Monthly Archives: July 2012

Hugo Nominees: What Makes a Good Scifi/Fantasy Book

I don’t try to describe the future.  I try to prevent it.

-Ray Bradbury

[Minor spoiler’s ahoy]

As I’ve already mentioned, I love science fiction and fantasy because both genres allow us to imagine different cultures and allow us to explore different social norms.  This reminds me of the sociological imagination, a concept coined by C. Wright Mills.  This is usually one of the first concepts taught to beginning sociology students.  Ultimately, we should be able to connect our life experiences to the larger social context that they are embedded in (Mills 1959).  Mills admonished his readers that people should think creatively about their own society.  I suspect that exposure to different cultures and norms in literature actually helps us evaluate our own society better.  For example, I know that reading Ursula Le Guin’s novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness, ” helped me consider gender roles and stratification in a more nuanced manner.  Her characters on the planet “Winter” do not fit into our ideas of sex, gender, sexuality, or gender roles.  Le Guin seemed to be playing with our ideas of duality of sex and gender.  This book published in 1969 helped me better understand my own society in the 21st century.

 

I love asking the question “what if?”  And I love seeing how other people ask and answer this question in their stories.  Additionally, authors can ask questions and discuss topics in science fiction and fantasy that would get them, at best, called names in our society if discussed directly and openly.  (Of course, some authors, like Salman Rushdie, have received death threats for their works of literature.  Rushie’s works are in the area of magical realism, which is a step closer to our reality than the genre of fantasy.)

 

As a child and teen, I read popular fantasy books, but it was in my mid-twenties that I discovered my love of science fiction.  I began reading Hugo winners several years ago to get a sense of past science fiction.  I found that the rampant sexism present in many of the early books made me profoundly uncomfortable, but I usually walked away from those books feeling like I had a new understanding of the world despite my discomfort.

 

For readers less familiar with sci-fi and fantasy, the Hugo award is actually a set of awards for people and art in the area of science fiction and fantasy.  I’m particularly interested in reviewing the novels this year.  In a previous post, I reviewed “Among Others” by Jo Walton, which I thought was a lovely book. I’ve also finished “Leviathan Wakes,” and “Embassytown.”  All summer, I’ve been reading George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” series, but I haven’t reached “A Dance with Dragons” yet.  Although I plan to review all types of fiction, in addition to nonfiction like sociology books, these first posts will relate to the books I read to be an informed Hugo voter.

 

As I mentioned, the books that I read were brilliant in different ways.  This has forced me to really evaluate what I think “great” literature is generally, in addition to what qualifies as the “best” science fiction and/or fantasy.  When speaking to literature in general, I prefer books have good characterization and character growth, beautiful prose, an important overarching theme, and good societal analysis.  One of my favorite classic novels is “Anna Karenina.”  In it, Tolstoy shows how the characters change over time, but he also connects their different outcomes to how embedded in their culture they are.  Do they have quality social ties?  How does this connect to suicide?  He explores gender, social class, and many other topics.  The book is also well-written, although many people critique his sections relating to the agrarian part of the society.  I found this fascinating as a person who took her comprehensive exams in work, occupations, and organizations sociology.  I’m more specific in what I hope for in my science fiction.

 

In terms of voting for the Hugo, I hoped to see a book that deeply challenges some aspect of society.  I want to be challenged in how I think about my own society.  This year, I feel that China Miéville’s, “Embassytown” does this the best of the books that I read.  I plan to write a more in-depth blog about it soon, but for now, I have to say that, at first, I was very confused.  The reader is thrown directly into the culture, and it is very different in many ways than ours.  The book explores conflict between cultures and does a more realistic job of showing how different beings from diverse planets would have a much more difficult time communicating than is normally shown in science fiction.  This book floored me, and I actually want to read it again soon.  I suppose that in science fiction, I choose challenges to society over characterization.  I felt that “Among Others” actually had better characterization in many ways.  Hopefully, as I blog about the books that I am reading, I will learn more of what I think makes good books, whether in science fiction or more broadly.

 

Questions:

(1) What is your favorite science fiction book or fantasy book?  Why?

(2) What do you think is the most important aspect of fiction for you?  What makes great fiction?

(3) Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts on what makes good, award winning science fiction and fantasy?  What do you look for?

(4)  What book do you think deserved to win the 2012 Hugo?

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Science Fiction

Coming of Age in “Among Others”: A look at Culture, Social Class, and Science Fiction

“It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.”

-Jo Walton

[Spoiler’s Ahoy: read at your own risk!]

While I planned to write my first entry on “The Marriage Plot,” I just finished a delightful book called “Among Others” by Jo Walton, which fits in perfectly with my introduction to this blog.  This novel has already won the Nebula Award for Best Novel this year and has been nominated for the Hugo.  The book enchanted me on multiple levels.  The main character, Mor, lives and breathes books.  Reading is how she spends most of her waking hours for believable reasons, and she especially loves science fiction and fantasy.  She is involved in the world of fairy and practices magic.  However, she also spends her time in the book navigating her life in boarding school, as well as her relationships with other people.  This story is a coming of age story, but it includes so much more.  She spends her childhood in Wales, and then she goes to boarding school in England.  The formatting is charming as it is the journal of the character, and it expresses her love of books.  This resonated with me, and I selected the opening quote above due to the fact that good books have been my friends, particularly during the rough patches of my life.

This character’s development illustrates the point that literature can be an important agent of socialization, changing how we think, feel, and act.  Literature, especially science fiction, also helps us critique our culture or use our “sociological imagination”.  It plays a huge role in the main character’s development as a person.  More specifically, the character is drawn to the unique societies presented in sci-fi and fantasy.  Her interactions with these ideas allow her to analyze her own culture, as well as her place in that culture.  In fact, one of the most intriguing aspects of the book to me was the look at differences between the culture she grew up in versus the culture of England.

From a sociological standpoint, this book analyzes industry, the environment, social class conflict, gender roles, power, disability, and relationships.  As a sociology instructor intrigued by the history of work and its relationship to culture, I enjoyed seeing the brief discussion of the impact of a factory on the environment, as well as how the closing of the factory impacted the local economy.  There is a great deal of social class discussion, often in covert ways.

For example, Mor journals, “Class is entirely intangible, and the way it affects things isn’t subject to scientific analysis, and it’s not supposed to be real but it’s pervasive and powerful. See; just like magic” (66).  Of course, social class is socially constructed.  However, while it isn’t “real,” it influences people lives.  I loved the comparison to magic here.  The comparison works because we believe in social class both collectively and individually.  We enact social class all the time, from evaluating people’s status symbols to noting differences in dialect and language. On the other hand, as a sociology instructor, I do believe that we can study social phenomena since social class becomes enacted in the world.  For example, we can use the scientific method to explore hypotheses relating to education level or income. The book also discusses the right use of power, whether it is in terms of magic itself or in every day society.  Also, a brief theme is money as power.

Due to the fact that the book is a coming of age story, there is discussion of both gender and sexual orientation.  I liked how Walton violated some of the traditional expectations for feminine gender roles for the resolution of her plot.

In terms of disability, I think that Jo Walton accomplished showing disability in a realistic way.  Mor’s disability influenced her life, but it was certainly not the only thing that defined her.  Finally, the book explored relationships.  Of course, in a book about a boarding school, you’d expect to see discussions of in-groups, out-groups, and bullying.  The book also covered the dynamics within a family and how families become comfortable in the way that they do things.

To conclude, this is an excellent coming of age story that also accomplishes exploring other themes.  The magic in it is lovely, too.  I feel like if I had read more diverse scifi, I would have understood it even better.  This didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the book, but I wonder how someone would experience reading it that didn’t have the familiarity with the books that the character was journaling on.  This book was magical, and I’ll be reading it again!

Recommended for lovers of: books, libraries, librarians, sci-fi and fantasy, coming of age stories, magic, fairies, family dynamics…

Questions that I’m left with:

(1) As an American, I wonder if the patterns presented in Walton’s book published in 2011 accurately reflected the people of the period and place(s)?  Also, are social class patterns similar today?

(2) How does this book contribute to the field of sci-fi and fantasy?  Will it engage a new generation of readers?

(3) With the changes in technology in the intervening years, how will libraries and librarians be impacted?

(4) How are good characters with disabilities written?  Do others think that she did a good job?

(5) General question: What coming of age stories resonated with you?  Why?

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy