What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
05 May 2008
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.