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I think Gabe was the first to spot Dave Itzkoff's NY Times review:
But what truly shames me is that I cannot turn to any of these people, or to my friends, or to you, and say: Whether you read books because you have a genuine, lifelong passion for literature or because a feisty woman in Chicago tells you to—you should pick up this new work of science fiction I just finished reading, because you will enjoy it as much as I did.

I cannot do this in good conscience because if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual. And you would very likely come away wondering, as I do from time to time, whether science fiction has strayed so far from the fiction category as a whole that, though the two share common ancestors, they now seem to have as much to do with each other as a whale has to do with a platypus.

A perfect case in point is the work of David Marusek, whose first novel, "Counting Heads" (Tor/Tom Doherty, $24.95) was one of my favorite books of last year in any category, and an exemplary entry in the sci-fi genre. And before some overeager publisher starts slapping that endorsement on a fresh set of dust jackets, let me explain what I mean.
Now think of all the people you might expect to have the opposite reaction. Was Dan one of them?
Whether in despair at the impending singularity, or simple acceptance that SF has so often got the future wrong that it has become pointless to pretend you think you're right, a fair chunk of recent science fiction has seemed more interested in game-playing than ambition—emphasising genre navel-gazing rather than any serious discussion.

Counting Heads, David Marusek's startling debut novel, is a book acutely aware that science fiction achieves its true power and potency only when it also exhibits self-belief.

It is not that this is a book divorced from the genre. Far from it—in its depiction of a future ruled by cynical and self-justifying corporations, Counting Heads reminds us of Bester's The Stars My Destination; humans (these are emphatically not posthumans, whatever they may be) are resurrected or "rebooted," as in Doctorow's Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom; in the novel's genetic politics and impenetrable agendas, we hear echoes of Dune; the massive Oships destined for other solar systems tip their hats to Aldiss and Wolfe, Banks and Macleod; and by examining what happens when the space between the real and the illusory is reduced to nothing, Marusek tackles virtuality as well as anyone since Dick. But in all of these areas Marusek offers new visions and asks fresh questions, addressing the perennial issues of the genre but in such a way that he does not lose himself in the process.
I'm about 130 pages into Counting Heads; I was hoping to have finished it by now, but I got distracted by shiny things last night. The headline is--hold the front page!--it looks like Dan and I agree it's a good book, if perhaps not about why.

Anyway, to get back to Itzkoff, there are of course reactions all over the place.
  • Letters to Locus Online by Lucius Sorrentino ("Dave Itzkoff is the perfect foil for those who want to remain ignorant about SF and feel justifiably superior about it"), Elizabeth Hand (Why no women, or writers younger than China Mieville, on Itkoff's list of favourite books?), and L.E.Modesitt Jnr (going off at a tangent: "Our "literary" lights and reviewers within the field, with a few notable exceptions [this will allow all reviewers to claim that exception], focus on their own narrow interests to the exclusion of much good and great work, and paradoxically, often go out of their way to avoid bringing notice to works that are considered "commercial" or "popular."")

  • Matt Cheney tried and failed to read Counting Heads a few months ago (interestingly one of the things Matt didn't like about section two--the fragmentation into multiple viewpoints--is one of the things I like), but takes down Itzkoff's column anyway.

  • Lauren McLaughlin wonders whether Itkoff has a point about the 'geekiness problem'; interesting discussion in the comments.

  • Andrew Wheeler argues--quite rightly in my opinion--that it's not geeky, it's immersive. One of things I'm finding so impressive about the book is how naturally Marusek gets into the heads of his characters, and conveys both the differences and the familiarities of their psychology.

  • Nick Mamatas thinks it's about class.

  • General discussion at metafilter.
I think that's all the major links. Two bonuses: Iain Emsley interviews Marusek, and Marusek wants to know if you want a short story collection (hint: you do).

Unfortunately I don't have time to attempt to synthesise all the points raised in the above links into a coherent or useful discussion, but there's a lot of chewy stuff there, and if anyone wants to get into it in the comments I'd be more than happy to join you.

POSTSCRIPT: Karen Joy Fowler writes about Octavia Butler for Salon, and in the process takes a swipe at Itzkoff. Michael Schaub responds. megmccarron comments here. And somehow nobody told Marusek about the fuss until now.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Thinking back to earlier SF, it does seem to me that many earlier SF books were happy to take a single (or couple of) ideas and run with them, whereas a lt of books nowadays seem happier to take large numbers of ideas and pile them on each other to create a very different world to our own. I can see why the former would be more accessible than the latter to many people who aren't heavily into SF and used to throwing themselves headlong into the 853rd century.
True dat. Do you think one strategy is more--possibly for want of a better word--realistic than the other? I think part of the angst about writing near-future sf at the moment comes from the feeling that everything is changing all at once, and it's too much for anyone to capture in a book.

Relatedly, I would have sworn that someone somewhere complained about how 'off the shelf' and overly familiar the future in Counting Heads was, but if they did I couldn't find it this morning.
I think you're absolutely right. (This is the germ of a theory of the history of sf which I shall elaborate pompously at some point, but this comment box is too small.) But, in brief, I think this is the real turning-point that cyberpunk brought: what you might call multi-variate extrapolation. Before then, speaking *very* generally, stories tended to have a single premise or gimmick (exceptions: Bester, Delany - hence their status as proto-cyberpunks). C-punk said: if you're going to tell us what the future is like, extrapolate it fully and tell us what it's going to be like for *everyone*. Hence, arguably, the political edge which c-punk successors like Marusek have to their work.
Wheeler says:
Elizabeth Hand's letter in Locus seems radically beside the point to me: Itzkoff, whatever he is, is not a committee, nor is he the Czar of Political Correctness. He likes the books he likes. We can infer things from that about him, but deploring that list because it is not Representative of the Diversity of Wimmin and Other Small Furry Woodland Creatures is just silly.
This is a bit rich because Hand is simply making judgements about the breadth of Itzkoff's reading based on his top ten, exactly what Wheeler has spent his whole post doing. I think they are both wrong to try and infer so much from a list of personal favourites.
I am in all probability suppressing women's writing when I say this, but I don't know if my top ten SF novels would include books by women, and I don't really care if it does or not. I like good books and I don't care who wrote them, and I don't tend to notice if I'm reading stuff by men or women.

Arguing about a top ten not including anyone younger than China Mieville had me slightly baffled, too. It's not like Mieville is an elder statesman of the genre who's been around for years and years.
Actually, the bit that got me about Hand's letter was the "nobody younger than China Mieville" line, which is clearly justified given that Mieville has reached the ripe old age of, er, 33.

I do think you can infer something about a top-ten list published in the NY Times; I think we can assume he probably gave some thought to how the list would set out his stall, and didn't just pick his literal favourites. That said, Ted (Chiang, I assume) points out that Itzkoff also considers Collapse, White Noise, A History of Violence and Lost to be science fiction, which at the very least shows he isn't working from a narrow definition.
Untitled by Anonymous :: Expand
I agree with Niall, Dan, Ted Chiang, Matt Cheney, and Nick Mamatas all in one go, and you know how that makes me cranky.

I even agree with Itzkoff a little tiny bit. There were times when I was reading Accelerando when I felt a bit like reading a textbook, and it's not something I would recommend to a friend as a great piece of SF. Somehow Cryptonomicon, which has a similar feel of the author assuming that you want to be immersed in geek knowledge you might not fully understand, is something I would happily recommend to other people, and I'm not sure why that is.

He's totally wrong about Counting Heads, though, because it's great. The opening novella is easily the best part about it, but I'm not sure you could sustain that over the length of a novel without opening it out to multiple-viewpoints as he does, and I don't feel quite as involved with the characters because of it.

Also:
"I don't mean to toot my own matrix here, but I did pretty well in collegiate-level classes in multivariable calculus and linear algebra, and when the novel concluded with a head-on collision of various clones, mentars, slugs, jerries, pikes and evangelines, I had no idea what the heck happened."

If you didn't like or understand the ending then you didn't, but I doubt it had anything to do with linear algebra.
I wrote a long post
LiveJournal ate my long post
lunchtime is over.

My post said Itzkoff
was missing out on all the
character-driven,

accessible and
engaging sf that I
recommend to friends.

boo to LiveJournal
which has spared your readership
my deathless ramblings.
OK gang, new rule: all comments must be made in the form of a poem.
Andrew Wheeler argues--quite rightly in my opinion--that it's not geeky, it's immersive

I think this is True. Hoggy has made me rethink the depth of the book, but largely I still stand by the things I say. It's exactly the sort of novel sf should do more - it whacks sf on the head not by being particularly revolutionary, but by framing the twisted old in freshly intelligent (and, dare we say it, 'literary') ways.

Having said that, most sf is still pants. Just in case you were wondering.
But as we all know, 90% of everything is pants. Unless you accessorise.
The NYTimes article reads... "Like a sci-fi "Syriana," "Counting Heads" offers a mélange of characters: a cloned security guard undergoing an identity crisis; a former bishop pioneering a mission to colonize distant planets; a 29-year-old man who chose to stop physically maturing at the age of 13."

Having not read any Marusek, how does this compare with The Tin Drum - sounds thematically similar.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078875/
Well, I've never seen The Tin Drum, and that imdb page doesn't give me any reason to think it's particularly similar to Marusek. But I could very easily be wrong.
Q2 - just how common parlance has 'geek-fu' become?!?
Hooray for Alex Irvine:
Dave Itzkoff was doomed no matter what he did. If his top ten list had featured the best of recent years, he would have been verbally machine-gunned for lack of reverence for the history of the field; if he had loved the Good Old Stuff, he would have taken all kinds of shots for being hidebound and out of touch. He tried to pick his favorites from throughout the field, and only succeeded in making everyone mad. Every single one of the people who have criticized him would have thrown out a top 10 every bit as idiosyncratic and full of absences. (The one reservation I agree with is that first articulated by Liz Hand, that Itzkoff couldn't find room for even one woman on his list.)