Three things make a post, we used to say, back in the nostalgically glossed golden age of blogging… so here’s three things based on my being about half way through the Penguin Classics reissue of James Tiptree Jr.’s collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise.
Let’s get the crabby complaint out of the way first. Look, it’s a really good thing that a big, reputable publisher like Penguin is putting out collections of classic and influential genre short fiction like this; it makes them accessible and affordable, and I suspect replaces second-hand paperbacks (which is how I got most of the Tiptree stuff I already have) and short-run collector’s editions as the only viable way of getting hold of them. What is nonetheless infuriating is that the business model of doing so seems to consist of OCR-scanning an old copy of the book in question, hitting “accept all” on autocorrect suggestions in W*rd, and going straight to layout and formatting without a copyediting sweep. This is obviously what’s happening, as evidenced by the regular non-sequiturs and mangled sentences (not to mention garbled punctuation, unexpected line breaks in dialogue, and other typographic oddities) that are plain even to someone who is reading some of these stories for the first time. I understand that publishing is a strained business these days—though what businesses aren’t strained these days? and how is it that huge advances still manage to be found for vapid shit written for the one-book-a-year market by the influencers, cryptofascists and slebs-du-jour?—but surely the cost of having some low-level editorial person read the damned OCR file carefully once through, and check blindingly obvious misparses against the original text, would not make the operation totally financially unviable? Shit, if you can’t afford an editorial assistant full time, I’m sure there’s plenty of freelance proofers and copyeditors, specialists in the genre no less, who would do the job pretty cheaply. Hell, I’ll gladly do it myself; email me about my rates! Unless a few hundred bucks is too high a cost for looking like you actually give a crap about the texts you’re implicitly placing in the canon, I suppose…
(I would note that this phenomenon is far from unique to Penguin. A very large, venerable and reputable genre imprint, whose reputation is in no small part based on its keeping alive a line of, ah, masterful works of science fiction and fantasy, seems often to have taken the same approach to reissues in recent years, as indicated by exactly the same sort of typological traces. I mean, c’mon, people; if you’re gonna do a thing, do it properly? The great irony here is that grubby second-hand originals from the dime-store pulp era of the genre, whose entire identity was founded on cheapness, are often devoid of such basic sloppiness; same applies to old Penguins, in fact. Hard not to conclude that velocity has long since trumped quality as the master metric of business in every field, but something something late-late capitalism something, I guess.)
Second point concerns “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, a story I’ve known by repute for years, but never actually read before. Leaving aside for a moment the mind-in-a-different-body meat-puppet angle, this piece reads as astonishingly proleptic in our current moment: the attention economics and the media ecology that Tiptree describes here are uncannily familiar. Pretty good going for a story that’s a handful of years older than I am… though I note that the movie Network, which retains a similar proleptic power (albeit devoid of the concretised metaphor and sf-nal trappings) came out just a few years later, in the angry mid-1970s. How exactly we’ve lived with such analyses of the pernicious influence of advertising money on media for so long, yet still sleep-skipped into the clusterfuck mess we’re now seemingly all-of-a-sudden waking up to, is baffling.
(And so those writers who still retain any illusion that their work might enlighten society more broadly about its most profound mistakes should probably give themselves a good slap in the face… and yes, I include myself in this category, for sure. Also pertinent is this bit from Ryan Oakley, discussing the ways in which his criminally under-rated and under-read novel Technicolor Ultra Mall occasionally provokes accusations of prolepsis; it’s long been a truism in sf criticism that “sf is less about the future in which it is ostensibly set than the present in which it is written”, and Oakley’s post is an interesting rephrasing of that truism from not just the authorial side, but also from someone to whom the Prevailing Genre Discourse is of little or no interest or influence.)
Third point also concerns “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, which seems to me like it must have been a pretty serious influence on the cyberpunks in general, and on William Gibson in particular. I doubt this is at all an original observation, and it may only seem as obvious as it does due to my recently having done one of my periodic re-reads of Gibson’s entire ouvre… but the media-centric strands of the Sprawl trilogy in particular, with its simstim stars and their entirely confected fictional lives, feel like a case of Gibson taking the world (if not the tech) of this story and running with it; that characters in both texts share the name Isham may be coincidence, but feels more like a subtle but explicit reference on Gibson’s part back to this groundbreaking story.
(Indeed, that recent Gibson re-read revealed the extent to which a) his interests and topical preoccupations were pretty much fully formed right from the start, even if his mature style only came after the first trilogy was done and dusted, and b) that those interests were closely clustered around media and celebrity and art far more than they were around technology and computers. The rather reductive “macho neoliberal techno-dystopia, yaaawn, where’s my cuddly unicorn?” view of cyberpunk, as seem in the rear-view mirror of popular genre critique at the present time, is spectacularly shallow, to the point that it almost feels like a form of denialism turned to for comfort. And sure, I can understand why comfort is a thing you’d want to seek out in this day and age… but to have such a comfortingly dismissive reading of a subgenre whose implicit theme—at least on the literary side—has always been “beware the soma of comforting media papering over the meatgrinder of capital” seems… well, let’s just say I’m not quite so confused now about how we ended up with Tiptree’s media ecology half a century down the line from its publication.)