What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

Re-reading the classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Corsair, 2015, 477 p.

 What Makes This Book So Great cover

This is a collection of Walton’s contributions to a blog on Tor.com, appearing between 15/6/2008 and 25/2/2011, in which she discussed the works of SF and fantasy she had been re-reading during that time. Her claim to be able to read up to six books in a day astonished me. If she’s doing that how does she fit in everyday life – food shopping, cooking, eating, family life, putting out the bins? Where on Earth can she find time to write fiction, or a blog post? Yes she says she sometimes spends all day in bed (I assume through illness or some debilitation) but even so. Admittedly that six was a maximum and she says she starts another book as soon as finishing the previous one. There was also the odd, to me, observation that she feels she hasn’t read a book if she hasn’t re-read it at least once; that first impressions of a book are suspect. I differ here, certainly from a later in life perspective. If a book does it for me the first time that’s fine; with perhaps a very few exceptions, if it doesn’t, a re-read is unlikely to help. My tbr pile is too high for much re-reading anyway. I also cannot read at Walton’s pace. Perhaps I pay too close an attention to the minutiae of a text; vide Pedant’s corner.

Many of Walton’s enthusiasms I doubt I would share. She spends 14 posts and over 60 pages here on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series which has far too many volumes for me to embark upon now, and in any case I have a disrecommendation from another source. Similarly 17 posts and 53 pages on Steven Brust’s Dragaera series. Not going to happen.

Walton always writes interestingly about the subject at hand; even of books I have no desire to read (whatever her eloquence.) And “IWantToReadItosity” is a great coinage. “It’s hard to explain, is utterly subjective and is entirely separate from whether a book is actually good.” We all have such guilty pleasures.

She occasionally digresses from the SF/Fantasy remit, for example enthusing about Iain Banks’s The Crow Road and of Middlemarch opines that George Eliot would have been a great writer of Science Fiction if only she’d had the idea to invent the form.

A puff on the back cover quotes Publishers Weekly, ‘For readers unschooled in the history of SF/F, this book is a treasure trove.’ I wouldn’t disagree.

Pedant’s corner:- Various instances of “there are a number” or “there are a lot” – too many to note individually. “I admire it to no end” (if anything this means “there is no purpose to my admiration of it”. I assume Walton meant “I admire it no end.”) a missing comma before a quote (x 2,) Achilles’ (Achilles’s,) visit with (visit,) “Every culture has their own naming custom” (its own naming custom,) “and right go on into” (and go right on into,) for goodness’ sake (goodness’s.) “The Mazianni are a company fleet” (is a fleet,) “the rest of the worlsd … look on jealously” (looks on,) “The weight of significance of things … sometimes need” (needs,) “when it gets us information” (gives us,) Marilac – but two lines later Marilican Embassy (which is it; Marilac or Marilic, Marilacan or Marilican?) “global warming has deteriorated” (“the climate has deteriorated because of global warming,”) “and is decided” (either “has decided” or “is tasked with” the context isn’t entirely clear,) Katan (Katin on next page,) “‘going I know not whence’” (in a quote from Dunsany; whence means “from where” – you can’t go “from where”,) “‘to be a part of the forest. (from ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for the Sacnoth’)” (no full stop after forest; or else a capital F at “from” and a full stop after Sacnoth.) “There are the sort of situations,” (the sorts of situations,) “who’s presented a great poet” (as a great poet,) elegaic (it’s spelled elegiac.) “There were a host (there was a host,) “that the British population shrink” (shrinks,) “Shute’s Britain …., indeed their ability” (its ability,) “to get away with Nicholas’s guesses to be more often right than wrong” (being more often,) to whit (to wit,) the PTA are considering (the PTA is considering,) vaccuum (vacuum,) “These are the kind of” (kinds of,) Marcus Aurelius’ (Marcus Aurelius’s,) “so that she has learned to thank people, and realise how nice” (realised,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “Small Beer are definitely my favourite small press” (is definitely,) vapourised (vaporised, this is a curious error in a book full of USianisms,) ascendency (ascendancy,) philo-sophical (no hyphen) even moreso (more so.)

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