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Archive for September 3rd, 2009

The Sensual Life Of Machines

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It has been a while since I did a reading project and I just spotted Sex In The System, edited by Cecilia Tan, on my shelves. SF Site sent me this to review a couple of years ago but for some reason I never got round to it. So, apologies to Rodger Turner and hopefully I will belatedly get a review out of it now.

As you might guess from the fact it is edited by Tan, it is a saucy anthology. The cover depicts two (computer) mice getting it on…

Written by Martin

3 September 2009 at 20:55

Posted in books, short stories

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with 20 comments

Earlier in the day I happened to come across this review (cached version as it has been edited). It is not a very good review but, hey, there are a lot of bad reviews out there. However, when I first clicked through I thought it was just another blog, it was only after a while that I twigged that this was, in fact, the website of Fantasy Magazine. This is a respected magazine with multiple editors publishing a review which would be embarrassingly inept for someone’s blog. So I thought rather than moving on it was worth having a look at in more detail:

Introduction (250 words)

The review starts by quoting the blurb. Not a good sign. Okay, I know I have a tendency to quote crap off the covers in my reviews too. Its a bad habit. Generally, I am trying to make a point about marketing or positioning though. This reviewer is using it as shorthand for the book’s contents and, since the items mentioned in the blurb are for the main part entirely standard tropes from the SF toy box, her frame of reference already seems quite narrow. The Southern Asian setting intrigues the reviewer and, fair enough,

(I will take a break from complaining about the review to complain about the blurb: the publishers refer to an “exotic” spaceport when what they mean is an “Asian” spaceport. Fail.)

From the blurb we then switch to the cover which is again pretty irrelevant. The reviewer favours art that is neat, crisp and cleanly drawn, she wants it to look like the stuff it is meant to look like. This is worrying in itself but it is also worring in what it suggests about her appreciation of literature.

From the cover we switch to the formating. Now, this is just flat ridiculous. In addition to this, it again suggests worrying things about the reviewer’s judgement. “Voice” is not a good chapter title, it is utterly generic. The reviewer add that Brown has published other books which is useful information but this poor shoehorned into a section on the approving critical quotes in the front of the novel. I agree with the reviewer that larding the inside of a novel with “their last book was great” endorsements is irritating. This is not really the place to state such personal gripes though. Again, I’ve been known to include the odd personal gripe but this is remarkably sustained attempt to both ignore the text itself and the wider context of the text.

The problems: an awkward and irrelevant opening, a reviewer who doesn’t display much breadth of taste or knowledge of the genre.

Review (300 words)

Eventually we start looking at the text itself. The reviewer starts by approvingly quoting the opening sentence: “Vaughan was refuelling The Pride of Calcutta, just in from Ganymede, when the call came through.” This is an incredibly bland opening line, that this is a reassuring to the reviewer is not reassuring to me.

We are then told that the author “a offers a keen projection of what current techology might become”. The evidence of this is a Dick Tracy wristphone. Seriously? This does not seem a particularly stunning example of extrapolation. It is also worth mentioning the misspelling of technology. I am a bad speller, I make mistakes on this blog all the time. However, anything that is published by a magazine should have been drafted, proofed and edited. Mistakes like this suggest otherwise (although it could, of course, be just a mistake). See also: *italics* instead of italics.

We then move onto the prose. Now, to me saying that the writing is solid is not actually a compliment but we do at least get quotes of what the reviewer considers to be particularly good prose which is welcome. But than have the sort of critical even-handedness which really gets my goat: there were lame ideas and cool ideas, there were poorly realised characters and well realised characters. It is true that sometimes novels are all over the place but usually if a book has lots of bad bits as well as good bits then is not a very good book and it is helpful to say this. It is always good for a reviewer to state an opinion.

Spoilers (450 words)

No review should ever have a line break “begin spoiler” heading, this means you have failed as a reviewer. It is bad enough in blogs but in a magazine it is just unacceptable. Even keeping in mind that a lot of the things that are commonly considered to be spoilers I do not see as such, I can understand someone not wishing to include spoilers in a review. However, that does not mean you can abrogate all responsibility as this reviewer does:

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss any of the problems I encountered without ruining the endgame plot for new readers, so the following is a spoiler section; *please* only read it if you’ve already read the book!

When we start reading the so-called spoiler we discover that the first paragraph isn’t even a spoiler at all. The reviewer’s problem is that an object that is a hundred thousand years old does not show any signs of erosion. This is a fair enough problem to have. There is absolutely no reason to quarantine it in a spoiler section. It could easily be mentioned as an aside about the plot without any risk of spoilers. Oh, except the reviewer hasn’t actually said anything at all about the plot.

We are halfway through the review now and we have no idea what happens in the novel. Reviews shouldn’t be all synopsis (a common failing) but no synopsis isn’t very helpful either. In this paragraph the reviewer suddenly and offhandedly mentions “the pachyderms”. What? Here we have a review which is solely written for other people who have read the book. Which means it isn’t a review at all.

It is still not clear that the second paragraph is a spoiler either because again it is stripped of any context. This paragraph actually reads a lot like – *gasp* – critical engagement with the text that has so far been lacking from the reviewer. Why then has the reviewer chosen hide it? It is unfortunately impossible for someone who has not read this novel (ie the audience of the review) to follow this section because it is entirely designed as a conversation between other readers of the book. This extents to actually asking questions. It also has chatty asides – “Which should *not* be taken as a slam against philosophers!” – which make it seem much more like a blog post than a formal review.

There is then a third paragraph of non-spoiler spoilers which makes this the longest section and means that almost half of the review cannot actually be read by the audience. This paragraph is also the third in a row that takes issue with Brown which means the majority of the review is negative.

Conclusion (100 words)

Yet despite the overwhelming negativity of the review this does not translate into an overall negative judgement. We are back to the equivocation of the earlier review: it was bad but it was good too and there is worse out there. And that is it, review over.

Since the reviewer spends so long on formatting I will allow myself to mention the bizarre formatting of this review. It ends without announcement and then slides into a brief biography of Brown, then a couple of links and then a bio of the reviewer herself. It is messy and confused and again suggests a lack of any editorial hand.

What is my point? Why am I picking on this review? My intention isn’t to pick on it specifically (although I appreciate it may not feel this way), I just happened to read it and it seemed to exemplify an unfortunate fact. Namely, that a lot of genre reviews, perhaps even the majority of them, are very poorly written. They are written without consideration and reflection, they are written without a basic grasp of composition or the point of reviewing, they are written by people lacking a breadth of taste and knowledge, they are frequently written by people who are hostile to the very idea of criticism. My reviews are by no means perfect but at least I try. It is immensely frustrating to read the garbage that passes for reviewing at even a relatively prestigious venue like Fantasy Magazine. It is especially frustrating given the chip the genre has on its shoulder about not being taken seriously. If you want to be taken seriously you have to earn it.

Written by Martin

3 September 2009 at 19:34

Posted in books, criticism

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