on genre

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.


Genre fatigue and how to cure it

I have never been a strictly speculative fiction reader, but for many years, spec fic comprised probably about 80% of my book diet. For the purposes of this post, I am going to assume that fantasy, urban fantasy, many flavors of sci-fi, and variations on the new weird belong in the same broad category. I don’t want to get into the quagmire of ‘what is genre?’ discussion at the moment, and I want to have room for my pretty varied reading tastes even within said genre. I started with fantasy (the book that started it all was Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, if you’re curious), slowly making my way into sci-fi territory, and finally settling somewhere in the weird and slipstream area. At this moment, I can only describe my reading preferences as ‘books where strange stuff happens’.

I wrote about my genre reading here for many months (which is basically decades in Internet years). I run a sci-fi and fantasy book group. I read a lot of genre blogs. I voted for Hugos (though not this year). I still gravitate first to sci-fi and fantasy section in any bookstore I visit. But for many months now, the genre has not been my best friend. I have what I call ‘genre fatigue’. It’s not just a fantasy fatigue or hard sci-fi fatigue. It’s this generalized unwillingness to read widely in what I previously considered my area of expertise. I burned myself out on swords, dragons, spaceships, AI, nanotechnology, cyberpunk, dystopias (though I think everyone must be burnt out on those), you name it. Maybe I feel like I’ve read every possible permutation of character/setting/plot one could have in speculative fiction. Maybe I just need a heavy dose of reality in all my reading.

What genre fatigue might look like

What genre fatigue might look like

Part of this deviation from genre is due to having a vast sea of non-genre books in my vicinity. Most of the galleys in my room are not genre. Most of the books I buy and sell at work are not genre. Even my library hauls are now heavy on things like plays and poetry. For a while in the past few months, I read mostly non-fiction. Or only poetry and comics. Sci-fi and fantasy were paradoxically still okay in comics form (even though, as Warren Ellis says, there is even less realism in those*).

These days, the fatigue seems to be abating. Perhaps I’ve had my fill of what one could call mainstream fiction. I picked up a fantasy book last week to deal with some depression crap. But I still read very widely outside of the genre, and I doubt speculative fiction will comprise as much of my reading as it used to. There is no real cure for genre fatigue. I don’t think there needs to be one, it’s not a life-threatening condition. Now, general book fatigue, that’s an emergency situation, but I’m not there yet.


*Here’s the full quote from Ellis’s Orbital Operations newsletter from 8/16:

Suspension of disbelief is inherent in the comics form because we pick up a comic already understanding that we’re seeing a heavily filtered and codified representation of the world.  Real and irreal use the same visual codes.  Unreal figures in comics are made of the same stuff as the real ones.  Talking about the systems of the world is just telling stories that try to explain how the world works.  Picking up a comic, you already know that at least one person is essentially lying to you.

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.


Assorted bits: monthly tallies, podcasts, and Brian K. Vaughan

Looking at my skyscraper-like book piles at home, I realize that doing ‘monthly tally’ posts is not actually feasible. I already don’t remember what books I brought home in the past week, much less a month. My rate of acquisition is quite high (no, I don’t have piles of money, I have fellow booksellers and friends and my workplace). I might therefore attempt to do more frequent adoption/release updates in between actual reviews.

exmachinaSpeaking of release/output/reading updates. Since I dearly love Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, I had to go and find his other stuff. In the past two weeks I made my way through the entire Ex Machina series he did with Tony Harris and a few other people. It is, unsurprisingly, well-done and intelligent and very, very different from Saga. I think your enjoyment of Ex Machina will depend on whether you like politics in your graphic novels, since the main character is the Mayor of New York City. I can’t say I am normally a big fan of such things, but I also lived in NYC and had worked in a city archives before that, and I happen to find local politics quite interesting. I therefore enjoyed Ex Machina quite a bit, but on a cerebral, rather than emotional, level.

Finally, If you are the sort of geek who enjoys not only reading genre, but reading and talking and listening about genre, you should go listen to episode #180 of The Coode Street Podcast. Not only it has Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith on it, but the entire hour is a geek-fest of intelligent discussions about what might or might not be fantastic fiction, awards, publishing, and reading speculative fiction.