Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Top Ten Sociological SF

Okay, following up from various recent posts: It’s almost too easy to pick out a top ten list of books. I could fill out half of it with CJC novels before I had to look elsewhere … in fact, let me do that:

  1. Foreigner
  2. Chanur
  3. Cyteen
  4. 40,000 in Gehenna
  5. Cuckoo’s Egg

Then I would have to think about books by other authors. Rather than filling out half the list with works by one author, maybe it makes more sense to go for authors in the first place and do a Top Ten List of Authors of Sociological SF. CJ Cherryh can then get just one spot, making the rest of the list more interesting, as well as more of a challenge.

Here, then, is that Top Ten list.

  1. CJ Cherryh — a huge proportion of her SF, as opposed to her fantasy, has a powerful sociological component to it. I’d put the Foreigner series in the top spot of all sociological SF ever and go on from there.
  2. Octavia Butler — all her work, except maybe Fledgling, is sociological SF. Maybe that one too; I’ve only read it once and don’t remember much about it.
  3. Ursula K LeGuin — obviously most of her work explored sociological themes and situations.
  4. Isaac Asimov — it’s been an awfully long time, and I never much cared for Asimov’s work myself, but surely Foundation and I, Robot both count as seminal works of sociological SF.
  5. Kim Stanley Robinson — the Mars trilogy could be read as hard SF, but I think it’s (far) more accurately characterized as sociological SF. Not just that one, either; a lot or all of Robinson’s work explores the development of future societies in response to technological changes.
  6. Connie Willis — Bellwether and Crosstalk are the ones I’m thinking of, but surely others of hers could also fit the sociological SF subgenre.
  7. Eleanor Amason — I’ve only read a couple of hers, but she’s written quite a few books. Very few SF novels are as thoroughly and explicitly sociological in emphasis as Woman of the Iron People.
  8. Ian Banks — the Culture novels are all primarily about envisioning a post-scarcity future and look at least as much like sociological SF as space opera.
  9. Elizabeth Moon — her space opera offers a strong emphasis on how longevity advances impact society; but more than that, The Speed of Dark is such an incredible book that I have to include her on this list.
  10. Your suggestion here — who have I missed?

I realize there are any number of classic sociological SF works, one per author, that would make most Top Ten lists for this subgenre. I mean: Fahrenheit 451; 1984; Brave New World. Probably others. But for the author to wind up on a list of top authors, I sort of think they ought to have a body of work with a sociological emphasis.

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ALL the Influences

So, I’ve known perfectly well from the beginning where some elements of TUYO came from. But I was startled, the other day, to realize that everything and its cousin was an influence for this book. Not that this is intrinsically startling, exactly, because of course we know that this pattern:

A lifetime of reading –> the book you write

is pretty much going to be inevitable for everyone who writes fiction, right? (Maybe even nonfiction, in a different way.)

I’m just not used to tripping over one element after another that looks like a distinct influence on a particular book, or at least looks like it could have been a distinct influence on that book. Yet here we are.

So, four possible identifiable elements (so far) for TUYO. Wait, five, though one was a negative influence. Here they are, starting with the ones I knew about to start with and winding up with the ones I just discovered. Re-discovered.

1. That really neat thing Elizabeth Bear did with the sky in The Eternal Sky trilogy. I loved that detail so much! You’ve read that trilogy? If not, this is the fantasy world where the sky literally changes depending on the polity. In one country, there’s a moon in the sky for every member of the royal family and when one of those people dies, his or her moon falls. But if some part of that country gets conquered by a country where the sky only has one moon, then poof! That’s the new sky in that area, just the one moon. Hard to picture how that could work! But such a fantastic detail! That’s what was on my mind when I drew a river down the middle of the map and said, Okay, over there, the country of the Moon. Over here, the country of the Sun. Obviously that causes much, much bigger differences in the TUYO world, but this thing Bear did with the sky gave me the idea for that worldbuilding element. I’m pretty sure we will see the starlit lands eventually. Also the land with two suns. Also the land of the shades, which I’m almost entirely certain is a real place that actually does lie below the land of the living. (In the TUYO world, you really want to take every casual comment someone makes about the metaphysics as very likely literally true. For example, when Ryo says at one point that very few people ever come back from the land of the shades, you should hear that as occasionally someone does.)

2. Honor’s Heir by Brightley. The first-person narrative from a boy’s pov, where he’s from a cold region inhabited by a nomadic people and gets taken as an apprentice by an older man, a high-ranking soldier from a much more civilized country. That made me want to do something sort of like that. Obviously I changed everything, starting with a still young protagonist, but not that young, and then giving his nomadic people a complete makeover. The Ugaro may be violent, sure, but they’re not nearly as brutal, as a rule. Plus I completely changed the way their society views women, gave that view a metaphysical context, and went on from there. Plus Aras is sort of a high-ranking soldier, but also a whole lot more. And the relationship is not an apprenticeship type of relationship. Still, this novel of Brightley’s is the one that first gave me the basic idea for my protagonists.

3. Telzey Amberdon from those stories by James Schmitz. You may remember, though it was a good while ago, I commented here that I was re-reading these stories and I thought Schmitz had failed to realize that Telzey is actually evil. He sets her up as the nice protagonist, he obviously expects the reader to like her and identify with her – and I did, when I first read the stories as a kid – but on re-reading them, it’s impossible to miss that Telzey is amazingly casual about changing people’s memories, manipulating them, and sometimes completely revamping their whole personality because the current personality doesn’t happen to suit her. Plus she is a genius and amazingly good at everything. Cute, too. But aside from the various eye-rollingly Mary Sue qualities she possesses, yeah, she’s also pretty much evil. So this was a powerful negative influence when it came to writing TUYO.

4. Now, this one I did not recognize until yesterday! And it may in fact have occurred de novo, but listen to this bit from “Blood” by Sharon Shinn and see what you think. This is Kerk, a young man, speaking to his stepfather.

“Your nephews both continue to be employed in your firm as well,” Kerk said.

Brolt nodded. “They are good workers and loyal to the business.”

“Perhaps Brolt Brazhan is more blessed than a man could wish,” Kerk said softly. “Perhaps he has an excess of young men for whom he feels he must fine a place in his company. Perhaps he is hoping that one of the young men under his care might look for a situation elsewhere.”

Doesn’t that sound a lot like Ryo speaking to his father? “I would never wish to do such a disgraceful thing. I ask my father not to put me to that test.” The above scene in “Blood” is my favorite scene in the novella, but I’d completely forgotten the style of that formal language. Then I re-read the novella and it jumped out at me. I don’t know, certainly the styles aren’t identical, just similar. Maybe it’s coincidence. I was trying to come up with a formal way of speaking that’s quite different from modern American and also quite different from even the most formal Lau style. Lau speech patterns are a lot more like American English – just as the indigo speech patterns are more like American speech patterns. Again, coincidence? Maybe so! Both Sharon Shinn and I were specifically writing about worlds where very distinct peoples almost side by side. If any writer wants to distinguish between two different cultures, speech patterns are an obvious way to do it. I don’t know, but I do know I’ve loved this novella for years. Maybe these speech patterns were just waiting in the back of my brain for a chance to flow out of my fingers onto the page.

One more:

5. Again, I was re-reading “The Scapegoat” by CJC just yesterday. Take a look at this bit:

The car lurched. The elvish driver made a wild turn, but the one who had gotten out just stood there – stood, staring up the hill, and lifted his hands together. … there was light enough to make out the red of the robes that fluttered in the breeze. And light enough to see the elf’s hands, which looked – which looked, crazily enough, to be tied together. …

The elf has voluntarily made himself a sacrifice, to be put to death in whatever way satisfies the enemy and so end the war. I bet that reminds you of someone. Again, I knew this, I hadn’t forgotten the plot of “The Scapegoat,” I have read this novella many times, but wow, I hadn’t drawn a straight line between this situation and the initial setup for TUYO until I re-read it yesterday. Again, as with “Blood,” this could be a coincidence. The roles are just about reversed; the elf is something like Aras and deFranco a bit like Ryo. But still, the similarities are so obvious. As I said in yesterday’s post, I find this a very powerful novella, intense and compelling. It’s something that could have reverberated into my story – I think it probably did. Maybe. Who knows!

What I have definitely had brought home to me by re-reading these two novellas is that

A lifetime of reading –> the book you write

I didn’t put a dedication in TUYO. It should have been dedicated this way:

For all the authors who have ever set their work deeply in my mind, so that their words echo and re-echo and finally inform my own writing, whether recognized or otherwise.

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Soft SF

Okay, so, given the previous post, I think I have now actually have seen no fewer than seven possible definitions proposed for “soft” SF. Many of them overlap, but I think each is distinctive. Here they are:

  1. Sociological emphasis rather than an emphasis on technology
  2. Far future setting with handwavy technology or super-advanced magic technology.
  3. Science fantasy
  4. Really a different genre, like mystery, but with science fiction trappings
  5. Poorly researched SF with handwavy, science-y stuff rather than actual science.
  6. SF where the author doesn’t make any attempt to explain the science behind the setting. I’m classing this as different from poorly researched background science.
  7. All SF where the author did not actually have to do math or physics calculations in order to write the story.

I’m with the rest of you: the term “soft” is useless when definitions are so wildly divergent. I mean, lots of the above definitions intergrade. Why does Pern seem like fantasy to so many people, including me? Because the science-y parts are silly and involve lots of handwaving. Those dragons can so fly! Time travel is totally plausible! To me, Pern is a great example, maybe the best example ever, of science fantasy rather than science fiction.

I wouldn’t say anything about Pern is poorly researched, which is why “handwavy” is not the same as “poorly researched.” Anne McCaffery didn’t do bad physics when she tossed her dragons into the air; she didn’t do physics at all. She did magic. She wanted dragons, so she wrote dragons. Her books are no more SF than the Temeraire series. They’re both fantasy, even though Pern has science-y trappings here and there. In fact, Temeraire is just as handwavy when it comes to science: Yeah, of COURSE there are enough cows in the UK to feed a lot of dragons. Absolutely! Oh, hey, actually, didn’t Naomi Novik put dragons in South America too? Yeah, no, the resource base for nearly the entire continent is dreadfully restricted because so much of the land area sits on top of either the Gayana shield or the Brazilian shield, which are extremely nutrient-poor rock formations. There’s no way you’d be able to support a lot of giant carnivores in Brazil. That’s definitely right out.

For years and years, when I mean “sociological science fiction,” I have said “sociological science fiction.” Even though “sociological” has six syllables and is not that easy to spit out in a hurry, there aren’t any other terms that distinguish this category of science fiction from everything else. As many commenters said, there’s nothing handwavy or soft about really solid sociological SF, such as Woman of the Iron People. There’s a ton of sociological SF, some of it great and some, of course, less well-researched or less good in other ways, so if you’re taking “hard” as thoroughly researched and carefully thought through and “soft” as poorly researched or badly understood, then this category definitely ranges from hard to soft.

But I don’t like to use “soft” as a derogatory term! I guess I don’t really like to use it at all because the term is often understood as derogatory, and I don’t approve of that usage. I’ve got no problem with well-done science fantasy! I like Pern, and Sharon Shinn’s Angel series. I don’t grumble about bad science when I read stories like that. Grumbles about the square-cube law miss the whole point of those stories.

My personal conclusion: If you mean sociological SF, say so. Use “hard” when you mean real-world physics is central to the setting or the plot and don’t use “soft” at all. We have plenty of subgenre terms that are much better! Time to let that one die.

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Great Novellas

So, of course the Murderbot novellas really hit it big, deservedly so, and tor.com gets a lot of credit for providing a place for novellas to be published other than in rare collections of authors’ shorter works. Of course Tor priced those novellas high, no question about that; there aren’t many novellas for which I’d pay $9.99, though granted these are long novellas. Still.

A collection of the Murderbot stories is due to come out shortly, by the way, and I’m interested to note that this collection — hardcover only available for preorder at this moment — does not offer ANY price break. $17 apiece, $70 total, for four novellas! Wow. That’s priced for the serious fan, that’s for sure.

But this post is actually not about the Murderbot novellas and the prices thereof.

This post is actually about three other novellas that are worth paying a little more for, if you can find them at all. All three are embedded in books, so you have to buy the whole book, and in these specific cases, I’d say that’s more than worth it whether or not you particularly want to read the other stories in the books.

So, three novellas. I’ll start with the one that you’re perhaps more likely to have read and move from there toward the more obscure novellas you might have missed.

1. The Gorgon in the Cupboard by Patricia McKillip, which is found in the collection Dreams of Distant Shores, published in 2016, which is essentially yesterday. There are six other stories in the collection, most shorter and one longer. Gorgon is 65 pages long. It starts like this:

Harry could not get the goat to stay still. His model, who was an aspiring actress, offered numerous practical suggestions as she crouched beside the animal. In fact, she rarely stopped talking. Harry didn’t like the look in the goat’s eye. It wasn’t very big, but it seemed to him arrogant beyond its age, and contemplating mischief.

This is a funny beginning, but Gorgon is not as lighthearted a story as this opening may make it seem. Let me skip forward a bit and find another scene … how about this …

She was walking with her husband on the other side of the street. He was speaking fervidly, gesturing, as was his wont, probably about something that had seized his imagination. It might have been anything, Harry knew: a poem, the style of an arch, a pattern of embroidery on a woman’s sleeve. She listened, her quiet face angled slightly toward him, her eyes downturned, intent, it seemed, on the man’s brilliance. He swept fingers through his dark, shaggy hair, his thick mustaches dancing, spit flying now and then in his exuberance. Neither of them saw Harry, who had stopped midstream in the busy street, willing her to look, terrified she might raise her dark, brooding eyes and see what was in his face. She only raised her long white fingers, gently clasped her husband’s flying arm, and tucked it down between them.

Then they passed, the great Alex McAlister and his wife, Aurora, oblivious to the man turned to stone by the sight of her.

This story is about … it’s about the women men don’t see, as the phrase goes; about the projected images they may see instead, and about learning to see the actual woman behind the obsession. It’s a very good story, goat and obsessions and all, and hey, it’s Patricia McKillip. I will say that the longest story in this collection is Something Rich and Strange, which for whatever reason is one of the few McKillip stories I never really liked, I don’t quite know why. You might feel differently, and anyway, Gorgon is a good enough story to justify picking up the collection, especially if you generally like McKillip, which surely you do.

Next:

2. Blood, by Sharon Shinn, in the collection Quatrain, published in 2009. As implied by the title of the collection, there are four novellas in this collection, each one longish, each one set in one or another of the worlds of her novels. They’re all perfectly fine stories, but Blood is actually one of the very best stories Sharon Shinn ever published, way up at the tippy top of her oeuvre. (She thinks so too, btw; we had a conversation about that once.) It’s 88 pages long, but the print is small, so it’s long for that page count. It starts like this:

Finally the train stopped. Kerk stared out the window, as he had for the last four days, but there was less to see here in the underground city terminal than there had been along their entire route through Geldricht. People waved and shouted, men pushed carts, women urged their children out of harm’s way, and all the purposeful chaos took place under high artificial lights insufficient to illuminate the cavernous interior of the station.

He kept staring anyway. So many of those people were blueskins. More than he had ever seen together in one place in his entire life. He had been told that the whole city was full of the indigo – far more blueskins than gulden like himself – but he had had a hard time making his mind form the images. He wondered how long it would be before he could stop staring at them.

“Kerk,” said a deep voice. He turned swiftly to see Brolt already on his feet, pulling luggage down from the wall racks, filling the small compartment with his height and bulk. “Watch the Tess and the children. Don’t let them stray.”

Reminded of a sense of duty, Kerk jumped up too.

This outstanding novella is about family. Although there are a zillion important relationships in the story and the ostensible focus is on the relationship between Kerk and an indigo woman, the best part is actually the relationship between Kerk and Brolt, so it’s good to see them both in this simple opening. The ending is first brutal and then, a breath later, redeemed. Both the crash and then the recovery are completely believable, arising naturally from the way the story is framed. Honestly, it’s a great story. The other three are okay too, but you should absolutely pick up the collection for this one.

And here’s the third:

3. The Scapegoat by CJC, published in a collection of three novellas called Alien Stars that came out in 1985. I’m still a little startled to realize that’s thirty-five years ago – a whole generation! The other two stories in this collection are by Joe Haldeman and Timothy Zahn, and I must admit I read those two only once and remember nothing about them. While not available in Kindle, this paperback is available on Amazon.

But The Scapegoat is the most powerful novella I’ve ever read, and one of Cherryh’s best works, even though it’s only 68 pages long. You can see her working with themes she developed in a lot more detail later, especially contact between humans and aliens and the disasters that can unfold because of deep misunderstandings at the level of instinct. It’s hard to pick out a sample. I’m going to give you some fragments from the beginning, including the first couple of paragraphs, with a little skipping around. I’ll add here that this story itself moves back and forth in time, not very far, but the situation starts almost at the end and then moves backward and forward. The story is set against a backdrop of a grinding war where humans have been far superior technologically from the beginning, but the enemy, the elves, will not stop fighting and the humans are unable to disengage, unable to end the war, deeply unwilling to commit genocide, and in a word the situation is just terrible.

DeFranco sits across the table from the elf and he dreams for a moment, not a good dream, but recent truth: all part of what surrounds him now, and true as any memory ever is – a bit greater and a bit less true than it was when it was happening, because it was gated in through human eyes and ears and a human notices much more and far less than what truly goes on in the world –

– the ground comes up with a bone-penetrating thump and dirt showers down like rain, over and over again; and deFranco wriggles up to his knees with the clods rattling off his armor. He may be moving to a place where a crater will be in a moment, and the place where he is may become one in that same moment. There is no time to think about it. There is only one way off that exposed hillside, which to go and keep going.

… and his second thought, hard on the heels of triumph, that there was too much noise in the world already, too much death to deal with, vastly too much, and he wanted to cry with the relief and the fear of being alive and moving. So the base scout found the damn firepoint, tripped a trap, and the whole damn airforce had to come pull him out of the fire with a damn million credits worth of shells laid down out there destroying ten billion credits worth of somebody else’s.

“You did us great damage then,” says the elf. “It was the last effort we could make and we knew you would take out our last weapons. We knew that you would do it quickly and that then you would stop. We had learned to trust your habits even if we didn’t understand them.”

“They sent me out there,” deFranco says to the elf, and the elf – a human might have nodded, but elves have no such habits – stares gravely as they sit opposite each other, hands on the table.

“You always say ‘they,’” says the elf. “We say ‘we’ decided. But you do things differently.”

“Maybe it is we,” deFranco says. “Maybe it is, at the bottom of things. We. Sometimes it doesn’t look that way.”

“I think even now you don’t really understand why we do what we do. I don’t really understand why you came here or why you listen to me, or why you stay now – but we won’t understand. I don’t think we two will. Others, maybe. You want what I want. That’s what I trust most.”

And the two of them work out a peace, and end the war, and it is absolutely devastating.

If any of you have read one or more of these novellas, what did you think? If you have a particularly favorite novella of your own, give it a call-out in the comments!

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Soft science fiction

Here’s a post at Book Riot: SOFT SCIENCE FICTION: 15 CLASSIC AND CONTEMPORARY MUST READ BOOKS

Which immediately inspires the question: so what do YOU mean by “soft” science fiction? What *I* think of first when I hear that term is sociological science fiction, but I could imagine this term being used to mean science fantasy, for example. No doubt we could come up with a top-ten list of possible meanings for the term “soft science fiction.” The only thing we can be sure of — can we be sure of this? — is that there won’t be appendices at the back of the novel explaining the math and/or physics underlying the plot. Appendices or not, there won’t be any books like Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward on a list of “soft” science fiction.

Here, by the way, is a post that picks out some of what it calls great hard SF novels. I have my doubts about this post, which reminded me about Dragon’s Egg. That is a great example of hard SF, but also includes Ancillary Justice, which is hardly a book I’d personally tag that way. Oh, good heavens, they also include Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler! Wow, so THIS post is DEFINITELY including sociological science fiction as “hard” rather than “soft.” Lots of good examples on their list, thought, click through if you have a minute and then we’ll go on to the Book Riot post.

Okay, well, after checking out the above list, now I’m wondering even more what Book Riot will call “soft” science fiction. Since this is Book Riot, I am of course wondering if Watership Down might possibly be on their list. (No, they are never going to live that down. This blog will remember that Book Riot post forever.)

So here we go:

In general, hardsci-fi is closer to current science, whereas science fiction that gets further away from what is presently known is considered soft. 

Oh! Well, that is not a definition I had in mind personally. I don’t agree! I can easily think of many books that aren’t anywhere close to current science and technology but are definitely hard science fiction — Ringworld, for example — and others that take place practically tomorrow that *I* would call soft science fiction, such as Persona by Genevieve Valentine.

On the other hand, a paragraph or two later, we see that this post does indeed peg sociological SF as “soft.” Well, that is hardly the same thing as “close to current science!” I think this post is simultaneously using two quite different definitions that point in different directions.

But okay, let’s see what examples this Book Riot post picks out as “soft.”

Ah! Here again is Lilith’s Brood! That means this series is on BOTH the hard SF list I linked AND the soft SF post at Book Riot! Wow, that’s fantastic! I would absolutely have located these two posts on purpose to juxtapose these completely different takes on what is meant by “hard” and “soft,” but truly, this was pure happenstance. All I did was google “classic hard science fiction novels” to remind myself of some titles and now here we are.

Okay, back to the Book Riot post. Ah, honestly, I have to say, the author is not sticking to either of his own definitions very closely. Look at this:

THE LAST POLICEMAN BY BEN H. WINTERS

If you want to read detective fiction mixed with some end-is-nigh apocalypse action, then look no further than The Last Policeman. In Winters’s novel an asteroid is bearing down upon Earth, spelling certain doom for the planet. Society has fallen apart, but Detective Hank Palace is still trying to solve murder cases. Winters is good at infusing large philosophical questions into his soft sci-fi murder mystery. The Last Policeman is the first installment of a trilogy dealing with Earth before the asteroid apocalypse.

That’s near future AND it deals with ordinary science! Asteroid impacts! Those are hard! I’m thinking of Seveneves, here. That’s a great example of a hard SF novel! This one has a murder mystery, fine, but that doesn’t make it look like soft science fiction to me. It makes it look like a murder mystery with a science fiction setting. That’s not the same thing!

Well, I will say, this is a list that’s heavy on sociological science fiction. Then it’s got some oddball stuff on the list as well. I personally think the list would’ve been more coherent if the author had labeled it “Great sociological science fiction” and stuck to that.

Let’s end by asking, How do you define soft science fiction?

  1. Sociological emphasis
  2. Far future and/or weird technology
  3. Science fantasy
  4. Really a different genre, like mystery, but with science fiction trappings
  5. Other

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Do you prefer novels with prologues?

At Writer Unboxed, this, by Vaughn Roycroft: Why I Actually Prefer Stories With Prologues

I don’t just love prologues. I actually prefer when stories begin with them. … In my opinion, all of these prologues are terrific at creating atmosphere. But prologues often do more. They can establish the story-world, set expectations, reveal broader or heightened stakes, lay out pertinent backstory, and provide enticing foreshadowing. … Good prologues can help to transport us to the story-world, and even put us in the proper mood to receive it. Simply put, they are an aid to immersion.

Many examples of prologues the author likes at the link, in both novels and movies.

Well, I can come down on both sides of this argument if I want, because out of my, let me see, seventeen novels currently (or nearly) on the shelf, I’ve got prologues in, hmm, just two. Well, two is enough to establish that I don’t automatically hate prologues. Which I don’t. I just usually hate prologues, because usually they’re not an aid to immersion. Usually they’re boring.

One of the examples Roycroft uses here is The Lord of the Rings, and in fact, I hate that prologue. I’m thinking of the one in the movie version. The warm description of hobbits that Tolkien called a prologue was fine. In the movies, the long infodump about the history of Sauron was not fine; it was boring. Personally, I’d have found that kind of infodump boring even if I hadn’t known the story already, because a long history lesson at the beginning of a fantasy story is ALWAYS BORING.

–Short prologues that tell a brief, immersive, complete story that is set before the main story begins = fine.That’s like my prologue in Winter of Ice and Iron.

–Short, clever prologues that are entertaining in and of themselves = fine, and here I’m thinking of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. “A word from your sponsor: This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this.”

–Any length of prologue, but especially a long one, that delivers a history lesson to the reader, is unreadably boring and I, at least, will immediately DNF any book the moment I see that kind of prologue.

As far as I can tell, that type of prologue is BY FAR the most common in fantasy novels.

In contrast, mystery novels very often open with a short prologue in which the murder victim gets killed. I’m not crazy about that either, but it’s a short, immersive, complete-in-itself story plus entirely standard in the genre. So that’s fine.

But to anyone writing an SFF novel and reading the linked post: think twice before providing a history lesson to the reader. CJC can get by with it in her very long series (I still skip those prologues), but very few other authors can pull it off.

Please provide counterexamples in the comments if you can think of good ones.

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Posting may be light

So, this week I’m going to be distracted and busy. Just letting you know in case I semi-vanish for a week or so.

The problem is, Pippa’s prognosis is potentially very good, but right at the moment she is having a dreadful time. She has an eye injury that should get better, but it has been getting worse rather than healing, so she is now getting two different kinds of eyedrops, one for each eye, but at the moment she is basically blind.

Also, following an atypical seizure type of thing last week and a whoooooole lot of continual mini-seizures that followed, I started her on phenobarb, which flipped the seizures off like magic, but she is seriously uncoordinated and woozy as well as blind.

So if the eye starts to heal and she has time to adjust to the phenobarb, she will be back to normal in ten days or two weeks or at least something fairly close to a reasonable time period. But right now, not so great.

Classes are presumably starting next week and I’ve GOT to get stuff done for that too, so, well, posting here may be light. I do really appreciate your comments on the back cover copy, which I will seriously revise as soon as possible.

Pippa will hopefully be looking this alert and agile in another ten days or two weeks, but right now she can’t even walk in a straight line

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Back cover copy: still hard

So, I’m setting up the second book in the TUYO series, paperback and Kindle formats, and I have some observations here:

  1. Setting up the paperback was SO ANNOYING. This is basically my fault. I scanned the whole thing fixing “widows and orphans” multiple times and THEN realized I had not right-justified the text. So I did that and of course that meant I had to scan through the whole thing fixing “widows and orphans” again. What a pain!
  2. You will never notice this, I bet, but the paperback winds up just a tiny bit different from the ebook version. This is because when fixing up widows and orphans, the easiest way I know of is to change paragraphing a little, sometimes by adding or removing a paragraph break, but also sometimes by adding or deleting a few words or even a complete sentence. This is almost always possible, but you do wind up accumulating a surprising number of tiny differences.
  3. You have to put a cover on a book in order to use the preview function, which means slapping a completely ridiculous cover on the thing just so you can do that. Pity they won’t let you load a blank cover, but no.
  4. You have to write back cover description and load that before you can move on to load the manuscript and use the previewer.

This means I threw words in the “description” box super fast just to get something in there, all the time swearing under my breath at how terrible a description I was writing. Here it is, for your amusement value.

For years, Ugaro and Lau have lived peacefully, near neighbors separated by the river that divides the winter country from the summer country. But an escalating series of offenses and mistakes now threatens to destroy that peace. One young Lau soldier, Nikoles Ianan, understands the Ugaro people better than most of his countrymen, but he can see no way to resolve the conflict. Until one of the king’s scepter-holders, Lord Aras Samaura, arrives to sort things out. But Lord Aras has only a limited time to resolve the problems in the borderlands. He’ll need all the help he can get — especially the help of a young man with a unique connection to the Ugaro people.

By the time I got halfway through that, I’d given up and was just scribbling. Well, the typing version of “scribbling.” The above does kind of give you an idea of what NIKOLES is about, sure, but I certainly need to improve it before I forget and accidentally leave that description in place. Let me just see here …

For generations, Lau and Ugaro have lived peacefully, near neighbors separated by the river that divides the winter country from the summer country. But in recent years, tension has increased between the two peoples, and now an accelerating series of offenses and mistakes threatens to plunge the borderlands into serious war.

Nikoles Ianan understands the Ugaro people better than most of his countrymen–he certainly understands them well enough to know how badly his own people are mishandling the situation. But he sees no way that one Lau soldier can prevent escalating tragedy . . . until the most famous scepter-holder of the summer country appears.

Lord Aras Samaura has urgent tasks waiting elsewhere and a limited time to forge a new peace between peoples who each consider themselves bitterly wronged. He’ll need all the help he can get — especially the help of a young man with a unique connection to the Ugaro people.

Okay! This is a lot like beating my head against a wall. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to write the above three paragraphs, which I don’t even like. You were all very helpful with the back cover description for TUYO; please tear this apart and/or make helpful suggestions if any occur to you.

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Ranking LMB’s Oeuvre

Given yesterday’s post asking how people tend to rank Bujold’s major series, an obvious thing to do today is lay out all the individual books. Always a tough and yet fun thing to do with a favorite prolific author!

Let me just take a stab at it. Let’s see. Hmm. Okay, from top to bottom, I would more or less put them like this. This order does reflect personal taste and, I realize, may tend to put books I read long ago higher than objective measures of quality might suggest. If I read them all for the first time this year, the order might be different.

Also, the top fifteen or so are all tightly compacted together in a “REALLY GOOD” category, while below that I’d tend to spread them out a lot more.

When I put two books in one spot, it’s because I feel that particular pair of books is essentially a complete duology and the individual books should be considered one story.

  1. The Warrior’s Apprentice
  2. Mountains of Mourning
  3. Borders of Infinity
  4. Ethan of Athos
  5. Curse of Chalion
  6. Komarr / A Civil Campaign
  7. Brothers in Arms
  8. Penric’s Demon
  9. Sharing Knife Passage / Horizon
  10. Mirror Dance
  11. Memory
  12. Penric and the Shamen
  13. Shards of Honor
  14. Paladin of Souls
  15. Penric’s Mission
  16. Barrayar
  17. Prisoner of Limnos
  18. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance
  19. Orphans of Raspay
  20. Sharing Knife: Beguilement
  21. Knife Children
  22. Falling Free
  23. The Vor Game
  24. Diplomatic Immunity
  25. Penric and the Fox
  26. Cryoburn
  27. Cetaganda
  28. Labyrinth
  29. Sharing Knife: Legacy
  30. The Spirit Ring
  31. Myra’s Last Dance
  32. The Hallowed Hunt
  33. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
  34. Physicians of Vilnoc
  35. Flowers of Vashnoi

Okay, there! What would you all argue should be placed significantly higher or lower?

For me: plots that revolve closely around sexual issues lack interest. Bad family relationships move a book sharply downward because I just don’t like reading about those. If the whole story seems slow and/or rather pointless, it drops way down in the rankings — but if the story foregrounds positive family relationships, it may move higher even if nothing much happens, eg “Knife Children” appealed to me much, much more than SK: Legacy. And I just did not much like The Hallowed Hunt, even though none of those situations apply to that one.

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Sharing Knife series

Here’s a column by Liz Bourke at tor.com: Revisiting LMB’s Sharing Knife series.

Interesting! I have read this series quite a few times because it is a comfort read for me — something I will pick up if I have a cold or just feel under the weather, or if I want to read but not something new-to-me, or if I want something pleasant to read a few pages of before bed, or whatever. In general:

–I like the first book quite a bit

–I skip lightly across most of the part where Fawn is visiting Dag’s camp and family in the second book

–I like the third and fourth books much better than the first two

–And btw, Knife Children, the novella that is set after this series, is quite enjoyable and well worth picking up.

So what does Liz think?

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife tetralogy never, I think, equalled the popularity and recognition of her Miles Vorkosigan novels or her World of the Five Gods work (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, The Hallowed Hunt, and the Penric and Desdemon novellas…) but it remains, for me, a revelation about the kinds of stories that it is possible to tell in fantasy, and the struggles it is possible to reflect.

Yes! This is a promising beginning to the post. I would say that the Sharing Knife stories are unusual in their emphasis on showing the daily life of ordinary people. Sure, sometimes there are giant bats, but mostly these are stories about daily life on a farm, in a camp, on a small riverboat. What we see are ordinary people living their lives while also dealing, generally in small ways, with the necessity of pushing gently for broad-scale societal change. Or that’s what I think. Let me read a little more …

Ah! Liz does mean that, in a sense, but she also has in mind the difference in handling a threat like a Dark Lord, something that is Big and Immediate and then Over, versus handling a threat that requires slow, grinding work generation after generation. That’s a good point too!

Click through and read the whole thing if you have a minute.

Meanwhile, what did you all think of the Sharing Knife series? How about compared to the Vorkosigan and Penric stories? I am not actually sure how I would rank these three series personally. I can see going V –> P –> SK, but I can also see shuffling those letters around into a different order. All the series include books that are somewhat uneven in quality.

But for warmth and settling down comfortably, it’s probably exactly the reverse: SK –> P –> V.

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