On the difficulties of finding books to read

You’d think, in our highly indexed, catalogued and searchable dataverse, that it would be easy to find the information you wanted. Especially when there was a financial incentive for certain individuals and organizations to make that data available, but unfortunately this is not the case. At least not when you’re looking for new books in speculative fiction.

I read a lot, and I read quite fast. Not everything I read is speculative fiction, but generally speaking I like to have 3 or 4 books at least that I’m looking forward to in this genre. Unfortunately, I’m quite picky. I want a certain type of speculative fiction. If it’s fantasy, I like to avoid long multi-part serials such as the Wheel of Time, and if it’s urban fantasy, I like to avoid (for example) werewolves, vampires and anything that can be in any way labelled as paranormal romance. If it’s science fiction, I want coherent and imaginative world-building that doesn’t fall off the deep end, I also like either significant scope (space opera) or particular character development (think Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep).

I like adult books, not in the sense that they involve lots of naked people rutting, but in the sense that they are written with the adult reader in mind. I want the story to be coherent, the characters to have real motivations, driven by understandable, believable character traits and circumstances.  I like antagonists to be understandable also, rather than two-dimensional pastiches of pirates or emperors or Moriarty-esque brilliant savages. I want to  be made to think, not to be shown a TV-series style episode in which the ending is predictable or the only suspense comes from having important information held back.

I’m not saying that this is what anyone else should want, it’s what I want. It’s what I look for when I search for new books to read.

I get that this is hard to write. I’ve been spoilt, born in the right era you might say, because by way of introduction I got to read everything from Asimov to Niven, I benefited from a steady supply of Iain M. Banks, Neal Stephenson, Alastair Reynolds, David Mitchell and others of equal quality. More recently I’ve read the very enjoyable (and perhaps easier and faster to digest) works of John Scalzi, Charles Stross and a host of others (you can find my recent reading list here).  There are also a number of rising stars testing their world-building skills at the moment, and much of it is very good and very promising.

Unfortunately, this ecosystem of authors is not enough. I need more. This is in large part because exceptionally good books are very rare, so I need to read a lot of good authors to come across those amazing books that speak to my particular tastes. So I’m constantly on the hunt for new releases in speculative fiction that I am likely to enjoy. And I have a very, very hard time finding enough to satisfy my appetite. This is despite, or perhaps because of, the huge amount that gets published every week.

Perhaps my strategies for searching out books need improvement (advice is welcome), but my general sense is that the search tools or the meta-data they rely on are flawed.

On the one hand I can’t, for example, search Amazon for Urban Fantasy while excluding romance, werewolves and teenage witches and simultaneously cross-referencing for books that are somehow related (“also-liked-by-readers-of”) to other books of guaranteed quality that I can use as a litmus test.

On the other hand, when I search for new releases, books of quality are mixed in with an enormous amount of other novels that are clearly written for an audience other than me. Search Amazon for new releases in urban fantasy and there are a scary number of book covers with bare-chested blokes who one supposes are horny werewolves masquerading as either gypsies or bankers, but bear in mind that these books somehow, according to Amazon, belong in the same category as Neverwhere. Go figure.

I think the blame likely rests on Amazon’s shoulders for not finely-tuning or policing the crowdsourcing exercise effectively. After all, when I leave the site after 30 minutes of searching without actually buying anything, it’s Amazon’s problem first.

There’s a lot of good books out there, I just don’t know how to go about finding them without a lot of other stuff falling into my net.

I hope they fix this one day, that some search algorithm comes along that picks out the new releases that really are likely to appeal to me, or that someone shows me a better way to find them in the first place. In the meantime, I await the resurrection of the Guardian’s Science Fiction Roundup (seriously guys, no update since June??), I also await the new awards season and I continue to try to guess the quality of the books from the pictures posted regularly on John Scalzi’s blog, since publishers seem to send him everything.

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