You can read this story for free courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.
Okay, back to problems with the editor’s prefatory notes.
Crowley is here referred to as ‘One of the most respected authors of our day’. There’s no qualification there to say ‘within he science fiction’ or anything of that sort, which seems to imply that Crowley is a towering literary figure. From his wikipedia page, though, I see he’s won only one non-genre award listed, and that’s not entirely clear whether it’s a prize or one of their annual bursaries. It’s absolutely true that he has a strong critical reputation with the Locus gang and at the literary end of the genre critics, but outside of that audience? How many people do we think have even heard of him?
Even if we assume that Dozois is talking about within the science fiction community, what does ‘respected’ really mean here? Respect is a fairly vague idea, but in these circumstances it almost always seems to mean ‘literary’. ‘Respected’ writers in science fiction may have middling sales but they get good reviews and award nominations, and they’re the writers held up when critics outside the genre question its literary credentials.
But this kind of ‘high’ style of science fiction has never been my scene. It’s ‘high’ science fiction in the same sense as high Anglicism, I think. It clings to the the incense and idols – metaphors big and small, symbolism and allusion – of the old literature, divorced from the inconoclastic fundamentalism of a speculative fiction based on material, scientific reality. (And if we want to push this analogy too far – and why not? – then maybe the big franchises are televangelists and fantasy writers are New Age cults.)
John Crowley is a writer I’ve never sought out, not despite his ‘respected’ status, but because of it. This type of science fiction seems to lack the breadth of vision that great science fiction embodies. Consider how Pat Cadigan’s Roadside Rescue sketched out an entire relationship with and alien race – a core science fictional concept – in just a few thousand words. Here, we get nothing of that.
This is a story of a relationship among the one percent, and that’s a bit alienating, too. The narrator is the widower of Georgie, who married him as a kind of toy boy. Her money came from a former spouse who also died, but not before he gifted her a ‘wasp’, a tiny camera that followed her around recording her whole life. The idea is that it will form a memorial of the subject when they’re gone, and their loved ones will be able to commune with them forever.
But this story isn’t describing a changed world. It’s not a story that has an idea of technological and social change and then follows that through. The world depicted is pretty much exactly like ours, in fact. There’s no attempt to unspool the central concept – a kind of side cam that records everything you do for your descendants after you’re dead – into anything so gross as real-world change. Instead, the story is taken up with ruminations on traditionally deep’n’meaningful literary topics – the nature of memory, the relationship between love, marriage and ownership.
Despite the formal skill on display, this doesn’t feel like a good science fiction story. It feels like an exercise in character and metaphor rather than an attempt to picture real life in a possible future. Of course, M John Harrison – another of our ‘most respected’ writers – called this world-building instinct ‘the clumping foot of nerdism’ that ‘numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain’.
Well, we nerds invented science fiction and maybe we prefer our own clumping footsteps to the effete tread of the critic and academic through our genre. The passage I quoted from Kingsley Amis in my previous post seems apposite here, as well:
[Edmund Crispin] said to me once, about newspaper reviewing, but the point holds, ‘I don’t think there should be any criticism; any effect it might have on the writer is bound to be bad’ … literary self-consciousness means that your purpose ceases to be, say, telling your story as effectively as you can; it comes to include doing what other people have decided you should be doing. A close and intricate relationship between novelists and academics means that the novelists are writing for academics, not for anything as vulgar as fans.