Locus Online
March 2006

About New York Times' Dave Itzkoff...

About Gary Westfahl's Homo aspergerus...

About the Octavia Butler memorial in Seattle...

Friday 10 March 2006

Dear Locus Online,

I've long been an admirer of Gary Westfahl's writing. He's one of the better critics/reviewers in the field today, and I haven't hesitated to tell him so. But as a clinical psychologist, I'm not so taken with his self-diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome. The signs and symptoms he describes more accurately characterize avoidant personality disorder. Asperger's patients usually show more bizarre symptomatology than he describes and are usually much more impaired than he appears to be. Although I've never met him, and can't be sure, I'd say Gregory Benford has it right when he says that Gary is just shy. That's essentially what avoidant personality disorder is, pathological shyness, without the more debilitating physical and psychosocial aspects of Asperger's. So, Gary, things are not as bad as you thought. Just keep on writing your wonderful reviews and commentary, and forget about diagnostic labels.

Carl Glover

Thursday 9 March 2006

Dear Locus Online,

Dave Itzkof had to Stepin Fetchit to get the job at the NYTimes, whose record in badmouthing sf and repressing favorable reviews of it is legend. Expect more of the same.

Gary Westfahl's clever adoption of Asperger's might make a good premise for an sf story — geeks inherit the earth. But Gary himself hasn't got the defining trait Asperger's sf fans bring out: motor mouth and failure to pick up social signals that say, Hey, I'd like to talk sometime, too. Gary is mostly just shy.

Gregory Benford

Dear Locus Online,

I feel as if I should reply to Alex Irvine's letter of the 7th, since I'm one of the people who has been mocking Dave Itzkoff for his shortcomings as a reviewer.

Irvine asks "why are so many people outraged or haughtily disgusted by Dave Itzkoff?" Now, I can only speak for myself, but I don't think I'm outraged or disgusted by Itzkoff at all. I'd characterize my attitude toward Itzkoff as "bemused and dismissive," actually. Perhaps others are outraged or disgusted, but it's looked to me as if the main reaction has been a kind of sadness at a missed opportunity, and the mingled anger and self-loathing of someone who's been hit, once again, on the site of an old scar.

(And Patrick Nielsen Hayden rightly points out that it's not been the fans — who don't care who reviews SF for the Times — but the pros who have been complaining.)

I'll repeat what I said, in more snarky fashion, on my blog: the problem with Itzkoff, to me, is that he doesn't seem to have actually read all that much SF. True, the editor's introductory note described him as a "fan" of science fiction, and I do believe Itzkoff describes himself that way. But, from the examples he gives in his two articles to date, he hasn't shown much evidence of reading any SF published in the last decade or so. I don't, however, think he's one of those "literary types;" he comes from Spin magazine, after all. I think he's a pop-culture guy, and sees SF (written and filmed) as a pop-culture entity, like hip-hop or rock 'n' roll.

Now, I could be wrong. Perhaps he mentions reading A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Illustrated Man on the subway because he thinks his audience will recognize those titles, and they wouldn't recognize Accelerando or Forty Signs of Rain. Perhaps he is reading lots of contemporary SF, and just didn't mention it in these two articles. But it didn't seem that way to me. This is the man who wrote "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." He explicitly says that modern SF is boring and not worth reading, which strikes me as an less-than-ideal view for a professional reviewer, particularly one new to the job. (We expect that sort of cynicism and disgust after years of toil, not in the fresh-faced new guy.)

And there already was a regular column in the Times (for a very loose definition of "regular") reviewing science fiction, by Gerald Jonas. Presumably Itzkoff is replacing Jonas, though that — and how often Itzkoff's column will appear — is unclear. So when the Times replaced a reviewer who likes SF with one who compares it to electronics documentation, it is fair to call this a loss.

Again, I could be wrong. In fact, I hope I am, since Itzkoff will keep reviewing SF for the Times no matter what we say or do. And it would be great if he turns out to be a knowledgeable, interesting writer with a love for the genre. But he doesn't look like one so far.


Andrew Wheeler
Senior Editor, The Science Fiction Book Club & Outdoorsman's Edge

Dear Locus Online,

Alex Irvine chastises SF fandom for "invent[ing] imagined slights from the literary establishment." Imagined slights? Did I imagine that the New York Times picked a science fiction columnist who says he cannot in good conscience recommend any new science fiction? Who assures mainstream readers that they would enjoy SF as much as a biology textbook or a stereo manual? That SF should no longer even be considered fiction? That there is not one "sci-fi" writer in a million (presumably including Alexander C. Irvine) who can make anyone care about the genre? I hope I did.

Aaron Hughes
Fantastic Reviews

Dear Locus Online,

I have now read perhaps ten or eleven screeds complaining about the new SF reviewer at the New York Times, plus the review itself. It pains me, too, when someone unsympathetic is elevated to the position of judge and jury over the literature I love, but I'm growing inured to it. Mr. Itzkoff's complaint — that contemporary SF has more in common with "a biology textbook or a stereo manual" — would have more force if he actually bothered to offer an example or three. (I know, ostensibly the "example" is covered in the review in question.) He descries the state of "contemporary SF" and then, in a sidebar, offers his top ten list. Everybody has a top ten. Such lists tell us much less about a person's tastes and prejudices than a bottom ten might. What are these works of contemporary SF he finds so unpalatable that he can't bring himself to recommend them to his non SF-reading friends and acquaintances? Perhaps if critics like Mr. Itzkoff told us where to find what they're complaining about and then explain what it is about these works they can't recommend, we all might learn something. Instead we are left puzzling clues in sand and questioning the observers themselves (as when Margaret Atwood neatly collapses the entire field into a "rockets and robots" description, or the vague charge of a Sven Birkerts that SF can't be real literature because it proceeds from premise rather than character, which tells us very little). To offer a top ten list of favorites and then pretty much dismiss Everything Else as unrecommendable dreck (because that's the inference) gives us nothing from which to tease out A Problem. (He gives a clue — only a clue — in the review of Counting Heads when he complains about the world-building getting in the way of the What Really Matters. He essentially takes one of the chief pleasures of SF and treats it like dust spots on a photograph, paint runs on a painting, or cussing at a church service.) Mr. Itzkoff might do well to write a column in which he takes some of his examples of stereo manual SF and explains himself. Till then, he's grandstanding and bear-baiting. And we ought to stop reacting as if such people's opinions carry any more weight than our own.

Mark Tiedemann

Wednesday 8 March 2006

Dear Locus Online,

Alex Irvine asks "Why are so many people outraged or haughtily disgusted by Dave Itzkoff?" And he answers: "Simple. SF fandom is never happy unless it's miserable, and nothing makes fandom more happily miserable, or miserably happy, than to invent imagined slights from the literary establishment."

This is nonsense. SF fandom mostly never heard of Dave Itzkoff, nor would most members of fandom care if they had. Parsing the nuances of newspaper SF reviewers is the province of SF professionals and would-be professionals, plus the small number of fans fascinated by this kind of inside baseball. Actual SF fandom, a largely cheerful bohemia composed of several overlapping interest groups, mostly doesn't bother itself with issues this trivial.

Alex Irvine's got a point about a certain kind of subcultural self-pity endemic in the SF field, but he should leave fandom out of it.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Tuesday 7 March 2006

Dear Locus Online,

Thanks for Gary Westfahl's wonderful article in defense of folks with Asperger's (read: uber-geeks). I've highly enjoyed Gary's writing over the years (particularly the delicious insights and turns of phrase in his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film — — and I rejoice that he's resumed adding to it). I'd love to nerd-talk with Gary about the assorted merits of the work of Tom Tryon and Peter Cushing — even if he never smiled or made eye contact. (I'm used to that in my friends.)

Science fiction really is a community, in that psychologically homeless (or hopeless) geeks can find a place in this family. For me, nothing sums this up better than a song from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" which proclaims that "No matter who or what you are" there's a place for you over at the Frankenstein House (read: science fiction convention).

That said, I do have to admit that I have found much personal satisfaction and honor, even redemption, in being a geek. In high school, people made fun of me 'cos I dressed funny and drew weird pictures and talked about odd things that nobody else knew about. Now, for the exact same behaviors, people give me awards and ask me to be Guest of Honor at conventions. So there.

But I have learned that sometimes it's best to restrain my geekiness, to not unintentionally offend people. For example, some might find it annoying if I pointed out the error in the title of Gary's article. "Aspergerus" is clearly meant to represent a species name in the phrase "Homo Aspergerus: Evolution Stumbles Forward". However, it would be crass and anti-social of me to point out that, in correct usage of Linnaean binomial nomenclature, a genus name (such Homo) should always be capitalized, but a species name (such as sapiens or aspergerus) is never, ever capitalized, even if used in a title. Yes, highlighting this error would only be a futile attempt to prove myself "geekier than thou", thus demonstrating my own Aspergerian "tin ear" - which I would prefer not to do. So I won't mention the mistake.

Frank Wu, self-proclaimed polymath

[ Editor's comment:
Actually, we here at Locus Online are just sufficiently geeky enough to retroactively correct the capitalization of Gary's term... ]

Dear Locus Online,

Oh no! A regular SF column in the New York Times, written by a guy who likes SF! The sky is falling!

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.)

SF fans are so thin-skinned and so unwilling to be happy about anything that they can't even enjoy having a regular column in the Times. Did any of you actually read the introduction of Itzkoff on the inside cover of the Book Review? There, he talks about his background as a fan of SF, which makes clear that he is far from the Johnny-come-lately or dutiful undergrad that people seem to want him to be. He might not know as much about the field (or particular areas within it) as some of us would like, but maybe he does, and — gasp! — likes what he likes anyway.

The real question is: why are so many people outraged or haughtily disgusted by Dave Itzkoff?

Simple. SF fandom is never happy unless it's miserable, and nothing makes fandom more happily miserable, or miserably happy, than to invent imagined slights from the literary establishment.

Alex Irvine

Monday 6 March 2006

Dear Locus Online,

Like many others who have written and probably even more who have not, I was greatly disappointed in Itzkoff and his "column," but then, I wasn't terribly fond of his predecessor, either, and for similar reasons.

While I also respect Elizabeth Hand, I was disturbed by part of her response — the part mentioning writers younger than China Mieville.

After having spent more than a few years as a published author in this field, I firmly believe that one of the reasons why we do not have more younger readers than we do is because those reviewing and following the field in print, particularly within the field, are too busy grinding particular literary axes — generally small "literary" subsets within F&SF — and not promoting the true diversity of the field. One of the great benefits and advantages of our field is the scope and range of what is published, yet we still labor under the popular illusion/delusion that what we as a field write is, variously, "rockets and robots," vampires, sword and sorcery, Star Trek and Star Wars, and occasionally, off-beat "weird" stuff that no "normal" human being would ever read.

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." They often concentrate on "younger" or "newer" writers. Some attention to such should be paid, but not to the exclusion of worthy work by established writers. Even younger writers who look to be commercial or mainstream tend to be so ignored. I would note, for example, that a young writer by the name of Shannon Hale, who has published three well-written YA fantasies, has just been awarded a Newberry medal, yet I have not seen much, if anything, about her in the F&SF "press" and reviews. A number of F&SF writers regularly receive mainstream notice from sources such as Kirkus, with citation on Kirkus's best of the year listing. The same is true of VOYA, Booklist, and other sources — yet outside of passing mention in the back pages of Locus, the field seems generally to ignore such notice.

This is not the way to improve readership. By ignoring and devaluing work that is both truly science fiction or fantasy and that meets and exceeds "mainstream" literary standards, we as a community are only contributing to the "poorly-written and geeky" stereotype. A little more celebration of ALL the good work in the field — and not just that which meets the narrow approval of our self-proclaimed literary lights wouldn't hurt... and would go a long way toward preventing abuses such as those perpetrated by Itkoff and others of his ilk.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Sunday 5 March 2006

Dear Locus Online,

I lay awake last night brooding over Dave Itzkoff's list of his favorite SF books. I was delighted to see his positive review of David Marusek's stunning new novel, but the list troubles me: no women? no writers of a younger vintage than China Mieville? With all respect for Lucius Sorrentino, Itzkoff's list seems as though it were compiled by a dutiful student who had taken a single elective course in the literature, focusing on white male SF writers of the last century. In light of Octavia Butler's recent and tragic death, this seems particularly egregious.

Best regards,

Elizabeth Hand

Saturday 4 March 2006

Dear Locus Online,

I attended the memorial service last night at the Science Fiction Museum with several other writer friends.

The venue was intimate, the crowd eclectic. Many people wept openly, a few hid their tears and all but a few were visibly moved at one point or another.

I stood in the back as I am tall, and did not want to block anyone. It also serves me as a vantage from which to observe people.

Harlan Ellison started the evening with a call. Unfortunately, he had to be cut short, but he obviously was fond of Octavia Estelle Butler.

Live speakers were Leslie Howle, Nisi Shawl, Greg Bear, Brian Herbert, Vonda McIntyre, Eileen Gunn, as well as several SFM staffers who read from messages sent from pros and friends alike. One young woman, whose name I do not recall, from the Central District Arts community, spoke from her experience meeting Octavia at the Black to the Future convention in 2004.

Each speaker spoke with emotion and deep affection. I cannot do justification to their depth of response, suffice to say it moved me deeply.

If I forgot a speaker, I apologize, I didn't think I'd be posting this as I participated last evening.

Near the end, her cousin spoke with obvious difficulty and emotion.

They showed a bit of a filmed interview Octavia had done with the SFM staff. It was a bit of a struggle. The interviewers (who were not shown) did not appear to be prepared. They did ask one question at the last that shocked her. To paraphrase, they asked her if she sees anything in our world that scares or alarms her.

She had such a look of shock on her face. These folks openly declared (at least one of the two) that they had not finished anything Octavia had written. This just proved it.

Octavia talked briefly about global warming and one other subject I don't recall. She said most things alarm her.

At the end, they passed around a microphone for audience members to share their thoughts and stories. At this point, we left.

Grief is a funny thing. How we handle it as a society remains a strange and often painful experience for me.

There were moments of laughter and heart-felt sincerity in that tribute. There were also moments of awkward, painful stumbling that prove to me how frail and wonderful we can be when we stand on the parapets with our soft bits exposed to the heavens.

I only heard Ms. Butler speak on two occasions, but she had an affect on me that rose up in the last few days with amazing and sudden pain and loss.

I envy those who had the distinct joy of knowing her personally and weep with a community that has lost one of those who shone their light in the darkness, pushing back the shadows.

Her friends told us our next steps. That much is clear. Octavia's advice to us would be to write, share our stories, take a stand for our world and do something. Every word, every action we can take that pushes the world to a more tolerant place is an honor to her.

John A. Pitts
Seattle, Washington

Dear Locus Online,

Comments Re: The new science fiction column at the New York Times by Dave Itzkoff. I posted the following at the Times, but just thought I'd share my thoughts with Locus.

I've been teaching a "Science Fiction" elective for the past 9 years. From the moment I noticed the "Our new science fiction column" on the front page of the "Book Review" (3/5/2006), I experienced the shudder that comes when any mainstream publication ventures into the deep and unfamiliar water that is SF. I also wondered if this column was replacing the knowledgeable reviews of Gerald Jonas, whose all too infrequent column seems to have gone missing recently.

My fears, of course, were justified. Dave Itzkoff is the perfect foil for those who want to remain ignorant about SF and feel justifiably superior about it. Eschewing the preferred term SF (pronounced, ess-eff), Itzkoff resorts to the long discredited pop term "sci-fi" to describe the genre he is allegedly promoting. Following Asimov's distinction ("The Name of Our Field," 1978), "sci-fi" is "Lost in Space" and "Godzilla;" SF is Alastair Reynolds, Dan Simmons, David Brin, Iain M. Banks, Peter Hamilton and scores of other highly literate contemporary writers who incorporate scientific and technological ideas into compelling narratives that fill the reader with wonder. Which means that David Marusek is not, as Itzkoff asserts, "one sci-fi writer in a million with the potential to make an increasingly indifferent audience care about the genre again..." (whatever such hyperbole could possibly mean). There was certainly nothing in Itzkoff's treatment of Marusek that would inspire anyone unfamiliar (or familiar) with the genre to rush out and buy his book.

Worse, Itzkoff immediately warns readers that "most of the sci-fi (sic) that is being published these days" bears little resemblance to "the fiction category" and is more akin to "reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual." Excuse me? This sweeping generalization may be in some sense true of Greg Egan who demands considerable cutting edge scientific knowledge of his readers, but I haven't read any contemporary SF writer to whom this disparaging and cutting remark applies. Indeed, it only serves to reinforce the notion that SF is not worth anyone's time. A prejudicial notion based on ignorance and nothing else.

Itzkoff's column features a review of the slender output of Marusek. But why feature a writer whose only novel is "missing...a reason to care about his characters...."? Literate SF is, in fact, character driven. Compelling plots, exotic settings, scientific extrapolations, philosophical speculation, contact with alien beings, and fully realized characters are what make SF readers so obsessive about the genre. None of that came through in "It's All Geek to Me."

Finally, if the SF readership is decreasing, that is the result of the loss of the science fiction magazines (which had been the bread and butter of the readership for generations), the near prohibitive cost of hardbacks, and the advent of what amounts to a mass media take-over of the genre. If potential teenage readers are no longer being introduced to the stories and novels of SF writers at the newsstand, then where?


Lucius Sorrentino

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