Mansfield Park in space: talking prose with Una McCormack
“Ooh that was a good noun... Oh, I admire that subordinate clause.”
After the recent Wired article slating the fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson (my thoughts here) I spoke to the science fiction author Dr. Una McCormack. Una and I chatted about lyrical and non-lyrical science fiction, her theory of the three things novels can achieve and why you can usually only have two of them, the marvellous Ursula K. Le Guin, and why Mansfield Park is the best Jane Austen novel and ought to be set in space. We had a rambling chat, which I have edited into a more condensed form. I stopped doing interviews after the reader survey so this is a shorter, text-only experiment… (Note: I did a round of proof reading of this with chatGPT which I thought did a good job. Let me know if you find errors.)
(If you are interested more generally in questions of what constitutes good writing, I believe there are still one or two tickets left for my debate with Robert Cottrell of The Browser. “Orwell's Rules For Writers” will take place at 7pm on Tuesday, April 25th, at City Lit, 1-10 Keeley Street, London WC2B 4BA.
Free(!) tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/orwells-rules-for-writers-tickets-591357886357
Science fiction and fantasy is not an area I know much about and I was pleased to get some expert conversation from Una. This was probably the central point about the Sanderson debate:
sometimes science fiction can read quite crudely, but in fact, that’s because it’s doing something else that perhaps people who don't read a lot of it don’t realise it’s doing.
Dr Una McCormack is a New York Times bestselling science fiction author. She is passionate about women’s writing, science fiction, and helping people find their words and voices. Her 2020 release, Star Trek: Picard novel The Last Best Hope, became a USA Today bestseller.
HO: So let’s start with Brandon Sanderson. What did you think of the Wired article?
UM: I think that there was so much you could have written about. If you basically don’t like the books, and I know he’s read a lot... I would only want to write about something that I was interested in understanding, and I don’t think he’d even remotely gone in with that in mind. He’d kind of gone in with preconceptions and just made himself look mean. And I’ve not read a Brandon Sanderson and I never will.
HO: Why not?
UM: It’s a kind of fantasy that isn't my cup of tea. This kind of big world building, so so far as I understand. I’m not interested in rules and magic, it doesn’t float my boat. It’s not my kind of fantasy. I mean I love Tolkien, but I basically don’t read that kind of epic fantasy.
HO: Tell us what you mean by magic and rules.
UM: Okay, so as I understand it, a lot of the kind of charm of Sanderson’s books is that he’s come up with these quite complex systems of how magic can operate in fantasy novels, and he’s made this distinction between soft magic and hard magic, which is meant to be analogous to kind of soft science fiction and hard since fiction. Hard science fiction derives its ideas from science, extrapolating from science, and soft science fiction maybe would derive it from sociology or political theory or whatever.
It’s quite a contested divide, but what Sanderson has done is he’s gone, alright, you can do something similar similar in fantasy. It’s quite Thomas Aquinas in its approach to the world. I think this is parodied in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell [my review here] where you’ve got those two kind of schools of Magic, the kind of rational book learning theoreticians and the instinctive geniuses. I know from mixing in speculative fiction circles, it’s the kind of thing that people really enjoy to the extent that they probably enjoy it more than the actual stories. So I’ve got friends in science fiction circles they don't read the book anymore, what they’re interested in is the kind of structure of how the world operates.
For that and other reasons I wouldn’t enjoy it. It wouldn’t be stylistically of interest. I can read that kind of thing if I'm simultaneously going, “Ooh that was a good noun... Oh, I admire that subordinate clause.”
HO: For me, the central question about Sanderson is the way the Wired article said he couldn’t write good sentences, and I wrote recently saying, Well, sometimes bad sentences... That is good writing because it’s what you’re trying to achieve, right?
UM: They’re efficient. They’re effective. They know their audience.
HO: Exactly, exactly. It meets the demands of its genre, and therefore to that extent is good writing.
UM: Effective writing is the phrase I would use, it does what it sets out to do.
HO: Yeah, that’s a good distinction. This has brought up a discussion about lyrical writing in science fiction and fantasy. I guess one of the best examples of lyrical science fiction is Ursula K. Le Guin?
UM: Yeah, yeah, although when you look at it, one of the most distinctive things about Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing is it unfussiness. I think her writing is on unfussy, but it’s not invisible. And this is a kind of ideological interest of hers, you are meant to be aware of the work that is done in the achievement of culture, and that’s not just the writing, that’s the cooking of the meals, the paying the bills. Her prose represents her political project in a very crafted and thought-through ways.
HO: Tell us more about that.
UM: A lot of Le Guin is concerned with invisible work, which you can see in her essays where she takes a couple of hits at Hemingway. It’s that Alan Bennet line, history is women following behind with the bucket. There are stories that we tell that invisiblise certain kinds of human activity, and Le Guin is thematically, and I think stylistically, concerned with that. Her language is unfussy but you make a mistake if you think it’s not crafted.
HO: The only books I know of hers are the Earthsea novels, which I’m reading.
UM: Okay they’re lyrical!
HO: That’s lyrical in the sense that it’s what in literary terms you might say is quite poetic prose.
UM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You should read the Lavinia, you’d love it.
HO: I plan to. But I guess the argument here is that the guy who wrote the Wired profile is basically saying Brandon Sanderson is no good because he doesn’t write in the way that Ursula Le Guin wrote Earthsea.
UM: I think we mistake people make is that they polarize. It’s got to be poetic or it’s got to be plot-driven. I don’t think science fiction works like that. It’s got these three things it’s juggling. It’s juggling idea. It’s often juggling plot, beause there’s expectations and certain expectations attach to science fiction, not always... And then at the same time, it’s kind of juggling wisdom about people, which is the reason we read novels, to be honest, or the reason I read novels, to get knowledge or wisdom about people without actually having to talk to any. Science fiction is doing some other things as well, and I think all novels are doing this. I think you can do two of them extremely well, and most literary fiction can do that. It can do style and it can do character.
UM: It might hit a wall when you get to ideas, I just read John Lanchester’s The Wall, and it does style and character extremely well. There’s not a novel idea in the book. It’s very beautifully done, but there’s nothing fresh in it: nobody reading it will think anything differently as a result, and that means it’s efficient, effective prose. But if it’s meant to convert or change your mind it's not gonna do it.
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