The OF Blog: Trying to make sense of a muddled review: The Amazon Review Edition

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Trying to make sense of a muddled review: The Amazon Review Edition

Earlier tonight, I was linked to this Amazon reader review of Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds, a forthcoming second book from a Caribbean writer whose firs book, Redemption in Indigo, I did enjoy reading back in 2010.  I am not criticizing this review because it takes a dimmer view of Lord's novel (I haven't read it yet and some writers' second novels are poor compared to their first), but rather because the Amazon reader has written a baffling review that is hard to parse:

Echoing none other than Ursula Le Guin in her theme, literary style and execution, Karen Lord's "The Best of All Possible Worlds" is a good anthropological science fiction novel which tackles the theme of how a people can survive the cataclysmic loss of their home world, while forging new lives for themselves in exile on a distant, relatively remote, world. As such, it will appeal to those interested in reading novels - both mainstream and science fiction - that deal with peoples and cultures driven out of their ancestral lands, and forced to seek refuge elsewhere. In Lord's case, she dares to pose the question as to how uprooted peoples and cultures can survive in settings far removed from their ancestral homes. "The Best of All Possible Worlds" has been compared favorably with Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl" and with China Mieville's "The City and the City" and "Embassytown", and yet, these are not quite apt comparisons since Lord hasn't demonstrated here neither a prose style as elegant as those employed by Mieville and Bacigalupi in their respective works, nor the considerable world building and intricate plotting all too evident in these novels, especially in Mieville's latest, which go well beyond their genre-oriented roots in becoming elaborate tales that delve into philosophy and the nature of language itself.

Thematically, "The Best of All Possible Worlds" resembles most closely, Le Guin's "The Dispossessed", but neither of her main protagonists, the exiled Sadiri Dllenahkh and the Cygnian native Grace Delarua, is as emotionally compelling as Shevek - the exiled physicist who conceives of the ansible - faster than light radio - in "The Dispossessed". Nor does Lord's prose have the almost cinema verite-like, extremely realistic, quality of Bacigalupi's early 22nd Century Bangkok, Thailand in his "The Windup Girl", or similar realism in Mieville's "The City and the City" and "Embassytown"; in the fictional locales of all three novels, readers will feel as though they are inhabiting their respective landscapes alongside the protagonists of each novel. (In Mieville's case, "Embassytown" succeeds as a grand exploration of language in fiction, as well as a compelling first contact saga; in other words, it is a brilliant novel that succeeds on a number of different levels, whereas "The Best of Both Worlds" barely succeeds as a good example of anthropological science fiction in its own right.) Nor do I find Lord's prose as compelling as anything I have read from Catherynne Valente or Nalo Hopkinson; in Hopkinson's case, she does a far more elegant job in melding Caribbean folklore and cultural traditions with intricate world-building and compelling storytelling in her fiction than what I have read in "The Best of All Possible Worlds". Readers may be enchanted with Lord's descriptions of the different societies residing on Cygnus Beta - and these are among the best reasons why one should read "The Best of All Possible Worlds" - but I regard as far more compelling, Le Guin's great work from the 1960s through 1980s - including, of course, "The Dispossessed" and "The Left Hand of Darkness" - or Mary Doria Russell's amazingly brilliant "The Sparrow", which I regard as among the finest examples of anthropological science fiction ever published, and one that still endures as a classic. Compared with these works, and especially, Mieville's "Embassytown", "The Best of All Possible Worlds" is a rather pedestrian-like anthropological science fiction novel with more than a nod or two of romance to interest readers; however, potential readers might profit more with regards to literary quality and storytelling craft by reading Bacigalupi, Hopkinson, Le Guin, Mieville and Valente first before they consider reading "The Best of All Possible Worlds". 

 I bolded the direct references to other writers in his review in order to underscore the amount of time spent mentioning other writers – Ursula Le Guin, Paolo Bacigalupi, China Miéville, Nalo Hopkinson, Mary Doria Russell, and Catherynne M. Valente – compared to discussing the qualities of Karen Lord's own writing.  Outside of a very vague description of an off-world SF setting of refugees driven to another world, I barely know anything at all about the novel's setting and plot, not to mention theme or characterization (which I esteem more than the first two narrative elements).  It would have been nice to see something substantive said about the book itself that could be found outside the cover copy/press kit blurbs.  Even Harriet Klausner sometimes makes a better effort at describing a book than this.

Now there is nothing wrong with using other stories as comparison points in order to drive home a point.  I myself occasionally do so (and will likely do so again when I write my review of the rather mediocre-to-poor final Wheel of Time novel, as I plan on comparing it to Steven Erikson's closing book in his "main" Malazan Book of the Fallen series), but one has to be very careful when it comes to using points of relation in writing a review or critique.  It is one thing to take a specific element (say, the treatment of a specific culture and its practitioners) and to compare like quantities.  It is a very different matter to make passing references to other books that have only a tangential connection.  Having read all six of the writers that this Amazon reviewer, John Kwok, name drops here, I was left scratching my head as to what in the hell he was trying to compare.  Was The Best of All Possible Worlds a poorer look at anarchism?  Did it try to make – and fail spectacularly and doing so – a pointed statement on social and physical capital like Bacigalupi's problematic novel?  Did it just not have enough monsters and even more underdeveloped "cool ideas" vis-à-vis Miéville?  Was the first contact theme less interesting than Russell's?  Was the beauty of the writing not like Valente's?  Or was it just simply not enough on Caribbean culture(s), at least compared to Hopkinson? 

Based on what Kwok has written, it's hard to say anything more about Lord's strengths and weaknesses here because all the reader gets to work with is a laundry list of disparate writers/books that when viewed in the aggregate make as much sense as if I were to start listing the following animals and compare them to the glories/depravities of the American gray squirrel:  turkeys, slugs, reindeer, fruit bats, quokkas, llamas, and fennecs.  It just wouldn't make sense, just like Kwok's review makes little sense when examined closely.  All the reader can take from his review is that he likes the writers he mentioned and Lord not so much.  Hell if we are supposed to know what Lord's story is really about, since there is less description of it than can be found in the product description.  Reviewers should be careful not to overdo comparisons, as the result can be as muddled and cringe-worthy as Kwok's review proved to be.

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