Reviewing Politics?

If it's rubbish, should we say so?

Is it because I is right-wing?

Some of you may remember my review of Neal Asher’s Orbus. I wasn’t kind, and I thought quite deeply about that as I wrote it. Asher’s brand of gung-ho adventure, it seemed to me, had far more potential than its execution allowed, and, as Jonathan McCalmont later suggested in a more recent review of Philip Palmer’s Red Claw, science fiction might deserve more careful writers of entertaining adventure. As an example of how this lack of care, rather than any inherent faults of intent or purpose, might result in poor work, I said that the book’s “politics, if soft-headed, aren’t pernicious.” Again, I thought quite carefully about that phrase – I was very conscious that I didn’t want to be seen as dismissing Asher’s politics because I disagreed with it. Rather, it was the slapdash approach to expressing that politics (and, indeed, the book’s other ideas) with which I had a problem.

On which note, a comment left on the review this Monday by someone identifying themselves as, er, Neal Asher: “Tristan, that very often depends on which axe is being ground, and which axe it is the reviewer’s preference.” Tristan had said that, “I take the position that political content is orthogonal to literary quality. The problem is that writers with a political axe to grind often present simplistic versions of political positions that could be treated with a great deal of nuance.” (Well said.) My perception of Asher’s reply, however, is that he perceives my criticisms to proceed from political, rather than literary, differences. (This isn’t helped by a post which appeared on Asher’s own blog on the same day, bemoaning the pompous orthodoxy of the leftie literati. But no one review is mentioned specifically, and one wouldn’t want to assume.)

For the record, this was emphatically not the case. In defense of the Asher comment, the discussion following the review veered more deeply into politics than I did; by the same token, it was in that very discussion that I first explained my approach to the issue. If Asher had managed to give his characters and story a convincing political grounding of any stripe, I would not have been able to complain. (Indeed, I’ve been known  to – whisper it now – enjoy the writings of right-wing and conservative novelists. I might even say that to start ticking the left and right boxes next to a writer’s name is in itself pointless. I don’t do it.) Instead, Orbus presents politics without nuance, and political manoeuvrings without subtelty. On page 98 of the novel, the Prador’s political and military history is swiftly relayed: “since alliances tended to change very quickly, with betrayal and murder of one’s allies an utterly accepted political tool, [...] technical knowledge gradually spread.” In case you were wondering, it doesn’t make any more sense in context.

The cynicism of the libertarian, the deep distrust of government and collective action, pervades Asher’s novels. But in Orbus at least, it is so baldly applied – so dulled of anything but the bluntest satirical edge – that, agree with Asher or no, it cannot convince in and of itself. This may or may not be bad politics; it’s certainly bad writing. In the comments to that review of Red Claw, Asher (if it is truly he) thanks McCalmont for cementing his position as “the SF-literati whipping boy.” But criticisms of his work aren’t personal. And they’re certainly not political.

7 comments
  1. Niall said:

    Devil’s advocate, then:

    1) Can you remember a book which you disliked for the simplicity of its left-wing politics?

    2) Who is the right-wing China Mieville?

    3) To what extent are you, as a person of leftish sensibility, likely to be predisposed to finding right-wing ideology simplistic…?

  2. I was thinking something along similar lines actually. It’s difficult to take issue with Asher’s politics because they’re not articulated particularly clearly in his writing.

    The fact that he’s a homophobe and a Tory explain why I wouldn’t particularly want to have a drink with him but when it comes to his writing, the fact that I disagree with his politics doesn’t really explain why I don’t enjoy his books.

    Peter F. Hamilton is definitely the right-wing China Mieville though.

  3. danhartland said:

    Niall:

    1) Yeah, that happens all the time. An example from my last few months’ reading might be Christopher Brookmyre’s puddle-shallow Quite Ugly One Morning. Of books I’ve reviewed, Farthing stands out as a leftie tract devoid of depth of political thought.

    2) J.R.R. Tolkien, surely? :P Not sure where this question gets us, though…

    3) … this one’s better, mind. Given that a right-wing writer might have to work harder to convince me than a left-wing one, perhaps I am so predisposed. But by the same token, given we’re talking SF, isn’t this an issue of worldbuilding? If a given world has a right-wing underpinning, all a writer needs to do is properly lay that out clearly and cogently – as they would that world’s technology, broader culture, or history. So am I predisposed to finding right-wing politics simplistic? Possibly, but good worldbuilding isn’t about persuasion but suspension of the reader’s usual assumptions.

    As Jonathan says, it’s not about agreeing with a book, it’s about enjoying it. Brideshead Revisited is a rapaciously Tory book which leaves me spluttering with plebian rage, but it is also a sublime work of art; the work of T.S. Eliot is essentially reactionary but thoroughly glorious; the good ol’ National Review recently published a list of 10 great American conservative novels written since the 50s – you’d argue with Dos Passos, Wolfe and McCarthy at your peril.

    As I say in the OP, I don’t think I approach literature thinking of it in left or right terms, anyway; but if I do, and if I am vaguely predisposed to asking conservatives to work harder, there are still large numbers of them who’ve managed to reveal to me the complexity, and formidable nature, of their thought.. The question again becomes – why not Asher?

  4. Martin said:

    you’d argue with Dos Passos, Wolfe and McCarthy at your peril.

    In your face, Bellow.

    • danhartland said:

      You’re such a slave to the canon, Martin.

  5. Don’t let the generational mismatch fool you. Gene Wolfe is the right-wing China Mieville.

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