Gollancz p/b 365 pp. £9.99

Reviewed by Ritchie Valentine Smith

I pulled Jo Walton’s blog-sourced book out of the BFS to-be-reviewed mountain for two main reasons. First of all, much of it covers a time of particular interest to me (and, I suspect, of particular interest in the history of the genre) – the 60s and 70s. That was when a lot of the hip, fascinating classics most of us love were written. Walton comments with insight and true love on such writers as Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany, and Ursula Le Guin. Secondly, for various reasons my interest in SF dwindled in the 80s, and Jo Walton covers this period and after. I hoped to learn something about the writers who emerged then, and did – and so might you. ‘What Makes This Book So Good’ has no question mark, note; she’s going to tell you what makes these very different books (mostly) so good. Does she?

Have the conclusion now, rather than at the end. Jo Walton is an excellent guide to SF and fantasy. Her wonderful enthusiasm – ‘I want to jump up and down, saying “Nova”! Read “Nova”! Do you know how good it is?’ – makes me want to re-read those classics, and at least dip into some of the later works she looks at. (That’s why this review has taken so long!)

This is a very likeable collection of mini-essays. With side-glances at George Eliot and others, Walton mainly covers what I suppose we can call mainstream SF and fantasy, from the 60s/70s greats to others who never rose to become household names (at least not in the Valentine Smith household). These newer writers include Maureen McHugh, John M. Ford, and Steven Brust. It would be fair to say that (even though Walton is genuinely sympathetic to them) none of these match up to those earlier giants. I wouldn’t rush to read them – but you might, if you read Jo Walton’s blog posts. I have a particular interest in what she says about the 80s and onwards, when I drifted away from our lovable genre. For example, I remember dipping into C.J. Cherryh. Cherryh is clearly a talent, and ‘Cyteen’ is powerful, but Walton makes a telling point: the books just aren’t likeable. Also, Cherryh was probably unlucky, beginning to write SF just as computerization came in. I remember reading one of hers which had – ludicrous, now – manned (or perhaps I should say personned) gun-turrets.

Walton herself, by contrast, is immensely likeable. Reading this book you imagine having long enthusiastic conversations with her about writers. Jo Walton is, in the best sense of the word, a fan. I suppose part of the reason I liked this book so much was because a lot of what she says I would have said myself, only not so entertainingly. For example, she looks at Alan Garner’s ‘Red Shift’. This is a wonderful, difficult book that transcends my ability to analyze. She agrees it’s a wonderful, difficult book, and even she can’t quite explain it, but the point is she knows it’s wonderful, and somehow lets you know why it’s ‘so good’.

I haven’t read all of these mini-essays, but I have enjoyed every one that I have read, and I will read them all. I even liked the tiny error I spotted. She has Keith Roberts’ ‘cosy catastrophe’ ‘The Furies’ being caused by ‘bees’. Nope; caused by giant and authentically terrifying wasps! 

So what about all those years I missed out on? What undying classics did I miss? It’s chastening for all writers and readers to read Walton on ‘the important book. The sort of book that everyone is talking about even if they hate it, the sort of book that gets reviewed everywhere and appears on award lists and gets discussed’. That was about a bunch of books from around 2008. It’s now 2019 and I’ve never heard of any of them…

The later writers she advocates (and I’ve dipped into many by now) bring me back to what I mentioned at the start: the greats of the 60s and 70s, like Delany, Ursula Le Guin, and the best of Zelazny. After reading Jo Walton I thought again about – and actually re-read – some of their works, such as ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ and ‘Lord of Light’. My conclusion? Even a commentator as sympathetic and enthusiastic as Jo Walton can’t make Lois McMaster Bujold (with her ‘Vorkosigan saga’) into a giant, while I think some of her predecessors were. Let me quote Walton on Zelazny: ‘Nobody ever did it better.’ And here’s a few words from the divine Ursula that (to me) are about the experience, when young, of reading those great sf writers: ‘I’m glad I have lived to see this.’

Jo Walton is also glad, and makes us as readers feel glad too.

To close, I wonder if any BFS members might like to nominate writers of today who equal the greats of the 60s and 70s. I would personally cite George R. R. Martin. Any others?