“Discovering” SF

Last week the New York Times book section led off with a review of a book whose title I’m not about to name, for reasons that will become obvious. The book in question was a “science fiction” novel by a “mainstream” author and was highly praised. The reviewer opens by stating that just as the Apollo missions showed the beauty of our planet, in the same fashion a “comparable journey takes place in the best works of science fiction – an imaginative visit to speculative realms that returns the reader more forcibly to the sad and beautiful facts of human existence.” So far, so good.

But then, even as the reviewer admits, the author breaks no new ground with his tale of a missionary’s trip and experiences on an alien world [with no reference to The Sparrow or A Case of Conscience, I might add], but praises him as “a master of the weird” and, after summarizing the plot of the novel, concludes by comparing the author to Hilary Mantel [whom he declares has made the historical novel “newly respectable”] and saying he hopes the author “can do something similar for speculative writing.” The author is, of course, an international seller with several movies based on his books.

All of this gave me the almost insane desire to borrow weapons – as many as I could – from Larry Correia and go on my own monster hunt against the so-called mainstream literati, such as the reviewer, who clearly feels that no existing F&SF writer, no matter how good, can possibly do what this author, as an outsider, may be able to do. The sad part is that the reviewer just might be right, not because there is not a great deal of highly literate and well-written F&SF, but because there seems to be a view among literary reviewers that such literature does not exist.

In the case of such “mainstream” reviewers, I just can’t forgive ignorance and/or total disregard of an entire long-standing genre, particularly when that ignorance has existed so long and so willfully. Praising a novel that clearly examines issues and tropes that have been examined in detail in F&SF for years, if not longer, often brilliantly, as if no one has ever done it before, in the hopes that a talented outsider can bring more readers and “enlighten” them to the fact that within &SF exist a great many brilliant works of literature, seems to me to reveal that the so-called mainstream literati continue to exhibit either ignorance beyond ignorance, or ignorance compounded by arrogance.

And for those reasons, I’m not about to give ink or mention to either the reviewer or the author,

10 thoughts on ““Discovering” SF”

  1. Frank says:

    I am no great literary critic, and have no credentials that support my opinions when it comes to literary matters. I do, however, read voraciously and believe that I know what I like…for better or for worse.

    I have read large quantities of F&SF, and I might add, everything that you have written, if your blog correctly reports your works. I can say this: good writing is good writing, no matter the genre. The reason I tend towards F$SF is that, at its best, I believe it removes the boundaries of reality. It has to be crafted well, and it has to carry my interest, especially with regard to charactor development as well as plot development. But, I find that great F&SF takes on the attributes of great literature without losing the thrill of “newness,” if that make any sense (or, even if it doesn’t).

    I am sick of “critics” who seem to think that they know what I like better than I do. The only redeeming fact is that I believe many are like me, i.e., totally underwhelmed with and not interested in their opinions.

    I will continue to read what I damned well please, with little or no regard for what the “critics” may think of it. And, for what it’s worth from such an admittedly plebian source…I both thank you for your works and would ask that you continue to be so prolific in you production. You have given me, and I’m sure many others, hundreds of hours of interesting and pleasureable reading.

  2. Corwin says:

    I can say Amen to that. I stopped reading such ‘critics’ years ago and doubt I’ve missed much that I would have enjoyed. Actually I find librarians an excellent source for discovering what are to me new authors.

  3. Sean says:

    I think I heard a similiar review on this book recently on the radio. That reviewer’s words seemed to praise the book, but his tone etc seemed to pooh-pah the whole notion that anything sci-fi or fantasy could possibly be good. The result was I had no desire to go out and look the book up or buy it.

  4. JakeB says:

    I read that specific review.

    I don’t know why it is that book reviewers continue to regard science fiction as a kind of literary leprosy. I sometimes imagine that having once been bespectacled nerds themselves, they continue forever to want to distance themselves from the most strongly nerd-associated genre.

    It amazes me that year after year, if a Serious Author writes a book that is clearly science fiction — whether post-apocalyptic road novel, dystopia, or a pure if-this-goes-on having to do, with, say, cloning for replacement parts — it by definition is not science fiction, since, well, this is a Serious Author — didn’t you hear me the first time? And Serious Authors, you know, don’t write science fiction, because if they did, we, serious literary critics [sic], would be enjoying science fiction! Unspeakable!

    BAH! . . . I think I will go reread Arthur Clarke’s “The Star”, since, being mere science fiction, it is all that I am capable of comprehending.

  5. John Prigent says:

    I have a simple test of a book. If it’s praised by the literary critics and the rest of the ‘literati’ – I know it’s high-blown rubbish and not worth reading. If it’s ignored by the ‘serious’ media’s book pages the opposite applies.

  6. Plovdiv says:

    Maybe I’m not sufficiently well read in the genre, but I don’t have a clue as to what book you’re talking about. What kind of book does the author usually write? Your point about having an insane desire to go Larry Correia to get as many weapons as possible to mow down the literati made me laugh I must say. It’s one of the few times you have shown a distinct lack of restraint, but can do so wittily and eloquently.

    1. The book I was talking about is SF, but it’s not by a genre writer and likely wouldn’t be familiar to more than a comparatively small percentage of F&SF readers. I didn’t mention author or title because I didn’t want to give it any more [or much more] mention/press than it already has.

  7. Sam says:

    I can understand taking offence at the attitudes of reviewers towards science fiction and fantasy.

    However those attitudes are hardly the author’s fault. I haven’t read the book in question so I can’t say if it’s any good or not but for all I know it could be regardless of what the reviewers think of it.

    1. My point wasn’t about the book. It is likely well-written, but I doubt that it offers any more insight, and possibly a great deal less, than existing and long-standing works by others, and those weren’t even cited by the reviewer.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    I read this book. It lets me trot out one of my favorite latin phrases:

    “Nihil sub sole novum.”

    The reviewer clearly has a thing for the author. Perhaps he’s looking for a collaboration, a similar review, or a date?

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