Monday, 26 January 2009

mer vs. the sci-fi/fantasy genres

This is a follow-up to 'the 2009 book list' post. It started as a comment, but then I realized there was just too much I wanted to say.

I never really got into sci-fi when I was a kid, or even fantasy. I've never ever read The Chronicles of Narnia or those Madelaine Engel books. I didn't read the Lord of the Rings trilogy until before the movies came out. I never read The Chrysalids even though every single other person I've ever met seems to have read it. My sister read all of them them, I read the Little House on the Prairie books and Aldous Huxley and Carl Sagan and preferred medical thrillers and the original (twisted) versions of fairytales and historical fiction (and straight history) - I had an almost unhealthy obsession with the second world war and the Holocaust when I was in grade school.

Warning, OFFSIDE: Incidentally, I threw a FIT when my mother wouldn't let me see Schindler's List when it first came out. Granted, I was 10. When I finally saw it, I was 16 or so, and I knew that, had I seen it at ten, I would have been fine. It may have even been easier because when the film was originally released, there hadn't been another genocide. Instead of seeing it in 1993 when "Never Again" still meant something, I watched the film in 1999, well aware of how soon after its release history would repeat itself; the irony was almost too much to bear. That was almost more painful than anything in the film itself.

This was only one example of something that bugs me: adults don't give kids enough credit. If a kid wants to learn about something heavy, let them. In an age appropriate way, of course, but don't pretend like death or war or terminal illness is beyond their understanding. At least TRY to explain it to them. And don't lie: they're young, not stupid. Same deal with books, if a kid is capable of reading a certain book, he or she is probably ready to handle the consequences of what it contains. (There are of course, exceptions to every rule. For example, NO ONE under the age of thirteen should be allowed to read 'Shake Hands with the Devil' - in fact, most people under seventeen shouldn't read it either.)

Back to my point though, most of what I read was historical or political or folklore or medical. I wanted to be an ER surgeon for about a decade, and I ended up in international relations, and now I want to be a writer and a paramedic (maybe) so oddly enough, it sort of fits.

I think part of it the reason I never got into sci-fi as a kid has to do with the fact that I REPEL technology. I don't know how I'd survive without Google (I suppose I'd live in the library like my mother did...) but I have a very difficult relationship with all things non-organic.

I cried when my old laptop died, not for sentimental reasons (although I did call it my baby), but because it meant I had to learn how to use a new one. I hate cell phones. I don't drive. I still have an old film SLR camera. I don't own a TV. I've never played a video game in my life (seriously, never). And the only arcade games I ever liked were the shooting ones. I didn't see the whole Star Wars trilogy (the GOOD ones, NOT the new ones... I'm not even going to start...) until I was ten or so. I didn't see the Terminator movies until I was seventeen (at which point the evil ex* flipped and forced me to watch them) and when I did see them I appreciated the paradox more than anything else. And I actually kind of loved when my friend's father used to call me his little luddite.

*not ACTUALLY evil, just a nickname... although he was enough of a jerk to have earned the distinction

I never read much fantasy either, but for a very different reason. As I child I wrote an infinite number of silly, pointless, plotless stories. Mostly they weren't even stories, I just created these little universes in my head. Scary-elaborate universes. I was never a very good story teller because I hadn't learned how to drive plot (conflict, conflict and a more conflict) because I'm a shockingly peace-loving person who (unlike about 90% of the world, apparently) was taught the difference between discussion, debate and personal disagreement in high school.

I love the first two, and avoid the third whenever possible, but I really get into debates and I play a fairly convincing devil's advocate so people tend to think I'm incredibly argumentative - which is true, but only in the sense that I enjoy academic arguments (ie. the kind with a thesis and evidence and a logical point worth defending). I'm not a fan of the kind of arguments where people yell senselessly at one another in some sick attempt to gain the emotional upper hand. But as a little kid, I didn't really get that conflict and fighting and things going wrong were kind of what drove stories, because I just wanted everything to be lovely and happy and peaceful.

Then life bitch-slapped me with 2001 (I see 2001 almost as an entity unto itself, and no, the reasons why 2001 was, hands down, the worst year of my life have NOTHING to do with the notorious events in September, by then my life was so irreparably altered that it seemed only fitting that the international political climate should change as well. Now, I separate life into pre-2001 and post-2001).

After that I kind of started getting better at the whole 'things going wrong' part of storytelling. That's why there are very few literary prodigies: because to write well, really well, you have to know what you are talking about and most kids are so sheltered that they can't write conflict accurately. I was the same. I know it. I still think there are only a narrow spectrum of things I can write about half-decently, and that's after a good seven years of processing things.

But when I was a kid, even though I may not have been any good as a writer, I was still far too creative for my own good and that meant that when I started reading fantasy books, I lost interest pretty quickly because my own imagination took over and I got lost in it instead of in the story. So I never read a ton of fantasy either.

Ever since I decided to take writing more seriously, I've been on this children's and YA fiction kick: I know I really want to read the Narnia books, but beyond that, I have no clue where to start (other than maybe reading The Chrysalids). So, I'm taking suggestions as to what sci-fi and fantasy books (for children or adults) I ought to read. I'm going to hit up the public library later this week, so if you have suggestions, let me know before Friday.


lauren said...

I definitely think you're on the right track with the Narnia books- they were some of my favorites when I was little and I pick up on something new every time I re-read them. I also very much recommend the Time Quartet by Madeleine Engle (her other books are okay too, but those four are incredible). I'll think about other books- I really like the fantasy/sci-fi genre, but titles are escaping me at the moment.

This isn't exactly the category you're looking for, but I highly recommend anything by Gregory Maguire. He takes fairy tales and rewrites them from the antagonists point of view, but they're definitely aimed towards adults. One (Wicked) has been made into a broadway musical and is very political. My favorite book of his is "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister." And I feel as though you would enjoy Barbara Kingsolver books, especially "The Poisonwood Bible."

Let me know if you enjoy "The Chrysalids" as I've never gotten around to reading them either. =]

Susan said...

Try Robin McKinley, especially, "The Blue Sword" and "The Hero and the Crown", both usually considered YA books. Her book, "Deerskin" is a re-telling of an old French fairy tale called "Donkeyskin", and is really not for most young kids. She also has done excellent versions of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty, but not sappy versions.
I have never read anything by Guy Gavariel Kay that was not wonderful. JRR Tolkien's family had him finish "Silmarillion", which is pretty high praise. You might also try Mercedes Lackey, especially the Arrows of the Queen books.
I am in the minority, but I did not care for Gregory Maguire, but I would love to see "Wicked" on stage ( I love musicals).

lauren said...

@Susan- I like Wicked on stage much better than the book version- Wicked is actually my least favorite Maguire book but I love the stage adaption. Stylistically Maguire is kind of weird, but I love his use of historical analogy.

@Mer- I remembered another really great series- "His Dark Materials" by Phillip Pullman. Another one that I loved as a child and understand a lot more now that I'm (sort of) a grown up.

ali said...

I'm totally with you in regards to sci-fi/fantasy... I can barely handle reading it, in school, it was almost punishment for me to have to read it for class...

I did enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia however... they were really good... and the movies are actually a decent representation of the books...which pleasantly suprised me. :)

Susan said...

I am such a sci-fi geek! One of the first books I can remember falling in love with was Robert A Heinlein's "Red Planet", when I was in 3rd grade. Of course, that was the year I also read "Ivanhoe", so, go figure. I have been reading sci-fi for almost all of my life. All kinds of sci-fi, the really hard stuff with lots of technology, and others not so techno-driven. I love Elizabeth Bear, the way she uses the English language is beautiful. Plus, she writes hard sci-fi and fantasy. She can do it all!

mer said...

@ everyone - thanks for the suggestions! feel free to add to them if you think of any later.

@ lauren - I loved Wicked. I wasn't expecting it to be so political so I think I was pleasantly surprised.

@ Susan - HEINLEIN! I was trying to remember his name! I read him and some Harlan Ellison a few years ago and would have read more, but for some reason I found them a bit overwhelming (I read a lot of Jane Austen and nineteenth century classics instead that year - comfort books). I'll pick up Red Planet, and a few others you suggested. thank you! :)

Susan said...

I really like the Heinlein "juveniles" better than his "adult" stuff. Some of his other stuff got really political (Starship Troopers) or kinda kinky (Time Enough for Love). Not bad, I just think he was on a soapbox more than he was entertaining.
Spider Robinson is good and has some funny short stories in the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon books. I wanna neighborhood bar like Callahan's!

mer said...

also always meant to read some Spider Robinson. my school actually gave him an honorary degree last spring - he did the convocation address for the Arts grads. it was pretty cool.