SFF Readership Data Challenges

I had a really satisfying conversation with my sister earlier this week. She told me she’d been on a real dystopian literature kick in the last year, that her favorite books currently include The Hunger Games, Never Let Me Go, and The Handmaid’s Tale.

I told her she was a science fiction reader. “Really? Just because they’re set in the future?” It’s more complicated than that, but the brief version is that I explained dystopias were just her preferred subgenre within sf.

That my sister has never thought of herself as a science fiction reader, and yet clearly – to me – is one exemplifies one of the many problems in trying to survey just what kinds of humans are reading genre. Farah Mendlesohn, in The Intergalactic Playground, made her readership survey feasible by focusing on those who 1. Self-identify as science fiction readers and 2. Filled out her survey.

We really do need more data about who reads genre fiction, because so many central discussion of how to present it center around just who it is who’s reading it. Who the market is. How large a percentage of readers are women.

D.H. Rowan is adding to that data through a survey  posted today, on “Female:Male Readership of SF/F, UF, PNR”. You can see some of the problems with it already just in the title. The subgenres it focuses on – Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance – are those known to have a larger female readership than most of, say, science fiction. There are more methodological problems with the survey itself: it only allows for a binary choice between male and female, for example. It assumes that Urban Fantasy and PNR are subgenres which have been around for decades, long enough that it would have been possible to start and stop reading one or both decades ago. It focuses on age ranges rather than how long ago a given interaction with genre occurred.

And yet – I still think you should go fill it out. It’s a short poll. It won’t take long. And so long as any analysis of the resulting dataset is conscious of these limitations, it’ll still add to the data we have about what kinds of people read what kinds of SFF – and whether or not those people are being adequately represented at conventions*, among other places.

* See also Sophia McDougall on the SFX Weekender and the Nudes in the Metropolitan Gallery.

Reading it Right

An interesting post by Gord Sellar, about reading Adam Roberts’ On:

I was always so puzzled about my response to Roberts’ work. After all: I wanted good characterization. I wanted lovely, stylish prose. I wanted some intellectual challenges, and some philosophical dilemmas to wrestle with. Roberts had all of these things in spades. How come I always emerged from his novels finding myself so very frustrated, or at the least so very uneasy?

Well, a good part of it — not all of it, but a good part of it — has to do with the insistences and expectations I was bringing to his work. It was, in large part, because of how I was reading him.
[…]
On reading Puchalsky’s review [of Splinter], I was reminded of how compelling a storyteller I’ve always found Roberts despite the things I haven’t liked about his books — of his wonderful style and distinct imagination — and so I decided to pick up On, and then while reading it simply to step out of the way and let Roberts tell me the story he wanted to tell, with the nuances he wanted to polish and shine.

This is, of course, easier said than done, possibly for Adam Roberts more than many writers; I’m reminded of Farah Mendlesohn’s comments in her book about Diana Wynne Jones to the effect that the first generation of Jones-readers had to learn how to read those books, how to get the most out of them, because they weren’t quite like other books that were being published. Sellar’s post makes me want to revisit On, which I didn’t much like at the time, to see whether my perception that Roberts has improved over the past decade is accurate, or whether I’ve just got better at approaching his work in a useful way. More generally, the ability to approach a text openly (or, as Alvaro mentioned the other day, recognising when you’re not) is such a desireable skill, I think, both in terms of critical technique and simply in terms of reading pleasure. This is not to suggest that all books are good if you approach them from the right perspective; what I mean is, there’s pleasure in recognising and appreciating how many different ways there are to do fiction.

Reading List

I’m attending this year’s SFF Masterclass (for which there are a few places left, apparently, so you can still apply), and just received the reading list from this year’s tutors. Last time I attended, I managed to blog some of the reading; this time around I’m going to try to be a bit more ambitious, in part because, with only five weeks to go, putting a schedule up here is (I hope) going to keep me focused. Feel free to read along at home! Short Story Club fans will notice that there’s some short fiction in the mix although not, alas, much that’s readily available online.

The schedule, then:

And as much of the rest of Seven Beauties as I can fit in. [Note: I haven’t been able to keep to the original schedule, but I’m still adding links as I go…]

Endings

Paul Kincaid’s review of Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth, at Strange Horizons yesterday, reminds me that I never did get around to posting about it, and that what I wanted to say about it chimes with some other half-thoughts I’ve been having about other recent reads, specifically about endings. For obvious reasons, we don’t talk about endings much; I’m going to try to get around the reasons here by sticking to talk about kinds of endings. Cold Earth first. It’s presented as letters home by the members of an archaeological dig in Greenland, written partly as diary or catharsis, and mostly because they lose contact with the rest of the world, but the last news they heard is that a new virus appears to be developing into a pandemic. Paul reads the book as being about the end of the world, as an exercise in the inevitability of the end of the world, which leads him to feel somewhat frustrated by the final chapter, and even uncertain about the apparent escape it offers: is it real? If so, it seems somewhat consolatory, or avoidant. Is it a dream? If so, it seems a betrayal of the book’s principles. For me, however, Cold Earth isn’t about inevitability so much as it it’s about exactly that uncertainty: is the world ending, or not? Are the characters being haunted, or not? Will they die, or live? In the baldest possible terms: what sort of story is being told here? And so for me, the closing chapter is a clever sort of imperfect cadence; it offers us resolution as a challenge to what we might have wanted, and (if we have decided what story is being told before we got there) what we expected.

Scarlett Thomas’ new book, Our Tragic Universe, plays a similar game more self-consciously. Its protagonist is a young author struggling to write a “real” novel, and meantimes making ends meet (just about) by writing genre fiction and reviewing weird and wonderful non-fiction books for a national newspaper. The first book she’s reading for review in the novel is a sort of new-age take on the Omega Point, the idea that we are probably living in a simulation of the universe at the end of time, which argues that this makes all sorts of things possible. Aha, we think, particularly (and, I am sure, deliberately) if we have read The End of Mr Y, which featured another book that purported to explain the nature of reality and was proved correct, and we sit back and wait for the fantastic to intrude into the story. But Thomas plays with us all the way through, not so much refusing to indulge us as refusing to tell us whether we have been indulged, whether or not certain improbabilities that dot the narrative are magical (or science fictional) in origin. (I have the impression that Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City plays a similar game: has anyone read it?) I have to admit, I admire the bloody-mindedness of Our Tragic Universe, its ability to pre-empty my every response and its refusal to confirm or deny anything, even as I find what I take to be the book’s ultimate argument – that art is a tool to enable us to resist narratives that get imposed on life – to be delivered with just a touch too much satisfaction. But even there I am anticipated, with one character claiming that what gives a story coherence is that it has an argument, or stakes out a position about the world, and that it doesn’t matter so much whether that position is true.

Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion, which I’m trying to write a proper review of for elsewhere, seems to me to similarly be about seeking a way to say something authentic in a world where story has been commodified and worn-out (this would be opposed to Elizbeth Hand’s take, that it’s “an elegy for … the passing of the power of the word, written and spoken”, in that ultimately I think it asserts the word’s continued power). Interestingly, compared to Our Tragic Universe, it never holds out any mystery about its ending. We know from the start where the narrator is (in a zeppelin that may or may not be powered by a perpetual motion, flying above a retro-futuristic metropolis), and in broad terms why he has ended up there. The book then records the narrator’s life story, and how it has been shaped by others. This means there are two key differences to Thomas – one, an explicitly fantastic setting, and two, a clearer focus on the process of finding a voice, finding a way to resist narrative – and I think those differences are why the book works better for me. Or, perhaps, not works better – since I think Our Tragic Universe achieves what it sets out to do, in terms of conflating the impulse towards story and the impulse towards the fnatastic – but why I prefer it. Palmer’s novel is no less self-conscious a work, nor any less playful (for certain, somewhat arch values of playful), but it feels perhaps less hesitant, more committed to its argument about the world. Of course, hesitance may also be a part of Thomas’ argument.

And last but not least there’s Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men, the conclusion of the trilogy started by The Knife of Never Letting Go and continued in The Ask & The Answer. This is a very different book to the other three in some ways, being a headlong narrative that isn’t in the least concerned with its existence as narrative, building towards an ending that we are not necessarily supposed to anticipate in the way that, I’d suggest, we’re asked to anticipate the other three. On the other hand, like every other story it is a narrative that creates expectations and, like Cold Earth – if not to an even greater degree, since there are many more questions to be answered – the process of resolving those expectations is a mixed blessing. Part of me looks at the ending and feels disappointment, feels that it’s more conventional than I might have hoped for from Ness; another part of me looks at it from another angle (having read the three books above) and wonders whether it’s not the simple fact that it is an ending that disappoints. Part of the pleasure of Chaos Walking – a large part, actually – is the suspension of the various narrative possibilities, Ness’ expert manipulation of what the reader knows, and thus what they might expect, which engenders the sense that the outcome is particularly fluid, that many different things could happen. After the last page of Monsters of Men those possibilities have resolved into concrete things that have happened, and I’m not sure there’s any configuration that would have been wholly satisfying. More than that, even, I’m not sure that a wholly satisfying configuration of this type of story is even desirable: even being satisfyingly unconventional is a convention: perhaps there is a boldness in the mix of conventional and unconventional that Ness offers. Alternatively, perhaps I’ve just reached the point where I’ll never enjoy an ending naively again.

Recommended?

I’m not sure whether it’s my preferences changing, or my awareness of the field broadening, or both or something else, but as time goes on I find the Locus Recommended Reading List overlaps less and less with my taste in sf and fantasy. It feels faintly absurd, having this reaction, because the list is so bloated as to make inclusion almost meaningless — there are comfortably more books on the list than I read in a year, and that’s before you start on the short fiction categories. This also means that there’s a fair number of things I like listed; yet I look at it, and think: from Interzone, you recommend “Monetized“, and not “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest…“? You recommend Ken Scholes’ A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon“, but not Helen Keeble’s “A Lullaby“? As a science fiction novel, you recommend Steal Across the Sky but not UFO in Her Eyes? In the fantasy novel category, it’s marvellous to see In Great Waters, but where on earth is The Other Lands? This is not frustrating simply because unenlightened fools disagree with me. It’s frustrating because the size of the Recommended Reading List is an indication of one of its goals — basically, canon-formation — and because that goal is not challenged elsewhere in the sf community as much as I would like. If the Locus list was more focused, or if there were other lists the same size treated as equivalent authorities, I wouldn’t be so bothered. But I know that when I want to know what was big ten years ago, the first thing I do is Google the Locus list for that year, because it aims to include everything of significance. And more and more I want to know what they missed.

The Books of 2009

This is, unfortunately, a somewhat more abbreviated account than I had originally intended. Plan A was to do a complete run-down of everything I read in 2009, trying to get some sense of how my part of the elephant felt. Plan B is a top ten list. Well, a top ten list and some stats.

Stats first, then. I read 69 books in 2009; slightly down on the last few years. Of these, 80% were sf or sf-related non-fiction; 54% were first published in 2009, 39% were by Brits, 41% by women and 22% by people of colour (or, 45% were by white men). Of those books not published in 2009, discovery of the year was perhaps Rana Dasgupta, whose linked story suite Tokyo Cancelled (2005) I picked up somewhat on a whim, and is still lingering with me now; though the first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Fever and Spear (2002 trans. 2005) gives it a run for its money, and the book-I-should-have-got-around-to-long-before-now award goes without question to Middlemarch. Also worth mentioning here: Lao She’s Cat Country (1932, trans. 1970), and Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To … (1977), which, of the fiction I’ve read by Russ, is the work whose impressiveness is least caveated by the passage of time, and the one I would recommend to those not yet familiar with her. Disappointments in this group were relatively few; neither Allegra Goodman’s Intuition (2006) nor Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) quite lived up to my expectations of them, but as dispraise goes, that’s pretty mild.

Onward! The focus of my interest, of course, is the subgroup of sf or sf-related books published in 2009. I should say that I’m using an inverted version of the Hugo Award’s definition of 2009, here: that is, if it was either first published in English in 2009, or first published in the UK in 2009, I’m considering it a 2009 book. Consequently, including one book read in 2008, and five read this year, there are 41 books in this subgroup, of which 44% are by Brits, 86% are fiction (of which, making broad assignments, 42% are sf, 58% fantasy), 52% are by women, and 17% by people of colour (leaving the white-man percentage roughly the same, at 42%). I had a good year’s reading: it’s hard to pick a top ten that leaves out such books as the first volume of Hoshruba (whether or not I will have the stamina to read further volumes); Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City (first published 1993; a book that addresses some of the same themes as China Mieville’s The City & The City, but to my mind more successfully); Chris Beckett’s Marcher (a very clever, and admirably restrained, many-worlds novel); Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (a first novel that deserves greater praise than “very promising”, though it is); Deborah Biancotti’s A Book of Endings (a first collection of which the same can be said); Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island (mild reservations about the shape of the novel aside, a delight to read); Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (on which I have no doubt I will continue to chew for some time); Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth (an evocative wilderness novel, and a fascinating exercise in sustained uncertainty of genre: I hope to write this up in more detail at some point); Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet (despite my reservations about it); Marcel Theroux’s Far North (under-appreciated, I think); or Jo Walton’s Lifelode (on which I agree with Walton’s afterword, which admits that the book it becomes is lesser than the book she wanted to write; but the first half of the novel, which is closest to her intentions, is extraordinary; one of those books that really should not have appeared only from a small press). Some novels, certainly, left me underwhelmed – Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest, Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia, The City & The City and perhaps Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold being the ones that might attract most disagreement – but only a handful stood out as genuine disappointments. Nancy Kress can do better than Steal Across the Sky; and I certainly hope that Jesse Bullington can do better than The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. There are, of course, a great many books I didn’t get to: of those, the ones whose omission I feel most keenly are probably Stephen Baxter’s Ark (given how highly I rated Flood), Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, Robert Holdstock’s Avilion (because I haven’t yet read Mythago Wood; yes, yes, I know), and Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit (because I told myself I’d read the Aleutian trilogy first – yes, yes, I know!).

But anyway: here are the ten books that I recommend most heartily, in alphabetical order by author.

  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: a first novel of great ambition and remarkable power, and a work of science fiction that feels grounded in our present like nothing else I read this year.
  • The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham: the most purely enjoyable 2009 book I’ve read, a marriage of the political and the epic that builds fruitfully on the already-solid foundation provided by The War with the Mein (2007).
  • Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin: beautiful, wise, generous, and all the other words that are so regularly applied to Le Guin’s fiction.
  • UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo: a short, relatively quiet novel that, as I said when I first read it, suggests much with its sparing narration, and provokes much in its reader; or at least in me.
  • Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald: the opposite of Guo, in some ways: bold, vigorous stories that deepen and strengthen McDonald’s vision of a future India.
  • The Ask & The Answer by Patrick Ness: a sequel that delights in not providing more of the same; desperately uncomfortable at times, but – I’m allowed to use this once, right? – unputdownable.
  • White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: a brilliant ghost story, but also (this is not said enough about Oyeyemi, I think) at times, brilliantly funny: serious enough to know when to be playful.
  • Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson: for all that Robinson is one of my favourite contemporary writers, I keep missing my chance to write about his work at any length. But between them Adam Roberts and John Clute have said much of what I would want to say about Galileo’s Dream: the marvellous sanity of its fictive universe, the skill with which it dissects time, memory and history, the clarity of its portraiture.
  • The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh: a collection whose only real flaw is that it doesn’t collect all of Singh’s fiction: but what is here should be read.
  • In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield: surely, by this point, I don’t need to say anything else about this one. Inventive; unsentimental; captivating.

Some Books I Want To Read in 2010

Walking the Tree, Kaaron Warren
Generosity, Richard Powers
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
The Bookman, Lavie Tidhar
The Dark Commands, Richard Morgan
Death of the Author, Scarlett Thomas
A Matter of Blood, Sarah Pinborough
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, NK Jemisin
New Model Army, Adam Roberts
Zoo City, Lauren Beukes
Solo, Rana Dasgupta
One Who Disappeared, David Herter
Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
The Secret Feminist Cabal: a Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms, Helen Merrick
The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, Anil Menon
The Golden Age, Michal Ajvaz
Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan
Yukikaze, Chōhei Kambayashi
The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord
Plan for Chaos, John Wyndham
Big Machine, Victor LaValle
Things We Didn’t See Coming, Stephen Amsterdam
Terminal World, Alastair Reynolds
The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Dexter Palmer
When it Changed ed. Geoff Ryman
Seven Cities of Gold, David Moles
Escape, Manjula Padmanabhan
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
The Complete Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino
Shine, ed. Jetse de Vries
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making, Catherynne M Valente
Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
The House of Discarded Dreams, Ekaterina Sedia
Lightborn, Tricia Sullivan
The Birth of Love, Joanna Kavenna
Chill, Elizabeth Bear
Usurper of the Sun, Housuke Nojiri
Quantum Gravity 5, Justina Robson
Zendegi, Greg Egan
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Samuel R Delany
Filaria, Brent Hayward
C, Tom McCarthy
The Burning City, Alaya Dawn Johnson
Shipbreaker, Paolo Bacigalupi
The Hurricane Party, Klas Ostergren
Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness
Above the Snowline, Steph Swainston
The Dervish House, Ian McDonald
Stone Spring, Stephen Baxter

2010

I’ve decided 2010 doesn’t start until 17th January — that is, the day after the end of the nominating period for the BSFA awards. So no best books of 2009 from me just yet, but they will come, fear not.

In the meantime, I have more half-formed plans for 2010 than I can plausibly keep up. I would like, for instance, to read the back-catalogues of Mary Gentle and Bruce Sterling, two writers whose work I keep thinking I should really be more familiar with than I am. I want to read some of the big books lurking on my shelves: Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy, Nicola Barker’s Darkmans, Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, Paul Verhaeghen’s Omega Minor, among others. Taking advantage of my shiny new Sony Reader, which makes it much more convenient to read short fiction, I have grand plans of writing a monthly short fiction review post, as well as potential story-by-story reviews of more anthologies. I want to keep posting short reviews of books here, as I’ve been doing over Christmas, and save longer reviews for elsewhere; though I suspect I will creep back to longer and less frequent as the year goes on. I want to organise more round-table discussions of new books, of course (any suggestions?), and another run of short story club, independent of discussion of award-shortlisted stories.

On top of all that (or even: before I get to any of that), there’s two issues of Vector coming relatively close together (ie both in the first quarter of the year), which still need some work; and the survey book should be mailing to BSFA members with one of those issues, assuming I get all the author bios done; maybe we can get a new Vector website up and running at some point this year; and there’s the Strange Horizons reviews department (plus new Clute column) to keep on top of, of course.

Anyway. I had an excellent holiday break; hope you all did, as well.

On Holiday

Oh, I had such noble aims. I was going to use this holiday as an excuse to do a proper stock-taking post, looking back over what I’ve read so far this year and forward to what’s still to come. Instead, it’s got to the point where I’m out the door in an hour, and have various things to do before then. So all you get is some raw numbers: I’ve read 42 books this year; and these are, I think, the six best (in alphabetical order by author), that you all really should read.

In fact, if you want me to know which one of these you should read, it’s the Whitfield; really, In Great Waters and Lavinia should both be on the BSFA Award Best Novel shortlist come 2010.

And with that, I’m off!

Down Memory Lane

I got this from Martin who got it from Larry (see also Adam‘s post); the idea is to list the books that shaped you as a reader. I did something similar when Farah Mendlesohn was running her survey a couple of years ago, but it’s always an interesting exercise. My memory is as bad as Martin’s, if not worse, so I’ve gone for 2-year brackets as well, and I couldn’t swear that I’ve got everything in the right place. Commentary in square brackets where I couldn’t help myself.

8
Heidi and sequels, Johanna Spyri
Little House on the Prarie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Adventure series, Willard Price
The Famous Five series, Enid Blyton
The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis [and the rest of Narnia, of course, but for some reason it’s this, and to a lesser extent The Silver Chair, that stay with me]

10
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
Swallows and Amazons, and most of the sequels, Arthur Ransome
A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair and Trillions, Nicholas Fisk
The Animals of Farthing Wood, Colin Dann
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

12
The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K Le Guin
The Complete Robot, Isaac Asimov
A lot of Peanuts, Charles M Schulz
An awful lot of Dragonlance, especially the Chronicles and Legends trilogies, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman [I could have included “even more Dragonlance” on my next list]

14
Foundation and sequels, Isaac Asimov
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
Rama and sequels, Arthur C Clarke (and Gentry Lee)
Various Calvin & Hobbes anthologies, Bill Watterson
The Amtrak Wars and Fade-Out, Patrick Tilley

16
Interzone, ed. David Pringle
Voyage, Stephen Baxter [although I had been reading him for some time before this]
Axiomatic, Greg Egan
Red Mars and sequels, Kim Stanley Robinson
The Reality Dysfunction and sequels, Peter F Hamilton

18
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
The Stone Canal, Ken MacLeod
Asimov’s Science Fiction, ed. Gardner Dozois
A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft [this was the hardest of the age bands to do; I think I stopped reading for a couple of years when I went to university. But I spent many an hour playing FFVII, and it sits very close to the book-space in my head.]