Thread Through the Labyrinth

We had our first rain in over two months last week – a walloping six

Despite The Wind

 hundreths of an inch. There are a couple of ring-necked doves – one ivory-white, one pale grey – setting up housekeeping in an old nest in the tree out front. Spring is definitely trying to move in.

The wind has been blowing like crazy, of course, since that’s more part of Spring in New Mexico than crocuses and daffodils. That means even though I’d like to be outside, I’ve been in. I’ve just handed-off to David Weber the manuscript for the first of our collaborative novels, putting the ball in his court.

So, between completed work and windy weather, I’ve had more time for reading than usual. Some of this reading has been research for my next project, but some has been a combination of pleasure and keeping up with the field. I’m not one of those writers – and there are far too many, I fear – who stop reading SF/F once they start publishing it. Some don’t stop reading, but only read the “hot” books of the moment or books by their friends, a sort of “keeping up with the Jones” reading list.

I do read books by my friends. A recent read was Pati Nagle’s Heart of the Exiled, a book that quite honestly I would not have picked up if I didn’t know Pati. The cover is just too Romance Novel for this reader. Heart of the Exiled is a good read, far more adventure fantasy than romance as the cover might suggest.

I also read Walter Jon William’s Deep State, but that’s one I probably would have read anyhow. I was a fan of Walter’s stuff long before I moved to New Mexico and we got to be buddies. In fact, many years ago, when I taught an SF course, we did Walter’s Hardwired – a book I still think is among the best of the cyberpunks, far better than William Gibson who has great ideas but not much in the way of characters.

But I also re-read Clifford Simak’s Out of Their Minds. I found it as wonderful and bizarre as ever. Interestingly, for a book first published in 1970, many of the themes are current today, especially the question of information overload.

I read Patricia McKillip’s new release, The Bards of Bone Plain. I’ve met Ms. McKillip, even been on panels with her, but we’re professional acquaintances, not friends. The same goes for Jo Walton, whose Among Others was a recent selection. Would I have read the books without having met the authors? Definitely. McKillip has been one of my favorites for a long time, and I’ve been following Walton since her first novel. The semi-Arthurian stuff didn’t hold me, but her alternate histories and Tooth and Claw certainly did.

Jack McDevitt’s Echo was on my recent list. I enjoyed it a lot. I love SF that hasn’t forgotten Sense of Wonder. Jack definitely has not. We met when Jack was out here as a Guest of Honor at Bubonicon. Hit it off instantly. Doesn’t hurt that he likes archeology (his son is an archeologist) as well as writing, so we have a lot in common.

Which brings me around to something that’s been bugging me a lot. I have friends who are old enough to remember when they could read pretty much everything SF/F that was published in a given year. By the time I started reading the genre, there was no way that was possible. Moreover, there was a backlog of really good stuff out there. That means that rather than wanting to read all the new material, when I discovered an author I liked (such as Simak) I went and found older works.

Today, not only is it impossible to keep up with everything new in SF/F, there are so many sub-categories, a reader could stick with one flavor and never venture out. That seems sort of sad. SF/F used to be about Sense of Wonder. No matter the angle from which it was approached (and I can’t go into this here; I’ve done hour-long talks on the sub-genres that haven’t even scraped the surface), “What if” (space travel was possible, you lived where magic worked, there was One Ring, there were parallel universes…) was the ruling principle.

It seems to me that if you only read space opera or vampire novels or alternate histories, you’re missing so much.

Worse… What was once really good stuff might not be anymore, so reading back through Hugo or Nebula winners isn’t a sure thing. Within the last couple of months, several friends have confided in me that they went and re-read an old favorite and found it flat and uninteresting. The ideas were no longer fresh, the characters were unrealized.

I have friends who are a lot younger than I am… Sometimes I’ll mention an author (Niven, Zelazny, Simak, Wynne Jones) I am certain they must have read. They look at me with interest, but it’s clear they don’t know what I’m talking about.

This doesn’t mean they’re not readers – most of them read voraciously and thoughtfully. They’ve turned me on to authors I would have missed. (Thank you, Rowan, for Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy). But when they go to the bookstore, the new stuff is what’s there.

When they go to a used bookstore, there’s this sea of book spines, often with lousy covers (I never would have picked up Out of Their Minds from the cover) and jacket copy or blurbs that assume a different context. (Authors you’ve never heard of recommending authors you’ve never heard of doesn’t exactly help).

Wow… I’ve really wandered on. I’ll stop here with a question. How would you recommend authors to the eager new reader? Do you make sure you’ve re-read that old favorite and that it still reaches you? How do we spin the thread to guide them – and us – through the labyrinth?


11 Responses to “Thread Through the Labyrinth”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Robin claims that West Australia has an average rainfall of 10cm a year. In practice, that means that they have nine years of drought when it never rains at all and then, once every ten years, they get a 100cm downpour. So that’s an average of 10cm a year…

    I’m one of those old blokes who used to be able to read every SF novel that was published in a year, and I did! Nowadays, of course, it simply isn’t possible even to get close. I also re-read old favourites. Mostly it works, though I strongly suspect that someone has taken a sharp knife to my copy of The Day Of The Triffids and cut out all the interesting pages…

    I recently re-read Cordwainer Smith. Oh, boy! What a weird writer! And I loved him all over again. Jack Vance is a never ending delight; that man couldn’t write a dull word if he tried. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz retains all its strengths (but, whatever you do, don’t read the sequel. It’s terrible). I could go on (and on and on and…).

    My SF book collection amounts to some 10,000 or so volumes. Of these I suspect I could happily lose about 5000. But the remaining books (both old and new) are some of the most wonderful, magical and mind-blowing (not to say mind-altering) things ever written. And I do feel sorry for modern readers who don’t explore their heritage.

    It’s not just SF readers either. I remain horrified by the number of general readers who look at me askance if I talk about Dickens, or Wells or Huxley or Kipling or even Henry Rider Haggard (a pot boiling writer who I absolutely adore). If it wasn’t written in the late twentieth century (or later) then obviously it can’t possibly be worth reading. These people are missing so much…

    But it’s so hard to know where to begin to give them advice about what to read. There’s just so much good stuff (and a lot of it isn’t necessarily by the big names). Many things that were once regarded as classics have dated badly (Asimov springs to mind, also Van Vogt). My own habit is to get to know a person’s tastes and then suggest something that I think they may like. Sometimes it backfires (Robin was not overly thrilled with Philip Jose Farmer). But sometimes it works — she went wild for George Alec Effinger and Allen Steele’s Coyote novels). Some you win and some you lose…

    Who are my favourite authors? What are my favourite books? Well that depends on the day of the week, the time of the year and the weather outside.


    • CBI Says:

      The bit about classics becoming dated really hit home to me.

      I recently reread Gene Wolfe’s Faded Sun series, which made a big impression on me when first I read it, and was quite disappointed with the shallowness and even pretentiousness of much of it. It was still good — and his use of word forms is absolutely awesome — but what it wrapped was rather lacking. In a sense, I think I’ve outgrown it.

      A similar thing happened with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, although to a lesser extent. There, the philosophical background held up more, but the writing seemed disjointed. On the other hand, his The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress held up very well: I will probably reread it again later this year.

      Other authors have held up as well. I recently reread Zelazny’s Princes of Amber series. I still found it only “OK”. (No offense, please.) I suspect that’s more of a stylistics taste thing.

      It will be interesting to see how rereading Dave Weber holds up in a decade or so. Jane introduced me to him and his writing, and I was quite impressed.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I’m with Alan. In fact, back in college, I worked in an SF bookstore and got to recommend books to people. One trick I learned was to ask them what they thought of Lord of the Rings. If they liked it, I knew I could recommend that type of fantasy. If they hated it, then I would recommend other things. LOTR is an easy divide, because everyone’s heard of it, whether they’ve read it or not, and most SFF readers have at least attempted to read it. As for new authors, I mostly read blogs, read free chapters (when available) and buy what I like.

    As for Coyote, I’ll admit I hated it. I have a strong life science background, and I actually spent quite a long time figuring out how that moon-around-a-gas giant thing would work. I figured that I knew enough to do it easily, and boy was I wrong. Gas giant moons are wonderfully weird worlds, hard to write about simply because the fundamental rhythms are different: daylength is different, years are different, gravity is different and so on. (I actually did write that book, and I made it simple by assuming a 48 hour day and 104 day year). Alan Steele didn’t bother with any of that. Coyote’s got a paper gas giant in the sky, and if Coyote was actually as he described, there would have been kilometer-plus high waves sweeping Coyote every day…Calculating what the tides look like and the phases of a gas giant in the moon’s sky ultimately was more interesting to me than reading how an author didn’t use that information. Writing in the rhythm of that world was even more fun.

    I used to grumble about how little science is in most SF, but I’m getting over that. Now I realize that most authors can’t spend a lot of time doing the research if they want to eat, and I suspect we’re going to be stuck with the equivalent of spacers running down sterile, metal-walled corridors for a long time to come.

    Reality is much richer than that of course, but it takes time to capture that richness properly. Given a choice between writing a captivating story and getting the details right, any smart writer will concentrate on the story, because ultimately, the story is what sells.

  3. Paul Says:

    What to recommend, when I remember what I read in the ’50s and ’60s so fondly but those might turn off new readers? It’s like recommending classic black-and-white movies to a generation that sees screens only in color. That said, I’d still recommend many of the Asimovs, despite a less-than-colorful style. Almost all of the early Heinleins. Bradbury’s Mars stuff, which is now more alternate history. In fact, many of the classics are more that then future prognostications. I would recommend differently if one was reading only for pleasure or really wanted an idea of the history of the field. I enjoyed reading Burroughs and E.E. Smith as a kid, but less so now, and that includes even the early space opera of John W. Campbell, Jr. (but his later stuff is great, particularly “Who Goes There?”). I am about to re-read H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” so I’ll see how that holds up (it was pretty ancient when I read it the first time but held up pretty well, I seem to remember). Simak holds up well, Leinster pretty well, Freds Pohl and Brown, Chad Oliver, Fritz Leiber are all good; Arthur C. Clarke (like Asimov, great on ideas, less on style and characterization). I would urge readers onto just about any short story collection edited by Groff Conklin: good stuff then, good stuff now. I’m with heteromeles who is with Alan: it would be most helpful to see what kind of story the person likes before recommending specific classics.

  4. Alan Kellogg Says:

    Like the other Alan I too remember a time when a person could read the entire yearly ouvre, and have time left over to peruse the older works. And then SFF became popular and the racks and shelves became overburdened with works of varying quality.

    In my case, I started acting more particular when it came to what I choose to assay. Is the writing good? Is the world building? Does the story get and keep my attention? You fall short in the quality of your writing and story telling, you’re apt to lose me.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I really enjoyed the comments —

    Heteromeles’s comment about using certain books as “touchstones” has, of course, been imitated by the “if you liked” feature used by so many websites, but I like his take on it. Lord of the Rings is certainly something everyone has heard of.

    And it’s not a book everyone enjoys — or even that those who enjoy like for the same reasons.

    I recently listened to LoftR as a recorded book, read by Rob Englis (sp?)… What a great experience. Mr Englis and one of the producers composed music for all the songs and Mr. Englis sang them all.

    For the first time, I felt as if maybe I was getting the story in a fashion closer to how Tolkien had envisioned it.

    What other “touchpoint” books might there be?

    Any more SF suggestions?

  6. Emily Says:

    As far as reading and recommending good SF/F books, I depend mostly on my dad. He’s of the generation to recommend me older books that I would like (though I still haven’t worked up the courage to try a Stephen King book) I recommend new stuff to him. We work together to read what we can of our favrotie fields. And since I’m from a family of readers we usually have a lot of “you have to read this” kind of books always changing hands. My friends keep a healthy interest in reading, too so between them and my family I’m pretty well read.
    I can really see LOTR as touchpoint book. I just read it for the first time and after reading fantasy for years I can see that Tolkien’s work has really influenced the field. It’s no exagerration when they call him the father of fantasy. The book also resonated with mythology which is a theme that’s coming back very strong in new series such as the Percy Jackson’s books.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Emily’s comment is really interesting to me — I hadn’t realized the “mythic” element in fantasy had been on holiday.

    As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, mythology was one of my “gateways” into SF/F. (And I’ve used it a lot myself: Chinese in the “Breaking the Wall” series; a wide variety in CHANGER and LEGENDS WALKING; Egyptian in THE BURIED PYRAMID).

    Roger Zelazny’s riffs on Hindu/Buddhist material in LORD OF LIGHT are classics. Poul Andersen did great thing with Scandanavian materials.

    And it seems to me that there was lots of material with Greek/Roman, Norse, and Celtic.

    Anyone have any books Emily might enjoy since she obviously likes the stuff?

    And, by the by, Emily, Stephen King is quite talented — he scares the living daylights out of me, which is why I don’t read him these days!

  8. Heteromeles Says:

    For Emily, can I suggest L. Sprague de Camp? If we’re talking about ancient touchstones, how about Conan? (the Robert Howard ones, at least). I’d also suggest Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, of course.

    I was just thinking about mythology in fantasy, and I wonder if we’ve kind of gone overboard in linking fantasy with mythology, at least recently. I was recently rereading Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, and it’s about the only fantasy series I know that does not explicitly borrow from mythology and history. The only other exception I can think of are the tiresome swarm of vampires, werewolves, and zombies right now, in that they borrow from Hollywood, not mythology.

  9. Jake King Says:

    These days, I rarely recommend people books, because many of what I read any more are Fantasy, and most friends I have seem to like SciFi, or Mystery, or Political Thriller, or Cyberpunk. ( I will read almost any of these as well, but it’s be awhile since i’ve found one that really interested me.) These days, I stick with recommending Jane’s works, as well as Jennifer Fallon (Excellent Australian writer. The Demon Child and Wolfblade books are awesome, as are the Second Sons trilogy). I do know that if someone like Zombie related things, that I recommend the ‘Day by Day Armageddon’ series by J.L. Bourne. (Excellent books, written from the perspective of someone in the military as a journal as days go by. Actually written by someone in the military.) I also do not recommend some things, like ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy. To everyone else, it was a book about a father’s love for his son, and trying to keep your humanity in a bleak existence, but to me, the whole book meandered through it’s entirety, and then just ended. If someone likes Steampunk, I recommend Theodore Judson’s ‘Fitzpatrick’s War’. And excellent book written in a future where portable EMP guns caused electronics to completely disappear from the world, and steam based tech to raise to the forefront, and the US being taken over by a religious group called the ‘Yukons’. The book is written from the perspective of someone who was a close personal friend to the leader of their country. The neat thing is that it’s ‘written’ as a ‘biography’ with a historian adding footnotes to the book ‘debunking’ the book as ‘slanderous material by a delusional man influenced by a mad wife, and feeling inadequate with his place in history compared to the great leader he was friends with’. A really novel concept to me that actually worked out REALLY well. One of the gambles that worked out really well for me.

  10. janelindskold Says:

    Jake —

    I think you make a great point. Learn what people like, then reccomend.

    I’m not into zombies, for example, but I know several people who would jump on your suggestion.

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