Monday, 6 May 2013

Reviewing the Reviews: Speculative Fiction 2012, editted by Jared Shurrin & Justin Landon

Speculative Fiction 2012 - edited by Justin Landon & Jared Shurin

It's interesting to approach a book of reviews and essays in review form, mainly due to a sense of inferiority. Any review that I write of a collection purporting to be 'The best online review, essays and commentary 2012' (Front Cover) is, necessarily, going to bring to mind those works in both my and the readers' minds. And that is daunting, as they really are good.

Jared and Justin, in their introduction, state, one assumes semi-ironically that:

[I]t isn't all roses. Let's be honest, no one takes us seriously. 'Blogging' is barely reviewing and certainly never 'criticism'. ... While our work sticks around, you're only as good as your last post. And once something is off the front page, it might as well be gone forever. [p.8]
In creating this collection of 52 reviews, essays, commentary, criticism, and works of speculative love, I'd argue that Jared and Justin have destroyed their own hypothesis. By collecting these blogs, these important, redeemable, estimable, beautiful creations that form the basic framework of the modern Genre fan's connection with the Speculative World as a whole, the editors are elevating what was once not taken seriously into a fully fledged work of criticism. The very action of collating such a collection elevates its contents to something more than they were when written. The inclusion of 'best' gives an air of authority and sense of purpose that the collection more than deserves.

Split into three sections, 'Reviews', 'Essays' and 'SF Life', the collection is clearly designed to be dipped into with whatever strikes ones fancy. I didn't do this: I read it cover-to-cover, minus a couple of works (namely the two China Mieville reviews, as I'm a massive fanboy, and Matt Hilliard's WorldCon 2012: Fragments as I'd read about it and it sounded like a fascinating technique - more about that later.) I feel, and it was touched upon in the excellent Reddit AMA that occurred last week, that the collection could have done with a touch more differentiation of themes throughout it. Obviously, the reviews section is necessary, but within 'Essays' and 'SF Life', there were definite trends to be seen, particular regarding discussions of Gender and Diversity in Genre. Creating a section for this, however, could perhaps be problematic in itself, especially were essays touch upon gender/diversity, but are focused elsewhere: in discussions with other essays, perhaps, or another theme entirely. N.K. Jemisin's essay But, but, but - Why does magic have to make sense? springs to mind with regards this. Ostensibly related to the current proliferation of self-contained magic systems (see Brandon Sanderson, perhaps most famously, and more recently Brian McClellan), as with much of what Jemisin writes, issues regarding the depiction of race and diversity in fantasy make an appearance.

The collection's focus is of the traditional print-book form of Speculative Fiction for the most part, but does not exclusively touch upon that. I found, however, that the essays that I was least interested in were touching upon these alternate aspects of the Speculative Fiction oeuvre - Tansy Raynor Roberts' Where the Wonder Women Are: Supergirl and Chris Garcia's Ma Vie En Zines respectively. Most likely this is a reflection of my tastes: I'm not really versed in any way or form with Fanzines or Comics, and thus these essays didn't speak to me in the same way as others did, particularly with their specificity. Where other essays that were not exclusively focused on the traditional-book form suceeded, in my eyes, was their application as general, broad categories: Feminism, Politics, Agency, Homosexuality. The best example that I can see of this, in relation to the above essays, is Gav Thorpe's Are Elves Gay? - while again an essay ostensibly on a subject I have relatively little experience/interest in (the Black Library and Warhammer universe) its subject matter was broadly perceptions of homosexuality in shared worlds, and was an astute and thoughtful answer to a fan question; though Aishwarya Subramanian's What is it Like to be a Dragon similarly applies colonialism to My Little Pony, in a  short but thought-provoking essay. I think that the inclusion of these elements of Speculative Fiction was, however, a positive - perhaps more focus in the essays/SF life sections on those works that transcend just one format, that focus on the overarching themes that are of interest to all forms of Genre could make readers like me more interested in comments on comics, or Zines, or whatnot. Further, more diversity in reviews (only one review was not of a book - Maureen Kincaid Speller's The New Yorker 'Science Fiction' Special) is something to be desired: with the abundance of Movies, TV Shows, Comics etc. etc. released last year (and reviewed last year), its something to be looked at, perhaps.

Ignoring all this silly nitpicking, we have an astoundingly god collection on our hands. Jared and Justin have excelled here, with big thanks, I'm sure, to the community. We have essays that are academic in nature (Paul Kincaid's The Widening Gyre), essays that are experimental (Matt Hilliard's WorldCon 2012: Fragments - which uses non-linear, present tense fragments to tell an astonishingly clever tale of Matt's first World Con), thoroughly researched and backed up reviews (particularly Lavie Tidhar on Embassytown, Larry Nolen on Alif the Unseen, Joe Abercrombie on The Blade Itself [a really interesting revisiting of his own work], Adam Roberts on Atlas Shrugged, Martin McGrath on The Fen and the Fallen and Cynthia Martinez on Stormdancer [which made me not want to read the book - a positive for me].) We have a stunning essay on Cowardice, Laziness and Irony, in response to Kincaid's The Widening Gyre, by Jonathan MacCalmont (which I disagreed with almost entirely, yet thoroughly recommend for a long lunch break). We have tentative steps into the statistics of blogging with Lady Business. We have Priest's Clarke post. We have responses to the idiotic Revealing Eden fiasco. We have the spectrum of what was what on the interwebs in front of our eyes. And it was good.

The only real issue I have with the book is the production. There are just too many formatting errors for a book being sold for actual real moneys. These range from speech-marks the wrong way round to missing words to sentences that have a line break in the middle of them. While the most major is a missing word at the end of the Stormdancer review, they happen so frequently that, for a human like myself who is slightly OCD about grammar etc., it sucks the reader out of the entertainment that each critical piece has. The editors, and/or Jared's Jurassic London imprint could have done with freelancing a proofreader, or doing so themselves. I appreciate that the editors do make reference to this in the note-from-the-editors at the back of the book, and that lessons will (hopefully) be learnt it book creation, but certainly when one considers that Jurassic London have previous with their Pandemonium series, you expect a more professional end product in those terms.

That slight blot aside, we have the perfect companion to the internet-age fan. If you're conversant with blogs, you'll know some of these articles already. That doesn;t matter, as reading afresh is just as fun, and, what's more there are so many excellent articles you won't have. From Sam Sykes on Fun and Fantasy (Scarper, Montgomery), to separating author politics and author writing (What do China Mieville, Orson Scott Card and Frank Miller have in common? by Myke Cole) to Circus' in fantasy (sadly missing out on the excllent Night Circus by Erin Morgenstein - The Circus as Fantastic Device by Chris Gerwel), SpecFic 2012 is a romping ride through 2012's blogging scene, and a stunning example of the maturity and intelligence of our community. I know what's going on my Hugo Ballot next year...

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