PD Smith

Sea-Wind & Stone Gods

30 September 2007 | Reviewing, Science & literature, SF | 8 comments

I've just been reviewing Rachel Carson's Under the Sea-Wind (1941) which has been re-printed for the centennial of her birth. It's a beautifully written book exploring the life of the sea shore and the ocean. Carson was a zoologist and her descriptions are wonderfully detailed and evocative: a perfect combination of science and poetry.

Here is a passage in which she is describing that mysterious moment when an eel senses that it is time to begin the long return journey to the Sargasso Sea to spawn:

"Now it was autumn again, and the water was chilling to the cold rains shed off the hard backbones of the hills. A strange restiveness was growing in Anguilla the eel. For the first time in her adult life, the food hunger was forgotten. In its place was a strange, new hunger, formless and ill-defined. Its dimly perceived object was a place of warmth and darkness - darker than the blackest night over Bittern Pond. She had known such a place once - in the dim beginnings of life, before memory began. She could not know that the way to it lay beyond the pond outlet over which she had clambered ten years before. But many times that night, as the wind and the rain tore at the surface film of the pond, Anguilla was drawn irresistibly toward the outlet over which the water was spilling on its journey to the sea. When the cocks were crowing in the farmyard over the hill, saluting the third hour of the new day, Anguilla slipped into the channel spilling down to the stream below and followed the moving water."

And while we're on the subject of science and great writing, there's an excellent review of Jeanette Winterson's novel, The Stone Gods, by Ursula K Le Guin in the Guardian. I like Winterson's writing and I'm looking forward to reading her latest one, but I do sympathise with Le Guin's criticism of "literary" writers like Winterson who (apparently) makes it plain that she hates science fiction "even as she openly commits genre" - the novel is partly set in a polluted future world and in "Wreck City", all that remains after an apocalyptic Third World War.

"I am bothered," writes Le Guin, "by the curious ingratitude of authors who exploit a common fund of imagery while pretending to have nothing to do with the fellow-authors who created it and left it open to all who want to use it. A little return generosity would hardly come amiss."


8 comments so far:

  1. LiteraryMinded | 01 October 2007

    Thanks so much for that PD. I am also interested in Winterson;s work. I hope I get a chance to read this one sometime 🙂


  2. Mary McMyne | 01 October 2007

    I love Winterson's essays, in particular the collection ART OBJECTS: ESSAYS ON ECSTASY AND EFFRONTERY, but I hate to admit I'm not familiar with her fiction. When you say you like her writing, do you mean you've read her fiction before? I'm interested to know what you think of it.

    I love Ursula's phrasing there: "commit genre." That's one way to put it! And I think LeGuin could've made another stipulation: the best "genre" fiction doesn't "commit" these flaws, just as the best literary fiction doesn't. I don't remember Asimov using stilted dialogue to describe the world of the FOUNDATION TRILOGY. Nor do I recall Vonnegut getting particularly purple in SIRENS OF TITAN. Ironic, yes. Humorously overwrought, yes (I'm thinking of a section near the beginning about a goiter - a long several paragraphs about a woman in a crowd with a goiter - it goes on and on - and it's hilarious!). Honestly, it sounds like Winterson's novel could've benefited from closer study of the masters of the genre her characters claim to hate!

  3. PD Smith | 02 October 2007

    Thanks Angela - by the way, I very much enjoyed your piece on "Lolita" the other day...

    Hi Mary: I haven't read the collection of essays you mention, but I enjoyed "Written on the Body" and "Gut Symmetries". She's certainly a powerful writer. I came to her work because she's someone who tries to bring scientific themes into her writing - not always successfully, it has to be said; but at least she's trying! I'd definitely recommend her work & look forward to reading her latest novel.

    Yes, I loved Ursula's phrase too. I really don't know what it is about SF that so offends some literary writers. They don't seem to have the same fear of the crime genre... As far as I'm concerned there are just two types of writing: good and bad writing.

  4. David Thorpe | 02 October 2007

    Have you read Tanglewreck? What a mess! It's like it needed about 5 more drafts - a tangle of ideas thrown into a crucible and only half cooked - instead of letting the ideas come through out of the narrative and characters, the ideas are all on the surface, in your face, and forcing the characters and narrative.

    Actually they're good ideas. But a little more time (not a deliberate joke - the book's about time and relativity but she doesn't understand the science), thought and care to properly integrate the ideas wouldn't have been amiss. I saw her reading from it at Hay last year.

    Le Guin has a point, and it was a very good review. But I'm not too bothered when non-SF writers step into the genre. The boundaries are artificial anyway. Genres are a marketing idea. I never think I am writing SF. In writing Hybrids I was just extapolating a few things and trying to get it emotionally right, politically right. And Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is fabulous (now there's a writer who makes every word count) and uses SF ideas, but it's not SF either because it's not a self-consistent storyworld. In this style, where science ideas are taken by literary writers (and wasn't HG Wells the founder one such?) and treated metaphorically or as a starting point for an imaginative journey, you might enjoy 'One Hand Clapping' by Lise Leroux.

    This is a fabulous work, which she wrote after reading about a mouse some sientist had grafted an ear on the back of.
    (Incidentally she was for a while a neighbour of mine until some cowboy mafia builders forced her into bankruptcy)...

  5. PD Smith | 02 October 2007

    No, I've not read "Tanglewreck", but I think I know what you mean about the "tangle of ideas": it's true that her use of science is not always very subtle. Good point.

    I agree: I'm all in favour of writers exploring science and SF ideas - the more the merrier! I just get a bit fed up with this snobbery about SF.

    I don't know Leroux's book - thanks for the tip, David! It sounds fascinating...

  6. Lise Leroux | 01 December 2007

    I just ran into this website when I was searching for something else, and wanted to thank you for your comment on One Hand Clapping! Hope you enjoy it. And don't worry, my next book is going to have several Welsh cowboy mafia builders who get turned into something awful ... Sometimes it's a very good thing to be a writer!

  7. PD Smith | 04 December 2007

    Hi Lise! Good to hear from you.

  8. Lise Leroux | 19 December 2007

    Thanks, PD ... a pleasure to run into another writer who writes in a similarly cross-genre style ...!

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