Recent Reading: All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays by Niall Harrison
Full disclosure: Niall is a dear friend, frequent debating partner, and someone who has had a tremendous impact on my own development as a reader, writer, and thinker. The odds that I wouldn't like or recommend a collection of his reviews were pretty low even before I turned the first page. Perhaps more importantly, Niall and I are currently in the early stages of assembling a collection of my reviews, to be published by his new micro-press, Briardene Books. So one could certainly argue that I have a vested interest in his book's success. With all that in mind, and with the understanding that I would have told you to buy a copy of All These Worlds even before I read it, here are some thoughts on the collection itself.
All These Worlds is a gorgeous volume, setting a high bar for small press publications that speaks to Niall's love for books as objects. It's cleanly arranged and organized, with the fifty reviews collected here—covering novels, individual short stories, collections, and anthologies—arranged according to publication year. The focus is mostly on science fiction (and some of the fantasy works discussed, such as Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters, are viewed through an SFnal lens). While there are some heavy hitters—Clarke winners Dark Eden and The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Hugo winner The Windup Girl, Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, of which Niall was an early and enthusiastic booster, perennial favorite Kim Stanley Robinson—there are also many idiosyncratic choices, books that I had forgotten about entirely, and niche anthologies that probably weren't very well known to begin with.
The goal, in other words, is not to highlight the best or most important works from the period during which Niall was most active as a critic (indeed, several of the reviews here are strongly negative), but to chart how the science fiction genre grew and changed during this time. All These Worlds is thus both a history and an argument. Many of the reviews here engage with the plethora of movements and manifestos that shaped the genre during the first decade of the 21st century—the New Space Opera, Mundane SF, the New Weird, that period in the late 2000s when every author of adult SFF decided to write a YA novel. Niall is clear-eyed and persuasive in how he analyzes each of these movements and their impact (or lack thereof) on the genre. In other reviews, he engages with the shifts the genre underwent as it grappled with issues of racism and the underrepresentation of women. It's a reminder of a time in which science fiction seemed to be in conversation with itself, with authors responding to and building on what came before, and a vibrant critical scene charting and evaluating these shifts, in which Niall was a leading light.
Reading this collection with an eye towards putting together one of my own, I was able to finally crystalize the key difference between Niall and I as reviewers. Niall is a systematizer. Even when he's engaging fully with a certain work, he has the gift of placing it in its context and observing how it both fits into the genre as a whole, and makes its own argument for what the genre is. (I, meanwhile, am more of a magpie, drawing connections between specific works like a conspiracy nut stringing yarn between pushpins.) This, I think, is one reason for the prevalence of short story collections and anthologies among the works discussed in All These Worlds. In case you weren't aware, reviewing a collection and saying something about it that's more evolved than "these are the good stories; these are the bad ones" is devilishly difficult, and reviewing an anthology is an order of magnitude harder than that. As I've gained prominence as a reviewer, and more control over what I review, I've tended to shy away from those assignments simply because they're harder to pull off. Niall seems to gravitate to them, using them as a snapshot of the field, and always finding something broader and more holistic to say about them.
Eventually you realize that that broader scope is the point of the exercise. As Niall writes in the collection's final review, of Jennifer Marie Brissett's Elysium:
Any history of SF is a story, and like any story its emphases will depend on where its narrator is standing and what questions they are asking. The SF that originates with Mary Shelley is not quite the SF that originates with Hugo Gernsback. I'd also argue that any story knowingly written as SF is a history, encoding a version of the past, assumptions about borders and authority and expectations that will never be quite the same from writer to writer. The SF that I have spent my life reading is therefore not the same as the SF that you have spent your life reading: that "we" becomes yet more tenuous, because "we" are all our own best historians.
It's fitting, therefore, that All These Worlds ends with three essays that make their own stabs at these sorts of histories, and which, by being grouped together, demonstrate how partial (and yet also how essential) each of these attempts is. "Unstable Histories in the Space of Dreams" amalgamates three separate essays to discuss recent attempts to either push back the history of the genre (in MIT Press's Radium Age series of early 20th century reprints) or engage with its rapidly diffusing present (in Mike Ashley's Rise of the Cyberzines). "Notes on the Clarke Award" compiles blog posts Niall wrote for Torque Control on the state of the award between 2009 and 2013, which reflect not only the award itself (which was undergoing, as the posts reveal, a great deal of flux) but the vibrant critical scene that existed around it at the time—I don't think I can capture in words the mingled bemusement and sadness I experienced when a footnote reminded me that one of the posts that make up this essay originally had a comment thread 235 messages long.
The final piece in All These Worlds is the aptly titled "Accelerated History". Originally published in Vector in 2021, it sees Niall evaluating several different anthologies and single-author collections of translated Chinese SF short fiction. Instead of reviewing each collection in turn, he breaks them down to their component stories and reviews the stories in chronological order of their Chinese-language publication—an attempt to retro-engineer a sense of the growth and development of the field. (Though, as Niall points out, such a picture could only ever be partial, inflected, among other things, by the question of who gets translated into English.) It's an original and rewarding approach, and one that only Niall, with his love of systems and, more importantly, his genuine belief in the genre and its potential, would attempt. I'd say that it's worth the price of admission on its own, but that would be selling the rest of the collection short—as both a collection of reviews and a coherent argument, All These Worlds is more than worth your time and attention.
All These Worlds represents both a summation and an argument for the importance of the first stage of Niall's career—and, I hope, a promise of new stages to come. His return to more frequent reviewing and blogging (for example on his new Briardene Books site) is a reminder of the vibrant, raucous critical scene we had in the 2000s, and—perhaps; hopefully—a sign that we might yet return to it or something like it. I wrote in the beginning of this post that I have a vested interest in All These Worlds's success, and that's still true. But I am being completely honest when I say that my interest is at least as much in seeing SFF criticism and conversation return to the place it once held. All These Worlds is a reminder of what we once had, and what I hope we will have again.