Monday, March 06, 2006

A SF Reviewer Who Hates SF

The New York Times has found itself a new reviewer for science fiction: Dave Itzkoff. Itzkoff has so far written two pieces on SF, one in which he lists his favorite books in the field and his first review, of David Marusek's Counting Heads.

This has already caused quite a bit of comment: two letters to Locus so far, by Elizabeth Hand and Lucius Sorrentino; a post in Matthew Cheney's blog; a post on Emerald City; and one by Nick Mamatas (who can always be counted on to detest, in very strong language, whatever is going on). There's probably more commentary that I haven't seen yet.

Let's take Itzkoff's Top 10 Sci-Fi Books first:
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • Cat's Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
  • The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) by Thomas Pynchon
  • Gun, With Occasional Music: A Novel (1994) by Jonathan Lethem
  • Looking for Jake (2005) by China Mieville
  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick
  • R is for Rocket (1962) by Ray Bradbury
  • The Twilight Zone Companion (1982) by Marc Scott Zicree
  • Watchmen (1987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
We have three books by non-SF writers (Vonnegut, Burgess and Pynchon), all with moderate literary and huge undergraduate credibility. We have three solidly SF books that are already accepted by at least the Popular Culture departments of major universities, in Miller, Dick and Bradbury. We have a non-fiction book about a TV show. [Editorial Comment suppressed.] We have Watchmen, which has become "the good comic book" and seems to be doing double pop-culture duty here. And then we have two relatively recent books, neither of them the best of its author's work, by literarily respectable writers. (Mieville, though is actually much more of a fantasy or horror writer -- and Itzkoff doesn't seem to see or realize the difference.)

What's missing here? Everything. This is the "best of" list of the guy who read some SF in college, and didn't engage in it terribly deeply. Some people are jumping on his use of the dreaded "sci-fi," but that's common among those not indoctrinated by fandom. That doesn't, by itself, show that he's not a serious reader of the stuff -- the books he chooses to explain his taste do that.

And look at those dates: the bulk of the list is from 1959-1965. (But what's missing from those dates? No Dune, no Stranger in a Strange Land or Starship Troopers, no Delany, nobody that you would have to read deeply in SF to encounter.) Again, this is the college bull session reading list; the books that all the English majors in the dorm read in their spare time.

So, already we know this guy is going to be trouble. Gerald Jonas, the old Times SF reviewer, might have only had a little bit of space a few times a year (and he might have been overly fond of the most literary, experimental side of the field, at least in my opinion), but he knew the SFF world intimately, and he was a great reviewer (when the Times deigned to give him space.) But this new guy starts off by blowing smoke in our faces.

His first full-scale review, of Counting Heads (a wonderful book with a couple of major flaws of structure), is a masterpiece of wrong-headedness. He starts off by insisting that all contemporary SF is "so geeky," which will come as a surprise to the readers making David Weber, Anne McCaffrey, Harry Turtledove, John Ringo, Orson Scott Card and S.M. Stirling among the most popular writers in the field. His straw man hastily assembled, he then reminds us that he's the guy who still reads his college favorites on the subway (because he can't find any new good SF, presumably), and that this makes him a social outcast. Pity poor Itzkoff; Oprah-book readers look down on him.

(Cue choral version of "It's a proud and lonely thing to be a fan.")

Itzkoff wants to say that Counting Heads is worth reading, really he does. But, sadly, it is more like "a biology textbook or a stereo manual." Now, there are writers who lovingly catalog obsessive tiny details -- either to explain the specific science like the Analog crowd, to show off their geek-fu like Stephenson, or to revel in military techo-porn like [insert insult here] -- but Marusek doesn't write like that at all. Perhaps Itzkoff has not read enough SF to understand the process of incluing, so the details of the world (which are, of course, different from the world he lives in, since SF is a literature of change) confuse and sadden him.

It's Itzkoff's right to say that the people in Counting Heads didn't come alive for him (and he does finally get to that, after wandering off down a few rhetorical cul-de-sacs and having to cut his way free). I completely disagree with him, though, and I don't think anyone else who has read Counting Heads has had that criticism of it. I think he's saying that the people didn't come alive for him because he couldn't place them in their world; he couldn't figure out how things worked (he's massively misread this near-utopia as a satire), so these people, who fit so well into their world, don't seem real to him.

All in all, then, from the evidence of this review he just doesn't know how to read SF. That would usually be a fatal flaw for a dedicated SF reviewer, but not for the Times. Their book review section, under relatively new leadership, has been seemingly pursuing a policy of assigning a few books each week to the most biased or unqualified reviewers possible, with the aim of creating controversy. I guess it's possible that this seeming policy is purely the result of incompetence, but there seems to be a method behind it. Some of the results so far have been very funny, so perhaps I'm only complaining now because it's my ox being gored. But I don't think so: I think Itzkoff isn't quite right for the job either way. He's not outrageous enough to be the anti-SF reviewer, and he's clearly not qualified to actually review it straight.

Cheryl at Emerald City thinks Itzkoff was under orders not to say that SF can ever be worthy, but I don't buy that. It sounds like Cheryl is just engaging in our own SFnal cultural cringe -- God knows we've had reason for it, over the years, but I don't think the Times works that way.

Nick Mamatas, predictably, goes off on a rant about class. I think he's on to something in general, but blows it out of proportion. This isn't primarily about class; it's mostly about knowing how to read a SF text.

Matt Cheney also found Counting Heads geeky, which I didn't, so I may have unrealistically high standards for geekiness. (Stephenson is geeky, yes. Egan gets geeky sometimes, sure. But Counting Heads is an immersive novel -- none of the tech is paraded around to show off its coolness; it just exists and everyone in the world of the book takes it for granted. That's not geeky at all to me; geekiness is concentrating on the intrinsic cool-stuff-ness of the invented world.)

Elizabeth Hand's letter in Locus seems radically beside the point to me: Itzkoff, whatever he is, is not a committee, nor is he the Czar of Political Correctness. He likes the books he likes. We can infer things from that about him, but deploring that list because it is not Representative of the Diversity of Wimmin and Other Small Furry Woodland Creatures is just silly.

Lucius Sorrentino's letter to Locus is longer and better argued. I don't have any real problems with it, nor any snarky comments to make about it.

So, to sum up: the Grey Lady has a new sci-fi gun. And he doesn't know his territory at all. It might be interesting to see him flail around for a while, but having him reviewing SF won't be at all helpful for the genre.


Anonymous said...

I would agree with your assesement. I was terribly dissapointed in Dave's review - but I will be very interested in what he writes next, which I think will start to give a better idea of Dave's understanding (or lack thereof) of SF

A.R.Yngve said...

But what did you expect of the NY Times? You don't need the validation of a declining has-been newspaper that peaked some 40-50 years ago!

Just Ignore It. Spare yourself the headache.

Anonymous said...

Now you've annoyed me as much as the Times review did. Liz Hand's point about the lack of women on the list is well taken. It's not an issue of "political correctness" -- she isn't saying Itzkoff and other reviewers should read women writers because they're women and "it's the right thing to do." She's saying -- and I'm saying -- that anyone who creates a list of supposedly great SF without putting even one woman writer on it has not been paying attention.

Andrew Wheeler said...

nancy jane moore:

But that was exactly my point. Itzkoff did not create a list of "supposedly great SF;" he created a list of his favorite SF, which is a very different thing.

It's one thing to twit someone that his tastes are narrow and limited; that's what I was doing myself. But Hand went further than that, and seemed to call for pure gender equity in his reading preferences. That's what I found ludicrous.

The fact that he probably hasn't read any of the people Hand cited is just a small part of the larger problem: Itzkoff doesn't know the field at all. It's not that he just doesn't know the women; he doesn't know the Campbellian side, the New Wave, the Cyberpunks, the Space Opera resurgence -- he's uniformly unqalified.

Anonymous said...

Recently I've come across the point of view--on a couple of usenet posts specifically, but in other places over the years, less baldly stated--that ALL science fiction is satire. It seems to be the ploy a certain kind of reader uses to make the work "fit" with the general world. It is, unfortunately, a sadly shallow take on what Satire is, as well as a misreading of SF in general.

It reminds one of the world just prior to the Enlightenment (which is--I think understandably--much on the minds of a lot of SF writers lately) wherein the belief was common that nothing new was worth a damn. The Renaissance wasn't about opening the world to the new, it was about rediscovering the glories of a mythic past. People of a certain academic (self-determined) ilk like to think of themselves as somehow one with a Renaissance spirit. SF runs afoul of that consistently in its insistence that tomorrow will be different, possibly better, but that a lot of the Past will simply not pertain. It puts them off. (One of the reasons Dune seems to be a favorite in this crowd--its retro-feudalism, pre-Enlightenment alchemical nostalgia with a thin veneer of tech. Doesn't make it a bad book--quite the contrary--but it does concede certain aesthetic grounds a lot of SF rejects.)

So the TIMES has a literary geek reviewer a genre he can't understand because it doesn't worship the things he thinks are relevant. But he kind of likes it--else why read it?--even if his prejudices cause him to get it wrong. Why is anyone--if they are--surprised? These same folks probably don't "get" Darwin, Einstein, and certainly not Hawking.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest one additional possibilty - that Dick and Miller are much better writers than Heinlein and Herbert, and that in order to review books, including speculative fiction books, the reviewer should first of all be able to distinguish good literature from not so good, and prefer the good? Knowledge of SF is very useful for a reviewer of SF. Knowledge of literature in general is absolutely necessary - otherways he will be closed in a small circle of self-referencing works, unable to distinguish good from bad.

Andrew Wheeler said...

stanislaus b.:

This is a matter of taste, about which arguing is usually futile, but I have a hard time considering Dick's writing as superior to Heinlein's in any serious way. Don't get me wrong: I love Dick's stuff, but he wasn't a great prose stylist. Heinlein, on the other hand, was a master of smooth prose (so smooth, I think, that readers forget how much work went into it).

The Herbert vs. Miller argument is much stronger, though; I don't think there's much argument that Miller was a cleaner prose stylist than Herbert.

Still, I don't buy your argument. If Itzkoff were a pure "good writing" guy, I'd expect his favorites to 1) include Ted Sturgeon and 2) skew much more noticeably toward the moderns. His list still looks to me very tied to a particular time-period, and to a literarily-respectable strand of the SF world.

Anonymous said...

Stranger in a Strange Land was a mediocre novel that I think was mainly designed to get hippy girls to fuck old, decrepid Heinlein.

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