there is nothing but crap on the shelves

The first novel I read in my life was “The Red Planet”, a Heinlein “juvenile”, which I picked up from the elementary school library shelf around 1976, under the mistaken impression that it was a science book.

I remember being shocked when I realized, on page three or so, that there were stories about science-type stuff.

And thus my life-long love affair with science fiction began.

Over the first decade or so my tastes widened: anything and everything on the bookshelf in the science fiction section of the library (or, later, in the science fiction section of the local Waldenbooks) was fair game.

Around college my tastes stopped widening and started narrowing a bit. It struck me that most fantasy was hopelessly derivative, poorly mimeographed Tolkien…and most of which wasn’t Tolkien pastiche was even worse. I mostly stopped reading the genre, with just a few exceptions, like Perdido Street Station and sequels when China Mieville burst onto the scene. Let’s call this “narrowing stage one (pruning almost all fantasy)”.

The next phase of narrowing occurred in the years after college, when I started paying attention to authors, sources of reviews, and sub-types of science fiction. I realized that most female authors didn’t speak to me, I realized that I didn’t care about “sociological” science fiction, I realized that dry-as-bone remember-the-science-but-screw-the-fiction science fiction bored me, etc. No aspersions are intended to any of these three groups: you like chocolate, I like vanilla, de gustibus non est dispuntandum.

At this point we’re up to the year 2000 or so and my tastes are narrow enough that I tended to only pick up books if they:

  • have at least one positive review on the back cover
  • won an award I respected (Hugo, Prometheus Award, etc.)
  • were from an author I already liked (Vinge, Gibson, Dan Simmons, Bear, Swanwick, Varley, Kim Stanley Robinson, Walter Jon Williams, MacLeod, Banks, Stephenson, etc.)
  • had a review from a source I trusted (Locus, authors I already liked)

    At this point I’d gone from reading 90% of what was on the shelf, when I was ten or so, to picking up perhaps 5% of what was on the shelf and putting most of that back down. Let’s call this “narrowing stage two (pruning most science fiction)”.

    And then I made a mistake: I started writing a novel.

    Almost everyone agrees that teaching is, itself, a learning experience.

    The fuzzy-headed among us think that this is because “you learn so much from your students!”, but those with a bit more intelligence realize that it’s because the introspection and analysis required to teach something force us into insights that are not possible by mere surface-level exploration of a topic.

    Auto-didacticism is a form of teaching, and it involves all of the introspection and analysis.

    So, twenty five months ago I started writing a novel…and after each draft (three so far), I looked back on what I had done…and found it loathsome. It failed in almost every way to measure up to my standards. So after each draft, I’d start a new draft, and correct the errors that I could see.

    The result was that each draft was markedly – dramatically – better than the previous.

    …and yet, each draft fell further and further below my standards.

    Yes, my standards were increasing faster than my writing skill was.

    This is all to the good, right?

    Well, mostly.

    There’s one problem: it’s not just my standards for my own science fiction that are ratcheting up: it’s my standards for all science fiction. And this creates a conundrum.

    In short: 99.9% of the science fiction that’s plucked out of the slush piles by the major publishers, run through the presses, and deployed to my local Barnes & Noble strikes me as utter crap.

    Even among the stuff that gets decent reviews, a lot of it fails to be worth the cover price…and that’s neglecting the fact that the time spent reading a book is the far more limited, valuable quantity.

    I think the last science fiction I read that I could tolerate was the collection Other Worlds Than These, which was really really solid.

    I feel like I’m approaching a crisis in my reading habits. Most of what I used to like now disgusts me, and I find myself spending far more time reading and re-reading how-to books from the “crafts” section of my own personal library: woodworking, blacksmithing, pottery, and such.

    The sequel to this rant is a yet-to-be-written post tentatively entitled “novels that need to exist, and those that don’t”.

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    One Response to there is nothing but crap on the shelves

    1. ScottH says:

      “..I find myself spending far more time reading and re-reading how-to books..”

      Me too! I spend a lot of what used to be reading time designing stuff for 3D printing. I’ll pick up Other Worlds Than These.

      Sweet! The new episode of Archer had the Trailer Park Boys guest voicing – and an ocelot!!

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