Sunday, July 24, 2011

I am powerless to resist your marketing-fu (also: Zoo City)

Why no post last week? Thank you for asking! The boring reason is that I was flat out busy, but the marginally more interesting reason was that I was reading outside the genre. I did briefly consider putting together a post about the ways in which The Plague [1947] by Albert Camus is a science fiction novel. I think you could make a fairly convincing argument, but I'm not sure if there's anything to be learned from it. Maybe I'll keep that one in my back pocket for later.

I was reading the Popular Penguins version of The Plague. This series has really plain covers, and is printed on low-quality paper, but the books are very cheap (by Australian standards). That got me thinking about marketing. I do about half of my book shopping online, and half in bookstores (high five, Minotaur in Melbourne, and Galaxy Bookshop in Sydney!). Mostly I go looking for particular things, but I do sometimes browse, in the interests of broadening my horizons a little. So what makes me grab a book off the bookshelf, and what tips me over into buying it?

For a start, I am completely powerless to resist picking up a book with a Stephan Martiniere cover. I don't always buy it (in fact, sometimes I think to myself "oh-ho-ho no, you're not going to trick me so easily!"), but I'm sure I read somewhere that the odds of a book purchase increase dramatically if the book is lifted off the shelf.

Once I've picked it up, though, I'm really not sure what tips me over into the purchase. I basically ignore cover quotes, unless they're written by somebody whose work I really (really) like. And honestly, blurbs rarely make a book sound good. A lot of the time they make it sound like a collection of badly glommed-together cliches.

Which brings me, I suppose, to gimmicks. I've recently picked up a few books published by Angry Robot Books: Zoo City [2010] by Lauren Beukes, Servant of the Underworld [2010], and Harbinger of the Storm [2011], both by Aliette de Bodard. I've noticed they have this little box on the top right of their back covers, entitled "FILE UNDER". It lists the genre (Zoo City: urban fantasy, Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm: fantasy), and four little dot points about things in the book. It's hard to explain, so I'll just provide the lists for the two books: 

Servant of the Underworld: Aztec mystery, locked room, human sacrifice, the dead walk! 

Harbinger of the Storm: Aztec mystery, nation in chaos, magical overlord, flesh-eating demons! 

Zoo City: gangster shamen, symbiotic familiars, teen star missing, everything breaks.

I'm very willing to concede that I'm a total sucker, but I think this is marketing genius. Any one of those phrases would probably make me think "hey, that sounds kind of cool". Put four of them in a list like that, and I just have to know how the author is going to make them fit together. Even when, if I think about it objectively, the phrases mostly seem pretty cheesy ("everything breaks"?!). It wouldn't particularly surprise me if lots of readers of science fiction and fantasy responded the same way; I think we're often quite susceptible to the cool-sounding hook.

We'll see how I go, but I may come back and say a few words about Zoo City, which I finished off a few weeks ago. It's been getting a lot of good press -- for a start, it won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. The short version of my review is this: if you like urban fantasy, even just a bit, you should read it. It's got all the things you like in that (sub-)genre, including a tough, smart protagonist with an excellent name. The setting -- largely, the slums of South Africa -- is engagingly different, and Beukes' crisp, somewhat journalistic writing style lends the whole thing an air of believability that urban fantasy often lacks. This doesn't read like a television show or movie, it reads like real life.

Strangely, the "FILE UNDER" list for Zoo City differs between my copy of the book and the Angry Robot website. On the website, it reads: black magic noir, pale crocodile, spirit guardians, lost stars. Having now read the book, I actually like that list better, although it does perhaps seem a little more genre-heavy than the one that appeared in print. "Pale crocodile", while completely appropriate, is a particularly interesting choice. I'd love to speak to the person who picked that one, and ask her why.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Woah, woah, we're half way there

Remember January? Everything was a different shape then. My terribly short career as a geophysicist was just coming to an end, and I lived in a different city to the one I live in now. Crazy times. It's totally fair enough, then, if you've forgotten that I posted in January about wanting to read more novel-length genre fiction written by women. I had noticed, you see, that my bookshelves were completely dominated by men, and I couldn't think of any good reason why that should be the case.

I've no idea what caused that gender imbalance in my reading, which I suppose means that unconscious bias was a very real possibility. So, I figured that maybe if I made an effort to hunt out genre fiction written by women I could train myself out of a bad habit. The year is half over now, and I thought it might be interesting to reflect on how that's all worked out so far.

Here's the short version: great!

The longer version is a bit trickier. In fact, I've been trying for a little while to work out what to say in this post that isn't just a statement of the screamingly obvious. The task (summarise my feelings on the genre fiction written by women that I read this year) sort of invites me to make generalisations ("genre fiction written by women is like this…" or "genre fiction written by women differs from genre fiction written by men in these ways…").

But the books written by women I've read this year include hard SF, sociological SF, a time travel comedy, high fantasy, urban fantasy, space opera, and a zombie thriller. All sorts of stuff. Just about the only generalisation I feel I can make is that the instance of female protagonists is higher than you'd find in a random sampling of genre fiction I've read over the last few years. That's not a particularly insightful observation, though, and anyway I think we can all agree that more female protagonists can only be a good thing.

I feel like everything I (should?) need to say is contained in the following: I've read thirteen novels this year. One was kind of crappy, three were solidly average, and I really enjoyed the remaining nine. Ten of them were written by women. Three of them -- To Say Nothing of the Dog [1997] by Connie Willis, Slow River [1995] by Nicola Griffith, and The Dervish House [2010] by Ian McDonald -- were fantastic, and I'd recommend them enthusiastically even to people who don't typically read SF.

Has this exercise changed my reading (and purchasing) habits? I suppose time will tell, but I suspect (and hope) the answer is a resounding yes. If nothing else, two authors have been added to my automatic-purchase list: Elizabeth Bear and N. K. Jemisin. I'm very keen to read more by Nicola Griffith, Lauren Beukes and Nancy Kress. And soon I'm going to have to make a difficult decision: do I read Justina Robson's Natural History [2003] or Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang [1992] next?

So there you have it. If there's a lesson in my experience so far this year, it's that there's a lot of great genre fiction being written by women, and we should all be reading and talking about it. And surely that's as obvious as something that's very obvious indeed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On the other hand...

Last time, I was talking about my love for stories that are dense with ideas. I said, amongst other things, this:
There is joy in a tightly focussed story, which explores a small number (one?) of characters, or a situation, or a single idea in depth. But those aren't the stories that make me want to rush out and write.
And that immediately made me think of Cosmicomics [1965, 1968 in English] by Italo Calvino. It's a book of short stories, each based around a single piece of science, and I think they're the very definition of charming. They may not make me want to write, but they do make me want to hug myself happily and smile at strangers.

If you've never read Cosmicomics, I really think you should.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

You, ma'am, are an inspiration

Sometimes I get this itchy, unsettled feeling. I have trouble sleeping, and I find it difficult to focus on any task that requires my full attention (in other words: I suck at my job for a little while). This is a sure-fire sign that I've been neglecting my imagination, and I need to make something, as soon as possible. Playing around with Lego helps, but something more substantial -- a comic or a story -- is much better.

I also sometimes get this feeling when I'm reading. Particular books bring it on. It's happening right now, with Chill [2010] by Elizabeth Bear. Which isn't a big surprise; I got the feeling when I was reading Dust [2007], the previous book in the series, too. This time, though, I've been thinking about what it is specifically that Chill is doing that inspires me to want to make something.

Maybe you haven't read Chill, so here are some other books that did the same thing for me, in the hope that you'll be familiar with one or two of them: The Dervish House [2010] by Ian McDonald, The Scar [2002] by China Mieville, Singularity Sky [2003] by Charles Stross, The Diamond Age [1995] by Neal Stephenson, and METAtropolis [2008] edited by John Scalzi, with stories by Scalzi, Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder and Tobias Buckell.

I think it might be density of ideas. Reading each of those books (well, I listened to METAtropolis) I felt like I was running to keep up with a huge array of concepts, or characters, and all of their implications and connections and complex interactions. I like that feeling. It's a sort of breathless excitement, like the whole edifice requires my focussed attention, otherwise it will rush ahead without me and I'll stop understanding what's happening. Or maybe it isn't that, maybe it's that those books are so crammed full of ideas that I want to chase after every one of them, even when the narrative is driving me in a particular direction.

There is joy in a tightly focussed story, which explores a small number (one?) of characters, or a situation, or a single idea in depth. But those aren't the stories that make me want to rush out and write. I wonder if this sort of idea-dense writing is a carefully cultivated style for those writers, or if it just seems natural to them to throw so much stuff in? How hard is it to keep everything under control? I remember the first Ian McDonald novel I read, Necroville [1994], just left me confused, and no other book by Charles Stross has excited me quite the same way as Singularity Sky did (although I've liked a number of them a lot).

So have you read any of the books in my little list up there? Can you see connections that I've completely missed? And (this is my favourite question) can you recommend books that you think might give me this feeling again?