Monday, February 20, 2012
I don't want to bury the lede here: Gary K. Wolfe has never won a Hugo (???), and I believe that he should win one for his most recent essay collection, Evaporating Genres (!!!).
I didn't review Evaporating Genres when I read it, because I read it while on maternity leave and finding time to write, much less write coherently, wasn't really my strong suit. However it has stuck with me due to its strengths, mostly in terms of its breadth and depth in what it has to say about the field. Wolfe is amazingly well read, both in genre literature new and old and in works of literary criticism. (There are twelve pages of Works Cited at the end of Evaporating Genres.) As a professor with a PhD in Literature who has read, taught, and reviewed for over thirty years, he brings a depth of knowledge to the field that few others can match. All that is on display in this volume, in essays that delve deeper into his subject matter than the monthly reviews he has done for twenty years at Locus Magazine.
There are any number of approaches that critics can take in examining a field, and Wolfe opts for a wonderfully inclusive and accessible style. Far from policing the boundaries of genre and attempting to cram every work into a neat little taxonomy, he celebrates those works that stretch boundaries--that take whatever they need from wherever they find it to make something perhaps more beautiful and almost certainly more interesting than what came before. Hence his focus in these essays on writers like Peter Straub, the horror writer who won the World Fantasy Award for a book with no fantasy in it, and Elizabeth Hand, whose work moves from fantasy to science fiction to mainstream without ever losing the core style and concerns that make it special.
Unlike most academics, Wolfe stays up to date with what the genre is doing now, due to his monthly reviewing for Locus. While certain scholarly communities have only recently woken up and discovered that Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness is pretty spiffy, Wolfe also looks at "The Word For World is Forest" and her more recent work of criticism. M. Rickert, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Rudy Rucker are as likely to get mentions as Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.
Wolfe also extends some of the work that he did in his groundbreaking book from 1979, The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction. There he examined several well-known tropes of science fiction through the history of the field, looking at how each in their turn have represented different things: the Barrier, the Spaceship, the City, the Wasteland, the Robot, and the Monster. All of these have in time been established, subverted, and subverted again. In Evaporating Genres he extends that approach to the Artifact, the Post-Apocalyptic World, and the Frontier, again examining how each has shifted and morphed over a century of genre literature. Reading Wolfe (in this book, in reviews, and listening to him in person, on panels, and on his podcast with Jonathan Strahan) gives one tools to help you get more out of your own reading and it suggests titles and connections you may never have encountered otherwise. Combine this all with a straightforward, accessible, personable style, and I'd say that you can't go wrong. This is exactly the sort of exemplary work that I think should be rewarded with a Best Related Book Hugo award.
A few other notes, which don't reflect on the current book but I think are important: The Known and the Unknown was eligible the very first year that the Hugo included a non-fiction category. It wasn't even nominated. Here's the list: The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Peter Nicholls (Winner); Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, Wayne Douglas Barlowe & Ian Summers; In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov; The Language of the Night, Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan Wood; Wonderworks, Michael Whelan. The usual collage that makes up this sort of all-the-stuff-that-isn't-the-stories category. Now, on the strength of The Known and The Unknown and his other early critical writings, Wolfe won the Eaton award (1979), the Pilgrim (lifetime achievement) award (1987), and the IAFA Distinguished Scholarship (also a lifetime achievement) award (1998). Two of his review collections, Soundings and Bearings, have been Hugo nominated in 2006 and 2011. However, I think that Evaporating Genres is a much better entry to the category, containing in-depth essays that shed more illumination on the subject than collected reviews can, being constrained by the randomness of publishing schedules.
Looking at some other works that came out in 2011: the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is a perennial favorite of the Hugos, the first edition of which won the very first year of the category. But the current online version of the Encyclopedia is only half done; the remainder of the entries will be updated later this year. I personally would prefer to have it considered as a whole next year. John Clute, another scholar of amazing depth and breadth, has a collection of reviews and essays out, Pardon This Intrusion. I'll note that I think it suffers some of the same lack of focus as Clute and Wolfe's previous review collections and for the same reasons, and that Clute has won three Hugos previously for his various encyclopedic endeavors.
I think everyone reading this blog knows that I consider Gary Wolfe a mentor and a personal friend--heck, my copy of Evaporating Genres is signed to me, my husband, and my then-unborn, -unnamed, and -ungendered baby. Not to mention that I'm on the same masthead as he is at Locus Magazine. However, I truly feel that Evaporating Genres is probably the best book about the science fiction field published in 2011, and that it deserves the Hugo entirely on its own merits. The fact that giving it the award would also serve to balance some historical scales that I feel are a bit out of whack is merely icing on the cake.