(A section of Karel Thole’s cover for the 1962 Italian edition of Starman’s Quest (1958), Robert Silverberg)
1. MAPPING A TERRITORY
As a trained historian, I am fascinating by the process of “knowing” and “mapping” a period in time. I am possessed by my own ambitions of encyclopedism and particularly enjoy the theme of encyclopedism within fiction—lists of invented articles, books comprised of collated knowledge, even Dune (1965) and its obsession with shifting between all perspectives. To steal a phrase from a recent book I reviewed, I relish in the act of creating a “morphology” of science fiction and its variables. Let me be clear, I am a believer in the process, not the possibility of such dreams actualized. The latter is impossible… But the journey across the inclines and declines beckons.
2. FICTION AS HISTORICAL OBJECT
Unsurprisingly, I have favorite historical periods and themes. For example, cracks in 50s visions of suburban existence, demystifying the space race, the Civil Rights movement, the 70s political backlash… By extension, the SF produced in those periods holds special appeal. Many of the themes prevalent in late 60s SF tended to look inward (inner space!). Years ago for a SF Signal post I was asked to come up with an author blurb. Looking back at it a particular line stands out: “When SF tackles the greater morass of things and our oblique interiors he is happy.” This continues to hold through as I devour SF interested in exploring memory and trauma….
We must consider literary works within their particular contexts. Too often SF is dismissed as “no longer relevant” which suggests a variety of shoddy conclusions: 1) reviewers tend to equate value with whether or not social speculation or scientific invention has come to pass ignoring the historical context in which it was produced.2) reviewers thus assume a monolithic purpose of the genre — to “predict” 3) reviewers assume readers engage with fiction for the previous reason alone.
Language is a social project. A keen reader will be aware of the society that spawned a particular vision… A particularly good piece of SF cannot be passed off as “timeless.” Personally, piecing together the historical context and engagement with the trends of the time must be part of the critical reading experience.
3. FUCK PREDICTION
I care absolutely nothing about science fiction as a predictive vision. Most cover blurbs and authors might doll up their vision as “possible” or “potential” but it’s mostly window dressing a story. This is not to say that some authors deeply aware of the currents of modern scientific thought and constrain their speculations within reason. As with film adaptation, the author must reinvent by translating one medium to another (speculation to narrative). The speculation could be satire, the speculation could be commentary on the author’s present, the speculation could be a warning…. Returning to point 2, historical context matters! The historical context created a particular speculation—I, viewing the past, do not judge merit based on what has coincidentally come to pass.
4. I DON’T WANT TO ENCOUNTER ONLY ME (white, ~30, middle class, Ph.D.)!
I read SF because of different perspectives. I try not to dismiss a book because I somehow didn’t “feel” for or connect at a personal level with the “struggle” of a character. I read BECAUSE people think differently, act differently, and have different backgrounds than me. I do not read to find copies of ME or some younger idealized polyp of me that never existed in a story. A deep joy emanates from within when SF welcomes authors from all backgrounds, takes on challenging and morally conflicted characters, speculates on radical future changes, tackles our own society’s challenges via the SF lens… This does NOT mean that characters don’t need to be well written or convincing—they must be to create a compelling vision.
I will not ruminate alone, desperate to re-conjure some nostalgic glow when I first opened the brittle pages of a “classic” lost in a move long ago. I relish how SF was and will be reworked, reconceived, reapplied.
(to be blunt: I’m bludgeoning attacks on diversity in SF and arguments about SF needing to return to a Golden Age)
(Uncredited cover for the 1970 edition of Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967), Clifford Simak)
5. THE WAY OF TELLING
I’m also drawn to the 60s/70s because there was a serious and conscience attempt to tell stories in artful ways: “literary” prose, radical structure/politics, non-standard SF characters/perspectives. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But it’s all fascinating.
6. READING IS ACTIVE
I read to think. I do not read to sink into some comatose state. This is all to say, a plot and three fascinating ideas do not a novel make. I must be able to actively engage with the ideas, the characters, the world.
7. THERE IS NO GOLDEN AGE (sort of?) (hyperbole?)
A lot of readers of my site suggest in their comments that I must adhere to some sort of “all current SF is crud” and that is why Joachim Boaz sticks to his decades… I confess, I might have hinted at this in the past—snide comments aimed at the 80s occasionally crop up! But, there is plenty of fascinating SF published today (and yes, in the 80s as well). And I read some of it, secretly, under pillows, in closets. I am not trying to promote a Golden Age Syndrome of the glorious past, the decadent present, and apocalyptical “we must prevent the end” of “real” genre. I call bogus. We can (absolutely) prefer and admire particular decades over others.
Thoughts? Comments? Tangents? All are welcome.
(Cover by the Brothers Quay for the 1977 edition of A Scanner Darkly (1977), Philip K. Dick)
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