Participating in a fandom isn’t just about liking what you like. It’s also about knowing what others in the fandom like, too, and why they like the things they like. This holds true whether the fandom is a narrow one, based on an individual creator (I am a fan of MW Kaluta and I am also a fan of The Avett Brothers) or a broad one (I am a fan of literary fiction). When you read (or watch, or listen to, or consume in whatever manner) a specific text within the context of a fandom, you are not just taking in that one work — you are adding it to your knowledge of the object of your fandom as a whole.
Or at least I am. That’s what I do. For me, part of the pleasure in reading (or watching, etc.) the things that I read (etc.) is in connecting what I’ve read (etc.) with other things I’ve read (etc.), and with other things that other people are reading (etc.), especially other people who like the kinds of things that I like. This is the difference between a person who is truly a fan, and one who is simply a reader (viewer, listener, etc). If you spend all your reading time with Dickens and Austen and Tolstoy, for example, you are certainly a literary reader, but the true literary fan doesn’t want to just read good books. The fan wants to read what’s new, what’s hot, wants to anticipate what’s on the horizon, wants to argue with other fans about which writer is underappreciated, which is overrated, which is Goldilocks-perfect. “This book fits into its place in its genre because of these reasons, and it makes an interesting pattern when viewed against these four other recent books.” That kind of thinking. Fandom can be a sort of non-rigorous comparative lit.
Fans follow books (or movies or television shows, etc.) in exactly the same way that fashionistas follow clothing trends — not because they mean anything, but because they are the trends. Red is in this year for men’s pants because red is in this year for men’s pants. There is no reason or objective calculation. It just is what it is, this year, probably because somebody “who matters” said so. Same with the reputations of Eugenides, Englander, and Strout in literary fandom: they’re hot because they’re hot, even though most readers (readers of Dickens and Austen and Tolstoy on the one end, readers of Dan Brown and Stephen King on the other end) have never heard of them, and likely never will.
I used literary fiction in my examples above because I am currently a card-carrying member of that fandom, so it was easier to make my case. I used to be a big science fiction/fantasy fan, too, in my high school and college days, very up on the field. In my middle-age, though, I’ve turned into a dabbler. I maybe read five or six f/sf books in a year, but not with any intentionality or agenda. When I look at a screen of science fiction titles on Amazon, I have no idea which books are considered must-reads and which are also-rans. Reviews and blurbs don’t help, because I don’t know which reviewers “matter” anymore (most science fiction/fantasy magazines review books by summarizing them, anyway), and blurbs are always positive. I can pick out old favorites, easily, most of whom are still in print in some form, some of whom are more famous than ever (Dick, Malzberg, LeGuin, Zelazny, Delaney, Ballard). But that’s like only listening to the rock and roll of one’s youth: enjoyable, and even necessary occasionally, but dead-ended. My choices are not made within the context of the trends, is what I’m saying, and, I’m sorry, I think I need for them to be, at least partially, in order to be who I think I am, and who I want to be — a fan.
The fastest way to get to an understanding of what’s “in” is to see what the insiders think. What they like is what’s hot, by definition. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll like what they like, I hasten to add — but this exercise isn’t about taking pleasure in any individual book. It’s easy enough for me to pick books I know I’ll like (oh, hey, here’s a Delaney I never read). It’s about taking pleasure in the genre as a whole, and in my growing understanding of that genre — where it is now, and where it’s going tomorrow. So I decided to read all of this year’s Nebula Award-nominated novels, to start my re-education.
The Nebulas have been awarded every year since 1966 by the Science Fiction Writers of America, an organization that demands of its members proof of gainful employment in the field. These are the ultimate science fiction (and fantasy) insiders. They have a decent track record of picking great books, too: Dune by Frank Herbert was the very first winner, for example, and the subsequent winners and nominees include classics as various as The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, Forever War by Joe Haldeman, a brace of Philip K. Dick books, several Delaneys and Zelaznys and Silverbergs and Asimovs, etc. They even throw in a William S. Burroughs and Kurt Vonnegut into the mix every once in awhile for some literary spice.
But history is history. I have finished the six books in this year’s nomination pool, and I was disappointed. Maybe it was a bad year, or maybe my criteria and the typical SFWA member’s criteria for what’s great and what’s good and what’s bad are different, which would not make me less of a fan, by the way, just an argumentative one (the best kind).
Here are my own micro-reviews of the nominees:
“Throne of the Crescent Moon” by Saladin Ahmed
A nicely-polished sword & sorcery tale, set in the Islamic caliphate, but not really, in the same way that most fantasy novels are set in a fake version of medieval Europe. Despite the setting, the overall vibe was very conventional: a curse, an evil king, a sacred text, a swivelling throne that hides a powerful artifact — good pulpy fun, basically, with no ambition to break new ground. This could have been an Indiana Jones movie or a Fritz Lieber story. I don’t expect or demand a blown mind every time I read a fantasy novel, but I do kind of demand a blown mind of Nebula award nominees. It’s a higher standard they have to meet. This one? Supposed to be at least as good as Dune? At least as good as Slaughterhouse Five? Nah. Kind of run of the mill.
I didn’t hate it, though. I want to be clear on that. I just didn’t love it.
“Ironskin” by Tina Connolly
In the first few pages, we see our heroine arrive at the site of her new job — a mysterious castle on a foggy moor! She’s to be a governess there! She has a dark secret! She is instantly attracted to and repelled by her employer, a man who apparently has a dark secret! The child she’s to govern has a dark secret! Need I say more? The synopsis reads like a parody but the book itself is dead earnest, with the leaden prose and impossible-to-believe-outside-of-gothic-genre-convention characterizations to prove it. I read the whole thing. I didn’t want to. It’s not that I disliked this book because of the high standard of the Nebula Awards. This one, I’m surprised it even got published.
“The Killing Moon” by N. K. Jemisen
As with most of these books, the world-building here was primo, though in this one, the (non-heteronormative!) characters and their fates actually mattered to me. The elevator pitch: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman crossed with Assassin’s Creed. The prose was unobtrusively well-done, which came as a huge relief after the clunkiness of “Ironskin.” I can’t give this the most hearty of recommendations, but I can give it a recommendation. I am not awaiting the next volume of Jemisin’s “Dreamblood” series with bated breath — but I might pick it up if I happen to see it. I could see an interesting long-term franchise spinning out of this world, which is something we fans enjoy. Right? Or is it “us fans?”
“The Drowning Girl” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Of all these, this one strikes me as the most literary. I don’t say that to signify quality, only to signify genre. The plot runs along an axis defined by characters and relationships, rather than actions and adventures. Every fantastical thing that happens could (or could not) be due to the narrator’s mental condition — something she acknowledges. The language is dense, allusive, self-reflexive, and chatty all at the same time. Reminds me more of Jeanette Winterson, especially “Written on the Body,” than any science fiction or fantasy book I’ve ever read. I liked it a lot, but not in the way I expect to like genre books, which kind of threw me off. Okay, I can hear the complaints now: if a book is “too genre,” like “Ironskin,” predictable and formulaic, Joey bitches, but if it’s “too literary,” he also bitches.
I maintain that there’s a balance!
I also maintain that this could have been published by Knopf or Little, Brown rather than Roc, and it would have satisfied me more. Context is a big factor in our enjoyment of a book. Or at least it is in mine. (That’s what this whole post is about). Reading this book in the context of the fantasy genre was like sitting down expecting a dinner of ham and macaroni and cheese, and being served opera and Fauvism instead.
“Glamour in Glass” by Mary Robinette Kowal
I was afraid of this one, since the description made it sound like Jane Austen fan-fiction with magic. Which it is. But it’s not so bad, even so: light, harmless fun. It was not remarkable enough to make me want to read more in the series. When it comes to the surprisingly burgeoning Regency-Period-With-Fantasy-Elements genre, nothing I’ve read so far compares to the great “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke. In “Glamour in Glass,” Kowal gets nothing exactly wrong, but Clarke’s novel gets everything exactly right, and that constitutes the difference between an entertainment and a mind blowing. Probably an unfair comparison, since Kowal’s ambitions don’t seem to be as large as Clarke’s in the first place, but I am just operating as a fan these days, not a critic, so I can be unobjective. That’s part of the fun!
This one — the actual winner of the Nebula for Best Novel (the winners were announced while I was still reading through the nominees) — definitely had a lot going for it: strong prose, great characters, interesting world-building. The overall plot remained confusing to me at the end. I don’t understand why the antagonists were doing all of the things they did (I do understand a couple of the things they did). That may be because I only skimmed a lot of the jargony science/exposition stuff while waiting for the next character bit.
Out of five stars, I’d give most of these a “three” and only one (“The Drowning Girl”) a “four.” I’ve actually had better luck finding books I love by picking random science fiction books off of Amazon’s genre page (I found “Perdido Street Station” that way) than I did by reading these, the supposed cream of the crop. That happens. I’m not here to complain about that, or at least I’m not here to complain about that very bitterly. Just a little.
I’m also not here to accuse the people who make the nominations of being evil, which is what a lot of readers and fans do when their tastes are not validated by industry awards. I think most people put in the position to judge the work of their peers approach the task with the best intentions and earnest effort, and yet it almost always goes wonky anyway, for whatever reason.
Maybe the mind-blowing works cause such heated passions for and against, half the jury in one column, the other half in the other, forcing the judges to find middle-of-the-road, inoffensive three-starrers to praise unanimously.
Maybe there’s a little bit of log-rolling and back-patting (how could there not be, people being people)? Maybe. Probably.
More than any of that, though, I believe that there’s some way of looking at these books and seeing the best in the field — using some set of criteria that I am not using. My best guess? World-building is the primary thing these books seem to do best. Even “Ironskin” did a good job in that regard, with its world where the early twentieth century’s Great War was between humans and faerie kingdoms, and where bits and pieces of fey magic still stuck around the edges of a rapidly-industrializing England. World-building is important in any genre — yes, even literary (Hemingway’s world is not William S. Burroughs’ world) — but in science fiction and fantasy, it seems, world-building, and only that, is enough, according to the trendsetters and taste-makers of the day.
Despite not being bowled away by any of these books, though, I’m still glad I did this. I might even do it again, next year. Or maybe I’ll look at the Clarke Awards instead. What do you think?