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.

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Review Nicely, Children.

If it's rubbish, should we say so?

A review of Neal Asher’s latest science fiction adventure, Orbus, was published on Friday by Strange Horizons. It was written by me. I didn’t make many bones about my view on the novel, which was pretty negative. Especially in sf reviewing, there seems a strong tendency to praise more than criticise; a sense that the genre needs encouraging, or reviewers need not to abuse their position, pervades many review outlets, to the extent that even a poor book gets a review of which several paragraphs are devoted to what it does well (for which we should read ‘averagely’, or simply ‘not quite as badly’). I’m guilty of that, too: towards the end of the Orbus review, I did my best to give Asher some credit for a few interesting ideas and his knack for scary monsters.

Still, the eminently reasonable and sensible Paul Raven tweeted this about the review: “[…] the almost complete lack of punch-pulling from Hartland was a real eyebrow-raiser.” In response, Ian Sales made the point I make above: “sadly, too many reviews these days are dishonest – yes, find something nice to say, but don’t ignore the bad.” The final part of the he said/he said I’ll quote here is Paul’s reply: “Troo dat – but even so, I’d flinch from giving a kicking that thorough, possibly because I’m not a published writer.”

I know exactly what Paul means: my own eyebrows were raised by a review this weekend, namely Hilary Mantel’s take-down of Lindsey Davis’s new British Civil Wars romp, Rebels and Traitors. Rather than leaving the good bits to a consolatory end, Mantel gets the sweeteners out of the way early: “Her research has been assiduous and detailed, her commitment to the subject is impressive, and the background detail is often eye-opening.” Her final sentence, though, is a real wounder: “Perhaps it is just as well that there is no sentence in it that you would want to read twice.” Ouch.

The eyebrow-raising in this case, at least for my own part, was more a case of seeing a recent Booker-winning writer of historical fiction laying into another writer of historical fiction with such abandon. In a sense, then, my problem was the opposite of Paul’s: Mantel, unlike for example me, is a published writer – indeed, in the same ‘genre’ (for more on which thorny question, go here) as the book she is reviewing – and her take-down could well be read as more problematic as a result. I assume Paul’s point (if it isn’t about careerism!) is simply that Tor publish Asher and don’t publish Hartland, and that therefore Hartland should doff his cap a bit more. Fair cop. At the same time, though, is a published fiction writer – if (and I don’t buy this) more qualified – more trustworthy as a critic, particularly of a work close to her own patch? The published writer thing seems to me a red herring on more than one level. Had Tor published my (non-existent) rip-roaring sf manly adventure, does that make me any better a critic of Asher’s? Might it not make me worse?

Disclosure: I haven’t read Davis, but Mantel is a reviewer I’ve agreed with in the past, and she isn’t currently having any problem with sales. Merely the coincidence of my and Paul’s responses struck me. Further for the record, I agree with Jonathan McCalmont in the comments to my original review: sf reviewers shouldn’t make nice with disappointing fare just because it’s been crafted in their bailiwick, published writers or no.