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Ten Years Of Reviewing

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Just before Christmas was the tenth anniversary of the first review I ever pubished. It was of James Blish’s A Case Of Conscience and it was published at SF Site, one of the earliest (and longest enduring) review sites. I’ve not looked back since: the next year I published 21 reviews, mostly for SF Site but also for The Alien Online and Matrix (both now defunct). In 2005, I was published in Vector, Interzone, the New York Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons for the first time. I developed the strongest relationship with the last of those publications; I’ve now written 37 reviews for Strange Horizons and they probably constitute the most sustained example of my critical writing.

I was motivated to start formally reviewing because of the dearth of good quality reviews on the internet. I can do better than this, I thought, so I decided to put my money where my mouth was. No one ever told me how to review, I just looked at reviews that I thought were good and tried to do the same. This meant that I learnt on the job and my learning curve was in public. As you would expect though, the more I did it, the better I got. I also started thinking about the art of reviewing itself as well as talking to more and more people about both reviewing and the books themselves. Writing for the NYRSF and Strange Horizons meant working closely with an editor for the first and this was an incalculable benefit to my reviewing. So, with all this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look back at that first review and see how well I thought it had stood the test of time.

One general point before I move on to looking at the review in detail: the review is 592 words long. This is shorter than anything I’ve written for a couple of years when I stopped reviewing for Vector because I took over as reviews editor. There is an art to the short review and I enjoyed the constraint of writing 500 word pieces but I think in this case I simply didn’t know what else to say. Length came with confidence and expanded critical horizons; the first review I wrote for Strange Horizons was 615 words long, the last one was 2,702.

Onto the review itself, a paragraph at a time:

The most obvious thing to say about A Case of Conscience is that it is a slightly disjointed novel due to the fact it is a fix-up of an earlier novella. The first part, the original novella, is set on the planet of Lithia. A contact team of four scientists (Ruiz-Sanchez, Michelis, Agronski and Carver) have been sent to decide whether to open the planet up to Earth. This decision is complicated by the fact that Lithia is inhabited by intelligent, civilized aliens with the appearance of twelve-foot high reptilian kangaroos. Michelis believes the planet should be opened up so Earth can benefit from contact with the peaceful, unified Lithians; Carver believes the planet’s high quantity of lithium makes it ideal for turning into a bomb factory; Agronski is undecided, flitting between both views.

Well, it starts with a bit of an introduction, even if it is only a single sentence. It makes sense to state up front that it is a fix up and to discuss the structural implications but these days I’d say when (and possibly where) the novella was originally published and provide some additional context. I’m not sure I would link the criticism (“slightly disjointed”) so directly and incontrovertible (“the most obvious thing”) to this fact either, particularly since the issue is immediately put to one side.

The synopsis is pretty good. It is a clear and succinct encapsulation of the basic premise and, if the “civilized” and “unified” are probably superfluous, it is still relatively engagingly stated. It also leads us nicely into the next paragraph.

This brings up a serious flaw in the novel: the depiction of Agronski and Carver. Carver is portrayed as stupid, xenophobic and venal to a degree that undermines the credibility of his selection, and his plan for Lithia is simply laughable. Agronski on the other hand has no characterization at all; he is simply a blank slate. This means a lot of the tension generated in the build- up to the discussion is dissipated. However Ruiz-Sanchez, a priest as well as a biologist, has an even more radical conclusion: that Lithia should be placed in permanent quarantine because it is a creation of the devil. In doing so he has committed heresy since this belief, Manichaeanism, is against Catholic dogma.

The second paragraph and the second piece of criticism. When I wrote this, my experience of reading online reviews was that they were often entirely devoid of any criticism. This remains the case today. I’ve obviously always been comfortable standing in judgement of a text and seen this as the whole point of reviewing. Whether my judgements have always been supportable is another question.

With Carver, I think it clearly is; the synopsis I’ve provided gives evidence that his plan is indeed laughable. With Agronski, I am relying more on the reader taking my word for it. In both cases, given the fact I describe this as a serious flaw, I could have provided more evidence. The admirable brevity weakens the weight of the criticism.

As an atheist interpreting an agnostic’s depiction of Catholic theology several decades after the fact, I don’t find this entirely persuasive but this does not really matter. James Blish notes in his foreword that it was his intention to write “about a man, not a body of doctrine.” He largely succeeds in this; his portrayal of the deeply conflicted Father Ruiz-Sanchez is the core of this section.

The first sentence situates the novel in the context of my own experience and worldview. Quite often reviewers run shy of introducing themselves into a review (or go to the opposite extreme and write solely from their personal reaction to the text) but I think it is a natural part of the process and one that is ultimately to the benefit of the reader. Having contextualised my reaction, I then analyse it by suggesting that this reaction does not stand in the way of what the book is trying to achieve.

In support of this, I quote Blish. I’m pleased to see that I was using evidence but this is the only quote in the review, it is very brief and it isn’t even for the body of the text. Again, as a comparison, my most recent review for Strange Horizons contained sixteen, several of substantial length. That level of quotation wouldn’t be appropriate in a review of this length but there is a balance to be struck.

Having identified Blish’s aim, I judge it a success but using weasel words. What does it mean that he largely succeeds? In what ways doesn’t he succeed? Is describing Ruiz-Sanchez as “the core of this section” actually descriptive? I think there is more to unpack here.

It is Blish’s writing that is the real joy here; compared to that of a fellow Futurian like Isaac Asimov, his writing is a revelation. His depiction of Ruiz-Sanchez and the Lithian society would not look out of place published today, in stark contrast to most 50s SF.

If Blish’s writing is the real joy, then this would be an excellent time to actually quote some of it. I again refer to the “depiction” approvingly without saying anything about it. Instead I resort to some pretty sweeping generalisations. Now, I stand by the assertion that Fifties SF was pretty duff but it is a huge aside to introduce in a 48 paragraph. Is the pop at Asimov justified? Well, it probably would be if I could group him with all the other Futurians in opposition to Blish but I can’t because Asimov is the only one I had read. Similarly, I could in no way claim to have read a wide selection – certainly not “most”! – of Fifties SF. Authorial fiat here conceals ignorance. I still make assertions and generalisations in my reviews but hopefully I am better armed with evidence these days.

The second half of the novel is set on Earth and charts the development of a Lithian specimen from embryo to TV star. This Lithian, Egtverchi, is a catalyst for social change that touches the lives of all the original contact team.

We are now back to synopsis. I am often surprised by the number of reviews which faithfully rehearse the plot of the text under discussion before getting down to the business of criticism at the end. To me the two things are inextricably linked.

I’d also draw attention to how brief the paragraph is. Despite being only 615 words, it is eight paragraphs long. There is a bit more depth and consolidation of thought.

Again Blish’s writing is ahead of the field but this time only as far as the 70s. His depiction of Earth is reminiscent of that of John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar and Thomas Disch’s 334, though without the stylistic experimentation of the New Wave writers.

Back to unsupported assertions about period of SF history but I am on firmer ground this time because I am naming some texts. However, I don’t say how the “depiction” (that word again) is like Brunner and Disch, only how it isn’t. Well, it is a start I suppose.

The satiric tone of the second half is in marked contrast to that of the first and this is not necessarily for the best. Likewise the relegation of Ruiz-Sanchez from centre stage to the role of supporting player. This dissonance is also present in a superfluous scientific appendix that detracts jarringly from the ending. The ending itself, however, is well-written and thoughtful, and provides a final solution to the problem of Lithia and Egtverchi.

The first two sentences provide evidence – change of tone and relegation of character – but then go on to make another unsupported judgement based on this. More weasel words in the form of “not necessarily for the best” and not even that with the presumptive “likewise” that begins the second sentence. The reader knows I preferred the first half of the novel to the second and they know my reason but is that to do with the book itself or because of personal taste? The third sentence expands on this issue and strengths the idea that this isn’t must an issue of taste but I should still have explored this dissonance further.

I then provide some balance with some blank praise – “well-written and thoughtful” – that is essentially meaningless. To compound this sloppy use of language, I then refer to a “final solution” to the story. I can’t actually remember the conclusion of A Case Of Conscience but presumably this is an inappropriate use of the phrase.

Blish is certainly a historically important author and should be read for that reason alone. However, you can’t help thinking that if the novel had been written as a whole, the results would have been more satisfying. Nevertheless A Case Of Conscience has aged well and, for all its flaws, holds its own with any SF published in the last 50 years.

I have never provided any evidence that Blish is a historically important author, I have simply assumed the reader of the review believes this then generously confirmed their opinion and stamped my approval on it. How magmanimus. And this sentence isn’t actually relevant to my conclusion that the novel is weakened by being formed of two halves.

The conclusion in the second sentence should really just be a continuation of the paragraph above in which the question of dissonance is raised but at least it is the culmination of an argument. Then we get to the final sentence: “for all its flaws, holds its own with any SF published in the last 50 years.” Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. So we end with a paragraph that is one part irrelevant and unsupported aside, one part partially supported criticism and one part preposterously unsupported praise. Conclusions are hard.

So I think what we have there is a review that is relatively strong on instinctual style but pretty weak on evidence. At the risk of introducing another unsupported assertion, I have improved a lot over the last ten years, particularly with respect to the latter. As for the field of online criticism as a whole, well, it is vastly bigger and this expanded pool means that there are lots of good reviews out there. They are often hard to find though. If you know the venues and the reviewers you trust then you are fine but if you rely on Google then frankly you’re fucked. A little bit more style and a lot more evidence in 2012 would be a very good thing.

Written by Martin

5 January 2012 at 11:57

Posted in criticism, sf

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‘Surface Tension’ by James Blish

with 4 comments

I’ve read this before, right? Or have I just read Stephen Baxter’s version? He did one, right?

Anyway, this is a stone cold classic, both of science fiction and hard SF. A small group of colonists crash land on a planet with is almost entirely covered in water. They know they are going to die, they take this in their stride and they seed the planet with a microscopic version of humanity. Many years later this new form of humanity reaches for the stars.

The hard SF path of heroic endeavour is all here: the universe is a harsh, unforgiving vacuum; up by his bootstraps; per ardua ad astra; etc, etc. ‘Surface Tension’ also reconfigures the familar (the story takes place in a small puddle) into the utterly alien. A joy to read and larded with enough of Blish’s professional background in microbiology to skim of any holes in the plausibility of the scenario.

Quality: ****
Hardness: ****

Written by Martin

24 September 2010 at 10:21

‘Beep’ by James Blish

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Turns out I was right to skip ‘Beep’ the first time round because it is a bizarrely dreadful story.

Unusually, H&C include some criticism in their introduction when they say that “it is worth noting Blish expanded this story later in his career into the novel, The Quincunx of Time (1973), and that the longer version is disappointingly discursive.” It is not the first time this happened either; ‘A Case Of Conscience’ was similarly unfortunately over-extended. Apparently this is all Larry Shaw’s fault. We can’t give Shaw all the blame though, Blish just doesn’t know when to stop. Cities In Flight was tedious for one volume, let alone four. Even here he manages to give us two stupid stories for the price of one.

I really don’t know where to start on this. ‘Beep’ is driven by two idea: firstly, the universe is remorselessly deterministic; secondly, FTL communication is possible and, in fact, all such communication occurs simultaneously. These are intriguing ideas but need to be treated with care. Instead, they are expressed through a frankly mad story which I will try to summarise here.

A journalist goes to the government and tells them they’ve got a leak. As proof she tells them she knows about their top secret ansible device. The government track the leak to an old man who runs a consultancy. They spy on him but can’t discover any evidence. Time passes. It turns out the old man is the journalist in disguise (?). She has a copy of the ansible too because a distant relative left it to her in their will (??). Her price for revealing all her secrets is to join the security agency and marry the boss (?!?). Every one lives happily ever after in a thousand year reich. It is just fucking ridiculous but of course Blish gets to whip out his trump card: “don’t blame me if it is nonsensical, blame the deterministic universe!”

Is it meant to be humourous? Blish has a reputation for wit but it isn’t present in this finickety, unfunny prose and a screwball comedy is more than just a mismatched man and woman not having sex. He is not particularly good with social mores either; as with the second half of A Case Of Conscience, the story gives the impression that Blish has got his nose pressed up against the glass, looking in on something he doesn’t really understand.

This is all framed by an entirely unnecessary secondary story which introduces us to an agent in the all encompassing security apparatus the revelations of the main story has engendered. It adds nothing but it does manage to undermine the main story whilst simultaneously hammering home the fact Blish doesn’t care for niceties like plausibility.

As for ‘Beep’s supposed hardness: ansible, FTL, galactic empire, time travel? Not very hard really, is it?

Quality: *
Hardness: *

By the way, although I’ve refered to H&C throughout, this introduction refers to “me” and others have mentioned that, in fact, they are all written by Hartwell so it seems like a polite fiction that The Ascent Of Wonder is co-edited.

Written by Martin

15 April 2010 at 08:23