Reviewing Science Fiction

A lot of what I read these days is Science Fiction (or fantasy,
but it’s really hard to tell the difference sometimes). And I
sometimes feel that what I write here about the books that I’ve
really enjoyed is a fairly lame, “If you like this kind of thing,
you will like this book.”

So yesterday when I read Christopher
Beha’s essay about the New York Times Book Review
(which does not link to what it’s
responding to, but it’s presumably something like this),
I was initially heartened, because one of the points of the essay
is that that’s pretty much all you can say about genre
fiction. Specifically, he says:

It is my strong belief that what Jennifer Weiner calls “commercial fiction” and what everyone else calls “genre fiction” is by and large not very interesting to talk about, although it often enough happens to be interesting to read. Such fiction, even when very well made, is designed to conform to the expectations of its genre or subgenre, and usually the best that can be said about any given example of it is that it does or does not succeed in conforming to those expectations.

But then I started thinking about it, and decided that there
really are people who can review SF better than I can, or at least
better than I do in my hurried, “Here’s my post for the day, and
it’s an easy one because I have to run and do other stuff in the
morning,” way.

The other day I downloaded my free copy of issue 300 of The New York Review of Science
(You should, too, if you’re interested in such
things.) One of the articles it promised me was a review of John
Scalzi’s Redshirts,
which I had dismissed in my post
about the Hugo awards
by saying:

I am disappointed with the result of the novel voting.
Redshirts won, and that was the only one I seriously considered
voting against. (You rank your choices rather than
voting for just one, and one of the choices is “no award”, so I
call it voting against if I rank something behind “no award”.) I
didn’t end up doing that to Redshirts, but I did
think the basic premise was puerile.

I was glad to see that the full-length review by Darrell Schweitzer in TNYRSF
basically agreed with me, but with much more cogent argument. The
summary is like this:

If you think of this as the literary equivalent of a Twinkie, it is a very good Twinkie. Admittedly, if it wins the Hugo, which it might well do by the time this review is published, advocates of science fiction may have a little explaining to do. There are better and more substantial books out there, books which address the future with speculative rigor and which are about genuinely important matters. And John Scalzi has already written some of them. Here he seems to be largely screwing around, but doing it, we have to admit, entertainingly.

Schweitzer was more entertained by Redshirts that
I was, but I think we basically agree on why it wasn’t the best
choice for a Hugo award, and also on why to not actively vote
against it.


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