A couple of weeks ago, I was asked in to 774 ABC Melbourne for Raf Epstein’s monthly ‘Read with Raf’ book club, to chat about ‘The Martian’. I’d sent in a review based on my blog piece and Raf enjoyed it enough to want more. Raf, Alicia Sometimes and I had a good twenty, twenty-five minutes discussing, analysing and exploring Andy Weir’s book, as well as taking responses from the public via phone and text. We also broadened the discussion into the whole world of Science Fiction and its appeal. Good fun all round.
Imagine a Healthy Food pyramid, but instead populated by readers.
At the bottom, sadly, are people who don’t read at all. I’ll leave analysis of whether this section of the community is growing or not to people with massive research grants.
In the middle is a big grey area comprising people who read occasionally, people who dip in and out of reading, and people who go for long periods without reading much but who don’t mind a read every now and then.
At the top are my people – the ones who love a good story, the ones with a reading pile, the self-confessed readers.
But it’s my belief that a new sort of reader is emerging, the ones at the pointiest part of the pointy end of our Reading Pyramid. Perhaps they’ve always been around, but now they’re growing in numbers and becoming a force to be reckoned with.
I call these people the Super-readers.
A Super-reader is distinguished from an ordinary reader by a number of things:
- Their reading pile is potentially life-threatening if it collapses on them.
- They know what a TBR list is, and they fret about it.
- They’re like chain smokers – when they finish a book they must have a new one to go on with.
- They read their favourite books more than once. Many, many times more than once.
- Consequently, they might have more than one copy of a favourite book as their first has worn out – and YOU CAN’T THROW OUT A BOOK.
- On a train/bus/tram, they’ve become good at reading covers upside down because they’re fascinated by what other people are reading. You never know, someone might be reading what they’re reading and, thus, A CONNECTION IS FORMED!
- A persistent nightmare for a Super-reader is being caught without a book to read. Therefore, they often travel with two (or more) books.
Some rarer characteristics of Super-readers:
- They dress up as characters from their favourite books.
- They write to their favourite authors, praising or questioning about minutiae.
- They write fan fiction.
Regardless of all this, the single defining characteristic of Super-readers is their love of books. This often means they love to talk about books. This, of course, has been facilitated by technology. Super-readers congregate, thanks to the internet. They talk about characters, about back stories, about potential sequels, about rumours of film versions and how they’re bound to spoil the book.
Super-readers are extraordinarily affirming for a writer (‘They like my work!’) but they are also extremely demanding – in a good way. They read closely, carefully, and won’t be happy with anything less than a writer’s best.
Super-readers keeps a writer on her or his toes, and that’s a good thing.
It’s that time of the year again, and I’m not talking about the festive season. I’m talking about the end of year musing that gives us the parade of ‘Year’s Best Books’ lists or ‘Holiday Reading Guides’ that are starting to feature in the arts pages and corners of the online world.
I must admit a certain weariness with which I contemplate these lists, for I’ve read them for years forlornly hoping that one of them, one day, would feature a genre title.
And by genre, I mean Fantasy and Science Fiction. Occasionally, the compilers of these lists let a Crime title creep in, probably because it lends the compiler a touch of raffishness, hinting that they could go out onto those mean streets if they needed to.
What I look for so vainly is a ‘Year’s Best’ list that understands that quality comes from all aspects of literature. Instead, I see repeated year after year a narrow, blinkered selection that excludes a wide and rewarding range of literature.
I’ll go out on the limb and guess that the compilers of these lists haven’t read lots of Fantasy and Science Fiction and then said to themselves, ‘Well, really, none of these measure up’. I stick my neck out and claim that they haven’t read any (or much at all) in these fields. It’s like they’ve eliminated these books from contention even before the contest has been announced.
They’re not even considered.
Yes, I know that I’m guessing and that I’m possibly traducing thousands of ‘Year’s Best’ list compilers, but my view has been formed after seeing decades where NO genre books have appeared on such lists. Read More | Comments
I was inspired by Linda Nagata’s thoughtful article to write this one. Hard SF can be a hard sell. Of all the multifarious and diverse aspects of Science Fiction, Hard Science Fiction is the one most likely to get non-readers recoiling in horror. It’s the SF sub-genre most parodied, most vilified and most misunderstood.
Which is a shame because, as with most things, the best of it is superb. Hard SF discusses, foregrounds and takes seriously an aspect of modern life that is shamefully neglected in literary fiction: science and technology. If these feature in literary fiction today, it’s superficially or with, at best, a jaundiced eye.
As has been my wont with these recommended reading lists, I’ll foolishly venture a definition: Hard SF is the branch of Science Fiction where accurate representations or extrapolations of science and technology are vital to the story. It has many overlaps with Space Opera and other SF sub-genres, but fuzziness like that is part of the glory of genre definitions.
Ringworld – Larry Niven (1970)
One of the great Hard SF adventures, this rattling good yarn takes the notion of the alien artefact and runs with it, imagining an artificially constructed world that rings a sun. The world is nearly two million kilometres wide and has a diameter roughly that of Earth’s orbit around our sun. It’s a jaw-dropping conceit, and it’s just the backdrop for shipwreck story of monumental proportions. Great fun.
Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)
The first of a trilogy, this book is a rigorous exploration of exploration, where humanity is opening up Mars for colonisation. The technical, engineering challenges are foregrounded, but the ecological and the political are by no means ignored. Absorbing and ultimately moving.
Permutation City – Greg Egan (1994)
Australia’s own Greg Egan . It doesn’t get much harder than this, with quantum ontology, artificial intelligence and simulated reality just part of this onslaught of cutting edge concepts. It’s philosophical, abstract and dense. Tasty stuff.
Revelation Space – Alastair Reynolds (2000)
Space, with all of its unlimited possibilities. Lots of nanotechnology, human modification, and heavy spaceship engineering doesn’t overpower the character exploration and interaction, which is sharp and profound in this far future world.
Up Against It – MJ Locke (2011)
More nanotech in a society in our asteroid belt. The everyday difficulties of living in such a hostile environment are presented with verve and panache, with a rogue Artificial Intelligence thrown in for good measure. This is extrapolation of the best kind. It’s careful but creative with its prognostications and never forgets the importance of a strong narrative.
And by Historical Fantasy, I don’t mean Alternate History (stories in a world like our own that has taken a different historical path) or standard Fantasy that’s set in a world somewhat like our own except for added magic – (see my Laws of Magic for this).
I’ll take a stab a definition of Historical Fantasy, even though I understand that definitions are tricky: Historical Fantasy is a story set in an actual, definable historical time and location, but with elements of the fantastic included such as magic, gods or imaginary creatures.
Yes, it’s arguable and on the margins there are exceptions and ‘should be includeds’, but that’s the fate of every definition.
Historical Fantasy can be a real joy if you love Fantasy, but have grown tired of the standard Fantasy setting – a quasi-mediaeval, Northern European milieu. Historical Fantasy uses the best aspects of Fantasy in fresh, new places.
Here’s my list of Five Great Historical Fantasy Novels
Bridge of Birds – Barry Hughart
Oh, do read this book. Barry Hughart called it ‘A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was’ and it’s an utter delight as Master Li (‘I have a slight flaw in my character’) and Number Ten Ox, his assistant, have a series of remarkable adventures in a magical landscape full of extraordinary characters. It’s rollicking, hilarious, suspenseful, eye-opening and the ending is both profound and moving.
Tim Powers is one of the masters of Historical Fantasy. In The Stress of Her Regard he takes us early 19th century Europe and the world of the Romantic Poets. Shelley, Keats and Byron are substantial characters, and the remarkable night at the Villa Diodati where Mary Shelley created Frankenstein in the presence of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Dr John Polidori. This is the central part of a vast and brooding story that weaves in and out of the gaps in history. Sensational!
Now we’re in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons. Do I need to say any more?
One of our great speculative fiction writers, Gene Wolfe wrote one of the great Historical Fantasy books in Soldier of the Mist which is set in the Greek-Persian wars in the fifth century BCE. The main character suffers a head injury and so has amnesia – but he can also see gods, spirits and supernatural creatures. It’s a majestic book.
The Terror – Dan Simmons
Some might put this in the horror basket, but I’m going to appropriate it for Historical Fantasy, mostly because of the amount of research that’s gone into this cracker of a novel. It traces the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845, in which two steamships went searching for the fabled North-west Passage through the icy seas to the north of Canada. It’s no spoiler to tell you that everyone dies, for that’s the historical record. Simmons, however, uses chilling(!) Inuit mythology to explore a possible reason. It’s breathtaking.