This post was originally going to be called ‘Do I really like Sci Fi?’. I was going to write it to tackle a rather chilling doubt that has been ghosting around my gut for a while. But then I finished Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and had to change it, for reasons which I hope will be become clear.
I hope you’ll permit me a little side-track here before I get onto the review. The subject of ‘The Classics’ is something I have been meaning to do a blog post about since I started writing here. It has been a subject that has given me much food for thought and caused me some anguish in the past. All my life, by school teachers, college lectures and university tutors I have been encouraged to read the classics. And then, to read more classics.
As you may have guessed, my relationship with ‘the classics’ has not been a smooth one. For a long time, it has to be said, I was stubborn and though I read widely within the margins of things I enjoyed (sci-fi, fantasy and Anne Rice-style horror) and though I believed I was a writer, I did not want to tackle what I had been told I should. I knew, from what I had read in school and college and my Bachelor of Arts in English Literature (so give me my due, I tried bloody hard), that, generally, they were not something I enjoyed. Something to admire, sure. Something to study, absolutely. But they would never be something I would choose to read, ever, if I had my way.
(Just to clarify: I’m not barking mad. Well, not entirely. I took English A-level and English Literature BA out of choice, knowing the classics would undoubtedly abound in profundity. But when I picked my subjects I picked Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, John Webster etc. That kind of classic I can get on board with and always have. The Dark Ages, Medieval and Renaissance eras has always interested and inspired me. It’s the nineteenth and twentieth century classics that previously had tended to bore me to tears.)
So I told myself I was justified in my opinion. I read. I learned. I just didn’t have to try and get through Pride and Prejudice to know I wouldn’t like it. I read Great Expectations at school and, though while it was a great story and I’m still glad I’ve read it, I know I won’t ever return to it.
(Just to clarify further: I’m not for a minute criticising any of these books. They are just beyond me. I can’t decide if I am of too simple or complex a mind to ease into them without an effort, but the fact remains that when I tackled them, they were a chore and you only have some much time to read, why waste it on something that is so evidently not for you?)
Then I started my Master’s Degree. It came up again. My opinion was still there but it seems no one would let this idea alone.
It was in a meeting with a creative writing tutor who was one of the few people there that I didn’t learn a massive amount from. We were entirely polar opposites when it came to writing. She was a successful poet, I was an amateur prose writer. She was extermely accomplished and knowledgeable but we had so little in common that there was little she could do to help me. She had no interest in what I was writing and I had little interest and what little she felt she could tell me. This is not a bitter statement. I learned lots from others, it’s just that sometimes some people have so little common ground that there is nothing they can do to move forward together. It’s another important lesson to learn, that not everyone’s advice will always be helpful and I wasn’t upset or frustrated (though she may have been). I just accepted the fact that I would coast through her feedback with smiles and nods and try not to let my confusion or disagreement show on my face.
You can imagine the volume of the sigh I had to suppress when this tutor, who I already knew was on a different plane to me, told me once again that I should read more classics. I took a moment to school my response then expounded my (what I thought was) oh-so-justified opinion. She just looked me in the eye and gave me the one piece of useful advice I got from her, but one that was so valuable that everything else was worth it:
“If you want to write novels, you have to understand and appreciate the origins of the form.”
I went away and I mulled on this. To my frustration, I realised she was right. I was only ever going to write sci-fi, fantasy and/or horror. I was never going to change the world with my fiction. I never planned to set out to analyse and expose the depths of the human condition, except maybe by accident. I like laser guns, spaceships and vampires.
But, that said, I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to be good writer. And that means work. It means study. It means taking the advice of those who are better at it than you.
So I relented, despite the growing cloud of apprehension produced by the suspicion that I was going to be spending all my foreseeable spare time drooling over some very boring books, again, for the sake of jumping through some writery hoops, went to a second-hand book store and stocked up.
To cut a long and many-many-paged story short I’m glad I did. That’s too small a statement. I am thankful I did. Nothing prepares you for finding a story you love, especially in a place where you didn’t expect to find it, and I have never been happier to have been proved wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t done a complete 180 on my initial feelings about classics: some of them still make me want to bang my head of the desk with frustration, canon or not. I have spent a lifetime feeling like I’ve had to justify my tastes. And the fact is, I can’t. I have done two degrees to try and explain why I like some things and not others. The degrees have given me analytical frameworks and jargon that go some way to me being able to explain a fraction of it but I can never explain it all. Nor should I have too.
Emma annoyed me to the point where I almost cracked teeth with grinding them. Tess of the D’Urbervilles made me want to travel into Hardy’s fictional realm to either slap her silly, or, failing that, throw the book across the room. The Mayor of Casterbridge I didn’t even finish.
Wuthering Heights was an experience beyond magical. It was fantastic. It was dark and passionate and I sunk into it and wrapped myself in it like a black, heather-strewn blanket and I will revisit it again and again.
Gone With The Wind I think I read with my mouth hanging open the entire time. I’d dreaded it, even though I knew very little about it, when it arrived from Amazon and shook the floor as it hit the doormat. I saw the size of it and actually groaned. But it had my hooked from the first page and didn’t let me out of its grip for the whole one-thousand-plus pages. I cried and I cried and I counted the minutes before I could get back to it whilst at work and I prayed to the gods of writing that one day I might come up with characters half so passionate, real and conflicted.
As for Rebecca…Rebecca is now one of my favourite books of all time.
I could go on. I could tell you how I struggled with Catch 22 and A Handmaid’s Tale but how I loved To Kill a Mockingbird but the general point I wanted to make was this:
It’s always worth trying because you never know what you might be missing out on.
In one sense I still think I was right. The classics aren’t this infallible collection of must-read, change-your-life literature. Just because a text has been given a god-like status by those that know or have read more than you doesn’t necessarily mean you will enjoy it. But I agree with my tutor’s point that if you want to be good at something, you need to work at it. You need to study and learn. That process isn’t always fun but every screed of effort you sink into it will be worth the return. Still, my initial point still stands: it may be a classic, it doesn’t mean it’s not a chore.
But either way I am so, so pleased I took the piece of advice from the tutor I didn’t normally connect with. I don’t know where I’d be today, or what kind of writer I would ever have become, if I hadn’t broadened out and tackled this hulking and intimidating thing that is the canon that, it turns out, contained experiences that I will never forget.
And now, yes. Ender’s Game.
This raking over of my troubled relationship with the classical canon came about because I have felt the need of late to ‘bone up’ as it were on my classical sci-fi. This wordy and star-specked back-catalogue has been one I have ventured into before, without much success. I tried, I didn’t like, I abandoned.
I tried Herbert, I tried Asimov, I tried Dick. I tried Orwell. I was left alienated, faintly bemused and a little annoyed. Now, before you start finding things to throw at me, I will clarify once again that I appreciate every single one of these writers and their works. I get it, I do. I get them. I could write essays on how much I get them. But enjoy them? Nope. And as I have already explained, you can’t help what you enjoy and what you don’t. You can’t force yourself to like something just because it’s heralded as a cornerstones of a genre. You can learn from it, sure. But taste is instinct and instinct comes from the gut. From the heart.
But, nonetheless, buoyed by the remembrance of some of the amazing discoveries I had made whilst elbowing my way through the classical canon, I went back. I looked at the ‘top ten’ sci-fi lists and girded my loins.
My heart sank pretty quickly, I will admit. 1984, Foundation Trilogy, Dune. I gnawed on my lip. Did I pretend to enjoy and soldier through them again, just for the sake of saying I had so I could sound like a ‘proper’ sci-fi aficionado? I felt I should. After all, I tried reading Foundation when I was about fourteen years old. Maybe I had just been too young.
But, as a compromise to myself, I decided to try one I hadn’t heard of before and so wasn’t going to pre-judge. Anything to heave the Foundation trilogy back onto the shelf for another decade.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scot Card, I mused. Not heard of that one. I read the blurb, I was intrigued, I downloaded the e-book.
It was brilliant. It was beautiful. I cried. It was rich in character and humanity, thronged with emotion and yet encompassed huge, sweeping ideas and space-shrinking concepts. I loved it. Once again, I was proved wrong and happy to have been.
As I said, this post was originally going to be called Do I really like Sci-Fi? This was because when I was about three-quarters of the way through Ender’s Game, I stumbled. I felt like the whole book was building up to something that couldn’t possibly happen in the pages that were left. But it had ticked all the boxes. Well written, original concept, great setting.
So I lay there in bed one morning and mused: Do I even like sci-fi? Or do I just like a certain type of book, one that is accessible, character-driven, human, conflicted, good on plot but heavy on emotion and on the journey of its characters rather than focusing on heavy-handed concepts and principles? Am I just drawn to sci-fi and fantasy because the settings more often than not provide a perfect environment for escapism? I knew I liked the Star Wars novels growing up. But were they real sci-fi? Were they ‘proper’ sci-fi?
I pondered hard. Then I picked up my kindle again, knowing I would at least have to finish the book if I was going to write a review.
The sun grew higher in the sky and I pulled the kindle closer and closer to my face and felt my throat tighten. It pulled me right back in. Not only that, my brief bout of waning commitment added to the whole experience. It made the conclusion that much more emotional. And I decided, yes, I may not like all the classics, but I do like sci-fi. I fucking love sci-fi, in fact.
Read this book. It’s incredible. Ender got under my skin and into my heart. I ached for him and even when I was driven to put it aside for a few days, my thoughts still returned to his plight. I went on his journey with him and I felt everything he felt, though tenfold as I was on the sidelines and could do nothing to help him, though I so wanted to.
It provided everything I want from a book: it sucked me in, it made me live it. No matter that it was all space stations and aliens and a million other things I will never see. I was there. I lived it.
And I cried.
On a side note, I believe they have just made a movie. I am almost afraid to see it as this book affected me that much I can’t bear to see anything changed or done differently.
If you have seen the movie and feel it in any way lives up to the book, please let me know for it will be a must for me if it is.
So, though the journey may sometimes be dull or difficult, I shall continue to take advice and recommendations on my reading matter. No one will ever be able to tell me for certain what I will and will not like: no one can do that for anyone to any sort of accurate degree, I think. But the fact of the matter is that I have had my preconceptions thwarted so thoroughly and so often that I will never again see the tag ‘classic’ and think ‘bugger that for a game of soldiers’.
Oh, and read Ender’s Game. It rocks.