Reviewing a collection of reviews, after a while, begins to feel like a project that sits at the intersection of "self-indulgent" and "self-referential" best expressed as "meta." Particularly when those reviews concern themselves largely with books that you have never read. Yet there is something tremendously satisfying, regardless, about reading a solid, well-thought-out piece of critical engagement with a text. If you're already familiar with the work in question, good criticism illuminates some aspect of it from a new angle, provides a different insight, or gives you something interesting with which to disagree; while if you're not familiar with the work, reading a piece of criticism is a glimpse into the critic's reading life as well as into the text: it shows you what the critic loved or hated, thought successful or a failure, about the work, and so gives you a window into the text mediated through their experience.
Paul Kincaid's Call and Response, from Beccon Publications, is composed of many well-thought-out pieces of critical engagement. It is his second book-length collection of essays and reviews, after 2008's What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (also from Beccon Publications), although it's not clear from this volume whether Call and Response is conceived of in light of a sequel to the earlier collection, or a unity in itself. Kincaid himself is doubtless familiar to the readers of Strange Horizons's review pages: he is among other things a critic whose career has led him to specialize in SFF produced in Britain, a former long-running administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, a contributor to the SF Encyclopedia, and the recipient of the 2011 BSFA Best Non-Fiction Award for an extended essay on the Hugos. It is therefore no surprise that the quality of his critical engagement is consistently high.
What is a surprise are the horrendously shoddy production values of the book itself. It is one thing to have a book with small, unlovely typeface, laid out in a fashion that can at best be said to privilege some misguided idea of efficiency (I do not say functionality) over aesthetics: but the Table of Contents is a sad and unhelpful thing, and if this volume ever made the acquaintance of a copyeditor, I should confess to great surprise. The odd missed or interpolated word or punctuation mark is understandable, but I discovered during the course of reading Kincaid's introduction to his reviews of Jo Walton's work that Walton is to be credited with a novel called Another World, to which Kincaid refers thrice.
For the reader familiar with Walton's work, it is clear that Kincaid is actually referring here to the novel known to the rest of the world as Among Others (2011)—and this is one of the few cases in which I was familiar with the writer, and thus able to identify an error. Yet this instance of noticeable confusion (compounded by the decision not to include the date of first publication for most of the works offhandedly referenced within the volume) doesn't precisely fill your heart with confidence when it comes to trusting assertions made about authors and titles with which you're not familiar, does it? (It may seem that I cavil a bit too much . . . and yet reading nonfiction requires a certain amount of trust in the details.)
Kincaid's reviews and essays (including one or two obituaries) range from the brief and facile to the lengthy and thoughtful. The external observer could be forgiven for assuming from this collection, though, that serious science fiction is a peculiarly masculine endeavor: with the exception of Lisa Goldstein, Gwyneth Jones, and Jo Walton, and some discussions of collections—"The Best," "The New," and "Secret Histories"—the remaining sections discuss twenty-two authors, all of whom are men. It's an interesting comment on Kincaid's career and his focuses that much of his most thoughtful, insightful work in this collection comes when he's discussing the work of late authors: H.G. Wells, Lucius Shepherd, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Holdstock, and particularly Keith Roberts. Perhaps the strongest, and certainly for me the most interesting, essays on specific authors here are one on Robert Holdstock ("Of Time and the River," first published Vector 260, 2009, here pp. 167-173); and on Keith Roberts ("Pavane," previously unpublished, pp. 278-299). In "Of Time and the River," Kincaid discusses the role of time in Holdstock's work; while "Pavane" is an extended discussion of the events and themes of Roberts's most recognized work, the mosaic novel Pavane (1968), which returns again and again to the role that landscape plays within its constituent parts. Although doubtless I'd find more to argue with if I'd read more of the same books as Kincaid.
In the essays and reviews it becomes possible to trace Kincaid's view of science fiction, and what science fiction is and what science fiction should be doing. Kincaid's arguments are at their weakest when he falls closest to advocating a prescriptivist approach: that science fiction should always strive for "freshness," "newness," something "radically new." This theme is repeated at length in the section of Call and Response that discusses various "best of" collections, "The Best," so that each succeeding review appears to recapitulate its predecessor, and lends an air of tedium to the proceedings. (I feel there ought, perhaps, have been some other better way to structure Call and Response as a unity: one of the problems with a collection of pieces not originally conceived of as going together is that the component parts don't necessarily build on, or add to, one another.)
One of the recurring elements, both in the introductions to each single-author chapter, and more subtly in the reviews and essays themselves, is how Kincaid returns again to considering the purpose of reviews and criticism; the nature of the project of critical engagement itself. Although Kincaid does not explicitly raise the question of "Why does it matter?" both "Who is it for?" and "What does it do?" are reflected on, making this an intriguing dialogue between the critic and himself.
On the whole, this is a solid collection of criticism. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for an interesting perspective on a wide array of prominent British science fiction writers, you could do far, far worse than to check out Call and Response.
Liz Bourke is presently reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She has also reviewed for Ideomancer and Tor.com.