Desperately Seeking SF

A few weeks ago, in an after-dinner discussion, our guest Alan Lattimore (not to be confused with the New Zealand Alan who often posts on this blog) expressed the following problem”

“It used to be that I couldn’t leave a bookstore without buying something. The last few times, though, I’ve left empty-handed. Part of the problem is there’s almost too much. The covers are so similar, too.”

Jim and I agreed. For us the problem is mediated a bit by the fact that I have several friends with whom I discuss books on a regular basis. (Sally, Yvonne, and Julie, you know who you are!) I also have a couple of pen pals who often mention what they’re reading. (Paul and Scot, stand to be recognized).

Finally, I work in the publishing industry, so I’m often trying something new, perhaps a book that’s up for consideration for an award or a work mentioned by a colleague. I also read a bit to keep up with works my friends have written.

One of my favorite reads of the last couple weeks was The Legacy of the Turquoise Knight by P. Andrew Miller. I don’t usually see small press publications (this one came out from Lyric Comic, a division of Finishing Line Press). These days, I also don’t usually read poetry, even narrative poetry. However, Andy is a friend and I wanted to see what he was up to.

What I was treated to was an amazing story about three generations of a family of superheroes, about the consequences of secrets, and, incidentally, a reminder that, before it became “work,” I really liked narrative verse. (By the way, Jim, who does not usually read poetry also liked this piece.)

So word of mouth is a great way to learn about authors and books. Alan and I both admitted that, had we not been friends with SF author Laura J. Mixon, both of us would have missed two great books: Proxies and Burning the Ice.

We both felt that it’s harder to find good SF (rather than variations of Fantasy), in part because fewer authors are writing the sense of wonder material that drew us both to SF (think Larry Niven, Poul Andersen, Gordon R. Dixon, Robert Heinlein, Jack Williamson), in part because the SF field seems to be more interested in being cutting edge and satirical rather than inspiring.

Or have we just missed the right books?

So how do you find books? Do you have any suggestions that don’t involve word of mouth or attending a club or convention? Alan is about to move to a rural area of Vermont, so those options are going to largely be out for him. However, he will be on-line. Are there any good discussion groups? Web-sites? Whatever…

8 Responses to “Desperately Seeking SF”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Personally, I recommend Scalzi’s Whatever site, because he regularly posts on new books. I also like Charles Stross, but he’s definitely on the satirical/sarcastic edge. But on his blog (antipope, where I post regularly), he’s been dealing with a lot of the problems with the science part of science fiction, and that’s even more interesting reading.

    The “problem” is that the sciences have evolved radically away from a lot of the stories that we loved by the old masters. Part of this is that NASA hasn’t delivered on the warp drives and artificial gravity like we’ve been expecting (totally unrealistic hopes), part of this is that we know so much more about what’s out there that it’s harder to suspend disbelief. I mean, when James Cameron makes the air visible on Avatar, you know people are paying attention (not that his air mix wouldn’t break down in the sunshine, but at least he tried).

    Perhaps even more of a problem for writers, thoughtful people are realizing that our current non-sustainable society won’t work well in space. Simply slapping color-coded tunics and a transporter on our current society looks increasingly awkward. Or worse, it looks derivative.

    And, of course, writing about a society with alien, even uncomfortable, ways is hard for a writer, because one also has to make it familiar enough to sell.

    That’s where I am right now, and what I’ve written won’t see light until someone buys it or I put it up as a Kindle book.

    Or it could simply be that we no longer have the bloc of popular writers, publishers, and artists who helped make the science fiction market of the previous 20 years, and with people like JK Rowling and Charlaine Harris around, the action has moved elsewhere for the moment.

    Despite all this, I’m still finding new SF authors to read (or ones who are new to me), so they’re out there. With the internet and Amazon, they’re actually more findable than they used to be.

  2. Tori Says:

    I don’t think that I’ve read a book to completion that wasn’t suggested to me since I was a teenager. Part of the problem is I keep getting burned by books that have potential in the first chapter and then it turns out that the characters are too stupid to act like people.

    So now Rowan influences what I decide to read more than anyone else. Then my other most reliable sources of good fiction are you, Jane (and Jim), and my dad. I also pick up books by the authors that I’ve met at Bubonicon but not without someone pointing me towards a particular story first. So I suppose I’m more or less in the same boat with you, Jane. 😛

  3. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I’ve sometimes thought that I’m burned out on SF because, as you say, it doesn’t seem to have the same omph for me that it once did (“omph” being yet another term for “sense of wonder”). I think I’m the one who’s changed, but then I’ll find a book I somehow missed among the “good old stuff” and often it still has the ability to turn me on. There are some current writers I enjoy, including your books, of course, although I don’t think the publishers publicize them as they should.

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    Oh! What a can of worms.

    SF, in my opinion, is now too narrow a field. There was a time when a wide variety of authors wrote a wide variety of SF, but now they all sound like each other, they all write the same things, they all have tunnel vision. Space opera (boring), the singularity (dull), stuff that sounds like it came straight out of the pages of The Review Of Physics (incomprehensible). The humour has gone, the cleverness has vanished, the sense of wonder has turned mundane. Nobody speculates any more – they follow fashions instead.

    Or perhaps I am just having a cynical day.

    I have my favorite authors and I make it my business to keep up with their books. I often find new authors by listening to recommendations from friends and I keep an eye and an ear on blogs and web sites (Jo Walton is particularly good with her postings on — her tastes and mine are very similar and I can be sure that I will often enjoy things she praises).

    Mainly, I think, it’s a matter of keeping an ear to the ground and being willing to try new authors. Such experiments often disappoint, but nuggets of gold hide in the dross.

    But I still find a sad sameness to modern SF. Too little variety, too little willingness to experiment and move away from the straight and narrow, the tried and true.

    Perhaps it’s time for another new wave?


  5. heteromeles Says:

    Hi Alan,

    Here’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. Warning: real science content:

    I think the humor value for me is that I’m not a chemist, so I don’t actually have to work with these monsters. Not that any sane chemist would, actually.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Hi heteromeles

      Yes — I’ve seen this one before and it’s scary as well as funny. My degree is in chemistry and I’ve played with some very gnarly substances (I think hydrofluoric acid is the worst I’ve ever encountered personally), but these are truly, truly nasty. I wouldn’t touch them with somebody else’s barge pole, let alone mine!

      In the days when I was actually using my chemistry degree (long gone now) I always used to define a chemist as somebody who washes his hands *before* he goes to the toilet…



  6. janelindskold Says:

    Interesting comments, folks.

    I guess word of mouth — expanded to word-of-blog — is still the best way to find good — or at least interesting — books.

    Any other suggestions where Alan might find good reads?

  7. Rowan Says:

    A method I use is risky, but it’s had some really fun payoff. I find an interesting looking anthology of short stories, and then when I particularly like a story, I’ll investigate the novels the author has written.

    The downside is that some writers are better short story writers than they are novelists, and vice versa. Sometimes they write a short story that’s totally not their usual style, because they’re having fun, so it isn’t a good example of what all of their writing is like.

    However, I’ve been exposed to a number of charming books I simply wouldn’t have thought to read because I followed the author out of a short story collection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: