Sunday, May 16, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson on the game of forms in The Ministry for the Future

The good folks at Crooked Timber recently hosted a symposium on Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future. Nine people each wrote a post about the book. Robinson has now replied to those posts. He begins:

When I attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop in 1975, our first teacher Samuel R. Delany gave us some advice: don’t respond to critics. It never does any good. Don’t even write reviews.

It was good advice, and I’ve followed it ever since. But here I am. Did I make a mistake? Maybe so. [...]

So I’m going to try this: I’ll happily express my appreciation for all the generous giving of time and thought that I see in the responses below; and I’ll do my best to answer any questions they ask. If there are complaints about my book (and there are), I’ll stick to my long-time practice, and hold my tongue.

He then made comments about each post, with links to each. He concludes his response to Belle Waring by commenting on form, which, as you may know, is a hobby horse of mine:

Also, I was playing the game of forms. Even in a novel about such grim stuff, there should be pleasure. For me some of that came from making a game of forms. So the surface novel is Mary’s story, about what we could achieve by legal means; then there’s Badim’s story, obscure enough that the reader has to stay alert for clues as to what’s happening there. This is not unusual, all detective novels operate this way; but this time there aren’t enough clues. The reader has to shift from being a detective to being a co-novelist, concocting their own version of what Badim might have done or authorized. In that process readers have to consider what they themselves might sanction, given the world’s desperate situation.

That Belle Waring saw this structure indicates that it must be there, and legible, which is good to know. That she responded to it so generously (because it could be seen as merely evasive) is something for which I am very grateful.

What I would have commented on, if asked, is the game of forms, the literary game. Lots of modes in this book, in a bricolage, perhaps to imitate the confusion of history and make readers be historians as well as ethicists. Novels always do this.

The riddles came to me from Anglo-Saxon. About a third of remaining Anglo-Saxon literature consists of riddles, and many are structured so that there can be more than one right answer, as in puns. Scholars still argue about whether the answer to one of them is an angel or a grasshopper; that was surely deliberate, a joke. A surface answer and an under answer.

The “IT narrative” was a fad in eighteenth century England, in which a coin or a violin or an atom would tell its story, proceeding through the world, and usually through someone’s digestive tract, with amazement but with little to no agency, which I take it is why the genre died off.

The dialogues between the smooth host and the grumpy guest I got from a book called Orwell at the BBC. Included are some transcripts of Orwell hosting a weekly radio show on books, broadcast during the war. A repeat guest on this show was the literary critic William Empson, whose frequent rudeness always bounced right off Orwell. This struck me funny, and I thought it could be put to use.

Meeting notes: having dramatized quite a few bureaucratic meetings in my career, it seemed to me it would be a relief to all to convey these by notes alone.

Essays, encyclopedia articles, political rants, historical summaries, op-ed pieces: these are all genres with specific norms. They are also forms that fiction can use. Including them in a novel might add to what Barthes called the effect of the real, but even if they don’t, they do create variety, and the chance to play with pastiche and parody.

There is a spine of dramatized scenes, mostly focused on Mary and Frank. Very important, still the basic unit of fiction. Then also the opposite of dramatization, summarization; this was a staple of nineteenth century realist novels, and is still very useful—not to be jettisoned, much less despised, no matter how unfashionable some people now find it.

Lastly, and for me the great discovery for Ministry, is the eyewitness account. This too is a genre, I think under-recognized and theorized as such. Eyewitness accounts are more summarization than dramatization; they are telling not showing, thus reversing one of the Three Stupid Rules of MFA creative writing programs (see The Program Era, by Mark McGurl). Eyewitness accounts are often the result of interviews; the eyewitnesses are usually recalling something that happened many years before, which has since been judged significant. So they make judgments; they tell us what they think the event meant to the world, and what it meant to them in their lives after it happened. They tell their story with urgency and often great propulsive force. Something they saw, and often did, later proved important not just to them, but to the world!

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