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It's easy to breath only air where life should be

I’ve always been an avid reader. I got teased a lot in school for reading so much, and frequently got in trouble in class for reading instead of paying attention. I devoured all that I could with little concern for the appropriateness of the content, spy novels and Mack Bolan and the more adult targeted sci-fi all had plenty in them that weren’t perhaps intended for 12 year olds though that didn’t even slow me down. I was begrudgingly granted access beyond the kids section at our local branch library before I hit fifth grade and with equal aplomb I picked and chose from the variety of books my elder siblings had (mostly sci-fi, though I was not averse to reading texts on Elements of Logic or college history books in my mid teens). My grandfather ensured that I had a solid grounding in The Classics by assigning me things like Last of the Mohicans along with turn of the century juveniles like The Dare Boys as well as works by Wodehouse, Bierce, Benchley, et al.

My grandfathers' house was the greatest place on earth in my eyes. Every room overflowed with books. Shelves above doorways, stacks in front of stacks, several whole rooms of library style shelving all mostly organized. Many of the books were quite old simply because he’d been collecting books for so long, he subscribed to various book clubs as his interest wasn’t in the financial worth of the books as objects but rather in the content of them. There was buried in a small back room a television of sorts that at Christmas many of the kids would cram into to entertain themselves during family gatherings, and I always jockeyed for a position that allowed me to grab books off the shelf and read while everyone watched. It was my version of being social.

During high school I often babysit some nephews and a niece. My uncle was (and is) a devoted fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I would pore over a few decades worth of Dragon or devour Anderson, Farmer, Heinlein, Moorcock, Le Guin, et al instead of doing my math homework. As much as I loved sci-fi and fantasy, much of it was frankly not great writing. Particularly authors churning out 2-3 books per year with largely interchangeable characters being dropped into formulaic stories. I burned out on the genre before my senior year of high school and mysteries shortly thereafter. The lack of depth of characters, particularly women, got too distracting. To be good fiction must have an element of believability and the two or even one dimensional nature of most characters other than the Randian antagonist made much of the genres anything but.

I retained an affection for many of the ones I loved the most and held onto them, but as I left high school and focused on college and work I got rid of most of my fiction and since then I’ve only on a rare occasion read anything of that sort. In part my thinking was “if the writing isn’t superb then at least it should be true”, because there’s just as much bad writing in non-fiction as there is in fiction. Through recommendations of friends I’ve picked up a few works of fiction over the years, but it’s fairly rare. I have possibly unrealistic standards for what I’m willing to spend my leisure time on. Characters should behave in ways that are consistent with their established character. The plot should not be painfully predictable. Dialogue should be believable. The world created should follow it’s own rules.

All that preface leads me to John Scalzi. I’ve been a fan of his blog for many years. He’s not always right, but he’s always well written and clear. His writings on the publishing industry have been informative and entertaining, his writings on culture have been resonant.

When I found myself facing a long flight in which I wanted to be completely distracted and not think about the tragedy that brought me there I decided it was time to try out his fiction. I can be capricious and irrational, if I hear a song or see a show at a time when I’m just in the wrong state of mind for it that can have a poisoning effect and cause me to think negatively of that work for reasons entirely unrelated to it’s own merit. Unfair to be sure, but I am only human. The deck was stacked against Scalzi already both in that it was fiction, genre fiction at that, and I was in a very poor headspace, seeking escape and charging my entertainment with the truly Herculean task of wrestling my attention away from reality and refusing to let go. I bought Old Man’s War. The coincidence that it dealt very heavily with age and end of life issues was going to make the whole “distract me from my reality” that much harder. And yet it was sublimely and perfectly suited to the task. I was enthralled and lost, I cared about the characters, I believed the plot, I found nothing in it to criticize except that it came to an end all too soon. And for a few hours it helped me to get through the hardest trip of my life.

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May the path before me be lit by the bridges I've burned behind me
- unxman


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