I have a bad habit. I look at books and make judgments based on their covers.
Now, I am not a racist. Nor am I, I hope, a moron. But for some reason I do this judging thing to books despite knowing, colloquially, what a bad idea it is. Hell, there’s even a popular proverb about it.
In my defense, generally the place where I do this judging is in the SciFi/Fantasy area of the book store. And really, when you think about it, this may be the one place in a book store (besides the kids section of course) where you can judge a lot of the books by their covers. Go out and look at a bookstore if you don’t already agree and you will see a lot of books with grand, self-important painted covers of things like dragons, elves, knights and spaceships. It probably would not be such a damning thing if it was just one or two books that lightly brushed across these themes. But instead it is probably far closer to being well over half the science fiction section in a major retailer’s store.
So the question is why?
Why would authors and publishers go out of their way to form this insanely predictable alliance that no doubt earmarks tripe and unfairly defeats genuine work when they could just as easily attempt cover art that identified the volumes as their own distinct works of art, owing zero debt to popular works of the genre from years past?
Because my friends, many of these books are written specifically to appeal to the people who want pulp. Pulp, i.e. – more of the same.
So yes, a whole lot of the nerdier, genre-hugging books adhere to certain cover art asthetics so as to clearly announce to the nerdy, genre-loving fans that ‘Yes! This is a genre book! Have no fear, what is inside our latest volume is what you’ve come to expect from the scifi/fantasy. It placates by never straying too far from the age old formulas of Tolkien and Asimov that you all grew up reading and love so well!‘
You see, I am of the opinion that most people do not want something new, they want the same old thing over and over again. Like comfort food, but in art. This explains a lot things: (most) blues music, heavy metal, pop and of course a considerable amount of the genre section in the book store.
This is one of the things that makes it hard for me to discover new science fiction. The stuff I am already a fan of: Phillip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and China Mieville, to name a few on a list that is not too much longer, came to me in those special ways people are often turned on to new things: friends spoke highly of or gifted me with particular books; volumes passed on among co-workers; an author’s outspoken personality in the press or notoriety in the annals of history. All the wonderful ways we humans germinate one another with the things we love. But there’s always good stuff amidst the dross and now I ask, how does one find it in the sci/fi section?
Recently I wrote here about my year-and-a-half long bender on straight-laced fiction. It started with Bret Ellis, flowed cleanly through to David Wallace, bent back on itself for my love of Irvine Welsh and grew to incorporate some new names as well. I’m still under the spell of Alex Garland and earlier this year I was absolutely stricken with David Benioff’s City of Thieves*. Still caught in this storm of the closer-to-reality writings of past and present I had just finished Hunter Thompson’s The Rum Diary and afterward felt very much compelled to begin re-reading his (and my own) idol’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby when an off hand conversation in a book store about the marvels of China Mieville prompted a total stranger to pass on to me two antique volumes of mass market science fiction. One was an anthology by Clark Ashton Smith, a peer of old Howard Lovecraft’s who, after reading a few of the stories, I am ashamed I had never read or heard of before**. The second, well the second has kicked me back into sci/fi hardcore.
THE BLACK COMPANY by Mr. Glen Cook. Wow. This is apparently the first book in a pretty large series and I have to say, I’ll be reading more of them. Written from the perspective of a grunt in a ‘buy-our-allegiance’ kind of military outfit in a fantasy world ruled by dark forces and darker Magicks… this is probably starting to sound a bit along the lines of all those other books I just trashed, only it’s not.
The Black Company reads very much like literature. There are a few deviations where you can feel the sci/fi vibe scuttle out in front but for the most part this is really dry and earnest in its account of warfare, albeit not the kind of warfare we know in our world. There’s black magick, were-leopards, and a decidedly feudal lay to the land, but despite all of this being the usual list of trappings for genre schlock it reads surprisingly genuine and gutsy. Cook himself served in the Navy and although I am unsure whether or not he saw combat his narrator’s tone and realism suggests that he did. Due to this fact, and his obvious attempt to high brow the books instead of kowtowing to the genre, The Black Company kept me glued, not just in suspense but in a kind of strange indoctrination I felt through the character’s first person accounts, which felt very much like the kind of story-swapping you’d do on the front waiting for danger to accost you in the night.
So, one volume down and I’ve taken a break to re-read China Mieville’s masterpiece PERDIDO STREET STATION. But I will definitely get back to Croaker and his Black Company brothers, and I’ll let you know if they remain as impressive in subsequent volumes.
* Yes he’s one of the ones who wrote the embarrassingly bad script for fox’s wolverine movie but hey trust me, don’t hold that against him. Can anyone say ‘fox’?
** Smith’s stuff is A LOT like Howard’s. In fact, think Lovecraft’s In The Walls of Eryx and you’re not too far off the main gist of his fantastical wanderings.