Part I: Reviewing the Work
The title of Maureen Kincaid Speller’s posthumous collection of reviews and essays comes from a children’s time-travel book from 1939—Alison Uttley’s “account of that which has been lost and can never be regained,” as Maureen puts it in her pan of the TV-film adaptation. Uttley’s story of a child time-travelling to a hard moment in another century set a template for similar novels throughout the century. I grew up cherishing Kit Pearson’s A Handful of Time (1987), where a child revisits her mother’s youth one lonely summer, and Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988), about a Jewish preteen time-slipping to the Holocaust.
The echoes of shared interest and preoccupation struck me deeply while reflecting on Maureen’s writing, curated in this collection by Nina Allan, with an afterword by Dan Hartland and Aisha Subramanian, her co-conspirators in the cultivation of the Strange Horizons Reviews Department. Whenever I corresponded with Maureen around a book review, I’d inquire about her “menagerie” of animals, and receive a delightful update on their various moods and tolerances, and all the curious beings who had come into and left their lives. But we also shared a few “grumpitudes” when it came to the curious mistreatment of the past in a great deal of contemporary SFF discourse—and this collection is filled with examples of topics on which we’d barely scratched the surface of fellow feeling. One cannot help but feel a pang of missed opportunity, when catching up on all that overlooked conversation now.
One topic we did discuss, and which comes up in a quartet of reviews on women’s science fiction, is an itchy sort of dissatisfaction with the sort of text that often seems to constitute celebrating a demographic. While Maureen gives high praise to Justine Larbalestier’s Daughters of Earth, an historical survey of SF stories, she addresses the merits of individual pieces in Melissa Edmundson’s Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women 1891-1937 before interrogating the utility of terms like “women’s weird” and “strange stories,” except to lose us further in a “forest of taxonomic complexity.” Her desire for greater precision and an awareness of when we’re creating special bubbles for demographics, instead of fully integrating them within rigorous literary criticism, deepens when she comes to Lisa Yaszek’s Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (2008). Recovering it from what?
We had a fine conversation about similar issues when I reviewed a reprint of Clare Winger Harris’s short stories in which the editor had not treated his subject as more than a demographic curiosity, and certainly not with any interest in a serious critique of her work itself. It was the critic’s sensibility that united us, really: the desire to demonstrate value for a human pursuit by holding its output squarely to the light, and the twinned frustration, to see some work held up so poorly, if at all.
We both had our bugbears, and both prickled at too-easy and self-affirming glosses of a work’s relevance and specialness—many examples of which Maureen tackles in these reviews and reflections. We both felt “out of time” with many of the novels and stories in SFF that were elevated in ways that made a deeper critical eye seem unwelcome—and wondered about the best use of that critical eye, if others didn’t see it as anything but a hindrance.
To Maureen, it was a sign of respect to ask of any piece of literature: What work is it doing? How does it do that work? Does it do that work well? And what’s getting in the way of seeing that work for what it is? When does a book’s marketing help, or hinder?
It’s no wonder, then, that Maureen’s reviews are at their most contented when she’s contextualizing stories with a very clear sense of setting, and culture. When stories make overt claims to a place in history (sometimes, a history of geopolitical relevance to Maureen’s own), they can be assessed plainly in light of those concerns.
Conversely, much of the modern SFF world to which she dedicated her editorial life presented an even greater critical challenge—for whether out of authorial uncertainty, promotional murk, or various hype cycles and categorical imperatives within ever-shifting notions of “the genre,” so many books seemed to exist in a liminal space, their work awkwardly defined and inadequately addressed in the criticism. Maureen worked for years to show SFF literature greater respect through more nuanced and carefully considered reviews.
She leaves behind this time-slip of a collection—and an invitation to keep pursuing a conversation that I so wish I could travel back to continue with her, firsthand.
From the start of our correspondence, Maureen reminded me of some of my favorite professors. I introduced myself to her in a cold pitch for a book that eventually turned into my first Strange Horizons review. She liked what I had, but needed me to clean up the style. We sent the piece back and forth until it met her standards, and I was thrilled to have an editor take the time to teach me something, sharpen me. And that was Maureen as I knew her: exacting and generous. Holding herself to a high standard, she expected that effort from the other person too. It carries through in her review writing, and also in the precious few podcast episodes where one can hear her voice.
I was anticipating this collection exactly because I wanted more of that voice. And it did not disappoint. On the page, Maureen comes through as such a strong presence. Without taking anything away from her quality of thought, her writing is witty. It’s entertaining. It charmed me. I wonder if she would have disliked this, or at least had conflicting feelings about it. On page 17 she remarks, “It is important to me to be able to write freely: entertaining other people is an incidental benefit rather than a goal.”
Yet it’s her voice that invites one into the work. Whether she’s skewering a new Star Wars movie or taking a microscope to the works of Alan Garner, her tone first draws the reader in and opens that door to say, well, let’s think about this. Let’s really give it the time. And that sets her apart. While it’s far too easy to perform outrage, to wax poetic over the failures of a piece, Maureen resists simplification. Even if that Star Wars movie really became an ordeal, she considers it closely before deciding it’s a loss (p. 198).
To me that speaks of an underlying respect not just for the work itself but for the readers, and for the fans. While she may not come up in praise of the work, she will certainly give it a fair hearing. On page 38 she explains, “The gaps in the carapace are inevitably far more revealing than the shiny surface. As the oyster requires grit to make a pearl, so a critic requires less than sublime science fiction to test their abilities.” Maureen’s voice is that of someone examining the carapace, and in those gaps finding insight to bring back. Any one of her reviews ushers the reader into an unhurried dialogue. It creates the space to see something in a work that one hasn’t noticed before.
I also wanted to note the arrangement of this book. Reading a lot of short story collections, as I do for SH, I really appreciate the way the reviews are grouped topically. The headings are wonderful. I was able to navigate directly to areas of interest, and read the book nonlinearly. A lot of thought went into those groupings. I do wish there was an index for searching keywords. It might be useful to find every instance of “dragon” in the text, for example.
While I may not agree with Maureen’s critical assessment of everything (her take on H. P. Lovecraft for instance), her superb, funny, sharp voice plays the crucial role of setting up a conversation, creating an opening to debate, where both parties can come away with new thoughts to mull over.
In order to write this, I looked up my oldest emails from Maureen.
They date to 2017. The first is an efficient email distributing titles for review. The second is an email letting me know which book the Reviews editorial team has decided they’d like me to write about. And always, and thereafter, “thank you for reviewing for Strange Horizons.”
“I am glad to,” I often wrote back. And it was, and is, true: because I trust the editors.
Knowing an arrangement works is different from having an explanation for the particulars. Dan and Aishwarya’s afterword to A Traveller in Time discusses the current structure and ethos of the Strange Horizons Reviews Department, and of course talks about Maureen, who had so much to do with establishing that structure and ethos. It’s clear you can’t understand one without the other. “It came to be plain to us,” they say,
that she felt the best thing she could do—the most important thing she could do—was equip the next generation of critics and reviewers to do better than she felt her generation had done. This was not just a process of education; it was a task of construction. Her project, she believed, was through Strange Horizons to build the truly diverse, rigorous, innovative and exciting base of SFF critics that she knew the genre needed. (A Traveller in Time, p. 291)
Sometimes we do work we need to do, in a space we are lucky to have, because someone else much earlier realized they had to keep building that space, if they wanted to attract and gather the work of which we are part. And building is difficult, so the quality of conviction and commitment that enables it must be profound.
Yes, profound. How Maureen loved criticism done right, or which pointed in the right direction, or was advancing up a slope of received opinion to break, at the top, through a smirr of “well who can say really” to the overlook of “however, based on textual evidence [a] and [x] it becomes clear …” I never had the luck to talk with her in person. But I can tell—and you will be able to tell too, if you read A Traveller in Time, which you should if you are interested in genre criticism—that she had a powerful, embracing, and demanding interest in conversations about SFF. She could evaluate and engage with a wide range of opinions and arguments about anything touched by science fiction and fantasy (properly touched by, she might have said) because she was so fascinated by what was happening in the field, and felt it was important for good critical thought to gather with a wide net.
Which, again, is difficult work. If your net is wide you must haul hard. And evidence of Maureen’s labour on frequently unsung, unheralded things—like awards-list reading, fanzine collation, con programming, editorial spreadsheets, and so much more—is everywhere in this collection. The traces of these efforts are a kind of supportive, entangled dark matter that coexists with and informs the words on the page. Look, even, at the titles of some of these entries: “A Judge’s Summary of the Clarke Award,” “Making An Emotional Investment—surviving the announcement of the Hugo Awards shortlists.” She read for herself, and for others; she read to learn, to feel, to think, and to support the networks and organizations dedicated to the study, celebration, and continuation of SFF literature as a shaping force of both otherwise and now, in this world. It still staggers me that the work she did at Strange Horizons and elsewhere was considered “semi-professional.” We should all aspire to be thus semi-pro!
One of the lessons I take from A Traveller in Time is similar to a lesson—or experience of profound agreement and illumination—I took from a brief entry the author William Gibson once contributed to the platform formerly known as Twitter. I’m locked out of UnTwitter at this point and can’t go back and cite accurately. (I am sorry, Maureen!) But the approximate gist of it was: writing a novel is “like sailing a ship when you must also build the ship.” For writing a novel, substitute running a Reviews Department. Maureen understood that to practise criticism, and give the discipline enough space to actually think (a messy process, often raw but also principled and ambitious), you must sustain and create the infrastructure, best practices, and communities that allow criticism both to be done and to reach interested readers. That kind of support work is frequently unsung. This lack of notice—it almost makes me spit to have to say—was something she was used to. At least we have her book. I, for one, am going to keep it on my desk.
I barely knew Maureen, but Maureen was the first person I spoke to within Strange Horizons, and her practiced earnestness—polished to a skill—compelled me. It has been a pleasant surprise that A Traveller in Time, compiling many decades of Maureen’s work, softly imbues SFF community and SFF criticism with the same earnestness. Geekdom is known to be earnest in its fervor, but Maureen’s earnestness was as careful as it was exacting, critical in its love, lacking the exclusionary prejudice that confines geeks to a kingdom of their shiny craft; in effect, each essay in this collection puts on display Maureen’s broadest sensibilities, drawing from everywhere: British television programs, turn-of-the-century SF, proto-fantasy, ghost stories, children and young adult fantasy, SFF studies, early modern theatre, and even genre lore.
Maureen’s criticism was never presumptuous; it is emblematic of her writing style to move with an assumption, another evaluation, judgement or opinion, gradually shaving away unsuspecting implications, and she did so prolifically. In her introduction to the volume, Nina Allan notes how Maureen would “destroy or delete the autobiographical.” In fact, the first essay, “[and then]- a writing life beyond reviews” makes these deletions an intentional critical and creative endeavour, making the autobiographical parenthetical and allusive (such as writing in a “pause for a wince” or simply, “insert digression”). But what I loved about this collection is the number of pieces that began with the personal pronoun “I” or included it halfway through—except it was not used to cite herself as an expert or posit a persona. Maureen’s “I” crafted the critic into a character in the production of criticism, making each interrogation feel like a process of understanding. Maureen’s criticism was angry about bad writing on SFF, but it was (as Allan, Paul Kincaid, Dan Hartland, Aisha Subramanian, and Jonathan McCalmont put it) “readable,” “discursive,” even “confidently tentative,” signalling to possibilities, pricking holes to create apertures.
As a reader with favourites (a genre which she casually calls, in one of her essays, “stuff Maureen likes”), Maureen wrote for readers, albeit for readers who were very much part of the community she belonged to. Much of the collection reads like dipping into a familiar conversation with a highly versed reader (and often, a fan). Nonetheless, her critical genre is close reading, especially about a literary atmosphere or a grounded yet fantastical narrative: heavy on the textual analysis, quotations, and attention to the form of a work. There’s an art to her summary (a deceptively difficult skill that a critic and reviewer must master), for she situated and wove each object of her study into its own tradition, situating a place in its geography, an allusion in biography, an object in cultural or historical memory, and the whole narrative form into a literary movement or canon—all with a colloquial flourish. What would begin as a comparative study ended as a web of comparative readings located within a tradition, such that only a careful critic could chart.
I didn’t encounter a single essay in this collection that did not stand testament to the world she built around it, welcoming every stylistic or formal outlier and “mainstream literary work,” closely attending to it as if it had always belonged. Her criticism wasn’t perfect—her judgments were so careful that they often got lost in the argument—but to read this collection is to find myself getting to know Maureen a little better, as an irreverent critic and a serious reader … and through the reading, learning that criticism is how we make community.
Part 2: Reviewing the Reviews
So I think my pressing question now is: how would Maureen have edited the above reviews? Where would she have left notes pushing for more precision, or gently questioned some of the premises in our remarks? I suspect she would have noted the delicate way that eulogy, with its particular expectations of both writer and reader, wends through all our reflections on the book itself.
I don’t think she would have asked us not to acknowledge our reading context, and varying levels of professional connection to her: they create a lens, after all, through which to understand each reviewer’s remarks.
And yet, I also find myself wondering if she would have asked for more from Nicole, for example: not just to state a disagreement over Lovecraft, but to have done something with that observed site of dissent. To reflect, perhaps, on what this disagreement elucidated about Maureen’s overall aesthetic concerns.
Likewise, would she have asked Catherine to elaborate on what it means to keep a book on one’s desk, as a mark of its value? (For what future act of recall or affirmation?) Or requested clarification on my division between literature with a sense of place and history, and the struggle of much contemporary SFF in that light? Or asked Shinjini to explain the invocation of “perfect” criticism in light of what Maureen’s imperfections revealed about the reviewer’s expectations of the form?
Where would she have nudged us to go next, if we were reviewing this piece for her like any other? And how would you have responded to such a note? What is the legacy of Maureen’s editorial voice that reviewing this collection brings to mind?
Oof. The book on the desk. Yes. I think one thing Maureen might have said is “aren’t we also talking about—and talking by means of—this somewhat ahead-of-its-time online forum for criticism I committed my hours and attention and partnership to?”
I, Catherine, fumbled that one, didn’t I?
So there are at least three things here. First, a topic: the still very active idolization of the physical book—which is, you know, around as a phenomenon, clearly—and what and who we miss seeing if we’re print-only or even print-first readers. Second, the question of what it means to have a book on your desk anyway? Third, the plain fact that Maureen bucked consensus (it’s a theme in any discussion of her work) and, for all her evident and beautiful love of books qua physical books, decided to put a lot of effort into administrating and promoting online forums for SFF criticism.
The move to invest her labor in online critical forums was also an investment in the kinds of voice and thought supported by longer-form written work. As Nina Allan says in her wonderful introduction to A Traveller in Time, “Online venues have always offered greater flexibility in terms of word count, and the advent of a more inclusive ethos promoted by magazines such as Strange Horizons has encouraged critics to be more adventurous, both in terms of texts considered and styles of criticism” (p. 10). Yes indeed. One of my favorite Strange Horizons reviews published during Maureen’s tenure as Senior Editor is Samira Nadkarni’s epic, colloquially erudite review of Marvel’s 2018 anti-superhero movie Venom: read it please, and ask—could this have been done in a print publication?
Allan also notes the utility of the online format for Maureen’s development of her personal critical work, the “longer, more discursive commentary she grew into and was still developing at the time of her death” (p. 10). As Shinjini says above, Maureen’s own reviews “[make] each interrogation [of a text] feel like a process of understanding”: an effect that takes time, which in textual terms is closely related to length. So the administration of a place for others to write long-form criticism and the testing and honing of her own skills, went together: a hand clasping a hand. Likewise, the fact that different voices can assemble in dialogue through online forums might have appealed to Maureen both as a good critical resource and an enjoyable personal opportunity to talk, and laugh, and learn. I encourage you to listen to Maureen herself in discussion with valued colleagues and friends, in the Critical Friends podcast (also available as a transcript on the Strange Horizons site.)
To return to ML’s question in closing: “what [does it mean] to keep a book on one’s desk, as a mark of its value? (For what future act of recall or affirmation?)” Let’s be clear, there are a lot of books on my desk I may never actually get to … the stacks just keep growing. But Maureen’s A Traveller in Time is going to be one of the ones I keep “free.” Toward the top of the pile, easy to hand. I need it, because the physical book in this case assembles, gathers, orders a body of work not otherwise available to me except via effortful jumps across the wide variety of publications and venues Maureen wrote for. And my goodness, what other body of work is going to tell me, when I’m banging my head against a set of seemingly impossible questions about a text, that yes … this work is difficult? And sometimes impossible to feel good about. But also, that undertaking it is (among other things) a mark of love for story: and the ideas, experiences, and aspirations that circulate with and through it. “[P]erhaps this is the critic’s biggest dilemma. How to love something without crushing it to death with the weight of expectation and analysis, when true love can only be shown through expectation and analysis?” (p. 270).
To read that, for me, is to feel understood. So I will not be too far from Maureen’s words if I can help it.
The praise had to come first. For me at least, in order to begin to wrap my mind around the situation (the pang of missed opportunity, as ML says), I first had to acknowledge everything that I enjoyed, all that was wonderful in A Traveller in Time. And there are emotions here that deserve to be noted and recorded. Like admiration. Catherine’s quote about sailing the ship while also building it made it plain to me how much of a leader Maureen was. Not in a showy or obvious way, either; in the way of someone ready to give support and to energize. Someone encouraging the work and making space for it to get done.
Yet I like to think Maureen would have called us all out for letting her off easy, in the first round. She seemed to have enjoyed debate, and the type of learning that happens in a discussion. I was hesitant to disagree with someone who cannot give a rebuttal or further explain their position. I know that my own perspective on books and authors evolves with each new work I read. With that said, I do take issue with her Dunwich Horror review (p. 228). When I reached the phrase “obsessed with racial purity” that’s used to describe H. P. Lovecraft in the opening paragraph, it jarred me. That really needed to be unpacked more. Why do we still read him, if his fiction is “irreparably marred”? Without addressing that elephant in the room, the review goes on to focus on his overblown use of language. To me that missed a chance to take his legacy apart, and sidestepped the more sensitive issue of race. As Shinjini observed, sometimes Maureen’s judgments were so careful that they could get lost. The Dunwich Horror (1929) is just one example, but it's not really the sharp reassessment of a canonical figure that I wanted to see. What is a legacy? Shouldn’t it be subject to updates and re-evaluations too? Even a canonical figure’s.
In other reviews, such as the one of Love Beyond Body, Space & Time (2016), Maureen clearly states the need for intersectional representation, and the “agonisingly slow” movement towards better representation for women, people of color, people who are not American or British, LGBTQIA people (p. 73). So I am curious and a little puzzled why Lovecraft seemed to get a pass. The reviews in this collection aren’t dated, except in a buried references section in the back. They are not presented in chronological order, so the Lovecraft review came from 2012, while Love Beyond Body came from 2017. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a refinement, the sections of the book attempting to chart the shifts in Maureen’s thought and changing priorities, presented in a more organic way. That’s quite fascinating and deliberate, to untether the reviews from their place in time. I don’t know … Truthfully I am still rereading A Traveller, dipping in and out, and it will take a long time to fully appreciate and comprehend its breadth and depth. I’m grateful to have been a part of this conversation and I hope it continues without end (in whatever forms it requires).
Reading A Traveller in Time has been a conversation (as Nicole says), hasn’t it? It has also been for us, as ML catches, about “the delicate way that eulogy … wends through all our reflections on the book itself.” And of course, isn’t the eulogy—more than praise, restraint, fumbling, or confession—the articulation of a desire and its impossibility?
The desire for more conversation, and criticism as conversation—which was a style that Maureen fiercely wielded—has here been arrested. Publication, as writers know, makes every word the last word, more so when the author in question has passed away. Is this our last word? Allan’s? Maureen’s? And carefully, as carefully as we can, we know what the aspect we have though eulogy been sidestepping really is: justice. Does this book do justice to Maureen’s practice? Can we, with our admiring, distant, internet-networked touch-and-go engagements with her (and despite our claim to be good readers), do justice to the aspects of criticism and story that Maureen cared about? Are we belatedly responding to Maureen or are we speaking to the readers/potential readers of this collection? Can we do justice to her memory by doing justice to her work, i.e., by reading and responding to her criticism with intention, bravery, and honesty?
While discussing our plans for this roundtable, the four of us constantly tried to map how well each of us knew Maureen in her many roles. As regular writers for SH, we knew her as an editor and, as Catherine and Nicole mention, “a leader” who encouraged SFF and SFF criticism. It has been hard, I think, to speak of Maureen as a critic without speaking of her as an editor, our editor, about how she would “edit us”—but perhaps that’s also what this collection has been about: putting together Maureen’s work for those who come after us, for others to encounter a mind so sharp it forces attention on the reader. I speak for myself, but present in my reading of this collection there is a refusal to treat Maureen’s work (and the widest range of my encounters with her efforts as critic, judge, editor, etc.) as a text. I have not been a good reader and so, this immediate text, A Traveller in Time, has receded into the background.
I can say this: Maureen was an excellent editor, and her criticism (which is part of this collection) does display that editorializing—hedging, situating, a witticism after a retreat, a reflection balanced upon another reflection—that produces the sense of conversation and community I mentioned earlier. Maureen’s work comes across as written by an editor; not the kind that curates, but the kind that hones an argument through continued engagement (one only has to look at her work on Alan Garner or children’s fantasy). Criticism must (and it should) have a sense of justice and I believe that for Maureen it did. Sometimes even by bucking the last word, by considering, and then considering again, a novel or an oeuvre repeatedly. Perhaps through the editorializing, Maureen discovered a not-so-perfect criticism that showcased her love and responsibility, one that kept a conversation going.
And maybe, just maybe, all this sidestepping into eulogy has also been about justice after all—but only because it has also been about continuing to do criticism alongside our imperfect memory of Maureen.