Archive for the ‘Genre’ Category

Discovering Comics as an Adult

Posted: December 27, 2014 in Comics, Genre, Stuff
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I consider myself a jack of all trades kind of nerd. I know a little bit about a lot of nerdy things, but I wouldn’t really call myself an expert on much. Comics are one of those topics that I know enough to get in trouble with, but that’s about it.

See, I’ve always found them fascinating and I knew enough of the cool trivia but the rabbit hole goes real far when it comes to comic books. When I use the term “comics” I am quite specifically referring to the classic Marvel or DC superheroes. I have always thought that Doctor Who and comic books are the toughest fandoms to get into from the outside because the rabbit hole runs deep. That rabbit hole I mentioned is such an extensive history, you have to just jump into the deep end and hope you can figure it out. And that doesn’t even factor in the vigor and exuberance (when it’s positive) or anger and elitism (when it’s negative) that some people take these fandoms to heart. That makes it very intimidating to get into. Doubly so for any non-males who want to get into comics since it is traditionally a boys club.

Fox X-Men Animated Series

The 90s were the best.

But like any good kid from the 90s, I know most of my comic book lore from cartoons. I was eight years old when Fox Kids dropped the X-Men cartoon and I’ll still watch it online occasionally. I was a cartoon nerd before any other kind of nerd. It was the first job I ever dreamed of until I realized I sucked at drawing. Between X-Men, Superman, (the ultimately fantastic) Batman and later on X-Men Evolution, Batman Beyond and Static Shock, there were a lot of comics animated on tv. Teen Titans came along when I was in college. I watched them all except for Spiderman. Peter Parker is a weenie. I still don’t really like him that much. So anyone in the general vicinity of 30 who watched Saturday Morning Cartoons as a kid, has a basic knowledge of comic books.

NewX-Men44coverIt was not easy to jump from one medium to the other. Comic books are expensive. From time to time over the years, I’d get a bit of disposable income and try to keep up with a title or two. The last time I did, was around 05 and 06 and I grabbed up the New X-Men title because it was early on in its run. I thought it would be easier to dive into at issue #12 as opposed to #600something that Uncanny X-Men was on at the time. I think I kept up with it for six months until I got laid off from my job. The world spanning events Marvel likes to drop would have killed my budget anyways because you need a dozen different titles each month to figure out what the hell was going on with the characters you actually like.

So I lost track of comic books for most of my 20s aside from a couple Mass Effect trades I got for my Nook when it was brand new. I nabbed a couple Runaways trades too. I enjoyed the story but the cost to content ratio sucked. Fifteen bucks for an ebook comic I would read in one or two sittings. I could buy three or four novels on my Nook for that.

Kamala_KhanBut for all that, I wanted to read them again. The comic landscape was changing for the better. Kamala Khan, the new Thor. Comics seem like they’re growing up a bit and becoming more inclusive. That makes for better storytelling. That makes me want to read them. Novel writers like Peter V Brett have written comics. Chuck Wendig is working on one. Sam Sykes teamed up with one of his favorite artists to write a prequel comic for his latest book. Recommendations from people I already know I like to read are how I find new stories now.

So I found Marvel Ultimate. Netflix for comics? Friggin’ brilliant. Comic books look great on my Nook and the bite sized stories are perfect when there is a two-year-old running around the house.

I’ve been rocking Marvel Ultimate for a month or so. The first think I read was the start of Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel but that started to overlap with the Civil War event in the Marvel Universe. The side of “law and order” was the side of sanctimonious tools and I wasn’t really feeling a giant world spanning event right at the moment. I searched by character and read the very short run starring Jubilee as I think I may have been the only person ever to think the 90s cartoon Jubilee was cool. Two days into comics and I was already bummed that a title I wanted to read was cancelled after six issues (even if it was from years ago). I read solo titles from Mystique, who is my new favorite villain, and Gambit, who was bad ass in the old cartoon and still exudes cool. I read the whole Dark Avengers run and am working on Guardians of the Galaxy (no, I haven’t seen the movie to compare the two). I am toying with reading the entire X-Men run going back to the sixties, but that’s a huge thing to dive into.

My first thought is that the more complex character, the better. That transcends medium and is true across comics, books, film, tv and so on. I find it is way more magnified though when dressed up with the tropes of superheroes. Everyone is larger than life. The bad guys are really bad and the good guys are really good. The extreme ends of that spectrum are boring though. The demonic/evil/psychopathic villain is just set dressing. The paladin type hero who embodies all that is good and noble is boring as shit. Scott Summers, Captain America, (the aforementioned weenie) Peter Parker… they don’t interest me one single bit. I don’t want a lawful good character.

Mystique3The universal storytelling wisdom of “Every villain is the hero of their own story” is another one of those things magnified in comics. Magneto was always compelling because he thought he was doing the right thing. Mystique is the same way but with a lot more kick ass attitude. Reading about the bad guys in Dark Avengers was fun for the different PoV, but non-super Victoria Hand was the most interesting character in that run because she truly bought into what Osborne was doing and thought she was part of the good guys while enabling the real villains.

So I’ve been finding some good storytelling. Fantastic. Comics aren’t just about the story telling thought.

And the art can be…. problematic.

I’m a guy, who likes girls and even still, unnecessary cheesecake shots are unnecessary. Holy crap unnecessary.

In Dark Avengers when Victoria Hand marches up to Molecule Man, who just housed everyone else, he dissolved her uniform and gear leaving her in a tank top and underwear. Buh? That doesn’t add anything to the story. If you’re going for the “take away all her gear and make her vulnerable,” she would still have pants on. If you’re looking for a “vulnerable” metaphor, it’s heavy handed and lazy. She was talking tough while the artist drew her half-heartedly trying to cover up like Marilyn Monroe without a skirt or air vent. Words and actions don’t even match.

I get that everyone is going to read or interpret a story differently. Not everyone is going to read it the same way I will, but I cannot think of any way that adds to the story. At best, you’re going to get an eyeroll out of that. It’s fan service for that bad stereotype of lonely, horny, maladjusted male nerd.

During the Mystique comics, there was a stretch for a few issues with naked jokes ever few pages. As s shapeshifter, she makes her own clothes. It’s part of the mythos and her power. Lame ass “she’s really naked” and “I don’t actually wear clothes” jokes are friggin’ stupid. Gong Show, vote you off the island kind of stupid. And then they take the time to set up that she makes he own clothes, then has an extensive Just-Out-of-the-Shower scene wrapped in a towel so the artist has an excuse to draw her dripping wet. You aren’t even consistant at that point. Mystique can make her own fucking clothes. Why the hell would she even bother with a god damn towel?

Now look at me. Irritated and swearing over comics. Does that make me a “real” fan now? Probably not because I don’t like the dumbass sexism that took away from a great character.

Honestly, I think that a couple of these artists have never even seen a woman before. They are boobs, not armored cantaloupes and there is no type of martial arts where women are trained to attack boob first. Carol Danvers on the cover of Ms. Marvel #1 looks like she has footballs stuffed under her shirt. That’s not even remotely anatomically correct. Austin Powers’ machine gun boobed Fembots were less ridiculous. “But they’re superheroes!” Yeah well, there’s still no need to put the “gross” in “grossly disproportionate.” And really, no one gets to pull that argument until a woman is drawing Wolverine with epic crotch bulge for those who like to ogle the menfolk.

I absolutely and completely see why non-males are easily turned off from comic books and these are titles from the last decade, not even going back to when the same issues would be even more problematic and prevalent.

2006 - She will put your eye out.

2006 – She will put your eye out.

2012 - She looks like a human being!

2012 – She looks like a human being!

For all that complaining, I can see how it is better than it used to be. Emma Frost looks like she can’t breathe every time she shows up in that white bondage get up, but Jubilee, X-23, Pixie and some of the others showed up looking like human beings without being dressed like they lost a fight with a spandex factory and a fetish store. And just look at the progress six years has made with Carol Danvers.

One of the most important parts of being a fan of anything, is recognizing the flaws in something. There is room to adore these geeky things that we love while still being critical of the flaws. That’s how we get better, that’s progress, that’s opening up what we love to new people. For some reason there are angry nerds who don’t want to share. Screw that.

So there’s great storytelling. There’s great art. The genre’s problems seem to be getting better. I am glad that I have finally found a cost effective way to be a comic fan. For all its flaws, Marvel has sucked me in and I want to see the how the whole shindig is going to improve, because I think that it will.

Readercon 25

Posted: July 23, 2014 in Conventions, Genre
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Better late than never, eh?

Readercon 25 was not that long ago and it was my second trip up to that con. It’s a lot more commuter friendly than Boskone. Readercon isn’t in the middle of Boston, one of the suckiest places on earth to drive, and the likelihood of having a blizzard (again) was pretty low. Also, free parking. So I look forward to this one a lot. The hotel that houses the con was remodeling last year, so the facilities were swankier this time around.

Anyways. I doubt anyone really cares about how nice the hotel was. Content! What about the content?

I’m getting there.

And now I’m here.

A lot of the con programming, at least on the Saturday-Sunday that I was able to go to, skewed to genre talk and publishing chatter. There was not a big emphasis on craft. That’s not a good or bad, just a thing. My favorite piece of genre talk was “The Shiny, Candy-like Zombie: Commoditizing the Undead” and featured one of my new con favorites, Max Gladstone. Part of why I liked the panel is that it drew in other types of media into the discussion. Yes, it’s a book con, but books don’t exist in a vacuum and are influenced by other types of media too. It can be a positive to talk about all that sort of stuff too and on this panel, it most definitely was.

My other favorite genre panel was Long Live the Queen. This was all about Victorian influences on genre writing with (the obvious) steampunk as a starting point. The panel, in particular Theodora Goss and Catt Kingsgrave, were very well versed in the history of Victorian times which brings in a whole additional layer to a genre discussion.

The only sad part about that panel was the old couple that sat behind me saying “Oh this is steampunk, I hope it’s not.” They sat there and talked down on the newer subgenres and then walked out of the panel acting all disgusted. To each their own. You can like whatever you want, it’s not going to bother me, but there’s no need for people to be condescending tools. Good riddance. Better off without “fans” like that. That one incident aside, I thought this year’s Readercon was better than any con I had been to before in regards of avoiding “Old Timer Wanking about the Past and Hating on Anything Not Twenty Years Old.”

One of my new favorite con people is Kameron Hurley. She’s rad. I knew this thanks to twitter and her kick ass book, but it’s still nice when that translates into real life. She signed my copy of God’s War and was all like “Hey, you’re Mike from twitter.” So I won at the internet. Again, since that’s the second time I’ve had an author say that to me out of the blue at a signing. I saw Hurley on two panels and a reading. She’s very well spoken and I think if she suggested we all went and jumped off a bridge, there’d be takers based solely off her rhetoric and not the fact that jumping off of bridges is fun. She moderated an excellent panel on New Models of Masculinity, which later gave me a chance to recommend Saladin Ahmed’s short fiction to someone. Hurley was also on a panel about Marketing that had another one of my con favorites, Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld. One of the other panelists decided to make a point about “Marketing only works if you’re the first person to do something.” I don’t think there was a single person that thought it was a good point but Hurley had a Picard level face palm and then proceeded to own this guy.

This brings me to the highlight of Readercon. A whole crew from Women Destroy Science Fiction and Women Destroy Horror had a group reading. Amal El-Mohtar, Sarah Pinsker, Holly Schofield, Kameron Hurley, Liz Argall, Livia Llewellyn and Gemma Files all read pieces from the anthologies. I was actually pleasantly surprised that my favorite piece was a nonfiction from Argall. Hurley also read a nonfiction piece from the essay/blog that she got the Hugo nom for.

So that’s Readercon 25. I had a lot of fun. I’m going to end with some quotes really fast now since my kiddo is demanding satisfaction right now in the middle of the night.

  • “Yeah, he’s an old man leading a charge… but he’s a fucking wizard!” -GoH Andrea Hairston on Gandalf making a point on realism in SF
  • “I like men and I wish people would stop writing them lazy.” -Catt Kingsgrave on New Models of Masculinity
  • “As an erotic story, there is too much body horror with zombies, but-” shrug “-people are weird.” -Max Gladstone
  • “It’s like 1998 again. The Internet, it’s going to kill us all.” -Robert Jackson Bennet on Extrapolating SF from Science

Spec Fic 102: Introduction to Speculative Fiction Subgenres

Science fiction is such a broad based term, many different flavors of it exist. Kind of a duh statement. This is another one of my “If I was teaching this class” formats. I did an Intro to Sci Fi a while back. Today, we’re going to dive into a sampling of specific subgenres.

A recap of the structure for my mythical classes: Once a week for twelve weeks, a book every other week. That gives us six books, and in this instance, six subgenres. It’s going to skew modern. Somewhat. A lot of the genre’s more colorful subgenres are more recent. I blame the internet. People aren’t restricted to just what they can find on the brick and mortar shelf anymore. It allows people to seek out a wider variety of interests and then lets more writers help codify them into solid tropes.

vN-144dpiArtificial Intelligence vN by Madeline Ashby

Asimov may have given the world the Laws of Robotics, but vN has been a watershed moment in human-AI storytelling. I wrote about it when I was heavy into book review posts. The protag of this novel is a von Neumann, a self replicating AI, that is missing the failsafe preventing her from harming humans. This tackles the tropes of AI/robotic servitude to humanity head first. As a near future novel this makes the book a lot more accessible than the older, philosophy with off camera action type books from the early days of robotic fiction. There are a lot of extremely plausible scenarios in this book, making it hit home a lot stronger.

snowcrashCyberpunkSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Gibson may have done it first, but I’m much more partial to Snow Crash. Cyberpunk as a genre is film noir full of hackers in a post-industrial world. This book takes place both in and out of cyberspace. The protag is a freelance hacker of renown, out on his own after cutting ties to the mafia. The interplay between the real world and the virtual comes from the titular ‘snow crash,’ a drug that affects people in both worlds. Information as a commodity adds a healthy dose of dystopia the subgenre is known for.

 

americangodsGodpunkAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is the 900 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to godpunk. There have been some that came before, but this really set the tropes into a proper, albeit a smaller subgenre. The ancient gods are alive but not so well in America. The old gods are trying to navigate a world that doesn’t believe in them anymore, drawing what little power they can from modern habits drawn from ancient traditions. Norse, Slavic and African deities feature predominantly in this book along with leprechauns and mythic American figures like Johnny Appleseed. They are in direct conflict with the new gods born from American obsessions with things such as media, the internet and black ops work. This book features a more worldly cast of deities than many which stick to the Big Three of godpunk, Norse, Greco-Roman and Egyptian, and few display the old vs new conflict as well.

boneshaker-coverSteampunkBoneshaker by Cherie Priest

This book is widely considered the magnum opus of the subgenre. Steampunk is a vision of the future derived from an early industrial revolution point in history and much of the societal norms from that time. Boneshaker embraces the aesthetic right down to the cover art and sepia colored printing of the text. The zombies of the ruined city of Seattle are outside the box for the subgenre but a frontier city on hard times is the perfect place to feature the technological innovations like airships and gas masks.

 

discountarmageddonUrban FantasyDiscount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

It would be easy to pick any of McGuire’s work as a platonic example of what the urban fantasy subgenre has grown up into. The subgenre is a lot more than “Buffy clone beats up [insert monster] with [insert weapon/talent/schtick]” that it started out as. Between her two main UF series, I ended up going with the InCryptid series over the Toby Daye books because it features a larger variety of mythical creatures than just the faerie. Verity, the protag on the cover over there, is part of a family that studies, protects and polices the cryptid community to enable coexistence. That’s not terribly easy to do with a secret society of monster hunters looking to destroy them all. The society hidden within society is one of the things that makes this such a layered world.

thieftakerHistorical Urban Fantasy – Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

This is a new trend I’m noticing and it’s something I want to see more of. This takes a very historically accurate setting and adds in magic/horror/scifi and such. I started seeing it with military themes like Joe Nassise’s WWI zombies and Harry Turtledove’s Civil War with AK47s, but it’s moving to a true urban fantasy set in the real world past. The protag here is a conjurer living on the fringes of society in 1760s Boston. You don’t need to know much of American history to know this is a very interesting time and place to be hanging out solving murders with magic. This books creates magical causes to actual events in Boston’s history and has the protag rub elbows with guys like Samuel Adams. Bonus points, the author has a PhD in US history.

51logoIt’s February so that means it’s Boskone time! This is my third time around at this con and the second year in a row that this con commuter got to drive through a blizzard. It’s a good thing I have the blood of the frigid northlands in me and winter doesn’t bother me.

I rolled in for two days of the con and hit up eight panels plus the Guest of Honor interview and the flash fiction slam. Wow, I didn’t realize I was that busy. No wonder I didn’t have time to eat lunch. The panels were split evenly between shop talk and fan stuff. There was talk of positive work habits at Finish It: Completing Your Work. I got that 500 words/day seems to be more of a magic number for pros and pros with day jobs than the mythical 1666 2/3 words/day from NaNoWriMo. That’s always a positive to hear what with having the day job and family. Food in Fiction was another fun shop talk panel. Elizabeth Bear, who is always a delight to hear talk on panels, pointed out how food is very underutilized in world building. World building is pretty damn important to any flavor of our genre so it was rather productive shop talk.

Pixels to Print: The Challenges of Running a Magazine was a behind the scenes with the head people from Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Galaxy’s Edge. I seriously wish my writer / newspaper editor friend had been in on that. I tend to only dabble in short stories, but I love learning about the behind the scenes stuff that goes into the products we all read. The last shop talk panel I hit up was Writers on Writing: Sex vs Romance. It bordered on genre talk at times because the relationship expectations for different parts of our genre can be wildly different. I have to admit, I lost track of a little bit of this panel because it keyed into something that was missing in my novel-in-progress and I outlined a new opening chapter on the spot. So super huge thanks on that even if I did miss a bit of what was said.

I drifted into Ezines, Fanzines and Blogs on Sunday. That frustrated me a bit. Waxing nostalgic about “the good ol’ days” has its place but it shouldn’t be paired with “new things are horrible and different and just go too fast.” I was seriously glad that Mallory O’Meara was there to be “yeah, no.” She runs a New England wide thing called Arkham Horror Book Club and was all “Yeah we do digital and still do all those things you think are missing from today’s fandom.” High five for all that.

Genre discussions always make me happy. I find that stuff fascinating, going back to the same kind of discussions in film school. Urban Fantasy in Transision tracked how the subgenre is evolving. I completely agree that it has come a long way from the “Buffy lookalike kills [insert monster] with [insert magic/weapon].” This is a good thing because I think UF has some of the most progressive storytelling around now and when it first came about, it was very needle-in-a-haystack to find the good ones. Future Fantasy and the Teen Protagonist spent a lot of time defining terms. That sounds boring written out but it really wasn’t. It keyed in with some of the YA trends. Apparently to kids these days (I think it makes me old because I just said “kids these days”) consider ‘sci-fi’ a dirty word. Future fantasy is becoming a term for “sci fi with wonder.” It’s a term I like that fits and I really wish I had written down which panelist said it. Wicked Good Villains went into how storytelling is evolving past black and white good versus bad. The best baddies are the ones you can understand, think Magneto, and the best protags are the ones who are a bit messed up. I’ve actually been thinking about a whole post on that for a while and took some notes to use accordingly.

The Guest of Honor interview was a lot of fun. Seanan McGuire is just as fun of a storyteller in person. Elizabeth Bear was doing the interview which really consisted more of “Hey, deadly viruses!” or “Tarantulas!” and then stories just happened. I also hadn’t realize that the massive pile of publications she’s written has all been since 2009. Damn, I knew she had a busy schedule but now that’s gone from damn to holy crap! I am seriously amazed by that time management fu. It’s also nice to hear someone say her name aloud because I wasn’t ever sure I was saying it right in my head. Having a last name no one ever pronounces correctly, but really should unless they’re from Canada, makes pronunciation something I worry about getting right.

I rolled in for the Kaffeeklatch with Myke Cole. He continues to be engaging and helpful and an all around cool person.

Reading at Boskone 51.

Reading at Boskone 51.

Oh hey, you didn’t think I’d forget to tell you how the reading went did you? It went well. I kept the nerves down and busted out my radio DJ voice. One thing that I knew but didn’t really click before the reading was that I brought a cyberpunk story to lay in front of people who helped invent cyberpunk. The inventors of the genre. Let that sink in for a moment. And then think if that was a really good idea. Whatever. I brought it, I laid it down and it was good. I didn’t win but the people who did dropped some excellent stories. The competition was very close. One of the judges said he thought there was a moment that seemed a bit dated, like a 70s or 80s kind of SF. That may have been the kicker, but you know what, I can live with that . That’s a personal preference. Everyone has them, doesn’t mean the story is bad. I had a couple people come up to me afterwards and also on ye olde Twitter tell me they liked my story. That’s a fantastic thing to happen after reading in public for the first time. An extra high five for Brenda Noiseux, a twitter pal I got to meet for real and was at the reading. She snapped that pic of me.

Last and certainly not least, my favorite part of going to these cons, finding cool new authors. Both of these authors this year sold me on their work during the Urban Fantasy in Transition panel. Like I said above, UF has some of the most interesting storytelling going on now. I will definitely be picking up the books of Mur Lafferty and Max Gladstone. Lafferty’s book, The Shambling Guide to New York City, I knew of but talking about where the character arc was heading for book two and being an all around well spoken and interesting individual really sold me. Gladstone is also well spoken and interesting, (there’s a theme, being cool helps sell) but I hadn’t heard of his books at all. Three Parts Dead is urban fantasy written from a fantasy world evolving up to the industrial age rather than most UF which is a real world base and magic added in. Necro lawyers. That’s bad ass. The only downside was that I was hording my cash money in case I got snowed in Saturday night and the books were all sold out from the huckster’s room when I went to get them on Sunday. Oh well. I’ll just get them on the next big order.

Quotable quotes, (sometimes with context):

  • “Just slide your Ender’s Game across the table and nod.” –Anna Davis, author of The Gifted, in the Future Fantasy panel
  • “We’re in a golden age of flawed heroes and sympathetic villains.” -Myke Cole on Wicked Good Villains
  • “It was my midlife crisis. Instead of buying a red convertible, I set up a company to see how fast I could lose my money.” -Shahid Mahmud (Galaxy’s Edge) on getting into publishing
  • “My comments aren’t as valuable as the quick turnaround.” -Niel Clarke, founder of Clarkesworld, on using form letters
  • “Everything is a draft until you die.” –Fran Wilde on Finish It: Completing Your Work
  • “Sci-fi is sort of a dirty word.” -Stacey Friedberg, Asst Editor at Dow on the Future Fantasy panel on marketing to a younger audience.

So Boskone 51 did everything I needed it to. I got fodder for the work in progress. I got fodder for the blog. I met and talked to some cool people. (Look mom! Introverts being social!) I had a lot of fun.

Counting down the days til my next con. Readercon in five months.

This has been percolating in my head for a while, like most of my bigger blog posts tend to do. I don’t remember any specific thing that spurred me on to this thought train. The aging old guard that hates any sort of change is an ugly thing in the SF community, and it’s all too often that they rear up and stomp around like dinosaurs. One of their many airing of grievances probably set this off.

I grew up reading the Old Guard. That’s what my parents read back in the day because they weren’t the Old Guard then, they were the Newbies. They were the Old Guard though when I started reading their books at ten. A lot of the Old Guard have written amazing things. The cornerstones of science fiction and fantasy came about because of them. That’s past tense. It’s a fact. Even if they’ve turned into curmudgeonly old guys, their past impact on the genre can’t be changed. Prime example: Ender’s Game and Orson Scott Card. Today’s version of OSC is not someone I would ever get along with, to put it in nice words that aren’t swearing. However, the book he wrote back in the 80s is profound.

Thanks to this nebulous mass of the Old Guard, there is an image that the Average White Guy who reads in our genre only wants to read about Average White Guys and put their foot down to squash diversity. Eh, that might be a bit dramatic, but the image is one of indifference at best.

I want to put it out there that it is a complete misnomer that people only want to read about people exactly like them. I think this is doubly so within SF circles. If we weren’t all fans of the different on some level, we’d all be reading “regular” literature instead.

Just from a practical point of view, think that I’ve been reading SF for twenty years now. No one can read everything, but I consider myself fairly well read in both the sci fi and fantasy sides of the genre from the 70s stuff my parents were buying in high school on up to the new stuff today. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve read about the  Average White Guy Chosen One who must save the universe/kingdom.

Been there, done that. That’s not to say it couldn’t still make for a good book, but it’s a very tired trope. I want something new. We’re fortunate that we live in a day where it is a hell of a lot easier to find that shiny new story. Amazon may be the 900 pound gorilla in the room, but you can buy anything from them, not just what is confined to the shelves at the local big box. Finding something different than the bleached out vision of sci fi or the Anglo based fantasy is a lot easier than it used to be.

Examples galore are out there. Some of the ones I love to recommend (and frequently do) are Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed and a new one I recently read, Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi.

In none of these books, or the myriad of others I read, being different was not the end all be all of the book. Having a different cast of characters and a different cultural basis were defiantly points in favor for the books. None of that would have mattered though if they weren’t written well. How’s the plot? How’s the prose? Drop the ball on that and you’re novel could be about the UN and it wouldn’t matter one wit to me.

ascension-coverI’m going to use Ascension again as an example since it’s new so therefore hasn’t been talked about around these parts before. The protag, Alana, is black and gay. The relationships in the book are polyamorous. That’s quite possibly the polar opposite of the Average White Guy. Ok. That’s all well and good, how’s all the other stuff going on in the book? Plot? Prose? It happens to all be fantastic. Alana is a bad ass engineer who stows away in a cargo ship on a desperate mission. The engineer on a civilian ship is a point of view that’s refreshing in itself instead of the typical guns-blazing space marine. But that’s a tangent for another blog post. The point is, Alana is doing badassery independent of how she identifies herself. Her differences add more layers to a novel that already had a compelling base.

That is the best way to go about adding more diversity into the SF scene.

Because character diversity isn’t the end all be all of a good novel, it doesn’t always work out. I read an urban fantasy with a gay protag that spent more time sitting around moping “Does she love me? Do I love her?” It was book one of a series so the plot never felt any need to move about with urgency and the novel ended up being half relationship, high school type drama, dealing with intolerant family kind of stuff. If that’s your bag, great, fantastic, I’ll let you know where the used bookstore I sent it off to is. It’s not my bag at all because the plot took a back seat to all the introspection. There should be balance between the two.

There was another time I read a steampunk book that made a huge to do and reveal of a transgender character right at the start of Act Three. Ok cool. People are people. And? And nothing. The book went out of its way to make it into a Thing, I expected some sort of plot point out of it. When there wasn’t one, I felt the whole thing was distracting. The drama was distracting, not the character herself. I think it would have been more effective storytelling if it had been brought up earlier in the normal course of business and without the drama of a reveal. But then again, I don’t know anyone else who’s read the same book to solicit other opinions. Maybe other people liked the drama of it.

Having a diverse cast in SF become a non issue is a noble and proper goal. A multicultural, multiracial, multi(insert any adjective that describes people) landscape should be accepted as the norm. I think that treating it as normal is the best way to get people around you to also start treating it as normal. Lead by example kind of thing. Letting the storytelling take a back seat to creating a diverse cast does a disservice to the very cause they want to champion. Maybe disservice isn’t the right word choice. It’s more like a lateral move, not hurtful but not really helpful in the end.

I feel like writing diversity as normal is harder to accomplish as an Average White Guy writer though. I don’t want to deal with questions of “Is this guy pandering for sales?” or “You’re not X, you can’t write about X without authenticity.”

Whatever. Screw that noise. In the end, I’m going to write the stories I want to write. That will frequently be about characters that aren’t like me because otherwise life would be boring as hell. I’ve got a short story about a scientist that happens to be a black woman with genetically engineered pink hair and six fingers. Why? Fun. Also, the character design was inspired by one of my kid’s Nick Jr cartoons (so many points to whoever can call that one). The punk band in my in-progress novel has a Hispanic brother and sister and a Chinese drummer. Why? Well, originally it was set in my hometown which has large Puerto Rican and Chinese communities. There’s no reason the band should be nothing but white guys. That’s just things plucked out of my daily life plunked into my writing.

I might not write different people right. In fact, I’m sure I’ll screw it up once in a while. And if people want to respectfully talk shop about how to improve writing a certain POV, fantastic, I love talking shop and I always want to get better as my writing. The same goes for my reading lists. New points of view from diverse characters will always be another positive selling point in the laundry list of things I look for in a new book. I like to think that the genre community is getting better in that regard. We can drown out the haters by treating differences as a regular part of everyday life. That goes for the real world too.

Today I am starting a series of posts called Courseware. This came about from a classic thought experiment from film school. “What movies would I use if I was teaching the class?” It’s actually something I would talk about with my buddies somewhat frequently for whatever reason. The thought train that brought me around to applying this to SF books started with the recent Tim Powers book.

See there actually is a Science Fiction as Literature class at the Community College of Rhode Island where my wife works. She took it when she was a student and enjoyed it even though her reading lists skews much more towards horror and supernatural. I know some other people who’ve taken it as well and everyone enjoys it. Unfortunately, it’s permanently in the 10am timeslot, effectively ruining it for anyone with a day job. The class as taught has a lot of short stories and one novel, The Anubis Gates by the aforementioned Tim Powers. I’ve read it. Good book.

So in thinking about how to structure a SF-F class, the first thing I realized is that the subject is way to broad to cram it all into one class. This is why I expect this to be a series. We did the same thing back in film school too and seperated Intro to Film Analysis from Intro to Film History. Let’s split it up here. Today is Intro to Sci Fi and later we’ll hit Intro to Fantasy. Let’s also assume it’s a once a week thing. Back when I was in college, my school was transitioning from a three credit system to a four. For a once a week class, it’s not that different, just an hour longer. Ideally, that gives the class maximum time to talk shop and read excerpts from the books being discussed.

The next ground rule is one book every two weeks for a six book total. When I was working nights, I’d polish off six to eight in two weeks but not everyone has that kind of time. Even now with the day job and the toddler, only doorstop size pagecounts take two weeks or more. This also gives ample time for discussions and such. A lot of the discussions would revolve around the background of the genre, the societal influences on the work and other works surrounding the ones chosen.

Specific to Intro to Sci Fi, the books I’ve chosen are going to skew modern. The reason for this is accessibility. I could go back to the very first sci fi book, Frankenstein but have you actually tried to read it? I have. Gah it’s not easy. The language is very dated and it’s not a very easy read because of it. Think of this as Sci Fi for newbies. We’re not trying to scare them off, we’re trying to rope them in. Things like the Foundation Trilogy and Ringworld are classics, but for a newbie could be like throwing them in the deep end without telling them which way is up.

I also want to showcase sci fi at it’s best. As a genre we’re concerned with the future of all people, not just the all too unfortunate demographic spread the old guard wants to cling on to for some reason. Only two of the six are written by white guys and four of the six have people of color and/or women as the protags. If we want to encourage the genre to be all encompassing going forward, one of the best ways to do it is by talking about the books that showcase it.

Without any further ramblings, the courseware for Intro to Science Fiction.

windupgirl The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a near future book that takes place in a world saddled by environmental collapse. Too much genetic engineering has killed off biodeversity and engineered plagues are a very real threat. One protag works for Big Agriculture skulking around Bangkok looking for hidden foodstuff. The other is a genetically created human. Oil and petrols are restricted to the government and the super rich. When I first read this book, I felt it was a touch creepy that I could see the world really going down this path. For an introduction to the genre, familiar real world problems and technologies only a step or two away from what exists now can ease new readers into it. There’s a lot of room to open up the discussion to how sci fi can talk about things in a different way than plain old literature can

arcticrisingArctic Rising by Tobias S Buckell

I debated making this the first book as it is another near future book. Arctic Rising doesn’t have such a bleak outlook on the future. I also thing it has a more international feel to it even though both books so far take place outside of the US. Again, global warming is screwing with the earth. The nations boarding the arctic circle find themselves a lot more powerful all of a sudden with new resources opening up. The last icebergs on earth have formed a new geopolitical entity part of no nation. Anika Duncan is a bad ass airship pilot working for the UN thrown into a big mess. There’s a lot of politicking and action rolling around in this. Discussion could veer towards sci fi and thriller tropes interacting together.

merchantersluckMerchanter’s Luck by CJ  Cherryh

I specifically wanted this book to follow Arctic Rising because Buckell has said how it hit home with him growing up in the Caribbean. Sometimes tradition in our genre isn’t a bad thing and can create fascinating stepping stones across different generations of writers. Bam. There’s a lot of discussion from this right there. The book itself stands alone but takes place in a larger universe created by Cherryh. I would definitely brush up on the other books in the world to tie it together. Sprawl is often a key part in sci fi.

onbasiliskstationOn Basilisk Station by David Weber

Want to talk sprawl? Honorverse time. On Basilisk Station is the first of the (currently) thirteen book series tracking naval officer Honor Harrington from her first posting out of the academy. I’m horribly out of date on my Honor books, but the last I read she was an Admiral in two different nations. I first read this when I was maybe twelve and was my first non-Star Trek foray into space opera. Even though this was first published in 1992, there is a Cold War feel to the start of this series. Discussion could start off with the historical analogues of the cold war and the Manticore-Peep war in the making and space opera tropes here as compared to well known space operas on television and film (ie Trek and Babylon 5)

fuzzynationFuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

I couldn’t run an intro level science fiction anything without including Scalzi. He purposely writes science fiction that is accessible without needing a huge background in the genre. Old Man’s War may be more well known and what propelled him onto the scene, but Fuzzy Nation has the ethics of human-alien interaction. The OMW series has a lot of alien interaction but is mainly concerned with curbstomping them until book three. Which makes sense in the context of that series. Fuzzy is wholly concerned with the ethics of alien and sentience. Kind of self explanatory where the discussion would be going with that.

livesoftao The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

This is the most recent of all the books I’ve chosen, not even a year old. The premise here is a reverse of what Scalzi was doing in Fuzzy Nation. In Tao, humanity is the “lesser” species while the Prophus and Genjix, two factions of an ancient species, are the advanced race shepherding us along. It turns out the aliens crashed on earth before evolution even gave us fish. They piggyback on humans and animals, sharing the same bodies. It turns out all of human history has been influences by their war. Roen, an out of shape IT guy, gets a secret agent in his head by accident and is part of the war all of a sudden. I think it’s important to look at the trope of “advanced civilization interacting with a lesser” from the other direction.

So thanks to twitter again today, I’ve noticed a phenomenon in SFF publishing. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed it, but it happened again today and hey look! For once I have the time to do something about it.

So what the hell is it? [Insert Monty Python and the Holy Grail yelling GET ON WITH IT!]

Short answer, international cover art is way cooler.

humandivEhumandivjapanesexample A…. John Scalzi‘s Human Division dropped in Japan with this pile of kick ass on the right. Now… don’t get me wrong, the US version looks pretty damn spiffy but it also looks somewhat traditional. I don’t need to be a marketing genius or some sort of cultural expert to see that the manga looking cover is going to have a lot more attraction in Japan than the traditional space station.

Now actually, as far as traditional SF covers go, I think the Human Division cover is pretty damn spiffy. It’s got a nice color palate instead of black starscapes. But, I am partial to covers that show characters and while the Japanese cover doesn’t show an actual scene from the book, people are always more interesting than tech alone. I also agree with what Scalzi said himself that it’s great they show Ambassador Abumwe and not just the shooters.

So both good, but Japan wins. Like woah.

lockelamora-uslockelamora-ukExample B…. Scott Lynch‘s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Full disclosure, Lies is one of my all time favorites. But I totally did not pick it up off the shelf because of the cover. I actually picked up it’s sequel off the shelf first because of it’s cover. Again with the US cover, kind of traditional. I dunno what the hell Locke is supposed to be thinking sitting there. He’s certainly not being a very good thief sitting out in the open like that. It would bother me a lot less if that was something that happened in the book, but he never stares off at Camorr’s towers looking all pensive, wry and slightly emo.

UK over on the right still has Locke perched in odd places for some reason, but that captures the feel of the city and the book so much more. Locke’s version of Camorr is the dirty slums where you’re more likely to get shanked and dumped into the canal.

UK absolutely wins here and I’m pretty sure they stayed with the same artist for all the covers going forward, US and UK.

breachzone-usbreachzone-ukExample C…. Myke Cole‘s upcoming (and greatly anticipated) Shadow Ops Breach Zone, or in the UK, just plain Breach Zone. Now, again here, I don’t think the American cover is bad, I just think that the UK one is a whole lot better. Over on the left, Harlequin looks pretty damn impressive. Scylla looking pretty cool down in the corner but it’s totally Harlequin’s show and he could be a poster child for a recruitment poster there. Which is the point. We know this because we’ve met Harlequin before and I think the cover captures him pretty well.

But poor Harlequin can’t hold a damn candle to Scylla over in the UK on the right. She is fucking Bad Ass. Capitol letters and all. Seriously. Like Betty White, Scylla is sick of your shit. It captures the character more perfectly than any cover I’ve seen in a while. I want to find some British pounds to get my hands on that one.

Also, there’s a new blurb on the UK cover. The Peter Brett blurb on the left is a good one, (though nothing beats “I do not wish Sam Sykes dead” in Tome of the Undergates) but it’s the same one through all three books.

I’m getting into the rhetorical territory here now but I’m wondering why the covers are so different. The Japanese cover isn’t too hard to figure out but do the marketing departments in London and New York really so divergent? I was clicking around on goodreads and some people have wild variants around the world with their covers. Peter Brett, China Miéville and the afore mentioned Sam Sykes all have completely different covers out in EuropeIf you call up Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, one of my favorite covers, it’s the same across the world. I’m not sitting around in the publishing house or anything but I think it would be very interesting to be a fly on the wall to get some insight into the why’s of these decisions.