A Matter of Taste: Asimov's Oct/Nov 2008 Special Double Issue


Okay. I have to hand it to the editors over at The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy—that’d be Gordon Van Gelder, John Joseph Adams, et al. They venture much closer to my tastes, both in story choices and editing, than Sheila Williams of Asimov’s.

Or at least, that’s what the double issues tell me.

This isn’t a proper review, because I typically don’t review things I don’t like. (And I also don’t review things I don’t read, so you never know, except when you do, as in this case.)

To put it shortly: if I hated Tim Sullivan’s Planetesimal Dawn in the 2008 double issue of F&SF, reading the Asimov’s version was like being slapped with Planetesimal Dawn every single step of the way.

I come to these conclusions:

  1. Planetesmial Dawn is not a bad story. This is not to say that the stories in Asimov’s were worse; just that they were more of the same. This gives me some good perspective.

  2. Hard science-fiction is not in my tastes either. Even if it’s Gene Wolfe.

  3. I think in order for me to like something, it needs to have a strong element of the surreal. Which other people would call “science-fiction fantasy,” I suppose.

  4. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I like John Scalzi or other Heinlein-like authors, who don’t really have a touch of whimsy.

    Perhaps my liking has to do with characterization; instead of a whimsical world, there are whimsical characters.

    Or something.

  5. Maybe it comes down to fairy tales, in either science-fiction or fantasy. To me, that fits both Scalzi and Heinlein. Although “fairy tale” is probably just a synonym for “whimsical.”

  6. Yet neither explain why I like Acacia or Song of Ice and Fire, which are very realistic fantasies, almost alternate history. Perhaps it’s the character work? It doesn’t seem fair to relegate realistic fiction to “lacks character” though.

I also pondered my preferences outside these magazines. For the Hugos, for instance—I really didn’t like Greg Egan’s stories, but I liked Ted Chiang’s and Elizabeth Bear’s. I love Zelazny and Wolfe when they aren’t trying to be terribly real, which is most of the time; whereas I have a very hard time dealing with Greg Bear. Gaiman is never quite real. Terry Bisson lights my fancies; but Robert Reed—from what I’ve seen in these magazines—stops them cold.

This seems to be the Great Divide in science fiction and fantasy: stuff that tries to be ultra-real, and stuff that is whimsical. By default fantasy falls on the side of whimsical, but not always—alternate history novels seem to put me to sleep. And sterotypical science fiction falls on the ultra-real side, but as you can see, not always.

Hard versus soft? I don’t think those are quite the right terms.

In genres other than science fiction: why do I like Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Psmith, and the Holmes stories, and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie combo, and am indifferent to all the rest of the works by the same authors? Sounds like I have a strong preference for larger-than-life characters.

Fairy tales definitely have larger-than-life characters. But then again, it doesn’t seem fair to the other side….

Oh I don’t know, and I’m on some serious medication I’m really not used to right now.

At any rate, I canceled Asimov’s and will probably pick up the next issue of F&SF to see if the trend continues, or if I should just cut my losses due to a lack of temperament for magazines (is it the necessary plethora of stories that throw me off? Probably; and that seems necessary in a magazine).

So where do you fall in the spectrum? In any genre, be in mystery or SF/F or thriller or mainstream or whatnot? I’m pretty sure this divide, whatever it is, exists elsewhere, but again, I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it is.

off to bed

Addendum: Really doesn’t explain Stross, Chabon, Stephenson, and others. Although I admit… even for Stross I like him better when he’s more… whimsical? It’s the difference between Accelerando and the Laundry series. For Chabon, it’s the difference between The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and… actually, Chabon is kind of squishy. If we’re talking soft. Stephenson I just kind of view as art, like the Mona Lisa. But I really am fonder of O’Keefe.


really off to bed now

4 thoughts on “A Matter of Taste: Asimov's Oct/Nov 2008 Special Double Issue

  1. Me, I like the pretense of realism. I’m not interested in anything that doesn’t take itself seriously – whether or not it’s actually realistic. If the author and characters are themselves invested in the world, as concrete reality, it is also easier for me to buy into that world.

    This is why I’m not a big fantasy reader – but I love George R. R. Martin. Obviously his world is fantastic and magical and all of that – but the details are gritty and believable. The characters believe in themselves. What I hate is fantasy where everyone, even the paupers and thieves, are somehow beautiful. The bandit is rakish and daring – nevermind the fact he probably hasn’t brushed his teeth in five years. The princess never gets laid up with cramps. Crap is not running down the streets.

    I like hard SF because the science is mostly beyond my own knowledge – but the author takes it seriously, and it matters very much to the characters. Recently I realized this is also why I love medical shows. I’m not a doctor so, although I know the medicine on, say, House, might as well be “magic,” the technical mumbo jumbo sounds real and so I can buy the fantasy.

    For the same reason, I dislike Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Well, I can take them for a bit, but I won’t seek them out again. It’s fun, but it feels like the author is sitting in front of a classroom telling funny stories. I want immersion.

  2. I actually would tip Song of Ice and Fire into the soft bush because it’s character-based, not plot-based. It’s realistic, but if you read how the thing is constructed, Martin just pounds character into the ground, and the most significant ones are definitely larger-than-life. It’s a fairy tale writ large across politics and the occasional huge fire-breathing beastie.

    And a minor note: Just because something is humor doesn’t mean it isn’t serious—although very often humor is used for non-serious work. I’m the same person who made suicide jokes during a rather dark period in my life, after all….

  3. Well, I wasn’t thinking in terms of hard and soft, I guess, I was thinking realistic and non. And I go for realism, whether in characters or in world building. Martin’s characters work for me because they are, in fact, so real and down-to-earth. I think the level of technology, or how far the fantasy intrudes or whatever – to me that’s irrelevant.

    Also, I didn’t pick Pratchett and Adams necessarily because they were funny, but because even the characters in the worlds don’t take themselves seriously (although I could be wrong about Pratchett, I couldn’t make it completely through anything of his). I mean, Heinlein can be quite funny at times, without “breaking the spell.”

    But overall I think it’s impossible to draw any firm lines. I have things I gravitate towards, but basically what works for me is good writing… which is essentially impossible to define.

  4. “Good writing” isn’t quite enough for me. I think good writing does have a definition that is complicated.

    There are things out there that are extremely well done but simply don’t do it for me. I’m aware that they’re good, but they aren’t for me; and I’m also aware that “good” doesn’t mean “I like it” or even “I appreciate its goodness.” I may not appreciate it at all, and may even hate the work, and yet still have the perspective—at times—to know that what the author did was both difficult and accomplished.

    It’s the difference between hating Grapes of Wrath and calling it literary crap, versus hating it and still knowing why it’s well-written. I have no idea if that’s an editorial mindset or not. Personally I think many reviewers out there fix upon “I hate this, so it must be a bad book” rather than “I hate this, and either I need to figure out what’s twigging the hate in my head or I need to have some perspective on why the work is the way it is, before I go about calling it X, Y, or Z.”

    And to tell the truth, you need to do that for books you love as well. And it’s why I read a book twice before I review it, even if it’s a sure thing for me.

    I know that I don’t have the flexibility to love all the well-written work out there in the world—and I know there are tropes that I’m clueless on. That’s the main reason why, when I said I hated Planetesimal Dawn, that I figured it was something with me and my approach to its sub-genre rather than the story itself, and is also why I really do appreciate the perspective from Asimov’s—and why I didn’t say Asimov’s was bad. I simply said I hated it, which has little bearing on whether it’s good or not.

    The rules for love, to me, are much harder than the rules for good.

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