The sci-fi community held its breath last month when the New York Times Book Review launched a regular science fiction column, "Across the Universe." The publication had been giving, at best, spotty coverage to sci-fi. This new column, it seemed, signaled a greater respect for the genre. The format of the column spoke to the Review's serious intentions. Modeled after David Orr's "On Poetry" column, it offered a platform to discuss the themes in the genre. Even more encouraging—the writer of the column, former Spin senior editor Dave Itzkoff—declared in an editorial note that he wanted to "demystify the genre for readers who believe, mistakenly, that sci-fi and fantasy books have nothing to offer them."
Encouraging, indeed. But when they turned to the column, many SF publishers and fans felt sucker-punched. While Itzkoff praised David Marusek's Counting Heads (Tor) as "one of my favorite books," he also presented it as evidence of the category's impenetrability to mainstream readers. "Why," he asked, "does contemporary science fiction have to be so geeky?"
Impenetrability? Geeky? With a few paragraphs, publishers and fans went from hopeful to indignant. Itzkoff was branded, as one fan wrote in a letter to the flagship newsletter Locus, "a perfect foil for those who want to remain ignorant about SF and feel justifiably superior about it." Online complaints went so far as to suggest that Itzkoff wasn't really a fan of the genre, picking apart his top 10 list on the Times Web site to find evidence of what they perceived as narrow tastes—some of the favorites, they complained, weren't even sci-fi.
While the reaction focused on Itzkoff—a high-profile target because he's published in the nation's most prestigious newspaper—the controversy brings to the forefront issues much broader than the comments of a single columnist. It highlights the long-standing resentment of the sci-fi community against a literary establishment it considers unfairly dismissive, as well as the heightened sensitivity of professionals working in a genre that has in recent years seen its popularity eclipsed by fantasy. There's more at stake than hurt feelings. Some SF publishers contend that columns like Itzkoff's perpetuate a negative stereotype that keeps readers from trying the genre—and prevents sales from increasing.
"There's a lot of unreal perceptions in the media about science fiction," says Diana Gill, senior editor for Harper's Eos imprint. "They seem to think it's all for people who dress up in Klingon costumes at conventions and that nobody else reads the stuff." Gill also wonders why science fiction should be singled out for its complexity. "If you look at Patrick O'Brian's novels, they have a lot of technical details about ships and sailing, about ropes and knots. But you don't hear anybody saying, 'Oh, nobody can understand Patrick O'Brian.' "
DAW co-publisher Betsy Wollheim puts it even more bluntly: "What [Itzkoff] said was basically nonsensical. I think people scorn these books because most of them can't understand them. They don't have the imagination to open a high-level science fiction book and wait the 50 or 60 pages it takes before you understand an alien world."
Jaime Levine, a senior editor at Warner Aspect, says it was unfair of the columnist to criticize an entire genre based on the shortcomings of one book. "There are always going to be people in science fiction who are so enamored of the science that they lose sight of their story and their characters, but science fiction has become so much deeper and so much more interesting than it used to be," she says. "If you look at some of the old dystopian novels, like Brave New World, those were much colder than current dystopias, like Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, which have so much more personality to them, and characters that are much more developed."
Lou Anders, editorial director at Pyr, says he was not angered, but puzzled, by Itzkoff's column. "He holds Marusek up as typical of the genre, but he's not—writers like him, or Charlie Stross, are part of the vanguard. They're not exactly the writers I would pass across the train to someone reading the latest Oprah book. There are plenty of entry-level works in the genre you could pass across, or you could hand that person Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (Harvest), John Scalzi's Old Man's War (Tor) or, to take one of our own authors, Mike Resnick's Starship: Mutiny."
Itzkoff says he's not concerned about the controversy, but he explains the reasoning behind his column. "The category has gotten increasingly isolated," he says in a phone interview. "It's like the way a patois will develop within a group of speakers in an isolated pocket only talking amongst themselves. After 50 or 100 years, they're speaking a completely different language that has evolved so that only they can fully comprehend it."
And some sci-fi publishers still see Itzkoff's column as a hopeful sign. Among them is David Hartwell, the Tor senior editor who worked on Counting Heads. "In these difficult days, an enthusiastic reviewer for science fiction is a gem," he notes, citing Michael Dirda of the Washington Post as the nation's only top-notch book reviewer willing to discuss SF novels seriously. "There isn't anybody like that at the Times and never has been. They just can't get beyond the modernist separation of high art and low art. I like Itzkoff's enthusiasm, though, and I'm interested in seeing how he develops as a reviewer. I would like to have somebody at the New York Times promoting the idea that science fiction might be fun to read." (Gerald Jonas's one-page column of capsule reviews, after running on a near-monthly basis for years, began to slowly disappear once Sam Tanenhaus took over the Review.)
"A full-page review in the Times is a wonderful thing," agrees Del Rey publicity manager David Moench. Although the science fiction community has magazines that cover genre works faithfully, he observes, getting SF books noticed in the mainstream press is difficult.
Despite the criticism, Itzkoff sees himself as an advocate of SF. "Imagining what the world's going to be like in 50 to 100 years is not the only goal that science fiction should be trying to achieve," he insists. "There are so many other things that it's capable of. It can be pressing in ways that other genres can't." As he explores those possibilities in the months to come, will he continue to generate such debates? "I can't predict what the reaction of the science-fiction community will be," he says, "but it's not weighing heavily on my mind."