Tag Archives: David G. Hartwell

Age of Wonders, David G. Hartwell

<em class="BookTitle">Age of Wonders</em>, David G. Hartwell

Tor, 1996 revision of 1984 original, 319 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86151-6

I must have read Age of Wonders three times in either of its incarnations, so I’m a bit surprised that I have never formally reviewed it on-line.  But my own search engine tells me that I haven’t… so here’s a quick recommendation for one of the best book ever published on the American Science Fiction genre and its subculture.

(I might as well make a few pre-emptive disclaimers before going any further, since there are a number of links between Hartwell and myself: : I’m on a quest to collect all issues of his New York Review of Science Fiction magazine, he has edited novels by people I consider to be friends, I’ve got a handful of his books personally dedicated to me, we have shared a number of conversations throughout the years, I have moderated at least one panel with him and he has –briefly- driven me around Orlando.  We are, in other words, just a bit more than nodding acquaintances.)

Originally published in 1984, Age of Wonders was last revised in 1996 to incorporate a number of changes in the field.  While that revision is now fifteen years old, don’t let the pre-Web publication date distract you from the book’s vast and timeless understanding of Science Fiction.  Its first point of interest is the way it explains why “the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve”.  It’s at that age, after all, that bright teenagers pick up a chronic reading habit, a reading regimen that often contains a large proportion of Science-Fiction.  From his understanding of the field, Hartwell shows how disaffected teenagers often find in SF a literature that appeals to their sense of the world, and how they never completely let go of their affection for the genre after that.  Ask around SF conventions, and you will often find people who correspond exactly to this profile –including myself.

Hartwell then proceeds to sketch a history of the fannish subculture that has, since the beginning, surrounded the Science Fiction genre.  It has forever been in the nature of SF’s readership to communicate among itself, and the presence of fandom is one of the things that still makes the SF genre so different from other literary fields: It fosters SF’s awareness of itself as a distinct entity, structures the conversation within the field and provides authors with encouragement that, in some cases, is more valuable than the potential monetary rewards offered by a wider readership outside the genre.  Science-Fiction fandom is small, but it’s concentrated.

Age of Wonders also spends quite a bit of time discussing the nuts and bolts of the impact that SF has on its readers.  Hartwell dedicates entire chapters to the study of the “Sense of Wonder” so particular to SF, to the tortuous relationship that Science Fiction has with real science and reality, to the reasons why clear prose has long been SF’s dominant stylistic requirement and to the biggest historical controversies within the field.

Hartwell illustrates those points with anecdotes drawn from fandom’s long history, quotations from other writers, informed opinions and, in one case, a deconstruction of a short story to see how it works.  It’s worth noting that Hartwell writes Age of Wonders from a well-rounded perspective drawn from his experience as a fan, an academician and an active editor within the field.  While the book is immensely useful as a pedagogical resource (it comes with a few appendices to provide a solid bibliography of essential works), it’s clearly written and immediately accessible to non-academician.  Its affection for the genre is obvious, but that doesn’t blind it to some of SF’s structural faults.

Whether you’re an insider looking for a theoretical framework, or an outsider trying to understand what makes Science Fiction so different, Age of Wonder is an essential resource. Reading though it once again, I was struck by how much material I once knew and had forgotten since then: it reminded me that, without any doubt, Hartwell has forgotten more about SF than I (and most other people) will ever know.

Fifteen web-dominated years after its publication, it’s worth pointing out that in many ways, Age of Wonders reflects a certain experience of Science Fiction that will remain of its era.  Today’s SF fan is markedly likelier to discover the genre through media sources (film, TV or video games) than to come across paperback spinners at their local drugstore.  The factors leading to a chronic teenage reading habit (ie: isolation, boredom) may not be as acute given today’s multiplicity of web-driven entertainment options.  The experience of fandom has also changed dramatically over the past decade and a half, web sites taking the role once played by local generalist conventions as gathering places for the casual fan.  Conventions have grown at once bigger and more specialized, as Hollywood-dominated Comic-Con now makes headlines while literature-focused Readercon can still thrive.  Most notable, however, is the way the geek experience that Hartwell describes has become a fairly mainstream lifestyle in-between massively successful entertainment such as Halo, Inception and The Big Bang Theory.

I would be the first in line to buy a third edition of Age of Wonders.  Any update would have to navigate a path between a historical acknowledgement of the fannish experience, and the way geek culture has become just another market segment.  Is there anything in the written SF subculture that still distinguishes it from a more casual acquaintance with SF media?  Is written-SF still a vital side-stream of American culture, or is it merely another competing entertainment option?  Is there still something significant to a love for Science Fiction that links with a lust for the future, sympathy for technology and a self-imposed marginalization from society?

Leaving aside the still-hypothetical question of a third edition, 1996-era Age of Wonders remains an essential component of any serious non-fiction collection about Science Fiction.  It clearly and usefully describes the genre, its readers, its reasons for existing and its essential inner workings.  It’s good enough to re-read every decade, no matter which edition you can get.

Year’s Best SF 3, Ed. David G. Hartwell

Tor, 1998, 448 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105901-3

Who do you trust?

When you get down to it, that’s the only worthwhile question when you buy a “best-of” anthology. Normally, people don’t have the same tastes and chances are that once in a while, a gem to another will be garbage to you. In SF, there are now two annual “best of” anthologies. Gardner Dozois edits one, David Hartwell edits the other.

I’ll state right up-front that from what I’ve seen, I tend to trust Hartwell rather than Dozois. Not only have I met Hartwell and heard a few suspicious things from Dozois about media SF, but the content of the anthologies themselves are very different.

One thing that struck me of Dozois’s anthology is how… well… most of the anthology wasn’t true *Science*-Fiction. Fantasy yes, magical realism yes, social-fiction yes, but hard-SF was practically absent. Not so with Hartwell, who selects stories that are mostly, obviously, from the genre of true science-fiction. (Unlike Dozois, Hartwell has proven his knowledge of other fields by editing anthologies of Horror, Fantasy, etc… Maybe that’s why he doesn’t feel the need to put everything he likes in one big “SF” anthology.)

Year’s Best SF 3 contains more than twenty stories in almost 450 pages. Fortunately, most of them are short and Hartwell avoids selecting interminable novellas (another pet peeve of mine; never mind). Most of them are readable, most of them are firmly based upon new ideas and most of them are enjoyable.

Among those:

  • In “The Nostalginauts”, S.N.Dyer shows us a future high-school graduation where almost everyone there is present twice, at twenty-five years intervals. This is my favourite story of the volume: Densely written, credibly extrapolated, with a fun punch at the end. I look forward to see more of Dyer’s stuff.
  • Tom Cool continues to produce entertaining material (after his excellent debut novel Infectress) with the paranoid “Universal Emulators”, where matters of identities and counter-identities are much more complex -or simple- than we might think.
  • If Tom Cool takes on identities, Nancy Kress does new stuff with moods in “Faithful to Thee, in my Fashion”. Would you believe future seasonal mood fashions? Good sociological extrapolations, fascinating premise and Kress makes it work. Nicely subtle “unhappy” ending too.
  • Geoffrey Landis’s “Turnover” seems to me to exemplify the capacity of SF to provide creative freedom to unorthodox science. Best of all, Landis uses a silly tone to postulate silly theories. The result is a lot of fun.
  • Gregory Benford morphs himself briefly in Ray Bradbury to write “The Voice”, an updated version of Fahrenheit 451‘s basic premise. Meanwhile, Bradbury is in the anthology too, with a decidedly un-hard-SF tale named “Mr. Pale”. Complete fantasy, but enjoyable.
  • Greg Egan is up to his usually provocative self with “Yeyuka”, a tale of bio-technology and technological imperialism.

On the other hand, I wasn’t able to finish the stories of William Gibson, Kim Newman and R. Garcia y Robertson.

Still, given that the remainders of the stories are pretty impressive, Year’s Best SF 3 gets my recommendation for anyone wishing to get an idea of where the genre is going at the moment. Good for neophytes, good for jaded fans, good for everyone, Year’s Best SF 3 is a solid choice. Best of all, it’s even a bit cheaper than the usual paperback!