For today’s guest, the sci-fi genre feels like home, but she also enjoys books in any genre that deliver on a fabulous premise. In her day job as a data scientist, Emily Van Ark analyzes data in order to find patterns and make recommendations for improving people’s lives. My job is to do some helpful data analysis for her reading life (with less math and more conversation).
Emily also shared a bunch of sci-fi recommendations that she thinks I’ll love. This episode expanded my reading horizons, and I hope it does the same for you.
Let’s get to it!
EMILY: But I got about 50 pages in and I looked around and I was like I don’t like anyone in this book. [ANNE LAUGHS]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 259.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, now’s a great time to pick up a copy of my book I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life for yourself or a friend. It’s sure to bring YOU or your loved one a dose of bookish delight, and it’s a tangible way to support this podcast, which my team and I really appreciate. It’s a beautiful, inexpensive hardcover, perfect for enjoying anytime but especially lovely for this time of year, and would make a wonderful gift for teachers, book club friends, your fellow readers, or yourself.
Find I’d Rather Be Reading wherever new books are sold, or purchase signed copies from my local indie Carmichael’s Bookstore; just specify “signed copy” in comments when you place your order. Thank you, friends. Happy reading.
For today’s guest, the sci-fi genre feels like home, but she also enjoys books in any genre that deliver on a fabulous premise. In her day job as a data scientist, Emily Van Ark analyzes data in order to find patterns and make recommendations for improving people’s lives. My job is to do some helpful data analysis for her reading life (with less math and more conversation).
Emily also shares a bunch of sci-fi recommendations that she thinks I will love. This episode expanded my reading horizons, and I hope it does the same for you.
Let’s get to it.
Emily, welcome to the show.
EMILY: Thank you. It’s exciting to be here.
ANNE: We loved getting your submission from our form at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest, and I just was rubbing my hands together in anticipation talking to you about your reading life. And actually my reading life. We’re going to get into that too.
ANNE: Tell me a little bit about who you are and about your reading life right now.
EMILY: So I’m a data scientist and a mom and a knitter and a sci-fi and fantasy geek and I like getting outside and traveling the world, both literally and through books.
ANNE: What does it mean to be a data scientist?
EMILY: Our whole lives generate data. Every time you search for something on Amazon or drive a place in your car or go and see your doctor, you’re generating data, and data scientists take that data and try to find useful patterns in it that help organizations make better decisions. So that’s the general field. What I specifically do is I’m in healthcare right now, so I look at privatized, de-identified versions of electronic health records, so when you’re in the hospital, every time a nurse comes in and takes your pulse or your temperature, that becomes a little piece of data and I try to use that to try to help treat critically ill patients better.
ANNE: Oh fascinating. Does your job affect the way you see the world, like if you deal with bits of data all day long? I can only imagine that impacts the way you can see the world around you.
EMILY: What I know about myself because I’ve done a lot of different careers [LAUGHS] is that I like learning things and I like understanding how the world works. I’ve usually done that through science of some kind. I’ve done a lot of different things. I was a geophysicist for a while, and I was a high school physics teacher for a while, and I was actually a business consultant for a while. But all of those helped me learn things and helped me figure out different ways the world worked. And so what I’m doing now feeds that same urge, and reading often does the same thing.
ANNE: Well I was just wondering if we would hear that same theme in your reading life.
EMILY: Possibly. My core genre when I was a kid aside from like Baby-Sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High, [ANNE LAUGHS] like in about middle school, my uncle and my aunt on different sides of my family started slipping me like sci-fi and fantasy books. Here, kid, try this. [LAUGHS] And so through high school and college and through my young adulthood has sorta been my core genre, like my home place, the place where I know a bunch of authors where I could go to a bookstore or a library, go and see what they have, those authors that haven’t read before that I want to read. Over time, I’ve also brought in doubt. I think being in the Peace Corp helped me bring in doubt because I kinda read what I could get my hands on there. Usually there was sorta floating library in the different houses in Ghana where you could go in and swap things out.
ANNE: Oh, I need to hear more about the floating library, please.
EMILY: [LAUGHS] I mean it was a little free library because little free libraries were a thing, but it was just a drop off what you’ve read and pick up something new. [LAUGHS] And share it amongst the pool of other volunteers.
ANNE: For those who have never had a hard time getting books, who never lived abroad or in some place where written word was difficult to access, could you just give us a feel for how that impacts your reading life?
EMILY: I was in Ghana in 1999 to 2001 and I suspect it’s different now. I think the volunteers there now have much better Internet access and it’s possible that a Kindle might work there now. [LAUGHS] But at the time, paper books were it and my town was a relatively large town in the far northwest corner of Ghana called Bawku. It had a few little stalls that sold African printed books often aimed at like school kids. But there wasn’t a lot of like books from the U.S. or Europe there, so if you wanted to read new modern stuff coming out, like my parents came to visit me, they brought me the Harry Potter books that had come out since I had left [LAUGHS] right? When I’d go to the capital, Accra, there were a couple bookstores had at least one used bookstore where I had dropped some significant change, and then other than that there was a lot of kind of passing books around between volunteers and sharing them, which meant I had less control over what I would read than I did at home where I had libraries and bookstores at my beck and call.
I left the country at one point to go and visit some friends in Europe about midway through and at the airport, I picked up a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel because I was sitting there having this whiplashy culture shock going between my town in Ghana which had electricity most days and I had running water at my house like once a week, and if I wanted furniture, I’d go to the local furniture maker and order it and he would make it for me. When I wanted clothes, I’d go and buy cloth in the market and take them to my seamstress and have her design and sew a dress for me.
It was a different way of life, and I went from that to I was visiting my friend in Germany which was very like modern and the trains all ran exactly on time. And I’m sitting there sorta with this cultural whiplash, and there’s this book that’s like why is it some parts of the world developed at different paces than others, right? That was like the perfect book for where I was asking questions at that time. It didn’t touch on colonialism or any like that, which I maybe should have also learned about. So it pushed me to read more things than I might have chosen for myself from an infinite buffet.
ANNE: So you describe yourself now as a broad reader. You would have to be in a situation like that if you would want to read. Do you think that’s just a coincidence or do you think that might be casual?
EMILY: The next thing I did after Ghana is I went to grad school at MIT where they have this amazing student run science fiction and fantasy library. Actually just this couple room little thing, but it’s stacked like to the ceiling with bookshelves stacked about as densely as you could make them and still walk between them.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Sounds like heaven.
EMILY: [LAUGHS] For like the low, low price of I don’t know, $20 a membership fee or something you could go in and borrow whatever you wanted, and I read a lot of great of sci-fi and fantasy there.
ANNE: How does it change things to have it be student run, do you think?
EMILY: Academic libraries in my experience are less about making sure they have all the books you would enjoy reading, and are more about having all the books you would need to do your scholarly research. That was not the MIT’s science fiction and fantasy society library. Their library was all the science fiction and fantasy that you’ll have fun reading and who cares what anybody academic thought about it. [ANNE LAUGHS] So I think the purpose of an academic library like the MIT academic library is different than the purpose of the student run library.
ANNE: Emily, you said that your base genre was fantasy and sci-fi. I’m so curious if the older readers in your life who gave you all these books when you were young. Were they sharing what they loved, or did they have an inkling that maybe you would really take to these books?
EMILY: They were sharing what they loved. My uncle still slips me new books when I go visit him. [LAUGHS]
ANNE :Are you going to keep the tradition going? Those books recs can go in circles, not just down the family tree.
EMILY: I’ve reached the point most of the paper books that I buy are actually books that I”m buying to read and then giving to my mom and my uncle to read because I don’t have any more shelf space, but that doesn’t seem to bother them. [ANNE LAUGHS] But if I’m going to buy it for me to read, I get it on Kindle, and if my mom’s going to read it, that’s okay because please don’t be listening, Amazon, she shares my Kindle account. If I want my uncle to read it, it needs to be a trade paperback, so there’s like a whole series of books that I started out giving him a bunch of them for Christmas one year ‘cause I thought he’d like them, and now as the news one come out I buy them on paper for me, I read them, and then I take them to him.
ANNE: That sounds like a great system.
EMILY: Basically all the Seanan McGuire books actually.
ANNE: Nice. I think a whole bunch of listeners just turned a little bit green with envy just then. Well, Emily, I’m really excited to get into your books both because you offered to give me some science fiction recs.
EMILY: I was a little snarky about it, I’m sorry.
ANNE: We respect the snark. We’ll talk about that in a minute. Also we’ve got some troubleshooting to do, but the first step is to talk about your books. Are you ready to jump in?
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ANNE: I can’t wait to hear what you chose. You know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, let’s jump into your favorites. What did you choose for your first one?
EMILY: Basically all of the Murderbot books by Martha Wells, which starts with All Systems Red. So I was talking to a friend last night about how to describe these, and we decided that it was sorta as if A Man Called Ove met Frankenstein. [LAUGHS] So …
ANNE: You know, just the natural expected pairing.
EMILY: So Murderbot is a security robot. He’s an A.I., and normally they have a governor module that makes them follow orders, and he has a memory in his organic parts that was wiped from his digital parts about having caused some kind of massacre, or been a part of some kind of massacre in the past. He can’t handle that, and he hacks his governor module so he makes sure he’s in charge of what he does and what he really wants to do now that he has his freedom, other than go undetected, is watch TV all the time. But he still has a job because his owners think he’s still under their control, so he’s out helping a crew of humans survey a planet.
The Man Called Ove part comes in because he’s basically a curmudgeon, right. He really just wants to be left alone to watch TV, and yet people keep interrupting him and wanting to like form relationships with him and encourage him to have emotions other messiness that he has no time for really. Except that he’s growing fond of the squishy people and he doesn’t really want them to die. [ANNE LAUGHS] The Frankenstein aspect because it’s one of those who’s the monster books, right? Is it the created creature or is the creator.
They’re just so much fun and they’re really well-written and they’re just a really good time. They’re the kind of series where they do build on each other so I would read them in order. There’s been a movement in the science fiction and fantasy publishing world in the last few years to do a lot of novellas, so the first four or five of these are novellas, they’re really short. They’re like 100 or 120 pages, maybe. I don’t know. I read them on Kindle. But they were short. And add up over the course of you know, four or five of them to maybe two complete books, and then most recently she published an actual full length novel. They make me so happy.
ANNE: I have to tell you I’ve heard about the Murderbot books. I’ve never looked into them, but when I looked up the premise of All Systems Red, I laughed out loud and had to read it to my husband. Listen to this, is it fair to say that one is squarely in your base genre, fantasy/sci-fi?
EMILY: Yes. Two of my three favorites are because I submitted once or twice before with books that I had heard about through you going these are the ones I loved and this is the one I hated, help me figure out what else you love that I love? And then I finally listened to what you and Brenna were saying about please submit new things that we haven’t talked about before and I was like I can do that. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m glad you did and also I just have to say to everyone in our submission form, whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest, we get so many and we want to talk basically everybody and sometimes it is a question of timing. And yes, our goal is to feature a wide mix of readers and lots of different books so that every week a new throng of readers can say oh, that person sounds just like me, or that sounds just like my reading life. It’s fascinating to listen to a reader whose reading life has nothing like your own and you can still get lots of insight into your own reading life and plenty of great book recs. And yet it’s a different kind of joy to go ah, that sounds like me. I can’t wait to hear what you chose for your next book. What did you pick, Emily?
EMILY: So my second favorite is called Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure. It’s by Courtney Milan. I haven’t read all of Courtney Milan’s books. I’ve read several. The ones I’ve read have been Victorian era romances with possibly chronologically imprecise feminist heroines and the men who love them. This one is a little bit different from that because it is the story of Victorian lesbians in their 70s taking down the patriarchy and it is hilarious and touching. I feel like there aren’t enough romances about older people. There aren’t enough romances about lesbians, and there definitely aren’t enough romances about taking down the patriarchy and this one is like all three.
ANNE: I know Courtney Milan’s work, I didn’t know about this book, and it just came out last year I think, and it’s short, short short, 140 pages.
EMILY: Yeah, this is another short one. All mine today apparently are but that isn’t actually representative of most things.
ANNE: Which is so funny because I’m sure some of the sci-fi epics that you love are like bricks. Bricks of books, you know, thousand pages, but this description also made me laugh out loud. And I especially appreciated the author’s note, which I’m so curious was this added because of reviews, or did she want people to know up front, but and I’m reading, “sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times.” A key character in the book is the terrible nephew, so she says, “the terrible nephew is terrible and terrible things happen to him. Sometimes villains really are bad and wrong and sometimes we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.” That just made me smile.
EMILY: So that part is not all nuanced, and yet there’s a lot of nuance in the book around what it’s like to feel like an older woman who feels invisible and looked through and how the right person can make you feel seen and loved for who you are and all the history you have not just where you are now and there’s a lot of kinda touching, heartwarmingness in addition to the hilarity and the hilarious things they do to the terrible nephew who totally deserves all of them.
One of the two women is his aunt and she won’t call him by his name anymore, so one of the running threads of humor in the book is all the other things she calls him. Terrible nephew is her baseline, but there’s a lot of other creative name calling because he keeps getting her to call him by his real name, and she’s like no. [ANNE LAUGHS] That will not be happening. I mean, I guess I could try Mister Catfish, You horrible, but Scumbag Full of Vile Meat. Would that work better? [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So strong sense of humor is something this book features.
ANNE: Okay. This is the second time in a row that I said that the publisher's description made me laugh out loud and that doesn’t happen terribly often, so I’m just noticing that.
EMILY: I appreciate a book that can make me laugh but also has some depth.
ANNE: Duly noted. What’s your third favorite?
EMILY: Kinda the entire Wayward Children novella series Seanan McGuire, and I think I actually put down the first book which is Every Heart A Doorway. But I was rereading it ‘cause it’s a short novella again and I remembered, oh actually I don’t love this as much as I love the second book, [LAUGHS] and some of the subsequent ones. So the second book is called Down Among the Sticks and Bones.
The premise in this whole series is that there are doors to other worlds that children sometimes stumble across when there’s some resonate between these worlds and the children. And they can go through them and there are a plethora of different worlds. Maybe you go to a candy world where everything is made of sugar spun candy and there’s a candy corn farmer that you fall in love with. Or maybe you go to a world called the Moors, which is kinda creepy and has windmills and lightning striking them and vampires and werewolves or maybe you go to a world where there’s a goblin king fighting a rainbow queen or there’s just this plethora of worlds that kids step through to and suddenly feel like they’re really home for the first time. And sometimes the kids stay forever, but sometimes they come back to our world and don’t fit anymore if they ever fit at all.
And the first book is about a school that takes these kids in and lets them be out of place and displaced together with people who believe them, but the other books have at least some time spent in those other worlds, and the second book in particular is about a set of characters Jacqueline and Jillian, or Jack and Jill, who indeed fall down a hill or at least a set of stairs, and they’re identical twins but they’ve been shaped by their parents in one way and then they’re shaped by their kinda adopted fathers in this new land in a different way.
I love the whole series and the imagination that goes into all the different worlds, and I love it for the quests and the kinda what makes different people and what makes them resonate with different worlds and those different worlds appeal to them. This one especially I love because I’m a parent and one of the things that I found in recent years is books that help me think about parenting and the way we shape kids tend to have a strong resonance for me right now. So things like this is how it always is.
ANNE: Emily, was it hard to choose a book that was not for you?
EMILY: I had a couple strong candidates but I went with my first gut one. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Tell me about it.
EMILY: So it’s a book called Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I think I heard about it through you, I don’t know if it was the podcast or the blog, and I think the tagline on it was something like this taught me stuff about the world of professional ballet that I never know, and I’m a sucker for this taught me stuff about the world of X that I never experienced right, like that is often a gateway into something interesting for me. And so I tried it and I didn’t finish it. Like I got about 50 pages in, and I … it’s not that I never quit books but I usually finish them so this was rare for me. But I got about 50 pages in and I looked around and I was like, I don’t like anyone in this book. [ANNE LAUGHS] They’re all like self-centered and not empathetic and making terrible life choices based on only what matters to them. They’re not good friends. I just … I don’t want to spend anymore time with these people, and I dropped it. Maybe it would have gotten better. [LAUGHS] I don’t know.
ANNE: Okay. Well that’s really good to hear because there’s many ways to connect with a book or not connect with a book, and unlikeable characters don’t do it for you.
EMILY: No. I need to like at least one, and ideally more than one character.
ANNE: Okay. Yeah, I was going to say not only do it for you but make you actively not want to be reading it.
EMILY: I mean there’s a place in the world for villains, but I need to have somebody that I care about.
ANNE: We can work with that. Emily, what are you reading right now?
EMILY: I tend to have an audiobook going and an ebook and a paper book and sometimes more than one when the library giveth on an unpredictable schedule. But the two I thought I’d mention because I did finish them recently was The Stationary Shop by Marjan Kamali and Mothers of Massive Resistance by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae.
ANNE: And how did those work out for you?
EMILY: The Stationary Shop was beautiful and I gave it four stars because there wasn’t quite enough that happened, like for giving me a sense of what it might be like to live in 1953 Tehran, it was awesome. It was beautifully written and I now want to go try all the Iranian food, but there just wasn’t quite enough plot for my core like happy place.
And Mothers of Massive Resistance I got off the reading list for a podcast called Nice White Parents which was the podcast author’s list of research she had in the back of her head when she was making this like five episode podcast about New York City schools and race, and Mothers of Massive Resistance is a little on the academic side but it was super interesting and informative and taught me lots of history I didn’t know about but probably should about white women and white supremacy and Jim Crow and segregation and fighting Brown v. Wade and like in the news in the past week, the president was talking about how we should have patriotic education and I was like oh, everything old is new again. [LAUGHS] That was one of the strong themes in this book, right? It was a little on the academic side but interesting and informative enough that I forgive it that.
ANNE: And those two books, which are on the surface very, very different, they still play into things you know you enjoy in your reading life like learning things and seeing how the world works.
ANNE: Okay. So the books you love were All Systems Red and all the Murderbot books by Martha Wells, Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan, and The Wayward Children novellas starting with Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Not for you, Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead, because you didn’t like anyone in the story. Tell me what you’re looking for right now in your reading life.
EMILY: I would like to be better at predicting which books I’m going to like just love and be delighted by versus which I’ll just be like sounds good. [LAUGHS] Better at predicting the five stars from the four stars. I’ve been reading Modern Mrs. Darcy and listening to this podcast for a while and you’re not my only source of book recommendations, but you’re one of the big ones and sometimes I hear you talk about something and I’m like yeah, that’ll be great, and sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. I deeply loved reading Braiding Sweetgrass and I deeply loved This is How It Always Is and I deeply loved The Warmth of Other Suns, and I found White Houses really boring. Astonish Me I think I got from you and I was like meh, not so much. Eleanor Oliphant just seems mean. [ANNE LAUGHS] It just seems like you’re laughing at her. Not with her. Like she’s a woman with a lot of trauma and a lot of issues and challenges and it wasn’t kind enough, right? I’d like to get better at differentiating and predicting what’s going to resonate.
ANNE: With you.
EMILY: With me, particularly.
ANNE: ‘Cause something that’s worth pointing out here is that every week we’re talking about books a guest loves and sometimes I get to say oh my gosh, I love this book.
ANNE: But it’s about individual reading lives and there is no such thing as a universal reading life, even though we’re all united here by the universal experience of books and reading, which I’m so grateful for, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to have the same reaction to say, White Houses, which I recommended to Scott Flanary back in episode 122 with the Amazing Race pun, I think it was “this amazing episode will have you racing to the library.” Because he was on the show and won the one season of The Amazing Race that I have now watched because of that, and only after I talked to him which was great. But that was not a book that personally made my reading life soar. But I think it ended up being a great read for him.
EMILY: 100%. I know it’s all individual.
ANNE: It is, and yet learning how to - learning how to listen to other readers talk about how what they love is a skill. And one you want to develop a bit I hear you saying.
EMILY: Yes, please.
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ANNE: Okay, so with those things in mind, let’s go back and let’s revisit your favorites. You love to learn things and you love insight into how the world works, and that’s one of the things that appealed to you about Astonish Me, and then you found out there were no likable characters. I would say that everyone softens on their journeys and they go unusual places. At the beginning, the inciting incidents in that book are rooted in using other people to get what you want basically, and I can see how that really turned you off in the beginning, is that fair?
ANNE: What appealed to you was that element of oh, a look into a word you didn’t know. What we’re also seeing here that we might have pointed out is that you love laughter plus that sense of depth as well. Also something I’m seeing here is all these books have really creative, imaginative, premises.
ANNE: Okay. Is that something that you know to like listen for and look for? I’m thinking that’s not a coincidence here, and you love sci-fi and fantasy, which so much of the time rely on having a really fabulous premise. Premise being what if we entered a world that looked like this? What if astronauts colonized Jupiter? What if JFK was never assassinated? What if all a murder robot wanted to do was binge watch Netflix? Like …
EMILY: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It’s fun. It’s interesting.
EMILY: I think a lot of the science fiction and fantasy that I love, the premise is the piece that makes it science fiction and fantasy, but often you could have the same kinds of characters, emotions, storylines in a romance or a historical fiction or a mystery or a novel about people but then the premise helps you take new angles on that.
ANNE: Yes, and even with a great premise, it’s often been said that you could get the same premise to 20 different writers and you’d get 20 different books because it’s from there what you do with the story, like what is the writing style like, what is the tone, what is the emotional content? Like you could take the same premise and write it really dark or write it really sunny.
And I think it would be really interesting to take a step back and think okay, like if fantasy and sci-fi are your base genres, what is it about the specific books you really love, like you talked about differentiating the four star reads from the five stars reads, and hopefully avoiding those three star reads although I do want to say just to clearly set expectations we’ve talked about this for anyone who reads broadly and who’s looking to discover new genres, new authors, new reading territory they haven’t even explored, you should get some three to maybe like even some total bombs for your reading life sometimes because if it’s only five star reads, then you’re probably not taking chances. And there are certainly seasons of life where that is great to do but I imagine most people on the whole don’t want to stay in the same lane in their reading life the entire time.
EMILY: And in that show, I would stop reading the four stars, but I’d like to be better at predicting them. This is my inner data scientist I think.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I hear that. Okay, so I’m not a data scientist. I’m a reader who’s very comfortable with ambiguity and I have to remind myself consciously that that’s not everyone, but I think one of the things that makes a five star read a five star read for so many people, I don’t know that it’s universal, you can weigh in, is that element of oh my gosh, I didn’t know I needed that book right now. I didn’t know how amazing that would be. I didn’t know how perfect that book would be for me, I never saw it coming. And I think there’s something about the element of surprise that really does elevate the reading experience so often.
EMILY: I’m pretty good at telling if a book would be at least a four star based on the premise and the description. Not always, but sometimes, and then often what makes it a five star for me is the execution and the way I felt as I read it, so was I at any point bored enough to put it down? Did it surprise me even though I thought I knew what I was going into, so yes, to some extent, the surprise angle. Did it do what it was trying to do really well?
ANNE: I think if you eliminate the variable of genre, it may be easier to see the other patterns among the books that you have really loved, or that you haven’t. So for Astonish Me, it was unlikable characters, but is that a consistent theme? I imagine so. You mentioned that The Stationary Shop was great in some way but it didn’t have as much plot as you would have liked, so is that a consistent variable? Do you want books that have a strong element of driving plot and not just character driven novels ‘cause that will definitely impact what you pick up. Are you saying yes, I’ll look for that, or like oh, yes, I can tell you that right now?
EMILY: I can tell you that right now. So like A Place For Us, the Fatima Mirza book, it was very pretty and not enough happened.
ANNE: Oh, sure, because that was off the charts character driven.
EMILY: Yeah. I like good characterization. One of my favorite books that we didn’t talk about is The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. The characterization is virtually nonexistence and highly stereotypical when it exists but it’s such an amazing work of imagination. Cixin Liu is Chinese and it’s very much written from a Chinese view point and so like the cultural differences between science fiction written from a Chinese viewpoint and a science fiction written from a American or British viewpoint were so interesting that I was willing to forgive the lack of characterization. But a book that is all characterization and nothing happens, I’m not that interested.
But I am really interested in books where things happen and also there’s depth in the questions that get raised about. So like there’s a subgenre of sci-fi around A.I.s and are they people and how do they become people and things like that and those are always essentially asking what does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be a person, right? Those are really interesting.
ANNE: So you’ve said that you’ve loved books that had laughter plus depth that have plot plus depth. I’m sensing a pattern here. When you say plus depth, what are you thinking of? Are you thinking about themes, are you thinking about that central question like you just gave an example in A.I. novels what does it mean to be human? Are you looking for an author to be wrestling with issues that really matter as well as like having a story where stuff is happening? What do you have in mind?
EMILY: If I think about romance novels, if I think about The Incomparable Mrs. Martin, it’s a romance novel. There’s also a bunch of funny plot about taking down the patriarchy and there’s also some real discussion about what it means to be a woman in your 70s, especially as it comes to romance, but also just as it comes to having a voice and being heard in the world. And if I compare that to say I read Twice In A Blue Moon, and I was like that was a fun read. I read in one day, but it was two very pretty people with some baggage.
If the entire crux of a romance is we have emotional baggage from past relationships and now we have to work through it, I tend to read it, enjoy it, and give it four stars. But if you pull in and also there’s some external commentary on how the world works with regard to race or age or gender or sexuality or anything really that isn’t just we’re two very pretty people with some baggage and we need to learn to talk to each other like grownups, then I’m going to like it a lot more.
ANNE: Okay. So what are we looking for? Are we looking for books that are squarely outside your sci-fi/fantasy wheelhouse?
EMILY: Something that I might not have thought of would be cool.
ANNE: Something you might not have thought of on your own. Okay. So the first books I have in mind for you, it’s a series, it’s called The Lady Astronauts series. There are … Well we’ll get to that in a second. It’s by Mary Robinette Kowal. This is a series loosely inspired by Hidden Figures, and if you look at the cover of the first book, The Calculating Stars, that came out just a couple years ago I think in 2018, you can see like on the cover, like hm, that bears a strong resemblance. We talked about premise and the premise for this book is fabulous, I think. You can tell me how it sounds to you. This is an alternate history of the 1950s asking the question what if an asteroid slammed into earth, a brilliant female mathematician recognizes, oh this is an extinction event, we’ve gotta find a way out, and it leads to the founding of a colony on Mars at that early point in time?
So when it begins, there’s again the brilliant mathematician and pilot. She’s on vacation with her husband who is a rocket scientist because that’s what you’re reading. They’re on vacation when a meteor strikes Chesapeake Bay and it takes out most of the east coast. So she realizes that if humanity is going to survive, we’ve got to find a way out of here. That way out is Mars. So of course she does have all kinds of baggage from her past, all kinds of philosophical questions as she fields a huge burden on behalf of women, especially all races and backgrounds because she knows our country needs them if they’re going to make this space program fly. Pun not intended, but if they’re going to make this thing work they’ve gotta demolish the patriarchy and do what needs to be done, you know, do it with a fair measure of panache ‘cause that’s what makes it a fun read and I think this could be in your general wheelhouse. How does that sound to you?
EMILY: It sounds fun. I’m smiling.
ANNE: There are four planned books in the series right now and I don’t know how long the author and the publisher envisioning this going, but right now there’s three books out, The Calculating Stars is the first one, The Fated Sky and The Relentless Moon are already published. That last one just came out this summer, summer of 2020, and then for 2022 there’s one planned called The Derivative Base. It’s a series of badass female space pioneers.
EMILY: It sounds fun.
ANNE: That was The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. Delving into the new to you territory, I wasn’t expecting to talk about romance but have you read Penny Reid?
EMILY: I have not.
ANNE: Okay. Well. Penny Reid writes a series called Knitting in the City and it’s about a group of female friends in Chicago who get together on I think it’s Monday nights to knit except for one of them who crochets, but mostly they talk about their lives and their jobs and their love life or lack thereof. They do a lot of eating, a lot of drinking. Sometimes they do actually knit and they talk about their projects and they definitely incorporate a fair amount of great yarn metaphors which I think as a knitter you will appreciate. [EMILY LAUGHS] It’s a fun series. There’s usually an open door moment or two in the books just so readers know what to expect from Penny Reid.
The first book in the series is Neanderthal Meets Human, but the one I have in mind for you is Dating-ish, and it’s actually, it’s the newest, it might actually be the last in the Knitting in the City series. But here’s what I like about this one for you. This is about Marie. She’s in her 30s. She’s a journalist. She has been unlucky in love and the book opens with her going to meet a guy that she’s been messaging on this dating app. It’s an absolutely disastrous first date that begins on a terrible note when the guy who shows up for the date doesn’t look anything at all like his profile picture, which happens all the time except this guy’s good looking. The guy in the profile picture was good looking, like, why would he lie about what color eyes he had? Or how tall he was or what color his hair was? Like it doesn’t make any sense ‘cause he’s a good looking guy and she’s puzzled, and she’s angry and she’s hurt and she gets all mad. And so it’s a really funny beginning.
It turns out this guy is a stranger to her, but not a stranger to some other people in her life. Based on that not exactly meet cute and yet it totally is, she ends up developing a platonic friendship with this guy. His name is Matt. And he’s a computer scientist and his speciality is artificial intelligence. In fact the reason Marie had that disastrous date with him is because he’s collecting data for the A.I. project he’s working on in the quest to build a robot that can take the place in a human partner. And he’s interested in Internet dating because it can help, [EMILY LAUGHS] they can get the data to find out what people are looking for when they’re looking for a partner so he knows what traits to include in his program. The ultimate goal is to build what he calls a compassion robot that can do anything a human partner can do, that can learn to adapt to its owner and take care of people’s emotional needs.
This is not a science fiction story, but it is a story that has embedded in the plot and the language artificial intelligence. In fact like to introduce every chapter there’s some little factoid drawn from the history of artificial intelligence and design, sometimes wind, sometimes failures, sometimes just random entertaining nuggets. Meanwhile Marie has been contracted to write a series on online dating so they have all this back and forth discussion throughout the course of the book what can A.I. do, what is it good for? What do people want? What are its limitations? But could it offer people especially for whom society does not provide with what they need?
And so you said that you enjoyed like a fun romance novel like Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren, and I wondered if you added another fun story that also incorporates a hope that you would enjoy could be really fun. I’ve also have heard from some friends that they really related to this book. Marie is one the hunt to find her person and she’s been disappointed that she’s the last of her friends to find someone that she wants to spend the rest of her life with, and there’s a poignancy in her story that has really resonated with a lot of readers. So that is Dating-ish by Penny Reid. How does it sound to you?
EMILY: So it sounds fantastic. I think I’m going to be on Marie’s side when it comes to the A.I. [LAUGHS] I mean I have an up close and personal view of the limitations. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I would love to talk about that book with you at book club. I think we would have a great time breaking that down. Okay. Emily, Sarah Gailey has a new book coming out in February, although massive disclaimer, publication timelines have been so massively disrupted first because of Coronavirus, then because of production issues that maybe we’re going to have another paper shortage like the great paper shortage of 2018 which was right in the thick of when I’d Rather Be Reading came out, publication dates are moving up and back and all around, but right now this is slated for February 16th 2021, it’s coming from Tor which has published a ton of these sci-fi novellas that you’ve been talking about lately and has become a publisher that I really started to look to, oh I really have enjoyed so many of their books in 2020, but this new one from Gailey is called The Echo Wife.
The teaser text on the front of my ARC says a life is a dangerous thing to share. Here’s the premise: it opens with award winning researcher Evelyn Caldwell who’s renowned for her work on clones getting a fancy big deal award at a black tie gala. It’s a big deal. She doesn’t want anybody to ask her about her husband though because they’re getting divorced. That is a sticky situation. They started doing their research together, and she just doesn’t want people to ask her about it because she wants to let her work stand ‘cause now that they’ve split professionally and personally, she just wants to, you know, put her fingers over her ears and pretend it never happened and let the focus be on her research. Because she knows as a woman, she’s really vulnerable to his misdeeds taking down her career, which wouldn’t happen if it were going in the other direction.
The reason they split is because she discovered her husband was having an affair. Not only was he having an affair, he was having an affair with Evelyn’s clone that he created a younger version of her that he optimized to, you know, not argue. Not fight back. Not tell him he’s not smart. Not improve his work, but just who thinks he’s like the end all, be all of her all. Her name is Martine and she is a genetically cloned replica made from Evelyn and just to like rub some salt in the wound, from Evelyn’s research. Which of course is all kinda bad news for Evelyn personally and for her career. But then her husband dies. Not only dies, but is murdered and the two women, Evelyn and Evelyn’s clone, have to make the problem go away lest they both end with terribly unhappy outcomes.
Another tagline from the book is when they said all happy families are alike, but this can’t be what they meant, which just really made me laugh. [EMILY LAUGHS] Something that I think Sarah Gailey does really well is blend genres seamlessly like where you can’t imagine the story being any different. This is definitely in that same line of fun and satisfying genre mashups. This one is really fast paced, like the publisher’s pitching it, it’s perfect for readers of Big Little Lies which really surprised me at first but then I started reading it and I’m like oh, yeah, you’ve got a dead body in the suburbs, totally see, you know, the women have to deal with it, I see what you mean. It’s really fun, thoughtful, and I think has the pacing you’re looking for. How does that sound?
EMILY: It sounds far away, but interesting.
ANNE: I know it does. That’s The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. Okay, Emily, we talked about The Lady Astronaut series by Kowal, beginning with The Calculating Stars. We talked about Dating-ish by Penny Reid, and we talked about The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, so of those titles, what do you think you’ll read next?
EMILY: It looks like I own The Calculating Stars so I might start there. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, wow. Well I hope it’s meant to be, and I hope you really enjoy it. Now you offered to give me a few sci-fi recommendations of my own.
EMILY: I did.
ANNE: And I would love to hear what you have in mind. What would you like to know from me?
EMILY: I have heard that you read Binti recently. I’m wondering, I know you’ve been trying to read more science fiction/fantasy, I’m wondering what else’s been on that list.
ANNE: So this year some sci-fi novels I’ve really enjoyed have been The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, which I just loved.
EMILY: Yes, it was great.
ANNE: I recently read the Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor which I also really enjoyed. I’m a longtime fan of Octavia Butler. Some of the works Ursula Le Guin. I finally read Lock In by John Scalzi, which I know is one that many devoted sci-fi readers point to, and that was like … That was fun. I admired the puzzle of it, I didn’t love it. But I did really love Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant, you know, we talked about The Wayward Children series earlier that she writes … Mira Grant’s actually a pen name for Seanan McGuire, for this different kind of work, but I almost didn’t pick it up because it was described as sci-fi horror and I don’t read horror and I don’t read a ton of sci-fi but I loved the story’s super imaginative premise. I just didn’t know that was the book I needed in fall 2020 [LAUGHS] but I finally really resonating with readers like Mallory O’Meara, who’s a guest on the podcast, that says like ooh, real life scandals and broken relationships, no no no, gimme a werewolf with an axe, like that’s more of a conflict I want to read about when times are hard.
So that’s a sampling of some of the stuff I’ve enjoyed lately. I have to deliberately cultivate the patience for books that spend hundreds of pages building a world that will be carried through a very long series. I can go there, but it’s not my natural wheelhouse, and I think that has to do with the demands of my reading life right now. Like maybe if I could take a big trilogy on summer vacation [LAUGHS] one that didn’t happen this year, that would be fine, but with what I need to read in my reading life, 2,000 page trilogies I find really intimidating.
EMILY: I put together some ideas based on my perception of the kinds of things you like to read from having listened to the podcast and read the blog over the years. First thing I thought of was the Becky Chambers Wayfarers series, have you read any of those? They started with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.
ANNE: Yes. I have.
EMILY: Did you read all of them? Or just the first one?
ANNE: No, just the first one, and I think I picked that up because it was strongly recommended for readers of Ada Palmer, and I found that author through a local bookstore recommendation.
EMILY: So what’s interesting to me about this trilogy is it’s loosely interconnected. They’re kinda like Olympic rings that touch at a few points and live in the same universe, but are otherwise kinda isolated. And the first one reminded me incredibly much of the Firefly TV series.
ANNE: Oh I don’t know this one.
EMILY: It’s this classic sci-fi TV. It’s a crew of a ship and they’re kinda wacky and funny and heartwarming. The second one is actually my favorite of them. It’s actually A Closed and Common Orbit. It has intertwined stories of a cloned girl who escapes from her cloning facility and is raised by an A.I. and an A.I. who ends up in a human body and needs to be sorta raised into personhood, and is raised by the clone girl 20 years later.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That sounds fun.
EMILY: That’s my favorite. [LAUGHS] But I think the one you might actually like best of that trilogy is the third one, it’s called Record of a Spaceborn Few, and it looks at a culture that is in a former colonizing fleet that eventually kinda got to a system and said cool, we’re just gonna sit here in our colony ships and build a culture. So it’s a bunch of humans who escaped from earth when Earth became ecologically uninhabited and they built this culture that has reached the point where it needs to kinda evolve or die, and it’s not sure how to evolve. And it’s told through a bunch of different points of view.
It’s one of the few books I read I think does an interesting and convincing job of examining like how does being in this colony ship shape a culture and how should the culture respond to the outside world coming into it as told through these individual lives. And I think, ‘cause I know you like thinking about how places shape people and how people are shaped by their places, that one I thought you might find interesting.
ANNE: I do indeed enjoy those themes.
EMILY: And if you wanted something short, an honor mention would be Becky Chambers’ book To Be Taught, if Fortunate, which Charlie Lovett talked to her a lot about that when she went on his podcast.
ANNE: Oh, that’s fun, and I have not read that one.
EMILY: It’s not part of the Wayfarer series, and it’s like very much a novella length and it’s also very interesting.
ANNE: That sounds interesting.
EMILY: The second one I thought of was Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others.
ANNE: Oh, I haven’t read this one. I have read Exhalation, but I haven’t read this one.
EMILY: It’s a book of short stories. To be honest I’ve actually only read the one that I find the most fascinating in it which is the title story, it’s The Story of Your Life. It’s the story that the movie Arrival was based on.
EMILY: Did you watch that?
EMILY: It uses verb tenses in a way that I’ve never seen used before. [LAUGHS] So it uses language in a really interesting way to tell the story if you were the kind of person who liked to compare a story as told in written form is told in a movie, there’s some fascinatingly different creative choices that were made between the movie and the book. When I was thinking this morning while I was walking about, the kinds of books I like to read in science fiction and fantasy they’re like the ones that look into people and cultures are just like good stories. There’s the ones that are just like these amazing works of imagination, and then there’s the ones that are kinda these epic, dramatic, adventure, mystery, intrigue and those are kinda my three categories.
The first one, the Becky Chambers, were kinda in the “these are good stories about people or cultures, this is my imagination one. And it’s pretty short if you only read the story. [ANNE LAUGHS] You can also read the rest of the stories but also in like that same genre is like The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and that whole series, which are these amazing works of imagination that tend to take a core of an idea from math or science and like spin it out into this really interesting story.
ANNE: That sounds really interesting.
EMILY: I was talking about this with my friend Dex and she said that there’s a book called Babel-17 by Samuel Delany that would make for an interesting kinda power of language plus alien slight, so offering that in without actually having read it. And then the last one I thought of was you ever read anything by Lois McMcaster Bujold?
ANNE: No I haven’t.
EMILY: She’s pretty firmly in the space opera subgenre which is sorta high drama intrigue, some romance, some mystery, whatever, but in space.
EMILY: And with spaceships and planets and things.
ANNE: Our guest Keith Watts from forever ago had to explain to me what a space opera was.
EMILY: So I tend to think of these of appealing to you as the part that likes historical dramas and romances, right? Lois McMaster Bujold has written a lot of things over the years but the one in particular I’m thinking of is The Vorkosigan Saga and there’s like 20 books in that, all of which are great, but the one I would start with if you were just going to read one is Shards of Honor.
ANNE: Uh huh.
EMILY: Most of the book is about a character named Miles Vorkosigan who’s a very brilliant human being who was damaged in utero when people attacked his parents, and so he’s got very brittle bones and he’s shorter than he should be, but does not let that stop him from many adventures. Shards of Honor is actually about his parents and how they met and his mom is a really interesting character in her own right, and she comes from a planet that is kinda very modern and scientific and pacifist and orderly and logical. And his dad comes from the planet Barrayar, which is very futile and traditional and hierarchical and militaristic and they meet, and eventually I guess I spoiled the story by saying they have a son [BOTH LAUGH] fall in love, but working through that is very interesting. Throughout the series, her kinda there’s this background and there’s this culture I’m faced with and navigating all that is very interesting.
ANNE: Okay. What was that called again?
EMILY: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold.
ANNE: Well thank you so much for those recommendations. I know I’ve said in several different places this year I’m trying to read more sci-fi, but it’s not my base genre and it’s - it’s - been … Yeah, it’s not my base genre and so I like when I put that out in the universe, you delivered me some recommendations, Emily, so thank you for that.
EMILY: It was really hard to narrow it down.
ANNE: I know the feeling. And now I have to choose which to read next. I do like the idea of picking up To Be Taught, if Fortunate, that short novel by Becky Chambers since I have enjoyed her work and I’ve already said the short has a lot of appeal right now. Emily, thanks so much for talking all the books and you know, I almost said all the sci-fi, some of the sci-fi with me today.
EMILY: [LAUGHS] A small tiny subset of the sci-fi.
ANNE: Exactly. It’s been a pleasure.
EMILY: Thank you so much.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Emily, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/259 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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• Guns Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
♥ All Systems Red by Martha Wells
♥ Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
• Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
♥ Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
• This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
△ Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
• The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali
• Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae
• White Houses by Amy Bloom
• A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
• The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
• Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren
• The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
• The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
• The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
• Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid
• Dating-ish by Penny Reid
• The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
• The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
• The Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor
• Ursula Leguin (try The Unreal and the Real: Selected Short Stories)
• Lock In by John Scalzi
• Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
• The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
• Author Ada Palmer (start with Too Like the Lightning)
• A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
• Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
• To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
• Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
• Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
• Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
• Lois McMaster Bujold (try Penric’s Progress)
• Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
• Nice White Parents, a limited series podcast
• WSIRN Ep 122: This AMAZING episode will have you RACING to the library, w/Scott Flanary
• WSIRN Ep 176: Books in the freezer, & other horror stories, w/Mallory O’ Meara
• Becky Chambers on In the Writer’s Studio
• WSIRN Ep 100: When everyone loves that book but you, w/Keith Watts
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