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Semantics

with 13 comments

First some background. Last week SF Signal published a Mind Meld entitled ‘What Science Fiction Books Should Be in Every Fan’s Library?’. This inspired a conversation at Nextread and a conversation about that conversation on OF Blog. Today, the second half of the Mind Meld went up (including a contribution from Gav Nextread) and, on the OF Blog post, Gav wrote that he was yet to be shown that his premises were incorrect. So I though I would.

Premise 1: The automatic reaction is to look to past instead of the present.

The evidence for this is the Mind Meld itself but let’s ignore the fact that this is very limited evidence to base such a sweeping premise on. Instead let’s look at what the question asked and how people answered it.

Part of the joy of a Mind Meld is that the participants are free to interpret it as they wish. In fact, the initial suggestion came from John Klima who intended something rather different from the actual question posed:

Often, when a library weeds a collection they look at how often something circulated and how easy it is for patrons to get the book from their library system. If it’s something that wasn’t checked out much and there were a lot of copies in the system, you could feel safe pulling it from the shelf. But, were there books that you wouldn’t weed no matter what? And what science fiction books should every library have in their collection?

So he was clearly thinking in terms of what is essential for an SF library. The actual question asked – what science fiction books should be in every fan’s library? – opens up other rationales as well. What books are underappreciated gems that deserve to come to a wider audience? What books give a representative sampling of all the genre has to offer? If I was answering this question I would aim to be using a mixture of all of these: great books, both old and new, from across the globe, acclaimed and overlooked, from all subgenres and styles.

But how did people actually answer? I’m just going to look at the first part of the Mind Meld since this is all that had been published when Gav wrote his post. The oldest work mentioned is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published in 1818. The most recent work mentioned is Finch by Jeff VanderMeer, published in 2009. Just behind are The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez and Implied Spaces by Walter John Williams, published in 2008. That is quite a span and gives an idea of just how much science fiction has been published. As for Klima himself, he picks both The Time Machine by HG Wells (1895) and Accelerando by Charles Stross (2005). From my perspective this is a good sense of balance. Now, I’m not going to go through every recommendation, look up the date and then produce a bar chart showing when they were published (although if anyone else want to, please do). However, casting an unscienctific eye over the list, it seems pretty representative. It is true that there are more old titles than new titles but that is just a numbers game: even if we charitably say that “new” means in the last two decades that still leaves sixty years of modern genre fiction prior to that and another hundred of immediate precursors before that.

For me, the most modern list of recommendations is also the least useful. This is the list from Alan Beatts, owner of Borderlands Books, with publication dates added by me:

Market Forces by Richard Morgan (2004)
Implied Spaces by Walter John Williams (2008)
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (1990)
Blindsight by Peter Watts (2006)
The Skinner by Neal Asher (2002)
The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi (2006)
The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod (1996)

I think some of those books are good, some of them are great and some of them are essential. I also think some of them are utterly mediocre. Beyond my own taste though, I think it is hard to argue that covering just the last twenty years of fiction is not too narrow. This narrowness is further reflect in the choice of fiction: no women and a strong focus on space opera and the action-oriented end of the SF spectrum. Is this really all SF has to offer?

Given how critical he was of the other lists, it is interesting to look at Gav’s list:

The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Stone by Adam Roberts (2002)
The Gabble And Other Stories by Neal Asher (2008)

You will notice it is rather short. Obviously he was free to pick between one and ten titles but most other participants picked many more than him (although Michael A. Burstein just nominated The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, the idiot). It is surprising that someone who is so passionate about new writing and felt it was getting a raw deal was unable to come up with any more suggestions for fans. In terms of the actual content, it doesn’t seem that different from other contributions. The Hitchhiker’s Guide clearly should be in every fan’s library and that is why half a dozen people suggested (and it is thirty years old). No one else suggested Roberts but they did suggest his peers. The real odd one out is the Neal Asher collection and even then Beatts also suggested Asher. All of which leaves me slightly puzzled by Gav’s reaction to the Mind Meld. To return to the premise, I don’t think we should automatically look to the past or the present (a false dichotomy if ever I heard one). Luckily the Mind Meld doesn’t do this and covers the whole range of the genre. If anyone is automatically ignoring a huge chunk of literature, it is Gav.

Premise 2: The support that old books get is not reflected with the same ferocity when it comes to newer works.

I find this ironic because from my perspective the exact opposite is true. Rather than being bogged down in nostalgia, the modern genre community could do with a bit more historical perspective (and extra-genre perspective but that is a different conversation for a different day). The modern publishing and the blogosphere which increasing functions as a wing of the publishing industry are remorselessly focused on the new. There are, of course, exceptions; Gollancz do sterling work with their Masterworks and others series. It is clear though that backlist is much less important than it once was and that the amount of blogging about the new massively outweighs the amount of blogging about the old. We even had a conversation about this just recently.

Premise 3: New works are dismissed as without merit before they’ve been through some peer-assessed value system.

There is a bit of a flaw with the premise here because if new works really were dismissed as without merit they would never have the opportunity to go though a peer-assessed value system. It is more accurate to say that new works are value neutral until they have passed through some peer-assessed value system and we call that peer-assessed value system “readers”. If I wanted to sound like a twat I could say that books exist in a state of quantum indeterminancy until the act of reading them collapses their wave function.

To be honest, it is hard to rebut the premise because it requires a worldview so divorced from empirical reality that it is hard to find any common ground from which to start a discussion. All books are automatically dimissed? Seriously? It seems to stem from an unexamined assumption that the world of readers is divided into Fans (who read out of love) and Critics (who read out of hate) and never the twain shall meet. This is a relatively common view in SF fandom (for example) but is so weird and poisonous that it worms its way into other conversations like this and destroys any ability to have a rational covnersation.

Written by Martin

19 May 2010 at 11:47

Posted in genre wars, sf

Tagged with ,

13 Responses

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  1. I partly agree with Gav. While book bloggers focus on the new, fandom itself is very much mired in the past. Ask most sf fans for a list of recommended books, and the titles they name will be over 40 years old. I’ve argued against this for years.

    I would sooner the genre is represented by the best of the new, rather than 60-year-old works that may be seminal but aren’t, when you look at them, actually very good novels. when non-sf readers think of sf, I’d sooner they thought of Banks, Morgan, Roberts, Jones, McAuley, KSR, Park – rather than Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, van Vogt, Smith, etc.

    iansales

    19 May 2010 at 12:13

  2. While book bloggers focus on the new, fandom itself is very much mired in the past.

    I’m not so sure you can seperate the two that easily.

    I don’t have my time for that latter set of writers you list either. However, there are writers from that period that are still worth reading today: Bester and Bradbury and Budrys. Even excluding the Golden Age though, that still leaves the Sixties, the Seventies and the Eighties, none of which you could describe as new but which produced a wealth of incredible fiction. Like I say, I didn’t add everything up but I think the author with the most recommendations is actually Ursula K LeGuin. I would have no problem describing her works as seminal. In fact, I would be interested if Gav had read either The Dispossessed or The Left Hand Of Darkness.

    Martin

    19 May 2010 at 12:30

  3. Ask most sf fans for a list of recommended books, and the titles they name will be over 40 years olds

    No, they won’t be. This is not my experience — in part because the separation between “fandom” and “blogosphere” is as annoying as that between “critic” and “reader” — and as Martin already pointed out, it’s not even supported by the Mind Meld that supported all this.

    (It’s just possible that such a vaguely-defined concept as “most sf fans” is not a useful concept in a discussion like this.)

    Niall

    19 May 2010 at 12:32

  4. I’ve had far too many “discussions” online with fans of sf to know that older works are usually proffered in preference to newer works. I’ve been insulted plenty of times (7000 in a single day, for example) for daring to suggest that old much-loved works are actually not that very good.

    Bester… one great book (I dislike The Demolished Man). I’ve never understood the appeal of Bradbury. But I’d say Le Guin was an exception, and certainly not the rule.

    Niall, it may well be that my experience is a symptom of the “greying of fandom”. (There was a time not so long ago when fandom’s most oft-heard comment was “I’m a fan but I don’t read sf anymore”.) Also, I’m not entirely sure what you mean with the separation between “fandom” and “blogosphere” is as annoying as that between “critic” and “reader”.

    iansales

    19 May 2010 at 12:46

  5. I’ve had far too many “discussions” online with fans of sf to know that older works are usually proffered in preference to newer works.

    Again: meaningless generality. I have not had this experience, indeed I have had the opposite experience. Stalemate! What specific mechanisms can you point to that are promoting older works at the expense of newer ones? Because from where I’m sitting fandom — with its obsession with awards, with a reviews culture that’s always looking for the next big thing — its relentlessly neophilic.

    I’ve been insulted plenty of times (7000 in a single day, for example) for daring to suggest that old much-loved works are actually not that very good.

    Meanwhile, this is utterly irrelevant to the current discussion, and not just because we’re not talking about quality. The fact that I (for instance) am still fond of the Foundation books, and would offer you some arguments in their defense, is just not evidence that I would unconditionally recommend them to anyone.

    On the other hand, I suppose that if you’re spending a significant portion of your time talking about older books, you’re exactly the sort of blogger you want to see less of …

    Also, I’m not entirely sure what you mean

    I mean that attempts to create a division between “book bloggers” and “fandom” are as annoying as attempts to create a division between “critics” and “real readers”.

    Niall

    19 May 2010 at 13:03

  6. If book bloggers are a subset of fandom, that doesn’t mean they can’t be discussed as a group in their own right.

    My evidence gained from online discussions may be anecdotal, but that doesn’t invalidate it. And I’m hardly going to provide links to every such discussion. They happened. And often enough for me to decide that this was a common feeling throughout fandom. Perhaps I’m confusing “fandom” with the sf community which attends cons, comments on the genre, and writes about it; rather than everyone who reads sf and declares themselves a fan. As for specific mechanisms – there are a variety of lists of “must read” sf books, both online and published as books.

    And I think quality is germane to the discussion, because many old books seem to get a free pass on it and I don’t think they should do.

    iansales

    19 May 2010 at 13:16

  7. But I’d say Le Guin was an exception, and certainly not the rule.

    I’m not sure what this means. Obviously LeGuin is an exception, all great writers are. I guess you can’t be saying that LeGuin was the only great writer of the Sixties. So I assume you are saying there are disproportionately more great writers in the Noughties than the Sixties. In which case I’d need a lot more evidence.

    However, my point was really just to continue to rebut the idea that everything on the Mind Meld was Golden Age rubbish when the most popular choice was neither.

    Martin

    19 May 2010 at 13:23

  8. If book bloggers are a subset of fandom, that doesn’t mean they can’t be discussed as a group in their own right.

    But that’s not what you did: you set them up in opposition.

    My evidence gained from online discussions may be anecdotal, but that doesn’t invalidate it.

    Actually, if you’re trying to talk about a general situation, anecdotes are worse than invalid, they’re actively misleading. At most, your experience establishes — assuming we accept that most of the people involved were older fans — that a lot of people care a lot about books they loved when they were young. This is not a surprise. It does not establish, or even suggest, that fandom as a whole is “mired in the past”.

    Perhaps I’m confusing “fandom” with the sf community which attends cons, comments on the genre, and writes about it; rather than everyone who reads sf and declares themselves a fan.

    Discussion at cons is usually as neophilic as discussion online. This is why there is room for an Eastercon to offer — as next year’s is doing — a stream of discussion covering sf through the ages. I’m quite looking forward to that. It’s unusual.

    As for specific mechanisms – there are a variety of lists of “must read” sf books, both online and published as books

    The first hit for “must read science fiction” is this, which ranges from 1818 to 2006. The second hit is this, which is much more eclectic but still includes plenty from the twenty-first century. Both lists, crucially, make clear why they recommend particular books, which in some cases does boil down to “historical importance”. This is not a problem. People are smart enough to decide whether or not they want to factor historical importance into their reading choices.

    Niall

    19 May 2010 at 13:33

  9. Nice rebuttal there, Martin. Having now finally read both halves of the Mindmeld in question, the response Gav gave to it becomes all the more baffling considering just how wide-ranging the choices were.

    As for the discussion of bloggers/fandom, which bloggers and which “fandom” members? It seems there are more and more bloggers such as myself who are in our mid-30s or later who are blogging about matters and that while admittedly a lot of the attention is on newer materials, I haven’t had too much difficulty in finding blogs who comment about older SF as well. I just view all of this as more of a continuum on display rather than an opposition of forces.

    Larry

    19 May 2010 at 17:08

  10. Since no one has the resources to do a scientific survey of SF fans, the best way to objectively assess their “neophilia” or lack thereof is to look at how they spend their money. The last time I was in a typical bookstore, the SF section was full of new books. People are voting with their wallets for recent material. There are some reprints, certainly, but they’re a huge minority and I believe they are usually in much smaller print runs. So all this is much ado about nothing if you ask me.

    BTW, after browsing the shelves at these stores for years, you get an idea of the “bookstore canon” of
    SF books that are consistently in print despite their age. It’s a pretty small list, and while it certainly contains some books mentioned in the Mind Meld (Dune, Neuromancer, Ender’s Game) it also has some that weren’t and in fact are rarely discussed online (Armor by Steakley comes to mind).

    Matt Hilliard

    20 May 2010 at 03:13

  11. Now, I’m not going to go through every recommendation, look up the date and then produce a bar chart showing when they were published (although if anyone else want to, please do).

    Not quite that level of detail but some number crunching here.

    Martin

    20 May 2010 at 08:38

  12. It seems to stem from an unexamined assumption that the world of readers is divided into Fans (who read out of love) and Critics (who read out of hate) and never the twain shall meet.

    I write out of hate. Does that count?

    David Moles

    20 May 2010 at 08:42

  13. Anti-critical sentiment (whether in fandom or rotten tomatoes) tends to be about consumerism. Part of the cult of the new shiny is about emotionally investing yourself in the purchases you make… hence the blogosphere’s quite alienating fondness for parading pictures of the books they buy or get for free.

    Critics harsh the buzz of consumerism. By pointing out that some books are shit they are pointing out how stupid it is to become emotionally invested in something as banal as buying a book.

    I’m not sure that fandom is anti-critic, there are many SF critics that are loved and respected by fandom as a whole. But I think those tend to be critics whose reputations and track records are well balanced – yes they might provide the odd negative review but they also turn people on to new stuff and generally provide a degree of intellectual legitimacy to the process of getting excited about buying bound bits of paper.

    Fandom is ultimately a broad church and broad churches tend to provide ample room in which to burn heretics so you have obvious tensions within the community – fan/critic – social fan/lit-based fan – piss-drinking submissives/people who want to talk about books…

    Jonathan M

    20 May 2010 at 11:37


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