As a follow-up to my post titled Fire Sale, I offer my first update regarding those reading assignments I have handed myself. This, as a way of improving my own science fiction writing pursuits by digesting the efforts of others. I’m only somewhat pleased to relay (because I realize now that choosing so many books at one time was probably overly ambitious) that I have finished exactly one. If I’m reading, I’m not writing…a conundrum I must accept and conquer, heartburn be damned.
Carbide Tipped Pens is an anthology of seventeen short stories, collaboratively put together by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. Mr. Bova I fondly remember from his days at OMNI magazine some decades ago, and the sole reason I selected this book (name-recognition). I should include that for a young teenager longing for good reads over sometimes boring summer vacations, a subscription to OMNI, with a fresh issue arriving in the family mailbox each month, was about as magical as it gets.
After diving into one or two stories, I realized rather abruptly that I probably should have left this title on the shelf. Certainly not because of the stories, which are just fine. The problem, I’ve discovered, lies in my court. I wasn’t careful enough when selecting to realize that this one is stuffed full of “hard science fiction.” Took me no time at all to notice that I’m not a big fan.
Right now, I’m looking at the titles of all seventeen stories as they appear in the Table of Contents, trying to decide which ones best held my interest. Of those (almost 400 pages worth), perhaps only three mostly fit my reading style and interests. Of those, perhaps two were satisfying for the most part. And perhaps only one thoroughly entertained me from start to finish. The remainders proved to be difficult reading for me, not because it was uninspired writing, but because the plots left me feeling uninvested.
Not that I don’t like science as much as the next guy. I certainly do. That is, if the next guy isn’t too serious about it all, doesn’t get all hung up about the feasibility of the physics, and isn’t too bothered by dialog that, at times, feels like stilted conversations between engineers arguing over the finer points of unproven theories that are a bit beyond, if not his mental prowess, at least his reading stamina. Ignoring such indiscretions meant that only a small percentage of these shorts held enough entertainment value to keep me from scanning and skipping forward.
Short stories, more so than formats that have the luxury of time (read word count), must draw a reader in super quickly. If their whole plot only spans perhaps 20-30 pages, reader interest has to be established in the first precious paragraphs of page one.
It makes sense, then, to dwell on that very quality-“reader interest”-for just a moment. What is it that creates this thing in us, this desire, this yearning to know more? As we consume more stories over the years, we will come to know what kind of stuff draws us in quickly, then holds us in a stranglehold for the duration. We will also recognize those genres that may or may not hold us within their grasp as we do our level best to remain focused, giving the story a fair shake, so to speak.
And certainly, we will also come to know well what simply never trips our trigger, no matter how many soft fluffy cushions and delightful snacks we pile high around ourselves.
Such is probably the case for “hard science fiction” and me. Too much science, not enough fiction. It’s not likely that the hard stuff will ever become my good buddy; nor will we likely hang out together on the weekends. Just not a good fit.
The lesson I’ve learned is that reading is a journey of self-discovery, an exploration of one’s own palate, a refinement of its likes and dislikes as we invest our precious time in the experience, caring enough to acknowledge what gives us joy and satisfaction, and what does not. If something’s not clicking, don’t think of it as wasted time. Think of it as something newly realized about your own personal preferences. That’s a good thing!
If you want to throw a book against a wall, ask yourself why, then take the time to offer up a sincere answer. If you refuse to go to bed at a reasonable hour because you simply can’t put the thing down, again demand a reason. Write things down, make them stick.
In my case, I know I like action, suspense, plot twists, interesting characters, unexpected conclusions, themes that hold personal meaning for me. I won’t read something that is otherwise uninteresting simply because I’m supposed to care about the theme according to society. I’m selfish that way, and I hope you are, too. Diversity and divergence are expected. What you love I might shun. What I embrace you might reject.
So it goes.
I won’t dwell on what I didn’t like about Carbide Tipped Pens. And I won’t tell you which of these stories I liked best. I will share with you the reasons behind embracing what I did: superior character development, fast pace, lots of scene changes, interesting settings, plot twists, beautiful prose, tragedy, death, and all the rest. It’s a wonderful thing to see all the qualities of a good story done well. Nothing beats good writing. Nothing trumps a satisfying read. And if it takes sixteen so so reads to get to that one brilliant find, so be it (next time, however, I’ll be more careful in my selections).
Now go write! Or go read…something.