I review books – for Interzone, for Vector, for SFF Chronicles (though not as often as I should), for SF Mistressworks, for Daughters of Prometheus, even here on my blog. I have been reviewing books since the late 1980s.(My first published review was of CJ Cherryh’s The Tree of Swords and Jewels in the BSFA’s review magazine, Paperback Inferno, in October 1988. I vaguely recall not liking the book.) I am not a critic, nor do I consider my writings about books to be criticism. I leave that kind of in-depth analysis to those who have the necessary tools to do it.
I have also been on the receiving end of reviews – more so this past year than in any other. In two capacities: as the writer of the text being reviewed, and as the editor of the book under review. On the whole, it’s been very informative. I knew when I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains that it was atypical and possibly difficult. I suspected its appeal was limited. Happily, it seems to have transcended that and the vast bulk of reviews have been positive and very complimentary. Many of them have also been quite insightful, pulling out things I’d hadn’t realised I’d consciously put in the story. But that’s what happens with good reviewers.
Which is not to say that good reviewers can sometimes get it wrong. Martin McGrath felt Dan Hartland’s review of his story in Rocket Science on Strange Horizons missed an important point, and so he responded to it in a blog post. Dan’s review is, in the main, a good, insightful review. I think it’s clear he and I differ on what science fiction is and needs to be – for one thing, I don’t feel Rocket Science is “weirdly old-fashioned”. If anything, the current fashion for hand-wavey sentimental sf harkens back to an older form of the genre, although the current form is generally far better written. Dan also comments on diversity in his review, pointing out that only five of the twenty-two contributors to the anthology are female. Rocket Science was open submission, so there wasn’t much I could do about that. But it’s bending the point a little to present the contents as being wholly male-centric, especially when the review fails to mention, for example, Deborah Walker’s ‘Sea of Maternity’, a story about a single mother and her unruly teenage daughter. In point of fact, as this post shows, 23.53% of the stories featured female protagonists.
But that’s a minor quibble, and I think Dan’s review of Rocket Science is a good and useful review.
Yes, there is a typo on the first page of the book: “sussurus” should be “susurrus”. There’s nothing I can do about that in the paperback and hardback editions. I’ve not bothered fixing it in the ebook edition, but I will do when I publish the second book of the quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Typos happen, and while I should have caught that one, it did slip by a lot of other people as well.
I can understand someone having trouble with the prose style of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – no quotation marks! – and as a result not liking it. And so bailing before finishing it. I can comprehend a reader finding the subject not to their taste and so choosing not to read to the end. But, come on, giving up after a page because there are three (far from wildly obscure) words you don’t understand? That’s no excuse.
And to further suggest that it’s bad craft is insulting.
I do not believe in dumbing down my prose. I am not writing for people with limited vocabularies. I am writing for intelligent adults, because that’s what I consider my peers to be. I will not insult the intelligence of my readers because, as a reader, I loathe writers (or film-makers) who insult my intelligence. I may not always be successful in communicating precisely what I intended to communicate, but recasting it in words of one syllable is not a solution. I like writing “difficult” fiction, just as much as I enjoy reading “difficult” fiction. That difficulty, to my mind, adds value. It’s not just some slick superficial entertainment, but also something that makes you think, makes you reconsider your views and knowledge. Science fiction is particularly well-suited to that task – though the bulk of it fails to do more that bolster existing prejudices. I write about things that interest me and try to shine a new light on them. I don’t do “idea”. In fact, I’m becomingly increasingly convinced that the focus on idea is what continues to cripple science fiction. As long as you privilege idea, your fiction will not be taken seriously outside genre circles. And success within the genre is a poisoned chalice…
Science fiction is a small field, struggling to survive within the shadow cast by its history. There is also a very large elephant in the room of science fiction. (And I’m mixing metaphors, but never mind.) Past masters continue to provide topics within the genre conversation, despite no longer being relevant, of generally poor quality, and less available than in the past. Media sf is so popular the entire genre is believed to be the same as it – but science fiction is far from homogeneous. The sf works which receive general acclaim these days are ones that are not published as sf. Far from breaking down the walls of the ghetto, the tools of sf have leaked out but most of the readers and writers have refused to leave. This is not a healthy state of affairs.
There have been attempts in the past to re-engineer science fiction. While each ultimately failed, they did shift the genre in its course a little. Myself, I’d like to see science fiction stripped back to its roots and rebuilt for the twenty-first century, but that’s never going to happen. People are too happy with their tropes, no matter how old they are or how little sense they make in the current day.
I wrote the first two books of the Apollo Quartet as science fiction, and I set up Whippleshield Books as a science fiction small press. I consider myself a writer who writes in a sf mode. I use science fiction in my writing, I don’t actually write science fiction.
Perhaps the difference exists only in my head, but it’s enough for me.
EDIT: the review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains was also posted on Amazon.com with the heading “Artistic licence revoked!”. Hence, er, the title of this post… But I see now that’s he’s changed it… And reduced it to one-star. Yay, my first one-star review!
EDIT 2: “JL Dobias” has removed the “review” of Adrift on the Sea of Rains from his blog, so the link now points at some random blog post on “Gee Wiz” and “Wiz Bang” sf. The review on Amazon has also been removed, and the Goodreads review has been rewritten and now gives the book three stars rather than the original one. Dobias has thoroughly covered his tracks, so now only his comments here on my blog – all of which were from an email address belonging to a “Luci” – are all that remain of the whole farce. Given my dealings with Jerry/Luci, I suggest they’re best avoided.