The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

The New X - Issue 247

The walls are down, unfortunately, by Graham Sleight.

I recently visited a friend of mine, a contemporary from university, who has at the age of 30 earned a fellowship at an Oxford college. His rooms have, if not the best view in England, then certainly one of the top ten. He's working in the bit of his subject he wants to. He has the brightest pupils to teach and ample opportunity to do research. The odd thing was that, as I talked with him about my fledgling career in sf criticism, he seemed more and more enamoured of the idea of working in such an unploughed field. Talking about his own work, he said words to the effect of: the thing about writing in academia is that it's only slightly to do with saying what you want; it's very much more about authorising yourself in relation to your predecessors and peers. That image--of academic writing as being 90% an exercise in beating out a clearing in the jungle before you spend 10% of your time pitching camp--has stuck with me. Academic writing is, in that sense, a heavily gatekeepered activity, one in which your credentials, and the pheromone-pong you give off through your references, matter enormously.

I suppose you could summarise my previous two columns for Vector as saying that the field of sf has more and more regions without gatekeepers. It's very much easier than it was ten years ago to get your work into print if you're willing to use small presses, and to get your opinions into a visible public forum online. This, of course, reflects the much wider democratisation of information that digital technology in general and the internet in particular have brought. For all its drawbacks, for all the ways in which that democratisation is still controlled and used and at risk of ownership by the forces that have always wanted ownership, this is still something new and worth celebrating. I don't propose to rehearse here the argument about the virtues of gatekeepering that's played out increasingly frequently as, say, political bloggers vs mainstream media. But there are some particular implications for sf.

From the start, sf has always been an open and democratic field, pretty much to a fault. Even now, a smart teenager can read (say) China Mieville's work, form intensely felt disagreements, get themselves to the nearest convention, and within 12 hours be buttonholing the author in the bar. (I saw this happen to Hal Clement at Readercon in Boston, a few months before he died; it was like seeing the apostolic succession.) And, within the limits required to keep themselves sane, authors in general make themselves available for such conversations. This is, to put it mildly, not the sort of behaviour one might expect from a Martin Amis. Much as the boom in literary festivals is to be welcomed, they're heavily gatekeepered and controlled events. The interaction there is far more like a seminar or lecture than a conversation. This partly explains why the conversation about sf has moved so readily online. (The other part of the explanation, I guess, is the predisposition of sf folk to the techie skills needed to set up and run websites; but that's a whole other column.)

The problem with an un-gatekeepered world of reading and talk about reading is an old problem, hugely amplified. Life is short, and there are more things to do and read than anyone will have time for. (I still remember one of my 10-year-old death-awareness revelations: I will die without having read all the books I want to. I was, perhaps, a freakish child). I'm usually no fan of invoking Sturgeon's Law, and certainly on convention panels it's the equivalent of the neutron bomb: it destroys the evidence and just leaves the assertions standing. But here it applies and needs to be dealt with. The un-gatekeepered world is full of stuff that's not worth spending time on: novels whose writing only benefits the writer, serialised in 84 parts online, or pointless flamewars fanned by Ellison imitators who don't have a tenth of Ellison's talent. And, despite the freedom of a world where anything can be said to anyone, sf seems more and more to be sorting itself into affinity groups or niches. The great bounty of the internet is that these no longer need to be geographically bounded. The downside is that affinity groups tend to face inwards, to talk about what they know to the people they know. (The Footage:Fetish:Forum group in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition is a wonderfully well-observed view of how such communities work.) Hence, as this issue of Vector demonstrates, the near total invisibility of non-English-language sf in the Anglophone world. It's not that many people consciously set out to suppress sf from India or anything. But if you have a choice between talking about stuff you know, quite possibly by people who are friends, and stuff you don't know, by people in a faraway country of whom we know little, then it's not surprising if taking the first option is easier.

So if we're going to avoid an sf community whose freedom of expression has become its greatest burden, what's the way out? As anyone who owns Google stock (not me, sadly) will know, value on the internet resides not in information per se but in organised information: information whose relation to other information is describable. The task of a critic these days, or a reader, or an anthologist, or a magazine like Vector, seems to me to be that of the organisation of information. The sf community wants to know what's good and what isn't; without being about authorisation, such work can be a kind of advocacy. (That's also the task of awards, but that's slightly more political and so I'll deal with it next time.) We're never going back to the days of paternalism, of a canon handed down from on high; but at the same time, an ungatekeepered world will not be an equal one. Some works will still be overhyped, some will be undeservedly forgotten. What I want from the conversation about sf is actually not a million miles from what I want from sf: to tell me truths that I don't know yet.

Graham Sleight lives in London and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and Interzone.

This article first appeared in Vector 247. Back issues of Vector are available from