Thursday, March 7, 2013

Genre Expansion Pack: Sci Fi/Fantasy

Though Sci Fi/Fantasy was an important part of my early reading life, once I went from Heinlein to Asimov to Vonnegut, I haven't spent much time in the genre. My interests and experience took me elsewhere. But, as a young man working in a bookstore, I get asked about the Sci Fi/Fantasy section a lot (Even more before I cut my hair and shaved my beard.) and because my rent depends on having answers to book questions, I try to always have an answer. Some of the answers I can just absorb by paying attention to book media and other readers, but I've also made sure to cram some genre books into my reading life. In the cramming process, I've discovered some really good books; Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (which if you haven't read it, read it), Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (a fundamental dystopian novel that no fan of the genre should miss) and Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (for everyone waiting for the next George R.R. Martin). They've served me well as recommendations, but more and more I've found myself talking to people who'd already read them. (If you haven't, go read them and then come back. I can wait.) So, these last couple of months I've committed to expanding my Sci Fi/Fantasy genre knowledge. Here's what I found.

Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm: I hope Horror-Noir is the next big fantasy genre. For some reason, I really like what happens when hardboiled heroes are forced to deal with demons, monsters, vampires, etc. If you've never read any Horror-Noir, Steven Niles' Cal McDonald comic series is a good place to start, but Dead Harvest (automatic props for the relatively obscure Dashiell Hammett reference) is a top quality entry into the new genre. Samuel is a collector; his job is to collect the souls of the damned. But, as is the case in much noir, something is wrong with his latest assignment. Though it looks to all eyes as though Kate brutally murders her family, when Samuel tries to collect her soul he discovers it is pure. To collect a pure soul would mean apocalyptic war between the Creator and the Adversary. But some powerful forces want that war to happen. What follows is that classic mix of deduction, ultra-violence, narrow escapes, shocking revelations, and sudden turns of fortune that make noir such a satisfying genre. Also, possessions, demons, seraphs, and lucky cat statues. Just fantastic enough to be entertaining, but not so unrealistic that it stretches the bounds of credulity. Like the good Die Hard. With demons. Dead Harvest is the first in The Collector series, followed by The Wrong Goodbye. (Also, props for referencing Hammett before Chandler as Hammett is much, much better than Chandler.)

Gardens of the Moon: Volume One of The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. The right amount of sword with the right amount of sorcery spread around the right amount of politics and fight scenes. One of the downsides of genre fiction is that it's not that hard to produce passable genre fiction. Readers looking to kick back and relax aren't that demanding at that moment and so a lot of eh writing ends up published. I've got no problem with that, but there are just some sensitivities I can't turn off even when I'm reading expressly for lazy entertainment. Gardens of the Moon is well-written, well-paced, well-characterized, and, on the whole, represents a fine work of craftsmanship. Perhaps the most difficult task in the epic fantasy is “setting the table” in the first book; not only because you must keep the reader interested while introducing characters, places, and histories, but because that introduction is the basis for a massive story arc and must naturally lead from one event to another. The engine must be built from scratch and run well right away. Erikson seems to have accomplished that in this first volume, bringing certain story lines to a close so we can feel as though “a book has ended,” while hinting at “the journey continues” for a set of main characters. Though a little less geopolitical (at least at this point) than George R.R. Martin it will satisfy any reader in need of a fix between volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat: By far, this is the best book of Sci Fi/Fantasy I've read in a while. Set in New Venice, a beautifully rendered city constructed above the Arctic Circle, this book is smart and entertaining with political intrigue, romance, magic, and revolution, all told in a style that Valtat describes as “Teslapop.” Fans of the last two Dr. Whos will enjoy this as will readers who liked The Night Circus. The world building is done wonderfully. Most of the time Valtat will just use a foreign term without any explanation. Sometimes you can figure it out from the context clues and other times it's a strange term from an even stranger world. Of course, this only works where there is something inherent about the terms themselves, and Valtat creates terms and phrases that stay just on the correct side of pandering and, thus, I am totally charmed by “the Doges College Ice Rugby Club,” and “Speckstoner Sandwiches.” The best works of fantasy make you half want to live in their world; presenting something exotic enough to be thrilling and foreign enough to be an act of intellectual travel. Furthermore, there is just enough insight to let you know there is a brain behind this story. A brain like Asimov or Bradbury? I won't say yes, but Valtat has, at least, hinted at the potential. Most importantly, there are moments of prose in this book as beautiful as anything else being written now; as stunning as the aurora always hanging in the north above the action and adventure.

Just to prove I'm not praising every book I picked up in my expansion efforts, here are a few that didn't work for me and why.

The Name of the Wind and Virconium. There's a “Pull up a tankard of ale and listen to a tale of days gone by,” voice some fantasy writers use that is far more difficult to use successfully than a lot of writers and readers assume. To me, when not perfectly executed, this voice breaks me out of the story. It feels artificial, constantly reminding me, in a way distinct from, you know, magic and dragons and such, that I am reading a work of fiction. The thing about this “Teller of Tales,” voice is that it is most successful when you don't even notice it, when it is part of the fabric of the story along with the magic and dragons. In both of these, otherwise well-regarded works of fantasy, the style constantly reminded me that I was reading a work of fantasy.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. He seemed to just stick clauses at the end of sentences. I couldn't get through more than a few pages at a time without developing inclinations for self-harm. Yes, clause placement is that important to me. But, if clause placement is not that important to you, the little I did read was interesting and the plot and characters motivated me to read more than my grammatical inclinations preferred.

Genre is an organization and selection tool. Stores and libraries use plot and character patterns to organize the books in their fiction sections to make it a little easier for readers to select what they want. Genre is a description, not an evaluation. But it can't be denied that genres settle into patterns and forms, that even though there is no inherent reason why stories organized around their plots into Fantasy, Sci Fi, Mystery, Romance or whatever else should have a lot of what is essentially “commercial product,” they do. (Though, I honestly believe there is a lot more “commercial product” in what is considered “literary fiction,” than most would care to admit.) There isn't room in this post to actually consider this question, but entertainment is an important part of the human experience and I think we could learn a lot about ourselves exploring why we accept different levels of quality for different types of stories, what the reading mechanism is that allows bad sentences to tell entertaining stories, and how the “reading” mind interacts with the “entertaining” mind. If it is biologically true that “we are what we eat,” I think there is at the very least some neurological truth to the idea that “we are what we read.”

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