Unexpected Speculative Fiction Tangent

25 November 2002

Yesterday started out pretty good and plummeted downhill from there, more or less. Mark and I enjoyed the Palestrina mass and the bianca mocha at Karalee's favorite Berkeley café (although I still like genuine chocolate in mine) and the food at her and John's Mediterranean place, and we were getting on BART, and all was well. And then I started feeling nasty. Really nasty. You don't need to know the gory details, but it involved getting off the train in San Leandro for awhile to see if I could remedy the situation in some fashion. Not good.

So we got home around 4:00, and I was feeling bad, and we found that Timprov was feeling bad, too. We managed to get a bit of food in him before he went to sleep, and he ate breakfast this morning, so we're hoping Dr. Bill can break some part of a vicious cycle this morning. We'll see.

It was just blecchy.

I read Paul Hazel's Yearwood on the train, recommended by The Other Mark. When we got to Berkeley, I was still in the part where it was reading like a fairly standard Celtic mythology fantasy with some Arthurian influences. So when Karalee noticed what I was reading and said she'd found that author's works decidedly strange, I thought, well, maybe she doesn't read a lot of that subgenre. Nope, she was right. It got pretty cool-weird towards the end.

The thing is, though, a lot of it is fairly standard Celtic mythology fantasy (a few Norse influences as well). Even though Hazel takes it and goes running into left field, he's still playing the same game. You have to get through the infield to get to left, to extend the metaphor a bit farther than it ought to go. So if someone really didn't like some parts of this type of book, it might be an okay recommendation, but for people who are in love with the standard in that subgenre, maybe not, and for people who hate the whole subgenre, also no. It's not a very widely recommendable book, is what I'm saying, despite the fact that it's interesting and fairly well-done.

We have to deal with recommendation issues a lot, we speculative fiction writers. There's a certain group of people who will say that they don't like fantasy because elves are overdone, so then okay, you give them an elfless fantasy novel. It's not hard to find one. (Heh. Especially not in this apartment.) If they don't like science fiction because they have no interest in rocket ships, your options are also pretty broad. But if they don't like fantasy because they just don't like books that postulate the impossible or at least the improbable in a magical format, you're a little more stuck on recommendations. Problem is, not everybody can put their finger on why they don't like a genre. So recommending is tough in that regard.

I'm compiling a sort of mental flow chart: if someone "doesn't like fantasy" because they've tried Dragonlance and that's it, then give them this; if they "don't like fantasy" because they read too much high fantasy and are sick of the everlasting swords and elves, give them that. And so on. I'm also trying to figure out how to know who just doesn't like a genre. My grandmother, for example, will never be a fantasy fan. She'll never be a science fiction fan. It is just not her thing. It doesn't have to be. I don't have to like Christian historical romances, either. That's all right.

I have to admit to a certain default level of speculative evangelism, though. Because this is my job, because this is a primary way that I go around exploring ideas and expressing myself, it's very hard not to hear "I don't want to hear what you think" when people say "I don't like fantasy" or "I don't like S.F." (Oh, sorry. Nobody ever says, "I don't like S.F." "I don't like scifi," then.) And I know that's not what they mean, they mean, "this format puts me off, please express your ideas in some other way if you want to share them with me." (Well, some of them. Some of them just don't want to hear it. That's fine, too, I guess, as long as we don't have to deal with each other a lot.)

But I really do think speculative fiction is a good thing. It's not just that it's my job. It's that I think it's good for the brain to sit down and ask what if, to draw out the what-if, and even to sit and pick at it, geekily. In that last sense, I think even bad speculative fiction can be a good thing, because you can take it somewhere better, or you can see where it falls apart, and that's good to know, too.

Reading spec fic makes wacky questions into normal questions. I think the rest of geek culture follows the lead of spec fic readers here. All of the what-if's, all of the how-could-we's, those are sensible, sane questions to be asking, to anyone who reads spec fic. Specific readers may have less interesting or thoughtful answers than other readers, but the questions are still familiar, the idea of questions like that is still familiar. We need to have wacky questions turned into normal questions, because it's going to happen over and over again in the course of our lives. The future will be surprising no matter what direction it takes. Surprising doesn't have to be the same thing as shocking or paralyzing. Spec fic isn't the only way to help with that, but it's a good one.

People have said this before me, and they've said it more eloquently than I have here. But I believe in it, too, and I've been thinking about it lately, talking to people who do and don't read in the genres I love.

I think it's also come up because I'm reading more non-speculative stuff than I was for awhile. For awhile, I was reading things for classes, or I was reading something speculative. That was pretty much it. Now I read for research, but I also read all kinds of genres for pleasure. I joke that that's because I'll run out of speculative stuff too fast if I keep reading it exclusively, but that's not all of why I do it. I enjoy some mysteries now, some historical, some straight-up fiction, some nonfiction...just stuff. Books. I like them. But just as moving out here has pointed out that yes, there are good things to do out here, places to go, people to enjoy, reading more outside my "home" genre has given me more of a sense of what I appreciate about it as distinct from other genres.

That may be part of my response when people blur the lines between genres and try to tell me that something is speculative when I can't find any elements or themes that seem speculative. Thing is, I enjoy books and stories with those themes and elements differently than I enjoy books and stories without them. It's not that I decided that there's a difference and am determined to go with it. It's that I experience a difference every time I read. And I think while I enjoy specific speculative books for plot, character, setting, and/or theme, I enjoy the genre for the ideas, the ideas, the ideas.

I'm not sure how I got off on that tangent. I had no intentions of it when I started out, I assure you.

After I was done with Yearwood, I read a bit of The Philadelphia Adventure, as I was not at all up for anything angsty, and Lloyd Alexander's Vesper Holly may be the least angsty heroine I have ever read. And I haven't read this one in ages, so it's fresh to me. I never owned it, so I didn't get to read it into familiarity like the others. It's good.

So, as I said, feeling somewhat better. The agenda for the day includes a visit to the chiropractor, a trip to get Christmas cards and good paper for Mark's applications, and a trip to the post orifice. I have to get stamps, for one thing, but for another thing, I have to send Dan Savage his book back. See, he asked to quote one of my essays in it, and I said sure, so he sent me a copy out of courtesy. But he sent me the wrong copy, and this one is signed to a friend of his who's having tough times, so back it goes. Oops. (I'm also quoted as Marissa K. Kingen. Oops.) You know, if I had writing quoted in just about any other book, I'd tell my grandma about it. But it's Dan Savage, and...well, I think Grandma is happier without it. (The bit he's quoting me on is from an essay about how DARE didn't work at all. Grandma and I already had our pot legalization conversation for the year -- we don't need another.)

This entry has got a lot of stuff about Grandma's and my differences in it, which is kind of weird, because Grandma and I get along great. We don't have to agree on books or U.S. drug policy or anything like that, especially since we can talk coherently and respectfully to each other about them when we choose to. And especially since we do agree on many other things.

My parents got to go to the Eighth Floor Auditorium at Dayton's-I-Mean-Marshall-Field's last weekend. I am so jealous. There's no way I'm going to get to do that. Even if I manage a grand Midwestern tour, just no way. It had gingerbread bears at the end, I bet. Here, we have no gingerbread bears. And I feel the lack.

Okay, I'm starting to free associate on gingerbread bears, and I think that's a good sign that it's time for me to finish reading the paper, work a little, and head out for Dr. Bill's. Have a good Monday.

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