by Paul Kincaid

Beccon Publications


365pp/£15.00/July 2008

What Is It We Do When We Read Science Fiction

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

What Is It We Do When We Read Science Fiction is a collection of essays and reviews by Paul Kincaid, broken down into loose categories. Despite the provocative title, Kincaid does not really form a theory about the process which occurs when someone is reading science fiction, or even how science fiction is interpreted by the reader.  Nevertheless, the title is gripping enough to draw the reader in and the contents are interesting enough to keep the reader reading.

Many of the essays included in What Is It We Do When We Read Science Fiction are lengthy reviews or retrospectives on authors’ careers.  Kincaid assumes a certain level of familiarity with the authors he is discussing, which can cause some readers to be lost in the course of some of the essays if the readers haven’t already read works by the authors in question.

This is particularly a problem some North American readers might have since many of the authors are not particularly well known, or widely published, outside of England.  Case in point is Christopher Evans, whose works Kincaid discusses in “Inside Chris Evans.”  Similarly, while Christopher Priest is more widely known for his novels The Prestige and Inverted World, many of his novels have not found a North American publisher and he is better known by reputation than by his work.

In many ways, this very unapproachability by American readers is one of What Is It We Do When We Read Science Fiction’s strengths. More than anything else, it indicates that there is a very distinct, and very vibrant British science fiction scene.  For all the talk of a second British invasion that includes authors like Charles Stross, Stephen Baxter, or Ken MacLeod, there are other authors who have very successful careers in Britain who have not managed to export their writing to the somewhat insular American market, whether the late Keith Roberts, Christopher Evans, or the humorist Tom Holt.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the works of some of the authors (or the specific works) discussed by Kincaid, What Is It We Do When We Read Science Fiction provides an intelligent introduction and sites like Amazon UK or Abebooks offer readers the opportunity to track down foreign editions or out of print books that Kincaid describes which may not be easy to obtain otherwise. If What Is It We Do When We Read Science Fiction does nothing else, it lays out a difference between British and American science fiction.

However, it does more than that.  In his essays, Kincaid provides a look at what science fiction is and how different authors approach it.  Kincaid does not provide a short and concise definition of science fiction, that elusive creation, but rather presents a holistic definition based on his interpretation of a variety of different authors and their works.  Although it may not be as pithy as Damon Knight pointing at something and declaring it to be science fiction, it serves the same purpose and in not only more inclusive, but winds up offering a better, if more amorphous, idea of what we mean when we say science fiction.

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