Adventure, novelty, depth and various other YARDSTICKS

Moon with rocket

I initially wanted to write about Young Adult Science-Fiction and why it matters (hint: anything that gets youngsters to read matters), but while I admire those who write awesome YA SF (amongst them is also one of my favorite writers, Andrew Smith and his amazing novels The Marbury Lens and Grasshopper Jungle. *waves awkwardly* “Hi Andrew!”), I’m not the ideal person to talk about YA since I barely read any. I’m more of an adult fiction kind of person. The kind with gruesome bits, foul language, explicitness and sometimes stuff that scrapes out your spine marrow and replaces it with darkness.

So, instead, I’m gonna write a little bit about the yardsticks I normally use to measure good science-fiction.

1. Adventure

I like books where the characters have some sort of adventure to go through — either a quest to some distant place to solve a problem or retrieve an item (or person); or an investigation they have to make; or even a perilous trip back home from some place they got stranded in. An escape, a heist, an insertion, a rescue, something that turns my pulse up as I read and makes me cling to every page. It doesn’t need to always be cliffhangers and death-threats, but the tingle of adrenalin is highly welcome.

2. Novelty

Books that manage to put a completely new spin on something old, or come up with something entirely new, always get my attention. Either technology, or culture, or even a relationship, if you write me a story where I can’t imagine the ending while I read and where every chapter introduces a new crumb of novelty, I’m all yours.

3. Depth

I’m sure you agree that a book which has you thinking about it weeks after you finish has the upper hand on others who end in your mind as soon as you close the cover. Depth can be given by the topic or theme, or even by the setting, but it must be there in a good book. Superficiality has never won awards of people’s hearts. Okay, maybe except for Twilight.

4. Alienness

I’m decidedly and entirely biased towards SF that has aliens. Aliens are the absolute top of novelty and adventure, if they’re written well, of course. I prefer aliens who are not very human-like, regardless how they look. Bipedal and about our size is no biggie for me, it’s entirely possible, but then all their other qualities must differ for them to be genuinely alien. The most awesome aliens, however, are those who have absolutely nothing in common with humans, neither physique and evolutionary path, nor mentality.

5. Style

There are plenty SF books out there who are adventurous and novel, but they lack style. In fact, quite a lot of them (predominately written by men — and this has nothing to do with social prejudices toward sexes and everything to do with how our brains are wired) are so convoluted and dry, it makes reading them more chore than pleasure. I prefer a style that’s transparent and poignant, and I can’t stand authors who lavish in stylistic artistry for no storytelling purpose whatsoever.

And I don’t just mean wordchoice and “elevated language”. I mean the way the writer’s ideas are presented through language. Some love to wax poetic about landscapes, which is fine but boring, while others simply think so convoluted and meander tirelessly, it makes their prose painful to follow. I don’t know about the “beauty” of the language they use, but if their train of thought derails every five miles, I’m closing the book.

To give you two extreme examples, I love the style of Lois McMaster Bujold, whose writing is entirely free of frills and quirks, but very powerful, while I just can’t bear to read China Mieville for longer than 50 pages. It hurts my brain, trying to decipher and decode his strangeness to get to the story.

6. Inspiration

And last but not least, I like books to inspire me. What that means is that I like them to leave me spinning my own tales after I finish, to plant idea seeds in my mind and have them sprout at unsuspected times, and to nudge me to make unexpected connections between different things. Or at least, to inspire me to improve my writing, or my knowledge. And occasionally, I stumble across a book who even inspires me to be a better person. And nothing compares to that.

What are your yardsticks for measuring good fiction?

* * *

          This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.          

      In 2012, my Y post was — You Should Listen To Yoda

9 Replies to “Adventure, novelty, depth and various other YARDSTICKS”

  1. Style. Such harshness in such a broad sense. I might be willing to agree, but I have read my share of both genders writings and have found much of the same in both. I do agree that, generally speaking, men’s brains are wired different than women’s as evolution has driven our species to coop different roles. But our divergence from our ancestors through our ability to cognitively think beyond our own evolution has engendered us to redefine our selves into more than our beginnings. I would like to think, that what I write is not so stereotyped into your male style classification.

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    1. I didn’t mean this as a general remark on how men and women differ, just that in science-fiction, most of the books that are dry and info-dumpy are written by men. I’ve yet to see an acclaimed (or at least well known) SF novel written by a woman that’s so entirely focused on showcasing the writer’s astuteness in this or that science, or her ability to describe the setting (alien planets, ships, engines, etc.) that characterization, plot and personal relevance fall short. I could name quite a few such books written by men, though, and my reading is fairly limited.

      But luckily, science-fiction has moved away from lectures and toward a swifter procession of events (better plotting), along with deeper characters and overarching themes that are relevant to our present problems and worldview. I think we’re moving in a good direction, regardless if we’re men or women. The line between the genders ought to become more and more invisible, as men dedicate more thought to characterization, and women to scientific plausibility. That’s what I hope for. 🙂

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  2. I agree entirely that a book needs to have depth. I read and enjoyed many without it, but they aren’t the ones I will reread over and over. On the other hand, I’ll look for more novels by the authors who made me think.

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  3. Those are excellent yardsticks. I think I’ve been discouraged from reading much sci-fi for some of the very same issues you cited in #5. A friend on Goodreads, however, introduced me to R. Lee Smith via her book Cottonwood, which re-energized my willingness to read sci-fi. When it’s well done, it’s utterly unforgettable!

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  4. i appreciate your posts with great suggestions for sci fi and writing in general! i love a good adventure, but i need more style and depth and inspiration as well. great meeting you even at the end of the challenge =)

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