Review: Sibilant Fricative

“That SF has an ironic relationship to reality is not to say that SF lies about reality – on the contrary, it means that SF has found more eloquent and effective ways of precisely telling the truth about the world we live in.”

Adam Roberts

Sibilant FricativeI once spent a happy couple of afternoons working in a museum shop on an internship strip-mining Adam Roberts’ reviews from the Strange Horizons website. They were criticism of a kind I hadn’t really come across before in my very traditional English degree: insightful, clever reviews of SFF, that quintessentially neglected genre, that were also incisive, sarcastic and funny.

So that’s why I picked up Sibilant Fricative from Forbidden Planet earlier in the year: Roberts’ fiction I can take or leave, but I will go quite a way out of my way to read his non-fiction.

The book is a collection of essays and reviews of SFF, mostly from his now-defunct blog Punkadiddle, but also from other online venues, Strange Horizons included. Subjects range from the up-to-date (a hilarious review of the film Battle Los Angeles, my personal favourite in the book) to classics of the genre (an insightful piece on the “Two Hobbits”).

I don’t really have anything that much to say about it, apart from: it was great (one of the best books I’ve read in months), and you should probably read it.

I suppose one criticism you could make of it, as a book, is its lack of overriding theme (other than “Things Adam Roberts Has Written”). There is an attempt, in a rather lacklustre introduction, to tie the pieces together under three themes: difficulty, the idea that good SF should encounter the conflict between science and narrative (which, thinking about it, does feel like a concern that informs many of my favourites of the genre); honesty, the idea that, um, reviewers should say what they think and not what they think is Nice to say (which is not very original, as far as it goes); and irony, the idea that the review should stand in ironic rather than mimetic relation to the work it reviews. I’m not entirely sure what Roberts means by that last one; are any reviews actually “ploddingly mimetic, neutral” pieces? Perhaps a few on Amazon pages; but art is subjective, which means that reviews are too.

In any case, despite the introduction, Sibilant Fricative is a collection of separate pieces that just happened to have found themselves in one book together. If Roberts belongs to any school of criticism, it’s the Straight White Male one; which is not a bad thing in itself, as far as it goes (and Roberts is particularly good on calling out misogyny), but it’s always worth being aware of where someone’s standing, especially if they don’t seem to be standing anywhere at all.

To repeat myself, however: Sibilant Fricative is a really insightful showcase of SFF criticism (if from a limited perspective), and if you have the slightest interest in that admittedly most rarefied of topics you’ll want to read it, if only to bounce ideas off.

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