Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Times Literary Supplement Gets It Right

The New York Times Book Review continues to subject us to ├╝bertwit Dave Itzkoff, the science fiction reviewer who delights in expressing disdain for the field about which he knows so little -- just this past Sunday he sneered at "the 25-cent bin of genre fiction."

Meanwhile, the Times of London shows its junior how it's done, printing this review by Tom Shippey of Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
I haven't read Anathem so I won't comment on Shippey's conclusions about the novel. (I suspect I would have a less positive reaction. I am a slow reader, so tend to be unforgiving of authors as long-winded as Stephenson has become.)

Whatever you think of Stephenson's recent work, SF/F readers have to love this description of the concerns of modern science fiction:
One of the great things about (much) science fiction is that its authors really mean it. They do think, for instance, that the human species is doomed to exhaustion and dieback if it does not get itself into space, and soon, while we have the technology and the resources, a window of opportunity shuttered by NASA’s inept bureaucracy. They really do believe that humans could be educated to their full potential and far beyond the levels reached by the tick-the-box grading systems of modern colleges, if we exploited available computer- and nano-technology. To them (some of them) mathematics is not just fiddling with abstractions but a guide to ultimate reality. Some of them think we need never die. In every case, though, there is strong awareness of the obstacles in the way of converting possibility to hard fact, some of them theoretical or technological, but even more of them social, financial, attitudinal.
Our future is upon us, and science fiction is one of the few fields encouraging folks to consider seriously what lies ahead. Shippey observes that "much science fiction, like Stephenson’s, has a missionary quality; its purpose is to get people thinking seriously about serious matters, not the trivia that fill modern versions of the unexamined life."

Shippey approves of this focus, although he is skeptical about how many readers out there can tackle what Stephenson is up to. Yet there are obviously many readers who feel up to the challenge -- Anathem hit #1 on the best-seller list compiled by that rag that employs Dave Itzkoff.

It is not surprising that Tom Shippey should engage in a thoughtful and respectful discussion of science fiction and fantasy. Shippey has won the World Fantasy Award and been a Hugo nominee for his Tolkien scholarship, and under the pseudonym John Holm he co-authored a trilogy of alternate history novels with Harry Harrison, beginning with The Hammer and the Cross. But for the Times of London to provide a forum for this discussion is encouraging indeed.

No comments: