The OF Blog: Paul Kincaid, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Paul Kincaid, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction

Imagine that you are holding an unfamiliar book. Curious, you open it up and start reading. Almost immediately you are greeted with strange, sometimes unknown words. "Fuligin" and "grok?" What the hell? Is this something unusual, or are these but clues that what is within is not mimetic?

In the opening section to What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, Paul Kincaid's latest collection of essays, such scenarios as the above are discussed and analyzed. What is "science fiction?" What does the science fiction reader do when reading tales that contain night unimaginable technologies or creatures? These questions and more he addresses concisely, arguing that far from confusing the reader, such words as the disinterred "fuligin" in Gene Wolfe's series The Book of the New Sun and the neologism "grok," found in Robert Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land, serve to focus the reader's attention even more to what is transpiring in the text, thus making the "weirdness" of the story not something incomprehensible, but rather it permits such stories to be interpreted in a fashion unlike those that would be employed for processing terms and themes for mimetic fiction.

Although the "Theory" opening section sets the stage for this collection of Kincaid's essays on SF that range from the mid-1980s to the present, it itself is rather short, being less than 10% of the book's content. However, the topics covered in this section appear in various guises throughout the remainder of the book. For example, in his "Practice" section, such issues of definition and application are discussed at length in essays such as "How Hard is SF?" and "Mistah Kurtz, He Dead." In the latter essay, Kincaid explores how word usage and symbolism contained in stories such as Heart of Darkness reveal much about the concerns, fears, and sometimes even the hopes of British SF writers vis á vis American SF, for example.

For the most part, Kincaid covers his topics well in his essays. His sections on Christopher Priest and Gene Wolfe in particular will be of great interest for those eager to gain even more insight into their methodologies and approaches to crafting tales. But there are a few weaknesses in this collection, some of which are inherent in the nature of such a collection of essays over the years. In places, Kincaid seems to be repeating himself, although originally the essays were written years apart and often in different publications. In addition, the disparate foci of these essays can create a herky-jerky aspect that is much more noticeable when one reads the collection in rapid-fire order than in pieces over a longer period of time.

But these are minor concerns. A much greater one is that of the latter third of the collection. While Kincaid does an outstanding job dissecting what makes much of British SF tick, his section entitled "...And the World" is rather sparse and lacking in comparison. This was most noticeable in the essay "Entering the Labyrinth," devoted to exploring the themes in Jorge Luis Borges's writing. Kincaid covers the basics well, such as Borges's well-known love for Anglo-American literature and his use of labyrinths. However, there was so much that was barely-discussed or ignored here. For example, the very real influence that his native Argentina had on Borges is given very short shrift. Stories like "The South," (which Borges himself has claimed was one of his best and most representative works) are neglected. While labyrinths and mirrors and the use of golems to represent the intertwining of artifice and reality did constitute much of Borges's interest in Ficciónes, Borges throughout his career did much, much more. He was a poet of some importance in the Spanish-speaking world and while most of his poems were not translated into English until late in his life and afterwards, they contain quite a few themes (loneliness, despair, reflections upon his family past, etc.) that intersect his prose in intriguing fashion.

Other non-British SF authors get even less attention in Kincaid's essays. While Steve Erickson is covered nicely, there is a relative paucity about the American-based New Wave writers such as Ursula Le Guin. The social/anthropological concerns in stories such as hers would have made for an interesting test of Kincaid's "Theory" section's statements regarding how SF readers process SFnal text, but outside of brief mentions here and there, not much is explored. How characters view their (material) cultures and how they interact with it, long a concern of Le Guin (as well as others, such as Doris Lessing in some of her stories), would have made for an interesting parallel with how readers interact with SFnal texts, but unfortunately this is barely addressed.

On the whole, I found What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction to be a thoughtful exploration of a rather difficult subject to cover at length. The fact that the organizational structure (collected essays rather than a single book-length essay) and "blind spots" (much more on how non Anglo-American SF has developed) combine to create a sometimes spotty read is not as much of a condemnation of this otherwise excellent book as this illustrates just how vexing it is to cover a subject that is itself almost impossible to define precisely. Even with its flaws, Kincaid's book serves as a very good exploration of SF hermeneutics. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: March 21, 2008 (UK), tradeback.

Publisher: Beccon Publications


Anonymous said...

The book sounds very interesting. I'm impressed by anyone who can write about reading. It's too personal for me to be able to think about it logically.

Too bad the cover is so ugly.

Also, I had no idea the plural for
'focus' was 'foci' (good to see that 'focuses' is also accepted, as 'foci' means 'seals' in Romanian and it makes me go 'wtf? seals?! oh, no, focuses').

Si- said...

hmmm...Sounds like an interesting read. I will definitely try and get my hands on a copy.
Do you know of any other publications which explore the work of Gene Wolfe and Borges? I love Wolfe, but would love to hear a few other people's thoughts on his novels (Your reviews are great, though), and with Borges I feel like I'm missing something, some key of understanding, when I read his stories, although they are still vastly enjoyable.
Maybe I'm just the kinda guy who thrives off commentary.

Larry Nolen said...


"Focuses" is much more common, but like stadium/stadia, I prefer using the traditional Latin plural than the formerly-incorrect English plural. But seals? Foca? Interesting bit, similar to when I see "i" in Romance languages :P


Peter Wright is your best bet for Gene Wolfe, or at least the excerpts of his writings on Wolfe are very insightful. As for Borges, the best bit I've read, the 1663 page mammoth extract from friend/author Adolfo Bioy Casares' diaries, Borges, is not yet available in English and may never be.

But I might be persuaded to review some of Borges' work, from his own literary criticisms through his poetry (which I just finished re-reading). Good stuff, naturally.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. I would point out that the Borges essay was meant as a very basic introduction written at a time when his work was very little known among British sf readers (when originally published it was accompanied by a long bibliography pointing to other places readers should go to learn more). And yes, I'd have liked to have written about Le Guin, but in fact I haven't been asked to review any of her books fort more years than I can remember. There are always going to be gaps in anyone's critical career.

Anonymous said...

Jen, Larry,

"Foca" is seal in Portuguese... :-)

Good review, Larry. I´ll also want to read this book to review (and it´ll probably be useful in my thesis).

Larry Nolen said...


I understand, which is why I tried to imply as much in my closing paragraph. Borges is one of my favorite writers and I'm lucky to be able to read him in Spanish, since there's a wealth of his non-fiction writings that have yet to be translated into English (and the diary accounts of Bioy Casares, Borges, reveal even more about the man behind the fiction). But on the whole, I was entertained and given things to think about - what more could one ask, when one would need one's own Book of Sand to cover everything?


This and Farah Mendlesohn's just-released Rhetorics of Fantasy ought to be quite useful to you :D

Mike F said...

"collected essays rather than a single book-length post"

A bloggian slip?

Anyway, nice review.

Larry Nolen said...

Yeah, damn typo! I'll correct it later when I'm off work, as my lunch break is now ending.

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