What better way to work out why reviewing is so important to the science fiction and fantasy world than to review a book about reviews?
Previously I had only read a few of Gary K. Wolfe's reviews and articles, but that was enough to anticipate that Bearings would be smart and on the money. I put this to the test, as one does with such collections, by turning first to the reviews of books I have read and have strong opinions about. The first two of these I found on the contents page were Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Christopher Priest's The Prestige. In discussing the former, Wolfe confesses "to having put this novel aside when it first appeared, partly out of a phobia about books with religious bird metaphors in the title (remember Richard Bach?), partly because its by-the-number alien contact plot seemed oversold in the manner characteristic of publishers disguising SF as mainstream" (p. 35). I must confess to finding this judgment almost uncanny because it was exactly what I felt about the book after finishing reading it. This, in turn, led me to think that Wolfe was being slightly disingenuous in his account concerning the amount of the book he had read before coming to his original conclusion and putting it aside: the word "unread" is notably lacking, suggesting that he might well have got some way in if not even all the way through. However, true to Paul Kincaid's observation, reprinted amongst the critical encomia on the back cover of Bearings, that one always gets the sense that "Wolfe is being absolutely and unequivocally fair," the very next sentence after the extract quoted above reads simply: "This may have been unfair" (p. 35). A more generous account of the novel then follows, which, nonetheless, still contains within it a nicely understated acknowledgment of the essential absurdity of a number of the plot elements. It quickly becomes clear that by being "fair," Wolfe is able to prick more targets than he would with a more ostensibly dismissive review, as is nicely demonstrated in the following passage:
There is remarkably little sentimentality in the novel's overall conception, but stylistically Russell can't resist portentous foreshadowings—gongs tend to sound at the end of chapters—and on a few occasions resorts to a kind of sonorous triteness that nearly threatens to turn her sparrow into a Thorn Bird: “And thus the generations past were joined to the unknowable future” is the way she describes Sofia's pregnancy. But despite such flashes of book-of-the-month pretentiousness (and this was a Book-of-the-Month), despite a plot gerrymandered almost to the point of allegory, despite an unconvincing and underimagined 21st century, The Sparrow builds considerable power, conveying an overwhelming agony and horror that outpaces most genre horror fiction, and that is fundamentally more disturbing (p. 36)
And despite the sharpness of the book-of-the-month jibe in particular, or rather precisely because of this level of sharpness, I found myself won over to a more positive evaluation of The Sparrow. As Wolfe states, the book does have a power to disturb and the more corny elements of the narrative should not be allowed to blind us to this fact. Therefore, any cynical interpretation of Wolfe's "fairness"—that he is having his cake and eating it by bookending his wisecracks with more favorable noises—misses the point that it is the inherent ambiguity within his reviews which generates their perceptive insight. His reviews are not balanced in the anodyne manner of public service documentaries, rather they counterpoint the human tendencies towards credulity and incredulity in a synoptic tension that parallels the construction of a successful novel.
Of course, this is a difficult trick to pull off for either novelist or reviewer, as is demonstrated by Wolfe's review of The Prestige, a novel which foregrounds this dynamic of credulity by taking stage magic as its subject. As Wolfe notes in his characteristically double-edged manner:
Once we know we're in a story about stage illusionists—especially rival illusionists—we can be virtually certain that we'll soon be seeing ever-more-elaborate tricks, and that something resembling real magic will come into play before it's all over. That's the gimmick see—what appears to be illusion is real, but must be disguised as illusion, so that the illusion is itself an illusion. It's the sort of dramatic irony a twelve-year-old could think up without breaking a sweat.
So the relevant question is, how does Priest turn this relatively stale and obvious premise into a first-rate and very rewarding novel? (p. 38)
Again, this is slightly disingenuous, not least because Wolfe already appears to have answered this question at the beginning of the review where he describes the success of The Prestige in winning the 1996 World Fantasy Award as "something of a triumph of literary craft over genre expectations" (p. 38). Wolfe goes on to list the hallmarks of such craft as they appear in the novel: complex narrative structure, subtle and convincing characterization, and elegant style. However, one gets the feeling that Wolfe, himself, is running through a slightly mechanical procedure here as though he is showing us something solid-looking at the beginning of a magic trick, which will turn precisely on the hidden property of the thing not being solid after all. In other words, The Prestige looks like a box-ticking work of literature in much the same way as one of Wolfe's reviews looks like a scrupulously fair, balanced judgment, when really they are both playing off their audience's desire to have their straightforward and sophisticated tastes satisfied simultaneously while giving the external appearance of only possessing the latter. It is only after revealing the obviousness of Priest's premise, that Wolfe goes on to show with a flourish how The Prestige turns, in much the same way as The Sparrow, on the effective injection of a dose of horror into its plot; although, in this case, the genre content is much more effectively integrated with the rich period detail and satisfying historical framework of the rest of the novel. As Wolfe concludes: "That the ending works so satisfactorily is a tribute not only to the elegant structure and style of Priest's novel, but to its willingness to be pulpish when pulpishness is required. It's quite a show" (p. 36).
Quite! It takes a showman to know another one. Indeed, Wolfe's appreciation for such showmanship periodically surfaces in Bearings as a predilection for certain types of literary chancer. The early novels of Jon Courtney Grimwood, neoAddix and reMix, might be "Mike Hammer in Outer Space" (p. 208) and "breathtaking" both in their relentless pace and their highjacking of an "entire mode of recent SF" (p. 46), but they are still presciently affirmed as showing Grimwood "rapidly developing into a novelist worth watching—if he can keep his nervous mannerisms under control, and if he can get that shift key fixed" (p. 208). Stephen Baxter is clearly another writer that Wolfe can't help enjoying in spite of himself: "Moonseed is a profoundly silly book, an Irwin Allen disaster epic done up with the narrative tricks of Michener and the sensibility of Buzz Aldrin. But Baxter is so passionate an advocate for what he believes in . . . that he finally sells you" (p. 145). This is because Baxter is another Barnum and Bailey showman and while the moonseed, itself, is hokum, as Wolfe points out, it sure does chew up the scenery on a grand scale. Similarly, Jack McDevitt might be "mawkish and mopey" and guilty of trying to carry stories on "dumb ideas" but he possesses the saving grace that "he's in love with what SF can do, and he wants to share" (p. 19). It is not necessary to like the work of all of these authors in order to find Wolfe's approach a welcome celebration of genre writing and a refreshing antidote to the reactionary tendency of privileging "good writing" above all other concerns.
However, Wolfe is careful to contextualize his discussion of genre historically. Referring to McDevitt again, Wolfe suggests that his storytelling skills and adherence to the SF tradition are worthy of public acknowledgment before quipping: "Are the nominations for the 1956 Hugos still open?" (p. 361). This is not simply a joke against McDevitt. As Wolfe notes in a different context, present-day SF is, at least partially, a victim of its own sophistication and Gernsback readers didn't necessarily stop being born just because SF grew up. In a thoughtful review of First Contacts: The Essential Murray Leinster, he points out that because the selection for the collection has been orientated towards contemporary sensibilities, Leinster comes across as a second-string Campbell writer, when in fact his true value resides in the uniqueness of his outdatedness: "it's these rusty Leinster futures that give us the clearest feel for what it must have been like to dream science fiction dreams a half-century and more ago, and to believe that the people who would inhabit them would be just like us" (p. 184). Elsewhere, we are told that while Arthur C. Clarke won't be remembered for his novelistic virtues, he is still a great writer anyway because he was a dreamer. In an article published in the September 2006 issue of Vector, "Framing the Unframeable", Wolfe reproduces the following quote from Novalis as an epigraph: "Our life is no dream; but it ought to become one, and perhaps will". The article concerns the relationship of the autobiographical and the fantastical—in the widest sense—and, in particular, the capacity of the latter to enable the representation of otherwise unrepresentable transformative events in the writer's life. Wolfe suggests that fantasy, horror, and SF can function on the one hand as vehicles for the desire to make life more dream-like, but, on the other hand, they can also function as a medium for unpacking what is already spectacular and terrifying about life. Of course, critics can also assist with this latter alternative and it seems to me that Wolfe, with his meticulous attention to the historical context of shared dreams between writers and readers and the dynamic of credulity and incredulity which allows transformative experience to be communicated, should be considered a role model for such criticism.
It is in the preamble to the review of another novel by Priest, The Extremes, that Wolfe indirectly expands on how this "unpacking" type of criticism functions by discussing how baseline SF concepts—such as space travel, humaniform robots, telepathy, and, more recently, virtual reality—have for most of their working lives already outlived their initial usefulness as freestanding icons of wonder. In other words, while these icons may well spring into being as the result of a creative spark of genius yearning to transform the world, they quickly become genre devices. However, it is exactly in the form of routine devices that these tropes become, to paraphrase Wolfe slightly, mechanisms for generating the kinds of story people want to read (p. 195), which are stories revealing the strangeness of life as it is already lived. The Extremes is not a novel of cybernetic rapture but, rather, one that employs its virtual reality theme instrumentally to "suggest in compelling and provocative ways that reality may in part be formed by memory, and that experience is not always what we think it is" (p. 197). The question, then, is how does Wolfe's review show us how the novel achieves this effect? First, as we have already seen, through the sharp deployment of his double-edged brand of "fairness." In commenting on Priest's exploitation of virtual reality to offer repeated scenarios of extreme violence while simultaneously suggesting that there is something disturbing about our culture's fascination with such violence, he notes that for all the moral complexity of The Extremes, it is also "a novel that wants to have its cake and shoot it too" (p. 196). However, equally importantly, Wolfe sufficiently describes the plot of the novel for its own structures to have enough of an effect on us that we are partially drawn into the dynamic that it is able to create with its readers. In other words, we are offered enough of the cake, both to have and to eat, that the review, itself, troubles our understanding of reality and communicates a smaller part of that transformative experience which we would gain from reading the novel. Therefore, the somewhat mundane reason why reviews are a particularly productive format for this type of criticism is because they necessarily involve summarizing the plot of the novels and stories they are dealing with—in a way that is much less frequently found in, say, institutionalized academic criticism because it is trained out of undergraduates by marking schemes that penalize "mere" description—in order to meet the desire of potential readers to have some idea of what they might be getting before they fork out to buy it.
It is simply impossible to read Wolfe's reviews without developing an admiration for his seemingly limitless capacity for coherent exposition. Novels with plotlines as complex as Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space and Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon are intelligently boiled down to a couple of paragraphs (well, OK, a couple of pages in the case of the Stephenson) and even if it had nothing else to recommend it, Bearings would be worth buying for this reason alone as a work of reference. However, not only does this capacity for exposition help communicate transformative experience, it also supports Wolfe's analysis of the wider changes within genre or, perhaps one should say, beyond genre. He is able to point out that the rise of so-called "literary" SF is as much a function of the change within the genre, as described above, by which science-fictional invention is giving way to the instrumental use of SF devices to explore the more general themes of fiction—so that it no longer makes sense to define SF by the presence of an extrapolative novum (p. 400)—as it is to do with anything else. Indeed, it is probably more the case that genre practices are spreading into mainstream literary production rather than vice versa. Discussing post-genre writers, such as Peter Straub and Jonathan Lethem, Wolfe describes them as "essentially literary writers whose works are inhabited by genre" (p. 312). The example of this phenomenon he categories as closest to SF is Stephenson, whose Cryptonomicon he acclaims as "very possibly the most important non-science fiction SF novel in decades" (p. 214). Defining a non-SF SF novel is not a straightforward task but Wolfe seems to be suggesting that the necessary conditions are that SF devices have evolved so far from nova that they are now just an "accumulation of science-fictionoid elements" (p. 214), while the world-view of the novel is not so much SFnal as concerned with revealing the SFnal strangeness of the actual world we inhabit. The end result is a vision of a world "unfolding about ten minutes into the future" (p. 217). That seems to me to be pretty much the world we live in, and Wolfe is undoubtedly the critic whose reviews of those non-SF SF novels of ten minutes into the future are what I want to spend the ten minutes thereby gained reading.
I suppose one final criterion for the judgment of any collection of reviews is whether the reader comes away with a list of works that he or she feels it now absolutely necessary to seek out and consume. Mine is quite extensive and therefore impossible to print here (it is not, of course, the case that the omissions in my reading would be too embarrassing to admit to) but at the head of the list are other works by Wolfe, himself, including this volume's predecessor, Soundings, and its forthcoming successor, Sightings—both also from Beccon Publications. At which point, I should also acknowledge how attractive these Beccon editions are; well-presented and with a nice clean, crisp text. Several of them together on the shelf, in their different colors, give a particularly pleasing effect and I am looking forward to adding more of them over the years ahead.
Nick Hubble lives in Brighton and lectures in English at Brunel University.