Archive for category Novels
In recent years I have become more aware than ever before how important it is to vote. I’m not talking about the election of public officials–the importance of that has always been obvious to me. But the Hugos, nominating and final voting…well, it has been so easy to make excuses.
My “To Be Read” pile is a chronic feature that has endured in my life from childhood onward. When it comes time to nominate for the Hugos, I have often read hardly anything from the eligible year. In recent years, I have made an effort to nominate something, because I want to do my part to prevent future Sad/Rabid Puppy outbreaks.
Then comes the final ballot. Publishers and artists have been wonderful in recent years about making stories and novels available for Worldcon members to read free of charge, but the texts only become available a few months prior to the voting deadline. It’s a lot, but I’m determined to read as much as I can.
Here’s where I’m at right now.
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. Scalzi is always an easy read, so I am confident I will get to this one.
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been meaning to read this. I will.
Provenance, by Ann Leckie. This one is tougher. The book is in he same universe as her Ancillary universe, but is not a sequel to the trilogy, from what I can see. I read Ancillary Justice. I think I admired it more than I liked it. I haven’t gotten to the other two. Can I read this one as a stand-alone, without reading the other two? I’ll give it a try.
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee. This one is clearly number two in a series, and I have not read the first. Sadly, its being second in a series makes it far less likely I’ll get to it.
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. It’s a science fiction mystery. OMG! I love mysteries. I must read it!
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin. I read the first in the series, The Fifth Season, and I enjoyed that one tremendously. This is the third in the series. I have not read the second. Oh dear. I’ll do it if I can.
Conclusion: I think I’m in trouble with the novel category, because I haven’t read a single one. And it’s the third week of May.
Next post: novellas, novelettes, and short stories.
Once upon a time, I looked at genre–the process of sorting storytelling into type–as a necessary evil of use primarily for marketing, and for organizing large bookstores, and for slapping rocket ship or detective logos on the spines of library books. I didn’t need genre labels. My taste was sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and omnivorous. I bragged I would read anything. I didn’t need genre labels. If it was good, then I wanted to read it
I’ve changed. I no longer view choosing-by-genre designations as narrow-minded and provincial. I remain open-minded in my tastes, but the older I get, the more I feel the need to match what I read or watch to my mood.
This turning point came a couple years ago during a vacation. By the time we’d made it from the airport to the hotel, had dinner and settled into our room, I was tired, physically and mentally. Didn’t feel like reading. Nothing on the hotel TV. My husband was looking at his iPad, so I looked at mine.
I stumbled upon a cozy mystery, Death in Paradise.
It hit the spot. Episodic TV mysteries like this one tickle the brain, but don’t tax it too much. We are given a beautiful locale and clever writing. Relationships between the regulars–the detectives and their allies–lean more toward humor than angst. We understand the murder victim to be a short-timer; we don’t get attached.
Unlike life, the people in mysteries live by the rules. Our detectives may be flawed characters, they may make mistakes, but they will do their job to the best of their ability. We can trust them.
I meander through genres, stopping to visit as I wish. Each offers something. When I’m hungry for new ideas, new ways about thinking about humanity and the future, science fiction is the go-to. It could be the fanciful solar system of Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, or the less fanciful but still stunning one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. I love certain kinds of fantasy, but sometimes Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is too active for me, and I want something more sedate. In a sense, every author is sui generis, and I like that too.
When I finish something, I am thrown into a bit of emotional crisis. What to read next? What to watch next? I scroll through my digital and paper libraries, sometimes spending as much time picking something as I would choosing a new sofa. Sometimes I pick the wrong thing, and have to abandon it. Sometimes I pick just right, and match my mood perfectly.
In The Invisibility Cloak, a short novel by Ge Fei (translated by Canaan Morse), Mr. Cui tries to improve his fortunes in life. The Kirkus review back-cover blurb describes our protagonist as a “likable loser,” a description I see as off the mark.
Mr. Cui is proud of his life. True, his sister, brother-in-law, best friend, and former wife view him as less than a winner. But Mr. Cui doesn’t embrace their views. He builds tube amplifiers for wealthy clients who want expensive, superior sound systems. Modern Beijing society doesn’t value his genius, but he sees that as an indictment of modern Beijing society, not of him.
His relationships are troubled and confused. His sister and brother-in-law want him to move out of an apartment they own. There appears to be some unfairness here, as the house his sister and brother-in-law are living in is a legacy from their mother, something which Mr. Cui ought to share in. Mr. Cui recognizes the unfairness, but does not dwell on it. Nor does he dwell on why they are doing what they do. He concentrates on getting enough money to avoid homelessness.
His relationship with his ex-wife is equally opaque. He is obsessed with the loss of her, but has little idea why she left him. His relationship with his best friend is equally unreciprocal. Mr. Cui is disappointed by his friend, but lets the behavior slide.
Mr. Cui is obsessed by his work with his beloved high-end audio equipment–unambiguous components, parts, wires, and tubes. Perhaps the clarity of his work brings him a clearer view of his wealthy clients than he could ever have of family and friends. He despises his clients–for their lack of musical taste, their pomposity, and for their disrespect for his skills.
Mr. Cui finally lands a job with a client he comes to like, but also fears. His experience with this client, and the client’s wife, promises to resolve some of the uncertainties of his life, and both succeeds and fails. For Mr. Cui, ambiguity must always triumph.
This is an odd story narrated by an unreliable protagonist. But it’s not Mr. Cui’s fault he’s unreliable. He can’t perceive what others hide from him, nor what he hides from himself. Throwing an invisibility cloak over large chunks of the world might be the only he could ever move forward.
I liked this book.
I finish another draft of my book. I sit down to read it through. I expect rough spots, and there’s a ton of setup information I need to drop in. I have character discontinuity; I need to match up some of the second tier cast from the beginning, with the end, and vice versa. There are motivations to clarify, logistics, technical stuff, and science, all needing to be figured out.
But here’s something I did not expect. Chapter three, which I had previously liked, which I thought performed a function in the story, appears to have absolutely no reason to exist. It is pretty horrible. It needs to be tossed. The only good news is that I know what needs to go in its place. But I have to start over, completely.
Chapters four and five are a kick in the gut. Here, characters basically walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other. Worse, it’s prissy, stilted nonsense. I thought I was setting a scene here, and setting actions in motion. I was doing no such thing. This is just awful, and I have to start over.
Chapter six is a relief. There is meaningful action, and there is relationship between the characters. Whew. But those awful patches make me very sad. I knew the draft was rough, but I thought I was in the ballpark. Turns out I was five miles down the freeway from the offramp leading to the parking lot of the ballpark.
I cannot stay in this disheartened state, so I have a talk with myself. When your characters walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other, it only means you don’t quite know yet what needs to go there. It is placeholder material. It doesn’t make sense yet, but it will. Those characters, in that setting, will matter. Look at it again in coming days, and you will know what goes there. Your characters will talk sense. They will become interesting. You will feel something. You will no longer feel like throwing the chapter on the floor for your cockatiels to chew and poop on.
In the meantime, focus on what’s good in the draft. Focus on how much you’ve learned about the characters, their motivations, and how they all play together to make a story, or even a part of one.
I wish it weren’t so much work, and at the same time, I’m glad it is. Easy things are forgotten. Difficult things have sticking power.
I rarely go back to read my own published work, the short stories, the blog posts, anything. Sometimes, on the occasions I do, I cringe. But more often I am filled with a quiet satisfaction. Hey, I think, that’s not too bad. That doesn’t suck. I like that. And I’m glad I stuck it out.
Photo courtesy Martha A. Hood. All rights reserved.
Speculative Fiction: some people don’t like the term. Don’t be chicken, they say. Call it science fiction, not speculative fiction, or worse, spec fic.
I’m not much for spec fix as a term; I believe we should pronounce entire words most of the time, rather than automatically shortening them. I do enjoy speculative fiction, both the term and the stuff itself, however. I’m not afraid to say I read science fiction, because I do. I also read fantasy, selected horror, mystery, and mainstream. I even read that stuff they call literature once in a while.
I divide my reading roughly between fiction its authors consider to be “real,” and fiction from authors who consciously depart from the real–in other words, speculative fiction. Speculative fiction includes science fiction, which in turn encompasses hard science fiction, anthropological, political and other fiction of the soft sciences, cyberpunk, steampunk, space opera, alternate history, new weird, utopian, dystopian, and time travel. Speculative fiction also includes fantasy, itself a term which takes in high fantasy, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, and fairy tales. Then you have the stuff that’s not quite real but not quite not: magical realism, slipstream, and whatever it is that Murakami does. (I like the term “not normal.”) I read all this stuff, and I have need of a term that includes all of them, that differentiates them from that other stuff.
The other stuff also has genres. Examples: literary, historical, mystery, police procedural, political thriller, war novel, spy novel, and romance. The other stuff might go by the umbrella term of realistic, or mimetic, fiction. If I throw the term speculative fiction into the wastebasket, what is my umbrella term for all the types of fantastic fiction I enjoy? Non-mimetic fiction? I don’t like it. Non-realistic fiction? I don’t like that either, for the obvious reason that no matter how far-out my science fictional or fantasy premise is, the human element needs to be dead-on realistic.
The only purpose even to discuss genre, to categorize literature, is so that you and I can have a discussion about the stuff we read. For that discussion to be sensible, we need some agreement between us of the meaning of the terms we are using. Here we run into some trouble. I have no confusion about how I choose to sort books out, but because everyone reads a book differently, different people categorize differently. For instance, people were all over the place with China Mieville’s The City and the City. It is categorized as crime fiction, weird fiction, police procedural, and it won fantasy awards, as well as the Hugo. I call it science fiction for reasons given in a previous post:
But does it matter if we don’t always know what genre to put a work in? Isn’t part of the problem–if you want to call categorizing fiction a problem–that authors are becoming ever more inventive and interesting in the combinations of genres they choose to include in a single work, thereby making the assignment of genre that much more difficult?
Mysteries, whether cozy English, police procedural, or noir detective, fill a psychological itch for us. The police, the detective, and the justice system represent the societal order we all need to feel safe, and the moral order that allows good to triumph over evil. The protagonist outwits the criminal, and brings him or her to justice. The act cannot be undone; the murder victim cannot be restored to his or her unfinished life, and so the detective’s victory is always tempered by the reality that there is more evil out there, always.
Most readers of SF I know read the occasional mystery. I heard someone say that every SF story is at heart a mystery. That may be too sweeping a generalization for me, but the affinity between the two groups is undeniable, given that many writers of SF have also worked in the mystery genres. More than a few writers have written both in the same book.
One of the favorite combos is the mystery combined with alternate history. The alternate history usually deals with different historical political outcomes and shifts of power. Three examples come to mind: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Jo Walton’s Farthing, and China Mieville’s The City and the City.
Some might question my inclusion of the Mieville work as alternate history, but as a kind of alternate now, it has many of the same combination of qualities I find so appealing in the alternate history/mystery sub-genre. The mystery genre has a utopian view of justice, in which the truth outs and justice prevails. The real justice system can never measure up. The alternate history political system strives to impose order, but causes its own chaos. The marriage of the two makes for very interesting fiction.
I finished Farthing, and immediately downloaded the second and third books of the trilogy, having found the first book a page-turner the likes of which I haven’t experienced in years. It begins with a country house murder set in an England that made peace with Hitler in 1941. The investigation of the country house murder, and the Inspector’s solving of the crime, is supposed to return us to the security of a lawful society, as per the world-view of the mystery, as described above. But there’s a problem, and that problem is the corruption of a sane and orderly legal system by the madness of a British government being overcome by fascism. How does the truth-seeking Inspector Carmichael restore order, when the integrity and fundamental morality of that order has been gutted?
China Mieville’s police detective has a different problem. He is attempting to solve his murder case as a citizen of a city state that coexists with another city-state that occupies the same territory, but which he must ignore. All citizens must ignore the other city-state which is right before their eyes. Reality has been fractured, and perception cannot be trusted. How can truth be found in such a state? The detective’s own perceptions are distorted by the lifelong conditioning of his culture, of not-seeing what is right in front of him. What greater handicap can a seeker of truth have than self-blinding from what one is forbidden to see?
The existential threat to Detective Landsmen in Chabon’s alternate history is at once remote and immediate. The lease on the temporary Jewish settlement/homeland in Sitka, Alaska, is about to run out, throwing the detective and all of Alaska’s Jews into statelessness. In the meantime, crime goes on, including murder, one of which Landsmen is tasked with solving. He expects to keep doing his job, in spite of the imminent demise of the jurisdiction he works for. Talk about being a lame duck. Madcap alternate history/police procedural it is, but Chabon also points squarely at a serious dilemma we’ve all faced. Why bother to do the right thing, if no one cares, and if it seems not to matter, to make any difference to anyone?
So here are my speculations for the week: What do we do when 1) We learn the authority that comforts us, and that we depend upon, has become hopelessly compromised? 2) We learn that we have been in denial all our lives about what is true and what is not? Or, 3) Our moral and ethical best efforts are probably meaningless to the world around us?
That fashion makeover series ended recently, and it put me in mind of my own set of rules for writing, and more importantly, reading. When I pick up a book, digital or paper, I try to be flexible. I try to get into the author’s world, the world s/he has built for me.
I try very hard not to constrain the author with my expectations, even though I always have expectations. I’ve read the blurb, I’ve looked at the cover, I’ve considered previous work of the author’s I might have read, I’ve considered what I’m in the mood for, and only then will I make a judgement about whether or not I wish to dive in.
And a book is never exactly what I expect. Or hardly ever. I try to be flexible, to go along with the author’s plan. I don’t have to instantly agree one-hundred percent with every authorial decision. I am forgiving. What s/he does right is much more important than what s/he does wrong. I am picky, but not unreasonable.
That said, there are a few things that stop me cold. I may not throw the book across the room, but I may put it down and go watch TV or play Candy Crush.
I would prefer you don’t:
1) Overuse italics.
Italics are wonderful for indicating emphasis, foreign words, or a character’s internal dialogue. For pages-long backstory or flashback, they are horrible. Exposition of backstory in itself has issues, but put it in italics, and it ruins my eyes as well. It’s not easy to read. A multi-page chunk of italics signals: Here comes a bunch of stuff I somehow have to get through before I can continue with the actual story. So please just give me the actual story.
2) Let a single paragraph go on for pages and pages.
All right, maybe I don’t have that much of an attention span. Or maybe I need to rest my eyes. Or I’m sleepy and need to turn out the light. Whatever the reason, I like to stop at a logical place. If a chapter or scene break isn’t coming up soon, I’ll stop at the first paragraph at the top of the page. I don’t enjoy stopping mid-paragraph.
3) Use science fiction or fantasy tropes only as metaphor or literary device:
Many years ago, I picked up P. D. James’s The Children of Men. I kept waiting for scientists somewhere to figure out the physical cause for the worldwide male infertility at the center of the novel. Chapter after chapter passed, but scientists were barely mentioned. It seemed we were meant to believe they had given up, that somewhere, off camera, they were shrugging and saying, “Oh, well. That’s too bad.” Eventually, I understood that no cause was being offered, that the author had no interest or curiosity whatsoever in a physical cause. Universal male infertility was a literary device, a metaphor for an expression of the author’s religious views. Realizing that was a kick in the ovaries for me.
Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses time travel as a literary device to tell the story of a romance and marriage. Although it was enjoyable, the story as a whole fell flat for me. Time travel becomes mundane used in this fashion, reminding me more of the trials of any married person who can’t keep track of the comings and goings of a spouse, rather than the mind-blowing possibilities inherent in time travel.
4) Go on and on about whaling, to the detriment of character and relationship development:
I’m talking to you, Herman Melville.
5) Let your isms show:
Are you a communist? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as China Mieville, I am happy to read your work. Are you a conservative Catholic? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as Tim Powers, I’ll read your work, too.
Every one of us has deeply held beliefs the right of which to express are guaranteed by our Constitution, and bestowed upon us by our Creator. Those beliefs will be embedded in our fiction, but subtly, if we are good storytellers.
The foregoing is not intended to tell anyone how to write. It is intended only to express my opinion. What are your great reading gripes?