Between all the million-and-one things that currently occupy my time, I’ve been reading. It is nice to be able to read even in snatches and stolen moments; among other things it reminds me that I, too, in some place at some time, am a writer. (The writing part of me has been having a difficult time: I’ve committed to the screen some half-dozen beginnings of potentially gorgeous stories, but I don’t seem to have the heart or the strength to complete them, which is very depressing.)
My reading has been somewhat haphazard, although I have deliberately sought out some books such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream. Others fell into my lap — a friend stopped by with Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, for instance, and one time when I was in the library, walking out from the rather poorly stocked SF section, I just happened to see Fiction before me, and Barbara Kingsolver, whom I’ve been meaning to read, was right there — not in person but in the form of her books, which is what counts for me at the moment.
Galileo’s Dream was wonderful on so many levels I hardly know where to begin. The sympathetic yet realistic-feeling portrait of Galileo, the historical details that anchor such a piece of fiction, the conversations with the Europans of the future… Also I happen to be particularly fond of Galileo, having studied him and taught him since I was this high, in a manner of speaking. So — such a fictional portrayal that feels so real, where one can immediately relate to his need to understand the workings of the physical universe and the sense of wonder that accompanies a new discovery — what can I say but thank you? I do think the book is flawed; some of the scenes and the people of the future do not feel quite real, although there are memorable exceptions. But you know, I would much rather read a great flawed book than a mediocre book that risks nothing. Plus in general I really enjoy Kim Stanley Robinson’s works, and I can hardly wait for the collection that is coming out later this fall.
The other wonderful book I read was N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Nora Jemisin happened to be on a panel I was on at Readercon this year (just one panel and two short visits to the con, since I had to get back to my dog) and while I had met her before and knew her as Nora, I didn’t realize she was that N.K. Jemisin, the one there was all the fuss about. When my daughter asked her where in the con we could find her book (we’d read the first three chapters on her website the night before and were rather desperate) she very kindly gave my daughter a copy. I only got to read the book after the offspring had devoured it, and I found it utterly, refreshingly wonderful. Original, inventive in a way I hadn’t seen before, and with a realistic and likeable protagonist. I can hardly wait for the next one.
Alice Munro is of course not a SF writer but a literary hotshot who has been nominated for the Nobel prize and has won many others. I found the stories in A View from Castle Rock to be observant, moving, and wonderful studies of character. There were parts I couldn’t relate to at all, because when there are narratives about colonialism that are limited to the colonizers, well, it just takes me out of the stories. The stories set in the earliest and the most recent times, which sandwiched the era of the pioneers coming and taking over the place, were, to me, the most interesting. In general, though, they served as a reminder to me that nothing much needs to happen in a story to make it memorable, or remarkable, or moving. That everyday details of lives and the intricate dances of relationships through time are inherently interesting. The stories are drawn heavily from family history and autobiography, to an extent I found somewhat revelatory (you mean one can do this?) and that is something to think about. (Of course I’ve drawn from some personal history for some parts of some of my stories but I have a tendency to want to turn them into something so radically different from how it actually turned out that I don’t know if I can do a Munro).
Just to show you what a philistine I actually am, I did not enjoy Alice Munro’s other collection of stories so much, which I got eagerly from the library: the wonderfully titled Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. For one thing, I wanted to whack half the protagonists. (For the record I have nothing against unsympathetic protagonists, but for some reason I found these people annoying — this may only be a result of my being over-tired these days, but still). For another, I started to feel a bit suffocated after the first few stories. How many variations on extramarital affairs or peculiar marriages can one deal with in a short time? And surely there are other relationships just as interesting as the romantic kind? (Actually there is one other kind explored in one story, but most of the rest are of the usual variety). By the end of the book I was determined that someday I would write a story called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Friendship, Spaceship! (Note added later: I’ve begun it!)
Because, you know, much as I appreciate the realist genre, the reason why I read SF (and write it) is because of its largeness, its generosity of vision (at least in the best works) and the fact that it explores so much more than the human-on-human relationship. Reading the realists of the day you would think there were no other sentient beings in the world than humans, most of them white, and most of them indulging in behavior that after the first three thousand times gets a bit boring. So I will read Alice Munro because I think she’s really good at some things, but I will intersperse that with generous helpings of SF or other stuff. In fact I could only get through the stories because I was reading a physics textbook as part of the preparation for my fall classes at the same time.
Which is why, among the non-SF writers I so enjoy Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve just read Prodigal Summer and The Bean Trees, and a short story collection, but I love her attention to landscape, geography and other living beings. Even when the story is primarily about humans and their relationships, the fact that the environment around them is so alive and that the characters interact with it and extract from it not only metaphors but also beauty and spirit and livelihood, brings to her works a largeness that I find absent in what I’ve read so far of Munro. The two biologists in Prodigal Summer, one a wildlife ranger and the other a somewhat surprised former entomologist who ends up a farm wife — the way they see the world is so interesting, so relational, in a multi-species way. There are other equally fascinating characters in the book as well.
Note added later: I just finished reading Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams. I found it compelling and enjoyable, and the characterization skillful (the portrait of the father was particularly sensitive) but I am beginning to wonder whether the author considers bearing and raising children to be an essential component of a woman’s happiness. All three books have female protagonists who somehow or other end up attaining a kind of fulfillment raising kids. Having a kid myself, I can attest to the special joys and pleasures of raising children, but I can also quite unambiguously say that for me (and for a lot of other women, I think) it is certainly not enough. And there are women who lead quite happy lives without children. So what’s with that?
Another Note added later: This third week of August finds us in a charming cottage in Maine for a vacation of about four days. This is thanks to the generosity of a writer friend of mine and her husband, whose house this is, and whose hospitality is just what we needed after (and during) a difficult time. My dog is entranced with all the new smells and has decided he owns the place — you should see him tearing about in his little cart. We have to be careful because the house is on quite a steep slope and he is quite capable of hurtling down and losing control of the wheels. For us, the peace and verdure, and the view from atop this green hill, are like good medicine. The ocean is not far off although we haven’t been there yet. The house is unsurprisingly full of books. Last night I found to my delight a volume entitled Nebula Award-Winning Novellas, edited by Martin Greenberg, and managed to read one story before falling asleep. This was The Persistence of Vision by John Varley: great conceptualization and a wonderful read, the kind of SF that extends beyond one’s comfort zone. I love the novella form, and I think it is perhaps my favorite (I have at least three novellas in first draft form waiting to be finished) — compact enough to hold the kind of intensity that short stories do so well, and expansive enough that you can get some serious world-building done. I’ve also started reading Matter by Iain Banks but I don’t find it very compelling as yet — perhaps it is the mood I’m in. So today I plan to dig into more novellas. There’s not much hope of rest because my dog still needs a lot of attention (last night he couldn’t sleep very well because of all the new noises I suppose, and therefore neither could I) so I might as well read. And dream, and maybe even write.
Tags: SF and Mainstream