What Science Fiction Lacks

Good criticism and brave critics.

That’s what the science fiction field lacks.

For decades now, most book reviews with in the field rarely give honest assessments of a given works strengths and weaknesses. Read any given issue of LOCUS (which is the “Newsletter of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Industry”). The book reviews are generally positive, rarely critical, but mostly they are laudatory to the point of excess. (“We eagerly await the next installment in this daring series!” or the equally elusive “What we’ve come to expect from this author!”)

Unless the author is quite obscure or the novel under review at the time is a first novel by someone who hasn’t established his or her bona fides through the usual magazines (Asimov’s, F&SF, and Analog), most novels and short story collections that are reviewed in LOCUS are treated as if each work was a sacred milestone in the hagiography of science fiction. Even if the reviewer finds some little niggling aspect of the book they don’t like, there will nonetheless be a line or two that is immanently blurbable, a line that will still curry favor with the author whose book is being reviewed so that the heavens don’t fall are a fatwa isn’t pronounced on said critic.

All it is, is fear.

Which leads to cowardice.

That’s why there is little honesty in science fiction and fantasy book reviewing today: Most reviewers are wannabe writers themselves and don’t want to make enemies and they certainly don’t want to make enemies of the fans of the authors they scrutinize. I noticed this in the late 1970s when LOCUS appeared. LOCUS started out as a fanzine and has pretty much remained one despite its size or clout. But year after year, as I read the journal and purchased books they recommended, I found that the books in question were not all that good (and in sometimes obvious ways–after all, was Ender absolutely necessary to Speaker for the Dead?) and that I came to distrust both the reviewers who wrote for LOCUS and the magazine itself.

This is human politics at work, in case you hadn’t noticed it before, and it has little to do with the quality of novels and short stories in the field or whether the field advances and evolves creatively. No one speaks truth to power; no one dares to because . . .

. . . it’s all about money.

It’s as simple as that.

When I was starting out as a writer in the late 1970s I met another writer who told me his strategy for success. It wasn’t to write memorably stories in the tradition, say, of Theodore Sturgeon or Ray Bradbury or J.G. Ballard. No, it was something more mendacious: Become personal best friends with the main critics in the field. He said, call them every week, send them everything you publish whether they’ve requested it or not. Even send them Christmas cards. (No kidding. He actually said that.)

He told me that the first nine numbers on his speed-dial phone were the numbers of the major critics in the field. Gerald Jonas, the (then) science fiction critic for The New York Times Book Review, was at #1. P. Schulyer Miller, who was the (then) main critic for Analog was at #2. This author ticked them off up to nine. I knew all of the names (some were major editors as well) and noticed that this author had never received a bad review from any of the magazines those critics worked for, even though then, as now, that man’s books weren’t as magnificent as those critics said they were at the time.

By the way, I’m not talking about Harlan Ellison here. That man needs to resort to no tricks. His stories speak for themselves.

The only venues for honest reviewing these days are outside the science fiction and fantasy fields entirely where critics really don’t care about the careers of the authors they review. Many of them in fact are published anonymously: Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, The Library Journal and just a handful more. (There is no longer a science fiction critic for The New York Times, though our aforementioned author does get reviewed by the NYT in the Literature section. That’s how far he’s come. So maybe the strategy works.)

In the popular music culture, they used to have the “payola” phenomenon, where PR people would visit radio stations and shell out money or cocaine (or both) to play records that they otherwise wouldn’t touch. Lots of people went to jail for this (in the early Seventies), but it’s a human activity that’s as old as time: hustling, bribing, cajoling, greasing palms. Just look at Congress. Nowadays it’s called lobbying and it’s out in the open.

But if you go to the WorldCon and the other big conventions, you’ll see dozens of authors hustling everyone for votes. Buying them drinks, shining their shoes, doing their taxes, whatever it takes so the fans will remember their names whet it comes time for voting for the Hugo. (I’m kidding, as far as the shoes are concerned, but only barely.) Some authors at the WorldCon will show up weeks in advance to wine-and-dine the fans, and more than once this tactic has worked. After all, think of the Hugo and Nebula award winners that you’ve read that have baffled you. It started for me in the early 80s and has never let up. There’s a reason why some stories win awards. Lobbying is just one of them.

If you want to find true criticism in science fiction and fantasy, look no further than the reader’s comments at amazon.com. Most of the comments are openly honest and many of them are quite emotional. These are people who care about science fiction and fantasy and they are not reticent when it comes to expressing their feelings, particularly if they feel they’ve been ripped off.

Many of these reader’s responses are well thought-through and very sharply reasoned (with quotes and page numbers, something even my own students don’t provide in their papers). At the very least the comments are visceral. Readers who comment on amazon.com generally aren’t going to be going to the WorldCon and vote for Hugo awards. They aren’t writers themselves, shilling for their friends or wanting to suck up to their favorite authors. These are people that don’t have a pony in the show. They simply react. And they don’t hold anything back.

Good criticism is needed so that we can get better stories and novels from these “award-winning” writers . . . and we need them. Have you actually read anything truly new in the field? If you have, please let me know. I just see more of the same–and all of it’s praised to high heaven.

I’ve blogged earlier about novels-in-series that don’t work, or series that just go on and on and on with seemingly no point to them. Why do we need series in the first place? What’s wrong with a well-told story in one novel? (The reason is money, of course. There’s more money to be made by revisiting a world or character than by telling a new story or inventing a new character.) But over time, readers will get good at listening to their intuitions and start seeing through the clutter that tells us we must buy this book or that this author is a “must read” author.

I’m not telling you something you don’t already know about this sleazy phenomenon. People who tend to read, tend to read seriously, and they know what they like and why they like it. But we do live in a reactionary consumer culture and reviews anymore are simply designed to get us to go out and buy books. My interest is in the process behind book reviewing, the motives, the PR, the quest for literary immortality. This is why reviews of bad books are almost glowingly good. The reviewers have been gotten to.

What I do know is that behind most reviews of this kind is an impulse toward cowardice and a drooling sycophancy that serves no one. And I’m trying to be honest here. I expect nothing less from myself and from you as well. We are not stupid people.

And we are not sheep.


—Paul Cook

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  1. I was thinking more about this issue some more and it seems to me that if reviewers are going to have courage enough to give bad reviews, the science fiction community in general is going to need to tolerate angry reactions, infantile responses, hurt feelings and mutual animosity. It's not like the old days where you could publish a bad review and then maybe get a letter to the editor a month later. In online environments, once you run afoul of the fanboys (regardless of whom or what they idolize), it can get really ugly, really fast.

  2. I'm of two minds about this. While there's a certain absurdity and artificiality to cover blurbs and puff reviews, genre writing is a crowded market and getting more crowded all the time. Some marketing activity is to be expected and, indeed, is really just "noise" in the system.

    That being said, many authors, particularly those who are just starting out, can be really be injured by a harsh review. It's one thing to slam George Lucas–he can take it and, frankly, why should he care. I'd be personally very reluctant to criticize the specific work of any but the most successful genre writers, simply because it might take the joy out of their work.

    In other words, it's not a lack of courage that holds me back but rather a sense that real criticism should be aimed at larger targets.

  3. You’re right. There are a lot of fluffy reviews out there. But readers of reviews must also take into account that many of these essays are subjective and limited by the reviewer’s objective. I am often reminded of this after reading a recommended book, only to be left wondering “what was that reviewer thinking?”

    Then again, that fine line between opinion and observation is often blurred, and it’s up to the reviewer’s audience to determine the value of that review and any that follow.

  4. Paul – Thank you for your post, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree quite strongly with your over-generalized assessment.

    Your essay conflates consumer-oriented reviews ("This book is (good or bad) and you (should or shouldn't) read it") with criticial analysis ("This is why the book is important/how it works/etc."). They have very different underlying goals, are addressed to very different audiences, and employ very different rhetorical strategies. Consumer-oriented reviews are designed to help a reader make a better-informed decision. Critical analysis is designed to explore how a creative work functions either within itself, within its field, or within society as a whole.

    You claim that there is no courage in criticism (the latter), but all of your anecdotal and generalized examples come from the former. Even granting you the accuracy of your generalizations (which I am loathe to do), you are still comparing apples and aardvarks: the two are not the same, nor are they to be found in the same venues. Consumer-oriented reviews may occaisionally contain critical insights, but they don't have to. If you are looking for "courageous criticism", may I suggest you turn your attention to several readily accessible sources: books on the field, online magazines, and the blogosphere.

    In book form, I would draw your attention to some recent fare (all published after 2000):

    – Farah Mendelsohn's The Rhetorics of Fantasy

    – Istvan Cisnery-Ronay Jr.'s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction

    – Margarget Atwood's In Other Worlds

    – Brit Mandelo's We Wuz Pushed

    – Diana Wynne Jones Reflections: On the Magic of Writing

    There are – of course – many more titles than I could possibly list here, but the above should serve as a reasonable introduction to some recent criticism. Speaking of "introductions," I would also recommend you look at the introductions and essays often included in various anthologies published in the field.

    In terms of online magazines, I would like to draw your attention to the non-fiction articles/essays/columns featured in Clarkesworld in particular, and to a lesser extent the non-fiction articles/columns in Strange Horizons. As several specific examples of recent "courageous" works of criticism, I would recommend:

    Elizabeth Bear's brilliant take-down of the "grimdark" trend in fantasy (Clarkesworld)

    Lev AC Rosen's discussion of sexuality in SFF (Clarkesworld)

    Chesya Burke's discussion of the Super Duper Spiritual Sexual Black Woman (Clarkesworld)

    For more scholarly approaches, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the New York Review of Science Fiction (NYRSF). For criticism that is less grounded in the SF/F community, The New Yorker has recently published numerous controversial and much-derided essays (e.g. this one by Arthur Krystal) on the genre.

    And then we come to the blogosphere, which features an enormous volume of excellent criticism. There are far too many great essays for me to link to them all here, but for a good introduction to much of the more recent courageous criticism I suggest you look at the links I included in my November essay "What is Science Fiction For? There you'll find links to extensive and often controversial commentary from the likes of Paul Kincaid, Nisi Shawl, John Scalzi, John McCalmont, Christopher Priest, and others.

    Apart from those links to individual discussions, there are many great bloggers and authors out there who I have found to be consistently thought-provoking, including:

    Jim C. Hines

    many of the pieces published at SF Signal

    N.K. Jemisin

    Catherynne M. Valente

    Malinda Lo

    – Damien G. Walter (on both his blog and in The Guardian)

    There are – of course – many, many more, and I'm sorry that I am unable to list them all. To help you explore this vast sea of thoughtful and thought-provoking criticism, may I suggest SF Signal's Link Tidbits? They're published every day, and they offer a great jumping off point for interesting critical discussions of SF/F.

    If you think science fiction lacks for either high quality or courageous examination, I suggest you look a little harder: it is definitely out there, and readily accessible. If your intent is to condemn consumer-oriented reviews (as opposed to more analytical criticism), then please make the distinction a little clearer so that the subject of your discussion is more apparent.

    1. Chris, of course there's a ton of criticism out there. My God, I've got shelves of it in my office at Arizona State University. What I'm talking about are reviews in many of the sf magazines (especially LOCUS) who will praise a book that nonetheless has massive flaws or at least a few flaws. There's a reason for this: fanzines are mostly for fans and they're mostly designed to appreciate, not denigrate works in the field. I get that. We're talking here about people within the field writing about the field. Very few writers will write something that will anger their close friends. Scholarship is less sanguine. Scholars can approach a text with a bit more clarity. It's only human to do this.

      But give all the blogs I've written and how wrong I seem to be, I guess I'm wrong here. Still, I can't let go of the final image in John Cheever's story "The Enormous Radio" where the wife who has never heard a discouraging word in her life and never wants to hear a discouraging word yearns for the magic of the enormous radio to come back so she can hear the Sweeney's nurse, three floors down, continue to sing her songs to her babies. Comfort and joy. Comfort and joy. And never a discouraging word.

      1. Paul – I believe there are many different approaches to reviewing books. One approach focuses on the positive aspects of the book, giving more space to what the work gets right. I think of this as the "You should read this book because it does X well" school of reviewing. Another approach chooses to focus on the negatives: "You shouldn't read this book because it fails at doing Y." Between these two extremes lies a wide spectrum with many shades of grey, with many reviewers seeking some degree of balance. Individual reviewers may have their own approach, and their publishers (if they're not publishing their reviews on their own via their blogs, GoodReads, or Amazon) may have their own editorial "house style" as well. Kirkus, for example, is famous for its house style.

        It is one thing to express a preference for a particular approach to reviewing and to support that preference with arguments and examples. But to tar all reviewers (and all critics) with the same rhetorical brush, and that on the basis of only one magazine (Locus) seems like a rather risky over-reach which leaves you open to being misinterpreted. 🙂

        So let me perhaps pose a question to align the discussion – I hope – more closely with what you had in mind: why do you prefer the more negative approach to book reviewing?

        1. Chris,

          You're mistaking critical analysis for negative reviewing. I don't go into a review or a book or anything looking for its negative aspects. I look at a book to see if it's working or not. If it is, I say so; if it isn't, then I feel obliged to also say so. I learned this in the late 1980s when I started reviewing classical music. My "beat" was late 20th century music which wasn't yet part of a canon. I learned to let the work tell me what it wants to do or is trying to do and then comment from there. Readers in the sf field aren't really used to honesty in reviews. For example, years ago Larry Niven put together a collection of very short stories in his series Draco Tavern. They were wonderful and really made the collection itself its very own story. (Robert Frost said that in a book of 24 poems, the 25th poem should be the book.) This is what I'm looking for. Here's a more immediate example. I've just finished Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, 2312. Most reviews, especially in LOCUS call it the best book of the year–but I found it tedious and I can pinpoint the place in the novel where the tedium sets in. About one third of the way into the book, the main character has to walk halfway around the planet Mercury underground. There is virtually no action and it's page after page of characters talking about all kinds of thing that really don't matter. It's Robinson stretching the novel out. The rest of the novel is fine! This really sticks out like a sore thumb. I think it's a point worth noting for readers. I have to be honest with my readers because what if I praise to high heaven a book and they go out and buy it then discover this glaring error? I feel the same way when I write a review of a Silvestrov symphony or a Dutilleux tone poem. Readers are smart people, too. Not all of them accept every sf novel as being equal and equally good. Some books really do suck. (As some really do swing.) In fact, I'm really impressed with Nancy Kress' collection Fountain of Age that came out last year that's up for a Philip K. Dick award. It's that 25th poem. I hope I've clarified my remarks some.

  5. Great article, Paul. In fact, I'm enjoying all of those you've written here. I agree with everything you've said in this blog, except the last line. At this point I think most of the general public ARE sheep. The public is so twitter-pated, so social-networked, no one is really capable of independent thought. Like starlings busy pecking at cigar butts on the sidewalk, when the flock picks up and goes they go with them. And the directional trends are more or less dictated by the tech giants and mass media. And you're correct, trying to buck those trends takes real courage. I salute yours.

  6. Reviews and critics should always be viewed with a skeptical eye. As in, "convince me". If that one request is not satisfied then the review or critic have failed.

    Most readers learn when they are being fed bologna and told it's steak.

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