Russell Letson: Agreeing

If I’m reading us right, we’re less bothered by lists (except, maybe Adrienne) than by arbitrary conditions or unrealistic expectations attached thereto—that they be “the best” or “representative” or “cutting edge” or whatever. Since the answer to who do we think are we are is a bunch of people who read with some attention but are otherwise various in our tastes, the point of a year-end exercise is less the listing (let alone ranking) than the reflecting and second-guessing and notes-comparing and tentative-curve-fairing. And since, as Gary points out, we read barely-overlapping sub-sets of the monstrous flood of titles, it’s also an opportunity to assemble a partial and patchy map of what’s-worth-reading and what’s-going-on from a particular stretch of months…

Taken as a collective enterprise, the Locus year-end essays (or this bloggy coda) are more like the Minicon “Year in SF” panel that I’m on every Easter: not authoritative or trend-spotting but a barely-structured series of “and then I reads” and “have you seen this ones” and “if you liked X you’ll love Ys.” Except here I have to compose in complete sentences and can’t make faces.

I’m still chewing on the matter of “revolutionary” works of art. Maybe the problem is with the metaphor of political revolution, with its suggestion of overturning power structures (and putting the losers up against a wall). If the underlying question is “how do the protocols and patterns of a tradition change in small and large ways?” then it might be more useful to draw on biology, and specifically to steal and adapt Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of punctuated equilibrium. Thus genre rules change in response to one or more strong examples of innovation—a Heinlein or an Egan or a Stephenson—that demonstrate to audiences and to other producers that there is another way of arranging the materials to get new effects or to goose up the old ones. If there’s a revolution, it is a continuous one, with occasional spasms of cleverer-than-usual inventiveness that inspires other writers and then readers to follow up on it. Our job as reviewers and general smartypantses is to spot these innovations as they appear, fit them into existing frameworks, and generally make sense of them. And that is another useful function for the roundup essay—to check under the sofa cushions for any small change (or big changes) we might have lost track of while trying to hit our deadlines.

Russell Letson

One thought on “Russell Letson: Agreeing

  • February 12, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    I agree that there is a problem with the word “revolutionary” in that it tracks to different metaphors in science and politics. The term in art I think has its roots in romanticism and that makes me think it’s drawing more on the political side, with all the attendant conflict and violence. Scientists rarely seem to issue manifestos, for instance. More’s the pity!


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