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MIND MELD: Books That Carried Us Outside Our Comfort Zone

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This week we asked our participants to talk about reading out of their comfort zone…

The right kind of author, and the right kind of book, can lure readers to try subgenres of fiction and genre fiction that they wouldn’t normally think to try. These authors and books lure unwitting readers into trying and embracing a new subgenre by virtue of being well-written, subverting genre expectations, and sometimes being a case of a favored author trying a new subgenre and following her into it.

Q: What authors and books have gotten you to try new subgenres of fiction and genre fiction?

Here’s what they said…

Michael J Martinez

Michael J. Martinez is the author of the newly released historical fantasy/space opera mashup The Enceladus Crisis, sequel to the critically acclaimed The Daedalus Incident. When not writing fiction, Mike has a day job writing about stocks and bonds. He brews his own beer and travels a lot thanks to his travel-writer wife. Their daughter is awesomeness incarnate. Mike lives on the Jersey side of the greater New York City area. He’s on Twitter as @MikeMartinez72 and Untappd.

I knew that when I began writing historical fantasy that I would be brushing up against steampunk. Now, my books are not, in fact, steampunk – they’re Napoleonic era space opera, among other things – but I figured my work would certainly attract some of that audience. The thing was, my experience of steampunk was limited at best, and primarily via role-playing games, such as Space: 1889 and the most excellent Castle Falkenstein.

I sampled a number of works in steampunk and found them to be somewhat lacking , being primarily invested in the gee-whiz-bang of the setting, with either character or plot (or both!) thinly drawn. This is, for the record, nothing new to steampunk; recent discussions at DragonCon amongst authors and readers pointed to a general lack of excitement and direction in the genre. Of course, you are free to disagree, but this echoed my feeling at the time and, apparently, still happens to others.

Anyway, I had pretty much given up on steampunk for a while. It seemed repetitive and kind of a one-note subgenre. Then I came across Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. And…wow. Here we had all the creativity in setting that we’d come to expect from steampunk, plus the inclusion of some pretty nifty and scary zombies. What was more, we had richly drawn characters and a plot that was simple enough to drive the reader forward, but complex enough to keep the reader wondering. It was a finely wrought book with a solid plot, rich characters and a great take on steampunk.

Boneshaker not only gave me hope for steampunk, but also for the broader historical fantasy genre. It gave me hope that my own work would see the light of day and be accepted. And ultimately, all this led to me, now a published author, meeting Cherie Priest at DragonCon and thanking her in person for her work, followed by drinks. Life’s good like that.

Heather Massey
Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express, and is the Releases Editor of the Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly. She also writes a monthly steampunk romance column for Coffee Time Romance.

Anime of the space opera kind (long live Space Battleship Yamato!) was actually my very first introduction to SF/F as a youth. The excitement of it prompted me to explore literary stories by classic authors such as C.S. Lewis, Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton, and H.G. Wells.

Early in life, I first explored SF/F books available at my local library. I tried to find primarily action-adventure space opera with compelling characters and romantic elements (Edward Hamilton’s Starwolf was one I read), but given the “limited” selection I began branching out. SF/F was such a great discovery that most subgenres interest me to this day. Yet my initial experience with anime was such a strong influence that years later, after the rise of ebooks made certain books more accessible, I settled on reading sci-fi romance regularly.

SFR delivers a constant stream of women-authored stories with a variety of settings. I can get the sense of wonder, romance, action-adventure, and three-dimensional characters all in one package. I search primarily among digital-first/small press/indie books for reading material since authors in those realms tend to consistently deliver SFR. So for me, the journey is more about discovering how various authors are experimenting with the genre.

Favorite discoveries include:

  • Catherine Asaro’s Alpha (because android romance!)
  • Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension (because diverse characters and lesbian romance!)
  • Manda Benson’s Moonsteed (because tough anti-heroine and cute, pudgy Russian hero!)
  • Alisha Rai’s Night Whispers (because post-apocalyptic zombies and PoC heroine!)
  • Nathalie Gray’s Metal Reign (because alien invasion and friends-to-lovers romance!)
  • Cathy Pegau’s Caught in Amber (because SF noir suspense tale!)
  • Sandra McDonald’s The Outback Stars (because alien artifacts, a murder mystery, and forbidden romance!)
  • P.J. Schnyder’s A Gift For Boggle (because the wheelchair using hero is an information genius and has hot sex in like, the most amazing shower stall ever!)
Louise Marley

Louise Marley writes in almost as many genres as she reads. Her first love is fantasy and science fiction, but she has recently expanded into historical fiction. Under the pseudonym Cate Campbell she published the Benedict Hall series with Kensington Books, a trilogy of novels about a young woman physician in 1920s Seattle. Her bibliography has reached a total of eighteen novels, all of which can be found at www.louisemarley.com or at www.catecampbell.net.

Since the day I learned to read, I’ve read anything and everything I could get my hands on. In the third grade I read every Wizard of Oz book my school library had. I read and re-read Will James’s Smoky when I was nine. I feasted on the novels of Zane Grey when I was eleven. In high school I read Huxley and Orwell and Golding and a bunch of 19th century classics. I was nothing if not eclectic in my genres!

I had not, however, read much in the way of mysteries, and especially not the sort of gothic romances that abounded in the first half of the twentieth century. Then I stumbled upon Nine Coaches Waiting, by Mary Stewart, and I was hooked.

I was so hooked, in fact, that I went on to find more in the genre. First it was just for fun—because reading is always my first choice for entertainment—but then I began devouring the novels of that period in an effort to understand why authors like Stewart and Christie and du Maurier, and of course the fabulous Josephine Tey, who wrote the enduring tale Daughter of Time, are still being read. They wrote popular fiction, books that might even be called women’s fiction today, but the stories and the plots are still compelling.

The lesson I took away from them, especially du Maurier and Stewart, was that the strength of a story is in its characters. In Nine Coaches Waiting, I noticed that every character, even the minor ones, had a shape and a backstory and even a minimal story arc. My agent teaches that story isn’t what happens, but who it happens to, and these authors clearly understood that. I believe my novel Mozart’s Blood, in particular, though as a vampire novel it has to be classified as speculative, owes a lot to these writers of gothic romances.

Perhaps the most important thing they gave me, though, was hours and hours of pleasure in a genre I might have missed.

Lisa McCurrach
Lisa McCurrach has been blogging and reviewing SF/F since 2012, and reading since she learned how to. (Her optician can probably back that up.) When she’s not online, it’s either because she’s at work and had no say in the matter, or because she’s a) out buying books, b) finding sustenance, or c) not being terrible at crochet. Those things are generally considered less unpleasant than the work. You can find her at her blog (http://overtheeffingrainbow.co.uk/) or on Twitter – @EffingRainbow.

When I was asked this question and sat down to consider my answer, it occurred to me that it’s entirely likely that not only subgenres, but broad-scope genres themselves fit this bill for me. My interest in science fiction all began with John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and that interest came about, if I recall, through following John on Twitter and deciding he was a likeable sort…

This is pretty much how I find a lot of the subgenre stuff I end up reading, and the most notable examples are indeed counted among my absolute favourite books and series now. To name one such example, there’s the Shadow Ops trilogy by Myke Cole. Military fantasy is decidedly not a subgenre that I ever thought would interest me, but I heard encouraging things from trusted sources, and so I checked it out. I could not have been proved more wrong in my bias, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Myke’s writing has gotten more impressive with each book in this trilogy, and the end result is that I cannot wait for the next – whichever it may be, Shadow Ops or otherwise. That’s how well he’s done so far.

On the fantasy side of things, I’ve got another couple of shining examples from two utterly awesome women. There’s the Split Worlds trilogy (soon to be extended to a fourth book, which delights me!) by Emma Newman. Steampunk/Victorian urban fantasy. To be specific, it wasn’t the urban fantasy but the Victorian-setting aspect that initially made me wary. A fan of Pride and Prejudice, I am generally not. Cut to me being won over by some thoroughly gorgeous cover art, not to mention by how ridiculously charming Emma Newman is, and here we are. I love it all. The tea, the manners, the intrigue. The peril!

My second example is actually a bit of a double points winner, here. Karina Cooper’s St Croix Chronicles pretty much tick all of the boxes I mentioned for Emma Newman’s books, and then some for the way she writes the romance aspects of hers. These books are pretty steamy, and again, romance is not a genre, or a subgenre of anything, that I thought would ever interest me. I was fabulously wrong, though I still maintain that she’s my go-to writer for this – and in fact, the ease with which I get along with Karina herself, mostly on Twitter, is what convinced me that her upcoming non-fantasy romance series might be worth a read! She’s self-publishing these under a pen name (Rin Daniels), and I already have excited-fan mode engaged…

Jenny Colvin
Jenny Colvin is a librarian by day and manic reader by night. She can be found talking about books on the Reading Envy podcast, and occasionally on the SFF Audio podcast. Find her on Twitter – @readingenvy.

Half of my reading life is spent in the science fiction and fantasy world, while the other half is focused on the “regular” literary world. What I’ve noticed in both worlds is that very few readers travel beyond their own borders.

Some authors bridge the gap between genres and can serve as bridges into literary fiction. They can be appreciated from either side of the bridge – from readers who are timid about “literature” and others who do not believe anything exists inside genre fiction that would interest them.

David Mitchell is an author who has incorporated fantastical elements into his work – Cloud Atlas and the brand new novel The Bone Clocks are the best examples. Cloud Atlas, with its unique format, seven different styles, and mystical linking elements, could pave the way to Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and any number of post-apocalyptic novels. The Bone Clocks would lead easily to The City and the City by China Miéville or Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente. All of these titles contain elements of fantasy transporting characters into other worlds, or through time.

Crossing a metallic hydrogen bridge in the opposite direction, The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne could connect a reader to African literature. The near-future tech is a concept comfortable to science fiction readers, but the setting and characters contain the warmth and power I most associate with authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Try Half of a Yellow Sun, which is considered Adichie’s masterpiece.

Victoria Hooper

Victoria Hooper is a writer and editor living in Nottingham, UK. She blogs (mainly about books) at Vicky Thinks, as well as writing articles and reviews for Fantasy Faction. She loves talking endlessly about stories and video games and can be bribed with chocolate brownies. You can find her short story ‘False Lights’ in the Sword and Laser Anthology, and she has stories coming out in Women Writing the Weird 2, Missing Monarchs and The Evil Genius Guide. You can find her on Twitter @VickyThinks

The author that really sprung to mind as having a big influence on my genre reading is Terry Pratchett. I read books like Truckers and Diggers as a child and then quickly moved on to the Discworld series. Within this one series, Terry Pratchett explores so many subgenres and different fantasy ideas – wizards, kings, gods, assassins, the paranormal, technology, politics; there are books that feel like an RPG adventure, some that feel almost steampunky, murder mysteries and fairytales, and others with a more gothic flavour. I think because of this, as a child it was natural for me to choose books based on their individual appeal rather than by the type of story they were. In fact, I’m not sure I even had a sense of the various different subgenres as being separate things.

Terry Pratchett wasn’t the only author who contributed to this. Two of the earliest authors I read were the brilliant Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Le Guin. Diana Wynne Jones’ stories are wonderfully varied – there are fairytale worlds, secondary worlds with a more ‘epic’ feel, magic in our world (hidden or not), alternate dimensions, beings from space, and so on. These books might have very different mythologies, ideas and atmospheres, but each has that trademark DWJ charm that carried me through them all. I adored Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series as a younger reader (and still do today) – these are books set in the same world but each with a distinctly different feel, theme and sense of pace, showing the different possibilities fantasy has to offer even within what would be considered the same subgenre. I trusted these authors to take me on journeys wherever they wanted to go.

Most of my discoveries of different subgenres were made as a child. I remember being drawn into adult horror books through following Buffy tie-in fiction authors over! Despite enjoying Goosebumps and other RL Stine books, I somehow managed to completely miss the usual introduction to Stephen King. But through Buffy I discovered Dracula, and from there Anne Rice and so on, and so paranormal fiction and urban fantasy found me. Dystopia was less common when I was a teenager, and I can still remember how much The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood affected me when I first read it. This was a set text at my school and I’d never really come across anything like it before – I was amazed.

Writing this just emphasises for me how important children’s and YA fiction really are, as well as good schools, libraries, book clubs and recommendations for both younger readers and older readers. My parents hooked me on the genre when I was very young, and they were always brilliant about giving me a huge variety of things to read, as well as encouraging exploration. I found Agatha Christie at the library and devoured her books, and my mother suggested Asimov’s ‘murder mysteries with robots’ next.

Nowadays, it’s wonderful to see the world of children’s and YA fiction constantly getting bigger and better – there are so many new authors and books encouraging both younger and older readers to give something different a go. SFF is opening up and becoming more diverse in lots of different ways, and I think a large part of this is thanks to the influence of YA and younger readers. It’s a shame to see that some readers still look down on YA and children’s books when they really offer so much.

From dystopia to high magic, these books are hooking new readers with the many weird and wonderful things SFF has to offer, as well as challenging readers of all ages, pushing boundaries, trying out new ideas and exploring underrepresented characters.

Of course, I’m still discovering new things today. I had never considered superhero novels until I read the superb Turbulence by Samit Basu, and this is an exciting new subgenre I can now explore. I believed zombie stories were worn out and boring, but books like Warm Bodies and The Reapers are the Angels changed my mind. Despite adoring Jane Austen novels, I had never really considered reading Regency era fantasy fiction until this aspect of the Split Worlds series by Emma Newman grabbed me, which in turn led me to the brilliant Kat Incorrigible books by Stephanie Burgis and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist series, which itself dives into a new subgenre in every book – romance, intrigue, heist, and more. Being part of book clubs like Sword and Laser and the Fantasy Faction book club have pushed me to try novels I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Short story anthologies are another wonderful means of finding new approaches to SFF and new authors that might otherwise have passed me by.

And the use of SFF tropes outside and on the edges of genre fiction have helped remind me that the world of books doesn’t end at the Scifi and Fantasy shelves. We often talk about how books like Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, to name just two, or authors such as Lauren Beukes and Margaret Atwood might help lure in non-genre readers to appreciate fantasy and science fiction, but it can also work in reverse. I’ve discovered some wonderful non-SFF books sitting next to The Shining Girls or Angelmaker on the bookshop tables. Though I adore books about magic, the low fantasy worlds of K. J. Parker and Guy Gavriel Kay enticed me with their intricate plots and beautiful storytelling – and this in turn helped remind me of the delights historical books have to offer. It’s very easy, sometimes, to get stuck in a certain mindset or to believe that only certain types of stories have something to offer, and I’m constantly grateful for the authors that can kick me out of my comfort zone, show me something different, or lure me into new worlds.

Catherine Russell

Author Catherine Russell shares her life with her high school sweetheart, their son, and two ferocious puppies in the Wilds of Ohio while writing short stories, editing her novel, and learning more about the craft every day. Her work has been published in Flash Me magazine, Metro Fiction, Beyond Centauri, and the ‘Best of Friday Flash – Volume One‘ and ‘Volume Two‘ anthologies.

I remember my first genre book was Christine by Stephen King. I was maybe ten or twelve years old, and before that I read mainly fiction with female protagonists like Little House on the Prairie, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and Little Women. But my father’s store was next to a used bookstore, and I would spend hours after school each dayjust browsing the shelves. The horror section always had the most interesting book covers, and I would pick each up and read the backs to figure out what I wanted. A book about a possessed car? Was that the stupidest plot I’d ever hear or pure genius? I saved my allowance to find out and became an instant fan.

After that, I spent years reading almost exclusively horror books. I went through my Stephen King phase, my Peter Straub phase, as well as a myriad of other horror novelists – with the occasional Sidney Sheldon novel thrown in. I’ve been wracking my brain, and I honestly don’t know what pushed me to try scifi. In my later teen years, I began to read classic literature on my own, going through online lists, and since so many classics are science fiction it must have been one of those. All I know is that I adored H. G. Wells, George Orwell, and Robert Heinlein. I was reading a lot of non-fiction at the time such as Instant Physics by Tony Rothman, Man and His Symbols by Jung, and The Fourth Dimension by Rudy Rucker. The latter led me to Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott, which married the concept of higher dimensions with an engaging story that questioned our basic assumptions about our own nature.

And that’s much of the appeal of genre fiction, isn’t it? Taking the unknown and pairing it with everyday observations, but with new twists, new insights that make it more interesting and – in truly great works – questioning the reader’s basic assumptions about their life and society. If we are willing to accept the premise that ghosts exist, why not accept the premise that they could possess a car? If we are willing to believe in life on other worlds, why not wonder how we would appear to alien eyes? And in reading about other points of view, we learn to question our own, identify with others, and maybe – just maybe – develop the empathy needed to make our own world a better place.

And so, what books have gotten me to try new authors and genres of fiction? All of them. Every book I have ever read, fiction or non, has led me down a beaten, twisted path to my current tastes in both literature and other media, because that’s the magic of books. They lead you places you never expected to go, and in thinking about them, they lead you to a state of mind you might never have arrived at without their prompting.

Tricia Barr

Tricia Barr is the award-winning author of Wynde. She writes about fandom, heroines, and genre storytelling at her blog FANgirl and contributes her Star Wars expertise to Suvudu.com, Lucasfilm’s Star Wars Blog, and Star Wars Insider magazine.

I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t reading speculative fiction. With the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, my passion for Star Wars returned in earnest and books had always been part of my enjoyment. In between the new print releases tied into the theatrical run, I went back and devoured the X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston. While they are masters of military science fiction with a Star Wars flair, many of their other offerings showed a keen understanding of different styles of storytelling, including Stackpole’s thriller Perfectly Invisible and his American Revolution fantasy The Crown Colonies Series and Allston’s portal pulp fantasy Doc Sidhe.

The New Jedi Order introduced a treasure trove of experienced and talented genre authors to the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Something struck a chord with me in Greg Keyes’ three contributions to that 19-book series, and I followed him over to the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series he released after his stint with Star Wars. Keyes’ four book series were my first experience with high fantasy. The tone and scope influenced me when it came time to writing my own epic space opera.

As I transitioned from reader to a blogger who critiqued the challenges facing the Star Wars novels, some of my time became dedicated to reading the works of authors in advance of their Expanded Universe novels. Generally, an author’s original fiction is indicative of what they would bring to the franchise. Karen Traviss’ The Wess’har Wars series most definitely weren’t books I would have picked up had it not been for my research. I was quite surprised how engaged I became in the edgy science fiction of the first book, City of Pearl. I kept coming back for more and completed the series. Looking back, the series really is a blending of many genres and that is what appealed to me.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey is another book that I wouldn’t have read except in the name of research after they were announced as authors of the Han Solo standalone Honor Among Thieves. Their space opera is delivered with tight, breakneck prose that isn’t normally found in that genre, but that drew me in. Undoubtedly I will be picking up more books from Corey, no matter the genre.

Miminnehaha
@miminnehaha is Sarah Olsen offline, but if she ever writes a book it will be mostly for the purpose of adopting a pseudonym. She’s been reading science fiction and fantasy for close to four decades, but has no memory for detail, so must reread constantly those books she likes best. This is not as much a hardship as it might sound.

The first writer I followed across multiple (sub)genres was Anne McCaffrey, whose books tended to cross the genres themselves: genetically engineered empathic dragons in a world where lost understanding makes technology seem like magic– with traveling harpers, no less. She wrote space opera that was a kind of military/spy-scifi, wrote “Federated Teleport & Telepath” into Earth’s near-future and then added aliens, wrote a kind of body-mod romance with her BrainShips, wrote polyamory, wrote King Arthur. I followed wherever she led, liking some books better than others, mostly satisfied and occasionally thrilled. Until she wrote a unicorn girl.

It’s easier to find examples of who cannot pull me across the genres despite their skill. I love Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist, and he did lure me into superhero stuff with Steelheart, but I won’t be reading his Mistborn or Elantris books any time soon. I enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam novels, and her work in the on-line serial experiment known as Shadow Unit is fantastic. But I haven’t read any of her Promethean Age or Eternal Sky works, despite having picked them up several times to try. I liked N.K. Jemisin’s Killing Moon but I’m not interested in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I guess this means that the author who successfully tempts me to read an epic fantasy wins the Picky Reader Power Award* (trademark pending).

But besides this long-standing, newly-defined disinclination toward EF, I tend to read across science fiction and fantasy without regard to “sub” genre. Instead of reading every vampire or fairy or dragon or space pirate book I can find, I try to find the vampire/fairy/dragon/space pirate book that’s right for me. It’s a matter of waiting for any given sub-genre to give rise to the stories I’ll love.

So which books and authors have I picked up despite initial reservations which were able to pull me out of my comfort zone and so delight me that I’ll keep reading?

Hard SF usually fails to draw me in, but I enjoyed The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s a fun exercise in structural technique. Having read and enjoyed it, I was open to the recommendation of another hard SF title, MJ Locke’s Up Against It. I liked Up Against It so much it’s on my to-re-read list.

I really liked Gwenda Bond’s Blackwood and The Woken Gods. Gwenda’s protagonists are put in the most precarious positions with a deft hand. I really hate the circus, and yet I’m eager to read her newest, Girl on a Wire. (This is an impressive achievement; I really hate the circus.)

Paul Cornell’s London Falling and Severed Streets are a little darker, a little more arcane than I would ordinarily choose, but they are so bloody brilliant I am intensely relieved I did not miss out on the experience of reading them. I will keep reading Paul Cornell’s books, no matter what my initial impressions might be, because it’s hard to believe he could write anything that wouldn’t leave me more satisfied for having read it.

I don’t spend a lot of time on legal thrillers or tales of gods or what is sometimes called “dark” magic. But Max Gladstone takes all these elements, crafts them into his own shape, and breathes life into the construct with a whisper of his authorial Voice. Three Parts Dead is a delight. Two Serpents Rise drags the reader deep. Full Fathom Five is on my bedside table awaiting the moment I am free to drown in it. I don’t read much short fiction, but since that’s what’s left until the next novel is done, I’ll be reading Max’s many short works in the months to come.

Caroline Stevermer has written several books, all of which I’ve found delightful. There are the stand-alone fantasies, the Kate & Cece books co-written with Patricia C Wrede, and most especially her A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics. Her work is fun even when it is serious, her plots as satisfying as they are complex. Caroline recently announced that she will soon be publishing under a new pseudonym, presumably in a new genre. I’ll definitely be reading, whatever the pseudonym, whatever the genre.

Since serendipitously discovering Myke Cole’s Control Point the week of its debut, I’ve purchased each sequel on its release date after counting down the days. In addition to writing military fantasy in the Shadow Ops universe, he’s working on a YA novel about a girl. Sub-genre? Doesn’t matter. I’ll buy it on its release day as well. I hope he’ll write the kinds of things I normally would shy away from, because his is a lead I’m willing to follow down treacherous paths.

The most improbable, and equally the most inevitable: Emma Bull got me to read a “weird western” with Territory. Improbable, because a weird western is pretty far out of my usual reading choices. Inevitable, because a book of Emma’s never fails to make me laugh and cry and have more hope for the world than I had before I read it. She has led me from urban fantasy to biopunk to post-apocalyptic body-snatchers to shared world sword & sorcery to beyond the borderlands. I’ll follow Emma anywhere. I’ll love her unicorn girl.

Derek Johnson

Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. A member of the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop, his work has appeared in Rayguns Over Texas! edited by Rick Klaw, Nova Express, Moving Pictures, Her Majesty’s Secret Servant, and Revolution SF. His film column Watching the Future column appears each month right here on SF Signal where he also pulld double duty as the resident film critic.

I find it difficult to say what authors or books provided me the opportunity to try new subgenres of fiction and genre fiction, in part because my reading tastes always were fairly catholic. I say “tended to be,” because for the longest time there were certain things I simply wouldn’t read. Stephen King attained stratospheric popularity when I was in middle school and high school, but, with the exception of classics such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, I otherwise didn’t read horror. I’d read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by the time I was 12, but it never whetted my appetite for more fantasy. And, with the exception of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells (especially The Time Machine), and the occasional Ray Bradbury, I seldom read science fiction.

Omni was the first work that changed that. I picked up a copy in a 7-Eleven in Columbus, Texas on my way to visit my father, thinking it was a science magazine. Finding William Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemonic” in its pages opened my eyes to what the genre could do, far beyond the Victorian adventure story and the occasional episode of Star Trek. Reading Philip K. Dick a year later cemented my love for the genre in general and the more literary ambitious works in particular. It’s safe to say that the genre would have passed me by, otherwise.

I read the genre, if not voraciously, then at least regularly throughout the 1980s, but some avenues remained firmly within my blind spot. In 1989, however, I picked up a copy of second annual collection of The Year’s Best Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, which introduced me to the horror fiction of Edward Bryant and Joe R. Lansdale. Lansdale’s story “Night They Missed the Horror Show” and Bryant’s “The Cutter” introduced me to the splatterpunk movement, then at a fever pitch among fantasy and horror fans. The extreme violence often discouraged me from reading the genre, in particular this subgenre, but the diversity of voices, from David J. Schow to Richard Christian Matheson, appealed to me at a time when I usually wanted to put the entire genre of the fantastic aside.

As the 1990s progressed, I dipped my toes into fantasy with works like Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and authors like Jonathan Carroll and William Browning Spencer. I was less inclined to follow a particular genre as I was to simply find authors who appealed to me, a decision that prepared me for the New Weird and works like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen. Both exhibited breathtaking surreal vistas and strange, singular visions, each melding the sensibilities of science fiction with the trappings of fantasy and the undercurrents of horror, all to dizzying effect. They brought me well beyond the Tolkienesque knockoffs that clogged the science fiction section of the bookstores I frequented, and continue to influence what I pick up.

Kathy F.
Kathy lives in the real world and doesn’t want to read about it. Books cover most surfaces in her home and the librarians know her name. Hobbies include creating craft fails and blowing up her friends to read lists. She’s had a few writing gigs over the years but is happiest sharing news of fantastic books, movies and more on Stellar Four, Kindle-aholic’s Book Pile, Twitter as @kindleaholic, and Pinterest.

Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Eddings’ Belgariad were my gateways into high and epic fantasy back in my elementary school days. I was drawn in by the fantastical world, the quest, the cast of characters (especially thieves — Silk, I’m looking at you), and of course magic. During my high school years, Hamilton’s Anita Blake books introduced me to Urban Fantasy. I liked the action, magic, vampires and were-creatures well enough, but I think I was most drawn to a powerful female lead and that the world was a fantasy version of our own. As a kid, I dreamed of magic in my own ordinary world, so the Urban Fantasy concept really took root. I only read the first 4 or 5 (before the series took on a more erotic bent), then headed off to college and a whole lot of assigned reading. When I got back into recreational reading, I remembered how much fun I had with the Blake books. A few Amazon searches lead me to the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, and I’ve been off and running ever since.

The interesting thing for me here, though, is that I don’t know that I would recommend the Belgariad and the Anita Blake books today as a gateway to SFF. Definitely not the Blake books for Urban Fantasy. It just comes with too many caveats about the direction the series took. Some books work more for the time when I first read them.

A book that I have been recommending across the board is Andy Weir’s The Martian. This book is one of my top reads for 2014 and it drew me into futuristic realism. I usually enjoy SFF for the stretch of the imagination. The Martian, while set in the future, was just so plausible, it normally wouldn’t be something that I would gravitate towards. I like my escapist fantasy. However, the narrative voice is beyond compare. I was hooked from the first page, and will be more willing to check out books that are more real than surreal. I may have a few blinders when it comes to books set in our nonmagical world, and I can work on that. The Martian is also a book that I’ve been recommending right and left to folks who usually have issues stretching their imaginations to cover the worlds and events in a lot of SFF. I honestly can’t think of a better book for a reluctant SFF reader (and they might not even realize they are enjoying science fiction). *cue evil laughter*

Margo-Lea Hurwicz
Margo-Lea Hurwicz is an Anthropology and Gerontology professor who has loved science fiction and fantasy since the day long ago that she found, and devoured, a stack of Analog and Science Fiction & Fantasy magazines hidden at the back of her father’s closet.

About a year ago I decided to explore Twitter, because my students were chattering about it. My travels progressed as a random walk; I can’t remember who I followed first, or why. But I remember finding Worlds without End (@WWEnd) and their Women of Genre Fiction challenge. I started keeping a list of women whose work I had read in the past, and women whose work I wanted to read. I entered giveaway contests and won 2 books from Jo Fletcher Books (@JoFletcherBooks). I won 2 from @Gollancz. I found other publishers, other writers to follow. I progressed to @RantingDragon and @SFSignal and @FantasyFaction. Somewhere along the line I started following individual reviewers. You know who you are.

I mention all this because suddenly I had so many sources of good things to read that I couldn’t keep up with them. If an interesting title showed up in my Twitter stream, I added it to my list. This is much more exciting than browsing a library or bookstore for a new book to read, and then bringing one or two home. But it also can be overwhelming.

I needed rules for what to read next. If someone sent it to me and wanted a review on Goodreads or Amazon (or wanted my Gemmell Award vote), it got prioritized. If it was by a woman, it moved higher on the list.

I also began to notice that there were things I didn’t think I’d like. I thought I had read enough space opera. I really enjoyed everything I’d read by C J Cherryh and Sheri Tepper, and I didn’t think anyone could add much that was new. And then I found Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice among the tweets. I probably don’t need to say much about that; everyone else has discovered it too. Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy can’t come too soon. (Also in this category falls On a Red Station Drifting by Aliette de Bodard).

I thought I had read too many medieval and Renaissance based fantasies. But (someone on) Ranting Dragon mentioned NK Jemisin and the unusual non-European worlds she was building. I read the Inheritance trilogy and was hooked. I’ve started her Dream Blood duology, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria.

But these are subgenres renewed for me, not new-to-me. Here’s where Sarah Pinborough comes in. I first noticed The Language of Dying on Jo Fletcher’s site. My dad passed away recently, and so I decided to read it. I cannot say enough good things about the use of language in this novella. The visuals, the characters. It is so well written. Everything rings true, even the interwoven fantasy element, which may or may not be (true). So Mayhem followed Dying, and I found myself embracing a horror/thriller or historical mystery. I checked Goodreads and apparently this one defies subgenre pigeon holes. But whatever it is, it was new to me. I thought I was too squeamish for this sort of thing. But I found myself captivated, mesmerized by the language, the characters, the very taste of Victorian London, and yes the fear. I may progress to Murder, soon.

I’ve read other books this year, of course, and recommend many that are not mentioned above. But these are the ones I found most discontinuous from what had become my usual fare.

Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne Gilman is the author of the popular Cosa Nostradamus novels, and the Nebula award-nominated Vineart War trilogy, plus many short stories and novellas. Her next novel, Silver on the Road, will be published by Simon & Schuster/Saga Press in 2015. Ms. Gilman also writes mysteries under the name L.A. Kornetsky. Learn more at www.lauraanegilman.net or follow her on Twitter: @LAGilman

I may have had a bit of a cheat and/or shove, because when I was working as a full-time editor (first at Berkley and later at NAL/Penguin) even though I worked in the SF imprint, we were required to work on other genres as well. Admittedly, I would never have chosen to read so-called “adult” Westerns… (although it gave me deadly ammo when men made fun of romances!). But it shoved me so far out of my comfort zone, I nearly forgot I had a comfort zone! And I certainly would never have thought of writing a cozy mystery myself if I hadn’t the pleasure of editing half a dozen, beforehand.

However, even before then, there were a few authors who first got me to peek out from my familiar playground of fantasy, either because they were recommended to me, or because I fell over them in the bookstore and they got stuck in my hand. In the former camp, there was Dorothy L Sayers, who – after a bad run-in with Agatha Christie at a too-young age- got me back into reading mysteries. I was sick in bed with mono, during high school, and my aunt dropped an entire pile of paperbacks on my lap and said “I have more for when you need ’em.” It wasn’t only that they were well-written, it was that before then I’d always thought of mysteries as puzzles that people solved, not puzzles about people. So that was the discovery that there were character-driven mysteries, as well as the so-called timetable or clue-driven mysteries, and that it was not only all right but popular to read along with the detective rather than trying to outguess him or her….

In the latter camp, it was Nora Roberts. Not willingly – I think I resisted for five years before I finally gave in and picked up one of her books, because they were packaging her as mainstream without apologizing for it being romance, and that intrigued me. And huh, I thought, reading on: none of the rape tropes that were too common when I was a pre-teen and teenager? No “conquer, then woo?” Snark, sass, intelligence, and the heroine won the hero as often as he won her? Okay, those were romances I’d be willing to carry on the subway! And I went in search of more like that. Interestingly, I never followed her back into SF/F, when she tried her hand at that….

And in SF/F, it was Hal Clement. I bounced off hard SF at an early age – it was all hard tech and Men, back in the 70’s and early 80’s, it seemed, and that bored me. Then I discovered Hal Clement’s Needle, and the welcoming tone of that book – YA boy-driven SF, but without the “you aren’t welcome here if you aren’t a science nerd” vibe – and fell back in love with the possibilities of SF. It’s one of my great joys that I was able to tell Mr. Clement that, before he died.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

13 Comments on MIND MELD: Books That Carried Us Outside Our Comfort Zone

  1. Jenny Colvin on the mind meld!

  2. I know “The Spanners Series” books do this for readers. Please give the first two a try! “This Changes Everything” is permafree. “This Changes My Family and My Life Forever” is Volume II. http://www.sallyember.com/Spanners
    Thanks for great post. SHARED!

  3. Catherine Russell cites Tony Rothman’s non-fiction as an influence. I wonder if she’s aware of his 1978 foray into fiction, THE WORLD IS ROUND?

  4. I think the single book that has most carried me outside my comfort zone would be Aldous Huxley’s “Eyeless In Gaza.” I struggled to even ‘grok’ the first 1/2 to 2/3rds of the story but it all came together at the end and I thought it one of the most powerful books I had ever read. (Still do.) Ursua Le Guin’s “The Left Hand Of Darkness” was also groundbreaking when I first read it, especially in terms of making me think about the “how/why” of space travel and sexual/social development of societies, plus individual within societies.

  5. Adam Roberts // September 18, 2014 at 1:02 pm //

    Rhese contributors have elected to post dilutely general ‘SF books I enjoyed’ lists. This really wasn’t the force of the question.

  6. Adam Roberts // September 18, 2014 at 1:02 pm //

    Rhese –> These

  7. Maybe I DID organize this Mind Meld wrong @john Stevens @Adam Roberts

  8. miminnehaha // September 19, 2014 at 8:37 am //

    I think we all read the question as our *genre* comfort zones, rather than which sub-genres make us personally uncomfortable & which books were good enough to make us embrace philosophical discomfort. That… would be a good mind-meld, too.

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