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.
I have officially placed a moratorium on buying books. They are everywhere: stacked on the floor in towers, overrunning my nightstand in unruly piles, occupying the spare room like sad, sleepless orphans. The shelves are creaking under the combined weight of so many unread tomes.
…Buuuuut this hasn’t stopped me from dragging Chebk to the library on my ongoing quest to find something to read that won’t trigger my depression or anxiety. Thankfully, with a little help from Battle Royale, this recent trip proved successful. I’ve gotten through N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (first in the Inheritance Trilogy; I highly recommend this volume so far. It is a balm after my extended time reviewing the Divergent trilogy). I also borrowed Satoshi Kon’s final and “incomplete” manga, entitled Opus.
I first got into Kon’s work on a trip to the Big Island, during which my girlfriend brought along a collection of his movies for downtime and also because I’d somehow committed to writing a paper on them for one of my graduate classes. You may know some of his animated movies: Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, and Paprika, to name a few. Prior to his directorial work in anime, however, he was mainly a manga artist.
Some things on Kon’s work upfront: Probably not the best things to watch or contemplate when you’re in a bad state, (probably). They’re all mindfucks because Kon is fascinated by taking apart both realities and illusions and blending them into crazy shit. Example:
Opus is no different. It follows the story of manga artist, Chikara Nagai, as he wraps up his long-running manga series, Resonance, by killing off one of his main characters. The night before the big deadline, after inking the final death, Nagai is inexplicably drawn into the literal pages of Resonance when his characters rebel at impending deaths, the limits of controlled reality, and, of course, the masked manga villain dogging their every step.
The best part about all of this is watching the meta discussions of a writer and his characters unfold. Once his main characters become aware that they are fictional creations in a fictional world, they begin to refer to Nagai as “God.” They question whether or not they have free will with Nagai at the helm — made more interesting because this becomes a break from their predestined storyline as they yell at him, which Nagai sees as proof of their own free will. They beg to live, all the while knowing that if they go back and change their storylines their current “world” will collapse because it veers too far from what has already been published. Most importantly, they question their God, asking why their lives have been filled with such pain and suffering, only to come to the conclusion that, if it is all for the sake of a manga, then they have been hurt so egregiously for “entertainment.”
As an author who is all too willing to examine broken characters and even to sacrifice them for the sake of a storyline, this all hit home in the best of ways.
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. 🙂
As part of OKP’s hiatus from YA fiction, I decided to pick up one of the recent popular titles in regular fiction, namely Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train. During my brief stint as a bookseller, this was one of the more asked-after titles and the premise was just Gone Girl enough to intrigue me. (Amy Dunne, the only love of my life I would not go near, ever. We will talk about more of Gillian Flynn’s writing later in this post.)
Unfortunately, while TGotT is well-written, well-paced and an all-around decent thriller, it has little to no diversity to speak of, at least not at length: a rotation of three complex female narrators and a single person of color as a side character, a Serbian therapist. Not much fodder for OKP.
Upon reflection, however, this book does follow a trend in my reading lately, namely: Books I Shouldn’t Read While Dealing with Depression & Anxiety. Or, as I’ve been calling it, my “Maybe Not” books.
I have been dealing with a formal diagnosis of General Anxiety, Depression, and mild OCD since my first year of high school. I have been on medication since and see a therapist regularly; both help significantly. There are still problem periods, despite the good health days I can sustain for longer and longer. Since finishing up my degree, my mental health has been in a downswing, which has taken its toll on my physical health.
Reading is usually my go-to for distractions, but on my bad days, it can be a little more difficult to muster up the effort required to concentrate on new books. This forms an unfortunate cycle: fail at reading books, go out to find books I think I can struggle through, bring books home to attempt reading, fail at reading books.
I don’t necessarily think that there is a trend in darker writing (in the same vein as the gritty realism in movies that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins sparked in the superhero genre), but picking up a bestseller lately tends to entails murder (TGotT and every book I picked up on the front tables of Barnes and Nobles last week), post-apocalyptic woes (Station Eleven), war (All the Light We Cannot See), or any combination of the above.
Bad things need to happen in books for things to happen, but the rash of dystopian novels in YA, the persistence of disturbingly gory criminal procedures on network television, and the aforementioned Gritty & Dark = Realism formula being used for new superhero incarnations (hello, Superman and Spiderman reboots, Daredevil) is a little overwhelming when you’re looking for a reason not to be sadder. (Note: I love all the above. LOVE. It’s my main problem with picking books lately is that the dark stuff grabs me. Hell, I write the dark stuff myself. It can be cathartic. …And yet.)
To backtrack a little, these darker plots and characters aren’t, you know, a sudden revelation. (Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein — no happy endings here.) But when you’re looking for something a little lighter to read, suddenly it seems that those stories are all that exist. A person can only read Jane Austen and shoujo manga so much.
So I always end up attempting books I know I shouldn’t read…and then regretting it as I’m reading. Getting to the end is usually not advisable.
Chebk usually keeps track of site stats for OKP, and she’s been informing me that we’ve been teetering on the brink of 150 followers for a while now. We finally hit the number, and, since we didn’t celebrate previous follower milestones, we thought we’d take the time to thank you all for your follows, your likes, and your comments on our posts and blog.
We’re very grateful to know that we are not shouting into the void, and that there are others out there interested in discussing media representation, diversity, and books in general with a couple of tired and confused Japanese-Okinawan kids.
To celebrate, we still have a couple of copies of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow to give out. This is one of Chebk’s very favorite books (she gave it a million potatoes in her review) and she’s always ready to spread the gospel as needed. To enter, please leave a comment on this post and we’ll announce the winners from a random drawing at the end of the month.
We know we’ve been a bit remiss lately in posting, but we really appreciate everyone who’s stuck around. Thanks again!