Russ reviews

My pick-a-random-unread-book system recently picked Joanna Russ’s reviews-and-essays collection The Country You Have Never Seen. I’m not normally a big reader of reviews—I don’t hate them, they’re just not something I tend to be super into. But in this case, I laughed out loud half a dozen times in the first couple dozen pages.

Partly that’s because some of her reviews are entertainingly snarky, which is a mode that I often find a little offputting (I generally don’t like mean humor) but somehow is amusing me in this context. Example (p. 7):

Colin Wilson has produced […] “a ‘Lovecraft novel’” entitled The Mind Parasites. Devotees of HPL will be disappointed, however, and so will everybody else; [this book] is not in the Lovecraft tradition but in the Boy’s Life Gee Whiz tradition and ought to be called “Tom Swift and the Tsathogguans.” It is one of the worst books I have ever read and very enjoyable, but then I did not have to pay for it.

But partly it’s also the occasional entertaining bit of silliness (p. 10):

A Torrent of Faces is written by James Blish and Norman L. Knight. This makes for difficulty in constructing a compound name—it comes out either Blight or Knish, which is unfair to the book.

Anyway, aside from the humor, I like that Russ clearly cares deeply about creating good science fiction, and in most of the reviews she talks about both things that she thinks were done well and things that she doesn’t (usually from a perspective of also being familiar with the rest of the author’s body of work). I also like that she’s fine with pop culture entertainment. Her most frequently recurring objection in the reviews I’ve read so far seems to be about books in which she feels that the degree of character three-dimensionality is at odds with the kind of book it is or the way the characters are used. For example, from a review of Robert Merle’s The Day of the Dolphin (p. 33):

If characters have to be introduced to do utilitarian things in books—like turning on electric lights—I far and away prefer the lightweight, portable, flexible cardboard cutouts that science fiction writers are so fond of to M. Merle’s well-rounded, “realistic,” ponderous, wooden dummies.

So far, I’ve only read the first 40 or so pages of this book, reprinting Russ’s F&SF reviews from 1966 through 1970. But I’m enjoying the book so far.

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