22 March 2005

Norman Spinrad, Messiah

Before I argue with some of the ideas in Norman Spinrad's latest "On Books" column for Asimov's, I need to dispense with some particularities: First, I have been reading Spinrad's columns since the late eighties, and whenever they appear in Asimov's, I read them before reading anything else. He shaped much of my perception of what science fiction and fantasy are and are capable of being. I disagree with just about every third sentence he writes, but that's half the fun of reading him -- he does what any good critic should, and provides lots of fodder for argument. Personality and passion explode from his words, making him one of the few truly essential SF book reviewers.

Second: The book Spinrad spends the most time on in this column is Iron Council by China Mieville, a book I've written quite a bit about, both here and at the Crooked Timber seminar on the book, so I won't say too much more about it right now, as there are other ideas I want to look at.

Finally, for more thoughts on Spinrad and the forces altering the literary and SF landscapes, see the comments to this post by David Moles, particularly those of Ben Rosenbaum.

Okay, now to the column--

Spinrad praises Iron Council, but seems to have some reservations about Mieville's use of magic. He also thinks the book is a novel of political advocacy, and that fantasy is a bad genre for such a thing, because fantasy is about things that are impossible and SF is about things that are within a realm of possibility. Instead of thinking that, perhaps, Mieville wants to do what he does and how he does it, Sprinrad has decided that the book should be science fiction and is fantasy not because that's what Mieville wants to write, but because the evil publishers both hate science fiction and are terrified that the book would be too revolutionary if it were anything other than what it is. Therefore, being craven cowards of concupiscent cupidity, they forced Mieville to write a fantasy novel:
Advocating a violent collectivist revolution in a disconnected fantasy universe where it can maybe be perceived as just a literary game is dicey enough, but doing it in a science fiction novel where it would cut too close to home reality would, under the present political situation in the United States, probably make it unpublishable, and if published, result in an unfriendly visit from the boys from Homeland Security.
This is, to indulge in Spinradism, horseshit. At best, it is wishful thinking. Wouldn't it be nice if novels actually had enough of an effect on the world that the government cared? Come on -- if the publishers thought the book had any such power or possibility of scandal, they'd be thrilled (think about all the free publicity Checkpoint got from people who thought it was advocating the assassination of the president).

Spinrad's crackpot theories and odd criticisms are tied to an agenda that becomes clear as the column progresses. Spinrad sees fantasy novels as having sucked up the market for "literarily ambitious science fiction":
I see the best minds of my generation and the ones that followed surrendering into small press publication in order to be published at all, or adapting their talents to fantasy, or in my case historical fiction -- to earn a living, to be sure -- but also to reach a readership of any meaningful size.

...And any number of writers who thought they had long since established secure reputations as major science fiction writers have at least found themselves unable to secure major imprint publication for major work. I will not embarrass these luminaries by naming them, but I will embarrass myself by admitting that I am one of them.
Here we get to the core of what's going on. Spinrad's own writing is not getting the attention it once did, nor is the writing of his friends. Throughout the entire column -- from the opening where Spinrad moans that he wasn't sent a free review copy of Iron Council to the self-pitying whine of "I've been wondering whether I should even continue to write these columns" to his pointing out that the author of the final book he reviews (Master of None by N. Lee Wood) "happens to be my ex, and she not only didn’t want me to mention it, but didn’t want me to review her novel at all" -- there is an obvious subtext: I matter! What I do matters! Love me!

These feelings, though seldom expressed too openly, are common to most artists, and Spinrad certainly must miss the days when his novel Bug Jack Barron was being denounced as pornographic and nihilistic and he was touted as "the Norman Mailer of science fiction". The failure of the New Wave writers to either remain controversial or to become the bastions of a new literature has embittered many of them. The problem is that Spinrad uses his personal disappointments to create an argument about all science fiction.

Spinrad says nice things about books by Paul Di Filippo and Eileen Gunn, wondering all the while why they were not published by big publishers rather than the "featherweight" small presses that did publish them, and why Di Filippo hasn't been more present on Hugo and Nebula ballots. He is stunned that "something called Tachyon Publications" has put together a professional-looking press kit for Gunn's book. Amazing what a little publisher can do. (And the publicity worked -- a mediocre-to-good collection, certainly not the best collection of the year by any means, has now gotten stellar reviews and been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award). And in amidst his condescending remarks about the small presses, Spinrad pauses to let us know that his own masterpiece ("the first meta-science fiction novel") was rejected by the major publishers and he was horrified to discover that small presses don't pay big advances.

Despite being aghast that someone of his stature should have to lower himself to looking at the small presses, Spinrad hopes that Tachyon (and, by association, other small publishers) will be successful, because otherwise science fiction writers won't be able to make a living and will go do other things, which will then mean that the universe will end:
Deeper even than the scientific method is the conviction that reality has a knowable nature, that all of creation is of a consistent pattern, that it is all interrelated, that what is is real, and what is real is ultimately knowable, and that the supernatural is therefore a contradiction in terms.

This, I am now prepared to contend, is the root metaphysical assumption of all true science fiction. And in literary terms, it means that all true science fiction is centered on the interaction of the external surround -- physical, political, cultural, linguistic, anything and everything -- with the lives and consciousness of the characters.

If it does this, and there is any speculative element in the externals of the fictional universe at all, it is true science fiction, and if it does not, it is not true science fiction. Period.
Compare this to Spinrad's introduction to his 1971 anthology The New Tomorrows, in which he defined science fiction as "anything published as science fiction" and said that
Of all possible literary movements, a move toward the widest possible diversity in style, content, form, and philosophy will always be the hardest for traditionalists to grasp. I believe that this is what is occurring in speculative fiction today. I believe that the fifteen stories in this book will demonstrate that what the writers hold in common is dedication to private visions, rather than some imagined ideology or commonly held notion of prose style or form. ...

What you are going to read is fifteen stories by fifteen individualists. If you expect a pattern to emerge, you will probably be disappointed. The only pattern here is a lack of pattern; the only stricture is freedom.
It's got a nice ring to it, doesn't it: the only stricture is freedom...

And now, in conservative senescence, Spinrad proclaims that there is One True Way -- not only that, but the One True Way will save rational civilization. Funny that someone proclaiming rationalism appropriates the language of evangelical religion.

Spinrad denigrates fantasy because, according to him, it doesn't require a suspension of the reader's disbelief, then says that
science fiction must create belief.

Belief that its characters, however altered their states of consciousness, however evolved or devolved or alien, inhabit a fictional universe that, however far in the future or far away or both, could in the future or far away or even right now be contiguous with the reality that the reader inhabits.
Sounds more like Scientology than science fiction.

Spinrad's not saying anything John W. Campbell didn't say over and over again. And to a certain extent, some kinds of SF do have the sort of power Spinrad and Campbell advocate -- there are plenty of stories of Neuromancer inspiring computer geeks to create cyberspace and mold the internet into what we've got today. But it is monumentally shortsighted and pitifully grandiose to claim this sort of world-changing power as the fundamental criterion of what SF is, was, and should be. If you think that most of even the famous and inarguably canonical science fiction stories "could in the future or far away or even right now be contiguous with the reality that the reader inhabits", then you are probably deluded and bordering on schizophrenia.

Spinrad puts far too much emphasis on the denotational content of stories, making him the SF world's equivalent of somebody who thinks every single word of the Bible is literal truth. Such a view is a sad, shriveled, and narrow perspective of fiction's possibilities, one that overpraises the virtues of propaganda and ignores the virtues of allegory, fable, myth, poetry, and imagination.

One might think at this point that Spinrad had gone far enough with his Puritan SF ethic, but no, he must go further, and after insulting various non-European civilizations, he proclaims:
If you have no means of imagining and communicating a vision of something above and beyond the present state, you end up with a culture with no means of even conceptualizing it, let alone calling it into being.

This is why the dominant culture on this planet is the so-called West, more properly the globalized culture, for this is the deep force beneath the very notion of cultural progress itself, and this is what has enabled the only culture on Earth that somehow developed a means of doing so to dominate the globe for better and for worse. And no culture that lacks the force is going to be able to compete with one that has it, let alone make things better.
I matter! What I do matters! Love me! I created Western civilization and dominated the globe!

If anybody needed a reason to wish for science fiction to die, Norman Spinrad has given it to them -- not just the engine of imperialism that he ascribes to the genre, but the pitiful sight of a not-bad writer and provocative and thoughtful critic becoming a raving lunatic in search of a cult.

Perhaps I shouldn't have spent so many words on Spinrad's rantings. It's not like his complaints are going to affect anything, after all. But it's frustrating that someone of such experience, someone who has seen the SF field grow and change and contract and metamorphose, ends up writing like the generation of people before him did, and turns into an embarrassing parody of himself.

Or maybe that's the point. Maybe the column really was a parody. Maybe it was Spinrad trying to be a Campbell for the current generation to rebel against*.

If so, then it was a good try and a clever joke. In fact, I like that idea a whole lot more than I do the idea that Spinrad was entirely serious...


*Which is not to neglect the fact that in the late '30s and early '40s, Campbell was a rebel himself, first with his Don A. Stuart stories and then as editor of Astounding

1 comment:

  1. Comments rescued from a defunct commenting system:

    Nicholas Liu @ 3:27PM | 2005-03-23| permalink

    Hold on a sec, hasn't Paul diFilippo been with 4W8W forever?


    Chris McLaren @ 3:27PM | 2005-03-23| permalink

    I wish it were a clever joke too, but I have actually read Spinrad's POD "masterwork", and I have to report that, sadly, it is not. Or else he's been sustaining it for a couple of years now.

    The book is bad, not just in comparison to some of Spinrad's other works--many of which I think are flat out excellent--but objectively.

    I suspect in this case the refusal of the majors to publish the work has nothing to do with the ongoing "shrinking midlist" problem, and more to do with the fact that the book was just not good. Just goes to show that even a writer of Spinrad's skill can't write a book that is more a message than anything else and make it work.


    name @ 6:13PM | 2005-03-23| permalink

    Great post Matt. I was horrified when I read Spinrad's column. You definately hit the nail on the head.



    name @ 6:26PM | 2005-03-23| permalink

    I agree with Chris,

    I read one chapter of the thing--about a famous sf writer attending a convention and it was condescending and just plain bad.



    name @ 6:31PM | 2005-03-23| permalink

    Maybe the column really was a parody. Maybe it was Spinrad trying to be a Campbell for the current generation to rebel against*.

    Yea. Every generation's gotta have an old white man to rail against.

    It must suck, the day you realize you've turned into that Old White Man.

    heh heh.


    Nick Mamatas @ 8:25AM | 2005-03-24| permalink

    Hmm, this is the second time in as many weeks that I've heard someone complain that DiFillipo hasn't been published by any majors.

    I guess nobody else bought the Eos edition of Ribofunk from 1998? Well, that might explain why he hasn't had an mmpb since...except that iBooks is reissuing the book later this year, also in mmpb.



    Ron @ 8:26AM | 2005-03-24| permalink

    Still, it's pretty disheartening when even Norman Spinrad can't get onto Del Rey's list for review copies. Hell, he could probably just ask his editors at Knopf/Vintage to see if they can get him freebies through the Bertelsmann pipelines.


    Ellen Datlow @ 4:30PM | 2005-03-24| permalink

    I don't know why he can't. I can and do get review copies from Del Rey.


    Matt Cheney @ 5:05PM | 2005-03-24| permalink

    I was surprised he hadn't gotten them, either, because I've gotten more review copies from Del Rey and Random House than anybody else, and I'm a pretty small fish in this pond. I think it's probably more an oversight than anything.


    anon @ 6:09PM | 2005-03-24| permalink

    Del Rey can be amazingly piss-poor and random about follow up on review copies.


    Torger Vedeler @ 6:58PM | 2005-03-24| permalink

    I must confess significant ignorance when it comes to how the review system works. What is "follow up on review copies"?


    ed @ 8:09PM | 2005-03-24| permalink

    Excellent post, Matt.

    On the review copy front (and I should also point out that Del Rey and Random House has been good to me too, and I'm just some picayune litblogger and quasi-reviewer: do we see a trend here?), my guess is that Spinrad assumed that he'd be getting a complimentary copy without having to ask for one or letting the world know that he existed -- something that can be cleared up in less than a minute.

    If Spinrad is setting himself up as a rebel, then he's done a piss-poor job. Surely, if Spinrad's arguments are this porous, one would expect a certain wink to his audience. But here, particularly with the socialist novel suggestion, it's just A-1 idiocy. Which is a shame. Because back in the day, I dug Spinrad's fiction.


    Michael Canfield @ 6:46AM | 2005-03-25| permalink

    I'd like to see an issue of Asimov's that contained just one or two stories that could provoke as much controversy, frustration, and discussion as some of Spinrad's columns. Now that --to me--would indicate a healthy field.



    Ellen Datlow @ 4:50PM | 2005-03-25| permalink

    The field IS healthy.

    Controversy doesn't indicate the health of the field necessarily. It may indicate the opinions of a small group of people reading in the field. There has been controversy in the past year but to me it's always pretty trivial--does this particular piece of fiction _fit_ into the sf canon or not--or a basically blurring the boundaries--good or bad--kind of controversial hiccup.

    ReplyDelete