Pretentious? Yeah. Who am I to say what direction the field should go in? I'm a physicist with delusions of literacy. I started writing about what I read so that I could remember the plot of a book five minutes after putting it down. However, as I've written and read more and more and listened to people in the community, I've begun to see what the art of criticism can be. My reviewing can have a sharper focus than it has had in the past. I know I've been guilty of the "people who enjoy this sort of thing will enjoy this" review, and I want to put that behind me. Those reviews are boring to read, and let me tell you that after only two months of doing it, they're boring to write. So while I will continue to read Analog, because I enjoy SF puzzle stories as much as the next fan, I probably won't mention them here unless they do something really new. The same goes for the other magazines (although of course if some story does something astonishingly annoying, I'll probably mention that as well).
This evolution makes sense: reviewers come to read fiction differently than a lot of readers and fans. For one, we read lots and lots of stuff. After the nth iteration of a given theme, we're desperate for something new, something we haven't seen before. We read, as Gary Wolfe has put it, more cynically than the average reader. This is also a function of the fact that we have to write about this stuff. It's much easier to find something new to say about original material than to find a new way to say "yeah, it's OK." Sometimes this is a shame - it leaves us less time and inclination to read things we enjoyed in the past (now I'll probably never pick up that one Asimov robot anthology that I haven't gotten to yet) but it may be inevitable.
Here's the big challenge, and what I've given a lot of thought to. If I want to point people toward what's "best," how do I define that? It needs to be more rigorous than simply "stuff like the stuff I like." I don't have a coherent philosophy all worked out yet, that's part of what the new "Laboratory" appellation is for. I do have a few tentative ideas, open for argument and debate:
- What do want out of my speculative fiction more than anything else? I want fiction that makes me think about the world differently than I had before. If I wanted to read about middle-class WASPs in suburbia, i.e. myself, there are shelves and shelves of that sort of thing available. Instead, I want to be exposed to new ways of thinking. Thus I particularly value:
- Fiction by non-Westerners and non-English speakers. We need more of this sort of thing. There are people living around us who live in profoundly different mental universes than our own. To find out what they think the future could be like, or what they imagine in their flights of fancy, is incredibly rewarding and important.
- Really imaginative aliens and monsters, to stretch our minds and try to encompass the Other.
- Reactions to new technology and the cutting edge of scientific research. If there's one thing the 20th century taught us, it's that the universe is much weirder than Newton could have dreamed. This will have a profound effect on how we live and how we perceive the universe and each other.
- This means that the characters need to engage with their fantastic settings. There's no point in simply setting an episode of The O. C. on a space station. That's not fundamentally different from mimetic fiction. The characters need to really change in response to their genre environments. Historical people were different than we are now; people in the future will be different again; people living with dragons would be different in some ways as well (with apologies to Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire books I heartily enjoy).
- Literary quality: if it's not well written, it's not good literature. At a minimum this means prose that gets out of the way. At its best this means style that lifts the reader up, reinforces the themes of the piece, and makes for a truly memorable reading experience.
- I don't feel the need to police genre boundaries. It's fun to argue about, but each piece can speak to multiple traditions and must stand on its own as well. Hooray for slipstream! It's not all great, but a lot of it is original.
Keep in mind that all of literature is a great big tent, and I'm never going to say that people shouldn't read what they like. Reading is meant to be enjoyable after all. Huge numbers of people enjoy Robert Jordan and Analog magazine, and they should feel absolutely free to keep doing so. However, they already know where to find the next story: Analog publishes 10 times a year, and Brian Sanderson will be writing the last volume of The Wheel of Time. In between publishing dates, Analog readers can read Hard SF anthologies, and Jordan fans can read Martin, Feist, Eddings, or any number of other big fat fantasy novels. My reviews should cover things that may not be so easy to find.
I'll still be writing about the older classics, many of which can't stand up to this more stringent scrutiny. However, I need to write about them in order to think about them more clearly. I've developed a bad case of: "How will I know what I think until I read what I wrote?" Also, I feel the need to understand the overall picture of sf over the last century. Even the little bit I've read already has deepened my understanding and enjoyment of what I'm reading now.
Is everything I review going to be the best thing ever? Will all of it fulfill my wildest hopes and dreams? Of course not. I enjoy non-ground breaking stuff, as does everyone. Will all my reviews suddenly become as good as Joanna Russ'? I wish! But if I can do my part to nudge the field to expand into new & nifty dimensions, then I should. We'll see how this particular experiment goes.
 Really good critics know this instinctively, but I'm a bit slow. I'm hoping that hard work will eventually compensate for lack of innate genius. It worked with math!
 Footnotes are fun! Sorry... couldn't resist. Anyway, the actual point of this footnote is to let you know that today I ordered copies of The Issue at Hand (Blish's first collection of Atheling Jr. essays) and The Country You Have Never Seen, Joanna Russ' latest collection of criticism. I'm putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak.
 There was one last year, where a guy got stuck oscillating in a frictionless parabolic mirror with nothing but the physics textbook he'd loaded into his space suit computer, and he had to figure out how to add enough energy to the system to escape. It was awesome! Nothing but a dramatized physics problem, but totally cool!