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

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

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, 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.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Product Details

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

About 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.

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


JULY 16, 2011


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Why I Re-read

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

4. The Singularity Problem and Non-Problem

5. Random Acts of Senseless Violence: Why isn't it a classic of the field?

6. From Herring to Marmalade: the perfect plot of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

7. That's just scenery: what do we mean by "mainstream"?

8. Re-reading long series

9. The Dystopic Earths of Heinlein's Juveniles

10. Happiness, Meaning and Significance: Karl Schroeder's Lady of Mazes

11. The Weirdest Book in the World

12. The Poetry of Deep Time: Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night

13. Clarke reimagined in hot pink: Tanith Lee's Biting the Sun

14. Something rich and strange: Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine

15. To trace impunity: Greg Egan's Permutation City

16. Black and white and read a million times: Jerry Pournelle's Janissaries

17. College as magic garden: Why Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is a book you'll either love or hate

18. Making the future work: Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang

19. Anathem: what does it gain from not being our world?

20. A happy ending depends on when you stop: Heavy Time, Hellburner and C.J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe

21. Knights Who Say "Fuck": Swearing in Genre Fiction

22. "Earth is one world": C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station

23. "Space is wide and good friends are too few": Cherryh's Merchanter novels

24. "A need to deal wounds": Rape of men in Cherryh's Union-Alliance novels

25. How to talk to writers

26. "Give me back the Berlin Wall": Ken MacLeod's The Sky Road

27. What a pity she couldn't have single-handedly invented science fiction! George Eliot's Middlemarch

28. The beauty of lists: Angelica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial

29. Like pop rocks for the brain: Samuel R. Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

30. Between Two Worlds: S.P. Somtow's Jasmine Nights

31. Lots of reasons to love these: Daniel Abraham's Long Price books

32. Maori Fantasy: Keri Hulme's The Bone People

33. Better to have loved and lost? Series that go downhill

34. More questions than answers: Robert A. Heinlein's The Stone Pillow

35. Weeping for her enemies: Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor

36. Forward Momentum: Lois McMaster Bujold's The Warrior's Apprentice

37. Quest for Ovaries: Lois McMaster Bujold's Ethan of Athos

38. Why he must not fail: Lois McMaster Bujold's The Borders of Infinity

39. What have you done with your baby brother? Lois McMaster Bujold's Brothers in Arms

40. Hard on his superiors: Lois McMaster Bujold's The Vor Game

41. One birth, one death, and all the acts of pain and will between: Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar

42. All true wealth is biological: Lois McMaster Bujold's Mirror Dance

43. Luck is something you make for yourself: Lois McMaster Bujold's Cetaganda

44. This is my old identity, actually: Lois McMaster Bujold's Memory

45. But I'm Vor: Lois McMaster Bujold's Komarr

46. She's getting away! Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign

47. Just my job: Lois McMaster Bujold's Diplomatic Immunity

48. Every day is a gift: Lois McMaster Bujold's Winterfair Gifts

49. Choose again, and change: Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga

50. So, what sort of series do you like?

51. Time travel and slavery: Octavia Butler's Kindred

52. America the Beautiful: Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain

53. Susan Palwick's Shelter

54. Scintillations of a sensory syrynx: Samuel Delany's Nova

55. You may not know it, but you want to read this: Francis Spufford's Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin

56. Faster Than Light at any speed

57. Gender and glaciers: Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness

58. Licensed to sell weasels and jade earrings: The short stories of Lord Dunsany

59. The Net of a Million Lies: Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep

60. The worst book I love: Robert Heinlein's Friday

61. India's superheroes: Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children

62. A funny book with a lot of death in it: Iain Banks's The Crow Road

63. More dimensions than you'd expect: Samuel Delany's Babel 17

64. Bad, but good: David Feintuch's Midshipman's Hope

65. Subtly twisted history: John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting

66. A very long poem: Alan Garner's Red Shift

67. Beautiful, poetic, and experimental: Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand

68. Waking the Dragon: George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire

69. Who reads cosy catastrophes?

70. Stalinism vs champagne at the opera: Constantine Fitzgibbon's When the Kissing Had To Stop

71. The future of the Commonwealth: Nevil Shute's In the Wet

72. Twists of the Godgame: John Fowles's The Magus

73. Playing the angles on a world: Steven Brust's Dragaera

74. Jhereg feeds on others' kills: Steven Brust's Jhereg

75. Yendi coils and strikes unseen: Steven Brust's Yendi

76. A coachman's tale: Steven Brust's Brokedown Palace

77. Frightened teckla hides in grass: Steven Brust's Teckla

78. How can you tell?: Steven Brust's Taltos

79. Phoenix rise from ashes grey: Steven Brust's Phoenix

80. I have been asking for nothing else for an hour: Steven Brust's The Phoenix Guards

81. Athyra rules minds' interplay: Steven Brust's Athyra

82. What, is there more?: Steven Brust's Five Hundred Years After

83. Orca circles, hard and lean: Steven Brust's Orca

84. Haughty dragon yearns to slay: Steven Brust's Dragon

85. Issola strikes from courtly bow: Steven Brust's Issola

86. Dear Lords of Publication, Glorious Mountain Press of Adrilankha, (or any appropriate representative on our world)

87. The time about which I have the honor to write?: Steven Brust's The Viscount of Adrilankha

88. Dzur stalks and blends with night: Steven Brust's Dzur

89. Jhegaala shifts as moments pass: Steven Brust's Jhegaala

90. Quiet iorich won't forget: Steven Brust's Iorich

91. Quakers in Space: Molly Gloss's The Dazzle of Day

92. Locked in our separate skulls: Raphael Carter's The Fortunate Fall

93. Saving both worlds: Katherine Blake (Dorothy Heydt)'s The Interior Life

94. Yearning for the unattainable: James Tiptree Jr.'s short stories

95. SF reading protocols

96. Incredibly readable: Robert Heinlein's The Door Into Summer

97. Nasty, but brilliant: John Barnes's Kaleidoscope Century

98. Growing up in a space dystopia: John Barnes's Orbital Resonance

99. The joy of an unfinished series

100. Fantasy and the need to remake our origin stories

101. The mind, the heart, sex, class, feminism, true love, intrigue, not your everyday ho hum detective story: Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night

102. Three short Hainish novels: Ursula Le Guin's Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions

103. On reflection, not very dangerous: Harlan Ellison's The Last Dangerous Visions

104. Why do I re-read things I don't like?

105. Yakking about who's civilized and who's not: H. Beam Piper's Space Viking

106. Feast or famine?

107. Bellona, Destroyer of Cities, Jay Schreib's play of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren

108. Not much changes on the street, only the faces: George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails

109. History inside-out: Howard Waldrop's Them Bones

110. I'd love this book if I didn't loathe the protagonist: Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr's Household Gods

111. Screwball comedy time travel: John Kessel's Corrupting Dr. Nice

112. Academic Time Travel: Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog

113. The Society of Time: John Brunner's Times Without Number

114. Five Short Stories with Useless Time Travel

115. Time Control: Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity

116. Texan Ghost Fantasy: Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle

117. The language of stones: Terri Windling's The Wood Wife

118. A great castle made of sea: Why hasn't Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange&Mr. Norrell been more influential?

119. Gulp or sip: How do you read?

120. Quincentenniel: Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth

121. Do you skim?

122. A merrier world: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

123. Monuments from the future: Robert Charles Wilson's The Chronoliths

124. The Suck Fairy

125. Trains on the moon: John M. Ford's Growing Up Weightless

126. Overloading the senses: Samuel Delany's Nova

127. Aliens and Jesuits: James Blish's A Case of Conscience

128. Swiftly goes the swordplay: Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword

129. The work of disenchantment never ends: Kim Stanley Robinson's Icehenge

130. Literary criticism vs talking about books

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