An Evening With Patrick Ness & Responsibility

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening in Bath. I’ve done a short interview with Patrick Ness for Shout Out, which will hopefully air in a few weeks. Then I listened to him talk about his new book, The Crane Wife, at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.

I’m part-way through the book and really enjoying it, though I have to keep stopping so I can stop crying, or stop laughing (sorry Canada). But I like it even more having heard Patrick talk about it. I’ll save the meat for a review. For now all I want to say is that with this book, and new novels coming from Neil Gaiman and Guy Gavriel Kay, it is going to be one hell of a year for fantasy.

Later we talked more generally about re-working of fairy tales, and I got to enthuse about Deathless and Six Gun Snow White, as I do.

The evening will also stick in my mind because of two incidents where I felt great responsibility. Firstly I got to meet Jamie Byng of Cannongate books, whose company I great admire. He has published Patrick’s book, and has done great things with his myths series (which includes books by Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Philip Pullman), bringing what is essentially fantasy to a literary audience. I’d like to get him to meet more of my SF writer friends and bring them to a wider audience too.

Also someone asked me what one book I would recommend her to read to convince her that science fiction was worth trying. Note that she didn’t say she looked down on it, she’d just not read any and wanted a place to start.

These two things are both quite scary. I like to advocate for SF&F, but I recognize that I’m not always the best person to do it. I know that a lot of people in fandom find me an embarrassment. They don’t want their community being represented by one of them. And frankly, in the UK, that’s a legitimate concern. You have to be brilliant like Roz to get away with it. Also I know I can be socially inept at times (and boy does listening to Patrick remind you of how socially inept you can be, because he’s so raw and honest about that sort of thing). So I hope I haven’t screwed up too badly.

As to the book, what does one say? There are all sorts of great books I could think of, but you can’t tell what someone would like if you don’t know them, and a wrong choice could be disastrous. Thanks to a signal boost from Julian Gough a very interesting conversation got going on Twitter this morning and several people recommended books. I was delighted to see Ursula Le Guin as the top pick (and no less than three different books suggested), but somewhat sad to see most of the recommendations were for very old books. I guess they do at least class as classics (and are all available from the very fine Gollancz SF Masterworks series). I also noted that quite a few people recommended their favorite SF with no thought as to how it would appear to an outsider.

I had to make up my mind more or less on the spot. I quickly decided that whatever book I chose should include obvious SF elements rather than be slipstreamy, and should be by a recognized SF writer. I didn’t want anything that could be dismissed as “not really SF”. I wanted it to be relatively recent, to show that there is still good stuff being written. And then I had to judge what sort of book the lady in question would like.

That’s where it gets hard. For all the hot air that gets spouted about awards rewarding the “wrong” works, there really is a great deal of variation as to what people want from a book. Your mileage may indeed vary, quite a bit. What I did know was that the lady in question was in theatre, and clearly knew her stuff as far as writing goes.

So I opted for something that has both spectacular science-fictional imagination, and some of the best writing you will find in any novel, anywhere. It helped that Paul Cornell had been dropped-jawingly singing its praises on Twitter that day, and that he’d found it because Neil Gaiman had selected it for his audiobook series. It’s always good when people you like and respect agree with your choice of books.

I sent the lady in question off in search of M. John Harrison’s Light. I hope she likes it, but even more so I hope that if she doesn’t she’ll still see what Mike can do with words, and will accept that if someone like him can be writing SF there must be books worth seeking out in the genre. For those who haven’t read it yet, my review is here.

5 thoughts on “An Evening With Patrick Ness & Responsibility

  1. I don’t have any quibbles with your choice, but I think you were unnecessarily dismissive of older works. Older works that are considered classics are those that have stood the test of time — those that many, many people have read and still enjoy. (Which is not to say that some of them have not aged well.) Also, imagine if someone posed the equivalent question about the genre of Literature. Whatever was suggested would almost certainly be at least fifty years old. I can see why you wanted to suggest a more recent work, but I think that in general if someone is asking for an introduction to SF you could do worse than to suggest a classic (look at Gollancz’s series of SF Masterworks).

    1. I agree that some of those older books are wonderful. Unfortunately, because so many people outside of the genre expect SF to be predictive (even though most of it isn’t), there’s a danger that they’ll dismiss an older book because the future it imagines seems ridiculous to us now. I didn’t want to take that risk.

      1. Those that made predictions that didn’t bear out fall into the category “haven’t aged well.” Plenty of others, such as Tiger! Tiger! and The City and the Stars, won’t fall into that trap for centuries yet. (Which is not to say that some of those classics aren’t stylistically or culturally dated.)

        1. Agreed. If I’d read one recently and could be sure it would hold up well I might have recommended it. But I hadn’t, so I went with something newer.

Comments are closed.