Theatre Review: La Traviata

Spoiler alert, although everyone knows there is no point going to the opera if you haven’t looked up the plot first.

Back in June a friend and I went to see La Traviata in Trafalgar Square.

Sadly it was not quite an open-air performance; it was, instead, a BP Big Screen event, streamed live from the Royal Opera House for the people of London to watch for free among the lion statues. And it was a lovely evening: we had an M&S picnic and the weather was miraculously gorgeous and the top of Nelson’s Column flared red in the sunset.

However. I am not here to rate the middle-class-ness of my evening at the opera. I’d quite like to talk about the opera itself (if it’s all the same to you).

Here is a quick plot summary of La Traviata. Obviously, here be spoilers.

Our Heroine is Violetta, a courtesan who spends her life drinking, attending extravagant parties and enjoying the patronage of rich men. She’s actually pretty awesome: she has an entire aria that’s basically like, “I just want to par-TAY!” And then – she falls in love with a country gentleman called Alfredo, because obviously no woman’s life is complete without romantic love.

End of Act One.

Act Two sees Violetta and Alfredo living together in a big house in the country; Violetta has spent almost all her money supporting their lifestyle. (She won’t ask Alfredo for money. Did I mention that this nineteenth-century woman is awesome?) Alfredo being away on a contrived trip somewhere, his father arrives to ask Violetta to leave him because…he has a sister? The plot seems a bit hazy on this point, and to be honest the motivation isn’t terribly important: what’s important is that Violetta agrees (eventually) to leave him, without telling him why.

Act Three, and Violetta is dying picturesquely of consumption, alone and full of regret. But all is not lost yet! After lots of sad singing, here comes Alfredo, aware now of Violetta’s sacrifice. He arrives just in time for her to die in his arms. Curtain.

Watching this performance being beamed to thousands of people not just in London but all over the country, I found myself wondering: why? Why has this opera survived, and why are we still performing it as one of the greats?

An obvious answer is Verdi’s score, which is rich and complex and has some quite famous passages. I don’t know enough about the history of music, though, to talk about what his score is actually doing, in and of itself; I’m interested, instead, in the semantic meanings the opera ties the music to. La Traviata is pretending to be a story about (heterosexual, romantic) love – the emotion that Western society is perhaps most attached to. Which makes sense: music is above all things an art that conveys and sustains emotion. Except that – and this is the danger of opera and its modern-day descendant, the West End musical – the strong emotion evoked by La Traviata’s rich score conceals the fact that this is not a love story at all, but a hutch to trammel women in.

(It’s surprising – and also not surprising at all – how many romances do this.)

Violetta, the titular fallen woman, is in Act One a threat to the patriarchal order because she’s not married, she’s not particularly interested in marriage, and, though she’s paid by her clients, she refuses to be owned by any single one of them. Her falling in love presents an impossibility: she has so thoroughly rejected the social order that she cannot now join it; and yet, she no longer wants to live outside it. (The opera specifically presents her partying lifestyle as emotionally bankrupt, a waste of a life – that is, the only fulfilling life, for a woman, is to be found in a relationship with a man.) Alfredo’s father makes this abundantly clear to her: she is threatening the social order, Alfredo’s family. Her choice to leave him is thus – perhaps counter-intuitively – a choice to preserve the social order. And, finally, she dies, because the patriarchal social order she’s just saved has, nevertheless, no place for her. She is the fallen woman. Her sacrifice for Alfredo – of her happiness, her love and her good character – is metonymic of her sacrifice for a world that won’t permit her existence – of her spirit and her life.

Why do we keep telling these stories? Is there really anyone over, say, 18 who can relate to a “romantic” relationship that’s so clearly self-destructive and dysfunctional, that so completely denies Alfredo’s ability to make his own decisions? Do we really think that a relationship that’s so full of lies that it literally destroys one of the lovers’ lives is ideal?

I don’t think most of us do, actually. But this is why I don’t have much patience with classical opera (having seen a grand total of two on stage): it curdles and distils unhealthy emotional tropes and presents them as a consummation devoutly to be wished; it hides its reactionary messages beneath the flourishes of brilliant music.

Jesus Christ Superstar in Trafalgar Square, now. That, I’d pay to see.

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Review: Viriconium

M. John Harrison’s Viriconium is actually an omnibus: a collection of novels and short stories set in the city of, you guessed it, Viriconium. Harrison’s famous for being part of the “New Wave” in British SFF in the 60s and 70s – a kind of backlash against the mundanities of pulp SF – and he’s often cited as a key influence on China Mieville’s work, which is why I picked Viriconium up (on my first book shopping trip in my new London flat back in April, in fact).

Readers, Viriconium is every bit as interesting as Mieville, if less readily accessible.

I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with place and space in SFF, especially cities and big old haunted mansions, and the Viriconium stories are very much stories of a city. (There are a few recurring characters, but they are fickle and transient, flickering in and out of reality.) Viriconium is a city at the end of the world, the capital of the last human empire. It looks back to the Afternoon Cultures – our culture, and those that came after it – as times of impossible enlightenment, knowledge irretrievably lost. Fragments of those times remain: the Great Brown Waste, a desert made by humanity’s unimaginable depredations; flying machines powered by glowing engines; the Name Stars, man-made satellites. But – unlike, say, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which would be interesting to compare with Viriconium for reasons I’ll get to later – it’s impossible for the people of Viriconium to comprehend the people of the Afternoon Cultures. There are no clues, no context for what those cultures looked like. We, as readers, can guess a little more; but not that much more. Viriconium is a city at the end of history which has lost its own history. It’s surrounded by symbols which ought to mean but don’t. As one of Viriconium’s knights remarks in The Pastel City, the earliest of the Viriconium sequence, “All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand.”

Echoing this half-present history is the way that the texts themselves are full of cultural allusions and references so over-saturated with meaning as to be functionally meaningless. The Pastel City and “The Lamia & Lord Cromis” both broadly recall Arthurian romances, with their knights and their codes of honour and, in The Pastel City, a feud between Queen Methvet Nian and her evil cousin which has more than shades of the Arthur-Mordred story. But the classic story-structures are punctuated, become bathetic and/or pathetic: in “The Lamia & Lord Cromis”, an analogue of the story of Pellinore and the Questing Beast, the monster Lord Cromis has sought and feared all his life is easily killed by another person, who Lord Cromis kills in his turn because, “I was to be killed killing [the Lamia]. Who am I now?” And the would-be Avalonic ending of The Pastel City is disturbed by the presence of the Queen herself appearing to tell her knight to cheer the hell up.

Place-names from our world are mentioned, often by mad people, and go unrecognised. The chapters making up the last of the novels, In Viriconium, are named after Tarot cards for no particular or perceptible reason. There’s a cafe called the Bistro Californium; a street called the Rue Sepile; a square called the Plaza of Unrealised Time. Like many place-names, these feel like they should be significant, but aren’t; their varied provenances and registers point out this essential meaninglessness which punctuates our own lives.

But Viriconium’s true intertext is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. One of the city’s principal streets is the Margarethestrasse; the cry ou lou lou lou punctuates the texts; a quotation from Jessie L Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which Eliot famously claimed to have based his poem on, stands as the epigraph to one of In Viriconium‘s chapters.* Like Martin Rowson’s graphic novelisation of the poem, and Stephen King’s The Waste Lands, Viriconium takes The Waste Land‘s Modernist “heap of broken images” and turns it Gothic – surrounds its sparse fragments with dense, excessive, Gothically hypnotic prose:

They had made camp amid the ruins of a single vast, roofless building of vanished purpose and complicated ground-plan. Although nine tenths of it had sunk long ago beneath the bitter earth, the remains that reared around them rose fifty or sixty feet into the twilight. A feeble wind mumbled in off the Waste and mourned over their indistinct summits. Among the dunes meandered a vile, sour watercourse, choked with stones worn and scoured by Time.

(Compare:

Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road/The road winding above among the mountains.)

The point being that this deliberate Gothic overwriting both reveals and conceals the screaming void at the heart of meaning. It seems to invest things with a significance that they turn out not to possess. Viriconium – both the city and the texts about the city (and that’s an important Gothic trait, too – that the Gothic place and the textual space turn out to be one and the same thing) – is, deliberately, “a heap of broken images”. (Lest this sound like a criticism – it takes a lot of skill to pull this kind of textual strategy off, to avoid meaning so deliberately without leaving the work feeling pointless. There’s a reason The Waste Land is still famous.)

So, what does Viriconium, this future city, mean to our present? To answer that question we have to turn to the last story in the book – the last short story and the last text: “A Young Man in Viriconium”. Despite the title, the story is actually about a young man in England – a young man who’s been looking for Viriconium all his life. After a long search, he meets a man, Dr Petromax, who tells him what it’s really like there:

The streets stank. At six in the morning a smell so corrupt came up from the Yser Canal it seemed to blacken the iron lamp posts; we would gag in our dreams, struggle for a moment to wake up, and then realise that the only escape was to sleep again.

And yet:

The night I [left] you could see the lights of the High City, sweet, magical, like paper lanterns in a garden, filling up the emptiness. If only I’d gone towards them, walked straight towards them!

Dr Petromax is like a reader of epic fantasy (the comparison with Narnia is reasonably obvious): longing after a world that seems invested with more importance than our own broken-imaged one, not realising that every possible world with humans in it is estranged from its own symbols, despite having experienced this truth first-hand. “A Young Man in Viriconium” is probably the most important text in the whole book: it reveals to us that Viriconium is, on one level, a self-reflexive discussion of reading itself, especially SFF reading. It deflates the symbol of Viriconium which, despite everything, we constructed in our minds as we read. It reminds us that much SFF is only “a heap of broken images, where the sun beats”.

There’s plenty more to say about Viriconium, of course (oh, to be able to write a thesis on The Waste Land in Gothic literature!). It’s one of those texts you can never quite finish with, because it’s never quite finished with you. It belongs on a shelf with Mervyn Peake and House of Leaves and Ann Radcliffe: Gothic fictions that strip away our illusions and reveal the emptiness behind. It is, in other words, right up my street, and I’ll be reading more of Harrison’s work.

 

*Harrison has a great sense of irony: here is the epigraph:

I believe that the “Waste Land” is really the very heart of our problem; a rightful appreciation of its position and significance will place us in possession of the clue which will lead us safely through the most bewildering mazes.

No such clue is, of course, forthcoming.

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Hello and welcome to another edition of I Don’t Get Literary Fiction!

As noted in previous posts, I’m an SFF reader at heart. That doesn’t mean I automatically hate anything that isn’t SFF – I love several Jane Austen novels, and I did a whole English degree with almost no SFnal content. It does mean that I tend not to get on well with contemporary literary fiction that uses SFnal tropes for the benefit of a non-SFF readership. Or, indeed, quite a lot of contemporary literary fiction.

All of which is only to say: while I didn’t hate George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, I also didn’t think it was All That, as practically every critic this year does.

You’ve probably heard by now that it’s about the untimely death of President Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, at the height of the American Civil War; and it’s based on accounts of Lincoln going to the cemetery where he was buried and embracing his son’s body. The novel’s set, mostly, in that cemetery, which is full of ghosts who haven’t been able to move on to whatever comes next: a gay student who committed suicide and regrets it; a printer longing for the young wife he was just starting to fall in love with; a priest who knows he’s going to hell but doesn’t know why. When Willie’s ghost arrives in the cemetery, they know he needs to move on fast, or risk a terrible, stagnant fate; while Willie himself believes he needs to stay, so that his father can come for him.

Much has been made of the novel’s formal innovation, which is fair enough: technically, it stretches the definition of “novel” to breaking point while remaining quite readable, which (as anyone who has encountered the Modernists will know) is no mean feat. The cemetery chapters are told from the alternating viewpoints of the ghosts, in first-person snippets just a paragraph long, if that; they are interspersed with chapters describing the Lincolns’ grief in the White House, which are composed entirely of, again, snippets from various real accounts of Presidential doings. Formally, this creates a cacophony of voices through which the plot of the novel has to be glimpsed; an impression that the “truth” is a product of community. This sits nicely with Lincoln’s epiphany at the end of the novel, the “point” of this all: that everyone grieves at some point in their lives, and that the answer to this is to be kind to everyone. The multiple voices of Saunders’ novel – 166, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge – make up the body politic of the America that Lincoln must govern.

It’s somewhat problematic, then, that the centre stage of that body politic is taken by three white men – the ghosts I mentioned earlier. While it’s refreshing to have a gay character as part of that triad, only small voices are granted to women and people of colour – despite the fact that there’s a burial ground for black people alongside the cemetery. It’s possible that this is a deliberate choice, given the context of the Civil War; a way of representing the real-world silencing of people of colour in 1860s America (the white ghosts shout down and shut out the black ghosts whenever they appear). And the end of the novel does see the ghost of a black person entering Lincoln and inspiring him with the realisation that civil rights are important. But it’s the white characters the novel focuses on; and, as a result, that ending feels a little like white self-congratulation.

Formal innovation aside, the actual work going on in the novel feels rather obvious. The notion that one should be kind to everyone is not a particularly world-shattering one. The idea of a black ghost inspiring Lincoln to become a civil rights advocate makes me vaguely uncomfortable, though I’m not sure why (a hint of the White Saviour narrative about it, perhaps?); and, from the point of view of an SFF reader, is just a little bit…cheesy.

Ultimately, Lincoln in the Bardo was, for me, forgettable. I suspect that it’s more meaningful to an American audience with a sense of who Lincoln was and why he was important. But it’s not going to be one of my favourite books of 2017.

Review: Signal to Noise

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise owes, I think, quite a lot more to the South American magic realist tradition than it does to Western SFF. Its protagonist, Mercedes, returns to her home town in Mexico from her adopted home in Norway to attend her father’s funeral; once there, she finds unwelcome memories flooding back. In a series of flashbacks to her high school days, we’re told how she and two friends, all stuck at the bottom of the high school social ladder and lusting after people who would never dream of noticing them, find that they can use their beloved vinyl records to do magic.

It’s a book that works on a very simple metaphor: anyone who’s ever listened to their headphones on their way to an interview knows that the right music can give you power that’s no less potent for being imaginary. What if that was real, literal magic power? What if you could really change your life with music? And it uses that literalised metaphor to tell a very focused, very personal story about  homecoming and shared cultural touchstones.

The mode of the novel is really elegy – an elegy to the hormone-ridden years of teenhood, when everything seems approximately a million times more important than it actually is. It feels appropriate that that intensity is rendered through a novel about music, whose very purpose is to hold and draw out and intensify emotion: that’s a good choice. And I like that that intensity is offset by the withdrawn and slightly bitter perspective of Older Mercedes, a Mercedes who’s perhaps less wise than she thinks. I like that this is a magic realist novel about flawed and not always entirely likeable characters, and that it’s not particularly interested in the exact workings of how Mercedes and her high school friends cast their spells.

But…I liked it. I didn’t love it. Like a lot of novels that flash back to the protagonist’s childhood, I found it just a little too personal; too wrapped up in itself. This is entirely my own preference, I’ll admit; I favour big, ambitious books about new societies and new ways of being over slim, elegiac novels about a specific character’s emotional life. There are lots of good things about Signal to Noise, and your mileage may vary; it just wasn’t, quite, for me.

Review: 2312

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 surprised me. At first glance, I expected it to be the hardest of hard SF – which it is, sort of. Only it’s actually decently written.

Set 300 years in the future (surprisingly enough), it’s Solar System space opera – see also Stephen Baxter’s Proxima and novels of that ilk. It’s broad and ambitious enough in scope that describing its plot in a way that represents the novel fairly is somewhat difficult. It begins with a death: that of Alex, a woman enmeshed in the political life of the city of Terminator, which travels ceaselessly along metal tracks on the surface of Mercury, constantly outrunning the deadly sun.

Shortly after the death, Alex’s stepdaughter, Swan Er Hong, finds out that her stepmother was involved with a secret, select group of people with shared concerns about qubes – quantum computers which have reached an advanced stage of development, bordering perhaps on artificial intelligence. And then Terminator’s all-important tracks are hit by a meteor, halting the city and condemning it to melting in Mercury’s burning sunlight. How could the tracks’ defence systems have missed such a large body from space?

The novel is a loose, leisurely exploration of these mysteries, taking its protagonists – Swan herself as well as a diplomat called Wahram – on a tour of the populated Solar System. It takes in the fraught politics of this expanded human sphere, looking at attitudes to the terraforming of Venus, the rewilding of an ecologically devastated Earth, the adaptations spacefaring humans have made to their bodies in the pursuit of longevity or just excitement (more on this later), different kinds of artistic expression in this future world. The Solar System of 2312 feels just as complex and politically charged as our own Earth does today; it feels, in other words, utterly human, its rough edges unsmoothed by artistic conveniences. If nothing else, it’s a virtuoso piece of worldbuilding.

It’s a lot of other things, of course. I feel it’s important to say this before I launch into full-on Analysis Mode: 2312 is technically a very good book! Robinson’s prose isn’t particularly memorable, but it’s a cut (or even two) above the workmanlike prose of, say, Stephen Baxter. He has moments of real insight:

She often felt a nostalgia for the present, aware that her life was passing by faster than she could properly take it in. She lived it, she felt it; she had given nothing to age, she still wanted everything; but she could not make it whole or coherent.

There’s even a romance – and it’s that rare thing in genre fiction, a romance that feels sane and healthy and actually like the complicated, ambiguous romances real people have. Robinson’s characters feel real, contradictory and yet essential. This is good writing!

You know there’s going to be a “but”, don’t you.

I want to talk about some of Robinson’s structural choices – not necessarily because I think they were the wrong choices, but because I think discussing them potentially gives us an awareness of the boundaries of this kind of story.
Specifically: there’s something a little deflating about the common space opera trope used here that says that the only way to take drastic, species-saving action is to do it in secret; for need-to-know circles of shadowy semi-officials (such as Alex’s qube working group) to hoard up information and then act on it suddenly and unilaterally, without telling anyone beforehand. It’s a trope that reveals deep pessimism about the power of democracy, transparency, diplomacy.

It’s also, as a trope, connected to a deeper structural flaw in the novel, which is probably unavoidable given the kind of story it’s trying to tell: it’s a narrative that centres power. Spacefarers like Swan and Wahram, we’re told, are affluent and privileged, resented back on Earth for precisely that reason. The result of centring their stories is that Robinson’s imagined human future looks, if not exactly utopian, certainly not hopeless. And yet, we’re told that things are very different for those left behind on Earth, working to provide food for those above. It’s a heavily exploitative relationship; I think Robinson does, partially, acknowledge that, but he also has his privileged spacefarers ignore the actual opinions of Earth’s working class in favour of a notional greater good. Which, as Abigail Nussbaum implies, has certain similarities with how Western nations today provide aid to developing countries.

I also feel a bit iffy about the gender politics here. Generally, these are more OK than in most SF: a certain amount of gender fluidity is very much the norm, certainly among the spacefarers, as hormonal treatments in the womb are used to make babies hermaphroditic and therefore longer-lived (I think this is actually based on real science, too). So gender identity is fluid and not particularly associated with what genitalia the characters happen to have. There’s at least one character whose pronoun changes according to who they’re speaking to.

I’m ambivalent, though, about Robinson’s use of the term “bisexual” to describe sexual characteristics – i.e., having both breasts and a penis – instead of a sexual orientation; bisexual people in the real world are already invisible enough without our identity being co-opted for something else.

I want to say this again (as if I haven’t said it enough!): I enjoyed 2312 much more thoroughly than I expected to, and I’ll definitely be reading more of Robinson’s work. Flawed as it is, it’s the kind of book that opens up much-needed questions about our place in this vast and strange universe, and much-needed critical approaches to the genre.

Review: The Book of Taltos

I enjoyed this! It’s exactly the kind of book I always imagine when diving into a new fantasy series but never actually get. Which is excellent, because Brust is apparently a prolific writer, so there’s plenty more enjoyment waiting for me.

The Book of Taltos is actually two books in one: Taltos and Phoenix, both entries in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. As the Author’s Note tells us, this is the kind of series – designedly so – that you can read in pretty much any order. Taltos is chronologically first, and this was the only volume they had in Forbidden Planet when I was there, so here we are.

Vlad Taltos is an assassin in Adrilankha, a key city of the Dragaeran Empire. The Dragaerans are, broadly speaking, not unadjacent to Tolkien’s Elves: they can live for centuries, they seem to be physically stronger than we are, and they practice sorcery. They’re organised into Houses, each named after an animal; each House gets a period of time in power (this period of time seems to run into the hundreds or perhaps thousands of years) before the cycle turns and the next House rises.

But Vlad isn’t a Dragaeran: he’s a human, an “Easterner”, a despised ethnic minority. That identity informs his character deeply – which makes for a really interesting read from a perspective we rarely see in fantasy.

Surprisingly, Taltos and Phoenix are very different books. Taltos is a light-hearted, self-conscious quest story: Vlad is contacted by a couple of powerful Dragaerans who half-blackmail, half-convince him to join them on a rescue mission to the land of the dead. Phoenix is an interesting companion to Taltos: more serious in tone, weightier in content, and set at least a decade later, it tells the story of one of the consequences of that rescue mission – murder, bloody revolt, and the breakdown of a marriage.

One of the absolute best things about these novels is Vlad’s first-person narrative voice, which is ironic, irreverent, and utterly unexpected in what feels like such a quintessential high fantasy setting:

“Welcome,” she said in a voice that rolled from her tongue, as smooth as glass and as soft as satin. “I am Sethra.”

No shit.

I’m not saying this is high literature: it’s not. But, and this is important, it also knows it’s not, and it’s not taking itself seriously. What it is is well-structured, with highly relatable characters (Vlad’s failing relationship with his wife in Phoenix feels just right, and exactly real – no romance of sugar here), and subtle, significant subversion of fantasy tropes. I do think there’s probably more to be said about why we value stories about criminals – Vlad’s a stereotype in that he’s an assassin, a person who kills people for money and who basically runs a mafia, but that he also has an inbuilt moral code so the reader doesn’t hate him too much. That could have done with more interrogation.

But The Book of Taltos is really solid fantasy, which is something I don’t say very much, and which is therefore higher praise than it sounds. I will definitely be reading more in this world.

Top Ten Books for Reluctant SFF Readers

This is a tough one, I think; SFF reading is a different process to reading non-speculative fiction, so it’s not like you can just give someone your favourite fantasy novel and expect them to become addicted. Gateway books are important!

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling. I mean, if it’s good enough for millions of schoolchildren, it’s good enough for a picky adult. Harry Potter is so rooted in the idea of the British boarding school that I think it gives people who aren’t used to reading SFF a sort of touchstone when things start getting properly fantastical.
  2. The Road – Cormac McCarthy. The Road is really dystopian fiction for lit-fic readers. It had almost no emotional impact on me, personally, because its wasteland is contextless: I don’t believe in it, so I can’t invest in what its characters have lost. But people who usually eschew SFF, who don’t expect worldbuilding like SFF readers do, seem to have much stronger emotional reactions to the novel, perhaps because they read everything as “real” – relating, that is, to our world as it is now. So I wonder if The Road isn’t a way into more interesting, complex dystopian fiction.
  3. Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett. Humour is a very personal thing, so you’d have to be selective about which reader you gave this to. (But then, that’s true of everything on this list.) Like Rowling, Pratchett draws on a lot of highly recognisable British traditions, so his work is very accessible to Western, and particularly British, readers.
  4. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mitchell. A haunting novel set around the outbreak of an apocalyptic plague, Station Eleven is technically SF, but it’s much more about memory and art and humanity than it is about death and trauma. Also, the slogan of the travelling circus at its heart is from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient.”
  5. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. Another pick for lit-fic readers. Mitchell is at heart a worldbuilder, but he couches his worldbuilding in the idiom of lit fic. And there are plenty of SFF elements to Cloud Atlas – especially the stories of Sonmi-451 and Zachry.
  6. Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger. It’s been a while since I read this, but I just remember it was lovely and had a ghost in it – very low-key magical realism. Maybe one for romance or historical fiction readers?
  7. The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan. This is another novel that felt, to me, unmoored and contextless, but which might work better for a non-SF reader precisely because there’s little distracting worldbuilding. Again, it’s potentially a good way into the gentler forms of dystopian fiction.
  8. Wool – Hugh Howey. I’m not sure why I’m including this: it’s a novel whose plot is literally devoted to worldbuilding, to finding out why things are the way they are. I think, perhaps, it feels like a good entry-level SF novel precisely because it hand-holds readers through that process of finding out about a new world with new rules and a new history, and gives them the tools to do that elsewhere, in more difficult SF novels.
  9. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. These are beautiful, highly-wrought, highly symbolic short stories, each with a fantastical twist. It’s another book that sort of walks you through the process of assembling a picture of a world that’s not quite our own.
  10. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. It’s essentially a historical novel, a long, discursive Gothic novel you can get utterly lost in. Except it also has Dracula! The perfect combination.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)