Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Itzkoff Rides Again!

He's back....

The second "Across the Universe" column appeared in the New York Times Book Review this weekend. The good news is that Dave Itzkoff got a whole page to write about SF. The bad news is that he used up all of that space on Nebula Awards Showcase 2006, a nice book to be sure but essentially a very delayed "Best Stories of 2004" anthology. One could have wished for reviews of some current novels, perhaps.

Minor points:
  • He seems to think SFWA is a "literary society." Dave, if you're out there: SFWA is the union for SF/Fantasy writers, more or less. The World Science Fiction Society is a literary society; maybe that's what you were thinking of.
  • He mentions reading Steph Swainston's acclaimed The Year of Our War, thus showing me up for saying he didn't read current stuff. I do shed a tear, though, when I think how much his fellow bus-riders must have pointed and laughed when they saw him reading it.
  • He responds to Matthew Cheney, one of his online critics, in a very ill-advised move. Cheney has already said this, but Itzkoff needs to remember that he is the SF reviewer for a major metropolitan daily, while we are scruffy, ill-favored brutes taking pot-shots at things because it amuses us. Admitting we even exist is the wrong strategy.
  • He hasn't learned the secret that "Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America" condenses down to the one-F'ed SFWA, but that is very non-obvious.
  • I'd bet a large sum of money that the previous SF reviewer for the Times, Gerald Jonas, never expressed his love for the work of Anne McCaffrey in public. Itzkoff may turn out to be just the right kind of middle-brow for this job. (There! I knew I could say something nice about him.)
  • I have nothing snarky to say about his take on Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Embracing-the-New," possibly because I no longer clearly remember that story.
But what I mostly want to talk about is how one word of this review tripped me up -- one word, in the ninth line, which sent me headlong and left me to wonder if Itzkoff understands SF at all. (And that's really what you expected from me anyway, right?)

That word is "surreal," and it's how Itzkoff describes Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State," a novella about a minor-league Singularity in the US south only a decade or two hence. Now, this could be just a poor word choice, but it looks like Itzkoff has taken the very specific, very SFnal extrapolations of "The Voluntary State" for mere local color -- as being bizarre images chosen simply for their imagistic power. That he leads into his discussion of "The Voluntary State" by declaring he wants to give it an award for "striking literary imagery" also causes me to believe he's merely reacting to the surface of the story. Itzkoff, in fact, rapidly runs away from any literal reading of events in "The Voluntary State" and retreats to the more mainstream-friendly realm of metaphor. The metaphors he reads out of this story -- and out of the entire collection -- are the usual Baby-Boomer nostalgia trip; in fact, he makes SF itself his own private metaphor for his own lost youth here. That's all right for him, but what does it have to do with the stories?

To backtrack slightly, "The Voluntary State" is not surrealist at all; it aims to depict a real, plausible near-future, albeit one filled with strange and unsettling entities and artifacts. All of the oddities of the story are purposeful -- not just artistically purposeful, but purposeful within the context of the story's invented world. It's not quite clear whether Itzkoff has missed this, but he certainly seems to be calling attention away from it. He doesn't mention the Singularity, the mission of the story's heroes to thwart this new local god, or any of the actual SFnal meat of the story, so it's hard to say whether or not he even noticed it to begin with.

He also seems to have heard about Judith Berman's now-famous essay "Science Fiction Without the Future," but not to have actually read it and to be misreading Berman's essential point. (In fact, there's a case to be made that Itzkoff is yet another SF-reading Boomer who is obsessed with his own mortality and the "lost promise" of Golden Age SF -- another instance of the problem, rather than the solution.)

I think Itzkoff needs a crash course in the ways SF concretizes metaphors. He's good on the metaphors themselves, but he has a tendency to read everything as metaphor, and to thus miss the actual, surface-level SFnal speculation going on. Perhaps we can work him up a care package of Chip Delany essays?

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