In discussions of early sf criticism--of writers who write serious and thoughtful critiques of speculative fiction as literature--I hear certain names come up regularly: Blish, Knight, Clute, sometimes Panshin, maybe Delany, maybe a few others. And all of them have certainly written good critical work. As have plenty of other writers since then.
But the one whose critical work on sf really resonates for me is Norman Spinrad. (To be clear, his earliest criticism that I've read was written at least twenty years after the early stuff by the writers in the previous paragraph; I'm not saying that he was one of the pioneers in the same way as those others.)
I first encountered Spinrad's critical essays in his column in Asimov's in the late '80s, iIrc. He would generally take something like three to six books and compare and contrast them, often on a thematic and/or stylistic level. He wasn't writing reviews per se, and he included plenty of plot spoilers where appropriate to make his points.
Thirteen of his essays were collected in a volume titled Science Fiction in the Real World, which I spent years looking for at conventions and in used bookstores before a nice bookstore in Chapel Hill called The Avid Reader found it for me via a book search. Now, of course, you can pick it up used at Amazon quickly and easily.
What brought all this to mind was happening across a Spinrad column from Asimov's. In recent years, he's revived his "On Books" column, and is still writing insightful and interesting critiques.
That particular installment of the column (from 2003, I think) spends a while talking about prose style, with particular reference to Spinrad's own work. He talks about "transparent prose," reasons not to use it (I would argue that there are also cases where it's perfectly reasonable and appropriate, but I do like what Spinrad says about it), and reasons for authors to have different styles for different works rather than settling into just one style that they use for everything. (It's possible that various people linked to this piece back when it was published; I think that was sometime around the time of one of our style discussions. But I never posted about it here, and I think it's worth re-linking to this kind of thing every now and then anyway.)
He then goes on to discuss style and form in Timothy Zahn's Manta's Gift (which sounds like it bears several remarkable surface similarities to Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World, though I haven't read either book and I gather their plots are quite different), Ted's Stories of Your Life (briefly), James D. MacDonald's The Apocalypse Door (a CIA thriller with a priest as the lead spy), Cory's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and Damien Broderick's Transcension.
Spinrad isn't as free with plot spoilers as he used to be, and this column does read a bit more like a set of thematically linked reviews than like a critical essay; and it gets a little repetitive in a couple places. Also, he doesn't mention the word "singularity" at all, and I think sometimes he's a little too unwilling to take a work on its own terms if it's not really meant to be Deep Literature. But overall good stuff, well worth reading as usual.
One line I particularly liked:
I had the uneasy feeling that I knew where it was going to end up, as this sort of thing usually does, in the structurally neat and emotionally reassuring but essentially vacuous rejection of all this post-human stuff in favor of the affirmation of natural humanity as God intended.
So true! It's remarkable how many works of speculative fiction, published and un-, end up being about rejecting high tech. "Nature good, cyborgs bad!" Tell it to anyone who wears glasses.
There's a related trope in which the protagonist is one of the few atavistic holdouts in a high-tech world, and thus one of the few who can truly understand what it truly means to be truly human. Sometimes this choice is made in order to give the modern human reader a character they can identify with and someone who can translate the bewildering high-tech future into terms the reader can understand; but most often, the point is to show us how awful and dehumanizing the future tech is, and that gets old after a while.
As does, of course, the opposite idea that tech is inherently good and wonderful and that everyone should embrace it.
Anyway, I digress. Mostly the point of this entry is to say that I liked Spinrad's discussion of style and thought some of y'all might be interested too, if you haven't encountered it before.