How To Review Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 12, 2016

I’ve been reading science fiction for over fifty years—mainly for fun and entertainment—but also to speculate about reality in a way that science and philosophy do not. Now that I’ve written a book review for SF Signal, and working on another one, I’m wondering about how to approach book reviewing. I’m not interested in describing new books and then judging them by a rating scale. Any book I take the time to write about will be one I’m recommending. What fascinates me is why a book grabs me in the first place. After reading a couple thousand science fiction novels, I would think science fiction has nothing new to say to me, but it does.

No matter how many times an old idea is used in a new novel, some writers find new angles to examine. To be perfectly honest though, most writers don’t. Most new novels bought by publishers (as oppose to self-published novels) are pretty good at telling their story, and should find readers to admire them if they get the right promotion. What I look for is a book where the writer uses their story to express a philosophy about literature or science, or both.

How you tell a story conveys your philosophy about storytelling. If you bring attention to how the story is told, you’re making a statement, if you write solid prose that enchants the reader without drawing attention, you aren’t. The approach to science fiction takes two paths also. The first is to take a tried and true science fictional concept that readers love and work it into an appealing new story. The second, which is much harder, is to invent a new concept, or find a novel way to look at an old concept.

And Again by Jessica Chiarella

The novel I just finished, And Again by Jessica Chiarella, takes a standard literary device of telling four 1st person accounts in a round robin fashion. These people have new cloned bodies, which is her science fictional idea. Cloning is not a new concept. What Chiarella does new is make their stories very personal. There’s no plot. No heroes. The world doesn’t need saving. There’s no war between the normal folk and the clone folk. All Chiarella does is to ask: If you had a new body because you wore out your old one, how would it feel to start life over again. I found her four characters engaging, realistic and revealing. A novel worthy of recommending. But how do I review And Again to prove that it is interesting to would-be book buyers? Is my word good enough? I wouldn’t think so. What details could I offer as evidence? And would giving those details spoil the story?

I wrote a piece for SF Signal called “The Cutting Edge of Science Fiction” that was about how ideas are the cutting edge of science fiction. I believe there’s a period after science makes a discovery when science fiction writers can speculate about the possibilities of that discovery before further scientific research kills off or validates those ideas. I called that the cutting edge of science fiction. Unfortunately, the readers thought I meant the cutting edge of science fiction were specific books, and missed my idea. (By the way, the lesson I learned from this is don’t list books if they aren’t meant to be a best-of list. Because people ignore the narrative and see only the list, and think it’s a list of great books. My list had some stinker novels, but I was only listing them for their ideas though.)

Where I believe Chiarella was being an innovative science fiction writer (and I’m not sure her publisher is promoting her as such) is by her take on the clone story. Generally cloning is used in science fiction to explore the big ideas of serial immortality, brain downloading, new forms of humanity and rejuvenation. Clone stories often make for complicated SF murder mysteries or intricate mysteries of lost identities. Chiarella takes a rather mundane approach. It appears her characters had portions of their brain transplanted in a accelerated grown clone body. That side-stepped a bunch of philosophical issues. (Did the person die in the transfer, how can we download a mind, etc.)

This puts Chiarella in that zone I call the cutting edge—after the science of cloning, but before we know the limits of brain transplants. Until science proves that brains can’t be transplanted, it’s a viable science fictional concept. However, her setting is contemporary Chicago. Her characters’ stories are ordinary as New Yorker short stories. Other than how they got their new bodies, there’s no science fiction. So is the story science fiction? I think it is. How do I prove that in a review?

What I’d like to prove is my theory about science fiction. I think a story should be labeled science fiction if the storytelling is in the style of science fiction, or if it explores a science fictional idea. I don’t think And Again uses science fictional storytelling techniques, but I’m not sure how to prove that. It’s completely literary. However, her story is based on a science fictional concept.

I’m not sure if readers of SF Signal want to hear all of this in a book review. I often write long-winded pieces, that fairly often toss off comments that annoy people, like “Can Science Fiction Save Us?” Such extended wool-gathering bores the average site visitor hoping to discover a new book they want to read. Most review readers want something short, to the point, and convincing. Which makes me think I need to learn how to say what I have to say in many fewer words. But I’ve got to write more than, “Hey this book is great, read it.”

For my blog I can write anything I feel like. But now that I’m teaching myself how to review science fiction books I’ve been studying various websites and magazines, and have noticed that they each present a certain style in their reviews. Print magazines are confined by space. Web pages are scanned by hyper-readers in 20-second visits. I wish I had both the writing ability, and the scholarly knowledge to write book reviews like I read in The New York Review of Books. Their reviews are so educational that just reading a couple of columns overwhelms my brain with new knowledge.

I’m playing a game at SF Signal. For decades I’ve concentrated on classic science fiction. This year I’m trying to discover new novels that are published in 2016 that I think will be on reviewers “Best SF of 2016” lists in December. I think And Again has a chance, if SF reviewers consider it science fiction.

[This took 11 paragraphs. Could I have said it in 4?]

JWH

20 thoughts on “How To Review Science Fiction?”

      1. I like Rashomon-like narrative structures like this, even though you don’t indicate whether the narratives happen simultaneously, in which case I guess you could call them intermixed.

  1. I use the rating scale because some of my readers want to know which books I rate highly so they can go get them (or conversely – so they can avoid the low raters). But it’s a choice and I’m in a distinct minority.

    I enjoyed your review. I’d say just keep reading books and book reveiws and keep wriitng your own stuff. What do YOU want to see in the reviews you read? Do that. Also, whomever asked you to write the article and the reveiw apparently enjoyed what they’d already read by you. I’d let it be like that. You have a nicely flowing style – just don’t digress too much from the book when it’s a review? lol

    From my time with readers I”d say there is one rule about reviews -Avoid spoilers (nothing about the plot after about 1/3 to 1/2 way through).

    Good luck!

  2. don’t change your style to write book reviews.

    write them in YOUR style. if it takes you 11 paragraphs to write what someone else would write in 4, guess what? I want to read your 11 paragraphs. because that is your style. I’d rather you write to your own authentic voice than try to emulate someone else’s voice.

  3. If I may make a suggestion… I love your extended style of reviewing, and I think it would be even more interesting if you connect a book that you are reviewing to other books. Add you say, you have read a lot.probably more than most readers of your work. You could use that knowledge to place a book in a continuum of style and content of other books that are either similar or wildly different. It provides nice recommendations and may give a clearer idea of what a new book is like.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions and encouragement. It helps a lot. I’m a retired guy trying to teach himself essay writing for a new hobby. So I’m still trying to figure out how to build a good essay.

  4. Hi James

    I think your idea about discussing why a book grabs you in the first place is a great one whether that constitutes a review or more of an essay depending I guess on where you take it. I thought it was clear in your SF Signal piece that you were providing examples of the concept you were discussing via the list but maybe folding the titles into the text of the work might keep people from fixating on the list. You might be a victim of your own success in that you have created such great lists of SF through the decades in the past. I have been reading a lot of Michael Dirda’s work, he wrote for the Washington Post, and discussed a lot of genre literature, and he very much discusses why a book grabbed him, These are probably more short essays than reviews but they might be worth a look. Some people seem take every opportunity to misinterpret what they read so I hope you can ignore them. Obviously the folks at SF Signal like your work and I can honestly say I get more out of your pieces that I do out of a one paragraph review. Tor.com has two authors Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M Pillsworth doing a Lovecraft reread they read a number of his works commenting on the same story. Even if you are not a Lovecraft fan you might find the concept interesting because it would allow you to compare and contrast the different aspects of the stories that interest each author.

    Happy Reading
    Guy

    http://www.tor.com/features/series/the-lovecraft-reread/

  5. I like books that make me think, and I like reviews that make me think ‘oh that’s an interesting idea…are those really the implications – I must read that!’. But I don’t like to read long reviews – just enough to pique my interest. Like the book you reviewed – off to order it!

  6. I also wish I had the scholarly knowledge to include better literary analysis in my reviews. I read reviews that appear in magazines and newspapers but the sort of reviews I prefer are ones that appear on blogs. I like it when the reader states how the book makes them feel or how they reacted to the story as well as what the author did well and how the story provoked deeper consideration of certain topics. I also enjoy reading reviews that appear in literary magazines like the LA Review of Books though sometimes I spend a lot of time googling words as I read along.
    It’s true that succinctness rules these days. I guess you can mix it up a bit if SF Signal allows you to. You can get the point early on in the review and then expound on it later on since people tend to sometimes read the first couple paragraphs and then skim read the rest.

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