Ev­ery­one’s a critic, David Lang­ford dis­cov­ers

SFX - - Contents -

Lang­ford on crit­ics and Bon­nie on Agent Carter.

As CS Lewis fa­mously wrote, “If we have to choose, it is al­ways bet­ter to read L Ron Hub­bard again than to read a new crit­i­cism of him.” Ac­tu­ally he said it about Chaucer, but it’s an in­ter­est­ing gen­eral prin­ci­ple. Some­times I agree. At other times I pre­fer a good crit­i­cal book about science fic­tion to ac­tual SF, es­pe­cially if the lat­ter is by L Ron Hub­bard.

I don’t mean those dire aca­demic vol­umes with ti­tles like Some Lesser- Known As­pects Of Eigh­teenth- Cen­tury Utopian Fab­u­la­tion In Al­ba­nia. The great SF/ fan­tasy crit­ics are mostly prac­tis­ing writ­ers who praise sto­ries or put the boot in with joy­ful style and el­e­gance – like Da­mon Knight with In Search Of Won­der ( 1956, but look for the ex­panded third edi­tion of 1996), Kings­ley Amis long be­fore his knight­hood with New Maps Of Hell ( 1960), James Blish with The Is­sue At Hand ( 1964), Ur­sula Le Guin with The Lan­guage Of The Night ( 1979), Al­gis Budrys with Bench­marks: Galaxy Book­shelf ( 1985) or John Clute with Strokes ( 1988).

The SF crit­i­cism in my own home li­brary fills 13 feet of shelves, so I could carry on list­ing ti­tles for ages. How­ever, the long suc­ces­sion of names might be­come a lit­tle too like Beach­comber’s vi­tal but for­tu­nately imag­i­nary ref­er­ence work The An­thol­ogy Of Hunt­ing­don­shire Cab­men. In th­ese de­gen­er­ate lat­ter days, there are even sev­eral crit­i­cal col­lec­tions by me, of which it has of­ten been said… but never proved.

Here are some rec­om­men­da­tions from re­cent read­ing, one dated 1987 and three from 2014:

Robert Sil­ver­berg ’s Worlds Of Won­der ( the 1987 ti­tle) is cun­ningly dis­guised as an an­thol­ogy of clas­sic SF: I didn’t buy it when it ap­peared be­cause I knew all the sto­ries, some by heart. Silly me. What I missed is that each tale comes with an es­say from mas­ter crafts­man Sil­ver­berg, tak­ing it apart to show just what makes it a clas­sic. His re­veal­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion “The Mak­ing Of A Science- Fic­tion Writer” is also a must- read.

Jo Wal­ton re­vis­its nearly 130 old favourites and pon­ders why she loves or no longer loves them in What Makes This Book So Great, a se­lec­tion of her many hun­dreds of thought­ful posts in this vein from the Tor. com blog. She usu­ally has some­thing wise to say. I nod­ded of­ten – in agree­ment, I mean, not nod­ding off – and only rarely shook my head. Her tact­ful med­i­ta­tion on SF Se­ries That Went Down­hill is full of sad truth.

John Clute’s lat­est non- fic­tion col­lec­tion – there have been sev­eral since that 1988 de­but – is called Stay and as usual throws you in at the deep end of a deep mind fond of oc­ca­sional “stu­diously flam­boy­ant ob­scu­ri­ties”… to quote his SF En­cy­clo­pe­dia en­try, writ­ten by one John Clute, who should know. Be­sides many densely meaty re­views, Stay in­cludes five short sto­ries ( where else could you find an im­age like “an entab­la­ture of sala­man­ders loosed sud­denly into a my­oclonic can- can”?) and his 2006 mini- en­cy­clo­pe­dia The Dark­en­ing Gar­den: A Short Lex­i­con Of Hor­ror. Whose ap­proach to hor­ror is like no other.

Adam Roberts – known to Princess Bride buffs as the Dread Pun­ster Roberts – pub­lishes witty, learned crit­i­cism at a great rate on his blog Sibi­lant Frica­tive. For rea­sons which are deeply un­clear, Sibi­lant Frica­tive the book col­lects ma­te­rial not from its name­sake but from his nowdeleted for­mer blog Punka­did­dle. Be­sides be­ing in­sight­ful, th­ese re­views in­clude some of the fun­ni­est I’ve ever read: his an­noy­l­o­gis­tic take on Neal Stephen­son’s Anathem, for ex­am­ple, or the epic as­sault on Robert Jor­dan’s Wheel Of Time, with ex­ten­sive quotes from the mas­ter’s prose. “He sounded like a bum­ble­bee the size of a cat in­stead of a mas­tiff.” Of course he did. Some­one said it’s al­ways bet­ter to read David Lang­ford again than to read him bang­ing on about crit­i­cism.

Great SF crit­ics put the boot in with joy­ful style and el­e­gance

SF writer David Lang­ford has had a col­umn in SFX since is­sue one. David has re­ceived 29 Hugo Awards through­out his ca­reer. His cel­e­brated SF newsletter can be found at http:// news. an­si­ble. co. uk. He is a prin­ci­pal edi­tor of the SF En­cy­clo­pe­dia at http:// www. sf- en­cy­clo­pe­dia. com.

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