Reading Sci-Fi/Fantasy is Hard (Pt. 1)

This is the first in a two-part collaborative post between Chebk and myself. Though we both currently write mostly Science Fiction/Fantasy stories, I have much less experience with the genres. I have been gravitating towards reading more SFF stories lately, but it is always an overwhelming struggle to find the right book and, even then, to finish the right books. Chebk and I briefly contemplated why this might be, which spawned this two-part post. I’ll be tackling how to deal with the difficulties of getting into SFF and Chebk will be introducing the aspects of the genre that are most accessible for new readers.

1. Reading SFF is hard because starting with the classics is DAUNTING.

But where to begin?
Image from io9.com
For those of you who have been following OKP for a while, I’ve talked a few times about my WIP novel, which is my official first foray into science fiction writing. This has proved A MISTAKE difficult many times over because of my lack of experience with the actual genre. I did a brief crash course prior to starting my novel, but mainly because I was also submitting the first quarter as my graduate thesis. (So many mistakes~)

My thesis committee was 2/3 hardcore science fiction readers, the type of professors who loved the genre so much they held multiple classes analyzing the different aspects and masters of the craft. They heaped a bunch of “classic” titles my way and set me loose into the world.

I am sure these books are classics for a reason. People love them. People revere them. And I am sorry but I cannot. Is it the info dumps? The same style of writing that prevents me from ever reading any Dostoyevsky book? The strangeness of the worlds and my lack of training in adapting to these genre conventions? The fact that most of the “classics” are male dominated, author- and character-wise? Probably all of the above.

Many new titles build on these foundations to add to the genre, and it can and will still take a while to adjust to the new tropes and expectations, but this isn’t mathematics or physics. You don’t need to start at the basics.

Tip for new readers: Don’t keep digging back into the annals of the genre to get into SFF if you find yourself putting down classic after classic, even if everyone keeps telling you to read Asimov’s Foundation series or Frank Herbert’s Dune. There are a lot of new titles that are excellent gateways that subvert old tropes and discuss current/ongoing real world issues that you may be able to relate to more. (So many Cold War metaphors back in the day…) My contemporary diversity picks include N.K. Jemisin, Kate Elliott, Daniel H. Wilson, Ken Liu, Ernest Cline, and Jacqueline Carey for accessible writing, plots, worlds, and characters.

However, if you are adamant at starting with some of the greats, I’d personally recommend Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, Madeline L’Engles Wrinkle in Time series, and anything by Jules Verne or Ursula LeGuin. Some of these are rooted more in reality than others, heavy on the pathos for easy emotional connections, with relatively small casts and linear plots, which makes it easier to follow.


2. Because each book is a new world/universe, not just a new story.

Art by Dan Meth.
Art by Dan Meth.

It is easy to be intimidated by any SFF book you pick up, especially if the first chunk of pages after the title page include several detailed maps, a slew of family trees with accompanying lists of alliances and the names of all household servants (I’m looking at you A Song of Ice and Fire), and appendices in the back to top it all off. This was definitely the case when Chebk first recommended some of her favorite fantasy series to me.

Unlike most straight literary fiction with boundaries within the realm of known reality (a specific city, neighborhood, or country), there is a lot more than just plot or character narrative to take in with SFF. Some take place on new planets in different solar systems, which brings in new weather patterns, new governing systems, religions, social hierachies, customs, and traditions. The list goes on and on.

This is par for the course for most SFF. Some authors info dump from the start to get the ball rolling, while others sprinkle details throughout and explain along the way. Both can be difficult for beginners as it can be hard to pick and choose which to try to keep in mind as you keep reading.

Tips for new readers: There is no way to hold the multitudes of details the entire way through a book or series. A good author will make clear which points are important by reiterating. They will definitely give important characters defining traits that make them easier to remember against a backdrop of (literally) hundreds of other names. I’ve found that the best way to acclimate to all this genre shock is to just go with it. Re-reads will probably be in order, (which I personally like), but you’ll get used to the inundations. Also, maps are always cool.

3. Because sometimes you just can’t with SFF.

See more at WTF Bad Science Fiction Covers at Tumblr.
See more at WTF Bad Science Fiction Covers at Tumblr.

There is something for everyone in SFF, which also means there are a lot of things not for you — which is fine. For me, sometimes it’s the plain fact that all the places and names in the book are approximately ten syllables long with far too many consonants. I am happy for that author knowing how to do that, but not knowing how to ever pronounce their protagonist warrior’s name is gonna make it very hard for me to care about them. Sometimes it is the fact that the technology and science is either too abstract or too complicated — I am not intelligent enough for this and I accept that, too. Visualizing the function of the the things I am unable to visualize is a problem. (So is that sentence.)

This is the same for all books. I just don’t care enough about whales to finish all the non-action parts of Moby Dick. Sometimes I will never care enough about fancy new science or tech to get into certain SFF books. And this is okay. I accept that about myself.

Because sometimes the protagonist also turns out to be a cat (I love the writing, but I will never finish Accelerando by Charles Stross). Sometimes there is all the feminism I want but there are weird robots and even weirder robot sex toys (bless you, Joanna Russ, but I still understand too little about the Female Man). Sometimes everyone dies even though you know everyone is going to die because the narrator told you in the beginning but you kept hoping anyway (damn you, The Sparrow).

Tip for new readers: You decide your limits, but just know that you will always stumble onto something unexpected and it will either be wonderful, confusing, repulsive, or all of the above. None of these reactions are a bad thing, usually. Take it all in, decide if you want to keep reading, rinse and repeat. And just to make myself clear, weird shit happens all the time in regular literary fiction, too. Be willing to go in with an open mind and expand those boundaries as needed. You never know what might end up being the best read of your life.

Any SFF recs or tips for new readers to add? Let us know in the comments. Chebk will be back on Thursday with Part Two of this post, discussing why Reading Sci-Fi/Fantasy is Easy. See you then!

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3 thoughts on “Reading Sci-Fi/Fantasy is Hard (Pt. 1)

  1. For those new to sci-fi, I suggest starting with Ray Bradbury. Not only is most of his sci-fi short stories, so easy to digest anyway, but his focus is less on the hard science and more on what it means for humans. For example, his book The Martian Chronicles is all about the human colonization of Mars – and has very little “science” in it compared to the human and martian stories. You really can’t skip Bradbury if you’re getting into sci-fi anyway, but he’s a good one to read anyway because he uses sci-fi as a backdrop to explore very human, timeless topics.

    Liked by 1 person

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