This is the third of our annual criticism specials, which makes it officially a habit (or enemy action). This makes an editorial a little difficult to write; if in the 2022 Criticism Special we set out a broad set of principles that we adhere to as critics and editors, then the 2023 Special was a recommitment to those in memory of former senior reviews editor, Maureen Kincaid Speller. In 2024, introducing this special issue, is it enough just to say, “We still believe this”? Do we need to reaffirm Why Criticism Is Important (the sort of thing that not only risks being pompous, but given the horrors around us can also feel unbearably glib)? Do we need to join the predictably constant chorus of critics sounding the alarm? Why did we make this thing?
One reason the issue exists is, simply, because people wanted it to: the first pitch for this year’s special issue came in before we’d even decided whether we were going to do it. People were enthusiastic. One of our predecessors, Abigail Nussbaum, even suggested that the SH Specials are part of a “moment” that SFF criticism might be having. We might pause here perhaps ungratefully to place a question mark against all this: it’s possible we’re all finding comfort in their being criticism to read while ignoring the question of whether people are engaging with it. If we are to produce this stuff, what responsibility—if any—is placed on us to try also to make it vibrant?
Perhaps partly in response to this question, one trend that continues in this Special from previous issues is that we think some of the best thinking is done in conversation. That idea is represented here in a roundtable, in which four of our reviewers discuss Maureen’s A Traveller in Time, and in Electra Pritchett and Martin Petto’s conversation about Helen Macdonald and Sin Blaché’s “genre-blending” novel, Prophet (itself a product of two authors working together). In both these cases, the books under discussion are making an argument—or several—about SFF and its forms. Dialogue is surely the best way to unpick and test these kinds of texts.
But even beyond this, criticism is inherently a coming-together of things—the individual critic responding to the individual text (as in this week’s five reviews and three poems), the connections made when texts are placed in relation to one another (as in Niall Harrison’s Depth of Field column), and in relation to the wider world that produces them (Will Shaw’s article does all of these things). In the most recent episode of our criticism podcast, also included in this issue, we discuss the genre’s material impact on the world, but also end up returning to that question of the impact of SF criticism (or any criticism) on that world, and the ways in which comfort and complacency can undermine attempts to think and act critically.
Perhaps, then, part of the reason it’s difficult to write an editorial lionising criticism is that lionising is inherently uncritical. As critics we owe the text our attention: we are to read closely and carefully, take responsibility for coming to conclusions, be “confidently tentative” (a phrase from our afterword to A Traveller in Time which also contains the suggestion that we remain open to being wrong, picked up by Shinjini Dey in this issue’s roundtable on the book). No grand statements about the importance of the work; no complacency about our place, if we have one, in science fiction’s ecosystem. Just the hope that we can keep trying to arrive at some sort of truth and that you will read (and write, and think) along with, or indeed against, us. We continue to hope for conversation and exchange.