How Do You Buy Your Science Fiction in 2018?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 2, 2018

Special thanks go to Chuck Litka for directing me to “2018 SFWA Nebula Conference Presentation” at Author Earningsa website devoted to helping writers find marketing information. This SFWA presentation is a slideshow with an impressive amount of sales data that readers generally don’t get to see. Anyone who writes science fiction, or hopes to be a science fiction writer, should study these slides carefully. Fans of science fiction should find it interesting to know what other fans are buying and how.

The slideshow by Data Guy is mostly focused on sales numbers, but the slide I liked best is #35 – Science Fiction Ebook Unit Sales by Subgenre. Hope Data Guy doesn’t mind if I copy a couple here.

Slide35

It is disheartening to me that short story collections and anthologies sell so damn little. I’m guessing “Short Stories” means single-author collections. I don’t know why “Anthologies & Short Stories” and “Anthologies” have two separate categories. My other favorite category is “Classics,” and it has sales barely above anthologies.

By the way, “Military SF” is my least favorite kind of science fiction. Growing up in the 1960s I felt like an oddball because I read science fiction. Few people read science fiction before Star Trek and Star Wars. Fans were considered dorks. And when folks did admit they were a science fiction fan, it meant reading science fiction, not watching.

Now I feel like an oddball because I read the least popular kinds of science fiction. Of course, I do love all the sub-genres from “Post-Apocalyptic” to “Exploration.” But I consume them in short stories, novelettes, and novellas. I seldom buy new SF novels anymore. I get the latest Kim Stanley Robinson or the Hugo winners, or the odd SF bestseller like The Martian by Andy Weir. And when I do buy a new science fiction novel, 98% of the time it’s an audiobook.

The impact of audiobooks and ebooks is the main point of Data Guy’s slideshow and the fact that self-publishing is making a huge impact on the genre. Since I’m older, retired, and spend a lot of my reading time consuming mid-20th-century science fiction, I’m not a typical buyer. But it does make me old enough to remember how vastly different book buying was half-a-century ago.

In the 1960s, most science fiction novels came out in paperback. They were mass-market papers, but we didn’t call them that. I don’t think trade paperbacks existed then. At least I don’t remember any. More often than not, paperbacks were purchased from twirling racks in drugstores than bookstores.

Few people bought hardbacks. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC) in 1967 to collect cheap hardbacks. They’d weren’t bound in cloth, but a thin vinyl-like plastic. Today collectors prize the paperbacks from this era for their covers. True cloth-bound 1st editions are also loved. But are rare. I often end up with old SFBC editions when I order from ABEBooks. (Or I end up with library discards. That’s another cause for depression, that classic SF is so little read that libraries discard them.)

The first new bookstore I shopped at when I was 16, had three shelves of science fiction books, a mix of hardbacks and paperbacks. It was pretty easy to keep up with the genre, and most of it was reprints. My favorite library then only had 8 shelves of SF books tucked away in a dark corner. I would guess less than 200 SF/F titles were published yearly back then. Today it’s well over 2,000.

Science fiction selling in hardback is something that’s evolved over the course of my lifetime. I was middle-aged before they started getting on the bestseller lists. My library in 2018 has 8 ranges of bookshelves for SF/F. In recent years we’ve seen more trade paperback editions and fewer mass market books. Now ebooks and audiobooks are wiping out the mass market book and have made a huge dent into trade and hardback sales. See slide #13.

Slide 13

My personal book buying habits reflect this chart, but instead of new print books, half of my book buying is used print books. When buying new books, I’d say 95% are ebooks and audiobooks. The last new print book I bought was Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet edited by Mike Ashley, and I had to special order it from England.

I’m now renting more books, via Scribd.com, another distribution type that’s not in the data. I’m reading/listening to books from this service that previously I would have bought as ebooks or audiobooks. And most of the ebooks I buy are the bargain $1.99 editions. I’ve collected a huge library of classic science fiction at that price by watching the daily deals. Generally, any book I really love in audio is one I’ll also buy in ebook. I like having a reading copy for reference and reviewing.

I’m mostly a guy that looks backward to the future. I wonder what young people today who are looking forward to the future are buying? The data in these slides reveal buying decisions in format and sub-genre, but I actually think that view of science fiction has changed.

The futures I hoped for and feared are different from the futures that young people read about today. Readers are reading more fantasy, and much of the science fiction is unbelievable, not based on hard science. I read science fiction in the 1960s hoping it would shape the future, but I don’t think people do that today.

Science fiction has always been an escapist lit but was tinged with hubris. Much of that hubris has faded away. But Data Guy couldn’t document that in his slides. Today, science fiction is more like medical marijuana than project management software. This is why I spend most of my science fiction reading time on the shorter forms. Science fiction writers are more likely to speculate and extrapolate in short fiction than long.

Another area that Data Guy didn’t document is series. Writers are devoting more of their efforts to writing book series. Many of my science fiction reading friends love book series. Series might be comfy books, but to me, they are vast wastelands of words because they have so little science fiction speculation in them. If they have clever ideas, they’re all in the first book.

I wish Data Guy had the numbers on sales by age groups. I wonder how many over-65 science fiction readers are like me – focussed on the past? I’ve recently rediscovered that exciting science fiction is still being written in the shorter forms. It always has, I just lost my way.

My current SF reading involves jumping back and forth from new and old anthologies. The annual best-of-the-year anthologies are new books I do buy, usually in ebook format, but also as audiobooks when they are available. These large collections are actually easier to read electronically.

I wonder how much of the sales Data Guy tracked involved books, ebooks, and audiobooks found in libraries? More and more my library is offering to let me to check out via download rather than visit. To me, Scribd.com is merely a public library where I’m fined $8.99 a month to use.

Finally, one more sad note to contemplate. If book sales move to ebooks and audiobooks, what will collectors collect in the future? You can’t go to musty old bookshops hoping to find lost treasures when they never existed in the physical world to begin with. But there is a practicality to ebooks. The beautiful old paperbacks I find in pristine condition today really aren’t readable. They are collectible, but often they’re too fragile for eye tracks and page flipping. Most of the classic novels of science fiction are easily found today as ebooks, and usually well priced. Audible.com has republished nearly all the classic science fiction novels I grew up reading.

And I’m starting to see more and more classic short stories show up in ebook format. I’ve been collecting Robert Sheckley and Clifford Simak stories that way. What I hope is all of classic science fiction short stories will eventually show up in audiobook too, read by great narrators. That’s how I really love to “read” today.

JWH

 

 

Reading Mentors

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Years ago, after reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell I contemplated how my life had been shaped by not having a mentor growing up. Looking back now, I see I had mentor-like encounters. My reading was guided by random external influences and that worked as a kind of mentorship. We expect teachers to be mentors, but they can’t, not really, not with so many students.

This is going to be a long essay to explain how I select books today to read and why. I feel compelled to jump back and write a history of my evolution of discovering what to read. Looking back, I wish I had known right from the first that some books are significantly better than others — that I should seek out the best. I also wish I had read from a wider range of subjects — that I could have had far more favorite subjects. And I wished I had learned at an early age that some books can be like junk food — making me addictive to empty calories.

Society expects schools to pick the best books for children, but I always rebelled against their choices. How can we raise kids to be better book selectors?

Bookstore reading

Can teachers ever select books perfectly customized for the individual student? How can teachers avoid turning off students by promoting the reading of unrelatable classics? How can parents and teachers overcome the urge to make kids read the books they loved so passionately but might not be relevant to their children’s lives? If only one book is taught in any given class period what are the odds that all the students will respond to it? Is the goal to teach reading – the ability to decipher fiction and nonfiction – or to teach kids how to find the right book that will provide them cognitive maps to reality? Are kids ever taught the dangers of reading? Are they ever warned that books can become a crippling addiction? Are they ever taught that books can spread dangerous beliefs, delusions, prejudices, hate, and lies? I wished I had learned those things early on.

It has occurred to me that how I found books have always influenced what I read. And what I read has always determined the direction of my life. Thus, I need to be more careful with how I find books. If you are not a bookworm you probably won’t understand this insight. Back in 1971 when I first took a computer course they taught us this acronym: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Before that, I remember hippies preaching, “You are what you eat.” From this, you might assume I’m about to write an essay on “You are what you read.” However, I’m going to take one step back and write, “You are what you find to read.”

The first book I can remember is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. My mother read it to me in the third grade (1959/60) after I had seen the film version with Wallace Beery. If my mother had chosen a different book for me I would have followed a different path as a bookworm? Both my parents were readers of tattered paperbacks. I remember mother reading Perry Mason and my father reading Mickey Spillane. Neither encouraged me and my sister to read. I guess they assumed our teachers would do that.

Evidently, at the end of the third grade, my teacher told my parents I had a reading problem and should attend summer school for reading. I vaguely remember going to a small, wedged shape room, probably a large closet rather than a classroom. The teacher told me to find a book and start reading. I went over to a twirling wire rack and found a small paperback titled Up Periscope. I started reading. It turns out I could read just fine. I don’t remember the summer school teacher ever giving lessons or even talking to him again. I was just bored by what they made us read in class. That twirling rack was an important book mentor and changed the direction of my life. The lesson I learned was I could pick my own books.

Starting in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades what I chose to read was determined by the school libraries and the physical locations where I came to browse. I was my own reading mentor. I remember always going to the beginning of the A’s of the kid’s section at Homestead Air Force Base Library in the 5th grade (1961/62). That got me reading Tom Swift (Appleton) and Oz books (Baum). Eventually, I worked up to the Hardy Boys (Dixon). I would have tried a greater variety of books if I hadn’t gotten hooked on series.

My sixth-grade (1962/63) teacher, Mrs. Saunders was the first teacher to be a book mentor. She’d read us books after lunch. I remember her starting A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and me rushing to the library after school and checking out a copy to finish on my own.

When I started the 7th grade (1963/64) at another school I found When Worlds Collide (Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie) again by browsing the beginning of a range. That simple routine was a reading mentor of sorts. By then I’d range up and down the alphabet looking for the kind of book I liked. I’d read a lot of so-so books. Books were like television or cookies, I consumed them as fast as I could. They were a commodity. I didn’t know there were great books. That’s when I could have used a reading mentor most. If only someone had only shown me how to find purpose in reading, rather than using reading for cheap thrills. If only a wise reader had shown me how to compare books to reality, or taught me about the quality of writing.

At this time I was fixated on space travel and biographies. I read for vicarious adventure. I found a numbered series that published cut-down biographies for children. I remember reading books about Ben Franklin, Aaron Burr, PT-109 and John Kennedy, and Blackjack Pershing. The numbered series acted like a mentor to me because I wanted to read them all. It also showed me that some people are more interesting than others, worthy of being written about. I wish I had had a reading mentor that that taught me that living is better than reading. On my own, I decided reading life was superior to real life.

In the 6th and 7th grade, my schools gave us order forms for Scholastic Books. I still didn’t know there was a genre called science fiction but I was drawn to science fiction books. Because of Scholastic Books, I discovered Jules Verne and H. G. Wells (too far down the alphabet to discover on my own I guess). These were the first books I bought after begging my mother to write a check. This was my first taste of owning and keeping books. I wish I had had some way of knowing what the other books were like on the Scholastic list. This was my first time I encountered a book list or publisher’s catalog. In a way, the Scholastic sales flyer was a kind of reading mentor.

Scholastic Order Form 1963

If I had found different books in the As and Bs at Homestead Air Force Base Library I could have taken a different path. I picked the Oz books because of the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on television. Now that I am older I sometimes wish I had not started down the path of fantasy stories. I can see now that I didn’t pick what I chose to read. My tastes had already been shaped by television, which makes it another kind of mentor.

The first person to truly influence my reading was my 8th grade (1964/65) teacher. I’m sad I can’t remember her name because she was very important. She had an approved reading list. To keep the grade we earned from tests during each six week period we had to read three books, three magazine articles, and three newspaper articles — otherwise, our grade was dropped one letter. We could raise our grade each period if we read five of each. Eighth grade was the year I struggled with grammar, so I was able to turn my Cs into Bs by reading. This teacher is memorable for two reasons. She introduced me to Robert A. Heinlein and got me to read books other than science fiction. She also taught me library research and how to make bibliographic lists. This teacher couldn’t be a personalized reading mentor to all her class sections, so she worked out a method of inspiring reading and allowing us to choose our own books from an approved list.

Because I asked a librarian about Heinlein, I was shown the adult science fiction section at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. It was small, only two half-height bookcases of four shelves each. Those shelves shaped my reading for a year. Again, a limited set of books becomes a reading mentor.

In the 9th grade (1965/66) I started earning money mowing lawns and babysitting. This got me into buying albums and books. Having money and a bike let me ride to used bookstores. Because I was a science fiction fan I mainly bought books from the science fiction section. I could only afford cheap books. I mainly bought ten-cent used paperbacks that were very old. That limitation was a kind of reading mentor. I mass-consumed science fiction paperbacks from the 1950s. Even today I realize that shaped my personality more than anything else.

It’s a shame I didn’t know better. I should have read more widely. In junior high, I did branch into nonfiction reading books about science, nature, space travel, exploration, history, maps, sailing, etc., but it was still a limited focus.

In the 10th grade (1966/67) I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. This defined my reading for years. Also in the 10th grade, while going to school in Mississippi that only required 16 credits to graduate, I had two library study halls in a six-period day. Science fiction was rare in Charleston, Mississippi, so I began reading more nonfiction.

In the 11th and 12th grade I worked and went to school so I stopped watching television and got little reading done. (This also became true after I got married and worked full time.) Being a bookworm requires the luxury of time.

In the 1970s while in college, I joined the Book of the Month Club and The Quality Paperback Book Club. This broadened my reading somewhat. So these book clubs became reading mentors. Book clubs allowed me to acquire hardbacks at a discount, but the two monthly selections also became a reading mentor too.

By this time I was regularly reading the science fiction magazines, F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, If, Amazing, and Fantastic. These periodicals had book reviews, and they became another reading mentor. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, I read a review of Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin. That started me reading books about books. However, I seldom branched out of science fiction. It wasn’t until I became an English major in the later 1970s that I began studying books outside the genre. But even then I rebelled against what my professors wanted me to read. For every required classic I was forced to read to pass a test, I read ten or twenty books of my own choosing.

Unfortunately, most of the books I chose were science fiction, with a smattering of popular science and biographies. Now let’s jump ahead about thirty years. Amazon.com changed my reading habits a lot. But what really changed my reading habits was Audible.com. From listening to books read by wonderful narrators I learned I was a very poor reader myself. I also discovered my poor reading habits caused me to read too fast and love books that could be read fast. Once I started listening to books I tried all kinds of novels and nonfiction I would never have enjoyed before. Suddenly, I loved 19th-century novels. Ones that previously had turned me off by all the slow tedious descriptive bits. I also got into long rambling nonfiction books.

I have to say audiobooks have been my best reading mentor. I was reading around 12-20 books a year during the 1980s and 1990s. Mainly because of work and being married. From 1963-1973 I probably read several books a week. From 2002-2017 I read one book a week, or about 52 a year, mostly because of Audible.com. Not only did I read (listen) to more books, my range of reading topics exploded like a nova.

Then around ten years ago, I started blogging and writing about books. I began to think more about what reading meant. I read more book reviews. The internet gave me access to book commentary from all over the globe. I read blogs by other bookworms and discovered whole reading vistas I had missed. Sites devoted to books and reading maniacs showed me countless paths other bookworms had taken.

Since the 1980s I’ve been fascinated by meta-lists. I created one for science fiction, first for a fanzine, and then for the internet. Since then I’ve found others creating general fiction meta-lists, like The Greatest Books, or even collections of meta-lists like Worlds Without End. These are another kind of reading mentor.

Then there is Goodreads and Listopia where millions of readers gather to discuss books. I can even browse what books family, friends, strangers, and famous people read. That’s another kind of mentor.

Finally, in recent years I’ve been greatly influenced by Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, and especially meta-lists that collect them all together. For example, here is “The Ultimate Best Books of 2017 List,” a meta-list created by Emily Temple, where she combined 35 lists covering 520 different recommended books. These annual lists have been getting me to read 6-10 books each year I never would have tried before, and often they turn out to be the very best books I read in the year.

In conjunction with the Best-of-the-Year meta-lists is ebook bargain sales. I subscribe to a half-dozen email newsletters that tell me what books are on sale each day as ebooks. I’ve already bought three books from Temple’s 2017 list. It’s hard to resist trying a book that is on ten or more Best-Books-of-the-Year lists for only $1.99. That makes for a powerful reading mentor.

It turns out the wisdom of crowds is true. It might make the best reading mentor of all I believe. I would think if kids in school had access to meta-lists of books kids like themselves were recommending it might be an excellent mentor to aid teachers.

It would be great to have had a human reading mentor growing up. To be honest, I was never trustful of grownups as a kid. I was a know-it-all little schmuck who wanted to make my own decisions, even if they were bad. I was greatly inspired by my peers, but let’s be truthful here too, my peers were not that wise. We were all too influenced by trends. Plus, I became addicted to science fiction at an early age, which made me ignore most everything else to read.

A while back I wrote, “What 12 Books Would You Give Your 12-Year-Old Self.” Even if I had a time machine I doubt I could have been much of a mentor to my younger self. We all wish we had known what we know now back then, but we forget that most of us are hard of hearing when it comes to taking advice. Today’s kids seem more connected to their parents than kids of my generation. Maybe today parents can be mentors. Rich folks have always been great mentors to their children. I do believe Malcolm Gladwell was right in Outliers that the kids who succeed in life start early and have mentors.

We try to design education curriculums that has the wisdom of mentors, but I’m not sure if such one-size teaches all plans can ever succeed. We know the internet inspires both good and bad in children but will we ever be able to channel its chaos? I wonder if kids can find other kids on the internet who could act as their reading mentors and provide the kind of wisdom I missed growing up. Teachers might try to catalog the best young adult bloggers to show their students. And I assume the internet allows teachers to be far more in tune with their students than teachers of my era.

JWH

 

 

 

 

The Robert Sheckley Tontine

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Mindswap by Robert SheckleyMonday, my buddy Mike and I were going up and down the isles of the science fiction section at Barnes & Noble looking to see if our old favorites were on the shelves. There were a few books each for Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, the Big Three SF writers of our childhood. But for many of the classic SF authors that we fondly remembered, none of their books were available. The last writer I looked up was Robert Sheckley. No luck. It’s sad to think modern readers won’t be discovering Mindswap or Untouched by Human Hands.

Generally, when science fiction fans today think of comedy SF they think Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But before Douglas Adams, there was Robert Sheckley. I worry that the number of Robert Sheckley fans is growing quite small.  Sure, a few new readers discover him, but that’s offset by older fans dying at a much quicker pace. The memory of his stories are like a tontine, and one day his last reader will be the only person on Earth to remember Marvin Flynn and The Theory of Searches, or any of the other wonderfully weird tales Sheckley wrote.

Much of Sheckley’s work has been reprinted in ebook editions and some of them have even gotten the audiobook treatment. Here’s the thing about books in general – most will be forgotten. Very few books are remembered over the long haul of time. I hate that. Of course, if we spent all our time cherishing old writers we’d have no time for new writers. Who are the new absurd comedy writers of SF today? Who follows in the footsteps of Robert Sheckley and Douglas Adams? I’d like to read them. I’m all for progress and time marching on, but I hate to see books I loved being forgotten. So I’ll just mention a few Sheckley titles to try.

My favorite Sheckley novels are Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. Even though these works are still in copyright, you can hear them on YouTube. I recommend you buy them from Audible or if you prefer reading with your eyes get the Kindle editions at Amazon. But for now you can give them a test spin via YouTube:

Actually describing Sheckley is hard, so I’m glad these audiobooks are on YouTube to do that work for me.

And here’s The Dimension of Miracles with a wonderful introduction by Neil Gaiman. It’s well worth listening to his introduction – I might not convince you to read Sheckley but Gaiman might.

Sheckley was a very prolific short story writer, and reading his collections captures the essence of science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. Sheckley explored every science fictional concept through an absurd lens of humor, often giving insights into human nature that serious science fiction failed to find. Only one of his collection, Untouched by Human Hands is available on audio. Listen to the first story, “The Monsters” on YouTube and if you like it go buy the whole collection at Audible. The story is about first-contact from an alien’s POV. There are 13 unique tales here that should tickle your funny bone and impress your intellect. Sheckley constantly reminds us we see reality with a too narrow perspective.

Like I said, many of Sheckley’s novels and collections are available as ebooks, and they are reasonably priced. Just for my own fun, I’m going to include covers I first saw half a century ago that make me feel nostalgic for his books today.

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley

Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley

The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley

Journey Beyond Tomorrow by Robert Sheckley

Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley

Notions Unlimited by Robert Sheckley

Shards of Space

Probably one old guy’s nostalgia isn’t enough to inspire new readers. I love that Philip K. Dick’s short stories are being produced as Electric Dreams, a video anthology for Amazon Prime. Sheckley’s short stories deserve that same kind of treatment, and that might resurrect his work. When Mike and I were checking the shelves at Barnes & Noble we found quite a lot of PKD titles. Back in the 1960s, I loved PKD but I never would have imagined he would be the science fiction writer of our generation to be remembered.

Young people who have discovered old reruns of The Twilight Zone or love the new anthology show Black Mirror should try reading science fiction short stories from the 1950s and 1960s. Back then science fiction stories had a lighter touch than they do today, more focused on far-out ideas and less on being literary.

Here is one example of a Sheckley story that’s always stuck with me. Sunday I tracked it down. It’s called “The Language of Love” and is in the collection Notions: Unlimited, about a young man, Jeffrey Toms, who meets a girl, Doris, and falls in love. She wants him to tell her he loves her. He wants to tell her. But he wants to express his feelings precisely, and fears using the word love is imprecise. He says people say they love pork chops, how can he use the same word for his feelings for her? So he learns about a dead race of aliens across the galaxy that had specialized in the language of love. Jeff travels to their world and finds an old scientist there, George Varis, who had studied this alien culture and Jeff spends months learning the language of love. Here’s what happens when he returns to Doris:

“Oh, Jeff,” she said, very softly. “Oh, Jeff.”

Toms simply stared, unable to say a word.

“It’s been so long, Jeff, and I kept wondering if it was all worth it. Now I know.”

“You—know?”

“Yes, my darling! I waited for you! I’d wait a hundred years, or a thousand! I love you, Jeff!”

She was in his arms.

“Now tell me, Jeff,” she said. “Tell me!”

And Toms looked at her, and felt, and sensed, searched his classifications, selected his modifiers, checked and double-checked. And after much searching, and careful selection, and absolute certainty, and allowing for his present state of mind, and not forgetting to take into account climatic conditions, phases of the Moon, wind speed and direction, Sunspots, and other phenomena which have their due effect upon love, he said:

“My dear, I am rather fond of you.”

“Jeff! Surely you can say more than that! The Language of Love—”

“The Language is damnably precise,” Toms said wretchedly. “I’m sorry, but the phrase, ‘I am rather fond of you’ expresses precisely what I feel.”

“Oh, Jeff!”

“Yes,” he mumbled.

“Oh damn you, Jeff!”

There was, of course, a painful scene and a very painful separation. Toms took to traveling.

He held jobs here and there, working as a riveter at Saturn-Lockheed, a wiper on the Helg-Vinosce Trader, a farmer for a while on a kibbutz on Israel IV. He bummed around the Inner Dalmian System for several years, living mostly on handouts. Then, at Novilocessile, he met a pleasant brown-haired girl, courted her and, in due course, married her and set up housekeeping.

Their friends say that the Tomses are tolerably happy, although their home makes most people uncomfortable. It is a pleasant enough place, but the rushing red river nearby makes people edgy. And who can get used to vermilion trees, and orange-and-blue grass, and moaning flowers, and three wrinkled moons playing tag in the alien sky?

Toms likes it, though, and Mrs. Toms is, if nothing else, a flexible young lady.

Toms wrote a letter to his philosophy professor on Earth, saying that he had solved the problem of the demise of the Tyanian race, at least to his own satisfaction. The trouble with scholarly research, he wrote, is the inhibiting effect it has upon action. The Tyanians, he was convinced, had been so preoccupied with the science of love, after a while they just didn’t get around to making any.

And eventually he sent a short postcard to George Varris. He simply said that he was married, having succeeded in finding a girl for whom he felt “quite a substantial liking.”

“Lucky devil,” Varris growled, after reading the card. “‘Vaguely enjoyable’ was the best I could ever find.”

I hope whoever will be Robert Sheckley’s last reader hasn’t been born yet. We need to keep the Robert Sheckley Tontine going.

JWH

 

Science Fiction I Want to Hear Before I Die

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 24, 2017

I love listening to science fiction read by great audiobook narrators! It’s standard today for popular books to have an audiobook edition, and audiobook publishers have done an excellent job producing audiobooks for popular SF books from the past. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of science fiction I want to hear that’s still not available. I assume audiobook publishers need to make a buck and are hesitant to produce stories they think won’t sell. Can’t blame them, but what if there are overlooked markets with enough potential customers to generate a profit? Shouldn’t we make our wants known?

The-Science-Fiction-Hall-of-Fame-Volume-One---Edited-by-Robert-Silverberg

For my 64th birthday, I wrote “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear” for SF Signal. For my 65th birthday, I wrote, “65 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear” for this blog. If you study the two lists you’ll discover they haven’t changed much, and I’ve only gotten to hear a few of my wishes. Sadly, most of their titles are still my wishes. The big gift this year was The Left Hand of Darkness coming out on Audible. And John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up will be available on the 28th. Now I’ve got to beg for The Jagged Orbit and The Shockwave Rider – Brunner needs to be remembered for more than his brilliant Stand on Zanzibar.

John Brunner

Although I won’t get them for my birthday this year (tomorrow), Recorded Books will soon be releasing The Science Fiction Hall of Fame – volume 1 in December, and volume 2a and 2b sometime in early 2018. Not sure when they will come to Audible. This is tremendously exciting because classic short science fiction has been mostly missing in action on audio. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame comes in at #1 on GoodReads Best Science Fiction Anthology list.

I was especially grateful this past year to finally hear books by Samuel R. Delany.  (Babel-17, Nova, Dhalgren).  Now I’m begging for Aye, and Gomorrah: And Other Stories by Delany, and Empire Starmy personal favorite. It would be fantastic to hear the complete shorter works on of Samuel R. Delaney like they’ve done for Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, J. G. Ballard, and C. M. Kornbluth. Other complete short story projects I’d love to hear are the stories of Clifford Simak and Robert Sheckley!

By the way, here’s a sample of Sheckley on audio. It’s hilarious.

I’m still shocked I can’t listen to books by these authors:

  • Eleanor Arnason
  • Alfred Bester
  • Michael Bishop
  • Pat Cadigan
  • Zenna Henderson
  • R. A. Lafferty
  • Maureen F. McHugh
  • Eric Frank Russell
  • James H. Schmitz
  • William Tenn
  • James Tiptree, Jr.
  • Wilson Tucker

I can identify four areas of science fiction for publishers to consider: diversity, short fiction, classics, and rediscoveries. Until the 21st-century American science fiction readers mostly read stories written by white males from English speaking countries. Audiobook publishers should search out science fiction written by women, writers of color, or foreign language SF in English translation.

I don’t believe the science fiction genre intentionally excluded women and minorities. When I was growing up science fiction was viciously sneered at by the literary establishment. The genre paid very little, and many believed it only appealed to adolescent social outcasts. I don’t think woman and minorities wanted to write SF. After Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977), science fiction slowly became more popular with the general public. That’s when SF began attracting serious attention, and women and minority writers took more interest. It hurts my feelings today when so many essays about classic science fiction come with trigger warnings about classic science being dominated by white male writers. It’s a complicated issue to judge the past by today’s standards. Any story from the past must be read carefully, but I don’t believe they should be rejected out of hand.

The heart of science fiction has always been the short fiction. For decades novelists did their apprentice work in pulp and digest magazines. However, short fiction has never been popular with the book-buying public. Now that we listen to fiction on smartphones, short fiction should be a perfect for on-the-go “reading.” It would be great to have audiobook editions of the popular magazines. Every year we have several large best-of-the-year anthologies published. These also need to be produced in audio. And we need to hear retrospective anthologies that collect older short stories and theme anthologies of original short stories.

Most of the classic novels of science fiction already have audiobook editions, some are even in their second editions, yet there are a handful of obvious classics that we can’t hear. Finally, there are older books that are no longer read, but if brought back might make exciting rediscoveries. I have trouble reading classic literary novels from the 19th-century but love listening to them. I’m wondering if audiobook editions of Victorian-era science fiction might rebuild reputations.

The stories I hope to hear have a very small potential audience, and thus financially risky to produce. Bestsellers tend to always be new books. Recognized classics stay in print and readers discover them as their tastes mature, promising slow but steady sales. For the past twenty years, I believe audiobook publishers have discovered another market, a nostalgia market, with books appealing to older readers who want to hear their favorite stories they read in their teens and twenties. However, that catch-up market will eventually dwindle. My worry is audiobooks currently in print will go out-of-print (out-of-audio?). The great thing about Audible.com is they keep those out-of-audio editions I bought in the past available to me in my library. But will they for the rest of my life?

Herland by Charlotte Perkins GilmanI want to hear the science fiction books that have historical and literary value because I’m an amateur scholar of science fiction history. I’d love when forgotten books are rediscovered and become recognized classics, but that doesn’t happen often. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a great example. My interests are like feminists who mine the past for women writers, or African-American scholars who want to unearth novels written by black authors which reveal perspectives previously ignored by history. Older science fiction novels represent forgotten perspectives too. Often these old SF stories are poorly written, but not always, but they reveal speculative ideas that are anthropologically valuable, clues to our past hopes and fears about the future.

Since I joined Audible.com in 2002 and began listening to books, I’ve learned that hearing a story read by a professional narrator is the absolute best way to showcase the writing virtues of a book. I feel writing skills (or lack of skills) are magnified when properly read aloud. A good audiobook narrator will get closer to the best possible presentation for a book, revealing all the aspects the author worked so hard to add, especially ones that are so easily skimmed over by visual speed readers. Dialog becomes dramatic, long narrative passages are richer sensually and intellectually, we can clearly hear the voice of the author, as well as voices of the characters, and we can feel the writing style. Most authors are poor narrators, which is why we want professionals.

I consider an audiobook edition of an old book a kind of validation. It helps stories from past eras to find new readers. Plus, we gain a sense of literary history. My inner reading voice is not very good, and it always sounds contemporary, and a good narrator can make a 19th-century novel sound like the 19th-century, or even a 1940s pulp fiction story sounds like a 1940s film noir movie. Many older stories that I read with my eyes feel dated, quaint, or even clunky, come alive with a skilled audiobook narrator. This was vividly illustrated recently with Frankenstein Dreams, an anthology of 19th-century science fiction that has a wonderful audio edition.

My goal for this essay is to point to science fiction that isn’t in print on audio that audiobook publishers might consider. These titles still have a nostalgia audience or possibly be a thrilling rediscovery to entice new readers, justifying taking a chance on them. In terms of science fiction literary history, I doubt there’s even fifty of us in the world today, and most of them probably still prefer reading over listening. However, I believe the audience for historical science fiction could be expanded greatly if more young people heard stories like “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster on their iPhones.

I use Audible.com as my reference for being audio-in-print. There may be amateur readings on the web, or professional readings not sold through Audible, but such rarities are hard to track down. For the past two years (2015 and 2016) I’ve published lists of SF books I wanted to hear on audio as my birthday wish. I recommend that potential audiobook publishers scan these lists for possible consideration. Only a few titles have gotten audiobook editions since they came out.

Most of the legendary classic science fiction novels of the 19th-century have multiple audiobook editions, especially for Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. I’m only learning late in life that there was a great deal more science fiction published in Victorian times than we remember.

The books I recommend are based on how they are remembered today. I’ve published two lists of science fiction based on the popularity of being on multiple best-of lists. The Classics of Science Fiction and Science Fiction by Women were created from the most popular books found on 65 Best Science Fiction lists published between 1949-2016. HiLoBrow.com has also assembled lists of science fiction books by historical periods: Scientific Romances (1864-1903), Radium Age Sci-Fi (1904-1933), Golden Age Sci-Fi (1934-1963) and New Wave Sci-Fi (1964-1983). I also use Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction edited by Neil Barron (all editions). Barron’s book is a library reference tool for collection building.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon)Like I said, Audible.com sells most of the famous science fiction published in the last two hundred years. Most of what’s missing is obscure, but there are some amazing exceptions. I just can’t believe Alfred Bester’s two legendary novels; The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination aren’t available on audio. I assume for legal reasons. And why haven’t we heard any James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) or Joanna Russ (two famous feminist science fiction writers)? Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, Tiptree’s best-of short story collection is a must. Russ’ The Female Man is still in print on paper so why not audio? That book was #24 on the Classics list and #7 on the SF by Women Writer’s list. But also, I think her And Chaos Died should be considered. It was originally an Ace Special and nominated for a Nebula.

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden ElginMost books on the Science Fiction by Women list are available on audio, but that’s because they are generally recent books. The further back in time we travel the fewer women science fiction writers we get to hear. Woman writers weren’t common, but there were more than most readers remember. Zenna Henderson’s lovely People stories from the 1950s and 1960s need to be heard, now collected as Ingathering: The Complete People Stories. Also, Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin (expanded to a trilogy). And I really, really want to hear Women of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason.

Scholars are rereading the old pulps looking for women writers. Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction edited by Lisa Yaszek would be a fascinating collection to hear. The trouble with anthologies is getting permissions to reprint on audio. From now on, anthologists should try to always get permission. It would be fantastic if we could hear Pamela Sargent’s two-volume science fiction by women anthologies: Women of Wonder: the Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s and Women of Wonder: the Contemporary Years, Science Fiction by Women from the 1970s to the 1990s. Both are long out of print so it might be hard to get the audiobook reprint rights.

Women-of-Wonder-The-Classic-YearsWomen-of-Wonder-The-Contemporary-Years

There are classic anthologies that deserve audio production like Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison that’s still in print, so they have a chance. But most of the famous anthologies of the past, like Adventures in Space and Time edited by Healy and McComas, are long out of print, and it’s doubtful I’ll ever hear them. That doesn’t mean new anthologists couldn’t re-anthologize those stories.

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer is a new epic retrospective anthology covering science fiction history. I’m crying that it’s not on audio. Why? Why? Why? However, at 1,218 pages it’s probably too expensive to produce, but it’s shorter than the complete Sherlock Holmes collections which are one credit at Audible. I would gladly pay 2 credits for it! The Vandermeers have created a monumental anthology that is diverse and worldly. I beg the audiobook gods to produce it.

So Long Been Dreaming edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder MehanBefore the 21st-century science fiction had very few African American writers or writers of color from any country. GoodReads has a great list of African American Science Fiction to study. Most of the newer novels are on audio. A great way to deliver audiobook diversity in older science fiction is by producing anthologies. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree R. Thomas would be an excellent choice, as well as its sequel Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. Also, consider So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson, or Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha. (Update 11/27/17 – Octavia’s Brood is available at Audible.)

After listening to Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims I wanted to hear more science fiction by 19th-century writers. His anthology made me realize that the Victorians could have discussed many science fictional ideas we assumed were first thought up in the 20th century. An obvious wish is to hear Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction edited by Brian Stableford. I really admire Stableford’s insight into the evolution of science fiction, especially his four-volume book, New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romances.

Two novels from the 1800s that I’d like to hear are Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg about using anti-gravity to go to Mars, and Caesar’s Column (1890) by Ignatius Donnelly, a best-seller American utopian. Some of its ideas seem to foreshadow what we’re experiencing today. I was tremendously impressed by Looking Backward (1888) by Edward Bellamy when I listened to it last week. Sure, it was mostly lecturing, but it was incredibly creative.

A Voyage to Arcturus by David LindsayThe early part of the 20th-century was a happening time for science fiction, but many of its quasi-famous stories are now forgotten. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsey is an early interstellar travel yarn, a favorite of Robert A. Heinlein, that is religiously philosophical like C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. A classic pulp fiction adventure is The Girl in the Golden Atom (1922) by Ray Cummings. I read a beat-up copy that I found in a tiny, dusty, small-town library in 1966. I thought it would be fun to try it again. Emperor of the If (1926) by Guy Dent was an early alternate history story, and The Young Men are Coming (1937) by M. P. Shiel, a story of flying saucers and fundamental religion.

My last want is Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov, a huge anthology of science fiction stories from the 1930s. These are the stories Isaac Asimov remembered loving growing up, and they are wonderful. The stories aren’t sophisticated, but they do have tremendous enthusiasm for their ideas. Science fiction has a different feeling for each decade, and we’ve mostly forgotten 1930s science fiction. Most of the retrospective anthologies we’ve seen in recent decades seldom anthologize stories from the 1930s (or even the 1940s). Most of the currently recognized classics of science fiction short stories come from the 1950s and later. When I was growing up, the classic stories were mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. I ache to hear these old 1930s stories read by a narrator who can properly dramatize them.

66 Books I Want to Hear for My 66th Year

H=Hardback  T=Trade paper  M=Mass market  E=ebook  *=OOP

    1. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay – HT
    2. Phoenix (1926) by Lady Dorothy Mills – OOP
    3. The World of Null-A (1948) by A. E. Van Vogt – TE
    4. The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A. E. Van Vogt – T
    5. Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore – TE
    6. The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester – TE (published 12/5/17)
    7. A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn – H
    8. Mission of Gravity (1954) by Hal Clement – TE (as Heavy Planet: The Classic Mesklin Stories)
    9. Cities in Flight (1955) by James Blish – E
    10. Citizen in Space (1955) by Robert Sheckley – E
    11. The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester – TE
    12. Wasp (1957) by Eric Frank Russell – E
    13. The Lincoln Hunters (1958) by Wilson Tucker *
    14. Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys – E
    15. The High Crusade (1960) by Poul Anderson ME
    16. Hothouse (1962) by Brian W. Aldiss – E
    17. Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn – H
    18. Empire Star (1966) – T (combined with Babel-17)
    19. The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz – ME
    20. Dangerous Visions (1967) ed. Harlan Ellison – TE
    21. The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
    22. Camp Concentration (1968) by Thomas Disch – TE
    23. Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty – T
    24. The Last Starship from Earth (1968) by John Boyd – *
    25. Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock – T
    26. Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad – TE
    27. Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony – HTE
    28. And Chaos Died (1970) by Joanna Russ – *
    29. The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) by Wilson Tucker *
    30. The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth (1971) by Roger Zelazny – TE
    31. The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) by Gene Wolfe – TE
    32. The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn – T
    33. Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov – *
    34. A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1974) by Stanley G. Weinbaum – *
    35. The Centauri Device (1974) by M. John Harrison *
    36. The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ – T
    37. The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brunner – TE
    38. Trouble on Triton (1976) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
    39. On Wings of a Song (1979) by Thomas M. Disch – E
    40. Ridley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban – HTE
    41. No Enemy But Time (1982) by Michael Bishop – E
    42. Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin – TE
    43. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
    44. Ancient of Days (1985) by Michael Bishop – TE
    45. The Falling Woman (1986) by Pat Murphy – E
    46. Mindplayers (1988) by Pat Cadigan – TE
    47. Grass (1989) by Sheri S. Tepper – TE
    48. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990) by James Tiptree, Jr. – T
    49. A Woman of the Iron People (1991) by Eleanor Arnason – E
    50. Sarah Canary (1991) – Karen Joy Fowler – TE
    51. Synners (1991) by Pat Cadigan – TE
    52. China Mountain Zhang (1992) by Maureen F. McHugh – TE
    53. Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith – TE
    54. The Rediscovery of Man (1993) by Cordwainer Smith – H
    55. Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers – TE
    56. Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson (1995) – H
    57. Women of Wonder (1998) (2 volumes) edited by Pamela Sargent – OOP
    58. Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling – TE
    59. The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96) v.1 and v.2 by Gene Wolfe – T
    60. The Good Old Stuff (1998) edited by Gardner Dozois – T
    61. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) edited by Sheree R. Thomas – HE
    62. The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn Volume 1 &
      2
      (2001) – H
    63. Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) by Samuel R. Delany – T
    64. Strange Relations (2008) by Philip Jose Farmer – M (The Lovers, Flesh, Strange Relations omnibus)
    65. The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer – TE
    66. Sisters of Tomorrow (2016) edited by Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp

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    JWH

65 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 25, 2016

Hothouse - Brian W. AldissHappy Birthday to me! Last year I wrote “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear” for my 64th birthday. It was published at SF Signal. I had hoped audiobook publishers would have granted my wish by now. Unfortunately, only one title has shown up at Audible.com – Nova by Samuel R. Delany. I bought it and it sounds wonderful. Maybe more will show up by the time I’m 66. But guys, I can only live for so long.

Here’s the list updated to 65 titles for my 65th birthday. I’ve substituted some collected works for older original short story collections. I figure it’s probably easier to get the audio publishing rights to the most recent collections.

If I had three wishes from a genie, one wish would be for Adventures in Time and Space (1946) edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas in a perfect audiobook edition. Great anthologies on audio are rare. I expect publishing rights are hard to arrange. I’m still wishing for six completely out-of-print volumes to come out in audio. Most of these books below are available in print or ebook editions. Does it take a certain demand for print/ebook editions before publishers will risk an audio edition?

A Mirror for Observers - Edgar PangbornMost of the great science fiction classics have shown up on audio. Starting in 2002 when I join Audible.com, I’ve been “rereading” my favorite science fiction books from youth by listening to them. I love hearing old science fiction when read by a great narrator. If you can think of an old science fiction book that’s not on my list below, chances are its available on audio at Audible.com. If you haven’t gotten into audiobooks yet, I recommend starting with an old favorite. You might be surprised to hear something you missed.

Many of the books below are forgotten classics, especially the older ones. People from my generation might remember them, but younger readers may never have heard of many titles. The real question is whether or not these books still hold up. Just because I want to hear them doesn’t mean they are great stories. They are just books I often read about when reading about science fiction.

What amazes me are the authors that have no Audible.com editions of their work. Or next to none. I can’t figure out if this is for legal reasons, or there’s no interest in their work. These include:

  • Eleanor Arnason
  • Alfred Bester
  • Michael Bishop
  • Pat Cadigan
  • R. A. Lafferty
  • Maureen F. McHugh
  • Eric Frank Russell
  • James H. Schmitz
  • William Tenn
  • James Tiptree, Jr.
  • Wilson Tucker

65 Books I Want to Hear

H=Hardback  T=Trade paper  M=Mass market  E=ebook  *=OOP

  1. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay – HT
  2. The World of Null-A (1948) by A. E. Van Vogt – TE
  3. The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A. E. Van Vogt – T
  4. Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore – TE
  5. The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester – TE
  6. A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn – H
  7. Mission of Gravity (1954) by Hal Clement – TE (as Heavy Planet: The Classic Mesklin Stories)
  8. Cities in Flight (1955) by James Blish – E
  9. The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester – TE
  10. Wasp (1957) by Eric Frank Russell – E
  11. The Lincoln Hunters (1958) by Wilson Tucker *
  12. Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys – E
  13. The High Crusade (1960) by Poul Anderson ME
  14. Hothouse (1962) by Brian W. Aldiss – E
  15. Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn – H
  16. Empire Star (1966) – T (combined with Babel-17)
  17. The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz – ME
  18. Dangerous Visions (1967) ed. Harlan Ellison – TE
  19. The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
  20. Camp Concentration (1968) by Thomas Disch – TE
  21. Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty – T
  22. The Last Starship from Earth (1968) by John Boyd – *
  23. Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock – T
  24. Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad – TE
  25. Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony – HTE
  26. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin – HTME (OOP on audio)
  27. And Chaos Died (1970) by Joanna Russ – *
  28. Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970) edit by Robert Silverberg – T
  29. The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) by Wilson Tucker *
  30. The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth (1971) by Roger Zelanzy – TE
  31. The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) by Gene Wolfe – TE
  32. The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn – T
  33. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and 2B (1972) edited by Ben Bova – T
  34. The Sheep Look Up (1972) by John Brunner – TE
  35. Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov – *
  36. A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1974) by Stanley G. Weinbaum – *
  37. The Centauri Device (1974) by M. John Harrison *
  38. The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ – T
  39. The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brunner – TE
  40. Trouble on Triton (1976) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
  41. On Wings of a Song (1979) by Thomas M. Disch – E
  42. Ridley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban – HTE
  43. No Enemy But Time (1982) by Michael Bishop – E
  44. Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin – TE
  45. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
  46. Ancient of Days (1985) by Michael Bishop – TE
  47. The Falling Woman (1986) by Pat Murphy – E
  48. Mindplayers (1988) by Pat Cadigan – TE
  49. Grass (1989) by Sheri S. Tepper – TE
  50. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990) by James Tiptree, Jr. – T
  51. A Woman of the Iron People (1991) by Eleanor Arnason – E
  52. Sarah Canary (1991) – Karen Joy Fowler – TE
  53. Synners (1991) by Pat Cadigan – TE
  54. China Mountain Zhang (1992) by Maureen F. McHugh – TE
  55. Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith – TE
  56. The Rediscovery of Man (1993) by Cordwainer Smith – H
  57. Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers – TE
  58. Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson (1995) – H
  59. Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling – TE
  60. The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96) v.1 and v.2 by Gene Wolfe – T
  61. Immodest Proposals: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn Volume 1 (2001) – H
  62. Here Comes Civilization: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn Volume 2 (2001) – H
  63. Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) by Samuel R. Delany – T
  64. Strange Relations (2008) by Philip Jose Farmer – M (The Lovers, Flesh, Strange Relations omnibus)
  65. The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer – TE

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JWH

Three Useful Internet Sites for a Dynamic Reading of Ulysses by James Joyce

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reading Ulysses by James Joyce can be very difficult, even daunting. Many well read readers consider Ulysses the number one novel of all time, because of it’s rich complexity and advanced writing techniques. Joyce intentionally made Ulysses a reading challenge, full of Easter eggs for readers to find and decipher, making it a novel worthy of multiple readings.

I have tried reading Ulysses before, but even after reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man three times, I wasn’t ready. One major barrier for me is my poor reading skills. I’ve been conditioned to read fast, always wanting to know what’s going to happen, by the plot driven novels of my youth. Ulysses is more like a great painting that you must study slowly and carefully, and for most of my life I never had the patience.

The range of what I could read took a quantum leap forward in 2002 when I started listening to audio books. Listening makes me read slow, and that changes everything. Also, professional readers showcase writing far better than my own inner voice. It’s like the difference between reading poetry and hearing it read aloud. Quality fiction should be heard. It should sound dramatic and dynamic, even poetical. Bad writing sticks out when read aloud. Once I started listening to Ulysses I could get into it. But still there was much I was missing.

Ulysses is famous for its stream of conscious writing techniques. If you just read it with your eyes, it’s easy to confuse the narrator with inner monologues. And even good audio book narrators don’t always distinguish between the two.

Ulysses is also full of allusions to real world and literary history, using colloquial and idiomatic words and phrases that are long out of fashion. Plus Joyce frequently cites lines of Latin, songs and poems that well educated people knew back then, but most people don’t know about today.

Luckily, I’ve stumbled upon two sites on the internet that are wonderful tools for helping me to read Ulysses in a very efficient manner. The first is  The Joyce Project that features an online version of Ulysses. Now most people hate reading online, but I have a major reason to get over that prejudice. The second site that I use is an audio performance of Ulysses at Archive.org. I read online as I listen to this online recording. This recording is very special because they use different actors for different characters, and they use a special effect for when Joyce is having his character speak in their internal voice. This is a tremendous advantage for understanding Ulysses. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to hear Joyce read by someone that can pronounce everything correctly, and even offer good accents.

As an extra bonus, The Joyce Project has an annotation mode you can turn on, and certain words and phrases will appear in color that you can click on to read for elaboration. What I do is read and listen to each episode, and then go back and click on all the highlights. Here’s what the plain text looks like, then with the annotations highlighted, and then with the pop-up for the first annotation.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

The Joyce Project 1

The Joyce Project 2

The Joyce Project 3

But what works really well is to open the The Joyce Project and the Archive.org audio player windows so they overlap, like this:

Read and Listen

This allows me start and stop the audio easily as I read, in case I do want to stop my reading to study an annotation.

Finally, there’s a third dimension to using the web for reading and studying Joyce – there’s a goldmine of supplemental material. I’m not pursing the study guides on my first reading except in a very limited way. Ulysses is a black hole for scholarship.

One site that is frequently recommended to me is Frank Delaney’s podcast re:Joyce. Delaney does one podcast a week and is up to #245, but only to episode five in the novel. He estimates it will take him 25 years to finish the project. Delaney is a famous author and broadcaster, and knows Joyce’s Ireland, so his rich voice and literary experience makes him a great guide for traversing the land of Joyce. His enthusiasm enhances the enjoyment of reading Joyce.

I figure the first two tools, the annotated text and the performance narration, are the two best tools I’ve discovered for reading Ulysses for the first time. And the Frank Delaney podcast is a wonderful supplement for those people who want to take their first step into Joyce scholarship.

JWH

Printed Book v. Audio Book

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 8, 2014

I am reading and listening to the same book, Timescape by Gregory Benford. This 1980 science fiction novel is about the year 1998, and the Earth suffering from an environmental collapse. The reason it’s science fiction is because the people in 1998 find a way to send a message back to people in 1962 to tell them to stop doing what they’re doing. I first read Timescape back in the early 1980s, just after it came out, and then listened to it in 2007. I’m reading it again this month for a book club, but as an experiment, I thought I’d listen to what I just read a week later. This has proved to be a fascinating experiment.

When I started routinely listening to audiobooks in 2002, I discovered just how bad a reader I was. Even though I was a lifelong bookworm, and thought myself a great reader, audiobooks revealed I wasn’t. My inner narrative was sketchy and wimpy compared to what I heard by professional narrators. This was true for a number of reasons, but mostly because I read too fast. I was skimming, rather than reading. There is more to reading than finding out what happens next. A great book will be rich in details, its scenes dramatic, and its characters full of distinctive voices. Speed reading tends to gloss over the details, flattens the drama and eliminates the voices.

A dozen year later, I now read much slower. I work very hard not to skim. I keep an eye out for the clues the author gives to imagine the dramatic interaction of the characters, and their personal voice. I’ve come a long way, but not far enough. I’m rereading Timescape because I’m leading a book discussion group, and I’m summarizing each chapter.  I concentrate harder on the details of the prose and take notes.

Then a week later, I decided to listen again to the same story. As I progress over each chapter, I remember reading the words. I’m don’t think I skimmed much at all, but it’s still very obvious that I’m not getting the dramatic intent of the story. The book is narrated by Simon Prebble, and he brings so much more nuance to the story. Prebble is not making stuff up, the clues to how the characters should sound are in the narrative, I just don’t imagine the drama in my head when reading compared to what I hear in the audiobook.

Strangely, listening to an audiobook is like using a magnifying glass to examine the details of writing. Benford has created characters with distinctive voices and psychologies. He even gives his sister-in-law, Hilary Foister, credit for helping him with the British portion of the story. For instance, I’m always jarred when British people drop the definite article, like when they say, “go to hospital” or “go to university.” I don’t know why we want the definite when declaring generic places, but that’s how it is. When reading that kind of thing in Timescape I didn’t notice it, but I did when listening.

When Renfrew meets Patterson for the first time he experiences a number emotions.  Renfrew grew up a working class kid that’s made it to Cambridge, to become a physicist,  and meets the upper class Peterson, a politico who’s going to evaluate his budget for a highly theoretical experiment in times when many are starving. Renfrew is very tense, and class conscious.

     “Good morning, Dr. Renfrew,” The smooth voice was just what he had expected.

     “Good morning, Mr. Peterson,” he murmured, holding out a large square hand. “Please to meet you.” Damn, why had he said that? It might have been his father’s voice: “I’m reet please to meet ya, lad.” He was getting paranoid. There was nothing in Peterson’s face to indicate anything but seriousness about the job.”

Do you feel the paranoia from reading it? I did a little, but I felt it more when listening. Prebble even does the father’s voice with the accent and different tone, a tiny flashback. The two men sound different in the narration, sounding like what Benford tells us they sound.

This rather plain passage presents all the essential details, but when I listened to Prebble read it, I got the feeling we were decoding more of Benford’s intent. I even picture how Benford imagined the scene and wrote it. Charles Dickens was famous for acting out his characters and scenes as he wrote them. I think most good writers, even if they aren’t hammy would-be actors, at least mentally picture their scenes in a dramatic way, and hear the voices of their characters. If you read very fast all characters sound the same – your inner voice.

When readers decode fiction they can reconstruct the scene in an infinite number of ways.  I tend to think most of us readers don’t do a lot of decoding, but merely grab the basic information to move the story forward and rush on to the next fact. I have met people who claimed to see novels acted out in their heads, but I don’t.

However, when I listen to an audio book read by a great narrator, I do. It’s like a book is a freeze-dried drama and the narrator is the water that reconstitutes the story. I think this is true because the audiobook goes at a very slow pace, the pace of speech. That gives my mind time to feel the words which triggers images. Finally, the professional reader colors the narration with a rich reading voice that adds addition textures.

Benford is not a great literary writer, but Timescape is far more literary than most science fiction novels. Timescape won several awards and has been added to many best book lists. I think it succeeded because it stand outs among other science fiction novels as better written and more character driven. It also stands out because of its serious extrapolation and speculation – it’s not your typical sci-fi escapism. And I feel listening to Timescape magnifies its higher qualities beyond what I was able to perceive by just reading the book with my inner voice – which is quite plain.

As a person who’d love to write fiction, I hear in Benford’s story what I’m missing in my own writing. The details I notice under the magnification of audio narration reveal qualities in writing I aspire to acquire. I think listening to audio books can be a superior way of decoding fiction. I wonder how blind people running their fingers across the Braille page compare what they take in by touch to what they hear with their finally tuned ears. Thousands of years ago when humanity transitioned from an oral culture to a written culture, I wonder if they missed what went away when they started reading silently.

As a lifelong book worm I’ve been conditioned to seeing words, but now I’m learning what it means to hear them.

JWH