02 June 2004

A View from the Fallout Shelter

It may be hard to believe, but Trent Walters's evisceration of my comments on The Light Ages and its reviews was exactly the sort of response I hoped to elicit.

Well, not exactly. I hoped I wouldn't come across as quite so obtuse as I seem to have, but so it goes. I tried to clarify some of what I'd said in the comments after Trent's post.

I knew what I had to say would cause people to focus a lot on my criticisms of the book itself, but I hoped very much that people would also give some thought to how SF books are reviewed, and Trent does so. That, for me, is the real issue, and a more important one than any one particular book. It's time we held the most serious books within the field up to the standards that the most serious mainstream fiction writers are held to. If writers just want to write for the fans, that's fine, but if they want to be taken seriously as writers of literature then they need to be held to the same standards of quality that we would any other writer with such ambitions.

As I thought about how The Light Ages was received by reviewers, I thought about some of what I've written about various books and stories here, wondering if, on a return reading, I would find my own comments hyperbolic. Can I criticize The Light Ages while writing glowingly of, for instance, The Etched City, a first novel that is not without its own flaws? With regard to that book, I do feel justified, in that The Etched City was enthralling and impressive despite its flaws, The Light Ages less so because of its flaws. The Etched City is a book I felt enough passion for that I wanted to share that passion, and so risked hyperbole, and that seems a different thing than what Paul Di Filippo's review of The Light Ages did, particularly since Di Filippo writes numerous reviews and seldom has anything negative to say about anybody. That probably makes him popular at parties, but it doesn't do any good for the field of speculative fiction, because Di Filippo is immensely well read in and out of the field, and could, if he desired, apply standards that helped readers (and, perhaps, writers) strengthen their own.

Trent has repeatedly pleaded with me to write less generally when I write about books and stories here, and I will try to do so, but I'm not optimistic. I'm still working out the purpose of this weblog, figuring out how to keep the inherent strengths of a blog while minimizing the many weaknesses of the form. The biggest problem is that the writing I do here is mostly off-the-cuff, seat-of-the-pants, completely first-draft writing. I would love to be able to do what Dan Green does with The Reading Experience, but I'm not capable of writing that well on a first try. Hence, I've settled for the informal, the generalized, the fragmentary at the expense of close analysis, air-tight arguments, and refined prose. I probably shouldn't even try to write at any length about books and stories here at all, but even at my most general and frustrating, I hope I offer something more than the many "thumbs up/thumbs down" reviews so common within the SF world.

In any case, I've gotten some opportunities to try to distill my thoughts in longer forms, so you'll be seeing some actual non-blog essays about SF from me in the future, as well as, I expect, some real reviews. The Internet Review of SF just accepted an essay that has, I'm guessing, at least one statement to annoy everyone who reads it, and the entire piece is so general that Trent will scream at me for weeks.

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