Tuesday, October 29, 2013

In lieu of a review of Justine Larbalestier's Daughters of Earth

This past weekend I wrote a long long long long long long long long long review of Justine Larbalestier's Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, but I've decided not to post it. Daughters is a collection of eleven stories by women published between 1927 and 2002, nearly all marvelous, some revelatory, few often reprinted; all originally published in venues right at the heart of what is often, alas, called "genre sf"--which is to say, that portion of the field whose history began decisively with Hugo Gernsback's 1926 founding of Amazing Stories and which has always been commonly assumed primarily male. By collecting these stories, utterly essential to any clear understanding of this field's history, Larbalestier has conclusively proven that women's contributions to the field are and always have been central; anyone who tries to argue otherwise after reading the stories collected here can, as far as I'm concerned, be wholly dismissed as a particularly active misogynist. For this alone--and, something we should not lose sight of, for the sheer quality of the stories themselves--the anthology is vital, essential, indispensable; and we are all forever in Larbalestier's debt.

But the book is something else, too; and here there's a problem. Each of the eleven stories is followed by a critical essay about it, its author, and the place of both in the life and history of the field. A wonderful idea! But unfortunately, with the exception of an excellent essay by Andrea Hairston (on Octavia E. Butler and her "The Evening and the Morning and the Night"), a crucial one by L. Timmel Duchamp (on Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See"), and a decently useful one by Joan Haran (on Pat Murphy's "Rachel in Love"), the essays are…well. The reason I am not posting the review I wrote (which I wrote in a seven-hour cathartic fury) is that it feels distasteful, to put it mildly, for me to be so lengthily and thoroughly mean about what is at base a noble enterprise and an important book, but I can't in good conscience say anything publicly about Daughters without acknowledging that the other eight essays are at best pointless, and at worst radically, irresponsibly inadequate to the incredible stories they purport to be about, distorting their subjects beyond all recognition while focusing on misreadings, trivial game-playing, and a surprisingly timid and apologetic brand of academic feminism.

So in lieu of that scathing review, four or five times as long as this post, I offer this.

Looking at the list I keep of books I need to ask my academic librarian friend to request for me (pro tip: always have an obliging friend with access to an academic library), I was reminded that the new critical anthology Parabolas of Science Fiction, which I've been interested to read, was edited by Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger--both of whom, having read their contributions to Larbalestier's anthology, I now have reason to be suspicious of. With that in mind I recalled Paul Kincaid's recent Strange Horizons review of Parabolas, which--as seems usually to be the case with Kincaid's writing--both intrigued and kind of vaguely, but strongly, irked me. And with that, I think something kind of clicked for me.

If there's one thing the bad critics in Daughters of Earth have in common, it's a bizarre inability (or unwillingness) actually to read a story when it's in front of them--a common enough problem to be sure, but one that is thrown into sharp relief by a book with the format Daughters has, in which each essay is preceded by the story it claims to be about, and in general creates an illusion of comprehensiveness, authoritativeness.* Some of the time my differences from these critics could be ascribed to differences of interpretation (many of which are in turn caused by profound "philosophical" differences, I suppose you could call them), but many are far less arguable; I'm talking about basic failures of reading comprehension.

*In this case the presence in the same anthology of the superb essays by Hairston and Duchamp, excellent readers both, also helps make the problem starkly visible. (It occurs to me, incidentally, that Duchamp's essay in particular could be said to be about, at least in part, the issues I try to raise here.)

Meanwhile, I think the source of my irritation with Kincaid's review (and not yet having read Parabolas I don't know whether to ascribe this to the book or to the reviewer; either way I'm speaking of a general tendency, not trying to excoriate a specific target) is that, while it to my mind correctly identifies one of the primary elements that makes the concept of "genre" as usually understood today inadequate to an investigation of sf--roughly, that sf has no required "plot" elements whatsoever--it nevertheless immediately sets about creating a scheme in which sf stories can be charted, classified, and defined according to their plots, a scheme in which what is most important about sf stories is not what they individually do* but how much they can be considered to be the same as one another. And while there is much that follows in Kincaid's essay that I agree with or find provocative, it is all colored by this almost unaware insistence on determinism and categorization, so much at odds with so much that Kincaid--and/or Attebery and Hollinger--seem to want to do.

*Which, given the variability of "plot" in sf and its being inessential to making a work sf, perhaps it might be fruitful to look elsewhere when considering what these stories do. Kincaid points out that those stories we typically think of as genre are "closed" (I would argue in an analogous fashion to how the stories we typically think of as "realist" are closed), sf "opens to infinity" (I would argue in an analogous fashion to how modernist work, at least as I understand the term, can do; I would also say that Kincaid's formulation desperately calls out for a "potentially").

It's not that I think one should never write about sf in general (as I have been known to do myself!), but rather that I think the usual way of doing so is nothing more or less than a panicked retreat from the individuality of the story at hand. Schemes like the one in Parabolas, at least as Kincaid describes it, are totalizing; once you've developed one, you can fit literally anything into it--but only at the cost of doing severe violence to any story that's actually worth reading. And this, I suspect, is in large part why the critics in Daughters of Earth are so often unable simply to read what's in front of them; they are so busy trying to force their chosen stories into a pre-made mold, "this is what (in this case feminist) science fiction is and does," they are so sure that they know what a story says before they've even read it, that they lose all sight of the fact that they are at any given time reading one individual story--and thus become unable, in fact, to do that.

There are things that all sf stories do, else they would not be sf stories (much in the same way that there are things that all poems do, all plays do, etc.); whether these things can ever be definitively enumerated, I have my doubts. Most of the criticism I see in our field is devoted primarily either to rote (and usually inaccurate) taxonomy, to prescriptivism, or both. And while I'm sure I myself fall into this pattern more often than I'd like (real criticism, like real fiction, is hard to do, is a struggle), both tendencies are incredibly damaging, especially insofar as they forget that there is anything more to a story than its "plot"--plot itself, though important in its way, being a bizarrely abstract notion that gets far too much attention in our neck of the woods. To be sure, the large majority of our fiction writers gleefully slot themselves into all these predetermined plot forms (most especially, these days at least, the obligatory mystery plot), but the extent to which a writer does this is precisely the extent to which that writer is not worth our time.*

*This goes too for those writers who can too-easily be described as "subverting tropes" or "upsetting genre norms"--because a subverted trope is still a trope, an upset norm still a norm.

I see very little sense in our field of what anybody thinks they're doing, or why. What is all this busy-ness? What is all this writing? What is all this science and technology? What is this "future," this "alternate" past or present? Why are we talking to each other? What are we talking about? When I'm reading a story, what am I doing and what is in front of me?

I don't know, I think this post has turned into more of a ranting ramble (rantble?) than I'm happy with, and I have no conclusions to draw. But I think the things I'm trying to talk about here, the questions I'm asking, are far more my problem with the kind of criticism I found in most of the essays in Daughters of Earth, with the kind I suspect I'll find in Parabolas of Science Fiction, than any of the specific complaints I went on about in my unpublished review. The essays might engage in weirdly drastic misreadings, might draw conclusions I find silly or irresponsible, but at base my question for the essayists is Why are you doing this?, and my problem is that I doubt most of them could answer it--or, rather, since I'm not sure I could truly "answer" it myself, not sure it has an "answer": I doubt many of them could understand the question, could feel the necessity of its being asked.

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