Notes on a trip to the bookstore

I live in Portland, land of one of the world’s great bookstores, Powell’s Books, which I used to visit several times every week. I don’t live as close as I once did (I used to WALK to Powell’s several times per week) but still, bookstores are one of life’s real pleasures, and who wants to go through life buying everything at Amazon, anyway?

The bookstore visit that prompted this, though, wasn’t to Powell’s, but one of those mass-market-ish chain stores that starts with the letter B. The stuff on their shelves is much more slanted to the BRAND NEW along with PROVEN LONG-TERM SELLERS. Can’t blame ’em, that’s how they roll. But when you stroll through the SF/Fantasy section there, you see a whole different range of stuff than when you shop for your favorites at Amazon (where browsing Ubik gets you recommendations for Valis and Man in the High Castle and similar things), or a used book store, which has all kinds of new and old, popular and obscure.

Yeah, my favorite genres look a lot different from that vantage point.

It seems all the Fantasy now is written by women, and all the SF is written by men. Oh sure, more SF writers have always been male, and Fantasy has always had more female writers than SF did. But now I’d say Fantasy is a 90/10 split toward female writers, and SF is the reverse.

Speaking of Fantasy, it appears traditional, Tolkienesque “high fantasy” is dropping way off in favor of modern/urban fantasy. This means, you know, fewer book covers with dragons flying over the mountains, or armor-clad bands of adventurers comprised of wizard plus dwarf plus elf plus berserker/warrior human, carrying swords and axes. Instead, more books with a thin, athletic-looking single woman in tight-fitting clothes, a black pony-tail, and at least one very prominent tattoo. Maybe a demon in the background, or alternately some kind of cool animal familiar, if the heroine is “witchy” in nature. Seriously I must have seen books by two dozen authors, on a variety of publishers, with the exact same cover template. Nowhere else in the bookstore do you see such homogeneous covers, except in the Romance section.

You also get the sense the great majority of SF people are reading is movie tie-ins (Star Wars and Star Trek books), or video game novelizations (Halo, Mass Effect). I thought there used to be a stigma about “real” SF writers doing these novelizations but there seem to be plenty of decent writers doing them now. Maybe that’s a good thing. For the longest time, those books were a joke. Are they better now?

There are several authors I hadn’t considered “major” who have several shelves of their books all lined up, while several others who seem to have higher profiles (judging by mentions in the various SF blogs, and the awards, and the pages of Locus) have nothing at all on the shelves, or maybe a single book.

All in all, a rather strange and depressing view of the SF/Fantasy genres.

I need to get myself back to Powell’s.

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SF Academy 07 – Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

I briefly mentioned a few days ago my excitement at this wonderful new book, Shadow of the Torturer, which is the first of four books in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun Tetrology.

Shadow & Claw: The First Half of ‘The Book of the New Sun’

This is my first “Science Fiction Academy” entry in a while, partly because I’ve been reading a bit less this past couple of months (spending more time writing, which is fine in the short run, but in the long run I’ll have to stoke the fire by reading more), partly because I’ve been reading less science fiction stuff, and partly because I’ve finished a few books that I haven’t gotten around to discussing yet.

Shadow of the Torturer is a great way to start this blog feature rolling again, because this is an incredible book. I feel like I’ve just stumbled onto one of my new, favorite writers in Gene Wolfe. This past few years I’ve sorted back through various science fiction of the sixties, seventies and eighties (and to a lesser extent those “classics” in decades before and after that range), and I’ve been struck more than anything else by the generally very poor quality of the writing in the genre. There are notable exceptions, like the poetic prose of Ray Bradbury, and the breezy, masculine confidence of Heinlein, but far more sf writers create prose at a much lower level than the quality of the ideas. It’s such a relief to come across someone like Joe Haldeman, who writes in a clear, straightforward way that never interferes with the story or makes me roll my eyes.

Gene Wolfe, though, may be the best pure writer ever to work in the science fiction or fantasy genres.

This book applies elegant, poetic language to the compelling story of a torturer expelled from his guild for taking pity on a “client” (torture victim) with whom he’d fallen in love. The story is expressed with great sensitivity, and delves into metaphysical and ontological questions along the way.

If there is one drawback, it’s that this first book in the series ends rather abruptly. This is remedied by the recent release of Shadow of the Torturer together in a single volume with Claw of the Conciliator, the second New Sun book, so the reader may continue on without too much frustration. I can imagine readers being frustrated with this one when it came out, though, with no sequel at hand until a year or two later.

This work is so accomplished, so compelling and overall so successful that I find I have less to say about it than I would most novels. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who claims to love science fiction or fantasy, as it somewhat straddles the line between the genres. It feels like a fantasy novel, with swords and armor, horses and witches, and dark towers. Yet the story is based on a far-future Earth, where much has changed, and virtually everything we now know has been forgotten. I’ve seen this series referred to as “science fantasy” and though that’s not a term I normally like, here it fits.

The clearest recommendation I can make is that I not only intend to finish the series, but the related “Long Sun” and “Short Sun” series, and possibly everything else I can get my hands on by Wolfe. Truly one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

Do You Read Novel Excerpts?

I’m almost finished with the 2009 Nebula Awards Showcase collection, edited by Ellen Datlow. It’s an anthology sampling, as you might guess, stories nominated for Nebula awards (one of the big two annual Science Fiction awards). The stories were first published not during 2009, or during 2008 (when the awards were actually given), but during 2007. That’s not a problem, and it sort of makes sense that 2007 stories might be nominated for awards given in 2008, and it takes a while for the book to be assembled and published so they can call it the 2009 showcase. That’s fine, because I didn’t buy this book thinking these stories were brand new, but if you want to read a collection of stories from 2009 nominated for Nebula awards, those awards will happen in 2010 and the book will come out in 2011.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2009

I’ll write a more complete summary of what I found worthwhile and not so great in this space as soon as I finish up the last story or two, but as I contemplate whether or not to read each and every item in here, I realized: I hate reading “excerpts.” This collection includes a tidbit from Michael Chabon’s well-received novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a book I’d consider reading, but I don’t want to give it a try. If I want to read the book, I’ll read it. I don’t want to give the excerpt a try and get all excited about the story, only to find myself stuck at page twelve.

Likewise, I hate serialized stories (you know, appearing in installments in a periodical), and I hate watching TV shows week-by-week with a wait in-between. My favorite way to watch TV, really just about the only way I’ll bother, is to discover the show on DVD after it’s been out for 3-5 years already, so once I start I can run just about straight through without any delay.

I also just finished a book by a favorite writer of mine, a little surprised to come to the end with such a thick chunk of pages remaining in the book. I thought maybe there’s some kind of essay or glossary or maps or something, but it was just a first chapter from the guy’s next book. I skipped it, because if I really loved it and wanted to read it, I couldn’t yet. The book isn’t available. Stop teasing me!

I’ll follow up with a post on the Nebula collection soon, but for now I’m just venting about those excerpts. I consider them a sort of tease without payoff, rather than a pleasant, enticing little sampler. I’ll have none, thanks.