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Posts Tagged ‘reviews

The Puppies And The Bees

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My review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway is up at Strange Horizons.

I thought The Gone-Away World was fantastically exciting and fantastically flawed. Angelmaker does something similar and, although it is less flawed, it is also less exciting. I want a bit more from Harkaway.

So, has the reader been sold a pup? Yes but, as I said, lots of people like puppies. I ended my review of The Gone-Away World — since it wasn’t clear from the preceding criticism — with the summation: “By the way, I liked it a lot and I’m looking forward to his next novel.” I’m tempted to say something similar now (yes, this is one of those irritating more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reviews). I will continue to buy and read Harkaway’s work because there are sentences, paragraphs and pages of knock your socks off brilliance here. But there are many more paragraphs of prose porridge and, when it is plain that he is such an obviously gifted writer, that makes me feel cheated.

Written by Martin

16 May 2012 at 11:26

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Is ‘Unique’ A Compliment?

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My review of Artemis by Philip Palmer is up now at Strange Horizons.

“No one writes SF quite like Palmer,” boasts a bit of puffery on the back cover of Artemis. But that is a double-edged sword, surely? No one writes SF quite like M. John Harrison but then no one writes SF quite like Andy Remic either. As it happens, I agree with Eric Brown’s assessment in the Guardian that no one writes SF quite like Palmer. I just can’t work out whether that is a good thing.

What are we to make of Palmer, eh? I am the latest in a string of Strange Horizons reviewers to fruitlessly butt my head against his work. Elsewhere the not obviously insane Lavie Tidhar has passionately defended him. So, in addition to examining Artemis, my review attempts to corral and dissect some of these responses.

As an aside, Artemis is the second novel I’ve reviewed for Strange Horizons this year that was eligible for Arthur C Clarke Award but wasn’t submitted. Out of a sense of completeness and curiosity, I’m going to work my way through some more of these (there are quite a few). However, rest assured that you haven’t missed anything yet.

Written by Martin

27 April 2012 at 08:57

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Gender Parity Starts At Home

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Niall Harrison has just completed his second SF Count for Strange Horizons, his survey of coverage of speculative fiction by women. As with last year, it is bad news for women. It is also bad news for me as reviews editor of Vector. The percentage of books by women in the BSFA Review has gone down from 25.6% in 2010 to 18.8% in 2011. Similarly, the percentage of women reviewing for Vector was gone down from 29.8% in 2010 to 25.5% in 2011 (the actual number of individual reviewers has remained the same). Having presided over a decline in what were already weak numbers has been a wake up call for me because for all the fine words I made after last year’s SF Count, I’ve taken my eye off the ball. Which is exactly how these things come to pass; not through malice but the privilege of inattention, disengagement from an issue that harms people other than me. I have taken steps to improve things this year so I hope BSFA members will see an improvement and I also hope they will hold me to account.

As well as being an editor, I am a writer. My own editorials in Vector over 2011 managed gender parity but then I only covered three books. What about reviewing in general? Renay at Ladybusiness recently looked at the balance on individual blogs and I thought I would do the same for my reviews:

Overall since 2001, 22.1% of the books I’ve reviewed have been by women and I’ve only achieved gender parity in 2006 and 2011 (years when I haven’t published many reviews). Most of my reviews have appeared in SF Site (15.8%) and Strange Horizons (23.5%) but I have been closest to parity in Vector (32.4%). It is perhaps a positive sign that for the first five years I was reviewing I averaged 16.7% whereas for the second five years I averaged 25.9%.

Whilst I’ve written a lot about books on my own sites, I’ve excluded blog reviews from these stats as I only started formally considering these as reviews last year and I’m not going back and counting all the informal ones prior to that. However, if the fromal blog reviews were included it would put me up to 26.8% overall and 70% for 2011. This is mostly due to starting the year of reading women last year which shows that even a modest effort like this can have a substantial impact.

How does that compare to my reading in general? Well, in 2004 I started keeping track of everything I read, including the gender of the author. It turns out I am slightly better when it comes to reviewing but not significantly so:

I make that 16.9% for the seven years overall (as an aside, fully a tenth of that total is Pat Barker). I stopped recording these figures in August 2010 when I was on 20.6%. This was when I became an Arthur C Clarke judge and was no longer able to write about most of what I was reading in public; given the well-known gender imbalance in British science fiction publishing, the total figures for 2010 and 2011 are unlikely to be any better than previous and quite conceivably worse. When I stopped being a judge and the responsibility of silence was lifted from my shoulders, I started tallying the figures again. As it happens, I have managed to accidentally achieve gender parity with the eight books I’ve read by choice so far this year. My plan for the rest of 2012 is make a conscious decision to continue this by deliberately reading one book by a woman for every book I read by a man.

(Huge thanks to Liz Batty for helping me wrangle the charts out of Google.)

Written by Martin

2 April 2012 at 10:33

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The Tyranny Of Incompetence, The Possibility Of Art

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My review of Blood Red Road by Moira Young is up at Strange Horizons. It is a bad book. It is bad in familiar ways. It won an award. This makes me sad but it also makes me feel like I am banging my head against a wall:

In January, Blood Red Road won the 2011 Costa Children’s Book Award. The judges have helpfully provided a pithy citation with reveals their thinking: “It’s astonishing how, in her first novel, Moira Young has so successfully bound believable characters into a heart-stopping adventure. She kept us reading, and left us hungry for more. A really special book.” There is something of Chris Mullan’s infamous remark on his experience of judging last year’s Booker Prize that the novels “had to zip along” to this statement. Perhaps that is all a novel needs to achieve, perhaps such shoddily amateurish affair as Blood Red Road deserves awards for this. I’m not convinced. Please do give me heart-stopping adventure but to get my heart to actually skip a beat, the stakes need to be real, and that means the characters and the world are real.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over Benjamin Rosenbaum’s recent post on the wages of nostalgia which in turn links to Jeff VanderMeer’s rather older post on the triumph of competence. They are both entirely right that we should not settle for the merely competent but, reading genre fiction, it often seems that achieving such a state would be insanely aspirational. As a comparison, I have just finished reading The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht which strikes me as the very definition of competent. (See, for example, Dan Hartland’s review which accurately identifies the novel as toothless.) It does, however, display a level of competence rarely seen in genre fiction.

My complaint against Blood Red Road is that it is incompetent and that is such a basic criticism that it is depressing. So it is nice to be reminded that it is possible to aim higher and, not for the first time, such a reminder was provided by M John Harrison. As I was writing my review, he was publishing a credo that essentially says my diagnosis – that Young’s world needs to be made real – was misguided:

Don’t fauxthenticate. Don’t make a text that begs, “Believe in this, please believe in this.” Rationale is the sound of the stuffing falling out, the sound of the failure of imaginative intensity.

Harrison can write this because he has gone so far past competence that it disappeared into the distance long ago. There is no writer I would rather read on the subject of writing and his contribution to Foundation’s ‘Profession of Fiction’ series is the best thing I’ve ever read by an author about their own work. Originally published in Foundation 46, Autumn 1989, it was reprinted in The Profession of Science Fiction, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Edward James (and available from Palgrave as a Print On Demand book for a mere £66.00), and Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison, edited by Mark Bould and Michelle Reid (and potentially available from the SF Foundation for a tenth of that). So, to cheer me up and to remind me of the potential of both writing and writing about writing, here is his dissection of his own career from that essay:

1966-69: The Committed Men. Identify the illusions central to the genre. The clearest illusions we have are to do with “meaning” and “choice”, with self-determination, problem-solving. Sf draws illusions of this nature across our fears: of death, of the ordinariness of our lives, of the consequences of our actions. A fantasy-world is precisely one in which action has no consequences.

1968-78: The Pastel City, The Centauri Device, The Machine In Shaft Ten, A Storm Of Wings. Subvert these illusions, not for the sake of it, or for political or literary reasons, but because to do so might be to reveal – for a fraction of a second, to yourself as much as the reader – the world the fictional illusion denies. Clearly, stories of immortality reveal death at the heart of themselves, stories of communication inarticulacy, stories of vast space and intersteller flight oppression and earthboundness, and so on.

1976-88: “Egnaro”, Climbers. Recognise (all too slowly) that these two poles of the dialectic – the writing of fantasy/the subversion of fantasy – make a discourse. This is in itself a form of escape. A discourse can be solved. It is like a chess problem. The world cannot be solved, nor can any non-elf reflexive problem with a “leak to the world”.

1985 onwards: The Course Of The Heart. Paradox reigns. We can never escape the world. We cannot stop trying to escape the world.

Onwards.

Written by Martin

1 March 2012 at 08:59

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

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Putting The Space Squids To Rest Once And For All

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My review of In Other Worlds: SF And The Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood is up now at Strange Horizons.

This is probably one for fans only – and when I say fans, I mean fans of Atwood, not science fiction fans. Much is explained, much is further muddied; “Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy”, she blithely states at one point. This is a very personal, idiosychratic exploration of science fiction, one that is likely to send purists screaming for the hills (some of the comments here, for example). In Atwood’s own words:

In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practicing academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather, it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship to a literary form, or forms, or sub-forms, both as reader and as writer.

I’d also like to congratulate Strange Horizons for reaching their fundraising target and thank everyone who contributed to making this happen. It really is the best of the web and long may it continue.

Written by Martin

14 October 2011 at 09:35

The Language Of Victory

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My joint review of Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies by Daniel M Kimmel and Monstrous Creatures by Jeff VanderMeer is up now at SF Site. It turned into a bit of a ramble about the point of collections of criticism:

You love the fantastic, it is in your blood. You have devoted a substantial part of your life to it, a part friends and colleagues have sometimes suggested has been wasted. Sometimes you wonder if they are right. You have poured your blood out through your pen but you find yourself unregarded, unrewarded and out of pocket. You are invested… so you want a return on your investment. How do you crystallise this labour into something that means something? How can you — whisper it — moneterise it? The answer is, of course, a book. A book is an artefact that has value (even in this day and age) beyond its pulped wooden weight. Commensurate with this prestige is a question though: why do my thoughts deserve collecting?

Eventually I got onto the books themselves. Guess which one contains thoughts worth collecting.

Written by Martin

2 July 2011 at 09:26

To Say Nothing Of The Goose

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My review of Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge is up now at Strange Horizons. I’ve not reviewed much this year but it wasn’t hard to persuade me to read Hardinge’s latest:

There is an enormous amount to admire in Hardinge’s novel. Chief amongst these is Hardinge’s invention. Too often children’s authors – and writers of adult genre fiction – are content to have one idea and spin off a novel (or even a series) from that alone. The creation of Toll alone is about half a dozen ideas wrapped into one and powers a many-stranded plot but it is full of peripheral ideas that seem to emerge organically from her world (and worldview). There is also Hardinge’s wit, a vital part of literature that too often adult genre fiction seems afraid of. Although there is no real reason for doing so I’d like to take a moment to quote by favourite line from the novel: “Revenge is a dish best served unexpectedly and from a distance – like a thrown trifle.”

Twilight Robbery is an extremely enjoyable novel and Hardinge is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. At the same time, the novel is not without problems, problem not unrelated to the fact its primary audience is children.

Written by Martin

8 June 2011 at 08:31

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Pangloss

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My review of Source Code is now up at Strange Horizons.

Moon is quiet, oppressive and uses an extremely muted color palette. It presents the universe as being grimly deterministic. Stevens, by contrast, is almost immediately aware of his situation and from there it is only a small step to accepting it and, ultimately, changing it. His journey much more conforms to the Hollywood archetype. Correspondingly, the color palette is reversed and the film is suffused with a self-help sensibility: carpe diem, every second counts, what you do if you only had a minute to live? Although Moon concluded with an unlikely happy ending, it always seemed bolted on. Source Code’s happy ending is never in doubt and Ben Ripley’s script could have been written by Basil Fotherington-Thomas (hello sky, hello trees; hello train, hello terrorists). The film’s capacity for sentimentality still manages to surprise, though.

As it happens, I saw the film on the same day as both my current and previous editors at Strange Horizons (Abigail Nussbaum and Niall Harrison). They both liked it rather more than be and Abigail published her review on Saturday:

Source Code, then, is an underbaked war movie and a slightly wobbly science fiction film. What’s left is an entertaining and occasionally moving SFnal action flick that is smarter and more thought-through than it has any business being, and refreshingly uninterested in wowing us with explosions and special effects. There’s been a mini-glut of low-budget science fiction films from major studios recently (Skyline, Limitless, Battle: Los Angeles, The Adjustment Bureau), and though I don’t yet know how Source Code stacks up (and am anyway only planning to see the last of the four) I think that trend is something to celebrate in itself. A wider field means more chances for quality to accidentally make its way to the screens, and lower budgets put less pressure on filmmakers to stick slavishly to proven, and brain-dead, formulas.

There is also further discussion in the comments on both these reviews.

Written by Martin

11 April 2011 at 14:20

Have I Foolishly Dissipated My Tomato Juice?

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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.

Written by Martin

14 September 2010 at 14:44

Posted in criticism, sf

Tagged with , ,