I’ve had this book on my wishlist for a couple of years now but only recently bought it on Google Books. This one is a collection of essays, all of which you can actually read for free on the Tor website as a series of blog posts by Jo Walton. The original idea of the column was that, as the subtitle states, she would re-read the classics of science fiction and fantasy and write about her thoughts on them. I found it more convenient to read a curated set of the best ones in the form of a book and it turns out that it’s not so much about the classics of the genre as some of Walton’s favorite books.
This book comprises one hundred and thirty essays and some are about undoubted classics, such as Samuel Delany’s Nova, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and even J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Others, while too recent to be considered classics, should be works no fans of the two genres should be unaware of such as Vernor Vinge’s two books set in the Zones of Thought, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and perhaps even Greg Egan’s Permutation City. Even added together however, this consists only of a tiny fraction of the book and misses so many of the indispensable classics that it can’t be said to be truly a compendium of thoughts on them. Walton’s choices are also rather idiosyncratic. Even when she covers the great authors she often chooses lesser known works instead of the ones that made them famous, so she writes about James Blish’s A Case of Conscience instead of Cities in Flight, Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand instead of the Amber series or Lord of Light, Kim Stanley Robinson’s earlier Icehenge instead of his Mars trilogy and so forth.
If you’re looking for some slightly out of the way ideas on what to read, this book might just be the perfect fit. I especially appreciated the essays about books that are usually considered mainstream literature but that Walton thinks could be read as science-fiction or fantasy. This includes George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a book that is perenially on my to-read list but that I have never started, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It goes without mention that a side-effect of focusing on the less well known books of very well known authors is that it encourages you to read them. Walton also highlights books that she thought would make waves and yet somehow did not. A prime example would be Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack. Going through this collection certainly caused me a good number of entries to my list of books to read and this is perhaps the highest praise that I can give to it.
Unfortunately there are things that I dislike as well. Walton seems to love reading book series and nearly a quarter of the essays are about individual books from two of her favorite ones: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga and Steven Brust’s Dragaeran series. I’m usually quite adverse about getting into a new series so I’ve read none of these books yet. I wouldn’t mind an essay or two on each series to persuade me why I should be reading them but over a dozen each seems like a bit much. After a while, I found myself bored enough to simple skim through them. Another complaint is that the essays are generally too short to provide much in the way of insight or analysis. They’re not bad if the point is simply to introduce a book but when Walton tries to cover a broader topic, like the very neat genre of the so-called cozy catastrophes for example, or how the vastly different rates of faster than light speed change the character of a science-fiction setting, you feel like she barely has the space to flesh out the bare bones before the essay is over. It’s obvious that Walton has an impressive degree of knowledge about science-fiction but fantasy and I wish that she would longer, more in-depth essays that properly takes advantage of that knowledge.
Overall I found this to be a moderately useful and enjoyable collection of essays but it is very much not what I was expecting and isn’t quite as good as I’d hoped it would be. It’s mainly useful to those who already know their way around the genre. If you really are looking for a primer on the essentials of science-fiction and fantasy, this probably isn’t the book you’re looking for.