Volume 33, Number 01, Fall, 2014

What Makes This Book So Great

By Jo Walton

Tor, 2014
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
October 2014

For the past six years, Jo Walton has been blogging at the Tor Website about books she’s read. While many are now collected into this book, these blog posts aren’t “reviews,” because they aren’t about new books, or about her first readings of books; rather, they’re about second or Nth readings of older books. They’re not “criticism” in the formal or scholarly sense. They could best be described as the reactions of a fan to the things she’s a fan of—but an exceptionally perceptive fan, and one who expresses those reactions with clarity and wit. I can’t think of any fannish commentary to equal this since James Blish (as “William Atheling, Jr.”) wrote the fanzine pieces that became The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand. Blish’s spirit was more “critical” in the popular sense of the word: Much of what he did was holding up various writers as examples of failed literary craft, sometimes at a very basic level. Walton’s essays, even when they point out faults, are celebratory in spirit.

This shows up very clearly, for example, in the two long series of essays embedded in this collection: One on all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayaran novels (except for the most recent two, written after a long hiatus) and one on all of Steven Brust’s Dragaeran novels. I’m not a wholehearted fan of Dragaera—only the Paarfi of Roundwood books strike me as really enjoyable—but I’ve read all the Barrayaran corpus, and I found something thought-provoking in every one of Walton’s essays on it. And writing about an entire series in this way is clearly the expression of fannish enthusiasm.

Walton clearly isn’t a libertarian, despite her 2008 Prometheus Award for Ha’Penny (a dystopian alternate historical police procedural). But her choice of authors to reread includes several who have won repeated Prometheus Awards: Robert Heinlein, Vernor Vinge, and Ken MacLeod. Walton acknowledges the libertarian ideas in their writing, without treating them as a barrier to appreciation; writing about MacLeod’s Fall Revolution books, for example, she say’s that “They’re a fully imagined future where the capitalist criticism of communism is entirely true, and so is the communist criticism of capitalism. They’re kind of libertarian (several of them won the Prometheus Award) and they’re grown up about politics in a way that most SF doesn’t even try.”

And then she goes on to point out that MacLeod’s The Sky Road is structurally similar to fantasy; in fact, she identifies all the elements that it shares with “The Ballad of Thomas Rhymer” or “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Or, in other essays, she points to the grim dystopian settings of Heinlein’s juveniles, or to the tragedy buried within Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, which can only be recognized by someone who’s read A Fire upon the Deep as well.

One of the very best pieces in this book, number 95, “SF reading protocols,” discusses the peculiar mental skills that are needed to make sense of actual science fiction or fantasy. (In particular, she points out that readers of literary fiction expect the dragons in fantasy, the zombies in horror, or the space travel in science fiction to be a metaphor for the novel’s real subject, rather that seeing that the envisioned reality of those things IS the novel’s real subject.) Reading Walton’s book was very much like having a long conversation with a newly met fellow fan—a highly intelligent and civilized one, but one whose enthusiasm for SF as such is never in doubt for a moment.

All trademarks and copyrights property of their owners.
Creative Commons License
Prometheus, the newsletter of the Libertarian Futurists Society, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.