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Some thoughts on the Wayfarers series

A cup of tea, a plum poppy seed muffin, and A Closed and Common Orbit with candlestick in bagkround
Comfort in various varieties: tea, muffin, and Wayfarers book

I recently read/re-read the three books in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. I’ve loved these books since I read the first one, and even though they are relatively recent (in the case of the last, quite recent, only a year old), they have swiftly made their way onto my shelf of comfort re-reads. (If you are deducing from this paragraph that I’ve recently been in need of comfort, well, you aren’t wrong.)

For anyone who hasn’t read them, the Wayfarers books take place in a future in which humans have destroyed earth and moved off-planet, where they have encountered other species who have banded together to create a “Galactic Commons” government. In the Wayfarers world, humans were relatively recently granted Galactic Commons (GC) membership and are lower-status members of the galaxy.

These books have been quite successful. The first, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, began life as a Kickstarter-funded self-publishing project; it went on to be nominated for the 2015 Kitschies (Best Debut) and was subsequently picked up and republished by Hodder & Stoughton and, in the US, Harper Voyager. More awards nominations followed – the 2016 Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (Best Foreign-Language Novel), 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2016 British Fantasy Awards (Best Newcomer), and 2016 Women’s Prize for Fiction – as did the following two novels (not sequels per se but rather books set in the same universe), which racked up an impressive list of awards nominations as well. The series won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series.

The thing about the Wayfarers series, for me, is that none of the books are strongly plot-driven. A Closed and Common Orbit is a bit more so than the other two; the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is like a character-driven science fiction television series (I will not be the first to note that it has a similar feel to Firefly, although Chambers’ Galactic Commons is quite different than the universe inhabited by the ship Serenity) while Record of a Spaceborn Few reads like an engagingly-written piece of ethnography. The world-building and the characters are what make these novels so fun to read, not the plot. They are also unfailingly optimistic, and given the current state of the world, who couldn’t use a little optimism? But the character- and world-driven nature of these books is startlingly unusual in the recently published books I’ve come across. I’m amazed that they were published by big publishing houses – tremendously grateful, for chances are I would never have found them otherwise, but amazed nonetheless. I’d have guessed that their non-plot-driven aspects would have immediately flagged them as no-go for major publishing houses. And I suppose I wouldn’t have been wrong to make such a guess, as it’s only after the success of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as a self-published work that they got picked up.

In this sense, the Wayfarers books are not dissimilar to Check, Please! Both are optimistic as well as episodic rather than plot-driven; both were self-published, gained success, and were subsequently picked up by major publishers. Obviously they are substantively different in other ways – but to me, both reflect how self-publishing has been changing norms about what types of books will be successful. I can’t help but hope their publication signals a shift among traditional publishers, an increased willingness to take a chance, to move away from marketing-defined pigeonholes and to publish some works that have unusual and perhaps risky characteristics and yet are nonetheless truly quality.

I am probably hoping too much. But my experience with Wayfarers, and with Check, Please! too, highlights a reason why I am hoping this: if these works had not been picked up by major publishers, I almost certainly would not have encountered them. Self-published and small press-published works are difficult to find if what you are looking for is quality rather than something that falls squarely in a genre; there are so many of them, and they are so all over the map in terms of their execution. I was lucky enough to find Younger-Older Ones and Tales from Rugosa Coven on my own. How many similarly quality books have I missed, all the while bemoaning the lack of innovation among recent traditionally published books? And yet, the pool of self-published and small press-published books is so very large as to make the task of sorting through it nearly impossible.

Chambers has a new standalone novella out this fall. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to it.

Usual disclaimer: while some of the links above will take you to Amazon, they are for informational purposes only. The links should not be taken as any kind of recommendation to buy the product from the linked source, and neither I nor this site receive any funds from links to commercial sources.

What I’ve been reading lately, thinking about genre edition

I stumbled across this post by Jo Walton recently – http://www.jowaltonbooks.com/genre-pacing-a-question-from-goodreads/. I thought it was interesting at the time, as genre is something with which I sometimes struggle, but it’s grown more interesting to me in the time since, as I’ve read some books that are certainly admirable in many ways but at the same time haven’t worked for me.

Walton’s post is about pacing and how it defines genre. She gets there by way of two other widely-used definitions of genre:

  • the marketing definition, i.e., genre tells booksellers where to place books on the shelf. This is a definition I find deeply annoying on a personal level. Marketing-based definitions seem to invariably lead to fewer and fewer books that I want to read within the genre at hand. This has happened for me most notably with young adult literature: the more the marketing machine took over the definition of YA, the fewer YA books I’ve found that I’ve liked. (I have the same experience with Pandora in that the more I interact with it, the fewer songs that I like come into rotation, which is the opposite of how it is supposed to work. I have thoughts on why this is, which I may try to explore at some point in the future.)
  • the “furniture” definition, i.e., a genre is defined by the devices it uses. Walton’s examples of this include rocket ships in science fiction and couples in romances; I’d add girl-choosing-between-two-boys (technically not a love triangle, though it’s often termed such) in YA to this list.

Walton’s post goes on to discuss works that use science fiction furniture but are nonetheless ultimately literary, and thus unsatisfying to the science fiction reader. That’s not where I want to go here, although her thoughts are super-interesting and well worth reading! But thinking about her definitions of genre helped me to understand better why sometimes I, as a reader, find certain books frustrating.

One example of such a book is Searching for Sylvie Lee, by Jean Kwok. I’d never read any Kwok before picking up this book; I gather she’s a well-known writer of literary fiction (which I generally don’t read, though there are exceptions). Searching for Sylvie Lee crossed my orbit because I stumbled across a review that described it as a thriller focused on an immigrant family. I enjoy thrillers, and fiction about the immigrant experience has long been of interest to me. I read the book quickly (after a long wait on the library waitlist) – it’s exceptionally well-written, I think – but I nonetheless found it unsatisfying, especially as the mystery part of the book began to heat up. I think the reason for this is that I was looking for a thriller/mystery, but this is a book that is, at its heart, literary fiction. Searching for Sylvie Lee is all about the emotional resolution; it’s not about the puzzle, the pace, the figuring-things-out. To use Walton’s terms, the thriller furniture is scenery here – it’s not the heart of the book. Given Searching for Sylvie Lee ‘s success, this clearly isn’t a problem; the book has found its audience, even if that audience isn’t me.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is another book that I read recently and found unsatisfying. I have seen this one billed as adult fantasy (here’s one review https://www.npr.org/2019/07/23/741222646/gods-of-jade-and-shadow-spins-a-dark-dazzling-fairy-tale) and it certainly has a fantasy plot: Mayan gods materialize and act out a duel in the real world (in this case Jazz Age Mexico). But, although the author does not see this book as YA (see https://www.goodreads.com/book/36510722-gods-of-jade-and-shadow/questions#), it seemed to me that the furniture in this book (the coming-of-age theme, the plot, the pacing) – everything except the ending (which I *did* find satisfying) – was almost entirely that of YA fantasy, not adult fantasy or SFF more broadly. My frustration with YA plot devices meant that I very nearly did not finish this book. I’m glad I did finish it (because of that ending!); but at the same time, I can’t help but (selfishly) wish that the book had been written without the YA devices. I would have enjoyed it, I think, rather than having been irritated by it. But, this is presumably just another case of me not being the audience for this book.

I have not yet seen Gods of Jade and Shadow reviewed for a genre audience; I’d be curious to see if those reviews agree with me that this book is more similar to YA than adult fantasy, or if I am on my own here. But I definitely don’t agree with the author that the only reason Gods of Jade and Shadow is classed by some as YA is that SFF written by women automatically is considered such. I think she does have a point (why Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel was not considered YA is beyond me, for instance); but Gods of Jade and Shadow uses so many YA conventions, whether by accident or on purpose, that by either the “furniture” or the pacing definition I think it could fairly be considered YA. Though perhaps this is a question better left to dedicated YA readers…I am looking forward to seeing what, say, Locus has to say about it.

Categories, publishing, and writing: some questions

I was in a Barnes & Noble yesterday, for the first time in probably eight years (while I love brick-and-mortar bookstores, I vastly prefer smaller independent bookstores – here in New Mexico three of my favorites are Bookworks, Page One, and Collected Works. I don’t see a lot of difference between Barnes & Noble and Amazon, to be honest, though I know there are lots of people who would argue with me on that). There are a lot more bookshelf labels – marketing categories, essentially – than there used to be. It didn’t make it any easier for me to find what I wanted to read, though, which I assume is the point of these labels. It just subdivided books into smaller and smaller categories, when what I was looking for was simply a good book.

My dislike of these categories may be related to why I like smaller independent bookstores: in my experience these have fewer sections and, even better, more themed displays and recommendations for particular books from staff members. These last two are easy ways for me to find books I like, whereas marketing categories just tell me whom the publisher (and/or the author) wants to target.

I know that marketing is key in book acquisition by publishers; publishing is, when it comes down to it, a business, so this makes sense (here are some articles on the acquisition process that I’ve found edifying: http://www.underdown.org/acquisition-process.htm; http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/business-legal-matters/publishing-101-what-you-need-to-know; https://diymfa.com/writing/qa-acquisitions-process; https://www.janefriedman.com/book-pl/).

So I get this. And I’ll take on faith that these categories, at least in the short term, are helping publishers make more money (or at least, have more stable/predictable profit). But do these categories lead to more good books? It seems to me just as likely that being a slave to the marketing categories (and I am not arguing that publishers are – I don’t know enough to say that) would lead to more predictability but more mediocre books…because fantastic books are by their nature going to be risky.

Obviously, getting books to the right audience does require some kind of categorization. I’m just not sure that the super-specific categories seen in places like Barnes & Noble and in Amazon’s organization scheme are serving good writing. This is related to the “Are Algorithms Making Us Dumb” debate – here’s one article that discusses this, but there are many.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this – it’s not a topic I’m very knowledgeable about, as I am sure is clear!