Taking Sci-Fi Seriously

By Neal Comment

It’s already become conventional wisdom among science fiction pros and fans that the NYTBR sci-fi column stinks, even though detractors have only ever heard one example upon which to base their judgments. By contrast, the Washington Post book reviewers have been held up as a model for taking science fiction seriously not just as pop culture ephemera, but as literature capable of significant creative expression—and for being willing to grapple with such expressions on their own, occasionally quite technical, terms instead of flailing about in “math is hard” frustration. The sci-fi reviews in last Sunday’s Book World offer a clear example of what it is that impresses those who value WaPo over NYTBR in this field.

Before Martin Morse Wooster begins discussing Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (which is sitting on my coffee table, constantly trying to seduce me into blowing off all my freelance assignments and devoting myself to it), he discusses his belief that most SF writers, having fumbled the short-term prediction game, have moved on in other directions…but not McDonald, whose novel is heralded for “deftly show[ing] how technological advances and social changes have subtly changed lives.” I don’t know that I entirely agree with Wooster’s thesis in its broadest sweeps; it seems to me that Bruce Sterling, who comes in for appreciation later in the article, is also continuing to grapple with how technology will transform society in the near future. Then again, Sterling and William Gibson have also started setting their fiction in today’s world, blurring the lines between sci-fi and contemporary literature in compelling ways… at any rate, Wooster’s unashamed enthusiasm for the genre is certainly contagious, and he proves that there’s still life in the multi-book approach that former NYTBR columnist Gerald Jonas used before he was replaced.

Another publication doing a great job of treating science fiction as just another contemporary form of literature is Bookforum, which brought in novelist Carter Scholz to review a new biography of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote SF stories under the name James Tiptree, Jr. There’s not much to say here other than to recommend that you read Scholz’s effort, which treats Sheldon and her literary legacy with the same respect the Review reserves for, say, James Wood on Flaubert or Jonathan Franzen on Alice Munro. It’s hard to imagine the Review deigning to review a biography of a science fiction writer; they’d much rather spend their time on the memoirs of promiscuous food critics. Maybe the psychosexual turbulence of Sheldon’s life (not to mention her death) will register on their radar screens, though, and we can look forward to a thoughtful review from the likes of Jonathan Lethem or Liesl Schillinger (who, it must be said, at least made a reasonably persuasive argument for Insatiable as smart entertainment).