I’ve reviewed my fair share of sci-fi genre novels. I started right here on this blog…eek!..about 8 years ago. Not long after that I began doing reviews for The Fix. I began blogging and reviewing for The Guardian waaaaay back in the historic mists of 2008. And I’ve contributed book reviews here and there to a lot of other venues, including SFX magazine.
So I read Christopher Priest’s review of Barricade by Jon Wallace with frequent nods of recognition. To be clear I have not read Barricade. Even if it is a much better book than Priest’s review suggests, it’s not a book that grasps my interest. But Priest’s expertly expressed criticisms of Barricade – that it is thoughtlessly violent, inexpertly written and displays worrying attitudes towards its female characters – are equally true of hundreds of genre novels published every year. It’s because of these problems that, despite a lifelong love of genre, I now read less science fiction and fantasy than I ever have.
I will never blame a publisher for hyping a book. As a fan and reviewer I see dozens of new books published every week, all of them in one form or another declared to be the best thing since Romulan ale. That most of them disappear with barely a ripple doesn’t mean the publishers weren’t doing their job by hyping the hell out of every single book they take on. That’s what publishers do. All the more important then that we can find honest book reviews that help us find the few true gems published each year.
Which is why I find it somewhat sad that Christopher Priest’s honest and insightful review has received some rather under the belt responses. Den Patrick, another of this years crop of debut authors, accused Priest of being the school bully and said he expected more from an “elder statesman of genre”. What more exactly? Sadly there isn’t any nice way to tell someone their book is awful. Should reviewers just say every novel they are sent is lovely so no ones feelings get hurt?
We need writers and reviewers like Priest who have the expertise and willingness to reflect back the problems in modern genre fiction. Because the problems are very real. Violence of the flattened, meaningless kind Priest pinpoints in Barricade is endemic in the genre. Too many books are trying to be action thrillers or First Person Shooters when neither of these are what books are good at doing. The standard of writing is so poor in many of the books coming out from publishers that I hesitate to even call their authors hacks. It seems more like they are people who have read far fewer books than they have played video games, and are only writing books as an outlet for their frustrated desire to be a game designer. And given video gaming’s endemic problems with misogyny, thoughtless attitudes when presenting female characters become more understandable, although no more forgivable.
Priest’s review has been called both nasty and cruel. It is neither. But if that is how honest insightful reviews are perceived by some fans, then we need a lot more reviews brave enough to be considered both nasty and cruel.