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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Flights of fantasy and (science) fiction

You may have heard that today has been (somewhat) officially declared Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Day by author Sharon Lee:
In my Official Capacity as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I hereby proclaim June 23 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Day! A day of celebration and wonder! A day for all of us readers of science fiction and fantasy to reach out and say thank you to our favorite writers. A day, perhaps, to blog about our favorite sf/f writers. A day to reflect upon how written science fiction and fantasy has changed your life.
This was the topic of last week's Booking Through Thursday question, which I answered by saying that I don't read much of either genre. However, that hasn't always been true, and even now it's not completely correct. I look for a good story, period, and if that story has elements of fantasy and/or science fiction in it, I won't necessarily reject it out of hand. In fact, I've found that some themes are explored more effectively in those genres than in more "realistic" fiction.

When I was younger, I was more likely to read straight-up fantasy and sci-fi than I am now; I even took an elective English class in Fantasy Literature in high school. (One of the optional readings in that class was The Princess Bride, which was the first I'd ever heard of it - and I didn't choose to read it then. It was high school - what more can I tell you? Not so much with the good judgment back then.) These are a few of my fantasy and science-fiction favorites from my middle-school through college years:
  • The Time Trilogy, by Madeleine L'Engle (it wasn't a Quartet yet back then!): I still think every kid needs to read A Wrinkle in Time. And I'll never forget that when I encountered mitochondria in a cell-biology class, it wasn't the first time, thanks to A Wind in the Door.
  • The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkein: I've said for the record that I prefer The Lord of the Rings on film, but I loved Bilbo Baggins' book. We'll see if the upcoming movie adaptation changes my mind...
  • The Dragonriders of Pern series and the Harper Hall trilogy, by Anne McCaffrey: My mom was actually more interested in reading fantasy than I was, and I took a lot of her recommendations. I know there have been many more of the Pern books since I stopped reading them, and that McCaffrey has been involved in a lot of collaborations as well, but I particularly liked the musically-themed Harper Hall books.
  • The Merlin trilogy (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment), by Mary Stewart, and The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley: Again, reading these was instigated by my mom, but I loved their re-interpretations of the Arthurian stories (which at times made King Arthur a rather minor character, oddly enough). I think I read the Merlin books two or three times, and I'm pretty sure I've read The Mists of Avalon twice.
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert: This is another of the "optional" books I didn't read during my Fantasy Lit class, but I caught up with it, and the rest of the original trilogy, during college. Hated the movie, though.
L'Engle's books may be what set the tone for my fantasy/sci-fi preferences as an adult - they largely take place in the recognizable, "real" world, and I think I need that bit of familiarity in my fiction to keep anchored. I've also become more aware of the the social, political, and philosophical themes that underlie a lot of this fiction, and wonder if the genre elements help make them more reader-friendly. Still, it's the story and its telling that make them worth reading, and these are some that have left their mark on me in recent years:
  • The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling: I forget that these books are sold in the children's section. I forget that they're fantasy. But the books are impossible to forget - a seven-book epic tale of good and evil that traces the growth of its characters and their writer.

  • The His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman: For me, the second book in this series, The Subtle Knife, was the most compelling, and that's probably because it starts out in Will's real-world Oxford rather than Lyra's parallel-universe one, but I plan to re-read the whole thing at some point.
  • The Sparrow and Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell: I really wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up these two companion books, which blend science fiction, fantasy, religion and philosophy in a riveting story unlike much else I've ever read. What I found was fascinating, thought-provoking and memorable, and I look forward to reading them both again one day.
Of course, I'd have to get out from TBR Purgatory before I could re-read any of these, and I'm not sure whether that qualifies as science fiction or fantasy.

I'm not reading anything thematically appropriate today, but it looks like fantasy and science-fiction reading may have affected me more than I've realized. What about you? Have you read any of these books? Are there others you love and would recommend? Comments, please!

8 comments:

  1. I, too, was excited to re-learn about mitochondria after reading L'Engle. In fact, I've read and loved all of the books you mentioned except for The Merlin Trilogy, The Mists of Avalon, and the Russell novels. So I'll have to check those out. :)

    As far as recommendations go, when I was in middle/high school I was really into Michael Crichton's sci-fi stuff: Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, Sphere. Ooh, and Bradbury's short stories. And Robert Heinlein! Unfortunately, all my books are packed up right now, so I can't go digging through them for more recent reads.

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  2. About half of these are some of my all-time favorite books, but I still haven't read the Mary Stewart books. Need to get on that. (I had a King Arthur overdose after playing in the pit orchestra for "Camelot" the musical about the same time I read The Mists of Avalon.)

    For kids, I'd also add the Lloyd Alexander books (The Black Cauldron, et al). Good stuff!

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  3. I've read Dune a nd pretty much all the Dune books that followed as well as some other Frank Herbert work. The Dune novels were very deep, but some of his other ones were even weirder and deeper. If that makes sense. I didn't think you were going to do this? I was prepping a post to pinch hit for you. :)

    I've never read any Tolkein, many of my friends are very surprised by that.


    I'm afraid my list would be too long to recommend. :)

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  4. Jessi - I loved learning that mitochondria were real; the farandolae, not so much :-). I strongly recommend the Russell books - they're very thought-provoking, riveting reading.

    TexasRed - If you've had a long enough break from the Arthurian stuff, you really should read the Merlin trilogy :-).

    Mike - I didn't think I was going to do it either, but inspiration struck unexpectedly. You can still use that post, though :-).

    I avoided reading Tolkein for years. Just watch the movies instead :-). And what you said about the Frank Herbert novels actually does make sense - which may be why I haven't had any desire to read them :-).

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  5. Also you should try Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. It's been marketed recently as YA, but started out as regular SF. I personally recommend you look for a used copy, because the author is a financial supporter of Prop 8 and the like, so I don't like to give him money anymore. But it's a great book.

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  6. Jeanne - It's been recommended to me a few times, I think...and I had thought that it was SF, so I've been kind of surprise to see it being classed as YA lately. I knew about the Prop 8 thing, though, so I would definitely take your advice about the used copy.

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  7. Although I'd dabbled in fantasy and science fiction growing up, it wasn't until I met my husband that I more fully began to appreciate it. I still haven't delved too much into science fiction, other than Heinlein and Adams and a few others whose names escape me. Fantasy, however, is one of my loves. It's right up there with crime fiction. And yet, I seem to read so little of it these days. That makes me kind of sad. I enjoy fantasy of all kinds--the traditional to the urban.

    I haven't yet read the Pullman books, but they are on my list to try. I loved Harry Potter--even if it took me a while to try them at all. Wrinkle in Time is a childhood favorite. And The Sparrow is on my TBR pile as I write. I adored the Hobbit. And Mists of Avalon is one of my all-time favorite books.

    My husband is trying to talk me into reading Dune, and one day I'll do just that.

    Great post, Florinda. You always have such a wonderful way with words.

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  8. Wendy (Literary Feline) - I actually read The Sparrow and Children of God back to back. I've since learned that sometimes it isn't ideal to do that, but I'd recommend it for those two - they fit together so well.

    And your husband is right - you should read Dune.

    I'm looking forward to the next Harry Potter movie in a few weeks, since the movies are all we get now :-). I took a few years to try them too, but I got totally hooked, and I'm still a little bit sad that there are no more of the books to look forward to.

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