Stranger in a Strange Genre
This year, I’ve begun reading science fiction.
That might not seem like a big statement to some, but it represents a pretty dramatic change in my reading habits. Although I grew up on a steady diet of fantasy, and can read of wizards, fairies, and quests until the cows come home, words like ‘spaceship’ and ‘aliens’ and ‘planet’ give me an internal shudder. Inspired by other bloggers, I’ve tried to get over this; I realise it’s as irrational a reaction as an aversion to fantasy, and I can’t imagine how bereft my reading would be without that genre! But honestly, I’ve not made much headway, until I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold earlier this year. She’s written a couple excellent fantasy series (you ought to go read her books right now, actually), but she’s best known for an extensive sci fi series. At first, I thought there was no way I’d ever read it, as it is unfortunately called the “Vorkosigan Saga”. Concurrently with my Bujold discovery though, I happened to check out Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, an anthology of essays (originally blog posts) in which Walton talks about all of the speculative fiction she’s rereading and what makes it worth revisiting. I’ve gotten several excellent fantasy recommendations from the book, but the majority of Walton’s focus is on sci-fi. And then I came to her essay about the Vorkosigan saga and suddenly realised that I didn’t want to read it, because I wanted to discover the books for myself.
So I began reading them; luckily they’re all available as audiobooks, so I’ve encountered them that way (I’m almost done with the tenth novel, which leaves me with five more and the short stories). And I adore them: they explore so many fascinating ideas of culture and gender and humanity, they make me laugh and cry, and I’m deeply attached to all of the characters. Yet I had to work past my initial aversion to sci fi tropes before I could find my way to that love. On one level, I certainly still wish that they were fantasy books instead, but I can see how a science fiction universe, full of planets variously inhabited by humans (there are no aliens in this universe), allows Bujold to accomplish things and explore ideas that wouldn’t work as well in fantasy. I love watching Bujold play, and I respect any medium that lets her do it so thoroughly.
Over the months, I’ve become more used to spaceships and battles and zero gravity and the military hierarchies so ubiquitous in science fiction. However, I still strongly prefer the Bujold novels set mainly on a planet instead of in space. I recently realised on one of my woodsy walks that this is because of my personal preferences for Earth things like trees and seasons and cosiness: like any other reader, I live in the world of a novel, and I don’t want to live in space or an on a spaceship full of metal halls and austere bunks, running about in a uniform jumpsuit. The idea makes me a bit panicky, actually. My idea of heaven involves a little cottage on a little farm that is magically both in majestic woods and next to a convenient railroad to take me to city amenities like libraries and ballet and museums and cafes. Such a heaven is sometimes found in fantasy novels: characters are always gathering at pubs or around a campfire or adventuring in a forest. Tolkien’s influence runs deep. Science fiction lives in a different world, and it’s one that makes me feel a bit edgy and deprived. In that sense, I think I picked an ideal introduction to the genre; as I mentioned, some of the Vorkosigan books are set primarily on planets, and one the most important planets happens to be more Earth-like in its topography, with forests and cities and lovely old wooden homes. Bujold is wonderful at weaving the details of daily life into her books, one of the reasons she’s quickly become a favourite author, and I relish it when those details seem more homey.
Now that I’ve realised one of my issues with science fiction, I hope that the very knowledge helps me set aside my internal protests as I dive more into the genre. Jo Walton is a very persuasive guide; I plan get her book from the library again for inspiration. I could just go through her blog archives of course, but I’d rather see which ones she cared about enough to include in the book. In the meantime, I’ll be sorting through my issues, and learning my way away around. It’s interesting coming to a new genre as an adult: I’m having to acquaint myself with its mores and conventions and keep coming across odd new things. But I think it’s worthwhile, and it seems like a waste to miss out on a whole category of books simply because I’d never want to live on a spaceship! In addition to Bujold, I’ve been reading some of Octavia Butler’s science fiction. But other than that, there’s a whole reading universe out there for me to explore, and I’m curious to see where it takes me.
Have you come to a new genre as an adult? Did you have to push past an initial ‘no way’ reaction to enjoy the books? And would you want to live in space?