Another post up on Slate last week:
What should we expect from science fiction? In a recent Smithsonian article by IO9’s Annalee Newitz, author Neal Stephenson criticized the dystopian cynicism that currently pervades the genre. Instead he calls a more optimistic, realistic approach—fewer zombies and man’s folly-style catastrophes, more creative inventions and solutions. In the spirit of being constructive, he’s also taking action. The first step is an anthology of optimistic, near-term science fiction, forthcoming from William Morrow in 2014, that will tackle this challenge head-on. Smithsonian describes the project, Hieroglyph, as a plan “to rally writers to infuse science fiction with the kind of optimism that could inspire a new generation to, as he puts it, ‘get big stuff done.’”
I’m really delighted to announce that Patricia Cohen wrote up my recent essay on David Foster Wallace for her Thinking Cap column this week at The New York Times. Readers can download the full pdf of the essay here. A version of this research that I gave as a talk at Digital Humanities 2011 also got a nod from William Pannapacker in The Chronicle of Higher Education over the summer. I’m very grateful to these writers for covering my work as well as the editors, advisors and one extremely patient spouse who did so much to improve the final product.
This was a strange experience for me, having recently spent a lot of time thinking about Wallace for a chapter of my dissertation. Somehow reading this unfinished novel brought the sad fact of his death to life unavoidably to mind in a way that my other DFW research never did.
The novel itself is really enjoyable–I could really see Wallace extending himself into the new style that he was struggling to develop. The various chapters are full of life and intelligence, and seemed in a sense less guarded and cerebral than his previous fiction. I found the whole setting of the novel (an IRS center in the 1980s) to be hilarious and was really drawn into the book in a way that this kind of postmodern fiction usually doesn’t (though I love it anyway). That quality was particularly surprising because it doesn’t really cohere as a novel and clearly was part of something larger that will never be.
At the end of the text, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor, chose to include a collection of notes drawn from the author’s working files on characters, potential plot twists and various endings for the book. (Unless, of course, this was also some kind of postmodern DFW gag, but it didn’t read that way.) This closing chapter was what really brought Wallace’s death home for me. I felt as if I’d been let in behind the curtain and seen the magician preparing his next trick, and he’d seen me see him, and there we both were, feeling upset and depressed and unable to think of a way to correct the situation. With most authors I would find this kind of glimpse into the voyaging writerly mind intriguing. In a different context I would probably enjoy this kind of thing with Wallace, too–I hope to check out his archives at the Ransom Center in Austin one day. But here, at the end of The Pale King, it just made me wish he’d been able to finish the book.