Monday, June 18, 2012

In The New Yorker? Oh no, The New Yorker!

In case you haven't noticed it, the June 4-11 edition of The New Yorker was a special science fiction issue. Science fiction used to be virtually taboo at that magazine, which now seems to be trying to make up for lost time.

What with the press of other business, I haven’t gotten around to more than glancing at most of the contents, but there isn't actually much fiction in it. The contributors to a "Sci Fi" section include well-known genre sf writers Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, China Miéville and William Gibson, and Margaret Atwood also rings in there; but this section is devoted entirely to memoirs and commentaries. Jonathan Lethem, prophet of the slipstream movement, is the only recognizable name among the fiction contributors. But Jennifer Egan, whose story is a series of tweets, is the one that the magazine gave a pre-publication build-up.

Would Atwood like the cover, which shows  a cocktail party interrupted by a spaceman with a ray gun, a robot and an octopus apparently erupting from another dimension? The author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake had elsewhere dismissed genre sf as all about "talking squids in outer space," and the only genre story she discusses here is about a world of sexy spider women that lay their eggs in the bodies of beguiled male visitors who learn the Awful Truth about them too late. But Laura Miller, who contributes a think piece about aliens in sf called “The Cosmic Menagerie,” ends up sounding a similarly sour note. Like a number of outsiders who write about the genre, she seems to fancy herself an instant expert. Here are her credentials from her own website (

Laura Miller helped to co-found in 1995 and is currently a staff writer at that publication. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the Last Word column for two years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications. She is the editor of The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000). She lives in New York.

The thing is, she really tries to be fair at the start. She writes about the portrayal of aliens by French astronomer-mystic Camille Flammarion and his fellow countryman J.H. Rosny ainé, having come across a recent collection of three of his stories (“Les Xipéhuz,” “Another World” and “The Death of the Earth”) in translation, and devotes nearly a page to him – relying on editor-translators Danièle Chatelain and George Slosser, it would appear, for details about another of Rosny’s works, “Navigators of Infinity” (She is evidently unaware that it too has been translated by Brian Stableford as part of a series for Black Coat Press.).

But when it comes to English language sf, she thinks its history begins with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as far as the treatment of aliens is concerned – and virtually ends with it. Except for a few works like Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which treat issues of religion and gender, we are given to believe that genre sf is a vast wasteland of xenophobia – “For every kindly E.T., there must be a dozen fiendish Body Snatchers.”

Like many mainstream critics, she evidently considers movies the only important expression of science fiction. But even in the movies there are counter-examples like Avatar. And in the most successful movie franchise, Star Wars, the bad guys are all human – the aliens are usually good guys. They may be insufferable, like Jar Jar Binks, but that’s a different issue. Only, if Miller assumes that literary sf treats aliens primarily as monsters and body snatchers, it is out of near total ignorance of the genre.

Chances are that she’s never even heard of Stanley G. Weinbaum, who created a sympathetic alien way back in 1934 with “A Martian Odyssey,” which was a seminal influence on the treatment of aliens, including in space opera. Neither is she likely to have heard of Raymond Z. Gallun, who took a different approach to aliens in “Old Faithful” (also 1934) but an equally sympathetic one and one that has also been a seminal influence. Nor can she be familiar with British philosopher Olaf Stapledon, whose Star Maker (1937) imagined aliens (including even symbiotic species) that were nothing like humans, but had their own believable evolutionary histories.

As any genre sf reader knows, these works were far more influential on portrayals of aliens in modern science fiction than The War of the Worlds. One need only cite only a few classics such as Eric Frank Russell’s “Dear Devil,” Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, James White’s Hospital Station series, Larry Niven’s Known Space tales, Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station, Poul Anderson’s The People of the Wind and Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg. There are oft-cited counter-examples like Heinlein's Starship Troopers, but that was controversial even within the genre, and has drawn fictional rejoinders from the likes of Joe Haldeman and John Scalzi -- moreover, Heinlein himself didn't write only about war with aliens.

In recent decades there have also been a number of works about aliens that are so alien as to make contact with them, or at least understanding, impossible – best known is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, but other examples include Michael Bishop’s “Death and Designation among the Asadi.” And in C.J. Cherryh’s long-running Foreigner series, humans who have founded a colony on an alien world have to learn how to get along with the natives – who don’t look that alien, but have an entirely alien social mind-set based on a hierarchy of loyalties. “Friendship” and “love” as we understand them are alien to the Atevi. Miéville's Embassytown deals with a similarly difficult exercise in communication.

Only, you won’t learn about any of this in The New Yorker. You won't even get a hint of it. That’s a shame.