SFF Readership Data Challenges

I had a really satisfying conversation with my sister earlier this week. She told me she’d been on a real dystopian literature kick in the last year, that her favorite books currently include The Hunger Games, Never Let Me Go, and The Handmaid’s Tale.

I told her she was a science fiction reader. “Really? Just because they’re set in the future?” It’s more complicated than that, but the brief version is that I explained dystopias were just her preferred subgenre within sf.

That my sister has never thought of herself as a science fiction reader, and yet clearly – to me – is one exemplifies one of the many problems in trying to survey just what kinds of humans are reading genre. Farah Mendlesohn, in The Intergalactic Playground, made her readership survey feasible by focusing on those who 1. Self-identify as science fiction readers and 2. Filled out her survey.

We really do need more data about who reads genre fiction, because so many central discussion of how to present it center around just who it is who’s reading it. Who the market is. How large a percentage of readers are women.

D.H. Rowan is adding to that data through a survey  posted today, on “Female:Male Readership of SF/F, UF, PNR”. You can see some of the problems with it already just in the title. The subgenres it focuses on – Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance – are those known to have a larger female readership than most of, say, science fiction. There are more methodological problems with the survey itself: it only allows for a binary choice between male and female, for example. It assumes that Urban Fantasy and PNR are subgenres which have been around for decades, long enough that it would have been possible to start and stop reading one or both decades ago. It focuses on age ranges rather than how long ago a given interaction with genre occurred.

And yet – I still think you should go fill it out. It’s a short poll. It won’t take long. And so long as any analysis of the resulting dataset is conscious of these limitations, it’ll still add to the data we have about what kinds of people read what kinds of SFF – and whether or not those people are being adequately represented at conventions*, among other places.

* See also Sophia McDougall on the SFX Weekender and the Nudes in the Metropolitan Gallery.

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Group-Reading the Guardian Reviews Section

The best part about being in a bookstore at midnight when the latest Harry Potter book was released wasn’t having the first opportunity to read the latest installment. It was the joy of the yearly enterprise of group-reading the same book at the same time, of knowing that a blogged reaction would appear on my feed as soon as any given friend had finished reading it. It showed me the sheer, astonishing speed with which some people were able to skim the entire volume (two hours!) and the steady chipping away at it required by those unable to take time off from the rest of their lives. It was a momentary community of joint reading I have not even found in formal book groups, because for them, the reading is not the synchronous part; the having-read is.

In honor of the exhibit on the history of science fiction opening at the British Library later in the week, the Guardian has dedicated its Saturday Reviews section to the subject of science fiction. It released the first few articles a few days early, beginning the resulting group discussion which percolated across my feeds, which was spurred especially by mixed reactions to Iain M Banks and his irritation over those writing in genre who have never read it.

Today, the reviews section came out. One by one, commentators went to their local news agents to pick up a copy, which made it comment-worthy when at least one had sold out. (Those who have ongoing subscriptions, and thus automatic delivery, have not mentioned it. Why would they?)

To state the very obvious, one advantage of the newspaper section is that it is made up of articles. Small units enable more immediate reactions, such as just how apt or not the top 10 list of the best aliens in science fiction was, or noting the cumulative tendency of respondents in the initial survey of the best books or authors of science fiction (as picked by “top SF writers”) as being oriented towards books written long ago by men.

When it comes down to it, it is a small swathe of geographically-limited internet which is reading and responding to the Guardian today, especially about science fiction. But it is a group of whom many have gone out today specifically or in part in order to hunt down the paper version of a collection of critical works to read together.

Perhaps others of you have encountered it before, but I have never noticed a simultaneous effort to group-read science fiction criticism before, complete with physically tracking down the  publication on the same day as others, and I’m delighted that it’s happening today.

Playlists, Soundtracks, and Science Fiction

The first chapter of Justina Robson’s Natural History is structured around the Don McLean song, “American Pie”. The lyrics help to structure fraught events, both in our world and in that of the dying Isol. The book (about which more discussion  next week) begins, in effect, with music, with a theme song. It’s not a whole soundtrack for the book, but it’s why I noticed a coincidence or a trend – I don’t have enough data to know which.

Our first book of this year’s TC reading project didn’t have one theme song. It had an entire discography, listed out on the final pages of the paperback and a page of the accompanying website. Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love is about a rock band, so it’s not surprising that it might come with music. Plenty of books about bands don’t, however. This one recommends hours of previously-existing albums, plumbed for their vibe, their synergies, their influence on the book’s musical interactions. Its concerts are major plot points.

The second book didn’t have a discography listed out as an appendix, but it didn’t need one. Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is suffused with soundtrack, carefully orchestrated by its main character to match the needs of his life. Lou uses symphonic music to overlay sequences in his life with imposed structure, a device which makes it easier for him to cope with various scenarios, from the gym to the drive home. It need not even be recorded: he has a wealth of classical music stored in his memory for summoning up when he needs it as counterbalance. A mention – name, composer – may be enough to summon up the tunes for some readers as well. In only one instance does Lou recommend to us specific versions of the music he thinks through: in all other cases, we can pick our own symphonies, our own soloists.

I’ve read a couple of other books in the past year or so which came with the songs or albums listed to which the author wrote the book. Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty books do. Linnea Sinclair’s last novel, Rebels and Lovers, does. Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland has an entire purchasable album which was compiled around it. So does her currently Clarke Award-nominated Zoo City.

The only book soundtracks I’m particularly aware of from previous decades are filk. Mercedes Lackey has written and produced a slew of albums to accompany her Valedemar novels. Anne McCaffrey approved an official album in part comprising tunes to lyrics she’d provided in her Pern novels. Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue came with poignant alternative spacefaring lyrics to known tunes, used as chapter intros.

The CD singles charts may be in commercial freefall, as far as any given song’s success is concerned, but I am certain that, more broadly, the singles market has never been more healthy. Download a song as ringtone. Download a single at a click. In the ‘80s it became feasible to make mix tapes, with the advent of the cassette tape. Now, a book’s soundtrack need not even be prepackaged if the tunes are mainstream enough: they can be individually downloaded and reassembled into the unified album that a playlist had the potential to be on one’s own music playing device.

As evidence goes, this is scanty. These are the works of science fiction and fantasy I can name off of the top of my head which come with soundtracks.

So – the three books so far for the best science fiction novels written by women in the last decade. Will more of this year’s TC reading project feature theme songs or downloadable soundtracks?

Are female authors more likely to include that bit of extra real-world tie-in world-building than male ones are, or is this an accident of what I’ve been reading that I’ve only noticed soundtracks in books which happen to be written by women?

Regardless of gender, is this a trend or a coincidental cluster?

Reading it Right

An interesting post by Gord Sellar, about reading Adam Roberts’ On:

I was always so puzzled about my response to Roberts’ work. After all: I wanted good characterization. I wanted lovely, stylish prose. I wanted some intellectual challenges, and some philosophical dilemmas to wrestle with. Roberts had all of these things in spades. How come I always emerged from his novels finding myself so very frustrated, or at the least so very uneasy?

Well, a good part of it — not all of it, but a good part of it — has to do with the insistences and expectations I was bringing to his work. It was, in large part, because of how I was reading him.
On reading Puchalsky’s review [of Splinter], I was reminded of how compelling a storyteller I’ve always found Roberts despite the things I haven’t liked about his books — of his wonderful style and distinct imagination — and so I decided to pick up On, and then while reading it simply to step out of the way and let Roberts tell me the story he wanted to tell, with the nuances he wanted to polish and shine.

This is, of course, easier said than done, possibly for Adam Roberts more than many writers; I’m reminded of Farah Mendlesohn’s comments in her book about Diana Wynne Jones to the effect that the first generation of Jones-readers had to learn how to read those books, how to get the most out of them, because they weren’t quite like other books that were being published. Sellar’s post makes me want to revisit On, which I didn’t much like at the time, to see whether my perception that Roberts has improved over the past decade is accurate, or whether I’ve just got better at approaching his work in a useful way. More generally, the ability to approach a text openly (or, as Alvaro mentioned the other day, recognising when you’re not) is such a desireable skill, I think, both in terms of critical technique and simply in terms of reading pleasure. This is not to suggest that all books are good if you approach them from the right perspective; what I mean is, there’s pleasure in recognising and appreciating how many different ways there are to do fiction.

Reading List: “The Queen of Air and Darkness”

If nothing else, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” (F&SF, April 1971) will now be my go-to example for the absurdity of overcategorising short fiction, since it won a Hugo as best novella, a Nebula as best novelette, and a Locus Award as best short. I’m not sure I’ve read any of the stories it was competing against in any of those categories, but it doesn’t strike me as exceptional work.

At the very least it’s a more conventionally plot-action-driven narrative than either the Russ or Delany stories. On a colony world called Roland — where, although no intelligent life has been found, settler stories about mysterious beings persist — a child is lost on a biological research expedition. His mother, Barbro Cullen, believes he can still be found, but in the absence of help from local authorities, turns to a private investigator, Eric Sherrinford. Together they set out on an expedition into the wilderness to investigate. Of course there is native life, and in fact interspersed with Cullen and Sherrinford’s journey are other viewpoints, most commonly the perspective of Mistherd, a human boy who was abducted as a baby, and raised to view the human colony as an enemy.

What such a summary omits is that the story addresses a question framed by Sherrinford at the very end: “We live with our archetypes, but can we live in them?” The pipe-smoking Sherrinford himself is clearly — and, as it turns out, self-consciously — modelled on the Consulting Detective; he reports that he’s been studying Roland stories of the Old Folk “on the principle of eliminating every imaginable possibility”, and insists that “when facts are insufficient, theorizing is ridiculous at best, misleading at worst”. Meanwhile, the Old Folk themselves are understood within the frame of Earth legends of faery, with the sections focusing on Mistherd, told in a quite different register to those focusing on the travellers; compare:

A boy and a girl sat on Wolund’s Barrow just under the dolmen it upbore. [...] He played on a bone flute and she sang. They had lately become lovers. Their age was about sixteen, but they did not know this, considering themselves Outlings and thus indifferent to time, remembering little or nothing of how they had once dwelt in the lands of men.


In from the sea came freighters, the fishing fleet, produce of the Sunward Islands, plunder of whole continents further south where bold men adventured. It clanged in Portolondon, laughed, blustered, swaggered, connived, robbed, preached, guzzled, swilled, toiled, dreamed, lusted, built, destroyed, died, was born, was happy, angry, sorrowful, greedy, vulgar, loving, ambitious, human.

This difference is more than a stylistic conceit on Anderson’s part, since it turns out that the Dwellers have been playing quite deliberately on human superstitions as part of a long-term strategy to defeat the colonists. They can do this thanks to their psychic powers — Anderson attempts to provide a justification for these, but it’s not terribly convincing, and sits oddly with the introductory note to the collection I read this story in, which notes that “you will find nothing [in these stories] which most twentieth century physicists would flatly call impossible”, and leads to FTL being ruled out of bounds — and the movement between a more and less rationalist worldview lends a convincing instability to the story.

Less convincing is Sherringford’s deductive process, which starts from the rather dubious premise that “something must be causing” spacefaring humans to believe in fairies because as good “hardheaded, technologically organized, reasonably well-educated” people they’d never do that of their own inclination, although is revealed as a bit more nuanced over the course of the story:

His pipestem gestured at the stars. “Man’s gone to stranger places than this.”

“Has he? I … oh, I suppose it’s just something left over from my outway childhood, but do you know, when I’m under them I can’t think of stars as balls of gas, whose energies have been measured, whose planets have been walked on by our prosaic feet. No, they’re small and cold and magical; our lives are bound to them; after we die, they whisper to us in our graves.” Barbro glanced downwards. “I realize that’s nonsense.”

She could see in the twilight how his face grew tight. “Not at all,” he said. “Emotionally, physics may be a worse nonsense. And in the end, you know, after a sufficient number of generations, thought follows feeling. Man is not at heart rational. He could stop believing the stories of science if those no longer felt right.”

This does ring true, and is a nice way of getting into one of the tensions that seems to run through a lot of planetary romance (more on this as and when I write up The Heritage of Hastur and Golden Witchbreed), but it’s a bit of a shame — or an irony signposted too subtly for me to spot on one reading — that in working out this argument to its conclusion, Anderson removes from the Dwellers not just any sense of their own culture or concerns (that, at least, could be read as deliberate, we can’t truly know the alien), but any sense that they’re really a credible threat to humanity. More in sorrow than in anger, seemingly, Sherringford observes that “They tried to conquer us, and failed, and now in a sense we are bound to conquer them”, on the grounds that rationalist mechanistic technology has been proven — through the rescue of Barbro’s son — to be superior to the Dwellers’ alternative biotechnological pathway, which is reduced to failed magic. It’s another archetype shaping the story, but not fully acknowledged.

Reading List: Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears

Well, so much for schedules. I’ve been getting through the reading OK, but writing time has been scarce. Today the catch-up begins, and first up is Michael Jarrett’s 2001 article “Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears”. He proudly notes that it’s an expansion of an article that first appeared in the Tower Records in-house magazine Pulse, and that it is thus “a hybrid form of writing — a theoretically informed feature or popularized theory”, and while it’s true that it’s fairly digestible, I’m afraid bits like this –

Rather than speak of what I already know about railroads, I plan to interrogate, in this case, the sound of railroads as a possible site of my own sonic knowledge. Or to adapt a phrase coined by music critic Kodwo Eshun, I want to listen to the levels of science that inhere in railroads (1999, p. 70). What do trains already know about me, about my biases and prejudices regarding sound? How do I hear because of trains? Or more generally, How did trains train or even create modern ears? People, get ready; here are a few speculations.

– remind me of nothing so much as the proverbial Dad dancing at a disco. It also has nothing explicitly to do with sf, although Jarrett does frame his description of the perceptual shift introduced by trains as that most familiar sfnal operation, “literaliz[ing] the railroad-as-musical-instrument metaphor”. It’s easy enough to brainstorm a list of significant fantastic works that feature literal trains, and you might speculate as to whether the presence of the train shapes reader or character behaviour in the ways Jarrett talks about here. Mind you, whether such works have anything in common beyond that motif is another question: China Mieville’s Iron Council, Lucius Shepard’s “Over Yonder”, Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, Geoff Ryman’s 253, Patrick Tilley’s Amtrak Wars books and One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, are a pretty diverse bunch.

There’s also a slight overlap with Lysloff’s article; when Jarrett notes that “The railway brought noise — the sound of machinery — into rural and wilderness environments”, and that “What counts as music is all a matter of framing”, there are echoes of Lysloff’s concern with “natural” and “artificial” sounds. And if Jarrett was only making the small claim that “The railroad’s noise — its surfeit of stimuli — demanded that traveler’s adapt new modes of perception”, there wouldn’t be much to argue with in his article; it’s a rather obvious point that new types of experience promote new types of engagement. Where he falls down a bit is in trying to extend that argument. Without trains, he asks,

Would we have rock ‘n roll? Not likely, answers Albert Murray in his novel Train Whistle Guitar. His protagonist bluesman, Luzana Cholly, played guitar like “an engineer telling tall tales on a train whistle, his left hand doing most of the talking including the laughing and signifying as well as the moaning and crying and even the whining, while his right hand thumped the wheels going somewhere” (1974, p.8).

For starters, offering a novel as an answer to a sociohistorical question in this way is a pretty dodgy move, but more importantly, it’s not even a good start to an answer: the fact that one novel compares a guitar player to a train engineer in no way indicates an essential connection between train engineers and guitar players. He goes on to cite Houston Baker writing, in 1984, that “The dominant blues syntagm in America is an instrumental imitation of train-wheels-over-track-junctures“, which is a bit more useful, but a lengthier quote from Baker in which he ruminates that “Only a trained voice can sing the blues” seems almost parodic. (Jarrett’s comment that “groove is a way to declare that, while human beings always possessed the body part, asses were built by the railroad” surely is parody, but by that point I couldn’t really tell.)

There are useful, or at least interesting, or at least entertaining, observations scattered throughout the piece, and some of them do engage in the sort of riffing I’m digging at above; but the best bits of the article are the less flighty:

A number of scholars have explored how the railway prompted or, at least, reinforced distinctly modern ways of seeing (Schivelbusch, 1977; Stilgoe, 1983; Kirby, 1997). In brief, they note that all 19th-century railroad passengers, accustomed to pre-industrial modes of transportation, seemed to agree on one matter: “travelling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 58). Put even more analytically, the velocity that atomized and automated objects — making them dart or roll past train windows — mechanized and diminished perception. [...]

The visual challenge of high velocity rail travel prompted a choice, actually two possible methods of coping with the new technology. Passengers could develop modes of perception adequate to the new form of transportation, or finding prolonged window-gazing exhausting, they could direction their attention inward.

Again, however, at least to my mind, Jarrett undermines his piece by making larger claims than his evidence warrants:

Upon the ears of its passengers, trains imposed new ways of hearing analogous to panoramic perception. In place of the focused, engaged listening espoused by partisans of the symphony and institutionalized by concert halls, the railroad’s incessant refrain prompted “deconcentration” or “dispersal of attention” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 69). Ears conditioned by the sound of trains are neither attentive nor inattentive. [...] Encased in a womb of steel, a sonorous envelope, the chronically distracted rail passenger bathes in patterned noise: adrift, blissed-out, “enraptured with the inescapable” (1941, p. 27). This is, in fact, the mood habitually summoned by electronic ambient and dance musics.

That there is a line to be drawn between immersion in a technological environment and electronic music of various kinds I have no problem with; as Jarrett notes, there is a comparison to be made between listening to music for structure or texture/timbre. That trains are, as Jarrett seems to suggest at times, at one end of this line, rather than a point on it, seems rather more tenuous. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the mill or factory worker whose ears were conditioned by their environment were not, in a comparable way, chronically distracted, that the railroad was truly the first instantiation of “the technological sublime” shaping music.

Reading List

I’m attending this year’s SFF Masterclass (for which there are a few places left, apparently, so you can still apply), and just received the reading list from this year’s tutors. Last time I attended, I managed to blog some of the reading; this time around I’m going to try to be a bit more ambitious, in part because, with only five weeks to go, putting a schedule up here is (I hope) going to keep me focused. Feel free to read along at home! Short Story Club fans will notice that there’s some short fiction in the mix although not, alas, much that’s readily available online.

The schedule, then:

And as much of the rest of Seven Beauties as I can fit in. [Note: I haven't been able to keep to the original schedule, but I'm still adding links as I go...]


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