11 June 2010

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, Hype, and Taste

[WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS.]

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)
• Only the Best Sci-Fi
• SciFiGuy
SF Signal (John De Nardo)
SF Site (Katherine Peterson)
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)

12 comments:

paintings said...

Excellent post. I suppose that one of the difficulties is fairness in critical reaction. You'll get that both from readers, and from specialised critics like Colin & Niall (& many others).
One thing to be asked of critics is: are they only interested in some imagined literary Parnassus (something I don't think you could accuse Colin & Niall of) or are they just responsive to current sf tropes?
I think the solution lies in a middle ground no one but Iain M Banks (10 years ago) occupies, unless it be Al Reynolds, China Mieville, or... actually, there isn't anyone else. I'm just wishing it was Geoff Ryman.
In the meantime: Go Scalz! It doesn't mean scrap Chris Priest. or M John Harrison.

Terry Weyna said...

This is an odd approach to reviewing. You say, essentially, that the book is perfectly fun and does what it sets out to do: it's a romp, it's a zombie/steampunk mashup, it's fun to read. There are problems, but basically it succeeds on this level.

And then you go on to criticize the book for doing what it sets out to do and not trying to do anything more. That's like criticizing Tom Clancy for not writing a literary masterpiece instead of a military thriller, or blaming cheese for failing to be beef.

I don't think any of the reviews you point to as "hype" calls this book a masterpiece or anything of the sort. They all say, instead, that the book is fun. And there's nothing wrong with fun. As a reviewer, you're supposed to take the book on its own terms, not criticize it for not being something it doesn't even try to be.

Mike Johnstone said...

@paintings: Thanks for the comment. I think you're quite right about "fairness" in criticism, which I'm not sure was much in evidence with Boneshaker. Yet, true, critics can become victims of their own potentially narrow expectations and standards: the trick, I suppose, as you suggest, is to be flexible enough to stay "current" -- but also with an awareness of how the new stuff relates to and fits with previous, older stuff. I felt much of the praise for Boneshaker was overly enamoured with its newness and maybe not interested enough in its limitations as a novel. Yes, props to Reynolds and MiƩville; I have yet to read some Ryman, but I'll check him out.

Mike Johnstone said...

@Terry Weyna: Thank you for your comment. Technically, the post isn't a review of Boneshaker, but more of an essay about taste and hype using the novel as a focus. I don't think there's any point in the post where I write that I found Boneshaker fun, though I do quote several other reviewers who state this. I use such quotations to demonstrate the general tone of response to the novel and create a basis from which to question that response.

In fact, I found the book overall to be distinctly not fun, which I hope is clear in the faults of the novel that I identify. Also, I am careful to acknowledge the trickiness of criticizing a novel, in part, for not being what it is, for not doing what I think it could or should have done. As a novel, fun or not, I simply feel Boneshaker missed the mark regarding the story it told, from the perspective of what generates effective narrative tension, makes characters complex and engaging, and gives substance to the world of the narrative. For me, then, the novel does not succeed as good SF/steampunk, thus I am approaching it on its own terms, so to speak.

I agree, there's nothing wrong with a book being primarily fun and entertaining, especially if this is what tickles a particular reader's fancy. That's a matter of taste, which I certainly appreciate -- and which I believe the internet serves an important role in communicating.

I simply think the hype for the novel ultimately made it out to be more than it actually is. The Hugo and Nebula nominations for Boneshaker reinforce the hype, in a way, by claiming it as one of the best five or six SF&F novels of 2009 -- which I firmly believe not to be so.

Terry Weyna said...

I must have misread you, then. When you said: "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," I thought you were saying that you found the novel to be fun, mad, etc., but that it had "significant faults."

I also didn't understand that you weren't writing a book review. A tight focus on a single work does make it seem like a review. Your post reads rather like a hit piece on Cherie Priest's book rather than an examination of hype. I guess I think there are much better examples of hyped books that are actually not very good (think Danielle Steel, James Patterson and John Grisham). Priest's book seems to me a good effort that is a significant step for her compared to her earlier books, showing genuine growth in her as a writer.

I say this even though I agree with you that I would not have placed Boneshaker on the Hugo ballot myself. I agree with you that there are pacing problems, for instance. But I also recognize that steampunk isn't really my cup of tea, so I'll have to be cautious about that when I write my own review (I'm one of the few I know who disliked The Difference Engine, for instance).

BTW, I'm pretty sure you mean Niall Harrison instead of Niall Ferguson, since your link goes to Torque Control, which is the website of the former Niall rather than the latter. The latter is a historian and economist.

Mike Johnstone said...

@Terry Weyna: First off, thank you for the correction on Niall Harrison. Much appreciated. I got that fixed. :-)

Certainly, a fair chunk of the post constitutes, in effect, a kind of review of Boneshaker -- but in the larger context of me trying to figure a few things out regarding how online reviews and buzz create expectations that can sometimes be disappointed. I'm willing to be flexible with what I read, for a well written novel is a well written novel, no matter the genre. Steampunk aside, Boneshaker to me is simply not a well written novel, though it has elements that could make for an excellent novel and that intrigued me.

The Hugo and Nebula nominations for Boneshaker are troubling, in a way, because I can't see them as other than resulting from the hype and buzz for the novel. Yet this perhaps is also about taste, Priest's novel apparently according with the taste (maybe not so much the critical assessment) of those involved in establishing the nominees for the awards. Hmm ....

That's a fine review of McDonald's Cyberabad Days, by the way. I loved River of Gods and have been wanting to pick up the short story collection for a while. You've given me extra encouragement. Thank you.

Terry Weyna said...

Nice of you to say that about my review of Cyberabad Days. Thanks.

I'm glad for your piece because it put me on to your blog, which I haven't visited before. I'll be by again!

Jonathan M said...

I really dislike hype.

As a critic, it raises my hackles and makes me feel a responsibility to cut through it. As a reader, I find it completely alienating. Simply put, I will never read anything by Mark Charan Newton simply because of the aggression with which he hypes himself.

Nice blog, I shall put up a response to some of the discussion points later when I get a moment to myself.

Anonymous said...

I think you're too generous about the ways _Boneshaker_ did succeed. I didn't find it enjoyable even as an action/adventure romp thanks to the middle 50%, wherein a parade of underdeveloped secondary characters just clamber around the city blabbing with the heroes and telegraphing all the 'surprises' to the reader. There was nothing very striking about the premise either--this might well have been published as a _Deadlands_ novel with only slight alterations.

But what Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi both like is going to get read, and thanks to their halo effects, plus the readers' natural tendencies toward bandwagon effects, confirmation bias, and choice-supportive bias, their opinions are likely to stick. What you want, to counter that kind of hype, is a similarly well-known and beloved author willing to waste time savaging their colleagues for poor taste and/or poor writing, but since that's not really a path to becoming either well-known or beloved, it is unlikely to happen.

Mike Johnstone said...

@Jonathan M: Thanks for the kind words about the blog. I'm looking forward to your response to this discussion: do let me know when it's available.

I think you raise an important corollary issue here: the ways in which hype can negatively impact readers' decisions about what or whom to read. The opposite to Kay's notion of the "space(s)" between authors and readers/consumers disappearing, in which authors can be complicit, is a kind of distancing -- i.e., the persona of an author as communicated through forms of online "hype" can potentially alienate a reader.

I suppose there is then a further question: at what point does promotion or criticism become simply hype?

Mike Johnstone said...

@Anonymous: I will admit that Boneshaker is one of the few novels I've read in my life that I seriously considered putting down and not picking up again, primarily because I had so little interest in the characters and the incidents happening to them. The novel is "underdeveloped" as a whole, really. It moves toward becoming more developed by the end, but that suggests to me (as I write in the post) the problem of ultimately not choosing the right story to tell -- or, not choosing the right format for the story that is told (i.e., novel vs. novella).

I think you pinpoint what we might call the "politics of reviewing," or maybe the "politics of mutual support and diplomacy" among the various structures of the SF&F publishing/writing community. Authors help each other out by supporting one another's books in various ways, and in doing so can function as authorities, thereby influencing readers' tastes. Yet that is where critics and criticism can serve as a balancing factor, no? A respected critic could counter or cut through the hype to offer a more analytical take on a book, not so limited by worrying about "savaging ... colleagues"?

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