NORMAN SPINRAD should know a thing or two about science fiction. He's 50 this year, and been an sf professional since 1963, more than half his life. An enfant terrible of the 1960s, his fourth novel, Bug Jack Barron (1969), created a real stir and was thought by some to be, well, filthy, though it seems a lot more harmless now. He's been around.

Now he has written a book about sf, Science Fiction in the Real World (Southern Illinois University Press, $24.95; paperback, $14.95), in which he warns us early on that it won't be academic or highfalutin'. "Because in the real world, someone in probably less than entirely ideal financial circumstances, and with at least as many personal hangups as everyone else, was inspired by the random conjunction of elements in the environment to come up with a story that then had to be pounded out word by word under the influence of a relationship with a spouse, last night's dinner party, this morning's state of health, and maybe booze or dope besides." Is this, then, to be the first work of what you might call blue-collar sf criticism?

Well, no. I think Spinrad's trying to produce a theme out of the hat, to tie up not quite successfully this rather random collection of pieces, many reprinted from Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine.

I have very little quarrel with him as a maker of critical judgments; there's an illuminating and sensible overview of Philip K. Dick's career and an early (1986), remarkably balanced estimate of the cyberpunk movement, to name two of the high spots, and other good things besides. Somehow, though, none of it as criticism seems really supple.

Spinrad talks intermittently to the reader like a guy in a rather tough bar, and I have to say that when he does it, which is often, I find his tone at once condescending (you guys won't understand me if I use long words) and vulgarizing to the point of being simplistic. He writes in very short paragraphs, as if not to strain our attention span.

I sympathize with his wanting to find an audience beyond the academy, but I loathe the way he does it. "Bad science fiction and not much of it, like bad sex, is at least better than none at all." "The hero . . . must triumph over adversity, lest the reader whom the writer is quite literally {assaulting} be left angrily tumescent." That last sentence, with the unexpectedly pompous word at the end, its extraordinary misuse of "literally" in the middle and the crassness of the main verb (unprintable here), sums up exactly what I find wrong with the book as a whole. Well, he didn't write it for people like me and he does talk a lot of common sense along the way.

In his introduction Spinrad produces the old canard that only the creative writer creates. Some of us critics, naturally enough, don't like to think of ourselves as eunuchs in the harem. At least one of us has done something about it.The New Moon GREGORY FEELEY has been one of the better American sf critics for almost a decade now, and has been rumored for years to be working on an sf novel. The one he has now published, whether or not identical to the one in the rumor, is certainly startling. The Oxygen Barons (Ace, $3.95) is not what you expect from a literary critic, because it's not at all literary. It is, in fact, very hard sf indeed, lots of technology, slightly pulpish characterization, about a peaceful farmer living on the terraformed Moon caught up in a massive and convoluted political struggle involving the best way to use energy and resources -- especially oxygen, rare and valuable -- right across the solar system.

The technology is gripping, at least for those with some science, but if you're scientifically ill-educated, forget this one. The plot involves a gentle, idealistic male of Japanese extraction slowly bonding with a tough, black, cynical, realistic female (trained as a killer), and if you think that sounds like a familiar plot device you're right. The political set-up, which sometimes reminded me of Bruce Sterling in its devious complexity though not its specific shape, is sophisticated.

Overall, it's readable and optimistic. The end interestingly, and I presume deliberately, leaves a great many loose ends and leaves you feeling a bit disoriented, like being shot out of a formulaic cannon into a place without familiar landmarks, an opening up reminiscent of the end of a James Blish novel. (Perhaps this is the bit that shows the otherwise invisible critic; Feeley is one of the foremost Blish experts alive.) This is not an unusually good novel, but you get the feeling Feeley could write one yet.

Incidentally, The Oxygen Barons, I am told, is the last of the famous Ace SF Specials, a publishing line (originated by Terry Carr) which has run intermittently since 1967. Terry Carr is dead now, but I'm sure he would have felt that Feeley's book, flawed though it is, does this distinguished imprint no dishonor.

To return to Spinrad: He quotes early on the old saw about getting sf out of the classroom and "back in the gutter where it belongs," and it is this nostalgie de la boue, more than anything else, that reveals Spinrad, champion of the counterculture, to be a dinosaur still fighting the battles of the '60s. The lower forms of sf, of course, are still in the gutter and always will be, but in its upper echelons no amount of coaxing will persuade it back. There are simply too many sophisticated sf writers around. Stories of Quality TAKE, for example, The Year's Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection (St Martin's, $24.95; paperback, $12.95) edited by Gardner Dozois. For some reason I haven't read any of the annual sf compilations for around four years, and I'm slightly taken aback by my findings. What's going on? When did sf go from being partly literate to being largely literary? I've known it was happening in dribs and drabs, but the process, suddenly, seems complete. I can't find a trace of gutter anywhere in this collection.

There are 25 stories here, and at least 20 of them, I kid you not, could be put in any old up-market, literary anthology, like the annual Pushcart Prize collection, without the readers noticing any incongruity. Not that any of them will be, but that's another story. Dozois is a fine editor, and this (as usual) is probably the best and certainly the biggest of all the annual "best of sf" collections. He has a good nose for award winners, and has included two novellas, five novelettes and two short stories subsequently nominated for either the Nebula or Hugo, and including Connie Willis's clever, funny "At the Rialto" (it combines typical conference mishaps with quantum physics), which has already won the Nebula for best novelette.

It's worth noting that 17 of the Hugo and Nebula nominees this year are taken from Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, which Dozois edits. I'm amused that Dozois has in this collection already missed one award-winner (Landis's "Ripples in the Dirac Sea") that he originally published himself, but he has a real problem. Obviously, it will look bad if he weighs his anthology too heavily with stories from his own magazine, although in this particular year perhaps he should have.

There's no need or space to go through all the contents, but I especially enjoyed: John Crowley's sad, grave, mature time-travel story, "Great Work of Time"; Willis's philosophical joke, mentioned above; Judith Moffett's tale of AIDS infection and plant genetics, "Tiny Tango," which treats a delicate subject with great sureness of touch and very interestingly (you don't feel you have to read this only because it will do you good); Robert Silverberg's absurd "Enter A Soldier. Later: Enter Another," which with typical chutzpah envisages a meeting between Pizarro and Socrates; the adroitly sentimental (but with real not ersatz feeling) "For I Have Touched The Sky" by Mike Resnick about tribal Africans in a space habitat; and a Central American myth-laden, gloomy, vivid fantasy, "The Ends of the Earth" by Lucius Shepard. The Mind's I ALSO PROVING the point about the current inaccessibility of the gutter to the better sf writers today is Greg Bear's most ambitious novel yet, Queen of Angels (Warner, $19.95). Bear's whole career has been built around big ideas (remember the infinite space-habitat tunnel of Eon?), but this time the idea is both big and notoriously difficult.

The year is 2047 (just before the "binary millennium" 2048, 10000000000 in binary); the place is most of the time Los Angeles, some of the time Hispaniola, which is a nation made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Celebrated black poet Emanuel Goldsmith, in an era where most people are "therapied" and physical violence is a rarity, has murdered eight of his disciples in cold blood. Why?

The case is studied by three people: a policewoman, an unsuccessful writer friend of Goldsmith and a researcher who has developed equipment for tapping directly into the mind. Meanwhile, an artificial intelligence supervising an exploratory probe to the planets around Alpha Centauri is coming, through loneliness, to self-awareness. What's the book really about?

Well, like a remarkable number of the past few years' sf books, it's partly about vodoun (voodoo) as a means for giving a metaphysical structure to shared archetypes of the human mind. Basically, though, it is an extremely dense and complex work about nothing less than the nature of consciousness.

Gerard Manley Hopkins in one of his "Terrible Sonnets" once put the theme central to Queen of Angels as clearly as anyone has: "O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed." It's an ambitious landscape for any writer to tackle, no matter how well kitted out, and one can only gasp in admiration as Bear prepares to plumb the depths with, metaphorically, no ropes, no crampons, wearing only sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, but Bear's dour, unassisted courage in the face of the vast and abyssal seems ridiculously inadequate.

At first I thought it wasn't going to work at all, especially since the central figure of Goldsmith seems more a vacuum than an enigma for much of the book, and the reasons why we should care about him were not made clearer, I felt, by the samples of his verse Bear gives us, samples which made it difficult for me to understand his literary fame. I didn't care about his writer friend, either, who seemed almost like a parody of some fringe literary type from a 1940s novel. But one does care about Mary Choy, the policewoman, and one is ultimately awed by the sheer density of the metaphorical patterns Bear sets up. His title itself is at least a triple pun.

What are the mental structures, the symbologies of thought and feeling, the reasons for self-awareness, the sources of sin/guilt/ cruelty? These are all hugely serious questions. I don't think Bear has given us any answers to them, and I don't suppose he had the hubris of intending to. But he does suggest fruitful ways in which we might begin thinking about them, while simultaneously giving us an in-depth future (transformed by the same nanotechnology Feeley uses in The Oxygen Barons), a 21st-century argot which I found to irritating, some sad thoughts about the results of child abuse and goodness knows how many other impossible things before breakfast.

There's a faint touch of Californian psycho-babble in some of the psychological talk, and every aspect of the book is open to criticism, but is this criticism wholly fair? This is a deeply serious book (unlike Eon), and if it is open to attack, that's because of the incredible quixotic bravery of the whole endeavor. I didn't like it very much, and it's difficult to read, but it's certainly some kind of monument. It may be the most ambitious novel I've ever read.

Peter Nicholls is the author of "The Science in Science Fiction" and editor of "The Science Fiction Encyclopedia."