An interesting editorial in the British SFF magazine this week, criticising the current sensitivity about spoilers. The focus is on films (the author reviews these for the magazine) with the point being made that the pleasures of watching a movie include far more aspects than any particular plot twist. Indeed, if viewers like a film they will eagerly watch it again and again, regardless of the loss of any surprise. I am reminded of the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones, facing yet another combat challenge from an enthusiastically sword-wielding enemy, just looks wearily at him – then pulls out a revolver and shoots him. I have read that the element of the unexpected makes this the most popular scene in the film, yet even though everyone knows what is about to happen, it still brings cheers and laughter when it appears.
I would argue that much the same applies to book reviews. Certainly there are some circumstances in which a spoiler really can ruin enjoyment (most obviously, to know WhoDidIt in a WhoDunIt) but the flow of events, the characterisation, the quality of the writing, all remain to be discovered whatever the reviewer may reveal. Having said that, some books are harder than others to review without spoilers, particularly those which include a significant plot twist part-way through; to avoid all spoilers would require ignoring everything from that twist onwards.
In writing my reviews for this blog, I do outline the plot for the sake of those readers who want to know what the book or film is all about. In doing so I try not to reveal crucial plot developments wherever possible but, when I really have no option, I split my posts into an initial spoiler-free assessment, with the full review separated from it by spoiler warnings. The example which comes to mind where this particularly applied was The Palace of Eternity by Bob Shaw, which heads off in a radically different direction part-way through. I hope that is satisfactory, but please let me know if you disagree (or agree, come to that!).
A new columnist who appears to have a regular slot in Interzone is author Nina Allan, whose stories occasionally appear in the magazine (my favourite being The Silver Wind, in issue 233). She has a different complaint, concerning supposedly SF books in which the SF element is merely a background rather than an essential part of the story. The specific example she gives is The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne, a novel set in the near future. Allan praises the quality of the writing, the story-telling, and the richness of the imagined world, and says she enjoyed reading it. But she confesses to disappointment overall, because "the story could have taken place anywhere, at any time". That complaint struck a chord with me, as I have commented on a number of occasions on this blog about stories which are not obviously science-fictional. As Allan says: "When faced with the unfamiliar, the reader's first instinct is to ask why: why is this story taking place on another planet, in the future, in an alternate reality? Why didn't they just set it down the road from where they live? Does the science fiction matter, and if it doesn't, why is it there? If the reader feels bound to ask this question, then so should the writer." Wise words for all aspiring – and established – SFF writers to bear in mind.
While on the subject of Interzone columnists, I should mention Jonathan McCalmont's regular Future Interrupted column, in which in this issue he discusses the importance of ambiguity in stories and the value of surprise twists (assuming that a reviewer hasn't revealed them, of course!). To keep surprising readers as they grow more experienced and sophisticated, authors have to work harder to be inventive. He makes the following interesting comment: "The reason they say that the golden age of science fiction is twelve is that twelve-year-olds are sophisticated enough to comprehend most texts yet naïve enough to be surprised by nearly all of them." An interesting topic for discussion!
I've spent so long on the columnists that I'll postpone the reviews and stories till next time.