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Wanted: Savvy Sci-Fi Critic for NYTBR

It’s taken as a given that the litblogosphere has it in for Sam Tanenhaus and the New York Times Book Review, with this blog counted among the critics, but I like to think that the ‘Cat has been supportive, albeit in a rather tough-love mode, of the changes Tanenhaus has executed in nearly three years on the job. I’m not convinced he’s getting everything done in a timely fashion, and the “news about the culture” approach has its downsides, but you can’t deny that he’s made the Review lively, he’s done a decent job with literary fiction (particularly trade paperback originals), and he’s brought some fresh new voices in to give fields like poetry and comics serious and signficant coverage. But nestled among such successes is a columnist whose faults have become more glaring with each new effort—science-fiction reviewer Dave Itzkoff.

(Now, we might as well lay all our cards out on the table: Itzkoff has had his nose bent out of shape with this blog because he believes I sandbagged him when I wrote about his debut for PW last spring, which frankly is ironic since that article contained more positive feedback than just about any other reactions to his work. We stopped mentioning him by name after we became tired of receiving snotty emails every time we did. But constantly going on about “the reviewer” and “the columnist” would get silly, so I’ll break the tradition this once. You should also know that I’m friendly with John Scalzi, the subject of today’s NYTBR sci-fi essay, but you’ll have to take it on faith that I’d think Itzkoff’s review stinks even if I didn’t know Scalzi at all.)

Let’s look at an early line in Itzkoff’s review of John Scalzi’s works, considering the legacy of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein:

“I have no reason to doubt that the old master’s classic novels Stranger in a Strange Land and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls are still as good as I remember them… But Heinlein’s military sci-fi, particularly the book that practically invented the genre, Starship Troopers, has not aged well, to put it mildly.”

Setting aside the fact that I just reread Starship Troopers over the weekend, and it has aged quite well apart from a few bits of cornball dialogue, thank you very much, there are three plausible explanations for how such a boneheaded statement as calling The Cat Who Walks Through Walls a classic could be published in one of the nation’s leading literary reviews. We can rule out the possibility that Itzkoff is making a poorly executed attempt at irony; if that were the case, he wouldn’t pair it up with Stranger in a Strange Land, which has its problems but holds up reasonably well. We can also rule out the idea that he’s being deliberately snide—as poor a reviewer as he is, one ought to presume he’s acting in good faith. That leaves just one option: He really thinks Cat was as good as he professes to remember, and that (non-sci-fi fans will have to trust me on this) means his taste simply cannot be trusted.

It would take too long to fully unpack the flaws in Itzkoff’s assertion that “to a contemporary reader it is almost impossible to interpret [Starship Troopers] as anything other than an endorsement of fascism,” although Science Fiction Book Club editor Andrew Wheeler makes a good start, and raises the possibility that Itzkoff was thinking of Paul Verhoeven’s movie, not Heinlein’s novel (which is a bit more bad faith than I’m personally willing to give him, but make of the idea what you will). Again, having just reread Troopers in response to this essay (it’s short, and it goes pretty quickly), I can tell you that Heinlein’s vision is conservative to say the least, likewise his sexism leaves a lot to be desired (though it’s not quite as blatant here as it is in Stranger and everything he wrote after it), but the connections the book makes between performing what it defines as the duties of citizenship and earning its rewards are hardly fascist, even at their most militaristic.

John Scalzi has his own response to the review, and while he’s largely thrilled at having been deemed worthy of notice in so high-profile a venue, he strongly disagrees with Itzkoff’s claim that his work “plays both sides of the fence” in terms of its politics. Instead, Scalzi suggests that putting political content into a novel can either be like building a monument or building a room:

“If you build a monument, what you’re doing is putting your politics and polemics in the center of your reader’s attention and basically making him or her deal with them on your terms. The politics aren’t accessible and aren’t debatable; as a reader you deal with them or you don’t… If you build a room, what you’re doing is inviting people in—with all their baggage, political or otherwise—and inviting them to unpack and stay awhile… As a writer, you make the points you want to make, and because you’ve let your readers bring something into the book as well, I think you’ve got a better chance of them being receptive to your points.”

Contrast Scalzi’s willingness to embrace complexity and nuance with Itzkoff’s simplistic insistence that he needs “to articulate a firm position on the political issues that will inevitably define his historical moment” before he “truly will have earned his place alongside Heinlein in the canon of military science fiction.” Preferably, runs the subtextual implication, if Scalzi fully embraces liberalism instead of mucking about with moderate centrist positions.

There’s a more glaring proof that Itzkoff can’t handle nuance, though, when he discusses a passage in Scalzi’s second novel, The Ghost Brigades, that touches directly upon the Heinlein issue:

“During their training, Dirac and his company are made to read Starship Troopers, which they collectively decide ‘had some good action scenes but required too much unpacking of philosophical ideas.’ Heinlein may have cultivated a philosophy that now seems distasteful bordering on appalling, but it is unfair to criticize him for simply having a philosophy.”

What Itzkoff fails to notice, however, is that the scene in question, particularly the line he criticizes so harshly, is dripping in irony, or, as Scalzi himself puts it, “an inside pitch to science fiction fandom.” Scalzi’s too kind to spell it out, but I have no such restraint: What are we to make of a science-fiction reviewer who can’t pick up on a writer’s most blatant callouts to “real” science-fiction fans?

With all that in mind, take my word for it that when Itzkoff dismisses Scalzi’s latest novel, The Android’s Dream, as “Rudyard Kipling woke up one morning and decided he wanted to be Benny Hill,” he couldn’t be more wrong. I’ve gone on record comparing this book to vintage Ross Thomas already, but I’d also namecheck the collaborations between Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, especially The Space Merchants (which I’ve got a dollar says Itzkoff’s never read). Yes, the novel starts with a chapter-long fart joke; yes, there’s a lot of expository digression heavily laced with jokes. But Scalzi hasn’t abandoned serious themes at all, and at the risk of being seen as blatantly pimping for my friends’ books, well, I hope you’ll give it a try.

As for the big picture, well, funnily enough, I’d already suggested months ago Scalzi could do Itzkoff’s job way better, and I’d still stand by that, but the priority at this point is simply getting any intelligent critic to assume the sci-fi reviewing duties. As I said at the beginning, Tanenhaus has made some excellent hires since taking over the Review; he should have somebody doing this column to match them. In the meantime, could Terrence Rafferty start reviewing horror again?

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