There's a new science-fiction book reviewer at the New York Times. Dave Itzkoff replaces Gerald Jonas, who ably, sensibly, and enthusiastically covered the genre for many years, even as the Gray Lady trimmed down its coverage. (Unless your name is Margaret Atwood or John Updike, in which case whatever you write can certainly never be called science-fiction, even if you set it in the future, with robots and everything, because you are of course a serious artist and not a genre hack).
Itzkoff's first column is a review of David Marusek's acclaimed debut novel, Counting Heads, and it contains more than a few positive blurbs we'll probably see splashed across the paperback edition. I haven't read Marusek's book so I can't really comment on Itzkoff's opinion.
But as many bloggers and websites point out, a deeper reading of this debut review raises several troubling issues, the first and foremost being that Itzkoff seems to believe science-fiction is all about David Itzkoff, and not the rest of humanity. He's cranky, he's mildly hip (or trying to be), and like the 17th-century Catholic Church, he appears to believe the universe revolves around him. Here's but a sample:
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.
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.
Um, yes, he's being completely serious here. Not only is he worried about the goddamned book he's holding on the subway and how it must look to the outside world ... he's absolutely certain you'd react to a given book in the exact same way he does. If only you'd look past the rocketship on the cover.
What we have here is a self-obsessed critic who admits he doesn't understand that criticism is entirely subjective. What one likes, another may loathe ... and the best critics are those who make you think even when you disagree with them.
(A side note: literally every edition I've seen of these Miller and Bradbury novels sport beautifully illustrated covers that, even if you accept the foolish belief that book selection reveals social standing, wouldn't lead any onlooker to think: hey, that's some silly-lookin' sci-fi you got there, pardner!)
And a good critic is someone who, to be blunt, knows what they're doing. Itzkoff's accompanying list of 10 essential sci-fi novels is scattershot, dubious, and in no way a good reflection of the genre's strengths. For example, most of his choices were written in the 1960s, certainly a vibrant decade for the field, but by no means the only one. As others have pointed out, the China Mieville short story collection is a totally random oddity (not because it's bad, but because Mieville's dense, gargantuan novels are where he's making his true mark). And oh yeah, no women or minority writers are represented. He also throws in a graphic novel (a good one, but still a choice that reeks of hipness and not critical thinking) and, of all things, a non-fiction book about the Twilight Zone TV series. These are his "essentials" of the genre, and it's a pretty weak and shallow offering.
As editor Andrew Wheeler notes: "This is the 'best-of' list of the guy who read some SF in college, and didn't engage in it terribly deeply ... the college bull-session reading list; the books that all the English majors in the dorm read in their spare time."
Wheeler concludes: "It's not that he just doesn't know the women; he doesn't know the Campbellian side, the New Wave, the Cyberpunks, the Space Opera resurgence -- he's uniformly unqualified."
It's a common reaction for science-fiction fans to cringe when the mainstream media pays attention to the field. Usually the focus isn't on the genre's rich and trailblazing heritage, but rather on its failings, cliched trappings, and unfortunate side-effects on pop culture (looky, a whole convention of people dressed like Spock!). So yeah, we're sensitive. Sometimes we really wish our ray guns actually worked, y'know? And where the hell's that rocket pack we've been promised for, what, eighty years now?!?
But when a flagship like the NYT hires a former Maxim editor to talk to the planet about something he doesn't seem to know or honestly care about ... a cultural and creative force whose impact and popularity can be clearly seen in the top-grossing movies of all time ... well, we cringers find our fears wholly justified. We're not being taken seriously with crap like this, and I guess we're just glad they didn't give the gig to Judy Miller (a noted sci-fi and fantasy author in her own twisted right).
Watching the web reaction to Itzkoff is certainly far more entertaining and enlightening than Itzkoff himself. We can, ironically, thank him and the NYT for encouraging something they clearly have no interest in: serious dialogue about science-fiction.