Sarah Rees Brennan (sarahtales) wrote,
Sarah Rees Brennan

Help Me Be A Better Nerd

'Sarah,' many might say. 'I don't honestly think you need that help. It would be kind of like giving a fish swimming lessons.'

Yes, well. I have this problem. It's hard for me to talk about. I mean, sci-fi and fantasy are usually shelved together. They're called SF&F! I head for those shelves first half of the time. I see that sci-fi is imaginative and inventive and I like the idea of it! If I drove, I would brake for spaceships.

But... I think it all started with Star Wars. I'd heard about it, sure. Apparently my mother saw one of the films while pregnant with me and I kicked whenever Darth Vader spoke, which indicates that even before birth I was either a) a tireless crusader against intergalactic evil or b) instinctively sympatico with the Dark Side. You decide. I settled in front of it in my mid-teens fully prepared to like it. And I didn't. All those shots of space and space-ships, all those robots when I found people more interesting. Well, people who weren't Luke Skywalker.

It's fine, I told myself. You're okay! Everything's fine, nobody likes anything all the time!

Same thing happened with Star Trek except worse. It had much the same effect on my teenage self as the news: made me pop open a book or settle into a snooze. Doctor Who did nothing for me. (And the new series doesn't either, and I even tried Torchwood. Nothing works! Nothing helps!)

I'm talking about movies and TV shows here, of course, and I've never loved them the way I love books. So while I was disappointed, I wasn't desperate. There was sci-fi on the shelves of my home. I was sure I'd like some of it. Books had never let me down before. I popped open a Robet Heinlein book.

TEENAGE SARAH: Spaceships. Clones. Spaceships. Sexual freedom. Spaceships becoming attractive female clones to enjoy sexy freedom with older men. Older men becoming two attractive female clones to enjoy sexy freedom with themselves. Time travel employed so that older man returns to time when his mother was young and nubile, to enjoy...
TEENAGE SARAH: Oh God, my eyes.
TEENAGE SARAH: I suppose I should have seen that coming.
ADULT SARAH: And all that was just the one book, too.

In general I tend to be a bit leery of the lurve-making in fiction: I like banter, I like sexy tension, I like making out scenes. But often in books when the bam-chicka-bam music starts playing I feel a bit like I've stumbled into the author's subconscious where I am seeing private things that they enjoy, and my usual reaction is to want to gasp 'Oh God, I'm really sorry! The door was open - I'm so embarrassed - I had no idea you were into - but it's none of my business! I'm so sorry!' This is even more often the case when you can have alien ladies with bosoms in their elbows.

It wasn't just that there was, ahem, quite a bit of the Odd Lurve-Making Stuff in sci-fi. I mean, I enjoy Jacqueline Carey. On re-reads I skim through some parts to get to the political intrigue and the piracy and the fleeing from raiders, but there is no denying that fantasy has lots of potential for funny business as well. Unicorns and centaurs and giants, oh my, if you know what I'm saying, and I think you do. But in fantasy it's easier to go 'uh - that'll be sorted out with the magic, so' whereas in sci-fi there are scientific explanations.

Which brings me to the, you know. Science part. I think cloning is fascinating! But I think machines and spaceships are less so. I am probably letting down all of feminism and being a stereotypical girl here, but machines do not interest me. I am very happy computers and cars exist, but the details of how they work puzzle and bore me.

So far I've come over all Victorian and suspicious of goings-on and those new-fangled sky automobiles. But I think the issue of why I can't seem to connect with a lot of sci-fi is that these things gave me the feeling of a boys' club: the people in them often seemed like toys who were set up to be played with alongside the spaceships and the science and the sassy alien ladies.

Iain M. Banks, David Feintuch, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were all tried and they're very different writers, but in each case I felt a lot of distance between myself and the characters: their feelings and motivations, what made them tick besides all the ticking shiny gadgets. It seemed like that was what sci-fi was supposed to be about, too.

Books like Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's Wife which seemed to me pretty clearly sci-fi in that it was about, you know, a time-traveler, were shelved in literary and general fiction and I couldn't work out why, other than because they didn't think people who liked sci-fi would buy a book focusing a lot on girls and feelings. That was not the way, I got the distinct impression, sci-fi rolled.

I ended up going to SF&F shelves and then sliding a book back in place as soon as I saw it was sci-fi. I regarded the shelving of my beloved fantasy with the nasty spaceships as a cruel joke.

Served me right to find sci-fi I really loved.

A lot of the sci-fi I like is pretty new, though. A lot of it is written by women and is pretty heavy on exploring characters and their feeeeeelings. I am sorry, it is possible that I am a great big girly girl stereotype and I deserve to be hit over the head with my old Barbie dolls.

Thank you, livejournal, for telling me about Lois McMaster Bujold. I have lost count of how many people told me to read her. They were absolutely right. I thought I'd start with her fantasy because, you know, I didn't like sci-fi. I got The Curse of Chalion out of the library. A fine book! I just liked it and didn't love it, but that happens. I could see she could write, so I got the first two Vorkosigan books out, which star Cordelia Vorkosigan. This was the Vorkosigan series everyone talked about so much, right? Ho hum, I thought to myself. Spaceships. Different kinds of spaceshiply militia. People with arms for legs. I still didn't like sci-fi.

She was a very good writer though, and there were a few moments in Cordelia and Aral's courtship that struck me just enough so that I hesitated, doubted and then got out the next book, The Warrior's Apprentice.

Strange fizzy darkness descended. Several days later I awoke from a daze with my bed full of Forbidden Planet receipts and books with terrible covers and to find myself scribbling things on notepads like 'Lady Sarah Vorkosigan. Miles and Sarah Rees-Vorkosigan.' I owned three copies of The Warrior's Apprentice because it was very important that the word be spread at once.

I love Miles. He is awesome and I love him.

That scream of joy aside, I was grabbed not-quite-from-the-first by The Warrior's Apprentice. 'Oh yes,' I droned as Our Hero tried out in an Almost Hopeless But Gosh He Was Plucky Endeavour to get into The Harsh But Fair Damn It Space Academy. 'He is physically disadvantaged. All will seem lost. There will be a mean bully. But soon I - oh, wait, he just broke both his legs at the first obstacle and he's being sent to Grandma's on a rest cure. What, really? What, really? THAT IS AWESOME.'

Turns out I can bear any amount of spaceships for something that's highly, highly character-driven. Give me a hyperactive, over-shooting, nobody-noticed-that-one-time-he-was-so-drunk-because-he's-always-that-crazy, accidentally treasonous four foot tall soldier, his lazy good-natured wenching (or is he?) cousin Ivan who I love almost as much, a series of lady loves who are not evil but often career-focused or simply driven to drink by a hero who is really believably too much for some people, and psychological drama to infinity and beyond, and I will be gripped by clones and spaceships. It also helps a lot to be very funny. Don't ask me how much I paid for that copy of Miles Errant, which had to be shipped from America on top of everything. I can't tell you. I'm too ashamed.

I'd do it again.

I actually found Karin Lowachee before Lois McMaster Bujold, but I wrote her off as an anomaly. Oh, I just really loved the way the first third of her first book was in second person and was really good, you know? It was a wonderful insight into an abused character and it was even more impressive that she pulled it off on a spaceship with a silver-haired space-pirate without being in the least silly. Especially since I didn't like sci-fi.

But it was the same factors that gripped me. Psychological drama: people inside the spaceships and on the alien planets with believable, interesting inner lives and hang-ups that made them become apprentices to alien ninja grasshoppers and the seventeen year old accidental admirals of mercenary space fleets.

That's what I really love. That's what makes me really love sci-fi.

Then there's young adult. As you all know, I am a sucker for almost anything YA: there's a lot less YA sci-fi than there is YA fantasy, and since YA means 'space ships and talking ponies and Gossip Girl all get the same shelf' there's a lot more blurring of boundaries. Fantasy melts into sci-fi melts into romance melts into coming-of-age even more than is usual with adult books. (Which is part of what makes YA so much fun.) But Scott Westerfeld's Uglies and Midnighters books and M.T. Anderson's Feed (though apparently that's cyberpunk. Which seems like it should be a subset of sci-fi to me, but I am open to argument!) all have heavy sci-fi elements at least and are all very brilliant.

But if you read only one sci-fi book this year, read Lois McMaster Bujold's The Warrior's Apprentice. And if I only read one this year, what should I read?

Tags: book recommendations, book reviews, what do you read that you don't read?
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