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Chance asked:

Have you ever examined how you stack up with regards to parity on people reviewed and people doing the reviewing?

The second "you" refers to [ profile] sh_reviews. Several people said I should bump my answer up to a separate post, so here it is:

"As of tomorrow [now today], in 2007 Strange Horizons will have published 148 reviews (of 144 different things, due to "two views" pieces and other overlap) by 53 reviewers. Of the reviewers, 29 (55%) are men and 24 (45%) are women. That's where the good news ends. The 29 men account for 92 (62%) of the reviews, while the 24 women account for 54 (38%) of the reviews. Worse, of the 130 reviews of books (88% of all reviews), 93 (72%) are books by men and 37 (28%) are books by women.

I can tell you that this last figure roughly reflects the proportions of books we receive. At the moment, in on my list of books-we-have-that-I-would-in-principle-like-to-get-reviewed-sometime, there are 26 books; 6 (23%) are by women and 20 (77%) are by men. I haven't tried to count to see how this reflects sf publishing in general, though I'd love to know. I also haven't counted to see how SH compares to other reviews venues."

[ profile] jamiam said:

Maybe you could get someone who prefers reading women/authors of color/what-have-you to occasionally shoot you a list of the stuff they'd like to see reviewed? And use that to supplement your own list?

All recommendations are always welcomed. (Several people do, in fact, already send me recommendations, although not on a formal/scheduled basis.) I try to chase up pretty much every book by a woman or author of colour on any given Locus list of forthcoming books; I note that the current list is about 22% such books (38 of 173 -- this is a quick count, so I would expect to be out by a few), and that I've already commissioned (or published) reviews of about a third of them. I also note that I've commissioned about half a dozen reviews of relevant books not on the Locus list, and that these tend to be YA books or books from non-genre publishers.

I would be particularly glad to receive suggestions of authors for "feature weeks", where we publish several reviews of books by the same writer; previous author-focused feature weeks have been for John Crowley, Justina Robson, and James Tiptree Jr. (Not that I'm short of ideas, of course ...) The major criterion is that the author should have a new book coming out on which to hang the week. Preferably their other books should be in print, so that I can get them for reviewers -- although Aegypt isn't all in print, so that's not a fixed rule.

Any other questions?
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Adam Roberts' feature review of the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist is up at Infinity Plus. I think [ profile] immortalradical might enjoy this one:
Can the novel still be novel, in this age of ours? There are times when, traipsing through the marshlands of silver-age fiction and derivative slush that constitutes the mainstream novel in the early twenty-first century, a reader might be forgiven for despairing. But surely SF isn't like this. Surely Science Fiction, of all genres, is one place where not only intellectual but formal newness would be welcomed? A literature of ideas, an imaginative entry into alien-ness and unfamiliarity, a canvas that apprehends the entire continuity of space and time rather than just the emotionally fraught goings-on of middle-class people in multicultural London or Chicago -- surely we can hope, surely expect, to encounter newness in SF?

I'm being heavy-handed. Of course we all know how much of the SF backlist is worryingly conventional, unadventurous: written in functional grey prose (or worse, in Thoggish cliché); structured according to a frankly 19th-century model of set-up, linear or interleaved plotline development and climax; populated by cookie-cut 'characters' that barely deserve the name, feeble types from Joseph Campbell's cardboard supply. If a novel doesn't make new in some sense, what good is it? Why read a third-generation retread of a classic original when you can, you know, just read the original?

This year's Clarke shortlist is a good list, not least in the sense that no obviously standout SF title published in the UK in 2005 has been omitted (with the possible exceptions of Justina Robson's challenging but brilliant Living Next Door To The God Of Love and James Lovegrove's witty Provender Gleed). But I find myself wondering: how many of them are doing anything conceptually, formally, tonally new? That, in Hamlet's once-new, now hackneyed words, is the question.
All that and a rant about cats, too.
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A Christian Perspective on Fantasy and Science Fiction:
The Time Machine by HG Wells
Morality: C-
Writing: B

As an adventure story the book is all right, I suppose, although certainly nothing impressive, especially compared to the complexity of much modern sci-fi. The thinly-veiled social commentary, besides seeming slightly dated, annoyed me quite a bit. But my main problem morally was the book's whole outlook on the world -- it assumes not only evolution, but evolution unguided by any purpose, and humans as a fading race, fading beyond recognition in this future era after the glorious apex of their civilization. Christianity holds that humanity has both a purpose and an inherent dignity. This book lacks substantial hope. It's probably too short and straightforward to be harmful, but in its worldview, it's not uplifting. And it's not that well-written, either -- adequate, certainly, but not impressive.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, Jr
Morality: A
Writing: A+

As you have probably already guessed, this is not only a well-written book but a profoundly religious one. It is drenched in Catholicism and will therefore probably have more meaning (and humor) for Catholics, but I think that Christians of all stripes will appreciate its message of sin and hope. Read it, and then sit on your friends until they read it too.

Tales From The White Hart by Arthur C Clarke
Morality: B
Writing: B

There's not a whole lot of moral content to this book one way or the other.
via Justine Larbalastier, whose own book got a B for morality, and who makes the perfectly fair point that this a much healthier approach than trying to actually ban Harry Potter. Happily for the rest of us, it's also much funnier.
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Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham's latest novel, is another one of those mainstream-writers-does-sf books. Not dissimilar in structure to Cloud Atlas, it's made of three stories: one set in 1850, one in the present or very near future, and one in about 2150. The same three characters--or at least the same three souls--crop up in each: Catherine, a woman; Lucas, a boy; and Simon, a man. Each takes a turn as the viewpoint. And as with his previous novel, The Hours, a Literary Figure--Walt Whitman, this time--links the three stories.

There was an interesting and, I think, perceptive review by Michel Faber in the Guardian earlier this month:
Is Specimen Days a novel, or three novellas loosely threaded together? This is just one of the many genre disputes in which this book can become ensnared. The opening story tackles historical fiction, the second takes on the detective thriller genre, the third is science fiction. To many critics in Cunningham's native America, this represents a three-stage journey from the sublime to the ridiculous. "Science fiction will never be Literature with a capital L," the New York Times has loftily declared (apropos of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake), and Specimen Days is encountering similar flak.


Granted, Specimen Days declines in quality as it goes along. "In the Machine" is a pitch-perfect fusion of gothic melodrama, psychological realism and the mysterious spark that enlivens unforced visions. "The Children's Crusade" builds to a potent ending, but its marriage of profound compassion and cop-show clichés is unstable. "Like Beauty" handles Catareen's alienness with marvellous empathy but is bogged down by the usual demerits of mainstream science fiction: creaky expository monologues about how the future came to be, cringe-making references to people taking a "dermaslough" or hydraulicking their pods, and worship of concepts at the expense of narrative credibility. The wisecracking Luke seems derived from a Hollywood buddy movie, reciting impossibly adult repartee, and the somewhat kitsch finale fails to do justice to the book's overarching ambition.

And yet, while reading "Like Beauty" I was conscious that, had I read it in a sci-fi anthology when I was 15, I would have been awestruck by it, moved beyond tears, changed for ever. Today, I'm sufficiently sophisticated to notice the author wrestling with his material, struggling to beat it into a shape that looks natural, straining to make its hokeyness transcendent. If the aim of reading good books is to be transported, it would be better if we never developed this jaundiced analytical eye, but sadly we do. And perhaps the fiction Cunningham is attempting here is pitched at a reader who doesn't exist: an adolescent who can leap straight from Star Wars to Henry James, or an adult steeped in Woolf and Whitman who nevertheless retains a childlike capacity to be moved by X-Men 2.
It's particularly interesting to compare this review to Paul Witcover's review for SF Weekly, which declares that the book 'builds to a conclusion of mythic proportions, deeply poignant, mysterious, full of hope and longing amid devastation and despair, like Whitman's poetry, like America itself.' How unusual to see the newspaper reviewer criticising 'the usual demerits of mainstream science fiction' while the sf-mag reviewer hails the book as 'a masterpiece'.

Personally, I agree more with Faber than with Witcover--I think the sf is frankly shoddy, and I don't know that even 15-year-old-me would have enjoyed it much--but I'd probably go even further. Faber notes that Cunningham's characters are 'grieved by life's unaccountable refusal to measure up to ideals'; what stuck in my craw about the book was that it seemed to be suggesting that the failure of world is not unaccountable. Rather, that it is industrialisation and progress that have poisoned the well, and that the solution should be, in some unspecified fashion, to go back. Given that, and the fact that the central novella, 'The Children's Crusade', makes so much of terrorism as a symptom of our dystopian present, there is a temptation to read the book as a simplistic overreaction to 9/11. That may be unkind to Cunningham, however. Mostly, I just found it bizarre--and disappointing, because the first two stories are well worth reading.

There's also an interview with Cunningham here. Interesting quote:
"The more I write, the more I also feel that in this vast and dangerous world, one story just isn't enough the way it was for Austen or Eliot. So in my last two books I've told three stories; in the next there'll be even more". It keeps multiplying? "It does. I think I'll have to keep going until every sentence is a different story and then I'll have to stop," he laughs.
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The Guardian Guide reviews Primer:
If the term science fiction didn't conjure images of overblown special effects and alien make-up, it would be the perfect description for this: a gripping, low-budget thriller with lots of science. The premise is nothing new (two guys invent a time machine) but this feels like a film that doesn't know anyone's watching it. The performances are casual, the drama unforced and the exposition minimal. The latter makes things mighty confusing - you could well have to watch it twice, or take notes.
Much better is Peter Bradshaw's full review:
Primer really does spread a radioactive creepiness around its subject, simply by treating it as an everyday conspiracy thriller, and this radioactivity pours relentlessly from the screen. Like its characters, this film is very, very ambitious and rather mad. Yet how much more interesting than the usual low-IQ product elsewhere. It's an exhilarating, disturbing and funny experience.
It is showing at a limited number of cinemas in London. You should see it if you can.


Mar. 8th, 2005 08:02 am
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The eternal debate about reviewing, and particularly about reviewing in a field as small as sf, has been rolling around again. Cheryl Morgan links to many of the posts here, and Gwenda Bond has other thoughts here. They say many sensible things between them, not the least of which is pointing out that on the internet, everyone can hear you, or at least find you through a quick egosurf, and that this has the potential to create Awkwardness. Even if you're being nice! I know I haven't got used to it; every so often I'll write something complimentary about a story and then get an email from the author thanking me for it, and I never quite know what to say in reply. 'You're welcome' always seems a bit cursory, but anything more always seems just a little presumptuous (yes, yes, I know, Authors Are Just People Too. Even so).

But mostly I just try to be fair in what I write, and figure that as long as I explain my reasons for not liking something nobody will get too upset. I'm well aware, however, that I'm a very small fish, and that most of my stuff (notwithstanding what I said above) is going to go unremarked by the wider blogosphere, so I don't feel much pressure to moderate my comments in the way that some others might. If I don't like something, I feel free to say so. Some people are more constrained, obviously--although let's face it, the majority of reviews aren't going to impact sales dramatically, if at all. Causing personal insult is a bigger risk. This takes me back to where I came in and to, conveniently enough, a case study from The Alien Online.

Ariel, the guy who runs TAO, made a long blog post last night about why he writes reviews. As I was reading it, I found myself nodding along to most of his reasons: yes, it makes me feel productive, and occasionally useful, and like I'm part of some ongoing dialogue; it gets me free books, and sometimes maybe accrue or hand out some whuffie. It's not as big a commitment for me as it is for him, of course, and I haven't been doing it nearly as long, but I still recognised a lot of what he talks about. And then this, about having moments of doubt:
One such moment of doubt occurred yesterday, when I posted a review of a book written by a friend of mine - a regular reviewer for TAO, and a published writer to boot - which literally destroyed the work of another writer. I won't mention names, because I'm not a great one for the rubbing in of salt, but it should be fairly obvious which review I'm talking about from the tag-line currently on the homepage.
I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the review he's talking about is this one, written by James Lovegrove, of Gene by Stel Pavlou. The summary is 'A novel so awful it has James Lovegrove questioning the state of his soul and his place on the wheel of death and rebirth.' A sample:
I must have committed some heinous misdeed in a previous life, because in this life my karmic punishment has been to have to read Stel Pavlou's Gene.

Let me be up-front. This is a terrible book. It's not even terrible in a fun way. It's not enjoyable, well-executed hokum, for which I'm as much a sucker as the next person. It's just crap. From start to finish – pure, unmitigated, unadulterated crap.

It is also the worst-written novel I think I have ever come across. The prose is so atrocious that, while reading, by p50 I wanted to tear my own eyes out and by p100 I was seriously entertaining thoughts of suicide.
This sort of thing is fun to read, in a vicious sort of way (and I think Lovegrove was having some fun, too; he says at one point 'I could get all Adam Roberts here and try to justify the badness of Pavlou's prose as being some wry postmodern exercise...'), but the most important thing, to my mind, is that he goes on to back up his criticism with evidence. He picks apart some individual sentences, and tries to pin down what it is that doesn't work about the plotting. It is, as Ariel suggests (assuming this is the review he's talking about, of course!) a piece that destroys the book it focuses on, but it doesn't seem to be a piece that is lazy or unjustified.

Perhaps not surprisingly, though, Mr Pavlou was not impressed. Back to Ariel:
I received an email yesterday evening from the author of the novel under review, which started with a rather strained effort at sarcastic dismissal ('LOL's and all) but then disintegrated into a much more honest expression of said author's obvious hurt and outrage, in which he suggested that the reviewer should, and I quote: "Eat shit and die you sad lamentable little fuck."
Charming, I'm sure you'll agree, and it's entirely understandable that it's given Ariel pause. He goes on to say:
So what's the answer? Stop publishing negative reviews? Stop publishing really negative reviews (which means publishing negative reviews but asking the reviewer to modify their position to attempt to avoid hurting the author's feelings as much as possible in the process - I've done this in the past, and recently, too)? Or publish and be damned... quite possibly repeatedly, and in public (reviewers also get reviewed from time to time, and we, too, tend to work in a creative vacuum, opening ourselves to the slings and arrows of the opinion of others in the process... we just tend not to get paid for it).

Or, I could always just... stop. Stop publishing TAO.
This worried me. To my mind, from the list of options there the only acceptable option is 'publish and be damned'. Excercise editorial control, certainly; make sure a review is fair, and not a baseless screed. But honest, critical reviews are too precious for guys like Ariel, and sites like TAO, to stop. Thankfully, he says later that he won't, at least for now. I hope he keeps going a lot longer than just 'for now'.

(And I'm not saying that just because he once gave me space to respond to a review I thought unfair. In his comments on the whole reviewing dilemma, Jeff Vandermeer also praises a TAO review of his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? even though it was a negative review. I think it's clear the site is doing something right.)

[EDIT: Other posts on this subject here, here, here and here. In addition, Ariel has posted further thoughts here.]

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