately there is an experience there which cannot be dismissed by the traditional reader.  Right there at the heart of the traditional narrative that was being used to contain the shocks and surprises of quantum physics and cybernetics and silicon chemistry, some subversive somebody—or rather a whole army of subversive somebodies—are planting other realities that are real, and don’t change to accommodate what the average story-consumer thought s/he was buying.

The assumed supremacy of an external and not-universal experience stands in complete defiance of a basic rule of fiction laid down by the New Critics and propagated through university MFA workshops and little lit magazines and their sf followers ever since: that the heart of what a story is about is not supposed to rest on an authority outside the story, or the author, or some belief system. That went with the idea of a text in a context: either things only needed to be true within the story, or with reference to the author's background, or with reference to some shared system of belief.

Being just plain true, and alien to the common experience, but nonetheless true, though not what you'd think, BUT TRUE GODDAMMIT!!! meant kicking holes in that safe wall that protected literature from the world and tenured faculty from review.

Hard sf had to break that rule to be what it was, and now, so do all the "identity sfs" that are bursting out everywhere and turning the field over again.  And high time. There's no fertility if you don't turn the field over now and then.

Now, for the near future, hard sf will probably be less interesting than the identity sfs, owing to  the fertility and excitement of a new frontier: at this moment in the history of science fiction, there’s just so much more stuff that we haven’t heard before to say about the experience of AfroCaribbean women than there is about rockets. Tropes about gender queerness are still being developed and created whereas the ones about the Singularity are pretty worn down from decades of traffic. 

So, for those of you who lament that sf isn’t about what it was about when you were young, well, duh. Neither is the world, and neither are you.

The "planetary" (or so I visualize it) structure of hard sf:
1. core of inarguable reality growing from extratextual reality, 
2. mantle of standard mythic tropes
3. surface of standard realistic fiction
4. currents of energy like Hadley cells churning in the depths and occasionally piercing the surface dramatically
is turning out to be even better suited to dealing with the reality of differential cultural experience than it was to the hard-sfnal new science around which it formed in the first place.  Hard sf didn’t just create the occasional pearl; it nourished a great big healthy oyster, and all those irritating grains of sand labeled “third world” and “female” and “trans” have somewhere good to grow.

Even the eternal attempts to cram hard sf back into other genre expectations, somehow, seem to have exact mirrors in the attempts to similarly cram and suppress the identity sfs. Indeed, one way to tell that the new polycultural sf is vital to the field (in the strict sense of vital, i.e. having to do with its continuing life) is that defenses mustered against it are parallel to the ones traditionally mounted against hard sf.  For example:
1. dismissing it because  of the way it prioritizes its energy.  ("Typical hard sf characterization, i.e. everyone sounds alike"; "just another politically correct story in a stock sf setting, where's the worldbuilding?")
2. condemning its readers as being exclusively or obsessively  interested in the things it does well ("Basically it's a story problem from a physics book, tricked out with some heroics.  Basically, it's an anecdote from a human resources seminar on diversity, tricked out with some gadgets.")
 3. emphasizing its  fictional parallels and parenthesizing the new or interesting part via "with":
("The Maltese Falcon with a robot. The Color Purple with a queer alien.")
4. Ignoring the obvious exceptions right in front of any halfway perceptive person's nose.
("Hard sf can’t accommodate human characters" (Timescape?).  "If they worry about this gender stuff they never do the tech right" (Slow River?)) 
5. The SF Convention Panel Pseudopolymath One Liner -- those dismissive slogans you hear from the rostrum at sf conventions that are intended to indicate how polymathic the speaker is; closer examination generally reveals that the sentence is all the speaker actually knows, and that they got it from somewhere else.  “Hard sf is a flavor and that flavor is tough, it’s  chest beating in the face of doom.” "Transfeminism is surgically altered men trying to steal feminism."
6.  The argument that "but nothing really changes." Nothing to see here, folks, walk away, don’t look, the fictional universe is what it’s always been. The Hero is still wearing his same old thousand faces, everything’s just a hero with a problem and a likeable protagonist versus an interesting but fatally flawed antagonist in an escalating game of Ping Pong, you’ve been here before, all that changes are the furniture and the minor characters. The Tempest dealt with the science of its day and particularly the excitement of discovering new lands, and it has a lot to say about colonialism, and they made Forbidden Planet and Prospero's Dream out of it, so if you know The Tempest, you know as much as you need to.  In fact you could just throw The Tempest over the side too because you can say the same things about The Odyssey.  Everybody should stop shouting about all this supposedly new stuff and let us get back to our cultural nap.
The defenses against hard sf then and against the identity sfs now are the same because the threat is the same: that awkward core is going to get too hot for the mantle of overused tropes to contain, and before you know it our comfy standard-fiction crust will have the hot magma of change and surprise all over it. 

 Well, yeah, that was a very overblown metaphor.

  Of course many hard-sf aficionados want to stay back with their familiar, comfy wonders, and are just hoping for a story that makes them feel like they understand the Higgs boson. 
  Sure,  most of the new young writers don’t see any particular reason to venture very far back into that old dead white guy stuff, any more than people who want to learn to fly a plane feel like they have to put in an apprenticeship as bicycle mechanics.    
 Nevertheless, here we all are, and in the ever-continuing struggle to breach the genre-trope containment  and let loose a whole volcano of wonder, we're the allies we have.

*Except, of course that hard sf will not give you lung cancer, though the jury is still out on social leprosy and inability to dress appropriately. 
 **The same rules that will prevent some of them from being published and many of those who are published from publishing anything worth reading.
***He did, too. But for the audience I intended, I thought that this needed explaining. For further discussion, Google “Dorothy Parker,” “Edna St. Vincent Millay,” and “horrible sneakers”.
****I put that in because I thought that although rich people might want to give their child a “pet” (slave, really, for every practical purpose) who was smart, brave, loyal, and compassionate, they would for sure want to give their spoiled little spawn a “pet” who was kitschy-witschy-cutesy-poo. Whether or not being hardwired into a permanently childish voice might feel degrading to Fwuffy would not have entered into their deliberations, which would be solely concerned with the best birthday present for displaying their wealth. Fwuffy, of course, not having a choice, copes with having been given that permanently childish voice, just as any smart, brave, loyal compassionate and dignified self-regarding flying pink elephant would.  I base this entirely on observing 1) present day rich people, who very frequently are able to inflict their abominable taste on people who cannot defend themselves, though I must concede that it is possible that, in the future, rich people may be different from the lost, tasteless, and clueless creatures they appear to be now, and they will fly us all away to some low-tax, free-enterprise utopia on the backs of their giant winged pigs, and 2)the behavior of a number of excellent people who were "blessed" with one form or another of humiliating demonstrations of cleverness by people who had too much power over them, and who found the strength and dignity to simply be themselves and stare down the ten thousandth person who just couldn't get past whatever their latently sadistic parents, guardians, or teachers had inflicted on them.  I found it interesting to write a character in that particular psychological spot; I freely admit that I'm cowardly and trouble-avoiding enough that I did hope that making him a genetically engineered pink elephant would avoid, or at least render unjustified, complaints of stereotyping from any actual genetically engineered pink elephants in the audience.
 *****Specifically the central concern in sf is about why/whether/how it matters to know about the territory, and not about the attractiveness of the territory.  This may be why sf fans who hold strong political beliefs so often have a sneaking (or even flamboyantly overt) liking for the works of writers they disagree with. Sure, military sf tends to be written by more righties than lefties, and sociological and anthropological by the reverse, and so the assumptions tend to be drastically different, but many SF readers are more interested in knowing about war or knowing about the dialogue between social and personal than in reinforcing their particular beliefs. The reverse seems to be true in thrillers, by the way; whenever I’ve pitched to a mostly-thrillers editor, much of their concern has been “the book’s demographic,” by which they usually seemed to mean “The people who would think this crap was gospel,” and it has often been emphatically explained to me that many mystery, thriller, and men's-action readers, along with YA reviewers,  cannot enjoy a book which contains plot elements, characters, or ideas with which they disagree. I can't recall ever hearing that from an sf or mainstream editor; it seems to be fairly genre-specific.

****Mystery, for example, is mainly about hiding or finding out things; romance is about loving people, places, and ideals; fantasy is about fulfilling destinies and things turning out as they were meant to and what “meant to” means, and so on.
  *****Pick any movie or television show that involves a character who is some sort of expert or highly skilled person. Ask any person who actually does that for a living if the movie/show got it right. The answer will always be no.  Doesn’t matter if it’s cops, military, doctors, airline pilots, cryptographers, chess masters, astronauts, factory workers, teachers, lawyers, architects, prostitutes, spies, assassins, drug dealers, bank robbers. Whatever the movies show you about how they do their jobs, it’s wrong.  I am especially delighted that movies manage to get writing, acting, stagecraft, and directing wrong.