What Makes This Book so Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Jo Walton.
Tor, 2014.
Hardcover, 447 pages, $27.

Insofar as “genre” means commercial formula-fiction, it is safe to say that between the late nineteenth century, when the formulas constituted themselves, and today, the cumulus of published fiction in any of the generic fields must bulk challengingly large. This fact means that genre-devotion is likely to be selective, and therefore idiosyncratic, even extremely so. One reader will be interested primarily in the archive itself, approaching the genre, whatever it might be, historically; whereas another will take interest in keeping up with the field, so to speak, and will be a consumer of the current catalogue. With respect to science fiction, Jo Walton belongs more to the latter than to the former category. She is, indeed, so au courant that she has established herself as one of the premiere bloggers on the topic, documenting her fascination daily for a loyal audience of specialized co-readers. In particular, Walton describes herself as an inveterate re-reader of titles, using her blog to report how re-reading a story either refines her appreciation of competent prose or shows up what once seemed well-plotted work as less impressive on a second than on a first inspection.

What Makes This Book so Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy gathers between its covers a compendium of Walton’s weblog posts, each one dated, beginning 15 July 2008 and concluding 31 December 2010, with a bit of prologue and a bit of epilogue. Walton insists that she is a reader, not a literary critic. “My degree is in Classics and Ancient History,” she writes, “not in English.” Walton “never studied this stuff”—that is, literary criticism, which she sees as “critics … in dialogue with the text but also in dialogue with each other.” Walton asserts that “critics are supposed to be detached and impersonal” and that “detachment and objectivity seem to suck the life and the joy of reading out of the books critics talk about.” Walton says she lacks such detachment, preferring to read for the enjoyment of what, in the books she most relishes, she finds “really really cool.” While one can sympathize with Walton’s intuition that much of what passes nowadays for literary criticism is bloodless bunkum, one might also wonder whether the only alternative is a zealous quest for the “really really cool.”

On the habit of re-reading—beyond doubt an important topic—Walton has this to say: “A re-read is a known quantity” that one who reads for pleasure must weigh in the balance with the “unknown promise” of a new title that “threatens disappointment.” As Walton ruefully admits, the happy memory of the “known quantity” has consigned many a new volume to “book on the shelf” status as opposed to “book in the hand” status in her home library. “Sometimes,” she says, “I totally kick myself over this.” Despite the tug, or rather the kick, of this guilt, she remains committed to the terra cognita of the previously vindicated page. “Because I know what’s coming, because I’m familiar with the characters and the world of the story,” Walton writes, “I have more time to pay attention to them.” There is a paradoxical frisson of the expected when walking a well-trodden path. Logically, of course, re-reading can be no one’s exclusive practice, but as a voucher of delectation a new book is likely a bigger gamble than an old one. The old one beckons. It is a question of “trust.”

In the one hundred and thirty posts of What Makes This Book so Great, Walton brings under discussion nearly as many titles, devoting two, three, or several essays, on occasion, to a single author, especially where it is a case of a series of books under a single authorship. Chronologically, Walton’s version of the science fiction canon goes back to Ursula LeGuin’s novels of the 1960s and comes forward to the teens of the present century. The anomalies are an entry on Robert A. Heinlein’s juvenile novels, one on Arthur C. Clark’s City and the Stars and another on his Imperial Earth, one on Isaac Asimov’s End of Eternity, another on James Blish, and yet another on J. R. R. Tolkien. In addition Walton makes references here and there to Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, and Ray Bradbury. Walton gravitates noticeably to the female, not to say feminist, writers who, beginning with LeGuin, gained prominence in the field in the last four decades of the previous century—although surprisingly she omits any reference to the pioneering Andre Norton. On the other hand, Norton’s slightly younger contemporary Anne McCaffrey receives a number of mentions, while C. J. Cherryh receives four dedicated entries and Lois McMaster Bujold receives no fewer than fifteen. Leigh Brackett and Catherine L. Moore, who were married to writers Edmond Hamilton and Henry Kuttner respectively and who exerted powerful influence on the field in the 1930s and 1940s also, like Norton, go unmentioned.

Walton reserves a major place in her conservatorium of re-readable books for titles by members of the avant-garde who capitalized on Harlan Ellison’s success in making the science-fiction genre “hip” and “with it,” once again in the 1960s. In this group one can count Samuel R. Delany, who receives four entries, John Brunner and Roger Zelazny, who each receive one entry, and R. A. Lafferty, who receives several mentions. Ellison himself receives only one entry—that for his job as editor of the anthology Last Dangerous Visions (1986), which Walton finds disappointing. Walton’s treatment of Delany reveals that she has criteria despite her disclaimer about not being any kind of critic. In reference to Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand (1984), Walton writes, “Samuel Delany is intimidatingly brilliant.” A bit later: “Reading Delany is like pop rocks for the brain.” Walton remarks that in Stars, an “awesome” book, “gender is constructed very differently,” such that she “is the standard pronoun for any sentient being, and ‘woman’ is the standard pronoun for a person.” According to Walton, “it isn’t clunky, it isn’t awkward, and it doesn’t get in the way of the story.”

Similar and convergent themes draw Walton to the work of Cherryh and Bujold. Of Cherryh’s Heavy Time (1991) and Hellburner (1993), Walton writes, “These are great feminist novels,” in which readers will find “women … who succeed on their own merits and yet are questioned because they are women.” Of Cherryh’s “Union-Alliance” novels, Walton writes: “Rape of men by women is remarkably rare in literature generally and yet remarkably prevalent in these books.” Reading and re-reading Bujold’s Shards of Honor (1986), Walton found herself “totally grabbed” by the point-of-view character, Cordelia: “She’s empathetic and practical and she’s from no-nonsense egalitarian Beta Colony.” In Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (1986), the title character “is an obstetrician [who] gets sent on a mission to the wider galaxy to bring back new ovarian cultures” for his male-only colony planet. When Ethan encounters Elli Quinn, Walton writes, she “upsets all his ideas about women.” Brave new world!

Walton’s blog entry No. 95, on “SF Reading Protocols,” promises interest. The notion of a reading protocol obviously has a good deal to do with genre, whether science fiction or any other. Walton paraphrases Delany: “One of the ways of approaching SF is to look at the way people read it—that those of us who read it have built up a set of skills for reading SF which let us enjoy it, where people who don’t have this approach to reading are left confused.” Walton’s borrowed assertion, which has the character of an axiom, implies a good deal beyond what she extracts from it. For one thing, reader-expectations can become writer-formulas. There is good reason to believe that this reduplication has happened several times in the history of science fiction and that each time the expectations and the formulas have become narrower and more doctrinaire.

At the beginnings of the genre, in the 1890s and the first two decades of the twentieth century, the protocols had not yet crystallized. The work of H. G. Wells, on the one hand, and of Edgar Rice Burroughs, on the other, exhibited vitality, plasticity, and spontaneity. Wells and Burroughs were capable, later in their careers, of responding to the problem created by their own exhaustion of the formulas that they themselves had invented. Few people know that Wells wrote a second invasion-from-Mars story forty years after the success of War of the Worlds. He called it Star-Begotten. It is a deft psychological comedy. Burroughs became self-referential, a gesture that produces a powerful emotional effect in the prologue to his assembly of the final four “Barsoom” novellas, as Llana of Gathol (1950). By 1930, however, an editor could memo a stable-writer to “write me another War of the Worlds” or “write me another Princess of Mars.

By the 1940s, John W. Campbell at Astounding decided that he wanted no more invasion-from-Mars or planetary-princess stories; he wanted technical-innovation stories, and he got them from Heinlein, Asimov, and George O. Smith. By the 1950s, H. L. Gold at Galaxy decided that he wanted no more technical-innovation stories of the Campbell-stable type; he wanted political and sociological stories intermitted with a few wacky satires, and he got them from Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, and William Tenn. The most decisive change came with the establishment of science-fiction coteries in the writing-programs of the English departments, a development of the late 1970s. It is now possible for a creative-writing student with a few recommendations and the requisite cash-payment to take a summer seminar in “World Building.” Because the context was and is the university, these activities were and are politicized in the familiar way. The house-editor can now memo the stable-writer, “Write me another Left Hand of Darkness.

Walton’s subtitle refers to The Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy, but much of what she proposes as “classic” belongs to the recent sub-sub-genre of laborious formula-fictions written by writers who attended the “World Building” seminar under someone who had studied it with the first guy to teach it forty-five years ago, at the same midwestern state college—or that mimics the model to perfection. Meanwhile, the cost of a science-fiction book has risen from thirty-five cents for an Ace Double in 1960 to twenty-five dollars for the oversized hardcover of the latest celebration of galactic multiculturalism and diversity, written by the latest Simone de Beauvoir of the “Spec-Fic” industry. It would take the likes of a Jean-Pierre Dupuy to explain the inflationary principle of most contemporary genre-publishing, but the gist of the tale would be the homogenization of the product according to the “intimidatingly brilliant” discursive prescriptions of the pervasive liberal regime.

None of which is to say anything against Walton—who has a perfect right to her preferences. Hers after all is a literate devotion, of which the present culturally degraded moment offers depressingly few examples. College students who re-read their favorite books would necessarily have had to read them first. Brave new world, indeed! But we live in fantastic times. While Walton blogs for Tor, entrepreneurs like Stephen Haffner of Haffner Press in Michigan and Greg Luce of Armchair Fiction in Oregon, aided by powerful new digital scanning and typesetting technologies, have discovered profit in resurrecting for sale vanished titles from the heyday of the “pulps” in the 1940s. Haffner sells a high-end catalogue of beautifully printed, bound, and illustrated books in hardcover while Luce has more or less reinvented the Ace Double paperback, reprinting better-known with lesser-known novels and novellas in complementary pairs. Thanks to Haffner, Brackett and Moore will remain in print in durable editions. Thanks to Luce, Poul Anderson’s Planet Stories whopper Captive of the Centaurianess (1952—paired with A Princess of Mars) will perhaps find a new generation of readers.  

Thomas F. Bertonneau is a long-time visiting professor on SUNY Oswego’s English faculty. He writes about literature, music, religion, politics, and culture.