Once upon a time, when I was but a humble book blogger, I could tear through books like a knife through butter. At the height of my blog, it was nothing to post anywhere from 2-4 book reviews per week, nothing to read 100+ books per year. I miss those days, sometimes, when my free time was spent absorbed in fictional worlds, admiring the craft that made those worlds and the people who populated them so vivid and real.
I don’t read as quickly as I used to. I’m no longer book blogging, and there are other things competing for my attention. Instead of writing book reviews, I’m writing fiction. But I still read, of course, and my reading goals since the book blog closed a few years ago is to average a book a week. That’s not always an easy task, even if the book is by a favorite author, even if the book is something that, especially in the good old days, would’ve taken me merely a few hours to get through.
Last week, a new book arrived on my doorstep. A pre-order: Ken Liu’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings. I was startled by the size of the hardcover. The book comes out to be 618 pages, and when you don’t consider yourself a very fast reader anymore, a book like this could very well take several weeks.
It’s the kind of book that’s tempting to shuffle directly into the TBR pile: yes, it’s a book I want to read. Yes, it’s by an author I enjoy. But damn, look at that length, and there are so many other titles waiting on me, titles that I might finish faster, and therefore reduce the number of books in the TBR pile.
But I shoved the impulse back. Sure, I finished reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword first, and then allowed myself the palette-cleanser of Mira Grant’s Rolling in the Deep, which was also shipped to me this week, and picked up the Liu.
I discovered Ken Liu’s fiction when I bought my first supporting membership to WorldCon for the 2012 Hugos. I don’t read much short fiction, so it’s unlikely I would have discovered Liu on my own, at least until he published a novel, and even then I would’ve likely not paid attention until the reviews really started rolling in. But reading the short story, “The Paper Menagerie” was one of those eye-opening experiences that took me by surprise, much like reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Pop Squad” for the very first time: I knew, the moment I finished the story, that I’d found a new favorite author.
I’ve been buying a supporting membership for WorldCon ever since that first year. I’ll be the first to say that no, of course I don’t like every nominee. No, I don’t always read everything that’s nominated: sometimes that’s due to time, and sometimes it’s due to practicality: I didn’t want to read George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons because at the time, I hadn’t even read A Feast of Crows and I knew I’d not get anything else read if I focused on the Martin. I didn’t read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance because I’ve only just dipped my toe in the Miles Vorkosigan universe, and despite being assured I could read the books out of order, I still wanted to enjoy the series in a kind of publication order, just in case the latest book spoiled a delightful surprise. And please, there was simply no way in hell I would’ve been able to get through The Wheel of Time and still be able to read the rest of the nominees, particularly in short fiction. No, just no.
I don’t buy a membership to ensure my favorites make the ballot or vote for them to win. I buy a membership because I want to discover authors I would’ve never discovered otherwise. I buy a membership because, as a writer, I want to see how current nominees stack up with the winners of old, and I want to imagine where I might fall if, one day, a book I publish gets nominated for a Hugo. I buy a supporting membership because there’s a thrill when something I vote for wins, or something I nominate makes the ballot. I buy a membership because I feel it gives me a little more legitimacy to complain when things don’t go the way I want (like when Doctor Who takes four of the five slots for Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form).*
I decided to buy a membership this year. Not only to vote, but also to nominate next year.**
Which is why I’m reading the Ken Liu now. In the past I’ve assumed that some of the big names I plan on reading will end up on the ballot, and I’ll just read those books then. This year proved to be an exception, so I think it’s important for me to read the books now that I think might be a contender next year. I’m even developing a system to help me narrow those nominations down, so that when it’s time to nominate next year, I’m not going be be forced to page through my ratings on Goodreads or Library Thing in order to remember what I liked and what I didn’t.
So I’m tackling 618 pages of Liu’s debut novel now instead of making assumptions for next year. I’m also really looking forward to Liu’s short story collection that’s coming out later this year, appropriately titled The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.
Just because Liu is a favorite author now doesn’t mean I’ll put him on my ballot, of course. Being a favorite doesn’t even guarantee that I’ll like this particular book. And who knows what delightful fiction 2015 has to offer? But Liu would have never made it on my radar if I hadn’t bought that first WorldCon membership back in 2012, if I hadn’t made it a point to read all the nominees in the fiction categories (within reason). ***
I should note I don’t intend this post as a thinly disguised plea to read all of the nominees on this year’s ballot. I don’t even know, yet, how I’m going to tackle this year’s ballot myself. Consider this post, instead, as this: a lesson in never knowing when or where you’ll discover a new favorite author. Sometimes, they show up in strange places you’d never think to look. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, and I say that recognizing that what challenges me as a reader may not challenge you as a reader. ****
Consider this post, instead, as a way to start assembling your own, individual ballot for next year. Why wait for whatever slate(s) are suggested for 2016? Why not actively read now, start ranking your favorite stories now and know who you want to nominate before any groups in any camp can assemble their own “approved” nominees? Because frankly, I want to be read well enough that I can look at any slate and say, “Fuck that, my favorites are better,” and nominate who I want.
And I find that I agree with Mary Robinette Kowal’s take: who cares if the end result of the 2016 Hugos is No Award across the board? That doesn’t make all of my reading in vain. Because for me, there’s a pleasure to reading and enjoying stories, and no matter what happens to the Hugos, that won’t ever change. And maybe, in the process of reading and finding new stories to challenge me, I’ll discover a new favorite.
* = That’s not to say that you don’t have a right to complain if you’re not a WorldCon member. I complained when I wasn’t a WorldCon member, and I don’t begrudge anyone in the same shoes.
** = I recognize that buying a membership is a privilege. I didn’t used to have the money to be able to do this, and I’m grateful that I have the choice to buy the membership or not, rather than having it decided for me due to financial constraints.
*** = Excepting the George R.R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson examples listed above.
**** = By challenge, I don’t mean reading something by an author you KNOW you dislike. I’m referring more to discovering new authors, new voices. My rule of thumb is if the story intrigues me at all, it’s worth giving it a go in some form or fashion, even if I’ve never heard of the author.