Turn me on

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

April 16, 2009 -- 1:44 a.m.

Six things that make or break good SF/F (besides the basic character/dialogue/plot that doesn't suck space brains.)

1) Religions. Given that religion has pretty much powered human culture for the last...well, ever...why is it usually mistreated in SF/F? Sure, the protagonist may refer to Z'frisjahbi's left prota-megalon in his futuristic swear words, but that's about all. Why are 99% of SFF books (when they deal with the point at all) full of monotheistic, so-seldom-mentioned-they-are-hardly-there religions. The exception to this are the evil priests, who wander around in black robes doing kinky human sacrifices. Because human sacrifice has only been out of favor in European cultures since the late Roman empire, so of course the SPACE CULT will be hip to it...

Stories that do interesting things with religion: Katherine Kurtz' Deryni series, The Prince of Nothing by Scott R. Bakker.

2) Families. No one is an island to themselves, yet SF/F tends to fall under the orphan cliches. Of course, adventurers aren't likely to have kids... (unless the author needs a sequel) but don't they come home to visit their parents every once in awhile? And don't get me started on sisters...if I were a hero, I'd lock my sister in the most well-defended keep I could find and stand on the balcony with my crossbow at the ready because you just KNOW the bad guys are going to come to take her away.

Stories that do interesting things with family: The Children Star by Joan Slonczewski, Last Herald-Mage series by Mercedes Lackey

3) Non-european cultures/creatures. This is a difficult line to parse. Are Orson Scott Card's asians in Xenocide/Children of Mind interesting and accurate or a blatant, horrible stereotype? At least in Xenocide, I vote for the earlier, but I found the same author's Magic Street to be too hard to swallow and had to stop listening to it on audiobook (maybe reading it would have felt a little less jarring). Geoff Ryman's Air, which I enjoyed despite a plot that makes NO SENSE and includes a woman getting pregant via oral sex and devloping a fetus in her stomach, has a great sense of cultural awareness because the remote villagers use their remoteness to sell traditional crafts online. It's hard to do this well, and I give a lot of kudos to the authors who manage to do it right.

Another book that does it well: The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay.

4) Women who kick ass. All right, so this is a steroetype by now, but I like smart-mouthed women who kick ass. I hate when they go all weak and simpery for the main hero, though. Good characters suddenly become USELESS for no apparent reason. I'm trying to think of some good examples at the moment. I know they're out there but nothing's coming. Anne McCaffrey's pretty good at this. An addendum to this is playing with gender, ala Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. I took a class on science fiction and gender and have a lot of good short stories that mess around with it, but not so many full-length books. Trouble and Her Friends, by Melissia Scott, is pretty much same-old-same-old cyberpunk but the lesbian protagonist is interesting. And who could forget the inesteemable Octavia Butler?

5) Humor. I love humor in writing, especially if it involves self-aware genre-bending. While a wacky trip through the bizarre is sometimes good, I also like books who take a moment to poke fun at themselves and their characters. Because reading is supposed to be, you know, fun.

Books that do it well: Terry Pratchett, Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede.

6) Great villains. Nothing makes me hate a book more than a weak, easily-beaten villain. Well, there are a lot of things I hate more, but this is certainly on my top ten. Villains should be as understandable and sympthatic as their enemies. Because nobody watchs Silence of the Lambs because of Clarice. And what kind of world would we have without Darth Vader or Cthulu?

Books that do it well: Raistlin, from Dragonlance Legends by Tracy Hickman/Margaret Weiss. The Lancasters from GRRM's A Song of Fire and Ice. Agent Smith from The Matrix (okay, that wasn't a book...)

Heh. Now I've probably gone and dated myself. How many of those books have come out RECENTLY? Finding good, new books is always difficult—I tend to stick to the authors I'm fond of, plus recommendations from friends.


  1. Anonymous said...

    I just got a hold of The Darkness that Comes Before, and it's pretty awesome. I had thought that Chris had told me it had something to do with the main character being the valiant hero type, getting beaten up by a whore and deciding to go to the dark side, but I think he might have been talking about something else. Anyway, it is still good. I was just confused by the lack of prototypical heroes.


  2. Luisa Perkins said...

    This is an awesome post. Nicola Griffth's Ammonite does interesting things with gender and family and kick-ass women; so do most of Sheri Tepper's books (though they tend to all read the same after a while).

    I thought Mary Doria's The Sparrow and its sequel treated religion in a somewhat new light. Esther Friesner's little known but brilliant The Psalms of Herod and its sequel are bleak dystopias that take The Handmaid's Tale a bit further, but in a really cool tangential way.

    Non-European cultures--me likey China Mountain Zhang

    I totally dig the Lancasters, as vulgar and disgusting as they are. Also can never get enough GGK. I could go on and on.

    Nice blogging! I look forward to more.

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