Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Oddness of the New Yorker’s Science Fiction Issue

First, an update on my book.  I’m about 220 pages into what I think will be a 300-page draft.  It’s coming along well but taking turns I hadn’t expected.  All of a sudden robots are important (robots?  I wasn’t planning to write about robots), and they are making me have to rethink some earlier sections.  I can’t quite say that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but at least I’m pretty sure I’m in a tunnel and not a cave.  I’ve had to take a break from the book for awhile as I get ready to direct Camp Multimedia, but I’ll be back on it in hopes of having a draft done by mid-July—no, end of July—no, the end of the summer.  Well, we’ll see.

The issue of the New Yorker currently on newsstands is their first Science Fiction issue.  On a piece-by-piece basis, there are some good reads to be found.  I really liked the Sam Lipsyte and Junot Díaz stories as well as the remembrance by the recently deceased Ray Bradbury.  I wanted to really like the Jennifer Egan story, since it was a quasi-continuation of A Visit from the Goon Squad.  I even read the whole story on Twitter in the spirit of the thing (the entire story is told in tweet-sized paragraphs).  But the story, a sci fi spy tale, was just okay, and the Twitter part of it seemed unessential.  It read more like Lorrie Moore meets Roger Moore.

But, that said, what is odd about this New Yorker issue is the way the editors chose to put it together.  It comes in two discreet sections that clearly demarcate the literary writers from the SF writers. This enforced separation is really unfortunate and it kept the issue from being more interesting.

The first part consists of science fiction stories and essays by writers with a literary reputation (in addition to those mentioned above, there’s Jonathan Letham, Colson Whitehead, and Anthony Burgess). Again, there was some good reading here, but is it really that big a deal to show that writers of literary fiction can do SF-influenced work?  That’s not news for anyone who has read Michael Chabon or David Foster Wallace.  Or Marge Piercy or Haruki Murakami. Or George Orwell or Mark Twain.  Can I stop now?

The other part of the issue involves short remembrances by SF-identified writers like Ursula Lu Guin, William Gibson, and Margaret Atwood (though I think of her as more literary) of their early encounters with science fiction.  The majority of these pieces strike a similar tone, combining a sense of SF as an illicit form of literature with the pure pleasure taken in reading it.  In the aggregate, these pieces reminded me of Philip Roth writing about masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint. 

If the New Yorker ever does a SF issue again, they should do it the way they do their “Best Writers Under 40” issues.  Introduce readers to a whole bunch of authors they probably don’t already know but may really like.  Plenty of New Yorker readers would be interested in Elizabeth Bear’s stories on technology and female sexuality.  They’d be intrigued, if sometimes puzzled, by Cory Doctorow’s futuristic versions of social networking.  And since the New Yorker throws a lot more money at authors than change-per-word SF pulps, they could probably have gotten Paolo Bacigalupi to start writing for adults again.