Year's Best Reviews and their Effects on Reviewers

It is well past time for any new comments on Paul Kincaid’s “The Widening Gyre” or Jonathan McCalmont’s response to such, “Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future.” However, I’ve been reading one of Damon Knight’s collections of criticism, In Search of Wonder, and came across the following gems. They come back-to-back-to-back in a chapter on Anthologies, discussing the first three Judith Merrill S-F, the Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy anthologies. (Pardon the typos, as these excerpts are all transcribed, not pasted.) Starting with 1955:

Readers of Miss Merril’s previous anthologies already know that her taste is unfaltering […] Taken altogether, the eighteen stories (and the eighty honorable mentions in the back of the book) give an intriguing picture of science fiction, 1955. The spread of subjects is rather small: there are six space stories, three about robots or androids, two each about psi phenomena and supermen, and a scattering of others: but no cataclysm stories, no dangerous inventions, no time travel. The range of periods is correspondingly small: one story takes place in the past, the rest either in the present or the comparatively near future.

[…] the one thing that most of these stories have in common is their tragic mood. Miss Merril worked hard to keep this from overbalancing the collection I know–one of the year’s best but most dismal stories had to be jettisoned on that account–and yet all but seven of the stories [out of eighteen] that were finally chosen give a dominant impression of sadness […]

I have the feeling that in spite of itself, science fiction is pulling in its horns. In these stories, we are visited three times by beings from else-where, but our own far traveling is limited to wistful glimpses of distant worlds […] The flow of technological marvels has dried up. Of the eleven stories which make some use of the familiar “world of tomorrow” background, only one–Asimov’s–explores the consequences of a new invention; the rest merely postulate the usual equipment, spaceships, robots or what have you, and go on from there.

In the space stories, the sense of destination is lacking. Sturgeon’s “Bulkhead” takes place in a spaceship, but it might just as well have been a psychoanalyst’s broom closet. Gone is the exuberance with which, in the thirties, writers peopled far planets with fascinatingly cockeyed life forms. Modern astronomy is no doubt partly responsible for this, but certainly there has been a change of mood among the writers, too. There was a lightheartedness in the way prewar writers used to destroy the Earth by solar flares, invasions, earthquakes or inundation; but stories like “The Hoofer” [Walter M. Miller] and “The Cave of Night” [James Gunn] seem to suggest a feeling that nothing so fortunate is likely to happen.

I am far from wishing to suggest that all this is evidence of the desperate plight of our times: to the contrary, science fiction was never more romantic and outward-looking that in the Depression years. What it does prove, if anything, is the desperate (and traditional) plight of writers.

Then for the same anthology covering 1956:

It may be that science fiction, which looks so flourishing, is coming to the end of its cycle. I crib this notion from Walter Kerr, who thinks our disillusionment with technological progress has already doomed out present theater, with its naturalistic conventions and its preoccupation with ideas drawn from science.

Maybe the same thing is happening to science fiction. Of the fifteen stories in this collection, three are upbeat in tone […] The rest range from mild, almost cheerful pessimism […] to the unrelieved gloom of my own “Stranger Station.”

Knight defends his own gloominess thus:

(I have been writing gloomy stories for years, in a reaction against the silly convention that ruled in the magazines when I was a pup, that all stories must have happy endings. But I think a convention of gloom is just as silly as the other one, and you may expect me to turn optimist just as soon as I can retool for it.)

But that doesn’t stop him from going on:

The point is not so much that the people in these stories come to sticky ends; I’m used to that. But never before have the futures imagined by sf writers seemed to me so thoroughly dismal.

A little of this goes perhaps a longer way that we have been realizing. All right, our confidence in the future has slipped a little, for good reasons, in the last decade; all right, science fiction is among other things a literature of escape and of protest: but surely we don’t have to bang the same drum all the time.

Then we move on to the 1959 volume:

More and more during the last ten years, the field has come to be dominated by writers who are interested in s.f. chiefly as a convenient vehicle.

Hardened old addicts have been watching this change a little dubiously. In style, depth of character, and other literary values, the new work is superior (that is to say, the top tenth of it–the remainder, according to Sturgeon’s Rule, is, was and will be crud). But what we used to regard as the essential thing in s.f.–the technical idea, rigorously and imaginatively worked out–is almost as passe as the pure deductive element in the mystery novel.

This is dramatically shown by the contents of Judith Merril’s fourth annual SF, the Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy. The thirteen s.f. and fantasy stories are of high quality; but there is not one new s.f. idea in the book, unless you count Avram Davidson’s madly ingenious notion about the life-cycle of the bisexual bicycle.

[…] As I noted earlier, “Casey Agonistes” by Richard M. McKenna, and “Space-Time for Springers” by Fritz Leiber, seem to me the strongest stories in the book. Both are pure fantasy. Almost invariably, where an s.f. gimmick appears in the other stories, it does so with an air of intrusion, and the story is weakened by it.

What we are calling “s.f.,” it seems to me, is at an awkward transitional stage. Either that, or (more hopefully), the field has drifted as far as it can go in the direction of indifference to science, and in the next few years we can expect a resurgence of space stories written by people who can tell the moons from the comets.

Compare this with Kincaid in 2012:

THE OVERWHELMING SENSE ONE GETS, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion.

And McCalmont:

I think that science fiction has lost interest in the world and fallen out of step with the times resulting in the emergence of a narcissistic and inward-looking literature devoid of both relevance and vitality.

Consider that the years 1955-1959 were only 10-15 years before landing on the moon, and that Judith Merril’s later anthologies are now considered to be critical to the development of the New Wave.

Having done the year’s best review circuit myself, I can empathize with the feeling of exhaustion and despair it can engender in the reviewer, especially in Paul’s case when he had to review three at once. I once had to review two for one column, and afterwards the editor apologized and promised that I could review novels for the rest of the year.

Still, if 10 years after Knight had his despair we landed on the Moon and started the New Wave (the period on which Kincaid and McCalmont look back nostalgically, as Knight looks nostalgically on the thirties), then I expect great things from NASA and SFWA no later than 2025.

P.S. In Search of Wonder is a book that the late Charles N. Brown more-or-less forced me to buy at the 2008 WorldCon in Denver. I caught up to him in the dealer’s room as he was heading back to the Locus table. He, in his power scooter then, quickly veered over to the NESFA table and started handing me book after book that I “needed to read.” I’m unashamed that I bought them all, and just I’m sorry that it took me until 2013 to start reading this Knight collection. It really is great and sheds a lot of perspective on sf literature (and debates about the same) over the years.

2 thoughts on “Year's Best Reviews and their Effects on Reviewers

  • May 8, 2013 at 6:23 am

    Indeed, the pessimist tradition is as old as the genre: we’re a literature of bright promise running alongside dark warnings.
    I favor “the technical idea, rigorously and imaginatively worked out” because that’s how you energize current and future thinking; it did so for me. Sf doesn’t just passively reflect its times, it can urge on the best in our futures–while warning all the time, too. Takes both legs to walk forward.

  • May 10, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    An interesting post–thanks, Karen.

    In 1994 in SFS, the critic Roger Luckhurst published a very interesting essay on this question–“The Many Deaths of Science Fiction.” Not to be missed.


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