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50

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My review of Burial At Sea is up now at Strange Horizons.

Astonishingly, it is my fiftieth review for them. To celebrate, I wanted to do something different so I’ve written my first ever review of a computer game. In a way, Burial At Sea is a bizarre choice: the sequel to a game I didn’t like and the prequel to a game I haven’t played. I’m glad I picked it though, both because I enjoyed writing about the game and because it partially redeemed the hours I put into completing Bioshock Infinite.

In other words, Episode 2 raises the gameplay bar considerably but only as high as a solid B. Grading the narrative proves harder because if Episode 1 is the epilogue to Bioshock Infinite then Episode 2 is the prologue to Bioshock. Given I was lost when the story was self-contained, I had no chance when the head of this mega-text looped round to swallow its own tail. So, if you have followed the series from the beginning, I imagine Episode 2 is as satisfying a coda as its creator has claimed. If, like me, you are a late arrival then it only offers a frustrating glimpse into an alternative dimension, one where Bioshock Infinite actually lived up to the praise lavished on it.

I also thought I’d take the opportunity to look back at the last nine years I’ve been writing for Strange Horizons. As I’ve said before, I was motivated to start reviewing by the poor quality of online reviews. I knew I was better at writing about books than other people being published. When I started writing for Strange Horizons, I soon realised that wasn’t enough. I needed to up my game, both for myself and for the magazine, and become a good reviewer in my own right. I’ve now achieved this so, in recent years, I’ve used Strange Horizons as a platform to keep stretching myself.

2005 – 2006: Change

At this point I had been reviewing for four years but I was still very much finding my feet as I moved away from my then preferred length of 500 words towards the greater depth and breadth of essay length-reviews. You can already see a substantial change between the first and the last of these but I’m not really sure I could recommend reading any of them.

1) Nova Scotia: New Speculative Scottish Fiction edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J. Wilson (Strange Horizons: November 2005)
2) The Clock-King and the Queen of the Hourglass by Vera Nazarian (Strange Horizons: January 2006)
3) Life On Mars 1.1 – 1.3 (Strange Horizons: February 2006)
4) A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve (Strange Horizons: May 2006)

2007-2010: Consolidation

After an eight month gap, I knuckled down and turned out almost a review a month for 2007 and 2008 before slowing down and stabilising. Practice makes perfect and this is really where I learnt my trade (under the gentle whip-hand of then reviews editor Niall Harrison). Looking back, I’m pleased that there is a good mix of novels, films, short fiction, television and non-fiction here and this was definitely helpful in terms of developing as a writer. I am fond of a lot of these reviews and I’d describe some of them as very good but there are also others I’d revisit. Some particular milestones: my first multi-text review (The Nines, Southland Tales and Doomsday), (The Red Men) and what was for a long time the most commented upon review on the site (Night Of Villjamur).

5) The Fountain (2006) (Strange Horizons: February 2007)
6) Black Man by Richard Morgan (Strange Horizons: April 2007)
7) 28 Weeks Later (2007) (Strange Horizons: June 2007)
8) The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds (Strange Horizons: June 2007)
9) Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch (Strange Horizons: August 2007)
10) Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery (Strange Horizons: October 2007)
11) The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua (Strange Horizons: January 2008)
12) The SFWA European Hall of Fame, edited by James Morrow and Kathryn Morrow (Strange Horizons: February 2008)
13) Black Sheep by Ben Peek (Strange Horizons: March 2008)
14) What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid (Strange Horizons: May 2008)
15) The Nines (2007), Southland Tales (2006) and Doomsday (2008) (Strange Horizons: June 2008)
16) Lost Boys by James Miller (Strange Horizons: July 2008)
17) Everything Is Sinister by David Llewellyn and The Heritage by Will Ashon (Strange Horizons: August 2008)
18) Anathem by Neal Stephenson (Strange Horizons: September 2008)
19) The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Strange Horizons: November 2008)
20) Dead Set (Strange Horizons: December 2008)
21) The Chronicles Of The Black Company by Glen Cook (Strange Horizons: January 2009)
22) Subtle Edens, edited by Allen Ashley (Strange Horizons: February 2009)
23) Lost In Space by Toby Litt (Strange Horizons: March 2009)
24) A Thread of Truth by Nina Allan (Strange Horizons: May 2009)
25) Nights Of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton (Strange Horizons: June 2009)
26) God Of Clocks by Alan Campbell (Strange Horizons: July 2009)
27) Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui and Paprika (2006) (Strange Horizons: July 2009)
28) The Ask And The Answer by Patrick Ness (Strange Horizons: August 2009)
29) The Lord of the Sands of Time by Issui Ogawa and All You Need Is KILL by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (Strange Horizons: September 2009)
30) Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint (Strange Horizons: October 2009)
31) The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood and The Rapture by Liz Jensen (Strange Horizons: January 2010)
32) Kick-Ass (2010) (Strange Horizons: April 2010)
33) Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness (Strange Horizons: June 2010)
34) Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010) (Strange Horizons: September 2010)

2011-2014: Confidence

Another long gap (during which time I concentrated on reviewing older novels for this blog). When I returned to Strange Horizons, my focus was less on developing my criticism than on my style. A lot of SF novels are outright crap but an even bigger chunk are simply unambitious and make no attempt to engage with the possibilities of literature, particularly with respect to style. That goes double for reviews of SF so I wanted to practice what I preached. I’m pretty pleased with the results and I think you can particularly see this from 2012 onwards.

35) Source Code (2011) (Strange Horizons: April 2011)
36) Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge (Strange Horizons: June 2011)
37) In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood (Strange Horizons: October 2011)
38) Blood Red Road by Moira Young (Strange Horizons: February 2012)
39) Artemis by Philip Palmer (Strange Horizons: April 2012)
40) Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (Strange Horizons: May 2012)
41) Osiris by EJ Swift (Strange Horizons: October 2012)
42) The City’s Son by Tom Pollock (Strange Horizons: January 2013)
43) Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo (Strange Horizons: March 2013)
44) No Return by Zachary Jernigan (Strange Horizons: May 2013)
45) Sea Of Ghosts by Alan Campbell (Strange Horizons: August 2013)
46) Dark Waters Of Hagwood by Robin Jarvis (Strange Horizons: September 2013)
47) Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton (Strange Horizons: January 2014)
48) Wolves by Simon Ings (Strange Horizons: February 2014)
49) Astra by Naomi Foyle (Strange Horizons: March 2014)

So what next? Another nine years of writing for them, I hope. But I also want to write more away from Strange Horizons. Firstly, having spent years writing 2,000 word reviews, I find myself missing 500 word reviews. The space the internet allows to talk about texts is a huge boon but sometimes a bit of constraint can also be productive. I very much enjoyed writing 500 word reviews for Vector before I took over as reviews editor and it is a form I’m increasingly thinking of returning to. Secondly, I’ve long though a reading diet that consists solely of SF is stunting but that is exactly what has happened with my reviews. Whilst I read a wide range of literature, I only review SF so I’m going to make an effort to actually achieve the last of these resolutions.

Written by Martin

2 May 2014 at 07:25

Posted in books, criticism

Tagged with ,

How To Write A Review – Step Three

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Once you’ve completed step two, go down the pub. The above photo is from the Rosemary Branch but the majority of this review was produced in conjunction with the Pembury Tavern and London Fields Wheat Beer. Once you have your pint, it is time to start putting flesh on the bones so that your nice neat outline…

…becomes this:

By this point the structure will have changed again with sections having split and merged and there will still be lots of holes. So lather, rinse, repeat:

The opening is hard but the ending is harder:

750 words becomes 1,500 words becomes 2,000 but remember to keep cutting as you add. Not all lines of thought are necessarily worth pursuing, even if they do include a gratuitous pop at Dr Who:

Follow this advice and, after your third visit to the pub, you should have something that is pretty much a finished review.

Written by Martin

28 April 2013 at 16:54

Posted in criticism

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How To Write A Review – Step Two

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If you’ve followed step one that you should have the most important thing a reviewer can ask for: an unblank page. Of course, these typed notes will be unintelligible so you’ll need to tidy them up a bit. Before and after:

At this point, I have 750 words of thoughts that have been bunched together but in no way resemble a review. Time to get the pen out and impose a bit of order:

A few arrows later and I’ve managed to block out the structure of the review. This consists of eight rough sections: an introduction to the characters; a discussion of the type of work; depiction of the real London; depiction of fantastical London; plot and capitalism; imagery and strengths; tone and audience; virtually non-existent conclusion.

Now the hard work begins.

Written by Martin

25 January 2013 at 13:49

Posted in criticism

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How To Write A Review – Step One

with 8 comments

Start taking notes. You’ve probably forgotten your pen so use your phone:

http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8343/8234137349_a71b8402ed_z.jpg

Take more notes. You’ve probably forgotten your notebooks so use the back of a receipt from your butcher:

http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8201/8234135701_806b5c0307_z.jpg

Take lots and lots of notes. You’ve forgotten your nice notebooks and your nice pens but there is always something in the stationary cupboard:

http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8345/8234138815_d13673bfa0_z.jpg

These are all notes for a review I am currently writing for Strange Horizons of The City’s Son by Tom Pollock. Once the review is actually published I might well revisit the process of writing it.

Written by Martin

1 December 2012 at 14:38

Posted in criticism

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On Not Being A Fan

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Lots of people who take an interest in science fiction self-identify as fans and consider themselves members of a communal fandom. This is a bit problematic if you are the sort of person who thinks you should have outgrown fan clubs in your pre-teens.

Dan Hartland has a post about this and the fact that being a fan means setting aside some critical faculties. It does so with some rather shaky analogies:

A Manchester United fan may gripe about team selection, but he will probably never abandon his team. If you’re going to talk seriously about books, you need to be able to abandon the ones that are bad.

I’m guessing that about half way through his analogy Hartland knew it was broken but decided to press on anyway. The objects of the fandom in the two cases are science fiction and Manchester United so critising bad books is exactly like barracking bad players, both activites that I have never seen fans shirk from. Not to mention that if your club does fuck you about badly enough you do abandon it in favour of something closer your original love.

It is interesting that I am one of the people who has inspired this post because I am not a fan and I am not a fan for the same reasons Hartland isn’t a fan. I do agree that fandom produces an unhealthy Us versus Them division and an instictive rush to special pleading. The reason Hartland hangs it on me is that really what he is upset about is the response to his review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. He gives us a rule of thumb:

reaction to a review will always hone in on the point most applicable to the community that reads science fiction, rather than anything which might relate to science fiction itself.

Here is a slightly different rule of thumb:

reaction to a review will always hone in on slightly dubious generalisations rather than engage substantively with a text that most people won’t have read.

I understand his frustration – it is always instructive to compare the nuber of comments on the film and television reviews on Strange Horizons to the number on the book reviews – but it has only lead him to produce further slightly dubious generalisations.

Written by Martin

1 October 2008 at 10:53

Posted in sf

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