What Makes this Book So Great — Jo Walton

Cover of What Makes this Book So Great

What Makes this Book So Great
Jo Walton
446 pages
published in 2014

What Makes this Book So Great is that it’s written by Jo Walton, who has a real talent for making you both reconsider books you know well or long for books you’ve never heard of before. I’ve known Jo for almost twenty years now, from when we both independently discovered internet, usenet and rec.arts.sf.written, where it didn’t take long for her to become one of the most interesting posters there. It was no great surprise that she became a professional writer, or that Tor would ask her to do the same thing she did on usenet on their website, the end result of which is this book. You could call it the non-fiction counterpart of Jo’s Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others

What this is than is a collection of some 130 columns written for tor.com in 2008-2010, mostly discussing a single book, sometimes going into more general topics about reading books. As Jo makes clear from the start, she isn’t a critic and she’s not reviewing these books, she’s just writing about the books she’s reading and why she likes them. Because she’s been reading for a long time, because she’s a writer herself, because she’s been thinking and talking about books, about science fiction in the ways only an intelligent lifelong reader can, these columns are interesting whether or not you’ve read the books in question.

Now Jo Walton is one of the persons who’ve done a lot in shaping my own reading over the past twenty years and a lot of the novels she’s talking about here we used to discuss on usenet way back when. Reading this felt a lot like going back to those days and at times I wanted this to be an usenet discussion rather than a book just to say “yes, but” or “have you thought of”.

To be honest, because she did so much to shape my reading, because so many of the books she likes are also favourites of mine, it’s hard to be very objective about this book. Whether or not you’ll like it depends on how much you like Jo’s voice and enthusiasms. If you’ve read Among Others you’ll already know that she grew up reading science fiction in the seventies and that while she does read outside of the science fiction and fantasy genres, those are her home turf.

Her tastes, as seen in the columns collected here, run to the more literary part of the genre, rather than the hardcore Heinlein/Campbellian tradition. Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke do appear, but writers like Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Tanith Lee, Ursula LeGuin or Jack Womack get as much if not more attention. Jo also spends much time looking over less well known writers, both writing inside and outside the genre, to bring to the attention interesting books otherwise overlooked. It’s interesting to see which writers she pays the most attention to, which seem to be mostly those writers rec.arts.sf.written was in love with in the nineties: both Steve Brust’s Draegeran novels and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga get long series of reviews, as do the Alliance/Union novels of C. J. Cherryh. Other rasfw darlings like Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks and John Barnes also make multiple appearances.

The picture of Jo Walton you get is that of an intelligent, demanding reader who wants both intellectual stimulance as well as a good story. She doesn’t have much truck with experimental writing, or so it seems, as most of the book talked about are fairly mainstream in their construction, but doesn’t go for much pulp either, the occasional indulgence like Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries nonewithstanding.

I’d read a lot of these columns when they first appeared on tor.com a few years ago, but rereading them was no punishment. What Makes this Book So Great made me want to reread those books I already knew about and seek out those that were new to me, which I find is the ultimate sign of a book like this: to make you curious about the books discussed.

Type: The Secret History of Letters – Simon Loxley

Cover of Type: The Secret History of Letters

Type: The Secret History of Letters
Simon Loxley
248 pages, including index
published in 2004

Typography is one of those ultra-nerdy obsessions that sweep through geekdom every few years or so, with people getting het up about Comics Sans again. It can all seem incredibly tedious, but in the right hand typography and its history can become interesting. Fortunately, Simon Loxley is up to the challenge. Type: the Secret History of Letters treats the history of typesetting and fonts by showing the highlights, each chapter looking at a different development, without necessarily providing an exhaustive history. This keeps things interesting for people like me, vaguely but not hugely interested in the subject.

What got me to read the book was the first page, which had a concise explanation of the basic terminology of type, with examples. Which means that anytime you got confused when the text was talking about x-height and ascenders or descenders or the difference in serifed and sans serif typefaces, you could easily flip back and refresh your memory. In the same way I like how Loxley provides examples of the fonts he talks about, in the right or left side margins of the page they’re introduced, by showing the most distinctive letters of the font.

Loxley starts his history at the source, Gutenberg. You can’t have print fonts without printing after all. In passing he discusses all the other candidates for the invention of printing, including Holland’s own Laurenszoon Coster. He also uses this introductory chapter to explain the basic technology of the printing press and what typesetting exactly is. From there he moves on to the wonderful world of fonts, of how so many different looking fonts have been designed over the years and what the point of them is.

The original Gutenberg fonts were not so much designed as evolved, as Loxley tells it, from the example of handwritten manuscript. As printing took off and spread across Europe, new fonts were designed to fit local fashions and needs, as shown by the examples of William Caslon and John Baskerville. These fashions slowly changed over the next few centuries until the explosion of type in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with mass literacy and the rise of the advertisement industry. Loxley tells this story by hitting the hightlight, focusing on the main designers of an era like e.g Frederic Goudy or Eric Gill. Inbetween he has some detours to subjects only of secondary interest to the main topic, like the rise of micro foundries.

All this makes for a somewhat disjoined narrative, though to be honest if Loxley had attempted a more exhaustive history it would become boring anyway. That’s always the problem with writing a general introductory history on such a complicated subject, finding the right balance between depth and interest. Loxley for the most part managed to get this right, even if he sometimes lost himself in the details.

A Writer’s Diary – Virginia Woolf

Cover of A Writer's Diary

A Writer’s Diary
Virginia Woolf
350 pages including index
published in 1953

A Writer’s Diary is an extract of her personal diaries put together by her husband and widower Leonard Woolf a decade or so after her death. It’s been edited to keep out the more personal entries as well as to slim down the original twentysix handwritten volumes to a more managable size. What remains is a volume of entries detailing Virginia Woolf’s writing process, enlivened by sprinklings of literary gossip and the occasional entry talking about the general state of the world. The diary starts in 1918 and ends in march of 1941, not long before her death. Although the only other Virginia Woolf book I’ve read was A Room of One’s Own some four years ago, this didn’t really matter; you don’t need to know her other work to find meaning in this, nor is it spoiled by reading about the process by which it was created first.

Virginia Woolf was not the happiest of writers. Throughout her life she suffered from nervous breakdowns, as also seen in her diary, and she ultimately ended her life by drowning herself after she felt “the madness” returning. She also suffered from extreme mood swings, which is clearly visible reading through A Writer’s Diary, where one day she would write with pleasure how well the writing on a given book went, the next day despairing about the critical reception she expected for the same book. In some of the entries talking about social events you can also see that while she enjoy being social, these sort of things took a lot of energy out of her. As somebody relatively introvert myself, I can sympathise.

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My Loot, let me show you it (again)

I spent a little bit too much money getting more classic science fiction, but there was so much good stuff and honestly I could’ve walked out with twice the number of books I did:

  • The Halfling and Other Stories – Leigh Brackett
  • Odd John Olaf Stapledon
  • The Island Under the Earth Avram Davidson
  • Mutiny in Space Avram Davidson
  • The Phoenix and the Mirror Avram Davidson
  • The Falling Torch Algis Budrys
  • The Texas-Israeli War: 1999Howard Waldrop & Jake Saunders
  • Time for the Stars Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Universe Against Her James H. Schmitz
  • Virconium Nights M. John Harrison
  • The Floating Gods M. John Harrison
  • A Storm of Wings M. John Harrison
  • Quark 4 Samuel Delany & Marylin Hacker (editors)
  • The Chronicles of Corum Michael Moorcock
  • The Inner Wheel Keith Roberts
  • Eyes of Amber Joan D. Vinge

The World Hitler Never Made — Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Cover of The World Hitler Never Made

The World Hitler Never Made
Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
462 pages, including index and notes
published in 1990

Alternate history is a subgenre of science fiction, which revolves around asking what if the great historical events of the past happened differently, what would the world look like then? It’s unique in that it was invented twice at roughly the same tinme: in the pulp science fiction of the 1930s, but also amongst serious historians at the same time, independently of each other. Murray Leinster introduced the idea to science fiction in 1934, in “Sideways in Time“, while three years earlier a collection of alt-historical essays had appeared under the title If it Had Happened Otherwise, which contained contributions by such people as Winston Churchill. Much of what appeared in the pulps on this subject was of course the usual science fiction nonsense, not at all related to true history; it was only after World War II that science fiction writers would get interested in proper alternate history stories, rather than stories about visiting alternate worlds, with no resemblance to our own.

The reason is obvious: the Second World War seemed so much the work of an evil genius, Adolf Hitler, that it was very tempting to ask what would’ve happened if he hadn’t existed. At the same time, the menace of the nazis was so clear and the consequences of their victory so horrible that again, it was tempting to ask what would’ve happened if… Finally, there’s also the fate of Hitler himself, who disappeared at the end of the war, allegedly having committed suicide. Because the Russians refused to
confirm his suicide until the end of the Cold War, the road was clear for speculation about what else might’ve happened…

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