Soundings, Gary K. Wolfe

Beccon, 2005, 415 pages, US$35.00 tpb, ISBN 1-870824-50-4

As a dilettante critic/reviewer/guy who likes to sound off, I simply can’t get enough book-length collections of SF&F reviews. Yes, I’ve got the entire John Clute oeuvre on my bookshelves: but what else is out there? The audience for such works of SF criticism probably numbers in the hundreds, which is about the size of the print runs for the rare books that are published on the subject.

Fortunately, small presses are made for that sort of narrowly-focused special-interest publication. After the critical and (slight) commercial success of John Clute’s Scores, small British publisher Beccon is at it again with Soundings, a collection of Gary K. Wolfe’s reviews for Locus Magazine between 1992 and 1996. Wolfe, of course, if Locus’ reviewer-in-chief: He gets his pick of whatever interests him, and spins a monthly column that leads off the magazine’s criticism section.

Amusingly enough, one of the book’s least fascinating aspects is to illustrate his growth as a reviewer, mostly because there is very little here that could be considered a beginner’s mistake: coming at reviewing from academia, Wolfe hit the ground running and even his first reviews are solid pieces of work. Perhaps the only remaining hints of early jitters are Wolfe’s protests as he’s asked to sum up the year and how he’s unqualified to do so: pages later, he’s busy knocking down the trends and clichés emerging from the genre.

Wolfe’s tenure at Locus is well-deserved: He can talk intelligently about any genre or sub-genre, he’s got the intellectual muscles to go head-to-head with John Clute (his argumentative reviews of Clute’s encyclopedias are a wonder to read, as most reader -myself included- are content to simply gawk in awe at them) and his columns are frequently enlivened with touches of dry humour that cuts deep as much as it amuses. (A typical example: “Even though none of us are very good at articulating what SF is, we don’t hesitate for a moment when it comes to selecting its best examples.”)

Wolfe may not be as dazzling as Clute, but the underpinning of his reviews are just as solid. His usual approach is to combine reviews of several books in a single column, sometimes developing a common theme and sometimes not. This allows for a format that adapts to the material, through the column’s expanding length also accounts for some of that flexibility. His approach is incisive, and his academic background gives him the vocabulary and rigour required to get to the essence of a book. (Compare and contract that to the seat-of-the-pants “Did I like this or not?” approach practised by yours truly.)

One of the book’s best qualities is how it doubles as a critical capsule studying SF&F in the mid-nineties, as the genre was trying to redefine itself in the wake of cyberpunk. The whole New Mars movement occurs almost in real-time, the book being practically bookended by reviews of Red Mars on one side and Blue Mars on the other. Some writers don’t fare too well in this compressed format: We get the sense, for instance, that Wolfe doesn’t think as highly of Orson Scott Card in 1996 than he did in 1992. This is practically a half-generation of SF under the microscope, in a relatively comparable format that allows for easy comparison. (Even John Clute doesn’t have this luxury: aside from the one-shot encyclopedias, his reviews are scattered over dozens of periodicals and use different approaches that aren’t so readily unified.)

One thing that did bother me about the book was the inclusion of Wolfe’s year-in-review pieces before the columns for that given year: It previews the coming attractions, but also lessens the surprise of some judgements. Perhaps worse, it introduces a number of temporal loops in the reading, and can complicate the summation or a few arguments developed over the year. I think that I would have preferred a strictly chronological approach, even with the inevitable repetition. (Of course, nothing was stopping me from reading the book in that order.)

But what I really want are the next volumes in the series, all the way to 2006 and beyond. Wolfe is still writing monthly columns for Locus and while I’m now a happy subscriber, I really would appreciate more collections of critical essays from him or others. If Beccon is good and lucky, Soundings will turn a better-than-modest profit, and the series will continue. Where can I pre-order my copies?

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