"Reviews today seem to fall into one of two camps," suggests Adam Roberts at the beginning of a sizeable introduction to Rave and Let Die, "gushing and unguarded praise on the one hand; scornful and dismissive dispraise on the other" (p. 9). After a wide-ranging and discursive summation of the current state of the SF and Fantasy genre, Roberts returns to the question of "establishing protocols for reviewing" and dismisses the opposites outlined above once more before concluding: "The middle line is the most effective, in terms of conveying the pros and cons of a given title" (p. 35). With other critics, we might acknowledge this as a boring but conventional nod to the principle of "balance" but, given that Roberts is notorious for mercilessly ridiculing what he perceives to be the flaws in the works he passes judgement on, this assertion seems a little peculiar. Indeed, I would go as far as to describe the statement as distinctly perverse given that it is situated at the beginning of a collection which includes a number of irreverent put-downs ranging in length from a painfully funny eight-page dissection of Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction, through short bursts of comic verse (at the expense of the likes of Gareth Powell's Hive Monkey and Marcus Sedgwick's A Love Like Blood), then on to one-sentence dismissals (of Diana Gabaldon's Written in My Own Heart's Blood) and, even, the one-word assessment of Interstellar as "Interminablestellar" (p. 128).
I'm sure few would quibble with the first and last of these examples in particular—both of which are squarely punching up at Hollywood excess—but none of them can be classified as balanced reviews. Therefore, contra Roberts, I would suggest a different binary classification of reviews—between those that we read because we want to find out whether a book is worth reading, and those that we read because we have already read the book and now we want to participate in a critical or otherwise engaging discussion about it. With some exceptions—Rave and Let Die did convince me that I need to read James Smythe's The Echo and its precursor, The Explorer—Roberts is predominantly a writer of the second of these two types of review.
In contrast, James Lovegrove, as evidenced by the examples collected in his Lifelines and Deadlines, writes the first of these types very well indeed. Lovegrove's reviews, examples of which fill up the first hundred or so pages of his collection, chart his progression from the back pages of Interzone in the 1990s to his current position (since 2007) as a reviewer of speculative fiction for the Financial Times. As he points out in his brief introduction, such "consistent paid work . . . is a godsend" (p. 9) for a professional author trying to make ends meet between advances and royalties. To some extent, Lifelines and Deadlines might be read as an exemplary study of how to pursue such a supplementary journalistic career. The later reviews certainly provide sound models of how to produce a well-turned piece of analysis that will be useful to the reader. Thanks to Lovegrove, I now have some more entries for my TBR list, such as Jake Arnott's The House of Rumour and G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen. I also feel that I now know enough about the first two volumes of Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy that I don't have to read them. Furthermore, the inclusion of what Lovegrove himself describes as a "vituperative vivisection" of Stel Pavlou's Gene—a review so caustic that the resultant objections by Pavlou, and their associated consequences, effectively led to the demise of the Alien Online website in which it appeared—serves as the exception demonstrating the rule that straightforward reviews, which balance description with an account of the merits and faults of the work, are more effective as journalism.
That said, the analysis of Gene is as funny as anything written by Roberts and certainly the most entertaining of the reviews which Lovegrove reproduces here. This raises the question of how reviewers should deal with the competing demands of fairness and entertainment, which is another binary opposition identified by Roberts in Rave and Let Die. However, before turning to consider Roberts, I want to highlight the fact that aside from his reviews, Lovegrove's collection also includes some very fine essays on fiction, comics, and other topics.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these essays is not directly related to genre at all but is a reflective piece looking back at Lovegrove's appearance as a new schoolboy at Radley in the 1980 BBC documentary series, Public School. The piece was published to coincide with the 2013 broadcast of a follow-up documentary, A Very English Education. One of the questions highlighted by the whole process was "How had a writer of SF emerged from an environment where genre fiction of any sort was frowned on as 'trash'?" (p. 202). In Lovegrove's case, this seems to have been due to employing his personal time in drawing satirical comics—and avidly reading works by Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, and Stephen King. In practice, though, his relationship to genre fiction and comics in particular is more complicated than this suggests—as evidenced by two other pieces, a foreword to Witches' Tales vol. #4 and the essay "Four-Colour Freaks," which both testify to the fact that he had already become devoted to comics before being packed off to boarding school. As he notes, because of the British middle-class disdain for popular culture, which was still very much a feature of the 1970s and 1980s, "I had to leave the comics at home, lest they be discovered and torn up by some well-intentioned teacher bent on keeping my mind an unsullied haven of learning" (p. 230). The result is that comics became a secret vice and, while nowadays grown adults are allowed to admit to such predilections publicly, past habits of "passing as normal" (p. 230) die hard. It is precisely where Lovegrove's professional, journalistic persona cracks a little, and his passion for comics emerges, that Lifelines and Deadlines comes fully alive.
Lovegrove discusses Roberts at several points in his collection, but perhaps the most significant of these is a reference to the latter's characterisation of SF as a genre "fascinated by the encounter with difference" (p. 142) at the beginning of a 2007 essay discussing Geoff Ryman's Air, Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel, Richard Morgan's Black Man, and Ian McDonald's Brasyl. Lovegrove reads these texts as an indication that SF, which is "written predominantly by white Western males" (p. 143), is starting to turn away from a preoccupation with using space settings to examine the world as it is and instead focusing on the "others" around "us"—those with "a different language, skin colour, set of cultural signifiers, even gender" (p. 143). As it happens, I read these novels in much the same way at much the same time. Like both Lovegrove and Roberts, I was also born in 1965 and share the common experiences and cultural assumptions of growing up in the 1970s. Although I had previously read and very much enjoyed the feminist SF of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, and Ursula Le Guin, it was from an empathic perspective which nevertheless viewed their otherness as other to me. However, the texts discussed in Lovegrove's essay helped dissolve the isolation of the white male subject for me precisely because I could not easily convince myself in the same way of the authors' otherness to me. I would argue that these novels, in conjunction with contemporary fiction by women writers such as Gwyneth Jones, Tricia Sullivan, and Justina Robson, marked the maturing at that time of a shift in consciousness in British SF beyond a default white male subjectivity. In this respect, one of the advantages of a retrospective nonfiction collection such as Lifelines and Deadlines is the opportunity it affords for critically reflecting on periods that are simultaneously too far past to be current but too recent to be covered by an historical survey.
Roberts's Rave and Let Die, however, is not a retrospective collection but a snapshot of "The SF & Fantasy of 2014," which gives us some indication of how far SF's "encounter with difference" has developed since 2007—and what has come to be at stake as a consequence of that development. Indeed, as Roberts makes abundantly evident in his introduction, he is writing both within and, to some extent, against a context of ideological and aesthetic polarisation, expressed in its darkest form by the twin shadows of Gamergate and Puppygate, falling "like a blight across the sunlit uplands of fandom in 2014" (p. 20). His distinction between "rave" and "dismissive" reviews is made in relation to this context:
When I rave about a well-written literary SF novel about queer aliens rewiring our human experiences, it is because I have good reason for my enthusiasm. When you rave about a cookie-cutter Space Marines techno-adventure it is because you are raving mad. (pp. 9-10)
At one level, Roberts's tongue is slightly in cheek here and, presumably in the interests of fairness, his next two sentences reverse the polarity of madness and reason to acknowledge that hard SF aficionados might have science-based reasons to support some of their predilections. However, it is not clear to me that the division in reviewing he identifies maps on to the apparent division between hard and military SF on the one hand and literary SF on the other. As he notes himself, the 2013 and 2014 Hugo winners, John Scalzi's Redshirts and Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, would seem to be offering the entertainment and adventure that the Puppies argue is being neglected at the expense of the sort of literary merit these same novels boast by the cunning expedient of including all of these qualities in one package. In general, neither hard nor military SF preclude exploring encounters with difference: one only has to think of how Gene Roddenberry drew on the influence of C. S. Forester's British Navy series of Hornblower books when devising Star Trek to see that military SF might actually be particularly suited for this purpose.
Elsewhere in his introduction, Roberts argues that the dichotomy within reviewing is a product of the fact that:
different kinds of books are written for different sorts of audience, and that I—a middle-aged, balding man—am not being specifically addressed by many of the YA, girl-focussed titles published in 2014. I could, perhaps, have done more to uncover my inner 14-year old girl, but this was a task for which I simply didn't have the energy. (p. 35)
This flirts outrageously with collapsing the argument back to a position of privileging the perspective of the white male literary critic, especially as Roberts makes it clear that he is not prepared to cede too much ground on the objectivity of his criterion of judgement: "value statements are not inevitably subjective" (p. 35). Elsewhere, he pronounces that Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy is "one of the few titles reviewed in this book assured, I'd say, classic status" (p. 20). The problem here is not the praise for VanderMeer's beguiling and disturbingly brilliant work but the location of the critical authority that feels justified in assigning "classic" status. I don't think it is coincidental that in his detailed and insightful review of the Southern Reach trilogy, which is one of the highpoints of Rave and Let Die, Roberts suggests that it is the middle volume, Authority, which "worked [least] well" (p. 249). For the authority brought into question in Authority is male, the collapse of which is, according to its own inherent logical contradictions, the necessary precursor for the acceptance of difference in the third volume, Acceptance (do you see what VanderMeer is doing with his titles here?). What we find across Rave and Let Die and especially in its introduction is the confusion that follows from an exceptionally perceptive critic—and Roberts is capable of flights of analytical genius—writing about difference while still betraying a residual nostalgia for a privileged critical authority.
This confusion manifests itself in various ways. For example, Roberts's review of Emmi Itäranta's Memory of Water faults it on the grounds of hard science—of all things!—by arguing that the possibility of desalination would prevent the military establishing the total control over water distribution that forms the novel's background. (By use of "a couple of glass bowls and a transparent plastic sheet in the sunlight" (p. 130) people might be able to meet subsistence needs, of course; but it would hardly produce enough water to support the relatively complex society depicted in the novel.) Despite this, in his introduction, Memory of Water is included in Roberts's fairly select list of the "best genre novels of the year" (p. 20). This discrepancy is partly due to the fact that a lot of the reviews in Rave and Let Die are not really reviews at all but off-the-cuff responses intended initially as entertaining blog posts. Many, such as the comic verses and one-line put-downs, are very funny. Inevitably, however, Roberts occasionally misses the mark. The review of Laline Paull's The Bees, for example, is half taken up with a transcription from the 1970s sitcom, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, which pokes fun at Richard Adams's Watership Down. The extract is hilarious for anybody who grew up with that series, and I can see how it would require an act of superhuman forbearance not to quote it once it had come to mind, but the fact remains that Watership Down had reached a level of cultural iconicity that made it fair game whereas to apply the same ridicule to The Bees is simply unfair.
There is something discordant, too, about the proximity of Roberts's contention that "whatever else reviews are 'for,' they ought to be entertaining" (p. 14) to his discussion of why he doesn't particularly value entertainment as a criterion of a book's worth. One of the least entertaining reviews in his collection, of J. R. R. Tolkien's Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, is one of the most incisive in critical terms. Roberts is, amongst his many other distinctions, a significant Tolkien scholar and his 2013 study, The Riddles of the Hobbit, is a model for how good an accessible academic book can be. In some ways, of course, it is the contradiction between being a top-level academic and an entertainer that can make Roberts such an interesting and unpredictable critic to read. Often, as in the introduction, you never quite know whether the next sentence is going to be an awful pun or a transcendent insight. However, the flipside of this is the occasional adoption of bizarre positions such as the contention that the Hugos are not worth fighting over: "The Puppies set out to destroy the Hugos. Let them" (p. 17). Since this was written—the introduction is dated June 2015—the actual 2015 Hugo Awards proved to be a fairly unanimous rejection of the Puppies' slates, thus rendering the debate moot. But, even so, Roberts's position is a strange abdication of political struggle that only makes sense if one conceives of some sort of objective critical standard operating independently through other awards that better deserve "the esteem of the community as a whole" (p. 17). Given that, quite rightly in my opinion, the values that Roberts does unequivocally uphold are the "social and cultural advantages of diversity" (p. 20), how better to support these than by diverse communities coming together politically to demonstrate the value they represent by winning the contest over the Hugos? One either has faith in the argument or one doesn't.
In his short piece on the 2014 Man Booker Prize, Roberts describes the winner, Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North, as "actively bad" (p. 159) before going on to conclude "literary fiction is in serious trouble" (p. 161). This is a good thing in the long run, though, because what it demonstrates is the collapse of the white male subject position which has anchored traditional, universal critical judgements. Now that everything is contested, only a consensus encompassing diverse communities can form the basis for an agreement on value. The role of critics is to aid this process by providing interpretations and pointing to various possible wider significances. In such a context, the game-winning sacrifice would not be to concede the Hugos to the Puppies, but rather to abandon the notion of objective critical value itself. The future of twenty-first-century criticism and reviewing lies in opening up a wide range of plural positions. In this respect, Rave and Let Die is an advance on the more conventional essays and reviews comprising Roberts's previous collection, Sibilant Fricative. Its shortcomings are more than outweighed by the sheer breadth of its range and the acknowledgment that readers' "mileage may vary" (p. 35). Clearly, Rave and Let Die will become a future reference point for any consideration of 2014 and Roberts, who has been known to ponder the worthwhileness of his own reviewing, might want to consider repeating the exercise. As once his annual review of the Clarke Award shortlist was an eagerly anticipated pleasure, how much more anticipated would be an annual book-length snapshot of the year's SF and Fantasy? Failing that, let us at least hope that NewCon Press continue to publish such excellently thought-provoking non-fiction collections as the two reviewed here.
Nick Hubble divides their time between Aberystwyth and Uxbridge.
You must log in to post a comment.