meditations and ruminations

Moving with books

I try to pack my books almost blindly, so that the eye does not stop and the mind does not all of a sudden decide that this particular book is the one I should be reading right now, only to repeat the same sequence with the next book. I pack too quickly and spend the next two weeks staring at columns of identical boxes, forgetting about what’s inside.

As I unpack, I am crippled by being unable to decide which genre goes where. For the first time in my life there are too many bookshelves and not enough books. I joke to a coworker that it’s only a matter of time. I have built-in bookshelves that require a ladder to reach the top level. I feel like Giles when I do that.

I get out all the fiction from A to G, but then I find that one stray Louise Erdrich and have to shift everything all over again. And then there is a gap. Where did H-L go? In some box that was shoved under five other boxes, of course. It does not help that past me decided not to label most boxes. One box is labeled helpfully with just ‘books’. Thanks, past me.

I have a bag of ARCs I didn’t want to move and just shoved them under my desk at work. I don’t even remember what’s in there. I guess I’ll find out when I bring them home today.

I can finally start reading again.

Writing as necessity

Scattered reading time these days, mostly due to the fact that my brain decided it would rather spend time writing. It is obviously bored with whatever life I have now and thinks we could do better. You go, brain. Living the creative life for the first time in years. Mind you, nothing published has come out of it yet, but I keep telling myself that submitting is an enormously big deal and most people don’t even get to that.

Apart from filling a creative void in my life, writing is one of the few things I need to do to prevent myself from becoming an unpleasant human being (others are reading and running). Writing is both so emotionally exhausting and so necessary. Despite this new Hamilton-esque almost-graphomania, writing is hard and does not make my brain go into the ‘flow‘ mode easily. It takes a while for me to get there, by which time, you guessed it, I am emotionally exhausted and ready to give up. Yet even this exhaustion is not altogether terrible, because there are parts of me I want to exhaust. There are parts of my brain that I want to wear down so that they don’t wake up at four o’clock in the morning and start telling me terrible things. I am temporarily out of commission running-wise, so scribbling is now the primary type of amateur therapy.

redpartsI am hoping to get reading back on track with Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, which is a peculiar mix of memoir, true crime, and personal essay. I did not think this book was going to be my cup of tea at all, but Maggie Nelson is so good at self-examination, observation, and putting it all into beautiful words, that anything she writes is hard to put down. The Red Parts is about a reopening of a 35 year-old murder of Nelson’s aunt, an occurrence that plunged her family into grief anew. She documents months in the courtroom as the case is reexamined, during which time she conducts an examination of her own, of her family and how it was affected by this terrible and up until now unsolved tragedy. I love writers who write in the liminal areas, whose books give catalogers nightmares, because that is how my mind works as well. I loved both Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Argonauts as well, although for personal reasons the latter affected me much more deeply than the former. Start with Argonauts if you have never read her non-fiction, but be prepared to find yourself seeking out everything she has ever written, including books you thought were not your cup at all.

The burden of originality

A few weeks ago someone at work was reading aloud a review of a science fiction novel. During the part that described the plot, another someone snidely remarked ‘like that has never done before’.

I have to say I bristled at this. Realistic fiction is full of same old stories, but speculative fiction seems to be given a greater responsibility of coming up with fresh and original plot lines. There’s still an old-fashioned assumption that SF (particularly the science fiction part of it) is purely a genre of predictions and ideas.

Why do we (mostly) forgive realistic fiction for rehashing same old marriage-in-trouble, coming-of-age, going-off-to-war, dead-family tropes, but do not forgive science fiction for retelling its stories in different ways? Speculative fiction is absolved for re-imagining tales only when it cops to doing so on purpose (see a number of fairy tale-retelling anthologies).

But perhaps we do not let the so-called mainstream fiction off the hook either. I often see people look at a book and go ‘oh no, not this stuff again’. So what is the problem? At least half of the time I think it’s just the dust jacket description. I remember the blurb for Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. It sounded so boring, I avoided the book for months. But in reality, it’s one of the best fantasy books I (eventually) read.

Every day, I look at stacks of ARCs and galleys in the break room at my job. These days, I pick them up and read the first sentence of the blurb. If it grabs me, I take the galley, but about 99% of the time I put it back. That’s because most of the blurbs are along the lines of: ‘after a terrible attack, person rebuilds her life’, ‘after losing parents, person rebuilds life’, ‘person is faced with a failed marriage and rebuilds life’. They all sound kind of the same and kind of unexciting, mostly because they are so general. It’s always a story of friendship, a story of love, a story of loss. When summarized in a sentence, even the best tales sound, well, kind of meh.* I want to quote Jo Walton, who wrote that her child had once jokingly remarked that there were only three conflicts in books: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Plan, and Man vs. Canal (i.e. technology). We always say that there are no new stories, and yet we demand newness, something we have not seen done before. Why do we care about this elusive ‘originality’? And why is certain type of fiction held to a higher standard when it comes to it?

What do reviews mean when they talk about ‘originality’ anyway? Things can’t be too original or they become ‘experimental’ (i.e. hard to read and too weird). Maybe it’s not the plot, maybe it’s the setting or the characters. My opinion is that this ‘originality’ is all in an author’s voice that can bring the same failed marriage of two orphans in New York to a whole new level. Or a voice that can take first contact or a sentient spaceship or the chosen one trope and spin it in new ways. And voice is really hard to encapsulate in a blurb.

I don’t think I’m looking for originality anymore. I’m looking for a book that has a good voice, because that’s what’s going to make characters I can feel emotional about, a setting that seems fascinating (even if it’s same old Mars), and a story that I want to follow (even if it’s the same chosen one trope). This requires me to mostly ignore the blurbs and just read the books. Stay tuned for future posts dedicated to topics like abandoning books halfway, using complicated social recommendation algorithms to find books to read, and wishes for time-turner or superhuman speed-reading ability.


*Let’s play a game where we summarize some good speculative novels in a sentence, shall we? Try to guess what any of these are. 1) Young man escapes an attack on his life and flees into the desert. 2) An order of monks preserves the remnants of humanity’s knowledge in the post-apocalyptic world. 3) Two people learn to understand each other better after a long trek through ice and snow.

What snooze-fests these must be.


Some thoughts on book enjoyment as a function of time

The other day I had a brief Twitter conversation with Memory from In The Forest of Stories about whether one’s enjoyment of a particular book is related to the amount of time it takes to read it. It doesn’t seem like something that should make a difference, yet for me, how long it takes to reach the last page is actually a big factor in how much I’ll like a book. Perhaps it is simply because books that do not engage me take more time to read. I keep putting them down and then picking them up, then putting them down, sometimes to never pick them up again. It doesn’t really matter whether the book is long or short. I remember times when I spent days reading a tiny 150-page novel and two days whizzing through a 650-page doorstop.

Picture of books of diverse length. From top to bottom: read (enjoyed), read (enjoyed somewhat), read (loved), did not read. There, now my dirty secret is out.

Books of diverse length. From top to bottom: read (enjoyed), read (enjoyed somewhat), read (loved), did not read. There, now my dirty secret is out. I have never read The Stand.

Here’s an infographic on how long it takes to read 64 popular books. It uses 300 words per minute as the measure, and doesn’t really take into account complexity of narrative structure, for example (i.e. something like the Lexile measure). I am probably on the higher end of reading speed (though absolutely not as far as Larry Nolen at OF Blog of the Fallen), and that might be another reason why I don’t like to spend a lot of time reading one book. Maybe it’s specifically a fast reader problem.

You might ask: ‘ok, you can read pretty fast, but do you retain anything?’ Personally, I do have a really bad memory for books. But it doesn’t seem to matter whether I spend just a few hours with a book or a few days trying to read it ‘closely’. In fact, I think my bad memory is another reason I read books quickly. If I spend too much time with one book, that means there is a day or two when I don’t touch it, and those couple of days are just enough for me to forget what happened in previous ten chapters.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to Dan Jones’s Wars of the Roses before all those dukes and earls get mixed up in my head and my enjoyment of it takes a dive.

Reading in the genre and James Morrow’s Madonna And The Starship

I spent most of last week walking around town (with a brief detour to Baltimore), listening to genre podcasts, reading books, and making lists of more books I would like to read. I drafted a couple of posts and maybe even started a story. In other words, business as usual. All this reading and listening led to an examination of my own genre reading habits. In my weird mind, SF sub-genres are very loosely organized along a spectrum, with epic fantasy on one end and hard sci-fi on the other. Or maybe it’s a system of coordinates. Whatever it may be, it is not a value scale by any means. As I inspect my TBR stacks and books long overdue at the library, I realize that while I read quite widely in the genre, anything that belongs on either end of this spectrum does not get read all that much anymore. I used to read a lot of epic fantasy, and I went through the space opera phase, but now my tastes veer towards more nebulous books. Books that mix genres, the New Weird stuff, slipstream, just Strange Fiction (whatever that may be). Stuff that gets nominated for Shirley Jackson Award, which I simply call Disturbing Fiction. I don’t want just sword and sorcery, I want sword and sorcery and spaceships together. Or maybe sword and sorcery and meta-fictional twists. I don’t really want to start a genre nomenclature conversation, I just want to point out that my own tastes gravitate towards the less easily defined stuff.

Another category I don’t tend to read much is humorous or satirical sci-fi/fantasy. I’ve read my share of Sir Terry, but only when nothing else would do. I love Douglas Adams, but again, only when I really feel like it. Vonnegut is a wizard, but his books are not the ones I would just pick up. And yet when I sat down to write my not-yet-existent story, I realized that the resulting product was very much in the Pratchett/Adams style. I might want to write disturbing dark fiction, but what comes out on my screen has talking space shrimp and (probably) witty dialogue.

madonnaAnd so I decided I might as well read and re-read some funny books. I picked up James Morrow’s The Madonna And The Starship (you can see a full review by Michael Dirda here). It’s set in the 1950s, aka golden days of television, when every show was broadcast live, and its main character is Kurt Jastrow, a writer for one of those live television shows. The show, which includes a scientific demonstration for children, is apparently popular not just in the US, but also on Qualimosa, a planet inhabited by sentient lobsters (see, space crustaceans are always in vogue).  The lobsters are into all things rational and anti-religious, and so they are delighted by the science show, but also rather disturbed by a religious show aired on the same network. The Qualimosans therefore decide to eradicate this religious madness by killing everyone who watches the religious show during the next broadcast. Various hijinks ensue to persuade the lobsters not to vaporize millions of humans. The book makes fun of sci-fi kids shows (rooted in ‘bedrock implausibility’), sponsored broadcasts, blind adherence to any kind of point of view, depictions of aliens, you name it. It’s a delight to read: ‘heartless aliens, promiscuous death rays, casual slaughter — this was science fiction at its worst.’ It mentions all these things, plus it has giant genocidal blue lobsters from outer space. There is, perhaps, too much of what Dirda calls ‘retro-fun’. There are some in-jokes in the book, but I wonder how many people will get them (I certainly didn’t). It’s still a fun read, as a satire novel should be.

I leave you with a friend I made at the National Aquarium a few days ago. She is not a crustacean, and no, she is not from outer space, and she probably doesn’t care about your religious beliefs (she is also asleep in this picture). Might have anti-social tendencies, though.


Into bright future with Russian philosophers!

Will of the Universe cover

Will of the Universe cover

I’m excited that writers have finally discovered that a number of Russian and Soviet philosophers of 19th-20th centuries were bonkers in all kinds of creative ways that could provide a wealth of material for speculative novels. These guys were not joking around. Tsiolkovsky penned this oeuvre in 1928: “The Will of the Universe. Unknown Intelligent Forces”. None of that ‘how to lead a moral life’ small fry.

Russian philosophy in general is quite fascinating, but I’m talking specifically about Cosmism. In particular, Nikolai Fedorov now crops up in speculative fiction. His ideas show up in two novels I’ve read so far: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi and now Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux. They are two entirely different books, both in style and substance, but they do include elements of Cosmism, particular its ideas on immortality. You can read my somewhat gushing review of Strange Bodies if you follow the link. The Quantum Thief is also one of my favorite books, and yet it is so odd, that I find it hard to recommend to everyone.

This is a neat overview of Cosmism by George M. Young, focusing particularly on ‘practical immortality’ and, obviously, whether immortality is desirable. Transhumanism is a close relative of Cosmism and shares some ideas with it. Transhumanism was influenced by a number of science fiction works, and in a neat philosophical circle, science fiction now finds some inspiration in Cosmism.

And finally, if you want to read some classic sci-fi with immortality themes, Joachim Boaz has made a list of relevant novels and short stories arranged by publication date.

‘…the whole city was like a work of fiction’: naming in Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

9780316219679Originally I wanted this to be a review of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins, but then I realized that what I really wanted to talk about was names and naming. Naming of things and places is something I pay quite a bit attention to, and it can really annoy or delight me. Keep in mind, I am writing this as a reader of speculative fiction, not a creator of such. I’m also writing this as a Russian speaker, and I might be entirely off the mark with my interpretations.

First of all, I really liked Wolfhound Century. Before you say, ‘well duh, it’s set in a Soviet Union-inspired universe”, let it be known that 9 times out of 10 I am not satisfied when authors take Russia or USSR and make it a setting for their novel (I’m talking mainly about non-Russian authors here).

In Wolfhound Century, USSR is not the setting, not really. It’s more of an inspiration for the setting, which gives Higgins much more freedom in world-building and naming. He does use some real names (Vissarion, Mirgorod, names he uses for places like Apraksin in Apraksin Bazaar). He also makes up some names that have the Slavic feel to them and thus ‘feel’ right. Not all names are particularly Slavic in nature. See, for example, Joseph Kantor, Ziller, and Raku (that sounds Japanese to me more than anything).

Vissarion is a really interesting name. First of all, it sounds quite imposing and is thus a good name for someone who is employed by the police in the vast unnamed totalitarian state. A bit of trivia: Stalin’s father was named Vissarion. More recently, Vissarion is the name of a leader of a religious cult in Siberia. Vissarion the Cult Leader is under the impression that he is the reincarnation of Jesus (like that has never been done before).

Lom, apart from having a nice staccato ring to it, also means ‘crowbar’ in Russian. In jokes and pop culture it is widely considered to be the ultimate weapon (‘Против лома нет приёма’, for which I can’t really find an adequate translation, but literally it means ‘there is no move to block a crowbar’), and that a Russian armed with a crowbar is practically unstoppable.

9780316219693Lavrentina Chazia — she is the head of the Secret Police, and if you know a bit of Soviet history, it will be quite obvious to you that her name is a female/modified version of Lavrentii Beria, who was the secret police chief under Stalin.

Savinkov — there is a real historic Savinkov, who managed in his lifetime to participate in some assassinations, escape from prison, fight in WWI, serve as Deputy War Minister after the 1917 revolution, and still find time to write four books.

Higgins did a really good job using Russian words for places, professions, food, any of those details that really make or break world-building. I can’t help but feel that I’m getting a bit more mileage out of this book than people who don’t know the language. I know what ‘vlast’, ‘lodka’, and ‘dvornik’ mean without the need for explanation. But apart from just pure semantic meaning, some words have cultural meanings attached to them. Let’s look at ‘dvornik’.

img_17205Dvornik is not simply a concierge and yard sweeper. There is an archetypal image of dvornik in Soviet collective unconscious and Soviet lit (I kid you not), so dvornik is really more like a state of mind. This image normally includes one of two possible personalities: a very suspicious dvornik (who is most definitely in the employ of the police), or a not-very-sober belligerent man who is either good friends with or wages unending war on stray mutts. I could potentially write an essay on this, stay tuned.

I could go on for a while about this and cover many more names, including some that puzzled me, like ‘paluba’ (it means ‘ship’s deck’, which did not seem to fit the particular creature it described). So well done, Mr. Higgins, Wolfhound Century was  the read I was hoping for. I was surprised at how well the mix of real names, quasi-Slavic names, and English worked for me.