Edging into the future
by Steve Penn
[ bookreviews ]
Literary criticism has unfortunately ceased being, as TS Eliot put it, a defining characteristic of the civilised mind. Now it is more the defining characteristic of the mind with something to say, generally something it would like to be remembered for saying, and ideally something it would like to be quoted as having said. The sheer amount of text out there has made literary criticism into a task akin to testing whether part of the ocean is dry: no matter how much you look at, there is always more and there is always the chance that you missed a bit.
This book of dryness tests is a lot better than most, although like so many it feasts upon other critics (perhaps natural selection exists within criticism, a sort of consume or die ethic). Some of the essays in the collection are obvious points made well, like Joan Gordon's 'Utopia, Genocide and the Other', some are obscure and playful things echoing Derrida, like Lance Olsen's 'Omniphage: Rock'n'Roll and Avant-Pop Science Fiction'. Some of these are joys to read, and although most of the points made aren't exactly sweeping, some might have escaped the average Asimov fan.
There are some clever points raised upon the subject of aliens and cyborgs, and the confrontation between the metanarratives of humanity and the certainty of contact. Science fiction, many of the contributors argue, explores the blurring of truth and the breakdown of truth by "proving" what some people suspect. There are other stars here too, such as the wonderful 'Going Postal: rage science fiction and the end of the American subject' by Roger Luckhurst, an essay that draws a little too much on 'The Terminator' but is still one of the book's finest.
However, a lot of this book is kludge of the lowest order. Gary Wolfe's 'Evaporating Genre' includes a sentence that is 77 words long, which I shall not torture you with here. Essentially it says that SF causes genre to fall over because there is a lot of it. It is self-conscious academia, which is ironic in an essay about genre collapse - why couldn't we get a pulp essay? The whole book, one feels, ought to be more enjoyable to read as Sci-Fi is still a form that is usually read for diversion. Few readers of popular SF will really grasp, or particularly care about, the arguments Wendy Pearson makes, but then her textual choice isn't exactly mainstream. It is here that we approach the second, crippling problem of the essays. The texts the critics analyse are often very clear in message, requiring no further examination. Feminist SF, for example, is generally obviously so, as is "queered" SF, or Hermaphroditic SF. Such texts need little clarification as a rule, especially as we are living in a world of "point-scoring", where texts often revolve around a single issue rather than attempting to explore several. Criticising these texts is more a case of pointing out that they exist then saying what they do. Wendy Pearson particularly makes her essay read like an advert for a group of books. Lastly, many of the critics here have a highly irritating view of "normality". They speak of books escaping the familiar, when what they mean is escaping the familiar to the 21st Century Western reader. Surely when criticising a literary movement such as SF the critics should have spotted that view is a vital consideration, but often it appears they have not. It tends to undermine the whole book.
Overall, this book has too many flaws for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. It's a lot easier reading than many similar works (and it is just plain better than several), but it cannot be seen as a road map for modern SF. There are too many obscure texts (chosen only to prove the point of the author) and too few real revelations. But if you keep this in mind, it is worth reading this book. Just remember that you have a civilised mind, and you can criticise too.