National Read A Book Day 2021

Photo by Sinziana Susa on Unsplash

Some suggestions from me for readers who love science fiction and fantasy (and maybe a little horror), for National Read A Book Day, 2021:

Something Classic: Dune, of course! Especially since there’s a movie coming out that I’m excited about. Dune, by Frank Herbert, is a brilliant classic science fiction novel with complex politics and environmental world building. A truly great book.

Something Newer: The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark. Published in 2019, this is a novella that’s a science fantasy novel about a possessed tram car. It’s set in Cairo in an alternate 1912.

Something Epic: The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. It’s the first book in the Broken Earth series and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016. Set in a land that is constantly in danger of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, with a complex civilization and characters.

Something Short: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. This is a series of five novellas about an AI constructed to be a Security Unit, that overrides its controlling module. The first in the series is All Systems Red, which won the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella. Highly entertaining!

Something on my To-Be-Read List: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. This has been on my TBR list for a while, and I’ll be reading it very soon. Here’s what The Guardian had to say about the novel.

Something Recommended by my Daughter: My daughter had a couple of recommendations. This one is also on my TBR list: Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Published in 2020, this is a gothic horror novel set, of course, in an isolated house. Here’s what NPR had to say about the book. After reading the review, I actually can’t wait to read it!

Something … by Me! Why not? Taylenor, published in 2019, follows Jaena, who is a priest of the peaceful goddess Imn-ashu. Jaena brings a young mage-talented boy to the city to save his life, only to find she has delivered him into the hands of the Mage Defender, who rules by stealing the magic — and the lives — of children. Link to the ebook is here.

Whatever you choose to read, it’s a great day to start a new book! If you have your own recommendations, feel free to comment with them!

“Write What You Love”

Photo by Mark Rakozy on
Photo by Mark Rakozy on

“Write what you know!”

This advice is both empowering and limiting. But I think a lot of people experience it as limiting.

When many of us think about what we know, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. Our daily lives may not strike us as story material, and unless we have personally experienced something amazing, strange, or unfortunately traumatic, our own lives may not seem to inspire.

When it comes to what genre to write, I prefer to think of it as “Write what you love.”

I love science fiction and fantasy, for many reasons I’ll save for another post. When I thought about writing, I always knew I would write speculative fiction. Not because I personally have battled an enemy mage, or leaped to another star in a hyperdrive ship. But because that’s what I love.

And some things I do know, as every writer does. We know what it’s like to feel things. We know how our hands shake when we’re frightened, how tender our touch is when we love someone, how powerful is desire, or fear, or the need to escape. We know the taste of hot chocolate, the sounds of rush hour, the burn of a scraped knee.

That’s what we need to know – how to be human. That’s what goes into making good characters – understanding of ourselves and of what it might be like to be others, maybe different, but still human.

And that’s what’s empowering. Because we all know this! We just have to learn how to write it. Learning the craft is not always an easy process. It takes time. But it’s possible.

Then we get down to the nitty gritty. There are actually a lot of things we need to know to write. But, except for empathy and curiosity, we can learn those things. Better not try to write a story set on a seagoing vessel if you don’t know what a deck is! Better not write a story about an expedition to a massive planet if you forget the heavy hand of increased gravity.

But you can learn those things. Research, read a lot, write several drafts. Go out and get on a ship. Talk to someone who knows about other planets. Practice, practice, practice. Then, run your story past a good beta reader or critique group for feedback on what you might have missed.

It’s a lot of work to make sure you get the details right. A story can turn on a fact that must be correct.

But you can learn all that. You already know the rest: empathy, curiosity, experience of life. Those are the things you need to give your characters life. And the most important thing is to always write what you love.

Science Fiction or Fantasy?

I joined a panel about science fiction vs. fantasy at last weekend’s Marcon convention. The premise was: “Why are some readers so clearly drawn to one of these genres and not the other, and yet some folks love both?”

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This was a good discussion, with the audience chiming in, too. No one in our room admitted to not enjoying both science fiction and fantasy. In fact, the quality of a novel’s storytelling and characterization was much more important to everyone than just genre.

The discussion centered more on what makes a work science fiction or fantasy — what were the defining characteristics? This is a rich topic — we went on about it for over an hour — and I won’t recap it here. Everyone agreed there was a range of speculative fiction. Not everything falls clearly into one category or another.

To my thinking, this makes the genre much richer. The idea got me thinking about some books I’ve read that blend or challenge speculative fiction tropes.

* Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, which she called a “melodrama of manners”. Set in a created world, it’s clearly a fantasy that alternates between the intrigue of the decadent nobility and the personal stories of two men who live in Riverside — but it has no magic at all.

* The Roads of Heaven series by Melissa Scott. A wonderful blend of science fiction and fantasy. The books are a space opera, but they also have magi, and pilots who use magical abilities to navigate space.

* The God Engines. John Scalzi creates a world where a captured god powers a spacecraft, and where faith is a real thing. Nice blend of science fiction and fantasy.

* Of course the amazing Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey. They seem to be fantasy, since they have dragons, and everyone knows dragons are magical creatures — right? But it becomes clear as you read that these are science fiction novels.

These are just some of my favorites. I’m sure there are many others.

Why restrict your reading by genre? In fact, why restrict it by any artificial characteristic? What matters most to me is a good story.

FYI, here are a couple of links where people attempt to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy: one from Gotham Writers, and  from io9.