I took out a subscription to the New Yorker in 1999, the year after I came back from my first trip to the United States. It was a way of keeping in touch with my new discovery, America!, or at any rate, with a very particular part of the US with which I’d fallen in love, New York, and, hindsight now tells me, a New York that was either entirely inaccessible to me, no matter how much I might want it, or which had vanished long before I arrived. But reading the New Yorker was also about buying into a particular style. I discovered a lot of new writers thanks to recommendations from my US friends. Many of those writers were essayists rather than novelists, and many of them had contributed to the New Yorker over the years: the late Joseph Mitchell was a prime example, but I became particularly besotted with the writing of John McPhee. Possibly I subscribed to the New Yorker just to read his infrequent essays though I also relish the biographical essays; and when it’s in the mood, the New Yorker can really crank out the investigative journalism. And then there are the cartoons …
The fiction? There is a distinctive New Yorker style, undoubtedly. The magazine has its favourite authors, some of whom are authors I especially like, such as Louise Erdrich and Chris Adrian; others, I’m less familiar with but I’m happy to try them out. Sometimes this is successful, sometimes less so, but I try to keep an open mind. The New Yorker would not be the first magazine to spring to mind if I’m thinking about science fiction, the fantastic, fantastika, whatever, but it has, in the time I’ve been reading it, flirted with it in fiction and in its non-fiction. See Chris Adrian again for short stories that remind me of Sylvia Townsend Warner, an excerpt from Karen Russell’s Swamplandia springs to mind, and I recall essays by Michael Chabon, about Neil Gaiman, to name but a few.
And now we have the New Yorker’s first sci-fi issue. It is perhaps annoying that the New Yorker doesn’t editorialise about its own content so we’ll never know for sure what its intention was in creating this issue. One can only speculate, and of course I am going to do that, as others have already done.
Let’s start with the cover, the first thing that people are going to see. I’ve already seen complaints that the magazine should have asked this artist or that artist to do a special science-fiction cover. My immediate thought was ‘why would they do that?’ This is the New Yorker after all, and the cover is situated firmly within its customary cover aesthetic, and by a regular cover artist, Daniel Clowes. Looking through the slideshow of Clowes’ New Yorker covers, he’s a good fit for this issue as he has incorporated sf tropes into previous covers. He seems to have a taste for the gently ironic and is not adverse to mocking those who make a big production number out of things that are really straightforward. I particularly like the New Yorker cover where a young gun is trying to design a flying car while a middle-aged man cruises past his office window in a spacesuit rigged as a flying machine. Indeed, given he is a comics artist and cartoonist with a retrospective currently on at the Oakland Museum of California, he seems to me to be a more obvious choice as cover artist than, say, Bob Eggeling, one name I saw put forward.
However, the demand that the magazine should use a recognised sf artist already points to an assumption in various quarters that the New Yorker should first of all be embracing the genre as understood by hardcore sf fans, and various subsets thereof, and that secondly, if it is going to embrace the genre, it should make damn sure that everyone knows that from the outset. I’d hazard a guess this was not quite what the New Yorker had in mind.
But let’s go back to Clowes’ cover. What is going on here? At first glance we have what looks like a fairly staid party in someone’s apartment. Little drinks, canapés, people talking. Six people: middle-aged white woman, perhaps the hostess; middle-aged white man, with beard and glasses, looks like he might be an academic. Is it his apartment? Don’t think so, not least because the bookshelves are artfully empty. I’ve never yet met a real academic whose bookshelves aren’t stuffed solid. And anyway, to the far right of the picture is another white man who, like the woman to the far left, is only partly in the picture. As well as framing the scene, his expression mirrors hers; their collective consternation seems as much directed to the damaged wall and books as to the appearance of three gate-crashers at their party.
And back again to the centre of the picture and to the male academic. He looks startled, as indeed one might, but more taken aback than horrified. Next to him is another middle-aged woman, this time a woman of colour; she is visibly startled by these apparitions; is there a slight hint of revulsion in her expression? In front of them is a young man, who might as well be a younger version of the middle-aged academic: the dress sense is the same, although he has different glasses, no beard as yet (but he carries the other badge of office of the male academic, the book under the arm) and it is not difficult to see what he is likely to become. This could so easily be a faculty party, with the man on the far right as the administrative head of the department, the woman on the left his anxious-to-please wife.
However, there are four other figures present. Three of them are bursting through the wall, but we’ll leave them aside for a moment. The figure I want to consider now is the woman we can’t see. Right at the centre of the cover is a young woman with her back to us. She is strikingly bright in comparison to the others in the room, with her yellow hair, her black sleeveless top and a string of white beads (pearls?) round her neck. Who is she? What is she doing there? Critically, what is the expression on her face?
She is the one figure in the room who appears to look directly at the spaceman who has burst through the bookshelves; all the other figures look at him side-on, although the perspective of the picture makes it difficult to tell how far into the room he and his companions have actually intruded. Except, of course, that he doesn’t seem to have stepped over the threshold of the hole in the wall at all, and a closer look suggests that the young woman is looking straight past him, to the green blob behind him. In fact, looking even more closely, the spaceman – young, dark-haired, more forehead, chin and teeth than seems feasible, plump-cheeked, redolent of apple pie and bubble-gum, the wholesome all-American sports jock – isn’t so much gazing at her as past her, towards the viewer outside the picture.
And what of the spaceman himself? The epitome of science fiction, certainly 1950s comic-book style yet he doesn’t quite ring true, either. He is a little too young, perhaps? Not exactly craggy Dan-Dare style, more teenage boy living his dream. And the blob-monster and the robot seem to be his companions rather than his adversaries. One might initially read him as the space adventurer who gets the girl, indeed who has come to rescue the girl from the dreariness of a mundane faculty-party existence, although we might suspect that ‘rescue’ would involve marriage and a Bradburyesque existence in astronaut-suburbia instead, but he is obviously not interested in her at all. Perhaps he wants us to admire him in his spacesuited glory with his whacking great raygun.
It is at this point we might begin to wonder whether this is a literal portrayal of a fantastical event or whether, within the terms of the picture, we should read it in a more metaphorical way. There is something about the way that hole in the wall seems to hang in space. Yes, it’s surrounded by damaged books but in real terms, if that is a blaster, wouldn’t the books be burned rather than have their corners blown off? Come to think of it, doesn’t that gun look rather disproportionate? So, if this is not a real incursion into the ordered world of the faculty party, what is it?
I’m very tempted to interpret it as a thought bubble, the collective thought bubble of a group to whom the young woman, the focus of this tableau, has just said that she reads science fiction. The apparition, then, is their collective perception of sf as being garish, filled with aliens and astronauts with jutting chins and rayguns. This issue of the New Yorker then might be seen as offering a corrective to that old-fashioned view, instead suggesting that there is more than one way of looking at science fiction. The contents represent the young woman’s view of sf. This is in turn problematic in that it might be interpreted by hardcore sf fans as a rejection of their ways. And perhaps it is in that the contents are, after all, a New Yorker take on sf. Then again, what might have happened if they’d picked up a New Yorker with a Bob Eggeling cover and found inside Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Sam Lipsyte and Jennifer Egan. Just as much consternation as we see on this cover. Go figure.
In which case, it is time to consider the contents. The first 57 pages consist of the usual New Yorker diet of listings and short pieces, the editorial being about Obama and Syria. There is a distinction made in the contents page between ‘sci fi’, fiction and several non-fiction pieces, as well as two pieces in the critical section; investigation reveals that the ‘sci fi’ section comprises a series of very short memoirs by writers (Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, China Miéville, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell and William Gibson). There is a certain flavour of ‘the usual suspects’ about the writers but they are for the most part regular contributors to the magazine so it is not surprising they’ve been called upon again.
Of the four pieces of fiction, three, by Lipsyte, Lethem and Egan, are in my view not exactly taxing pieces of contemporary sf. The Lipsyte and Egan fall into that category of ‘experimental form’ which is too easily mistaken for sf. There are hints in Lipsyte’s ‘The Republic of Empathy’ that one of his characters is moving in and out of alternative versions of his life, but what is most striking about the story, apart from that same character being wiped out by a drone strike on his own front lawn, and not forgetting the interlocking multi-viewpoint narrative, is the fact that Lipsyte’s characters are, for the most part, aware of their own fictionality and deliberately foreground that fact. Is it science-fictional? Probably not, and I doubt New Yorkerreaders are unfamiliar with this as a narrative form away from science fiction. For certain kinds of genre readers who prefer a straight linear narrative it may well be more of a problem.
Jennifer Egan’s story was famously produced in a series of instalments on Twitter, which I suppose might be perceived as science-fictional in and of itself, though equally it might be argued that it more than adequately demonstrates the shortcomings of Twitter as a medium for fiction. The last piece of fiction I read by Egan was in fact a list and one has a sense that she seems to enjoy using this particular form. However, while some might see it as being achingly, post-ironically postmodern or some such to me it feels more old hat than anything, and not even having your second-person viewpoint character apparently festooned with surveillance implants makes it any more science-fictional than it already is … or indeed, isn’t. Though I concede it might have a certain novelty value if one is unfamiliar with such tropes.
The same might be said of Jonathan Lethem’s amusing squib about the Internet within the Internet, though this is less about the internet itself, more about social behaviour in groups. One has never needed the internet in order to form a clique.
Which leaves us with Junot Díaz’s ‘Monstro’ which would not look out of place in any one of half a dozen more obviously sf-oriented publishing venues. Set in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, this is a story of a mysterious plague, La Negrura, The Blackness, which begins to infect refugees in the relocation camps of Haiti. Which particular relocation this might be, Díaz doesn’t say; one thinks immediately of the camps created after the recent earthquake but Díaz offers sufficient details to suggest that the story is a little further into the future though, of course, it may be that those camps still exist. But the nature of the future as such is not what interests Díaz; his focus is on what’s happening in it. Our narrator is a young man, a university student, hanging out with a group of wealthy young Dominicans, marking time while his mother dies, chasing girls, one in particular, and the new disease doesn’t really impinge much on his life. He has other things to do while, as he puts it, ‘watching the apocalypse creep in’.
We might assume, and anyway he tells us, that he survives whatever the main apocalyptic event is, whatever it is that turns him into a ‘time witness’; the nature of the events remains unclear. The narrator describes what happens to the sufferers of La Negrura but has little analysis to offer the reader. He is trapped in the thick of it, particularly once the island comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic is cut off. Díaz is again using conventional sf tropes – the mysterious plague, the odd behaviour of the infected, the mass killings by the Possessed, the bombing of major population centres, the nebulous sightings of ‘Them’ – but while this is not precisely a polite catastrophe in the Home Counties, neither is it exoticised by its setting or its participants. The tone of the story is perhaps best summed up in the narrator’s response to stories about the nature of the mysterious attackers: ‘Forty-foot-tall cannibal motherfuckers running loose on the Island? Negro, please’. The narrator, more accustomed to Brooklyn though the DR is his family’s home, is simply incredulous.
Indeed, there is a lot more to dig out of this story about othering, expectations of settings and so on, but that was not the intention of this article. Instead, I’ll leave it at saying that Díaz combines his Dominican roots and his long-standing familiarity with science fiction to produce a good solid story told by a relative outsider, trapped in an unfamiliar place. It is open to interpretation and indeed I am most intrigued to see how non-sf readers would respond to it.
If the New Yorker and I don’t see quite eye to eye over the fiction, though I can see why such choices might be made, things get more interesting in the non-fiction section. The memoirs that make up ‘Sci-fi’ are boxed out, almost like advertorials, and perhaps in a way that is what they are: testimonies about the life-affirming properties of science fiction and how it shaped the lives of those writing, rather than people extolling the virtues of prescription drugs and financial packages (oddly enough the New Yorker’s actual financial page is always boxed out in the same way, as though money is faintly vulgar and needs to be corralled). At the same time, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that the boxes were also there to protect … well, what, the rest of the magazine? The other thing that strikes me is how inevitably they historicise sf, position it as a thing of the past, a thing of childhood, even though all these writers, yes even Margaret Atwood, work with the material now (though here I must excuse Ursula Le Guin, who writes instead of the problems of trying to get an sf story into Playboy with a female byline).
Even Colson Whitehead’s excellent ‘A Psychotronic Childhood’, detailing the genesis of his love of horror films and incidentally showing how one acquires critical judgement, has its face turned firmly to the past (and god forgive me, at one point I did wonder whether I wasn’t in fact reading a real-life version of Pinkwater’s Snarkout Boys stories. Indeed, while checking that I hadn’t muddled them with Lizard Music, I learned that a third Snarkout Boys novel, I Snarked With a Zombie, was planned but not written). At a critical level I am, I admit, mostly blind to film so it is interesting to read about Whitehead’s filmic education. At the same time I found myself wondering if a secondary function of the article wasn’t to demonstrate to genre readers that Whitehead was, so to speak, ‘one of ours’ while reassuring other readers that it was ok to put Zone One down to a misspent childhood.
The late Anthony Burgess’s article on the genesis of A Clockwork Orangereaches even further into the past. Again, it’s well-written, a fascinating meditation on what it means for society to intervene in the control of behaviour, but other writers have written about their fiction since 1973. On the one hand, it’s good to have this article back in circulation; on the other, it seems to reinforce the notion of sf as an historic literary artefact.
The two critical pieces focusing on sf take a similarly historical line. Laura Miller’s ‘The Cosmic Menagerie’, on the physical appearance of early fictional aliens is a good general historical overview for the uninitiated, referencing the likes of Camille Flammarion (Lumen) and J.-H. Rosny ainé (‘Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind (Wesleyan)) alongside more familiar writers such as H.G. Wells, as well as mentioning a number of critics such as Brian Stableford and George Slusser (consistently referred to throughout as Slosser; so much for the much-vaunted fact-checkers of the New Yorker). Emily Nussbaum’s ‘Fantastic Voyage’ tries, to some degree, to get to grips with the idea of the ‘fan’ and the tv series, with particular reference to Doctor Who and Community. There is no doubt that she ‘gets’ it in terms of discussing the intensity of that relationship, though one might argue too that she indulges in ‘fan service’ in that she plays to the geek mentality rather than considering it a little more rigorously. Are tv shows and their fandoms always ‘so much larger when you’re on the inside’? Possibly, but I wouldn’t have minded her thinking about the possibility of there being edges. Overall, these articles offer history rather than context; the memoirs, by contrast, offer context but the history is, inevitably, sketchy.
So, let us return to where we started, to that thought-bubble spaceman and his intergalactic friends, messily intruding into an ordered world of panelled rooms, just enough books, the polite canapés and the modest glass of fizz, and to the girl who brought him into being when she cried sci-fi. If, as I suggest, he is a composite of the preconceived ideas of five people in that room about the nature of sf, do the contents of the New Yorker represent the sixth person’s view of it? The contents present an alternative view, certainly, but they seem to me to be working terribly hard, maybe a little too hard, to establish a pedigree for sf beyond the standard genre sensibility. Time and again, we are assured that sf has a history, a long history; that well-known writers, even almost-Pulitzer-winning writers, care about sf. It is as though the New Yorker is telling us that it is ok to like science fiction, all sorts of science fiction, because it has made us what we are. Having said that the New Yorker itself was never that likely to include overtly genre stories; the Díaz comes closest but in such a way as to satisfy those who think they don’t like genre as well as those who know they do. But mostly it talks about genre without actually performing it.
As to whether that is a good thing or a bad thing? In truth, I do not think for a moment it matters. I no longer see any point in being an evangelist for the healing properties of genre, not least because there are as many ways of defining sf and fantasy as there are people queuing up to define it. To imagine that the New Yorker should be out there attempting to convert its readership to hardcore genre sf is both absurd and to make unwarranted assumptions about New Yorker readers. It is safe to assume that many New Yorker readers already know what sf looks like, thank you, and that they have places to go to find it. It’s probably equally safe to assume that the rest had little interest to begin with and stuffing it down their throats now is unlikely to make most of them change their minds. At best, one might say this issue presents an idea of what sf might look like for some readers, and they can follow it up if they want. Of course, there is the risk that for some, this is a diluted extract of sf, to be taken with pinched nose and a reassuring ‘there, that wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be, was it?’ Then again, so be it. But equally, it perhaps wouldn’t hurt some genre readers to take a few steps beyond their own preconceptions about sf and take a look at this New Yorker.