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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?


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 14th, 2009 07:16 am (UTC)
This is an old post, but you know what? I'm gonna comment anyway.

On my list of the best scifi books I've ever read (in my admittedly limited experience) is The Man Who Never Missed by Steve Perry. It's about a man who is waging a war by himself against an overpowered and bloated government who thinks he is a guerrilla army. The characters basically run the show in the book, as the plot is very simple (and I would spoil it if I told you any more than I just did). The book pulls in politics, tactics, fights, relationships, religion, and bartending. The only downside is, it can be hard to get ahold of; my copy belonged to my dad, and he had had it for years. But if you can get it, it's well worth the effort.
Aug. 19th, 2009 03:10 pm (UTC)
you don't know me, which is very sad, but i shall comment anyway.
have you ever read "ender's game" by olson scott card? dark, but very character driven. i love sci fi, but never really got into the old stuff. also "the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" (douglas adams) is one of the funniest books i've read. and not sci fi, but his holistic detective agency books seem like something you would like. one has a reluctant rain god, which is the best thing ever. and "strangers from the sky" by margaret wander bonanno is a really great book about first contact between vulcans and humans and involves time travel. i liked it when i still hated star trek. anyway. i can't remember any more because my books are all packed away in a storage locker (alas!) and have been for a year, and i can't remember stuff i can't see.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 19th, 2010 11:58 pm (UTC)
i didn't like his others either, but "ender's shadow" i liked. it's about bean, and a lot like ender's game. ender's game is one of my favorite books. maybe even in my top ten, and i like a lot of books!
Sep. 16th, 2009 04:52 pm (UTC)
Ursula K Le Guin! Read "The Left Hand of Darkness"--it's about this Terran guy who goes to a new planet as an envoy from the Ekumen (kind of like the Federation in Star Trek, except that it's not militarily regimented, it's more like an economic/trading alliance, but it doesn't really matter that much cause the story is really about the two main characters, and...stuff), and it's kind of a disorienting experience for him because 1) it's friggin COLD and 2) the inhabitants of the planets are all latent hermaphrodites. So there's no gender. The envoy--Genly Ai--is considered a freak of nature, because he's always male, instead of just sometimes male. They don't believe that he's an alien. And then there's a lot of drama with one of the hermaphrodite people, this exiled noble type person, Estraven, who is an awesome character.

And Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" is a really good piece of feminist literature buried inside a scifi novel. Extremely depressing in places, but also satirical and funny at times. It's a beautiful book.

I second the above Theodore Sturgeon recommendation, although I'm not sure if it fits your explanation of what you would like. Sometimes his stories become more concept-driven than character-driven.

A book I read recently, that really impressed me: "The Gone-Away World" by Nick Harkaway. Oh my god. It's HILARIOUS. And there's some awesome martial arts writing, and a cross-dressing magician traveling with a group of mimes, and crazy government conspiracies, and excellent quotes. Also, it's set in a post-apocalyptic world, where fallout becomes half-formed, often dangerous, manifestations of nightmares. The main character is a truck driver, secret ops war veteran, former student agitator, ninja fighter, and one of the last scions of the School of the Voiceless Dragon. It's long, well-written, and has very satisfying characterization and plot resolution. IT'S AMAZING READ IT NOW.
Sep. 16th, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)
Oh, and go see District 9. Best scifi movie I've seen in ages.
Nov. 30th, 2009 02:24 pm (UTC)

I don't generally like SF but, I've found that I really quite like Space Operas. Had no idea what they were called before my SF-fan housemate explained it to me. It focuses less on the science and more on the people. The only ones I can remember off the top of my head are Mike Shepherd's Kris Longknife books and Simon R. Green's Deathstalker books.

The Kris Longknife series is my One True Love in SF. Great characters, moments of hilarity, and some truly ridiculous gadgets make them really fun to read. Simon R. Green's books are ALL disturbing, I love his Nightside(Dark(Macabre)Urban Fantasy) books the most, but he hasn't yet written something I didn't like. Before reading any of his books, I must warn you, his characters all have flaws, rarely have morals, do truly disturbing things, never reveal their secrets(or secret weapons), and no beloved childhood experience is spared Green's warped sense of humour.

They may not be your thing but, I really do encourage you to read them. They are well worth it.

Hope this is helpful.
Feb. 10th, 2010 03:44 am (UTC)
You mentioned Scott Westerfeld's Uglies and Midnighters serieses? Did you know he also wrote a scifi duet earlier in his career? The Risen Empire/Killing of Worlds are written with the same quality that the rest of his books have, and the characters are people I can associate with and understand perfectly, even though they're two thousand years away. The plot is complicated, and I am definitely not an aspiring author, so I won't try to summarize here. I strongly encourage you to read them!
Sep. 2nd, 2010 08:29 am (UTC)
So this post is really, really old, but I'm commenting here anyway to say thank you. I picked up "Cordelia's Honour" and "Young Miles" the other week, remembering your reccommendation. I went back and bought the rest of the books two days later.
So thank you so much for the rec, otherwise I would never have discovered my new favourite sci-fi author.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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