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May 8th, 2007

book and glasses

The tenure of books

This musing got triggered by this blog post, and a sudden urge to go back and run a finger down my bookshelves and remember books - why I got them, why I loved them, why I still own some (but not others), what it is that makes a book get tenure on my shelf.

(Let's keep it genre, shall we - for this post, at least - or else this would get really unwieldy...)

I still have a bunch of the early Asimov stuff - the robotics stories, the Lije Bailey detective-in-the-stars tales - and this is what I cut my SF teeth on, one of the first SF-nal forays I ever made that were frankly genre novels, my badge of courage, my entry into this brave new world. I read Asimov, and I loved it, and it was my password - "Hello stars, Asimov sent me".

I still love some of the robotics stories, but it's a sentimental affection - when I re-read some of them (and in the interests of accuracy it hasn't happened in more than a decade, really) I read them with an indulgent smile on my face. They are LINEAR. They start at a beginning, and they go on until an end, and they stop. Most of the time that end is dimly visible from that beginning anyway. *There are no surprises*. And yes, I know, I've read them all before - that's belabouring the obvious. What I'm getting at is that I, and the world, have moved on from the early simple sweet Asimovian storytelling. Comparing Asimov with, say, Stross, is like going from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian universe - one where the earlier tenets still hold, in many simple cases, but where the nature of the latter world has been explained in a way that would make the former world blink and clasp its hands and breathe, "wow, magic".

Asimov himself moved on, up to a point - the Foundation books were an order of magnitude more complex and layered than the laws of robotics stuff. We all grow - writers and readers both - it's part of being alive. We grow up as people and with us an entire genre is also growing up and out, changing even as we watch, kicking its baby feet one bright shiny morning and getting kitted out to go fight a war in a distant galaxy that night and a hundred years later all at the same time.

But I still have them, the early Asimovs. They remain my badge of honour, my password, my certificate of passage. They may be, now, slightly battered vintage cars sitting retired in a safe garage somewhere and not being taken out much any more because their tires are balding and their shock absorbers are shot - but they were the cars in which you took your date to Lovers's Leap and made out in the back seat while the lights twinkled in the town down below. They've got tenure, those books. They done earned them.

Then there's the books that the blog entry I referenced above is dissecting. The Pern books. Once again, I've got them - or most of them, anyway. I don't own the Menolly books, Menolly irritated me in many of the same ways that Robert Jordan's women irritate me (and that's a whole another can of literary worms, whoa, back on the topic...) I read them, what, twenty years ago now? More...? When were they published again - my copies are upstairs and it's too far to go check now, but it's been a fair while. I can pinpoint exactly when Mccafffrey began to go south on me, though, and that was not with the Pern books, not then, not in the beginning - it was the Crystal SInger books. Good grief, but that woman was unpleasant. Tough, sure, able to fend for herself, sure, talented, way sure, but MAN was she unpleasant - and with that, all the rest fell away for me. WHy would I care about what happened to an unpleasant woman? I read the Crystal Singer books. I no longer own them. I still - warts and all! - have the Dragonflight/Dragonquest/White Dragon trilogy. I haven't touched them for years and years and years - and EVERYTHING that has been said in that blog post is absolutely true, so help me, and I have no idea why I go back to that idea and insist that I still love the whole sense of Dragons and Telepathic Bonding and all that. Tolkien said once that he "desired dragons with a profound desire" - he knew of whereof he spoke. Mccaffrey tapped into a powerful fantasy with her dragon-human bond - who wouldn't want to have such a creature for a pet, a friend, a companion? I have to say, though, that once again those books fail me TODAY in that they are too linear, too simplistic, too damned obvious. Over many years of reading my tastes have obviously gravitated towards the complex and the layered and the rich and the lush, and Pern no longer delivers that. Besides, if we're talking worldbuilding, they lost me way back at agenothree.

Another example. I first read Orson Scott Card's Songmaster novel in a partial published in - what was it, Analog, Asimov's one of those, may years ago. I fell in love with the story, with the power of the tale, with the voice in which it was told, with the compassion and the tragedy that followed the development of the relationships of young Ansset and those who surrounded him, loved him, molded him, ruined him, redeemed him.

And then I bought the entire novel when it came out, and the second half of it - the part not published in the magazine - was weaker, for me. Lots weaker. But I liked it enough to continue reading. I picked up Ender's Game - and really loved it. But then that franchise ran out of steam fast, and by the third book in that series I was gone - I did borrow Card's attempt to re-harness the original storyline, the Ender story told through Bean's eyes, from the library and read it, but I don't own it. And other Card books - particularly the Ships of Earth novels - annoyed me so much that I was literally growling at the things when I was reading them. Those books, or at least some of them, I still have - but the only reason they're still on my shelf is inertia. I'm just too procrastinatory. But they'll go, eventually, probably. I KNOW I'll never return to those books again.

Other classics - Dune. THe original Dune took my breath away then, and still does today - here was my thrist for complexity slaked, and then some. It was incredible, and powerful, and it found a deep place within me. But the sequels - ah, the sequels - I managed to read the first three. I haven't touched any since then, especially not the ones written in collaboration by people other than Frank Herbert. Sorry, but that was HIS story. Being someone's child doesn't necessarily mean you have the God-given right to continue that person's "Legacy", and indeed sometimes it is probably the wiser course of action not to. But I can't really speak for the later books in the Dune franchise. I haven't read them. If anyone has anything positive to say about them please feel free.

Zelazny's Amber. LOVE the original five. Less devoted to the second set, but I still have them. I hated with a flaming passion the attempt to resurrect "Roger Zelazny's Amber" a couple of years ago. Sure, the story he told had potential prequels or sequels dancing around in the stars. But *Zelazny is gone*. NOBODY else does Amber. NOBODY. This was a place of his heart - he understood it, even the things about it that he didn't talk about in the books - and perhaps he MEANT those prequels and sequels to stay untold. In fact, I seem to remember him saying as much just before he died - that he didn't particularly want anyone else playing in that sandbox after he was gone. Those books? Full tenure. And not just because one of them happens to be signed.

Mary Stewart's Merlin books? Keepers, all. One of the best and most powerful tellings of a story told many, many times. ANd it makes things like "Mists of Avalon" strike a particularly sour note for me.

Spider Robinson's stuff - ye gods, do I have to explain? The man's a Pun King, and for someone similarly afflicted his books are a constant joyride of rolling-eye groaning delight. Keepers, again - and once more not because one of them is signed thusly: To Alma, who obviously has The Callahan Touch herself.

What else have I got there? Gene Wolfe? Larry Niven? Michael Moorcock?

Guy Gavriel Kay? Oh, him I've got - ALL of his books I've got. I could rank them for you, sure, from the astonishingly sublime (Tigana) to the merely magnificent (Song for Arbonne, Lions of Al-Rassan) to things like his newest, Ysabel, which I found a tad "meh", and not only because he apparently makes a conscious return to his Fionavar roots in this book - and I consider the Fionavar Trilogy to be his training trike, the fantasy novel(s) in which he cut his teeth and which led him to write gems like Tigana. But I've got 'em all. He's a keeper. Always will be.

Glenda Larke - friend and colleague - who understands story, worldbuilds with passion, and Writes Good Character. Keepers.

Newer favourites, like Catherynne Valente, Elizabeth Bear.

Space will always be at a premium in my bookshelves, where things are shelved double-thickness and books often stuffed in sideways on top of the stacked paperbacks where there's room. But some books get bought, get read, get evicted. Others... stay. They've got their hooks into my heart and my memory, somehow, and they are more than just the contents of a bookshelf. They are a set of signposts for the literary road I've travelled so far, and may be choosing in the future. They are not possessions. They are that part of me that is - that part that CAN be - written in other people's words. They represent the bits of my mind and heart and spirit which THAT writer, THAT story, made possible.

So. What's on your bookshelves, then...?