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Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001
Gary K. Wolfe
Beccon Publications, 475 pages

Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001
Gary K. Wolfe
Gary K. Wolfe, Professor of Humanities and English at Roosevelt University and a contributing editor for Locus magazine, is the author of dozens of essays and more than 1200 reviews, as well as many critical studies. His Soundings:  Reviews 1992-1996 (Beccon Press, 2005) received the British Science Fiction Association Award for nonfiction, and was nominated for a Hugo Award.

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A review by Paul Kincaid

Two things are different between this volume and its predecessor. In the first place, trivially, this volume carries an introduction by Peter Straub. No famous name introduced Soundings, and to be honest no famous name was needed to introduce it. Wolfe is well enough known and respected in his own right, and I can't imagine there are many people likely to buy a collection of science fiction book reviews who would need to be told who Gary Wolfe is or why this volume is a good thing.

The second and somewhat more significant difference is that Soundings reproduced every word that Wolfe had written for Locus between 1992 and 1996. That is not the case with Bearings. This volume omits the annual summations of the year (which is no real loss), and also some of the reviews leaving, as he puts it in his own introduction, 'nearly all the Locus reviews from this period that seemed worth preserving.' However one may struggle against it, this casual remark immediately sets one wondering: what was omitted? What were the selection criteria? And does that sly 'nearly' suggest that there were worthwhile reviews that still failed to make the cut? Yet even with these omissions, the new volume still comes in slightly longer than its predecessor: I didn't notice it at the time, but have his columns in Locus been getting steadily longer?

There are, of course, significant (or, at least, worthwhile) books from the period that do escape Wolfe's net; there have to be, no matter how hard working, no one reviewer could hope to read everything. There is nothing by Iain M. Banks, for instance, or Kage Baker, Paul Di Filippo. In contrast, he has covered practically everything by Stephen Baxter, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford. Assuming that he has some choice over which books he gets to review each month, which is probable, then this suggests a preference for the hard-edged, hard sf end of the spectrum over the more romantic, baroque or surreal flourishes that the genre is capable of. And this impression is born out when you read the reviews of these authors, who tend to lead off the columns and get the lion's share of the attention. In reviewing Soundings, I suggested that Wolfe should one day write a full-length study of Benford, given how engaged with and sympathetic towards Benford's work his extended reviews prove him to be. In this volume, when even Benford's continuation of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is received with serious and favourable attention, I can but echo that earlier remark. There is an excellent book on Benford waiting to be born somewhere in these volumes.

If there is this leaning towards the traditional, hard type of sf, then it might explain his general leniency when it comes to reviewing the stars of this part of the genre. For instance, he describes Arthur C. Clarke's later fictions, quite accurately, as tending 'to be more slide-shows than novels,' yet immediately mitigates the criticism by adding 'it seems churlish to ask for much more.'

Though, in fact, this resistance to putting the knife in is a far more general tendency; for someone with his reputation as a critic, Wolfe is a remarkably benign reviewer. He can be very funny, of course. 'There may very well be a market out there somewhere for Tom Clancy Harlequin Romances', he says devastatingly of Steven Gould's Blind Waves. But the sting of that attack is instantly drawn by praising the novel's 'interesting ideas, significant issues, and intriguing settings.' It has to be said, however, that these rather vague generalizations don't really seem to belong with the novel as otherwise described.

Yet for all this unwillingness to hurt, he can still be wonderfully acute in his analysis, so often making an off-hand remark that is, at the same time, obvious and a revelation. As, for instance, when he compares Asimov, whose 'gleaming overurbanised universe was... what readers dreamed of escaping to,' with Sturgeon whose messy, ambivalent worlds 'inhabited the moral landscape these same readers longed to escape from.' You couldn't say it more precisely or more succinctly. It is this acuteness, rather than his benignity, that makes Wolfe one of the most important sf critics writing today.

What we get, and what makes this a collection well worth anyone's attention, therefore, is a view of the genre as it happened from one knowledgeable, consistent voice. It was, for instance, the time when the British renaissance was gathering pace; it is not mentioned as such anywhere here, yet you begin to notice more and more British writers popping up in these columns. It was also a time when there was a revival of traditional forms in science fiction, hard sf in particular was on the rise. Again, there is no specific reference to this, you don't see these things when its going on all around you, it requires a different sort of perspective. Yet when you look at the reviews, it's there, in the books and writers being covered, in the feel of the genre that comes across on page after page.

Yet if some things are on the rise, other aspects of the genre are waning. We notice the enthusiasm with which Wolfe greets each new book from Patricia Anthony, for instance, but it is only retrospect that lets us recognize that nothing further has appeared since Flanders, reviewed here in May 1998. Wolfe cannot register the loss, but reading these reviews can remind us that it is a loss. And that, in short, is why a volume like this is so important. It acts as a sort of collective memory. Did we read the same book? If so we can compare our memories with Wolfe's immediate impressions (I confess there are many instances where my views differed from his, usually he liked books rather more than I did). If we didn't read the same books, then it gives us a glimpse of what we missed (or may even recall why we chose not to pick up any particular novel). Either way, science fiction as it waxed and waned through the five years covered in this book is recalled, vividly and tellingly. Even if we don't always agree with Wolfe, we know we can trust him as a reviewer, and we know that no other individual reader is liable to produce so comprehensive a survey of one particular moment in the history of the genre. Why we read science fiction, and what science fiction from this period should be read, is all encapsulated in this one engaging volume.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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