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Elementary

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My review of Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton is up now at Strange Horizons.

Perhaps Drakenfeld is meant to be a dullard; perhaps, along with the hackneyed prose that abounds, this what the audience for Samson and all those other authors with gold embossed names crave. I just can’t see how a protagonist this uninteresting is going to sustain a series of detective novels though.

The backstory is that about four years ago, I started hearing interesting things about a writer called Mark Newton. He’d already published a short novel for a small press but his full debut, Nights Of Villjamur, was coming out shortly for PanMacmillan so I asked him for a copy so I could review it for Strange Horizons. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was very good. Firstly, the book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be whilst simultaneously trying to be too many different things. (If you will allow me some speculation, I think that Newton’s split career as bookseller, publisher and author played a role here and that some triangulation and second-guessing occurred that was ultimately unhelpful to writing the novel.) Secondly – and at a fundamental level – it wasn’t very well written.

Now, you may assume that nothing gives me more pleasure than to write a negative review of a debut novel in a field I love by a person I am well disposed to. Certainly, that was the assumption of several of the people who left comments underneath my review. It didn’t and I resolved to make sure I read Newton again in the future, although I thought it would probably be best to skip the rest of Legends Of The Red Sun series. So when his new book came through the post, it went straight to the top of the pile. As the quote above suggests, I wasn’t able to write the review I had hoped to write this time either.

Drakenfeld has definitely solved one of the problems I identified: Newton has a very clear idea of the story he wants to tell and is equally focused in delivering it. This clarity is a welcome change to the mess of Villjamur but seems to come hand-in-hand with a suggestion that the ambition he signaled but didn’t deliver on early in his career has now been completely abandoned (the triangulation has succeeded, if you will). The bigger problem, however, is that the novel still isn’t very well written.

As it happens, a couple of weeks after I wrote my review, I bumped into Newton in a pub basement in Brighton. We had a chat and he predictably was a lovely bloke. So why am I publishing something that damns his work and threatens his livelihood? Surely, if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all? The answer is that the author and the work are two separate things and the only way to be a book reviewer is to successfully compartmentalise them. I can like Newton as a person and dislike his work and there needn’t – shouldn’t – be any connection between the two. Much online book blogging has been rendered pointless by the failure to grasp this distinction.

Of course, human nature is messier than that; intellect and emotion can’t be so easily divided. Creating art is a hugely personal endeavour and what is being criticised is the product of blood, sweat and tears so it is natural to feel wounded. On the other side of the fence, the whole reason I am writing this is because of a residual sense of sheepish hypocrisy. But the concept of manners simply doesn’t apply here and it is dangerous to import it from social situations. It goes without saying that I think negative reviews have value (to inform and entertain potential readers and to contribute to a wider discourse). It should also go without saying that criticising a professional writer’s published art is entirely different to telling someone that their shoes are ugly or the dinner they’ve just cooked you tasted of ass. Unfortunately this isn’t the case and negative reviews are often seen as direct attacks on the author – and, increasingly, their fans – unless they are couched in the politest and most equivocal terms.

My review is not polite and it is not equivocal; it baldly states that Drakenfeld is a bad book and it does so in pretty scathing fashion. This tone is not thoughtless rudeness, it is an integral part of writing a review that has value beyond merely telling a prospective customer whether they should spend their money on it. It is a public, performative piece of criticism to partner a public, performative piece of art.

Anyway, the next round is on me, Mark.

Written by Martin

8 January 2014 at 10:06

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

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True Grit

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With very little commentary and mostly for my own records, a few links on the topic of:

Firstly, Joe Abercrombie talks about the value of grit:

I have been observing for some time a certain tendency for people to complain about the level of grit in fantasy books. The dirt physical and moral. The attention to unpleasant detail. The greyness of the characters. The cynicism of the outlook… Grimdark is a phrase I’m hearing quite a lot, which seems by definition to be pejorative – excessively and unnecessarily dark, cynical, violent, brutal without purpose and beyond the point of ridiculousness. There’s often what seems to me a slightly weird double standard applied of, ‘I find this thoroughly horrible and disgusting therefore the author must have intended me to be titillated and entertained!’

But, he continues:

Lots of those who praise gritty writing talk about its realism. Lots of people who criticise it assert there’s nothing realistic about splatter and crushing cynicism. You’re both right! Realism is an interesting concept in fantasy. If we were aiming at the uncompromisingly real we probably wouldn’t be writing in made up worlds with forces that don’t actually exist. So things are often exaggerated for effect, twisted, larger than life. But we can still aim at something that approximates real life in all kinds of different ways. Where the people and their behaviour and the outcomes of their actions are believable. Real life is surprising, and unpredictable. Traditional fantasy is often the reverse. You know how to spot a certain type of character, and when you spot him/her you’ve a pretty good notion where their story is going to go. Grit attempts to shake up that relationship, to throw curveballs. Critics might say that grit is so prevalent we now can be sure our hero will be eating babies by the end of the prologue, but I actually don’t believe that. I think the palette of epic fantasy has grown broader over the last few years as a result of the movement to gritty.

Richard Morgan pretends not to understand any of this so let’s move on to a proper response from Foz Meadows:

Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults; which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that such people are fundamentally unrealistic.

This ties in with a recent post from Sophia McDougall on sexual assault and “realism” in popular culture and why she stopped reading A Game Of Thrones:

That sense of history seemed to be dwindling away a bit in the second book, but in the end, that wasn’t what drove me away. Instead, it was all the rape. This surprised me. After all, I’d known going in that there was quite a lot of it, and though I was prepared to find its treatment at least somewhat problematic, I’d also expected to be able to handle it. I’m usually able to read fairly graphic scenes without getting more distressed than the story called for, and friends of mine who I thought were more readily upset by that sort of thing had read the books just fine. And, as it turns out, a lot of the rapes in A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t graphic at all.

But. There. Are. Just. So. Many. Of. Them.

And occasionally they are really graphic. But that they’re mostly not almost made it worse for me. That made it possible for the narrative to load that many more of them by the casual handful into chapter after chapter. Rape as backstory, as plot point, as motivation – however badly handled, I can usually cope with it. I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.

She notes that this rape is always against women rather than men (the title of the post is ‘The Rape of James Bond’) and Liz Bourke follows up this point:

An observer may therefore venture to suggest that sexual victimisation of men in conflict situations approaches that of sexual victimisation of women in the very same situations. In reality. But not, for some reason, in male-authored epic fantasy. What statistics we have on the (severely underfunded and under-reported) prevalence of male rape in conflict zones today, suggest that in epic fantasy every in-conflict-zone deployment of sexual threat against women should be almost matched by sexual threat against men. And yet, in male-authored epic fantasy, it’s not.

Written by Martin

17 March 2013 at 18:08

Posted in criticism, genre wars, sf

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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

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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

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Where Is The New New Wave?

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My review of Osiris by EJ Swift is up now at Strange Horizons.

There is a problem beyond this, though, a problem with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction. What one might call Resource SF could make a vital contribution to literature but the commitment only ever seems to be political rather than artistic. The only novel I can think of that attempts both is Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone (2011). The concerns are similar to Swift’s—the remorseless march of the Gini coefficient bears its inevitable fruit—but it seeks to be not just a science fiction novel but a novel in its own right. No one else seems to be trying.

I wrote this review not long after Paul Kincaid published a review of several year’s best collections in the LA Review of Books. I imagine it shows. Problems with the state of the genre were on Kincaid’s mind too and his diagnosis was as follows:

The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.

Jonathan McCalmont makes the moral and political failing of this crisis of confidence explicit in a follow up article which glories in the typically restrained title ‘Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future’:

This conceptual blockage was most evident in the immediate aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis when the housing bubble burst and banks across the world began to collapse. Exposed as nothing more than a vast pyramid scheme, global capitalism lurched and stumbled but never quite fell… Having failed to identify this culture-wide conceptual blockage as any kind of failure or flaw, science fiction never bothered to rout around it.

And yet this is not my problem; Resource SF does not turn its back. In fact, Kincaid expands on his review in a long interview with Nerds Of A Feather where here he draws the distinction between three different forms of crisis facing SF: a crisis of ideas, of identity and of confidence. It is the former – an entirely aesthetic crisis – that I believe Swift succumbs to. On this point, Kincaid says:

Within any art form there are individuals or movements that attempt to push the boundaries in various ways. They are concerned with seeing what new can be done, what more can be done with the form. Often, though not always, they are initially viewed with dismay or disdain by aficionados of the art, though in retrospect they are generally viewed as being the innovators who mark an important developmental stage in the history of the form… What they do may be good or bad (and in science fiction a lot of the so-called innovations of the new wave in the 1960s were, frankly, very bad indeed), but I think they are important for the health of the form.

Alongside this, and by far the majority of the exponents of any art form, there are the traditionalists, concerned to do more of what the form has always done. Some of these can be very good, there can be great artistic achievements that make no effort whatsoever to challenge the nature of the form. What I found, reading the three books, and it bore out something I had been aware of in previous best of the year volumes I’ve read, was that practically everything belonged in the second camp.

Kincaid adds that “I don’t think this perception holds when it comes to the novel” but I’m not at all sure of that. If you pick up a science fiction novel I think there is a pretty good chance that it will read exactly like most other science fiction novels. There are exceptions – Kincaid lists M John Harrison and Christopher Priest in his interview; I mention Adam Roberts in my review – but it is, by and large, homogeneous in a way that literary fiction (regardless of quality) is not.

Helpfully Roberts has given his perspective from someone on the other side of the fence. Well, both sides, really. But what it all made me think was, can you imagine any contemporary Nebula-winner writing Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders?

Written by Martin

9 October 2012 at 10:51

Posted in books, criticism, sf

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Spring, Summer, Winter

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Most so-called contemporary novels are freighted with nostalgia. Perhaps one reason for either loving or shunning science fiction is that it is relatively free of the poisons of forever looking back. It looks to the future, even when it looks with foreboding.

Brian Aldiss, 1996, preface to Helliconia.

…it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion. In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them… The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.

Paul Kincaid, 2012, review of 2012 best of the year anthologies.

Written by Martin

15 September 2012 at 08:19

Joe Abercrombie On Joe Abercrombie

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At the beginning of the year I reviewed my first review. I undertook this recursive exercise to see how far I’d come and I found the results both useful and interesting. It is equally interesting to see other people apply the same introspection, particularly when they produce the actual texts that get reviewed.

Joe Abercrombie has been reading “Joe Abercrombie’s seminal work of modern fantasy, The Blade Itself“:

The writing’s a little lumpy, sometimes trying a bit too hard – why use one adjective when five are available? Then you can repeat a couple of them later in the paragraph! Hmmm. A tendency towards providing pairs of nouns or adjectives when one, or perhaps none, would do. A bit of dead-horse beating, you could say. Sometimes it’s a bit foursquare, dwelling on who did what when, some unnecessary repetition and too much focus on technical aspects of positioning in a scene that really don’t matter at all. He turned, then he turned back, then he turned again. He could probably have turned less. Or indeed simply looked forwards and delivered his dialogue. But actually the writing was generally less embarrassing than I’d feared it might be. Some of the descriptive bits are a little, I don’t know, lacking in sparkle, prone to become a bit listy and unimaginative, and sometimes there’s a slightly trying, breathless, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to tell you how ace this is,’ sense to things, but the dialogue is largely there, there are some really nice exchanges I’d forgotten about. If there’s one relative strength that I’d identify it is the dialogue. The different ‘voices’ for the different points of view generally work but haven’t totally settled down at this stage.

He’s read the whole of the First Law trilogy and has just finished Best Served Cold. Fascinating stuff.

Written by Martin

20 June 2012 at 21:19

Posted in criticism, sf

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Imperfect Pearlescence

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To help me in my read through of The Space Opera Renaissance:

Written by Martin

27 April 2012 at 09:38

Posted in criticism, sf

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‘How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera’ by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

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The introduction to The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell, opens with a brief section that serves as a defence for their previous monumental anthology, The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution Of Hard Science Fiction. That volume opened with three contradictory introductions that did absolutely nothing to illuminate what the editors believed hard science fiction actually was. The nine hundred odd pages of fiction that followed were similarly confounding and left critics scratching their head. Cramer and Hartwell are sticking to their guns though. The editors may have restricted themselves to a single introduction (although the individual story introductions are much longer) but they warn us they faced “a similar set of problems” and intend to “pursue clarification by representing perhaps conflicting examples”. Eek.

The next section opens: “For the past twenty years (1982-2002), the Hugo Award for best novel has generally been given to space opera.” Since The Space Opera Renaissance was published in 2006, there is a bit of a disconnect here. This is because this part of the introduction was originally published as an essay of the same name in 2003. The editors have simply regurgitated it here with expanded examples but no real revision. I say “editors” but tellingly the essay uses “I” throughout with the clear implication that it was actually written by Hartwell (who similarly was solely responsible for much of the jointly signed material in The Ascent Of Wonder). This is here changed to “we” but I see little point in going along with this charade.

Most of the essay is given over not to defining the New Space Opera but a history of the evolution of the term space opera. Whilst this context is useful, it displays unmistakeable traces of bitterness that Hartwell has been caught on the wrong side of history. Of space opera’s pejorative origins, he says:

A lot of people don’t remember this and that distorts our understanding of both our present and our past in SF. Perfectly intelligent but ignorant people are writing revisionist history, inventing an elaborate age of space opera based on wholesale redefinitions of the term made up in the sixties and seventies to justify literary political agendas.

Let’s put that patronising and frankly embarrassing second sentence to once side; the claim that interests me is that in the first sentence. How exactly does ignorance of the past distort our understanding of the present? Perhaps Hartwell believes the New Space Opera can only be defined in opposition to the old space opera but I can identify shinola without needing to look at shit. The redefinitions he is talking about took place 25 years before the time he was writing yet he can’t let go of them. Later on he notes that: “Leigh Brackett, by the mid 1970s, was one of the respected elder writers of SF: in the middle and late 1970s, Del Rey Books reissued nearly all her early tales, calling them space opera as a contemporary term of praise!” The pearl clutching exclamation mark is impossibly quaint; it is 2006, who could possibly be shocked by this? There is a lecturing, tediously fannish tone to the whole piece; he has the facts on his side, damn it.

Eventually we get to the point where we could have come in:

Thus the term space opera reentered the serious discourse on contemporary SF in the 1980s with a completely altered meaning: henceforth, space opera meant, and still generally means, colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focussed on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action (this bit is what separates it from other literary postmodernisms) and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. What is centrally important is that this permits a writer to embark on a science fiction project that is ambitious in both commercial and literary terms.

This does contain the core of a definition, albeit a not useful or interesting one, but it also contains a couple of weird twists. In the brackets we are directed to “this bit”? Which bit? Plot action? None of the preceding characteristics have any relationship to literary postmoderism. Nor do any of the ones afterwards. This leaves the parenthetical remarks a Hartwell brainfart inadvisably stabbed into the text. Then there is the closing sentence: why is it centrally important that it allows a writer to be “commercially ambitious”? Hartwell doesn’t say and I cannot guess. As for the definition itself, it is more of a casual description and I would have hoped for something a bit more incisive at the start of such a large anthology on the subject.

The essay concludes: “The new space opera of the past twenty years is arguably the literary cutting edge of SF now.” That certainly was arguable in 2003 but my sense is that this would be a much harder case to make now. To return to Hartwell’s earlier test, no space opera novel has won the Hugo in the decade since the essay was published. In fact, by my count, only half a dozen have been shortlisted over that period. Space opera still makes up one of the two dominant forms of contemporary SF but in terms influence, the bloom is off the rose.

Written by Martin

17 April 2012 at 17:26

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