Friday, June 22, 2007

June Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour: A Reflection

Thus ends another month's Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour. Thanks to everyone who came to the blog, read the posts, and commented. Thanks also to all my fellow tour participants.

This blog is sort of the black sheep of the tour, as you may have been able to tell. I can't exactly claim that I cultivate that image intentionally. This is a fan site, not an author site, and generally speaking it's geared toward publications in what might be called the "mainstream" of sf and fantasy, but I'm much interested in seeing more Christian voices in the science fiction and fantasy market, and have an interest in the work being published in Christian sf/fantasy, which is independent of the "mainstream."

When I opted to review The Restorer, I made a decision to review it in the same way I review other novels, though I planned to give it a little extra care and attention. Some of the responses to my review have led me to reconsider the way I write negative reviews.

Reviewers are not the same as critics. Critics are people with degrees who actually know what they're talking about, and though they're opinionated, they can make extensive comparisons and analyses of literature and film. Reviewers, by contrast, are people whose job it is to summarize a book or movie and then tell you if it's worth your time. Sometimes reviewers put in a little extra effort above and beyond that. Reviews with that extra effort are my goal for this blog.

It is customary for negative reviews of books and movies to involve some amount of humor and sarcasm. I have taken this for granted, and have written my reviews accordingly. Because I thought The Restorer was a bad novel, I gave it the usual treatment, nor do I believe it would have been honest to give a positive or neutral review to a book that I thought made so many mistakes; that would have been to shirk my job as a reviewer. But nobody pays me to do this and nobody asks me to do this, so my position becomes precarious: every reviewer is like that jerk who wants to tell you his opinion about everything, but in my case, that jerk's opinion is entirely unsolicited. [I just reread this sentence and realized it could be misunderstood; the hypothetical "jerk" here is me because I'm the one who's giving unpaid and unsolicited opinions. This does not refer to people who comment on this blog: I encourage comments of any opinion.]

For that reason, some commenters who characterized my review as overly harsh have led me to reconsider the voice I adopt when writing negative reviews. I haven't decided yet how I will write them in the future, but I do not wish to come across as angry or mean-spirited, though I also don't wish to soft-soap the opinions that, solicited or not, I sit down here to write.

Though the majority of the posts do not go through an extensive editing process, the review for The Restorer did. I tried to soften my words as much as I thought was reasonable, but I may not have succeeded. It's a precarious balance to strike, and this month's tour has given me food for thought. I suspect some tour members or visitors left this blog with a bad taste in their mouths, and that's no good. We are, after all, talking about fiction here, not world peace or ending poverty. The discussion ought to be fun, and no one should take it too seriously, including me.

Science fiction has been characterized by different authors as a "ghetto," which they differentiate from the rest of the world of fiction. A few years ago, in an interview with Locus, Terry Pratchett suggested that the walls of the ghetto were crumbling. He characterized sf as a wrecked spaceship that people were scavenging for parts. He mentioned two authors by name who are not characterized as sf writers, but who nonetheless write science fiction: Michael Crighton and Margaret Atwood. In particular, he had harsh words for Atwood because of her novel Oryx and Crake. I have read this book and consider Pratchett's assessment correct: it is unoriginal, retreading ground that sf authors have already tread almost to exhaustion. But Atwood and her critics don't know that because they don't read the "ghetto" sf. So instead of writing original fiction, Atwood is reinventing the wheel.

Now that Christians have begun their own niche market of Christian sf separate from the "ghetto," I fear they are doing the same thing. The Restorer demonstrates only a rudimentary understanding of fantasy. Laudatory quotes in the front promise originality and plot twists, but the story is conventional and free of surprises, taking place in a world that is underdeveloped. I don't think the laudatory quotes are intentionally misleading; I think they are from people who are unfamiliar with fantasy literature. Perhaps it is not necessary for Christian sf writers to join the "ghetto." To say that may be too elitist. But Christian sf writers must be familiar with the ghetto's contents or I fear they will never interest readers other than themselves, and they certainly won't write the quality books they could have written. As a result, a sharp divide may form between religious and non-religious sf: the two will simply ignore each other, something I don't want to see happen because it would put me out of an unpaid and unsolicited job.
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