Reading Sightings by Gary K Wolfe

And this, the most recent of my reviews for Foundation

Sightings: Reviews 2002-2006 – Gary K Wolfe
(Beccon Publications, 2011)

In the December 2003 issue of Locus, Gary K Wolfe reviewed, among other things, John Clute’s Scores: Reviews 1993-2003. Wolfe and Clute have a number of things in common, not the least that they are major genre critics who are best known to the reading community through their work in what Wolfe, in his review, calls ‘monthly venues’. While Clute elsewhere ploughs a highly visible if sometimes idiosyncratic theoretical furrow, thanks to his ongoing work on the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Wolfe’s impact on the field is less immediately obvious, though no less significant, be it as an editor (he has recently edited a collection of sf novels for the prestigious Library of America) or as a literary critic (see Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, his 2011 collection of extended essays), or more recently as one of the hosts, along with Jonathan Strahan, of the weekly Coode Street podcast. No one could ever accuse Wolfe of shirking his responsibilities as a critic and commentator.

Wolfe suggests that one should not approach Scores with ‘the idea of gaining a comprehensive overview of SF or fantasy’ but I would argue that this is to an extent what Wolfe himself achieves with Sightings and its predecessors, (Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996 (2005), Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001 (2010)), not least because of the magnitudeof his output. He has been writing reviews for Locus for twenty-odd years, and in that time he has created a formidable rolling overview of a particular facet of the genre through this series of monthly snapshots.

Wolfe’s Locus columns employ a comparatively straightforward formula. Each month Wolfe reviews a handful of titles, novels, short story collections, anthologies, and occasionally works of non-fiction. How these titles are chosen remains obscure; one assumes Wolfe has some say in the selections, not least because certain authors reappear regularly in his reviews, and they are authors for whose work he clearly has some affection. It is also immediately clear that Wolfe is playing a long game. Each title he discusses is carefully situated in its historical or theoretical context. To take a particularly effective example, the very first review in the collection, covering Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, and two anthologies by Gardner Dozois, Supermen: Tales of the Posthuman Future and Worldmakers: SF Adventures in Terraforming not only offers a sharp and pertinent discussion of the ways in which alternate history is nowadays so often debased but also provides an illuminating potted history of the theme anthology. Wolfe’s reviews are invariably studded with such helpful nuggets of contextual information, intended to bring the reader quickly up to speed on particular genre issues, and valuable even to the experienced reader. At such times, Wolfe’s prodigious knowledge of the field is elegantly but unobtrusively displayed; the reader is informed but not intimidated.

This raises, then, the question of how Wolfe perceives his Locus audience. Locus has always, formally or informally, represented itself as the trade paper for the genre, providing a steady stream of information about markets, sales to publishers and forthcoming publications, alongside reviews and interviews. Precisely what niche Locus now fills is not clear, though it has gone far beyond its original intention, to keep fans in touch with what was being published in the sf field. I suspect that one can no longer guarantee that the Locus audience will have a deep knowledge of the history of sf alongside an interest in contemporary work, not least because there is now simply too much to read. In which case, Wolfe’s reviews serve, in part, as a primer in sf history, situating the texts under discussion as part of the broader continuum of genre. In fact, there is a distinct flavour of the seminar about these reviews at times, perhaps not surprising given Wolfe’s own background as an academic and educator.

This raises further questions about the nature of Wolfe’s criticism. His analysis is very sharp but as Matthew Cheney noted in a 2011 review of Evaporating Genres, ‘it is the sort of analysis provided by good book reviews: interesting, provocative, concise, but not thorough’, which is of course precisely suited to this particular venue. What is also notable is Wolfe’s scrupulous fairness in these reviews – almost too fair, as one occasionally wonders if he is capable of saying a bad word about anyone (not helped by a widespread anecdotal perception that Locus only publishes positive reviews). While it is difficult to imagine the ever-courteous Wolfe carrying out a vitriolic takedown of an author (though I find myself wondering what such a thing might look like, were he to be driven to it; and indeed, what would drive him to do such a thing), a close reading of his reviews reveals more than the occasional note of asperity when an author has done something particularly crass (though often softened by being enclosed in brackets). At such times Wolfe writes more in sorrow than in anger; it is remarkably like having a beloved tutor inform you that he is very disappointed in you. At other times, he has the ability to sum up a discussion which has generated thousands of words in other venues in one pithy sentence. I think particularly of his comment on the endless controversy of Margaret Atwood versus SF: ‘She’s not demeaning the SF market so much as protecting the Atwood market.’

Bringing the reviews together in a collection such as this reveals another, perhaps unconscious, facet of Wolfe’s project. Individual reviews are transformed into cumulative wisdom, as Wolfe creates a dense fabric of critical connective tissue through some well-placed cross-referencing, encouraging the reader to think beyond the individual review. While reading an entire collection of these reviews will not provide a detailed portrait of sf activity in those years covered it will nonetheless still flag up the most pressing issues in the genre at any given moment. When discussing the writing of Ray Bradbury, as Wolfe does several times in this collection, he frequently expresses the belief that in Bradbury’s work it’s not so much the individual story that is Bradbury’s métier as the short story collection, and I wonder if the same couldn’t be said for Wolfe himself. As individual reviews, these are enjoyable, educative, perceptive but inevitably ephemeral; it is only when the reviews are collected that their true strength can be fully realised.

Which is not to say that the collection is in every way perfect. At times, one could wish for a little more bibliographical detail within the reviews – tracking the history of the republication of Kim Stanley Robinson’s and John Crowley’s short story collections might have been easier had there been a year of publication at least. The text is also marred in places by distracting typos and odd little formatting flaws, which momentarily force the eye away from the page as the brain tries to make sense of what it has just seen. However, the sheer usefulness of the text as a whole outweighs the nuisance value of such things.

Returning to Wolfe’s review of Scores, he concludes that it ‘amounts to a long and pleasant evening in which too much wine is drunk and too many ideas are flung on the table, but from which one returns, veering a bit, with the conviction that this stuff matters.’ Much the same might be said of Sightings; to finish reading it is to emerge with a new sense of engagement with science fiction, as well as a strong determination to do better with one’s own reviewing.