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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 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.

Yeah. See Clute's review of Pattern Recognition, in particular the quote he starts the piece with. (As you know, I have fairly extensive disagreement with Clute on this - of which my paper in Polder is just a fragment.)
I nearly mentioned the spinning of a given moment's scenarios, but didn't want to be accused of being geeky and insular. :p

I didn't know your disagreement with Clute about this was 'extensive'. Or at least, I thought your disagreement was about whether this means the Death Of SF or not, rather than about single-variable vs multiple-variable extrapolation.
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.

I'd agree, except that this feeling isn't new to us now. People seem to have felt much the same as far back as the 1700s (at least), if not the whole of history. Descartes complained about the bloody kids causing the downfall of society, I'd be shocked if the Greek elders didn't think that change was happening too fast. as Neil Gaiman says in Signal To Noise "We are always living in the end times."

What's new now, I think, is that people who have grown up reading the likes of Neuromancer are now building on that, in much the same way that the cyberpunk writers had grown up on earlier SF and were building on that.

What you're getting is the SF equivalent of Grant Morrison writing the JLA - idea thrown upon idea, referencing back into the vast amounts of lore built up, and put together by a brain used to taking in lots of confusing information at once and building its own world out of it.

It stands to reason that as a genre builds up a back catalogue writers are going to either tear it down because it's too confining or build upon its ideas and go deeper into what they see as the most exciting parts of it. And that when the latter occurs, the writers who have gone deeply into the genre are going to be less accessible to those people still standing outside of it, unsure of even the most basic jargon in use.
I'd agree, except that this feeling isn't new to us now. People seem to have felt much the same as far back as the 1700s (at least), if not the whole of history.

I think angst about the pace of change is ancient. I think angst about the multidimensionality of change is relatively modern, or at least foregrounded by modern thinking. You (and Graham) are, I think, right that in a sense it starts with Neuromancer, but I'm not sure how much of a book like Counting Heads is extrapolating from sf and how much is extrapolating from the real world. (I suspect it's both.)
It is an interesting question - how much effort does it take to understand the real world nowadays?

And I think that the answer is "it varies" - using a mobile phone to make a phone call is pretty simple, working out the cheapest tariff for your usage, pretty darn hard, understanding how it's changed the way people interact with each other, mindnumbingly hard.

There's a trade-off though - in some ways life has changed vastly in the last 15 years - the internet has, in many ways "changed everything" - but on the other hand western society is much stabler than at any point in the past - nobody has invaded anyone else in Europe for a good few decades, the religion of the next monarch won't cause consternation and fear amongst large chunks of the population, and even the number of revolutions and coups is down to a dull roar.
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.
You have a truly remarkable history of SF which this comment box is too small to contain?
Solution: multiple comments.
A History of SF by A. Hogg

In the beginning, some dudes wrote some stuff.

Then some other folk wrote stuff. And some of them were women and some were non-Americans and some people even made TV and films WOAH.

Now, lots of people make stuff.

Most of it's shit, mind.
tl;dr.
The Condensed History of SF by A. Hogg

It's not as good as pie.
Gesendheit.
You are Brian Aldiss AICM5P.
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.
I agree. I choose my favourite books based on my emotional reactions to them - not on who wrote them. Doign it any other way seems crazy to me.
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.
A History of Violence? Golly.
I haven't seen it, but the people who did the year-in-films review for Vector (Colin Odell and Mitch LeBlanc, as usual), initially included it, I think mostly on the grounds that it was by David Cronenberg. I take it you think it's a tenuous connection? :)
I don't think it's a tenuous connection.

I think it's a non-existent connection.

Unless "It has a character in it who was also in Lord of the Rings" counts as a connection.
If it had a character who was also in LOTR then yes, I would think that is a connection. But I'm assuming you meant actor.
You see, after umpty thousand years, Arwen was very, very familiar with human nature so the move into PI work was logical. From a dramatic POV, she makes a terrible main character (because she is so familliar with humans that she can often deduce missing information from the twitch of an eyebrow), which is why when Doyle wrote about her swanning around in London, he gave her Watson as a side-kick.

For some reason, Doyle never dwelt much on the fact that she was disguised as a man, although it is clear to the careful reader.
He does, and 'A History of Violence' is in NO WAY WHATSOEVER SF by any definition I can think of. Is it because of its comic-book ancestry, p'haps (at least, I think there's comic book ancestry...)?
I would be interested to know why anyone thinks A History of Violence(the film) is SF unless it automatically becomes so because it's based on a comic, which would be a daft way of defining SF.

(I haven't read the comic, and it may be SF. I don't class the film as such.)
And what I didn't realise until I clicked the link is that Collapse is the non-fiction book by Jared Diamond.
I haven't read Collapse, but surely it's scientific and historical fact and not fiction. This is beginning to sound as crazy as the mundane SF blog calling scientific pieces "super-mundane"
It explains why Itzkoff thinks sf novels read like textbooks, though.
I took Itzkoff to be saying that people interested in the subject of Collapse -- the fall of civilizations viewed from a scientific standpoint -- would probably enjoy a lot of SF, too.

Ted Chiang
You're probably right; I was going for the cheap funny.
I think we can assume he probably gave some thought to how the list would set out his stall

Well, we can assume this and people have but it doesn't read much like it. Hence the much mocked inclusion of The Twilight Zone Companion of which he says:
The book that showed me it's possible to take a critical stance on a work of science fiction and love it at the same time. Also, I memorized all of its plot synopses so I could pretend that I've seen every episode of the show.
I read the list very much as partial and personal.
Somehow I'm surprised that you of all people are taking the list at face value. I mean, I don't doubt that he likes the ten titles he listed, but it looks very by-the-numbers (something old, something new, something comics and something cool).
it looks very by-the-numbers (something old, something new, something comics and something cool).

But wouldn't most people's lists look something like that when stripped down to such reductive terms? (I realise your's wouldn't include anything older than 1995 but still.)

I'm not neccessarily taking it at face value but if I (and I suspect Itzkoff) was to write a "history of SF reading list" top ten it would look substantially different. Wheeler himself, who strikes me as writing in bad faith from the title down, suggests the problem with the list is it is not by the numbers enough (no Dune, too many minor works.)

Also, how often can A.R.Yngve pop up to make the same comment?
But wouldn't most people's lists look something like that when stripped down to such reductive terms?

I don't know. Wouldn't they cluster more? I tend to think most people would either include three or four comics or no comics, for instance.

Wheeler himself, who strikes me as writing in bad faith from the title down, suggests the problem with the list is it is not by the numbers enough (no Dune, too many minor works.)

The problem with which is that we can't tell whether Izkoff hasn't read them or has read them but didn't like them.

Also, how often can A.R.Yngve pop up to make the same comment?

Well, he hasn't made it here yet. Clearly I'm not high-profile enough.
Oh, about 17,000 billion times...
;-)

-A.R.Yngve
http://yngve.bravehost.com
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.
Yes! Let's make your LJ more inaccessible to the casual reader! That'll work!
That was a seriously crap 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.)