The New Yorker Discovers Science Fiction

by Nancy Jane Moore

The cover of the June 4 and 11 issue of The New Yorker (by the excellent cartoonist Daniel Clowes) shows an alien, a guy in a spacesuit with a raygun, and a robot invading a literary event. It should go without saying that the attendees — New Yorker readers all, I suspect — are shocked.

I imagine many New Yorker subscribers were equally shocked to find “the science fiction issue” in their mailboxes. Science fiction fans were probably surprised as well. Although some good science fiction stories have found their way into the magazine now and again, I know of very few SF writers who would bother sending them a submission.

But it’s a fascinating issue, with contributions by such fabulous authors as Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, China Mieville, and Ray Bradbury.

There’s just one problem: those contributions are essays, not fiction.

Don’t get me wrong: They are good essays, and so are the ones by Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, Karen Russell, and the late Anthony Burgess, authors who are generally considered more literary even though they write science fiction. Plus there’s a good piece by Laura Miller on fictional aliens and a lovely one by Emily Nussbaum on Doctor Who and related shows.

But, with the exception of a story by Junot Diaz, the essays and criticism are much better than the fiction.

This didn’t surprise me much. While I’ve loved the cartoons in The New Yorker since I was a small child, and greatly appreciated detailed investigative reporting by Seymour Hersh and Elizabeth Kolbert, among many others, I rarely like the magazine’s fiction. I’ll grant that New Yorker fiction has improved somewhat since the days when every story seemed to be about divorced people summering in the Hamptons or publishers’ assistants (female) having affairs with older, married editors (male), but it still leaves a lot to be desired.

I know I’m supposed to like Jennifer Egan’s work — many SF writers and critics do — and I’ve tried to. But so far I’ve been unsuccessful. I have one of her novels — the name escapes me — and I’ve tried three times to read it and been stopped every time by the fact that all the characters are very unpleasant people. Her New Yorker story, “Black Box,” would qualify as slipstream, but I couldn’t figure out the point of the story. It seemed as if it was supposed to have a point, but whatever it was remained elusive.

“My Internet” by Jonathan Lethem was mildly amusing — an Internet of one — but was almost more commentary than fiction.

I finished both of those, but gave up on Sam Lipsyte’s “The Republic of Empathy,” in which all the characters completely lacked that quality.

Only Diaz’s “Monstro” — about a young man chasing a young woman he couldn’t have during the outbreak of a strange and deadly virus — satisfied my craving for good storytelling. It used both science fictional events and cultural knowledge to show us real people on the edge of disaster. And while I lack patience with the male theme of obsession with a beautiful woman who clearly has nothing but beauty to offer, the narrator’s awareness of his own foolishness sucked me right in.

It was interesting to get Atwood’s distinction between the stories she found in SF magazines — fantastic stories that couldn’t possibly come true — and books like 1984, which posited possible futures (or presents). Le Guin’s observation that she thinks “it ungrateful in a writer to write science fiction and deny that it’s science fiction” makes a nice counterpoint to Atwood.

Bradbury, Gibson, Mieville, and Whitehead all wrote about influences from their youth. Burgess’s piece — which is from 1973 — provides context for A Clockwork Orange. And while I appreciated Russell’s essay on how she learned that the adult world distinguished between “literature” and “genre,” I hope she has outgrown her passion for Terry Brooks and realized that Jane Austen really is a better writer.

On the whole, I enjoyed the issue, and I’m glad to see The New Yorker taking SF a little more seriously. But if I’d had those writers to choose from, I’d have picked stories by Le Guin, Gibson, Bradbury, or Mieville instead of the ones they selected. You know, real science fiction by people who know they write science fiction.

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The New Yorker Discovers Science Fiction — 12 Comments

  1. Oh man. I make a point to never read New Yorker fiction, because I’ve never read anything that I enjoyed in it, but I loved the essays so much in this issue that I gave it a shot. I started the Republic of Empathy, found it revolting, and went back to my usual attitude. The New Yorker has great essays, but terrible fiction. It’s just depressing that this time the essays were about fiction.
    (And clearly Playboy has much better taste! 😀 )

  2. Slowly, slowly, we are arriving. Has there ever been a New Yorker sf issue before? And only yesterday Barack Obama released a condolence about Ray Bradbury. Is that cool, or what?

  3. THE NEW YORKER doesn’t publish fiction. It publishes symbols trotting across a page looking for a plot. It’s so rare that they come up with something readable or interesting that it isn’t worthwhile to peruse their stuff.

    The ivory tower snobs like to say, “Oh, but you don’t =understand= it, dahling!” Well, yes, I do. I have a pair of Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s degree in English under my belt, thanks, and decades of experience teaching literature at both the high school and college levels. I understand everything they’re trying to do. I also understand what an AMC Gremlin was trying to do. That doesn’t make it successful or worthwhile.

    • A cynic would say that they can’t publish good science fiction for fear their readers might start to wonder why they can’t publish good fiction.

      • You know, I’ve never known anyone who liked New Yorker fiction, including people who read a lot of the literary genre. Even when I was a kid and read everything that wasn’t tied down (to mix some metaphors), I didn’t read the fiction in the New Yorker. I read the cartoons.

        It’s a mystery how they can publish so much good nonfiction and investigative reporting, and yet remain so clueless about fiction.

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