Monday, March 3, 2014

What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy by Jo Walton

What Makes This Book So GreatWhat Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In 2008, science-fiction site asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-reading—about all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. This volume presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field's most ambitious series.
As well as focusing on specific authors and books, Jo Walton also discusses why she likes rereading,
what it takes to have a mindset that understands science fiction, what order to read series in (chronological printing order or character development order) and many more general topics.

I already know that Jo Walton's style is warm and personal, and as opinionated as you'd expect from a passionate book lover. Waiting for the library to get this book to me, I would occasionally look at the table of contents on the Kindle sample and read the original blog post on It just made me want this book all the more.

This is a book to read with pen and paper at hand as your "to read" list grows and grows.

What is most interesting about this book is how often I agree with Walton and how often she drives me crazy because she's so wrong, and how, sometimes, she surprises me. (I never knew of a reader who didn't understand skimming over boring or graphic parts or a novel until I read about her bewilderment at the concept.)

All of it makes me think a bit more about the subjects of her essays.

For example she drop kicks Dickens to the curb in one devastating sentence and then goes on to wish that George Eliot had written science fiction because she'd have enjoyed seeing Middlemarch opened up to the broader possibilities that genre offers. Walton seems to be ignoring the fact that George Eliot's own life was just as improbably extravagant as one that Dickens would have written and that Eliot's examination of marriage within the narrow confines of Middlemarch was deliberately chosen because of that life and the consequences thereof. Eliot might very well have written precisely the same book anyway if SF had already been invented. I'd never have considered any of that if I hadn't been so outraged by Walton's summary dismissal of Dickens. As a fellow Dickens-appreciator said, "What books was she reading?"

All of which is to say that I am just as opinionated a reader as Walton and, even if one disagrees with her opinions, her essays provide a lot of food for thought.

This is someone I'd love to have a beer with and argue with about Dickens while discussing what order to read series books in.

NOTE - TO THE EDITORS: 15 essays about Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series? Really? 18 essays about Steven Brust's whatever-it-is series? Yawn. If you can't make me care in two or three essays, then have pity on the rest of us whose eyes are glazing over.

And I'm a bit outraged over the wasted pages for anyone who's not already a rabid fan of these two series. What about the rest of us? Luckily these are often not more than two or three pages each. But two or three times 15 is a lot of pages that could've been about something else. Georgette Heyer, for example. Yeah, she's not SFF. But it also wouldn't be about Miles and Cordelia, so it would've had that going for it.

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