As Tom Shippey Sees Us

In the TLS, reviewing Anathem. It is not, in my view, a particularly good review; in the first paragraph, he seems to imply that Cryptonomicon is Stephenson’s fourth novel, and refers to the Baroque Cycle as the “Baroque Trilogy”; in the second he asserts that Anathem starts out looking like “high fantasy”, which really isn’t the description I’d choose; and he gives away what’s really going on in the book (a revelation withheld until about two-thirds of the way through which, though it’s not an easy call, I’d say puts it beyond the bounds of discussion in a first-look review) without, in my view, adding any striking insight. It almost seems as though the review is an excuse for him to say this:

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.

It’s nice that Shippey likes advocacy-based sf, but it would be even nicer if he realised it’s only one of the strings to sf’s bow. I mean, at the moment it looks like he thinks the many sf writers who don’t believe these things simply write bad sf.

9 thoughts on “As Tom Shippey Sees Us

  1. Shippey’s take on sf is…distinctive, as witness his arranging the field round the concept of a “fabril” in his Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.

  2. Was he a medievalist originally? (Not that I have anything against them – some of my best friends etc.) He came to sf from Tolkien – or at least that’s the footprints he’s left over thirty years or so.

    The Oxford Book is indeed … odd. It’s more or less as if women weren’t yet invented.

  3. Yes, Shippey was a mediaevalist. But he was also a fan before he was an academic critic of sf, coming in through the Brum group, writing for Speculation and attending various cons before he turned his professional attention to Tolkien.

  4. Hey, Niall, say more about your objections to the “high fantasy” assertion? I’m not sure it’s the description I’d choose either, but it doesn’t seem obviously wrongheaded to me, either.

    (I mean, apart from the fact that Anathem doesn’t start with a prologue in which some character we’ll never see again gets whacked by dark forces that we also won’t ever see again, though our friends tell us they do actually reappear a couple of books after the point in the series where we gave up.)

  5. I could certainly see someone reading it, to start with, as fantasy. But “high fantasy”, to me, has connotations of Diana Wynne Jones-style fantasyland. Good and Evil, quasi-medieval setting, sorcerers, elves and dwarves, quests, taverns, etc etc.

  6. To be fair to Shippey, a lot of contemporary science fiction seems to fall under the “advocacy” (perhaps didactic) heading.

  7. Funny, Ricardo, I’ve been exchanging emails with someone who’s arguing the exact opposite, that advocacy sf has sharply declined relative to, say, twenty or so years ago, and is now reduced to a rump of Kim Stanley Robinson and Orson Scott Card (and there’s two writers you don’t often get to mention in the same sentence). Which writers/books were you thinking of?

  8. Niall, don’t you think Stephenson writes advocacy – maybe not ‘high advocacy’? (I can’t comment on Anathem though cos haven’t read it yet)

    Also i would say that that Banks , Macleod, Morgan etc advocate stuff. maybe this isn’t what ‘advocacy’ means. But, for example, MacLeod certainly seems to advocate a lot of the stuff in the Shippey quote above.

  9. Though I enjoyed Shippey’s bio of Tolkien – I’m afraid he is too limiting of sf – at least in the quote you cite.

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