Play it again, Sam. Or, why we reread

We’ve all done it: faced with a stack of unread books, we pick up an old, trusty one, its spine cracked and story long ago memorized.  We think, ‘ooh, maybe its time to reread this again!”

Why do certain books and series inspire us to reread them?  What is it that makes rereading a pleasure rather than a tiresome bore?

Since I’ve just tucked into the Harry Potter series for the third go-round, these questions are on my mind.  What possesses me to plow through thousands of pages after already having done it twice?  Upon reflection, I think I’ve lit on a few factors that make a book rereadable:

1. Books that are intricately plotted.

The Potter books provide a good example here.  While there are flaws with the writing – you can accuse it of being too simplistic, find repetitive descriptions, etc. – I argue Rowling is great at planting seeds for plot devices that won’t become important for several books.  The opal necklace used to curse one of the students in “Half Blood Prince” is first seen by Harry in Knockturn Alley in Book 2.  Also in Book 2, we learn Voldemort inadvertently transferred a part of himself into Harry when his curse rebounded, something that shapes the eventual denouement in the final book.  Either Rowling knew exactly what was going to happen (which would be incredible) or was very good at going back to mine earlier books for plot devices as she developed later portions of the story.  It’s delightful to reread and mine out these little treasures (yes, I am a nerd).

2.  Books that deliver excellent surprises

Well-crafted twists and turns are a treat to revisit.  What unfolded the first time as a series of deftly created surprises, reads the second or third time as a how-to demonstration.  Rereading, you can hunt for clues, wondering how you missed them the first time around.  Creating a good surprise is a keen authorial trick – you want the reader to feel that, rather than having been hoodwinked, the surprise is the very thing they wanted to happen all along but didn’t know it.  Not easy to do.  Stories pulling off the good surprise are fun to reread because we relish the surprise AND because we like to go back and see how it was done.

3. Books with really satisfying endings.

There are plenty of books I loved 99% of and hated the ending.  Endings are tough, it’s easy for them to fall short of expectations.  As an author, you have to bring all those plot threads together, balance the scales in a way that’s consistent with the characters and their prior behavior, create a sense of “aha!” (those tricky surprises) and satisfy the reader’s sense of justice.  So, when this is done properly, it’s just damn satisfying and you want to relish it again and again.

4. Books with beloved characters.

Some books we reread not because the story itself was anything special, but because of the character(s).  A character you want to spend time with, even if it means retreading their old adventures, is a rare treasure.  Here I think of Sookie Stackhouse in the first few novels of the Southern Vampire series (not to be confused with the whining, annoying Sookie of the later books or the girl in the TV show…not having a TV, I’ve not seen True Blood).

5. And, finally, there’s the sheer comfort of reading a story that you know is going to delight you. There’s no anxiety it might turn out poorly.  You know the plot isn’t going to fall apart halfway through or that the characters will do something you just can’t forgive.

So, what books can you just not seem to put down?  For me it’s classics like the Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, as an odd outlier, a funny old book called The Eight, by Katherine Neville.  What about you?

The Undiscovered Country

The novel I’m currently revising revolves around a culture I based on the ancient Aztec.  So, when I heard about Aliette de Bodard’s “Servants of the Underworld,” a sort of fantasy detective story that takes place in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, I had to read it.

One thing Bodard really gets right is the different cultural outlook and worldview of this non-Western culture.  At first it was almost jarring, as the characters weren’t thinking or acting in a way that made sense in my personal worldview.  This, of course, got me thinking about how perilous writing other cultural perspectives can be — how hard it is to do well, how great it is when done right, and how infrequently one even sees it attempted.

There’s a well-established (and justified) stereotype about fantasy novels being set in the mythic “lands of the west” (firmly based on western cultural traditions).  And, while this stereotype exists for a reason, in just five or ten minutes I was able to think up a pretty long list of novels eschewing the trope in whole or in part, including:

  • earlier works, like Roger Zelazny’s “Lords of Light,” with it’s Indian influences
  • “Across the Nightingale Floor” (and the other books in Tales of the Otori) by Lian Hern, which are set in feudal Japan
  • “The Secret History of Moscow” by Ekaterina Sedia
  • “Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor, set in a post-apocalyptic South Africa
  • most of Nalo Hopkinson’s books, with their Caribbean roots
  • Ian McDonald’s “Dervish House” set in Istanbul
  • Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Windup Girl,” set in a post-global warming Thailand.

And that’s, no doubt, leaving out a lot of other great examples (in fact, please share your favorites in the comments below).  I wonder, then, if it’s  fair to start declaring the death of the stereotype?

But…not so fast.  As I started the post out by saying, it’s rare to find a novel that really captures the outlook of a non-western culture.  There are plenty of books set in less oft-explored times and places, but how many of them have protagonists with distinctly non-western viewpoints?  Bacigalupi’s book, for example, provides non-Western perspectives from several characters but centers on the narrative of a westerner.

Maybe one reason protagonists (or, even entire casts of characters) aren’t often “cultural others” is because authors may fear:

  • the inability to represent another cultural viewpoint authentically
  • presenting  a hurdle to prospective readers who crack novels open with (rightly or wrongly) preset notions of the cultural rules that will govern the characters’ and actions.

The former concern seems more justifiable to me than the latter, and still (I think) can be overcome through immersive research.  But, in the end, effectively deviating from reader expectations about culture can be a great challenge for the author.

What do you think?  Is this issue something we should be concerned about as writers?  Is there a need for more speculative fiction told from the perspective of non-western cultures?  And what are you favorite examples of this type of writing?

Life: varied and beautiful

So, of course, the big news splashing around everywhere today is the announcement by NASA scientists that they’ve discovered a new life form — a bacterium that can replace arsenic for phosphorus, one of life’s building blocks.

It’s pretty cool, and makes you realize that life really IS stranger than fiction (even science fiction!).  In the New York Times article on the topic, the lead researcher, Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon is quoted as saying: “This story is not about Mono Lake or arsenic, but about “cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.”

I love that.  The idea that what we “know” is open to debate, change, and even radical revision by new discovery is the essence of science – of what a thinking, curious mammal should embrace.  It is also, of course, an attitude at the heart of the creative impulse in speculative fiction.

So, when we get home tonight, let’s all sit down for a moment, open our computers, or notebooks, or whatever, throw out what we think are the fixed constants of life, and dream up something fantastic.  Who knows?  One day it might just turn out to be true.

Writer’s Workspace: 12/1

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

First off, a special link to share.  My VP classmate and friend Catherine Schaff-Stump has posted an interview with me over at her blog, Writer Tamago.  Check it out!

What I’m working on: revisions to A Blood Red Sun press forward.  My protagonist has reached a real low point.  She’s been betrayed, her army is slaughtered, and she’s now a prisoner.  In the coming chapter, her enemy will perform ritual human sacrifice to allow a goddess to claim her body as a host.  Not looking good for our heroine.

Snippet from the screen: “A hot, dry wind blew.  It pushed her hair back from her face, ruffling the feathers of her headdress.  Kara stood with eight hundred and fifty warriors at her back and the dog at her side.  The northern edges of the Huecalli desert spread dry fingers around her, and beyond, the high, bleak mountains of Acoya rose like teeth.”

On the iTunes: “So Nice So Smart” by Kimya Dawson

In my mug: The usual English Breakfast tea.

Out the window: Gloomy, gloomy, and more gloomy.  I guess, as they keep saying in these trailers that I can’t stop watching…winter is coming.

Keeping me company: The Overseer is lounging on the floor by my desk, keeping a close watch; should I get up, he’ll be quick to steal his chair my chair.


His Royal Fuzziness, Mr. Ramses

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: of course, the first link I have to share is to my own short story, “The New Arrival” just published by Electric Spec.  Second, if you happen to live in the San Fran/Bay Area and like performance art, check out Sean Craven’s latest post on Renaissance Oaf.  Finally, to get you in the holiday spirit, a NYTimes slideshow on festive drinks.

That’s all from here, dear friends.  What are YOU doing today?