On Reviewing Science Fiction
Since I’ve been reviewing books for some time, I think it’s long overdue that I let people know (1) exactly what criteria are used to get a book’s rating, and (2) what are my likes and dislikes that will affect my enjoyment of a book. I think something like that is necessary to put a reviewer’s opinion in perspective for the reader. It helps them figure out how much weight they should attach to that reviewer based on their own likes and dislikes and it gives an explanation as to why a book might succeed or fail.
I could go on forever talking about reviewing so I thought that I’d try to reel myself in (and make this an easier read) if I used a FAQ-like format.
Who are you?
I’m just a science fiction fan who knows what he likes and is not afraid to say what he doesn’t like. I don’t sugar-coat reviews. What’s the point? This is not a paying gig and I answer to no one. (The wife might disagree with that part, but there, I said it anyway. I should be safe, though. In an odd twist of opposites-attract, she doesn’t read the blog.)
What qualifications do you have to review science fiction?
You mean besides being able to read and write? None, thank you. See above question.
Why do you review science fiction?
Mainly, it serves as a reminder of what I’ve read and my general impressions of the material. This comes in particularly handy with short stories where I am most likely to wonder what the premise of a short story was, or conversely, wonder “What short story has such-and-such a premise?” It also helps me remember what I did not like about a book.
Why bother posting your science fiction reviews? Why not keep them to yourself?
[This answer is blatantly stolen from Ariel at The Alien Online, whose introspections pushed me to get off my duff and do my own.] A review informs other readers with similar tastes about books they may or may not like. While this is seemingly altruistic, I would be lying to myself if I did not admit that there is some small chunk of vanity associated with “publishing” my very own words and having others read what I write. To quote Ariel: “…any reviewer who tells you different is trying to fool themselves.”
Are there any other reasons you review science fiction?
Sure. There are unintentional side-effects of reviewing. A review of a book is a promotion of sorts; it gets the word out and makes science fiction more visible which I hope will drive up sales and keep writers in business. One might argue that a bad review will have the opposite effect. But I’d like to think that a bad review, especially one that doesn’t ring true with other readers, will at least spur some conversation. Case in point: My review of The Godwhale by T.J. Bass.
What kinds of reviews are there?
As I see it, there are two kinds of reviews.
The first kind of review is usually a deeply philosophical and intellectual pondering on the symbolism of this plot element or a literary examination of the merits of that character’s motive, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, that’s not what I do. I’m neither a literary scholar, nor a journalist, nor an aspiring writer, nor a paid reviewer. No such in-depth review would suit my reasons for reviewing in the first place.
The second kind of review is the often-formulaic format of synopsis/impression. This is what I do. I summarize the plot (jogs the old memory) and my impressions (more jogging!) and, hopefully convey to other readers a sense of whether they will like a book. (More on review format later.) That’s not to say that no level of thought is exerted in writing a review. On the contrary, writing down my impression forces me to think about the specifics of a book’s appeal or lack thereof.
What do your star-ratings mean?
Reading experience couldn’t be better! Worth reading again. Highly recommended.
Excellent read; some minor flaws/annoyances
A good read; an enjoyable way to pass the time.
A mediocre read; not missing anything by passing it up.
A horrible read; super-boring and/or made little sense.
I could not finish this book.
Why isn’t this a linear scale?
The rating scale is predicated on the belief that there are more ways for something to be good than there are ways for it to be bad. There are good books, there are very good books, and there are books that are outstanding. On the other hand, bad books come in one flavor: bad. Mediocre rating apply to books (and stories) that I don’t feel comfortable saying are good or bad; the experience lies somewhere in between.
Are these the only ratings you use?
No. Sometimes a book will feel like it falls in-between these absolutes, so I use half-star increments of the above for more granularity.
How can you give a book zero stars?
I use a zero-star rating to indicate books that I could not finish.
You actually review books you didn’t finish?
Yep. There’s a reason I didn’t finish it and that’s useful information. If you’d rather put label other than “review” on the opinion piece, then by all means feel free to do so.
Why are most of your reviews favorably rated?
There are a couple of reasons why this might be the case:
- Professionally published books have gone through an editing process where (hopefully) only the best get published. Things being what they are, this is not always the case, but I believe it holds true for a large majority of professionally published work.
- I am not choosing books to read at random. I am choosing to read books that suit my tastes, preferences and mood. I pick books that look appealing to me. Why on Earth would I waste time reading books that don’t? If such a book is favorably rated, all it means is that I’m a good judge of what I like. If a book is not unfavorably rated, I made a bad call.
What, exactly, are you reviewing?
In a nutshell, I am reviewing the reading experience. I am not reviewing the book, per se, for reasons I will make clear later. By reviewing the reading experience I am reviewing the book, my impression, the immersion factor, and most importantly, the overall entertainment value of the experience.
Why? Let me use some examples. Light, by M. John Harrison, is considered to be a literary masterpiece. Ok, I’ll buy that. However, I read it through a series of forced late-night (later than normal) reading sessions where I had to Clockwork Orange my eyes open. If the material was good, it was lost on me. It is useful for me to note that rather than live with the lingering memory that it was just not a great reading experience. On the other hand, the Perry Rhodan series of books (or the Star Wars movies for that matter) are generally considered to be pulp trash. That may be true. But that does not make them any less fun to read (or watch). Should I slam the book because it is not a prime example of good writing? I say No! If it offers a good entertainment then it has served its purpose.
Wait a minute – are you saying that your book reviews don’t actually judge the book on its own merits?
I’m saying that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for someone to not be affected by external factors. I’ll use another example to illustrate this. The first time I read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (in my late 20’s) I hated it. It just seemed boring to me at the time. Also, the Victorian writing put me off some. About two years later, after reading and liking some Sherlock Holmes stories, also Victorian, I decided to give The Time Machine another go. And I loved it! The story itself hadn’t changed, I had. Or at least something unrelated to the book itself changed. If I would have reviewed it the first time, I might have given it 1 star. The later read was a much better reading experience and might have been rated 5 stars. Thus it becomes clear to me that the impression left by reading book is based on more than just the words themselves.
I don’t agree with your review. Your review is wrong. What do you think about that, Mr. Smarty Pants?
Hooray for you! You have an opinion. So do I. That’s what my review is – an encapsulation of my opinion about the book and the reading experience it provided. Since an opinion is never right or wrong, saying so is rubbish. It’s OK to have a difference of opinion. Can’t we all just get along?
What qualities of a book do you look at when forming your opinions?
In an opposite-of-a-nutshell, these are the things (reiterated from an earlier post) that I look for in my science fiction (listed in relative order of importance):
- Entertainment Value – First and foremost, a fiction story is meant to entertain. Anything else it tries to do (teach, postulate, propagandize, inform, convince or meditate) is just gravy that hopefully adds to the enjoyment and value of the book, but is not essential to fiction. Good, and definitely great, fiction, science or otherwise, will make me not want to put the book down because I was entertained. I felt that with The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Reality Dysfunction, Mists of Avalon (chick fiction though it may be) and The Relic. All good/great reads, imho.
- Sense of Wonder – Science fiction must evoke a sense of wonder. That’s what draws me to the genre, not overly complex plotlines and fancy literary style. How cool would it be to travel in space? See other planets first hand? Communicate with aliens? Travel through time? All of these are fun to think about in an escapist sort of way. Good science fiction provides the forum in which I can do these things.
- Good Writing – Writing is a skill that very few have absolute command over and writing style is somewhat a matter of taste. I found the writing in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars to be very dry. This severely detracted from the enjoyment of the story; it became a chore. On the other hand, writers like Theodore Sturgeon and Rex Stout (the mystery writer behind the Nero Wolfe stories) are phenomenal. I’ve yet to read a bad word by either of them. Good writing will propel a story instead of hinder it. While Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is clearly lyrical in its prose, I found it to hamper my reading progress – a bigger annoyance than the lyricism made up for in enjoyment. Other characteristics of good writing include plot development, characterizations, style, pacing, continuity, well-written dialogue, originality, mood and emotion, sense of logic, coherency, predictability, and immersion quotient. And good writing applies to movies as well as books. Bad writing can kill a movie (Excalibur…not sci fi, but nevertheless, a good example). Incidentally, other authors/books I’ve enjoyed include Asimov (easy to read), Clarke & Baxter (thought provoking), David Gerrold & James P. Hogan (logical), Stephenson (style), Heinlein (sense of wonder), Peter F. Hamilton (plot), John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (mood) and Ken Grimwood’s Replay (plot and pacing)
- Suspension Of Disbelief – The plot and events need to be believable. That’s a tricky thing to adhere to with science fiction. For example, while FTL travel is not possible, it is conceivable. Ditto with time travel, wormholes, and other science fiction elements. Potential belief-killer: older science fiction shows its age when the “predicted” science is proven false. (Men on the moon? Technology based on transistor tubes? Ink pen-based computers? Bah!) That could be a belief killer for some. Personally, I always find it amusing to see what people 50 or 100 years ago thought life might like today.
- Visual Effects – For movies, the visual effects play an important part on immersion. Make fun of Star Wars, but the visual effects were spectacular. For literature, an author should provide a healthy dose of futuristic objects and describe places so vividly that I can see it in front of me.
These traits are roughly listed in order of importance. So, I’m willing to call a poorly written book “good” if it’s rip-roaring fun (The Perry Rhodan series comes to mind again, although the “bad writing” could just be the result of poor translation). Who cares if a story depicts men on the moon if it is hugely enjoyable anyway? So what if a story is poorly worded if it’s though-provoking at the same time? What’s the big deal if a sci fi movie provides cool explosion audio in the vacuum of space – it’s fun! (Imagine how anti-climactic space battle scenes would be without the explosion sound effect. [Update: I take this back. Battlestar Galactica's space battle scenes are quite effective!])
Notice how entertainment is the primary requirement. I’m unlikely to cite something as an example of good science fiction if it evoked a sense of wonder, maintained suspension of disbelief but was just plain boring. I ultimately disliked the movie Blade Runner because it failed to entertain me, even though I very much liked the story and the visuals. Many people had a similar argument with the Star Wars prequels.
What formula do you use to review books?
There’s no mathematical formula here, just a gut feel on how well I enjoyed the book, the sense of wonder evoked, etc. Generally speaking, the more of the above characteristics a science fiction story has, the more likely I am to consider it a great book.
What other factors go into your reviews?
Aside from the book itself, there are other, external factors that affect the reading experience. These are things over which the book itself has no control; things like the environment (noise, other distractions, poor lighting) and physical condition (whether or not I’m really tired when I read a book). External factors do contribute to the overall reading experience and I try to mention those factors when appropriate.
Do you write bad reviews?
Heck, yeah. A book review of a bad reading experience is just as useful as any other review. Hopefully I capture exactly what it was about the book that I did not enjoy. Sometimes (as mentioned above) a poor reading experience is not the fault of the book at all but some other external influence. If I clearly state that in the review, then a reader can take my comments with the corresponding grain or truckload of salt.
Do you give spoilers in your reviews?
As a rule, I don’t give spoilers in a review. That would just deny you the pleasure or pain that I experienced when I read the book and I’m all about the pleasure and the pain. I should note that rules are meant to be broken and there was one review I did where I did give spoilers because a book was annoyingly mislabeled as science fiction. In that review I gave a clear and obvious warning to the upcoming spoilage.
When do you write your reviews?
I try to write the first draft of a review as soon as possible following completion of the book while the story and feeling are fresh in my mind. I will then come back to it later and polish it up before publishing it.
Filed under: Books
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