SOUNDINGS by Gary Wolfe ( Beccon 415 pp £15.00)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
It is an often-remarked fact that it seems possible, though it is not nor has been for decades, to monitor the totality of the fantastic genres. This is, however, almost certainly the reason why some of the fields' acknowledgedly pre-eminent figures have spent so much energy and time engaged at the wave-front of new books involved in serious regular reviewing. It is also the reason why some of the most crucial critical texts in the field are collections of reviews - for a long time, indeed, collections like those by James Blish and Damon Knight were the only such crucial texts. John Clute's reviews from Foundation, Scifi.com and elsewhere have been regularly collected; it is to be hoped that this will prove only the first volume binding up Gary Wolfe's reviews for Locus.
Following the somewhat cutesy example of Clute, Wolfe has given this book a richly ambiguous and polysemous title, to unpack which is a handy key to understanding his intentions and achievement. 'Soundings' can be read in a number of senses, all of which usefully apply. First and foremost there is the sense of this sort of roundup column as a process of navigation through the shoals and reefs of trends that led nowhere and promise that was unfulfilled and great work that seemed uninteresting on first acquaintance - a monthly column is a handy plumb line dropped into the depths and testing the acumen of the reviewer as pilot. Then, of course, there is the idea of the reviewer as someone who tests the quality of work by rapping his knuckles quickly across it, discovering what is gloriously resonant and what merely hollow or rotted out. Lastly, there is the process of polemic, of sounding off about a set of views about what the genres should be and what writers within them are actually doing - the critic as reviewer is primarily describing, but without an element of prescription or at least expectation, we are lost.
If we take Wolfe's title in these senses, it is a manifesto by which we can judge the collection as a whole. By the criteria those interpretations suggest, ' Soundings' is quite admirable. It suggests some of the directions that the sf and fantasy genres took in the middle 90s as the gloss of cyberpunk faded and the idealism of new humanism grew a little jaded, as the preoccupations of hard sf filtered through into the subject matter of politicised sf and Mars became once more the site for Utopia. His judgement is excellent and his expression of it at once effective and terse - his judgements stand and stand all the more clearly for the pithiness with which they are expressed. Intrinsic to Wolfe's reviewing is a plain-dealing avoidance of artistic ideology that is itself an argumentative stance - he is in favour of books being as good as they can be. If this book is a manifesto, and I would argue that in part it is, it is a manifesto against schools and manifestos. These reviews were welcome interventions in a period when there had been too much fighting of particular corners.
There remains, in reviewing such a book, a worrying difficulty. Should the review itself look at the years covered, and judge Wolfe's success as reviewer by the accuracy with which his views map over one's own? Clearly not, but to judge him by whether or not he agrees with one's own perception of which authors and trends were important is hardly an improvement. This is perhaps especially the case when, as here, the present reviewer and Wolfe agree on almost every book we have both reviewed. To record that we both sing from the same sheet music is hardly criticism.
One of Wolfe's major strengths here is that, when he reviews several books in an extended series, as Locus has allowed him to do, he gets the chance to construct an argument across time. Had he taken his reviews of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and shuffled them together with Robinson's work as anthologist of utopian fictions, his short story collections and his occasional critical remarks, Wolfe could hardly have come up with a better and more scholarly consideration of Robinson than he does here. In particular, he could hardly have done a better job of explaining how, in the Mars trilogy, the Orange County trilogy and the ecological trilogy Robinson was not to write until a decade later, there is a consistent view of the historical process as a subject that suits the novel admirably. It is not only Robinson's politics that can be characterized as Tolstoyan; it is his sense of the complicated interaction of the individual and historical forces. Wolfe writes well about Robinson because they are both intellectuals.
Yet, at the same time, Wolfe has an almost fannish delight in sheer glorious sensawundish stuff which means that he can see the strengths of books he does not entirely like. He can write judiciously negative reviews of, say, Alfred Coppel's Glory sequence which spell out their faults in considerable detail and yet leave one with a sneaking suspicion that at some time one might read them and get from them the partly guilty pleasure that Wolfe describes so well. It is not his practice to review books he considers utterly without interest or merit - even a mildly negative review from Wolfe has significant areas of the positive to it.
What, then, is it possible to say of this excellent critic that is in any way negative? It might be argued that he has an insufficient sense of some writers' whole careers or of where they fit in to SF traditions not in the American mainstream. ( It is also possible, of course, that such a sense is an analytical technique at odds with the necessary brevity of a Locus review and that Wolfe is in this respect making a judgement call on what is appropriate to his market.) He is weak on the Britishness of British sf and the ways in which, say, the editorial practices of a British magazine like Interzone impact on the work of a quintessentially Interzone writer like Richard Calder. Calder would probably have written the same sort of phantasmagoric, polysexually charged, darkly cynical fiction whatever his circumstances; it did not, however, harm his rapid discovery of his voice that David Pringle of Interzone was somewhat more sympathetic to such work than to work more concerned with emotional analysis and personal politics.
This sense of context is perhaps most crucially missing from Wolfe's otherwise insightful account of Geoff Ryman's 'Was' which is perhaps the middle 90s most important novel about the urge to write and read fantasy, whether or not one considers, as Wolfe does, that such metafictional concern with genre places it outside genre. Wolfe is good on the poise of 'Was' between the polemical and the ludic, on its finely tuned sense of period, on its successfully achieved structure - he admires the book hugely and conveys that sense of admiration. In all but one area, this is an exemplary review, and remains one even when that area is raised as a cavil.
What I think is missing from his account is that sense of exile which is crucial to Ryman as a Canadian who grew up in California and settled in London, that empathy for estrangement which Ryman has extrapolated from his experience as a gay man. When he writes about the brutalizing of an imagined historical Dorothy and L.Frank Baum's failure to do more to save her than celebrate her existence, Ryman is talking about his own bad conscience. Dystopian fictions like Ryman's 'The Child Garden' and 'Oh Happy Day' are in large part his response to the HIV epidemic and the institutional homophobia of the Thatcher/Reagan years, and that response is a noble and elegant one. Yet Baum is nonetheless a vehicle for Ryman's self-doubts and self- criticism. When Wolfe neglects context, he neglects a sense of that argument with the self from which, Yeat tells us, poetry is made.
To argue this, though, in no serious way detracts from the achievement of Wolfe's reviewing; we are, none of us, exempt from such considerations. There are missing from 'Soundings' things which we might have expected to find and whose absence is clearly a considered choice. Wolfe is of all important sf critics perhaps the one who has drawn most on critical theory, and whose own work has done most to create a particular theory of how sf in particular is constructed - his work on the crucial iconic sense of various genre givens, what Brian Aldiss calls, for example, 'the folk memory of the first landing on another planet', changed the way we think about the subject. His reviewing almost entirely omits such questions.
This is, I would suggest, a choice which has almost entirely to do with a sense of the decorum of reviewing. 'Soundings' is a book which takes pains to be accessible to the casual and frivolous reader without in any way patronizing her; it is a book whose virtues are all the more remarkable when we remember that these pieces were composed month by month rather than in a single creative rush. Wolfe is an urbane and humane critic who avoids the occasional sins to which the rest of us fall prey - Blish's curmudgeonly point-scoring, Clute's lexicomaniacal self-indulgences, my own ideological spitefulnesses. He is one of the best of us, and 'Soundings' a quite excellent book.