Christopher Priest, Connie Willis, David Hartwell, James Morrow, John Banville, John Clute, Kathryn Cramer, Kathryn Morrow, Pamela Zoline, Simon R. Green, Tom Godwin, Tony Daniel, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vernor Vinge, Wyn Wachhorst, Yevgeny Zamiatin
I had always planned to end my run of daily posts on this blog on my birthday, but illness meant shifting it a day earlier.
I had a couple of things in mind when I started this exercise back at the beginning of August. The first and simplest reason was that I have, over the years, produced an awful lot of material that has only ever appeared in print media. So I thought it would be useful, for my purposes as much as anything, to start putting in online. It’s a start only. I’ve now put online a reasonable if random selection of reviews, articles, columns and interviews that have appeared in Vector, New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, various fanzines and convention publications over the last 14 years. It’s not everything from that period by any means, and I’ll periodically put up others over the next weeks and months, I just don’t intend to do it on such an intensive basis. As for earlier material: I’d like to do the same for that, but in those cases it will require scanning or retyping the pieces, and at the moment I have far too many other things on my mind.
The second reason was to revitalise the blog. I’ve never been systematic in putting pieces up here. At times, months can pass between posts. My intentions for the blog have always been low-key, but I had never intended such neglect. So I thought this would give me a regular pattern of posting for a while, with other reprintings waiting in the wings to sustain a more regular presence. And that worked, rather better than expected. Regular traffic on the blog has increased (a side effect, but welcome), and it has also inspired more original pieces from me than I think I’ve managed in any similar period for a long time.
So far, so good, therefore. But then …
It was always rather fun to watch the site stats each day, just to see what sorts of things attracted attention. The first one or two reprints saw a slight uptick in daily traffic, more, I suspect, for the novelty of activity on this site than for any inherent interest in the subjects (John Banville’s The Infinities, James and Kathryn Morrow’s The SFWA European Hall of Fame, Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We). By the time I published the fourth reprint, The Dream of Spaceflight by Wyn Wachhorst, the traffic was drifting away again, so I assumed I’d reached a sort of natural plateau in public interest.
There was what seemed at the time like a surge of interest when I covered Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis, a controversial recent award-winner about which there had been some ongoing discussion on Twitter. There was a little more the next day, when I covered John Clute’s Appleseed, again aided, as I recall, by some discussion on Twitter. Although these attracted quite a bit of interest, it was well within the upper limit of what I’d previously seen on the blog, so my sense that there was an optimum amount of traffic I could expect to see was confirmed. And indeed, as visitor numbers fell away over the succeeding days, despite such varied offerings as a recent interview with Vernor Vinge, a fairly substantial interview with Christopher Priest, a column on one of the best-known stories by Ursula Le Guin, and so on, I felt justified. I wasn’t doing this for the numbers, but I still found it interesting to see where interest went up and where it fell away. The very brief review of Drinking Midnight Wine by Simon R. Green, for instance, saw a small spike in interest, which is, I suspect, because I rather mischievously trailed it on Facebook and Twitter as ‘How to write a best seller’. On the other hand a review that I thought was well crafted, well argued and interesting in its own right, of Metaplanetary by Tony Daniel, got very little attention.
Then, at the beginning of September, I published a column on ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin which had previously appeared in Vector. I knew that this was a controversial story, but it was also nearly as old as I am, so I was expecting about the same amount of interest that Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ had attracted. In fact I got the highest one-day traffic that the blog had so far seen. Now it is a poor story, and though I suppose I was fairly forensic in my analysis of what was wrong with it, I make no particularly high claims for the quality of the column. Nevertheless, the merest mention of ‘The Cold Equations’ seemed to have been enough to bring in hordes. I had no idea why, but I had a vague supposition. There are many, many stories that are better than ‘The Cold Equations’, there are many, many stories (though not necessarily the same ones) that are more important than ‘The Cold Equations’; but somehow ‘The Cold Equations’ has become iconic, a status that has been amplified rather than undermined by the many controversies surrounding the story.
Now that column was actually a refinement and expansion of something I’d written in an article for a fanzine a few years before, so I thought I’d dig out that article, ‘Hard Right’, and see what happened. I posted it the next day, and regretted it almost immediately. The post on ‘The Cold Equations’ broke the record for visitors to the site; the ‘Hard Right’ post soared past that record in the first few hours of the day. By the end of the day the blog had seen not far short of four times as many visitors. And it continues to attract views, on some days being seen by more people than saw the new post I’d put up. A week or so later, Damien Walter linked to it in a column on the Guardian website, and visitor numbers went up again. The day after the ‘Hard Right’ post appeared, I put up a column on ‘The Heat-Death of the Universe’ by Pamela Zoline; now I happen to think that this was a far better piece than the ‘Hard Right’ essay and it concerns a story that is at least as iconically important as ‘The Cold Equations’, and nothing, no-one was interested. In the weeks after that post, visitor numbers have settled down to an average level about twice what they had been before, but the extra numbers are almost entirely accounted for by people looking at ‘Hard Right’ and ‘The Cold Equations’.
I did not see all of the responses by any means. I know there were many more links on Facebook and Twitter than I ever came across, and it got mentioned on a lot of other blogs, not all of which I managed to see, so this is a far from scientific analysis. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that responses were polarised. Slightly more than half of the responses I came across agreed with me, typically saying something like: ‘this explains why I’ve always felt uneasy about hard sf’. Slightly less than half disagreed with me, typically saying something like: ‘this is utter nonsense from beginning to end’. There wasn’t much in what you might call the middle ground, and what there was I tried to address in a later post, ‘Hard SF Redux’.
The fervid feeding frenzy of the response took me aback. I was writing about stories that were written before I was born, let alone most of these respondents, and writing about a genre that fetishizes novelty, change, the future. Why did a piece about hard sf arouse this passion when pieces that dealt with later movements in the genre, with highly-regarded writers of the moment, with key works in the contemporary history of sf, did not attract a quarter of the interest? Indeed, all too often, did not attract one tenth of the interest?
The actual responses I saw are not much help in this, they are mostly absolutist statements that allow no room for discussion one way or the other (and in a number of cases get the facts wildly wrong). So I can only really consider the fact of the passion rather than its character. And I would guess that there is a sort of possessiveness about hard sf. One of my most serious problems with the approach to hard sf taken by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer in their monumental historical anthology The Ascent of Wonder, is that their understanding of hard sf was so broadly and so loosely drawn that anything that might conceivably count as science fiction would also count as hard sf. In other words, hard sf is not an identifiable subset of science fiction but rather is science fiction. This strikes me as both untrue and unhelpful, but I am wondering if there isn’t something in that. That is, I am wondering whether hard sf and science fiction as a whole are not so intimately intertwined in the minds of many people that an attack upon one is therefore seen as an attack upon both? Of course, ‘Hard Right’ was not an attack, just a critical analysis, but it took a political perspective, and it is very hard to write about literature from a political angle without an attack being assumed.
It is tempting to say that what triggered the attention was the politics, except for the level of interest aroused by the piece on ‘The Cold Equations’, and that was mostly concerned with examining how the story did not work within its own technological terms, the political angle was at most tangential. So what we are left with is the fact that certain stories from a time none of us can remember still seem to stand out to us as more iconic, as more worthy of our passion, than anything that the genre has done since. I find that fascinating and puzzling.
I will continue to put reprints here on the blog, though probably no more frequently than once or twice a week from now on, and I will continue to watch what sort of response they generate. But I am coming to the conclusion that there is no aspect of science fiction that I could write about that is likely to generate anything like the passion that hard sf continues to arouse.