Review: Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons by Philip Sandifer

2015 has been an interesting year for science fiction. Between the Sad Puppies, Star Wars and Sansa Stark, this has been a year with no shortage of controversy along with all the landmark pieces of speculative fiction. One of 2015’s most insightful and entertaining commentators has been Philip Sandifer, of the reliably excellent Eruditorum Press. His new collection, Guided by the Beauty of their Weapons, provides an overview of this contentious year in sci-fi fandom, as well as serving as an introduction to Sandifer’s writing more generally. The essays within are as sharply written and thoroughly argued as ever, and the book crackles with the same sense of mad ambition that fuels Sandifer’s work at its best.

The first essay, from which the book takes its title, is an overview of this year’s Hugo Awards, centred on the man behind the disruptive Rabid Puppies campaign, Theodore Beale. Like most of the essays in the book, this is a revised version of one of Sandifer’s blog posts, from back in April when the controversy was fresh. Sandifer recaps the (at this point) four-year history of what he cheekily calls the Angry Dogs, from Larry Correia attempting to get himself a Hugo Award in 2011 to extreme right-wing author Theodore Beale stuffing the ballot almost completely for the 2014 Awards. This version of the essay is considerably more restrained (and, it has to be said, better-argued) than its predecessor, as Sandifer is able to view the controversy in hindsight. He offers a far more detailed and nuanced argument for the fascist nature of Theodore Beale and his supporters, and his analysis of the texts themselves benefits from the inclusion of Ursula Vernon’s ‘Jackalope Wives’, a story the Puppies kept off the ballot. It’s a lengthy and well-reasoned piece, comprehensive without ever getting bogged down, which stands as one of the best accounts of this unpleasant moment in fandom history, even if it lacks some of the polemical fire of the original.

The book then goes on to a series of articles about science fiction in 2015 more generally. Highlights include an essay on Mr. Robot as anti-capitalist agitprop and a piece about True Detective and Hannibal which explores the etiquette surrounding mass human extinction. Sandifer takes an obvious glee in radical and counter-intuitive readings, which make for subversive and thought-provoking essays. After that we transition into a highlight reel of Sandifer’s blogging from 2015, including excerpts from his video game and comics blogs. This section culminates in a pair of interviews with television writer Peter Harness, whom Sandifer identifies as one of 2015’s breakout talents following his scripts for both Doctor Who and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. They present an engaging insight into Harness’ work, particularly the stuff that never makes it to the screen, although they occasionally betray a lack of polish reflective of an independent effort. Harness has an annoying habit of forgetting potentially interesting production details, and Sandifer can occasionally let his fan theories run away with him.

The collection ends with ‘Recursive Occlusion’, a self-styled “Occultism of Doctor Who” presented as a choose-your-own-adventure book. It’s one hell of a premise, and what’s most impressive is that Sandifer turns what could easily have been a shallow gimmick into a genuinely appropriate, engaging structure, making his guide to the Occult tradition far more accessible by mapping it onto a cultural touchstone weird enough to match his subject matter. The result is a type of writing you simply won’t see anywhere else; a landmark of sci-fi criticism which single-handedly justifies the cover price.

As a collection, Guided by the Beauty has its problems. There are a few references which clearly haven’t been fact-checked, and some slightly dodgy formatting in the ebook copy I received which led to weird stretches of single-spaced text in an otherwise double-spaced book. On top of that, a few of the articles seem to have been thrown in simply because Sandifer liked them, rather than because they support any over-arching point, which undermines the book’s already hazy structure. The transitions from contemporary sci-fi to decades-old video games and comics, and then back again, are a little bit clunky, and the collection overall feels overstuffed. But these quibbles aside, Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons remains a highly enjoyable and hugely relevant piece of work. Its flaws are mainly down to the fact that this is less a book about 2015 than about one critic’s experience of it, and it’s one that provides plenty of evidence why Sandifer is a voice worth listening to into 2016 and beyond.

Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons is available from Amazon and Smashwords, in ebook and paperback formats, RRP £5.49/$6.99, published by Eruditorum Press.

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