Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Mon Sep 24 11:59:32 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #83

%T The New York Review of Science Fiction #24
%A David Hartwell & friends (editors)
%I Dragon Press
%D August 1990
%O mag, US$2.50
%P 24
%G none

I've just read my first issue of NYRSF. I thought it was hilarious and sad.

Most of the content in at least this issue displays a syndrome that has vitiated 20th-century "serious" literature and literary criticism, and driven most SF fans to reject both. That is, it is no longer "about" anything; like the Oozelum Bird, it has flown up its own arsehole into a precious never-never land of commentaries on reflections on ever finer-spun theories of what its proper subject matter is.

Samuel Delany's lead article is a perfect example of how the rot sets in. It's not about SF; it's about the process of writing SF, and includes a good deal of encouragement to self-satisfaction over SF's claim to be "the perfect post-modernist art-form" -- but if the readers of SF (the persons to whom writerly communication is ostensibly directed) have anything but indifference or contempt for such "programs" I've yet to hear of it. There is nothing in the article that addresses a reader's needs or interests at all; it's for initiates only, directed at an elite that has replaced reading with hermeneutics, and implicitly encouraged writers to disdain honest storytelling in favor of this week's version of "higher values" and a precious, self-conscious artiness.

The article displays critical regress -- the retreat from talking about a subject to talking about talking about a subject, then to talking about talking about talking about a subject, and so on until the ostensible subject evaporates, almost unnoticed. When the content of an art form is primarily shaped by such critical regresses, the loop is closed and the whole mass of "art objects" and texts about them disappears into a black hole of irrelevance. This is what happened to "modern" art, architecture, avant-garde music, and "serious literature" after WWI; the writers for NYRSF seem to be engaged in doing it to SF as well.

Tacitus might have said "They make a desert and call it postmodernism". I could write a whole essay on the parochialism implicit in the postmodernist idea of "exhaustion", which requires that the reader have the same experience as the critically-regressed writer contemplating the texts of other critically-regressed writers -- but that's for another time.

Fer cripes' sake. Doesn't anybody notice something wrong (or at least misdirected) about a 24-page journal called "The New York Review of Science Fiction" in which there are only three reviews, two of books which can be called SF only by an extremely loose reading of the term? In which nearly one third of the pagecount is given over to multiple arguments over a debate about someone else's alleged theory of how SF ought to be written? And in which appear not just one but two utterly irrelevant excerpts from "Rock and Roll: the 100 Best Singles". Where has the subject gone?

To be fair, there are one or two articles that haven't entirely forgotten a subject; Kathryn Cramer's on "Literary Architecture" and Greg Cox's "Reader's Guide to Vampire Fiction". Both, though, are about horror -- about a genre which encourages subjectivity and psychologizing. One senses that this is friendlier ground for the "literary" and critical mind than SF precisely because it has less grounding in the external reality of the reader, and is thus more easily manipulated to critical ends.

In general, though, the writing is self-important, terminally inbred, and light- years removed from any concerns a reader trying to better understand the actual texts of SF might have. Can't the field do any better than this?

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Mon Sep 24 11:59:32 EDT 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>