Someday I’ll write a longer appreciation of her work in which I try to explain how meaningful her writing has been for me. For now, I’ll simply reprise the last essay I wrote about Le Guin, a post about her marvelous book The Lathe of Heaven.
I guess I couldn’t get any later with my yearly reading roundup. And, since joining Goodreads last month, the thought of chronicling my reading habits for the last year feels a bit redundant. However, these posts have been fun to write for the last three years, and it helps me to consider in full the books I’ve read over the last year, if only to re-evaluate the stuff I’m reading.
I had a paltry reading harvest this year–13 books in all–though partly this number hides the many short stories, longform journalism pieces, and political blog posts I waded through this year. Having said that, I hope 2018 holds a little less covfefe coverage for me and a few more actual books by thoughtful people.
So, without further prologue, here is my crop of 2017 reads:
Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. This is one of the most inspiring high-wire acts I’ve read in all of fantasy fiction. Actually, I’m not sure exactly how the book is marketed—it’s an alternate history detective story—but here Chabon manages to weave a truly absorbing and moral tale set in a counter-historical Jewish homeland (which happens to be Sitka, Alaska). Also, Chabon’s writing is much like Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing for me: while it’s often not exactly to my taste, every page or two I find myself asking “how did he do that?” as Chabon drops off another metaphorical description of the Alaska sky or a tough chess move.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There’s a rough-cut, coarse grained quality to PKD’s writing that gives this book the feel of a brilliantly inventive first draft. For all I know, perhaps it was: PKD was forced by poverty to churn out pulp books at a fantastic rate, under the influence of a good deal of amphetamine. The book is different in almost every way from Blade Runner, the film that was based on it and which provided my first exposure to PKD’s work. The book has a bit more of a Ray Bradbury-ish quality—sci-fi objects like ray guns and electric sheep are not portrayed as believable objects so much as mythical symbols, the kind of objects one would find in a dream. Blade Runner has a good deal more world-building in it. However, the book is the dream that the movie was made from.
Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle This granddaddy of “what if Hitler had won?” novels is my favorite Philip K Dick book. The novel follows the loosely connected stories of several Americans living in a California that has become a protectorate of Imperial Japan. The story has the kind of trippy plot twists that Dick was famous for, but this story seemed tethered enough to a believable reality that it was much easier for me to inhabit this world than, say, Ubik or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The book is a creature of its time and some of the characterization of non-white peoples—especially the Japanese imperialists—hasn’t aged well; however, I would argue that those depictions are more ham-fisted than aggressively racist. While I’m not normally a fan of alternate histories, this one really got to me.
Dozois, Gardner, editor. The Year’s Best Science Fiction #33. It’s been years since I’ve read a “year’s best” anthology; however, I read this one cover to cover in hopes of learning more about the field I’m writing in. As with any book by a medley of writers, some of these stories spoke to me more than others. There were some good stories from writers I knew about—Kelly Link, James S.A. Corey, and Pablo Bacigalupi all had solid entries—but I was more blown away by several new (to me) writers: Ian McDonald, Gwyneth Jones, Carter Scholtz, Chaz Brenchley, Nick Harkaway, and Kelly Robson. The best of these stories do what I hope (and often fail) to do in my own work, bringing believable characters and well-turned dialogue to stories with the whiz-bang plots and settings of sci-fi. I have such a broad reading appetite, and I’m such a slow reader, that I probably won’t read another best-of anthology in the coming year. However, I have learned a lot about the short sci fi market here, and I do hope to come back to Gardner’s anthology again.
Dungeons and Dragons. Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual (three books). I’ve been a Dungeons & Dragons player since Christmas Day 1980. However, this is the first time that I’ve read the three core reference books for D&D from cover to cover. At the time, I had some hope of writing a set of longer and more involved posts about D&D (in addition to this one and this one), and so I told myself that I was doing research. It helped, too, that the books are generally quite well-written and that they provide an old player like me some insight into the evolving sociology of D&D.
Overall I loved most of the changes that these 5th edition books bring to the game. There is a long-running tension in the D&D community between those who like their games full of rules and statistics and those who favor the role-playing and interactive story-telling aspect of the game. (Of course, there are also many gamers, perhaps most, who play somewhere between these two extremes. As you can probably imagine, as a sci-fi and fantasy writer I play D&D for the story-telling). To my great joy, 5th Edition D&D is clearly an attempt to make role-playing and story-telling the center of the gaming experience. The focus on characters’ backgrounds and motivations and personal flaws, the reward of “inspiration points” to players who engage in particularly good role-playing, the inclusion of a more nuanced and morally complex alignment system—all of these innovations have turned 5th edition D&D into a game about inhabiting a character and playing a role. Yes, there are a few ways that the game has had its rules overly stripped down and simplified, but overall I’m much happier to see D&D moving towards a model of interactive storytelling.
I’m also pleased to see that the creators of this edition have worked hard to remedy the racist and sexist depictions of the first editions of D&D. So far as I remember, not a single illustration from 1st edition D&D depicted a non-white adventurer, and the descriptions of “savage” humanoids like hobgoblins and orcs were full of signifiers that associated these evil creatures with Asian hordes and African tribesmen (some of this racism was inherited directly from D&D’s source material. It’s no coincidence that the only African-American actors in The Lord of the Rings movies played orcs). Similarly, depictions of females in 1st edition D&D were almost always of the “chainmail bikini” variety—for example, on the cover of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide here:
5th edition has thankfully put real armor on the women, and the illustrators have broadened the color palette for illustrations, including (at last) for dwarves, elves, halflings, and all the other good-aligned creatures that might take up arms against a sea of goblins:
Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I’m generally skeptical of self-help books (especially those that are given to me at work), but I really loved the authors’ light tone here, as well as the well-researched underpinnings for what they were suggesting (hint: it’s in the title). I’m going to try these precepts in my own life and at work.
Kawasaki, Guy, and Shawn Welch. APE: How to Publish a Book. One of the best books on writing that I’ve ever encountered. Very different from the Brenda Ueland/John Gardner types of writing books, this one really focuses on the business end of publishing and promoting a book. I’ve built my publishing plan for Stranger Bird around these guys’ suggestions.
Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and Hames Madison: The Federalist Papers. Reading these fabulous essays was a bit of a slog, owing to the authors’ 18th century style. They were also at times hilarious: I wish I had counted the number of times Hamilton accuses the opponents of the constitution of wantonness, calumny, affectation, or speciousness (in the end he half-apologizes for his “intemperances of expression”). More importantly, though, I was struck by the genius of how the Constitution was framed, how an entire government could be brought about with so few moving parts in it. Of the three authors, Madison was my favorite: a gentle author, brilliant and deeply read, but also horribly compromised by his own slaveowning. Here (and elsewhere) we learn about Madison’s wish that slavery be abolished as inimical to a republican form of government; yet, like Jefferson and almost all the other founders, he did not free his own slaves in his lifetime or in his will. His Federalist 54, where he tries to explain the Three-Fifths Compromise, is one of the most fascinating and troubling things I’ve read from any of the founders. I have another take on these remarkable essays here.
Miéville, China. The City and the City. I liked this book pretty well, though it suffered somewhat in comparison to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I had read the month prior. Miéville turns in an interesting murder mystery in one of the most compelling imagined settings I’ve encountered recently, a double city in the Balkans somewhere where the inhabitants of each half are required by law not to see the inhabitants of the other half. Equal parts Kafka and Philip K Dick, this book offers a thought-provoking meditation on life in the Balkanized spaces of the world, the Jerusalems and Berlins and El Paso-Juárez double places.
Newton, Cam. Deep Work. I loved this book on first reading, though as Newton’s ideas have sat with me some of them haven’t aged well. I definitely agree with his overall thesis, though: that people who are able to focus for long periods of time on truly “deep work” (i.e. work that would be hard for others to do) can find themselves in great demand. This kind of focus is an increasingly rare skill. It is definitely having an effect on my work and home life.
Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Páramo. This slim story took me forever to finish, pokey as I am at reading in Spanish. I found the style much more accessible than Fuentes’ style in Artemio Cruz, and Rulfo’s story is both hilarious and frightening, like a gothic Poe tale retold by a Mexican John Kennedy Toole. The story was difficult, too, though—lots of unannounced time shifts, POV shifts, moments where it was unclear whether the speaker was living or dead. I may well teach this book sometime for my sci-fi and fantasy class. Anyone who liked the movie Coco should read this darker take on the subject.
I’m happy to announce that the great science fiction magazine Analog has picked up my story “Potosí” for publication. “Potosí” will be the fifth story I’ve had appear in Analog, and by far the longest story (nearly 10,000 words) I’ve ever placed in a professional market.
As I wrote elsewhere, “Potosí” is set in a near future where corporations and countries squabble over the solar system’s vast mineral rights. It’s also a meditation on white supremacy and terrorism, an attempt to explain today’s world in new and striking clothes–much the same way that Star Trek explains the Cold War and Forbidden Planet explores World War II survivors’ guilt.
It’s been a good (and busy) week for my writerly life. One of my recent stories (another Analog pick-up called “Proteus”) is getting some very nice attention, and my quest to publish my first young adult fantasy novel, Stranger Bird, continues apace. I’m hoping for a publication date of November 3–keep watching the transom for that.
There’s also much more that I want to share here on The Subway Test, and I’m sure I’ll have some longer musings and ponderations here soon, but for now I’m pretty busy just keeping on top of my sci fi and fantasy writing.
While on a road trip yesterday, my wife and I listened to B.J. Novak’s hilarious and touching story “J. C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote.” J.C. is a skilled and thoughtful poet in an age that doesn’t value poetry (that is to say, our age). He finds fame instead by translating, first Don Quixote, and then other great works, each to greater acclaim, even as his translations grow ever more absurd. I won’t say much more about the story for fear of giving away the joke—it really is a marvelous story.
Part of why I was so touched by the story was how much I recognized myself in the character of J.C. Not that I’ve ever been famous—rather, J.C.’s inner struggle with writing poetry for small literary magazines that practically no one reads called up an old personal struggle of mine.
Not long after I started college I knew I wanted to be some kind of writer, and at that time I wrote short fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction pretty much in equal measure. Towards the end of my time at college, though, during a tough and lonely time in my life I listened to a cassette tape recording of a Robert Bly reading called “Poetry East and West,” and I decided, precipitously, that I would devote myself to poetry for the rest of my life.
I was not at that time a good poet. I became one over time, but I wrote quite a few bad poems before I wrote a single good one, and I wrote many more bad ones after that first good one. It was some years before I any knack at all for writing good ones.
What attracted me to poetry in the first place was its almost total disdain for market forces. Nobody will pay you to write a poem, and so you are free to write whatever you like, to dig down to the bedrock of existence, beneath those composting strata of life’s trivialities that we spend so much time buying and selling.
That way of writing and living still appeals to me. But it was only after years of writing poems that it dawned on me why nobody will pay you to write a poem: because nobody reads poetry much. To be a poet today is to walk away from readers and towards an absolute experience, like a monk or yogi or hermit. I could shut myself up in my cabin, in the manner of Robert Francis or Bashō or Emily Dickinson, and pour myself into work that few people would see, living a full life in conversation with an indifferent world, like a man calling down into an empty canyon or a sparrow singing for a mate in a supermarket parking lot. That would be a painful way to live, but it would be a life defined by the coolness of an uncompromised vision.
I don’t think I’m cool enough to be an artist of that type. It’s hard to imagine throwing my voice down a canyon for years like that. I want people to read my work, to ask me questions about it, to tell me how they reacted to it. This desire is not the same as the desire for fame—the idea of being famous gives me the willies. Rather, what I want is a conversation, a person who reads something I’ve written and says that was meaningful to me or I’ve been nagged by this question about your main character and I have to ask you. And to have that conversation, I need a reader.
I chose to write science fiction and fantasy because I thought they were genres I could write in, and at the time I was exploring the idea I thought fantasy and science fiction could use a more serious literary treatment than they have usually gotten in recent decades. (The fact that the world is full of literary science fiction and fantasy writers shows how dated my understanding of those genres was, as well as how many writers have been working the same hustle I hoped to, only years before it had ever occurred to me).
Someday I may hole up in the cabin and write poetry for the rest of my life. But not right now. Right now, I’m grateful to have a handful of readers. Every once in a while someone will email me about how much they got out of a story of mine, or with a question about something that didn’t make sense to them, and it’s that feedback from a few readers that keeps me writing.
A couple of weeks ago one of my writing group comrades passed along to me this Laura Miller article from Slate on the incursion of “literary novelists” into the field of science fiction. I often find the premise of such articles cringeworthy–that there are good, serious writers out there who used to write good, serious fiction about failing marriages and suburban malaise but who now have decided, who knows why, to write crap about lasers and robots with big boobs.
Miller’s article is more nuanced than that–it acknowledges that the line between literary fiction and science fiction has always been blurry, and that calling a book “literary fiction” is no more a guarantee of its quality than calling a book “science fiction” guarantees that it is trash. Miller’s basic argument is that life is changing so quickly now that a contemporary story is dated almost before it is finished: if I am a literary novelist writing about a Tinder romance that goes sour, who knows what online romance trend will have replaced Tinder by the time I finish my book five years later? Wouldn’t it be better for me, then, to imagine a near-future dating app, so that when my book comes out I seem “buoyantly dystopic” and “a literary polymath” to reviewers?
I don’t dispute Miller’s reasoning: I hadn’t thought about it before, but surely some of the near-futuristic “serious fiction” out there is meant as a commentary on the pace of change in our lives and how maddening it is for us to try and keep up with it all.
But I’d like to suggest another hypothesis to explain the huge influx of Columbia MFA grads and New Yorker raconteurs into the slums of science fiction. Part of the shift, I’m sure, is that the last two generations of writers have grown up watching science fiction movies and TV with good production values and believable special effects. Science fiction was often regarded as shlocky in the pre-CGI era, and certainly before the breakthrough of Star Wars, partly because so many sci fi movies looked so clunky and fake. (Of course, there were excellent exceptions in the years before Star Wars, movies like 2001:A Space Odyssey, Forbidden Planet, and George Pal’s War of the Worlds, but these were rare glints of gold in a sea of Plan 9 From Outer Space dross).
Today, however, it’s possible for even a modestly-budgeted TV show–to say nothing of a big budget movie–to have the kind of truly believable special effects on which good sci fi viewing depends. And the existence of commercially successful, well-made science fiction movies catalyzes the creation of more such work, attracting writers and filmmakers with serious artistic chops–no one needs feel ashamed anymore that they like science fiction (at least the highbrow literary “speculative fiction” of Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon).
One might argue that the crossover popularity of a writer like Vonnegut is what opened the floodgates to good science fiction. I disagree: Vonnegut was regarded for most of his career as a literary oddball, someone who would be a major writer if only he didn’t write science fiction. And Vonnegut’s popularity in the seventies did not facilitate the mainstream popularity of other science fiction greats like Ursula Le Guin and Stanislaw Lem (both of whom, thank goodness, have since received some of the attention they deserve).
The fact is that until recently, practically the only speculative writers who were unequivocally welcomed into the literary canon were authors from the non-English speaking world: people like Kafka and Borges, and later García Márquez and Calvino. And some would still argue that their inclusion in the canon is proof that what they were writing was something other than sci fi or fantasy–if you want to make a college English professor flip out, try calling “The Metamorphosis” or “The Library of Babel” a science fiction story.
Am I bitter about it? I suppose I must be–why else would I write 700 more words in defense of science fiction writers? In the long run, though, if David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Egan get the highbrow readers to crack a science fiction novel, if that brings them to look, eventually, at Octavia Butler or John Crowley, then who am I to complain?