What Makes This Book So Great

What Makes This Book So Great

by Jo Walton
     
 

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As any reader of Jo Walton's Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site Tor.com asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-readingabout all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures,

Overview

As any reader of Jo Walton's Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site Tor.com asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-readingabout all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. These posts have consistently been among the most popular features of Tor.com. Now this volumes presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field's most ambitious series.

Among Walton's many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by "mainstream"; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field's many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read.

Over 130 essays in all, What Makes This Book So Great is an immensely readable, engaging collection of provocative, opinionated thoughts about past and present-day fantasy and science fiction, from one of our best writers.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 01/01/2014
The Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Among Others believes there are two types of readers: those who reread and those who don't. She tells of her own experience as a rereader in this collection of more than 130 essays, which first appeared as blog entries on the Tor.com website. Walton's case for revisiting favorite books, eloquently made in the introduction but illuminated in each essay, is that the practice can be simply comforting but can also provide endless opportunities for new perspectives and even revelations about works that readers thought they knew well. Walton shares not only her deep love for sf and fantasy in general and these novels in particular but the insights of a truly thoughtful reader. Especially enjoyable is her book-by-book analysis of Lois McMaster Bujold's "Vorkosigan Saga." VERDICT Although readers will miss out on some of the spirited discussions that appeared in the comments for these blog entries, it is still worth the time and money for any serious sf or fantasy fan, akin to a genre version of Nancy Pearl's Book Lust. Walton's affection for many of these titles is contagious, and fans will find their own reading lists growing. Since the author covers many core texts of the genre, this volume is also useful for collection development librarians seeking to fill holes in their sf shelves.
Publishers Weekly
★ 11/18/2013
For anyone whose to-read pile is not quite tall enough, this collection gathers 130 of Walton’s blog posts from science fiction site Tor.com (July 2008 to February 2011) about her favorites works of sci-fi and fantasy. The books she discusses are not the latest to hit the market, but those that novelist Walton (Among Others) has reread time and again, because “something only worth reading once is pretty much a waste of time.” These brief essays are perfect for picking at random; binge on too many and the books cited might blur together. In the transition from Web to print, something is lost in translation: it’s disconcerting to see questions such as, “So, what sort of series do you like?” without accompanying comments. At the same time, the themes of the essays interweave nicely; many are meditations on the genre as a whole more than reviews of specific works, and Walton often ties her points back to earlier posts (most notably in the extended review of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga). Walton intentionally approaches these works as a fan rather than a critic, and she successfully captures the sensation of reading on a personal, sensory level. For readers unschooled in the history of SF/F, this book is a treasure trove; for those who recognize every title, Walton evokes the joy of returning to a well-worn favorite. Agent: Jack Byrne, Sternig & Byrne Literary Agency.(Jan.)
From the Publisher

"For readers unschooled in the history of SF/F, this book is a treasure trove."—Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781466844094
Publisher:
Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
01/21/2014
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
448
Sales rank:
986,339
File size:
955 KB

Read an Excerpt

What Makes This Book So Great


By Jo Walton, Patrick Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2014 Jo Walton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-4409-4


CHAPTER 1

JULY 16, 2011

Introduction

This book is made up of a series of blog posts I wrote on Tor.com between July 2008 and February 2011. They appear here in order, and with their original dates. These are about a fifth of the total posts I made during that time. You don't have to read them in order, but sometimes one will refer back to another and develop an argument. I wrote them as blog posts, and so they are inherently conversational and interactive — they were written in dialogue with each other and also with the people reading and commenting. I think they are still interesting when taken out of that context, but if reading them here makes you splutter "but, but" and reach for the follow-up key, the posts are still online, and I am still reading comments. Interaction remains a possibility. I'm still writing new posts too. (If, however, you are reading this in a far distant future in which this is no longer a possibility, hello! Nobody would have liked to talk to someone from your world more than I would, and any regrets are on both sides.)

The brief I was given when I started writing for Tor.com was to talk about what I was re-reading. Patrick Nielsen Hayden said that I was always saying "smart things about books nobody else had thought about for ages," and that's what I tried to do. You won't find any reviews here. Reviews are naturally concerned with new books, and are first reactions. Here I'm mostly talking about older books, and these are my thoughts on reading them again. There are posts on books in many genres and published between 1871 and 2008, but the emphasis is on older science fiction and fantasy. There are also posts here about the act of reading and re-reading, and about the genres of science fiction and fantasy and the boundaries between them. When I talk about books that aren't science fiction and fantasy, I'm looking at them from a genre perspective, whether it's how George Eliot should have single-handedly invented science fiction or wishing wistfully that A. S. Byatt had read Delany.

My general approach to the books in these pieces is as a genre-reader, but not as a generic reader. There's no impersonality here, no attempt at objectivity. These are my thoughts and opinions, for what they're worth, my likes and dislikes, my quirks and prejudices and enthusiasms. I select the books I re-read based on what I feel like reading at the moment, so these are my tastes. I do from time to time write about books I don't enjoy, for one reason or another, but what you'll mostly find are attempts to consider the question I ask in the title of this collection — what makes this book so great?

CHAPTER 2

JULY 15, 2008

Why I Re-read

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who re-read and those who don't. No, don't be silly, there are far more than two kinds of people in the world. There are even people who don't read at all. (What do they think about on buses?) But there are two kinds of readers in the world, though, those who re-read and those who don't. Sometimes people who don't re-read look at me oddly when I mention that I do. "There are so many books," they say, "and so little time. If I live to be a mere Methuselah of 800, and read a book a week for 800 years, I will only have the chance to read 40,000 books, and my readpile is already 90,000 and starting to topple! If I re-read, why, I'll never get through the new ones." This is in fact true, they never will. And my readpile is also, well, let's just say it's pretty large, and that's just the pile of unread books in my house, not the list of books I'd theoretically like to read someday, many of which have not even been written yet. That list probably is at 90,000, especially if I include books that will be written in the next 800 years by people as yet unborn and books written by aliens as yet unmet. Wow, it's probably well over 90,000! When will I ever read all those books?

Well, I read a lot more than one book a week. Even when I'm fantastically busy rushing about having a good time and visiting my friends and family, like right now, I average a book every couple of days. If I'm at home and stuck in bed, which happens sometimes, then I'm doing nothing but reading. I can get through four or six books in a day. So I could say that there are never going to be sufficient books to fill the voracious maw that is me. Get writing! I need books! If I didn't re-read I'd run out of books eventually and that would be terrible!

But this argument is disingenuous, because in fact there is that towering pile of unread books in my bedroom at home, and even a little one in my bedroom here in my aunt's house. I don't re-read to make the new books last longer. That might be how it started. ... The truth is that there are, at any given time, a whole lot more books I don't want to read than books I do.

Right now, I don't want to read Storming the Heavens: Soldiers, Emperors, and Civilians in the Roman Empire by Antonio Santosuosso, and/or The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade by Maria Eugenia Aubet and Mary Turton. I do want to read both of these books, in theory, enough theory that they came home with me from the library, but in practice they both have turgid academic prose that it's work to slog through. I am going to try to slog through the Phoenician one before I go home to Montreal and the book goes home to Cardiff library, but the other one is going back unread. (The Phoenicians, unlike the Romans, are insufficiently written about for me to turn down a solid book for bad prose.) But yesterday, when I was picking up books to take to read on the train to London, both of them glowered at me unwelcomingly. I was already in the middle of one (pretty good) book on Hannibal's army, I wanted fiction. And I didn't just want any old fiction, I wanted something good and absorbing and interesting enough to suck me in and hold my attention on the train so that I wouldn't notice the most boring scenery in the world — to me at least, who has taken the train between Cardiff and London quite often before. I didn't want to have to look out of the window at Didcot Parkway. I had some new fiction out of the library, but what I wanted was something engrossing, something reliable, and for me, that means something I have read before.

When I re-read, I know what I'm getting. It's like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment. A re-read is a known quantity. A new book that's been sitting there for a little while waiting to be read, already not making the cut from being "book on shelf" to "book in hand" for some time, for some reason, often can't compete with going back to something I know is good, somewhere I want to revisit. Sometimes I totally kick myself over this, because when I finally get around to something unread that's been sitting there I don't know how I can have passed it over with that "cold rice pudding" stare while the universe cooled and I read C. J. Cherryh's The Pride of Chanur for the nineteenth time.

My ideal relationship with a book is that I will read it for the first time entirely unspoiled. I won't know anything whatsoever about it, it will be wonderful, it will be exciting and layered and complex and I will be excited by it, and I will re-read it every year or so for the rest of my life, discovering more about it every time, and every time remembering the circumstances in which I first read it. (I was re-reading Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist. "The first time I read this was in a cafe in Lytham St. Annes in 1987," I mentioned. "How can you remember that?" my husband asked. "I don't know. It was raining, and I was eating a poached egg on toast." Other people remember where they were when they heard that Princess Diana was dead. I haven't a clue, but I pretty much always remember where I was when I first read things.)

This ideal relationship doesn't always work out. Even when I like the book in the first place, sometimes a re-read is a disappointment. This usually happens when the thing that was good about the book was a temporary shininess that wears off quickly. There are books that pall when I know their plots, or become too familiar with their characters. And sometimes I read a book that I used to love and find it seems to have been replaced with a shallow book that's only somewhat similar. (This happens most often with children's books I haven't read since I was a child, but it has happened with adult books. This worries me, and makes me wonder if I'm going to grow out of everything and have nothing to read except Proust. Fortunately, when and if that day comes, in several hundred years, Proust will be there, and still pristine.)

A re-read is more leisurely than a first read. I know the plot, after all, I know what happens. I may still cry (embarrassingly, on the train) when re-reading, but I won't be surprised. Because I know what's coming, because I'm familiar with the characters and the world of the story, I have more time to pay attention to them. I can immerse myself in details and connections I rushed past the first time and delight in how they are put together. I can relax into the book. I can trust it completely. I really like that.

Very occasionally, with a wonderfully dense and complex book I'll re-read it right away as soon as I've finished it, not just because I don't want to leave the world of that book but also because I know I have gulped where I should have savoured, and now that I know I can rely on the journey that is the book, I want to relax and let it take me on it. The only thing missing is the shock of coming at something unexpected and perfect around a blind corner, which can be one of the most intense pleasures of reading, but that's a rare pleasure anyway. Re-reading too extensively can be a bad sign for me, a sign of being down. Mixing new possibilities with reliable old ones is good, leaning on the re-reads and not adventuring anything new at all isn't. Besides, if I do that, where will the re-reads of tomorrow come from? I can't re-read the same 365 books for the next 800 years. I've already read some dearly beloved books to the point where I know them by heart.

Long before I am 800 I will have memorized all the books I love now and be unable to re-read them, but fortunately by then people and aliens will have written plenty more new favourites, and I'll be re-reading them too.

CHAPTER 3

JULY 19, 2008

A Deepness in the Sky, the Tragical History of Pham Nuwen

Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (1999) wouldn't be a tragedy if it existed alone. It's a tragedy because it's a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) and the reader knows things about the universe the characters do not know. All the other things I can think of that make this trick work are historical or mythological. Deepness does it entirely within SF and entirely within Vinge's invented universe. I think it's an incredible achievement.

In A Fire Upon the Deep we learn early on that our immediate cosmic neighborhood is divided into Zones, working outwards from the Galactic core. In each Zone, cognition and technology work better. So in the core it isn't possible to be intelligent at all, in the Slow Zone it's possible to be as intelligent as a human but no better and you can't go faster than light, in the Beyond you can have FTL and anti-gravity and enhanced intelligences, and in the Transcend you can have godlike intelligences and Clarke's Law tech. The novel takes place in the Beyond, with an excursion to the Slow Zone, and concerns a problem from the Low Transcend risking upsetting the whole thing. (Vinge apparently thought up this brilliant universe as a way around his idiotic Singularity non-problem, which just goes to show that a) constraints can produce excellent art and b) every cloud has a silver lining.)

The whole of Deepness takes place in the Slow Zone, among characters, human and alien, who have absolutely no idea that their universe works that way. They don't know there are other Zones out there, they think they're part of a baroque and complex civilization that stretches for light-years, that's held together by a thin skein of trading spaceships.

The universe they believe they live in has a long history of Failed Dreams — AI, FTL, really good life-extension techniques — which have kept receding as they are chased. There's a profession of "Programmer/Archaeologist" where your job is to excavate the underlayers of the old programs your computers are running — and they're very old; in some cases, there are slower-than-light starships running on Linux.

The plot of Deepness is an exciting one, with aliens going through a technological revolution, with two groups of opposed humans trying to use them and each other, and with tiny incremental advances in technology meaning a huge amount. Whole civilizations are perishing in the background because they've got as far as it's possible to go — their planets are at the point where one little bit of overload will bring it all down around their ears. There's mindwipe, and the fascinating idea of Focus (enslaving people and fixing their brains in one direction so that they become obsessive about it), and a carefully timed revolt, and secrets among the aliens. There are great characters and a great character-driven plot, and I didn't even mention how terrifically alien and yet entirely comprehensible the aliens are, who have evolved on a planet around a star that goes out regularly and freezes even their air. There's a happy ending.

But in the end what brings me back to Deepness again and again isn't any of that but the terrible tragedy that surrounds that happy ending, that Pham Nuwen wants to find the secret at the heart of the galaxy and he sets off in the wrong direction to find it.

At the end of the movie Far from Heaven the hero, a black guy in a segregated 1950s US, leaves the white heroine and gets on a train in Hartford, Connecticut, towards the US South. "No!" I said in an anguished whisper. I wanted him to walk across the platform and get on the train going the other way. In Montreal even then he could have married the girl. He's heading in the wrong direction and he doesn't even know there's a possible way out.

It's a heck of an achievement for Vinge to make me feel the same way in an entirely SFnal universe, and without a word about it in the book.

CHAPTER 4

The Singularity Problem and Non-Problem

I mentioned in my post on Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky that I don't believe the Singularity is a problem. Commenters Dripgrind and Coveysd asked about that, and I decided the answer was worth a post. Vinge came up with the Singularity in Marooned in Realtime (Analog, May–August 1986; Bluejay, 1986), which I read in 1987 when it came out in Britain. I thought then that the Singularity was a terrific SF idea — the idea was that technological progress would spiral so fast that something incomprehensible would happen. In the book, most of humanity has disappeared, and the plot concerns the people who missed it. (Incidental aside — the reason I re-read Marooned in Realtime is for the journal of one of the people who missed it. The plot, the ideas, the other characters have all worn fairly thin over time, but Marta's journal as she lives alone on a far-future Earth remains compelling.) I was astonished at reaching the end of the book to discover a little afterword in which Vinge claimed to believe in the coming Singularity. I thought it was a great idea for a story, maybe even two or three stories, but too obviously silly for anyone to really believe.

Since then, the Singularity has come to be an object of almost religious faith in some quarters. In The Cassini Division (1998), Ken MacLeod has a character call it "the Rapture for nerds," and that's just how I see it.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton, Patrick Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2014 Jo Walton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

JO WALTON won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, and the World Fantasy Award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her several other novels include the acclaimed "Small Change" alternate-history trilogy, comprising Farthing, Ha'penny, and Half a Crown. Her novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012. A native of Wales, she lives in Montreal.


Jo Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer on publication of her debut novel The King's Peace. She won the World Fantasy Award in 2004 for Tooth and Claw, and in 2012, the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Among Others. In addition to writing SF and fantasy, she has also designed role-playing games and published poetry. Her song "The Lurkers Support Me In Email" has been quoted innumerable times in online discussions all over the world, frequently without attribution. A native of Wales, she lives in Montreal.

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