Tuesday, 21 June 2011

How To Review A Book

I think it's fair to say that many of the reviews on this blog are not technically "reviews" but more "responses" - I'm not trying to provide a Which? Dystopian Novel service but to write honestly about my own reaction to what I've seen or read, and where it takes me. So I fail on two counts - I've been held up on occasion for failing to give a score out of 10 (thank you Actress Confessions sweetie) but nor am I writing traditional literary analysis.

It's good to learn, grow and develop, so here are some ideas about how to write more in-depth book reviews, together with an example drawn from a classic piece of utopian-dystopian fiction. This is neither comprehensive nor ecumenical: I intend to draw on some, all or none of these points in future and would be interested in other approaches to reviewing as well.

What is the book about?

The novel is set in an eco-friendly future where, possibly due to genetic engineering "even the trees are happy." The protagonist, either the engineer of this society or some kind of mascot, becomes restless and walks beyond the boundary of the known into an unfamiliar forest, where chance discoveries bring him face to face with a genuinely miserable person - at which point he must make the most important choice in both their lives.

What does it achieve?

The story develops a highly optimistic philosophy: universal happiness can be achieved but misery must be acknowledged and confronted rather than excluded.

How does it achieve it?

The setting is simply presented as fact: the workings of Happyland society are never revealed. As Arthur C. Clark almost said: "Any novel about sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic realism." The hero is the archetypal Happy Man, and his nemesis the Miserable Man he meets at the foot of the staircase is identical in every way apart from his unexplained melancholia, so is clearly an unconscious facet of the Happy Man's psyche as well as fulfilling a scapegoat role for the Happylanders.

Place it in context:

This novel is the first and most familiar in a long-running series: while each book ostensibly takes as its focus a new protagonist, the Happy Man recurs throughout and through his relationships with other archetypes develops several longer story arcs. The series has had a positive reception over the years with several television adaptations and a second, feminised spin-off series to offset the male dominance of the canon.

Enforced happiness is a common trope within the utopia-dystopia science fiction subgenre. This novel draws heavily on classics such as Brave New World and has in turn influenced subsequent visions of the future: Equilibrium (2002) Demolition Man (1993) and The Happiness Patrol (Doctor Who, BBC, broadcast 1988) are particularly indebted. The latter is an inversion of the basic plot with the Happy Man replaced by the sinister Kandy Man who kills through excessive joy. Symbolic elements of this story have also been influential on their own: the spiral staircase separating the Happy Man from his Miserable counterpart is "borrowed" to great effect in GATTACA (1997.)

Give an honest reaction:

There's often a tension between optimistic and dystopic science fiction. This novel clearly falls into the first category. I enjoyed the plot with it's many twists but felt the optimism went a little too far, with the ending even hinting at totalitarianism. Is absolute happiness either achievable or desirable? In this society, even though the Miserable Man can be welcomed, he does in the process have to abandon his misery altogether: there's no room for either legitimate misery or for the blues. The Happiness Patrol at least ends on a different, more satisfying harmonica note.

You can buy "Mr. Happy" by Roger Hargreaves at all good bookstores.


Maurice Mitchell said...

All of these are so important, but context is probably the most essential. If you say a book is bad, the next question is "how bad is it?" It's so bad that it makes "Leonard Part Six" look like "Citizen Kane." Now that's context.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

Agreed. Or if it's so good it makes "Citizen Kane" look like... you may have hit on the perfect review scoring system ;)