Science fiction and fantasy

Same Old, Same Old

5th June 2013

Musings and rants

La Revolution: A Series For Our Time
In the television series La Revolution, French aristocrats are afflicted by a mysterious disease, whilst peasants go missing in suspicious circumstances.

Pandemic Reading
As the Covid pandemic rages, it has affected the way we read in a number of ways.

Reading Resolutions For The New Decade
Here are seven reading resolutions suitable for the 2020s.

Mastodon For SFF Fans
Where to go in the Fediverse to find the best speculative fiction and literary discussions.

Nine Political Books That Change The Conversation
Following news that Simon and Schuster plan to publish an inflammatory commentator, here are nine political books that deserve more attention.

Penguin Random House Withdraws Union Recognition
Penguin Random House have decided not to recognise Unite and the NUJ as a result of staff negotiations, leaving the publisher with a stain on its reputation as an employer.

Authors Support Stop Funding Hate
Some authors have had enough of divisive and xenophobic elements in the British press, and are willing to make an ethical stand.

Women In SFF: Indie Edition
A list of indie and self-published women writing in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative fiction genres.

Amazon Finally Makes KU Appealing For Novelists
The new per-page payout for the Kindle Unlimited subscription service makes it a much better deal for authors of longer novels.

Thoughts On The Sieghart Report On Libraries
The Sieghart report on libraries missed its mark by miles. Yet the real cause of the decline of the UK library network is depressingly obvious.

A Shout-Out For The Good Guys
When nastiness dominates online conversations about books it is time to appreciate the well-behaved authors.

Critique Circle: Shaping Fabulous Stories
The appeal of a certain writing critique website. Or, why I have neglected this blog.

Where Shall I Point This Pitchfork?
Some thoughts on Jonathan Ross, Loncon, and the twitchfork mob.

Reading Is Not A Race
Why I will be abandoning annual reading challenges in 2014.

What Book Discovery Is Missing
The current state of book discovery is narrowing our reading choices and squeezing out midlist writers. How can it be fixed?

At the bottom of my recent reviews, in the right-hand corner, there's an innocent-looking box. It might look like this one, on the review of Lee Battersby's The Marching Dead:

If you like this, try:

Giant Thief by David Tallerman

Crown Thief by David Tallerman

The Enterprise Of Death by Jesse Bullington

There are more suggestions on some of the author pages, such as the "similar works" box on this page about Joe Abercrombie. What marks out these suggestions is that they're never for books by the same author, because I figure it's easy enough to look up everything by an author you've already heard of.

This is a common enough feature. I've seen it on a few other review websites, and also in some print reviews. And of course Amazon does this on a huge scale with its "also boughts", as does Goodreads with its "readers also enjoyed similar books" feature.

Similar recommendations are huge, and there's no doubt that readers find them very useful. But how do you find the books that are unlike anything that's ever been written in their genre?

Often you don't. The power of these related recommendations is so significant that books that are easy to compare with others have a significant edge over more unique stories. This affects which books get published, and at what level. It may also be why there seem to be waves of popularity for certain themes: vampire books following Twilight's success, and dystopian YA in the wake of The Hunger Games, for instance.

This means authors face a choice between writing something that's a bit experimental, or treading the same familiar, well-worn paths that other writers have already explored. The latter seems less exciting, but it's also more likely to lead to a wider readership.

Servant of the Underworld  

The World House  

Miss Peregrines Home 
For Peculiar Children  

Zoo City  

Anansi Boys  


Automatic Safe Dog  

End Times  

What is unique?

I try to avoid describing books as unique or original. When I've done so in the past, it tends to attract corrections from people who have come across the exact books that disprove my assertion. Not everyone has the same idea of what constitutes a unique book, anyhow. It depends a great deal on the scope and extent of your reading, and it's about as subjective as you can get.

Stories for the well-read

So, I'm not saying the books pictured here are unique. But in each case I find it hard to think of any other book that's remotely similar to them, which means they're original to me, at this time.

Several of these books are from visionary publishers who aren't afraid to push boundaries, such as Angry Robot and EibonVale.

When Neil Gaiman wrote Anansi Boys he was already at a stage in his career where he had no need to conform to trends. The same is true for the Eisner Award winning and nominated writer Brian K. Vaughan, writer of Saga. But these writers are the exception because they already have a fan base, and what's easy for them might be much less successful for a first-time novelist writing today.

How to surface these stories?

Books that are quite different aren't necessarily better. They probably appeal to a slightly less mainstream audience, especially people who have read a lot and are ready for something that breaks the mould. However, if writing is basically thought, then we have to try and challenge our normal patterns of thinking once in a while, or else our culture won't evolve. So these are the kind of books that matter, and they're being effectively hidden by the way book recommendation is organised. It takes a lot to find them, unless they're written by established authors, or released by publishers who are known for taking risks and producing high-quality books.

I don't know how to fix this. Perhaps some form of rating might be the way forward, with top lists of books readers judge to be the most unique? But I do think we need some way to correct the imbalance between promoting books that are unusual and those that are very similar to ones already out there, otherwise we'll be stuck reading the same old stories in slightly different packaging for the foreseeable future.