Links for readers…

Happy new year! I have decided that 2016 is the year of not giving a fuck. And yes, there is a book for that.

Here’s a fresh roundup of links for your reading pleasure.

Commitment-phobe…

Here’s where I discuss science fiction series and why I generally avoid them, with some nice things to say about The Warrior’s Apprentice and Lois McMaster Bujold, on my blog Sci Femme.

Recommended Reading: What Makes This Book So Great

What Makes This Book So Great is a compendium of blog posts about Jo Walton’s rereads of books, not necessarily all science fiction and fantasy. These are blog posts originally published on Tor.com, so they are short, breezy, and quick to read. Walton is such a prodigious reader, averaging a book or more a day (I wonder that she finds time to write!). She shares many interesting insights into the whole act of reading, as well as the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Particularly enlightening for me was the idea that people who grow up reading science fiction and fantasy have internalized over time the special rules of the genre, while primarily mainstream writers may feel at sea when they try these genres; the flip side is authors who try writing genre who haven’t read a lot of it, and fail miserably. All of this content is available free online if you want to hunt it down, but it’s handy to have it in book form, and it’s of special interest to anyone who loves reading, whatever they may read. She’s certainly convinced me that rereading your favorites (and not-so-favorites) is worthwhile.

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Some of my favorites you can read now: SF Reading ProtocolsThe Suck Fairy; Gulp or Sip; on cosy catastropheson Gaudy Nighton Middlemarch.

New blog: Sci Femme

I’ve resurrected an old idea of mine, which is to read science fiction about women and blog about it. I call the blog Sci Femme, and I hope to use it as a forum for longer-form essays about themes and trends in science fiction written by women. I’ll be looking at both new and classic books. I’ll also post news and other resources there as I discover them. There’s not much there at present, just a few older pieces to seed the garden, so to speak, but I hope you’ll visit and follow. I plan to blog regularly there for at least the next year of reading, perhaps longer if this project takes hold. I’ll also post updates here when I make them.

A survey of classic science fiction, with notes about diversity in sci-fi…

At some point, I set out to read a representative sample of all the “great” writers of science fiction, so I could feel reasonably well-educated in the genre. If you haven’t read a lot of science fiction, I recommend this exercise. It provides a grounding so you can learn where the well-worn tropes originated and appreciate it when today’s writers are doing something new. However, it can be troublesome to read older science fiction, especially if you’re a woman.

Classic science fiction is notoriously bad at portraying women as characters, or even human beings. Particularly egregious offenders, considering how influential they were on the genre, are Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven. I don’t necessarily think that these writers held misogynist views. Instead, they demonstrate a huge blind spot where women are concerned.

Even when writing about futuristic or advanced societies, these writers often fail to depict women as anything other than subordinate. Women are generally relegated to the role of secretary (“girl assistants,” as Clarke puts it so charmingly in 2001: A Space Odyssey), housewife or concubine. Often, the female characters are absent altogether; I believe there is only one female character in Asimov’s seminal book, Foundation. Women rarely, if ever, occupy roles equal to men as scientists, politicians or leaders. When they are present, the authors tend to fall back on stereotypes to create their characters; female characters are generally helpless, passive, shrewish, sexually manipulative, overly emotional, in need of protection or rescue, or sexual objects devoid of personality.

This portrayal of women can make early science fiction seem very dated. If you are able to read classic sci-fi in context, then you’ll enjoy the entertaining stories and big ideas. But if you find the portrayal of women consistently grating, as I do, there will probably come a time when you’re ready to call it good and move on. Fortunately, today’s science fiction writers offer a much wider range of perspectives, and it’s easier to find books with believable characters who are women, gay, people of color, people from diverse backgrounds and people with disabilities. Here’s a good list on LibraryThing to get started; however, not many of these books can be considered classics, yet.

With that in mind, I’m offering a list of 20 classic science fiction works for the absolute newbie. Dedicated aficionados will have already read most of the suggestions here, I’m sure. For the purposes of this list, I’m defining a “classic” as published before 1980 and having lasting influence. (I’ve also left off purely post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels, as they could comprise their own list, so no Huxley or Orwell here.) Fourteen of these books were written by white male authors, but this reflects the reality of the genre as it developed.This list is in chronological order, and if you read them that way, you’ll get a good sense of how the genre evolved over time. Notably, the first science fiction novel was written by a woman.

I’ve suggested only one book by each author in order to provide a broad sampling of themes and tropes. If you like any of these selections, I encourage you to seek out more books by that author (many are the first book in a series). I’d also appreciate any suggestions in the comments of more diverse writers to add to the list.

  1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
  2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
  3. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)
  4. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
  5. Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
  6. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  7. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)
  8. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961)
  9. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
  10. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966)
  11. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
  12. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  13. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
  14. Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
  15. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
  16. The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
  17. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)
  18. Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977)
  19. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
  20. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)

Watch out, that writer’s taking an info-dump!

This is another entry in my ongoing series identifying common problems in self-published novels.

As a writer, you’ve got a terrific idea for an alien planet, a fantasy world or a dystopian future. You’ve worked out all the details, and you just know that no other writer has come up with something this creative or unique ever. (Hat tip: This is probably not the case, sorry.) You’re itching to write that novel (or more likely, series) and share your wonderful vision with hordes of grateful readers.

So what do you do to best communicate all the intricate, well-thought-out details of your incredible fictional world? You introduce a character who is new to the world so that character has to learn everything about it right from the start. Perhaps it’s a visitor from another planet or an explorer from another realm. Perhaps it’s a newly awakened coma patient or a time traveler from the past who discovers a radically changed future. Sure, this technique is a cliche, but good writers can get away with using cliches. Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, often uses the premise of a visitor from another planet to explore her worlds. But she is a terrific writer, and she knows how to world-build in a way that captivates the reader’s interest.

Do you?

A common problem I see with more immature writers of science fiction and fantasy is the tendency to dump information all over the reader in the first few pages or chapters. It’s bad to do this in huge chunks of exposition, worse to do it in dialogue, with one character explaining to the new arrival exactly why everything is the way it is. Not only is this boring to read, but it’s hard for readers to get a real sense of the world when we’re told about it via giant chunks of information, rather than shown the world over time. Each new detail about the world should build on the previous so that we gradually feel that we really know this world. I guess that’s why it’s called world-building.

As a writer, it can be difficult to know when you’re info-dumping. After all, you’re a writer and you’re writing! Look how much you’re writing. Lots and lots of writing. That should be a tip-off right there. Are your characters making painfully long speeches in order to explain something? Are expositional paragraphs stretching down entire pages? If you’re unsure, let someone else evaluate it. Readers know info-dumping when we see it. Our eyes glaze over.

Another way to realize when you’re info-dumping is to outline the action taking place in the scene. If nothing important or exciting is actually happening right now, even though there are lots of words on the page, then it’s surely an info-dump. This is the key to why info-dumps are such a turnoff for readers–they bring the action to a full stop.

To avoid info-dumping, instead show us the world as your protagonist experiences it, in small increments, as needed to advance the story. Let the protagonist discover the world and figure it out as she goes along. If further explanation is needed, keep it simple and short. Trust the reader to work things out for herself. It’s more fun for us that way.

I can assure you, since most info-dumps occur within the first chapter or two of the book, many readers won’t tolerate them. They’ll put the book down and move on to something more interesting. If you want readers to actually finish reading your book, you must be ruthless about excising the info-dump.

TV Tropes has a good article on info-dumping and why it’s so painful to read.

More book reviews! Science fiction by women…

I was pleased to contribute three of my book reviews to SF Mistressworks, a blog devoted to reviewing science fiction written by women and published during the 20th century.

The reviews:

I appreciate what SF Mistressworks is doing to highlight science fiction written by women, a strong interest of mine. Please check out the rest of the reviews while you’re there.