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Thursday, March 24, 2005
    Science Fiction Will Save the World! (Right...)

    As if you hadn't guessed, it's a big professional obligations week here, but I did want to point you towards an excellent analysis by Matthew Cheney (The Mumpsimus) of the "horseshit" in Norman Spinrad's latest review column for Asimov's, which turns out to be all about how "Spinrad's own writing is not getting the attention it once did, nor is the writing of his friends." Cheney nails the problems with Spinrad's critical worldview, which essentially seems to propose science fiction as a vehicle of moral/cultural instruction much like 18th-century English literature, only with more problem-solving capabilities, labeling it "a sad, shriveled, and narrow perspective of fiction's possibilities, one that overpraises the virtues of propaganda and ignores the virtues of allegory, fable, myth, poetry, and imagination."

    As Matthew says, "If anybody needed a reason to wish for science fiction to die, Norman Spinrad has given it to them." And he's not kidding. The essay--one hesitates after a certain point to even continue calling it a review--is really that godawful. I mean, when you start claiming that the problem with Islamic culture is that it has no science fiction...well, see for yourself.

    posted by ron @ Thursday, March 24, 2005 | Permanent link

Tuesday, March 22, 2005
    "Across the Universe"? Sheesh...

    Some book review reviewers might have unkind words for a NYTBR Hollywood book roundup that took place weeks after the Oscars had already been handed out and months before the Memorial Day kickoff to the blockbuster season--in other words, during a three-month stretch in which film really isn't news--but let's just be glad that Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Hell's in It finally got noticed, months after it came out. (Book review reviewer's disclosure here: I interviewed Bogdanovich for Publishers Weekly, and he was also kind enough to help me out with the opening to my soon-to-be-released book on 1970s films, The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane.) No, what I'd like to talk about as far as last weekend's Review is concerned is the Gerald Jonas roundup of recent science fiction.

    First of all, don't expect my usual problems with the NYTBR "Chronicle" format. Jonas has been doing this sort of multi-title column for years; heck, I think the new format actually gives him more space than he had when McGrath ran the show. No, what bugs me is that with all the original science fiction being published these days, he has to go and devote a paragraph to a reissue of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

    And I suppose I could quibble with some of his professed ideas about what constitutes new innovations in science fiction, as when he calls "New Space Opera" a "relatively recent subgenre...which seeks to bring stylistic and psychological sophistication to the rousing tropes of interstellar exploration and confrontation." As David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (SFRevu) pointed out a year and a half ago, the space opera has in many respects dominated the generic field, providing "not one cutting edge but many" for at least two decades. (Think Ender's Game, Hyperion, etc.) On the other hand, Jonas is probably right to point out that the label is relatively recent, as would be the existence of texts that consciously strive to fit into it--although even then, I would have pegged Justina Robson, whose Natural History brings up the question, as "New Weird" before "New Space Opera." These, however, are the fun debates that keep fanboys at full steam until the bartenders throw us out, and I think it's safe to say that whatever we think about "new space opera," we're both coming from a position of enthusiasm.

    And, too, I'm appreciative of the fact that Jonas is basically writing for an audience that needs to be told why it ought to care about science fiction books in the first place--which is why I was particularly pleased to see him explain Tor's decision to publish Peter Watts' Behemoth in two parts: "Bookstore chains are reluctant to stock a midlist book (one not written by a best-selling author) that bears a cover price of more than $24.95, and publishers cannot profitably produce a $24.95 book that runs close to 600 pages." That kind of insight into the nuts and bolts of publishing is welcome in any section of the Review. I'm less sold, though, on the conclusions Jonas draws from the Watts case:

    "Despite the arbitrary limits imposed by booksellers and publishers, it is unlikely that science fiction novels will be getting shorter any time soon. The reason is simple. For most futuristic fiction, whether set on Earth or elsewhere, the writer must create a credible world--a coherent, self-consistent place and time--in which believable characters can interact. The more complicated the setting, the more work involved in its gestation, the more a writer tends to become attached to it. Hence, the proliferation of sequels in science fiction and fantasy."

    Me, I always thought the proliferation of sequels in science fiction and fantasy was due to publisher demand for a steady stream of recognizable product, not because SF&F authors are prone to spend more time playing with their fictional universes. And, of course, the assertion of "the proliferation of sequels" has no logical connection to the assertion that "it is unlikely that science fiction novels will be getting shorter." But most importantly, I'd like to point out that "a credible world...in which believable characters can interact" is hardly a requirement unique to "futuristic fiction." It is, you will grasp, what nearly all fiction requires, and since the "literary fiction" genre is not really beset by "the proliferation of sequels," even though works of literary fiction can take just as much work to gestate, and provide settings just as complicated as science fiction. So that suggests, to me anyway, that there's some other reason why (a) certain types of science fiction and fantasy novels keep getting bigger while (b) the genre has a significantly high proportion of multi-part sagas and strings of novels set in the same fictional universe.

    posted by ron @ Tuesday, March 22, 2005 | Permanent link

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About RON HOGAN
Ron Hogan is a freelance writer who reviews books and interviews writers for publications such as Publishers Weekly. He is also the author of an illustrated overview of American films from the 1970s called The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane, due out from Bulfinch Press in November 2005.


About BEATRIX
How did this season's hot books generate their heat? And why do other novels surrounded by buzz turn into duds? Beatrix, a subset of my longrunning literary blog Beatrice.com, openly speculated about these questions in the form of "book review reviews" from January to August of 2005.


Beatrice; or, Where It All Began
I first launched Beatrice.com in 1995 as a venue for author interviews. In late 2003, I switched over to a daily blog of news and commentary about books and authors. What you see here now is essentially one side of that blog's original makeup, the side that dealt with how books were received by the literary culture. The full blog contains not only these "book review reviews," but news items about various writers and original insights from the authors themselves in the form of interviews, blog excerpts, and guest articles.

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I'll Show You Mine
One of my regular gigs is as a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Although some people have a problem with anonymous reviews in PW, I'm all for them in general principle (though I think embargoes are a crock, but that's a different story)...anyway, I'd like to give any reveiwers who might be reading this the same opportunity to critique me, so I'll look into whether it's kosher for me to pull back the curtain. And I'll try to land some assignments with bylines, too. (In fact, if you're reading this, and you can assign book reviews...)

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