Discovering New Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 12 edited by Jonathan StrahanTomorrow is July 1st and my online science fiction club begins discussing The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12 edited by Jonathan Strahan. This is the first time we’ve selected an annual best-of-the-year anthology. We mostly stick to novels and favor the classics. This anthology collects the best short SF/F from 2017, so we’re getting very close to the event horizon of new science fiction. To be honest, our members are mostly older readers, so reading these new stories should make us feel younger.

2018 is the year of the science fiction short story for me. I’ve listened to three volumes of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, started reading The Great SF Stories 1939-1964 edited by Asimov and Greenberg and I’m up to 1943. I going through Science Fiction of the 50’s edited by Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander, and I listened to all of The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 11 and I’m getting close to finishing listening to volume 12.

Growing up in the 1960s I got hooked on current science fiction by subscribing to F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, Amazing, Fantastic, and If. To me, the heart and soul of science fiction have always been the SF magazines. For the most part, I stopped reading those in the late 1970s. During my work years, I’d find time to read 10-12 science novels a year. I’d sometimes subscribe to F&SF or Asimov’s. In 2002 I joined and began rereading all my favorite science fiction novels by listening to them. But in the last few years since retiring, I’ve mostly caught up. Now I’m reading and listening to old science fiction short stories. And it’s tremendous fun. A reading renaissance.

I dabble in new science fiction, but it’s hard for me. I think that’s true for many of the book club members. Every year thousands of new SF/F novels come out, and mostly by unknown authors. Listening to these two best-of-the-year anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan is reconnecting me with current science fiction and a new generation of writers. I like the feeling of being near the edge of contemporary science fiction. Last year I even resubscribed to F&SF, Asimov’s and Analog. That’s why I nominated volume 12 of Strahan’s anthology for the book club. I was surprised when the group voted it in.

Maybe I’m not the only old SF fan that wants to check out what’s new. I’ve decided I just can’t keep up with current novels. I might read one new novelist a year. But reading and listening to new short stories allows me to discover dozens of new writers and the whole spectrum of new science fictional ideas. Just reading this one annual best-of-the-year anthology exposes readers to the modern diversity of 29 writers. And many of them are new to me.

Now, here’s the thing about my group. Some members don’t like voting for books they have to buy. Most have giant collections of unread SF/F books, and they’ve stopped buying new books. For a book to win a monthly spot in our book club it has to be easily available, either from libraries, used bookstores, cheap ebook editions, or already owned.

To help out those members who don’t own or won’t buy volume 12, I created a list of the stories in the collection and linked any that were on the web. This had two surprising results. First, over half the stories were free to read online. Second, and more importantly, looking at these stories revealed the modern state of written science fiction. Just following these links will show you what the latest science fiction magazines are like. They’re digital. Many have beautiful layouts and great art. And it’s not uncommon to have audio versions to play. Sadly, print magazines are dying. But all magazines need supporters. Subscribe to their digital editions, and if you don’t want print magazines to go extinct, subscribe to them too.

I don’t want this list to discourage people from buying the Strahan anthology. It’s available in paper, ebook, and audiobook, and very reasonably priced. It’s a great introduction to new SF/F tales for readers stuck in the past of classic stories. My only personal complaint is it contains fantasy. It irks me no end to buy anthologies that have both science fiction and fantasy because I’m strictly a science fiction guy. However, my book club does have many fantasy fans. I bought the ebook version of volume 12 because it was cheap, and the audiobook version because I love hearing short stories on audio. (But it still annoys me to wade through the fantasy, although I do have to admit they were all well-told stories even if they were about magic and dragons.)

Here’s the list I created for my book club. To save your place here, right-click on each link and select “Open link in new window” to try out the story. Then poke around its online magazine. These digital venues for short science fiction are the cutting edge of the genre. Read the columns and comments. Many sites have ebook editions to buy to finance all the free reading.

Some of these stories have already won awards. “The Hermit of Houston” and “The Martian Obelisk” won Locus awards. “The Secret Life of Bots” and “The Martian Obelisk” are up for the Hugo in August.

The Jonathan Strahan annual anthology is just one of eleven this year that focuses on the best science fiction stories of 2017. See my overview of them at Book Riot. Also, read my “Reading (and Writing for) Science Fiction Magazines” for links to many of the current science fiction magazines. To get an even a bigger picture, look at the lists of defunct and current SF magazines at Wikipedia.

I used to think the science fiction short story was dying off. Evidently, I’m completely wrong. Today short written science fiction is thriving. Most science fiction fans are movie and television fans, but real science fiction comes from magazines. It always has.




Has Reading With My Ears Ruined My Desire To Read With My Eyes?

I have hundreds of unread books sitting on my shelves wagging their tales anxious to be read, but of the 28 books I “read” so far this year, only one was read with my eyes.  And that one, Marsbound by Joe Haldeman, was read as a magazine serial.  Had it been available on audio at the time, like it is now, I wouldn’t have read any printed books this year.  Of the 39 books I read last year, only two were printed.  Before I discovered audio books on digital players through in 2002, I read on average 6-12 books a year.  After digital audio, I’m reading 35-55 books each year.

I read more audio books now because, one, I can multitask reading with walking, driving, doing the dishes, eating alone, and other quiet mindless activities.  Second, I listen to more books than I read because I’m enjoying them more.  When I was kid I was a real bookworm, often reading a book a day for weeks at a time.  I discovered a lot of fun books back then, but I have since reread some of those books on audio and discovered I missed a lot from reading too fast and poorly.  Third, audio books got me out of my science fiction rut and into a wider range of literature because listening gives me the patience to read books with my ears that I would never take the time to read with my eyes.  Fourth, and this is the most important, I think I experience books better through audio because I’ve discovered I’m not a very good reader, and the quality of audio book narrators have constantly improved in recent years and I flat out prefer listening to a great reader than doing a botched up job myself.

Now, the the question is:  Has reading with my ears destroyed my desire to read with my eyes?  When the seventh Harry Potter book came out last year I raced through it like everyone else, so I know I can still enjoy eyeball reading, but the whole time I wished I had waited for the audio edition to arrive from Amazon. 

To force myself to read a book with my eyes, I bought Incandescence, a new novel by Greg Egan.  I was in the mood for some cutting edge science fiction and it wasn’t available on audio.  And, I am enjoying reading it.  I read slower than I used to – that’s something listening has taught me.  But as I go through the sentences I can’t help but think this book would sparkle far greater if I was hearing it read by a fine reader.

So, have audio books become a crutch?  Or have I just discovered a better way of experiencing books and have become addicted?  If EMP killed off all the iPods in the world I think I’d want to try and recreate audio books in the old fashion way.  I’d want someone to read to me, or I’d want to learn how to read aloud and try to dramatically present stories like the narrators I love so much to hear.

Yet, if this return-to-the-19th-century catastrophe happened I might end up reading more books because all the computers and televisions would be out of commission too.  I started reading like crazy in junior high school when I outgrew Gilligan’s Island and I wanted to break away from my family unit.  I had lots of time and even though I had plenty to do, I preferred the laziness of reading.

In our society, literacy is a virtue, but being a kid gorging himself on science fiction does not confer a lot of social status.  It was plain old escapism.  If iPods and Audible had been invented in 1965 I would have grown up listening to books, and I would have listened to better books than I had been reading.

I’m currently listening to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.  That’s one book I would never read with my eyes, but if I had read it and The Age of Innocence at 13, I would have had a much better understanding of those scary junior high girls.  I think I’m a much better person at 56 for reading Wharton.  That wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for audio books, and I was an English major during my college years.  I had a hard time reading classic novels – I kept hoping they’d assign fun modern novels, but they didn’t.  If I had gotten to hear the classics back then I would have been a much better literature student.  I know this is true because when I took three Shakespeare classes I listened to the plays on LPs and aced my exams, plus I admired the writing so much more.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting you should give up reading with your eyes.  I think many people are better than I am at reading.  I just discovered late in life, at around 50, that I was a lousy-ass reader.  When I do read now, I do try harder try to hear what I’m seeing.  That requires reading slower and thinking about the dramatic quality of the sentences in front of me.  I wish I could read like Jeff Woodman or Jim Dale, but I don’t.

Last night I pulled down several novels that I’ve been meaning to read and read a few pages from each.  I admired the writing but I realized I would never read them.  Middlemarch, Vanity Fair and Call It Sleep are just too dense for me to read with my eyes.  I brought them to work today and put them on our book give-away table.  They disappeared in a few minutes and I hope they have found good homes.

Audio books have greatly enriched my life.  I truly don’t think they have ruined my urge to read with my eyes, because that urge was already fading.  Without audio books I’d probably continue reading 6-12 books a year for the rest of my life.  Before I turned fifty I was thinking I might only read another 200 books before I died, and wondered why I owned 1,200 and was buying more all the time.  I’ve already listened to more than that planned 200, so audio books have already expanded my reading lifetime. 

My desire to “read” books is greater than any other time in my life, but strangely I’m going to stop buying books, ones printed on paper, that is, because they will sit on my shelves, unread, and I’m feeling way too guilty to add any more lonely unread pages.


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