NPR was wondering what you thought the best fantasy and science fiction books of all time were.
I’d encourage everyone to head over there are vote your conscience. Especially if you really liked my stuff.
by Daniel Abraham
by Daniel Abraham
There’s always a problem for men advocating for women’s equality that we come across as something less than manly while doing so. A woman I used to date had the solution of advocating for women in derogatory terms, as in “Ah, I say give the bitches equal pay.”
Though I rarely work blue, it seems to me that this is the occasion for it. If you are offended by rude language or are a woman, you may stop reading now. I’ll get back to a more genteel, open, and civil conversation next time.
by Daniel Abraham
(At this point, Daniel goes on a foaming-at-the-mouth rant about that one part of Cryptonomicon despite the fact that it’s in many ways a fine book and his friends assure him that Neal Stephenson is a perfectly decent human being.)
There have been several requests to hear the actual rant, and I can see why folks would be interested. But more than that, I can see how it might actually be useful and interesting. So okay.
First off, I’m going to put in some caveats: Neal Stephenson is a damn good writer. I have gone back and re-read Snow Crash and In the Beginning … was the Command Line more than once. I admire his intelligence and his ambition, and that he lost me as a reader isn’t a reflection on his skill or the result of any kind of failure on his part. It’s about his project as a writer and mine as a reader.
Another caveat: I’m about to spoil the hell out of part of Cryptonomicon. Really. Stephenson did something in the book that was clearly an intentional choice and (I think) clearly signaled what he intended to do, and it’s the issue at hand. If I don’t talk about it in concrete detail, it won’t make much sense.
So. Yeah. All right.
There I was, back in ’99, and I was an utter Neal Stephenson fanboy. I’d read Snow Crash and shared it through with all my friends. I’d reviewed The Diamond Age for my college newspaper. And then here was Cryptonomicon, and it was built out of everything awesome. High drama, cryptography, H. P. Lovecraft references, economics, Godel’s theorem, philosophy, Nazis. I was aching to get my fingers on this book, and I dove into it like it was a swimming pool. I engaged.
If you haven’t read it, the book has an alternating timeline. One story is going on in the present day, the other in 1940s. The 1940s timeline follows a group of people whose job it is to stage plausible events that would explain how the Allies could have found information even if they hadn’t broken Enigma (because if they knew things that they could *only* know by having broken Enigma, then the Nazis would know they’d broken Enigma). It was tense and fascinating and it turned all my dials up to 11.
And then there was this one part.
I haven’t gone back to look at this in over a decade now. I don’t really know how much of this is supported by the text and how much is my own fallible memory. But here’s what I recall. If you’ve read it more recently, you can correct me where I’ve strayed.
So we have a character — Bobby Shaftoe — who knows that Enigma’s been compromised. He’s been captured, and is in a Nazi U-boat. And he’s a morphine addict in the early stages of withdrawal. And the whole Allied fleet is trying to sink the U-boat to keep him from spilling the beans about Enigma. And the Allies have convinced the Nazis that the U-boat has actually been seized and the crew replaced by Allied submariners, so the *Nazis* are trying to sink the U-boat too. And Bobby Shaftoe’s in the brig with the Nazi captain — the fate of the world in the balance — when the chapter ends.
Now you have to imagine me reading this, right? I’m hunched over the book. I’m blowing off my assignments for class. I’m taking it with me to work to sneak in a few pages in the slow times. The next chapter is the present-day one, and I’m going through page by page, knotted with suspense until I get to the next Bobby Shaftoe chapter.
Where he’s in Holland, in bed with this blonde woman we’ve never met before, and the resolution of all that narrative tension I was feeling? Yeah, we covered that with an expository flashback.
Neal Stephenson isn’t a stupid man. I believe he knew what he was doing when he built up those — very standard, very genre, naive even — narrative expectations and then didn’t follow the traditional path that they led down. I understood that this was a signal that the novel wasn’t a standard narrative — not even a wildly baroque and powerfully intelligent one. I got the point. Intellectually.
How I felt was stupid. And yeah, a little humiliated.
Because, y’see, I was that naive genre reader. I was the sucker who’d actually taken it seriously. I’d gotten excited by this silly, over-the-top scenario. I hadn’t seen the wink, and so I was exposed as the silly, unsophisticated reader who’d actually thought he was reading that kind of book.
I don’t think Stephenson set out to cultivate contempt for his reader — by which I mean me — but that was my experience. After that, I appreciated his writing and his intelligence, but I wasn’t going to be so silly and gauche as to actually *care* anymore. And I haven’t.
I want to like Neal Stephenson’s books. I really do admire his ambition and the depth of commitment he has for his projects. He’s hellishly smart, and the work he’s doing is made of everything I want to read. But I haven’t picked up anything after Cryptonomicon because we have different opinions about story and about sentiment.
The project he’s engaged with isn’t — or at least wasn’t — something that had room for emotional engagement, and I have emotionally disengaged from his body of work. I feel that Cryptonomicon is a Fuzzy Bunny book where we’re all supposed to be laughing, albeit with a very intellectual and sophisticated kind of laughter. What I thought was a story was conceptual humor. Or not humor. Wit.
When I want a story, I go places where I feel safe caring about the characters. When I want intellectual stimulation, I read non-fiction. And, honestly, it’s a freaking shame, because I ought to love this guy.
by Daniel Abraham
I had two books due on the first of the month, and then a little grace period to tweak one of them while the inimitable DongWon Song started on the other. After that, I gave myself a few days to decompress, sit in the hammock, read a book (The Lock Artist), and watch the post-apocalyptic smoke of Arizona burning to death roll in from the west like a stormcloud.
But all that’s done now, and it’s time to get back to work. I’m finishing up another issue of the Game of Thrones comic book (which, by the way, looks freaking cool — I’ve seen the colored art and lettering for the first issue, and I am quite pleased), working on a fresh Wild Cards story, catching up on email, composing a little essay on one of my favorite genre writers, hunting typos in the submitted manuscripts for Caliban’s War and The King’s Blood and reading proofs for a couple of short stories coming out in anthologies shortly. Should keep me off the street.
I am waiting for notes back on King’s Blood, which sound like they’re coming shortly with Caliban’s War fast on their heels. Plus which I’ve turned in the proposal for the next two MLN Hanover books and am now in the tenterhooks phase of that project. I really enjoy writing the Black Sun’s Daughter books, and I’m always nervous in that gap between turning in the proposal and having them say yes, I get to do more of ’em. I am, however, optimistic.
And I’m trying to stick with the read a book in a non-professional context every week. Last week, as I mentioned, was The Lock Artist. Next week, Painful Yarns: Metaphors and Stories to Help Understand the Biology of Pain.
by Daniel Abraham
I was going to make this just a comment in Ty’s post, but I think it deserves it’s own headline.
In a comment, “TheTick” said:
Your typical player of sports who the mainstream media says is having such a slump is almost always facing stiffer competition with less help and more responsibility.
My take on the “sophomore slump” for writers — and especially for those of us writing series — has more to do with reader’s expectations than the actual quality of the books. When the first book of a series comes out (or the first episode of a television series, or — memorably — the first chapter of a book like Lucius Shepherd’s A Handbook of American Prayer), I get all excited. I start preparing myself for the ride that I’m on. The thing is, my idea of where things should go and author’s idea are wildly unlikely to match up perfectly.
I remember watching the first season of Life on Mars — the real one with John Simm — and actively rewriting the show as I watched it to the point that I don’t remember the *actual* show as much as my self-built private version. The creative forces on it didn’t go where I wanted to, and so I was disappointed. After the first episode, I had already pointed myself in a direction similar to, but not precisely aligned with where they were actually going.
The books are the same. Just to take an example, in The Dragon’s Path, I introduce a minor character — Clara — who gets to be the center of a couple of chapters. If her role expands in the second book, some folks will feel disappointed. If it doesn’t, there will be some folks who are disappointed. Over in Carrie Vaughn‘s Kitty Norville series, Kitty forms a serious romantic attachment with one character rather than another, and the partisans of the guy what didn’t get the girl are always going to feel that discomfort.
It’s a fine line, and some ways it’s not fair. As an author, I’m asking readers to invest in the world I create, believe in and care about the people in it (oh, and pay me while they’re at it), but I don’t want them to take any control.
I think the sophomore slump is all about reacting to the real necessity of making narrative decisions, and wrestling with the fact that they can’t all be the decisions that all the readers would have made. Readers aren’t monolithic, and there are going to be some who would prefer I’d done it the other way. No matter which way I go, there will *always* be folks who would have preferred the other way.
Which, I think, is why we have fan fiction.
Fan fiction is where the readers can appropriate the world and characters and tell the story they way it is in their heads. When I was talking about re-editing Life on Mars, I was basically making a little fan fiction version of the show for an audience of just me. It was a freaking good show not because it was better than the real one, but because it was tailor-made to push my buttons. I know. I was the tailor.
So I’m worried about Caliban’s War and The King’s Blood, but not because I don’t think they’re cracking good books. I think they’re better in some ways than Dragon’s Path and Leviathan Wakes. But part of what makes them good books is that they make decisions. They change their respective stories. Things happen, and there will always be readers who would have made a different choice. There’s literally nothing I can do about that except tell the story I’ve got as well as I can, accept that there will be a few grim reviews of the second books, and start writing The Poison Sword and Dandelion Sky.
by Ty Franck
So ‘Caliban’s War’, the second book in The Expanse series, went off to our publisher yesterday. It’s a massive tome of 170,000 words, and I did a full re-read and edit of it in just two days before sending it off. So this entire blog post may just be delirium caused by lack of sleep.
There’s a lot to like. I like our new characters and what we put them through. I still love Holden’s little crew on the Rocinante. I like the glimpse we get of Earth and her politics in our future solar system. And good grief do I love that ending.
Overall I think it’s at least as strong as Leviathan Wakes was, and in my opinion stronger. I’m a better writer now. Daniel understands the universe of the Expanse better than he did during the first book. We work together very smoothly even when we aren’t typing in the same room. The trust level has gone way up, on both sides.
But I’ve been warned about the sophomore slump. So I am suspicious of my own happiness at the second book. It’s gone out to our readers, so hopefully if we really blew it they’ll give us a heads up.
I did however do what my good pal Carrie Vaughn warned me to do. I got the second book done before the sales numbers on the first one started rolling in. I’m glad I did. No matter what happens to Leviathan Wakes, it won’t stop me from finishing the second book. So there’s that.
by Daniel Abraham
Podcastle is trying its hand at book reviewing. Come see what we came up with.
by Ty Franck
My wife and I recently watched ‘Howl’, the 2010 release starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. We both enjoyed the movie, though in a post “So I married an Axe Murderer” world Ginsberg’s stilted beat style poetry readings can seem a little campy. Blame Mike Meyers for that.
But the court case at the center of the film got my wife and I talking about how quickly the concept of ‘obscenity’ has changed. The publisher of Howl had to go through an obscenity trial in which various ‘experts’ got on the stands to debate whether or not Ginsberg’s poem had ‘artistic merit,’ because it contained curse words and graphically sexual written imagery. And this was not in some ancient time before humans became civilized. This was 1957.
The idea that a writer might have to go to court to justify his word choices by defending his work’s artistic merit seems laughable to us now. My wife kept repeating, “why on earth are they wasting time with this stupid trial?” She literally could not conceive of a world in which government prosecutors would spend taxpayer money to put a poem on trial for using the word, “fuck.”
Thanks, Allen. Thanks, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Thanks, Judge Clayton W. Horn. I’m happy to be writing in the world you guys helped create.
by Ty Franck
io9 has a nifty bunch of videos of possible space habitats. The habitat in an asteroid video is posted next to a mention of Leviathan Wakes and Greg Bear’s book Eon. This type of asteroid habitat is very different from the cramped corridors of our much less posh stations in Leviathan Wakes, but it’s what I imagine our Belters working their way up to eventually.
Also, getting mentioned in the same breath as Greg Bear doesn’t suck.