Graham Sleight: Take It Back?

Gary’s post lays out the ground as clearly and even-handedly as he always does. I’d like to tackle three pieces of meta-discussion before getting down to the specifics of 2008. First of all, Gary asks in his second paragraph what it is that legitimises us, or anyone else, to produce a year’s best list. I’d like to add another question: what are these lists for? And why, indeed, do we like lists so much? Book lists, particularly when handed down with the aura of authority, are a tool for canonisation—one among many, to be sure, along with awards, recognition by the critical/academic community, commercial success, and so on. And however much a canon may be negotiated—may be shaped by the sort of social/political forces described in (say) How to Suppress Women’s Writing—it will very often look absolute. Here are the elect (it says), the works that you need to worry about; you don’t need to be concerned with anything else. Which is unfortunate, to put it mildly. Any act of naming or selecting creates that sort of binary world, whereas the edges (the books that just made it, or just didn’t) are actually far fuzzier. So that becomes caveat 1. And a resulting question for the readers of this blog—do you find year’s best lists useful? If so, why?…

The second bit of meta is related. I know that, the first time I saw Harold Bloom’s Western Canon list, I had a kind of vertigo: was there time to read all of the books there even in a lifetime? The Locus list is of course both less extensive and with fewer claims to absolute value. But I guess the same proviso applies to it as to Bloom’s: the raw list needs to be read in conjunction with the comments of the people who compiled it. That way, you can get far more of a nuanced sense of what we individually think is valuable on the list and why.

And the last meta issue—to start, at last, to get down to specifics—to do with “SF”. I’m not going to get into a definitional debate, because there’s almost nothing guaranteed to sap the joy from my soul so quickly. But I’d like gently to challenge Gary’s notion that there is a unitary thing that we can think of as core SF, and that works can be registered (however imprecisely) by how close they are to that core. (This is an argument implicit in many of the pieces in Gary’s book Soundings where he comes closer than he does here to identifying hard SF as that from which other SF skews.

But you might just as easily argue that SF has a whole set of interpenetrating traditions, and that (looking at 2008) different works represent many of them. So, for instance, Stephen Baxter’s Flood takes forward the Clarke tradition of the scientific romance, with images of the absolute—I won’t say what, exactly, but the spoiler’s in the title—that humanity can do precious little about. I’ve expressed elsewhere my reservations about the cost of Baxter’s methods, and was happy to find after the fact that I’d been making similar points to those Susan Sontag had in “The Imagination of Disaster”—I’ll hope to make a separate blog post about that here soon.

Or you might look at the entirely different tradition of planet-hopping space adventure, in which case McAuley’s The Quiet War (Gollancz S.F.) The Quiet War would be worth talking about, but so would Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit. It’s a colourful, densely argued story of diplomacy, betrayal, power, gender, building on the arguments and approach of her earlier Aleutian trilogy.

Or there’s political SF, which had both Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Paolo Bacigalupi’s collection Pump Six and Other Stories as prominent representatives—both vehemently arguing against where the status quo seems to be taking us, and both sitting in the tradition of if-this-goes-on polemics with antecedents in, say, Heinlein and Huxley.

I could go on, but the general point is there: any story can be seen as the latest iteration of all the traditions it comes from. But the odd thing is, the more I read, the more I find myself valuing a distinctive voice over other virtues in a book. SF has traditionally been a stylistically conservative genre—people like Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon were very much the exception. For that reason—though I still have problems with its switchback structure, which does exactly the wrong things to its pacing—the most interesting SF novel I read this year was Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World. It was in dialogue with SF, but with a whole lot else as well; and it sounded like there was someone real on the other end of the line.

Graham Sleight

4 thoughts on “Graham Sleight: Take It Back?

  • February 8, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    I’ve always felt science fiction was about an effect on the reader, like the romance or the horror story, so for me that work is most science fictional which elicits in me the science fictional feeling. I assume it’s an asymptotic relation, which is good because if the “goal” could be achieved, perhaps I would sublime right into the ether, or some such transcendance.

    Anyway, I guess then I believe science fiction is personal, which is why it’s hard to define and difficult to identify the “real stuff” even though we all know what we’re talking about when we say “science fiction” and we all know what is science fiction, what isn’t science fiction, and what is more science fictiony than other stuff.

    Talking about feelings is hard.

    Robert Brown

  • February 8, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Genre definitions, and efforts at genre canonicity, also are problematic in that they tend to exclude from Year’s Best and similar lists fine SF and fantasy texts that just happen to emanate from “outside” the genre. In my view, three of the very best spec-fic novels of 2008 were Peter Ackroyd’s *The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein* (SF/horror), Andrew Crumey’s *Sputnik Caledonia* (SF/alternate history) and John Harwood’s *The Seance* (SF/supernatural fiction). And Steven Millhauser’s *Dangerous Laughter* was one of the best collections. Yet rarely, if at all, have they come up in discussion.

  • February 8, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    Robert: I’m a bit worried about effect-based criteria for what defines good sf, because it tends to give you a very narrow idea of what makes goodness – a bit more on this here.

    Nick: I have to confess to not having read the works you mention, though I’ve found myself allergic to latter-days Ackroyd fiction since about First Light/English Music. But I do read quite a bit round the edges of the genre (hence the Harkaway mention), and would certainly agree that much interesting work is happening on the margins of the genre.

  • February 11, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    At least in my corner of the world I’ve seen mention of Sputnik Caledonia and it was submitted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. I’ve not picked it up myself because I didn’t care for Mobius Dick. I also wasn’t tempted to pick up The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein because I have seen nothing but uniformly bad reviews for it. As Graham suggests there is a wide perception that Ackroyd has lost it. The Seance is new to me but I’m not surprised a pastiche Victorian ghost story hasn’t garnered much attention in the genre.


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