05 March 2006

Dave Itzkoff's Inner Child is Not Happy

On a quick first read, I kind of liked Dave Itzkoff's science fiction column in the NY Times. But I kind of like lots of things when I first read them quickly, and when I went back this morning and read it again, I didn't like it much at all.

I knew the column would cause some controversy, and, as Cheryl points out, there's already a letter in Locus. The best response I've seen, though, is Nick Mamatas's.

I wrote up my thoughts on David Marusek's Counting Heads all the way back in December (and also linked to Nick then...hmmm...), and though I had a similar response to reading the book as Itzkoff, I didn't feel the need to blame all contemporary science fiction for this fact.

Some SF is geeky. Some SF is focused on technological change and detailed extrapolation of scientific ideas in a way that may require both careful attention from a reader and interest in that sort of thing. Some SF is not about individual characters or providing much in the way of characterization. Why is this a problem? Because random people on the subway might not like it.

Itzkoff betrays a tendency that's easy to fall into (I certainly have at times): the desire for everybody else to like what you like. First, he wants to have the same social prestige for reading the kind of crap he reads as other people have for the crap they read: "As that lone subway traveler who still occasionally rides to work brandishing a dog-eared edition of 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' or 'The Illustrated Man,' I realize I'll never enjoy even a fraction of the social standing afforded to the umpteenth passenger who is just now cracking open a mint-condition copy of 'The Kite Runner' or a fresh paperback of 'A Million Little Pieces' purchased after it was discredited, and I don't expect this to change any time soon." I have a hard time mustering up much of a response beyond, "Boo hoo," because if the poor boy is wandering through the subways in search of "social standing" for the books he reads, there's no hope for him at all and he needs to get one of those expensive Manhattan shrinks to work through it with him.

The next sentence is the telling one: "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." And what, he's going to do this with War and Peace? Isn't that an interesting idea, though -- you should read this, because you will enjoy it as much as I did. How do you know, Dave? Maybe I'm more broadly read than you and will find whatever book you like to be cliched and silly. Maybe I've only read a few novels in my life, most of them in high school for quizzes and tests, and anything you give me to read other than the most basic and pandering drivel will be far less entertaining for me than a sitcom or a videogame or tractor pulls or advanced calculus. Are you so insecure about your tastes that you need validation of them from all the people sharing a subway car with you?

Consider the next paragraph:
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.
So there are two things in the world, "fiction" and things that are unreadable by people on subway cars. There is also this person called you, and you don't enjoy reading biology textbooks or stereo manuals. This is a marvelous move, because here the equation is "you = Dave Itzkoff" and so the insecure writer has turned the world into himself. Clearly, his inner child, disappointed with the world, is acting up.

The implication here is that you is not a "geek", which is what a person who enjoys such novels as Counting Heads is. Geeks are outsiders, they are not normal, they exist on the margins, they are part of a freakshow, they have no social standing or political clout, and they don't read the New York Times. And they're taking over the world and making science fiction unsafe for the rest of us.

Except the thing Itzkoff calls "science fiction" (or "sci fi") doesn't exist. It doesn't exist as an opposite to the ridiculous "fiction" category he creates (since that doesn't exist, either), and it doesn't exist because all sorts of things get published as science fiction, and nothing he says about "science fiction" now is any different from what could be said about "science fiction" at any time those two words have been put together to describe a type of writing.

I'm not denying there isn't plenty of SF that is, well, geeky. It's not the stuff that appeals to me, but I actually admire it a lot, because done well -- and Counting Heads is done well -- it is intellectually audacious. Why should it have to be as appealing to the masses as The Da Vinci Code? This is to confuse quality with popularity, and that's a deadly confusion. I'll take geeky science fiction over the majority of what is published as either "science fiction" or "fiction" any day.

Looking at Itzkoff's list of favorite SF books, we see that he's obviously not Marusek's audience. No Hal Clement on that list. No Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke. It's the softest of soft SF. I don't mean that as an insult -- I like the books he chose more than I like Clement, Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke, too. But if you want to talk about whales and platypuses, they aren't "fiction" vs. "science fiction" but Itzkoff's preferences vs. the preferences of readers of harder SF. It is not David Marusek's responsibility to appeal to people like Itzkoff or me. He's got other things to do.

Amusingly enough, Itzkoff's choices and preferences suggest he is as crippled by nostalgia as the people who complain that SF hasn't been any good since the death of John W. Campbell (the people who were loving Clement, Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke). This is his inner child talking. Such nostalgia blinds readers to the good qualities of many contemporary books that don't fit into old templates. If Dave Itzkoff ever digests his inner child, he might discover that the world is far more complex and multilayered and joyfully, frustratingly paradoxical than he noticed before.