Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Cavalier History of Science Fiction

Science fiction* divides itself almost suspiciously neatly into decades, doesn't it? It seems so to me, at any rate. What follows is perhaps not to be taken immensely seriously as The One The Only Truth, and obviously there are always exceptions to any generalization (hence the name, "generalization"), but it is striking, no?

*I am speaking here, as I usually am, of the entity that named itself that: i.e., the field of literary endeavor (and, later, other media) that began in, then branched out from, the American magazines — which is not to say only American writers and only ever American magazines — including the novels and other books that eventually began to be published, and including also those semi-autonomous areas that defined themselves (explicitly or otherwise) in part or entirely as reactions against this field.

1910s-20s: Science fiction establishes itself as a distinct, self-aware entity. It finds itself in the pulps not by choice but by default.

1930s: Sf refines this self-image, establishes its own protocols separate from those of the rest of literature (including both the "mainstream", broadly defined, and other "genre" or "category" fiction), and accomodates itself (usually enthusiastically) to its pulp identity.

1940s: Further refinement, now in the form of channeling previously disparate strands into one specific path (i.e., Campbellian sf dominates both in and to a lesser extent out of Astounding, and either way Astounding dominates sf).

1950s: Explosion as that one path becomes increasingly untenable/exhausted.

1960s: Post-explosion burnout. Flailing, sometimes successful, attempts at rapprochement with the interests of the "mainstream" (including the "avant-garde").

1970s: Revolution(s).

1980s: Backlash leading to an ultimately successful counterrevolution.

1990s: Entrenchment of counterrevolutionary gains. Revolutionary impulses allowed expression as long as they are placed and contained within the larger counterrevolution.

And then 2000s-10s? What might be said of the current and previous decade? I'm tempted to say that they are essentially "the long 1990s." But they do have their own distinctive character, one defined perhaps... by contradictory urges toward amnesia and nostalgia? By a full and almost relieved embrace, at long last, of the devotion to formula implied by the word "genre"? By a vehement denial that there should or could be anything distinctive about sf beyond a suite of decontextualized and impoverished images, a denial that there exists any value apart from the "literary"? By a process some might call "evaporation" but which I would say is more like metastasis, by which sf has become inseparable from the mainstream?

The age of conquerors (not a term of praise) and inconsequential scribblers (not necessarily a term of disparagement), with nothing in between? Of fracturing over both arcane non-differences and genuine life-and-death matters, with little distinction made between the two? Of internationalism, in both its cooperative and imperialist forms? Of diversification, both for good ("inclusivity") and for ill (assimilation, "diversification" in the sense of a stock portfolio or a multinational corporation)?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Science fiction, "characters", and individualism

There's a pair of things that people say frequently. Often the same people, often in the same breath. And it's not so much that the two assertions are incompatible — indeed, they're both true, after a fashion — as that I wish the strangeness of their juxtaposition would make people think harder about what the two mean, to what extent they're true, and in what ways they might be incomplete. The two statements are:
  1. Traditional American sf is irresponsibly and chauvinistically beholden to individualist ideology, and
  2. Up until [year/decade/movement/writer/editor/magazine x], sf was no good at creating believable, complex characters; after the revolution in character portrayal brought about by x, the field became mature and worth reading.
Obviously there's a sense in which the two are easily compatible: the individualist (almost always white male) "hero" is neither believable nor complex. QED. But there is another sense, one which I for one feel much more deeply, in which they are antithetical. After all what is a "character" — or rather, what is a focus on the literary illusion that we call "character" — other than a demand for the sheerest individualism? I would go so far as to argue that "character" in fiction, as we currently understand it, emerged a handful of centuries back as one of the primary tools in the creation, even the enforcement of that poisonous individualism so central to western, modern, capitalist ideology. In this sense the move to character in sf is surely a move towards, not away from, individualism.

(This may be one reason why the British "New Wave," with its focus on the "exploration of inner space," is so eternally iffy to me.)

White, macho heroics are a central support in the structure that is the science fiction of the American magazine tradition, it's true. There's a great deal of profound ugliness there, a great deal of still-unreckoned culpability, and I wouldn't dream of denying it. But nothing is all one thing. And for a long time — since long before I could make even this kind of a beginning at articulating it — this sf tradition has been my refuge from the constant pounding of this ideological drum. Escapism perhaps, but sf has been one of the few areas of the culture in which I could find some respite, and maybe even the beginnings of an alternative.

What we for convenience call "characters" in the work of this tradition are usually nothing of the sort. To refer to some of my usual touchstones once more: think of the van Vogtian (supposed) "superman", who far from the juvenile power fantasy he is usually made out to be is much more the literal presence in the work of the reader's bewilderment upon encountering the work; or of what Joseph F. Patrouch referred to, pejoratively, as Isaac Asimov's "labels for different parts of the story machine"; or of the figures in Clare Winger Harris's stories, who exist for no purpose other than to spout glorious science-like nonsense and to partake in ritualized, curiously impersonal melodrama; or of the "characters" in Rendezvous with Rama, who simply show up when they are necessary and vanish when they are not. And almost at the precise beginning of this particular tradition stands (or floats) the entirely hypothetical observer to the etherless negative whirlpool in the first chapter/installment of Ralph 124C41+, who may not be real but certainly carries a pipe.

(This is to say nothing of the long and wonderful tradition, whose most noted practitioner is likely Stanisław Lem, of sf-without-characters, which apart from certain rigid formulas — the "list story," for example — has died down considerably in recent years but which continues, intermittently, in freer form to this day, in multiple media.)

These are not characters, in the sense that word typically carries. These are not concatenations of words and sentences and recurring patterns seeking to convince us that there exists somewhere beyond them some kind of a coherent, separate self — and to convince us thereby that this is what we are. Instead they are figures that exist in order to allow the work to unfold. They are "people" only in the sense that thinking minds must intrude in order for an unfolding to be an event;* in a sense they remind me of the Greek tragedy, at least as it is explicated for a contemporary anglophone audience by people like Gabriel Josipovici, who takes great pains to remind us that the mimesis Aristotle famously ascribed to tragedy is "not the imitation of human beings, it is the imitation of an action which involves human beings."

*Or vice versa? I'm uncertain of this phrasing.

I do not argue that all this is how these works have by and large been read. Obviously they have not, or if they have it has had little influence; one has only to look at the sleazily individualist and bigoted behavior of the larger chunk of the sf readership (and writership) for proof. Nor were all of these works "intended" this way. But they are legible in this way, with remarkable consistency; it is how I have read them, and how I have internalized them. And I have to think that it is at least in part some similar reading that drew to the field the very people who are so often claimed as both the innovators of "character" in sf and the revolutionaries who led the field away from individualism. People like Joanna Russ (whose We Who Are About To... is one of those [movement X] works that creates spectacularly successful characters, but which does so in order to stress that they are untenable), Octavia E. Butler (whose Kindred is "about" an individual primarily in the sense that the whole human context impinges on each of us, and whose Patternmaster revolves around "characters" just as masked, just as extrapersonal as any figure in Greek tragedy), and even Samuel R. Delany, who has sought more successfully than most to merge the better aspects of the bourgeois novel of character with the social- and object-focused aspects of sf. I have to think that it is in part some similar reading that made them, like me, think sf had created a new kind of space.

I am not headed toward any grand conclusion here. I simply would ask people to think about the assumptions that underlie the received opinions that get bandied about; to wonder if all the "literary character-based" sf we're bombarded with today is really an advance; to perhaps try to be open to alternate readings, and through these alternate readings to be open to different kinds of writing and what they might be doing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

In order to respond to Jonathan McCalmont

[Once, twice, three times an update]

Jonathan McCalmont's recent quartet of posts on short science fiction — first Short Fiction and the Feels and then the series on the first month of both Uncanny and Terraform — have been getting a lot of attention. In some ways I'm glad about this: I think he touches on many important points, and just in general I'm glad someone is taking a contentious look at the field as a whole. It's sorely needed. But in other ways I find the attention, and the lavish praise from some quarters (including many people I deeply respect), bewildering and frankly disturbing. Not because I disagree that the current state of the short science fiction field is unhealthy, but because McCalmont's arguments rest on many premises, and reach many conclusions, that I find profoundly compromised and often just plain wrong — sometimes obviously, sometimes less so. These problems are so tangled, so deeply intertwined even with the good points he makes, that to fully elucidate them would require almost a line-by-line close reading of all four posts, but to everyone's relief — not least my own — I don't have nearly the energy for that. So here instead is a sampling of some of the issues that, for me at least, would need to be dealt with before I would feel able to engage with any of the points he makes that I do find valuable.

In case this post comes to the attention of people other than my handful of regular readers (who know this already), I want to make one thing extremely clear up front: in saying all of this, I am not defending the short science fiction field as it stands; any presentation of this post as a vindication of the field against McCalmont's "attacks" would be a misuse of it. I'm at least as grumpy about the field as McCalmont is, and in some respects my take on it overlaps with his. But this does not mean I can accept his argument, either.

(In what follows I will be treating all four of McCalmont's posts as, essentially, one continuous work, and will jump around in them assuming an audience that has read them all. I will also be mainly free-associating, so my apologies for any formlessness.)

  • There being more work out there than anyone could ever read, more than could ever be effectively filtered and discussed, is hardly a problem unique to sf. It is in fact the situation of all literatures in this age of enormous populations and near-universal literacy, and no literature has really come to terms with it yet. This does not mean that there should not be discussions of the specific form the problem takes in the sf field, but it does mean that any discussion of it as a problem specific to sf, supposedly arising from causes intrinsic to the field and the people in it, is essentially a smear, not a discussion. (That said, let me be the first to point out that I have been guilty of similar smears, and may be again in the future. We're none of us perfect.)

  • I haven't read "We Are the Cloud" (and am unlikely to), but McCalmont's take on the problems with its "worldbuilding" just makes no sense — bears no relation to reality as I know it — as written. He complains that this "world’s economics are somewhat confusing as some characters wind up needing to hustle and sell off too much of their brain in order to stay alive despite the state evidently paying through the nose for their upkeep." Again I haven't read it and as such I am only responding to McCalmont's description and not the story itself, but if this is what the story presents it is not, as McCalmont asserts, a "lack of precision" but on the contrary a very precise portrayal of what life is like for the very poor and those otherwise at the margins (unassimilated gay and queer people, for example). That many will have to struggle to stay alive while the state pays through the nose for their upkeep is practically the definition of a capitalist welfare state!

    Meanwhile, his assertion that New York as a "decaying hell hole" is an "outdated future" out of 80s cyberpunk, "in which the privatisation of public space and the gentrification of down-at-heel neighbourhoods never happened," suggests that McCalmont thinks gentrification (and privatization) are ubiquitous, homogeneous across that ubiquity, and above all permanent. If he believes that, there are some crumbling, empty, very recently high-end condos that I pass by every day of my life that I'd like to sell him.

    And finally the mix of "mid-21st century" technology and a "clutter of games consoles and televisions" from the early 1990s that he objects to seems pretty closely equivalent to, say, the fact that I'm quoting him from my brand-new e-reader while writing on an almost twenty-year-old laptop and sitting next to a pile of records that were pressed before I was born, or that people of the generation after mine seem to be returning to tape cassettes of all things, or that I frequently see teenagers on tumblr obsessing over Deep Space Nine and The X-Files. This is, simply, how people live. "The future," when it comes and thus is the future no longer, does not replace (what is right now) "the present" and "the past," it stacks another layer on them. Which is, in fact, something (some) sf writers have long understood.

  • Indeed in general McCalmont's notion of the future seems to be bizarrely unitary — once something has happened, something contradictory to it can never happen. In addition to the point above about gentrification, consider for example his insistence that humanity has had a "complete loss of interest in space exploration" in the light of the current push to Mars (bracketing the fact that to talk about "humanity" rather than the state and capital as being the relevant parties in this "interest" is and always has been mystification). This attitude reminds me of Lester Del Rey, who in his intermittently informative (often against his intentions) 1979 history of sf crankily insists that any portrayal of the future needs to behave as though feminism has by then either "won" or "lost," because the "issue" will surely be "resolved, one way or the other" soon — as though it were not an ongoing struggle but a singular incident. If I were better read in Marxism I would probably say something about the dialectic here.

  • Very closely related: McCalmont's insistence that sf once dealt with "the actual future" in order to help people deal with the accelerated rate of technological and social changes is a bit of bizarre philistinism of ancient vintage in the field; the vaguely embarrassed awareness, which used typically to accompany it, that this claim was mainly propaganda for proselytizing efforts (sf is useful! honestly! you can use it in the classroom!) seems to be absent here. Such a claim requires one to take seriously Alvin Toffler's "future shock" (which I at least do not, though I hasten to confess that I haven't read the book of that title). It requires one to discard any sf story that did not accurately predict the future as retroactively irrelevant, to discard any sf story that did accurately predict the future (not that any ever did) as also irrelevant (it's already served its purpose), and to discard those works that were manifestly uninterested in actual prediction of any potentially imminent future (i.e., the vast bulk of what's actually been written as sf). It requires one to believe that "the future" is a thing that actually exists rather than a fictional construct, and much, much more. (Let's leave aside for the moment that, as we continue to see to this day, traditional sf fans are frequently among those worst prepared for the changes that actually occur, especially but not by any means only the social ones. If this really is what sf has been for, it has been a comprehensive failure.)

  • I find the hurry-hurry to praise — essentially to advertise for — Terraform disturbing in itself. While I'm no fan of Uncanny (and I think he's sometimes very incisive on the reasons why it's not likely ever to be any good), the worst you can say for it, in terms of McCalmont's objections at least, is that it's just people being inane — as people will. But meanwhile he is pleased that Terraform "owes absolutely none of its funding or visibility to the hierarchies of genre culture leaving it relatively free to carve out a different kind of niche." And I suppose it's true that Murdoch-funded hip-for-the-kids plausibly-deniable propaganda in support of the worldwide technofascist-in-leftist-clothing future so ardently hoped for by elites is a different kind of niche. Yay?

    UPDATE: I'm not sure that I made my point explicit enough here. It is this: that McCalmont (often entertainingly, often perceptively) lays into the goofy social interactions of the online sf world, as exemplified by Uncanny, while just as emphatically praising the actually much more dangerous top-down capitalist intervention that is Terraform. Intense criticism of people being people versus praise for capitalists being capitalists. I'm not defending the former — and yes, admittedly, by phrasing it this way I'm downplaying its worst aspects, which are real and bad beyond the fiction itself — but this is, to put it mildly, a strange set of priorities.

  • Related to this, Terraform's "rush" to turn news stories into fiction "before the news cycle end[s]" is not only a disturbing phenomenon in itself — but one which pleases McCalmont immensely — it is also obviously at odds with his insistence that the magazine's stories are about "the actual future" (and with his — on-point — mockery of "the PR bubble surrounding new [fiction] releases," as though the quote unquote "news cycle" were anything other than a PR bubble).

  • He writes that "The editors of Terraform have the courage to set a creative agenda whereas the editors of Uncanny" do not; I have no argument with the second part but given that McCalmont himself later discusses (as if it were a good thing!) the fact that Terraform's "content" is page-view based it's hard to understand how he can believe the first part, or what he even means by it.

  • Gratifying as it may be to see McCalmont making fun of online sf culture's outsized horror when Terraform's introductory article behaved as though they didn't exist, at the same time I wish he would display some awareness that Vice's entire modus operandi is to be irresponsibly ignorant of the important details of every single thing it covers (or, rather, to manufacture such ignorance among its readers).

  • Then, too, the person he quotes to discuss this mentions Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show as one of the important online sf magazines — and in that culture it is as if that magazine does not exist. He does not seem to notice that this muddies his points.

  • Though I have no doubt that Uncanny's non-fiction is and will be by and large trivial, he literally criticizes it on the specific grounds that it is not in the form of Buzzfeed-style listicles. I don't feel that I need to explain why this is unacceptable to me. And really this is just one expression of what seems to be his general attitude that the most important question, for the fiction and non-fiction alike, is whether a large number of people read the stuff (or, really, if people click through), rather than whether the stuff is any good. What people read in large numbers seems to be ipso facto good in his argument, which even aside from anything else is disturbing given, again, the issue of money and propaganda.

  • But speaking of, McCalmont's assertion that "After more than ten years in the field, I have never once seen anyone discuss either a piece of genre poetry or an article that appeared in an online fiction magazine" is strange, seeing as oh my god of course he has. Leaving aside the poetry as not particularly in my sphere, I've even discussed sf magazine articles with him myself! More than once! In public! While other people were talking about them too! Not to mention that I'm not sure what he thinks the enormous discussion around Renay's article about writers responding to criticism — which he talks about in a post written in the midst of the four I'm examining now — was if not a discussion of an article in an online magazine.

    I mean obviously I agree that the critical discourse in this field leaves much to be desired, but these weirdly untrue claims are not helping anything.

  • McCalmont does not understand gay life at all and frankly I wish he'd stop acting like he does. This is clearest in the objection I raised with regard to his discussion of "We Are the Cloud" and its version of the future (he obviously has no idea how poor and/or unassimilated gay people live — I imagine he'd be utterly perplexed by most of my friends, for example), but it is pervasive, far beyond that point alone; every time he discusses any story with gay characters it all just rings false (which is not to say that any of the specific stories are necessarily any better). And this is, after all, the man whose post on Blue Is the Warmest Color referred more than once to "the contours of LGBT life," as though that movie were about people who "are LGBT," whatever that would mean, rather than specifically about lesbians — a word he is bizarrely reluctant to use in that post.

  • Related to this but not limited to it, his implication that it is somehow invalid to dismiss Truesdale-style criticism on the grounds that it is founded on a suite of violent bigotries is, frankly, obscene; and given his position in this world's hierarchy of status-groups he has no legitimate standing whatsoever to make such an implication.

  • Referring to Ryan Holmes' viciously homophobic review of "We Are the Cloud" in Tangent (incidentally, McCalmont makes no mention of the mini-tempest this review sparked and in which he participated as it happened, pretending instead that he alone decided to pay attention to the story in response only to the review itself; he says some things in this section that to my reading border on lies), McCalmont writes, "Some might say that Holmes' reaction makes him a bigot who should shut his stupid mouth but I would argue that all reactions to art are legitimate as long as they are genuine." I will refrain from expressing fully how this makes me feel. But on a very basic level, if Holmes' reaction had actually been "genuine", it would have read closer to "Enforcing the oppression of gay and queer people results in material benefits for me, so I am going to engage in some of that now" than what it actually said.

  • (I'm going to get extremely angry here, but maybe my putting it in parentheses will soften the blow a little. A bit earlier than what I just quoted, McCalmont had written that "It is quite obvious that reading about teenaged boys having sex made Holmes feel uncomfortable (or possibly confused)". The parenthetical, of course, invokes that favorite bit of dogma — and favorite piece of yuk-yuk "humor" — among straight liberals, namely that homophobes are really "just in the closet." They never seem to get tired of this disgusting bit of victim-blaming, most likely because it takes them off the hook: no, it's not straight people who perpetuate homophobia, it's those stupid cowardly gays! stop oppressing yourself!, not to mention that it also allows them to engage in homophobia — it is, after all, nothing more or less than making fun of people by calling them gay — while thinking of themselves as "allies" ("No, you don't get it, I only called him gay because I knew it would bother him!"). I would like to take this opportunity to remind all you straight assholes that in fact it was you, not us, who invented the closet; that we who are "out" of it spend our entire lives being violently pushed back into it, by you, and having to claw our way back out of it again, over, and over, and over, and that it is fucking exhausting; that what we do, how we act, while we're in it is survival and none of your fucking business; and that if some of us do behave oppressively toward others of us because of the closet, that is, one, an intra-gay issue to be dealt with by us on our terms and again none of your fucking business, and two, your fault for inventing the goddamn closet in the first place.)

  • Further, McCalmont's condescending amusement at white people who, unlike him, have decided that sometimes it's best to shut our mouths and not always jump in with My Authoritative Opinion On That is not only misguided but just extremely tiresome as well. Timidity can be obnoxious, yes, and Uncanny has more than its share of it; but I think McCalmont often interprets as timidity what is actually letting go of unearned, harmful mastery.

  • In general the fact that oppression is something real and concrete that actual human beings have to deal with every moment of their lives, and not just an abstract "issue" for people unaffected by it to have fun opinions about, is something that McCalmont seems utterly unable to grasp.

  • Moving on.

  • The praise for Terraform's "hard word limit" as if it were somehow unprecedented and radical is bizarre, considering that this field's inability to publish any significant quantity — let alone quality — of fiction in the lengths between short-short and the bloated novel series is at crisis levels.

  • While I understand where he's coming from with it (and agree to a large extent with his take on where the field is with this), just because the current sf field has created an artificial dichotomy between "feels" and "ideas" doesn't mean we have to go along with it!

  • Not to mention that I wish that just once the people who talk about sf as "the" (or even "a") "literature of ideas" would ask themselves: what is an idea? what do I mean by that word?, or would at least remember, as Delany points out in his third "Letter to Science Fiction Studies," that the phrase itself (which, admittedly, McCalmont does not use here, but on which he seems to me obviously to be drawing) comes not from science fiction but from Balzac and therefore describes something sf has in common with other literatures, not something that distinguishes it from them.

  • And on this note, though I do not think that the gendered associations with the (utterly false) emotion/intellect dichotomy in themselves invalidate this aspect of McCalmont's argument, they nevertheless have at least to be addressed; and to be perfectly honest it seems quite apparent to me that they do play a major role in McCalmont's argument as it stands.

    UPDATE: I'm increasingly unhappy with how I phrased this. What I mean here is that McCalmont bases his argument almost entirely on the untenable, demonstrably and comprehensively false, ineradicably misogynist (that is, so wrapped up with misogyny that it cannot be untangled from it even in putatively non-misogynist contexts) "emotion/intellect" dichotomy. To this extent his argument is both weak in rhetorical terms — i.e., easily dismissed by anyone who knows the problems with this dichotomy — and essentially nonsense in substance. This is a shame, however, because despite this incalculably huge flaw there is a genuine observation of a real problem in the field at the heart of his argument, one he muddies by behaving as though the "feels/ideas" dichotomy he observes is real, rather than an example of the field's conforming to reactionary ideology even when it thinks it's breaking from it. By doing so he not only undermines his argument in its own terms, he also makes it easier for people already unsympathetic to it to dismiss it entire, including the aspects of it that are important. This is one reason why I think — as I obliquely suggest way down there at the bottom of this post after the bullet points stop — that a better lens through which to look at what McCalmont's seeing is the sf field's ever-present but exponentially increasing self-alignment with "mainstream," "realist," "literary" fiction. But that would be a matter for that other, as yet unwritten, post.

  • One of the metaphors that guides the three posts on the new magazines is most clearly stated when he writes:
    At a textual level, Terraform publishes stories that are more urgent but feel less polished... Uncanny is a conventional genre magazine filled with carefully constructed artefacts that have been tweaked and massaged to be everything they can possibly be. Compared to the manicured lawns and exquisite tea services of Uncanny, Terraform feels a bit like a frontier town; wild and woolly but still not quite finished. [ellipses original]
    Later in the same paragraph he even more explicitly, if now somewhat indirectly, compares Terraform to a colony. And though I think the metaphor is both surprisingly accurate and extremely damning as far as these examples go, I think it is damning to both, where McCalmont seems to think he is speaking highly of Terraform — meaning I suppose that he prefers the violent front guard of colonialism to the comfortable home life that violence provides. (And again, need I mention the gendered implications of this as well?)

    I find myself wondering: is nothing imaginable in this, whoops, "literature of ideas" outside of one end or the other of empire? (Note that neither he nor I am here referring to the "content" of the stories — by all means write sf stories about colonialism! — rather to their behavior and worldview, and that of the venues in which they appear.)

  • Meanwhile, having read a few of the stories Terraform has published, I fail to see the "urgency" he refers to.

  • McCalmont laments that "names seem to carry a lot more weight in genre culture than either genre or choice of subject matter," going on to say that people don't so much "aspire to writing about time-travel or zombie sex-play" as to appearing "in a magazine that publishes famous authors like Neil Gaiman and buzzy authors like Sofia Samatar." Certainly "genre culture" is driven far too much by celebrity (though unlike Gaiman, Samatar, who more than just about anyone else I can think in recent memory of has gained her buzz specifically through intense public discussion of her work itself,* seems an odd example). I had much the same reaction when Uncanny first announced its list of who it had early commitments from: "Oh, them again?" (On the other hand it is disingenuous to say the least to ignore the fact that Terraform's launching with Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling was just as pointed — and in a much more dangerous direction, at that.)

    *And who has people from far outside of sf reading her stories, even when published in sf spaces. It never would have occurred to me that I would ever see Kate Zambreno talking about a story in Lightspeed, but it happened.

    And an interesting argument could be made, too, that such attention to names is historically inappropriate in sf (where the author, perhaps, died younger than in other fields?); but that argument is not made here and anyway the rest of this is just sheer nonsense. Every single sf work, from the most bloated series to the tiniest of flash fictions, is hyped according to its microscopically detailed sub-sub-sub-genre ("swashbuckling m/m weird portal mythic steampunk!") and its subject matter ("it has talking cats!"). And perhaps no, individual writers do not "aspire" to stay forever within one specific sub-sub-sub-genre and to write only about talking cats, but I have to wonder why anyone would think they should.

    UPDATE: The more I think about it, the more, as William Henry Morris put in comments, "the dig at Samatar really bothers me." And as I responded down there: "I haven't read 'Selkie Stories' and have no comment about McCalmont's, uh, comments on it (beyond what is obvious from the other things I said in the post), but she just SO obviously does not fit the profile he's complaining about that it seems a clear case of something else about her bothers him and he won't admit it, maybe even to himself - and so he shoves her into his grand narrative wherever he thinks he can make her fit." If you've read the post to this point, you probably have a good idea as to some of what I suspect this something else might be.

  • Everything in McCalmont's view — and this has bothered me in his critical writing for a long time, not just in these pieces — seems to come down to a question of "authors' rights" versus "readers' rights," McCalmont siding with the latter. All kinds of objections could (and should) be raised against this framing — is it really zero sum? what are "rights" and where do they come from? isn't this just part of capitalist individualist ideology? do we really want a world where readers are entitled to writers' labor? don't enough readers feel this way already? shouldn't critics be opposing this kind of reduction of art to just another free market? etc. etc. And once more, for all his insistence that what he wants is a focus on the work rather than social hierarchies, the work itself vanishes underneath attention to social hierarchies.

  • And one of the "readers' rights" he pushes for hardest in this piece is the right to know what to expect before you even begin reading. "Genre culture routinely lionises work that 'breaks down genre boundaries' without ever bothering to understand why genre boundaries existed in the first place," he writes, and so far he gets no argument from me, except of course for my objections to the word and concept, "genre," in the first place. But he continues: "Genre boundaries were not for writers but for readers; they were a way of telling people what to expect when they picked up a book or magazine." And here, of course, is my objection to "genre." Because he's right: this is what genre — as opposed to the concepts I prefer, those of fields and traditions — is for. It is for making sure that art never surprises you, never catches you off guard; it is for making sure it is always safe, will always leave you unchanged. And in the midst of a series of posts in which McCalmont presents himself as opposed to the spoon-feeding safety of sf culture in favor of the supposed rough-n-tumble macho-colonialist well-financed rebellious on-brand 'tude of Terraform, it is bizarre to find him suddenly upset that with Uncanny he doesn't know what to expect (hardly true; the magazine almost couldn't be more predictable, as he himself argues), and pleased that with Terraform — and here he is right in fact even if his perspective on that fact puzzles and disturbs me — "I know exactly what to expect the next time I stop by their website."
Etc., etc. There is more, much more, that could be said, but I have to stop somewhere. Then too there are more fine-grain problems (as when he compares the story about Netflix to the one about Uber and bizarrely insists that the latter "names names" where the former doesn't — apparently because Netflix isn't his personal least favorite corporation, or something), but again: I'm not about to do a line-by-line close reading.

But now, perhaps, with all of this out of the way, one might be able to respond to the provocative aspects of McCalmont's argument. Ever since he first posted "Short Fiction and the Feels" I've had the idea of writing a response to it, to be called "Science Fiction and the Reals," which may indicate some of the tack I'd planned to take with it. I never got to it because the prospect of all of the "though I don't agree with..." "though I object to..." and so forth that I'd have to go through exhausted me. I still don't know if I'll get around to writing it, but at least now it would begin to be possible.