First, let’s start off by saying that Cheri is being magnanimous in the introduction of this two parter. (For Pt. 1 and Why Sci-Fi/Fantasy is Hard, click here.) Since her first forays into the genre, she, in her voracious reading ways, has since surpassed me in every aspect of SFF including classics and everything she ‘claimed’ was hard to get into.
It started with an innocent little argument. Cheri stated with gusto and importance that, “Sci-fi is hard to get into.” I replied, in my quick way, with a Socratic question to break down her argument.
“Why?” asked I.
And then she thought. And then we decided to do a series of posts about it. So I am here to explain the reasons why Sci-fi and Fantasy are the best things ever and are better than any other genre. Something that I am extremely passionate about.
Reading SFF is EASY because there is an oversimplification and over explaining of things.
Ah, the hated exposition is, for once, praised for exactly what it is: an infodump.
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.
To mark the end of August, I’ve been wanting to do a post on the obon season here in Hawaii. Obon is a traditionally Japanese Buddhist custom to honor one’s ancestors as they return to “visit.” Most Japanese people return to their hometowns to celebrate this occasion, which is marked by a bon odori, or basically a very large traditional Japanese dance.
As a third generation Japanese-Okinawan American, I know next to nothing about the actual Japanese festivities. Here in Hawaii, it’s a little different. For one thing, the season spans almost all summer, from the end of June to the end of August, as opposed to the few days in each Japanese region. Generally all of the Buddhist temples here host their own obon celebration, complete with food vendors, craft fairs, and, of course, bon dances. All summer, every weekend is another bon dance somewhere on the island.
Evidently, there is an actual story behind this occasion, which I only discovered this moment on Wikipedia: One of Buddha’s disciples somehow found out his deceased mother was suffering in the afterlife and was informed by Buddha that he could help her by making offerings to the Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat. This allowed his mother’s release from her suffering and, in gratitude and relief, the disciple danced.
I still don’t know if obon season necessarily makes me feel closer to my ancestors. But, despite the fact that I’m really really bad at dancing, participating in the obon festivities always makes me feel grounded in my culture. Whether or not they struggle to participate in the dance movements, everyone is part of so many generations holding tight to all these traditions, even after all these years.
Which brings me to the fact that I’ve finally finished Emily St. John Mandel’s highly acclaimed Station Eleven, which is all about extreme nostalgia. I mentioned this title a few times in the last months, mostly because I’d picked it up in a moment of optimism about my reading abilities while coping with Issues. Unfortunately, the whole world-ending thing put me off for a bit because, well, Issues.
The story follows a handful of different narrative perspectives, both past and present, through the mutated epidemic that wipes out 99% of the world, the shaky years following, and all the way through Year 20, when the Traveling Symphony of musicians and Shakespearean actors continue to bring art and beauty to the surviving communities.
The crux of the main conflict comes in the form of a territorial prophet who believes the epidemic was God’s razing of the Earth, leaving only the worthy behind, along with those who will test the worthy one last time. (There always has to be one of those guys, right?) The Traveling Symphony runs afoul of him and things get creepy from there.
What was most interesting to me, however, was that, despite this prophet storyline, the much bigger and continuing conflict happens on a much more personal level for most of the characters: namely a longing for the past, a forgetting and remembrance alike, for everything from air-conditioning to electricity to iced lattes.
Here is the second installment of our series: ‘Sub Genres.’ This one was more of a pet find because I read an online article (that can be found here) where Ken Liu, an author, came up with this new genre for his book, The Grace of Kings. It appealed to me because of the idea of delving into a different view of the world brought upon by different cultures.
What is Silkpunk?
Silkpunk is similar to steampunk in that it is a reimagining of history using a futuristic viewpoint while maintaining the aesthetic and sensibilities of a time long past. Unlike steampunk, rather than focusing on the western world, silkpunk focuses on ancient China and their wealth of technologies and resources.
Steampunk vs. Silkpunk
So where steampunk focuses on corsets, steam, and mechanisms and gadgets of steel, silkpunk focuses more on organic materials such as silk and bamboo and biomechanics using technologies that were already understood and put into practical usage – like the use of kites in military applications. Rather than the mechanical, they focus more on the biomechanical using human/animal/nature powered rather than coal/steam.
Hey, readers. Just a brief update on the coming month: Chebk will finally be revealing her top secret Comiccon Honolulu project and its fruition, as well as looking into Ken Liu’s “silkpunk” genre discussion.
As for me, I’m challenging myself to a book per 1-2 weeks, so I’ll be starting up my reviews again this month, beginning with either Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven or a few Cuban-translated sci-fi books I picked up today, Agustin de Rojas’ A Legend of the Future and Yoss’s A Planet for Rent.
We’ll also be welcoming back guest writer, Hoshi, at the end of the month and collaborating on a follow-up to our List Prompt post.
Please bear with OKP as we try to get back into the swing of writing, reading, and getting through life. By now, you may have noticed that we have shed our Young Adult genre-only focus and have expanded more fully into general media representation and discussions on culture. So: Welcome to new readers and followers and thank you to old friends!
PS. You can also follow us on Twitter (@cherichebk) for more updates. 🙂
One of the main problems I’ve been running into when writing my novel is staying motivated enough to write it. Here are a few things that I do to keep me interested.
1. Re-read the beginning: When I get stuck far enough into the novel, there is a good chance that I’ve forgotten the minute details that I had written in to the beginning. Re-reading it from the beginning is a great way for me to remember some things that I had intended to address and maybe hadn’t gotten to and things that I need to remember to keep in (forgotten swords anywhere? or bags?). Also, there tend to be small hints that I write in for the future that I forget about; things that I foreshadowed then completely forgot about or even unintentional foreshadowing that I catch after re-reading. With the new insight you gain from writing forward and knowing what is coming next, sometimes you can see what will happen next if you had been stuck previously.
This doesn’t work for some authors who, when they read the beginning, get stuck so be cautious of what kind of writer you are.
In a desperate attempt to literally think my way out of my writing slump, I’ve been reading a lot of books about writing lately. This was my least favorite thing to do for any English course ever, middle school to graduate classes, which is not to say that I didn’t learn anything. I just thought I didn’t need to learn anything from these books that good old trial-and-error wouldn’t teach me.
Well, now trial-and-error has driven me to wild-eyed insomnia and just typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” alone in my bedroom while I pretend to write the best novel ever. It has also made me hyperbolic.
So lately I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing (link will take you to a free PDF version of the book!). They are both a joy to read precisely because they do not try to break down the writing process or list dictionary definitions of different writing techniques. (If you’re interested in that, I highly recommend Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Just for kicks, I also recommend this weird list of writing tips from various writers.)
Now, I’m not sure either of these are moving me to passionate heights of writing, but they’re fun and happy because, man, these guys are in love with what they do. That’s good enough for me for now. I am still in love with what I do when not crippled by self-doubt. The key seems to be to just not think about where this writing is going. To just write.
That said, there is a section in Bradbury’s book that did captivate me enough to want to try something new. In the essay entitled, “Run Fast, Stand Still, or The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or New Ghosts from Old Minds,” Bradbury talks about writing down “brief notes and descriptions of loves and hates…sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark seasons must be something that was really me.” These lists, written down, fed Bradbury’s subconscious as he began new stories. He says:
“I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.”
Bradbury’s lists are filled with things like: “THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. […] THE NIGHT TRAIN. [… THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.” From these lists, he’d pick one or a few and then write a “long prose-poem-essay” that would eventually turn into a story.
Having been distracted by side projects (and life), I thought it would be fun for Chebk and I to make some short lists of our own. It never hurts to have a few short stories in the wings and short stories is mostly what Chebk has time for, what with all the other top-secret work she’s been doing for Comic Con Honolulu. (In fact, she is sewing now as I type and distract her by asking her for her list.)
Things I like to write about, usually: LGBTQAI in love with other LGBTQAI. Fairy tale renditions. Creepy forests, with or without snow. Things to do with water. Too much thinking. Mental health survival.
My list: The graveyard in the middle of the city. The Ferris Wheel. The beach after the storm. The three girls on the bus. The paper plate. The prophet. The succulent garden. The guava tree.
Things Chebk likes to write about, usually: Female protagonists. Fantasy and action. Science! Brilliant underdogs beating the odds. Being awesome. Overcoming failures.
Her list: The glasses. The balloon. The costume. The middle of the volcano fields. The dieselpunk. The underwater. The hot boy.
We’ll see if this yields anything in the next few months. I’ll try to update on my writing processes in the upcoming month, as well as a few book reviews, including Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. We will also finally be able to reveal more of Chebk’s projects towards the end of July.
In closing, I leave you with one last Bradbury’s words to get you through your own lists:
“I leave you now at the bottom of your own stair, at half after midnight, with a pad, a pen, and a list to be made. Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness. Your own Thing stands waiting ‘way up there in the attic shadows. If you speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page…
Your Thing at the top of your stairs in your own private night…may well come down.”
What would be on your list, writers? Let us know in the comments!