Sunday, 11 March 2007

Seconds Away...

Stephen E Andrews, one of the authors of 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels, has written a long comment to my earlier post on his book. My replies to his points proved just as long, so I've posted it all up here. His comments are in italics.

25 titles of our 100 were published in the last 27 years. 12 of these were published in the last 17 years. I think both proportions are generous when you consider our book spans 1818 to the present day in terms of its main entries.

That's a little disingenuous - you have an entire century (the Nineteenth) represented by five books. But...

I'll also mention that part of our aim was to cover all the major themes that recur in SF and we felt these were best represented by some of the seminal books that pioneered these ideas.

I can't argue with that. Themes have their moments in time like everything else, and a restriction by chronology would probably result in a restriction of themes. For example, swords & planet (AKA planetary romance) seems to be making something of a comeback - Chris Roberson's Paragaea, Karl Schroeder's Sun of Suns, Leigh Brackett's Sea-Kings of Mars in the Fantasy Masterworks series, a film of ERB's A Princess of Mars in development...

In my thirty years plus of reading SF and talking with other devotees, one thing I've noticed is that the more committed, active fans are always keen to emphasise what is happening currently in the genre – which is admirable as they are working hard to keep SF alive and kicking.

I've never questioned the motives of sf fans in promoting books. On the whole, I think that they do so is a Good Thing. But I have seen, particularly on on-line forums, fans reel out lists of pre-1960 science fiction when asked to recommend genre books. Typically, such lists are presented as "good" sf, not "classic" sf. I think this is wrong.

Nick and I put a greater emphasis on the 1950s-1970s as this is when we believe the greatest steps forward were taken by writers of genre SF: it is no coincidence that the rise of SF is closely related to Modernism in the arts.

Ah, now this is where you and I part company a little. My own personal theory has it that science fiction is indeed a modernist art-form. But it has always been one. Ever since it began in 1926. Gernsback not only coined the term, he also created the community which defines the genre, and his insistence on scientific accuracy (or plausibility) is what differentiates sf as modernist from early prototypes by Wells, Verne, Poe or Shelley, or indeed from fantasy.

This modernist spirit of innovation is especially relevant to the very nature of SF; the 'sense of wonder' at the new, conceptual breakthrough, paradigm shift, whatever you want to call the shock of fresh vistas opening up before our consciousness is the mark of important SF.

The Turkey City Lexicon trivialises these as "eyeball kicks", but I think that de-emphasis is actually necessary - the term has become linked with visual spectacle, rather than paradigm shift. A foregrounding of "sense of wonder" leads to the lack of a central science-fictional conceit - as I mentioned in an earlier post.

But as we were aiming in part at a historical overview rather than a snapshot of the genre now, 'classic' texts have to be considered as valid even today.

Perhaps that's the problem - mis-labelling. Calling the book 100 Must-Read Classic Science Fiction Novels might have been better.

Readers often need to be pointed toward innovators so they can discover how radical such writers were for their time – many contemporary writers cannot claim to be anywhere near as groundbreaking as many classic authors who first tackled the ideas today's writers build on.

When Kirk first kissed Uhura on national American television, it was controversial and ground-breaking. Imagine how viewers of the time felt when they saw it. We can't, of course. Not now. So how are we able to judge the "radical" credentials of a piece of fiction that was written before we were born? Ralph 124C 41+ was no doubt a radical piece of fiction in 1911... but it is by all accounts near unreadable these days.

SF has always been as much about the present as the future. My view is that most really good SF is about the present.

Exactly! Was it John Clute who said every sf novel has two dates: the date on which it was written, and the date on which it is set? After all, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in 1992.

With this in mind, reading classic texts in order to put today's SF into some kind of objective social context is supremely relevant.

Most readers won't have that social context. And not only because they're young. But perhaps also because the context is relevant to another country - any novel which uses McCarthyism as a theme is going to be wasted on me because I'm British. Even Anthony Burgess' 1985 means little to me since I spent my childhood in the Middle East and missed the Winter of Discontent... On the non-genre front, there's not much point in reading a translation of Kitab al-Hayawan, without some understanding of when and where its author, Jahiz, lived.

I'm willing to bet that lots of quite hardened fans haven't read much by Leigh Kennedy, Barrington J. Bayley or Barry N. Malzberg (to name just three).

I'll not be taking that bet... I consider myself reasonably well-read in the genre, but there are still well-known authors whose books I've never read.

Not only that, there is no objective argument that today's SF is better simply because there is more of it: quality rarely equals quantity. Referring to The Reality Dysfunction, one of the two 21st century books we selected, yes, the writing is arguably better than that to be endured in Foundation, but I personally wouldn't call it a literary masterpiece...

I never said that more equals better. Although, by Sturgeon's Law, there has to be more in that 1% if there's more to begin with. I only pointed out that a lot of sf novels have been published recently, which your approach to the genre by definition ignored. And I second your feelings on Hamilton.

...(though I would make that claim for Ballard's Super-Cannes, a book that some would argue isn't SF, possibly proving that this writer at least is not totally 'hung up on idea').

I didn't like Super-Cannes all that much. Some parts of it struck me as implausible - as if the story were subservient to the point Ballard was trying to make. As Brian Aldiss put it: yuppa ga...

I have consistently found that giving a reader new to the genre a contemporary book full of hi-concept material is quite likely to put them off SF for good.

My experience of non-sf readers currently in their twenties and thirties is that they're familiar enough with many of the tropes and concepts to cope quite easily with contemporary sf. Admittedly, I'm not a book-seller, and I work in information technology... which means my sample is likely skewed...

Most readers over a certain age unfamiliar with genre SF are baffled by (for example) some of the ideas they encounter in a book like Altered Carbon (probably because they haven't read something seminal like Neuromancer), though I will admit that younger readers who have grown up in the post-modern era can manage such books as early attempts to 'get into' SF.

This does sort of beg the question: what is your intended readership for 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels? Not myself, obviously, since I'm a sf fan.

Samuel R. Delany is just one prominent literary figure whose viewpoint sides with my own on the difficulties some general readers have with the terminology of SF.

Isn't Delany's point that non-sf readers can mistake a literal phrase for metaphor because they don't recognise that a literal meaning is possible - cf "her world exploded"?

As for 'current day narrative techniques', 'Styles' and 'attitudes and sensibilities' of today's novels compared to older works, I don't see a lot of genre SF writers (Hamilton for example) using approaches that different to those of the fifties, as experimental and Modernist techniques used heavily in the 1960s are only utilized by some contemporary writers.

The attitudes and sensibilites embedded in texts certainly differ between twenty-first century texts and 1960s ones. And that's not just the repeated references to breasts in EE 'Doc' Smith's Masters of Space. It's even true of mainstream fiction. There's a casual low-level racism in much fiction written in the first half of the Twentieth Century that is unacceptable today. The narrative techniques... I was referring to lower-level techniques, such as the prevalence of tightly-coupled third person point-of-view, or the general dislike of the omniscient voice.

Whether Now really is the Golden Age of SF that can confidently be recommended to all kinds of readers is something equally as debatable as which novels are representative must reads in the history of the genre as a whole.

It's not that sf now is superior to older sf and so should be recommended, but that sf now is Now. And that's why it should be read.

Thanks for your comments, Stephen.

6 comments:

Stephen E Andrews said...

I’m glad Ian has taken the effort to respond to my feelings on his initial post so thoroughly and thoughtfully. I’ll also admit that he makes some excellent points. Nevertheless, here’s my rejoinder to him:

Yep, we cover 82 years (rather than a century) in five books, but your mention of Gernsback does indicate that we probably agree on 1926 as the founding date for ‘genre SF’, so by your criteria, I think we’re slightly saved by covering a lot more books published after this date. I also have the feeling that had we included more books from the pre-scientifiction era, we’d have had even more of a hammering for not including more contemporary titles. I’ll emphasis again that a quarter of our selections were published since 1980. I firmly believe that most critics – if charged with producing a book like ours – would probably put an emphasis on 1950-1979 for historical reasons.

Modernism? I’d agree that in a broad sense, SF has long been modernist in intent. My point related specifically to being a pioneer. Each new SF writer has had a tougher job than his predecessors in being an innovator, since so much has already been done with the genre. This is a problem that afflicts all the arts. Just as you are intent currently on focussing on the Now in SF, we as authors feel the pioneers are important.

The idea of entitling the book ‘100 Must-Read Classic Science Fiction Novels’ would only be valid if the book was aimed at fans: as you’ve correctly surmised, Nick and I didn’t write the book for the ‘fan’ audience (which you have to admit will always have quite a stake in polemically championing the SF of today), we wrote it for less experienced readers – the text states quite clearly that we aimed to provide (I quote) ‘an overview of the rich and diverse writing to be found in SF’. Those readers well-versed in SF won’t need our book, except as a talking point.

However, the vast majority of SF readers are not ‘fans’: they don’t attend conventions, don’t produce fanzines or websites, don’t subscribe to Interzone or Locus and don’t try writing the stuff. But they do want across-the-board recommendations that cover not just recent books, but ones that were important in the development of SF. I’m sure of this as I’ve spent over two decades selling books in five cities from a dozen different bookshops to people just like those I’ve described. If I’d claimed to be writing a book for ‘fans’, then I might agree with you regarding the title. SFX berated us for not including several ‘classic’ titles, but professed being excited by our descriptions of Dr Adder and China Mountain Zhang (a book I’m sure many fans would be surprised to hear is not well-known amongst average S) readers). If Nick and I have convinced more individuals who get most of their SF knowledge from TV or Films reading the books we’ve suggested, then we’ve achieved our aim and I feel confident that they’ll soon start reading more contemporary stuff. We know that fandom doesn’t need our help and will go it’s own way. Clearly, we’ve both been arguing at cross purposes!

Social and historical context: many readers find these things interesting. I agree with your point about the relevance of ‘Now’ and the fact that some readers won’t know those contexts, but they might enjoy a wider range of reading matter if they did. Focussing only on the ‘now’ narrows our range of perceptions as much as expanding it.

The Usual Suspects: Malzberg, Kennedy and Bayley can hardly be classed with the Heinleins, Asimovs and Bradburys of this world. Is suspect that we’d only have gained your approval had we included many more lesser-known writers (bear in mind here that while fans may have read these writers, the majority of non-fans have not.

You never said that more equals better? You may not have claimed this directly, but your argument in the first post for ‘Now’ indicates that you probably would have considered that our book was ‘better’ had we included more recent titles, as it probably would have been more to your personal taste. I think you’re being a tad disingenuous yourself here.

People in thier twenties and thirties in IT will be more familiar with (or intuitively understand) SF tropes more easily than the general reader: I agree with this and mentioned younger, more tech-savy readers in my first response. My reference to Delany was intended to cover the exact point you make, so we’re clearly agreeing on this.

To sum up, I believe you’ve criticised 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels for not fitting in with your personal belief in the ‘Now’ of SF. You’re entitled to your views, so that’s fair enough as they’re extremely worthy of consideration, but if we as authors had claimed to be focussing on the pulse of contemporary SF, then I think I’d feel this criticism was more objective. We can agree to disagree – perhaps we will include more recent books if we go to a second expanded edition.

However, what does disappoint me is your opinion that we only cover ‘the usual suspects’: I think this is a little misleading and believe that most SF readers (fans or not) would agree. Making that comment in your reply to Jim Steel prompted him to dismiss the book without having seen it (let alone read it):

these sort of books always strike me as seriously flawed as reference works. It's like picking up a dictionary that doesn't cover letters that start with vowels. And do they ever really sell to the supposed audience? Someone who has never read any science fiction novels but fancies taking it up in a big way because they quite like what they've seen of the genre on TV and film?

What really worries me is that Jim reviews books for Interzone : I hope he actually reads the books he covers, as his comment here seems remarkably unprofessional for a writer. I wonder what books he is comparing 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels to? Other books he hasn’t read perhaps? Again, had we written something that claimed to replace Clute & Nicholls, he might have had a valid point.

Luckily for Nick and I, the book has reached its audience – it’s due to be reprinted soon and we’ve received generally positive feedback from both experienced readers and newbies. I guess I’m just a little hurt that our work has been dismissed using criteria that are inapplicable to its stated aims and disregarded by Jim although he’s never seen the book.

Thanks for listening.

Ian Sales said...

More answers to comments to answers to comments...

I also have the feeling that had we included more books from the pre-scientifiction era, we’d have had even more of a hammering for not including more contemporary titles.

If we both agree on 1926 as the beginnings of the genre, then it only seems fair to do so :-)

Modernism? I’d agree that in a broad sense, SF has long been modernist in intent. My point related specifically to being a pioneer. Each new SF writer has had a tougher job than his predecessors in being an innovator, since so much has already been done with the genre.

This ties in with my earlier post on central conceits. I think the genre has pushed these ideas so much into the foreground that it's left a hole at the centre of sf novels. And yet there's so much the genre hasn't done with the central conceit, there's so much that remains to be done around the central conceit. This point also, I think ties into M John Harrison's comment on the "clomping foot of nerdism", and is directly relevant to the need for immersion in a fictive universe by modern readers (most especially high fantasy and shared-universe sf). But that's a discussion for another day....

SFX berated us for not including several ‘classic’ titles, but professed being excited by our descriptions of Dr Adder and China Mountain Zhang (a book I’m sure many fans would be surprised to hear is not well-known amongst average S) readers).

After reading Christopher Priest's foreword, I saw no point in arguing over the titles you did pick, and I'm a little disappointed (but not surprised) that SFX did do. Ask any group of 100 people to pick 100 must-read novels, and you'll get anywhere between 1,000 and 100,000 titles. That's a given. In illustration, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man is rated highly by many people - not only is it one of the 100 you chose, but it's also in the SF Masterworks series. I hated it.

The Usual Suspects: Malzberg, Kennedy and Bayley can hardly be classed with the Heinleins, Asimovs and Bradburys of this world. I suspect that we’d only have gained your approval had we included many more lesser-known writers.

I wonder how true that is. For myself, I mean. I suppose it depends on the definition of "lesser-known". I've read short fiction by Malzeberg, Kenedy and Bayley, but nothing by one writer you do mention in 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels: Maureen F McHugh.

You never said that more equals better? You may not have claimed this directly, but your argument in the first post for ‘Now’ indicates that you probably would have considered that our book was ‘better’ had we included more recent titles, as it probably would have been more to your personal taste. I think you’re being a tad disingenuous yourself here.

Ah. I think there's more crossed-wires here. I pointed out that the Twenty-First Century had likely seen more sf books published than the first three decades of the Twentieth Century. Yet the former was represented in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels by two books, and the latter by six. In fact, given that the new millennium was really 2001, the Twenty-First Century is not represented at all, as the two novels mentioned above were both published in 2000.

To sum up, I believe you’ve criticised 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels for not fitting in with your personal belief in the ‘Now’ of SF. You’re entitled to your views, so that’s fair enough as they’re extremely worthy of consideration, but if we as authors had claimed to be focussing on the pulse of contemporary SF, then I think I’d feel this criticism was more objective. We can agree to disagree – perhaps we will include more recent books if we go to a second expanded edition.

To be fair, I think I saw your book as another example of something I've long railed against - the recommending of old sf novels to new readers. The fact that you set out to produce an overview, and openly said as much, got somewhat lost in my rush to comment.

An expanded edition would be an interesting book - or perhaps even 100 Must-Read Twenty-First Century Science Fiction Novels... Um, perhaps 100 is pushing it a bit...

However, what does disappoint me is your opinion that we only cover ‘the usual suspects’: I think this is a little misleading and believe that most SF readers (fans or not) would agree. Making that comment in your reply to Jim Steel prompted him to dismiss the book without having seen it (let alone read it):

There was a Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels by David Pringle (which I suspect included more Ballard than yours), The Science Fiction sourcebook by David wingrove, and A Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Science Fiction by MH Zool, and... I wouldn't be surprised to find a large number of commonality among the contents of these - i.e., the "usual suspects".

What really worries me is that Jim reviews books for Interzone : I hope he actually reads the books he covers, as his comment here seems remarkably unprofessional for a writer.

I'll let Jim answer for himself, but I can verify that he takes his reviewing very seriously and of course he reads the books he reviews.

Luckily for Nick and I, the book has reached its audience – it’s due to be reprinted soon and we’ve received generally positive feedback from both experienced readers and newbies. I guess I’m just a little hurt that our work has been dismissed using criteria that are inapplicable to its stated aims and disregarded by Jim although he’s never seen the book.

Congratulations on your success. I can't in all honesty fault anything which is good for the genre. But that doesn't mean I can't have a good argument about it :-)

Stephen E Andrews said...

Thanks again for your responses to my comments, Ian. Many thanks also for your gracious congratulations on the success of the book to date- I’m very flattered. I agree that you are entitled to a good argument about SF!

Your point that perhaps we should have included more contemporary SF has been well made. When Nick and I were composing the list of books we finally included, this was one issue I thought about a lot (along with other such bones of contention like how many books by female authors should be included –just to give another example). Aside from my feelings about how innovative recent SF is in comparison with past titles, which I don’t intend to bore anyone here with any further, I also feel strongly that I like to put some critical distance between myself and the books of the moment, especially if they’ve been widely acclaimed, in order to screen out the hype that sometimes accompanies new books and authors. Looking back a few years at a book in its historical-literary context can help with a more objective judgement. When we expand the book (if it continues to sell steadily), we will be covering 150 books – something my editor and I discussed as long ago as late 2005, when the current edition was still being written. This will ensure we have more space to cover more recent titles, but will allow us, as authors, to stick to our ideas about context, history and the pioneering spirit. It will also give us room to consider feedback from fans/readers too of course and to respond by including or excluding titles other people feel we omitted from the current edition.

If the millennium did start in 2001 (you’re right of course), then I’ll admit we only represent the last few years with Altered Carbon (2002), but there are plenty of other recent titles mentioned in the 500+ other books name-dropped in our text. But my hype-screening rule came into play here- I’ll mention this factor in the next edition. As you suggest, people will always disagree with any ‘best-of list’, which is why we have been at pains to point out that our book is an overview. Our overview in the next edition will satisfy more readers as it will be more detailed.

Personally, in entirely subjective terms, I agree about the ‘clomping foot of nerdism’ (however, I still think my comments on Modernism re. The ‘sensawonder’ stuff remain valid for many readers). Had the book been entitled ‘Stephen E. Andrews Presents His 100 Best SF Novels’, the selection would have been quite different by a good 50%. But as I’ve said, Nick and I wrote the book for a general market, not for ourselves or fandom.

The definition of ‘lesser known’ in your case is clearly different to that of the vast majority of SF readers, many of whom will never have heard of Malberg, Kennedy, or whomever. Such authors may be ‘the usual suspects’ to you – although I’m familiar with all the other reference books you mention, the majority of people buying my book won’t be, since they have all been out of print for many years. I’m happy to have covered many of the same books as Pringle (for example) as I think he really knows his stuff and has good, sound judgement, even when producing a book he admitted was subjective.

Jim Steel? Well, I’m sure he does read all the books he reviews, but since he made assumptions about my book, you couldn’t blame someone for making assumptions about his approach: I hope he’ll be more careful and professional in the future. I have no desire to impugn his integrity or offend Jim, but he needs to respect my work too and not dismiss it without reading it. If he wanted to review 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels for Interzone, he’ll get his opportunity to criticise me there, but if so, I hope he does so fairly – I can accept valid, constructive criticism, but groundless dismissal is out of order.

I won’t intrude upon your hospitality any longer by continuing to press my points at such length here. It’s been enjoyable to debate the issues you raise and it’s made me think. Take a look at my blog in a day or two (at www.stepheneandrews.info/journal/) , where I’ll be posting a piece about the importance of Now in the world of SF, where I’ll be agreeing with some of your views and further expounding on some of my own.

Thanks again for a stimulating exchange!

Ian Sales said...

Before we bore everyone to tears, a last couple of points in response...

I also feel strongly that I like to put some critical distance between myself and the books of the moment, especially if they’ve been widely acclaimed, in order to screen out the hype that sometimes accompanies new books and authors.

Point well made. I look at the stuff that's selling well now, or being hyped, and I have to wonder if it's what I'd happily recommended to new readers of sf. On the other hand... I'll have to think about this - hype may actually prove a Good Thing when it comes to pulling readers into the genre...

The definition of ‘lesser known’ in your case is clearly different to that of the vast majority of SF readers, many of whom will never have heard of Malberg, Kennedy, or whomever.

I certainly won't turn up my nose at recommendations. For example, a friend urged me repeatedly for years to read Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos. I eventually did... and thought it fully deserved its reputation. (Um, checks copy of 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels and discovers Hyperion is only mentioned as a "Read on" under Foundation...)

I won’t intrude upon your hospitality any longer by continuing to press my points at such length here. It’s been enjoyable to debate the issues you raise and it’s made me think. Take a look at my blog in a day or two (at www.stepheneandrews.info/journal/) , where I’ll be posting a piece about the importance of Now in the world of SF, where I’ll be agreeing with some of your views and further expounding on some of my own.

I post as much to generate to debate as I do make my thoughts on various matters known (or even to sort them out in my own head). So debate is always welcome. I've enjoyed the discussion, and will certainly be dropping by your blog for a read and/or comment...

Jim Steel said...

Sorry to have caused you distress, Stephen, but I was making was a comment on this field in general. It would be foolish indeed to criticise something that I haven't read, and I have the utmost respect for most people who have the self-discipline to write a book. You correctly surmise that I would prefer a Clute & Nichols reference, but I am aware that not everyone is of the same opinion. Not everyone looks for the same sort of books. Having said that, if I were to find myself in the unlikely circumstance of being offered a contract for one such as yours, then I would probably sign it. I'm very glad to hear that your own book is doing so well, and I wish you all the best for the future.

Jim Steel said...

Sorry to jump in again, but I've just had a look at Stephen's blog. The issues of Locus that you are looking for, Stephen, are March for the British book survey and February for the American. British SF reprints having been holding steady for the past fifteen years at around 400 per year, and American SF reprints have doubled to around 1000 over the past quarter of a century. Hope this is of some use.