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Stranger in a Strange Genre

November 11, 2014

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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?

39 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2014 2:37 pm

    I wouldn’t want to live there, but I would so love to visit space!!! I started reading mystery novels as an adult, when my children were small. They’re still not my preferred genre, but I found a lot I enjoyed.
    For science fiction set on planets, read A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski and Frank Herbert’s Dune. I’m assuming you’ve read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, from your title?

    • November 13, 2014 9:35 am

      Oh thank you for the suggestions! Although I admit the cover & title of Dune makes me shudder, imagining it’s all set in a desert. I’d rather be in space than a desert. Look at how picky I am! I’ll have to do another post on how my reading is affected by my sense of place. :)

      I read the Heinlein back in high school, although not much other than the title and the guru-ish plotline has stayed with me. I was very into reading famous/notable/award-winning books back then, which is probably how I came across it.

  2. LauraC permalink
    November 11, 2014 3:40 pm

    I have read very little SciFi since i was a teen (MANY years ago) but found that the SciFi that I do prefer is classic SciFi. I really enjoyed “Gateway” by Frederik Pohl (1977). Spaceships, aliens, and everything that I normally dislike, but I liked it.

    • November 13, 2014 9:35 am

      I’ll have to give the Pohl a go! Among Others (a recent Jo Walton novel that you might like actually!) mentions a lot of sci fi classics, and made me more interested in them.

  3. November 11, 2014 3:44 pm

    I have had periods of reading science fiction. Not all if it is concerned with space; some explore past history from the future. The novels of Connie Willis — for example, Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog — send characters from the future back to our time and earlier with very interesting results.

    • November 13, 2014 9:36 am

      Now I love time travel books & I’ve read all of those Willis ones (although to be honest the only one of those that I loved was To Say Nothing of the Dog)! I wouldn’t have called those sci-fi though, isn’t that funny?

  4. LauraC permalink
    November 11, 2014 3:50 pm

    I’m pretty sure that I have read some of Bujold’s Sharing Knife books in the past. Can’t remember much about them though.

    • November 13, 2014 9:37 am

      Oh I loved the Sharing Knife series! Really I’ve loved all of her books, but I especially loved that the world was inspired by the US Great Lakes frontier.

  5. November 11, 2014 6:53 pm

    I know I wouldn’t want to live there! I just watched Interstellar and while it was fascinating, I kept thinking “No Way could I do that or go there!!” I’ve read a bit of sci fi, but the technicalities of it can loose me. More comfortable in fantasy myself, although I haven’t been there in a while either. The new books for me as an adult were a format- graphic novels. I don’t think I ever read one until just a few years ago, introduced to me by the blogging world! And I love them. Just need to read more.

    • November 13, 2014 9:37 am

      I tried graphic novels when I got into blogging, because so many bloggers love them, but the format is still a struggle for me, I must admit. I don’t think I’ve read one in a couple years at least.

  6. November 11, 2014 8:53 pm

    I feel like I’m always getting into new genres. Maybe that doesn’t make sense… I guess I just have a number of categories I read very seldom. I’ve only ever read a few mystery novels. I don’t suppose I ever read a travel book until well after college. Now my library has a great collection of old travel writing, which I’m starting to explore.

    When you mentioned metal halls and austere bunks, I immediately thought of 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, which featured spaceships that I would describe as both cozy and ecologically interesting. Otherwise I found it so so, but I apparently I remembered those ships.

    • November 13, 2014 9:38 am

      That does make sense! I’ve definitely gotten into more nonfiction than fiction genres I think, probably because I grew up reading most fiction categories. :) Yay for cosy spaceships; too bad the rest of the book wasn’t that great!

  7. November 12, 2014 2:26 am

    I can say that I read more nonfiction than before, mostly centered on social issues (such as Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity).

    I like science fiction and I think it has to do with Vonnegut mostly. After reading The Sirens of Titan I was hooked. However, there’s not a lot of science fiction on my shelves (or maybe there’s not enough of it) to make me a SF reader. I guess that fantasy does a good job when it comes to escaping from real life.

    Whef, living in outer space seems like a lot of trouble but since I love travelling so much yes, why not. But the conditions have to be hospitable enough (plus, if creatures in space would be all loving and accepting of all races and genders and sexual preferences, I’d actually love hanging out with them).

    And finally, I love this quote:

    “Good books tell the truth, even when they’re about things that never have been and never will be. They’re truthful in a different way.”
    ― Stanisław Lem

    • November 13, 2014 9:41 am

      Oh! I’ll have to put together a social justice reading list for you one of these days. For now, might I suggest you look at Beacon Press? It’s weighted more towards the US, but I think they’ve got a good amount of international stuff too. And there’s Public Affairs, although I’ve found their books more hit and miss. I’ve yet to strike out with Beacon.

      I’ve only read 1 Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle I think) & it was so long ago, I can’t remember it. And I wouldn’t mind hanging out with the aliens you describe either. ;) That’s a great Lem quote!

      Oh and I don’t consider fantasy as ‘escapist’ lit. I suppose some of it is, just like some of every genre is, but the fantasy I love most is very much saying things about the world we live in, just coming at it from a different angle. I’ve found some of the most confronting books I’ve ever read are fantasy.

      • November 13, 2014 1:09 pm

        Thank you so much for the suggestions! I think I’ve heard of Beacon Press before (and they do seem to have a lot of subjects to choose from).

        When I was studying abroad I had a cool teacher who actually mentioned the Star Trek universe as an example of a very inclusive society. That’s when I started thinking about open minded fellows who might or not be green with giant eyes haha (can’t escape my very human instinct that tells me to stereotype everything, sigh).

        You’re right, after all, any kind of book can be an escape or not, depends on the mood of the reader as well. Fantasy does tell the truth in a different way but in a manner that detaches me from my surroundings far more than other novels do.

        Oh, have you read Elantris by Brandon Sanderson? Plus, I can’t wait for Neil Gaiman’s new book of short stories (lots of wonderful things to look forward to next year I think :).

      • November 14, 2014 10:39 am

        You’re welcome! I’ll come up w some concrete suggestions soon. :)

        I haven’t heard of Elantris, but I’ll put it on my list now. And any year with a new Neil Gaiman is a good one.

  8. November 12, 2014 3:59 am

    Loved your post, Eva. Glad to know that you have fallen in love with a genre which you used to avoid. I haven’t heard of Lois McMaster Bujold – I will add her name to the list of authors I would like to explore. One of my favourite science fiction writers is Joanna Russ. She writes what some people might call feminist science fiction. She explores our real world ‘earth’ issues through the lens of science fiction. I liked her book ‘We Who Are About To…’ very much. Do check out her books if you get a chance. Happy reading!

    • November 13, 2014 9:41 am

      I read & loved a Russ nonfiction book, so thank you for reminding me she’s written fiction! Bujold is sooooo good: have fun getting to know her!

      • Vishy permalink
        November 17, 2014 9:49 am

        Glad to know that you loved a Russ nonfiction book. Was it ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’? That is a book I want to read. I can’t wait to read Bujold.

  9. November 12, 2014 6:24 am

    No space life for me thanks, but I still love sci-fi, ever since reading my dad’s collection of Phillip K. Dick and Robert Heinlien when I was a kid – they write hard-core sci-fi! My mom on the other hand was like you. Apart from the feeling uncomfortable of strangeness of it all, she also didn’t like the dark scenarios most authors painted of humanity’s future.

    • November 13, 2014 9:42 am

      Yes, I think your last sentence hit on another aspect of my sci-fi hesitancy. I don’t like dystopian novels and sci-fi generally seems to tend that way. Luckily the Bujold series doesn’t!

  10. November 12, 2014 10:45 am

    Despite growing up greatly enjoying scifi TV, it took me a long time to get into science fiction novels. Over the last couple of months, I’ve binged on Iaian Banks’ Culture series, and I’ve absolutely adored it. The structure of some of the novels has been brilliant, and it’s as much fun to read for the plots as it is for the way in which Banks constructed the whole story. There have been a few times where I’m 75% through one of the books and thinking that I’m not enjoying myself, and by the end, I’m giddy with how great of an experience I’ve had.

    I really, really can’t recommend them enough.

  11. November 12, 2014 7:31 pm

    I’m still not sold on space-y science fiction, but I like speculative fiction of the science type — the kind of science fiction that comes up with mad scenarios and then makes them sound tremendously plausible. Daryl Gregory’s my new favorite author for this; I’ve devoured all his books this year and remain eager for more. His books straddle the line between fantasy and sci-fi, though.

    Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz? I loooved it. And that one’s properly sci-fi. Sci-fi classic.

    • November 13, 2014 9:43 am

      Oh Gregory sounds like fun! I think you’d like Bujold’s sci-fi, and definitely you’d like her fantasy. There’s lot of feminism mixed in, and a deep love for humanity. I haven’t read Canticle, but now I’ll put it on my list!

  12. November 13, 2014 6:41 am

    Have you read Jo Walton’s book, Among Others? It’s a pseudo-memoir fantasy about growing up with science fiction books for friends, and then making real people friends at a science fiction book club. It mentions many books that Walton loves. I don’t think from reading your blog you will like a lot of science fiction. Bujold is very atypical. But if you want to discover more SF books, try which has collected many famous best-of and award lists for SF books.

    • November 13, 2014 9:44 am

      I’ve read it twice actually! :)

      Good to know that Bujold is very atypical; perhaps I’ll just hang around the edges of the sci-fi universe. But thank you for the list! Can you think of any other authors who are similar to Bujold? I find some similarities between her & Octavia Butler, at least her Lilith’s Brood trilogy and Blood Child, a short story collection I just read.

      • November 13, 2014 9:58 am

        Look at this list of award winning women writers in SF/F

        I think Catherine Asaro’s books are somewhat like Bujold. Someone else has already mentioned Connie Willis, and I’m sure you know about Ursula K. Le Guin.

        Now, if you want to try something different, try The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s sort of Graham Greene writes SF. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is about Jesuits making first contact. One of my all-time favorite SF novels is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. If you want to try literary SF, try Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, about a writer in residence working with scientists to create an AI that can pass the English department’s exam for students seeking to get a master’s in literature.

      • November 13, 2014 10:05 am

        I forgot, try Samuel R. Delany – a favorite of Walton. I especially love Empire Star, a short novel, and “The Star Pit” a novella. Delany is black and gay, which was very uncommon for science fiction writers in the 1960s, so his space explorers deal with different kinds of barriers. These two stories are among the most philosophical in all of science fiction, even though they are slight in size. I also think Delany was a pioneer bring literary quality to SF.

      • November 14, 2014 10:40 am

        Oh thanks James! So many suggestions, and they all sound great. :D

  13. Jenny permalink
    November 13, 2014 5:57 pm

    My approach to new genres is that there’s probably something there for me, even if I don’t read in that genre very often. Westerns, seafaring novels, romances, horror — all of them have provided pleasure at one time or another. It can take time and effort to find the few that speak to you, but that’s part of the pleasure of reading!

    Michael Dirda, a book reviewer whose taste I trust, made a list of science fiction books he thought were great. I might check there for recommendations, just to see. Several of the books people have recommended here are on it.

    • November 14, 2014 10:41 am

      I don’t think I’ve ever read a Western! I was very into seafaring books for awhile but I don’t think I’ve read one in far too long. Must fix that!

      I’ll look at the Dirda list, although I have mixed feelings about him.

      • November 14, 2014 10:53 am

        My favorite western is Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey from 1912. It’s about a Mormon woman being rescued by a cowboy from being forced into marriage she doesn’t want. Not your typical western subject.

  14. November 13, 2014 10:28 pm

    Like you, I love fantasy but sci-fi and I do not really get along as a rule. I’ve tried to read Cinder and Dark Eden, thinking these books were a blend and would be a good intro for me into the genre and not as hard-core, but I still find space and technology just meh. I want to keep trying though because they sound so interesting!

    • November 14, 2014 10:42 am

      Try the Bujold books! The first is Shards of Honor; I think it’ll have you hooked. :) Butler’s short story collection Blood Child is really good too & has more of a fantasy feel to it. Oh and Karen Lord’s second book, The Best of All Possible Worlds, which might as well be fantasy, even though it’s got a scifi setting. One of my favourite reads of the year!

  15. Amanda permalink
    November 14, 2014 9:06 pm

    I have tried to be well-rounded in my reading, but I may not have been doing as well as I thought. I really liked The Time Machine when I read it awhile ago. I’ve been slowly reading more drama. I think A Raisin in the Sun was the first drama I had read since high school and I loved it. Living in space would be different, but always seeing the stars would be incredible.

  16. November 17, 2014 8:36 pm

    When I stop to think about it, I was a more adventurous reader when I was in my early twenties. I’m a little more settled into what I like to read now. I think I had some of Bujold’s other books on my to-read list, but I’ll have to add Shards of Honor as well. For sci-fi, one of my favorites is Eifelheim – there are aliens but very little time spent in space. In fact the aliens crash their ship in 14th century Germany, and the story is told primarily through the eyes of the village priest. Eifelheim appears to share some story DNA with Willis’ Doomsday Book, except of course for the aliens. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Joe Haldeman’s sci-fi classic The Forever War, but almost all of it is set in space and it is military sci-fi as well, so you may not find it up your alley.

  17. November 22, 2014 4:46 pm

    I read a lot of fantasy, but like you, haven’t read much science fiction. Some, but not a lot. This sounds like it would be a great series to dig into. I really understand some of the things that you don’t like about science fiction – they make a lot of sense to me. I think anytime I’ve really enjoyed a science fiction it’s been speculative/futuristic fiction that does have a lot of science fiction elements, but does still take place in our world or a world like it.

  18. November 27, 2014 7:29 pm

    I didn’t start getting into sci-fi until I was an adult. I think part of it was that “genre” books have a weird reputation in general, and so I stuck to the literary fiction section. Then when I started reading sci-fi I quickly realized that those were the books that made me think the most about politics, philosophy, etc. Plus they’re great fun! :)

  19. December 12, 2014 8:21 am

    Hi Eva, I’m a longtime reader and lurker on your blog. I recently read C.J. Cherryh’s book Foreigner, which I thought was amazing. It is a fascinating exploration around culture, connection, colonization from a very human perspective. I’ve heard it called ‘anthropological science fiction’. It mostly takes place on one planet, and a large part takes place in the countryside (complete with more animals and less tech). It seems like it might hit several of the aspects you liked about the Bujold novel. Interesting Cherryh started writing in the mid 1970s when there were few women writing science fiction, so she created her pen name using initials. Thus people’s assumptions at that time that all Scifi authors were males, saw the initials and assumed her to be male. I kind of love that she used people’s own faulty assumptions rather than actually using a male name. Anywho I highly recommend it, although I will warn that the very first section can take a bit of effort to get through but you are rewarded if you do. :)

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