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On Spinrad


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.


Glasses are the example I used last semester, when I was pushing my students to think about Gattaca! Several of them had picked up on the idea that having myopia corrected before birth made a particular character less-human than...wearing glasses. We had a nice discussion about that.

One of the things that struck me, in fact, is that the trope of alteration making you not-human gives so much power to the body! If changing your DNA makes you inhuman, that really says that there's nothing to your humanity but DNA, right? And if giving you a robot arm makes you a robot, I guess you stored your humanity in your arm. Now it seems so retro to say that everything that makes us so super special is flesh.

In summary: I think I'd like Spinrad a lot. Thanks!

That rejection of high tech is a form of what Egan called motherhood statements: "feel-good stories that cave in at the end and do nothing but confirm everything you ever wanted to believe."

(Bruce Sterling later added this to the Turkey City Lexicon.)

I had to Google "transparent prose," and ended up with Spinrad's article.

After reading just that one passage, I wanted to jump up and down and say "What about Bradbury? What about Le Guin? What about Delany? And for bog's sake, what about M. John Harrison?"

Then I calmed down, and realized I had missed the point entirely. Which was sufficiently reassuring that I read the rest of the column, and enjoyed it very much.

One of the things that struck me, in fact, is that the trope of alteration making you not-human gives so much power to the body! If changing your DNA makes you inhuman, that really says that there's nothing to your humanity but DNA, right? And if giving you a robot arm makes you a robot, I guess you stored your humanity in your arm.

Honestly, I don't understand this argument at all. To make any sort of sense, it would have to start with inventing and justifying the premise that the existence of one essential quality that defines one's humanity precludes there being any other essential qualities.

(A chair contains several essential parts; take away one leg, or the seat, and it's no longer a chair. That doesn't mean that any given leg contains the sum total of its chairness.)

Hi Jed,

Norman hasn't "revived his On Books column." He's been writing the column regularly for Asimov's since August 1984.

Thanks for the comments, all.

Sheila: Sorry for the confusion--I had thought there was a period of a few years when his columns didn't appear in Asimov's, but I must've just missed them.

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