Non-Fiction Reviews

What Makes This Great
Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy

(2014) Jo Walton, Corsair, £9.99, pbk, 467pp, ISBN 978-1-472-11161-6


So what does make a good SF novel really great?  Now, I thought that it might have been something to do with the cover, but I was wrong! It is also quite likely that you as an SF reader will have your own thoughts as to what makes an SF novel a true gem, a bit of a classic, a 'must have' on your bookshelf.  Fortunately for us we have Jo Walton's What Makes This Great to help us. Having said this, you might think that as an SF book reader in your own right that you do not need someone else telling you what makes a good SF novel: you already know. All of these were some of the thoughts floating in my mind on seeing What Makes This Great; I have to say that I came to this book with something of a heavy heart…

What Makes This Great is intelligently written, opinionated, incisive and thought provoking… and I disagreed with a fair bit of what she said. Indeed, some of you too may hold different views but, nonetheless, I do recommend this book especially if you are something of an SF book reader whose book collection is numbered in hundreds (or even thousands). The thing is that even if you are a seasoned reader the genre is simply too great for any one person to come to grips with it; help is needed. (I recall the marathon Tony and I had devising and then running the algorithm for Essential SF). Now, I am not saying that Jo Walton is the  person to re-read all the great classics – the genre is simply too great for any one person to come to grips with it, besides one person cannot embody the insights and tastes of all seasoned SF readers – but with What Makes This Great I discovered she is one of those, among others, who can help others come to grips with the genre.

Though I did not at first come to this book with enthusiasm, what won me over was the introduction and her second chapter on re-reading. She admits up front to quirks, prejudices, and enthusiasms. She revealed that elements of her relationship with books (irrespective of what she reads and rates) was similar to those of my own and I suspect most regular SF readers. So when you What Makes This Great do not be surprised if you find yourself musing, 'I think that too,' or that she has managed to put into words something that you had always felt but never yourself articulated.

Jo herself is, of course, known in SF circles and is among other things the Hugo Award winning author of Among Others. And other than an author, she is herself a voracious reader who can on average consume a book every couple of days and usually manages a couple a week: she can even do more than that when ill and confined to bed and so her annual book consumption level must easily be in three figures. This makes me a comparatively snail slow reader who digests an SF novel about once a fortnight. (OK so I have other reading and can easily go through a dozen primary research papers in a week. In fact I go along with the former Astronomer Royal and past President of the Royal Society in that I believe it is better to read good science fiction than bad science, the only trouble is that there is a fair bit of first class science around to distract me from the almost as serious business of reading science fiction.)

What Makes This Great is actually take from Walton's blog within the US publisher website (not to be confused with Britain's Tor but which is, oh-so-easily done). The good news is that each blog post is quite short and we have 130 of them in the book. This makes this book particularly good for reading on short commutes or when tired before sleep, or when your partner will be up shortly, instead of a full chapter of whatever novel is your current bedtime read.

And she covers a goodly range of topics from faster-than-light travel to time travel. From cosy catastrophes to novel series. From SF reading protocols to what is mainstream. A number of these, such as the latter two, I thought that she had fairly nailed. On the other hand there were times I could have shouted. For example, on 'skimming' she simply can't understand why some do skim but – and here is an advantage of this being based on a blog with reader comments – she tells us that from the relevant blog post comments that many do.  Jo, of course they do.  And Jo, hypothesis for you, you may be a bit of a closet skim reader yourself but don't realise it? Check out the psychology and biology of reading; it would help explain the quantity of books you devour as well as your joy of re-reading. Also note in your chapter 2 on re-reading that you confess to knowing that when you read you sometimes gulp rather than savour…

The book contains about one-fifth of the posts she made on the blog between 2008 and 2011, which is fair enough. However what I did not like was when she had a number of posts in the row about the same author: one or two fine but over a dozen on Lois McMaster Bujold?! We got the message, if not the first time, the third post that this author is one we should check out. Fortunately there are only half a dozen of such excesses.

Along the way I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what she said although I tend to be a tad more blunt: I lack Walton's subtlety. Sometimes I find her analysis of a work is similar to mine (Connie Willis' Blackout being an example) but we come to very different conclusions as to merit. I put this down to her aforementioned quirks, prejudices, and enthusiasms. No problem there, we all have them. And then there were times I disagreed with her completely: chapter 4 on the 'Singularity Problem and Non-Problem' being an example when she says 'everyone is tiptoeing around the singularity problem 'all'  the time. Really? 'Everyone' and 'all' the time? Maybe in your circle, not mine and your circle is not 'everyone' (nor is mine).  But again I have no problem with strongly disagreeing with someone. After all if my friends and I agreed on absolutely everything then we would have little to discuss and debate would be boring. Besides which it does no harm and is kind of fun to have one's own perceptions and, indeed, quirks, prejudices, and enthusiasms challenged.

Make no mistake, this is a book for SF readers. Welcome parts of it, disagree with some of it, enjoy it, share your enthusiasm for the genre with a kindred spirit and along the way no doubt you'll accrue some pointers as to works to check out as well as ascertain why some rate those that don't push your own buttons. It is a good ride.

Jonathan Cowie

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