From: Ben Goertzel (email@example.com)
Date: Tue May 03 2005 - 15:23:25 MDT
> Of course this is not the emotionality of a Jane Austen or even a Don De
> Lillo novel, but I find it extraordinary to see such characters dismissed
> as "soulless automatons without a shred of humanity". But maybe that's
> exactly the hazard of such writing; that without the comforting
> grid references to our daily lives (although dog knows the first
> extract is
> fairly blatant in providing one, by analogy), many readers are
> lost. Since
> I'm not especially eager to lose readers, I need to take all this under
> Damien Broderick
Well, you've been around long enough that I'm sure you realize it's an error
to pay too much attention to the particular suggestions reviewers make.
Sure, some reviewer may have an insight now and then.... And it's
definitely worth paying attention to how people have reacted to your book,
including reviewers as well as others...
But I wouldn't be so confident that reviewers really know WHAT they're
reacting to, even when they correctly depict how they FEEL when reading the
True, a really good literary critic should be able to pinpoint the reasons a
text evokes a certain reaction in them. But really good critics are at
least as rare as really good writers...
Clearly, this particular reviewer left your book feeling emotionally
unfulfilled. However, his analysis of WHY this is the case seems not to be
Clearly, it's not because your characters are explicitly portrayed as
"soulless automatons" (er, automata...)... I haven't read your new book, but
from the snippets you posted here, I judge you are correct that this is a
However, I still feel I can empathize with what the reviewer was reacting
to, based on my own reaction to your novel "Transcension" -- which was a
really good book, yet frankly NOT one of my absolute favorite books, and
partly because of a certain feeling of "detachment" I had when reading it...
This same feeling of detachment is present in most of J.G. Ballard's work,
and also in the late Stanislaw Lem. I think it has to do with the style of
writing as much as with the actual events and contents of the book.
Based on Transcension, and the snippets you give above, I would make the
following commentary. It would seem that your descriptions of impersonal
events and technological phenomena are far more poetic, detailed and
beautiful than your descriptions of emotions and other inner, personal
phenomena. That is, via your style and your emphasis, on a local level in
each page and almost each paragraph of the book, you place the EMPHASIS
elsewhere than on the characters' feelings and thoughts. This is the case
with much but not all sci-fi --- Phil Dick e.g. is a notable exception; as
is the Lem of Solaris and Beyond the Stars.
Here is an example, chosen almost at random from one of your snippets:
--- "I am the child of their retreat. I love them, and I love Lune the more, you god-smitten imbecile," I raged, weeping, "and you will recover them for me!" I drew back my arm and slapped his face, hard. Beyond the blister, aeons were passing, worlds beyond worlds beyond worlds built in calculated simulation and recollection, histories re-run and devised from whole cloth. Somehow I knew all this, took instruction from the fringes of omniscient shadow that crossed Yggdrasil Station like currents in a great ocean tide at the shoreline of some insignificant atoll. Here, in this place, this closed space and time, the majesty and brutality of all the Tegmark levels was being rehearsed in infinite miniature, like half the sky captured perfectly in a single red droplet of wine at the bottom of a drained glass. I could have her here, in simulation, if I sought entry from the Angels. That was not what I desired. Let her live! "Get her back for me," I told Decius and his companion, compelling them with my ardor, my steel-edged insistence. The Vorpal force in me blazed even in this radiant, numinous place. "It is not too much to ask." --- Re emotions, you say "I raged, weeping". And even his ardor is described as "steel-edged", a technological metaphor and not very original (e.g. "steely insistence" gets 40 hits on Google). In all, you use a very simple and direct descriptive language for personal and emotional things, without much originality or invention. Whereas regarding impersonal, scientific-type things, you frequently wax quite lyrical, e.g. "aeons were passing, worlds beyond worlds beyond worlds built in calculated simulation and recollection, histories re-run and devised from whole cloth" or "Here, in this place, this closed space and time, the majesty and brutality of all the Tegmark levels was being rehearsed in infinite miniature, like half the sky captured perfectly in a single red droplet of wine at the bottom of a drained glass." Very beautiful writing! But this beauty is pretty much reserved for the Tegmark levels and their conceptual kin, not for the weeping and the ardor and the heaving bosoms etc. etc... Look even at a simple sentence like "The Vorpal force in me blazed even in this radiant, numinous place." Well, a blazing force is nice, but a *numinous* place -- now that's really something! Where does the emphasis fall?? ;) This persistent stylistic asymmetry, I believe, gives the impression that the characters and their feelings are irrelevant and trivial compared to the vast, intricate and beautiful universe all around them and the impersonal events continually occurring within it. Now, this may well reflect your own attitude, and it may well be one of the messages you want to get across with the book -- I'm not saying it's wrong or unartistic.... A similar asymmetry of style exists in the late Lem, as I said above (tho his style is quite different from yours). On the other hand, J.G. Ballard achieves his impersonality in a quite different way -- he pays a lot of attention to characters' inner lives, but he frequently semi-explicitly depicts humans as psychophysiological machines. This is a bit more daring than what late Lem and recent Broderick do, which is to deal with human emotions/interactions in a somewhat perfunctory manner compared to external-world phenomena. Anyway, I think you could change the impression your transhumanist books make on emotion-hungry readers simply by a change on the literary level: find a way of describing characters feelings and thoughts and *pathways of personality development* which matches in beauty and ornateness the way you describe "the majesty and brutality of all the Tegmark levels was being rehearsed in infinite miniature". Of course, actually doing this in a way that doesn't seem hokey and that fits in well with the themes of your writing -- well that's easier said than done. But hey, that's what professional fiction writers are for ;-) -- Ben
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