What the New Yorker and Tin House science fiction issues tell us about the state of SF

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People who enjoy seeing the collision of literary and genre fiction have an unusual bounty right now: The New Yorker just turned its summer fiction edition over to science fiction. And last month the literary magazine Tin House produced its first "Science Fair" edition.

The two magazines took somewhat different tacks, as would be expected from an old guard multi-interest weekly magazine like The New Yorker and the 13-year-old quarterly that focuses on literary fiction like Tin House. That, in turn, makes the occasional overlap very interesting.

The much longer Tin House issue includes ten long pieces of nonfiction, ranging from reportage to personal history to meditations on the temporary viewed through the lens of physics. The five short book reviews focuse on science books rather than science fiction, while the 13 poems ranged from sci-fi kitsch (Animorphs) to straight science fiction, to merely science-inflected. The New Yorker snagged much bigger names for its fiction and its nine non-fiction pieces. (The rest of the magazine, from Cinema to Theatre to Books to "Talk of the Town" remained untouched by their experiment. Only Emily Nussbaum, possibly the best television reviewer in mainstream print media, plays along, reviewing Doctor Who and Community and talking about fan culture.) The magazine's two poems are, like many in Tin House, science inflected, rather than straight-up science fiction.


The best piece of science fiction in the whole lot is one you may have already read: Jennifer Egan's short story "Black Box," which was made available over Twitter. Both Egan's "Black Box" and Julia Elliot's excellent "LIMBs" in Tin House manage to capture the most basic of sci-fi elements: here is a new technology and here is how it changed this person and the world. Both focus on the bodies of women: one who has had technology upgrade her into the perfect spy / recording device and one whose failing body and mind are being rebuilt by technology. While the character in "Black Box" continually tries to emotionally separate herself from her newly enhanced body, the character in "LIMBs" is getting her mind and emotions, lost to dementia, back. While one is detached and slick, the other is about sinking into memory and piecing together a lot life. I wouldn't be surprised if both of them get shortlisted for various prizes, later in the year.


"Bottoms Up," Namwali Serpell's look at technology and sex (in Tin House) and Junot Diaz's "Monstro" (in The New Yorker) are good as well. "Monstro" reads a bit like a long first chapter in a book I would definitely read. The dissolute youth hanging out in the Dominican Republic half of the story was balanced well by the parallel medical mystery. It reminded me of some of the best sections of World War Z. The novelette "The Particles" by Andrea Barrett in Tin House was also good, though it was more fiction about a scientist than science fiction.

Interestingly, both magazines ran pieces that I would have called realistic fiction, as narrated by someone suffering from mental illness — rather than being science fiction at all. Whether this means that publishers still equate science fiction with madness or just that they think the inclusion of any science-y sounding stuff makes it scifi or that unreliable narrators are cool, I'm not sure.


What I am sure of is that if all of these pieces are science-fiction, the editors at The New Yorker and Tin House have expanded the field more than anyone since the great pulp magazine editors of yore (or since we folded horror into fantasy, since ghosts aren't real). Which I suspect they didn't mean to do.

The non-fiction pieces also include some gems. In Tin House, the science writer Deborah Blum looks at the history of food coloring, Jesse Lichtenstein looks at the future of synthetic biology and Rachel Riederer looks at synesthesia. I found these and most of the other article and essays in the magazine informative and intriguing.


The New Yorker actually seems to have started their science-fiction issue the week before, with Arthur Krystal's essay on "good bad books" or basically genre fiction. The essay focuses mostly on mysteries and thrillers, but its plea for valuing (though not too much) genre fiction feels like a warning shot for the science fiction edition to come. The actual science non-fiction included a previously unpublished essay by Anthony Burgess about A Clockwork Orange and Laura Miller's examination of the earliest aliens in fiction. There were also short personal pieces by writers like China Mieville, William Gibson and Ray Bradbury. Along with Colson Whitehead's longer personal essay on watching horror films as a kid, these all seemed to be in answer to the question, 'how did you end up writing science fiction?' I think each of them includes an account of the moment when the author was told science-fiction was "less" than regular fiction.

Ursula K. Le Guin tells a giggle-inducing story about getting published at Playboy and how she once spilt a beer on Virginia Heinlein, but here's the real meat of the piece:

"I thought, and still think, it ungrateful in a writer to write science fiction and deny that it's science fiction….So if you're in the great-writer business you play the denial game. ‘Pay no attention to the spaceships, the post-holocaust scenery, or the mutants,' you say. ‘My novel is not sci-fi; it is literature.' But these days all such fancy dances begin to look quaint."


While just a few pages later, the quaint Margaret Atwood says,

"That [story] was unlikely to be true, or ever to come true. It was pure fantasy. Whereas when I read Orwell's 1984, a scant few years later, I thought it could all too possibly become true: in the midst of the Cold War, it more or less already was. Such distinctions still matter. To me, at any rate."


I don't know if The New Yorker's regular subscribers will realize that here is yet another skirmish in the war over the meaning of science fiction (the argument that if it's good it can't be science fiction; it must be literature). It's a little like watching a family fight break out at the Olive Garden.

Overall, I have to admit some disappointment with The New Yorker's science non-fiction. Perhaps this is because, as a regular reader I really enjoy their science reportage. I find it to be both deeply human and moral. The articles are never just "look at this neat thing" summations of press releases — rather, they are always "what does this neat thing mean for policy" or "who will this neat thing help" or "can this neat thing help" or "what people are behind this neat thing." My expectations may have been too high, but I found the non-fiction in this issue remarkably backwards-looking. A Clockwork Orange is an important book, but was published fifty years ago. Laura Miller's look at early aliens is quite thorough, but ends well before John W. Campbell's famous dictum on writing aliens: "Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man." If you aren't getting up to Campbell, you're not getting anywhere near what writers are doing now or what might happen next.


And what happens next is the whole point, for both good storytelling in general and for science fiction in particular.