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Archive for the ‘criticism’ Category

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

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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:


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


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:


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

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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

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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

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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