Saturday, June 20, 2009

Luke Burrage's sf podcast

Lately, I've been listening a lot to Luke Burrage talk about the books he's read on his Science Fiction Book Review Podcast. A professional juggler and writer who recently released (for free on his site) his short novel Minding Tomorrow, Luke has produced a series of fifty or sixty (so far) podcasts in which he comments on books. As he states in his intro to each installment, he works on no particular schedule with it. When he finishes a book, he reviews it and then reads another one. I discovered him recently when he was a guest on the SFF Audio Podcast. I pulled down from iTunes a couple weeks ago the entire run of his series and have been gradually working my way through them.

What Luke does with these podcasts makes me think a bit about the purpose and value of reviews, things that I often question. Generally, I am not that interested in hearing a negative review unless the subject matter really deserves it for some egregious excess. For example, a long time ago on this blog I went ahead and slammed Orson Scott Card's novel Empire. I did this because it is an objective fact that this book is a stinking heap of crap and that Card, author of the beautiful Ender's Game/Ender's Shadow diptych, should have been embarrassed to have let it out in public with his name on it. If he had not already built a reputation as a fine writer during the previous couple of decades, he would not be able to recover from the Empire fiasco. Also, I am more comfortable with taking a swipe at a Big Brand-Name Author when it's deserved than I would if it were a new, mid-level or non-pro writer. This standard holds for all things with me, in fact. As a former restaurant owner who received mixed reviews from the newspapers, I would never slam a small business person who is trying to do something new and not hurting anyone in the process. But I will go ahead and say that I detest big-box chain restaurants, and that I think Applebee's is the single worst restaurant on Earth. I'll also say that I hate 90 percent of fast food and that I think that McDonald's is a web of mucus that has enmeshed the planet. But if I can't say something nice about the family-owned joint in my neighborhood, then I'll say nothing at all.

Luke Burrage's reviews are frequently quite negative, even blisteringly so. Indeed, I wonder if I'd even listen to them if they were delivered not in his cute easy-on-the-ears British voice but rather with a harsh Okie twang. He also disagrees with me a lot: he hated Neuromancer, Fall of Hyperion, and Snow Crash. On the other hand, his criticisms are intelligent, well-reasoned and thoughtful, and he fits into my Good Reviewer standard of generally not assaulting weaklings: Gibson, Simmons and Stephenson (like Card, above) are giants, don't really need defenders, and if they did, then I'm sure that a lot of them would appear. He also, I must admit, made me think more seriously about the merits of a series of books that I read faithfully and generally accept without much thought: the Brian Herbert/Kevin Anderson Dune prequels and sequels. I have always considered them to be a different and lesser product than Frank Herbert's originals, but I have generally found them to be fun to read and happily accept each new candy-coated installment just like I did with new Star Wars movies and new Star Trek TV series (except Enterprise--never did like that one despite every effort at it). 

Luke reviews, in different installments of his show, Hunters of Dune (the first of two sequels to the elder Herbert's Chapterhouse Dune) and Paul of Dune (a recent story set in between the first two of the original novels). He hated both of them and didn't even finish reading them. He was particularly offended by the casual violence in the latter book. It is true that someone is being killed at any given moment in the story, usually for no good reason other than to get them out of the way and move on to the next scene. The bloodshed and high body count of these books is something that's never really bothered me. I don't necessarily object to cartoonish levels of violence and often find it to be pretty fun, even cathartic, in some situations. But Luke makes a good point in his commentary on this particular story: the over-the-top violence tars even the "heroes" of the story and makes it hard to like any of the characters at all. The heroes are at least as vicious as the villains. During his review, he says that he reached such a point of exhaustion with this that he decided that if another main character killed someone for no good reason, then he would put down the book and read it no further. That moment promptly happened when Gurney Halleck is given control of the planet Giedi Prime and behaves as badly as the Baron Harkonnen himself, going around garroting everyone as revenge for the trauma he suffered in the Harkonnen slave pits as a youth. The moral ambiguity of the characters in all these books, including Herbert's originals, is a central feature of the Dune universe...but Luke is right about this one, and this book really doesn't deserve as much credit as I gave it when I read it. It has made me think about my novel-in-progress, Shame, which has a lot of flawed characters, moral ambiguity and violence. I'm happy to say that I think I have avoided, without even having planned to avoid them, these kinds of pitfalls.

I have Luke's own book sitting on my computer desktop right now, awaiting reading, and I am looking forward to finding out what this reviewer does as a writer, and maybe I'll report back on it once it's read. But only if I like it.

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Anonymous said...

Spot on with some of the comments.

Anonymous said...

I generally agree with the idea of not giving negative reviews. If I don't think a book was any good then I don't see the point in using my valuable time, which I could be using to start a different book, in bashing it. The worst thing you can do to a writer, after all, is ignore them.


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