Gary K. Wolfe: Reconsidering

I have to admit I’m relieved to find others sharing my hesitation over the whole notion of year’s best lists, but at the same time your comments convince me that there is value in revisiting the past year’s books, lists or no lists, and part of that value comes from the very points we’ve all raised as objections…

In the first place, we haven’t all read the same things. I share Adrienne’s concern that there’s a considerable number of books I’ve missed altogether, and it’s interesting to hear about them even if they won’t all get added to my pile of Books To Read Before I Die. Paul’s comment on K.J. Parker’s The Company, for example, has the odd effect of making me want both to read it and to flee from it. Nice trick, Paul.

Another value is that these ruminations give us a second chance to call attention to worthwhile books that may not have achieved as high a profile as we think they should. Graham mentions Paolo Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories (OK, it’s not a novel, but let’s have some leeway here), which I agree is a very powerful collection with a distinct point of view, but which as I write is sitting some 330,000 positions behind Anathem in Amazon’s sales ranking (and no, you don’t need to remind me how unscientific, crude, and time-bound that is, either). My point is that it’s a book which shouldn’t get lost in last year’s flood of titles.

By contrast, and even though we might agree it would deserve a spot on a best list, Anathem doesn’t really need our attention. Anathem already has the biggest enclosure in the zoo. Anathem has gawkers, and probably a lot of readers as well. Anathem doesn’t need to care what we think of it.

Except—and this is my third argument in support of why we’re doing this—in terms of putting these books in context. Adrienne’s right that novels like Anathem and Nation are the work of writers who have come fully into their own voices, but I find Paul’s skepticism over Anathem’s revolutionary nature convincing, despite my earlier comments. Believe it or not, Paul, I’d actually thought about comparing it to Dhalgren in my original post, but I think you’re correct in noting that Dhalgren really seemed to upset people in the ’70s in a way that Anathem doesn’t.

Maybe there really wasn’t a revolutionary SF book last year, and as Russell points out, maybe “revolutionary” here is more a metaphor than a literal application of Kuhnian ideas. But I do think there have been books and stories that stimulated other writers to rethink the ways in which SF could be written. I think Heinlein did this a long time ago, and Greg Egan more recently.

Gary K. Wolfe

9 thoughts on “Gary K. Wolfe: Reconsidering

  • February 11, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Hi Gary

    First full disclosure for this comment: You and I talk regularly, and we’ve talked about both best of the year lists and this blog, so there’s obviously some background to any comment I make.

    I had an opportunity to peek at some of the round table posts before they went live, and have been reading them as they go live. I think the basic idea is a terrific thing, but there’s something that I think is missing.

    From the start of this round table there’s been reference to discomfort with year’s end lists, hesitation about gate keeper roles and so on. I can see that those points are valid. The meaningfulness of a year’s best list is definitely questionable, and discomfort at compiling them is understandable, though some of that may come from having just done something similar for Locus itself.

    However I feel that discussion obscures an important point, and one that I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned here. Awards, year’s best anthologies, end-of-year lists and discussions like this one are part of how our community functions. They are part of how we define and celebrate ourselves and our genre. In a sense whether an award or list gets it right or not in any individual instance is less important than the fact that the celebration occurs, that we come together and discuss what’s important and good and interesting and fun about our field, and that we recognise one another as part of that community.

    What I’ve not really gotten much feeling for, in this discussion of importance of works, of concerns about omissions, of Kuhnian this and that is any real sense of fun, of joy. There have been valuable insights, worthwhile comments, interesting observations, but I want to ask all of the participants in the round table a question: did you have fun? All of you read a LOT of genre fiction, spend a lot of time thinking about it, talking about it, and writing about it. Did any of it bring any joy to your reading life during 2008? If so, what were those books? I’d love to hear from anyone about the books they actually LOVED during the year.

    As fair turnabout, reading was a bit of a slog for me in 2008, but there were still a small handful of books I loved during the year. I could make cases for their importance, their quality and so on, but I really loved The Graveyard Book, Nation, and a bunch of others. What about you guys?


  • February 12, 2009 at 3:04 am

    Jonathan, you couldn’t see me giggling away as I typed “pseudo-Kuhnian.” Most fun I’ve had since explaining the distinction between homoousion and homoiousion to a couple of earnest young visiting missionaries.

    Of course I had fun reading for reviews last year–it’s the only reason to put up with deadlines. I enjoy following my favorite writers so much that it’s hard to get around new writers. And I don’t even get to read all my established favorites–I didn’t get a shot at Anathem, for example, or the last several Paul McAuley or Greg Bear novels.

    I do, however, appreciate the editorial nudging that results in my taking on Spider Star or Little Brother or The Steel Remains, and I was happy to return to Iain M. Banks and Alistair Reynolds. The only problem I have is finding time to read outside SF/F–there’s a tottering stack of mysteries and and historical novels and books on naval and music history, plus the sections of The New Yorker I don’t get to. . . .

    So what did I flat-out enjoy? Just about everything I reviewed, even the items with which I eventually found some flaw or shortcoming. After all, I finished them, and I don’t have time to finish books that don’t hold my interest. On the other hand, if I did not have a column to write and maintained a single reading queue, some of these titles might have found themselves in line behind a Reginald Hill or Martin Cruz Smith or Carl Hiaasen, or maybe I would have gotten all the way through Arthur Herman’s To Rule the Waves.

  • February 12, 2009 at 4:04 am

    Jonathan, your point about community is perceptive, as usual, and your question about which books we loved changes the terms of discussion in a much more personal way. For one thing, it obviates the illusion of objectivity that “best” implies; one doesn’t need excuses for loving a book, but claiming that it’s just better than other books published during the year seems to demand a set of criteria, like those incomprehensible “points” awarded by judges of Olympic skating or gymnastic events.

    So, thus freed of accountability, I’m happy to report that some books which continue to haunt me long after reading them include a couple of titles not yet mentioned here, such as Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow year or Chris Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing, as well as a couple of titles that have been mentioned a bit, like The Graveyard Book or Lanagan’s Tender Morsels. It rather surprises me that these tend toward fantasy, since I don’t think of myself as much of a fantasy reader. I remain enormously impressed by Bacigalupi’s Pump Six And Other Stories, though I doubt that even Paolo would claim this as a book that’s easy to love. I also admire Bear’s City at the End of Time and Anathem, although I wonder, as I think Michael Dirda did in his review, if this will end up as a novel more admired than loved.

  • February 12, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    From the start of this round table there’s been reference to discomfort with year’s end lists, hesitation about gate keeper roles and so on. I can see that those points are valid.

    Valid but uninteresting. Everyone is already aware of these issues and, as Jonathan says, what is lacking at the moment is the informality and fun that characterises the best blogs. (Of course, I couldn’t see Russell giggling behind his screen…)

    I do, however, appreciate the editorial nudging that results in my taking on Spider Star or Little Brother or The Steel Remains,

    I notice The Steel Remains didn’t make it on to the Locus Recommended Reading List despite you and Graham Sleight clearly liking it and it being a well received novel by a major writer. Was there a particular reason for this? Did it just not gather enough votes?

  • February 12, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Oh, and comment moderation really kills the spontaneity of a blog. Anti-spam measures are one thing but this is really overkill and stiffles discussion.

    As a compromise couldn’t you just moderate the first comment from an account and then allow further comments unmoderated?

  • February 12, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    Everything: At this stage the blog is a kind of hybrid–the initial entries (which are still being posted) were developed off-stage as starters. Thus the relative formality of the writing (we had time to draft and revise and respond to each other in a linear fashion) and reduced sense of give and take. I’m not sure about the precise degree of moderation, but my impression is that it is miminal. (The moderators have a magazine to put out.)

    Re: The Steel Remains. If I understand the protocols correctly, it took N votes to get on the Recommended list, and that book didn’t get N. This can be a matter of not enough voters having read a title. I found the book interesting but not, perhaps, appealing enough to make me want to read the rest of the sequence. I am told that it has done very well in the UK, which means that I will probably feel I ought to try out the next volume. But I have a limited tolerance for the kind of violence that seems central to this series’ vision, so it’s a race between my interest in Morgan and my squeamishness.

  • February 12, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    To my (albeit limited) knowledge, Blogger (which we use) doesn’t offer a way to authorize an ID for future unmoderated comments — the options are moderate all or nothing.

    But I will look into it.

  • February 13, 2009 at 1:33 am

    I think what I would prefer is either a format that better supports all of this nattering and prevarication or, quite frankly, that you stop showing your thought processes, and just do what this roundtable is supposedly supposed to do: analyze what you thought were the best books of the year. In other words: This is not about you. It’s about the books.


    Jeff VanderMeer


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