Spinrad Deplatformed

Asimov’s took down Norman Spinrad’s “On Books” column (linked in the October 29 Scroll) and will make an explanation later: (The text is still available at Pastebin.)

Reportedly, one of Spinrad’s posts SFWA’s private forums was also deleted not long ago.

Some who commented on the Spinrad “On Books” column said what they especially objected to are these last lines, coming after extended praise of Campbellian science fiction and a severe critique of the latest SFWA Nebula Anthology:

[Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon] is a science fiction novel for sophisticated adults, a gamble by Kim Stanley Robinson that there are enough of them within the genre to keep such fiction economically viable and writers such as Robinson unashamed to admit membership in SFWA.

Compare this with what has been awarded Nebulas by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and what Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 reveals all too clearly as the current state of its membership and the state of their art. The literary inheritors of John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, what this very magazine is trying to maintain in his name, and novels like Red Moon.

Which side are you on?

Others focused on his comments about China, or what he said about David Levine’s fiction. 

An example of the Twitter conversation is Karen Osborne’s thread, which starts here.

44 thoughts on “Spinrad Deplatformed

  1. click

    P.S. Is “Here Comes Everybody” really Chesterton. Preliminary googling suggests Joyce instead (me, I thought of Clay Shirky first, since he wrote a non-fiction book with that title).

  2. From what I understand, Spinrad’s column was taken down because 1) he spoke favorably of Campbellian SF after the award controversy and 2) criticized the Nebulas without acknowledging the diversity of the current SF/F scene. Can anyone provide any more insight and/or prove me wrong?

  3. Norman Spinrad: [Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon] is a science fiction novel for sophisticated adults

    It had some interesting ideas, but the characters were flat and poorly-developed and the plot was extremely contrived. The author chose to make the main character neuroatypical, with severe cognitive and social impairment, as an excuse to engage in extended infodumping about politics, economics and environmentalism — and the plot involved that character being sent, by himself, to the Moon to deliver a critically-important, exorbitantly-expensive piece of technology (a delivery which of course goes massively wrong), which I just couldn’t buy as being even remotely feasible. (my mini-review)

    Calling it a “science fiction novel for sophisticated adults” is just laughable.

    And insisting that there are somehow two “sides” in opposition to each other, instead of people just enjoying whatever works they find appealing in the wide range of science fiction and fantasy that’s being produced today, is just ridiculous. 🙄

  4. Asimov’s should have left it up and just issued a statement that points out they publish lots of stories that are outside the scope of what Spinrad approves. Why did Asimov’s run his column in the first place if they weren’t willing to stand by his right to express these opinions? If Spinrad’s provocative thoughts had gone unnoticed, it would have been the first time ever in his long and controversial career.

  5. I gave up on Spinrad a few years ago, with “Journals of the Plague Years,” an outline more than a novel, which featured a woman basically discovering she could save everyone from a disease as long as she had sex with literally everyone, IIRC. I stopped reading halfway through.

    Loved “The Void Captain’s Tale,” “Child of Fortune” (although that had some of the same unfortunate sexual politics), and “Bug Jack Barron”—which predicted a lot of later-day TV.

    I’m confused otherwise though. I got most of the way through “Red Moon” and gave up, because it seemed more like an exercise in worldbuilding than actually telling a story. Which Robinson does a lot. I liked his New York underwater novel for the most part, but at least it had some characters who were interesting.

    Which side am I supposed to be on?

  6. I’m still somewhat annoyed at Spinrad because his negative review of “Moving Pictures” in 1992 (!) discouraged me from reading Pratchett for several years (but I’m not calling for that review to be removed from my copy of that issue of the magazine (doing so would wreck the binding)). Like John Cowan, I liked NYC 2140, but other Robinson books have been a miss for me. My favorite Spinrad tale is probably “The Weed of Time” which is not exactly hard SF…

  7. As I recall, this isn’t the first column of Spinrad’s Asimov’s has withdrawn. There was a remarkable one on African and Asian SF, I believe, that quietly got replaced after an internet backlash.

  8. @James: That rings a faint bell. Possibly “Outside America” from the September/October 2017 issue.

  9. I thought Spinrad’s column was not very good but I’m a little surprised to see it taken down. I’ll be interested to see the explanation. Of his fiction I have to confess I’ve only read The Iron Dream and some stories, none of them very recently.

    I loved Red Moon and I have a very high opinion of Robinson’s work in general. It gives me as much pleasure, of a peculiarly sf kind, as anything being published. Maybe more. However I think there’s lots of other intelligent and sophisticated science fiction being published as well.

  10. I’m not fond of editors who publish articles just to afterwards withdraw them. It is cowardly and throwing the writer to the wolves.

    Better would have been to add an addendum and write a separate editorial. Or just not have published it in the first place.

    Not sure what “which side are you on” is about, but KSR is not my cup of tea.

  11. It is somewhat amusing to find the writer of Bug Jack Barron writing the following: And I have long felt that I don’t like having to write things that leave readers more depressed than they were before they read them. As a journalist this can be a necessary public duty. As a writer of fiction I can simply choose not to do it. As any practitioner of the arts should be encouraged to do, if only because they can do it.

    Because, of course, Bug Jack Barron, Pictures at 11, amongst others, are such good examples of sweetness and light, right?

    That said, he’s not been shy about complaining about negative reviews, himself.

    Look, I like some of Spinrad’s work. But his comments this time around come across as “grandpa shouting at clouds.” There seems to be a distressing tendency toward this behavior among white male writers of a certain generation, to the degree that I’d almost propose a “Grandpa Simpson” award of some sort, to be given to the most outrageous example of the genre that particular year.

  12. I wasn’t impressed with his arguments and the cantankerous tone but I’m surprised they took it down. If Norman Spinrad himself withdrew it because he thought better of it then I guess that would be different.

  13. @Joyce Reynolds-Ward: ISTM you’re confusing body and conclusion; your quote of Spinrad includes I don’t like having to write things that leave readers more depressed than they were before they read them. (Emphasis mine.) ISTM (from decades-old memory) that Bug Jack Barron ends successfully (not happily, but not disastrously). The problem with the quote is that it shows Spinrad assuming he can be sure how audiences will react to his work.

  14. Asimov’s should have kicked it back to Spinrad earlier in the process with a note to the effect that the column was not up to their standards or, presumably, to his. If he couldn’t or wouldn’t do any better in time for this issue, there should have been a note that Spinrad’s column would return next month, and something else run in its place. I’ve edited numerous different publications, and you always have a piece or two in the hopper in case something goes wrong.

  15. My read is that Norman feels that the classification of the genre is eroding and that SFWA/Nebula awards are helping with the erosion.

    IF you subscribed to a Campbellian definition of the genre, this would seem to be a legitimate complaint.

    Put another way, Norman’s piece seems to say that both the writer’s organization (full disclosure, I’m an affiliate member) and many authors are not just rejecting Campbell, but they are also rejecting his definition(s) of what the genre is and is not.

    If we go back to both the original definition for the genre AND the manner in which it was exemplified during its first years, we find that “fantasy” was present. That’s the Gernsbackian definition – pleasing entertainment, based in science, extrapolative in nature, which, if you think about it, is a more expansive one than the more rigid variation expressed and implemented by Campbell.

    So, in one sense, it seems that SFWA and its Nebula Awards are returning to a Gernsbackian approach rather than a Campbellian one, in which case Spinrad is correctly pointing this out in his piece. He concludes this is not a good thing, but that opinion does not invalidate his survey of the current state of things: what was once a ridgidly defined line has blurred and is in the process of being erased.

    (Actually, the line between science fiction and fantasy has been replaced with a bunch of sub-genres, representing a spectrum between them.)

  16. So far as Asimov’s treatment of this article: yes, I completely agree. They should have added an editorial note, or rejected it in the first place.

    Keep it up, commission some response pieces.

  17. I don’t think Asimov’s should have taken down the column, and it’s worth reading–if only to see how wrongheaded it is (in my view)

    The point about the Nebula showcase just having excerpts of novels being a bad format was a good idea of his in the column.

    That said–there’s no hard SF being written anymore, it’s all “Fantasy”? Really? And I am not qualified to unpack the China stuff in that column

  18. If there are sides, I’m on the side of “let a hundred flowers bloom” and “science fiction is what I’m pointing at when I say ‘science fiction,'” not the side of “this isn’t really science fiction, and therefore it should get off my lawn.”

    Sometimes I want a more challenging book, and sometimes I want one that I can read and be entertained by without asking a lot of “and what happened over there?” or “can I please have a fantasy novel where the economics is at least vaguely plausible?” Not in the sense of how the author, or characters, feel about the free market–in the sense that Diana Wynne Jones was making fun of in The Rough Guide to Fantasyland–trade only works if there’s someone to buy what you’re trying to sell, and vice versa, and if you’re not growing your own food, you have to be importing it from somewhere.

    That’s not a fantasy/science fiction distinction–Terry Pratchett gets it right, in Discworld.

    Most of the time, I’m perfectly willing to ignore the question, but if your book/story is significantly about interstellar traders, I’m more likely to start wondering about things like, what is the basis for this currency?

  19. Agree with Mike, Hampus, Steve D, and others on this thread. Leave it up, publish some responses, get a debate going! Pulling it because it’s controversial is a gutless move.

    I am sympathetic to Spinrad in a way. The field in which he’s worked for his whole professional life has changed a great deal. That must be difficult. Change is hard, especially towards the end of life. I generally give a pass to cranky old people, mostly because I expect to be one someday.

  20. I’m a bit tired of all this Heinlein, Asimov, Campbell, etc. My reading of SF started with Jules Verne and HG Wells. They set the tone for SF for me and that sense of adventure combined with “what can be done under these conditions” is what I started to look for. Instead of asking who the new Heinlein is, think of Heinlein as the new Jules Verne.

    I can’t say that reading SF was about science for me. Ever. It was about creating a new and exciting enviroment from which to handle human and social issues, to survive in face of dangers or in new conditions. The Stars My Destination is a tale of revenge, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress a tale of revolution, loyalty and friendship. The books with too much science (2001, Rendezvous with Rama) bored me and the last one made me fall asleep already at the start.

    I just don’t get this “side” thing. I guess it is about who gets the awards and the popularity which might be important for authors. It is certainly not about readers getting books they like. More like authors being angry at readers for not reading their favourite stuff as much as they should.

  21. All this talk of “Which Side” has earwormed me by the way with Leslie Fish’s rendition of “Which Side are You On?” (the old IWW song)

  22. The field has definitely changed, and one of the biggest markers there is that fantasy is firmly part of speculative fiction, despite a number of older writers pushing back against this. I hit this in picking SFWA Grandmaster – while Peter Beagle seemed like a no-brainer, given how many of us he’s influenced — there were still howls from the usual suspects that SFWA was honoring dirty dirty fantasy OMGWTFBBQ.

    The Nebula Showcase is admittedly subpar – there’s not the wealth of essays that there has been in past ones, for one — but honestly it’s a victory that there was a showcase published, given the convulsions with Pyr publishing that it had, and this one only exists because Kate Baker managed to find a solution in the twelfth hour. Not only that, but there were copies available at the Nebulas for the first time in several years. I’d love to see the next one contain more, including essays on SF poetry, the state of the industry, etc. It is odd that Spinrad is so unacquainted with the current field that he is unaware who Seanan McGuire is. I hope he gets the chance to pick up one of her thoroughly enjoyable books; I just finished her Mira Grant Parasite trilogy and think he would like it.

    Spinrad is out and out wrong when he claims that the now 14-year-old Norton is not a Nebula award. It is, and the SFWA Board clarified that earlier this year. It is strange to see an SF writer dismiss the literature that brings new readers to speculative fiction, but okay. It seems part of the effort to declare SF a pure and steely-eyed genre, untainted by all that nasty modern day stuff like thinking about gender or looking outside American boundaries to see what’s being written in places like, I dunno, China.

    I have written extensively about SFWA bringing in the indie and small press people, and I continue to believe it was one of the smartest things the organization has done in terms of reaching working, professional writers and recognizing the changing face of publishing.

  23. Andrew:

    I have always liked the union song Which side are you on? from 1931. Is that the one you are thinking of? Nathalie Merchants version is wonderful

  24. I don’t see all that much wrong with Spinrad’s column, taken by itself. It’s very old-fashioned, and he seems not to be up on a lot of modern trends, but Asimov’s has other reviewers who presumably take up the slack. And he doesn’t like fantasy, which is a perfectly legit opinion for a critic to have, though one I furiously disagree with.

    In fact I disagree with a lot of what he says. For example, “Weirdly enough, Levine throws in a British colonialist Earthly steampunky background.” Why “weirdly”? I’ve seen this kind of setting used pretty often, and it’s a good way to look at some unexamined ideas behind both colonialism and steampunk. And “Levine seems to have no idea at all of the difference between fantasy and science fiction” seems just out-and-out wrong — my guess, though I haven’t read the book, is that he understands both genres perfectly well and is playing around with them. But that’s what reviews are for — you agree with them or disagree with them or discover new ways of thinking about literature, and the conversation goes on. In fact, this review made me want to read Levine’s book, which is another thing reviews are for. Disagreement doesn’t mean the review should be taken down.

    Taken in connection with the rest of the field, though, there are problems here. As other people have said, Spinrad hasn’t kept up with the field, to the extent that he doesn’t know how diverse it’s grown, how many new sub-genres it’s thrown off. He does massively ignore Chinese sf. If I had to make editorial policy (which, thank Dog, I don’t) I would give him a stack of terrific books from authors who debuted after 1980. And if he still doesn’t get it, well, maybe it’s time for him to go.

    “Here Comes Everybody,” as far as I know, comes from Finnegans Wake, where the main character is called Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, and there’s a lot of play on the initials.

    Wow, this got long. TL,DR: The review is fine by itself, but old-fashioned, and Spinrad should know a lot more about recent trends in sf.

  25. @Lisa: it seems to me that Spinrad has clearly read some “terrific [works] from authors who debuted after 1980” because he talks about how much he doesn’t like them in the dang article! And also how much he does like 1984-debuting KSR.

    I’m also not 100% sure about his historical analysis re: China stacks up against a little thing I like to call ‘the historical record’, but instead of going into details I’ll just say that if the quality of Asimov’s editing is this low then etcetcetc.

  26. I think the promised “longer statement” is up. It says the problem wasn’t his views–it was that his column implied that his views were the official views of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

    It also says that she’s putting his column back online. (And it immediately follows her comments if you click the link above.)

  27. Newspapers in Sweden has started to add explaining texts to all articles they publish. Describing if it is a news item, an opinion piece, a review and what this means with regards to the newspapers policy. Just because so many people seem to have no clue nowadays.

  28. Okay, I read the whole column. I’d say he’s arguing that what made SF special for him was that it was about science. Campbell probably does deserve credit for making that change, although (as Spinrad himself observes) Verne did it long before. Even through the New Wave, the science still mattered to the stories. Today, though, it’s not just that pure fantasy stories outnumber SF, it’s that stories with bad science (e.g. Martian Steampunk) present themselves as science fiction. At least, I think that’s what he’s getting at.

    One point that he makes that seems to tie it all together is that he’s unhappy that many modern stories might mislead a reader and give him/her a false impression of what science actually says. The older works might stretch the science to make the story go, but they wouldn’t mislead the reader on anything important.

    As a reviewer with something of a reputation for being strict about science in stories, I have some sympathy for his position. If I think a story presents itself as hard SF, I’m merciless when it comes to errors in the science and technology–especially ones that weren’t important to the plot. I’m equally merciless when a soft-SF story tosses out nonsensical “science-sounding” statements it has no business making even if they were true.

    But I don’t find myself doing this very often, and I don’t see bad hard-SF stories getting a lot of praise or winning awards. I can’t speak for novel-length works, but I don’t see this as a huge problem in shorter fiction (under 50,000 words). Plenty of stories have strong science-based plots and get the science right, and most soft-SF stories don’t embarrass themselves with technobabble. (Movies are another matter, sadly.)

    The sort of stories that bother Spinrad the most seem to be things like Steampunk, but those stories are clearly fantasies in the sense that no reader (even a young one) is likely to imagine that what’s described could ever be real. Those I have no problem with. I wonder if he’d raise the same objection to superhero stories.

  29. Genre gatekeeping is always a foolish endeavor, whether it’s SF purists arguing against fantasy or literary purists arguing against SF, and Spinrad’s column is no exception. To start with, it’s overlong, meandering, and not particularly compelling.

    Also, he makes the extremely suspect claim that “before the economically successful publication of Lord of the Rings in paperback in the 1960s, there was no mass market publication of fantasy in the United States” and also asserts that SF “came to share genre publishing with fantasy” mostly as a results of that economic success.

    So, he’s essentially erasing publications like the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and authors like Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch just because they don’t fit his narrative.

    Further, he goes on to make one of my least favorite kinds of genre-purity assertions: that John Carter of Mars “counts” as science fiction (and is therefore acceptible) because it doesn’t go against what was known of Mars at the time, where an homage doesn’t count any longer (and is therefore NOT acceptible) because now we know Mars doesn’t work like that.

    Given the wacked-out & frequently not-terribly-grounded-in-known-science speculation found in a lot of New Wave SF, Spinrad’s take seems not only out of touch in an “old man yells at cloud” sort of way, but downright hypocritical.

  30. @Hampus

    “The books with too much science (2001, Rendezvous with Rama) bored me and the last one made me fall asleep already at the start.”

    Ironically enough “Rama” had worse violations of science than Mistress (and many other books). Mistress certainly got some stuff wrong, but Rama had aliens directly violate the law of conservation of momentum.

  31. @McJulie: So, he’s essentially erasing publications like the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and authors like Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch just because they don’t fit his narrative.

    He’s also erasing a fantasy magazine called Unknown edited by some guy named John W. Campbell.

  32. McJulie: “Also, he makes the extremely suspect claim that “before the economically successful publication of Lord of the Rings in paperback in the 1960s, there was no mass market publication of fantasy in the United States” and also asserts that SF “came to share genre publishing with fantasy” mostly as a results of that economic success.

    So, he’s essentially erasing publications like the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and authors like Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch just because they don’t fit his narrative.”

    Yes, he’s completely wrong. They published tons and tons of fantasy in magazines and pulps and other mm paperbacks, just under the umbrella of speculative/SF fiction. In the 1960’s, they made fantasy an official category market of its own, not because of Tolkien, but because a host of fantasy works published in mass market in the early 1960’s doing well indicated that there was a large enough fan market of regular readers for it. Those fantasy writers included some of Spinrad’s fellow New Wave SF writers, but certainly wasn’t limited to them.

    In the mid to late 1990’s, the fantasy category market grew larger and started getting separate shelves in bookstores from science fiction. SFWA changed its name to include fantasy writers all the way back in 1991, which was not simply to include fantasy writers but to acknowledge that fantasy writers had always been a part of the field along with science fiction.

    So Spinrad didn’t just complain about trends he doesn’t like — he’s deliberately misleading and/or clueless about his own industry to shape his argument.

    “Given the wacked-out & frequently not-terribly-grounded-in-known-science speculation found in a lot of New Wave SF, Spinrad’s take seems not only out of touch in an “old man yells at cloud” sort of way, but downright hypocritical.”

    The thing about “Campbellian” science fiction is that in a lot of it, the science is awful. And a lot of the New Wave SF dispensed with logical science altogether so that they could tackle the subject of sex. The old guard always presents older SF as pristine science writing; it was, except for a small percentage, very much not.

    If Spinrad had wanted to make a comparison between today’s SF writers on their science use and SF writers in the 1960’s-1980’s, he could have looked at that. (Odds are, he’d find the newer SF writers have done more science research than the older ones did — including McGuire writing as Mira Grant.) Instead, he makes the argument that newer writers of science fiction are bad at basic science and then jumps to condemning fantasy fiction writers — a different group — for not sticking to science, something that has never been in fantasy fiction’s mandate. It’s a hypocritical bait and switch.

  33. @McJulie (though I’m really disagreeing with Spinrad here):

    Further, he goes on to make one of my least favorite kinds of genre-purity assertions: that John Carter of Mars “counts” as science fiction (and is therefore acceptible) because it doesn’t go against what was known of Mars at the time, where an homage doesn’t count any longer (and is therefore NOT acceptible) because now we know Mars doesn’t work like that.

    That’s the series in which a man from Earth and a woman from Mars had a child together; I don’t think that was consistent with what was known of Mars and of biology even in 1911. On the other hand, if I can believe Wikipedia on this point, Carter got to and from Mars while leaving his body behind. If you’re prepared to accept that as consistent with science, why not throw in “When he got to Mars his miraculous new body was interfertile with the Martians.”

  34. Andrew:

    “Ironically enough “Rama” had worse violations of science than Mistress (and many other books).”

    I never got to the Alien part of Rama. I quit before. 😛

  35. Sometimes I like SF that’s more about the ideas. While I knew people who were much like the characters in Red Mars, I enjoyed those books mostly because the science was intriguing and the ideas were compelling. I’d rather have books that manage both ideas and characters well, but if I just get half of that, sometimes it’s worth it.

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