LETTERS OF COMMENT
Note: Most of the site's visitors are now using the Forum to post feedback and ask me questions. But if you wish you may still send me questions via private e-mail. If you do not want your letter posted here, be sure to say so. Most recent update: February 19, 2010.
I read the first three books of the Ender series many, years ago. The powerful issues and concepts developed by Card became a part of my own thinking in a profound way few people understand (of course, it is hard to find anyone who read any of the books except Ender's Game). Writing a paper this week, I wanted to refer to the character of "Jane" but needed to refresh my memory on details of the story. Thus I found your website on scifi and was very impressed; I will use it as a resource henceforth.
I just wanted to express my appreciation for the reflection and effort you obviously put into the reviews and creating a forum that transcends genre.
Dear Mr. Wagner,
At the age of 58 I have devoured a great deal of SF since boyhood. Having just discovered your site today (and spent more than 2 very enjoyable hours browsing various of your reviews) I just wanted to say thank you for its existence.
I enjoy your critiques immensely (turn-of-phrase stuff I suppose). Naturally I enjoy all the more reading a review of work I have already read — particularly when in one or two cases my remembered viewpoint is shockingly different to your own.
Long may your corner of the SF world continue.
Jim Parr (Electronics Design Engineer)
I just read your "review" of Poul Anderson's "Uncleftish Beholding" in Kinship with the Stars. The review appears to be dated to 2001, so I was just curious how old you were at the time and where you grew up. The review suggests that, at the time of writing, you had had rather limited background in English and/or had not yet made it through junior high school science classes.
TMW replies: I admit I did not have the background to know the story's etymological and historical roots at the time I read it, but I later received an email from a reader, to which I was happy to link, explaining those things. While his letter was not, like yours, a masterpiece of withering snark, it was on the other hand polite and informative. So while I found the story funny for one set of reasons when I read it, I soon had the pleasure of discovering it was funny for an entirely different set of reasons to boot. Stories are nice that way; you can learn a lot of things from them and broaden your experience. Though I'm sure I don't have to tell someone of your wealth of knowledge that.
I'm also unsure why you wrote that the story had been originally written for a fanzine. I must say I never asked him whether he had intended it for a fanzine but ended up publishing it elsewhere, but I only recall running into him once, and that was several years before the story first appeared in Analog.
TMW replies: Because Anderson himself says so in the introduction printed in Kinship. I confess my background in English, limited as it is only to having spoken it all my life, means that I could have grossly misinterpreted Anderson, and that when he wrote the story "originally appeared in a fan publication," he did not in fact mean that it originally appeared in a fan publication, but meant something else entirely. I will have to defer to your greater expertise in the use of English to interpret the phrase properly for me.
In any case, I hope that your reviews now are written from a more knowledgeable perspective than they were in 2001.
TMW replies: I like to think that I am more knowledgeable about a great many things than I was in 2001, though I am certain it is a vain hope indeed that I will ever ascend to your rarified heights of worldliness, wit and sophistication. I'm sure I can count on receiving the benefit of any or all three the next time the many deficiencies in my perspective manifest themselves.
Anyway, I'd have been happy to have kept this exchange to private emails. But when I tried responding, my reply bounced back with an "access denied" notice, indicating you'd blocked my address so that you wouldn't have to read any reply I might send. I imagine that, all those years you were busy establishing your CV's in academia and honing your smug sense of intellectual superiority, somewhere along the line you failed to grow a pair of balls.
This letter contains spoilers for the book The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.
Just wanted to send a quick comment on your Chrysalids review because I think it's unnecessarily critical of Wyndham's ending. I do agree that the ending could be better, for a number of reasons, but I don't believe that he actually screws up.
For one, I would argue that Wyndham clearly establishes the intentional irony of the Sealand people being little better than the Waknuk people. He does so earlier in the novel when Axel discusses at length how every culture believes that their beliefs are correct, and that all other cultures are wrong. It is not a question of evolution, or might makes it right, instead it is a comment on humanity's inherent desire to be close-minded and xenophobic.
As well, according to the themes that Wyndham established the Sealand woman has to kill the people of Waknuk and the Fringes. The clue is in the title, which refers to the life-cycle of the butterfly. An important characteristic of the life-cycle is that a caterpillar who does not turn into a butterfly dies. In the novel every single character who refuses to evolve dies. This is first established with Anne, who has the chance to become a butterfly but chooses to regress. It is also the reason that Joseph Strorm is killed at the end of the novel. The Sealand Woman's killing of the Waknuk and Fringe's people is representative of the death of Waknuk and the Fringe's on a whole. They have refused to evolve past the caterpillar stage and so they have died. Life is change, and those who refuse to change will die. Whether or not you find the fact that Sealand Woman as the agent of this change convincing is another matter.
TMW replies: That's an interesting take on the book, I appreciate it.
I think that, if this was really what Wyndham was after thematically, he's taking an overly literalist view of evolution, taking what is essentially a fact of biology and making a moral imperative out of it. The idea that you have to die if you fail to evolve past a certain point, and if there is a species more evolved than yours, is what led to pseudoscientific ideas like eugenics. Evolution via natural selection, in fact, has provided niches for all manner of life.
Anyway, many thanks for your feedback.
I enjoyed and agreed with your reviews of the books in the "Ringworld" series. I was a fan of Larry Niven from when I first read Ringworld in my early teens and for a while I had read everything he had ever written (I have since found I don't care much for late-era Niven and have outgrown much of his earlier output). I recognize his shortcomings now, but there were two negative points you emphasized about The Ringworld Engineers that I think may have been due to a misunderstanding.
Regarding the long names like "Harkabeeparolyn" that the Machine People and other races used, the length of the names is commented on by Louis (I don't have my copy handy but he said something about someone having another six-syllable name like all the Machine People he had met so far): I believe this is a subtle joke about a cultural misunderstanding and the limitations of the translator. The Machine People are the Ringworld culture most simliar to 20th century humans and they have names similar to those common in contemporary western culture - about a half-dozen meaningless syllables. My full name is six syllables, and could not be translated in my native tongue, so an automatic English-to-Alien translator would probably just give my name as whatever I identified myself as - and I would probably use at least my first and last name for an alien. Other cultures on the Ringworld which are more alien to our culture often have descriptive or symbolic names that are translated by the device - i.e. if my name was Running Bear and I identified myself that way in English, the translator would probably translate the meaning and not just the syllables.
In defense of rishathra (god I feel dirty saying that), it doesn't seem that implausible to me as no human culture has evolved in an environment where there is the possibility of sex with sentient beings much like yourself which have absolutely no chance of producing progeny. Since all our cultural mores regarding sex are tied to its reproductive facet and that we have only recently been able to isolate that from the sex act, it's hard to predict how people would adapt to "safe sex" over the course of millennia but judging by how much it has changed since the sexual revolution, I don't find it unlikely that some cultures might treat sex outside your species as those of The Ringworld Engineers do. There would be variation, and in the novel rishathra is not presented as something that every culture does.
Thanks for your time,
TMW replies: Thanks for your feedback. All excellent points.
Despite your, I feel, overly harsh criticisms of the first book, and your lukewarm response to the second, I believe that you will continue to increase the ratings as you continue reading the series. I do, with deep regret, admit that the first two books are a warm-up to the rest of the series – I also admit that in itself is not a positive mark for Robert Jordan. Most of your criticisms will be washed away by the amazing storylines, characters and lore. The characters are detailed and complex, with his various POVs illuminating the characters without ruining the numerous twists and mysteries that still elude the vast fan-base of these novels.
I would like to try and give arguments against some of your condemnations: you complain that it is obvious that Rand is the Dragon Reborn, well how many “epic fantasy” novels with ominous prophecies don’t follow the main character of the prophecy? It is not about you finding out Rand and the others’ importance; it’s about them finding out. You call the Eye of the World (tEotW) rote and formulaic! There are certainly elements that are common to other high fantasy in this first book, and the others, but I assure you that the only “major plot twists” that you saw through immediately were given to you purposefully: so you guessed Rand was the Dragon, so you guessed that Ba’alzamon was Ishmael, they were both obvious – literally given to the reader on a platter – while he set up clues and hints that reach throughout the series. I will not argue that the books are long (that would be impossible!) and I agree that they are too long for a large number of readers, though I myself read books fast enough and often enough that this is no problem for me.
Essentially though, you can disregard all my defence of the first two books: I have read the entire series twice, but I have read the books 3-11 a further 4 times. What I am really saying is that the in the later books Jordan really comes into his own and the books are truly epic (though, of course, feel free to disagree). I have one question for you, do you honestly believe that so many fans “don't demand freshness or originality” and “merely want the soothing taste of the familiar, a safe story that can be relied upon to give them precisely what they want and expect, with no surprises, nothing upsetting or disconcerting in any way.”? I think you are doing us a disrespect in saying this, and displaying surprisingly low opinions of the huge number of SF&F lovers who enjoy the Wheel of Time series.
Khogan Blair, (England)
P.S. How does Pullman get on the 100 greatest books and not Asimov (or Jordan :)
TMW responds: Regarding undemanding tastes of fans: I do think this, and I think it's true not only of SF/fantasy fans but of a large segment of the population in general. It's in the way most people swarm to see the same kinds of big-budget shoot-em-up summer action movies or romantic comedies over and over again, or buy CD's from bands and singers who all kind of sound the same, or read series romance novels (like Harlequin) that are literally put together by following a checklist handed to the writer by the publisher. Most people do like the "soothing taste of the familiar" in their entertainment and are reluctant to take a risk on something more challenging. It's just human nature. While I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with popular entertainment (a lot of times, books that take risks fail for reasons of their own), my job as a critic, I think, is to get people to consider taking those risks, to branch out and try something a little different. If I see a writer getting lazy and simply following formula, I'm more likely to come down critically on that than most fans are. (But as you noticed, I thought The Great Hunt was a better book than The Eye of the World, because Jordan was coming up with more original ideas.)
I do plan to read the rest of The Wheel of Time, about which I've heard both "it gets better" and "it gets worse". Naturally, I will go in without prejudice and, as I do with every book, consider each volume on its own merits. A lot of times fans think critics have it in for certain books simply because they're popular, and just like acting superior to the fans. My response is that I'm a fan, too. I've just developed the inclination to seek out a wider variety of stories to be a fan of. If that makes me more judgmental than most people, when I see stuff I've already seen before, well, that's an occupational hazard.
Still, I appreciate readers like you keeping me on my toes. Thanks for writing and for giving your recommendations!
In response to your PS: I'd say Pullman deserves to be there, but then maybe so does Asimov. Then again, it's not my list!
I have used your site for a while, checking out books that I may not have picked up on the basis of some of your reviews. Having few sites that actually review books, much less science fiction books, your site is a great place to actually get some feedback, and without access to an actual discussion group, share in the experience of a good book. I was wondering, since you have obviously read an awful lot of science fiction books, if you remember each book you read. See, I am looking for a title that I read in the 1980s as a teenager, and I wanted my daughter to read it. Unfortunately I cannot remember who wrote it or anything. However, the story was so strange, that it might jog your memory. It started at a kendo competition, where the lead female character actually kills her opponent using the bamboo swords they wield. She is charged with murder, though it's obvious that she was using a bamboo sword. The main story involves her traveling to another dimension/time/place, and seeking to acquire the knowledge of using three swords. She uses one, a small one, in the beginning, and then learns to use a second sword, and finally gets the knowledge to use the third, and longest sword. While she is traveling, she is confronted by an avatar of evil, who in her world was embodied by her kendo opponent, the one she subsequently killed in the match.
The female lead is also interesting because her character is extremely angry, sometimes depressed, and not the typical heroine that I've come to expect. Because of this, I'd like my daughter to read the book.
Anyway, any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated. Please keep up the great work!
TMW responds: It's quite possible you're looking for The Swordswoman, a "John Carter of Mars" pastiche by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, another author — as of this writing — lamentably not yet represented here. So there's another gap to fill soon.
Dear T. M. Wagner,
As I've recently read Going Postal
and loved it as much as I enjoy your website, I thought I'll just give you a small comment regarding your review of it:
The way Gilt and his fellow businessmen run the Grand Trunk company has many parallels with the aftermath of the privatisation of the British Railway network; from poor maintenance to rocketing costs and an ongoing engineering catastrophe masked by customer care jargon (not to mention several nasty train crushes, which were due to the said poor track maintenance, resulting in dozens of deaths and several high-profile court cases). The debate in the book of whether a public service should be run for profit and shareholder satisfaction or simply and primarily to provide a good service is highly relevant to Britain today. From where I stand (London), Going Postal
is a markedly and bitterly satirical novel.
For one of the recent episodes in the Railways saga, see for example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/pottersbar/story/0,,1583121,00.html
Other than that, all the best and keep up the good work,
This letter contains spoilers for the book The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.
Just wanted to drop a quick comment in regards to your disappointment in The Chrysalids. It's been a long time since I read it back in high school and I don't know if this works, but it strikes me as a possibility that Wyndham did what he did with the Sealanders to explicitly make the point that they weren't any better than the Waknuk fundamentalists.
In other words he is presenting a very pessimistic view of human nature wherein any and all societies show themselves to be prone to the same faults and blind spots, even those that are supposedly a step up in the evolutionary scale (as I'm sure the Sealanders viewed themselves). It can be viewed not so much as a mis-step in his storytelling as much as a blackly ironic comment on the fact that the kids are really going to a place that is certainly no better than the one they're leaving (though it is better for them simply because they will now fit in.)
In essence the Sealanders weren't the white hats riding in to save the day, they were black hats for a different interest group.
TMW responds: Hello Terry, I appreciate your opinions. Thanks for writing!
I think yours certainly a possible interpretation, but if it were Wyndham's intent for his ending to be ironic and cynical, I don't think it came across as explicit by any means. When the characters first contact the Sealanders, the kids do express reservations about them ("They seemed to think no small beans of themselves." David thinks). But the ending as it stands is clearly presented as a happy one. During the Sealander woman's speech, we see David agreeing with her views as eminently sensible, all his misgivings about their superior attitudes wiped away. She says...
"...If you still feel shocked, just consider some of the things that these people, who have taught you to think of them as your fellows, have done. I know little about your lives, but the pattern scarcely varies wherever a pocket of the older species is trying to preserve itself. And, consider too what they intended to do to you, and why."
So Wyndham has her suggesting that, hey, it's the same all over, so it's best to be on the winning team. But again, this is not "survival of the fittest", it's "Might Makes Right". Evolution has to do with species surviving based on their adaptability to their environment. It's not about stronger species going around wiping out the lesser ones with impunity. Anyway, David's reaction to what she says is:
"As before, I found her rhetorical style somewhat overwhelming, but in general I was able to follow her line of thought.... A series of memories cut off what my eyes were seeing — my Aunt Harriet's face in the water, her hair gently waving in the current; Sally, wringing her hands in anguish for Katherine, and in terror for herself; Sophie, degraded to a savage, sliding in the dust, with an arrow in her neck.... Any of those might have been a picture of Petra's future."
If you choose to interpret Waknuk as Nazi Germany, an interpretation entirely relevant in 1955 (and one I think Wyndham did intend), then this ending resonates, because the Sealanders are the Allies, swooping in to destroy an evil empire. Never mind that the Allies didn't counter the Nazis' master-race rhetoric with their own, nor did they set about killing every German in sight. Also, in the context of the novel, there's just no way that Waknuk, a primitive farming community with bows and arrows and flintlock rifles, could conceivably pose any meaningful threat to a futuristic high tech civilization full of telepaths who live on the other side of the world. So the Sealanders' wiping out the entire Waknuk and Fringe armies was overkill, so say the least. Realistically, the appearance of lights and loud noise from the sky ought to have terrified these primitives into a full-scale retreat.
I think Wyndham would (and should) have been a lot clearer about his intentions if he wanted the ending interpreted in the cynical way you suggest. (For instance, simply by having David continue expressing his doubts about them. He could still have had the kids fly off with them, but in an ambivalent rather than joyous mood.) But I don't think such intentions were made explicit by him. Since there's not really a hint of doubt (even subtextually) about the moral correctness of the Sealanders at the climax, I can only think of Wyndham as flip-flopping on the book's anti-bigotry themes.
Still, most of the book is brilliant.
I discovered your site only last week and was quite pleased to discover that our tastes seem to dovetail rather nicely. In particular, I was taken with how much I agreed with your take on VLFNs, specifically regarding Jordan vs. Martin. I couldn't agree more!
I did notice a obvious gap with regards to Mercedes Lackey. While not the greatest fantasy writer currently going (and, indeed, some of her work is rather tedious IMHO) she does have a great imagination and is prolific — she's got an entire shelf at Barnes and Noble dedicated just to her. I'd recommend starting with the "Owl" series (Owlflight, Owlsight, and Owlknight). While admittedly flawed (the first book trundles along for around 100 pages before anything happens) it's enjoyably "Herald" lite (her world's police force, which are IMHO entirely too "girls and their mystical fascination with horses" oriented) and has an enjoyable take on elves with the Taledras.
Anyway, keep up the good work. A final question — where the heck to you find the time to not only read so much, but write so many fantastic reviews?
Robert the Red
TMW responds: Easy. I have no life. (Well, heh heh, it isn't that bad, but I just make time for reading because I love it so much.) I have Lackey on my Pile — one cannot overlook a writer of that stature for long — but it looks as if I will be starting with the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy instead. Thanks for the recommendations.
Just a note to say thanks for attending ConDFW 2004 and doing the panel on "Critics vs Readers". It was my first con and I enjoyed it very much. I especially enjoyed the interplay between you and Glen Yeffeth. It was extremely educational. As you can see, I checked out your website and was delighted to find that you're a fellow Texan and living in my hometown.
I was a little disappointed that the forum was not more lively, but I know from experience that you have little or no control over that. I can recommend a free message board to you if your server provide a database with your site. I don't know if you really want to get that involved or not.
Anyway, thanks again. I look forward to your first review of Martha Wells books, a fellow Texan, by the way. Although the poor lady lives in Aggieland (College Station).
TMW responds: Thank you. You may have noticed that with the spring 2004 site redesign I've dropped the forum. With such already-active forums as rec.arts.sf.written, there really wasn't anything there readers weren't already being offered elsewhere on the net. I'm happy to just keep the site a review archive.
HiI recently stumbled across your site while searching for reviews of Wizard's First Rule. (A book Amazon keeps telling me I should love, but which I can't seem to get particularly interested in.) I was quite impressedwhile it seems like a new b-movie review site springs up every day, there is a lack of solid genre fiction reviewing out there, and it was a pleasant surprise to find a site that a.) had a large number of reviews and b.) was well-written and intelligent. While I can't say I agree with all your opinionsI actually loved the first Wheel of Time book, and only started losing interest around book nine or soI enjoy reading 'em, and you've added a few books to my "Gotta read before I die" list. Just took Forge of God out the library today, as a matter of fact.
Out of curiousity, have you read Dan Simmon's Hyperion series? The first book is a damn good collection of novellas packaged as one straight-through story; but I found the series weakened as it went, and I never finished the fourth book. There is a messiah figure in the second half of the series (it's four books long, total) who the reader is supposed to love, and who I just can't standI hate condescending, wiser-than-everybody characters with a passion. Still, it's fairly strong and well-thought out stuff, that only really flails when it starts advocating (per the usual) love as the primary force behind everything in the universe.
Also, I'm curious if you plan on reviewing either of Alfred Bester's two classics, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. I had the good fortune to stumble over them a year back, and was not disappointed. Anyway, just wanted to write and say, I'm a fan, keep up the good work, and I look forward to feature reviews. Oh, and happy holidays.
TMW responds: Thanks for the nice comments. You know the lament: so many books, so little time. The best I can say is, yes, I do plan to get around to covering the fine authors you suggest. Look for the range of authors reviewed to expand, filling in many gaps as the months pass.
I read your review paragraph of Poul Anderson's "Uncleftish Beholding"
. I wish to point out that this is not an "absurd" or nonsensical piece. It was simply a straightforward example of what our English language would look like if the Norman French had never conquered England in 1066. Many of the words in Modern English are borrowed from French and Latin (particularly scientific terminology). Anderson simply 'reconstructed' physics terms from the Old English (=Anglo-Saxon) language. An otherwise bland physics essay is interesting because it shows what the English language would look like in this 'alternate history'.
I read your edlooking besidewrit of Poul Anderson's "Atomic Theory". I wish to prick out that is not an "offdeaf" or unmeaningful shard. It was sumfoldly a straightforward outtake of what our English tongue would look like if the Norman French had never withsought England in 1066. Many of the words in New English are borrowed from French and Latin (motely knowledgish boundlore). Anderson sumfoldly 'remade' worldkenning bounds from the Old English (=Angle-Saxon) tongue. An otherwise mild worldken weighing is inbeing bethought it shows what the English tongue would look like in this othertwisting witting'.
I just write to tell you that I've checked around your SF & F book reviews and have found them very entertaining and insightful. More insightful, in fact, that any other review source in the Internet for such material. I find myself agreeing with you on most of the opinions expressed. You hit the nail on the head with Robert Jordan's bloated, dull "Wheel of Time" debut The Eye of the World
, and express in a very articulate way my absolute admiration of George R. R. Martin's "Song of Ice & Fire."
Another thing that I enjoyed greatly from your website is that you are, I think, the only SF reviewer who admires Poul Anderson and actually has reviews of his numerous books. I believe this incredibly prolific and consistently good writer is somewhat ignored by most readers, even though he excels in both hard science fiction and heroic fantasy.
These factors make me believe you're a reliable source to find good SF, and I'm looking forward to check out your more enthusiastic recommendations.
That said, I would find it interesting to read you opinions on some novels I've read that I think would be cool to have included in the lists. I'm sure your reading list is cluttered enough without visitors giving you a deluge of suggestions, but anyway: MAIA by Richard Adams. You put somewhere in one of your reviews that it's a piece of trash. I read it about five years ago. I'm really curious about why you hated it so much, since I don't remember it as a horrible book, but then again, maybe I liked it for the wrong reasons. I sometimes like things that everybody else regards as utter trash, so it wouldn't be the first time. A STORM OF SWORDS by George R. R. Martin. The last, and in my opinion, the best and most intense of the three ASOIAF books so far published. I'm curious about your mind on that one. Is Martin improving, or has he become another VLFN mechanical purveyor, a la Jordan? HARVEST OF STARS, THE KING OF YS and ORION SHALL RISE by Poul Anderson. All very different from his great Flandry stories.
Antonio José Mendoza
TMW responds: Ah, you and I didn't like Eye of the World, Zack did. Differing opinions make the world go around. Of course I ought to give Maia a second try. At the time (I read it, or tried to, first in 1985 when it originally came out) I found it a stunningly dull slave girl novel, with no interesting characters or forward momentum. But perhaps my expectations were skewed by my love for Watership Down, perhaps my favorite book at that age, and a book as unlike Maia as Adams could have written. All the other Andersons you mention will be coveredI kind of want to beef up my coverage of other authors before getting back to him.
I was really impressed with your site. I am a library school student and found your site as a result of an assignment for my collection development class. I'm analyzing reviews of Peter Watt's work; so I appreciated your review of Starfish
. Our final project will be to create a viable collection for a real "agency". I'm doing mine for the public library. It's still very early but I'm hoping to get them to let me develop a science fiction DVD and/or video collection. If I can get that approved, I'm sure you'll be hearing from me probably more than want.
Liege-Killer is one of my favorite books and one not that well known even among the science fiction fans I've come across. I've always loved introducing it to them; so I really appreciated your review of it as well.
I just wanted to write a quick note thanking you for your site. The reviews included enough of the plot to let me know if it was something that would interest me, but not so much as to give anything away or reduce the review to a summary. I thought you presented and supported your opinions clearly and insightfully. The site is also well organized, easy to navigate, and the reviews easy to read. I appreciate your providing the site as a public service. Once again, thank you.
By the way, you mentioned that you appreciated being sent suggestions of books to read. From the reviews on your site of books I have read it seems we share at least some tastes, so I will recommend a couple of books. I really enjoy stuff by Steven Brust, especially the Vlad Taltos series (Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, Phoenix), the books Agyar, Freedom and Necessity, The Pheonix Guards, and 500 Years Later. I also like pretty much everything that Vernor Vinge has written. I'd recommend Roger Zelazny and Iain Banks, but it seems you already know about them.
I just wanted to mention that this site that you made for F and SF books is exactly what I have been looking for. Your reviews are fair, and I believe I'll be spending some time here. Just to let you know,