Have I Foolishly Dissipated My Tomato Juice?
When I’ve moaned about Eric Brown’s capsule review column in the past, people have complained I am being unfair. After all, I can only moan about it because it exists in the first place. Shouldn’t I just be grateful the Guardian is covering science fiction at all? There is something to this and the Guardian has generally been the newspaper most sympathetic to SF and provided it with the most space. The issue of space is important though. There is only a finite amount of it and I find it highly questionable that capsule reviews make the best use of it.
It should be stressed that this is an issue that goes far beyond Brown’s column. Capsule reviews are everywhere and the problems are inherent. The Guardian has capsule columns for thrillers, non-fiction, audiobooks and debut novels, not to mention the weekly paperback round up. In publications not focussed specifically on books – music or film magazines, for example – capsule reviews of books are the norm rather than the exception. The idea is to give an overview of a vast field in the limited space available. I often wonder if this couldn’t be achieved equally well by just printing the covers of new releases. After all, it is not as if the tiny wordcount available gives the reviewer room to make any meaningful judgement.
The majority of a capsule review must be spent providing context in the form of synopsis; any actual evaluation is usually left till the final sentence and just dangles there, unsupported. Yet these weightless reviews are accorded the same weight as any other, publishers hoover up words of praise to plaster over the covers of their books. From this perspective capsule reviews make sense when considered as part of the symbiotic relationship between publisher and publication but not sure how the reader benefits. The reader can’t even be sure they are reading an accurate synopsis of the work. Since reviewers have no space to say anything it is unsurprising that they have no motivation for actually reading what they are reviewing. This leads to staggering factual inaccurancies such as this and this (neither from Brown but both from the Guardian).
So I’ve already got a chip on my shoulder but a couple of things in particular struck me about Brown’s latest column. This month he has 555 words to cover The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton, Tales From The Fragrant Harbour by Gary Kilworth, The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi and Guardians of Paradise by JN Fenn. Reviewing The Evolutionary Void, Brown has 118 words for a book that is over 800 pages long. This seems like an exercise in futility.
But then, if you turn over the page, you find a 600 word review of a science fiction novel. This is I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore, reviewed by Patrick Ness, and it appears seperately because it is Teenage Fiction (I’m pleased to see the Guardian does not endorse the fiction that books for old children are actually for young adults). Ness has the space to give the novel a proper assessment and is not hamstrung by trying to cover three more novels in the spurious interests of diversity. It is a shame the same is not true for adult science fiction; I would happily trade Brown’s four pointless reviews for one meaningful one.
Which brings us to the question of which one of the four novels covered by Brown deserves a full review. Returning to the review of The Evolutionary Void, I find it hard to see who this is for. Hamilton is one of the biggest selling SF writers in the UK – the biggest according to Pan MacMillan – so it does make a sort of sense to cover the novel. At the same time though, it is the third volume of a massive trilogy that is essentially a single giant novel. Its only audience is those who are already fans and those fans certainly don’t need a review. At the other end of the publishing spectrum, Tales From The Fragrant Harbour is another short story collection from Kilworth, a jobbing writer scratching out a living in the margins. I’m glad PS Publishing exists to print this sort of work but it is very much small beer for a limited audience. Critic-proof blockbuster or small press irrelevancy, neither has much life outside fandom. The same is true of Guardians of Paradise, another third volume in an ongoing series (hopefully it still has a life within fandom, even though Gollancz seem to have changed Fenn’s name halfway through the series). These books will all be covered by the genre press (as they should be) but it isn’t clear to me that there is much benefit in covering them here. The Quantum Thief, on the other hand, is a major debut from a major publisher written by a young author with a PhD in string theory. The protagonists name is a reference to Fifties French film noir. It seems to me that this is the sort of novel that would both justify the extravagant luxury of a 500 word review and has the potential to interest the average Guardian reader.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Damien G Walter – one of the Guardian’s SF bloggers – has always claimed the readership couldn’t possibly have any interest in the genre and hence the SF reviews need to be safely coralled into a capsule column where they can be safely ignored. He may well be right but in that case the paper should probably axe the column as it is currently only of interest to publishers and Brown himself. I’m not so sure he is right though. I mean, the Guardian did publish three reviews of SF novels with the serial numbers filed off last week. And this week, on the page before Brown’s column, is a double review from Stephen Poole of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr and Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. Splodey spaceships may not float the boat of the Guardian’s readership but they almost certainly do have an interest in science and technology (Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins were on the cover of the Weekend section on the same day as Brown’s column). I also believe that they also have an interest in literature in all its forms, it is just a question of finding books which will re-pay that interest.
Then again, Walter also doesn’t think that the genre produces one book a month which is worthy of a 500 word review. Now, whilst I am happy to accuse the genre of publishing more than its fair share of crap, there is still wheat amongst the chaff. Catch me in my darkest moments of despair about SF, I will still always think there is at least one book a month worth talking about to a general audience. But if there wasn’t, so what? James Lovegrove’s science fiction reviews column for the Financial Times are much less frequent than Brown’s column for the Guardian but his latest column had 1,700 words to spend on four novels (including The Quantum Thief). The constrast is quite stark and I would rather wait for something of substance than be placated with regular filler.