arcs

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.

 

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Readings: alternate formats

I spent a few days dog-sitting for a couple of friends this week, and discovered that walking dogs is great for catching up on podcasts. It was so great, in fact, that I pretty much listened to everything on my list and ran out of audio material. Luckily, I then remembered that I wanted to give audio books a second chance. Audio fiction never works for me — I get distracted for five minutes, and in those five minutes ten characters die and I get confused. So I tried non-fiction, and it worked pretty well. It’s as if someone is narrating knowledge into your brain as you go about some mindless task.

accidental universeI listened to Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe, which came out a couple of years ago and was very well liked by someone at work whose reading taste I trust implicitly. It’s a pretty short book, but Lightman manages to touch upon the latest theories in physics, conflict between science and religion, philosophy, and what technology might be doing to human interactions with the world and each other. The latter was the point where I actually disagreed and even disliked his view of personal technology and its uses. It even struck me as privileged, for want of a better word, to grump about increase in texting and people spending a lot of time online. Sure, it’s annoying when everyone you’re having dinner with is checking their phones every two minutes, but think about any of these: texting allowing easier communication where it was nonexistent or limited before (see deaf community); cell phones allowing people who otherwise would have trouble keeping track of time or organizing their day to have a more scheduled life; online allowing me to find people like myself. And honestly, maybe uploading ourselves to some virtual reality doesn’t sound so bad to those of us who are not comfortable with our bodies. I’m certain Lightman does not think personal technology is solely bad for us, but the way he presents his thoughts on it is rather one-sided.

Before this gets too ranty, let me say that it was a good book to read if you have, like Lightman, a wide array of interests that include both science and humanities and if you like to break your brain by thinking about what conditions brought about life on Earth so humans could sit around and think about what conditions brought about life on Earth.

In addition to branching out into audio books, I also got a couple of e-books to read. I have periods when I remember e-books exist, and then go months without touching a single digital copy (touching it with my uploaded body, duh). I forget e-books are a thing because I get so many physical books. I also forget that advanced copies as e-books are a thing, and a great thing at that because they don’t add to the mountains of reading material in my house. So my e-book downloads this week are as follows: All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Y. T. by Alexei Nikitin (out next April), and The Good Death: Exploration of Dying in America by Ann Neumann. None of these are out till next year, I’m afraid, so I feel like it’s a little early to even talk about whether I like these or not (I’ve read the first one on the list so far),

There are, as always, a whole bunch of books on paper in queue as well. Prepare yourselves, for I picked up my first Star Wars book in many years…

Reading update: Scalzi, Atwood, Leckie

It’s been a pretty good week in terms of reading. After deaccessioning some of my book collection, I once again picked up a pile of books at work because of the powerful bookstore mind control aura, and thus had to initiate a new phase of the ARC Pile Demolition Project.

I also realized that my job now includes a number of rather tedious solitary tasks that are perfect for listening to podcasts and short fiction. I have a notoriously bad history with audio books, but short fiction is just short enough to hold my attention. Clarkesworld is currently my favorite when it comes to short stories on audio.

Paper books were also consumed this week:

Lock In by John Scalzi. In my opinion, this is Scalzi’s best book so far. I’ve read most of his stuff, though I did not finish the Old Man’s War series (not because it wasn’t good, it just sort of went the way of all unfinished series, even good ones). I do not belong to either Scalzi super fan camp nor to his haters/detractors’ camp. I was not impressed with Redshirts, but I enjoy most of his books, and I definitely enjoyed Lock In. This one has great ideas and a setup that for the first 100 pages or so will make you feel like your brain is about to turn inside out.  As is with all Scalzi’s books, it’s fast-paced, dialogue-rich, and yet it’s much less funny than his other fare. It is very much social sci-fi, as it touches on health care legislation, minority group culture, and relations with Native Americans, among other things.

stonemattressStone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is, as always, snarky, pithy, bold, and honest. This collection could almost have a subtitle of ‘people obsessed with sex’. Well, of course they are. In this case, most of these people are older, with a slew of marriages, divorces, children, and other assorted life experiences on their dance cards. The first three stories are interlinked, but the rest are standalones. Atwood is damn good whether she sticks to mostly realism, or wades into fantastical. This is out on September 16th (look! I read an ARC!)

My short story obsession continues with something like four anthologies and  collections in progress/rotation. I also rediscovered my long-dormant love of horror, so dark and disturbing tales will crop up in my post in the next few weeks. If short stories are your thing too, you can join Matt at Books, Brains and Beer for his Jagannath readalong, which is a fantastic little collection of stories.

I have also attempted to consume my bookgroup book for this month, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. This is my second attempt, and it is with great sadness that I announce my inability to get past page 50. This book is now officially the Ulysses of my genre reading. I really wanted to like it, and there are some interesting themes in it, but the prose seemed so bland that I felt my eyes just moving along the page without capturing any meaning.

Also, my laptop keyboard gave up the ghost and now types zeroes between every letter. Useful for my KGB missives, not so useful for blog posts. It’s going to be that kind of week.

ARC pile demolition project, part 2

It is time for another ARC demolition project! I did one a couple of months ago with great success, and I am due for a repeated because this is how much my pile has increased just this week:

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This is insane, although I do not feel particularly bad in this case, as on Monday I reorganized all my giant stacks of books and got rid of three giant boxes of literature that will either never be read or has been read and will not be reread.

We’ll see how it goes this time.

Rebuilding the TBR pile

There are times when I start five or so books and then get mired in a seemingly endless, yet completely unsatisfactory, readathon. I get busy and forget about three of those, and the other two turn out to be mediocre, or just not the books I want to read. I read two chapters of one and a few pages of the other. This goes on for days.

And so this is where we are now, with five books stuck in progress. It is clearly time to give up and rebuild the currently reading and TBR piles.

Here are the new candidates:

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Reading decision was made for me by Tor with this shiny e-arc (the book is out January 2015)! I did not particularly like My Real Children, but Walton remains one of my favorite writers. Getting my hands on this is a cause for celebration. It involves time-traveling Pallas Athene, Apollo, and Sokrates, among others. Besides, I was just saying a few days ago how much I love deities in my SF.

Next is The Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias. I seem to recall reading good things about this one when it came out.

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I think I am in the mood for a first contact story. I also enjoy weird aliens. I’m just a few pages in, and these appear to be crustacean, or at least have pincers.

And so as not to get carried away, I am going to stop at two.

ARC decimation project update

Conversation at work:

Me: I’m off for the next week and a half. I’m going to work through some ARCs for books already out in paperback. Because let’s be honest, we all have those.

Coworker: Hey, I have ARCs for books already out of print.

 

I posted a couple of weeks ago about my feeble attempt to read through my ARC pile. You will all be shocked to find out that I’ve actually been rather successful. Let’s see what I was up against:

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And now let’s see what I actually finished (no photo because I actually gave most of these away to coworkers and other desperate book addicts):

1. Grady Hendrix, Horrorstor (out September 2014) – I feel like I should write a whole post on this one.

2. Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Innoculation (out September 2014)

3. Daryl Gregory, Afterparty (out now)

Then I was briefly interrupted by a re-read of Locke & Key

4. Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (technically this was a finished book, but not yet published, so it counts)

5. Julia Elliott, The Wilds (out October 2014)

6. Alyson Foster, God Is An Astronaut (out this week)

7. Randall Munroe, What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (out September 2014)

8. Susan Coll, The Stager (out this week)

So hey, pretty good! I had 11 books in my pile and read 8. But wait…  Upon closer inspection, it is revealed that only one of these was in the original TBR pile. I call this ‘the Nick Hornby effect’ — read any of his Believer columns and you will discover that his books acquired list rarely matches his list of books read.

It was a pretty good run in terms of quality. There were no abandoned ARCs. It was also a pretty good mix of regular fiction, speculative fiction, short stories, and non-fiction. Therefore, I declare my ARC decimation project a success. Commence phase 2: Further Decimation of ARC Pile. And while I’m off, maybe I’ll also do phase 3: Getting Rid of ARCs I Will Never Read But That Looked Good at the Time!

 

A feeble attempt to decimate my ARC pile

The ARC situation at home is once again out of control. I attempted to make neat stacks out of ARCs and galleys, which made them look even more intimidating and despair-inducing. So I just picked a handful that I am planning on tackling in the next week or so. Let us assume this is 1/10th of my ARC collection (that’s probably a lie, but let’s pretend I’m bad at math). If I get through this pile, I will successfully achieve my first ARC collection decimation.

This initial pile is mostly new stuff:

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Four are bookstore events-related, so you can say they are work-related. That sounds a bit silly, since anything book-related is also work-related. A few are already out (but at least not in paperback!). Follow me as I attempt to tackle this ARC construction while being distracted and sidetracked by the re-read of the Dresden Files, new releases that look better than old ARCs, random ancient sci-fi that looks better than all of the above, and works of Turgenev that I always want to read when it’s summer and nice outside.