Friday, 16 December 2016

Imaginary Worlds ~ Suggested reading batch 2 of 4

The reading list for the Imaginary Worlds course is a fantastic cross-section of the imaginary genres, from classic epic fantasy to literary fiction to dystopias to steampunk. Each week on the Facebook page I'm introducing one of the 16 books in more detail, and each month I'm gathering up a cross-section of four of the books here. (By the way, if you think you don't like reading fantasy or sci-fi, you should read this article first: Why you like reading fantasy and science fiction even though you think you don't.) This month, we have The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and Ash by Malinda Lo.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.  

The Handmaid's Tale is an absolute classic dystopia - first published in 1985, it still feels chilling and prescient today. Although it's set in the future and definitely a dystopia, it's usually counted as "literary fiction" rather than sci-fi / fantasy. There's an unfortunate snobbery at work, where some circles refuse to consider that any sci-fi or fantasy could be literary, and if something is clearly literary as well, then it somehow gets elevated to "not sci-fi / fantasy" even though it clearly is. The same happens with Atwood's other books (in fact even she says they're not SFF) and with Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let me Go. It's a shame that people insist on this snobbery and these silos - but if anything, it goes to show how very vast the genres of "imaginary worlds" actually are.

What this book does especially well: Atwood's prose is beautiful, pure and resonant as a crystal chiming (hence the literary accolades, which she certainly deserves) and its theme is strikingly powerful.

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must ...and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty. The old gods have no power in the south, Stark's family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities.

A Game of Thrones barely needs any introduction any more, though you may not know that that's the name of the first book only, and the full book series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. And if you're feeling impatient for the next instalment of the HBO series, spare a thought for readers who started the books when the first one came out in 1996!

If you only know the story from the TV series, or were put off the TV series by the excess breastage, then I highly recommend the books. The TV series has done a fantastic job of condensing and adapting the story, and the casting is particularly rich, but there's a wealth more detail in the books, and they are absolutely not sexist at all. Everyone suffers, and the forces of war and patriarchy play out exactly as they genuinely would, but this is in no way misogynistically done, and if anything it's an extensive critique of our feudal-fantasy dreams, where we fill fantasy books with castles and wars, not thinking carefully about how that would actually work. These books take it seriously.

Also, while the TV series is all about the sex, the books are much more obsessed with food. Seriously: lay in plenty of food before you start reading. In particular, you'll need roast chickens, wheels of cheese, vegetables drowned in butter, stuffed chillies, and loaves of fresh bread. For starters.

What this book does especially well: George RR Martin's world is exceptionally well realised, with vast detail in every aspect of culture and people's lives, and close attention to the ripple-out effects of every choice.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beat her father to death during China's Cultural Revolution. This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind. Four decades later, Beijing police ask nanotech engineer Wang Miao to infiltrate a secretive cabal of scientists after a spate of inexplicable suicides. Wang's investigation will lead him to a mysterious online game and immerse him in a virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredicatable interaction of its three suns. This is the Three-Body Problem and it is the key to everything: the key to the scientists' deaths, the key to a conspiracy that spans light-years and the key to the extinction-level threat humanity now faces.

This is hardcore hard sci-fi, taking particular scientific principles and exploring them fully. If you're happy reading A Brief History of Time and the like, you'll love this - it's chokka with genuine science, fascinating extrapolations, and physics dilemmas. But if physics isn't completely your thing, you might find this hard going, because lengthy passages are devoted solely to the physics, and the story wouldn't make sense if you skimmed them - the science is the story. A Marmite book, then! Incidentally, it was translated from Chinese by Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings, who's also on the recommended list.

What this book does especially well: it uses meticulous science to develop an idea that would otherwise seem outlandish and even cliched, it embeds the political realities in its characters' lives, in the future it imagines as well as in the historical past, and its theme - whether or not humans even should be saved - feels painfully relevant at the moment.

Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo
In the world of Ash, fairies are an older race of people who walk the line between life and death, reality and magic. As orphaned Ash grows up, a servant in her stepmother's home, she begans to realise that her beloved mother, Elinor, was very much in tune with these underworld folk, and that she herself has the power to see them too. Against the sheer misery of her stepmother's cruelty, greed and ambition in preparing her two charmless daughters for presentation at court, and hopefully royal or aristocratic marriage, Ash befriends one of these fairies - a mysterious, handsome man who grants her wishes and restores hope to Ash's existence, even though she knows there will be a price to pay. But most important of all, she also meets Kaisa, a huntress employed by the king, and it is Kaisa who truly awakens Ash's desires for both love and self-respect... Ash is a fairy tale about possibility and recognizing the opportunities for change. From the deepest grief comes the chance for transformation.

Ash is a children's book (shelved in the 9-12 range) retelling the story of Cinderella, with a few twists - most significantly, in dismissing the traditional trajectory. If you've read Angela Carter's fairytale retellings in The Bloody Chamber, then the "twists" in Ash might seem tame in comparison, but remember who the book's readers are: as an intro to feminist fairytale retelling, this is captivating, and reminds you that you're always allowed to rewrite the stories yourself. Its world-building is light, in keeping with it being fairytale rather than epic fantasy, but the description is still vivid and its use of magic is deft, interesting, and well-described.

What this book does especially well: overturning the usual familiar tropes of its genre and the obvious choices for an unexpected approach.

The Imaginary Worlds course starts in Feburary 2017 - email me to book or read more about it below.

Develop your world-building to improve or invent your own imaginary worlds: the Imaginary Worlds course is an eight-week evening course on writing the genres of imaginary worlds, starting February 2017, and covering... • the many genres • how to constrain magic • making unlikely stuff convincing • your world's physical detail • why your world matters • ripple-through effects • names and language • your characters' political and economic realities • techniques for exposition. Read more about it and book here.

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