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This is a love story. Like all love stories, it is hard to say where or why it began. Suffice it to say that something happened, a connection was made. In this instance the affair probably began in a book store. (p. 237)

We do this for the love. At some time in the past science fiction bit us and since then we have been compelled to write about it. In some other fields—music, say, or film—you could turn this love into a proper career. In a field like SF, which is a niche of a niche, and a poorly regarded one at that, you are unlikely to see any such benefits. Eventually, if you are lucky, after enough years at the coalface you might be rewarded with an offer to publish a book. If you are very lucky this book will actually make it into print. And, if you are not just lucky but good, this book will be as insightful, entertaining, and rightheaded as What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction.

SF has a noble tradition of the lay critic. Like myself, Paul Kincaid has an academic background in philosophy rather than English Literature. He has the rigour of an academic but the passion of a fan, and the pieces collected here originate from publications ranging from fanzines to Science Fiction Studies. Throughout he displays a flexible, proportionate style and—like David Langford, who provides the introduction to this volume—he is erudite, demotic, and not afraid to put the boot in when necessary. Thus Louise Erdrich's "Le Mooz" is described as "frankly awful" (p. 84) whereas John Clute's Appleseed is described as "overwhelmingly a work of hermeneutics" although "its values are not those of traditional Protestantism" (p. 198). In each case the writer gets the engagement with their text that they deserve. (We will return to Appleseed later, but I will note in passing that the first reference to Clute occurs on page 4.)

In keeping with this, the opening "Theory" section of the book occupies only eighteen pages before giving way to the more hands-on "Practice." Here Kincaid addresses some very boring but probably unavoidable questions about science fiction. What is science fiction? When did it start? Blah blah blah. Usually I find such inevitable discussion interminable and it is to his immense credit that Kincaid finds something interesting—and, it seems to me, correct—to say on the subject.

He starts "On the Origins of Genre" by baldly stating: "We are all wrong" (p. 13). SF is legion, it contains multitudes, and, more importantly, "there is not one single thread that can be removed and which in itself is science fiction" (p. 21). It is the impulse to tease out these threads that gets us into trouble. Kincaid then uses his background in philosophy of language and elegantly applies Wittgenstein's concept of "family resemblances" to Damon Knight's much-quoted, seldom-examined saw that SF is "what we point to when we say it."

'On The Origin Of Genre" acts as a survey of our wrongness, but as Kincaid says later, "conflicts over definitions are usually redundant and cause more harm than good" (p. 77). It is rather ironic that he describes himself as agreeing with David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer in this belief, despite having castigated their definition of hard SF only a few pages earlier. This challenging of genre codification is one of the most enjoyable themes of Kincaid's book and something that runs through Kincaid's writing. He has also tackled anthologies of New Space Opera, New Weird, and post-cyberpunk in recent reviews for SF Site. In all instances he has found the argument put forward for these subgenres wanting or, in some cases, nonexistent. This is worth noting because once you close the covers of this book you have by no means exhausted the supply of easily available criticism by Kincaid.

What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction is very much a sample—albeit a specific sample—of his work. It draws mostly on material previously published over the last fifteen years but is carefully structured to chart a course through the disparate pieces. "Theory" and "Practice" make up about a quarter of the book, and extensive case studies of Gene Wolfe and Christopher Priest the same again. The rest of the book is given over to series of pieces split into "Britain..." and "...and the World." The final, stand-alone piece in the collection, "By-ways of the Shining Path," is by far the earliest (dating back to 1 April 1985) and is completely atypical in that it is a work of fiction in the mode of Stanislaw Lem. The structure is not always successful, though. Science fiction has a casually derogative term for this sort of book: a fix-up. Despite the care Kincaid has obviously taken in his thematic selection, the patchwork nature of the enterprise does occasionally show.

Iain Banks, the most important British science fiction author of the last twenty-five years, has two mentions in the index (and one of those is for The Wasp Factory, a work not usually considered of genre interest). Richard Cowper—a writer I had never heard of, and whose books I have never seen in the wild—has six. This is not a flaw in the collection, but an illustration of the multitudes the genre contains and the fluidity of influence. Obviously the collection does not seek to be comprehensive, and this sort of eclecticism is what you would hope for in a personal survey. It can go too far, though, and the British section has a much better flow than the rest-of-the-world section, which feels like the magpie's nest the title suggests.

There are more specific problems. Returning to Hartwell and Cramer, to read Kincaid's review of their The Hard SF Renaissance straight after his review of their The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF blunts rather than amplifies his criticism. Published nine years apart, they have the same basic thrust, and perhaps what was called for was a merged assessment of both volumes. Likewise, his criticism of Brian Aldiss's term "cosy catastrophe" is repeated in "The Myth of the Island in British Science Fiction," a major piece, and then straight afterwards in a minor review (p. 146 and p. 149). It would have unbalanced Kincaid's paper on the island myth to include the level of detail to be found in his review of The Deluge, but then since this is a novel that he admits is of interest solely for historical reasons, why bother to include it here as a stand-alone piece? This also raises a presentation quibble: none of the reviews actually say that they are reviews, they just give a strapline. This might be stylish but it is also slightly infuriating. Although the reader can usually quickly guess that they are reading a review, the actual title under discussion can remain baffling. "Inside Christopher Evans" is straightforward (if not literal). "Apres Moi'—the title of the review of The Deluge—is not.

The duplication even occurs where new material has been included in the collection. Kincaid's previously unpublished assessment of Keith Roberts's debut novel, The Furies, provides a good entry point to his next article, an essay covering the role of landscape in Roberts's work. However, identical quotes from The Furies appear in both pieces (on p. 185 and p. 192 and then again on p. 186 and p. 194). The quotes are important and well chosen, but still.

These remarks may seem like pedantry, but they are offered more in regret at an opportunity passed up. Despite the carefully chosen structure, these repetitions make the book more readable as a resource to dip into than as a sustained critical narrative. And it is a book that is a joy to dip into.

Opening its pages made me want to read books I had never considered before, such as Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, and also made me think again about books I had read. I remember with great pleasure reading Langford's reviews of Gene Wolfe for the first time in Up Through an Empty House of Stars and finding a path opening in the previously impenetrable thicket of Wolfe's prose. There is much on offer here to stimulate the same response. Kincaid has a taste for "difficult" writers: Wolfe, Priest, Borges, Erickson, and Clute. Often, when reading fiction by critic-authors (rather than author-critics), you have the sense of the critic hovering over the author's shoulder second-guessing and causing a stuttering performance anxiety. When I read Appleseed I found the book so clogged and clotted by an impulse to make the novel watertight against misinterpretation that it virtually declared war on the reader. Now, reading Kincaid's analysis of it as "a novel all about answering back to God" (p. 203) and "a story and stories about Story" (p. 204), I feel as if I am seeing the book with fresh eyes. And I am. This is what is so wonderful about What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction.

Perhaps it might be fitting to end this review with a quote from Kincaid's review of The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. After persuasively putting forward Clarke as a writer who worked in the American mode whilst remaining "indelibly" British, he closes by discussing "If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth...":

At one point in this story he says: 'unless there was a goal, a future towards which it could work, the Colony would lose the will to live and neither machines nor skill nor science could save it then.' We here on Earth are a Colony as lonely, as desperate, as those few survivors on the Moon; and Clarke, in these stories, is forever looking to find, in space and in our humanity, the goal, the future towards which we must work. (p. 156)

It is a fitting tribute to the late author but also to the communality of the genre. Science fiction is often literature as an act of collective endeavour and Kincaid is at the heart of this work, looking towards the future.

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
11 comments on “What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid”

You've beaten me to the punch about the most annoying feature of this book, the way the reviews don't have a header telling the reader what is being reviewed. Since reviews are originally published with such a header, they're all written with the assumption that the reader will instantly know what is being discussed. Removing them leaves the reader in a state of bemusement for a couple of paragraphs, unless they flip to the back of the book.

But having said that, it is an excellent book.

Rainer Skupsch

I have one basic problem with your review which prevents me from really taking it seriously, and I honestly do not want to offend you personally, but: I assume you meet Paul Kincaid eye to eye (e. g. at conventions) every now and then and have led a few conversations with him in the past (?). Besides, you two are probably prominent members of the British SF scene (about which, being German, I know very little ). Well, I cannot help thinking that this whole situation would make it nearly impossible for you to give his book a good battering provided it were lousy (which I am not claiming here!).
Of course I am aware I cannot possibly be the first person to raise this topic. Besides, I do not even think that you (and other critics) censor your reviews on purpose. It is just that your predicament seems obvious to me.
Once again: I really do not want to insult you, but to date I have not come across a downright negative review on a British critic's book - written by another British critic who is personally acquainted with his 'victim'.
Sorry, if some of my sentences sound a little strange (this is not my native language), and sorry that this comment will not lead to an interesting conversation since, I guess, all pros and cons in this matter have been exchanged many times in the past.
Best wishes from 'the Continent'!

John Clute has been part of the British sf scene for forty years, we've met on numerous occasions, I've contributed to a book in his (Judith Clute's) honour) and yet he gave my edited collection Christopher Priest: The Affirmation a less than favourable review ( which of course he is more than entitled to do, even if he is a trustee of the organisation that published the book (which he freely admits to being). It's a small world but we don't always pull punches.
(Incidentally, if I were to write something on a book called The Deluge, I would struggle not to give use a title with "Apres Moi" in it.)

It's not like all British SF critics live in a big house together or travel round in a van solving mysteries 🙂
...though that would be fucking sweet.

Farah Mendlesohn

SF criticism is small, and we all know each other, but take my word for it, this would not prevent people giving a book a "a good battering provided it were lousy". See my review of Roger Luckhurst's book, published in the New York Review of Science Fiction. I like the man very much. I had liked all his previous work which was why I asked to review it. Unfortunately, I thought large chunks of it were terrible, and said so. If you email me at Farah dot sf at gmail dot com I will send you a copy so you can see what happens when a UK critic hates another UK critic's book.
You may also wish to look for reviews of Adam Roberts' book, Science Fiction, for Palgrave. They weren't terribly polite either.

Rainer Skupsch

Thank you, everybody, for your kind replies to my doubts!

Ben Crowell

I don't buy the idea that there's no useful distinction to be made between, e.g., hard SF and soft SF. Hard SF is consistent with the laws of physics, under the conditions in which they have been thoroughly verified by experiment. Soft SF is fantasy that has a rocket ship logo on the spine instead of a wizard's hat. (There's quite a spirited discussion of this going on at right now.) I don't see the point of trying to ignore subgenre distinctions. Analog, JBU, Asimov's, and Strange Horizons are all known for publishing different styles of SF. It's useful to know how they differ so that, e.g., you can decide what to subscribe to.

I've never attended a con (and nor would I describe myself as a prominent member of the British SF scene) but I have met Paul a few times in the pub. This is less about the man and more about his work though. As an admirer of his criticism it is true that I was predisposed to be sympathetic to this collection but I would like to think that if What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction had turned out to be a shoddy piece of work I would have said so. Perhaps I am deluding myself but, to be honest, this isn't something that gave me a second of ethical anguish.
Ben: I think it is less that there is no useful distinction to be made between subgenres and more that whenever people get into questions of definition they end up saying stupid things. As you have just demonstrated. It is useful for a reader to know the style of a magazine but this only requires them to read an issue, not get into debates about definition which "cause more harm than good".

Nick Hubble

I feel I must apologise for snaffling up all the second-hand Richard Cowper paperbacks at the Glasgow Worldcon.

any more posts coming ?

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