Serious Aliens! The Trouble with Sci-Fi at the New Yorker

Let me tell you a story of doomsday predictions and ecstatic hope and disappointment spiraling into a black hole. Let me describe the emotional ride I took when I first learned the New Yorker would be publishing a science fiction issue.

When the email announcement arrived in my Inbox, I was worried. I predicted failure. Science fiction has long been the whipping boy-girl of the literary elite. But then I held the “June 4 & 11 2012: The Science Fiction Issue” issue in my hands, taken by the goofy grade-school colors of its cover art and a cavalcade of names like Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, and Ursula Le Guin.

I didn’t read the fine print, however. When I studied the contents page, I found that none of these legendary science-fiction writers—or other luminaries listed under “Sci-Fi” such as Margaret Atwood or China Miéville—has an actual piece of science fiction in the issue. The fiction selections are by literary writers like Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Díaz.

Still, I had hope—perhaps a desperate hope, but one I nursed like a flame in the dying embers of our post-millennial times. I adore the work of Egan, Lethem, and Díaz; the latter two, in particular, have mixed plenty of science-fictional premises into their novels and stories.

And this was the New Yorker, after all. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, they’ve done it. Maybe they’ve pulled together a whole issue that has the wit and analytical insight of Nancy Franklin’s 2006 review of the “reimagined” Battlestar Galactica TV series—just for instance—or at least the laugh-out-loud snark of Anthony Lane’s 1998 review of Godzilla.

Alas, no. I have lots to say (and will) about why the New Yorker gets it wrong. But after wrestling a bit with my disappointment, I’ve also realized this high-brow take on “sci-fi” feels conceptually off because of my own ambivalence about science fiction. It’s made me think hard about what I’ve loved about the genre since childhood—the original Star Trek, Asimov’s Foundation series, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End—and what I don’t.

Anyone like me who enjoys both science fiction and literary writing ends up confronting the low and high in her own nature. Science fiction ranges from total schlock to literary masterpieces. Yet I find that what I’m missing in the New Yorker version is the schlock, the creepy crawlies, the page-turning thrills. That’s what makes it fun. But more than that, science fiction has long been the realm of the traditionally plotted novel—and still continues to be in Young Adult books and TV series—and I think it needs to be.

Despite the subtext of the New Yorker’s grudging nod of approval, science fiction as a genre doesn’t lack literary sophistication. For decades, it’s been rife with experiments in narrative, voice, and prose. But the ideas presented in science fiction stories can be so intellectually challenging and the worlds so patently unreal that they need to feel real.

“It’s here that misconceptions about the genre and literary pretentiousness join evil forces.”

I emphasize feel here for a reason. Science fiction has often been framed as a literature of ideas, but what powers those ideas are appeals to the heart and gut, not just disembodied brains. And it’s here that misconceptions about the genre and literary pretentiousness join evil forces in the New Yorker.

Consider the fiction selections in “The Science Fiction Issue.” In Sam Lipsyte’s “The Republic of Empathy,” I enjoyed all the meta chit-chat about voice and authenticity. But the twist at the end is way too moth-eaten to get away with being called “postmodern.” The remake of Battlestar Galatica did it all so much better, and with far more real anguish and philosophical questioning.

Jennifer Egan’s tweet story, “Black Box,” manages to build dramatic tension, but against stiff narrative odds. If Egan had written a more traditional science-fiction story, I would have devoured it as I have all her novels. I might have left my distracted mind behind, shimmering “sublimely in the heavens” as her “you” protagonist appears tempted to do at the end. But there are pages of lines like this:

“Counter to reputation, there is a deep camaraderie among beauties.

If your Designated Mate is widely feared, the beauties at the house party where you’ve gone undercover to meet him will be especially kind.”

Jonathan Lethem’s “My Internet” isn’t really a story. I’m not sure what it is. It’s all right as an idea twister, but it reads like an effort by George Orwell if he’d been alive to satirize Big Brother Cyberspace. Maybe that’s the point. But again, the emotional and brain-blasting intellectual hook I expect from science fiction is missing.

Junot Díaz’s “Monstro” is the only good tale of the bunch. Its premise—about a plague called La Negrura that first overtakes refugee camps in Haiti—is genuinely creepy. It has that combo of weirdness and prosaic detail that drives the best science fiction. Still, even it is not particularly compelling on the idea front, especially compared with recent indie films like District 9.

So I’m left with this question: Why are there no stories here by actual science fiction writers? Why doesn’t "The Science Fiction Issue" include stories by Ursula Le Guin or William Gibson or Neal Stephenson or Connie Willis or Colson Whitehead or George R.R. Martin or even Haruki Murakami?

The New Yorker can give anything it touches gravitas, but in this case, the literary weightiness drags a whole creative genre down. It feels surprisingly dutiful, almost earnest, despite the wacky cover. There are certainly wonderful sparks throughout—Colson Whitehead’s ode to watching slasher movies as a kid, Anthony Burgess’s testy digressions about the nature of freedom in his look-back at A Clockwork Orange—but little is revelatory or fun.

Ursula Le Guin’s brief personal note is one of the few places where the literary prejudice against science fiction is explicitly dissected, but even this is framed as a relic of “The Golden Age.” Le Guin is sharp and tart, as always:

“I thought, and still think, it ungrateful in a writer to write science fiction and deny that it’s science fiction.”

She’s right to point out that such literary denial now seems “quaint.” But I’d argue that the glomming on to science-fictional premises by all sorts of literary writers—not to mention the increasing cred of hipster geeks and the fans beloved by the publishing industry—is now the problem.

The New Yorker critics in this issue get at it best. And once again, it’s a TV critic (Emily Nussbaum) who captures science fiction on its own terms. In her “Fantastic Voyage,” which is mostly devoted to fandom and the various versions of Dr. Who, from 1963 to now, Nussbaum writes that time travel in the latest TV remake is a “philosophical and emotional challenge”:

“It braids together flashbacks, alternate realities, and so on, exploring with poetic verve some truly wrenching themes of mortality and loss.”

Yes. And isn’t this what literature does?

Perhaps what bothers me most about the New Yorker’s Science Fiction Issue is that it relegates insights like this to its pop-culture reviews. It doesn’t seem to have the courage of its editors’ convictions.

If you’re not going to include working science-fiction authors among your featured fiction writers, then tell us why not. Admit to the snark. Get David Sedaris to rip into Avatar or Lost. Provide lots of lively counterpoints to Nussbaum and wrestle with the big questions of high-brow and low-brow and everything in between.

Make me laugh, make me mad, make me feel awe. Engage my mind and heart, because that’s what science fiction does.


Publishing Notes

  • “Across the Universe” by Nancy Franklin, New Yorker, January 23, 2006. 
  • “Godzilla" (review of 1998 movie by director Roland Emmerich) by Anthony Lane, New Yorker,  June 8, 1998.
  • Jennifer Egan has addressed why use of the second-person "you" can be so problematic for readers. In “I Needed to Let Go of the Chronology,” an interview with in Talking Writing last year, she was obviously aware that the "you" voice is emotionally distancing. Of “Out of Body” in A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan said: 

    "The second person is just a difficult voice to use…. Ideally, with any strong choice like that, it should not be possible for the piece to be written any other way. That’s pretty much the standard I hold to in allowing for what might otherwise seem like gimmickry.”

6 thoughts on “Serious Aliens! The Trouble with Sci-Fi at the New Yorker

  1. When I was reading The New Yorker regularly, I think I managed to get through exactly three pieces of fiction. One was by Stephen King, one was Lorrie Moore’s “People like That Are the Only People Here,” and I can’t remember much about the third except IIRC it was set in France. I was (and still am, when I read fiction at all) an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction (f/sf). Most of what I loved about f/sf was missing from nearly all TNY fiction, especially story. Also a lot of f/sf was written in the past tense: big literary no-no, or so it seemed.

    That “literature of ideas” mantra is misleading. Sure, the so-called “golden age” of sf produced plenty of novels where scientific ideas dominated the stage and characterization, plot, place, etc., were either in the wings or out in the cold. And so very much has happened since the 1960s, not least the emergence of women in the field and plenty of cross-fertilization with other forms of speculative fiction, non-realistic fiction, or whatever you want to call it.

    TNY really has no excuse. It should have hired an sf writer, editor, and/or critic as a co-editor. But I suspect the mag’s real problem is that they look down on storytelling — unless, of course, it’s in nonfiction.

  2. Yes! Underlying everything that is so wrong with the New Yorker‘s take on science fiction appears to be the elitist assumption of its editors—now and forever—that traditional storytelling techniques are no longer good enough. According to this thinking, a well-crafted plot has now become the province of nonfiction narrative journalism, TV shows, and genre writers with (horrors!) fans who live to find out what happens next.

    As I wrote this post, I thought of you, Susanna, and a number of other feminist science-fiction readers and writers—and I just had to smile. The New Yorker really has no excuse for not appointing somebody like Le Guin or Gibson as a guest editor of the issue. But I suspect that the literary prejudices we”re both pointing to are unconscious, which makes it even worse.

  3. In response to your remarks about “Black Box”, I read it on and I find that I disagree about Egan’s choice of the second person. Yes, it is distancing, but I think that’s what she’s going for here. Together with the many generalities and imperatives, the effect is impersonal and instructional. It suggests the voice of a teaching A.I. unit implanted in the protagonist’s brain, monitoring her experience and feeding her whatever reminders it thinks she needs in any given situation. This implication seems especially strong as we learn about her other implanted devices. By the time we get to the flashback to the dock in upstate New York, however, it’s obvious that what has happened instead is that, in the course of her training, she has been so deeply immersed in that impersonal, instructional voice that it has become the voice of her inner monologue – which kind of amounts to the same thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the idea of a human mind invaded and transformed by technology so subtly and chillingly presented. It was, to borrow your own description, creepy, and its echo in the final scene with the descending helicopter was just exquisite.

  4. Well, that’s interesting, Joan. I do think Egan’s choice of the second person was very deliberate, for exactly the reasons you say. It is meant to convey the instructional voice of an implant–it is telling her what to do–yes.

    The problem for me here is not in the premise but in the storytelling technique. I not only didn’t suspend disbelief, I didn’t have the emotional response at the end of the piece that you describe. And I simply grew impatient. Which goes to show how subjective our reading experiences are, of course, and I don’t mean to be snide about Jennifer Egan. She is an extraordinary writer. But this tweet experiment didn’t work for me.

  5. Occasionally a good sci-fi story appears in the New Yorker: Did you ever read Gail Hareven’s chilling story “The Slows”?

    Now and then, George Saunders gets a good one in there too.

    I enjoyed the Egan and Diaz stories, but not as much as “The Slows” or Nussbaum’s lovely review of Community, fandom, and Dr. Who. (BTW, a minor quibble — the new Dr. Who is not a “remake,” it’s a continuation. It’s all the same show, even though it keeps altering its tone and re-fashioning itself. Not much could survive for 33 seasons if it didn’t.)

  6. Ike — Thanks so much for sending the link to “The Slows,” which I’m now eager to read. And, yes, I’ve read some of the George Saunders stories. My big complaint with the “Science Fiction Issue” was how it was conceptualized by the New Yorker editors. By being so relentlessly literary in its POV, it seemed to negate the entire community of science fiction writers and readers, a community that has had many, many discussions about literary writing vs. genre plot-driven writing for decades.

    Just once, it would have been nice if the New Yorker had broken out of its elitist orbit and focused a whole issue on writers not normally seen in its pages. A fruitless hope, I know.

    But, yes, Nussbaum’s piece was grand—and you are right about the current installments of Dr. Who not being a “remake.”

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