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On Remembering That Writers are People

I met a new author this week, the first professional author that I’ve spoken with for longer than 15 seconds in the course of a book signing. We talked about traffic and getting lost on Interstate 80; it was a normal conversation. And I think it was exactly what I needed.

The setup: Husband and I went into San Francisco on Sunday night to attend SF in SF‘s monthly author reading, something we hadn’t done in a long time. As luck would have it, each one of us was excited about one of the two featured authors this month. Husband, a hard SF/Big Idea guy in the core of his being, devoured the first book in Hannu Rajaniemi‘s Jean le Flambeur trilogy late last year and was eager to get his hands on the rest, while I’ve read Daryl Gregory‘s We Are All Completely Fine and Afterparty (read my review of the latter here) and find myself consistently interested in whatever Gregory announces he’s working on next.

So we joined a decent-sized crowd for the reading, hosted by Terry Bisson, and listened to each of the authors read two short pieces. As I suspected might be the case, I was left admiring Rajaniemi’s craft even as I acknowledged that his stories weren’t really aimed at me, and wanting to check out Gregory’s short story collection (not, alas, available for sale at the reading!) The first piece Gregory read was about a very human reaction to the coming apocalypse (which was, really, all this dystopian fan sociologist needed to hear to be hooked :)); the second was a lighter piece about the location of human consciousness. Once both authors had finished their readings, we took a short break, and I sat down to dive into one of the new books I’d picked up from the Borderlands sales kiosk — at which point, Husband tapped my shoulder. “It looks like they’re chatting with people — do you want to go say hi?”

I froze. “Oh, no, that’s OK. I wouldn’t know what to say. I’d feel awkward. I — they’re real authors.” 

Husband: “So are you!”

Me: “No — no — I’ve been working on the same story for ten years and I’ve got nothing to show for it yet. I’m not a real author. I — uh — I’m just gonna read.” At which point, I proceeded to bury my face in Pandemonium.

And then heard a friendly voice say “So, you’re getting a head start by reading at the reading?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said to Mr. Gregory in response; honestly, I think the first thing was a stammered schoolkid answer along the lines of “no, I promise, I wasn’t reading while you guys were reading!” But then he cracked a joke, and then Husband asked him where in the Bay Area he lived (since he’d mentioned in his intro that he’d recently moved here), and then, suddenly, we were talking about a neighborhood where I’ve got friends, and a coffeeshop there where he goes to write, and the struggles of figuring out exactly how long it takes to drive from one place to another in the metro area with one of the worst commutes in the nation.

Daryl Gregory just won the World Fantasy Award; his work has been nominated for the Nebula and the Locus. He first crossed my radar because of an interview he gave in Locus Magazine a few years ago, where he talked about the difference between fantasy and science fiction as being focused on the characters’ reactions to the unexplainable:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

This  idea has stuck with me, and continues to be one of my basic benchmarks for how I distinguish the two genres; it’s the brainchild of a “real author.” A real author who struck up a conversation with me about the weirdness of being a Bay Area immigrant and who offered to chat if I ever see him around town.

Given how I’ve been feeling about my own writing lately (more on that in the last few posts, so I won’t recap here), I think I desperately needed that reminder — that the people behind the books are real people, who live in the real world, and have to deal with getting into San Francisco on a rainy night just like everybody else. And that in many of the ways that matter, the successful aren’t so different from the rest of us.

So thank you, Mr. Gregory, for reaching out; I hope to bump into you around town, and I also hope I’ll have the opportunity to pay your kindness forward someday. If I ever finish this book.

Book Review: Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory

There was a girl who lived on the streets in a northern city. She was sixteen years old when she found God, and had just turned seventeen when God abandoned her. — Daryl Gregory, Afterparty

Daryl Gregory’s a new author to me; I sought out this book after reading his interview in Locus, where he explained the difference between fantasy and science fiction in a way that made sense to this mixed-genre household (basically saying that science fiction is the genre where the characters seek out explanations for inexplicable things). After reading Afterparty, I think I might go in search of his other books, of which I believe there are three. It’s a solid story that combines elements of several other things I’ve read recently and does them more than competently.

The setting is near-future North America, and the dystopic flavor of the week is designer drugs: basically, the 3D printer industry joined forces with the home meth lab and now people are brewing up psychotropic drugs in their basements. Our main character is Lyda Rose (yes, the reference is intentional ;)),  a 40-something widow and chemist who starts the story in a mental ward. About ten years ago, Lyda and her collaborators developed a drug called Numinous, which gives people the sense of a higher power. There was an accident; Lyda and the other members of the team overdosed on the drug; when they came to their senses, each one had a psychosomatic god-presence fixed semi-permanently in their head, and Lyda’s wife was dead under murky circumstances. Now, a decade later, it’s looking like someone’s trying to market Numinous on the street, and Lyda’s determined to stop them.

I liked this book a lot. It had an unreliable narrator, like Parasite, and a crazy detective romp, like Rosemary and Rue, but I think I enjoyed it more than either one of them. Part of that was the characters and the pacing; I never felt like the story was moving too fast for me to follow, which is often a problem for me with action-packed books, and I thought the cast was large enough to be interesting and throw some red herrings in our path about whose alliances stood where without getting lost in too many people. I also really liked the way that Gregory hung a lantern on introductions of backstory. Lyda’s first-person narrator is the primary voice of this book, but we also hear a few times from another character embedded in the action, and every fifty pages or so, the semi-omniscient narrator who opens the book steps in as the third-person voice of someone else, to give us a bit of extra context where it’s needed. These were probably my favorite parts of the book; they mitigated what I’ll fully admit is one of the weaknesses of the first-person narrator, the problem of only being able to see and know what the narrator does. I’ll have to think about if I could manage something like this in my own book, because it worked extremely well.

I also liked how Lyda’s social relationships were sketched, both in the past and the present. This is the second book I’ve read recently where a gay or lesbian character’s sexuality is present but not central to the story as “queer sexuality” specifically; I said to Husband this morning that I suspect this is an artifact of books written in the last year or two, that only since then have authors been able to credibly incorporate “gay married people are no longer eyebrow-raising” into their near-future books. I believed Lyda’s relationship with her wife, and with the other members of the team who developed Numinous; I also believed her contemporary relationships, both romantic and platonic.

There were other little things, too: I liked that the main character was older than me, because it feels like genre fiction still hesitates to have a protagonist over the age of 25. I thought the primary overt antagonist was beautifully drawn (although I won’t say any more than that, because the way they’re introduced is half the joy). And I liked the glimpses we got of the larger world. Although the book’s focus is clearly on the drug culture, there’s a bigger picture here, too (American Indian relations with the US and Canada; the future of “the Internet of things”; advances in genetic engineering and assisted reproductive technology) and Gregory gives us just enough of it to make clear that he’s thought through this world carefully.

So, all in all, I’d recommend this one. Go check it out.