June 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

These We Have Loved

Someone asked me a very interesting question recently. One of those questions where the answer is much wider than the narrow subject of the question.

But first: a little context (and a bit of self-promotion). I have just had a book published. It’s called What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, a collection of essays and reviews, and it has come out from Beccon Publications. It’s really good. Honest. You’ll enjoy it. Would I lie to you?

Anyway, to celebrate the launch of the book, I was interviewed by Graham Sleight at the BSFA London Meeting. We covered the usual suspects: how the book came into being, my attitude towards religion, a number of ideas picked from the book. Then Graham asked: "Given that he’s a devout Catholic whose religious ideas permeate his novels, I’d have thought Gene Wolfe would be anathema to you. So how come you have four pieces on his work in the book?"

The answer, after a bare moment’s thought, was: "Because I enjoy it." But that is a much bigger answer. I wouldn’t have got into reviewing science fiction if I had not loved sf. One of the essays in my book begins: "This is a love story." It’s very easy to forget, because when you’re a reviewer you read an awful lot of bad books. You also read a lot of books that are probably really fairly good, but they remind you of something better that you read thirty years ago, so maybe they don’t seem that good in comparison. (Though let us not forget that the thing you read when you were young and fresh and eager, all those years ago, may seem that much better because of when you read it; old and jaded today, if you went back to that earlier book it might not now seem as good as the mediocre novel that failed beside the golden memory.)

In other words we dull the palate. The more we read, the more we write about what we read (which entails a more detailed consideration of what does and does not work than we were wont to give when we just read for pleasure), the rarer those moments of wonder and delight seem. I probably write more grumpy (or partially grumpy) reviews today than I used to, because each new book that comes along has to stand against an ever increasing list of remembered classics. That doesn’t mean that the books today are any worse, just that my standards keep going up.

But the reason the bar is constantly being raised, the reason I keep ploughing through books that seem increasingly mediocre compared to my memory, is that I am an addict in perpetual search of that one perfect hit, that moment of pure enjoyment.

Of course I know that like any addict if I did discover that perfect hit, a moment of enjoyment that had not been cut with the chalk of doubt or skepticism or hesitation, it would only make me hunger all the more for a repeat, for the next perfect hit. Nevertheless, that’s why I review. That’s why, at bottom, I suspect most reviewers do what they do.

Like any other addiction, of course, it becomes harder to let go the longer you go on. When I talk to other critics there is an often unspoken division of our reading: reading for review and reading for pleasure. And when you think about it, the fact reviewing is so unquestioningly separated out from reading for pleasure is itself significant. But reading for pleasure is illusory. I no longer read science fiction for pleasure, at least not in that pure and unalloyed sense. This is partly because most of the science fiction I would want to read, or indeed could read, during the course of a year comes to me for review anyway. But even so there are a number of talked-about novels I don’t see, and in these cases I will chase down and read a number of them. Since it is not reading for review, that could be taken as reading for pleasure, but that’s not really the case. I’m too caught up in the analytical mode of reading to be able to avoid using that mode when I’m reading something else. Besides, I’m conscious that I’m reading to stock up my storehouse of comparisons, to keep up my awareness of what’s current. If I’m not reading the book for review, I know that I’m likely to refer to the book in a future review. There is no real escape.

Even if I read mainstream fiction or a crime novel for "pleasure," I’ll find that the next review I write might rest on a comparison with the mainstream, or I analyse the crime story on my blog. Everything feeds the ever-hungry maw of the review.

All of which probably makes reviewing sound like a chore (and there are indeed times when I would advise no sane person to take it up). But it is no more a chore than Arthur’s knights considered riding out after the Holy Grail a chore, or that children digging up a beach in a hunt for buried treasure think their spadework is a chore. Writing the review may be, generally is, a chore; but the reviewing itself, the reading, isn’t because of that one simple word: enjoy.

I enjoy Gene Wolfe’s work (to take us back to that original question) because he plays the sort of mind games and word games that give me pleasure, even if I don’t happen to share his beliefs or his worldview. Though generally I prefer spare prose to lush writing, I enjoy the work of Lucius Shepard because of the intense physicality of the worlds he creates. I enjoy the space operas of Alistair Reynolds not because of any quality of the writing but because their scale and pace take me back to the things that first turned me into a science fiction fan. The enjoyment is still there: it’s what started me reviewing and it’s what keeps me reviewing.

Now the fact that I find enjoyment in their work doesn’t mean that I will give these writers an easy ride. Far from it, I’m almost more likely to point out how Shepard relies rather too readily on standard fantasy figures in his plotting, how Reynolds’s characterisation is hackneyed, how Wolfe’s baroque creations don’t quite add up. That’s my job as a reviewer, after all. But I’m also delighting in the work as I go along. Even in the most lacklustre novel, so long as you can bring yourself to drag all the way through to the end, the chances are you will have found something in which to delight, if only the unconscious humour of truly bad writing.

But if you don’t delight in what you read, you have no business reviewing it. Because isn’t that the job of the reviewer, to say here be pleasures or avoid this if you don’t want to be disappointed? And you cannot point to pleasures if you do not share them. After the third or fourth tedious, unoriginal, ill-written, poorly-constructed work in a row it may be hard to remember this. But when you come down to it, we’re in the business of enjoying science fiction.