Thursday, March 2, 2017

I Get Interviewed by Joe Bonadonna at Black Gate + Why I Don't Read Science Fiction (much)

I've been living in a sick house the past few days, so I didn't get to my review of M. John Harrison's Viriconium Nights for Tuesday. Heck, I didn't even finish the book.

But wait, you're not starved of new insights from me this week. Some time ago, Joe Bonadonna, asked if he could interview me. I said yes, and today, in lieu of Viriconium Nights, John O'Neill posted it at Black Gate.

Read or not as you wish. I reread it this morning and it was like hearing a recording of my own voice: irritating. Maybe if it was a live interview instead of one by email where I had a chance to go back over my answers again and again it would sound more like how I think I sound. Maybe if I had gotten Hallie to edit it it wouldn't be filled with mistakes. I think it's pretty clear what she brings to the table: logic and eliminates needless repetition. You know, important things.

Tonal qualities of the interview aside, I'm proud of that picture Hallie took for it. Without any forethought, I sat in a place where you can see books by P.C. Hodgell, Raphael Ordoñez, Teresa Edgerton, Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock, and Tim Powers. That wide range of authors says more about my taste in fantasy reading than anything I managed to say in the interview. 

I absolutely love the covers I'm assuming John O'Neill added. As I tweeted to David West this morning, "All I sent Joe was that picture of my ugly mug." Those covers, especially for the Larry Niven books, are stamped on my brain. John picked the exact editions I originally read. Few things say SCIENCE FICTION! to me like Rick Sternbach's covers for Tales of Known Space and Neutron Star.

As I answered the questions, an interesting thing occurred to me when I reached the one about my favorite characters. None of them were from heroic fantasy. The Master and Margarita is literary fantasy, The Last Coin is contemporary fantasy, and Guards! Guards! (the first Vimes book) is a satire of fantasy. I love S&S, but it's clearly not what's effected me the most. The funny thing is, since I've been writing for Black Gate, it's almost all I've read. 

The editions I read originally
Obviously, I love S&S and its associated genres, but I'm just realizing how much reviewing it weekly has pushed out so many other types of books from my life. I don't like that. I own but haven't read the last two books by Tim Powers and the last three by James Blaylock.

My goal of working my way through a stack of 19th century Russian books has long fallen by the wayside, broken under the weight of heroic fantasy. I've got to get back on track reading outside S&S. 


The biggest change in my reading habits over the past decade is how little science fiction I now read. For a very long time, I read far more sf than fantasy. For years, it formed the bulk of my reading. In grade and high school the number of non-sci fi books I read paled in comparison. And then about ten years ago I just sort abandoned it.

I stopped reading science fiction when it got dull. There were plenty of good books out there. Vernor Vinge, Robert Charles Wilson, Iain Banks, and others were still writing good and powerful stories, but much of what I found bored me. Even those writers lost some of their appeal for me.

Part of it is that sense of wonder I used to get from reading science fiction seemed reduced or even lost. This idea first came up in a conversation over on Keith West's site the other day and I think it's an important insight. I was older and had read a ton of sci fi and had a better understanding of real science. Keith suggests sf is like a drug and you become inured to its high over years of exposure. The books pictured above feature "science" that's so advanced that they're almost fantasy. I think, without ever consciously realizing it, that's why I turned more and more to pure fantasy. I could still approach a story with a "sense of wonder" and didn't need to get distracted by the author's sciencing to rationalize the craziness.

It's easy for my "sense of wonder" to be triggered by fantasy and pure pulp-type sci-fi. Maybe a need to scratch that itch drove me to those genres.

In addition to big idea sci-fi, I read a lot of low-tech stuff with space opera overtones such as Gordon Dickson, Poul Anderson, and CJ Cherryh. After a while, those stories can start to get a little samey-samey. I took a break from them, and the next thing I knew it was ten years later.

It wasn't just a lost sense of wonder, though. If the sci-fi from my younger days (especially by Americans) was more libertarian and conservative, it became increasingly left-wing in the nineties and beyond. Now, that's not necessarily a problem. Fred Pohl, Mack Reynolds, Ursual K. LeGuin all wrote left-wing science fiction and that didn't stop me from reading them. But they were part of a large, diverse sci-fi community of writers whose politics ran all over the place. Some time in the last twenty years, it seemed like the voices of writers not on the left were being marginalized (or only published by Baen).

I'm conservative in all aspects of my life with a healthy distrust of the bureaucratic state and centralized authority. I'm also not a fool, and know better than to put my faith in corporations either. Much of the science fiction I grew up with tended to align with my views. Anderson, Dickson, Niven, and Pournelle explored libertarian themes in their stories at times. It wasn't all they did, though. They made sure to tell stories that were thwacking good adventures and provoked you to think about the future of humanity.

Too many new stories I found seemed to exist only as "correctives" about the previous eras of science fiction. I yearn for more voices and perspectives in sci fi because it offers the potential for new vistas, new ideas, and new types of stories and storytelling. Hell, there's always a place for addressing past assumptions and perceived flaws. If all you're doing is writing in response to what's come before, and not telling those new stories, though, it gets boring. It seemed intent on going on about the problems of the real world to the exclusion of any sense of wonder or exploration. At some point it turned into nothing but lecturing.

Coupled with the lecturing was what seemed to be a blanket dismissal of sci fi's past as sexist, racist, homophobic, and capitalist. I know I'm being too broad and too ready to take offense (though reading the comments from some folks on the left during the Puppy Wars were pretty offensive to anyone not explicitly on their side. You can't convince me of your arguments if you act like a tool), but I don't care. The past of science fiction was a hell of a lot more than it's dismissively portrayed as being. When people, who often haven't even read the books they're condemning, dismiss a lot of what you like, it gets tiresome and you don't want to play anymore. I can't be alone.

It's not that politics haven't worked their way into fantasy, but the field has managed to remain more open to diverse opinions and perspectives than mainstream sci fi. Heroic fantasy in particular tends to be a more libertarian genre to start with, telling the tales of lone warriors and adventurers living outside the rules of society. Maybe it's an unconscious reason I drifted toward it. Again, I'm not sure and haven't thought too much about it until now, but I'd wager that's part of it.

Total book sales in the US have remained steady over the past decade, while those of sci fi and fantasy have dropped drastically. Part of it has to be tied to genre fans getting their fix from other media, but not all of it.

Eventually, I stopped keeping up with the field and reading reviews. It's only the occasional big book like Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem that breaks through to my awareness. I'm tempted to give Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice a go, even if it does sound a little bit like an Iain Banks pastiche. I also hope to get to Vernor Vinge's The Children of the Sky. For the most part, though, I can't tell you what's new in sci fi anymore.

As I'm writing this, my thoughts have gone back to some of the sci fi I loved best and I hear it calling me. It called me so loud the other night that I spent about an hour reading old reviews of CJ Cherryh's Alliance-Union books. It sparked a real desire to revisit some of the grittiest, most fast-paced sci fi I've ever read. I'm not sure where I'll start. Maybe I'll pick up the first book in the series chronologically, Heavy Time, or jump to the earlier published Downbelow Station. After one of two of them, I think it'll be time to get back to the Russians.

Oh, and I haven't forgotten my Western reviews. A few projects, including getting my house finished (almost done and only a year late), have derailed it the past week. I'm hoping to watch Ride Lonesome this weekend in between some serious reading and writing and let you all know what I think next week.


  1. Part of the problem with writing "correctives" is that to succeed, the reader both needs to agree with you and be aware of what you're correcting...which applies to left-wing editors and not many others. Hence a massive overinvestment by publishers.

    Read Ancillary Justice. Just don't bother with book 2.

  2. Yep. It's a point many of us have made a lot, that younger readers in particular have no familiarity with older books - except as books full of bad, old ideas in need of being dismissed.

    As to Ancillary Justice, thanks. I though t heard that and it's good to have it confirmed.

  3. I agree with you 110%.

    Ancillary Justice is just OK. A little bit better then standard message fiction. Stick with Downbelow Station or maybe Cyteen. You'll be happier.

  4. Thanks. I want to see if there's really anything to the hubbub about AJ. I am definitely planning to revisit DBS. Amazingly enough, I still haven't read Cyteen.

  5. I read a lot of C.J. Cherryh back in the 80s and early 90s. I re-read the Chanur trilogy about 6 years ago and really liked it. Funny thing, I remember that one book (the second or third) that when I read it the first time I was like "When are they gonna get off this space station and get things moving?" On second read I realized that getting off the space station was really half the story, the political situation really flew over my head back in '89!

    I also love Larry Niven-- with CGI technology we are well overdue for an Integral Trees or Smoke Ring movie.

    Back to C.J. Cherryh-- DBS is one of the few books back in the day that I started to read but didn't finish. I should probably give it another go.

  6. I'm going to start reading a lot more (old) sci-fi and Chanur's definitely on the list. I got my wife to read them at they blew her away.

    DBS is a beast, though one that's ultimately rewarding.

    I actually never read the Integral Trees duo and probably should.