For those of you unaccustomed to science fiction reviewing, here’s a rule of thumb: reaction to a review will always hone in on the point most applicable to the community that reads science fiction, rather than anything which might relate to science fiction itself. In a way, this is inevitable in a field of criticism largely conducted by enthusiasts, and in a genre so thoroughly sealed off from respectability (national newspapers frequently review crime fiction, but rarely give science fiction more than a passing nod).
Some years ago, Niall Harrison, aforementioned editor of Strange Horizons Reviews who doubles as editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal of record, Vector, interviewed me for a fanzine article he was writing. He asked me whether I self-identified as a ‘fan’. My instinctive response was in the negative: being a fan, I argued, meant putting aside some or all of one’s critical faculties.
A Manchester United fan may gripe about team selection, but he will probably never abandon his team. If you’re going to talk seriously about books, you need to be able to abandon the ones that are bad. Being a fan is like carrying the card of a political party: it asks you to bury your misgivings and stick up for your crowd against the other bullies in the playground.
I rise to this shamless bait because it’s been a while since I talked about reviewing, rather than posting reviews. So: I am a fan.
Martin Lewis has already come close to articulating the first point I’d make in response to Dan, which is that while there are sf books (and authors) I love, I’m not a fan of the books, I’m a fan of the form. Or, more specifically, I’m a fan of the potential of the form. I read a lot of science fiction because I know what science fiction can be, because I know that it can engage me in ways other fiction does not. That doesn’t stop me thinking plenty of sf novels are bad, though it might (okay: does) lead me to disagree with non-fans about the merits of specific books.
Martin also suggests that Dan’s initial rule of thumb is predominantly an artifact of the review format: a given review-reader is unlikely to have read the book under discussion, but may still have an opinion on generalizations expressed in the review. This is undoubtedly true, so far as it goes, and I doubt that talking about the community around fiction instead of the fiction itself is unique to the sf community, but here I think Dan still has a point. I don’t think community standards and traditions are inherently bad things, but if we’re going to fret about the potential for sf to become recursive and overly self-referential (as witness the past few years’ recurring angst about the need for “entry-level sf”), we have to at least be wary of the possibility that sf criticism can go the same way. Which, incidentally, is one reason I ask Dan to write reviews for me.
But I don’t think it follows that community affiliation is itself a bad thing. Without wanting to dive fully into the question of whether or not there are absolute standards of goodness and badness in literature, I find myself sympathetic to the notion that if someone enjoys something, and can explain why, then that something has value. So for me the trick, and the challenge, is to explain why, as a fan of science fiction, I like (and dislike) the science fiction I do. To explore what it means to read from the perspective I read from, and to try to communicate that understanding to other people. (It seems to me this is where Michael Chabon is coming from, for example, however much I might quibble with his results in practice.) Or, to directly respond to the last point of Dan’s I quoted above: what’s so bad about sticking up for your crowd against playground bullies?