Category Archives: Fiction Reading
Notes on fiction reading.
January is a tidally locked planet, habitable only along a strip of land running north and south, with frigid cold and perpetual darkness on one side, and endless light and searing heat on the other. Sophie, the protagonist of this story, is a student in one of two major cities in this zone. She makes a life-changing (and story-starting) decision when she takes the blame for a theft committed by a friend. The punishment for someone of her disfavored ethnicity is death, and she is hurled into the freezing dark and certain doom. Except it’s not. Certain, that is, due to the intervention of native monsters who may not be quite as monstrous as people believe.
The chapters in which Sophie provides the point of view are narrated in first person, present tense. The others are in third person, past tense. This felt awkward to me, but not jarring. It was the depressing setting, the oppressive culture, and the essentially unlikable characters that prevented me from actually enjoying the time I spent reading this. Dark stories can still be compelling, but this one was not. I never became emotionally invested in the place, the people, their politics, or even in the aliens, although the latter were interestingly, well alien. The ending, well, can’t give that away, but I can say that I found it less than satisfying.
A fairly average high school boy in central Florida lives next to an unbelievably uncommon girl of about the same age. She’s endearingly clever, but she’s also totally self-absorbed, casually inconsiderate, socially domineering, recklessly adventurous, and inexplicably popular. He is, of course, infatuated with her. It surprises no one when she goes missing just before graduation. She’s done that kind of thing before. But there are circumstances that suggest this time may be different. Fearing that she might be emotionally unstable enough to off herself, the average kid recruits a few friends to help him follow clues she’s left behind, seemingly for his benefit, to try to find her… or maybe her body.
I picked this up at my local library mainly because I recognized the author as the guy who did the entertaining and informative Crash Course videos on YouTube. I had no idea at the time: 1. That it had been made into a movie (so the sticker on the cover claims), 2. That it is set very near where I currently reside (a norther suburb of Orlando), or 3. What a paper town was (actually, I did, but I had never heard them called that).
Because of the age of the characters, the story is shelved as YA, but it’s not juvenile. The prose and pacing are both quite good. The crazy girl may not be overly likeable (although she is, in a way, admirable), and her imaginative pranks may be unbelievable, but her story is quite entertaining.
This is a story of humanity venturing into the unknown, as it has always done. One step leads to another, but not all are as sturdy as one might hope. Sometimes you just have to put your foot forward and hope for the best.
The Brane Skip Device, which may allow a spaceship to skip between layers of reality, bypass normal space, and avoid the universal speed limit—the speed of light—is unproven. The theory behind it is poorly understood. Lisa Chang, mission commander for its first crewed test, doesn’t trust it. It seems like magic to her, and she doesn’t believe in magic—not even after the ship skips to a fantasy version of Earth, complete with dragons, orcs, and wizards. This, ultimately, is her greatest advantage.
The release date for Brane Child is 21 December 2014 at the astoundingly low price of just 99¢ for digital editions.
The prices of all of my other books in eBook formats are also just 99¢ from now through December. (Due to the cost of production, prices for paper formats are not discounted and remain significantly higher.)
Brane Child is available for preorder here:
Amazon (US) Link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00PIPTRIS
Amazon (UK) Link: www.amazon.co.uk/Brane-Child-Science-Fiction-Counter-Fantasy-ebook/dp/B00PIPTRIS/
Smashwords Link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/492149
Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes Books, and other online retailers should also be accepting preorders soon. The trade paperback edition of the book is not available for preorder but will be released on or about the same time.
Questions and Answers about this book:
How does this book relate to your previous books?
In the immortal words of Monty Python, it’s ‘something completely different’. Well, Okay, maybe not completely different. I am still the author and it falls firmly in the same ‘counter-fantasy’ subgenre of science fiction that my other books do, but the setting and characters are new and (I think) original. It is positive science fiction—upbeat, hopeful, and sometimes even a bit funny. There is also a smidgeon of cultural satire. My goal for this book was to combine science, history, philosophy, fantasy, games, and humor into a satisfying story about stories.
A story about stories?
Yes, in part. It is about how readers shape stories as much as writers do. The writer sketches the characters and settings, but the reader completes them. No two readers experience exactly the same story. Brane Child is about how beliefs and expectations shape perspective. It touches on human achievement, quantum physics (specifically M-theory), and the idea that reality is much more complex than it seems. The physics (and metaphysics) are warped a bit (Okay, more than a bit) to fit this particular story, but I believe there is a thought or two in here that some people will find intriguing. I also think it’s a fun story.
And now for a short video..
I actually have two problems with Terry Pratchett, but they both have to do with the quality of his writing. It’s too good. Now, I’ve never met the man, but he’s clearly brilliant, and I’m sure he’s charming and kind to small animals and all that, but he’s upset my life in ways I am finding difficult to overcome.
Discovering a new author whose work I enjoy used to excite me. When I was young, I would pick up a book based on the front cover or the blurb on the back and, if I really enjoyed it, I’d voraciously consume all of his or her other books I could find. After Pratchett, that seldom happens because now authors have to meet a higher standard. Their books have to be as good as Pratchett’s.
I know it’s not all Sir Terry’s fault. Publishing, after all, is a business, and the big publishers tend to publish books they think will have wide enough appeal to make them some money. The way they predict what will sell is by what has sold well recently, and they therefor produce a great many books that are much the same. I’ve found few new books from traditional publishers that I found entertaining. They tend to have annoying, angst-filled characters, focus on action over plot, and include far more sex and/or violence than needed for their frequently formulaic stories. Even when I find one I enjoy, one that’s original and well-crafted with truly likeable and even admirable characters, my final assessment is normally something like, ‘That wasn’t bad, but it’s no Pratchett.’
So, when I come to the final page of a book now, rather than going to the library or the internet, or one of the few remaining brick and mortar bookstores near me, I find myself going to my bookshelves and thinking, ‘What Discworld book should I reread now?’ When I do pick up a new book, it is, more often than not, nonfiction, assuming in advance that any work of fiction that may catch my eye is not going to be as good as a Discworld novel. So why bother?
That’s my first problem with Pratchett. He’s limiting my exposure to new novelists.
The last Discworld book I re-re-re…reread was Maskerade. It has four interweaving plot threads. One is about how Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg need to find a new third witch because two witches are invariably an argument without a mediator. The second is the story of Agnes Nitt, a large young woman with ‘a great personality’ and a fabulous voice who leaves the country for the big city to be a singer. The third tells the story of Nanny Ogg’s libido-stimulating cookbook and provides a few satirical insights about the publishing industry. And the fourth is a parody of The Phantom of the Opera as well as a satire about opera in general. The characters are charming. The story is intelligent, witty, and insightful. I find myself instantly engaged, and at the end, I feel a kind a bibliophilic fulfillment that is probably similar to how a gastronome feels after an exquisite gourmet meal.
This normally would not present a problem to the gastronome unless he is also a chef and knows without a doubt that he could never prepare dishes like that no matter how hard he tries or how long he lives. That’s the feeling I get from Pratchett because I also write stories, just not as well. I’m not saying they’re bad. I wouldn’t write them if I thought that. I personally think they are quite good, but I could never create something like Maskerade, and the sad fact is Maskerade is not my favorite Discworld novel.
That’s my second problem with Pratchett. He’s giving me one hell of an inferiority complex.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to write like Pratchett. The best authors have a unique voice, and you can often distinguish one of their books without looking at the cover or title page. But there is an intrinsically satisfying feeling of completeness I get from reading a Pratchett work that I would love to be able to achieve in my own novels. Actually, I’d be almost as happy if other authors could as well because even though I now have hardcover editions of all the Discworld novels (about 40 so far) they are bound to wear out eventually.
Great news! After several months of intensive effort and coordination, The Warden Threat is now available in paperback!
The Kingdom of Westgrove faces a grave threat, but is it the one the king’s advisers are warning him of?
Prince Donald, the idealistic third son of the king of Westgrove, believes he may be the only one able to protect his country from an invasion spearheaded by an ancient and massive magical stone warrior known as the Warden of Mystic Defiance. Donald, unfortunately, is woefully unprepared. His only real understanding of such things comes from his reading of adventure stories. When he finds an ancient scroll he believes may allow him to take control of the mysterious Warden, he eagerly takes on the task. He dreams of saving the kingdom and becoming a hero like those in his epic adventure stories. To his dismay, his quest turns out to be nothing like he imagined. He finds the stories in his library seriously understate the complexities and hardships involved. He also soon realizes that the real world can be much more confusing than fictional ones and that the hero is not necessarily predestined to save the day.
This ‘laugh-out-loud’ parody is a unique book. Technically science fiction, it is almost an anti-fantasy, which pokes a fair, or perhaps an unfair amount of good-natured fun at the serious tone and dependence on magic common to many epic fantasy adventure genre novels. With its charming and truly likeable characters, witty, intelligent humor, and prose style blending humorous science fiction and epic fantasy elements, The Warden Threat is a delight. It is sure to appeal to readers of these genres who may be looking for something fresh and different.
- The Warden Threat: “it’s laugh-out-loud funny”
- “the grammar is refreshingly precise and the vocabulary, well, scrumptious”
- “The characters are believable and well-rounded”
- “the whole book is filled with little gems”
- “shows the influence of Terry Pratchett in style and current events … easy to read, but hardly simplistic.”
- “a lighthearted epic fantasy parody with a science fiction twist that kept me engaged and entertained from page one.”
I went to an Orlando Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group meeting last night. It was our first get together in a few months because our organizer (Sarah Fisk) had to abdicate for job reasons and it took a while to replace her, although she has since moved back to Orlando and rejoined the group.
We held it at the food court of a local mall, an ideal place I thought because it easily accommodated our group without any expectation that we should be quiet or buy anything. Of the seven people at the table that night, one is a traditionally published author (Owl Goingback), one is a self published author (me), and the others are either writing speculative fiction books or have written some and are currently exploring their publication options.
Because we had a new organizer and a few new members, this was more of a chat session than our normal meetings, which focus on review and critique of members’ work. One topic that came up was self publishing. I suppose I was guilty of raising it because when publishing options came up, the implication seemed to be that the preferred option was traditional publishing. I wanted to point out that in the digital age there is another option and that it was my first option rather than a fallback position.
I was surprised that the other members seemed to either not consider this or thought of self publishing as the last, desperate act a writer would take and that books were only self published if they couldn’t meet the exacting standards necessary for traditional publication.
Obviously I don’t believe this to be true but the incredulous stares around the table made it clear just how pervasive this belief is, not just among readers, agents, and publishers, but among writers as well. Unfortunately this is not without cause.
Self publishing has some great advantages. For writers, these include retention of all rights to their work. They control everything from content to distribution. They control the cost of their books and they receive higher royalties as a percentage of sales.
For readers, self publishing means that there are more books in more subgenres than ever before. Books don’t need to fall into mainstream categories or follow whatever may be popular in their genre at the time in order to be published. A publisher’s impression of profitability does not enter into the equation. Self published books, especially ebooks, are almost always much cheaper than traditionally published books as well so readers have greater selection at lower cost. What could be better?
Well, there is the quality issue. The problem with anyone being able to publish is that anyone is able to publish anything. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to be coherent or readable or, in the case of nonfiction, even accurate. Now I won’t say this is an exclusive problem with self publishing because we have all seen traditionally published books that had these same flaws but if a major publisher’s logo was on the cover, a reader could be assured that it had at least gone through some editing process.
With self published books, there is no such guarantee and books can be released before they are ready. Some people, dishonest, scummy, and disreputable people who should be publicly flogged, tarred, feathered, and sent to their rooms without supper, have been known to scam this new openness by plagiarizing the work of others or intentionally throwing out dozens or even hundreds of short, poor quality books. There is currently no way to prevent this and it helps perpetuate the myth that all self published books are bad. I have seen other self published authors claim that readers can still tell quality books from reader reviews on sites such as Amazon. These certainly help and I don’t discount them but reviews and ‘likes’ are not necessarily a guarantee of quality either. Just as anyone can publish a book, anyone can write a review and writers can swap positive reviews and ‘likes’ with other authors as part of their promotion efforts, often with honest intent simply to help their peers.
There are a few disadvantages to self publishing for writers as well. They have to cover all of the up front costs themselves including editing, cover design, and formatting. Self published books are difficult to get into brick and mortar bookstores and the authors have to do all of their own marketing and promotion, which can be extremely difficult without the resources of an agent or traditional publisher to support them. Writers need to be willing to take on these challenges before they decide to self publish but their biggest hurdle may be the continuing stigma hovering over self published books.
I think there may be a fairly simple solution to this although it means readers will need to do a little research themselves. But since they are receiving the benefit of more options and lower costs, I don’t think this is asking too much. Actually my suggestion would apply to any author whose work you have not read before.
Before you decide to buy a book by an author unknown to you, read the sample pages first. If it still looks good, go to the author’s website. All legitimate self published authors should have one. There is probably even a link to it on the author’s page on Amazon or whatever online retailer sells their book. Look at the content. Keep in mind that self published authors may not be expert at web design but if the layout is logical and the content is good, chances are their books will be as well. If the book description looks like the type of book you would enjoy and the author’s website suggests that he or she is a competent writer, there is a good chance you’ve found something that will appeal to you. I know this is more work for readers but I think this inconvenience may be outweighed by the benefits readers receive in price and selection.
As always, if you have thoughts on this subject you would like to share, please leave a comment.
After the first few pages, this ebook reminded me of the movie “A Christmas Story,” which was based on a book by Jean Shepherd titled “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.” That story is also set in 1950s America and is also told from the perspective of a young boy, in that case one obsessed with getting a BB gun for Christmas. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie. It’s on TV almost continuously during the holidays. I only bring it up as a way to describe what A King in a Court of Fools is like. It’s like that movie.
In this ebook, young Harry Ryan has no overriding obsession like the kid in the movie although we learn he would like to ride shotgun in the pink Corvette he and his siblings find in the woods one day. But the pink Corvette is not so much a plot device of this book as it is part of the setting. There really isn’t much of a plot and no deep insights or big ideas. It is not that kind of book. It is a snapshot in time, a picture of suburban life in the mid to late 1950s seen through the eyes of Harry Ryan, the youngest child (about 7) in a large Catholic family living near Pittsburgh.
The reason this book earns 5 stars (from me anyway) is because the author provides a picture of 1950s America clearer and crisper than if it were made on Kodachrome film. The details he provides, from common phrases used, to the descriptions of various brands and products that serve as props, accurately fill out the setting and help highlight differences from today. What the characters see, how they talk, and how they look at things are vividly told, allowing readers of a certain age to recall the feeling of what it was like to be a kid at the time.
Those who grew up later than the 1950’s or early 1960’s may find it harder to relate to this story. It may be too far removed from the world they know but the descriptions are so well done, I think they may be able to as well. I will leave it for them to decide. All I would say to them is that yes, this is what it was like. Trust me. I was there.
In December 2007, Terry Pratchett, the much honored and award winning author of the Discworld fantasy series as well as other books, publicly announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many of his fans since then have wondered if Discworld can continue once Sir Terry can no longer write or if it even should.
I came across a discussion on this very subject a couple of days ago on The Morporkian, a Terry Pratchett discussion group on goodreads. The question posed asked how people felt about the Discworld series continuing on without Terry Pratchett. You can see the discussion here if you’d like: A Surrogate Pratchett?
I visit Discworld often and I actually dread not being able to look forward to the next new book but I have sadly concluded that there is only one Terry Pratchett. I have looked long and hard for other writers who can capture a similar tone and mood and I have found none – none at all.
Pratchett is unique and (need I say) my favorite author. I’ve mentioned him several times in my blog as both a writer of wonderful stories and as an inspiration for my own but I’m doubtful anyone I know of can do justice to the series. Pratchett’s ability to create believable and truly likeable characters in an unbelievable world and his ability to create entertaining and humorous stories while providing deep cultural insights is enviable and wonderful.
I won’t say that it is impossible to find someone to carry on. Perhaps there are writers out there who can and if Terry Pratchett names a successor, I will certainly give his or her books a try. Quite honestly, I hope he does. A round world without a Discworld to reflect the truly important bits would be a much sadder place.
Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help is a charming and humorous tale of a schoolboy who befriends the ghosts inhabiting his school. Milrose, an intelligent if somewhat sarcastic young man, is a great nerdy hero — smart, proudly unathletic and fascinated by new and strange things–the stranger the better. Unfortunately he is less than circumspect in his conversations with his ghostly friends, who remain unseen and unheard by the school staff, and he is sent to receive Professional Help along with one other classmate, Arabella who shares his peculiar affliction. The Professional Help however seems far from either professional or helpful and Milrose and Arabella learn that people who are sent there are never seen again by either the living or the dead.
This is not a serious book nor is it meant to be, as evidenced by the host of wittily named ghosts who wander the corridors. If you’re looking for a scary ghost story, this isn’t it but if you appreciate a quick, light read with lots of smiles, this is well work the 99¢ price for the Kindle version.
Gideon Crew’s life was changed when his father was killed. When he finds out why, he devotes his life to clearing his father’s name and avenging his death. This brings him to the attention of a certain U.S. Government contractor who has another mission for him.
To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that this is a spy versus spy type adventure with larger than life characters so be ready to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. Some aspects are predictable but there are plenty of surprises as well. What I like most about this book is the hopeful undertone. There are plenty of shady characters but it treats them as exceptions rather than as typical examples of humanity and there are plenty of truly likeable minor characters, some of whom actually survive to the end of the story. There is also the promise of a technological breakthrough that will change the world for the better.
The combination of likeable characters, an interesting plot, exciting adventure, and a hopeful mood make this a very enjoyable book. I recommend it.
In the first post in this series, I defined a work of positive fiction as one that conveys a hopeful, optimistic, or other positive mood. In the second post, I argued that the positive image of humanity that supports this mood in science fiction is a realistic one. In this, the final post of the series (or the last one I’ve planned anyway), I will discuss why I think positive science fiction is especially appealing and why I think there should be more of it.
I struggled with how to present this case because there are several points that need to be made. Let me start out with this one, which may be a bit controversial. Speculative fiction is fundamentally a more intellectual genre than others. That may be something of a value call though so let me rephrase it. Speculative fiction, especially science fiction, causes us to step outside our current world and look back at it. In this way it is the most philosophical and scientific of fiction genres because it can question pretty much anything. Every belief, every assumption, every aspect of culture is open to scrutiny. Like other genres, speculative fiction begins with our real world but it isn’t set there. It wouldn’t be speculative if it was. Something must be different and I don’t mean just ray guns or flying cars. The addition of some high tech hardware or alien life does not make a work of fiction speculative by itself. I try to avoid the pejorative use of the term ‘sci-fi’ (sometimes pronounced skiffy) because I don’t necessarily agree that the distinction between sci-fi and SF is as clear as some seem to believe. But a novel with flying cars isn’t true science fiction if all other aspects of the setting are essentially the same as those where the reader lives. It may be ‘sci-fi’ but not SF or speculative fiction.
Science fiction posits a truly different world that would feel strange to us if we were dropped into it. It can have flying cars or ray guns or even ghosts, gremlins, or two-headed crocodile gods but these must have some plausible explanation, at least plausible enough for an intelligent reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. I hope this doesn’t sound elitist but some means of differentiation is needed.
Speculative fiction often begins by asking, “What if?” What if history unfolded differently? What if something happens tomorrow that challenges our current assumptions? What would we do? How would our world be changed? Many works of soft science fiction especially look at current human cultures and contrast them to what could be. They remind us that human society as it exists today is just one of an almost infinite number of conceivable possibilities, some of which may appear better and some worse.
This questioning of everything is the defining characteristic of speculative fiction and it is what sets it apart from other fiction genres. It is also what makes some people truly dislike it. This brings me to my next point.
People who read speculative fiction are especially bright. The intellectual challenge of being exposed to a different world where very little can be assumed excites them. They want to figure out what makes this fictional world different from their own and how it works. They are open minded and willing to entertain questions about their own beliefs and assumptions. They understand that they occupy a single point in space-time and that it is not a privileged position. Not everyone is comfortable with this. Some may not be capable of it. But speculative fiction readers thrive on such mind stretching questions.
In all speculative fiction something is different than it is in our world and science fiction stories show us how people are affected by those differences. In order to do this believingly, or entertainingly in the case of fiction that is humorous, satirical, or intentionally unbelievable (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the author needs an understanding of humanity and how it might react to such differences, which brings us back to that underlying question about the fundamental nature of mankind. The one thing fictional stories must retain is a realistic image of humanity otherwise readers will not be able to identify or empathize with the characters.
The types of people who are drawn to speculative fiction are capable of asking big questions and they are capable of seeing the big picture. I believe that are also likely to understand that a species such as our own cannot go from flint knives to spaceships without having something going for it. Humanity has demonstrated that it can accomplish great things and readers of speculative fiction especially are likely to appreciate this either consciously or subconsciously. If a fictional story is based upon the mistaken premise that humanity as a whole is stupid, warlike, aggressive, cruel, and selfish then the story will seem contrived to them. They may have a hard time understanding exactly why but it will feel wrong.
For intelligent and insightful readers such as these, positive science fiction can provide a tonic to cure the misconceptions about humanity and its future that the news and mainstream fiction can convey. It can remind us that humanity has progressed and is likely to continue to progress, it can help us put current events into a more historical perspective so they can be seen more accurately, and it can reaffirm a sense of hope and optimism for our future.
Consider what is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction in the middle of the last century. The stories that mark this period were often a celebration of human achievement and they inspired not only a sense of wonder about the universe but a hopeful image of continued human exploration and discovery. Stories such as these are the true roots of science fiction. They were a different type of story for a different type of reader and I think part of their appeal was because they were based on a truer understanding of what humanity was and what it is capable of.
It may be something of a cliché but fiction really does shape our future. This is especially true for science fiction. I attended the 100 Year Starship Symposium sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was held the first weekend of October 2011 here in Orlando. This was a gathering of scientists, engineers, and even science fiction writers and philosophers to discuss the future of human space exploration. A point that was made in several talks was how much science fiction had inspired people. One speaker said that an impromptu survey he took of his engineering students revealed that over 80% of them listed Scotty from Star Trek as their primary motivation for going into that discipline. The works of Asimov, Heinlein, and others from the golden age of science fiction were also credited as being major inspirations for scientists and engineers.
Think about that and consider what current mainstream science fiction might be inspiring young people to become if anything. As writers it is our job to entertain, not shape the future but intentionally or not this is something that fiction can do. And I think we should ask ourselves if we are helping to create a bright future or a dismal one.
I would like to see science fiction return to its golden age roots. Other fiction genres can take the dark side but true science fiction should not. I suppose a subgenre distinction could be make between “mainstream” science fiction, which follows the tone and mood of other genres to appeal to wider audiences and “true” or “positive” science fiction, which carries a more hopeful (and truer) tone and mood but I can find no indication that this distinction is being widely made. Perhaps it should be.
Positive Science Fiction Part 1 – Emerging From The Dark
Positive Science Fiction Part 2 – Understanding Humanity
The 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS) – Resurgence of a Dream
On Digital Books And The Evolution Of Genre Fiction
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs
In my last post, I concluded with the suggestion that a realistic understanding of humanity would cast us in a positive light and that this may be one of the reasons that fiction that conveys a hopeful mood is appealing to many people. Consciously or subconsciously they may understand that this vision of humanity is closer to the truth than that implied in darker fiction in which negative human traits appear to be the norm.
In our age of instant communication and information overload, it is easy to see why people can get a negative impression of humanity. The news headlines are full of accounts of horrendous acts perpetrated by people upon other people but the important thing we must remember is that these news stories do not represent normal human behavior. That is why they are news. We hear a lot about crime, but here in the United States crime has actually been falling for at least 20 years. You would never know this based on what you see in the news. Conflicts that are resolved nonviolently outnumber those that result in war or bloodshed but they get far less attention. The events that fill the media are the exceptions and when much of our understanding about the world comes from this source, we can understandably conclude they are the norm when they are not.
Taken out of their historical context, headline stories about individual psychopaths, violent extremist groups, corrupt officials, greedy businessmen, economic disparity, hunger, disease, war, and natural disasters can shock and disturb people. And they should. That shock proves our humanity and supports the idea that people, in general, are decent. If they weren’t, such stories would be entertaining rather than disturbing.
Now the philosophers out there (pretentious buggers that they are) will object that I am taking a culturally biased position. I freely admit that. In our culture, well, mine anyway, things like peace, mutual respect, individual freedom, fairness, honesty, and the like are considered “positive” and laudable goals. Violence, intolerance, and subjugation are thought of as “negative.” But this post is about speculative fiction and how it is seen as either positive or negative by people who share my culture, which is that of people prone to reading speculative fiction.
As another bow to the pesky philosophers, let me just clarify that I am using the term “culture” in this instance to mean core fundamental beliefs and perceptions that are held by a group of people. Different groups of people have different cultures (or perhaps we should call them subcultures). In the modern world, culture is less geographically homogenous than it was in the past and any one person’s culture may be closer to someone who lives 10,000 miles (16,000km) away than it is with their physical next door neighbor. But when all humanity is grouped and all the separate cultural elements are combined, we can talk generally at least about a human culture.
But back to the point, if one’s subculture regardless of where they physically live leads them to truly believe that the world would be a better place if people who do not share their religion, nationality, gender, politics or taste in music should be suppressed or even killed, I feel compelled to say that I think human nature and the flow of history are against them but I won’t try to argue the point. Chances are we won’t like the same books anyway.
The indisputable fact is that mankind has progressed over time and continues to progress both technologically and culturally. Whether your view takes in the last 40,000 years or only the last 400 years the result is the same. It is not steady progress or universal by any means and there have been temporary declines but the trend has been toward peace, prosperity, mutual respect, and discovery. I think this is because people are fundamentally builders rather than destroyers and they are capable of rational thought and decision making if they are free to do so. The reason why this has happened is secondary though. It has happened.
Statistics suggest that this may be the most peaceable time in our species’ existence. People alive today have a much lower chance of being the victims of violence than at any time in history, or probably even prehistory. Individuals regardless of their social class, beliefs, gender, or ethnicity are almost universally regarded as having the same basic rights. Think of things not only common but considered normal not all that long ago such as slavery, genocide, the burning of heretics, gruesome executions, blood sports, debtors’ prisons, foot-binding, torture, mutilation, animal cruelty, wars of conquest, colonialism, and subjugation. Now think about how such things are considered today.
The rejection of acts such as these, which I think most of us would see as barbaric, did not happen all at once. From a historical perspective it has been fairly rapid though and each of these cultural advancements has been built on those that came before it. We didn’t go from genocide to racial and ethnic equality or from the Inquisition to religious freedom in one step but we did get there. Humanity seen on the large scale has progressed and continues to progress.
We have also made significant advances in our understanding of the universe and have used this knowledge to our benefit. I don’t think it is necessary to elaborate much on this point as it seems obvious. No one can seriously dispute that our achievements in science and technology have helped us to live longer, healthier, and more comfortable lives. Don’t undervalue things like indoor plumbing, electric lights, and microwave ovens. These may not sound significant but try living without them for a week.
People today are also more likely to survive childbirth and infancy, and recover from disease. Statistically, we are less likely to suffer from hunger, exposure, and even from natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes than our ancestors. These things still happen but we have learned to deal with them better.
What may not be as obvious is that there has been a significant cultural shift in the last few centuries that I think is likely to accelerate our rate of progress. We have learned how to learn, or maybe it is better to say that we have learned that we can learn. We no longer view the universe as a mystical and unknowable vastness that imposes its will on us. It is something we can study, understand and affect to better ourselves. This insight has led to us placing an increased value on widespread literacy, education, research, exploration and discovery. These types of things are valued now not just by an educated elite but by most people because their benefits are recognizable in our everyday lives. This paradigm shift is not yet complete but I think it is irreversible. We have learned that we don’t have to suffer whatever fate the universe has decreed for us. We can change it. We can make things better.
This doesn’t mean that progress is inevitable, just that it has happened and is still happening. This suggests to me that we as a species have an innate need to improve ourselves and that we are capable of doing so.
Can humanity digress? Can it return to increased violence and intolerance? Of course. This is not impossible. But the fact is that such things have decreased over the history of human civilization. If we are to extrapolate from this based on the logical assumption that the future will be like the past, we would have to conclude that we will continue to make slow and steady progress and will eventually be able to find ways to overcome most obstacles that are presented to us.
Much of current science fiction, if not fiction in general, seems to take the opposite stand, that continued progress is either unlikely or will lead to irresolvable problems. Despite the fact that history shows otherwise, these dark tales are often touted by critics as being more realistic. Clearly, they are not. Based on what mankind has accomplished and continues to accomplish, fiction that carries a positive mood and image of humanity is more realistic.
In my next post in this series, I will discuss why I think positive fiction is especially appealing to science fiction readers and why I think there should be more of it.
Positive Science Fiction Part 1 – Emerging From The Dark
Positive Science Fiction Part 3 – A Better World
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs
I was cruising the internet a few days ago for book recommendations and I stumbled across a discussion on Amazon between people looking for science fiction novels that have a positive outlook on the future. These can be a bit difficult to find, which was why I was looking myself.
There is no widely recognized “positive” subgenre for science fiction or fantasy. I checked, which means I ran the phrase through an internet search engine, which might not pass muster for a thesis but I figured it was sufficient research for a blog post. I found some mentions of “positive science fiction” but the term is not well defined although several people seem to think we need more of it. I would be one of them.
I had a pretty good idea of what I meant by the term. I know what I like to read and so after a bit of I thought I concluded that the essential distinction between a work of positive fiction and one of negative or dark fiction is the mood it conveys.
It certainly seems as if most of the new releases by both traditional and indie authors tend toward the dark side (no pun intended). They often take place in apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic settings in which war, environmental collapse, starvation, disease, overpopulation, or alien invasion play a key role. Sometimes they are dystopian in which economic exploitation, intolerance, oppressive ideologies, and other curses of our past are resurrected to plague humanity.
The one thing most of these have in common, I think, is a negative perception of mankind. They imply that our species is not intelligent or enlightened enough to successfully address problems before they lead to some kind of catastrophe and we are forced to deal with disastrous consequences as best we can afterwards. They start with an unspoken and, I think, mistaken premise that most people (including nonhuman aliens) are, by nature, stupid, warlike, aggressive, cruel, and selfish, and that it is only the rare individual who can rise above these tendencies. The protagonists in such stories are often such exceptional people and the plots show how they struggle and possibly even triumph over whatever it was they are confronted with. But even when the protagonist wins, even when the theme of the book is obviously to serve as a warning, the mood (the prevailing emotion the reader is left with after reading such a story) is negative because the protagonist is the rare exception. When the reader turns the last page and arrives back in the real world, they are left with a residual impression of humanity that is depressing, hopeless or discouraging.
The mood conveyed by a piece of positive fiction is almost exactly the opposite. A word I found often when researching “positive science fiction” was “hopeful” and that is certainly one of the moods a work of positive fiction can provide. Others might include, fanciful, happy, idealistic, intellectual, joyful, optimistic, or even thoughtful. Positive fiction seems to start with a different assumption about humanity, that people in general are fairly decent. It is the antagonist in these stories who is often the exception. The protagonists in such stories may have some exceptional abilities or resources at their disposal but in most ways they are representative of mankind in general. They are “good” people.
This positive premise is, I think, more accurate, which may be part of the reason it is appealing, at least to me. Why it does not dominate the speculative fiction market is a different question and one I can only speculate about.
I can hear the cynics already. People are decent? Come on! Don’t you read the news? Don’t you know what the real world is like?
Yes, of course. That is precisely my point but it will have to wait in order to keep this post at a reasonable length. Why I think this positive view of humanity is more accurate will be the subject of my next and significantly longer post.
Positive Science Fiction Part 2 – Understanding Humanity
Positive Science Fiction Part 3 – A Better World
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
I love to read but even with the exponential expansion of available fiction, I still have a hard time finding new books that really appeal to me. My tastes are apparently somewhat outside the norm.
I was reminded of this recently when I sent out a call for help on Twitter. This is what I said:
I’m looking for a good 99¢ indie ebook novel similar in tone and mood with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Any suggestions?
I sent a few other Tweets in the same vein over the next few hours. Eventually a kindly Tweeter responded with a recommendation for a book by an indie writer that he was offering for free on Smashwords. It was a promotion to gain readers for the other books in the series. Great! Maybe there was a whole series of new books I would like.
I downloaded it. Last night I opened it on my Kindle and began to read.
It opened with a war scene full of action and seemingly mindless violence. This is normally a big turnoff for me but the Tweeter recommended it so I continued to read. Well, I thought, maybe it would get better. The nonstop action continued. I scanned ahead and there seemed to be no end of blood and brutality and nothing that indicated the book would eventually appeal to me and none that it bore any similarity to the wonderful books by Sir Terry Pratchett. I closed it and opened up my copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol mainly because I hadn’t yet moved it from my Kindle to my computer hard drive. Today I made an emergency visit to the library.
Now I know there are many people who thrive on nonstop action and I’m sure they would have not been able to put a book like this down. I just don’t happen to be one of them. To explain why not can be the subject of a later post but the short answer is that it ultimately comes down to a matter of taste. I find action by itself dull and uninteresting. I need to know about the characters first and there has to be something I find admirable about them before they are put in peril in order for me to care about their fate. Otherwise they are no different than those they are in conflict with. This is actually the same reason I was never a sports fan. I could never find a good reason to care which team won. The action isn’t enough. The game for the game’s sake isn’t enough. I need a reason to not only prefer one side over the other but also something to admire about the chosen side; something which their opponent either lacks or is opposed to.
I know this is out of the ordinary but that’s my point. With all the new indie authors publishing now you’d think some would be writing books that are not modeled on currently popular mainstream fiction and that there would be some that appeal to whatever niche you might find yourself in. I’m sure there are some out there for mine. Finding them is the problem.
So that is why I am asking for your help. I want to find more books to read and enjoy and I’m hoping some of you might know of some that suite my particular reading preference niche.
The following list should provide some indication of my personal tastes. Breaking out your tastes and preferences in a similar fashion may help you define and find new books you will like.
- Genre – I prefer Science Fiction although Fantasy is a close second. Mysteries and “literary fiction” can also be good if they share several of the other traits listed here. The target audience can be either adults or young adults. I find that YA books are often the most enjoyable. Within these genres, books that include insightful cultural satire are the most appealing.
- Mood – The mood is the overall feeling you get from a book. If you feel an emotion when you finish a book, the author has effectively conveyed a mood. I prefer books with positive moods such as, fanciful, happy, hopeful, idealistic, intellectual, joyful, or optimistic. If a book provokes a smile from me in the first twenty pages, that is a big plus. (You can find out more on mood here if you wish: Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood)
- Tone – The way the mood is expressed by the attitude of the author is the tone. It can also be thought of as part of the author’s style or voice. Tone reflects the author’s attitude toward the story, the characters in it, as well as toward the reader. The books I prefer tend to carry a prevailing tone that is amused, cheerful, humorous, ironic, lighthearted, optimistic, playful, satirical, or witty. (You can find out more on tone at the same link as above.)
- Theme – I tend to especially like books with an implied message of personal and/or cultural progress and discovery.
- Characters – There should be something admirable about the protagonist and his, her or its allies. They should be ethically and philosophically superior examples of humanity, even if they don’t happen to be human. This could be because they are unbiased, kindhearted, caring, nurturing, empathetic, or several other positive traits. This is what makes me care about what happens to them and makes me sure that their goals deserve to prevail. It also helps if the main character is intellectually above the norm. Those who are bright, analytical, observant, inquisitive, insightful or skeptical are especially appealing.
- Fantastic Creatures – If the story is a fantasy and includes such things as vampires, zombies, ghosts, or other supernatural or mythical beings, I prefer a certain amount of humor and satire in how these creatures are portrayed. I can suspend disbelief for the sake of a story and pretend such things can exist but it is more enjoyable if the tone of the book conveys that I’m not expected to.
So now know more about my taste in books than you ever wanted to. Thanks for letting me share. I have one more favor to ask. If you know of books that you think meet my somewhat peculiar taste by authors I have not listed below, please let me know either as a comment here or on Twitter.
These are some of the writers I know of who have written books that met the minimum threshold of my exacting standards.
- Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
- Piers Anthony (Xanth Series – These are almost too silly but can be fun to read.)
- Robert Asprin (Myth and Phule Series)
- Kage Baker (Company Series – a bit too much romance but not bad.)
- Terry Brooks (Magic Kingdom of Landover Series)
- Lois McMaster Bujold (Miles Series)
- Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl Series)
- Peter David (Apropos of Nothing Series)
- L. Sprague de Camp (The Reluctant King)
- Gordon R. Dickson (The Dragon Knight Series and others)
- Jasper Fforde
- Cornelia Funke (Inkheart)
- Neil Gaiman
- Craig Shaw Gardner
- William Goldman (The Princess Bride – one of my favorites.)
- Tom Holt (Some of his are good, others I didn’t much care for.)
- Jim C. Hines (The Goblin Series was especially fun.)
- Fritz Leiber
- Gregory Maguire (Wicked was enjoyable. The others, not so much.)
- Lee Martinez (Usually his books are a hoot.)
- Jack McDevitt (Alex Benedict Series)
- Martin Millar (The Good Fairies of New York)
- K.E. Mills (A bit verbose but not bad.)
- John Moore
- Grant Naylor (Red Dwarf)
- Terry Pratchett (My favorite writer by far. Fortunately a prolific one.)
- Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials)
- Robert Rankin
- Rick Riordan
- Spider Robinson
- J. K. Rowling
- John Scalzi (Fuzzy Nation)
- Martin Scott (Thraxas)
Thanks and happy reading.
I think almost everyone (and I only say “almost” because I can’t be sure there are no exceptions) is a storyteller. Or at least they were once. Humans are born storytellers. It’s how we make sense of the world. Sometimes the stories are even true. Sometimes they’re not but we pretend they are. That can be dangerous but it’s the price we pay for imagination, which I don’t think we could have progressed so far without. Before anyone ever made a flint knife by banging rocks together, built a fire, or painted pictures on a cave wall, they had to imagine them. They had to envision something that had never happened and create a story of it in their mind before they could make it happen.
I’m pretty sure I have always been a storyteller. Some of my earliest memories are of concocting stories that I played out with toy soldiers and spaceships. There were times when my friends and I would be hanging out or walking down the road and we’d make up stories to tell one another. I wish now I had written some of these down but it seems I could never remember them later. Sometimes I couldn’t remember them right after I told them. It was as if the stories were telling themselves through me.
In high school, I recall an assignment they gave us to keep a journal. (For those of you younger than 30, a journal is sort of like a blog except it’s written down on paper.) Most of the kids in school wrote about their daily activities, their friends, their classes, and things like that. Mine was a serial that followed the adventures of Harvey the Dust Speck. It included a lot of social commentary. As juvenile as it was, I’m sure, my instructor said it was one of the best and certainly the most entertaining. I also wrote editorial articles (humorous of course) for the school newspaper. (A newspaper is like a hardcopy website.)
My leisure writing tapered off in college because I had a full class schedule, a fulltime job, and a family. I did still write occasionally. I even sent a short story to a magazine once and got a very nice rejection letter from them.
But as we grow older, as we become adults with jobs and responsibilities, it seems that many of us feel pressured to abandon fictional stories. I know I did. Stories are for kids. As adults we should be reading the “news.” If we do read books, they should be about something that may help us in our careers to make a little more money, or at least they should be about something real like history, or politics, or economics. Fiction is, at best, an idle pastime. It’s certainly not worth putting a lot of time and effort into.
I think this kind of attitude may be a result of the misplaced values of our society. We assign value to things in terms of money, almost exclusively. The value of a thing is what it costs or what it can be sold for. Unless you are a professional writer, and a fairly popular one at that, stories you create have little value in that equation. Why waste your time making up a story when the same time could be spent much more profitably working extra hours at your paying job, or preparing yourself for a higher paying one, or simply chilling after a hard day at work, work you try to force yourself to believe is somehow important but in rare moments of reflection you suspect you only do because it brings in money? It’s the money that matters, right? Or is money just one of those fictions we believe are real?
This is a question we all must answer for ourselves. I personally have come to believe that I made a mistake when I gave up writing fiction. Not because I could have been a bestselling author. I doubt I could even make a modest living from the stories I like to write. They don’t contain vampires or zombies and they have far too little graphic sex or violence to be terribly popular.
The reason it was a mistake is because the stories I wrote were for me. They weren’t for others and they certainly weren’t to make money. At the time, I thought that also meant they weren’t worth the time and the trouble.
I also had a dark spell when I read only nonfiction and I prided myself in how adult I had become. Giving up reading fiction was like giving up your childhood teddy bear. It was something you had to do to prove you were an adult. Fortunately I got over this flirtation with unimaginative adulthood after only a few years and allowed fiction to creep back into my life; first as a guilty pleasure but eventually I came to terms with my repressed needs, stepped out of the closet, and openly admitted my attraction to fiction.
About ten years ago, I started writing fiction again as a hobby. I figured I had the time for it. The truth is I could always have made the time for it. I just didn’t because it didn’t seem like the kind of hobby an adult professional should have. I excused it by telling myself I was working on a novel and that I might someday try to publish it.
As I got back into it, I slowly realized what it was I had given up. Creating fiction is a rewarding, mind stretching, and enjoyable experience. Creating fictional worlds and fictional characters forces you to think about the real world and real people and leads to a deeper understanding of them. Does this have value? You decide.
This isn’t an advice column but I’m going to offer a few personal opinions. This is my blog, I can do what I want.
- If you are wondering if you are a storyteller, you are.
- Fiction has value even if it never helps you earn any money.
- Fiction is not just for kids.
- You don’t need an excuse to write.
- Write for yourself. You can edit what you wrote for others if you wish to share but do that later and as an afterthought.
- Don’t give up your teddy bear. You’ll never have a better friend. If you’re wondering if you should write, find Teddy, if you are fortunate enough to still have him, and ask him. He was probably one of the first fictional characters you ever created and he may have some valuable insights.
There are few books that when, after reading the last word, I sigh and think, that was wonderful. Most of these were written by Sir Terry Pratchett. In his latest offering from the Discword, Vimes is on involuntary holiday in the country. But of course Vimes is never truly on holiday. He is a “copper” down to his boots and back up again and he carries the law with him wherever he goes, which can prove inconvenient to those there who may have thought they were above it. Like most of Pratchett’s novels, Snuff deals with some weighty subjects including smuggling, drug abuse, slavery, bigotry, class conflict, and the difference between what is legal and what is right. And also typical of Pratchett’s books, it does so with a lighthearted tone that has the reader smiling with every turn of a page. I find this combination of insight and humor extremely appealing and no one does it better than Pratchett. I highly recommend this book.
The third book in The Neanderthal Parallax series returns to the soft science fiction theme of two cultures colliding. This final book has a single antagonist, a racist (or would it be species-ist?) bigot who wants to take the unexploited and unpolluted Neanderthal world for Homo sapiens. Of course to do so will involve a minor case of genocide but he has the tools and he has the technology, kindly provided by the Neanderthals themselves. Mary, the geneticist heroine from the last book, has to stop him. She is still annoying and she is still a bag of internal contradictions but her hard to understand romance with the Neanderthal, Ponter, is demoted to a major subplot rather than the main story.
I have a hard time with the Mary character because she simply does not make sense. She is described as a devout Catholic and accepts that the Pope speaks for God but she doesn’t seem to agree with Catholic doctrine on pretty much anything including divorce, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, or celibacy for clergy. So why, I kept asking myself, does this woman identify with this particular faith when, in fact, she doesn’t agree with its stand on most issues? Why does she get defensive when Ponter questions her about religion? She is supposed to be a brilliant scientist and self sufficient woman but she comes across as intellectually and emotionally weak for not asking herself these questions a long time ago given her positions on these issues.
The main scientific flaw that continues to bother me and which makes it hard to really suspend disbelief enough to go with the flow of the story is the reliance on the assumption that human consciousness, a particularly tenuous and inexact concept, emerged suddenly 40,000 years ago because of a shift it the Earth’s magnetic field. There is finally some techno-babble to explain this but it is far from compelling although the whole scientific community in these books seems to accept it as established fact.
I do like the contrast Sawyer draws between the ethically enlightened Neanderthals with the selfishly competitive Homo sapiens. This shines the light of inquiry on our species and all good soft science fiction must do that in some way. But this contrast, I think, would have been clearer and more believable if the Neanderthals were described as ethically, philosophically and even perhaps artistically more advanced while Homo sapiens retained the clear edge on technology and science. Giving the Neanderthals an arguable advantage in almost all areas made them simply too good to believe.
I’ve probably only been reading five or six books a month on average recently. I seem to have less free time now for some reason but since I was reading these books anyway and since I often write short reviews of them for Amazon or Goodreads, I figured I may as well adapt these reviews for my blog as well.
I have only posted a few so far. You may have noticed them. Like so many things that turn out otherwise, this seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m still not sure it’s not but posting my last review here made me uncomfortable.
I feel fine praising the work of other writers, in fact I enjoy it. I love sharing information on books I’ve liked and pointing out what I especially found appealing about them. I feel it’s almost my duty to promote my favorite books (and music for that matter) so that others might share the enjoyment I get from them. I’m even okay, for the sake of fairness, with mentioning minor points that I thought might be shortcomings. But a few days ago I found myself reviewing a book I really did not enjoy. Actually, it went beyond that. I really disliked it. To me, it was like the literary equivalent of batter dipped, deep fried monkey brains – looks okay on the outside but pretty nasty inside.
So, I wrote a generous two-star review and posted it and then I felt guilty about posting it. What right did I have to be critical of another writer? Not that it matters to the underlying question but in this case it was a much more popular writer than I and the winner of several awards.
“Okay,” I told myself, ignoring the fact that talking to oneself is a sure sign of latent schizophrenia, “you’re not reviewing the writer; you’re reviewing a book and each book stands on its own.” (I write fiction. I have to be a bit, um, eccentric. It’s one of the minimum qualifications for the job.)
True. But who am I to judge another writers work?
Fair question. I have no credentials. All I can do, when you get right down to it, is say if I liked the book or not and try to explain why. I suppose that’s what all reviews actually come down to. There is no objective standard for what makes a book enjoyable. If there was, everyone would like the same books and they don’t. Someone with a MFA and 30 years of experience in the business would undoubtedly be better able to appreciate things in a book I might not even notice, but appreciating technique is far different than liking the book and ultimately that’s what it’s about. Different people are looking for different things when they read for enjoyment, and they have different tastes. So I figured I was as qualified as anyone to say if I liked a book.
But should I? Should one writer post reviews on the work of another?
If writing was a competitive vocation, the answer would clearly be “no.” It would be an unethical conflict. But writing isn’t a competitive vocation. At least I don’t think so. Each good book increases readers’ appetites for more good books and more writers are needed to try to satisfy them. A good book by author X increases interest in similar works by author Y.
But what if it’s not a good book? Or, more precisely, what if I didn’t like it and my honest review is less than glowing? Should I still write it? Should I still post it? I know I’d be less than pleased if another writer posted a negative comment about one of my books, not that that could possibly ever happen of course.
I Tweeted this question on Monday but got no comments so I’m asking the question again here. What do you think? Is one writer commenting on the work of another inappropriate? I’m entitled to my opinion but, as a writer, should I keep that opinion to myself in cases where it is not a positive one?
I met Robert J. Sawyer, an award winning science fiction author from Toronto, Ontario last weekend at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Orlando, Florida. He was outside in the warm Florida sunshine looking over some of the literature from the symposium and I had just come out to puff on a clove cigar, a recently reacquired vice that I should never have started again and should quit.
I recognized him immediately from the photos on his website, which I had visited a few times before. When we met, I would have loved to tell him how much I had enjoyed his books but the fact is I had never read any. Instead, I just thanked him for coming to speak at the symposium. The next day, we met again during a break and I told him how much I enjoyed his comments during one of the science fiction author panels the symposium hosted. At both brief chance encounters, I found him quite friendly and engaging.
Mr. Sawyer is one of a few authors on my “to get around to someday” list. I hadn’t gotten around to his books yet because they sounded a little “heavy” to me. I really enjoy novels that explore deep, philosophical questions, as his appeared to do, but I prefer those with a humorous, lighthearted, or satirical tone. From the descriptions I’d read, his seemed to be more serious and possibly even a bit preachy.
But a few days after the symposium, I went to the local library and picked up three of his novels. I just finished reading the first of these.
Hominids is an engrossing tale of cultural contrasts. In this novel, Ponter, a physicist from a parallel universe, and his partner accidentally open a portal between their Earth and ours. Ponter is sucked into ours and his arrival makes quite an impression, not because of its unexpected nature or because of what it means to our understanding of physics but because Ponter is a Neanderthal.
The book flips back and forth between showing what the consequences of this accident are in both worlds. In so doing, Sawyer provides an interesting contrast between their physiology, culture, religion (or lack thereof), and technology and ours. Looking at ourselves from the outside is one of the things I find most compelling about speculative fiction and Sawyer does that in this book. There were a few things I thought fairly contrived, poorly explained, or simply unlikely though.
The human (Homo sapiens) characters in the book are either one dimensional or simply unbelievable. One, a female geneticist called in to verify that Ponter’s DNA is, in fact, Neanderthal, seems especially so. She quickly falls for this gentle hunk of man after having been raped just prior to learning of his sudden appearance. The fact that this supposedly brilliant scientist who, somewhat oxymoronically, is a fairly devout Catholic, allows herself to be swept away emotionally in this way, especially after such a traumatic event, makes little sense. A hesitant friendship would be understandable but a romantic attraction, although it remains chaste, is not.
There is a discussion on consciousness between Mary, the geneticist, and another character toward the end of the book that also had me scratching my head. They are speculating on what it is that causes people, either us or the Neanderthals, to develop consciousness. The proposed hypothesis that this is somehow due to a sudden and poorly explained quantum event sounds almost magical. Mary doesn’t challenge the idea. In fact she seems to seriously consider it.
A third thing that I have a hard time with is the description of the Neanderthal society. It is described as a hunter-gatherer culture with a very small global population that never developed farming. Things like furniture are made individually by craftsmen (or crafts-women). No mention is made of any type of industry or mass production and yet they have somehow developed a technology capable of developing sophisticated robots and seemingly sentient artificial intelligence. How? Is this another mystical quantum thing?
This book gets three stars by default from me because it looks at our society from the outside and does so competently. The reason for the extra star is because it is highly absorbing at the beginning. I found it hard to put down and it did hold my attention. Another reason for the extra star is that I’ve met Mr. Sawyer and he’s a very charming fellow.
For the last three days, I have been attending the 100 Year Starship Symposium sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (Twitter search: 100YSS) The following statement from their website describes the intent of the symposium.
The 100 Year Starship™ Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible.
The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not” and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight.
I went to this event with my son, a recently graduated aerospace engineer whose Master’s thesis was on nuclear propulsion for spacecraft. He wanted to go because this is directly related to his field of expertise. I went because I am a speculative fiction writer with a long time interest in the dream of space exploration and because ten renowned science fiction authors were there as panel members to talk about science fiction and its influence on science fact: Stephen Baxter, Geoffrey A. Landis, Allen Steele, Gregory Benford, Robert J. Sawyer, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Haldeman, G. David Nordley, Charles Stross, and Vernor Vinge. I was privileged to speak with Robert J. Sawyer, during one of the breaks. He is an amazing fellow.
The sense of wonder the DARPA statement mentions above struck a chord with me. I feel that sense of wonder. My children seem to as well. I almost cannot conceive why everyone does not share this feeling.
When I was a child all too many years ago, I was inspired by books for young adults with space faring heroes, most notably, or at least memorable, was the Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. I had them all. The science was badly flawed, the characters were shallow, but the books conveyed a dream of space exploration and discovery and I became infected. I read more science fiction, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Sagan and others. I was fascinated with movies about human exploration of space, especially 2001 A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and, years later, Contact. Star Trek created such a hopeful vision for the future that I eagerly embraced it and its cancellation as a television series felt like the end of the world to me, or at least the end of a dream. Later, I felt a resurgence of the dream with the airing of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Of all the science documentaries ever produced, Cosmos, in my mind, is the one that best conveys that sense of wonder the DARPA statement talks about. But again the dream seemed to be shared by only a few.
Humanity must explore and expand to the stars. I believe this as almost a matter of faith. When I was younger, I felt that our exploration of space was inevitable. Now I think it is imperative but that it may not happen — at least, not soon. I feel that somehow we have lost our communal sense of wonder. We have lost the dream. I support the mission of the 100 Year Starship to reinvigorate that dream. I sincerely hope it can. But what can I do, what can we do to help?
Each according to his or her abilities, I suppose. I am a fledgling soft science fiction writer. I saw the genre of speculative fiction, especially books targeted at young adults, trending toward heroes who resolve problems with magic. I have nothing against magic as a plot device and I enjoy fantasy fiction but I felt there was a need for more fictional heroes who expressed skepticism about magical explanations and who searched beyond them to discover how things really were. My first three books carry that as a theme. They begin with items purported to be magical and the characters need to look beyond that simple explanation in order to resolve their problems. Although the setting for these books is a human colony on a distant planet, they are not specifically about space exploration. After my experience at the 100 Year Starship symposium, I am toying with ideas for my fourth novel that will more prominently feature space exploration. This may be the best I can do to encourage this sense of wonder. What can you do?
When I told my friends and relatives I had finally embarked on my life long goal to write fiction and had actually published something, they said, “Great! Where can I get it?” When I told them, their responses were much different. You see, my books are self published and there is still a stigma about self published books. Many believe self publishing is what you do when your stuff isn’t good enough for a “real” agent or publisher. My books were also ebooks and everyone knows “real” books are made of paper. My friends didn’t even have ebook readers and had no plans of getting one. I myself didn’t have one until this year so I couldn’t really say much.
When I tried to explain that I chose to self publish rather than seek a traditional agent and publisher, I was met with skepticism. “Yeah, right.” (This is the only case I know of in which two positives make a negative.) “You chose to do this?”
But I did. When I decided to begin writing seriously rather than just as a hobby, I initially intended to shop my work to agents and try to get my books published in print. I had compiled a list of agents, what they said they were looking for, and their submission guidelines. I had draft query letters prepared using the best guidance I could find from established agents. I did my homework and I was ready to go. I wanted two books completed before I approached an agent so I could prove I could deliver but when the time came, I had changed my mind.
Maybe it’s a mistake but rather than send out queries for my first book, The Warden Threat, to traditional agents and publishers, I chose to self publish. Why would I make self publishing my first option rather than a last resort? I know many other writers are struggling with the same decision so I thought I’d share the five main reasons for mine (in no particular order).
1: I’m unknown as a fiction writer. My paying job had nothing to do with fiction, at least intentionally, although some of the reports I had done did contain things that were fairly speculative. But the point is, in the world of fiction writing I had no name recognition, no following, and no brand. I assumed it would be very difficult and frustrating trying to get an agent to even look at my work. Agents turn down 99% of the submissions they receive, and all the time the author is waiting to hear back from them is time their book is not available to readers.
2: Self publishing is easy. With the rise of ebooks, there are several places that will allow authors to turn their manuscript into an ebook and publish it. The process is fairly easy and free. I chose Smashwords and Amazon because they seemed to be the industry leaders. Smashwords is the simplest. All you need is a Word document, suitably formatted, and a cover image. Smashwords creates ebooks in multiple formats for you, assigns an ISBN and distributes your book to multiple ebook retailers. Amazon required conversion of the Word file to HTML and then to a PRC format using free Amazon software. Both processes were well within my capabilities. The hardest part for me was coming up with covers but I eventually created some that I thought were simple and eye-catching using no special or expensive software.
3: The popularity of ebooks is growing. Amazon now reportedly sells more ebooks than it does paper books and the popularity of ebooks is still growing. I don’t see paper books going away (I hope they don’t), and I would love to see my books eventually become available in paper because it means more people will be able to read them, but I feel that ebooks are the future and it is good to get in on the ground floor. I see this as analogous to what happened in the music world with the rise of MP3 players. At one time I bought vinyl albums, tapes, and CDs. Probably more than I should have. But I have since converted my CDs to MP3 files and now normally only buy new albums as MP3 digital downloads.
4: With self publishing, authors can choose what compromises to make and what ones not to. I think authors, good authors anyway, write because they have things to say. Traditional publishing is a business and publishers have books they want to sell. There can be an inherent conflict in these two goals and I have heard that authors are sometimes asked to make changes to increase sales at the cost of their intended message. With self publishing, no one will tell you, “You can’t say that.” As your own publisher, you can decide if your story the way you want to tell it is more important than additional sales.
5: Self published ebooks can be the best bargain available for readers. Let’s face it. Times are tough for a lot of us and we have to stretch our budgets. As far as my reading habit or obsession went, I stretched mine by increasing the number of books I borrowed from the public library. I still buy hard copy books from my favorite authors as soon as they are released. I just preordered the latest book by Terry Pratchett for example. But for authors I never heard of, well, I might buy a paperback if it sounds good and the library doesn’t have a copy. But now there is a third option. Ebooks are cheap, normally less than the paperback version, if there is one, and many, especially the works of self published authors, can cost less than a buck. I wouldn’t expect readers to be willing to pay eight dollars for a paperback version of one of my books if they never heard of me and I’d feel guilty asking them to. But $2.99, $1.99, or even just 99 cents is probably affordable and worth the risk. I’m comfortable asking prices like that for my works. I think they are worth much more although my opinion is hardly objective. But until or unless I obtain a following, I doubt I will ever ask for more. My personal goal with my writing is not to make a lot of money. I don’t expect to. Most authors don’t. I just want my books to be read. Making them cheap seems a good way to do that.
I am not advocating self publishing for anyone. I have no idea if it will gain readers for my books. This is my first try and I haven’t been at it long. The start of my self publishing effort began the end of May 2011 with the creation of this blog. I published a “beta version” of my first two novels as an anthology in July and got some good feedback from beta readers. After a little more editing and polishing, I updated the anthology and released the first two books separately this month (September 2011). I will provide updates from time to time on this blog and probably on Facebook and Twitter on how well (or poorly) my books are faring. You are more than welcome to check back to find out.
Please let me know if any of this has been useful to you. I’d love to hear back from readers and writers about how they see ebooks and self publishing. Have you bought self published ebooks? If you have, what did you think? Do they provide good value for the money?
I was listening to an obscure band, playing music in a relatively obscure musical subgenre last night on my MP3 player when I realized that before the age of digital music, I would never have heard either this band or this type of music. It was simply too different, too outside the mainstream, and too risky for any music producer to take a chance on. But the rise of digital music has led to the evolution of many new musical subgenres and I can’t help wondering if something similar might not be happening for fiction.
I think it may. One bit of advice I saw recently for writers of e-books seemed counterintuitive at first but it reinforces this idea. The advice? – Don’t try to appeal to a broad audience. Focus on your core group, those likely to be strong fans and don’t worry about pissing off those who aren’t, even if that’s the majority of people on the planet.
I’m not entirely sure, but this might not be bad advice. It happened with music. It split into a great number of subgenres and I doubt many of them appeal to more than a relatively small group — but those who like them, really like them.
So what does this mean for fiction? Well, possibly the same kinds of things it meant for music but possibly even more so because almost everyone listens to music of one type or another but fiction readers are already a subset of the population and possibly more discriminating about what they read than most music listeners are about what they listen to. Fiction readers are more like the audiophile subset of music listeners.
Here are a few possible impacts of the e-book revolution that come to mind. Most of this is idle speculation, of course, but since the batteries in my crystal ball died, my prognostication abilities are somewhat limited. Still, these seem to make sense to me.
Specialization – More books that focus on specific themes, tones, and moods within each genre will become available. What this means for readers, as it did for music listeners, is that there will be works more likely to really appeal to them. If you like science fiction novels with an introspective protagonist, told in a satirical tone, conveying a hopeful mood, and a humanistic theme, well, there just may eventually be a subgenre for that.
Genre melding – This is already happening. There are fantasy detective stories, science fiction westerns, horror romances, etc. Digital books, I think, are likely to fertilize such cross breeding and give rise to new subgenres mainly because it will be less risky to explore such mutations.
More books – More books will be published simply because authors can bypass the traditional gateways (agents and publishers) and publish their work for little or no money.
More variable quality – The downside of letting anyone in means, well, anyone can come in. A lot of what gets e-published may do so with inadequate editing or review, meaning the reader can’t assume a minimal level of quality. A lot of what becomes available may be overly verbose, deadly dull, full of errors, or even incomprehensible.
Smaller audiences – Highly specialized subgenres will appeal to fewer people so individual books and authors may have few readers. The plus side, of course, is that these books and authors will be available to those readers where they were not before.
Larger audiences – No, this isn’t a contraction. It is quite possible that the total number of people who read may increase as more books that appeal to them become available. Most e-published books may have few readers but a lot more books will be out there.
Disdain for works with broad appeal – At one time there was a sentiment that if a song was played on the radio, especially AM radio, it could not be good. It was “popular” or “pop” music, which, almost by definition, no serious music listener would bother with. You sometimes come across this with books, although not as frequently. The reason bibliophiles don’t normally disdain best seller lists, I think, is because, as I said before, book readers are already an elite group. But if authors feel free to explore their art with less concern over popularity, you may see popular books being looked at the same way as pop music once was; it represents the lowest common denominator and appeals to those without cultured taste or much knowledge of the art form. I personally think this is somewhat elitist because when all is said and done, different people like different things. Taste in music or literature is a personal matter. It’s like food in that way. If you like beer better than champagne, who is to tell you you’re wrong?
Harder to find – With more books available, it may be harder to find things you really want. First there is the quality issue as stated above. The reader will have more to choose from, but much of it may be dreadful. This can make the good stuff hard to find. But even if you could weed out all of the stinkers, there will still be a lot of choices. It’s like going to a Chinese restaurant with a huge menu. It’s hard to decide because so much looks good but you can only pick one thing. Deciding what you want most is difficult because there are so many options that sound good. Unlike with the menu though, a lot of the book options, as is true now with music, are not obvious. It’s like there are a bunch of addendums and footnotes with really fine print on the menu so you may have to search a lot more. The most popular stuff will still be in big print on the first page, metaphorically speaking, but what you would like most may only found written in Mandarin on the back of the napkin under the soy sauce. On the plus side, it is available somewhere.
There does not seem to be a lot of consensus on the benefits and drawbacks of e-publishing right now. There are obvious issues, quality and piracy probably being the most troubling. But I think, overall, the e-book revolution will certainly be good for readers. I think it will also good for authors and for agents and publishers but not without some paradigm shifts. Sometimes more is less but in this more is better. More books, more published authors, more perspectives, more diversity, and more choices for readers. Problems exist and I hope they are resolvable, but as both a reader and writer, I see the rise of digital books and e-publishing as a very good thing.
Oh–The band I was listening to was Magion, a progressive rock band in the subgenre of female fronted symphonic metal with Gothic metal influences — not as symphonic as say Epica or Nightwish — but I digress. What can I say? I like it. You won’t hear it on the radio and you can’t dance to it but I like this stuff and yes, I did buy the MP3 album from Amazon and I don’t care that they will never make it on anyone’s top ten lists.
I stated in a previous blog post that I thought tone and mood mattered more to me than genre and provided a far better indicator of whether or not I would like a particular book. I’m not saying genre doesn’t matter; it just doesn’t matter as much. In this post, I’m going to try to explore why that might be. I assume others may also share my ranking of relative importance but since my sample size for this in one, my hypothesis is philosophical rather than scientific so I’ll treat this as a personal voyage.
As a reminder (so you don’t have to read the previous blog), the term mood describes the overall feeling of a literary work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone describes the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.
Fiction is an art form. People feel something when they read it. As with all art forms, it is this emotion that draws people to the work. It may have intellectual aspects as well, which can enhance the experience; and increased knowledge about the art form can add to one’s appreciation of it, but it is the emotional impact that makes a person either like a particular piece or dislike it.
First, let me define the term “art form.” I’m making this one up, not the term, the definition, so there is no compelling reason for you to agree. It’s just my take on what all good art has in common. For me, an art form is any stylized representation of some aspect of reality intended to evoke an emotional response from an audience. That’s what makes a novel art, and a text book not. Not that you can’t have an emotional response to a text book. When in school, there were several text books I really came to hate but I seriously doubt the authors intended that.
That feeling the audience gets from art, whether it is a painting or sculpture, a piece of music, a film, or a novel, is ultimately what determines if they like it–not appreciate it–like it. They like how it makes them feel. You can appreciate how a painter uses color and texture or how a writer constructs scenes and characters but still not like the end result. The work, despite all of its technical strengths may not touch you, it may not make you feel anything, or it may evoke feelings you don’t like or want at the time.
Consciously or unconsciously, people approach a work of art with the desire to feel something from it. If the work meets their emotional need, they like it. If it does not, they don’t. But of course different people have different emotional needs at different times so a book they did not like ten years ago, they may find they like now and may not even understand why. I think it is because their emotional needs have changed during that time. The novel, after all, is the same.
In some ways, all art is a form of escapism. This is especially true for novels, as well as movies and fictional television shows. But the word escapism has negative connotations and is, I think, not entirely accurate. People turn to fictional stories in books and movies to temporarily take their minds away from the pressures of their individual realities or to vicariously partake in something they may find missing in their real lives, but this isn’t so much to escape from their lives as to balance them emotionally.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s assume a person works every day at a dull job in which he has no real control over what he does or when he does it. When he comes home, this doesn’t change. Several things have to be done, whether it’s pick up the kids from school, drop them off at band practice, cook supper, pay the bills, mow the lawn, or fix something that broke the day before. When he gets that rare moment of free time, how does he fill it? Well, if he likes having no real control over his life, if he does not like making decisions, he may just turn on the TV news and watch more things he can’t really have much effect on. His dull and impotent life doesn’t bother him and therefore doesn’t create an emotional need. But if the necessity to always react to situations rather than control them makes him feel frustrated, a good novel with a protagonist who always takes charge of any situation, may be just what he needs. It can help him feel things he does not often get to feel in his normal routine. It can help balance his emotional life. Whether the novel is an epic adventure, mystery, space opera, or western, doesn’t matter as much as the feeling of excitement and potency the mood of the novel provides.
The thing creating an emotional need does not have to be personal. For example, someone who has more generalized frustrations about humanity in general, who is bothered by how people always seem to find excuses to harm one another or do really irrational and self destructive things, may turn to fiction to balance growing feelings of pessimism with books with optimistic and hopeful moods.
Escapism? Maybe. Therapy? Perhaps. Novels can fulfill an emotional need and are probably more effective and certainly less fattening than downing a six-pack.
When asked what kind of books you read, how often do you respond initially with some genre category: science fiction, fantasy, young adult, epic adventure, etc? When you do, occasionally someone might say, ah, so you must really like X (X being the best selling or most heavily marketed book in that genre at the time). If you say you didn’t much care for it, or loathed it, or aren’t interested in reading it after seeing the description in some review, you may find yourself confronting a very bewildered face, especially if the owner of said face happens to really like X.
As an example, I’m going to pick one extremely popular Young Adult (YA) fantasy series; Harry Potter. If we assume only people who like this genre will even crack open the cover, all reader reviews on Amazon.com , Goodreads, or any other site should give these books four of five stars. It may surprise you that there are actually some readers of YA fantasy who loathed these books.
The following statistics are of customer reviews on Amazon.com for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as of 3 July 2011.
5 star: 4,758 (84%)
4 star: 548 (10%)
3 star: 93 (2%)
2 star: 80 (1%)
1 star: 76 (1%)
(2% lost due to rounding)
Here is another example. These numbers are for the popular YA Soft Science Fiction book Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
5 star: 1,906 (76%)
4 star: 373 (15%)
3 star: 106 (4%)
2 star: 50 (2%)
1 star: 49 (2%)
(1% lost due to rounding)
Okay, so there are always a few malcontents. The stats still show that most people really liked these books, right? In the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 94% gave it four or five stars. For Hunger Games, it was 91%.
Yes and no. There are two reasons why these figures do not necessarily represent the overall opinions of readers of those particular genres. The most obvious is that no statistics indicate how many applicable genre readers decided not to read these after seeing the description on the book jacket or on Amazon. The reader reviews only represent the opinions of people who actually thought enough of the book to pick it up and give it a shot based on the marketing and, possibly, other reviews. In other words, only those who expected to like the book before reading it were in the pool of potential reviewers. The other reason is that many people (myself included) are more likely to write a positive review for a book they liked and simply not say anything about the stinkers.
So what is it beyond genre that makes someone want to read a book and, having read it, like it? I think much of the answer to this question lies in what it is different people are looking for in their reading experience.
I have probably read thousands of fiction books. Until recently, I never really kept count or, except for a few I really liked, kept copies. These were in various genres but primarily science fiction, fantasy, epic adventure, and YA although I have also read several mysteries, and books considered literary fiction. Some I liked, some I didn’t, and I asked myself why this was. What was it about one book I really liked while another in the same genre, possibly with a similar plot left me cold? I have come to realize that, for me, the tone and mood of the novel matters more than the genre.
If you are not familiar with tone and mood as they apply to literature, here are some quick definitions.
Tone – The tone of a novel reflects the author’s attitude toward not only the characters and events he creates but toward the story itself as a whole as well as toward the reader. It is conveyed by how the author tells the story including choice of setting, vocabulary, and other details. A single book can have more than one tone simultaneously and they can be mixed in an almost infinite number of combinations.
Following are some words that can describe tone:
Amused, Angry, Cheerful, Clear, Conciliatory, Conversational, Detailed, Formal, Gloomy, Humorous, Imploring, Informal, Ironic, Lighthearted, Matter-of-fact, Neutral, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Playful, Pompous, Resigned, Sad, Satirical, Serious, Suspicious, Witty. . .
An example may help to clarify this concept. Terry Pratchett populates his immensely popular Discworld fantasy novels with likeable and believable characters and he puts them in situations that can seem very real–except he conveys through the use of a lighthearted and satirical tone that he does not take them seriously and neither should the reader. Neither they nor the world they inhabit can really exist, and yet the stories are immensely enjoyable and have important meaning and relevance. It’s not easy to do but Sir Pratchett is a master at it.
Mood – The mood of a story is the prevailing emotion the reader experiences when reading the book. Setting, plot, dialog, images, and many other factors can be used to convey mood. Sometimes the mood will remain the same from the first page of a novel to the last; other times it will change because of changes in the plot or characters. The emotion the reader feels at the end, however, is the most important for defining the overall mood of the book.
Following are some words that can describe mood:
Anxious, Cold, Disgusted, Depressed, Excited, Fanciful, Frightened, Frustrated, Gloomy, Happy, Hopeful, Idealistic, Intellectual, Joyful, Lonely, Loss, Melancholy, Mournful, Mysterious, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Realistic, Romantic, Sad, Sentimental, Sorrowful, Suspenseful, Suspicious, Tense, Thoughtful . . .
Basic emotions such as these provide the mood for the story.
A good example of tone and mood is provided here using Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as and example. http://www.online-literature.com/austen/prideprejudice/
The tone of the novel is light, satirical, and vivid. The mood is intellectual and cold. In this book, lack of strong emotion is the prevailing mood.
Notice that words that can be used to describe tone can also be used to define mood because both are dependent on feeling. You can think of mood as the overall feeling of the work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone as the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.
This blog post has already gone much longer than I had originally intended, so even though this has not been an exhaustive exploration of tone and mood, it’s time to wrap it up.
My point in this post is to point out that there are aspects of fiction beyond genre that may be better indicators of whether or not a person will like a particular book. A bit of introspection has led me to suspect that the most important–to me at least–are tone and mood. As to why that is will have to wait for another blog post though.