Some books are perfectly good but ultimately predictable. When you’ve been reading for a long time, more and more books fall into that category. We ask writers and critics of today what books still make you sit up and take notice.
Christopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Award winning novel One for Sorrow, and most recently The Love We Share Without Knowing. His short stories have appeared in a variety of venues, including The Years Best Fantasy and Horror, LCRW, Strange Horizons, Interfictions, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. He teaches fiction writing at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio.
The last sf/f book that really surprised me was Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania. I read it in 2005, when it appeared. Some friends sent a copy of it to me in Japan as a gift. I’d heard good things already about it, but when I first started reading it, I wondered if it wasn’t perhaps only just hype, because for a good portion of the first few chapters it seems as if it was going to be any other YA teens get transported to another chintzy world novel. Then the story began to unfold in such a way that what kind of book you thought you were reading wasn’t actually that at all, but its inverse, a narrative that made the world you inhabit outside the reading of a book the fantasy, and the one inside the book reality. An alternate Roumania in which magic exists, and a political system that felt all too believable and beautifully contrived at the same time. In the foreground of this astonishing backdrop were these wonderful characters, too, some incredibly good, and others, like the Baroness, deliciously insane and evil. Reading this book took me back to my early days of reading fantasy novels, when I hadn’t read so many to grow bored yet by the vast amount of repetitive and derivative fantasy novels that flood bookstore shelves each year. In many ways, this novel is a very traditional fantasy with a few twists of the tale I hadn’t seen before, but it’s the uniqueness of the world and especially its characters that made me feel like I was finally reading an original fantasy novel again, for the first time in years.
It wasn’t published as a genre book over here (although I believe it has been in the US), but Kit Whitfield’s second novel, In Great Waters (2009) came as a very pleasant surprise. It was sent to me for review by SFX magazine, and I accepted it without any particular preconceptions, whether positive or negative – I knew that the author had written a noirish book involving werewolves, but that was about it. In Great Waters, I thought, was just another review assignment. But it turned out to be an unexpected joy right from the first page: richly and sensually written, it mines deep seams of imagination and characterisation in its portrayal of an alternate world in which land-dwelling humans share medieval Europe with merfolk-like ‘deepsmen’. Rather than an exercise in world-building and history-rewriting for its own sake, this is a vivid snapshot of a time and place in incipient crisis, seen through the eyes of two complex, fully-realised protagonists: a half-deepsman boy struggling violently with his involuntary exile from the waves, and a princess seeking a measure of autonomy in a royal court filled with hidden dangers. I was continually surprised by the twists and risks – of theme, of character, of story – the book took, and came away thoroughly impressed by Whitfield’s ambition and artistry both. Beautiful, compelling, and a standalone!
Surprise is an essential part of literature. Academics call it estrangement, but it comes down to the same thing. We read books precisely because they make us see something new. So if a novel doesn’t surprise us, it fails on a very basic level.
There are several new(ish) writers who write beautifully controlled, beautifully structured books, using smooth, effective language. And from practically the first sentence you know exactly where they are going to go and how they are going to get there. Books like that seem fine but are ultimately unsatisfying.
On the other hand, surprise is still something that you find everywhere, and in many different forms. The wonderful narrative voice of Christopher Barzak’s novels surprised me; the vivid portrait of tomorrow in Ian R. MacLeod’s Song of Time surprised me; the descriptions of the Jupiter system as if from direct first-hand experience in Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War surprised me.
Surprise is rarely a product of plot twists (no matter what too many writers seem to think) and is far more associated with turn of phrase, character development, skewed perspective, or the skewering of a truth you hadn’t even recognized until you read it. That’s why surprise isn’t a one-off experience. A great work – Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, Steve Erickson’s Tours of the Black Clock, Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy – I can return to again and again, and they surprise me every time.
Sadly, I no longer read the literature of the fantastic with same avidity and delight and heart-thudding excitement with which I approached the genre when I was aged, oh, thirteen to twenty-one. The sheer quantity of literature consumed has rendered me semi-immune to “sense of wonder.” Freshness is a scarce commodity, when you’re seeing the nth reiteration of characters, themes, plots and intellectual cargo.
Now, while all bigtime adult readers of a certain age might reach this pitiable condition, it happens much more often and readily to fellow writers. Knowing the nuts and bolts of fiction, seeing the hidden architecture behind our own work, develops in us a keen eye for the tricks and techniques of others. And as everyone knows, when the magic is explained, it goes away.
And finally, if one is a professional critic and reviewer as I am, it’s hard to pick up a book without automatically crafting a hook from which to nail it.
Three strikes, you’re out!
But having said all this, I find myself still taking lesser enjoyments from fiction of all sorts. And once in a while, I’m still knocked flat.
Probably the most recent time this happened was with China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which I read shortly after its US release. China’s second novel was just so bold, crafty, outrageous, accomplished and shimmering that it made me forget the three strikes I had against my enjoyment. I was truly thirteen again in spirit.
Maybe the real problem is that as we get older, it takes a masterpiece to stir us in the way the lesser books once did. And masterpieces are few and far between.
Rather than any specific book, what has been surprising me lately is the way upcoming younger writers are so bloody good at worldbuilding. Completely realized worlds, believable and clearly well-thought-out systems of magic and politics and economies: to name but a few, Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind), Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies) and the Kollin Brothers (The Unincorporated Man). I was in the first generation of babies dumped into the playpen in front of a TV, and all my life people have been warning that TV kills the imagination and the human storytelling impulse. Clearly it ain’t so! Original new universes are popping into existence at an amazing rate, and some of them are damned good ones. It’s a heartening thing to see such passion in story-crafting.
The last one to truly surprise me was about a year ago, when I was asked to write the intro to a collection from Postscripts — the British publisher — titled Mad Scientist Meets Cannibal by Robert T. Jeschonek. I’d never read him or met him, but the Postscripts gang, old friends all, assured me I’d find the book interesting. I know Jeschonek had written a number of movie tie-ins, so I figured at least he could push a noun up against a verb with some dexterity, so I agreed. And received the manuscript. And was blown away.
This guy is as off-the-wall in his own way as Ray Lafferty used to be. He sees the world like no one else sees it, and makes incredibly witty, incisive stories out of that skewed worldview. He has a hard science story in there that makes a favorable — and sympathetic — case for cannibalism; another one, a little 750-worder, breaks every rule you -can- break in 750 words and still is brilliant and memorable; and (the other half of the title) he can write about a world-dominating mad scientist from her slavishly-devoted lackey’s point of view and make you empathize with both of them.
I suspect it’ll be a few years before I’m so favorably surprised again.
The last time I was really surprised was reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union last year. It was the depth of characterization and the sheer overwhelming detail of the place that made it feel absolutely and convincingly real. I find much SF to be superficially realistic, but this — this was like digging my fingers into the very soil of Sitka. How Chabon does it really quite simple — through sheer aggregation of detail. But it’s a technique that’s at odds with much of SF (which I love to bits, but nonetheless…) and it’s turbocharged, switchback plots and word/page count preoccupations — not that Chabon’s work is bloated; quite the opposite.
– Ah, there you touch upon a topic. I’ve found that as the (many) years of my career as a fiction writer pass by, it gets harder and harder for -anything- to surprise me — genre fiction, non-genre fiction, visual media. You get so you can see the bones of the plot right through the flesh of the action.
My last surprise? Hmm… one of Harry Turtledove’s alternate histories started with an American sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.