Overthought Reviews of Genre Fiction

One of the perils of book reviewing, or any other form of literary analysis is putting more thought into some aspect of a book than the author did. It's one of the aspects of the humanities aide of academia that, from time to time, strains my ability to be respectful of the scholarly activities of my colleagues on the other side of campus. And it frequently undermines reviews of books that I've already read.

A couple of good examples come from this Paul Di Filippo column for Barnes and Noble, where he reviews two books I've read, and one I haven't. I haven't actually read his comments on the book I haven't read yet (Daniel Abraham's The Dragon's Path), because it's near the head of the to-be-read queue and these are the sort of reviews that can spoil major plot points, but after read the comments on the other two, I'm not sure I want to bother. For example, he writes of Robert S. Redick's latest, The River of Shadows:

Redick has succeeded in creating a Kidnapped or Treasure Island for contemporary times, which reads at once like some timeless fable and also like a knowing postmodern artifact (a mysterious editor intervenes at times with pronouncements that break the fourth wall). This work manages to be both sophisticated and naïve, direct and cunning, heartfelt and cerebral. The adventure is nonstop, the characters powerfully endearing, and the world-building meticulous, generous, fresh, and surprising: the term "widescreen baroque," coined by SF Grandmaster Brian Aldiss, proves a particularly apt tag for this example of what The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction defines as "a subgenre of science fiction characterized by larger-than-life characters, violence, intrigue, extravagant settings or actions, and fast-paced plotting."

I agree with this to a point-- Stevenson is probably a decent comparison, in terms of the tone and level of adventure-- but really can't take the whole thing seriously because it overlooks the giant glaring flaw of the series: the protagonists, collectively, are dumber than a bag of hammers.

On numerous occasions in the first two books, the protagonists make a show of thinking carefully about their situation, and then decide that the only reasonable course of action is to go along with the nefarious plans of the evil masterminds, and hope for the best. The case for this never looks remotely watertight, though-- in fact, almost any of the alternatives they consider and reject would be better than what they actually do.

As a result, then, the engine of the plot is driven by the good guys being dumb as rocks, and I don't mean smart rocks, here. I'm talking the sort of rocks that sink straight to the bottom. This tends to undermine the books' attempts to be "cerebral." No amount of inventive worldbuilding and stylistic flourishes can lift the books to being Great Literature when the entire plot depends on stupidity. They're enjoyable enough fluff, but I can't really match the books I read to the praise Di Filippo heaps on them.

The other book in the column is Jo Walton's Among Others, and here, the problem is not so much a divergence from my reaction to the books as knowing something about the writing of the book. Specifically, I find my eyes rolling when Di Filippo tries to divine the hidden meaning in the books the protagonist reads:

Because we experience everything through Mori's narration, we are forced to consider her reliability. Walton cleverly, with the hallowed fictional game of is-she-mad-or-isn't-she?, accentuates the dilemma with several telling allusions. Why doesn't the otherwise omnivorous Mori like the work of Philip K. Dick, for instance? Could it be that Dick's delusional protagonists, with their weak grip on reality, hit too close to home?

I suppose it could be. The far simpler, and likely more accurate, explanation, though, is that Jo doesn't care for Philip K. Dick, and the books Mori likes are all books Jo likes. Also, Jo has commented several times on reviews that make a point of noting the ambiguity of the magic that she never intended it to be ambiguous. She wasn't particularly trying to create uncertainty about the reality of the magical elements-- she wrote it assuming they were real.

Now, of course, authorial intent is not the ultimate arbiter of blah, blah, blah. When you cast the discussion of the book in the form of "could it be this way because the author intended such-and-so?," though, the answer is fairly unambiguous. And makes it really hard for me to take the rest of the review seriously, or give the comments about the book I haven't read much weight in determining what I'll read next.

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Surely the simplest explanation is that Di Filippo is much less smart than he thinks he is. The experience of having read his Ciphers does nothing to diminish the charms of this hypothesis.