“King”: FKA USA

Yesterday I finished FKA USA (2019), by “Reed King” — a pseudonym of a “New York Times bestselling author and TV writer.” It was a new book at my library, and the blurb about it concluded, “FKA USA is the epic novel we’ve all be waiting for about the American end of times, […] It is a masterwork of ambition, humor, and satire with the power to make us cry, despair, and laugh out loud all at once. It is a tour de force unlike anything else you will read this year.”

Sounded good. It had a long wait list, so I put it on hold back in mid-October. It became available in mid-December. It weighs in at over 1000 e-pages, so it’s taken me a few days to finish. The length is one reason though. I didn’t find the book to be much of a page-turner, and I’m afraid I skimmed bits of the last chapters.

Victoria wasn’t amused; I wasn’t engaged. Or amused.

I generally don’t find straight literary fiction very interesting. It’s necessarily about the same humans who’ve been running around for 10,000 years, and there just isn’t that much new to be said about them. Unlike songs or poems, a novel has to string lots and lots of words and ideas together in complex ways, and there are only so many ways to build a complex sensible story about human doings.

Famously, there are only seven basic plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. The Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth and Discovery

When your cast is “regular humans,” and your stories are all set in either Earth’s past or present, after thousands of years of stories it’s pretty hard to find one that’s truly fresh (let alone truly original, which may be almost impossible).

This is why I love science fiction. It opens the doors to new kinds of stories. It is possible to be fresh in science fiction. In some cases, authors even manage to be a bit original. Which seems to have ruined me for straight fiction.

I posted recently that I didn’t get much from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (in fact, I couldn’t even finish the second book). I’m two-for-two now. I didn’t get much from FKA USA, either (I did like it a little better, though).

FKA, by the way, stands for Formerly Known As.

§

One issue is trying to be two kinds of book. On the one hand, a wacky almost slapstick satire about where modern culture is headed. But also a sci-fi thriller with big stakes. It ranges between slapstick goofy (with a talking goat) to serious narrative about a corporate plot.

Based on the descriptions (and this NPR review), I was expecting something between Douglas Adams and Hunter S. Thompson (flavored with some William Gibson or Neal Stephenson). I may have smiled a few times, but I can’t say it tickled my funny bone. It mostly comes off as Idiocracy meets a road movie (which is to say I’ve seen it done so much better).

In part, it’s almost too clever and proud of itself. The writing tends to call attention to how clever it’s being. The talking goat (Barnaby) lived in an abandoned library where he lived off books. Which he read before eating, so he’s a very educated goat. Barnaby comments that Borges never sat right and Melville gave him gas. [eye-roll]

Barnaby is intelligent (and utterly miserable) because his father had human brain tissue instilled into his brain. That made his father insane enough to kill himself, but Barnaby inherited the brains.

He describes a cousin who had 15% homo sapiens brain matter as having a baffling fascination with the mechanics of shoelaces, that the letter C disturbed her, and she failed to learn her numbers past seven. Which is all very cute and clever, but too random and unreal for me. The author is a bit over-fond of the comic trope using the rule of three and throwing in a ringer for #3: “Care to send her balloons, a parade float, or a cache of weaponry?” The writing was just too over-cute for me. I found it exasperating.

Each chapter starts with a quote from The Grifter’s Guide to the Territories FKA USA. Truckee owns a copy of this rare book (he struggles with static text that doesn’t swipe or talk). Naturally there’s something of a Chekhov’s Gun there.

The author uses a lot of footnotes. The NPR review wrote, “I love the abuse of footnotes,” and I quite agree. They’re part of what makes Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman fun (especially Pratchett who uses them a lot to great effect). I even went through a stage of using them in blog posts. The problem is that they just don’t work well in electronic media. The e-book I read made accessing them a pain. Fortunately, you can skip them, they add almost nothing. I lost track at one point and was reading the footnotes from the wrong chapter and didn’t really notice much extra disconnect. You might want to read them, along with the five appendices, after.

Speaking of which, I looked briefly at two of those appendices and decided they didn’t add anything I cared about. It’s a bit like The Silmarillion. You’d have to be way into the world-building to bother, and, frankly, the world-building is too divided between slapstick and prescience to be interesting.

I’ll mention also that “Reed King” is either woefully ignorant of basic science and technology or is willfully ignoring it. The science (and technology) in this science fiction isn’t very good. It’s not a believable future. More of an exaggerated cartoon.

The area FKA the USA. The dotted line traces Truckee’s journey.

The story, which takes place in 2085, follows Truckee Wallace, a teenaged “ant” (worker) at Crunchtown 407, a corporate factory town that used to be Little Rock, Arkansas. At this point, the USA has divided into corporate or ideological countries, most of them at major odds with the others. Truckee belongs to the nation of Crunch, United, and lives under a fairly severe set of rules (all enforced, with deadly force, if necessary, by HR). Such rules include always smiling and other important traits for employees.

After an explosive incident involving the goat and an old friend of Truckee’s, the president of Crunch, United, tasks Truckee with taking the goat to San Francisco (which is in the nation of RealFriends© of the North). If he doesn’t, a villain may take over the world through an illegal drug that, along with a righteous high, installs something like Wi-Fi in the brain that allows control from outside.

Truckee and the goat, along with Truckee’s friend Sammy (a SAAM-1564A robot) set off on a road trip. Sammy hopes to reach the Independent Nation of Engineered People-Things and live free (note the acronym; such is the humor level). It’s just south of San Francisco.

But (or course) things aren’t what they seem.

§

Some of this book seemed to need better editing. During the factory incident, Truckee is described as looking out through the plate glass into the factory floor where Billy Lou Ropes and the goat suddenly appeared (not magically, they just walked in unobserved; the narrative doesn’t bother with how).

Then there’s a digression chapter about Billy Lou Ropes, and when the narrative resumes, and after a brief scuffle with security, “…Billy Lou put down the goat. When he straightened up again, he was holding a gun.” And then, “The first gunshot cracked the plastic. But the second and third brought it down in big sheets. I threw my hands up as a chunk of two-inch-thick industrial-grade polymer toppled over the console…”

(Bolding mine.) That happened early in the book, and it sensitized me to noticing other bits where, at least if I were the editor, I’d ask “Reed King” if that’s what he (or she) really meant, and maybe it could be re-written to be a bit clearer? Some of the other action sequences don’t feel real to me, either. I’d have to give the book low production values (I couldn’t enlarge the maps, for instance, and they were too small to be legible).

Map of Crunchtown 407

Another bit in that same section, when Truckee first notices Billy Lou, “For a half second, I thought it was a joke — good old Billy Lou, slinked out of town before the DoJ could get him and wouldn’t go down without a fight — and almost laughed.”

I can’t parse the logic. If Billy Lou slinked out of town, how is it he wouldn’t go down without a fight, and why is he in town? The line makes no sense to me, and it’s not the only one that didn’t.

There is also that, although told from Truckee’s point of view, the descriptions are often far more omniscient and erudite then they should be given Truckee’s background and (lack of) education. To be blunt, I just don’t think the writing (or editing) was very good.

§

One bit I did find cute. Truckee and friends come upon a place (formerly Flagstaff, I believe) named Walden. It’s occupied by a group of what are essentially hippies growing their own food and living a quiet natural life. They introduce Truckee to his first taste of real food.

Which he finds bland and boring. He can’t wait to leave. That was slightly subverting. The expected trope is that experiencing the natural world would be a wonderful life-changing event. Truckee reacts a lot like some of my friends’ kids on their first camping trips. Can’t wait for it to be over!

§

Bottom line, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. I give it an Eh! rating. (In my heart it gets a Meh! rating, but I’m willing to think at least some of that is taste and being spoiled by 50+ years of much better science fiction.)

It didn’t live up to its billing. That NPR review said, “It rarely works, (and it doesn’t always work here), but when it does, FKA USA becomes like Rudy Rucker writing The Handmaid’s Tale.” It was the idea of Rudy Rucker writing The Handmaid’s Tale that really caught my interest (Rucker’s SF writing is a hoot). I laughed longer and louder reading that line in the review than I did reading the book.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t Rucker (or Adams, or Thompson, or Gibson, or Stephenson). Fortunately, it wasn’t Atwood, either.

§ §

Stay trucking, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

30 responses to ““King”: FKA USA

  • Wyrd Smythe

    George Lucas has a lot to answer for, both good and bad. I love that there is so much science fiction available but hate that so much of it is crap. Sturgeon was never more correct.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I meant to list the six appendix titles:

      A. What Is a Human? (I read a bit of this one but got bored.)

      B. Defining Dissolution (Dissolution is the breaking up of the USA.)

      C. Annie Waller v. Kitty Von Dutch, Katty Von Dench, and Katie Von Dulch (the three defendants were all clones)

      D. Politics and Natural Disaster: The Unexamined Link

      E. The Android Freedom Fighters, 2050s–2070s

      F. The Rumplestiltskin Roaches, and Other Lies from the Golden Age of Genetic Engineering (Dipped into this one briefly. Meh.)

      I know there are those who really enjoy this sort of thing, but it leaves me utterly stone cold. A big problem, as I mentioned, was the dual nature. The slapstick silly, at least to me, makes these appendices (and the footnotes) a lot less interesting than they could be.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    On an unrelated note, is WordPress ever going to fix the Reader, or do they really think that’s the way it should work? I really need to get back to that rant post about the &$%# WP Reader…

  • Matti Meikäläinen

    Wyrd,

    As a former President might say, “I feel your pain.” I was never one for modern fiction for a long time until I discovered good science fiction. Even as a college student (eons ago) I was so obsessed with philosophy and the history of ideas that I used to joke that I only read works that were 2,000 years old. But let me suggest something I’ve tried that may help. Google topics like the top 100 novels or the best 20th century fiction and select a top pick. My first pick was The Great Gatsby and recently I read Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Like my old college bias, reading something that has stood the test of at lease a generation or two has been well worth it for me.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hey Matti-

      College was eons ago for me, too, but various English teachers over the years did drill a list of classic writing into my head. My problem is more that I’m a raging misanthrope who finds most human drama tedious (as a topic to read). As I mentioned in the post, we haven’t changed in 10,000 years, so it all seems so old hat. A shallowness on my part, no doubt!

      But who knows? One of these days I might actually finish Moby Dick. 🙂 There is something to be said for enjoying skilled writing. (I just wish Gatsby had a robot butler. 😁)

      • Matti Meikäläinen

        Again, I feel your pain. And yes, Jay Gatsby’s robot butler would be an interesting twist. Instead I think nowadays a contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald would have Gatsby build a creepy robotic Daisy Buchanan to replace the unattainable love of his life, just another nihilistic dystopian narrative.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, good Lord, yes. And Gatsby would be a buffed-out action star using his inexplicably acquired martial arts skills to fend off poverty zombies bent on world domination.

        I have to admit there is something far more wholesome about classic writing. The close examination of the real actual human world is a familiar and natural territory. I feel that when I read Agatha Christie or G.K. Chesterton or E.W. Hornung (who I finally got around to reading last month). Or Chandler or Hammett, for that matter. Yet all five of those authors wrote genre fiction, which I seem to crave and need. Pride and Prejudice? No thank you. But throw in a dash of something extra, a mystery or technology or whatever, and it’s a lot more interesting. (That’s why I’d like to finish Moby Dick. The whaling parts are that enticing extra bit.)

        I do have a sense I’m missing out on something. My dad got me interested in mysteries (I was never able to get him interested in science fiction), and one of his very favorites was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Published in 1980, so maybe not a classic, but mainstream enough that I avoided reading it until a couple of years ago. Once I did, I realized why it was one of his favorites; it’s excellent! But without it being a murder mystery, I’m not sure I ever would have given it a chance. My loss, but there’s no accounting for taste.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. I did enjoy The Silmarillion, and in my youth even read portions of Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales, and The History of Middle Earth. So who knows; I might dig the appendices.

    I can read regular fiction, but all things being equal, I much prefer reading something speculative, and not just the slightly speculative stuff of near future stories. The farther out, the better.

    One thing I’ve learned is that I rarely love award winning books, or the books recommended by literary critics. Whatever criteria is used for those awards or recommendations, it’s usually not the things that interest me. Even Hugo and Nebula winners are hit or miss. Most of the authors I like seldom get near them.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think it probably isn’t your cuppa either. The thing about The Silmarillion is that Tolkien was serious; it’s a serious history of his world. The appendices in FKA USA have some mild satirical bite (on a lot of obvious low-hanging fruit), but the silly and outright gags might be a serious detraction. It’s not like “Reed King” is trying to build a realistic world or future.

      I think we’re probably very much in sync regarding fiction and science fiction. I maybe don’t have as much bias towards far future that you expressed, but I totally get where you’re coming from on that. Far future stories are very cool.

      We’re also very much in sync regarding award-winning books (at least with modern fiction). I’m often very puzzled by what anyone saw in a highly regarded book (such as FKA USA or that Jeff VanderMeer trilogy). Obviously, people have different criteria than I do. Or perhaps there’s an Emperor’s New Clothes thing that goes on. Once the acclaim ball starts rolling, others just go along with it. Takes a contrarian little stinker like me to ask why the Emperor is running around in their underwear. 😉

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Strangely enough, The Southern Reach trilogy might have ended up working for me if the ending had more closure. In retrospect, I think my bigger issue with that series was that it was basically horror. The ending, now that I think about it, fits within the bounds of that genre. One of the many reasons I don’t care for most horror.

        The far future is good, but the far past can work for me too, although the past is more likely to be fantasy. So far future is better than near future, and epic fantasy is better than urban fantasy. Just the biases in my tastes.

        I do think there can be an Emperor’s New Clothes element. It seems like to get started it has to impress some substantial portion of the literati first. But that can sometimes come about from politics, either involving the writer’s reputation or status in the publishing industry, or the story having elements that specifically cater to the proclivities of that class.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Exactly. And I sometimes think the literary cognoscenti just don’t have the background for science fiction. And they almost never have any technological savvy, so there’s no judgement on whether a work is physically sensible. In those Becky Chambers books the science is so atrocious it almost seems deliberate (but if so, I don’t get the joke). Likewise, in FKA USA, the technology and science are often nonsensical, and I couldn’t tell how intentional that was here, either. My key observation about literary science fiction might be that the science part of their fiction generally sucks. And, to me, the whole point of science fiction is the science.

        For me it was more VanderMeer’s writing style, but yeah, I’m not huge on horror, either. (I might have slightly less bias against it, which might be why the writing style was more of a problem for me.) As I wrote in my post about it, “Two other factors lead to bailing. Firstly (or thirdly, I guess), the realization the story was more modern-day fantasy horror than science fiction, and I’m picky about fantasy. Humor is important. A good narrative is important. Good characters are important. A ripping good yarn is important. None of those elements are present here.” So the horror would have been okay with me, or at least not a major detraction, if the writing had been more to my taste.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Just noticed that this was my 1200th post here!

  • Michael

    Thanks for the review, Wyrd.

    I received as a gift this year The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy. I don’t know if you would enjoy it, as it is definitely on the literary fiction side, but two things: a) his proficiency with language and symbol is a bit awe-inspiring, and b) I think he is an exception to this claim you’ve made: …I sometimes think the literary cognoscenti just don’t have the background for science fiction. And they almost never have any technological savvy, so there’s no judgement on whether a work is physically sensible. I agree that there are many people with an artistic bent who don’t have a good understanding of physics–how things work, what limits might be, even in a Newtonian sense, etc. So science fiction naturally wouldn’t be a good genre for them to write. But Tom McCarthy is not one of them! Although The Making of Incarnation is not sci fi in the sense you mean, this work is very technical. He appears to have done a ton of research…

    I wish the Amazon preview hadn’t hidden the Prologue, because he goes right into a great description of a wave tank testing facility and this technician who is obliterating a scale model oil rig that I think is a good barometer of the work. The Amazon preview is the first chapter, which is a flashback to kids on a school bus, and not representative of the depth of technical acumen and rhetorical flourish contained in the rest of the book. I should say I’m 100 pages in, about a third of the way, so who knows how it will hold up!

    I feel as though I should offer a token defense of literary fiction, as I’ve grown to much enjoy it over the years. It certainly was not a “go to” earlier in life. It’s not always as entertaining as a ripping yarn, I suppose, but I think it can serve to illumine spaces or sensibilities that resonate within us in surprising and profound ways. There is also, in the very best of it, the evocative height to which language reaches. Literary fiction not done extremely well, can indeed be a “nothing new” affair… And like all art, it has changed quite a lot over the years I’d say… The Making of Incarnation is very different from Pride and Prejudice is very different from Moby Dick. But I think they each map a great deal of contextual meaning of the times in which they were written into a form that conveys that information in ways few other media can…

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The Wiki entry for The Making of Incarnation isn’t hugely encouraging, which might actually be a plus in my case. I tend to be trendy-averse and supportive of underdogs. When reviewers don’t like a work, or don’t really get it, that often bodes well for me. 🙂

      As I said to Matti above, I acknowledge that my bias causes me to miss out, but as I also said, there’s just no accounting for taste. I can’t help that this stuff leaves me kinda cool. (There is also that I have such a long reading list of books I really want to read that I’m not hunting for good reading material. If I ever were, I’d definitely branch out.)

      Between discussions with you, Matti, and others, I’ve been thinking about this a little, thinking back on the few non-SF (and non-mystery) books I’ve liked. They are few and far between, and almost all have some extra element that made it enjoyable for me. One example is The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. I’ve read it three times, I think. I found the architecture stuff interesting. I have the sequel (World Without End) but have never been able to get into it. I’ve started it twice, put it down twice, and never gotten back to it. (Same with Moby Dick.) Sounds like The Making of Incarnation would have some tasty meat I’d like. I’ll keep my eyes open for it at my library.

      One classic ranks as one of my all-time favorite stories: The Christmas Carol. But that has ghosts. 🙂

      I dunno. I reckon I’m a hopeless case. Spoiled by getting into SF (and mystery) in early grade school and never looking back. I read about people who’ve finally gotten into the classics and really enjoyed them, and I kind of envy that, but so far that bug has ignored me.

      As an aside, I just finished How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan (an author whose work I’ve enjoyed before). Very interesting, and I liked his level-headed approach.

    • diotimasladder

      Ditto Michael’s: “I think it can serve to illumine spaces or sensibilities that resonate within us in surprising and profound ways.”

      There’s something addictive about fiction when it’s sprinkled with illuminating moments. Maybe it’s a description that just seriously nails it, summing up in a sentence what’s going on in the room, or maybe it’s an observation that makes you look at the something you’ve seen or heard many times before in a new way. It won’t change your worldview, but you might grow to experience life more articulately.

      As for your review, I really don’t like ‘clever’ writing either. “Look at me, I’m not using the word ‘and’!” I much prefer prose that exhibits quiet accuracy.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Tch! You guys are ganging up on me — three-to-one! 😀

        Thing is, I think something is being overlooked here. It took me a bit of thinking to realize it, but there is an implicit presumption that the (at least sometimes) quality of literary fiction is disjoint from genre fiction, that genre fiction can never raise to the supposed quality writing and insight level of literary fiction.

        That presumption, I feel, is false. It is perhaps true that literary fiction has a higher fraction of good writing than genre fiction because it doesn’t have genre to fall back on (or give into completely). Good writing, to some extent, is the main arrow literary writers have in their quiver, and so it needs to be sharp. Some use history or exploring a human endeavor (such as whaling, for instance) as a background, which gives them a few more arrows, but SF authors have a lot more ammunition. I suspect reaching for different ammunition is what drives literary surrealism — an author trying to break away from the mundane aspects of straight literary fiction.

        FKA USA is touted as such an insightful look into our future, but the silly slapstick undercuts much of that power. I thought a lot of it was pretty low-hanging fruit — absurdities of human culture that have been explored many times by many authors and journalists. “Easy outs,” as they say in baseball. Contrast that with Octavia Butler’s two-book Parable series from the 1990s. She depicts a near future apocalyptic dystopia that feels utterly real, that feels very much like how it actually would have happened. In fact, it’s so prescient that it predicted trumpism 15 years before it happened. Butler was a literal (and literary) genius, a woman of extraordinary intelligence and education, and her writing is seasoned with observations of life from a Black woman in America’s point of view. She is the absolute equal of any literary writer I’ve encountered. Her science fiction, for me, rises her above them.

        I’ll also mention Terry Pratchett (another literal genius of extraordinary intelligence, perception, and education), who is my favorite author bare none. I’ve posted about him a bit. The insight he packs into his writing, again, is the absolute equal of any literary writer. The exuberant joy he instills in his writing, and the breath-taking imagination, make him brightly outshine any author I know. This post from 2015 explores Pratchett’s writing. Go read the last bit — the bit about the frogs — because it’s Pratchett in a paragraph. (There is also, for instance, when one of his key characters, one of his authorial voices, defines morality as not treating people like things, and that turns out to be channeling a key moral statement from Kant: Treat people as ends, not means.)

        Literary fiction, in some sense, to me drills inwards on human experience (a rather well-plowed ground). Science fiction, at least the good stuff, expands outwards with our imagination. For me, literary fiction, in lacking that component of imagination, just isn’t as good, can never be as good, as the really good science fiction. (But, as I said, it might be a little harder to find the good SF, especially Anno Stella Bella due to the flood.)

      • diotimasladder

        I don’t actually judge literary fiction and genre fiction in different ways. In other words, I don’t see any reason why genre can’t be as good as literary. But what that means is I don’t make special allowances for genre. It’s all the same to me. Good writing is good writing.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I very much agree. My big point here is why can’t fiction contain both what makes genre fiction sparkle and what makes mainstream fiction engage and compel. Exactly as you say, good is good.

        That said, I definitely have a bias towards the sparkle of genre, and I will overlook writing quality if the sparkle is bright enough. Some hard SF approaches being little more than a fictionalized tech manual, and, being an über-geek, if I like the tech, I’m fine with that. Such books don’t earn glowing accolades from me, but I do enjoy them.

      • Michael

        Alright, well, I would argue that literary fiction and genre fiction are both good, (and often interwoven as in the case of Octavia Butler), and have their places–not that literary fiction is inherently superior or anything like that.

        I think you’ve been clear that the notion you prefer sci fi is your own personal view and not necessarily intended as a universal statement, which I can understand. What can we say? To each his own, right?

        I wouldn’t place Butler behind other authors considered more literary, by the way. I’ve read two of her novels and much enjoyed them.

        I think maybe it helps to consider that a novel written to synthesize in a narrative mosaic particular and perhaps irreducible characteristics of the human condition, is very different in intention than a novel written primarily to entertain or result in that complete immersion into narrative that comes with great plotting. They always merge and nothing is purely one or the other. But there are ends of the spectrum and comparing them is like debating apples and oranges.

        Van Gogh was a great artist, but he didn’t create comic books, and I don’t mean that to suggest comic books are in any way less artistic or skillful or talent-necessary. But very clearly they are different. They play on different sensibilities, and to argue one can be or cannot be as good as the other is sort of moot in my opinion. Like basketball and boxing are two sports, and if we start arguing which is better that’s going to go nowhere fast!

        We should just enjoy what we enjoy! And keep sharing about it… without judgment of one over or under the other…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No question, when it comes to art, taste is (almost) everything (there are some objective criteria). And I do try to be clear that I’m speaking about my taste.

        “I think maybe it helps to consider that a novel written to synthesize in a narrative mosaic particular and perhaps irreducible characteristics of the human condition, is very different in intention than a novel written primarily to entertain or result in that complete immersion into narrative that comes with great plotting.”

        At the risk of being a bit of a dick here, I sense a bias in your phrasing. You paint “literary fiction” in very glowing terms there — “narrative mosaic” … “irreducible characteristics of the human condition” … wow! Comparing van Gogh with comics also seems a bit biased to me, although I agree with your overall point. (I, in turn, have my own bias, of course!)

        My question is, why can’t a book have both? I reject the very notion of “literary fiction” as a thing distinct from fiction. All books are literature. All written fiction is literary. I agree with Tina about judging all books on the same scale. There is to me a vague implied snobbery about “literary fiction.” It’s the same sense that judges classical music as superior to popular music (forgetting that, in its day, it was pop music, and that if Bach and Mozart were around now, they’d be writing rock or rap). The notion that the classics are somehow inherently superior is nonsense to me. As you suggest, modern work can have just as much skill behind it, so all that really remains is what music grabs you.

        As I think we agree, they’re all (potentially) as good as each other. Stunning work (and crap work) is possible from any artist. Exactly as you say, apples and oranges, but more like apples and bicycles in difference. It all depends on what one needs and wants.

        As for basketball and boxing, obviously the superior sport is baseball. 😀 😀 😀

        “We should just enjoy what we enjoy! And keep sharing about it… without judgment of one over or under the other…”

        Absolutely. Or try to. Being human, we can’t help but judge. 😉 The trick, perhaps, is keeping it to ourselves. Here on my blog, in posts and comments, I feel free to express opinions I wouldn’t in comments elsewhere. This is, after all, my place to rant and rave. 🙂

      • Michael

        Wyrd, let me try and clarify my comment, which in general I stand behind, not because of a snobbery (as I perceive it) but simply because I think it is possible to admit not all writing is pursuing the same objectives. When confronted with a topic that has a lot of gray area, I find it helpful to look at extremes because the extremes can clarify differences, and that was what I was trying to do. Without looking at extremes, it can quickly become a “yeah, but…” exchange, because many things really just are not one or the other.

        Also, I think we should jettison the terms “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” for a moment because like many terms that come with loaded histories and baggage, they’re not particularly useful or helpful for clarifying my point.

        First, you asked, My question is, why can’t a book have both? and I think of course they can. There is a huge swath of fiction that lives between the extremes. I tried to acknowledge this when I wrote [the two are] often interwoven as in the case of Octavia Butler.

        So at one extreme there are novels that simply are like I tried to describe with these words: [novels] written to synthesize in a narrative mosaic particular and perhaps irreducible characteristics of the human condition. Some books simply do contain narrative sequences that merge style, tone, language, symbol and image in multi-layered ways to evoke constellations of feeling not easily put into simple words, or to provide a sort of commentary on society or the human condition. It’s not that elements like plot or a good narrative conclusion are irrelevant but often they are more of the scaffolding on which some of the other layers are overlaid, and in some sense are not primary. If asked what one of the books was about, a plot synopsis would hardly capture the content of the work. Examples might be Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Tar Baby by Toni Morrison, The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, White Noise by Don DeLillo, and Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

        At another extreme are novels in which the plot and the protagonist’s actions in the face of various forms of conflict—i.e. the action itself—are not just front and center, but the singular focus of the work. The writing, the language, the tone, the pacing, the narrative revelations and surprises—these must all work in concert to give us, the readers, front row seats to the protagonist’s endurance in the face of what assails him or her. Each element of the narrative arc should enhance and/or develop the plot’s unfolding so that the protagonist is compelled further and further into the thick of it as a result of his or her choices and the forces at work against them. There is little room for superfluous asides, and scenes should drive the tension towards an inevitable climax, in which loose threads are tied together and may even flip information previously provided upside down. Examples might be The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy, The Charm School by Nelson DeMille, and The Devil’s Company by David Liss. I’ve tried to list books I’ve read, but I think many mystery novels (Ian Rankin’s novels perhaps), fantasy books (Terry Brooks’ novels say, or Stephen King’s) and even romance novels could fall into this category for the same reasons listed above.

        So I’ve written a novel here myself, but I’m just taking careful pains to point out that within the scope of what we call fiction there is a gamut of modalities. I don’t think many readers would say that Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby and Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October “work” in the same sorts of ways. But as I’ve said with each of my replies here, they’re all good (when written well)! And I’ll further add, none is easy! A well-written book at either extreme must harness every word and element to its purpose, which is freaking HARD.

        I’d say most if not all books have elements of both of these polarities as I’ve described them. And to your point, of course they can have varying degrees of both! But some books simply are what they are, and they’re not something else. And they’re amazing for what they are. Tar Baby wouldn’t be enhanced by the addition of cliffhangers, for instance, any more than The Bourne Identity would be improved by imposing a few scenes that function as digressions, through symbolic content and metaphorical connotation, into the underlying conditions of society that produce the need for espionage in the first place.

        I enjoy and respect them both for what they are, but I don’t think they’re the same. All that said, the distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” is quite often a false one. It’s one of those weird and arbitrary categorizations imposed on us by the engines of commerce…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I understand what you’re doing with extremes, and, in the large, I quite agree with everything you’re saying. The only quibble I might have is that those Bourne books (which I enjoyed the same way I enjoy a fast-food burger) would have been improved by more depth (better toppings on that burger).

        An example: In my younger days I read the Mack Bolan, alias The Executioner books, originally written by Don Pendleton but with a life that went beyond his initial series. There were many such “men’s adventure” series back then, violent action thrillers, usually pretty dumb and sexist, but Pendleton did have his Mack Bolan reflecting on the nature of it all, and it did elevate those books above the norm.

        I think, for me, anyway, I don’t see either extreme in an entirely favorable light. One extreme is too shallow, the other too deep. I’m all about that huge swath that blends both! Life is both comedy and tragedy, farcical and serious. And, in truth, I’m counter-reacting a little to the notion many have that the “literary” extreme is distilled brandy while the other extreme is low-brow because I’ve often found that brandy rather empty and the low-brow rather substantial.

        I absolutely agree (and it’s kind my point) we dispose the terms “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” — not just here but entirely and forever. There’s just writing fiction, and Sturgeon’s Law applies in all cases.

        As an aside, FWIW, I don’t even think of science fiction as a “genre” but a platform, a way of writing that opens doors to physically speculative ideas. For every type of fiction with a label, romance, literary, mystery, spy, action, political, whatever, you’ll find it in straight fiction and science fiction. The only difference between the two I admit to is that the one contains that speculative element. One can write “narrative sequences that merge style, tone, language, symbol and image in multi-layered ways to evoke constellations of feeling not easily put into simple words, or to provide a sort of commentary on society or the human condition” from a straight realistic platform or from a science fiction one. There are many science fiction novels that qualify (one example: Solaris).

        And on that note, time to get this New Year’s Eve party going! There’ a bottle of champagne in the fridge with my name on it. (Actually the name is St Reine Blanc de Blancs Brut, but you know what I mean!)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Thinking about it, I think I was channeling the Bourne movies more than the books. It’s been a while since I read them, but there were moments of substance regarding his past and relations with others. The movies were straight up action thrillers, but the books (as is almost always the case) were deeper and better.

      • Michael

        I agree, Wyrd. Ludlum’s first Bourne book in particular developed themes that were “floated” upon the primary narrative: questions of identity and of how we can (or cannot) overcome our past being two great themes that are front and center. This just goes to show how hard it can be to paint the extremes… to your point.

        To your comment above, I agree sci fi can run the gamut. I mean, would you consider The Time Traveler’s Wife as sci fi? And clearly a book like Dune can function on multiple levels to explore questions about imperialism, the centrality of the question “who controls consciousness?” (the free people or the state), our treatment of the environment, etc.

        So yes, let’s just drop the literary vs genre fiction vocabulary… 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Based on the Wiki description (I’ve never read it or seen the film), The Time Traveler’s Wife sounds like SF to me (though I’d classify it as fantasy since there doesn’t seem to be an explained mechanism for the travel). It sounds vaguely like a romance novel version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (which is SF because of the Tralfamadorians).

        (… Ha! Just read more of that Wiki entry, and saw I’m not the only one seeing it as a romance novel version of Slaughterhouse-Five.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Happy New Year!! (Also, I am way drunk.)

  • Blog Stats 2021 | Logos con carne

    […] (While I didn’t care much for the book, one thing FKA USA gets right, I think, is the inevitable fragmentation of the nation formerly known as the US of A. We haven’t really been United in a long time.) […]

  • Wyrd Smythe

    After the disappointment of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which was followed by the disappointment of Reed King’s FKA USA, it’s very nice to be thoroughly enjoying Alastair Reynolds. I read Revelation Space, which is the first book of the same-named series, and while waiting for the library to let me at the second book, I’m reading and loving his standalone novel, House of Suns (which, now that I’ve posted today and shoveled snow, I can return to).

    My only complaint, trivial as it is, is that the Revelation Space e-book had a surprising number of typographical errors (from, I assume, the transition to electronic format, although that’s hard to fathom given it was probably already in electronic format). House of Suns, on the other hand, is fine.

  • Michael

    So I read FKA USA and I’m largely with you on this one, perhaps for different reasons. I think first, given how hard I know it is to write a novel, that there are some good things to be said here. The writing itself is on many levels very good, if we set the content aside, by which I mean the sentence structures are interesting and variable, the descriptions often interesting, and it just sort of flows pretty well. It has a lot of elements of adventure books I might like… and none of this is easy to achieve without some pretty serious effort.

    What didn’t work for me is related to the ways in which what should be good writing, didn’t quite come off. And I think my number one turn-off for this book was that it seemed to make a sport of lampooning just about everything King could think of, but I wasn’t sure to what end. So you kind of hit it on the head for me, Wyrd, something about this was very cartoonish. (Because it was cartoonish the scientific realism really didn’t bother me so much.)

    It had the sense of being hollow–and this is where the writing itself becomes a microcosm of what didn’t work for me. While the descriptions and sentence structure and narrative pacing were all fine for me, the topics at some level were often just silly. It ends up reading like a polished turd, and this may, at some level, have been precisely the intent. I mean, we get that sense: Post-dissolution San Francisco has a subterranean piping system to ventilate human farts from the city due to all the indigestion associated with chemically synthesized foodstuffs, and it’s hard to imagine writing that with the intent to be anything but comedic. But the book as a whole is not really comedic.

    So bottom line, for all the things done well, it just ended up feeling a little like showing off, and a little vapid. Like goofing on in class…

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It sounds as if we see it largely the same. You’re right to acknowledge the craft. Any professional doing something that requires skill, experience, and perhaps talent, is worthy of their accolades. At the same time, be it a chef, a surgeon, an airline pilot, or a writer, I expect them to take what they do seriously. And not being any of those things myself, my appreciation is somewhat limited. It takes a chef to fully appreciate another chef, and I think likewise with all professionals.

      I’m always impressed by the knowledge depth and nuance of what my company called Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). I was considered one myself, so I know how the world unfolds as one studies an aspect of it. The fractal nature of things provides as much detail as one can absorb. The more one studies a thing, the more one knows, but also the more one realizes how much more there is to learn.

      But, anyway, not to tangent off too far, where we might differ a bit is in how many props we give for skillful writing and, to some extent, our view about writing style. I mentioned recently that I tend to value transparency of style, so I can see structural elements that call attention to themselves as distractions from the narrative. And that’s to the extent I even see them. I’m not a writing SME and can be blind to them.

      I do agree the narrative moved along pretty well. And I think we’re entirely aligned on its hollow and cartoonish nature. That’s a very good point about it lampooning everything in sight. It tries to be too many things. Exactly as you say, fart pipes in San Francisco is absurd, slapstick comedy, but the overall plot is serious thriller. That’s a mismatch I’ve seen before, and it’s really hard to pull off. (You’d asked my definition of “literary surrealism” — fart pipes in S.F. is a good example. So was the network of underground tunnels.)

      Totally agree with your bottom line, there!

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