I’m not sure why I never wrote an Amazon.com review–there are certainly lots of books that I have a strong opinion about–but I finally wrote my first review there today on Heather Masri’s Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts.
I suppose what put me over the edge was my outrage over 1-star reviews by people who take such a visceral disliking to something that they miss the point of the book. In all of the reviews that I have written elsewhere in the SFRA Review, Foundation, and The Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts, I never out-right attack a work. Instead, I find what is good and bad about the work, figure out the logic of the writer or editors, and then recommend who I believe might be interested in reading a particular book. Of course, journals generally don’t give stars for works. This grammar school throwback of Web 2.0 technologies on Amazon is an unfortunate system. Admittedly, it serves a handy function for would-be buyers, but it is easily skewed on books that will likely receive few reviews due to their specialized (and small) audiences. It was this skewing that prompted me to write a review comment and then a full review to fight back against this skewing and give a proper review for a book that I feel strongly positive about.
Paul Cook, a prolific reviewer by Amazon standards, wrote a lengthy 1-star review of Masri’s book. Since her book had previously only one other review (4-stars), her average stars plummeted. Pragmatically, stars on Amazon translate into sales, and Cook’s review could have consequences for the adoption of a first-rate anthology. Additionally, Cook’s review isn’t really a review of Masri’s book as much as it is a lament for the fact that Masri’s anthology isn’t like every other anthology that predates it–a catalog of important and popular stories. A lament for what a book is not is not in my opinion a reason to give a book a 1-star review, especially in consideration of what effect that review might have on sales for a book that obviously has value–an admission that Cook makes in a backhanded manner.
Overall, it seems that Cook took a lot of space to let would-be buyers know that he completely missed the point of the Masri’s book. Unfortunately, would-be buyers wouldn’t know that unless they had seen the book themselves. I have seen other reviews on other books on Amazon.com before, but today I decided to take matters into my own hands by giving potential buyers and readers of Masri’s quality anthology a properly contextualized review.
As I had written before on dynamicsubspace.net in 2009, Masri’s book is a good anthology that pairs a broad selection of SF stories with critical essays–something that no other current anthology does on the scale that she does in Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. I have not yet had a chance to use her book in a class of my own, but after reading it, I plan to do so in the future.
I don’t want to give too much away here, but you should go here and read my review of Masri’s book and consider adopting it for use in your own science fiction classes. I believe it is very useful in a science fiction survey or theory course, but it could be used in a science fiction history class if carefully thought out in advance by the instructor. Essentially, I think Masri’s book is potentially versatile in literature and interdisciplinary classes. You can find my review here.
Finally, I would like to offer some advice for Amazon (and 0ther) reviewers. First, books are written or edited by real people who are trying to sell a book and disseminate the ideas in that book. If you have a bone to pick with a given book, remember that what you do has an effect on real people. Be fair and honest, but don’t be spiteful or inconsiderate. Look for the logic of the book and consider who might realistically want or need the book. I believe that the star-rating should reflect a myriad of things besides your gut reaction to the book. Take in account the book’s intended audience and the book’s effectiveness toward that audience before trashing a book on account that it doesn’t meet some arbitrary expectations that you might have for the book. This doesn’t mean that some books should only be read by certain people, but it does mean that I (a soon-to-be English literature professor) should give a 1-star review to Stephen Hawking and GFW Ellis’ The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime because I don’t follow the maths so well! We have a responsibility to wield Web 2.0 technologies, including those of simple book reviews, responsibly, because these technologies can have real consequences for others.