Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Failed Experiment

Experimentation and trying new things out are good investments of one’s time even if they do turn up with the occasional failure. In this post I would like to discuss such a failed experiment and explain how I’m happy to have embarked on it despite the failure.
A few weeks ago I told you (here) how I’m going to be taking part in the voting for this year’s Hugo awards, the most prestigious awards in science fiction. I won that honor because I paid $50 in order to put my hands on copies of most of this year’s Hugo nominees; voting was just a side effect. The chief intention behind this move of mine was to get the best of science fiction for the year in one affordable package. Note the key assumptions I have made here: I assumed Hugo nominees would be the best science fiction books of the year, and I assumed that by being such they would be the best material for me to read.
The first of the five nominees for Best Book I got to read, Feed, was indeed a fairly good book that I quite enjoyed reading (and reviewing here). However, moving down the list of remaining nominees revealed a different story altogether.

The second book I tried, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, turned out to be fantasy rather than pure science fiction. On its own that is not necessarily bad, even if I have been finding it really hard to find genuinely good fantasy reads.
What was bad is how quickly I got bored with this second book. What seemed to be the story of a fight between claimers to the throne of a mystical kingdom, with an unlikely claimant as the story teller, felt tedious and boring to this reader’s eyes. Hugo nominee or not, I have plenty of books I know to be good waiting on me (see here); I was not about to waste time on this one. I moved on.
Before moving on to the next book on the list I did some pondering. After all, one has to learn from failed experiments!
In his book The Meaning of Things, philosopher A.C. Grayling claims that we tend to appraise experiences based on how they were at their peak and how they ended. He asked his readers to see whether the way they remember their last holiday matches this insight, and I have to say that in many respects I find this generalization to be correct.
However, I will go further and add the importance of a good start to Grayling's argument. When we remember a book we may remember it by its peak and by its ending, but we also need it to start well in order to want to get to that peak and that ending in the first place. John Scalzi, one of my favorite authors (and the subject of my ravings here), recently gave would be writers advice on his blog. One of his points was about the need to capture and secure the reader by throwing something exciting their way at the very beginning so as to make them want to get deeper into the book.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms failed me in this regard. Its start was pretty ordinary, focusing on trying to teach me the ways of the book’s world rather than trying to excite me about it. As such, the book probably does not deserve a Hugo award.

Next I moved to The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. After reading it for half an hour my Kindle was telling me that I was still only 1% through. That less than a percent that I read wasn’t too bad, but my progress (or lack of it) was testimony to the book’s tediousness: for example, a single paragraph had several flashbacks going back and forth in time. I might get back to it some other time, but for now – Dervish House is asking too much of me.
I moved on to Blackout by Connie Willis, the book I blacklisted before (the books was only partially made available to Hugo voters, and even that was in a non ebook friendly format) . Indeed, reading the book on my Kindle proves a bit of a pain: lines tend to break for no good reason due to the necessary format conversions. It’s amazing how much of an effect this has on reading flow! The book itself might be good, but its publisher deserves no credit for its meager attempt at promoting its product. Dear publisher, promotion only works if you’re truly committed to it!
I won’t even try to read the last of the five nominees, Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold. That book is a part of an ongoing saga of books I haven’t read.

I therefore have myself a success rate of 1 in 5 with this year's Hugo nominees, or 20%.
Although low on observation samples, the experiment concludes I cannot trust Hugo nominations to act as viable book quality indicators. I therefore doubt I will repeat the experience next year; the Hugo awards will just have to learn to live without me.
I suspect I should have seen this coming. Looking at the science fiction books I read over the last year or two, some of the best of them did not win a Hugo and most were not even nominees: The God Engines, Agent to the Stars, For the Win, Old Man’s War… I can continue but I’ll stop here because the conclusion is the same: award winning has poor correlation with whether I, personally, like a book.
What measures can I still use in order to identify science fiction books worthy of my time? That’s easy: between them, blogs such as Boing Boing and Whatever, as well as Twitter, have been able to supply me with ongoing and reliable recommendations. All I have to do in order to identify book prospects is turn to my RSS reader.

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