Guy Gavriel Kay, in his June 4th guest blog for BSC on "Under Heaven, and the Book World Under Siege," discusses how the internet has fundamentally changed the relationship between authors and their works, between authors and their readers. "The principle consequence," he writes, "is the disappearance of spaces ... between author and consumer and between author and work." One such space is that of privacy: authors increasingly lack this privacy, Kay observes, as readers/consumers believe they have a "connection" with a "writer online" and so can feel justified in attacking an author for, say, being late with a new novel; yet authors participate in this wearing away of their privacy by blogging about their daily lives, by needing to maintain an online presence in order to market their works and their personality (or, brand). From Kay's perspective, this lack of privacy for authors risks "eroding . . . the space that can be necessary to produce not only good art but a good life." Certainly, Kay reveals a nostalgia for a perhaps simpler time when authors truly enjoyed a kind of distance from readers. Yet, from the perspective of a reader, I see a further implication of the internet's effect upon Kay's "spaces." Namely, we are potentially also witnessing a lessening of the distinction between the critic and the general reader, with the consequence that authors and their works can quickly receive a great deal of hype -- often at the expense of more critical assessments of those works, of more considered reflection upon the grounds of taste.
My experience with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker (Tor, 2009) led me to thinking about these issues.
At one point last year, I thought that I should look at current and more recent SF&F, as a way of balancing my attempts to catch up with older works. To do so, I turned to the SF&F blogosphere for an informal survey of what reviewers were touting as the best releases of 2009. Priest's Boneshaker was one of these consistently highly touted releases, excepting a couple of dissenting opinions.
The novel proved hard to resist with all the positive hype. "This is a hoot from start to finish, a pure mad adventure," wrote Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing. "That's a great hook; a steampunk/zombie mash-up is instantly appealing. . . . Boneshaker simply pulls you in and doesn't let go," wrote John De Nardo on SF Signal. Robert Thomson on Fantasy Book Critic wrote, "overall the writing was top-notch led by accessible and skillful prose, crisp dialogue, and cinematic-like pacing," and furthermore "the story was a lot of fun." Katherine Peterson on SF Site wrote, "Overall, Priest has created a terrific story that will please endless science fiction fans in search of a thrill." On the Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' blog, the reviewer wrote, "This is, hands down, the best book I've read all year. . . . Maybe I gush, but 'Boneshaker' is uniquely entertaining. It's inventive, strong on character development, full of action and I can't think of a single thing I would change." These comments paint a fairly representative picture of the tone of response to Priest's novel, indicating some measure of why Boneshaker has received 2010 Hugo and Nebula nominations for Best Novel.
Colin Harvey of Strange Horizons, however, took a less favourable position on the book. He wrote, "Despite my wanting it to -- and it seems particularly mean-spirited to dismantle such a lolloping, likeable puppy-dog of a novel -- Boneshaker doesn't quite hang together." He cites "world building" that is "no more than skin deep" as a key weakness, pinpointing several questions about the Blight gas that remain unanswered in the narrative and so make "the whole phenomenon . . . not particularly noteworthy." To Harvey, not exploring these questions represents a "lack of intellectual curiosity" in the novel, which "fatally undermines its credibility." Finally, Harvey's dismantling concludes that Boneshaker shows "a lack of any great originality, no real science whatsoever, and a cavalier attitude to the internal logic of her setting" -- despite its admittedly "whizz-bang pace."
I will be open about my response to Boneshaker: I agree wholeheartedly with Harvey and feel that the consistently positive hype overlooked the novel's significant faults for the sake of a fun, mad, uniquely entertaining genre mash-up full of action.
Overall, the character development proved basically flat, even for the main character Briar Wilkes; the plot tended to lack tangible and engaging tension; the world building, as well as the lives and histories of the characters, remained predominantly on the surface (despite much of the story occurring underground); the pacing was generally slow; and the writing proved uneven at times (once, the flickering light flickered in a character's eyes; the use of contractions modernizes the narrator's voice, putting it at odds with its 19th-century setting).
Many of these issues get redeemed somewhat by the novel's final several chapters, when the writing sharpens and when the pacing and tension pick up noticeably, especially because the narrative at last unveils the sources of Briar Wilkes' motivations and affords plausible grounds for sympathizing with her son Ezekiel's desire to know about his parents' past. For me, there lies the rub. The real story, the story of true substance, the story that I actually wanted told appears in those final several chapters.
While I know a reviewer must not criticize a novel in terms of what it should have done instead of what it did, I find committing this sin difficult to avoid with Boneshaker. Briar Wilkes is the main character and so the focus of the reader's interest, yet she becomes interesting only by the very end as she tells her son the truth of her relationship with his long-dead father. In other words, the most important crisis and choice in her life, the event that makes her a complex and round character, arrives as merely a late, closing reminiscence -- and then she and Ezekiel exit the narrative. The story I then want most is not the one I read of an alternate Seattle with a walled-off section infected by Blight gas and infested by "rotters" (zombies), but rather the one about how Seattle became that way and Briar's role in those events and how she coped with their immediate aftermath (which included the death of her father and the birth of her son). Either that, or, I began to think about mid-way through the novel, Boneshaker needed some extensive flashbacks to give the primary characters and the world more solidity, more weight. I also began to think, in this light, that Boneshaker as it is would be better served as a novella.
Boneshaker thus proved a disappointing read for me. I felt taken in by the hype, a little deceived about the novel's merits. I wondered not whether I had missed something in Boneshaker that so many others saw, but why others appeared so willing to overlook the novel's faults as a novel and focus instead on "fun" and "genre mash-up" and "action" and the like.
Then I got to thinking about taste and the role of the internet as a medium for expressing and disseminating it.
On one hand, SF&F blogs and other such online venues serve a truly beneficial and positive purpose for the genre. They help with exposure to new writers and works, or even to old writers and works: a kind of measuring of the pulse of SF&F right now. When I returned to reading SF&F again a few years ago (for personal and professional reasons), I was thankful to have all these resources available that got me caught up on the most notable authors and publications since about 2000. Yet blogs and other online venues don't just measure the pulse of SF&F publishing, trends, and debates. Perhaps more significantly, they give voice to a multiplicity of communities of readers joined by their tastes -- whether in urban fantasy, space opera, epic fantasy, optimistic SF, specific authors, world SF, and so forth. In this respect, they demonstrate the vitality of SF&F, across the world, which can only be a good thing.
On the other hand, these blogs and other online venues have acquired a level of authority such that they can function as arbiters of taste as well. Put differently, they take on the role of the critic, of criticism, whether intentionally or not, and so might influence the buying and reading habits of general readers. Criticism, or reviewing, is a craft in its own right. It involves a responsibility toward readers to provide a knowledgeable assessment of a work, negative or positive. With the multiplicity of blogs and other online venues, however, that responsibility can become diluted somewhat, can be overcome by the generation of hype. Put another way, the "space" between critic and general reader lessens, creating potential misperceptions about certain works or authors and then possibly about what constitutes the best of SF&F today.
True, not all hyped works and/or authors are undeserving of the attention and acclaim. True as well, I recognize that what many reviewers found exciting about Boneshaker shows how the novel accorded with their tastes, which they wanted to communicate to their readers.
While reading and then finishing Boneshaker, however, I found myself surprised by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to the novel, as I thought it proved the exact opposite to all the praise -- praise that highlighted almost exclusively its entertainment value, not necessarily its strengths or weaknesses as a work of narrative fiction. This seemed a case, to me, in which the hype got it wrong, in which criticism was sort of set aside for a fascination with a pretty face, ignoring a bland personality.
I may thus be more gun shy in the future about hyped books and authors, more wary of the less defined space between critics and general readers, which I rightly should be. Yet I appreciate, too, the democracy of taste that the internet can foster, the sharing of enthusiasm and discovery that makes the SF&F online community such a vital part of the experience of the genre. I only wonder if the genre could also be served well by a more robust criticism, such as written by Niall Harrison and most reviewers at Strange Horizons: a criticism that helps readers find their way to what is truly the "good art" in SF&F today.
Links to Reviews/Commentaries on Boneshaker
• Boing Boing (Cory Doctorow)
• Fantasy Book Critic (Robert Thomson)
• The Speculative Scotsman
• Spiral Galaxy (Karen Burnham, 21 June 2010)
• Strange Horizons (Colin Harvey)
• Subterranean Press (Gwenda Bond)
• Worlds in a Grain of Sand (Andrew Liptak, 9 June 2010)