And you’ll find yourself standing beside people you don’t know listening to people you don’t like and one of them will call someone else “straight-edge” and there will be this silence before someone else asks how anyone could possibly quit drinking, and the original speaker will backtrack and say, “She still drinks, she just doesn’t get black-out drunk anymore. Same thing.” And you’ll wonder how long it’ll be before your friends show up and you can say goodbye to them, because you’ll have discovered once again that you should have stayed home.
After that it was a quick slide into dangerous work, into moving away and being moved. It was a quick switch painless and unnoticeable. One day the world was wide open, full of endless possibilities. The next she knew it had passed and left her behind. Left her behind wandering without any hope of reaching any place she might make into a home. Her promise and potential gone – eroded away one burn after the other. Each layer stripped away until she had nothing left but a dubious talent that was guaranteed to either kill her or drive her to sand and translation. A long series of compromises and retreats. Episodes of loss, pushed down point by point. Concessions taken. Concessions given. You start to see signs and there’s no way back no matter how hard you search. You’re already on it, losing yourself, losing your way, retreating from where you believed you should have been. But even then you have to wonder if maybe you were wrong to begin with.
You can probably spare yourself a lot of trouble when you join a community by determining as soon as possible what kind of community you’ve joined. I can think of three types of communities and each has their value, but each also breaks in a way peculiar to itself.*
Community of Interests: “You like dinosaurs. I like dinosaurs. Let’s form a dinosaur club!”
This is probably the most common type of community, and you’d probably think it wouldn’t suffer from any problems, but there’s always going to be that asshole judging your love of dinosaurs and whether it’s “correct” or not, so when the gatekeepers exceed the members and every week brings a new test of devotion, you can be certain this community is sliding into dysfunction.
Community of Purposes: “You like dinosaurs! I like dinosaurs… and have access to cloning technology and an intact velociraptor genome! Let’s make dinosaurs!”
Beyond the shared interest, this community has an agenda it hopes to implement. It wants to do a thing, and everyone’s on-board to do it. Solidarity and intention become more important than interest. Often this type of community and the one above will exist within one community with members pushing it one way or the other. Of course when this one breaks, the assholes come out to test your devotion to the cause and see if you’re really about cloning woolly mammoths or are just so much talk.
Community of Circumstances: This is the community for people circumstance has thrown together. English teachers in South Korea, Pakistani Law Students at the University of Wisconsin, etc. Normally these people would have nothing to do with each other, but circumstance has thrown them together and so they’re now part of community. On the plus side, they meet people outside their comfort zone and become friends with them. On the downside once the circumstances change, people move on without looking back.
* Barring active trolls who delight in destroying/undermining communities.
One thing I hate in readers is a lack of curiosity. Often times folks devoted to a genre whine loudest about not having anything to read, when actually, if they just moved their heads a little in any direction, they’d find something great. Kindles have done away with that, although I’m not sure they’ve done much to improve reader curiosity. If anything Kindles have managed to speed everyone’s descent into a bottomless pit of their own choosing, only now that descent’s fueled by Amazon’s algorithm.
An illustrative anecdote: a month or so back I gave away some books to a friend. One of them I thought was awful and told my friend as much. A week or so later he told me he’d read the book, agreed it was awful, and “the next seven books in the series were just as bad”.
Now this lack of curiosity might not be the biggest problem in genre. But I’d hazard a guess that it could be the keystone problem all the other problems trickle out from. Again the solution is simple: move your head a little in any direction. You will find something better.
A while back I read this post by E. Catherine Tobler called “The Women We Don’t See”. It starts with an anecdote from a friend of hers who realized he hadn’t read a book by a woman in two years. And he was okay with that. A more recent while back, the writer K. T. Bradford challenged readers to quit reading white men for a year. I didn’t opt on the challenge, but I wasn’t incensed by the suggestion. If anything, both posts can simply be read as reminders to maybe think two minutes longer before picking up your next book to read. Even looking at the suggested books outlined in Bradford’s post, she’s only listing twelve books. One a month. You can’t read one book a month by a non-Anglo and/or non-dude writer. Seriously?
There are two big reasons authors get forgotten (beyond the fact that they might suck). The first is the author wrote only the one genre book, and that one was usually early in their career. Fred Chappell’s Dagon and Frederick Turner’s Double Shadow both fit this description (although Chappell has returned to genre at times).
The other reason books get forgotten is because they either exist outside a genre or within a genre that in part hopes to reject them. Despite the history and tradition of women and non-Anglo authors writing SFF, it’s certainly not part of the institutional memory yet. Not when an author can be asked to recommend books to readers and come up with nothing better than the equivalent of Led Zeppelin. This is also why I’m probably only hearing about Doris Piserchia this year. It’s probably also why Joanna Russ gets read like she’s an inoculation against feminism. And why a comment Margaret Atwood made years ago still gets trotted out against her.
All of which is to say show a little curiosity. Take the extra minute and change up your reading diet a bit.
Yeah, I hate that analogy too. It suggests I’m writing all this to extol the salubrious effects of reading certain books, like Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a bit of broccoli on your plate, and you should read it because vitamins, instead of the real reason, which is it’s a great science-fiction book with a moral dilemma at its heart that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who knows what the prime directive is.
And in case you need a place to start, here’s a link to SF Mistressworks. Go crazy.
Intestinal Parasite Bildungsroman
The Epic Mundane
Grimdark Judy Blume
Fan Fiction for Famous Mathematical Equations
“-gasm”: wherever you see the suffix “-punk” now, you’ll see “-gasm” in the future: Mythgasm, Cybergasm, Steamgasm, etc.
Lord of the Sweet Valley Highs
The Genre Adjacent
TV Trope Twister
Noirnoir, Neo-noirnoir, and Revisionist Neo-noirnoir
Real Estate Agents of Dune
The Future Needs Grandpa
Wait For the Cable TV Series
Pooh Corner Slash
Mod, Mod-Mod, Ultra Mod, and Incomprehensible Gibberish
Two-Fisted Tales of Engineering in Space
I should be working on my thesis. Instead I’m doing something else. What am I doing? Take your pick!
1. I’m reading a book. Look at my to read pile. LOOK AT IT! These books aren’t going to read themselves! And if I don’t, who will!?!
2. I’m totally building the setting for that 5e campaign I was talking about in the coffee shop last week. The sword and sorcery one where the only classes available to players are Barbarian, Bard, Monk, Paladin, and Warlock; and the only playable races are Human, Dragonborn, and Tiefling (and they have to roll for random mutations). I might even be working on the map!
3. That novel I’ve been fiddling on for the past two years or so. The one that’s now like <i>Jane Eyre</i> meets <i>True Grit</i> on <i>Dune</i> with Mr Rochester as a sandworm! Yeah, I’m totally working on that.
4. Or if not, that than one of the dozen or so short stories I’ve written over the past year, but are still in the scrawled in crayons on recycled paper stage. I put them in a folder and everything! So like I’ll totally get to them… some time… and why not now, when they make very effective procrastination devices against writing my thesis paper?
5. Or, maybe, I’m actually working on my thesis and weeping, because I’m screwed.
A Gothic tales of Victorian real estate… which means there’s murder, blackmail, and at least one mentally maladjusted relative wandering around the estate like a ghost.
I have to admit to being the type of person that’s skeptical of popular books unless they’re over a hundred years old. I have no patience for the page turning genre bullshit of today, but give me some Karl May novel or a forgotten “sensation novel”, and I’m there. Maybe I should approach contemporary page-turners in the same way, because it’s fun to breeze through a book, scanning pages, snidely commenting on how awful it all is – there’s a 1st person narrator in this book, but only for a third of it, yet he knows everything! How!?! WHY!?! No explanation – Wylder’s Hand is awful, but for a good bit it’s deliciously awful. The problem being that it then becomes awful again.
At the end you realize the plot could have been solved by the two heroines moving to Switzerland and becoming lesbians sooner. At least they were one of the two couples in the book that showed any affection for each other. The other was the Vicar and his wife, but their relations were so insipidly treacle-laden that I needed an insulin shot just to get through their chapters of endless, “Wha’does’wittle’wapsie’tink’I’should’do’boo’?” It was horrible.
But, geez, what a great cover – and for all the rage-reading I ended up doing at the end, skimming vast swaths of the book because it was written like this, “The cart road leading down to Redman’s Dell and passing the mill near Redman’s Farm diverges from the footpath with which we are so well acquainted, near that perpendicular block of stone which stands a little above the steps which the footpath here descends…” I have to admit I want to read another one of these great, clunky, shittily-written beasts of a Gothic novel. But if you want to read Le Fanu, don’t start here. Find a copy of In A Glass Darkly. It’s the better book by far.