Tag Archives: Books

Why It’s Okay to Take Breaks From Science Fiction and Fantasy

I have a confession to share with all of you. I’ve barely read any science fiction and fantasy books recently.

Since I’m a sci-fi writer and a longtime fan of these genres, I’m regularly immersed in thoughts about wizards, robots, aliens, spaceships, science experiments gone wrong, and all of the other tropes you can expect to find in them.

Science fiction and fantasy ideas show up in my dreams, tweets, and random conversations with my spouse, family, and friends.

Most of the time, I love living this way. I’ve read so many different series velw that I can quickly pick out how certain contemporary writers were influenced by tales that were published decades or centuries ago. One of the things I like to do when I’m standing in line or waiting for something is to try to pick out similarities between various universes that I hadn’t thought of yet.

Some authors take careful note of usual patterns in these genres only to figure out how to disrupt them at a critical part of the storyline. It takes a thorough understanding of how science fiction and fantasy stories typically play out to bend the audience’s expectations of how an adventure should end or how a hero is supposed to behave without alienating your readers.

My favourite storytellers are the ones like Douglas Adams who tiptoe across this line perfectly from the first scene to the last one.

With that being said, there can be a lot of repetition in any genre after you’ve spend many years exploring it. I know some people who truly enjoy the familiarity that comes with diving so deeply into this subject, and I completely understand where they’re coming from even though I don’t always feel the same way.

You see, spending time reading other types of stories only reinforces my love for science fiction and fantasy.

Taking Breaks Is a Good Thing

The nice thing about wandering between genres is that it gives the reader a chance to try something completely new. The romance and horror genres might both write about an abandoned graveyard, but the ways they used that setting would be nothing alike.* but  A thriller’s approach to a herd of runaway horses threatening to trample the main character would also be nothing like how a traditional western would solve that problem.

To give another example, a few years ago I began reading mysteries because I was curious about that kind of storytelling and hadn’t read much of it in the past. Needing to pay attention to every little detail of the plot in order to figure out who the murderer was as soon as possible changed the way I approached other genres. If you assume every odd detail might be important later on, it’s much easier to predict how a story will go when the author drops hints about future plot twists.

I also never would have guessed there would be so much crossover between mystery and science fiction, but to my surprise I found a lot of books that couldn’t be easily pinned into either category. This isn’t something I would have ever figured out if I’d stuck to a steady diet of pure science fiction and fantasy.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of young adult and non-fiction books. The young adult genre reminds me of what it felt like to be a child or teenager. Most of the non-fiction books I read are about history or science which are two topics that can be very useful for educational reasons as well as for eventually coming up with new ideas for my own stories. The longer I spend in these other genres, the more I begin to miss the ones I read most often.

The good news is that the science fiction and fantasy landscape is gigantic. My to-read list is still incredibly long, and it includes still includes a decent number of famous authors I’ve been curious to try but haven’t gotten around to yet.  It will be nice to chip away at this list once my break has ended. I’m already beginning to feel the first stirring of interest in magic and technology, so I suspect I’ll jump back into my regular routine soon.

*I have accidentally stumbled across one or two romantic horror tales in the past, though, so in those rare cases it would depend on whether the characters were preparing to fall in love or fight monsters.

How often – if ever – do you take breaks from reading your favourite genres?

10 Science Fiction Books I’d Recommend to New Readers of This Genre

Last August I blogged about the science fiction and fantasy books I’d recommend for elementary, middle school, and high school students. Today I’m talking about science fictions books I’d recommend to adults who have never read anything in this genre before. Next Thursday I’ll be blogging about books in the fantasy genre that I think every adult should read.

While science fiction and fantasy are typically grouped together in the SFF genre, there are enough differences between the two of them as far as storytelling goes that they deserved to have separate posts.

I focused on a few different criteria for this week’s list. The books I recommended obviously needed to be completely understandable to someone who has no idea what the tropes or common themes of this genre are. That criteria alone was a little tricky to meet, but I think I did a pretty good job of picking tales that didn’t use a lot of jargon.

Many sci-fi novels include jokes or subtle references to other, older works. As much as I love what’s happening with modern science fiction, I honestly do think that the classics are the best place to begin because of how influential they are and how often they are still referenced in books that were published decades later.

I also quickly developed a preference for short stories while I was working on this list. It’s much easier to convince someone to devote 15 minutes to reading something short and sweet than to hand them a 400 page book that may take weeks or months to finish. All of the short stories on this list are available to read for free online, and I’ve provided links to them below.

Rain, Rain Go Away by Isaac Asimov.

This is a deceptively simple short story about a group of people who are waiting for the rain to stop. The twist ending is something I adored the first time I read it, and I hope it will appeal to new readers as well. I wasn’t able to get a picture of the cover for this one because it was published as part of an anthology years ago and I couldn’t get the cover for that book to load into this post.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin.

What would you do to live in an utopian society? I loved the way this short story forced its audience to think hard about that question. There is so much more I want to say about it, but everything else I could add would give away spoilers.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

I’m always surprised by how many people have heard of this book but never actually read it. If someone is in the mood to dive into nineteenth century horror and science fiction, this is the perfect place to start. Yes, the pacing is much slower than what you’d typically read in 2017, but with that slower pacing comes many opportunities for the author to painstakingly explain why Victor Frankenstein created his monster and what happened once it came to life.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

This book was the blueprint for many future dystopian novels, including Oryx and Crake which I will be discussing below. It covers everything from the horrors of being monitored by your government in every moment of your life to what happens when science figures out how to alter the intelligence of large portions of the population. I especially enjoyed the sections that showed how scientists reduced the intelligence of fetuses that were not destined to become the leaders of their society.

Fledgling by Octavia Butler.

I’d make this entire list out of Octavia E. Butler’s books if I could. (Maybe someday I’ll devote a post specifically to her?)

She is such a creative writer, especially in this tale which is neither as heartwarming as you’d expect a story about a child to be nor as as chilling as you’d expect vampire fiction to be. The beautiful tension between those two concepts is one of the many reasons why her tales are such an excellent introduction the this genre.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

One of my favourite parts of the science fiction genre is general is how it gets readers to pay attention to critical social, political, and scientific issues by framing them as fiction and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions about other ways to interpret those scenes.

Oryx and Crake is the introduction to the MaddAddam trilogy, and I was mesmerized by it from the very first scene. After a single man destroyed the entire world, the small handful of remaining characters had to figure out how to survive in a society where genetically-engineered organisms and crumbling buildings are really all that’s left of humanity’s legacy. The science in this tale is at times wacky, frightening, and mind-blowing. It is a must-read.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

Many books about humans meeting aliens assume we will have the upper hand. This is one of the ones that doesn’t, and that made it even better than it otherwise would be. The other reason why I’d recommend it to newcomers to this genre is that it was very good at asking philosophical questions about everything from what it means to be human to what we might be able to expect if we ever met another sentient race.

All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury.

I know I’ve recommended this before in a Suggestion Saturday post, but I had to give it some attention again. The science fiction elements in this story weren’t actually mentioned right away, and if you blinked you might have missed them entirely until they were talked about again.

Somehow the subtle nature of that part of the storytelling made the ending even more satisfactory.

 

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

This wasn’t a friendly piece of science fiction, but it is an important one. My favourite high school English teacher assigned this to us. I don’t remember what she said about it after we read it, but I do remember how disturbed I was by the way this society was set up.

 

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan.

There are many fantastic graphic novels out there, but this is the best one I’ve read yet. The idea of being the last man – but not the last human – on Earth fits so nicely into the science fiction genre, especially once the main character realized what had happened and began to figure out what to do with his life from that point forward.

What do you think of my list? What have I missed?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on it on Twitter today.

Tailored Book Recommendations Are the Best

The Chronicles of Narnia was one of the first series I remember being recommended to me. My generous uncle gave me all seven books in that series at once when I was in elementary school.

As soon as I read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, I began quietly touching the back of every closet to see if it contained a wall behind the clothing hanging in there or if it would somehow lead me somewhere interesting. I was a little young for the later, darker instalments at the time, but I loved the first few stories immediately and soon grew up enough to enjoy the rest, too.

One of the things I loved the most about the magic in that world was how unpredictable it was. Aslan didn’t always show up when you expected him to, and he didn’t necessarily meet my expectations of what the creator of a planet would be like either. I spent more time than I care to admit memorizing little details about Narnia and wondering what it would be like to go there for real.

When my uncle heard how much I adored his gift, he came up with something even better for the next round of gift-giving: copies of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The Hobbit was an instant hit with me. I loved Bilbo’s cautious nature and the exciting details of his trek to The Lonely Mountain. It was one of my first brushes with characters who were in real danger when they went on an adventure. This was a more treacherous world than the one the Pevensie children knew.  There were no adults around to save them, and I was never entirely certain if Bilbo or his companions would make it home safely again.

Not only were there carnivorous trolls in The Hobbit, Bilbo also had to face conniving Gollum (whose backstory and identity wasn’t revealed until The Fellowship of the Ring), gigantic spiders who also wanted to eat him, and many other perils.

My uncle knew what he was doing when he recommended these stories to me. The basic rules of magic were different in each universe because one was written for a younger audience than the other was, but they were both filled with creatures whose very existence tickled my imagination.

Tailor Your Recommendations

Suggesting the right book for someone is kind of like giving them clothing. Knowing the right size (or genre, in this case) will go a long way in helping you pick something out, but there are many other small details that matter as well. You have to know someone incredibly well in order to have any chance at all of giving them something they’ll want to use or read over and over again.

There have been times when I’ve recommended books to people who ended up not enjoying those tales at all. In other cases, I’ve had books recommended to me that didn’t quite fit my tastes.

Other than obvious errors like writing two-dimensional characters or using cliches excessively, so much of what goes into a great story is subjective. You might be bored stiff by plot lines that I love, and I might feel the same way about the stories that someone else could spend all day reading without ever growing tired of them.

So it came as a huge surprise to me when a friend recently recommended a book that I’m loving so far: The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes.

Fred was a completely ordinary man who was turned into a vampire as an adult. He gained strength and became a physically healthier version of himself, but he otherwise remained the same shy and quiet man he’d always been.

No, he didn’t sparkle in the sunlight, seduce teenage girls, radically change his habits, or suddenly have the nearly-supernatural ability to conquer the world. (There’s nothing wrong with liking any of these tropes, of course, but they’re not the kind of storylines I generally want to read about).

Honestly, other than the fact that he drank blood and was now allergic to daylight, Fred reminded me of myself and of a few of my friends. He had a kind soul and a sharp wit. Sometimes he worried more than he should. He wasn’t the life of the party, although he was incredibly likeable and charming once you got to know him beyond his day job and strange affliction.

This is the kind of vampire fiction I will never get enough of. It has a dry sense of humour and a realistic take on what it might be like to become a vampire but still have nearly all of the problems from your old life following you around.

Will you like this story? I don’t know. There are some readers who I’m sure will stop a few pages in once they realize that Fred is breaking nearly all of the rules that have ever been made about what a vampire is supposed to be like. It’s completely okay for them to do that, and I hope they find what they’re looking for elsewhere.

When I recommend this tale to people in the future, I’m going to save it for folks who enjoy unconventional monsters, sarcasm, and the realization that becoming a vampire isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. There’s an audience out there for every book and a book that’s perfect for even the most selective reader if you look long enough for them.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Books That Should Be Taught in School

I thought this would be a fun post to share now that the 2017-2018 school year has either begun or will begin soon for many schools in North America.

As you might have already guessed, English was my favourite subject from the time my mom began the homeschool version of preschool for me until I graduated from college.

My classmates and I read countless short stories, novellas, and novels during those years, but I barely remember ever being assigned a science fiction or fantasy book until I entered college.

This is a real shame. The sci-fi and fantasy genres are full of stories that can be used to as a jumping off point to explore logic, history, math, geography, ethics, and so much more. I wish my classmates and I had been exposed to these genres as an official part of our curriculums from the beginning.

There are five books in each section of this post for the different age ranges: elementary school, middle school, and high school.

Elementary School

Fantasy sure seems like it has a stronger influence on elementary-aged students. I wonder if it’s because of the lure of traditional fairy tales to young children? At any rate, most of my recommendations for this age groups will sit firmly in the fantasy camp.

 

Gwinna by Barbara Helen Berger

I know I’ve blogged about this book before, but I simply must mention it again. This is the most beautiful modern fairy tale that I’ve ever read. It would be a wonderful place to introduce all kinds of classroom discussions about adoption, the dangers of breaking a promise, and what the students think happened to Gwinna after the end of the final chapter.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

One of the things that first drew me into this story were its descriptions of what life was like for children in England during World War II. There are many things that have changed since then, but basic human nature will always remain the same. It would be very interesting to see how today’s children would react to the idea of being sent away from home for their own safety during a war.

Of course, some students will already have personal experience with that kind of huge life change! Immigration, the separation of families, and the sad consequences of war are still every bit as relevant today as they were in the 1940s.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Rabbit

I have a vague memory of one of my elementary school teachers assigning this book to us when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The thought of living forever had never crossed my mind until I learned about Winnie’s life, but I loved watching her mull over her choices once she discovered that the family she’d recently met had a surefire method to remain young and healthy until the end of time.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

This series covered so many timeless issues: child abuse; discrimination; grief; what happens when family secrets are finally aired. What surprised me the most about all of the Harry Potter books was how much fun the characters had even when they were dealing with serious topics that many kids face in real life.

 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book about a factory filled with candy and other sweets?

On a more serious note, I liked the way the main character responded to the difficulties he faced in life. He was such a brave kid even when the odds were stacked against him and he couldn’t imagine how he’d get out of his latest predicament.

Middle School

Middle school is a tough age. Tweens and young teenagers are often suspicious of admitting they like stories they think were written for kids, but they’re also not quite ready for more mature material. These books – or portions of them –  would be perfect for this age group.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

It takes courage to face an angry dragon, and that was only one of the many dangers Bilbo was exposed to during his first big adventure. If I were going to teach this book, I’d round off our readings with a discussion of what happens to people after other huge changes like going to war or being diagnosed with a serious disease. Bilbo’s response to what happened to him mirrored both of these real-life experiences in all kinds of interesting ways.

This is also the perfect introduction to the the Lord of the Rings universe for students who like Bilbo and want to find out what happened to him after he returned home.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book was about a developmentally disabled man who was given an experimental medical treatment that quickly began to raise his IQ. Suddenly becoming much more intelligent than you were before isn’t necessarily an easy experience, but the main character’s diary about what that process was like made me think about everything from how disabilities are defined to what happens when someone is given the chance to change their life in all kinds of unpredictable ways.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Imagine a society without war, hunger, prejudice, or pain. In fact, all but one of the people in that society couldn’t even begin to tell you what any of those experiences were like.

This was by far my favorite book when I was in middle school. I thought the society the main character lived in was a paradise at first. Figuring out its dark side made me ask myself all kinds of questions about the meaning of life and how much freedom I’d be willing to sacrifice to permanently remove suffering in the world for just about everyone.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

One of the biggest reasons why I believe this should be read by middle school students is because it distills complicated arguments about freedom, politics, communism, and propaganda into a simple allegory about a farm full of animals who decide to revolt against their owner.

The twist ending is my second largest reason for recommending it to this age group. It was as funny as it was thought-provoking.

The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The silly sections will make middle schoolers laugh, but they’ll also learn a few things about getting along with others and not assuming that you’re the centre of the universe. The sometimes-convoluted storyline would also be a good place to talk abut everything from unreliable narrators to how two people can remember the same event completely differently based on how their minds store memories and what small pieces of that day they’ve forgotten.

High School

My high school English classes assigned us a lot of John Steinbeck and Shakespeare readings. I think these books would make a perfect addition to that kind of curriculum.

Beowulf

I first read this in college, but I wish I had discovered it years earlier. The dark themes and occasional scenes of violence are best suited for more mature readers who are willing to push forward to the conclusion.

I also believe that everyone who speaks English should be familiar with the first poem we know of that was written in Old English. There is so much about the beginnings of our language that we simply don’t know. Holding onto what we do know is important.

1984 by George Orwell

Should the government be trusted? Is everything that’s shared on the news actually true? How do you know when you’re being lied to?

These have been dangerous questions to ask in many different cultures and eras. Knowing when you’re being deceived is nearly as important as knowing how to react when it happens. I think every high school student should graduate with at least a little practice at weighing what they’re told carefully.

 

 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Climate change has already begun to affect our world. How people live in a generation or two will probably be quite different from how the average westerner lives today.

Ms. Butler had such a creative take on what our future could be like. I wish she had lived long enough to finish this series, but I relish what she was able to write. High school students could learn a lot from her thoughts on prejudice and what happens when an entire society falls apart.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

This is a classic piece of science fiction about time travel and the ethical dilemmas that result from knowing what will happen in the future but not being sure how to warn everyone about what is coming. Not every conflict in life has or should have a black-and-white solution.

Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

Most high school students are probably aware that there used to be other human-like species living on Earth, but I doubt most of them have wondered how our planet would be different if early humans had died out and another species had become dominant instead.

This tale asked a lot of hard questions about intelligence, environmentalism, and what it would mean to be human if we discovered that we weren’t the only intelligent hominids wandering around after all.

What science fiction and fantasy books do you wish would be taught in schools?

Why I Love to Read Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for everything from science fiction to dystopians, fantasy to horror.

I’ve been thinking a lot about speculative fiction in general since The Handmaid’s Tale began last month. This specific storytelling style has appealed to me for as long as I can remember for several different reasons.

Honesty

Books like 1984, Animal Farm, or Brave New World reveal the ugly sides of the systems, societies, or cultures they’re critiquing without hesitation. Do they offend some people along the way? Yes, without a doubt. It wasn’t necessarily their original goal, but they’re not afraid to ruffle a few feathers while attempting to get their audiences to wrestle with the big issues that authors in this genre often explore.

I love that about these tales. There are times when I’m in the mood for something light and fluffy, but my first literary love will always be tales that rip off the parts of human society that are hidden and reveal everything they’re trying so hard to conceal.

It definitely isn’t easy to write an entertaining story that also challenges people to rethink their assumptions. When an author manages to pull this off, it’s truly magical.

Critical Thinking

One of the things that irritates me the most about many news networks in the United States is how sensationalized they are. All of their repetitive panic over serious and frivolous stories alike dulls the senses and makes it extremely difficult to think critically about what the newscaster is reporting. When everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency.

I avoided the news as much as possible when I lived in the U.S. Now that I’ve been an expat for a dozen years, I find it overwhelming when I’m back in the States for a visit.

The nice thing about the more serious side of speculative fiction is that a well-timed plot doesn’t leave room for these kinds of diversions. Yes, there are scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale that draw me into deep thought every time I read about or watch them. These scenes not about assuming the worst or blowing things out of proportion in order to snag people’s attention, though.

Everything that was included in that particular book has actually happened at least once in the past. Some of the plot points have been repeated over and over again throughout history as we try and fail yet again to learn our lessons and improve on how previous generations behaved.

Speculative fiction can push readers to sort through the various points of view in their plots, decide which ones make sense, and come up with our own theories about what happened and how we should interpret fictional stories that have something to say about real-world events.

Wonderment 

First of all, isn’t wonderment a fantastic word? It’s the kind of word that I like to gently roll around on my tongue a few times before I bother to share it with anyone else.

All of the genres I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post are full of wonder in their own way. For example, I will never forget how I felt at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when dozens of invitations to Hogwarts appeared at the Dursleys house after Harry’s uncle destroyed the first few that arrived.

Seeing the Dursleys react so strongly to simple magic makes me grin every time I see it. If only they could have seen the more powerful, playful, and sometimes downright dangerous types of magic that Harry encountered once he started attending Hogwarts!

This sense of wonder stuck with me through all of the Harry Potter books. Even the darkest and saddest scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows still tickled my imagination in small ways. Once wonderment has been introduced into a story, it almost always remains there for good.

Escapism

Yes, I know that some people use this term in a derogatory way. I don’t think of escapist literature as a negative thing at all, though.

There is something to be said for immersing yourself in a completely different world when you need a short break or could use some encouragement.

The first time I read the Lord of the Rings series was shortly after my life had changed in all kinds of stressful ways due to a cross-country move my family made when I was a preteen. I had a lot of  trouble making friends and adjusting to my new school.

I was not a happy kid at that point in my life by any stretch of the imagination, but I found a lot of solace in seeing how Frodo and Sam persevered through even the most impossible circumstances.

We weren’t facing the same obstacles, but we were facing the same fears. If they could push through another day, then I could as well.

How about you? Why do you love speculative fiction? I hope you’ll pop over to Twitter today and tell me all about it!

What Do Authors Owe Their Readers?

Lately I’ve been participating in an online discussion about a famous series that started off beautifully and ended in a way that irritated many of its longterm fans. (No, I won’t be mentioning it by name here today. If you’re insatiably curious about this, send me a private message on Twitter and we’ll talk about it… Read More